The Long and the Dark
We tired souls
On paths converging
The long and the dark
In you, I seek my reprieve
In us, a somethingness forged
She was being reckless. Arthur scowled as he clicked through the email from Simi and knew he shouldn't do it, but with a flurry of fingers over keys, did it anyway. The email was terse, perfectly punctuated, and professional. The fact that he was scolding Ariadne like a disobedient child was only well deserved.
Sometimes Arthur thought back to that first job with Ari— not the Fisher job, but the one after. He thought if that job had gone differently, she might have been okay. If it had turned into the shit show that the inception job had, or if it had even been the drudgery that jobs sometimes were, or if a single person on their extended team had been the asshole they could have been, she might have decided dreaming wasn't worth the hassle and found another high.
But it had been flawless— a perfect blend of heist thrill and camaraderie, and Arthur was glad he was part of the team that caused that joy in her face. But not if it meant her ruin later.
"Arthur?" came Eames' voice from the bedroom, and he snapped the laptop shut and padded back, still thinking of the stupid jobs she's been taking, and why the hell she was so determined to make it as hard as possible to keep her safe.
The sheets were warm, and Eames was warm, but Marrakech was boiling, so he shouldn't be surprised. He ran a palm down the skin next to him anyway and took in Eames' lazy smile.
"Wondered where you'd got off to," Eames slurred, stretching. "Something happening?"
"No," Arthur said, "just checking on some things."
Eames hummed and rolled closer. When he swiped a sleepy thumb across Arthur's cheek, Arthur knew it was where his dimples would normally be. Then Eames touched the lines between Arthur's eyebrows.
"Something's wrong," Eames murmured, but there was no concern in his voice. He was right not to worry because if there was a problem with the job, Arthur wouldn't hide it. He knew better, now. It had taken so many mis-steps over the years, but he trusted Eames. Not just enough to do this, whatever it was they were doing tangled in bed with each other, but he trusted him with The Job. There was no higher praise, in Arthur's opinion. Eames had reached peak Arthur approval status.
He gritted his teeth, but laid his head down next to Eames and tried to stop being so... fucking... concerned. "She's being reckless," he admitted, feeling like he was admitting too much, because of course Eames knew who he was talking about, and now he knew who he'd been awake and checking on.
Eames frowned, dropping his hand and rolling away. This time when he came back, he held a cigarette, and he propped himself up against the headboard to light it. Arthur watched the stream of smoke from Eames' pursed lips and moved to prop himself against the headboard also. Eames passed him the cigarette without being asked, and Arthur took a drag he could feel in his toes.
"You worried?" Eames asked, his voice light as he took it back. His lips wrapped around the filter and Arthur swallowed.
He wasn't as worried, here in bed with Eames. Being in bed with Eames seemed to make most problems smaller. He considered the logistics of running a job while being horizontal and naked for most of it and shelved it for later review.
He sighed. "I shouldn't have called her after the Fisher job. I should have just let her go back to school."
Eames passed him the cigarette and gave him a look. "She wouldn't have gone. You know that."
Arthur nodded. "Yeah, I suppose I do. Just needed someone else to say it, I guess."
Eames put his hands behind his head and looked thoughtful. "Do you remember your first time?"
There wasn't a trace of innuendo, but Arthur still snorted. "Yeah, Tyson Thompson. Handjobs at Pawnee Park in the back of his shitty Mazda."
Eames smirked and took the cigarette back, but didn't say anything, so Arthur sighed. "I try to forget. I puked for fifteen minutes after I woke up."
Eames grinned wider, the wonky, crooked grin of a man who'd just had a good time and was thinking of other good times. "Yeah. Took them forever to get a blend we could all stomach."
Arthur didn't say anything, too caught up in the memories of early dreamshare and the shit they'd had to wade through to stay sane. It was no wonder they'd lost so many team members.
"God, it was great though," Eames mused, and Arthur looked at him in surprise. He was staring at the ceiling, a twist of nostalgia on his lips.
"You remember it very differently than I do, then."
"No, I don't, pet," Eames countered easily, handing him the last of the smoke. "You loved it, or you wouldn't still be here."
Arthur had to admit that was true. But dreaming was different now. It was more of a drive; some required function that he needed and wanted, but not necessarily something he took pleasure in. A daily required dose of dreaming, all part of this nutritious breakfast.
"Ari loved it too," he agreed, "and it made me think that maybe..." he sighed and leaned over Eames to put out the cigarette and then stayed there, stretched over him, looking into those eyes. "It made me realize that you and I are pretty lucky to still be here. And sometimes I forget just how lucky we are."
Eames' expression was serious when he reached to cup the back of Arthur's head, pulling him down for a kiss. He tasted like smoke and heat, and Arthur wanted to get lost in him. They stopped talking for a while, and Arthur let Eames make it easier.
Arthur left his feet and his chest bare as he walked Eames to the door of his suite, and he kept scowling to himself over how he hated how fucking much he cared what Ariadne was doing. It's not your business, he told himself. So you're concerned, big deal. She's a colleague, it's normal that you have an interest. But chill the fuck out. Stop fucking obsessing.
He thoughtlessly reached a hand out to flip the collar of Eames' shirt down as he passed, and Eames jerked to a stop, his eyebrows climbing. Eames reflexively touched the collar too, his fingers mirroring Arthur's action and unnecessarily smoothing the fabric, and he had an odd look on his face.
What? was what Arthur was going to say, but Eames snaked a hand out around the side of Arthur's neck and pulled him forward. His plush lips met Arthur's, in a brief, warm, closed-mouthed kiss, gone before Arthur could react. A goodbye kiss.
Arthur blinked at him in surprise, but before he could say anything, Eames' cheeky grin came out and he used the American accent he'd been perfecting to say, "See you at work tomorrow, boss."
Arthur snorted and rolled his eyes, and he could hold together a British accent long enough to say, "Oi, fuck off," which made Eames laugh. Arthur watched him sling his coat over his shoulder and saunter to the elevators, whistling, and he closed the door, not really sure what had just happened.
When they were in the warehouse the next day, Eames was in work mode and Arthur followed suit. Their easy presence around each other was helpful for a job, and Arthur was grateful they could fall into bed when they needed to blow off some steam too. They had a day of going over recon plans for the mark they'd been working, and Eames had put in a lot of hours, even though Arthur had caught him looking preoccupied a time or two before snapping back into his prep.
Arthur had packed up to head back to his hotel suite while Eames was still hard at it, but he'd offered a distracted, "Goodnight, Arthur," when prompted. Which was why Arthur was so surprised when there was a knock on his door not long after he'd gotten back. He hadn't expected to see Eames that night.
He was even more surprised when it wasn't Eames through the peephole.
"Ariadne?" he asked, opening the door. She looked, impossibly, like she had been crying. He'd never seen her cry, not through all the shit they'd seen.
"Hi," she said in a small voice and gave him a wobbly smile.
He checked the hallway, all possible line of sights catalogued and mental notes of room numbers to check occupation of later before pulling her into the room. He tucked his handgun back into his shoulder holster, because he wasn't stupid, and locked the door behind her. "What is it? Are you alright? Are you hurt?"
She sniffled and shook her head, and he wasn't sure what she was saying no to.
Arthur frowned and directed her to the couch. "I'm getting you a drink. Just sit down and then you can tell me what happened."
She slumped there, looking exhausted, while he made a cup of tea. Damn Eames and his tea making habits which had seeped into Arthur's brain. But, like Eames himself, a cuppa seemed to make whatever it was you were dealing with a little bit easier.
"Alright," he said, settling next to her. "Tell me what's going on."
Ari sighed and wrapped her hands around the cup he'd given her and studied him, like she was weighing how much to tell him. Arthur sat and waited to pass inspection.
"I can't sleep," she said into her tea. Arthur watched her blow across the surface before taking a sip.
Arthur felt himself frowning. "Yeah, it's a side effect for some. When did your last job get over?"
She shook her head, looking cagey. "No, it's… it's all the time. It's been going on for a while."
Arthur said nothing, just stood and made a cup of tea for himself. She'd obviously been dreaming in between jobs, and his first instinct was to grill her— how much had she been dreaming, how often and for how long, whose compounds. But he reminded himself she came to him because he was a friend. And nobody liked condescension.
He sat back down next to her and they sipped their drinks. When she turned into him, tucking her head under his chin and pulling her feet up, he put his arm around her shoulder. He heard her sniffle, but he just finished his tea and ran his fingers down her arm soothingly. She smelled fantastic, and every time she shifted against him, he caught a whiff of her shampoo.
"What happens when you try to go to sleep?" he asked, trying not to think about how he just noticed how she smelled. Or how much he wanted to wrap her up and keep her safe. Or how he'd been thinking about her for a week and how he had known this was going to happen, and he didn't know if he could handle one more friend falling—
She sighed and shifted against him. "It takes me a long time to fall asleep, and I can't remember the last time I slept through the night." She pulled back to look at him. "I'm so tired, Arthur."
