Dominic Cobb, former criminal and current stay-at-home dad, was a free man for less than a week before everything came crashing down again.
This time, it wasn't because Mal had killed herself, or because the police had thought he'd done it thanks to several very incriminating letters, or because the lawyer Miles had hired recommended he flee the country. It wasn't because Mal's shade was haunting him, trapped in the cage of memories he had built around her and reappearing only to hurt him. It wasn't even because of Cobol Industry's price on his head.
This time, it was because of Robert Fischer.
On this particular day, Dom let Miles and Clémence take the kids to the park while he took a nice, long shower. Since he'd gotten home, it had been hard to find time for himself; firstly, because the kids were scared to let him out of their sight again, and secondly because he was scared to look away for even an instant, in case this all slipped away from him. But he knew they couldn't live like this forever, and if there was one thing the Fischer job had taught him, it was that he had to learn to deal with his feelings.
Standing in front of the sink, he trimmed his beard and then washed his hands.
When Dom looked up again, Robert Fischer was standing behind him.
Their eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Dom should have done something, should have turned around and punched him or called out for help, but he was frozen. Even though it had happened days ago, Fischer was wearing the same pin-striped suit he'd had on during the long ride from Sydney to LA -- the same one from Arthur's dream level. For an instant, Cobb thought he was hallucinating.
"Dr Cobb," said Fischer, holding up one hand as if horse whispering, "I don't want to alarm you, but you need to come with me."
Dom finally found his voice. "Are you here to kill me?" he asked, not turning around. His hands were clenching the edge of the counter so tightly it hurt. The kids were safe, he told himself; Fischer was here for him.
Fischer looked confused. "Of course not. Listen, my name's Mr Charles; I'm the head of your security."
"What?" Dom asked slowly.
"Your subconscious security."
"No-- I--" Dom didn't know what to say to that. "Fischer, is this some kind of joke? Is this your idea of revenge?"
Something on Fischer's face changed. "What are you talking about?"
Maybe it was because Fischer looked nervous, or maybe it was because Dom could see he wasn't holding a gun, but somehow, finally, Dom's fear faded into anger. He spun around and jabbed a finger in Fischer's face. "I was your Mr Charles, in the second layer of the dream," he hissed, as Fischer flinched.
"Oh, you remember that," Fischer said dejectedly.
"Of course I remember it," Dom exclaimed.
"But it was four layers ago," said Fischer, almost to himself.
"What?" Dom repeated.
He took a step back, edging toward the door to his bedroom. Nothing about this situation made any sense to him -- unless Fischer had learned what they'd done to him, and now he was here for the sole purpose of convincing Dom he was still in a dream, so Dom would kill himself and Fischer could have his revenge while keeping his hands clean.
Fischer's eyes darted back to him. "Sorry about this," he started, sounding genuinely apologetic, "but-- Arthur."
The linen closet door opened, and there was Arthur, standing amongst the clean towels. He had on his favourite brown suit and patterned tie. More importantly, he was holding a pistol in his right hand. The look on his face was calm, almost detached.
"Were you in there the entire time?" Dom asked. He narrowed his eyes. "Did you watch me shower?"
Arthur arched a brow. "Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I watched you shower," he said coolly.
"Homophobe," Fischer accused.
"You're right, I'm sorry," said Dom, ruefully.
"Just kidding," Arthur said. "When did you start shaving your chest?"
Dom took a deep, calming breath. "Can one of you please tell me what the hell is going on here?"
That was when Arthur raised his gun and shot Dom right between the eyes.
He woke up, panicking, in a dark room. It took him a moment to realise he was in Yusuf's dream den in Mombasa, with Yusuf and Eames leaning over him, both frowning, both looking exactly as they had when he'd entered the facility with them months ago. The air smelled muggy and damp, and that plus terror made his stomach churn.
Pushing himself up, he fumbled around, looking for his totem. Was it in his pants pocket or his jacket? Why couldn't he remember? "What the fuck was that?" he rasped. His throat felt parched from disuse.
It took him a moment to notice neither Eames nor Yusuf were paying any attention to him.
"No, you should do it," Yusuf was saying. "I hardly know him."
"What, and I do?" asked Eames. He crossed his arms over his chest. "I hate shooting people. It's ghastly."
"You're the hardened criminal!"
Dom glanced around the dimly lit room, but neither the nurse nor the dozing customers were stirring. Saito was leaning against the wall, studying his nails as if this whole situation bored him.
"Can someone--" Dom started, but then he started coughing.
"We should get Arthur to do it," Yusuf decided. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "He's the one who fancies himself James Bond."
Saito handed Dom a water bottle. Grateful, Dom gulped it down until his stomach threatened to rebel. This time when he coughed, it didn't hurt as badly.
"Yes, where is our stick in the mud?" asked Eames. "And where's Fischer, for that matter? They were supposed to be here by now."
Fischer, Dom thought, and a vein on his temple throbbed. That was right: he'd been shot in the head. By none other than Arthur. But if he'd just woken up, shouldn't Arthur and Fischer have been there too? As soon as he thought the question, his own mind supplied the answer: Not if they were using a Remote Dream Sharing IntraVenous device, a REDSIV, which would allow someone to wirelessly go into a dream if he had the right PASIV network code. Only one person needed to be connected to the PASIV, and that was the dreamer.
But Dom had plugged himself into a PASIV dozens of times when he was extracting. Right?
There was something he was supposed to remember. Dom dropped the water bottle to the floor and climbed to his feet. "Someone needs to tell me what's happening," he demanded, ignoring the stiffness in his limbs.
The three of them looked at him with something like pity. Dom started digging through his pockets for his totem; his hands wouldn't stop shaking. He didn't know what the hell was going on, or why he seemed to have gone back in time, but he knew this feeling of dread that was twisting inside him. It was starting to sound like Arthur had betrayed him -- like they had all betrayed him, every last one of them.
Finally, he found the top in the inside pocket of his jacket. But it slipped through his fingers and tumbled to the floor, in full view of everyone. As he bent to pick it up, one of the customers a few beds over started sputtering violently. Dom turned in time to see her shoot up in bed, dry-heaving.
It was Ariadne, half-covered with a blanket.
"Alright there?" Eames called.
"I jumped in a pool with a backpack full of rocks," she groaned. "Drowning is the worst."
Even Ariadne was in on it. With fury thrumming through his veins, Dom launched himself at Eames, aiming for the gun he'd spotted tucked carelessly into the waistband of Eames' trousers. Before he could reach it, though, Eames shoved him back with a, "Hey now!" Dom may have been bigger, but Eames was stronger, and Dom stumbled back.
"Tell me what's going on," he yelled. He was starting to lose it; he was seconds away from screaming. "Right the fuck now!"
"His projections are going to start attacking soon, with him like this," Yusuf hissed. "Someone just kill him and get it over with!"
"For God's sake, I'll do it," Ariadne said.
She didn't get a chance to, though, because the door to the dream den slammed open, and in walked Fischer and Arthur, this time both in black suits. Dom took satisfaction in the way Arthur, that traitor, was scowling like he did when things weren't going how he wanted.
"Sorry," Arthur said, but not to Dom. "He still doesn't realise he's dreaming. It seems he needed a few more days in the second level."
"He shouldn't have been able to keep track of all the layers like that," Fischer added petulantly. "Normal studies show--"
"Who's dreaming?" Dom interrupted. "Me? Am I--"
As soon as the thought formed in his mind, he knew it was true. It knocked the wind right out of him; he bent at the waist and struggled to keep himself from falling to his knees. Everything seemed to go still, and he couldn't hear anything over his heart pounding in his ears.
"This is a dream."
The second the words left his lips, the ground began rumbling beneath his feet.
"Well, it was nice working with everyone," Eames said, sounding faintly irritated. "Perhaps we'll see each other again. Good luck on your dissertations."
Dissertations? Dom thought.
"I might email you for a recommendation," Arthur told Eames.
Eames' lips quirked. "I look forward to it."
Dom was still trying to figure out what in name of Pete was going on when Arthur raised his arm and, without breaking his gaze with Eames, shot Dom in the head again.
Everything went black, and then Dom was awake, his vision snapping back into focus. He was in his office at Stanford, slouched in one of his great big armchairs. His head was fuzzy, and his mouth tasted like a desert. His right hand was cold -- a familiar feeling -- from the IV attached to the PASIV resting on the floor.
He turned his head and found Arthur waking up in the chair beside his. Wincing, Arthur cracked his neck and then arched his back in a long stretch. It struck Dom that Arthur was wearing a cardigan over a t-shirt and jeans; a bookbag sat at his feet. His hair was longer than Dom had ever seen it, and wavy, brushing his cheekbones. Dom had never seen Arthur look so... normal.
But as soon as he thought it, another part of him said, I don't know this kid.
Dom shook his head as a million thoughts swirled through his mind. There was Arthur in his suit, shooting projections, and Arthur at the door to his office, asking Dom's advice on a paper; there was Mal on the night of their anniversary, dropping off a ledge, and Mal that morning, asking him to pick up the dry cleaning on his way home. There were other people there, too, but he couldn't remember their names. An Englishman he didn't trust, and a Japanese man he'd known for a lifetime. A young woman...
A groan came from the other side of him, and Dom whipped around to find Fischer pushing himself off the couch. Unlike Arthur, he was wearing a suit. However, what they had in common was the same thick, odd-looking bracelet-- no, Dom's mind supplied, not a bracelet, the REDSIV device.
"Rob, he's awake," Arthur said, standing over Dom.
"I'm going to punch you in the face," Dom told him. The sedative in his system made his voice slur.
Arthur's eyebrows shot up. He reached for the IV at Dom's wrist, but Dom knocked his hand away. Arthur didn't even have the decency to look ashamed of what he'd done -- and what had he done, again? Dom put a hand to his temple as the memory slipped away from him.
While Dom was watching Arthur, Fischer had somehow crept up behind him. Dom felt a pinch on his neck and then a wave of warmth spread through his body, causing his eyelids to droop.
"Go to sleep, Dr Cobb," Fischer said gently, his voice sounding miles away.
Dom's eyes slid shut.
When he came to, it was night. He couldn't remember sitting down for a nap, and he was holding onto a book he hadn't read in years. Mal was going to kill him if he missed dinner again, he thought, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
"Hypothetically," Arthur had asked Cobb the day of the extraction, "if you went to limbo with the person you loved and they never wanted to leave, what would you do?"
"Huh," Cobb had said. He'd looked away, and Arthur had taken the opportunity to drop the sedative into Cobb's mug of coffee.
"What if they intentionally made themselves forget, because they loved being in a world you two created together, a world where you could have whatever you wanted, without limits?" Arthur had continued, because according to Fischer, the whole plan rested on the fact Cobb's wife was a daredevil nutcase who had been asked to leave Stanford after some very experimental and unauthorised dreamsharing research.
Frankly, it had made Arthur a little uncomfortable knowing Cobb had been okay with them using his feelings toward his crazy wife against him, but Fischer had assured him that Cobb had been fully aware that they would be using any means necessary to perform the extraction. In fact, it had been why Cobb had volunteered to be the test subject in the first place: using anyone else would have been unethical.
"Would you incept them to believe their world wasn't real?" Arthur had asked.
"Hypothetically, I'd say that's a very good question," Cobb had replied, and then his coffee mug had slipped out of his shaking hand. "Have I been drugged?"
"Thank you for doing this, Dr Cobb," Arthur had said, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. He dialed Fischer's number to let him know it was okay to come in. "I think you'll find yourself very impressed with my team's work."
"What the--" Cobb had started, and then he'd passed out.
It had taken ten hours and six dream levels to get Dominic Cobb to give up how to perform inception. It had taken more layers to make Cobb forget reality, and then a few more, in addition to some carefully-planned suggestions, to lead him to incepting the projection he thought was his wife. Luckily for everyone, Cobb had several neuroses that were easy to manipulate. Unluckily, one of those neuroses included his inability to deal with guilt like a normal human being.
Fischer rearranged Cobb on the couch. Asleep, Cobb looked at peace. He was a little heavier in real life, his hairline thinner. His jacket had tweed patches at the elbows. He was drooling a little. Arthur felt a twinge of affection. In the dream-months they'd been under, Arthur had been beaten up, shot a few times in some vulnerable places, and nearly drowned, but Cobb had never once treated Arthur like he didn't think Arthur could handle it.
Granted, it was easy to be bad ass when you could manipulate the subconscious of the dreamer into believing you were whatever you wanted to be, but Arthur would've preferred to think that the Arthur in the dream had been all him. Also, it helped that Cobb's subconscious was pretty wimpy. Arthur probably would feel guiltier than he did about giving Cobb amnesia, bringing him into a scenario in which Arthur was his sidekick, and then shooting him in the head (twice), if Cobb's projection of Mal hadn't nearly ruined their plan. And if Cobb hadn't yelled at him. As it was, it wasn't like Cobb was going to remember anything -- he might, as some did, retain a few memories, but they would be fuzzy; he'd probably forget all about Arthur -- and, more importantly, he had volunteered himself for this.
"Do you think we won?" Arthur asked.
Fischer blinked at him. "What?"
"Do you think we beat the other team?" Arthur asked.
"Sure," Fischer said. "Yeah, the other team. Right."
Since he was an expert now in getting rid of evidence after pretending to be a point man for dream-month after dream-month, Arthur rid the room of any trace they'd been there. He tucked this fake student papers -- as part of his ruse to get Cobb to talk to him -- and the coffee mug he'd drunk from into his backpack. Fischer handed him five grand in cash: his grant money. Receiving cash was a little shady, but Arthur wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The experience alone had been worth it, in Arthur's opinion; what he'd learned from this experiment was going in his thesis. He was going to walk away from grad school with the highest grade of anyone in his department.
"Say hi to your parents for me," Fischer said.
"They're on a dig," Arthur replied, shoving the money into his bookbag, between his books and the REDSIV, tucked away safely in its plastic case. "I probably won't see them until November or December."
Looking disinterested, Fischer passed him a boarding pass. Arthur was surprised -- and pleased -- to see the ticket was for one of those new, expensive Orbital crafts.
"Cool," he said.
"You'll be back in Chicago twenty minutes after leaving San Francisco," Fischer added with a smirk.
"It'll still take me hours to get out to Northwestern," Arthur replied, but it was exciting to be riding home with the rich and famous, in any case.
"That's what you get for staying in Chicago instead of escaping to Harvard with me." Fischer reached out and ruffled Arthur's hair. "Get a haircut. You look like an undergrad."
Arthur ducked away from him. "You know I hate when you do that," he grumbled. "I need to catch the bus if I'm going to get to the airport in time, but let me know when you get word back about the challenge, okay?"
"You'll be the first to know," promised Fischer.
As he left, Arthur couldn't help but look back over his shoulder at Cobb. He really hoped, for Cobb's sake, that Cobb forgot everything that had happened to him in the dream. Arthur didn't want to be responsible for accidentally ruining someone's life.
The first thing Arthur Pendergrast did when he got back to the Northwestern campus was return the REDSIV to the Neurobiology Department. University lab regulations meant he couldn't check it out for more than twenty-four hours at a time, and he'd picked it up the previous morning before flying out to San Francisco to meet Fischer. Even having it an hour late would land him on a government watch list for those suspected of being rogue dreamers.
Every time Arthur checked out the REDSIV for his experiments, the secretary reminded him how lucky he was to be able to work with it. "Only fifty universities in the world have permission to use these," she reminded him. It annoyed the hell out of him every single time.
Next, he walked the half-mile to his place. One of the more interesting -- and annoying -- side-effects of being in a dream for so long was that being home, where it was only twenty-four hours later, was unsettling. It made Arthur feel funny to look at the plate on the kitchen counter and know it was from yesterday morning, not months ago. The coffee pot was half-full with cold coffee. His roommate was nowhere in sight, as usual; he was a Philosophy student and tended to spend long hours with his scene queen girlfriend. Arthur doubted he'd been home at all in the last day.
It took him a few days to get back into his routine of reading, lab time, and teaching. The first day back in his Developmental Biology seminar, he almost forgot what they'd talked about last week. He stood in front of the class and froze, momentarily, his mind gone suddenly blank.
Janice, the girl in the front row, tapped her pencil on his stack of books. "Arthur," she said quietly, "we're on week five."
Arthur shook himself. That was right, last week they'd started on children's health.
"Thanks," he said calmly. "Okay, everyone, class has started. Who wants to give a summary of what this week's articles were about?"
Later, in his room, he wondered if the other team members were having the same problem. It would be nice to ask. Not for the first time in his life, Arthur wished he were the kind of guy who could ask for someone's phone number or email address without feeling like it was a big deal. Arthur had already tried looking them up on Facebook, but there were too many people with the same first names, and he didn't know anyone's last name. He also realised, belatedly, that any or all of them could have changed their appearance in the dream, and so the picture on Facebook might not even be one he'd recognise. Arthur had changed his hair, after all, and Cobb's mind had projected himself as looking younger and fitter. Saito was actually a few years younger than Arthur.
Arthur went through his mental rolodex. That was one person he did know in real life: Saito. But Saito was, to be blunt, too cool for him. He didn't know if Saito would even answer the phone if he called. Ariadne had mentioned once, during a furtive conversation while Cobb had "been" in "Mombasa," she was doing an exchange in Japan. He was pretty sure she was an undergrad; she had a strong grasp of psychology but almost none on dreamsharing itself, which had surprised him. But it had added to the verisimilitude. Meanwhile, Yusuf was working at one of the major universities in India, and Eames-- well.
Who was Arthur trying to fool? He was already feeling better; he'd snapped out of being disoriented by the end of his class.
What he really wanted was an excuse to talk to Eames.
Arthur pulled his tablet out of his bag and laid it on the desk, biting his lip in thought. His finger hovered over the Thunderbird icon.
The first time Arthur had met Eames, they'd been three levels down and Arthur had been introducing him to Cobb in "Barcelona," after telling Cobb that Eames was an old army acquaintance. Eames had mocked and belittled Arthur the entire meeting, as per their plan to appear to be old rivals, but later he'd cornered Arthur when they'd been alone and apologised.
Eames had been handsome, slick, and everything Arthur had admired in an action hero, so of course Arthur had felt something inside him spark -- a little flame that had grown every time they'd seen each other after that.
Eames hadn't given Arthur his email address, but he'd seemed fairly confident Arthur could find it. Considering the way Arthur had projected himself in the dream, he didn't blame him. That Arthur was smooth and confident; he could fight and handle a gun, all without messing up his thousands of dollars' worth of menswear. He was everything the real Arthur --the one Eames had never seen--aspired to be. In reality, Arthur couldn't afford anything more expensive than the Gap, and most of his clothes came from thrift stores and yard sales. He wore Converse knock-offs from Target. His parents were paleontologists, and he had a pathological aversion to dirt because they'd dragged him on digs when he was a kid. Worse, he'd never been in a fist fight in his life. He'd seen a real gun exactly once, as a teenager, and it had freaked him out.
There was no way in hell Eames -- cool, dangerous Eames, who dreamt up RPGs and called Arthur 'darling' -- would be into Arthur if he knew who he really was.
Arthur closed his Thunderbird before he made a fool out of himself.
