Come In, PleaseAuthor: hansbekhartRating:
R (violence, disturbing imagery)Summary:
"Never Have I Ever" is never a good idea. Arthur/Eames, Inception
So I'm not dead, still. This is unabashedly the most romantic thing I've ever written. It still has dead bodies in it. Thank you as always to essenceofmeanin
for holding my hand and pointing out my overuse of commas.
He’s on a train. His hand is wrapped around a bar that’s greasy with other people’s hand prints. His body sways automatically, gently, adjusting as the train pitches from one side to the other. His feet hurt like he’s on the tail end of a long commute. Stale air blows down on his face, not quite covering the stink of someone standing too close. He can tell just by the squeal of the brakes that it’s New York. Of course. It could only be New York.
When he opens his eyes, the train is full of people. He’s got enough room to breathe deeply and not much more than that, but he sucks his gut in anyway and pushes his way through the car. No one looks up, earphones firmly placed and eyes locked on the ground. Eames laughs softly. Even dreaming, New Yorkers mind their own fucking business.
The train tilts and Eames tilts with it. The train is packed enough that he couldn’t hit the ground even if he tried but someone grabs his elbow, steadying him. The man is young, black, hood up on a gold jacket. His eyes are hard enough that Eames thinks not American
, and is rewarded when the man asks if he’s all right with a Trinidad accent. “Yes, thank you,” Eames says and makes his move. He gets an arm across the man’s narrow shoulders, pinning him against the person behind him, who hits the train doors with a muffled grunt. His other hand pushes the gun up under the ribs. Not hard enough to hurt. Just hard enough to let Arthur know it’s there.
Then he hears laughter. Soft, low enough that Eames barely hears it over the shuffle of the train running over its track. Arthur is standing at the other end of the car. The man Eames thought he was wearing vanishes as soon as Eames looks away. Arthur smirks at him and slides the train door open towards the next car. He’s getting better at this, the smug son of a bitch.
The train door is heavy enough that Eames puts his back into opening it. He feels a little naughty doing so; years (decades now) in the criminal underworld haven’t quite put paid to some of the bourgeois niceties that he grew up with. Don’t step on the grass, don’t discuss money or politics, don’t walk between the moving train cars. It’s dangerous
The door slides shut behind him, nearly taking his fingers off. He lingers for a second on the little platform, eyes closed, fingers reaching out for the handle of the next car. His toes nearly off the edge, hanging out over space and the endless length of the rails. The smell of the subway coats his lungs like greasy water, like everything he hates about New York. He takes a deep breath, then another, and on the last moment of his exhale, there
. He can taste it.
Eames pulls the door open and steps out into the desert.**
The sand is orange and gritty under his feet. Blue sky the only color he can see where the dust isn’t kicked up by the helicopters circling overhead. Even the men around him are orange, indistinguishable from the desert and each other by their gear and dust. He doesn’t see Arthur anywhere, but Arthur could come up and give him a smart one on the ass and Eames couldn’t tell for sure if it was him until he knocked the damn helmet off. It’s a good thing he isn’t looking for Arthur, not this time. It’s Eames’ turn to hide.
Someone is yelling at Eames, waving at him in that short, irritated way that every CO has when you’re just not fucking getting it. Maybe Eames is about to get taken out by one of the helicopters. He ducks, just in case, and trots over to the man. “Sir, yes sir!” Eames shouts. For a second he thinks he’s about to get decked, but all that the man does is order him to get the fuck on the convoy that’s forming at the edge of the camp. He hadn’t noticed it before, but that’s because it’s revealing itself in eddies of dust, materializing where the camp goes into soft focus and bleeds out into dust. Eames pulls himself into the last Humvee, tips his helmet at the three guys already crammed into the back seat. There’s nothing to distinguish them as Marines except for Eames’ memory that once upon a time Arthur was, once upon this time, apparently.
