Eames is in England when he gets what he wants to melodramatically dub “The Call”, as if he’s a werewolf or some other impressive monster; on a train idling at the station in Banbury, trying to track down Peter and a few other people who can usually find him something to do which will end in money entering his bank account. He should have driven, or at the very least hopped on one of those handy coaches, but he was still operating on the French mindset where – at least between cities – rail was sensible and efficient and nothing like England.
The frequency with which he loses and “loses” phones, and his reluctance to renew the same number, indicates that whomever is trying to get hold of him is someone quite determined – organised people, Eames admits (the Ariadnes of this world), organised people put numbers into their phone with names so that they know who is calling. Of course, they rarely know that it’s him they’re calling, so it’s close to being evens.
He answers the phone with a gentle, faded welsh accent and a name he’s borrowed from a bartender in Bangor. “Alright then?”
“Eames,” says Saito, gravely. Eames performs a quick mental calculation regarding the number of people who have this number and the likelihood that any of them would know Saito well enough to let him have it, and comes up with Ariadne next to the equals. He says nothing. “Eames, I have a business proposition to make and I would prefer to make it in person.”
“I’m on a train,” Eames mumbles, annoyed that he has been so comprehensively hunted down; he retains the accent out of petty, childish spite.
“The car is waiting outside the station,” Saito counters. Eames has a very good imagination, and he can see the polite not-quite-smirk of restrained, subsumed triumph on Saito’s face as easily as if he were in front of him.
There is drizzle falling on the windows and the rest of the carriage are sighing and staring at the platform pointedly, waiting for the train to start again. Eames makes a point of scratching flamboyantly at his wrists and neck, under the cuffs of his fantastically ugly orange-and-salmon striped shirt.
“Well that’s unfortunate because I was going to stay on this until I get to Oxford,” Eames says, aware that he is being obstructive for the sake of being obstructive now. It’s almost certain that whatever Saito is offering will be better-paid and more fun than anything Peter might have – if he can find Peter – and will certainly involve access to somanacin, and at some stage he is very likely to see Ariadne again in the flesh rather than conjured up behind his eyes at guiltily opportune moments. There is no point in being stubborn.
“You may find that a little hard.”
Eames stands, and leans on the window with his elbow, trying to keep his balance with the phone pressed against is head. “... You’re holding the train until I get off.”
“Were you expecting something else?”
He straightens up and picks up his bag from the table with a nod at the other passengers. “From you, Mr Saito, of course not.”
Saito’s idea of a convenient business meeting is apparently to fly several people to Los Angeles, which Eames would resent from anyone else; he enjoys the artifice and impermanence of the vast rotten hooker of a metropolis but not the times between air-conditioning and air-conditioning, and while Saito is elsewhere there are other concerns for him to deal with.
The room is elegantly-furnished and leaning toward bare, with black ash chairs and hidden lighting, a very faint pattern of grey-silver leaves in the carpet so subtle that it is almost an optical illusion; Eames refuses to settle and wanders around taking mental measurements. It is as personal and welcoming as a prison cell, although that is still slightly more welcoming than Arthur is.
The door opens and Arthur nods to him without surprise. Eames sags internally, smiles outwardly. Of course this was going to happen; if Saito was preparing his troops for an extraction, he will want the best, the most discrete, and known factors. Arthur is a reliable and excellent point man; Eames the best forger in the business and currently the best extractor still in the business. ‘Without surprise’ is not the same as ‘friendly’.
“Eames,” Arthur says, taking a seat. He looks as if he has been printed out of a fax machine in the hallway.
“Arthur,” Eames says, trying to pretend for his own benefit that there is no prickle of guilt on his upper lip. It is just sweat drying in the zealous heat-control of the room; Arthur is wearing a tan waistcoat with a russet tie. He is sharp, cold, composed, and immaculately attractive, and Eames wants to kick out a window and jump down into the garden below and run screaming from the entire business. It’s only one storey. He’d maybe break an ankle. No big deal.
“I assume you squandered the money I gave you,” Arthur says, raising both his eyebrows in question, although Eames knows he’s not looking for an answer. “Although not, I suppose, on clothes.”
“Well as soon as we’re paid for this job I can pay you back,” Eames says grumpily, failing to sit down. He has never in his life paid back a loan without guns being involved somewhere, but Arthur has a well-stocked shoulder holster and a far more dangerous arsenal of legitimate grievances that he would sooner not see deployed.
“No point if you’re only going to borrow more in two months when you’ve spent this lot,” Arthur says with the dismissiveness that is his version of magnanimity, “you may as well keep it.”
“Very kind of you,” Eames says, struggling not to sound sullen.
“Where have you been?” Arthur asks in a quieter voice which makes Eames want to reply to London, to visit the Queen in some old echo of someone else’s childhood.
“Around, about,” he replies instead, pretending to investigate the exceptionally boring prints on the walls, the view from the window, his hands deliberately hidden in his pockets in case of digit betrayal. His twitching pinky. “Out of your hair, largely, which I believe was what you were after?”
“I believe what I was after was for you to stop ruining my job,” Arthur says, calm as snowfall and about as warm, “not for you to disappear for months and change your phone number.”
“I lost it-“
“How convenient.” If Eames didn’t know better he’d think Arthur was angry with him. There’s an abruptness to his replies which would suggest aggression in someone who wasn’t an actual real-life robot alien who kept lists of how people should behave.
“It bloody wasn’t, I had to buy a new one and I lost half of my phone numbers,” he says as peevishly as he can, trying not to avoid Arthur’s gaze too conspicuously. The air outside is deceptive – it looks clear when he looks straight up, but it’s like white soup out there. The visibility is worse than the middle of a fog bank.
“And now what?” Eames asks, finally sliding into a chair opposite and clockwise from Arthur, almost as far away from him as he can sit. He toys with his totem in his pocket, rubbing the grooves in the edge with the grooved edge of his thumb. “I’m afraid I don’t have the first idea what the job is this time, if that’s what you’re angling for.”
