i. Dom has an idea
This is, Eames thinks, the worst job they’ve done in a long time. Not “worst” because its difficult, or “worst” because they’re getting shot at, or even “worst” in that they’re staying in some rat-infested warehouse in the Prague shipping district. No, this is the absolute bloody worst job because everyone is so incredibly bored.
They’ve been in Barcelona for nearly two months now, cloistered in a series of suites at the Hotel Arts, staring at whiteboards full of information long memorized, just waiting for the perfect opening at the Torre Mapfre across the street. Dom has become addicted to etsy, Lord help them all, Ariadne’s musical choices swing between the macabre and the psychadelic, and Arthur has taken to catnapping with his eyes open, a skill that everyone agrees should never have been developed. Eames has spent his time systematically hunting out everyone’s suitcases, spinning through the combinations, and rifling through the contents – Ariadne is wearing some alarmingly adult lingerie under all those scarves, as it turns out, and it’s a whole week before he can look her full in the face. Yusuf has spent his time making increasingly dangerous concoctions that he insists everyone field test, and if Eames ever sprouts a tail and whiskers again, it will be too soon.
The job they’re working on is simple – just break in and get the information their client is looking for. They’ve got the levels, the information, Eames’ forgery is pitch-perfect – but they’re waiting on the in, and everyone is stuck in the bloody suite because there’s nowhere else to go.
Dom looks up from the blueprints and tilts his head. “When was the last time we played a game?”
“Edmonton,” Eames says immediately. “The dreadful nanotech job, where Ariadne kept trying to get Arthur into mittens.”
From behind him, Yusuf made an aborted attempt to hide his snort.
“His hands kept turning blue.”
“Having poor circulation is not the end of the world,” Arthur says dryly.
Ariadne turns around to yell at him. “Neither is wearing mittens!”
“Arthur, would you wear Dalak mittens?” Dom asks seriously. “I think I have a pair saved in my favorites…”
“Children,” Eames says, while trying not to think of Arthur in Dalak mittens, because he will never stop laughing. “Let’s focus on the important things, here. Like who’s going first?”
“Arthur,” Dom says, almost immediately. “It’s a team-building exercise, Arthur, there’s no skipping.”
A look not unlike indigestion passes over Arthur’s face at the words ‘team-building exercise.’ Ariadne has her hands thrown over her mouth to keep from giggling.
“Bangkok or London rules?” he asks, grudgingly, and Cobb nearly claps his hands with glee.
“London rules,” Yusuf interrupts, already moving from behind his laboratory table towards the PASIV. “You’re at each other’s throats already, let’s not amplify the effect.”
“Fine,” Arthur says, leaning back in his chair, while his smile shows each and every one of his blindingly white and strangely pointed teeth. “Hook me up, then.”
“Done and… done,” Yusuf says smugly, and Arthur goes under nearly instantly, a brief flutter of his eyelids before the deceptive tranquility of the Somnacin set in.
“One minute,” Cobb says, and throws his jacket over the back of the chair. “Yusuf, you’ll keep an eye on the mark, just in case?”
“Almost certainly. Now all of you, get in your chairs,” Yusuf says, busily pulling out another three leads from the PASIV.
ii. Arthur on the defensive
Being a point man requires a certain amount of flexibility – obsessive enough to need to get all the details right, intelligent and (all-bloody-right) imaginative enough to think of all the ways a plan could go sideways. And a point man can’t just be good on paper. Unlike architects, they’re nearly always required to be in the dream, first in and last out, keeping an eye on how everything shakes down.
So really, it’s no wonder that Arthur on the job is nothing compared to Arthur right before a job, before it all goes live and anything and everything can go wrong. Once the wheels are in motion Arthur can roll with whatever is thrown at him, but when left on his own, left to his own devices, left mulling over all the possibilities, he can get a bit… sharp.
Which might explain why Eames feels like he’s just stepped into a set-up for a horror movie; the opening scene, even, where the secondary characters are slaughtered in increasingly gory ways to set up the tone of the rest of the film. The entire level is an abandoned warehouse set in a field, flat and barren for as far as the eye can see. It’s dark out, nearly nighttime, and it’s raining in buckets, muddy like the rain has been going for hours, so your boots stick into it practically up to your ankles.
“This looks…” Cobb begins.
“Disturbing?” Ariadne suggests. “Frightening? Alarming? Like a really bad idea?”
“You had to choose him to go first,” Eames groans. “Of course you did, why wouldn’t you? Arthur has such a lovely sense of humor about this sort of thing.”
Cobb has the decency to look mildly sheepish. “At least he’s participating.”
