Sing the Doldrums, Sharp and Bright

Warning: Contains non-explicit references to child abuse, perpetrated by the bad guys. And quite a lot of swearing.

Author's note: Written for i_reversebang on LiveJournal. With thanks to Heavenly_Rain, who created the beautiful art that this fic was inspired by, and to PK: beta extraordinaire. Set in the same universe as You Let Your Ladder Down For Those Who Really Shine, although it can stand completely alone.

New York, March

Cobb set his espresso cup back in its saucer, chipping the edge of the amaretto biscuit he had studiously been ignoring, and looked at Arthur. "I've had an approach."

No kidding, thought Eames, and then chastised himself, because Cobb really did care about Arthur. And perhaps, by extension, Eames. It wasn't such a fanciful thought that Cobb would have made his way to their apartment in New York just to trade war stories and information. Except, of course, that it was.

"What kind of approach?" Arthur asked, mildly.

"A basic extraction job," Cobb said.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. No such thing, Eames thought, and he was almost piqued that Cobb was sitting in their sitting room, with his slowly emerging offer of a job, the smell of London on his coat as Eames had hung it in the cupboard in the hall. It had been two months since their last job. Two months since they had come back to their apartment from their most recent job, rumpled around the edges. Two months since he had undressed an exhausted Arthur and walked him into the shower, and watched as his hair was plastered to his forehead by the water. Two months that he and Arthur had been building a daily routine around crunching walks in Central Park, and coffee bathed in winter sunlight, and cocktails in restaurants where the host knew them, and watching Mad Men. Two months of safety, but Eames knew that that had never been the deal.

"The approach was from MediaCorp." Cobb shrugged, shoulders loose. "About their BritSat acquisition. Because it will mean MediaCorp will own almost all of the British commercial broadcasters, it's been referred to the UK commission that investigates antitrust business practices."

"I read about that," Arthur said, like he'd just casually picked up the Wall Street Journal in the doctor's office. Eames rolled his eyes. He wasn't entirely sure that Arthur wasn't actually writing a column for them, under a suitably flowery nom de plume. Or perhaps Arthur actually was Megan McCardle. That would be the kind of thing that amused him.

"Mmm," Eames said, just to see if he could drag Cobb's gaze away from Arthur. "I'm not sure Richard Marley's expanding media empire is going over terribly well in Britain."

Cobb shook his head. "It isn't. The UK Secretary for Business is responsible for making some of the decisions on the acquisition. Three Business Secretaries in a row have resigned to 'spend time with their families'." Cobb made air quotes around the last part.

Eames hummed under his breath. Some might have thought it dishonourable, but driving politicians back to their houses in the country was something he considered a perk of the job. Shame for the families, of course, but it wasn't like the House of Commons didn't have venal lickspittles to spare.

"And Marley wants us to get dirt on the new one?" Arthur's brow was furrowed.

"No," Cobb said. "The approach came from someone called William Trevelyan."

"The arms manufacturer?" Arthur asked, brow furrowed. "What's his interest?"

"Patriotism," Cobb said, wryly, and Arthur almost smiled.

"The last refuge of a scoundrel," Eames said, slowly.

Cobb looked at him then. "You would know."

Arthur grinned at that, wide and unexpected, and Eames, caught in a riptide of fondness, smiled back.

They hadn't really needed to talk about it, and Eames stood in the doorway of their bedroom and watched Arthur's neat fingers roll his ties up, and slide them into the case he'd had made for him in Venice. Watched Arthur's head bent over his task, hair backlit by the sun streaming through the window.

London, April

London was experiencing the early spasms of spring when they arrived, the air heavy and close, with the promise, if not the reality, of warmth.

Ariadne was already at headquarters when they arrived, a surprisingly large, bare office space tucked away in a tiny mews. The whitewashed brick had the faint whisper of magazine office about it. Eames could almost picture the space filled with self-conscious hipsters, writing copy about London's bars and clubs popping in and out of vogue like so many bubbles on the surface of a glass of cola.

Ariadne hugged Arthur first, whispering in his ear, and then wrapped her arms around Eames, kissing his cheek. She was wearing a grey linen shift dress, and smelled divine, of something that managed to be both rich and fresh.

"You've cut your hair," Eames said, in her ear. "Suits you, you saucy little minx."

She smiled at him, patted his arm with a warm hand, and Eames realised that he was extremely glad to see her.

