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Patron Saint (Complete story)

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Arthur's been shot, and he's tired. All he wants is to pack up the gear, close out his laptop, and drive back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before he has to get up, come back, and do it all over again. Dry runs. They're the worst.

"That exit isn't going to work," Cobb says, shifting sheets of trace under the gooseneck. Arthur closes his eyes momentarily, and presses the heel of one hand to his forehead. When he opens them Cobb is just sitting down, reaching out for the scale. Arthur leaves his laptop where it is, and goes to the kitchen to make coffee.

He's watching the kettle boil when Eames comes over and leans against the refrigerator. "You staying?" He looks sympathetic, at least.

Arthur nods, looking back over his shoulder at the bright pool of light Cobb is working in. "Just till that exit's fixed."

Eames gives him a considering look, then checks his watch and holds his wrist up. "It's past two."

"I know."

Eames puts his back to the fridge and stands with his arms crossed, watching Cobb, while Arthur makes coffee.

"You should go," Arthur says. "No point all of us staying."

"The exit's fine," says Eames. "He's obsessing."

Arthur pulls the wet filter from the cone, drops it in the sink, and puts a new, dry filter in.

"Something's different," Eames says. "He's lost his nerve, maybe."

"He hasn't lost anything. Excuse me." Arthur has his hand on the fridge handle, and he waits pointedly until Eames pushes off the door and steps away. He can feel Eames studying him while he gets out the milk.

"How long are you going to follow him around like this?" Eames's voice is low, and not unfriendly. "You're smart, you're good at your job."

"Thanks."

"You could work with anyone. You could run your own teams. But you're still chasing around after Dom Cobb, after...how many years, now?"

Arthur pours milk into the first cup, watching it sink and then resurface, blooming unmixed and then losing its cohesion, its form. "I'm really not in the mood."

Eames says nothing. There's silence, except for the sound of the coffee draining through the filter into the cup.

"Sorry," Arthur says, after a minute. "I'm just tired."

"And you were shot in the stomach," Eames says. "That stings, I know."

"And I really," Arthur goes on, "don't think I need to take career advice from a guy who's worked with eight teams in the last twenty months. No offense."

"It's the stability, then. You like knowing where you stand."

Arthur turns. Eames has his hands in his pockets, slouched against the wall with his ankles crossed. He looks tired and a little heavy, and kind.

In a sudden upswelling of feeling, probably mostly fatigue, maybe some lingering adrenaline, Arthur says, "I don't know. Maybe. I just...he needs me. I used to need him, when I was starting out. Now I think he needs me, and I...I don't want to leave him stranded."

He cuts himself off. A flush is rising in his cheeks, and he has the bad, humiliating sense that he's exposed something he should have kept covered. He turns back to the counter, but not before he sees Eames's expression loosen, his eyes soften.

"You should go," Arthur says again, knocking the used filter out of the cone and running a jet of water over it. "We'll shut it down soon anyway."

He leaves the second cup black for himself, gives Eames a professional nod with his eyes averted, and walks back to the drafting table. Cobb is immersed in his drawings, and doesn't look up when Arthur sets the cup down. The door on the other side of the warehouse opens and closes: Eames, letting himself out.

 

Four days later they're still putting on some finishing touches, but the build is in place and the routines are down. Eames can do the mark's nephew perfectly, from his bow-legged walk to his taut, melon-shaped gut to the pinkish wen on the back of his neck, just above his collar.

"That's really good," Arthur tells him in a moment of generosity, as they're waiting for Cobb to make his way around the building at the pace he'll travel with the mark. Eames laughs. It's the nephew's laugh, high-pitched and snorting. Arthur allows himself a smile. "This is a good look for you."

"I'm flattered," Eames says, in the nephew's nasal voice. Then, just before Cobb is scheduled to appear, he tucks something into Arthur's breast pocket, and pats it with the flat of his hand.

"What--" Arthur pulls it out; it's a small medallion on a chain. Cheap, light metal, stamped with something. He's distracted, keeping an eye on the time to make sure Cobb is on pace.

"A little something for your buttonhole," Eames says. Arthur squints at it. It's St. Jude.

"Patron saint of lost causes," he says, and tucks the medallion away again. "Subtle."

"Just something to think on," Eames says, "in case you ever consider a new church."

 

Two months later Arthur gets an email from Desta, a handler based in Geneva. She's putting together a job and wants a point man. The money's good and the work is straightforward, as long as the team is right. He sits on it for a day, then emails her back: Okay. He buys his ticket online and sits staring at the purchase confirmation for a few minutes.

Later, he sits down on Cobb's hotel bed and says, "I'm going to be out of town for a week or two." Cobb's in the bathroom, brushing his teeth with the door open. The television's playing CNN.

Cobb spits and comes out wiping his mouth with a towel. "What?"

"I'm going out of town. I'm leaving on Thursday."

Cobb stares at him. "What...where?" Arthur gives him a quarter smile, and Cobb nods as if he's just now figured it out, that it's a job. "Right. Okay. That'll--" He's staring at the television, looking a little lost. "That'll give us time to wrap up the trials."

They've been running time trials with different compounds, different kicks, trying to push the limits inside the dream. It's just a dream, after all--why should there be limits to how fast you can move, or how far you can run?

"Sure." Arthur looks at the television too, then glances at Cobb. "Unless, I mean, if you need me here--"

"No." Cobb says it abruptly, then turns and smiles. It's not remotely a happy smile. "No, don't be ridiculous, this is small-time stuff. I can do this anytime. You should go."

Arthur sits on the edge of the bed with his hands hanging down between his knees, while Cobb goes back into the bathroom and closes the door.

 

Geneva is the most boring city on the planet. It's nothing but consulates and government agencies. Nobody lives there, everyone commutes in from France, the streets empty out at six o'clock, and the radio plays long, earnest reports about the percentage of ash found in tinned cat meat.

"Arthur," says Desta, looking up from her desk when he walks in. When she stands up he sees she's pregnant, and tries too late to conceal his surprise. "I know, what an idea. Who brings a child into this world?"

"Nice to see you," he says. "Congratulations."

"Come in, put your bag down." She waves vaguely, and he sees a few bags already sitting by the office door. He's not the first arrival. "We're setting up in the basement."

"Sounds homey."

"And we swapped a team member," she says, handing him a folder. "Julien dropped out, I think you know this new fellow. Eames?"

He nods, flips through the first couple of pages, just enough to see Eames's photo and Desta's neatly printed data sheets detailing aliases, contacts, known associates, known jobs, known personal liaisons. Without meaning to, his eye catches on that one--there are a couple of new names he needs to add to his own files. Wilkes, Jonathan. Unknown, Sadie. Desta's scary good.

The office is too warm. He drops his bag and loosens his tie. "Everyone else still on board?"

"You're the last one to arrive. It's not like you to be late, Arthur." She gives him a lovely, teasing smile, and opens a door to a set of stairs leading down. "But if I may say, you look impeccable. As always."

"You may," he says, walking past her with a smile and starting down the stairs.

 

 

The cleaner is a big guy named Ted, who shakes Arthur's hand and gives him a long direct stare. The forge, Eames. It's Arthur's job to keep everyone on time and in their places. And the extractor is a little blonde woman named Jean, who looks like a soccer mom.

"And then Ted steps in," Desta says, scribbling a black snarl over the script on the whiteboard, and putting the pen in its tray. "Fin."

"Sounds straightforward," Arthur admits. The mark, a man named Konrath, is an official at the South African consulate, a lifetime civil servant who stamps visas and licks envelopes. Desta's client wants to know a few key details about visa applications for a few key people. Arthur recognizes one of the names in connection with a past job having to do with drugs, guns, and other bad things. He hasn't let on that he knows any of this. Neither has Eames, who also knows, because they were on that job together.

"But why do we need a cleaner?" Eames asks, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers over his stomach. He looks sideways at Ted. "Sorry, but the man's a paper-pusher." Ted shrugs, unoffended.

"Arthur," Desta says.

"He's a military enthusiast. Subscribes to half a dozen guns and ammo publications and is active on half a dozen survivalist bulletin boards. Pipe bombs and bunkers, that kind of thing. Last summer he was a high bidder in an ebay auction of two of Eva Braun's home movies."

"Lovely." Eames rubs his lips. "So, we're expecting violence."

"That's why we need a cleaner," Desta says, smiling at Ted. He smiles back.

"I take a cleaner on all my jobs," says Jean, propping her chin on her hand. "Ever since I got stabbed in the throat by a babysitter."

Arthur goes back to his files. He can feel Eames looking at him. When he'd walked down the stairs, Eames had been sitting on Desta's ratty old couch, one arm extended, one leg folded under the other. He'd been laughing at something Jean had said. But he'd been looking at Arthur.

Desta wipes her hands and goes upstairs to put the kettle on, and Arthur goes to the board. He erases Desta's scribble and writes the script out again--he appreciates a written record. And it helps settle his mind to do the rote work of writing.

After a few minutes, Eames drifts over. He's eating sunflower seeds out of the palm of his hand. "Where's Cobb?"

Arthur doesn't look away from the board. "California."

Eames nods, picks a sunflower shell from his teeth, and drifts away.

 

They spend the next couple of hours going over schedules, plans, data--then drop in to get the lay of the land. Desta stays out, a cup of tea propped on her stomach and her laptop open in front of her.

The build is a model of the consulate, based on plans Desta produced from somewhere indeterminate. It looks good, but as he walks down the hall from the main lobby to the offices, Arthur notices the views outside the windows are a bit off, and makes a mental note: they should set the dream at night. The door to the consul's office is open. Jean and Ted are inside, Jean studying the layout, Ted doing nothing in particular. He's even bigger in the dream, his chin bristles are a full beard, he looks like a bear. He also has a semi-automatic in one hand, just dangling. Arthur looks at it.

"You need that for practice runs?"

Ted looks down as if he's forgotten it's there. "I always have it."

"Fine with me," Jean says, running her hand along the underside of the mantel.

