- into a run.
"Why do you live your life at breakneck speed?" Arthur shouts, attempting to fire a gun over his shoulder.
"I don't, darling! When I am not in your company, or that of the illustrious Mr Cobb, I can assure you that I am as active as the average sloth!"
"Would that be the two-toed or the three-toed variant?"
"Ariadne, sweetness, are you trying to distract me from the fact that I'm bleeding quite profusely at the moment?"
"Is it working?"
A large chunk of masonry topples from the nearest building as Eames' dream starts to shatter, in much the same way his humerus splintered scant minutes ago.
"I guess not!" Ariadne answers her own question as they turn a corner, pausing in a grubby alley. She closes her eyes, her back pressed against the brick wall as Eames asks the question on all their minds.
"How do you think Cobb is doing?" Arthur attempts some basic first-aid. Eames grits his teeth while Arthur fastens a tourniquet around his upper arm. "You might at least give me something to bite down on!"
"I'm sacrificing my favourite tie for you, Eames."
"It means a little less when it's a subconscious tie, darling, though the sentiment and your sartorial elegance are both appreciated."
"How long have we left?" While inflicting pain on Eames, it is easier for Arthur to address Ariadne than focus on Eames' horribly wet-sounding gasps and half-muttered, heartfelt swears.
"Ten minutes, maybe," she replies, as though she does not have this entire venture plotted out to the nearest second.
"Please tell me you mean down here and not up there. I don't have two hours' worth of blood left in me."
Ariadne is silent. Arthur is focused on Eames' broken arm, wondering what quirk of the dreamscape ensured that Eames was wearing a shirt the colour of dried blood.
"Ah, so it is two hours. Well, let's press on and hope that Cobb gets the job done before everything goes utterly to shit."
"Optimism becomes you, Mr Eames."
Eames flashes Arthur a bloodstained grin before they all break –
- into a second bottle of champagne.
"Really, though, is it any wonder that we're all raging alcholics?"
"Speak for yourself, Mr Eames! Yusuf is jovial, buoyant with the satisfaction of a job well done, with no casualties or new insanities. "Though I have concocted a charming little tonic that mimics the effects of alcohol without the hangover."
"You could be a bloody millionaire, Yusuf. Why aren't you a bloody millionaire?"
Eames chortles as their waitress tops up their glasses and if his hand creeps around to the small of her back, well, she is used to it. (She is not used to her tip money being extracted from the backpocket of her hotpants, however, which is why she does not notice.)
"I saw that," says Arthur, leaning in close to shout into Eames' ear over the music which is too loud to be simply ambient.
"I have no idea what you are talking about, darling!"
"You only call me darling when you've committed a felony!"
"Honestly, a fellow calls a chap to help him make bail once and he's labelled for life!"
"Everyone knows you're a bounder and a cad, Eames, even Ariadne, and she's as pure as the driven snow."
Eames raises an entirely sceptical eyebrow at that and nods towards Ariadne who is at the far end of the table, downing shots with Saito. "Driven snow? She looks positively Bacchanalian!"
Cobb returns to the table and picks up a glass of champagne, downing it in one.
"You look stressed," says Arthur.
In truth, Cobb looks distracted (or haunted, perhaps). His hand is shoved deep in his pocket.
"Sit down and have some champagne," says Eames. He leans closer, leering. "And we can all wreak as much havoc as we like. Saito just bought the place."
He raises his glass to acknowledge their sometime employer (their occasional tourist) and his salute is returned. "I don't usually like socialising with the boss," says Eames, "but when the boss is positively rolling in it, I set my foibles to the side."
"You have foibles?"
"You have a sense of humour, darling!"
"I have to when you invite us out for one quiet drink and it turns – "
"I am discovering a pattern."
"I thought you weren't a mathematician."
"Hear me out and for god's sake, stop speaking."
"What's your pattern, then?"