Something unexpectedly dark and angry flits across Arthur’s expression and Eames finds himself staring at the matte table top as if he’s been stung, the edge of his totem digging into his palm as he squeezes it, thrown into an uncomfortable parallel universe where his past took a different turn.
He gets no reply to his goading, and after a protracted silence Eames realises he’s watching the door with the kind of jiggling-legged desperation a dog suffers after a day alone in a house. He wonders for a moment if Arthur is as keen for an interruption and decides that necessity being the mother of invention, there is no reason why he can’t make an excuse and go wandering in search of a bathroom.
“Just going to –“ he says, standing again.
“Disappear?” Arthur finishes. The edge of his gaze could cut through steel doors.
“- Find a lavatory,” Eames finishes, annoyed, pulling on someone else’s class and terminology as a suit of armour as he opens the meeting room door with what is probably a little too much haste. “Shan’t be a minute.”
“Maybe I should come with you,” Arthur says, shadows swimming in his voice, “to make sure you don’t take a wrong turning somewhere and accidentally vanish again.”
“I think I can be trusted to piss on my own, Arthur.”
“I don’t.” Arthur’s eyes bore into him until the urge to hide behind the door or sprint down the corridor as fast as his knees will let him becomes closer to a compulsion.
Eames forces a smile, a flirtatious tone. “Well, darling, if you feel you need to come and hang off my dick I suppose I can’t stop you...”
Arthur’s look of disgust would be insulting – after all, he has handled Eames’s dick enough times now to know what it feels like, at least – if it did not present a viable escape route.
“So that’s a no, then?”
For an answer Arthur merely nods at the glass wall, and through it Eames spots a flash of red and another of caramel; his internal organs collide with each other and draw his face into a twisted, twitching smile before he can stop them, and Ariadne and Yusuf pause before the doorway for long enough that Eames wants to burst out of the room and cling to them like an oil slick. He braces himself and glances back at Arthur.
It is a mistake; something like recognition blossoms in Arthur’s closed-down expression.
“I see,” he says, under his breath.
The words hit like a cold slap, and Eames feels his approximation of a smile drain away like blood in a hand basin.
Yusuf picks that moment to enter with a broad smile, the smile of a good friend who has been absent for a long time and wishes to shake hands violently and make some ridiculous joke and make enquiries and do all those normal, friendly friend things that friends do; Yusuf is however far from insensible, and Eames watches as helpless as a movie audience as his friend steps into the room beaming – stops as if he has walked into an invisible wall, his smile shrinking back in on itself like a scrotum in Arctic winds, and steps backward cautiously, as if he has intruded on some tender moment of intimacy.
“I am just going to find a bathroom,” Yusuf says with a species of sad determination, backing out into the corridor again. “Too many cups of coffee on the way here, will I never learn, never mind, won’t be a minute –“ the words tumble out with indecent haste as he extricates himself from a room whose atmosphere, Eames suspects, is little short of poisonous and stiff.
Ariadne pokes her head around the door, frowning.
The jumble of emotions her face provokes, one after another, is such a cataract of conflicting forces that he’s almost dizzy; there is the sensation of the sun coming out from behind an oppressive cloud – his whole body leans toward her in gratitude, like a plant; and with it comes the horror of surrender, this uncontrolled, uncontrollable choking want sparking something close to real fear in him – it has been months; and sadness he didn’t even realise was possible, with Arthur’s furious stare walled up behind a polite mask of indifference and Ariadne’s unease painted on her face as obviously as her lipstick. It is the exact shade of raspberry coulis. Some part of Eames so far insulated from the ongoing living burial he seems to be experiencing whines that in a fair universe he would be there now, kissing it away again.
“Eames?” Ariadne asks, and the maelstrom of unidentifiable emotion starts up again when he recognises her tone as being very slightly warmer than it might have been, flooding his brain with memories and his stomach with uncertainties: her small, compact fist hitting his nose; the smell of her sweat mingled with the smell of his own blood; his mouth on the triangle of her thighs meeting; the low-energy lightbulb casting a nostalgic hue over proceedings even as they played out. “Arthur.”
“Ariadne,” Arthur says, nodding.
He sounds sad, when he answers her.
Eames doesn’t know whether to be relieved or worried at this. He wishes he believed in something he could pray toward, right now, that Saito will show up and deliver him from this endless tension with an assignment, a challenge, anything to break the almost physical web connecting the three of them in this suddenly-too-warm room.
“How have you been,” Ariadne says. It isn’t really a question and it isn’t really for Arthur – it is directed toward him, but she’s looking at Eames and she is piecing together something, he can see it on her face, and he wants to slither under the table and sink through the floor.
“Busy,” Arthur says, with as much enthusiasm as she. “Very busy.”
“Oh, this and that, you know,” his mouth replies. His fingers close around his totem again. Maybe the building will catch fire. Maybe there will be an earthquake, a nice big earthquake during which he can wobble away somewhere and catch his breath and come up with a plausible story. It’s preposterous. He’s not even sure what he’s being not-quite-accused of.
“I’m not sure I do know,” Ariadne says carefully, dividing her attention between the two of them in a way that reminds Eames a little of a wildlife photographer who has found herself slightly too close to a crocodile or something else unpredictable and sharp-toothed. “Where’s Saito?”
“Not here yet,” Arthur says, as if the question is for him. He has his hands in his lap. He exudes the kind of stillness that belies the first eruption of a long-dormant volcano. “How have you been.”
It’s excruciating, the same embittered silent battle of good manners he remembers from his childhood – Eames backpedals wildly inside his own mind and slathers the most wolfish, devil-may-care smile he has across his lips without a thought for convincing transitions. Arthur has his waistcoat, Ariadne her lipstick, why shouldn’t he have his own armour too? Just because he’s arguably the bastard here doesn’t mean he should take a stray bullet –
Eames realises she’s been talking, while he’s getting carried away with his own metaphor. Something about Japan, and commemorative structures; real work, legal commissions, money for honest labour instead of theft and subterfuge. Anyone else and he’d call that boring.
“What are you grinning about?” Ariadne asks, frowning. “I didn’t say anything funny.”
