The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.
When Ariadne first heard that Eames and Arthur were planning on moving in together – or at least planning on sharing accommodation whenever possible, which was as close as damn it – her expression was one of total, close to insulting, disbelief.
"You'll be ripping each other apart by the end of the first week," was her dire prediction, accompanied by a disbelieving frown; and this despite the fact that she knew they had been at least in the same city for quite a while now, and usually in the same hotel, despite moving with alarming frequency, and still showed no signs of carnage. "Seriously. Limb from limb. I'll have to lay in a complete stash of popcorn for watching this."
But then she really had no idea, Eames thought, no idea at all, to be fair to her.
No idea that after all the jacked up mess of their last trip with Cobb, the way he and Arthur had stuck together was almost but not quite like they had with her, and he couldn't blame her for assuming it was exactly the same, even though it really wasn't.
After all, as far as Ariadne was concerned, they were just taking a bit of time off (never mind that said time showed no signs of coming to a close) to help her learn the finer points – mainly those of violence-in-dreams and outright criminal activity in daily life, if Eames were honest about it – of dreamsharing. Since Cobb, who had been her heady introduction to the whole thing, was obviously occupied with other things, he doubted she really thought too hard about why they'd turned up and started helping her, other than that they made decent replacements in dreamshare-guidance. She was still young enough to have the kind of self-centred assessment of life where she came unquestionably first, whatever the situation – and Dom's reaction to her during the Fischer job, half-reliance, half-responsibility, and nicely mixed with admiring awe, had been the perfect validation of her underlying assumptions.
Ariadne herself, therefore, was not always a quantifiable factor in how life proceeded. But as far as he and Arthur were concerned with Ariadne, no matter how much they liked her, it was more a question of protecting her as much as was possible from the reality that was the seedier side of dreamsharing; protecting her from the side that led to things like Cobol and the terminal bloody failure at everything that was Nash and bullets that didn't wake you up if they shattered your skull. It meant being constantly aware, always keeping an eye out for things that sounded tempting and were going to end in disaster. And that, unfortunately, was all too easily made a part of everyday life.
It meant taking over the jobs she'd have been interested in even if it had been complete amateur trash running them – and then hoping that if nothing else, Arthur's meticulous research and his own ability to wing it despite diabolical cock-ups would be enough to keep her vaguely out of trouble. Arthur felt responsible, thanks to Cobb's understandable absence, and Eames had nothing better to do, at least for the time being, and somehow it had all ended up as an unspoken agreement that they'd see it out until they were sure she would be all right – which although she clearly was, it still wasn't exactly something it was easy to trust to fate.
The more they worked with her, the more Eames genuinely liked her, the more he ended up agreeing with Arthur's summary of the situation, that it was worth sticking around on increasingly flimsy pretexts just to keep that brilliant bloody mind of hers from going off the rails and scuppering any chance she might have of a reasonably legal life. These days, Eames certainly considered her a friend, even when she drove him up the wall (which to be fair, Yusuf did too, and he'd never have called the man anything but a friend, so maybe that said more about his own odd emotions than anything else) and he'd had her on the list of people he'd do just about anything for since he first watched her deal with Cobb and architecture all at once. But he still wished she'd get a wiggle on and not so much grow up as work out that the centre of the universe was actually the universe itself. It would make it so much easier to look out for her.
"But I have to," Ariadne practically wailed at one point. "This will be so cool. I've never designed a whole theme park."
"And you're still not going to," Eames snorted. "Have you seen what they want to do with this? And they're using Chandler as a chemist – do you actually want to wind up a vegetable after using one of his concoctions? Because that's a real possibility."
"Well, no... that's why I told them that I'd only do it if they used Yusuf...and you as the forger."
"It doesn't need a forger," Eames said, confused. "And have you asked Yusuf if he's available? Because you've got a nice little bubble going here, sweetie, but I'm going to have to remind you Yusuf doesn't do field work without one hell of a lot of money being offered."
"But he'll do it for me," Ariadne assured him. And in her mind that was all it took, and maybe she was right because Yusuf arrived the next week with his chem. setup tucked under one arm and a sheepish smile on his face.
Eames was pleased to see him, despite misgivings as to just how he'd been manipulated onto a plane again, Ariadne started showing him her plans as though he'd just popped out on a coffee run rather than gone to a different time zone, and Arthur was as wary as a cat confronted by a downpour.
"You've got a problem with Yusuf," Eames said without preliminaries, catching him in the elevator one morning. Arthur looked at him as though he'd begun speaking in an alien tongue, because oh yes, it was before eight in the morning, and no matter how together Arthur looked, he really, really wasn't at his best without enough caffeine to rejuvenate Methuselah. Eames rolled his eyes, and started again. "Okay, I am going to get you coffee, and then you are going to tell me why you have a problem with Yusuf."
"No...it's fine, Eames. Don't worry about it." Arthur tried to brush it off, unseduced into indiscreet honesty even by double espressos. "I just don't want any more surprises. And even you have to admit that Yusuf likes to experiment."
"Well, yeah... but he's trustworthy....mostly." And he's my friend, Eames didn't say, but he was pretty sure his tone of voice had given it away, because Arthur sighed, and waved all concerns away with an irritable hand.
"Exactly. Mostly..." And that was apparently all he was prepared to say on the matter, despite Eames trying various ways of getting him to snap and explain himself.
Yusuf, though, who was a genius at getting people to trust him even when they really, really shouldn't (which was one of the reasons Eames liked him so much, if he were honest) came up with the idea of involving Arthur in testing his concoctions – "This one is smoother, I think," on Eames.
"It's a good job I like you," Eames grumbled to him one afternoon.
"It's a good job you like Arthur," Yusuf retorted, and looked over at where Ariadne was trying to explain just why she wanted to incorporate a ferris wheel into her maze. Arthur looked as though he were getting five different kinds of headache as he tried to talk her out of it. "I think she will be devastating when she grows up a little, don't you?"
Eames looked at Yusuf's amusement-crinkled expression, and groaned. "That obvious?"
"Oh, we all are," Yusuf said serenely. "It's why we're here. God help us when she works it out."
It was about juggling the facts of Ariadne's brilliance and her understandable solipsism and her astounding skills, and the way that she might already show all the signs of being a great master criminal, but she was also Miles's favoured student, and Miles had gone a damn long time without running foul of the law in any way other than having the misfortune of being related to Mal and by default Dom. And he really wouldn't have appreciated watching his prize pupil end up as the latest recipient of forged papers and a false identity, even if it was mostly his fault she'd started along that path in the first place.
So if anyone had asked (and no-one did, though Eames was still waiting), their given excuse for staying in Ariadne's general vicinity would have been that since everyone owed Miles in weird ways that didn't really bear much resemblance to logic (mostly for picking Dom up at the airport and making damn sure he knew he was currently in reality, because not even the third level could ever manufacture someone like Miles), making sure his latest bright star didn't fly off into the outer realms of dreamshare and come back to him with a price on her head seemed a very small thing to take care of.
Even if no-one (especially not Ariadne or Miles) had asked them to.
Still, it was different for them than it would hopefully ever be for her. Eames knew, for example, that Arthur hadn't been exactly legal for some time before Mal spotted his brilliance, and it had never been something that particularly bothered him one way or the other, just as Dom's inclination to keep himself (and Mal, as much as possible, though that was always a losing battle, given her love of pushing all the limits) as much on the straight and narrow as he could, back when it had been about government work and legal paycheques (the work itself had never been on the up-and-up, but Eames always figured that was for Dom and his conscience to sort out, he didn't give a bugger as long as there was money in the bank), hadn't been a problem either. The only difference it had made was that he tended to get a bit narked when Arthur referred to him as a thief, since he was pretty sure Arthur, despite the monumentally successful act of being an irredeemable stick-in-the-mud, wasn't all that much better.
"She can't do this, Arthur. It's all so damn dodgy that I can smell it from here." Eames was looking at a text message he'd just got from Ariadne. "Kronburg is alright, but Harris is as crooked as the day is long."
"Mm," said Arthur, not really listening. He was working at something – he was always working at something, being Dom's exclusive property for so long hadn't put any sort of dampener on his demand – and was obviously paying Eames no attention at all. "Fine."
Eames resisted the impulse to start tearing his hair out. "No," he said slowly, "not fine, more isn't this what you wanted to avoid-type bad."
"Bad? I got it." Arthur adjusted the magnifying lens he was using and peered at what he had in his hand.
"No, God damn it, Arthur. You don't!" Eames grabbed the arm of the magnifier and swung it away. "You're not even listening."
"Kronberg's all right, Harris is crooked, you want to make sure he's replaced on the extraction team, which is going to be by me, thank you very much, since your reputation won't stand up to being played against someone else with dodgy connections –"
"I got it," Arthur repeated, and swung the magnifier back with a glare. "And keep your hands off my things."
So yeah, their cohabitation wasn't exactly what you'd call a match made in Heaven or anything, it probably wasn't even a half-way good idea to confirm sharing living space and giving up on the hotel thing – but quite simply, these days, it was impossible to do without at least the idea of having someone they felt they could trust standing at their back. It was an odd sort of comfort that neither of them seemed to want to give up – Eames carefully held to that little weasel word seemed, because while he could, and did, speak for himself, he was learning that it was bloody dangerous to even contemplate doing so for Arthur, let alone make assumptions on his behalf – but as long as it worked, he wasn't complaining.
But even so, it sometimes got fucking weird all round, which was a long way from Ariadne's threatened limb-rending, but could still be incredibly disorientating to all concerned.
There were, just for starters, things that had led up to the apartment-sharing idea that they didn't really talk about, and one factor was definitely the way that somehow, all the upgraded hotel suites and repeatedly checked security in the world just didn't help with whatever compulsion to check up on people Arthur had gained in his years of making sure Dom didn't actually self-destruct.
Which was quite frankly disturbing, when encountered in person and not as an accepted theory.
Like the Sofa Thing, which was indeed worthy of capitalisation and also of being its own header, title, and possibly be given a book launch for its sheer separate identity-having.
"You're on my sofa."
"Couch. Hotel couch."
"Right, yes, sofa, couch, divided by a common language, etcetera, etcetera and so forth, and although I need to point out right now that we're in Europe, and so I've got language rights, that's not the point, now is it? Arthur. Darling. Light of my currently zombified, sleep-deprived, surreal life, it's three in the morning, what are you –"
"Okay, so you're –" No, it still made no sense, and Eames gave up, mostly because there was something about pots and kettles and hypocrisy in there, wasn't there, given as he was in fact also awake and talking. "Oh, fuck it, why should I care. Insomnia away, don't let me stop you. Want some tea?"
"No." Arthur didn't look away from the television, and Eames wondered, very briefly, whether it was worth trying to find out what was going on in Arthur's head, before realising he was too tired to even start listening to the answer, always assuming there was one.
He made tea anyway, because that was something he could do in his sleep, and went and sat down beside Arthur in case he needed to start listening to something, and then just drifted off back to sleep, still on the sofa, watching someone try and sell him a blender and debating what to say about this weird new sofa-couch-whatever-stealing habit, and when he woke up the pot was empty, which meant either Arthur had changed his mind about the tea or they'd had elves in, and Arthur was gone.
The next day, Eames tried, rather half-heartedly, to find out what was going on, and got precisely nowhere.
"So, this sofa –"
"—thing you've got going on –"
"Don't worry about it."
I'm not, Eames wanted to say, but I'm a bit worried about you. He didn't. It would have crossed both their self-imposed boundaries at once, that sort of concern.
Still, he was a basically polite man, no matter what impression he liked to give, so he never tried asking again about the sleep, even though the couch-sofa thing kept happening. He didn't try to stay awake himself or even attempt to keep Arthur company half the time, but he always made sure to at least poke his head out of his bedroom and acknowledge the fact Arthur was there. And that he himself was awake, and Arthur knew it. Somehow that felt important.
"Hello. Sofa thief."
"You want tea?"
"Toast? Whisky? A sleeping tablet? A nice – or a not-nice, I don't want to assume here – obliging girl from one of those cards in the kiosk –?"
"Oh, for God's sake, shut up and go back to sleep, Eames, your babble isn't even vaguely endearing, I don't care who told you it was."
"Cobb," Eames said, and was impressed at the depths of revulsion Arthur's expression managed to convey. Encouraged, he added, "you know how he likes to –"
"Jesus Christ, will you go away before I have to take off my socks and throttle you with them."
And that always seemed to be enough, or at least enough for Arthur, because one time Eames did wake up an hour after their by now common exchange, properly wake up, wake up choking on something that was threatening to become a good old-fashioned scream, and when he came out to see if there was something horrible and mindless on the television, and company with which to not-talk about dreams, Arthur had already left. So obviously, he never stayed very long at all.
Really, then, it was more that mutual trust was what it became, rather than started out as. It had actually started out based on the fact that while Eames didn't mind having someone look out for him in the slightest, he was also slightly worried, given the couch-sofa damnit -three-am-thing, about what Arthur would do if he wasn't watching out for someone else, such as not watch out at all. Which in turn meant Eames did his fair amount of keeping an eye out as well, just in case there were things waiting to sneak up on Arthur. Things that might not be beautiful women in elegant dresses and with homicidal tendencies, or be as heartbreakingly simple as problem-solving pinwheels in a safe, but more real-life things that could take a man out far more permanently.
Eames suspected that Saito's expert problem-solving abilities or not, a number of the things he needed to watch out for on Arthur's behalf more than likely had the name Cobol behind them, and that was when he realised the whole making-sure thing was mutual.
Arthur might not need talking out of leaving for another country or trying to cut all ties and start over, like Eames sometimes did, but he did need someone who wasn't going to try and talk him into things by virtue of old loyalties and friendships, and listened to him talk things through for himself while he made his own mind up.
One of those long rambling talks had been what led them to consider the whole idea of sharing living space in Paris – but for once, it hadn't just been Eames listening, it had been Arthur as well, Arthur who knew how to listen to what wasn't being said, and who had let him get about half a sentence out about how staying in one place wasn't good for business, fixed him with an uncompromising glare, and then said,
"I'm not letting you run away from this one. It's Ariadne, Eames, stop it. And I'm not going to start globehopping again to try and keep up with you if you do leave, either. So cope."
"Well, I can't make a base for myself that I would possibly want to stay in when I'm living from hotel rooms," Eames had said in only half-feigned despair, and Arthur had shrugged his shoulders in easy acceptance of that particular fact, and gone off to find an alternative.
Which meant that yes, Eames did have to cope, even though the idea of committing himself so completely to Ariadne and her desire to outstrip everyone in the field of architecture in both worlds made him want to stab his own eyes out, mostly because it went to show him very clearly indeed how much he'd changed even since his residence in Mombasa.
