They haven’t seen each other for a couple of months, and the edge of a crowded out hall populated with overwrought parents probably isn’t the ideal place for a reunion, but Eames can think of worse.
Arthur stares; Eames stares back. That gets boring after a couple of seconds, so he adopts a pose of deep disappointment and says, "you don't like it?"
Arthur's expression doesn't so much as flicker away from polite (dis)interest. "It's not my graduation." He raises his shoulders a fraction of an inch and lets them fall. (God forbid he should shrug properly and ruin the line of his waistcoat or something.) "It doesn't matter if I like it and I doubt Ariadne will care. She wasn’t sure if you'd make it at all."
Make. Remember. Bother about. Eames suspects Ariadne wasn't the one with the doubts. He injects a few more watts into his smile, until it doesn’t sting. "You don't like it."
"I didn't say that," Arthur says a touch defensively, but the fact he’s doing every thing in his power not to look directly at Eames is a bit of a giveaway.
"No, that's fine." Eames goes with the most melodramatic sigh in his arsenal and shakes his head. "I understand. I can go and stand over there if you'd prefer not to be seen with me."
Tearing up would probably be overdoing it a tad, even given the circumstances and the endless supply of proud mothers who’d doubtless be happy to give him a tissue. (Ariadne’s is probably in here somewhere; that’s a slightly terrifying thought.)
In the end, he restrains himself to a slump of his shoulders and dejected silence.
"You're wearing a pink shark," Arthur says at last, voice tight with repressed horror.
"It's not a shark, it’s a tie," Eames says reasonably, as if he didn’t do it just to hear exactly that note of sartorial dismay.
"It's a tie in the shape of a pink shark."
"Ariadne likes sharks," Eames says cheerfully, and then goes on quickly before Arthur can call him on the blatant lie. "How about we celebrate the part where I wore a tie at all?"
"How about," Miles murmurs dryly from behind them, "we stop talking and notice the ceremony started whilst we were pulling each others pigtails?"
Eames guiltily turns his attention back to the staged area and doesn’t see the tiny, amused smile Arthur sends his way.
- 2 -
"So, how long's it been? Must be …" Eames waves a careless hand and trails away as if he doesn't know it's been three months, four days and a handful of hours since Ariadne graduated and Arthur went wherever on Earth it is Arthur goes. Eames has no idea; honestly he doesn’t want to know - possibly some kind of factory recall? Yearly stick maintenance?
(La Rochelle for two weeks and then New York, working a job for a corporation Eames had never heard of.
He’s considerably more familiar with DynaMix Inc. now - particularly the dangers or lack thereof of working for them - but only because he was terminally bored and Saito happened to have a spare file or two hanging around.)
"Not long enough," Arthur says crisply as he drapes his jacket carefully over the back of his chair and then sits.
Eames holds a hand to his chest and lets the other one flail out, ‘accidently’ catching the flower vase in the center of the table and sending it spinning, perilously close to falling in Arthur’s lap. "I'm hurt. Deeply."
Arthur scowls and rights the vase; the Armani is safe for now. "Not yet.” After a second’s thought he moves the vase to the next table. A second after that, he shifts over the water jug and the menu holders away too. “Although I'm sure it could be arranged."
"In your dreams," Eames smiles with his teeth and when Arthur's eyes narrow in response, he can’t resist adding, “or mine?”
Cobb laughs quietly as he takes his seat. "We can come back if this is a bad time."
"Give them a little longer and I believe you will be able to charge admission," Saito says with a restrained smile that would probably be a grin if his security weren't strategically placed around the cafe, watching everything from behind their very serious, dark-tinted shades.
"No, they're missing a Stooge," Cobb says dryly, but there’s a glint of amusement in his eyes.
Arthur shoots Cobb a flat look; Eames grins. He likes this new and improved Cobb: the one that stopped falling, but didn’t hit the ground. "We're here all week."
