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Seprimo Scars

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The sun is finally starting to set.  For having descended across the azure sky so quickly, the golden disc had seemed almost reluctant to relinquish itself fully to the horizon. 

Mal shades her eyes as she gazes out across the desert city of Nigeb.  The sand coloured houses with flat mud roofs bake to a cracked hardness under the unforgiving light of this part of the land.  There are trees here, as one might expect of a city this self-conscious of its own wealth and prosperity.  The palms sway in the gentle evening breeze, the fronds of their foliage sweeping sheathes of dust from the surrounding walls of tightly packed buildings. 

There is a noise to the nightlife of this city, one that sounds like rattling coins and excited cries.  The bells attached to the ankles of dancers ring out through the air.  Tonight is a sacred night, one reserved specifically for feasting and celebration.  Tonight, young boys and girls will dress up either as Malika -the goddess of mercy, or Rakli - the god of punishment. 

Tonight, Mal finds it fittingly amusing that she was named after the former deity. 

Mal leans out of her window in the darker part of town and tries to spot anyone in costume.  Those representing Malika will be painted white with red stripes, any potential Raklis will be green and gold. 

"Come away from the window," Arthur whispers softly from inside the room of the inn where they managed to haggle an affordable price for a few nights.

"You should come and see," Mal breathes softly, "it's quite a festival out there."

"I'm not interested," Arthur replies bluntly, causing Mal to smile.  They may be twins but her brother has always seemed so much younger than her.  Mal's sure that she must have clawed her way out of her unfortunate and forgotten mother's womb before he did.

"I don't understand what there is to celebrate about public executions," Arthur sniffs, causing Mal to turn round, her back to the city as she leans on the sill and observes her brother as he plays a solitary card game.

Arthur's hair is almost black and iridescent, gentle curls trail down his neck.  His body is slender, perhaps even more so than Mal's, and his skin, like hers, is tanned and golden.  He frowns at her staring at him and she offers a wry smile back, "The Trials are not executions." 

"Of course they are," Arthur snorts, "The Trials are when the council round up a load of criminals and stick them in a ring with twenty sorcerers in a fight to the death!"

Mal takes a deep breath, she's only witnessed one occasion of city Trials before and it hadn't been pleasant, much less a fair fight or anything vaguely resembling or pertaining to the concept of 'justice'.

'Trials' were really, exactly as Arthur had said - public executions.  It was a way for the cities to make a spectacle of wrongdoers and also to rake in money from the crowds such events would inevitably attract. 

Mal and Arthur had travelled through many towns in their twenty-one years and all of them had been the same - power-hungry, money-hungry and more often than not, genuinely hungry - or at least the poor were. 

The land of Pinoncite was a vast and magic filled world.  Every citizen of the land possessed a degree of magical ability, although 'sorcerers' were the ones who actually studied the supernatural arts and dedicated their lives to it.  Powers could range from the simplest, most modest abilities, to the stuff of legends.  Although the latter was often just that. 

Sorcerers were hired to perform 'Trials' at least three times a year where they were asked to stand in a large sandy ring, a coliseum of sorts.  Into that prepped and awaiting amphitheatre would be released one of the criminals standing for 'Trial'.  The criminal could be able to bend metal with their mind, or...they could be able to grow the most sweet smelling roses.  Regardless of their level of power, however, the outcome was a predictable inevitability.  No one stood a chance against twenty trained sorcerers. 

"I suppose they are just executions," Mal muses, turning her thoughts over in her mind as some boys let off firecrackers in the street below. 

"Have you seen this book?" Arthur asks suddenly, pulling over a thick and dusty tome that Mal recognizes from having sat on the room's singular bookshelf when they had first entered. 

"What is it?" Mal frowns, drawing closer to her brother and settling down in the stained and weathered chaise-long opposite him. 

"It's a history book," Arthur smiles grimly, "detailing the different types of magical families and lineages - explaining how we are all born from white magic and the prism of our souls casts us in colours of varying abilities."

"Does it say anything about dark magic?" Mal asks with a wry smile.  Arthur pulls a face at her as he drags the book onto his lap and cracks it open.  "I highly doubt it," he sighs, "the topic was banned in most literature for several centuries....oh, no - there's a page on it at the back!"

Mal sits forward with interest, listening intently as her brother begins to read, a crease appearing on his otherwise smooth and unblemished forehead. 

"Over time there have occasionally been those born purely from dark magic.  Such anomalies in the cosmos carry with them curses and if discovered for their true nature, will often be destroyed first by the communities in which they reside..."

Arthur pauses to flick his large brown eyes up at Mal, "You want to hear more?"

"I want to hear all of it!" Mal laughs lightly.  "You know how passionate I am about history."

Arthur snorts, rolling his eyes as he traces his finger back across the page.

"Dark Magic can never be used for the purposes of good, as it is in itself, inherently deceitful and a profound insult to the natural order of things.  Those born from dark magic may possess frightening and unnatural powers, yet they will rarely live beyond the age of eighteen, even if not discovered first by those born from white magic."

"And yet there are no official laws to discriminate against or incarcerate anyone born from dark magic," Mal trills with a bored flick of her hand, "this is exactly the same as what was written in that stupid book I read back in Erofeb three months ago!"

"Well I guess there's not much information on the subject," Arthur shrugs before looking at her curiously.  "What's up with you tonight anyway? You seem..."

"What?" Mal curls her lips in amusement as Arthur's eyes narrow further, studying her with suspicion that could only come from a sibling who knows her every tell so well. 

"More alert than usual perhaps," Arthur finishes, closing the book and placing it on the terracotta floor to nudge away with his foot before turning his attention back to his cards.  "Where were you all afternoon? You said you were only going out to buy fruit."

"I visited the city prisons," Mal replies, her eyes lighting up with excitement.  "I wanted to see the prisoners that are being sent to 'Trial' tomorrow."

"I knew it," Arthur growls, sweeping his cards up from the coffee table and glaring at Mal as he deftly reshuffles them.  "We're in Nigeb specifically for the Trials aren't we? Why Mal? What the hell here could possibly interest you?"

"I heard about a certain prisoner," Mal replies tightly, "one of the men.  He is of interest to me." 

Arthur screws up his face with more confusion before obviously realising his sister isn't going to divulge any more information.  He throws the cards back down on the table, "Well I'm going to bed then, you just sit there and hatch your strange and inexplicable plans." 

Mal smiles softly after him as Arthur paces over to his own bed and pulls off the covers.  It's a hot night, far too warm for blankets.  Despite the coldness of the desert outside, the city is aflame with anticipation of the upcoming bloodshed. 

 

 

 

 

*Six Hours Earlier*

 

Mal passes the small but heavy leather pouch over to the prison guard and raises her eyebrows pointedly.  It's all the savings they have, her and Arthur - but if the prisoner is who she's been told he is, it will be worth the sacrifice.  They won't have enough to pay the innkeeper for the time they've spent in his rooms.  Not that it matters, if everything goes according to plan then Arthur will be leaving the city faster than some irate landlord can catch him. 

"Any particular inmate?" the large guard asks, the skin around his nostrils is rough and yellowed from sniffing Somna, a cheap and favoured drug of the desert cities.

"You have a man," Mal says quietly, her black shawl pulled around her face to both protect from the sand filled winds and to divert any unwanted attention.  "his ability is shape shifting." 

"Eames," the guard growls, putrid spittle flying from him lips and causing Mal to back away instinctively.  Evidently this particular prisoner has given the guards some grief over the time he's been incarcerated. 

"How the hell do you know Eames?" the guard frowns, looking Mal up and down with a sneer - as if judging her for associating with the likes of such criminals. 

"I don't know him," Mal replies, truthfully, "but I think I've paid you enough for an introduction?"

The guard grunts noncommittally but beckons her through the prison's wooden doors a moment later, tucking the coin pouch safely in his chest pocket. 

"There's no telling if he'll actually be himself today," the guard growls as he ushers Mal down a long stone tunnel past foul smelling cells.  Gnarled and dirtied hands reach out from in between bars, snatching at Mal's dress and face.  The guard strides on ahead of her, evidently assuming Mal can take care of herself in such an environment. 

"Here he is," the guard announces finally, turning a corner and sticking a long intricate key into a locked door.  The door swings open and Mal frowns as she hears a seductive feminine voice dripping with honey come filtering through the open doorway from the prison cell inside.

"Oh my, have you brought me my food already Guard? You know, a girl like me's gotta eat!"

"Shut it Eames," the guard snaps, staggering back out of the cell with a red flush across his face, clearly eager to get away as quickly as possible from whomever is inside.

"It's all yours," the guard spits, gesturing to Mal before going to stand around the corner, peeking back to see if she actually enters the cell. 

Mal takes a deep breath, regretting it when she remembers where she is, then proceeds to hitch up her dress and step into the darkened chamber. 

She almost laughs in surprise when she sees the occupant - an amply bosomed blonde woman with rouged lips and a tight fitting dress smiles coyly back at her before her pale face pinches into a surprised frown of her own.

"Oh!" the woman announces, immediately dropping her alluring pose.  "I was expecting another one of the guards."

"I can see that," Mal smiles tightly.  Her mouth falls open a moment later though when the blonde woman transforms into a handsome, dark and bearded man in front of her eyes.  This man has pearly white teeth against his ebony skin, and vivid scars that look like they were from a blade raised in battle. 

"Perhaps I am more to your taste?" the man asks in a deep and accented tone as Mal claps her hands together in delight. 

"Such a clever trick!" she hisses excitedly as the man transforms again, this time into a shorter, stockier fair-haired man with grey eyes.  The man is attractive, albeit paler this time round, with large full lips and tattoos across his shoulders and chest. 

"The real Eames I presume?" Mal sighs.

"You could sound less disappointed!" The man exclaims indignantly before pointing emphatically at Mal.  "And it's not a bloody parlour trick!"

Mal raises an arched eyebrow and purses her lips in amusement as the man huffs at her, scratching at his stubble. 

"Who are you anyway?" he asks, his true voice sounding clean and surprisingly educated for a criminal.

"I'm just a paying member of the public," Mal shrugs innocently, pulling down her shawl to reveal her face.  Her beauty seems to have little to no effect on Eames however, a fact which she notes with amused curiosity. 

"Of bloody course you are," Eames mutters, biting at his thumbnail, "are you making the rounds? Come to see all the prisoners scheduled for 'Trial' tomorrow?  Just wanted a sneak preview of the spectacle huh?"

"I can't imagine there'll be much spectacle in your fight," Mal replies quickly, "what are you going to do against twenty sorcerers? Turn into a blonde and busty girl again?"

"More like a young and nubile boy knowing sorcerers," Eames scoffs, turning away from Mal and beginning to pace his cell.  "So what - are you a punter? Going to place some bets tomorrow on how long each prisoner will last and you just wanted to suss out the poor sods first?"

"Something like that," Mal murmurs, drawing closer to Eames to inspect his tattoos.  "What does that say?"

"What?" Eames asks distractedly as he draws to a halt and twists his neck to look at his own shoulder.  "Oh the script? It's in one of the ancient languages..."

"Yes I know that," Mal snaps impatiently, "It's in Alackai."

"Well if you already bloody know then why did you ask?" Eames huffs, wheeling back on Mal.

"Because I recognize the script," Mal explains slowly and as patronisingly as possible, "but I can't actually translate it.  Unless you don't know either and you could have some ancient shopping list stamped on your skin for all you care?"

"It's a proverb," Eames retorts, "I found it in some old book."

"Alackai was the language of the Kaiaya," Mal notes as Eames cock his head at her. 

"Really? How interesting," he says drily.  "You know a history lesson is exactly what I requested for my final night alive." 

"The Kaiaya," Mal continues, pointedly ignoring Eames, "were one of the few races where people could be born of both dark and light magic." 

"So the myth goes," Eames shrugs.

"And for anyone of fully dark magic - they invented a device that could turn them half light - allowing them to live long and healthy lives." 

"If you say so," Eames mutters, folding his arms and leaning back against the wall of his cell with a bored expression. 

"The Kaiayan city of Alack, however, was lost to the passage of time," Mal murmurs, her eyes glazing over slightly as she remembers the words of manuscripts she's read so many times before. 

"Pinoncite has hundreds, thousands of lost cities," Eames frowns, "why are you so bloody interested in telling me about Alack?"

"You're right," Mal gives him a small and precise smile, "of course it should be you telling me about Alack."

"The hell are you talking about?" Eames growls, pushing himself off of the wall and taking a threatening step towards Mal. 

"You know where it is," Mal whispers in the echoing silence of the room, lest the guard overhear their conversation. 

"No one knows where it is," Eames snorts, brushing his sandy hair off of his face, "you've had your head filled with fantasies by some conman.  Young girls like you shouldn't be chasing after lost ruins." 

Mal blinks silently back at Eames for a moment before speaking again, " I met an old acquaintance of yours back in the city of Romur..."

"Yusuf," Eames snarls, "what's he been blabbing?"

"Why are you in here Eames?" Mal blinks back at Eames suddenly surprised expression. 

"I'm a bloody criminal!" he laughs.  "You think I'm in here because I volunteered, love?"

"I think you're going to die tomorrow," Mal replies coldly, not failing to notice the flicker of anger in Eames' eyes. 

"And you just thought you'd come and remind me did you?" Eames says hoarsely with an irritated gesture of his hands. 

"Did you know that prisoners do not always have to fight for themselves in the ring?" Mal asks.  "They can have a champion - someone who fights on their behalf."

"Champions have to volunteer," Eames bites back, "it doesn't exactly happen very often.  There's no bloody point - you're up against twenty trained sorcerers so you're going to lose and when you do - the original prisoner gets executed anyway."

"I want to make a deal with you Eames," Mal whispers, dropping her voice but still annunciating clearly so as to ensure Eames does not mistake her words. 

"What kind of deal?" Eames mutters, spitting out half of a thumbnail he's managed to finally chew off.

"Do you know the way to Alack?" Mal asks firmly, her dark eyes narrowing at Eames' confused and thoughtful face. 

"What if I did?" he swallows, his own voice dropped low and quiet too now.

"If you did," Mal pauses, "I would be your champion."

Sure enough, Eames' mouth gapes open and his eyes widen in shock. 

"You would also have to be prepared to take someone there," Mal adds quickly, "and swear to your promise with a Seprimo Seal." 

A 'Seprimo Seal' was the most unbreakable of magical promises, something that locked two souls of magic together. 

"Even if I die - my magic will still exist through the Seprimo and if you do not live up to your promise - it will destroy you," Mal finishes firmly.

"Even if...wait - what the bloody hell?" Eames exclaims, holding his hands up and backing away, stalking straight into the wall behind him with a thud.  "First things first pet - what makes you think you stand a better chance against twenty sorcerers than I do?!"

"I do," Mal states simply and expressionlessly as Eames clicks his tongue and shakes his head.

"What do you mean even if you die?" he asks.  "Isn't it you I'd be taking to Alack?"

"No," Mal replies, before pausing tentatively, "it would be my brother." 

"What about you?" Eames asks suspiciously, "Where are you going to be? You know if you die I still get the chop!"

"Only if I die before defeating all the sorcerers," Mal interjects pointedly.  "If I triumph over the twenty, then you are free to go and you can begin on your journey to Alack with my brother." 

"This is insane," Eames mutters, running his hands down his grime clad face.  Mal absently wonders when he last showered or bathed.

"You spend time questioning the sanity of my proposal and yet without it, in less than twenty-four hours you will surely be dead," Mal tells the prisoner, ignoring his noises of protestation.  "I have been searching for someone with knowledge of Alack for a very long time Eames, six years in fact.  I have traced you down from city to city only to find you here, on the eve of your execution.  Nothing will stand in the way of me securing you as a guide, do you understand me? Not twenty sorcerers, not twenty thousand." 

"Why?" Eames croaks, "What's in Alack that's worth dying for?" 

"Life," Mal hisses, her eyes flaming as she stares unblinkingly back at Eames. 

Eames looks back at her for at least a minute before letting out a defeated laugh, "Sure," he rasps, "what the hell have I got to lose? It's your life you're gambling sweetheart.  Tell me what you want me to promise then?"

"Good," Mal breathes back, letting her chest collapse in relief as she sinks to her knees and holds out her hand.  Both her and Eames will have to use their magic to bind the promise spell. 

As they've grown older, using dark magic has become more and more painful and dangerous for Mal and Arthur, but it's the only kind they've got.  Every spell sucks more life from them, every incantation blackens their veins that little bit more.  Their magic is their curse, rotting them away from the inside out.  Mal will need all her strength for the next day, but the Seprimo is essential, without it a criminal like Eames could abandon Arthur immediately and turn back on his word - leaving her brother to fend for himself in a world without her. 

"You must swear," Mal begins, her voice cracking with the weight of what this means.  "that if I triumph as your champion tomorrow and you walk free," she takes another deep breath, steadying her already frayed nerves and coursing adrenalin.  "You will immediately go with my brother Arthur and show him the way to Alack, you will ensure he arrives in the city safely.  You will protect him at all costs and you will honour this deal with your life." 

Eames gasps as he sees the darkened tendrils of Mal's magic twist its way from her fingertips, crawling towards him in seeking probes.  The next time he looks back at her it's with an expression of sudden understanding. 

"I swear," he replies as his own magic seeps from his skin and intertwines with hers.  Suddenly the glowing strands shoot forwards to wrap around the wrist of the other person in a searing lash of power.  Mal grits her teeth as the magic burns through her, leaving her skin burned with the unmistakable mark of a Seprimo.  Eames clenches his jaw and stares straight back at her, also refusing to cry out in pain or jerk his hand away as the skin on his wrist hisses and bubbles with watery blood. 

"It is done," Mal murmurs hoarsely as the light dims back down, leaving the cell shrouded in darkness once again.  She lifts herself gingerly to her feet, refusing to reach out to the nearby wall for balance or support, "I will see you tomorrow at the Trials." 

"You may be born of dark magic," Eames calls out after Mal's retreating form, causing her to halt in the doorway and tilt her head back to him.  "But there's still going to be twenty sorcerers in that ring."

"I will handle it," Mal replies stiffly, pulling her shawl back over her head, "All you have to do is find my brother Arthur after the Trials."  Mal nods as Eames remains quiet this time and subsequently calls  for the guard to lead her out of the prison.   

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Present Time

 

'Only twins can share their power, and even then it must be willingly given, never stolen.'

Mal stares back at the torn pages of the manuscript she'd brought with them to Nigeb.  She glances up at Arthur's slumbering form. 

"Never stolen"

That doesn't mean it can't be stolen - especially between twins born of dark magic.  They're one of those fantastically obscure and rare exceptions to the rules of magic.  Mal's lips curl up in a dry and mirthless smile as she rolls the manuscript up and tucks it away with the others in Arthur's bag.  In a place where he'll eventually find them. 

Mal stands up with care, reaching up to the mosaic tiled blue ceiling to stretch her arms before leaning side to side to let her back click satisfyingly.  She then pads softly over to her sleeping brother, bending down to push the black hair from his face. 

"Forgive me Arthur," she murmurs softly, "my power alone is not enough to defeat the sorcerers.  I know it seems like I'm leaving you weaker than ever - but it's your only chance."  Mal pauses to wipe a stray and treacherous tear from her cheek.  "I know it will be hard for you to understand," she whispers, "but we're dying Arthur - both of us.  We won't make it another year with the curse of dark magic corrupting our souls, consuming us and rotting us."  She lets out a trembling breath, pressing her fingers to her lips before reaching down to his and doing the same. 

"I cannot let you die Arthur," Mal whispers to the silent room and the sleeping boy.  "I can already feel myself crumbling at my foundations, this will be my last gift to you - an attempt to save you."

Mal opens her mouth as if to say more, before promptly shutting it and shaking her head.  There's nothing left to do other than place her hand upon her brother's heart and take every last drop of his power from him.  He will still be born of dark magic, he'll still be dying - but if Eames can just get him to Alack...

If Mal can just be strong enough to triumph tomorrow and ensure that Eames walks free. 

Mal stares at the vivid white scars of her earlier Seprimo burns on the inside of her wrist.  She watches as the skin around them darkens as she sucks the power out of her brother's soul as he sleeps. 

The scars remain bright and stark against the dark.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Arthur wakes up with the distinct feeling that something is wrong, something is missing - almost as if someone's taken a chunk of his very soul away.

"Mal?" he groans, swinging his legs out of the bed and wondering when his sister picked the blankets up off the floor and placed them back over him.  "Mal?"

Arthur rubs at his sleep filled eyes, glancing over towards Mal's currently empty bed and sighing.  He guesses she must have gone on an early morning stroll to the market again.  He knows they're running low on funds but she'll still probably come back with an armful of pomegranates and dragonfruit that she'll have used her infamous charm to acquire.  

Arthur pauses in getting up as he listens to the musical chimes of the city clock ring out across the houses and buildings.

"What the..." he mutters as the clock reaches seven or eight chimes but refuses to stop there, instead carrying on until at least ten or eleven.  Surely it can't be that late? No, Mal would have woken him up.  He knows that she wants to go to the Trials today, although for whatever mysterious reason, Arthur is yet to figure it out. 

Arthur slides his toes over the gratifyingly cool terracotta tiles beneath him, the room is still mostly in shade and the floor hasn't yet been heated up to the point of necessitating shoes.  He walks sleepily towards the wash basin, brushing his flopping hair out of his face.  Arthur scans the room to see if Mal's left anything out specifically for breakfast, when his eyes fall on a sealed envelope lying in the middle of the coffee table.  The other items that had previously sat atop of the table have evidently been cleared away to make the envelope all the more conspicuous.

Arthur treads lightly over to the table, stooping down to inspect the oddity, his fingers pausing in mid air as he reads who it's addressed to.

"My Brother Arthur"

"What have you done?!" Arthur hisses at the unresponsive rectangle of paper before quickly snatching it up and tearing it open.  He should have known something was up the moment he'd awoken feeling strange and out of place.  In his haste to open up the letter inside he partially rips it, pinching it back together with his shaking fingertips before he scans the entire page to discover only a sparse smattering of handwritten words that he quickly scans to pick out the important ones. 

"I never had much time left...

                Find Eames, get to Alack...

                                Forgive me..."

 

Arthur scrunches the letter up in his hand before frantically turning and looking for his clothes.  After getting hastily dressed he grabs his pack before heading out the door, not bothering to lock the rooms behind him. 

It's easy enough to find where most of the city is today.  A huge roar thunders out from the Coliseum where the Trials are being held. 

Why the fuck has she taken my magic?!

Arthur can't understand it.  Mal's obviously planning on doing something big and insane, something she'll need a huge amount of power for...but to actually use that much dark magic in one go? Arthur knows it will kill her.  Their magic is a curse, an affliction killing them from the inside, rotting their souls.  Mal will undoubtedly know that by taking Arthur's usable powers she still hasn't saved him from the inevitability of his fate - he's still born of dark magic, still made of it.  Only now, he can't even perform a simple spell.

What the hell is she thinking?!

And who on Pinoncite is Eames??

Arthur finds himself sweating heavily as he finally reaches the dust covered street leading to the city Coliseum.  The sun has mostly risen now and he hadn't taken the time to coat his skin in any protective oils. 

"Ticket?" a miserable and bored looking guard asks Arthur as he draws to a screeching halt outside the doors to the stalls. 

"How much?" Arthur pants, knowing that the answer will be irrelevant as he doesn't have a single coin on him. 

"Reduced to fifteen on account of the Trials having already started," the guard informs Arthur, not looking up from where he's levering grit from behind his fingernails with a toothpick.  Arthur glances around, this guard seems to be the only one on duty.  Probably all the rest of them have snuck inside already to catch the show. 

Arthur chews on his lip for a moment before making his decision.  Taking a preparatory step backwards he hurls himself towards the metal barriers, leapfrogging over them and rolling across the dusted stone floor on the other side.

"Hey!" the guard yells out behind him, sounding outraged. "Come back here!"

But Arthur's already sprinting down the torch lit passageways, finally emerging out into bright sunshine and deafening crowds.  The Coliseum is packed, most of the city must have turned out for the occasion.  The first thing that hits Arthur is the wall of heat - the sheer thermal force of thousands of citizens packed into a sun drenched arena with minimal shade.  He coughs as the dusted and dry air filters through his lungs, filling his nostrils with the scent of freshly baked flat breads that are being sold from large baskets. 

Arthur's stomach grumbles as a reminder that he hasn't eaten yet, but his mind is still frantic with fears of what his sister might have committed herself to without his knowledge.   

 He glances behind himself to check if the guard's followed, there's no sign of him yet.  All the same, Arthur quickly pushes forwards to lose himself in the swarming ringside audience. 

"Get out of the way!" an old woman hisses angrily, batting Arthur round the head as he attempts to scurry past her and climb higher up the teetering edges of the Coliseum.  Arthur freezes as he hears a horrifying screen emanating from the centre of the circular arena of sand.  He spins round to see the torn and twisted limbs of a man jerk themselves into death as the victim's corpse collapses to the floor from where a sorcerer's blue flame had held it aloft.

"Ekria mat etnum!" a booming voice announces, using magic to project itself across the auditorium.

'Justice is Delivered to Us!'

Arthur translates the old traditional phrase in his head, watching as guards buzz around the sand pit like gathering flies over a recent death.  The sorcerers, evidently amused by their own work and 'deliverance' of justice are milling about together by the side of the arena.  They are marked out as students of the higher forms of magic by the fine satin of their azure robes. 

"You're blocking the view!" a man barks roughly at Arthur, making him flinch as spittle lands on his cheek.  Arthur wipes the man's saliva away with a grimace before bowing his head sarcastically and continuing to move up the dented and eroded stone steps.  Arthur manages to spot a couple of spare seats on the third row down from the top, next to a large family of laughing and screaming relatives.  By the time Arthur manages to wheedle his way past them and collapse into one of the unused spaces the Coliseum is already starting to hush in baited anticipation for the next 'Trial'. 

"Our final criminal is a shapeshifter!" the same amplified voice announces to the booing and jeering masses.  Shapeshifting has never been a particularly respected form of magic - too much like trickery and deception.  Arthur himself, however, has always been rather fascinated by the art of changing one's own skin at will. 

The voice goes on to list the crimes of the perpetrator, it's quite a long list really, which only serves to agitate and hype the crowd up further. 

"I give you Eames!" the voice cries out at last, snapping Arthur's attention back to it like a catapult string. 

Eames

That was the name from Mal's note - surely it could not just be a coincidence? But why did she need him to find one of the criminals up for Trial? It wasn't like the whole city didn't already know where this 'Eames' was.

The twenty assembled sorcerers ready themselves by fanning out across one side of the ring, a sure firing squad if Arthur ever saw one.  Eames is led in with a metal collar around his neck, it's attached to a chain, which in turn is attached to three guards.  The guards keep attempting to trip Eames up with their metal tipped boots - they manage it a few times and they further reward the prisoner by bloodying his mouth with a series of kicks.

The magic emanating around the arena allows Arthur to watch Eames as clearly as if he were at a ringside seat, only feet away from him at this point.  The man is stocky with broad shoulders and sandy hair and rough stubble.  His eyes are grey but twinkling and there's a strange confidence to his face considering his imminent execution.  This criminal is quite a handsome one, Arthur thinks distractedly for a moment - he looks like the kind of weathered ruffian that would frequent the dingy alley bars that Arthur's always been so intrigued by. 

Not that Arthur's lived a sheltered life - far from it.  Mal and him grew up on the streets like any other orphans, although they also happened to be born from dark magic.  The latter quality had tended to make them both somewhat wary of society as a whole - more cautious when it came to the drinking houses they visited or the shadows they would share in the back alleys. 

Arthur's still lost in thought when the voice begins announcing something across the Coliseum.  It's evidently something important given the elbow he almost gets in the face as the girl next to him spins round to yell something at her mother.

Arthur frowns as he catches the last few words of the announcement, "...a Champion in his stead."

"What do they mean?" the girl asks loudly, looking somewhat put out at this turn of events.  "Is the criminal not going to be trialled by the sorcerers like all the others?"

"Didn't you hear?" her brother exclaims, pulling a face.  "This one's got himself a 'champion' to fight against the sorcerers for him!"

"I can't remember the last time that happened..." the mother murmurs, her eyes already lighting up with fascinated curiosity. 

"Who would fight for a criminal?" one of the other men calls out, looking vaguely disgusted.

"Probably a lover - or a family member," the brother replies with a shrug.

"Or some idiotic member of the public wanting their five seconds of fame," the mother snorts nastily, her eyes narrowing as she catches Arthur staring open-mouthed at their conversation.  Arthur quickly jerks himself back round so he's facing the arena again. 

He's never been so desperate not to hear his own thoughts before. 

No, no, no - it can't be her, it won't be her.

Arthur slams his sweating palms over his eyes.  There is just no way that his sister would be this suicidal.  To go up against twenty sorcerers for the sake of some criminal?

Why?

"Why?!" he screams as the achingly familiar dark haired girl finally steps out into the ring behind Eames, causing Arthur to leap from his seat and nearly throw up at the sight of her on the sand. 

"Mal!" he screams, rushing to clamber back past the loudly protesting family and fall out onto the stone steps.  Arthur doesn't care how many people he knocks over or who's yelling at him as he descends the stairs like a madman - determined only to get to the ring. 

Arthur reaches the waist high barrier to the sand pit just as the sorcerers' shield is erected.  He slams his hands against the newly formed transparent, but shimmering, bubble that separates the gathered crowds from the violent magic of the fights in the arena. 

 "No!" He spits angrily, hitting his hands against the shield again and feeling the resisting resonation thrum through his skin like a warning electricity.  No one breaks the shield until either the criminal or all twenty sorcerers are dead.

"The fuck are you doing kid?" one of the Coliseum guards growls at Arthur, grabbing him roughly by the shoulder and pushing him down into a newly vacated seat.  Arthur sinks limply, his body recoiling in horror as he realises that this is actually going to happen. 

"That criminal's got himself a champion!" an elderly man leans in to tell Arthur excitedly, obviously worried that Arthur might not have understood what all the excitement was about.  "Such a pretty young girl as well," the man sighs, "what a waste of life." 

Arthur's eyes sting with tears as he now feels himself sink further back in his chair, as if he can distance himself from this reality and wake up with none of it ever having happened.  Mal will be stood at the bedroom door, telling him to get his sleepy head out of bed - there will be dragonfruit in her arms because they're Arthur's favourite.  Their green and pink scales will be peeled back to reveal tender white fruit riddled with crunchy black seeds, an inverted winter blizzard inside the fruit's flesh.

Arthur blinks away from his fantasy and watches numbly as the fight is announced and Mal takes her position opposite the sorcerers.  She shucks off her flowing black robes with a dramatic flair that can only make Arthur smile bitterly.  Her dress is a muted dark green and shows enough flesh for the matriarchs in the audience to purse their lips in enthusiastic disapproval.     

Mal raises her arms in a fighting stance, although it's one of attack rather than defence - something that does not go unnoticed by the people around Arthur.

"The girl's got some spirit in her!" a woman laughs from behind.  "Maybe this will last longer than four seconds?"

To Arthur it seems to last several years before the final bell is rung, signalling that the fight has begun.  However even before the vibrating sound reaches its climax and begins to die down - a dark cloud is already starting to swirl around the bare feet of his sister.  It grows with a force and a power that he knows comes from the strength of two combined magical souls. 

"That's...that's dark magic!" the elderly man whispers hoarsely, keeping his eyes glued on the scene unfolding in front of them.

Arthur can feel it now, the change of atmosphere around the Coliseum as the realisation sinks in.  This 'pretty young girl' is suddenly of interest, suddenly someone worthy of note.

Arthur blinks as he remembers snatches from his past, clinging to them like they might now give him the answers on how to fix this mess.

*

"You're more powerful than me," Arthur had pouted, only ten years old and watching his sister turn foul muddied water into something drinkable for them both to quench their thirsts. 

"Our power is a curse," Mal had snapped angrily, forcing Arthur's head down so he drank first from the bubbling gutter at the side of a busy desert town road.  "Every time we use it - it will take a part of us away.  It will continue to do so until there is nothing left." 

"If you're so powerful why do we live on the streets?!" Arthur had exclaimed frustratedly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, but not missing his sister's responding wince. 

"Fool," she'd hissed, clutching at her chest in something Arthur later realised had been pain.  "We're the most powerless people I know."

*

Arthur hadn't realised then what Mal had been talking about.  But he'd grown into the knowledge, the hateful knowledge that power means nothing if you can't use it without destroying yourself in the process.  And now - Arthur was expected to sit in this stinking Coliseum and watch his sister wield a power that would steal her soul from him. 

Before he'd barely even processed the though the ground beneath the arena began to shake.

"What's happening?!" Someone shrieked from his side. 

"Oh Mal," Arthur whispered, his gaze finding his sister's across the expanse of the sand, before a huge dragon head cracked through the surface of the earth and speared up into the sky in a pillar of glittering scales. 

"Holy shit!" the man beside Arthur spluttered, nearly falling straight off of his seat as Arthur sat, unmoved and numb, his eyes transfixed by the obsidian armour of the dragon as it was birthed from the sand - impregnated by dark magic at Mal's will.  The dragon's curving neck, reflecting Arthur's own reflection back at him reminded him of the echoes of another time, another place.  An evening spent by an inky river attempting to catch fish with dimming glow-worms.

 

*

"I want to hear the dragon story again!"

"Arthur for gods' sakes will you stop shouting like that - you'll scare away any fish."

"Sorry Mal - but please? The dragon story? I'm so bored and no fish are biting."

His sister rolled her eyes affectionately, reaching out to ruffle Arthur's dark mop of hair.  "What is it about dragons huh? They've never even really existed!"

"Yeah - but one day they might," Arthur grinned, causing Mal to stare at him with a look of disbelief on her face before they both laughed and gave up fishing for the night.

*

 

 Arthur's already stuttering heart catches further in his chest as the dragon throws back its terrible head and roars.  All eyes are now focussed on the response of the sorcerers.  The magical masters seem just as shocked at the appearance of a dragon as everyone in the audience is, but still one of them steps forward to raise his hands and begin chanting his own incantations. 

Swarms of bright red birds pour down from the roof of the azure tinged bubble, enveloping the dragon's head in a flurry of scratching talons and beaks.  Arthur snaps his head to Mal and sees that her lips are curled back in a sneer, she's almost laughing.  He wonders what it must feel like, to finally, after two decades of desperately abstaining, what it feels like to use her magic.  To let its potential rampage freely through the Coliseum in the form of a snarling dragon, swatting sorcerers' birds away from its smoking face like bothersome flies. 

It's through this horrifying tangle of pride and power that Arthur finally accepts his sister is going to die.  If the sorcerers defeat her - Mal will be killed, if Mal wins - she will still be torn to shreds by her own dark magic.  Regardless of the outcome, Arthur will lose his sister here today, and he still doesn't even understand why.

His mind is quickly dragged back to the ring however, as the dragon descends upon the sorcerers with a terrible scream.  Several of the sorcerers raise their hands and shout out broken defensive spells at the last moment, but even as the dragon dissolves from their counter attacks, the wake of ash it leaves behind still covers four distinct corpses.

"Sixteen sorcerers to go," the man beside Arthur hisses. "And it looks like our champion is just warming up." 

Arthur jerks his head back to his sister who is rising off of the ground in a swirling cloud of dark magic.  Shimmering streams of her own power spring forth like rivulets, winding across the sand and forming a monstrous whirlpool in the centre of the Coliseum.  Before the nearest sorcerers can realise what's happening - it's too late and two of them are sucked down beneath the crashing waves of sand, suffocated and crushed like Mal and Arthur had seen happen to desert mice during storms. 

Eventually, however, the sorcerers seem to finally recover from the shock of having a worthy opponent.  The remaining fourteen collect themselves and draw into a tight circle before launching a myriad of powerful curses at Mal.  Arthur cries out as the spells threaten to reach their target before a wall of sand rises up in front of his sister's fragile form. 

We are children of the desert Arthur

Arthur gasps as the golden wall transmutes into a wave of charging stallions, lightening flashes across the arena, melting extended limbs of sand that harden instantaneously into glass sharp horns from each horse.  The shrieks as a sorcerer is impaled on one of the conjured beasts echo around the Coliseum without the need for magical amplification.      

Arthur's heart beats in time with the pounding of the horses' hooves, he even shatters when they do, struck by the blow of a sorcerer's spell. 

Next come bats - the winged vermin had always been a favourite of Mal's.  They mutate from the very black robes she had discarded earlier, flapping with venomous fangs towards their prey - taking down two more sorcerers in their wake.

Of course Mal gets hurt too, the sorcerers are not children.  They are men and women trained in attack magic and they're there to win. 

But they don't.

And when it's finally down to the last two sorcerers it seems that the crowd finally accepts that as well.  There's a wave of silent shock as the final body is seen crumpling to the ground, dragged down by slithering serpents of crimson that Mal brought forth from her own blood - her own cursed blood.

And yet it's not the sorcerer's death that Arthur is watching, it's his sister's. 

He can see the moment the darkness consumes Mal, the exact second her body fails underneath the weight of the power she's wielded that day.

Arthur's voice is already long gone - driven raw and hoarse from his screams and yells.  But his mouth still falls open in muted pain as his only family falls to her knees on the blood soaked sand.  For the first time that day, Mal's dark eyes find Arthur's amongst the crowds.  Her lips curve into a small meaningful smile before she's enveloped in a cloud of dark smoke. 

Arthur finds himself beating against the arena shield, staggering forwards as it finally dissipates with the last sorcerer's death.  But it's too late, Mal is already gone.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"You must find Arthur,"

 

The girl's strong and defiant voice rasps through Eames' mind as he watches her crumple inwards into nothing more than a bellow of black smoke.  She had won, she'd actually bloody gone and won.

Eames blinks in disbelief at the unfolding scene before him.  The crowds are going wild, the noise they are making must surely be deafening, but Eames can't hear a single thing apart from those words in his head.  It's as if the last girl reached out with the last single tendril of her power to touch his mind, to make him remember his promise. 

Eames turns to the guard next to him, the man's face is almost comical in how shocked it looks. 

"You need to release me," Eames states, suddenly coming back to his senses and wincing as the roar of the Coliseum's audience washes over him like a tsunami of sound. 

The guard doesn't even seem to register Eames' voice, but stares straight ahead instead, at the freshly sprayed red ring of sand. 