He wipes at the dust on his face, only serving to drag it into rivers of mud on his cheeks and neck. He wants to take the helmet off - he must be wearing his own body weight in armor and it’s hot, not hot like Africa is but so fucking dry that his throat feels fit to crack even in the dream - but he knows something’s coming. He can feel it in the vibration of the Humvee as it starts up, the way that the chatter of the men in the car fades underneath the noise of the engine, the sound of a train clattering over its tracks. He feels it like splinters underneath his fingernails. He glances out the window, to where the rows of tents are slowly being forgotten, and thinks, oh
. It’s as good a response as any, because there he is, looking younger than Eames thought possible, head thrown back and mouth open. He’s laughing even though he has to spit dust right afterwards, and Eames was wrong. He’d know Arthur anywhere, apparently.
Eames shrinks down into his seat, trying to look nonchalant. It’s impossible to tell from here whether he’s watching a memory or Arthur himself, digging head first into the dream instead of hunting Eames down, like he’s supposed to. So Eames watches. Arthur - maybe Arthur - climbs into the Humvee three ahead of Eames’ vehicle, his foot dangling out of the cab, twitching from side to side. The soldier Arthur was laughing with kicks it the rest of the way in and climbs in after him, grinning. The convoy jolts into motion. The Humvee tilts and Eames tilts with it.
The ride isn’t long - and it is, of course, it could have been hours of Arthur’s life collapsed into a few minutes of dreaming, but Eames feels every second like time is a physical hand on his shoulder. He’s sweating more than he thought possible, which annoys him. His fingers are slippery over the grip on his gun. He can’t see Arthur out the window of his Humvee. All he can do is imagine what these last few moments were like for that young man who laughed so hard.
He hears it coming, of course. Just enough time to flinch in the wrong direction. The whistle of the shell sounds like it’s coming from everywhere, but there’s only one and it hits almost directly under the vehicle two spots ahead of him. It explodes and Arthur’s goes with it, lifted ridiculously from behind and flipping over twice, landing the wrong side up. The wrong way to flinch turns into a lucky break when shrapnel takes out Eames’ driver and tears through the seat where Eames’ heart would otherwise have been. They hit the car ahead of them and Eames slams hard into the front seat, the butt of his gun catching him underneath his chin. He spits blood into the sand climbing out of the Humvee, his rifle up and ready before he remembers that this isn’t the point of the game. He’s not here to save anyone.
Arthur’s Humvee is on fire and being shot at from both sides. Upside down it’s cover against the gunfire but another shell would tear right through it. Everyone around Eames is screaming, hunkered down against their vehicles. Eames the only one standing straight, his gun loose at his side. A stray bullet could kill him, take him right out of this memory and right back into consciousness but all that he can do is turn his back and walk away. There are scattered bursts of return fire coming from under the Humvee. He knows there won’t be another shell, because if there had been then the Humvee would have been shredded and Arthur would have been jelly underneath it, chopped into lumps small enough to take home and fry up for a lonely dinner.
He walks until the sound of gunfire melts into the howl of the desert, the wind whipping rocks against his ankles hard enough to sting. It only ever takes this long into the game for him to forget why it always seems like such a good idea up there. He walks, shedding the armor and the helmet. He keeps the rifle tucked up under his arm but there’s nothing out here. Nothing at all, just flat desert and dust. Reluctantly, he turns around and retraces his footprints.
It doesn’t take him long to get back to the ruin of the convoy. He doubts there’s anything else here, anymore; the base camp gone, the soldiers gone, the mujaheddin gone. He wonders where the hell Arthur’s gone, if he’s tracking Eames the way he’s supposed to, if he has Eames’ head in the crosshairs of that beautiful M-40A3 he was carrying.
The center vehicle is still on fire. The air is heavy with the stink of melted plastic and scorched meat. Arthur’s vehicle is, thankfully, out. Everything is still. It makes him think of Srebrenica, of a village massacred and twenty, thirty people left to rot. The only warning they had the utter silence of the place. Of the first corpse he found, an old man sitting in front of his house, his head tipped far over the back of the chair and his gums already pulling back from his teeth. The bullet hole in his chest big enough to kill him but not knock him out of the chair. His granddaughter’s bare feet sprawled like she fell running, the only part of her visible from through the open doorway to the family home.
