The Fischer job went off better than expected. There's a while afterward where they all attempt to return to their lives, drifting off in various and mostly unsatisfying directions. Ariadne goes back to school, keeping in regular contact through snarky observational texts. Yusuf was last heard of working in some sort of underground black market pharmaceuticals trade. Eames has dropped off the grid entirely -- only a letter with no return address. "MET UP WITH ROBBIE", it says in his jagged, all-capital scrawl, punctuated with a smiley face. Also inside the envelope is a blurry Polaroid of the left half of someone, distinctively male, from naked clavicle to browline; the man appears asleep and his neck sports an impressively vibrant hickey. (It's mutually decided, based on an extensive lip-and-cheekbone analysis, that the man is indeed Fischer.) Cobb is instantly the family man that everyone predicts, but after a month or so of this he sways back and forth into extraction, working minor jobs when the kids are with Miles.
Arthur's the only one that really stays around, hinging himself to various teams and unfastening just as easily. He works with Cobb again a few times, but it's not nearly the same. Not bad, necessarily, just foreign.
He doesn't even realize he misses it until they're wrapping up a job, packing and clearing out of their latest base and Cobb gets a call -- he puts it on speaker as he's reeling the lines of the PASIV back into the case, and something stirs inside Arthur as he hears a voice, garbled through the cell phone but familiar.
"I am again in need of some assistance," the man on the other line provides in a strong accent. "I assumed you gentlemen might be interested."
- - -
It's almost miraculous the way everyone seems to find their way back as soon as the opportunity presents itself, but then it's always been in Dominic Cobb's nature to be a worker of miracles. It's probably more indicative of how much they'd all missed it than anything else, but nobody's about to own up to that. There are exchanges of smiles and pleasantries and handshakes and even a few hugs, but it's when they start in on the business at hand that it starts to feel real and exciting again.
The mark is, in layman's terms, a rich bastard. He's the ultimate cliche of an upscale socialite, silver-spooned and platinum-blooded with a singular penchant for rare tapestries. In this expensive taste, however, lies the heart of his problem -- only about a fifth of it is legally his. He's gotten away with it for years, coasting on his status, but recently he's crossed paths with Saito over some one-of-a-kind Russian piece and is, as Yusuf says, "about to live to regret it."
They're going to catch him in his own trap: rebuild a party during which he was suspected to have confessed to being in possession of the same "Moscow in Winter" tapestry that had gone missing from its usual gallery spot a month previous, and bail the moment they can get conclusive evidence.
Arthur watches as Ariadne gleefully plots out a ridiculous mansion. Cobb scans it and Arthur's not sure if it's release or vicarious heartbreak that he feels as Cobb tells her she can "go a little lighter on the labyrinths."
- - -
By the time he's pushing his way through the glass doors into the ballroom, Arthur is overtaken with the familiar sensation of being pointedly glared at.
"Did anyone change anything?" he asks Ariadne in fake tones of perfect calm, edging his way through the judgmental crowd. Nothing particularly strange came through in the research, but as the team gradually trickles in past the projections, it's clear the mark's subconscious is getting cagey.
"Looks fine to me," she replies, barely letting her obvious concern bleed into her tone. "So how do we...?"
Eames suddenly clears his throat and tilts his head in observation; Arthur follows his gaze across the room to the mark, who seems oblivious to everything, engaged with a partner in a gentle box-step.
"Looks like the man knows what he wants."
A moment of static horror overtakes them all.
Barely a glance is shifted before Eames has snatched Ariadne by the waist and shoulder, flashing a smirk at the rest of his male comrades.
"Too little, too late, too lavender," he says, leading his unwitting partner into a clumsy waltz. The mark's subconscious seems to have no requirements as far as skill; the second they start dancing, however sloppily, Ariadne and Eames are no longer of any interest to the projections. Instead they tighten in form as though magnetized, closing in on the three remaining males.
"I haven't taken dance lessons since I was twelve," Yusuf remarks with trace amounts of terror.
The mark is heading right for them.
"Well then, suit yourself," Cobb says hurriedly, and before Arthur can think of any other course of action, they're simultaneously grabbing at each other in an awkward, ill-prepared flurry of limbs and hands and attempts at proper form. The projections relax, spreading out across the rest of the ballroom. The mark has made a beeline for Yusuf and is eagerly chatting him up.
Cobb laughs and it's then that Arthur first registers how physically close they are. He can hear every breathy, punching exhale of stifled laughter even over the lilt of the orchestra.
"I think this--" he calls attention to the placement of his fingers by drumming them over the small of Arthur's back, "--means you're the woman."
Arthur takes a moment to examine his own position: sure enough, he's got one hand on Cobb's shoulder, and though there aren't any real, practiced moves involved, he sure isn't leading in whatever sort of thrown-together sway they're performing.