“It’s a contest, of course he’s participating. He’s got a competitive streak a mile bloody wide. And now we’re stuck in a crap version of Manhunt, where no one will ever get out alive.”
“Your negativity is unwelcome,” Cobb sniffs.
“Although not misplaced.” Eames sighs. “Might as well get on with it.” He hefts his UMP onto his back and checks his sidearms – both Sig Sauers, thankfully, and a few grenades. He’ll see what else he needs as they go one. Dom is checking his Beretta, and on the other side of him, Ariadne has one of the smaller model Glocks. “Ready?”
“As ever,” Ariadne mutters. “Can’t we come up with something else for Arthur’s level?”
“You don’t like being systematically slaughtered?” Eames asks brightly. “Ari, where is your sense of adventure?”
“In the other dream,” she says sourly. “Where I come out with all of my limbs.”
“Now, now. Arthur rarely dismembers anyone.” Eames kicks in the door of the warehouse. “Ari, on my four. Cobb, on my eight.”
“Got it,” Cobb says grimly, as they began their descent into the warehouse.
As far as Eames could see, there were no projections. Just dim lighting, rotating fans, multiple rooms, overhead pathways, strange mechanical noises… it was a nightmare.
“Arthur wants to play ninja,” he declares.
Cobb’s brow wrinkles. “Think we’re good to split up?”
“Good might be overselling it,” Eames murmurs. “But if we stick together much longer he’ll pick us all off at once.”
Ariadne snorts a little. “You guys are so comforting.”
Eames thinks, briefly, about explaining exactly what Arthur used to do in the military, but it’s probably best to let some of the illusions remain.
“Ariadne, you go left. Cobb can have the right, and I’ll head down the center. Mind the walkways, you know he’ll try to trap you on the stairs if he gets the chance.”
“He’s not gonna Penrose me,” Ariadne says grimly, and Eames smiles a little.
“Good luck, sweetheart,” he says, and ducks into the next room.
It’s maybe five minutes later that Eames hears an explosion. Singular, seems fairly contained, which means either Cobb or Ariadne probably just got themselves blown to bits. Bit of a shame, that, but it does put Eames up in points.
“Mr. Eames,” Arthur says from behind him, and Eames has a split second to think oh shit before Arthur snaps his neck.
He blinks rapidly up at the ceiling. “Well, bugger.”
“That was quick,” Yusuf says, impressed. “There are still three minutes left on the timer.”
“I fought valiantly,” Eames declares to the room at large. “There was mud.”
Next to him, Cobb shrugs. “Arthur is in rare form this morning.”
“If by rare he means mildly psychotic.”
Ariadne is lying wide-eyed in the chair next to Eames. Still looking disturbed, quite frankly. “I think he garroted me,” she says.
Eames leans over to take one of her hands in his. “There, there, sweetheart. Why don’t you go and push him out of his chair? Give him the kick? Always make me feel better.”
“You’re a cruel man, Mr. Eames,” Ariadne says, before reaching over to give Arthur a good shove. “I like it.”
Arthur grunts, a little, when he hits the floor, before glaring up at them from where he’s fallen. “Was that totally necessary?” he asks, splayed half atop one of Ariadne’s discarded paper models.
“It’s luxury carpet,” Ariadne says scornfully. “And you garroted me.”
“Speaking of,” Eames says brightly. “Arthur, darling, congratulations, you’ve won by a bloody landslide. Emphasis on the bloody.”
“You’re a sociopath,” Ariadne accuses him. “I’ve seen Miike films that were less inventive.”
Dom watches them all with a slightly distressed look on his face, as though this isn’t the way all their team-building exercises end up. A few months ago they’d tried paintball – Yusuf sprained his ankle seeking out high ground to try and pick everyone off, Ariadne screamed bloody murder in an attempt to fake her own death and smoke Eames out, and Arthur smeared mud all over himself before going completely Predator on everyone. Needless to say, they are rarely able to return to the same venue. Eames makes a mental note to have Saito buy them their own paintball facility.
“Got the points,” Yusuf says cheerfully, interrupting before Ariadne and Arthur can get into an argument over who was the best post-modern Japanese horror director. He’d carelessly cleaned one of the whiteboards off, and had written across them in his large, scrawling hand. “Well done, Arthur, a nice early lead. Who’s next?”
“Cobb,” Arthur says decisively.
iii. Cobb goes to the beach
Cobb squares his shoulders and rolls up his sleeves. “All right then. How many for today? Who’s feeling lucky?” He flashes them that deranged grin that only a mother could love, Eames is certain. “Four? Five?”
Arthur raises his eyebrows, while Ariadne and Eames exchange a measuring look.