He was not, however, above thinking about Eames when he jerked off that night, lying in bed and remembering Eames' ease in taking out projections. It wasn't like Eames would ever know.
'The subject's response to dream-state stimuli--'
Arthur was working on his thesis and on his fifth cup of coffee when his cell phone rang. He'd been so deep in the zone he jumped; the girl at the table across from him glared at him before pointedly putting in her in earbuds. Arthur barely resisted rolling his eyes. At this hour, they were the only people on this floor, aside from the SanDroid security bot that randomly scanned each room, and yet she'd chosen to sit by him. She could deal with it.
Arthur pulled his phone closer to his tablet and hit the 'send' button. His cell was really old; it still had video capabilities, but it wasn't even a touch screen, and the colours were always off, making everyone he called look faintly green.
He glanced down briefly, just in time to see Fischer's face fill the screen. "Hel--"
"Are you alone?" Fischer demanded.
Arthur didn't bother looking down at the screen this time. He just snorted and kept typing. "It's almost one AM, of course I'm alone."
He waited for Fischer to make a crack about Arthur's love life, or lack thereof, but Fischer blurted, "I can't stop thinking about it."
That sounded ominous. Arthur paused in his typing. "Can't stop thinking about what?"
Fischer sighed. Arthur glanced down at his phone to see Fischer looking weary. "Breaking up my father's empire."
"Your father's a teacher," he said.
"Don't you think I know that?" Fischer snapped.
"Maybe you need a vacation." Arthur took a sip of his coffee. It was cold now, and he grimaced. "I had a bad couple of days when we got back, but you went deeper than me--"
"No, it's more than that," Fischer said. He paused meaningfully. "Arthur. I think I was incepted."
Arthur frowned. He picked up the phone so he could bring it closer to his face. "You can't have been incepted. You came up with the plan that Cobb needed to incept you. It wasn't real."
Fischer blew out a breath through his nose. "But none of us had ever tried performing inception before. We don't know how it works, not really. There were so many mistakes during that extraction as it was."
"You're overreacting," Arthur said.
"But--" Fischer tried again.
Arthur hung up.
He thought that was the end of that, but a week after the extraction, Arthur was taking a much-needed break at Starbucks and taking part in his favourite lazy pastimes (reading fashion blogs and playing Angry Birds) when Fischer dropped into the chair across from him, scaring him half to death.
"Jesus," Arthur exclaimed, nearly spilling his coffee onto his tablet. "What the hell, Rob? I thought you were in Seattle."
"I need to get help," Fischer said. He had a crazy look in his eyes; it reminded Arthur of the way Cobb used to look, in the dream. "I need to get unincepted."
"That's not a thing," Arthur said.
Fischer pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I need to tell you something. But first you have to promise me you won't freak out."
That sounded bad. "I make no such promise," Arthur said immediately.
Wincing, Fischer said, "Okay. Well. Look. What we did, it wasn't for research." He broke off and looked around the cafe suspiciously, and then he leaned forward and dropped his voice so Arthur had to move in closer. "I'm not working for Harvard; I didn't assemble your team for an inter-university challenge."
The skin around Fischer's eyes was pinched where he'd been rubbing them. He wasn't kidding, Arthur realized. His stomach dropped.
"Then what were we doing?" he asked.
"I was hired by the American Centre for Dreamsharing Development and Security," Fischer replied. His face was ashen. "Did you know Cobb was leaving Stanford?"
"No," Arthur answered, drawing the word out.
"He's been hired by the government to work exclusively for the DoD's dreamsharing division. My employer thinks he's giving the DoD inception."
"And?" Arthur asked. He wasn't sure where this was going.
"Think about it," Fischer said. His voice dropped, but he sounded almost excited. "Cobb's been working on inception for half a decade, and he's always claimed to not know how to do it. Yet suddenly he's giving up his tenured position at the world's leading psychology programme and signing a non-disclosure agreement with the government?"
Arthur pursed his lips. "I still don't understand," he said. "Obviously Cobb knows how to do inception; we saw it. We extracted it."
"I have a meeting with my employer next Tuesday. After I hand over the information to them, they'll issue a patent license on inception."
"A license," Arthur echoed as the implications started dawning on him. "So that it'll belong to the American Centre for Dreamsharing Development and Security, and if the government, or anyone else, wants to use it, or study it..."
Fischer nodded grimly.
"But I-- but all of us, the entire team-- we were going to use what we learned in our research," Arthur said slowly. "That was why we agreed to do this in the first place." He slammed a fist on the table, causing his half-empty mug to rattle and people to stare. "I was going to have the first published study of projections that actually went past theoretical models and--"
"It'll be licensed long before any of you can be published."
Arthur grabbed Fischer by his shirt and jerked him forward. "You asshole," he said. "That's six years of my life down the drain!"
His first thought was for his research; his second, for Cobb. With a sickening lurch in his stomach, he realised Cobb hadn't volunteered for anything -- Arthur had helped emotionally torture him for someone else's profit. Fischer looked at Arthur sympathetically, like he knew exactly what Arthur was thinking and thought him sad because of it, and it wasn't until the women at the table across from them glared at them suspiciously that Arthur could ease his grip on Fischer's shirt.
"I'm sorry," Fischer said. He held up his hands with his fingers spread, like he was worried Arthur was going to deck him. Arthur was considering it.
"Oh, well, that makes it okay then," Arthur said sarcastically. He slouched back in his chair, so furious he could barely hold himself up. "I can't believe you did this to me, you shithead. I thought we were friends."
"We are," Fischer insisted. "I brought you into this because I trusted you could do it."
Arthur felt some of his anger ebb away.
Then Fischer added, "I also needed people I could be sure weren't with the American government, and it didn't hurt that all your programmes let you take REDSIVs out of the lab."
"You son of a bitch," said Arthur.
"Believe me, I'm paying for it. Incepted, remember?"
Even though what Arthur really wanted to do was dramatically storm off and wait for Fischer beg forgiveness for being the worst friend in the world, he was curious. "What are you going to do?"
"I need to get this-- this thought out of my head," Fischer replied desperately. "It's all I think about, day and night. 'Your father wants you to be your own man. Break up his empire and start over.'
"A virus," Arthur murmured under his breath, remembering what Cobb had called it.
"Yesterday, I found myself in Dad's classroom, dividing the children into small groups. Then I put each group in a different corner of the room," Fischer continued.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Did it make you feel better?"
"Actually, yes, for a little while," Fischer said. "But then recess happened and they came together again, and everything was ruined. I thought I was going to scream."
Arthur could feel himself making a face. "Rob, that's crazy."
"No kidding," Fischer retorted. "I need to find someone to help me. Dr Langlois, my old graduate supervisor from Harvard, works at the DoD now. I got an email from him Tuesday inviting me to DC this weekend to talk about research."
"Why don't you just go to the people who hired you? Can't they help you?"
Snorting, Fischer said, "And risk them claiming I've failed and not pay me for my time? Not a chance. But don't worry, it'll be okay. I think."
"Isn't it weird that Dr Langlois contacted you out of the blue?" Arthur asked, feeling a sudden touch of paranoia. "Do you think he knows? Are you going to be in trouble?"
Fischer waved a vague hand. "Nah, he probably just wants to show me his tea cosy collection. Although," he added, "There is a slim -- very slim! -- possibility that Dr Langlois may, in fact, turn me into the Pentagon for treason. Haha!"
"Ha, ha," Arthur repeated, furious.
There was an awkward pause as they stared at each other. Arthur was the first to crack, and he laughed, breaking the tension. Fischer followed, looking relieved.
When he was calmer, Arthur said, grinning in spite of it all, "After he fixes you, asshole, I'm going to make you sorry you ever met me. Kind of like how I feel right now."
"After he fixes me, I'll grovel at your feet for as long as you want," said Fischer. "I have to go catch a flight to DC, but I'll meet you here at noon Monday afternoon to tell you the news. If you don't hear from me, be extremely worried!"
He laughed again.
Monday at noon, Fischer didn't show.
At first Arthur just thought Fischer was late; that he was stuck waiting for him when he could've been working instead, trying to salvage six years' worth of useless research. By one, he thought maybe Fischer was still in DC and had forgotten about meeting Arthur. At one-fifteen, he dialed Fischer's number, expecting to get his voicemail so he could yell at him for being an asshole.
Instead, he got: "The number you have dialed has been disconnected."
Arthur's annoyance evaporated.
He waited, every minute adding to the ball of trepidation building in his stomach. He drank three cups of coffee, and his leg wouldn't stop jittering.
At twenty past two, he drained the last cup of coffee and scrolled through his contacts to find Saito's number.
It had been incredibly difficult, at first, for Arthur to reconcile Saito in the dream with Saito in reality. Arthur had met Yuudai Saito in person exactly once, right before the Cobb job, at a cognitive psychology conference hosted by the University of Chicago; Saito had given a paper on the importance of texture to a subject while dreaming. He was a tall, intimidating, twenty-something grad student from UC Berkeley who embodied everything Arthur wasn't. For one thing, his family was one of the richest in the world, and he had no problem taking advantage of it. For another, he was a total dude bro. But he was good at what he did, and, like Arthur, he paid attention to detail; he and Arthur had been the first people Fischer had signed up for the job.
Saito picked up on the third ring. "Hey, man, what's up?" he asked cheerfully, his face filling the tiny screen of Arthur's cheap cell phone.
"It's me, Arthur," replied Arthur. "Arthur Pendergrast."
Saito snorted, adjusting the brim of his baseball cap. "I know who you are, brah. We've spent months in dreamtime together. What's happening?"
"Where are you?"
"Out with some of my bros. There's this new coffee place, and the chick who works there is hot."
"She's never going to go for you, Saito," laughed a voice in the background.
"Your mum went for me," Saito shot back.
Arthur ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "No, I mean-- Saito, are you listening? Where in the world are you? Are you still in Berkeley? Are you okay?"
Looking at him in surprise, Saito replied, "Of course I am. Are you okay? You sound strange."
"Fischer's gone missing."
Saito's brows drew together. "What do you mean, missing?"
Arthur licked his lips. "He came to me a few days ago and said he'd been incepted."
There was a long pause. "Because of the dream?" Saito asked slowly. He looked confused.
"Yes, because of the dream. He said he couldn't stop thinking about dismantling his father's empire, and he was going to seek help. Friday, he told me he'd meet me here Monday afternoon. It's two-thirty now, and he hasn't shown."
"It's only been a couple of hours," said Saito, sounding exasperated.
Arthur bristled. "You weren't here when he was telling me that we--" He realised, suddenly, that he was in a very crowded coffee shop, and that anyone could be listening to him confessing he may have, possibly, committed treason. "That we stole information the military was buying from Cobb," he finished in a whisper.
Saito stared at him blankly for a long, horrible moment.
"Are you fucking serious," Saito said.
"I just found out," Arthur replied defensively. "Fischer was hired by the American Centre for Dreamsharing Development and Security to steal how to do inception. Cobb was giving it to the government."
"My mum is not going to be happy about this," Saito muttered.
"And now Fischer's missing," Arthur reminded him.
Saito's face creased in thought. "The two aren't necessarily related. You said yourself, Fischer thinks he's been incepted. Maybe he went off the deep end. Or maybe he checked himself into a hospital."
"But--" Arthur began, frustrated.
"Give it a few more days," Saito said soothingly. "If you haven't heard from him by Wednesday, file a missing person's report with the police."
That did sound reasonable. Maybe Arthur really was being paranoid. Fischer's old advisor had probably found a way to help him. Maybe they were too busy for him to get back to Chicago. Maybe Fischer had forgotten to pay his phone bill.
"Yeah," Arthur agreed, "okay."
Back in Japan, Saito Yuudai had lived with his parents in an enormous high-rise flat, but in California it was different. His dad had offered to buy him a house all to himself, but Saito had wanted to live with his friends. Not just for the company; it meant easy access to all the house parties, weed, and hot girls he wanted. The big difference, in Saito's opinion, between undergrad at the University of Tokyo and graduate studies at UC Berkeley was that he didn't have to worry about his parents or his handlers lurking behind every corner, making sure he wasn't doing anything shameful, or being kidnapped, or whatever it was his parents were worried about. Grad school wasn't easy, but with it came a certain sense of freedom. Saito cherished that above all else.
Saito and his two roommates lived in a bungalow not far from campus (and not too far from the Greek houses, either). As a house warming, his parents had bought them new furniture, a forty-inch tv, and a SanDroid security system. With Saito's allowance, he got them a Wii and a cleaning service three times a week. It wasn't home, but that was precisely why he liked it.
The day after Arthur Pendergrast's paranoid call, Saito was playing Wii when someone knocked on the door.
"Did one of you order pizza or something?" one of his roommates, Wu, yell from his bedroom.
From downstairs, Saito heard his other roommate, Andrews, answering the video doorbell with, "What's up?"
"Is Yuudai Saito here?" asked an unfamiliar voice.
"Uh, just a minute," Andrews said.
Saito was too busy trying to rescue Princess Peach to wonder who was looking for him. He was dimly aware of Andrews padding up to him, and then he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"What?" Saito mumbled, jerking his arm to make Mario jump to the next level. "I'm winning."
"It's the Feds," Andrews hissed.
That made Saito look up, the controller slipping out of his grasp. The FBI was there to send him to Gitmo. They'd committed treason against the US government. His parents would be furious.
Saito, if he miraculously got out of this unscathed, would have to start taking that dork Arthur more seriously.
"They have badges and everything," Andrews continued nervously. "They flashed them at the camera."
Saito steeled himself. "Distract them," he ordered.
And then he did the most ridiculous, crazy thing of his adult life: he opened the window and climbed out onto the roof to get away from the FBI.
Peering over the edge, he saw a black SUV parked in front of their driveway, blocking it. He knew they couldn't see him on the roof if they were standing on the porch, but his footsteps sounded loud to him as he crawled across to get to out of the view of the upstairs windows. He grimaced when he heard the front door swing open and Andrews say, "Uh, come on in, br-- officers."
Saito crouched between the roof gables, digging in the pockets of his sweatpants for his phone. When he found it, he dialed Arthur's number. "Dude," he said, when Arthur's frowning face lit up his screen. "Dude."
"Yes, 'dude,'" Arthur replied dryly.
Saito was beginning to understand what Mr Eames had meant when he'd said Arthur was condescending. "The FBI just showed up at my door."
Arthur looked alarmed. "What?"
Down the street, a car alarm went off, and Saito jumped. A loose shingle loudly scraped under his foot. "They're in my house now," he hissed, hunching his shoulders closer together. "Do you think they're here to kill me because of what we did?"
"I don't think the FBI's allowed to kill people," said Arthur.
Arthur seemed to be walking down a hallway, and he glanced over his shoulder before pushing open a door. Saito really hoped this meant Arthur wasn't having this conversation out in the open where anyone could hear them. "Why would you think it had something to do with Fischer? Maybe it's something you did independently."
"Of course," Saito said. "It must've been all those criminal things I do in my spare time. Such as assisting you and Fischer in stealing from the military!"
"Okay, calm down," said Arthur, and Saito pressed his lips together, livid. "You're the one who told me not to overreact when Fischer didn't show, remember? The military couldn't have found out what we did to Cobb. We didn't tell anyone."
But then Arthur's head snapped up. He looked stricken. "Except."
That didn't seem good. "Except what?" Saito demanded.
"Fischer went to the Department of Defense. He thought his old graduate supervisor, Dr Langlois, could help him become -- and I'm perfectly aware how ridiculous this word is -- unincepted." Arthur's frown deepened. "What if his supervisor turned him in, and Fischer gave them our names?"
"So the people who are trying to arrest me," Saito asked in a calm voice, "would that be the NSA or the CIA?"
"I don't know, I got a C in Intro to PoliSci," Arthur replied.
"I was being rhetorical, Arthur," said Saito. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
"If it's the FBI, or the CIA, or whoever," Arthur started, and Saito gazed back into his viewscreen, "do you think our phones are tapped?"
Feeling a panicked tightness in his chest, Saito barked, "Yes. And they can be tracked with GPS," he added, as soon as the thought occurred to him.
Suddenly, there came a crash from inside the house; Saito jumped, twisting around in panic. He heard a window open from somewhere to his right, and then a loud bang immediately followed by something flying into the roof, narrowly missing his leg. Saito flashed back to the memory of being in the taxi in the dream, with gunshots flying all around him.
He didn't flinch, but it was a near thing.
"What was that?" Arthur demanded. His voice cracked with worry.
"Gunshot?" Arthur repeated. "Saito-- are you-- How are you so calm about this?"
Without answering, Saito tucked his phone between his neck and ear and slid down off the roof. He hung onto the edge to soften his fall before releasing and dropping into the grass; it sent painful shocks up his legs, but it wasn't enough to stop him.
The second his feet hit the ground, gunfire exploded in the gable where he'd just been crouching, sending bits of shingle and wood everywhere.
As Saito tore down the street, more gunshots followed. He couldn't see where the bullets were landing; all that mattered was that he was still uninjured and alive, and he could still run as fast as his legs could carry him. They were trying to kill him, like a common criminal. Him, Saito Yuudai, the heir to SanDroid, the world's largest developer of synthetic nervous systems for AI units. ('Buy a SanDroid, not a sad 'droid!') He was going to sue the entire state of California for this. If he made it out alive.
"Don't use your phone again," he instructed, interrupting Arthur yelling at him. "Don't try to get in touch with anyone. If they've come for me, they'll come for you, too."
"But--" Arthur protested.
"Don't argue, just do it," Saito growled.
He got one last look at Arthur's pinched face before he threw his phone on the ground and crunched it beneath his feet, hearing the plastic screen snap as he drove his heel into it.
Then, Saito ran.
He ran and ran; he hopped the fence separating two of his neighbours' yards and ended up in the cul-de-sac in the next street over. Then he hopped another fence, and, soon enough, he found himself crossing a street corner between a large house with a for sale sign and the entrance to a neighbourhood park.
Saito was dripping sweat, his heart felt like it was going to explode, and his mind wouldn't stop racing. With every footstep, a voice inside in his head repeated, They're going to get you, they know what you and Fischer did, where are you going to go? If he turned himself in, maybe they'd arrest him; as soon as Saito called his mother, all of this would be taken care of. No government agency would hold him once they found out who he was.
Or they would kill him without question, and his parents would never find his body.
A car horn beeped. Saito went cold all over.
But it wasn't the black SUV rounding the corner so quickly its breaks screeched. It was a dark town car; on the driver's side was one of his mother's stony-faced bodyguards, Hayato. Saito didn't hesitate in climbing into the back seat, relief washing over him.
"Yuudai-kun," his mother said.
His eyes went wide. "Mum? What are you doing here?"
She gave him a level look. "Why wouldn't I be here in your time of need?"
"Because you should be in Tokyo," he said, incredulous. Then he realised what she must have been doing in Berkeley: "Have you been following me?"
"Of course I have; your father and I alternate weeks," she said. "We have to protect our only heir. We're going back to Japan--" Saito groaned. "--and we are going to find out why three of my bodyguards are currently in a shoot-out after trying to stop two men from killing you."
Saito coughed. "I know why," he said. "I may have, inadvertently, committed treason against the US government."