Since, in fact, his discovery that he had someone in his life who was actually good at stopping him from fucking up. Before that, he had always done his best to make it clear that he was untrustworthy, unreliable, prone to disappearance and should never be asked to make any kind of promise regarding a future that went past even a day.
Now, however, there was the knowledge that if he stayed, there would be someone to talk him down from unreasonable panic and the desire to simply up sticks and make a run for it and then end up finding a few months later that in fact he was a colossal arse who'd let everyone down again. It was oddly welcome, not least because Arthur, probably from years of experience handling Dom, was incredibly good at talking him out of making compound errors and stopping him from bolting off somewhere where he couldn't be contacted every time he felt he was letting people get too close, without making him feel like he was being managed.
It didn't even take much talking either, just one of those looks that let Eames know he'd been seen through, and Arthur saying quietly,
"Stop it. Eames, stop. Shut up. You don't have to go anywhere."
-- and in the same moment of breathing in sharply and getting ready to express his outrage at anyone thinking he felt he had to do something, Eames would somehow manage to control himself, because exactly. He didn't have to.
And it was in no way like before; in no way like it had been in the days when Mal was promising everyone that the moon on a string was more than a fairy tale, because he wasn't being offered any kind of happiness. Just pragmatism. Which was fine.
The first time that it had finally seemed oh-so-apparent to Eames that he honestly didn't need to think about running all the time had been during the Hanover Affaire –and yes, there were capitals and italics and European spelling whenever Eames thought of that complete cock-up. How something so completely simple had turned into something that blew up in their face in such a short period of time, he would never know, let alone understand. But it had, and it did, and it had so confused him that he shot Ariadne out of the dream, so that she could wake them if need be, or run for the hills if it turned out that any part of what was happening in the dreamscape turned out to have real-life parallels like their mark had been insisting.
"Why the fuck did you do that, Eames?" Arthur had been furious with him.
Eames, who had been angry because he had suddenly realised that actually, he had trusted Cobb's skills even if he hadn't trusted at all what Dom would sell them all out for, and wanted to take hold of their new extractor and shake her until her beautifully veneered teeth fell out of her head and then feed said teeth to the mark, had snarled something about fucking amateurs and why do I bother and finally and desperately yelled "Listen, you gun-happy tosser, why'd you leave that one to me, you're the one who carries all the time, can't you ever just do what's asked of you?" whereupon Ariadne had made a noise of disgust that he was pretty sure meant oh my God, men, and left them to it.
The extractor, unwisely, had stayed around, possibly waiting for a spare moment to give her own opinion.
"I told you that he wasn't the one we needed, Arthur."
"Shut up, Margarette."
"You bloody bitch. As if you even knew what—"
"You too, Eames!"
Eames had managed to bite back what he'd been trying to say, not because of Arthur's demand, but because he knew that it wouldn't do any good by then. He had made a mistake, but it hadn't felt like one at the time...and he'd probably bloody well do it again in the same circumstances. But he should know that wasn't what mattered.
"Right," said Arthur, stone-cold furious and nowhere near shouting any more. "Let's get this in order. Eames, I can't fucking believe I have to remind you of this, but you shoot yourself out if the projections have an issue with you, not the goddamned architect, and for the record and before you start, we would all rather it were you up there conscious if things were going south rather than Ariadne, because last time I got our target scores back, she was still having difficulty hitting the paper and she didn't have a gun on her anyway. Margarette, you're the one calling it, and I can't believe I have to say this out loud, but if anyone on the team, including the damned forger, tells you there's a problem, then you don't wait around for everyone to die while you get the information, you call a stop. We can rework from what we have, but we can't pretend a disaster didn't happen. So congratulations, guys, we officially fucked this round up because no-one on this so-called team knows what communication is. Well done."
Eames stared at him for a long moment, then just turned silently and started packing things up...and through it all, their mark just snored on, completely unaware of the conflict raging around him.
"Part of that's mine!" Margarette screeched as Eames tucked their payment envelope into the side pocket of his bag.
"No, it bloody well isn't." Eames snapped back. "We blew the op... this goes back where it came from."
Margarette screamed and cursed him, then huffed out the door, but not before she slapped Arthur, who managed not to retaliate, and Eames, who didn't manage quite so well.
Given how much muscle he worked on carrying, she was bloody lucky that all he did was grab her wrist when she came back in for a second go, but one look at her widened eyes when he tightened his grip, one second of knowing he was making a woman genuinely afraid of him and what he could do to her in reality, and he let go, feeling thoroughly sick.
"And to think," she spat, rubbing at the white marks that his fingers had left, "I was going to ignore the rumours about you pass --"
"Get out," said Eames.
He would have felt one hell of a lot better if he'd thought she left because of his tone of voice and not because Arthur was methodically checking his weapons.
"Where are you going?" Arthur's voice was low and cool in the echo left by the slamming of the door.
"Away," was his only answer as he zipped his bag closed. He pulled his totem out of his pocket, more to make sure it was still there really, than anything else. He flipped the heavy casino token once, tucked it back in his pocket then moved to the closet for his coat.
"You don't have to," Arthur said calmly. "Even if Margarette tried to sell us out now, she's not the one we all got hired for. No reason for you to disappear."
"I do." Eames said, shoving his arms into his coat. "I fucked up, Arthur. You don't trust me and I guess you're right, you shouldn't. So I'm off until I'm less of a fuck-up...or more professional...or I can at least act like I'm trustworthy...or, God, I don't know, something, whatever it is I screwed up at being, here."
"No, I said you fucked up, which you did, not I didn't trust you." Arthur's whole face was pinched with irritation. "Okay, so I don't trust you not to put Ariadne first in some weird medieval idea of chivalry, but that's just you being you, I'd worry more if you didn't. I'd rather you didn't, but --" He stopped, looking annoyed. "Just shoot yourself next time, okay? Or me. I can live with that. If you run out on this, though, there's no fixing any of it."
"So you just don't want to get stuck cleaning up my mess then, is that it?" Eames snapped out the words but didn't slow down in his steady getting-ready-to-bug-out preparations. "Poor, dear Arthur. We're all such a trial to you. So inconveniently convenient, eh?"
"Oh for fuck's sake," said Arthur, and yanked the bag out of his hands. "The job's salvageable, I'll do the extraction with Ariadne, you stay here and play chemist, we'll rehash it later and work out what it was the man hated about your forge so much that I missed out on, and then next time, because you were right, we don't go near anyone without three full years' work under their belts, I'll stop taking people at face value just because they're not Fischer, and we'll all stop pretending Dom isn't a genius one-off who doesn't have an equivalent. Now if we can manage that, will you quit with the drama queen act and stick around at least long enough for Ari to yell at you about gender stereotyping?"
Eames opened his mouth, then shut it, his hands twitching towards the duffel that was now in Arthur's hands. He glanced towards the door, "She's still here. Ariadne, I mean...and I suppose...yeah, okay. Let's get this done."
He pulled his coat back off and sat down on the bed. He felt as wired as fuck, jittery and worn out and about a million years old, but he supposed that he owed this much to Arthur, the irritating little shit.
"You know," Arthur said, not looking at him, "if you're going to play chemist this once, you should probably get Yusuf to talk you through bits of it."
Eames just looked at him. Arthur sighed, and gestured to the laptop.
Ariadne stomped back in and yelled at both of them and demanded her own gun, Yusuf came onto the laptop and laughed at it all and backed her up while Arthur cursed him, and the extraction went – well. Like a dream.
"It's fine," Arthur said, when Eames got himself together enough, following half an hour of a good friend's common sense and being forced to stay put and worry while on the outside of things, to apologise. Apologise, and add that he was staying around, not going anywhere, sorry, I can't help being a prat. "It's fine, don't worry about it. There were always going to be a few glitches."
And yet, even knowing it was fine, somehow, along the bizarre path that had led to Arthur's amazing ability to find completely soulless apartments, and Eames actually not minding keeping an eye on brilliant Ariadne as she blazed her own trail through university and dreamshare, watching each others' backs had turned into watching each others' backs...and expressions and little half smiles and teasing winks, and, well, admittedly, all the last tended to be rather one-sided and Eames-centric, but he tended to blithely assume that nothing was ever one-sided when it came to watching. It wouldn't be polite if it were.
Since Arthur had never in the history of whatever passed for ever in the dreamshare world managed to miss the opportunity to wind him up, he just kept on assuming that he'd missed all the mirrors of the moments he let Arthur catch him in, and looked forward (although not very hard, because Arthur was the head of MI5 when it came to expressions, he was a fucking spook) to the moment he'd catch Arthur. Watching him.
And there were other things, too, not so much a source of amusement and potential, as of quiet and vaguely perturbed amazement. Like the way that despite the fact that the idea of them sharing living space hadn't exactly been a 'happy circumstance', it had nonetheless had the end effect of making them both seem to sleep better – or at least sleep, to one degree or another, which given their job, was some achievement and they both knew it, even if they never said so.
And if, during this time, and somewhere deep down in Eames's mind to be hidden even from the projections of his subconscious, the two bedroom flat that Arthur apparently envisioned as being ideal living quarters had been somehow changed into a house with a large master bedroom complete with en suite bath (sometimes, when he bothered to consider details, with a Jacuzzi tub) and another, smaller guest room for...guests – well. That was no-one's business but his, was it? And possibly that of his subconscious, if it ever worked it out.
It was just all the small things that kept changing, adding to what he thought would work.
The idea of sharing a place really started out in its appalling step into reality, though, with their ill-advised concept of sharing a suite. Separate bathrooms, separate bedrooms, and a living room with all the latest mod-cons – and even a kitchen, if anyone got past coffee and toast and heating up take away.
It was fine. Or at least, Eames had thought it was fine. But Arthur – kept worrying, or whatever it was he was knotting himself up with, and doing the Sofa Thing.
In an effort to reassure him about something he wasn't entirely sure existed anywhere but Arthur's brain, Eames invited Ariadne over, because for some reason having her around outside work tended to make Arthur pretend he was capable of relaxing, even if he never actually managed it, and, in a stunning display of desperation as to what the hell he could actually claim to have invited her over for, set her up for a Doctor Who marathon, phoning for pizza and thanking God they always seemed to have wine and finding as a last resort a box of three-layered Thornton's he still had for some reason (he thought bribery might have been involved somewhere, but he seriously couldn't remember, and he was just grateful they weren't out of date).
Ariadne, however, completely unaware of just what a hastily-patched up construction of an evening it was, and seeming to honestly think Eames had planned the whole thing for her benefit, loved it. Eames felt guilty about that for all of five minutes, but by the time she had curled up in a tiny adorable sprawl of half-drunk sugar-high on the cushions she had dragged off the sofa, and made him sit down there with her while she sniffled unashamedly over bloody everything the Ninth Doctor did, it was more a case of his trying very very hard not to laugh, because he didn't really want to offend her.
"Oh my God," she said, leaning her head against Eames's arm. "You are seriously, like, BFF material."
"And I am seriously cutting you off," Eames said, amused.
"Noooo!" Ariadne's eyes went wide, and she sat bolt upright. "It's only just past midnight, we could so do another season, or some of it, yeah, please, Eames?"
"Well..." He glanced up at Arthur who was frantically fiddling away with...something...on the far side of the room. The relaxation attempt really hadn't gone according to Eames's half-assed plan – in fact, it didn't seem to have had any effect at all, or at least, not on Arthur. If Ariadne got any more relaxed she'd turn into a puddle. "I don't think so, duckling. You may be wide awake but if we stay up then old Arthur will feel obliged to keep us company and he needs his sleep."
The glare from the other side of the room was almost physical when it hit him, but Eames just laughed, keeping up his pretence of cheerful obliviousness.
"We could have another pizza," Ariadne said wistfully. "And Arthur could watch too. Don't you like the show, Arthur?"
"I – yeah, it's all right," Arthur said reluctantly from his fortress of minutiae, never as immune to Ariadne's pleading as he liked to pretend.
"Come oooooon," Ariadne crooned. "We got two-for-one, just stick it in the oven, no anchovies, honest. Eames promised me I'll like the next eppy. And if it gets scary someone needs to hold my hand, Eames is a – a – a tosser," she said with pride, which made Arthur half-choke on surprised laughter, "and he won't."
"No, he just lets you bite his shoulder," Eames said, rubbing said joint.
Arthur sighed, looked at them, got eyelash-fluttered at by Ariadne, then looked up at the clock, "Okay... yeah... fine... I'll put the pizza in, you get the next one set to go."
"Yes!" Ariadne cheered, fist-pumped, bounced up like the world's most unsteady, sugar charged Jack-in-the-Box, and ran to pop in the next DVD.
Eames stood up to stretch, his vertebrae cracking in the after effects. He watched Arthur slouch towards the kitchenette and frowned. He really did look a bit old and tired, but then an evening with Ariadne tended to make him feel the same way, so he really had no room to comment.
And then he heard the repeated rattle of a die, which thanks to his misspent – well, life – he could discern from a thousand other sounds five hundred yards away, and froze.
"Sweetie, you just watch the Children in Need special while I go and make sure Arthur's not about to explode anything, okay?"
Ariadne, already back in her nest and washing down white chocolate raspberry truffles with horribly expensive wine, nodded cheerfully and waved him off.
Eames wandered into the kitchen, keeping his shoulders low. Boxer's stance, old memories, wariness to the fore and hopefully not visible to Arthur, and stood in the doorway, watching as Arthur, turned towards the oven, rolled and re-rolled his die with his hands shaking.
"Oh darling, is the pizza that surreal?" he asked as lightly as he could.
The die was instantly snatched up and back in Arthur's pocket, "No...no. I was just thinking. It helps me think...sometimes."
Eames just waited. You never could rush Arthur to tell you anything. You simply had to wait until he was finished and then—
"Why are you here, Eames?"
"Physically or philosophically?" Eames quipped back instantly.
"Physically," Arthur gritted out, obviously not in the mood for games.
"Ah, well. You see, I heard that little tell-tale rattle – far more effective than Poe's heart, wouldn't you say? – and it crossed my mind to wonder what could be in a tiny little suite kitchen that would cause my favourite, one and only pointman to start doubting reality in the middle of a night off?" He took a couple of steps into the kitchen, giving himself enough space to get out of the way if Arthur did start shooting. "Arthur? What is it? If it's the show, I'll turn it off and placate Ariadne with something else."
"No. It's not the show, Eames, even though I really don't get it and why you find something that's got such horrible production values to be so vastly entertaining is completely beyond me. It's not the show." Arthur fiddled with the pizza box. "And you know I don't mind Ariadne. It's all good, really."
"You've left something out there," Eames said quietly, removing the pizza box from Arthur's hands.
