It’s night, but the terrace is brightly lit.
Arthur has better things to do than baby-sit Dom, and he should be doing them right now. But Mal is here again—in the middle of the damn job—and there’s enough wiggle room in the plan for him to spare a few minutes making sure she isn’t going to blow up half the damn building again. Lately, it seems she’s always there, although Dom likes to deny it, and Arthur has gotten good at assessing with a glance whether she’s in a destructive mood. Which she usually is.
These days, he builds time into the plan to deal with her—without mentioning it to Dom. That conversation would be far too volatile for either of them to emerge unscathed, and what would they be left with? Dom would order him not to do it, Arthur would go ahead and do it anyway, Dom would know he was doing it anyway, and they’d be right back where they are now except that Dom would be pissed at him.
And wouldn’t that make dealing with Mal’s emotional outbursts a joy.
Arthur trails after the happy couple until Dom leads Mal into a room on the fourth floor. She glances over her shoulder at Arthur as Dom ushers her through the door with an arm around her waist, and Arthur catches a sparkle of mischief in her eyes.
Dom doesn’t notice he’s there. Dom never does, when Mal’s around. He’s too focused on her.
Sloppy, chaotic, and in no way good for the safety of the team.
As Arthur hesitates in the hallway, debating with himself whether or not to call it as a botched job—Cobol is going to shit their pants, but he does not like walking around in here knowing Mal’s nearby and in this kind of mood. Maybe it’s time for him to just walk away from this partnership and get himself a new extractor. Dom’s an old friend, and he used to be the best, but this Mal thing is turning him into the worst of unstable liabilities. Arthur misses the days when he could walk through a dream without the constant sensation of lurking danger crawling down the back of his neck.
His head comes up as the door to the room opens again and Mal strolls out. Alone. Headed for him.
He turns, blundering away, and runs smack into two tall men. Security. He can’t get his gun up in time and finds himself slammed face-first against the wall while they frisk him. From here, he can watch as Mal sashays closer with that kittenish smile that spells out trouble playing over her lips. There’s nothing at all in her eyes.
She’s insane. It’s a troubling realization, especially when he considers the implications for Dom, and Arthur doesn’t struggle at all as the security men haul him backwards and hold him still for Mal’s approach.
They shouldn’t be reacting like this—like Mal is the one in charge. Then again, she always did like to break the rules, she and Dom both. It left (leaves) Arthur sick to his stomach.
If you start breaking rules, how do you know where to stop?
“Hello, Arthur,” she greets him. It’s almost the same voice that he remembers, but there’s none of Mal’s warmth there. There’s no trace of the grief and sorrow that he caught after the accident, either. This Mal is just a ripple in Dom’s subconscious, and her voice is as empty as her eyes.
Arthur doesn’t want to respond, but courtesy is a habit ingrained too deeply within him to ignore, so he inclines his head and murmurs, “Mal.”
“I worry about you,” Mal says, peering into his eyes. She reaches for him, slides a hand across his cheek as he stares back at her. “You’re so fragile in strange ways I can’t even begin to comprehend.”
“That’s because you aren’t real,” Arthur tells her, ignoring the fragile comment. It’s useless to argue with Insane.
“Do you know why I’m here?” Mal counters, still stroking his cheek. “Why I follow him on your pointless missions?” When he doesn’t respond she smiles: a soft, gentle bloom over her lips like roses. “He doesn’t dream about me anymore on his own. So I have to come here.”
When she leans up on her tiptoes to kiss him, Arthur can smell her perfume. This feels more than a little inappropriate, considering she’s a projection of Dom’s dead wife and, in a sense, he’s kissing his partner, and Arthur turns his head to the side. Her hand on his cheek turns into a clutch, holding him still, and her mouth grows demanding. Almost violent.
When she finally lets him go and takes a step back, there’s blood on her lips. A sharp ache on Arthur’s.
Holding his eyes, she wipes the back of her hand across her mouth and then whispers, “Don’t you want to know what he does dream about?”
Before Arthur can respond, the security men are dragging him backwards down the hall, doubtlessly taking him to Saito the way Arthur needed them to. Mal is an unwelcome and unforeseen tag-a-long, and the gun that has suddenly appeared in her hand makes Arthur wince. He’s been shot before, of course, but it isn’t ever his top choice for a kick up a level.
In the elevator, Mal slides the barrel of the gun through his hair, mussing it. Arthur doesn’t bother to conceal his annoyance, although the pulse of fear stays deep in his belly where it belongs.
“Didn’t you ever wonder,” she asks. “Why I couldn’t look at you when we came back? Didn’t you wonder what I’d seen?”
Her free hand covers his face and he can smell her perfume—spiced musk of myrrh and frankincense that makes him think of the amber earrings Dom gave her on their first anniversary. The gun slips back, muzzle digging in at the base of his skull. Her lips brush his ear. He can feel her breasts against his arm; the softness of her palm as her hand drags down, fingertips sliding over his closed eyes.
“I’m going to hurt you, Arthur,” she tells him, breathing the words into his ear like they’re a secret he doesn’t already know. “There’s going to be quite a lot of pain, but it’s all for the best, really.”
Her fingertips are on his lips now, prodding at the cut her kiss left there.
“Remember to scream for me.”
It comes as no surprise whatsoever when she shoots him in the kneecap three minutes later.
On their flight to Paris, it isn’t inception that Arthur wants to talk about.
Dom has already apologized, of course, but he wasn’t the one writhing on the floor with a shattered kneecap.
After the stewardess has brought them both their second drink—dry martini for Arthur, gin and tonic for Dom—Arthur mutters, “I still can’t believe you shot me in the damn kneecap.”
Because if Dom wants to play the ‘it’s under control’ card, then he’d better be willing to take responsibility for everything.
Dom takes another sip from his gin and tonic and continues to stare out the window of the plane. “I said I was sorry.”
“Yeah, you know what’s better than an apology? Not shooting me in the first place.”
Dom’s fingers tighten around the glass, but he doesn’t respond.
Later on in the flight, Dom sleeps.
Arthur watches his eyes move beneath his lids and wonders what he sees.
The new architect Dom finds is just Arthur’s type. Put together and playful, with a vivid imagination and a roguish need to push any boundaries she comes up against.
You aren’t supposed to mix business with pleasure, but Arthur supposes that if Dom is going to break the rules, he can too.
They’re laughing when they come back from what is their third date—it’s difficult to squeeze the spare moments in between prep for the job, but for a girl like Ariadne, Arthur is managing just fine. There’s a leaf caught in her hair, and Arthur pulls her to a stop just inside the door.
“Here, let me get that,” he offers, and then forgets all about the leaf when Ariadne yanks him down into a kiss. It’s their first, but there isn’t anything tentative about it. Ariadne is a girl who knows what she wants and goes for it: ballsy as hell.
Arthur kisses her back and it isn’t actually anything like kissing Mal was. Mal’s passion was violent and empty; Ariadne’s is filled with laughter and joy. He shouldn’t even be comparing the two, should be enjoying the interplay of lip on lip and the heat of a willing mouth, but the mind goes where it wants.
In that moment, he could almost sympathize with Dom.
Arthur pulls away with a guilty start. He begins to raise his hand to his mouth, thinks of Mal wiping her lips free of blood, and drops it again as he turns to face Dom. Dom’s face is closed off and cold, but there’s some indefinable, soft emotion glinting in his eyes as he looks back and forth between the two of them.
“Only by a few minutes,” Ariadne scoffs. Stepping forward, she pulls Arthur back against her.
He hadn’t even realized he backed away.
Dom is still watching them—him, really—and Arthur can’t meet his partner’s eyes. He turns away, busies himself with actually removing the leaf from Ariadne’s hair. She’s flushed as she glances up at him, and the satisfied smile playing over her lips tells him that she isn’t at all ashamed at having been caught out. There’s a sort of glow about her—something that Arthur recognizes as the first, bouncing steps toward infatuation.
She’s falling in love with him, maybe. Or at least wants to fall into bed with him.
He can still feel Dom’s eyes on him, but he makes himself smile and kisses her cheek.
“Even seconds matter.” Dom’s voice is a lash, and in his head Arthur sees muzzle flare. His knee gives a phantom twinge of pain. “I thought you’d learned that by now. This isn’t a game. If you’re here, then be here.”
Arthur knows that there isn’t any room for mistakes or frivolity—there isn’t room on normal jobs, and inception is anything but normal—but there’s a breath where he wants to keep holding onto Ariadne anyway. Another where he backs up time in his head and pauses outside the door to deal with the leaf and this moment happens there, out of sight. Then Ariadne steps away from him and he lets her.
“You’re right,” she says softly, chastened. “It won’t happen again.”
Dom doesn’t say anything as she walks past him to join Eames and Yusuf over by the machines. Arthur gives it a second, hoping that Dom will turn and follow her, give Arthur a moment to collect himself, but Dom stands there staring at him. Smoothing a quick hand over his hair, Arthur looks at the floor and starts forward, moving on an angle that should carry him past at a safe distance.
Somehow, the hand Dom shoots out to reel him in catches him around the bicep anyway. Arthur stumbles a little at the suddenness of the tug, and falls against Dom’s chest. When he tries to straighten and move away again, Dom’s grip on his arm tightens.
“You should know better.” That’s all he says, the words hissed in Arthur’s ear with the spiteful force of bullets.
Arthur can smell Dom’s skin. His aftershave. The rich aroma of the coffee he’s been mainlining since they took this insane job and some citrus tang on his breath to flavor it. Orange, probably.
There’s a crack in the floor and he watches it steadily. Waits for the building tension between them to break.
Dom lets him go—sudden, sharp. Like he just burned himself on Arthur’s suit.
“Don’t—” he says in a strange, strangled voice and then stops. Arthur has to wait for him to swallow and when Dom speaks again, his voice is subtly different. Rough with unfathomable emotion. “Don’t let it happen again.”
“It was just a date,” Arthur replies softly.
