It all begins with Arthur checking the printouts of all of Saito's transactions for the Fisher job. Arthur doesn't really know it at the time, he's just double-checking that the payments (his, and Dom's, and Ariadne's, because she asked him if he could take care of hers as well) came through securely, and that no one will be able to track them. He does his job, and even though he is curious, even though he'd love(?) to use this chance to snoop around Eames' accounts by following the money Saito wired to him, he doesn't. He almost pats himself on the shoulder for the restraint he demonstrates in doing so.
Three days later, as he is eating breakfast while trying to read an article that keeps failing to catch his interest, it hits him, and he barely resists the impulse to whack himself on the head instead.
A moment later the anger sets in. It's irrational, even stupid. Everything turned out perfectly well in the end. They managed to perform inception, Dom is back where he belongs, and Arthur and Eames have even established a sort of ceasefire, maybe even something more if Arthur were to be honest with himself.
Still, Arthur has never liked being played, and irrational or not, that's his knee-jerk reaction.
He doesn't stop to wonder about how conveniently placed the trail of the other payment had been, almost as if someone had wanted him to notice it. He will only realize this weeks later, and by then he'll have already reached the point where he can't be sure whether he is more annoyed or amused by it. For the moment, though, he simply decides to give into his irritation and investigate. If anyone asks, he can just hide behind his usual thoroughness.
It takes him an embarrassingly long time to actually get proof of what he has come to suspect. He knows it's his fault, that he's let the trail go cold. He also knows that there aren't many people who would be able to actually find anything at this point, but it still makes him bristle.
At least, he has the time to spare. They'd all agreed to lie low for a few months. Inception is not something that would pass unnoticed, and some of them already had reasons to hide from before that job. Better to see how things evolve, let Dom get reacquainted with his kids, let Ariadne finish her degree, and then decide how to proceed. They hadn't really discussed this, but that they would work together again seemed to be a tacit agreement when they had divided two weeks earlier. Arthur had started fidgeting three days in. That had been how he had found himself double-checking the money trail.
And still, he had almost missed it; an earlier payment, substantial, to one of the six accounts that had received the money for the Inception job.
Miles looks up at him with a frown. Arthur doesn't flinch, it's not like he needs or wants the man's approval, but it still makes him clench his teeth a little harder, the corners of his mouth slightly turned down. The man is still the father-in-law of his best friend and the founder of dreamscape architecture after all, someone Arthur respects.
The frown turns into a squint – different from Dom's, but a squint none-the-less – and Arthur is suddenly hit by the memory of Mal's laughter, her voice soft as she proclaimed, "Mon dieu, you squint like my father. It turns out I'm a daddy's girl, after all. I might have to re-evaluate myself completely." Dom had gaped at her. Arthur had avoided laughing out loud, trying to show his support for his friend, but that hadn't meant that he hadn't found it funny, too.
"You just thought about her." It's not a question. Arthur knows he makes it easy for Miles to see right through him; or, at the very least, through his upper layers. It's this being off work that is messing him up. He isn't sure he knows how to deal with it, how to behave in his downtime to maintain his balance, especially after the months spent looking after Dom – always vigilant, permanently ready to break one or more of his own rules to protect the other man. Now he finds himself with too much time on his hands, free time that means he could in theory deal with all his personal issues – Dom, Dom's role in Mal's death, Dom's lies, Eames' last words to him before disappearing into a cab in Los Angeles:
"Call me when you get over being pissed at me"; the smile in the forger's eyes hinting clearly that he knew that Arthur wouldn't understand, that he was messing with him, but also that he trusted Arthur to get it eventually. Arthur is not sure he's there yet, but he knows he is moving in the right direction.
He stops right in front of the desk and looks Miles straight in the eye.
"I need to ask you something."
Miles sighs. He's not surprised or curious, and Arthur realizes that he has probably been expecting this visit, or something similar to it, for some time. Arthur wonders who else knows, wonders whether Dom would have noticed it during the job if he hadn't been so desperate to go home, to go back to his children; if he hadn't been distracted by Mal and his guilt and the havoc they had been bringing into his head.
"You had already selected Ariadne. It wasn't just a lucky coincidence."