"Where's Eames?" Even as Arthur asks it, he sees Ted's eyes shift to look past him. Arthur turns. Standing in the doorway is a woman in a black Lycra dress, her breasts practically spilling out of the top, her feet encased in tiny vertiginous heels. She's Asian, or Arab, or something--she has soft glowing skin, angled eyes, and black hair arranged in a silk curtain over one shoulder.

"Jesus," says Arthur. "You need to tone that down."

"You're supposed to woo him," says Jean. "Not kill him."

Eames tilts his head and slinks in. "I've studied the man. I know what he likes."

"He may like it," Jean says. "But honey, he can't afford it."

"It's a dream." Eames smiles at her. His teeth are white and even, his lips luscious. "He can afford anything he wants."

"Except class," Arthur mutters, turning away to start rifling the desk drawers. He catches Eames's smirk from the corner of his eye.

 

 

Later, back in the real world, Arthur's going over audio transcripts with a headset on, working at a table shoved against the wall. Someone taps him on the shoulder; he looks up. It's Eames, holding a pad of paper. Arthur takes the headset off.

"What?"

"I'm taking orders." Eames raises the pad. "Italian."

Arthur makes a face. "You just decided?"

"No, we voted. You voted for Italian."

Arthur goes back to his laptop. "Fine. Just get me a salad." His body can't decide whether it's noon or midnight; he's not hungry or sleepy, he's just stiff from sitting too long. Eames writes it on his pad and walks away.

Later, Arthur's salad sits in its plastic clamshell beside him on the desk while Jean and Destra eat spaghetti on the couch and Eames eats eggplant parmesan over a sheaf of folders. Someone puts a beer on the table beside Arthur. He looks up; it's Ted.

"Thanks." He doesn't really want the beer, and he's starting to get a vibe off Ted. Something odd, hard to place, that has to do with the fact that Ted almost never talks, that he sits doing nothing when everyone else is working. There's some kind of intensity in Ted's eyes that feels... Arthur can't decide what it is. He goes back to his laptop, and after a few seconds, Ted walks away.

 

 

"Where you staying?" Eames asks, as they pack up. Arthur tells him--the Hotel de la Paix--and he laughs. "That's three of us, then."

"No kidding."

"I'm at the Four Seasons," Jean says. "I get miles."

"Need a ride?" Eames has his bag in his hand. Arthur shakes his head, and he sketches a little wave. "Night."

"Early start tomorrow," Desta tells them. "This is a short timeline."

Arthur finishes packing up, then realizes that Ted's lingering by the foot of the stairs. When Arthur turns his way, he says, "I took a cab. From the airport."

"Oh." After a second, Arthur realizes what Ted's saying. "You want a ride to the hotel?"

Ted nods. Arthur can’t help it, he hesitates.

"Okay." He grabs his coat off the back of his chair, slings his bag over his shoulder, and heads out.

In the car, Ted is a huge, silent presence. It's night, Arthur's distracted--driving in Geneva is a bitch. But even so, he's aware of the silence spreading out, like water seeping from a leak.

"You work with Desta before?" he asks, early in the drive. Ted shrugs. That's it until they get to the hotel, where Arthur hands the keys to the valet with a sense of huge relief, grabs his stuff, and tries not to make it look like he's trying to lose Ted on the way through the lobby.

"What floor?" Ted asks, in the elevator. He's waiting with his big finger over the buttons. Despite himself, Arthur hesitates. It's a simple question, Ted's just being polite. But something about it feels weird, and for some reason Arthur says, "Twelve," even though he's on fifteen.

Ted presses nine, then twelve, and they ride up in silence.

When the door opens and Ted walks out, he doesn't nod or wave or say a word. He just leaves. Arthur steps up and hits fifteen, and stares wearily at himself in the mirrors until he gets there.

 

 

 

Arthur sleeps like a dead man, wakes up to his cell phone alarm, and staggers into the shower feeling like he's been hit by a truck. When he takes the elevator down to the lobby, the first thing he sees is Ted, sitting in a chair staring at him. He's wearing what look like the same clothes he was in the day before, and his hair is definitely bed-head. He hasn't shaved.

"Morning," Arthur says, cautiously. Ted looks at him, his eyes a little bloodshot, then stands up and waits for Arthur to walk ahead of him. With the back of his neck prickling, Arthur does it.

They drive all the way to the office in silence, and when they pull in Arthur sees three cars already parked out front. He checks his watch. It's seven fifteen.

"Morning, children," Desta says as they come down the stairs. She's on her laptop, wearing a headset. "Coffee's on the file cabinet."

Arthur gets to work, facing the wall again, headphones over his ears so he can concentrate. Except he can't concentrate; he keeps feeling that itch at the back of his neck, that sense that something isn't right. When he realizes someone's standing at his shoulder he jumps.

It's Eames, washed and combed and dressed in a red shirt under a tweed jacket. He caught the jump, Arthur can see that, but he does nothing to acknowledge it when Arthur takes off the headphones.

"I need to call Yusuf," he says, holding up his cell phone. "I could use you, if you've got a minute."

Arthur frowns. "What--"

"He shipped Desta the compounds, but I don't like the numbers he's got on them. You remember them, yeah?"

Arthur shakes his head. "Yeah, sure."

"Upstairs," Eames says, walking away. "Reception's crap down here." He directs that at Desta, who waves him off without looking at him.

Arthur grabs his own phone and follows Eames up, trying to remember the ratios in Yusuf's latest formula. It's a good mix, there's no chalky-tasting hangover when you wake up.

"I don't know if I'm going to be any help," he says, when he gets up to the office. Eames is standing propped against Desta's desk; he motions for Arthur to close the door. Arthur looks at him, then does it. "Chemistry's not really my suit."

"Doesn't matter, forget it." Eames slips his phone into his pocket. He's speaking quietly. "What's your take on Ted?"

Arthur pauses. Then he puts his own phone away, stepping away from the door. "Weird."

Eames nods. "Thought so. I offered him a ride this morning, he didn't take it."

"Huh."

"He just sat there waiting for you."

Arthur considers that.

"You did his background?"

"Desta formed the group. I'm working off her sheets." It's a little sloppy; he feels a moment of embarrassment. "She's good."

"Sure." Eames shrugs. "Probably nothing."

"Yeah."

They stand there saying nothing. Then Eames takes out his cell phone and holds it up with a smile. "I'll make a quick call, just for show. Speaking clock?"

Arthur, pondering, doesn't reply. Eames punches in a few numbers, then lowers the phone while the ring tone is coming through.

"Keep each other informed?"

Arthur nods and turns away. He opens the door and goes downstairs as Eames starts a bright, complimentary conversation with the automated voice.

"There's nothing wrong with Yusuf's numbers," Desta says, without looking up.

"That's what I said," Arthur tells her.

 

He takes off that afternoon, releases himself from the claustrophobic basement for a couple of hours to walk past the South African consulate and take a few cell phone pictures from inconspicuous vantage points. It's after six when he gets back, and Desta's desk is empty.

"She's been up since four," Jean said. "I don't know how she does it. When I was pregnant I slept twelve hours a day."

"You've got kids?" Eames asks, looking up from his photos and scanned documents. Jean nods.

"Twins. Boys."

"Well done." He seems pleased by the idea. "How old?"

"Fourteen in May," she says. "I'm putting a fire escape in at the back as well."

"Hope we don't need it," he says, then glances at Arthur. "How's the real thing?"

"Still standing." Arthur puts his bag on his desk, pulls out his laptop, and pauses. There's something off about the space. He can't quite figure it out, but it bugs him. "We should definitely go in at night. There are windows right over the street."

"With floodlights," Eames points out.

"Not on my build," says Jean.

"Minor details," says Arthur. "The main thing will be to keep him moving, keep him occupied, so he doesn't notice things like that."

"I plan to keep him very occupied," Eames says absently, scribbling something on the edge of a page.

Arthur opens his laptop, settles in, and starts typing. After a few minutes he realizes what's bugging him. He left a coffee cup on the desk when he went out. It's gone.

He lifts his head and stares at the spot where it should have been. Then he turns and glances over his shoulder.

Ted's sitting in a chair with his back to the corner, his hands resting on his knees, staring at him.

 

 

At seven, when Jean and Eames pack up, Arthur judges the situation carefully. Ted's been sitting in the corner all day, not doing much except flipping through a few of Desta's folders. When Eames asks Arthur if he's ready to go, Ted's head comes up. Arthur keeps his eyes on Eames's face, but he sees it, and he knows Eames does too.

"No," he says. "I'm going to put in a few more hours. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Right." Eames turns, hitches his pants, and summons Ted with two fingers. "Come on, I'll give you a ride."

At first Ted doesn't move. Eames busies himself with his briefcase and files, and Arthur reaches over to help Jean with her laptop cord.

"I'll stay," Ted says. Eames doesn't look up from his briefcase.

"No, don't be silly. No telling how long Arthur will be here, fussing over details." Eames glances at Arthur, a mirthless smile on his lips. "He excels at it."

Arthur raises his eyebrows, then forces himself to turn back to his laptop. Behind him is a conspicuous silence, and then Jean snaps her bag closed, stands up with a groan, and starts for the stairs.

"Good night," she says, and Arthur raises a hand without looking. She goes up.

"We're off too," Eames says. He hasn't moved. From what Arthur can hear, neither has Ted.

There's a long pause, during which nobody does anything. Arthur stares at his screen, his fingers on the keyboard, not typing. It's weird. Definitely weird. Something is not right here.

Then there's a creak, and he hears Ted walk across the room to the stairs. Without saying a word to either of them, he starts up. Eames waits a moment longer. When Arthur looks at him, he's standing with his hands on the locks of his briefcase. His eyes are reflective, calculating.

Without saying anything, Arthur glances from Eames to the top of the stairs. What the hell is going on?

Eames shakes his head very slightly. No idea. Then he hoists his briefcase and gathers his coat over his arm. "Night."

"Good night," Arthur says. He sits staring at his screen while Eames's footsteps go up the stairs, while the door at the top closes with a click, while a car starts up, faintly, outside.