"No, I -- what?" Arthur looked around the room with a frown.
"Am I doing something so damn strange that you can't believe we're not in dreamshare?" Eames asked very gently, and Arthur shook his head. "No? Not me, then. The pizza? Extra cheese and no anchovies is a feature of your levels?" Another headshake. Eames put the pizza box down on the counter, and put his hands on Arthur's shoulders. "So what is it?"
"Oven," Arthur mumbled at last, looking thoroughly embarrassed.
"Oven," Eames repeated blankly, looking at the offending appliance. "What's the oven done?"
"Nothing. That's the problem." Arthur closed his eyes. "And I don't think it's going to either."
"What?" Eames was at a loss. "What were you expecting it to do, love, put the pizza in, set its own timer and offer you toast between times?"
"It doesn't open," Arthur said.
"I'm pretty sure it –" Eames stared at it, and then realised what was wrong. "Oh. Ahaha. Oh God. Oh, Arthur. I'm sorry. It's a display oven, it's a fake, it doesn't – fuck. I'm not even sure the stove top wor—"
"It does. And it's gas. I found the ignition button." Arthur was obviously completely freaked out by the whole setup.
"Okay," Eames said, trying not to laugh, and somehow wanting, along with the deep desire to give into general amusement, to wrap Arthur up in his arms and the blanket Ariadne had commandeered and say stupid things to him like it's real, darling, you're fine, hush, all at the same time. Somehow, he resisted. Mostly because he could see Arthur still had his Glock tucked into the back of his trousers, and he definitely wasn't up for being shot just because he was a naturally overdemonstrative man who'd drunk a bit too much good wine to be left in charge of his own actions. "Not much use for pizza, that."
"Nnn," Arthur agreed, slumping under his hands. "Really fucked up oven, then?"
"Really real, fucked up, fake oven," Eames said calmly, not dropping his hands. "Why don't you go and ask Ariadne if she minds cold –"
"Cold pizza is fine!" Ariadne chirped from the next room. Arthur thumped his head onto Eames's shoulder, which was something he would never have done in the days before the airport, and had never done before, and would have made Eames want to check his own totem, except for the way it was obviously born of the need for a hard surface and not from any kind of desire for human contact.
"I hate you all," he whined tiredly, and Eames broke one of his rules in the name of too much wine and tired disorientated Arthur, which should never be allowed in the same place, and rubbed the back of Arthur's neck.
"Go and watch David Tennant fall over," he said, and made himself step back enough to put another bottle of wine into Arthur's hands. "Tell Ari you get at least half this. And I'll fix the pizza," which he was going to do with the aid of the microwave, but he didn't think telling Arthur that would do any good, and besides which, he might take it upon himself to volunteer to help, or, God forbid, take back over, and quite honestly Eames just wanted him out of the kitchen and away from anything that required turning on, just in case it didn't and they ended up going through the yes this is reality dance all over again. "Okay?"
"Yes. Fine. Okay. Whatever. Fine." Arthur was into complete robot-mode and obviously past caring, which was oddly endearing and a general relief all at once, especially when he looked exasperated at himself and disappeared with the wine.
Eames actually managed to get more like three quarters of the bottle into Arthur by judicious distraction and refilling of his glass when he wasn't looking. By the time the end credits of the third episode were rolling, the pizza was gone, Ariadne was more than tipsy and crashing from her sugar high and perfectly willing to toddle off to bed, and a half-drunk, somnolent Arthur was dozing against the arm of the sofa, gun, finally, on the table if still within reach, his shirttail untucked and a slim line of his stomach just peeking out between the hem and his belt.
The sight made Eames want to run his fingertip along the pale strip of skin, so in a brilliant display of maturity and actually managing not to cock something up that had eventually gone sort of as planned, he elbowed Arthur instead and sent him off to bed, Arthur grumbling all the way about people who couldn't hold their wine.
He was quite prepared to settle in for a night of uncomfortable half-dozing, but after twenty minutes of suspiciously unsleepy sounds that included what had to be several somethings falling loudly into a sink, Eames got up, letting the DVD run on continuous, and went to check on them. Which was when he found he had to talk Ariadne out of taking a bath and Arthur out of going to get the files from the living area for 'one last checkthrough'. It all took a surprisingly long time.
By the time Eames settled down again, in the dismal knowledge that apparently tonight he was Sofa Man, the Doctor was putting on an orange suit that looked like something out of the Victorian Age Divers' Club, Ariadne was asleep in Eames's bed (tucked in with a kiss and a glass of water on the bedside table, because somehow Eames's brain had decided she was a small child, which considering how she had reached her comatose state was deeply and fundamentally wrong and even he knew it), Arthur was flat out on his back and audibly snoring, and Eames, so far past sleep even Morpheus himself in a personal and dedicated appearance couldn't have helped him, was sitting in the middle of what had seemed like a nest only minutes ago, and now was just five sad cushions and a hotel approximation of an afghan. He sighed, reassembled the sofa, and prepared to finish his night (morning) by forging a responsible, if vaguely drunken, grownup.
"Hi, Doc," he said, and refilled his own glass with a horribly expensive Malbec. "Guess it's just you and me, right?"
The Doctor was just gearing up to confront what was, apparently, Satan Himself, when Arthur stumbled out in boxers and socks, mumbled "Don'need tea," and crashed down beside him.
Halfway through the next episode, he staggered to his feet, and went off to his room again.
"What the fuck?" Eames asked a sobbing, mascara-streaked Rose, who stared through him from the flatscreen. Then he looked at the clock.
It was half past three in the morning.
It wasn't only the Sofa Thing that was making Eames change his mental landscape with regard to Arthur and living space, though. Eames was a forger for a very good reason, and that reason was mostly related to how well he understood what made people tick.
He didn't always know how well he'd got it, or why he'd got it, or even the fact that he'd got it at all, until he slipped into their skin, but he was very, very, good at it, however it showed itself.
And it didn't take a genius or even a good forger to work out, after Arthur's reality check with the oven and his disbelief even of his own totem, just what was behind the three a.m. sofa-annexing, either. Eames was pretty sure that had been the time of day when it was an incredibly good idea to check up and rely on the evidence of his own eyes and make sure Cobb wasn't about to do something not only stupid, but irrevocable. There was probably no way Arthur was going to learn how to sleep through the night again, after – what would it be, God, his maths was abysmal – over seven hundred nights of making sure, anyway.
He was also pretty sure that after two years of hotel suites and Cobb's subconscious and the endless watching out for someone who had a death wish on at least five different levels, the exact last thing Arthur actually wanted was a flat that could be any expensive hotel suite anywhere in the world. Because that? Didn't exactly work as a reminder that going round the world trying to not let Cobb get himself killed was actually over.
And yes, thank you Jesus, it was. Over. And he was certain that even though no-one was able to tell, Arthur was far more relieved than he could ever be, because loyal fool that he was, he would have kept right on following Cobb until one of them wound up dead...probably Arthur.
Understanding that, though, didn't exactly stop Eames from being himself, which meant that as well as the constant teasing, which to be fair Arthur never exactly discouraged, he also had moments of spectacularly, brilliantly, fucking up and letting his mouth run away with him and earning himself the silent treatment rather than any attempt to talk him out of his own attempts at self-sabotage.
This was usually how he knew he'd fucked up, since also to be fair Arthur's sneaky spook people-skills did extend to almost otherworldly knowledge of when Eames was on the verge of bolting, and he was pretty good at deflecting any and all attempts of Eames's to do anything that hinted at vanishing. When Eames had let his mouth sprint ahead of his brain, though, Arthur would happily see him in Siberia, and he made the fact completely obvious.
On top of that, Arthur was the bloody world champion at the silent treatment, which he could manage to convey while still talking. It would have been impressive if it didn't make Eames want to throw things.
As it was, because he was sensible and figured Arthur could throw things possibly not harder but certainly more accurately and probably back at his face, he just pouted. And then Arthur stalked off somewhere else and was absolutely focused on whatever he was doing, and Ariadne was sympathetic and tried to make him tea, which he had to drink, or she would be miserable too, and Eames was seriously looking into working on forging himself a mental filter so he didn't, in fact, say whatever came into his head as soon as it arrived there, just to avoid the whole inevitable scenario. Especially not if what he was thinking involved the word 'Mal', because damn did that ever cause unholy levels of Silent Treatment.
"Stop it." Arthur groused, as he peered into the mirror. He was straightening his bow tie for the third...fifth...one hundred and sixty-second time and it was driving Eames so crazy that he had started flipping M&Ms from the minibar at Arthur's head every time he did it. "I mean it, Eames."
Of course, he did. He always did. That was probably at least 50% of why Eames did it. Okay...80% was more like, but no one needed to know that but Eames.
"Arthur. Remember what Mal said? The only way to make it perfect is to let someone else tie it for you? I mean, admittedly Dom could make a hash of it in five seconds flat when he tried it on us, but I'm sure I remember –"
"You want me to trust you with your hands around my neck? How crazy do you think I am?" Arthur asked, but at Eames's raised eyebrow he capitulated, "Fine. You try it then, if only so I can laugh when it's not any better."
Eames didn't quite smile, but he let his expression soften just a little. "Well, thanks. Come let the expert go to work...." He flipped out Arthur's attempt with a well-placed thumb, and then let his fingers take over the well-known paths, the ones he used to be able to do for himself without looking, the last faded traces of his first solo con coming to life in his memory as the ends of the tie looped and knotted under his fingers. It had been a good year, that one, pretending to be rich, pretending to have a background that was a long way from his wannabe gangster days; good enough that halfway through it, with the black tie parties and people treating him as though he were worth listening to, he had realised he was doing something for real even if he hadn't actually earned the right to be in the same room as most of the people who'd fallen for his act. He'd been found out, of course, and needed to disappear to another country and another identity again, but some things had stuck from that time, and bow ties were, oddly, one of them. "There you go, then," he said lightly, giving a last tweak and stepping back, and then, unforgivably and automatically, "Parfait, bebe."
He hadn't thought. He seriously had not thought. He had simply let the words leave his mouth in all their foolish, long-gone familiarity. Mal, refusing to believe they could ever do it for themselves, Oh, no, darling Dom, you create the wreck of the Hesperus, stop, cher! Mal unhooking his tie and insisting upon remaking the knot, smiling into his eyes, teasing him. If only you would always concede so gracefully. Mal guiding Dom as he followed the same motions to tweak Arthur's too-perfect bow into an obviously home-tied yet still beautiful result, smiling. Yes, like that, exactly, you see? Parfait, bebe, it's an effect you are creating, not an impossible perfection. Mal turning in the middle of them like a beautiful flower, opening to their different suns, the most glorious moment of her blooming always for Dom, unmistakeable and joyous. Mal kissing Dom, kissing Arthur. Touching Eames's cheek and his lips with manicured fingertips, her smile a little sad.
But he knew, knew as soon as he said it that it was completely fucking wrong. He felt rather than saw the stiffening of Arthur's shoulders, the tightening of his jaw, and thought maybe he should say something, but damn it, he refused to avoid anything to do with Mal. They'd all loved her, and he missed her at times with an ache that he didn't know how to deal with – his friend, his occasional dream-partner and his co-conspirator – all gone now in one terrible action, and only a blank spot left behind.
"No. No. You don't get to say that." Arthur pulled back, his face a mask. "No one gets to fucking say that."
"Ok, no calling you --" And then Eames realised just what he had said, how he must have sounded, and shut up in a hurry. "Oh Christ, sorry. No, of course I won't say it again. I'm sorry. Arthur, I'm sorry. I really wasn't thinking --"
"You think a few nights sitting up with her gives you some ability to take her over --"
"No. No. No, I wasn't thinking that, I just wasn't thinking, I swear."
"You think you can just take Mal and make her yours when you ran off and left us all --"
"Arthur!" Eames's voice broke, but under the flat, dismissive stare of Arthur's inimical eyes, he couldn't pursue it, couldn't say It wasn't like that. I wasn't doing that. I wouldn't.
Generic, all-purpose denials just didn't cut it when half of the denial was an outright lie. Running was, after all, exactly what he'd done.
"Take your own perfect tie and charm who you need to and get out of my sight," Arthur said, already turning his back, "and don't you dare talk about Mal to me again unless you're ready to be honest."
But, silent treatment-deserving behaviour on Eames's part or no, Arthur had still agreed that 'sharing living space would be a good option for both practicality and safety's sake' – whatever the hell that meant in English, other than 'right, let's get out of hotels' – and had set about finding them a place to live. It was a flat of course, in a nice building with 'clean, modern lines', an in-house cleaning service (because Arthur had said he was damned if he was going to be forever picking up after Eames, even though no-one had ever asked him to, a point which Eames had duly made and earned himself a blank stare for making) and a fairly decent security system that made no difference to Arthur at all.
Eames fucking hated it all.
He hated it because much as he liked Arthur, much as he liked living with people in general, if he were honest (and yeah, that had been more than a small part of the reason he had given in to Arthur's apparently pathological need to make sure someone was safe, that and the fact that Ariadne was more likely than not to kill him with a fork if he tried it on her, and really, Eames wanted him unforked at least ninety percent of the time, so it wasn't exactly a sacrifice) Eames also needed the knowledge that he could, if he wanted, get away from people without having to go out somewhere and look like a great sodding romantic prat by walking around in all weathers, because contrary to popular belief, he didn't always want to be drinking or gaming or whatever-the-fuck Arthur thought it was he did with whatever spare time the bastard let him have during a job.
He felt absolutely no guilt when that first horribly perfect flat...er...met with an accident. A small fire, actually. Nothing big enough to harm anyone in the neighbouring flats, but making the place absolutely unliveable for the present and suspicious enough that Arthur suspected foul play and refused to stay in the alternate flat their landlord offered them for the duration of the clean-up.
Eames was just getting around to wondering how the hell he was supposed to decide on a country to look at houses in, never mind a city or a town, or even, fuck if he wanted to, but since he was prepared to make compromises, a state (the thought made him shudder, but what the hell, he could do this basing yourself somewhere thing), when Arthur announced he'd had enough of hotels (Eames managed not to cheer wildly at this) and he'd leased a new apartment.
In Paris, obviously, which at least solved the city question, and also, obviously, the country question, and took the state issue out of the equation, but.
All the other stuff made Eames's head spin.
Like how it was near Miles and the university and so actually looked legal.
Like how it was, in the way everything they did these days tended to be, where they could keep an eye on Ariadne (who was definitely going to stab Arthur to death with a spork, never mind a fork, if she found out about it, there was going to be gouging), and keep working with her and make sure she didn't make any more incredibly stupid decisions about going and being an architect for another team.
It was modern. And clean. And generic.
