Under the Table and Dreaming
After the team's dispersal from the airport, Arthur went to his favorite hotel in LA, and sat in the armchair by the window, looking down over streams of car lights flowing out to where the dark hills encroached. He felt exhausted, but like he never wanted to sleep again. He sat there, staring out at the people traveling below him, wondering what it was like to live a normal life, one that didn't involve commercial espionage and diving into dreams. He'd never wanted any other life than extraction, considered normal routines boring in the extreme and showing a lack of imagination or drive on the part of those people. And yet.
He had never felt so drained before.
He considered calling his parents, maybe going out to visit, but instead he remained in his chair until the pregray dawn lit the sky and the dirt-colored mountains were revealed once more to his eye. It seemed like the traffic had not even slowed down the entire night.
Standing, feeling as though he were walking in slow motion or through water, he went to the phone and called the front desk to order a taxi to the airport. He brushed his teeth and splashed water over his face, considered changing his clothes, but it seemed like too much effort, somehow.
He didn't sleep on the plane, either. He began the flight with his spacious chair reclined, but the sensation was too familiar and disturbing in its familiarity and he returned it to the full upright position. After the fourth time the person across the aisle sent him an annoyed glance at the drumming of his fingertips on his armrest, he began ordering glass after glass of wine.
"Nervous flyer?" asked the pretty stewardess.
"No," he answered, but she still brought him the tiny bottles anyway, even after he would have thought he was supposed to have been cut off, whether because she felt sorry for him or because he wasn't showing any sign of how shit-faced he was becoming, he wasn't sure and couldn't be bothered to decide.
He got off the plane with barely a wobble in his step and managed to find his luggage and a taxi without attracting much attention to himself. He was pretty sure he smelled like alcohol, but then so did his cab, so he fit right in. He saw that he had three missed calls from Ariadne, but he didn't have the energy for her and put his phone back in his pocket.
The taxi took him to a small apartment he kept on the west side. He wondered if his cactus had survived his latest absence. For a long time, when he'd first started working, he hadn't kept a permanent home at all, merely lived in hotels between and during jobs. But after a while, he'd thought if he had to stare at another fucking awful watercolor painting over his hotel bed, or worse, a framed section of wallpaper, he might willingly go into limbo. At that point he had thought it might be time to invest in a place of his own.
The apartment he'd settled on hadn't been bought with anything other than simplicity in mind. It was a one-bedroom, one bath affair with a tiny kitchen and a combination dining room/living room. He usually ate at the kitchen table. The walls were a peaceful, bare white, and the furniture was minimal. He'd always felt that he could relax within the confines of his apartment, and that was the appeal of it, really.
Immediately upon entering he began to shed his clothes and belongings as he made his way to the bathroom that was tucked into a corner of the bedroom. He set the water to almost too hot to bear and stood under the spray for a long time, letting it work the tension of flying for two days out of his skin, not to mention the sterile smell of the plane air.
He slept for thirteen hours, and woke up feeling fully rested for the first time since beginning inception. The sun was shining in through his window onto his face, and he allowed himself to wallow in bed for a further half hour before getting up, even though it was almost noon already. He let himself be cautiously optimistic about what the day could hold, and he continued not to think about when the next job would be, and how normally he would be on the phone, usually to Cobb, talking about where they would be going next. From the bed he rolled his die on the nightstand. It came up sixes.
It wasn't until the middle of his work-out, when he was on the treadmill in his building's small gym, that he realized he couldn't remember any of his dreams from the night before. The realization came as such a shock that he broke his stride and nearly flew off the end of the whirring machine, barely catching himself in time on the armrests. He placed his feet on either side of the flashing strip, panting slightly and racking his brain for the slightest impression of a dream.
He always remembered his dreams. Always. Privately he thought that was why he'd been drawn to extraction. His dream life was more active and interesting to him than the banalities of reality. He wasn't the type of person to keep a dream journal, but thinking back on his dreams and drawing on them in the course of his work was a constant in his life.
An ice cold ribbon of fear wound its way down through his chest to settle in his stomach. Was he going to become one of those comatose people in Yusuf's lab? Someone who could only dream with the aid of chemicals? Was this his own personal price to pay for going too deep with inception?
There was no way to tell until the next time he slept. He told himself this was just an anomaly. Even though it had never happened before, surely flying from Australia to New York over the course of two days was a good enough reason to give anyone a dreamless sleep.
The only way to ignore the feeling of dread was to ramp up the speed on the treadmill and continue running until his body was so exhausted he couldn't think. He rushed through his shower afterwards, and was pulling back the covers of his bed before he considered that the adrenaline rushing through his veins was making him far too jumpy to be able to sleep.
He frowned down at his bed, then turned on his heel and dressed to go out. He went to a local café and bought some tea and a paper and sat reading it thoroughly, hoping the depressing slog of information would somehow lull him into sleeping. He was certain he still had sleep to catch up on and would be able to fall asleep soon, but every time he thought of it, he received such a strong jolt of pure fear, he knew he wasn't going to bed for a long while.
In the end he would up lying under the covers for several hours, waiting and waiting, listening to the timely tick of his watch on the bedside table. It never slowed.
He woke up in almost the exact position he had been in the night before: lying flat on his back, legs spread a little and one arm curled up so that his cheek rested on the back of his hand, the other relaxed at his side. He remembered nothing of the past seven hours.
The certainty of his condition settled on him. It felt like suffocating. With a shaking hand, he smoothed back his hair and sat up. It would have happened eventually, he told himself, but it was hardly a comforting thought. Was he going to wind up like Cobb, broken?
He estimated he would last three more days living like this before he went absolutely batshit insane.
The phone call came on the fifth day, completely out of the blue and startling him as he lay on his floor, automatically feeding himself popcorn from the bowl by his head while purportedly watching some movie on FX, wearing only an undershirt and trousers.