“Just thinking,” Eames lies. He watches Arthur’s mouth tweak with the effort of not retorting with something savage about his intellect or level of education; with Ariadne in the room and the poisonous air it might spark something Arthur cannot contain, and Eames is sure that the only thing Arthur hates more than him right now is the possibility of losing control in front of someone else. Eames, of course, doesn’t count.
“You are so full of shit,” Ariadne sighs.
Eames watches Arthur struggle to retain his poise a second time. The inevitability of it all is almost as horrendous as the incoming fight will be; he’s seized by the desire to get it over with, to destroy everything as thoroughly as it can be, but even more than Eames needs the money and the challenge and the time under, he needs ... wants, at least, to keep whatever fraction of Ariadne’s good faith he currently possesses.
He shrugs. “You get what you pay for.”
“Not always,” Arthur mutters, unable to hold onto it any longer.
“You paid me to go away, I went,” Eames says, and he alarms himself with the force of it. It’s meant to be light, joking. He can’t win if it sounds like he’s invested in this. That’s never how showdowns work. The one who cares the least walks away unwounded, surely?
“Eames,” Ariadne says, leaning on the door. She stops, and regards him through narrowed eyes, a gesture familiar to him through Cobb; he pretends Arthur isn’t even in the room and traces the outline of her face with his eyes.
The whole world seems to be holding its breath.
“You left one of your shirts in my apartment,” she says eventually. The weight of what she hasn’t said yet settles all the more heavily on his shoulders and nearly bends him in half. “The one that looks like a sofa. Do you still want it?”
“Yes,” Eames says, too fast. He doesn’t look, but he knows Arthur is watching this exchange for something coded, something Eames himself doesn’t know whether is there or not. “Yes, yes I do.”
“Apologies for having kept you waiting for so long,” Saito says, from the doorway.
Ariadne shoots one final look at him which Eames interprets very easily as 'I will talk to you about this later'.
In the fifth-floor foyer – lobby – Eames waits with his hands in his lap, a Gavascon bottle full of chloroform and a brand new handkerchief among the possessions in his several-thousand-dollar leather satchel ("You don't have to give it back," Saito said, "but I will take it out of your consulting fee if you don't."). Today he is Craig Blake, and he is here to talk to Ms Sienkowicz about investing in a new vitamin drink.
As the receptionist smiles a brilliant Los Angeles smile, all teeth and no substance, in his terribly well-groomed direction, Eames spares a thought for how singularly … rapey … it is to plan down to the last detail the prospect of knocking out a successful businesswoman in her own office for the purpose of, well, penetration.
He fidgets with the satchel and gives the receptionist an LA smile of his own, meeting her eyes for long enough to make her blush under her impressively flawless foundation. Eames considers his features more useful than strictly attractive, but there's no denying that clean-shaven and gussied up in the right suit (which Saito has of course helpfully provided) he can stir the groins of ordinary women and approximately ten percent of men fairly effectively.
It's poor compensation for Ariadne's disappointed look.
Eames blots the thought out of his mind with black-out curtains and censorship tape, and continues his idle flirtation over the top of an apparently unavoidable sinking feeling.
"Ms Sienkowicz will see you now," says the receptionist with a lingering look that's as fake as his. That's the thing about this part of the city – everyone is concentrating so hard on their own bullshit that they don't notice his.
Sienkowicz's office is less of a cell than some he's seen – there is the impression in fact that she almost lives there. There's a photograph on the desk of her adopted son and biological daughter hugging at the latter's graduation, two framed certificates on the wall, a dog lead on the edge of the desk and a small sculpture of the Sydney Harbour Bridge die-cast in something and painted bronze after the fact. Because Eames is Eames, he internally congratulates her on a constructed identity that is both believable and warm to guests; it does not occur to him for a full three minutes that this might just be who the woman is.
Sienkowicz herself is taller than him in flat shoes, short-haired and softly made-up, with pearl-button earrings and a smile that looks only a very little carnivorous. He shakes her hand.
The drivel about investment in innovative products which are going places and known markets for this bilge trips out of his mouth without his brain touching it; Sienkowicz gives every appearance of listening, but he knows she's only sifting through this words, his demeanour, panning for weakness or opportunity. She is decoding the bullshit as swiftly as he encodes it, their own dance of deceit and manipulation expressed in marketing cryptography.
When he passes her the sample to try he makes a point of watching her face for her reaction, but this attention is on the dog lead. He would have expected something pink and made of woven man-made fibre, practical but feminine, unassuming. She owns a rescue terrier of some kind.
But the lead is heavy and brown, with a brass clip that could smash a man's nose if swung at it hard enough, good-quality leather, the kind of lead Arthur would probably buy if he were not so very much a cat person. Eames reconsiders the lead under another light and has to force his mind back to Sienkowicz with tensed thighs: be professional.
The pointless gibberish draws to a close.
She says she'll let him know, shakes his hand with another wall-of-teeth smile he can't very well reciprocate in the same league of dentistry, and falls asleep in her chair before he's reached the door.
"Ready," Eames says into his phone.
They come on like an infection, silent and swift. He's almost proud: Yusuf in a security uniform a little less convincing than Arthur's matching outfit which he could have been born to wear, and Ariadne looking beautiful and uncomfortable in a gray trouser suit – her mouth bare and her hair coiled tightly away from her face. The pretence does not come easily to her, but it is not sympathy that makes his chest contract at the sight of her and his breath catch when she looks away slightly too late.
He watches Arthur and Ariadne subtly avoid touching each other, their bodies bristling with unvoiced hostility as Yusuf sets up the PASIV with short, efficient motions, and Arthur locks the room.
"Ten minutes," Yusuf says as Eames rolls up his shirt sleeve like some high-rent junkie, the cufflink dangling from its dock. In a much lower voice, for Eames's ears only, Yusuf adds, "What did you do?"
"Overlap," Eames mutters, refusing to look at him. "Be professional."
"Oh, I need to be professional? Matthew, if you were not my friend I'd say you were a bastard."
"So instead you'll just think it?"
Yusuf swipes his wrist with an alcohol wipe and says for the benefit of the room, or the parts of it that were still conscious, "You are a bastard, Matthew. Sleep."
