It wouldn't've been so bad. It kind of makes sense that Ariadne would visit Cobb, or maybe stay with him – he got her into the business, after all, and is more or less her mentor. They have the established intimacy which comes from someone sifting through all your subconscious rubbish to pick apart your supermassive black hole of a guilt trip. And, sure, she maybe has friends from University she could've stayed with, but Eames is sure Ariadne would need to talk about their breakup, just as Arthur had. She wouldn't have been able to explain it in a context an outsider could understand.

So her staying with Cobb, it doesn't have to be a thing. Arthur doesn't have to look alternately stricken and furious right now.

Except that Ariadne has answered the door wearing a white button-up shirt that's absolutely huge on her, with bare feet and mussed hair and – and she's tightening her jaw, lips pursed, faint color high in her cheeks.

Eames prudently takes the other gift from Arthur's arms.

"Jesus christ," he spits, and Eames pushes into the house in a way that sort of moves Ariadne out of the line of fire, makes space for Arthur to step inside, and also maybe protects the girl, just a smidge, in case Arthur loses his shit. He seems about to.

"Ariadne, who – " Cobb is saying, coming around the corner in his boxers and an open robe. "Oh, fuck," he mutters, running his hand through his hair. His disheveled, bed-head sex hair.

"You selfish motherfucker," Arthur is shouting as Eames prudently takes little Ariadne by the elbow and guides her from the room.

"Let's leave the children to their tantrum, yeah?" He says quietly, and Ariadne looks up at him, face creased and miserable.

" – killed Mal and you didn't even fucking tell me she was driving fucking trains through your subconscious – " Arthur's voice floats after them.

Eames winces.

"We, ah, won't be in town for James' birthday. So we've brought apology gifts, " he says cheerily, setting the presents on the table: one wrapped in neat, glossy black paper with a silver bow, the other horrifyingly kiddish with half a million mismatched colors, balloons, and a braided blue and orange ribbon.

"Thanks, Eames. Do you want coffee or something," she asks, voice tired and small against the muffled sounds of argument filtering in from the foyer, and the forger follows her into the kitchen. He studiously looks away as she reaches up into the cabinet for mugs, because it rucks her shirt up a bit higher, and even if he's pretty much mostly interested in men right now and also in love with someone else, Ariadne's pale legs would tempt the virgin Mary into kissing a girl and maybe liking it.

"Tea if you have it," he smiles. She manages to scrounge one up herself, but it's small and tight and unhappy, more a grimace than anything else, as she puts some water on.

"Is green okay?" She asks, rifling through the cupboards with the practiced ease of someone who has spent a lot of time in Cobb's kitchen.

"Green is lovely," Eames says, and then reaches out and touches her shoulder. His hand is huge by comparison, and she turns and looks up at him, expression guarded and sad. Eames is about to say, How are you doing, when Arthur's voice rises again:

" – only give a shit about yourself, you drag everyone under too heavily sedated to wake up by dying and you don't fucking tell us – "

Cobb is saying something back, heated, but not as loud as Arthur.

"Think he's talking about his kids," Eames supplies.

"Probably," Ariadne sighs, and glances at the refrigerator instinctively: Phillipa's got a picture hung up, crayon and marker and colored pencil, every color in the box. She's dressed herself as a princess.

"'Judgement call?' Holy fuck, Cobb, it was worth the not insignificant risk of dropping every one of us into limbo on the off-chance your charges would be cleared?"

Ariadne sighs miserably, but she doesn't look angry. Eames figures it's because she's already had her fight with Arthur, and. Well, honestly, Arthur isn't wrong.

Eames is certainly biased, but – Arthur still isn't wrong.

They are both uncomfortable bystanders, listening to the men they love tear into each other.

"I'm sorry you have to hear this," he says, gently. Araidne looks up at him curiously.

"It's just – he has a long fuse. But he won't back down from a confrontation. And," Eames sighs, purses his lips. Ariadne glances briefly at his mouth before her gaze falls lower, to his shoes. "I feel like he's needed to have this conversation for awhile. He's touched on different parts of it but, out of respect for Cobb, I believe he kept it civil."

"You know Arthur really well," Ariadne whispers, her arms around herself.

"We've... worked together for years."

She quirks a small smile. "You know, it's funny. During the Fischer job, I thought – you were friends. But. After, I never really saw you."

The water's boiling, so Ariadne pulls the pot off the stovetop and pours it carefully over a teabag. She doesn't burn her hands or spill or anything, just goes about it methodical and precise.

There's a strange sensation in his gut, watching her – a kind of slow awareness of how very alike Ariadne and Arthur are, at heart, even if they express anger or communicate differently. He's sure, if maybe they were a bit older, or a bit more used to each other – if Eames weren't in the picture, nor Cobb – there was some world where they could be happy together. It takes him a moment, but he recognizes the feeling as, possibly, a subtle pang of guilt.

"I've had a lot on my plate, since." Eames lies.

Ariadne pours coffee for herself, sips it black. They both shamelessly eavesdrop.

" – for you! The best thing that ever fucking happened to me, and I threw it away to fucking clean up your mess – "

"I didn't ask you to!" Cobb is finally screaming, and Ariadne jumps, startled. "No one held a fucking gun to your head, Arthur!"

"You're a goddamn child, Cobb," and there is an ugly sneer evident in Arthur's voice. "You don't give a shit who you hurt, as long as you get what you want."