Eames sighs and drops slowly to his knees in front of the ruined vehicle. He has to get onto his belly to crawl into it. The cab smells dry and dusty, an incongruity with the corpse in the back seat. It’s strapped in and upside down, arms sprawled along the shadowed sand. Its tongue is black and bloating between crooked teeth. An abandoned ILBE is next to it, open. A field message book is inside, along with a jumble of other treasures that Eames ignores.
On the first page, neatly written in capital letters, is his message. I NEVER WANTED TO BE A SOLDIER.
Eames digs the flask out of the bag. Reaches further in and finds two shotglasses. One says “Welcome to Jamaica!” in cheery, Rastafarian colors and the other says “I need a stiff one!” Eames fills them both and takes the Stiffy. Whiskey, and not very good whiskey, which surprises him. It burns his throat almost as much as the desert does and Eames leaves it upside down in the sand. The other he leaves for Arthur to find and drink himself. Eames has won this round, for what it’s worth.
He scoots backwards, belly down, out of the wreck. The sun blinds him coming up and the first thing the he can see is the muzzle of the gun, an inch away from his nose. “Oh,” Eames says stupidly and closes his eyes. He doesn’t open them again until he hears the train door open and close again.**
It’s not rush hour on the subway anymore. There’s a knot of drunk club kids hanging off the bars at the far end of the car. Eames hardly looks at them. Doesn’t want to look at them, to see what Arthur’s wearing, if he can spot the cracks in Arthur’s skin. He’s angry, which he supposes is the point - for Arthur to dig his fingers in up to the wrist and for Eames to do it right back. More than any of the others, a forger and a point man need to be hard, need to be able to turn someone’s memories against them and never ever let it happen the other way around. But this isn’t right; he didn’t want to see that and he shouldn’t
have. Arthur is playing dirty, and the fact that Eames is surprised at all by that is almost insulting
Well, Eames thinks, taking a deep breath. He sucks in another one, lets it out slowly between his teeth. There’s always more than one way to get under the skin and Eames is quite good at ferreting out every single crack.
He brushes past the club kids without a glance, one hand smoothing down the front of his impeccably tailored suit jacket. He makes a point of it, these days, for the break in his trousers to fall just so, for the cut of his jacket to fall perfectly across his broad shoulders and especially for the seat of those trousers to show off his best waking assets. And if the color his shirt underneath is just a little garish for taste, Arthur’s eyes have always been able to find those well made seams. He can feel eyes following him towards the car door, from the little urchin in the short skirt and neon tights. He can see her in the glass, shifting in her seat. Waiting for him to step through so that she can follow.
When the door closes behind him, the lights go out. Eames brings them up himself, knowing that he has a moment before Arthur is awake. No matter how many subway cars he passes through, they’re in Arthur’s mind and he lets Arthur fill in the blanks: the no-color walls, the anonymous filing cabinets, the relic of a desk off to the side of the room. He lets Arthur provide the uniform on Eames’ shoulders, even if the skin Eames slips on is a real one, a man who’s been dead nearly eight years. The man who taught Eames how to dream. The woman in the corner barely notices, her attention on vials and compounds.
Eames settles onto the desk to wait. There are six dreamers, including Eames, who is used to seeing his own face by now. He was thinner then. The wear and tear of Bosnia still showed a little on his face, on the restless way that he slept. The Eames in the chair is the first one to wake and it’s all together, all at once, jolting to awareness like a vampire. Eames smiles reassuringly at his younger self, then turns his attention to the other members of the team, who are all sitting up and looking groggily around. Marlowe is the second one up, sitting with his head in his hands like he can’t quite remember where he is, the other members of the team a little slower to move around.
Eames claps his hands twice and they all look at him immediately. He starts the pep talk and barely feels his mouth running; great job, longest so far against militarized hostiles, blah blah. He’s looking for Arthur. When they first started these little exercises, Arthur’s forgeries were so laughable that Eames would have felt like he was insulting the dear man not to call him on it immediately. Arthur is improving, of course - even though Eames can still see the seam on Arthur’s skin like an errant lock of hair - but more importantly, so is the game. He lets his gaze linger on each of them in turn, never one more than the other. He taps the folder against his knee as he talks. In the world above, it had contained Eames’ first field mission. Down here, Eames’ mind has filled it.