The city is not Vienna, but it is Viennese in most respects. Ariadne's eye fro detail is as always exquisite, and Eames catches himself on the brink of a polite but unexpectedly genuine compliment over the fine floral stone-carving to his left; there is even a slipped chisel mark. It is of course imperfections like this which hide the lie in dreams, and he taught her that.
"She'll be down by the canal," Eames says, instead. Sienkowicz has a fondness for canals, or so observation, holiday destinations, and Arthur's careful research have informed him; when they find her, however, she is crouched at the water's edge like a gargoyle, transfixed by something below the surface.
"'Likes canals'," he matters at Arthur derisively, loud enough for Ariadne to hear.
"Do your own research," Arthur retorts, nothing like so loud.
"Well," Ariadne offers, leaning on the bridge's paraphet, tip-toed for a better view, "if she falls in and we rescue her, there's already a rapport, right?"
"That could work," Eames agrees. He has no idea if it will, but contradicting Ariadne makes his imagined stomach churn right now. Be professional; not bloody likely. "We have no guarantee that she'll fall in."
"No," Arthur says, "but that's easily changed."
"If one of us shoves her into the water we'll have projections down on us in seconds," Eames says quickly; Arthur, now, Arthur he has no trouble contradicting. That's a pleasure.
"So what do we do?" Ariadne slaps the paraphet in frustration, "she looks completely switched off and we have no idea where she's going to have stashed her secrets now; the strongbox was supposed to be down there and look." She points to the sandy-coloured stone wall behind Sienkowicz, which is as seamless as any wall in the city.
"Wait?" Eames suggests. He takes a cigarette from the packet in his awful Hawaiian shirt; he may have given up in the waking world (with infuriatingly little difficulty) but there's no harm in allowing his non-corporeal self a little pleasure in the memory of old motions. "We've got ten minutes so … two hours … plenty of time."
Somehow, somehow Arthur refrains from making a sarcastic comment about his mental arithmetic skills.
So they wait, and watch a low barge pass under the bridge without a sound, a ghost of vessel drifting below them like an unspoken undercurrent in a conversation. Eames drags his gaze back over the canal to Sienkowicz, who hasn't moved – but it catches on something pale, just beneath the surface –
"There's a little girl in the water," Ariadne says in a low, urgent voice, although Eames is sure they can all see her now. He trots down the steps without consulting them, the worn, warm stone dangerously smooth under the soles of his bargain-bin Hush Puppies; Eames knows he looks every inch the concerned tourist, and by the time he reaches the canal's edge he also looks like a non-descript middle-aged man, a face borrowed from a Swedish stand-up comedian Eames slept with many years ago. Unless there is something very wrong with the universe, she won’t recognise it.
He ignores Sienkowicz. It's not her. Just some fart in the sleeping mind, a hollow shadow. That's not how she thinks of herself, the face she wears in public. Interesting, psychologically, but far from relevant; the 'real' dreamer could be anywhere.
That's not important, he's sure of it.
Eames allows himself one backward glance to take in Ariadne following him, jeans and t-shirt and ponytail behind him, her naked face shaving years from her age, and he lowers himself into the cold water. And it is cold, bitingly, head-numbingly cold, freezing his stomach and needling his poor bollocks as he swims in an awkward breast stroke out to the floating child.
She is an icy blonde and as pale as the moon, her eyes closed, her hair floating like smoke in the dirty canal water, sticking to her bloomless cheeks. It would be unlikely if she's more than thirteen, and she floats at an angle, her still-shod feet drooping down into the dark.
Eames puts an arm under her back, treading water. He wishes he were taller, inside his own mind, with more chance of reaching the bottom of the canal, or at least capable of dreaming himself better at swimming; it's academic, of course – they're in Ariadne's dream, not his. He tilts the drowned girl until her head is no longer submerged, and slowly, with clumsy wet fingers that have never been very cooperative or dexterous, he unsticks her hair from her colourless lips.
"Hello," he murmurs, "I think you have a secret to tell me, don't you?"
Her eyes stay shut but her mouth, only just breaking free of the blue-black canal water, tweaks and wobbles. It shapes near-silent words in what feels like slow-motion to Eames's aching legs. He leans in closer, his legs cycling in the cold that seems to go on forever, and presses his ear close to her mouth.
"I know, sweetheart," Eames says, keeping the girl above the water with difficulty.
"What are you doing?" Arthur shouts over the canal.
"SHUT UP," Eames shouts back. He cradles the girl's head in the crook of his elbow and kicks harder against the sucking darkness. He feels heavier than he has in a long, long time, and even under the mantra of be professional reverberating through his veins he can feel old memories surface like shit in a sewer. "Just tell me your little secrets, and then you can go back to sleep," he says, as kindly as he can.
"There are such a lot," the girl whispers, her face impassive. Eames tries not to consider how creepy this situation is; it's not even in the top ten weirdest ways he's found a dreamer's secret, for God's sake.
"Then tell me as quickly as you can," he urges her, struggling to keep her head up, "and then you can sleep."
Eames can hear Arthur talking, but not what he says, as he drops, pushes up again, and wishes that his mind wasn't so very good at remembering what being bodily exhausted felt like.
"Shut up," Ariadne says, loud enough for him to hear. "Whatever he's doing, he's doing it."
"C'mon, sweetheart, I'm tired too, we both want to sleep," Eames coaxes, "let's get it over with. I'll let you sleep again as soon as you tell me."
With what sounds a little like a put-upon sigh and a lot like a death rattle, the drowned girl in his arms begins to whisper a lengthy litany of things Eames would – were he a little less cynical – have never assumed of the smiling middle-aged woman in her lived-in office.
By the time the dead girl has finished speaking he feels like his legs have detached and gone to lead a happier life somewhere less cold, wet, and demanding.
He lets her drift out of his grip and sinks almost immediately, before he can straighten himself out and start swimming for the bank again; some frightened spark of memory in his dreaming mind squawks at him and electrifies him into an approximation of a crawl, albeit a messy one, and Eames reaches the stone slabs in good time.
"Not getting her out of the canal?" Ariadne asks, trying to pull him to his feet.
