Also, I swore I was never joining another fandom, but sometimes shit happens and there you go. Ohhhh man, I'm gonna need me an Inception icon.
Title: between my reflex and my resolve
Rating: PG-13 to R
Summary: People you kiss in an airport baggage claim and then don't talk to for thirteen months shouldn't be able to exist, let alone make your chest do the things Arthur's chest is doing. There are rules.
Author's Note: HUGE thanks to postcardmystery and augustbird, who assured me this was not so deeply terrible as I feared, and to dire_redux, who always enables my worst ideas. This story is the first in a series called Wherever You Will Be (That's Where I'll Call Home); the link takes you to the series master post. [Additionally, fiercynn has done an incredible podcast of this story! Y'all should check it out.]
between my reflex and my resolve
The first time, they are waiting at baggage claim. Cobb and Mal have vanished into the crowd and everyone else had jumped off at the connecting flight, so it's just Arthur and Eames, staring at the carousal. And Arthur doesn't even really like Eames, thinks that this one job with him has been enough for lifetime, which doesn't explain at all the way he keeps staring at his pants, hugging the fucking life out of his ass. But that's just--the way it is, isn't it, extraction? It's not like Eames has done anything special, they've just shared consciousnesses, and certainly Arthur doesn't need to--
"You want to get out of here?" Eames leers, grinning toothily. Arthur frowns at him, a neat little frown he has spent ages perfecting, coupled expertly with a raised eyebrow. It is a look that says, very clearly, "what is wrong with you," and Arthur has used it hundreds of times, with hundreds of hapless victims.
It has never backfired on him this way.
"Darling," Eames says, his grin not losing an inch of swaggering ridiculous confidence, "I find it hard to believe you find me that disgusting."
And before Arthur even has a chance to open his mouth Eames is kissing him, swooping in swiftly and bent at the knee a little to save Arthur lifting his head. His arms are full of luggage and the whole thing is jostled and unsure, bumped by passersby and run-away carry-ons and Arthur's stupid, stupid pulse. Eames is sweating just enough to be noticeable and his breathing is a little off and he works his lips slightly and indelicately against Arthur's mouth, and really it should be incredibly awkward.
It is incredibly brilliant instead.
"Ah," Arthur says when Eames breaks away. It's easy to see the flush on his cheeks that he is clearly trying to ignore, smiling that jaunty smile like he isn't the least bit shaken and Arthur could kill him, actually, for being so fucking impossible all the fucking time. He knows that he himself probably looks like a train hit him, and Arthur hates that, hates looking less together than someone he is fighting with.
If it's a fight, exactly.
"I have somewhere to be," is what he says, instead of fuck you or is that the best you could do or maybe we should get out of here after all. "It was…interesting working with you, Mr. Eames."
"Take care, love," Eames says, winking and somehow making the simplest stupidest shit sound dirty and then he's walking away, cutting through the crowds with his bags in hand, and Arthur is contemplating the best place to go get drunk.
The second time, they are pulling a job in London.
Arthur knew, when Cobb presented it to him, that Eames would have to be involved. He's tried not to think about it, with varying degrees of success. It isn't the kind of thing Arthur does, letting his emotions get in the way of his work, and anyway the whole thing is idiotic and not worth worrying about. It had been nothing. It would continue to be nothing.
Eames, being Eames, has other plans.
Arthur is running 15 minutes early when he leaves the hotel, and is considering the merits of stopping for a coffee before catching the train when someone behind him says "Darling." He freezes, every muscle in his body tensing, and has to force himself to relax before he turns around.
Eames is parked on the curb in a grey convertible. His hair is windswept, and he's wearing aviator sunglasses and an absolutely hideous grin of satisfaction. Arthur wants, quite badly, to shoot him.
"Well," he says instead, raising his eyebrow, "this is predictable."
Eames just keeps on grinning, and Arthur feels his mouth go a little dry--but it's probably the car. He looks it over and whistles between his teeth involuntarily. "Is this a--"
"Lotus Elise," Eames confirms, the grin mutating into a smirk so over-the-top that it gives Arthur a headache. "I couldn't help myself."