"But here I dreamt I was an architect," warbled at him from the kitchen counter and he knocked over the popcorn bowl in his surprise. "And I built this balustrade to keep you warm, to keep you safe."
It took him a second to gather himself enough to stand and answer it, whereupon he did not bother to check the screen before pressing the phone to his ear.
"Hello?" he said, and his voice, almost completely unused for the past several days, came out rough and low enough that he cleared his throat and tried again. "Hello."
Arthur nearly dropped the phone in surprise. If he had to be honest, he'd been expecting Ariadne, but maybe he shouldn't have been so shocked. His hand went automatically to feel for the die in his pocket.
"Eames?" he said, just to make sure.
"The one and only. I've got a proposition for you, if you're interested," he said, a little laugh in his voice at his own suggestion.
Arthur suppressed a sigh at the expected double entendre, but couldn't help that his heart leapt at the thought of an escape from his own company. He kept his voice as uninterested as he could.
"Yes? What is it?"
Eames chuckled. "The usual this time, no inception. Just a small job over in London-town. Interested?"
"Yes," Arthur answered, faster than he'd meant, already picking his way to his bathroom where he began to pull out his shaving implements, something he'd been rather neglecting as of late.
"Well listen to who's an eager beaver," Eames said. "Miss me?"
Arthur scowled at his reflection, wondering why Eames was so capable of tripping him up like that. He floundered for a reply that would not only make Eames more amused.
"Don't flatter yourself," he said. "I'm a little bored, that's all. When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow morning. I'll see you soon."
Arthur was left with a face half lathered with shaving cream and a blinking screen on his cell phone. He stared, thinking that Eames was definitely the most infuriating man he'd ever met in his life. He couldn't believe that he'd just accepted a job, alone, with Eames. Except that he could believe it all too well, when the hellhole that his apartment had turned into was the alternative.
Keeping his expression impassive, Arthur resumed lathering up, assuming that Eames would fill him in on the details when he was good and ready. And no way was Arthur going to call him up and demand more information. He was already going to be spending more than enough time in Eames's presence, no need to start adding to the clock already.
The buzzer went just as Arthur carefully drew the razor down his cheek, causing him to jerk and nick himself. He paused to rinse the blade as he considered who it could possibly be. He certainly wasn't expecting anybody. The buzzer rang again, insistently.
Pressing the pad of his thumb to the stinging cut, Arthur went to the intercom and pushed the button.
"Hello?" he asked. "Who is this?"
"Let me up already," said a familiar voice, "it's bloody pissing down out here."
Arthur glanced at the window; it was indeed raining heartily outside.
"What are you doing here?"
Eames chose to ignore the question. "Come on, sometime this week would be nice!"
Arthur sighed, but buzzed Eames in. He turned from the door and regarded his disordered apartment with irritation. He had very little desire for Eames to see it in this state. He knew he had about five minutes until Eames made it up to the fifth floor, and moved the miscellaneous objects that littered the place into his bedroom and piled the dirty dishes into a more concentrated area around the sink.
The knock came just as he picked up the razor once more in the desperate hope that Eames was lost or something. With more than a little trepidation, he unlocked and opened the door, revealing Eames with his customary smirk, rather rain-spattered and holding up a six-pack. Arthur refrained from flinching at the garish fuchsia shirt that was just visible under the baggy grey tweed jacket. Hideous, as always.
"What are you doing here?" Arthur asked again, trying to get the jump on Eames.
Predictably, Eames chose to ignore the question and instead let his gaze wander up and down Arthur's form. Arthur did his best not to react to such obvious evaluation.
"I hope you didn't start dressing on my account," Eames said, smiling wider. "I'm very much in favor of nudity."
Rather than reply, Arthur turned and made his way back to the bathroom. Eames called after him.
"What? No 'hello, love, I've missed you terribly?' "
Arthur resumed shaving, doing his best to disregard the occasional noises coming from the rest of the apartment, as well as the commentary.
"I've even brought you some lager, although it was a hell of a time finding something halfway decent."
"You don't have any food, did you realize? Only some… string cheese and a box of Wheat Thins."
"Ariadne wants to know why you haven't kept in touch, by the way. I had to explain to her that you're rather a cold bastard, all business."
"I'm ordering take-away. Do you prefer Chinese or Indian?"
"I've decided on Indian."
Arthur emerged from the bathroom with the additional protective layer of a button down shirt to see Eames making himself comfortable on his couch, legs stretched out long before him and nursing a beer. He'd commandeered the popcorn into his lap and was eating delicately as he regarded the movie Arthur had been watching.
"How did you get my address?" asked Arthur, trying to loom over Eames from behind the couch. Eames merely sent him a smile over his shoulder.
"Now that would be telling."
"I'm a thief, aren't I? Go get a beer—I put them in the fridge—then come explain this movie to me."
Feeling ambushed, Arthur did as he was told, and that was when he saw the boxy silver case Eames had left beside the kitchen table. On auto-pilot he opened the fridge and took out a beer, not even registering the label. His grip on the neck of the bottle was so tight his knuckles had gone white. The temptation was incredibly strong, and he didn't even know if he wanted to resist.
Still not attending to anything that was going on around him, Arthur settled on the other end of the couch from Eames, absent-mindedly drinking. He stole the popcorn back. Eames kept asking questions, but Arthur could not pay attention, and answered only vaguely, relying on his usual condescension to carry the conversation. This seemed to frustrate the other man, but Arthur could only feel that really, he did deserve it.
Eames was the one to get up for the take out, and he even made up Arthur a plate and handed it to him, although he did stay true to character and give Arthur the spiciest dishes without warning.
Arthur looked up at Eames, accusing. Eames smirked.
"So where am I sleeping, then?" Eames asked when the movie was well over, and FX was announcing the next one.
Arthur gave Eames a look. "Who invited you?"
