I've received several questions about this, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the stories we cover, so I've decided to address this in a proper post in the hopes that it will put an end to the unnecessary questions.
I am going to talk about the nature of my relationship with Eames.
Yes, we live together and no, we are not romantically involved. And no, that does not mean you can have him, because I will happily shoot the first person who tries to take him from me.
People seem to struggle to understand this, but it makes perfect sense to me. Just like it makes perfect sense to Eames.
People say co-dependency like it's a dirty word. I simply have this to say: if you want to take on a shambling horde of the reanimated dead on your own, be my guest. Eames is an idiot, but he knows how to take care of himself. Without him, I wouldn't have been able to write half the articles I have, and I'm not stupid enough to take that for granted.
Nor am I willing to risk what we have. I pride myself on telling the truth, so I will say this much. We’ve had our moments, where all we would have needed is a little push. Maybe, if we’d ever acted on them, this would be an entirely different post. Yes, we are attracted to each other. Yes, we spend a vast majority of our time together.
No, we are not stupid enough to let that interfere with our work.
Thank you, and please stop asking.
—From Paradox, the blog of Arthur Wolff, July 30, 2040.
It’s interesting, Arthur thinks, how something can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time.
He leans back in his chair, toes braced on the floor, hand braced on his keyboard. There’s nothing to do, really, but wait. He holds his breath, counts the seconds in his head, and does just that. He waits.
Of course, Eames is the first to notice the article. It’s no surprise, when he was expecting it. Still, of all the people will who read it, of all the opinions they will have, this is the one that matters the most to Arthur. Eames hasn’t read the several drafts Arthur has made of this one article. He hasn’t seen the notes, scribbled into Arthur’s notebook, crossed out, rewritten and reordered. He doesn’t need to see any of it to know how much Arthur has struggled to write this. Eames has had no input in the article, because he trusts Arthur to say things as they are. It’s what Arthur does. It’s his job as a Newsie, reporting the unfiltered truth, but Arthur had picked the job in the first place for a good reason. It’s just the way he is, and Eames knows that, better than anybody else.
Eames’ only reaction when he’s done reading is to nod. It’s just a subtle movement, as natural as a breath. The only reason Arthur notices is because he’s watching for it. The gesture, as small as it is, fills Arthur with relief. It’s not often that he needs Eames’ approval on anything he writes. Those years are long behind them, but this is personal. This is about them and it had been the first time Arthur can remember being unsure of what Eames will think.
His thoughts must show, because Eames flashes him a grin. It’s meant to be reassuring, but Arthur can only manage the smallest quirk of his lips in response. They’ve been with each other for so long that there’s no need for words. The silence between them is comforting in its own way, disturbed only by the low humming of the several computers set up in the office and the music blaring from Ariadne’s headphones.
At that precise moment, Ariadne’s music stops, the ensuing silence filling the entire room. Arthur and Eames look at each other, both of them knowing what is coming.
“Whoa.” Ariadne turns in her chair, pulling her earphones out of her ears. She looks between the two of them with a broad grin on her face. “You know, I always did wonder when we’d get any actual facts about what’s going on with you guys.”
“Well, there you go,” Arthur says simply. He turns away from her, his gaze already sliding back to his computer screen, where he can see the hit counter for their site steadily rising. He sighs quietly, uncomfortable even though he’d known not to expect any different.
“It would be different, if you didn’t go into the field, right?” Ariadne asks. Arthur had known to anticipate her questions too, and he’s prepared himself for them. Still, nothing can stop the strange tightness in his chest when she says, “If you didn’t have to worry about it interfering with your work, then you could be together.”
Eames clears his throat, picking up on Arthur’s discomfort. “Ariadne, why don’t you start getting the van ready for that trip we wanted to take out to Santa Cruz?”
“Now?” Ariadne is clever enough to know when the subject is being changed, and why. She’s also clever enough to play along. Tapping at her keyboard with one hand, she logs out of her computer and gets to her feet. “Okay. I’ll go and find Yusuf.”
Arthur waits until she’s out of the room before glancing in Eames’ direction. “Thank you.”
Eames simply smiles in reply. Without looking away from Arthur, he asks in a low voice, “How do you feel? Is it any different, now that it’s out in the open?”
With a laugh that is a touch shakier than Arthur would like, he shakes his head. “Why would it be? It’s been five years, to the date, since we realised that we have… this. Since we decided that it was better not to act on it. We’ve been dealing with it for so long. Why would it feel any different now, just because we’ve acknowledged it to other people?”
Eames raises an eyebrow at Arthur’s words, but says nothing as he logs out of his computer. Arthur folds his arms across his chest, suddenly and inexplicably defensive. Eames only gives him an amused look and Arthur opens his mouth to ask what’s so amusing, when Ariadne calls to them from the other room.
“If you’re planning on riding in the open, I’m not letting you out of the house until you’re both suited up,” she informs them. Not that either of them are stupid enough to wander into zombie territory without making sure they’re properly armoured, but it takes time to put it all on. If they want to get moving soon, they don’t have the time to stand around, but Arthur is far too aware of just how sharp Ariadne is to believe that her timing is just by chance.
“We’re getting ready,” he calls back, briefly catching his reflection in the blank monitor of his computer. His expression is mostly blank, but he can spot his own tells and that means that Eames can, too. He glances over his shoulder at Eames, who is still watching him. “You try and skimp on your armour and I’m kicking your ass before Ariadne even gets to tell you off.”
“I’m an Irwin, Arthur,” Eames complains, even though his eyes are smiling. “You can’t make a career out of poking at undead things and then expect views when you go out armoured from head to toe.”
Rolling his eyes, Arthur leads the way upstairs, to the section of the house they use as a living area rather than a workspace. He and Eames have extended their rooms into one, joined by a sliding screen that they can open or close whenever they want. It’s kept open most of the time, because they know each other well enough to know when to keep to themselves. Arthur walks into their room, walking straight to Eames’ closet and pulling the doors open.
“Here,” he says, pulling out an assortment of clothing. He drops the Kevlar vest, reinforced jacket and gloves on Eames’ bed. “These are non-negotiable. If you’re clever, you’ll wear something more protective than cargos. If hell feels like freezing over, you’ll wear goggles for once.”
“Sorry.” Eames smiles, not looking apologetic in the least. “If I’m going to be recording videos, they’ll need to see my face.”
“I’m sure your viewers are clever enough to know it’s you anyway,” Arthur says dismissively, going to his own closet and pulling his assortment of body armour out.
“Ah, but it’s important to connect with them. Besides, would you turn down the chance to look at this face?”
Arthur’s hands falter, and Eames falls silent, turning to him.
“You’re sure that nothing’s changed—”
“Of course,” Arthur interrupts heatedly. His grip tightens on the jacket in his hands, and he holds Eames’ gaze.
With a quiet chuckle, Eames reaches for the screen that separates their rooms. “Five years, Arthur. Five years of this, and several years more of knowing each other, and you’re still absolutely rubbish at lying to me.”
Eames leads the way out on his bike. It’s one that he’s built mostly from scratch, with a light frame for speed and cameras mounted on the front so he can record on the go. It’s the reason that both Ariadne and Arthur are so insistent that Eames wears enough protective gear, because he’s the most vulnerable of them all. Yet, there’s something inherent in all Irwins that drives them to go looking for trouble—especially when it gets people to watch.
Ariadne and Yusuf are better protected, following behind Eames in the team’s van. It’s heavily armoured and acts as their base of operations when they’re not back at the house, and it has enough cameras built in to get a clear picture at any angle. It’s Yusuf’s pride and joy, as he’s the one who has made all the modifications to it.
Arthur brings up the rear on his own bike. He’s customised it rather than building it, so it’s sleeker than Eames’ and much sturdier. It has an engine that lets him match Eames in speed, and although neither of them are wearing helmets, Arthur is at least wearing his sunglasses. He’s heard enough stories about people undergoing amplification just from a zombie spitting in their eyes that a pair of glasses with a light tint to them are up there among the things he’ll never go into the open without, just like his Kevlar vest.
When the Kellis-Amberlee virus first started turning people into the shambling, mindless monsters of the old horror films, the facts were not handled well. The initial news reports had dismissed the Rising as nothing more than a large-scale prank, and this had cost more than just lives.
There are still entire countries that haven't been reclaimed, more than thirty years later. Places that hadn't been able to fight back with enough force and found themselves overwhelmed. America has such cities; zombie territory, surrounded by a buffer of ghost towns that aren’t inhabited by humans, but are routinely cleaned out with enough fire power that the zombies don’t take them either.
They’re travelling through a ghost town now, decaying buildings and barren earth, all covered in scorch marks. If there are any infected stragglers hiding among the rusting metal here, they’re too isolated and probably too underfed to pose a real threat. Not that this stops Arthur from pulling his gun out the moment he sees a zombie emerging from the ruins. It's slow and decomposing with every step it takes. Arthur's suppressor keeps the gun from alerting any others to their presence, and he keeps riding onwards once he sees the zombie fall.
“Perfect headshot, as usual,“ Yusuf says approvingly. “Rear and side cameras caught that one. I’ll make sure it's nice and edited so we can add it to your field report later.“
“Oh, you love reminding everyone that you’re the fearless Newsie, don’t you Arthur?“ Eames joins in on the communication link.
“Just the way you love playing up the senseless Irwin,“ Arthur replies, holstering his gun again.
“Guys, if you’re going to start with the banter, at least wait until we’ve got a live feed going. The audience loves it—and I’m pretty sure they’ll like it even more now.“
Arthur is silent, his brows furrowing, but Eames says, “Do it.“
“What?“ the other three ask, all at once.
“The live feed,“ Eames replies, just as casual as always. “You think it will get us more hits, so do it.“
No one says anything for a long moment, until Arthur speaks up. “Fine. Once we’re in zombie country.“
Eames’ laugh is quiet and bitter. “Arthur, the whole damn world is zombie country.“
Several things have changed since the Rising. For one, people don’t go out as much during the day, and not at all during the night. Zombies have better night vision than humans do, and it’s a risk that only the stupid or the unfortunate take. Most people live in secure, gated communities that require at least two blood tests to get in or out of. And traditional media has lost its good reputation. It’s no longer trusted the way it was in the days before Kellis-Amberlee. It’s why there are blogs all over the internet, run by teams like Inception, reporting the news, talking about the state of the world. It's Arthur's job, as the head Newsie, to remain detached and objective—a job that he is sometimes told that he does too well. The Irwins like Eames are all about making the best of a bad situation. Fictionals, like Ariadne, are extremely popular when they’re as talented as she is, softening the harsh reality of the world by providing an escape through their art.
Yusuf is their glorified technical support, maintaining their servers, keeping their cameras functioning, and editing anything that requires it. He’s also got the added bonus of having the same level of weapons training the rest of them do. The law dictates that trips such as these cannot be made without the right license. It essentially equates to requiring that they can all make accurate headshots with the vast assortment of weapons they carry with them, and if it means having an extra pair of eyes and another person to shoot at the zombies, none of them are complaining.
“We’re almost there,” Eames says, breaking the silence that has settled between them. “If you’re going to set up a feed, you’d best get started now.”
“Right,” Yusuf replies. “I’ll check that your picture’s clear.”
“Of course it is.” The confidence in Eames’ tone is justified. The arguably fun part of his job is the part where he goes head-first into trouble armed with a crowbar or whatever else he has at hand. The business part is making sure that his cameras catch everything in great detail.
“Arthur?” Ariadne asks. “What about you?”
“What about me?” he returns the question.