"Heaven forbid you invest like a normal person," Arthur says, running two fingers along the paint job and trying to pretend that he isn't, in fact, doing so.
"This is an investment," Eames tells him. "An investment in my own personal enjoyment. And I bought British. Can't get more responsible than that."
"Your definition of responsible is troublesome," Arthur says. He is eyeing the gearshift, thinking about what it would be like to push Eames out onto the road and take off in this thing, the seat still warm from where Eames was sitting--
"Try not to stare too hard, darling, you'll melt the leather." Eames’ expression is bordering on macabre now, bright and smug and too close to by half.
Arthur scowls and meets his eyes, which turns out to be a mistake. Eames has pushed the sunglasses down over his nose and is peering at Arthur over them, and the amusement sparkling there is more than a little distracting.
"Why are you here?" Arthur demands, to cover this. "I'm perfectly capable of getting to the warehouse on my own."
"Change of plans," Eames says, shrugging. "I've got a house here, after all. No need to spend the money on space. Cobb and Mal rented a car and came out this morning, but I thought I'd make a special trip for you."
Then he winks. Salaciously. Arthur's fingers flex for a gun of their own accord.
"We're running this job…out of your house," he repeats, as slowly as he feels he can while retaining his dignity.
Eames nods easily, and seriously, seriously, if Arthur can't shoot him than someone else had better because this shouldn't be allowed. People you kiss in an airport baggage claim and then don't talk to for thirteen months shouldn't be able to pull up into your life in a Lotus Elise and take you home with them. People you kiss in an airport baggage claim and then don't talk to for thirteen months shouldn't be able to exist, let alone make your chest do the things Arthur's chest is doing. There are rules.
"Arthur," Eames says, "get in the bloody car, will you?"
And Arthur does. He buckles his seatbelt because he's not crazy and Eames says "It's a bit of a drive," and they're off, dipping out of London proper at speed. Arthur notices the way the people walking by stare at the car and finds himself oddly curious, waiting to see what Eames will do with the thing once they hit the winding country roads he is sure they are headed for.
They do hit winding country roads. Eames’ driving...leaves something to be desired.
He's a messy driver, Arthur realizes as they cruise along. Messy at this like he's messy at everything, and he thinks he's going fast enough because his turns are sloppy and wild and dangerous, hugging the catastrophe curve. He's not bad at it, exactly--Arthur can tell his control of the car is absolute, that he probably likes doing it this way, but it's wrong, could get him killed, is a waste of this far-too-gorgeous machine.
"Do you always drive like this?" Arthur yells over the rush of wind.
"Why, is it too much for you?" Eames calls back, all mockery, and Arthur allows himself the smallest of smirks.
"The opposite. Pull over," he says. And when Eames does, Arthur climbs out and walks around, opening Eames' door with something that might just be a flourish, feeling crazier and less in control of himself than he has in years.
"Your keys, Mr. Eames," he says, holding out a hand.
"I'm driving," Arthur says. Eames blinks at him for a minute, looks like he's going to argue, and then just smiles slightly, shrugging and climbing out.
"Try not to wreck her," he instructs, settling into the passenger seat.
"I never wreck," Arthur says, running his fingers along the dashboard, the steering column. God, this is a nice car. "You should fasten your seatbelt, though."
It takes Arthur exactly three minutes to feel comfortable enough with the car to start acting like a lunatic. Then he is doing 110 around roads that are designed for 45, Eames whooping delightedly next to him. Arthur's hair is a fucking mess--he can feel it getting messier by the second, he can feel it--and he's going to get arrested if he's not careful, but he's laughing, the smile so big it's hurting his face. He corners precisely and quickly as Eames pounds on the side of his door, yelling encouragement and directions and god knows what else.
"Here," Eames yells finally. "Here, the car park, turn in here--" and Arthur does, whipping the steering wheel in a spilt-second insane decision. The car donuts across the empty lot and Eames is laughing so hard he might be choking as Arthur finally hits the breaks and throws the damned thing into park. He leans back against the seat and takes a few deep breaths, trying to will the grin off his face. It isn't really working.