"I came with the gift of food, didn't I? How could you think of turning out a friend on a night like this?" Eames asked, possibly overdoing it.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "You can have the couch. I don't know if I have any blankets for it or anything."
"You're leaving me all alone on the couch?" Eames pouted.
"You can have the bath tub if you prefer," Arthur said, getting up to clear things away. He was glad to note that his motivation to keep things tidy was reasserting itself.
Eames grunted but said nothing further. As Arthur put things away in the kitchen, his eye strayed more often than not to the silver case. If Eames was on the couch, he would just have to wait, he supposed. Somehow he had already made up his mind about what he was going to do.
Arthur returned to his room to get ready to sleep, but Eames was in the bathroom. Somewhat annoyed, Arthur sat on his bed to wait. Eventually Eames came out, dressed in a pair of Arthur's pajama pants that were a little indecently too small and an undershirt.
"Good night, princess," he said, reaching out to pat Arthur's cheek. Arthur ducked out of the way. Eames laughed and made his way to the couch.
Arthur controlled his urge to rush through brushing his teeth, reminding himself that he had to wait for Eames to fall asleep anyway. He stripped down to his undershirt and boxers, then resolutely turned off the light to wait. He could hear Eames moving around on the couch, getting comfortable, but the lights in the living room were also turned off. Arthur waited another half hour, just to be safe.
The door glided open noiselessly, and Arthur padded out, his bare feet making no noise on the carpet. Eames's breathing was slow and regular as he passed behind the couch, and he couldn't resist peeking over the edge to see what he had found to sleep under. Eames lay curled on his side, using the arm of the couch as a pillow, with his still-damp jacket thrown over his shoulders.
About to continue on his way, Arthur exhaled strongly through his nose before darting back into his bedroom to pull one of the blankets off his bed and drape it over Eames. It was the sight of his bare feet pushed into the crack between the cushions that had overcome him.
Finally in the kitchen, Arthur nearly crashed into one of the chairs as his reaching hands searched for the handle of the case, but he found it without too much trouble. And then it was a quick trip back to his room and closing the door silently before he was alone with the machine.
Trying to control the slight trembling of his hands, Arthur set the machine on his bed and kneeled over it, pulling out wires and readying it to go. He lay down carefully and with the briefest of hesitations inserted the needle into his arm. Immediately he felt better.
He is sitting in a café in a European city. He has a half cup of coffee at his elbow and a paper he can't read spread out on the rickety table before him. He can't remember how he got there, so he stands up, ready to move on.
It's evening, and the air is cool against his face as he walks, reveling in the smooth feel of his suit, hands tucked in pockets and not a little swagger in his stride. This is his place. He feels calm, relaxed.
Soft lights are coming on, giving the street level a welcoming glow, while the sky overhead remains a deep blue. There are a few projections also walking the streets, and he lets his eye wander along the crowd. He isn't really directing this dream, instead he is allowing his subconscious to fill in for him the majority of what he is seeing. He wants this to be as similar to a real dream as possible, and that means relinquishing control.
There's a blonde walking towards him, and she catches his eye, smiling a little. He thinks she might be familiar, but he can't place her. It hardly matters. He lets his lips curve upwards just a little in response. She sashays across the street to stand before him, almost as tall as he and just as confident. He reaches out to place a hand on her waist.
"Hi," she says.
"Hi," he answers, and thinks, so it'll be that type of dream.
That's okay with him, God knows it's been long enough in reality since he's had time for even a dalliance. Eames would disagree and say that Arthur is just too work-obsessed to even take a little time off for a one-night stand. But Eames is not here right now, Arthur reminds himself. Eames is safely asleep on his couch, and Arthur does know how to enjoy himself, thank you very much.
"Buy me a drink?" the blonde asks, tilting her head invitingly to the bar they're standing in front of. It's a classy joint with cool lighting and music that he can't quite catch.
"Of course," he murmurs, leading her inside.
She orders something with a ridiculous name, Screaming Orgasm or the like, meant to embarrass, but he just lifts an eyebrow and sticks to a simple gin and tonic. She's talking, telling him some story but he doesn't bother to take in her words, too busy playing with her hair and the straps of her slinky black dress.
She seems to catch his mood, as she interrupts herself with a throaty laugh. She turns to set her glass on the bar, and looks back up at him through her eyelashes.
"Let's go somewhere more private."
He couldn't agree more to that idea and his barely touched drink joins hers on the bar as they head towards the stairs. She allows him to place a hand on her lower back, lightly, enough to feel the movement of her hips as she walks, struts really, in her extremely spiky heels.
They reach a door and he automatically reaches for the key card in his pocket. This too, is familiar, but he doesn't have time to think about it, as she is crowding him against the door, one perfectly manicured hand curling around his tie and pulling him close.
"I want you," she breathes, and licks her lips.
He gets the door open and backs inside, pulling her with him with his hands on her waist. Once the door closes behind them she is pressing him against the wall, hands firm on his chest, pushing a thigh between his legs. His hands move to cup her ass, dragging her more fully in contact with his growing erection.
She smiles and God her mouth is distracting, full and pouty. She bites his lower lip, shocking a huff of breath out of him before kissing him in earnest. He doesn't remember a time when he was so turned on, like his whole body is an erogenous zone. He doubts he's going to last very much longer if she keeps moving sinuously against him like that.
Kissing her back fiercely, he slides his hands up her sides, cupping her perfect breasts. She breaks the kiss to remove his hands, placing them on the wall beside him and then turns her attention to loosening his tie and undoing the buttons of his vest and shirt before kissing her way, open-mouthed, from his jaw line to his sternum.
Gasping, he pulls her back flush to him, one hand snake its way up her thigh and under her short, tight skirt. She widens her stance for him enough so that he is able to slip his hand between her leg and just barely graze her silk panties. Her response is a hitched breath in his ear.