"Actually, you aren't. Not if you're interested in the job, anyway. We'll be hitting the ground running on this one."
Arthur frowns pensively and takes a pristine notepad and elegant silver pen from his inside pocket. "How long to prep?"
Eames isn’t sure he personally even has a biro.
"Three days,” Saito says calmly. “Including today."
It’s already noon, so Eames can sympathize with Arthur’s deepening frown. "Who else is on the job?"
"Yusuf and Ariadne,” Cobb answers. “They’ve already begun the set up. And Fischer."
"Fischer." Eames repeats flatly and looks at Saito for confirmation, on the off chance Cobb went stark raving and no one noticed. Again.
"Robert Fischer," Saito confirms and at least has the decency to look slightly apologetic for dropping that sort of thing on a man before he's even had his first drink
Arthur shakes his head. "Three days aren’t long enough."
"I’ve seen what you can do with half a day and no Internet, Arthur.” Cobb smiles intently, as if that will work. Except, depressingly, Eames suspects there’s a chance it will. Not because Cobb is appealing to Arthur’s ego, but because he’s clearly going to do the job anyway and there’s no way Arthur will let him do it alone.
“You don't know what it is yet," Cobb adds, making a stab at reason instead.
"I don't need to know,” Arthur replies shortly. “You quit. Now you’re back and you’re bringing us back together? It’s going to be a little more complex than finding out who’s selling company secrets.” He shakes his head. “Five days, not counting today. I don’t like surprises, we’re not having another Fischer.”
Cobb abandons that approach and tries another. "Eames, you're in, right?"
Eames smiles brightly and nods. "No."
Cobb blinks. "No?"
Eames leans back in his chair and idly tries to spot someone he can mug for a Bloody Mary. "Health and safety. I'm not going anywhere the point man's not sure about, even if the point man's Arthur. Especially if the point man's Arthur. If you want the undeniable je ne sais quoi that my presence brings to any operation, you’ll give him five days. Not counting today."
Arthur looks over the top of his notepad, one eyebrow raised. "Thank you. I think."
Eames nods. "You're almost welcome."
"Five days," Saito says slowly, and then nods. "It will mean a significant change of arrangements. Difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps some kind of … transportation strike."
They all watch as Saito pulls out his cell and begins giving rapid orders, possibly shutting down entire travel networks.
“That’s a little scary,” Eames says finally. “Right?”
Cobb nods. “Yeah, little bit.”
Arthur holds his hand up, the careful gap between thumb and forefinger an agreement, even if he doesn’t raise his eyes from whatever he’s scratching on the pad.
Eames grins. "Right then, anyway. I suppose we're in." Trying to flag down a waitress so he can avoid committing outright theft in pursuit of a bloody drink, he misses Arthur’s bemused smile.
- 3 -
On the train into the city, Eames comes around with a wave of disorientation that doesn’t seem in any particular hurry to leave, although a foggy voice seems quite insistent about saying his name and something keeps hitting him in the face. He swipes whatever it is away and just about makes out a garbled, "He's waking up."
Hands pull him up to a sitting position, which makes him wretch with nausea. He’s distantly happy he decided to skip dinner.
"Don't open your eyes, Mr. Eames." That was Saito, sounding calm and reassuring. It appears one person knows exactly how Eames will react to that, because there’s a series of unexplained oofs and a hand drops firmly over his eyes before they open even a sliver.
"Which part of 'don't open your eyes' was unclear?" Arthur sounds very close and very irritated and that's far more reassuring than anything else could possibly be – Arthur’s only annoyed when he has the leisure.
Against all common sense, Eames relaxes a little. "What happened?"
"You fell," says Cobb, with a careful, oddly breathless, note in his voice.
Eames can’t say he remembers that at all. "Off what?" Actually, now he thinks about it, he can’t remember much at all after getting on the red-eye. His fingers itch for his totem, but without sight it’s next to useless.
