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The first words Arthur ever speaks to Eames are: “No shirt on earth is uglier than the one you are wearing. ”

Eames is about to say something back about the state of Arthur’s clothing, except there aren’t any cutting comments to make. He is impeccable. His three-piece suit is tailored so perfectly it looks like God created it just for him to wear. His collar is open, but it still looks neat and precise. The contrast of that absolute black against the crisp white of his shirt is mouth-watering.

Later in life, Eames sometimes wonders if he didn’t have a taste of love at first sight right then. He doesn’t dwell on it, of course, because he’d have to berate himself for taking so long to catch on, but he can’t forget how painfully perfect Arthur had looked, dangerously young and dangerously smart -- all kinds of dangerous.

As it turns out, the first words Eames ever speaks to Arthur aren’t very interesting. (“Hello” just doesn’t make a good story.) It’s what he thinks when he first sees him that’s more notable. Arthur looks too good to be true, only eighteen and honest to God pretty. Eames thinks: He’ll be eaten alive, in this business..

It only takes ten minutes for Eames to revise the thought to: Everyone in this business is doomed. He’s about to eat all of us alive.

“Where did you find this kid?” he asks Derrick, the extractor, later. He watches Arthur from the other side of the warehouse. Arthur is typing rapidly into a computer and talking to someone on the other end of a phone at the same time. Everything about Arthur seems quick. He walks quickly, he writes quickly, and Eames doesn’t doubt that he thinks quickly too.

“Military,” says Derrick. “He was their best architect until they kicked him out.”

What?” Eames exclaims, “We don’t work with ex-military people, Derrick. They’re always spies, none of them have got an iota of imagination, and they can’t take a bloody joke.

“He’s not a spy, and he got fired for having an imagination. But you’re right, Eames, he can’t take a joke.”

It takes two months for Eames to realize Derrick was wrong about Arthur’s sense of humour. It isn’t that he ever shows he thinks something is funny, and God knows, Eames spends an absurd amount of his time trying to crack Arthur’s slick exterior. Eames notices the small things, though.

Eames makes some witty comment about their latest mark, and Arthur’s head tilts away slightly, perhaps hiding the fine edge of a smile. Eames teases Arthur, and his snide reply isn’t the same as how he’d reply to anyone else, like he’s laughing at Eames instead of the other way around.

They work a few jobs together that first year, and somehow – Eames can never explain it after -- one week they tolerate each other and the next, they’re friends. It’s a novelty for Eames. The kind of people who work in dreams don’t make good friends. Arthur doesn’t make a very good friend either, and Eames is sure he’s not about to win any awards, himself.

There’s something there anyway, between them, which makes Eames always say yes if Arthur calls him for a job. It makes him proud when Arthur figures out he makes a much better point man than architect. It makes him laugh when he notices Arthur’s dimples. It makes him try to teach Arthur how to shift his face around a little in dreams, even though his forging techniques are his most closely guarded secrets. It makes him trust Arthur, when he doesn’t trust anyone, and Eames can’t remember the last time he had loyalty.

When they fall together it’s not like any carefully seduced affair Arthur had before, nor is it like the quick-hot-hungry flings Eames carried out occasionally in the back of casinos or theatre bathrooms.

It happens like this: Eames flicks Arthur on the side of the neck, like he does maybe five or six times everyday, and when Arthur glares at him, Eames presses his perfunctory smirk over the spot on Arthur’s neck he’d touched, and breathes against the ivory soft skin for a moment. Arthur goes liquid immediately in his chair, suddenly fantastically pliant, shifting his head so Eames’s lips slide down the column of his throat.

When Eames pulls away, it’s as if nothing happened.

No, that’s not quite right. It’s not as if nothing happened. It’s as if they’d been doing that for years. Eames feels like an idiot not to have noticed how easily he could have given those little kisses before.

They have sex for the first time about a week later. Eames follows Arthur home from the workshop and they drink a bottle of Chardonnay. Arthur tells Eames about the Penrose steps, and Eames makes Arthur a proper French omelette at one o’clock in the morning. He kisses Arthur against the kitchen sink, pinning him like he hasn’t before, consuming him, becoming wrapped up in him, so close to his skin and his mouth he can taste an after-image of Arthur’s dreams under his tongue.

Arthur lets Eames spread him across the sofa. Eames does things he can’t remember ever wanting to do with anyone else before. It isn’t the dirty things he wants that surprise him. It’s the way he likes kissing Arthur’s wrists and his eyelids and, gently, the hollow of Arthur’s throat.

