She'll admit, in the privacy of her own head, that the way Arthur goes soft around the edges over Ariadne is a sharp little shard of glass in her chest. He's Arthur, so of course it isn't obvious or unbearable or anything like that, but Eames sees him oh-so-subtly turn on the charm and it makes her want to hit him.
The thing is, she doesn't even really know why. That is, she knows why – Arthur is beautiful and she's been half-seriously trying to get into his pants since they first met – but it isn't like they're... like he's ever... Her hands twitch into fists hidden safely under her desk, white-knuckled and sour, as she watches Arthur smile easily at their new architect while she peppers him with questions.
He has dimples. Sometimes, Eames forgets that.
Eames reaches for her coffee and studies them broodingly over the brim of the paper cup, expression schooled to show nothing more than idle interest. But Arthur wouldn't be a good point man if he didn't know when he was being watched. It isn't long before he shoots a look across at Eames, eyebrows half raised in enquiry, and walks over to the disordered mess that is her corner of the warehouse.
"What do you want, Eames?"
"Oh, just thinking," she says innocently.
"You were staring," Arthur says flatly.
"Merely resting my eyes on the most attractive object in the room," she replies. Then, conspiratorially, "I'll give you a clue – it isn't Ariadne."
Arthur rolls his eyes, and then actually appears to see her for the first time this morning.
"Is that a man's shirt?" he asks, faint horror crossing his face.
Eames grins. She had, in fact, put it on this morning with that particular facial expression in mind.
"We can't all be such clothes horses, darling. And when you're trying to sneak out of someone else's hotel room in the wee small hours, well, accidents happen."
It's a story, of course – fucking on the job dulls her concentration – but Eames has found that the most expeditious way to learn about a person is to see which stories they will believe. She keeps waiting for Arthur to surprise her. Hasn't happened yet, but. She's an optimist at heart.
"You better have something suitable to wear for tomorrow," is all Arthur says, and turns, and walks away, but Eames caught the way his eyes had flicked down to her collarbone, exposed by the open neck of the poorly fitting shirt. The way his eyes had lingered, for the thinnest sliver of time, on the curling end of her tattoo, just barely visible.
Something suitable, she thinks that evening as she packs her things for the flight to Sydney. Fuck you, Arthur.
She meets him at the airport at eight the next morning – it's just the two of them heading over, for Eames to start her observation of Browning and Arthur to fill in the few remaining blanks in his intel.
She stops when she sees him across the lounge and simply watches him, as she sometimes does, people walking unseen through the foreground. He is beautiful, in his grave, game-face way, tailored trousers and shirt with the sleeves rolled up, no tie – a concession to the length of the flight, no doubt. He hasn't seen her yet, and he might not for some time, because Eames isn't just a chameleon in the dream space.
She dyed her hair last night, chocolate brown, serious. Her make-up's subtle in the way that takes an hour to get the effect. Her clothes – she smiles to herself as she starts to walk across the room – slate coloured pencil skirt and delicate merino sweater, trench coat in dove grey, the shade so soft you automatically want to reach out to touch, pulled in tight around her waist with a wide black belt. She walks confidently, heels clacking on the floor, and knows that people are turning to look in the same way she knows she is Marianna Compton-Stokes, successful young lawyer and dedicated follower of Burberry.
Arthur's expression flickers for a moment when he first catches sight of her, and he says, "Eames?" almost as though he can't stop himself.
"Hello handsome," she drawls, vowels rounded, so Sloanie you can hear the trust fund in them. Stepping into his personal space, she leans into his ear and murmurs, "Ready to go?"
Ever so slightly – but ever so noticeably – Arthur shivers. Then he leans away so he can look back at her with a vaguely confused expression that wrinkles his forehead. She can practically see the potential comments chasing themselves through his mind, but in the end all he says is, "You look good."
She thanks him for his condescension, he rolls his eyes and checks his watch, and they walk for the gate, Arthur filling her in on the latest little details he's been able to chase down.
On the plane, Eames takes her boots off and crosses one stockinged leg over the other. They're in business class, so when she starts flexing her foot to relieve the ache in her achilles (tendonitis from the last job), her toes knock against the side of Arthur's seat. He glances down and stares for an inordinate amount of time at what is, in Eames's estimation, a very ordinary anklebone.
Eames is good at people, and the people in Browning's office are no different. Oh, the other lawyers would cut her throat if they thought it would get them a leg up, but they're actually in a minority compared to the clerks and secretaries – the other women. And yes, she's there to study Browning himself, but it never does to overlook potential sources of information.
Her first day, Browning's horrible little aide Jeffries mistakes her for the new admin clerk, and sends her off to find out where the coffee orders have got to. Eames couldn't have planned it better, sharing rolled eyes and a world-weary grin with Anming the tea lady, and later, some very interesting gossip indeed.
"Watercolours," Eames says that evening over dinner. "Of dogs."
"Dogs? What's so salacious about that?"
"Oh, I didn't say salacious, I said interesting. Dogs implies a need for companionship. He's lonely, Arthur. In fact, I'd wager that aside from his beloved Labradors, his relationship with Fischer Junior is the only meaningful one in his life right now, and has been for some time."
Arthur looks sceptical. "He does have children of his own."
"Yes, and two ex-wives to go with them. What's your point?"
Arthur shrugs in capitulation: they both know this is Eames's area. "So Browning's the father figure here?"
"Seems likely," Eames nods, "although I haven't seen much of them together yet."
"Is this useful?"
"Almost certainly. Whether he realises it or not, Browning is in competition with Fischer Senior for Junior's affections. That sets up a tension between them that could be very useful indeed."
Arthur cocks an eyebrow to himself as he chews his food contemplatively. This, Eames knows, means he's impressed. She smiles.
"Not bad for a day's work, hmm?" she says, because Arthur sure as hell won't.
The waiter arriving to top up their wine stalls any response Arthur might have made. Instead Arthur places his knife and fork neatly together on his now-empty plate so that the waiter can take them away.
Once he's loaded up, the waiter turns to Eames and says, "Would you like to see the dessert menu, Madame?"