"Where," Eames says, gasping, "did you learn to drive like that?"
"Mal taught me," Arthur responds, giddy on adrenaline and not bothering to be guarded or sarcastic or any of it. "During my first job with them--she said I might need the muscle memory for my role in the dream, but I think she just wanted me to have some fun. Don't ever let her drive this, by the way. She would wreck it."
"In all honesty, I'm wondering if I shouldn't just give it to you," Eames says, pulling off his sunglasses and scrubbing at his face. "I've never opened her up like that."
"That'd be a terrible waste of an investment," Arthur replies, favoring him with a sly sidelong glance, and then they're both laughing again. Arthur closes his eyes and lets himself drift on it for a second, and then--
Eames has levered himself across the gearshift awkwardly, and they're kissing, the motor still humming faintly behind them. Eames pushes too hard, nipping briefly at Arthur's lips, and Arthur thinks that maybe he should open his mouth, kiss back a little, because it’s not like he doesn’t enjoy this even if he’d never admit it--
"My turn," Eames says suddenly, from the other side of the car.
Arthur blinks. He hadn’t even realized Eames had gone, hadn’t opened his eyes, had apparently just been waiting for the follow-up to whatever that was. "What?"
"To drive," Eames tells him, and again he's blushing so faintly that it's hard to notice and again they're not going to say anything else about it and Arthur feels the grin slip off his face, feels his fingers itching for a weapon. "Too hard to give directions from here."
"Fine," Arthur snaps, climbing out and stalking around the front of the car. He meets Eames coming the other way and scowls at him, wants to hit him but pulls the urge.
"Darling," Eames asks eagerly when they're settled again, and Arthur sighs and swallows his irritation and begins teaching him to drive properly.
The third time, they're two levels under and Arthur is bleeding out from a stab wound and Eames is holding him up even though he's coughing up blood from that punctured lung, and Mal looks at them both and says "Well, shit."
She takes one shot, which isn’t quite at the right angle for an instant kill but does goes cleanly through Arthur's chest and continue on through Eames'. The pain is unbearable, unending, and they topple together with Eames over him and Mal's already gone, Arthur can hear her footsteps and he's dying, he can feel himself dying, and Eames lifts his head and chokes out "Fucking hell" and kisses him.
There is blood in Eames' mouth; in Arthur's mouth, now. It's coppery and metallic and vile against his teeth, and there are circles of color screaming to life in his vision but Arthur can’t bear to close his eyes and wake--and maybe it’s just the death talking but he doesn’t want Eames to stop, hasn’t ever wanted Eames to stop.
He takes a hissing breath and kisses back because there is a first time for everything, and he hears Eames’ rattling gasp and feels more blood seeping into his mouth and god, god, he’s going to die like this if he doesn’t die from this. Eames is making terrible pained noises and breathing agony into Arthur’s mouth and everything is on fire and all Arthur can think about is not surrendering as the music swells and his heart stutters but doesn’t quite stop and he rides the kick all the way back up.
When he opens his eyes his hand is over his chest and Eames is already awake, staring at him with his lips very slightly parted. Arthur closes his eyes and relearns to breathe until Cobb comes to and starts swearing about a job poorly done.
The fourth time, it’s a disaster.
Cobb sends Arthur to pitch the job to Eames, something that he would normally do himself but can't because Mal is such a mess. Arthur wants to argue but knows better, knows arguing would be selfish and childish and unprofessional, so he packs his bags and goes. And Eames is really upsettingly easy to find and now Arthur's sitting on his ratty couch in his ratty apartment drinking surprisingly good wine and waiting for the axe to fall.
One of these days--tomorrow or next month or in ten years or right now--they're going to fuck. It's almost inevitable, really.
"You missed me," Eames says for the third time, rolling their second wine bottle between his fingers. It's nearly empty, half a glass or so left in the bottom. "I can tell."