"You can't follow a simple instruction, can you?" Eames is exasperated. If he could dream an operating theatre, he would. If he thought that he could persuade the target's highly-militarised projections into honouring a proverbial white flag, he'd rip off his own shirt and wave it madly at them. As he attempts to hold Arthur in such a way as to keep them both comfortable and to keep Arthur from bleeding out, he cannot be blamed if his fingertips touch Arthur's pale cheek. "The pattern, then. Have you not noticed? How at least one of us ends up in mortal danger every time we are on a Saito job?"
"I've noticed that things can get –
Miles can always be counted on to provide a captive audience, even while he is juggling two grandchildren, a complicated recipe and a troubled daughter.
"Interesting? That is what you call it, papa?" Mal folds her arms. "My husband is convinced that I am a projection. James, Phillipa, please. Go play outside."
She sits at the kitchen table and tries not to notice when her father maneouvres a knife out of her reach. "I am not the mad one! I am not the one who thinks that his own wife is trying to sabotage his dreams!"
"And his … other projections? Have they changed?"
"There is a new one. A little girl. Her name is Ariadne."
"Does he think himself Theseus, then?"
Mal's shoulders bunch up tightly, her mouth a thin line. "If he does, I am the minotaur."
Miles lifts his hand to cup his daughter's cheek. "No, my sweet. You are far too beautiful for that." He does not want to ask whether she has lost hope. The question might become the fact of the matter and Miles has had enough of inception to last him any number of dreams and realities. "Does he still have that charming young Englishman?"
"Yes, the forger, he calls him. I think he is based on a thief we met in Monaco. He stole Dom's wallet, you know. He ran up huge credit card bills throughout France – he forged Dom's signature immaculately! Dom has made him immortal." Mal shakes her head, visibly upset that such a man, such a common thief, could have assumed such status in her husband's dream-life.
"And Arthur? I was always very fond of Arthur."
"What does it say about my husband that he populates his dream-world with projections that have names and personalities and he believes in them when he will not believe in me?"
"I think it is very – "
- much down to chance. Or it would be a chance observation, if not for the loaded die.
"When did Cobb change his totem?"
"Did he? I didn't notice,"
"You're slipping, old man. He always used his wedding ring, didn't he?"
"Tell me when you last saw him wear it."
Arthur frowns, partly because he does not appreciated being outsmarted by an illiterate, innumerate, maddening Englishman.
"He's waving Mal's totem around like a flag."
"He's still grieving for her."
"Yes, and bloody well dragging her into every job."
Arthur pauses. Thinks. Analyses. He sounds dubious when he speaks again. "So you're saying that –"
"I'm not saying bloody anything. I'm saying that when Mal's totem is there, she is not. When Cobb's wedding ring is there, Mal is there too."
"She's his totem?"
Eames laughs. He sounds a little unhinged. "If that's the case, we're all fucked. Arse over tip, isn't it?"
Arthur shouldn't be surprised that Eames has noticed such tiny details as this. He is a forger, after all. His livelihood is in the details, like the little devil that he is.
"Look, it's very –
- brilliant, when you think about it."
"Did you ever play Jenga as a kid, Ariadne?"
"I don't – what do you mean?"
"That many layers of dreams? You're asking for a landslide." What Arthur doesn't say is that Ariadne is asking a lot of her team. There's little doubt that, for this job, they are Ariadne's team. It is complex. Privately, Arthur thinks it is overly complex. Ariadne is ambitious.
Privately, Arthur thinks it's exciting.
"We need more team members," he says, tapping his chin with his fingertip. "We need six or else whoever is on the bottom level is going to be flying solo."
Ariadne smiles brightly. "I've already got it covered. It's Saito's job – "
Arthur manages not to roll his eyes. He knows exactly what's happened. Saito has joined in a few of their assignments over the past number of months. "He's got a taste for it, then?"
"He's addicted," says Ariadne. She has the grace not to look too smug. "You warned me about this, remember?"