"Hey!" Eames shouts angrily, feeling his nerves start to rise up.  He leans forward to bat at the man's shoulder, finally grabbing his attention.  "You need to take this sodding collar off," Eames growls, gesturing to the metal leash around his neck, connecting him to the guards behind. 

"What?" the guard states blankly, Eames presumes he must have meant it as a question despite the lack of inflection.

"My champion won," Eames grits out frustratedly, "I'm a free man." 

"I -" the guard starts before shaking his head, "no, that doesn't even happen."

"Well it just bloody happened didn't it?!" Eames snarls, glancing down as his wrist starts to hurt, for a moment he thinks the guard is grabbing on to it, but instead he realises there's nothing there - just the Seprimo mark. 

The patterned burn scars look red and raw, a far cry from the docile pearled white they had been that morning.

"Bugger," Eames scowls, glancing up into the thousands of spectators and wondering if any of them is 'Arthur'.  The girl's promise is obviously still holding fast, just like she said it would.  If he doesn't fucking find her brother soon then the mark will re-ignite and devour him in punishing black flame.  Eames frowns hard, he hasn't just miraculously escaped one death to be greeted by another.  "Sod this," he growls, jerking his aching hand forward and snatching the ring of copper keys off of the still shell-shocked guard. 

Eames makes short work of his own bindings, quickly releasing himself and letting the heavy and constraining metalwork fall to the ground with a thud.  He pushes past the guards behind him, who seem to be too dazed to make any attempt to stop him - not that they've even got any legal grounds to now.

"Free man," Eames shouts at the barrier guard who looks slightly wary before nodding hesitantly and letting Eames pass out of the ring and into the bowels of the Coliseum. 

The tunnels are dark and gratifyingly cool, but all Eames can focus on is the burning sensation that is now spreading up his entire left arm.  He dashes through the labyrinth of tunnels like a madman, thank fuck for his keen sense of direction or he could end up lost down here.  He only knows the way out because the guards led him that same way this morning. 

Eames emerges into blinding daylight on the outside of the Coliseum, exiting via a small concealed door behind the back of a wooden toy stall.  The bearded seller pays Eames no attention as he hurries past and begins to frantically scan the crowds that are currently pouring out of the main entrances of the Coliseum. 

 

***

 

"Look - say we get lucky tomorrow.  How in hell am I meant to find your brother afterwards? Wait outside the arena with a handwritten sign or something?"

Mal clucked her tongue impatiently, before waving her hand - her own fresh burn marks still clearly visible.  "Do you think I've already considered that?" she hissed.  "I will cast a spell, one that uses a part of Arthur's own magic so it will not die with me.  You will be able to find him."

"Think you could give me a few more details sweetheart?" Eames asked with a sigh.  "Only if my life is depending on locating 'Arthur' then I would quite like to make sure I bloody do." 

"He'll glow," Mal stated simply, much to Eames' amazement.

"He-he'll what?" Eames asked incredulously.

"He will glow," Mal annunciated clearly as if Eames was some kind of common idiot.  Perhaps she thought he was, god knows what she actually knew about him.  "Like a glow worm," she shrugged.

"So I'll be keeping an eye out for a glowing boy who looks a lot like you?" Eames questioned dully, already half certain he must have hallucinated this entire exchange due to dehydration.  The guards kept trying to give him fucking piss instead of clean water to drink. 

"You will find him," Mal repeated, betraying absolutely no doubt in her tone.

"Bloody hope so," Eames had growled.

Not dying a horrible and painful death had always kind of been at the top of his list.

 

***

 

Eames winces as the sun beats down further on him and he is still stood helplessly outside the rapidly emptying Coliseum without a glowing boy in sight. 

"Bugger," Eames mutters, wiping his non-stinging hand down his face and throwing the sweat to the sand where it falls in darkened patches.  He groans as he realises there is just no way he is going to be able to find Arthur like this, and judging by the tender pain across his shoulders - he's running out of time. 

Eames strides forwards and pushes his way through the tightly packed crowds, shifting his form as he emerges from the shadows to a gnarled old beggar.  This has the fortunate effect of none of the masses identifying him as the dodgy shapeshifter that a dark magic champion just died for.

Eames pauses just outside one of the Coliseum exits, the crowds are starting to thin out and Eames feels a rising panic that he's already missed the boy - or perhaps he hadn't even been at the Trials.  Mal hadn't given much indication that her brother was in on her death-wish of a plan.  Eames chews on his lip for a moment, trying to imagine that if he'd just lost the person closest to him in the world - where would he be?

Eames clucks his tongue frustratedly as he's never been that particularly close to anyone on Pinoncite, let alone felt any familial affection.  He takes a deep breath and attempts to simply use his imagination, the first thing he'd probably feel would be shock, and just like it had done to the guard holding the key - shock renders you motionless for a while.  Eames wrenches his head back round to peer into the gaping entrance before turning on his heels and sprinting back into the Coliseum. 

The auditorium is still scattered with spectators who are yet to leave.  Some are gathering their belongings, counting their children or simply waiting for the initial queues to die down.  There is one figure, however, who stands completely still, pressed up against the barrier between sand and seats as if there was still a protective shield stopping him from making the transition. 

This particular figure catches Eames undivided attention - owing to the fact that he is emitting a soft but noticeable glow.  Eames' mouth falls open before he looks around to see if anyone else has noticed the human glow worm - apparently not, judging by their lack of curiosity or interest.  Eames guesses the spell only affects him and as he draws nearer to the figure the glow seems to abate, as if satisfied it's drawn in its quarry. 

Eames finally manages to get the sun out of his eyes as he rounds the corner of stacked seats and walks quietly up behind the fading glow.  The silhouette morphs into the clear form of a young man with dark hair and simple clothes.  He has he back to Eames and is stood staring out across the arena at a darkened patch of sand.  Eames frowns as the figure's breath hitches strangely and slender shoulders shake, before he realises that the boy must be crying.

Eames shifts back into his true form before clearing his throat awkwardly and hazarding, "Arthur?"

The boy spins round and immediately Eames knows he's succeeded in finding Mal's brother.  It's not just the sudden relief from burning pain in his left arm that tells him it, but rather Arthur's unmistakable shared features with his twin. 

The boy's eyes are red and puffy but harden immediately upon seeing Eames into something that genuinely looks quite threatening.  Eames is just about to introduce himself when the tear-stained street rat makes a lunge at him, wrapping his hands around Eames' neck.  Whatever reaction Eames had been expecting, this was not it.  He coughs and splutters before jerking himself out of the boy's attack and going to grab his narrow wrists. Turning Arthur quickly around and pinning him down against the railing with ease. 

The boy lets out a furious shout, squirming back against Eames' muscled grip and frantically kicking his legs back to try and catch Eames in one of his more sensitive areas. 

"Bloody hell," Eames bites out, thrusting his hips and his crotch out of reach just in time.  Eventually Arthur's struggle begins to wear down, clearly the boy is exhausted and probably suffering from dehydration and heatstroke judging by the prominent red flush down his cheeks and neck.  Eames knows that Arthur must be dark magic - the same as his sister, and that would probably explain why he's refraining from using any spells against Eames. 

"My name's Eames," Eames shouts to try and be heard over Arthur's laboured pants of breath. 

"I know," Arthur spits with a particularly vicious kick backwards, causing Eames to let out a grunt of pain.  Eames shoves his weight forwards, instead of trying to arch backwards, in this new position he can use his entire frame to render Arthur immobile against the railing.  The notches in the boy's spine press uncomfortably at Eames' chest and every desperate breath pushes them further in still. 

"Well normally I only get that kind of greeting from people I've actually met before," Eames huffs, blowing hair out of his face where the sweat has caused it to stick to him there. 

"Why you?!" Arthur croaks.  "Why the fuck would she die for you?"

Eames steadies himself, gathering his own breath back before leaning his weight further into Arthur to ensure he's listening closely.  "I don't bloody know alright? All I know is your sister made me swear a Seprimo that I would find you after the fight and that's what I've done.  Now if you're prepared to try and stop rendering your sister's sacrifice redundant for a moment - "

Arthur lets out a howl of rage that causes Eames to have to crush him further still.

"-maybe we could actually get out of here and figure this thing out hmm?"

After a few tense moments, Arthur stills beneath him and Eames lets out a sigh of relief he didn't realise he'd been holding.  He draws back tentatively from Arthur's quivering body, wincing as he sees bruises already blossoming on patches of visible skin.  He hadn't meant to hurt the kid - only stop him from violently murdering Eames. 

"Don't try to run either," Eames adds as an afterthought, glancing warily down at his promise burns. 

"Why would I do that?" Arthur asks bitterly, turning round to meet Eames' eyes with the same defiant stare as his sister.  "Mal died so you could find me apparently.  I think I'm owed an explanation, don't you?"

Eames swallows hard before holding out his hand to Arthur, indication that they should leave the Coliseum together.  Arthur looks down at the hand as one might a bloodied dagger before sniffing with evident disgust and storming out ahead of Eames. 

Eames shakes his head as he paces after the kid, finding himself struggling to keep up, despite the boy's obvious weakened physical state.  It's going to be a very long journey to Alack at this rate.

 

 

***

 

Alack

 

Eames mulls the notion over in his mind as he stares at the sleeping form of Arthur across a patch of stubbled grass under a bending desert tree.  He'd managed to convince Arthur to leave the city immediately at least.  Eames wouldn't be happy until he'd put Nigeb firmly behind him.  The boy had turned out to already have all of his belongings with him and gave the impression that he was probably wanted in the town for some business with unpaid rent. 

Eames figured whatever the crime was, it probably wasn't serious enough to warrant anyone actually coming after them.  So after they'd manage to put two hours walk between them and the beige planes of the desert city, Eames had suggested that they make camp. 

After Eames had initially explained his first and only meeting with Arthur's sister Mal, the boy had fallen silent.  Eames wasn't entirely convinced that the word 'Alack' even meant anything to Arthur, judging by the kid's somewhat puzzled and frustrated frown for the rest of the trek.  It had been a shame Eames hadn't been able to score any sand ponies or horses to speed things up a bit, but they'd left in somewhat of a rush with the pressing necessity for being inconspicuous.

Arthur hadn't even said a word as they'd settled down for the evening, he'd merely laid down a noticeable way away from Eames before rolling over. 

Eames shivers as darkness begins to fall, he shuffles closer to the fire.  Desert nights are notoriously cold, a sharp contrast to the stifling heat of the day.  He narrows his eyes over at Arthur, the kid hasn't even got a blanket with him, or seemingly any thicker layers to wear.  If he continues to stay so stubbornly far away from Eames, and subsequently the fire, he'll surely wake up sick. 

Eames tries to push his niggling concerns away from his mind for the time being.  After all if the kid dies perhaps he'll be released from his promise?

Eames flinches as whispered words filter through his skull, as if the speaker were sitting only inches away from him,

"You will ensure he arrives in the city safely.  You will protect him at all costs and you will honour this deal with your life."

 

"Bugger," Eames huffs, rising up off the rounded rock he's been perched on, before crossing as quietly as he can over to the sleeping boy.  He gingerly slides his hands underneath Arthur's body before rolling him into the crooks of his elbows and lifting him up and over closer towards the warmth of the fire.  

Eames is glad of his decision after a particularly biting and chilly wind passes through the makeshift camp.  He manages to deposit Arthur back on relatively soft grass without causing him to stir.  He's never seen a street orphan sleep so soundly before, he half wonders if Arthur's never really had to look out for himself what with his strong-willed sister standing guard over him at night?

Then again, Arthur certainly has his own fire within him, his attack on Eames had proved that.  Eames shudders as he rubs the still smarting skin of his throat. 

Eames' calloused and thick fingers find their way down to his aching shoulders, massaging them tenderly as he cranes his neck and catches sight of one of his tattoos.  The dark swirling calligraphic script is the same one that Mal had taken particular notice of.

Not surprising really, considering the tattoo was written in Alackai, the ancestral language of the Kaiaya people whose capital city was of course, Alack. 

"Alack," Eames states out loud just to hear how ridiculous it sounds even to his own ears. 

"You know where it is," Mal had hissed at him with passionately glinting eyes.

 

No he bloody didn't.

 

In short, Eames was now royally screwed.  I mean - of course he'd fucking said he'd take her brother to the mysterious lost city after he'd realised that Mal was actually serious about being his champion at the Trials.  But the truth was, Eames honestly had found his tattooed Alackai proverb in some dusty old book, he'd gotten it etched permanently on his skin as the message had seemed worthwhile at the time.  Then again, that had been a long time ago.

He hadn't even really expected Mal to win against the sorcerers, they were trained sorcerers for crying out loud.  Obviously he'd underestimated the power of dark magic.  Eames peers across at Arthur's gently slumbering form, wondering if this thin boy has just as much potential power in him?

Arthur's features are still somewhat red and swollen from crying, as much as he'd tried to hide it from Eames on the trek out of Nigeb.  However, it's still bloody obvious to any fool that the kid's beautiful.  Arthur's skin is tanned, his dark eyelashes are thick and fan across his cheeks in sleep.  His full lips are set in a permanent pout that seem to refuse to part, even in slumber. 

Eames shakes his head, this might be a child of the desert but he's going to have a hard time actually keeping him safe in it.  Inner desert towns are notoriously rough and dangerous, no place for a boy who looks like Arthur.  Eames wonders how Mal had managed to keep her brother safe, before remembering her evident tenacity, even in the few short moments he'd known her. 

No, the real problem will be trying to figure out a problem like Alack.

Eames knows where Mal got the mistaken idea that he'd been there - bloody Yusuf.  Then again, that was also kind of Eames' fault as he distinctly remembers bragging to Yusuf on several occasions that he'd visited the lost Atlantis of a city.  The honest truth was that when Eames had been getting his tattoo done in a dingy little parlour in the questionable settlement of Egidu, he'd happened to meet upon another man who'd been able to read the freshly inscribed script on Eames' shoulder.

"Amn tarial etack piola," the fair headed man had read out loud, squinting at Eames' new ink across the smokey air of a back alley bar.  "That's Alackai..." the man had murmured thoughtfully, sliding off of his barstool and drawing closer to Eames with his amber drink still in his hand.  "It translates to 'In lo-"

"I know what it means," Eames had coughed, half choking on his own beverage in his haste to cut the man off.  He'd gotten the words written on his skin, he didn't need the whole bar to hear them.

"That's probably not the poignant or poetic proverb you hoped it would be when you found it in some dusty old book," the man had laughed, "it's actually part of a manual for -"

"Do you have a name?" Eames had snapped.  He'd only just lost quite a large quantity of money in a card game that afternoon, and wasn't feeling all that amenable to chatting with complete strangers in some backwater hell hole that he was being forced to lie low in. 

"Cobb," the man had replied promptly, holding out his hand for Eames to shake.  Eames had stubbed out his cigarette before responding cordially enough to the gesture, names were a currency around these parts and not always so willingly given, it was an act of good faith for sure. 

"What's your poison Cobb?" Eames had asked, nodding to Cobb's nearly empty glass. 

"Anything they're selling," Cobb had admitted with a rueful grin.  It was only by being up close that Eames now recognized the red flush of Cobb's nose and cheeks, the slightly glazed veneer to his eyes - the man was an alcoholic for sure. 

"I've been there you know," Cobb murmured as Eames gestured to the barkeep to bring them another round of the same, although god knows what that actually was. 

"Where?" Eames asked absently, distracted by quickly scouting out possible exits from the bar for when it was time to pay his tab. 

"That language," Cobb hiccoughed, swaying slightly, "Alackai, it was spoken by the Kaiaya people.  I've been to their city - Alack."

"Sure you have mate," Eames smiled gently, indulging the poor sod.  Perhaps he'd even been through a rougher time of it recently than Eames?

"No," Cobb frowned, "I really have, I can prove it." 

This caught Eames' interest by a fraction more as he turned to pass Cobb his newly arrived and brimming drink.  "Oh?" Eames prompted as Cobb seemed to take an eternity to savour his first sip. 

"What?" Cobb looked confused for a moment before realisation dawned on his face, "Oh - Alack! Yeah, no I can prove that I've been there.  I used to work for Sandsneaks when I was a boy,"

Eames raised his eyebrows.  'Sandsneaks' were bands of petty criminals who tended to live on moving caravans across the desert.

"I'm a dream-stealer," Cobb added by way of explanation, not that that meant much at all to Eames.

"The hell is a dream-stealer?" Eames asked, taking a sip of his own stale drink and wrinkling his nose. 

"I can take people's dreams when they're sleeping, "Cobb answered with an almost wistful look.

"What would people want with other folks' dreams?" Eames questioned, feeling like Cobb was probably missing out some important information here.

Cobb, however, suddenly let out a sudden laugh that somewhat startled Eames, causing him to spill half his drink.  "Are you kidding?" Cobb snorted as Eames scowled and reached for the nearest rag on the bar to clean himself up.

"Dreams can reveal everything about a person," Cobb continued as if nothing had happened, "they're the secrets that your subconscious tries to conceal from the rest of the world."

Eames thought about his own dreams that mostly involved writhing naked bodies and plentiful amount of drink and food.  He wasn't exactly sure what was so secret or valuable about that content. 

"So my father sold me to the caravan of Sandsneaks," Cobb had announced as if he was already mid-way through a story that he'd simply forgotten to clue Eames on.  "And we travelled all across the inner desert going from one end of Pinoncite to the other."

"And you just happened to find the lost city of Alack?" Eames suggested, with a casual wave of his hand. 

"No," Cobb shook his head with a shudder, that served to knock Eames' hand once again.  Eames sighed, placing his now nearly empty glass back on the safety of the bar in front of him, resigning himself to being uncomfortably damp and sticky for the rest of the night. 

"It found us," Cobb continued.  "It was just shadows at first," he paused, "whispers in the sand storm winds.  We didn't think much of it - figured we were all tired and dehydrated at best." 

"What are you talking about?" Eames narrowed his eyes, wondering why the hell he was listening so intently to the ramblings of some inebriated and wretched soul.

"There's darkness in Alack," Cobb said, in barely more than a whisper, causing Eames to lean in further to hear the rest of his alcohol addled speech.  "And darkness needs to feed.  It sensed us you see - we wandered too close to Alack in the desert and it stretched out its roots of darkness like a cactus might find water many miles away." 

"You're saying you were drawn to the city because it was hungry?" Eames stated dully, wondering if he could get away with ordering another drink or whether the bartender would start demanding some form of payment soon. 

"Yes!" Cobb cried, his eyes lighting up as he moved to grab Eames' shoulder excitedly.  Eames let out a hiss of pain as Cobb's fingers pressed against his still sore skin from the recent tattoo.  "That's what it does you see - you think you're going mad, but it drew us in and then it turned us on each other before..." Cobb's eyes glazed over again, "....there's darkness in Alack."

"So you said," Eames nodded cheerfully before making the decision to stand up and quickly make his exit whilst the barkeep was refilling some barrels. 

"Wait," Cobb called out, following Eames through the side exit and out onto the chilled night air of the town.  "Don't you want to see it?"

"See what?" Eames frowned.

"My proof of course," Cobb replied before looking around furtively and pulling Eames over to the shadowed side of the street.

"Yes, well, hurry up about it will you?" Eames replied tensely, glancing back up at the bar exit and wondering when the barman would realise he'd absconded with the best part of five pints in him without coughing up a coin.

"Come back to mine," Cobb told Eames adamantly.

"You having a laugh?" Eames muttered irritably, dragging his hand down his face and wondering what he'd done to shit so much on Karma this time? "Sorry mate but you're not really my type..."

"Please," Cobb hissed, "I want to show someone and you -" he pointed at Eames' tattoo, "you'll appreciate them!"

At that moment Eames heard angry shouting starting up from inside the bar.  "Um, yeah alright - you say you've got a place here in town?" Eames asked Cobb quickly, grabbing his arm and starting them off at a rapid pace down the street, "Okay you take me there then."

Eames figured even if Cobb was planning on leading him down some back alley to beat him up and fleece him of all his belongings he'd still be able to probably take the pissed git.

Instead, however, Cobb had been true to his word and guided Eames back to his modest apartment above what looked suspiciously to be some kind of brothel catering to those not in possession of sight...or smell. 

"Excuse the mess," Cobb had burped as he'd led Eames into the large single room with a makeshift bed propped up against one end of the space.  Everything was everywhere and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to Cobb's placement of possessions.  However it still took him a surprisingly short amount of time to find what he was apparently looking for. 

"These," Cobb hissed reverently, presently Eames with the four cracked stone tablets, each of them about the size of a full grown man's palm.  "are something you might recognize."

Eames had frowned down at the tablets, momentarily distracted by the ornate edging of embedded gold, there were also swirling patterns in between each line of script - clearly some sort of precious stone fused into the rock using bonding magic.  "They're beautiful..." Eames had murmured, "must be worth a bloody fortune."

"Yes, yes," Cobb had whispered dismissively, "but look at the script."

Eames attempted to further focus his alcohol blurred vision to study the chipped calligraphic lines.  "Oh," he said suddenly in understanding, "It's written in Alackai - the same as my tattoo."

"The very same," Cobb smiled triumphantly.  "I managed to bring them with me when I escaped the city - the only one of my caravan to do so."

Eames glanced up to take note of Cobb's accompanying expression to his fantastical proclamation.  Where Cobb was mad, drunk or neither - he certainly seemed to believe his own story. 

The two men had stayed up talking for an hour after that before Cobb had offered Eames some blankets for the night and promptly fallen asleep himself. 

By morning Eames was gone, and so were the tablets.

The inner desert town of Egidu was firmly behind him. 

 

 

 

 

 

"Bollocks," Eames groans, pinching the bridge of his nose and nudging out the stick he's holding to stoke the fire back up to life.  If the fire dies out during the night then it won't exactly be ideal for him or Arthur. 

The realisation that Eames is going to have to go back to Egidu solely to seek out Cobb has not exactly done his headache any favours.  Cobb, a drunk, probably very confused, ex-criminal who Eames had robbed blind was his only bloody hope of actually finding his way to Alack and not being consumed by cursed Seprimo fire. 

Eames glared over at Arthur, what the hell had Mal been playing at?

 

"The Kaiaya...were one of the few races where people could be born of both dark and light magic...and for anyone of fully Dark magic - they invented a device that could turn them half light - allowing them to live long and healthy lives." 

Mal's words echo through the pangs of pain in Eames' head. 

"So this is all for you is it?" Eames grunts miserably as his glare in Arthur's direction softens from sheer fatigue.  Eames can't see this whole ordeal resulting in anything other than catastrophic failure, but, he guesses, at least it's a chance.

Then again, maybe going up against twenty sorcerers in the ring might have been more of a chance.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur inhales sharply as he wakes up and remembers the previous day.  This, as it turns out, is somewhat of a mistake as he ends up with a lungful of sand from the dry ground upon which he's lying. 

"Bloody hell," he hears someone exclaim in the background before a hand thumps down hard on his back, causing Arthur to jerk in surprise before whipping round with a vicious glare.

"I inhaled sand you idiot," he croaks up at a far too awake looking Eames, "hitting me isn't going to help." 

"Helps me," Eames mutters under his breath before stalking back over to his side of the burnt out fire.  A scorch mark of black ash scars the arid grassland of the clearing in which they made camp for the night.  Arthur shivers slightly as the morning sun breaks through the branches above and heats up his skin.  He wonders how cold it actually was during the night?

"I got us breakfast," Eames announces, gesturing to a pile of bulbous, fleshy roots lying on a piece of torn fabric. 

Arthur grimaces at the tubers, they're Tazalaj roots and he knows from experience that they taste like how sunburn feels.  Mal and him had always avoided the noxious but nutritious sources of protein when they'd been in the desert, instead preferring to capture mice and rats to roast.

"You need to eat," Eames states bluntly, squinting over at Arthur's lanky form as if assessing him.  Arthur bristles under the scrutiny, shaking his head stubbornly, "No - I need to figure out what the hell is going on here." 

Eames sighs as if he's grown weary of explaining the situation to Arthur, "I bloody told you didn't I kid? Your sister made me swear by Seprimo that I'd take you to the lost city of Alack."

"Why though?" Arthur snaps in frustration. 

"Beats me," Eames replies bitterly before lying back against a log and shielding his eyes from the sun.  The older man huffs loudly a moment later, "Look, she said something about how the Kaiaya could be made up of both light and dark magic." 

"Yeah," Arthur replies, still not understanding, "I know the myth - Mal used to tell it to me when we were younger." 

"Well what she might have left out," Eames clears his throat, "is that the Kaiaya also were rumoured to have come up with a way of turning someone fully dark into half and half."

Arthur screws up his face in a frown, "that's such bullshit.  There's no way Mal would have thrown her life away for a fairytale like that."

"Well from the looks of her magic, it's not like she had much life left to live anyway kitten," Eames shrugs, his eyes widening as Arthur lets out an angry cry and launches himself at the other man. 

Arthur feels, much to his satisfaction, his untrimmed nails embed themselves in the flesh of Eames' right shoulder, scratching down his arm to leave livid red marks. 

"Bloody bollocks!" Eames shouts, frozen for a moment in shock before snapping into action and turning Arthur round to pin him against the ground. 

"Get off me," Arthur hisses, writhing angrily underneath the older man's weight.  There are rocks and stones beneath him that are digging in uncomfortably, and every breath allows more puffs of dirt to clog his nostrils and throat. 

"Only if you stop trying to scratch my eyes out," Eames says in low, threatening growl.  Arthur thrashes a bit more before finally giving up and relenting.  He nods tersely before stilling his struggling limbs. 

"Alright," Eames murmurs softly.  His tone annoys Arthur, it's like Eames is trying to coax some kind of wild animal into behaving.

"Fuck you," Arthur coughs, scrambling backwards and spitting out sand onto the grass.  There's a few moments silence as Arthur continues to hawk up dirt, wiping his mouth gingerly and trying to ignore the curious way Eames is looking at him. 

"Fairytale or not," Eames states quietly, "your sister believed in it.  She died trying to do right by you.  That, look, that's got to mean something no?"

Arthur narrows his eyes over at Eames, the other man looks somewhat uncomfortable, his own eyes not quite meeting Arthur's.  Arthur droops as he realises this is probably Eames' version of an apology.  Eames seems to sense the change in the atmosphere and continues talking, sounding slightly more upbeat now. 

"Look, I'll get you to Alack and whether or not the device is there - it's what your sister wanted you to do okay? She wouldn't have sacrificed a chance at more time with her brother for no good reason." 

"What happens if I refuse to go to Alack with you?" Arthur asks darkly, rubbing the back of his neck as the sun starts to rise powerfully in the sky. 

"You know what a Seprimo seal is Arthur?" Eames cocks an eyebrow at the younger man.  Arthur shrugs, he's heard of them before. 

"A magical way of sealing promises," Arthur replies, his eyes drifting down to the burn marks on Eames' wrist.

"That's part of it," Eames nods, "are you aware of what happens if the recipient of the scars doesn't carry out their promise?"

"Something bad?" Arthur hazards as Eames lets out a responding grim laugh.

"They burn you to death from the inside out," Eames informs him, "and they take their fucking time about it too.  It's probably one of the most agonizing ways to leave the world of Pinoncite."

"I see," Arthur replies drily, understanding now why this shapeshifting criminal is so desperate to keep his word to Mal.  "So I'm guessing it wouldn't work out great for you if I refuse to go with you?"

A tense shadow passes across Eames' face as he shakes his head, "not bloody likely, no."  He sighs, reaching out for one of the Tazalaj roots and biting into it with a sharp grimace.  Arthur pulls a face in sympathy, gods he hates the taste of those things. 

"But why the hell wouldn't you want to go?" Eames asks, pointing his half chewed root towards Arthur.  "You're born of dark magic kid, like your sister.  Time's running out for you and evidently your sister believed something in Alack could help you." 

"Why did she have to choose you as guide though?" Arthur asks angrily, jumping to his feet.  "There must be other people who know how to get to the city, people who aren't pathetic criminals that need someone to fight against sorcerers for them!"

"Don't be so sure," Eames growls in a low, guttural voice.  "Most people don't even believe Alack still exists, let alone have any inkling of where the ruins could be.  No, someone who's already been to Alack? That's like a drop of water in the desert, kitten."

"Stop calling me kitten," Arthur hisses agitatedly, kicking out at the pile of Tazalaj roots and sending them scattering across the dry earth.  Eames looks blank for a moment before letting out a surprised laugh, "didn't meant to offend you," he shrugs, "you and your sister just reminded me of wild desert cats."

"Yariyans?" Arthur frowns, thinking of the small and slender felines that prowl the rocky outcrops of the central desert.  Their coats varied between black, grey and brown, hooked canines over lower dark lips. 

"Yeah," Eames nods with a lopsided grin, before yawning widely - allowing Arthur to notice his crooked teeth.  "the venomous balls of fluff that attack anything that moves." 

"It's just a rumour that Yariyans have poison in their fangs and claws," Arthur retorts, sitting back down and pulling his pack towards him.

"Bloody hope so," Eames muses thoughtfully, Arthur glances up to see the other man running his own large, thick fingers down the crimson red scratches Arthur had given him.  Arthur flushes uncomfortably before continuing to rummage in his pack.  He frowns before pulling out an unfamiliar scroll, the manuscript is on dark, weathered parchment that looks like it's been stained with tannin.  The ink that's been used is a silvery green so as to show up on the shaded background.  Arthur guesses it must be one of Mal's history manuscripts but he's got no idea what it's doing in his bag. 

He unfurls the thick paper as a small handwritten note falls out, wafting down into his lap. 

A scholar's translation from the original Alackai seals.

- Mal

 

Arthur lets out a gasp as he realises that Mal must have left this document intentionally in his pack, his eyes quickly scan the page.  It's in the traditional language of the western desert, but at least it's not still in Alackai which Arthur wouldn't have had a hope of understanding. 

"You read Radem?" Eames asks loudly from where he's moved to peer over Arthur's shoulder.  Arthur flinches, not having noticed the older man's presence there before.  "You don't?" Arthur asks through gritted teeth. 

"Never seen much use for it," Eames shrugs, kneeling down next to Arthur, far too close for comfort.  Arthur can still smell the sickly odour of Tazalaj roots coming from Eames' breath.  There's another scent there too, a spiced musk that reminds him of desert markets that seems to be coming from Eames himself. 

"It's the language of our people," Arthur replies tersely, trying to ignore whatever familiar fumes Eames is giving off. 

"Your people kitten," Eames replies before rolling his eyes and chucking at Arthur's indignant expression, "Sorry, your people Arthur." 

"Where are you from then?" Arthur frowns, taking in Eames' sandy hair and pale almost grey eyes. 

"Here and there," Eames winks with a cheeky grin.

"Where do you live?" Arthurs sighs, determined to at least try to get a straight answer out of the criminal. 

"I'm a nomad like yourself I believe," Eames replies, brushing the dust off of his clothes and standing back up to reach for a water flask.  "I go wherever the jobs are."

"You mean criminal jobs," Arthur interjects flatly.

"Where does someone born of dark magic get off judging me?" Eames snorts.  Arthur can feel his own hackles rise, his shoulders set in a tense line.

"It doesn't matter whether you're born of light or dark magic," Arthur replies coldly, "it doesn't equate to 'good' or 'bad'." 

"Neither does my profession," Eames states smugly.

Arthur shakes his head with an annoyed huff, "whatever, just shut up and let me read." 

The scholar that wrote the translation was either incredibly pretentious or lived quite a long time ago, as about a quarter of the words used are now obsolete and considered archaic.  The traditional language is, in all honestly pretty much a dead language anyway, but the words of this scroll prove to be a real challenge for Arthur's usually good comprehension skills.

Arthur mumbles and trips over words as he puts them into the modern language in his head, "light...passion...no that's not right...light, love."

Eames starts humming the tune to old folk songs that contain the words Arthur is murmuring out loud. 

"Stop that," Arthur snaps, finally able to take it no more, "this is hard enough to get right without you wailing horribly in the background." 

"I was merely trying to help," Eames shrugs, "many people find accompanying music to be an aid with intellectual tasks."

"Music, perhaps," Arthur replies haughtily.  He still can't understand what on Pinoncite led Mal to believing this unshaved, egocentric, ruffian criminal was someone worth putting her trust in.  Arthur's not sure that Eames could find his way out of a bar, let alone across the desert to the ruins of a mythical city.

"It says something about Fakshir birds," Arthur sighs, frowning intently down at the page in his hands, "but I don't even know what those are..."

"And you call me a ruffian?" Eames snorts.  Arthur flushes furiously, realising that he must  have been voicing his critique of Eames out loud along with his attempted translation. 

"Well?" Arthur prompts after an agonizing ten seconds of Eames giving no further input.  "Are you going to elaborate?"

"Oh, you want my help do you?" Eames keeps his eyes closed where he's reclined back against the rock, but his full lips twitch in amusement. 

"I thought you wanted me to get on board with this Alack nonsense?" Arthur snaps impatiently.  "I could just give up on translating this Alackai manuscript and just go my own way you know? Let's see how your Seprimo scars like that idea?"

It could be Arthur's imagination but he's sure he sees the flash of a wince pass across Eames' features. 

"Well they're not bloody birds for starters," Eames announces with wave of his hand.  They're clouds - and if you had the same 'criminal' background as me you'd already know that."

Arthur tries to give his best unimpressed and dour expression for when Eames cracks open an eye and stares across at him.  "Cloud superstitions are very important for those in my trade," Eames elaborates before Arthur rolls his eyes.

"Yes, I know.  Okay fine, they're clouds - what kind of clouds?"

"The small sapphire blue ones you get after a storm," Eames replies, lazily flicking a desert fly off of his arm.  "The myth goes that they're the reincarnated souls of those who died by magical means." 

"I don't understand what that's got to do with anything," Arthur frowns miserably down at the manuscript. 

"It's a metaphor," Eames answers him, sitting up further against the rock and shielding his eyes with his hand as he looks over towards Arthur, "basically a fancy arse way of saying 'reincarnation' or 'being given life." 

Arthur chews on his lip, ignoring the rusted tang telling him he's bleeding as he scans the words around that particular phrase. 

"You're probably reading the scroll too literally," Eames sighs, causing Arthur to flick his eyes up and see the other man stretching languidly his shirt riding up to reveal the hardened muscles of his abdomen.  Arthur gulps before affixing his eyes firmly once more to the page. 

"Ancient scribes were ostentatious tossers," Eames continues, thankfully ignoring Arthur's current tomato red pallor.  "They'd never write anything down straight forward if they could help it.  You have to use your imagination when reading stuff like that."

"I'll try," Arthur mutters sourly, running the pad of his index finger across the link of curling silver green ink. 

"I think it's talking about the device," Arthur says at last, his mind whirring with desperate curiosity.  "If...if it exists, and it can turn people into a balance of light and dark - then, well that would be like a reincarnation of half of them no?"

"You're the scholar," Eames replies with a yawn, causing Arthur to click his tongue irritably. 

He can't let Eames know the truth, about how Mal took all of Arthur's magic in order to triumph as a challenger.  But...that exchange of magic...."we're still linked," Arthur murmurs in frozen wonder. 

There might be a tiny chance I could bring Mal back.

"Fuck," Arthur states suddenly, lifting his head up from the scroll to see Eames squinting questioningly at him.

"I'll come," Arthur says decisively, "I'll come with you to Alack."   

Eames sits up, inhaling deeply before letting the breath out again.  "So nice of you to acquiesce darling, it's not like I would have died horribly if you didn't or anything."

It's now Arthur's turn to roll his eyes at Eames' being such a pouty drama queen.  But he doesn't care, he'll put up with anyone for company if it means a chance at getting Mal back. 

"We should get going," Arthur announces promptly, jumping up and frowning as Eames stretches to pull off his soiled shirt.  Arthur tries to hide the small gasp he takes as his eyes fall on tanned skin stretched over rippling muscles and covered in intricately inked tattoos. 

"W-what are you doing?" Arthur manages to stutter indignantly, although it perhaps comes out a bit squeaky. 

"It's hot," Eames replies with a look that suggests he doesn't consider Arthur to be very bright.

"I fucking know that," Arthur snaps, "but you can't travel topless - the desert sun will burn you to ashes! You might as well just activate the Seprimo scars now."       

"I've hiked across the desert before," Eames snorts, "I'll be fine."  The older man pauses before smirking up at Arthur, "Why? It doesn't make you uncomfortable does it?

"Of course not," Arthur bites back, "it's just stupid, that's all." 

"Excuse my uneducated and ruffian ways pet," Eames replies, causing Arthur's eyes to widen.

"P-pet?" he stammers "That's worse than kitten!"

"But you've agreed to come with me," Eames grins with far too much teeth, "you're a tame desert cat now." 

Arthur swears under his breath before reaching for his pack and hoisting it up on his already sweating shoulders.  The sun will be unforgiving and relentless today, but it's Eames' own fault if he burns or gets sick.

Nothing more is said as Eames gathers up his own things, tying his shirt around his waist with a bemused flicker of a smile in Arthur's direction.  Arthur pointedly ignores Eames until they're about ten minutes hike away from the camp, progressing ever more into sandy planes and leaving the dry bush and grass behind. 

"So are we walking the whole way to Alack?" Arthur huffs.  "Because if it's not even that far then you could have probably just drawn my sister a map." 

"Expecting a piggy back ride?" Eames quirks an eyebrow.

"No, I just thought it might be sensible to find some camels," Arthur replies between gritted teeth, if he bites down any harder he'll probably chip something. 

"No camels," Eames says quickly, his expression changing into one of faint disgust.  "Hate the bloody things." 

"Well we can't ride horses across the inner desert!" Arthur exclaims.  "They'll drop like flies within hours."

"No," Eames shakes his head, looking uncharacteristically serious, "we'll get some sturdy ponies or something from the next town we come across.  I know there's one about two hours walk from here."

"Are you insane?" Arthur asks drily.  "We need camels." 

"Can't stand camels," Eames mutters under his breath before speeding up and pacing ahead before Arthur can enquire any more on the subject. 

"We could always get you an ostrich?" Arthur calls out after the older man, chuckling as he receives a rude gesture in reply. 

Just as Arthur had predicted, the elements that day are ruthless in their pursuit of drying out the already cracked land even further.  Arthur pulls a black shawl out from his pack and wraps it around his head and the lower half of his face. 

Eames, much to Arthur's dismay, remains shirtless for the whole two and a half hours it takes them to get to the small market town of Krabe. 

"You're not even wearing protective oils!" Arthur scolds as they enter through the town's main gate and Eames lets out a pleasured moan as they finally step into some shade down a side alley. 