He always forgot how much he loved watching Arthur work, until he saw it unfold before him. Arthur building a picture of the mark, the client, the labyrinths of enmity, and relationships, and want that invariably lay between them.

Arthur set up his desk, precise and careful, with his laptop next to his Moleskine notebook, his pens in a pot, paperclips lined up like tiny, indifferent soldiers. It took him a week to assemble a pile of paper, two feet thick, edges square. He read, one after the other, reports, and newspapers, and company profiles. He scanned financial records, lists of phone calls, transactions. He worked, late into each night, his desk lamp pooling light in the way that threw shadows under his cheekbones, smudged purple under his eyes. Eames stood in the doorway, shirt sleeves rolled up and hands in his pockets, and watched him.

Eames worked differently. Forgery's detail was all in the tilt of a head, the line of someone's shoulders, the stitch of their coat. He had a whole deck of cards in his head that might be played on the mission: Mr Whip, the politician; Ms Byline, the journalist; Mr Sandwich, the trade union official. For a job like this there was every chance that he would need a banker.

A magnate's money man was often closer than a confessor, and so he walked around the City, smelling the rush of spring air, and watched the masters of the universe going about their business. Less brash than Wall St somehow, the gangs of men in the pubs at lunchtime, with their BlackBerries piled neatly on top of their iPhones, pints in hand. More childlike, the shouts of stories: lurid tales of sexual exploits mixed in with skiing holiday reports, and endless discussions about cars. Boyish too, was the way they wandered home at the end of the day, collars open, ties curled up and shoved in their briefcases, or leather messenger bags, hint of warm bodies underneath the starch in the triangle of skin at their throats.

He watched the women, too. Shiny hair, and neat skirt suits above improbable heels that they changed into, after pouring out of Bank tube station wearing training shoes over their tights. He sat in the window of chain coffee shops, and drank skinny latte after skinny latte and let the mannerisms, the accents, and the jargon sink inexorably into him. He prepared the flesh that was going to hang on the bones and waited for Arthur to tell him who he was going to be.

Eames stirred the contents of the pot, and watched Arthur out of the corner of his eye. It wasn't quite warm enough to be standing on the balcony in shirtsleeves, but Arthur had been standing stock still for ten minutes. The Thames looped underneath their flat, gray-brown and inscrutable, and when Eames had opened the front door for the first time, Arthur had walked purposefully through the impossible modernity of the open plan kitchen and sitting room, and straight out of the sliding door to look at it.

The toast popped up in the toaster, and Eames dealt it onto the waiting plates. He called Arthur, and watched Arthur turn away from the river and slide the door open.

Improbably, Arthur loved beans on toast. Eames had never met an adult, let alone an American adult, who had come fresh to beans on toast with anything that wasn't deep suspicion. Arthur ate them with the kind of savour that usually hinted at a British childhood with a nanny who couldn't cook very well. Arthur's enthusiasm for something with a special place in his heart made Eames hot and flustered in a way he couldn't even explain to himself.

It also, Eames thought, made it somewhat more obvious that something was wrong, when Arthur pushed one slice of toast across his plate on the end of his fork.

"Not going well?" Eames took a sip of tea, his elbows propped on the table. His plate had been clear for ten minutes.

"Hmm?" Arthur looked up, eyes fogged with being somewhere else, thinking about something else. "Oh." He put his fork down. "I'm sorry. I'm just getting—." He waved his hand, and Eames thought that this was always the worst bit, when they were searching the garments of people's lives for loose threads they could pull, ways to slide themselves inside the fabric.

Eames stretched one hand across to Arthur's. "Love?" For all Arthur's diligence, the Wall, the collection of pages of intelligence about the mark, had been growing more slowly than it usually did. He'd caught Cobb and Arthur, heads almost touching, two days previously, and Cobb's tone had been tart with frustration.

"Mmm," Arthur hummed, almost under his breath, as he ran one foot up Eames's shin.

Eames recognized distraction when he saw it, but he let himself be seduced. Let Arthur slide him out of his clothes, and into their bed, and press himself inside, and then fold himself around, Eames.

"What's the fucking hurry?" He knew that he was being rude, that Cobb wasn't the boss in a way that would make sense in many other work environments, but that he was stepping over a line nonetheless.

"The client wants this done fast." Cobb didn't look up from the papers he was reading, eyebrows drawn together.