Her big brown eyes pled with him to fix it, and with a sinking feeling, he realized maybe she hadn't come to him as a friend. Maybe she came to him as a Point.
"What can I do to help?" he asked, putting on his work voice. He already knew he'd do whatever he could for her, consequences be damned. No one could resist that look.
Tears welled in her eyes before she squeezed them shut. "Arthur," she whispered, and he felt his heart seize. "Can… can I stay here tonight?"
"Of course," he answered, gripping her shoulder. "Of course."
"And…" she shifted again, embarrassed, "can you stay with me?"
Arthur stilled and tried to decide what the right answer was. "If that's really what you want."
She nodded, her head against his chest, her empty mug resting on his thigh. "I have bad dreams. I would really like… I mean, it'd make me feel a lot better to have you close by."
Arthur pressed his nose into her hair and took a deep breath. He nodded against the top of her head and she breathed out a sigh of relief.
"Of course. Not a problem." They stayed that way for a while, and Arthur knew it was a lie. He couldn't think of this as anything except a problem that needed to be solved, because if he thought about it as anything else…
Ari's stomach growled. Arthur smiled into her hair. "How would you feel about Chinese food?"
She breathed a chuckle against his shirt and he rubbed her back once more before letting her go. "I'll even buy," he said. "But you have to pay next time, and just to warn you, I'm an expensive date."
She smiled as he'd hoped she would, and it was almost okay again.
Later that night, when she crawled into his bed wearing a pair of his boxers and her own tank top, Arthur took a moment to remind his dick who is in charge. She was a friend, and he was her Point, and she was there for his help, he chided himself. It didn't matter if she looked soft and curvy and delicate. He made sure there was plenty of space between them on the mattress.
"Goodnight, Arthur," she whispered in the dark, and he swallowed.
At 3 am when she bolted upright with a gasp, scrambling back against the headboard, Arthur had forgotten she was in his bed at all. The gun from his nightstand was in his hand before he remembered, and he would have been annoyed at himself, but Ari hadn't noticed. She was too busy burying her head in her arms trying to muffle the awful, broken sound of her sobs.
Arthur shoved the gun in the drawer and crawled over to her, vague shushing noises coming out of his mouth as he patted her shoulder because he didn't know what else to do.
Ari took it out of his hands by turning to him and clinging for all she was worth. His arms went around her and he held her while her shakes subsided, his eyes closed tight and his heart still beating wildly. It was a while before he realized he was talking.
"It's alright, shhh, it's alright. I'm here. You're safe. You're safe. I'll take care of you. You're not alone. Shhh. I've got you."
When she finally stopped shaking, he tried to pull back, worried she would be embarrassed, but she clutched him tighter.
"No," she demanded, then softened. "Please. Stay. Just… just hold me. Please?"
Arthur swallowed at the vulnerability hidden beneath the surety in her voice and tucked her closer. "Not a problem." He maneuvered them down onto the pillows again, and Ari settled her head on his chest, one leg thrown over his thigh like it was supposed to be there. Her easy ownership of his body wasn't what he expected, but that didn't make it any less intriguing.
They lay there, Arthur listening to her breaths and the way she tried to slow them down. He could still feel the tension in her shoulders and back, and he ran his fingertips down them, trying to soothe her. "Do you want to talk about it?"
For a moment, he thought she wouldn't answer, which he supposed was answer enough. Then she said, "I feel so out of control." She sounded unsettled, like it was a revelation she hadn't wanted to admit, but then she shook her head, hard. "No. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to think."
She looked up at him then, her eyes large enough to fall into, but her voice was steel. "Make me not think, Arthur."
Her confidence in that moment, the determination of getting what she wanted and the power to get it, was what sealed it for him. If she'd been anything but his equal in that moment, he's not sure what he would have done. But the way she looked at him, her jaw set, her request blanketed in a demand, and the way she fit so perfectly against him, he didn't stop himself.
His hand cupped her jaw, tracing a line over her cheek with his thumb, and she sank into his palm. She ran her lips over the pad of his thumb, and okay, yeah, he could do with some not-thinking.
Arthur tipped her face up so he could look her in the eye, and her breath ghosted over his cheek. "You sure?" he asked, because he wasn't going to say no to this, not when it felt so eminent.
"Yeah," she said, and pressed their mouths together.
It was sweet and chaste at first, a memory from inside of a dream, but then Ari opened her mouth and her tongue touched his lips, and that spark he'd imagined every time he thought about kissing her sprang to life. He parted his lips and she captured his bottom lip in her teeth and Arthur groaned.
But when he rolled on top of her, pressing her into the pillows, he made sure to shove his emotions as far away as he could. She came to him because she was struggling and he could help. He could do this for her. He could be her Point. He could be what she deserved without needing anything else because he was the best. And because he knew how it felt to not be able to sleep.
He brought her to the brink of orgasm twice, once with his fingers and once with his tongue, drawing it out and making her curse at him. He did everything in his power to bring her out of her head and wind her up, and when she finally tumbled over the edge with her fingers fisted in his hair, he reminded himself this was for her and his heart shouldn't be doing those things.
Her small hand joined his as he found his own release, and the image of their combined fingers on his cock would be burned in his mind for eternity. But Ariadne as a languid puddle on his bed, a sated smile on her face and her hair spread over his pillow, was something he struggled to etch into his memory. He wanted to keep her that way for as long as he could. He was careful and quiet as he cleaned them up; the goal of this was sleep. But when he climbed back under the sheet, she reached back and tugged him closer despite the heat.
"Mmm, that was amazing," she breathed with her eyes closed, pulling his arm around her middle and snuggling back into him.
He left his arm there, his fingers spread over her stomach. "Yeah, it was," he whispered, but she was already asleep. Morning took a long time to arrive, but she didn't wake again, and as the sun was staining the sky, Arthur finally fell asleep too.
Arthur tried not to feel any kind of disappointment when he woke up and she was gone. She was the one who'd needed him, or needed something anyway. He was the one who had been helping out a friend. Or a coworker, anyway. It wasn't like it meant anything; it was casual. He could do casual sex. He'd been doing it with Eames for years.
Oh, fuck. Eames.
Arthur's stomach dropped and he dropped himself back on the bed. He didn't have to tell Eames, right? Because this was casual. It was casual for both of them. Eames obviously thought it was casual. Why would it be anything else?
Okay, just because I haven't slept with anyone else since I started sleeping with Eames doesn't make it exclusive, he reminded himself. Eames probably sleeps with tons of people.
The thought did not make him feel better.
He could tell Eames, if he wanted to. Just to be polite. Or clear, anyway.
'Hey, Eames. How's it going?'
[Insert random Britishism plus 'darling.']
'Haha, yeah, anyway, you'll never guess who stopped by for some casual and possibly work-related sex. Besides you, I mean.'
He dressed with efficiency and headed to the warehouse, a ball of something in his stomach that he didn't want to examine, and a heaviness in his chest he couldn't seem to shake. The short walk helped clear his head though, even if it made him sweat through his shirt in seconds. He resigned himself for a day of being uncomfortable in multiple ways.
But when he walked into the warehouse, Eames was already there, leaning against a desk and flipping through one of his files. Looking at Eames, between one breath and the next, the ache in his chest eased. Eames was here and any moment would turn and smile at him, and he knew Eames. He trusted Eames, enough to drop his guard, nevermind his pants. They'd never classified this thing between them, but it didn't matter. With a wave, Arthur realized that being with Eames released a pressure valve he didn't know he had.
"You're scowling, Arthur," Eames commented without looking up.
Arthur scowled. "No, I wasn't."
Eames licked a finger and flipped a page and smirked. "You are now."
Arthur rolled his eyes, and ran through several iterations of his test conversation in his head, discarding them all. Stupidly, insanely, really, he wished he could talk to Eames about it. Eames was good at looking at a situation from a different angle and finding the perfect pressure point to make it all fall into place.
He shook his head to clear it. He had work to do, which Eames was apparently already in the middle of anyway, and to be honest, he didn't want to talk about about it. He powered through and if everything felt a tiny bit off from yesterday, well, that was surely him projecting.
When he forgot to be awkward, and when he and Eames were both working at their respective desks, he fell into a rhythm that allowed his mind to wander. He was still worried about Ari. He'd already run so many checks on her, and there was nothing else he could do until she told him specifically what she was struggling with. Bad dreams was one thing. But she'd gotten his location from Simi, and flown down here, and shown up at his hotel room without an overnight bag, and you didn't do that unless something was going on.
Eames hummed and raised his head, his forehead wrinkling adorably and Arthur felt that same heaviness in his chest from before. He knew he should tell Eames, but first—
"Can you promise me something?"
In the blink of an eye, Eames was in front of him, grabbing his shoulder and looking him in the eye. His face was fearsome and more serious than Arthur had ever seen him. It scared him a bit.
"Arthur?" Eames asked, a thread of panic buried under his intensity. "What's the matter? What's wrong?"