Which given as it was in Paris, which had whole arrondissements of old, beautiful buildings to choose from, especially with the money they had thanks to Saito's payment, was just insult to injury as far as Eames was concerned, because now he had to walk past all the fantastic places they could be living and try not to either go down on his knees and beg to relocate, or just kick something (possibly Arthur's shins, in the spirit of channelling his inner six year old that wanted to whine about unfairness, which would have been a really bad idea.)
Eames lasted all of two weeks in that particular flat, which was impressive, because he thought after only two days that he might actually hate it more than anywhere he'd ever lived. And then something terrible and mysterious happened to the heating pipes.
It was a rather dramatic something, since the carpet had been acrylic and was now, more or less, permanently bonded to the floor – and somehow, all of Arthur's artistically placed candles had melted into waterfalls of wax down the walls.
Since Eames didn't really see the point of having candles you were never going to light in the first place, and something in him was rather savagely delighted by the wax effects, so he wasn't too upset about that. Arthur, on the other hand, really was, or rather he was completely furious, and Eames had no idea why, but he went along with it for the sake of relative peace.
Their landlord, towards whom Eames was less inclined towards leniency with regards to having emotions about the horrible place, might well have forgiven the rug, but was definitely not about to let them get away with wrecking most of the paintwork. Eames pointing out that the wax effects had added character to a soulless set of blank-canvas rooms had only got them a firm assurance that no, there would be none of the deposit back.
So it was back to hotel rooms for a bit, with Arthur giving him oddly suspicious looks but never actually saying anything. And then, out of nowhere, it was Eames making phone calls whenever Arthur was out, to realtors and finally to Saito, because yeah, the man owed them one for that last mess (which Eames was more than happy to remind him of).
Because one more night of seeing Arthur blank-faced and determinedly awake on his hotel sofa, not a couch, damnit, in the middle of godawful-too-early-for-this-shit, and not having the right to just sit down beside him and say stupid things like tell me, talk to me, what happened? and he was seriously going to lose it for good. Because Arthur's face, deliberately blank under the flickering lights of silenced commercials, looked bleak and sad, and Eames didn't just want to listen, he wanted to hold on, because sometimes, he was afraid that it was Arthur who was going to leave.
In between coming to terms with all that, he set up his campaign to make Arthur see why they were only ever going to need one bedroom, starting with little things -- tickets to a play that he knew Arthur had been longing to see, presented to him with an offhanded, "If you can't do things for your mates, what's the point?"; remembering that Arthur actually needed three mugs of coffee before he was capable of having a functioning brain in the mornings, no matter how put together he looked; trying not to be too annoying when Arthur was actually working rather than tying himself in knots and in clear need of an intervention (which was when he did remember to be annoying, because it was guaranteed to get Arthur to look outside his own head); and finally and disastrously, having a bottle of very good wine delivered to Arthur's solo dinner table (because for some reason he liked eating alone, the man was incomprehensible as hell) with a nod from across the room and a note that said, "Enjoy it, then. The owner owes me one."
That particular gesture turned out to be the crashing end to his campaign on both sides, because the wine turned out to be corked, and Arthur asked him some very nastily phrased questions about just what the owner had owed him and how was it possible Eames had missed the difference between I owe you meaning owe you a punch in the face and it meaning I owe you my gratitude forever, and Eames, for once, had been the one to be seriously offended, and they were going to be in hotels, in separate rooms, forever, as far as he could tell, because he was damned if he was going to do anything until Arthur fucking well apologised for being such a prick.
And while he might still have happened to put his head out of his bedroom door to check at three a.m., because apparently these days neither of them slept through that any more, he didn't say anything at all, not even "Sofa thief," and he resolutely ignored Arthur's quiet "Hi," even though the rules had apparently got changed now so that Arthur said something first.
It still wasn't an apology, and Eames was accepting nothing less.
Ariadne had the gall to roll her eyes at both of them as they sulked their way through the latest banal job, and didn't make anyone either tea or coffee at all, or offer to share her never-ending supply of chocolate (Arthur might not have particularly cared about that one, but Eames did) in order to show her unbiased lack of sympathy on either side; and Saito laughed and laughed on the phone when Eames explained the whole situation to him in detail, and was incredibly un-Japanese business mogul about all of it; and Eames hated everyone on a matter of principle and let them all know about it whenever he got the chance.
Saito called him back in the middle of the most unproductive meeting ever, which rescued Eames from hours in which he longed to call Arthur on his bastard specificity and instead kept quiet and tried not to lose the last of his temper.
"It appears you have requested my services on a personal matter?"
"Well, that's one way of putting it, yeah?" Eames shrugged, even though Saito obviously couldn't see it. "I'd probably have called it a personal business matter myself."
"Ah, yes, but of course, and while semantics are an interesting topic, they are not, I think, why you called."
"No," Eames said, too tired to deal with Saito being Saito or, in fact, semantics. "You know when I asked you about flats and houses and – stuff?"
"I recall, yes."
"Saito, honestly, my most profound apologies, I'm trying really hard here to keep up the formal polite thing, but I'm beyond desperate. I really, really need your help. Your personal help. I'm failing at all things concerned with housing. And I'm getting embarrassed."
"You are not a very accomplished wooer."
"I am still listening."
There was a quickly muffled bark of laughter from the other end of the phone line and then Saito said, "This is a subject better covered face to face...with pictures."
"Yeah, well, I know that—"
"I do not mean the sucking part, Mr Eames."
"Would it offend you terribly, Saito, to learn that for once the double-meaning wasn't my intention?"
"Yes, my friend," Saito said. "I rely upon your offensiveness at all times. I will speak to you soon. I have a plan."
"Fuck," Eames muttered, and then, "Hey, Saito?"
"I am here."
"Don't buy the airline. Or, you know -- the equivalent."
"I make no promises, as efficiency always takes precedent," said Saito, and the phone went dead.
Somehow Eames wasn't sure if he was amazed, excited that Saito was going to try and help him... or terrified. He was, however, damned sure that he was still mad at everyone who wasn't Saito.
And then, in the middle of Eames's settled and determined grouch-fest of generalised resentment and healthy fear of Saito and mild loathing for everyone else, including a perplexed Yusuf, some post-grad bastard had the temerity to break little Ariadne's heart by giving her three weeks of heady romance in return for stealing some of her work. So Eames, who had once run with a London crowd who thought kneecapping was an appetiser to putting the real hurt on someone, had absolutely no compunction about going straight round to the bugger's crappy little studio flat and explaining this in detail with the aid of Arthur's favourite Glock as a visual.
All this, because Ariadne, kind, wry, sorted Ariadne who always smelled a little of glue and cardboard and sweet coffee, and was so deep-down, genuinely a good person, Ariadne had cried, in the way that meant rage and helplessness and incomprehension and all the things Eames never wanted her to have ever felt, and that was just unacceptable.
Ariadne hugged him so hard the next day when he turned up with her reclaimed work that he thought he might need a spinal brace. And Arthur -- looked at him. Without any of the sneaky spook stuff. Just looked, like he had done in the airport when Eames had been torn between relief over Dom and worry over Saito (who had still looked fairly detached from reality and kept putting his hand up to his shoulder as if he really wanted to check for blood, and ran a hand over his face twice in a way that Eames was fairly sure meant he was checking for wrinkles) and a weird need to make sure that Ariadne got her connection back to Paris, and had felt, for the first time in his life, simultaneously utterly overwhelmed with not being any use to anyone, and desperately wanting to be.
He had turned around, away from Saito's badly-hidden confusion, to find Arthur looking at him with that same steady regard, as though he were quietly reassessing something important, and found himself saying "Yeah, so what plans've you made, then?" as though it was way back in the time before Mal had died, in the days when Mal had been pregnant with the bump that had turned out to be Philippa, and had wanted everyone else in the world to be as happy as she was, and had suggested that Eames had a shot at it, had a chance at that kind of happiness in his life, and oh, but that was when Eames had run, really run; after she said that, he had run far and fast and tried to never even think about looking back.
Not away from work though, never away from work, and it hadn't occurred to him to say no to Dom's desperation and Saito's money, but when Dom really started explaining, when he realised that seeing Arthur again wasn't an option –
It was the nearest he'd come to properly running again for years, because he couldn't look at Arthur without thinking of Mal, Mal and her optimism, her belief in happiness. And the same cold panic had taken him over once more, looking at Arthur's cool efficiency, the same throat-closing moment of don't look don't think about it remember who you are and keep him at room's length with all you've got had taken him over.
Fortunately, he'd subsumed his primary school instincts in a mind-blowing combination of professionalism and infuriating teasing, and then Yusuf had explained about the sedation and how no-one was going anywhere, and well. Once he wasn't allowed to run, he was damned if he was going to be sloppy for as long as he wasn't dead.
And it had worked. Against all the odds of Murphy's Law and Cobb back in limbo and Saito there for so long he might even have died once, it had worked.
But that look on Arthur's face – seeing it turned on him at the airport, he'd forgotten his rule, not to get close, not to stay too long, not to be ever thought of as someone who could be relied on, and instead he'd wanted just a flicker of that old burgeoning half-friendship back – prickly and uneasy and always on the verge of something else though it might have been -- he'd wanted it back.
And he'd got it back, for reasons he didn't really care to look into, he'd got it back, and somehow, they'd both stuck around, for one reason or another, and Eames was trying not to run, he really was, even when he'd acted like a complete prick or he wanted to shoot Arthur for real, he tried not to bugger off again, and he was looking at why he tried, because it was the same look, the exact same look as at the airport, that he could see in Arthur's eyes when Ariadne hugged him, the same steady reassessment, and Eames had no idea what idiocy he was going to come out with this time, but he was pretty sure it was going to be spectacular and probably embarrassing, and then Arthur shook his head and said, "I want the gun back, Eames."
Eames sighed with overdone sorrow. "But it's a nice gun. I want it. It likes me."
The eye roll was so massive it was almost audible, "I don't care if it wants to have your little bullet babies, Eames. It's mine."
"You've got lots, and you won't miss it," Eames said sulkily.
"Yes, I will, because the way it's the one I carry should, in fact, have been your first clue that I would notice its absence."
"But it likes me best," Eames persisted. Ariadne made an odd noise, and waved a hand when Eames looked at her.
"Oh, don't mind me. Tell me more about little bullet babies..." The last word was a kind of squeak. Eames shook his head in disbelief.
"It's sexy," he said very slowly. "It's been thinking about me. It wants me."
"It's a gun," said Ariadne.
"It's a fetish," Arthur said to the ceiling, "and you're being disturbing, and also, I repeat, it's mine."
"But me being disturbing is entertaining," Eames assured him, his grin almost twinkling as he untucked the Glock from the back of his waistband, and stroked it delicately. "And you could think of it as a love token."
"You're right, keep it," Arthur said insultingly quickly. "All yours. Just – the sheer amount of cleaning that poor gun now needs is too much to think about." He took a step back, hands raised. "I take everything I said back, and I hope you have a long and happy life together."
"With bullet babies," Ariadne said, openly laughing, and Arthur went slightly red, but he was smiling as well.
And for some reason that was what made Eames aware that it had gone way beyond teasing or wanting to get a rise out of Arthur or anything even vaguely childish, it was about wanting him to stop being a shadowy MI5 spook-person about finding things amusing or annoying, or in fact to show anything that wasn't vague and detached irritation hiding God-knew what, and to be like that around Eames all the time.
And that was never going to happen without Arthur's being sure, utterly sure, that there was a reason to stop protecting himself from inevitable disappearances.
Then there was (inevitably after that nasty little epiphany, because if Arthur still wanted apartments, then it seemed Eames was going to go along with it) flat number three, a bit more homelike but still a flat, and Ariadne in the same area although, thank Christ, not the same building, because that would have seriously been too much for even his new, improved, not-panicking self to handle; and Eames was going spare fielding calls from Saito about houses (the man had bought either a real estate business or in fact the whole of Europe's real estate, and Eames was rapidly losing the will to live just over Saito's enthusiasm for his new toy, let alone the energy to care which it was); and Cobb started saying things on the phone like, 'Why don't you all come visit and see how much the kids have grown?'
Which, really, since he'd never seen Cobb's kids before, except Philippa as a bump, which so very much didn't count, didn't give him much of a reference point as to their relative growth spurts. And then, somewhere in between bouts of everyone apparently trying to drive him out of what remained of his mind, the plumbing went out and flooded their whole floor and dropped ceiling tiles down on the newly-weds on the next floor down (and apparently from the noise, didn't interrupt their coitus one jot and possibly improved it, which amused the hell out of Eames and made Arthur graphically and lengthily infuriated). And honestly, Eames hadn't had anything to do with that one, it was just good luck, or possibly bad, since he'd thought he was resigned to his apartment-based fate.
Which made it kind of brilliant, if also scary, that this time, this time when Eames hadn't even done anything, this particular time of disaster was what made Arthur finally have a complete and total meltdown over how much he hated hotels, and living above people, and landlords, and living under people, and, for some obscure reason, curtains, and plumbing and pipes and things that caught fire and hotels, had he mentioned how much he hated hotels, had he ever got it through to anyone how much he couldn't take the thought of one more night in a hotel and he'd rather live in a warehouse forever and sleep in a deckchair if he had to than --
With no end to this rant, superb though it was, in sight, Eames kissed him.
Then Arthur punched him in the face.
And sadly, he didn't know which hurt worse, the punch or the subsequent terrified look on Arthur's face before he stormed out of the warehouse.
It didn't really help that Ariadne, when she found him sitting down in one of the horrible chairs and trying to stop his nose bleeding and poking experimentally at his teeth, came up with some very innovative threats that convinced him he had been right about her longings to experiment with Arthur and a spork for a very long time. Then she looked at him sadly and said,
"I thought violence would cheer you up."
Eames made a sound that he hoped expressed his deep, deep approval of her sadistic tendencies, even if he was fairly sure nothing would cheer him up very much for a while, and longed for painkillers.
"But it hasn't," she said, still looking and sounding incomprehensibly sad, and then she curled up in the chair with him, which was just – what? what? and also, why? -- and took over from him with the mopping up blood, and then went out and came back with painkillers and a clean shirt and of all things ice-cream, and then curled back up with him and ate most of the ice cream and didn't say anything at all, just leaned against him in a warm bundle of scarf-fringes and hair and an implacable, deliberate kindness that somehow didn't jar as much as it would have done a few months back, when even a hint of it would have sent Eames running for another continent.
Instead, it was all horrifically welcome. Especially the silence bit, and perhaps, just perhaps, the moment where she very clumsily turned her head and kissed his shoulder, leaving ice-cream traces on the new shirt, and said,
"It's going to be okay, Eames. Honestly."