"And you call yourself a child of the desert," Eames retorts with amusement. 

"That means having respect for the sun," Arthur snaps back, "not trying to challenge it like a complete fool!" 

"Maybe I just don't like wearing clothes," Eames shrugs as Arthur chokes on any response he could possibly have come up with. 

"Right," Eames announces enthusiastically, clapping his hands together and glancing both ways down the street.  "It will be market day today, all the inner desert settlements have markets a day later than the border towns."

"I know," Arthur states grouchily, "How exactly does that help us?"

"Use your imagination Arthur," Eames huffs, "if everyone's at market it means that there will be more horses left unattended in stables."

"Camels," Arthur whispers, ignoring the glare Eames sends his way.  "And again, how does that affect us?" 

"Well I don't know about you pet, but I'm a little short on loose change at the moment," Eames replies slowly.

"Oh," Arthur replies, feeling stupid that he hadn't realised that Eames, of course, intended to steal some horses.  "Right, sure."

They make their way across the town, searching out for blocks of stables with the least number of people in the vicinity. 

"This looks good," Eames states, nodding his head around the corner of an alleyway to a narrow, tall strip of stables, "Can't see anybody about.  What does that sign say?" he nudges Arthur's shoulder and points at a large sign above the stables incised in traditional script. 

'Artli's Racing Camels'

"Um..." Arthur chews on his lip for a moment, trying not to smile, "It just says that the stable belongs to a Mr Artli." 

"Alright then, we'll be sure to thank him tonight in our prayers," Eames snorts lightly, reaching out to squeeze Arthur's arm and indicating for them to move across the street. 

Arthur doesn't care how much trouble he's in because the look on Eames' face was worth the lie when he pushes open the first stable door and promptly has a giant camel spit straight in his face. 

"Fucking blasted hell!" Eames shouts, staggering backwards and wiping the quite frankly, disgusting looking blob of camel mucus from his cheek. 

"Wow," Arthur notes stiffly, trying not to laugh, "that's a big pony." 

"You little shit," Eames growls, turning to glare at Arthur, "you bloody knew that sign said camels!"

"My linguistic skills are a little rusty," Arthur shrugs, "but now we're here we might as well take a couple of camels." 

Arthur rolls his eyes as he sees Eames distrustful expression as he turns to eye up the now bored looking camel.  "Oh come on - why are you afraid of camels?"

"I'm not afraid of them!" Eames retorts with a look of indignation.  "I just hate the gits - they spit at you whenever they can and they've always got the hump." 

"Seriously?" Arthur laughs.  "That was terrible."

"I'm bloody serious!" Eames exclaims, his eyes widening in a way that suggests he really is being so.  "They're the moodiest creatures I've ever encountered...well, that was until I met you." 

"I can spit too you know," Arthur sniffs, pushing past Eames to stroke his hand lightly down the camel's nose.  The camel snorts gently before pushing its head harder against Arthur's scratching fingers.  "I think I'll take this one," Arthur smiles thinly, "he's obviously an excellent judge of character." 

"You're welcome to him," Eames growls, stalking off to one of the other pens.  Considering the fact that they are currently in the process of stealing livestock - a crime punishable by chopping off hands, Eames takes an inordinate amount of time in choosing his camel.  When he does finally reappear, leading a rather frail and elderly looking beast by leather reins, Arthur is not impressed.  

"She's too old," Arthur states stiffly, wondering what the hell Eames is thinking?

"Don't listen to him beautiful," Eames sniffs, reaching out to cover his startled looking camel's ears with his hands.

"I thought you hated camels?" Arthur asks, narrowing his eyes.

"Well, yes," Eames shrugs, "but this one and I seem to have come to somewhat of an understanding."

"In that you're both old?" Arthur frowns.

"You know I could tie you up and gag you for the entire journey and I still wouldn't be risking breaking my promise to get you safely to Alack," Eames mutters darkly. 

"Fuck off," Arthur bites back, but there's no heat in it as he finds himself strangely embarrassed at the thought of Eames being the one to tie him up.   

"Alright you take Ethel and your hell beast round to the exit on the south east side of town and I'll pick us up some supplies," Eames instructs.

"Ethel?" Arthur's attention snaps back to the conversation.

"My camel," Eames smiles proudly, "she reminds me a bit of my old mum you see,"

"Eames that camel is old and frail!" Arthur cries out frustratedly.

"Yeah, well so was mum by the end..." Eames muses as Arthur shakes his head in disbelief.

"No you idiot - I'm telling you that that camel won't make it through the desert! Her owner was probably going to put her down soon and sell the tough meat on the cheap."

"Well then," Eames says brightly, "look on it as us saving a life."

"And risking our own," Arthur hisses but he can see that Eames is just not going to be convinced on this one.  "Fine!" Arthur sighs, lifting up his hands in defeat.  "Just don't come complaining to me when your camel lies down in the sand and refuses to get up." 

"Wouldn't dream of it Arthur," Eames says in an exaggeratedly form tone of voice before sweeping his hand in a hyperbolic gesture, "now would you please be so kind as to escort the camels out of the town without anybody seeing  you?" 

 

Arthur's still muttering and cursing Eames's name as he attempts to look inconspicuous whilst passing through the streets with two large camels who seem to be intent on stopping to look at everything.  Arthur wonders if they believe he's giving them a personal guided tour of the town or something.

When he finally reaches the town's unmanned south east gate, he decides it would be far more sensible to pass through it, actually exiting the town they've just stolen from and instead wait for Eames by the smattering of palm trees ahead of him. 

Sure enough, the best part of an hour later, Eames comes speeding out of the gate with a wild look in his eyes and his pack looking distinctly heavier.  He's also carrying two more packs, judging by the bulging strain of Eames' biceps, they must be pretty laden down with supplies. 

"Arthur?!" Eames calls out frantically, evidently not immediately spotting the younger man over in the trees.  Arthur is about to milk this moment for a bit longer when suddenly four burly looking men also run out of the gate behind Eames, then another four come pouring out. 

"Oh shit!" Arthur exclaims, jumping nimbly up on top of his camel and clicking his tongue to get him to start moving. 

"Eames!" Arthur calls out as he comes galloping up towards the other man, who is still sprinting down the path. 

"Fucking hell!" Eames shouts as he spots Arthur with a look of sheer relief.  Arthur clings on tighter to Ethel's reins in his spare hand, he'd been making her run along his own camel. 

"Fucking hell," Eames repeats hoarsely as he heaves himself inelegantly up onto his ill-advisedly chosen camel along with the packs. 

"You'll crush her!" Arthur exclaims in panic.  "Give me two of the packs!"

"No bloody time!" Eames yells back as the eight angry townsmen start to descend on them.  "Yah!" he cries out, kicking his heels into Ethel's rump as one might a pony.  Either way, it serves to startle the elderly camel enough to move with a surprising speed out in front of Arthur's as they begin to charge down the path and away from the town. 

 

*

"Have they followed us?" Arthur coughs half an hour later as they slow down to a far more comfortable trot.  His thighs and crotch feel like his muscles and skin have been stretched out past the point of bearable pain.  "Eames?" Arthur frowns as he turns to see the older man's face twist in apparent agony as he shifts his seated position atop of a distraught looking Ethel. 

"This," Eames grits, "this is why the well endowed man does not travel by camel." 

Arthur lets out a derisive huff but blushes furiously all the same, trying not to let his gaze slip down to where Eames is now apparently palming himself in an effort to regain feeling. 

"Stop groping yourself and hand me one of those packs," Arthur snaps, trying to compose himself.  "Your camel can barely take the weight of you for crying out loud."

"You are delightful Arthur, you know that?" Eames grouses, reaching down to unhook a particularly bulbous looking pack from Ethel's side.  This also has the rather comical effect of her nearly overbalancing on the other side.  "No 'oh thank you Eames for getting us all this wonderful food and water and blankets for the journey!'"

"Please don't try to pretend you're doing any of this out of the goodness of your own heart," Arthur rolls his eyes, flicking his hand pointedly at Eames' Seprimo scars.

"Trust me," Eames grits as he struggles to lean over and attach the pack to Arthur's slightly more sturdy and solid camel instead, "if I'd been getting supplies just for me - there'd be an awful lot more alcohol in here." 

"And you'd be an awful lot more likely to die in the desert," Arthur huffs, "do you literally have no understanding for how different environments work?"

"I forge my own environments," Eames shrugs as Arthur lets out a weary groan.  "And no, to answer your initial question, I do not believe the men from the town followed us.  Or if they have, we'll be long gone before they catch up." 

"Good," Arthur sniffs, "because I'd like to keep my hands." 

Eames snorts, "we're in the inner desert kid - they'd take a lot more than your pretty little hands."

"Fuck you," Arthur replies for lack of coming up with anything better to say.  He grips his hands tightly around his own camel's reins and tries to ignore any comments made on them being 'little' or 'pretty'. 

"So you keep saying," Eames grumbles, wiping sweat from his brow and grimacing as he inspects his hand and finds a crushed cluster of dead insects that would have landed on his skin as they galloped across palm land into the desert sands.    

"We should keep going," he announces a moment later, after scraping the offending bugs from his fingers. 

"I'm not sure if 'Ethel' can keep going," Arthur pouts.

"Worry about your own bloody camel," Eames snaps back, "Sodding hell, how did your sister ever put up with you for all those years?"

"I-" Arthur opens his mouth ready to snap back a cutting remark.  "I don't know."

There's an awkward moment as Eames clears his throat and brushes some dead leaves off of Ethel's neck.  "Right, well I suppose you'll just have to ask her when you see her again then," Eames nods curtly before starting Ethel trotting again. 

Arthur's mouth curves slightly into a smile before he can think to stop it.  Could Eames have possibly just said something nice to him? 

He recovers himself before clicking his tongue and causing his camel to trot after the older man's.  They've still got a good five hours before they'll be forced to make camp somewhere suitable. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Eames wakes up begrudgingly from his sleep, he'd been having a wonderful dream of an extravagant banquet being held in his honour.  There'd been topless serving girls and roasted desert deer along with dishes of sweet cherry and rosewater desserts.  He's not sure if he's remembering it totally right, but he seems to vaguely recall that Arthur had been there too, only he'd been Eames' personal server.

He'd been very polite and coy towards Eames, not like the real Arthur at all.  The younger man had even offered Eames a back rub at one point.  But then, alas, that had been the moment Ethel had decided to bend down and lick a sticky, heavy stripe up Eames' left cheek. 

"Fucking hell Ethel!" Eames cries, spitting the camel taste out of his mouth and reaching quickly for a rag to mop himself up with. 

"Are you sure that mutual understanding isn't actually a mutual attraction?" Arthur calls out gleefully, followed by several splashing sounds. 

Eames rolls his eyes before heaving himself into a sitting position to look down towards the small oasis they'd managed to stumble upon the evening before.  Pockets of clean water aren't that rare in these outer western parts of the desert, although they're spaced out enough to have given Eames quite a surprise when Arthur had yelled out that he could see water.  Eames had been all to ready to laugh at Arthur for being tricked by a mirage.  But no, sure enough they were soon setting up camp by a water filled dent in the desert's surface.  A tiny but luscious amount of greenery had sprung up along the edge of the pool and Arthur and Eames had already stripped the trees bare of all fruit that they had to offer. 

Eames looks over to where Arthur is evidently having his morning bathe.  The younger man's bare chest is visible above the sparkling turquoise water , and he's laughing as his own camel bends down over the edge to lap up giant gulps of liquid. 

"Not a bad view to wake up to," Eames murmurs, smirking to himself as he stretches his hands behind his head and leans up against a reclining Ethel to continue watching Arthur. 

The kid is beautiful, Eames has already fully recognized that.  And out here at an oasis in the desert, he certainly looks the part of some mythological sand nymph enjoying a cool dip.  Arthur's skin is evenly tanned and for the most part, hairless.  He's relatively young, so there's still that slightly lanky look about him, but there's also evidence of musculature.  After all, the kid did grow up on the streets, not that you'd ever know it from his judgemental attitude towards Eames' career and lifestyle choices.

Eames can't help but feel that Arthur would look quite at home in some marble palace being fanned by servants.  It's Arthur's face, there is just something delicate and dignified about his features, even the way he hooks those awfully pointed canines over his lower lip and glances curiously back at Eames from under thick dark lashes.

"Eames?"

"Mm yeah?" Eames calls back, still studying the gentle curve of Arthur's eyes in detail.

"You're staring...do you want the water or something?" Arthur lifts himself up as if to get out and Eames is strangely disappointed to notice that the younger man is still wearing underpants.

"No," Eames shakes his head quickly, "you carry on, I'm perfectly comfortable over here with Ethel."

"Alright," Arthur nods brightly before grinning again, "but are you sure your camel's not dead yet?"

"Sod off," Eames snorts, closing his eyes to prevent himself from noticeably staring anymore and reclining his neck fully back along Ethel's short, coarse hair.  He knows that they should probably get moving again soon, but it can't hurt to let Arthur splash around in the pool a little bit more. 

"OW!"

Maybe not then.

Eames cracks open his eyes, half expecting Arthur to have tripped up on a rock climbing out of the water or something.  However the younger man appears to be nowhere visible, causing Eames to jump up with a panicked expression.

"Arthur?" Eames calls out.  "Arthur where the bleeding hell are you?"

"Here," comes back a weak reply.  Eames jogs forwards to round a large boulder on the far side of the oasis.  Arthur is slumped by its side holding up a still struggling scorpion between his left thumb and forefinger, he's grimacing in disgust. 

"Fucker was swimming in the pool with me," Arthur sighs, flicking the scorpion away towards the bushes. 

"Arthur!" Eames shouts, sprinting forwards to stamp on the scorpion with his boot. 

"Hey!" Arthur protests indignantly.  "You didn't need to kill it - that'll anger the sand gods." 

"Don't tell me you believe in that desert nonsense?" Eames huffs, wrinkling his nose as he crouches down to inspect the now flattened scorpion.  It's clearly a young one of its kind, only about three inches long.  Eames has seen this particular species grow up to eight inches. 

"You believe in cloud lore," Arthur sniffs.

"You know you're bloody lucky this thing didn't sting you," Eames muses, rubbing his hand thoughtfully across his chin, "It's a Sabe scorpion, you can tell from these triple red dots.  What the hell were you thinking letting it loose back in the camp?! It could have crawled into one of our packs."

"Um Eames..."

"They like small dark spaces these fuckers, particularly venomous-"

"-Eames!" Arthur interrupts, causing the older man to turn round with a frown to where Arthur is suddenly looking very pale, staring back at Eames with wide brown eyes.

"It - it did sting me, that's how I found it."

"Bollocks," Eames hisses, quickly rising to his feet and hurrying back to Arthur, pushing the younger man's hands away from where they're rubbing something red and pussing on his leg.  "Did you not think to mention this immediately?" Eames exclaims irritably, his scars already starting to burn and itch at having allowed Arthur to get hurt - potentially fatally. 

"I've been stung by scorpions before!" Arthur protests, but there's no heat to his voice, just a slight waver of panic. 

"Let me guess," Eames growls, "Mal dealt with it." 

"No," Arthur snaps, "I did, I've just never been stung by a freaking Sabe scorpion before okay? I hadn't even heard of....what are you doing?" Arthur croaks, suddenly sounding very hoarse as Eames continues his current task of locking his lips around the swollen sting mark on Arthur's calf.  Eames grips either side of the younger man's leg tightly so as to squeeze as much of the venom as possible towards his sucking mouth before he turns, spits and then repeats the process. 

"Ow - shit that hurts!" Arthur yelps, trying to drag his leg back vainly as Eames' grip on his still damp skin only tightens.  Eames can taste the venom on his tongue as he draws it out of Arthur's body.  It tastes like almonds that have gone sour and the last thing he wants to do is get any down his throat so he turns to spit again. 

"I think I'm going to be sick," Arthur groans, leaning his head back against the rock and limply allowing Eames to continue sucking his leg.  Eames frowns, he knows Arthur's not referring to Eames' table manners right now and if he's already experiencing nausea then Eames needs to work fast before more venom can get into the bloodstream.  

Eames starts to squeeze and massage Arthur's leg, forcing the blood to pump cleanly faster, drawing the soiled parts up to his lips.  Eventually Eames realises he's done as much as he can do and he draws back.  The skin around Arthur's right calf looks terrible, there are teeth marks and a myriad of bruised and broken blood vessels from the intensity of Eames' sucking.  But Eames knows at least none of the veins seem visibly darkened from venom - a tell tale sign of Sabe poisoning. 

"So doctor," Arthur croaks, although he still manages to sound sarcastic, "what's the prognosis?"

"You'll live," Eames huffs, moving down to the edge of the water and attempting to gargle the almond taste out of his mouth. 

"Then so will you I guess," Arthur says softly behind him, making Eames tense momentarily. 

"Yes, well just be a bit more sodding careful next time okay?" Eames feels tired and irritable already now and the day's only barely started. 

"I couldn't see the scorpion underwater could I?!" Arthur shouts back angrily as Eames turns around to see the younger man hobbling to his feet, leaning against the rock. 

"We should have been on the move hours ago," Eames replies woodenly, starting to walk back to where his things are spread out around Ethel. 

"You were asleep!" Arthur yells after him.  "I was the one who got up early!  Fine, next time I'll just fucking wake you up."

"You do that," Eames retorts grouchily, not even really sure why he's so angry.  Perhaps some of the venom had gotten into his own body and was playing with his head.  He starts to repack his belongings and attach them to the camels, doing his best to ignore Arthur's muttering from the other side of the pool.  Most of it seems to consist of insulting Eames at any rate. 

 

***

 

It's well gone lunchtime when Eames decides to finally make amends. 

"Look, I'm sorry okay?" he says, nudging Ethel to go a bit faster to catch up with Arthur's regrettably speedier camel. 

"Fuck Eames, slow down," Arthur retorts, rolling his eyes and pulling on his own reins so they can travel at the same pace.  "I'm telling you that camel isn't going to make it if you keep pushing her, she looks like she'll keel over in a high wind.  She's probably been ill for months." 

"Yes alright," Eames huffs, "you've already said your piece on Ethel's life expectancy.  I just wanted to apologize for being a bit of a prick earlier."

Arthur doesn't reply but instead bites his lip and raises his eyebrows curiously at Eames.

"I saved your life!" Eames bursts out, unable to control himself any more.

"You saved your own life," Arthur scoffs but his posture looks more relaxed now. 

"How's the leg?" Eames asks, jerking his head downwards to indicate Arthur's sting mark - now covered up by dark trousers.  

"It's alright I guess," Arthur shrugs, "I've put some pain ointment on it.  What about you?" Arthur gestures to Eames' bare chest.  "You shedding your skin yet?"

"Not yet," Eames grins widely, "but it's nice to know how concerned you are Arthur." 

"You are the only one out of the two of us who knows the freaking way to Alack," Arthur replies, looking both embarrassed and annoyed.  It's rather an adorable combination really. 

"That I do," Eames nods, allowing Ethel to slow down even more.

Well, not quite.  But he does know someone who does.  Which is why they're currently heading smack bang in the direction of the city of Egidu. 

"Cobb better still be there," Eames grumbles in a low voice.

"Huh?" Arthur frowns, turning back to look at him.

"Nothing," Eames replies, "just wondering if there's any storms coming up," he attempts to look meaningfully at the completely clear horizon. 

"Doesn't look like it?" Arthur shrugs, turning back and looking for himself.  He sounds somewhat confused by Eames' question and Eames can probably understand why.  The sky is a perfect crystal blue and there are absolutely no shadows in sight - the type that normally indicate sandstorms. 

Oh well, Eames sighs to himself.  He'd rather have Arthur think he's an idiot than not actually knowing the way to Alack.  He glances nervously down at his Seprimo scars, wishing he could fool them that easily.  Despite his preference for going topless in full desert sun, he never really did have the desire to be roasted alive. 

"When were you last there?"

"What?" Eames frowns and turns back to Arthur, who's still reining in his camel to travel at the same pace as Eames'. 

"Alack," Arthur shrugs, "How long ago was it that you found it?"

Eames blinks and thinks back to when he was last at Egridu instead, "Few years ago, maybe more." 

"You sure you still know the way?" Arthur narrows his eyes.

"Course I do," Eames snorts, "criminals always need to know the fastest routes to places they can hide out for  while."

"You hid in Alack?" Arthur asks, a surprised expression on his face. 

"Um...yeah," Eames nods, realising he'd still been thinking of Egidu. 

"I guess that's like the best hiding place ever," Arthur sighs thoughtfully, "most people don't even believe it still exists.  You know I'm surprised Mal didn't think you were crazy when you claimed to know it!"

Eames grits his teeth as he wonders how much of a testament that is to how desperate Arthur's sister had gotten by the end of her search. 

"Guess I've just got an honest look about me," Eames mutters as Arthur snorts loudly and dismissively.  Eames shakes his head with a faint smile, "Don't tell me Arthur - you've never committed a crime in your life?"

"Isn't being dark magic crime enough?" Arthur asks grimly.  Eames has got to give him that one, it might not actually be illegal or even punishable to be someone born of dark magic, but it's certainly viewed in a negative enough light.  Fear and suspicion surround the entire concept of not being purely light, not only that but dark magic persons very limited life spans are often taken as evidence of divine judgement. 

"I was thinking more along the lines of stealing some food from market," Eames muses, trying to lighten the mood.  After all, they've still got a long ride ahead of them for today. 

"Well everyone's done that," Arthur replies, clearly biting down on a smile. 

"Knew it," Eames laughs, "oh Arthur you could make such a wonderful thief with that alluring face of yours."

"Shut up," Arthur retorts, but he's finally cracked a grin.  "Mal and I grew up without any other family or a home.  We needed things sometimes that we didn't exactly have the money for." 

"And who could resist the charms of such beautiful twins?" Eames replies with a wink that causes Arthur to screw up his face. 

"It wasn't like that.  You make it sound like all we did was flutter our eyelashes and we'd get given free stuff."

"Flutter your eyelashes," Eames repeats, mimicking Arthur, "are you sure you grew up on the streets pet?"

"Fuck off," Arthur replies hotly, his cheeks turning a crimson red.

"I apologize," Eames says a moment of silence later, "I didn't mean to insinuate -"

"One man asked for a kiss," Arthur blurts out, not looking Eames in the eye but staring fixedly ahead.

"Oh?" Eames asks with an amused quirk of his eyebrow. 

"He didn't care whether it was from me or Mal," Arthur continues before swallowing heavily, Eames tracks the bobbed movement of the younger man's Adam's Apple.  "But he said he had to get a kiss and then he'd let us stay in his inn stables for the night without paying." 

"So what did you do?" Eames prompts as Arthur falls quiet again. 

"Mal and I flipped a coin," Arthur laughs, "neither of us wanted to kiss him - he smelled awful and had this really weird facial rash."

"Sounds delightful," Eames scoffs, "can't believe you didn't want some of that action Arthur." 

"Well I won the toss," Arthur grins, "so Mal had to do it - only the man closed his eyes right before so she picked up this cold piece of ham from his lunch plate and pressed it really quickly against his cheek instead of her mouth! He had no idea and he kept complimenting her afterwards on -" Arthur starts giggling now, "-how soft her lips were!"

Eames shakes his head with a laugh, he can't really imagine that the kindly inn keeper was fooled for a second.  Perhaps there really are just some actually decent souls out there.  Eames knows that some of the landlords in the towns he frequents would have asked for a damn sight more than a joking peck on the cheek. 

Eames startles as Ethel suddenly lets out a thunderous groan beneath him. 

"Dear gods, what the hell was that?" he exclaims, turning sharply to an already frowning Arthur. 

"I told you she was - "

"Arthur if you give me one more negative opinion on my camel I swear I will turn us around and march us straight back to Nigeb regardless of what these scars do to me." 

"Maybe she needs more water?" Arthur suggests instead.

"She already had a long drink at the pool," Eames sighs, "I thought these wretched beasts were meant to fill up for days." 

"Maybe she's leaking?" Arthur hazards, although the expression on his face now looks all too amused by Eames' camel troubles.

"You know I could probably find another Sabe scorpion around here somewhere," Eames snaps as Arthur's shoulders start to shake with renewed laughter.  Eames bends down and rubs behind Ethel's ears to try and tell her it's okay she's a little defective.  He grimaces a moment later however when his fingers comes back covered in some kind of brown ooze. 

"Have fun walking to Alack," Arthur whispers loudly as he clicks his tongue and somehow magically commands his camel to start trotting faster again. 

"Don't listen to the young upstarts old girl," Eames murmurs, patting a relatively clean patch of Ethel's head before starting to wonder why the ground's looking a lot closer than it was five minutes ago.

 

***

 

"I -"

"Arthur I swear to god if you say 'I told you so' I will turn myself into an odorous old innkeeper with a worrying facial rash and force you to kiss me."

Eames give a small satisfied smile as that threat finally shuts Arthur up.  His expression quickly reverts to a frown however, when he looks back at the recently departed camel lying in the sand in front of him. 

"To be honest," Arthur begins tentatively after he's shot a warning glare from Eames.  "We probably extended her life - giving her a bit of adventure in the end.  I mean I can't imagine that Mr Artli was going to keep her around much longer to eat his food and take up stable space.  Plus whatever she had could have been contagious."

"Oh bloody hell," Eames states, rubbing his still slightly sticky hand more vigorously on his pack.

"To other camels," Arthur states, looking at Eames as if he's a complete moron. 

"Well that's just sodding perfect," Eames groans, stalking over to Ethel's unmoving body.  To be fair, at least she does look rather peaceful lying in the sand in front of a dune like this and Eames guesses she had been rather elderly. 

"I'll say a prayer," Arthur nods decisively, informing Eames of the proceedings. 

"Oh thank you for your contribution Arthur," Eames rolls his eyes, "whilst you commune with the sand gods I'll just be over here trying to figure out what the hell we're meant to do now." 

"You're not stealing my camel," Arthur says suddenly, looking rather crossly in Eames' direction.  

"Well I can't bloody walk alongside you can I?" Eames retorts.  "We'll have to make do." 

"You mean share?" Arthur says unsurely.

"Yes Arthur, very perceptive of you - I mean share," Eames huffs.  "There's enough room on your hell-pony -"

"Camel," Arthur interjects with a hiss.

" - for both of us," Eames finishes, paying the younger man no attention. 

A few minutes later Arthur rejoins Eames and the still living camel in order to continue on their way.  Evidently he's satisfied whatever strange traditional urges he had to converse with outdated deities.  Eames shakes his head as Arthur gives him a hard look, evidently Eames had been doing some of his 'judging' out loud.

"No," Arthur states, folding his arms and glaring up at where Eames is already seated on the camel.

"What are you talking about Arthur?" Eames frowns.  "We already agreed we'd share the sodding camel."

"No to you taking the reins," Arthur snaps, gesturing up at where Eames has places himself in the rider's position at the front of the camel.  "That's my camel."

"Are you seriously getting possessive over a camel?" Eames asks disbelievingly. 

"I'm not going to sit behind you and wrap my arms round your bare chest like some... some..."

"some?" Eames' mouth twitches as Arthur starts to go red in the face.  "Fine," Eames relents, finally taking pity on the younger man before he bursts a blood vessel.  "Being the one behind was always my favourite position anyway."

"You're disgusting," Arthur mutters between gritted teeth as Eames shuffles backward on the camel and gestures suggestively for Arthur to join him. 

"And don't cling on to me either," Arthur snaps as he pulls himself up onto the front of the camel with enviable ease.  It had taken Eames nearly four attempts to actually get himself seated rather than simply leapfrogging the bloody thing.

"You can grab onto the hump," Arthur continues, gesturing to the large lump in the centre of the camel's back.  Eames is just about to joke about how he prefers not to swing that way when he spots something in the distance. 

"What does that look like to you?" he murmurs to Arthur.

"Like a topless idiot who's going to get sunstroke," Arthur huffs, still turned round to face Eames.

"Not me, that," Eames says quickly, gently grabbing Arthur's chin and turning the  younger man's face back to look forwards out to the horizon upon which is a definite cluster of buildings. 

"I don't know..." Arthur murmurs, squinting in the sheer blinding force of the midday sun, "some kind of city?"

"I'll be damned," Eames says in a low voice, "I could have sworn Egidu was another three or four days ride..."

"Where?" Arthur asks, glancing back round with a frown.

"Oh," Eames clears his throat, "just a town I know on the way to Alack."

"Are there any other towns around here?" Arthur asks, turning back to stare at the distinctive outlines of walls and roofs about eight miles away.  The entire scene is shimmering, but that's not unusual in these kind of extreme temperatures. 

"A few," Eames replies distractedly, his eyes still focused on the distant settlement, "none of them that big though." 

"But that looks huge," Arthur interjects, "like some kind of city?"

"Even if it's not Egidu, we still need more supplies," Eames concludes finally, "best head in that direction."

"Is that wise?" Arthur asks.  "I mean - if you don't even remember the city?"

"We need another camel," Eames retorts, "unless you want me plastered to your backside for the rest of the journey?"

"No thanks," Arthur shivers, his voice sounding distinctly strained.  "I'll take my chances with the unknown city." 

"Thought so," Eames smiles, finally lowering his eyes to look at the back of Arthur's head.  The younger man's hair is a mixture of brown and black, soft curls falling down the nape of his neck.  Eames half wants to reach out and touch it, smooth it between his own rough finger tips. 

All too soon though Arthur makes that deceptively simple seeming clicking noise with his tongue and they start cantering off at such a rate that Eames nearly flies off the back of the sodding camel.  In the end he's forced to cling inelegantly to the protruding hump in front of him for dear life.  Also he can't quite be sure due to the wind flying past his ears but it certainly sounds like Arthur's laughing. 

 

***

 

Two hours later and Eames is forced to recognize the unwelcome truth. 

"It was a fucking mirage," Eames growls angrily, jumping down off the camel as they draw to a halt and immediately regretting his rashness.  They've been riding hard and his legs nearly give way under him. 

"A Fata Morgana," Arthur adds, sounding equally as bitter and disappointed.  "I've never seen such an elaborate one before."

Fata Morganas were the most complex of the desert's optical illusions.  Mirages that often replicated distant structures and buildings on the horizon. 

"Well at least we know we've finally reach the inner desert," Eames spits angrily, kicking at the sand with his boot and wincing at the renewed use of his leg muscles.  "Don't get those kind of mirages on the outskirts." 

"Fuck," Arthur states bluntly, looking up at the darkening sky, "we're going to lose the sun soon as well - do you even have any idea where we are or have we gone catastrophically off course?" 

"I'm afraid to guess the latter," Eames mutters, rubbing down his face with miserably blistered hands from holding onto the camel. 

"I said we shouldn't -"

"Arthur don't you dare bloody start!" Eames snaps, pointing his finger accusingly at the younger man whose eyes widen in shock and then narrow in anger.

"I have every right to fucking start!" Arthur yells.  "I'm surprised those scars aren't setting you on fire by now -  you could have wasted us days." 

"Oh what does it bloody matter?!" Eames roars.  "You'll still get to Alack in the end!"

"We don't even know how much time I have!" Arthur's half screaming now, his throat sounds raw and hoarse and the sound would make Eames wince with sympathy if he wasn't so damn angry himself.  "I need to bring my sister back to life!"

"And what if you can't?!" Eames shouts, causing Arthur to fall silent, his slender chest rising and falling in agitated, panting breaths.  "What the hell will you do then Arthur? What if I take you to Alack and it's just a sodding ruin with nothing else there?" 

"Fuck you," Arthur snarls, turning sharply away from Eames and stalking back towards the camel before pulling a food bag out. 

"Gods give me strength," Eames mutters, throwing his hands up in the air in a defeated gesture before pacing off in the other direction towards some low lying dunes.  Eames is just crossing over the crest of dune and padding gruffly down the other side when he stops to look up.  There's another town on the horizon - but this time, what with the approaching darkness and it only being about three miles away, Eames can see that lanterns have been lit and smoke from fires is drifting into the purpled evening sky.  It's definitely not a Fata Morgana or any type of mirage, it's actually a bloody town and Eames can't believe their luck.  Even if the place is a shithole, which it's more than likely to be in these parts, they can still stock up on supplies and try to figure out their bearings and which way they need to head in to get to Egidu.

Eames feels a sharp stab of guilt as he remembers the urgency of Arthur's words - his desperation to get to Alack and bring his sister back.  Eames isn't even necessarily taking him in the direction of the fabled city.  Even if they make it successfully to Egidu there's no guarantee that Cobb will still be there or be willing to help him after their last encounter. 

Eames sighs, deciding to cross those bridges when he comes to them, instead he claps his hands together - feeling distinctly more hopeful at the prospect of not being totally lost in the desert.  He starts to take a few more steps forward, calling out behind him at the same time, "Arthur? Hey Arthur you should come see th- FUCK!"

Eames loses his sense of balance completely as his left leg suddenly become submerged in the patch of suspiciously flat sand in front of him.  By the time the quicksand's swallowed him right up to the knee, Eames' other foot is also already being pulled under. 

"Holy buggering fuck," Eames groans, "ARTHUR?! ARTHUR GET YOUR ARSE OVER HERE!"

"Gods alive what is it?" Arthur snaps, finally appearing over the hill with an incredibly grumpy expression that morphs into one of horror as he notices Eames' predicament. 

"Shit - that's sinking sand!" Arthur exclaims, hurrying down the dune towards where Eames is craning his neck to look back at him.

"Fantastically observed Arthur," Eames huffs, "don't bloody tread in it will you?"

"What -" Arthur looks genuinely distraught for a moment, "holy shit you're going down fast!"

Eames has to bite back another sarcastic remark in favour of instructing Arthur to go get some kind of rope.

"We don't have any rope!" Arthur protests, wildly looking around as if half expecting a full coiled rope to appear at any given moment.  "I'll have to come pull you out,"

"No!" Eames snaps sharply, causing Arthur to halt in his tracks.  "I'm too far from the edge, you start coming over here and putting force on it you'll get stuck as well." 

"Well then what can I do?" Arthur stammers.

"Well my magic's not going to help," Eames groans as the noxious sand starts to bubble up past his bellybutton.  "All I can keep doing is shifting into someone taller!"

"I -" Arthur starts, "my magic won't help here either." 

"Just my luck," Eames mutters as the sand tugs him down another few inches and he attempts to shapeshift into someone with an incredibly long neck.  It's rather difficult to use his power whilst in a full body bind and even when he does try to turn into someone taller the sand still stubbornly comes up to the same point of his body. 

It's when the sand is finally creeping up around Eames' armpits, with him desperately struggling to keep his arms above the surface that he realises Arthur has disappeared.  Eames huffs, if he's going to die, he would have quite liked to do it with something nice to look at rather than the rather ugly sand dune he's got in front of him instead.  As sand dunes go this one isn't even particularly attractive - it's all lopsided like Ethel had been at the very end.

Oh god, Eames moans in his head - wondering if this is the sand gods' punishment for failing to give Ethel a proper funeral?

"EAMES?!" Arthurs' scream racks through Eames' overloaded brain.  "Fuck I've been trying to get your attention!" Arthur continues, his face flushing a furious red as he struggles to hoist something coiled and heavy onto his shoulder. 

"Arthur where the bloody hell did you find a rope?" Eames asks, sounding altogether too relaxed and resigned to his inevitable grisly end.  However as he peers harder across the sand level he can definitely confirm that Arthur is in fact holding some kind of gnarled white rope.     

"Grab on!" Arthur yells, chucking the rope towards Eames and managing to land it with a thud about a foot away from him.  Eames grits his teeth as he strains to manoeuvre his right arm over to get a firm grasp on the rope.  He's only just managed to grab it and look back to see Arthur attaching the other end to their camel when his entire face pops under the sand. 

A few agonizing moments later and Eames' head manages to crack back up through the surface and into the chilled night air of the desert.  The first sound he hears upon his reintroduction to the land of the living is Arthur's bloody clicking tongue - cryptically urging the camel on and up the sand dune, pulling Eames to safety with every haul.  

"Shit Eames are you okay?!" Arthur garbles, reaching down to grab at the older man's aching shoulders and wrench him in the last few feet to solid ground. 

"I've been better," Eames coughs, hacking up disturbing amount of sand onto the ground, "but then again I've probably been worse."  He gives a pained grunt as the camel continues to move forward, oblivious to its already achieved success. 

"Let go," Arthur snaps, batting Eames' hand until he can force his stiff and raw fingers apart to release the rope. 

"Now we're even," Arthur huffs finally, after having stared intently at Eames for a few minutes as if to check he wasn't going to keel over like Ethel. 

"How do you figure that?" Eames croaks, attempting to massage his arms back into the correct sockets without letting out too much of a feminine scream. 

"I saved your life," Arthur states pointedly, gesturing back to the cursed sand. 

"You need me," Eames corrects, "without me you're screwed and without you, I'm screwed." 

"I didn't do it for me!" Arthur snaps, looking vaguely offended.

"Oh I know, I know," Eames states hoarsely, "you did it to get your sister back." 

"You - " Arthur stares blankly at Eames for a moment, "you're unbelievable!" The younger man exclaims before he abruptly stands up and starts aggressively dusting sand from himself.

"I'm normally told that under more pleasant circumstances," Eames says grimly, squinting over at the rope still disappearing behind the dune.  "You need to tell your bloody camel he can stop now."

Arthur looks up with a surprised expression before huffing and clicking his tongue a few times, the rope drags to a halt. 

"Where did  you find rope?" Eames asks, knitting his eyebrows together and staring up at Arthur. 

"It's not rope," Arthur replies, but he still sounds strangely upset.  "It's desert vine."

"Isn't that a root?" Eames pulls a face.

"Yes," Arthur nods sharply, "I knew there'd be some around here because the roots always try to seek out water and this type of quicksand is fluid based at the bottom. "

"You know about the different types of quicksand but you've never seen a Sabe scorpion before?" Eames squints curiously at a flushed and annoyed looking Arthur. 

"I read a book," Arthur snaps, "I like to logically compile information and -"

"So let me get this straight," Eames interrupts, "you went and dug up a stretch of incredibly tough plant root?"

"Desert vine travels very near to the surface," Arthur shrugs, "you can often see when it is due to small raised tunnel like bumps.  I used a knife to cut it." 

"Arthur," Eames starts slowly.

"What?" Arthur replies looking defensive.

"That really was quite brilliant of you darling," 

"Fuck off," Arthur retorts but Eames can tell the flush on the younger man's face is a pleased one.  "We should try to get to that town," Arthur says quickly, as if trying to change the subject.