“Are we setting up a live feed for you too? Of course, it would be so much easier to set up the cameras and mics if either of you ever wore helmets—”
“Save it,” Arthur interrupts. There’s a good reason he doesn’t bother with a helmet; if he falls off his bike in the middle of a horde of zombies, cracking his head open would be the best possible outcome. “I don’t need to record anything live. You’ll get my voice on Eames’ feed and that’s enough.”
Ariadne doesn’t say anything else and they continue forward in silence, save for the sound of Yusuf checking recording settings with Eames.
Although they all have blogging licenses that allow them deeper into zombie territory, they drive a few miles in and stop. It’s pointless to court any more trouble than strictly necessary, and with Arthur’s latest blog post, they won’t need to worry about drawing traffic to their site for a while yet. They’re here because none of them are fond of sitting idle, and as much as they insist that Eames is their resident thrill-seeker, there’s only so long that any of them can resist the siren song of danger.
“Do you hear anything?” Ariadne asks once they’ve stopped the van.
“Just picking up the normal levels of background noise,” Eames reports, glancing around the area. They don’t hear the tell-tale moaning of an approaching horde, but there’s definitely not the pin-drop silence that warns of an even bigger group. Revving his bike, Eames takes his favourite crowbar out of its built-in holder. “Let’s go find some fun.”
The zombies aren’t hard to find, especially when Eames is so well-versed in rounding them up. As mindless as they are individually, they only become smarter as their numbers increase. It’s one of the main reasons that it’s so difficult to survive a large-scale attack, but Eames has found a small group of three. Enough to keep their audience entertained, but not enough to pose a real threat. He drives small circles around them, crowbar prodding at them enough to irritate them. They’re all old and decaying, their bodies close to failing. Even if the Kellis-Amberlee virus keeps them going after their first death, there’s only so much food to sustain them in a remote area like this, where there’s hardly any fresh meat to feed on. Eventually, they decompose and they die, for good the second time. The closer they get to their second deaths, the more sluggish they are, faces sagging and limbs no longer co-operating.
It makes Eames bold—bolder than he normally is. He gets too close to the zombies for Arthur’s comfort, riding into their reach before circling back out. Where Eames has built-in cameras, Arthur’s attached small screens to his bike, allowing him to monitor the site’s statistics on the go. He can see that Eames’ antics—maniacal laughter and all—are definitely making the watchers happy, but that doesn’t ease his worry at all.
Arthur revs his bike, and even though Eames’ engine is the louder one, he captures the zombies’ attention as he makes a big circle around them. He scans the area for any lurking zombies that would turn this from a manageable situation into something far more serious.
“Nobody likes a show-off, darling!” Eames calls after him cheerfully, and Arthur can hear him both in the physical distance between them as well as over their communication link.
“Aaand the forums have just gone crazy,” Ariadne announces, her tone thick with amusement.
Eames laughs loudly. “I didn’t even mean it like that, you know. But if you all really want me to start on the pet names, my favourite one is—”
Arthur cuts in before he can continue. “I feel it’s appropriate to remind you that I do have a loaded gun in my hand.”
“—Stick In The Mud, of course,” Eames finishes, and even if Arthur can’t see it, he can hear the grin.
“Just tell me when you’re done with your new friends,” Arthur says, arcing around in a wider circle to make sure the area is as secure as it can get. “I know you like to occasionally feel that you’re more intelligent than the people around you.”
“Oh, you’ll pay for that later,” Eames says in a low, playful growl. It’s the kind of threat he’s made countless times before, but this time, accompanied by the sharp spike in activity Arthur can see on his portable screen, it sends a strange jolt right to his stomach.
“Whatever,” he mutters, as dismissively as he can manage, and pretends not to notice the way that Eames briefly glances in his direction.
I grew up much the same way as most of you did, my dear readers. In a small neighbourhood with high, impenetrable fences around the perimeter, where playgrounds are illegal because they would lower the safety rating of the entire place. The only friends I had were either the people who lived in the houses around me, or the ones that I met on the internet.
I ask you, what kind of life is this? I know you‘ll say that Mal, it‘s just the way things are. It is what I‘ve been told my entire life, every single time I’ve asked this question. In response, I say only this:
Aren‘t you bored? Because I was. I had been, for years, and that‘s why I'm an Irwin. It‘s dangerous, it can be frightening, but it‘s definitely not boring. If I‘m going to die, I‘m not going to die huddled up in my house, too afraid to go outside. I‘m going to go out with a bang.
—Originally published in Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, the blog of Mallorie Cobb, July 22, 2037.
The house that Arthur and Eames live in is a two-storey structure that was built pre-rising. It’s had to undergo heavy modifications to be even remotely legal to live in. The windows are no longer large enough for anything that has undergone viral amplification to fit through—nothing over the size of a common house cat is considered safe anymore—and even then, whatever is left of the glass has been reinforced with metal bars.
The entirety of the bottom floor is open to all members of the Inception team, with individual work stations for each of them. Most people are squeamish about spending extended amounts of time in any area with a safety rating lower than Grade 10—or Grade 9, if they’re particularly attached to the idea of leaving the house on a regular basis—and this is a Grade 7 area. It lacks all the security gates and blood tests that most neighbourhoods prefer, but it’s quieter. Arthur and Eames had bought it the moment they could afford something outside of the Grade 9 neighbourhoods they’d grown up in. It’s much cheaper than the more secure housing, even though it’s built to be just as sturdy. Many blogging teams prefer to have their base of operations somewhere much safer, but no one gets into Inception by being afraid of a little danger.
After being out in the field, the easiest way to get back into the house is through the garage. Entering the actual house requires a series of tests, starting with the house’s built-in security system verifying their identities and ending with blood tests for all of them. Because Arthur and Eames have been outside and actually exposed to areas with lower safety ratings, they need to decontaminate before they do anything else. Arthur leads the way up the stairs, claiming the bathroom first. Decontamination showers are quick, but never enjoyable. No matter what, being sprayed with bleach for thirty seconds can never be anything but unpleasant. When the warm spray of water takes over, Arthur quickly scrubs himself clean, getting out of the shower as soon as he can. Bleach baths come hand-in-hand with good skin moisturisers and Arthur grabs the bottle that Eames had bought for him some time ago—something with a vague, earthy scent to it. It serves its purpose, and Eames still seems pleased whenever he smells it on Arthur. If he truly wants, Arthur can pretend that his actions never have anything to do with making Eames happy, but they’ve been living together for years and it’s honestly not worth the effort anyway.
“Shower’s yours,” Arthur announces as he opens the door, dressed in his freshly sterilised clothes. He’s learned to look for the small quirk to Eames’ lips as they pass each other by, and he can hear the deep breath that Eames takes. He eyes the blond in Eames’ hair—a result from the constant bleaching—and self-consciously runs a hand over his own hair. “And once we no longer have company, I really need to get the dye out.”
Eames chuckles warmly. “I do make a better blond than you.”
“Oh, just look at you,” Arthur mutters, his mouth deciding not to consult his brain first. “I’m sure you could pull anything off.”
Eames raises an eyebrow, and his hands flex at his sides like he’s holding himself back. Of course he is, Arthur thinks, with only a touch of bitterness. They’re always holding themselves back.
“I should go and take that shower. Before you end up needing another one.”
Arthur knows that Eames only means that he’s going to need to be decontaminated all over again if Eames touches him before showering. That doesn’t stop other possible meanings from running through his mind. It must be the same for Eames, because he coughs quietly and turns away without a word, shutting the bathroom door behind him.
Arthur goes to his computer desk, briefly checking their site’s traffic as he waits for Eames. He can go back downstairs by himself and he probably should, considering that Ariadne and Yusuf are both waiting down there, neither of them needing to shower when they hadn’t left the van. They’re familiar with the house anyway, so they’ve probably already made themselves at home. Besides, it’s a habit to wait for Eames to be done, and he’s certainly not going to slink off downstairs instead of facing… this. Whatever it is between them that has already become so much more difficult to ignore.
Eames doesn’t take long in the shower. Arthur is done glancing through the comments on his post and he turns his screen off, getting to his feet. Eames leads the way down the stairs, to the lounge area where Ariadne and Yusuf are waiting. Except when they get there, Eames stops in his tracks. Arthur side-steps, just barely stopping himself from walking right into Eames’ back, and looks up.
Sitting there, in one of the plush single-seaters with a look of mild apprehension on his face, is Dominick Cobb.
“Oh look, Arthur.” Eames’ voice is suddenly colder. “It seems that we never did get around to changing the locks.”
“Eames,” Arthur says softly, not quite a protest, but a request for him to back down. In a louder voice, he addresses Cobb, “What are you doing here?”
“I saw your recent post.” Cobb tries to smile, but it fades quickly. “Mal knew all along, you know. She’d get frustrated sometimes, waiting for the two of you to just admit it.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Arthur straightens up, folding his arms across his chest. At a glance, he looks every part the leader of Inception, clearly not in the mood for any nonsense or time-wasting. But all the members in the room know better than that. They were all there, back when Cobb was the head of the team, along with Mal. There are several reasons that Arthur and Eames are now in charge, and none of them have any good memories attached to them.
“And I see you just got back from the field…”
“Cobb.” Arthur’s tone is sharp. “Do you have a reason for being here? A good one?”
Cobb’s shoulders slump as he stops trying to act so casual. There’s still a hopeful look in his eyes when he says, “I found us a job.”
“Us?” Eames asks incredulously, before Arthur can even speak. “Us?”
“I’m still on the team,” Cobb points out, a touch of authority in his tone that harks back to the old days, before everything went downhill. “You’ve got me on the payroll. I still contribute to the site.”
“Only because Arthur couldn’t kick you out,” Eames spits. “Only because Arthur still has some kind of loyalty to you, after you—”
“That’s enough,” Arthur interrupts. Ariadne and Yusuf are sitting silently on the three-seater, watching as Arthur and Eames stand in the doorway. He looks at them and doesn’t even need to say anything before they eagerly get up and leave, going to hide—and probably eavesdrop—in the other room. He crosses the room and sits down on the recently vacated couch. “What kind of job?”
“I was contacted by a man who wishes to remain anonymous until we accept the job. Fischer-Morrow has come across some old, pre-Rising technology that they want to upgrade and mass-market. It doesn’t sit well with our prospective employer. He wants us to dig up some dirt on it.”
Arthur is silent as he considers this. Fischer-Morrow is one of the biggest entertainment companies around. In a world where most people are too afraid to venture beyond their front doors, entertainment companies are thriving, and few are doing better than the legendary Fischer-Morrow. They release everything from high-tech gadgets to simple toys, keeping the public happy indoors.
“Let me guess,” Eames says, sitting down beside Arthur. “You’ve been contacted by a business rival who worries that this might give Fischer-Morrow the edge. What’s our real job? Digging for dirt so this rival can then expose Fischer-Morrow for what it truly is, effectively stopping the production of whatever new toy they’re making and allowing… oh, let me see, Proclus Global to remain in the market?”
Cobb’s mouth drops open, and Arthur can’t help the pride and awe that surges through him.
“Don’t feel bad, Cobb, it wasn’t that hard. Of the three entertainment companies in constant competition, we all know for a fact that Cobol doesn’t get along with you. That leaves Proclus. So who contacted you, and what do they really want?”
