The first time Arthur encounters Cobb in a dream, he crashes his manufactured jeep into a concrete barrier. It doesn't kill him. And when he drags himself out of the wreckage, Cobb is still there, at the curb, wearing that strange little half-smile he always uses when Arthur pulls something particularly hare-brained during a training session.
This isn't a training session, though. This is a job. And Arthur's little accident will throw a hell of a wrench in the works if he doesn't find alternate transport to the mark's ammunitions cache. He only has four and a half minutes until the kick as is. This job has gone belly-up from the start, and he has no fucking clue why.
But he's not thinking about any of that at the moment.
"Cobb?" he calls, hating the way his voice cracks on the word.
"Hey," Cobb says casually. He reaches into his pocket, palms a smallish object. "Catch."
Arthur does on reflex. It's a grenade. The last thing he sees before dying is Cobb's unchanging smile.
He gasps awake in a cold sweat and just stares up at the ceiling for a long (too long) moment, breathing. He resists the urge to fumble for his totem. Beside him, Mal's eyes move restlessly under closed lids, her forehead creased into frown lines.
"What happened?" Yusuf demands, hovering over them both, hands fluttering impotently. "The kick isn't—"
Arthur drags himself to his feet, scrabbling at the IV with clumsy fingers. His whole body feels leaden, heavy. "We've got to move. Wake her up."
"Did you get—"
"No. This one's a bust. Give Jorgensen an extra dose of sedative and let's get the fuck out of here before he wakes."
Mal's eyes open unaided, her lips parted as if to protest. There are tears running down her cheeks. Arthur glances to her and then back away, cold stone settling in the pit of his stomach.
Cobb wasn't his projection.
(The call was all static and faulty connection, the combined forces of his cheap disposable cell phone and a New Delhi thunderstorm. Mal's accent was thick with stress or tears, and Arthur couldn't make it all out, but – "He won't wake up," she said, over and over again, "he won't wake up."
Arthur's been waiting for the kick ever since.)
The fourteenth time he encounters Cobb in a dream, Mal gets the damn job done anyway. Maybe it should bother Arthur that's she's become this inured to the sound of his screaming, but really, it's only practical.
After all, as long as the projection of Cobb is busy torturing Arthur, he's not sabotaging her extraction.
He's never liked this bar; it's too well-lit, too exposed. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out across the glittering Dubai night, desert crashing into sea with an explosion of urban sprawl and gleaming skyscrapers. The clientele is mostly European, rich executives with their high-end escorts, some of whom may even genuinely be lovers.
Mal hangs off his arm with calculated precision, lips curled in just the right balance of snootiness and adulation. "At your nine o'clock," he murmurs in her ear. "Just by the fish tank."
"Give me ten minutes," she replies.
She twines away playfully, tossing a sultry smirk back over her shoulder at him as she goes. It's well played, as always. Arthur neatly side-steps an oil emir and makes his way to the bar. He orders the scotch entirely for show; he never drinks on the job.
Strictly speaking, this one isn't a job. It's personal, which is far more dangerous.
"Getting rather brash, aren't you?" someone remarks just beside him.
Arthur doesn't so much as flinch. "We had to compromise on the location."
"Compromise means flouncing straight into the lion's den? There's showing willing and then there's sheer recklessness."
"A distinction you've always been so familiar with, Mr. Eames."
He chances a sidelong glance, is rewarded with the quirk of Eames's generous lips. "It does keep life interesting. By the by, I've got a job for you."
"Didn't realize you were hiring these days."
"All right, I've got a job for me, and the extractor they've given me is less than useless. I want Mal."
"We're not exactly hurting for work these days."
"Ah, but you haven't met my sponsor yet." Eames's grin is all teeth, shark-like. "He gives excellent security, for example. Or did you really imagine you and Mal Cobb could waltz straight in and out of Somnex territory unmolested?"