"Let's take a walk." Miles stands up and motions for Arthur to follow him out into the aisles. Arthur has never been here before. He's heard Mal talk about it, Dom too, and, more recently Ariadne. He's seen glimpses of it in their dreamscapes, details that now give him a weird feeling of deja-vu.
"What gave me away?" Miles sounds genuinely curious.
"I talked with Ariadne. You unexpectedly changed the topics of a couple of your lectures during the two weeks prior to Dom's visit. Mal once told me what you look for in a potential dream architect, how you would test your students."
Ariadne hadn't understood why Arthur had suddenly become so curious about her life before their first encounter, but she had indulged him, especially his questions about what it was like to be Miles' student, what his classes were like. She hadn't bought his lame cover story about maybe going back to university, but she hadn't asked any questions, either, not after he had strategically caved and told her it was all about Eames.
Miles nods. "Well, why change something when you know it works? Ariadne is exceptionally talented."
Arthur can't argue with that.
They've reached one of the eastern entrances. They stop there, by the door. The sun is shining and casting short shadows on the white marble stairs every time a student or another professor passes them by. Arthur is almost amused; Miles is literally showing him out after no more than ten minutes. It had taken Arthur a six-hour flight to come here. Six hours for a ten-minute conversation mostly made up of silences.
"He said it was a good gamble, as close to a safe bet as could ever be possible."
And that's it; that's what Arthur had come for. One sentence to confirm what he already suspected. He wonders how Miles had answered Eames, how hard the forger had had to work to ensure his cooperation. Probably not too hard. Eames had been offering something that Miles had wanted, after all, and most people had a hard time saying no to him anyway. Arthur smiles a bitter smile, even though he's not sure whether it's bitterness he's feeling right now.
"Thank you for your time." He turns towards Miles, extends his hand for a formal handshake, safely wrapped back in his professional persona. Miles, though, surprises him once more.
"I guess he was wrong. This looks like an even safer bet," he tells him with a knowing smile.
Arthur forces himself to keep going, to not freeze. He almost manages it, but he's pretty sure Miles notices his hesitation. They shake hands; Miles grasps his shoulder firmly before they both turn away, Miles heading back to his classroom and Arthur stepping out into the street. Ariadne is waiting for him at a café nearby. Arthur had considered coming to Paris and leaving again before she'd even known that he was there, but he really hadn't wanted to risk her wrath. He suspects his next trip in the dreamscape with her would be way too exciting if that was the case: Dom had told him all about her growing predilection for creative kicks.
They're sharing a baguette. The day is still bright and warm. They've already talked about the usual topics, and so far it's been easy, cosy almost. Ariadne really is talented and smart, and Arthur has found it easy to spend time with her from the beginning. There's no reason for that to change. He would even think of this as relaxing, if he wasn't so certain that Ariadne is just biding her time.
"Saito says 'hi'."
And there she goes. Arthur loves working with brilliant people, loves not having to waste time explaining things, loves seeing them leap forward. When they are not working, though, it can be annoying. Of course Ariadne called Saito.
"I take it he's ok."
"Still a bit shaken, I'd say. I had a feeling he wanted to ask if he could come over or something." She pauses a moment, a pensive expression on her face. "Maybe he misses being around people who understand."
Arthur hums; she's probably right. It's one of the things that this job will do to you, turn you into an outcast even when you are legit. As cliche as it may sound, people who haven't tried it really can't understand.
"He's been throwing himself into work. Should be enough to patch him over for now," she adds, after taking another bite. "He spent a couple of days trying to identify who has been snooping around his finances."
Arthur mumbles something that might pass for interest around a mouthful of bread and tomatoes. They both know he's just stalling.
"I told him he could probably let it go," Ariadne concludes and looks him straight in the eye. This must be the same kind of glare she used on Dom when confronting all his bullshit in his head. Arthur has to admit he is kind of impressed. But he's not Dom, and what he's dealing with is nothing like what Dom had been facing. So he shrugs noncommittally.
"You were probably right." She glares at him a moment longer. Arthur can practically see the 'probably, my ass' pass through her mind, as clearly as he sees the moment she decides to let it go. For now. She is trusting him to take care of this thing before the next job. It's easy for her; she is not one of the people Eames had been playing with. No, that's just Dom and Arthur. Still, after weighing things for a moment and gauging how pissed off he really is, he realizes that he most likely won't disappoint her.
