“So here's the thing,” his mentor tells him, “here's the thing about dying in a dream. It gets easier.”
Arthur doesn't know what to think about that, but he tries to believe it.
The gun goes off.
Arthur's in Walter Reed, waiting. He does a lot of waiting in his bed, for when he'll be clear for PT, for when he can stay in an on-site apartment instead of this sterile room, for when this or that charity will scrape up enough money for his mom to see him.
He isn't waiting for this man, in a suit, to come in. He's blond, blue eyed, older than Arthur, but Arthur thinks he looks a little soft. Wedding ring, stubble, nice haircut. Civilian.
“Arthur,” the man says and holds a hand out to him. Arthur shakes, awkward with the IV in his arm.
“I'm Dominic Cobb,” he says, “and your superiors have recommended that I come see you.”
“I don't want another medal.” Arthur hopes he sounds more powerful than the rasp of his voice implies. “I just. I just wanna see my mom, okay? Are you here about that?”
He presses the button that moves him to sitting and Cobb is watching him, grave expression. Arthur suddenly hates this, hates being here with anyone. The hospital, this man, make him feel brittle.
“No, I'm afraid I'm not. But your superiors told me you were interested in a career here.”
Arthur laughs. “Yeah, I was real interested in that once. Don't think it'll happen now, gonna get discharged soon. Not really the paygrade I wanted to retire at, you know?”
Cobb just looks concerned and Arthur, Arthur really doesn't like that. Wants to ask Cobb who the hell he thinks he is.
“I run this project, and we need volunteers. You'll stay active duty. Hell, you'll probably get promoted.” Cobb says this with a hand at the back of his neck. He looks nervous, and Arthur realizes he's making this man, this man in a nice suit, nervous.
“I'm in,” Arthur says, fast, eyes wide.
“You don't even know –” Cobb cuts himself off and shakes his head. “Yeah. Okay. That's great.”
It's only then that Cobb pulls out the visitor chair, sits down and levels himself with Arthur. He's elbows on his knees, looking at him, and his face looks less nervous and more excited now. Arthur notes the little smile on his lips. It’s dangerous now. Enticing.
“So what do you know about dreams?” he asks, leaning toward him.
Dying doesn’t get easier for Arthur.
When Arthur has nightmares, he'll wake up with a yelp, heart hammering, sweaty and tangled in the sheets.
When he wakes up from a death while asleep, he does it without a sound, eyes sliding open into the fluorescent glare of the real, of the solid around him. Only his hands will be tense.
It'll hit him later – making dinner in his apartment, taking a shower, reading – the shakes and the blood zooming in his body, his lungs being crushed under some kind of horrible weight. His throat tight as he tries to swallow, tries to remember that he’s safe and it’s not real.
The Cobbs are nice, nicer than people obsessed with death have any right to be, Arthur figures. It takes a while, but he realizes that they’re artists, really. They’re builders -- they build landscapes and buildings, and they’re building a family together, or trying.
What the Cobbs really love is making beautiful things, and sometimes he gets to see them. Castles or valleys or enormous fucking continents of rolling grass and huge gray mountains and he doesn’t know how to look at these. He’s seen someone die but he’s never seen the world look like this before. He comes from someplace flat, someplace cold, and served in the sand and the heat.
Dom and Mal seem like they come from a place with seasons and sunlight and history. They want to build him into something, too, something that could live in a place like that. He can tell when they invite him to their home, when Mal feeds him, the way Dom lends him books. The way Mal lets him rest a hand on her belly when she’s pregnant. The way Dom nudges his shoulder and smiles, like they’re sharing something. Like it didn’t have to be a secret.
Arthur wants to learn how to build these things too. He learns how to smile back.
They’re told it’s not enough with guns. Mal’d mentioned it before, but she always wants to expand, to push Arthur out until he’s stretched thin over everything. He doesn’t know how to say no anymore, really, because they’ve already done so much for him -- his mom gets to see him every two months, and he’s keeping her safe in her house and is paying for her groceries. Mal tells him he should be excited about trying out new things -- the three of them are the first to ever have died in a dream, did he know that?
Mal doesn’t mind dying, so she drags Arthur underwater with her, keeps him there while the fear pushes all the oxygen out of his lungs. She tries smothering, makes him set her on fire, pushes him off a ledge and then jumps after him.