"And it occurred to you, of course, that bouncing us into this might be a colossal fucking trap?"

Cobb looked up then, and Eames doubted that many other people in the world could have tracked the micro-expression of outrage that had flashed across his face. He was whistling as he walked over this his own desk.

London, May

Yusuf appeared one day, and the sight of him jerked Arthur's shoulders upwards. Eames could have punched Cobb, because the plan was still half-formed, still lacking too many of the levers and switches that they would need to crack Marley open like a safe. Yusuf standing in a pool of sunlight, thick manila files at his elbow, meant that he was tweaking his formulas for the mark. It was as good as a ticking clock, bright red countdown hung high on the wall, and Arthur was already stretched taut as a drumskin.

"You're here too bloody early," Eames said, viciously, as Yusuf smoked a cigarette on the cobbled street outside the doorway to their workspace.

Yusuf blew a thin stream of smoke skyward, squinting into the sun. "Is the job being done here? In London."

Eames looked at him, looked at the side of his face. "We don't even know. We're nowhere."

Yusuf half-smiled. "Cobb works in mysterious ways."

Ariadne's workspace was a fucking mess. She might have emerged out of her cords and woolen scarves into Agnes B, but her corner looked like it belonged in a student hovel. There were piles of papers everywhere, scruffed together andtattered around the edges, with ballpoint pen drawings on the backs. Eames had skulked in foreign jungles with the best of them, but he drew the line at leaving moldy Pot Noodles and rotting fruit on his desk.

He went down into Ariadne's dreamspace, had seen her cityscapes, her bank, and her best effort at Marley's Australian island hideaway. Her best was clean and rich and thick with detail. It was all nearly ready. Nearly.

"What's going on?" she asked, over gin and tonic.

Eames cut a look to the couple at the table next to theirs. He shrugged. "He's pathological about security. Sometimes this just takes a while."

She nodded, and sipped her drink, ice clanking wetly against the glass. A breeze riffled the edges of her hair.

Cobb flew to Australia and came back with high resolution images of Marley's hideout. They developed coffee rings on Ariadne's table, but Eames could see the difference when he went under with her, the burnish lying glossy on her construction.

Eames tailed Marley's moneyman from London City airport to St Mary Axe to Jermyn Street. He listened to him order at The Ivy, and bugged his BlackBerry, and practiced his vowels and the set of his shoulders.

They inched forward.

Arthur had worked for nine days in a row when Eames put his hand under Arthur's elbow and pulled him blinking out of the workspace. He looked pale in the sunlight.

"You need a break," Eames said, without fanfare.

"Eames." Arthur sounded calm, but Eames could detect a faint plea in his tone. "I've got too much to do."

"Perspective," Eames said, hooking his fingers through Arthur's belt loops, and it must have sounded more convincing to Arthur than it did inside Eames's head, because Arthur nodded, once.

Arthur was pliant under his fingers, so Eames steered him to a local Italian restaurant for pasta and oversized glasses of a not totally hideous rioja, and then walked him across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern.

It was light and cool inside, and it hadn't even been that hot outside, but it still felt like a respite from the sun. Eames had always felt a certain stillness in the face of art, had been taken as a child to gallery upon museum, and always ran into Moma if he was within a few blocks and had a half-hour to spare. Arthur hadn't. After a visit to the Met, he'd caught Arthur on his laptop at the kitchen table, flipping patiently through works of paintings, and sculptures, and photographs. He'd stood just inside in the doorway in his pajama pants, confused, until he realised that Arthur was committing names and artists to memory, papering over the cracks in his knowledge.

They wandered, half-deliberately, around the various exhibits. Eames took a couple of photos of Arthur when Arthur wasn't looking, blurry and awkwardly composed, but somehow perfectly him, as though it were impossible to get a true impression of Arthur if the edges were sharp and crisp. They had cake in the café, and Arthur drank tea, as carelessly as if he had always done so, and Eames felt his shoulders drift inexorably downwards, tentatively calling the day a success.

Arthur looked benignly interested by the last collection they looked at, made Eames take photos of an inverted staircase to show Ariadne, until they came to a child's crib rendered in metal, and Arthur stiffened enough that Eames could feel his arm tighten along the length of Eames's. Eames followed Arthur's gaze to the razor wire stretched along the bottom of the crib, the bars redolent of hospital or prison.