"Ah, yes. Paris in the spring." Arthur turns back to the blueprints and examines each level of the dream. After a moment, during which Ariadne virtually vibrates in her seat with anticipation, Arthur raises his head and looks at her again."
- honestly not watching this, are you?" Cobb squints at the television screen. "I'm not sure it's exactly suitable for my impressionable young children."
"You invite Eames into your house and you're worried about impressionable?" asks Arthur, just as Eames protests. "It's a children's movie, Dom!"
"It is a terrifying children's movie." Ariadne pipes up from the corner of the sofa, a bowl of popcorn balanced on her knee.
"Come now!" Eames gestures at the screen. "It's Willy Wonka! I mean, this is a bastion of the BBC Christmas schedule!"
"Yes," says Arthur. "I think you've managed to damn your entire nation with that statement."
"I suppose we'll be watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang next?" asks Ariadne.
"Yes, there's nothing like child abduction to contribute to the festive season."
"You pair!" Eames points at Arthur and Ariadne in turn. "You're like a bloody-"
"Eames! Not in front of the children!"
"Sorry, sorry, Dom. You're like a tag-team or a ruddy (ruddy's okay, right, Dom?) comedy duo and I can't decide which." Eames huffs and grabs a handful of popcorn while James and Phillipa giggle at the silly adults and Gene Wilder sings, come with me and we'll be in a world of pure imagination!
"Come on, Eames," says Ariadne. "You're –
- losing your mind. Do you ever feel like that?"
"My darling, I promise you that I'll make sure that doesn't happen." Miles covers his daughter's hand with his own. It is a familiar gesture, a comfortable one. "You are too firmly rooted in reality to fall into the same trap as Dom." He sighs, looking so very old. "I blame myself, you know."
"Papa, you mustn't," says Mal. There is no real conviction in her voice. It is an argument they have had too often. The truth of the matter is that her husband is in some kind of catatonic state and their daughter has started high school and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. She wants to cure her father. She does not even know the full extent of it; how Mal shares dreams with Dom every once in a while. How Dom is still harried and haunted; how he believes that he is being persecuted by international corporations; how his imaginary friends (point man-forger-architect-and-all – what silly names) have becomes his only truth.
"It just gets to a point when you feel -
- alive! It is always such a novelty to wake up. To breathe the air, whether it is the too-refined, too-recycled air of an airplane or the slightly dusty air of their latest disused warehouse. The best times are, indubitably, waking up from a shared dream in a hotel room. The sort of hotel room where they fold down the comforter and put a mint on the pillow.
The sort of time when you both open your eyes and breathe a sigh of relief which sometimes gives way to laughter. Sometimes, if you've just been on death's door or on the brink of a mind-blowing orgasm or drowninng or laughing or running until your lungs explode, you reach for each other and the crush of mouth to mouth is better than any totem. Your hand creeps to the underside of the pillow, the cold side of the pillow, and you know that there is no dream that is anything like being –
- wrong. He knows he is wrong to question Cobb. Well, not wrong, but ill-advised. Cobb has a violent temper, when provoked.
"I promise you, Arthur, it's fine. It's not a problem!"
"Look, it's not that I doubt you." (Oh, he does. He doubts.) "It's just that I thought it would all be over. Now that you're back with the kids and everything. I thought Mal would – "
"Arthur, it's not a problem." Cobb glares at Arthur. Arthur can't help but notice that Cobb is turning his wedding ring around his finger, one-two-three times (for luck). "Anyway, she's not as violent as she was."
"Yes, that's a relief. To know that I am unlikely to be shot in the foot by a projection of your dead wife. Or Ariadne probably won't be stabbed by her."
"She did that because I asked her to. Ariadne needed to be woken up."
"Doesn't that unsettle you, Cobb?" Arthur is persistent. It is dangerous. "That a projection did what you asked? That you could communicate quite so effectively with one?"