Eames frowns, pushes away from the table – it's probably his cue to intervene.

Ariadne stops him, her small hand in the crook of his elbow. "Eames."

"Yes, love?"

She looks up at him, looks away. Looks back, steeling herself. "Am I awful?" She's imploring, sincere, like she honestly thinks Eames is a sterling judge of moral character.

Eames studies her for a moment, and she doesn't break eye contact.

"No, Ariadne," he says firmly.

"I do love Arthur," she says, and it stirs something in Eames that is almost like trepidation. Unease. Fear.

"But it's not something I can't live without," she continues, voice hushed. "That's the problem, right? And I really tried to make it work, I..."

"I know you did," Eames says, and touches her hair. She looks up at him, dejected.

"I hate fucking everything up," she sighs.

"Funny," Eames murmurs, thumbing her cheek. It's dry. "He said a very similar thing."

She laughs, almost – a dry, surprised sound. After a moment, she says, "This thing with Cobb, I." She grimaces, casts for the words she needs, and Eames nods.

"Here is what I have learned," he says solemnly, and she puts on a face like the most diligent of students. "We all have things and we all need things. If someone does not have something you need, what are they to you?"

She hardly thinks about it. "Nonvital."

"Right," Eames says, his hand on the door. He really ought to make sure they haven't killed each other.

Just before he leaves the kitchen, Ariadne asks hesitantly, "What do you need from Arthur, Eames?"

He thinks, For his nails to flex and cut into my forearms when he comes.

He says, "His alarmingly thorough research. Since I can't be bothered."

Thinks, His cock, hard and weeping in my hand.

He smiles crookedly and continues, "His ingenious and horrifying hotel room security setup practices. The truly terrible smell of that tar he passes for coffee every morning. His gun hand."

Thinks, For him to hog the entire fucking bed for the rest of my fucking life. The way he wakes up tangled in sheets and me. His stupid smiley-face omelets.

"His stupid smiley-face omelets."

Ariadne cracks a watery grin.

"...fucking my fiancee, I bet our sheets weren't even cold before you – "

"Arthur, I think that's quite enough," Eames snaps, and the point-man glances up, bloody furious, but after a second passes he simply looks stricken; then he looks ashamed.

"Cobb," Eames say, not unkindly, and the man looks at him with piercing, exhausted blue eyes. His shoulders are slumped just a bit and his face is flushed. "I took the Nash job."

Cobb's eyebrows shoot up. "Why?"

"We can get into that later, or not. I just wanted to let you know that Nash is not on the job, that it's not really a job at all, and that Arthur and I will be in Jersey tying up some loose ends. We will miss James' birthday, and we apologize."

"But they've brought apology gifts," Ariadne interjects. Cobb smiles, awkward and bemused and kind of brittle. But he does smile at her.

Arthur, standing off to the side, his cheeks also a bit red and his arms crossed, says nothing – but he glances from Ariadne to Cobb. Then, inexplicably, to Eames' shoes. Sets his jaw.

"Can I talk to you for a minute? Arthur?" Ariadne asks, quiet but firm.

He really looks like he's going to say no, only she adds, "It's important." So he grudgingly follows her into the kitchen, since he's not a monster. Eames kind of likes that – they may all be devious criminals, but. They still care about each other at the end of the day. Even when they're mad as hell. Or something. They're all kind of – family.

Cobb looks like he wants to follow, but after a few silent moments – it's certainly not the screaming match of the last several minutes – he says, "I'm glad, Eames," and he sounds tired.


Cobb just looks at him, eyes steady and direct. "The two of you," he starts. "You're – ?"

"Yeah, mate," Eames says, twisting his smile into something presentable.

Cobb claps his shoulder, leaves his hand there. "You know, when I told him we needed you on the Fischer job, he tried to talk me out of it."

"I'm sure." Nothing of the tightness in his chest bleeds over into his voice. He makes sure of this.

"But he also looked at me like – well, he's really missed you, Eames. I'm sorry that I – that, with Mal, I just," Cobb sighs through his teeth and looks away. "I wouldn't have done well without him. But he was – really unhappy, the whole time, and I just. I'm sorry."

"I've never blamed you for it," Eames says firmly. "Not once." And it's the honest-to-god truth.

Thanks to Cobb, to what happened with Mal, he knows exactly where he'd be if something ever happened to Arthur. He only hopes someone would pick up the pieces for him, too.

In the car, Arthur is saying, "Is this the part where you tell me I'm a petulant child?"

"No, Arthur," Eames says. "It's the part where I say, 'Good thing the kids were with Miles this afternoon.' What did little Ari want?"

Something crosses the dark-haired man's face, flashes through his eyes like pain, or loss – but it's momentary. He says at length, "Just that – we did our best, and it didn't work, and that it's okay. And we both deserve to be happy, instead of – cutting our losses." He sighs, palms his eyes. "Why did you just take me back, Eames? You didn't – make me beg, you didn't even fucking think about it."

"I didn't," he replies. Arthur looks up at him. He looks less miserable – there's maybe one part wonder mixed in, and an eighth residual anger.

"I'm efficient that way," Eames says, shrugging. "It's more about the end result, for me"

Arthur watches in silence, studies him in profile as Eames drives, until finally the forger asks, "What? Have I got something on my face?"

"No," he says quietly, and Eames catches his half-smile before they both turn back to the road.