With a heavy sigh, Cobb leans back in his chair. “It was Shuuya Saito, the CEO of the company. I’ve had some correspondence with him before because of other stories I’ve covered for him, but he isn’t looking to benefit himself, here. He genuinely does sound worried about whatever technology Fischer-Morrow has gotten their hands on. He can’t investigate himself, which is why he’s asking us to do it for him. He already has some spies placed within Fischer-Morrow, so he can get us in as a press team. We go in under the guise of covering a story on the company due to Maurice Fischer’s poor health. Once we’re in, we start looking for the information we’re really after.. He said he’ll cover all of our expenses.”
Eames snorts. “So now we’re doing corporate espionage, too? I don’t know what you owe Saito, but I don’t see why you need to drag the rest of us into this.”
“You’re the best,” Cobb says simply. “Arthur is famous for his no-nonsense approach to getting information. You can charm the truth out of anyone before they even realise what’s happening. If I went in by myself, I wouldn’t just look suspicious for being on my own, I also wouldn’t be even half as successful as we would as an entire team. Come on, this is the kind of job that you’re really after. Not driving around in Grade 4 areas in the hopes of getting good footage.”
Arthur looks at his feet, not knowing what to say. He’s intrigued, but this requires a lot more thought before he can commit to anything. Especially if it involves the rest of the team as well. Even if Ariadne and Yusuf are listening in from the other room, that’s not enough to make a proper decision right now.
Luckily for Arthur, Eames knows him well enough to tell all of this from the line of his shoulders. “We’ll think about it, and let you know.”
Cobb sighs, clearly relieved. “Thank you.”
Lifting his head, Arthur jerks his chin in the direction of the door. “You know the way out. Next time you come over, let us know in advance.”
“Or better yet, don’t,” Eames mutters under his breath, as Cobb rises to his feet and leaves. Arthur elbows him in the side and Eames huffs. “What? Tell me you weren’t thinking the same thing.”
“I know you don’t like him, but he’s still Cobb,” Arthur replies. “For whatever that’s worth, now.”
“You heard him,” Yusuf says. “All expenses paid. Why would we turn that down?”
“Maybe because this is Dominick fucking Cobb we’re talking about, here.” Eames paces angrily, arms folded across his chest. “I don’t trust him.”
Ariadne looks to Arthur for input. He’s sitting at the table in the middle of their work room, his head in his hands, and he simply sighs. He’d be lying if he said that he hadn’t seen Eames’ stubbornness coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him to deal with.
“Well, Cobb did mention that it gives us the opportunity to cover a real story for once,” Ariadne points out. “And I remember that even back in the days when I wasn’t part of the core team, that’s something that you guys were always after. There are bloggers everywhere, but it takes something special to be recognised as a team that can cover serious events. Think of the amount of exposure we’d get if we covered Fischer-Morrow. And it’s not just one small story that would fade away, either. Cobb said that Saito can get us into Fischer-Morrow. I don’t know who his spies are, but I’m pretty sure that if he wants us to do some digging, he’s going to make sure we’re around for a while, and that we’re fairly close to the people at the top. That’s definitely going to work in our favour.”
“Ariadne’s right,” Arthur says, sending her a grateful look for saying exactly what he was thinking.
Eames turns around, his brow creased. “Et tu, Arthur?”
“Look, I’m not taking sides between you and Cobb. We’re better than that. I called this meeting so we can actually weigh the pros and cons of taking this job. Regardless of how it’s been offered to us. Yes, Cobb is going to be with us, but we can work with that. It’s not the end of the world.”
“Have you forgotten what he did?” Eames asks. “Or what he didn’t do?”
“I am never going to forget,” Arthur snaps. “So you can stop pretending that you’re the only one who cares. We all loved Mal, and she deserved a proper death. Cobb couldn’t give it to her, but at least you did. What’s done is done.”
Eames takes half a step backwards, his shoulders no longer hunched. He sits down at the table, at Arthur’s right, and it’s enough of an apology.
There’s a good reason Eames doesn’t like Cobb. Originally, Inception had been a blogging team run by Dominick and Mallorie Cobb. Dom had been a great Newsie, clever and relentless in his pursuit for the truth. Arthur had looked up to him, and had worked with him for years. Mal had been one of the best Irwins out there: fearless, entertaining and beautiful, she had won all kinds of awards for her work, including two Golden Steve-O’s. She had been Eames’ mentor, the way Dom had been Arthur’s, and they’d been close friends.
So on the day that Mal’s field blood test came up positive, it had broken all of their hearts. She had sobbed until the Kellis-Amberlee had dried her tear ducts, begging for her husband to shoot her before she turned completely, before the virus made her forget who she was. Dom had just stood there, rooted to the spot, shaking his head as if he could deny reality with enough determination. He hadn’t even reached for his gun, no matter how much Mal pleaded with him.
In the end, it had been Eames who fired the shot. By then, Mal’s pupils had dilated all the way open, giving her the unnatural stare of the infected. The bullet struck between her eyes, and her body had fallen to the ground. By then, she wouldn’t have remembered who they were. She wouldn’t even have remembered her own name.
Eames hates Cobb for not being able to make the killing shot. It’s a reality that anyone who lives in their world needs to accept. It’s something that needs to be treated as an eventuality, by the ones who go out into the field. Especially for Irwins. For the partners, friends and team mates of Irwins. Arthur would know. A world without Eames isn’t a place he wants to live in, but he’s a realist. The majority of Irwins don’t stop working because they retire, they stop because they die.
Since Mal’s death, Cobb’s mental health has seriously deteriorated. Eames isn’t aware of it, but Arthur knows that Saito—who had been an acquaintance of the Cobbs for years—had used his considerable influence to make sure the Child Protective Services didn’t hand custody of Phillipa and James to Mal’s parents. That alone is enough to make Cobb willing to comply with Saito’s wishes, and while it makes Arthur apprehensive, he also knows that this is too good an opportunity to pass up.
“It’s bloody three against one, isn’t it?” Eames grumbles, resting his chin in his hand. “Four against one if you’re counting Cobb. Might as well go ahead and announce your decision.”
“That’s not how we work.” Arthur gives Eames a sharp look. “If we’re doing this, it has to be something that we’re all willing to do. If you aren’t happy doing this, we won’t do it.”
“You could just—”
Arthur shakes his head before Eames can even finish. “I’m not going without you.”
Yusuf looks at Ariadne and shrugs. “That’s it then, right? That’s our decision.”
“No.” Eames doesn’t look at them, but instead, he’s watching Arthur. Neither of them look away from each other, and Eames sighs quietly. “You’re right. This is a good opportunity for us and I’m not going to let my stubbornness get in the way of that. I just have one condition.”
Arthur smiles, and it’s one of those smiles he saves for Eames. The kind that he usually doesn’t let other people see at all. “I’ll keep Cobb away from you.”
Eames nods, his fingers skimming across the back of Arthur’s hand. “Thank you.”
Arthur looks at Ariadne, who is glancing between him and Eames unashamedly. “Do me a favour and contact Cobb, will you? Let him know that we’ll take the job. Take your time—he won’t be back home for a while, anyway.”
Ariadne salutes him, not bothering to hide her grin of excitement. Arthur doesn’t try to hide his, either.
…They run, following the winding path, not daring to look back. They can’t bear to see the faces they recognise, changed, unfamiliar, blank, hungry.
They cry, because their fallen companions cannot. They scream, and are answered with dull moans.
They stop, realising at they’ve made a wrong turn. Three walls, and their approaching death, shuffling one foot at a time.
Like looking into a mirror, they think to themselves, made of carnival glass.
—From Labyrinthine, the blog of Ariadne Evans, August 5, 2040.
The Fischer-Morrow building is massive. It towers over all the other buildings nearby and its lobby is a pristine white, once you pass the three blood tests it takes to actually get through the sliding doors made of bullet-proof glass. Arthur leads the way, but even he can’t help looking around in awe. The entertainment industry is thriving just as well as the arms industry, and it shows. At the reception desk, the employees go on with their work as cheerfully as ever. It makes Arthur wonder if they’re even aware that several storeys above their heads, their boss is dying a slow death.
When they’d accepted the job offer, Cobb had organised a meeting with Saito. They’d been briefed on all that they needed to know; Maurice Fischer, the CEO of the company, was an old man nearing the end of his days. He’d already battled cancer once, pre-Rising, before the Kellis-Amberlee virus spread like wildfire, wiping out cancer and the common cold, leaving the reanimated dead in its wake instead. Now, his immune system was finally failing him and his son Robert was unwilling to put him out of his misery. From Saito’s sources, Maurice Fischer spent the majority of his time either in his hospital bed at home, or the hospital bed they’d set up in his office.
One of Saito’s spies was attached to the PR department, and had convinced the higher-ups to allow a team to cover the story of Fischer-Morrow, as a tribute to Maurice Fischer while he was still alive. It gives them the perfect excuse to get to know the company and its projects in great detail. With any luck, they’ll find some good information on the new project—some kind of virtual reality device that allowed lucid dreaming. The technology had been in progress by the military before the Rising, but when the outbreaks started, it had been benched while the military dealt with more serious problems. They hadn’t gone back to it, and the PASIV device had been left unfinished—until now.
Arthur is intrigued, and Eames even more so. Saito had expressed his reservations about such a device, and while it’s understandable, Arthur just wants to find out whatever he can about it first. After that, he can deal with whatever it is that Saito wants them to do.
Saito’s spies are all too low in the company’s hierarchy to get any information of this scale, but it also means that they don’t rouse suspicion. One of these men—Tadashi—is sent down to greet them. He leads them up to a small conference room that has temporarily been converted into a makeshift office for them.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” he says, as they set up their laptops. “Fischer senior is unable to meet you in person, but his son Robert will be able to see you sometime around eleven o’clock.”
“You’re telling me we came all the way here just to wait for two hours?” Eames asks, tugging at his tie. “This is ridiculous.”
“Stop fiddling with your tie.” Arthur lightly smacks Eames’ hands away, replacing them and doing his tie up properly. “We have two hours to prepare a good approach to this story. We don’t have to ask Fischer a barrage of questions. If we ease him into it, he’ll be more likely to actually want to talk to us.”
“This is ridiculous,” Eames repeats, and pulls his tie off, scrunching it up and shoving it into his laptop bag.
All of them are used to wearing practical clothes for the field; cargos, t-shirts, vests… not suits. They all had to go out and buy suits to fit into this environment, and Arthur feels entirely different in his three-piece suit. It’s not an unpleasant feeling. The way his vest clings to him is comforting enough that he can ignore the fact that it isn’t made of Kevlar. He still has his favourite Glock on him, because corporate environment or not, it’s plain stupid to go anywhere unarmed.
Eames looks good in his suit. With the tie off and his collar unbuttoned, Arthur can see one of Eames’ tattoos peeking out from beneath his shirt. Arthur doesn’t really understand why it catches his attention when he’s seen all of Eames’ tattoos and had been there when he’d gotten every single one. Still, his eyes linger over Eames’ collar until he remembers to look away.
Ariadne clears her throat, grinning at Arthur, earning a scowl from him. It had been a fight to get her into a skirt, and she’d flat-out refused to wear heels. Arthur had made Cobb back off—Ariadne owed him for that.
“So, how are we going to get on Robert Fischer’s good side?” she asks, looking around at the others. They’ve already decided not to directly discuss what they’re really after unless they’re in the safety of Arthur and Eames’ house. If Saito has spies within Fischer-Morrow, it’s only reasonable to suspect Fischer-Morrow to be listening in on their conversations. Considering that it would be too suspicious of them to find and remove the bugs, they simply have to work around the fact.
“I’ll leave him to Eames when he gets here.” Arthur stands at the head of the table, subtly asserting the fact that he’s the one in charge here. “If any of us are good at getting the measure of someone, it’s Eames. He can ask Fischer the easy questions first, the ones he’s used to answering. How his father is, how he’s holding up, those kinds of things.”