Eames turns to Arthur. "What do you think, darling? On the one hand, chocolate is said to be the best aphrodisiac and I saw a delightful looking gateau on the way in. On the other hand, it would break my heart to see you unable to fit into all of that sublime tailoring."
Arthur scowls at her before sending the waiter off for the bill so sharply the poor man rattles the cutlery.
"Was there any need for that?" she asks, amused.
"Yes," Arthur says, and then, glancing down at her outfit, "and weren't you ever taught about glass houses and throwing stones?"
She has on a black high-waisted pencil skirt and silk blouse today, not as stylish as the Burberry but more in keeping with Marianna's professional persona of understated, plausibly deniable sexuality, and just as fitted.
"Touchy," she says, as Arthur helps her into her coat. "Besides," she continues as they walk out onto the street, "one of the joys of being a woman is the vast selection available to you of magic pants."
Arthur blinks, and then suddenly breaks into a surprised laugh. Eames's heart flips over dangerously.
"Eames," he says, "that's horrific."
She sniffs daintily, holding in her own ridiculous smile. "Far be it from me to disabuse you of the notion that women only ever wear their frilliest undies on the off chance that a man might be exposed to them," she says. "Please, continue to visualise me in sheer lace and satin."
"Right," he says, in a way that is almost certainly intended to be dismissive, the effect of which is spoiled somewhat by the ghost of the laugh still playing at the corners of his mouth and eyes.
She falls into bed earlier than usual that night, the bottle of local Riesling and long flight time conspiring together to push her into heavy, undreaming sleep. She wakes up almost exactly seven hours later to early morning sunlight streaming through the curtains she neglected to draw, feeling well rested and full of energy.
She's definitely a morning person – the type of morning person who will whistle chirpily the moment she's upright, and have her best ideas during her morning shower. It has led Yusuf to threaten violence on many an occasion, and she suspects Ariadne has only been holding it in out of politeness so far. That's what she likes about working with Arthur – one of the things she likes. One of the many. He's just as annoyingly sharp this early, and usually on less sleep, too.
She probably could have predicted he'd be in the hotel gym when she arrives, taking the miles out of the treadmill with his dreadful, bass-heavy techno music blasting from his MP3 player.
She leaves him to it and heads for the weight room. The CV stuff is important, of course, but when it comes down to it, she likes to be strong. She likes her muscles to be hard and visible under the skin. She'll never be truly butch – she doesn't have the time – but she definitely knows that Madonna didn't get deltoids like that through yoga alone. And despite the fact that she almost always needs to rely on a fighting style that uses her (male) opponent's higher weight and build against them, she has also found rather a lot of value in a surprisingly hard right hook.
She's finished her upper body and has just started on her core when she catches sight of Arthur leaning in the doorway, watching her.
"Want to spar?" he asks.
She grins. "Thought you'd never ask."
The weight room is deserted so they move a bench and spread out some mats and then go at each other a little harder than is strictly warranted for a practise session. Arthur has a good five inches on her, in her training shoes, but he's light for a man and that makes it easier than she's used to. Still, it's almost impossible to get him in a lock, and this is what she'd forgotten – Arthur is ridiculously flexible.
It's when he has her in hold, face down against the mats that she wonders out loud how that flexibility would translate to the bedroom, and instead of loosening his grip even slightly like she'd hoped, he just presses down more firmly, straddling her ass and holding her legs down with his own. The weight of him, the warmth, the sound of his panting breaths and the burn of her shoulder joint – it's turning her on in a way that's so predictable she almost rolls her eyes at herself, and so delicious she holds out for another couple of seconds just to feel it, before tapping out.
"I do enjoy it when you manhandle me," she says, once they're facing off again, and then catches him squarely on the jaw with a roundhouse kick that sends Arthur straight to the mats.
He sits there, rubbing his jaw and looking up at her balefully. "Eames, one of these days I'm going to kick your ass all the way back to England."
She bounces on the balls of her feet gleefully. "But not today, love."
When they're done, they help each other stretch, and if Eames leaves her hands on Arthur's sweat-damp skin longer than necessary, he doesn't say anything.
Later, in the shower, Eames gives in to the hot ache between her legs and brings herself off with what she'd like to call perfunctory efficiency, but what is more like a self-inflicted lingering tease that leaves her gasping and dizzy.
She tries not to do this, with Arthur, because each time she does she can feel herself standing on tiptoes at the top of the slippery slope. It's not just a quick wank to relieve the tension when it comes to him – it's everything else. It's the way he would open up to her kiss, so sweetly, cock hard against her belly, hair plastered wet to his head. The way he'd want her so badly he would lift her up against the shower wall and fuck her right there, bare, mouth on her nipple while she scraped her nails through his hair and told him all of the filthy things she'd been thinking about for so long now. It's the way she wants him to want that.
Too hot, she turns the shower off and leans her forehead against the cool tiles, listening to the water drip all around her and feeling suddenly very sorry for herself. Then she shakes herself out of it, gets dried off and dressed and puts on her Marianna mask for the day.
It's a slow day, supposedly to be spent in her cubicle doing proper lawyerly things. In fact, she uses the dead time to extend the range of her acquaintance, hanging out with Anming until the morning tea break, when Eames gets her to introduce her to the group of women who come in. They look at Eames warily at first, as though she's another species, and one with sharp claws, but Eames has charm by the bucket load, and after half an hour she's heard enough to have memorised each of their names, their kids' names, and what their precise job is.
"God, you have no idea how many times I've been told to go do the photocopying," Sarah sighs. "I'm a fucking paralegal, not an admin clerk."
"No, that'd be me," says Lin, with bite, and Eames smiles into her tea mug.
"My point being," Sarah continues blithely, "that they look for tits, and that's the extent of their ability to differentiate."
"So true," Eames agrees, and tells them about her run in with Jeffries yesterday.
And that's all it takes – she's one of the girls and they're arranging drinks after work, Nadine promising them all the most appalling gossip once they're out of the office, and Eames's fingertips tingle in anticipation.
It just so happens that she's meeting Arthur for dinner at the same restaurant whose bar she's currently getting very happily pissed at with her new best friends. Eames loves women like this – office women who are smarter than their qualifications, who hold up the whole enterprise like Atlas, who dress sharply, who will cut your legs out from underneath you with their incredible feats of cattiness but who will close ranks around you so quickly it'll give you whiplash the minute an outsider threatens.