"Don't need to. Got what we need."
"Done?" Arthur sounds incredulous, and Eames contemplates tripping him into the fucking canal.
"Done," Eames says calmly, allowing himself a smug smile of triumph in Arthur's direction. "I have so many of Sienkowicz's secrets that we could blackmail her entire lineage for a generation. Some of them are really icky."
Arthur sighs as if Eames has wiped something on him. "We're finished, then?"
"All done," Eames repeats, putting his hand in his pockets and flashing the same infuriating smile a few more times for good measure. In the waking world his clothes would cling uncomfortably, but here he is dry already.
Arthur removes a sleek and well-maintained Glock from somewhere in his clothing – his shoulder holster has come with him – and raises his eyebrows. "Shall I?"
"No, no," Ariadne says, holding up both hands. "You first. We can deal with ourselves."
"Yes," Arthur says flatly, "I'm sure you can." But he doesn't argue or insist, only fits the end of his gun to the underside of his chin, carefully positioning it with practice born of years of dream suicides, and without so much as a double-check of his totem (as Eames invariably does) he pulls the trigger.
Arthur vanishes like a wraith, leaving the gun only because they both expect it of him.
Ariadne scoops it up; it looks larger in her hands, heavier, and somehow more gun-like, more deadly than it was in Arthur's hands, where it was just a gun. He wonders if it has changed with her perception of it, or if the coming gunshot to her skull has changed his perception of it. Another barge passes, and she weighs the weapon in her hand.
"Ladies first," Eames says, automatically.
"In a minute," she says, holding the gun like a dead body in her hands.
"I spoke to her subconscious," Eames says, pointing back over his shoulder with the opposite hand to where the drowned girl floats serenely in the canal, and the empty husk that looks like Sienkowicz crouched on the paving stones as motionless as a painting of herself. "You can do that, it's –"
"I know." Ariadne looks at the gun for a bit. "What did you say to him? You didn't tell him anything, did you? And you lied. To me."
"No," Eames says carefully, watching her turn the gun over and over in her hands with as little care for its mechanisms as if she were rotating a wineglass to catch the light. "I didn't exactly."
"Lying by omission is still lying."
"Fine," Eames puts his hands on his head. "What did I omit to tell you, then?"
"He clearly doesn't see things the way you told me they were. He's angry with me. He thinks I've stolen you."
Eames raises his hands up too slowly for throwing them up in despair and too quickly for a sarcastic surrender to the gun in her hands. "I can't help what Arthur chooses to think. I know how things were, and I told you."
"You can help it," Ariadne says, looking up from the gun with an expression which is a good deal more precise than any bullet. "You could have told him where you were going. Or said something at any point in the last few months. The way normal people do."
"Ah, normal people," says Eames, who disputes the frequency of normal people's responsible and adult behaviour anyway. "Them."
When she presses the barrel of the gun to his jugular he doesn't even wince, just waits as a low breeze ruffles the ends of her ponytail and runs a chill along the back of his neck. Her t-shirt carries the logo of a packing company and Eames realises, with a gun cold on his throat, that Ariadne's mental image of "inconspicuous" apparently includes some items of his clothing.
"I don't like it when you lie to me," Ariadne says, simply.
"I'm trying not to," Eames offers, all honesty. He can’t help flinching at her expression – he suppose he will have to learn not to, all over again – but he keeps her in his line of sight as she tightens her finger on the trigger, and has enough breath to squeeze out a swift, "Thank you," before his eyes open.
Saito's car is comfortable and exactly the right temperature to make Eames wonder if he's still dreaming; he leans back on the white leather seats and reels off the list as if he's reciting poetry. He can't keep all of the little girl's rasp from his voice, and half-way through Saito proffers him a glass of water with an expression of composure which could even pass for kindness on him. It is a mocking gesture, of course, and Eames finishes without the affectation.
"That… she told you all that?" Yusuf asks, clutching the PASIV to his chest as the car slows. "Oh, you're good."
"Don't encourage him," Arthur mutters.
"Thank you for repaying my faith in your abilities, gentleman, and lady," Saito says, sitting back with the smallest of smiles making an appearance on his mouth. "It is a pleasure to see such professionalism."
There is a moment in which any one of them could have snorted, and all of them very carefully do not.
"Your hotel," Saito says, and the car stops.
No one argues; Yusuf does not say anything about not having booked a hotel, even though Eames knows from long association and one or two hairy moments in Tangier some years ago that Yusuf's ability to remember hotel bookings ranks with his own ability to refrain from childishly baiting people; Arthur doesn't say anything about preferring the airport, and Ariadne just bites her lip. Eames slides out of the chauffeured car after them, his hand in his pocket, rubbing the edge of his totem against the pad of his thumb like a comfort blanket.
"Arthur," he says, bringing the man to a halt on the busy pavement – sidewalk – outside the hotel. "Do you want me to pay you back?"
Arthur looks as if he's expecting some sort of a trick, and keeps his distance. "I said you should keep it. You'll only need to borrow more."
"Probably," says Eames, glancing through the glass doors to the hotel reception, where Ariadne is talking to Yusuf from an angle that lets her watch him through the windows. "But that doesn't mean you have to lend it to me."
"That wasn't very elegant, Eames."
Eames splutters and looks down at himself; his borrowed suit is already absorbing the inherent Eames-ness of this character he has chosen to be for now, rumpling and smudging as it never would have as Craig Blake. His shirt sleeve is still loose, his shoe has become scuffed, and the cufflink he undid has gone missing. "Elegance of course always being the one thing I am remembered for."
"Would it have killed you to say something?" Arthur's eyes rove over Eames's face, presumably looking for contrition with the same intensity that mosquitoes dedicate to the location of blood.
"I sort of thought you might have done if I did."
"Don't be stupid," Arthur mutters, and the word is imbued with more venom than a thousand others might have been. "Christ."
Eames is saved from having to think of a witty response by a pair of tourists leaving the hotel and stepping through the forcefield between Arthur and him as if there was no vast wall of unfinished business there at all. He takes two steps, backward and sideways, toward the closing hotel doors, and waves a tight, sarcastic wave. "Bye, Arthur."