“Five,” Ariadne decides. “We’ll take that challenge!”
“Ariadne, where’s your deck?”
“The front pocket of my bag.”
Yusuf takes out the deck of tarot cards, shuffles them carefully, and slips Dom five cards. Dom looks at them one by one, memorizing their faces, before handing them back to Yusuf.
“Good?” Yusuf asks, and kneels beside the PASIV before Dom has a chance to say anything. “One minute!” he warns, and has Dom knocked out before anyone can say anything else.
Cobb’s game, perhaps out of all of them, is the most level playing field. Ariadne can’t win Arthur’s level because she’s never had military training. Eames rarely wins Ariadne’s levels because he hasn’t the head for architecture. But Cobb – Eames knows Cobb because his talent is knowing people, the squirrely ways they think, and Arthur knows Cobb by virtue of friendship and length of acquaintance, but Ariadne has seen all of Cobb’s creepy memory chambers, and Eames isn’t sure they’re not sleeping together as well.
Which makes Cobb a Very Bad Man, he reminds himself sternly. Very Bad.
Ariadne settles back into her chair. “How do you feel about a side bet?” she suggests.
Arthur smoothes over the back of his jacket before settling into his own chair. “Got something in mind?”
“I was thinkiiiiing,” she drawls, “that the winner gets to be exempt from making coffee runs for the rest of the job?”
It’s a good bet. Money tends not to mean so much when everyone has their own ridiculously large stash of it, and Saito to buy them anything else they might want. Bets between them tend to run towards humiliation, or favors. A lot like being back in Uni, Eames should think.
Besides. If they’re stuck in that bloody suite for much longer, coffee runs will tip from “necessary annoyance” into “welcome break from the madhouse.”
“Agreed,” Arthur says, when Eames nods. “Bet accepted. Each man to his own.”
“Person,” Yusuf corrects, and Ariadne beams at him. “Cobb’s had his minute. Good luck to you all.” He presses the release button on the PASIV, and the Somnacin rushes through their veins.
Even though they’re attempting to extract information from Dom’s head, it’s a little different than an actual job. For one, Dom knows there’s someone in his head from the get-go, and because of that his subconscious is only curious, unlikely to get violent unless they change the dream in a significant way. For another, the secrets are going to be hidden in multiple places, and they’re going to be a lot subtler and harder to find. Cobb is a professional; it won’t be obvious, in a vault, or a safe, but what he’s hiding is still a secret. Even Dom can’t train his subconscious to paste it all over the wallpaper.
The level is a beach, a good sized one. They’re blocked in by what looks like an endless parking lot at their backs and an endless ocean in front of them, with either side hemmed in by two sudden and steep cliffs about a mile down on each side. There are dozens of projections playing on the beach or in the water, dining at an open bar restaurant, even lounging in front of a few whitewashed glass beach houses. A little unusual for a job, but more than satisfactory for the game.
Cobb is sitting in a large lounge chair, sipping on what appears to be a giant mai-tai. He salutes them when they appear.
“What kind of man likes drinks with fruit in them,” Arthur mutters.
“I like the paper umbrellas myself,” Eames says, and decides to slip into something a little more comfortable. No sense in getting out of practice. There’s the momentary inbetweenness of the Forgery, which Eames has never been able to satisfactorily explain to someone who couldn’t forge, and when he finishes Arthur and Ariadne are both staring at him.
“A Speedo, Eames? Really?”
“He is European,” Ariadne says sympathetically.
“You Americans,” Eames says, and scratched idly at his abs, “and your homophobic Puritanism.”
“I resent that,” Arthur says mildly.
“I’m sure you do, darling, the closet is a terrible place to live. And there can’t be much room, what with all of your suits.”
Arthur’s eyebrow twitches slightly, and Eames chalks it up as a win.
“Well darlings,” he says. “I’ve got a bet to win. See you on the other side!”
Men are dopes, Ariadne thinks, watching Arthur stare at Eames as he walks away. Particularly if they think she can’t see the writing on that wall.
“I’m gonna walk the beach,” she declares.
Arthur nods. “I’m headed for the restaurant, then.”
“Good luck!” she says cheerfully, and Arthur raises a hand in return.
The beach itself rather lovely, Ariadne thinks, full of that white, fine-grained sand that only exists in brochures and color-saturated pictures, as far as Ariadne knows. She slips off her sneakers and lets her toes sink in. There are a ton of people on the beach – not so many she has to push through them, but enough to make her feel less than alone.