But Dom doesn’t answer, moving away to join the others, and Arthur can’t watch him go. His heart is beating too quickly in his chest. He’s sweating, stomach twisting like it did when Mal had a pistol pressed against the back of his skull.
When he finally moves to join the group, he sits down next to Dom.
It’s easier than looking at him.
Arthur is down in the dream for all of a minute before he’s on the sidewalk with a goddamned knife in his thigh, screaming and clutching his leg while blood soaks the left leg of his soft grey trousers a sticky red. The flood of people on the sidewalk parts and moves smoothly around him without so much as a glance.
“Oh Christ!” he yells, ghosting his shaking hands over the handle.
“I wouldn’t do that,” a familiar voice tells him. “Pull that out and you might bleed to death in moments.”
Mal. Of course.
What a goddamned surprise.
Arthur screams again as Mal slides an arm around his chest, pulling him back against her and dragging his leg over the pavement. Her arm slings more tightly around him. Her other hand goes in his hair and rakes. Order into chaos.
“Shh,” she whispers. “Shh.”
“Mal,” he gasps. “Mal—oh, fuck, please.”
“I’ll take care of you.”
It’s a threat wrapped in a promise, and Arthur grits his teeth as she rocks him and kisses his cheek. Blood seeps from his thigh, pools around his leg. She releases his hair in order to touch the puddle with the tips of her fingers, then strokes them up the side of his leg. Her fingers hover just above the handle, teasing.
Arthur grasps her wrist with one hand, reaches behind himself to catch hold of her sleeve with the other.
“Don’t,” he says.
He can’t keep his thoughts together long enough to dream up a gun. Not that it would help. Not against her.
Mal’s reaching fingertips gleam in the sunlight. Despite Arthur’s restraining grip, her hand dips closer. Her blood smeared fingers fondle the handle. They curl into place.
“No. No no no no—”
But the knife twists—of course it does—and the world dissolves to a stark, white wash. The saliva in Arthur’s mouth burns copper. His scream trails off into weak, helpless sobs as he slumps. As the world comes back, he realizes that his cheeks are wet; sweat dribbles down the back of his neck and along his spine. He’s shaking, muscles gone limp and uncontrollable.
Mal’s bloody hand is in his hair again, stroking. She’s humming. Fly Me To the Moon.
Five minutes down to look over the setup, which means Arthur has one hour here.
One hour with Mal.
It isn’t until the hour is over and he jerks upright from the couch that he remembers he went in alone.
“I think you should get another point man.”
“Good morning to you too, Arthur,” Dom replies, sipping calmly from his cracked mug. “I’m fine, thanks for asking.”
“And you need to do it soon, because whoever you get is going to need time to familiarize themselves with Fischer.”
Dom looks up at that, and his eyes narrow. “You’re serious.”
“Inception, it—it can’t be done, Dom. I don’t want any part of it.”
“That’s not why you’re doing this,” Dom says as he puts the mug down and gets up from the table.
Arthur’s heart beats faster, but he holds his ground, trying to keep his face as steady and impassive as he wears it for prospective employers. It’s difficult to manage with Dom looming over him, but it’s funny what sort of motivation a knife in the thigh can give to a guy.
After a long stare, Dom says, “Give me the real reason.”
“That is the real reason.”
Liar, his racing pulse accuses, and Dom keeps on staring. Finally, Arthur mutters, “Maybe I don’t like getting shot in the kneecap.”
Dom’s expression softens a little—regret, maybe—and he says, “That won’t happen again.”
Arthur laughs at that, because the gunshot was only two levels deep and they’re going three. Laughs because, apparently, he doesn’t need Dom to bring Mal in with him anymore and can manage the trick just fine on his own. It’s a new type of paradox, and one he likes much less than the stairs.
“There’s a list of prospects on your desk,” he says when he’s stopped laughing, and turns to go.
When Dom catches him by the wrist, there’s too much tension in his grip. A level of desperation that drops Arthur’s stomach through the floor.
“You can’t leave,” Dom insists tersely. “There isn’t time to get anyone else up to speed and you know it.”
He’s right, and Arthur’s understanding must show in his eyes because the pinched, almost frantic tightness in Dom’s face smoothes into an awkward mask of relaxation.
“Besides,” he presses, easing up on his grip but not letting go. “I don’t think you really want to send your new girlfriend in with a pinch hitter.”
The levity of his tone and the smile on his face indicate that it’s supposed to be a joke, but Arthur’s skin flushes hot and then cold.
It isn’t the pinch hitter he’s worried about leaving Ariadne at the mercy of.
“Fine,” he bites out, and then pulls his hand free.
There’s a moment when he thinks Dom might not let go. Dom’s expression stiffens and there’s a warring flicker in his eyes. But his hand opens and then Arthur is taking a step back where he can get a little more air into his lungs.
Dom is watching him like he’s concerned Arthur is still going to run, wariness evident in the stiff set of his shoulders. The shadows moving in his eyes tell Arthur that Dom’s mind—that brilliant, flawed mind that has dreamed so many things both beautiful and terrible—is moving at a frenzied, breakneck pace. Searching for more arguments to keep Arthur from bolting, probably.
At least, Arthur hopes that it’s rational roadblocks Dom is thinking up, and nothing more drastic than that. He just isn’t sure anymore what his old friend is capable of. Not with Mal tearing her way through his subconscious like a rabid tiger.
“If I get shot in the kneecap again, I’m going to be upset,” Arthur says.
It’s meant as reassurance—anything to head Dom’s mind off at the pass—and it seems to work. Dom’s posture relaxes and his smile returns—warmer this time. His expression still doesn’t look quite right, but his relief is real enough.
“I promise I won’t shoot you in the kneecap again,” he says dutifully.
Arthur doesn’t doubt that he’ll be able to keep his word.
Mal is far too creative to stick to a one-note performance like that.
“What are you doing?”
Ariadne flinches guiltily and turns around. Past her body, Arthur can see Dom sprawled out on one of the long, uncomfortable chairs they use for practice. There’s a line in his arm and the machine on the table is on, humming softly.
“I—I was curious,” Ariadne stammers, and Arthur realizes with a sickening lurch that she’s holding a second line in her hand.
“Going into someone else’s dream without permission is a violation,” Arthur says. He doesn’t recognize his own voice. The coldness of it. He feels ill inside, and wrathful.
“But you—you do it all the time,” Ariadne protests, frowning. “We all do.”
“Extractions are different,” Arthur corrects. He steps close, taking the line out of her hand, and can’t resist looking down at Dom’s face. Dom looks deceptively peaceful lying there, like he’s the only one running around in his head. Like he doesn’t carry ghosts with him wherever he goes.
Don’t you want to know what he does dream about?
Those words are a ghost of Arthur’s own—one of his memories that won’t stay shut away where it should—and he looks away from Dom to meet Ariadne’s gaze.
“You don’t mess around in your teammates’ heads,” he tells her. “We need to trust each other in there.”
“And you trust him?”
Arthur doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
Trust has never been the issue between them.
“Even after what Mal did to you?” Ariadne demands.
Arthur never should have told her, but she’d been so distraught after her own experience. She’d needed to know he could sympathize. That doesn’t mean he wants to talk about Mal now, though—not with Dom dreaming right beside them—so he keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t answer.
Ariadne reaches up and slides her palm into place against his cheek. So gentle. She doesn’t smell like perfume the way that Mal did. She smells of soap and chocolate—those truffles she likes.
Her eyes are earnest as she asks, “Don’t you want to know if he’s safe?”
“No,” Arthur says. He packs the second line back into the case and then leads Ariadne away, glancing behind him once to see Dom’s sleeping form fade into the shadows.
He already knows the answer to Ariadne’s question.
When they board the plane, he ends up in line just behind Dom. Dom keeps glancing back at him, fidgeting and edgy in a way that he usually isn’t before a job. Although, of course, this isn’t routine—it isn’t extraction—so Arthur does his best to ignore what he hopes is just nerves. He does ignore it until Dom reaches out and gets hold of his arm as they make their way down the cramped hallway leading to first class.
“I won’t let her hurt you,” Dom breathes in his ear.
Arthur wishes he could believe that.
For almost three full minutes after Dom comes clean about the sedative, Arthur’s brain shuts down on him. He was already a little winded by the presence of security—he was distracted when they were preparing for the job, but he didn’t think it was this bad—and the second, harder blow has knocked him down hard. There’s yelling around him, everyone scared and pissed off, and all Arthur can think of are Mal’s empty eyes and her Cheshire smile.
Then Dom yells, “If Arthur had done his job, it wouldn’t have fucking mattered!”
That snaps him out of it.
“You think this is my fault?” he demands. “You knew the risks involved in coming in here and you didn’t tell anyone!”
Didn’t tell me, is what he means, but he can’t say that.
Dom stares at him, furious just like everyone else for all of a second, and then his expression shuts down. “Look, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” he says. “We can’t survive a week at this level, so our only option is to go deeper and finish the job.”
Arthur is trapped in here with a madwoman who enjoys cutting him up and Dom wants to go deeper.
If he dies, he’ll go straight to Limbo, but that isn’t what Arthur is afraid of. It isn’t his death that Mal wants.
She finds Arthur in the elevator shaft, just after he’s set the final charge.
Smiling, she floats close and wraps herself around him, entangling his limbs and making it difficult to maneuver back into the car. Arthur is sweating with the frantic need to move, but he can’t figure out how to cross the divide and strike her. Not when she’s naked and unarmed.
Mal rubs her cheek against his, her embrace tightening until his breath is forced out in a grunt.
“I’m trying to protect you, you know,” she whispers as Arthur makes his burdened, slow way back to the hatch. “You don’t know the other things he dreams. They don’t love you the way I do.”
Dom’s Mal should be the next level down, with him, but Arthur still isn’t sure which of them the siren on his back belongs to.
“We were waiting for a train,” she notes dreamily as he pries her fingers free from his chest. “But I don’t think we were traveling to the same place.”