Arthur stiffens, but doesn't respond. He sips his Scotch instead. After a moment, Eames pats his shoulder lightly and then melts away into the crowd.
"I've got the coordinates," Mal says, returning to his side. She studies his face too shrewdly. "What have you got?"
"A job," he tells her bluntly. He didn't feel Eames slip the note into his jacket pocket, but he knows it's there. He doesn't even need to check. "And a tail."
Mal laughs, short and mirthless. "Just the one? We must be slipping."
(Once, when Cobb was still with them, Arthur had gotten himself cornered by a particularly incensed group of projections. Cobb saw them, weighed his options, and shot Arthur in the head. Which was fucking stupid, because they just turned on Cobb instead, and since Cobb was the dreamer, the whole dream collapsed before Mal could get their information out.
"I was trying to be merciful," Cobb said afterward.
"I don't need mercy, I need to get paid this week," Arthur snapped. But he really did appreciate the gesture.)
The trouble with layers, with dreams within dreams within dreams, is that the deeper you go, the looser your grasp on reality becomes.
Mal is building them a dream. A hope, a fantasy, a shot in the dark. She works on the blueprints in her spare time, in the space between jobs, possibly even in her (real) sleep. A labyrinth within a labyrinth within et cetera et cetera, and she never shows Arthur the plans.
He finds her dreaming alone once. He very nearly hooks himself up to her PASIV and joins in, just to see what the hell she's planning for them. But in the end, he just locks up the warehouse and leaves a lamp on at the table beside her.
Mal is building them a dream, but Arthur's not going to worry about the details until they find a way to gain access to Cobb. As long as Somnex holds Cobb's perpetually unconscious body, Mal's dream is just that: a dream.
Arthur works in dreams, but he deals in facts.
They do the job for Eames, and then another. They still haven't met his mysteriously wealthy sponsor.
During an early trial run for the third job, Eames's new architect discovers a flaw in her design. Ariel is a sweet pixie-like young woman with wide guileless eyes. She patches up the error in a heartbeat and is charmingly flummoxed when all the projections immediately turn on her.
"Jesus H. Christ," she pants, as she and Arthur run down the winding streets of a vaguely Eastern European-style city. "Whose subconscious is this? Normally I'm allowed to make a few tweaks in a training session without having to worry about fucking AK-47s."
They slam open the door to a decrepit apartment complex. Cobb is waiting for them by the staircase with a mild smile.
"Who—" Ariel starts, but Arthur quickly pulls out his revolver and shoots her in the head. Merciful, he thinks.
He doesn't have a chance to turn his weapon on himself before Cobb is on him. Cobb shoves him to his knees, twisting his arm back hard enough to make his eyes water and stamping the gun out of his nerveless fingers. Arthur doesn't try to fight back. There's no point. It's only a trial run, not a job, and hopefully Ariel will have the good sense to disconnect his PASIV line up above. So when Cobb casually stamps on his hand again, bones snapping easily, Arthur just squeezes his eyes shut and waits for the kick.
Arthur hears a gunshot. He doesn't wake up. His hand hurts like hell. He opens his eyes to see Cobb's body crumpled on the floor beside him and Eames standing in the doorway, pistol in hand.
"What the fuck," Eames says.
"Yeah," Arthur says, closing his eyes again. "I know."
There's the kick.
(Before the dreamsharing industry was privatized, before Somnex bought it out, it was a military project. Arthur was a sharp-eyed eighteen-year-old army grunt who kept his mouth shut and mind open, and he was one of the first round of subjects for the PASIV program. He killed and was killed in a thousand different ways, in a thousand weirdly monotonous dreamscapes.
One day, one dream, he decided: fuck this desert shit, I want to go to the Bahamas. And the world shifted around him.
Hundreds of projections he didn't even know existed blasted him to pieces minutes later, but it was totally worth it. As was the look on his CO's face when they woke up.
Two days later, he was introduced to a private contractor named Dom Cobb.)