He starts to feel himself harden each time he pulls a trigger or chokes the last breath from Mal’s throat, and it feels weird later when he sits in their house at dinner. Her face flush and full of life. He doesn’t want them to be the same person.
Arthur calls his mom once every two weeks, like clockwork. She always told him he was too cautious, too nervous when he was a kid but sometimes she sounds nervous on the phone.
“I’m proud of you, honey,” she tells him, and sometimes it makes his furious and he has to swallow it down, bite on the words.
He thinks it’s okay, though, because he’s sending her money, too. She kept him safe once.
It’s simpler with Dom. With Dom, they explore the ways you can die in the field. Arthur shoots him, lets himself be shot, with gun after gun variation. Dom wants to compare notes, talk about how each experience is different, how they can recreate what he’s read about, the interviews he’s done with other wounded in the hospital.
Arthur gets him research -- firsthand accounts, letters, videos passed around on scratched CDs, takes him to a shooting range to try out each caliber weapon and learn how it feels to cradle that power in his hand. Takes him to one of his group therapy sessions at the VA hospital, with a few friends he’d made in physical therapy.
Dom fidgets for the whole hour and tries not to look people in the eyes or in the prosthetics. He thanks Arthur solemnly for sharing that, but Arthur hadn’t even said anything. Arthur doesn’t bring him to the post-session beers.
Arthur balks though. He'd have to eventually. He won't dream them an IED and he tells them to do their own fucking research. He’s written them enough notes about his first death.
Later, he calms down. The Cobbs, he reasons, are paid to be obsessed with with it. It’s why he’s here, to give them insight. Was there a flash of light? Yes, but it was only the bomb under him. Did he believe in the afterlife?
He doesn’t have a better explanation for where he is.
Dying doesn’t get easier, but it does get less lonely when Cobb and Mal and Arthur are all cleared to begin the training program, the real reason for the PASIV device’s existence, all the beautiful places built by the Cobbs be damned straight to hell. Useless, extraneous, expensive overtesting, Arthur hears, but he keeps it to himself.
Sometimes he has dreams, natural dreams, about these secret places and that makes them real enough.
So they get trainees.
Dom’s hand shakes when he holds a gun that’s not even real, he doesn’t like the sand. Mal commands respect in the dreams, and the trainees listen to her, but they don’t want to fight her. They die, passively, at her hand, and she wakes up the same way every time -- making a sound like the air’s been punched out of her.
The military recruits will fight Arthur.
Arthur’s killed before.
Sometimes he dreams about his old life, dreams he hasn’t had since he was a furious and jumpy teenager. The old house his family lived in, the rocking horse he used to sit on while the downstairs was full of yelling and noises. The apartment his mom always kept clean, still keeps clean and tidy and ready in case he fucks up and needs to go home.
He wakes up and wants to call his mom, can’t remember his father’s face.
Sometimes he can’t sleep.
He’s not there for the birth, but Dom calls him up, sends his phone a grainy video feed of an exhausted Mal and a tiny baby shaped thing.
Arthur’s already at their house before they get there -- he tidies it up, makes sure all the sheets are washed, double checks the crib construction even though she probably won’t be in it immediately.
Mal’s smile is so big it looks like its own light, and Cobb hugs him close, trying, Arthur guesses, to share the sharp giddy tightness in his chest.
She holds out her daughter to him and Arthur is cautious, cradles her soft head in one calloused hand as he lifts Phillipa to his chest. He’s transfixed by her tiny fingernails, that something this fragile came from someone like Mal, who is angry, who he’s seen raze cities, who he’s seen with a knife.
Sometimes the struggle is worse. It should, theoretically, get easier to accept death, to breathe in the water, to watch the asphalt surge up to him and keep his eyes open.
Cobb’s trying regulation weapons again, in what would be a friendly fire simulation if Cobb could ever get his projections to come near Arthur when he’s holding a gun. He thinks they might be scared, maybe.
Arthur’s getting too good at cheating death so he has to take in a breath, clench his jaw, to keep his eyes open. To keep himself standing still. He can’t escape the thrum of blood all over his body, the way his skin feels extra sensitive. His body, his dream body, is always hyper aware of the microseconds between Cobb pulling the trigger and the sharp pain, the staggered moments before death.
The gun goes off.
“We're getting a new group of trainees, from the Royal Navy,” Cobb says. Arthur's their only permanent partner, really, and Cobb and Mal have started to stay out of his dreams if he's running drills. He still eats at their place every week, and he loves Phillipa like she’s his own, but Mal always looks anxious at him and makes him eat seconds, takes Phillipa from him before he’s done holding her.