"So Ariadne called you," Arthur says after a while. Eames is pulling into a old lot outside of a dingy pawn shop.

"She did."

"I'm glad. It – isn't always safe."

"No," Eames agrees. "It isn't. Say, what are you telling Laforgue?"

"My contact is kind of a prick. I was thinking of setting him up as the illustrious Remus Chernard. The firm can press charges from there."

"Ah. Which is his real name?"

"Which is easier for you?"

Eames grins perversely. "I'll direct my client to a different firm that he may falsely represent."

They get out of the car, wander up to a seedy-looking establishment sagging in a corner lot. Arthur is walking relatively close to him, and it gives him a flush of pleasure, deep in his chest. A kind of overflow of heat, that they can be like this again. That everything is finally okay.

Eames catches the point-man watching him peripherally, just a short shy glance, before he slides his fingers tentatively over the forger's forearm. They walk into the pawn-shop like that, not exactly arm-in-arm, but the gesture is the same and Eames can't say he wants for anything.

The place is piled high will all and sundry. Scummy instruments, old furniture, a television that is not only functional, but currently put to use playing infomercials.

"Anastasie," Eames calls around a pile of really decrepit books, and an elderly rottweiler comes bounding out of the back of the store, making a beeline for Arthur.

"Is this... god, is this Cognac?" Arthur asks, sinking to his knees and – astonishingly – allowing the dog to basically slather drool and tongue all over his face. (Eames is actually a bit jealous. It is not his proudest moment.) "It's been – what, two years? Three?"

"Va te faire enculer chez les Grecs," comes a sharp, rude voice, and a tiny Frenchwoman wanders around the corner. "It has been three years, Arthur," she continues in heavily accented English. She is short and thin, with hard eyes and flyaway brown hair streaked with gray. She glares heavily at the both of them. "Three years and you have never come to visit. I should spit on you. Cognac should eat your couilles."

"Ana, you are a vision of loveliness, as always." Eames bends down to take her tiny hand in his and kiss her knuckles.

"Oh no you don't, you insufferable bâtarde. I am still missing my good silver ring. The one with the améthystes and the jades." She sniffs disdainfully, but doesn't actually withdraw her hand.

"Sweetheart, you wound me," Eames laments. He lays it on thick, sliding his thumb over her bony knuckles, and she almost flushes. Almost. It's a very near thing. Eames is very charming. He is always in danger of overwhelming the general public.

Arthur stands, and Anastasie fixes her dark eyes on him. Then she looks carefully at Eames. "It is good you two are working together again. Idiots." She locks the front door, though she doesn't actually bother with the open sign.

"Come on then, I know what you are looking for," she snorts. "The only reason you ever visit me, Monsieur Eames."

Arthur brushes a few errant strands of dog hair off his slacks, but leaves a hand on Cognac's head as he follows them both into the back of the shop.

"So did you just run off and tell everyone I broke your heart," he says, voice stilted and awkward, "or something?" Glances sidelong at Eames, purses his lips.

"No. They simply noted your absence. And I may have been..." Inconsolable. Depressed. Really fucking wrecked. Lonely as shit. Irritable and frustrated and bloody angry. "...noticeably unhappy. Somewhat."

"I see," is all Arthur says. His hand finds Eames' elbow again, the lightest brush of fingertips.

In the back is where Anastasie freebases cocaine. It's also where she keeps chemicals, drugs, and medical miscellanea that require refrigeration.

Presenty, Eames finds a cold lunchbox-sized cooler pressed into his hands. "This is should be enough for the area you described," she says, voice clear and professional, and Eames pops it open. There are four syringes on a bed of ice, packed carefully in chilly, transparent bubble wrap.

"This is perfect, mademoiselle." The syringes aren't labelled, but expertly prepared. There are no markings whatsoever on the cooler.

Eames gives Anastasie a significant amount of euros, and she leans up on the very tips of her toes to kiss his cheek.

Since she is quite a bit smaller than he is, Eames facilitates by bending down to her level.

"Do stop by to visit," Anastasie scolds as they leave. "I am not a whore you would loathe to be seen with in public."

"And even if you were, Mr. Eames is shameless. He'd show you off."

"But Arthur, dear," Eames says, sweet as can be, "I've got you for that."

"Casse toi," Arthur hisses with a pretty terrible accent, and Anastasie laughs and laughs.

In the car back to their flat Arthur asks, "What are you bringing to the US in refrigerated syringes?"

"Well," Eames says, merging into traffic, "It's a kind of scar treatment. It's not available in the States yet, due to... research restrictions."

"Derived from an endangered species?"


"Stem cells?"


Arthur purses his lips and glances in the rearview mirror. "For Joseph Couric?"


There's silence for awhile, until they're pulling into the garage and Eames is keying in the code. Eventually, when they get back to the room, Arthur hedges,

"I thought you weren't – that it wasn't personal."

Eames blinks, looks at the point-man very carefully: lovely, but distant. Closed off, but meeting his eyes with purpose.

"If he's going to run this operation without me, he needs to be more inconspicuous. It's extraordinarily difficult to go unnoticed – or noticed, but for the right reasons – when you stand out like he does."

"You're – teaching him to forge?"

"Probably not. But a few other things. Since I won't be working with him."