“Mal, I have to go now,” Arthur insists. “You need to let go so I can get back in the car. If you don’t, I’ll miss the window and we’ll be stuck here.”
If they’re stuck there, Fischer’s security will find them long before their six months is up. Find them and kill them.
Arthur doesn’t want to die here. He doesn’t want to wind up lost in Limbo. If Mal is his projection (and she must be, because Dom’s mind isn’t here), then she has to let him go.
Mal’s leg hooks around Arthur’s waist and he shuts his eyes. Presses his lips together.
“Don’t you want to see what it’s like there?” Mal purrs, nuzzling his ear. “In that place he couldn’t stand to stay because it didn’t have what he wanted, because he couldn’t remember well enough to make the puppet dance for him?”
Mal’s fingers are turning into claws.
“Please, Mal,” Arthur breathes.
“He didn’t think I knew, but I saw him with it,” Mal continues relentlessly. “I saw them together. I saw the things he desired. You always wondered, didn’t you, what I had seen?”
Clock’s ticking, and Arthur’s fingers close over the smooth, solid barrel of the gun tucked down the front of his pants.
“I’m your guardian angel, Arthur. Let me guard you now. Let me take you where you’ll be safe.”
The bullet tears through his side in an explosion of pain, but it also loosens Mal’s grasp. Pressing against the wound with one hand, Arthur pulls himself through the hatch. Blood bubbles up and fills the car with frozen, drifting droplets that get in his way when he shifts his hand aside and tries to peek down. He can’t quite tell how bad it is, but he thinks he didn’t hit anything major.
When he glances back up through the square hatch overhead, he can see Mal’s body floating upward. Her hair drifts around her face in a cloud. There’s a tiny, red hole beneath her left breast.
Arthur untucks the remote from his belt and presses the button.
Beneath the elevator car, the charges ignite.
Up one level and waiting impatiently for the rest of the week to pass, Ariadne won’t stop looking at him with a deep worry-line wrinkling her brow.
“I’m not worried,” Arthur tells her as they lie in bed together. “He’ll find his way out.”
Her hair is soft beneath his fingers, and maybe it wasn’t wise to do this for the first time inside of another man’s dream, but Arthur needed it badly enough not to worry about wisdom for once. He keeps seeing Mal in the elevator shaft. Keeps hearing her voice.
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Ariadne answers with a frown.
Arthur doesn’t want to know what she means, so he closes his eyes and feigns drifting to sleep. Ariadne is too crafty to buy it and shifts next to him, dislodging the hand he had in her hair and turning to brush his cheek with her fingertips.
“Arthur, the things I saw down there, they—”
“They’re private,” he interrupts. “I don’t want to know.”
“I think maybe you should.”
So did Mal, but that isn’t exactly a rousing recommendation.
Arthur rolls over to face Ariadne and then goes up on one elbow so he can look down at her. “Look, it’s fine,” he promises. “Whatever you saw, you have to remember that Limbo is tricky. It’s constantly in flux, and things are bound to get ... confused. Cobb and I are fine. Really.”
Ariadne doesn’t look completely convinced, but he must be reassuring enough because she allows him to kiss the worry-line away.
Arthur always was excellent at poker.
Dom is there when Arthur opens his eyes on the plane, just like Arthur knew he would be. He’s there first, actually, because when Arthur opens his eyes, he finds Dom already sitting up and watching him.
“She’s gone,” Dom tells him while everyone congratulates each other and Saito makes his phone call. It’s the moment Dom has been chasing for years, and now that it’s here, Dom doesn’t even seem to notice. He won’t take his eyes off of Arthur long enough to look.
Arthur starts to glance toward Ariadne, thinks better of it, and then looks at Fischer instead. The mark is smiling loosely in his sleep, oblivious to the tiny thread of drool trickling down the corner of his mouth.
“She’s finally gone, Arthur,” Dom repeats.
“Guess I don’t have to worry about getting shot in the kneecap anymore,” Arthur says, playing his part.
But he thinks about Mal’s words in the elevator shaft—about Ariadne’s concerned gaze—and wonders what it is that he does need to worry about.
Nearly four months pass before Arthur gets the call, and then it isn’t an invitation over for a beer, or to watch the game, or to take the kids to the park. It’s an extraction.
“I thought you retired,” Arthur says, surprised.
“Life’s too boring without you around,” Dom answers. “I haven’t had anyone straighten my tie for me in months.”
“Get a clip-on,” Arthur replies without thinking, and can almost see Dom’s return smile. Clearing his throat, he asks, “What about the kids?”
“Miles said he’d watch them during jobs, then I can take them back in our downtime. It’ll mean moving to Paris, but I don’t really think they’ll mind. It’ll be a change for the better. There aren’t any bad memories there.”
Maybe not for them. It’s Dom that Arthur is having his doubts about. Then again, Dom is a grown man and can make decisions for himself.
“You’re addicted to the work,” Arthur accuses.
“Maybe it isn’t the work I miss.”
It’s awkward. As long as they’ve been friends, they haven’t ever sat down and talked about it. They haven’t needed to. With the exception of these past four months, they’ve basically been living in each other’s pockets ever since they met.
The three musketeers, Miles used to call them—him and Dom and Mal.
“James and Phillipa are excited to see you,” Dom says, speaking with forced lightness into a silence Arthur was too busy thinking to notice. “I told them you would meet us at the airport.”
“That’ll be difficult for me to do if I’m not in the country.”
“I know. But I also knew I could convince you. Come on, Arthur. Tell me you and Ariadne are in.”
Arthur already knows what he’s going to say. He knew the instant he picked up the phone and heard Dom’s voice on the other end. He’s just been stalling for some unknown, unexamined reason.
After one final moment of hesitation, he says, “I’ll do it, but I can’t speak for Ariadne. You’d have to call her and ask.”
Silence greets his announcement as Dom reads through the lines, which Arthur expected. It goes on for too long, though, and Arthur gets up from the chair he was sitting in and moves nervously over to the window. It’s raining outside, water flowing down the panes of his New York apartment.
He wonders if he should have lied about Ariadne. If that would have settled the shifting in his stomach.
“I’m sorry to hear things didn’t work out,” Dom offers finally.
He isn’t, though. Not really. Arthur can hear it in his voice.
She worried too much, Arthur thinks. But what he says is, “You know me, Dom. I like to keep my options open. Too many fish in the sea to tie myself down at one dock. Eames turned out to be quite the repeat fisherman, though.”
“Really? Ariadne and Eames? I didn’t see that coming.”
Neither had Arthur. It’s really for the best, though.
There’s another pause and then, hesitantly, Dom asks, “Do you want to talk? I could be there in about four hours.”
Arthur thinks about Dom here, in his apartment. It will be night by then, and the rain a secret whispered over the darkened walls. Like the half-secrets Mal whispered against his skin. He thinks about the question Ariadne asked him months ago.
Don’t you want to know if he’s safe?
“I’m fine,” he says. And then, politely, “Thank you.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
Dom never did have a problem calling Arthur on his bullshit. Sighing, Arthur turns away from the window. “Don’t you have to pack? Take the kids out for ice cream in the mini-van one last time?”
“I don’t own a mini-van, and the moving truck came this morning. We’re catching a flight to Paris tomorrow afternoon.”
Arthur’s skin comes over in cold, pebbled bumps. The week of mental adjustment and preparation that he was just planning for himself has abruptly evaporated and it leaves his mouth dry. “Really? That’s—that’s fast.”
“You’re on the plane tonight,” Dom continues relentlessly. “If you’re in. You are in, aren’t you? I can’t do this without my point man.”
Arthur shuts his eyes, thinking about the way ‘no’ would sound coming out of his mouth. There are plenty of extractors out there looking for help. Arthur comes highly recommended; he could work with anyone he wanted. Has, on the occasional odd job over the past few months.
Thunder rumbles overhead. He sighs.
“Who’s the mark?”
Arthur does meet Dom at the airport. The kids immediately attach themselves to his legs—bigger than he remembers; James actually able to move with something approaching grace—and he crouches down to hug them. He should have kept better tabs, maybe. Should have visited. But it felt wrong to see them when Dom couldn’t, so he hadn’t.
He’d have gone, though, if Dom had ever asked.
Arthur can feel Dom looking at him, watching the reunion, and knows that he’s thinking of Mal. He must be thinking of Mal, because she’s front and center in Arthur’s head and he wasn’t ever married to her.
The kids are a wonderful distraction until they get down to luggage claim and Arthur takes a distant backseat to the gleaming conveyer belt. He stands back with his hands in his pockets, feigning an ease he doesn’t feel as Dom moves closer to stand beside him.
As they both watch the kids run up and down the line of slowly emerging luggage, Arthur clears his throat and says, “I ran down some background information on our man. There’s a girlfriend in Florence he doesn’t want his wife to know about. She might be our way in, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to her yet.”
“It’s good to see you too, Arthur,” Dom says with more than a hint of a smile in his voice.
Arthur lifts one eyebrow at the familiar, almost teasing tone and finally lets himself glance over.
Dom looks good. Healthy. Sharper, too, which Arthur isn’t sure is a positive attribute.
The man thinks too much.
“I’m sorry, was I supposed to declare my undying devotion before we left the terminal?”
Dom shakes his head with a rueful grin. “Explain to me again how you ever managed to get laid.”
“My boyish good looks and devilish charm.”
“Tell the truth and shame the devil. Come on, you can tell me: they were call girls, weren’t they?”
“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell,” Arthur answers, and then nods toward the kids hurrying back towards them. “Besides, little pitchers ...”
This time, Dom laughs and shakes his head. “You’re an old woman, Arthur. I don’t think even Miles ever used that saying.”
Arthur smiles wider, more genuinely, and then grunts as Phillipa collides with him.
Maybe this isn’t a mistake after all.
