It was a sunny day in June when Cobb called his old colleagues up with a new assignment. The mark was a ten-year-old girl named Miriam. Her father had been the head of a huge corporation, and with his last breath he had told her the location of his secret will. Now a rich businessman named Christopher Bellard had paid them well to extract the information, and they knew this would be easy.
Ariadne just happened to design the maze as a carnival.
She announced it to the team at their first meeting, after Arthur had sent her the research. Her blueprints were not careful and sophisticated as they usually were; they were filled with cartoony shapes and flashing lights.
“What is this, Vegas?” Arthur asked skeptically as she handed around copies. “A ten-year-old isn’t going to like Vegas.”
“It’s a carnival,” she replied with a persuasive grin. “She loves them, you found that out yourself. She’ll definitely feel comfortable there.”
Cobb squinted at the blueprints. “You reflected the edges?” he said. “Very well done.” Eames and Yusuf snickered. “What?” he asked flatly.
“Yusuf, Eames and I had a bet that you couldn’t go five minutes of the meeting without squinting,” Arthur replied. “I guess I overestimated your staying power.” He reluctantly handed each of them a five-dollar bill and folded his arms. “But how are we going to disguise ourselves?”
“Oh no. Oh no, no, no. You are NOT dressing me up as a clown,” said Yusuf, blanching.
Ariadne laughed. “Don’t worry, Yusuf. I’ve made sure to give you all suitable jobs at the stands. They’re all strategically placed, and everything’s very calculated. Your job, for example…”
“Perfume substitutes! Get your well-known perfume substitutes! Smells just like the real thing! Britney Spears, Chanel No. 5…” Yusuf squinted at his list. “…Joop?”
He gritted his teeth and switched on his walkie-talkie.”Ariadne, I am going to kill you,” he growled. “And what kind of a name is
Ariadne laughed, her voice tinny through the small device. “Just keep yelling,” she said with the least sympathy possible. “She’s coming your way.”
Yusuf rolled his eyes. “Five dollars only!” he bellowed, switching off the walkie-talkie.
Nobody even looked up.
Over at the caricature stand, Ariadne and Cobb were trying to hear each other over the babble of the crowd. “So what’s everyone else doing?" he shouted.
She craned her neck and caught a glimpse of Arthur, stony-faced in a T-shirt and baseball cap. It was hard not to laugh, watching him pity the three young boys in front of him as they tried to hit the slowly moving target.
“Arthur’s manning that skill game with the fake guns,” she murmured, leaning close to Cobb’s ear, “Yusuf’s at the perfume stall, Eames is wood-chopping, Mr Bellard is in the food pavilion and in five minutes I’m going to go and help out with the ferris wheel.”
Cobb nodded and grinned at her, tucking a strand of her hair back into place. “I knew you’d do a good job,” he said adoringly. “You’re better than I ever was.”
“Aw, shucks,” she giggled. “Thanks for the compliment.” She lowered her head and said quietly, “Any trouble with Mal?”
He shook his head. “None. She hasn’t shown up in weeks.”
She smiled, and to him it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. “I’m glad,” she said softly, “about that.” A kid sat down on the stool in front of her, and they went back to pretending they could draw.
The job went by without a hitch. Gradually they found the information of the will, and when they woke up Mr Bellard bought them all a drink.
In the days after the job, the team found it impossible to forget the carnival. It had been such a lovely, innocent place, so different to the hotels and gun-toting cities they knew so well. It was a return to their childhood, a place where they could be happy no matter what was happening. They dreamed about it every night, but it was never as vivid as it had been in Ariadne’s dreamscape.
Nobody was surprised when Cobb called everyone a week later and said they all deserved a holiday.
“You’ve got six hours until the Somnacin dosage stops, so make the most of it,” said Cobb. He smiled at Ariadne, who was beaming like she belonged here. The carnival was all around them, as beautiful as it had been a week ago, only now they had no pressure and more time to appreciate it.
“Well, I’m off,” said Yusuf. “I think I’ll go on the Twin Spinner. If anybody tries to make me go near that perfume stand, I’d be happy to shoot them.”
“Arthur,” began Eames coyly, “want to go see the cakes?”
Arthur blinked and shook his head, snapping out of his awed expression. “Um, sure,” he replied. They walked off into a crowded street, but not before Eames glanced back at Cobb with a nervous grin.
Cobb waved back. He knew how much Eames liked Arthur, and he knew how excited he had been about revisiting the carnival dreamscape. He knew very well himself how this place would be the perfect setting for starting a romance.