When he finished his story, she squeezed her eyes shut with a pained expression. For the first time in years, Saito felt completely, utterly mortified. He lowered his eyes to the floor. "I'm sorry," he said. "But-- we need to go to Chicago and get Arthur before something happens to him."
His mum shook her head. "If this is indeed the CIA after you, there's no time. We must get out of the country before they put your name on the no-flight list. If they haven't done it yet, as soon as they've realised you've gotten away, they most certainly will. We can only hope your friend gets to safety before they do the same to him." When she looked at him again, her expression softened. "If by tomorrow no one has come for him, I'll send my people to get him and bring him to Tokyo."
Saito remembered how Arthur was in Cobb's dream, competent and sure of himself. But he also remembered the thin, twitchy, excited young man (whom Saito had genuinely thought was twenty years old at the most, before finding out he was actually older than Saito himself) who had approached him at the last cognitive psychology conference, who had told Saito, admirably, that he'd never before met anyone else who'd paid as much attention to details in dreams as he did. Saito hoped that whoever Arthur truly was, he had the ability to outwit the people gunning for them.
'There is a slim -- very slim! -- possibility that Dr Langlois may, in fact, turn me into the Pentagon for treason.'
Fischer's words kept running through Arthur's mind as he attempted to exit the building as calmly as possible. First, though, he had to get rid of his cell phone; in the bathroom, he took it apart and threw it in the trash bin, making sure to snap the sim card in two.
Saito had said they would come for Arthur next. Saito had been shot at. He might have even been dead.
If both Fischer and Saito were dead--
"--seen this man around?"
Arthur looked up from where he was fiddling with the buckle of his satchel. The bathroom was near the elevators, but he could still hear the group of students who always loitered in the Neurobiology lounge. The voice belonged to someone well beyond his early twenties, and something in its tone made the hair on the back of Arthur's neck stand up.
Silently, he glanced around the corner and saw a man in a navy suit showing the group of undergrads a picture on his phone.
"Yeah, that's Arthur Pendergrast," said one of the boys. "He was my Bio TA last year."
"He gave me a nasty look," one of the girls sniffed.
"He went that way."
The boy -- who Arthur didn't remember at all -- pointed in Arthur's direction; Arthur jerked back quickly, hoping he hadn't been spotted.
There was no way he'd make it to the back stairwell -- straight down this hallway -- without being seen. Almost without thinking, he reached back and turned the knob of the door next to him. It was unlocked. He slipped inside and gently, quietly closed the door behind him.
He was standing in an office. Embarrassingly, it took a solid thirty seconds for Arthur to notice there was a professor in it. She sent him a disbelieving look as he stood in the middle of the room, clutching his satchel to his chest.
"May I help you, son?" she asked archly.
Arthur glanced over his shoulder at the glazed window in the door. "Yes," he said, keeping one eye on it. "Do you... know where the bathroom is?"
She pointed at the door. "Get out."
A shadow passed by the window, headed in the direction Arthur was supposed to be going. He ducked and silently counted to twenty.
"Sorry," he told her, and opened the door and ran.
That man must have already turned the corner, because Arthur didn't see him. Arthur jogged out of the building and hurried down the street. Where he was going, he wasn't sure, but he needed to get as far away from the Hogan building as he could -- as far away from that guy, who couldn't have been anything but an NSA or CIA agent, ready to do to him whatever they'd done to Saito. As he passed the gigantic Technological Institute, he let himself mix in with the rest of the students heading to their next classes.
He could cut through the building, and then-- what? Go home? He frowned to himself.
Just as Arthur was starting to feel like he'd gotten away, he spotted two men in dark suits climbing out of a black SUV. They were headed in his direction, and Arthur had a feeling they weren't faculty members.
Keeping his expression neutral despite the chill racing through his veins, he joined the stream of students walking into the east wing of the Technological Institute -- a huge campus of its own, with four wings and pedestrian bridges connecting it to other buildings. If Arthur couldn't lose his tail here, there was no hope for him.
Once inside, he headed toward the library on the far side of the building; the men following him weren't even trying to be inconspicuous, and before they could mark him, Arthur took an abrupt turn and walked straight into the middle of a crowd of chattering students who were huddling beside the stairs.
Some of the kids tossed him weird looks, but he smiled back thinly and continued to hide behind a huge guy who had to have been a football player.
"Excuse me," he heard a gruff voice say, and he peeked around the student to see one of the men scanning the crowd. His face was scarily blank; when he shifted, the outline of his gun holster was visible underneath his jacket.
Arthur waited until the agent's head was turned, and then he darted into the stairwell.
These may have been professionals, whoever they were, but Arthur was faster and had an advantage over them: having been a student at Northwestern for ten years meant he knew this building like the back of his hand. Upstairs, he dove into an empty office. He knew what they'd see as soon as they came up: hallways going in every direction, including the one linking the bridge to the Catalyst Centre.
He slid down to a crouch and waited. Soon, he heard the sound of heavy footfalls. "He went this way," someone shouted, and the footsteps pounded in the direction away from him.
Arthur refused to let himself feel relieved. He counted down sixty seconds, and then he left.
"Shit, shit, shit," he muttered to himself when he made it back to his apartment, slamming the deadbolt shut behind him. Once in his room, he started hastily folding clothes and putting them into his bookbag. He grabbed the wad of five grand Fischer had given him in payment for extracting from Cobb and added that as well. Next, he dug for the passport he'd hidden between his copies of The Hunt for Red October and An Introduction to Molecular Neurobiology.
But when he pulled it out, he froze. What was he doing, exactly? Was he seriously thinking of fleeing the country? He didn't even have a place to go. It wasn't like he could hop on a plane and go to his parents in Eritrea, not without an entry visa. And he'd done a study abroad in France during undergrad, but the last time he'd talked to his host family, they'd moved. He couldn't remember where. He could pick a country at random, one where no one knew him, but then what?
Arthur was a planner, but this was never something he'd had to think about before. His life was filled with visits to the library, experiments in his lab, the occasional movie night with the other people in his programme, and boring phone calls from wherever his parents happened to be at the time.
Of course, no one had ever tried to kill him before, either.
What would Jason Bourne do? Arthur thought, turning his passport over and over in his hands.
He had to be realistic here. This wasn't the dream. He could take care of himself; he wasn't some kid who needed rescuing. In Cobb's dream, he would've been able to fight anyone who tried to kill him, but this was reality, and the people after him and Saito weren't projections. He was an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. In the real world, he had no weapons, no contacts, not even a goddamned car. He needed help. Fischer had disappeared; he didn't even know if Saito was still alive. Arthur was alone.
And that was when it hit him: he did know someone. He knew a suave, bad ass, British researcher-by-day, criminal-by-night by the name of Eames.
With a renewed sense of purpose, Arthur logged back into his computer and did a Google search for 'Eames psychology'. He skimmed the first few entries and finally found it on University College London's website: Dr Harold Eames, tutor in psychoanalysis. When he clicked on the link to Eames' profile page, it featured a blurry and terrible picture of a scruffy man with a wide smile -- Eames, Arthur recognised, his heart pounding -- and, at the bottom of the page, an email, phone number, and office address.
Arthur quickly saved the entire page to his hard drive, and he copied the same information into his moleskine.
After that, he caught a taxi to the airport.
Four hours later, thanks to the Orbital craft whose ticket had cost him fifteen hundred dollars and left him more than a little air-sick, Arthur Pendergrast landed at Heathrow.
Aside from the air sickness, the plane ride had been fine, but as soon as his feet touched solid ground again, he had butterflies in his stomach. Not just at the possibility of meeting Eames (okay, mostly at the possibility of meeting Eames, meeting him in person for real), but also because now, truly, it hit him what he'd done: he had just left his entire life a continent behind him. Arthur usually wasn't the kind of guy to second-guess himself, but he had to wonder if he was an idiot.
At Heathrow, he headed straight past baggage claim and followed a crowd of people onto the tube. The feeling that he'd done something stupid multiplied as he crept closer and closer toward the city centre; his palms started to sweat, and he kept rubbing them on his jeans until the woman seated across from him gave him a funny look. Embarrassed, he tucked his hands into the front pockets of his hoodie and stared at his own reflection in the window.
He looked like a dumb kid, in his striped shirt, tie, and jumper with his hoodie zipped up halfway and his hair all in his face. He was a dumb kid: he'd just fled the US in order to find a man he didn't even really know, a man who, most likely, didn't want to see him. Eames probably hadn't been serious when he'd said Arthur could email him; he was probably just being polite.
Clutching the straps of his backpack, Arthur got off the tube at Leicester Square and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. He picked up a free tube map on his way out of the underground, but it might as well have been written in another language.
"Screw this," he muttered, and got a cab.
London was big and grey and chilly, even in spring. It was just like the movies. He tried not to press his face against the window like a tourist as the cab drove up the winding streets past fancy apartment complexes, small cafes, tiny parks with interesting-looking statues, and big squares. The streets were more crowded than he'd expected, just as crowded as Chicago, except everything was on the wrong side and there were dozens of red double-decker buses everywhere. The whole city was swarming with pigeons.
"We're passing Covent Garden," the cab driver said helpfully.
Arthur nodded like he knew what that meant. "Oh. Thanks."
Soon enough, he was being dropped off in front of a building on Gower Street. With his bookbag, he must have looked like just another student, because no one stopped him when he slid through the door as a group of kids were leaving.
It was sheer determination that pushed Arthur to check the name listings by the stairwell and then head to Eames' office on the third floor. But as he stared at the door that was separating him and the guy he sort of, kind of had a crush on (the guy he was hoping would help him from being murdered), he found himself hesitating.
"Arthur Preston Pendergrast, pull yourself together," he murmured under his breath, clenching his fists. "Be a winner."
He knocked on the door.
"Come in," called a familiar voice.
Arthur smoothed down the front of his hoodie, and, making sure he was wearing a perfectly neutral expression, walked inside.
Eames was clacking away at his laptop when Arthur closed the door behind him; his back was to Arthur, and all Arthur could see of him was short hair and the broad stretch of his shoulders as he hunched over his desk. Arthur's stomach twisted up in knots.
"I don't have you in my diary," Eames said without turning. His accent was different than the one Arthur had heard in the dream. He wasn't good with English accents, but the one Eames was using was rougher, his voice deeper. It made him sound like a normal English guy instead of the dashing English gentleman Arthur remembered. "You'll have to remind me--"
"I didn't make an appointment," Arthur said.
The room went quiet as Eames abruptly stopped typing. He swiveled his chair around and gaped.
"Arthur?" Eames asked, looking like he didn't believe his eyes.
Arthur knew exactly how he felt, because this wasn't the Eames he knew from dreamsharing. But it was Eames, all the same. He was still broad-shouldered, with a light beard the same colour as his hair, which was cut short enough to stick up everywhere. Yet he was also wearing a faded Batman shirt, jeans, and big, white sneakers, and he had plastic, tortoise shell glasses perched on his nose.
"You're Arthur," Eames concluded, stumbling to his feet. He looked Arthur up and down and smiled crookedly, and it made Arthur's chest tight. "You look the same. Well, no, not the same, but-- your face is the same. And your body. Still very--"
At the last, his face turned faintly pink.
"Call me Eames," Eames continued, voice breaking with a blatant nervousness. "Or Harry."
"I do call you Eames," Arthur pointed out. "Or, I did. In the dream."
"Ah, right," Eames replied. "Of course."
When he smiled, there was a flash of metal. Braces, Arthur realised.
"You're not what I expected," Arthur said. Eames flinched, and Arthur continued, hastily, "I, um, your Batman shirt's cool."
"Ta," said Eames. "I like your reindeer jumper. D'you want a cuppa, Ar--What are you called? I know in the dream it was Arthur, but..." He trailed off with another crooked smile.
Arthur plucked at the collar of said jumper, which was old and navy blue. He was pretty sure it was a girl's sweater, but at least it fit properly. "Arthur," he replied, because he wasn't a doctor yet. "Arthur Pendergrast."
He didn't know what to say next ("I know we're practically strangers, but..."? "Can you please protect me from being assassinated"? "Why do you have a beard"?), and an awkward silence fell over the room. But then Eames said, "Arthur," head cocked like he expected something.
Eames' voice had always been sexy, with his posh -- and apparently fake -- accent. But his real voice, which was rougher and deeper, practically purred Arthur's name. Arthur's ears burned.
His reaction must have been obvious, because Eames suddenly looked pleased -- finally, a look on his face Arthur recognised. His mouth curved into a smile, and he took a few steps forward. "When you said you'd email me, I'd thought, I'd hoped, but I never expected--" He held up a hand, mere inches away from Arthur. "I'm glad you came, very glad--"
In that moment, Arthur wanted nothing more than to tell Eames he was there for him, that he'd dropped everything to fly across the pond so they could be together (or something... less ridiculous. Something smooth.); he wanted to tell Eames about how he'd come so close to emailing him, about how he had thought of him every fucking day since they'd woken up. But right now, Arthur was aware of two very important reason why he couldn't:
The first was that someone, possibly the US government, was trying to kill them, which took precedence over getting his dick sucked.
The second was that this wasn't his Eames. He didn't look like Eames, or sound like him. And while it was true Arthur himself couldn't break a man's neck while rolling around in zero-gravity, and the most expensive article of clothing he owned was the pair of shoes his Bubbe had bought him for his last birthday, he was still Arthur. He'd been playing the role of a point man while in Cobb's unconscious mind, which had included a few things the real Arthur couldn't do (fire a gun, fight hand-to-hand, kiss a girl), but he hadn't drastically altered his personality.
Eames, on the other hand, was-- well, he was a nerd.
So instead, Arthur said, "Someone's trying to kill me."
Eames' face fell, but then he brightened. "And you came here because you thought I could protect you?"
"I, uh," Arthur said, eying the Babylon 5 poster on the wall.
Before Arthur knew what was happening, Eames had moved into his space and was grabbing his hand. Arthur found himself staring deeply into Eames' eyes, which were very serious. "Don't worry," Eames assured him, "I'm a level eighty-five ret paladin."
"Oh boy," said Arthur.
"Tell me everything," Eames said fervently.
Arthur tried to disentangle his hand, but Eames held on. "Could you--?"
"Ah, sorry, love," Eames said, letting go. Looking like he was desperately aiming for nonchalant, he dropped back into his ergonomic chair and gestured for Arthur to sit as well.
Arthur perched on the stuffy old couch. Eames' office wasn't much more than a closet, even smaller than the shared office he had back at Northwestern, so their knees almost touched. Eames sat like he had in the dream, slouched like he was bored already, but his eyes were keen. Right next to the couch was a table filled with mismatched mugs and spoons, an electric kettle, a ceramic kettle with some kind of paisley design, and a box of Twinnings Earl Grey. Above it was a Firefly poster and a few framed postcards of New York.
"Fischer lied to us," Arthur began. Beating around the bush wasn't going to help anything. "There was no university challenge. He was working for a think tank that wanted to steal inception from Cobb and then license it."
Eyes rounding, Eames said, "You're taking the piss. Fischer had credentials--"
"You of all people should know how easy it is to fake stuff like that," Arthur said without thinking.
"Well, yes, I suppose," Eames replied slowly. "Although I'm not-- but I have an idea, yes. I did ring Harvard, however, after I got Fischer's email asking me in on the project, and the person I spoke to gave me very detailed information. It seemed like a proper challenge."
"Fischer had a million-dollar private think tank to help him. He must've bribed someone in the Psych Department."
Eames blanched. "Hold up, does this mean Cobb wasn't in on it? We made the man think he murdered his wife!"
Arthur grimaced. "No, Cobb didn't know."
Eames ran a hand over his mouth. "Well, frell."
"I'm hoping he doesn't remember any of it," Arthur confessed, guilt gnawing at him. He hoped Cobb was okay, and that he wasn't in California having a nervous breakdown or something. Arthur had spent years studying the brain and projections, and the way Cobb's guilt had manifested itself like that -- that wasn't the mind of someone entirely sane.
"So that's who's trying to kill you?" Eames asked. He made a face. "Cobb?"
"This is where it gets bad," Arthur said. He pulled up his feet to sit crossed-legged on the couch.
"Oh, this is where," Eames replied dryly. "So all that before, that was the good part, was it?"
Arthur just looked at him.
"Still no sense of humour, Arthur." But Eames' words lacked bite. "Continue, yeah?"
"Fischer was stealing inception from Cobb before he could give it to the US military."
Eames let out a strangled, incredulous laugh. But when Arthur's expression didn't change, he stiffened "I see."
"Now Fischer's missing," said Arthur, "and someone shot at Saito, and today, some men in suits showed up at my campus and tried to get me. I don't know how to get in touch with Ariadne and Yusuf, and for all we know, they're already dead. And you might be next -- they might be able to find you the way I found you."
Eames blinked at him. "And how did you find me?"
After pulling his tablet out of his backpack, Arthur booted it and touched the icon for Firefox. It went immediately to his homepage, The Sartorialist. Eames raised an eyebrow but wisely didn't say anything.
Arthur typed 'university college' into his address bar, and then scrolled through his history until he found Eames' page. It loaded, and he presented it to Eames.
"Frak me," Eames said, frowning. "That's not good."
Eames stood abruptly, and Arthur jumped up, too, as a spike of fear shot through him. Grabbing a messenger bag and shoving some papers into it, Eames announced, "We should get out of here before someone comes looking for us."
That sounded like a good plan to Arthur. They left the UCL offices and headed for the tube at Eusten Square. Arthur tried to keep an eye out for anyone who looked suspicious, but there were tons of people in London wearing suits, not like on the Northwestern campus; he wasn't even sure an agent would be dressed so obviously. If someone wanted to kill them now, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
On the tube, they sat side-by-side in a mostly-empty train compartment, knees knocking. Arthur had his bookbag on his lap; he wrapped his arms around it like a security blanket. Being out in public like this was leaving him feeling shaken in a way that running away from Chicago hadn't. He could feel the adrenaline high from the last few hours trickling out of him. His hands were trembling a little, and he clenched them into the sides of his bag.
"Where are we going?" Arthur asked quietly.
Eames looked at him in surprise. "My flat," he said, like it should have been obvious.
Arthur frowned. "But that's such an obvious hiding place. Whoever's after us--"
"Would have to first discover we were together," Eames broke in, putting a heavy hand on Arthur's shoulder, "and seeing as how I've yet to be attacked, I think that gives us a few days to get all our ducks in a row. Mustn't be too hasty, now."
Something about Eames' calm, sure tone made Arthur feel better. Eames didn't remove his hand from Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur leaned into it a bit. Up close, Eames smelled really good, something strong, masculine, and unexpected.
"We could always go stay with my mum and dad in Reading, if it'll make you more comfortable," suggested Eames kindly. "Where are your parents, may I ask?"
Arthur shrugged one shoulder. "East Africa. They're on a dig. They're, uh, paleontologists."
"That's brilliant," Eames replied.
Arthur frowned. No one in his entire life had thought what his parents did was cool, especially once they'd found out he'd been home-schooled for most of his life. "Yeah, uh," he answered, rubbing the back of his neck. "When I was a kid, they dragged me around on their digs, but they wanted me to go to a real high school, so I went to live with my grandma when I was fourteen. But she died a few years ago."
