Ariadne knew, in theory, that at one point in her life she hadn’t had to deal with strange men barging into her life and messing around with it, but now she honestly couldn’t remember what that had been like, or when it had been the case. It was slightly pathetic, and more than slightly irritating.
At least Cobb had had the dignity to go home and live a relatively normal life after he’d swept in and turned her world upside down.
This, on the other hand? This was just inconvenient.
Pinching sleep viciously out of the corners of her eyes, Ariadne glared bleary-eyed at the mess at her doorstep. “Eames. It’s three in the morning, and Arthur said you were in Bombay.”
“Got sidetracked. Arthur’s keeping tabs on me still?”
“Of course he is, it’s his job. Cobb’s the only one who’s retired, and even he knows where all of the team is.”
“Not a team anymore, are we? Are you going to let me in?”
“I don’t know.” She arched an eyebrow. “Are you capable of peeling yourself off the cobblestones to actually get over the threshold?”
“You deeply underestimate me, darling. Now give me your hand. Do you have a first aid kit? If not, whiskey and duct tape will do.”
Gritting her teeth, Ariadne held out her hand and managed to avoid toppling over by bracing herself against the doorjamb while Eames hoisted his not-inconsiderable bulk to his feet, unpleasant squelching sounds making themselves known around his midsection. Once upright, he managed a surprisingly dignified swagger into her flat, considering...
“If you bleed on my furniture, we are going to have strong words.”
“Then direct me to the bathroom, if you please.”
She sighed. “Down the hall to the left.”
“Perfect. I’ll let you know if I need help.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, of course I’m helping you!” she slammed the door shut after him. “You’ve been, what, stabbed, shot?”
“Glancing blow, hardly stabbed. I’m offended by your lack of faith in me.”
“Glancing off what, your kidney?”
“You’re being dramatic.”
“A mere papercut, love.” He sat down heavily on the toilet seat.
Ariadne made an inarticulate noise of frustration and made for the medicine cabinet. “You’re damned lucky Arthur stopped by with supplies last month, or I would not be equipped for this.”
“He stopped by as well? Why? Is he stalking you, that pointy-faced cretin?” Eames said, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal…well. Blood and general viscera aside, Eames had clearly not gone to seed from his military days as much as the terrible tweed and tourist shirts would imply.
“He is not pointy, he’s perfectly pleasant. He was on his way to Russia for a job,” she said briskly, ripping the sterile packaging off of needles and thread without managing to fumble too much. Adrenaline was great for short-term accuracy.
“Russia? Running away again, that bloody fool. Cobb’s going to have his head.” The shirt hit the bottom of the tub with a wet thwap. Eames looked down at the ragged hole in his side with something akin to annoyance. “Hmm. Have you got any booze, darling?”
“Nothing strong enough to dull the pain,” Ariadne replied, setting hydrogen peroxide on the sink, “All I keep is wine.”
“Wine will do. Fetch it, and I’ll be relatively cleaned up by the time you get back.”
Ariadne cast him a look, and then rose from her crouch on the bathroom floor to grab a bottle of pinot noir and a glass.
The pinot was mid-range, a gift from a friend. Eames looked at it like it was only nearly acceptable. He gulped down half a glass, his flank shiny with blood and half of the bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
“Are you going to tell me how you got this way?” Ariadne said, threading the needle.
“Yes you are. Drink more.”
“It’s a blood thinner, bad for my health.”
“Fine, put it down and I’ll use my amateur sewing skills to put you back together while you’re completely sober.”
Eames sighed. “I had no idea you were this frustrating.”
“Cobb was getting the majority of my attention, last time,” Ariadne said. “Now tell me.”
This sigh was, if anything, more long-suffering. “It wasn’t anything on the job. It was an old job that went bad years ago. Apparently this one contact didn’t forget.”
“So he emptied a clip into you?”
“Bloody hell, Ariadne, it was a graze! Also, it was a handgun, handguns don’t have clips, they—”
Ariadne stuck the needle into his side and he stopped talking with a hiss. After that, there was silent for a while, punctuated by the uneven draw of the thread through flesh. Ariadne had steady hands, for the most part, and Eames resisted every urge to flinch away. “You’re good at this,” he commented grudgingly, after a time.
“I have to build to scale models for my job,” Ariadne said. “I’m used to doing delicate work.”
“What are you doing nowadays, anyway?”
“Exploring my options.”
“What, you haven’t been snapped up by some giant multimillion conglomerate already?”
“No,” she said shortly.
Eames eyed her. “What?” he prodded.
She prodded back, but with the needle.