They’re two levels down and in the middle of the extraction when Arthur pauses mid-stride. It isn’t Mal he’s looking at, though—he hasn’t seen her since inception, not through any of the trial runs that he and Dom and Ariadne (and Eames, apparently those two are a package deal whether Arthur likes it or not) have run as a team.
What Arthur is looking at is a door.
There are doors all up and down the lushly carpeted hallway, of course—this is, after all, Florence’s Hotel Regency—but this particular specimen isn’t in any of the schematics that Ariadne came up with. Not with its peeling blue paint and the tilting, curling 36 just below the peephole. Arthur blinks, looks up the hall and then back over at the door, hoping it will have disappeared.
The problem is that Arthur has seen that door before. He went in and out of it for two years, back when he and Dom were struggling students and didn’t understand the terrible, devastating heights their imaginations were capable of.
Arthur is the dreamer here, but he didn’t make that door. He’s certain of it. And the only other member of the team who has a history of usurping another dreamer’s authority is Dom.
That’s Dom’s door.
Arthur needs to get moving. He needs to proceed down the hall, up one flight of stairs, and take his position behind the potted plant so that he can intercept the mark on his way to room 417. Arthur has no business with whatever’s behind that door, except for how he does. Everyone on the team does, in fact, because the last time Dom’s dreaming got out of control, it produced Mal, and Arthur remembers all too well how she got her kicks.
So Arthur has no choice but to walk through that door, even if he already knows that he isn’t going to like what he finds behind it.
He places his hand on the doorknob, which feels warm and sun-kissed on his palm. There’s a rough spot on the underside—patch of rust shaped like an egg. Arthur doesn’t remember the spot until he feels it, and even then it’s an afterthought—more the fact that it doesn’t feel wrong than a true recollection.
For such a disorganized person, Dom always did pay meticulous attention to detail.
I’m your guardian angel, Mal’s voice whispers in Arthur’s ear. I’m trying to protect you, you know.
He takes a breath and opens the door.
It’s his old apartment.
Everything is in its place—M. C. Escher posters on the walls, two nails just to the right of the door that he used as key hooks, an oversized oriental vase that he positioned at the end of the front hall to cover the lopsided stain beneath. It even smells right—Italian cooking permeating the apartment from the restaurant below. Arthur was always hungry back then—for food, for knowledge, for the revolving door of women who fell in and out of his bed.
Only the three of them were constants. Arthur and Dom and Mal, with Miles looking on fondly, and they were all learning how to paint new, exciting landscapes with their minds.
Arthur can hear Dom’s voice now, coming from deeper inside the apartment. He’s speaking too quietly to make out the words, but not to recognize the tenor of his voice, or the angry inflection. And there are other noises as well. Something that sounds like a tussle: Arthur’s things being shoved off of the coffee table and onto the rug. A muffled, desperate cry.
Arthur moves forward slowly. He walks down a hallway that’s both a thousand miles long and collapsed down into four paltry steps and then comes to a halt.
The living room, which he always kept meticulous and company-ready, is a mess. The lamp has been knocked over, casting everything on the floor into a strange interplay of shadow and light. Magazines and books are strewn everywhere. Beer bottles. The remnants of Chinese take-out—boxes, plates, chop sticks.
Arthur looks at the mess because he can’t look at what’s happening on the low coffee table, at the bodies struggling there for dominance.
“—take it, fucking take it, always so damn oblivious. I’ll make you look, make you fucking see me—hold still, fucking—”
Arthur tunes the words out, but his eyes have finally come to rest on the only detail he hasn’t collected and he can’t tune out the sight of Dom pressing him down against the coffee table where they ate together while discussing the anatomy of dreams. Although they’re both wearing their shirts, Arthur’s pants are crumpled and caught around one ankle. Dom’s are missing completely. Arthur’s tie is knotted around his mouth like a gag, and he has his eyes squeezed shut as his hands scramble for purchase on the smooth wood.
He’s ruining my tie, Arthur thinks, and then turns around and stumbles out of the room and back into the Regency hallway. There, he goes to his knees on the rich, diamond-patterned carpet and is promptly sick. It’s just bile that comes up, thin and stinging, and he frowns down at the puddle it forms between his hands and tries to make the world line up in his head.
His die comes out almost as an afterthought, fumbled from the breast pocket of his shirt and more dropped than tossed on the floor. He’s relieved by the spin that lands it wrong side up: a single snake’s eye where it should be lucky 6.
“Just a dream,” he mumbles, and then the world shakes around him; a vibration that runs through the walls and the ceiling and the floor like a shockwave.
Arthur reaches for his die hastily and then closes his hand around someone’s shirt as the kick drags him up a level. He blinks, disoriented by the shift in a way he hasn’t been in years, and then understands that he’s looking up into a pair of blue, pissed off eyes.
His stomach gives a dismayed, alarmed lurch and he immediately lets go of Dom’s shirt, jerking away with a start and falling sideways off of the chair he was sitting in. When he pops back up to his feet, he sees that the rest of the team is there in the room with him—Eames and Ariadne, and the one person whose eyes he can’t meet. The mark is on the bed, still asleep but not, hopefully, dreaming.
Arthur has been trapped in a collapsing dream before, and that type of chaos isn’t pretty even if you’re trained for it.
“You want to tell me what the hell happened in there?” Dom demands.
Arthur doesn’t have an answer. He’s beginning to realize that he must have missed his cue, which means they’re going to have to give the mark an hour or two of clean sleep before dropping down a level to try again. It’s first time this has ever happened, even with Mal’s considerable interference, and Arthur finds himself bothered by that more than by what he found behind the door.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” he apologizes. “I lost track of time. It was unprofessional of me.”
“Unprofessional? I got caught with my hand in the cookie jar!” Dom shouts. “Davidson’s subconscious ripped me apart!”
But it isn’t anger that Arthur is seeing in Dom’s eyes. It’s concern. And he can’t connect the man standing in front of him now with the one behind the blue door.
It’s just data, Arthur tells himself, and that helps. It helps to put Dom-behind-the-door into a compartment in his head and file him away as some kind of aberrant nightmare. There isn’t even any proof that the room came from Dom’s head.
That could have been Arthur’s doing. Could have been his own concerns and unease manifesting in a new and unsettling pattern.
“At least no one shot you in the kneecap,” Arthur hears himself say. It’s a joke, if a poor one, and Dom’s eyes soften.
He looks at Arthur for a few moments more and then says, “One hour. Then we try again. No screw ups this time.”
Arthur nods. Oh yes, definitely. He’s done walking through doors that don’t belong in the maze.
Ariadne tries to catch his eyes, but Arthur busies himself with the mark—checking to make sure Davidson isn’t showing any of the distressed biorhythms that would indicate he’s still stuck in the collapsing dream that Arthur left behind when he woke. Eames is being useful for once and pestering her to step out for a drink. How many times do they get to relax in the middle of a job, and oh—did she know that whisky tastes different from dream to dream? It’s something about the uniqueness of everyone’s taste buds, but Arthur doesn’t get to learn more than that because that’s when Eames gets his girl out into the hall and the door shuts behind them.
Leaving Arthur alone with Dom.
His heart beats faster and his fingers shake as he adjusts some of the calibrations on the machine.
“Hey,” Dom calls, voice soft and cajoling. “What really happened in there? Where were you?”
“I told you, I—”
“Lost track of time. I heard what you said.” Arthur can feel Dom looking at him, and the attention makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention. “You haven’t been late a day in your life.”
“What can I tell you? We all screw up once in a while.”
A hand closes around Arthur’s wrist. He stills, his gaze focused on the machine, and remembers Mal’s eyes. He thinks about the way she used to look at him—before she died, but after the accident.
There was such terrible, terrible knowledge in those eyes.
“Not you,” Dom insists. “Talk to me. Please.”
Arthur stands up. Manages to take his hand back.
“First time back after inception,” he says. “Guess I’m still a little rattled.” He starts to move away and then stops again as Dom grips his arm.
“Did something happen when we were down a level?” Dom says.
Did Arthur see Mal, he means.
“You do realize we almost lost you,” Arthur points out, avoiding the real question.
As misdirections go, it works perfectly. Dom’s hand stiffens briefly with surprise and then falls away. “I didn’t realize that bothered you so much,” he says after a moment.
It didn’t—Arthur always knew in his heart that Dom would find his way back out—but at the same time, it somewhat does. The possibility of losing Dom is something he doesn’t want to contemplate.
Dom is still staring at him, waiting for something—for some kind of agreement or elaboration. Or maybe he’s just waiting for Arthur to look at him.
“You’re my friend, Dom,” Arthur says finally.
That much, at least, is truth.
Their second try at extraction goes off without a hitch.
They’re supposed to scatter from the massage parlor where they cornered their mark, but Ariadne is Arthur’s unwelcome shadow as he strides down his predetermined route. He tries to outpace her on the cobblestone sidewalks, but she isn’t above sprinting and he’s too aware that a running man dressed as he is would draw too much attention. As a young, coquettish woman, Ariadne can pull off that sort of hustle—especially when the chase ends with her tucking her arm through his.
“Drink?” she asks with a winning smile. “Eames showed me the cutest place and it’s right around the corner.”
Arthur glances down at his watch and tries to think of a way to get his arm back without being rude. “We’re supposed to meet up in—”
“It’ll take ten minutes. Come on, Arthur. I promise we won’t be late.”
It’s the eyes. He never could resist the eyes.
“Ten minutes?” he checks, already regretting it.
She makes Arthur down two shots of something called Goldschläger before leaning both elbows on the table and propping her chin in her hands. From the way she’s watching him, he can guess what she wants to talk about. Not that he didn’t already know that when she chased him down.
“Ariadne,” he sighs. “Can’t we just—”
“You saw something, didn’t you?” she breaks in, speaking right over the rest of his request for a quiet, restful drink.