"Hmm." Arthur looks at Eames' face carefully, lingering on his lips and tracing the curves of his cheekbones with warm brown eyes. Eames himself is quite stuck on the way Arthur's lashes flutter each time he shifts his gaze. "You never tried to teach me anything."

Eames puts the cooler with the syringes into the fridge, then wanders into their bedroom, pulling off his shirt as he goes. "But Arthur," he says over his shoulder as he unbuckles belt, drops it to the floor, "you already know everything."

"I can't forge." Arthur points out. He's lounging in the doorway at first, but then he's behind Eames and ghosting his fingertips over the matte black tattoos, exploring the grooves between his muscles and kissing the points of his broad shoulders. He's trailing his tongue over the angle of a shoulder blade, easing his palms down over Eames' hips and beneath the waistband of his undone slacks.

"You'll never need to," Eames says, since it's the most obvious thing in the world and Arthur is a very silly man. "You have me for the grunt work, my dear." He turns his head, and Arthur's mouth is already there, on his, tugging at his lower lip with teeth. Hot and shallow, and Eames shifts in the circle of his arms to deepen it, slot their lips together, slide his tongue further into that wet heat.

"So I've got my kit off," he murmurs in a low rumble. "And I see that you haven't."

Arthur loosens his tie, but Eames grins as he makes short work of his button-down. "Leave that on."

They end up with Eames flat on his back, Arthur riding his cock like he was born for it, sweat gleaming at throat and chest and belly, everything on display. Naked except for the pale gray tie, circled around his neck like a posh noose.

Eames grips those slim hips tightly enough to leave bruises (on top of bruises on top of bruises, it's a serious problem, Eames is not one for letting go) shoving up into him, as Arthur braces against the wall with one hard forearm as he strokes his dick with the other, above Eames, and by the time they're done there is come sliding out of Arthur's body and Eames has a swath of it from cheek to clavicle. It's messy and sticky, but at least they got most of it on themselves.

After they're more or less cleaned up and Eames has his head tucked beneath Arthur's chin, listening to the pulse at the hollow of his throat, Arthur says:

"So Couric is your friend, not your lover. And we're going to meet with him so you can prime him to con his way up the mafia food chain. Because you are not going to be his partner and become a crimelord."

"That about sums it up." Eames replies. "Though it would've been a lark. I've never been a crimelord before. And I think Joe would have been an excellent partner, once he loosened up a bit."

Arthur hesitates, then moves onto his side, facing Eames, propping his head in his hand. "You were really going to do it, though? Before we...?" He trails off, leaving the thought unfinished.

Eames tilts his head, touches his tongue to his lips in contemplation. Mostly because Arthur can't seem to look away from his mouth, which is a spectacular feeling.

"I was."

Arthur does look at him then, his face as open and earnest as Eames has ever seen it. It makes something delicate and warm pool in his chest, constricting and liberating at once: wingless flight, invisible, tangible connection.

"You know," he says at length. "I've never been a crimelord, either."

"It would be a long run," Eames murmurs, surprised. He hadn't even thought about it, before: him and Arthur and Joe. "A couple of years, minimum. Not something we could walk away from without compromising him."

"Well, nothing you have lined up is set in stone yet. And we've tied off both ends of the Laforgue case."

"Speaking of," Eames mentions, sliding his fingertips over Arthur's sternum and dipping over to pinch a rosy nipple. Arthur squeaks. "Do you make it a habit of taking jobs to work opposite me?"

"Only when you leave me," Arthur snipes, wrinkling his nose. "Even if I'm being stupid and dating someone because they aren't you."

"You left me first," Eames says, and he means for it to be in jest, careless, colorless. But it comes out breathy, hitched, and Arthur reaches over and takes his face in his calloused hands.

Gunmetal, Eames thinks. Dior. Cold fingertips fluttering over laptop keys at three in the morning. Crisp, white collars. Fists with which to neutralize an assailant, and to tighten around Eames' cock until he screams and comes. Those dimples set around that gorgeous mouth, and every rare smile.

He may have been lying, slightly, to Ariadne. By omission. Because what he needs from Arthur is everything.

"But I came back," Arthur whispers against his mouth, giving shape to the words almost without voice: the only person Eames has ever fucking loved in the sense that it really fucks you over forever, ruins you for other lovers, ruins you for happiness in your life. And he's still talking and Eames is listening with as much focus as anyone ever listened to anything, but he can't keep himself from trying to kiss those pale lips, mouthing the shape of each syllable as they leave Arthur's throat.

"I came back, Eames," he repeats, serious and sure, "and I'll never leave you again."

They spend the flight from Paris napping intermittently, with Eames' repeated attempts at joining the Mile High Club continually rebuffed.

"Eames, might I remind you that sex in an airplane bathroom is a felony."

"But we are international criminals!" Eames says.

"But we are using forged passports and you are smuggling illegal drugs. And I cannot believe that you brought them on the plane."

"It was simple enough, love. I just told security it was insulin. They didn't even ask for a doctor's note." Eames smiles winningly at the flight attendant who has approached them.

"We're rehearsing for a play," he says, charming and loose. He's by the window, and takes this opportunity to lean over Arthur's lap. He pitches his voice low, like a secret. "It's about terrorists. I'm the hero, of course." He's playing up his accent, and the stewardess blushes faintly.

"Like James Bond?" She asks, attentive and cute. Near his ear, Arthur exhales through his nose in a silent, derisive snort.