"Arthur, I have to say, you completely fascinate me," Eames said, and the strange thing was, he seemed like he meant it.
Arthur found himself smiling tentatively. This was nicer than having pens thrown at him or his chair kicked, like when he'd usually had Eames' attention. "What about your parents?"
"They were in publishing," Eames replied dismissively. "Very boring."
"It must've been awful, being normal," Arthur said.
Eames smiled. "Well, I had my own ways of escaping."
Eames' apartment was in north London, and it was, essentially, a larger version of his office. There were posters everywhere, some from things Arthur didn't recognise (what the hell was Boa Vs Python?), and some he did. His furniture all looked second-hand. He had a massive entertainment system, with a flatscreen tv that took up most of his wall, and in the corner was a desktop. No one had desktops anymore, not even a lot of gaming geeks; most gamers used notebooks, and everyone else had tablets, like the one tucked into Arthur's bag. But there was a closed notebook on the coffee table, so he supposed Eames wasn't completely archaic.
It was still nicer than Arthur's place. For one thing, Eames didn't appear to have a roommate who left his giant bong in the middle of the living room.
"Nice place," Arthur complimented, trying not to look at the Lord of the Rings framed poster on the far wall. There was also one of those fake Helm's Deep models from the box set on the bookshelf next to a set of unrecognisable action figures, and Arthur winced. "I like your action figures."
"They're collectables, but thank you," said Eames, setting his messenger bag on the floor by the door. "It's nice to see you can be condescending in real life, too."
Arthur watched him hang his coat and scarf on an old coat rack. "I'm not being condescending," he argued, feeling prickly. "Just because I don't know what these things are--"
He found himself getting wound up, but Eames was smirking at him in such a familiar way, and Arthur got it.
"You're messing with me," he stated.
"It's like you've already forgotten our time together in the dream," said Eames.
Eames' SanDroid vacuum started bumping Arthur's feet and making displeased noises, so Eames took Arthur's bookbag and ushered him into the lounge. Once Eames disappeared into another room, Arthur dropped onto the couch, resisting the urge to put his feet on the coffee table. He hadn't slept well on the flight over, and his adrenaline spike had plummeted somewhere between Warren Street and Camden Town, leaving him exhausted.
"Do you have any coffee?" he called.
Eames wandered back into the room. "It's after four. If you drink coffee now, you'll never be able to sleep."
"Thanks, Dad," Arthur said sarcastically.
"I don't mind you calling me 'daddy,' love," said Eames, leering a little.
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"I'm sorry," Eames said. "That was disgusting. I don't know how to flirt. I'm as hopeless as Abed on Community, or Moss from The IT Crowd." He snapped his fingers, face brightening. "Oh, maybe I'm Sheldon--"
"So do you just watch tv all day?" Arthur interrupted.
"Not all day, no," Eames said.
They ate curry for dinner, and then Arthur fell asleep in the middle of some weird British show about a time traveller who had a blue phone booth. He didn't even noticed he'd fallen asleep until Eames was shaking him awake and muttering, "Arthur, come on," in his ear.
It felt like he was walking through water. He was too wiped to protest when Eames helped him out of his layers and urged him into the bed. He thought, vaguely, about protesting when Eames climbed into bed with him, only inches separating them, but he was too comfortable.
"I really hope assassins don't come to murder us in our sleep," Eames rumbled.
Arthur's eyes snapped open.
Yusuf Hakim had a very rigourous morning routine. First, he did some light stretches, because he worried, a little, about the pot belly a lot of his co-workers and students had developed from spending most of their time in the lab. Following that, he ate breakfast (fried egg on toast with brown sauce, and tea with milk, no sugar) while checking his email, RSS reader, and OK Cupid inbox. After getting dressed, he hopped on his motorbike and rode to the university.
It wasn't a long commute from Yusuf's flat in south Hyderabad to the University of Hyderabad in GachiBowli, but he had to drive through the crowded high street to get to the highway. He wasn't particularly adventurous -- his driving in Cobb's dream had been as mad as it got, for him -- and he wasn't like the other motorbike drivers, weaving in and out of the rest of traffic.
On this day, however, there was massive congestion on the high street. In the top right corner of his helmet's viewscreen, a warning flashed: Traffic collision 20m. Because of this, Yusuf had been stuck in the same place for twenty minutes.
Tourists, Yusuf thought with disgust.
He was stuck between a bus and an auto-rickshaw. To his left was another auto, and on his right was an expensive-looking motorbike. It had two people on it, which wasn't unusual, but what stood out to Yusuf was that both passengers were wearing helmets. It was already over thirty degrees out, since they were headed toward pre-monsoon season, and most moto riders forwent helmets, choosing instead to rely on the off-brand GPS built into their bikes; Yusuf was frequently the only one on the road wearing one.
Even odder, the people next to him were also wearing leather gloves. He was wondering what would compel anyone to wear gloves in this weather when the man riding on the back of the moto looked Yusuf dead in the eye and pulled out a gun.
"Bloody hell," Yusuf cried, and hit the throttle.
The moto lurched, nearly driving him right into the bus in front of him, and for a heart-stopping instant Yusuf thought he was about to die. Then it kicked into action, and he slipped into the space between the bus and the row of autos, speeding forward.
He glanced in his rear-view mirror to find the motorbike propelling after him. He took a sharp right onto a side street, narrowly avoiding hitting a crowd of pedestrians. "Move, move!" Yusuf shouted, driving forward. People dodged him, jumping left and right, and another driver coming from the opposite direction slammed on his breaks.
"Gudda," someone yelled at Yusuf in Telugu, and he flipped them the bird over his shoulder as he took off down the street at full speed. He zoomed past another long line of colourful stalls and bland shops with no idea where he was headed. The screen in his helmet's visor was flashing crazily as the processor tried to keep up with where Yusuf was going.
There came a series of loud, startling noises behind him like an explosion, followed by screams and shouts. Heart pounding, Yusuf looked in the rear-view mirror -- and had to duck as an actual, real life bullet shattered it into pieces. People were running every which way, trying to get away. Another shot; Yusuf spotted a man fall to his knees, presumably dead.
"What?" Yusuf shouted to himself.
He was being shot at! He couldn't imagine why someone would be trying to kill him. It wasn't like he'd done anything, or that he knew anything important -- he was a researcher, for goodness' sake. He spent all day in a lab, and then he went home every night and watched reality shows until he fell asleep. There was no rhyme or reason why he should be trying to escape two madmen with a gun at eight 'o' clock in the morning on a Wednesday.
Quickly, he glanced at the GPS in the bottom-left corner of his viewscreen. Up ahead was a narrow entrance to an alley which turned into a stairwell that met at a junction of three smaller alleys, each one leading in a different direction.
Yusuf grit his teeth. He waited until the last possible second, and then he jerked the wheel sharply. For a brief, terrifying second, he lost control, and he almost ran dead into a fruit stand; he could see the fear in the vendor's eyes as she attempted to leap away. "No, no, no," Yusuf babbled -- but he didn't hit it; he kept going and was soon speeding through the narrow road between two office buildings. More gunshots went off in the distance.
He didn't have time to slow down as he hit the staircase, screaming at every bump down, and when he met the ground, the moto swerved dangerously. But he righted it and turned down the alley heading north.
By the time he reached the end of the alley, which led into the narrow pedestrian street that met the always-packed Laad Bazaar, he almost thought he had gotten away. Yet when he looked over his shoulder, he saw the same motorbike still after him.
They leveled their gun at him -- but then he burst into the market and turned, heading for the main road.
If he could lose himself in the crowd, maybe they'd give up and leave him alone, he thought desperately. He had just enough time to kill the engine and jump off the moto, leaving it in an already-precarious row of motorbikes waiting for their owners; Yusuf yanked off his helmet and tossed it away, using one hand to wipe off the sweat dripping into his eyes. Then he dove into the stream of shoppers and ran.
Yusuf Hakim was not a fit man. He was an intellectual. He wasn't used to any of this running for his life business. Right now he was burning up, his heart racing like he was about to die. If he lived through this, Yusuf was going to have nightmares for the rest of his life.
"Oh, fuck," he gasped, feeling a crippling pain in his side. "Damn you, lactic acid buildup!"
From here, Yusuf could see the towering, white Charminar, which meant there must be police near. He pulled out his mobile, quickly passing the text from his mate, Mukul ('Cinema 2nite?') and rang the the police.
"Someone's trying to kill me," he said as soon as he was connected.
The operator's face was expressionless. "Sir, where are you?"
"I'm at the Laad Bazaar--"
A shot whistled by his head, and in shock he dropped his mobile.
"Gun," someone shouted behind him, and people started screaming.
Two police officers rushed past him in the direction of the gunshots, and Yusuf was pushed by the panicked crowd toward the street. He kept his head down and his feet moving, hoping whoever was after him would overlook him, or be too busy dealing with the police. Following the crowd, he ran through a row of yellow auto-rickshaws waiting outside the market entrance.
The crowd seemed to scatter in all directions, and Yusuf ran eastward. His entire body felt heavy, and he couldn't catch his breath; he was sweating so badly the back of his shirt was soaked. He was going to get caught, there was no way he could keep running, what had he been thinking giving up his moto, what--
A black sedan pulled in front of him, narrowly missing hitting his toes.
I'm dead, Yusuf thought, feeling the blood drain from his face.
But the door opened, and a heavily-accented voice shouted in English, "Get in the car!"
Yusuf didn't need to be told twice. He jumped in and slammed the door behind him. In the seat next to him was an unfamiliar woman, her face pinched. The car took off abruptly, and Yusuf was thrown back into the seat.
"Have you been hurt?" the woman demanded.
"What in the bloody hell is going on?" Yusuf panted, trying to sit back up.
He felt a hand on his head shoving him down into the seat. "Keep your head down," the woman snapped at him.
As she said it, a gunshot hit the car. The man in the passenger seat in front of Yusuf rolled down his window and fired back. Until today, the only time Yusuf had ever heard a gun up close had been in Cobb's dream, and he flinched, covering his head with his hands.
The car rocked to one side, and the wheels screeched as they took a sharp turn. Yusuf clutched the door and prayed.
Eventually, he realised the gunshots had ended, and they seemed to be in steady traffic. As he thought it, the driver told the woman something in an unfamiliar language.
"We're safe," she repeated to Yusuf.
"Now can you please tell me who those people were?" Yusuf demanded, righting himself. "What's going on here? Who are you?"
He could get a better look at the woman now. Up close, she was older than he'd first thought, with her black hair pulled back into a severe bun. She was wearing what was no doubt a bespoke suit, with a pale yellow scarf around her neck. Yusuf would have put her age in the fifties. Something about her was terribly familiar, but he couldn't place it.
"The people after you were American CIA agents," she said solemnly.
"C-CIA?" Yusuf squeaked.
"CIA," she repeated. She looked him dead in the eye. "Mr Hakim, two weeks ago, you worked with a team to extract information from Dr Dominic Cobb."
"Yes, I was asked by Harvard University to-- hold on," he said as it hit him, "is your name Saito?"
She nodded at him. "Yes. I am Saito Kimiko, CEO of SanDroid Engineering."
"Oh!" Yusuf said. He didn't know if he should try to shake her hand, and bowing was difficult in the car. A hug seemed out of the question. "I didn't realise you were so... a woman."
"I believe you're referring to my son, Yuudai," she replied. She arched a brow at him, but one corner of her mouth twitched like she was holding back a smile. "You and I have never met. Yuudai-kun's waiting for you in Tokyo."
"Yes, of course," Yusuf babbled, feeling sheepish. "Sorry."
On the plane from Andhra Pradesh to Tokyo, Mrs Saito explained exactly why the CIA was trying to kill him. Yusuf wished he'd never met Robert Fischer.
Arthur woke in the morning with one of Eames' big hands resting on his belly, warm and heavy. When he turned his head, Eames was asleep on his side, his nose inches away from Arthur's, his face unlined and relaxed. He looked younger like this. It was almost strange seeing him without his glasses, now; there was a little dent on the bridge of his nose from them, which Arthur found strangely cute. Arthur wasn't usually into guys who did that whole geek thing.
By the time they'd left UCL yesterday, Arthur had been certain the man he'd had feelings for had never existed. But now, looking at Eames like this -- geeky Eames; warm and sexy Eames -- Arthur felt something inside him stir. He still wanted to touch and explore and get to know this man, whoever he was. Arthur realised, in a rush of sleepy annoyance, that he just wanted to leave Eames' hand where it was.
Careful, so as not to stir him, Arthur touched his knuckles to Eames' bearded cheek, his neck, the firm muscle of his shoulder. Eames hummed under his breath but didn't wake. That gave Arthur the courage to peel Eames' collar down to get a better look at his tattoos. In the dream, Eames didn't have tattoos, but they covered the real Eames' chest, shoulders, and upper arms, swirls of colour and quotes ('Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens,' was scrawled across Eames' clavicle) and even, from what Arthur could see, a portrait of Freud. They made Eames look tough (which Arthur was into), instead of the cuddly academic he'd met the day before.
Eames sighed and stretched, like he was waking up. Arthur let go of his collar and rolled onto his side; Eames' hand twitched before settling on Arthur's hip. Their noses touched.
Mostly, when Arthur had fantasised about Eames, it was of blowing him, or being fucked by him, or even just sticking his hand down Eames' pants and jerking him off in front of the entire team. But sometimes when he'd lain awake at night, knowing he was unsafe in Cobb's dream, he'd thought about more mundane things like falling asleep next to Eames, or watching dumb tv shows with him. It wasn't like Arthur hadn't gotten to hang out with Eames at all in the dream, but every moment that Arthur's crush, or whatever, had been festering, a timer had been counting down. It had made things complicated.
"Were you watching me?" Eames asked, his voice rough from sleep.
"Maybe," Arthur replied, shrugging one shoulder.
A line formed between Eames' brows. "Wanted to see if I looked like I did in the dream, did we? Are you satisfied with what you saw?"
"I know you look like you did in the dream," Arthur scoffed. He rolled onto his back, stretching a little, and Eames' eyes flickered up and down his body. "I just wanted to look at you, okay?"
At first Eames looked embarrassed, his cheeks flushing red, but when Arthur didn't do anything but stare back at him, he grinned crookedly. He propped himself up on his elbow, leaning over Arthur, and Arthur knew exactly what was about to happen.
He forced himself to breathe evenly as Eames bent and kissed him softly, almost chastely. Arthur's entire body flashed hot, like every nerve in him was on fire, and his lips parted wordlessly. Eames' tongue dipped inside and stroked his, firm and gentle all at once. Arthur shouldn't have kissed him back, he really shouldn't have, but he clenched his fingers in the t-shirt at Eames' waist and tried to avoid cutting his tongue on Eames' braces. After what felt like forever, Eames drew back with one last kiss to Arthur's lower lip.
"I don't know who you are," Arthur said, opening his eyes.
A mix of surprise and hurt flashed across Eames' face. "Of course you do," he insisted.
Arthur shook his head. "That guy in the dream wasn't you."
"That guy was me, Arthur, just like that other guy was you. We just... embellished a few things."
"Like everything," said Arthur.
Eames sighed and rolled out of bed. "What do you want for breakfast? Beans on toast okay? Not sure I have cereal."
While Eames cooked and rambled on about everything and nothing, Arthur sat at the table and flipped through The Guardian that Eames had brought in with the rest of the post. It felt so normal, like someone wasn't gunning for their lives. The weird thing was, Eames made Arthur feel safe, even though he collected action figures and played role-playing games. But still, Arthur didn't know exactly how he felt about him or about whatever the hell was going on with them now. Kissing Eames had been nice; more than nice, really, but--
"Can you even ski backwards?" Arthur demanded.
Eames turned to him in confusion, holding a wooden spoon in mid-air. A bit of tomato sauce dribbled onto the floor. He was wearing a red cable net sweater and jeans several sizes too big for him, and he seemed like the total opposite of what Eames should have looked like. "No," he confessed. "I've done it in a game, though. It really impressed my GM."
"GM?" Arthur asked. He held up a hand. "No, wait, don't tell me."
"I've to go into work," Eames told him as they were eating. Beans on toast wasn't a combination Arthur had ever considered, but it was filling, and he'd eaten stranger things while travelling with his parents. "It's all department meetings today. Can you call me at around half twelve?"
Arthur swallowed a mouthful of sugary tea. "I got rid of my phone. You should too; they might be able to find you using the GPS."
Eames fumbled around the big corner desk before coming back with a pad of lined paper and a pen. "You can use my landline," he said, scribbling down a number. "Remember, half twelve."
For the first few hours after Eames left, Arthur poked around the flat, followed loyally by the SanDroid vacuum bot. The place was small and old and made weird noises; Arthur had watched Eames turn off the radiators before he left for work, so it was chilly enough for Arthur to pull on a sweater and hoodie over his button-down. (He left the tie in his bag this time, deciding today it was okay to be a little sloppy.)
Eames had a few shelves of his bookcase dedicated to psychology and language books (French, Russian, and Spanish, Arthur discovered). But the rest of it was children's classics, gaming guides, graphic novels, and fantasy paperbacks, and he had two more bookcases in his bedroom, equally full. He had a whole set of classic Narnia books, their creases well-worn, and a set of hard-backed Paddington Bear books that looked brand new. Arthur smiled when he spotted an obviously well-loved Treasure Island, which had been his favourite when he was a kid. He picked it up and opened it; inside the front cover was a very messy, 'This book belongs to Harry Eames, age 8.'
It wouldn've have been that geeky if it wasn't for the action figures -- collectables -- adorning the shelves, or the models, or the lego Hogwarts on a side table in the living room. There were lots of posters on the wall from movies Arthur vaguely knew, mixed in with some band posters, posters of various famous artworks clearly bought from museums, and funny pictures.
Next to the desktop computer, there was a book about guns and a big knife still tucked in its sheath.
"You're a complicated man, Mr Eames," Arthur muttered to himself.
The vacuum chirped in agreement.
Arthur Pendergrast had grown up reading books about pirates, spies, and soldiers. For his fifteenth birthday, his grandmother had taken him and his friends to laser tag, and he and Fischer had teamed up and destroyed the other kids. In undergrad, his boyfriend had been in a Civil War reenactment club, and Arthur had gone to every event. (Later, Nate had dumped him for another guy in the club, so in revenge, Arthur had slept with a knight at the Renaissance Faire. Arthur still couldn't watch jousting without feeling aroused.)
So it wasn't like Arthur was useless here. He knew what they needed: new passports, money (he still had three grand in US dollars and several hundred pounds, in cash and notes, respectively), a safe house, and a disguise. He could probably buy used passports online -- since it looked like Eames' gift for forgery didn't extend beyond dreams -- but he wasn't sure they had time for that; even if he bought two on Ebay or Craigslist, it would still take days to get to Eames', not to mention however long it took to change the pictures and make them look convincing.
They might also need weapons, but they couldn't carry those on planes, and he wasn't sure about the protocol for trains.
Arthur's fingers twitched; what he needed was the internet.