Arthur blinked. "Nothing." He stopped his hand from raising to comfort Eames. "Nothing, why?"
Eames seemed to relax a touch and dropped his hand. He crossed his arms and shrugged like he hadn't been standing on a tripwire seconds before. "You've never asked me to promise you anything before, Arthur. I assumed you had cancer or some such."
Arthur huffed out a half-laugh and shook his head. "No. Just... can you promise me something? Is that something you can do? Do you… keep promises?"
Eames raised an eyebrow, his same relaxed facade in place. "I think I can promise one promise," he said, like it was a joke, but Arthur knew better. He was waiting for the shoe to drop.
"Can you just... call me? If you need me?"
Eames cocked his head and Arthur pushed his hand through his hair, probably ruining the gel and Eames looked alarmed again.
"I'm serious. If you ever need something, and it's something I can do, will you just call me? Maybe even if you're not sure if it's something I can do. I can, Eames. I can do so much shit."
He put his hands on his hips, angry in a way he couldn't articulate, and Eames was touching him, thank god, because he thought he might fly apart otherwise.
"Darling," Eames murmured, stroking his hair back into place and straightening his wilted collar. He wasn't holding Arthur; he knew Arthur had limits at the workplace, but Arthur was profoundly glad of his presence. "I will promise you that on one condition."
Arthur nodded, stiff. He should have known better, but yeah, if Eames needed collateral for a promise, or proof he could deliver first, he could understand that. Without knowing why, Arthur knew he needed this. He needed to know that if something happened to Eames, or to Ari, or hell, even to Cobb, or the kids, and it was something he could have prevented— he didn't know if he'd ever be able to forgive himself.
Eames' lips twitched. "Promise me that you will always take the call."
Arthur's laugh burst out of him, loud in the empty space, and Eames jumped before he relaxed into a smile, his teeth on display.
"You have yourself a deal, Mr. Eames."
And Eames did something he'd never done. He leaned forward and kissed Arthur's cheek, a warm, gentle press of lips and a soft caress of his thumb, which Arthur could feel for long after they were gone.
Eames was gone the next day for recon and Arthur spent most of the day on the phone with their chemist. He had been sending them supplies from Hong Kong but then halfway through the job had decided he needed more money, and Arthur was up to his elbows in this shit, trying to track down if anyone had gotten to him, and if it was going to compromise the job, and god fucking damn it, sometimes, not very often, but sometimes it would be nice to have another set of hands he could rely on.
He paused at that thought and checked his watch, cursing under his breath, and slammed his laptop shut. He ran back to his suite through the sudden drizzle that had picked up, kicking up the humidity and making him feel even stickier, and when he got to his door, sure enough, Ari was sitting in the hallway, leaning against the wall, her hair falling around her face and earbuds in place, looking for all the world like an adorably clean transient.
"Hey," he greeted, kicking her Converse. "You couldn't have called me?"
She jerked alert, pulling the headphones out and standing with a lopsided smile. "Hey. I don't have your number. I thought I might have missed you."
Arthur gave her a sideways glance as he swiped his key card and held the door for her. "Sure you do. I gave it to you."
She blinked at him. "No, you only ever gave me that one in Paris." She entered, placing a bag he hadn't noticed inside the door, and immediately sent in search of the tea bags.
"Yeah," he said, following. "That's the one."
She froze, tea and cups in hand, looking at him with incredulity. "You…" She trailed off, her mouth hanging open, and Arthur plucked the tea out of her hands and started the water. "You gave me your real phone number. Like, your actual, real life, this-is-the-number-I-give-people-I-know, phone number."
"Yeah," he smiled, "I did."
She scrunched her face in embarrassment and laughed. "Okay. I'm dumb. I'm… uh. I'm gonna need your number again."
Arthur chuckled with her and when she handed her phone to him, he typed it in. Then he handed her her tea.
"So," she said, blowing across the top, "what number should I call for work stuff?"
"Depends. Is that why you're here? Work stuff?"
He said it casually, sipping his own tea, but he was holding himself very carefully.
She faced him, and she was calm, but she knew what he was asking had weight. Good, he decided. He wanted to know where he stood. It wasn't in him to make decisions and not have all the information. Nevermind last night.
"Can this be two birds with one stone?" she asked.
Arthur rolled his sip of tea around in his mouth before swallowing, and placed his cup on the counter.
"What do you need?" he finally asked, because he honestly didn't know, and apparently answering questions with other questions was how they were going to be spending the evening.
She raised her chin. "I was hoping I could borrow your PASIV."
Arthur frowned and crossed his arms. "For how long?"
"Oh," she blinked at him, "I don't need to take it—" She broke off and turned to grasp the bag she'd brought in with her. Inside was a wooden box, and she set it on the end table. The hinged lid revealed rows of small, unlabeled glass vials. Somnacin. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth, from the look of it. "I just need you to look at something with me. Just a few minutes."
"Jesus," Arthur said, taking a step closer and looking at the vials. "Where did you get all of that?"
And then with a thud, he knew the answer before she said it. Their fucking chemist.
"Oh." He sighed. "Ari…"
Her shoulders stiffened at his tone and she glared at him. "What?"
He licked his lips and tried to re-phrase it before it came out wrong. "Look, if you had just called me—"
"Yeah, we already discussed why I didn't do that, and anyway," she snapped, "even if I'd had your number, I wasn't going to call you, okay?"
Arthur recoiled, stung, and tried not to let it show exactly how deep that cut him. "Why not?"
Her lips were still pressed in a thin line, but she softened a bit. "Because I want to be able to do this. On my own. Like you guys do. I chose this, and I can't go back, not that I want to go back, but…" Her nostrils flared and she put her hands on her hips. "Did you know I turned down an internship for this? A good one. A Parisian architectural internship. Do you know how rare those are?"
Arthur didn't, but he could guess.
"I was good at that. But I am good at this! And I could be great at this, but I can't—" She cut herself off and glared somewhere past Arthur's left shoulder. "Look. You said you wanted to help. So. Are you going to help me or not?"
Arthur looked at her, then took a step closer and looked again. Beneath her angry flush her skin was pale, and her eyes were dilated. The ends of her hair were dry, and the fingers perched on her hips hadn't stopped twitching since she got there. Ari backed up almost immediately.
Simi had said a lot of things when they'd talked, and— well. He'd heard a few different things about why that particular job went off the rails.
"Are you okay?" he asked her, his voice low and his eyes boring into hers.
Ari licked her lips and pulled in a breath through her nose. She looked at the toes of her sneakers and nodded. "Yeah, mostly. I just… I need to go under," she confessed. "I need it. And.. I need you to come with me. I wanted you to look at something. Three birds. Okay?"
He wanted to say no. He wanted to tell her to call them back and see if she could still get her internship. He wanted to tell her to wait another week to get over the worst of it and then settle down with a nice house and a nice dog and a nice, normal job.
"What do you need me to look at?"
The relief on her face was painful from his side, but she said, "You'll see." So he grabbed his PASIV and unspooled the lines, the way he'd done a hundred times, the way he'd do a hundred more. She settled on the couch and watched him set up the machine on the coffee table, her wrist already turned out and waiting. He ignored the sigh she gave as he threaded the needle into her vein and tried not to compare it to other sighs he'd heard her make.
"Ready?" he asked her once they were set up, and at her nod, depressed the plunger.
Arthur blinked his eyes several times because he thought there might be something wrong with them, but there wasn't. It was just that he'd never seen a dream in black and white before. He supposed it wasn't out of the question, especially if the dreamer was color blind or watched a lot of old movies, but he'd been in Ariadne's dreams before. He looked around.
They were in the middle of the woods, in a deer blind, and it was cold. He could feel it even through the down jacket, hat and gloves he had on. His breath puffed out in front of him. It was also unnaturally quiet. He wondered if there was no sound as well as no color, but when he turned to ask Ari, he could hear the rustle of his coat.
He paused when he saw her. She was holding a rifle like she knew how to use it, but she was shaking. Her eyes were saucers and she was staring at a spot in the woods adjusting and re-adjusting her rifle in her hands.
She didn't respond.
"What the hell is going on?" His voice sounded loud in his head, stuffy, like his ears were plugged.
He pressed a finger to his ear and shook his head, but Ari just shook her head, re-gripped her rifle and waited, watching.
He scanned the area, but there was nothing to see. There was no gun on his side of the blind, but he could dream one up if needed. But since there was literally nothing out here except the two of them, he didn't do anything but shove his hands in his armpits and try to parse out why it was so damn cold.
A flutter of movement in the corner of the clearing drew his eye, and his hearing wasn't so limited as to miss the intake of breath from Ari. A young buck entered the woods, cautious and beautiful, taking tentative steps and stopping to sniff the air.
"Oh," Arthur breathed, and he wasn't really a game hunter, but if they got to see these sights, he could understand the appeal.