"The thing is," Eames is explaining, "Dom Cobb was the best damn architect you could have the chance to work with. Bloody genius. I mean, you think of a good architect in the real world, you think innovative designs, beauty of form, elegance of structure. Something fantastical, otherworldly. But Cobb wasn't like that. He was a dream architect. His dreamscapes were – God, they were the most real places you'd never visited. Every detail was spot-on perfect. Gritty and worn-down and fucking lived in. With other architects, well, the subject might've been fooled, but the extraction team could always tell the difference between dreams and reality. With Cobb? Fuck, he could've stuck us all in a strawberry patch on the moon and we'd have been dead certain we were wide awake."
"It's why Mal came up with the idea of totems," Arthur puts in. "We started losing track too easily."
"He revolutionized the entire industry," Eames goes on. "You don't know it, but everything you learned about dream architecture? Cobb did it first. He wrote your bloody textbook. Not that you learned out of a textbook, but, you know."
Ariel watches them both wide-eyed. "So what happened to him?"
Eames glances to Arthur, then away, mouth pressed into a thin, grim line. So it's Arthur who answers her. The loaded die is a familiar weight in his waistcoat pocket.
"He dreamed," Arthur says simply. "And it was too real. So he's still dreaming."
"So what the hell was that?" Eames finally asks, several days after the fact.
Arthur shuffles folders, sorting the pages of background research mindlessly. It keeps his hands busy. "A projection."
Eames looks across the warehouse to where Mal and Ariel are going over scale models. Mal gestures expansively, sketching out designs in the air, and Ariel picks up a bridge, shifts it two inches to the left. They've hit it off well. Arthur suspects that Ariel will see Mal's secret dream blueprints long before he does.
"Tell me," Eames murmurs. "Why does Mal's subconscious so enjoy ripping you to shreds?"
Arthur shrugs. "Some sort of survivor's guilt, I guess. It's nothing personal. She managed to escape the dream and he didn't. So now he's…there."
"He's not, though," Eames says flatly. "You do realize that, right? That's not Dom Cobb. Cobb is sleeping the sleep of the perpetually sedated in some undisclosed Somnex laboratory, not wandering through Mal's dreams with an axe to grind. Literally, in some cases, I'd imagine."
It's not particularly funny, but Arthur snorts faintly anyway.
"Has she tried psychoanalysis?" Eames inquires, and it's mostly but not entirely flippant.
"Don't worry about it. It's nothing personal," Arthur says again. "She just feels like she abandoned him. Like it was in any way her fault."
Eames taps his own chin lightly, considering. His eyes are too shrewd. "No wonder the projection hates you so much."
Arthur lifts an eyebrow. "Pardon?"
"She left him behind. And you never would."
("What was the dream?" Arthur finally asked.
Mal closed her eyes. "It was a fantasy. The perfect world. We had a big house by the sea and two beautiful children – children, Arthur, a girl and a boy, the most perfect creatures you could ever imagine. We only worked lawful, morally sound extractions and never had to worry about where the next job was coming from. It was everything we've ever wanted. And it never rang true to me at all." Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. "I wish to God I could have believed in it, Arthur."
He couldn't blame her.)
They meet Eames's sponsor after the third job. He's as absurdly wealthy as Eames had hinted, and has a serious bone to pick with Somnex.
"There's no room in any industry for a monopoly," Mr. Fischer remarks. His voice is deceptively mild. "Competition lies at the heart of evolution. Without it, innovation stagnates. Somnex has become too complacent, resting on its laurels. They don't even realize that they don't have the best and brightest minds in dreamsharing on their payroll."
He smiles, and Arthur twitches at the unsubtle attempt at flattery.
"With all due respect, Mr. Fischer, they've been trying to run Arthur and me down for months," Mal says. "They are perfectly aware of who is and is not on their payroll."
