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Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 03:43 pm
Title: The Boy Who Spoke With Ghosts
Parings: Eames/Arthur
Rating: R for graphic visuals.
Spoilers: Inception/Sixth Sense crossover. Major spoilers for both movies.
Word Count: 5,400ish
Notes: Based from this excellent prompt on the Kink Meme: Arthur's real name is Cole Sear. Bonus points for an "I see ----__ people" that's not totally cracky.
Notes 2:
Sorry about the delay. This was one of those irritating transitioning chapters I hate to write (but which are so necessary). Also, there's been a little discussion on my journal on whether we ever see Arthur's projections in the movie. It's still up for debate, but for the purposes of this fic: his projections aren't shown during the Saito/Inception jobs.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2
*****



Arthur was helping his stepfather carve the thanksgiving turkey when his cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He quickly excused himself and took the call in his old room, shutting the door on the sounds of happy chatter and warmth of cooking food.

"Wait, what did you say?" he asked.

"They're dead." Dom's voice sounded tinny and his replies came after a delayed second – either a bad or a cheap overseas connection. "Sander's team took the Fellmen job after we pulled out. Word is that someone tipped off the mark and the whole team got shot while they were under."

Everything seemed to freeze at once and fall away – the sounds of his family's conversation coming through the walls, the smell of turkey... it all shrunk, reduced to nothing but a strange kind of roaring in his ears.

"What about Eames?" Arthur rasped.

"Eames?"

"I thought—he mentioned maybe continuing the job after we left."

"No," Dom said, and Arthur exhaled, leaning his forehead against the wall. "The last I heard he was working some kind of con in Kenya."

The relief was so intense that he wasn't sure at first he could make himself speak. He hadn't known – hadn't realized until just then how concerned he had been. But Eames had taken his advice after all. Arthur swallowed.

"We got lucky."

"We did," Dom agreed. Then there was a pause, longer than the delay in the lines could account for. "I know you're with your family, but I think I have another job lined up. When is the earliest you can get to Madrid?"

Faintly, Arthur heard his stepsister's voice echo from down the hall. "Cole! Food's ready!"

"I can catch a plane out tomorrow," he said.

 *****
 

He and Dom managed to finish the job this time, but only by the skin of their teeth. It was Mal's doing again – the projection, this time, not the ghost. And later, after it was all done and evidence erased, Arthur shared a flight with Dom from Madrid to Rio. His friend looked at him with red, bloodshot eyes and said, "I don't think I can be an architect anymore."

Arthur glanced sharply at him, but he couldn't find it in himself to protest. His chest still throbbed with phantom pain from at least six different points – something or someone had warned the mark's projections. As a result, Arthur had taken a spray of bullets while covering Dom so he could finish breaking into the safe of their mark's mind.

But Dom knew Arthur had seen Mal's projection creeping around in their dreamscape during the final practice run. It wasn't hard to put two and two together. She'd put them at risk. Again.

"What will you do?" asked Arthur, even though he already knew and was mentally tallying which architects he knew were free and what their specific skill-sets were.

Dom squinted at his drink. "We can hire out for an architect. I know people. I... uh, I think it'll be easier if I don't know the layout of the dream ahead of time."

A woman in a flight attendant's mini-skirt uniform stopped by their seats and stared at the two of them intently. Dom sipped his drink again, not paying her the slightest bit of attention.

"The more I limit myself as the dreamer, the better I can suppress my subconscious projections," Dom went on.

Arthur looked at him, up at the quietly watching attendant for a long moment, and back to Dom again. "Do you think you can suppress Mal?"

He winced. "I have it under control, Arthur."

Arthur said nothing. He didn't need to. Dom's projection of Mal tried to sabotage him at every step while her ghost quietly haunted his footsteps like a dark guardian angel.

And Arthur didn't know how to help him. He was capable of organizing all the details needed for an extraction along with a dozen contingency plans all the while entrenched in a completely foreign country, could shoot the eye out of a crow from a hundred feet away… Hell, he helped the dead find peace on a regular basis.

But he didn't know how to help Dom. He could feel the gulf between them widening more every day, saw how Dom was slowly losing touch with reality – it seemed he had his totem in his hand all the time now as if he were no longer certain what was real.

When it came down to the living, Arthur felt out of his depth.

So he only nodded, and, with a final glance towards still waiting flight attendant, rose and excused himself to the bathroom. She turned to follow – half of the skin on the other side of her face had been scrapped away to show clean white bone underneath.