"Less off, more into." Ariadne picks up after a beat, during which Eames is fairly sure everyone is giving each other silently meaningful looks. "Someone pulled the emergency brake and Yusuf is very sorry, but he'd like it noted he did warn no one to sit under his bag, just in case, and it's not his fault if someone was too busy flirting with the conductor to pay attention."
Ariadne's voice is soothing; her hands are cool as they card through his hair. It's nice. Not quite nice enough to stop him grumbling, "Yusuf's apologies need work."
"I may have used a little poetic license - I’m an architect, we embellish. Can Arthur take his hand away now?"
There's a disgruntled sound from Arthur and Eames can actually hear Ariadne Not Laughing. "Only he's pretty much lying on us and it's kind of uncomfortable, but I guess much better than just asking the person sitting next to you to cover your eyes."
There’s any number of responses on the tip of Eames' tongue and he's not in a state to make any of them, which is desperately unfair. "I'll be good," he manages meekly, and tries to console himself with the mental image of Arthur's dive.
Arthur's hand falls away and there's a series of grunts as he presumably picks himself off everyone.
Eames doubts anyone else hears it, but he's quietly certain he just heard someone's camera phone click and if there's any kind of god or gods (Eames is at best undecided, unless he’s running for a bus) someone has him covered.
The temptation to open his eyes is still strong so he distracts himself by asking, "Where's Yusuf?"
"Making up a solution to bathe your eyes in."
"If I open them will they fall out or something? I went to school with a girl who could flick her eyes out.” In the dark, the happily vivid memory of a particularly gruesome eight year old swam easily to the surface. “They sort of … swung."
Ariadne’s hand hits his shoulder lightly. "Euw. And, no. It's part of Yusuf's hypnogogia experiment. If you open your eyes, he's not exactly sure what will happen."
Not quite awake, not quite asleep: the desert of the prophets. "Now that sounds interesting," Eames says with sudden enthusiasm.
Ariadne's small hand promptly covers his eyes and, from the sudden sound of shuffling and muffled groans, she made it a split second before at least two of the others. He’s touched - sort of - and evidently rather predictable.
Behind them the train carriage door slides open with a mechanical hiss. "Have the hallucinations started yet?" Yusuf asks cheerfully.
And the enthusiasm dies an abrupt death.
"No one mentioned hallucinations," Eames says quietly and, he feels, given the circumstances, heroically calmly. "What hallucinations?"
He really, really doesn't like hallucinations. They obey their own rules and totems mean nothing; you can be lost in dreams, but hallucinations take away the map and speak a language you’ll never learn.
"You'd have had them by now if you were going to," Yusuf says breezily. "You're fine. Everything's fine. Put your head forward and open your eyes."
Eames resists Ariadne’s gentle nudge and warily asks, "If I put my head forward and open my eyes, will there be hallucinations?"
"Not at all.” Someone pats his shoulder; a heavier hand that Eames guesses belongs to Yusuf. “We covered that. No hallucinations for you."
He considers for a moment, dwelling longest on the fact Yusuf didn’t really distinguish between friends and guinea pigs once he was sure one of his concoctions was safe. "No offense, Yusuf, but you might be a figment of my drug-crazed imagination, telling me to dip my head in acid or something."
"And if you’re hallucinating Yusuf, you could be hallucinating the rest of us," Cobb follows on logically. "Yeah, this could be a problem."
"We’re real, I promise.” Ariadne says with a bite in her tone that suggests Cobb has just received a glare. “Put your head forward. We're going to be pulling in soon."
Her hand is comfortingly real, but that doesn’t really mean anything. On the whole, he’s beginning to think he should sleep it off. “I think I’ll just wait it out."
"Oh for-" There's another round of oofs and a sharper sound of pain to Eames' left; he thinks that was Cobb.
"Can you imagine anything less like a hallucination than me?" Arthur says, from somewhere right in front of him.
Eames thinks about this from a few different angles and has to admit, somewhat heartened, that he really can't. It's something about the suspenders.