It’s so gradual, Eames doesn’t even realize they’re living together until he freezes one day in a grocery store as he’s putting a bottle of rice milk into his basket (Arthur is lactose intolerant). He has an epiphany.

He, Eames, is in a stable relationship. He is co-habitating with Arthur, the best bloody point man in the business, and obsessive perfectionist and early-riser and…and…he doesn’t even know. Or maybe he does know. He knows so much about Arthur, possibly more than anyone.

He bangs into the flat, fighting with the door and the groceries, still reeling in shock. Arthur is sketching staircases on a yellow legal pad on the sofa. His feet are propped up on their coffee table. How could he not have realized that time they were in the antique store in Kent, that they were there to buy furniture for their flat?

“Have we moved in together ?” Eames asks, trying to put into his voice that he is floored but sort of a little bit delighted.

Arthur gives him that look that makes Eames feel like he retains the brain function of a plankton. “I am in my stocking feet in front of you, Eames. Do you think that it is a regular thing for most people, watching me lay about in socks?”

Eames is sure the privilege is singularly his own.

“I suppose I had better stop sleeping with the milkman, then, hadn’t I, dear.”

Eames doesn’t duck fast enough, and Arthur’s pen hits him on the side of the head.

---

It all goes to hell the year after that.

They’re between jobs, renting an apartment in Barcelona, when the Schmidt job comes crashing in on their heads.

It was a quick extraction they’d pulled ages back, but apparently, while they had almost forgotten completely about it, Mr Schmidt had not. They’re watching game shows in Spanish, Arthur translating the funny parts for Eames, as usual. Eames mentions something about how they ought to go out for drinks, when the doorbell rings.

The scariest part is that, right then at the beginning of the whole disaster, they are both so fucking content and comfortable they don't even check before pulling open the door.

Arthur answers. He takes out two of them with his bare hands before one clips the back of his head with the butt of a gun, and he goes crashing to the floor. Eames gets the sudden urge to run towards Arthur and check his pulse. A cry of anger and panic builds up in his throat. Luckily he manages to control himself and he dives for the gun under the couch. He shoots six of them before there is a prick of pain in his neck and everything goes abruptly black.

When he wakes, he’s been tied to a folding chair in a warehouse. It’s dark and the air has the faint scent of olive oil and fish. He’s still in Spain. It occurs to him suddenly that it could be a dream. There isn’t any way to tell. Of course he can’t remember how he got here because he’d been knocked out in the flat. He can feel the heavy weight of his totem pressing against his thigh, and he itches to tug it out of his pocket. He wants that comforting flare of fire for a dream or the dull click of an empty lighter for reality. He just needs to know.

“Mr Eames,” says a voice. A familiar faint German accent tells him that Mr Schmidt himself has come to interrogate them. “How are you feeling?”

“Mr Schmidt, I’m delightful,” Eames answers, ginning with his teeth – sharp and wolf-like.

“I have a few questions concerning the extraction you made upon my subconscious.”

“Oh, really? And here, I just thought you missed me,” Eames says, thinking as quickly as possible. Where is Arthur? and How long will it take me to get my hands out of these damn ropes? and What will happen if they did give up the information on the Schmidt job?

The last question is a tricky one. Aside from the ruining their reputations, and leading to the capture of whoever worked the job with them, leaking intelligence would involve the Company. The particular Company they’d been working for was known for its brutality. It was very possible that they would be in more trouble for talking than whatever mess they were in now.

“What exactly did your team take from me, Mr Eames?” Schmidt asks, smiling unpleasantly.

Where is Arthur?

“We took everything,” he answers, quietly. Mr Schmidt already knows what they took from him. He’s just trying to see how Eames works. “The vault codes, and the plans for the new casinos, and the personal things, too, Mr Schmidt. I remember those secrets best of all.”

Eames winks.

“Well, I think a more apt question, then,” Schmidt questions, not looking amused, “Who was on your team?”

Now this is one he can’t answer. He was hoping for more time. The ropes are definitely a little looser. “It was just Arthur and I, Schmidt. We pull jobs together all the time.”

“I know you pull jobs together, Mr Eames. Everyone knows you two work together on everything. You two have quite a reputation. They say, if you want a forger and a point man who can practically read each other’s minds, you must have Eames and Arthur. They say Eames and Arthur are the best, just as long as you don’t mind that they spend half their time fucking.”