Before he can get any further, she has managed to pull his shirt out of his slacks and is undoing his belt. He gets distracted and lets her reach into his boxers to wrap one cool hand around his cock. He can't help the low moan as he lets his head tilt back to rest against the wall.
Three strokes and he's done. He hasn't come this quickly since he was a teenager, but he doesn't mind. Panting slightly, he reaches out for her once more, but she evades his grasp, leaning in to brush a chaste kiss against his mouth before stealing out the door.
As he slides down the wall, he wonders if he felt stubble against his cheek for a moment, but that isn't right.
Arthur woke up to damp boxers. With a rueful expression he disentangled himself from the machine and went into the bathroom to clean up before bringing the case back to the kitchen. Feeling accomplished, he got under the covers and almost immediately fell asleep, a little more content than before.
Eames woke him up early the next morning by walking through to the bathroom, not particularly trying to be quiet, if the song he was singing under his breath was any indication.
"When you walk in a dream, but you know you're not dreaming, signore…"
Annoyed, Arthur rolled onto his back, feeling more groggy than usual. He squinted at his alarm clock, thinking that it must be some obscene hour in the early morning, but it was in fact seven thirty.
As he waited impatiently for Eames to finish showering, Arthur reflected that the awkward inconvenience of having the one bathroom placed off his bedroom was as good a reason as any to refrain from having guests ever again. Even uninvited ones.
"Up and at 'em," Eames said cheerfully, bending down to smile broadly at Arthur, wearing only a towel and smelling like his own shampoo. "I've been out for some breakfast already. What is the world coming to when I'm awake well before the great Arthur?"
Arthur scowled and unfolded himself out of the bed, not bothering to dignify Eames's ridiculous good humor with an answer. He showered quickly and dressed in one of his favorite suits. He always felt particularly confident in the black trousers, pale, pale blue shirt and pinstriped vest. He had a feeling he would need it.
Eames was still not dressed as he puttered around the kitchen, now whistling to himself. Arthur was forced to pause in the living room and watch Eames's tattoos curving gracefully along his skin as he fried something on the small range, the towel threatening to slip down at any moment.
Arthur swallowed and looked down at the couch. Eames's coat was draped over one arm, and his relaxed leather bag leaned against that side of the couch. On the other half of the couch, Arthur's blanket had been neatly folded. Arthur restrained himself from dragging fingertips over it for remaining heat.
"When does the plane leave?" he asked instead, entering the kitchen.
"Just before midday," Eames answered, not looking up from the delicate task of pouring beans from the frying pan onto two thick slices of toast on two different plates. "There. A preview of the food from the homeland."
Arthur sat down and Eames slid a plate in front of him, then tossed over some silverware. Arthur prodded the food with his fork. He had eaten beans on toast before, of course, but never prepared by Eames.
Eames's sharp gaze did not miss Arthur's hesitation as he settled himself opposite. "I didn't poison it or anything, love," he said, forgoing silverware to pick up the toast with two hands, beans cascading off every side.
Arthur glanced at him briefly, expression clearly suggesting that anything was possible from someone who ate like that. With precision Arthur cut himself a bite.
Eames left Arthur to do the washing up while he dressed and called a taxi.
"Cab'll be here in twenty minutes," he called.
He turned from the sink only to find Eames clad solely in boxers covered in tropical fish and bright yellow socks.
"Eames—"Arthur started in exasperation.
"Yes, love? Have you packed?" Eames asked, all innocent wide eyes, but the smile playing at the corners of his mouth spoke differently. Holding Arthur's gaze, he slipped his arms into a chartreuse oxford.
Arthur refrained from commenting and went to pack the small bag he took for short journeys, automatically filling the space with his toiletries and essential clothes. When Eames's phone rang, a startling "What I've got! Full stock! Of thoughts and dreams that scatter!" indicating the taxi downstairs, he stalked to the doorway, waiting impatiently for the other man to finish putting on his coat.
The ride to the airport was mostly silent, each man looking out his window, and it wasn't until they were seated in business class next to each other that Eames spoke.
"You're taking rather a risk, using the machine to solo dream," he remarked conversationally while flipping through the in-flight magazine.
Arthur nearly choked on the water he'd ordered. "I don't know what you're referring to," he managed.
Eames looked at him directly. "I know you took the case to your room last night."
Arthur preferred not to answer, and spent the rest of the long series of flights doing his best to ignore Eames, unless he could contrive to prove the other man wrong. By the time they landed in Heathrow, to a cloudy evening, Eames was hard pressed to maintain his habitually amused attitude and Arthur was downright cranky.
"We've got rooms already," Eames announced to Arthur after getting off his phone. "Our instructions will be sent to us. It seems our employer prefers to remain incognito."
All Arthur could do was nod as he flagged down a taxi. During the long trip to Piccadilly he found himself lulled to sleep by the motion of the car and even Eames's occasional comment.
Their rooms were really one suite and so were connected by an adjoining door that Arthur eyed with trepidation. Eames was sure to take it as an open invitation to come bother him whenever he pleased. With a sigh Arthur lay down on the bed, still dressed and on top of the covers. He was so exhausted that he dropped off almost immediately. At one point he thought he heard the connecting door opening, but when he was able to extract himself from sleep enough to open his eyes, he was still alone.
He woke truly at four in the morning, feeling completely disoriented. At some point he had twisted so that his clothes were wrapped uncomfortably around his body and his tie was nearly strangling him. Frowning and wiping at his mouth, he toed off his shoes, then padded to the bathroom to brush his teeth. The harsh light woke him up enough to think that maybe it was a good time for another dream.
Without the ability to dream for himself, he felt even more isolated than his illegally sponsored lifestyle usually made him feel. Placing his tooth brush on the counter, he shut off the light and in the darkness found his way to the door.