It was ugly. Disturbing. The look in Arthur's eyes as he stared at it made something deep within Eames shiver.

"Arthur?" Eames said.

Arthur's expression was blank, face pale except for a stripe of colour along each cheekbone.

Eames touched Arthur's wrist. "Arthur?" he said, again.

"Mmm?" said Arthur, turning his eyes to Eames, and the expression on his face was so infinitely polite and distant, that Eames wanted to cry.

"Are you alright?"

Eames watched Arthur think about it. "I don't know," he said, eventually.

He walked Arthur out, up the ramp and through the vestibule that seemed too large, too weighty above their heads, and steered him towards the Millennium Bridge. They stopped in the middle, Arthur looking at the water, Eames looking at the streams of people walking by them.

"Sometimes it's right there. In my head." Arthur's voice had the slight yaw in it that it got when he was trying to stop it from wavering at the edges, and Eames felt a tiny thrill of panic. It wasn't that Eames wanted to have the kind of relationship where there was a lot of crying, and holding hands over a candle, like he'd seen suggested on some TV show that he'd been briefly, horribly transfixed by, before changing the channel. It was just that Arthur had so few chinks in his armour, made such infrequent attempts to verbalise the things that weighed on him, that Eames felt inadequate in the face of his trust.

"You're safe, Arthur." His fingers touched the denim at the back of Arthur's leg.

He felt Arthur still beside him, press against him as Arthur's spine straightened slightly. Arthur looked at the sky, at the birds banking and wheeling overhead. "I know."

London, June

The sat around the long table in the centre of the workspace. Arthur had transferred the contents of the Wall to a whiteboard on wheels, and it was sitting behind Cobb.

Ariadne and Arthur both had their laptops open and a stack of documents next to them, even if Ariadne's looked as if something had literally been nibbling at it. Eames had a blank sheet of paper in front of him, and a ballpoint pen that Arthur had pressed into his hand five minutes before. Yusuf had a whiteboard behind him, covered in the long strings of letters and numbers that described the compounds he was planning to use on Marley. It wasn't like anybody else in the room could have understood what they meant, but then Eames knew a security blanket when he saw one.

"Where are we?" asked Cobb.

"I've incorporated the detail from the Australian photos into the island scenario," said Ariadne. "I've got a generic bank, and a faithful copy of three floors of the Gherkin, with enough twists to make sure it's a closed system. I've also got a London-ish cityscape, and a Sydney-ish cityscape. They're all stable."

Cobb nodded. "Good."

"I can do you a lovely banker," said Eames. "Archetype, man or woman, or Marley's own money-man, Andrew Davidson"

"What's his relationship like with Marley?"

"Rock solid," said Arthur. "They were at Geelong together. Davidson went to Oxford, Marley to Yale, but they both did MBAs at INSEAD. Davidson's been to the island more than any other friend or associate, and has spent as much time there as some of Marley's children. Apart from Marley's then wife, Davidson was the only person invited to visit Marley when he was hospitalized after having a heart attack four years ago."

Cobb tapped his fingers together. "And you can definitely be convincing, Eames?"

Eames nodded. "I couldn't make it through a four hour conversation about their student days, but I could pass if the set-up was convincing. We know that marks fill in the blanks themselves, as long as you don't do anything stupid."

Cobb nodded. "Do we have the set-up?"

Arthur tilted his head. "I don't know."

Cobb raised his eyebrows. "What are the x factors?"

"Marley doesn't meet with Davidson to discuss business-as-usual issues." Arthur stood up. Put his hands in his pockets. "They either meet socially, or to talk about bigger projects. It looks from what we've been able to get from insiders, and from some restructuring that has been going on in MediaCorp that they're deleveraging so they can reprofile for a big acquisition. There has been some speculation in the business media that Marley has something new media in his sights, but it's not much more than blind items and gossip in business diary columns."

"Something like what?"

Arthur quirked his mouth. "That's the billion dollar question. MySpace is too small to be ruffling this many feathers. Facebook is too big, and Marley and Zuckerberg hate each other like fury. There's a lot of buzz about Twitter, but it seems unlikely that Marley could see a way to monetize that in the short run."

"Something smaller?" Cobb leaned back in his chair.

Arthur shrugged. "Something smaller wouldn't require this much deleveraging. Of course, all the new media speculation could be wrong. He could be planning something much more traditional, maybe even quietly consolidating in a couple of markets."