Eames is leaning over the bar, entrancing the young barman with her cleavage in an attempt to get a cosmo out of him without him noticing she hasn't paid, and of course this is when Arthur walks in. Without really even noticing, she's shoved a handful of dollars at the barman and turned to follow Arthur with her eyes, hungry for the way he moves.
"Who's that?" Nadine asks, her voice carrying regretfully well so that the others turn to look at where she's pointing. Various expressions of approval pass around the group.
"That, ladies, is my cue to get my coat," she says, and downs her drink.
Lin whistles under her breath, or at least Eames supposes that was the idea. In reality it's loud enough for Arthur to turn around, eyebrows raised when he catches sight of Eames.
"Ms. Compton-Stokes," he says politely, coming over. "Are you ready?"
Eames smiles languidly and, taking his arm, tells him, "Change of plan, darling."
Over her shoulder she calls goodbye and watches with interest as Arthur's ears tinge pink at the not-so-subtle appreciation of his rearview currently going on behind them. Then she leads him outside and hails a taxi.
"I thought we were eating there?" Arthur asks, one eyebrow raised.
"Best laid plans and all that," Eames says regretfully. "I simply couldn't expose you to that cabal all evening."
"I can take care of myself, Eames," Arthur says, deadpan.
"Oh, I'm sure you can," she says softly, and doesn't finish the sentence with what she's thinking.
They end up in a salsa bar because Eames likes the music and Arthur likes tapas, and they can talk about their illegal day jobs to their hearts' content without the worry of an over attentive waiter overhearing anything.
She's warm and indolent with alcohol, her blouse unbuttoned one too low from the bar, and the way Arthur's eyes keep falling to the little triangle of flesh on display is really very entertaining.
Under the table she's already slipped her black stiletto booties off, flexing her right ankle to relieve the stabbing ache that's almost constant with these fucking heels Marianna wears. So it seems like a really good idea, next time Arthur's eyes drop down to her chest, to run her foot up the inside of his calf.
"Eames," he says warningly.
And then, completely out of the blue, "Do you want to dance?"
Eames looks across to the dance floor where bodies are moving sinuously to a remixed Ricky Martin hit.
"Enticing as that proposition is, I think I've had rather too much to drink," she says doubtfully.
"Perfect," Arthur says dryly. "I might actually be able to lead."
And it's amazing, the way the brain can dissociate from pain when there's something far more interesting to occupy it. Like the feel of Arthur's hand on her waist, the way he pushes and twists with his hands, somehow telegraphing exactly what he wants her to do, the way she barely even stumbles, despite how the room feels like it's spinning.
"Arthur, Arthur," she murmurs when he's pulled her in tight against his body, hot and lithe. "Always so competent at everything. Were you born, or manufactured?"
"Eames," he breathes, and his lips against her ear are making her shiver in the circle of his arms. "Shut up and dance."
Jesus, if she'd known Arthur could dance like this she'd have tried it years ago. He looks amazing, tie loose and sleeves rolled up, the fabric of his waistcoat soft under her hands. The way he lets her get up into his personal space, the way he pulls her into it, reminds her of their sparring this morning, and a liquid heat flows down from her chest to settle low in her belly, wanting.
It's a strange sort of intimacy, being hemmed in on all sides by people paying them no attention whatsoever, and Eames finds herself fixated by Arthur's eyes, so dark in the low lighting, watching her intently as he leads her through moves she didn't know she had in her. She could get lost here, in his gaze, in the beat of the music, in the movement of their bodies together, the steady certainty of his hands on her body. He moves her around like he knows her body better than his own, and she can't seem to get enough of it.
They have to stop when their food arrives, but Arthur sends her round in one more twirl and she laughs, can't really help it. Arthur's face is pink and he looks so lovely, and the food is great, and Eames eats and drinks and is very, very merry.
"I like you like this," Arthur says later, leaning in close to make himself heard over the music. His lips brush her ear again the way they had earlier, and Eames feels her pulse throbbing with his nearness.
"Like what?" she asks, turning her head so that their cheeks touch, nuzzling him almost. God, he smells amazing.
Arthur leans back ever so slightly, the tips of their noses almost touching, brown eyes too close to focus on, and for a breath-stopping moment she thinks he might kiss her, wonders vaguely if she can make the move herself and still be sure it's what he wants.
She'll have to keep on wondering, because right then the most fucking oblivious waiter in the world comes with the bill, enquiring loudly if they would like to pay by cash or card. Eames restrains herself from saying she'd actually prefer to pay with his blood, leaning her head heavily against the seatback and smiling ruefully up at the ceiling.
She finishes her glass of wine before they go, and that's a mistake because as soon as she stands up the restaurant tilts crazily in the kind of nightmarish way that sends Eames groping for her totem before she realises, oh yes, she's just drunk. On the upside, Arthur practically carries her back, one arm around her waist and letting her head flop over onto his shoulder.
"S'an awful liberty you're letting me take here," she slurs happily as Arthur manoeuvres her down the block to their hotel. Arthur doesn't say anything, and when she looks up, his face is back to his usual blank expression, with a garnish of 'slight frown'. She misses his smile.
"Oh dear, did I just tell you that out loud?" She tries to remember, but it feels very loud in her head right now.
"Tell me what?"
"Doesn'matter." She brings her other arm to loop around his front, and that feels nice, and then she realises that this means she's effectively cuddling him. "How embarrassing," she mutters, letting her arm drop back again.
"You have a sense of shame? I'm surprised, I'll admit," Arthur says.
"You'd be surprised by a lot of things, darling," she says, and doesn't even know herself what she's talking about. "What am I talking about?"
"How you're never going to touch the demon drink again."
"Nooooo," Eames says, because that definitely doesn't sound like her. "Nice try."
She catches her heel, then, in a crack in the paving slabs, and the distant throb in her ankle zooms into the foreground, making her hiss in pain. "Fucking shoes." She stops and bends over to rub uselessly at her Achilles through her stockings. "Arthur," she says, "I know these nice outfits make you want to fuck me, and believe me when I say that I am very happy about that, but I swear, if you make me keep wearing them when we're done here I will stab you with my heel."