Ever so carefully he turned the knob and pulled just enough so that he could listen. There was no sound, not even that of Eames's breath. Arthur stepped through and looked around as best he could. Eames was not in his room. Telling himself that he shouldn't exactly be surprised, Arthur looked around until he found the case secreted in the small closet.
Trying not to feel dull in comparison to Eames's apparently wild London social life, Arthur took the case back into his room and set up the machine. After a moment's hesitation he decided that staying completely dressed when he was technically sleeping by himself was ridiculous and stripped to his undershirt and boxers, folding the rest of his garments over the ubiquitous hotel armchair.
He dreams of cool steel and glass, all elegant lines and geometrical shapes. He is in a city, one that he has created and walked countless times. It is one of his favorite places to go, and one of his oldest. He originally designed this particular maze during a planning session for his first ever assignment with Cobb.
He walks along Spartan corridors with walls of windows that let in clear sunshine. There are projections on the peripherary, but he ignores them, content to be in his own company. He runs a precise hand over the window ledge for three steps before returning the hand to his pocket.
Eventually he finds his way on to a balcony. It is early evening again and there is a cool breeze. He has a drink in his hand and condensation is making the glass slick. He looks over the city, graceful arcs of impossible shapes connecting and interlocking a thousand indistinguishable buildings.
He knows immediately when she follows him up the steps. He doesn't turn, but waits for her to join him against the balustrade. She leans on one elbow so that she can look up into his face, a playful expression flirting about her mouth. With her bright yellow hair and red, red lips she is amazingly out of place.
This time Arthur knows what is going on. He is no longer distracted by desperation and relief. His anger exhausts him.
"What are you doing here, Eames," he asks, his voice flat.
"Eames?" says the girl, all wide eyes and mock hurt.
Arthur chucks his drink over the side of the balcony, watches it tumble downwards, liquid following separately.
"Get out of my head."
"But I like it here, darling," says Eames in his own voice and Arthur turns to face him.
Eames as himself is in the same position as the girl, although his smile is more friendly and a little less predatory, but all the more sexual for that. He is perhaps more disconcerting this way because of how he does not strike a wrong note. He is still his colorful self, both in terms of clothing and personality, but he is more like grounding asymmetry rather than a blemish.
Curling his fingers into the belt loops of his trousers, Eames pulls Arthur towards him, widening his stance so that Arthur is standing flush against him between his legs.
"I don't want you here. You have no right to mess with me like this."
Eames only shrugs, hands traveling across the planes of Arthur's chest. "I'm concerned. If we're partners, don't I have a right to ensure that you're functional?"
"We're not partners," Arthur says, and presses closer into Eames's space. Eames accommodates him, moves so that his back is more fully against the barrier, hands braced against it.
"What are we, then?" he asks, expression expectant. His obscene smile is distracting.
"We're…" Arthur cannot think how to end this sentence. He wants to say that Eames shouldn't be allowed to use his mouth like that. Or maybe that he should only be allowed to use his mouth like that.
Before he was sidetracked, he wanted to say that they're merely business associates, but you can never be just business associates with people you dream with. He knows they're not friends, though.
Eames seems to tire of waiting on Arthur to finish his thought, as he broadens his smile and leans forward, lips parting slightly. Indignant, Arthur instinctively reaches out and shoves at his chest, sending him up and over, into space.
Eames lets out a squawk of surprise as he goes, but has just enough time to salute the watching Arthur before he disappears.
Arthur paces on the rooftop, hand rattling his die in his pocket. He's not sure he can just brush Eames off any more. He isn't bothered by Eames seducing him as the blonde, that's just Eames's way, as much as he is by the relentless invasion of his space.
By the time Arthur woke up, the other half of his bed was long empty, only a slight depression on the pillow to signify that Eames was ever there at all. Arthur packed up the case but did not bother to return it to Eames's room.
He checked the clock. Only five. He considered trying to sleep again, but knew that he would never manage it. To pass the time until he felt it would be an appropriate hour to talk to Eames, he took a long shower and ordered an early breakfast to his room. He needed the time to cool off.
By seven he decided not to wait any longer, and knocked on Eames's door only seconds before passing through it. Eames was still in bed, apparently having greater success at returning to sleep. His bare chest was exposed, and Arthur looked away before he could see if Eames was only shirtless, or completely nude.
"Arthur, darling, can't this wait?" Eames asked, hiding his eyes under an arm against the light Arthur turned on.
"I want to know exactly what you got me into," Arthur said.
"Folder's on the desk, now be a dear and turn the light back off."
Arthur went over to the desk, but did not turn off the light. He read through the report twice, memorizing as much of the contents as he could. The operation was fairly simple and largely organized by their mysterious employer: go to this address, where the mark would be already sedated by one of the employer's men, get inside, Eames acting as the mark's brother to set the scene and Arthur as the extractor. The dream was already designed by the employer, a specific English town setting.
"Why did you call me in for this?" Arthur asked when he was done.
"Hm?" Eames said, apparently having dozed off.
Eames shrugged a shoulder. "You're good."
"I'm not an extractor. I'm not Cobb."
"Oh, tosh. Of course you're not Cobb. It's only you who doesn't seem to realize that. You're a plenty good extractor, only you keep comparing yourself to him."
Arthur had no response. He closed the folder and went to stand over Eames's still prostrate form.
"Let's get this over with, then."
"We have plenty of time." Eames reached out a hand and grasped Arthur's wrist, pulling the unwilling man into an awkward sitting position on the edge of his bed. "Let's discuss your sudden penchant for dreaming on your own."
"That's hardly necessary," Arthur said, working to extract himself from Eames's iron grip.
"Is it really so hard for you to believe that I might just be concerned for your mental well-being?"
Arthur looked down at Eames, who was trying to look concerned but mostly looked debauched, lying on his back, the sheets tangled at his waist. Arthur swallowed.
