Disclaimer: Inception is not mine, though I might wish that this was not the case. I duly pledge to forward all royalties to Nolan, though.

Dedication: To all those who love Arthur's style.

Note: This is my first ficlet for this fandom, and indeed my first fic for a good while. It is, sadly, un-beta'd so constructive criticism is more than welcome. At the moment this could go anywhere or nowhere so if you have any feelings about that either way you know what to do. *cough* review *cough*.

(i) Perfectionism

No, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Arthur.

Cobb had known Arthur for years.

Nearly seven years, actually, and that was a damn long time in this business. The kind of business where the phrase 'ditch the spare' cropped up more often than 'hello'.

If you wanted to stay in the game, you had to be the best. Then you had to know the best and choose the best. He'd worked a single job with Arthur and he'd known that he'd struck pure gold. Punctual, thorough, ice-cold, Arthur was a dream in and of himself. Mal didn't seem to resent his involvement in their private duo. Arthur seemed to know when to keep himself a little to one side, when to speak, when to vanish and slide the door closed behind him. It seemed to just work.

Cobb found himself delegating responsibility without even noticing.

Maybe: you take the PASIV;then, you pick the base, Arthur. You know what we're looking for. Next: You tail the mark, or, Cover my back, before: You go on in ahead and see what's what, and, What's your take on this one? Who should we get in for the con?

Soon Arthur's opinion started to count more than his own.

Soon it was always: May I take this moment, before we get down to anything, to introduce you to Arthur? He's my Point.

Soon, Look after her, Arthur. She's everything to me. A dark nod and Cobb could relax. Mal would be in safe hands.

Soon he was under their skin like a PASIV needle - silent, unobtrusive, and indispensible to the Dream.

It was nearly a year before they realised that they really didn't want anything else. Their partnership had started to garner quite the reputation. Cobb with his imagination, his risks; Mal with her fire, her genius; Arthur, their steady, meticulous Second.

There were those unspoken rules after jobs: scatter and lie low for a few months. Every transient team member could at any point prove a sudden liability. You detached, you kept an ear to the ground, and when the coast was clear you made yourself available again.

When the Cobbs disappeared it was to their family, eventually to their kids. When Arthur disappeared it was completely. No last name, no number, no permanent mail box. Yet when there was a job on the horizon and Cobb started to think about how to get in touch, there he would be all of a sudden. His cabbie in LA would slide a piece of paper along with the receipt, "for you, sir. Said he was a friend" A number, written in Arthur's singular curlicue.

Maybe the red flag would be up on his suburban mail box. A missed call from an unknown number would pop up on Mal's blackberry. Once, Dom had spun round in shock when a miniature envelope had suddenly materialised in the breast pocket of his jacket.

Arthur always knew when he was needed, always found them.

They'd start to have fun on the job, maybe get a few drinks into him, try a game of Monopoly in which he'd play the boot, hogg the yellows and greens and make a packet on the stations, eyes narrowed in comical concentration.

Mal sometimes tried to coax information out of him; sometimes he'd loosen his tie and tell her a story about a small town in Michigan, sometimes about an old sheepdog called Seymour. Dom first saw the cigarette burns on his chest after a close call with a Jericho 941 had caused him to take off his shirt and white wife-beater. Nothing was said about that.

Another year past, and it was almost a friendship. Still nothing too much, just hints and flavours of a person behind the professional facade. Then, when he'd heard the news about the pregnancy, he'd pumped Dom's hand for all it was worth before pulling him into an unexpected hug. He'd sent peonies to Mal in hospital, while he and Dom had tied up another smooth job.

Then he'd disappeared for longer than usual.

Dom found himself in the kitchen, discussing the next prospective extraction with his wife as she mixed up a bottle of SMA for the infant Philippa, gurgling in her Moses basket, and he'd mentioned Arthur's name as inevitably as his own. He'd paused there, suddenly plagued by a doubt: What if he didn't like the arrangement as much as they did?

He'd turned to his wife, tapping his ballpoint on his knee. What if, one time, Arthur simply didn't reappear?

Naturally he did. This time in person, leaning against the white picket fence at the end of the drive, collar of his Burberry mac pulled up against the breeze. Mal had exchanged glances with her husband and gone out to meet him, holding a china tumbler of hot chocolate and pulling her Breton cardigan close.

She'd asked him how he was, and he'd shrugged a 'fine'. She said that they'd missed him, and he'd asked about the baby with an unreadable expression, something distant and maybe slightly wary in his eyes. She'd smiled slowly, "she's beautiful", and she'd asked him to be godfather as he'd raised the drink to his lips.