Unfortunately, he'd forgotten to ask Eames for the wireless password, so his tablet was useless. Arthur gave Eames' closed notebook the fish eye for a while before giving in and tugging it over onto his lap. As soon as he booted it, it prompted him for a password.
Arthur stared at the login screen, chewing on his thumbnail.
Holding his breath, he typed, 'Arthur.' Instantly, he got a message saying it was incorrect.
Okay, he felt like an idiot.
He tried a few other likely candidates -- Freud, Jung, even characters from the children's books he knew -- but none of them worked. At twelve-thirty, exasperated, Arthur dialed the number Eames had given him.
"Hey, I'm calling," Arthur said, as soon as Eames said hello.
But Eames responded with: "Mum, is everything alright?"
"Am I supposed to reply to this?" Arthur asked.
"I see," Eames answered. He cleared his throat loudly, and when he spoke again, his voice was thick and sombre. "Mum, please stop crying. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Who're you in the room with?" Arthur asked curiously.
"Love you, too," said Eames.
"Wait," Arthur started, "what's your computer pass--?"
Eames hung up.
Arthur scowled at the phone for a while before setting it back on the computer desk. That was when he saw it: a stack of papers peeking out of the half-open bottom drawer. After glancing over his shoulder to make sure the vacuum was occupied elsewhere, he pulled them out. They were character sheets from some kind of table-top roleplaying game, and the page on top was for a barrel-chested paladin in armour. In a bubble under a sketch of what Arthur assumed was the character was the word 'Draghar,' possibly a name or title.
Chancing it, Arthur entered that into the password box. It worked, and immediately Windows gave him access.
He shook his head. "What a geek," he said affectionately.
First, Arthur checked his email. There was a message from his mom, asking him how he was; and there were a few from the Facebook page for the people in his programme, inviting everyone to a spring barbeque. There was also a message from his faculty:
'As of March 9, 2010, there will be restricted access to the Remote Dream Sharing IntraVenous device. You will need a signed note from your supervisor to use it, and it can only be used in the lab.
'We've been informed by the Department of Defense that one of Northwestern University's graduate students has been abusing dreamsharing. This student is currently being held by officials for breaking the law--'
There was no one that 'graduate student' could be but Arthur.
With a sick feeling, Arthur realised that even if he got out of this alive, his academic career was ruined. He'd spent six years working on a thesis that had made him cocky enough to mess around with extraction, all because he'd wanted to come out on top, and now that cockiness may have ruined his life. He should have looked more into what Fischer had been doing; he should have questioned why, if Cobb had sanctioned it, they'd needed to trick him into going under; he should have--
Arthur pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and tried to breathe through the tightness in his chest. "Fuck," he whispered. "Fuck."
One thing at a time, he told himself. He lowered his hands back to his lap. One thing at a time.
When Eames returned two hours later, Arthur was camped out in front of the coffee table with Eames' notebook and his passport. He was searching online forums for places to buy new passports and simultaneously studying the holographic seal over the inside cover. There were microchips inside any passport made in the last ten years, he knew; that was another thing he wasn't sure how to work around.
Eames laughed when he saw him. "You could've used the internet on the telly, you know. It's connected. You don't need a password for it."
Arthur hadn't even though of that. "Maybe I wanted a challenge," he said, his face still creased in a frown.
Eames snorted in disbelief. "I'm sure you did."
Twisting around so he could look at Eames, Arthur asked, "So what was that thing on the phone earlier?"
"I was in a department meeting," Eames explained, hanging his scarf on the coat rack. "Now, thanks to my little performance, they've let me move up my holiday time to now. I've two weeks before I need to be back."
Arthur's eyebrows shot up. "Eames, I'm impressed. You're sneakier than I thought."
Preening, Eames slumped down into an armchair. "I know. I was thinking of rolling a rogue."
"I'm choosing to ignore that statement," Arthur replied. He stood, and Eames craned his neck to look up at him. "Since you're here, you can help me cut my hair."
Eames goggled. "Why would you do such a horrible thing?"
Arthur glowered at him. "To disguise myself."
"Sorry to say, but even if you cut all your hair off, you'll still look like the same person. Why do you need a disguise?"
"Because that's what you do, Eames," Arthur said stubbornly. "You change your appearance so it can buy you time. Don't you know anything about being on the run?"
Eames sighed. "Come on, 007, I have clippers in the bathroom."
Half an hour later, Eames was running his broad hand over Arthur's newly-buzzed hair. It felt good, Eames' hands on his scalp, sending pleased shivers down his back, but Arthur wasn't going to admit it out loud. "Your beautiful, silky hair," Eames said ruefully, cupping the back of Arthur's skull. He looked like his dog had just died.
Arthur tried not to lean too much into Eames' hands. "It'll grow back."
Truthfully, though, Arthur had worn the same haircut since he was eighteen, and it was disconcerting to see such a big pile of hair on the bathroom floor. When he looked in the mirror, he was shocked at how skinny the new cut made him look. Especially standing next to Eames, who was his height but so much broader and thicker. He looked like a kid, even more so than before.
"Does it make me look older?" he asked hopefully.
Eames' eyes slid over his face, his body, in a way that made Arthur's ears burn. "No," Eames replied slowly, readjusting his glasses, "honestly, I think it makes you look younger."
"Shit," Arthur huffed.
Eames pursed his lips. "Well, we could always pass you off as eighteen," he said, as if that made him feel any better.
"And what would that make you?" Arthur asked. "My sugar daddy?"
"Oh," Eames said, sounding genuinely startled, and Arthur pointedly glanced down to where Eames was half-hard in his baggy jeans, "that's-- well, that's very, I mean-- it looks like I just discovered something new about myself."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Okay, move aside, Mrs Robinson," he said, opening the door so the vacuum could rush in and clean up the mess.
It was just another Thursday in Higashihiroshima when someone tried to gun down Ariadne Parrish.
Ariadne was on a taiyaki run with her friends Yuuna and Masami when it happened. The only class she had left for the day was Advanced Japanese, and Fridays were her easy classes, so she was planning on living it up with a carbohydrate-filled snack that was very, very bad for her. She'd gotten hooked on the little fish-shaped cakes the first time she'd been in Japan, when her parents had let her miss a week of eighth grade to join them on one of her dad's business trips. The stand by the grocery store had her favourite kind, the custard-filled ones. It was run by an old man who always gave her an extra one for free, because he thought she was cute.
They were almost there when Yuuna asked, "We're not going to the stand by the Super-Every, are we? I want red bean paste taiyaki."
"You can get it on the way back to campus," Ariadne replied in Japanese. "I don't want to be late to class again, or Dr Yamada will kill me."
Masami said something about Yamada that was too fast for Ariadne to understand, and Yuuna giggled before replying back. Ariadne was used to it by now, not entirely understanding what her new friends were talking about; they'd slow down once they realised she wasn't adding to the conversation. So instead, she let them walk ahead while she bent down to tie her shoelace.
She was on one knee on the sidewalk when something whizzed over her head, and the glass-plated bus stop beside her shattered.
A group of uniform-clad students waiting for the bus screamed bloody murder and scattered, Yuuna and Masami among them. But the second the glass broke, Ariadne had flattened herself on the ground, her chest so, so tight she thought she might be having a heart-attack.
A second bullet hit the windshield of a car. Ariadne yelped and covered her head with her hands. She realised, dazed, that she was the one being shot at.
The now-damaged car was between her and the bullets; she crawled to it, keeping as close to the ground as she could. With no more shots coming, she slowly, carefully raised herself up to peer over the hood. Just then, another bullet ricocheted off the road, too close for her comfort. Ariadne squeezed her eyes shut and forced down the lump of fear in her throat.
But she'd seen where that gunshot had come from: someone was shooting at her from the office building across the street.
She crouched down again, sucking in sharp, terrified gulps of air. Was it some anti-foreigner racist? Did she piss off yet another one of her classmates, this time to the point of insanity? Or was it a lone nut, and she seemed like an easy target? That thought made her angry, and with it she rolled away from the car and darted across the street, running toward the building next to the very one the shooter was in. Suddenly she was unafraid.
The handful of seconds it took her to race across the street seemed to stretch into hours. As she'd expected, no shots followed her; running toward and not away from the fire must have shocked her attacker into stillness. She didn't stop running until she made it into a tiny alleyway separating this building from the next, and as soon as the building was between her and her attacker, a series of gunshots rained down into the street.
When Ariadne tried the building's side door, it was unlocked. She pulled it open and peeked in. The corridor was empty. Her footsteps seemed loud on the laminated flooring; her heart pounded in her ears. Everyone must have gone out the back as soon as they'd heard the shots.
To her right was an elevator and stairs, leading to more shops and restaurants above; to her left, a restaurant; in front of her, the door out to the main street. She weighed her options. Go up, hide, and call the cops, or go next door and deal with a gun-toting lunatic? What she wanted to do was to face her attacker and demand to know why he was trying to kill her, but that didn't seem like a good idea considering she was unarmed. If Cobb had been there, she thought, or Arthur, they would have--
Ariadne spun around, fist raised. Standing in the doorway to the alley was a guy only a few years older than her, in a polo shirt and khakis. He had a baseball cap over his head. His collar was popped.
Was this the man who'd been shooting at her?
"Come with me if you want to live," he said in English.
He had a faint Japanese accent, but his voice was familiar even if his face was unknown to her. Ariadne knew immediately who he was, and she couldn't help the grin that stretched across her face.
"Seriously?" Ariadne asked, lowering her hand to her side.
"What's up, girl?" replied Saito, smirking.
"I hate to be the one to tell you, but Terminator references are so two years ago," Ariadne said. "And I'd ask you what you're doing here, except there's this crazy guy next door trying to kill me."
"That's exactly why I'm here," said Saito, surprising her. "The person shooting at you's a CIA agent. You can thank Fischer for that."
She gaped at him. "What?"
He looked over his shoulder, and, for the first time, his brow creased in worry. "I'll explain everything, but only after we get to safety." He held out a hand. "My people are waiting out back. If you care to join me in the Saitomobile."
Ariadne arched her eyebrows. This Saito was a real smooth operator. But she'd seen the way he'd been in the dream -- ruthless and strong, with a quirky sense of humour -- and she would have followed him anywhere. Without breaking his gaze, she placed her hand in his.
That night, after they climbed into bed, Eames kissed Arthur again.
"Argh," Arthur said, clapping a hand over his mouth.
Eames looked at him in alarm. "Huh?"
Arthur lowered his hand. "Don't kiss me again," he replied, glaring.
The Eames in the dream would probably have made a crack about Arthur already being in his bed, but the real Eames went terribly, horribly still. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, and Arthur felt a pang of regret.
"Sorry, I thought," Eames started, and then he stopped, looking embarrassed and hurt. "I'm sorry. Won't happen again."
Eames laid back down and started to roll onto his side, facing the opposite wall.
"Wait," Arthur said, grabbing Eames' shoulder and trying to get him to turn over to face him. "You can kiss me."
"Well, thank you," Eames said sarcastically.
Arthur pushed at his shoulder. "I didn't mean it like that. Sometimes I..." He searched for the right words. "I forget who I'm talking to. In the dream, you weren't so sensitive."
Eventually, Eames flopped over onto his back, staring at the ceiling. "'Sensitive.' So you only like men who're mean to you, is what you're saying?"
"I didn't like you 'cause you were mean to me," Arthur snapped. "I liked you because you were-- charismatic, and confident, and, and cool, and--"
"How many frakking times do I have to tell you, I'm the same person?" Eames demanded.
"When you say things like 'frakking,'" Arthur began, getting worked up, "it's really not helping your case!"
"I wanted to be cool, alright?" Eames said, and Arthur blinked at the sudden swing in topic change. Eames sucked in a loud breath through his nose and looked away. "In dreams we can be whoever we want, and I wanted to be cool, if just for a little while. I wanted everyone to think I was this dangerous criminal, because in real life I'm boring."
"Hey," Arthur said. He waited until Eames looked at him again. "I'm boring, too. The other people in my programme don't like me because I know all the answers, but it's only because I don't have a lot of friends, so I spend most of my time studying."
Eames looked intrigued. "So you're the Hermione Granger of your class?" he asked.
"Arthur, you're not boring," Eames said with feeling. "You're the most interesting person I know."
Eames said it with such sincerity that it confounded Arthur, and Arthur leaned down and kissed him, bracing a hand on Eames' shoulder.
When he pulled away, Eames was staring at his mouth.
"Was that so bad?" Eames asked. He touched a knuckle to Arthur's chin, and then reached up and ran his palm over Arthur's shorn hair.
"It was..." Confusing, Arthur thought. Good. Electrifying. "Sweet."
Eames glowered. "Yes, because what I want to be in front of you is sweet."
"I hate to break it to you," Arthur replied, "but you're a big teddy bear."
"A teddy bear?" Eames echoed, scandalised, and suddenly, they were kissing again, harder this time, and Eames was tugging Arthur onto him. Strong hands slid down Arthur's spine and rested at the small of his back, and Arthur gasped into Eames' mouth, thrusting against Eames' thigh between his legs. Eames' trimmed beard was rough against his face. Already Arthur felt sweat prickling on his temples, even though he was only in a t-shirt and boxers.
Eames, he thought, as their kisses turned long and slow, Eames, and then he remembered where he was and what he was doing and all the reasons why this was a bad idea. He gently pushed Eames away from him.
"We should stop before this gets out of hand," he said, licking his lips, trying to get the taste of Eames off of them. But he couldn't help but add, smirking, "You're a good kisser for such a geek."
Eames raised a hand and waggled his fingers. "I've also very dexterous hands."
"That almost made computer games sexy," said Arthur.
"Almost?" Eames asked.
Arthur laid back down and pulled the duvet over him. He smirked into his arm. "Almost. By the way, if you molest me in my sleep," he added, "I'm moving to the couch."
"You're a tyrant," Eames declared.
The next morning, after another breakfast of beans on toast (this time with bacon and mushrooms), Arthur demanded Eames sit down with him and attempt to create some sort of plan that involved more than them sitting around Eames' flat and waiting to die. Eames let Arthur have a thick pad of paper, on which he drew a line down the middle.
On one side, he wrote, 'Reasons the government is trying to kill us.' On the other side, 'How to fix it.'
"Number one," Arthur said, tapping his pen on the page, "we know they're trying to kill us because we have top-secret knowledge of how to do inception."
Eames nodded. "Which your government wanted to keep for themselves, probably in order to weaponise it and use it to topple world leaders with anti-American interests."
"Can we save the politics for later?" Arthur asked, rolling his eyes. "But, yes, probably to do that."
Eames scratched his chin, his forehead creased in a frown. "My question is, how'd they find out about us?"
"Presumably, when Fischer went to the DoD to ask Dr Langlois for help." Arthur took a deep breath. "I think Langlois must've turned him in, and they extracted from him and got our names."
He grimaced just thinking about that. Despite what Cobb had thought, Fischer wasn't militarised; it had been Cobb's insane, guilt-ridden projections trying to kill them on that level (and nearly every other level, too). If the government were to extract from Fischer, he'd have no defenses. And even though Fischer was a liar who had exploited their friendship and put all their lives in danger, Arthur had known Fischer since high school, and he didn't want anything bad to happen to him. In that sense, Fischer reminded Arthur of Cobb, now that he thought about it.
"Do we know this Dr Langlois character?" Eames asked.
Arthur shook his head. "I tried googling him already. All I found were some citations of his old psych articles, and a cached page from two-thousand six on Harvard's website, with the picture link broken."
"That's not suspicious at all," Eames replied wryly. "I could ask some of my colleagues--"
"It's best if you don't," Arthur broke in. "The less people involved in this, the better."
"Mmm," Eames agreed, looking thoughtful.
Pointedly, Arthur drew another line under, 'How to fix it.' "Maybe we can make a deal with them. We can go to the Pentagon and tell them we'll sign a non-disclosure agreement, in return for leaving us alone."
"What makes you think they won't simply kill us?"
"Because--" Arthur started, but then he realised he couldn't answer that. He'd been chased, Saito had been shot at, and they didn't know what had happened to Ariadne and Yusuf.
Eames climbed to his feet. "If we're going to talk about confronting the CIA, I need a drink," he announced, shrugging on a jacket.
"It's ten AM," Arthur said. "And do you think it's a good idea to go out?"
"If they're going to kill me, they're going to kill me," Eames said casually. He grabbed his keys and stepped into his shoes. With a small wave, he headed to the door.
Arthur glanced down at his notepad again, and when he looked back up, Eames was marching toward him, face impassive.
"What?" Arthur asked.
Eames bent and kissed him on the cheek. When he pulled back, his face was red, but he looked proud of himself. "I'll be back in twenty," he promised. "Relax; I'm only going to the offie. Go read a book or something."
He moved away, but before he could, Arthur grabbed his collar and pulled his face close again. "Don't get killed," Arthur said, before dropping a kiss on Eames' mouth.
Eames flashed him a dazzling, braces-filled grin.
After Eames was gone, Arthur stared at his notepad until the words started to blur together, his mind blank. Rigged elevators notwithstanding, it was becoming increasingly clear to him he wasn't good at this whole super spy thing. This was when being an internationally-wanted criminal would have been a plus -- it would have been very different if they had guns, or government contacts, or any sort of real life skills whatsoever. How were two normal guys supposed to not only figure out what was happening, but also stop it?
Disgusted with himself, he slapped the pad down on the coffee table.
Arthur was too twitchy and anxious to read, and too scared to check his email again. But there was one place in Eames' apartment he hadn't been through yet, and that Eames' wardrobe. The thought alone comforted him.
The first bedroom cupboard was packed with cheap t-shirts in all shades of the rainbow, warm jumpers, jeans, and khakis, with half a dozen pairs of casual shoes. Arthur was relieved to see none of the pants were pleated. Eames was really going for that geek look, he decided; he plucked out a long-sleeved Spider-Man shirt and grinned to himself.
When Arthur opened the second cupboard, the first thing that struck him was the colour. It shouldn't have shocked him, because in the dream, Eames had worn lots of bright patterns and colours, but it did. He had a few standard Oxfords -- Ozwald Boateng, Arthur noted, vaguely impressed -- but the rest were pink, mustard yellow, green, and purple. A few were striped or had large prints; one even had a fleur-des-lis pattern.
In the far end of the cupboard, Eames had two suits, one in black and the other in slate grey. Arthur pulled out the black one and looked it over: English style, possibly bespoke. He felt the thick material of the jacket and remembered how Eames' clothes had looked stretched over his shoulders and around his waist.
That was, naturally, when Eames walked back in.
"I don't think that'd fit you," Eames said.
Arthur shoved the suit back in the cupboard. "Of course not."
"You can borrow some of my t-shirts, if you like."
"No thanks," Arthur replied, thinking about how he probably wouldn't be able to resist jerking off while wearing Eames' clothes. Anything Arthur borrowed would undoubtedly be too big, stretched out around the chest and shoulders; the cut of the sleeves might have even been big enough for Arthur to stick his head through, because Eames' upper arms were so--
"Are you listening to me?" Eames called, and Arthur twitched a little. "I think someone at the shop was following me."
Alarmed, Arthur asked, "Are you sure?"