Arthur led the way to the back of the half-empty plane – the better to hold a conversation with her in private.


****



Arthur had many reservations about the Fischer job, but only a few days into training their green architect (Their previous, Nash, had not only been a failure, but a turncoat as well) Arthur had to admit that Dom was right about one thing: Ariadne took to dreamsharing like a fish to water.

Dom had already explained the basics to her, so Arthur thought he would introduce the concept of illusionary dimensions within dreams. This resulted in a pleasant hour dreaming with her of penrose steps. After they woke, he showed her an example of a Penrose triangle – first sketching it in neat, efficient lines on draft paper.

"In reality these lines aren't able to match up," he said, circling one side of the triangle where the marks ran into one another. "But in a dream you won't be constrained by those bounds. The illusion becomes the reality."

Ariadne tilted her head, idly pulling her hair from her neck as she gazed down at the drawing. Then she nodded. "I think I understand."

If this were anyone else, he would have a hard time believing it. But just a few minutes ago she had somehow wrestled the dream from his control and built for him a dreamscape consisting entirely of penrose staircases. They had then spent a very enjoyable hour walking steps which never ended, each turn taking them to a brand new, wholly original landscapes; everything from sweeping deserts to busy cities.

Arthur was starting to think that when it came to Ariadne, anything was possible.

Even better, there were no ghosts which haunted her steps. The last day or so without Dom – and Mal – had been surprisingly… peaceful.

He gestured to the waiting PASIV device. "Shall we?"

She started to nod then hesitated, looking at him curiously. "Whenever we go under, I'm always the dreamer. We only see my projections."

Arthur paused, surprised. "Ah." She had picked up on that little fact rather quickly, too. "Well, you've already met Cobb's subconscious projections."

"... Yes?"

He smiled, but could not quite meet her gaze. "It's important to learn how to manage your own subconscious. You're still a new dreamer and it's easier if you get used to this in your own mind, first, so parts of your subconscious never accidentally break through when you're in others dreams."

Again, she started to nod, but then her eyes narrowed. "But... we will go into your mind later, right?"

"Probably not," he admitted with a small, forced smile.

She looked at him oddly, head slightly cocked as if he were a puzzle she was trying to solve. Maybe she was weighing the possibility that he was as crazy as Cobb. But he much preferred that to weariness or outright fear – those, he'd seen as well, the first time he had dream-shared with Mal: his subconscious, his secrets, had been thrown into vivid clarity.

Since then, he had learned to take precautions.

He handed Ariadne the PASIV's IV line. The one set for the dreamer. "For now we need to focus on your training. Cobb will be returning with our team's forger in a few days and you need to be ready."

Ariadne took the lead from him reluctantly. "Fine, but when this is all over I want to see what's in that head of yours."

He smiled again and this time it came easier. "We'll see."

 *****

Arthur was busying himself with revising schedule – neat lines detailing dreaming schedules and combat training exercises for Ariadne (if there was time) into his favorite moleskin notebook. A soft sound made him glance up.

The girl in the yellow dress sat on the floor a few feet in front of him. Seeing her, Arthur carefully set down his pen and closed the notebook. If she was here, Eames wouldn't be far behind. It seemed Dom had been successful in securing a forger after all.

The girl looked up curiously. "Are you waiting, too?"

Arthur started to shake his head, then thought better of it, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he would be unheard. But Ariadne was bent over a drafting board on the other side of the warehouse.

"No, this is where I come to work." A pause. "Is there something you wanted to tell me?"

He wasn't sure she would be in a speaking mood, but it seemed today was a good day. The girl gave him an irritated look. "Daddy says we must be quiet when there's company over."

"Why?"

Ariadne's voice drifted from the other side of the warehouse. "Arthur? Did you say something?"

"No," he called back.

The girl shushed him with a finger to her lips, looking scandalized. "If I'm not quiet I won't get any ice-cream," she said. Her head abruptly twisted around – too far, nearly double on her back to look over her shoulder. She hissed, "Do you hear that?"

There was nothing audible except for the distant whoosh of traffic and Ariadne muttering to herself as she drew mazes.

The girl's eyes went wide. "That's daddy!" she said. "He's hurt... they're hurting him!" She rose to her feet, turned as if to run, and was gone.

Arthur stared at after her, unsure if she was only reliving the moment of her death, or.... something even worse. He only weighed his options for a moment before deciding that caution had better take precedence. With a small sigh, Arthur pulled his cell from his pocket.

He and Dom had agreed on radio-silence because, while the phones were temporary and hard to trace, Cobol Engineering was no doubt gunning for their heads. They were only supposed to be used in case of emergency.