“Bugger all! Be gentle, would you?” And then, after a pause, “What, Ariadne?”
“‘Brilliant but unrealistic’,” she quoted with a grimace. “That seems to be the general consensus on my work nowadays.”
“Shit,” he replied. “Ruined you, have we?”
She sighed. “It’s a distinct possibility.”
“I’m sorry, darling.”
She tied off a knot close to the skin and trimmed the thread. “Let me just clean this off and put a dressing on,” she said.
Eames nodded and complied without further fuss. He even agreed to spend the remainder of the night on her sofa.
When Ariadne rose the next morning, however, there wasn’t a trace of him in the apartment, save for a fresh pot of coffee on the burner, and a small packet of croissants that she recognized as coming from the patisserie down the block. The bathroom smelled faintly of antiseptic, and she had a feeling that even if police came and tore the place apart, they would be hard-pressed to find even the slightest DNA evidence of Eames having been there.
She found herself bemused, and also somewhat concerned that all of the cleanup might have torn a stitch or two.
It was all very James Bond. Quirking one eyebrow, she poured herself a cup of coffee, and bit into a croissant.
“Cobb,” Ariadne said, propping the phone between her cheek and shoulder. “It's been a while. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
The line crackled; Cobb’s breathing sounded irritated. “Do you know where Arthur is, by any chance?” he asked finally.
“Last I heard he was on his way to Russia,” she answered, “Why?”
“He hates the cold,” Cobb said, exhaling, like it personally offended him.
It was two weeks after Eames had crashed back into her life, but their conversation was still fresh in Ariadne’s mind. After a pause, she said, “Eames said he might be running away? Is Arthur in trouble or something?”
“He is now. He’s changed all of his contact information without telling me, and now I’m going to have to go and get him. Do you have any idea of the cost of babysitting in LA?.”
Ariadne suppressed a grin.
“I can hear you smiling, Ariadne.”
“Sorry. But you guys are adorable.”
Cobb spluttered. “I—I am not adorable. Also, did you say you’ve seen Eames? I thought he was in Bombay.”
“He stopped by to say hello,” she said dryly, and could practically hear Cobb’s eye-roll down the line.
“Don’t let him drag you into his dissolute lifestyle.”
“You are not my father, Cobb.”
“No, but I know Eames. At least tell me you didn’t let him use your apartment as a base of operations.”
It was her turn to roll her eyes. “Cobb. I’m not stupid. Also, he wiped the entire place down when he left.”
Cobb paused. “What was there to wipe down, precisely?”
“What? Oh, Jesus Christ, that is not where I was going with that. Also, I’m concerned that that’s where you went with it.”
Ariadne was actually rather concerned about that as well. “Well, that isn’t what…you know what, I don’t need to explain anything to you, Cobb. He stopped by, he needed some help, and he was gone. That’s it.”
Ariadne bit her lip.
“He’d been shot,” she admitted, after an expectant silence. “Just a graze, but still.”
“That,” Cobb said in genuine surprise, “Is not like him.”
“Getting shot at, or getting hit?” She had to ask, even if she already knew the answer.
“The latter.” He seemed to take a moment to think, and then said, “Keep an eye on him, if he’s still in your area.”
Trust Cobb to go parental even on Eames. Ariadne snorted. “Sure thing. You gonna go after Arthur?”
“Yes,” Cobb muttered.
“He’s crazy to run from you,” Ariadne offered.
“I really don’t blame him, actually,” he replied flatly, with a tacit acknowledgment of Mal that simultaneously left Ariadne chilled and absurdly proud.
“He stuck around through your worst. He’s crazy to run from your best.”
“Pithy, but encouraging,” Cobb said, snorting. He cleared his throat. “By the way, how is the job search going?”
“Fine,” she lied.
“Are you sure you don’t need any recommendations? There are a couple of firms I’ve worked with before who I can drop a line to as well.”
“Thanks, but no,” Ariadne said. “I just want to see what I can do on my own first.”
“Fair enough. But you let me know if you want a leg up. It’s a tough business that you deserve to get into properly.”
She smiled slightly. “Go and buy your tickets to Moscow. I promise not to tell Arthur you’re coming.”
“Hah…all right. I’ll talk to you later.”
He disconnected, and Ariadne sat back against her kitchen counter, sipping coffee and trying very hard to put Eames out of her mind. She really had to get herself a position at a good firm before resorting to favors from Cobb, because that would just be depressing.
She exhaled, and then grabbed her bag to go over to the studio. Maybe drafting a new project would take her mind off of things.
That would have been the end of it. Except that it wasn’t.