He glanced at Ari and she had the rifle trained on the deer, but with the way she was shaking, there was no way she would hit anything. She licked her lips and shoved the rifle harder into her shoulder and when Arthur raised a hand to calm her, she breathed, "Shh," so quietly, he wasn't sure he wasn't imagining things.
He looked again at the deer, and a twist in his gut told him that something was very, very wrong. With a lurch, the deer stumbled forward like it couldn't control its limbs. Arthur could see there was something the matter with it, its eye white and pupil-less, and it staggered further into the clearing, its muscles trembling.
"Ari?" Arthur questioned, and at that sound, the deer snapped to attention. When it turned toward them, Arthur could see half of its face was rotted away, the bone of its jaw visible. Arthur reeled back even though there was nowhere to go.
The deer opened its mouth and a blood-curdling scream echoed through the woods. It was deafening. Arthur's hands flew to his ears in an attempt to block it out as it went on and on. Beside him, Ariadne was trying to do the same, while still keeping a hand on the rifle.
"What are you doing? Shoot it!" Arthur tried to yell, but whether she couldn't hear him or didn't want to listen, Ari didn't take aim at the deer again.
Arthur moved to grab the rifle from her, but another flash of movement made him stiffen and Ari re-shouldered the rifle, tears streaming from her eyes.
From behind the deer, Eames came through the woods. He was dressed in black tactical gear, with a full beard and a rifle in his hands and Arthur breathed a sigh of relief. Without preamble, he shot the deer and watched emotionlessly as it crumpled to the carpet of leaves. Arthur sagged at the sudden silence that fell along with the deer.
He withdrew his hands from Ari's rifle, and as Eames advanced toward them, he moved to get up. For the first time, Ari's eyes swung to him and she shook her head vehemently. She held him back as he half stood, half crouched, and Eames shouldered his rifle again. But this time, he was aiming at them. Then, he opened his mouth. The same ear-splitting scream from before rent the air. Ari broke into sobs and dropped the rifle, her hands flying to her ears, and Eames stepped forward. He pulled the trigger and shot her in the face, the scream still shaking the sky. Around him, the dream started to collapse, but not before Eames turned the gun on Arthur.
"Eames," he tried to say, but there was no sound now. Nothing but the crack of the rifle, and the split second of agony before he woke up again.
His heart was racing as he bolted upright on the couch, and it took several deep breaths and wiggling his fingers in his ears to ease the aftereffects of the dream. He could see Ariadne out of the corner of his eye doing the same, bent almost in half as she tried to catch her breath and Arthur reached for her hand without thinking. She clutched his back, and he held on, a lifeline.
"Holy shit," Arthur gusted, rubbing his face to get rid of the lingering tingles. "Is it always like that?"
He already knew the answer, because Ari in the dream knew exactly what was going to happen, and the direction Eames and the deer would come from, but he didn't know how else to get her talking.
She nodded. "In my natural dreams, lately, yeah. But it's getting worse. And on this last job, the deer showed up every time I was the dreamer."
Arthur blinked at her. "Fuck."
Arthur dropped her hand to take out his IV and Ari did the same. He started repacking the lines and disposing of the sharps, giving himself something to do while his mind worked.
Nightmares were common ground for those in the business. When he'd started in the military, there was a guy who'd had clown projections which freaked everyone out. But Ari's dream had left him shaken in a way dreams normally didn't, and he tried to pin down why. Arthur could admit to himself that Ari's projection of Eames spooked him; his sudden appearance, the scream, him shooting them. But more than any of that, it had been the look in his eyes. It wasn't that he'd never run into a malicious projection before, it was just that none of them had been Eames.
He blinked at himself and snapped the PASIV case shut.
"Is he always like that? In your dreams?" Arthur was glad his voice sounded normal when he asked, and Ari was… blushing?
"Yeah, mostly," she said, her cheeks a definite pink. Arthur raised an eyebrow.
"I mean," she said, "there have been a few natural dreams where he's been… um… a lot more friendly?"
She wasn't looking at him as she said it, and Arthur couldn't quite swallow the grin on his face. "Yeah, I can understand that," was all he said. He'd had a few of those dreams about Eames himself.
"But that Eames…" Ari shuddered, and now she wasn't blushing. "He's following me now. Even when I'm not the dreamer. He showed up in that job in Tokyo, and it was…" She sighed and looked at Arthur, finally. "It scares me. I'm not sure why he's the bad guy," she admitted. "Sorry. I know you guys have been working together a lot and you're sort of… friends."
Arthur dipped his head, a small smile on his face. "We're… yeah. We are. Friends."
Eames— easy, fun in bed, hard-working and capable Eames. Trust was a hard-won thing in this business, and Eames had, against all odds become a source of comfort for him. A trusted friend. Arthur sought him out, looked forward to jobs with him, assumed they would be together during the job. Arthur had never felt unhappy about their casual relationship. He just hadn't really thought about what it would be like if their relationship suddenly… wasn't like that anymore.
Arthur always known they wouldn't last forever because when "The One" came along, the one for whom he would want to quit dreamshare and settle down, Arthur had planned on cutting all ties. But now, looking back at the veritable lifetime of memories he'd built with Eames, he hoped a real relationship, a long term one with anniversaries and promises and everyone going all in, would be half as good.
He looked at Ari in front of him, more settled now with a dose of Somnacin in her veins and a promise of help. She tucked her hair behind her ears, adorable, and warm, and he didn't know what their relationship was yet, but he knew he wanted more— maybe even anniversaries and promises. He wanted that with her. She was worth trying, anyway. He knew wanted to be more than just her Point— he wanted someone to be able to come home to. He wanted to be home for someone. He looked at her coming out of the dream, and all he wanted to do was pull her into his arms and kiss away the last of the fear away. And just like that, he needed to know if he could. If she would let him be that person for her too.
"Ari," he said, turning to her and wishing she didn't feel so far away. He hated barreling in without a plan, but sometimes the best things in his life came from doing just that. He took a breath. "When you said this was two birds with one stone… I think I need to know what you meant by that. Because I… " He broke off and huffed a laugh at himself, dropping his head. "I don't think I can do last night again and not have it mean something."
That was it. It was sink or swim. Ari held all the cards and she probably didn't even know it. He had never put himself so fully in someone else's hands, and it was terrifying. His hands curled into fists without his say so and he was holding his breath.
Ari uncurled herself and came closer to him. Her forehead was ruffled when he looked up at her and there was a small frown on her face. "Arthur," she said, and grabbed his hands in her smaller ones. "God, of course it meant something. Did you think I was just using you? Because I couldn't sleep? Like, oh, hey, I could take an Ambien but instead, I'll just go see if Arthur wants a quick fuck. Same difference."
She looked angry, but her hands were still in his and he held on. That was when he realized he hadn't been scared of her saying no. He had been scared of her saying yes. Of what it would change.
"I came to you because I care about you," she said, softer. "And I thought you cared about me."
"I didn't—" Arthur blinked at her. "You never said. I mean, I do care about you. I wanted to tell you, to see if we could try this. Actually, really try this. But I wasn't sure what the rules were and—"
"The rules?" she questioned. "Arthur, how many relationships have you been in where there are established rules?"
He gaped at her and floundered. "Not… I don't know, none of them? All of them? I don't know."
"Arthur, how many relationships have you been in, period?"
It was his turn to frown. "I do alright, thanks."
She gave him a condescending look and he would have been upset but she scooted closer. "Come on. Tell me. I'm not talking about your hookups, although I wouldn't mind hearing about them," she teased. "I'm talking about what a relationship means to you. And what you want in a relationship. Feelings, and caring about people, and them caring about you. You know. Relationships."
Arthur felt himself scowling now. "I don't know. I didn't know this was going to be a quiz. I didn't bring a list."
Instead of scowling back, her smile looked fond, and with an odd sense of deja vu, Arthur stilled as Ari ran her fingers over the crease between his eyes.
"I'm only asking, because I was wondering about Eames."
Arthur froze. "Eames?" he asked, his throat tight.
She nodded. "How long have you guys been together?"
Arthur swallowed. "How… uh, what made you think we were… uh, together?"
Ari rolled her eyes and laughed. "Seriously? You guys aren't exactly subtle."
For a split second, Arthur thought about denying it, but then a memory of Eames flashing him a smile over a blueprint, and another of the self-filling coffee cup at Arthur's elbow as he worked, and a smile flitted over his lips.
"It's been a long time," he conceded, his voice quiet. Then with a sinking feeling, he realized that it was over now. If he was with Ari, if he was going all in, if he wanted promises and anniversaries, it meant it would all stop— the casual touches, the easy trust on a job, the way Eames just… was. An unfailing constant in his life.
With a start, he blinked at her and straightened. "I mean, obviously I'll end it. So we can be together," he offered, trying to ignore the way his stomach was tightening. Ariadne was worth it. She cared about him, and he cared about her, and they could actually make this work.
Ari looked floored. "Jesus, look at you," she said, taking Arthur's face in her hands. She searched his eyes. "You really would. You would do that for me." She sounded awed. "I don't know if I should be honored or insulted."
