Eames came in late—not unusual—and carrying a box of kittens.
Arthur put his cup of coffee down. He wasn't going to ask. He was sure the entire point was for him to ask. Once, in Cairo, Eames had patted him repeatedly on the shoulder to emphasize some point that they had both drowned a long time ago at the bottom of a bottle, and said, "No, no, but you—you need shaking up, darling. You do. You're like—" and he'd licked his lips and tried to draw something in the air with his hands, some shape that was apparently meant to convey the utter unflappability of Arthur but which really looked more like a drunk man waving his hands around in a bar. "You do," Eames finished. "And I'm going to. Just as soon as I have another drink."
That had been four years ago, but Arthur remembered: he wasn't falling for the kittens.
No matter how cute they were.
"Hello, all," Eames said.
Arthur nodded and continued to not ask about the kittens, though he was beginning to get irritated with everyone else for not asking either, since as far as he knew, Eames had never drunkenly vowed to spend the rest of his life attempting to rattle them. He risked a sideways glance and saw that they were all too busy gaping open-mouthed—even Saito, which was genuinely bizarre—to articulate any questions. That was just pandering to Eames's ego, honestly. He sipped his coffee.
Finally Dom said, "Why do you have a box of kittens?"
"I'm glad you asked," Eames said, taking a moment out of his busy schedule of being irritating to shoot a meaningful glare at Arthur, who—having a lot practice in that area—ignored it. "This box of blatant cuteness was just outside the door when I arrived."
"Late," Arthur murmured.
"Yes, Arthur, certainly that's the most important aspect of this morning."
He lifted one shoulder in an attempt to indicate that he was too disinterested in this to even shrug properly, but he must have smiled as well, because, damn it all, Eames abruptly beamed at him and put the box of kittens down. Ariadne and Yusuf, having less investment in appearing nonchalant, went over to look, and a general "aww" sound arose from the vicinity. Even Dom and Saito drifted over. Eames raised a questioning eyebrow at Arthur, who judged that his complete lack of involvement in this had been sufficiently proven by now. He gave a long-suffering sigh and went over to look at the kitties.
Kittens. He meant "kittens."
There were six of them, eyes just open, crawling all over each other and them collapsing, wobbly-legged, into a heap. Arthur hid his mouth behind his coffee cup. Dom cracked—having children made you soft—and said, "That is—that is the cutest thing I've ever seen." Saito nodded, looking somewhat blindsided by the whole event. One of the kittens licked one of the other kittens on the ear.
Arthur made a stifled sound in his throat.
Eames looked over. "Arthur? Thoughts?"
He took a quick drink. "They're certainly cats," he said evenly.
"Kittens," Ariadne said absently. She picked one up. It tried to crawl up her arm.
Saito gave in, too, and picked up a gray, almost cloud-colored kitten, which stayed still and seemed content to lie in his arms.
Then it was apparently free-for-all, everyone-take-a-kitten time, because everyone just started snatching them up from the box, and Arthur didn't know why he didn't either just ignore this Christmas-morning rush or else wait until there was only one remaining kitten, but somehow, his eye had been caught by one particular cream-and-orange kitten, and he didn't really want anyone else to have it, so he dove in, too.
When the dust settled, everyone had a kitten, and Eames was wearing a little self-satisfied smirk.
Arthur ran his hand down his kitten's back. It was very soft and warm.
He started to say, "We aren't going to keep them, you know," and then couldn't.
In an attempt to be practical and not just stand around saying kitties! like everyone else, Arthur found some milk in Yusuf's refrigerator, next to a variety of chemicals that he was sure no one should ever give to kittens, and poured some into a beaker. Eames watched him with interest that he tried to ignore while he let his third-best handkerchief soak up some of the milk. Then he began to feed his kitten, who sucked with wide-eyed delight on the end of the milk-sodden handkerchief, and then everyone was staring at him instead of their kittens, and Dom said, "No, that's the cutest thing I've ever seen," grinning, and Ariadne cooed, and Eames took a picture with his phone.
Ariadne named her kitten Daedala, which, okay, was a little obnoxiously on-the-nose, but she couldn't help it. When life gave you an opportunity like that, you couldn't just toss it aside.