One week later, Ariadne came home late in the evening to find several things in her bathroom missing. Namely gauze, a quarter of the bottle of antiseptic, and a package of band aids.
On the kitchen counter sat a paper bag of blueberry muffins.
She replaced the supplies, and on a morbid hunch, bought extras. She at least appreciated that Eames locked up after himself, despite not having a key.
It happened twice more over the course of a month and a half. Ariadne acquired another package of croissants, and finally a new, small espresso maker. She’d gone through another roll of gauze, three feet of athletic tape, and finished off the antiseptic.
She tried very hard not to let herself worry.
She began to read the police reports in the city newspapers.
Two months later, she saw him properly again.
Ariadne was napping, curled beneath her drafting board, when her phone rang. She picked up while still half asleep.
“Martin, if you’ve locked yourself out again I’m going to have to stab you with my protractor.”
“Someone’s grumpy. It’s only two AM, darling, surely you have a better social life than that.”
She sat up abruptly, and smacked her head on the drafting board. “Fuck!”
“Well, that’s hardly encouraging.”
It was at that point that she registered both who was calling, and how very thin his voice was. “Eames. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, I was just seeing if you’re in the neighborhood. But you’re obviously busy, so—”
“No, I’m not busy,” Ariadne cut him off. “It’s fine. You don’t sound like nothing’s wrong.”
“Just a slight incident. Don’t trouble yourself; I was nearby so I thought I’d phone, but—”
“You’re at my apartment,” she interrupted, putting it together. “Fine. Dammit. Okay, I’ll be there in half an hour. Don’t move, and don’t get picked up by the police.”
“I can be exceedingly good at both of those things,” Eames confirmed. He hung up mere seconds later.
Ariadne rested her head on the support slat underneath her drafting table. So much for the conceptual pitch she had planned for tomorrow.
It was a sprained, possibly cracked wrist, severe abrasions, and a possible concussion this time. “Crashed a bike,” Eames said briefly, in explanation. He’d already put his wrist in a makeshift splint, and stalwartly refused to go to a hospital.
Ariadne glared at him, and viciously removed gravel from his upper arm. “At high speed?”
“At moderate speed,” Eames allowed.
“Were you being chased? Are you going to be followed here?”
“Yes, and no, I lost them long before getting here. You know I’d never bring that to your door.”
“Yes, you’re very considerate. Put pressure here with this.” She handed him a cloth soaked in antiseptic. Eames obeyed, hissing slightly but otherwise maintaining a fairly affable demeanor. Ariadne didn’t believe it for a second.
“Cobb says you’re not usually this careless,” she said.
“You talked to Cobb about me? What are you, my mum?”
“Chronologically impossible. Are you trying to incept people on your own or something? No, even then the danger would be in the mind, not out here in the real world. What are you doing that's getting people so angry that they want you dead and are actually somewhat succeeding?”
“This is not succeeding,” Eames said, affronted.
Ariadne glared at him with all the disdain she could muster, and slapped a plaster over a particularly large abrasion on his upper thigh. He cursed colorfully.
“What are you trying to prove?” she demanded. “And why are you doing it in Paris, of all places?”
He glared right back at her, but didn’t immediately answer. After a long pause, he very deliberately seemed to rein himself in, shoulders going lax enough that Ariadne felt comfortable enough to go back to picking gravel out of them.
“You do realize the magnitude of what we accomplished with the inception, don’t you?” he said eventually. “No one’s made it stick before. It was the Mount Everest of mind crime, and we’ve scaled it.”
“So what, you’re looking for a new Everest?” She raised an eyebrow.
“I’m looking for something interesting to do,” Eames corrected, and then added less comfortably, “I’m feeling…uninspired.”
Ariadne was unimpressed. "You're probably just having a mid-life crisis. Have you bought a Porsche yet?"
“Please, if I was really going to have a mid-life crisis, I’d buy an Aston. Porsches are for philistines.”
She rolled her eyes. “At least if you rolled an Aston instead of a bike you wouldn’t have pieces of grit embedded in your skin.”
“Entirely beside the point.”
“I’m bored!” he snapped finally. “I live an exceedingly interesting life, and I am fucking bored.”
She looked at him. “You are having a mid-life crisis,” she said blankly. “And you’re coming to me with it.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“You are!” She almost punched him in the arm, and then thought better of it. She settled for crossing her arms. “Eames. You have nothing to prove to me. You’re the best forger in the dream business—Cobb wouldn’t have hired you otherwise. And you’ve apparently been scamming left and right and have had the wherewithal and, I don’t know, virility to evade and/or take on the various vindictive persons who have gotten in your way. What the hell more do you want?”