"Yes, exactly. Could I trouble you for a blanket, pet? I tend to catch an awful chill on long flights."

Eames leans back after she leaves, except Arthur's hand has made its way to the back of his neck and halts him. "This is a good position for you," he murmurs, fingers smooth over flesh and pulse. "Too bad you can't suck me off in the bathroom."

"It's half the reason they put a loo in the air," Eames complains around his suddenly erratic heartbeat. "For sucking. In private. Not polite otherwise in such an enclosed space." Arthur lets him go before the flight attendant returns.

But, once they are cozy beneath the blanket (and the woman has given up flirting), Arthur casually and without expression drags his palm over the front of Eames' trousers, gripping him through the fabric.

"That's," Eames begins.

"Oh," he says.

"Argh," he says, and goes to the loo.

When he gets back, Arthur is smirking faintly. He says nothing as Eames climbs over him to get to his seat, but after a minute or two he asks,

"So does it count as the Mile High Club if you have to finish yourself?"

He looks entirely too pleased. Eames glowers. Then, tentatively, he reaches out and covers Arthur's hand with his own.

They must fall asleep at some point, because he eventually wakes up with a dark head on his shoulder and the sun in a strange place in the sky, spilling out over the vast cloudscape and into their small window. The seatbelt sign is on, and the captain is partway through making an announcement.

" – tham City, New Jersey. We'd like to thank you for choosing L'Avion for your travels."

They shuffle off the plane with their carry-ons, and Eames puts his idle hands to good use. By the time they reach the car rentals, he's several hundred US dollars richer.

"That's the nice thing about you, Mr. Eames," Arthur says, with a quiet half-smile. "You never get caught."

"It's these magic hands of mine, darling," Eames drawls, making the harmless sentence lewd and suggestive. Arthur says nothing, and when he glances over at him there is the faintest hint of red on his cheeks. He's fucking gorgeous when he blushes.

They're both tired from the flight, but Arthur agrees to drive. Probably he doesn't trust Eames to stay on the right side of the road. Even though Eames, a very capable specimen of humanity, can do basically anything.

Except, possibly, give birth. But he could certainly lend a hand at any of the various stages.

"This isn't a bad neighborhood," Arthur says with a faint twist to his lips. They're pulling into the driveway of the house where Eames last saw Joe, and there isn't another car nearby. But the lights are on. This is somewhat heartening, as Joe still hasn't picked up the last few times Eames has dialed him. And he still hasn't called back.

"No," Eames agrees as they get out of the car. "It's not."

"It makes you wonder what he aspires to. He's already got money, clearly. Seems to know how to make more."

Eames thinks about it, and it's true, mostly. It's never been about power, for him – just money and excitement. For Arthur, he's pretty sure it's about money and a kind of fetish for research. Also guns.

He knocks on the door, but Arthur is the one who jimmies the lock when there's no answer.

"See," Eames murmurs, "I've taught you some things."

Arthur's about to shoot him this little half-smirk, Eames knows he is – but he watches the expression die before it's ever fully formed, because he's watching Arthur's face when they enter the kitchen. When they find Joe Couric's gaunt, pale body hooked up to the blinking silver PASIV machine.

"Fucking hell," Eames whispers, and Arthur goes to his knees and checks the man's vitals. His lips are pressed into a thin line as he tries to wake the man. Joe's eyes flutter, briefly, but he is otherwise unresponsive.

"He's alive," Arthur says over his shoulder, straightening. "The timer was set for – thirty hours." His voice hitches at the number, despite his methodical tone, because that's two and a half goddamn weeks. "There's no telling when, but he's not under right now."

The thing about Eames is that he's good in an emergency. He doesn't freak the fuck out, like Cobb, and if he's sarcastic at least he's analytical. He works out the best way to fix a problem, and takes steps to do so. It really is as simple as that.

So the fact that Joseph Couric, at this particular moment in time, may or may not have a kilo and a half of slippery wet noodles in place of something capable of higher brain function is secondary to the more pressing concern of what the fuck they can possibly do about it.

Arthur says sharply, "This isn't your fault."

Eames says, It bloody well is my fault. Except he doesn't. He just swallows and starts to calibrate the PASIV, gives it a once-over to make sure everything is running smoothly and also to do something that isn't freaking the fuck out. His fingers don't shake.

"Hey," Arthur says, touching his face, and Eames looks up. "He obviously didn't die while he was under, since the timer ran out. I'm sure he's just – " but he trails off, because Joe is not sleeping, because Joe will not wake up.

"You didn't teach him how to drop levels?"

"No," Eames finally says. "But he knows it can be done. And it isn't hard to figure out." It isn't hard to dream up a PASIV device and go under again. And again. To forget.

Arthur leaves the kitchen, trailing his hand over Eames' shoulder in a small gesture of comfort that Eames clings to.

He comes back and says, "I've secured the premises. Are we ready to go?"

"I don't even know if it can be done, if he's – comatose."

"I've never tried," Arthur says quietly, brow wrinkled in thought. "But theoretically, if he's still in there, we should be able to interact with his subconscious."

Eames does not feel at all confident about this, but his unease can't even touch his mounting guilt. There's no contest here.

So they settle themselves down. And hook themselves up

"Arthur. Can you tell me why we're in a slaughterhouse."

