“Aren’t they a bit…childish?”
“What?” Cobb asks. They are standing on a bridge made of smooth white stone. Below them is water, which could be mistaken for the sea, except that it’s utterly flat and turquoise like in an advertisement for a holiday package. The colour doesn’t fit with the sky, which is a shade of bloody pink seen by Ariadne once when she was ten after a fireworks display.
Ariadne repeats, “Arthur and Eames – they’re a bit childish, don’t you think. This isn’t preschool. Eames flirts by kicking over Arthur’s chairs for heavens sake.”
“Flirts?” Cobb asks, surprised. He isn’t looking at Ariadne, but at the faces of the projections populating the bridge. He can hear in her voice that she is testing him -- trying out an observation, and feeling clever to have noticed it.
“Don’t deny it,” she says, turning her chin up a little, “Just look at them.”
Cobb’s eyes float down to the second level of the bridge, just below them. Eames and Arthur are examining the dimensions of the road carefully, mapping out each inch with perfect precision. Cobb knows it’s an early version of a bridge on the first level of the dreamscape they’re using for inception. He’s careful to be sure he knows nothing else.
Arthur writes something down in a small black book and Eames turns and watches him for a moment. When he closes the book, Eames steps into his personal space. Cobb and Ariadne are too far to hear what’s being said, but close enough to see that they’re talking. Eames looks up and waves at them, grinning cheerily, and Ariadne laughs and waves back. Eames’s smile turns impish and he drags his fingers through Arthur’s carefully slicked hair. Arthur tenses and knocks away Eames hands.
“See,” Ariadne says, “Could he be anymore obvious. Honestly, that was an equivalent gesture to pulling a pigtail. You must have noticed.”
Cobb studies Ariadne for a moment. The shape of her mouth is set and confident. She doesn’t appear to be troubled, or even unsettled by the idea of Eames and Arthur as something more to each other than colleagues. She’s just interested, and maybe a little surprised.
“And don’t go saying Eames is like that with everyone, Cobb, because he really isn’t. I’ve watched them,” she looks at him, waiting for his answer, he supposes. Her mouth turns again, and she looks suddenly self-conscious, “Cobb?” she asks, “I just noticed, that’s all. I just want to know if it’s something important, something that might affect the job.”
“It might affect the job,” Cobb replies, his voice flat.
“What do you mean?” Ariadne asks.
“You said that’s all you needed to know about it...” He knows he’s being difficult, but sometimes he can’t help himself. Ariadne is brilliant. He knows it. She knows it. She knows they all know it. This, here, is something she doesn’t understand.
“But…I…how will it affect…” Ariadne begins, looking almost nervous.
Cobb shakes his head and looks down at the smooth stone beneath him again. He smiles, and the colour of the stone catches him for a moment. He is transfixed by an image --- snow, snow, snow, and his hands are buried in the snow, and he can taste how wet and icy it is on Mal’s eyelashes and he kisses her there and---
He looks up and blinks. Ariadne is biting her lip. “Flirting?” he asks, “You’re concerned that the fact that Eames flirts with Arthur is going to ruin the inception?”
He sighs, “I think the real problem here is that you’re seeing one thing, and the truth is something else. Watch them again. Look for something different. That’s only for your own interest though.” He meets her eyes, a weighted gaze. “A lot of things can affect a job, Ariadne, and most of the time it’s not something we can do anything about.”
Ariadne watches them, and she tries to see something she wasn’t looking for before. It’s hard, because she doesn’t know what that illusive thing is. She watches them collect their bags from the carousel after the Fischer job. Eames isn’t paying attention as his bag goes past, and Arthur pulls it off for him. Eames doesn’t even thank him as he takes the handle of the bag from Arthur.
She watches them at a restaurant a few weeks later. Cobb brings his children, who are beautiful, with hair the colour of corn silk and penny-bright eyes. Ariadne draws them simple mazes on the back of a paper placemat, and glances at Arthur and Eames out of the corner of her eye. They drink from the same water glass. Eames eats all the mushrooms from Arthur’s risotto, and Arthur doesn’t even notice.
She watches them on the street outside the restaurant after dinner. It’s late and the sky is black and thick like molasses. The wind stirs, ruffling the tops of the trees gently, and then with more intent. Arthur wears a crisply pressed linen suit jacket, and Ariadne can see that the wind is cutting through it. He glances briefly at Eames. No words are exchanged, but Eames slips his dark wool coat off and over Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur glares at him like he hadn’t asked for it with his slanted expression only a moment ago. Eames flicks his ear.