"Jesus Christ," he says, when silence descends. "Who is this guy?"

 

He spends the next hour going over what he has on Ted Owens, which is almost certainly not this guy's real name. Desta's file is thorough, but it only goes back four years before it disappears into a shadowy rabbit hole of special ops acronyms. Ted's done about a dozen jobs, always as a cleaner--he was brought in by another ex-military guy, who apparently decided he was perfect for the job. He's unmarried, no kids, thirty-nine years old. According to Desta's file he's done some pro fighting, the kind that happens in cages in basement bars and warehouses. He owns a little house in San Diego, has a license to drive long-haul trucks. None of it is stand-out stuff, none of it's worse than the stuff in Eames's file, or lots of people's.

Under personal liaisons, there's a blank. In the space Desta uses to record hearsay, gossip, reputation, complaints--there's just one note. It says, Do not hire with W. Warner.

Arthur looks at the note for a minute. He doesn't know who W. Warner is.

He puts the files away and spends another couple of hours going over the plan, triple-checking the details, measuring every foot of the build. Finally he admits to himself that he's stalling, that he just doesn't want to go back to the hotel and find Ted sitting in the armchair across from the elevators, waiting for him. He packs up his stuff and drives back.

It's almost eleven when he gets there, and he's relieved to find the armchair empty, the lobby deserted. He's going to order a steak from room service, eat it with half an eye on whatever passes for late-night in Geneva, take a shower, fall asleep. The dullness is enticing.

On the way up in the elevator, he takes a second to wonder where Eames's room is. Then he laughs at himself, a little ruefully. Ted's creepiness is catching.

He's just closing the door to his room when he realizes something is wrong. A movement, or a sound--something tips him off and he spins, his hand going to the back of his trousers, where he isn't carrying a gun. His gun's in the hotel safe. Konrath's a paper-pusher.

The room is L-shaped, most of it invisible from the door. When Arthur takes the few necessary steps inside to get a better angle, he can see that Ted is sitting on the end of the bed.

"What the fuck," says Arthur. Ted stands up.

"Listen," he says. He looks played out, almost exhausted. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't...you know, do this anymore."

Arthur steps backward until his back is to the door. He puts one hand behind himself and feels for the handle. "Do what?"

Ted shakes his head. "You know. This."

Arthur stays where he is, and says nothing. It seems like Ted is referring to something that the two of them have been doing, something tiring and extended. Again, he wonders who W. Warner is.

"You're almost out of aftershave," Ted says. "But you know what these places are like, if you call the desk they'll probably send someone out for you."

Arthur swallows. "Ted. You have to go."

"I know." Ted runs his hand over his head, looking miserable. "I shouldn't be here, I know. I'm sorry."

"It's okay." Arthur has his hand on the doorknob; he starts to turn it. "We can talk about this tomorrow."

Ted gives a strange, weary laugh, then shrugs. "Sure we can." He starts for the door. Arthur opens it and stands aside, feeling like he's opened the door of a tiger cage, and now the tiger is heading for it. Ted is big, Ted is strong, and something is wrong with Ted.

"I just thought--" Ted says, pausing as he draws even with Arthur, and Arthur tenses, and then things happen very suddenly. Ted kicks the door and it slams closed, and Arthur, who is not totally unprepared for some weird shit to go down, grabs the handle and jerks it open again. At the same time he snaps a punch into Ted's ribs, hoping at least to wind him, but it doesn't go like that. Ted's not boxing, Ted's wrestling. Ted's swarming over Arthur, shoving him back so hard his head cracks the wall, then body-checking him, grinding up against him like they're playing hockey and Arthur's on the boards.

Arthur gets his hand up under Ted's chin, snaps a kick at the bottom of his kneecap, but Ted's way ahead of him. Ted, Arthur remembers, is a cage fighter and a special ops guy. He's also got seventy pounds on Arthur, and he's four inches taller. Arthur hasn't really appreciated, until this moment, just how much bigger Ted is.

Ted gets him turned around, face first into the wall, so fast and easy it's embarrassing. Horrifying, actually. Because then Ted presses himself up against Arthur's back, huge and hot, his beard scratching Arthur's ear, his breath coming short.

"I know," he says. "I know, I know--I'm sorry, I just can't. I can't pretend it's not there. I can't be around you like this."

"Ted," Arthur chokes, his cheek rammed into the wall. "Ted, come on." Ted kisses his ear, or licks it--Arthur can't tell which, it's just a hot wet messy sensation--then grabs him beneath his arms, bends him backward, and frogmarches him across the room. To the bed, Arthur realizes. The understanding flashes electric across his mind, like an emergency sign. Something is very, very wrong with Ted.

"Let go of me," Arthur says, trying to sound rational and calm while he fights to breathe against the bend in his spine. "Let me go, Ted."

"I thought maybe, just once," Ted whispers hoarsely into Arthur's ear. "Just one time, and we don't have to talk about it, we can pretend it never happened. We work together, so we'd have to. But maybe just once--"

He forces Arthur down onto the bed without releasing his arms. Arthur has to turn his head to the side to breathe. He can see the hotel armchair, the corner of the desk with the hotel note cards and envelopes in the burnished wooden box. His heart is pounding in his ears. He can feel Ted's dick hard against his ass, through his trousers. He can feel Ted easing more weight onto his back, pushing him into the mattress, transferring his hold on Arthur's wrists to one hand so he can reach down and fumble, with the other, at his zipper.

Arthur snaps his head back, feeling it connect with a crunch. Ted flinches and stiffens, but he doesn't let go of Arthur's wrists. Anyone else would have let go. Ted's grip just tightens, and somehow he gets even heavier. Arthur thinks, Fuck, and He's going to fucking rape me, and Who is this bastard? He thinks, For Christ's sake, yell, and opens his mouth.

"Sh," says Ted. "Don't do it." He's got hold of Arthur's hand, his big hot fingers twined through Arthur's. He separates the index finger, turning it at an angle that Arthur knows, that he's used before, himself, for a spiral fracture. "Quick and quiet, right?"

"No," says Arthur, hoarse and croaking, his lungs only halfway full under Ted's weight. "No way, no fucking way."

Ted hesitates. Arthur can feel it--the pause in his whole body, as he considers.

"I don't," Arthur says, and has to stop to drag in another breath. "I don't want this, Ted. I don't know what you thought--"

"You do," says Ted. "All week, you've been..." He sounds distraught. "Teasing me."

"No."

"You keep looking at me. And you're always there, wherever I go."

"No. I'm not."

"You are." But Ted's grip has loosened a bit, his weight has let up enough to let Arthur take a full breath. "You want me, I know you do. I can tell. And you keep looking at me--"

“I'm not looking at you, Ted. I'm not.”

There's a long pause, long enough for Arthur's mind to play through two or three scenarios, two or three different and equally horrible ways this could go down. Ted doesn't move or say anything. Arthur breathes in, licks his lips, and says, “Ted, listen to me--”

“Sorry,” says Eames. “Am I interrupting?”

For just a second Ted's weight actually increases on Arthur's back. He pulls Arthur's finger back so suddenly, so sharply, that it feels like it's broken. Arthur makes a choked noise into the mattress—and then Ted's off him. Arthur flips over, scrambles back, and lands on his feet on the far side of the bed.

Eames is standing just at the end of the short passage into the room. He's stepped to the side so he's not blocking the way, and he's got his hands in his pockets. He's looking at Ted with a kind of calm, fixed intensity. He doesn't look at Arthur at all.

Ted's at the end of the bed, breathing hard, rolling up his sleeves. There's a tent in his pants.

“I was just passing by,” Eames says, sounding easy and relaxed, as if they're having this conversation at their desks, killing time on a boring task. “And the door was open.” He shrugs slightly. “Thought I'd peek in.”

Arthur realizes he's breathing hard too. He can't make himself stop. He turns to the side, faces the ugly painting over the bed, and presses his hands over his head. His heart pounds. He thinks determinedly about the painting—sunflowers in a field, a muddy sky, a windmill—for a few seconds. Then he thinks, Ted could be armed. He turns back, his heart kicking up again.

Nobody's looking at him. Eames is gazing at Ted, and Ted is looking at the floor.

“Well,” Eames says after a moment. “I needed to have a word with Arthur anyway. If you don't mind, Ted.”

Ted looks at Eames sharply, then at Arthur. Bizarrely, he looks...hurt.

“You ordered a salad,” he says.

There's a pause. Arthur's brain feels stalled.

“If you don't mind,” Eames says again, very quietly. He stands aside a little further, turning his body sideways. It's a minimalist way of ushering Ted out, and it also puts his body between Ted and Arthur, when Ted goes. Some part of Arthur's brain notices this, and appreciates it. Mostly he feels frozen.

Ted goes out. Eames follows him, and Arthur, standing by the bed, hears the door shut, the bar click home.

Eames comes back around the corner, and Arthur's body suffers some kind of instantaneous, delayed response. He feels himself blush, so hard and suddenly that it almost hurts. Sweat springs out under his arms. His legs feel unsteady.

“Sit down,” Eames says.

Instead, Arthur walks past him. He goes into the bathroom and just barely stops himself from closing the door—he's not going to lock himself in the bathroom, for Christ's sake. He leaves it ajar, less than an inch, and turns the tap on cold. For a minute or two he just stands with his elbows on the counter, his hands dangling under the cold water. He feels dizzy, almost faint.

In his peripheral vision, he sees that Eames has opened the door and is standing there, probably because he thinks Arthur's going to pass out and break his nose on the tile—and he'd rather not have to find a doctor to set his point's nose at this time of night.

“Give me a minute,” Arthur says, looking down into the sink. Eames pulls the door almost closed and goes away.

Arthur fills his hands with cold water and washes his face, over and over until he's got it together again. Until his face isn't flaming and his heart's slowed down. Then he shuts off the tap and dries off. His finger, he notices, is swollen. Sprained, not broken. It's not his good hand, not his gun hand.