He wanders over to the filing cabinets. “Of course,” he says, getting to the point and opening the top drawer. He drops the folder inside. “We should celebrate your progress.” The bottle is in the drawer below, and he calls to the chemist to help him with the shot glasses he can’t hold in his free hand. She does so gracefully. She was a civilian, Eames remembers, still a little shy around military men, and she had moved from Wales as a child but you could still hear traces of it in her voice. Her name was Jenna. He remembers liking her big, round features, the audacity of her bottle blonde hairstyle.
He leaves the bottle unopened on the desk. “Before we drink, a word, Lieutenant?” He draws the extractor to his side, leaving the others to chat among themselves. The memory of Eames has wandered over to Jenna, hip propped up against the desk that she had promptly retreated back to, once the business with the shot glasses was over with. That Eames is fool enough to leave his back to the rest of the room, missing out entirely on the way that Marlowe’s eyes narrow, almost imperceptibly.
He lets the conversation with the Lieutenant limp towards pleasantries, the projection parroting nonsense back at him picture perfectly. They slip into the background. The real action is going on behind the Lieutenant. All that Marlowe, that Arthur will see is that other Eames bending closer over the little desk, the way Jenna raises her eyes hesitantly and smiles back. What Eames sees is Marlowe’s bright green eyes flickering unhappily into Arthur’s dark ones, his hands curling on the knees of his regulation trousers.Oh, Arthur
, Eames thinks, and even with so many years of knowing it still twists his stomach to see. He unscrews the bottle and pours out two unsteady shots. He has only a few seconds left to do so, after all.
Eames, the young Eames, still scarred from war and with a smile on his face that is nervous instead of cocky, is reaching out to touch Jenna’s hand when she pulls a gun out from under her desk and shoots him in the face.
Blood sprays up towards the ceiling like someone squeezed it out of a bottle. Eames’ body knocks over the IV, tumbles over two of the chairs before it lands in a heap in the center of the room. Before it hits the ground she takes out two more soldiers. She doesn’t even flinch when one of them get a shot off, the only one they even managed, in all truth. It hadn’t come anywhere near her. That shy flower Eames had courted for two weeks, never realizing that he’d been asleep the whole time, had taken out their entire team in seconds. Another messy fucking exercise that had Eames haunted for days afterwards, sick with doubt and terror that this was it, that he would never really be sure
. He’d never even heard of a Forger before.
Eames gives a great bellow and she catches him in a great, theatrical spin. The bullet gets him in the shoulder and it hurts, fuck it hurts
, but it’s convincing enough that when Marlow catches her dead between the eyes he doesn’t even look over.
Arthur drops Marlowe’s skin as soon as everyone else is dead. Eames stays twisted over on the floor and tries to look like a convincing corpse. His ears are still ringing, the gunshots impossibly loud in the small room. Arthur looks over the bodies slowly, frowning. Probably wondering which one is Eames. He settles for the obvious - a lack of imagination may be overstating the case but Arthur can never be anyone but Arthur
, in all his bloody-minded straightforwardness - and crouches down by the dead body that actually looks like Eames. He doesn’t even look down at it, though; he’s staring at the chemist, looking distinctly off balance. The blank frown on her face is a near echo of the one on his, as if to say, that didn’t work nearly as well as it was supposed to
Eames fell at an angle that makes it difficult to see the top of the desk, but he can see Arthur’s slim form turn towards the filing cabinets and dig out the file. There’s alcohol leaking onto his collar and cheek, which annoys Eames both because it stinks and because he’d set up the two shots so nicely. It would really have tied the scene together. Arthur comes back to the desk to read the folder, his regulation boot heels clicking on the tile. Eames can’t see his face as he flips the file open. There’s a long stretch of silence as Arthur reads the message Eames has left for him.