"And instead of winning you back, they try to stamp you out," Fischer replies. "How irresponsibly short-sighted. I'd never make such a petty mistake, Mrs. Cobb."
He's smooth as silk and richer than Croesus. It's not like they have a choice.
"And here I thought you valued your independence," Arthur mutters to Eames under his breath, later.
Eames shrugs. "Better than being crushed between him and Somnex. I just play the hand I'm dealt, darling, surely you know that."
"But you always cheat at cards, Mr. Eames."
Mal is building them a dream.
It has way too many layers. Layers for time, layers for depth, layers to fall through so deeply you'll forget you ever even had a totem, let alone what it is or how it works.
"You haven't seen Dom's new reality," she says softly. "I have. I nearly lost myself in it. There are no simple shortcuts through his mazes. This is the only way."
Arthur doesn't say a word against it, just starts compiling research.
("You've got to get out of there," Arthur begged, praying the call wouldn't drop. "If Somnex gets a hold of you, too – Christ, it's like a perpetual feedback loop, the two of you sharing each other's dreams." He forced himself to stop pacing, to make her hear him. "I've been there, remember? You nearly lost me. If Somnex gets you hooked up into his dream, they'll never stop. They'll never let you go. Dreamsharing research will skyrocket, and Somnex will control it all, and one day dawn will break over a world where no one ever, ever wakes up again."
Mal's voice over the line, when it came, was distant and sad. "You say that like it's a bad thing.")
"Once we're in, we'll have maybe thirty minutes to hook up into Dom's dream and then break him out." Mal taps the blueprints with her pointer. "Hence the complexity of the dream layering. Best estimate, we'll have fifteen minutes in real time to share the dream. That's three hours only in the first dream layer. That's nowhere near enough." A phantom shadow darkens her face. "I spent three months in his dream plotting the perfect crime to break him out, and I failed. This will take subtlety, and finesse, and most importantly time."
Eames raises his hand languidly. "Stupid question," he drawls. "Just because I feel it's important to get it out there, before we go too deep. If it's Somnex's sedatives keeping him under, why can't we just, I don't know, cut the line?"
"Too much of a shock to the system," Arthur says at once. "He's been dreaming for far too long. Going cold turkey won't just give him the DTs, it'll turn his mind to mush. The goal is not to break out a vegetable in Dom's body."
"But you're right, a good chemist will be key to the success of the operation," Mal says. "I've already called in Yusuf, he should be joining us tomorrow afternoon at the latest. He'll be able to wean Dom off Somnex's drugs while simultaneously counteracting the worst of their effects. We'll be gradually waking Dom up within the dreams as well as outside of them."
Ariel takes over the presentation at this point. "Which means we want a little more space to work on him before diving straight into his constructed reality. So the first dream layer—" She rolls out a page of blueprints. "This won't be Dom's dream at all, we'll be hooking his body into ours. He'll still be unconscious, but it buys us more time to work. The second layer will start adding us into his dreams…"
Hours later, Eames catches Arthur on their way out the door. "This is insanity," Eames says. "You do realize that, right?"
"And yet, here you still are," Arthur points out. "So much for your much-vaunted self-preservation."
"Morbid curiosity's still winning out for the moment. And I only signed on for this mad venture because I figured you'd talk her down into something more, oh, feasible."
Arthur shrugs on a coat. They're in Dublin, one of his and Mal's hidey-holes that Somnex never caught on to. It's always raining in Dublin. "The plan's still just a rough outline. We'll have plenty of time to work out the kinks before we go in."
Eames just looks at him. "There isn't enough time in the world. Jesus, Arthur, don't you even care about saving your own skin? Your own mind?"
"My loyalty is to Mal," Arthur says stiffly.
Eames shakes his head. "Your loyalty is to Cobb," he replies. "If your loyalty were to Mal, you'd be trying to help her heal, not indulging some crazy scheme that will likely land us all in Limbo."
"I'm trying to help her save him."