Then her ears catch up with her mouth. She straightens up and they stare at each other mutely for a moment, because for all the years they've been playing each other's games, she's always known that the one defining rule is that they don't bloody well speak about it. There is the briefest moment of panic, expanding sharply like a bubble in her chest, and then for some reason that even her drunken logic can't fathom, she begins to laugh.
"God," Arthur says flatly. "I haven't had enough to drink to forget you said that in the morning."
"Don't worry," she says consolingly through ridiculous giggles, patting him sloppily on the chest, "I definitely have."
"Eames, you are impossible," Arthur tells her, but she thinks she detects something that could, in Arthur, very well be termed fondness.
The first thing she thinks when she wakes up is, thank god it's Saturday. The second thing is, oh shit, I still have to go into the office.
She lies curled up under the duvet, eyes closed against the incessant bleating of her alarm, waiting for it to turn itself off and wondering idly if Arthur would have undressed her for the sake of the couture.
The answer, discovered five minutes later when she can finally bear to inch her eyes open, is no. It turns out she's slept the night in her beautiful Thomas Pink shirt, and her skirt is a crumpled heap at the bottom of the bed, probably wriggled out of in her sleep and shoved down there with one stocking and a cufflink. Oddly, though, when she looks in the mirror her face isn't the usual morning-after wreckage she'd anticipated, and out on the side by the sink are her make-up wipes and the lotion she uses to remove her mascara.
She thinks about that while she showers, and can come to no conclusions.
Arthur is waiting for the lift when she steps out of her room and she pauses momentarily, weighing up retreat as the better part of valour, before snapping out of it and going to join him. She's fairly certain she didn't do anything regrettable last night, but what she might have said is another matter. And it isn't that she has a sense of shame, per se (or at least, a well-developed one), but much as she would like to deny it, Arthur's opinion somehow seems to matter to her.
It was stupid to drink so much, really. She can hold her alcohol far, far better than most, but the women were drinking cocktails like water and it wouldn't have done to let them outpace her. The bottle of wine over dinner had gone down very smoothly after that, and she hadn't eaten much. But ultimately, she had been having fun, with Arthur, and that had been the kicker.
"Arthur," she greets him, voice rough to her own ears. He's clean-shaven and fresh-looking, and she can smell his aftershave. A sense memory from the night before washes over her, and she suddenly remembers the feel of his body against hers as they danced.
She studies his face unabashedly, as she often does, until he half-turns towards her, one eyebrow cocked in a flicker of annoyance.
She doesn't respond to the unspoken question, keeping her own face carefully schooled, just watching him. But there's no visible sign of the warmth he'd shown last night. She'd thought at the time it had been unusual, but she'd hoped... well. She always hopes when it comes to Arthur.
"Arthur," she says gravely. "There's something I think we need to talk about."
He turns to look at her sharply, frowning. "What?"
"This tendency to the drink, darling. You're a bad influence on me and I don't think it should continue."
He scowls at her darkly, and she smiles to herself, satisfied – if she can't have warmth, she'll take irritation any day.
Hangover notwithstanding, today is not going to be a pleasant day.
Nadine's gossip from the previous evening had been completely irrelevant to Eames's interests apart from the fact that fit-Mike was taking Charlotte-the-ex to the charity dinner. A charity dinner, it transpires, that is being put on by Fischer Junior, and is almost certainly her best chance to see Fischer and Browning together.
It's also in two days, but Eames sees that more as a challenge than an impediment. Plan A is to break into Browning's aide's office and steal his invite card so she can forge one for herself – he's a horrible little shit and she'll enjoy seeing him scratching his head over this one. Unfortunately, as she suspected might happen, plan A is scuppered when Jeffries is in evidence in his office, and doesn't seem inclined to leave.
So commences plan B, wherein she flutters her eyelashes and brings him two large cups of coffee in an hour, and apologises silently to all the women who will come after her into this man's orbit, whose lives she's just made a little bit worse. He walks past her cubicle on his way to the bathroom, and stands too close when he tells her how diligent she is to be in today, how pleased he is to see she takes her position seriously, and so while he's relieving himself she takes his car keys as well as the invite and tosses them into the vegetable bin down in catering on her way out.
Arthur doesn't text her about dinner for that evening, and she doesn't take it personally. Instead, she orders up room service and takes the opportunity to touch base with Cobb.
"It'll mean staying an extra day," she tells him, "but unless we're really pushed for time I think it'll be worth it."
"What does Arthur think?" Cobb asks. He sounds distracted.
"Don't know – haven't seen him since this morning." In the background, Eames thinks she can hear Ariadne and Yusuf carrying on about something. "Cobb? You there?"
"Yeah, sorry. That should be fine, Eames – we want to get this right."
"There isn't much we can do until the old man kicks it, anyway."
"Any news on when that's likely to be?"
"Arthur's got all the medical details, but we're probably looking at weeks not days. For now."
"Good, okay. You rearrange the flights from your end and I'll let Saito know the change of plan."
Eames snorts softly to herself at this last, but doesn't say anything against the man currently footing her bills.
It's much later that night – might even be morning by now – when a knock on the door brings her out of her work-induced trance. It's Arthur, and she spares him a terse glance before returning to the desk, not especially glad of the interruption.
He doesn't say anything for a while, letting the door close quietly behind him, standing a little way behind her and watching over her shoulder.
"They all look the same," he says eventually.
"Do they," Eames replies, distracted. She can't quite get the curl on the capital 'F' and it's bugging her. "And that would be why I'm the professional forger, and you are a glorified research assistant."
"What is it, anyhow?" Arthur asks, ignoring the barb.
"Invite to the Fischer Trust charity ball. Have you spoken to Cobb?"
"We're staying an extra day."
"For a ball? I never pegged you as the Cinderella type, Eames."
"Piss off." She tilts her head at the row of practice words she's just written out and decides to change her pen.
"You got enough supplies there for two?"
"Make one for me as well, then."