Daedala was an explorer: she prowled around the immense basement they were using and Ariadne's tiny Parisian apartment with equal interest, intent on getting into every nook and cranny, and apparently perfectly capable of going boneless in order to slip through cracks in floorboards. Ariadne would leave her in the bedroom and find her on the kitchen table. She also had a fascination with balls of string that would under no circumstances be discouraged, and, if left to her own devices, would unroll one in long, looping, almost labyrinthine spirals across the floor. She took an interest in everything—the other team cats ("We're not calling them that," Arthur said), the team, the smell of brick dust, the saucers of milk, the PASIV, her hair, her sweaters, everyone's shoes.
At night, she curled up next to Ariadne's stomach, and purred.
Saito named his kitten Smoke and would translate the name to whatever language he was speaking at the time: somehow, Smoke always understood him, and would come when called, calmly and on soft and soundless feet.
Smoke was quiet. He never howled or cried, even when Saito had to take him home and away from his brothers and sisters—or the kittens that he had been left with, at any rate, because they did not really look very much alike, any of them. He traveled well, and did not mind planes, though Saito arranged things well enough that he could always stay prowling around in first class.
When Smoke slept, Saito felt sure that he dreamed.
"I met an extractor in Reykjavik," Arthur said. "And she—"
"When were you in Reykjavik?" Eames looked at his watch, as though Arthur might have slipped out and back in the last hour or so that they'd been sitting in the café.
"Last week," Arthur said patiently. "And she—"
"Last week? I thought you were in Toronto."
"Reykjavik," Arthur said, patience worn a touch thinner now. "Do you do this just to irritate me?"
"Of course not, darling. You were in Reykjavik, and you met an extractor, and she said—"
"She said, 'Oh, yes, Cobb's team, the one with the cats.'" He bit down somewhat definitively upon his croissant. Eames wondered if he had any idea how endearing he was when he was miffed. Probably not, or he would get ruffled even less frequently than he did already.
"Is there a point here, Arthur?"
"Have you been telling people that we have cats?"
"We do have cats," Eames said, in an utterly rational tone that would hopefully make Arthur start tearing his hair out by the roots. "Don't you like your cat?"
"Of course I like my cat," Arthur said, huffy.
"But—you'd prefer he remained a secret."
"You're trying to make me sound ridiculous," Arthur said.
"Oh," Eames said, "I'm not trying very hard."
Arthur had chocolate on his chin. Eames decided not to tell him.
Dom named his cat—
Ariadne clapped a hand over her mouth in delighted shock. "Mr. Mitten Surprise?"
"Well, I didn't," he said, looking down at Mr. Mitten Surprise, who was rolling onto his back to bat at the toy Ariadne was dangling above his head. "Phillipa did. I couldn't say no."
"You're a good dad," she said warmly.
There was a beat.
"You're going to tell everyone, aren't you?"
"Oh, yeah. Yeah." She jangled the toy a little and watched Mr. Mitten Surprise writhe and jump. "But it's still sweet."
Yusuf named his cat River. "From Firefly," he explained, and Eames and Ariadne, at least, understood—even if they immediately began to follow-up on that understanding by dangling blue gloves in front of River's nose whenever they were bored.
River would not keep her little pink nose out of the chemicals and humming machinery: she never actually licked anything, but she would sniff questioningly at it. "When they say that curiosity killed the cat," Yusuf told her, "you are the cat that they are talking about," and she would sulk a little, swishing her tail from side to side, and then give up on any form of penance and just start prowling about his lab again, her whiskers brushing lightly against beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks, her heart-shaped face reflected three times bigger in the glass.
She got along very well with Daedala, and it became not unusual to see the two of them going about the lab with their heads and tails held high, plotting mischief.
Yusuf loved her, spoiled her, fed her fresh cream and bits of fish, and let her sleep on his other pillow. He woke up looking at her looking at him, green eyes sharp and wide, and paw outstretched to claw lightly at the covers surrounding him.
"Do not hook the kittens up to the PASIV," Dom said.
"I wasn't planning on that," Yusuf said stiffly.
"Of course not," Ariadne said. She thought she might have sounded a touch too enthusiastic, because Dom narrowed his eyes.
"I'm going to say it again," he said. "Do not hook the kittens up to the PASIV."
More dejectedly this time—"Fine."
"And delete the Facebook page for Mr. Mitten Surprise," he said.
Ariadne and Yusuf traded glances. "That wasn't us."