She watches them for a while. Are there particular places they go, particular places they avoid? The restaurant is busy, its dance floor spilling out onto the sand. She does realize, gradually, that there is something amiss; there are only two children on the whole beach. A boy and a girl, building a sand castle not far from where Cobb is sitting. It’s not James and Phillipa. But it could be their cousins, certainly – same wispy hair, just about the same ages.
“Hey!” Ariadne says, beaming at them like she knows them already. “What are you guys up to?”
Not-James holds up a handful of sand and grins at her, gap-toothed in the most painfully adorable way. “Makin’ a sand castle.”
Ariadne squats down next to him in the sand. “Sounds cool. What’s it going to look like?”
“A big tower,” not-Phillipa says seriously. “For the princess.”
“What, no moat?” Not-James looks up at her and nods. “How about we dig a moat while your sister makes the tower?”
Not-James and not-Phillipa acquiesce quickly, and Ariadne busies herself with digging an oval around the mound of sand not-Phillipa diligently piles up and shapes. The sea water rises inside naturally, and by the time not-Phillipa declares the sand castle done, there is a rush of murky water surrounding the structure.
“Perfect,” not-Phillipa declares, and not-James slips something into Ariadne’s hand.
“I found it,” he whispers, the ‘f’ in found barely lisping out, and Ariadne has to sternly remind herself that children are only adorable about five percent of the time, at best. “It’s for you.”
The slip of paper is one of the tarot cards. It’s softer than the copy back in the warehouse; worn thin and soft by sun and sand. Ariadne flips it over.
“The Fool,” she says softly to herself. She stands, and waves goodbye to the children before heading back down the beach.
Eames and Arthur are standing next to the restaurant, talking in low undertones. Eames is now wearing a windbreaker atop his Speedo, which really shouldn’t look as attractive as it does. That has to be the sort of skill you’re born with, Ariadne thinks despairingly.
“How’d you do?” she asks.
“Scoping out the competition, eh?” Eames says, eyes twinkling. “I found one tucked inside an oyster, believe it or not. And Arthur found one in the restaurant.”
“There was a bottle of wine from Mal and Cobb’s wedding,” he explains. “But now we’re out of obvious hiding places.”
“I was going to go root through the houses,” Eames say ruefully. “Unless someone has any other ideas.”
Arthur shook his head. “I’ll take the houses on the other half of the beach.”
“And will you be joining us, Ari?”
There’s a niggling little idea at the back of her mind. “No,” she says, “no, you two go on. We’ve only got about fifteen more minutes in the dream, I think.”
“Then let’s get a move on,” Arthur says.
The buoy, Ariadne thinks. Another anomaly. There’s only one on the whole beach. Which isn’t completely unusual – buoys serve a number of functions, after all – but like Eames and Arthur said, they’re running out of ideas.
She leaves her shoes and her jeans on the shore, and as she swims out her strokes are strong, and smooth. It’s one of those skills that doesn’t leave you, she thinks, pleased. Like the equivalent of riding a bike in water.
On the backside of the buoy is painted the six of cups, tucked just above the sea level line. And Ariadne laughs.
They all wake up together when the timer runs down. Yusuf briskly removes the cannula from their arms, and practically leaps over to the whiteboard.
“Arthur?” he asks.
“Three of swords.”
“Six of cups, and the Fool.”
Yusuf makes a small “hmm, how very interesting’ noise in the back of his throat. “And Mr. Eames?”
“The Hanged Man.”
Cobb looks exceedingly smug. “Nobody found the ten of pentacles!”
“It was at the top of the bloody cliff,” Eames says, grudgingly. “Wasn’t it, you bastard, you know I hate physical exertion.”
Cobb’s smugness increases tenfold. “Sometimes secrets stay secrets because people are too lazy to find them out.”
Eames raises his hand. “I propose a new rule. No hiding secrets in places it takes longer than fifteen minutes to get to.”
“Seconded,” Ariadne says immediately, and Cobb scowls.
“Motion passes,” Yusuf adds. “And will be forthwith added to the London and Bangkok variants.”
Cobb mutters something that sounds like “sore losers” under his breath. Ariadne throws a balled up bit of model at him, while Yusuf busily scribbles down the new rule.
Arthur tilts his head. “So are they…?”
Eames chews on the inside of his cheek. “Not for certain. I rather thought Yusuf was edging Dom out there for a while, but I really can’t be sure.” The lingerie points to someone, but who is still something of a mystery.
“That’s five each for Cobb and Ariadne, and three each for Arthur and Mr. Eames,” Yusuf murmurs as her marks up the board, talking mostly to himself. “And as Cobb currently leads in points over Ari, I believe it’s his choice?”