He opens the door and goes out. Eames is in the armchair, which he's pulled around to look out the big windows at the river. There's a glass of something from the minibar, probably whiskey, on the writing desk beside him. He looks up at Arthur, then reaches over and pushes the glass forward with the tips of his fingers.

Arthur smiles tightly and takes the glass. He sits in the desk chair and puts the glass down, because his hand are shaking.

“Stop the job?” Eames says.

Arthur wets his lips. “I need...I should talk to Desta.”

“What's there to talk about?”

Arthur takes a sip of the drink, trying to order his thoughts. It's whiskey, room-temperature. It stings his mouth.

“What the hell,” he says, “does a salad have to do with anything?”

Eames shakes his head, slightly and slowly.

“I need to talk to Desta,” Arthur says again. “I'll—call you when I know something.”

Eames nods, stands up, and stands feeling around in his pockets. While he's doing it, in an abstracted way, he says, “All right?”

“What?”

Eames glances at him briefly from under his brows. “Any damage?”

Arthur feels his face heat again, not as badly as before, but he knows it's visible. “I'm fine,” he says. It comes out sharper than he meant it to, and he adds, “You...what you saw was what happened. That's it.”

Eames nods. “You've got a gun?”

“Yeah.”

Eames gives up on whatever he's looking for in his pockets, and starts for the door. “Be lovely if you could diagnose him before we go in tomorrow. I'd rather not give another lift to a psychopath.”

“I'll see what I can do,” Arthur says. It's strangely bracing, Eames dropping a task on him on his way out the door. It's normalizing, he realizes. It makes him feel more normal.

He sits there in silence while Eames goes out, the door closing solidly behind him. Then he gets up and walks around the room, feeling like his mind is both blank and racing wildly. He goes to the room safe and takes out his gun. He checks the clip and the safety. His hands aren’t shaking anymore. He checks the locks. Then he opens the door, hangs the “Do not disturb” tag on the handle, and locks it again.

The bedcovers are rumpled. He straightens them, then sits in the armchair and drinks the rest of the whiskey. It's not too late to call Desta about this, but when he picks up his phone he just sits there staring at it, unable to make himself dial. Instead he sets the alarm for four o'clock and curls up in the chair.

If Cobb was here, he thinks. But he can’t imagine one of Cobb’s contracts entailing near-rape in a hotel bedroom. Cobb’s obsessive, he’s abrasive, he’s self-centered and single-minded. He’s put Arthur in danger plenty of times. But Cobb is an old hand. Cobb knows people, and when his head’s not up his ass he can see trouble coming a mile off. He would have pinned Desta down on this Ted character on the very first day.

Arthur feels himself flush with humiliation and frustration. This is what it’s like, doing business on his own. This is what it’s like to be out from under Cobb’s wing.

His hand throbs, and it takes forever to calm himself enough to fall asleep. Just before he does, he has another, minor realization. There was nothing in Eames's pockets. The sorting was just business, the kind of thing he does to marks in dreams all the time. Diverts their attention, puts them at ease, makes them think he's not paying attention—then asks what he wants to know.

 

“Shit,” Desta says, when he calls her at four-thirty and tells her about it. “Shit shit shit shit shit.”

“You don't sound surprised,” Arthur says. He's grainy-eyed but alert, standing in front of the bathroom mirror laying out his razor, toothbrush, shaving cream. He's angry.

“I'm sorry,” Desta says. “Arthur, I'm so sorry.” He says nothing. “Look, Ted—he's a good cleaner, and a good man. He's just...confused.”

“That's a hell of a way to be confused,” he says. “You knew he could do this?”

“No, of course not.”

“You have a note in his file. About Warner.”

“Oh God.”

“Desta.”

“Yes, it was... William and Ted can't work together, Ted formed an...attachment.”

“Like he did with me?”

“No, not the same. With William there was, they had a relationship—but Ted, he can't let go. He doesn't see straight always. He sees things that aren't there.”

“He thought I was gay,” Arthur says, “because I ordered a salad for lunch.” That was the logic, he realized when he woke up. His brain had turned it over enough during the night to tell him that. “And he thought that meant I wanted him to break into my hotel room.”

“I'm sorry. I'll tell him—he can't work the job, he has to leave.”

“We need a cleaner.”

“We'll find another.”

“There's no time.” He picks up his razor and examines the blade in the light. “I'm not spending another week on this job while we wait for someone else to join up. And I'm not asking Eames and Jean to wait that long either.”

“We'll go in without.”

“We need a cleaner,” he says again. “I'd like to get paid, not shot in the face by a neo-Nazi.”

“Arthur,” she says. “I don't see what you're saying. You don't want another cleaner, you don't want to wait--”

“We use Ted,” he says. “Ted stays in the job.”

There's a pause.

“Make sure Jean knows he's unstable,” he says. “Or whatever you want to say. Make sure she has the facts before she works with him again.”

“He's not dangerous,” Desta says. “Not like that, not with women. Only, you look a bit like William. I thought it too, once—but I didn't think it would matter.”

“Whatever,” Arthur says. “I need to know he can do the job. We can move up the timeline if we have to.”

“I'll talk to him. He'll be fine, he'll understand.”

“I really doubt that,” Arthur says. “But if he's stable, then let him finish the job.”

“All right.” He hears her draw in a breath, about to say something else.

“If he tries anything,” he says, “with me or anyone else, and I hear about it—I'll shoot him.”

“Yes,” she says. “I understand.”

 

He showers, shaves carefully, brushes his teeth. He has bruises on his stomach, shoulder, the backs of his thighs. His finger is discolored and stiff. It hurts to raise his arms.

He takes a couple of ibuprofen and calls Eames, who picks up on the second ring sounding fully awake. It's five-thirty a.m.

“Basically,” Arthur says, “Ted's crazy. But Desta says he's stable enough to finish the job.”

“Fuck no he’s not. He's finished.”

“We need a cleaner. And I don't know about you, but I don't have time to wait around for another one.”

“He's psychotic. I make it a policy not to go into dreams with psychotic people.”

“I make it a policy to get paid.”

“You can get paid somewhere else. This is a wash, Arthur. I'm calling Desta--”

“She says he's stable enough to do it.”

“Then she's a stupid cow.” Eames pauses. “Look, he broke into your room and attacked you. That's not rational behavior.”

“Neither is quitting a job just because it's dangerous. All jobs are dangerous, Eames. This one's just...weirder than usual.”

“You call that weird? Because I call it fucking madness. And as I said, I prefer not to work with mad cunts who have--”

“You're overreacting.”

“--who have huge bloody arsenals and come across in dreams as giant bloody bears--”

“You're overreacting.”

“--and who fixate on their coworkers in dangerous ways.”

Arthur waits a moment. Then he says, “You're overreacting.”

“And you're a masochist. You don't have Cobb here to throw you into harm's way, so you're doing it to yourself.”

“I'm not--” Arthur stops. “Are you saying this is my fault?”

“No, fuck. No. I'm saying a sane person would either quit the job or toss Ted out. And if I were Desta I wouldn't let you do this.”

“You're not Desta,” Arthur says. “And I'm not being masochistic. I'm being practical.”

“No you're not.” Eames sounds tired now. “You're being...you're the same as you always are.”

“Good,” says Arthur. “That's good to hear.”

Eames says nothing.

“I'll see you at the warehouse,” Arthur says. “If you can—it would be good if you could get there early.”

Eames exhales for a long moment, then says, “Yeah. All right.”

 

When Arthur pulls into the warehouse lot at seven thirty, he sees two cars are already there: Eames and Desta. In fact, when he parks he can see that Eames is still sitting in his rented Volkswagen, busy with something on his phone. He looks up, and gets out when Arthur walks over.

“Morning.” He's quiet, smiling slightly, geared all the way down the way he does when he wants to examine someone thoroughly without attracting their attention. Arthur raises his eyebrows.

“Good morning.” He looks pointedly at Eames's car. “Were you waiting out here for me?”

Eames looks back at the car as if he's surprised to find it there. “Just got here. But it's not a bad idea, going in together.”

“I don't need protection, Eames.”

“I was speaking for myself, actually.” Eames's smile turns charming. “That bastard gives me the shivers.”

Arthur acknowledges that with narrowed eyes, then turns and starts for the warehouse door. Eames follows.

“No Ted at the hotel,” he says, confirming. Arthur shakes his head. “Not for me, either. Either Desta brought him or he's scarpered.”

Desta has brought him, and has apparently spent some time talking to him already. The atmosphere in the basement is strange and subdued. Coming down the stairs, Arthur feels the hairs on his neck prickle, and catches himself checking the room for exits. Stop being ridiculous, he tells himself. But it's not ridiculous—Ted attacked him, and if it had just been a fistfight he wouldn't be second-guessing his responses. If it had just been a fistfight, he would have told Desta to throw Ted out. Or would he?

Ted's sitting on the couch with his hands between his knees, staring at nothing. He looks tired, even rougher around the edges than usual. His neck beard's growing in. Arthur has a flash of something that's not quite memory—the scrape of Ted's beard against the back of his neck, the side of his face—and fights down a flush of anger and disgust.

Ted glances at them, then goes back to staring at nothing. There's no emotion on his face.

Desta's at the work table, tapping something into her laptop. She stands up, pressing her hands into the small of her back, as they come down the stairs.

“Morning,” Eames says.

“Good morning,” says Desta, her eyes on Arthur. He goes to his desk and drops his bag, his back to the room. There's a pause. He feels his face start to heat up.

“Arthur,” says Desta, her tone businesslike. “I need your help here, with the schedule.”

“Moving things up,” Eames says, half-asking.

“Yes,” she says. “We do the job tomorrow. First thing.”

Arthur finishes opening his laptop and turns around. Desta's watching him cautiously, waiting to see if he'll approve this. It's a radical shift—they were supposed to wait until the weekend. He goes to stand over her desk, looking down at her notes. They're written half in English, half in German, but he gets the gist. There are things still to figure out, but it's probably doable.

“Jean?” he asks.

“She's okay with it,” Desta says. In her tone he catches two meanings: Jean's okay with the revised schedule, Jean's sticking with the job despite the news about Ted. “She'll be here soon.”