“And once I’ve got a good idea of how to properly approach him,” Eames adds, “we’ll do that.”
“I like the sound of this,” Cobb says, nodding approvingly.
“Didn’t ask for your opinion, did I?” Eames asks, and though he keeps his tone completely calm, his expression clearly says otherwise.
Cobb raises both his hands in the air placatingly. “No need to be so hostile. We’re all a team, here.”
“No need, you say,” Eames laughs bitterly, rising to his feet.
“Eames!” Arthur grabs Eames by the collar of his jacket, pulling him into the far corner of the room. Eames’ eyes are clouded over with anger and Arthur growls under his breath. “I am not taking sides, so don’t you dare start accusing me.”
“You’re the one who said it, not me,” Eames replies with a nasty smile.
As much as Eames means to him, there are times when Arthur wants nothing more than to punch him in the face. Repeatedly.
“Look, I know you don’t like him, but here, we need to present a cohesive team. You think Fischer’s going to warm to us if we can’t even get along within our own group? I shouldn’t have to tell you this, Eames. You’re the one who understands how people think.”
With an agitated sigh, Eames looks away. “I know that. I do. It’s just…”
“Hard. I know.” Arthur lowers his voice, so that even he can barely hear himself. “If you think that I’ve forgiven Cobb for not shooting Mal before she forgot everything about who she was, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Eames places a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, looking at him without the need for words. Arthur quirks a small smile, gone as quickly as it comes, in reply.
“Hey, guys,” Ariadne says, from where she’s set up her laptop on the desk in the middle of the room. She doesn’t look up from her screen as she speaks. “I was going through the list of articles that Arthur found regarding the—the company. You might want to check this out.”
Arthur and Eames immediately cross the room, sit in front of their laptops and access the secure server that only members of Inception can reach. In Ariadne’s files, they see a copy of an old article. In fact, it’s so old that it’s dated several years before the Rising. It’s a scan of a printed document about the PASIV, which come as a surprise when Ariadne had been unwilling to discuss it out in the open.
Arthur opens the document and reads through it. From what he can tell, it’s a progress report on some kind of project. He’s the fastest reader among them, but Eames isn’t very far behind. Arthur can hear Eames’ breath hitch moments after he finds the one line that brings him to a halt as well.
“Cobb,” Arthur says slowly—before Eames can begin—and looks up at him. “When were you planning on letting us know about this?”
Cobb doesn’t say a word. In fact, Eames doesn’t speak either. He’s furiously typing away on his laptop and soon enough, a new line of text pops up on their internal chat.
Eames: When the FUCK were you going to tell us that your father-in-law was involved in the development of the PASIV?
Jonathan Miles had, in his mid-twenties, been recruited for a secretive military project only known as Project Oneiros. In select, well-protected documents, he's credited as one of the main engineers involved in the development of the earliest assisted dreaming devices.
Arthur has hacked into enough of the military’s old databases to know that if they want information on this new PASIV device, the first person they should have gone to is Cobb’s father-in-law.
“Do we have to?” Cobb asks uneasily, when they’re back at the house. Eames is reviewing the recording he’d made of his initial interview with Robert Fischer, which keeps him nice and occupied while Arthur talks to Cobb. “I haven’t seen him since…”
“Since Mr. Saito used his money to make sure you got primary custody of your children?” Arthur asks, raising an eyebrow. He knows that Mal’s mother still lives nearby, taking care of the children whenever Cobb is unable to, but Miles had moved away after Mal had died. “Face it. We have barely any information to go on, if we’re trying to find out how far Fischer-Morrow has gotten with the development of these PASIV devices. You want us to do a real job? It means that we need to do real research. That includes talking to people that you would rather avoid.”
Cobb visibly deflates, but he nods. “I’ll give him a call and see what I can do.”
From what Arthur can tell, Miles doesn’t seem the least bit enthused to be talking to Cobb. The moment that they mention assisted dream devices, however, the entire tone of the conversation changes and even Cobb seems surprised by it. Arthur only manages to pick up what Cobb says before hanging up: “Yes, it takes an hour. Sure, I’ll bring them. We’ll start right now.”
“Eames,” Arthur calls, before Cobb even hangs up.
“We’re going to visit Miles,” Cobb declares as Eames enters the room. “He asked that I bring the two of you. He said that this was the kind of information that you needed to hear.”
Eames raises an eyebrow, his antagonism for Cobb momentarily forgotten as it’s replaced by curiosity. He glances at Arthur, who simply shrugs in response.
Cobb picks up his bag. “I told him that we’ll be there as soon as possible, so we’re going to have to leave now.”
The hour’s drive is unpleasant, but Arthur is just thankful that Eames and Cobb make it to Miles’ place without completely tearing each other apart. As it is, they get out of Cobb’s armoured four-wheel drive as if they can’t get away from each other soon enough. Arthur sighs heavily, leading them to the security booth for the first of the blood tests required to actually get through the gates of the secure little village. Five minutes and countless needle pricks later, they’re finally walking to Miles’ door. He’s standing there waiting for them, and greets Arthur and Eames like old friends. He’s noticeably colder to Cobb, only nodding in greeting to him before ushering them all inside.
He’s already got tea waiting for them, pouring four cups before sitting down at his dining table. “So, Dom tells me that you’re trying to find out more about the PASIV device.”
“That’s right.” Arthur has already discussed it with Eames and Cobb in the car—they’re going to tell Miles the truth about what they’re working on, because it’s going to be the easiest way to get the information they need. “We’ve been hired by someone to take a look at Fischer-Morrow. From what they’ve heard, the company has their hands on the technology to put the PASIV into production and market it as a recreational device. Our employer wants this stopped, and we’re trying to find out exactly why he seems so keen on making sure it’s never released.”
Miles’ brows raise as he takes a long sip of his tea. “So I take it that you did your research, Arthur, and found out that I was involved in the early days of assisted dreaming? Why don’t you tell me just what it is that you’ve learned, so I can fill in the blanks?”
Arthur, prepared as he always is, takes a notebook out of his satchel and flips it open. Ignoring Eames’ huff of amusement, he glances through the notes he’s made.
“You were working on Project Oneiros before the Rising, as one of the head engineers. You successfully made a machine that allowed assisted dreaming that supported multiple people in the same dream, provided they were all hooked up to the same machine. You had made the first generation of the portable devices before the spread of Kellis-Amberlee gave the military more important things to worry about.”
“All of them were destroyed in the following chaos,” Miles says with a grimace. “I checked, once things settled down. Even after we got through the worst of it, nobody wanted to open up the project again. You said that Fischer-Morrow is going to make them again, now?”
“They must have found the information somewhere,” Eames replies, frowning. “Perhaps another person who was involved in the project?”
“They’d need to be pretty high up if they can access the files that I couldn’t hack my way into,” Arthur points out. Tapping his fingers against his teacup, he looks at Miles. “I know it’s been a long time since then, but…”
Miles smiles, clearly understanding. “I’ll see if I can remember who I worked with, and I’ll keep in touch.”
Arthur nods. “And I’ll continue digging around for more information, just in case I come across something new. Thank you.”
“So, with that out of the way,” Eames says, folding his arms on the table. “Care to tell us why you look so bloody terrified about the thought of someone releasing the PASIV to the public? Clearly, you and Saito both know something that we don’t, so why don’t you enlighten us?””
Miles shifts uncomfortably in his seat, looking down at his teacup. With a deep breath, he speaks. “We did a lot of testing with the PASIV device, even before it was released for wide-scale use in the military. It was originally created as a training device, but we allowed our test subjects to use it whenever they pleased. We thought that it would be a good way for them to become more familiar with the concept of lucid dreaming.”
“But…?” Eames prompts.
“But then we realised that there was the risk of the dreamers losing track of reality. In the dream, everything still felt real. In fact, it took a lot of training for the subjects to even remember what happened, let alone actually realise that they were dreaming in the first place.” Miles shrugs helplessly. “With all of that… when it was difficult to tell dreams from reality, some would just lose track of which was the real world, and which was the dream. They became addicted, and wanted to stay in their own dream worlds.”
“They lost track of reality,” Cobb says with wonder. “The device is really that powerful?”
“You can dream up whatever you want,” Miles declares, his tone the slightest bit sharper when he looks at Cobb. “Places. Objects. People.”
Cobb drops his gaze to his teacup without a word.
“Wait a minute,” Eames speaks up, his brow furrowed. “If people could lose track of reality then…”
“Just imagine how easy it would be in this world, post-Rising,” Arthur finishes. The thought terrifies him, and it’s clear from the look in Eames’ eyes that he’s not the only one. “At least back then, reality wasn’t such a bad thing.”
“So you understand why I’m not exactly keen on the idea of this device being made readily available,” Miles says with a strained smile.
“Do you think the higher-ups at Fischer-Morrow know about these risks?” Arthur asks, turning to Miles. “If there’s someone with access to all the files for Project Oneiros, they should be aware of all the risks…”
“…And yet, they’re going ahead with this,” Eames finishes. He gets up, beginning to pace as he thinks. “Unless they’re not the one making the call about whether or not this goes through. Arthur—who authorises the company’s projects?”
“Used to be Maurice Fischer,” Arthur replies immediately. “But since he’s been sick… his son.”
“Robert Fischer.” Eames nods. “Nice guy, if a little bratty. Comes from being in daddy’s shadow, I suppose. Anyone who reads the news would know that he doesn’t exactly get along with the old man. He’s been sheltered. Probably doesn’t know what to do in his sudden position of power. He’d be eager to listen to advice, if it’s given to him the right way. It would be far too easy to pull the wool over his eyes.”
“He’s being tricked by someone.” Arthur raises an eyebrow. “It would have to be someone he trusts. Problem is, that could be just about anyone.”
“Now we’re getting to the good bit,” Eames declares with a grin. “It’s exactly like what we were planning before. I get close to Fischer, so we can get to the bottom of this. Except instead of trying to find information about the PASIV—which we now have, thank you, Miles—we find out how much he knows, and who’s keeping the rest from him.”
“Assuming that he’s not behind all of it in the first place,” Arthur points out. He gives Eames a serious look. “You be careful.”
This time, Eames’ smile is softer, and even though there are others in the room, Arthur knows that it’s only for him. “Always, Arthur.”
I don’t really blog all that much, but I have to say that visiting the Fischer-Morrow offices has been one of the best experiences of my entire life. If you live anywhere close to it, you know the one I’m talking about. It towers over everything else and when you’re standing on the roof, you feel like you’re the king of the whole damn world.
I took photos (of course). Check out the gallery—I’ll have them up soon. I can’t describe the feeling of having all that wind in your hair and do it justice, but do me a favour. Go outside. Take a deep breath of fresh air. Pretend, for a second, that you’re free.
—From The Tech Guy, the blog of Yusuf Zaheer, August 29, 2040.
The next time Eames interviews Robert Fischer, he takes Arthur with him as well.
“We’ve decided to do the interview in his office this time,” Eames explains when they’re in the elevator, on their way up to one of the highest floors in the building. “It’ll be good to get him nice and relaxed.”
“And more cooperative,” Arthur adds. Between the two of them, interviews are more Arthur’s forte, but he has to concede that Eames is far better at reaching out to people and befriending them. With Eames taking care of that, Arthur can work on figuring out exactly how much Fischer knows about the development of the PASIV device.
“Don’t go jumping in with your questions right away,” Eames says with a small grin. “Don’t want to spook him, now.”