"I did nothing of the kind," Arthur protests, taking the bottle from him and drinking straight from it. It's a messy, debauched thing to do, the kind of thing Arthur wouldn't be caught dead doing, but it feels good, so Arthur doesn’t care. Eames watches the the line of his throat as he swallows and puts the bottle down, and then catches his face, swiping a broad, calloused thumb across the droplet of wine that has slipped out of the corner of his mouth.
"Just because you won't admit it doesn't mean it isn't true," he says. It's less cocky than usual, his voice, and Arthur stares at him, mesmerized. There is a look in Eames’ eye that makes Arthur want to forget all the reasons this is a bad idea, but he can’t, he never can, and he draws in a ragged breath and--
His phone rings.
“Shit,” Arthur says, breaking their gaze to glance at it. “It’s Cobb, I’ve got to take this.”
Eames gives him a look that screams “Fuck that,” but after a second he shrugs and stands. "I'll just get us another bottle then, shall I?" he says, and vanishes into the kitchen. He pops his head back around the corner a second later and adds, “Oh, and if you think of it, tell him I say piss off, will you? There’s a love.”
Arthur watches him go with a small smile playing at his lips, and then sighs and picks up the phone. "This better be important, Cobb.”
"The job's off," Cobb says, sounding strangled. Arthur's brow furrows.
“Job’s off,” Cobb repeats. “Cancelled. Not happening.”
“Do you have any idea,” Arthur starts, “how much fucking research--”
"Arthur," Cobb says, and there is a note in his voice that makes Arthur stop, just for a second.
“What?” he demands.
All Cobb says is “Mal.” He doesn’t have to say anything else, because he makes a sound that is easily the worst that Arthur has ever heard, and there is no doubt as to what he means. Arthur swallows, and swallows again.
"How?" he asks, because he doesn’t know how not to.
"I can't--" Cobb whispers, and Arthur realizes distantly, then, that Dom is crying. Dom never cries. He says something else, something unintelligible, and Arthur has no idea what to do at all.
"Okay," he says at last, "Okay, it's okay, Dom, I'm sorry--"
"I have to--I have to go. Can you get…things together? Cancel the job and then come to…Paris, I guess. Three days. The usual place.” Cobb’s voice is still wrong, choked and wrong, but the words make sense, at least. Arthur is glad to have something, anything, that he can do for him.
"Of course," he says. He hears Cobb's sigh of relief and then a click, and then it’s quiet and he's sitting on Eames' ratty couch in Eames’ ratty apartment and everything’s different than it was before.
"I do hope you gave him my message," Eames says cheerfully, coming back through the door. He stops when he sees Arthur's face, and his voice goes hard, practical. "What's happened?"
Arthur shakes his head, unblinking. It's terribly unprofessional but--he'd been out of the army for two weeks when this beautiful girl with a lilting accent had sat down next to him and showed him the world. Everyone thought that Cobb had found him but it was Mal, Mal who'd taken him under the first time, Mal who'd taught him to drive a stick shift and cooked him dinner at four in the morning and dragged him out to buy baby clothes when she was pregnant with Phillipa. Mal who'd said "It would work itself out," when Arthur had gotten completely trashed by accident and let his guard down and said "What would happen if I fell in love with Eames" almost four years ago now and she can't be dead, it's not possible, it's--
"Arthur," Eames says, and his voice is strained, urgent, and Arthur realizes he must look absolutely wretched to make Eames use his given name right now. He wants to laugh, but reconsiders. "Tell me what's happened."
"Mal," Arthur says. He sounds--terribly young, even to himself, young and scared and stupid and unhinged, so he coughs and tries again.
"Mal's dead," Arthur says, but this time it's worse, because he can’t control the break in his voice and Eames is blinking at him in shock and nothing's ever been, will ever be, as terrible as this.
"I’ll get the vodka," Eames says at last, and that's the wrong thing to say, but it’s better than anything else. Arthur has no right to hear condolences, because Mal wasn't his mother or his sister or anyone, really, except a friend when Arthur didn't have anyone. And something is shattering in his chest and that's not right, because he doesn't have any claim and there's a pecking order to grief like everything else and he rips the vodka from Eames’ hands when he returns and takes a long, long drink.