Eames headed back toward the kitchen, with Arthur at his heels. "I most definitely felt like I was being watched by more than one person," Eames said, placing a six-pack of Old Speckled Hen in the fridge.
"You're sure it's not just because you're funny-looking?" Arthur asked. "You lost them, right?"
Eames glowered at him. "Of course I lost them. I hearthed back here."
"Was-- was that a World of Warcraft joke?" Arthur asked, lost.
"No, it's, um, English slang," said Eames heatedly. "It means I'm very talented. In stealth. And whatnot."
He walked into the lounge and, much to Arthur's horror, began looking out the front window, studying the street with interest.
"Stand back," Arthur instructed, urging Eames backward.
Eames' forehead creased. "Why?"
"In the Bourne Identity, they shot through Bourne's windows."
"That would be a very helpful observation if movies were exactly like reality," Eames said, but he did step away with a wary glance. "It looks like we'll be leaving London a few days ahead of schedule. He chewed on his bottom lip. "Now we just have to figure out how to get out of the country. And where to go. How were you even able to get here if you're, we're, being hunted down by the CIA?"
Arthur didn't know, honestly. "Maybe they thought I was still in Chicago. I was pretty sure they were still on campus looking for me when I left for the airport."
Eames still looked perplexed. "Still, even with the Orbital it took you three hours to get to London. That's more than enough time for the bloody CIA to flag you at every airport across the world. Do you think it could be a rogue op?"
"You just wanted to say 'rogue op,'" Arthur said.
"Did you use your real passport to get here?" Eames said, pointedly ignoring him.
Arthur glared. "No, I took one from the cache of passports I keep hidden under my bed." When Eames looked impressed, he said vehemently, "Of course it's my real one! Do you have a fake passport?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Eames answered, looking shifty. "Why would I have a fake passport?"
There was a flash of something on his face, a brightness in his eyes. Arthur would've missed it if he hadn't been watching Eames so closely.
"You're lying," Arthur accused. He jabbed an accusing finger at Eames. "You got us fake passports! You're excited about it! This is exciting for you!"
Eames crossed his arms over his chest. His lower lip stuck out a little. "Yes, alright, I admit it: it's exciting. I can't help it."
Arthur grimaced. "Come on," Eames said, "I thought you wanted me to be a criminal. I thought it turned you on."
"You know what turns me on?" Arthur retorted. "Not going to prison. Where'd you get the passports, Eames?"
Eames sighed. "After I had my little 'breakdown' at the department meeting, they let me go early. I went to some of my old mates and bought their passports off them. They're not to claim them missing for at least a month."
"And then what?” Arthur snapped, refusing to be impressed. "This isn't one of your games, Eames. It's not a dream. This is reality, and if we die here, it's over."
Eames glowered at him. "Thank you reminding me of the glaringly obvious--"
He broke off suddenly, his expression shifting. "The glaringly obvious," he repeated, almost to himself. He scratched his cheek, glancing at Arthur. "I have an idea, but you're not going to like it."
Already, Arthur's stomach was tightening with anxiety. "What is it?" he demanded.
"There is one person who might be able to tell us what we can do to fix this. And if he can't, then his connection to the DoD puts him in a position to find out."
Eames gave Arthur a hard look. "We need to speak to Dom Cobb."
Arthur stared down at the burgundy-coloured UK passport Eames had handed him, running his fingers over the raised coat of arms. Inside was a picture of a floppy-haired man whom Arthur could conceivably have passed for, if he claimed the picture was taken at a bad angle. His name was Lewis Frederick Jones, and he was twenty-two years old.
Eames flashed Arthur the other passport. Arthur frowned at the picture; that guy (Samuel Thomas Hardwick, he read) did look kind of like Eames, if Eames was heavier and clean-shaven.
"Okay," Arthur said, relenting. "Does this mean I have to pretend to be British?"
"Unfortunately," Eames replied. "Let me hear you."
"How's this for an English accent?" Arthur asked, imitating Eames as best he could.
"That was Scottish," Eames said.
"What about our fingerprints?" Arthur asked. He couldn't believe Eames -- geeky Eames -- had done something so... bad, all on his own. It did turn Arthur on a little, but it also worried him. "If we're foreign, they'll check our fingerprints at the border."
"Only if we fly directly into the States," Eames replied smugly. "Not if we, for instance, fly to Canada and take public transport across the border. It'll take longer, of course, to get all the way to San Francisco, but I doubt anyone will be expecting us."
Reluctantly, Arthur had to admit he was swayed by this plan. His gut was churning with nervousness, but this could work. Eames had found a way to make it work.
That worry didn't go away when they went to Heathrow and bought tickets (on regular, cheaper flights, unfortunately) to Vancouver, and it didn't go away while they waited in the queue at the security checkpoint. As they edged close and closer to the DfT employee checking border passes, Eames slid an arm around Arthur's waist and murmured in his ear, "Your face is going to stick that way if you keep frowning like that."
"I can't help it," Arthur snapped. "I frown when I'm worried."
Eames sighed. "And when you're angry, and when you're happy, and when you're sad..."
Arthur dug his elbow into Eames' chest.
Their first layover was in Reykjavik, and then Toronto. No one blinked when Arthur handed his passport over to the border guard at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. After all that had happened, after being chased down by the CIA, flying across the Atlantic to find a guy he'd never met before, and spending three days wondering if each was going to be his last, he felt a strange sense of calm. He answered all their questions (Vancouver, holiday, backpacker's hostel) in his fake English (Scottish, whatever) accent, and then they sent him on his way.
"Welcome to Canada, Mr Jones," the border guard told him cheerfully.
"Cheers," Arthur replied, shoving his borrowed passport back in the front pocket of his jeans.
Once Arthur made it to the entrance of the long connecting flight corridor, Eames was waiting for him, leaning against the wall with his bookbag clutched in one hand. "Your accent's worse than Baltar's fake Aerilon accent on BSG." When Arthur didn't reply, he prodded, gently, "You alright? You look like you're walking to your execution."
Arthur tightened his grip on the straps of his bookbag. "Just keep walking, Mr Eames," he replied.
While they were looking for their flight to Vancouver, Eames disappeared to go to the bathroom. He was gone for twenty-three minutes. Arthur waited and waited, imagining all the terrible things that could have happened, that Eames was bleeding to death in the bathroom by the Lush, and he almost had a heart attack when he saw Eames' bearded face across the terminal, headed back in his direction.
"Our gate's this way," Arthur said, trying not to look too relieved.
Eames grabbed his hand and tugged. "No, it's this way," he insisted, pulling Arthur with him. He didn't let go of Arthur's hand until boarding.
Hours later, Arthur felt a tap on his shoulder. He rolled his head to look at Eames.
"I emailed Saito," Eames whispered. He was gazing down the aisle like he was daring someone to turn their head and try to listen in.
Arthur sat up straight. "What? When?"
Finally, Eames looked at him. He looked grave. "At the airport. I created a new Gmail and sent a message to his uni email -- I'm assuming he's the only Yuudai Saito at Berkeley?"
"We're not even sure he's alive," Arthur reminded him. "What did you tell him? Please tell me you didn't give away our location. Tell me you're not that dumb."
"Give me some credit," Eames scoffed. "I told him--"
He dropped his voice again, giving one last long glance around the cabin.
"I told him to remember Cobol: We'll be at the last place they'll look."
Ariadne, Saito decided, was exactly like she'd been in the dream, even down to her miniscule height and her colourful scarves. She was sharp and inquisitive, and she definitely seemed to lack a brain-to-mouth filter in a way that he appreciated. It was a refreshing change of pace from his mother, who had always been mysterious to him, even as much as he admired her; and from Yusuf, who wasn't very good at making conversation. He thought it was a nice bit of the US right there in Japan, and like California, she made him feel warm and comfortable.
But Ariadne wasn't the only one who hadn't changed herself. Yusuf was the same, too.
"I have a question," Ariadne said the first time all three of them were able to sit down and talk. "Why do Yusuf and I look the same, but you--" She addressed Saito. "--look about twenty-five?"
"Because I am twenty-five," Saito replied archly. "I could ask why you two didn't change."
"Too much trouble," Yusuf said, at the same time Ariadne answered, "I'm already awesome. Why would I change myself? Either Cobb was going to trust me or he wasn't."
"You've never changed you appearance in dreams?" Yusuf asked her. He seemed taken aback.
"No. I know you can, but I've never wanted to. It's easier to be myself than to spend most of my dream-time manipulating someone else's subconscious into thinking I'm someone else."
"Ah, you're new at this," Saito said, "The more you dream, the easier it'll be to manipulate the dreamer. It's hardly any effort for me now."
Yusuf nodded enthusiastically. "You wouldn't believe some of the crazy things I had to do in the first layer of the inception dream."
"Sing it, brah," Saito said, and Yusuf threw him a bewildered look.
They had been stowed away in a safe house on the outskirts of Tokyo. Saito knew this was normally the home of one of his parent's lovers (he wasn't sure whose, or which), and he trusted it was the safest place they could be right now while his mother sorted all this out. Both of his parents were too smart to have ever made this traceable back to them. Meanwhile, his mother had promised she was getting in touch with her contact at the Pentagon, and he knew she was busy making plans for someone in the US government to bribe.
"If it comes to it," she had said the day before, as she'd been leaving for the main house, "I'll buy the Pentagon."
"Because it seems neater?" Ariadne had asked slyly.
On Friday, Saito checked his email on the new phone his parents had bought him. What he saw made him frown.
"I just got the weirdest email from an 'H. G. Eames,'" he said.
He showed it to them, and immediately Yusuf snapped his fingers and said, "Cobb. It means they're going to Cobb."
Saito blew out a breath. "I guess that means we should cancel the team we just sent to bring him here."
"Why would they do that?" Ariadne demanded. "If something happened, why aren't they trying to come here?"
"They don't know where we are," Saito replied, a feeling of dread growing in him. "The last time I talked to Arthur, I was being shot at."
Yusuf looked hopeful. "Do you think they have a plan?"
There was a commotion coming from downstairs; the door to the upstairs lounge slid open, and one of Saito's grim-faced bodyguards told him, "Yuudai-san, Kimiko-sama desires your presence. She says she has information from her source."
Saito saw Ariadne glance at him, her eyes rounding. He wondered how much of that she understood. "We're coming," he said.
"My contact has been looking into our problem," his mum said, as they gathered around the kitchen table. Yusuf and Ariadne both faltered. "It's been difficult, considering that according to the CIA, there is no official investigation. It is my contact's belief we're dealing with a rogue operation."
The words 'rogue operation' sent a spike of fear through Saito. He clenched his fists in his lap; he didn't want to look scared, in case it made Ariadne and Yusuf more frightened than they already were.
"Is that better or worse?" Yusuf asked, sounding fearful.
"Neither. It means we're possibly dealing with one individual who's been giving orders to specific agents to carry out the operation. But it also means we can't go through official channels to stop it. If I called the president of the United States right now and asked him to end this, I doubt he could."
Yusuf slumped down as if all the energy had drained from him at once. Saito knew exactly how he felt.
"You know the president?" Ariadne asked, honing in on the one irrevelant point in their conversation. "Why am I even asking this; of course you do."
His mother's eyes glittered with mirth for a moment before she turned serious again. Saito couldn't help but feel a twinge of annoyance that she was still showing off in front of his friends.
"So basically," Yusuf said loudly, "we're fu-- uh, screwed."
"Mr Hakim," said Saito's mother, placing her palms on the table, "I've only just begun my investigation. When I'm finished, we'll know everything about this individual from his name down to what he eats for breakfast."
"So," Arthur said very calmly, "who's going to be the one to knock?"
He and Eames stood on Cobb's front stoop. It was early evening in San Francisco, and the spring chill was already settling in. Cobb's house in reality was exactly as it had been in his mind: spacious and welcoming. There weren't any kid's toys about, like there had been in Cobb's dream, and Arthur recalled, belatedly, that the Cobbs didn't have any children of their own. (Arthur had, however, spotted a cat eying them from the bushes.) Stomach twisting, he wondered if Cobb had gotten home that first night and felt a longing for two kids who had never existed.
"You should do it," replied Eames. "He's much less likely to punch you."
With a grimace, Arthur remembered Cobb's first words to him when he'd woken up: 'I'm going to punch you in the face.' "I think you should knock," he said.
Eames shoved him forward. "Man up," he said, the hypocrite.
Arthur stumbled. Righting himself, he glared at Eames over his shoulder. "Fine," he grumbled.
He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. His hand was poised in the air, prepared to knock, when he glanced back at Eames.
Eames made a get on with it gesture.
"Here goes nothing," Arthur murmured, and rapped his knuckles on the door. He braced himself for a fist to the face, or worse.
Seconds later, Cobb opened the door.
"You," he said in a strangled tone.
For a long moment, the three of them stood there staring at each other. Cobb was wearing khakis, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a cable net cardigan, and fuzzy slippers; a patchy beard had grown in, and there was a distinct lack of dark circles under his eyes. He looked comfortable and relaxed -- nothing like the man Arthur had known. A confusing blend of relief and sadness rocked Arthur back on his heels.
"I don't know if you remember me," Arthur said. "Arthur? Arthur Pendergrast?"
"Dr Harry Eames," Eames jumped in, pointing to himself.
Cobb's face was impassive. "I thought I'd imagined you," he bit out, his eyes darting between the two of them. "You-- You mind raped me!"
"Who is at the door?" a woman's voice called from somewhere deep in the house. Mal's voice, Arthur thought, stiffening.
"Just the men who mind raped me, honey," Cobb shouted back.
"Are they staying for supper?"
"Are you staying for supper?" Cobb asked them.
"What?" Arthur asked.
"What're you having?" Eames asked. "I'm allergic to shellfish and peanuts."
Cobb squinted at him. "Pot roast and broccoli."
"Then yes," Eames replied with a smile, "we'd love to stay for dinner."
"What?" Arthur repeated.
"I thought I'd dreamt everything," Cobb said, leading them down the long hallway to an enormous, open kitchen, which was seamlessly connected to the living room; off of that was a door leading to the master bedroom. Like the exterior, it was the same as Cobb's dream house; Arthur shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and tried not to look awkward. The pot roast in the oven smelled delicious, though.
"I have to say, this is a relief."
"How is this a relief?" Arthur demanded.
"Because I'd thought I'd developed sleep apnea," explained Cobb, "and my vivid dream was caused by a loss of oxygen to the brain."
That was a grim thought. Arthur and Eames silently exchanged glances.
"Listen, Dom," said Eames. He stopped and blinked, seeming to shake himself. "Uh, Cobb. Dr Cobb."
"This is the third hairstyle I've seen you with in the last two weeks, kid," Cobb said to Arthur, instead. He looked at Eames funny. "And you, I don't even want to know what the hell happened to you."
"Hey!" Eames said. He pushed up his glasses with one finger. "No need to be rude."
"You're not mad?" Arthur asked, confused and hopeful.
Being here in Cobb's kitchen -- the whole situation felt surreal. Arthur didn't know how he felt. It seemed like a dozen emotions were flowing through him at once: Regret for what he'd done; relief that Cobb was okay, that Mal was there, somewhere, that he and Eames had made it all the way from the UK safely; a dull shock at Cobb's reaction; fear that Cobb would simply turn them in. It made twitchy and nervous.
Cobb scoffed. "Hell yes, I'm mad. I'm seething. What you did to me was cruel. But I'm also curious, and frankly, impressed. You'll tell me how you did it."
It wasn't a question.
"Um," Arthur started.
"Are these our guests?" asked a new voice from behind him.
Mal stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the hallway in a dark purple dress, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Arthur's breath caught in his throat; he'd only known Mal as a shade in Cobb's mind, twisted from his grief and guilt because of what they'd tricked him into believing. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw surprise flicker across Eames' face, and he clutched Arthur's forearm.
"Dom, you didn't take their bags," Mal admonished, as if she didn't see them standing there white as ghosts.
"Remember that dream I told you about?" Cobb asked her. "The one where I incepted you, and then you killed yourself, and I went on the run?"
"Of course I do," Mal replied.
"It was an extraction these men did to me," Cobb said, gesturing to the two of them.
Mal brightened. "I hate to say I told you so," she began, sing-song. "Père will be so happy I was right!"
Arthur glared at Cobb, who, at least, was looking sheepish. "Did you tell everyone?"
Whatever Cobb's response was, though, it was lost when Mal sidled up to Arthur and breathily asked, "I've love to hear the details of the extraction. How many layers did you use?"
"Well," Arthur said, suddenly uncomfortable. He remembered, belatedly, how she'd been fired from Stanford for her unauthorised experiments.
"Loads of them," Eames answered for him.
"I'm interested in that myself," said Cobb.
"Maybe later," Arthur said. He tore himself away from the intensity of Mal's gaze; she looked like she wanted to take his brain apart and study it. "We didn't come here to explain why we did what we did. We need your help."
"You came to me, the man you extracted from less than a month ago, for help?" Cobb asked. This time his squint was full of derision. "You're either desperate or stupid."
"Desperate," they answered simultaneously.
"Absolutely desperate," Eames added.
"I should," Cobb said, "go to the DoD and tell them I've had an extraction performed on me."
A timer on the oven dinged; Eames visibly startled, his fingers tightening painfully on Arthur's arm, but Arthur just grit his teeth and tried to keep his face blank.
"But my roast's finished," continued Cobb, sliding oven mitts onto both hands, "so we'll talk about this after dinner."
Mal shoved a stack of plates into Arthur's hands.
"Maybe we should tell him why going to the DoD's a bad idea," Arthur hissed, as he and Eames set the table. Behind him, Mal set the radio to a soft rock station, and Cobb was muttering something about tomorrow's leftovers.
Eames set a fork and knife beside the plate Arthur had slammed down. "Are you kidding? Do you know how many hours that roast probably needed to cook?"
Arthur scowled at him.
When they sat down for dinner, another person joined them at the table, an old man Arthur didn't recognise. Arthur glanced at Cobb in alarm, but Cobb seemed unworried.
Mal put her hand on the old man's shoulder. "This is my father, Miles. He came for a surprise visit. Père, these are the men who extracted from Dom, Arthur and Harry."
Miles stopped cutting his pot roast and blinked at them.
"It's Eames, if you don't mind, Dr Cobb," Eames corrected.
"Mal, please," Mal replied.
"You extracted from Dominic?" Miles asked, staring at them with an inscrutable expression. He was British, with an accent similar to Eames', at least from what Arthur could hear.
Arthur must have appeared as off-balance as he felt about Mal's frankness, because she took one look at him and laughed. "Don't worry, Arthur, Père is in dreamsharing as well."
That didn't make him feel better, but it did make him curious. "What do you do?" he asked.
"Oh, I was an architect," Miles replied pleasantly.
Cobb smiled. "He's being modest. He was one of the pioneers of dreamsharing."
Miles chuckled. "Okay, you've got me," he added, taking a sip of wine. "I was the first architect."
"Then it's nice to meet you," said Arthur. That would explain Miles' interest in extraction. Arthur extended his hand across the table, and Miles shook it. He and Mal had the same smile, and Arthur returned it politely.
"If we can't help you," Mal said resolutely, "then my father can."