"So we're not sure why he would need to speak to Davidson?"

"We're in the position of being able to write a script with a lot of detail in it, but we're lacking the big picture of why all of this is happening. So we would have one shot in the dark, and Eames' ability to tapdance."

Eames made a face. He could do it, he knew he could, but it was hard to hold the shape of someone when you were still feeling out who they were. They needed his Andrew Davidson to be shaky round the edges like they needed a hole in the head.

"Personal life?" Cobb asked.

"Even less information," Arthur said. "He's on wife number five. Divorce settlements are all sealed, and the two I managed to get the details of had nothing we could use."

"No spousal abuse? Unusual kinks? Hints at where he spends his money."

"Nothing." Arthur pointed to a sheet of paper that looked like an organogram. "He has twelve children from those five marriages. All the next generation who've graduated college are working for MediaCorp."

"I love the smell of nepotism in the morning," said Yusuf, wryly.

"They're all solid performers. Graham, the oldest son, is the President of one of MediaCorp's television holdings, and his daughter Alison is President of one of the movie studios. They've all been shuffled around the various divisions to get enough experience of the different operations."

"Any strained relationships with his children?"

Arthur shook his head. "They're one of the most written-about families in the world. The business media is all over them, but they're also profiled constantly in the Australian gossip columns, and in the international news media. They have family dinners, take family vacations, get together for the holidays. There's nothing negative that shows on paper, or in the phone calls that I've managed to listen in on. He doesn't take big meetings, doesn't have any discussion in front of other people that he can have one-on-one. Doesn't trust any of the people who report to him. I can't find any kind of feud or disagreement that we could exploit to get information. He's paranoid beyond any other mark I've ever seen."

"It's not paranoia if we're out to get you," said Yusuf, picking at the edges of his nails. "It's bloody sensible."

"So we're nowhere?" Cobb's voice vibrated with frustration, and Eames had never had much difficulty separating Arthur the professional, from Arthur who warmed Eames's feet with his own, but he felt a pang of defensiveness. Arthur had clearly rattled every last source, turned over every last rock. It wasn't his fault that Marley was fucking crazy.

"There's one thing," said Arthur, and Eames's spine prickled at his tone, which had obviously been intended to be lighthearted, but missed by a crucial inch. "I found something strange in one of his server logs—" He waved his hands, sliding over the technical details, in a way that he didn't usually.

He paused, bit his lip. Eames felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Arthur cleared his throat. "He, um, likes fucking children."

Eames felt the ripple down the table. Felt Ariadne jerk beside him, and Yusuf's head snap up. Felt the terrible calm settle over him that he'd last experienced when pinned down by enemy fire, while kicking the shit out of an embassy to get to a group of British hostages.

"So," he asked, and his voice sounded like ice in his own ears, "would you like me to play the pimp or the child?"

Cobb's expression was speculative, and Eames fought down the desire to punch him in the face. Bit back the thought of Cobb's nose exploding in a brilliant flash of scarlet, staining his shirt and his teeth.

"We can't," Ariadne said, flatly. "We can't."

Yusuf said nothing, and Eames could almost hear him thinking about manufacturing desire in little test tubes. Tweaking the long skeins of compounds into something with an added aphrodisiac bang.

"Let's talk about this tomorrow," Cobb said, looking at Arthur, and Eames's fingers twitched against his leg.

Eames was too hot. The sheet felt wrinkled beneath him, and he couldn't get comfortable. He normally slept with one arm thrown over Arthur, or, during the nights when Arthur didn't want that weight across his stomach, his arm lying straight down Arthur's leg, on top of the duvet.

It felt like the space between them had been disturbed somehow, as though it would be wrong to smooth his hand over Arthur's skin, and Eames tried to find a new position, one that didn't rely on him lying curled round Arthur. He balanced precariously on the edge of the bed.

Arthur rolled over. Folded his hand over Eames's hip.

"If there was another way," he said, as though it were a complete thought. As though he was resuming a conversation that they had broken off for the purposes of cleaning their teeth and washing their faces.

"There is another way," Eames said. "There's me going mano a mano with the banker. Davidson. I can learn any script you give me, Arthur."

"I know," Arthur said, gentling his fingers back and forth. "It's just—"

"Just what?"

"He wants money. Power. Privacy. He's bombastic, and bullying, and determined when he goes after all of that." Arthur's fingers stilled. "He craves this. He feels this like fire scorching his skin. He's on his knees before this." His fingers started up again. "This is his weakness. This is where he's careless."