He doesn’t tip his head back and laugh, not exactly. Probably couldn’t, anymore. Eames saw exactly how that man, that boy, died a messy death in a desert so far away, but even though it’s quiet Arthur still laughs
, raking a hand through his hair, his shoulders shaking. “Eames,” he says, quiet, like he knows Eames is listening, “you stupid son of a bitch.”
He takes his shot, still laughing, shaking his head. He’s halfway across the room, stepping carelessly over limbs, when something makes him pause. He turns back. He tracks blood across the tile as he walks back to the desk. Eames’ heart was already in his throat but he doesn’t dare move, not now. All that Arthur does is right the glass Eames knocked over and refill it for him.
The door opens, and before it clicks shut Eames can hear the train.
He sits up, wincing. He wipes at his face ineffectually. He looks at the wound on his shoulder. Lucky, this time. A graze on the outside of his arm instead of a smoking hole. Little more than a flesh wound, as they say in the movies. He staggers to his feet. The massacre looks a lot worse once he’s standing. The room still stinks of gunpowder. Eames looks down at the open folder. I NEVER KNEW SHE WASN’T A WOMAN.
He picks up the shot. It’s Scotch, and excellent Scotch at that, too nice to be knocking back. The glass itself says “Stop Thinkin’ and Get Drinkin’!” He considers the message carefully, considers the liquor itself, and then leaves it be.**
Surprisingly, he is still on a train. He is still in New York. His shoes are wet and they squeak on the floor when he moves. His jacket is wet. Everyone around him has an umbrella. His shoulder aches where he was shot. The doors slide open. A mumbled voice over loudspeakers probably tell him that he’s at West 4th. Numbly, Eames steps off the train, hoping that he isn’t leaving Arthur on it heading somewhere Uptown or, heaven forbid, to Queens. He spots a dark head vanishing up the stairs, about halfway up the platform. Eames follows quickly.
He steps out into the rain, unfurling the umbrella that he unhooked from the back of some unsuspecting student’s backpack. The street is awash with light, broken up by shapes made nearly formless in the city night. Somewhere close by, a girl is laughing. Arthur leaves the lamplight for a side street, too far ahead for Eames to hear him splashing grimly through puddles. Eames leaves his own skin behind in between shadows, stepping into the body of a slender young man, close enough to Arthur’s own type that the other man probably won’t notice him. This skin doesn’t want a jacket, the bandage on his skinny arm the only concession to his open wound and the weather.
He almost loses Arthur in the short walk. Arthur moves like he knows where he’s going, which is hardly a surprise; he’s a native and anyway that’s how he always is. Eames can count the times he’s been to New York on one hand, twice of those with Arthur. Arthur, who towed him and Cobb around the city like he was leading children by the hand. Eames has yet to return the favor; Arthur favors France over England, Southeast Asia over Africa and -
He’s lost Arthur. “Fuck,” Eames says to no one. He stops dead on the street corner. He’s alone along a row of brownstones. The only sound is the whisper of the rain, chilly on his bare shoulders. He rubs a hand through his hair and tries to orient himself. The street looks familiar in the same way that every street in a dream does, the way that everywhere in London looks. Just a place he’s stumbled through drunk or sober on his way somewhere else.
That finally turns the tumblers of his memory and Eames heads northwest. He’s been here before, with his hand held like a child. They’d gotten riotously drunk in Chelsea the night before Zimbabwe, that cockup of a job, the first they’d worked without Mal, who was years away from jumping but a few weeks away from giving birth. He and Arthur had been getting on well, then.
The bar is just how he remembered, and exactly the kind of place Eames would expect to find Arthur. Recessed lighting, apothecary bottles lined up on the wall, tastefully lit. German Expressionist on the walls, woodblock prints of abject misery. Cobb had been the one who protested over the price of the drinks, and Eames had paid for everything.
Arthur is sitting alone at the bar, his trench coat folded neatly on the stool next to him. Eames can’t see what he’s drinking but it’s probably gin. Eames slides belly up against the bar at the other end, not even risking a glance over. He watches out of the corner of his eyes as a bright young thing comes and chats Arthur up, gym body and blond hair. Open expression like the hardest thing he has to deal with each day is shitty tips. Arthur is flirting back.