He doesn't hear Arthur's reply – the doors close between them, and he waves again, even more sarcastically – but when he turns Ariadne is looking at him with an expression that makes his stomach curl up like a frightened woodlouse.
"Did you sort everything out?"
Eames opens his mouth to spit out a glib, reassuring yes.
"Don't lie," Ariadne interrupts with the kind of ferocity someone else might have reserved for a war crimes tribunal.
Eames examines the ceiling for a moment. There are none of the beautiful flourishes of the last (extremely expensive) hotel that he stayed in, no moulding, no fascinating light fittings. There are no damp patches in the shape of Uganda and Egypt. There is nothing grand or homely or familiar about it; the ceiling is very businesslike, and it tells him to stop being so evasive, and take a minute to look at Ariadne.
This is a mixed bag. She is an unnameable order of magnitude nicer to look at than the ceiling – her coiled-up bun has been let down, and she's abandoned the gray suit jacket to the fates, her white shirt open on bare collar bones, her eyes unusually damp. However, she is also looking at him like he's the cause of some unknowable strife and Eames is startled to find that it hurts more than he was expecting.
"… No, I didn't sort everything out," he says, eventually.
"Are you going to?"
"Probably not. There's a bar in here somewhere, right?" He shrugs off the suit jacket and cradles it in his arms. Classic defensive pose, whisper the ghosts of psychology books read, putting something between you and her. "I think a celebratory toast is in order."
"You're not going to the bar," Ariadne says, pushing her escaped hair back from her forehead. She's standing awkwardly on one leg, and ordinarily Eames would know what that means; ordinarily he's not so stricken with the way he's holding someone else's suit jacket over his forearms like a shield that he can actually think.
"I'm not?" Eames asks. As comebacks go it is feeble, but as reprimands go he wasn't expecting you're not going to the bar, either. He feels off-balance, bewildered, as if he's already drunk. He nearly throws an arm out to the wall to keep himself from falling, though his legs are steady.
"You're coming upstairs with me," Ariadne says, and there, at last, there is a small insistent tugging on the corner of her mouth, as if someone is pulling an invisible string and she is fighting them off.
"Yes I am," Eames agrees, not moving.
"You can drink when we get up there," Ariadne says, rooted to the spot.
"Thank you," Eames says, clutching the suit jacket a little harder. His palms are sweating. There is no way Saito's ridiculous, expensive, tailored piece of designer excellence is going to survive an entire conversation like this. Ariadne's eyes are almost swimming; Eames murmurs thank you again, to see what will happen.
She grabs the front of his shirt – the shirt he is wearing, which is no more "his" than the one she wears is hers – and pulls on it, which unlocks his knees from their indecision and for a moment leaves him convinced he's going to drop to them there in the hotel lobby. Ariadne tugs him forward, toward the elevators, and he thinks that no one else can tell, no one else in the lobby knows her well enough to see that her steps are uneven and her breath is too hard.
There are four people in the elevator. Eames hates them all passionately.
Ariadne releases his shirt and pins him to the wall with a watery stare, and for the five floors between getting into a highly mirrored enclosed space with some completely extraneous strangers and getting out of it again Eames feels his heartbeat in his throat and the sweat on his hands soaking into what is probably a ruined jacket. He maintains better posture than he has in months, unable to shift a millimetre until a ping releases them both from their deadlock.
There is only one person in the corridor, a tall, middling-attractive black man in a satin shirt that under normal circumstances Eames would have flirted outrageously with or at least at, but at this precise moment he hates this man too.
The hotel room door fails to open twice, and Eames wants to tear it from its hinges or kick it in, but Ariadne calls the lock a word he's never heard her use and tries a third time; it swings open silently, and he fails to take in the room at all.
"Sorry," he says, but she slams the door and says nothing.
Eames drops the jacket abruptly and bares his teeth in what he hopes looks like a smile.
She shakes her head. "This will work a lot better if you're on your knees," Ariadne says, and her voice is so quiet that he almost doesn't hear how unsteady it is.
Eames thumps down onto his knees as if his tendons have been cut, landing half on and half-off Saito's unfortunate suit jacket. It hurts. His knees are not in the greatest condition, for reasons that he has delicately avoided remembering, consigning any connection to a garage in Swindon and claw hammers and screaming to the darker recesses of the already skeleton-filled closets of his mind. And the fall hurts.
"… A little further from the door," Ariadne says, shakily. "Oh god I don't have to do your thinking for you now."
"I can shuffle," Eames offers, and his laughter is more desperate than amused; he demonstrates clumsily, shuffling backward on his aching knees, sliding over the peach carpet in real danger of burning his shins as the trousers ride up. "See?"
"Oh for God's …" Ariadne presses her head against the wall just where the ensuite ends and the bedroom opens out. "We are not very good that this," she mutters, and the single word we washes relief through him like a hot tide, making him giddy and hot-faced.
The truth is that actually, he's pretty good at this, but there's no point telling her that.
"Does that matter?"
She pries her face off the wall, a red mark on her forehead and red rims around her eyes. "I don't like not knowing what to do," Ariadne says, rather darkly. Her shirt has come open a little lower than his generally considered decent, and Eames knows if he strains he could see the bones of her sternum, the uppermost reaches of her ribcage.
He struggles to hold his pose; it would be easier to sink back onto what he supposes are his haunches, which is why he's not going to. "You know what you want, though."
"Mostly," Ariadne agrees, her hands knotted into fists, her voice close to a growl, her eyes overflowing.
Eames very carefully doesn't sniff. He knows he could. He knows what he'll smell if he does. Knowing that will have to suffice for now, no matter how much he wants to tip his head back and inhale.
"Do that," Eames suggests, avoiding her gaze.
"Don't tell me what to do," Ariadne grumbles, finally releasing the wall and tugging her hair away from her face again.
Eames stares at her mouth, red with biting and frustration, almost as red as if she'd painted it after all, and licks his own lips automatically. There has not been enough time in his life spent kissing her, he thinks with an almost detached objectivity; he has been alive a ridiculous number of days, of minutes, and almost all of them have been spent doing things other than kissing Ariadne and it seems in that minute to be an egregious waste of his time.