Eames couldn't read Arthur's tone, didn't want to. The air in their bedroom felt curdled and thick.

He woke up alone, the sheets cool under his skin.

Arthur was dressed when he got up, a long-sleeved pale blue shirt on top of a pair of dark jeans. Eames kissed him good morning and his lips were dry and chapped.

They sat, side by side, at the glossy breakfast bar, and picked at the coffee and bagels that Arthur had made. Eames longed, for a moment, for New York.

"I can't," Eames started, because it was the cleanest truth that he had. "I can't forge a child like that. I won't."

Arthur looked at him. "I can help."

Eames physically recoiled, felt the bile flash hot and thick in his throat. "Are you fucking insane?"

"I want—"

"What?" Eames said, fury ebbing so quickly it tugged somewhere in his chest. "What do you want, Arthur?"

Arthur hesitated, and Eames sighed. "We can't go back in there until we've discussed it."

Arthur looked across the room, and out of the window, to the Thames. "I want him to pay," Arthur said. He turned back to Eames and his eyes were full of light, of the river. "I just want him to pay."

Eames swallowed around the lump in his throat. "I want that too."

"You have no fucking right," said Eames, and he knew that he was almost hissing at Cobb.

Cobb was reliable, as solid and dependable as granite, except where he wasn't. "I think we need to let him make up his own mind on this."

Eames blew his breath out through his teeth. "So we just let the part of Arthur that's half-dead in gratitude to you and Mal chum up with the part of him that wants some fucking slight measure of justice?"

Cobb narrowed his eyes. "Justice?" He said it like it sat uneasily on his tongue.

Eames knew. Knew that justice was a concept that they'd bent and twisted and traduced so thoroughly that it seemed ridiculous to even invoke it.

He would give it to Arthur if he could.

Ariadne took them down into the island dreamscape, and they stood, the three of them, in the echoing palace of Marley's house. Eames breathed in the scent of wealth and privilege, expensive linen and heavy beeswax furniture polish, lush vases of flowers, and smiled at Ariadne, admiration and congratulation and fondness. She didn't smile back.

Arthur's expression was carefully blank, but Eames picked up on the minute flicker in the corner of his mouth that meant that his implacability was laced together with twine and guts.

Eames took a breath, quick and slight, and shifted into character. A kid, six years old. Big eyes. Dark hair. Thin face.

Ariadne flinched.

Arthur looked at him, dragged in a breath that sounded like it scraped his throat raw, and shot him in the face.

"I guess we go with Plan B, then?" Ariadne didn't look at either of them as she disentangled herself from the PASIV, and climbed out of the chair.

Arthur didn't move. Eames pulled out needle connecting him to the PASIV and went to Arthur's side. He wasn't sure whether to touch him, whether Arthur would want Eames's hands on him.

Arthur reached out without opening his eyes, lacing his fingers through Eames's. Arthur shook a little, in the shelter of Eames's hand. "I have no idea what I was thinking."

Eames dropped his mouth to Arthur's fingers.

Eames watched as Arthur made his way outside, into the little street. Cobb was talking to Yusuf, as Yusuf lit one cigarette from the butt of another. When Yusuf saw Arthur he flicked his freshly lit cigarette into the neighbour's Audi, ignoring Cobb's frown, and jerked his head in the direction of the deli they bought most of their lunches from.

Arthur jammed his hands in his pockets, and, not looking at Cobb, started to talk. Cobb laid one his hands flat against Arthur's back, and Arthur leaned his head towards Cobb, muscle jumping in his jaw. Cobb slid his hand up to the back of Arthur's neck, and kissed his forehead.

Eames looked back at the papers on his desk, and smiled for the first time in a week.

July, Sydney

"Okay?" Eames said, and he was breathing hard enough that it could, by rights, be called panting.

Ariadne looked at the stopwatch around her neck. "Twenty seconds to spare."

"It's not long enough," Arthur said, and Eames took a moment to be deeply resentful that Arthur wasn't even out of breath. That Arthur had just laid waste to a whole battalion's worth of projections and hadn't even broken a sweat.

"I can make you a couple of shortcuts," Ariadne said. "Let you get from the shoreline to the house without having to go through the jungle."

"Won't that make it more unstable?" It was a rhetorical question. Arthur knew the rules as well as Ariadne did.