"Oh good you've noticed it," Eames nods, looking back out over the desert to the twinkling lights.  "That's actually what I was calling you over here to see."

"We can get more supplies there," Arthur continues, "work out where we are and stuff." 

"Fantastic idea Arthur," Eames smiles softly, "but let's go round the quicksand this time eh?"

Arthur snorts a laugh before reaching his hand down to help Eames up. 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The town, as it turns out, is called 'Ganred' and as soon as Arthur takes his first step inside the gates he knows there's something off about the place.  There's a stale smell in the air and most of the lit up buildings appear to be drinking establishments. 

"What else were you expecting?" Eames snorts, obviously noticing the look of distaste on Arthur's face.  "These isolated inner desert settlements are all shitholes for the scum of Pinoncite.

"You'll fit right in then," Arthur jokes but it comes out as rather half hearted as a group of inebriated men tumble out of a tavern door in front of them.  

"Watch yourself!" Eames exclaims, quickly reaching to pull Arthur out of the way, having the effect of him somewhat stumbling into the older man.

"I am capable of using my own legs," Arthur mutters, grimacing in disgust as one of the men swerves to vomit dangerously near their feet. 

"Do you think they even stock non-alcoholic supplies in this place?" Arthur enquires drily as they continue to make their way down the lantern lit street.  The burning road-side light sources are 'dragon lamps'.  Forged metal dragon heads welded to the top of tall bronze poles.  Oil is poured into their gaping mouths and set alight at night.  This has the rather impressive effect of making it appear as if the dragons were breathing fire up into the desert's night sky, the smoke pouring out of tunnelled nostrils. 

It's architectural features like this that tell Arthur this stinking cesspool of a settlement was probably once a thriving desert trade town.  However, many of the old trading routes have fallen into disuse, causing pockets of Pinoncite civilisation like this one to become nothing more than dried up hives of criminal activity. 

The metal of the dragon lamps has tarnished and soiled to a near black, reminding Arthur painfully of Mal's conjured obsidian one when fighting for Eames' freedom.

"We need to find some stables and a room for us to sleep," Eames states, breaking Arthur suddenly from his reverie.  "Getting the lowest price for each means they might not necessarily be part of the same establishment," Eames murmurs thoughtfully. 

"Yeah but in a place like this wouldn't it be sensible to not stay too far from our only camel?" Arthur asks, wrinkling his nose and nimbly stepping over a pile of...something.  "Plus do we even have any money for rooms?"

A sly smile creeps over Eames' face, obviously choosing to ignore the barb about the camel shortage.  "Actually pet, I was rather hoping we'd find some old landlord who only requires a quick kiss from you to pay for rooms."

"Fuck off," Arthur snorts, "I should never have told you that story."

Eames chuckles lightly but goes to pull a small coin purse out of his pocket, "Relieved a rather large gentlemen of his unwanted loose change back in Krabe," Eames winks.

"Could you not have 'relieved' a slightly wealthier gentleman?" Arthur sniffs as Eames rolls his eyes.

"Really Arthur, you're turning into rather a nagging wife."

"I don't think I could ever picture you married Eames," Arthur comments wryly as they start to turn down a quieter street with slightly more promising taverns and inns.  "You don't seem like the type to settle down."

"Actually, I've always wanted to settle down," Eames replies brightly, startling a genuinely curious look out of Arthur.

"Oh," Arthur frowns.

"I'm not saying I want a nice little townhouse somewhere with a wife and four screaming brats," Eames snorts.  "I just always somewhat fancied running a bookshop of sorts."

"A bookshop," Arthur states disbelievingly.

"I'll have you know that I was a scribe in another life," Eames retorts, "I used to transcribe ancient manuscripts."

"Transcribe my ass," Arthur scoffs, "You mean you produced illegal forgeries and sold them on for a fortune?"

"Yes, well," Eames sniffs, "I rather prefer my more elegant way of phrasing it."

"I guess being a shape-shifter is the perfect magic for a criminal," Arthur notes, gesturing to Eames' currently original form, or at least Arthur guesses this is what Eames normally always looks like.  "Must make lying low pretty easy?"

"Not as easy as you'd think," Eames mutters darkly.  "There are several powers that can unmask shifters, and I can only keep up each glamour for about an hour before needing to switch back to my true form."

"Hey, there's an Apothecary," Arthur points out, nodding to a pale green and currently darkened shop front.  He attempts not to smile as he continues talking, "They probably sell pills that could help you with 'keeping it up'."

"Oh he does have a sense of humour!" Eames exclaims with a half offended, half delighted expression.  "And here I was thinking that you, Arthur, were the only prude left in Pinoncite."

"I'm not a prude!" Arthur protests indignantly.

"Arthur you refuse to look me in the eye when I don't have a shirt on," Eames snorts with a highly amused expression.

"Well maybe I'm looking elsewhere," Arthur snaps petulantly before realising his mistake and seeing the resulting triumphant look on Eames' face.

"Not at you!" Arthur adds hastily, but it's too late and he can already feel his cheeks burning incriminatingly. 

"Arthur pet, you never have to explain your hobbies to me," Eames grins.

"Oh fuck off you smug bastard," Arthur huffs before stopping outside a rustic looking stables.  "What do you reckon Ethelred?" he asks, turning to look at the camel that Eames has been leading along with them by the reins.

"Ethelred?!" Eames exclaims, sounding outraged.

"What?" Arthur shrugs.  "You named your camel."

"Yes, but Ethelred?" Eames repeats in an affronted whine.  "That's just disrespectful Arthur!"

"Don't be such a drama queen," Arthur rolls his eyes and tries to bite his lip to stop himself from smiling.  "It's remembering and honouring her sacrifice."

"My arse it is," Eames grumbles as they move to further inspect the stables and prices tacked to the wall.  "You just want to use every opportunity you can to remind me that you're an insufferable little know it all."

"Well, there's that too," Arthur smirks as Eames shoots him a dark look. 

As it turns out, the stables are able to be haggled down to a reasonable amount for the night.  Arthur has to admit that Eames is just as skilled at bargaining as Mal even was.  Both of them have the same sparkling charm, something captivating in the eyes and laugh that puts the seller under some sort of spell. 

Arthur waits quietly in the background.  Ever since losing his magic he feels even more self-consciously dull.  He'd often found it hard to believe that he and Mal were meant to be twins.  She'd always seemed older, more creative, more exciting, more alive.

Not anymore, Arthur thinks grimly before hauling himself back from that dark well of thoughts.

 

By the time they finally find an inn with a passable and affordable room, they've only ended up about three streets away from the stables.  This pleases Arthur as he knows he'll be able to nip back after supper in order to check on Ethelred and maybe give him some treats.  God knows the poor animal deserves it after putting up with a bickering Arthur and Eames on his back for the last few hours. 

The courtyard riad-style inn is a rowdy affair but years of pent up curiosity means that Arthur experiences a strange sense of gritty satisfaction at finally entering one of these places.

"Smells like home," Eames announces happily as they make their way through the mingled fumes of alcohol and shisha smoke.  "If I had one that is."

Arthur draws to a pause, staring at a wizened old man hunched over a particularly fruity smelling bubbling pipe.  The aroma reminds Arthur of the apples Mal and him used to steal from orchards, bursting with white, ripe flesh. 

"Don't breathe that one in kitten!" Eames states hurriedly, suddenly gripping Arthur's shoulders and steering him away from where the younger man's been inadvertently straying towards the apple scented shisha.  "That one's a tad mind-altering if you catch my drift," Eames adds with a frown back in that general direction.

Eventually the two of them manage to navigate their way up two flights of stairs to a gallery level with several rooms around it. 

"Two headed cobra," Eames notes, nodding at the painted emblem on one of the doors.  "That's us," he holds up the single heavy key that the landlord had given them that also bears the same engraved motif.

"Bit pretentious for a place like this," Eames scoffs, jamming the key with force into the evidently rusted lock.

"I think this used to be a trade town," Arthur supplies as the door cracks open to reveal a sparsely furnished room with a lone single bed. 

"I Knew that toothless slimeball was ripping me off," Eames growls.  "I've got half a mind to go demand some of our money back."

"Oh let him keep it," Arthur says, shivering as he notices that instead of a window, they simply have a bashed through hole to let in the cold night air from the street outside.  "So long as he doesn't spit in our food - I'm fucking starving."

"The special tonight is snake flesh soup," Eames states, frowning as he goes to sit on the bed and it lets out a disturbingly human-like moan.

"I've eaten worse," Arthur admits, "and snake can be quite tasty."

"No arguments from me," Eames sighs. 

 

***   

 

The snake soup, as it turns out, is a rather disappointingly bland affair.  However it's still hot and filling and so Arthur devours it gratefully. 

After they've eaten, Eames announces that he's going to go check out the gambling parlour he'd seen next door. 

"With our money?" Arthur asks, narrowing his eyes upon being informed of Eames' dubious intentions.

"Yes Arthur, with the money I stole," Eames huffs back, but his plump lips are twisted into a strangely fond smile that serves to unnerve Arthur slightly and make his stomach twist with them.

"What if you lose it all?" Arthur pouts.  Whilst normally he might be grateful for a break from Eames, for some reason this entire place just sets his teeth on edge and it might be good to have someone familiar around. 

"Well that's very easily avoided Arthur," Eames sighs, "I just won't gamble it all.  Also it's wonderful to hear you've got so much faith in my card playing abilities."

"You can't do a poker face," Arthur replies as Eames pulls a mock offended expression.

"Well then I'll just shape shift into someone who can," Eames snorts lightly, getting to his feet and picking up their empty soup bowls.  "I'll take these down to the kitchen on my way," Eames tells him before nodding at the hunk of uneaten bread that Arthur's still clutching possessively.  "You want that?"

"I'll eat it later," Arthur nods, knowing full well he'll probably end up taking it to Ethelred after Eames has gone. 

"Stay in the room okay?" Eames instructs, looking so uncharacteristically stern that Arthur almost laughs with the shock. 

"I'm serious Arthur," Eames continues, as if sensing the younger man's amusement.  "I can't have you going and starting any bar fights like the raucous hooligan you are."

 Arthur rolls his eyes as Eames' pale eyes flash with a dangerous humour.

"Don't worry," Arthur sighs, "I promise to not let the scars set you alight tonight.  It would probably be detrimental to your poker skills right?"

Eames looks surprised for a moment, "That's not why I - oh look forget it.  Just stay in the bloody room.  I should be back in a couple of hours."

"Whatever," Arthur shrugs, suddenly feeling slightly sour for some reason.  He also doesn't really appreciate Eames ordering him about like a kid.  Only Mal was allowed to that, despite being the same age as Arthur and him bitching about it vigorously. 

 

Sure enough, twenty minutes after Eames has left, Arthur goes to grab a warmer shawl wrap and quickly leaves the room.  He locks the door behind him, figuring that if Eames gets back earlier than him then he'll just have to wait.  Although that seems unlikely judging from the look of the packed and thriving gambling parlour as Arthur passes it on the street on his way back to the stables.  

He manages to find Ethelred with ease.  Although the stables are locked up, it's easy for someone as slender as Arthur to heave himself up and over the top of the doors and through the gap. 

He lands with a gentle thud on the other side and smiles as Ethelred lets out a whinny of recognition. 

"You're got loads of room in here huh?" Arthur comments as he checks around the cosy, straw-filled space.  "I reckon I should have roomed with you instead of Eames.  You probably snore less," Arthur grins as he goes to stroke the camel's bristly nose and draws the hunk of bread out from his pocket.  Ethelred lets out another pleased noise as he starts to chew, showering Arthur in a hailstorm of stale crumbs. 

"Watch it!" Arthur laughs, shaking himself off and taking a step back, "God your table manners are as bad as Eames'."

Ethelred gives a dismissive huff at the suggestion before continuing to eat his bread.  Arthur sits down on the straw, leaning with his back against the now reclining camel and closing his eyes with a contented sigh. 

When he opens them again he realises to his horror that he's been asleep and he has absolutely no idea how long for.

Ethelred's clearly finished all his bread and is now snoring softly behind Arthur. 

"Fuck!" Arthur exclaims, launching himself forwards and immediately having to steady himself against the stable door due to his somewhat disorientated and sleep-addled brain. 

He manages to further wind himself in his effort to squeeze back through the narrow gap and out onto the decidedly colder street.  The entire town seems a lot quieter than it had been earlier, worryingly so as Arthur still can't work out for life of him what time of night it is. 

He jogs back down the darkened streets, wondering with a twinge of guilt whether or not Eames has already returned from the gambling parlour and if he's been looking for Arthur? Given that Arthur's life is directly linked to Eames', he can imagine that the other man might be a little tetchy regarding his whereabouts. 

Arthur hurtles round the final corner and screeches to a halt as he spots a cluster of obviously inebriated men barring his way to the inn's entrance.  Arthur knows he can handle himself well enough in these types of situations, but he's got a bad feeling about these particular men.  His heart only falls further when one of the men notices him and immediately turns to elbow the others.

Arthur feels the hairs on the back of his neck bristle as all four of the figures turn to face him.  The trouble is that he really doesn't have a clue how else to get to the inn.  If he backtracks and tries another route, it's quite likely he could just get lost or run into worse. 

Flexing his fingers and feeling the absence of his magic more than ever, Arthur steels himself to take a step forward. 

Almost immediately he knows he's made a mistake.  The men seem to take Arthur's movement as invitation to descend on him in a threatening circle. 

"Hell girlie," one of the men rasps in a rough desert dialect.

Arthur realises belatedly that he's still got the shawl wrapped around his head.  He's not sure it will make much difference if he reveals that he's actually a boy, but he quickly pulls the rough fabric down anyway. 

His worst fears are confirmed when the men react with delighted cheers, crowding in closer to him. 

"What are you still doing out?" the same man asks, his breath uncomfortably warm and damp in the night air.  "All the whore have gone home for the night."

"Where did you come from?" another man growls curiously.  "Haven't seen you around here before."

"Maybe he's a Sand Sprite?" the first man suggests with a leer as Arthur flinches.  'Sand Sprites' were mythical creatures that crawled out of sand dunes once a year, seeking and venturing into nearby settlements with the sole purpose of seducing human mates in order to fall pregnant.  In recent years the legend had become nothing more than a crude joke for dirty limericks or desert town graffiti. 

Arthur knows that the men are trying to provoke a response out of him, potentially gauging whether or not he's in possession of any powers they should be wary of.  Arthur bites the inside of his cheek as a panicked and wholly unwelcome feeling of helplessness takes hold of his chest.

He moves a step forwards, meaning to make his way between the men.  However a moment later Arthur finds himself roughly slammed up against the nearest wall with a harshly murmuring mouth up against the back of his neck. 

"If he's a whore going back to his pimp then he'll have money on him," one of the men announces nastily.  "He'll have pulled in a tidy sum if he's new in town.  Everyone likes fresh meat." 

"I like fresh meat," the man directly behind Arthur purrs threatening, jostling his large and rancid smelling body further into Arthur's space. 

"Check his pockets for coins," someone hisses urgently.

"Check everywhere," states another. 

It's with a flash of shame that Arthur realises he hasn't even tried to struggle free since finding himself in this position.  The shock of being in danger and not feeling the familiar protective thrum of magic in his veins had rendered him motionless, caught like a panicked animal.

He doesn't know how angry the men will be when they realise he doesn't have any coins on him at all.  Arthur tries to butt his head back against the uncomfortable weight behind him but the man must dodge out of the way just in time.

"Little shit! an angry voice snarls.  The man places his large hand across the back of Arthur's scalp and slamming him face forward into the crumbling stone of the wall in front.  Arthur lets out a cry of pain and shock, coughing as he feels blood flowing freely from his nose and down his throat. 

  They're going to kill me, Arthur thinks miserably to himself as he gets jerked backwards and thrown down to the floor before metal tipped boots start propelling themselves against his chest and stomach.  He covers his face with his hands as best he can, trying to work out how he could possibly escape without any powers.

 

"Any of you boys looking for a good time?" a seductive voice purrs noticeably over the sounds of grunts and violence.

Arthur feels the men falter in their incessant beating of him, however it's not until he can actually hear them moving away that he dares to lower his hands and crack open his eyes. 

Arthur almost feels his mouth gape open in surprise as he sees the owner of the voice.  Just across the street from him and the men is a sultry looking blonde women with bright red lips and a figure hugging dress.  The first and most ridiculous thing Arthur thinks is that she must be freezing with the night chill.  The second thing he realises is that she's obviously got no idea what she's just walked into. 

"Run!" Arthur manages to hiss at her, spitting blood across the ground, trying to warn the woman just how much danger she's in.  From the way she saunters to the nearest wall and props herself in a suggestive position, she clearly doesn't seem to care.  Arthur watches in horror as the men turn their interest from him and start to stalk towards her aggressively, calling out the same lewd banter they'd been using on him just a moment ago.  Arthur shudders at the implications of what they're saying as he struggles to try and haul himself up from the street, to put himself between her and the men. 

"Only it seems wrong," the woman pouts, her voice dripping with something deep and sensual, but now Arthur can tell there's a slightly strained and angry vein to it.  "Picking on a kid like that when there's four of you and only one of him." 

The men start to laugh, clearly not paying any attention to the way the woman's posture has started to change, her expression growing less flirtatious and more furious.  There's also something piercing about her grey eyes that Arthur can't help but feel like he recognizes. 

"So I thought you might like to try someone your own size," the woman sneers finally, however the honeyed, alluring voice is gone and now her pitch drops down into something of a masculine growl. 

Arthur stares dumbstruck as the woman waits until the last possible moment, for the approaching men to be lured close enough towards her with their guards down, before she morphs back into Eames.  

There's a strangled shout of surprise that Arthur belatedly realises must have come from him as Eames pulls a thick iron bar out from behind his back and smashes it against the first man's head.  The other men are still clearly too inebriated and confused to have figured out what just happened so Eames also has the edge on them too.  Arthur staggers forwards to help but the men are already down by the time he gets there, and instead Eames is rounding on him furiously.

"And where the bloody hell have you been?!" Eames shouts, his anger echoing around the otherwise empty street. 

"I-" Arthur opens his mouth to answer but coughs again as he chokes on more of his own blood.

"Fucking hell," Eames grits, rushing forwards to catch Arthur before he does something embarrassing like collapse back down to the dirtied street.  "Fucking wankers what have they done to you?"

"It's just my nose," Arthur replies in a muffled murmur as Eames starts to check him over and he lets out a responding hiss of pain, "and my ribs and sides and major organs." 

Eames responds with another string of expletives, guiding Arthur over to the wall and subsequently propping him against it to have a better look at his face, which must surely be black and blue by now. 

"I don't think it's broken," Eames growls, reaching out to lightly touch the tip of Arthur's decidedly swollen nose.  "But you still need medical treatment or you'll get an infection.  There's not much we can do about it when we're on the road again, but there was that apothecary here that we spotted earlier." 

"It was closed," Arthur winces, as Eames finally relaxes his grip on the younger man's arms. 

"I'm sure we can persuade them to open," Eames mutters darkly, "the owner probably lives above the shop." 

"We're going right now?" Arthur asks surprised as Eames starts to pull him back down the street in the direction of the apothecary past the stables. 

"Well you don't seem to be in any hurry to get back to the inn tonight," Eames snaps, his face still shadowed and somewhat murderous.  Arthur swallows heavily, feeling a pit of something solid and unpleasant building up in his stomach. 

"I - I'm sorry okay?" he murmurs, trying not to look Eames in the eye as the other man screeches to a halt.  Arthur glances round behind them nervously to see if the other men have regained consciousness yet.

"Oh well that's just fine then Arthur," Eames snarls viciously, he throws his hands up in a defeated gesture.  "I guess I only have myself to blame - forgetting that you're still a child and can't obey simple instructions."

"Fuck you!" Arthur stammers, starting to feel more outraged than guilty, "since when did you give the orders anyway? Far as I remember you're nothing better than my sister's slave right now." 

Eames' eyes darken further, the normally immutable pale grey swirling with ash as a volcanic eruption of fury clouds the skies of his irises. 

"And yet you seem to be the one so hell bent on ensuring she died for nothing," Eames says in a low, quiet voice. 

"No," Arthur snaps, "no you don't fucking get to do that - to try and make me feel guilty.  I'm sorry I didn't come back to the inn in time okay? But I'm not fucking sorry I went out and 'disobeyed' an order from you.  I went to the stables to check on the camel and I must have just - I don't know, fallen asleep or something."

"Fallen asleep or something," Eames repeats numbly, his expression now disturbingly blank.  "Arthur do you have any idea what it was like to go back to the room and not find you there? To spend the next half hour desperately searching the whole bloody town and asking anyone in the bars if they'd seen you?!"

"I'm sorry," Arthur repeats lamely, his head is already throbbing with a stinging ache and the shock from his assault is wearing off as the pain starts to set in. 

"Do you have any idea what those men could have done to you?" Eames asks, sounding exasperated and weary as they turn to continue walking in the direction of the apothecary. 

"I'm still alive aren't I?" Arthur mutters, feeling fed up with this seemingly disproportional level of anger. 

"Because I fucking turned up!" Eames shouts.  "What the hell were you doing? I mean damn it Arthur I know you don't want to use dark magic because it shaves time off your life but were you seriously just going to lie there and take it?!"

This time it's Arthur who stops dead in the middle of the road.  "Take that back," he growls, his voice still bubbling from the blood in his throat. 

"Arthur," Eames stammers, looking confused at whatever fury he's seeing in Arthur's face right now.

"I - " Arthur closes his eyes and takes a deep, wracking breath.  "I don't have any fucking powers okay? Mal took them from me in order to make sure she won against the sorcerers." 

There's complete silence before Arthur cracks his eyes back open to see if Eames has actually disappeared.  Instead the fair haired man is staring back at him, his mouth dropped open, his expression aghast. 

"She couldn't have," Eames croaks eventually, "that's not possible..."

"Dark magic twins," Arthur replies bitterly, "exceptions to every rule." 

"That - that was your magic?" Eames breathes.  "In the ring back in Nigeb?"

"Not just mine," Arthur shakes his head, "a combination of both mine and Mal's.  She knew it would give her the strength she needed." 

Eames' eyes narrow, although still in dismay rather than any kind of suspicion, "Why didn't you tell me?" Eames hisses.  It could be Arthur's imagination but the older man almost sounds hurt and well as apoplectic. 

"Tell you what?" Arthur grumbles.  "That I'm actually completely powerless since my sister stripped me of my magic in my sleep and then went to effectively commit suicide?"  Arthur takes a deep, steadying breath, trying to compose himself, "And for your information I was trying to fight back against those men - but there happened to be four of them and oomph! - "

Arthur lets out a shuddered cry of surprise as Eames leans forward and drags Arthur into his arms, pressing him against the older man's chest and hugging him tightly.  At first Arthur considers trying to struggle away from the indignity of it all, but after a few moments he realises that Eames' arms have gone more lax, as if to avoid hurting him and also to let Arthur decided when he wants to break the embrace.  Suddenly being in control makes Arthur realise that he doesn't want to move away at all.  Instead he takes a step further into Eames' warmth and presses his bruised cheek against the older man's chest. 

Eames' shirt smells of shisha and spices and then underneath there's the same familiar musk that Arthur recognizes as pure Eames.  Right now, in this hostile town it's the only small fragment of comforting familiarity he has and he clings to it for dear life. 

"I've got you," Eames whispers, his hand moving to stroke the back of Arthur's head.  Arthur hadn't even realised how violently he'd been shaking against the older man. 

"It's just the adrenalin," Eames explains as if having read Arthur's mind, "that and the cold air.  You'll be alright when we get you inside somewhere.  You've just had a shock, that's all." 

"I want to go," Arthur hiccoughs, refusing to let his uncooperative throat close up anymore.  "I don't want to stay here tonight." 

"I know," Eames sighs as if he's about to deliver bad news, which Arthur realistically knows he probably is.  "We'll just stay the one night okay? I've still got to get us supplies, I managed to get directions from some old tosser in the cards parlour so we'll be okay to get to Egidu when we leave."

"We can leave tonight?" Arthur sniffs, although he knows it's hopeless, Eames is right - they do need the supplies or they'll never make it across the desert to the next settlement. 

As if understanding that Arthur just needs to say the words, Eames doesn't reply.  Instead he simply keeps one of his arms strongly around Arthur's waist, supporting him as they finally reach the very closed looking apothecary. 

"How do you intend to wake them u-" Arthur begins before Eames cups his hands either side of his mouth and starts to holler up into the night air in the direction of the shuttered windows above the shop. 

"Oh gods," Arthur groans, "you realise we're probably both going to get beaten up now?"

"Apothecarist!" Eames yells even louder as if to drown out Arthur's negativity.  After about a minute with no response he leans down and picks up a handful of pebbles and grit from the street. 

"I wouldn't do that," Arthur shakes his head, "they might just try to poison me instead."

"Nonsense," Eames grins, reaching his hand back and throwing the grit hard against one of the wooden shutters so it ricochets in an explosive clatter.  "We're paying customers - no one ever turns away paying customers in a town like this." 

"That depends how much they're paying," a female voice hisses furiously from above them, drawing Eames and Arthur's attention back up to the now open window.  A petite, brunette girl is glaring down at them from where she's thrown back the shutters, a sleep gown wrapped hurriedly around her.

"Enough!" Eames calls back cheerfully, delving his hands into his pockets and drawing out a sizeable pile of coins. 

"Well then," the girl snaps, although her expression has hardened into one of interest rather than accusation as she slams the shutters closed again and Arthur can hear movement from inside the building. 

"Where did you get all that money?!" Arthur exclaims, staring at the gold coins in Eames' hands.  "Eames I swear to the gods if you've robbed people we'll probably have our throats slit by morning in a place like this."

"Oh I robbed them alright," Eames announces proudly, "robbed 'em blind - bastards didn't know what had hit them when I got full house." 

"You," Arthur pauses in surprise, "you won at cards?"

"Arthur," Eames sniffs, "I'm offended.  I mean I suppose it was a bit harder work than normal.  You see they were all bloody cheating, normally it's only me that cheats so I have the edge!"

"I see," Arthur replies, biting his lip in a small smile.

"Not too hard to distract the folk round here though darling," Eames purrs seductively as his face momentarily morphs into the blonde woman's that he'd been shifted in to earlier. 

"Seeing as I'm new in town I won't take offence at that," a voice states woodenly as Eames and Arthur both jump to see that the brunette girl has reappeared in the now open apothecary doors.  She looks Arthur up and down before cocking her head, "let me guess - cold medicine?" she asks sarcastically.

"Let me guess," Eames replies, "not a morning person?"

"It's not morning yet," the girl snaps, "although I'm sure this could have waited until then." 

"He's hurt," Eames replies, shrugging.  If he's aiming for nonchalance Arthur realises he's missed the mark slightly.  Although perhaps only Arthur can tell, having been in such close contact with Eames over the last week so as to notice the slight spasm of tension in his shoulders or the thread of a plea in his voice. 

The girl narrows her eyes before sighing abruptly and ushering them both into the shop.  "I haven't set up fully yet," she explains as they emerge into a room full of boxes and potion bottles. 

"You've certainly chosen a lovely town to relocate to," Eames mutters darkly as she glowers at him before turning to Arthur, her hands on her hips. 

"I'm Ariadne," she states in a business-like voice, "I have healing powers and a natural aptitude for remedies." 

"I'm Arthur," Arthur smiles, immediately warming to this no-nonsense approach.  It's so un-Eames like that Arthur imagines the older man might even be wearing an expression of distaste at the lack of flare. 

"You got into some sort of trouble?" Ariadne asks, rummaging in one of her boxes before extracting a pot of salve and gesturing to Arthur's face.

"Something like that," Arthur winces sheepishly, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

"You're lucky," Ariadne smiles softly as she inspects Arthur's nose, "it's not broken."

"Yes well I already told him that," Eames states somewhat brusquely from behind them, "now we just need him healed." 

"I'm not a performing monkey," Ariadne snaps, rolling her eyes back at Arthur before giving him a conspiratorial wink.  It makes him smile, it's almost like having a shade of Mal back for a split second. 

"You're the right size," Arthur hears Eames mutter darkly. 

"Eames," he hisses, jerking round and glaring warningly at the older man, "what is your problem?! You woke her up in the middle of the night and now she's agreeing to treat me." 

"Are you even qualified?" Eames asks gruffly instead, shooting a demanding look at a somewhat amused Ariadne.  Arthur cringes and groans at the same time, wondering what the hell has gotten into his travelling partner?

"Do you have much choice?" Ariadne asks, raising an eyebrow at Eames innocently.  "You're welcome to go and try your luck with waking up the other apothecarists of the town." 

"Eames for gods' sakes just shut it," Arthur hisses before Eames can reopen his mouth. 

"Your friend's a delight," Ariadne murmurs, flicking Arthur a bemused look as she leads him over to a wooden stool and starts to dress his wounds. 

"He's not normally this bad," Arthur shrugs helplessly, "I think he's a little highly strung tonight."

"Probably just worried about you," Ariadne replies, loudly enough for Eames to shoot them both a glare.

Ariadne's just wrapping a bandage around Arthur's left wrist when Eames appears by their side, shoving an ointment jar in front of her face.  "Where did you get this?" he asks demandingly. 

"Um, Eames," Arthur stammers, "I'm sure it's legit..."

"It's not yours," Eames snaps accusingly, "I recognize the brewer's stamp and it's not yours."

"Yes I am aware of that thank you," Ariadne replies, pursing her lips together.  "A friend shared his recipes with me back in the town where I used to work."

"A friend?" Eames sneers incredulously. 

"Eames what the hell is wrong with you?" Arthur exclaims, jumping up with an expression of disbelief.

"She's lying Arthur," Eames snaps, "this stamp," he points to a small etched 'Y' shape on the wax seal of the jar, "I know the chemist who it belongs to.  His name is -"

"Yusuf," Ariadne finishes with a dramatic sigh, "yes I know."

"Yusuf's a friend of yours?" Eames screws up his face. 

"We worked together back in Romur," Ariadne states curtly, "how on Pinoncite do you know him?"

"He's an old associate," Eames frowns.

"Oh," Ariadne snorts, looking Eames up and down as if taking in his appearance, "I should have known.  On the run from someone are you? Oh my god are you the conman Eames? Yusuf talked about you!"

"Conman?" Arthur exclaims, feeling completely lost and confused, and quite frankly a little bit nauseous.  "Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on?" 

"Where's Yusuf now?" Eames asks Ariadne suspiciously, completely ignoring Arthur's question, much to Arthur's frustration.

"Damned if I know," Ariadne shrugs, although there's a look of regret in her eyes.  "We had to split from Romur after a job went awry." 

"Is everybody a criminal?" Arthur groans, lifting his hands up to his throbbing head and half wishing he'd just stayed back in Nigeb and at least ensured he lived out the rest of his remaining days quietly and peacefully, eating all the dragon fruit that he wanted.

"If you see him again before I do," Ariadne says quietly, "let him know to drop by Ganred some time." 

"Will do," Eames grunts, with a nod in honour of this seeming moment of understanding between the two of them.  Arthur lets out a huff of frustration as he reaches for the tub of pain salve and starts liberally applying it by himself.  Ariadne turns back to him with a look of faint surprise. 

"Yeah," Arthur states, "still here - still beaten up." 

"I'm sorry," Ariadne shakes her head, looking rather flustered as she shoos Arthur's hands away and takes over. 

 

***

 

"What was that about?" Arthur asks eventually an hour later as he and Eames finally make their way across their inn courtyard and up to their room.  Arthur wrinkles in nose as his entire body reeks of balsams and ointments. 

"What?" Eames asks as he waits for Arthur to pass him the room key. 

"That 'Yusuf' business," Arthur sniffs, "you and 'Ariadne' started getting along after that, reminiscing about the 'good old days'.  I was half expecting you to invite her along to Alack." 

Eames turns the key in the lock, cracking the door open before looking back at Arthur with a quiet studying expression.  Suddenly a slow and knowing smile cracks across Eames' otherwise tired looking face.  "Arthur pet," he purrs in a way that sets Arthur's teeth on edge.  "Please don't tell me you're jealous of the apothecarist?"

"What do I have to be jealous of?" Arthur snaps, pushing past Eames and moving into the room.  "It's not like I just got assaulted and you spent the next two hours chitchatting about your criminal hijinks with a pretty girl." 

"Arthur..." Eames whispers, although this time it sounds pitying rather than amused and Arthur hates it. 

"I'm fine," he hisses before Eames can say, or realise, anything more.  "I know your concern for my safety is no more than concern for your own," Arthur gestures sourly at Eames' scars, not visible at the moment for the cuff of his sleeve.  It unnerves Arthur slightly, not to be able to see the physicality of what links them together, the promise that can't be broken. 

"Oh Arthur," Eames sighs sadly, "are you really that fucking stupid?" 

"Screw you," Arthur snaps back, crawling into the bed without bothering to remove his soiled clothes.  If Eames wants to share tonight then he'll just have to put up with the smell and trails of grit all over the sheets. 

"Arthur I wasn't thinking about the Seprimo when I saw you on the street with those men," Eames says quietly, the bed dipping with his weight.  "I wasn't thinking at all.  I was just so damn terrified that you were going to be hurt." 

"Just - just shut up," Arthur growls, irritated to discover how weak and choked his voice sounds. 

"Okay," Eames murmurs, but he sounds reluctant and shifts to move closer to Arthur's back a moment later.  Arthur blinks hotly as he feels Eames' warmth covering him from behind and the chill of the open window hitting his still sore face from the front.  On instinct he scoots closer back against the comforting warmth and somehow manages to summon sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Eames has just finished tying his boots when Arthur finally stirs in the bed.  It's unusual for Eames to be up before the younger man, but he'd really wanted to try and let Arthur sleep today.  Especially as he'd asked Ariadne to give him a calming tonic.  Arthur had clearly been in shock from the night's events, he'd felt cold to the touch and he hadn't stopped shaking until Eames had finally brought him back to the inn and got him into the warmth of the bed.

Eames growls angrily as he remembers the predatory, merciless expressions the men had been wearing as they'd kicked Arthur to the ground of the street.  He was just a kid and they'd been so ready to beat him to death for not having any coins or not being willing to render them any other services.

"Mal?" Arthur frowns in his sleep addled state as his large brown eyes crack open and he squints at Eames' silhouette in the streaming sunlight. 

"It's Eames pet," Eames corrects him quickly, not wanting to lead Arthur down that path of false dreams before the day's even started. 

"Eames," Arthur repeats, before seeming to remember where he is and sitting up straight in the bed with a regretful wince.

"Careful now," Eames warns, hissing in sympathy, "you'll be sore today."

"I feel like a fucking camel sat on me," Arthur groans as Eames lets out a stunned laugh of surprise.

"Well that's what happens when you go and bunk up with Ethelred instead of me," Eames grins, glad to see that Arthur's feeling somewhat back to his usual self. 

"We're leaving Ganred today right?" Arthur asks, looking slightly more unsure.

"Definitely," Eames nods, "I already went to go get us some supplies so we don't have to hang around." 

"You went out?" Arthur asks.  Eames frowns as he sees a flash of emotion cross Arthur's tanned face.  He half wonders if the younger man is annoyed that Eames left him alone after what had happened.  However he knows better than to suggest this what with Arthur's fierce pride.  Eames had ensured he'd locked the room after him, and told the landlord not to let anyone unknown up - even paid him extra for it. 

"Yeah," Eames shrugs nonchalantly, "I got peckish."  He chucks the remains of a box of greasy pastries onto Arthur's lap as the younger man scowls at him.  "Eat up," Eames instructs, "I don't want to waste the sun today.  Push hard and we could make it to Egidu in two days." 

"And Alack when?" Arthur grumbles, but he still picks up one of the honey dripped pastries with his thumb and forefinger before shoving it whole into his mouth.        

"Sweet tooth huh?" Eames smirks as Arthur glares at him, although the effect is somewhat diminished by his cheeks all puffed out like a desert hamster.

"Mal didn't like me eating unhealthy stuff," Arthur answers eventually, swallowing the remains of his breakfast and causing Eames to track the strained bob of his throat and Adam's Apple.  "I guess she didn't want us risking our already endangered life spans." 

"I'd rather have a short but indulgent life," Eames winks, moving forwards to duck to Arthur's level on the bed and wipe a trail of sticky honey away from the younger man's chin with the pad of his thumb.  Arthur freezes under him and Eames wonders regretfully if he should have reined in his usual overtly tactile behaviour on account of the night before. 

"Sorry pet," Eames smiles sheepishly, "you just had some honey." 

"If you've got the supplies already we should get moving," Arthur announces suddenly jerking up from the bed as if electrocuted.  Eames sighs and not for the first time over the course of their journey, wishes he had mind-reading powers instead of shape-shifting.  Although he's not actually sure if those even exist. 

 

***

 

"Good riddance Ganred," Eames mutters as the town finally becomes a shadowed mirage in the distance.  "May I never have to wade through your sewer infested bowels ever again." 

"That's disgusting," Arthur states from where he's seated up front on the camel.  Although from the tone of his voice it sounds like he's smiling. 

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have me steer today?" Eames asks as Arthur lets out a snort. 

"That's quite alright Mr Eames," Arthur replies, not bothering to turn round, "I'm capable of 'steering' a camel, even when I'm bruised and battered."

"Just though you might be a bit uncomfortable up there," Eames shrugs, pouting slightly. 

"Why Mr Eames," Arthur laughs, "it sounds like you're trying to convince me to swap positions.  Are you bored of being the one behind?"

Eames blushes before he can stop himself and much to his annoyance, this time - Arthur does glance round at him with a sly grin. 

"You've gone red," Arthur states triumphantly. 

"Sunburn," Eames snaps back.  He'd rather admit to that than having been embarrassed by something Arthur said. 

"Huh," Arthur frowns, evidently believing the lie, "you know you really will get sick at some point if you don't cover up more.  At least put on some of the protective oils we got off of Ariadne." 

"I think my skin's a little less delicate than yours," Eames snorts, half wondering if he should just relent and put his shirt back on.  The sun today is stronger than it has been for the last few weeks and it's beating down powerfully on the desert's surface.  He doesn't understand how Ethelred's feet can take it, Eames is pretty sure his boots are melting and they're not even touching the scorching sand. 

"We need to find shade soon," Eames coughs as some struggling gnats fly into his face. 

"I thought I was the delicate one?" Arthur comments wryly, clicking his tongue to speed Ethelred up so that Eames now has melted boots and, in all likelihood, damaged testicles. 