“Ariadne,” Cobb says. “And Eames, for last.”
iv. Ariadne builds a maze
“Awesome,” Ariadne says. “I’ve got just the thing,” and goes back under with a rather alarming fervor.
“Gentlemen,” Eames says, rather flamboyantly. “Anyone for another side bet?”
Dom’s face crinkles. “You bet on me?”
“Ariadne won’t be going on any more coffee runs, as it turns out,” Arthur says, his face carefully blank. “What were you thinking this time?”
“I’ll give you Yunju’s contact information,” Eames offers. “For those rare occasions I’m not around to indulge your every whim.”
It’s a good offer. Yunju is one of the best, a kkangpae who pulled herself off the streets and into the international market through a rather murderous force of will. She’s notoriously skittish at dealing with anyone outside other South East Asians, or the Russians. And since Eames is notoriously skittish about jobs involving Triad ties, Arthur and Cobb frequently need another Forger on file to fill in the gap.
“And in return?“
Eames grins. “You tell me about the Sichuan job.” Dom has mentioned it once, off-handedly, and Arthur had shot him a look that could have shattered diamonds. Eames curiosity was positively piqued.
Arthur’s face sours, like he’s just sucked on a rotten lemon. Eames very much needs to win, because he simply must know. “All right.”
“Time to go,” Yusuf says cheerfully. “Unless you want to give Ariadne extra, of course.”
Eames is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to Ariadne’s levels. Eames knows the general tricks, of course, but he doesn’t understand them instinctively, the way Arthur, Ariadne, and Cobb do. Not to mention that Ariadne is brilliant. The only time Eames can get through one cold-turkey is on a complete stroke of luck.
And this – this is an unusual maze, is what hits Eames right away. Ariadne hasn’t made any attempt to dress it up – it’s very obviously a maze, it isn’t disguised as a mall or a hotel or what have you, although that makes sense given there’s no mark to fool – but the corridors lead to large spaces, like a series of interconnected rooms. Stranger, still, are the large and ugly statues, the holes in the ground. All in all, something very unusual is going on here, and something about it is also terribly familiar, if only Eames could put his finger on why.
It hits Eames on what he believes is his third turn through the maze’s open sections. He had briefly considered jumping down into one of the holes, but the inky blackness makes it impossible to judge the depth, and he’d rather not take himself out of the running because he broke his damned neck.
The third go round, however, makes something in the back of his head light up. Oh, of course. Eames is a bit older than Ariadne, yes, but sometimes this means he experienced certain things firsthand, while she caught the second wave of nostalgia for them, something she might do well to remember.
Because, bottom line, she made a big mistake. Eames was fucking aces at this game.
It takes a few go-rounds, but Eames gets it. He pushes the right statues into the right holes, he hears the tinkling chime of music that signifies he’s done the right thing. Doors that weren’t there before swing open, and it’s simply a matter of solving all of the little puzzles before he finds Ariadne.
She’s sitting in a small enclave at the very center of the maze, in a little green tunic.
“Rats,” she says, face falling. “I really thought this was a good one.”
“Does this make you the princess?” Eames asks. “I could do elf ears, if you like. They’re really quite fetching.”
“I always wanted a pony,” Ariadne said thoughtfully. “Or a fairy.”
“I have,” Eames says, with a flourish, “been a fairy, on occasion.”
When Arthur strolls in ten minutes later, they’re having tea underneath a large tree in the middle of the courtyard. Clicking golden spiders drop down now and again before popping back up, and Eames quickly learns to pay them no mind.
Arthur looks flustered. “I didn’t get it until the fairy fountain,” he says grudgingly, and Ariadne smiles sweetly at him.
“Join us for tea,” Eames said cheerfully, and holds a cup out beseechingly. “Ariadne has some of that strange vanilla bean pudding you love so much.”
Arthur removes his coat, sets it down on the ground between Eames and Ariadne, and sits. He ignores the offer of pudding, but accepts the tea cup from Eames’ outstretched hand. “Lemon?”
“And a sprinkling of sugar,” Eames says. “Now, about the Sichuan job?”
“Later,” Arthur says smoothly, and turns to Ariadne. “I liked what you did with the gradients. It was disconcerting without being able to put my finger on exactly why.”
“Yeah?” she says, blushing a little, but proud. “I didn’t have a lot of time to work on them, but I think they could be manipulated to take the mark up or down into another level without them noticing.”
“It would have to be subtle.”
“Or be sharp but look subtle,” Eames says, “like an Ames room. Potentially, the mark won’t really know which way he’s going.”