The comment about Prince Charming is right on the tip of her tongue, but her brain is too occupied on the task at hand to get as far as articulating it. They fall into silence again, and for a little while Eames actually forgets Arthur's there. It makes her jump, slightly, when he shifts his weight and his clothing rustles softly. She sighs – another practice run ruined.
"Did you want something, Arthur?" she asks, turning.
He puts his hands in his pockets, expression strange in a way Eames files away to think about later.
"Tomorrow night – don't make any plans. I need back up on a job."
"Your wish, my command. Anything else?"
"Then good night."
She doesn't look at the time when she finally goes to bed, and wakes up gone midday, feeling groggy and out of sorts. She hits the gym, and by the time she's finished and made herself presentable, her stomach feels like it's going to implode, so she ventures out for lunch, enjoying the spring sunshine and Sunday crowds.
Needing to move after all those hours cramped up in a chair the day before, she walks north by the war memorial at St. James, all the way up to the botanic gardens, and sits on a bench on Mount Tomah watching the people more than the view.
People will never be boring to her, their endless little facets and foibles, like a ball of string that unravels forever. She was very young, still, when she realised she could somehow control other people's actions through her own: be one way, and a person would react like so, be a different way, and the same person could be made to act completely contrarily. It was a thrill, being able to change your manner, your mode of address, the directness of your stare, and have someone believe of you whatever it was you wanted – god she'd enjoyed those early hustles.
And the benefit of being a willowy teen with dyed blonde hair and big blue eyes and the ability to seem completely trustworthy was that people actually trusted her. She remembers vividly the Royal Navy lieutenant who had come to her sixth form to encourage the girls to join up – brown skin and brown hair and knowing brown eyes. She'd looked at Eames as though she'd known exactly what Eames's future held, and it was a flat landscape of academic boredom that looked like the inside of a lecture theatre. She'd said join the armed forces, and you won't believe the things you'll see.
More true than even she'd realised, in the face of it.
When Project Somnacin got off the ground they put her in as a potential architect, at first, given her test scores and dependable, steady nature. Eames was the only one unsurprised when she turned out to be better at designing people than landscapes.
In the gardens, she watches surreptitiously as two women – sisters – argue. She can tell by the flick of the eyes up to her left that the shorter one is lying about something. She knows she's wrong but she's arguing on anyway, body half-turned away and hands on hips, defensive. She can't catch what they're saying, but the words aren't the interesting part when the story's all laid out before her eyes.
Eames smiles and stretches her arms up, spine decompressing audibly, before settling back against the bench to watch the show.
Arthur texts to tell her when to meet him, so around 6pm she changes into jeans, a jumper and some blessedly flat plimsolls and walks down the corridor to his hotel room. The press of her Beretta in her side feels strange after a few days without it.
It looks like a warehouse from the outside, but Arthur says Fischer Morrow uses it as low security storage. Eames can't imagine what it is Arthur wants from here, given how poorly it's protected, but she doesn't question his instincts – she's never known him to be wrong.
There's a long stretch of electric fence around the back, floodlights too far apart to be effective enough for the CCTV mounted on the railing. They short out a section large enough to cut through with the wire cutters, and from there it's ridiculously easy to slide through the shadows up to a fire exit. Eames jimmies the door open and they enter, running softly up the stairwell until Arthur holds out a hand for them to stop, listening at the door before carefully pulling it open.
They're on the third floor, a long corridor ahead of them stretching at least half the length of the building, doors leading off on both sides. The lights are on low and as they watch, two security guards pass slowly down at the other end, talking in careless voices – they don't expect to find anything here.
She can hear Arthur counting under his breath until they're out of hearing range, then silently, they enter.
Arthur leads her to the second door on the left, the room opening out into what is ostensibly a large space, made to feel cramped by floor-to-ceiling computer towers. Against the hush of the rest of the building, the whirring of the computer fans and the woefully inadequate aircon make the room seem to echo with noise, and Eames hovers by the door, cautious.
As though reading her thoughts, Arthur whispers, "Stay there and tell me if you hear anything. We should have eight minutes before the guards get close, but keep an eye out."
He works quickly, going to the room's only terminal and logging on with what Eames presumes is stolen access information. She takes a moment to admire him in concentration, the smooth line of his features in profile, before turning her full attention to the corridor beyond, and her watch as it ticks down the minutes.
With 00:01:00 flicking across her watch face, she glances at Arthur and whispers at him to get a move on.
At 00:00:29 Arthur shuts the computer down and slides his flash drive out of the USB port.
By 00:00:20 they are out of the room and moving swiftly for the fire exit, but by 00:00:16 a voice has shouted at them to stop, and a clatter of footfalls follows them as they chase back down the stairwell.
Haphazard shots are fired at them, but Eames reaches the external door at 00:00:06. She turns to drag Arthur through and watches in horrible slow motion as the guard's last shot catches him in the back and he collapses down the last few stairs, a sickeningly meaty thunk of flesh on concrete as he lands at the bottom, unmoving.
There are no more seconds after that. Eames remembers drawing her gun, and nothing else until they reach the emergency department at Sydney Hospital.
Eames stares at herself, white-faced and exhausted, in the hospital bathroom mirror. It's a flesh wound, a fucking graze to the triceps, but she has a streak of Arthur's blood on her cheekbone where she'd frantically pushed her hair back, and a tight, constricted little ball of terror in the pit of her stomach, distant but abiding.
The doctor's in with Arthur now, sewing him up like a torn piece of lining fabric, and she should go back in because they need to get out of here as soon as he's done but right now she still isn't sure whether or not she's going to throw up.
She breaths, and she rinses the blood out from under her nails, and splashes her face with cold water. Then she goes and gets Arthur while the doctor's out of the room, and doesn't take her hands off him until he's lying on her hotel bed, curled up on his side, arm held protectively against his body.
Aside from the obvious, there are certain problems Arthur's getting shot have thrown up. For example, the car Eames had abandoned in the hospital car park. It had been hired under a false identity, so it had been safer to leave it there, incriminating bloodstains and all, but now she'll have to go through the hassle of getting a new one.