"I know." Eames's tone sounds somehow both angry and oddly wistful. "You're trying to help her save him."
Arthur looks away.
Mal says she and Dom had been in Limbo for years, but Arthur's not sure he believes her. Not that she's lying, but that her perception of Limbo is fundamentally wrong. Limbo isn't someplace you can just off yourself and wake up from. She and Dom were playing around with layers within layers, and they clearly went too fucking deep, but Limbo? No. Limbo, Arthur thinks, is the Penrose Steps of the dreamscape, a Moebius strip, dreaming in endless impossible loops, kick after kick after kick and you're still dreaming just as deeply as you ever were before.
The possibility that Mal really did fall into Limbo – that's something that Arthur has consciously set aside, chosen not to consider. That way madness lies.
(He's been waiting for the kick ever since.)
They dream in Mal's dream of Cobb's dream. Arthur thinks he might need flow charts to keep track of this shit.
Actually, for this job, that wouldn't be such a bad idea. He makes a mental note to start working on it when they wake up.
"Damn," Ariel says, looking around in wonder. She's fingering something in her pocket – probably her totem. Arthur understands the impulse. He's tempted to start rolling his die, even though he knows it'll come up a different number every time. "It's so…real."
"And this is why we don't build dreams from memories, kids," Eames remarks. His demeanor is strangely serious, in contrast to the flip remark. There's a shadow lurking behind his impassive eyes. He almost looks…haunted.
He'd been Cobb's friend once, too. Arthur forgets that sometimes.
They walk through the streets of Cobb's Paris, and even Mal would be hard pressed to find the differences between this and the real city.
"My father used to teach architecture at the university here," Mal says. Miles had passed away years ago up above, but apparently he's still alive in Cobb's world. Cobb's utopia. Mal glances over at Ariel. "You can pose as his student. Eames?"
"Miles will perform all the necessary introductions," Eames confirms. He concentrates, rolling his shoulders forward in an ageing man's hunch, and for a moment Arthur can see Mal's father flicker in and out of the space Eames occupies. "It's been a while since I've seen a photograph of the old man, I'll work on it."
He's not even arguing anymore. Arthur thinks about dreams within dreams within dreams, and supposes it was only a matter of time. He lost himself months ago anyway.
Mal is still studying Ariel, a contemplative gleam in her dark eyes. "Ariel," she says, rolling the word around in her mouth. "Ariel, Ari, Ariadne. Yes. The girl who led Theseus through the labyrinth. Dom always did have a weakness for allegory."
Ariel smiles, and Arthur can't help but smile with her. "And what role will you have me play?" he asks Mal, half-joking.
"You won't," Mal says. Her tone is soft, but it's like a door being slammed in his face all the same.
Eames rests a hand on his shoulder. "You'll be guarding the dream at the first level," he says, and when the hell did Eames get in on this? He looks over at Mal, and his mouth twists into something between a smile and a grimace. "God knows it'll be one of the harder jobs. All those layers of dreams to maintain, the projections will be beating down the bloody door."
Arthur shakes Eames off, turning to face down Mal. "But I thought – it's Cobb, he trusts me implicitly, I could—"
"He already has an Arthur," Mal says gently, and Arthur flinches away.
He avoids Mal for the better part of a week, dividing his time between doing research into Somnex security and helping Yusuf develop his chemicals.
Even Yusuf gets to go into Cobb's dream. Cobb never met him in real life.
Even Fischer gets to go into Cobb's dream, which is basically the stupidest fucking idea ever. Fischer doesn't know shit about dreamsharing. He's going to drag them all down. Arthur's seriously considering spiking his Somnacin on the job while they sleep.
They've also picked up another extractor that Ariel sometimes works with. His name's Saito, and from what Arthur's managed to dig up, he has a very solid reputation – a talent for subtly shaping dreams to his advantage without any projections catching wise. He'll buy out Cobb's dream world to smooth their way.