After Paris, he goes on a trip across Africa. He should go to Mombasa. He wants to go to Mombasa; it's possible they are all expecting him to go there. But he is not ready yet. So he entertains himself by playing 'tourist' for three weeks.
When he finally arrives on the steps of Yusuf's shop, he's tanned and relaxed. He almost feels like slouching into a comfortable chair and having a friendly chat with the chemist.
Once he's inside, though, he loses some of his inner calm. Yusuf's smile tells him that maybe not everyone expected him to fly directly from Paris to Mombasa, after all.
"He's not here. You probably know that already, but I thought I'd take away any remaining doubt."
Arthur nods. "I'm still mad at him."
Yusuf nods, himself. "Then I'd say it's a good thing that he's not here."
Arthur takes a look around. He's never been here before, but going by Dom's description, it doesn't look like this place has changed much.
"I like it this way," Yusuf explains, reading his curiosity right off his closed-off expression.
"With two shares you are the richest one out of all of us, richer even than Eames."
It's just a hint, but Arthur knows he doesn't need to let more slip, and he finds that he doesn't want to say more. He's still putting the whole puzzle together himself; a few pieces are still missing. Sure, he has a pretty good idea of what it will look like, but he is oddly reluctant to make any statements before he gets to the last piece.
"True, and I've been buying myself stupidly expensive presents. This place, though, this place I like as it is."
Arthur gets it. Or at least he thinks he does. He also has a few ideas about what these presents might be, and how they might have something to do with supposedly secret meetings with a certain young architect. He could tease Yusuf about them, but that would be childish, and anyway that is not why he's here.
"He didn't offer you any extra money." Again, not a question. It's not that Arthur has checked this out exactly, but he knows people, and he knows that Eames did not buy Yusuf's help with money.
"He's a friend. He asked me to take the job and let Cobb conduct the game. That, and he promised me that if someone was going to be able to pull off inception, this team would be the one. Hard to pass over an offer like that."
"He did get paid for it," Arthur points out, but again he is not shocked by the lack of surprise on Yusuf's face.
"Ah, yes, but what did he do with the money?" Yusuf stands up and walks around the table, making it even clearer that he doesn't expect an answer. He stops to pat absentmindedly at a tubby cat that has been sleeping lazily amongst the papers scattered on his desk. He's got his back to Arthur, and Arthur realizes that it's some odd attempt at giving him a moment to think. Unfortunately, by the time he realizes this, Yusuf is already turning around and giving him a mischievous smile.
"So, wanna go out and see if Cobol is off your tail for good?"
Arthur laughs. Cobol's been mostly destroyed by Saito, and what is left of it couldn't threaten a kid. The remarkable part, 'scary' is how some people who are not Arthur might describe it, is that Saito has done so without breaking any laws. What matters to Arthur is that, as a consequence, Mombasa is mostly under the businessman's rule now, and as far from a threat for his friends as it is possible to be.
Arthur ends up spending two weeks in Mombasa. Yusuf is good company, and they develop something akin to a routine. In the morning, while Yusuf takes care of his business, Arthur entertains himself by doing research and keeping informed about what is going on in the world. They meet after lunch, and spend the afternoon doing experimental trials for new compounds. It's not that Arthur enjoys playing guinea pig, but he's been missing dreaming, and at least this way he has an excuse and some company while indulging in it. At night they go out, to eat and have drinks. Neither of them mentions Eames again, but both know that Arthur is still thinking about him, still working at his puzzle. The anger has mostly gone, but he is still annoyed enough that he might postpone his departure indefinitely, just to keep the other man waiting a bit longer.
Apparently, though, he is not the only one working at this problem, because two weeks in he's stopped by his hotel concierge as he is walking out to meet Yusuf.
"Mr. Smith. There's an envelope for you."
Arthur thanks the receptionist, reaches out and takes it smoothly. Instead of going out, he retreats to the privacy of his room to open it. Inside are two plane tickets and another envelope, inside which is a piece of paper – nice, glossy paper, stylishly decorated and artistically folded.