Deciding to prove this, he took Ariadne’s arm and led her to the food stall. “Anything you want,” he declared. “My treat.”
He was regretting this five minutes later, as Ariadne left the stand half-hidden by the biggest stick of cotton candy he had ever seen.
Eames and Arthur strolled about the aisles of the patisserie pavilion, pointing out the best cakes and chuckling at the monstrosities. They walked with mere centimeters between them, close enough to touch, and Eames was constantly trying to convince himself to ask Arthur out.
“Are you alright?” Arthur asked at one point. “You seem nervous.”
“No, I’m fine,” he said with a small smile. “Never been happier, actually.”
Arthur felt himself blush, and he glanced down at an enormous pink cupcake.
Does he mean he’s happy because he’s here, or because he’s here with me?
he wondered. The worst part was that he himself didn’t really know which one he wanted.
“You choose where we go next,” he suggested.
Eames grinned. “Well, we may as well go do something I’m good at,” he said, and he led Arthur out of the pavilion.
“OH MY GOD IT’S THE BUMPER CARS!” screamed Ariadne, jumping up and down.
Cobb grabbed onto her shoulders and tried to calm her down, glancing embarrassedly at the staring projections around them. He shouldn’t have let her had so much sugar; he had never seen her this hyper before, and she was only a third of the way through the cotton candy. Wisps of pink sugar adorned her hair, making her look vaguely like a cockatoo, and the manic grin on her face didn’t exactly encourage him to ask her out.
“Can we go on them? Can we, can we, can we?”she begged, pulling at his sleeve.
Cobb sighed. “Of course we can,” he said, but just in case she was still vaguely sane he wrapped an arm around her waist. He gently guided her to the bumper cars and she leaned into him for balance.
He was handing the money to the bored teenager at the stand when he felt a soft kiss on his jaw. He looked down in confusion, and there was Ariadne with all the world in her wide eyes and a small smile on her face. She nuzzled her head on his shoulder and said shyly, “We don’t have to go on them if you don’t want to.”
Cobb’s face broke out in a grin. “That’s okay,” he murmured. “I’ll do whatever you want to do.”
Her brief moment of lucidity over, Ariadne punched the air. “YOU’RE NICE!” she shouted, hugging him tightly. The teen handed them tickets and she screamed, “YAAAYYY!!!” before charging into the rink like a mad bull. Cobb smiled, happy for her to pull him along if it meant she was having fun.
“You’re…you’re not entering, are you?” Arthur asked in disbelief.
Eames chuckled as he filled out the sign-up sheet. “Of course I am. I got enough practice on the Bellard job, didn’t I? I could run circles around these guys.”
Arthur flushed red. “I don’t doubt that,” he stammered. “But – but – ”
But that means he has to take his shirt off!
he fretted to himself.
I don’t know if I can cope with Eames with his shirt off.
“Oh, darling, don’t you worry your pretty little head,” laughed Eames. “Just sit back and watch.” And then, yes. He took his shirt off.
Trying to keep his eyes on the ground, Arthur took a seat on the benches as the host proclaimed, “Welcome to the Over 18’s Wood-Chopping Finals! And we have a last-minute addition to the competition – ” he squinted at the sheet, making Arthur unconsciously reach for his wallet – “Alex Eames!”
Arthur mused as he watched Eames take his place among the burly, bearded contestants.
Arthur and Alex. Alex and Arthur. SHUT UP, SUBCONSCIOUS.
“On your marks…” Eames stepped forward into the sunlight.
“Get set…” Eames picked up the axe.
“GO!” Eames took a gigantic swing at the log, the muscles on his arms gleaming, and the blade struck the wood with an echoing CRACK!
Arthur watched, hard and hypnotized, his mind entirely blank save the sight of Eames’s biceps. His mouth hung open as the competition went on, just watching Eames hack away at the log, with much more accuracy and finesse than any of the other contestants. Sweat glistened on his brow. Arthur found himself wishing he was that log.
In the seconds before the first round finished, Eames glanced up and winked at him, and he had to excuse himself.
“Everything looks so different up here,” sighed Ariadne, leaning her head on Cobb’s shoulder as the ferris wheel continued to rotate.
“I know, it’s beautiful.” Cobb took the most nervous breath of his life. “Just like you.”
Ariadne looked up at him and smiled. “Cobb,” she began, “what if I told you that you’re the last thing that crosses my mind every night, and the first thing every morning?”
He was silent, but she went on. “What if I told you that I want to be there for you even now that Mal’s gone?” Her voice faded to an almost inaudible whisper. “What if I said I was in love with you, Cobb? What would happen then?”