Please just let it be that she was only just remembering, Arthur thought as he punched in the number.

Dom's voice came over the line, rough with exhaustion. "Yeah?" Then, a little sharper as he realized who was calling, "Is everything alright?"

"We're fine," Arthur said, tersely. "You?"

"We just landed about forty-five minutes ago. We're stuck in traffic and should be there in an hour." Dom didn't mention any names over the phone – that would have been far too risky, but the 'we' confirmed he had at least picked up Eames.

The tension eased suddenly from Arthur's shoulders and he braced his weight against the desk with his free hand. "I… uh, one of my contacts said there might be trouble," he said, into the silence. "Stay on guard."

"I don't think we have to worry too much about that." Dom's voice was a mix of wry amusement and carefully veiled frustration. "I picked up a few more guests on the way."

"A chemist?"

"Mmm. And a tourist."

Arthur frowned, but there was only so much he could say on these lines. "Be careful," he said again and hung up.

Eames was coming.

Letting out a long breath, Arthur straightened the rolled cuffs along his sleeves out of reflex, checking to make sure they were even. He didn't want Eames to come, had tried to talk Dom out of it.

Like trying to talk Dom out of anything had ever worked.

But Dom had been right. They needed a good forger to have any chance at making this work. It was only that Eames represented an unknown quantity – he had seen a glimpse of Arthur's secret.

"I don't think you know how so very alone you are," Eames had said, and he listened to Arthur's advice, not recoiled from it.

He was coming. He would be here soon.

The air around him felt chill and Arthur automatically looked around for signs of a Presence, but found nothing. The cold, he realized, was all his own.

 *****

Eames was watching him again.

Even if Arthur didn't have a sixth sense he couldn’t ignore the prickles on the back of his neck whenever the other man looked at him when he thought Arthur wouldn't notice. Especially when Eames set up his workstation with his back to Arthur's desk – photos of Browning and mirrors set up to all angles to allow Eames to practice. And if it happened to allow the forger to watch Arthur as he worked on his laptop... well. That was only coincidence, wasn't it?

Arthur was aware of a heavy tension in the air: thick and cloying, and for once having nothing to do with the spiritual presences in the room.

Certainly, Eames acted normally around him – he joked and flirted shamelessly with Arthur, but now there was something else hidden behind his eyes. A new wariness, maybe. A sense of waiting.

Arthur stared at his laptop, looking but not seeing. Distantly, he could hear Cobb going over dream-theory with Ariadne and beyond that, the echo of a little girl's laughter.

He was so tired.

The hair on his neck prickled and on impulse Arthur twisted in his chair. He locked gazes with Eames for a long moment, in the reflection of the mirror. The other man paused then, quite deliberately went through the motions of adjusting a phantom tie, smoothing a vest that wasn't there – one of Arthur's own tells.

Poking at him.

He'd had enough. In one smooth, tight movement, Arthur stood and strode over to the other desk. Eames didn't turn to him, didn't even flinch when Arthur reached around and slammed his hand over a picture of Browning, leaning over to hiss in Eames' ear. "What do you think you're doing?"

To his credit, Eames didn't flinch. "Practicing, darling." Their gazes met again in the mirror. "Is something the matter?"

"You're watching me," Arthur said, flatly.

Eames didn't even try to deny it. "Can't fault a man for that. You are rather easy on the eyes."

The mirrors made it impossible for Arthur to miss the slight flush of red staining his throat. He was aware, suddenly, how close he was to Eames – nearly pressing the forger against the desk, breathing down the other man's neck.

"Knock it off," Arthur said, shortly. "You were hired to forge Browning. Not to –" he almost said 'flirt with me,' but instead said, "You need to focus on your job."

He was about to pull away, maybe plug himself in with Ariadne and see how her mazes were progressing, but Eames's next, quiet words stopped him. "Maybe I'm just looking for something extraordinary to happen." He turned forcing Arthur to take a step back. "Or am I going to have to irritate you into throwing another window blind at me?"

Arthur's jaw worked for a moment, several answers on the tip of his tongue, but the only thing that came out was, "That wasn't my doing." Which was mostly true.

Eames's eyebrows lifted, but when Arthur didn't provide further explanation he said, "Taking your advice saved my life, you know."

"You were going to go in with Sander's team."

"Not after you told me not too."

There was that look in Eames's eyes again and Arthur realized he had mistaken it – maybe seeing only what he wanted to see. There was wariness there, yes, but also… Eames was looking at him almost fondly.

