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The Kind You Could Sing

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i'd like to be a note
the kind
you could sing but don't because you're shy
that way i'd live inside your throat
and hang from every word you spoke

 

 

[prologue]

 

Eames turns to him during a simple blueprint discussion and says casually, “You settled late, didn’t you?”

Arthur nearly swallows his tongue. He can feel Cybele’s lithe leopard body go tense against his leg, her long tail sliding around his legs defensively. “What kind of question is that?”

“A simple one, really. Is that a yes?”

“I’m not answering that, it’s none of your business.”

Schuyler, Eames’ Arctic fox daemon, hops onto the table and cocks her head at Arthur. Her eyes are the same blue as her human’s, and Arthur swears she smirks just like Eames.

Arthur huffs. Sky immediately swishes her tail.

“It’s really not that big of a deal,” Eames says casually, folding his arms on the table. Sky stretches and sprawls out beside Eames’ elbow, her eyes fluttering closed. Somehow, Arthur doubts she’s anywhere near asleep. “Would it help if I admitted that I longed for Sky to be a Bullmastiff?”

Arthur snorts. “And you say I have no imagination.” At his feet, Cybele lowers herself to the floor, tail still tightly curled about his ankles.

“They are extremely intelligent animals, thank you very much.” Eames scratches his nails idly over Sky’s belly.

“Sure.” Arthur sighs as he rubs a hand over his cheek. Before he can think better of it, he blurts out, “Everyone thought she’d be a squirrel.”

Eames raises an eyebrow. “‘Everyone’?”

“People. Guys at school, they—” Arthur clears his throat and gestures to the blueprints in front of them. “Can you focus, please?”

Eames holds up both hands, eyes wide and innocent. “By all means.” Sky’s ears twitch, and after a moment she gets to her feet and jumps to the floor, disappearing beneath the table.

Arthur’s breath catches when he feels the sensation of coarse fur brushing against his nose, the careful brush of a muzzle over his cheek.

Cybele growls softly.

 

///

Cybele did not settle on her chosen shape until Arthur was nearly fifteen. He remembers the morning he woke to find her long, powerful body stretched out beside his, her green eyes watching him as she nudged his shoulder.

“Oh god, finally,” Arthur had breathed, throwing his arms around her neck in a fierce hug. He had not expected her to be so beautiful. He hadn’t expected anything, really, because she was his and he would love her unconditionally no matter her shape. But now the final piece of the puzzle had fallen into place, and Arthur felt an unfamiliar fullness in his heart; a leopard daemon was not a simple, common animal—they were unique, special, a sign of strength and bravery.

It didn’t matter anymore if his mind was too smart, or his body too awkwardly thin. Arthur looked into Cybele’s lovely eyes and thought, I’m meant for so much more.

The two years spent enduring taunts and catcalls from his classmates is locked away with the worst of his memories, although every so often he’ll catch a glimpse of a familiar projection, a face from his middle school days that still makes him clench his jaw and flush angrily by default, even after all these years.

It doesn’t happen often, though, and no one but Arthur ever notices.

///

When Arthur first gets into the business of extraction, he thinks he’ll always be a part of a two-man team—or rather, he’ll be the only team Cobb will ever need. The rush of sliding into a dream and manipulating someone’s subconsciousness is plenty addictive, but it’s the quiet approval in Cobb’s eyes that Arthur craves; every small, impressed smile makes Arthur work that much harder to hone his skill, until the job becomes second nature, a tightly-constructed second skin. He becomes Arthur, Point Man Extraordinaire, and he clings to the title like a badge of honor.

Cybele trails like a puppy after Beta, Cobb’s grey wolf daemon, but Arthur steadfastly ignores that part. Fortunately, Cobb never says a word about it, much to Arthur’s relief.

But then Cobb brings Eames into the picture, and somehow their new forger takes one look at Arthur and says in a bemused voice, “Honestly, aren’t you a little old for hero worshipping?”

Cybele’s ears go flat, and Arthur thanks any god in existence that Cobb isn’t present. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Eames reaches over and runs a finger over the arm of Arthur’s cashmere sweater. “You’re not the worshipping type,” he says quietly. “That gorgeous creature of yours is proof of that.”

No one has ever outright complimented Cybele before. It’s incredibly intrusive, yet Arthur feels an odd flush in his cheeks. “You don’t know shit about me,” he replies coldly, pulling his arm away. He can see Sky slinking closer to Cybele, stretching her nose out to barely touch Cybele’s ear. Cybele growls and swats Sky away.

“Easy, love,” Eames murmurs, and while his smile is playful, his eyes are far more intense.

There’s a flustered uncertainty racing through him, which pisses off Arthur more than Eames’ smile. “I have work to do,” he says, a decent imitation of Cybele’s growl.

“And that, dear Arthur, is the least surprising thing you’ve said all day.”