"Arthur," Ari said, "I care about you. Didn't you hear me? I want you to be happy. I don't want to take things away from you."
"I don't…" Arthur frowned and shifted awkwardly, feeling off balance. "I don't know what you mean by that."
"I mean," Ari said patiently, "that Eames makes you happy. And I was hoping, if it's okay with the two of you, that I could have a chance to make you happy too."
Arthur wanted to says something smooth or witty, but he just blinked at her and tried to understand.
"I don't…" Arthur tried again, "I don't know what you mean by that."
Ari laughed, wide and happy. "I mean an open relationship, if you want it. No endings, no judging, just more. More of everything. And, I guess," she said, "I'm asking for you to be honest about what you really want."
Arthur shook his head, dazed. "I… I've never… really thought about it?" He pulled back from her a bit so he could run a hand through his hair. He needed space for a moment, to breathe, and think. She made it seem simple, when he knew it must be anything but. If it felt too good to be true, and all that.
Abruptly he stood and made his way to the mini bar in the suite, and dug through the tiny bottles. He tossed one back, grimacing at the burn and letting it warm him on the way down. "I don't want to be insulting," he said, "but I guess I always thought an 'open relationship' is just what people called it when they wanted an excuse to cheat on the person they were with."
Ari shrugged. "It's a little insulting, but I get it. I suppose it can look that way from the outside, but I look at it as a way to avoid cheating, actually. As long as we're open about what we want, and discuss things beforehand, I know that you're not going to throw away everything just because something alluring or unknown comes along. And," she said, catching his eye, "I'd hope you'd want that for me as well."
Arthur sat back down on the couch again and took her hand. "What do you want? Is an open relationship what would make you happy?"
Ari, for the first time, looked at him with regret and then looked away. His fingers tightened on hers and she squeezed back.
"I want everything, Arthur."
Her voice was quiet, and sad, and Arthur's heart clenched. "What do you mean?"
She heaved a small sigh. "I mean everything. I want so much it scares me," she confessed. "I want it all. I want to dream and be an architect, and be married but also never be married, and have kids and also never have kids. I want to be treated like a professional in this business, but," she smiled, "I never actually want to grow up. I want so much, Arthur."
"What's wrong with that?"
She squeezed his hand again. "People don't get to have it all. Not even if you're in the business of making dreams come true."
Arthur was quiet for a moment, absentmindedly running his thumb over the back of her knuckles before he said, "I'd like to try."
She looked at him weary and wary at the same time.
"I'd like to try to make as many of your dreams come true as possible," Arthur said, this time with more confidence. "And the ones I can't make come true, I still want you to be able to have them come true." He lifted her hand and kissed it. "I would never want to take anything away from you either."
Her return smile was a bit wobbly as she tried to swallow tears. "You think I'm silly."
Arthur shook his head, once, his eyebrows slamming together. "I don't." Then he softened and looked at his watch. "I do think you're tired though. It's late. It's been a long day. Will you," he fumbled, unsure of how to word this. "Will you come to bed with me? Let me hold you?"
Her smile was bigger this time, brighter. "I'd like that. I'd like more than that, but you should talk to Eames first," she said.
He smiled at her teasing and nodded. "Yeah, I will."
She went to bed before he did, because he, as it turned out, had some research to do. In the early hours of the morning, he perused sites about open relationships and polyamory, and hoped. Later, when he curled around her in bed, she snuggled back into him and he let himself bury his nose in her hair and just breathe.
She was there when he woke, sleeping with her hair spread out on his pillow and her mouth hanging open, and Arthur's heart felt too small for the feelings that were rioting in his chest. He slid out of bed to keep from waking her and dressed with care, the flip of his single windsor knot grounding him and adjusting his focus once more. He pushed out a slow breath.
Her sleepy voice broke the silence and he wasn't sure she was fully awake when he went to her side. "It's okay. You're okay. Go back to sleep. It's really early."
"Mmm," she hummed into the pillow with her eyes closed. "You got it, boss."
He ran a hand down her side because he couldn't help it and because he thought maybe he could do that now, and she wiggled a bit. She snuck one eye open and smiled at him and he smiled back. He grunted when she grabbed his tie and pulled him down though. He braced himself over her and she placed a light peck on his lips. She looked so much better after a full night's sleep, and he pecked her back, relieved.
"You'll call if you need anything?" he asked.
She nodded yes and let his tie go, trailing it through her fingers.
"Be good," he said, straightening, and she shook her head no, an impish smile on her face.
He grinned back at her and grabbed the PASIV and his laptop before he headed out the door.
It was nice having that at his back as he headed into the warehouse, but as he stood there, a tray of coffees in his hand, he dreaded the conversation in front of him. He hoped Eames would be in before the coffee got cold, but it was a tame peace offering and he knew it. Because this conversation he couldn't avoid.
The light filtered through the window, the dust motes dancing in the morning sun, and he waited, hands clasped between his knees, for the end. Or maybe, perhaps, although he didn't dare to consider the possibility head on, the beginning.
"Arthur! You got coffee?" Eames swung into their work space in his usual style, his own tray of coffees in his hand. "We should be well set on drinks for the morning, anyway. Unless you were secretly trying to give me a caffeine overdose?"
He was jovial, calm, and sure of himself, and Arthur couldn't help but relax a bit at his presence.
"Oh, no, sorry about that. I was just trying to…" He trailed off with a vague hand gesture and watched Eames set his tray on the desk next to Arthur's. Eames gave him a funny look and picked up Arthur's coffees to read the labels.
"Trying to what?" he asked as he took an experimental sip, smacking his lips.
"Do something nice, I guess," Arthur mumbled, dragging his eyes away from Eames' lips and clearing his throat.
Eames stilled at that, his all-seeing eyes settling on Arthur and looking right through him. "Something nice, eh?" he mused and moved closer, keeping the drink Arthur had gotten for him.
Arthur had never felt more guilty in his life, and as he was a professional criminal, that was saying something. "Eames, I… we need to talk."
A light dimmed in Eames' eyes and broke Arthur's heart into shards. A too-tight grin stretched over his face and he leaned his weight on one hip. "Uh oh. Sounds serious," was all he said, but Arthur knew he needed to say this now and say it right because in Eames' mind, this conversation was already over.
"Yeah, I— " he started, but that was as far as he got.
"You've met someone."
Arthur winced because this was not at all how his practice conversations had gone, but he should have known better. Eames was too observant. "Well, sort of," he said, dragging his hand through his hair and mussing it. "We'd already met. It's Ariadne."
Eames gave away nothing, but Arthur had known him for a long, long time.
"Well! That's alright then, congratulations," he said, his voice light, and his posture locked into 'casually uncaring', but his eyes— his eyes held a thousand emotions, which was how Arthur knew he'd hurt him.
"I will miss your arse, darling, I must admit."
"Still hope you'll call me for jobs, though. Nothing like working with the best. For you, I mean."
Eames' teasing grin faded as he shifted his weight, finally, into a semblance of normal, and Arthur wanted to shake him. Eames sighed.
"Yes, Arthur. What is it."
Arthur scowled at him, which probably isn't the expression he should have been using for this conversation, but god damn was Eames frustrating.
"I was trying to tell you it's not a traditional relationship."
And now Eames was the one who looked frustrated. His lips were pressed together and his eyebrows drawn, and if he were Eames he would probably know how best to navigate this conversation based on those clues, but he wasn't. He was just Arthur. So he gave his own sigh and took a step closer.
"Do you know anything about polyamorous relationships?"
With a blink, Eames' face cleared and then he threw his head back and laughed, long and genuine. Arthur didn't know what that meant and was trying not to be insulted as he waited for Eames' laughter to die down.
"My god, darling, you… look at the bags beneath your eyes," Eames exclaimed. "You probably stayed up half the night researching poly relationships, didn't you?" He grinned, his posture actually relaxed and took a sip of his coffee. The one Arthur had bought him. "Go on then. What does Wikipedia say we should do?"
Arthur scowled at him. Of course he'd researched it, it was the responsible way to make decisions. "It didn't say anything. I'm… I wanted… God damn it, Eames. I don't know how to say this stuff. I just," he broke off, pressing his lips together in the face of Eames' smirking chuckle. "Stop laughing. I DON'T WANT TO LOSE YOU, YOU STUPID ASSHOLE."
His voice was too loud, echoing around the empty space, and Eames' smirk dropped. He licked his lips and put the coffee back down on the desk, running his thumb around the lid. Arthur watched him pop the lid off and walk it to the sink in the corner. He dumped the whole thing down the drain and walked to the trash can. "That would imply," he tossed the cup in, "that you had me to begin with," he tossed the lid in.
A wave of numbness washed over Arthur, and with a sinking feeling, he opened the lid of the coffee Eames had bought for himself.
"Tea," Arthur said, and sat back on the desk, defeated. "You drink tea in the morning."