Arthur could admit that he did, but that would involve taking Dom-behind-the-door out from his safe little compartment, and Arthur would really rather not do that at present. Or possibly ever.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he answers, and then looks down at his watch again to avoid the pity in her eyes. “Come on,” he says, getting to his feet and retrieving his suit jacket from the back of his chair. “We’ve got a bus to catch.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Dom checks after they have met back up and are boarding the train for Paris. He puts a hand on Arthur’s elbow and Arthur moves away as casually as he can.
Dom watches him steadily for the entire ride.
Once may be some kind of fluke, but twice is definitely the beginning of a pattern.
It’s at least a routine practice run this time, so when Arthur stops dead in his tracks to stare at the way Dom is shoving him up against the side of the alley to his left, both hands gripping Arthur’s face and holding him still for a kiss, he isn’t putting anyone else at risk. Which is good because he can’t do anything but stand there, frozen in the middle of the sidewalk, and watch as the Arthur in the alley wrenches his head to the side. Dom’s mouth is on Arthur in the alley’s throat then, biting and working hungrily at his skin while his hands tear Arthur’s shirt from his pants and open his belt.
Even from here, Arthur can tell that the other him is having trouble keeping up with the turn of events, and it isn’t until Dom has both of their pants down around their ankles and is turning him to face the wall that Arthur in the alley manages to gasp, “Wait. Wait a secon—”
But the word turns into a grunt, and then the only sounds carrying out to Arthur are pants and rough moans as Dom thrusts into him again and again.
Somehow, he turns his head away and resumes walking. He feels slightly feverish, his stomach and chest filled with a fluttering, unanchored sensation that’s almost like a kick.
Arthur realizes that he’s going to have to explain to the others why he’s late, and he doesn’t know what to say. It’s almost enough to make him miss Mal, especially if this is what Dom’s subconscious has to offer in exchange.
But when he gets to the rendezvous point, no one else is there.
Eames arrives mere moments later, looking cross and muttering about the downtown traffic being worse than planned. Ariadne and Dom are next, both of them covered in water and laughing.
Arthur, still faint and shaky inside, looks up at the clear sky and then back at the pair climbing off of the motorcycle.
“What happened to you lot?” Eames asks, clearly amused. Laughing, Ariadne runs to him and throws her arms around his waist before shaking her hair and spraying him with even more water.
“Someone thought it would be interesting to see what it felt like to ride a motorcycle over the lake,” Dom comments. He runs his fingers through his own short hair and peppers the pavement around him with a more sedate fall of drops. His shirt is plastered to his chest; his pants cling to his legs.
It’s making it very difficult for Arthur to successfully compartmentalize what he saw in the alley.
“It would have been if someone else hadn’t insisted on having a moment of rationality,” Ariadne replies, glancing over her shoulder with an arched eyebrow.
“So what,” Eames says as he looks back and forth between them. “You darlings took a little swim?”
“We drove the rest of the way underwater,” Dom answers. He pulls his shirt from his pants and gives it a squeeze.
Arthur watches the miniature waterfall he creates, mesmerized by the play of light.
“Because driving underwater is far less irrational than driving on the surface,” Ariadne replies.
Dom shrugs. “Hey, I don’t make the rules.”
“No, you just break them.” And then she sticks her tongue out.
Arthur’s just glad that no one is able to ask him why he was late, because he’s sure that he doesn’t have an answer.
“What’s it like?”
Dom looks at him over the top of his coffee cup, bleary-eyed and scruffy with the morning. “Honestly, it’s a little burnt,” he answers, deliberately misunderstanding. “But thanks for asking.”
“One of these days I’ll actually make small talk with you and you won’t like it at all,” Arthur points out, and when Dom shrugs carelessly, he moves closer and clarifies, “I meant Limbo.”
That gets him a searching look as Dom puts the coffee down and rubs his mouth with one hand. When he lowers it again, he’s frowning. “You never asked before.”
Dom’s frown deepens. “Does this have anything to do with why you’ve been avoiding me?”
Arthur hasn’t been avoiding him, precisely. He’s just been ... taking some alone time. Mostly because on their most recent extraction, he got to watch himself being wrestled to the ground and fucked by someone who looked almost exactly like the man sitting in front of him.
Less stubble in the dream, though. Neater hair.
“I don’t want to cut in on your family time,” he says. Dom’s look tells Arthur how stupid that comment is, and Arthur hastens on to add, “And I’m asking now because I thought maybe you were ready to talk about it.”
He perches on the edge of the table, and something about the way Dom’s expression shifts makes him look at Dom’s hands. Objectively, Arthur knows they haven’t changed, but they seem different now that he knows they’re wide enough to close completely around his wrists, dexterous enough to open his pants while holding him in place, strong enough to force his head down or his thighs apart. He thinks that it might be unwise to sit so close. He shifts his weight but doesn’t get up.
“Now that we’ve been talking so much more?” Dom says dryly. Leaning back in his chair, he rests his hands behind his head.
“Now that Mal’s gone.”
Bringing her into this conversation is a calculated risk, but Dom’s expression remains unshadowed. “You actually sound like you miss her,” he notes, tilting his head to one side and looking up at Arthur as though he’s assessing a mark.
It isn’t an easy way to be looked at.
“Because I do,” Arthur agrees, and at Dom’s incredulous look, he clarifies, “Not the crazy, let’s-shoot-Arthur-in-the-leg Mal. The real one.”
Dom frowns at that, unhooking his hands from behind his head and resting one elbow on the table. He lowers his eyes, looking through the floor at something Arthur isn’t ever going to make out. Looking inside of himself.
After a moment, he says, “Ask me again.”
Arthur doesn’t have to. He could drop this and they could go back to not talking about it. Arthur could remain ignorant and continue to do no more than wonder what Mal was hinting at all those months ago. But that type of cowardice isn’t going to force the most recent, disturbing rash of projections into the ordered arrangements he needs.
Dutifully, he repeats, “What’s it like in Limbo?”
Dom looks up. Catches Arthur’s gaze with his own and holds it.
“You’re on a beach,” he says. “Endless. Vast. On one side the beach stretches into an ocean. On the other side, it becomes desert. Each grain of sand is a memory you possess. Each drop of water is a wish you once had. You’re standing in the middle, right at the high tide line with the water coming in. The waves are tumbling onto the shore. The water is eating away at the beach until there’s nothing left but a hole filled with all of your desires.”
He stops speaking, but it’s clearly a pause and not an end. Arthur remains silent, holding that endless, desolate beach in his head as he’s been asked.
“Water’s fluid,” Dom continues softly, “It can echo the shape of your lost memories if you want it to. It can even reflect things you never thought you could have. You want your pet dog Benny back? Done. You want to live in your dream home? Done. You want to bed a woman you could never hope to land in the real world? Done.”
Arthur shifts on the table, but Dom’s gaze has turned inwards and he doesn’t seem to notice.
“You have all the power of a god, but there’s a problem. One tiny flaw. None of it’s real. You have to maintain the weight of your own illusions. Any lapse in concentration, and things ... decay. They fall apart. And the more you try to remember so that you can keep the illusion going, the faster the water rises up that beach. Until one day, you look around and realize that you’re submerged beneath a metric ton of seawater. You’ve been drowning for years and you didn’t even know it.
“And that perfect, beautiful dream that you never could have touched in the real world—the one you worked so hard to hold together all those years—it looks at you with a blind, blank face, and you realize that none of it meant anything. Because every time the dream smiled, that was you making it smile. Every time it kissed your chest, that was only you kissing yourself.
“It wasn’t real, but it felt like it was, and that’s the real trap.”
Dom stops again, and this time Arthur thinks—he hopes—it’s for good. But he lets Dom have some time anyway, because he recognizes that he may have opened Pandora’s box, but Dom is the one who gets to decide when to close it.
When it’s clear that Dom isn’t actually going to say any more, Arthur offers, “I’m sorry.”
Still not looking at Arthur, Dom says, “Miles used to tell us that Limbo was the center of dreaming. He called it a place of genesis.”
Arthur nods slowly. He remembers that. Remembers learning that.
“He was wrong,” Dom comments as he stands and reaches out to pick up his coffee. His forearm brushes casually against Arthur’s side with the motion and Arthur shivers. Luckily, Dom is still too lost in his own memories to notice.
As he turns away, there’s a part of Arthur that wants to call him back. It’s the same part that wants to come clean—to offer Dom a chance to provide a logical explanation for everything that has happened. But then Arthur thinks of Mal, and he remembers the look in her eyes when she shot him—the look that’s almost the same look Dom wears when he holds Arthur down and forces his way in.
In the end, Arthur is silent as Dom retreats, walking calmly from one sunbeam to another along the bank of the office windows.
“Limbo isn’t the place where dreams are born,” Dom says without turning around. “It’s where they go to die.”
Arthur is good with facts. He pieces them together like puzzles, and every fact always has its place, and the puzzles always form a coherent image when he’s done.
That capacity to create order out of chaos is what makes him such a good point man.
For the first time in his life, though, he doesn’t know what to do with the pieces he’s been given.
He knows what Dom looks like when he comes. He knows how many thrusts it takes for Dom’s projection of him to stop fighting (3 on a good day, 14 usually). He knows how his moans sound, what his mouth looks like bitten and bruised. He knows that Dom’s projection of Mal once shot him. He knows that Dom cares about him. He knows—perhaps has always known—that there has been something unacknowledged between them, and suspects that might be his own fault for being so fastidious about certainties and sure things, and so haphazard about emotion.
He doesn’t have enough data.
Dom still sleeps hooked up to the machine when they’re working. Arthur worries sometimes that he hooks up like this when he’s at home with the kids as well—it would scare them, if they ever came into the bedroom and saw Dom attached to a quietly humming machine. But Arthur also knows that it isn’t so much an addiction as it is a necessity.
You go under too far and too often, and you forget how to dream on your own.
Arthur regards Dom for a long moment, and he understands that what he’s about to do is wrong. There’s a difference between pulling a mark into your own subconscious and forcing your way inside the dreams of another. But this is Dom, and Arthur thinks that somewhere along the way, the lines of consent and division became blurred between them.