Arthur abruptly felt warm all over and he shook his head, taking another step back to put more comfortable distance between them. The urge to flee, to find some sort of sanctuary and hide himself away was surprisingly strong. Arthur forced it back, his expression a neutral blank. He was not a child anymore. He could no longer afford to run away from what frightened him.

"It was just common sense," he said, adding, "You should try it some time Mr. Eames."

Eames grinned. "Maybe you're just my good luck charm, dove."

He was a professional and professionals did not roll their eyes, even if they very much wanted to. Instead, Arthur went to his desk and returned with a thick file. "Here's the latest intel I was able to dig up last night on Fischer-Morrow." He didn't wait for Eames' answer, placing the folder on the desk and starting to turn away, but then paused. Eames had almost gone in with Sander's team. It had been close. Any closer and he might be speaking to Eames's ghost right now.

"I'm glad you listened to me," Arthur said, quietly, not meeting his eyes.

Eames's answer was both obnoxious and completely true to form. "Darling, I'll always listen to you. Just say the word."
 
 ******

Arthur awoke, his body languid and heavy from Yusuf's sedatives, his mind still buzzing from a week of dreamtime in Fischer's head. He shifted, feeling a sharp kink in his neck from sleeping at an angle and his eyes fell automatically to Dom.

Mal's ghost stood over her husband, running her fingers through his hair. She bent to whisper something Arthur couldn't quite catch. Then kissed him once on each cheek.

She looked at Arthur. For one moment the slanting late afternoon light glinted in her dark hair, almost giving her depth and substance… as if she were alive again.

And Arthur knew, from the sad acceptance in her eyes, that she had been saying goodbye.

"You will watch over him, won't you?" the ghost whispered, sounding so much like herself, sane, and the Mal he used to know that it hurt. "He doesn't need me any more."

"I will," he said.

She turned one last time to gaze at Dom who was starting to move, fighting he way out of sleep… and was gone.

Arthur blinked several times, lifting a hand to his suddenly wet eyes – and caught Eames watching him quietly.

The forger offered a small smile and reached across the aisle to lay a hand on Arthur's knee, briefly.

Eames couldn't have known the truth, of course. He must have thought Arthur was only worried about Dom. But for one shared moment as Dom came back to himself and glanced hurriedly around, clearly confused (but looking sane), Arthur let himself pretend that Eames did.

 ****

Arthur stuck around LAX long enough to make sure Dom wasn't about to be hauled off in handcuffs before he caught a shuttle to his hotel. Once safely in his room, he set his black leather boarding-bag to the side, carefully removed and hung his coat, and promptly flopped backwards onto the large bed.

They had completed inception – the first time anyone on record had done it.

Lacing his fingers behind his head, Arthur stared up at the ceiling, letting it all wash over him. Everything would be changing after this, both professionally and personally. Dom had said he was out. Inception was now proven possible. Arthur himself would be in demand more than ever, but without a team he—

A rapid knock at the door startled him out of his thoughts. Arthur sat up with a start, reaching automatically for his gun before remembering it was laying in disassembled parts within his bag. It better not be Ariadne. He had been careful to explain the importance of no contact with the rest of the team for at least seventy- two hours following a job.

But before Arthur could rise and look through the peep-hole, a man appeared out of nowhere, walking from the closed door as if he had just come through it. He was about Arthur's age, built thin and sallow with a crop of coppery hair in untidy curls about his head. There was also a single bullet-hole just over his left eye.

Arthur lowered his weapon. Obviously, he wouldn't need it. "Sanders?" he asked, in disbelief. The man had died in Johannesburg. How did he get all the way to California?

The ghost's eyes were vague and confused and he lurching step to the side as if he were having trouble with his balance.

"Arthur," he gasped. "You have to help me, mate. My team is still down there."

Arthur let out a long breath which became visible in the suddenly chill air. "You're not dreaming, Sanders," he muttered, and scrubbed at his face with his free hand. "Can this wait? I've had a long day."

The temperature dropped what felt like ten degrees in seconds. "Two fucking levels... but I missed the kick." Sanders insisted, listing towards the window.

He had the feeling he wasn't going to get any peace until he was satisfied. "What did you want to tell me?" Arthur asked, half-heartedly.

"I went too far down. My point-man's not like you. He couldn't stop them and... they're coming... they're coming! You have to wake me up, goddamnit! It's not us they wanted!"