Likewise she hadn't waited long enough to pick up Arthur's prescription, and now she needs to get him antibiotics and pain meds from somewhere. Luckily for them, Yusuf seems to know someone in every fucking city in the world, and hooks her up with a friend of a friend who leaves the pills in a discreet paper bag at reception. Eames promises Yusuf a lot more of her appreciation and the bottle of Macallan she's been saving.
"You always say that."
"Maybe this time I mean it."
She picks up the pills and doses Arthur, then helps him out of his bloodstained shirt and into pyjamas. Then she lies down next to him and curls around him, protective, careful not to jostle his arm, and falls asleep listening to his breathing.
She wakes when her alarm goes off, to brown eyes watching her across the pillow, and has a moment of complete disorientation before the previous night's events come rushing back in. Immediately she shifts her weight back, conscious of Arthur's injury, and the smallest of smiles touches the corners of his mouth.
"You weren't hurting me," he says. "Believe me, you'd have known about it if you were."
She blinks. "How're you feeling?"
Arthur yawns. He's lying on his back looking languid and relaxed, and uncomfortably appealing. "Better than I should. I don't know what's in these drugs, but they're pretty effective. Feels like opiates."
Eames frowns. "I hope I didn't over dose you."
Arthur just gazes at her wordlessly for several seconds before eventually saying, voice soft, "Thank you, Eames."
She doesn't quite know what to say. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you seems a bit overblown, and I'm just glad you're alive please don't ever do that to me again is possibly too honest. In the end, she settles for, "You're welcome," and feels the inadequacy of it like rocks in her throat.
She orders breakfast for them both before getting in the shower. Arthur is too blissed out for any kind of morning after weirdness, which is good because Eames feels strangely on edge, an uncomfortable, raw feeling in her chest that won't shift.
Arthur watches her when she comes out wrapped in a towel to grab some clothes, a strangely intent expression on his face. She dresses in the bathroom, does her hair and make-up, and when she comes out again she feels more put together. Their food arrives, Arthur eating clumsily with one hand – she doesn't offer to help butter his toast because she knows him better than that.
She finishes her tea and reaches over for her handbag and is about to go when Arthur catches her wrist. He doesn't say anything, though, just looks at her, and she feels herself smiling gently at him as she reaches up to push his hair back from his forehead.
"Look after yourself while I'm gone, darling," she says, and leaves him with her room key and instructions not to get his stitches wet.
She doesn't expect him to still be there when she gets in that evening, hastily procured ball gown draped over one arm and fumbling in her bag for the key that isn't there; the door opening from the inside is decidedly unexpected.
Arthur's standing there in a tuxedo, looking impatient. "You're late."
"I'm... sorry?" Eames tries. And then, "Not that I don't appreciate the aesthetics, but why exactly are you dressed like that?"
Arthur looks at her flatly, the look he always uses when he thinks she's said something moronic.
"I see," Eames says. "And I don't suppose the small matter of a bullet wound is going to convince you that going to the ball is not the best idea?"
They argue about it, in a half-hearted sort of way. Arthur thinks that she'll be less conspicuous as arm candy than as a single woman attending an event like this, and he's a stubborn bastard at the best of times, let alone when he's right. She wonders briefly what it would be like to be a man, able to vanish into the background of other men with no one questioning what she was doing at an event for the business elite. Such thoughts are ultimately pointless for the job at hand, however, and she can appreciate the need for lower visibility given how she... acquired... her invitation.
Besides, it will mean the pleasure of being on Arthur's arm all evening, and he does look incredibly good.
She gets ready quickly, unpinning her hair to hang loose and touching up her makeup, before slipping on the dress. It's a rich majolica blue, simple but elegantly cut – not the kind of attention-grabber she would usually go for, but given the circumstances it had seemed more prudent. It also happens to be just the right length to hide some kitten heels under the full-length hem.
Arthur is leaning against the wall outside her room with his hands in his pockets, and stares at her critically when she comes out. His expression reminds her of when he had first seen her dressed as Marianna in Charles de Gaulle a few days ago – comments being created and discarded privately before he finds something acceptably condescending.
Instead, this time, his eyes just seem to rest on her bare shoulders, the tattoo there, barely visible through her long hair.
"You better put that wrap on," he says eventually. "Have you got the invitations?"
They hash out a back-story for themselves in the limo on their way to the Park Hyatt – Jake and Amanda Archer, a young entrepreneur and his wife, visiting Sydney with a view to expanding their business over here. Her father is a wealthy hotel magnate, his father an old friend of Fischer Senior's.
It's a striking hotel on the waterfront underneath Harbour Bridge and looking out over the water to the opera house. The sun is just starting to set as they step out onto the rooftop, shining a bright golden yellow through the clouds. A waiter in a starched white jacket passes them champagne flutes as a vaguely official-looking woman takes their invitations and Fischer Junior greets them with warm sincerity and blank eyes. And then it's just waiting and watching, tucked away against the balcony unobtrusively, the champagne a prop to keep the waiters away.
She has to admit that having Arthur along is quite useful – she can allow herself to become fully absorbed in watching Browning knowing that Arthur's got her back if anyone starts to notice her. He's halved his pain meds, though, to keep himself alert, and it's about an hour after they've arrived, when they're being seated for the meal, that she notices how edgy it's made him. His muscles are tense when she takes his arm, and when she looks up he's frowning at something.
"What is it?" she asks.
"That man," he says, jerking his chin to gesture across the marquee. "Does he know you?"
She looks over. "Jeffries," she says, "Browning's aide. Has he recognised me?"
"He keeps looking at you."
"Huh," she says, genuinely surprised. She's been playing up the meek, unassuming body language since they got here, and no one else has done anything but look right through her. But maybe Jeffries is just stupid enough for that not to work on him.
"Is this a problem, Eames?"
"Shouldn't think so."
Arthur doesn't look convinced. "He looks like he's mentally undressing you," he says. His tone is familiar but somehow hard to parse – she's used to his disapproval, but more usually directed at her.
"Darling," she laughs, "what's your point?"
Arthur looks down at her, one eyebrow raised. "It doesn't bother you?"
"Not at all, it's just feeding my narcissism."
"It needs feeding?" Arthur asks, but his heart isn't in it, distracted still by Jeffries.