There is no message or signature on it, but Arthur knows that it is from Saito, the same way he knows what the tickets mean even though there is no explanation. He takes a deep breath and then starts packing. He calls Yusuf on his way to the airport.
The hassle of Los Angeles after his time in Africa is disconcerting. He's back wearing suits, hair perfectly combed once more, but some part of him still feels too loose.
His uneasiness last until he gets to Dom's house, until he sees how happy Dom is; until he sees him with James and Philippa.
Arthur has been there for two days when he and Dom finally get to spend some time alone away from the children.
"I'm glad it worked." That's the first thing he says to Dom, because he'd not said it before, and even if it should be self-evident, Arthur wants it to be out there between them. Dom nods.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Mal. You were too close. I couldn't…" Dom falters, but Arthur waits patiently. He knows, but he also understands that he is not the only one who needs things to be out in the open between them. "You're my best friend. I couldn't risk that, too. Without you I would have lost it completely, and I couldn't do that to James and Philippa. I needed you to keep me sane."
They remain silent after that, just watching the clouds go by as they sit outside in Dom's backyard.
After a while Dom says, "Miles opened an account for the kids. Quite a lot of money."
Arthur nods again. Of course that is where the money ended up. Dom turns to look at him, squinting.
"Are you still angry?"
Arthur can't help but laugh. "'Pissed'," he answers after a moment. "The term was 'pissed'." He had told Dom about Eames' odd farewell. It's no surprise that he'd solved the puzzle as well. But Dom is laughing, too, and his "Of course" is soft.
Arthur doesn't answer Dom's question, but he brushes his hand over the other ticket Saito had sent to him in Mombasa – the one he has not used yet, but has been keeping in his jacket pocket – and huffs. He hates being predictable.
When he lands at Heathrow, it's raining, and it's dark. It's probably too late, too. He should check himself into a hotel and postpone this confrontation until tomorrow morning, but now that he's come so far he's suddenly tired of waiting. The taxi deposits him in front of the house a few minutes before 4 am. It's still raining, and he doesn't have an umbrella. The lights in the house are on, the only ones in the whole neighbourhood. He is not surprised; their work makes for weird sleep patterns.
Five minutes later he still hasn't rang the bell, or knocked. He's still standing by the front door, getting soaked, when the door opens slowly and light pours out, engulfing him. Eames is wearing a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. He hasn't shaved, and his hair looks like he's been messing with it for hours, passing his hands through it repeatedly. He looks nervous, and Arthur wonders who warned him that he was coming. He finds that with their lot, he can't really be sure.
"So…" Eames starts, but he doesn't get any further.
"Why?" Arthur asks. By this point he probably knows all the answers, but he feels that not asking the question would be like breaking away from a script they've been following for the past couple of months.
"I could say 'for the money'." Eames is watching him intently. He's still nervous, but, more remarkably, he is not wearing any of his masks. Arthur can see everything in his eyes.
"You gave all the money to Miles for the kids."
Eames raises a shoulder. "What can I say, I like those kids. Couldn't leave them without a safety net."
"Why?" Arthur asks again. He hasn't moved. He's still standing under the rain.
"For the challenge. No one had ever done it before," Eames says, smiling.
"You could have done it with someone else," Arthur pushes, but he's still not moving.
"You and Dom are the best. I'd already failed once." This time the smile reaches his eyes as well.
Arthur could stretch this out even longer. He could say, "You could have come to us with the job", to which Eames would answer with a smirk and a question of his own – "And you would have taken it?". And of course Arthur would have to admit that no, they probably wouldn't have; that, considering how things had been between them, he would have done his damned best to convince Dom not to take it.
Instead he chooses not to say another word. He just looks at Eames expectantly.
"He needed it," is what Eames finally admits, like it's not a big deal, but Arthur is looking into his eyes, and sees what Eames is really saying. You needed it.
The pieces have all fallen into place by now. All that remains is for him to take a step back and look at the whole picture. Everything makes sense now; Saito knowing that they were coming, knowing how good they were, his turning up in Mombasa to save Dom, the earlier payment the businessman had wired to Eames. But none of it matters anymore.
What matters is the way Eames is looking at him, vulnerable and hopeful, and that in the end Arthur is not pissed off, not anymore, when he steps inside away from the rain and kisses him.