His eyes had crinkled with the grin that had threatened to crack his cheeks and he scalded his mouth on the hot chocolate causing him to swear colourfully in between her laughing and his broad smiles. "But not with that kind of language!"

After that, they'd received a permanent number and a zip code, while Philippa received a golden locket for her christening. He'd even told them his last name.

They'd brought Eames in on a job not long after. Mal was home with the baby, and they were in Vegas.

Cobb was frowning at the white board, tugging at the hair at his temple with one hand as his other traced out the careful choreography of cons that intended to fool Tycoon's Wife and Tycoon's Wife's Yoga Instructor/Potential Adulterous Lover at the same time.

Arthur was pouring over glossy snapshots of the rather weasely-looking man, propping his weight uncomfortably on his knuckles as he leant over the table. He looked up with a dour smile, "Remind me why simply catching them in flagrante with a long-lens wasn't enough?" Afterthought: "I have a fedora."

Cobb snorted briefly but didn't bother to answer, "We need a thief. I can't cover the whole extraction this time and I need you to work with me on the set-up with the wife."

"Eames". Cobb could tell from the thinning of his lips as he said the name, that Arthur was passing on the reference perhaps against his better judgement.

"Eames? Never heard of him." That seemed to please Arthur somewhat if the little smirk was anything to go by.

"Rich British bastard. Tourist gone pro. The man's a clown, but… " This was as Dom was pulling his you're-not-exactly-selling-this-guy-to-me face, "but he's pretty damn good at what he does. He's dabbling in forgery last I heard, and not half bad at that either." A pause. "Plus, he's in town for a wedding."

Cobb paused thoughtfully, eyeing the diagram again, "A forger… Now, there's an idea. Maybe you'll get to use the long lens after all."

Arthur was already ahead of him, sliding the photos back into their manila envelope with a tight smile. "Great. Keep this guy out of it altogether this time. Impersonate the Yoga Guru, set up a date, maybe even let her do all the suggesting. Then get to him disguised as her, repeat the instructions and tip off the husband. Not as neat to split the job, but certainly safer. Much more control for us."

Cobb nodded, "Ok. Get this Eames in. You'll have to haggle him down on the cut if he gets opportunistic. That last fool was a flake and a rip-off."

"Done and done." Arthur was already moving away, sweeping his coat from the back of the chair, sheathing his charcoal suit in calico.

Cobb was tempted to follow, perhaps to see one of Arthur's notorious cloak and dagger ways of making contact, but by the time he had moved to the door, the calico frock coat was gone.

Cobb secretly liked Eames, but would never say so. He didn't want Arthur to think he was anything other than completely on his side. But relentless teasing aside, Cobb thought the guy had charisma that was hard to ignore.

It was chalk and cheese, and utterly self-perpetuating. The more Eames teased and made free with his cheeky wit, the more uptight and serious Arthur seemed, the more his quiet sarcastic humour went unheard. The more slovenly Eames dressed, the more Arthur seemed to be a pall bearer at a state funeral by comparison. The more Eames bragged and goaded, the more Arthur seemed to take himself desperately seriously. And so it went. Arthur, ever severe, had hardly cracked a smile in days.

The more Eames dealt out, the more ammunition he seemed to rake in for the next volley.

The job went off without a hitch.

Ironically enough, even when Eames seemed likely to prove the worst kind of careless cowboy in the business, unwilling to listen to even the most fundamental strategic discussions without some infuriatingly flippant contribution, Dom couldn't help but completely trust him to pull off his part (which of course he did, and some, when he pulled the Yoga Yogi into a lip searing kiss…)

Why? Because Arthur had recommended him, of course. And Arthur would never jeopardise a con.

So, Eames settled himself firmly into the category of doing a job in style, rather than simply slapdash.

And Arthur looked liked a paranoid old woman by comparison. Which Eames of course duly pointed out at every opportunity.

Especially when he found out that Arthur kept all his notes in triplicate.

And colour-coded.

But Cobb would know - and Mal, who had seen him burping the baby Philippa until she puked all over the back of his Saville Row tweed with dark eyes shining with unadulterated contented joy – that really, no matter what Eames had to contribute on the matter, their Arthur had absolutely nothing wrong with him.

Note: To anyone confused, I've naughtily switched the chapters round. I don't know whether disrupted chronology is better or not. You tell me, I guess! I hope you like it. I worry my style is a little heavy and difficult to read, so crit is more than welcome. You tell me what you'd like to see and where you'd like it to go! I really hope someone enjoys! xxx