That little gesture was probably why they were still there two hours later when Arthur finally returned, both of them (until then) sound asleep and Eames decidedly not having run anywhere, Ariadne on the crash part of her sugar high and drooling on his shirt front, and the remains of a gallon of chocolate raspberry truffle leaving a great damp ring on the table beside them.
It was a great indicator of their comparative mental states that Arthur cleaned up the ring and covered them with a blanket rather than asking what the fuck Eames was doing with Ariadne, and why the fuck he was the only one who ever cleared anything up, and the half expected tease of ice-cream, really? Eames, are you channelling your inner teenage girl again? never came, and Eames, who had been wide awake from the second Arthur stepped into the room, pretended to be asleep through the whole painfully awkward thing, his eyes closed even when he was quite sure Arthur had ghosted an almost-touch over his bruised face, and moved Ariadne's hair away from his painful mouth.
Then Arthur disappeared, and it turned out after a day in which Eames resolutely did not panic that he hadn't disappeared at all. He'd gone to visit Cobb.
Eames's way of dealing with that was to stop sleeping. At least at night, and definitely anywhere involving a room he'd rented or a bed, as though staying away from all that kind of normality would somehow both magically fix what he'd done and wipe out all the reasons Arthur had been the one to run, which was something he was having problems even thinking about, at least without the sensation that someone had just scooped his guts out and left him hollow (and thanks to various projections, he had a pretty good idea of what that did feel like, so he knew he wasn't exaggerating too much).
The sleep thing, of course, was probably why Ariadne got Yusuf involved, at least initially, but as to Saito? Eames had no idea, and he never wanted to. He just wanted them all to stop helping.
And that was even before Dom stuck his nose in it.
"It's alright, Eames," Ariadne's attempts at reassurance always seemed to include far more hand patting and general closeness than Eames, no matter his sexual – or indeed physical – orientation at any given moment, reality or dreamshare, felt entirely comfortable with. "I'm sure he won't be gone long."
"Yeah," Yusuf's voice came to him from the computer screen. Yusuf seemed to live on Skype in recent days, and Eames didn't know whether he was grateful for it or deeply disturbed by the fact that he was ignoring his dreamers in favour of virtually hand-holding Eames through his latest monumental screw-up. He thought he was probably voting for the disturbed, simply because having Yusuf not laughing at him and instead trying to be nice was an almost certain sign of the impending apocalypse, and a man had every right to be as disturbed as he liked about that. "Dom probably just needs him for that Vandermeyer thing he has going."
"Who's their forger?" Eames wanted to know, because it sure as hell wasn't him.
"Er," said Yusuf.
"I don't think Cobb said," Ariadne offered with vague brightness.
"I have no need to hire a forger to command real estate," said Saito from somewhere horribly near the doorway, and dear fucking Christ this could not be Eames's life.
"Maybe they don't – wow, is that Saito?" said oblivious, happy Yusuf, and Eames had never wanted anything more in his life than to move back to Mombasa and Yusuf's drugs, and his cat, and his occasional bothering to check up on whether Eames was still around and breathing the same air rather than Arthur's compulsive insistence on timed check-ins, and dear God, Eames thought, please, the drugs.
"Right..." Eames sighed, running his hands through his hair. "I'm going out with Saito." Which was a whole revolution of world order to be even thinking about, and a phrase he really needed to rethink using ever again, but there it was. He was, in fact, going out (if not going out, because Jesus, no) with Saito. "You try to find out who he's got, because if Arthur is going to be working with Dom again he's bloody well going to need all the capable help he can get."
Not that he really cared about that need as a general concept of something he should be fulfilling, especially not since Arthur had more than shown that he had no interest in Eames beyond having backup and a safe place to live. That would have been self-defeatingly altruistic, and a waste of energy and time.
It was just that Eames might have got everything else spectacularly wrong about everything, but that didn't mean he was willing to let Arthur follow Dom into something shaky again without making it clear this time around that there was someone breathing the same air as him who cared a damn sight more about what happened to him than they did about the state of Cobb's dubious psyche. Which was a completely selfish and not at all altruistic need of his own, whatever it might seem like to the outside world, but still. He figured he was owed at least that amount of personal input.
Tandem nodding was bloody disturbing when one of them was on Skype.
Eames spared a moment to shudder at the thought of what would happen if Ariadne and Yusuf decided to take over the world through the power of demented optimism, and went off with Saito (whose appearance in Paris was making him check his totem compulsively) to discuss houses and real estate agents (although really, what was the point any more?) and to not, in any way, mention the fact that Saito was there because he had received three texts and one phone call from Ariadne and been told just how much he owed everyone, and was possibly another person to add to the growing list of people who lived in mortal terror of Ariadne's powers of persuasion.
Lunch itself, on the other hand, was fantastic. Considering that Saito probably owned the restaurant, this wasn't exactly unexpected, but it still went a long way towards making him feel more tethered to the real (if increasingly bizarre) world in which people did things like eat and sleep and not take over each others' lives, or at least not in sneaky ninja hotel room apartment-sharing ways, and then walk out, which, what the bloody fucking hell, Arthur.
Saito made sure he had a jacket (which, lunch, no, wrong) and asked him politely whether he would prefer viognier or pinot-based wine, and then ordered the food and sent their server away, and Eames felt as though he needed painkillers long before Saito said calmly, "I assume you are asking me to help because I endured limbo, correct?"
"Maybe...?" Eames ventured. Actually, he didn't know what the fuck he was doing, just that Saito seemed to have a good head on his shoulders and although he might laugh, he'd still give a considered answer that might help...or possibly not. At this point Eames was grasping at straws and figured that any advice that seemed sensible had to be better than what he had tried so far.
Saito looked as though he might be about to sneeze, and then managed an almost half-smile. "It is either that or you wish to know how much money I am prepared to spend on your behalf."
"No," Eames said before he could think, and, still aghast, managed, "No, I mean, you, you paid, we. Money's not the. No."
"I did not think so," Saito agreed. "But I assume you called me because you wanted detachment."
The food arrived. Some of it was rather self-evidently jellyfish.
"I think I made a mistake," Eames said desperately.
"I think you made a mistake too. But not in asking for my help. Listen. You knew I was going to limbo, and you handed me a grenade. What is it that so frightens you about the idea of inception, Mr. Eames? Because it certainly cannot be dying."
"No, that's not it." Eames fiddled with his wine glass. "I've never been afraid to die."
"Look, Saito...I just...." Eames took a deep breath and tried again. "Deception is my trade. Deception on the outside and knowing beyond a reasonable doubt what other people have on the inside. "
"I have never doubted your skill," Saito agreed, bland and neutral in voice and face and picking up little pieces of jellyfish. He didn't chew before he swallowed them.
"You know, don't you," Eames said dully.
"That you were the one who failed at inception? Of course," Saito said with a small nod. "That you believe Mallorie Cobb succeeded? I was not sure until you agreed to eat here with me. A man who is prepared to go against his grain must believe he has no grain, no –"
"Integrity," Eames said grimly.
"Ah, is that the word I was looking for? I thought it must be self-worth, but of course I am wrong, how could a man take on a form of a beautiful woman and not hold his own self in his head?"
"That's it. Exactly." Eames nodded. "And that image inside me, my strength...is now in question. Do you have any idea what that feels like? What that means?"
"Why don't you tell me?"
"It's bloody terrifying, okay?" Eames distractedly popped a bit of food into his mouth. Oh, God...
"Yes." Saito took the horrible dish away from in front of him, moved it to the side, and gestured to the waiter. "Of course it is. But one survives, correct?"
"Saito, I can't do this."
"But of course you can." Saito refilled Eames's glass himself. "My friend, I am a firm believer in Archimedes."
"Moving the world?" Eames asked, and put something that tasted like bliss into his mouth, even if he had no idea what it was and probably never wanted to find out.
"Consider me a fulcrum," Saito agreed.
His smile was anything but reassuring.
Eames came back several hours later after agreeing to place bids on three properties (only one of which he actually might even want) to find Ariadne still chatting with Yusuf on Skype. Or maybe he should have rephrased the 'chatting' part because what it actually looked like they were doing was playing a game that involved running through several different levels of forest to retrieve small flashing balls of energy, and then using them to build some kind of robotic framework. They still had their Skype windows open and cameras on and were using the interface to taunt each other's skills in the game.
"Yusuf, you loser. You lose like the losey thing you are."
"Your cat is better than you are --"
"My cat is an expert strategist and has eaten my dinner," Yusuf agreed mournfully. "So I am not surprised."
"Ariadne," Eames said, making her jump and blush and turn around with a look of guilty concern, and promptly forgot what he was going to tell her in favour of saying -- "I'm -- yeah. Need to buy a bed. Rent a bed. Sleep." Lunch with Saito, however good the food had been, appeared to have used up all his possible energy for the foreseeable future. He felt as though coherency had actually been drained out of him.
"Oh...well, there's always the cot over in the office." Ariadne pointed, as though he might have forgotten, which, given how his brain was starting to feel, was more than a possibility. "Or you know...um...there's always booking into a hotel?" She'd been suggesting that to him for three days now, and it didn't hurt any less each time she said it.
Fuck. As much as he hated living in a flat, hotels, even as a concept, were now far worse, inextricably linked as they were now with Arthur's rant and his own ill-considered actions – because he'd known, he'd known, God damn it, how much Arthur needed people to just hear him out while he came to his own conclusions, not to push him or try to advise him or, Jesus suffering Christ but Eames could be a complete arsehole at times, shut him up with unwanted kissing – so he was resolutely staying away from even the thought of the soulless places that he personally held to blame for everything that had gone wrong or that he had got wrong since Arthur looked at him in the airport.
Since before that, even. Since the foul time that had come between Mal's jump and Fischer's inception, and the job that had nearly stopped Eames dreaming for good.
The hotel room in Geneva was neat and tidy, in spite of all of Eames's invested tries at making it otherwise. He'd left a trail of clothes behind him as they walked in – tie over the vase in the foyer, briefcase on the table, jacket slung haphazardly over the wingchair and pooling down on the floor, shoes kicked off just outside the bedroom door – and then just collapsed, face-first, on the bed.
"Arthur!" he called with a pillow-muffled voice. "Arthur, check your totem to see if this is real, because I am bloody well having sex with this bed. It's amazing."
"How lovely for you," Arthur said tonelessly from the bathroom. "Please feel free not to tell me any more about you, the bed, or your sexual orientation ever again."
"God, you are really fucking boring, haven't you –" Eames rolled over and blinked at the ceiling, which was starting to look frighteningly hallucinogenic to his sleep-deprived vision. "Huh. You're in the bathroom."
"Well done," Arthur said, the familiar acid of his voice muffled by the door.
"No, I mean. There's only one bathroom?"
"There's only one bed," Arthur said, emerging from said bathroom wrapped in a towel, damp, and obviously annoyed at life. "And you're sleeping on the floor because I was here first."
"Fuck if I am. I've been awake for almost... " Eames peered at the clock on the bedside table, and then, when that didn't work, pulled his wristwatch up to his face. "...almost thirty-two...er...forty-three...er...a whole lot of hours..."
"And I so don't care," Arthur said in the tones of a future apocalypse, shoved Eames to the side with a warm and rather too-clean hand that felt unpleasantly wrinkled, which meant far, far too long spent under hot water, and dragged a pillow out from under Eames's aching side with a satisfied grunt.
"I needed that," Eames said hopelessly, as his ribs protested. Other than Dom, who was presumably drugged and sleeping and safely elsewhere by now, he'd been under for the longest, over three hours in one position after he was knocked out by Cobb in one of his wilder setups that were designed to make the mark 'feel at ease', thank you so much,Dominic, and his body was announcing to him how little it had enjoyed the experience. And that had been before the world's longest consecutive work-stint, and honestly, Cobb needed shooting at times in the real world.
"No... you need this...." Arthur dropped his wet towel and posed, naked, his cock lengthening and stretching up towards his hard trim stomach. "Don't try to pretend otherwise."
"Wha--?" Eames started to sit up but found himself pushed back down on the bed.
"I've seen you watching me, Eames. I know what you need." Arthur was climbing onto the bed with him, slow and sinuous.
He jerked awake, his breath catching in his throat, "What the fuck??"
"I said the bed was mine."
"Oh, fuck you, fuck off," Eames said from the depths of exhaustion and aching limbs and dream residue. Arthur laughed and leaned in to kiss him. Then Mal was there too, sad eyed and broken-faced and Arthur pulled her close to lick her blood from them both and –
"What in God's name –"
Mal fell and broke and fell and broke and fell and Cobb screamed and begged and –
"Jesus fucking Christ, Eames, you twitch like a dog, worse than –"
Mal fell and broke and her face bled, dripping down over him in a ghastly pebbled curtain, while Arthur dabbled his fingers in it, painting signs and sigils over his bare chest. And Mal fell and--
"Fuck. Fucking chemists, fuck. Eames, you're on a comedown, I need to –"
-- and her face bled and Mal fell and–
"Eames, damn it, will you just –"
Mal fell and broke and Arthur fell –
"Hey, it's fine, it's fine, just – Christ, give me your wrist, it's okay, breathe, I'll have you under in a second, just –"
Arthur fell and Cobb howled blood and –
Parfait, bebe, whispered Mal, and wrapped him in dark that smelled of hotel shampoo and safety.
Arthur was still asleep when Eames woke, sedatives lingering nastily in his head and leaving an odd aftertaste in his mouth, and he wondered, for the first time, just what dreamsharing was doing to them all.
Because he was damn sure he'd never had that sort of insane sleep-experience before in his life, no matter how tired he'd been.
So no hotels, not ever again if he could possibly avoid it, and besides, he did not want to think about how much worse they would be when he didn't know that Arthur was nearby, not-sleeping or charging his batteries or inventing new silencers or whatever the hell it was Arthur actually did at night when he wasn't watching godawful TV on a couch at three in the morning because he couldn't sleep and didn't want to discuss it, so that was another mark against them.
Eames scrubbed his hands tiredly over his face, and tried to organise his thoughts into less hideous and miserable patterns. "Ah, did you find out who Dom's using for a forger?"
"Yes." Ariadne looked up at him, deliberately peering through her eyelashes, which never boded well. Eames sighed.
"And this is where you tell me who, ducky. Use your big girl voice."
"Fuck." What the hell was Dom thinking? Was Dom thinking? Had Dom actually gone past being able to think, and if so, what were they supposed to do about it? "Just – what the fuck?"
"Yeah," Ariadne agreed.
"No, seriously, what the fuck," Eames said again, because one thing he knew was that Dom hated Benton Hale, hated him from back before Philippa was a frequently repeated gleam in his eye, really hated him.