///

The loaded die helps ground him in reality, but it’s the exact texture of Cybele’s fur, the shape of the three spots over her left eye, that truly let Arthur know the world around him is real.

He can’t understand how Eames allows Sky to forge, but then, it’s a necessary risk. A mark would know something was wrong if his trusted confidant or favorite uncle suddenly had a snow white fox trailing after them.

It seems effortless, the way Eames seamlessly inhabits someone else’s skin, as if he has utterly no regard for his own. Sky flickers in and out of different shapes, but it doesn’t seem to affect either of them at all.

Sometimes, Eames catches Arthur looking as they slide into whatever identity is required of them.

“This is the fun part, love, learn to enjoy it,” he says with a wink.

But later, after the timer runs out, Arthur finds himself watching Eames come to slowly, the job having been a grueling double layer dream, one that involved three separate forges. He slowly rubs his eyes, hand sluggishly pawing the air for something. Arthur sees the moment the panic sets in; Eames sits up, looking about the room frantically until a sleepy Sky climbs into his lap and licks his chin.

“There you are,” Eames whispers, voice shaking; Arthur knows he shouldn’t witness such an intimate moment, but he doesn’t look away as Eames cups Sky’s head in his hands and adds tenderly, kissing her muzzle, “Marvelous work, darling.”

Arthur doesn’t envy him. Not in the least.

///

Eames stays with them for nearly two years. Arthur pretends it’s far too long.

“You’ll miss me,” Eames says as they stand on the corner of a bustling Moscow street surrounded by snow and flat grey sky, waiting for a cab to take Eames to the airport. The cold has turned his cheeks a bright pink.

“Hardly.” Arthur sinks deeper into his wool trench coat and tries not to notice how Sky lets Cybele huddle close for warmth.

“And yet here you are, bidding me farewell.”

“Cobb asked me to.”

“Yes, because Cobb is always so concerned about my abilities to catch flights.” He smiles at Arthur, his breath coming in steady white puffs against the frigid air.

Arthur wonders, briefly, if it’s always like this for Eames, if there’s always someone willing to stand on a street corner with him in sub-zero temperatures just to say goodbye. He’s headed to Kenya alone, but Arthur knows it’s by choice; he’s certain Eames could have any number of people waiting for him the moment the plane touched the ground.

“You’re doing it again.”

He blinks, and suddenly Eames is much closer, leaning in to lightly cup his hand under Arthur’s chin.

“What?” Arthur asks, trying to jerk away.

Eames tightens his grip, and at this angle Arthur can see a dusting of freckles across his nose, a faint scar over his cheekbone. “You’re thinking too hard,” Eames whispers, but his tone is far from mocking. It’s gentle and soothing and nothing Arthur has come to associate with him.

On the ground, Cybele sighs and buries tighter against Sky.

Arthur glares at him as he pointedly steps away, ducking his head. Eames drops his hand, his eyes bright with something Arthur cannot (does not) define.

“Enjoy Mombasa,” Arthur says stiffly, then turns away to head back to his hotel, snow crunching beneath his feet. He doesn’t look back, not even when it takes several seconds for Cybele to follow.

///

Cobb agrees to take the job Saito offers him, and Arthur isn’t surprised. There’s a certain mystique that hovers around an impossible mission, a rush that’s both terrifying and thrilling.

To be honest, Arthur will agree to anything if it will take the vacant look from Beta’s eyes; it’s been a year since Mal’s death, and Arthur has never seen a daemon so utterly lost.

Then Cobb says they need to find Eames. Arthur hears himself say, “But there are other thieves,” a shiver of irritating anticipation slowly creeping through him.

“We don’t just need a thief, we need a forger,” Cobb replies, a giddy glint in his eyes, and Arthur thinks, Of course. Someone always needs Eames.

///

After the Fischer job, Arthur’s nerves are shot. The mere thought of making a mistake again causes his palms to sweat, and he has nightmares of being trapped in anti-gravity, desperate to make the kick in time but unable to make himself work fast enough. He stops sleeping in his bed and starts spending his nights on his leather couch in the living room, Cybele draped over his legs as he falls asleep to whatever late night movie he finds through channel surfing. Cobb would tell him the urge to sleep near the front door is a subconscious need to have a way out. Arthur thinks he just dreams less away from a proper bed.

He gets a call late one night, about a month after the team parted ways at LAX. Moulin Rouge is playing on mute in the background, and Arthur’s body is curled around Cybele, the two of them drifting in and out of conscious.

Arthur answers on the third ring without looking at the caller ID. “Yeah?”

“So you are sleeping.”

He sighs and rubs the back of his hand over his eyes. “What else would I be doing?”

“I don’t know, counting your sock drawer, maybe. Knitting. Reading Moby Dick for the seventeenth time.” Eames sounds as exhausted as Arthur, but the familiar teasing lilt is still present in his voice.