Browning and Fischer are sitting next to each other on the table nearest the small stage, where a jazz band is crooning quietly just above the background roar of chatter. She has a perfect, unobstructed view of the two of them and she watches Browning carefully, making small, deliberate hand movements in her lap in discreet mimicry of his gestures.
Her starter comes and goes. Arthur reaches over to pour her more wine, resting his hand on hers on the stem of her glass as he does so.
She's forced into conversation during the main course by the old boy on her left, who just can't seem to restrain himself. Normally Eames enjoys men like him, but she's working right now, and has better things to do than listen to his stories. Five minutes in, just before she's reached the point of rudeness unbecoming, Arthur puts his good arm around the back of her chair, fingers brushing her neck, and leans over.
"I'm sorry," he apologises tersely, "but I'm going to have to cut in." He stands and takes her elbow, pulling her up and guiding her between tables until they reach the bar.
Eames looks at him questioningly.
"You want to watch Browning and Fischer, right?" he says.
"Yes," Eames agrees. After a moment, she adds, "I notice my elbow is still in your custody."
Arthur glances down, to where his fingers remain wrapped around her bare arm, but instead of removing it, he moves his hand around to the small of her back, light pressure warm through the boning of the dress.
"Jeffries is still watching you," he says quietly.
"Ah, I see." She looks up at him. "Should my pride be offended?" she asks lightly.
"You're acting as though I need protecting – should my pride be offended?"
"Fuck you, Eames," he murmurs, "I'm watching your back."
"Oh, that's what you're doing to my back. I had started to wonder."
Arthur is unmoved to stop, however, and Eames is torn been amusement, irritation and arousal. It's a combination of sentiments she associates uniquely with Arthur.
They sit back down once the waiters start to serve dessert because Eames has a thing for strawberry foam and she has more than enough points of reference for Browning and Fischer now. Arthur passes her the serviette that had fallen to the floor, deliberately brushing his hand against hers, and Eames catches his hand, linking their fingers together on the tabletop, because if he's going to be a dickhead she might as well get something out of it.
"How long have you been married?" her old fellow asks indulgently.
"It's our one month anniversary today," Eames replies, smiling sappily at Arthur, who is carefully controlling his expression to avoid showing any hint of the scowl he is no doubt feeling on the inside.
"I remember what that was like," the old guy chortles, and launches into another story about his first wife, while the third wife looks on indignantly.
After dinner, a singer joins the jazz band on stage and the tables are cleared to make a dance floor. She has a beautiful, woodsmoke voice, the kind that melts in through your ears and enters your soul. Arthur ruins it by trying to get Eames to dance.
After everything this evening, it's maybe a little odd that this is the thing that triggers it, but she's suddenly so fucking angry with him she's vibrating with it. It's not even about the dancing, because of course she'd dance with him, if only he meant it. If he just fucking meant any of it. Because last night, for more than a moment, she'd thought he was dead, and something inside her has been pulled taut ever since, and she just can't process him fucking around with her tonight.
She leaves him at their table mid-word to go to the ladies, wondering idly how many angry text messages she'd have in the morning if she just ditched him here, when a very unwelcome impediment presents itself.
"I wasn't expecting to see you here, Marianna," Jeffries says.
Eames blinks at him, the image of confusion. "Pardon, monsieur, je vous comprends pas," she says, and brushes past him to the toilets.
It's possible – indeed, entirely likely – that she's finding it difficult to touch up her lipstick because she can't stop herself from a grimly satisfied smirk at the beached-fish look on his face. Unfortunately, that's when Jeffries barges into the bathroom and clamps a hand around her upper arm, swinging her around, and pushes his face right up into hers.
He doesn't get as far as voicing whatever grievance has wormed its way into his head, because the following second finds him flat against the wall by the hand dryer, Eames's knee in his groin and her hand at his throat.
"I'm going to enjoy this," she says to his astonished expression, and smacks his head back against the tiles hard enough to knock him out cold.
For any other man she'd just leave him there, but Jeffries has been a shit since she met him, and also possibly the source of all her woe tonight, so she tucks his right hand down the front of his trousers, writes across his forehead in red lipstick and takes a photo with her phone. She sends it to Sarah, with the message To be done with as your conscience dictates.
And then she steals his car keys, for old time's sake.
She's leaning against the railing looking out across the dark harbour and contemplating an unlit cigarette when Arthur finds her.
"I thought you quit," he says, leaning on his elbows beside her.
"Hm," Eames replies, "but I'll be damned if I can remember why, right now."
There is a long pause. Eames mulishly refuses to fill it.
"I should probably apologise," Arthur says after a little while.
"You probably should," Eames agrees. "Are you going to?"
Arthur snorts, surprisingly inelegant for him, and wordlessly hands her a glass of single malt.
Eames stares at it for a moment, then huffs a laugh. "Alright, you have me," she says.
They stand next to each other, the silence less fraught, now, more companionable. Eames sips her drink, feels the bright burn of it slide down her throat. Arthur, leaning on the railing still, rubs his face in an unusual show of fatigue.
"You're tired," she says.
"I'm fine," he replies, but she can see how he's favouring his left arm, the right held still and a little limp.
"We should probably go soon, anyway," she says. "There's an unconscious man in the ladies' bathroom with 'wanker' written on his forehead – people are going to start asking questions."
"Eames," Arthur says in despair, but his dimples are showing, and she thinks that means she's won, though what she isn't quite sure.
"Do you want that dance now?" she asks.
Arthur glances at her, expression inscrutable for a moment, before he nods and says, "Yeah, okay."
There's the clinking of glass and low thrum of voices in the background, the soft jazz wafting out of the marquee over that, and Arthur slow dances with her in a way that is utterly unexpected. It comes down to this: given the opportunity (and after this evening, the excuse) to drop her hands down to his very fine arse, Eames finds she would rather keep them tight around his body, fingers spread greedily across his back.
It's business as usual when they get back to Paris. Arthur reckons they have about a month before Fischer Senior cashes in his chips, and the time is spent feverishly designing, testing, refining their mazes, working with Yusuf to get the compound right, reviewing her recordings of Browning, and generally trying to put together a plan that has more than half a chance of succeeding.