Eames cocked an eyebrow. “‘Virility’?”
“That’s what you fixate on?”
“I had to pick something. You also forgot to add that I have been a perfect gentleman about your hospitality.”
“Willing or otherwise,” Ariadne added. She paused, and then tried a different tactic. “Why Paris?”
He smiled winningly, but his gaze suddenly seemed altogether disingenuous. Or maybe…was that nervousness? It was a poker player’s bluffing smile. “Darling!” he said, with the sheen of pleasant incredulity. “You are many things, but boring is not one of them.”
She stared at him. His smile faded.
She twisted her mouth, and had no idea what to say. “Making me worry is not helping your cause,” she said eventually, quietly.
His whole demeanor softened. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Apparently I do.” Flustered, she straightened, and gave her handiwork a once-over.
Eames watched her steadily. “Sofa?” he said, after a pause.
She caught his gaze briefly before turning away, before he could see the beginnings of a flush. “Yeah, let me get you a blanket.”
He was gone by the time she woke up. And for the first time, she wondered what it would take to get him to stay.
It was a very dangerous thought. Eames was the sort of man that her parents would have heart attacks about. But then again, he was also the sort of man who chose, instead of flirting like the con man he was, to drop by unannounced, when he was in need of help. He was the sort of man not to flirt, but totrust.
It was an intriguing prospect. One that she was willing to admit (though only to herself) she was rather keen on pursuing.
Luckily, she’d just spent a considerable amount of time apprenticed with thieves.
On her way to the lab, she picked up a burner phone, and memorized the number.
And then she carried on as usual.
Fortunately and unfortunately, Eames was a better con man than she, because three weeks later his coat was on her coatrack, with no sign of himself in sight. Ariadne had been previously unaware that a jacket was capable of looking smug.
“Fine,” she murmured to it. It could only be a good sign in the long run.
She dropped the burner phone into the inside pocket, and went to bed.
The jacket was gone the next day.
Another week, and her job applications were going nowhere. It was a bad time in business for architects.
Eames picked up after the third ring. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he purred.
“Talk me out of going to Cobb for pity employment.”
“It’s not pity employment; it’s called networking.”
“It’s being smart.”
“This is not helpful.”
“Well, you’re being terribly stubborn. Are you going to continue on this tangent, or can I tell you about how I just made an absolutely splendid copy of a particularly intricate war bond?”
“I really hope this line is secure,” Ariadne sighed.
“Copying and forging are very different. I am merely an artist with an interest in bond art.”
“Go on, then,” she smiled; she couldn’t help it. “Tell me of your overwhelming genius. But after that, you have to promise to let me rant at you about the structural integrity of my opera house that will never get built because I am depressingly unemployed.”
“Deal,” he answered. He sounded pleased and warm.
She rather liked the honesty of it.
She called him twice more after that. It was a nice change from stitches.
He called only once. But that was enough. Ariadne began to view her phone with something like anticipation.
But then, as was his wont, Eames broke all of the rules.
“Eames,” Ariadne paused, raising an eyebrow. “You’re drunk instead of injured. This is a welcome change, I guess.”
“I am not having a midlife crisis!”
He smelled like a distillery. Ariadne should not find this endearing.
“You’re still on that? That was ages ago. And it was just a theory. But now I’m thinking the man doth protest too much.” She grabbed his hand and once more hauled him to his feet, deja vu running strongly through her mind. He almost overbalanced them both as they stumbled over the threshold. “Jesus, Eames, how much did you have? If you vomit on me I will actually destroy you.”
“I’m British, I’m the one who should be misquoting Shakespeare at you.”
“Uh huh. You’re three whole sentences behind in this conversation, that’s excellent. You need a glass of water, stat.” She plonked him on the couch, barely able to extricate herself from beneath his arm. “Don’t pass out. I’ll be right back.”
“Philistine!” he exclaimed, nonsensically.
Ariadne was very glad that her neighbors were generally tolerant people. She grabbed the largest glass out of the cabinet and filled it to the brim with water.
It wasn’t the best idea in the long run, as a good third of it ended up on Eames and the couch. Still, he was fairly obedient in the end, and drank down the rest with concentration.
Putting the empty glass on the coffee table, Ariadne settled herself on the opposite end of the couch, curling her feet under herself. She took the time to study him, figuring he wouldn’t notice for at least a few minutes. It was undeniable that he was…well-proportioned, and perhaps even aesthetically pleasing, beyond the horrendous shirts and scruff of bender-beard. His languorous occupation of the rest of the couch seemed graceful, almost purposeful. Enough to make her wonder, really.