“I’ve never read Moby Dick.”

“Quite right, I forgot about your infatuation with Jane Austen.”

Eames isn’t in the room with him, so Arthur lets himself smile. “It’s three in the morning, does this call have a point to it at all?”

“Maybe I just missed the sound of your voice.”

“Maybe you forgot what timezone you’re in.”

“Touche’. By the way, Sydney afternoons are lovely in the spring.”

He can picture Eames sitting on a balcony overlooking the shore, Sky perched on the side of his chair with her face tipped happily toward the sun. Arthur remembers the last thing Eames had said to him just before climbing into a cab at LAX—"Do something selfish for once in your bloody life.” But they both had known Arthur would be going straight home to quietly put himself back together.

Arthur sighs again, ignoring the tug of regret at the thought of sun and sand. “You’ve got five seconds, then I’m hanging up.”

“Half-asleep and you’re still impatient.” He can hear hints of a rueful smile. “I assume you’re in for the job in Prague?”

Arthur pauses. “Cobb told you?”

“I just got off the phone with him not ten minutes ago. He said you were free.”

The job is a referral from Saito, one of many to come, Arthur’s sure. Secretly he had hoped the offers would thin out for a while. Cobb needs time with his kids, after all.

“I haven’t given him an answer yet,” Arthur replies truthfully, and Eames laughs.

“Of course you know the answer. You miss the field just like the rest of us. No rest for the wicked and all that.”

He presses his face against Cybele’s fur, heart thudding heavily over memories of unexpected gunfire. “I’m on vacation,” he whispers.

“You’re also a terrible liar.” The line goes dead, and Cybele hums contentedly in her sleep.

///

The kicks work differently for daemons. For the most part, they don’t need them; they can go in and out of consciousness at will, without any drug assistance or music cues. While it can be extremely disconcerting to feel the sudden void space where a daemon once was, it helps when dreams are at a fever pitch and getting out seems precarious at best.

They are being ambushed, military on all sides, and it’s Arthur’s fault. He underestimated the mark’s level of training, and they are now extremely out numbered. But Cobb’s close to cracking the safe, a mere handful of minutes before the kick; if Arthur and Eames cut out now, the job’s over.

Arthur grips his gun with white-knuckle force and tells himself over and over, Just five more minutes, give Cobb five more minutes, as gunfire rains down upon them. He irrationally wishes Cybele was still at his side, her heartbeat steady against his arm, but they’d made sure to get the daemons out the moment things went to shit.

“We’ll make this!” Eames yells over the chaos, taking shots when he can. “Don’t beat yourself up, you couldn’t have known.”

“You don’t know that!” Arthur yells back.

“I do, actually, it’s called being human.” Eames grins crookedly over his shoulder at him, a look that could possibly be called affectionate, and suddenly Arthur feels an overwhelming rush of warmth beneath his skin, like a dozen phantom touches. It spreads up his arms, across his shoulders; he feels as if he’s being embraced. Arthur closes his eyes for a moment and simply, calmly breathes.

A minute later Cobb grabs his arm, clutching a set of documents triumphantly. The kick happens on schedule, and the gunfire is silenced like a switch has been flipped.

Arthur comes to slowly. He swallows without opening his eyes, his left hand splaying over the bed to find comfort in short, spotted fur, his right digging into his pocket for the die.

When his fingers touch fur, isn’t not Cybele’s smooth coat.

Arthur rolls onto his side to look straight into Sky’s blue eyes. She blinks, then carefully nuzzles her cold nose against Arthur’s cheek, licking gently over the line of his jaw.

He gasps, the sudden racing of his pulse at odds with the sleep fog still lingering in his mind. Arthur barely moves as Sky jumps from down from the bed and goes to a bleary-eyed Eames waking in the desk chair across the room.

Cybele lays on the opposite bed, facing Arthur. “I’m sorry, I should have stopped her,” she says softly.

He forces his throat to work. “It’s all right, it’s—it’s not your fault.” He holds his hand out, and she is instantly at his side, her head fitted underneath his palm.

“You all right?” Eames says, his voice quiet and still rough with sleep.

“Yeah.” Arthur won’t meet his eyes.

But he catches the way Eames spreads his hand over Sky’s coat for reassurance, and Arthur thinks he can vaguely feel the warmth of a gentle palm against his neck.

///

“Did something happen?” Ariadne asks as they pack up the remains of the job plans, preparing to scatter out across the globe until Saito makes another referral.

“No, everything’s fine.” There are remnants of a cold sweat against Arthur’s back even though his skin feels too hot.

“Cybele is acting restless, and Eames hasn’t come within fifty feet of you since we got back from the hotel.”

“So?”

She gives him a look.

“I said it’s fine.” He doesn’t look across the warehouse to find Eames, because it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done, and he’s not going to discuss this with—

“Sky touched Arthur,” Cobb says in passing, like it really doesn’t matter. Arthur’s stomach drops as Ariadne’s eyes go wide.