He doesn’t know of any other way to explain Mal’s presence that day when she stabbed him and then held him as he bled onto the street. He can’t otherwise fathom the continual, disturbing bleed of images he gets from Dom every time they share the same dreamspace.
Pulling up a chair, he unwinds a second line and plugs in.
A darkened parking lot just beyond the garish lights of a boardwalk fair. Sea heavy on the air, the roar of waves just beyond the music and the lights. There are people moving among the humped shapes of cars, heading for a Mecca of cotton candy and brightly painted metal amusements. Arthur moves there too, scanning their shadowed faces for anything familiar.
It’s a blur of motion that catches his eye, followed by the muffled thump of a soft body colliding with metal. After months of hearing similar sounds, he knows that this is what he came here for and he hunches down, getting his lean body out of the light. Sweat breaks out across his skin, unexpected and uncomfortable despite the sea breeze that blows past as he moves around a sedan and toward his goal.
Behind his right shoulder, the Ferris wheel lights up with pinks and golds as it begins to turn, and the added illumination radiates rose-suffused amber over the first few rows of cars. In the faint, artificial glow, Arthur can finally make out his own face, shoved down close to the hood of a car only three rows away.
That other Arthur’s eyes are open, but there’s too much panic there for him to be seeing anything properly, and Arthur feels his own heart beat faster. He watches himself struggle against the pinning weight of the man behind him, jaw clenched as he casts his eyes around the lot, looking for a way out—or maybe for a weapon.
Behind his own car, Arthur has straightened slightly, stretching his head up for a better view, and now he sees the other Arthur look toward him. Their gazes lock—and the other Arthur is surely seeing properly now, because his eyes widen with surprise.
The connection only lasts for a moment, and a breath later Arthur is bent over the hood himself. There’s a heavy weight on his back, a hand wedged between his stomach and the metal, working hurriedly at his belt.
The substitution is new and unintended—something he feels that they should have had warning of, although this is maybe a first. The first time anyone has walked into a dream about themselves while inside another person’s head. Especially the head of a particularly strong dreamer like Dom.
Arthur misses Mal and her gun. Christ, he misses Mal and her knife.
“Dom,” he says quickly, trying to shove back. “Dom, it’s me. It’s Arth—”
A hand clamps down over his mouth, bruisingly tight, and stoppers up the rest of his words. Lips brush his ear.
“I know,” Dom whispers, although he doesn’t—he doesn’t know at all. “Come on, Arthur. It’s going to happen. Stop—stop fighting me.”
There’s a heavy compulsion to do just that—external pressure pushing against Arthur’s ribs. The full force of Dom’s mind coming to bear because Arthur is struggling a little too violently and realistically for whatever Dom wants out of this. He lets the compulsion still his body and concentrates on screaming past Dom’s hand—Mal is up on the boardwalk; he can see her silhouetted in the gaudy light.
Mal, his guardian angel.
“Mmmph!” he screams as Dom gets his buckle open.
“She can’t hear you,” Dom tells him. “She never hears you here.”
There’s weight to the words, tells Arthur that somewhere (Limbo, had to be Limbo) she did hear. Somewhere she heard, and she swept in to the rescue, and she wasn’t ever able to look at either of them the same way again.
It’s another piece, information Arthur was missing before, but it spills a brand new set of questions across the surface of his struggling mind. Was he willing—that perfect Arthur that Dom created for himself out of the fabric of dreams—or was it like this? Was it violence and struggles and forced submission? And the hardest and most vital question of all: why?
Why this? Why does he dream about it like this?
Dom pulls Arthur’s slacks down around his thighs with a single, rough yank and Arthur’s body jerks with the force of the tug. He yells into Dom’s hand again, his eyes fastened on Mal’s distant shape. She’s grown wavering and blurred in his vision—from his tears, he thinks, and not anything in the dream, which is as sharp as ever.
This isn’t happening. It isn’t his body.
But Arthur remembers the gunshot that left his right knee throbbing in bad weather, and the knife wound that can still jerk him from a sound sleep with a spasm of pain.
He knows it’s going to feel real.
Dom’s mouth is on the side of his throat, then the back of his neck, and Arthur squeezes his eyes shut as he realizes that his body isn’t exactly as disinterested in the proceedings as he wants it to be. He’s hard, erection bumping repeatedly against metal as Dom works his own pants off and jostles Arthur’s body in the process.
He doesn’t know if he’s hard because he’s enjoying this on some level or if this is another compulsion from Dom’s dreaming mind—if Dom wants him this way.
“You’re beautiful,” Dom whispers. He rubs a quick hand through Arthur’s hair, fingers threading the wrong way and deliberately mussing everything up. “Fuck, Arthur, you’re so damn beautiful.”
When Arthur blinks his eyes open, praying for some kind of kick, he sees that, in the distance, Mal’s figure has turned. Arthur can feel her eyes sweeping the parking lot. Her gaze moves over them and continues by without even a flicker of hesitation. Two rows away, a group of teenagers are laughing on their way toward the boardwalk fair.
“I said, stop struggling!”
The words are sharper this time, and Arthur finds himself shaken. He didn’t realize he’d started trying to crawl up over the hood again until Dom’s hands halt the attempt.
“I gave you so many chances to give yourself to me,” Dom pants while something hard and hot prods between his thighs. “But you never—you never saw me. Not really. All those girls, you saw them, but you never—you just—”
Arthur rolls his eyes upward, looking for the moon. He wants to get his hand on his totem, roll the die and see the snake’s eye, but he can’t reach his pocket. He can’t reach his pocket and any second now Dom is going to—
Something grabs Arthur by the back of the neck and hauls him up while his stomach moves in the opposite direction. The lights of the fair swirl in the distance—Mal still walking, endlessly searching for something she isn’t going to see—and then Arthur slams into the floor. His entire right side aches from the impact, but he’s up an instant later, his eyes darting right and left as his mind separates out reality from dream.
Dom is lying on his back on the couch, the line still in his arm and his face serene. The chair Arthur was sitting in is on its side at his feet. Ariadne stands with her hand on the machine, her too-wise eyes steady on Arthur’s face.
When Ariadne sits down at the table across from him less than an hour later, Arthur frowns at her over his martini. The blue lights from the bar signs are caught in her hair and they remind him strongly of the boardwalk. It isn’t quite as alarming on the other side of some time and alcohol.
“You followed me,” he accuses.
“No, I found you,” Ariadne corrects as she unwinds her scarf and puts it on the empty seat to her left. “You’re too predictable, Arthur.”
He looks down at his glass, swirls the toothpick with its olive through the numbing alcohol. “Is that how you knew to give me a kick?”
“I didn’t kick you,” she answers as she reaches across the table and takes the martini away from him. “I disconnected you the normal way. You fell over on your own when you woke up.”
Arthur hasn’t ever done that before, but there’s a first for everything. Frowning down at his hands, he gives his lips a quick swipe of his tongue and then asks, “Does Cobb—does he—”
“Know that you were there?” Ariadne finishes for him. Off his curt nod, she replies, “I don’t know. He wasn’t awake yet when I left to come find you.”
“Oh God,” Arthur whimpers, dropping his head onto the table.
“If it helps, I think he doesn’t,” Ariadne offers. “He probably would have woken up.”
She thinks. Probably.
Arthur doesn’t know how he’s supposed to look Dom in the eyes again.
“What were you doing there anyway?”
“Gathering data,” Arthur answers as he sits up again. “Give me back my martini.”
“I think you’ve had enough.”
“That’s my first one.”
Ariadne fixes him with a steady look. “Please. And when did you start slurring your consonants off of one martini?”
“I’m still in the single digits,” Arthur amends, reaching.
“Tell me what you saw in there,” she demands. The martini is held back well out of reach, but there’s compromise in her steady, calm gaze. He can get the martini back if he wants it, but only if he’s willing to give something of his own in return.
And really, she does already know.
Narrowing his eyes, Arthur says, “I saw Cobb fucking me. Happy now?”
She isn’t, and he can tell from the expression on her face that she knows what word he should have used, but she gives him the martini anyway. He downs it in a single go and waves for another.
“You want something?” he offers as the waitress hurries over. Pretty girl. She’d look good in Arthur’s bed tonight, take the taste of the boardwalk out of his head. As soon as she’s in hearing distance, he adds, “For an old friend, I’m buying.”
Wouldn’t do to have her think he isn’t available.
The wry edge to Ariadne’s smile tells him she knows exactly what he’s doing. “How about a little honesty?” she asks, reaching over the table to catch his left hand in both of hers.
The waitress is waiting, watching what looks like an intimate moment between lovers, and Arthur realizes he’s been out-maneuvered. Truth be told, he isn’t surprised. Ariadne is excellent at leading marks down mazes along the paths that she chooses.
He probably wouldn’t have taken the waitress home anyway.
He smiles, even though the emotions bumbling around in his chest don’t quite match the expression. “I don’t think I have that much money.”
Her thumb rubs against the back of his hand as her eyes soften with something horribly like sympathy. “Then I’ll settle for a dry martini.”
She hates martinis. But she knows he doesn’t like drinking alone.
He nods a thank you and glances over at the waitress.
“Make that two.”
Arthur is drunk by the time he finally asks. Ariadne is not.
“Was it like that down there in Limbo? You saw me, didn’t you? Something like me.”
She hesitates long enough that he knows it’s going to be bad and then says, “Cobb told me it was different when I was there. It didn’t look the way it did when he was trapped down there the first time. Things were decaying, they—Without anyone to sustain them, the dreams had just ... died.”
“But I was there. You saw me.”
“I don’t know what I saw, Arthur,” she hedges.
“I deserve to know,” he insists belligerently. “It’s my face.”
Ariadne starts to shake her head and then sighs, tapping her fingernails against her glass. “It didn’t have a face anymore. I only knew it was you because Cobb called it ...”
She trails off, but Arthur doesn’t need her to finish. He knows very well what name Dom gave his creation.