Arthur is good at it, at flirting, his head tipped backwards to look the boy in the face, his expression interested and warm. In the nearly empty bar, he’s made room for the boy. Hips angled, shoulder thrown out to accommodate the boy against his body. It’s strange, and probably not the reaction Arthur was hoping for, but Eames is happy to see this. Happy to see Arthur’s thin fingers loosening his tie, his smile so charming that the motion almost looks accidental. He wants for Arthur to have taken this boy home and fucked his silly brains out, to wake up in the morning and not exchange numbers. Not exchanging anything but a warm, lingering kiss goodbye.
He’s not terribly surprised when Arthur stands, his thumbs rubbing over the boy’s narrow hips. The boy holds Arthur still long enough to slip a piece of paper in his hand - a phone number, Eames would guess - and then Arthur walks away. Eames can’t help but stare after Arthur; he cuts a severe, impeccable line through the crowd, and when Eames looks back the boy is watching him. It’s inevitable that the dreamer’s projections catch on but it gives Eames a shiver every time, even after so many years. He’s waiting for the guns to be drawn but all the boy does is look, not giving anything away. He holds Eames’ eyes with a directness that Arthur has always found hard to achieve.
Eames doesn’t want to look away. He nearly misses the three men trailing Arthur out of the bar and hastens after them. He hits the sidewalk a moment too late to see where they’ve gone. The skies have opened up and everyone around him is hunched against the rain, everyone wearing impeccable, severe suits - and then he hears a noise. It’s soft, wet sort of sound. Someone chokes. Eames slides one foot forward. The skin’s body is narrow and soft. He doesn’t want to rush it into the alleyway where those noises are coming from, doesn’t want to slip back into his own body and lose the game. He can’t defend Arthur from his own memories. All that he can do is watch.
It’s almost over. Eames can only peer into a slice of the alley without giving himself away, but it’s enough to witness Arthur brutally beating the last man with a piece of pipe. The man is trying to crawl away. Blood is smeared across the brick wall like a firework where a skull hit, and hit hard. The other two men are unmoving shapes scattered on the ground, hardly more meaningful than the black bags of garbage lined up along the wall. Arthur is asking the man something - probably the standard who sent you, who are you working for - but Eames can’t hear the particulars.
It ends abruptly. The man twists to look up at Arthur and the pipe catches him on the back of the neck. He drops so fast that his head makes an unpleasant smack against the pavement. Arthur looks annoyed. He straightens, dragging a hand through his hair to put it back in order. Eames pulls away to loiter on the opposite curb.
Arthur materializes at the edge of shadows, straightening his cuff links, the trench coat draped over his forearm. He puts his hand up for an approaching taxi but Eames gets there first, yanking open the cab door and sliding inside before Arthur can get a better look at him.
Arthur lives close by, close enough that they’d walked back from this bar, weaving through Chelsea towards the waterfront. Arthur’s flat is the third floor of a small building, whitewashed brick with the ghosts of old advertisements painted on the side. The vulnerability of the fire escape not outweighing the easy escape that it offers. Eames scales it quickly, unsure of his reception to this place. There are projections milling around on the High Line and Eames feels ridiculously exposed. It’s always a risk to break into a dreamer’s home.
Thankfully, all that he encounters is a rusty window lock. Arthur’s subconscious is far more welcoming than the reality. He slides the window closed and locks it again, tucks his pocket knife away. He leaves the lights off and kicks his shoes away, stepping soundlessly across the hardwood floor. Headlights flash across the ceiling to warn him that Arthur’s taxi has arrived. There are four good places that Eames can hide. He’d tallied them in his head the morning after, blinking awake earlier than Arthur and Cobb and stealing the only time he’d be allowed to really look at the place. The art on the walls too abstract to be personal hells, mostly glimmering neon tubes in fields of color. It had been early enough that the sunlight took the sting out of the stainless fixtures, the uncomfortable furniture and it looked like someone lived there, really lived there and considered it a home.