Who the fuck thought it would be a good idea to start riding camels?

"I was thinking of Ethelred," Eames mutters murderously.

"Since when did you start caring about the camel's health?" Arthur scoffs.  "And believe me, Ethelred can take a lot more punishing conditions than this.  Hey..." Arthur trails off, causing Eames to lean round and follow his gaze into the distance. 

"Did you hear that?" Arthur frowns, glancing back to Eames and jumping slightly to find the older man's face already so close.  Eames can't help the amused twitch of his lips as he watches the pupiled pools of ink in Arthur's wide eyes dilate ever so slightly. 

"Hear what?" Eames asks quietly, still refusing to draw his head back as Arthur's pink tongue darts out quickly to wet his dry lips. 

"I- I thought I heard a cry," Arthur shakes his head, clearing his throat and readjusting his position on the camel. 

"Probably more tricks of the desert," Eames states warily, "it's already thrown mirages and quick sand at us." 

"To be fair it was you that got tricked by both," Arthur visibly shrugs. 

"Arthur for fuck's sake you did not hear a bloody -" Eames halts as the echo of strange but piercing cry resonates across the dunes towards them.  "Well bollocks," he sighs as Arthur turns to him with a triumphant grin. 

"It's a whining wind," Eames retorts, trying to look informative and serious. 

"A what?" Arthur screws his face up and not for the first time Eames notices that a confused looking Arthur is a rather sweet looking Arthur. 

"A whining wind," Eames repeats, "common to the central desert, they're gusts of air belched up by the sand dunes that sound like human cries for help.  The paths of whining winds are littered with hapless skeletons." 

"You're making this up," Arthur sighs after a moment of thoughtful contemplation, "I told you, you have a shit poker face." 

Suddenly the cry calls out again, only louder this time and it causes both Arthur and Eames to stiffen and stare out to their left in the direction it came from. 

"Oh no," Eames announces authoritatively, "we are not going to go charging off, potentially into another trap."

"But someone could be hurt!" Arthur protests, throwing Eames a judgemental look.  "I seem to recall you were all for desert detours so long as they were in your best interest?"

"Exactly," Eames nods, pleased that Arthur's finally got the point.  "And this is clearly not in my best interests so let's keep moving South East please." 

"They could need our help," Arthur sniffs with that petulant tone of voice that Eames has come to know so well. 

"You're the one that wants to hurry to Alack!" Eames says, feeling exasperated and half tempted to grab the reins out of Arthur's indecisive hands. 

"Not at the expense of someone else," Arthur snaps, "do you only ever think about yourself?"

"People who don't tend to die young," Eames replies before cursing himself as Arthur's expression goes dark and shuttered.  "I wasn't talking about - " Eames huffs irritably.  They've slowed right down during their debate and the sun is really starting to make him squirm uncomfortably.  "Fine, go investigate the damn noise," he curses, "but just get a bloody move on." 

Arthur jerks his head back to face forwards on Ethelred before clicking his tongue and causing the camel to speed up.    

 

***

 

"Oh thank gods," Eames mutters as they finally approach some wind blasted desert trees, providing some much needed shade. 

"I don't think it's coming from a person," Arthur announces, reminding Eames why they've been heading in this particular direction for the last torturous forty-five minutes.  Eames frowns and listens to the strange shrieking, almost yapping, noise that definitely sounds like they should be at its source. 

"There's something moving over there," Arthur notes, pointing over to behind a couple of the trees and moving to slide off of Ethelred's back. 

"Are you insane?" Eames exclaims, gripping Arthur's shoulder tightly and preventing him from going any further.  "One near death experience for you last night and you're already that eager to seek out another one?"

"Relax," Arthur scoffs, rolling his eyes, "it doesn't exactly sound like a gigantic beast."

"A Sabe scorpion's not gigantic either," Eames hisses as Arthur squirms out of his sweat slicked grip. 

"You think a scorpion's making that noise?" Arthur asks incredulously as he pads gingerly across the sand, evidently still feeling the ache from his injuries. 

"That's not my bloody point!" Eames growls.  "I'm saying that not everything dangerous and powerful comes in large sizes!"

"Trying to tell me something Eames?" Arthur turns round with a pointed smirk at...Eames' crotch?!

Eames lets out a snarl as he begins to stalk after a now surprisingly nimble Arthur. 

"Look here kid, I don't know what was in those ointments Ariadne gave you but if you've developed a sense of humour then you and I need to set some ground ru -"

"Shhh!" Arthur hisses from up front, holding his hand up in a silencing gesture and making Eames halt in his tracks with his mouth gaping open.  He's just about to re-gather his wits and retort when Arthur turns back round with widened, amazed eyes, "Eames," he whispers, "come look!"

Eames' biting response falls dead on his tongue as instead he tiptoes forwards as quietly as possible to join Arthur in staring down at the dip of tree covered dune. 

"Well I'll be damned," Eames smiles softly as he sees the small bundle of dappled black fur squirming about on the ground before letting out another pitiful wail.  "It's a real desert kitten." 

"It's a young yariyan," Arthur smiles, his whole face lighting up.  "I can't believe we're seeing one - they're so rare!"

"Not many of them survive childbirth," Eames notes grimly, nudging Arthur and nodding in the direction of a sand covered corpse with tufted grey fur.  The mother must have only died earlier that morning or the cub would surely have perished already. 

"Oh..." Arthur murmurs, looking heartbroken. 

"But I suppose now we're here we could maybe try to keep this one going," Eames clears his throat as Arthur looks at him in surprise.

"You want to help it?" Arthur asks, his face somewhat hopeful. 

"Yariyan are worth a fortune as exotic pets in border town markets," Eames states, not quite sure why he thought that was relevant information, anything to get Arthur to stop looking at him like that, like Eames is a better man than he is. 

"Of course," Arthur mutters, his face immediately darkening, causing Eames to feel both relief and regret. 

Eames leads the way down the small dune to where the desert cat is clawing at the sand.  He notices almost immediately that the cub's a girl, which is a blessing as the girls are reputed to require less care as they establish independence from much younger age.

"We might actually stand a chance," Eames nods, pointing out this titbit of information to a still morose looking Arthur.  "Try giving her some goat's milk from your flask," Eames adds, hoping to engage Arthur in an activity other than glaring at him. 

"Thought you said yariyans were venomous?"  Arthur narrows his eyes up at the older man as he crouches down to the struggling cub. 

"The myth goes that's only when they sense danger," Eames shrugs, "we should be alright we a little one - try to look non-threatening." 

"You better not come near it then," Arthur mumbles irritably as he draws out a small leather flask and uncorks the top. 

 

***

"It's not drinking," Arthur states miserably after about ten minutes of attempting to get the cub to suckle. 

"Dab the milk on your finger," Eames calls back without opening his eyes.  He's propped himself up on a knoll underneath the shade of a desiccated palm tree.  His skin still feels hot to the touch and he could do with some tender nursing himself right about now. 

"Eames!"

Eames flinches up at the hiss of his voice, slumping in relief as he sees Arthur grinning at him whilst the yariyan laps enthusiastically at his milk glistening finger. 

"Fucking finally," Eames mutters, heaving himself up to draw closer to the scene. 

"Eames listen," Arthur whispers excitedly.  "I think she's purring!" 

"Glad somebody's content," Eames grunts, trying to block out the static from his headache.  However he smiles fondly at the look of pure adoration and triumph in Arthur's eyes as he gazes down at the jet black kitten.

"What are you going to call her?" Eames enquires with a yawn, he's been feeling tired ever since they got off the camel. 

"I guess that will be up to her new owners to decide when you sell her," Arthur says darkly, not looking back at Eames.

"She needs a name for now," Eames murmurs, a slight pang of guilt settling in his stomach as he stares down at the two dark haired orphans in the sand.    

"Malika,"  Arthur murmurs, his eyes flitting nervous to Eames who frowns. 

"The goddess of mercy?" Eames asks, feeling curious. 

"It was Mal's full name," Arthur shrugs, "but the kitten can be 'Lika' for short." 

"Lika," Eames tries the name out on his tongue, lengthening the 'ee' sound in the middle.  "Seems good enough."

"So glad you approve," Arthur retorts drily. 

Eames ignores Arthur's comment to amble down to the two of them at the foot of the dune.  Both Arthur and Lika turn to regard Eames with identical haughty looks. 

"Oh gods," Eames huffs with an amused smile, "I don't know if I can cope with two of you."

"Shouldn't worry," Arthur shrugs, "you'll be getting rid of both of us soon." 

"Arthur," Eames murmurs, feeling suddenly frustrated.  "That's not why I -"

"No it's fine," Arthur snaps, rising to his feet and cradling a somewhat indignant looking Lika in his arms, "let's just get going shall we? I'm sure you're desperate to be on your way." 

Eames moves to follow Arthur back towards where they tied up Ethelred, but his feet feel slow and sluggish.  His headache's only getting worse and even the palm trees look like they're starting to sway despite the absence of any breeze.  "Arthur," Eames calls out hoarsely as he realises something actually might be wrong with him.  The pressure in his head is building to an unbearable intensity and the ground looks far too close to his face...

 

   

 

 

 

"Arthur..."

Arthur pauses and glances down at the puffball of warm black fur in his arms.  Lika pricks her ears back up at him and raises a whiskered eyebrow lazily as if to judge him for caring about what Eames might want. 

"Oh for gods' sakes what?" Arthur snaps as Eames makes no further movement or noise behind him.  Arthur jerks his head round, prepping his best glare when he suddenly sees Eames sprawled out on the floor a few feet away from him.  "Shit!" Arthur exclaims, darting back to the unconscious man and ignoring the meows of protest coming from his arms at the jostled movement.

"Eames?" Arthur stammers, depositing Lika safely on the dry ground beside them as he leans over Eames' horizontal form, shaking his bare shoulders desperately for signs of life.  "Fuck, Eames will please just wake up?!"

Eames' disapproving groan is music to Arthur's ears as he collapses in relief into a sprawled mess next to the older man. 

"Oh you bastard," Arthur hisses as he reaches out to feel Eames' clammy forehead.  "You've gone and gotten heat stroke haven't you?"

 

***

 

"You're fucking heavy - you know that?" Arthur grumbles at Eames from across the clearing where he's leaned up against a palm tree trunk.  Sheathes of bark have curled off from the sheer ferocity of the sun that day, their prickly layers curling around Arthur's body as if trying to drag him into the tree and forcibly share his fluids.

Arthur had managed to navigate Ethelred through the trees in order to try and help with the relocating of Eames' unconscious form to a more appropriate spot.  However due to the tricky nature of the terrain and Arthur not really thinking it fair to tie Eames to the camel and have him simply dragged along the ground, it had been Arthur that had ended up doing the brunt of the work. 

He'd managed to secure Lika into a open topped leather pouch on Ethelred's side from where she'd been able to loudly critique his work with more meows and snuffles of suspicion as she regarded the helpless form of an incapacitated Eames.    

"Don't look at me like that," Arthur snaps at her as he moves to dab more water against Eames' heated brow.  "I couldn't just leave him on the dune, it wasn't sheltered enough." 

Lika keeps her furred lips firmly pursed as her whiskers twitch scathingly. 

"Besides, you haven't really seen his good side yet," Arthur shrugs, "he's not all bad.  I mean he is a criminal and a bit selfish and to be honest it's his own fucking fault he's got heat stroke by insisting on never wearing a shirt..." Arthur trails off as Eames' full lips fall open and he lets out another unconscious groan. 

"You have to respect the desert to travel in it," Arthur continues after the noise has abated.  He knows he's rambling, but for some reason it helps soothe out the spike of panic he'd experienced when he'd seen Eames down on the ground like that.  He though the older man might have trodden on a Sabe scorpion or something equally fatal.  At least sunstroke is something that Arthur's encountered before and knows well enough how to treat it. 

Plus Ariadne had given them quite a few handy ointments and compresses for the rest of their journey.  Arthur half wishes they'd asked her to come with them, she'd be useful right about now, and she'd seemed nice enough.  He absently wonders if he'll ever see her again when he suddenly feels a pressure on his wrist. 

Arthur jumps and looks down in surprise to see Eames' fingers wrapped around his arm.  The older man's eyes are still closed but his lips are moving with a muted hiss of sound.  Arthur shuffles in closer so as to push his ear closer to Eames' mouth, the other man's warm breath puffs against the shell of Arthur's ear, causing him to shiver involuntarily. 

"W-water," Eames croaks as Arthur jumps backwards and immediately scrambles to find another of their water flasks.  He'd used up the last one wetting the compresses to place on Eames' forehead, neck and groin.  Although Arthur had more or less dropped the last one in position, not wanting Eames to suddenly wake up and find Arthur fiddling about down by his crotch area. 

"Drink slowly," Arthur instructs, although he's not sure Eames can even hear him as he presses the flask to Eames' mouth and dribbles in some of the precious liquid.  Eames coughs and draws back, his eyelids finally fluttering open to reveal his eyes, pupils blown and his irises hazy and glazed. 

"You're feverish," Arthur frowns, holding his hand back up against Eames' skin and wishing there was an oasis nearby so he could at least fetch more water. 

"You're beautiful," Eames whispers, causing Arthur to freeze in shock.  It's a deep snorting sound from Ethelred in the background that finally forces him to look up questioningly at Eames.  The other man is seemingly attempting to look at Arthur, however he could also be staring at a point somewhere over Arthur's left shoulder.

"You're delirious," Arthur sighs in realisation.  "It's quite common for heat stroke.  Just keep quiet for now."

"No," Eames moans, his eyes narrowing comically at different rates into an offended expression.  "I mean...there's a cat," Eames' sentence suddenly diverges off course as he frowns at Lika, who's appeared beside Arthur, evidently having found her way out of temporary cradle. 

"Yeah," Arthur nods with a smile, "we rescued her remember?" 

"Venomous yariyans..." Eames groans with a look of such genuine mild distress that Arthur has to bite his lip from letting out a snort of laughter.

"She's not venomous," Arthur replies grinning, reaching over to ruffle the fur in between Lika's ears. 

"You," Eames frowns further, looking wholly confused as Arthur goes to wipe away the sweat from his forehead again.  "You're keeping her?"

"I -" Arthur looks up surprised before a sly smirk passes over his face.  "Yeah, yeah I am," he concludes firmly, "you told me I could."

Eames' befuddled expression transmutes into something altogether more aghast and now Arthur really can't contain his chuckle. 

"You totally said I could keep her so long as I never rubbed it in your face that I was totally right about the whole 'not wearing a shirt or even protective oils in the desert' thing'," Arthur lies happily. 

"Ugh," Eames mutters with a pained wince, attempted to sit up further.  Although Arthur's not sure if he's voicing his distaste for the newly acquired pet, Arthur being right, or the fact that he's still suffering from the effects of sunstroke. 

"You need to rest," Arthur tells him after chewing on his lip in thought.  "Your skin's all burned and you look like a ripened tomato." 

It's true, Eames has turned a strangely crimson colour over his torso and face.  Although Arthur has the amusing suspicion that if he shaved Eames' stubble right now there'd probably be some very strange beard shaped tan lines. 

"Did I wet myself?" Eames scrunches up his face as Arthur chokes on his own spit and glances down to where the damp compress on Eames' groin has seeped into the fabric of his trousers. 

"No, fuck!" Arthur laughs, hastily removing the compress and trying to ignore the way his fingers brush against the stretched fabric of Eames' crotch.  "I was just trying to cool you down." 

"I was going to let you keep the sodding cat," Eames announces, changing the subject with the practised ease of someone in a fever induced state. 

"Had a change of heart after your brush with sunstroke death did you?" Arthur snorts.

"No," Eames screws up his face as he attempts to shake his head and end up slumping further down his own palm tree in clear disorientation.  "I was never planning on selling it.  It made you smile."

"Oh," Arthur murmurs back, his voice cracking slightly from unsure embarrassment as he turns to busy himself with  rewetting the now bone dry cloth he'd been using on Eames' forehead. 

"Why are you dark magic?" Eames groans, throwing his arm over his glisteningly sweat damp face.  "You're probably the lightest thing I've ever seen, you practically radiate it."

"Being dark magic doesn't make you evil," Arthur snaps, "it just means your powers and strength come from a different place." 

Eames' arm droops down to reveal pale grey eyes staring fondly back up at Arthur, causing the younger man to swallow awkwardly, not sure what else to do. 

"I know that now," Eames remarks with a shaky smile.  "I know why she was so desperate to save you."

"M-Mal?" Arthur stammers, feeling lost. 

"You're it Arthur," Eames croaks, "you're the light." 

Arthur draws back to stare hard at Eames' satisfied and almost triumphant expression for a moment before he huffs and shakes his head.  "Wow, you're really far gone aren't you?

"Still close enough to kiss you," Eames murmurs, his eyes glinting dangerously as Arthur freezes. 

"What?" Arthur hisses, finally finding his voice again as Eames is on his third aborted attempt to get up and presumably launch himself at Arthur. 

"For gods' sakes Arthur," Eames groans, sounding highly frustrated, "I want to kiss you."

"I - I think you need to sleep," Arthur coughs, trying to gather some of that own personal strength he'd been talking about.  "You're not thinking straight."

"Bloody hope not," Eames rasps, seeming to eventually give in and collapse back against the palm.  "You're not letting me kiss you," he complains with all the whining petulance of a child not getting his way. 

"I'm just sitting here," Arthur replies numbly, forcing himself to realise that this is all a side effect of the sunstroke.  There's just no possibility that Eames, as handsome and brutishly charming (Arthur begrudgingly admits), as he is, could feel anything toward Arthur other than the life or death obligation of the Seprimo Seal.  

"Exactly!" Eames exclaims as if the world is doing him a great wrong by not causing Arthur to fall into his arms.  "Is it me?" Eames asks, his eyes focussing with a sudden determination amidst the delirium. 

"Is it...what?" Arthur stutters, not really understanding the question.

"Because you know," Eames drawls in a voice that sounds most unlike his own, "I can be anybody you want."

Arthur lets out a panicked cry followed by a shocked laugh as Eames transforms in front of him into a red headed woman with bright green eyes and narrow, curving lips.  "No?" the woman asks a moment later, looking crestfallen as Arthur continues to gape blankly at her with his mouth hanging open. 

"Eames what the hell are you doing?" Arthur hisses as Eames shape shifts again, this time into a large and handsome dark sinned man with facial tattoos and a striking silver nose piercing.  He looks like some majestic desert prince, but decidedly un-Eames like. 

"Really pet," Eames begins in deep, low voice that changes halfway through to a sultry purr as the familiar buxom blonde appears, "you just name it and I can be it." 

"Oh my god stop!" Arthur laughs, finding himself somewhat on the way to becoming hysterical.  "You can't use up your energy like this when you're ill! Also - " he flounders, glancing around before noticing the way Lika has her hackles up, her fangs bared in a hiss at Eames' shifting form.  "You're terrifying my yariyan!"

"Oh," the blonde woman sighs dejectedly, "sorry kitten." 

Arthur's not quite sure who the apology was actually addressed to when suddenly Eames himself reappears, looking redder than ever with dark shadows under his tired eyes. 

"This is fine," Arthur says quickly, trying to quash and ignore the lurch of his stomach as Eames' eyes light up with a glimmer of hope.  "I mean - just stay in this form okay? Stay as you?" 

"No," Eames shakes his head miserably as his eyes already begin to close and he slumps further into the sand beneath them.  "What bloody good is it being myself if you won't kiss me?" 

"Go to sleep Mr Eames," Arthur instructs, biting his lip in an amused and affectionate smile as he replaces the damp cloth on the older man's forehead. 

Eames lets out another huff of protest but no more words as his breathing slowly changes into a steady rhythm of slumber.   

Arthur grins fondly before turning back to see Lika regarding him with a curious and assessing expression.

"What?" Arthur snaps, feeling judged, "I didn't do anything!"

Lika sniffs, twitching her wet black nose before padding softly over towards a sleeping Eames and curling up beside him. 

"Traitor," Arthur laughs, rolling his eyes and reaching out to pet her, "he was totally going to sell you." 

The cruelly hot day finally comes to a close as Arthur forces himself to stay awake beside the other slumbering members of his travelling party.  Every twenty minutes he replaces the cloth on Eames' forehead, Lika's unblinking eyes tracking his every movement.

 

  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

"You missed a spot darling," Eames informs a rather flustered Arthur, whilst attempting to keep his face as straight and serious as possible.

"I don't understand why you can't apply the protective lotions yourself," Arthur snaps, slapping the pale lilac cream onto Eames' skin with enough force to nearly dislodge an unimpressed looking Lika, who is sat on Arthur's shoulder whilst he works.

"I've told you already," Eames sighs, trying to sound put out," I'm still suffering from the physical effects of heat stroke, my muscles ache far too much for me to reach all the particularly hard bits."

Eames bites his lip as he receives another hard slap of lotion before Arthur's hand begins to roughly stroke it across Eames' shoulder blades.  In all honesty the pain from his rather vicious onslaught of sunstroke has probably dissipated enough to allow Eames to apply his own protective lotion.  However, he's sure he had a dream like this once, and he's not about to pass the opportunity up of a very flushed and frustrated Arthur rubbing him all over. 

"You're the one that's been harping on about blocking lotions," Eames sighs.

"Yes and look what happened when you didn't use them and refused to put a shirt on!" Arthur exclaims exasperatedly.  "You passed out in a delirious state for nearly two days!"

"Really Arthur," Eames smirks, "I didn't know you cared so much."

"You've held us up even more - that's all," Arthur mutters, but the deepened scarlet of his neck and cheeks tells Eames that this isn't altogether true. 

"Well so long as I didn't embarrass myself too badly whilst in my 'delirious state'," Eames shrugs nonchalantly, remembering full well exactly what he had tried to do in his delirium.  However the feint is worth it as Arthur's face heats up to the point of looking rather dangerous. 

"Not at all," Arthur manages to reply from between forcibly gritted teeth. 

"So," Eames pauses thoughtfully as Arthur finishes applying the lotion and goes to put the cap back on the bottle, "you're still absolutely sure you prefer this form?" Eames gestures down at his current body and appearance.  He can't help but smile smugly as Arthur lets out a gasp and fumbles with the bottle cap, dropping it stickily into the sand. 

"You bastard!" Arthur exclaims.  "You said you couldn't remember anything."  He reaches down to pick the cap back up and begins wiping it on his clothes, refusing to look back at Eames. 

"You mean have I forgotten the heartless way in which you rejected me?" Eames grins as Arthur finally snaps his brown eyes towards him in a glare.  "I did not -" Arthur stops short at the quizzical raise of Eames' eyebrows, "-oh fuck you Eames."     

Eames snorts, deciding that he's probably had enough of torturing Arthur for one morning.  He leans over to grab his shirt and pulls it over his head as Arthur lets out an indignant noise.

"Hey! If you were actually planning on wearing that today then why did you make me rub all that lotion onto your chest and back?"

"Extra protection," Eames replies innocently as he stands up, dusts himself off for sand and starts to lazily make his way towards Ethelred.  He smirks as he hears Arthur mutter "bastard!" in the background.  

 

***

 

"Arthur," Eames says tentatively from behind him on the camel.  The younger man's been in a bit of a touchy mood ever since Eames' potentially ill advised teasing that morning, and that was five hours ago. 

"What?" Arthur grouches back, his black shawl wrapped tightly round his face and over his mouth as the wind picked up a while back. 

"Are you seeing that sky?" Eames points up ahead to the sinisterly darkened horizon.  It's only just gone midday and already the sun seems in a hurry to evacuate the sky and make way for the approaching army of gathering clouds.

"Eames we're in the desert," Arthur sighs wearily, "it's not like there's much else to see." 

"Do you have any thoughts on the sky?" Eames continues valiantly, pretty sure that Arthur isn't going to make any attempt at conversation easy right now.  Not even one as pertinent and important as this one. 

"Is that one of your famed chat up lines?" Arthur asks drily and for a moment Eames can't tell whether the younger man's voice is laced with amusement or genuine jealousy. 

"Arthur for gods' sakes will you just bloody tell me if you think there's a storm coming?!" Eames cries, giving up on any form of tact or subtlety. 

"I don't know," Arthur snaps back, though he sounds genuinely frustrated at not knowing rather than at Eames' outburst.  "It looks like there might be, but...but if there is then I don't want to even think about how big it might be." 

"We're on the same page then," Eames mutters, flicking his worried eyes back up to the horizon. 

Desert storms are always uncomfortable assaults of high speed wind and airbourne tidal waves of sand.  From the nebulous grey masses currently blurring the land and sky together on the horizon, Eames guesses this one might be several miles across.

"You ever seen a sand storm that big?" Arthur calls back to Eames, sounding slightly uncertain. 

"I don't think many people have," Eames replies, "that are still alive to tell the tale," he mutters under his breath.  Although judging from the way Arthur momentarily stiffens, he guesses the younger man must have still heard him. 

"Is Lika okay?" Arthur asks, angling his head slightly back to where Eames is sat with the leather pouch - with a black furry head popping out of the top it - firmly ensconced on his lap. 

"She keeps looking at me like I might be a valid source of food," Eames responds, pulling a face at the glowering feline, her yellowed eyes narrowing to assessing slits.  Trust her to look exactly like Arthur when she does that.

"She's fine then," Arthur chuckles, although his laugh turns to a cough as he moves to pull the shawl down and wipe his mouth.  "Fuck," he curses bitterly, "a shit load of sand is still getting through the fabric with this damn wind." 

"Want to swap places?" Eames asks with a note of concern.  Sitting behind Arthur he's pretty much shielded from the worst of the breeze-blasted sand, but he knows Arthur's having to bear the brunt of the onslaught.

"I'll manage," Arthur yells back as a particularly noisy gale picks up around them and he's forced to pull the material back up over his face.

 

***

About an hour later Eames grips Arthur's shoulder firmly, pressing his mouth up against his fabric covered ear and yelling as best as his sand filled lungs will allow him.  "Arthur this is hopeless! We need some kind of shelter,"

"Where the fuck do you suggest?" Arthur croaks back hoarsely, evidently also suffering from a throat clogged with abrasive grit.

"Funny you should ask that," Eames grins, although keeping his lips firmly together so as to avoid letting any more sand in.  "I reckon we're about a day's ride from Egidu, which means there should be an old Imahru village to the south of us somewhere - lots of abandoned huts we could seek shelter in."

The Imahru had been a populous desert tribe up until about three centuries ago when famine had wiped most of them out.  The rest had migrated to larger settlements with more opportunities available to them.

"You sure?" Arthur calls back, his fingers twitching hesitatingly on Ethelred's reins. 

"No," Eames admits with a shrug, "but it looks like that might still be our best option right now love."

Arthur tenses again and Eames wonders if he's realised quite how much of a danger the encroaching storm poses to them.

 

*

Eames' chest shudders with relief as he finally spots grey rectangles perched on the sand about half a mile in front of them.  The limit of what they can see has been drawing closer and closer as the storm grows.  Eames had begun to fear that the Imahru village may not have been where he'd remembered it.  However, upon sighting the small, scattered collection of huts, he shouts for Arthur to speed up.

If they get caught out when the sand hits, then there'll be little to no chance of survival, not even for the animals who are so adapted for conditions.  A storm like this would send any sensible yariyans scurrying for their burrows.  As for a camel like Ethelred - even he'd be forced to seek temporary shelter from the suffocating swarm of sand. 

Lika shivers in Eames' lap as the wind howls around them, seemingly determined to dislodge their currently thigh-achingly tight grips on their humped steed. 

"Arthur can't this thing go any bloody faster?!" Eames croaks desperately, ramming his head up against Arthur's so as to ensure he's heard over the roar of the elements. 

"The wind's too strong!" Arthur yells back, continuing to direct Ethelred with a series of frantic tongue clicks.

"Sod this," Eames growls, kicking his heels back and into the camel's soft flanks.  Ethelred lets out an undignified squawk before finally barrelling faster across the dunes in an ungainly lope.  The sudden and unexpected input of speed, however, serves to fling Arthur backwards where he crashes into Eames' chest in a flail of panicked limbs. 

"Steady - I've got you," Eames mutters loudly, bringing one of his arms up from where he'd been gripping the camel's hump for purchase and instead now wrapping it tightly and supportively around a still unbalanced Arthur. 

The younger man's body is warm and stiff against Eames' as they attempt to recover a position that won't have them both thrown to the sand. 

Even at a camel's gallop, it still takes a fair amount of time before they reach the deserted tribal village.  Eames hurls himself off of Ethelred, letting out a stream of unsavoury expletives as his liquefied leg muscles hit the ground with a jolt. 

"There!" Eames cries out, gesturing wildly to one of the more intact looking large stable huts.  "Get the camel in there!"

Eames runs forwards to bang open the wooden door as Arthur follows quickly behind with Ethelred. 

"What about us?" Arthur calls out as they hurriedly lead the camel into the sheltered space and help to settle him. 

"Hut next door," Eames replies brusquely, grabbing Arthur's hand and dragging him back out and into the hut with the least eroded roof.

"Where's Lika?" Arthur exclaims as Eames rolls his eyes and bends down to dump a sandy and bedraggled black fluff ball on the dirt floor. 

"So glad you've got your priorities in order Arthur," Eames coughs, sealing the door behind them.  It's not a moment too soon as the wind slams full force into the village, bringing with it a deluge of swirling sand.             

"She's all dusty," Arthur announces, brushing white sand off of Lika's head and then both of them scowling up at Eames. 

"Travesty," Eames responds drily, going to dump his pack against the wall and turning to inspect the interior of the hut. 

"Holy shit," Eames laughs, spotting a couple of labelled and still full flasks left on one of the mounted wooden shelves.  "Someone forgot to take their Sandshine with them when they left!"

"Huh?" Arthur screws up his face as he unwinds the black shawl from his face and inadvertently tips a pile of sand back onto Lika's head. 

"Don't tell me you've never tried home brewed desert tipple?" Eames grins, moving over to lift up the flasks.  He uncorks one of the bottles and takes a quick whiff, laughing as his eyes start to stream.  "Oh this is good stuff, this is." 

"So glad you've got your priorities in order Eames," Arthur huffs, standing back up with a disgruntled looking Lika in his arms.  He flinches back however as the wooden door rattles precariously on its hinges.  "How long do you reckon this storm will take to blow over?"

"Could be a while," Eames shrugs, stroking his chin thoughtfully and absently trying to remember the last time he shaved.  "Make yourself comfortable pet." 

"There's nothing to be comfortable on," Arthur grimaces, glancing round at the sparse hut, bar the shelves, a couple of chairs and the Sandshine bottles. 

"Gods you are a whiner Arthur," Eames chuckles, leaning down to start pulling some of their blankets out of his pack. 

"I don't like storms," Arthur replies without emotion, turning away from Eames to go sit down by the far wall. 

"Oh?" Eames asks, pausing in his setting up of a temporary bed.  He can somehow guess there's more to the story that Arthur isn't currently telling him. 

"Something Mal and I read once," Arthur shrugs, "about how storms are the gods of dark magic coming to take back the powers they gave out." 

"You don't honestly believe that do you?" Eames snorts, regretting it as Arthur flushes and the corners of his mouth turn down.  "Look," Eames sighs, fishing some left over particles of sand from his tongue, "the Imahru were a right old superstitious bunch.  I'm sure whatever wards they put on their villages it would probably be enough to keep any wannabe god out." 

Arthur's mouth twitches as he continues to stroke Lika, soothing her meows down into a more bearable volume. 

"It's not your time yet love," Eames smiles, nodding in what he hopes is a reassuring manner at Arthur.  Arthur, however, merely frowns again. 

"Alright," Eames sighs, clapping his hands together, "I'm far too sober and starving to be stuck in here during a sandstorm, so how about we get some food and booze in us eh?"

"I don't drink," Arthur replies with a judgemental look. 

"What,-  ever?" Eames winks.  "Must get quite thirsty pet." 

"Shut up," Arthur mutters, but he's smiling - the tension in his face has dissipated.

 

***

 

Eames manages to get three shots in before he can finally convince Arthur to at least try the undeniably strong Sandshine. 

"Oh gods!" Arthur exclaims, spitting his mouthful across the room and towards a startled looking Lika.  "That's fucking disgusting!"

"Acquired taste," Eames scoffs, raising his bottle in a toasting gesture to try and disguise the reaction he's having to Arthur's strained gulping action. 

"I think you mean lost taste," Arthur shakes his head, "that burns worse than a scorpion sting!"

"Yeah..." Eames frowns at his own now partially empty bottle, "I think the locals might actually use ground scorpion in this recipe."

"Now he tells me," Arthur mutters, wiping his tongue on the back of his hand as if trying to further rid himself of the taste.  Eames watches the movement, too fuelled by the Sandshine to force himself to look away, even when Arthur catches him staring and his eyes widen in confusion. 

"Fancy a game?" Eames asks suddenly, swallowing awkwardly and reaching into his pocket to draw out the battered pack he'd gotten from Ganred.  This is insane, his treacherous conscience (that Arthur doesn't even believe he has) now isn't even letting him ogle the younger man without feeling slightly guilty. 

"Did..." Arthur's eyebrows go up, "did you steal those from a gambling parlour?"

"I borrowed them Arthur, really," Eames tuts, drawing the bent and stained  cards out of the box and proceeding to shuffle them with practised ease.  Arthur stares transfixed at the rapid movement of Eames' thick fingers, managing to manipulate the thin rectangles with elegance and honed delicacy. 

Or at least that's what Eames likes to think Arthur's staring at.   

"I don't know many games," Arthur frowns, "Mal preferred chess."

"Classy girl," Eames chuckles, "'fraid you'll have to put up with a more ruffian pursuit tonight darling.  How's Terurathord for you?"

"Teru-what?" Arthur's face scrunches up adorably and it's all Eames can do to not reach over and try to smooth it out again. 

Instead he opts for a kindly chuckle, "you'll understand as we go along, but sixes means a dare and seven and twos means an honest answer to a question.  Forward suits are snakes and geckos, back suits are camels and ostriches."

"I don't know much about cards," Arthur repeats pointedly, studying the hand he's dealt with either the best poker face in the world, or, complete and utter confusion. 

 

Eames soon realises it was the former.

 

"Two ostrich threes," Arthur declares triumphantly as he grins toothily up at Eames. 

"Don't know much about cards huh? You little shit," Eames growls as he relinquishes two of his own valuable snake cards and gestures for Arthur to name his dare. 

The two of them are now sat cross legged in the centre of the hut next to a small fire that Eames lit underneath the chimney for warmth.  The better remains of a wooden table have been sacrificed to keep it burning.  The only sounds are the rampaging storm from outside and the gentle snoring of Lika on the inside with them. 

"Dares are limited under current circumstances," Arthur pouts as if he's been robbed of some golden opportunity.  "I mean it's not like I can send you outside unless I want to never see you again." 

"Oh Arthur," Eames sighs, "your affection is tangible." 

"You realise you've drunk nearly all of that bottle by yourself?" Arthur frowns, pointing to the significantly depleted flask of Sandshine. 

"Wait!" Eames suddenly shouts, sitting up with a determined expression.  "Wait!"

"What?" Arthur narrows his eyes.  "Eames I swear to god if you're trying to cheat -"

"No - look," Eames snaps, plucking a card he hadn't realised was there before from his left hand and throwing it rather dramatically onto the pile - "An Ace of geckos! I win that round - I get my sodding snakes back." 

"Are you sure that's your card?" Arthur asks, studying the Ace all too suspiciously for Eames' liking.

"Arthur, really pet," Eames drawls, "I would have hoped that after all this time together you might have started to trust me somewhat." 

"Eames I think spending time with you has rather the opposite effect," Arthur snorts, ignoring the way Eames is trying to bat his eyelashes faux-innocently.  "And stop that - you look like you've developed a twitch." 

"Arthur you wound me," Eames clutches his chest before winking and gathering up his newly won cards.  The question does niggle in the back of his mind though, as to whether Arthur does actually trust him at all? Eames thinks backs to all the times he's tried to show Arthur he cares about him, and subsequently curses the scars on his wrist for taking all the credit instead. 

"You know it's bad luck to cheat against someone born from dark magic," Arthur sniffs with a rather put out look.

"Arthur that is complete and utter bullshit that you just made up," Eames snorts, "but I promise you - I'm not cheating.  Now, how about an honest answer to a question eh?"

"Fine," Arthur mutters, shifting his position as if bracing himself for whatever Eames chooses to ask. 

It's Eames' first chance to ask Arthur a 'truth' and he can see the slight tremor of nerves written across Arthur's face.  Gods knows what he's expecting from the shape shifter.  Eames takes a deep breath and smiles, "Alright then - favourite colour?"

"Fav..." Arthur frowns suspiciously, "seriously? You're asking me my favourite colour?"

"That I am pet," Eames nods.

"Green," Arthur replies quickly, not quite looking Eames in the eye as if he still fears a trap.

"Green?" Eames laughs.  "Bit of a weird choice for a child of the desert."

"First thing I saw Mal conjure was a green dragon," Arthur shrugs, "it was only about the size of Lika and she used it to scare away a vicious stray dog." 

"Well her powers certainly grew," Eames smirks before mentally kicking himself as Arthur's expression closes off and his face darkens.  He'd forgotten that Mal had stolen Arthur's powers in order to save him in the ring.  "Nine of camels!" Eames announces with gusto, throwing down the new card into play and shifting the conversation to safer topics. 

 

***

 

"What's your favourite form to be in?" Arthur smiles, looking up from under his thick dark lashes. 

"I guess my own," Eames replies, swallowing hard and remembering he has to answer the question truthfully.  "Yeah, definitely my own.  I get a little itchy when I stay in someone else's skin for too long." 

Eames moves to place the next card - a four of ostriches down onto his pre-played two of the same suit.  "My turn, and it's a dare."

"Go ahead," Arthur fires him a shit eating grin, his confidence seemingly having grown over the course of the lengthy card game. 

"Oh Arthur," Eames attempts to drawl, but his throat dries up half way through so it comes out as more of a breathless rasp.  "The things I could make you do," 

"Do your worst," Arthur challenges with a determined fire in his eyes.  "I probably don't even have that long left alive anyway." 

Eames flinches at the sudden admission, his chest constricting painfully at the shadow of doubt and hurt that flickers across Arthur's wide brown eyes.  "Don't say that," he whispers.

"Why not?" Arthur murmurs contemplatively.  "What do you care? You just have to deliver me safely to Alack then you can leave and get on with your life." 