This is turning into a pretty massive endeavor for what's basically a search-and-rescue in Cobb's subconscious. But Somnex has made a lot of enemies in the dreamsharing community, and everyone wants a shot at them.
But Arthur can't avoid Mal – his best friend, really, absent Cobb – forever, and even Yusuf's getting twitchy about it these days. Ariel is probably planning on staging an intervention. It will be earnest and awkward, and Arthur wants nothing to do with it.
So he doesn't know whether to be surprised or grateful when Eames is the one to pull him aside instead.
"Did you pull the short straw or something?" Arthur asks, folding his arms across his chest.
Eames mirrors him, tilting his head to one side and waiting him out.
Arthur scowls. "I should be going in with the rest of you."
"Mal's the only one who's been in the dream before, and if she says Cobb already has a projection of you with him, I'm not going to argue with her. Two Arthurs in the dreamscape would – well, actually, I'd pay good money to see that. But Cobb would probably just shoot you both."
"Is there a reason I can't just kill his projection of me and take its place?" Arthur demands.
"Arthur, think about it," Eames says patiently. "Knowing Cobb – knowing you – it's more than likely that since Mal woke herself up out of that dream, Cobb's been on the run with his Arthur for months, if not years. That's an unknown amount of additional history they've built up together. You can't fake that. He'll catch on, and he'll kill you."
"You think I can't play myself?"
"I think you'd be flying blind without years' worth of research, and even I can't play that. I'll be risking enough down there hoping we haven't done too many jobs together in Dom's reality."
Arthur sags against the wall. "If it's just me and Cobb, probably not," he says, voice dry as dust. "I would've talked him out of it. It's Mal who always had the soft spot for you, damned if I know why."
Eames grins. "Lucky for the real you."
"Yeah," Arthur echoes hollowly. "Lucky."
("Eames," Arthur said quickly, "it's not for me, it's for Mal. Please. I need you to find us a safe house, and I need it to happen in less than twenty-four hours. Somnex is out for her blood, and I can't—"
"Don't worry about it." Eames's voice is clipped, professional. "I've got just the spot. Get to Ezeiza in Buenos Aires in ten hours, there'll be three tickets waiting—"
"Two." Arthur swallowed hard. "Just two."
There was a long silence over the phone. "You're not going with them?"
"I am," he said. "Dom's not. He's – he's just not."
Another silence, then – "Two tickets. Ten hours. Be there.")
Arthur doesn't know how he got here. That's the surest sign he's dreaming, but he doesn't trust that. Not now. They're experimenting with layers, sustaining dream levels further and further down, and the further they go, the more difficult it is to remember that this is all just a dream.
There's no such thing as just a dream. Not in this line of work.
Arthur and Mal are running through a subway train, dodging other riders and hauling the heavy doors open to pass from car to car. In the space between cars, the rumble of the train along the track roars impossibly loudly. Lights in the tunnel stream past, leaving glowing tracks across Arthur's vision. He yanks the next door open and they tumble into the next car.
Cobb is there waiting for them.
"No," Mal breathes. "Oh, Dom, no."
Cobb smiles at them. His blue eyes are cold.
Mal wraps her arms around Arthur, pulling him close. "I'm sorry," she says, and he can't tell if she's addressing him or Cobb. "I never meant it to go like this."
"Neither did I," Cobb says. He reaches into his side holster and pulls out a Sig Sauer, an ugly heavy service pistol of the sort the real Cobb wouldn't touch. Or maybe he would. Arthur realizes he can't remember the specifics of Cobb's weaponry preferences. Whatever came to hand, mostly.
Neither Arthur nor Mal even try to fight back. Arthur's chest feels tight, constricted. He gently extracts himself from Mal's hold, slipping down into one of the subway seats. After a moment, Mal takes the seat beside him.
Down the aisle, Cobb cocks his pistol.