The only person who hated him more was probably Eames. It had been their bizarre moment of bonding, a long drunken evening in which they repeated to each other over and over their agreement on how much they couldn't stand the fact of Hale's existence, while Mal tried to get them to stop drinking and eat something because while she didn't much care how Eames was going to feel the next day, she also didn't want to deal with Dom's inevitable hangover, and he wasn't going to stop drinking if Eames didn't; and Arthur had just laughed at Dom's squinty, furious impression of Hale learning someone's characteristics, laughed and kept laughing, and it had been a good evening, that, Mal eventually giving in and sitting down with them, and Dom had been drunk, so drunk and so in love, leaning against her, loose-limbed and helpless with delight at being able to revel in his dislike of Hale and Eames's total sympathy with his feelings, and Arthur's friendship, that immovable object amidst the swirl of life, and encompassing it, subsuming it all, the mere fact of Mal's existence, all of it thrumming visibly through him in a kind of ecstasy.
Things about him that Eames had tried to forget, because remembering them meant remembering how once upon a time there had never been a man more designed for life and loving than Cobb, and that night it was clear it might well have been the purpose for his existence, and, and oh. Oh.
Dom would no more have forgotten that, or decided to overlook his past knowledge of Hale, than he would have started teaching his kids to fly off the roof.
"Oh Dom, you sneaky bastard," Eames said with a sudden return of the liking he'd almost forgotten he had for the colossal screw-up that was Dominic Cobb, Cobb who was also Dom, lovely, silly, loving, reckless Dom, Dom who had been his friend, because with all his flaws and all his terrible penchant for getting everyone else into neck-high shit and then blaming them for his own mistakes, the man was innately brilliant at manipulation and came up with brilliant excuses for Eames to do things, which no-one else with all their soothing and hand-patting and encouragement and being Saito, which was a class of its own that Eames hadn't yet found words for, had managed. "You sneaky, sneaky, wonderful bastard."
"Eh?" said Ariadne, understandably confused and scowling a little. If Eames hadn't known just how terrifying she could be when genuinely angry, he would have found it adorable. As it was, he made an effort to stop the scowl from going anywhere near a glare, just in case he was next up on the killing-with-spork list. He liked the comparative safety of Arthur heading it, thank you very much.
"Sad though it is to say," Eames said therefore, with an impressively straight face, given how torn he was between glee and Ariadne-induced terror, "I believe Cobb needs saving from his poor decisions. Again."
"Yeah?" ventured Ariadne. She was looking at him with an expression that suggested he was being madder than usual, and it made him want to laugh, because how long had it been since he'd been the one applauding Cobb's cracked genius, however silently?
"Yes. Move yourself, angel, we're going to California." Eames turned on his heel too quickly to see the big grin that appeared on Ariadne's face or the two avatars in the game slap each other a big virtual high-five and bounce happily up and down.
Back in the day, everything was new and fascinating. They were all caught in the web that was dreamsharing – obsessed wouldn't have been too strong a term – each trying to top the other with new ideas, new scenarios, new mazes. Their roles were only then gaining definition – architect, forger, chemist, and eventually extractor – and sorting out who was best at what was still a game. Only Mal, always the experimenter, the chemist, pushing at the bounds of reality in every stage of being, and Dom, who built worlds to garner his information, seemed to always be aware of what their roles would be.
Later, they would gain titles and designations: Mal to be always called 'chemist', a small word that made one think of a girl in a white coat, filling out prescriptions with a smile and blank eyes that saw nothing personal; the reality the bright-eyed perceptive wonder who had once had military heads begging for her expertise, and Dom first called an architect (but there were so many of them, even if he was among the best, and that word never came close to his strange unquantifiable genius) and then known to be so much more, the first in his field, giving himself the title of 'extractor' and moving the world of dreaming up several stages in five minutes, five hours, five days of time. Dominic and Mallorie Cobb, changing the world of dreaming in time that could no longer be measured by the bounds of reality.
"Dom, the chicken is ready to come out of the oven. Can you please?" Mal leaned over the table, peering down into the maze that they'd probably wind up eating around and discussing during their meal. Mal's cooking was as wonderful as her chemical concoctions, interesting and filling on several different levels. Not that she relegated herself to any traditional roles, it might just as easily have been Dom or Arthur in the kitchen or Eames dragging in take-out (He laid little claim to domesticity), but she enjoyed experimenting there, as she did everywhere else.
"I, ink, glue," Dom said incoherently from the other side of the room, and Arthur said rather irritably, "Yeah, how the fuck --"
"I'll just go and get that then, shall I?" Eames asked, a little unsure. He did know he was welcome. He'd known for a while. It was just that they were a unit, the three of them, so much more than any team, and he never really knew what his boundaries were supposed to be. Tell him the rules, and he'd happily break them. Leave him to figure them out, and he was stranded in hesitancy, and hated it.
"My knight in oven gloves," was all Mal said, smiling at him.
"More the chicken's knight, I think, since he's rescuing it. Knight of the burning chicken." Arthur was at his driest, which meant he was at his most privately amused, and it gave Eames a hell of a kick to get the reference and have the chance to one-up the bugger.
"Well, you can't eat a pestle, Arthur, so I'd say I was more useful," he said with a wink, and enjoyed Arthur's thinned-lip irritation at being recognised in his quotation, before he went to make sure dinner would happen.
They hashed out ideas, Dom emphasizing points with his fork while Mal laughed at him and kept their wine glasses full. By the time they were finished they were a little sloshed and their ideas were getting a bit beyond the scope of the current project.
"I don't see –" Eames was suffering the false sobriety of a man on the slightly-outside of old friendships, and was unnerved when Mal turned her attention from Dom's idea of layered mazes onto him.
"But you do not have to see, with the construction, you only have to –"
"No!" Eames cut in, not able to shut up even when he knew he should. "I get that, well, sort of. But I don't see why it all has to be built. I mean, we're playing with what minds do, yeah? So why can't we make someone else's mind do the work for us?"
"Because you can't trust it to happen?" Arthur suggested, mild dismissive silk over the steel of his usual contempt for anything less concrete than blueprints and written plans.
"But you can," Eames said, leaning forward and pushing the debris of dinner out of his way to have room to make his point. "Look, you know everything about the mark, yeah?"
"The mark? Eames, this isn't a con job, it's –"
"Yes," Mal said suddenly. "Yes it is. It is a snow job, we are convincing our target of things that do not exist, it is a con." Her smile showed teeth. "Tell me, Eames. What would you create within the maze?"
"Something perfect, something he wants to be real, something –"
"Something he knows will never be real but needs to be," Mal almost hummed the words. "Oh. Oh, I think we could. I think – Dom, what was it you said --?"
"An idea. Give someone an idea –"
"The deadliest of infections, a disease." Mal got to her feet. "Show me, Eames."
"Yes, Eames, do," Arthur snarked out a laugh, leaning forward.
"I will." Eames frowned "It's like building blocks. You start with a simple strong layer and once you have that you can put almost anything on top of it. So… if the idea is to get someone to sell their breath taking new idea to someone specific, rather than the highest bidder, you begin with the idea of 'I want recognition for my idea', and then 'Acme Labs gives their designers lots of recognition' and then 'I want to sell to Acme Labs'… tiny steps of logic guided to the end result you want."
Arthur blinked. "And...oddly, that works. I'm impressed."
"You're condescending is what you are, you fucking twat," Eames said, and flicked a strawberry hull at him. Arthur caught it before it could make contact, and laughed.
But Dom's eyes were bright and narrowed and intent, and Mal said again, "Show me," and gestured towards the PASIV that Dom and Eames had stolen months before (met over, in fact, planning to steal it separately, and joined forces in a moment of wondering what might happen if they tried teaming up).
And Arthur said, "Wait. You need someone to be the project. To build it. You need someone to go first."
"Point man," said Eames affectionately, the old military term coming easily to his lips after pretending for so long that he worked with those words for a living.
And Dom said easily, "I knew we were missing something, of course!" and Mal laughed, delighted, and Arthur and Eames looked at each other and shrugged, because the Cobbs on a roll were always incomprehensible.
So they had set it all up with Dom as the dreamer, Arthur playing the mark, and Mal and Eames doing their best to convince him of…something that they had decided on between the two of them. And yes, this was still in their early years when they all still felt fairly indestructible, so they went under with only a timer and no one to watch over them while they slept – no one was looking for them, tracking them, or wanted them dead.
They didn't even realise then that what they were trying to achieve might end up in people wanting them dead who weren't military. They had no idea, as Mal and Eames played with forgery and projections and drug-concepts, and Arthur learned to shoot down his own subconscious with a kind of wilful glee, and Dom recreated picture-perfect buildings for them to work it all out in, stealing little hidden treasures as he did so without fear of any comeback but being shouted at, that they were headed for disaster.
They only knew that it was a greater game than anything Kipling could have envisaged, their own Great Game that would one day belong to an unhidden world, and they revelled in it.
"Look here, Arthur," Mal spoke to him in the dreamscape, leading him out onto the balcony of the building they were in. Eames knew what they would see, this much at least they had discussed with Dom. The hint of salt was in the air and the long white beach, waves crashing in a continuous roll of tide, stretched out below them. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"Yes," Arthur answered and twitched slightly as Dom stepped out with them and wrapped his arms around Mal.
"Looks a bit like where we spent our honeymoon, doesn't it?"
"Just a little."
A voice came from behind them, "The ocean looks a bit green to me."
Arthur turned to see…Dom. "Oh come on, Eames. That's not even funny."
"It really is," Mal said, and now she was being embraced by Vincent Perez, which –
"Not fucking funny!" Dom yelled, and Eames flickered back into himself for long enough to lean his head down onto Mal's shoulder and laugh.
"You see, bebe?" Mal reached up to ruffle Eames's hair, but spoke directly to Arthur, "The first thing you see is always the most believable, but not always the truth."
Which was, of course, the point when one of Arthur's projections turned out to be a homicidal crab that wanted to kill Dom, which was deeply unfair, considering, and also made Arthur panic and shoot everyone out of the dream. Mal and Dom woke up laughing, Mal saying "Crabs will kill you, my darling, so beware of infidelity," while Dom bent his head onto her hands and wheezed for breath and gasped "Oh God, Arthur, your subconscious is a terrible place!"
All Eames could do was look at him and think you, you're the bravest man I know.
Arthur, who faced the unknown and the unpredictable and the downright terrifying with no more than a dreamed-up gun and self-reliance, and who would never have taken that as a compliment in a million years.
(In Mombasa, Dom and Eames would smile over Arthur's 'lack of imagination', and both of them, in their different ways, would be thanking God for it.)
The plane ride was terribly uneventful, if you considered uneventful to include Eames startling awake three times from the drop of turbulence, convinced each time that he'd somehow dropped out of reality. Really, he had to get to Arthur and convince him that being a complete arse was Eames's territory and he really had no place trying to play in the big leagues on this one, or he might never sleep more than an hour at a time again.
Even worse was the fact that after the third time he lurched awake, Ariadne ended up sleeping in his seat again, all kitten-relaxed against his chest, one arm snuggled against his side – what was this thing she had for using him as some kind of pillow, why couldn't she do it to someone else? – and this time, Saito tucked her in with one of the blankets, and smiled at Eames as though they were both sharing a nice comfortable secret. Eames clenched his hand over the poker chip in his pocket, let his index finger worry at the battered, scored edge of it, and wondered if there was going to be anything left of him or his totem by the time the plane touched down.
It was entirely possible he would have worn the deliberate markings smooth, whatever happened.
And even though he appreciated the comfort of flying first class (just one of the benefits of having Saito 'owe' you something) he almost longed for the solitude of being crammed into economy class, next to a little old lady from Bethel Heights who would show him pictures of her grandchildren until he pretended to be asleep and she actually was. Because he had just, possibly, been figuring out what was going on with Arthur when he scarpered and now he had to figure out Ariadne too? If that was even possible...
"Shush, brain thinking," Ariadne chastised him, and snuggled her face into his shoulder. "Not making sleepy."
And all he could think of then, listening to her mangled, drowsy syntax, was Mal, beautiful Mal, because everyone had assumed that because she had found Arthur and Dom had found him they belonged, like playing a mad game of doubles, but it hadn't been like that at all. Of course that was how it had started, but. But. Mal had semi-adopted Arthur, and Dom had enjoyed Eames's friendship, and then somehow it had shifted, so that it was Eames who talked with Mal about how to shift perception, and Dom and Arthur who had buggered off to learn about creating worlds while sketching it out, and Mal and Eames who had stayed up until three in the morning –
Darling Mal, not to be a wet blanket, but I really think you need to sleep sometime this year, I'm told it's good for you --
Chut. This is interesting, go on.
Until three in the morning –
Eames, look, if we go deeper, we could put the memory inside of him – we could put it inside us --
Mal, damn, that's fucking brilliant --
Until three in the morning –
Guys, what're you doing, you need sleep --
Oh Arthur, such a stick in the mud, bebe, come and sit, look at this idea --
"Oh Jesus Christ," Eames whispered to the quiet cabin.
"I got it wrong," he breathed, sounding like a man with terrible, untreated tonsillitis, and Saito came over again, and this time he picked up a sleepy, protesting Ariadne, blanket and all, and put her back in her own seat as though she really were a child while she swatted at him, and sat down in the spare place opposite Eames.
"No room for tourists," he said with a smile, as though he had been waiting for Eames to make all those connections for a very long time, and Eames took the glass of scotch offered him, clinked it against Saito's, and nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak.
Because it was all little bits, really, nothing major or threatening life's precarious equilibrium, just tiny little moments of understanding the unsaid, moments that now fit together for him like the seeds of a pomegranate, close and tight and so fucking hard to worry out, but so tempting that you just had to try, and once that tart sweetness exploded over your tongue you knew that it had absolutely been worth it, and there was no forgetting.
Arthur, he knew now, had tried it and been given in return this same world-destroying-remaking revelation long since – made it and lived with it and kept his eyes averted from what might happen if he pushed for what he wanted, just in case another Underworld myth came true, and this time Eames did leave for good and all of Paris had been for nothing.
Persephone's unresisted and irresistible curse, the choice which once made, even unwittingly, not even a goddess could walk away from.
Now he really had to try. No tourism. No excuses. Just a scraped-bare, fully-meant attempt at real honesty that would have to be worth itself and no more than itself, if he were ever going to make an effort to count for anything.
Who the hell was this guy? That was the topmost thought on Eames's mind when they had all arrived at Cobb's house, been welcomed inside by Miles and then escorted through to the back yard where Cobb was playing – playing? What the hell – with Philippa and James. But that was a very generic term for what was taking place. Cobb had a top hat on and was sitting at a table so low that his knees threatened to upset it at any moment. He was pretending to drink tea, with one pinky held up so high it just missed putting his eye out on every sip. With his other hand he was ruffling James's hair and telling him that just because he was the Duke of Buckingham (which, seriously, what?) it did not mean he got all the cookies.