Eames had almost made it back to the table when the sound of their voices stopped him in his tracks, behind an honest-to-goodness palm tree, just out of their eyeline.

"We could still pull it. Go back to the banker."

"You really think that's less risky?" Cobb sounded genuinely interested. "I want to get this done, Arthur. We're the best. The best."

Eames rolled his eyes. Cobb could be a stone-cold motherfucker, but he had the kind of restless desire to win that was definitely going to get them all killed if they didn't rein him in.

"We've run the operation three times in simulation. Even before we get inside Marley's dreamspace, we're cutting it fine for time."

"Mmm," Cobb said.

"Really fine," Arthur said, seriously. "Eames is rock-solid. There's no one better."

Cobb took a noisy sip of his wine. "They train their special forces pretty well."

Eames blushed, hot and hard, back pressed to the wall.

"My point," Arthur said, briskly, "is that we can't take anything else off the time. There's no contingency. We could all end up in Limbo."

"It's why they pay us the big bucks, Arthur." Cobb sounded uncharacteristically blasé, and Eames wondered just how much of the viognier he'd drunk.

"Dom," Arthur began. "We could—"

"No," Cobb said. "He's right. As much as it causes me an actual physical pain to say so, he's right."

Eames strained to hear, but Arthur said nothing. Eames leaned away from the wall, and schooled his face into detachment.

Eames shot two projections. They looked like the security guards at the compound of a James Bond villain, and he would have laughed if he hadn't been dodging and cheating through a shower of gunfire for what felt like half an hour.

Arthur had missed the main rendezvous, and the first backup, and by rights Eames should be rappelling up through the layers of dreamscape to the surface. He wasn't, though. He was crawling through the undergrowth of the strip of jungle that shielded the main buildings of Marley's island hideaway from the sea.

All around him, he could hear shouts, the whip of vegetation against combat trousers and weapons being reloaded, metal sliding against metal.

He commando-rolled across a terrace, dodging behind a substantial sun lounger for cover from the fire from the treeline. The French doors on to the terrace were locked and bolted, so Eames took the butt of his gun and smashed the glass. He brushed enough of the fragments out of the frame to fit through, and cut the throat of the women in the maid's uniform next to the drinks cabinet, who was wielding a bow and arrow, and fuck Marley's subconscious, frankly.

The house was ridiculous, larger than anything anybody really needed, and it took him minutes to hack his way through the reception rooms to the staircase that led to Marley's private study. The marble of the stairs, of the passage that stretched along one wing of the house, was slick with blood, and it filled Eames's nostrils, coppery and rich. The whole house was starting to look like the last ten minutes of Apocalypse Now, but he made his way around the dismembered limbs into the study. It was decorated in dark blues, corporate and curiously blank, and unmistakeably the backdrop to a photo that Arthur had shown him, fingers trembling on the keys to his laptop, head turned away from the screen. It was a photo that he wished he could bleach from his brain.

Arthur was there, of course, and Eames's rush of gratitude quieted the churn in his stomach. He was tucking a folder into his waistband, blandest manila, and buttoning his waistcoat down over it. Eames knew without being told that it had the information the client wanted, the detail of the leverage that Marley had used to get rid of the parade of politicians who stood in his way. Arthur raised his eyebrow at Eames. Looked out of the window that overlooked the rose garden, gun in each hand, and fired a couple of rounds into the projections below. Eames crouched against the wall, weapon cocked, knee grinding against the glass that glittered against the carpet.

Eames was in tactical gear. He'd found through long experience that he thought more like a soldier when he was dressed like one. He looked at Arthur's back, long and slender, at the shirt sleeves rolled up Arthur's arms, at the curve of his ass in his expensive beige trousers, and wondered if it would be an outrageous fucking liberty to take a minute to push Arthur against the wall and lick his tongue into Arthur's mouth.

He glanced at Marley, sitting on the sofa in the corner of the room, arms tied behind his back, mouth taped, and felt a rush of heat that surprised him. He wanted to carve Marley into tiny pieces, wanted him to beg for his life while Eames smashed a rock into his face. Marley looked back, and he looked so ordinary, so plain, that Eames felt suddenly ridiculous.

The music swirled around them, rich as the smell of roses, and Arthur extended an arm, cocked his gun.

"Come on," he said to Eames, voice strong and clear. "Let's go home."