"You have me," Eames says with a frankness that makes his pulse race, "at your feet." He makes a pointless gesture with his hand before tucking it behind his back. "I'm yours. Do what you want."
It's inopportune, awkward, and at odds with the unease and the uncertainty of the last few days, and he has no intention of admitting it to her, had not really intended to acknowledge it himself aside from knowing this about himself already; saying these words gives him the same feeling of … dark red … a pulse in his throat … comfort and fear … the same feeling of guilty arousal as her fist hitting his face, as the pain in her scalp as she twists a handful of his hair, as his mouth against her –
From the way her cheeks darken and another unheeded tear races over them, though, saying these words doesn't exactly cool her down, either.
He's not wholly surprised when she says, "Say that again," from the bottom of her throat, but he still pauses, hands behind his back, in the hope that she'll make him. "Eames, say it again."
"I'm yours." Eames says, and the words fill his throat like sand, choking him. Maybe it's his throat that's shrinking; her face is as wet as he supposes her underwear must be by now, and the mirror between one set of lips and the other turns a garrot around his heart, his chest, his stomach; it turns the volume up on his pulse and darts like an electrical storm through his libido. "Do what you want."
"Again," Ariadne says, putting her hands on his head. They are hot, closing convulsively around his hair – he knows it must feel disgusting, the amount of gel and hairspray he is obliged to use to keep it in the obnoxiously exact style he pretends to favour – jerking handfuls of stiff, over-styled strands into her fists and dragging his head back so hard that his eyes, too, begin to water.
"I'm yours," Eames repeats rather breathlessly, like a prayer, "I'm yours."
"Again," she growls, and it is a real growl this time, tearing through her throat as she bends his neck back hard enough to damage his breathing, "say it again."
Even thus constricted she is close enough that he can smell her, and it drives him crazy. He doesn't know if she knows that she's moving her legs like that, leaning her thighs against each other as she twists his head back, shifting her weight again and again. Eames tries to swallow and doesn't quite succeed.
"I'm – yours –" The words squeeze past his Adam's apple somehow.
She bends the short distance to his mouth and kisses him, and Eames forgets temporarily that he ever cared all that much about breathing; his knees feel as if they've been broken all over again, he is out of breath and holding an untenable position, and she's kissing him. He mouths against her lips, her tongue, I'm yours, do what you want with the same fervour that he has on occasion begged for his life. It is the same and as far from that as possible; her cheeks are wet where they touch his, her mouth a furnace.
"Give me your hand," she says to his lips, and she has to repeat herself twice before he understands her, "give me your hand."
He contains a noise of disappointment when she releases his hair and seizes his wrist instead, but barely; Ariadne pushes his hand knuckles-first at her crotch and makes an impatient noise in her throat, shoving herself toward him as much as she pulls his hand toward her.
Eames discovers that it is hard to get into a pair of well-designed suit trousers with his wrist locked in a vice-like grip and the wearer of said trousers keeps bashing him in the hand impatiently, and harder still when every protracted rub of her crotch against the back of his hand just makes him more desperate to get to it.
Somehow he scrabbles away the fabric separating his hand from her, and were she not pulling his head back hard enough that he fears he may be about to develop a bald spot, he would press his nose against her hair, his mouth to her lips, and taste what has been missing from his mouth for too long. But Ariadne has him by the hair, and all he can down is pull down on the gusset of her underwear, as wet as her kisses, and rub the tips of his fingers the length of her lips.
She makes a sound that could just as easily have come from him, and pushes against his hand until he is holding her, his thumb against her clitoris, his fingers enveloped in warmth, in wetness; Ariadne twitches from the soles of her feet and leans heavily on his hand, but Eames feels as much as if he's been allowed to escape from the world into some kinder place as he is making her feel good.
Ariadne's legs twitch again, and Eames pulls against her grip on his hair, forgetting his supposed obedience, trying to lay his face against the gray wool over her thighs.
It takes her four tries to say, "Behave yourself," but tenacity is a virtue she's been possessed of for as long as he's known her, and he gets the message. Mostly because she pulls his hair so hard that he temporarily loses the ability to see.
"Please," Eames says, and it comes out as a whine.
"Ask," Ariadne says, rising on her toes as he rubs his thumb back and forth, the rest of the sentence stifled with a sharp intake of breath. His hand is so wet, Eames thinks, and the thought joins everything else in making his hard-on all the more dire. "Ask … properly."
"Please," he repeats, because that part is easy, right now. His dick digging into his trousers and his knees and back conspiring to cripple him, his hand inside her, everything here makes 'please' an easy word to say. 'Please' comes straight from his balls. Specifics are difficult. "Please."
"Please … what …" The what disappears inside her mouth, and by twisting his head, twisting it so that her grip on his hair feels like it's ripping the skin off his head, he can see that she has sucked most of her lower lip under her upper teeth. Eames presses harder with his thumb, and she readjusts her grip on his wrist.
Eames garbles the contents of his desire through a mouthful of spit that he can't swallow, and sucks down a breath through his nose which does little to combat his light-headedness; in this position it would be easier to close his eyes, it would clear his thoughts – he keeps them open, staring up through tears of pain at her, at her entirely different tears as they fall from her chin onto his face.
Her only reply to his half-mangled words is to change from pull to push, shoving his face toward where his hand already is, nearly throwing them both off-balance. Ariadne doesn't let go of his wrist, and there is a confusion of scrabbling and clumsy fumbling as Eames tries with his other hand to move her clothes out of the way.
Ariadne makes a frustrated noise that contains several sibilants and brings her hips and his face together more forcefully than can be comfortable; Eames hits his mouth on the back of his own hand and gets a mouthful of very wet cotton for his pains.
He twists his head to one side as best he can, yanking at her knickers and the fucking frustrating suit trousers with his one free hand, drawing his other thumb back and forth like a man trying to spin fourteen plates. With an erection. The only thing that bothers him is that he can't get her clothes out of the way of his mouth fast enough; her legs are twitching, pitching her against him and away from him with every movement of his thumb, and his dick is urging him on with unnecessary haste.