"Don't be daft love," Eames sighs, his pulse quickening in his ears as Arthur's small pink tongue darts out to wet his lips.  "How could anyone just forget you?" 

Arthur snaps his eyes back to Eames', narrowing them as if assessing whether or not Eames is taking the piss as he is usually wont to do. 

"You don't like me," Arthur replies quietly, the corners of his mouth twitching downwards again.  The tone of the conversation seems to have taken such a sharp turn for the melancholic - a sure fire way to make Eames feel nervous and out of place.  "You're just doing this because of your promise with Mal." 

"Of course I am," Eames shrugs, trying to ignore the undeniably hurt look Arthur sends him.  "I only knew you even existed because of my promise with your sister."

"And now?" Arthur asks, chewing his lip, his canine slipping over the soft flesh and causing him to wince as he draws blood. 

"Careful pet," Eames murmurs, reaching over to wipe at Arthur's mouth with the pad of his thumb.  Arthur freezes under him, his pupils blowing wide at the touch. 

"You haven't even played a seven or a two," Eames continues, trying to smile but suspecting his mouth isn't complying. 

"You played a six," Arthur responds quickly, "you get to dare me something." 

"I can't honestly think of anything," Eames lies, trying to read his cues from Arthur's torturously indecipherable expression.    

"Dare me..." Arthur trails off, wetting his lips again and sucking away the blood lightly in thought, "dare me to kiss you." 

Eames momentarily forgets how to breathe, instead his eyes flicker suspiciously to the mostly empty bottle of Sandshine and he wonders just what the hell was in it? Because there can be no way that Arthur, the real Arthur is telling Eames he wants this. 

Firstly, Arthur is a prude, and laced up tighter than a camel racer's boots.  Secondly, Arthur has made it abundantly clear throughout their little desert 'excursion' that he barely tolerates Eames.

"Fine, forget it," Arthur mumbles, turning crimson and staring at his cards like he's trying to make them spontaneously combust.  Eames realises he must have taken too long in replying.

"Arthur darling," he murmurs, not able to force his voice any louder right now.  "I'm just a bit surprised that's all."

"I thought - "Arthur huffs frustratedly and rubs at his eyes, "I thought you'd been flirting with me over the last week.  I was wrong okay? Please can we just forget it?" 

"No - I was flirting with you," Eames interjects, feeling surprised and probably prematurely hopeful.

"But you flirt with everyone is that it?" Arthur frowns, his own expression reflecting a nervous and almost irritated insecurity. 

"To an extent," Eames answers truthfully, suddenly very conscious that he wants to only tell Arthur the truth from now on.  As if making up for the overshadowing lie of Alack.

Arthur's face falls and he starts to shuffle away.  "Wait," Eames continues, "I often don't mean it though.  With you - I mean look at you pet, you're bloody gorgeous." 

Arthur's eyes widen and snap up, his lips parting as he quickly draws in an audible breath. 

"And," Eames swallows, feeling like he should probably go on whilst he's still got the liquid courage inside of him.  "You're clever and resourceful and actually quite funny when you choose to be,"

Arthur glowers at him as Eames chuckles.  "And yes Arthur of course I sodding like you.  What I hadn't realised though, was that you might like me?"   

Arthur averts his eyes, scratching dust off the fabric of his trousers with his fingernails.  "You're alright I guess," Arthur mumbles.  Eames lets out a small, breathy laugh,

"Oh Arthur," he murmurs fondly, "I think I'm going to have to dare you to tell the truth instead." 

"Fine," Arthur snaps, suddenly looking annoyed, "fine, okay - I like you alright? Are you happy now?"

"You don't exactly seem to be," Eames frowns. 

"I - " Arthur pauses, "for fuck's sake Eames I don't know what I'm freaking doing here!"

Eames blinks, trying to quash down his own nerves as he shifts forwards on his haunches, edging closer to Arthur.  Arthur, of course, sends Eames an incredibly suspicious and wary look, as if he's expecting a surprise sneak attack any moment now.  Eames perseveres, however, fully used to the brunt of Arthur's scathing expressions.  Just as Eames' had hoped, Arthur narrows his eyes as Eames draws ever closer, but he doesn't make any attempt to move away. 

Their lips brush in a warm slide of dry, cracked skin.  Eames' hand rises up unbidden to stroke down the side of Arthur's face, he thumbs softly along the proud and high ridge of the younger man's cheekbone.  "Beautiful," Eames murmurs, drawing back enough just to mouth the word against Arthur's still lax mouth. 

Their breath is spiced and cool from the Sandshine as they huff small pants against each other's faces.  Eames moves his caressing lips away from Arthur's seeking mouth, nibbling reverently along the other man's jaw until able to suck lightly at an ear lobe. 

"Eames," Arthur breathes out contentedly, wrapping his own slender but strong arms tightly around Eames' torso and levering himself up onto the older man's lap.

"Fuck, tell me you want this Arthur," Eames groans, dropping his head to nuzzle against Arthur's shoulder, lapping at the sweat-salted skin of his exposed neck.

"Want it," Arthur gasps as Eames bites down tentatively in order to start enthusiastically sucking a claiming bruise on the flesh where Arthur's neck meets his shoulder.  "Want you..."  Arthur moans, his own fingers scrabbling up the back of Eames' shirt to start carding roughly through his hair, scraping against his scalp in jerking spasms of need and want as Eames continues to suck and nurse his purpled mark. 

Eames nods in complete agreement as Arthur's hands finally detach from his hair and instead begin to tackle the buttons of Eames' shirt.  It's only when his socks have eventually been flung haphazardly across the room that Eames realises he hasn't got a stitch on and yet Arthur is still fully clothed. 

"Bit of an unfair deal going on here love," Eames shivers in the cold night air of the small room, moving to shift both of them closer to the fire.  Arthur's lips stretch into a smile as he mouths at Eames' chest, lavishing every inch of skin with dutiful attention.  Eames gasps as Arthur finally ducks down to inspect Eames' swelling cock, Arthur's dark head of hair situated right between his thighs. 

"Not bad," Arthur states, craning his neck to smirk up at Eames, his eyes crinkled in mirth.  Eames snorts and draws Arthur back up into a hungry kiss before frowning at him.  "Seen many have you?"

"Hundreds," Arthur shrugs as Eames feels an undeniable surge of jealousy prickle over his chest. 

"Mal and I wandered into a nudist colony once by mistake," Arthur adds, his cheeks colouring as he goes to bite his lip and his shoulders start to shake in laughter. 

"You'll be the death of me pet," Eames growls in reprimand, the younger man still attempting to stifle his chuckles.  Eames moves to rip Arthur's shirt down from his shoulders, satisfied at the rush of exhaled breath that Arthur lets out, his laughter dying on his lips.  Eames leans back to slowly roll the rest of the fabric down as Arthur's eyes stare back at him, blown and glazed pools of honey brown. 

Shedding Arthur of his clothes is a more erotic and gratifying experience than Eames could ever have hoped for.  The long lithe limbs of bronzed skin that appear from underneath swathes of dark material.  Arthur's body is thin but not delicate, there's a strength there - a resilience in the small but sculpted musculature.  It's the body that the Gods would have given any child of the desert, knowing the harsh environment in which he had to grow up and survive. 

Eames' sun-blistered fingers twitch at the waistband of Arthur's remaining underwear, the elastic snapping softly in the silence of the room. 

"Let me," Arthur breathes slowly, his voice sounds strained but controlled.  The younger man pushes his own hands down Eames' arms, gliding across the goose pimples and making the blonde hair stand on end.  His fingers end up interlocking with Eames', moving sinuously together to shed this last vestige of modesty. 

Eames swallows hard as Arthur's cock finally bobs free, purpled, swollen and erect.  It flicks up straight to hit the dark hair of his abdomen, connecting Arthur's skin there to the head by a sticky strand of precome.  Without thinking Eames flicks his thumb over the head, breaking the glistening web and bringing it up to his lips as Arthur's widened eyes track the movement. 

"Fuck," Arthur hisses before scrabbling forwards as Eames swallows down the spiced and bitter taste that pools in his own gut in waves of want and arousal. 

Arthur throws his arm around Eames' neck as the two of them collide backwards with Eames hitting the floor first.  He's momentarily winded but as soon as he realises that Arthur's kissing him again the need for oxygen simply dissipates to a secondary concern.  Arthur's skin is still heated as if the sun had only just stopped shining, his pores soaking up the warmth to radiate across the pads of Eames' trailing fingers, tracing patterns of desire across his lover.

"What - what do you want?" Eames pants, reluctantly breaking the kiss to try and ascertain how much Arthur is offering here.  He knows he'll take anything and be grateful for it, he's so completely fallen under the younger man's spell. 

"You," Arthur repeats, frowning at Eames with a puzzle expression that conveys he thinks Eames might be a touch simple. 

"I meant how," Eames chuckles, nipping the end of Arthur's nose playfully as the other man attempts to duck his head bashfully. 

"Oh," Arthur swallows, hooking a pointed canine over his abused lower lip in an understanding grin.  "Well what are my options?"

Eames chokes on his own premature reply as Arthur's grin widens to the point of nearly stretching across his entire slender face. 

"'Blushing prude' my arse," Eames mutters, shaking his head in disbelief. 

"That's what you called me," Arthur huffs, rolling his eyes.  "And I can be inexperienced and still knowledgeable you know.  I grew up with a sister who swore more than a sand-sailor." 

"Fair enough," Eames laughs, reaching out to stroke Arthur's cheek, glowing a rusted copper in the firelight.  "Well I'm really an advocate for any way I can have you darling,"

"I want -" Arthur looks like he's chewing the inside of his cheek and Eames wonders if he's finally struggling with the words despite his newfound confidence.  "I want to feel you...in me." 

"Okay," Eames replies, trying to sound casual when really every single hair on his body just stood on end and every drop of moisture evacuated his mouth and throat. 

 

Eames tries not to read too much into it when Arthur produces a small tub of lubricant, clearly labelled as having coming from Ariadne's apothecary. 

"It's also for sunburn," Arthur mumbles as his face starts to look like it's suffering from that exact affliction. 

"Okay," Eames replies again, realising that if he was aiming for suave he missed it several turns ago.  As if seeming to sense this, Arthur moves to crawl on top of Eames in a feline prowl, his limbs dripping through the spaces that Eames' body has left on the floor.  The kiss that follows is deep and heated and full of promises.

"You do it," Arthur whispers, pushing the cold glass of the jar against Eames' calloused palm and drawing back to gaze at the older man with questioning eyes.  Eames nods quickly to reassure him before unscrewing the lid and dunking his fingers in the lubricant.  It smells sweet and familiar, like the desert valley honey that Eames would collect as a child. 

"You okay love?" he asks, murmuring against Arthur's lips as he lies the younger man down on a blanket and moves to gently spread his trembling thighs. 

"Yeah," Arthur hisses as Eames starts to massage and knead the flesh of Arthur's inner legs, moving closer in sweeping motions to his heavy hanging balls, dusted with fine hair and bulging with arousal.  Arthur gasps as Eames slips his fingers up to trace the vein on the underside of Arthur's erect cock moving to the weeping head where precome pearls from the slit. 

Eames moans and reaches down to grab his own shaft, squeezing tightly before slicking himself liberally with the lubricant.  "I don't want this to hurt you," he whispers softly to Arthur before bowing down between the other man's thighs to press a fluttering kiss to the dusky pink hole that's already opening for him.

"Jesus fuck!" Arthur cries, jerking forwards in a spasm, his abdominal muscles clenching as Eames tentatively flicks his tongue out to lap at Arthur's rim, tasting the honey and salt there.  Eames spends a while satisfying himself in simply eating Arthur out whilst the younger man writhes and violently swears above him.  Eames even has to pinch his fingers against Arthur's hips, pinning him down so as to avoid his prey jerking away completely. 

"Don't stop - don't stop," Arthur pleads as Eames finally draws backwards, his tongue feeling numb and heavy as he licks around his lips, chasing Arthur's lingering taste. 

"Shh," Eames murmurs as he gazes up at Arthur's face, illuminated by the pale glow of the fire.  "I've got you." 

Eames reapplies lube to his fingers as he starts to stretch Arthur further open.  His tongue has done a pretty good job of slicking the way so he can quickly move on to two then three fingers as Arthur's mouth falls lax and open and his body twists and writhes down on Eames' seeking hand.

"There we go," Eames rasps as his fingers finally brush against his quarry and Arthur lets out a low mewling sound, his body wracked with spasms as he thrusts up and down to fuck himself relentlessly on Eames' hand. 

"Fuck - I -" Arthur tips his head back so the column of his gulping throat is fully exposed, beads of sweat trailing down his tanned skin.  "Eames I need more." 

"I know," Eames replies softly, withdrawing his fingers and trying to ignore the clench of his heart at Arthur's whimper of distressed protest. 

Eames lines his achingly hard cock up with Arthur's gaping hole, leaning forwards and arching his back as he begins to push in.  Arthur starts hissing and swearing in the old language, Eames chuckles as he recognizes a few of the more colourful words and phrases.  Arthur's tight wet heat is fucking paradise around him, he can feel a throbbing pulse and can't even tell if it's his dick's or Arthur's arse, clenching down desperately on his shaft, punctuated by the jerks of Arthur's body and the whines escaping from his mouth.

Eames sinks in deeply to the base of his throbbing cock, forcing himself to stay absolutely still in order to give Arthur time to adjust.  Arthur's fingers press vice-like against Eames' tensed arm muscles, he knows he'll have scatterings of bruises come the morning. 

"Move," Arthur croaks, opening his eyes and giving Eames a firm nod to corroborate his request.  Eames starts off slow at first, before finally starting to fuck the writhing body beneath him in earnest.  Arthur lets out whimpered, loudening sounds that echo around the hut and act as an aural aphrodisiac to Eames as they compete for dominance with the howling noise of the storm outside.

Eames pounds brutally into Arthur's arse, now unable to control the rhythmic slam of his hips as Arthur scrabbles against his chest for leverage, ramming himself further down still on Eames' rock hard length.  Arthur's eyes are leaking tears as he wraps one arm around Eames' arched neck and attempts to manoeuvre his other hand down towards his own cock, neglected and swollen - slapping splatterings of precome across Arthur's abdomen in time with Eames' rampant thrusts.  

"Eames!" Arthur cries out, sounding anguished as his position slips for the second time and he careers backwards before Eames catches him.  "Eames please," Arthur sobs, "I can't - I can't..."

"I know," Eames whispers soothingly, moving to brush the dark sticky strands of Arthur's hair from his heavily flushed and pleading face.  "I've got you pet," Eames says, navigating his hand down between their pulsating, hardened bodies and wrapping his fingers around Arthur's shaft.  Eames begins to pump Arthur's cock relentlessly as the younger man's head tips back in a silent cry. 

It's not long before hot white streaks of come are shooting from Arthur's slit and painting Eames' chest in sweat and semen.  Arthur's body goes completely rigid, shuddering through his orgasm before he collapses forwards onto Eames, lax and pliant. 

Eames lets out a feral growl before speeding back up, ploughing into Arthur with reckless abandon before his vision whites out either from lightening or arousal or both.  But then suddenly he's coming, spilling reams of hot seed inside Arthur's ass and burying it deeper still with reluctantly weakening thrusts as Eames milks his orgasm to the last drop with a stuttered cry. 

*

Arthur hisses loudly as Eames pulls out, the older man wearing a wince of guilt and regret.  "I hurt you?" he asks, a heavy swallow masking the tentative emotion in his voice. 

"No," Arthur replies - suddenly fierce, his glazed and darkened eyes regaining a sharp focus.  "No fuck no, you didn't do anything I didn't want...I - " Arthur lets out a frustrated huff, "fuck just come here!" 

Eames lets out an 'oomph' of surprise as Arthur slams their mouths together in a kiss that's the opposite of the post coital tender embrace that Eames had been anticipating.  Instead it's wet and sticky and hot and Arthur's teeth scrape desperately at Eames' raw lips.

And all Eames can think is how fucking perfect it is. 

"Death of me," Eames groans, massaging roughly at Arthur's back, his shoulder blades slipping up and down and pressing against Eames' caressing palms.

"Keep up old man," Arthur chuckles, drawing back to suck his own claiming mark into Eames' still tingling skin.

"I think the worst of the storm's blown over," Arthur adds, his eyes narrowing as he assesses the damage he's done to Eames' neck before he smirks proudly. 

"You never know with desert storms," Eames grins, "we'd best stay in bed for the rest of the night just to make sure." 

"Couldn't agree more," Arthur smiles brilliantly, tugging Eames back down to the blankets on top of him.  

 

Chapter Text

 

The first thing Arthur feels when he wakes up is the unforgiving ache in his ass.  He lets out a yelp of shock as he tries to readjust his position on the floor before giving up and curling in on himself in a confused foetal position. 

The second thing he feels is Eames' warm breath against the back of his neck, reminding him who he's with and just exactly why he's aching. 

Suddenly Arthur doesn't mind the pain so much. 

"Morning," Eames growls behind him, shifting his arm so it's draped lazily across Arthurs side.  Arthur's not sure if Eames even realises that he's tracing circles into Arthur's hip with his thumb.

"Morning," Arthur smiles, his body relaxing into the embrace.  "You feel hungover?"

"Nah - best thing about Sandshine," Eames laughs throatily, "no ruddy hangovers.  I feel great.  Although -"

Eames pauses to shift closer against Arthur and a tell tale hardness presses against the back of Arthurs thigh.  "- I could be feeling great for another wonderful reason to do with last night." 

Arthur snorts, moving to slap Eames' wandering hand away, "well if you're looking for a repeat it's not happening," Arthur states firmly.  He doesn't miss it when Eames tenses slightly, his body separating from Arthur's.  "Wait," Arthur says quickly, wincing as he attempts to turn round and face the silent older man.  "I didn't mean it like that - I'm just, I'm just kinda sore this morning."

Eames' eyes widen for a moment before a look of relief washes across his face and he starts to laugh.  Arthur frowns, feeling slightly annoyed and wishing he could make more of a quick sulking get-away right now. 

"Oh pet, I'm sorry," Eames grins noticing Arthur's deepening scowl, "I just thought you meant that you regretted it."

"No!" Arthur cries out, perhaps a little too forcefully - but it's really important to him that Eames doesn't misunderstand.  "No I just...I'm having a bit of trouble moving right now." 

"Jesus love  you make me sound like I was an animal," Eames replies, but his face pales slightly as he moves to sit up and reaches round to stroke Arthur's ass cheeks soothingly.  "I'll put some of Ariadne's healing balm on for you okay?"

"Why do I feel like this is a thinly veiled ploy for you to get to play with my ass this morning?" Arthur mutters, not sure if he's feeling indignant or touched by Eames' thoughtfulness.  

"Most of my ploys are thinly veiled darling - I always say less is more when it comes to clothing," Eames chuckles as he leans down to kiss a tender line up Arthur's bare shoulder. 

"I suppose I should at least be grateful you never try to deceive me," Arthur sighs, levelling a playfully raised eyebrow at Eames' face.  Eames' smile, however seems to have faltered as he jumps up and strides over to the door, pulling it back a crack to let bright sunlight stream though.  "Storm's died down," Eames announces promptly, "I'll apply the ointment then we should really be on our way." 

"You okay?" Arthur frowns, confused at the sudden change in atmosphere. 

"Course," Eames turns back with a wide smile, "just want to make sure we get to Egidu today, that's all." 

"Egidu's not like Ganred is it?" Arthur asks, rubbing the back of his neck and thinking of the darkened streets and prowling men. 

"Gods no," Eames shakes his head, "I mean sure - it's also a flea infested shit hole, but it's got more manners than that forgotten backwater mistake.  It's the kind of place that's frequented by caravans of Sandsneaks - so it's on the map and lives by a code and all that."

Arthur nods understandingly, although he's rather more dubious at the prospect of Sandsneaks than Eames seems to be.  Sandsneaks are bands of criminals who live a nomadic lifestyle in the desert, skirting long ringed journeys across the expanse of sand, trying to con whoever they can and steal whatever they can.  Often the moving caravans are hired in order to perform a particular job depending on the specific magical abilities of the Sandsneaks in question.  Amusingly enough (or perhaps amusingly to a man like Eames, Arthur notes wryly) Sandsneaks often grow even richer than the wealthy merchants who hire them. 

"Honour amongst thieves?" Arthur enquires sceptically as his mouth twitches in an amused smile at Eames.      

"Wouldn't go that far love," Eames shrugs, "but we'll be okay, I'll -"

"Eames I swear to god if you say 'you'll protect me' you will never get to touch my ass again okay?" Arthur huffs, crossing his arms over his chest and attempting not to smirk at Eames' scandalised expression.  "If I still had my powers it would be me protecting you half the time." 

"You do protect me love!" Eames exclaims with a laugh as Arthur cocks his head, feeling confused. 

"I'd be dead without you Arthur," Eames shrugs, "who pulled me out of quicksand huh? Who let me ride on their camel after mine croaked - may she rest eternally in peace -"

Arthur snorts at Eames' quick prayer and solemn look.

"-who looked after me when I keeled over from sunstroke? Bloody hell Arthur - protecting me from myself is a full time job that only you seem qualified for." 

Arthur's mouth falls open before he shuts it again with a small, bashful but contented smile. 

"You can look after me sometimes too," Arthur grins, raising his eyebrow and sliding his gaze over to his leather bag of Ariadne's ointments until Eames realises what he's referring to. 

A roguish smile creeps across Eames' face as he starts to prowl towards Arthur. 

 

***

 

"Fuck's sake," Arthur snaps as Ethelred slips forwards again, his toes sinking into the fluffy and only just settled layer of sand that the storm left behind.  The movement is jolting and serves to send spasms of pain from Arthur's ass up his spine, which is already over-tensed to try and help Arthur maintain balance.

"I'd forgotten this lovely parting gift from desert storms," Eames mutters, moving to rub his fingers up Arthur's arms from behind him on the camel.  "This is going to halve our speed, at least." 

"Reckon we'll still make it to Egidu today?" Arthur frowns, craning  his neck round to try and catch a glimpse of the older man. 

"Yeah we will," Eames nods, "it really shouldn't be far, but it would be good to keep moving on from Egidu after we've taken a quick break."

"You're not planning on us spending the night there?" Arthur asks, surprised.  He doesn't know of any other nearby towns that they could make before nightfall. 

"No need," Eames replies, though his voice sounds slightly strained, "storms have all passed now, we can sleep out tonight.  Best to keep moving anyway." 

"I thought you said Egidu was alright though?" Arthur asks, swearing as Ethelred slips off to the side again and both him and Eames simultaneously tilt left. 

"Yeah it's fine," Eames mutters cryptically.  Arthur guesses it's probably best not to push the topic of conversation too much as he doesn't really want to lose the happy golden glow that's still settled in hi s chest from the previous night and that morning. 

"Look Arthur -" Eames begins, his grip tightening momentarily around Arthur's waist, "-about Egidu..."

"Look!" Arthur cries out, interrupting the older man and pointing excitedly at the shapes that have now morphed from the shadows on the horizon.  "There's a town - is that it?" Arthur turns round eagerly, even if it's not Alack, it's still a definite location that Eames mentioned to be on the way to the fabled lost city of the Kaiaya.  It feels like a huge milestone and one step closer towards potentially reuniting with Mal. 

"Yeah," Eames replies, sounding strangely grim, "that's Egidu." 

"Fucking finally!" Arthur laughs, sending his elbow back sharply into Eames' shirt clad chest.  "I thought you'd been making it up all this time."

Eames responds with a mirthless laugh, his hands slipping away from Arthur's torso and instead settling on Ethelred's hump.  Arthur figures it's probably sensible, at least this way if one of them falls off the lurching and unstable camel then they won't both go tumbling. 

"God we're actually getting there Eames," Arthur grins, staring hard at the slowly focussing outline of houses and smoke trails wafting up towards the sky. 

 

***

 

Arthur takes a deep breath as they cross the border into Egidu.  He hopes that they're staying at least long enough for him to take a shower somewhere - maybe get a decent bite to eat.  He hasn't washed properly since being with Eames and there's a certain flaking stickiness still lingering between his thighs, making him blush every time it catches on the fabric of his pants.     

The first thing he notices by the entrance to the city is the abundance of flower carts selling brightly coloured desert blooms.  Gap-toothed women hover behind stalls spread with their stemmed and petalled wares, haggling viciously with whoever dares to ask for a discount. 

"There's the Yathwis spring system not too far from here," Eames explains as if sensing Arthur's confusion - not all the flowers on display are seasonal cacti produce, but more the sort of luxuries that one would be more likely to see on display in a border town.  "It flows twenty miles or so in either direction," Eames continues, "Five towns in total are built on the springs - Egidu, Talika, Setsian, Paparak and Sethomishi." 

"I don't know them," Arthur shrugs, "I've never been to this part of the desert before."  He gazes over at a bunch of particular large white flower-heads, the petals look thick and succulent, almost waxy in their appearance.  "Albino Tesuabie," Eames murmurs into Arthur's ear, making him momentarily forget himself and instead succumb to the urge to melt back into Eames' hard chest. 

"Hmm?" Arthur asks, distractedly flicking his eyes back to see the hint of amusement on Eames' face, which has otherwise been uncharacteristically strained all morning. 

"Those big white flowers," Eames nods, "they grow underground in desert rock caves where the light is dimmest and the temperature is coolest.  The seller will have coated them in wax to try and keep them fresh for as long as possible - they're mainly used by temples in religious ceremonies or as prayer offerings."

"How come you know so much about flowers?" Arthur frowns, wondering if Eames is just making this stuff up as he goes along. 

"My old business partner Yusuf," Eames replies. 

"The chemist who's also a criminal?" Arthur asks suspiciously. 

Eames chuckles drily, resting his chin on Arthur's right shoulder, "Yeah that would be him.  He used to use Tesuabie flowers in the hallucinogens he would cook up.  Pays to know about plants if you're in the chemist's business." 

"If they're hallucinogens why are they used in temples?" Arthur asks, narrowing his eyes as they move past the flower stalls.

"Nothing to instil faith in people like a good old fashioned vision Arthur," Eames snorts, lifting his head up and clapping Arthur's back lightly, "come on let's dismount and find a temporary stable for old Ethelred here."

"I'm hungry," Arthur says quickly, hoping that Eames might suggest they go get something to eat immediately afterwards. 

"Sure thing," Eames nods, sliding down off of the camel and smirking slyly as Arthur attempts to do the same but somewhat more gingerly. 

"Fuck off," Arthur snaps, batting Eames offered hand of help stubbornly out of the way. 

"Touchy pet, only trying to do my part," Eames grins as Arthur rolls his eyes. 

"I think you've done quite enough Mr Eames." 

"Arthur I'm wounded, I thought I'd only just begun.  Anyway about food - I'll find a nice cafe for you and drop you off with some cash." 

Arthur jerks his head up, feeling confused, "What about you?" he asks.  "Where are you going?"

"Got some business to attend to," Eames nods firmly, "might take a while so we'll arrange somewhere to meet okay?"

"What business?" Arthur asks, his forehead creasing anxiously.  This is the first time Eames has mentioned anything about it to him - he'd only insisted that Egidu was a good stop on the way to Alack. 

"Just some usual dealings love," Eames winks, nudging Arthur to keep moving and passing him Ethelred's worn leather reins. 

 

***

 

The street side cafe that Eames eventually leads Arthur to is a small painted patio of wooden stools and cushions.  A large woman comes bustling out of beaded curtains carrying pots of sweet smelling mint tea and a plate of pistachio sweets. 

"Table for two?" she asks in a grunting voice as if she begrudges them the space when really Arthur and Eames appear to be the only customers. 

"Just the one," Eames replies quickly, placing a guiding hand on Arthur's lower back and indicating a corner seat next to a hanging rose bush.  "Order whatever you like," Eames states, pressing what looks like most of their remaining money into Arthur's hand before backing away with a strangely strained smile. 

"Right," Arthur nods, trying to feign a casual air when really he's feeling completely unconvinced.  What the hell could Eames possibly be hiding from him? For a split second a frisson of fear streaks through Arthur that Eames actually intends to just leave him here.  However, Arthur somewhat miserably remembers that this is impossible, given Eames' Seprimo oath to Mal.

Also he wouldn't do that to you.  Arthur announces in his head, wincing at how hollow and placating the words sound.  He watches Eames' broad shoulders disappear around a nearby street corner before making his decision.  Arthur sprints past the annoyed looking cafe owner, nearly sending her place of desserts flying as he races up to the same street corner, screeching to a halt and peering nervously round it. 

Sure enough, Eames is now nearly half way down the alleyway, not bothering to look back to see if he's being followed.  Obviously assuming that Arthur would just stay put like a good little kid.  Arthur bites his lip angrily, his bitten fingernails scratching at the crumbling clay of the wall he's leaning against. 

It annoys Arthur even more that quite a large and vocal part of him simply does just want to go back to the cafe, to just trust Eames and instead order mint tea and honeyed fruits. 

"Fuck," Arthur mutters as Eames threatens to disappear again, forcing Arthur to commit to his decision and move quietly forwards, following the other man. 

Eames' route is long and complicated, occasionally going round in circles.  Considering Eames has no reason to be trying to lose a tail Arthur can only come to the other logical conclusion - that Eames himself is somewhat lost.  Arthur guesses it must be a long time since Eames was last in Egidu.  But what the hell the older man is looking for Arthur has no idea.  A few times Eames vanishes into various bars or drinking establishments, only to reappear again looking more and more frustrated.  At one point Arthur slips into a tea house behind him, close enough to hear snatches of Eames' opening conversation, "I'm looking for someone who used to live here..."

This is before Arthur finds himself jostled out of the way by other patrons.  Arthur's chest constricts painfully as he starts to imagine the reasons as to why Eames might leave Arthur behind to go and look for someone that he used to know. 

"Desert rogues," Mal used to laugh as she read another of her adventure books with terrible titles like 'The Sand Stealer' or 'The Rose Petal Princess', "They've got a lover in every town!"

Arthur starts to feel horribly stupid and furious at himself as Eames continues to search the entirety of Egidu in vain for this 'someone'.  He's half considering just revealing himself to Eames and demanding answers when suddenly there's a loud shout from across the street, followed by a furious wail.  Arthur turns in surprise to see a fair haired man, somewhat older than Eames, barrelling across the sand tracked street with a look of incandescent rage. 

"Eames!" Arthur shouts out instinctively, trying to warn the other man.  However it's too late as the fair haired stranger approaches close enough to let his clenched fist collide enthusiastically with the side of Eames' head.  

"Fuck!" Arthur yells in surprise as he starts to dart forwards, wondering who the hell this could be? Maybe the person whom Eames was searching for's husband?

"YOU-" the man snarls with a roar as he raises his fist again to slam into Eames' stomach, causing him to double over in pain.  "SON -" another punch to Eames' left flank, "OF -" the man pushes Eames down to the street before climbing on top of him and continuing to beat him mercilessly, "A BITCH!"

"Get off him!" Arthur cries, slamming against the man from the side and knocking him clean off of Eames who had clearly been caught unawares, his face already swelling up grotesquely. 

"Who the fuck are you?" the man screams apoplectically, raising an accusatory finger at Arthur.

"Who the fuck are you?" Arthur shouts back, refusing to let himself feel threatened and instead stepping in between Eames and the man who apparently wants to kill him.

"My names' Cobb," the man growls in a voice laced with venom, "and you're going to get the hell out of my way kid because don't think I won't go through you to get to that piece of shit!" Cobb jabs his finger towards Eames now, still groaning and rolling about on the floor.

"Glad to see you've given up the drink Cobb," Eames coughs hoarsely, flecks of blood splattering down his chin as he heaves himself up.  Arthur hurries backwards to lend a supportive arm which Eames takes before looking up with surprise to see who the limb is attached to.

"Arthur...?" Eames murmurs, looking almost more worried at Arthur's presence that the clearly psychotic man a few feet away from them.

"I followed you," Arthur shrugs in guilty explanation. 

"EAMES?!" comes another shocked voice suddenly as a dark skinned man appears anxiously behind Cobb, laying a hand on the fair haired man's shoulder before turning his widened eyes on Arthur and Eames. 

"Oh bloody hell," Eames groans, "Yusuf what the fuck are you doing here?"

"That's Yusuf?" Arthur asks weakly, feeling considerably disorientated considering he wasn't even the one on the receiving end of a punch. 

"Eames - gods," the man hisses before turning with a panicked expression to Cobb, "okay Cobb - calm down -"

"Calm down?!" Cobb screams.  "That fucking thief conned me out of my tablets years ago! Disappeared without a fucking trace!"

"Oh fucks' sakes," Arthur bites out, he should have figured this was bound to happen eventually.  Eames, after all, was a self admitted conman and criminal - of course he'd have people scattered across the desert out for his blood. 

"I think," Yusuf begins in a measured but authoritative voice, "that we should all find a quieter place to sit down and talk." 

Arthur looks around them and realises that most of the main street have stopped to watch the proceedings with some interest. 

"Sure," Arthur nods grimly on behalf of him and Eames, heaving the other man's arm across his shoulders and helping him to move forwards after Yusuf.  Cobb falls into place behind them as if to not let Eames out of his sight.  It unnerves Arthur, having someone following them so closely - someone clearly intent on murdering Eames in broad daylight despite multiple witnesses. 

 

***

"This your usual hangout Yusuf?" Eames asks grimly as a bottle of lemon scented alcohol is placed in front of him.  The bar is dark and rancid smelling but at least it's away from the prying eyes of people on the street and Cobb seems to have managed to calm down slightly.  Or at least enough to stop throwing punches and instead sit across the sticky table from them with his arms crossed and his nostrils flaring. 

"I'm a creature of habit," Yusuf shrugs, "you know that Eames." 

"Never thought I'd find you in Egidu," Eames laughs, shaking his head mirthlessly and seemingly intent on ignoring both Arthur and Cobb for the time being.  Arthur frowns, clearly then Yusuf had not been who Eames had originally been searching for - something that Arthur had figured was a high possibility after their encounter in the street. 

"Heard you talk about it once," Yusuf replies, his eyes flickering nervously to Cobb and then quizzically to Arthur.  "Remembered you saying it was a good place to lie low."

"So you came here from Romur?" Eames asks, taking a sip of his drink and swearing as the alcohol touches the cuts on his lips.  Cobb's lips curl in a satisfied grimace as he shifts on his seat. 

"Stopped a few places along the way," Yusuf says, swallowing a gulp of his own beverage and coughing as some of it obviously goes down the wrong way.  "But yeah - ended up here eventually.  Opened a temporary apothecary."

"Ran into an associate of yours," Eames smiles as if they were engaged in polite dinner conversation, "name of Ariadne."

"Ariadne?" Yusuf sits up, his eyes brightening and his ears pricking. 

"For fuck's sakes!" Cobb hisses, slamming his own bottle down on the table and causing it to bubble up over the neck and down onto his hand.  The veins stand out on his taut and tensed skin as his eyes seem to burn furiously in Eames' direction. 

"Cobb," Yusuf whispers, almost pleadingly. 

"How the hell you end up in cahoots with this drunkard?" Eames sniffs, the blood still clearly blocking his nose from the gurgled noise he makes.  

"You slimy shit I'll fucking kill you!" Cobb launches himself across the table, scrabbling to get towards Eames and knocking over all their drinks in the process.  Arthur jumps back just in time so as not to get drenched.  Although the table top comes loose from its shaking legs and still manages to catapult itself painfully into his hip bone.  Arthur lets out a jagged series of expletives as the sensation ricochets back through his already aching body.  Seemingly his outburst suddenly spurs Eames into action as the older man lets out an angry sound before hurling himself back at Cobb. 

"Gods!" Yusuf squeals again, only just dodging out of the way and coming to stand helplessly by Arthur before finally diving back in and managing to separate the two men.    

"Where are my Alackai tablets?!" Cobb shouts furiously, hurling a glass at Eames, who ducks as it shatters somewhere behind him, rousing an indignant grunt from the bartender. 

"Alackai?" Arthur murmurs in confusion, snapping his head back round to Eames and looking for answers. 

Eames sighs before running his hand down his face and muttering "Fuck." 

"How many years ago was it now Eames?" Cobb spits bitterly, slumping back down in his chair, "you were in that bar that's closed down now.  I noticed your stupid pretentious Alackai tattoo, you didn't even know what it fucking meant you ignorant -"

"Cobb!" Yusuf interrupts pointedly.

"I've been there you know," Cobb announces suddenly, his beady eyes turning sharply on Arthur, "the lost city of Alack - I must be the only person alive to have set foot in its shadowed remains." 

"Y-you..." Arthur begins but the words are lost on his tongue, he knows he should look at Eames, should ask him what the hell is happening but he can't, he can't drag his gaze away from Cobb's look of desperation. 

"I had proof too," Cobb nods, not taking his eyes off of Arthur in the dimness of the bar.  "Ancient tablets inscribed with Alackai script, hand carved by the Kaiaya themselves.  I even invited Eames to come and see them - to share some of the wonder with him."  Cobb gives a miserable laugh before finally turning back to Eames. 

Arthur's chest tightens as he sees that Eames' expression isn't even angry or confused like his or Cobb's, it's just...resigned.

"Mate," Eames sighs slowly, "it was a long time ago.  You were just a drunk..."

"I invited you into my home!" Cobb snaps.  "And how did you pay me back? You fucking stole from me! And where are the tablets now huh?"

Everyone, including Arthur, turns to stare at Eames.  "I," Eames clears his throat and wipes his face again, grimacing at the dried blood that flakes off on his hand, "I don't sodding know.  Sold them didn't I? Some collector in one of the border towns." 

"Why are you here?" Cobb asks icily, cutting through the following silence like a knife. 

"I -" Eames pauses, his pink tongue darting out and wetting his lips before his grey eyes slide to Arthur with a pleading, guilty expression.  Arthur shakes his head, still not wanting to understand.  

"I need to get to Alack," Eames finishes finally, the weight of the words crashing through the bar and landing squarely on Arthur's reeling mind. 

Arthur thinks he must be hearing things at first when someone starts laughing but no, sure enough Cobb is throwing his head back and chuckling mirthlessly. 

"Of course you fucking do," Cobb hiccoughs with a disbelieving shake of his head, "and never having been there yourself - let me guess - you figured you'd come ask me to show you the way? Despite having stolen from me my most precious possessions and me having told you that the city is cursed and I'd never step foot anywhere near it ever again?"

"I need to get to Alack," Eames repeats again numbly, rolling up his sleeve and holding his wrist up for Cobb and Yusuf to see. 