"If you were a projection," Arthur asks Mal, never taking his eyes off Cobb, "how would you know?"
Mal presses her shoulder against his. Her voice cracks. "Maybe it doesn't matter."
The bullet hits Arthur squarely between the eyes. Merciful, he thinks, with something like surprise, and rides the kick up the levels.
Arthur blinks awake. He's not sure where he is. Beside him, Mal, Ariel, and Saito are all still hooked up to the PASIV, in various levels of the dreamscape. He pulls out the lead, takes a deep breath. The air in the warehouse is cool and musty. When he rolls his die onto the floor, it turns up five every time.
"You're early," Eames says. He's lounging against the wall, hands in his pockets. Arthur wonders how long he's been there. "The kick's not scheduled for another three minutes."
Arthur shrugs. "I needed some air," he says, and walks right past him through the warehouse doors.
Outside, it's cool going on cold, but it's not raining at the moment. That's something. Arthur breathes.
(Too many layers down, and you lose track. Maybe Mal really did fall into Limbo. Maybe she's still there. If you were a projection, how would you know?)
"Hey," Eames says, too close, and Arthur startles. He looks over to meet Eames's eyes, dark and concerned. It's a strange sensation, to have Eames looking at him like that. "You okay?"
"How did Cobb kill you this time?"
Arthur laughs, shortly and without mirth. "Mercifully." He holds Eames's gaze. "Why are you still here? This – these levels – we're going too deep. You're right, it's not safe. It's fucking insane, actually."
"Yeah, well," Eames says, with a wry smile. "Aren't we all?"
(The first time Arthur encountered the projection of Cobb in a dream, Cobb tossed him a grenade. The second time, he pushed Arthur through a plate glass window to fall fifteen stories to the concrete sidewalk. The third time it was slow torture with a knife.
Arthur stopped counting after that. But no many how many increasingly inventive ways Cobb found to kill him slowly, Arthur never could kill Cobb.
It's time. Mal has the coordinates from her contact in Dubai; Fischer buys them the way in. The laboratory where Somnex holds Cobb is in a private facility in Stockholm, of all the incongruous places. They each plan to take separate flights out of Dublin, each through a different airline, to various hubs across Europe, then transfer flights to get into Sweden. This part of the plan, at least, is childishly simple.
It's the only part that is.
Arthur's the last one to arrive at Stockholm-Arlanda, via a red-eye from Lisbon. It's nearly eight o'clock in the morning when he lands, and he hasn't slept in almost thirty hours. The rendezvous isn't for another twelve. He intends to check into his hotel room and conk out for the rest of the day.
Eames is waiting for him at the check-in desk. This isn't part of the plan.
"Hey," Eames says, once Arthur's obtained his key card. His eyes are slightly bloodshot and he shifts his weight restlessly from side to side. He doesn't look like he got any sleep last night, either.
"Hey," Arthur replies.
He doesn't say another word as Eames follows his upstairs into his room.
"What are you doing?" Arthur finally asks once the door is closed behind them.
Eames slouches against the wall, shrugging. "Haven't the foggiest."
"Trying to enjoy my last day fully conscious," Eames says lightly. "Like a prisoner's last meal, you know. Live it to the fullest."
Arthur sighs. He sits down at the edge of the bed and rubs his temples. "You don't think we'll wake up out of this?"
Eames lets out a short bark of laughter. "Darling, after this? I don't think we'll ever know the difference."
He sleeps without dreaming, and when he opens his eyes, Eames is still stretched out on the bed beside him. The room is still and dark, and the blackout curtains on the windows are drawn – one advantage of a hotel room in a country which experiences nearly perpetual daylight three months out of the year. The clock on the nightstand says it's only a bit past noon. Hours to go yet before the rendezvous.
Arthur wonders for a moment if he's still asleep. He can't remember how he got here, which is usually a feature of dreams. But real life can be like that too, sometimes.