“Oh,” she breathes. “That’s...oh.”

“Can we please stop talking about this?” Arthur asks sharply. Cybele whimpers as she rubs her head against his leg. Arthur hates it when she makes that noise; it means he’s losing his grip.

Ariadne just stares at him, mouth slightly open, until Cobb lays a hand on her shoulder. She jumps as Tavi, her dormouse daemon, skitters across her shoulders, away from Cobb’s hand.

“It happens,” Cobb says, the corner of his mouth tilted up in a bare hint of a smile. “People don’t like to talk about it, but we deal in a taboo business, so taboos happen. You’ve existed in someone else’s subconsciousness without your daemon—is that any less freakish than Sky touching Arthur?”

She takes a deep breath. “I guess not.” But Arthur knows it’s not the taboo that’s making her blush. Not completely.

He pinches the bridge of his nose. “If it’s okay, I’m just going to—”

The door to the warehouse slams shut. When Arthur looks over his shoulder, Eames and Sky are nowhere to be found.

“Has it happened with Eames and Arthur before?” he hears Ariadne whisper to Cobb.

“No,” Cobb replies, skimming his hand over Beta’s nose. “They both just got sloppy.”

Arthur leaves them behind without another word, Cybele at his heels.

///

He gets drunk in his hotel room on tiny bottles of Skyy vodka. Cybele doesn’t let him ignore the irony.

“Shut up,” Arthur mumbles, kissing between her ears. She feels warm and languid, her svelte muscles rippling under his hand as he strokes down her back. She is treating the bed as it were a jungle tree, her limbs hanging boneless over the sides of the mattress.

“I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it.” Cybele’s words are soft, slurred—she’s far more drunk than Arthur, having never been able to handle alcohol well. “Sky and Eames, they—well, they like to push the line a lot, treat it all like a—”

“A game.” Arthur tosses his third empty bottle across the room, where it bounces unharmed off the wall. He can still feel the cold shock of Sky’s nose against his cheek, as fleeting as a chaste kiss. Arthur blushes as he tangles his hands in Cybele’s fur, eyes tightly closed in a feeble attempt to fight the memory.

Someone knocks on the door, a quick tap-tap that sounds too tentative to be hotel security. Not that Arthur’s all that paranoid, but he’s always careful. He nudges Cybele aside and composes himself as best he can before squinting through the peephole.

“Fuck,” Arthur breathes, and drops his head against the door. He considers not opening it, but there’s something in the way Eames is staring at the floor, his mouth in a tight line. Sky is huddled to his chest, her ears flat.

“How did you find me?” he asks through the door.

Eames tips his head up and looks straight into the peephole. “Is that really the question you want to ask me?”

Instead of answering, Arthur leaves the door open as he goes back to the mini bar. His hand knocks into the small array of bottles, sending them scattering across the carpet. “Goddamn it.”

“Never took you for a solo drinker. Then again, perhaps it’s completely fitting.” In his peripheral vision, Arthur sees a blur of white, and then a bottle of Jack Daniels rolls back to bump against his knee.

“Why are you here?” Arthur means to say it calmly, flat and emotionless, but the vodka causes his voice to rise a view decibels. Or maybe it’s the odd way Eames stands on the other side of the room, leaning against the bathroom door; his hands are in the pockets of his grey trousers, and his shoulders are slumped, a careless tilt to his head.

Or maybe it’s how Sky curls into a tight ball on the pillows of Arthur’s bed, eyes barely visible over the white fluff of her tail.

Arthur can feel Cybele watching her.

“I...” Eames pauses, clears his throat. It’s the first time Arthur has ever heard him be hesitant with words. “I feel an apology is in order.”

Arthur lays back on the carpet, rolling the unopened bottle of Jack between his palms. “What for?” he asks, eyes trained on the amber liquid reflecting the light overhead.

“You know what for.”

He drops his hands, letting the bottle rest against his chest. “I forgot all about it, seriously.” Arthur barks out a broken laugh without meaning to, a product of too much alcohol and nerves.

“Oh, I’m sure.” Eames smiles, but Sky’s ears fold back tight against her head.

“Look.” Arthur makes a half-hearted attempt to raise himself onto his elbows, even though his bones feel too loose and the room is beginning to spin. He points an unsteady finger at Eames. “Look, I know what this is, okay, and I’m over it.”

Something flickers in Eames’ eyes. “And what do you think this is, exactly?”

“I don’t know, an experiment? Boredom? But I can’t—I don’t—” He flails his hand at Cybele. “She’s not here for kicks, you know? I wouldn’t just let her go off and—you fuck around with someone like that and it means something.”