Arthur takes another look at the notes. He's conscious of Ted sitting on the couch, silent and weirdly radioactive. He's also aware of Eames standing just behind him, looking at the notes as well. They're standing so close that he thinks he can actually smell Eames's aftershave.

“If you think--” Desta starts to say, and Arthur shakes his head.

“It's fine,” he says. “We can do it. I need a pen.”

 

 

He works with Desta on the revised plan to take Konrath—immerses himself in it, in the complicated problems it produces once they're no longer relying on the man's more relaxed weekend schedule. The next day is a Wednesday; he's scheduled for a breakfast meeting, a mid-morning round table with the embassy senior staff, lunch with the representative of a Chinese trading firm. It's all like that, one meeting packed in after another without a break until seven pm.

“We take him first thing,” Desta says. “Outside the building, before he reaches security. Eames approaches, speaks to him—a moment of your time Mr. Ambassador--”

“People will notice,” Arthur says, “when the ambassador collapses into a strange man's arms.”

“Not there,” says Desta. “Eames takes him down the street.”

“With the photographs,” Eames says, brandishing the envelope. Desta already had the photos when they started the job: the ambassador kissing a young woman in the back of a taxicab. Not his wife. They’re a few years old, but they should still work. “I show him the photos, I bring him around the park side, where the trees block the CCTV--”

“And Jean gives him the sedative.” Desta glances at Jean, who’s sitting cross-legged on a wheeled chair, eating a yogurt. “He won’t suspect her, he’ll let her get close.”

“Then we bundle him into the back of the van,” Eames says, “and we’re off.”

Arthur stands looking at the notes on the whiteboard. The contact will be the crucial moment--if it goes wrong the whole job will be off. Something about it bothers him--after a few second he realizes it’s the fact that it won’t be him making the contact. Not him and not Cobb, who is the only other person he trusts without question.

Eames is the better one to do it, he knows. Eames looks more like a blackmailer, for one thing. And Eames is good. That’s not what’s bothering him.

You don't have Cobb here to throw you into harm's way, so you're doing it to yourself.

“Problem?” Desta says, and Arthur realizes he’s let the silence go too long.

“No,” he says. “It’s fine.” He uncaps a marker and puts the tip of the pen against the timestamp for the sedative. “At that point, we have...three hours and fifteen minutes.”

“To get the names and carry him to the hotel,” Desta says. “And get out. I can up the dosage if we need it, but I prefer not.”

“Let’s not kill him,” Jean says.

“If we kill him,” Desta says, “we don’t get paid. And I think we would all like to get paid, yes?”

Nobody says anything. Arthur starts making check marks against each of the steps in the job.

“He’s going to fight back,” he says. “Maybe right away.”

“Ted can handle it,” Desta says. It’s the first mention anyone’s made of Ted that morning. He’s still sitting in silence on the sofa, his face blank, as if he’s turned himself off. It’s beyond creepy. “And we know what to expect.”

“From Konrath,” Jean says, with significance in her tone. She means, they don’t know what to expect from Ted. Arthur glances at her--the last thing he wants is for her to blow this up again, to fuck up their plans while they’re still scrambling for balance. The situation is bad enough as it is.

“I have full confidence,” says Eames, “in Ted’s ability to handle whatever may arise.”

“Me too,” says Arthur, going back to the board.

Jean makes a hmm sound, but she doesn’t pursue it.

 

 

“Do you want to change the plan?” Eames asks quietly, leaning over and propping his elbows on Arthur’s desk. Arthur looks at him.

“What?”

Eames is looking back over his shoulder, and Arthur glances that way too. Ted, he sees, has finally got up off the sofa and gone to the far end of the room, to the coffee maker. Jean’s got her headphones on, and Desta’s on her phone.

“Do you want to be the one who meets Konrath?” Eames shifts his gaze to Arthur, and for just a couple of seconds Arthur feels pinned. They’re close together, Eames’s shoulder is practically pressed to his. Eames’s face is open, concerned. He smells of cologne and his occasional cigarettes. Arthur turns back to his laptop screen.

“No. You’re better for it.”

Eames clears his throat. “You’ll be in the car,” he says. “With our friend.”

Arthur feels his spine tighten. “So?”

“So,” Eames says patiently, “We could swap. You could meet Konrath--”

“It’s fine.” Arthur puts his hands back on the keyboard. He’s clenched up, he can feel it. The whole thing just makes him angry now. “It’s better the way it is.” He types a couple of words, then adds, “Just don’t fuck it up.”

“All right,” says Eames. He pushes off the desk and goes back to his own laptop, and they don’t say anything else about it.

 

 

The next day they’re at the warehouse before it’s light. Desta has the cars lined up--the disposable sedan to get Eames and Jean to the embassy, the SUV for Arthur and Ted.

“I’ll be with you,” she tells Arthur in a private moment, her tone entirely normal, as if they’ve agreed on this beforehand. They haven’t. “In the back, while they take him.”

Arthur’s not surprised, but he’s irritated. “No. You’ll be here, ready to hook us up when we get here. That’s the plan.”

“Arthur, I--”

“I don’t need your help,” he says, more sharply than he means to. “And we’re not changing things at the last minute.”

She stares at him, her eyes heavy-lidded. She’s wearing a long overcoat, which hides her pregnant stomach. “You are not,” she says after a minute, “going to let me help, are you?”

“You wouldn’t be helping me.” He gives her a tight smile. “I’ll be fine. Just be ready when we get back.”

Standing beside the SUV while they go through final walk-through, he finds himself checking his gun once, then twice, then again. Ted’s on the other side of the vehicle, silent and unmoving, a sap tucked into the pocket of his coat in case Konrath gets troublesome. He’s got a gun too, of course. They all carry guns. You can’t ask a man to walk into a kidnapping without a gun in his hand.

Eames appears at Arthur’s elbow. “All good?”

“Yeah.”

“Right.” He checks his watch, picks up Arthur’s wrist and checks his too. They’ve already matched them, there’s no real need. His fingers are warm and firm. “Call if you hit traffic.”

“You’ve got the photos?”

Eames pats his breast pocket, then gives Ted one last look from under his brows, and glances at Arthur. Arthur shakes his head.

“Time to go.”

Eames walks around to the passenger side of the sedan, and gets in without looking back. Jean’s already in the driver’s seat.

Arthur takes a breath, then gets into the SUV and closes the door. He starts the engine, checks the controls, tests his sore hand against the wheel. Ted’s not riding in the passenger seat; they’ve folded down the back so he can grab Konrath and haul him into the blacked-out cargo space. When he gets in, the SUV settles noticeably. Arthur can’t help it; he checks his rear-view mirror. Ted’s hunkering down, his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms clasped around them. His expression is neutral, almost blank.

Jean’s brake lights come on, and the sedan pulls out. Desta’s standing beside the stairwell up to the office, holding a clipboard to her chest, looking worried.

Arthur starts the engine, and follows the sedan out.

 

There’s no parking on the curb where they need to put the SUV. Arthur cruises past, makes the block, and comes around again slowly. It’s early morning, grey and dark. A light rain. The sidewalks are almost bare, the street lamps still on. There are fucking cars everywhere.

The ride over was completely silent. He didn’t turn the radio on, because he didn’t want to telegraph his discomfort. He also didn’t want anything to mask sound, to make him that much easier to take by surprise. He’s been checking his mirrors regularly, every couple of minutes the whole time, and Ted hasn’t moved once. He’s a silent bulk in the darkness.

Still nowhere to park. Arthur checks his watch and decides to switch to Plan B, which is double-parking. More conspicuous, more awkward--but the time’s too tight. He’s trying to keep an eye on the sidewalk, to catch a glimpse of Eames and Jean, who are supposed to be lingering somewhere nearby, waiting for Konrath’s car to appear, waiting for their window. He sees someone, a man who looks about the right height and size--and is craning his neck to confirm when someone grips his arm.

“Jesus--” He jumps, and sees that Ted is pointing at the curb. At an empty spot, just big enough for the SUV.

His heart is hammering, his face is hot. He feels a taut, humorless smile on his lips. “Thanks.”

Ted says nothing. Arthur pulls the SUV into the spot, and turns the engine off.

Then they’re just sitting there in near-darkness, with rain pattering on the roof and windshield. Arthur makes himself stare straight ahead, up the street. Around the corner are the embassy’s front steps. That’s where Eames will approach Konrath, where he’ll flash the photos and draw the man around. Jean must be somewhere in the shadows by the park, waiting with her syringe. He checks his watch. Flexes his sore hand. Two minutes.

Behind him, Ted shifts. Arthur’s heart double-beats painfully. He grits his teeth and stares at the street corner.

It takes forever. He keeps running the steps of the job through his head, the same methodical process he always follows while a job is happening, but he knows he’s not really focusing. He’s skating over the surface of it. He’s thinking about Eames telling him he’s not normal, that he throws himself in harm’s way. Slipping a small metal medallion into his breast pocket, a long time ago, in a dream. In case he ever considered a new church.

Maybe, Arthur thinks, he should have called the job off.

Then two men come around the corner, walking quickly, one turned to the other in a come-along gesture. Eames and Konrath. He’s a small man in a black raincoat, darting suspicious glances in every direction. Something about him makes Arthur uneasy. Those guns-and-ammo magazines, the Eva Braun stuff. None of it is good.

Before he has time to dwell on it, they pass into the darker shadows of the park, and there’s a brief pause. Then a sudden emergence, three bodies tangled up together. Eames and Jean, bum-rushing Konrath toward the SUV.

Ted has the rear side door open. Arthur turns the key in the ignition, then leans over to get the passenger door. It all happens in a matter of seconds. One minute Konrath’s on the sidewalk, and the next he’s sacked out in the back with Eames and Ted. Jean’s slipped through the passenger door and they’re pulling out. Neat, fast, precise.

“Everything okay?” Arthur asks over his shoulder, merging into traffic.

“Fine,” says Eames. He has rain on his face, on the shoulders of his jacket. He’s got Konrath laid out in his arms like a swooning maiden. “All right, Jean?”