“How much are you conning me, right now?” she asked, nudging his knee with her foot.
He looked askance at her. “I would never,” he responded, outraged.
“Uh huh.” She nudged him again. “Eames.”
He glared, but his eyes stayed glassy. “I may have…relied on some liquid courage for this part of the plan,” he allowed.
“And what plan was that?”
“For me to know,” he tapped his temple, quirking his lips up at the corner, “And you to find out.”
Ariadne sighed. He was really quite abominably difficult. If it weren’t for the latent worry also crinkling the corners of his eyes, she would have given up.
She settled on sitting back, and throwing her legs over his lap. “Television until you pass out,” she declared, “And no complaining about being hungover tomorrow. Also, you stay until I kick you out. Understood?”
He looked faintly amazed. “Yes?”
She turned on the television. It was some awful, dubbed, German drama. She left it on.
“Dies ist schrecklich,” Eames commented, in an impeccable accent, before dropping off to sleep in her lap, curling downwards inch by inch around her propped up legs to land with his head on her stomach.
She let him stay there. It was surprisingly comfortable.
She awoke to gray eyes. “Good…morning?” she said, uncertainly.
“You let me stay,” Eames said, leaning over her and sounding accusing. Ariadne really thought that that was a bit undeserving.
“Yes?” she tried. “What was I going to do, kick you out while you were drunk off your face?”
He tilted his head away, grimacing. “May have misjudged that particular dose of courage, yes.”
“You appeared to be under the misapprehension that you had a plan,” Ariadne reminded him.
“A plan? No. Mostly I was just testing how much you’d put up with from me.”
Ariadne looked at the way their legs had tangled on the couch, and his hovering presence above and around her. “Quite a lot, apparently,” she said, after a moment.
“Oh,” he said blankly.
“You’re really bad at this whole courtship thing, aren’t you?” she said.
“I am the epitome of smooth,” he said, outraged.
She looked at him.
“I…may have lost my footing with you, momentarily,” he amended.
“Mid-life crisis,” Ariadne diagnosed drily.
“I am thirty-six!”
“Old man,” she teased, but he took it seriously, looking down at her with doubt.
“Too old for you,” he said.
She quirked a smile. “I think I’ll decide that for myself, thanks.”
His grin was crooked and blinding. She slid a hand up his chest to curl around his neck, and pulled him down.
Two seconds later, however, she pulled away. “Okay, priorities. You still smell and taste like booze. Showering is in order.” She sniffed at her sweater. “Ugh, for me as well. You’ve rubbed off on me.”
Eames leered. “Oh have I? I think I’d remember that.”
“Hush.” She untangled herself from him. “Shower. Now.”
“Save water with me?” He looked hopeful and sly and very, very appealing, half-sprawled on her couch.
She pretended to consider, but it was a no-brainer. “Yes, I think that would be good.”
It was. Better than good, in fact.
Three days later, the phone rang.
Ariadne picked up muzzily, face half buried in her pillow. “‘Lo?”
“Did you rat on me to Cobb?”
“Arthur, what an unexpected pleasure,” she said, sitting up. Behind her in the bed, Eames made a protesting noise.
“Did you?” Arthur repeated.
She paused. “Yes?”
She heard him exhale, and then after several seconds, he said, sounding very grudging indeed, “Thanks.”
She grinned into the phone. “No problem. Is Cobb there?”
“No, he’s taking the kids to school. Do you want me to pass on a message?”
“Yeah. Tell him I’ve been dragged into a dissolute lifestyle.”
“‘S’at Arthur?” Eames said, and then more loudly, “Arthur! What the fuck were you doing, running away to the tundra? You mad bloody hatter.”
Arthur spluttered. “Is that Eames? What is…oh Jesus Christ.”
“Later, Arthur,” Ariadne said cheerfully, and hung up. She slumped back into bed, and was immediately enveloped. “Hi,” she said, still smiling.
“Why hello,” Eames replied, gaze bright and awake. “You shocked Arthur into blasphemy. You’ve never been so beautiful to me.”
“All the outrageous behavior and injuries worth it?”
He pulled her closer. “Paid off with interest, I think.”
“Crisis over, then? You’ve gotten in fights, crashed an expensive vehicle, and bedded a younger woman.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “That should cover it.”
“You’re missing the central ingredient,” Eames said. He was running his fingers across her ribs very distractingly. “I was in want of a challenge.”
“Oh?” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “And?”
He smiled, somehow simultaneously predatory and fond. He pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Found one.”