"From you? Yes." Eames released his hold. "I'll be in my room when you're ready to go."
An hour later, Eames crossed into his room, freshly showered and smiling almost like an apology. Arthur was sitting at his desk, writing out lists on the pad of paper stamped with the hotel's logo. The lists covered a wide range of topics, from why Eames annoyed him so much, to why he should never have agreed to this job and to how things could go wrong, wrong, so very wrong. Or, to be more accurate, more wrong.
"All right, darling?" Eames asked, trying to peer over Arthur's shoulder. Arthur shoved the torn sheets into the desk drawer and stood, forcing Eames to back up.
"Let's go, then." He walked to the door, picking up the case along the way.
They found the flat in North London with little trouble, the door left open for them by the quiet fellow who had already sedated their mark. Arthur eyed them both with distrust. Their fellow employer was small and lithe and looked all the more dangerous for it. The mark himself was chubby and greasy, with the look of someone who had spiraled downward into bad company.
Which he probably had, if the décor in the flat was anything to go by, Arthur thought with distaste, looking at the grimy walls and shabby furniture. His suspicion that they were working on a far more illegitimate case than usual deepened. He should have known some sort of criminal underworld would be the kind of connections Eames would have. The fact that he himself was technically part of the criminal underworld was something Arthur chose to ignore. At least the people he worked for were mostly on the up and up.
They settled into chairs next to the ratty couch the mark was stretched out on, Arthur with a slight grimace of disgust at the mysterious stains splattered on the fabric of his. The creepy thug passed out the leads and Eames shot Arthur a grin before they went under.
"See you in my dreams," he said, and Arthur rolled his eyes.
They're in Eames's dream, which is a good thing. It is immediately obvious why they didn't need an architect: Eames is clearly familiar with rural English villages, and even if it isn't a maze like Arthur prefers, he has to admit it's a clean job. Simple, but effective.
Arthur finds himself standing on the sidewalk of what passes for the main drag in England, really just a quiet street of jumbled old shops. He starts moving, trying to blend in with the sluggish flow of projected villagers. He can't see Eames or the mark initially, but as he passes an alleyway, an arm reaches out from the shadows and pulls him in.
It's Eames, of course, still looking like himself, but doing the fidgety dance he always does in preparation to changing. Arthur keeps scanning the village for the mark and finally sees him sitting on a bench in the small green, eating an ice cream cone.
"He should lead you to his childhood home," Arthur says, more for himself than Eames.
"I have read the file," Eames chides, only it's no longer Eames but a muscle-bound, more football hooligan version of the mark. Eames claps Arthur on the back, a blow that nearly sends him staggering, then swaggers directly up to the mark and sits down next to him.
Arthur sidles his way out onto the street, trying to avoid making his presence obvious to any of the projections. He pretends to be looking in at the display of a store that seems to be selling drug paraphernalia. Eames and the mark stand and begin strolling away, Eames guiding with an arm slung over the shoulders of the mark. Arthur leaves the dubious store and follows.
The cottage they reach is fairly nondescript, and Eames leaves the door open for Arthur, who is able to enter completely unnoticed by the mark. The other two have settled on the couch, the mark already blubbering. Eames sends Arthur a look over the mark's head as he glides by, rolling his eyes impatiently. Arthur smirks in response. The mark is weak and defenseless. He can't remember the last time he had a job so simple.
The answer to their question, who killed the mark's brother, is fairly obvious: there is one picture on the mantel piece, a death scene. The mark is prostrate on the ground, cowering next to his brother's bleeding body. A real bruiser stands over them both, a smoking gun in his hand. Arthur takes the picture out of the frame and looks at the back. Everett Greene killed my brother, says the inscription. Arthur replaces the picture, then nods at Eames.
Eames stands, hardly acknowledging the mark and rolls his shoulders. One second he is not himself and the next he is. They walk out together. Eames stretches in the sunshine like a cat.
"Nasty piece of work, that one," Eames remarks conversationally.
Arthur looks at his watch and sighs. "We still have plenty of time."
"I know how we can spend it," Eames says, and halfway through the sentence he is his favorite blonde again, already approaching Arthur.
Arthur retreats instinctively, until his back hits the wall of the cottage. "No," he says, and it is a harsh sound.
"No?" the blonde asks, and Eames returns to himself, but does not move. Instead he places a hand beside Arthur's hip and comes even closer. "Arthur, Arthur."
"Why are you doing this?" Arthur asks, trying to maintain his calm and aloof manner, but it is cracking fast.
Eames reaches up to cup the side of his face. He leans forward until their foreheads bump gently. "Why do you keep evading me?"
"I can't dream anymore," Arthur says instead, preferring to answer Eames's much earlier question.
Eames hums under his breath. "Dreaming alone is not the answer. I think you'll find that, given time, you will be able to dream again."
Arthur has no reply. When Eames brushes their lips together he relaxes into the kiss but does not actively participate. Eames does not push it, merely holds his lips to Arthur's for a moment before retreating.
"It's okay to play with others," he calls over his shoulder as he strides away.
Arthur curses under his breath but follows anyway. They spend the rest of the seemingly endless dream marveling over the bizarre shops of the village, ignoring the increasingly hostile glances of the projections. And if Eames catches Arthur's hand in his own and links their fingers together, Arthur pretends not to notice.
Out of the mark's flat and back on the busy London street, Arthur shook himself, trying to resettle in his own skin. He felt off-kilter and unsure of himself. He frowned at Eames as the other man stepped up beside him. Eames quirked a smile at him in response. Arthur noticed that he had not carried the case out of the flat. He pursed his lips.
"Where to, darling?" he asked, reaching out an arm to hail a passing cab.
"The hotel," Arthur said, as if should have been obvious.
"Have you ever done any sightseeing in any of the cities you visit?" Eames asked as they slid inside.
Arthur had to think about that. It had certainly been a long time. "Yes," he answered finally.