“All right,” Jean says. She reaches over and squeezes Arthur’s arm. “Halfway done.”

Arthur says nothing. He checks his mirrors for police lights, for anyone following. They’re clean. He can’t quite believe it. It seems like things are going according to plan.

 

 

“Five minutes,” Desta says, poised with her finger over the button. “That’s one hour, exactly. All the time you need, yes?”

Eames, still fussing with his shirt sleeve, gives her a smile. “I’ll have him swooning like a schoolgirl in no time.”

“Just loosen him up a little. Distract him. That’s all we need.” She turns to Jean and Arthur. “You’re ready?”

Jean nods. Arthur realizes he’s staring at Konrath, who’s laid out on the bench next to his. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to buy Nazi memorabilia on the Internet. Old and skinny, with ropey blue veins in his arms and a face like a crab. Arthur looks away, and gives Desta the nod she wants.

“Okay.” She glances at Ted, who’s flat out on his bench with his eyes already closed. “Five minutes, everyone.”

Arthur thinks, After this, I’m taking a break. He’ll go back home, stateside. Florida, or California. Somewhere warm.

Desta presses the button. He wakes up.

 

 

He’s standing in the embassy hallway, outside Konrath’s office door. The window across from him is dark. He checks his watch. Seven twenty-seven pm. He’s wearing the blue uniform of the embassy security detail. He can feel a pistol holster beneath his jacket, over his shoulder, just where it’s supposed to be.

At first he thinks he’s alone. Then he notices Ted, standing further down the hallway with his back to the wall, his hands laced behind him, his gaze on nothing in particular. Ted’s wearing the same uniform, but he’s a lot bigger than your run-of-the-mill security guard. They agreed he’d stay back, keep a low profile unless he was needed.

As Arthur’s watching Ted, two women come around the corner and start up the hall toward him. Jean, in a business suit. And Eames, wearing the skin and dress and precarious high heels of the lovely lady he’s already shown them. Konrath is given to working late, and ordering in company. His tastes run to exactly the type of woman Eames is wearing.

They pass Ted without a glance. Arthur directs his attention to the far wall. As they pass him, he can’t help but look at Eames. Eames is looking back. Not smiling, not flirting. He always flirts when he wears women, it’s like a tic. This time he’s somber. Arthur nods almost imperceptibly, and Eames nods back.

Jean, in the role of the procuress, raps on the office door with two knuckles. There’s a muffled word from inside. She opens the door, and they go in.

After that, Arthur waits for what feels like a very long time. The hall is silent. The building is silent. He glances down the hall to where Ted stands. Ted is unmoving, a statue.

The hair on the back of Arthur’s neck prickles over.

How long has it been? He checks his watch again. Five minutes.

He thinks he hears something from inside the office--a few words. He can’t tell whose voice it is. His hand is on his gun before he can think, but he takes it off. A few words is fine, that’s all according to plan. Eames is distracting Konrath, unbalancing him, while Jean lays the groundwork for the names. Konrath himself will put the names inside the briefcase, and Jean will carry it out with her when she leaves.

Inside the office, something hits the floor.

Arthur’s hand is on his gun again, and he looks automatically down to Ted. Ted’s heard it too. That means it was loud enough to carry twenty feet down the hall. It sounded like a piece of furniture, tipped over. It didn’t sound like it was according to plan.

That’s enough cause for an embassy security guard to investigate, Arthur decides--but just one. He waves Ted back, then turns and taps lightly on the door, opens it right away. His hand is inside his jacket, the gun half-drawn.

Jean is standing in the middle of the carpet in front of Konrath’s desk. Konrath, still seated. Eames also seated, on the edge of the desk, in the process of pulling his dress back down his thighs. One of the desk drawers has come out and lies on the ground, papers spilled everywhere. Konrath’s hand is on the desk, holding a gun. The gun is pointed at Jean.

“Everything all right, sir?” Arthur asks. Konrath looks at him, and for a long moment there’s silence. Then the muzzle of the gun moves an inch, so that it’s pointed at Arthur.

“I don’t know you,” Konrath says. “You’re not one of mine.”

“He’s temporary,” Jean says. Konrath turns the gun again and shoots her in the forehead.

Several things happen at once. Jean drops. Eames lunges over and slams Konrath’s wrist into the desk with his own hands, his own weight. He’s instantly dropped the skin, he’s himself again. Konrath pulls the trigger, and although he doesn’t hear a shot, Arthur feels something yank his right leg to the side, almost toppling him. He grabs the doorframe for balance.

Then Eames has Konrath’s gun in his hand. He safeties it and, in one quick movement, whips Konrath across the face with the butt. A string of blood flies out and spatters the wall.

“Suitcase,” Eames says, over his shoulder. Arthur’s still holding onto the doorframe. He’s still breathing, his head ringing, thinking What the fuck. His right leg feels hot, then wet. He looks down. There’s a hole in his trouser leg, in the middle of his thigh. Two holes, one in front and one in back. The front hole is small and round. The back one is big and ragged and bloody.

“You’re shot,” Eames says.

“No shit,” Arthur says. Then he thinks, Pull it together. He’s been shot before. He knows it’s not real. The pain’s starting to come now, and he knows in a few minutes it will be debilitating--but it’s not real, it’s all a fake, a dream. He looks around. “Where’s the suitcase?”

“Fuck you,” Konrath says. His voice is thick, his mouth soupy with blood. “Fuck you, I know this game.”

“You don’t know anything.” Eames shoves the muzzle of the gun into Konrath’s forehead. “Suitcase.”

“I got it,” Arthur says. He’s seen the corner of the case protruding from beside the mirrored armoire on the office wall. Jean was supposed to pick it up and take it with her when she left, while Eames was occupying Konrath. He needs to get it, get somewhere he can look inside, and memorize the names. He shoves off the doorframe and starts for the armoire. His leg is fiery, weak and unstable. Blood is coursing down his leg, filling his shoe.

“Looks bad,” says Konrath. He sounds happy. “Big leg wounds, they bleed fast.”

“Shut up.” Eames shoves the gun against his cheek. “Got it?”

“Got it,” Arthur says, as he leans down to take hold of the handle of the case. His fingers close over it, and Konrath starts to laugh.

“What,” says Eames. Konrath keeps laughing. Eames twists to look at Arthur. “What’s he laughing--”

The room explodes.

The windows blow inward, glass slicing through the air, the walls, the carpet. Arthur gets his arm over his head. His hands are cut, his forearm. He gets his gun up and fires blindly toward the windows. Men are coming through them, swinging in on ropes. They’re in full SWAT gear, he realizes. An instant later automatic fire blasts past his head, singeing the air.

He ducks and rolls back behind the armoire, pressing himself desperately to the wall. He’s bleeding in a dozen places. The case is beneath him, jammed awkwardly between his hip and the wall. He hears yelling, orders in German--Konrath shouting Toten, toten! More gunfire, and the armoire splinters above his head, raining chips of wood.

Then the office door erupts in a shower of splinters, and Ted walks in.

He’s got an automatic rifle in each hand, and he’s firing both at once, almost casually, not bothering to sight. His arms are huge, thick with muscle. The recoil barely moves them. He’s grown ammunition bands across his chest, grenades on a belt. Somehow he’s a foot taller, a giant with a blank bearded face lit up by muzzle flare. The guns saw the guards in half, cutting them down as they swing through the windows.

Arthur gets himself up on an elbow and tries to add fire, but he’s only got the pistol and Ted is sweeping the entire room with lead. He should get out with the case, get the names--then they can all get the fuck out of here. He turns, hauls the case out from under his body, and uses it to push himself up to sitting. It’s just bad luck that as soon as he does that, one of Konrath’s guards gets a shot off.

It hits Arthur in the chest, slamming him back against the wall. The impact knocks the breath out of him. Knocks him out of himself. When he comes back he’s looking straight at Ted, and Ted is looking back. His face is open, horrified. He looks like he’s just seen Arthur for the first time.

It occurs to Arthur, in a strangely slow instant, that Ted’s been seeing him as someone else, all this time. W. Warner. Whoever he is, or was. And that for some reason, at this particular moment, the scales have dropped away.

As Arthur stares, a bullet catches Ted’s shoulder, jerking him half around with a messy spray. Ted staggers.

Then he swings back around, heaves both guns up, and starts blasting the whole room to pieces.

Arthur’s fading. He gropes for the case, finds the handle already in his hand, and struggles to push himself off the wall. He can’t breathe. The shot must have hit a lung, he feels like he’s drowning. He hates this feeling. Dying, but not dead. He can’t die without seeing the names. If he doesn’t get the names, it’s all useless.

He’s heaving for air, scrabbling with numb fingers for the combination lock, when someone appears over him. Too slow, he reaches for his pistol.

“Arthur.” It’s Eames. Eames, crouching beside him in a bloody shirt, his face powderburnt and ghastly grey, his gun dangling from his left hand. His right is shoved into his waistband. Doesn’t look good. “Come on.”

Arthur shakes his head, because he can’t speak. His throat is filling with blood and he can feel himself starting inevitably to panic. He hates this. He can’t feel the ridges of the combination lock against his fingers anymore. He isn’t going to get the names.

With the last of his strength he shoves the case off his lap, toward Eames. It’s the best he can do. He can’t feel his legs, he can’t breathe. Without meaning to, he glances down. There’s a gaping hole in his chest. His vision’s going. He can’t breathe. He’s panicking.

He glances sideways and sees that Eames has pulled the case up and tucked it somehow beneath his right arm. He’s fumbling with the gun, using his left hand.

No time, Arthur wants to tell him. No time for a mercy killing in here, but his heart is hammering and missing beats, he’s soaked in sweat. He fucking hates this way of dying. He feels the cool touch of metal against his temple, and thinks, despite himself, Christ, thank you--

 

 

Desta’s standing over him, a stopwatch in her hand. Frowning.

It takes him a moment to wet his lips, clear his throat, focus. He resists the urge to touch his chest.

