When Eames was twenty-five, his superior officer asked him what he thought about dreams.
"Best when wet, sir," he said. "Like women."
He still hasn't figured out whether he was sent into the program as a reward for bad humour or a punishment for flippancy. It doesn't matter.
He met Arthur when they were both military, stiff-pressed, the best their countries had to offer. Arthur looked the part, regulation everything, and he was so young, but Eames believed it when he was told that Arthur was the best thing to come along in years.
Eames wasn't regulation, not even then, when he was trying something out that wouldn't make his father happy, exactly, but would make him less unhappy than the other choices he was considering.
Arthur looked at him, dismissive, when they were introduced, and he figured he had Arthur's attention for the length of time it took him to notice that Eames' hair wasn't perfect, that he let a day's stubble go ignored, that the brass wasn't polished, spit shine. Of course, he got all of Arthur's attention back as soon as Arthur realised he was the best forger on either side of the Atlantic.
They met on a joint military venture into dreamsharing, and Arthur had already hit Sergeant somehow, had rocketed up the ladder. He was twenty-two and he was perfect, and Eames was assigned right by his side.
It made watching his ass in his uniform very, very easy.
This was before Eames was calling himself Eames, before Arthur had shucked his real name like snakeskin. A simpler time, when all Eames could expect in a day was a lot of senseless violence and Arthur's condescending gaze.
Eames looks back fondly upon that time.
They were in a dream, sand on every side of them, an ocean of sand. It could be Iraq, or Afghanistan, or fucking Egypt, for all Eames knew. Arthur was the dreamer, and all about them, sand.
Arthur had never had much of an imagination, but it was fine when Eames got to see him in fatigues, almost looking like a real soldier instead of a brass prick.
"How much do you need to work out to get that ass?" Eames mused, because they were waiting for something, he didn't know what, and in the meantime it was either build a fucking sandcastle or hit on Arthur.
"Haven't you ever heard of "Don't Ask Don't Tell"?" Arthur asked.
"Ah," Eames said. "But that doesn't apply to me, Sergeant, so I think I should tell you that you look like you desperately need a shag, and I would happily volunteer for that service."
"Go fuck yourself," Arthur said, squinting into the sun.
"That is not nearly as fun as what I suggested," Eames said, and Arthur almost cracked a smile.
The first time they kissed was in a dream, when it was all violence around them, all blood, Arthur gut shot and not making a sound, lying on the ground beneath him and slowly bleeding out between his fingers.
He'd died before in dreams, they both had, but that didn't make it easier, didn't make it any less unpleasant, and he tried to push the blood back into Arthur's body, tried to get rid of the hollow look in his eyes.
Just before the kick, Arthur said his name, low and pained, and Eames kissed him so that he didn't have to hear him like that again.
They fucked that night, in a room they'd set up for Eames, impersonal with a single bed in the corner. They barely managed to stay on it, Arthur's knees sliding off the edges, and Arthur had moved in him, slow, as Eames pressed his fingers against a mark on Arthur's stomach that wasn't really there at all.
They made something of a habit of it, really, months slipping away in reality, and months more in dream worlds, and Arthur in him, around him. On the job, Arthur was almost the same as before, a consummate professional, but things shifted, slowly.
Eames fell in love with him, piece by piece. That was a mistake.
The last night they fucked wasn't memorable. It was good, but things always were, with them. Arthur rode his cock, and Eames was entranced by the flex of his thighs, the way his hand looked almost delicate, stripping his cock. But nothing memorable.
He's lying. The last night they fucked, Eames muffled words into Arthur's throat, darling, darling and christ I love you. Arthur panted out breaths, and said nothing at all. They went to sleep side by side, Eames telling himself it was fine, it was all fine.
When he woke up the next morning alone, he didn't think anything of it; there was no need to tempt dishonourable discharge. The day didn't gain special meaning until he came into the headquarters and found everyone frantic, Arthur off the map with one of the PASIV cases in his possession, millions of dollars in government training and government equipment gone.
Eames may be a criminal, but Arthur was a criminal first.