"But Daddy –" James wailed, and Eames, who had a disgustingly large family of assorted and much younger cousins – or used to, in the days before he worked out that somewhere in all the running, he had left them behind, too, moved forward and scooped him up before the wail could turn into a yell.
"Hi," he said solemnly.
James blinked at him, and then grinned. He was missing some of his lower teeth.
"Cookies?" he asked.
"Biscuits," Eames assured him, and then, confidentially, "English biscuits."
James giggled, and his small, sticky hands patted Eames's face. "Silly," he said, and then, "Lemme down, wanna go to Pip."
"She's just over there," Eames said, following a flash of long blonde hair, put James down, and shrugged one shoulder at Dom. "Hullo, Cobb."
"Eames," the tone was all seriousness until Dom stood, took off the too-small top hat and clapped him on the shoulder. "You finally took me up on my invitation."
"Er. Yeah?" Eames felt a bit frantic suddenly, wondering if this had been a good idea and was Arthur even here at all, or had he got it all wrong...again.
"Arthur drew the short straw," Dom said, and God, it was so long since Eames had seen him laugh like that, as though it came from a wellspring of simple delight in life. "I'm afraid he's been cast in the role of today's monster. And today's monster, I'm told, has claws. And, er, shiny wings. Philippa was quite insistent about them, so. Wings."
"He's hiding from her, isn't he?" Eames said, a smile pulling at his mouth at the mental image, and Dom nodded, eyes half-closed in the familiar narrowed squint, but the bright green-blue was full of laughter now, rather than sorrow.
"Hiding forever, God, Eames, come on, come inside, come and get a drink, Jesus, you must be half-way to crashed."
"Dom, I need to talk to you, Hale –"
"Hey," Dom said, and kissed him like a Parisian, like Mal always had, mouth brushing against his at the last in easy welcome, and Mal had left the best pieces of herself behind after all, hadn't she? Left them behind for all to see in the quick flash of colour and hair that was Philippa, the easy charm that was James, the protective, easy affection and acceptance that Dom was once more coming to embody. "What the fuck? No. It's a party, Eames, it's all good, we'll talk after."
And, it seemed, that was to be that. Miles came out of the kitchen with beer and a pitcher of margaritas (or what he claimed were margaritas, Eames had never ordered anything that tasted quite that much of tequila and salt unless he was doing slammers with Yusuf and was already hammered) and damn, there was so much food. There was talking and laughter and the kids running around in between the chairs and apparently, they had never met a stranger because they climbed in and out of the adults' laps indiscriminately, whether it was Eames or Saito or Ariadne, and somewhere round about his fourth beer or maybe his fifth not-margarita, Arthur was just there, hand feeding chips piled high with cheese and salsa to a laughing Ariadne like he did it every day.
Saito was horribly good with the kids, growled when he needed to and ran when asked to and ended up under a pile of small vengeful limbs when he won some kind of game.
Philippa came and brought Eames another drink.
"Daddy says to be nice to you," she said, and pushed the glass into his hand. "I like it when you mix cherry-coke and lime."
"I like it too," Eames lied, startled and touched and wanting to beat a laughing Dom to death all at the same time. He took a drink, and swallowed down more sugar than he'd had in the last six months put together, even with all of Ariadne's concentrated efforts to make him share in the dubious bliss of bouncing higher than anything that Yusuf finagled out of ordinary chemistry could accomplish. "Thank you, sweetheart, that was just what I needed."
"Will you come and be the bird?" Philippa asked then, more wide-eyed than Ariadne could have ever managed. "Only Daddy says you can be anything."
"The –" Eames had no clue, Dom was still laughing, and Ariadne and Arthur were fighting over salsa, which looked messy and adorable and made him long for a camera. He got himself together. "Course I will, love."
"Yay!!" And both Philippa and James were suddenly bouncing and cheering and grabbing his hands and dragging him away.
And the next thing he knew Miles was reciting the "Jabberwocky" (which quite right, it only even made vague sense when read by an Englishman, Eames would have been the first to say so) and the kids were acting out bits and pieces and he was cawing like a lunatic and 'being the jubjub bird' and then Cobb came in with a gilt sword and slew the Jabberwocky (Pip and James, by now, since the clawed-and-shiny-winged monster version of Arthur was still notable by his absence) wiggling like a snake under one of Mal's old Chinese print bath robes) and the kids were falling down and doing horrific and incredibly, incredibly, stultifyingly long death scenes.
"Now, Uncle Eames... now!" Philippa cried.
"I don't know what---" he started, puzzled by more than his sudden rise in the ranks to the heady position of honorary uncle.
"The bird eats the ja'wocky's eyes..." James sat up to inform him and then immediately fell down to be dead again.
"Of course it does," Eames said in a confused haze that wasn't in anyway improved by his near-terminal overdose of cherry-coke flavoured sugar and tequila. Then Ariadne jumped on his back, smelling of salsa and lime and the last fading traces of her favoured Dior perfume, and whispered in his ear –
After that, it was easy, it was easy to swoop and pretend to peck while Ariadne fluttered above him and did grabby things with her hands at Miles and Dom.
And then Arthur finally decided to jump out of nowhere and kill everyone who made up the jubjub bird with a very heavy wooden stick, which made Ariadne fall off Eames's back into the grass and lie there unwinglike and flailing and laughing, and Eames rubbed at his shins and swore, and Dom said with his hands over his face, "Oh my God, stop saying that, Jesus, Eames," and the writhing Jabberwocky-compound said "Twat twat twat you fucking twat," over and over again, even when it stopped being a Jabberwocky-compound and was Pip and James again, because apparently that was the best thing they had ever heard in their lives.
Later, after the kids had been cursorily washed (or at least had most of the debris scraped off them, since no-one had the energy to attempt more) were tucked into their beds and had gone almost instantly and rather enchantingly to sleep, Dom came out to where Eames was sitting on the porch and smoking, and slapped him on the back of the head, laughing.
"I am never going to forgive you for teaching my kids to say 'fucking twat', you know that, right?"
But he really wasn't angry, Eames could tell. It really was an odd experience to see Dom this way, back to how he was back in the days when Mal was alive and Philippa wasn't even a bump as yet, and Arthur wasn't his tether to reality, but just someone whom he loved dearly and who also annoyed the hell out of him on his good days and fucking well pissed him off on his bad ones.
"Dom," he said, and had no idea where he was going to go, but what came out of his stupid mouth was "Dom, I'm so sorry I didn't show up for her funeral, you know I am, yeah?"
Cobb's face went all scrunched and sad and somehow irritated, and Eames really was an arsehole, seriously, it had been such a good day until he had to open his mouth, and he was about to apologise again, and then Dom said, "She would have so hated you standing there watching us all fall apart, you know? Hey. It was Mal. She'd always rather the flowers."
"Yeah, but –"
"Eames. Come on." Dom crouched down beside the porch chair and put an arm round him. "You both fucked up, you and Mal, I always knew why you'd run like that even before she told me. We all should have gotten more time to sort that one out. We didn't, and you couldn't stand to come back just to be there when she was buried. Jesus, I'm not that stupid, I get it. I got it then, or I did once I was capable of getting anything at all." He peered into Eames's face, and then said with a whole lot less semi-drunken sugar-high and kindly dad-voice and a whole lot more seriousness –"Shit. You're kidding me. That's – you – Eames, what, seriously? You really think I ever fucking blamed you for that?"
"Yeah... I kind of think you did. And I kind of did myself." Eames gave him a crooked smile. Fuck knew where all this was coming from but it felt good, somehow, to get it all out.
"No," Dom said, dead serious and in his face and angry-sad-intent what the hell? "No, no, no. God, no. Aw, fuck. I thought you got it when you said the last try at inception had failed, I thought you were telling me. Eames, hey, no, nothing went wrong with you, nothing's there that isn't supposed to be, it just didn't work, you and Mal just couldn't make it work, it was me who screwed up, me, trying to do it in limbo, it was me, you just couldn't do it, you stupid bastard. You failed when you tried to perform inception. You and Mal both failed."
"She told me –"
"Yeah, she had a habit of telling," Dom said, all affection.
"Well...yeah..." Eames had to concede. "But that doesn't mean..."
"Yeah, it does, Eames. Mal came back from limbo fucked up, and that was different to how it was after you guys tried planting secrets in one another's brains and, let me repeat this because you seem not to have completely understood the concept, failed. Which, for the record, was the worst idea either of you ever had, and I'm so very glad you didn't bring it off. Okay? What happened to us – to Mal – well. That had nothing to do with you and what the pair of you decided to try, and had everything to do with her...and me. Really. And what happened once she was dead, that shit down in the dreamshare, it was..."
"Mostly you," Eames said, sick with it.
"Yeah," Dom agreed. "Yeah, it was." He laughed, tired and a little old-sounding. "Ah, hell, even just between you and Arthur blaming yourselves for the whole thing, she'd have been the world's worst projection no matter who'd started her off. But I was the one who missed her, I was the one who couldn't live without her, and God, didn't you get it? You or Arthur bringing her into the dream, it would have been her on your side -- on all our sides. For me it was different – fucking hell, she was my wife, Eames, and she'd set me up to be locked away for good, and it hurt. I loved her, you know? I still love her, and when she was alive, God, I loved her so damn much it could hurt even when she was right there. I loved her and I married her and I wanted to spend eternity with her, don't get me wrong on that, but I never, ever canonised her the way you two did."
"I never—" Eames began, but yeah, that would have been a lie. He had, in a way, made Mal a saint, put her on a freaking pedestal after her death, placed her on a height that would have killed any normal woman to fall from – hell, he had done it before that, if he was honest, just to get himself through all the days when he had tried not to think of what she might have done to him, not wanting to believe she could ever have been that cruel.
He supposed Arthur had needed to do the same in order to be able to forgive her projection its repeated acts of devastating violence, a sure way of separating the vengeful shade Mal had become from her mourned reality.
He couldn't really say any of that to Dom, but he could still offer up a kind of acceptance – not forgiveness, that wasn't his to give, but acceptance he could manage. "I suppose it was easier to do... since I didn't live with her. Didn't have to see the faults or her leaving the cap off the toothpaste and her dirty socks on the bedroom floor..."
His brain knew this was partly truth as well as a sop to Dom's still aching conscience, he was capable of reasoning that much out, but his heart still held to that image it had always kept of Mal as he had first known her, frozen by time and distance into something beautiful and perfect, with her bright eyes and brighter laughs and the way that Dom looked at her like the planet turned on her whim.
"What was it she said to you?" Dom asked, breathing the words into his ear, and Eames was about to tell him, give it all up and tell him, and then Arthur's voice said like ice-water in his face –
"Don't you dare push this, Dom, not now, you agreed --"
--cold and chill, taking his breath away until he couldn't speak.
It was probably for the best, since no one, and obviously least of all Arthur, wanted to hear his answer. Because what Mal had told him had always felt like a brutal truth, but now...now he wasn't so sure. And now, when he wasn't sure, now was he wanted to say it; he wanted to hear the words push into the air, wanted to let them hang like the executioner's axe and then let them fall, because he was tired of wondering what would happen if he admitted what was wrong.
"No, it's – I mean, it was pretty simple, it's no big secret, she – she just told me, God, I dunno, the truth, I suppose. That there was only so far I could count on anyone, like I was. That the trust and reliance only went as far as the storyline we were playing and if things went south... I would be on my own, so I'd better have a good bolt hole to ride it out. And when I found that bolt hole – I'd know how to be happy. But like you said, we failed, and I never – I mean, there wasn't one." Eames looked down at his feet. "I always figured it would be like that anyway. Not like any of you owed me anything."
"Uh – well, we kind of --" Dom started, and Arthur said quickly and furiously –
"Dom, we talked about this, and right now you need to be the one who shuts up, remember?"
"Yeah," Dom said, a little embarrassed, and fell silent. He still didn't take his arm away, though, and Eames felt vaguely safe beneath its warm weight. Dom wasn't pushing and he wasn't leaving Eames to do this alone, and he was right now the best person in the whole fucking world, even if he was also a monumental screw-up Eames wasn't quite sure he'd forgiven yet.
"What exactly did she tell you the bolt-hole was?" Arthur asked, and then, "It's okay. It's okay, Eames. I think I get it. She told you it was being happy because of someone, because of loving someone, yeah? And Dom, I owe you one kneecap shot at least, so don't even think about talking yet."
Eames, who had a pretty good idea as to what expression was on Dom's face at that particular little bon mot, ignored the familiar bickering, and just nodded, angry and embarrassed and wanting to run all over again, and he bent over with his face in his hands, and Saito, of all people, said –
"Dominic, I have been told that I need to ask you at this point to come and teach me how to make something called having sex on a beach, because it will distract you,"
and Dom said something that was so garbled it wasn't even related to English, except possibly, somewhere, 'toaster', but was nevertheless utterly embarrassed and a little bit annoyed, and his arm was gone from Eames's shoulders, and then he was gone completely, and so was Saito, but Arthur was still there, and Arthur said, "Shut up before you even start. Shut up, hey, you don't have to go anywhere, remember? Eames, look at me."
But that was too hard really, looking anywhere but down at his shoes. "It's not real, is it? She fucking got in my head and told me that happiness... trust...ah, hell, all of it, all of it and love – that was my bolt-hole. That it would keep me safe so I should look for it." He gave a little snort of a laugh. "She just didn't know that I was – I am – more afraid of that than anything..."
"And then when you even talked about giving it a try, she made you think it also wasn't real, because she said you deserved for it to happen, just like that, as though it was easy. Typical lovely Mal, saying things about life as though all it would take was a snap of the fingers for everything to work out."
"How the hell did you –"
"Because that's how she explained it to me, too," Arthur said calmly.
"Bloody hell, Arthur..." Eames groaned. "I can understand her saying it to me, but..."
"Yeah. Well, I felt the same way you did, just with less panic and a lot less running." Arthur's shoulders shifted in the periphery of his vision in what looked like a shrug, and he didn't sound even vaguely amused, despite his words. "That's part of what Dom meant, you know? You and I, we always took her words to heart as if she just knew what she was talking about."