Ariadne watches them in warehouse. It’s an easy job they’re pulling this time. Cobb got it for them, and he rarely picks up anything risky these days. They’re testing sedatives. They put Arthur and Eames under together, to make sure there are no lapses in shared dreaming with the chemicals.
“What are they dreaming?” Ariadne asks. Their faces are smooth and unlined in sleep. She imagines how soft their skin would feel.
Yusuf shrugs, “They don’t tell me what they dream when they share together. I don’t ask.”
“Isn’t it important – the dreamscape?”
“No,” Yusuf says, “I only care if they can find each other easily. Eames and Arthur are the best to test on, in the early stages.”
“Why?” Ariadne asks.
“They always find each other,” Yusuf says, as if the fact is completely uninteresting. He glances at the clock and then knocks Eames over, signaling Ariadne to do the same to Arthur. They wake instantly, but for a few moments their eyes are still clouded, and they look to each other first, catching and holding glances for long moments. What is it? Ariadne thinks, What’s there, in that space between their eyes?
The problem is, Ariadne doesn’t know what she’s looking for.
She goes to Cobb’s for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon. He doesn’t hold himself like he used to. The military line of his back is gone. He no longer vibrates with such intensity. Ariadne almost misses the sharpness of the Cobb she first met. He hurt to watch, but at the same time it was aesthetically pleasing, like a photograph just slightly over-exposed.
They chat for a while, until Ariadne realizes there is no smooth transition into the topic she has on her mind. She says, “I’ve watched them – I don’t understand…what am I looking for? Are they…maybe…I thought they didn’t get a long very well, before. But that’s not true, I don’t think. They just seem like old friends. They must have a history?”
Cobb grins, “A history is one way of putting it. Do you know…I’m sure you’d never have guessed this…?”
“What?” Ariadne asks, trying not to sound eager, and thinking she can taste the answer. But Cobb shakes his head.
“No, this is about something else,” he says, “Did you know that Eames introduced me to Arthur. They knew each other years before I knew either of them.”
“But…I thought, I mean, he’s your Point Man.”
“He’s something else to Eames.”
“And I thought he didn’t even want Eames in on the inception…”
“I suppose they try not to work together too often. I’ve never quite understood that. I think it’s some sort of game they play.”
“Arthur can’t be very old, anyway, if they met years before they met you…”
“When Arthur was eighteen, and Eames maybe twenty-two. He tried to teach Arthur to forge, but Arthur’s terrible at it. They made a much better team after he started doing the details.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Try watching one more time, Ariadne. This is a good skill to learn. Look for something different than last time.”
She frowns, careful to be sure she’s not pouting. The game isn’t fun anymore. She wants the answer. She doesn’t know why she’s so curious. It’s the same feeling that made her push the button for the basement in Cobb’s dream-elevator; the same feeling that made her go back to the warehouse even after she’d been sure that building a world out of dreams for these people was going to end in disaster.
She goes about watching them differently this time. Instead of looking for something between them, she looks for what they see between them. She notices how Eames eyes turn liquid brown like mead following the sleek lines of Arthur’s shoulders as he smoothes the buttons of his vest after waking from a dream.
She watches the way the way Arthur’s posture is slightly different when Eames is in the room to when he’s out of it. She watches the way Eames slides his fingers across the back of Arthur’s neck when it’s time for them to go to lunch. It’s looks like another taunt, but this time she sees that Arthur doesn’t exactly tense up so much as shudder and now she sees the moment when their eyes connect and Arthur gets up from the table and turns to follow them out to the street, somehow knowing what Eames had been there to ask with no words exchanged.
She watches them tease or flirt, and tries to see something more. Arthur’s cutting comments are given out regularly to everyone, but perhaps they have a grain of some other emotion in them when directed at Eames. And does Eames look at her that way when she makes a mistake? Does he look at her that way when she does something incredible? She doesn’t think so.
They take her to a club for her twenty-first birthday. It smells like smoke and anger and sweat, but she feels safe flanked by Arthur on the left, and Eames on the right. People sense something in them, or perhaps they suddenly sense their own inadequacies. Eames plays to it, cupping his hand under her elbow when a leering man walks past and giving him the sharpest edge of a smile – the kind of smile that isn’t exaggerating when it seems to say, I have tortured men in their own dreams.
Arthur just sees people, their faces, and more than that. People glance at him, slight and unwrinkled, and then double take, as they feel that small and cold something settle in the back of their thoughts to whisper, he knows your secrets.