He tried not to grin like a lunatic and pulled her closer, running his fingers through her hair before settling an arm around her shoulder. “I would still want to know if you were free on Saturday night,” he answered. “There’s this new restaurant downtown, and I think you’d really–”
She threw the fairy floss out the window. His words were cut off by her kiss.
They kissed in the ferris wheel as it turned slowly, giving them a panoramic view of the whole dreamscape; the carnival curled up at the edges like a bowl, and at the top of the bluest sky known to man there was a huge golden sun.
“I am the queen of the underworld! Fear me!”
Arthur rolled his eyes as slimy cardboard fingers brushed past his knee. They rode in total cave darkness, only able to feel and hear the pathetic props of the haunted house. Eames sat beside him, dangerously close, but at least he had a shirt on.
The fact that Eames had been driving him crazy for the past hour meant that it was actually pretty calming to sit there in the blackness, still and silent, and –
Eames leant forward and kissed him.
…What is this madness?!?
For once, Arthur’s subconscious had nothing to say.
It took a few seconds of being completely bowled over, but he kissed him back. He wrapped his arms around him and pulled him under, kissing Eames like his life depended on it. Eames groaned as Arthur ran his fingers through his hair, wondering why he ever doubted his chances.
I’M LIKING THIS!
sang Arthur’s subconscious.
I’m really, really liking this! Don’t you dare stop kissing him! Ever! And text Ariadne!
Within minutes the ride was over and the sunlight hit their car. They sprang apart, straightening their clothes. Eames looked over at Arthur and ruffled his hair. “It looks better that way, darling,” he said to Arthur’s murderous face and hissing noises. To this his expression relaxed, and he even loosened his tie.
“Eames,” he began shyly, “can I – can I kiss you again?”
All he got was a huge grin and a kiss even better than the last one. And really, that was better than a response.
They all met up in the centre of the dreamscape before they woke up.
“Arthur!” gasped Ariadne, running out from Cobb’s arms. “He said yes?”
“You were going to ask?” asked Eames in disbelief.
“I thought Eames was the one asking!” said Cobb, squinting.
“He didn’t really have to ask, per se,” admitted Arthur, looking at his feet and resisting the urge to reach for his wallet. “His biceps can be…very persuasive.” Ignoring the stifled cackles from the rest of the team, he went on: “And Cobb said yes?”
“Cobb asked me first!” said Ariadne. He high-fived her as Cobb and Eames looked on in incredulity.
“Wait a minute.” Yusuf stumbled forward, still reeling from the Twin Spinner. “So you were all going to ask each other out, and everything ended well no matter who asked who?” The others nodded. He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Can we wake up now? I feel sick.”
Cobb checked his watch. “Almost time. Everyone smile!”
The team crowded around Cobb’s DreamCatcher and grinned as he took a picture. Then the world fell away around them and the dream collapsed forever.
Five years later, the team met up for coffee. Cobb and Ariadne brought Philippa and James, Arthur and Eames brought little Bridget, and Yusuf brought his cat.
The two couples sat in the centre of the warehouse as Yusuf tried to keep the kids and toddler away from his chemicals.
“Look at us,” said Cobb with a chuckle. “Nothing’s changed.”
“Except that Arthur doesn’t think jeans are the spawn of the devil,” added Eames. Arthur kicked him gently, and they smiled at each other with as much adoration as they had five years ago.
Cobb took something out of his pocket and handed it around; it was the picture of them all at the carnival. They all gazed at it, trying to remember everything about the beautiful place they had loved so much. Of course, they each had a framed copy hanging on their bedroom wall, but it was the original that had the garish colours of the carnival and still smelled like cotton candy and sunshine.
“Pretty amazing, for a place that never existed,” said Ariadne softly. She took the photograph and studied it for a few moments. When she looked up, the team was staring at her. She grinned. “Want to go back there? Just for an hour or two?”
“We’ve moved on,” argued Arthur. “We don’t want it to become our reality. We’re adults now, and we don’t need to go back again.”
“You’re right,” said Cobb, He glanced over at the laughing, innocent children in the corner. He sighed and added, “But the kids should.”
The others nodded. Eames turned his head and called, “Bridge, James, Philly, come over here!” The kids ran up to him, eyes sparkling. Arthur watched with a fond smile as he leant forward.
“Now, little sunflowers, we’re going to go on an outing today,” he whispered. “We’re going to a place where the sun is always shining and the cotton candy sticks are absolutely gigantic!”
He glanced at Arthur and smiled, knowing that they’d never forget. “We’re going to a place,” he finished softly, “where dreams come true.”