"But they're my projections. They're part of me. Anyway, it's in their nature to hurt the intruder."
Arthur looks at Cobb for a long moment. In the end, he must relent. "I know, I know. You're – "
- falling behind!"
"Forgive me if I don't have quite the same capacity for really bad alcohol that you do."
"Come on now, darling. You know what they say! When in Moscow-"
"Get blood alcohol poisoning? Seriously, Eames, I'm cutting you off."
"You can cut me off anytime you like." Eames swivels on his barstool and fixes Arthur with a slightly glazed look. "My god, man! Not a hair out of place. How can you stand it?" He reaches out and tugs on Arthur's tie. Arthur resists only slightly; he is not the sort of man to leave a friend in the arms of utter inebriation, especially in a strange country, when the only words of Russian Eames can speak are я не говорю по-русски, which only encourages the locals to speak to him more loudly and a great deal faster, and водKа, which can only exacerbate the situation.
Eames swivels back towards the barman and flashes him a bright smile, which earns him another shot of Флагман.
Arthur sits back down. He knows how to deal with Cobb, with Ariadne, with Yusuf and with Saito. They are all reasonable people. He does not know how to handle Eames. He winces. He can already hear the double entendre, in Eames' voice, no less. He closes his hand around the die in his pocket and resists the urge to roll it on the bar-top. Loaded die, loaded silence, but, oh, there is no such thing as silence in Eames' world.
Arthur relaxes, tension bleeding out of his clenched fingers. Eames' raucous laughter; totem enough even when Arthur feels as though he is –
- living on borrowed time. Well, dreaming on borrowed time. There are still subtleties that are lost on Ariadne. At least she knows it. She knows her limitations and with every successive job, she tries to exceed them.
It has been her turn to be shot and she had to fend off angry projections while the others are deeper in some other dream, some other adventure.
A projection comes closer and pulls off his balaclava, only he's not a he, he's a she.
"Mal," breathes Ariadne. She tries not to panic, shrinking back against the sleeping body of Yusuf.
"It is better than Phaedra, even if I am here to steal your man, no?" Mal murmurs and she turns around and begins to shoot at the other projections. Ariadne is stunned. She doesn't know how to interpret this behaviour.
"Limbo is the last place you all need to be," Mal says, her voice harsh. Arthur called her lovely. Ariadne remembers that. She still doesn't understand. She is bleeding. Is Mal her projection now? Ariadne's breaths are shallow. She is –
- apart. He finishes his phone call and joins the rest of the team at the table. He snaps his cellphone shut. "We win."
Yusuf breaks into a wide grin and Ariadne giggles in a way that can only be described as girlish. Sometimes, the rest of the team forget how young she is. They always forget that she is a woman except on those days when she dresses like one. Like this evening while they all celebrate another job well done.
"We'll be going straight before you know it," says Arthur, his hand wrapped around a half-finished pint.
"Wash your mouth out, darling," says Eames, jostling him with his shoulder.
"We win," says Cobb again, "but we need to be less careless next time. The mark knows what we've done. He'll be warning his allies. We're going to have to up our game."
He sits down and reaches for the pitcher, topping up his own glass, turning his wedding ring around his finger (one-two-three).
"He can't have many allies left," says Saito. He sits at the head of the table, smiling at them all, like a beneficent deity.
"Tell me, Mr Saito," says Eames, leaning towards him. "What's it like being so disgustingly, filthily rich?"
"Continue in my employment and you will find out, Mr Eames."
They cheer, so boisterous, because all is well. James and Phillipa will see their father tomorrow night. Eames will meander to Vegas, no doubt. Arthur and Ariadne will start looking for their next job because they'll never be out of this intoxicating game. Yusuf will return to Mombasa to concoct some new delights and Saito will pave their way, less tourist and more guide when it comes to the real world.
"To Mr Saito!" says Eames, and they all break –