Eames drags her onto the dance floor and she laughs as they press into each other at awkward points. She thinks that Eames could probably dance well if he tried, but she can’t. She appreciates that he humors her. After a few minutes a beautiful thin blond woman cuts between them, tucking her curves into the smooth planes of Eames back. He dances with her the same way he did with Ariadne. Friendly, half-joking. She wonders why.
Later, she’s found her way back to their table. Arthur’s still sitting where she and Eames left him when they went to dance. He’s leaning back against the wall, a thin flute glass of some pale yellow alcohol set gently between his fingers. They talk about work, and how nervous she is for her finals. Arthur looks her sometimes, and sometimes he looks at Eames who is dancing with everyone out on the floor.
Perhaps twenty minutes later, he collapses back into his seat next to Arthur and turns toward him to whisper something in his ear.
Whatever he says makes Arthur pull away and roll his eyes. “Absolutely not,” Arthur says, firmly.
“Come on, you like it, really.”
Something about those words in Eames accent sounds positively filthy, and before she can stop herself, Ariadne asks, “What’s he asked you to do?”
“Dance,” Arthur says, blandly. Ariadne laughs. She can’t imagine Arthur dancing. She's never met someone less fluid, or rhythmic in her life.
“You should go. It’ll be hilarious.”
He glares at her. “Don’t take his side in this!”
She smiles, “Please. It’s my birthday.”
Eames crows: “YES!” when Arthur slowly takes off his suit jacket and allows Eames to tug him from the table. Ariadne laughs at the flat expression on Arthur’s face. The song changes to something a little slower. People move against each other instead on bouncing up and down mindlessly. The crowd of dancers grows thinner.
Eames pulls Arthur towards him, mussing his hair for probably the second or third time that day. Ariadne isn’t sure but she thinks she sees him tugging at Arthur’s tie and top button. Arthur pushes his hands off the collar of his shirt, and down onto his waist instead. Ariadne is surprised.
They start to sway to the music then. She looks down at her glass, worried that if she takes another sip she’ll spit it out when she inevitably starts to giggle, but what she sees when she glances up again does not make her laugh.
Arthur and Eames fit into each other seamlessly. They slot together back to front so that Arthur’s shoulders press against Eames’s chest, and Arthur’s pinstriped hips settle into place with Eames dark wash jeans. Ariadne wonders why she ever imagined Arthur wouldn’t be able to dance well. The same elegant lines that he extends into when he is fighting in dreams appear now, but they tangle with the lines of Eames’s body. The intertwining is smooth, sensuous.
Ariadne feels her hands freeze on the table. She tries to imagine a time when she saw two people less separate from each other, and can’t. They’re moving with the music but also with something else. The sound that their bodies sync to is one only they can hear – it’s in the space between them, that sliver of space so small it nearly doesn’t exist, and yet is big enough to contain the sliding of fabric against skin and skin against fabric. Arthur’s chest rises and falls quickly. His mouth curves into a smile Ariadne can’t remember ever seeing before. Eames’s mouth looks wet. Arthur tips his head back onto Eames’s shoulder at the same time that Eames ducks his to ghost the tip of his nose along Arthur’s jaw. She watches as Eames mouths words in Arthur’s ear, his lips pursed around the shape of the letters in “Darling.”
Ariadne’s breath stops in her throat. Maybe, right then, Ariadne starts to see what she’s looking for.
She’s not sure about it until three weeks later.
They’re doing another Extraction, and to properly distract, Eames has to do reconnaissance into the mark’s dreams. It’s a particularly risky job for Eames, as he’s required to interact directly with the mark’s projections so he can impersonate particular ones.
They’re careful, of course, about setting it up. But because she’s accustomed to watching, now, Ariadne doesn’t miss the way Arthur’s mouth turns tight and nervous as Eames gives them a cheery wave goodbye, carrying the silver briefcase in his other hand.
They get the call from the random outsider hired to set the kicks and put Eames and the mark under the sedatives, to tell them that everything is set up with twenty minutes on the clock. They don’t get the call to say everything is finished and Eames is on his way back.
Two days pass, and then three. Cobb and Arthur spend hours every day calling in favours, scouring local warehouses for signs of extractors or enemies and yelling at each other. Ariadne thinks it’s worse than it might have been before the Fisher job because they’re like a family now. Or maybe she’s wrong. Maybe they always would have looked this anxious and sleepless and tense about a missing Eames.