“I can be subtle,” Arthur murmurs, giving Eames a sidelong look.
“I don’t doubt it,” Eames chuckles fondly. “Forgive me if I’m just a little overcautious this time.”
Robert Fischer’s office is large, but minimally decorated. There’s a painting on one wall as a concession to his wealth, but everything else is functional. He’s sitting behind his mahogany desk, and there are two empty chairs waiting for them.
“Mr. Eames, Mr. Wolff.” He gets out of his seat, brushing past his personal assistant to shake their hands. “Please, sit down. Is there anything I can get for you to drink?”
“Tea,” Eames says, at the same time Arthur says, “We’re fine, thank you.”
Fischer looks between the two of them with faint amusement and looks at his assistant. “One tea. White, with one sugar, just like last time, Mr. Eames?”
“You have a good memory,” Eames smiles, and glancing at Arthur, he adds, “Arthur will have coffee. Black with two sugars, thank you.”
Arthur doesn’t protest, simply nodding in thanks to Fischer’s assistant as he leaves to prepare the drinks.
“I’m a big fan of your blog, Mr. Wolff. When I have the time to read your articles.” Fischer smiles, and it’s a little strained. “Though I haven’t had very much free time lately.”
“Because of your father’s health.” Arthur knows better than to make it a question, when the answer is so obvious. “You’ve been acting as CEO for Fischer-Morrow recently, since your father was declared ill. That must be a lot of work.”
Fischer gives them a humourless smile. “It might be, but I’m more than capable of doing it.”
“Your father never seemed to think that,” Arthur says casually. “From all the reports I’ve seen about the two of you arguing.”
“Arthur,” Eames protests, playing his part perfectly. “That’s hardly…”
“No, no, you’re right.” Fischer sighs heavily. “He never thought I could hold the company up the way he did. Honestly, he’s not the only one who thinks it. They think I can’t tell, but I can. I’m just Maurice’s spoiled kid. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve got no idea how to run a company. There are all these people who have lived through the Rising, who knew what it was like before. How can I compare to what they know?”
Fischer’s voice is steadily rising and he cuts himself off, taking a deep breath. He smiles, his expression a mask of calm, and it would be terrifying, how quickly he can switch moods, if Arthur couldn’t do the same. “I’m sorry. I get a little worked up, if I let myself dwell on it.”
“Understandable,” Eames says with a kind smile. “No need to apologise.”
“That’s absolutely right,” Arthur chimes in. “Take your time, Mr. Fischer. No need to push yourself. Especially if it’s something so unpleasant.”
“You know,” Fischer says with a small laugh, “I thought you’d be much more intimidating. When Mr. Eames told me you’d be joining us for today’s interview, I was a little hesitant.”
Arthur recognises this for what it is; Fischer’s trying to change the subject and evade the question. He decides not to point it out, and Eames chuckles warmly.
“You’re not the first one to say that, to be honest,” Eames says, giving Fischer a conspiratorial grin. “But I think you’ll find Arthur’s bark is much worse than his bite, as the old saying goes.”
Fischer laughs politely, but Arthur can tell from his eyes that he doesn’t quite get the joke. It’s understandable; not everyone has the same dated sense of humour, or interest in pre-Rising culture that Eames does. Most people can’t even imagining living with dogs; their body mass makes them amplification risks and most people aren’t the right combination of brave and stupid to continue keeping them as pets.
“Ah well,” Eames shrugs, also noting Fischer’s blank look. “Point is, Arthur’s nice, when he’s not pretending to be a prickly bastard.”
Arthur is about to retort when Fischer’s assistant returns with a tray bearing their drinks. Tea for Eames, coffee for Arthur and Fischer. Arthur resorts to glaring at Eames over his mug, and it earns him an unabashed grin.
“So.” Fischer clears his throat once he’s dismissed his assistant. “I read that post on your blog just recently, Mr. Wolff…”
Arthur sighs quietly, hoping that Fischer doesn’t notice the way his shoulders go rigid.
“I think that’s quite enough evasion from you, Mr. Fischer,” Eames speaks up, and he’s wearing a sharp smile. It’s effective; always that much more terrifying when he’s been so laid back and friendly before. Fischer swallows audibly, and Eames pauses a moment, just to let it sink in that Arthur is by no means the only one who can intimidate. “So, your position as acting CEO of the company. I know it’s unpleasant to think about all these people who think they can do your job better than you can, but you did promise us an interview.”
“Right.” Fischer gives them both a strained smile. “I’m sorry for wasting your time like this. Perhaps we can discuss it over lunch, to make it up to you?”
“I have some work to take care of,” Arthur says. “But I’m sure Eames will be more than willing to accompany you.”
Eames raises an eyebrow at Arthur, who doesn’t look at him all. Instead, Arthur is holding Fischer’s gaze, and Fischer looks away first, clearing his throat and getting to his feet.
“I’m going to see if I can make arrangements for lunch to be brought into the office.”
“What was that?” Eames asks, unbothered but curious.
“Seems that you’ve made an impression on Fischer,” Arthur mutters and he knows there’s no need to be jealous, but it doesn’t stop the slow, unpleasant twisting in his stomach. He’s sure he hides it from Eames just as well as he hides everything else. “You’ll do better here if you’re alone with him. You could encourage him to be more… forthcoming.”
Eames frowns, and his voice is softer than normal when he says, “Surely, Fischer knows that he doesn’t stand a chance.”
Arthur grimaces, and if it doubles as a grateful smile, only Eames has to know. “That doesn’t stop people from hoping, Eames. No one stops wanting things just because they can’t have them.”
“I know,” Eames says quietly, and Arthur averts his eyes because he might not have meant it that way, but he knows, too.
“I’ll be in the meeting room with the rest of the team,” Arthur tells him, standing up. “Pay attention to anything we can use. The smallest detail. I don’t need to tell you how to do your job.”
“Of course not,” Eames murmurs, and Arthur spares him one last glance before leaving.
It’s several hours before Eames returns. It means only one thing: Eames has found something worth investigating. Arthur keeps himself busy, going through the old PASIV documentation again in case there’s any information he’s missed. It’s towards the end of the day and Arthur has just finished reading an email that Miles has sent him when Eames walks into their makeshift office.
“Long day, don’t you think?” he asks, looking directly at Arthur. There’s a tension in his shoulders that says he has information he can’t share right here. Arthur is already on his feet, packing his things away. He’s curious to hear what Eames has found, and he has news of his own.
Ariadne, Yusuf and Cobb grab their bags as Arthur nods towards the door and their small talk fills the silence between Arthur and Eames as they walk shoulder to shoulder. Whatever Eames has to say, Arthur can tell that it’s important.
When they're finally in the team’s van, far from the offices of Fischer-Morrow, Eames finally clears his throat.
“I followed Fischer around for the better part of the afternoon, and despite what he may think, he’s not the one running the company. He’s the one approving everything, of course, but he’s been kept in the dark for so long that he doesn’t even realise it.” Eames wets his lips when he pauses. “It’s a pity, because Fischer trusts him so much. It’s his godfather. Maurice Fischer’s closest friend and right-hand man, Peter Browning.”
Arthur swears in a low voice. “That’s not good. I just got an email from Miles, and he sent me a list of the army personnel he remembers working with. I searched for them, but most of them are recorded to be dead or presumed deceased during the Rising. Except for Peter Browning.”
“Not good at all,” Eames says grimly. “So he’s the one behind all of this. Now what?”
“Now,” Arthur replies, looking around the van at the entire team, “we figure out how to take him down.”
By the end of the following day, they’ve made no progress on finding any useful information on Browning. He keeps to himself outside of meetings that he attends with Fischer and the rest of the board, and Eames has yet to find an excuse to follow him for some closer observation. It’s becoming a serious concern for them when, out of the blue, there’s a knock on the door of their conference room.
“Um, Arthur…?” Ariadne calls when she answers it. She glances over her shoulder, eyebrows drawn together, and Arthur is immediately on his feet, walking over to see who it is.
Standing in the doorway is Peter Browning himself, arms folded across his chest. Arthur can feel Eames standing right behind him and schools his expression into a mask of utter calm.
“Mr. Browning. This is a surprise.”
“I’m sure.” Browning gives Arthur a smile that doesn’t feel the least bit sincere. “Robert has told me about the work your little team is doing here and I thought I’d take some time out of my day to have a look for myself. It’s good to have people so dedicated to getting the story of Maurice Fischer out there, so we have something to remember him by.”
“I hear that you were best friends growing up,” Eames speaks up. He’s standing by Arthur’s side protectively, but Arthur can’t fault him for it when even he’s being set on edge by Browning’s presence.
“Indeed we were.” Browning makes his way into the room and takes a seat, reclining like he owns the place. Going by what they’ve pieced together, Arthur thinks, he pretty much does. Keeping this thought to himself, he sits down, subtly gesturing the others to sit as well.
“I’d like to assist you,” Browning says, steepling his fingers. “It makes sense for you to cover the projects we're currently working on, at Fischer-Morrow. We get some early advertising for our new products and you have exclusive information, drawing readers to your site. It would be mutually beneficial. Do we have a deal?”
Arthur and Eames look at each other, eyebrows raised, but it’s Cobb who speaks.
“That sounds almost too good to be true, sir.”
“I’m a man of my word,” Browning smiles. “In fact, if you still need to be convinced… I have an offer I don’t think you’ll turn down.”
“Alright.” Cobb folds his arms and looks at Browning expectantly. “Let’s hear it.”
“We have a select team working on a virtual reality tool that will revolutionise the entertainment industry.” Browning licks his lips. “It’s called the PASIV device, and it opens doors that no one has ever considered before. You can literally build an entire dream world with it. When it’s done, it’s what’s going to keep us at the top of the market. Your site’s ratings would be unbeatable with that kind of exclusive news.”
This time, Eames speaks before Cobb can. “That does sound incredibly enticing, but we won’t be able to make a decision without having a team meeting. We’ll give you an answer tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll be waiting for it.” Browning nods in approval, getting to his feet. “Thank you for you time.”
The moment Browning is gone, Eames turns on Cobb with fury in his eyes. “Next time you presume to speak for the team, Cobb, I would suggest that you remember one very important fact. You are not the leader of this team. That’s Arthur, and he would never make a decision for the entire team without letting everyone voice their opinions first.”
Cobb frowns. “But the answer is obvious—”
“That’s enough,” Arthur says sharply. He glances up at Ariadne and Yusuf, thankful for the way they subtly place themselves between Eames and Cobb. “Everyone pack your things. We’re going back to the house and having our meeting there. Eames, you’re riding in the front of the van with me. Cobb, you’re in the back.”
“That’s fair,” Cobb mutters sarcastically. “Just because you’re sleeping with him.”
“Can I punch him?” Eames asks, and there’s a tightness to his voice that tells Arthur that he’s just barely holding back.
“If he doesn’t have the sense to shut his mouth, I’ll punch him myself,” Arthur promises, loud enough that Cobb can hear. “Let’s go.”
The drive home is silent. Eames is tense beside Arthur, hands balled into fists, and he doesn’t need to speak for his anger to be clear. Arthur glances at him whenever possible, and from Eames’ small smile, it’s appreciated, even if it doesn’t fix anything.
It’s Yusuf who is the first to speak when they’re sitting around the dining table at the house. “So, is there a reason that we shouldn’t take Browning up on his offer? It does make our work a hell of a lot easier.”