Ariadne's hand slips away and grudgingly, Eames tilts his head forward and opens his eyes a crack.
It's very, very bright out there - which is interesting, because it's long past midnight and the carriage lights were dimmed. He barely has time to register that before the liquid is in his eyes.
It stings, but he grits his teeth and waits it out until the glare begins to fade. Tentatively, blinking, he raises his head.
The first thing that swims into view is a vague shape that might be Arthur’s face, and it appears to be made of one part relief, four parts amusement.
“Oh, shut up,” Eames grumbles.
“You’re welcome,” says the blur, expression still too hazy to read.
- 4 -
Wandering the hotel corridors of their target’s mind, Arthur looks the shapely woman who passes him up and down: from the tips of her red stilettos, past the slinky little black number, to the top of her styled platinum perm. He rolls his eyes. "Is all that really necessary?"
"You don't think blondes have more fun?" The woman pouts. Her lipstick matches the color of her shoes and her hips have a Marilyn sway as she sashays away, down the corridor towards the elevators.
"I don't think the amount of fun you have has anything to do with your hair color," he says as he follows behind.
"You’d be right," she grins back over her shoulder. When Arthur comes to a stop beside her, she slips her arm companionably through his. “Buy a girl a drink?”
When the elevator doors open, they step inside to relative privacy. Arthur doesn’t pull away, but he does smirk. "I know it's you, Eames. I always know it's you."
"Oh." Eames’ red-painted mouth curves into a wicked smile. "A challenge."
"No, not really." Arthur’s smirk deepens and Eames gives into the urge to hit him with his handbag.
"That’s no way to treat a lady, especially not one wearing these shoes."
Arthur rubs at his arm reproachfully and looks away from the body Eames' is wearing to the reflection glaring at him from the mirrored wall. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t buy you a drink,” he points out mildly.
Eames’ expression brightens in both forms. “Well, then you’re forgiven. Be a dear and press the button?”
When the elevator slides to a halt, Eames brushes a delicate kiss over Arthur’s cheek and turns away. When the door opens he steps out, leaving a trace of lipstick and the lingering scent of perfume in his wake, and missing the moment a smirk softens to a smile.
- 5 -
When the job’s over (and everyone has surreptitiously reassured themselves at least eight times that they’re in the real world) Eames opens his hotel room door to stare at Arthur, who's standing stiffly in the corridor.
Arthur stares back.
Well this is eerily familiar, and yet not, because Eames threw the pink shark tie away months ago and Arthur seems less about polite (dis)interest and more ready to leap over a balcony and escape.
It’s an oddly appealing look on him, and not one Eames is entirely sure he’s seen before – and given the vagaries of the job they just pulled, that’s impressive.
“Did you want something?” He prompts after a few more moments of silence, but not unkindly. When that doesn’t work, he injects a little acid into his tone. “Directions, maybe? Did you need an adult, sweetheart?”
That breaks through whatever was holding the other man frozen on his doorstep. Arthur holds up his hand, there’s a bottle of whiskey in it. Not a brand Arthur himself likes, but one of Eames’ favorites.
(Not that Eames took pains to remember Arthur’s preferred drinks or anything; everyone carries around odd little facts about their colleagues. Arthur is obviously walking proof of that, because it’s not as if he’d take pains to remember Eames’ favorite drink by choice either.)
“I didn’t buy you that drink,” Arthur says, and the faint suggestion he’s about to flee into the night fades away.
“Well, there was all that shooting and defying death.” Eames backs into his room and Arthur follows; that’s promising. “You’re a jammy bastard, you really are.”
Arthur loosens his tie and shrugs as if he has no regard for the line of his waistcoat at all. “I have no idea what that means, speak English.”
Eames is arrested mid-reply as the tie is neatly put to the side and the top two buttons of the shirt are released.
He can’t seem to drag his attention away from the skin bared at the hollow of Arthur’s throat.