The flat still looks like a home, even in the dark. The light from the stairwell cuts a wedge against the bare floors and Eames steps back into the narrow laundry room. It gives him a decent view of the rest of the flat, enough to see Arthur shrug his wet jacket off onto a table and make himself a drink. His movements around the flat are tidy, which is how Eames knows he’s already drunk. Drunk and still able to murder three men in an alley. Maybe that’s the point of Arthur showing Eames this memory, like Eames doesn’t already know that Arthur is a very, very dangerous man.
Arthur sets the drink on his coffee table and sprawls onto the couch. Eames remembers it as more comfortable than it looks but not by much. Arthur is boneless on it, one knee up and the other dangling on the ground, his ankle moving loosely, like he’s twisting in the wind. One hand covers his face. There are bruises on his knuckles and blood underneath his fingernails. At least some of it is Arthur’s blood; now that the jacket’s off Eames can see the long slice through Arthur’s shirt, the faint smear around it.
He wants, more than anything, to call this off. To step out with his hands up and, more likely than not, have this projection of Arthur shoot him and get the whole bloody mess over with. If it is a projection. Eames’ money is on the real Arthur sitting in the hotel across the way, crouched in front of a lovely big window watching Eames through the scope of a sniper rifle. One foot slides forward, silent on the hardwood, but closing any distance between he and Arthur has always been impossible, and before Eames can make up his mind to do it, Arthur has fallen asleep.
His hand slips off his face and lands ungracefully on the floor. It’s a testament to how exhausted Arthur is - or how drunk - that it doesn’t jolt him awake. Unconscious, he looks uncannily like that young man Eames saw laughing in the desert. His face is soft and open, his lips slightly parted. His shirt is rucked up and nearly pulled out of his trousers.
And Eames is not one given to watching people sleep. It’s not a habit he finds endearing or romantic. He feels like an idiot and yet here he is, standing in Arthur’s laundry room, and he can’t look away. He traces the lines of Arthur’s body like he’s never seen the man before. He can’t even remember how old Arthur is anymore, how long it must have been since those desert days, how many years it must be since Arthur looked so undone. He’s seen Arthur asleep, of course, dozens of times but this -
He draws a hand through his hair. His fingertips tremble when they touch skin, even though it’s his own. He doesn’t want to end this anymore. Doesn’t even want to move, for fear of waking this stranger. He should have known better than to think he could derail this thing between them.
Hope is a monster curled around his heart and before he can think better of it, Eames goes to Arthur. He stands over Athur just long enough to memorize the smooth lines of his face, but as he turns away he sees the little piece of paper, curled in the palm of Arthur’s hand. He stoops, plucking it free. It’s not a phone number. At least, not anymore. I NEVER REGRET.
The drink is on the table, untouched and well within reach, but Eames doesn’t even glance at it. He walks to the front door, takes a deep breath, and steps through.**
The air smells like the ocean and of the olive grove beneath the balcony, like cut grass. There’s a chill on the breeze, the first hint of the season’s mistral. There’s a glass of champagne in Eames’ hand and he lifts it to his lips approvingly. Lights are strung through the olive grove and Eames can see the children running heedlessly in their fancy clothes, up and down each neat row. Music behind him, quieter now after hours of food and drink and dancing.
Eames can clearly remember his utter, utter shock when the letter had caught up with him in Liberia, delivered to his door by the oldest daughter of the local schoolteacher. There were a thousand fingerprints on it and the edges were worn with Africa’s red earth, but the inner envelope was still crisp, the lettering unequivocally an invitation. He’d worked with Dom and Mal a few times but they were hardly friends. Dom had seemed as surprised as Eames felt when he rang Dom up and said truthfully yes, he’d love to come and see them get married.
Arthur is standing in the olive grove. His hands in his pockets, chin tipped up. Staring at Eames, who raises the champagne towards Arthur, half toast, half invitation. He watches Arthur cross the grove, loses him just for a moment when he goes under the balcony. Something twists in Eames’ chest painfully as Arthur approaches, a hesitant expression on his face. He comes to rest against the rail close enough that Eames can feel the heat of him, but not close enough to touch. He doesn’t look at Eames.