"Bloody hell Eames," Yusuf groans as his eyes fall on the Seprimo scars, "what have you gotten yourself into now?" 

Arthur can't help it, the small choked sound that traitorously makes it past his lips and turns everyone's attention on him.

"Arthur..." Eames says softly, tentatively, as if he still has a right to say it like that. 

"You - you lied," Arthur murmurs, raising his deep brown eyes to meet Eames' grey ones.  "You lied to me and you lied to Mal.  You've never been to Alack, you never even knew the way.  Holy shit..." Arthur staggers backwards with the horrific realisation, "you let Mal die for nothing." 

"Arthur!" Eames cries out, looking aghast, but Arthur refuses to look at him, his mind feels fuzzy and wrong.  He storms out of the bar, heading towards where they left Ethelred and Lika, the last thing he hears from inside is Yusuf swearing, "Gods Eames," again with a sigh. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Eames cracks his eyes open gingerly, not exactly surprised to find that one of them is still painfully swollen and bruised.  He shifts himself up on his elbows to look across the floor of Yusuf's apartment.  Typical Yusuf, the place looks like there's been some kind of explosion with bottles and ingredients strewn bloody everywhere. 

It doesn't take long however, for Eames' eyes to pick out the slumbering form of Arthur at the other end of the room.  A dark blue sheet's been draped across him, presumably by Yusuf who always had a damned sentimental streak.  If it had been Eames' thoughtfulness Arthur would probably have burned the sheet by now, or at least thrown it across the room in another understandable fit of rage.

"You lied to me!"

Arthur's angry shouting still echoes across the aching frontal lobes of Eames' ill-rested head.  After they'd finally vacated the stinking shithole that Yusuf had called a 'bar', they'd made their way towards the stables where Ethelred was being housed.  It's where Eames had known Arthur would go, and sure enough they found him curled up in the corner muttering furiously to Lika.  The scruffy little yariyan had bared her sharp fangs disapprovingly as Eames had attempted to approach the wild desert pair. 

Weirdly enough, it had been Cobb who'd finally managed to convince Arthur to go back with Yusuf and get some rest.  Eames figures the new found camaraderie between the two is most probably built on a shared hatred of Eames himself.  He doesn't really give a rat's arse what Cobb thinks of him, but Arthur, now that's a different story.

Arthur's face when he'd realised that Eames had been lying all along had been nothing short of crushing.  The tentative truce and partnership they'd manage to build up that eventually had led to something far warmer, far more intimate.  All of that shattered away in the blink of Arthur's accusing eyes as he finally saw Eames for what he really is.

A conman.

 

"He's still asleep," Yusuf's voice comes from the doorway as he enters the living area of the apartment, nodding over to Arthur. 

"You gave him something didn't you?" Eames sighs.  He'd been suspicious of the mint tea that Yusuf had thrust into Arthur's shaking hands upon reaching his abode.  However Eames had figured Arthur probably wouldn't take kindly to any unsolicited advice on Eames' part.

"We all have our tricks of the trade," Yusuf shrugs, holding his own cup of tea in his hands and letting the steam waft up gently to the rafters that badly need some maintenance doing to them.

"He's going to die if I don't get him to Alack," Eames whispers, horrified at himself for saying the words out loud in the temporary peace and silence of the apartment. 

"You don't believe in the cure do you though?" Yusuf asks, looking surprised. 

Eames had explained everything to both him and Cobb the night before - about Mal's determined belief that there was some kind of device in Alack that could save someone dying from dark magic poisoning.  About the trials and how she had been his champion in exchange for his Seprimo oath.

Cobb had remained cryptically silent throughout the whole exchange, only speaking to assure Yusuf he'd see him the next day.  He hadn't even looked in Eames' direction, not that Eames could blame him.  Eames had stolen the man's most prized possessions and now here he was, begging him for a favour.   

"If he really hates you of course," Yusuf states, and it takes Eames a few moments to realise he's referring to Arthur, "he could just refuse to let you take him to Alack." 

"No, he'll go," Eames shakes his head, "he's got the idea in his head that something there will help him bring his sister back." 

"Oh that's not what I meant," Yusuf replies, raising his eyebrows, "I mean he might just not let you take him there.  Now he knows that you aren't in possession of the directions to the lost city after all." 

Eames shudders, he hadn't even considered that.  Would Arthur really spite him that much that he'd go off with Cobb instead? Leaving Eames to be agonizingly consumed by the wrathful fire of the scars?

"Nah," Eames retorts with more bravado than he feels, "if I'm going to die a torturous death you can guarantee that Cobb will want to be around to see it." 

"On that note," Yusuf sniffs, pausing to take a sip of his tea, "how on Pinoncite do you intend to convince Cobb to go back to somewhere he swore he'd never seek out again? He still has nightmares about the bloody place." 

"How come you're such close pals with Cobb all of a sudden?" Eames snaps back, feeling rankled by the truth to Yusuf's words.

"Bloody hell Eames," Yusuf sighs, "it's been years and Egidu's a small place when it's your whole world.  I didn't even know you knew him until a few years back when Cobb told me about the mysterious conman who nicked his Alackai tablets." 

"Just connected the dots back to me did you?" Eames asks grimly.

"I often do when it comes to people complaining about a thief who cons them out of their possessions." 

"I'm not the only bloody thief on Pinoncite," Eames mutters, scratching at his chin and regretting it as his chipped nails skate over another raised lump of bruised flesh.  "So when did Cobb sober up then?" he asks as a means to change the subject and remembering how strangely focussed Cobb's narrowed eyes had looked the night before.  It had been quite a change from the glazed over red-cheeked fellow he'd met in that bar so long ago.

"After I met him," Yusuf replies, settling down his drained cup on a nearby work surface.  "I helped him actually - herbal remedies."

"Illegal concoctions," Eames huffs, somehow wanting to remind everybody else here that they're no bloody better than him, apart from maybe Arthur. 

"Non-officially approved herbal remedies," Yusuf corrects with a dry smile before both men are interrupted by a small noise coming from the other side of the room.  Arthur's finally starting to stir.

"You might want to put some distance between you and him for now," Yusuf nods at Eames as if instructing a child in something obvious.

"In case you haven't bloody noticed I'm actually bound to him," Eames snaps, raising his scarred wrist for emphasis. 

"I'm sure it won't stop you from going to get a coffee whilst I try to convince him to still let you go with us to Alack."

"Us?" Eames jerks his head up, feeling slightly dizzy and nauseous. 

"Well if you do manage to convince Cobb - who I've scheduled you to meet in six minutes in the coffee shop across the street by the way, then I will most certainly be coming along for the ride.  Gods knows what kind of chemical and herbal manuscripts are still held in Alack - if it even exists that is.  But I believe it does - Cobb says he's been there and I've found he's a man to trust."

"Fuck off," Eames grunts, not even sure if Yusuf is intending to simultaneously insult him, but it stings all the same.  "What the bleeding hell am I meant to say to Cobb?" Eames groans, letting his head fall into his hands with a throbbing ache. 

"I'm sure you'll think of something Eames," Yusuf sighs, walking over to presumably check on Arthur, "you always manage to talk yourself in or out of anything.  I mean who the hell else gets a dark magic champion for trials?"

Eames winces as he thinks back to the urgency of Mal's bargain, her desperation to save her brother, her assumption that Eames could help her. 

His decision not to correct her. 

 

***

 

Cob is already waiting at a table by the time Eames manages to clean himself up and make it down into the painfully bright sunshine of the street.  The coffee shop appears to be quite a popular one and Eames wonders if Yusuf chose it purposefully so there was an abundance of witnesses in case Cobb tried to kill him again.  It's also, Eames notes wryly, directly opposite Yusuf's apothecary and firmly overlooked by the sash windows of the apartment upstairs where Yusuf and Arthur are probably now having breakfast.

"Trust you to be early," Eames says grouchily before he can stop himself.  Cobb, however, merely raises an uninterested eyebrow before motioning for Eames to sit down.  Eames is half tempted to stand, now the other man's made it seem like an order.  However he knows he's completely at Cobb's mercy so he quickly settles himself into a wrought iron chair and orders a black coffee sweetened with syrup and a dash of chilli powder.

"Tell me then," Cobb states expectantly, downing his own coffee shot in one and sitting back to smack his lips.

"You what?" Eames frowns, feeling like someone else must have started this conversation without him.

"Tell me why I should help your thieving ass get to Alack," Cobb elaborates, seemingly approving of the shadow of irritation that crosses Eames' face before he can school it back.

"I'll die if you don't," Eames shrugs, knowing there's not much point in saying it and he might as well start digging his own grave now if that's going to be his main line of persuasion. 

"I remain unmoved," Cobb replies woodenly, "despite Yusuf's words on the matter."

Eames' heart warms slightly, despite everything Yusuf was still on his side, probably trying to talk Cobb into saving his old friend. 

"Arthur...the kid," Eames swallows hard, "he'll die too." 

"You think whatever's in Alack can save him then?" Cobb asks, looking vaguely curious. 

"It's his only shot," Eames shrugs, trying to sound nonchalant and missing it by a mile. 

"What if I told you it's real," Cobb half whispers in a low, meaningful voice. 

"You already told me you've been there so I should sodding hope you think it's real," Eames grouches, not feeling in the mood for Cobb's strange form of conversation. 

"I mean the device," Cobb announces, leaning back even further as if to get a full view of Eames' reaction.  Eames' mouth drops open as he growls, "The hell are you on about Cobb? I swear to gods if you're messing with me -"

"It's there," Cobb snaps, his eyes flaming with anger.  Clearly having his word doubted is still somewhat of a sore point for the dream-stealing man.  "Just as that dark magic girl, Arthur's sister, told you about.  Only it's not a 'device' as such, it's a spring - mechanically propelled water imbued with ancient spells invented by the Kaiaya to turn someone of dark magic half into light magic." 

"Are you telling me this just so you can now refuse to take us to Alack?" Eames asks miserably, thinking of Cobb's unbridled fury from the day before. 

Cobb remains silent for a moment, his face, fleshed out since Eames last saw it, turns up into the sun and he closes his eyes in thought. 

Eames waits patiently, ordering another coffee in the interlude that it takes before Cobb decides to speak again. 

"I'm going to take you," Cobb states with an unmistakable air of aggrandised gravity.  "Because I owe Yusuf my life, and he apparently would rather you didn't die.  Also because I would not begrudge a young man like Arthur the chance at a full life just to spite a thuggish criminal like you." 

"We're all bloody criminals!" Eames starts off indignantly before Cobb's words sink in and he starts to gape.  "Wait - you'll take us?"

"Yes," Cobb nods before turning to nod up at the darkened windows of Yusuf's apartment.  "But gods knows if that kid will actually let you come along now he knows you've been playing him."

"I haven't been playing him," Eames snaps irritably as Cobb's eyebrows quirk up again.  "I knew we'd find you here and I knew you'd been to the city - I always meant to take him to Alack."

"Oh for his sake I'm sure," Cobb smiles infuriatingly and Eames feels like smashing his coffee cup to the floor. 

"People like you only care about themselves Eames," Cobb shrugs, depositing enough coins to cover both of their orders onto the table and nodding at a waitress before standing up.  "I'm going to go pack, I'll meet you, Yusuf and Arthur at the south city gates in an hour.  I need to see a man about some camels."

And with that - Cobb leaves, sauntering down the street as if he's just won a game Eames hadn't even realised they were playing. 

 

*

 

"It went well then?" Yusuf notes as Eames reaches the top of the creaking wooden stairs back into the apartment. 

"He's agree to take us," Eames nods, not sure what else to say. 

"I thought he might," Yusuf gives Eames a small smile back, "he's secretly been itching for an excuse to go back to that place for years - wanting to find more evidence of its existence since you relieved him of the last pieces he had of it."

"If you know he wanted to go back then why'd you get me so bloody terrified?!" Eames asks angrily, feeling slightly like he wants to now throttle Yusuf's smug smiling face over the breakfast table. 

"I needed you civil," Yusuf shrugs, "and although you're normally a smooth bastard Eames, you're less so when there's actual feelings involved." 

"What are you talking about?" Eames groans, feeling his headache coming back tenfold. 

"You've got feelings for the boy," Yusuf notes wryly.  "The fact that you've already slept with him was pretty obvious from how hurt he was and the way he looked at you.  But it's also clear to anyone who knows you - so really just me - that you actually care about his survival." 

"Of course I care," Eames growls, shaking his head before wearily dropping onto the stool opposite Yusuf.  He can hear the sounds of running water from somewhere on the other side of the apartment and assumes Arthur must be bathing.  Eames winces as he thinks of how sore the younger man must be feeling and how much he wishes he could be there to help Arthur wash himself.  After all, it's Eames' fault Arthur's even aching to begin with, coupled with the rushed and bumpy camel ride afterwards to Egidu... Eames sighs and lets his head drop to the counter's dubiously sticky surface.  He just hopes it's honey or alcohol rather than one of Yusuf's chemical formula spills. 

"Of course I care about him Yusuf," Eames repeats lamely, "he's special okay?"

"Remind me to visit the temple if we get back," Yusuf pipes up cheerily, "because I think I've just witnessed that miracles can happen.  The solitary rogue Eames just admitted to caring about someone other than himself."

"Oh don't you bloody start as well," Eames growls, raising his head up and glaring at his old friend.  "By the way - Cobb says he'll meet us in an hour at the south gates." 

"Yes, I had a small debate with him this morning," Yusuf frowns as Eames looks at him questioningly.  "Looks like we'll be travelling by camels," Yusuf sighs, looking slightly put out.  "Cobb says they'll be better for inner desert travel.  Although I've always done just fine with a sturdy sand pony."

Eames allows himself a small wry smile before sighing and gesturing to Yusuf, "think you might need a very sturdy pony mate - you been eating well since getting to Egidu?"

"Oh fuck off," Yusuf snorts, "it's not like there's much else to do here." 

"So what's the story with you and Ariadne?" Eames asks, trying to cheer himself up by provoking a reaction out of the other man.  Yusuf, predictable as ever, screws up his face and raises his hand in a rude gesture towards Eames.  However at that moment the water switches off in the far bathroom, causing the pipes to whine and creak.  Arthur steps out a few moments later, wrapped in a towel and freezing in his tracks as he spots Eames sitting across the space from him.

"Arthur," Eames begins but Arthur interrupts him, instead turning to talk to Yusuf about needing a headache draught. 

Eames tries again ten minutes later after Arthur's gotten changed and dressed and they've begun packing up their bags.  He receives the same silent treatment that makes him feel worse than the slime on the bottom of someone's shoe back in Ganred. 

"I don't think he wants to talk to you," Yusuf whispers as they lock up the apothecary and make their way towards the stables to pick up Ethelred and Lika on their way to the south gate. 

"Thanks for that mate," Eames huffs, "shrewdly observant as always." 

Yusuf shrugs, holding up his hands in a placating gesture before falling back to walk a few steps behind with Arthur, leaving Eames alone and miserable.

 

***

Eames' mood is not improved when they get to the south gate and he finds that Cobb's only managed to acquire them two more camels. 

"One of us will have to share," Cobb notes with a slightly annoyed look, "Wretched camel seller was committing fucking murder with his prices." 

Eames opens his mouth to respond that him and Arthur have been sharing for quite a while now anyway when Arthur gets there first.

"That's fine, I don't mind sharing with you Cobb." 

Eames reels backwards, widening his eyes in outrage as Cobb nods and begins to make his way towards Arthur and Ethelred.

"Now just wait a bloody minute!" Eames exclaims, taking a step forwards in protest, only to discover Yusuf's hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. 

"Leave it Eames," Yusuf instructs grimly.  "It was bloody obvious he wasn't going to ride with you." 

"But Cobb?" Eames asks loud enough so as for both Arthur and Cobb to hear it, although both of them act like they haven't. 

"Well as you've already kindly noted I probably need my own camel's worth of space," Yusuf sighs, "so yes, Cobb was really the only other option." 

"You can go in front," Arthur announces pointedly to Cobb, gesturing for the older man to get on first before he allows him to be helped up by Cobb's gripped hand around his arm.  The action makes Eames bristle and he nearly bites through his cheek when a few minutes later, after firmly securing Lika in a pouch on his back, Arthur wraps his own lithe arms around Cobb's waist to secure himself.  The gesture seems hideously unnecessary as Eames is sure Arthur would be able to stay on alright just by holding onto Ethelred's hump like he'd done before. 

"Seriously Eames," Yusuf murmurs behind him, "you need to give him some space." 

"What, like you've given Ariadne?" Eames snaps back, regretting alienating his only friend in the group as Yusuf's expression darkens and goes shuttered. 

"So glad to see you've still retained your selective charm," Yusuf mutters as he stalks off towards one of the other camels and begins to haul himself up as the beast kneels down awkwardly as it must have been trained to do. 

 

***

The ride out of Egidu is remarkably uneventful, but it's still the most unbearable stretch of journey so far for Eames as Arthur continues to ignore him.  Even when they stop that evening for food and rest, Arthur acts like Eames doesn't even exist. 

Eventually Eames gives up trying to engage the younger man in conversation, not thinking he can take another one of Cobb's smug smiles as Arthur turns to talk to him instead. 

Eames knows that whatever was between them, he's fucked it up royally.  Arthur's probably never going to forgive him for potentially letting Mal die a pointless death.  Eames wants to grab Arthur by the shoulders and shake him, explain that it was his only option at the time - that he didn't even know Arthur back then, let alone...

let alone...

Eames sighs and presses the bruise poultice that Yusuf had given him against the swelling on his face.  The warm, damp cloth smells strongly of pungent plant roots that Eames knows Yusuf favours in his remedies. 

"We've come far in one day," Cobb announces a while later, studying some kind of hand drawn map.

"The weather was on our side," Yusuf agrees, peeling a ripened fruit from his pack with a knife. 

"Are we going to keep riding tonight?" Arthur asks, looking at Cobb expectantly. 

"I know you just want to get there Arthur," Cobb replies with a sympathetic expression that makes Eames want to punch him.  "But we should rest up while darkness falls.  This part of the desert is notoriously dangerous and we should wait for the sun before attempting to move again." 

"Dangerous?" Yusuf asks, looking slightly worried as he spits out several chewed pips.

"Bandits, Sandsneaks," Cobb shrugs, "they tend to mill around these parts at this time of year.  My power isn't exactly much good in a fight, Arthur of course isn't in possession of his magic right now,"

Eames bristles as he realises that Arthur must have already told Cobb about Mal stealing his powers.  Something that had taken a brutal attack back in Ganred for Arthur to finally admit to Eames. 

"Yusuf, your healing abilities would be useful but not if we're all already dead," Cobb continues before flicking his narrowed eyes to Eames, "and a shapeshifter isn't exactly going to do us much good in such situations." 

Eames scowls back at the other man, knowing he probably looks ridiculous but right now all he can feel is how tired and miserable he is. 

"There's always Lika," Arthur smiles softly as he folds back the fabric of his leather pouch to reveal a sleeping feline head. 

"Oh yeah, bandits and their cat allergies," Eames snorts gruffly, "infamous that is." 

"She has claws and poisoned fangs," Arthur continues as if still talking to Cobb, although his voice is now raised and wavering with anger. 

"We should all get some sleep," Yusuf states suddenly, as if sensing that tensions in the camp are reaching a boiling point. 

Eames grunts his approval for the idea, before rolling over to face away from the fire.  The night is growing cold already as the sun slipped behind the horizon about half an hour ago.  It always gets colder at night in the central desert and Eames has to fight the urge to subtly try to move closer to Arthur.  By doing so he'd probably only end up pushing the younger man closer to the insufferable Cobb anyway.  

Eames closes his eyes and tries to forget the events of the last two days. 

 

***

 

Eames has often found waking up to be an unpleasant experience in general, however this time there's definitely something particularly wrong. 

It's the cold press of a steel blade against his throat that really tips him off.  Eames' imagination flutters wildly to the possibilities of Yusuf, Cobb and Arthur simply having decided to off him in the night.    

"Get up, I know you're awake," a strangely accented voice states a few seconds later, clearly directed at Eames. 

Eames bites the inside of his cheek before shifting himself up, noting how the blade doesn't fail in maintaining pressured contact with the soft flesh of his throat.  It takes Eames' tired eyes a few minutes to properly focus in the twilight of the morning sun's feeble awakening attempts. 

He looks around him to see all the others of his group in similar predicaments.  Black clad figures wearing scarves across their faces hold curved knives to their throats.  The new arrivals to the camp ground are clearly Sandsneaks, Eames can tell it from the patterned gold brooches they wear on their chests - indicating what caravan they swear allegiance to.  Eames knows that him, Cobb, Yusuf and Arthur don't have a chance at overpowering the men, not to mention how outnumbered they are, but Sandsneaks are always recruited for their particularly interesting or useful powers. 

"Check their bags," the leader - the one with the knife held up to Eames, orders the others. 

"We're not carrying anything of worth," Yusuf interjects quickly, wincing as the men start to roughly haul out the glass bottled contents of his pack.  "Gods be careful will you? Some of those took years to perfect!"

"A chemist?" the leader asks with interest as Yusuf nods miserably at him.  "And what are you all doing crossing the inner desert?"

"Hiking holiday," Eames replies, earning himself a quick swipe across his already aching cheek for his efforts. 

"That one's a shapeshifter," another voice announces as a short woman pulls down her shawl to reveal her tanned and scarred face as her eyes fall judgementally on Eames. 

"Thank you Mari, and the others?" the leader enquires thoughtfully. 

Eames huffs, obviously 'Mari's' power is to deduce the nature of others'. 

"A healer," Mari continues in a bored tone as she gestures to Yusuf, "a dream stealer," she adds, turning to Cobb.

"A dream stealer?" the leader asks quickly.  "That is a rare gift indeed.  I knew a dream stealer once, but he was a young boy and perished out in the desert." 

"As for this one..." Mari trails off, cocking her head curiously as she regards a nervous looking Arthur.  Eames tenses, somehow wanting to put himself between her assessment and the younger man. 

"He has no powers," Mari states finally, "they've been stolen from him, but he reeks of dark magic."

"Dark magic?" the leader muses.  "Well isn't this an interesting collection of persons."

"You can't kill us outright," Cobb snaps suddenly, "you have to abide by desert code and take us back to your caravan to let everybody judge collectively." 

The leader pauses for a moment before throwing his head back and laughing loudly at Cobb's statement.  "And how would you come to know so much about Sandsneak code?" the leader snipes, although he sounds more amused than irritated as his laughter finally dies down. 

"I used to be part of a caravan," Cobb replies, holding his head high and jutting his chin out. 

"Lies," the leader sighs as if losing interest in Cobb's tale.

"It's not a fucking lie!" Cobb snarls, viciously enough to warrant a look of mild surprise from the only Sandsneak with her face exposed.

"Sneaks don't leave caravans," Mari states, narrowing her eyes at Cobb as if daring him to continue trying to deceive them.

"My caravan were killed," Cobb replies bluntly, "by the dark ghosts of Alack."

"Oh bloody hell," Eames mutters, shaking his head and wishing Cobb had just kept his big mouth shut. 

"Alack?" the leader hisses, his voice twisting through the group like barbs of some strangling vine, seeking to squeeze out the truth. 

"Alack is real," Cobb grits out, his face darkening.  "I've been there." 

"That's funny," the leader replies slowly, his voice paced out and heavy.  "Because so have I."

The leader of the Sandsneaks reaches up to pull down his own black shawl to reveal his face.  His skin is bronzed, his features dark but delicate, black facial hair manicured in the luxurious style of a wealthy Sandsneak lord. 

"Saito!" Cobb cries out suddenly, making Eames jump from his quick and instinctive assessment of their current enemy. 

"I knew a dream thief once," 'Saito' repeats, staring hard back at Cobb before his think lips curve upwards into a smile, "his name was Dominic." 

 

***

 

Saito's caravan of Sandsneaks is clearly a very successful enterprise.  Eames can't help but fail not to notice the draped opulence of silks and sacks of spices that adorn every spare hook or camel strap.  Saito must be wealthy enough to simply cherry pick the jobs he wishes to take on, clearly not in desperate need of funds to continue maintaining their lavish lifestyle.

There are about twenty members of the caravan in total and along with Saito, two of the other original recruits seem to remember the little dream stealing boy that had been sold to them so long ago. 

"I would never have recognized you now though!" one thin, hooked nose man laughs as he claps a still dazed looking Cobb on the back.

"I had no idea," Saito sighs, shaking his head with disbelief as he leads them into what is clearly his tent where platters of food are laid out ready for his return, "that you too managed to get away from that shadowed place."

"I thought I was the only one," Cobb admits as the four of them settle opposite Saito and begin to fill proffered plates with dried meats and nuts.

"Why is Alack cursed?" Yusuf asks, frowning at Saito and Cobb, "I thought the Kaiaya were meant to be a neutral people. 

"They were, a very wise race indeed," Saito nods.  "But after the city fell, the rumours of a device that could cure those born of dark magic," Saito's dark eyes flicker momentarily to Arthur who stares back at him defiantly.  "Well as you can imagine," Saito continues, "the promise of such hope attracted many dark sorcerers over the years - they still live on there as manifestations and shades." 

"They didn't find the device?" Arthur asks, looking suddenly anxious. 

Saito glances over to Cobb with raised eyebrows, "how much have you told them about the writings we found?" 

"The tablets were lost," Cobb replies, sending a dirty look towards Eames which is quickly echoed more painfully by Arthur. 

"The spring cannot be used by just anyone born of dark magic," Saito shrugs, his slender fingers tracing the thin rim of his tea cup and making it sing with vibrations.  "As with every cure - there are caveats." 

"Did you ever attempt to go back?" Cobb asks quickly, interrupting this current train of conversation. 

"Are you insane?" Saito raises a thick, arched eyebrow, "I barely got out alive the first time." 

"But there were only a small number of us left back then!" Cobb starts enthusiastically.  "And we weren't prepared."

"Are you prepared now?" Saito enquires, looking bemused. 

"I've got a proposition for you," Cobb announces suddenly, causing everyone to turn to look at him.

"My favour for you rests on my memories of the dream-stealing boy who was once a part of my caravan," Saito begins, his voice lowered, "but I do not think for one moment Dominic Cobb that you are in a position to be making deals with me." 

"That's where you're wrong," Cobb says hastily, depositing his plate on the rug in front of him and gesturing to Saito.  "You forget Saito - I've seen what's in your dreams.  You want to get your hands on the lost treasures of Alack more than any Sandsneak out there.  You'd be the richest man in the entire desert - you could finally make an official name for yourself, forge a political career, become powerful as well as feared and wealthy."

Saito stares hard at Cobb for a few moments and Eames wonders if the fair haired man's gone and pushed everything too far, when suddenly Saito lets out a rasping chuckle. 

"And what makes you think Dominic," Saito begins, still smiling cryptically "that my dreams have not changed over the years?" 

Cobb takes a deep breath before standing up and walking towards Saito before skirting around him to point at a large yellowed map on the tent wall.  The cartography is hand drawn and unfinished, many areas have been rubbed out or drawn over with multiple corrections and scribbled notes. 

"Because you're trying to find it again," Cobb states quietly, pointing at the map.  "But unlike me, you can't quite remember the way." 

 

 

***

 

"Well that's my stress quota reached for the year," Yusuf groans as he settles down beside Eames, resting his head on a cushion which a few seconds later turns out to be the rear end of a goat. 

"You should be pleased Yusuf," Eames mutters, looking across to where Arthur and Cobb are chatting animatedly with a group of unsavoury looking members of the caravan.  "Twenty Sandsneaks to accompany us to Alack? You're far less likely to die now." 

"Thank you for the words of heartfelt reassurance," Yusuf snorts, elbowing Eames in the chest.  "And stop staring at him for gods' sakes - you like a pining dog!"

"I don't trust these sneaks," Eames sniffs, sending a particularly vicious glare at one of the men who sits down beside Arthur to share a bowl of soup.  "They're probably plotting to slit our throats as we sleep." 

"You're right," Yusuf nods, "a rogue like you is far more trustworthy.  Gods Eames weren't  you the one trying to insist how we're all bloody criminals here?"

"Right that's it," Eames grouches angrily as another of the men turns to put his arm jokingly around Arthur's slender shoulders.  Eames jumps up and stalks towards the fray who are currently enjoying a spot of dinner and a round of questionable banter that would once have had Eames laughing and guffawing along with the rest of them, but now just makes him want to whisk Arthur away. 

"A twin?!" one of the men is saying with a decidedly lecherous (in Eames' opinion) look in his eyes as he nudges Arthur.  Eames waits with baited breath for Arthur to lose his temper upon the man mentioning Mal in such a careless way.  Instead however, Arthur responds with a surprisingly crooked smile before he nods and replies, "Yup."

Eames frowns in confusion before he glances down and realises that the bowl of soup Arthur's been plied with by one of the men isn't soup at all but a curdled alcoholic beverage. 

"That's Talpsered," Eames growls, moving to snatch the bowl from Arthur's fingers but finding it dodged out of the way just in time. 

"It was until you made me spill it," Arthur snaps.  Eames can't help the slight whoop of joy in his chest at Arthur finally acknowledging his existence again. 

"They're trying to get you drunk," Eames grumbles, remembering why he feels so annoyed in the first place. 

"Oh leave him," one of the men snorts, "what are you - his keeper or something?" 

"Wouldn't be the first time someone's tried to ply me with alcohol in the desert," Arthur shrugs, his face blank.

Eames's eyes widen as he realises Arthur must be referring to the Sandshine back at the Imahru hut.  The accusation, is, in Eames' mind wholly unfair considering that hadn't been Eames intention at all and it had been him that had consumed most of the bottle in the first place anyway!

"Gods I wouldn't mind imagining what I'd do if there were two of you," the man who'd asked about Arthur being a twin sighs wistfully, causing the others to burst out in raucous laughter.  Arthur flushes, but to Eames' horror offers up another smile. 

"Fuck off," Eames snaps to the man, eliciting a look of surprise from a few of the sneaks.  "Come on Arthur," he says, trying to keep the pleading out of his voice as he reaches out to touch Arthur's arm lightly.  Arthur, however shrugs him off, his lowered eyes rising up to meet Eames with a look of barely concealed fury.

"Back off Eames," Arthur states drily, "I can make my own bad decisions."  He pauses to look Eames up and down with a forced sneer, "Evidently." 

Eames' ears are ringing with the laughs and cheers of the men as he removes himself from the group and walks numbly back to a waiting Yusuf.

"I told you he needed space," Yusuf says grimly as Eames sits down beside him, turning to still focus on Arthur who's refusing to make any sort of eye contact. 

"Fuck off mate," Eames murmurs weakly.

 

Chapter Text

 

It's been five days since they joined forces with Saito's band of Sandsneaks and Cobb keeps insisting they're nearly at Alack.  Arthur's honestly somewhat scared to believe the older fair haired man, lest it's all some kind of cruel trick. 

One of Saito's men winks at Arthur from up ahead of him and Arthur forces himself to send a light smile back as his fingers dig into the rough fur of Ethelred's neck.  He hates most of the Sandsneaks, the way they talk to him, the way they look at him and try to find excuses to brush their fingers across his skin.  He regrets encouraging them that first night when Eames had been watching, but he'd just wanted to give Eames even just a tiny taste of the hurt that he'd made Arthur feel. 

Of course when Eames isn't around to witness it, Arthur tries to extricate himself from the sneaks' conversations as much as possible.  Instead hanging around either Cobb or Yusuf or even Saito.  Cobb, as it turns out, is actually incredibly knowledgeable and well read.  He reminds Arthur of Mal, that ardent curiosity to understand the history and secrets of the world around them.  It makes Arthur miss his sister more than ever and he can't help but feel that she'd make a far better conversation partner for the dream-thief. 

"I hate him," Arthur had snapped the day before as him and Cobb had eaten breakfast and Eames had walked by on his own way to the buffet of boiled meat and fried roots.

"I don't think he meant to hurt you Arthur," Cobb had sighed, picking fussily at his own bowl of pistachio porridge.

"How can you possibly defend him?" Arthur had asked, feeling thoroughly confused at Cobb, who he'd assumed hated Eames as much as he did.

"I've seen his dreams," Cobb shrugged, looking slightly guilty.  "I thought I might be able to use them against him," the older man admitted, "get my revenge so to speak." 

"Oh?" Arthur asked, his curiosity peaked but not wanting to really show it.  

"They were all just about you though," Cobb replied.

"Oh," Arthur repeated, suddenly flushing and struggling to look Cobb in the eye.    

"Gods not like that," Cobb had shuddered, causing Arthur to blush even harder.  "Just, snatches of images - you smiling or splashing about in an oasis pool, things like that." 

"He doesn't..." Arthur had trailed off, shaking his head, "Eames only cares about himself when it comes down to it."

"I hope not Arthur," Cobb had sighed, "for your sake." 

*

 

The cryptic conversation had done little to improve Arthur's mood.  It also doesn't help that Eames is currently choosing to ride to Alack on the caravan's slowest camel, meaning Arthur has to conspicuously turn around every time he wants to look at or check on the other man. 

He'd tried slowing Ethelred's pace down several times but the camel was jumpy today, as if he too had sensed them drawing closer to their quarry. 

"The sand is stained here," Saito calls out from somewhere up near the front. 

"We're on the right path," Cobb states grimly with a nod from the camel beside Arthur's.  Now they've joined up with the Sandsneaks, none of them have to share a steed. 

Arthur looks down tentatively as Ethelred crosses over patches of darkened sand as if shadows have been cast by some invisible form. 

"Shades who tried to leave the city," Cobb explains, "not realising the only reason they still existed on this plane was because they were tied to its magic." 

Arthur shudders, somehow the ink blot stains of lost souls are worse than a path littered with skeletons.  At least that would have been something real, something tangible.  The black smudges are simply as if beings have been messily erased from the surface of Pinoncite altogether.

"What happens when we get to Alack?" Arthur asks Cobb, his grip tightening on Ethelred's reins, sweat dripping uncomfortably down his back from the relentless midday sun.

"Everyone attempts to get what they want," Cobb states, moving to take a long swig from his water flask, the excess dribbling down his chin but quickly evaporating. 

"Saito gets his treasure," Arthur begins, looking up ahead to the Sandsneak leader, his jet black beard glinting in the dazzling sunlight.  "You get your proof, Yusuf gets his scrolls, I get to the spring and Eames...Eames gets his Seprimo fulfilled and the scars removed."

"I suppose that's the plan," Cobb replies stiffly.

"How do you know about the spring?" Arthur asks, attempting to elicit more answers out of the ever taciturn Cobb. 

"I saw it," Cobb says eventually, lifting his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun's rays.  "And after I managed to get out of Alack alive with the tablets, I translated them and then spent the next fifteen years researching everything I could find on the Kaiaya people and their magic." 

"What did Saito mean," Arthur begins quietly, "when he said that not just anyone born of dark magic could use the spring?" 

"There were writings, an instruction manual of sorts," Cobb shrugs, looking like he'd rather be discussing anything else.  "Saito and I both saw them and he must have copied down the script as well to have it translated." 

"You're still not telling me -" Arthur says but he's interrupted mid-sentence by an excited shout from up ahead.  Cobb sends him a quick warning look before quickening the pace of his camel to catch up with those who have stopped.  Arthur follows quickly after him and gasps when he finally catches sight of what one of the women is pointing at.

Nested on the horizon, like some great desert carcass is the shadowed form of a skeletal city.  Arthur can see buildings taller than he'd ever expected in the central desert, ruins of what must surely have been a great and advanced civilisation.  "Temples," Cobb explains breathlessly, gesturing to the visible outlines of the mammoth, still preserved structures.  "They built them high so as for the gods to better hear them.  Prayers were ranked by levels of importance depending on which floor you were sent to." 

"You're not saying...is that Alack?" Arthur half chokes on his own nerves and excitement.  The idea that he can finally see the fabled lost city of the Kaiaya.

"I mean of course the incredibly wealthy would simply pay for the rights to pray on higher storeys," Cobb continues to babble, and it doesn't escape Arthur's notice that the other man's face has turned pale and sweaty.  Saito too has gone rather quiet, his dark eyes narrowed as he regards the city from a distance. 

"You fear the city?" Arthur asks tentatively, not sure what kind of answer he's looking for.

It's Saito that eventually replies to him, "You'd be a fool not to," the Sandsneak lord states tonelessly before pulling out a carved amulet from under his shirt and whispering to it. 

"Everyone's got their own gods and demons," Eames announces loudly, appearing suddenly from behind them and leading his camel into the line up.  Arthur hates the way it makes him feel calmer to know that the other man is still by his side.  "Doesn't mean any of them are real," Eames continues with a grim look flashed in Arthur's direction. 

"What's in Alack is real enough," Cobb snaps irritably.

"If you say so," Eames shrugs with his usual casual air of nonchalance. 

"How far away is it?" Arthur asks, sensing that Cobb might be about to try and take another swing at Eames.  Eames' bruises are still vivid against his tanned skin and Arthur doesn't really want to see him any more beaten up. 

"We'll make the city gates by nightfall," Saito states after seemingly doing a quick calculation in his head.  "We'll camp there until morning."

"Why?" Yusuf frowns.

"The inner sanctum of the city is not safe even in sunlight," Saito replies, not turning to face them, but instead keeping his eyes trained on Alack.  "I would not be the one to volunteer exploring it in the dark." 

"Fair enough," Yusuf nods, swallowing heavily.

 

*

The closer they get to the city the more restless all the animals of the caravan become, including both Ethelred and Lika. 

"Hey!" Arthur hisses as Lika attempts to scrabble up his neck, scratching him erratically in her efforts to drape herself around him like a shivering scarf.

"Yariyans," one of the Sandsneak men snorts, regarding the two of them.  "Can't be tamed those things." 

"So I've been told," Arthur mutters thinking back to Eames and his comparisons of the wild sand cats to a desert child.

"I'm surprised she even lets you touch her," the man shrugs, eyeing Lika with a look of wary suspicion.

"She trusts me," Arthur replies, feeling mildly irritated and not the mood for conversation.  He know that he should be feeling elated right now, or at least relieved.  After all this time he's finally approaching the city gates of Alack.  Something most people wouldn't have even imagined was possible.  However all he can feel is a dull ache low in his gut the closer they draw to the city, like any glimmer of would-be happiness is being drained out of him and into the stained sand. 

"The city has roots," Cobb whispers, falling back to walk by Arthur's side and glaring at the Sandsneak so he moves away.  Arthur nods gratefully, Cobb had eventually realised that Arthur was most certainly not relishing the constant attention from Saito's men. 