“I don’t think it does.” This time, it’s Ariadne, shaking her head. “It’s just a way for him to keep an eye on us. Think about it. He can show us whatever he wants us to see and make us think that’s the whole story. We need to find out exactly how much Peter Browning is doing with the company behind Fischer’s back, and then figure out how to expose him.”
“The girl’s brilliant,” Eames says with a grin. “Couldn’t have said it better myself, Ariadne.”
She smiles at the praise, and then turns to Arthur. “So that’s two for going along with Browning and two against. What about you?”
“That’s not how we work,” Arthur reminds her patiently. With a sigh, he looks at Cobb, and then Eames. “I agree with Ariadne. I don’t think that Browning is making the offer out of the kindness of his own heart. Fischer-Morrow doesn’t need the exposure they’d get from our blogs. He’s presented us with a situation in which we’re the ones who clearly benefit more, and that makes me wonder exactly why he’s offering us access in the first place. He’s hiding something, and he’s making sure we won’t find any more information than we already have by keeping us right where he can see us.”
Eames nods, satisfied. “So that means—”
“But.” Arthur holds a finger up. “I think that if we make him think we’ve taken the bait, Browning will let his guard down. We go in, but we keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Browning gives us an inch, we run a mile. This is the best time for us to go looking for some proper answers.”
“So your answer is both, then,” Eames summarises, folding his arms across his chest. “Does it ever chafe, Arthur? Always sitting on the fence like that?”
“Don’t,” Arthur warns, not needing to specify. Eames has never directly made Arthur choose between him and Cobb, but sometimes, it seems far too close to it for comfort.
“Yeah,” Cobb snorts, clearly reading the rest in Arthur’s expression. “Like no one knows the answer to that question.”
“You, shut up before you get hurt,” Arthur growls, pointing a finger at Cobb. He turns on Eames, “And you, stop making this about yourself. This is a choice we need to make as a team, and we all need to agree on what we’re doing.”
It takes another half an hour, but in the end, it’s decided that they’ll play along in Browning’s little plan for them, and see how they can use it to their benefit. Then, the others are gone and it’s just Arthur, seeing them off, and Eames clearing the dining table.
“I’m sorry,” Eames murmurs, gaze fixed on the empty teacup he’s picking up from the table.
“You were angry,” Arthur replies with a small shrug.
“It’s Cobb.” Eames scowls. “He’s never done this before. Not until that blog post you made. He knows we’re not—together—and he has no right to remind us of it when we’re arguing over something entirely unrelated.”
“He’s right, though.” This time, it’s Arthur avoiding Eames’ eyes. “We might not be doing anything about the fact that we mean this much to each other, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m biased in your favour. That isn’t going to change just because Cobb thinks it’s going to make me agree with everything you’re going to say. You know yourself that it’s not the case.”
Eames chuckles warmly. “That I do.”
Arthur grins, and this moment right here is the most frustrating part of their relationship. They’re watching each other, close enough to touch, but they know that they shouldn’t. It’s just a matter of which one is strong enough to turn away first.
“Well.” Eames looks back down at the table, clearing his throat. “I’d better get these washed up.”
“Yeah.” Arthur nods lamely, following Eames with his gaze. “I’ll be reviewing your interview tapes with Fischer, alright?”
“I’ll come join you when I’m done,” Eames calls from the kitchen, and Arthur spares one last glance in his direction before going to his work station.
If there’s one thing I hate about you, Arthur, it’s the fact that even though you know my password, I know you aren’t going to read this. It’s going to sit in my drafts folder forever—until I get too damn embarrassed to keep it here any longer—and you won’t look at it once.
God, I just wish we could stop this. Stop tiptoeing around each other and just take what we both want. I wish that you’d throw caution to the wind, for this, for me.
You know how I feel, without me needing to tell you, but I promise you, Arthur, I’d never let you forget. I’d hold you carefully, I’d be gentle with you until you lost your patience with me. You’d tell me that you aren’t fragile, and I wouldn’t tell you that it has nothing to do with how delicate you feel in my arms, but how precious you are to me.
I’d give you anything you want, Arthur. I’d give you so much more than whatever it is you’re imagining when you’re in the bathroom too long and I pretend I can’t hear your soft panting. I’d fuck you through the mattress until we can’t think straight, until we can’t walk straight. I’d hold you down to the bed and see if I can get you to come with nothing more than my fingers inside you. I’d get my hands and mouth on you Arthur, and I swear, I’d never want to stop.
Bloody hell, this is pathetic. I hate us, for being too damn clever for our own good.
—From Dream A Little Bigger, the blog of David Eames, February 27, 2039. Unpublished.
Just fuck me.
Forget this stupid bullshit we keep feeding ourselves about our professional relationship and fuck me, Eames.
—From Paradox, the blog of Arthur Wolff, June 8, 2037. Unpublished.
The next day is already off to a bad start by the time the team arrives at Fischer-Morrow, when Eames announces that despite their plans to lull Browning into a false sense of security, he’s not going to join them.
“I contacted Fischer,” he tells them in the van. “He’s promised to show me around the offices in person… it seems that I’ve made quite the impression on him. I’m sure I’ll manage to convince Browning that I’m not a threat.”
Arthur’s seen it before; he’s seen Eames play the vapid reporter who flirts shamelessly with his interviewees. He hates it, but he can’t deny the fact that it’s effective. But even if it means that they’ll have someone close to Robert Fischer to figure out just how much he knows, it’s a last-minute change, and it does not make Arthur happy. He does not hesitate to let it show.
“Damn it, Eames,” he hisses. “We had a plan. We make plans for a reason.”
“Look.” Eames lowers his voice, speaking right into Arthur’s ear. “There are two ways this can go. Either I spend my day in close quarters with Cobb, pretending I’m happy about the fact that Browning’s limiting the amount of information we get and thinks he’s being so fucking clever about it. Or I stay the hell away from Cobb, no one gets punched in the face, and I get us some extra information. Which one do you prefer?”
“You’d better get us some good information,” Arthur replies with a scowl.
Eames simply laughs, patting his shoulder. “You know me, Arthur.”
With that, Eames turns to leave and Arthur sighs, preparing himself for what already feels like a long day.
By lunch time, Arthur is in desperate need of a cigarette. He doesn’t smoke much these days, but he’d started when he was younger, when Eames had offered him one with a smirk, saying, “Might as well take advantage of the fact that it’ll never give us cancer, yeah?”
It doesn’t really surprise him that when he goes up to the rooftop, Eames is already there, crushing a cigarette butt beneath his heel as he lights another.
Arthur hangs back for a moment, because it’s not often that he gets to see Eames in a suit and he certainly enjoys the view. Then he walks up to Eames, leans on the railing beside him and slants him a smile.
“I can tell your day has been nice and stress-free.”
“Arthur.” Eames’ hand comes up to rest on the small of Arthur’s back, the touch a little possessive. “I was just—fuck, am I glad to see you.”
“You were worried,” Arthur accuses, his eyes narrowing. It’s hypocritical to get irritated, he knows, but if he focuses on that, it means he doesn’t need to think about how unpleasant it is, being separated from Eames all day. Judging by the fact that Eames hasn’t moved his hand from Arthur’s back, the feeling’s mutual.
“I hate being away from you,” Eames murmurs, confirming it. He offers his lighter as Arthur pulls a cigarette out of his own crumpled carton, lighting it with an easy flick. “Nobody works with you as well as I do, and I hate the thought of you having to make do. With Cobb.”
As always, Arthur thinks of several ways that he can point out that he works well with Cobb too, that Cobb was his mentor for a long time, before everything fell apart, before Eames started hating the man. This time, however, he simply sighs and allows himself to turn into Eames’ touch just a little. “I don’t want to talk about Cobb.”
“Good.” The way Eames moves towards him is not subtle at all. “Neither do I.”
They do this sometimes. They’re both self-aware enough that they know it’s a bad idea, but when they’re stressed, when they’re on edge, there’s nothing that will calm them as much as simply being close to each other. Eames finally moves his hand away from Arthur’s back, and they lean there, against the railing on the roof of the Fischer-Morrow building, shoulder to shoulder.
Then, Eames’ hand returns, higher on Arthur’s back this time, sliding up between his shoulder blades. Arthur turns easily, not even sure where his cigarette’s gone until he shifts and feels it under his shoe. He doesn’t look down to check, because Eames is holding his gaze. The hand on Arthur's back is drawing him closer and his own hand is resting on Eames’ chest and god fucking damn it, he knows what comes next.
He shuts his eyes, but doesn’t turn his head away. Eames’ breath ghosts over his face, warm and wonderful and so incredibly torturous. It’s a struggle for Arthur to find his voice, to say, “No, Eames.”
“No,” Eames echoes. His nose skims against Arthur's forehead and he takes a deep breath. They’re both still for a moment, and Eames’ fingers tense on Arthur’s shoulder, frustrated, before he pulls away. “No. You’re right.”
“I wish I wasn’t,” Arthur whispers. He’s not meant to, he knows, and Eames’ eyes darken with pure desire that Arthur can feel, too. He takes a step back for good measure, hating himself, hating Eames, hating the world for the way things are. “We’re being told about how the PASIV works today, how you can make your own dream world, without zombies, where…”
“Where we’d have no reason to do this stupid dance,” Eames finishes for him. He smiles, small and sad. “That’s the problem with dreams, Arthur. They aren’t real.”
“I need to get back to work,” Arthur lies, thankful when Eames doesn’t call him on it. “I’ll see you at the end of the day.”
“Take care, Arthur,” Eames murmurs, and it makes Arthur realise that he’d never gotten around to sorting out the jumble of thoughts in his mind. He turns his mind to Browning on the elevator ride back down from the roof, so that he doesn’t dwell on Eames.
He can tell that their every move is being watched closely by Browning. Arthur is not a naturally suspicious person, but his job has definitely made him catalogue every little detail he notices. He can’t simply shrug off the way Browning is constantly hovering about the team as they’re given a basic introduction to the PASIV, with all the details watered down, not even one single mention of the fact that it had once been a military device.
It’s frustrating; not only is Browning slowing down their work, he’s so incredibly smug about it that Arthur can only wonder how Fischer doesn’t see through it immediately. It’s obvious that he likes being in control, and Arthur can only imagine the kind of power Browning would have once he manages to successfully release the PASIV device to the public.
At least Cobb seems interested in their little tour, hanging on to every piece of information he gets, like the good reporter he once was. His eyes are sharp and intelligent again, rather than clouded over with grief and what Arthur sometimes suspects to be madness. It’s a welcome change, and Arthur sits back, letting Cobb ask all the questions, savouring the glimpses of the man he once knew.
“We need to have a meeting back at the house,” Cobb announces at the end of the day. Eames looks irritated by the fact that he's taken charge again, but calms down when he sees that Arthur isn’t bothered.
“Did I miss something?” Eames asks in a low voice, riding shotgun as Arthur drives them home.
“You should have seen Cobb today,” Arthur replies quietly. “It was just like old times. He was asking all the right questions, making the most out of our bad situation. Even if Browning was trying to keep us from doing our own work, I don’t think he realised exactly how much information he gave us, thanks to Cobb.”
Eames glances over his shoulder, to where Cobb is sitting in the back with his notebook out, reading and rewriting his notes. “Just because he surprised you today, Arthur…”
“I know he’s not back. I know he’s probably never going to be, but damn it, Eames, just let me pretend for a while?”
“You’re the one dedicated to the truth,” Eames murmurs, and he reaches out to touch Arthur’s shoulder before reconsidering. It’s not a good idea, after their small lapse in self-control earlier. He sits back in his seat and his tone is light when he says, “If I didn’t know better, Arthur, I’d be jealous.”