“Is that Arthur?” Jean appears, her hands clasped around a mug. “What happened?”

“Eames,” he says, his voice froggy. “Is he--”

“Still in,” says Desta, glancing to her left. Arthur sits up and sees that Eames is laid out on his lounger, his hands crossed neatly in his lap. “Do you have the names?”

Arthur shakes his head, still looking at Eames. “How long?”

“One minute three seconds,” Desta says, her eyes on the stopwatch. “Since I put you under. Barely time for me to check the lines.”

“He’s a Nazi,” Jean says. “We knew that, we expected trouble.”

“He’s been trained.” Arthur sits up and eases the needle from his arm, drops the tube. His body aches. He’s sweated through the armpits of his shirt. “He knew who we were, he knew it was a dream. He’s got a fucking army in there.”

Jean looks at Eames, then Ted. “And they’re still in?”

“Should I kick?” Desta asks Arthur, her foot poised next to Eames’s lounge. He says nothing. What are the chances Eames managed to get the case out of the room, the names out of the case? Not good, but as long as he’s still under there’s a possibility.

“We let it play out then,” Desta says. She goes to the PASIV and checks the levels, checks the stopwatch again, studies her notes.

Arthur turns sideways on the lounge so he’s facing Eames, and waits with his elbows on his knees. Jean sits down beside him, and offers him her cup. It’s tea with whiskey. He drinks some and she gives him a wan smile.

“I guess the twins can quit violin lessons,” she says, which makes him laugh a little.

Eames stays in the dream. Arthur can’t imagine what he’s doing. Or he doesn’t want to. The whole place is a shooting gallery, and Eames doesn’t have a decent gun hand left. What kind of chance does he have, even with Ted blowing the shit out of everything that moves? He’s probably bleeding out in the hallway, if he’s even made it that far.

“Does he have a gun?” Jean asked, passing him the cup again. He doesn’t answer.

“What a shitshow,” Desta mutters, poring over her notes.

Arthur studies his hands. The cool feel of metal against his temple. The warmth of a palm against his breast pocket, patting.

“One minute forty seconds,” Desta says. “Welcome back, Mr. Eames.”

Eames is staring at the ceiling, focused on it as if he’s trying to overcome a spell of vertigo. He licks his lips, lifts his arm, and seems startled when the line pulls.

“Here.” Arthur crouches beside him and removes the cannula as gently as he can. “What happened?”

Eames shakes his head. “Pen and paper.”

There’s a moment in which they all stop and look at him. Then Desta folds her notebook page over and hands it to him. “Should I kick Ted?”

Eames ignores her. He takes the pen Jean hands him and starts to write silently, steadily.

Arthur watches him for the few seconds it takes to confirm what he thinks he knows--Eames is writing names. Then he walks away to the kitchen, draws a glass of water from the tap, and drinks it staring out the windows at the grey, cloudless sky.

 

There’s an extra forty thousand dollars in Arthur’s bank account when he gets to Istanbul. Forty thousand over and above his share of the job, that is. When he sees it he considers placing a call to Desta, telling her she doesn’t need to pay him off. Then he flexes his bruised hand, and decides fuck it.

He uses part of it to rent a house overlooking the Bosporous, where he sits on the balcony and drinks raki while the sun sets. He gets nicely drunk, eats lamb skewers and yogurt mezze, discovers a basket of old records in a cabinet and plays them on on the house stereo system. He’s only slightly surprised when his phone rings on the third day, and one of Eames’s numbers is on the screen.

“You answered.” Eames sounds pleasantly surprised. “Are you slipping?”

“I can hang up if you want.”

“That’s all right. You’re in Istanbul, I think.”

Arthur doesn’t know if he’s annoyed or pleased. Both, somehow. “Yes.”

“Not back to the U.S.”

“No.” Arthur considers saying something more--something about why he didn’t go back right away, why he hasn’t booked a flight to New York, where Cobb is negotiating a job that has something to do with circuit board manufacturing. But he’s had a couple of glasses of raki, and he’s not sure he trusts himself to do any explaining right now. If he even knows the explanation, himself.

“I thought I’d drop by.”

“Istanbul.”

“It’s on my way.”

Arthur holds up his glass of raki so it catches the pink of the sunset. “Sure, all right.”

“Excellent. Give me the address and I’ll be right over.”

Arthur pauses. “You’ll be right over?”

“Unless it’s a bad time.”

“Are you here?”

“I told you,” Eames says. “It’s on my way.”

Arthur gives him the address, and sits back to watch the sun sink. He drinks more raki, considers the glass, considers the strange sensation in his belly. Eames is a coworker. He’s a good forge, has the right instincts in a fight, pays attention to detail. He’s a coworker.

When the doorbell rings, Arthur goes to open it as he is, in jeans and a T-shirt, barefoot. It’s been more than an hour, close to two. He’s killed a quarter of the bottle.

Eames squints in the porch light, smiling. He’s wearing very bad trousers, a shirt with a collar that might be orange, shoes without socks. There’s a paper bag shaped like a bottle in his hand, and he hasn’t shaved in a couple of days.

“Hello,” he says. “Are you drunk?”

“Yes,” says Arthur. He stands back to let Eames come in.

“I guess you don’t need this, then,” Eames says, pulling a bottle of raki from the bag as he looks around. “Lovely place.”

“Did you eat?” Arthur starts for the kitchen. There’s leftover lamb in the refrigerator, along with a few bottles of water, some fruit. They sit on the balcony for the view.

“Cheers,” Eames says, clinking his glass against Arthur’s. They drink, and Eames takes a packet of Turkish cigarettes from his pocket. He looks a little surprised when Arthur takes one, but lights it with a wooden match from a box he also produces. “Here’s to jobs well done.”

“Aspirational,” Arthur says. “I like it.”

They smoke the cigarettes and drink. Later, they drink to each of the names that Eames remembered and wrote down in his tight black script, one sip for each until they can’t remember which ones they’ve already done.

“You’re pissed,” Eames observes, smiling, leaning over the table with his chin on his hand.

“Completely.” Arthur unscrews the cap on a water bottle with some difficulty, and pours himself a glass. “So why are you here?”

Eames smiles, rubbing his stubbled cheek with his palm--he’s drunk too. “I already said, passing through.”

“From where to where?”

“Oh, here to there.”

Arthur laughs and shakes his head. “Fine. I’ll look it up later.”

“Why the hell would you look me up?”

“To satisfy my curiosity.” Arthur sinks back into his chair and studies Eames. “Are you checking up on me?”

Eames makes a vaguely dismissive gesture, as if the question is too absurd to answer. “Istanbul is one of my favorite cities. And I thought you might have a nice house.” He looks around. “Which you do.”

“Are you planning on staying?” As soon as he says it, Arthur feels his face heat up. He didn’t mean it like that--like a cheesy come-on. Or maybe he did. He doesn’t know. “I mean, you can. If you don’t have a hotel.”

Eames is watching him with an odd expression--amused, Arthur thinks. He’s amused that Arthur’s drunk, and propositioning him. Or trying to. Or trying not to.

“Forget it,” Arthur says, putting his glass down and pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes.

“I wasn’t,” Eames says. “Planning on staying. Never plan on something like that, is my policy. It’s impolite.” He takes the cigarettes from the table and withdraws one, taps it against the pack, gives Arthur a rogueish smile. “For all I knew you’d already have an overnight guest. A little Turkish delight.”

“Ugh.”

“Well, I am drunk.” Eames lights his cigarette a little unsteadily, and waves out the match. “My edges get a little rough after the fifth round.” He tosses the spent match onto the table. “But I don’t see any overnight guests.”

“Because there aren’t any.” Arthur forces himself to sit still, his elbows on the arms of the chair, his hands loose on his thighs. “So you can stay. If you want.”

Eames sits back in his chair, drags on his cigarette, and smiles through the smoke.

“Okay,” Arthur says after a minute. “That’s pretty fucking cryptic.”

“Just enjoying the moment.” Eames ashes onto the ground, rolls the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb. “You look so earnest. Are you in a hurry?”

“I’m not--” Arthur feels a wave of frustration, tempered with anxiety and--he might as well admit it to himself--lust. “I’m fine.”

Eames inhales, stretches, then settles back into his chair looking pleased and comfortable, as if he’s ready to stay there all night. “What will you do after this?”

“What?”

“After this.” Eames waves a hand at the house, the view. “When you’ve exhausted Istanbul’s charms. What then?”

“I...” Arthur can’t think. “I’ll find work.”

“With Cobb?”

“What is your problem with Cobb, exactly?”

“No problem.” Eames drags on his cigarette and smiles. “Just nice to see you out of his shadow for a change.”

Arthur feels himself grimace. “Right.”

Eames says nothing, just looks out over the city with the cigarette dangling loosely from his fingers. Arthur feels frustrated, baffled, as if he’s losing his grip on something he very much wants.

“Can we just be clear on something?” he says. Eames looks at him. “Am I saying you can spend the night here? Or are you just sitting there laughing at me?”

Eames considers. “I’m drunk, but I don’t think that makes any sense.”

“Are you fucking with me? Because I don’t know why you’d come all the way to Istanbul just to fuck with me.”

“Ah.” Eames sits forward and gives Arthur an earnest look. “I’m not fucking with you. Honestly.”

Arthur feels some tension leave his shoulders. “Okay.”

“But I don’t know if you’re asking me to spend the night. I think that part’s up to you.”

“I just asked you.”

“So you did.” Eames rolls the tip of his cigarette against the table. “And it was very hospitable of you.”

“You’re such a prick.” Arthur pulls the water bottle off the table and drinks directly from it. When he lowers it, he catches Eames staring at his throat. It’s bizarrely satisfying. “You’re always like this, you know that?”

“Like what?”

“You’re a fucking cock-tease, Eames.”

Eames looks startled, then delighted. He laughs, covering his mouth an instant too late to hide his wonky teeth. Arthur has a sudden image of standing up, walking around the table, and yanking him into a hard kiss. He flushes.