That got Arthur's attention. He was mentally exhausted – a week of solid dreamtime will do that to a man --, but there was no excuse for not making the connection until now. "You followed the people who killed you," he breathed. Most ghosts stuck to what they knew – where they had lived, where they had died. A minority, like Mal and the girl in the yellow dress, hovered around those who had been close to them. An even smaller percentage followed those who were responsible for their deaths.

Then again, Sander's had been a stubborn son of a bitch.

"Who are they looking for?" Arthur asked, throat dry.

Sander's eyes focused upon him, looking lucid for the first time. "You, mate. They want Cobb's whole team."

"Shit," Arthur said, and threw himself at his briefcase in search of his gun.

He knew Ariadne was also staying at this hotel – Arthur may have a policy of no contact, but he still made a point of knowing where everyone was at all times. As the closest and most vulnerable, he would go to her first.

Sander reached out to Arthur as he walked by, but Arthur ignored him. Bag in hand, he opened the door and peered down the halls: no one was in sight. Not even a housekeeping cart. There took the stairway down, feeling a distinct sense of déjà-vu.

He firmly kept in mind that there were no paradoxes to save him this time around.

Ariadne's room was on the third floor and Arthur got there just as two men in dour, funeral-style black suits knocked on her door.

"Hey," Arthur said, and threw his boarding-bag at the closest man as he turned. "Catch."

The man did, on instinct, and Arthur punched him in the jaw, putting his entire weight behind the blow. The man's head snapped back and he crumpled, but the other suit was withdrawing his gun. Arthur threw himself at him – sloppy and desperate, but knowing that if that weapon was pulled he'd be dead.

The man caught him with a fist to the stomach. Arthur, though, had been ready for it – expecting worse – and clung on, dragging the other man down to the floor with him. And there, it became a mad, eerily silent, wrestling match.

Dimly, Arthur heard Ariadne's door open and her surprised gasp, but Arthur had gotten behind the assassin, his elbow under his thick neck in a lock. Within a few moments, it was over.

Arthur pushed the other man's weight off him and looked up to see Ariadne patting down the first man, straightening back up with a sleek gun in hand.

That was Ariadne. Always thinking ahead.

Sitting up, Arthur nodded towards the would-be assassins. "Help me get them in your room."

She did, a bit wide-eyed, but thankfully quiet until they had dragged both unconscious men into bathroom closed the door. Arthur searched the second man and found his gun, taking it for his own.

"Are they Fischer's men?" Ariadne breathed, fear in her voice. "Does he know?"

"No. This was something else – another job Cobb and I worked on a few months ago." And she had been pulled in. Guilty by association. Damnit.

Arthur heard a scuffing sound behind him, and whipped around: it was the little girl in the yellow dress. She stood by Ariadne with tears running down her eyes. "Daddy said I have to stay out of sight when there's company over," she said. "We have to be quiet."

"… Arthur?" Ariadne asked, noticing his sudden stillness.

He shook his head and turned away from the ghost. He didn't have time for this now. "Get your things," he told Ariadne. "Whoever hired these two will send reinforcements soon if they don't hear from them, and we need to be gone."

She nodded and stepped to the side of the bed where a simple wheeled luggage-cart lay half-resting against the dresser. "What about Eames?"

"Do you hear that?" the girl asked.

He ignored her in favor of pulling out his phone and thumbing quickly through the contacts. "He and Yusuf are staying in the Hilton down the street. It's our next stop."

"No," said Ariadne. "I just saw him in the lobby – he was getting a room."

Arthur looked sharply at her and jumped when small icy-cold fingers curled about his own. He glanced down, meeting little girl's eyes. She was still crying, but there was something else – her eyes were older than they should have been. Full of a knowing fear. "Help him. Cole… please, you have to help him!"

He looked away. "Did you hear a room number, Ariadne?" he asked, tersely.

She shook her head. "No."

Jaw clenching (and firmly ignoring the way the girl was shaking his hand now – she was attached with a desperate strength wouldn't let go.) he placed a call to Eames' cell. It rang several times before going straight to voice mail.

Eames always picked up, if the call was from him.

"You have to help him! They're hurting him!" the girl wailed.

"So what do we do now?" Ariadne asked, oblivious. Then, "Arthur?"

It was too much. "I'm trying!" he growled. "Give me a minute." And tried to yank his hand away from the ghost, but she was stronger than she looked.

 Ariadne stared at him. "Are you all right?"

His jaw clenched. "Yes."

"They're hurting him!" the girl shrieked. "You have to do something!"