There’s some faceless, Arthur-shaped thing wandering through the shifting confusion of Limbo and all Arthur is worried about is what it’s wearing. Surely Dom would have remembered the suits, though, even after he forgot how to maintain the face.
After a few moments, Arthur says, “It was me they were fighting about, wasn’t it? Cobb and Mal.”
Ariadne tilts her head, her brow furrowing with confused surprise. “How did you know that?”
Arthur smiles bitterly into his martini and answers the question by commenting, “She told me she was my guardian angel.”
“She thought she was,” Ariadne agrees. “At least part of Cobb thought it was. I think he was trying to push you away. Convince you that he was dangerous so that you’d stay away from him.”
It’s funny, so Arthur laughs.
Ariadne looks at him sharply, as though she’s doubting his sanity—or maybe his sobriety—and he waves his martini at her.
“Just thinking,” he says. “All this time, I thought she was the part of Cobb that hated me. It’s kind of a disappointment to find out she was my biggest fan.”
“We have to talk,” Arthur says. He has a headache from all the drinking he did last night and his palms are already clammy and cold, but if he puts this off any longer, he isn’t going to be able to follow through.
Dom knows something’s up. Arthur can tell from the deliberate way he leans back in his chair and crosses his hands over his stomach.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” Dom asks.
“I’m retiring,” Arthur announces. And because that doesn’t sound quite final enough, he corrects, “Retired.”
Dom laughs, and the tension runs out of him the same way that Arthur’s blood ran onto the pavement that day, when Mal held him close and kissed his face.
He thinks this is a joke.
“Retired. Oh man, that’s good.” Dom wipes his eyes, swiveling the chair back around toward the desk. “Come here and take a look at these specs. I want to know if you think it’s feasible to do a level one extraction under these conditions.”
It would be so easy to do what Dom asks—and God knows that Arthur loves the work—but he does have principles. There are lines he isn’t willing to cross, hurts he isn’t willing to bear.
Even for Dom.
“I’m not joking,” he says. “I just—I came here to say goodbye. I figured I owed you that much.”
Dom sits up again, slow and cautious, and swivels the chair back around. He peers up at Arthur, brow furrowed and mouth pursed, and slowly his expression falls into one of shocked comprehension. “You’re serious.”
“Every once in a while, yes,” Arthur agrees, and then holds out his hand. His fingers don’t tremble. His pleasant expression doesn’t falter.
Dom looks at Arthur’s hand, then back up at his face, and his own face twists with hurt. “Why?” he demands. “Why would you do something like this?”
As though it’s a personal affront to him.
Probably because it is.
“Maybe I’m tired of living in other people’s dreams,” Arthur suggests.
Dom’s expression darkens at the blatant lie. “Bullshit.”
Arthur understands then that Dom isn’t going to shake his hand. Amidst everything else that Arthur has had to come to terms with over the past twenty-four hours, it shouldn’t make much difference, but somehow it burns anyway. He lets his hand fall back to his side, the polite gesture abandoned.
“Believe what you want,” he says, and starts for the door.
A moment later his breath is driven from his chest as he’s hit from behind, shoved forward until he collides heavily with the wall. He grunts, hands scrambling for purchase as Dom leans on him, one forearm pressed against the back of Arthur’s neck to keep his cheek flush with the plaster.
Arthur’s pulse shoots skyward. He can’t drag in another gulp of air because his lungs have shut down. The room spins around him—because he’s dreaming and being moved? Oh God, is he under now? Is he somehow still in Dom’s head?
“Don’t you walk away from me, Arthur,” Dom growls. “I want an honest answer, damn it!”
Arthur blinks furiously as his vision blurs in pulses of white. “Die,” he gasps out. “I have to—I have to roll.”
He’s yanked away from the wall, turned, and shoved back against it. Dom is looming over him, so tall, and Arthur isn’t sure where he is anymore. How did he get from his apartment to the office? He can’t remember.
“Make some damn sense, will you?” Dom snaps, irritated, and then his scowl deepens as Arthur fumbles through his pockets. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Need my—totem,” Arthur manages, and Dom’s eyes go wide. He lets go of Arthur immediately, moving back—makes Arthur think this is reality after all, because not once has he ever seem Dom back off in a dream. But he keeps searching for the totem anyway, and when he finds it in his pants pocket he drops to his knees and rolls, hunched over and shielding the fall of the die from prying eyes.
Lucky six, and his airways open wide with the flush of relief. He closes his hand around his totem, then bends forward further until his forehead is resting against his knuckles. Breathes in the Pine Sol scent of the recently scrubbed floor.
He came in a cab. The driver’s name was Abdul. He smelled like cumin.
The room is quiet around Arthur as his panic fades. The air feels cold—too cold for Dom to still be standing where he was when Arthur dropped down. He chances a glance sideways without moving his head and spots Dom sliding down the opposite wall.
Dom’s mouth is open in a horrified gape. His eyes are wide with naked misery. When he finally hits the floor he brings his hands up. Runs them through his hair and pulls it back from his face.
“Oh God,” he breathes. “You saw.”
It takes them both a while to calm down.
They sit across from each other while they wait for their breathing to slow, both of their backs pressed to their respective walls. Arthur has his legs crossed in front of him; Dom’s knees are drawn up near his chest. His forearms rest lightly on his thighs, hands hanging down between his legs. Arthur is clutching his totem with his own hand, reassured by the weight of it, but Dom hasn’t made any move to take the top out.
Maybe because this situation is too clearly horrible to be anything but reality for him.
“How long have you known?” Dom asks finally.
“Since our first job after inception.”
That’s all of seven months ago now, and Dom’s eyes close on the admission with a grimace of pain.
“I saw us in the apartment with the blue door,” Arthur elaborates. “The one I lived in when we were in college.”
It’s the honesty of full disclosure driving him, but he can’t say that he isn’t also a little fascinated by the way that the pain in Dom’s expression deepens. He doesn’t know where all of that hurt is coming from—too much for it to be simple embarrassment, but the response Arthur is getting doesn’t dovetail with the one he expected. The contradiction is enough to have him digging for more.
“At first I thought it was just about the sex. But then—if it was sex, I guess that at least some of it would have been mutual.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Dom exhales. His eyes finally open: light, ice blue, as though all of the color has been leeched out by the depth of his horror.
“I’m saying something now,” Arthur points out.
It’s funny, but the worse Dom looks, the steadier Arthur feels. It’s an instinctual response, he supposes. He’s always looked after Dom—Dom, who has never felt any emotion by halves—and he’s used to holding his partner—his friend—together when things get rough.
He hasn’t seen Dom looking this bad since Mal died.
“I get that you resent me for what happened to Mal,” Arthur says off that thought, and Dom’s head comes up higher. His eyes sharpen. “And I understand that you’re angry that she saw ... whatever she saw ... down there in Limbo, that it messed things up between you. That’s fine. But I still don’t see how you could want to hurt me that much, unless ...” He sucks in a breath as it occurs to him, and then he finishes, “Unless that’s why she—Oh my God.”
He’s going to be sick.
Dom moves as though he wants to reach through the space between them, and Arthur can’t help his instinctive flinch. It isn’t that he’s afraid of Dom, who is not at all safe but whose conscious mind is too generous to inflict harm even on someone he hates. It’s that Arthur knows he doesn’t deserve comforting. He certainly can’t have Dom touching him right now, just after he’s discovered that he’s responsible for Mal’s (his friend, Dom’s wife) leap off the hotel balcony.
Dom eases right back down, both hands held up to indicate that he has no intention of crossing the space between them as he says, “No. Arthur, no. What happened to Mal was ...” He shakes his head, keeping his eyes firmly on Arthur as though he can will him to believe whatever he’s about to say next. “What she did had nothing to do with you. She probably would have divorced me in a couple of years, if she’d survived that long, but the way she died, that was—that had nothing to do with us.”
With us, he says. As though there’s something there.
But the sincerity in Dom’s eyes does the trick and relaxes Arthur’s muscles. As Dom slowly lowers his hands, the pain in Arthur’s chest fades to something more bearable—he hurt Mal, but he didn’t kill her. The absolution is a relief.
“Please, Arthur,” Dom says. “Can you—I know it’s more than I deserve, but can you just talk to me? Give me something to go on, here, because I don’t know what you want from me.”
It would be so easy to say, ‘nothing’. But it isn’t true, and Arthur doesn’t think it would wound the way he wants it to. He feels guilty for this sudden, driving need to cut the way Mal once cut into him, but he can’t quite resist.
“What I want to know,” he says, tilting his head back against the wall while he holds Dom’s gaze with his eyes. “Is just when you started to hate me.”
He’s watching Dom carefully when he says it, so he sees the subtle widening of Dom’s eyes, the dilation of his pupils. He sees Dom’s chest still as his breath catches.
And the puzzle that he fitted together last night over martinis shatters apart in his head, only to instantly reassemble in a different configuration, every piece in its proper place.
Dom doesn’t hate him.
Dom’s in love with him.
And from the way Dom’s face is closing off with frightening swiftness, Dom very definitely knows he just gave that fact away.
“But you—” Arthur starts, and then has to stop and take a different track. “In your dreams, you—” He stops again.
Apparently those aren’t words he can say, but Dom doesn’t have any such problem.
“In my dreams I rape you.”
Arthur flinches, remembering the boardwalk, and Mal’s silhouette amidst all that gaudy light. He says nothing because nothing he can say can make those words untrue.
Slowly, Dom pushes himself back up the wall and gets to his feet, staying well back and clearly making an effort to keep his hands visible.
“You don’t know what it was like down there in Limbo,” he says. “I tried to explain when you asked, but ... You have to be there to understand.”
He pauses, lowering his eyes and looking at his own hands with a terrible, cringing shame on his face. Dom’s face wasn’t built to look so broken.
It’s ... unsettling.