"I demand details," Eames said promptly, his expression disbelieving.
"I went to Alcatraz one time when I was in San Francisco," Arthur supplied.
"And it wasn't research for a job?" Eames asked, suspicious.
"No," Arthur lied.
"But then you haven't been anywhere in London," Eames stated, looking Arthur hard in the eye. "To the Wellington Arch," he said to the impatient driver.
Arthur sighed but didn't protest. At least he wasn't being dragged to the London Eye. And if he was being completely honest, walking through the park didn't turn out to be all that bad.
There weren't too many people about, and the gardens were nice. Arthur felt obliged to tell Eames that Buckingham Palace was an architectural monstrosity, but Eames only agreed with fond amusement.
Eames charmed some stale bread off a little girl so that he and Arthur could also feed the ducks. Arthur wasn't sure how Eames had charmed him into doing something so silly, but when Eames smiled at him, really smiled, he wasn't sure how he could have ever resisted. A true Eames smile was bright and overpowering.
"Do you have a flight home?" Eames asked as they left the park, meandering their way to dinner.
"No," Arthur said. "I haven't decided where to go next. I'll probably call around tonight, see if there are any jobs that need an extra man."
"There's always Italy."
"I've heard of a position there."
They walked in silence for a moment. Eames was purposefully casual, wending his way through smaller and smaller streets, supposedly heading towards a small restaurant he swore by.
There was no conversation until they were seated in a truly questionable establishment and being handed greasy menus, when Eames felt the need to reassure Arthur and his dubious expression that the food really was quite good. They fell into conversation about nothing much, with Eames doing most of the talking.
When they got up to leave, Eames leaned across the small table and adjusted Arthur's tie. Eames wanted to go to a pub, another place he swore by, but Arthur insisted that he, at least, was going back to the hotel. Eames accompanied him with a put-upon sigh.
Back in his room, with Eames either safely tucked away on the other side of the door or possibly returned to the streets, but either way not in his space, Arthur reviewed his lists. He thought maybe he had been a little overly pessimistic, seeing as how the majority of the things he'd written down hadn't come to pass. On the other hand, "Eames will hit on me," which was written on every list, was so much of a given at this point that he didn't know why he'd even bothered.
He didn't make any of the calls to contacts as he'd threatened earlier. He picked up the phone several times, even flipped through his notebook for numbers, but he couldn't make dial. After repeating this process several times, he gave up and went to bed.
The next morning, Arthur woke to see the door between their rooms left ajar. He certainly hadn't done that, which only left him to conclude that Eames had checked up on him at some point during the night. There was a restriction in his chest, and he had a horrifying vision of every night, every single night until eternity, Eames cracking open his bedroom door and looking in on him. No matter what he may have thought the night before, the idea of Eames being honestly concerned about his well-being to that level was too much.
Calmly panicking, he called a taxi to the airport and bought a ticket on the next plane to New York.
For the first time he could remember, he did feel like a nervous flyer. He had a terrible sense of déjà vu the entire time and couldn't stop taking out his die to check it on the tray table. He had the nagging suspicion that the stewardesses were being pityingly kind.
He tried not to think about what Eames would be doing that morning when he finally awoke and realized that Arthur had, to put it bluntly, scarpered. He hadn't left a note or anything. He'd thought about it, had in fact covered several of the note sheets in drafts, but they had found residence in the waste paper bin rather than Eames's room, all deemed too maudlin to be fit for public consumption, full of regretful sentiment, trying to explain that he appreciated the offer of company, but really, it was for the best if he remained solitary.
If he had expected to be able to put his jaunt to England behind him once he was in New York, he was sorely mistaken. There was no consolation to be found in his empty apartment. No Eames to make comments or drag him outside of himself.
Feeling pathetic, he curled up on his couch under the blanket that Eames had used and which still smelled like him. He had no idea what to do with himself now that he was safely alone. There were still contacts that could be called, but he stared at his phone and wound up obsessively cleaning instead.
The long dead cactus was thrown out, all the linens he owned were washed, the counters scrubbed, the floors mopped and the carpets vacuumed. He breifly considered wiping down the white walls. He wanted to cover their blankness, but buying art just for himself seemed pointless. The result of his scouring was to make the apartment look unlived in.
By that time he was grimy and exhausted, the last dirty thing remaining. Rather than continue to sit and glare at a blank wall, he showered and crawled into bed.
Early morning found him despondent on the couch, once more enfolded in Eames's blanket. He stared at the blank TV, and at a loss, did the last thing he could think of: he called Ariadne.
"Arthur!" she cried, and her eagerness made him wince with guilt. "How are you? Where are you? Did Eames get a hold of you all right?"
"I'm good. I'm in New York," Arthur said. "How are you?"
She ignored his question. "New York? What happened to London?"
"I just got back," he admitted.
Arthur hummed under his breath. He took out the small fold of paper that had been in his wallet since his last dinner with Eames. He didn't yet know what it said, but he had felt the presence of it like a burning coal ever since Eames had slipped it into his breast pocket under the guise of fixing his tie.
"Arthur, are you or are you not with Eames?"
Ariadne sighed, the sound amplified over the phone.
"I'm glad you finally called me back. But I think we both know you have some things to take care of. Call me again when you're all sorted."
Looking at the blinking display on his phone, Arthur reflected that falling in love with Ariadne would have been much simpler and more direct. At least he hadn't unpacked, which in hindsight should have told him something.
He found the number of the real estate agent who had found him the apartment in the first place and hoped that the offer of Italy was still open.
The train from Genoa to Vernazza was hot and crowded, and Arthur was beginning to sympathize with Cobb's hatred for trains. He was stuck sitting next to a middle aged Italian man who spoke broken English to him with great confidence and no vacant seat to escape to.