This isn’t how it happened. He and Arthur hadn’t been getting along at the time and barely spoke the entire evening. Arthur drank too much wine and had gotten up and made a toast. Eames had danced with both of Mal’s grandmothers.
“Eames,” Arthur says, as if his heart is breaking. It’s enough that Eames turns around, trying to find what Arthur is staring at so intensely - oh. And Eames knew what he was doing, bringing Arthur here, but the sight of Dom and Mal dancing, her hand tucked against his chest, is still enough to take his breath away.
They stand in silence for a long time. This part did happen, although Arthur had been the one on the balcony and Eames the last unmarried dancer standing, Mal’s sister clinging sleepily to his shoulders. He remembers watching Arthur watch the newly wedded Cobbs, something amazingly simple and quiet in his eyes.
“I still think about,” Eames says, and clears his throat. “About what might have happened if I’d come over to you and said hello.”
Arthur huffs a little, his mouth quirking up in one corner. He looks at Eames without moving towards him, his head tilted. “Nothing,” he says. “Well, probably. I spent most of the night hating your guts.” He looks away again when all Eames does is smile.
“You were just jealous that I looked better in my tuxedo,” Eames says.
“Your ass was amazing,” Arthur agrees. He takes Eames’ champagne and takes a long sip. Eames lets him finish it, saying nothing.
“Do you still believe it?” he asks, after a while. Arthur looks at him and Eames clarifies. “Your speech, what you said. Do you still think -” He trails off, not quite knowing how to finish.
Arthur is not a quiet person, nor is he shy. And as caustic as he can be Arthur is, at heart, a deeply romantic soul. Not the sort that tends towards flowers and casual affection, but the sort that will stand up with a cheap microphone and a glass of wine to inform the world that although he has seen and done terrible things, the fact that love exists as it does between Dom and the brand new Mal Cobb makes him believe that all the pain in the world is worth it. That seeing for his own eyes that there could be two halves of a whole made everything worth it. And that even if it ended in pain and suffering, it would still be worth it.
Arthur turns towards him, lips parted. Over his shoulder, Mal and Cobb spin on the dance floor like no one else exists. Eames tries to keep his eyes on them, tries to look anywhere but Arthur’s face.
“No,” Arthur says, and steps forward, into Eames.
Eames startles, winces when his side hits the railing. His eyes widen as Arthur crowds him backwards and there’s an endless moment where they are nearly, nearly pressed together from shoulder to hip, Arthur’s arm curling around him. It would be so easy to push forward and close that last bit of distance. Eames’ body is hot and then cold all over and then Arthur moves back, not nearly far enough, a bottle of champagne in his hand from the table just behind Eames. He lifts it to his lips and swallows deeply, his eyes never leaving Eames’. When he hands over the bottle their fingers brush and Eames struggles to breathe.
He almost fancies he can hear Arthur’s heart pounding, underneath his tuxedo.
They both look up when Edith Piaf begins to sing. Arthur is the first one to glance back down and crack a smile. The wind breathes over them and somewhere in the darkness Eames can hear the long whistle of a train. It blows a strand of hair down onto Arthur’s forehead and Eames reaches out. Smooths it back. He can feel Arthur’s breath on the inside of his wrist as he pulls away. Something aching and foolish is stuck inside Eames’ throat, and they forget to look away from each other. Arthur has an inch on him, though Eames will always look taller. The world is tilting and Eames is tilting with it, tilting towards Arthur. He wants to say something. Arthur beats him to it.
“Will you dance with me?” Arthur asks.
He lets Arthur lead. One hand settles on the small of Eames’ back and pulls him close. They fit together from shoulder to hip. They don’t speak. The music is just a little slower in a dream, just a little softer, and as it soars towards wakefulness and the real world Arthur draws Eames’ hand in and tucks it against his own chest, holding it there.
Thanks for reading :).