Eames waited until his contract was over to de-enlist. He hadn't realised how much of the fun of the program was purely Arthur, the way he'd build things up, methodical, and then grin as he watched them blow up around him.
He signed miles and miles of confidentiality agreements about the program that he could have sworn he'd already signed in triplicate, and then he was free. He loafed, a little, after that, managed a few weeks at the family manor before he was out of his mind with boredom. He picked someone's pocket just to see if he remembered how.
For two years Eames made his own fortunes, and not a penny of was legitimate. He looked back at the military like he would look back upon a dream, no pun intended.
Sometimes he wondered if Arthur was alive, if they'd caught up with him and he was in a holding cell somewhere, a traitor to the government, a dead man.
He didn't like thinking about it, so he tried not to.
When Eames first heard about thefts involving dreams, it was the closest to excited he'd been in awhile. He managed, after long weeks and carefully greased palms, to arrange a meeting with those rumoured thieves.
He met a man who went by Dom, a woman who went by Mal, and they took him down into dreaming to see what he could do.
When he woke, it was to slack-jawed shock on both of their faces.
Mal recovered first. "We have a job for you," she said.
He met their point man the next day, and after Dom introduced them, the first thing Arthur said to him after more than two years was precise and to the point.
"Motherfucker." Arthur's eyes were wide.
Eames was mostly impressed he'd managed words at all, as that was quite beyond his own purview at the moment. When he finally managed to unstick his tongue, all he could get out was, "your name isn't Arthur."
"Yours isn't Eames," Arthur shot back.
"Oh excellent," Mal said, delighted. "You know one another."
"When this job is over, I am going to punch you in the face," Eames said.
Mal looked significantly less delighted at that.
"Fair enough," Arthur said. He had the grace to look slightly guilty. It didn't make Eames want to punch him in the face any less.
Eames finally took the time to look him over, to look over the perfectly tailored suit, the slicked back hair. Leave it to Arthur to manage military repression in civilian clothes.
"In the face," Eames repeated, and then they got down to business.
The job was fairly straightforward for a first go around, but then, Eames had been doing this for awhile, and even years later it was familiar, like getting back on a bicycle. Stealing was easier, was easier than jobs tied into politics, into missing soldiers and terrorist cells and stockpiles of weapons.
He slid into everything the mark wanted with ease and practice, and got what they needed with time left on the clock, with a fancy hotel drawn up around them, perfect, because Dom's architecture was gorgeous and lush, better than anything he'd seen in the military, which had been without fault, but stark and too real.
He had time to spare, they all did, so when he disentangled himself from the mark with slim excuses, when he got away, met Arthur in an elevator, he had more than enough time to fist a hand in Arthur's hair, to press biting kisses down his throat.
They were rutting against each other like teenagers when they got the kick, and when they woke, the first thing he did was punch Arthur in the face.
The second thing he did was leave.
It was three months before he saw Arthur again. He was working in Spain, and Arthur showed up in his hotel room, already perched on the bed when he woke up. Eames nearly shot him before he realised who it was. Then he considered it for a second longer.
"You didn't pick up your payment," Arthur said. If Eames had left a mark on his pretty, pretty face, it was long gone.
"Keep it," Eames said. "That punch was worth it."
"I'm sorry," Arthur said.
Eames arched an eyebrow.
"For leaving," Arthur clarified. "I didn't want you involved."
"Fuck you," Eames said.
"Dom has a job offer," Arthur said.
"Fuck you," Eames repeated.
Arthur didn't say anything else. He placed a card on Eames' bedside table with an address, and left.
Eames managed to ignore it for three weeks before he hunted the address down. It was a gorgeous house outside of Los Angeles, and Mal opened the door when he knocked. There was a little girl in her arms, and Eames almost turned around and walked away. Instead, he went inside when she invited him, and accepted the cup of tea she made him.
"Arthur didn't think you were going to come," she said as Eames stared determinedly at his mug.
"I'm not entirely sure why I'm here, really," he said. "I should probably go."
"I know why you're here," she said, and when he looked up, there was something soft in her expression. "Should I tell you about the job?"