They spent a few minutes arguing about the viability of forced perspective when the mark won’t reliably come from the right perspective, then Ariadne argues about herding the mark towards the right perspective, Arthur argues there wouldn’t be much of a point, and fifteen minutes later, Cobb finally strolls in.
“I have… no idea what that just was,” he says, completely perplexed, and even Arthur has to hide a smile.
Ariadne rolls his eyes. “The Legend of Zelda, Cobb, we’ve been over this a few dozen times? It’s a seminal video game series. You really need to educate yourself.”
“Just in case you ever come across a Skull Kid in the woods,” Eames says seriously. “You’ll know what to do.”
Cobb is looking at them like they’ve all grown second heads.
Arthur takes pity on him. “We’re discussing loops and traps,” he says. “I think they could make the maze exponentially more difficult, but if they’re not constructed precisely they’re just as likely to trap us as the projections.”
“What about specific times?” Ariadne suggests, while Cobb gingerly situates himself underneath the tree with the rest of them. “Fifteen minutes in, this door closes and this door opens. A half hour in, that door closes, another door opens.”
“Then it doesn’t really add much complexity, does it?”
“Some other condition, then.”
“It’s might be all right for something like this, where the only goal is too keep someone out,” Arthur argues. “But it’d be nearly impossible to keep track of the entire structure in order to escape the projections.”
“But if there were no dead ends,” Cobb interrupts. “What if it was impossible to be caught? If you made the outside edges a Penrose square, or an octagon, even, depending on the scale of the level – say a double train line that goes under and above ground.”
“I’d prefer not to be caught in an underground railway with pissed off projections, myself,” Eames says easily.
“Then don’t be –” Ariadne begins, before winking out of existence.
“Drat,” Eames says, and threw back the rest of his tea. “Timing out is always a bit –”
“—disconcerting,” he says into Yusuf’s face.
Yusuf just nods. “There’s a reason I tend to stay on this side of the operation, Mr. Eames.”
“You’re a wise man, Yusuf, don’t let Arthur tell you otherwise.” Eames didn’t even have to look over to know that Arthur was glaring at him.
“I am eminently aware of how awesome I am,” Yusuf says peacefully. “Ariadne, how did we do?”
Ariadne sighs, and stands to crack her spine. “Eames, then Arthur, and then Cobb.”
Yusuf hums to himself as he rewrites the scoreboard.
Arthur swings his legs over the side of the chair to look at Eames, nodding his head towards where Cobb is talking quietly to Ariadne.
Eames smiles. “I think this settles the sleeping together question,” he says, sotto voce. “How Cobb could have missed her obsession with Zelda is beyond me. She nearly strangled him when he turned down the job to extract from Satoru Iwata.”
Arthur smiled. “It’s like you’ve never met Dom. You clearly weren’t around for the “sacre bleu, Dominic, am I your wife or your mother?’ fifth anniversary fight when he gave Mal a rug for the living room.”
“Ah,” Eames concedes, ignoring the delightfully Gallic twist Arthur put on Mal, so different from Dom’s flat tone. “You may have a point there.”
“Cobb doesn’t understand women,” Arthur says fondly. “But they see him coming a mile away, so it works out, somehow.”
“They do find that awkward helplessness somehow charming,” Eames says, befuddled. Just because he knows that about women doesn’t mean he understands.
“Still anyone’s game,” Yusuf says cheerfully, scribbling over the rest of the board. “And it’s your turn, Mr. Eames. I suppose you’d better step up.”
v. Eames dreams a dream
Eames’ dream is a ballroom filled with a crush of people, a mob of absolutely beautiful people, all dressed to the nines – sometimes daringly, brazenly, sometimes just this side of frightening, but obviously beautiful. Nearly everyone is in masks as well, from simple black dominos to full-fledged carnival masks, beautifully feathered venzianas, painted in gold and silver.
Arthur puts his hand to his face. He’s in one himself, a decorated domino mask with a large bridged nose, a bunch of feathers sprouting between his eyes. Much more ostentatious than something he would have chosen for himself, Arthur thinks wryly, which Eames undoubtedly knows.
The effect is incredibly theatrical, like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, Viktor & Rolf, all mashed together with Moulin Rouge. The whole effect is almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Not quite too beautiful, not too unusual, the way dreams have a tendency to be. Just enough. Just beautiful enough.
“Wow,” Ariadne says finally. She’s dressed in a red silk dress, ballerina length, with opera gloves, and a sliver of a black and silver mask over her eyes. “Who knew Eames was such a Labyrinth fan.”
Cobb, sans mask, looks bewildered when Arthur snorts.
“That, or he never got to go to Prom,” Ariadne decides. “Or Formal, or whatever the British equivalent is.”