Eames didn't reply, just walked closer. "Arthur," he said, standing in front of him, "you're a bit of a selfish prick."
Arthur nodded at the floor, feeling like he might throw up, and wondering how he could have possibly considered this going well.
"Luckily for you, I already knew this about you. Because I'm in bloody love with you, Arthur."
Arthur didn't react for a second, just blinked at the floor again before looking up.
"And unless it's about a job, you're obviously not a great communicator. Because you've always had me. I just didn't know I had you." Eames had his hands in his pockets and he looked a tad annoyed. "Might have been nice to know."
"Wait. Eames, what?"
"Being selfish and a bad communicator are both problems in a poly relationship, Arthur."
"Eames," Arthur said, wonder and awe in his voice.
"So I hope Ari knows what she's getting herself in for, yeah? Because I can only do so much to keep you in line."
Arthur launched himself at Eames, who caught him with an "oof," and Arthur was raining kisses on his face, only half of them landing anywhere near Eames' mouth.
"I fucking," Eames kissed him, "love you," kiss, "Arthur, you dumb," kiss, "shite," kiss. "And I will have a poly," kiss, "relationship with you," kiss, "I will have whatever you fucking want," kiss, "because…"
"Shut up, Mr. Eames," Arthur gasped, scrabbling with Eames' shirt to get at skin.
"See? Bad communicator, I told, mmph!" Eames got cut off as Arthur kissed him breathless, and Eames kissed him back, enveloping him, his hands pulling Arthur to him as Arthur fought with a belt and zipper he couldn't see.
It wasn't pretty; it was fast and messy and fucking hot as hell, having Eames' hands down his pants as they stroked each other off, Eames' tea knocked over and spilling all over the documents Arthur had spent days pulling. Then Eames came with a shout, and Arthur realized he was panting, "I love you, I love you, I love you," into Eames' temple as he thrust into Eames' fist and spiraled after him.
Eames had leaned him back against the desk, which had scooted across the floor, tea and papers scattered everywhere.
"Jesus," Arthur breathed, his limbs shaking. "Jesus fucking Christ."
Eames nuzzled under his jaw and left a trail of kisses as he tucked Arthur back into his pants. Arthur just held on and waited for his legs to hold him up again.
"You're a proper mess, now, darling," Eames chuckled, his breath husky and deep.
Arthur closed his eyes and swallowed. "Yeah," he said, hugging Eames closer. "Yeah, I am."
Eames breathed with him for a minute, then Arthur could feel his smile against his neck, and he could feel it when Eames' shoulders started to shake with laughter. Arthur smiled in return, pulling back so he could see the gloriousness that was Eames happy.
"My god, darling," Eames said, pressing a thumb into Arthur's dimple. "I thought the heavens had opened when you said, 'polyamorous relationship,' all posh and proper."
"Yeah?" Arthur asked, subdued. "Is that… is that really what you want?"
But Eames just smiled at him. "I want you however I can get you, Arthur. I already assumed I was sharing you. I just want you to keep coming back to me. Can you do that?"
"God, yes," Arthur said, and pulled him down for a kiss. "I can definitely do that. And I'm sorry about the coffee."
"I'm sorry about the tea," Eames said, grinning at the desk, which said he wasn't sorry at all. Arthur grinned back, because he wasn't either.
They got cleaned up as best they could, Eames swiping at the spilled tea and Arthur swiping at his ruined slacks. And shirt. And Eames looked spotless, the fucker. Arthur was going to have to adjust his technique if they were going to be doing this at work now.
"Hey, we're not just going to start doing this at work now," Arthur warned Eames, tossing wadded napkins in the garbage and ignoring the way Eames' thighs strained against his pant legs as he squatted to pick up papers.
"Mmm," Eames hummed like he hadn't heard Arthur at all, and Arthur scowled.
"I mean it. Look at me. I need to go back and change."
"Alright," Eames said, standing and stacking the papers on the desk again. "I can come with you; we can talk on the way."
"Oh," Arthur stilled. "Um."
Eames perched a hip on the desk and crossed his arms, waiting.
"See, the thing is…" Arthur faltered.
"What's the matter, Arthur? Trouble communicating?"
He said it knowingly, but patiently too, and Arthur had to smile. "Yeah, okay. Let me try that again?"
Eames gave him a condescending nod and Arthur took a deep breath. "Ariadne was there when I left. I don't even know if she's still there, I just didn't want you to be uncomfortable around her, or," he gestured vaguely, "or whatever. But you should probably know: she got my hotel room from our fucking chemist, who we should absolutely fire, by the way, and who is now convinced he should be earning more because Ari is probably paying out the nose for the batches of Somnacin she's buying from him."
Eames sat up a bit straighter, concern on his face now.
"She's been dreaming in between jobs, and she's got a shade that's following her. She's not sleeping naturally, and she came to me for help. We slept together, once, and I… I care about her, and I want to help her, and I could actually use your help if…" Arthur stopped and drew a hand through his hair. "Shit, sorry, that's a lot to ask of you. Nevermind, you don't have to."
Eames cleared his throat. "Alright, that was a lot. Mine turn now."
"I like Ariadne. I don't have any problems with her. I am glad if she makes you happy, and I don't mind being around her. Does she know about me?"
Arthur nodded. "We might not have been as subtle as we thought."
Eames snorted. "I was never subtle."
"That," Arthur acknowledged, "is probably true."
"Alright, then. What's all this about a shade?"
"Well, that part is a little weird. It's you."
He explained the recurring dream that Ari didn't seem to be able to control, and the projection which looked like Eames.
Eames frowned, thinking, and a part of Arthur relaxed. It meant Eames was willing to help. Eames was still here, and, miraculously, still his, and he was going to help him fix this. He's right, Arthur realized. I'm a selfish bastard, and he is way too good for me.
Arthur was in Eames' space, his arms around him, before he could stop himself.
"Well, that was a short-lived rule," Eames joked, and Arthur smiled but didn't let go.
They stood in the warehouse and held each other, and Arthur couldn't make the words come out, but Eames seemed to understand anyway.
"It's alright," he murmured into Arthur's hair, "we'll get it sorted," and Arthur had to work past the lump in his throat before he could respond.
"I'm supposed to be the one saying that."
Eames didn't say anything, just ran his hands down Arthur's back and let Arthur settle.
"Tell you what," Eames said when Arthur finally pulled back. "Let's pop round and we can ask her some questions. Maybe it's less about the PASIV than we think."
Arthur's eyebrows drew together at that, but he just nodded and texted Ari. She replied that she was still at the suite and they were both welcome.
"We're both welcome?" Eames said, shrugging into his pristine jacket with an eyebrow raised. "That's what she typed?"
"Um, no, it was a little more… colorful. But that's the basic gist of it."
Eames smirked but didn't ask and Arthur buttoned his jacket to cover the worst of the mess. It was a short walk, and with Eames at his side, casually sipping the coffee he'd gotten Arthur, it felt… nice. Like he imagined walking home from work would feel, if he lived the kind of life where he did that sort of thing.
Ari opened the door before he could finish swiping his card.
"Hi," he said, feeling suddenly shy around her as she stepped back to let them in.
"Hi," she chirped back, like she was teasing him, and he smiled. Then, reflexively, he looked to Eames.
Eames was watching them with a small smile on his face. "Boy, this is really new for you two, isn't it? Hello, love," he said, bending to kiss Ariadne on the cheek and she leaned up to accept it.
"Hi, Eames," she said, looking pleased to see him. "It's good to see you again. Did Arthur give you the rundown?"
"About the two of you, or about the fact that I'm apparently your Freddy Krueger?"
"Both," she said happily and lead the way to the couch. "So, are you guys okay, then? I didn't ruin anything?"
She looked a little nervous under her smile as she drew her feet under her and picked up her cup of tea she'd left steeping on the coffee table. Eames sat in one of the chairs and Arthur stood awkwardly, hoping this would get less awkward at some point. Because he didn't quite know how to behave.
"Um," he said, shifting, "no, I don't think anything is ruined. Eames?"
"Just your suit, darling," he said with a lecherous wink and Arthur felt his face flame.
"Ah, yeah, I'm going to…" he said, backpedaling to the bedroom, "I'll just… you two can… I'll be right back."
Eames grinned at him and Ariadne's eyes swept him from head to toe, her eyebrows raised and Arthur fled before she could ask him anything. Christ, this was just going to be weird, wasn't it? He'd always prided him on if not being confident, then at least sounding confident. He sighed and grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Well, at least some part of him should be comfortable for this.
When he exited the bedroom, both Eames and Ari's eyes widened, but they didn't say anything. There was a strained silence in the room.
"Everything… okay?" he asked.
Eames cleared his throat first. "Right as rain." He rose from the chair he was sitting in and came to Arthur, brushing a kiss on the corner of his lips on his way past. Arthur forced himself not to stiffen, and Eames, for his part, made the kiss familiar without being territorial. It felt… right. Arthur allowed himself to relax.