Arthur is dressed in a suit, which isn't unusual in itself. But it fits strangely, wraps around him ragged and sharp, distorted edges and awkward angles. When he turns his face to look at Eames, he's wearing a half-mask, like the Phantom of the Opera, only it flares out to the left like a pale wing. He is colored in subdued grays and charcoals, accented in red. The visible half of his face is bleak and wary.

"Okay," Arthur says. "I definitely did not choose a slaughterhouse, this is disgusting." It's also alarming, because Arthur is the fucking dreamer and whatever posh establishment he would have chosen should be where they are. Not here. "Also, you look. Um."

Eames glances down at himself, lips twisting. He's wearing a trench coat, but it's not really beige or tan – it's brilliant orange, streaked with teal, spattered like paint or bright mud. The collar is high and ornate with strange patterns, and the quality of light in the dream seems to make the colors pulse and glow. He also has gloves on with a diamond pattern.

"Ugh," Eames says, because the thing about slaughterhouses? They have meat hooks everywhere.

So while this is not really unusual – just extraordinarily unappetizing – what is unusual, and also horrifying, is when every side of beef in the place starts to scream.

Arthur fires off two shots before realizing they make no difference – the meat is already dead, and most don't even have mouths. He looks unnerved and a bit afraid and overwhelmed by the sheer volume, but Eames gets a firm grip on his wrist and pulls him up a set of bare cement stairs (stained) and through a ragged metal door (rusted), which he slams behind them. The screaming hasn't gone, but it is suitably muffled for the time being.

Arthur is panting, and Eames can feel a cold sweat beading at his temples. He is not having a good time, trying to predict the awful ways he and Arthur are going to die.

"What the actual fuck," the point-man is saying, shaking his head. Then he glances at the corridor around them. It's long and wildly green with strange trapezoid windows at irregular intervals. There is some approximation of a field or fairground outside, jumbled up with chaotically parked vehicles, piecey and mismatched, as if someone has taken a bag full of every model of car, beat it with a stick, and then everything back together. Except reconstructing them absolutely wrong, so wrong it must have taken real effort to figure out.

Most of the cars are whole, relatively speaking, but some of them are fucking destroyed, like they were involved in the world's worst hundred-car pileup. Off a cliff. Onto landmines.

There's nothing helping it but to start down the hallway.

"What kind of medication was he taking?" Arthur asks, skin and clothing tinted with the grimy light leaking from the walls and windows like a physical presence. It's disconcerting.

"Well," Eames starts, and doesn't continue.

After a beat, Arthur says in a carefully clipped way, "Are you telling me, Mr. Eames, that you injected Somnacin into a man who was on medication for psychotic hallucinations and you didn't fucking double check his prescription medications for possible interactions."

"I didn't know he was hallucinating," Eames says, but Arthur shakes his head curtly.

"This is what happens when you take jobs without me," he says sharply. "You don't do any fucking research beyond your forge because you can't be arsed – " really, mocking his accent was hardly necessary, " – and you set yourself up for shit like this, and now we get to deal with a lunatic who's done nothing but stare down his crazy subconscious for the better part of a month?"

"What can I say," Eames murmurs, pausing to hook his finger under Arthur's chin and tilt it for a kiss. "I'm lost without you." The tension and anger slowly drain out of Arthur's body, and Eames ends the kiss with a smile.

"You're not – not off the hook," Arthur says, just a bit breathless. "But I'll let this go for now."

"I know you only worry because you care," Eames settles his hand on the small of Arthur's back.

"Shut up," he says. But he doesn't move away.

At the end of a hall is a rounded door, and the kind of silence that radiates from it is the kind you get when you're a kid, in the dark of the night, surrounded by monsters. It is not promising.

Arthur opens the door before Eames has a chance to really get his nerve up, and it looks like the living room of a house. A crooked, bizzaro-world house with horrifying wallpaper and upside-down pictures, and a stained couch with a naked woman strung out on it. She's bound at wrist and ankle with ragged pink rope.

Eames looks on without expression; there is a sharp intake of breath from Arthur beside him.

The woman is face down, smeared with blood and dirt, and her hair is stringy and greasy and matted. There are huge bloody strips of what is apparently skin, great swathes of it, like the woman has been flayed.

"Eames, this is – that's – is he torturing his projections," and they turn as one when a new door creaks ominously open.

A man stands before them. He's big and ugly and his proportions are screwed up, unreal, and his skin is a patchwork of colors, natural and not. What are very clearly stitches and sutures gleam wetly in the light.

He's carrying a meat cleaver.

"I think we need to leave," Arthur says as the projection stares at him, long and hard, before walking slowly over to the dead woman and matter-of-factly cutting into the muscle of her leg, separating it from her femur with wet, ragged sounds. Eames sort of needs to throw up.

Arthur actually does throw up, and the projection starts to eat the filthy, half-rotted flesh.

Then the woman starts crying, quietly, and the man rubs her back in soothing circles. She struggles, weakly, against her bonds – which are turning out not to be rope at all. Which are turning out to be intestines.

Eames pulls out his gun and shoves it up under his chin. Arthur follows suit.

Eames gets slowly to his feet, nauseated and anxious. The PASIV still has about three minutes to go.

Arthur goes to splash water on his face, at the sink, except nothing comes out when he turns on the faucet. "You know," he says slowly, "I don't actually think he owns this house."