Arthur has killed so many Americans he wonders if this will be new, or exciting, or the same.
Sergeant Eames is the platoon leader Arthur is introduced to. They’re both in uniform, overdressed around a nervous Dom and Mal, who never seem at ease when things get official, get military. He’s seen them with the PASIV on off-hours, but he holds his tongue, because he wants to believe they’re building something better than the programs the three of them have devised. Someplace new.
“So, Corporal, what is it your little machine does?” Eames is sarcastic, broad shouldered, but serious when he looks Arthur in the eye. He doesn’t shy away at whatever he sees there, so Arthur thinks he might grow to like him.
“It makes all your dreams come true, sir,” he says, because he’s outranked, because he wants to have the casual ease of conversation mastered by now.
“Ah, well,” Eames says, and they share a look. Arthur doesn’t miss the quick once over Eames gives him, the sly smirk on his full lips. He’s never been naive. “What is it we’ll be using it for?”
“We’ve developed a number of straight forward training regimes to condition your platoon to be conditioned to battle, in various situations. It heightens the reflexes, but most importantly it trains the mind to be hyper alert to any insurgent activity. Your men’ll learn not to fear death.” The lie is heavy on his tongue.
Eames looks at him, weighing something in his head.
“That doesn’t sound very fun,” he says, and Arthur almost startles, almost laughs.
“It...” he pauses, takes a breath, eyes darting to the Cobbs. “You’ll just have to see for yourself.”
Arthur doesn’t know how to say that it’s beyond fun. That it’s real. That it isn’t.
Eames is just testing the waters, so Arthur wants him first to understand that it isn’t all ugly violence, isn’t all the grit of sand in your teeth after you fall face forward from a bullet in the shoulder. He wants to take his time with Eames, show him the dreams, the way he didn’t really get to. He’d already died, though, but he doesn’t think Eames has. Nothing in his files suggest that he’s in this project out of some cruel strike of luck.
“You can do anything here,” Arthur says at the top of a staircase that never ends, in the middle of a glassy city. The scene started here, with them walking, suits and neat haircuts. The city is full of lush and expertly tended green spaces, trees blooming into flowers with too many petals.
Eames takes in the landscape and smiles at him. “I don’t know if I belong in a place this lovely,” he says, that sly look back on his face. “Though all cleaned up, you fit right in.”
Arthur just raises an eyebrow, but Eames just continues to smile at him. Eames pauses, then, looking into the glass around him, and his face, his body begins to change. Each brightly polished window around them reflects something different, a woman, a child, black, white, Asian.
Arthur stares, transfixed, and he starts to say, “the dreams don’t take to change,” but he means, he doesn’t take well to this kind of wrench in reality. He gets his mouth open but no sound emerges.
Eames grins, shuddering back into himself, and windows next to them begin to explode, surging out in bright sprays of glass. “The impossible,” he murmurs, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
The clock runs out before they’re killed by falling glass.
Arthur is sad, he thinks, when these days have to end.
“I’ve seen the way he looks at you,” Mal says to him at family dinner one night, and Arthur can’t tell if she’s happy or angry.
He smiles at her anyway, twirling pasta around his fork. “Yeah,” he says, and doesn’t reassure her.
“He likes the training,” she says, and that’s an accusation that Arthur doesn’t understand.
“You like the training,” he counters, glad Dom’s off somewhere with Phillipa because he can feel ugliness creeping into his mouth.
“I like the dreaming, Arthur. The creation, not the destruction.”
”We haven’t gotten that far, Mal.”
“He will like that training, then.” This time, he knows, she sounds sad.
“Mal,” he says and can’t meet her eyes.
She frowns and her hand lifts but never reaches his shoulder for a reassuring touch.
“I can’t believe they built such a wonderful machine just to show us how to kill better.”
Arthur’s built them a hidden waterfall, facing out at a gorgeous rolling plain of grass. They’re perched on a crag of rock as the water tumbles near them, crashing underneath.
“And then,” Eames continues, “they put a beautiful creature like you inside it, to teach us how to do it.”
Arthur bares his teeth in a smile, but feels his ears heated. “Well, don’t get used to it. I turn ugly real quick.”