Even if he is dreaming, he's sure that Cobb won't find him here. It's a strange sense of security. But he's spent the better part of the past decade living for Dom and Mal Cobb; this moment, here, is something that's purely his own. The realization is oddly freeing.
Eames stirs, propping his head up on one hand. "What time is it?" His voice is slurred, thick with sleep.
"Not time yet," Arthur tells him. He smiles a little, secure in the knowledge that Eames won't be able to make it out in the darkness. "Go to sleep, Mr. Eames."
"Mmm. Maybe in a bit." Eames leans in, breath warm against Arthur's lips. "Hey."
Arthur hesitates, breath hitching in his chest. The moment stretches. He's still waiting for the kick, he realizes, and laughs aloud.
"Care to share with the rest of the class?" Eames says archly, and Arthur shakes his head, and kisses the indignation from Eames's lips.
(Mal and Dom were the real deal. When they walked in each other's dreams, vast worlds spilled out in front of them, unhindered. They could lose themselves in there.
Arthur only hoped that when they did, they'd take him with them.)
They get into the Somnex facility without a hitch. Fischer gives really, really excellent security, as it turns out. Mal's intel is flawless and Eames picks the lock on the sleep lab in five seconds flat.
Dom Cobb is lying on a bed, hooked up to a PASIV. His skin is far too pale. His eyes move restlessly under closed lids in perpetual REM sleep. Mal doesn't say a word, just goes straight to his side and clasps his limp hand between her own.
For just an instant, Arthur can feel the press of Eames's palm at the small of his back, solid and warm.
"Yusuf," Saito says quietly. "Let's move."
One dream layer in, and Arthur is alone. The architecture on this level is simple – or, rather, from the outside it's exceedingly complex. Ariel and Mal together spent a solid week crafting this maze, with this room at the center. Realism was never the object here; keeping the projections out for as long as possible was. Even so, it's only a matter of time.
They others have been asleep for about ten minutes when the door opens. Cobb steps inside.
"Hey," Arthur says. "I've been expecting you."
His pistol is sitting on the table in the middle of the room. He doesn't make a move to retrieve it. Neither does Cobb.
Instead, Cobb walks over to kneel beside Mal. Her face is so placid in sleep, like she's finally let herself go. Arthur doesn't know where she is now – architecting from behind the curtains, playing hide-and-seek with her own projections, keeping Dom moving forward without ever, ever letting him see her. She may have the most difficult job of them all.
She still clutches her Dom's hand in hers. Cobb brushes a wayward curl off her forehead.
"She didn't leave you behind," Arthur says softly. "She's going back for you."
"How many levels?" Cobb asks, never taking his eyes off his wife.
At that, Cobb glances up at him, mouth twisting into a wry smile. "Not your idea, I take it?"
"How long before the kick?"
"On this level? A little less than three hours left."
"Gathering as we speak."
"Right," Cobb says. He takes the pistol from the table, weighs it in his hand. Arthur watches him and tries not to breathe.
("If you were a projection," he asked, "how would you know?")
Cobb jerks his head toward the PASIV device, raising an eyebrow. "Well? What are you waiting for?"
Arthur nods. He pulls out another lead and hooks himself up into the dream.
("Just be back before the kick."
"Go to sleep, Mr. Eames.")
He's in an elevator in zero gravity. He doesn't know how he got here. He thinks he's dreaming, but he's not sure anymore. Maybe he's four levels down. Maybe five. Maybe he's wide awake. He lost his totem at some point during the fight. Gravity shifts will do that to you. He knew bringing Fischer in would be a mistake.
("Security's going to run you down hard."
"And I will lead them on a merry chase.")
There was a moment, in the hotel room, when Eames looked up at him with the oddest light in his eyes. Something soft, significant, almost proud. Like he knew.
("If you were a projection, how would you know?"
"Maybe it doesn't matter.")
It doesn't matter.
He closes his eyes and waits for the kick.