The room goes quiet, the air suddenly tight and stuffy. “Arthur, I—”

“No, fuck it. If you came here to gloat, congratulations. You win.” He twists the cap off the bottle of Jack and downs the entire thing in one go, the burn in his throat bringing tears to his eyes. Arthur throws the empty bottle at the bed, where it bounces across the mattress and hits Sky’s tail. She jumps as if burned.

“All right,” Eames says quietly. “I’ll just show myself out, then.” He scoops Sky off the bed, lets her nestle into the crook of his arm, her paws resting at the base of his throat, white fur against tanned skin.

Arthur thinks they are possibly the most beautiful pair he’s ever seen.

They don’t say goodbye. When the door clicks shut a few moments later, Arthur has the hazy realization that Eames didn’t tell him he was wrong.

“But they’re sorry,” Cybele whispers fuzzily, half asleep.

He rubs a hand over his chest. “I don’t care.” Then he rolls onto his side and slowly passes out.

///

He has lunch with Ariadne five weeks later. Arthur can recognize the restlessness in her eyes; she hasn’t gone under since the last job, and it’s driving her crazy.

He knows the feeling well.

“Got a text from Eames the other day,” she says without looking up from her salad. Tav is curled up in the folds of her scarf, sound asleep. “He’s in Dubai. I think he might be buying a race horse or something.”

Arthur shakes his head, an annoying clench in his chest. “Shocking.”

“I know, right?” She smiles ruefully. “Care to make a bet on how long it takes him to piss off a prince?”

The corner of his mouth tilts up. “No, thanks.” Cybele gives a long sigh, shifting her weight as she sprawls over Arthur’s feet.

Araidne finally looks at him, her expression serious. “You haven’t talked to him since the last job, have you?”

Arthur taps his finger against his coffee cup. “It’s not—”

“How can you possibly think that’s the only time that’s ever happened? Just because it never occurred on a job before doesn’t mean...” She ducks her head, lips pursed. “I’ve seen the way Sky and Cybele are together, Arthur.”

“It’s nothing. Like Cobb said, it doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter, or you wouldn’t instantly go on the defensive the moment I bring up the—the incident.” She says the word in a hushed voice, the same way she says Mal’s name.

He wonders how Ariadne would react if Cobb were to come to and find Tav buried against his neck, or pressed against his cheek, the heat of the dormouse’s tiny body radiating through his skin like an intimate caress. He wonders if she’d understand the implications of it all, if Cobb would acknowledge it or simply let it go, unwilling to accept things for how they appeared to be.

But regardless of whether or not Cobb accepted it, Tav’s touch would be real.

“There’s a reason it’s a taboo, you know?” The words feel fragile in his mouth. “He didn’t—Eames didn’t have the right. And he knows it. He fucking knows it, but he doesn’t give a shit.” He curls his hand tighter around his knee, swallowing the anger and frustration that never quite seem to go away.

Ariadne lays a hand on his wrist. He doesn’t want to be touched, but he lets her anyway. “I don’t think you really believe that,” she whispers.

“Or maybe you don’t want to believe it. Maybe you don’t want to think someone’s actually capable of something like that.”

“Arthur, do you even see the way he looks at you? The man would kill tigers for you.”

He rolls his eyes, slips his hand neatly out of her hold. “He’s the best forger in the world. Ever wonder why that is?”

Her face falls a little, and Arthur is once again reminded of how young Ariadne truly is. “He wouldn’t—”

“Not to you, no. You’ve never gotten sloppy.”

She folds her hands on the table and sighs. “He asked about you,” she says quietly. “Wanted to know if you were okay.”

Cybele gives a muffled groan and pushes her face against Arthur’s ankle. He hates the instant flare of heat in his stomach, the sudden quickening of his heart. “What did you tell him?”

“That you were the same, only probably more miserable. Turns out, I was right.” She reaches into her purse, then hands him her phone. “Call him. I know you’re too stubborn to keep his number, and Eames is obviously too chickenshit to call you himself.”

He stares at the phone for a long moment. He doesn’t call Eames.

Instead, he scribbles the number on a napkin and stuffs it into the inside pocket of his jacket.

“Later,” he mumbles, refusing to acknowledge Ariadne’s satisfied smirk.

///

At one o’clock in the morning, Arthur Googles timezones in Dubai. His phone sits untouched on his dresser.

According to the world clock, it’s right around nine at Dubai International Airport. He wonders if Eames would even be awake yet, or maybe barely making it home to fall into bed with a nameless, gorgeous stranger. Arthur knows exactly how this will all play out: the phone will ring on the other side of the world, and Eames will either ignore it and sink back into his hangover, or ignore it and sink back against a random naked body. Or perhaps both.

Arthur sits on the edge of his bed and digs his thumbs into his eyes until he sees stars.

“You need to do this,” Cybele says, curling up against his side, laying her paws in his lap. “If anything it’s closure. You’ll never have to do another job with him again.” There’s a wistful, melancholy tone in her voice.

