Disclaimer: Don't own. Don't sue.
A/N: Yes this is a five times story, namely, five times Arthur and Ariadne failed at dating. Because studying for finals makes me crazy.
1. Have a Drink
She pulls at her skirt, tries to smooth the material down to an appropriate length. Next time, she says, she'll be the dreamer and Eames can be the one in the ridiculously short dress.
"He probably wouldn't mind." Arthur says, amusement written a little too clearly on his features as he watches her downhill battle with her hemline. "He's got an impressive collection of distractions."
She's not going to ask how he knows that. Instead she bites down on the stream of profanity that she wants to let loose, "I don't doubt it."
She spies Eames over by the bar, where tonight, he's playing the part of the mark's girlfriend (for all that they can do in dreams, nothing will ever throw her as badly as the sight of Eames pretending to be a leggy blonde in a sequin mini-dress and somehow making it look classy).
"You're distracting." Arthur says nonchalantly, tipping his drink towards himself, scanning the crowd for the mark. She crosses her ankles primly, the fingers of her left hand still curled around the bottom of her dress to keep it in place. Her right hand toys with her glass (the taste of the gimlet inside fades too quickly but the weight of the glass is just right in her hand), and she grins. "It's never just: you look nice with you, is it?"
Arthur doesn't look at her (their mark's found Eames at the bar, that's Ariadne's cue to make trouble, turn his mind towards the secrets they're here to collect). "Where's the fun in that?"
2. Dinner for Two
She invites herself. Arthur doesn't say anything when she follows him into the cab but he doesn't stop her either and that's as good as an invitation as far as he's concerned, she's sure of it.
The hostess doesn't ask for a reservation at the door, motions for them to follow her to a corner table where they have a clear view of their mark, one Richard Olivares, suspected of selling trade secrets to the competition.
"So this is what you do? Sit and observe, like a stalker?"
"That's one way of putting it."
"It's the only way of putting it."
His smile, when it reveals itself, is thin but genuine. He looks expectant, and she wonders if he's waiting for the obvious question: Did you follow me?
But she doesn't.
Because he takes his job as seriously as he takes suits, there's no point in asking. Of course he followed her, a stranger coming into their fold of thieves (it's a game she plays by herself, retracing her steps with all the practice of a dreamer looking for a beginning. She wonders where he's hidden in those memories—in cafes and bookshops and in crowded hallways—hiding in plain sight. Her own personal Where's Waldo. She hasn't found him yet).
"What about before this? What did you do then?" She asks, watches his jaw relax and his shoulders fall out of their clean line as he leans towards her, elbows on the table like her mother always chided against. There's a conspiratory look to his eyes, like he's about to tell her a secret.
"Give you three guesses." (He's a tease.)
She strikes out on army ranger and intrepid reporter, still has a guess left when Olivares stands up abruptly, a crisp bill on his table and his phone already rising to his ear. Arthur watches his movements like he's not watching at all, tracks him over her shoulder and out the restaurant door.
He gives her an apologetic glance as he pays for dinner, "We should do this again sometimes," he says, "Stalking optional."
Then he leaves. She doesn't follow.
3. Walk in the Park
She steals a kiss.
There's no real excuse for it. No one is watching them. Her projections remain docile on the garden grounds she's constructing for the next job, but she does it anyway. It's a schoolyard kiss; his mouth is still warm and soft against hers.
"What was that for?" he asks, mouth a bemused twist, and she shrugs. "You owed me one."
(When they wake, he takes the lead out of her arm. "Guess we're even now." He says lightly, sweeps his thumb over the puncture mark, touch fleeting like a kiss.)
He buys her a cup of coffee at the air port. It's overpriced and too sweet. She drinks it anyway. They make small talk while they wait for his boarding call. LA to Philadelphia. She stacks packets of sugar, makes a leaning tower he knocks over with a tap of his pinkie.
"We could see the liberty bell." He says, like it might be the most important thing she'll never do. She imagines them together, playing tourist, tries to picture him in khaki shorts and a fanny pack, a lonely plant guide to the city in his hand. The picture refuses to form and she wonders if it's a result of sharing her subconscious with him as often as she does.
He raises his eyebrow and it's almost expectant.
She opens her mouth, fishes around for something clever to say. Okay springs to the front of the pack, okay but you're buying me something at the gift shop—
"Tempting," she says with a grin she resents, "but Paris calls." Paris and an apartment she hasn't seen in six months pushing on seven. Paris and friends who still call to inquire whether she's among the living, who will notice when she fails to arrive (and it's a relief, to know she would be missed outside their world built out of dreamt escapades).
She manages to stack twelve packs of sugar before they tip over.
5. Morning After
She falls face first onto her bed and is swallowed whole by down. Outside the sun is rising, the streets milling with smartly dressed professionals beginning their days without the stillest idea of the heist that's just been pulled. At least corporate espionage never dulls. There's an entire world folding in on itself inside her head and that's where it's doomed to stay. She yawns at her own internal monologue and kicks off her shoes, listens for the heavy thud of each boot hitting the floor before she pulls her limbs in close. Hotel rooms are always too cold, she thinks, inhabitable (she knows that no matter how long she does this they will never be home), and she wiggles on the comforter until she's managed to fold it up over her.
There is the same feeling of being incredibly small here, the last traces of post-job adrenaline fading into a heavy feeling in her head, like her mind's beginning to catch on to the fraud the last hour and a half of sleep were. Real sleep finds her there, in her self constructed shell.
She dreams and wakes with the fading sensation of falling, the deafening sound of air rushing past her ears. There's a second's disorientation, her right hand already curling around the imperfect weight of her totem before she realizes it's not the irregular echo of the dream that's still beating away inside her head.
She disengages herself from her wrap to a room full of the bright unfiltered light of midday. The knocking at the door continues; a quick sharp sound that beats out in an even rhythm. It's Arthur; of course it's Arthur, standing in her doorway (her hair is snarled around her hair tie and her eyes are stuck together with sleep. Her tongue is heavy behind her teeth and there's Arthur, impeccable as usual).
"Did I wake you?" he asks unnecessarily, and she doesn't know how to respond to the obvious. He shifts, suddenly uncomfortable at her silence, "I was wondering if you'd eaten."
She blinks blearily. Shakes her head, yawns a negative in response. She looks down at the wrinkled hem of her dress, her thick woolen socks sagging around her ankles. The air in the hallway is somehow even colder than her room and she shivers, her skin breaks into goose bumps.
"Wanna come in?" She rocks back on the balls of her feet, pushes her hair out of her face. "We could order room service," she grins around the invitation, "Lunch on Saito."
He nods, a smile opening up across his mouth, "Okay."
He follows her across the threshold and she leaves him staring at her mused comforter while she goes to brush her teeth. She doesn't close the door and he comes to stand in the doorway, watches her work her toothbrush into a foamy mess. "You look nice." He says, simple sincerity written across his face—and there, a self-congratulatory turn beneath the self-consciousness of the gesture. For all his efficiency, his timing is terrible.
Something twists in her chest, giddy and light; and she can't help it, she laughs as she rinses.
His smile is wiry against his features, tucks itself into his cheeks. "Don't mention it."