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The first job, he was twenty-two. He'd only just finished his MLS, and he was badly in debt. And suddenly, there was Cobb; all he needed from Arthur was organization and research, stuff Arthur could do in his sleep, and Cobb wanted to pay him an obscene amount of money for it.

And when the job was over and Arthur went back to the library, he looked around and he realized that it was never going to be enough for him again.

Sometimes he almost hates Cobb for that.

--

He should have, he knows, gone his own way after the Fischer job. It's not what Cobb would have told him to do; Cobb hasn't been right for a long time, and he was sentimental to start with. Cobb would have said something about following his heart or something ridiculous like that, because Cobb never liked to be alone.

Arthur would like nothing better, but here he is, with two partners.

But they're a good set, and they're worth way more together than separate. Nobody's like Ariadne. There are architects all over, but nobody lives and breathes it like she does. And Eames, well, Eames has the kind of skills they need the most in the waking world. Eames has better connections to seedier people; he can flirt and smile and pick locks and create, out of whole cloth, almost anything they need. Throw in Arthur to ride herd on the two of them, and they're unstoppable- they're good, they're the best, they're hot shit.

And everybody knows about inception.

--

Arthur knows about them before anyone else, maybe even before Ariadne does. They're too careful, her and Eames, skirting around each other, avoiding even the casual, commonplace touches that mean nothing.

But the worst and most telling thing, the only thing that really bothers Arthur, is that Eames always has to close his eyes before he kills her.

--

They stick around in Paris, because Ariadne needs to be there. Arthur keeps up the warehouse, sleeping on the top level and paying it off every week in cash, all of which is real.

"I would never counterfeit money," Eames tells him, affronted, when he comes back with a fat stack of suspiciously-obtained currency for Arthur. "I may be a criminal, but I'm not an idiot."

They turn down about nineteen out of twenty jobs they're offered. Most of them are asking for stupid things, implanting ideas that are just too goddamned complicated, running scams on companies that are already gunning for them. Some of them are in cities where Eames isn't welcome; some of them are during Ariadne's finals; some of them Arthur just rejects without consideration, to keep the heat down and the mystique up.

They use Yusuf, mostly, when they need a chemist. He doesn't leave Mombasa unless he has to; he sends them his compounds, carefully packaged and labeled, along with little postcards and pictures of his cat. Ariadne puts them up in the workshop and smiles whenever she sees them.

--

Arthur knows that Eames must be in love with her, because he never, ever brags about her.

Eames probably takes her dancing, though they certainly don't have the same taste in music. He probably goes with her to concerts for bands with ridiculously long names and swoop haircuts. She probably makes it up to him by letting him take her to those jazz clubs he likes, the smoky ones where people dance closely and drink cocktails that went out of style seventy years ago.

And then they probably come home and have ridiculous, imaginative sex.

Not that Arthur thinks about it much.

--

They work with a different extractor for a couple of jobs, until they find one that isn't a complete waste of time. She's not as good as Cobb, because no one is as good as Cobb- no one would want to be, not if it meant going through any of what he had to go through. She goes by Mallory, which Arthur thinks is really funny, and he's a little disappointed that nobody else gets it.

No one ever, ever calls her Mal.

--

He doesn't see Cobb anymore, now that Cobb is back in the clean world. He works for some company that doesn't pay him anywhere close to what he's worth, but more than enough to support him and his kids. However much it is, it's too much for him to risk by associating with known criminals. He emails, every now and again, through several layers of careful anonymity, or sends notes to Ariadne through Miles, but he never says anything about the things that Arthur wants to hear about.

--

It gets more obvious as the days go on- a hand on her hip as they lean over a layout, a shared hotel room, a private joke and a smile.

It doesn't bother Arthur, it really doesn't. He thinks they expect him to disapprove because it's unprofessional, but they are all fucking disqualified from professionalism already, what with sharing their dreams with each other and drugging unsuspecting businessmen in train cars.

What bothers Arthur is that, after all this time and all this proximity, they've still yet to actually tell him that something's going on between them.

--

"Happy birthday," Ariadne says, handing him a box. "From me and Eames."

Arthur is pretty sure that means "I bought this for you and Eames said to put his name on the card." "How did you know it was my birthday?" he asks.

She shrugs. "I did my homework."