“A cock-tease!” Eames repeats, leaning forward over the table. “Have I been teasing you, Arthur? Poor darling, have you been pining for me?”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Leading you on, then leaving you cold? Is that why you’ll be looking me up later on? So you can catch a quick flight and surprise me with roses at the hotel?”

“You’re the one who followed me.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Eames shrugs, still smiling. “But that wasn’t entirely in pursuit of your charms.” He sits back, suddenly sober. “I wasn’t expecting anything, honestly. I didn’t even know if you’d see me.”

“Why wouldn’t I see you?”

Eames shrugs. “We’re not social, are we? We work together, from time to time. Not much more than that.”

“You flirt.”

“So do you.”

Arthur says nothing. He can feel the color in his cheeks, and he expects Eames to point it out, but instead he just looks out across the city again.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Eames says after a moment. “The flirting. I hope you know that.”

“I never thought it did.” Arthur’s throat feels like it’s closing, but he thinks his voice sounds normal enough.

“It’s fun. It makes the time pass. But I do it with everyone, just about. It’s not special.”

Arthur says nothing.

“But with you,” Eames says, looking back at him, “there’s more.” They sit in silence for a moment. Eames looks away across the city. “We’re not friends, I don’t think. So I’m not sure what I’m really saying. Only...if half a dozen other people asked me to spend the night I’d say all right, sure. Have some fun. But you’re different.”

“Different?” Arthur clears his throat. “How?”

Eames palms his own cheek again, the stubble rasping. He shrugs. “I don’t know.” He shoots a quick glance at Arthur, as if he’s afraid to look at him for too long. “I don’t know what I’m saying, really. You shouldn’t listen to me, I’m smashed.”

Arthur sits for a long minute, staring at the table. The plates are covered with grease and lamb bones, fruit rinds, cigarette ashes. At last he says, “How did you know to come in?”

“Sorry?” Eames gives him a baffled look. “Here, you mean?”

“No, in Geneva. In the hotel.”

Eames’s expression turns wary. “You want to talk about that?”

“I just wondered.”

“Hm.”

“I mean...I’m glad you did. It was going...I’m glad you did. Obviously.” Arthur turns the water bottle in his hands, feeling the cool glass against his hot fingers. “You knew he was trouble right away. You told me.”

Eames shakes his head. “If I’d known he was that bad, I’d have done more than pull you out for a conversation.”

“You had a feeling, though.”

“You didn’t?”

Arthur nods.

“Well, it’s over with now anyway. Creepy Ted’s fucked off to God knows where, and on we go.” Eames crushes his cigarette out, picks up the packet, and slips it into his pocket. “Speaking of which.”

Arthur watches him find his matches, take a last sip of water, and stand up. “You’re not really going to leave.”

“Am and will.” Eames overbalances slightly, catches himself, and smiles. “Don’t worry, I’m an excellent drunk driver.”

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

“No, I find it relaxes me--”

“I just asked you to spend the night, and you’re going to say thanks but no thanks?” Arthur stands up, a little unsteady himself. “I don’t care how special you think I am, I haven’t been laid in six months.”

Eames give a startled laugh. “I forgot about your complete lack of romance.”

Arthur grabs his arm and hauls him close. For a moment they’re nose to nose, so close that Arthur can smell Eames’s skin and hair and breath, the booze and smoke and meat on him. With his eyes open, he leans close and touches his lips to Eames’s mouth. Just their lips touching at first, their breath mixing. Then Eames’s eyelids drop and he kisses Arthur back. His tongue gently touches Arthur’s lip. Arthur’s knees loosen. He runs his hands around Eames’s back, under his awful coat, feeling his warmth and solidity. Eames has a hand in Arthur’s hair, at the base of his neck. It feels incredible.

It’s one of the slower, longer, sweeter kisses Arthur’s ever had.

They break it when Eames leans forward a little too much, pressing with his weight, and Arthur loses his balance and almost stumbles into the table.

“Come here,” Eames says immediately, reaching for him. Arthur, feeling stunned, lets himself be reeled in.

“Inside,” he says, still kissing Eames and being kissed in return. His brain still whirring fruitlessly at the newness and strangeness--this is Eames, this is Eames’s mouth, this is Eames’s hand running up his side. Eames, who has good instincts in a fight. Who pays attention to detail. “Inside.”

They stumble in and fall onto a couch. Arthur, on the bottom, finds himself grinding up against Eames’s thigh. It’s been more than six months. It’s been an embarrassingly long time, and the last time was rotten, a hurried handjob in a bar bathroom while a bunch of guys did poppers outside the stall. It’s been forever, it feels like. Maybe longer. Since someone’s kissed him like this, holding his jaw in one hand, wet and sweet.

“Jesus.” He turns his face away, his heart pounding. “Hang on a second.”

Eames--for Christ’s sake, Eames--sits back and wipes his mouth, looking first away across the room and then down, a little worriedly. “All right?”

“Yeah.” Arthur looks down, at Eames’s thighs straddling his waist, their awkward sprawl on the couch. “Yeah, I just...”

“Too much?” Eames is backing off, his face really concerned, and Arthur puts two and two together. The hotel room, Ted. The thought is like a bruise in an apple, and he discards it right away.

“No, no, it’s fine. Really.” He grabs Eames’s jacket, then frowns. “Can you take this off?”

Eames looks at the jacket, then at Arthur. “It offends you.”

“I don’t care. I mean yes, it’s horrible. But it’s just in the way.”

Eames’s face clears, and he shrugs out of the jacket, dropping it in a heap on the floor. The shirt beneath is indeed orange. Arthur pulls it out of Eames’s belt, slides his hand up beneath it, and has to close his eyes for a second. Eames, he’s always known, is ripped. Louche and ripped at the same time, God knows how he does it. Still, there’s a difference between knowing it, and feeling the solid weight of muscle beneath his hand. Eames’s skin is warm, almost hot. Smooth on his ribs, hairy on his belly.

“Jesus Christ,” Arthur says, unable to stop himself.

“Come here,” Eames says again, and kisses him.

Some time later, Arthur’s shirtless, his jeans unbuttoned and his dick riding up through the slit in his boxer briefs, shoving himself mindlessly against Eames’s hand and thigh. The orange shirt is gone. Eames has horrible tattoos. His dick is gorgeous, heavy and hot in Arthur’s fist. He’s got one hand locked to the arm of the couch above Arthur’s head, the other stroking Arthur off. He’s either really good at it or really bad. Arthur, writhing for what feels like forever, can’t decide.

“Jesus--fucking--” He’s gasping, his mouth is dry. Eames is kissing him anyway, biting his lips and throat. “Fuck, please--”

It keeps occurring to him, in disconnected flashes, that this is Eames, and that information keeps shorting out his brain and sending him back through a loop of rising lust so strong it feels almost like panic. It’s Eames on top of him, Eames jerking him off. What the fuck, he thinks. And, I think I’m going to die.

Eames’s face is flushed and lost, his eyes dazed. His lips are puffy and red. There’s a mark under his ear where Arthur bit him too hard.

“God, I want you to fuck me,” Arthur babbles, drunk and dry-mouthed and so hard he’s in actual, literal, physical pain. “Please, please fuck me--”

Eames makes a strangled grunting sound, and Arthur feels a pulse of hot wetness across his hand, his belly. He grabs hold of Eames, feels his muscles gone heavy and rigid, and thinks once more, this is Eames. He comes into his own hand, arching up off the couch, seeing white.

They lie tangled up like that until they can breathe again. Staring at the ceiling, Arthur realizes that he’s still drunk.

“Sorry.” Eames shoves back, takes his weight on his own knees, fumbling for his fly. His face is red, the veins still standing out in his throat.

“Don’t be.” Arthur runs a hand over his stomach, through the wet mess. Eames glances at it, reaches down, and tosses his shirt over Arthur’s hand. “Don’t be, that was great.”

“Yeah.” Eames sits back, rubs his face, and blinks. “I really wasn’t planning on it, though.”

“No, that would be impolite.” Arthur balls up the wet shirt and tosses it onto the floor. “I never wanted you to be polite, by the way.”

“Presumptuous, I meant.”

“Whatever.” Arthur’s suddenly sleepy, thirsty, uncomfortable. He pulls his legs out from under Eames, gets up, and goes to the kitchen for a bottle of water. When he comes back Eames is sitting on the couch looking at something small in his hand. Arthur offers him the bottle. “What’s that?”

Eames looks up, smiles self-consciously, then makes a fist and holds it out. “Here.”

Arthur put out his hand, and Eames drops something into it. Small, flimsy. Cheap pressed metal. Even before he holds it up to the light, Arthur knows what it is. St. Jude, for real this time.

“I was going to leave it with you,” Eames says. “Depending.”

“Depending on what?”

Eames shrugs, looks around at the mess they’ve made of the couch, their clothes scattered on the floor. “On whether you needed it.”

Arthur studies the medallion, then puts it carefully down on the table beside the couch. He picks up Eames’s jacket and feels in the pockets. Cigarettes, matches, wallet, keys. He takes the keys out and puts them on the table beside the medallion. Eames watches him do it in silence.

“Come on,” Arthur says, dropping the coat back on the floor where it belongs. “I’m asking you to stay, and you’re accepting.”

“Arthur.”

Arthur turns. Eames is still sitting on the couch, his hands hanging down between his knees. He looks gorgeous and worried and drunk. His hair is completely fucked.

“I just--” Eames makes some kind of meaningless gesture with his hands, then shakes his head. “I meant what I said.”

“About--”

“About it being different, with you.”

“I know. Come on, I’m going to bed.”

He starts down the hall, yawning and palming off lightswitches. Behind him he hears Eames get up and close the balcony door, collect a water bottle or two. There’s a warm, anxious feeling in Arthur’s belly. He tells himself he can’t pay too much attention to right now. He’ll think about it later, when he’s sober. When he’s woken up with Eames and seen him at his worst, hungover and smelly and irritating. When Eames is back to being himself, the same familiar prick Arthur knows and trusts. He does trust Eames, he realizes. He has for some time now. That seems like a good place to start.