Cobb seems, at times, to be on the verge of collapse into some kind of black hole of anxiety. All Eames knows is that this is the job that will reunite him with his children; there's more to it than that, undoubtedly, but she doesn't care to ask. She's confident they can pull it off this time, and she'll just have to rely on Cobb being enough of a professional to keep his shit together long enough to finish the job.
Arthur is... well, he's Arthur. Terse and unsmiling and ever the professional. Yusuf doesn't bother to hide his amazement that they made it back from six days in Australia together without Arthur taking a gun to her, and to all intents and purposes their relationship is unchanged. Aside from the part where Eames sometimes feels like her chest is filling up with light when she looks at Arthur; the part where it aches so much that she doesn't know whether it's joy or pain.
She had thought, in Sydney, that she could feel the centre of the see-saw under her feet, the tipping point just one tiny step away. But Arthur has always been one of the hardest people she knows to read, and back in Paris, it feels like she's been barred from the playground altogether.
They scatter after the Fischer job. Eames and Yusuf go straight back to Kenya, landing in Nairobi twelve hours after seeing Cobb off to his bright new future. They get a matatu to Mombasa, because the roads might be made entirely of pothole, and there might well be an actual sheep trussed up under their seats, but Yusuf damn well isn't going to miss the opportunity to stop over at Makindu for some real food.
By the time she makes it to her apartment in Mombasa the following day, she can feel the familiar sensation of something re-balancing within her, settling gently in her stomach as she breathes in the warm air off the sea. She's always glad to be home, when she's here.
Her apartment feels quiet, though, after the last couple of months living in other people's pockets. She opens the shutters to let the thick yellow sunlight stream in, and lies back on her couch with her arm behind her head, watching dust motes waft in the scant air currents.
She falls asleep there, and wakes up uncomfortable and hot, the afternoon sun pressing down on her like a blanket. She pads to the bathroom and splashes cold water in her face and looks in the mirror. Her reflection looks back, mournful, the memory of the dream she had been having printed all over her face. She had been dreaming of Arthur.
She sighs. She doesn't especially like this new self, who seems to have appeared out of the ether, taking a fascination with getting into Arthur's pants and subverting it into something... other. She's been chasing after him for what very well could be years, but only now, all of a sudden, she feels tired from the wanting.
She's moping, she knows, but she's doing it in style. Saito didn't leave them lacking, and she has more than enough money to spend the rest of the year taking losses at the poker table or sitting in the corner of the bar and getting steadily, broodingly drunk.
Yusuf reminds her about the Macallan, and Eames is obliged to fulfil her debt of honour. Handing it over is a wrench, but Yusuf's good enough to pour her a glass one lazy evening in the shop, and they chew the cud while all the time, Eames tries to stop remembering the way her throat had still burned from the whiskey while she had danced on the roof terrace in Sydney with Arthur.
Bored with herself, she goes out to the north coast beach front, finds a tourist club and later, a very nice young man. He kisses like an angel, asks if he can take her back to his hotel room, and with mounting horror at herself, Eames says no.
She goes home and finishes a bottle of single malt that was possibly more than half full when she started, and wakes up on the floor of her living room, feeling gummy and dehydrated, wondering how she got here, in more ways than one.
Yusuf says she always gets twitchy when she isn't working; Eames thinks she needs a holiday, possibly from her own head.
The thing is, she could just go and find Arthur, wine him and dine him, see if he'll give her an honest chance. But she doesn't, for much the same reason she knew she couldn't kiss him in the salsa bar in Sydney – she would never be sure he wasn't just taking what was available, because it was there.
The beaches in Mombasa are as beautiful as any in the world, and Eames has spent the morning down at Diani, walking off her hangover. Her hair's a mess, faded back to her natural dirty blonde and put up loose and unbrushed in a ponytail, tangled from the wind. Her sunglasses are hiding some of the damage from the night before, and the sun on her skin and the litre bottle of water she took with her have done wonders, but mostly what's on her mind is a lunchtime nap.
The last thing she expects to see around the back of her building as she parks her motorbike, is Arthur.
"Eames," he says simply in greeting.
"Arthur, always a pleasure." She waits for an explanation, but none is forthcoming. "Not that I need you to provide an excuse when the result is the very great personal delight I gain from laying eyes on you, but why are you here?"
Arthur gives her his flat, you're-a-moron look, walks across the courtyard and kisses her.
"Oh," she says, when he draws back.
"Eames," Arthur says, bringing his hand up to her face, drawing his thumb along her lower lip, "tell me you didn't actually think I only wanted to fuck you for your clothes."
Eames opens her mouth and touches her tongue to his skin, watching his face as he pushes his thumb between her lips, the way his eyes fall closed when she sucks the tip.
"Well, not any more, darling," she says, and takes him by the wrist and pulls him inside.
She still has sand clinging to her calves where she rolled her trousers up on the beach earlier, her linen shirt is creased, her leather flip-flops are battered and scratched, but all that seems to mean is that Arthur is all the more eager to get her undressed.
"Arthur," she says, breath coming quickly as he palms her breast with one hand, bends to put his mouth to her neck, "I should probably make it clear that this isn't going to be a one time thing."
"I know," he says, his breath hot on her skin, drawing a shiver out of her that seems to start in her toes.
"What I mean is, if you ever leave I will pursue you to the ends of the earth."
"Eames, I know."
"Just so we're clear," she says, and pulls him closer, kissing him deeply, possessively, fingers spread wide across the bare skin of his back.
Later, she'll lie naked on her stomach with the ceiling fan whirring and watch Arthur's face as he strokes his hand up and down her spine. She'll watch him, heart so big it feels like it'll burst out of her chest, and he'll catch her eye and smile, small and fond, and remind her that he came to her and so yes, it is indeed perfectly clear.
Right now, though, it's fingers and teeth and breath and sweat, the joy of the movement of their bodies together, sensation, overwhelming, so much feeling, Arthur's hands on her hips as she rides him, leaving bruises like a promise where his fingertips dig in, and there are a hundred things Eames wants to do to Arthur, but there's time for all of that, later. There will be time.