“Fine.” Arthur takes a deep breath and dials the number. He doesn’t know why he’s dreading a call that wouldn’t be answered, anyway.

But the call is not only answered, it’s answered on the second ring.

“Hullo?”

Arthur is at least half right—Eames’ voice is sleep-fuzzy and low, rough around the edges. It’s the way he sounds immediately after waking from a dream.

Arthur has to clear his throat twice. “Hey. It’s, um, me. It’s Arthur.”

The pause that follows is so long, he begins to think the connection was lost. Then, very faintly, he hears the sound of a drawer being hastily opened, the clink of a poker chip knocking against wood.

Arthur can’t really blame him for checking.

“Um. Arthur. Yes. Hi. Is something wrong?” He can hear sheets rustling, but not the voice of a second party. The relief he feels over this should not be so intense.

“No, nothing’s wrong.”

“I...” Eames suddenly laughs, and it’s a soft, endearing sound, still muddled with sleep. “Forgive me, I’m a little—are you sure it’s really you?”

“Pretty damn sure, yeah.”

“Prove it.”

“What, like a test?”

“I don’t know, tell me your favorite color.”

“My favorite color? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Another pause then, softly, “Oh my god, it is you.”

Arthur rubs a hand over his eyes as he paces the bedroom. “Sorry I woke you,” he mumbles.

“You didn’t, really, I was just—’sleep’ is a relevant term lately.”

“Why are you even in Dubai, I thought you hated the Middle East.”

“It’s getting harder to lay low these days. It was either here or somewhere far north, and I despise Russian winters more than gratuitous terrorism and commerce. It’s the lesser of two evils.” He laughs again, only it’s more careful, tentative. “Besides, I’m looking into a possible business opportunity.”

“You bought a horse.”

“Ah, you’ve been talking to Ariadne.”

“She mentioned it, yeah.” An irrational anger builds in his chest, a stupid urge to yell, And yet I wasn’t worth texting at all, was I? He drops down onto the end of his bed and cups a hand over his eyes. This entire call was a mistake.

“And to what do I owe this call? Is late night television really that dull?”

Arthur realizes with a start that he never bothered to think of a reason. He never thought he’d get this far. “I just...I wanted to—”

“Darling, I’m dying for coffee, don’t make me drag you from that bed,” a quiet, feminine voice says in background, her accented words playful and intimate.

If anything, Arthur tries to appreciate the fact that he was right all along, regardless of the cold, sinking sensation in his stomach and the flush across his neck.

“Never mind,” he says sharply. “It wasn’t important.” He doesn’t wait for Eames to answer as he hangs up, teeth clenched tight enough to make his jaw ache.

He throws his Blackberry into his closet door, a move he regrets a second later when the screen flickers and goes dark.

Cybele sighs, her cold nose pressed against Arthur’s temple.

“See? Closure,” she whispers.

///

He throws himself into his work alone; Ariadne is trying to finish her senior thesis project, and Cobb is busy relearning how to be a father. The architects are less creative and the extractors are nowhere near Cobb’s level of skill, but they are far less reckless, which means fewer surprises. The work is refreshing, even if Arthur notices the distinct lack of anticipation and excitement. The rush is gone, and he doesn’t know if it’s simply because he’s getting older, or if he misses his mentor.

No. He misses his team.

He hasn’t heard from Eames in six months, but that’s a different story.

///

Arthur somehow ends up back in Paris. He hasn’t been back since the Fischer job, and now the whole city looks different, hazy, like he remembered it through a black and white lens and forgot all the colors.

He’s supposed to be scouting a location for headquarters, and while he could simply say, “I know just the place,” he heads to the opposite side of the city, away from where he knows the warehouse sits untouched and empty. He finds an abandoned bookstore on a deserted street full of boarded up windows and graffitied walls. It’s small, but the rent is cheap, and the job isn’t complicated. They’ll make it work.

The sun is barely up the morning Arthur goes to prep everything, the usual blueprints and dosier files stuffed into his messenger bag. The air is crisp with the first hints of fall; he breathes it in, feels Cybele do the same, and tries not to think about the leaves beginning to turn back home. He’s not the type for homesickness—at least, he likes to tell himself so.

“Dreadfully early to be lurking the streets, don’t you think?”

Arthur drops his keys. He doesn’t look over his shoulder as he bends to pick them up, heart in his throat. “I like being up early,” he says as he unlocks the door.

“You just like to be first.”

“That, too.” Against his better judgement, he pauses in the doorway and turns to face Eames, meeting his eyes for the first time in over a year. He looks thinner, his face leaner, his jeans and shirt looking as if he’s lived in them for weeks. His eyes are tired, dark around the edges.

Sky peeks out from around Eames’ ankles and looks straight at Cybele, who immediately holds her breath.

“You just happened to be in Paris. In this district.” None of it is a question, and Arthur doesn’t know what answer he expects.