“I missed you,” Dom confesses hoarsely. “At first, it wasn’t anything more than that. I missed hearing your voice, and I missed that smug, superior way you always used to smile, and I wanted—” Dom lifts his head sharply, fixing Arthur with anxious eyes. “I knew how I felt about you then, but I swear, Arthur, I just wanted a friend. I needed someone to talk to who wasn’t Mal. There wasn’t—I didn’t make the projection for sex. You believe that, right?”
A moment ago, Arthur would have sworn he didn’t know what to believe, but it’s impossible not to trust Dom when he has that earnest, desperate look on his face. He nods slowly and Dom swallows, looking back over at the wall of windows.
“Even though I knew how I felt about you,” he continues, “I kept telling myself that it wasn’t cheating because we weren’t actually doing anything except talking. And I told myself that I was only keeping him a secret from Mal because she would have been hurt by the thought that she wasn’t enough—she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t have understood.”
His voice breaks a little, and Arthur’s hand gives an instinctual twitch that he stills before it becomes the offer of comfort that it wants to be.
Luckily, Dom gets himself under control almost instantly and clears his throat before saying, “And I guess I was a little ashamed, because I already knew that he wouldn’t ever be anything but a cheap imitation. I tried, but I couldn’t ever—I couldn’t make him be you. He was always me trying to be you: what I thought you should be like. He was just a collection of faded memories, and it wasn’t—it wasn’t the same.”
Dom takes a deep, shaky breath, shutting his eyes.
“And then, one day, he was what I wanted you to be like, and I ... I didn’t stop him. And it still didn’t count as cheating in my head, because he wasn’t real. I clung so hard to that fact so that I could justify it to myself, all those things we did together, all those times that I went to him instead of her, and I can’t even regret it because in the end that’s what brought us out.”
Dom opens his eyes again, and they’re as bruised and wet as an overcast, lowering sky. They make Arthur think of rain, and the surf on sand. Someplace lonely where the world shifts every time you turn your back, where you can’t trust anything—especially your own mind.
“You’re the reason I remembered that none of it was real,” Dom says. “You’re why I came back.”
Somewhere beneath his shock, Arthur is remembering how to be angry. What Dom is confessing isn’t some stupid secret like breaking your best friend’s watch and then telling them you don’t know how it happened. It isn’t a good secret, either, like not telling someone how you really feel because you know it will leave them crushed and broken for the rest of their lives. This is the dumbest, most idiotic secret someone can keep from another person.
Add to that the fact that Dom’s dreams still don’t make any sense, and Dom is damn lucky Arthur isn’t going over there and popping him one in the chin.
“That’s fascinating and all, but it doesn’t explain why you’ve been—” He still can’t say it, but the wave of his hand probably gets his meaning across. “—in your dreams.”
Dom’s eyes are hopeless as they meet Arthur’s, reminding him too strongly of Mal’s.
“Forty eight years I had you with me down there,” Dom says. “I had you every way I could think of. I had you more ways than I ever had my wife. And then I came back and you—you didn’t remember any of it, because it didn’t happen.”
There’s a twist to Dom’s mouth as he finishes—something bitter and self-deprecating—and comprehension flares along Arthur’s nerve endings.
While he was in Limbo, Dom took an idea—a memory of the person he believed Arthur to be—and his subconscious twisted that idea into something more pleasing—into the fantasy. And because he did that without Arthur’s permission, because he took from his creation without Arthur’s consent, he thinks ...
“But it didn’t happen,” Arthur protests. “It wasn’t real. You can’t hold yourself accountable for your fantasies.”
But apparently Dom can hold himself accountable, and has been every time he hooks himself up to that machine.
“Those dreams aren’t about hurting me,” Arthur breathes, stunned all over again by the realization. “They’re about punishing yourself.”
“I—” Dom starts, and then has to clear his throat. But he still can’t speak and, shaking his head, he turns sharply and heads for the door.
Arthur scrambles to his feet, carelessly abandoning his totem on the floor where he was sitting, and throws himself into Dom’s path. Eyes narrowing with determination, Dom steps to the side and Arthur gets in his way again. They continue the stilted dance for several more steps, before Dom finally clenches his jaw and stops.
“Move, Arthur,” he bites out.
“Why, so you can go jump off a building too?”
There’s a flicker of defiance in the way Dom lifts his eyes. That same heat that he used to offer Arthur all the time, back when Mal was haunting them both. Mal, who did love Arthur in her own way, but who loved Dom more. Mal, who wanted Dom to be happy, but couldn’t seem to make up her own mind how to go about it.
Probably because Dom never could make up his mind whether he wanted Arthur with him, or safe and happy.
Because, in Dom’s mind, Arthur couldn’t ever be both.
“Did you ever think maybe you should just say something?” Arthur demands, and then, while Dom is still scowling and trying to catch up, Arthur steps forward and kisses him.
It isn’t that Arthur has suddenly awoken and understood that he’s in love with Dom. In that moment, in their office, Arthur doesn’t know how he feels. But he knows that he can’t let Dom walk away from him, and he knows that his emotions for Dom are deeper and more complex than anything he’s ever felt for the women he’s loved in and out of his bed.
He knows that the press of Dom’s body against his own is making his pulse race and his cock stiffen in his pants.
Dom jerks his head to the side and backs away.
“No. No, you can’t just give me this.”
So, he’s going to be stubborn, is he?
Arthur dives forward. He might be slighter and shorter, but he has momentum and surprise on his side and he manages to shove Dom back against the wall. And Dom hasn’t ever bothered to learn any close grappling the way that Arthur has, which means that it’s easy to pin him there long enough to get their mouths together again. For all of a few seconds before Dom gathers his strength and shoves off the wall behind him.
Arthur grunts as he collides with the wall on the opposite side of the room. He doesn’t fight Dom’s attempts to grab his wrists and pin them to the wall by his head.
It’s just anger in Dom’s expression at first, but he realizes quickly what sort of position they’re in—what he’s doing—and his grip on Arthur’s wrists loosens as he begins to pull away.
“No,” Arthur insists. Slipping his left hand loose, he grabs Dom’s shirt and holds him there. Dom looks surprised by the move. His left hand stays raised and gripping Arthur’s right, forgotten as he searches Arthur’s face.
“You like women,” Dom says, as though reminding him.
“I do. They’re very pleasant. Soft in all the right places. I’ve had plenty.”
Dom’s eyes narrow. “Don’t play the bi-curious card, Arthur. Because I know for a fact that Eames propositioned you more than once, and you never—”
“Wait. Eames propositioned me? What the hell am I doing here, then?” Arthur starts to step forward only to find himself shoved back against the wall.
Dom looks briefly startled by his own reaction, but Arthur can’t keep his satisfaction at having gotten the appropriate response off his face and Dom notices soon enough. Frowning, he tightens his grip on Arthur’s restrained right hand.
“Pushing buttons isn’t what you want to be doing right now,” Dom warns.
Arthur catches the undercurrent of violence in his partner’s words, knows well that this could easily flip into something less pleasurable, and subsides. Dom’s possessiveness might be an interesting quality to explore later, though.
“I never took Eames up on his offers because Eames is an ass,” he says more seriously. “I don’t like him. I don’t make a habit out of sleeping with people I don’t care for.”
“Just the widowers of old friends?”
The way Dom is deliberately distancing himself from Arthur by putting Mal between them hurts.
“You’re my friend too, Dom,” Arthur points out. “Even if you are a stubborn bastard.”
“Exactly. That’s the problem. We’re friends, Arthur. And you—I know what you’re like.”
“Apparently not, because you seem to think I’m trying to get you into bed because I feel sorry for you.”
Abandoning that line of argument, Dom says, “Look, you can’t just decide to have feelings for someone—”
“I’ve known about your dreams for seven months,” Arthur interrupts. “And the only thing that’s bothered me is the method of execution.”
That shuts Dom up, even though he’s still looking at Arthur with this expression that says he’s searching for the catch.
“I’m not saying I’m in love with you,” Arthur continues bluntly. “But I think I can safely say it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.”
Dom stares at him a moment longer before dropping his gaze with a breathy laugh. “Jesus, Arthur. It really does always have to be certainties and sure things with you, doesn’t it?”
“I’d be surer if you’d kiss me back so I can see what it’s like.”
The set of Dom’s jaw firms and Arthur has about a heartbeat to prepare himself before his partner’s mouth is on his. Now that he’s decided to do this, Dom doesn’t hold back, and it’s all Arthur can do to keep up. He’s only beginning to figure out what he wants, after all, and Dom has years of pent up desire to pour into this kiss—not to mention experience, however strangely it was obtained.
Arthur isn’t used to kissing someone who tries to take immediate and utter control of his mouth, and it takes him several moments of internal struggle to yield. Takes several moments more to realize that he does like this as much as he thought he would. He lets go of Dom’s shirt and brings his left hand down to fumble with his partner’s belt instead—difficult to work it open with only his left hand, but he can’t exactly use his right.
Then Dom wrenches his mouth off of Arthur’s and growls, “What the hell are you doing?”
He’s flushed, his eyes dark with desire and heat, and Arthur wants.
“I’m pretty sure,” he pants. “That I want to fuck you.”
But Dom shakes his head and catches Arthur’s free wrist, stilling his hand. “I can’t do just fucking around with you,” he says. “I need more. I need to be it, the only one. I know your heart doesn’t work like that, but mine does.”
Leaning his head back against the wall, Arthur counters, “Did you ever think that maybe the reason I couldn’t commit to a woman is because I was already in love with someone else?”
It takes Dom a few moments to work through the words and then he goes still. The depth of the hunger and longing in his eyes is frightening. When he speaks, his voice is strained, cradling a delicate, fragile strand of hope.
“You need to be very clear with me, Arthur, because I can’t—I can’t start this and then lose you.”
“I’m in love with you,” Arthur says, and then immediately adds, “I think.”
Dom stares at him.
Arthur clears his throat. “That’s as clear as I get, Dom.”
For the moment, it’s clear enough.