“Easy,” Eames murmurs, but he pulls nearly as much from the bottle when Arthur hands it back. They pass it back and forth in silence for a few minutes, not commenting on the fact that Arthur is gulping where Eames is sipping, and then Eames says “Shit,” and drops his head into his hands. “Shit, bloody buggering fucking shit. She--I knew it was bad, but I didn’t...”
“Cobb sounded terrible,” Arthur says raggedly, taking another swig. There is a moment of silence between them, and then Eames lifts his head and peers at Arthur with unmasked concern, and that’s so strange--that anything should be unmasked between them--that Arthur nearly chokes.
“You sound pretty terrible yourself,” Eames says. He pulls the bottle from Arthur’s unresisting grip and then leaves his hand there, and lets his open palm linger against Arthur’s skin, warm and calloused. “I think you’ve probably had enough, love.”
“Fuck you,” Arthur spits, and realizes, very distantly, that he has had more than enough.
“You stupid--do you think I’m going to be better at this if you act better at it enough for both of us?” That, Arthur realizes, does not sound like it makes much sense at all. He tries again. “I get that you can just, fucking, fucking play at it all the time, but I’m not like that, I’m not like you, I’m not good at people like you are.”
“Who says I’m playing at it?” Eames asks quietly, and Arthur is too drunk for any of this, too stunned and drunk and sad and he’s only ever had a few people he’s really loved and one of them is dead now, and he can’t handle Eames just staring at him like that.
“Me,” Arthur says, and closes his eyes.
It seems like it’s only a few seconds, but Arthur knows it must have been longer when he opens them again.
"Shhh," Eames is saying, and Arthur realizes they've shifted, that Eames is next to him on the couch now. Arthur listens and hears himself making choked sounds that are not quite sobs but not quite anything else and Eames' hand is on his back, warm and solid. Arthur wonders how long they've been like this, doesn’t remember getting here. Hopefully, he reaches into his pocket for his totem, finds it, casts it. He doesn’t care if Eames sees that it lands on three, proving that he’s awake after all.
"Is this shock or drunk?" he slurs, after a minute.
"Probably a little bit of both," Eames admits, running his hand along Arthur's spine. “I think we should’ve stuck to the wine.”
"I don't have shock to be in time," Arthur decides, taking a shuddering breath. "Or--the other thing. Um. Fuck.” He pauses, considers everything he’s just said, tries to make sense of it, and can’t. “Fuck,” he says again, frowning.
Eames puts a hand over his eyes, and Arthur can see that there are tears there, that he is hiding them, and wonders at the concept that Eames--Eames!--could possibly be the mature one here.
And then Arthur is being led to Eames' bed, being pushed down onto it and held there.
“I can’t do this,” Arthur says.
“If you’re implying that I’m going to try to take advantage of you while you’re drunk and grieving,” Eames responds steadily, “you can go to hell, darling.”
“No, not that,” Arthur says, waving a hand. “This. I don’t need--weak and unprofessional and I--”
He only stops talking because Eames puts a hand over his mouth. He tries to glare up at him but the room is spinning behind him and that’s distracting, and if he trusted himself not to turn it into something erotic he’d bite Eames’ hand. He doesn’t, though--bite the hand or trust himself--and so he just sits there, looking wide-eyed at Eames’ strangely pained expression.
“Arthur, darling,” Eames says, “it’s time for you to shut up now.”
After a second Arthur nods, and Eames sighs, releases his mouth, and climbs into the bed with him. Arthur waits a minute and then throws caution and propriety and common decency to the winds and presses his face into the curve of Eames' neck, taking deep, slow breaths. Eames' hand in on his back again and everything is wrong except this, and when he turns his face up Eames presses their lips chastely together, like an apology.
Arthur falls asleep like that. When he wakes up Eames is snoring lightly and Arthur is splayed across his chest, one of Eames’ hands still resting on his back. Disgusted with himself, Arthur slides away, hits the door, and catches the first train to anywhere but here, trying very hard not to think about how very much he wants to say a proper goodbye.
