On one hand, Arthur decides that Cobb is the lucky one. He doesn’t share his belief with any other member of their team, he knows how it sounds -- Cobb, who is haunted by his dead wife’s ghosts; Cobb, who is forever on the run and only wants to get home. But that’s kind of the point, too, because Cobb’s the only one of them who actually has a home to go back to.
Arthur left when he was eighteen, spent one year at Harvard trying to learn architecture before realizing that he was shit at it. Mumblings of a new technology were whispered in some of the campus bars during his time there though. Dreams are the future. Dreams will make it every man for himself.
Of course that doesn’t really happen, extraction goes to the highest bidder, and Dom Cobb is the best in the business. Arthur’s never really not been the best at something, and through some connections he meets Dom Cobb and his wife Mal, who is probably the most beautiful woman Arthur has ever seen -- her dark eyes hold nothing but kindness. It’s always the most beautiful things that turn out to be the most fragile, they all realize much too late.
“You’re just a kid,” Cobb says the second Arthur introduces himself, eyeing him wearily.
“I’m 21, sir. And I’m good at what I do.” He doesn’t bother adding that Cobb’s only about ten years older than himself, because it seems a moot point anyway.
Mal doesn’t look concerned by his age, “Let him show you what he can do, I need someone to help me keep you young.”
What they don’t know is that Arthur is a 60 year old man at heart, but the Cobbs agree to working with him and everything just falls into place after that.
Eames comes in eight months later.
Cobb’s known him for what sounds like forever given all the stories they have together, and Arthur expects him to be like Dom -- serious, hardworking, extremely intelligent -- and instead he gets Eames.
They need a talented forger for a relatively high profile politician, and when the British man walks through the door in an outfit that looks like it’s been slept in at least four times, Arthur decides he doesn’t care for him. Arthur cherishes order and a nice suit and Eames seems to disregard both of those things.
“Oh look at this fresh faced babe!” He says instantly, tapping Arthur’s clean shaven cheek a few times with his open palm because things like personal space aren’t important to a guy like Eames.
Dom grins a little, “Mal wanted to keep him.”
Arthur isn’t sure whether he feels insulted or proud that Mal wants him around so settles on a cool indifference towards the forger.
“A stick in the mud, but easy on the eyes. I approve.” Eames winks, turning to look at the blueprints for the new dream Dom’s been building.
“Your approval means little to me, I assure you.” Arthur replies stonily, jaw set in mild anger, but Eames lets out a booming laugh and doesn’t turn to look at him.
“So this politician wants nuclear codes?” Eames mutters quietly, “Sounds dangerous, I’m definitely in.”
He pats Arthur on the cheek again a few hours later and leans in much too close for comfort and whispers, “See you later, darling,” before walking back out the door looking like a man who didn’t particularly have a care in the world and wasn’t about to break into a government official’s life.
Arthur glares at Dom after he’s gone, “He called me ‘ darling ?’” The incredulous question causes the older man's eyes to crinkle with laughter.
“Yeah, he does that. Mal loves it.” Arthur tended to think Mal had good judgement for obvious reasons, but Eames seemed to be the outlier.
As it happens, Eames actually is fantastic at his job, and he manages to fool Arthur in their first shared dream, dressed as the hooker the mark was seeing on the side, one hand wrapped around Arthur’s neck and the other around his glock 17, and mouth pressed gently to Arthur's temple.
“Getting distracted are we, darling?” It’s Eames’ voice in his ear and he jumps away, nearly knocking a table over.
“What are you doing, Eames? Quit dicking around!” The alarm in his voice doesn’t phase the other man, who just answers with a smirk.
“You need to learn to live a little Arthur, don’t you get tired of being so dreadfully boring all the time?” He asks, watching Cobb talking to the politician, gesturing subtlety to the others.
Arthur rolls his eyes, “Just because I don’t blow my paychecks after five minutes and prefer to bathe frequently doesn’t make me boring.”
“Yes, darling, I’m afraid it does.” Eames replies before moving into his next position, throwing a look over his shoulder he tosses the glock 17 back to it’s owner along with a wink.
They wake up and Arthur ignores the increasing urge to punch his fellow teammate in the face, wishing a goodbye to Dom and Mal and hugging James and Phillipa at the airport. Eames claps him around the shoulder and grins,
“Good job in there, Arthur, see you later.” He leans in, his aftershave infiltrating all of Arthur’s senses, and pecks him lightly on the cheek.
He walks away with a confident air, and Arthur rationally compartmentalizes his feelings and loads his things into a cab.
“Mal... jumped off a building... she’s... she’s gone.”
The phone call in the middle of the night startles him, he’s just gotten finished researching a few prospective clients, though Dom hasn’t really been interested in working much lately, spending all his time with Mal and the kids. It wasn't uncommon for Dom to shrink back into his home life, but there were a few weeks where all communication died and when he came back he wasn’t the same, but it was the lack of warmth in Mal’s eyes that sent warning bells ringing in his ears.
Cobb hangs up after telling him about the funeral service date and place, and Arthur calmly gathers his clothes into a suitcase and tells his mailman to forward all his mail to Los Angeles.
There aren’t many at the funeral. Mal’s father, her children, Arthur, Eames and a handful of others all huddle in the cold winter wind, Dom throwing a handful of dirt in the open grave. He’s not crying, but Arthur knows his grief is beyond tears.
Arthur doesn’t believe in God, but he knows Dom and Mal were the closest thing to soulmates in the universe.
“I have to leave soon. They think I did it, Arthur. They think I could... that I would...” Arthur nods and promises to get them new identities, new homes, new lives.
Except Dom already has a life, so the only sacrifice Arthur thinks is fitting enough for his best friend is to give up the seedlings of a life he’s only just begun to plan.