"I'm just going to use the loo."
Arthur nodded, Eames holding his gaze, and he didn't know what Eames was looking for, but he must have seen it because he moved past him and closed the door behind him.
When he looked at Ariadne, somewhere between confused and bowled over, she looked like she was holding back a laugh.
"What was that about?" he asked.
She smirked at him and turned to point the remote at the TV. "I think he likes your outfit." She flipped through channels as he settled on the couch, a little space between them.
Arthur blinked down at himself. "He does?"
He said it mostly to himself but Ari answered anyway. "Can't say I blame him. You look very snuggly, Arthur." She grinned at him and selected a channel, setting the remote down. "What do you say to watching a movie? Eames said he had some questions about my dreams, but I'm a little wrung out. Maybe we can talk after?"
The door to the bathroom opened as Ari finished talking and Eames came up behind them. "Sounds perfect, love. What are we watching?"
Ari leaned forward to push play on a spy movie set in the 60's, and Eames moved to sit on the couch next to Arthur.
"Shove over, darling," he said, his thigh making a long line against Arthur's, and Ari turned her legs the other way so she could lean into Arthur. And just like that, the three of them were occupying the same couch, watching a movie which was kind of perfect for all of them, while Ari burrowed under Arthur's arm, and Eames' arm draped on the back of the couch. Arthur smiled to himself. As the movie progressed, Ari rested her head on him, and he leaned into the curve of Eames' body, and for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, Arthur felt whole.
He dropped a kiss into Ari's hair and felt Eames' fingers against the nape of his neck, and he tilted to give him better access. The simple play of fingers against his skin would normally have been enough to distract him, but Eames kept it comforting and the movie was engaging, and Arthur just let it warm him all over, a happy sigh escaping him. Eames mimicked the sound a second later, and then Ariadne followed suit. Arthur knew he was grinning like an idiot and he didn't care.
When the movie credits started rolling, none of them moved, and Arthur found himself holding his breath to see what happened next.
Eames broke the silence, although they all stayed sitting, facing the silent screen. "Ari?" When she hummed in acknowledgement, he asked, "Would you tell me more about the dream? The one Arthur saw?"
She paused before she began, like she was gathering her thoughts, and Arthur didn't expect to hear anything he didn't already know, but he was wrong.
"It's always in the same place, the woods behind my house where I grew up. I'm in our family's deer blind, this crappy plywood one my grandpa built a thousand years ago, and I've got my dad's deer rifle. I know it's my dad's because the scope is loose and it slips if you're not careful, so you have to hold it real still."
She was getting tense as she talked and Arthur found himself drawing her a little closer, running a soothing hand down her shoulder. Even Eames took his fingers from Arthur's neck and stroked them gently down her hair.
She drew a shaky breath and pushed on. "The deer enters the clearing first. It doesn't see me, and I don't want to shoot it, but I know I have to or my dad will be so mad, but if I do, then I'll have to field dress it, and I don't know which is worse. But it turns, and… it's already dead. And when it sees me, it starts making this noise."
Arthur pressed his face to her hair and she pushed back against him, bracing herself. "It screams," he clarified for Eames, but Ari turned to look at him, confused.
"It screams? No it doesn't. You heard it scream?"
Arthur frowned. "Yes. What does it sound like to you?"
She closed her eyes and settled back against him with a shudder. "It's awful. It's like this… coughing, wet, bawling sound, like it's suffering and dying, terrified and alone."
They were all silent for a few minutes, Ari surrounded by Arthur, and Arthur surrounded by Eames.
"And then?" Eames prompted.
She blew out a breath. "And then Evil Eames shows up." She raised a shoulder and let it drop. "I don't know why it's you, but at the same time, I know it's not you. Even in the dream, I know it's not really you."
"I didn't," Arthur whispered, almost to himself, and Eames squeezed his arm. Arthur looked at him and Eames gave him a supportive smile and ghosted a kiss over his forehead.
"Then I try to shoot Evil Eames," Ari continued, "but he's faster than me no matter what I do, and he makes the same sound right before he shoots me. In the face." She shook her head. "Jerk."
It lightened the mood a bit and Eames huffed a little laugh. "Well. That seems like a lot to unpack."
Ari shrugged again, sitting up a bit so she can look at Eames. "Most of it isn't hard to figure out. Like the deer and my dad's rifle— that really happened."
Arthur cocked his head and he could feel Eames make a similar gesture.
"When I was a kid, my dad took me hunting with him," she explained. "It was probably a normal childhood thing, but I remember that first deer being fucking traumatic. I was a little girl who had grown up on Bambi, and my dad's shot dropped it but didn't kill it right away." She made a face. "That was the sound it made, and you could probably hear it for miles. And I remember thinking, if I was that deer's family, that sound would break my heart."
"Seems like you've got some topside stuff leaking through," Arthur offered.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when it's cold topside, you're inevitably cold in the dream. When you have to pee, it starts to rain," Arthur explained with a shrug. "In your dream, the main theme is the fear. That's prevalent throughout."
Ari didn't look impressed. "So when I have some deep, dark phobia topside, a guy I worked with one time comes and shoots me in the face?"
Arthur shrugged. "The mind projects all sorts of things. It's how we interpret them that makes them matter."
"Hmm." Eames didn't say anything else and Arthur let him think, waiting for him to start poking holes in what he said. It doesn't bother him anymore; it's his job to give Eames a springboard to launch from. As long as he's pointed it in the right direction, they usually get where they need to go.
"Can I see your Somnacin?" Eames finally asked, and Ari nodded, rising to get it from her knapsack.
He examined the small, clear bottles one at a time. "What's in them?"
Ari looked at him oddly. "Somnacin."
They both stared at her. "Yeah," Arthur said, "but what's in them? Like, what compound?"
She frowned, frustrated and confused. "How the hell should I know? I just asked him for a batch and told him how much I could pay."
Arthur felt his hands ball into fists as Eames stiffened beside him. "Didn't he ask you any questions? Like what you were doing with it, or how many people were—" Arthur broke off to draw in a calming breath. "Eames, remind me to kill that dumb fuck."
"Indeed, darling," Eames murmured. He rose to face Ariadne, returning her box of Somnacin. Arthur was relieved to see her take it back with care, like it might explode if she jostled it too much.
Eames smiled. "Well, Ari, you were not around for the beginning of this like Arthur and I were, so you do not know the pain of watching chemists trying to find the right mixture. But this is all relatively new, keep in mind. It's not like this is MHRA approved or anything."
"He means FDA," Arthur explained at the confused look Ari shot him.
"Oh," Ari said quietly. "Well, I feel stupid."
"You're only little," Eames said softly.
"He means new," Arthur explained.
"No," Eames said with a smile. "I mean small. You probably need a lesser dose, or a different compound altogether if you're doing a run on your own. You're getting a buildup in your system."
A light seemed to dawn in Ari's eyes, and Arthur watched with amazement as she threw herself at Eames, hugging him with all her might.
"Oh my gosh, Eames! Do you think so? Is that it? Is that the answer?"
Eames chuckled and hugged her back and Arthur stood, watching Ari's hopeful expression over Eames' shoulder. "I don't know for sure," Eames stressed, "but I can call Yusuf tomorrow and see what he thinks. Maybe he can get you something custom, and I'll trade you for what you've got here. That way you're not out anything."
She looked like she might cry with relief, so Arthur was glad Eames kept holding her, Ari stretched up on her toes, her arms thrown around his neck, and Eames' muscular arms wrapped around her like they belonged there. The twitch in Arthur's pants was unexpected but definitely understandable. They looked good together.
Ari finally pulled back, a little shy, and then looked at Arthur. He held open his arms with a small smile and she did start to cry a little as she staggered to him. He held her, shushing against her temple and let her vent her frustration and fear into the shoulder of his Go Army t-shirt. When he made eye contact with Eames, Eames winked at him, which shouldn't be something anyone looked good doing, but it was Eames, so of course he did. Arthur smiled.
"Hey," he said , rubbing his hands down Ari's arms. "Hey. Let's take a break. Yeah?"
She nodded and rubbed the heel of her hand against her eyes, laughing a little at herself. "Yeah. Sorry."
"No, don't be," Arthur insisted. "I want to be here for you. Okay? I want that."
Ari looked unsure but nodded, and Arthur grabbed her hoodie. "Here. Let's get out of here for a while."
She took it but said, "Okay, just let me splash some water on my face."
She headed to the bathroom and Arthur glanced at Eames.
"You two look good together," Eames said.
"Funny," Arthur admitted, "I was thinking the same thing about you."
Eames waggled his eyebrows with a smirk and Arthur couldn't help but laugh, and when Ari rejoined them, they both smiled at her.