“I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, Schmidt,” Eames says, incalculable. He wants to know where this is going.

“I don’t think it is, Mr Eames.” His voice is black and grimy, like an oil slick. “In fact, my sources tell me that you and your dear Arthur are nothing less than lovers.”

Eames can’t help but think it’s a bit of an understatement. Arthur is more than Eames lover, he’s his…his…he’s just too much more. Suddenly, Eames sees the game they are playing. Arthur isn’t tied up here with him because Arthur is the leverage. He feels like a bucket of ice water has been dumped over his head. Eames must congratulate Mr Schmidt on his research. There is no better leverage over Eames in the world.

“I think you understand me now, Mr Eames,” Schmidt says, “So I will ask you again. Who worked with you?”

Eames just smiles – slowly. He thinks about becoming a thin, pretty girl. If it’s a dream, he might be able to change. It doesn’t work, but then again, there are drugs they could have given him that would make him incapable of changing the dreamscape around. His lighter feels hot against his skin.

“Maybe I was wrong,” Schmidt says, “Maybe you don’t understand me. Aldrick, Hugo.”

There is a shuffling sound, and then out of the back doors of the warehouse, two men in dark suits drag Arthur. He’s clearly limp, making them support all of his body weight, but it doesn’t tell Eames much. The first trick is always to pretend you’re weaker than you are.

They hold Arthur still – close to Eames, so he can almost touch him. Mr Schmidt waves his hand like he is displaying a prize. “Here is your Arthur, Mr Eames,” he says.

Arthur raises his head a little. His face looks shockingly pale, but it could just be a trick of the gloom. His lip is split and his right cheek is bruising rapidly. He blinks slowly and deliberately, twice, and then coughs. A signal. He’s not seriously injured, and it’s definitely Arthur. No one else could possibly know that signal.

“Are we dreaming?” Arthur asks. His voice sounds hoarse. Eames’s heart breaks a little. It hurts more than he expected. Arthur asks because what he means is, if we’re dreaming, it doesn’t matter what they do.

“I don’t know,” Eames says, flatly. He blinks twice and coughs too, so Arthur knows it’s really him.

“I can assure you, this is not a dream,” Schmidt says, like they can really trust whatever he says. “Now, who else worked with you on my extraction?”

“I can’t tell you that,” Eames says, voice completely even.

The larger of the two guards grins like a shark. He pulls a metal bar off the belt at his waist, and before Eames can even react, the metal crashes across Arthur’s face. The sound of his cheekbone crushing in absolutely sickening. Arthur screams once, short, sharp, and sags a little more. Eames feels a sudden debilitating pain spread out from under his breastbone. He strains against the rope, realising that if he hears Arthur scream again, it will drive him mad.

“It’ll be okay,” Arthur says to him, spitting out blood. His words sound mangled by the altered shape of his mouth. He squeezes his eyes shut against the pain, and adds, “Don’t talk. We’ll be in worse shit than this if you do.”

Eames stares at him, and tries to communicate this terrifying fact about himself that he has suddenly discovered. He tries to make Arthur understand, from his eyes, that Eames just can’t let them hurt Arthur. He knows Arthur’s been trained to withstand torture. He knows they won’t kill him, whatever else they do, but it doesn’t matter. He can’t watch it.

Arthur gets it. He mouths, “I love you.” It’s the first time he’s ever said it. Eames stares at him and knows Arthur is about to die.

It seems to happen in slow motion. Eames almost has the ropes loose enough to pull his hands out, but he just can’t quite get free, and he tries to say, wait but Arthur has already kicked one guard flat with his right leg, even while he throws his arms over the second guard’s neck. He uses the rope tying his hands together to choke until the guard passes out.

The first guard, who is recovering his breath, is the one that shoots Arthur, right at the base of his skull. Eames shouts “God, no,” before he can stop himself. The grief makes him blind and dumb. His lungs are broken. He can’t breath, he can’t breath, he can’t breath---

Eames wakes up.

“Come on,” Arthur says, “We need to go now, Eames. The rest of them will wake up in a minute.”

The apartment is trashed, and lit only by a flickering bulb. The two guards lay, still asleep, off to one side. Three other men Eames doesn’t recognize are propped up on the sofa, still attached to the PASIV device. One of them must be a forger, playing Schmidt. Arthur’s already taken out the man who was working the device.