Eames shrugs and gives him a lopsided grin that’s far from reaching his eyes. “The world is a small place,” he says. “Also, a little bird told me you were working a job solo.”

“And in this equation, all values of little bird equal Ariadne.”

“Your deductive mind astounds me, truly.”

Arthur sighs. “So you’re stalking me?”

Sky slinks out from behind Eames’ legs, taking tentative steps toward Cybele, her body crouched low to the ground. Cybele is utterly still beside Arthur, waiting for something.

“I’m not the one who called in the middle of the night from the other side of the world just to hang up after five minutes.”

“You were otherwise engaged,” Arthur says before his brain can censor himself, and fuck, he cannot be having this conversation now.

Eames clucks his tongue, finally moving closer as Sky touches the tip of her nose to Cybele’s. “There you go again, thinking too hard,” he says softly, and Arthur does not grip the door frame a little harder, or let his gaze drop to Eames’ mouth.

Sky butts her head up against Cybele’s muzzle and gives a quiet little high-pitched sigh. Arthur can feel the touch like a caress over his cheek; his breath stutters, but he can’t look away from Eames’ exhausted dark eyes.

“She was a simple pleasure, nothing more,” Eames whispers.

Arthur grits his teeth. “I don’t care about what you—”

“That’s all it ever is. It doesn’t matter what part of the world I’m in, it’s always the same.”

He takes a step back, makes a lame attempt to close the door, only Eames braces a hand against the frame as he crowds his way into Arthur’s space. He hears Cybele groan, the sound half resignation, half relief.

“I have never met a man so utterly oblivious to himself,” Eames says, the warmth of his breath skimming across Arthur’s chin.

He glares back fiercely, self-preservation pumping hard and fast in his veins. “I know exactly who and what I am,” he hisses. Eames has boxed him in against the wall, and Arthur hates the fact that he hasn’t noticed until now.

“Oh, but you don’t, love. You only believe what others taught you to believe.” He reaches up, traces a finger down the line of Arthur’s jaw, making him flinch.

“Fuck you,” Arthur breathes, and he almost makes it convincing, except for the break in his voice and the way Cybele tucks herself closer to Sky.

Eames shakes his head, then slowly, carefully cups both hands over Arthur’s cheeks. His hold is gentle, painfully so, but Arthur doesn’t have the strength to pull away; he’s suddenly so fucking tired.

“There’s a reason those boys thought Cybele would be squirrel, Arthur,” Eames says. “You let them believe you were nothing, small and insignificant, and deep down, you’d still rather put your faith in the cruel words of school children than the honest truth that looks you in the eyes every goddamn day. Cybele is you, beautiful and strong and so bloody intelligent, it makes me ache. But I will never understand how you are bound to her, love her with all your being, and yet cannot believe she’s real.”

Arthur’s chest rises and falls with every breath, and for a moment he feels as if he is falling, stumbling helplessly without a center of gravity. He shuts his eyes tightly, swallowing hard past the unbearable tightness in his throat. “Let me go,” he whispers.

Eames gives a frustrated huff. “Do you feel it?” He slides one hand back, fingertips coasting along the base of Arthur’s skull.

“Feel what?”

“When I touch Sky. I know you can, you have to.”

Yes, Arthur thinks. I swear I can feel it every day.

“I didn’t mean to let it happen that day—I know what the Fischer job did to you, and I knew you would blame yourself again if things went badly, and—all I could think in that moment was that I wanted to put my hands on you and kiss you until you stopped looking so damned terrified.”

Memories assault him like a punch to the gut: phantom touches, the calming sensation of being embraced, the press of Sky’s nose against his cheek.

“You meant it,” Arthur whispers, and the realization finally causes the desperate tension to drain from his body.

“Of course I did, you bloody insane man.” He presses forward, until they are chest to chest, his nose nudging against Arthur’s in a vague imitation of Sky’s caress. “The night you called me, I would have jumped on a plane in a heartbeat if you’d asked.”

“You texted Ariadne,” he replies dumbly, his mind swimming with too many thoughts.

“Yes, I did, because I knew she wouldn’t ignore me completely.” Eames rests his forehead against Arthur’s, sighing deeply. “God, you’re infuriating, do you know that?”

A half-crazed smile tugs at the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “And yet you stalked me to Paris.”

“Only because I fully intended to punch you in the face and let that be the end of it.”

“You call this punching?” He opens his eyes slowly, lets his hands drift up to curl into the front of Eames’ shirt. He can feel the heat of his skin underneath, the steady thumping of his heart.

There’s a soft gasp, and Arthur isn’t sure who made it first. It doesn’t really matter, because in the next moment he watches, utterly entranced, as a slow, scarlet blush spreads across Eames’ cheeks.

“Well, the day is still young. I could be dreaming all this, after all.” His eyes flutter closed when Arthur’s fingers trail higher, brush against the patch of skin exposed at Eames’ throat. From somewhere behind them, Arthur hears Sky whimper.