"What do you mean roots?" Arthur asks, Cobb's words actually sinking in. 

"Like all desert life, it seeks and craves that which it feeds upon," Cobb continues, "the shadow roots spread for many miles in either direction.  I'm surprised you haven't felt it by now? The irresistible pull into the city?"

"I just feel..." Arthur shakes his head, "I don't know - more despairing than usual?"

"It's already feeding," Cobb narrows his eyes, looking up ahead at the ever larger growing shadowed forms. 

"Alack?" Arthur asks, feeling confused.

"Not exactly," Cobb responds, "the parasites that live there, that saturate its stone and stain its sand.  The ones that were called there by the draw of promises that could never be fulfilled."

"Dark magic souls?" Arthur questions, feeling goosebumps prickle up the back of his spine. 

"The ones the spring did not, could not, save," Cobb finishes, glancing momentarily in Arthur's direction. 

"Mal thought it could save me," Arthur murmurs, lost in his own thoughts as images of dark shades with flashing fangs swirl through his imagination, "and if it can save me then maybe it can bring her back through our link?"

"We're nearly at the gates," Cobb states, causing Arthur to look up in surprise.  He hadn't even noticed how much ground they'd crossed, but sure enough, piles of rubble and clay bricks denoting where the city limits would once have been are now clearly visible in front of them.

"Strange," Arthur comments, "it looks kinda misty up close." 

"Shade magic," Cobb murmurs, "left behind like insect trails, the whole city will be smothered in them."

Arthur frowns as he watches the mist part gently in the breeze before the grey strands interlock again, hanging like dusty cobwebs strung between the ruins of old buildings.

"But shades are just ghosts right?" Arthur asks, chewing his lip in thought.  "Ones that are still kept here by Alack's magic, they can't actually hurt us?"

Cobb turns to give Arthur a hard look, "there's a reason I swore I'd never come back to this place," he replies grimly. 

Before Arthur can respond Saito rides up beside them, drawing his camel to a halt and curbing them off.  "We should set up camp here," he announces, gesturing to a flat stone circular area off to their left. 

"You sure we're in the Alack?" Eames asks them, appearing to their right.

"If your Seprimo hasn't released you yet Mr Eames I wouldn't be too troubled," Cobb replies drily, raising an eyebrow as he stares at Eames' still scarred wrist.  "We're not yet in the city's inner sanctum and by magical laws that is what would be deemed as true Alack."

Arthur shoots Eames a disgusted look, they've barely made it inside the gates and already the scoundrel is eager to get himself released and high tail to the next shit hole he plans to con the inhabitants of. 

"I wasn't -" Eames starts frustratedly, glancing at Arthur as if reading his thoughts.  But they're interrupted by the rest of Saito's sneaks pulling up between them and beginning to dismount from their camels. 

"This place gives me the creeps," Mari grunts as she throws her packed tent over to the stone area and goes to tie her camel up to a nearby carved trellis. 

"You've just been listening to Saito's stories about it," another man snorts dismissively, "word is this old ruins jam packed with precious treasure - enough for us all to retire!" 

"Unless something else retires you first," Mari retorts as the man pulls an exaggerated expression of faux-terror.

"The ghosts?" he laughs.  "The most those sorry shades can do it fly straight through us - give you a bit of a shiver at worst." 

Arthur flicks his eyes to Cobb but the other man remains decidedly silent, instead choosing to ignore the sneaks and focussing on unpacking the tent Saito gave him.

 

*

By the time everyone has settled and half of the camp has gone to sleep or drunk themselves into a form of slumber, Arthur is still wide awake.  He's found a quieter spot on the far side of the camp, looking out into the impenetrable darkness of the city of Alack.  Somewhere in there, amidst that labyrinth of crumbled brick could be the key to lifting his curse and bringing back Mal.

"It's only going to get colder," a voice announces as Arthur jumps and looks up to see Yusuf offering him a pot of something hot and steaming.  "It's just honeyed herbal tea," Yusuf shrugs, "but I thought you might need something to warm you seeing as you're sat so far away from the fire." 

"Thanks," Arthur nods his gratitude as his chilled fingers wrap around the heated cup and he brings the beverage up to his lips.  Sure enough just one sip of the concoction fans through him like a warming wave, settling pleasantly in his stomach. 

"Have you always been a chemist?" Arthur asks as Yusuf sits down beside him, frowning out across the mysterious city. 

"I trained under an alchemist when I was young," Yusuf replies, "a great one at that.  But I never shared the same love of the art as he did."

"How come?" Arthur questions, taking another sip of his tea and misting the air in front of him with his newly heated breath.

"Alchemy," Yusuf sighs, gesturing with his hand in a wide arc, "for my mentor it was all about seeking what wasn't really there - to create that which did not exist using magic.  For me I was far more interested in creating that which did not currently exist by combining that which did."

"I'm not sure I understand," Arthur smiles softly.

"Put it this way," Yusuf laughs, "Eames blames me for a lack of imagination.  But the way I see it, it takes a far more focussed imagination to conceive what might possibly come to be from what already is than simply fashioning it from the impossible.  Anyone can do that you see."

"Eames likes to think he's right about everything," Arthur mutters. 

"You need arrogance to be as good of a thief as he is," Yusuf shrugs before standing up again, brushing the dust from his clothes.  "You should try to get some sleep Arthur, tomorrow's the big day for you." 

"What the spring is meant to do," Arthur says quickly before Yusuf can retreat back towards the main camp, "isn't that a form of alchemy? Creating light magic from half of a dark magic soul? I mean isn't that attempting to do something impossible? By the laws of your chemistry you can't just transmute one matter into something else?"

"Not unless you add something else to the concoction," Yusuf replies, biting his lip and his eyes darkening with thought, "then it's just chemistry.  Maybe the Kaiaya just came up with the right formula."  Yusuf sighs as he sees the worry written across Arthur's face, "Sleep Arthur, it's the best thing you can do for now." 

 

*

 

As much as Arthur wants to take Yusuf's advice he finds himself simply unable to relax enough to drift into any sort of slumber.  There's a prickling chill in the air that somehow feels more alive than the usual night frost of the central desert.  The mist settled across the city ruins seems to be expanding and contracting, as if some great beast were breathing out puffs of steam in the cold air. 

Behind him the entire camp has fallen silent and still, perhaps due to the copious imbibing of alcohol, everyone else seems to have managed to sleep.  Arthur strains his tired eyes trying to work out if the swirling shapes in the shadows of the city are simply fragments of his imagination or not.  It's due to this distraction that it takes him several moments before he realises that someone is stood behind him, breathing quietly in the otherwise silence of the camp.

Arthur tenses but continues to stare forwards, not wanting to reveal his awareness just yet.  He doesn't recognize the breathing so he knows he can't be Eames, Yusuf or Cobb.  He doubts that Saito would do something so strange so he can only assume it's one of the sneaks. 

Only further confirming his suspicions a second later, a cold hand squeezes his shoulder, moving up towards the bare skin of his neck.  Arthur lets out a smother yelp of surprise and annoyance, "Fuck off," he snaps, "I'm not interested -" he turns round to glare at the sneak but finds himself instead staring into pale, dead eyes. 

Arthur can't help it but he screams.  The shade is everything Cobb had described but worse.  Twisted features of a corpse shrouded in tattered shadow, skeletal teeth and hollowed cheeks.  It's as Arthur's screaming and scrabbling backwards that he realises, much to his horror, that the entire camp is swarmed by the creatures. 

"Arthur!" someone cries out.  Arthur turns to see Eames staggering out from his tent with a look of panic.  Suddenly the expression of shade in front of Arthur changes completely, the pale eyes turns the colour of lava and torn nostrils flare hungrily. 

"Eames!" Arthur shouts back in warning, but it's too late as the shade whips round and dives with phenomenal speed towards Eames, fingers outstretched and a dislocated jaw dropping down to reveal a chasm where a mouth should be. 

Suddenly Cobb springs out from his own tent, putting himself between Eames and the shade, a flaming torch in his hand.  The shade screams in fury as the fire crackles and spits, driving it back to join the congealed swirling mass of the other ghosts. 

"Find some fire!" Cobb barks as more men emerge from their tents, "It's the only thing they fear -but it won't keep them away for long." 

It's at this moment that Saito appears, the man's entire body seems to be ablaze, magical tendrils of fire curling from his fingertips.  Arthur realises that this must be the Sandsneak lord's power and he understands how Saito managed to escape Alack alive all those years ago. 

It's not long before another attack builds and this time Arthur witnesses a shade tear through the fabric of one of the sneak's bodies, ripping apart his magical soul before other descend on it like ravenous scavengers. 

"What's happening?!" Arthur screams at Cobb as the fair haired man grabs his wrist and jerks Arthur away from the scene. 

"They're dark magic souls," Cobb shouts back, slashing his lit torch through the air like a threatening sword.  "they came to Alack to be cured by the spring.  They sought light magic and they never stopped hungering for it." 

"Fuck!" Eames swears loudly, shifting himself into a far shorter man as a shade swoops low above his head like some sharp-taloned bird of prey.  "How do we fight them off?"

"You don't," Cobb growls back, thrusting forwards to try and ward off two shades that seem to be intent on dive-bombing him.  "You just run!"

"Shit!" Arthur hears Yusuf cry out from his left.  Arthur gasps as he sees a shade has managed to plunge it's hand into Yusuf's chest and is currently trying to rip out strands of silvery light from behind his ribs.

"No!" Arthur yells, sprinting forwards to wrap his own hands around the shade's slippery form and throwing it backwards.  Infuriated the shade lets out a blood-curdling shriek, rushing back at Arthur before screeching to a sudden halt in front of him, lava eyes turning back to pale before the ghost dissipates and reappears on the other side of the camp where it sinks its teeth into the flesh of another sneak. 

"What the hell was that?!" Arthur shouts, turning in bewilderment to Cobb. 

"You're not light magic!" Cobb retorts, "They can't feed off of you!"

"Does that mean I can help fight them?" Arthur asks, his eyes flying wildly around the escalating devastation of the camp. 

"It just means you're immune," Cobb shakes his head before gesturing to a still panting and pale looking Yusuf, "we need to go - we'll head for the inner sanctum." 

"There's no shades there?" Eames asks, grabbing a handful of dead wood and quickly lighting it from Cobb's nearly dying torch. 

"The shades are everywhere," Cobb replies bitterly, "this is their city now.  But obviously there's no point in us waiting for daylight to seek what we're looking for."

Just as Cobb finishes speaking, another swarm of shades descends upon them, shrieking through the camp like vengeful furies.  Arthur darts forward, attempting to put himself between as many people as possible and the shades, trying to deflect their hunger. 

"Time to go I think," an accented voice announces as Saito, still a human torch, comes running up to them with an enviably casual air. 

A group of them start to pick their way through the abandoned city streets, clambering over piles of debris and fallen brick, skating down the other side into pot holes of dusted sand that threatens to almost swallow them whole.  The city is vast, even by modern standards and Arthur's legs are threatening to give out on him by the time Cobb holds up his hand to indicate they need to stop. 

"I left Lika and Ethelred back at the camp!" Arthur announces anxiously, turning to the blank, non-comprehending faces of Yusuf and Cobb.

"They're not magic," Eames replies quickly, walking forwards.  A flash of hurt crossing his face as Arthur steps back away from him.  "They'll be okay," Eames adds, more quietly now.  "You can collect them on your way back."  

Eames tears his eyes away from Arthur's as he turns to look at two square columns, still standing erect amongst the wreckage.  "That it then?" he asks, gesturing to the archway.  "Inner sanctum through there?" 

"That's it," Cobb nods as Arthur looks around to see that only the four of them, plus Saito, Mari and a few other Sandsneaks made it safely away from the camp.  He doesn't dare dwell on what became of the others.

"Doesn't look like much," Eames mutters, walking up to the archway and taking a dramatic step between the columns before twisting back round and pulling a face at the others.  "You sure about this Cobb -fuck!"

"Eames!" Arthur shouts, taking a step forwards but finding himself held in place by Yusuf. 

Eames' entire body has started to glow, resonating with magical energy that doesn't seem to be truly a part of his soul, but seems to come from some other source.  Something familiar that Arthur almost hesitates to recognize. 

"Mal," Arthur gasps, "that's Mal's magic!"

"The Seprimo Seal," Yusuf states in explanation, his face awash with wonder but his grip still tight on Arthur's shoulders. 

"Eames!" Arthur yells again as the other man lets out a scream of agony, throwing his head back to expose the tensed and bulging column of his throat. 

"Don't," Yusuf hisses against Arthur, "the scars are releasing him!"

Sure enough, a few moments later, the unmistakable stench of burning flesh permeates the air as Eames' exposed wrist glows a red hot.  Undulating whips of blood- crimson magic detach themselves from Eames' skin from where they've been fused to his flesh.  The skin rips away like weathered fabric, leaving exposed, raw wounds that swell scarlet and angry. 

"Eames..." Arthur sobs as the torture continues and the magic further wrenches itself from Eames' body in unforgiving jerks and tugs.    

Eventually the light glimmers and dims down, leaving only Eames, slumped and breathing heavily in rattling rasps as his chest spasms and shakes.  Even though Yusuf releases Arthur his legs suddenly feel like stone, unable to move as he watches the chemist rush past him to help Eames to his feet. 

"He's still scarred," Saito announces with a curious expression, his eyes narrowed.  Arthur dazedly follows Saito's gaze to see that the man is correct, Eames' wrist, although no longer a mass of weeping incisions, is still criss-crossed with raised scar tissue. 

"Of course," Cobb states stiffly, "a Seprimo seal doesn't simply fade away.  The magic will stay a part of Eames forever, only now it possesses no threat to him.  He is free to leave." 

Arthur gasps as jerks back to see Eames nod his understanding grimly at Cobb.

"Now we have reached the inner sanctum, this is where I shall leave you," Saito informs them, unaware that Arthur's entire world is dissolving around him. 

"Go seek your treasure," Cobb replies.

"I hope you find the spring," Saito replies, hesitating as his eyes slide to Arthur, "for the boy's sake." 

"Oh we will find it," Cobb smiles sadly, "I just hope we can use it." 

A few moments later, Saito proceeds off down one of the side streets along with his remaining sneaks. 

"The Temple of Healing is that direction if my research into the city's layout is correct,"  Cobb tells Yusuf, pointing off another way.  "That's where you'll find all the medical scrolls you could ever want." 

Yusuf nods but looks nervous as he scans around the street, presumably for the reappearance of hungry ghosts. 

"Don't go alone," Cobb shrugs, "take your friend with you."  He points to Eames whose eyes widen in surprise. 

"But what about -" Eames begins but Arthur interrupts him, not wanting to see another of Eames' performances, not now.

"You can leave," Arthur states, loudly and coldly.  "You've fulfilled your part of the bargain and I don't need you anymore.  I don't want you anymore." 

"Arthur..." Eames murmurs, his face falling. 

"Hurry up," Cobb snaps, "the shades could find us again at any moment."

"Just go get your treasure and leave," Arthur spits, hating the way his eyes prickle with the threat of incriminating tears. 

"Gods Eames I'm not going alone," Yusuf says hurriedly, reaching out to grab Eames' arm and pulling him in the direction of where Cobb said the healing temple was. 

Arthur tries to not to look as he sees Eames hesitating and turning round as if to try and catch the younger man's eyes. 

"You ready?" Cobb asks, placing a firm hand on Arthur's shoulder and looking down the third and middle street that presumably he intends to take. 

"Yeah," Arthur nods, scuffing at the ground with his boot, "as I'll ever be." 

 

***

 

"Now according to the manuscript I bought off that woman with the eye patch we need to bear to the left of the siren statues..."

Arthur breathes heavily and tries to tune out Cobb's incessant muttering.  He's been at it for the last twenty minutes and Arthur's pretty sure they're just plain lost. 

Plus the 'siren statues' that Cobb indicates are now nothing more than eroded clumps of stone that Arthur half suspects could have been ancient toilet blocks.

"Here!" Cobb cries out suddenly from up ahead.  Arthur hurries after him, turning the corner and emerging into a small forum of sorts.  In the centre of the space is a long indented rectangular strip leading to several wheeled devices with small cups on the end of each prong. 

"This is it," Cobb whispers excitedly, striding out into the centre of the forum, "these are watermills for the spring." 

"But it's bone dry," Arthur frowns, walking over to look at the dusty and unused waterway.  "It - it's no longer here."  He turns back to Cobb with a look of anguish.  To have made it all this only to find dried husks of the fabled device, Arthur feels like he's been crushed under an unshiftable weight. 

"The water would be imbued with ancient spell-work," Cobb murmurs, rushing over to one of the forum columns, inscribed with dense lines of Alackai script.  "It would not have been wise to simply have it running all the time." 

"So what?" Arthur questions, "there's some kind of activation switch?"

"I believe so," Cobb replies, trailing his finger down the lines of script until he reaches a deep incision, painted a deep red, outlining the shape of a human hand.  Cobb turns to meet Arthur's eyes before taking a deep steeling breath.  Arthur bites the inside of his cheek in anticipation as Cobb moves to place his own hand in the space.  There's a moment of silence, utter stillness.

Before Cobb exhales sharply.

"Well that did nothing," Arthur grouches, kicking at the ground and trying to ignore the withering look Cobb sends him. 

"Perhaps it should be you," Cobb hazards, "I'm light magic, the spring is designed to be used by those of dark magic." 

"Worth a try," Arthur mutters, striding over and slamming his own palm down on to the traced outline, making Cobb wince as the column seems to imperceptibly shake with the force. 

"Noth-" Arthur begins but he's interrupted by a sharp stab of pain into the soft flesh of his hand.  "Fuck!" he swears, jerking backwards to see that three small spikes have penetrated from within the column to pierce his palm.  The imprint of his bleeding hand remains starkly against the sandstone of the pillar, dripping down to fill the small rivulet outline of the etched shape.  Within seconds the red paint darkens into a jet black before being seemingly absorbed by the stone. 

"Well that's done something," Cobb states stiffly as both of them jump back as a deafening crack ricochets throughout the forum's echoing space. 

"Look!" Arthur cries out, grabbing Cobb's arm and pointing emphatically over to where a turquoise dyed water is bubbling up from a star shaped grate in the ground, filling the rectangular man-made stream and dashing down to meet the waiting watermills.  "The spring is flowing!"

"Wait - wait," Cobb hisses, crouching down to read the rest of the pillar's inscription, "we need to find out what to do." 

"Something else is happening!" Arthur shouts as several of the cracked marble tiles split apart in front of the watermills and a small pool like structure is lifted up on creaking winches.  The circular pool is carved out of black stone that glimmers almost green in the shadowed moonlight above the city.  Upon the shimmering surface is painted patterns in silver, scenes of thunderclouds birthing jagged forks of iridescent lightning. 

"Dark magic gods," Arthur whispers, his eyes widening as he recognizes the illustration from books that him and Mal had read over the years.  "Cobb I need to bathe in it - I need to get in the pool," Arthur calls back as he starts to walk towards the raised vessel, stripping himself of his boots and letting the bare soles of his feet stick against the chilled coldness of the tiles below. 

"No!" Cobb cries out immediately, jerking back from the pillar and waving his arms at Arthur.  "We haven't completed the ritual - if you go in there now you'll just end up another lost shade in this haunted city!"

"What are you talking about?" Arthur shouts.  "Cobb I have to do it now, the spring's drying up again!"

Sure enough the turquoise water level is lowering down at the end by the star-shaped grate, and although the mills are still turning to fill up the bath, Arthur can see that it's draining away just as quickly. 

"NO!" Cobb bellows emphatically.  "Arthur it won't work this way - there's more to the inscription!"

"What does it say?" Arthur snaps back, his heart pounding like crazy as his eyes focus on the ever too quickly emptying waterway.

"Amn tarial etack piola!" Cobb screams to be heard now above the wind that's seemingly whipped up in the forum.  The sky above has darkened, the pool no longer shimmers green but merely shines a deep and immutable black.  "In love there is light!"  The rest of Cobb's words are lost to the howl of approaching thunder.  An entire storm system seems to have localised upon the ruins of Alack. 

"Cobb?!" Arthur shouts, twisting round to find the other man having sprinted over to him, grabbing him by the arms. 

"Arthur this is why all the other dark magic souls failed to use the spring! Not just anybody can be cured - you have to be loved!"

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Arthur asks as a thrash of white hot lightening cracks down into the forum and sparks viciously along the turquoise waters as if trying to dry it up even faster.

"You have to be worthy of staying on Pinoncite!" Cobb rasps, his voice finally failing him as the storm grows louder.  This is how the Kaiaya tried to ensure that evil could not abuse the spring.  You can only be turned half light if you are already loved by another who's of light magic." 

"I - " Arthur gapes back at the fair haired man, "that's insane!"

"Rules made a millennia ago," Cobb smiles sadly, "written in unbreakable magic."

"I- " Arthur repeats lamely, all hope seeping out of him, "I'm not -"

"YES YOU BLOODY ARE!"

Arthur swivels round to see Eames charging at them, Yusuf following quickly behind, his arms full of wound up parchments. 

"You're here..." Arthur states numbly as Eames barrels into them, breaking Cobb's grip on Arthur and replacing it with his own. 

"Never fucking left pet," Eames growls, tugging Arthur forwards without another moment's hesitation and sending them both toppling over the sides of the pool and into the water, wrapping his arms around Arthur in a tight embrace. 

The light beneath the water is vivid and the pool seems far deeper than it had done from the outside.  Arthur can feel him and Eames sinking further and further into its depths, and Arthur knows it's him that's dragging them down, like some kind of magical weight.  But still Eames refuses to let go as Arthur scratches at his shoulders, trying to push him away and back towards the surface and the promise of oxygen, not wanting to be the cause of the other man's death. 

"Don't even think about it Arthur," Eames' voice growls in Arthur's ear, defying all logic of them being underwater.  Suddenly Arthur realises that he can also breathe, despite them now lying entwined at the bottom of the pool. 

"You are loved," Eames hisses with a strength forceful enough to send a myriad of bubbles skittering up to the shimmering surface above them.  Cascading across the turquoise and diffracting the moonlight into a rainbow of ripples.

Arthur's eyes close gently as he stops struggling, letting his head fall against Eames' chest as the water stream through his open mouth and fills his lungs with something altogether not suffocating.

 

***

 

"Is he alive?!"

"Eames for fucks sakes, get out of my way," Yusuf snaps angrily as Arthur lets out a groan and realises his throat is still swilling with fluid.  Coughing he finds himself helped up into a sitting position by the three men crowded around him. 

"Gods love," Eames swerves to sit in front of Arthur, holding his face in his hands, "you gave me a scare."

"Sorry," Arthur croaks, pushing his sopping wet fringe out of his face and realising that at some point him and Eames must have been pulled out of the pool and are now sitting against one of the forum's columns. 

"Arthur drink this," Yusuf instructs in a kindly but urgent voice as he presses a vial of pink liquid into Arthur's hand, "it'll help get your strengths back." 

"Did it work?" Eames hisses, batting at Cobb who ignores him and continues his quick and scrutinizing inspection of Arthur. 

"Yes," Arthur replies before any of them can answer for him.  "I can feel it," he smiles, "I'm half light."

"Bright as the bloody sun," Eames sniffs, letting out a massive sigh of relief as he cradles Arthur into his arms. 

"What about your powers?" Yusuf asks hurriedly, "Are they back?"

"No," Arthur shakes his head, frowning.  "No I still feel empty." 

"I found something you should see," Eames says quickly, pulling Arthur's hand and making him stand shakily to his feet.  Eames wastes no time in leading Arthur over to a column just behind the one that Cobb had been reading from. 

"Look," Eames announces expectantly, pointing to etched illustrations of clouds, the bottoms of them gilded with flaked lapis lazuli so as to give them blue hues. 

" Fakshir birds," Yusuf shrugs, gesturing to the clouds before turning to Cobb and explaining, "they're symbols of - "

"Reincarnation I know," Cobb snaps before raising his eyebrows at Yusuf's surprised expression, "Cloud lore is important in many cultures."

"Yeah - criminal ones," Eames mutters.

"Eames," Arthur hisses, still not quite understanding what it is exactly that the other man has found but knowing it might have something to do with the manuscript he'd read that first day of the journey.  The one that had made him harbour the hope that he could bring Mal back. 

"Well that's it," Eames winces, "I can't read the rest of it, I don't speak Alackai."

All three of them turn expectantly to Cobb who rolls his eyes and crouches down again to start scanning the inscription. 

"You can only bring someone back if their magic remains within someone else on Pinoncite," Cobb explains, "I'm just translating roughly but you'd have to still have a part of Mal's magical soul inside of you Arthur."

"Surely there's something?" Eames asks as Arthur turns to him, feeling distraught.  The truth is, there's nothing.  It's Mal who's got a part of Arthur's magical soul with her in the afterlife.

"No," Arthur shakes his head helplessly, "she stole my powers.  Shit - shit -" he collapses down onto the ground.  Water drips from his hair and clothes onto the pale sand, staining it with his realisation.

He can't bring Mal back

"What about Eames?" Yusuf asks suddenly, making them all look at him in bewilderment.  "What was it you said Cobb?" Yusuf gestures excitedly.  "About the Seprimo always being a part of Eames? well wasn't that magic cast by your sister Arthur?" 

"I have Mal's magic inside me," Eames whispers with an awe-struck expression, "Fuck - Arthur this could work!"

"Tell us the ritual," Arthur barks at Cobb as he jumps to his feet and the other man turns dutifully back to the column. 

 

***

 

The pain of the magic rips through Arthur like a knife, but he doesn't loosen his grip on Eames' hand.  Out of the corner of his eye he can see the scars on Eames' wrist glowing again and coming to life.  Their tendrils of light float through the air before plunging into the sand, sinking down like roots to drag up a writhing nebulous of dirt and sand.  Running over it with cutting motions, the magic sculpts the sand into a human figure that glows so hot it turns to glass.  Chandeliers of hair hang down from slender shoulders, glassy eyes open and flood with colour as diamond skin blushes alive. 

"Mal," Arthur whispers as a carbon copy of his sister appears before him.  And yet the doll like figure is still glass, tinted with colour and yet still remaining lifeless. 

"Eames!" Cobb screams from behind them.  "You need to give the magic back!"

"Wait," Arthur snaps, tightening his grip on Eames' other wrist and yanking him back, "what if it hurts you?!"

Eames turns back to Arthur with a small crooked smile, their eyes meeting and burning into each other as Eames reaches out his other arm.  Once more the scars rip themselves from the older man's flesh, hurtling towards the glass girl and piercing her chest.  At once a heart shaped chasm fills with red within her before the reset of the body follows suit in coming to life. 

It takes an undeterminable amount of time, but after that Arthur finds himself staring at the living, breathing form of his sister.  Cobb at once hurries forwards to drape his own cloak around her as she stares back at Arthur with a look of abject confusion. 

"How?" Mal hisses eventually, her voice worn and rusted from disuse.  "It was only ever meant to save you."

"Didn't think I'd stand for that did you?" Arthur whispers back, tears dripping from his eyes and running down his cheeks. 

"Arthur," Yusuf interrupts, "your sister is still fully dark magic - she needs to use the spring." 

"But the water dried up?" Arthur asks anxiously, sprinting back over the column with the handprint and slamming his palm against it repeatedly.  However, just as it had done for Cobb, the spikes refuse to show themselves. 

"You've had your turn," Cobb says quickly, ushering a still very dazed looking Mal forwards and leading her bronzed hand to fit inside the outline.  Sure enough, she lets out a yelp of pain as her blood dribbles down the sandstone a moment later and the blessed gurgle of water starts up from the other end of the forum. 

"You are loved," Arthur states firmly, grabbing his sister's hand and leading her over to the newly appearing pool, "and I have light magic within me." 

 

***

 

"We need to get out of here!" Eames shouts about fifteen minutes later as Mal is waking up from her dive into the turquoise spring waters that have turned her half light.  "Those blasted shades are coming back again!" 

But Arthur isn't listening, instead he's kneeling down beside his sister, holding her hands in his and smiling with disbelief as she laughs back at him.  "You did it Arthur," she sobs, "you did what I could not have dreamed of." 

"Not without you," Arthur murmurs, reaching out to push her long wet hair off of her rosy cheek.  "Gods I missed you Mal."

"And I you," Mal whispers back, pressing their foreheads together before placing one of her hands over his heart.  "I think I have something of yours my brother." 

Arthur's magic flows back into him like the spring had flooded through the empty waterway.  Dusts of doubt are drowned out as his powers reassert themselves within his soul, threading themselves through the burning fabric of his being. 

"ARTHUR!" Eames bellows as the storm of swirling ghosts above them grows.  Arthur smiles softly back as he notices Saito appearing with his men into the forum, bags of presumably priceless treasure clutched in their arms. 

"Arthur seriously we need to go now!" Eames screams, sprinting back towards the twins.  "You've both got light magic in you now - you're no longer immune to the shades' hunger!"

"Oh Eames," Arthur chuckles, "have you forgotten already that my sister can defeat twenty sorcerers on her own? Do you have any idea how powerful we can be together now we're no longer sick?"

"I - " Eames stops mid way through his reply as the ground starts to grumble and shake.

"An earthquake?" Yusuf cries out frantically, steadying himself against Cobb.

"Of sorts," Arthur replies with a smirk as him and Mal stand up simultaneously, their hands clasped together, their black hair flying in all directions with the howling wind.

The two dragons that explode from the sandy surface of the earth a moment later are a jet obsidian and an emerald green respectively.  Their eyes are pale like a yariyan's and their mouths gape open with piercing white fangs that break through the veiled shells of hungry shades like they were desert beetles.    

The dragons writhe and jerk in lengths of sinuous muscle and power, wrapping themselves in protective, armoured serpentine coils around Eames, Yusuf, Cobb, Mal, Arthur, Saito and the others. 

It's been millennia since the lost city of Alack has witnessed such power, the unbridled magic of both light and dark combined in the doubled strength of the twins.  In their wild desert-child souls, untamed for all of eternity. 

 

Chapter Text

 

The little known desert town of Sethomishi is fuelled mainly by a tributary of the Yathwis spring system.  It's the other end of the water line from Egidu, settled in a more easterly position and enjoying a prosperous date-growing enterprise that had been set up several centuries ago by retired Sandsneaks giving up their nomadic lifestyles. 

Of course, given this founding story, the town still plays host to a number of sneak caravans that happen to pass through on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.  One of these caravans, belonging to a mysterious man named 'Saito', had arrived in Sethomishi about five months ago with a wealth of treasure that they happily fed into the town's economy in return for positions of power and official respectability. 

Along with Saito, had arrived a very strange and rag-tag bunch,  however given the inclusive nature of the town, no questions had been asked and no eyebrows had been raised. 

The chemist Yusuf and the apothecarist Ariadne had set up a shop on one of the quieter northern streets.  After several months the apothecary had garnered a reputation for being able to treat and cure almost any affliction.  There was a rumour that Yusuf and Ariadne's wisdom had been drawn from recovered scrolls belonging to an ancient civilisation, but of course, this was just town gossip. 

The other four tag-alongs, the two dark haired twins and their respective partners - a dream stealer and a shapeshifting thief had chosen instead to live more anonymous lives.  Purchasing a large set of double riads that overlook the spring and town's oasis orchards.  It was in these riads that the mysterious strangers, Arthur, Mal, Eames, Cobb, Yusuf and Ariadne were said to live.  And quite often one of the infamously beautiful desert-child twins could be seen standing on a riad balcony, a cup of steaming tea in their hands and a playful yariyan kitten sleeping on their shoulders.

This seemed rather peculiar given that yariyans were notoriously untameable and ill-suited as pets or companions. 

To the right of the co-joined riads was a small stables, housing a rather weary looking camel.  It was for this camel, the townsfolk presumed, that the shapeshifter Eames would purchase an armful of soft-thorn roses (a particular favourite food of camels) from the market every morning.  That along with a normal, less edible, bunch of desert roses for his lover, the male twin. 

     

 

 

 

"Where have you been?" Arthur growls irritably as Eames trots up the stairs and walks into their bedroom.  The shutters have been pulled back and the gentle light of sunset is drifting through to cast golden hued illuminations on their painted ceramic floor. 

"Card game down at the local," Eames winks, knowing it will wind Arthur up something rotten.  Arthur's far better at cards than Eames is and if he thinks there was a game that his partner neglected to invite him to...

"Eames do you really not think I've known you long enough now to tell when you're lying?" Arthur sighs, evidently trying very hard to control his smile and school it back down into a scowl. 

"Fair enough love," Eames laughs, "I just didn't want to get you all excited before I'd sealed the deal."

"You bought it!" Arthur hisses, his brown eyes flashing with excitement as he moves closer to Eames across the bedroom. 

"I bought it," Eames grins crookedly.  He is, of course, referring to the small run down shop at the corner of the street that they've had their eye on since they arrived in Sethomishi. 

"Eames!" Arthur laughs delightedly, running into the older man's offered embrace, "you're actually going to run a bookstore!"

"I know," Eames chuckles, rolling his eyes and stroking Arthur's silky soft hair, "can't quite believe it myself." 

"I never thought you'd actually do it," Arthur sighs happily.

"What? Give up being a desert-wandering rogue?" Eames winks as Arthur draws back to huff at him. 

"Yeah - actually commit to something," Arthur replies jokingly.

"Hey! Eames exclaims indignantly.  "That's just not fair, I committed to you didn't I?"

"Eames, awkwardly shoving a ring that you nicked off of Saito in my face does not count as 'commitment'," Arthur scoffs. 

"You're wearing it aren't you?" Eames growls, nuzzling into Arthur's ear and pressing heated kisses into the skin of his neck. 

"I'll take what I can get I suppose," Arthur sighs, but his tone is light and playful.  Eames knows when he's being teased - they've played this game before.

"You can have all of me," Eames whispers on cue into the shell of Arthur's ear as his lover shudders beneath him. 

"Now?" Arthur asks before Eames sends him a look to say 'is there any other time?' 

Within seconds, Arthur's fingers are scrabbling at Eames' shirt, tearing it off of him to reveal his tanned and tattooed chest.

"Fuck I've wanted this all day," Arthur pants as he makes similarly short work of Eames' trousers. 

"If I'd known I'd have just stayed here," Eames laughs, hopping awkwardly to step out of his clothes in order to let Arthur push him back over to the bed. 

"Wanted -" Arthur hisses as Eames reaches down to palm at the younger man's crotch, "-wanted to be inside you today, feel you clenching around me."

"Gods Arthur," Eames groans, tipping his head back and letting his lover lick hungry stripes across his exposed skin. 

A few moments later and Eames comes enough back to his senses to start stripping Arthur of his own clothes, a loose fitting green silk tunic that's practically see through - not that Eames is complaining.  Arthur's body never fails to turn Eames on - tight and lithe, small packed muscle and the spark of magic glistening across his tanned skin. 

They lie back on the bed together as Eames spreads his legs eagerly, allowing Arthur access and treating him to an uncensored view of his waiting arse. 

"Eager are we?" Arthur teases, but he sounds breathless, barely contained himself. 

"As much as you were last night," Eames retorts, pretending to sound snappy but not caring one jot that Arthur knows how much he wants it. 

The lubricant is cold and slippery against the heated entrance of Eames' hole.  Arthur's fingers are gentle but firm in their explorations, opening him up in scissoring motions, the pad of Arthur's index finger circling his prostate tantalisingly. 

"I'm ready," Eames moans impatiently, although he knows this is Arthur's payback for Eames taking his own time the night before. 

"I know," Arthur whispers, ducking his head to crush their mouths together as his finger finally presses hard against the bundle of nerves inside Eames, making him cry out wordlessly against Arthur's lips. 

Arthur slides into Eames in a smooth motion, his entire shaft filling Eames up as it's done perfectly so many times before.  It's only a few seconds before Arthur kisses Eames again, passionately and unreservedly as he starts to move, thrusting up deeper than Eames had thought possible. 

Eames groans loudly, tipping his head back as Arthur starts to grunt in pleasure, speeding up his pace and pistoning in and out of Eames with reckless abandon.  It's hard and fast and it's exactly what they both want tonight. 

"Arthur -" Eames gasps pleadingly, his lover responds by wrapping his long fingers tightly around Eames' own throbbing length and starting to jerk him off at a relentless pace. 

"Fuck!" Eames shouts, his mouth dropping open and his eyes squeezing tightly shut as he feels himself start to come, hot seed spurting from his gaping slit and spraying itself across his stomach and chest.  Arthur's other hand moves to grip Eames' shoulder, squeezing him tightly as Arthur buries himself further into Eames and comes with a final cry.   

Eventually Arthur pulls out of Eames' aching and satisfied body.  He moves to press his face against Eames' chest, resting there as they both recover their breath and trace patterns against each other's skin. 

Arthur sits up a few moments later with a dazed and satisfied smile, looking down at Eames he traces his finger over the swirling script on Eames' shoulder.  "Amn tarial etack piola," he leans to kiss the inked tattoo that Cobb had tried to translate in an Egidu bar so many years ago. 

"Do you believe in fate Eames?" Arthur asks softly, leaning back down to rest his head against Eames' chest.

"Only if it means I get to stay with you forever," Eames replies, leaning back and stretching up his spine.  His muscles feel warm and loose and an air of fuzzy contentment settles over him. 

"Not sure it works that way," Arthur snorts, nipping at Eames' sweating skin. 

"Just you wait and see love," Eames sighs happily, closing his eyes blissfully before cracking them open again.  "Hey - why were you in such a strop with me for coming back late today?"

"Oh my gods!" Arthur cries, jerking up suddenly in the bed and causing Lika to let out a mewl of disapproval from where she's just wandered into the room.  "Fuck Eames - we were meant to be over at Mal and Cobb's half an hour ago for dinner!"

"Oh sodding hell," Eames groans as Arthur scrambles out of the bed and starts speeding around the room, picking up discarding items of clothing. 

 

***

 

"Just in time for dessert," Mal announces imperiously as Arthur and Eames walk sheepishly through the open door.  She looks her brother and his lover up and down, noting the rushed and disassembled nature of their appearance, Eames' ruffled hair and the bite marks down Arthur's neck.

"I don't even want to know," she replies, holding her hand up to stop Eames before he can start in on the usual concocted excuses.  Instead she grabs both of their hands and leads them onto the balcony where everyone is waiting.  The dragonfruit fondant already starting to melt in the warmth of the evening sun.