The Italian was adamant that Arthur complete the Via Dell'Amore from Vernazza to Monterosso and wouldn't stop breathing cigarette fumes onto him until he agreed. The Italian clapped him on the shoulder and announced to the rest of the compartment that Arthur was a "well Americano."
Arthur later found his palm pockmarked with six little dots from where he had been clutching his die in his fist.
It was a relief to step off the train, shoulder his bag and find his way through the concentrated fishing village to a skinny old building perched right on the cliff. There were more decks and porticos than seemed necessary, or even reasonable, and the orange paint was peeling in large patches to reveal bright turquoise underneath. Arthur was not exactly surprised at this.
The door was ajar and a thin cat stepped out of it only to sprint away when it caught sight of Arthur. He pushed the door wider and stepped through.
Inside was dim after the intense light of the sun reflecting off the ocean. Arthur blinked and found himself in a rustic kitchen with steep stairs leading up. It looked as if the building had stood empty for a long time, but had potential. He could hear singing in bad Italian coming from upstairs so he followed, leaving his bag on the table.
"Quando sei lontana, sogno all'orizzante…"
Eames looked up as Arthur stepped out of the stairwell, his fingers stilling with the poker chip trapped between thumb and index finger. He was lounging in a chair with his legs stretched out onto the porch railing, tilting the chair back. There were several pieces of familiar-looking paper on his lap and others pinned to a table by a bottle of wine. Several of the note sheets bore signs of once having been crumpled.
"I knew you couldn't resist," Eames said, his patently obscene mouth beginning to stretch into a cocky smile as he got to his feet, quickly masking what might have been relief.
Arthur reflected that Eames wore his weaknesses openly like camouflage. He watched Eames saunter towards him, feeling more and more entranced by Eames's growing smile.
"What do you want from me?" Arthur asked. He still couldn't stop himself from staring at Eames's mouth as he retreated until his back hit the far wall.
With the sunlight behind him, Eames became a silhouette. He paused not two feet from Arthur. "I would have thought that was obvious even to you, darling."
"Yes, but—" Arthur began, honest frustration and confusion creeping into his voice.
"I've decided to put my foot down," Eames said, and he closed the gap between them. "You're not to wander the globe homeless anymore."
Arthur sighed and reached for his die. Eames slid his hand along Arthur's wrist, insinuating his fingers through Arthur's until he grasped the die and pulled it away.
"I should hope you've only been dreaming with me." Eames swiftly stepped away to stack the die and poker chip on the table. "I'm terribly jealous, you know."
"I called Ariadne," Arthur admitted. "She refused to talk to me until I came here."
Eames laughed, and returned to Arthur's side in order to take him by the hand and drag him into the sunlight. He leaned with his back against the railing and played idly with Arthur's captive hand.
"What do you think of this as a permanent resting place between jobs?" Eames asked, looking up through his lashes. "I could acquire some art to decorate it, you could bemoan my taste. Fun all around."
Arthur started to smile. "Do you promise to throw out that horrid tweed jacket?"
"I shall wear it every single day of my life," Eames answered and reeled Arthur in for a kiss.
"Then I suppose I must accept your offer," Arthur murmured against his lips.
"Excellent. Does this mean that we get to have sex now?" Eames asked, hands already tugging at Arthur's tie.
Arthur couldn't help but laugh and drop his head to Eames's shoulder. Eames took advantage of his exposed neck to suck bruising kisses down it, skilled fingers unbuttoning and pushing open his collar.
Arthur lifted his head and captured Eames's mouth in a dirty kiss, all tongue and possession. He pushed at Eames's jacket and Eames accommodated him by shrugging it off his shoulders, and then quickly lifting his shirt over his head. He began to walk Arthur backwards, inside, still kissing and still uncovering Arthur's lean chest.
Pushed onto the bed, Arthur reached out and started working on Eames's trousers, pressing open-mouthed kisses to his hip. Eames's fingers wrecked his hair and he moaned deep in his throat, his hips already lightly thrusting. Suddenly impatient, Eames took a half step back to finish stripping.
"Get a move on," he scolded, reaching into the bedside table and pulling out a large bottle of lube.
Arthur slid backwards until he was lying stretched out. He undid his belt and Eames pulled at his shoes and then his trouser legs before crawling up his body.
"What do you want?" Arthur asked against Eames's mouth, gasping as Eames's hand circled his cock and started stroking.
"Anything," Eames said. "No, I tell a lie. You. I want you."
Arthur hooked a leg behind Eames's and used his leverage to roll them over. He reached for the lube and liberally smeared his fingers, then gave Eames's cock a few lazy strokes before pushing a finger inside him.
"This. This is what I want," Eames gasped, clutching at Arthur.
Arthur added a second finger and then a third and Eames pressed back, groaning unashamedly. Arthur licked his lips, so hard he had to take a moment to collect himself.
Eames protested immediately, so Arthur crooked his fingers in one last thrust, causing Eames to give a choked cry into the crook of his arm. He removed his fingers and positioned himself over Eames. Eames wrapped his legs around Arthur's waist as he guided himself in. Eames started moving against him at once, breathing out a litany of filth against Arthur's mouth that made him groan and stutter in his rhythm.
Eames's hand was moving urgently on his own cock, and Arthur slammed into him desperately twice and then he was tensing up and coming with little jerks of his hips. He dropped his head to Eames's neck. Eames reached up a hand to sloppily pet the side of his face, but soon grew impatient.
Arthur withdrew and collapsed more fully on top of Eames, snaking a hand between their bodies to join his hand to Eames's. Eames came after three last strokes with a drawn-out cry.
They lay without moving for several minutes, their breath calming until they were breathing in tandem. Eventually, Arthur started to extricate himself from Eames's embrace.
"Where do you think you're going?" mumbled Eames, tightening his hold.
"We're disgusting," Arthur pointed out.
"Mm, yes, darling," Eames said, and didn't let go.