Eames took a bracing, too hot slug of the tea. "Go right ahead," he said.
It was as if the first job was simply meant to lull him into a false sense of confidence. For this job he was the mark's daughter, and if the reconnaissance hadn't killed him, with long, mindbendingly boring work, when the mark figured out Eames was a fraud, his projections were quite happy to.
They killed Arthur first, and Eames looked down at him, brain and blood splattered, and he forgot, briefly, that it was a dream. Instead, it was like the military all over again, comrades in arms shot down, and Eames always selfishly grateful it wasn't Arthur. But this time it was.
Eames looked down at him, feeling his heart up in his throat, and if the projections hadn't killed him soon after, he wasn't entirely sure what he would have done.
Arthur was in one piece when they got back, beautifully unruffled, and Eames wanted to kiss the nonchalance of his expression right off, replace it with something quieter, closer to real.
"Well that was a bloody cock up," he said instead, and Arthur hummed agreement.
He was on his fourth job with them. This time, they were in the middle of nowhere in Germany, and his German was just good enough to keep the beer coming, fast and strong. They were after some bigshot broker, and Eames couldn't have been more bored.
He was out with Arthur in a small bar near where they were staying. Eames had pints of whatever was the most local, and Arthur stuck to water. "So we're making a great bloody rich man a little bit poorer," Eames said.
"And we're working for a great bloody rich man who wants to be a little bit richer," Eames continued.
Arthur nodded again.
"Well I don't feel like Robin Hood at all," Eames said.
Arthur's mouth quirked. "You want to be Robin Hood?" he asked.
"Who doesn't?" Eames asked.
Arthur shrugged. "I don't."
"Oh yeah, look at you, stealing from the bully military to give it to everyone," Eames said. "And you don't want to be Robin Hood."
"I just didn't want to be military," Arthur said.
"Boo fucking hoo," Eames said. "You didn't want to be military, so you robbed them and you left me in the night, is that it?"
"I told you I was sorry," Arthur said.
"Well a fat lot of good that does. I was in love with you, you arsehole," Eames said. And that was the point where he had imbibed either too many pints or too few, just enough to leave him too honest, leave him exposed.
"You got over it," Arthur said, quiet.
"Did I?" Eames asked. "Of all your failings, I never pegged you for oblivious."
Arthur didn't say anything.
It wasn't really surprising that Arthur came up to Eames' hotel room after that, mouths hot and wet against one another's, Eames' hands scrabbling under the pressed edges of Arthur's suit to find the skin he was used to, the skin he knew.
"You're a fucking bastard," Eames muttered into Arthur's mouth.
Arthur bit into his neck as some sort of response, and Eames stopped thinking of anything except the feel of Arthur against him, familiar but far from it, the way his fingers were pressing against him like he was breakable, raw.
"I missed you," Eames said, and that was the last coherent thing he managed.
Eames woke to the sound of movement, and when he opened his eyes he could see Arthur dressing in the shifting shadows, only a dim table lamp to mark his way out.
"Leaving again?" he asked, shifting up to his elbows, and Arthur spun around, colour blooming high on his cheeks.
"I didn't know if you'd want me to stay," Arthur said.
Eames raised an eyebrow, and Arthur rubbed the back of his neck guiltily.
"If you come to bed I'll forget this exchange ever happened," Eames said magnanimously.
"I'll leave you again," Arthur blurted out. "If it isn't safe, if I put you in danger--"
"You seem to forget that I am not a romance novel heroine, but a grown man with years of military training," Eames interrupted. "That speech is much more likely to make me punch you than to make me swoon."
Arthur looked at him sort of helplessly.
"Come back to bed, love," Eames said, gentle. "We'll sort out your pack of issues in the morning."
Arthur's eyes narrowed slightly, but he undressed and came back to bed, and that was all that mattered in the end.
"You're a great bleeding idiot," Eames said into Arthur's hair. "I would have come with you."
Arthur turned his face into Eames' chest. "I know," he said, quiet, and Eames stroked down his back and waited for sleep to take them both.