On the fourth day, Ariadne is in the warehouse alone, gluing walls into a model of an infinite wine cellar in the dreamscape she’s making for the job. There’s the sound of shattering glass and Eames crashes in through the back windows. His clothes are torn to shreds and bloody, and his face is a mess of bruises and stubble. His sinks to his knees, but luckily Ariadne is across the room and catching him before his head hits the floor.
“Oh God, oh God…” she says, taking in the torn skin around his wrists and the colorlessly grey circles under his eyes, “What happened? Where were you…?”
“Ariadne?” he asks, sounding lost, “Where’s Arthur...I need him. They took my…I lost my…” His eyes focus in and out on her face. He smiles blearily. His teeth look red.
“He’s not here,” she says, feeling panicked. She tugs her sweater off to pillow his head, “He’s looking for you somewhere.”
“I need Arthur,” he repeats, again and again. Ariadne scrambles in her pocket for her cell phone and scrolls through her contacts clumsily, fingers suddenly graceless in fear.
Arthur picks up on the second ring, “Hello,” he says.
He sounds perfectly composed, but maybe she can detect a hint of quivering worry. Maybe she’s just imagining it. She doesn’t know anymore, about Arthur and Eames. She doesn’t care. She cares about Eames sprawled across the floor, struggling to sit up, whispering, “I need to find Arthur…I lost…I lost…they took it…” over and over again.
“He’s here. Eames is here,” she says breathlessly, “He says he needs you, and I don’t know. I don’t think he knows where he is. He just keeps saying, ‘they took it, I lost it’…”
“Give the phone to Eames,” his voice is like steel.
She hands it over without another word, and Eames takes it eagerly. Ariadne lies down on the cool cement floor next to him. She can still hear Arthur as a distant tinny voice on the other end of the line.
“I’ll be right there,” he says, softly. “I’m coming, okay. Just wait. I’m real…I’m real…I’m real….”
Arthur bursts through the doors only ten or so minutes later and drops the cell phone carelessly the second he sees Eames. He sinks to his knees and supports Eames’s shoulders as he sits up slowly. Eames buries his face in Arthur’s perfectly starched white shirt, and breathes in deeply. He leaves smears of blood behind. Neither notice.
“Here,” says Arthur. He pulls a silver Zippo lighter out of his back pocket. It’s the square kind that makes a pleasing click when it’s opened and lights with barely any effort. He folds Eames’s hand around it, and Eames flicks it open, shaking, clicking the sparker three or four times. It flares brightly, but never lights. Ariadne watches closely, almost staring, until she realizes suddenly that the moment is painfully intimate. That’s Eames’s totem, she thinks, Arthur has an extra totem for Eames.
She has pulled back, and averting her eyes when Cobb comes running into the room. He stops abruptly when he sees Eames and Arthur crouched with each other in the middle of the room. He looks away purposefully, meeting Ariadne’s eyes as he does so, as if to say, That’s right – it’s not really any of your business.
She looks once more, because she can’t help it – just a glance. They’ve shifted so that Eames’s head is pillowed on Arthur’s lap, and she sees the lighter flash again. There’s something carved on the side, but she’s got enough sense to try not to read it.
Arthur knows what it says. The thought follows her for the rest of the day.
She thinks about it that night, as she lies in bed. She sleeps on an odd schedule now – she’s not always tired if she’s been dreaming at work for most of the day, which isn’t rare. The images all slink together until she’s watching a parade of them. Arthur’s eyes on Eames’s eyes, Eames’s hands on Arthur’s hips, Arthur’s fingers in the wool of Eames’s borrowed coat.
Flirting, she thinks. It’s hardly any wonder Cobb had sounded surprised all those months ago, when she’d suggested it. It was a terrific understatement. If Eames and Arthur were merely flirting than the dreamscapes she created were finger paintings.
She dreams about Arthur’s hands in Eames’s hair, stroking and stroking, painfully gentle, and the sound of the lighter flicking, flicking in the background. It’s more memory than dream, really, but it’s the first she’s had unaided in weeks.
“How long?” Ariadne asks Cobb the next day. He’s shuffling the reports Eames called in with – he still got the information, of course. Both Eames and Arthur haven’t come in to the warehouse today.
“How many years have Arthur and Eames been…together?”
Cobb sets the sheaf of papers down and leans against the desk. Ariadne sets her sketching pencil down too. They study each other a moment.
“Arthur keeps another totem for Eames,” she says, as if that was the thing that made her understand, instead of just the lynchpin.