She's learning, and he's impressed; he didn't even know she'd figured out his real name. He opens the box; there's some electronic thing in it that he doesn't recognize.

"It's a Kindle," she explains. "I thought it would be convenient, if you wanted to read while we're in the field. I thought you might miss it."

He doesn't know how to tell her that it's not reading he misses, but books, the scent and the weight of them, the decadent way that they sprawled across his shelves, beautiful and ultimately obsolete. There's no room in his life for anything like that anymore.

But she's trying, she's trying hard to make him happy. She's gone out of her way just to do this, to figure him out and try to connect.

Nobody's ever tried before.

She's looking at him expectantly, nervously tucking a stray bit of hair behind her ear.

"I love it," he tells her, just to see her face light up.

--

It's something like six months before he catches them.

They're off in one of the side rooms, the room where Cobb used to dream, when Cobb used to dream. He's got her up on the desk, and they're kissing, lazily, lots of long, slow, languorous kisses. He's got his hand on her breast, feeling her up through her shirt, but there's nothing urgent about it, just touching, enjoying.

Arthur stands there, incoherent, feeling like he's flushing and blanching, all at the same time.

Ariadne notices him first, her eyes wide in surprise; Eames doesn't, and her eyes flutter shut again as he leans down to bite at her neck. "Arthur," she says, and he hates how much he enjoys it, how much it sounds like a moan.

"Mmm," Eames hums, against her throat, "Arthur."

Ariadne shoves at him. "No, no, Arthur, right over there, Arthur," she tells him, sounding a little hysterical.

Eames pauses, going stock-still for a moment before he lifts his head and looks at Arthur. "Well," he says. "This is- I can't really say it's unexpected, can I?"

Arthur still can't talk.

Ariadne takes a look at Eames; something passes between them. She turns back to Arthur and says, "You don't have to go."

"Don't stop on my account," he finally manages to spit out, before he turns on his heel and forces himself to walk away.

"Arthur, don't-" Ariadne says, reaching for him, but he's already out the door.

He stops in the middle of the workshop, taking a few deep breaths, his hands balled into fists, his jaw working with the effort of not screaming or swearing or both.

Mallory looks up from her paper and tells him that he doesn't look good in green.

He looks at her blankly and pretends he doesn't understand.

--

Okay, yes, Arthur might be a stoic, but that doesn't mean he isn't bothered; it just means it takes him too long to admit it.

--

They're on a training run; Arthur is trying to see how much of the landscape he can change before Eames's projections twig and attack him. He's changing small things- windows, doors, a lamp here and there- but they still catch him faster than they should.

Eames is across the room when it happens, when they come swarming in to rip him apart. "See you upstairs," he says, hoisting his .454- leave it to Eames to have a ridiculously large firearm at his disposal. He shuts his eyes and says, "Sorry, darling," before he shoots Arthur in the head.

Arthur wakes up in pain and confused.

--

Arthur's never been one for bullshit; notable recent incidents aside, he solves problems as quickly as they come up.

So the next time him and Eames are alone, he bites the bullet.

"I don't want to come between you and Ariadne," he says, too quickly, but it's out there, it's done, he's washed his hands of the whole thing.

Eames's face twists up kind of funny, like he can't decide whether to frown or smile. "Are you sure?"

"What the hell- of course I am," Arthur replies, affronted.

Eames shakes his head, sighing like he's frustrated. He pushes off from the table he's leaning against and walks away, and Arthur is relieved and infuriated.

As he passes, he leans forward and brushes a kiss across Arthur's cheek. "One day, love, you are finally going to work it out."

--

He doesn't, of course. Ariadne drunk dials him while he's in London, and he's so shocked by what she's saying that he forgets to hang up on her.

--

The first few times are worried, panicked, hands and mouths, odd locations, stolen seconds, Eames behind him and Ariadne in front of him.

But the only thing that's constant, the only thing that Arthur's sure of, is that he's still an interloper.

--

But one day Arthur goes back to his nondescript room, and Eames and Ariadne are there, in his bed. Ariadne is sketching something, something big and complicated with lots of impossible curves; Eames is lying next to her, his head propped up on one hand.

They both look up at him when he enters, Ariadne smiling fondly and Eames asking what the hell took him so long.

They're waiting for him.

He puts down his bag and goes to them, and for once he listens to the voice that whispers enough.