"Jesus," Eames mutters, standing near the window. "This is so many kinds of fucked up." He feels – tainted, from being in that place. Covered with invisible tarnish that he can't polish away, like there's dried blood in the grooves of his psyche, scum and stains.

Arthur says nothing. Eventually the PASIV times out, and he packs it up with practiced care. His motions are deft and automatic, but his face is closed off, remote.

If Eames hadn't been watching Arthur, he may not have noticed the movement behind him. But he is, so he does.

Joe's eyes flicker, dead space. But then they twitch to Eames, meet his gaze, and slowly, slowly, the man raises his hand.

"Arthur," Eames hisses, and the point-man wastes no time stepping quickly back, turning, staring Joe down with quiet intensity.

Slumped on the floor, hungry and dehydrated and weak, Joseph Couric watches the both of them without the barest sign of recognition.

Arthur's hands are fisted, quite possibly to hide slight tremors, and Eames bangs around in the cupboards until he finds a couple of water bottles.

"Here, mate," he says, and sets them on the floor.

Joe sort of reaches for the water, but his eyes don't leave Arthur.

So Eames is standing in a barren kitchen, in a home no one lives in, with his lover and his employer-but-maybe-partner who, as it happens, is extraordinarily fucked up subconsciously. And who may or may not be permanently damaged by prolonged exposure to his own psychoses, and/or drug interaction. This is actually his life.

"Mr. Couric," Arthur is saying, crouching down a safe distance away, "do you know who I am?"

The man licks his lips, and the movement stretches the mess of scars. He stares hard at Arthur, and then slowly, slowly shifts his gaze to Eames. Looks the forger up and down, like he's trying to read a book through a pane of distorted, semi-opaque glass.

When he finally speaks, it is slow and careful, and his voice is rough and parched. "I know of you. You," he says, pointing sloppily at Arthur and then jerking his head toward Eames, "are loose ends." He smiles, innocuous and sweet, like a child. Except it's like a searchlight, impossibly blinding, because Joe never likes to call attention to his mouth. And the scars don't make anything about his seem innocent. "You," he continues, to Arthur, are "romantic entanglements."

His speech, inherently strange, twists and buckles; and the more the talks, the more nervous Eames grows. Arthur glances at him over his shoulder, questioningly, and Eames shakes his head once, slow.

He clears his throat and Arthur opens a bottle of water and hands it to him. "I'm going to need you to drink this, Mr. Couric."

"Oh," he says, breathless and charmed, "without a single dead rat to foul the supply? You are truly a kind and considerate individual." He upends the bottle, drinks half of it immediately. He chokes, but manages to keep it down.

"Joe," Eames says softly, "can you – tell me how long you were down there?"

"At the center of the maze," Joe rasps, "there is a spiral staircase. Assembled of crystal and slime. Above swings a pendulum, very quickly, very silent, like a second hand. And there are floors... rooms... and others on every level." He licks his lips, takes a moment to drink more water. It streams down his mouth and dots his collar. "You can explore them for years. You can grow old exploring them."

He is moving his fingertips in small circles on his thigh, mesmerized by the motion. "The strange thing, my good friends, is that the lower you go, the slower the pendulum swings."

"Mr. Eames, can I have a word?" Arthur says, straightening, and he seems hesitant to leave Joe alone – so they wander to the other side of the room and speak in hushed voices.

"If he is talking about a theoretical subconscious descent – if he built a fucking staircase to move between dream levels – "

"Arthur," Eames whispers quietly, "if he has been torturing – if he, for years, what the fuck can we," and Arthur shakes his head, has his hand on Eames' shoulder. Tilts his lips against Eames' ear.

"We need to monitor him for a few weeks. Maybe get him into an asylum, professional care." Arthur pauses, then presses a kiss to Eames' temple.

"I can put some papers together." Eames says, miserable.

"I'll get my laptop."

Arthur does some preliminary research at the kitchen table while Eames tells some lies to the water company, cleans Joe up as best he can once the shower turns on. At one point they order take-out. Then Arthur does some in-depth research, and takes copious notes.

Eames is playing cards with Joe. It's mostly going well, except for the decidedly creepy things Joe is occasionally saying. When Eames takes the joker out of the deck, Joe stops him with a gentle hand.

"No," he'd implored, hazel eyes large and sincere. "You can't. He's the only one who listens," he mutters, wondering, and then asks a completely normal question after that:

"You told me of extraction, but what of inception. You mentioned it once, but I've forgotten."

"Extraction is about taking what you can get," Eames says, wary and weary, dealing five-card hands. "Inception is about putting something back."

"Like sending a message," Joe says, turning over a red queen. "It's sending a message."

Around four o'clock, Arthur shows Eames a list of mental institutions. The only one of any esteem is run by a Mr. Crane, and when Arthur hacks the database and looks over the patient files, his forehead creases.

"There seem to be a lot of high-profile... characters here." He murmurs, scrolling through the list. "Some of them aren't even listed under real names. But it's an asylum for the criminally insane, so this is probably the best we're going to get."

"All right. If you want to get started planting a patient record, I'll put together the hard copies."

Two days later, they're pulling into the gates with doctored files, references, and Joseph Couric in tow. He is exhausted, heavy bags under his eyes and a gauntness to his features that is not at all surprising, if you consider the extremely vocal nightmares he has whenever he falls asleep.

The asylum is large and well-maintained, and even Arthur looks somewhat placated by the modern building, the tasteful but expensive decor.