“I’m not sure,” Cobb says, shrugging. “Ten years, maybe eleven…it sort of depends on where you start counting from. I’m not the one to ask, though. You could have just asked them.”
Her mouth drops open. “But… you mean I could have just…”
“It’s not actually a secret or anything, you know.”
“Oh,” Ariadne replies, blankly.
That’s how she finds herself in the foyer of a Manhattan walk-up five minutes from central park. It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, Saturday. Eames stumbled back to them four days ago, and while Arthur had returned to warehouse the day after, Eames had only been back yesterday.
He’d looked fine, though, if maybe still a little bruised around the edges. She searched his level gaze for some hint of the panic or confusion that had been there before, but she saw nothing. He was as insufferable as ever. Ariadne liked that about him. The only hint of disaster that remained was the occasional sound of a lighter flicking, open, closed, open, closed, while they worked in the warehouse. She’d never heard it before.
The staircase in the building is a thing of beauty, old and winding, with the railing coppery green. It’s Art Nouveau at its best, and it reminds her of the Paris Metro. She checks the address scrawled on her hand and starts down the hall. Her heels echo on the eggshell stone floor and back at her from the high ceilings. She knocks on the door to number five. There is a rug on the floor outside the door, and she is perplexed by it. She’d thought she was going to some hideout breifly occupied by Eames or Arthur during this most recent job. The rug seems to say something else.
The door swings open. Eames grins when he sees her. He has a mug with steam rising from it in one hand and an indent from sleeping on the seam of a pillowcase across his cheek. “Ariadne!” he exclaims, “What brings you to our castle?”
“I had a question about staircases.” She holds up her black artists portfolio and a sketchbook like a ticket, “Cobb gave me the address. He said I should ask Arthur about it.”
He waves his hand as if to signify that it doesn’t matter, and opens the door wider, inviting her in. “Would you like some tea?” he asks, congenially. The front door opens into a hallway. There are photographs of Mombassa and Paris and Tokyo on the walls. The picture that causes her to gape has no particular aesthetic merit, though. It’s Arthur and Eames on a beach, propped up against each other. Eames’s head is thrown back in a laugh, and Arthur is looking at him, his mouth quirked into an almost smile. His nose is sunburned. She’s not sure why, but it’s really that which makes her gape. His nose is sunburned.
“Eames, who was at the door?” Arthur’s voice echoes into the hallway from the open door Eames is leading her towards. They turn the corner, and she sees Arthur spread out on a sofa in ripped jeans and a t-shirt and he has bed head and she freezes, in fact, it’s possible that her jaw even drops.
“Ariadne,” he says, sitting up, sounding mildly surprised. “How are you?”
“I…” she tries, “I was just…”
Eames starts laughing. She can feel him shaking beside her. She glances at him, and he’s looking between her and Arthur with an absolutely bemused expression. “You’ve broken her, dearest,” he says, still snickering.
“I asked Cobb,” she says, “I asked Cobb if he thought it was childish – the way you flirted. And he said I’d got it wrong. But I don’t get it. I don’t get what you are for each other.”
Eames smirks. “We’re a lot of things,” he says, “For each other.”
“Is this your house?” She asks, “You live together?”
“Sometimes,” Arthur answers, “Sometimes it’s too dangerous. This is only one of several, anyway.”
“I thought…I don’t know what I thought,” Ariadne says, “But now I think it’s like you’re married.”
“We might be, in Amsterdam.” Arthur says, “Do you remember, Eames?”
“Distinctly,” Eames says. He offers Ariadne her cup of tea. “Now, what was it you wanted to ask Arthur…?”
Ariadne takes the tea after dropping her portfolio to the coffee table. She sets her chin in her other hand. Arthur is wearing woolen socks, and her eyes catch on them.
She is unable to stop herself from imagining whatever scene might have occurred between Arthur and Eames that morning, or every morning. She imagines the buttermilk coloured light streaming through their bedroom window, and how Arthur’s eyes would blink open first, and he would watch as Eames awoke. She imagines them sharing one sink –brushing their teeth at the same time, and how Eames might smudge shaving cream away from a spot Arthur missed under his chin. She imagines Arthur rolling his eyes as Eames tossed those ridiculous socks at him, and she imagines him putting them on anyway, secretly pleased by the warmth of them.
They must love each other, she thinks, and it’s a revelation. How could it have possibly taken this long to realize that one, obvious fact?
Ariadne laughs. “It’s something about staircases,” she says, grinning, “But it can wait, for a minute. I’m just a little curious. How did you meet?”