“You’re not dreaming. You know exactly how you got here.”

The laugh Eames gives echoes Sky’s breathless tone. “Yes, I do.” He tilts his head just so, closes the infinitesimal amount of space between them to let his mouth press against Arthur’s lower lip, whispering, “Would you prefer I punched you?”

Arthur cannot remember the last time he let someone kiss him; it’s always been a deliberate, conscious decision when to give away a raw moment of himself. But there is no thought involved as he sinks into the careful, slick slide of Eames’ mouth fitting over his. If he’s honest with himself, Arthur knows the decision was made years ago.

You’re not dreaming, he repeats to himself, shivering when he feels a rush of coarse softness touch his cheek. He feels Cybele’s heart racing in time with his own as she groans, deep and satisfied, and without looking Arthur already knows Sky is curled tight against her.

///

He goes through the motions of the day. He takes in the maze plans, briefs the team on the mark’s background, and argues for the best course of action. In the end, everyone listens to him. They always do.

But today, it doesn’t matter as much to him, because he comes home to a hotel room that isn’t empty, and he stands in the foyer, slightly breathless, as Eames rolls off the bed and takes slow, determined steps toward him as Sky weaves in and out around his ankles, until he is close enough to breath against Arthur’s chin, his hands pushing inside Arthur’s suit jacket.

“Good day?” he whispers as his teeth gently scrape over Arthur’s jaw.

“Yeah,” Arthur breathes, and it feels like the god’s honest truth as he slides an arm around Eames’ neck, fingers tangling in his hair. “Not bad at all.”

His jacket hits the floor in a heap behind him, and later, after he’s pulled himself back together and Eames is beaming as if he’s won the world, they find both leopard and fox buried underneath it together, sound asleep.

“They make a lovely pair,” Eames says, mouthing lazily at Arthur’s neck.

Arthur smiles and tilts his head back, eventually letting Eames tug him back to bed.

///

 

[epilogue]

 

Cobb calls a few months later while Arthur is in Sydney.

He juggles a coffee and muffin in one hand, fumbling for the phone as he shoulders the hotel door open. “Still at Miles’ house?”

“If it were up to him, we’d never leave.” Cobb sounds content, the closest thing to true happiness Arthur has heard from him since before Mal’s death. “How’s Sydney?”

“Way too fucking hot. Why I thought spending Christmas here was a great idea, I’ll never know.” He nods to the front desk manager as he makes his way across the lobby to the elevators.

“You know why,” Cobb laughs. “And I probably shouldn’t be asking you this, but how does your New Year’s look?”

Arthur frowns as the doors slide closed behind him. “Pretty open, I guess. Do you have something?”

“Possibly. A friend of Miles’ is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in London, and last night a pair of rare Degas were stolen.”

“Ah, so it’s a Christmas art heist.”

“Exactly. But he’s willing to make it worth our while to track them down.”

“Thought you were retired,” Arthur drawls.

“Semi-retired. Besides, I figured you’d know a guy who could help us out.”

The doors slide open on Arthur’s floor, and Arthur absolutely does not blush as he heads down the quiet, elegant hallway to his room. “I might. He’s sort of on vacation right now.”

“Tell him there’s a quarter million in it for him, and Ariadne’s already on board.”

Arthur swipes his key card, a quiet chirp echoing against the walls. “I’ll see what he says.”

“So I’ll see you at New Year’s?”

“Yeah. Merry Christmas, Dom. Tell the kids I said hello.”

“Will do.”

Arthur hangs up just as the door swings open, smiling to himself. Sprawled against the rumpled sheets in the center of the king-sized bed is Eames, dead to the world and in nothing but his boxers. He’s also spooned around a sleeping Cybele, his face buried against her neck, hand clutched loosely in the fur at her belly.

Sky is stretched across their feet, body loose and sated. She raises her head when Arthur sets the coffee and muffin on the desk, her tail giving a sleepy thump.

“Shh,” Arthur whispers, kicking his shoes off. He doesn’t bother shedding his clothes as he climbs gingerly into bed, fitting himself to Eames’ back.

Eames snuffles. “Arthur?”

“No, it’s housekeeping,” Arthur murmurs, lips skimming over the curve of Eames’ shoulder. “I brought you breakfast.”

“Mmm. Sleep first.” He can already feel Eames sinking back into unconsciousness, but his arm tightens slightly around Cybele.

Arthur leans in and says softly into Eames’ ear, “We’re going to London for New Year’s. It’ll be a working holiday.”

“Wonderful. Fantastic. Tell me all about it in a few hours, yeah?” The words are drowned out by a ridiculously long yawn, reminding Arthur how little sleep they got the night before.

He laughs, nipping gently at Eames’ skin. “Go to sleep, Mr. Eames.”