"She did, she –"
"Yeah, obviously, because she was clearly a goddamned expert on how your excuse for a brain works, wasn't she? Since the next thing I remember happening after her words of wisdom to you isn't how you took them on faith and talked to me, it's how it was three in the morning and when I came down to see what you guys were up to, thinking you were bound to be dreaming up something new and stupid again, you'd gone, you stupid bastard, you'd run off because you thought Mal was trying to incept you while you were awake," Arthur was on one of his rants now, but he wasn't trying to sort anything out for himself, he was rapid-firing information at Eames as though he'd been waiting forever for this chance and was terrified it might never come again, "and that, by the way, was when she realised what you two had been doing had left you completely fucked, Eames, and it wasn't your fault, and she wanted to tell you, she wanted to tell you, I promise she did, that's why she ended up telling me parts of it, in case I got hold of you first, but you kept running and no-one could get near you to explain, and all I could do was keep track of where you'd got to, and oh God, did you seriously not realise how often you touch your fucking totem when Ariadne gives you one of her surprise hugs or kisses you goodnight before she shoots out the door? It's as though you've stopped even believing someone liking you is real, never mind anything else."
"I do not bloody well—" Did he? He tried to think. Ariadne making a nest on the hotel floor, biting his shoulder and claiming it was from terror at what was playing on the telly, Ariadne asleep against his shoulder in the warehouse, Ariadne curled into him on the plane, Ariadne, Ariadne, and he had his left arm wrapped around her and his right was... Fuck. "Well, yeah... Maybe I do, but Mal... Mal..."
"Mal what, Eames? You think Mal could have done something to you without the rest of us knowing or at least suspecting? You think she would have? No, don't answer that, try this one. Do you think Ariadne would fake being your friend just to play with your head?"
And that got through, because there were some things that were just impossible even to consider. "Oh come on, Arthur, you wouldn't have told me to look out for her if –"
"No, I wouldn't," Arthur said gently. "Of course I wouldn't, how do you think I knew she was the key to getting you to stay in one place for a bit? She's the avatar of safe, and she cares about all of us, and even if I wasn't sure you were ever going to believe she gave a damn about you, there was no way you could ignore how she fusses over me and Dom and in case you didn't pick up on it, Yusuf, despite it being on Skype and long-distance, and she takes every chance she can to spoil those kids silly, and she'd even fuss over Saito, scary thought though this is, if he ever let her. Ariadne's a sneaky, unscrupulous little wannabe yenta sugar-addict, but she'd never hurt anyone deliberately. She was all I could think of to let you know things were going to be all right, because you know that about her. And speaking of hurting people, I am very very sorry for hitting you in the face."
Eames hadn't seen that one coming and it took him several blank, heart-thumping moments to reply. "I s'pose I deserved it. Probably was something of a shock and – well, you were a bit wound up already."
He wanted to add that it had all been a joke, just something to shut Arthur up and get him out of his funk, but even he wasn't delusional enough for that lie.
"No, actually it was because I was shit-scared that if I kissed you back you'd fuck off to Kenya and Yusuf and his drugs again, and I wasn't completely certain he wouldn't let you into his dream den, and then I'd never find you, so I hit you instead," Arthur said bluntly, and then Eames did look up.
"Yeah, okay," he had to admit it, "I might have done."
Arthur snorted at that. It sounded more like allergy than amusement.
"Okay, yeah, right, so I definitely would have, but...I would have been wrong, I --" He swallowed. "I haven't tried to run for a long time, 'case you haven't noticed."
"Is that why you keep showing up on the sofa at three in the morning?" Eames got out of his strangled throat. "Because that was when I left? That was for me?"
And God, but he wanted to die for even asking that, but Arthur put his hands on Eames's burning face and said, "Yes, yes it is, of course it is, you blind bastard, yes, I knew you'd get it, yes."
"I'm not a complete bloody idiot, you know... just a bit slow." The joking tone was still weak but as much a return to normalcy as Eames could manage at the moment.
"Okay, so that's fine," Arthur said, not taking his hands away. "That's completely fine, I'm not going anywhere –"
"You did –" Eames said, outraged, and added, "And you were going to work with Hale –" and Arthur blinked more than Ariadne ever managed, and dropped his hands in order to sit back on his heels and gape for a bit, and finally spluttered –
"There wasn't even a job, Eames, what? Like Dom would work with – look, I texted you my plane times, it was just a party, it's a fucking house party, Dom wanted, he, it's, I, it's not a – wait a second, Ariadne. Ariadne. GET OUT HERE NOW."
"Yes?" In spite of Arthur's bellowing she came out onto the porch sedately, with a smile on her face.
"What did you do? I sent my flight times to Eames's phone. And I know Cobb invited you all." Arthur scowled fiercely, a fact that Ariadne seemed to completely ignore.
"Did you?" She raised one thin eyebrow.
"Yes," Arthur said, in the tones that usually meant I am going to shoot you in the head in five seconds.
"Oh. Oops," said Ariadne, unperturbed, and wandered back towards the house again. The drink in her hand was a horrible, frightening shade of bright and lurid pink. So was her tongue, which she stuck out at them both before closing the porch door firmly.
Somehow Eames just had to laugh then, it was all so ridiculous – Mal handing out advice left and right, Dom in a top hat having a tea party and Arthur not leaving them so much as leaving Paris, and on top of it all, the fact that their sweet little architect was trying to sort out his love life by means of a worrying deviousness he should have credited her with a long time ago.
"Saito is having sex on the beach," he said weakly.
"Saito is having a sex on the beach, or at least I hope so, because otherwise we're going to have to talk about what he's doing with Cobb, aren't we?" Arthur asked with a completely straight face, which was when Eames gave up and did the one thing he'd promised himself wasn't going to happen, and leant into Arthur and held on, hands fisted in the back of a shirt that was a long way from immaculate now, after a day with kids and sugar and salsa and margaritas and being around Ariadne who, having sampled most of it, had been hugging Arthur messily and mercilessly at odd moments. Because it had never been Ariadne who was the constant, had it? It had been Arthur, all that time of hotels and boring, pointless jobs and Margarette and frightening ovens and horrible apartments and it had been Arthur.
Arthur, whose arms slid up and wrapped around him, pulling him closer.
It was bloody marvellous.
"Oh... by the way," Arthur spoke up several moments later. "I've found us a new apartment."
"Oh God," Eames said, and then "No, I can't, I don't want, I can't watch you, I want, I don't—"
Arthur just drew back a little and looked at him, and waited out his latest onset of incoherent idiocy, and at last, when Eames was swallowing around panic and had run out of even sentence beginnings, he said,
"Right. Now this time, tell me."
And Eames did. Or rather, he showed him, much to Cobb's (mostly) silent disapproval, guys, you do know that this isn't how you solve problems in the real world, right? and Arthur's irritation, oh, for fuck's sake Dom, give it a rest, and Saito's barely-restrained fascination perhaps I should be there to at least make sure nothing irretrievable is – no, of course, forgive me, too personal, and Ariadne's unrestrained glee Oh my God, seriously – eeeee, awesome! and with the help of a PASIV.
The House (and really, it needed capital letters the way that Eames had it in his brain) was set in three acres of grass and enough trees to keep the sun off in the daytime heat. It was two stories, three bedrooms, two baths and yes, the one for the master suite boasted a Jacuzzi tub and a large separate shower. It was a sybaritic dream. Soft filtered light and just enough windows and surprise alcoves, and built in bookcases in the second bedroom down stairs and Christ, their own private balcony and exit to the yard below.
Arthur didn't seem overly impressed with it.
"And where is this supposed to be again?" he asked.
"My mind," Eames said, embarrassed and irritable. "So that bit's sort of irrelevant, right?"
"It's very nice." Arthur said, noncommittally.
"You hate it."
"No! No, not exactly hate it, but..." Arthur trailed off, gazing into some kind of internal unpleasant vista, and then rallied with a visible effort. "But it's very...settled."
"Yeah..." and? Eames wanted to add, but wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer.
"It's not exactly some place you'd want to leave at a moment's notice."
"Yeah." Eames looked around at it. "No. I dunno. I mean, I've never been here before either, so some of this is a bit of a surprise. I was thinking it would be in Paris, for one, which this –"
"Really sort of isn't, unless you've stuck it in an imaginary park, no," Arthur agreed. "I mean, seriously. It's got – land. Or something. It's the kind of place other people come and stay. It's disturbing."
"But you like visitors... sort of..." Eames frowned and amended, "Well, you like it when Ariadne or Yusuf or, well, anyone visits...mostly. Fuck, you put up with me staying with you, so that must mean something."
"I put up with you living with me, that's different," Arthur said absently, still staring around the open-plan rooms, which seemed to be having a hard time deciding whether they wanted to have a mezzanine or not. Architecture really wasn't Eames's strong point. "Sorry, I'm just trying to get my head around the fact that when you kept saying you didn't want to stay anywhere permanent, you actually meant that looks like a single one of these apartments."
"Uh." Eames scratched at his head, and aimed for a smile. "Yes?"
"But you never actually said that." Arthur frowned, stepping out of the front door. "This place has a porch...and a tyre swing." It almost seemed accusatory the way he was pointing it out.
"Okay, well, that's probably new because," Eames waved a vague hand, "You know. Pip and James."
Arthur just stared at him.
"Look. None of this is set in stone or...dreamstone or whatever the fuck you want to call it... I just can't go on living in the world of beige and glass... with cookie cutter neighbours and all that."
Arthur blinked at that. "I'm pretty sure I never want to hear you try that phrase again," he said distantly, and Eames rewound what he'd said and came up blank.
"Set in stone?"
"Cookie cutter," Arthur said in the same odd voice, and then waved a hand. "Sorry, it's just wrong with your accent. And a bit scary, what with the – tyre swing. And – um, stuff."
"Yeah, I've been doing shit like that with words and people and being disturbing. I – yeah, the other day? I said I was going out with Saito," Eames offered as a kind of apology, and Arthur choked and coughed and was generally un-vague and definitely not distant for a few seconds of wheezing laughter.
Eames waited patiently for Arthur to regain his composure. "So really, you do fucking hate it, don't you?"
"It's not that simple." Arthur hedged.
"Yes or no. Seems simple enough to me."
"No, it's not." Arthur stepped forward and put one hand on the back of Eames's neck. "Because I have to make sure that you understand that I'm talking about the house here and not you."
"You hate the house," Eames repeated insistently, which was, oddly, a relief, since he wasn't sure he trusted something he'd managed to hide from his own subconscious anyway.
"Yes," Arthur said at last, feelingly, but despite his vehemence, he leant his head against Eames's for a moment, pressing their temples together hard enough that he could feel both pulses beat inside his skull. "Yeah, sorry, but I do. It's creepy, okay? I don't want to live anywhere like this. I don't want to live in hotels any more, either, which you might have guessed, but this place is right down there with them. Sorry."
"Saito bought Europe's real estate market," Eames said, dizzy with relief. "I think he can find one you don't hate."
"Apartments aren't negotiable, then?" and damn it, Arthur was actually smirking as he pulled away.
"No," Eames said crossly. "You find horrible apartments. You've found every terrible flat in Paris, Arthur, it's a talent."
"And you hated every single one," Arthur said encouragingly.
"Yes I fucking well did." Eames said on one long deeply-felt breath.
"But not me."
"No, obviously," Eames said immediately, and then the light dawned. "Oh."
And Arthur, that shit, just looked at him, the same way he had at the airport, the same way he had when Ariadne had hugged him in the warehouse, the same way he had looked when he was hitting Eames in the shins with a bloody great stick, and he'd never been reassessing at all, had he, he'd just been waiting, he'd been waiting for Eames to catch up, all the time.
"Even though, darling, there were times when I wanted to shake some sense into you with my own two hands," Eames continued doggedly, starting to regain his normal outlook, in spite of the fact that Arthur's words and that look were doing odd things to his insides, things that weren't exactly related to irritation or annoyance.
"You never know," Arthur said, "it might have worked. Also, you never will know now, because I'm forewarned and therefore forearmed, ha."
Eames rolled his eyes at that, because it was just terrible, and worthy only of eye-rolling, thought about responding with the contempt it deserved, and then just produced a gun, and shot Arthur out of the dream without a trace of guilt.
"Now who's forearmed?" he asked the creepy house smugly, and turned the gun on himself and woke up in time to hear the tail-end of Arthur's room-pacing, hand-flailing, wonderful tirade about incredibly rude people.
"Right... so no creepy houses," Eames began when Arthur paused to breathe. "No, shut up, Arthur. Hear me out. No creepy houses, but no more beige apartments either. A compromise, then. God, I hate that word. Some place we can both stand so no more just renting one without talking about it first and fuck! I don't believe I just said that, it's so...domestic."
"Well, that's the thing about somewhere to live, I think it even has a Latin root to it," Arthur said dryly. He had stopped pacing and was leaning against the wall with his arms folded, apparently waiting for Eames to come to some amazing conclusion, which to be perfectly honest was in no danger of happening any time soon.
"I don't care if the place has Latin roots, or tree roots, or no bleeding roots at all," Eames declared with a grandiloquent flourish, because he was on a roll now and had no intention of stopping even if he had no bloody clue where he was going, either. "I just don't want it to have 'clean lines' or 'modernistic style' or any of those other fucking phrases they use to hawk them."
"Okay," Arthur said calmly. He didn't show any signs of wanting to laugh.
"And I don't want bloody candles everywhere when you don't even use them, and I don't want acrylic rugs that look like they were made out of someone's sweat –"
"I don't want curtains that have ivory and cream weave in them," Arthur said in venomous agreement, and oh, yeah, Eames had almost forgotten about the curtain thing, but apparently this was an actual issue, and a serious one at that. He hadn't been expecting the weave part of it, but – "They billow, any sort of faint breeze and they – and they. Just. Uh. Well. No curtains, to be honest." Arthur said then, sounding a little hesitant, and one day Eames was going to get an explanation from him, but not now, because there had bloody well been enough talking about things for a while.
"Done!" he therefore said brightly instead of pursuing it, holding his hand out for Arthur to shake. "If that's the most you demand, then the rest should be easy."
"And I don't want -- wait. What?" Arthur had automatically begun shaking Eames's hand. Eames could actually watch the realisation dawn on him that he had just made a terrible mistake. It was absolutely fantastic.
"Agreed, brilliant," Eames continued with a joyful feeling of complete smugness. "I'll tell Saito."
"Christ," Arthur muttered, attempting to retrieve his hand, but finding it in too strong a grip to get it back without some kind of violence being involved. It was rather touching that he didn't seem to be considering it as his first option. "Eames, seriously, look, we need to –"
"And actually, I can think of a much better way of sealing this deal," Eames said, and leaned closer, meaning to kiss Arthur and get it right, this time. At the last second, even as Arthur's eyes were starting to close, he drew back and said, justifiably wary, "You're not going to hit me again, are you?"
Arthur made a sound that was the embodiment of frustration, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him into a kiss that was possibly as wrecking and damned nearly as painful as being thumped in the mouth. It had teeth in it and more than a hint of clenched jaw, and it was, in fact, like being kissed by a truck wearing a boxing glove.
It was perfect proof of reality.