Eames named his cat Darling, and received immense satisfaction from calling him over and having Arthur's head briefly pop up as well, with that permanently pissy expression on his face.
Granted, though, Darling himself often seemed to express a certain amount of disapproval about his own name. He would unfailingly come when called, but he would do so with almost arch disdain. Ridiculous as it was, Eames couldn't shake the persistent feeling that his cat would have liked to lecture him, even though it was generally as quiet as Saito's near-mute Smoke. He was also not particularly cuddly, which was a kinder way of saying that it was not altogether clear that he would have licked Eames if Eames had been on fire. All in all, Eames had no idea why he had chosen Darling when almost any of the others would have been better suited to him: Mr. Mitten Surprise, though he slept most of the time, was sort of absently affectionate towards everyone; Smoke would sometimes come over to him and sit and watch him; and both Daedala and River seemed to include him in a general category of Things Worth Investigating. Even Arthur's cat, for heaven's sake, probably liked him better than his own.
The obvious solution would have been to give up on Darling and trade him for a more agreeable cat; the problem with that was that Eames could never have done it in a million years.
Then one day, they bungled an extraction, and Eames got stabbed in the stomach in the dream and punched in the stomach, the eye, and the mouth in the waking world. Arthur fussed about him with ice packs, looking rather obligingly worried, and Eames was half-content to soak up all the unexpected attention he was getting, when something abruptly landed on his lap. He opened his eyes.
"Darling," he said.
"Not you, pet," he said to Arthur.
He looked down at the cat in his lap, who was curled up sweet as anything, and rubbing his head against Eames's knee. His cat was petting him.
"He probably knows you're not feeling well," Ariadne said.
"That's as nice a euphemism for 'I've-had-the-living-shit-kicked-out-of-me' that I've ever heard," he said, still looking down at his cat in fascination. "Are you actually worried about me, Darling?"
"I don't know why you named him that," Arthur said.
Eames suddenly felt very content.
Arthur named his kitten Spot.
"No," Eames said, "you didn't. Please say that you didn't."
Even Ariadne was a little disgusted with him for it: "Did you just Google 'popular pet names' or something, and then pick the first thing that came up?"
"Data's cat on Star Trek was named Spot," Yusuf offered, with a look that said he was fairly confident that Arthur hadn't known that, but was still being nice enough to give him a way out through the pretense that he was incredibly geeky instead of just incredibly boring.
"I didn't know that," Arthur said. "I just liked the name Spot."
Saito said, "Your cat doesn't have any spots."
"Exactly," Arthur said.
He had, in fact, named his cat Spot because he half-suspected that it irritated Spot as much as it irritated everyone else—well, except for Dom, because no one with a cat named Mr. Mitten Surprise could legitimately complain about anyone else's pet-naming practices. Spot, he thought, probably wanted to be named something much more interesting, and since Spot devoted most his time to crawling up Arthur, swiping at him, and twining between his legs when he was trying to walk, Arthur didn't see why he shouldn't enact some petty revenge of his own. And God forbid he should trip when Spot was going back-and-forth between his feet, because as soon as he did, Spot was all solicitude, rubbing against him as if to ask if he were all right, when of course he would have been if Spot hadn't tripped him in the first place, obviously. He was as effusive about his attentions to Arthur as Darling was about his more sporadic attentions to Eames, and appallingly jealous of anyone else—except Eames and Darling, for whatever reason—coming around him.
"You know," Yusuf said, as they sat there waiting for the centrifuge to spin out something amazing for them and watched Spot watch Darling fastidiously clean himself, "you and Eames could always switch cats."
Arthur looked up, startled. "Don't be ridiculous," he said, sharper than he'd meant to.
Spot came over and wrapped himself around Arthur's legs, and Eames followed shortly thereafter, collapsing into the other chair and looking somewhat sadly at Darling's total failure to acknowledge his presence.
"Which one of you made the Facebook page for Mr. Mitten Surprise?" Yusuf asked, almost absently.
Eames bolted upright. "There's a Facebook page for Mr. Mitten Surprise?"
They both turned to stare at Arthur.
"I wouldn't know anything about that," he said calmly, and straightened his leg so that Spot would have an easier time using him as a combination climbing tree-scratching post.
"I knew kittens would be a good influence on you," Eames said smugly, and Darling, looking world-weary but somehow amused, came over to lay against his shoes just as Arthur finally, reluctantly, smiled.