Miles looked surprised. "Ah, well, I don't know the situation yet, but I'll do my best to help. Any friend of Mallorie's is a friend of mine."
Dinner conversation was light. Miles prodded Arthur and Eames about their respective research; the Cobbs talked for a while about house hunting in DC. But the whole while, Eames foot kept nudging Arthur's, and it took him a while to realise Eames wasn't just trying to play footsie. He sent Eames a sideways glance, and when the others seemed distracted, hissed, "What?"
"Can you believe this?" Eames murmured. "The old man's projection was in Cobb's mind. I saw him at the airport when Cobb left the baggage claim."
"That explains why I feel so awkward," Arthur muttered back.
The pot roast was a bit dry and the wine a little too tart, but things could have been much worse, considering Arthur was having dinner with a pretend forger, the world's first dreamsharing architect, the man Arthur had extracted from, and the woman whose death he'd helped fake.
Still, for the first time in days, he tried to feel optimistic.
"Robert Fischer is dead."
Saturday morning, Saito's mother was waiting in the kitchen when he stumbled in for breakfast. She had the decency to wait until he'd made himself a cup of tea and sat down at the table, tucking his feet under him, before she gave them the news of Fischer's death.
Sitting next to him at the table, Ariadne gasped. Saito halted, his tea cup poised halfway to his lips; Yusuf frowned at the three of them in confusion, still picking at his rice.
"I heard 'Robert Fischer,'" Yusuf said. "I'm assuming this isn't good news?"
"Fischer's dead," said Ariadne in English. She twisted her mouth into a furious 'oh,' her forehead wrinkled. Her expression flitted between angry, sad, and frightened; Saito put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Yusuf dropped his chopsticks. "Since when?"
With a barely-audible sigh, Saito's mum joined them at the table. She took the cushion beside Yusuf, smoothing out the creases in her trousers. To the others, she probably looked unaffected, but Saito knew her; he could tell when she was worried. Saito poured her a cup of tea, and she nodded at him in thanks. In English, she told them, "According to my contact at the Pentagon, his body was found dead last Sunday at the National Mall in Washington, DC."
Saito tried to feel bad -- as Ariadne clearly did -- but the only emotion stirring in him was apprehension. Fischer had tricked them into committing treason for his own profit. It was his fault Saito was here in hiding rather than back in his normal life in Berkeley, worrying about papers and conferences and his Wii high scores. if the emotions crossing Yusuf's face were any indication, he seemed to be having the same reaction.
"But," said his mother, "I've found out the person responsible."
That caught their attention.
"Your friend, Robert Fischer--"
"Not my friend," Yusuf chimed in, raising a finger in the air.
No one interrupted Saito Kimiko. Slowly, she turned her head and stared Yusuf down, until he coughed and said, "I'm sorry, please continue."
"Robert Fischer sought help from Dr Langlois at the Department of Defense."
"Arthur told me that already," said Saito, frustrated. Beside him, Ariadne grew still. "Dr Langlois was Fischer's graduate supervisor."
"He also happens to be the head of the Department of Defense's dreamsharing division," his mother said. "So it would appear your friend turned himself into the hands of the person with the most to lose from Cobb's extraction. My contact has informed me that Dr Langlois initiated a covert operation for you to be returned to the Pentagon dead or alive. Preferably dead."
"Dr Langlois?" Ariadne blurted.
Saito glanced at her. Her face was pale. "What?" he coaxed with a feeling of dread.
"I forgot," Ariadne replied, "only Fischer and I planned my meeting with Cobb. So you don't know."
"What are you on about?" Yusuf asked, frowning.
Ariadne look at all of them, her expression tight. "Dr Miles Langlois is Cobb's father-in-law."
Cobb put them in one guestroom. Arthur knew exactly what Cobb was thinking, but when he opened his mouth to tell him he needed his own room, what came out was, "Goodnight."
After the sounds of the Cobbs and Miles getting ready for sleep quieted down, Arthur joined Eames on the bed. "We need a plan in case Cobb decides to turn us in," he said, keeping his voice low.
"We do," Eames agreed. He pulled out his phone and started typing away.
"What are you doing?" Arthur asked.
"Looking for a list of countries that don't extradite to the US and the UK," Eames said, distracted. "How do you feel about Iran?"
"It'd be better for us if we split up," Arthur said.
Eames stopped typing and turned to frown at him. "Come again?"
Arthur picked at a loose string in the bed spread. "You don't want to be stuck with me for an indefinite period of time," he replied, even though the very thought of never seeing Eames again made him feel sick.
"Of course I do," Eames said. He sounded frustrated. "You know how I feel about you."
"Actually, no, I don't," Arthur retorted.
With a deep sigh, Eames set his phone down on the bed. "Has anyone ever told you you're bloody frustrating?" He grabbed Arthur's hands. "Arthur, I like you. You're uptight, you've no imagination, and you dress like a ponce. I think you're wonderful."
A warmth spread through Arthur's chest. Eames looked determined and so damn sure, and he was sitting on the bed with Arthur in his geeky, vintage Battlestar Galactica t-shirt and plaid pajama pants, with his glasses on and his short hair sticking up everywhere. He was broad and manly, and he smelled so good. He was both everything and nothing like Arthur had ever wanted.
Arthur pulled him in and kissed him before he could second-guess himself. He curled his fingers in Eames' shirt and just kissed him and kissed him while Eames wrapped his big arms around Arthur's shoulders. Soon enough, Eames was easing him backwards until Arthur was flat on his back with Eames kissing the breath out of him, slow and deep, until they were both shivering.
Eames moved until he was lying between Arthur's legs, and he ground their hips together. With a groan, Arthur arched into it, and Eames whispered, "Jesus Christ," and began sucking bruises onto Arthur's neck. Arthur hooked an ankle around the back of Eames' leg and slid his hands under Eames' t-shirt, needing to feel skin as he thrust up against the roll of Eames' hips.
But when Eames slipped his hand under the waistband of Arthur's borrowed sweatpants and ran calloused fingers from the jut of his hips down to his cock, Arthur went still. Both of them were hard, and it would be so easy to keep going.
Arthur didn't know what he wanted. He wanted this Eames (geeky, awkward Eames), but despite everything, he still wanted the other Eames, too.
Once he noticed Arthur's lack of response, Eames pulled back. "You alright there?"
Arthur pushed Eames off him and sat up. "I don't know how I feel about you," he said, angry at himself. He tried to run a hand through his hair before remembering he'd cut it all off. "I'm sorry. I just-- I don't know."
Eames clenched a fist in the bedsheets and looked away, but not before Arthur saw his face darken. "You've never even given me a chance because you're too busy telling yourself I'm not what you want."
"That's not--" Arthur started. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Eames rolled onto his back. "You need to give me a chance. Even-- no, wait she was a Cylon. What abo-- no, she had to stake him. But there's--"
"Princess Leia gave Han Solo a chance," Arthur interrupted.
Eames focused on him like a hawk. "You like Star Wars? Have you seen all three?"
Arthur scoffed. "Obviously. And before you ask, Empire Strikes Back is the best one, no, the prequels don't exist, and yes, Lucas is a douchebag who ruined his own franchise."
Eames stared at him.
"What?" Arthur asked warily.
"We're blatantly meant for each other," Eames replied, beaming.
Arthur had no idea how Eames could be sure when Arthur himself was so conflicted, but it made him smile anyway. He lay down next to Eames and pulled the duvet over them, and when Eames sleepily threw an arm over him, he settled in closer.
In the morning, Eames wasn't in bed when Arthur woke up. It took him a few minutes to recognise that the sheets (lavender, fine quality) weren't from Eames' bed (red and brown flannel) or his own (blue, from Walmart), and he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
They were at Cobb's house, he reminded himself, and today they needed to get serious and tell both Cobbs exactly what was going on -- and convince them not to turn them in. Arthur was prepared to do a lot of groveling. They should have told the Cobbs last night, he knew, but something about Miles being there had put Arthur off, and he'd pleaded exhaustion. He wanted to talk to Cobb alone, not with his father-in-law hovering and asking questions about what exactly did Arthur do and why did he and Eames come all this way.
Eames' pajama pants were thrown over his backpack in the corner of the room, so Arthur went ahead and got dressed, too. When he padded into the kitchen, Eames was sitting on a stool at the island chattering away to Mal, who was making a full breakfast. She was wearing a green t-shirt and jeans, with her hair pulled back again into a messy, high ponytail, and no makeup. It was startling how she could look so much and yet so little like Mal the shade.
"Bonjour, Arthur," Mal greeted. "Would you like some breakfast?"
"Just coffee, thanks," Arthur replied. Mal gestured to the half-full pot, and he poured himself a mug. "What are you two talking about?"
"New York," Eames said, reaching out and tugging one string of Arthur's hoodie, pulling the hood tight. Arthur looked down and scowled at the strings' uneveness.
"I love New York," Mal sighed. "Before I got my PhD, I took a year off and lived there, working under the table at this horrible bar."
"Do-- Uh," Arthur corrected himself, "Cobb's not awake yet, is he?"
"He's on the back deck," Mal replied, waving a vague hand. She turned her back to them to flip the pancakes. "He woke up this morning very cross."
Arthur leaned his shoulder into Eames'. "Now would be a good time to tell them about our problem," he muttered, hoping Mal couldn't hear over the crack and pop of bacon frying in a second skillet.
Eames pressed back. "Together?"
If Cobb was angry enough, he might be sitting out in back with his phone, debating whether or not to call the DoD and tell them about the extraction -- if he hadn't already. They couldn't risk it; Cobb and his connection to the Pentagon was their last shot. Arthur knew his only chance was for them to have a heart to heart, hope Cobb understood why Arthur had seemingly betrayed him, and ask him to save their skin.
Arthur shook his head. "Let me deal with Cobb," he said. "You tell Mal."
Mal looked over at them sharply. "Tell me what?" she asked.
Arthur opened his mouth to suggest he go find her husband, but then there was a, "Good morning!" from the doorway as Miles walked into the kitchen, humming under his breath. He kissed his daughter on the cheek. Next, when he turned to greet Arthur and Eames, a shudder ran down Arthur's back.
"Alright?" Eames asked, gazing at him in concern.
Arthur glanced over to where Miles, now, was helping Mal dice potatoes for the hash browns. The knife gleamed.
It was probably nothing, Arthur thought.
"Père, Eames is about to tell me something exciting," Mal said. "And after breakfast, we can try going eight levels under. I've already warmed up the PASIV."
"Eight levels?" Arthur repeated in disbelief.
"We did seven yesterday, but I know we can--"
"Mallorie, we've talked about this," Miles said with a tight smile that made Arthur instantly uncomfortable. "You know Dom and I have some very important business to discuss. It's been difficult to talk to him with you wanting to dream with me all the time. I've already wasted three days."
"And you probably shouldn't go under so deep without a chemist around," Eames added, readjusting his glasses with a haughty look. Arthur couldn't remember seeing that mildly disapproving expression on his face before.
Abruptly, Miles turned to them. He pointed the knife at Arthur, and Arthur barely resisted the urge to flinch. "Did you have a chemist when you extracted from Dom?"
"One of our teammates is in biotechnology," Arthur replied tentatively. "And my PhD is -- will be -- in neuroscience. I'm going to go find Dom," he added, putting distance between himself and Miles.
Arthur's gut was saying he shouldn't take his eyes off Miles, but his head said he needed to go catch Cobb before he made up his mind to blabber about the extraction. He tried to meet Eames' eye as he passed, but Eames was too busy gazing at the pancakes with longing.
Arthur found Cobb on the back porch drinking coffee. The newspaper was in his lap, but he was staring off into the backyard. It was cold out, and when Arthur exhaled, he could see his breath. "Are you okay?" he asked. He was relieved to see Cobb didn't appear to have his cell phone with him. "Mal said you were angry."
Cobb's eyes flickered toward him briefly, then away. "Yeah, I'm good. This whole thing is-- Well. Since the extraction, I've had flashes of memories that my brain can't seem to differentiate between dream and reality. It's..." He seemed to search for the right word. "An unpleasant feeling."
Sitting down next to him on the bench, Arthur pulled the sleeves of his hoodie over his icy fingers. "How much do you remember?"
"Bits and pieces," Cobb replied. "But they're fuzzy. I remember Mal's funeral, but I don't remember her dying; I remember being in Paris, training a girl... Adriane? I can see her face in my mind."
"Ariadne," Arthur corrected.
"I remember going to limbo and shooting Mal, but I don't remember why. I remember going to Mombasa to get Eames; you told me not to."
"If it helps, I'm sorry," Arthur said. His voice shook, and he cleared his throat, trying to hide it. "I wouldn't have done it if I'd known you hadn't consented."
Cobb's gazed fixed on the SanDroid lawn mower working in the distance. "It's funny, because after everything that's happened, part of me is still saying I should trust you."
Arthur grimaced. "I won't abuse that trust this time," he promised.
They sat in companionable silence for a while, while Cobb finished his coffee. Eventually, Cobb looked at him. "How did you pull off limbo?"
Arthur resisted the urge to sigh. "Those were your projections," he explained. "Yours, and later Saito's. All you needed was the suggestion that you were in limbo, and when Ariadne recreated your house, your mind filled it with Mal."
Cobb frowned. "But I forgot, just like you're supposed to in limbo."
"You believed you were in limbo. Your mind reacted accordingly. That's why you remembered who you and Saito were so quickly. If you'd really been in limbo, once you forgot who you were, nothing would've pulled you out."
Cobb stared at him, eyes narrowed. "That's pretty clever," he said eventually, sounding admiring.
Arthur couldn't help the corner of his mouth that twitched up. "It was Fischer's idea."
"Fischer," Cobb repeated. He chuckled contemptuously. "That was surprising. He seemed like a moron."
"Yeah, he is," Arthur replied. "I think he's some sort of idiot savant. Or was, rather," he added, mouth twisting, recalling he had no idea whether or not Fischer was okay.
Cobb blinked. "Was?"
"He may be dead," said Arthur. He told Cobb about Fischer's inception. But before he could get to the part where he and Saito were attacked, Cobb interrupted:
"Hold on." A strange expression crossed Cobb's face. "Fischer's supervisor was Dr Langlois? Who's now at the DoD? Are you positive?"
Arthur nodded. "We think Langlois must've turned him in--"
"Dr Langlois is Mal's father," Cobb interrupted.
That couldn't have been true. Arthur started at Cobb's confused squint. "Mal's... father?" he said stupidly. "You mean Miles?"
But Miles seemed so nice and British.
Part of Arthur was fighting what Cobb had said, because it was impossible the smiling (yet admittedly intimidating) old man helping with breakfast in the kitchen was not only the head of the nation's dreamsharing regulation but also the same man who'd sent people to kill them.
The other part of Arthur was saying he had to stop overthinking for once in his life and get back in the house, because something was wrong.
When he burst through the French doors separating the house from the backyard, Cobb on his heels, Miles was standing in the great room with a gun pointed at Eames. Eames had his hands behind his head and a sheepish look on his face. Thankfully, Mal was nowhere in sight.
"Miles," Cobb exclaimed, as Arthur froze, "what are you doing?"
Ignoring Cobb, Miles said, "Arthur, you're just in time to watch your boyfriend die."
"We haven't really put a definition on anything yet," Eames said, and Miles slammed the butt of the gun into his face. Arthur's eyes widened as Eames staggered; when he righted himself, a red mark was blossoming on the side of his face. But he looked more angry than hurt, and that kept the fear in Arthur from bubbling over. Instead, it just made Arthur furious.
"Don't hurt him," Arthur said, calmer than he felt. He raised his own hands up and stepped as close to Eames as he dared. "We're both here now, so why don't you put the gun down, Dr Langlois?" he added for Eames' benefit.
"Frak me," Eames groaned, his face twisting with a sickening realisation.
"Be quiet," Miles snapped.
Arthur took another step forward. "We know this is about inception. You can have it; we're not going to tell anyone how to do it. We're just looking to get out of this in one piece."
"Please," sneered Miles.
"Where's Mal?" Cobb demanded suddenly. "If you've done something to her, so help me--"
A toilet flushed.
"Oh," said Cobb.
Miles pulled a second gun from the small of his back and pointed it at Cobb. "I'll kill Dom and the whole lot of you before I let inception fall into the hands of someone else. Do you understand how important this is to national security? Do you know what will happen if inception is something available to whomever can afford it? Do you know how embarrassing it will be if I have to tell the Secretary of Defense I let a bunch of university students steal our greatest weapon?"
As Miles shouted this, Mal walked out of the bathroom.
"Father!" Mal exclaimed, looking outraged. A SanDroid vacuum was at her heels. "Don't kill Dom. You promised you'd let this one live!"
"'This one'?" Cobb murmured. "That doesn't sound good."
Mal had stopped in her tracks, but the vacuum bot rolled right past her and didn't stop until it reached Miles, who was busy watching Arthur and Cobb.
The vacuum chirped.
"What's that--?" Miles began, looking down.
Arthur drove his shoulder into Miles' chest, propelling him back. He'd only intended to knock Miles down and take his weapons, but Miles tripped over the bot and went stumbling backward into the master bedroom. Arthur launched himself at the door and scrabbled with the lock. Behind him, he could hear Mal swearing loudly in French, and just as Arthur finally threw the lock, Eames said, "For Christ's sake, get down," and Arthur found himself tugged beside Eames on the floor just in time to narrowly avoid the rounds fired through the door.
"The bedroom's connected to the front of the house," Cobb warned, throwing open the china cabinet and was tearing through it like a mad man. "Mal, where's the key to the gun safe?"
"I have it with me, of course," Mal snapped, crawling over to him.
Cobb turned to Eames. He looked both frantic and incensed, already breathing hard. "Help me use this to block the hall door."
While they pushed the china cabinet in front of the open hall doorway, Miles was still shooting at the door between the great room and the bedroom, sending bits of wood flying everywhere. The lock kept, however; Miles seemed more concerned with hitting them than getting back inside the room. A bullet passed through one of the holes and shattered a lamp; another splintered the kitchen window. Real gunfire was louder than it had been in the dream -- Arthur's only real exposure to guns -- and he couldn't help but flinch with every shot, digging his fingers into his knees.
He looked up to find Mal handing him a pistol. Cobb and Eames each already had one. Reluctantly, he took it.
Mal smiled gently at Arthur as if she understood how he felt. "I realise," she began, addressing all of them, "that my father is a power-hungry madman, but I would be ever so sad if you killed him."
"I would be ever so sad if I died, how about that?" demanded Cobb.
Mal glared at him.
"Sweetheart," Cobb added.
"I would also be sad if I died," said Eames.
"I wouldn't," Arthur chimed in. "I'd be pissed. If your father kills me, I'm going to come back and haunt your entire family."
Mal passed out extra magazines; Arthur shoved his into his pocket. "That seems fair," she agreed.
"Why do you happen to have four guns lying about?" Eames asked. He raised his gun and inspected it with an expertise Arthur seriously doubted he had before huffing, "America."
"Since Stanford let me go," Mal explained, tone frosty, "one of my new hobbies is collecting firearms. The antiques are in the basement. Also, I do watercolours and I knit."
"She's really good," Cobb said, squeezing her arm.