“Oh thank God,” Eames says, ignoring Arthur’s urgent motions as he crushes him into a hug. He smells amazing, like Arthur, and laundry soap, and fear-sweat and general alive-ness. “Don’t do that again, darling.”

Eames pulls back enough to see Arthur start to pull the face he does before he makes a snarky comment, but at the last second, he changes, and sags into Eames arms slightly. “I’ll try not to,” he says, so softly it’s more breath than sound.

“Okay,” Eames replies. “Let’s go.”

They don’t stop running until they’re in the London flat. It’s their favourite one, and Arthur picks it because no one would expect them to go back to their most well known residence. Eames realises, as he opens the door, breathing in the scent of their two separate lives pushed into one, with a thin layer of dust over the top, that they’ll have to abandon this place.

“We can’t stay together,” Arthur says, voice perfectly monotone as he shoves extra suits into a sleek case on the bed. “We haven’t been careful enough. I knew we weren’t being careful enough, but it’s worse than I thought. Schmidt isn’t particularly intelligent or powerful. If he can figure out how to use me against you, or the other way around, others will too, and doubtlessly with more success.”

Eames sits down on the bed heavily. He tries to remember what his life was like before Arthur, like testing himself in a dream. He can’t. Arthur disappears into the bathroom. When he comes back, he’s changed out of the travel worn suit into a new one. It’s dark grey, and makes his legs look a mile long. The illogical part of Eames is thinking only of taking Arthur out of it. The rest of him feels hollow.

“Are you leaving me?” he asks. He hates himself, because his voice sounds small and lonely, like a child.

Arthur stops suddenly, putting the handful of passports he’d been taking out of the drawer down. His eyes are very dark as he turns to Eames.

“No,” he says, gently. “No, no. Eames…at this point, I’m shocked you think I could. I meant what I said in that dream. I’ve meant it for…a long time.”

He sits next to Eames on the bed, their bed, and puts his hand on Eames thigh. “We just need to split up,” he murmurs right into Eames ear, “Six months, a year. Take a few jobs separately. Be seen alone. And then, after that, it’ll be how it was. We’ll just need to be less…obvious.”

Eames sees the logic. “Well, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, darling,” he whispers back.

Arthur laughs. It’s short, and a little bleak, but real. “That leaves a lot,” he replies.

The last thing he says before he’s out the door is, “We’ll meet in New York.”

---

Arthur calls him after seven months. It’s a Thursday and Eames is in Mombasa, which he loves, but Arthur was never particularly fond of. The sun is a dish of saffron rice in and eggshell blue sky. Eames orders a coffee in a café in the market and watches the colours of the street blurring together. The owner of the café brings his drink, and also a telegram.

Who the fuck still sends telegrams? Eames thinks. It might be Cobb with another job for him.

Eames met Cobb and Mal on the first job he pulled after he and Arthur split up. Eames was thinner than he’d been in a long time, and barely sleeping. They’d both been good friends. Eames had forgotten how to have friends.

He saw something genius in Cobb – in his architecture, in his swift, clean extractions. Anyway, he was predisposed to like anyone who wore suits well. They pulled three jobs together, and halfway through planning the fourth, he pulled Cobb aside, and promised him that someday, if the time was right, Eames was going to introduce him to the best point man out there. The kind of guy that you’ll go into business with for your whole career, he’d said.

Cobb was the kind of man you could trust with the love of your life.

In the café, Eames unfolds the greasy piece of paper. It reads: FORECAST GOOD FOR SIX DAYS STOP FIND ME BEFORE IT RAINS STOP IF YOU WANT STOP LOVE A END

Eames tosses a few coins on the table and runs. The telegram is dated five days ago. Guide books generally agree that the shortest possible travel time between Moi International Airport and JFK is around twenty-one hours. Eames makes it in nineteen.

He finds Arthur in Sir Harry’s at the Waldorf. It’s the second hotel he looks in, and it’s a strange relief to find he still at least knows Arthur well enough to judge the hotel he’d pick.

Eames would be a terrible liar if he said he hadn’t imagined, many, many times, exactly what might happen when he saw Arthur again. However, Arthur shaking his hand, and saying, politely, “Hello again Mr Eames,” was not among the scenarios.

“Arthur,” Eames says, slightly bewildered. He leans forward to kiss him, slowly, unsettled and feeling like Arthur is a skittish horse. Arthur immediately tenses and glares. Eames tries not to look crushed as he leans away again. “I…uh…I got your telegram,” he says, and then maybe a little cruelly, “Do you have a job prospect, or something?