“He probably stood outside and heckled everyone who went in.”
“Smoking those godawful cigarettes.”
“In a wifebeater…” Ariadne sighs.
“With all those tattoos…” Arthur trailed off.
Dom clears his throat. “Somehow this conversation has gotten away from us.”
Arthur absent-mindedly straightens his tie. “Eames has that effect.” He grabs two glasses of champagne from a nearby waiter and hands one to Ariadne. “Cheers.”
“And happy hunting!” she says.
Arthur nods – “Ariadne, Dom.” – before walking away to circle the outside of the ballroom. He smiles at anyone he makes eye contact with, he scans those dancing on the floor, those resting near the wall, or sitting at tables. Which is Eames? Maybe the mischievous violin player, with the curly hair and a face like a Caravaggio painting. Or is it one of the watchful wallflowers? The actual David Bowie look-a-like? Even the projections in Eames’ head are gorgeous, and strange. It was going to be difficult to ascertain which was Eames.
Arthur casts a more critical eye over the crowd. The room is weighted towards the female persuasion, which means Eames is probably gender-bending. He likes to stand out in a crowd through sheer virtue, not by number. When Eames is allowed to freelance, his creations tend towards the ever-so-slightly unusual – irrationally smooth international man of mystery types, men with jaws like granite and cheekbones like knives, supermodels with beautifully symmetrical faces and atypically shaped bodies.
There were two ways to play this, to Arthur’s thinking. He could wander the room and try and pick Eames out – no easy task – or he could tip off the projections, act aggressive, and hope to flush Eames out that way. Unfortunately, Eames would probably delight in attacking the team, particularly in a ball gown. The mental image of Eames stabbing someone with a stiletto heel comes to mind far too easily, and Arthur has to grin to himself.
There’s a rather beautiful woman leaning against the wall – more of a girl, really, which makes Arthur think it isn’t Eames. He asks her to dance anyway, and the way she smiles is too perfectly controlled, too obviously a mask for nerves to ever be Eames. But he makes polite conversation, he makes her laugh, and when the song is done he asks someone else to dance. Eames doesn’t like to get caught, no, but he has been known to play his hand now and again when he lets down his guard. He’s only human.
Arthur dances one more waltz before circling the room again. Half the guests he doesn’t remember seeing before, the crush of people is so big. The masks don’t help, either, when one has a memory for faces – he’s going to have to congratulate Eames on that little trick later.
And then he sees her.
He knows its Eames – and he knows not for any intellectual reason, not because Eames favors brunettes with slate grey eyes, or because he prefers vintage Nina Ricci to new, or because he is wearing Nicholas Kirkwood shoes Arthur once saw him eyeing during fashion week, or because of the slightly off-center way he smiles when no one else is around to put on a show for. Arthur knows the way he always knows when Eames is near. And the rush in his stomach could be because Arthur knows he’s won, or because Eames is smiling at him like they both have.
“Darling,” Arthur says, and holds out his head. “Care for a dance?”
It’s amazing to Eames how many people completely overlook Arthur’s sense of whimsy. Lord knows Arthur is a stick in the mud – a stickler for rules, a condescending know-it-all, a bit of a control freak with little taste for the good things in life – Eames has said as much himself. But the whimsy – it’s a surprise, certainly, but it’s so much more noticeable when Arthur is mischievous than anyone else. It’s adorable, if Eames was being honest with himself.
“I suppose you’ll want to lead.” Eames says, placing his hand in Arthur’s.
“Why, Eames,” Arthur drawls. “Are you saying I have control issues?”
Eames smiles. “Something tells me others have already made such an accusation. So for now, I shall just say you look rather dashing in that suit.”
“A bit bolder than my usual choices,” Arthur concedes. They step onto the dance floor, the crowd parting easily around them – as it should, for Eames – and the band begins the song anew.
They dance cheek-to-cheek, Arthur’s mouth resting just above the point of Eames’ ear. Every so often there is a flash of the real Eames in the mirrors on the walls, and Arthur presses his grin into the curve of Eames’ neck, knowing Eames will feel it there.
“The Sichuan job,” he says, suddenly. “Do you really want to know?”
Eames pulls back and tilts his head up slightly, to look Arthur in the eyes. “Only because you seem so dreadfully embarrassed about it,” he has to admit. “I do love to hear tales of your misfortunes. Makes you seem so dreadfully… human.”
Arthur sighs. “We were performing a series of extractions for a Chinese shipping magnate who was trying to find a good husband for his youngest daughter. We were near the end of the list of suitors, so even though I was sick, I convinced Cobb to go through with the job.”