Left without a clever remark, he just smiles. They've got about ten more minutes of this, give or take, before they'll close in on the mark. Arthur banishes the thought from his mind because he doesn't want to process how he feels about it. Instead, he watches the other couples over Cobb's shoulder -- Eames towering over Ariadne, Yusuf awkwardly trying to accommodate the mark's increasingly obvious advances, the projections exceeding the team's combined level of dance skills by miles.
"This feels a little like prom." Cobb says with the lift of an eyebrow.
Arthur shakes his head. "Never been."
"Oh." The eyebrow retreats. "Well, you didn't miss much, it's pretty much like this."
Now Arthur's the one laughing, and he can feel himself starting to relax into their movements now, becoming more patterned with time.
"I sincerely doubt your high school prom was like this," he says, and Cobb just shrugs and admits that, no, it was worse.
The mark invites Yusuf to dance, and Arthur and Cobb both watch, amused, as he begrudgingly lets the balding, overweight, sixty-something man attempt to lead him in a fierce Viennese. Behind them, Ariadne has both arms around Eames' neck, head lolling dangerously close to his shoulder.
"You could... you know. If you want to," says Cobb, smiling. Arthur tilts his head back analytically.
"C'mon," he encourages, and frees his hand from Arthur's so that both arms are looped around Arthur's waist. Left with a free hand and few other options, Arthur does as indicated, hands overlapping behind Cobb's head.
"There," he says, "Better?", but by then Ariadne has already put her head on Eames' shoulder and Cobb just gives Arthur a garish smirk -- he refuses to be one-upped.
"Jesus," Arthur murmurs, but they're both laughing.
Cobb lifts one arm in some sort of half-gesture. "I'm waiting."
This time when he puts his hand back, he laces his fingers together in a knot just barely above Arthur's ass.
"All right, all right," Arthur offers up his final halfhearted complaint before obeying. The fabric of Cobb's suit rustles against his ear as he lays down his head, and this time it's the absence of laughter that reminds him that they're pressed against each other, dancing together in the middle of a crowded ballroom. He's listening to the music now, focusing on the streaming, steady violin, drawn out of this line of thought only for a moment when Cobb moves to let his head fall against Arthur's.
"Not so bad?" he mumbles right into Arthur's ear, and he's glad his face is buried in Cobb's suit jacket because it's suddenly, involuntarily plastered in the stupidest grin.
He tightens his grip around Cobb's neck and they both shift a little and then there is no space between them.
"I'm learning to cope," he says, and lets his eyes fall closed.
- - -
As soon as the job is accomplished, nothing is mentioned about the means used to complete it. There are glances, and there are avoided glances, and Yusuf gets heartily patted on the shoulder a couple of times on his way out, but none of the previous ballroom activities are brought up until Arthur and Cobb are the only ones left in the warehouse.
Cobb wraps up a call to Saito's assistant ("tell Mr. Saito that he'll likely be wintering in Moscow") and sits down once he's finished, watching Arthur restack a mess of chairs until they resemble their original formation.
"So you never went to prom?" he says, running a hand through his hair as Arthur turns around.
"My high school experience was a disaster in general."
"Sorry?" Arthur scoffs, arranging the final two chairs into natural-looking positions around the table. "I thought you said I wasn't missing anything."
Cobb just shrugs and says "Well, if disaster is the other option..." before hoisting himself up onto the table to let Arthur fix his chair. He just sits there for a while, swinging one leg absentmindedly while Arthur gathers his things.
"You're a pretty good dancer, y'know," he says; "We should do it again sometime."
Arthur rolls his eyes. He's trying to figure out which coat is Cobb's and which is his when he hears the sudden, echoing twang of music behind him. Turning around, he spots the headphones from the player dangling, unplugged, off the edge of the table, but instead of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, it's something American; distinctively country-sounding.
I'll always remember the song they were playin',
The first time we danced and I knew...
"Jesus... Anne Murray?" he laughs, but when he looks up to meet Cobb's gaze he sees the other man is standing, extending a hand and sporting a rakish grin. Arthur eyes him skeptically.
"Are you serious?"
"...You mean right now?"
Arthur opens his mouth to retort, but Cobb cuts him off -- "And if you give me one more roundabout excuse of how you're too dignified but oh if you have to..."
"Well?" Arthur puts out both hands in a playfully questioning gesture, "Do I?"
Cobb considers this.
He takes Cobb's hand with a teasing "oh, in that case..." and lets him set the pace of their subdued sway.
It's a lot easier without a horde of projections at their backs, Arthur thinks as he lets his head fall to Cobb's shoulder, this time without any prompting.