There is a slight hiccup when they finally meet Dr. Crane. Black hair, brilliant cheekbones, piercing blue eyes – it is everything Eames can do to keep from bursting out, Why, Mr. Fischer, fancy seeing you here.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Crane," Arthur is saying smoothly, clasping his hand. "My name is Eric. We spoke on the phone about admitting our associate?" He hardly falters on the word, but gives it just enough emphasis to cause Robert-fucking-Fischer - who is apparently a psychopharmacologist now, what the actual fuck – to reassure them.

"We have a lot of high-profile patients here," he is saying firmly, clasping their hands. "We are a private institution and we value the safety and health of our clients above all else. I promise you, your – associate – will not want for anything. Shall I give you the grand tour?"

The facility is clean and state-of-the-art. Arthur asks about the staff for form's sake, even though he has already the resume of every one of them. At one point, Dr. Crane looks at Eames with a flicker of recognition; like a flavor from childhood that can't be placed, unlikely to ever be recovered.

"Can I help you, mate?" Eames smiles affably.

"Oh, no, Mr. Robinson," he says to Eames, a wry twist to his lips. "You simply remind me of someone."

"Must be a handsome bloke," Eames murmurs, and Dr. Crane laughs. Regardless of how he got here, Robert Fischer seems to be in a better place. He seems happy, for a start.

They commit Joe that afternoon, under the criminal alias he chose for himself. They'd had the conversation as best they could – how he needs to spend some time talking through what he's experienced with professionals, how he needs to be evaluated for his own good.

Eames isn't actually sure Joe remembers what his ambitions were, before. And he accepts that a few years of torture might alter one's perspective a bit – but to what, he can't say. Probably doesn't really want to know, all things considered.

So after the papers are signed, Dr. Crane smiles and shakes Joseph Couric's hand. "Welcome to Arkham, Joker. We'll take very good care of you."

They check into a hotel, and Eames showers while Arthur makes an anonymous call through a proxy on his laptop.

"They'll keep us updated," he says, stepping beneath the water behind Eames. Arthur slides cold hands over his waist and belly, presses his lips to a line of ink, drags his mouth over a muscular shoulder. "Weekly reports. That sort of thing. And you can call up to twice per day."

"I've really fucked this up," Eames whispers, eyes closed. He has no idea what happened to Joe, and they hadn't actually seen him down there – but it is never a good sign when projections are torturing each other. Because it means the subject's subconscious is willing that to happen. The slow decay of the mind turning in on itself, like how you start to digest your own body once you've begun starving to death.

Athur's arms tighten around him, and he mouths a trail over Eames' neck, slowly moves down his spine. "We all fuck up," he whispers between kisses, smoothing the pads of his fingers over the sensitive inner planes of Eames' hips. "And all you did wrong was trust him to make his own decisions. He's a fucking adult, you told him the risks."

"But I – " Eames starts, but he can't manage anything else as Arthur gently spreads the cheeks of his arse, leans in close and licks his hot tongue tentatively over the puckered skin.

Eames braces his forearms against the wall, water pounding down on his back, spreading his legs as far as the narrow tub will allow as Arthur slides his tongue inside, curls and strokes and extends until Eames is shaking, breathing harsh and heavy sobs, unable to withhold long, low moans – and it's just like Arthur. To make everything better.

"I was thinking," Eames says unevenly, cock throbbing and weeping, tight and so goddamn hard.

"You were thinking?" Arthur repeats, reaching for the lube. Eames takes it from him, unscrews the cap and slicks up his fingers and preps Arthur, holds him open against the tile, stretches him until the leaner man is biting back all manner of soft sounds.

"Right," Eames mutters, getting a firm hold on the handicap bar, "I was thinking you should move in with me. When we get back. To our flat."

Arthur's thighs are hot and hard around his hips, and he arches so beautifully, all strung out on Eames' cock, fitted between the wall and the forger with water spattering his face, his arms loose and desperate around Eames' neck, bucking his hips even as Eames snaps his own up into him.

Anything he means to say is lost in an incoherent rush.

Later, between starchy hotel sheets, Arthur yawning and smelling like citrus with his soft, half-dry hair stringy and mussed over the pillow, Eames presses slow kisses to his jaw, the heady artery beneath his ear. Follows it down his neck.

"Yeah," Arthur says, tilting his head back. They trade slow kisses for an indeterminate amount of time.

"Mmm," Eames moans, and then: "What, love?"

"Yeah," he repeats, this gorgeous, perfect, impossible young man who is his partner, and his lover, and competent as hell and does really ridiculously amazing things with his tongue. "I'll move in with you."

And here's the thing. Eames has really fucked up over the years. He's taken bad jobs, and he's been indebted to some bloody frightening people. He trusts people to do their own jobs just enough that he's had some close calls. When it turns out they can't.

He didn't get Arthur right the first time.

He wasn't there for Mal, when she died.

He allowed circumstances to be such that Joseph Couric may never be the person he meant to be.

But you do your best, with life. And you stack the deck when you can. And even then, you won't win every time, but – Cobb is on the mend, and Ariadne handling herself, and even Robert Fischer seems to have found some happiness. So maybe all the rest is just wash.

And he has Arthur now. Arthur who is everything, the key piece, the lodestone. His entire world could disappear around him, but – Arthur is all he really needs.

When they leave Gotham, Eames feels lighter than he has in months.