Arthur simply huffs in reply. Eames does know better, so he simply changes the subject. “What did you get on Fischer?”
“Got another lovely interview to post, talking about growing up with people like his father and Peter Browning around to inspire him. Touching story, really.”
“And it meant that you had a good reason to ask him everything you could about his relationship with Browning.” Arthur nods approvingly.
“He has no idea, Arthur.” Eames’ voice is quiet and angry. “He doesn’t deserve this. He trusts Browning with everything he has, but the man has no problem simply using him as a pawn to unleash this dangerous device on the world…”
“Browning is giving the world access to the PASIV device, knowing full well exactly how dangerous it can be,” Arthur points out, not taking his eyes off the road. “You can’t expect someone like that to be a decent human being.”
Cobb’s opinion, however, is very different. He has nothing but praise for Browning and the entire PASIV project during their team meeting, insisting that it’s going to change the world—that it will help the world.
“We… are talking about the same thing, right?” Ariadne asks, her eyebrows raised. “Pre-Rising military device? Has the potential to make people lose their grip on reality?”
“Forget all of that. It’s being upgraded, Ariadne. It’s going to be safer. Besides, you’d need to buy enough somnacin to keep dreaming, and they’ll regulate that. They’ll make sure that people don’t go overboard.”
“And what about the risk of people growing addicted?” Yusuf speaks up. “If not to the substance itself, then they’ll get addicted to dreaming. If you really can build your own world, however you want it, of course people are going to want to do it all the time.”
“Besides, you can regulate all you want, and people will still find ways to get around the rules. They’ll start hoarding somnacin. Making it themselves. Think of how the black market would thrive.” Eames folds his arms, levelling Cobb with a look of utter contempt. “As much as I do enjoy watching you make a fool out of yourself, mate, I think it’s time that someone point out the fact that Saito approached you to stop the production of the PASIV and you seem to be keen on doing the exact opposite.”
“We can still stop it,” Cobb says seriously, and his expression is so sober that Arthur dares to hope that he’s regained his senses. Then he continues to say, “I just don’t see any harm in allowing Fischer-Morrow to complete their production of it and release it first. Then we can expose the PASIV devices for how dangerous they really are, and everything will come crashing down.”
“Cobb, we’re not trying to do that kind of damage—” Arthur begins, but he falls silent when he hears Eames’ low growl of anger.
“Fuck me, I see what you’re trying to do here.” Eames begins advancing on Cobb, stopping when they’re face to face. “You want one, don’t you? You don’t give a shit about how dangerous it is, or how much damage it does, because all you care about is getting your grubby hands on one of your own. I shouldn’t even be surprised—we should all know by now that you don’t care about anyone but yourself.”
“Eames,” Arthur warns, taking a step forward, but he’s ignored.
“Let me guess, you want to create a happy little world where Mal is still alive, so you don’t have to deal with all of your guilt, because you can’t deal with the fact that she’s gone, that you were too damn selfish to let her go when you needed—”
Without warning, Cobb punches Eames in the face. He’s red-faced with fury as he grabs the front of Eames’ shirt. “You think you can just go ahead and treat me like the bad guy because I couldn’t shoot the one person I loved most in the entire world? You act like I’m the one in the wrong when you’re the one who shot my wife?”
“She wasn’t your wife anymore,” Arthur says, but freezes in his tracks when Cobb reaches for his gun.
Eames’ eyes darken. “Cobb.”
“That’s right.” Cobb is wild-eyed as he raises his gun, pointing it at Arthur. The safety is still on, but Arthur feels his stomach bottom out all the same. “See how you like it when I point my gun at the person you care about most in the world.”
Eames grabs Cobb’s gun hand, twisting it away from Arthur and pressing down hard. Cobb drops the gun with a cry of pain, but Eames isn’t done with him. The first punch makes Cobb’s head jerk backwards and the next sends him crashing down to the floor. Eames follows him down, fists and elbows and knees still striking at Cobb until Arthur and Yusuf rush forward to separate them.
“Stop it,” Arthur shouts when Eames struggles against him. “Stop!”
“Don’t you fucking dare do that again,” Eames snarls, still scrambling to reach Cobb. Yusuf is helping Arthur hold him down with all he has, but Eames still has the strength to struggle against their combined weight. “You point your gun at Arthur again and I’ll kill you, you hear me?”
“Eames,” Arthur says, as patiently as he can. “Stop that. It’s okay.”
“It’s not bloody okay,” Eames growls, but he stops struggling, staying where he is on the floor. Arthur sighs with relief, not letting go of Eames just yet.
“Get him out of here,” Arthur instructs, nodding in Cobb’s direction without getting up. It’s really a request for Ariadne and Yusuf to leave them alone too, and their team is good enough to know how to read between the lines.
“It’s not okay,” Eames repeats, once the others are gone. He sighs loudly and when Arthur leans against him, he doesn't seem to mind. “I don't trust Cobb. I didn’t, even before this, but now…”
“The safety was on,” Arthur says calmly and even to his own ears, it sounds like he's trying to convince himself. “He wasn't going to shoot.”
Eames snorts, seeing right through Arthur just as he always does. “Do you trust him enough to let him do it to you again? Because believe me, if he tries, I’ll break his fingers. One at a time.”
“He was trying to make a point,” Arthur says quietly. “To show you how it felt to watch you shoot Mal.”
Eames tenses, and his voice is much lower, almost a growl, when he says, “She wasn't Mal when I shot her.”
“I don't think Cobb sees it that way.”
"Well, I don't give a fuck what Cobb thinks," Eames mutters, looking at Arthur as if challenging him to make this an issue. “After this, Arthur, we are kicking him from the team for good. I never want to work with him again. And I’m keeping an eye on him. No matter how much you want to believe in him, he’s up to something. He wants the PASIV to be released. He wants one for himself. Just try and tell me I’m wrong.”
Arthur sighs, sitting on the floor beside Eames, one hand still on his shoulder, and says nothing.
The next day, Arthur tries as hard as he can to treat Cobb the same as ever. It’s impossible. Even without the gun incident, Eames’ doubt is enough to have him double-guessing every single thing that Cobb does. A day ago, if anybody had asked Arthur who he’d trusted more between Eames and Cobb, he would have found a way to change the subject. Now, there’s no point in denying the truth. He may owe a lot to Cobb, but if it comes down to it, he knows he’d take Eames’ side in a heartbeat.
It doesn’t help that his gut is telling him to watch out for Cobb. He hasn’t come this far by ignoring his gut instincts.
Eames stays with the rest of the team this time, reluctant to let Arthur out of his sight for longer than strictly necessary.
Arthur is used to Eames’ occasional bouts of possessiveness. To be fair, Arthur has them too, so he has no right to complain. However, it does drive Cobb away. Despite his other failings, Cobb does have the presence of mind to stay well away from danger. He puts a good distance between Eames and himself, conversing with Browning instead. Infuriatingly, this means he's also staying out of Arthur's earshot—a fact that would bother him enough as it is, but is made worse by the fact that it’s Browning, of all people, that Cobb is speaking to.
When Arthur relates his irritation to Eames, all he gets is a warm laugh. It’s certainly not what he’d expected, and he simply stares at Eames until he gets an explanation.
“Oh, Arthur.” Eames is still grinning, shaking his head. He brings his mouth to Arthur’s ear, so close that Arthur can actually feel the curve of his lips. “You know me better than that. I knew Cobb would avoid us today. Just like I know that he’s up to something. That’s why I made sure to plant a bug on him. I asked Yusuf to make some new ones a while back. Something small that Cobb will never notice. It records all the information into a secure server that only we can access.”
“How long have you been planning this?” Arthur asks in a low voice. “And when were you going to tell me?”
“Since Cobb joined the main team again.” Eames smiles at him without humour. “And I’m telling you now, aren’t I? Now that I’ve actually got a reason to use it.”
Shaking his head, Arthur glances at Cobb, and then back to Eames. “He’s a member of our team, damn it.”
“For now.” Eames places a hand on Arthur's back, guiding him as they follow the rest of the team. “We’ll have a listen to what he’s saying to Browning when we get home tonight, and find out how much the team really means to Cobb, hm?”
“Right.” Arthur doesn’t bothering trying to hide how much the thought unsettles him.
Eames sighs, squeezing Arthur’s shoulder with a sympathetic look. “Come on. We’ll deal with it later.”
Arthur truly does try pushing it from his mind, but it proves to be impossible when Cobb is right there, constantly shadowing Browning. Arthur no longer likes the way Cobb is hanging onto every single word Browning says, his mind full of all the possible things they could be talking about, all the possible ways Cobb could be breaking the team’s trust.
Ariadne is just as observant as Eames, even if she doesn’t know him as well, and catches his eye with a grimace. She walks over to him, following his gaze to Cobb and back. “You know, you’re perfectly within your rights to be shaken about what happened yesterday. Hell, even I feel weird about him now, and he was your best friend.”
“He was never my best friend,” Arthur mutters, in favour of figuring out how to reply to the rest. “That was Eames. Only Eames.”
“Eames is…” Ariadne sighs, gesturing expansively as if trying to say both, way more than that, and, forget I mentioned it.
He takes pity on her and nods, just once. “I guess.”
“I was talking to Yusuf yesterday,” she tells him, her voice dropping even lower. “We both agreed that, well, if you’re going to kick Cobb out, we don’t have a problem with it.“
“We’re not—” Arthur begins, defending Cobb out of habit before his brain catches up. He runs a hand through his hair, pretending that he‘s smoothing it back into place rather than buying time. Ariadne isn‘t fooled, but Arthur keeps his expression free of the weariness he feels. “We’ll just watch him for now and see, alright? If we’re a little more careful than usual, well, he can’t blame us.”
“Right.” Ariadne nods, and Arthur feels better, letting himself pretend just briefly that he’d helped with her concerns, rather than his own.
Still, Cobb and Browning spend most of the day conversing away from the rest of the team. Even if Arthur isn‘t impatiently waiting to listen to the recordings to find out exactly what they‘re talking about, he hates not having anything to do, now that Browning is ignoring the rest of them.
Eames is calm—he knows Yusuf well, and has always praised his work. It’s true, Yusuf is certainly brilliant. His recording devices are good enough to be spy technology, and he makes sure that they’re resistant to the usual disablers.
Arthur can tell, from the confidence in both Eames and Yusuf‘s expressions, that this particular bug is more resilient than usual. Cobb wouldn‘t be able to turn it off even if he knew it was there.
But if Arthur dislikes standing around with nothing to do, Eames absolutely loathes it. Browning is in a completely different part of the research and development lab with Cobb, and the other employees seem happy to ignore them entirely. So of course, Eames and Ariadne start playing up their charm, flirting their way into the restricted sections of the lab that store the classified data.
The two of them make sure that everyone is distracted, while Arthur and Yusuf make use of the fact that Browning is nowhere nearby to stop them.
Arthur has three small cameras on him; one in his suit button, one in his cufflink, and the last in his pen. He isn‘t sure how many cameras Yusuf has hidden on him, but they get to work, taking photos of all the information they can find. They don’t try to push their luck; there’s no point in digging for information if they're going to be caught.
Arthur looks at Eames, raising an eyebrow at the young man watching him reverentially. Eames catches Arthur looking and grins, prompting the other man to turn and look as well. The look of utter mortification on the poor man’s face is almost enough to make Arthur pity him. He simply stares back, waiting for Eames to make his excuses and walk over to him.
“Jealous?“ Eames teases with a small smirk.