Suddenly Miles stopped firing.
Arthur expected to hear more gunshots hitting the back of the china cabinet once Miles walked around to the front of the house, but instead he heard a, "Sod this," and then another door slammed somewhere in the front of the house.
"Maybe he's leaving," Arthur said.
"Or maybe he went to call in back up," Eames replied. "It's what I'd do."
One of the windows in the great room shattered, causing Arthur to jump and Mal to fire several shots through the broken glass.
"He's going around the house," Cobb said.
Eames started pushing the china cabinet onto its side, and Arthur jumped up to help him. Shots took out the next window; Miles was definitely walking around the house, shooting out the windows as he passed. The flying bullets hadn't hit any of them, but the living room set had been gutted.
"We can go out the front," Arthur said, as he and Eames moved the cabinet so they could use it as cover.
Eames goggled at him in exasperation, like Arthur had suggested they turn themselves in. "And what, wait to be shot down by the CIA? Go back to hiding again? We need to end this now. Peacefully, of course," he added, when Mal glowered at him and pointedly turned the safety off her gun.
"It'll draw him out," said Eames. "The rest of you, you go round through the front door and sneak up behind him. We'll take him on two fronts."
Mal placed hand on Cobb's arm. "He's my father," she said seriously. Her face was soft and beautiful. "Let me be the one to gravely injure him."
Cobb melted. "You're so strong."
"Weird," Eames muttered under his breath.
"I'm not leaving you in here alone," Arthur told Eames.
Despite that he was about to get in a gun fight -- a gun fight, him, Arthur Pendergrast -- he felt strangely tranquil. There was no way in hell he was going to let Eames be bait, or to let him die alone in Cobb's living room after being shot by a guy who had to be pushing eighty. Eames was right. One way or another, they had to end it here.
"Do you know how to shoot?" Eames asked him.
"Do you?" Arthur retorted.
Eames opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say, it was lost as gunfire hit the back door. The glass shattered. Arthur recoiled away from it, ducking down even further.
"Go," Eames hissed at the Cobbs, who rolled out from under the table and crawled through the door.
Arthur didn't bother checking if they'd left before he lifted himself to one knee and started firing back from around the side of the china cabinet. Beside him, Eames did the same, only better. Despite his bravado, Arthur had never fired a gun in reality before. He'd handled video game guns, water guns, laser guns, and once, at the same Renaissance Faire where he'd met Tom the jousting knight, a bow and arrow set. But none of these prepared him for the way the pistol caused him to jerk back when it fired, sending his bullet way off its mark and into the opposite side of the backyard. He hoped he hadn't accidentally shot the cat.
"Like this, darling," Eames said, and adjusted Arthur's grip.
Arthur's head snapped up. 'Darling.' For a moment, Arthur was back in Cobb's dream, feeling the heat coiling in his gut as Eames took out that troublesome projection, so focused and competent.
When he was sure Arthur had the right hold on his gun, Eames gave a satisfied nod and sent a few more shots in Miles' direction. He looked confident, like he knew exactly what he was doing.
It hit Arthur suddenly -- and yet much, much belatedly -- that this man in front of him, in his Zelda t-shirt and baggy jeans, glasses slipping down his nose, was the same brilliant, snarky, interesting forger Arthur had developed feelings for -- only real. It was this Eames that had immediately believed Arthur when he'd come to him with a crazy story about the CIA, it was this Eames who'd gotten them out of the UK when Arthur had been floundering, and it was this Eames that was so sure he wanted to be with Arthur even when Arthur had been confused. Sure, he didn't make his means by stealing secrets from people's minds, and he definitely (well, probably) had never killed anyone, but none of that mattered. If Arthur really wanted to fuck a thief, he'd start writing to inmates.
What was important was that this Eames, to Arthur, was pretty damn cool.
When Eames stopped to switch out an empty magazine, Arthur pulled his head down for a long, messy kiss. "If we make it out of here, I'm going to rock your world," he told Eames fiercely.
That was possibly the least sexy thing that had ever come out of Arthur's mouth, but it made Eames gape at him a moment from behind steamed-up glasses before giving him a wide, heart-stopping smile. "I'm going to hold you to that."
Arthur managed a few more shots off, in the direction he'd intended, even. Dimly, he wondered where the hell Mal and Cobb were, and if Miles had somehow gotten to them, unheard, or worse, if this had all been one big plot and they were helping him. Once they ran out of bullets, that was it.
He was contemplating a back-up plan when the front door slammed open and half a dozen black armour-clad, helmet-wearing operatives with assault rifles rushed into the living room. Arthur twisted around and pointed his gun at them, still crouched on the floor.
I'm dead, Arthur thought, as they were surrounded, terrified. At least they'd died fighting back and not--
"Yusuf?" Eames asked.
Suddenly, raised voices came from the backyard. They were shouting in what sounded like Japanese, and a familiar -- and very out of place -- voice said, "They said hands in the air, asshole!"
Arthur went still. "Ariadne?"
Miles yelled, "You little--" and then he screamed as the sound of electricity filled the air.
One of the operatives removed his helmet and shook out his sweaty hair. Arthur's breath caught when he recognised Saito's face. In the next moment, Ariadne used her heavy boot to kick in some of the bits of glass and wood still hanging on the mostly-destroyed door, and she stepped into the room, triumphant. She was wearing the same black armour as the others, and she had a taser in hand. If Arthur hadn't been too busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on, he might have been concerned.
Dimly, Arthur heard a dismayed squeal as the SanDroid vacuum bot rolled back into the room and scanned the mess that was left behind.
"We thought you might need some help, broseph," Saito said smugly. He reached out and offered Arthur a hand up.
Other than Saito, Yusuf, and Ariadne, there were six men -- bodyguards? soldiers? police? -- and one older Japanese woman in an expensive pantsuit and Hermes scarf who introduced herself as Saito Kimiko, "mother of Yuudai-kun and CEO of SanDroid Engineering. Please, call me Kimiko-sama." Kimiko-sama ordered her men to carry Miles' unconscious body into the living room; they settled him into an armchair with more gentleness than he probably deserved.
Unconscious, Miles looked like a harmless old man. Arthur hated his guts.
"Do you have braces?" Ariadne demanded, drawing Arthur's attention away from where he was trying to destroy Miles with his mind. She was peering at Eames' mouth like she'd never seen one before. "Aren't you too old for that? Oh, and they're metal ones, too. Why didn't you get Invisalign?"
"Smooth," said Saito.
"Really tactful," added Yusuf.
Eames cupped a hand over his mouth. Arthur rested a comforting hand on his very broad, very muscular back. He was angry, but adrenaline was still pumping through him, and he thought about Eames firing a gun, the powerful muscles in his arms flexing, about the heat of his mouth, about the way his skin would taste when Arthur finally licked his snooty hipster tattoos. A muscle at his jaw twitched.
When Mal and Cobb were let back in the house, escorted by one of the officers, Mal took one look at her father and gasped, "Is he--?"
"Unconscious," Eames said.
"I tased him," Ariadne added. "He'll be fine."
"Ariadne," Cobb replied, eyes widening. He glanced at the others. "Yusuf. And, uh--"
"Saito," said Saito. "Miss me, brah?"
Cobb squinted at him in confusion.
"What're we going to do about--?" Yusuf gestured toward Miles, still passed out.
"I could take him with me back to Tokyo," said Saito's mom, steepling her fingers, "and convince him to instruct his operatives to leave you alone."
She said 'convince' in a way that made Arthur distinctly uncomfortable. Apparently it wasn't just him that felt this way, because Cobb said, "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Too bad you just can't incept him into thinking he'd made a mistake," said Eames, joking.
Everyone turned to look at him. The room grew quiet, and Eames' eyes widened.
"What kind of mistake?" Cobb prodded with a gleam in his eye.
Eames visibly hesitated. "Perhaps that losing the rights to inception is beyond his control?"
Although he had told Arthur he only had vague memories of his dream, Cobb mused, "One simple idea." It was like a kick to the gut; even Saito grimaced. Arthur was still trying to wrap his head around what was happening when Mal disappeared into the master bedroom and came back with a silver PASIV case, a fierce look in her eyes.
"I have an idea," she said. "Dom, it will take at least both of us to carry this off."
"Are you serious?" Eames demanded. "You're actually incepting him? You do realise I was trying to break the tension?"
"Cobb, you need someone who understands what you're going through," Ariadne said, as everyone ignored Eames. Mal studied her suspiciously.
"I'm going too," Saito announced. "This time, I won't be the tourist."
Yusuf jumped in. "I'm in as well. I want to be point."
"But I'm point," Arthur protested, finally finding his voice again.
Cobb scowled at him. "You're not going. Neither are you, Eames. Look at my house!"
"But I'm your point man," Arthur said weakly.
"And, let's face it, I'm fairly bad ass," said Eames. "We should go with you."
"Both of you are idiots," Ariadne scoffed. "You hand-delivered yourself to the man who put a hit on you. If you'd waited a few days, Kimiko-sama would've taken care of everything."
"How could we have known?" Eames retorted, at the same time Arthur said, "I googled Langlois and didn't find anything."
Although part of Arthur was having an inner tantrum over Cobb choosing someone else as his point man even though Arthur was standing right there in front of him, which was so insensitive, it occurred to him that it was convenient timing -- because if they all went under, taking Miles with them, it would mean Eames and Arthur would have some time to themselves, mostly alone in this big, albeit damaged, house, with guestroom and a king-sized bed. At this moment, that sounded perfect to Arthur; that was so much better than going into the head of an old, evil man.
Arthur reached over and took Eames' hand. "Okay," he said. "Go under. We'll stay here."
Eames looked at him sharply, and then his face reddened in the endearing way Arthur was used to seeing by now. "Yeah, go on, I think we're fine out here," Eames confirmed.
"Whoa," said Yusuf, and Saito muttered, "I saw this coming."
"Are you going to have sex?" Ariadne asked loudly.
"Yes, you should make love!" said Mal. "But not in the living room. I believe we've already traumatised the vacuum enough for today."
Arthur glanced over to where the bot was wheeling itself in a circle in the corner, making the occasional sad noise.
Miles was carried from the living room and into the master bedroom and placed in the centre of the bed. He stirred a bit, smacking his lips. After wiping down her father's wrist with rubbing alcohol, Mal handed Cobb a pair of surgical gloves, and he inserted the IV. Mal pressed the pump to the sedative.
Cobb pulled several IVs out of the PASIV and handed one to each member of the new team. "I don't keep REDSIVs here, so we'll do it the old-fashioned way," he said.
Once everyone was under -- placed around the room in an unconscious replication of the hotel in Cobb's mind, which made Arthur's skin crawl -- Eames squeezed Arthur's hand. When Kimiko-sama noticed they were still there, hovering over their friends, she let out a small, sharp laugh. "My men and I will watch over them. Go be young men together."
But once out in the hallway, Eames resisted being dragged upstairs. "Arthur," he said, "before we do this, I need to know. Why's it now you want to--"
"Don't say 'frak,'" Arthur threatened.
"--Make love," Eames continued, glaring.
Arthur tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling, trying to put together the words to describe it.
"Was it the gun?" Eames asked, leering. "I learned how to shoot playing--"
"No," Arthur interrupted, not wanting Eames to ruin it, "it wasn't the gun. I realised, in there, that maybe you aren't the guy I thought you were--"
It was Eames' turn to interrupt. "I am, I am," he protested, voice breaking. He looked like he'd just taken a punch to the gut.
"--But that's okay," Arthur said. "I don't care about him anymore. I want you."
It took Eames a long, heart-wrenching moment to get it.
"Yes," Eames exclaimed. "Roll to tap that!"
"Although sometimes I don't know why," added Arthur.
Eames looked smug. "Don't worry, Arthur, the challenge rating is below your base roll anyway."
"Come here," Arthur instructed. He hooked his hand in Eames' waistband and kissed him.
They kissed like that for a while, slow and deep, standing in the middle of the hallway. Underneath Arthur's hands, Eames was warm and strong, and he leaned into him and let Eames take his weight, knowing Eames could handle it. They kissed until Arthur thought his knees would give out, until he thought he would die if Eames didn't put his mouth or hand on him. When he pulled away, his cheeks and mouth felt pink from the scrape of Eames' beard.
"Sorry," Eames murmured, running a thumb over Arthur's cheek, "I'll shave next time."
"I don't mind," Arthur said. Eames' lips were red, and Arthur didn't care if they fucked right here in the hallway. Eames was gorgeous and sweet, and he could shoot a gun, and he thought he was a paladin. And right now, he was everything Arthur wanted.
After that, it was a frantic rush to get into the upstairs guest room, and then it was a fight to get their clothes off. Finally, they were lying on the bed; in the back of his mind, Arthur noticed Eames throwing his glasses somewhere left of the night table. Naked, Eames was broad, hairy, and tan, his wide shoulders tapering into a thick waist and solid thighs. Arthur couldn't help but make an appreciative noise when Eames kicked off his boxers and revealed the cock Arthur had rubbed one out thinking about so many times. He wanted to climb on and never let go, so he did; he pushed Eames flat on his back and he just kissed him and kissed him, carefully sliding his tongue over Eames' braces. He ground his hips up and they groaned together, Eames running his hands over Arthur like he wanted to touch him everywhere.
While Arthur was distracted by the feel of Eames' dick against his, Eames flipped them over, and he hooked one leg around Eames' waist and arched his cock up against the hard flesh of Eames' belly. "Yeah," he said, as Eames ground them together, dragging his slick cock against Arthur's abs, and finally Eames worked a hand between them and started jerking them off, breathing wetly against Arthur's neck. Arthur's foot was thumping against the small of Eames' back with every roll of his hips; he wrapped his arms around Eames' shoulders, moaning, "Yeah, yeah."
"Fuck," Eames said shakily. He pushed himself up on one arm and kissed Arthur again, all teeth and tongue, until Arthur started to feel light-headed from the lack of oxygen, so close to coming. He pulled away to suck in air as Eames buried his face in his neck again. The whole time, Eames kept jacking them with firm, steady strokes, his big hand making Arthur shake apart.
"I'm gonna come," Arthur said.
"Not yet," Eames gasped, and Arthur couldn't help but keen high in his throat.
"Just a little longer," Eames promised him, kissing the line of his jaw. He let go of their cocks, then, and Arthur made an unhappy noise; Eames grabbed Arthur's other leg and tugged it over his hip. "Like this."
Their cocks brushed, and Arthur whined, "Eames," and Eames wrapped his hand around them again.
"Okay," said Eames, stroking them languidly and dropping kisses along Arthur's collar bone, "okay, you can come now."
Arthur came with his heart pounding in his ears, his fingers digging into the sweat-slick flesh of Eames' back, while Eames thrust over and over into his own hand. It didn't take long before he felt Eames shaking beneath his hands and a warm splash on his belly.
Eames panted heavily in the crook of his neck for a while, while Arthur floated on an endorphin high. He lazily carded his hand through Eames' hair until he was petting the back of his head.
"Frell me dead," Eames said eventually as he pushed off Arthur and onto his side. "Please tell me that wasn't a one-off, because there are so many things I want to do to you."
Arthur rolled over to face him. "You caught me. I orchestrated this whole thing just to get a handjob in Cobb's guestroom."
Eames grinned at him, but then his face turned grave. "Listen, I need you to know -- whatever happens, whether or not the inception holds, we'll work it out."
Eames was looking at him so seriously, and Arthur believed him. He believed him, and trusted him, and maybe even loved him a little.
"You know," Arthur said, running his fingers along the swirls of colour on Eames' shoulder, tracing the quote on his collarbone, "a real point man would've trusted his instincts more than I have. I've been telling myself that the person I was in Cobb's dream was all me, just cooler, but I don't think he was. I need to follow my gut more."
Eames caught one of Arthur's hands and raised it to his lips. "To be fair, from Cobb's perspective, that Arthur was supposed to have ignored his gut in favour of trusting Cobb. So I'd say you're doing fine."
"I'm trying to tell you something," Arthur grumbled. "What I'm trying to say is, right now my gut's telling me I shouldn't leave you to go back to cybering with teens in WoW chats."
Eames stared at him for a long moment, as Arthur's ears burned, before he burst out laughing.
"Darling, that's the most romantic thing anyone's ever said to me," he replied.
They slept for a while, with Eames using Arthur's sternum as a pillow, but Arthur was shaken back into wakefulness when he felt Eames get up and draw the bed sheet over them; he tangled their legs together and drew his hand down Arthur's back. "What are you doing?" Arthur asked, laughing tiredly. He pressed his face against Eames' shoulder.
"Preserving your modesty," Eames replied, kissing along Arthur's hairline.
Arthur tried to arch a brow, but he couldn't with Eames' lips moving downward. "From who?" he asked, as Eames kissed his nose. Eames was so warm and he was so comfortable -- if a bit sticky -- and he just wanted to curl up and go back to sleep.
At that moment, Cobb burst through the door, looking wild. "We're awake," he announced. "It's done: we've incepted Miles."
Eames looked at Arthur. "I swear I didn't know that was going to happen."
A year later, Arthur submitted a heavily-edited thesis and graduated without distinction. 'Your work lacked imagination,' was one of the criticisms of the board, but it just made him laugh. If they'd read his real thesis, they would have all had to sign the same non-disclosure agreement he had. After Miles had called off his agents and turned in his resignation at the DoD, claiming it wasn't worth it. After the new head of the dreamsharing division had called all of them to the Pentagon for a meeting to discuss why they would be keeping their mouths shut. After all of them had signed without protest.
In the end, Arthur figured the department still hadn't forgiven him for -- what they believed -- being carted off to be questioned by the DoD for being a rogue dreamer (charges later dropped), but he no longer cared. He was too busy applying for jobs at research institutes in the UK.
Saito continued on with his work at Berkley; Yusuf went to work at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata. Cobb and Mal had a son, whom they named James. Everyone tried really hard to not be uncomfortable at that.
Ariadne graduated and was immediately offered a position in the Pentagon. She couldn't tell them which department. "But let's just say I'll be seeing Cobb a lot," she told him, waggling her eyebrows.
"That's gross, Ariadne," Arthur said. "He's married, and one of Mal's hobbies is collecting guns. And were't you and Saito--?"
"That's classified," Ariadne lied hotly.
That fall, Arthur and Eames were eating dinner in front of the tv, as usual, when Eames casually flipped over to Sky news. Arthur perked up when he saw a map of North Korea, but Eames looked like he was seconds away from changing that station. "Wait," the patriot in Arthur said, wrestling away the remote.
"--our top story of the day. North Korean president Kim Jong-il has declared he is going to open borders and introduce capitalism to North Korea. The president even said a reunification with the south was being considered."
"Huh," Arthur said.
"This is surprising news after Kim Jong-il's comments last month when he said there would be no reunification during his lifetime. President Obama's response--"
"Arthur," Eames asked, "where, exactly, did Ariadne say she was going on holiday?"
"She just said 'Korea,'" Arthur said slowly. "I'd assumed she meant South Korea. You don't think...?"
Gently, Eames pulled the remote out of Arthur's hand and resumed channel surfing.
"Hey," Arthur said, "go back. Fringe is on."
"God, I love you," said Eames.