The three of them, Arthur in his jeans, and Ari in her tank top, and Eames, oddly enough looking professional and put together, visited the street stalls that were everywhere in the city. They bought kabobs, and pointed at things that caught their eye, and Eames haggled with vendors. Arthur held Ari's hand until she gasped and darted off toward a stall selling scarves, and then Arthur and Eames held hands. They wandered, doing tourist things— a rare luxury, actually, and something Arthur didn't indulge in often. Ari wasn't the only one who needed a break, and Arthur soaked in the sun, and the scenery, and this rare opportunity.
Eventually, they ended up at a streetside cafe sipping sweet mint tea at a table outside, Arthur watching the exits and Eames watching the people, and Ari watching the two of them.
"You guys don't ever really switch off, do you?" she asked, a touch of awe and a touch of worry in her voice.
Eames was the one who answered. "Oh, occasionally," he winked at her, then went back to watching people walk by. "But I enjoy this part. The part where I get to steal the little bits of people they don't realize they give away. I tuck them away, you see," he said, tapping his head, "and I'll use them in a forge some day. And it'll be a swatch of some bloke from Marrakech, and a dash of another from Mombasa, and Cobb's walk, and your nose, and one of Arthur's dimples." He squinted at Arthur. "The… let's see. Left one, I believe."
And Arthur smiled at him.
"Mmm. Definitely the left."
"And what about you, Arthur? You just love looking for security cameras? Can't get enough of it?"
Arthur shrugged. "I don't realize I'm doing it unless I'm sitting someplace I can't see what I need to see. So I just make sure that doesn't happen. Then I'm fine."
She looked at him over the rim of her glass. "Is that something I have to look forward to?"
Arthur shook his head, frowning. "Not unless you plan on joining an experimental task force in the military and spend far too many nauseating dream sessions trapped and looking for a way out."
Eames looked at her. "Ever notice how all of Arthur's designs are big? Open, sprawling— even his closed loop buildings have giant doorways and open balconies."
She blinked at Arthur. "Huh. That's why Eames was the one to put the air ducts in when you were helping me build the Fischer labyrinth— because you couldn't do it."
Arthur gave a half-hearted eye roll. "I could have. I just didn't want to."
Eames gave Ari a knowing look. "I've just known Arthur a long time."
"Yeah, I know," she said softly. She leaned across the table to grasp Eames' hand. "Thanks. For sharing him."
Eames raised her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles, a slow, sensual kiss. "You're welcome, love."
Ari blushed, and Arthur might have also. He cleared his throat. "So. I have a fear of not being able to see the exits, Ari has a fear of zombie deer. What's your fear, Mr. Eames?"
Before Eames could answer, Ari looked at him like he'd gone insane. "I'm not scared of zombie deer!"
Arthur frowned. "Yes, you are. You even said so. You told us it was traumatizing."
Ari rolled her eyes, which was annoying and adorable. "Jesus, Arthur, I was a child. Of course it was scary then, but I'm not scared now. I've been hunting my whole life; I know how to kill a deer the right way, thank you very much, and, in case you've forgotten, there's no such thing as zombies."
Arthur opened his mouth to retort, but Eames was laughing, so he snapped it shut. "Alright, fine. But I was right about the bleedthrough, wasn't I? From being scared topside?"
He was looking at Eames, who turned his glass of tea on the tabletop, making a pattern with the rings and still smiling.
"Yes, I think you're right, darling. But what if it's not as easy as deer or exits, hmm? What if it's a fear that sits a bit lower down in your gut— one that weighs on your mind when it's dark and you're alone— the one you don't want to think about?"
Arthur stilled, his tea sweltering in his hand, a bead of sweat working its way down the small of his back. Probably everyone has a fear like that, he told himself, but that didn't stop the way Eames' eyes cut him to the bone, like he saw Arthur's soul and knew all his secrets.
A glance at Ari told him she was deep in introspection too, a dazed look on her face as she stared into her glass, swirling the mint leaves. But when he looked at Eames, all he saw was a smirk. A cool facade in place as he went back to studying the swirl of humanity around them. What is yours, then, Mr. Eames?
For Arthur, he'd been faced with it too many times to not recognize it as it crept up the back of his neck in the dark. Single people probably felt it more than most, he supposed, but the fear of being alone was one of the reasons he'd clung so tight to Cobb when he should have let him go. It was why he kept track of Eames, and Ari, and why he still sent the occasional email to they guys from his command. Because being the last one standing amidst a pile of your friends' bodies was the worst thing he could imagine, and it happened in dreamspace all the time. Because watching everyone else fall, one at a time, and having to keep going—
He shuddered despite the heat and blinked. Ari looked a little pale when she licked her lips. "I'm scared I'm losing control."
Her voice was cracked, and Arthur reached out his hand to grasp hers on the table. She held on.
Eames gave her a sad smile. "Yeah. I get that."
Ari tried to smile back at him and grabbed his hand too. "Yeah." Because out of everyone, Eames probably did.
They sat there like that for a while, Eames watching people, Arthur watching exits, and Ari watching them.
When they got back to Arthur's suite, Ari said she wanted to take a shower and Eames pulled out his phone. Arthur watched as he dialed a number, trying not to eavesdrop but being unable to avoid it in the small space.
"Yusuf! You bloody bastard, how have you been?"
Arthur listened to Eames bullshit for a while before he got around to the real reason for his call. He explained they needed a custom blend for Ari, just for recreational or solo test run dreams, something lighter, without a sedative preferably, and if Yusuf could work on something less or non-habit forming, that'd be worth the extra cost. He listened for a while, nodding even though Yusuf couldn't see it, and then walked to the bathroom door. The water had shut off, but Ari hadn't appeared.
"Ari? How much do you weigh?"
"328 pounds," came the muffled answer from the other side.
"I need to know, love, it's for the Somnacin. I've got Yusuf on the phone; he's the one asking."
The door cracked and Ari's hand snaked out, open and expectant. Eames sighed and put his phone in it. The door closed again.
"Arthur," Eames said, and Arthur looked up from the documents he'd opened in an attempt to get something done with his morning, which was futile and not really assuaging his guilt anyway.
"Everything alright?" Arthur asked when Eames didn't continue.
In response, Eames moved to sit in the chair opposite him, chewing his lip and studying him. "What's yours?"
Arthur leaned back in his chair. "What's my what?"
"Ari's is control. What's yours?"
Arthur scoffed. "Thought you'd have that all figured that out."
Eames just looked at him. "No."
Arthur studied him back. "Being alone," he finally said. Eames didn't react and Arthur sighed, his hand giving a helpless gesture. "I've been on a lot of teams, and in the end, I always make it out. Not everyone else has been so lucky. It's probably because you were right, and I'm a selfish prick, but every mission, every job, every dream, I'm sure I'll turn around and no one will have made it out behind me."
Eames nodded at his shoes. "I suppose I should have known that. 'S why you always check up on everyone. Make it easier for everyone to get out."
They stayed there, quiet a moment, until Arthur finally asked, "What's yours?"
Eames looked at him then, inspecting him, and Arthur waited because this wasn't an easy question. This was a lot to hand over to someone who walked around in your head. He could wait for Eames. Eames had waited for him.
"Sort of the same," Eames admitted.
Arthur couldn't help but scoff a tiny bit. "You know more people than God," he said, but gently.
"Yeah, but do they know me, though? That's the question."
Arthur was very quiet for a moment, letting that wash over him. Eames was other people for a living. It made sense that he would want someone who knew him, someone he could come back to to remember himself when he forgot. A reboot point.
"I know you."
Eames smiled at him, a fond look Arthur wasn't sure he'd ever been allowed to see before. "Yes. You do, darling."
"I promise I'll always know you."
Eames' smile widened. "I promise I'll let you get me out."
The bathroom door opened and Ari stepped out, redressed and wet hair slicked back, Eames' phone in hand.
"He said he'll have it ready next week."
Eames straightened and took his phone back. "Good. Think you can wait that long?"
Ari's eyes flickered to where Arthur had stored the PASIV, but she nodded. "Yeah," she said, letting out a breath. "Yeah, I can try."
Eames nodded back, his face kind. "Good," he said again, softer. "We'll get it sorted, don't you worry. Arthur and I, we'll keep you right."
Something tightened in Arthur's chest watching them, and he stood to face her. "Ari, I promise, I won't let you lose control. We know a lot about this business, and these drugs, and I…" He looked at Eames. "We," he corrected, "are here for you. We'll hold you together if we have to."
She hugged Arthur then, her arms around his waist and her face against his tshirt, and Arthur hugged her back. Seconds later, he felt Eames enveloping both of them, his strong arms around their shoulders and their foreheads forming a triangle.
"You know," Arthur said, his voice soft and warm, "I never would have planned it, but this… it's good. Right?"
Ari hummed her contentment and Eames nodded. "We make a good team, pet."
Now, there was a thought. Arthur moved one of his arms to wind around Eames' waist and he could feel Ari doing the same. The three of them stood, supporting each other, and Arthur let himself imagine what it would be like to be a team. Being a team in dreamshare was one thing, but a team in general? A team in life?
Arthur swallowed. "Seems like a dream come true."