“A projection of my mother showed up in the middle of the restaurant,” Arthur says wryly. “And tried to get me to order chicken noodle soup.”
Arthur grins once more. “Not very ladylike, Eames.”
“I am every inch a lady,” Eames argues. “Except, of course, when I am not.”
“Inescapable truths, darling.”
Arthur inclines his head. “Do we have much time left?” he murmurs, and releases Eames, momentarily, for a turn before pulling him back in. “A dance or two more, do you think?
“Enough for a waltz, then? How do you feel about something Viennese?”
“If the band starts playing The Blue Danube, I will have to shoot you,” Arthur says smoothly.
“And here I’d pegged you for a Strauss fan. Perhaps Edelweiss?” Eames suggests, as straight-faced as he can. The dress he’s wearing is beyond lovely, but there isn’t nearly enough room for a proper belly laugh. Though he’s always found women’s clothing infinitely more expressive than men’s, it does mean giving up a certain range of movement.
Arthur sighs, terribly put upon as always. “Is Schubert too much to ask for?”
“For you, I would endure Lehar,” Eames says grandly, and they whirl away, Arthur’s hand pressed to the small of his back.
vi. To the victors go the spoils
Eames wakes up slowly this time, rather naturally. Ariadne and Cobb are already standing over him, which makes him feel very much like a specimen under a microscope.
“I’m back?” he says, and clears his throat.
“Eames pulled it off,” Ariadne says, glumly. She likes to win as much as the rest of them.
Eames clears his throat, “Unfortunately, no,” he says, concentrating at pulling the needle out of his arm. “Arthur found me out near the end. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been wearing that Damiani ring.”
Cobb eyes narrow. “That wasn’t actually you, was it?”
“But it’s not like I’d ever have the chance to wear it out, would I?” Eames continues, blithely. “It’s a tragedy, isn’t it, when a man can’t go around in public wearing a half-million dollar diamond trinket he may or may not have stolen.”
Ariadne nestled her chin in Eames’ shoulder. “You’d tell me if you had millions of dollars in diamonds stashed away somewhere, wouldn’t you, Eames?”
“Almost certainly, sweetheart. Would you like me to steal you something for your birthday this year?”
“How about I get to help actually steal something?”
Arthur clicks his tongue. “Jewel theft is such a step down.”
“Snob,” Eames sniffs. “Arthur, sometimes I think you are as cold and unfeeling as the diamonds I may or may not have stolen.”
Cobb looks pained. “Arthur, Ariadne… team…” He tries again. “Our mark is gone for the day. We missed the window again. Is anyone up for drinks? On me?
“Drinks!” Yusuf enthuses, followed very closely by Ariadne’s, “—no, shots!” while Cobb’s face settles into even more deeply-set wrinkles.
Cobb sighs and picks his jacket up off the back of his chair. “Agut, again? Or someplace with tapas?”
“Tapas!” Ariadne crows. “So many tapas!”
“Prawns,” Eames says automatically. They’re in a place with real seafood, they might as well take advantage. They spent six weeks in Mbuji-Mayi on a job once, and one-and-a-half of them were battling food poisoning.
“Calçots,” Arthur says dreamily, the way another man might talk about twins, or cheerleaders, or Megan Fox.
“And tortilla!” Ariadne says, throwing one of her scarves around her neck with abandon. “And olives!”
“And those almonds,” Yusuf chimes in hopefully. “I demand almonds, I’ve been stuck here for ages, all by lonesome, while all of you have been playing games.”
“Almonds seems only fair,” Cobb offers his arm to Ariadne. She, in turn, offers her other arm to Yusuf, and the three of them stroll merrily towards the door. Eames lifts an eyebrow, and Arthur shrugs.
“But can we skip the goat this time, please?” Ariadne asks. “You know how I feel about eating animals that were once adorable.”
“But I love lamb,” Yusuf says mournfully. “They make it with fresh ginger, fresh ginger, Ariadne, and about a billion cloves of garlic. Why are you taking that away from me?”
“Because you are eating an adorable lamb, Yusuf,” Ariadne hisses. “A baby animal of much cuteness.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever smelled one,” Eames inserts, rather helpfully, he thinks.
Yusuf shakes his head. “You defend animals like I haven’t seen you eat your weight in chicken wings.”
“That’s different,” Ariadne protests. “Chickens are alarming, with the sharp beaks, and the creepy eyes – clearly, we must eat them. For our own protection.”
Yusuf scoffs, while Cobb looks over at them both like he wasn’t certain if he was still dreaming. Eames and Arthur walk out behind them, with Arthur’s fingers curled around Eames’ wrist for the briefest of moments.