It was too much. Just too much. He didn't know where Eames was – didn't know if he was somehow involved in the appearance of the assassins. His options were limited at best. They were running out of time and... and...

"Damnit," Arthur whispered, and then did something he had never done before – not in the presence of others. He looked down at the ghost and said, "Do you know where he is? Or are you just remembering how you died?"

The girl shook her head, but backed a step, eyes wide and looking stricken.

Oddly, Ariadne had much the same expression. "…What are you doing?"

Arthur glanced at her, opened his mouth, but he couldn't really find the words. "One minute," he said instead, then got on his knees to be eye-level with the girl. "Do you know where your daddy is?" he asked, voice quiet and something in his chest clenching. Because it was true – a secret he had not allowed himself to see.

Chin trembling, the girl nodded.

He swallowed. "Can you show me?"

"Arthur?" Ariadne said again, voice higher as Arthur reached his hand out, palm up. The girl put her fingers in his. It felt like trying to hold a breath of wind – the hair on his arm stood instantly on-end.

He stood to face Ariadne, knowing how he must look, what she must think of him. "I'm sorry," he said, watching her eyes flick to him and to what must look like empty space at his side and back again. "I don't have time to explain this now, but I will. Ariadne," he said, a little sharper when she took a breath to interrupt or ask dangerous questions. "I'm going after Eames, but the rest of the team is still in trouble." He tossed her his cell phone. "Yusuf's at the Hilton, room five-two-six. Call him ahead and warn him. Cobb, too."

She shook her head, but more out of shock, it seemed, than anything else. With her free hand she reached into her jacket pocket and withdrew her totem, staring at it intently. It must have matched up to what she knew because when she looked at him again, there was a measure of consideration in her eyes. "You... never allowed me to see your subconscious." It wasn't a question.

"I promise you I'm not crazy," Arthur said, intently. "I just... see things differently than most people. But we don't have time – I don't think Eames has time."

Ariadne drew in a shaky breath. "Okay," she said, and pocketed both totem the phone. "But when this is all over...."

"I'll tell you everything," he promised quickly.

They left the room in opposite directions: she towards the elevator, and he to the stairs with the little girl in tow.

****

The girl in the yellow dress stopped him once they had reached the third floor with a breathy, "Here," and Arthur straightened the best he could while keeping her hand in his.

There was something different about her now --  aware and looking about the hotel decor with curiosity, just like a regular little girl. Almost alive in the way Mal's ghost had sometimes seemed almost alive. It started when Arthur held her hand, and a clinical part of him wondered if there was some sort of connection there. And if it would leave if when he let go.

He'd always resisted touching them before, because they could and had hurt him. He didn't even remember if he had ever held Dr. Crowe's hand.

Most of Arthur's attention, however, was on Eames -- his heart alternately in his throat or feeling like it was sinking to his shoes. If Arthur had paused to think about it, he'd would have realized that he was closer to panic here than he ever had been during the Fischer job, with the threat of limbo hanging over his head.

No, all he could think of as he power-walked down the empty hotel hallways, gun in one hand and trailing a ghost on the other, was that he couldn't wind up talking Eames's ghost, too. He just couldn't. It would break him.

And if Eames was somehow involved with the men who were coming after the team... Arthur would strangle him, himself.

The girl tugged at the hem of his vest. "In there," she whispered, pointing to a room directly to the side. "In there," she repeated,  and then she was simply gone, leaving Arthur's fingers cold and empty.

Carefully, stalked forward to put his ear against the door. He heard low voices --  two of them and male. There was a pause, and a third voice: Arthur couldn't make out the words, but identified the cadence as Eames. Then a solid thump of something heavy hitting the floor.

Arthur checked his gun, noted the rounds left, and, after stepping to the side to avoid being seen by the peep-hole, he knocked twice.

There was a lengthy pause before the door opened.

Arthur caught the first dourly-suited man square in the nose with the heel of his palm. There was a sickening crunch, and the men fell back with a shout.

He shot the second in the face from six feet away.

Everything after that seemed to happen so fast Arthur only caught bits of it in snatches, like a strobe-light blinking on and off in his head.

There were two men in black suits in the room: one elbow deep in Eames's duffel-bag, the other rising from the cheap hotel-room table.

Eames stared at Arthur from the floor, his bottom lip bloodied and his hands pulled behind his back.

A sudden, half-noticed shadow from the side -- a third man?

A flash of white cloth too close to Arthur's face to dodge... and there was the noxious, sharp scent of chemicals.

And then nothing.
                    ****

To be continued...

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