The fifth time, they are waiting at baggage claim. Cobb's gone to his children and Ariadne's fucked off with an old high school friend and Saito's wandered away to do whatever it is you do with that much money and Yusef has vanished like he does, so it's just Arthur and Eames, staring at the carousal.
"It's practically an anniversary," Eames says, a strange quirk to his mouth.
And Arthur looks up at him, and smiles very slightly, and says "You want to get out of here?"
They end up going to dinner, because they haven't eaten in ten hours and they're hungry and they want to and they can. Eames orders too much wine and Arthur is too tired to argue and so they stay for hours, drinking languidly and eating froofy appetizers Arthur can't believe he ordered and letting the adrenaline wind down.
When they leave, they walk aimlessly while Eames tries to remember whether or not he still has an apartment in L.A., and where such a thing might be. Arthur is drunker than he means to be and so when it starts to pour he doesn't even mind, just ducks under a shop awning with Eames behind him.
"El Nino," Arthur realizes, laughing. "All that research, and I forget about fucking El Nino."
And really he expects Eames to start laughing too, waits for one those hysterical drunken come-down laughs everyone has after a job like this, because they've certainly earned one. Instead, Eames palms Arthur's jaw with a very straight face, curling three fingers around the back of his neck and using his thumb to hold him still.
Arthur stops laughing.
Stoically, steadily, Eames tilts Arthur's face up and kisses him. He's precise about it, methodical--he starts slowly, working his lips against Arthur's, coaxing his mouth ever-so-slightly open with a few languid motions. And then Arthur's pushing back, any resolve he had left sluicing away as he opens his mouth fully and tangles his breath with Eames', whose stubble is just starting to feel scratchy and who tastes just like the garlic bread they'd had at dinner.
Arthur lets out a noise he hadn't known he could make and shoves Eames against the window of the shop with his shoulder. He twists a hand in Eames' collar and bites at his lower lip, pushes harder than he should because this is Eames and Eames can take it. True to form, Eames growls low in his throat and grabs Arthur's hair and yanks, just a little, just enough to drag Arthur back for a better angle, and Arthur feels his whole body come to complete, hair-raising attention as he is pushed gently away.
"Well," Eames says breathlessly. "There's that done properly, then."
Arthur blinks at him, stunned. Eames' hand, he realizes in a slow, calm wave, is still on his jaw, and as the thumb moves, grazing across his cheekbones, Arthur hears Eames' breath hitch, hears his own breathing answer in kind. Oh, god, and he's hard, they're both hard and there's no job now, no waking up, no one dying, nothing between them, and it's actually going to happen--
"Darling," Eames says, only half joking, "you know I'm fond of you, but if you don’t stop this lead-me-on-a-merry-chase business, I may have to kill you."
Arthur snorts out of old habit before he can help himself, and says “I’d like to see you try.”
The way Eames’ face falls is subtle enough that you could miss it if you weren’t Arthur, if you hadn’t been quiet studying the man for years. As it is, Arthur sees it, and he realizes all at once that there is still something left between them and it’s him, and maybe it’s always been him.
So Arthur pulls Eames in by the collar of his shirt until their lips are almost touching, a slow, deliberate thing. He feels more than sees Eames' mouth turn up into a proper grin and he matches it, achingly close to Eames' garlic breath and his lingering shitty cigarette smell and his stupid, stupid pulse.
"Sorry to disappoint,” Arthur says, “but you're nowhere near as frightening as you imagine.”
It’s such a lie--Eames is easily the most terrifying person Arthur has ever met, and one of these days he will kill Arthur, will get Arthur killed, by being so damnably worth dying for. They’re probably past the point of no return now, though. Resistance is probably futile.
“This is not exactly my disappointed face, duck,” Eames murmurs. And then, a second later, when Arthur still has not moved any closer: “Incidentally, though, are we waiting for something here? Are we minding the gap? Do I need to do a song and dance routine? I will, you know, I know a number of unsavory--”
“Shut the fuck up, Eames,” Arthur says, and kisses him, with the rain falling around them and tomorrow lingering, real and close.