“In a way” Arthur replies. It’s been a long time since Arthur spoke to him like a potential business partner.

Eames tries to think of how he would handle this situation if Arthur weren’t calmly kicking his heart. Probably, he’d flirt a bit. It’s basically his default setting. He can’t seem to do it though. He’s angrier than he can ever remember being. He hasn’t had any sex for fucking seven months out of some apparently misguided fidelity and Arthur is talking to him like he’s a stranger.

“We should be cautious,” Arthur says, “It’s a very sensitive job. We’ll go up to my rooms to talk about it, I think. Are you interested?”

Eames is practically seething. “I suppose,” he says, sure he sounds as livid as he is. He follows Arthur through marble hallways and into the elevator.

Arthur could probably be described as beautiful. He looks a little tired but, fuck, Eames had forgotten how perfectly his suits fit. He remembers that time in Paris when Arthur had made Eames go shopping with him. He did Arthur’s tie for him in the dressing room, and his fingers had been on the silk, and then in his hair and then under Arthur’s shirt. Arthur’s fingers had been clutching and grasping at Eames.

Arthur unlocks the door to his suite with the swipe of a key card. Eames follows him in, trying to decide exactly what he is going to shout about first. The door clicks closed, and before Eames has had time to think Arthur throws himself at Eames. His mouth is hot and sweet and his lower lips feels like wet velvet when Eames slips his tongue against it.

God, I missed you,” Arthur says, as he pulls away from kissing Eames for a moment. Eames’s mouth feels swollen and foreign. He’s had to kiss a few marks for jobs in the dreamscape, but nothing ever quite compares to kissing Arthur.

Eames stops suddenly, pulling away with effort. His hand fumbles into his pocket to pull his lighter out. He flicks, watching as it sparks and dies out. He rubs his thumb over the elaborate ‘A’ engraved on the side familiarly. Only then does he lean back towards Arthur, pressing their mouths together, sharing breath.

“Well, it’s nice to see you too, dearest,” Eames says, after a moment. He is probably smiling too widely.

“You couldn’t have made it a little harder down there in the bar, could you?” Arthur asks, sarcastically, though his dimples ruin the attempt at chastisement.

“We were being watched, idiot,” Arthur continues, “I wasn’t going to undo those seven months. I had to fake like we were just doing business. At least you played the part of angry ex well enough.”

Eames lets out a surprised laugh. “Has anyone ever told you that you know too much?”

“Yes,” Arthur says, undoing Eames trousers, “But never you.”

“We simply must amend that, darling,” Eames replies, and helps Arthur along.

---

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, Eames,” Arthur says, shaking out his umbrella in the entrance to the restaurant. It’s been three moths since they met again in the Waldorf. Eames has decided to introduce Arthur to Cobb.

“And what might that be, love?” Eames asks.

“You’re trying to protect me. You’ve found some partner who you think is safe so I won’t get hurt. You’re thinking, if you can’t work with me so often, you’ll make sure I work with someone you’ve pre-approved. I don’t need to be protected.”

“Well,” Eames says, trying not to look sheepish, “Well, at least he’s the best, Arthur. You’ll see. He’s incredible. If it just so happens that I’ve also decided he’s safe enough for you, my blossom--”

Arthur hits him hard in the arm, “For your sake, and mine, never call me blossom again.”

Eames pulls out Arthur’s chair in the restaurant. Arthur stares at it blankly for a minute, before meeting Eames’s eyes, clearly asking, Are you fucking serious?

Eames smiles sweetly, and Arthur gets that feeling in his chest, again, which kind of hurts but makes him want to grin outrageously. It feels dangerous, if a feeling not unlike being gently swaddled in layers of cotton wool can be dangerous. He just barely manages not to return Eames’s daft expression as he sits. He feels Eames’s fingers, a light and warm touch ghosting across the back of his neck.

“I’m sorry,” Cobb says, glancing between them with a sort of wry twist to his mouth. “Eames, are you introducing me to your associate, or your wife?”

Eames smirks as he looks at Arthur. While he’s sure no one else on the planet would notice it, the tips of Arthur’s ears are faintly blushing. “Hmm…” he says, pulling out his own chair, and sliding his arm across the back of Arthur’s as he sits, “Perhaps a bit of both.”