Eames agrees to help smuggle them out of the country, expression more serious than Arthur has ever seen, and sends a man to collect them the next day.
“I guess you’re not so bad.” Arthur tells the Brit as they part at the airport.
“What is this mush, darling?” He grins, “Now give us a kiss.” To which Arthur promptly goes back to hating him.
Ariadne is bright, young, and not jaded like everyone else around her and Arthur wonders what if feels like to be such a bright light among thieves and con men and liars. He wishes he could ask if she ever questions what this will do to her soul -- he’s seen the small cross she wears around her neck, because dreams are not her salvation like the rest of them, they are her purgatory.
She sends Arthur a lot of ill-hidden looks and he doesn’t really have the heart to tell her that he isn’t interested in her or the rest of her gender. Arthur isn’t so conservative to deny one of the most basic parts of him, not that he needs or desires to act upon it very often.
Her small hands brush against his a lot in the workspace, and he thinks about what it would have been like if he had never lived this life -- if he could have married someone and settled down and been happy. He doubts there will ever be room for that in his life now, he and Cobb are just waiting on the timebomb on their freedom to detonate. They tip toe around every corner and live in hushed whispers.
And then there’s Eames. Eames who can have a booming laugh or quiet chuckle; the forger who changes his identity so much he’s probably lost track of himself over the years. Eames eyes evolve with the weather, stormy grey to calm blue, but he doesn’t stop smiling. Even if the rest of the world is frowning, Eames will be there with a stupid joke and everything will kick start itself.
“Why don’t you put the poor girl out of her misery?” Eames asks one night while they eat cold Chinese food in the workspace, watching Ariadne and Dom sleeping on the lawn chairs.
Arthur raises an eyebrow, “How do you know I’m not interested?” He asks mildly in return, keeping his expression neutral.
“I can tell if a man is having an affair by watching him for five minutes, Arthur.” Eames replies quietly, “And I’ve had years with you, darling, I know more about you than almost anyone else.”
Silence stretches out before them until Arthur looks over, “Then dazzle me with your deductions, oh Great One.”
Eames sets down his fork and looks the thin man up and down, “You come from money, given your high end fashion tastes, but you haven’t talked to your parents in years, most probably because they didn’t agree with you dropping out of college or your sexual preference or both. You enjoy the occasional cigarette, I’ve smelled the smoke on your clothes before, but mostly you wear nicotine patches on your back,” He says, tracing the lines of a square patch through Arthur’s designer shirt, “You’ve never been in a committed relationship, but you aren’t a virgin. You subdue your conscious by justifying your actions as for the greater good. You also have tried very, very hard to hate me, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do, isn’t it, darling?”
Eames' hips are a fraction away from his own, his breath warm against Arthur’s neck, hand still placed upon the younger man’s spine.
It happens like this: the room is dark and Cobb and Ariadne are asleep behind him, it smells like a wide array of Yusuf’s weird chemicals, and they’re both sweating from the lack of airconditioning, but suddenly their sweat is mixed along with their lips as Arthur pushes Eames onto the table, hands greedily grasping Eames wrists above his head, dominating at last in this power struggle.
Eames growls low, pushing them off the table and Arthur back against a wall.
“How long have you wanted this?” Arthur asks breathless, Eames' mouth concentrated on the expanse of his neck.
There’s a soft chuckle and Eames’ grey eyes are drinking him in, “Five minutes after I met you.”
“But you called me a stick in the mud!” Arthur exclaimed, pushing back in frustration.
“Which you still are, but I also said you were easy on the eyes.” Eames huffs like it’s the most obvious thing in the world and then reattaches his lips to Arthur’s.
They hear Dom and Ariadne stirring from behind them and Arthur jumps away from the other man, letting the ramifications of what he’s done seep into his mind, trying to ignore the encroaching worry of what could happen now.
He couldn’t make a life with Eames. Eames, who has seven different apartments, and can't save his money, and barely eats real food, and who he’s almost certain is in love with Arthur. He straightens his waistcoat and ignores the awkward air to the room before he can escape to go back to his own bed away from his emotions.
Arthur doesn’t do romance well -- he doesn’t like the messy, uncertain aspect of it. He’s avoided falling in love at all costs, because in this business there is no room for a guilty conscience.
That night he dreams of warm hands and gentle chuckles, and for the first time, he doesn’t want to wake up afterwards.
They pull off inception and Arthur thinks maybe they should get a medal or something, but instead they just get really, really drunk. Even Ariadne joins in, downing her shots with a lot more grace than everyone else. Cobb sits next to him, not happy per se, but healing. He smiles at Arthur.
“You’ve been a good business partner. Mal had good sense.” Her name doesn’t instigate the same heavy feeling now.
Arthur smiles back, “Did I keep you young?”
Cobb blinks and shakes his head in what seems to be disbelief, “Arthur, you keeping me young was never the point. She wanted me to keep you young.”
“But, how would you--” He looks up and sees Eames gazing at him, a small smile on his handsome face and it all makes sense. He doesn’t believe in karma, or destiny, or any of that bullshit, but it all sure still feels pretty planned out from where he sits in this dingy bar. “ Oh . Mal was a very intelligent woman.” He says, sipping from his glass carefully, glancing back to Eames.
“Yeah, she was. She wanted you to grow old with someone, the way she would grow old with me.” He gives Arthur a sad smile, “And I’m retiring, and I think it’d be a good idea if you did too, before you end up like me.”
Arthur nods in understanding, and pulls himself out of the chair and walks over to where Eames sits.
“You need to shave.” Arthur offers in greeting, running a hand along Eames’ cheek; it’s a rare act of affection and Eames leans into it.
“I think you could love me,” is the response and Arthur looks away to Cobb for a long moment, then turning back to the forger he smiles a little,
“Yeah, I think I could too.”