The trousers roll and slide down to her thighs; Eames hauls her knickers down after them in mute desperation, and licks his own thumb as he pushes his face into her pubic hair. He half-licks it a second time, but she's there already, crushing him into her with a hand on the back of his head, rising on tip-toes and falling again.
Eames inhales a healthy nostril-full of hair and somehow doesn't sneeze.
He shifts his thumb, purses his lips into something like a circle, and he sucks on her clitoris with his eyelids fluttering shut at last.
For time that seems to stretch onward forever, Eames is in the dark, suffocating amid happiness, his body aching and his dick making demands that he has no intention of attending to. All that he can hear beyond the overloud roar of his own blood in his ears is the sound of Ariadne's breath, punctuated with what are no longer sighs but more like groans, each one dragged from the depths of her and accompanied by a tenseness in her thighs that changes the angle of them both.
He knows that it will be over soon when she says something that is mostly vowels, a humming and a sibilant. It could be his name, but he doesn't want to hope, so he touches the tips of his uneven teeth to the tiny shaft of her clit, and shapes a C with his fingers inside her, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Most of how he knows she's coming is not what he feels in his hand and on his tongue, but the way she nearly rips out a handful of his hair and he has to steady her hip with his arm as she loses her balance; but he knows it from her breath and the heat of her skin, from the sound of her voice and the way she closes around him. He knows it because he feels like he can feel it in himself, and right now Eames is too lost against her body to care that the way he's thinking isn't the nice safe five-miles detached thoughts of his usual fucking.
He's not sure how long they remain locked in place like this, her weight against his arm and his hair breaking free from his scalp, all the blood in his body running into his dick; he's not sure if time has stopped or if it only feels that way while she's making that sound, her body trembling like the sea, flooding his mouth, flooding his mind. He just knows that when she begins to relax he can't take his hand away, and that when she pulls him by the chin, her hand free of his hair, away from her crotch, he feels like whining.
Ariadne pats him unsteadily on the cheek.
Eames finally sits back on his calves, his knees shrieking one last angry protest against their misuse, and as Ariadne wobbles down onto her own knees he withdraws his hand. The sounds of the hotel drain slowly back into his consciousness as minor irritants, bangs and rustles from the corridor outside and laughter through the wall.
He catches her eye and smiles a chest-aching smile, watching her breathing calm down in long intervals and the red fade out of her cheeks. She looks unbearably beautiful like this, out-of-focus and panting, damp-thighed and wet-faced on the hotel carpet, her trousers around her knees and her fingers twitching toward his head without making contact. Slumped, spent.
"Thank you," Eames says quietly, kissing the fingertips of his hand. They taste of her.
She laughs, an exhausted and unrestrained laugh, holding the sides of her head as if to stop it from flying away. "No, thank you."
There is a silence that Eames might even describe as "companionable" or "comfortable", and she rubs her upper arm slowly, unsticking shirt fabric from her skin, while he waits with his fingers against his lip.
"Are you still –"
"Mm hmm," Eames says, not taking his hand away from his mouth.
"You should," Ariadne says, rearranging herself until she's sitting up rather than sprawling down. She doesn't pull her trousers back up, just sits up as if she's watching a puppet show, her suit trousers around her knees and her shirt unbuttoned to the waist. "You can, I mean."
"Thank you," Eames repeats, trying to figure out if he actually can get his trousers open one-handed or if he's going to have to irreparably soil Saito's loaned suit to get to his dick; he realises that whatever he does in getting to it is going to be nothing on what he does with it when he has it in his hand, and that the trousers are a lost cause.
He nearly breaks the catch on the waistband, but the zip is at least cooperative; Eames has his dick in his hand when he looks back to Ariadne for – for what? Reassurance? Reiteration? To make sure she's watching?
To make sure she's watching.
She is watching, her hand curled against her chest limply, the other bracing her in sitting position, her eyes half-closed and still dilated. Eames can't bring himself to look away again.
"Go on, then."
Someone in the corridor says, "JEZBEL YOU TAKE THAT OFF YOUR HEAD RIGHT THIS INSTANT, THAT IS NOT A HAT." He thinks of Paris, of the loud traffic outside Ariadne's apartment window, and how hotel windows this high never open that wide, that she won't be able to smell the rain on the pavements in this city, if it ever rains here at all; Eames watches her sweat-starred eyelids and the shadow in her clavicle, the shape of her mouth, as he strokes himself.
This probably won't take long. He hopes she's not expecting it to.
"You can come," Ariadne says under her breath, still watching him, "whenever you want to."
"JEZEBEL I WON'T ASK YOU A SECOND TIME," shouts the voice in the corridor. The air-conditioning makes a choking sound and in the face of all these distractions Eames focuses on her face, the happy ending presses in his balls, and he knows that 'whenever you want to' means soon.
When he comes it is a quiet, abrupt thing, that shakes him from the nape of his neck down to the tips of his aching fingers and leaves him feeling cold on the inside. Eames sags from the stomach and exhales slowly, avoiding the mess on his hands.
Ariadne regards him almost sleepily. "Aren't you going to clean that off your fingers?"
He looks down at his hands automatically. "In a minute."
"…With your mouth," she finishes, sounding amused, husky, and half-asleep at the same time.
"Oh," says Eames, re-inspecting his hand with a smile. There's probably no need to make quite such a meal of it, but in the aftermath of an orgasm there's no hurry, and the attention is as always easier to bear when he knows he's putting on a performance to get it. He runs his tongue along the underside of his index finger, catching her eye again.
"Really," Ariadne says, laughter in her voice. "That's …"
"What?" Eames asks, around his finger.
"I didn't tell you to stop." There's only a little edge in her voice, but it's there, and Eames can't help but smile at it, too.
It may not quite be forgiveness – he's sure there will be more conversations in the future about his inability to affect honesty and experience it at the same time, for example – but seeing her raise her eyebrows at his exaggerated licking, Eames is at least confident in this moment that there will be a future for him to have these awkward conversations in.