Eames wears smug amusement well, and he likes to tilt his voice to sultry. “I can’t wait, Arthur, if it’s half as ugly as this place is gorgeous. ”
Arthur snorts. He’s never seen any place like it, but he’d borrowed some of the Cobbs’ books, remembered the ones he used to read when he was a kid in his mother’s house, over and over, dogeared and tired from the library. Here, now, he gets to build his secret places.
Being in the dream with Eames is a new kind of rush, because he’s less wide-eyed than Dom ever was at the landscapes he creates. Eames seems to appreciate them for all the terrible places they aren’t.
“You never build me anything that’s real, Arthur. Why is that?”
Arthur hums in response and takes aim, because he doesn’t know how to say that it isn’t true.
Above the water are giant glass birds, the sun glinting off of their angled plane. Each has a deep jewel tone, and Arthur shatters one easily, causing tiny sparkles to fall and send rainbows against the wall of their cave.
Eames is smiling, a face splitting grin. “This is more fun than clay pigeons.”
Arthur shrugs and smiles at him. He feels shy, all of a sudden. “I have a lot of time,” he says, “to think up different ways to train.”
The birds keep circling, and Eames and Arthur have been shooting them out of the sky with M-16s for at least an hour.
“I hope they’re all as lovely as this,” Eames says but he’s looking at Arthur, looking at him how Mal said he was.
“I don’t --” he starts, and then he drops his eyes away from Eames’ face. “You might be disappointed.”
Eames laughs. “Doubtful,” he says, and their shoulders bump. It’s easy, somehow.
“This is the place where your brain’s fucked up,” Cobb finally says, and he’s pointing to a shadowy place on a picture of the inside of his own brain.
The MEG’s black and white photo is one of the strangest things Arthur’s ever seen, a section of the inside of himself that’s more concrete than any field or flower or bird he might dream up could be. “Magnetoencephalography,” Eames told him when Arthur mentioned it, and Arthur traced the way his lips moved when he said it.
“I don’t really see why that’d make you kick me off the project,” Arthur says, even as he runs the pad of his index finger over the spot.
It doesn’t look like a real thing, the inside of his skull.
It doesn’t look like the frown crossing over Mal’s delicate, dark face.
“You’re not an idiot, Arthur,” she says, “and you knew the risks of damage. I don’t know why we haven’t been doing these with you regularly, with your history --”
“Doesn’t matter now,” Dom says and he finally looks Arthur in the face, the first time in this whole sterile and uncomfortable business. Arthur wishes they’d let him change out of the hospital gown. “You’re grounded, soldier.”
“This isn’t a joke. The project is. It’s changing you, Arthur. Not everyone with PTSD has it show up so obviously on a scan like this.”
“It’s so obvious that I’m messed up you had to scan my brain to figure it out?” Arthur asks, and he crosses his arms in front of his chest. He’s cold.
The Cobbs look at each other, maybe thinking about how they should have done this earlier.
“I knew there’d be a risk when I signed up,” he says, but he didn’t really, no one had explained to him what it was he was going to do. He figured it wouldn’t be any worse than Afghanistan and so far, it’s been better.
He likes the war games most when he wins, but he’s starting, maybe, to feel less resentful when he loses.
“I want you on leave,” she says, crossing her arms and mirroring him. He looks at the pictures of his brain and wonders which part of it knows how many times he’s died so far. If it was a black mark there, or if his brain tried to forget.
“You don’t get to make that call for me, Mal.”
“The hell I don’t.” She pauses. “Arthur, it won’t be permanent.”
“It would be. You don’t. I need it, okay?” he says and she shakes her head, tells him that’s why he needs to stop.
And Arthur doesn’t mind the secrecy as long as he gets to be the one making discoveries. He loves the rush of gaining each fact, like the feeling of being first in line, the first to see if there’s a threat in front his team or not. Being point meant he had to know fast, had to unravel every scenario in an instant.
“Who would take my spot?” he asks and Dom sighs.
“You can’t do this forever, you know,” Mal says and Arthur isn’t sure what she means, because how long is he going to keep doing anything, really.
In the end, Arthur stays.
Eames fights him, and it’s almost a disappointment.
“The thing about dying in dreams,” Arthur says as he grapples Eames to the ground, “is that it gets easier.”
Eames’ eyes are wide with panic, with fear, nostrils flared. He fights Arthur just as hard as everyone always does, harder even than most. But Arthur’s been here before.
The gun goes off.