“Please,“ Arthur huffs, tucking his pen back into his jacket pocket. “You‘d never catch me staring at you like you‘re the most amazing thing on earth.“
“Sure you aren‘t self-projecting?“ Eames asks with a wink. “Only joking, of course. We both know that if anyone is deserving of the title, it‘s—“
“Cobb,“ Arthur interrupts.
“Not even close, Arthur, do try and keep up—“
“I mean it‘s Cobb.“ Arthur clears his throat. “Walking towards us. Without Browning, for the first time all day.“
“It is four-thirty,“ Eames says, checking his watch. “I suppose even bastards like Browning need a break from Cobb.“
“Eames.“ By this point, it's just a token protest. Arthur eyes Cobb warily as he joins them, already looking out for Cobb's tics.
“Hey guys.“ Cobb doesn‘t quite meet their eyes and Arthur sees the guilt in his expression and can’'t help thinking, good.
“I do hope your day has been nice and productive,“ Eames says with a cold smile. “If my day had been any less interesting, I would have been forced to start a zombie outbreak, just to make things more lively.“
“Bored Irwin, always a dangerous thing,” Arthur speaks up with forced cheer, firmly pulling Eames along before he can start another fight.
“I did get something useful from Browning.” Cobb’s voice is quiet but determined. “I’m sorry if you guys were bored but I… have a lot to sort through. How about we head home? I’ll email you all with what I have once I make sense of it.”
Arthur can tell that Cobb is just eager to get out of here and Eames seems to notice it too, but neither of them says anything about it. The sooner they leave, the sooner they can listen to the voice recording waiting for them at home.
It takes a good hour until Arthur and Eames finally get home, after dropping everyone else off. Eames makes dinner while Arthur sorts through the photos he and Yusuf took of the PASIV documents. Yusuf and Ariadne are already logged into their private chatroom, comparing the photos of the information they already have from before, thanks to Arthur’s hacking and Miles’ contributions. The recording from the bugging device plays in the background and Arthur half-listens to it. There’s nothing interesting just yet; Cobb is poking around the development lab from the sounds of it, asking basic questions that he already knows the answers to.
Eames comes into the room, placing a bowl of noodles beside Arthur’s keyboard, and begins skipping through the recording. He goes past the bits that they can recognise—from when Cobb was still near the group—and stops once they reach the part where he’d gone off with Browning.
Arthur checks the screen and sighs. “That’s still a good four hours of recording to get through.”
“Not my fault that he spent half the day with Browning, is it? I just want to know exactly what they were talking about for such a long time, because I can tell you now that they weren’t exchanging pleasantries.” Eames cuts himself off, briefly running his hand through Arthur’s hair by way of an apology. “I don’t mean to take it out on you.”
“I know,” Arthur murmurs, savouring the contact for a moment longer before he sits up in his chair. “Hey, look at this. The risk assessment report for the old PASIV, next to the current one.”
He brings them both up on his main monitor, and Eames reads through them, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s like they’re talking about two entirely different things!”
The pre-Rising documentation lists all the potential risks of shared dreaming, from somnacin-dependency to hardware malfunctions within the dream state, to heavy use resulting in a weakened grasp on reality. It’s thorough and makes a very clear case against the wide-spread use of the PASIV device. In contrast, the document they’d found at Fischer-Morrow lists none of these things. Arthur can only imagine who Browning must have paid off, but these reports make the PASIV device sound completely harmless.
“This is ridiculous,” Arthur mutters, making a new folder on their server for anything that would come in handy for exposing Browning. He types furiously, explaining all of this to Yusuf and Ariadne as he listens to the recording of Cobb going through the standard interview questions with Browning. It goes for an entire hour, during which they learn nothing that is actually related to what they’re after. Cobb’s interview sounds like he really is intending to do a story on Browning’s decades-old friendship with Maurice Fischer, and by the time he’s done asking question, Eames is sitting at his desk, face pressed against the keyboard. Arthur ends his chat with Yusuf and Ariadne and sits there, staring at the ceiling, trying to pay attention to every little thing he hears, just in case it’s important.
“I should have known better than to expect Cobb to actually be interesting,” Eames grumbles, getting up and stretching. “Pause it. I’ll make us some coffee.”
“Double strength,” Arthur calls after him.
“Nothing less for you, my dearest,” Eames replies cheerfully and soon enough, he’s returning with two steaming mugs. He pulls his chair over to sit beside Arthur and reclines in it, taking a careful sip from his mug. “Back to the excitement then, yeah?”
They don’t need to wait much longer after that before things begin to get interesting.
“Alright, Mr. Cobb,” Browning’s voice cuts through Cobb’s attempt at small-talk. “We both know exactly why we’re here so why don’t we just cut to the chase? Your team knows about the work we’re doing here on the PASIV device—you knew before I even mentioned it to you. I have to admit, you’ve been doing a great job of playing dumb all this time, but why don’t you tell me exactly what you know, and where you got your information?”
Cobb is silent for a long, nerve-wracking moment before finally saying, “I’m sorry. There must be some kind of misunderstanding…”
Arthur lets out a breath he’d been holding without even realising, relief coursing through him. Cobb hadn’t taken the opportunity to sell the team out. He can tell by the way that Eames’ shoulders relax that even he approves.
Of course, in that time, Browning comes up with a different approach.
“Okay, Cobb. Why don’t we strike up a deal? I’m sure I can think of something that would interest you.”
“Mr. Browning, I—”
“How about this? Tell me everything you know. Point me towards your sources. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. We have fully-functional PASIV devices we use in our tests. You give me what I want, and I’ll give you a PASIV of your own. What do you say?”
“Fuck.” Arthur’s blood runs cold. There’s only one way this can go, and Eames knows it too, from the way he immediately sits up.
Cobb’s silence is shorter this time, but much more torturous. He sucks in a deep breath and says, “It would look too suspicious if the rest of the team saw me with one.”
“That’s an easy problem to solve. I’ll personally make sure that it’s delivered to your home. You’ll have your PASIV, I just have some conditions.”
“No one can know.” Cobb sounds defeated already. “Not the team. Not Fischer.”
“Especially not Robert,” Browning says sternly. “Now, if you want that PASIV, Mr. Cobb…”
“Jonathan Miles,” Cobb replies. “My father-in-law. He was involved in the development of the earlier PASIV, before the Rising.”
“Project Oneiros.” Browning hums. “I knew it. Keep going, Cobb. Don’t leave anything out.”
The conversation continues, but Arthur doesn’t register any of it. He and Eames stare at each other with twin looks of wide-eyed horror.
“Shit,” Arthur says succinctly, more than a little panicked.
“Shit,” Eames agrees. “We’re utterly fucked, aren’t we?”
Arthur’s never been good at lying to Eames, and there’s no point in doing so now. “Yeah. Really, really fucked.”
Two years ago to this day, I killed one of my best friends. She was more than a friend to me; she was my mentor. My inspiration for all the crazy shit that I do for fun. I aimed my favourite gun between her eyes and shot her, point blank.
Honestly, it was much easier than I expected it to be. When Kellis-Amberlee takes hold of someone, they stop being your best friend, your wife, your mother, whoever. They die. The least you can do is shoot them while they still remember who they are.
Mallorie Cobb underwent amplification after being bitten while we were in the field, on July 16, 2038. Kellis-Amberlee killed her, so I killed her again.
We all die two deaths, in this world of ours. That’s the way the world works, and it’s something that we have to deal with. Me? I live my life comforted by the knowledge that when the day comes that those little lights on my blood test kit settle on red—and it will—I have Arthur. I live safe in the knowledge that someone loves me enough to kill me, when it comes down to it. I have someone who loves me enough that they would rather shoot me than let me turn into something entirely unrecognisable.
So before you go to sleep tonight, look at your partner. Look at your parents. Look at your children. And ask yourself: do they love you enough to kill you when they need to? And do you love them the same way?
I hope you know the answer to this. And I’d say that I hope you never need to find out for real, but I’m not that deluded.
—From Dream A Little Bigger, the blog of David Eames, September 18, 2040.
After a crisis meeting in the middle of the night, with Arthur and Eames relaying what they‘ve found from the bugging device to Yusuf and Ariadne, they all come to the same simple conclusion. Cobb can no longer be trusted.
Arthur doesn‘t sleep very much that night. He keeps pacing his room, going over all the possible ways this can go badly. At least now that Cobb has his hands on a PASIV, he no longer has any need to continue feeding information to Browning. The fact would make Arthur feel much better if there was actually any information left that Browning doesn't already have, now.
Eames watches him carefully, not wanting to sleep when Arthur is so stressed. In the end, they both sit on Eames‘ bed, their backs against the wall as they talk about anything and everything except Cobb, to keep Arthur distracted until they actually have a plan.
When morning finally comes around, Arthur waits until his patience has worn out entirely before changing and grabbing the keys to the van.
“I‘m going to talk to Cobb.“
“And I‘m coming with you,“ Eames replies, his voice leaving no room for argument.
Arthur nods gratefully, thanking whatever higher power decided to give him Eames, who already has two travel mugs filled with coffee for both of them. With Eames, he feels like he can deal with this. It feels like they’ll get through this.
But when they get to the gated community that Cobb lives in, the security guard at the front refuses to let them through.
“I‘m sorry,“ he says, shrugging at them. “Mr. Cobb requested that we turn away all visitors today. Said he‘s busy, and doesn‘t want to be disturbed.“
“Oh.“ Arthur's heart sinks as he thinks of just how quickly Cobb could be burning through his supply of somnacin, wondering if Browning‘s provided him with more than usual, pretending that it‘s a favour. He frowns. “But his children—”
“His children are staying with their grandmother,“ the guard informs him. The good thing about gated communities is that they like to keep tabs on everyone living there. The more that people know about their neighbours, the less likely it is that they’re out somewhere getting infected or worse, bringing the live infection past the electric fences.
“Thank you.“ Arthur sighs, driving back home. Eames is already on the phone, speaking to Miles, and the moment Arthur winds his window back up, puts the phone on speaker.
“—obvious that Browning‘s targeted Cobb because of the lot of you, he‘s the one most susceptible to falling prey to the PASIV. As you‘ve told me, Browning’s made sure to emphasise that you can build your own dream world with that device. Terrible lure, that, to someone who hasn‘t quite come to terms with his loss.“
“So what do we do now, Miles?“ Arthur asks, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. “We can’t go in to Fischer-Morrow without Cobb. I don‘t want Browning to know that his plan is working.“
“Keep trying to get in touch with him,“ Miles suggests. “And make sure you keep an eye on your other team mates, just in case Browning isn‘t done yet. I‘m going to drive in, and see if I can do anything to help. At any rate, I need to make sure the children and Marie are safe.“
“It won‘t be safe,“ Eames speaks up. “Cobb gave Browning a fair amount of information, and he did mention that some of it came from you.“
Miles sighs. “I’ll just have to be careful then, won‘t I? I‘ll check in with the two of you every now and then if it will make you feel any better.“
“Every two hours,“ Eames replies. “Please and thank you. And drop by the house when you're in town.“
When Eames calls Yusuf and Ariadne to let them know that they can‘t get in contact with Cobb and they won‘t be going into Fischer-Morrow, they‘re concerned but not surprised. Arthur realises, numbly, that he feels the exact same way. By the time that they reach the house, Yusuf and Ariadne have both been brought up to speed on the situation with Cobb. Yusuf merely sighs wearily, not knowing what to say.
Ariadne, on the other hand, folds her arms across her chest. “Why don’t you let me try? I’ll go to his place, give the guards a story about how I desperately need to talk to him right now, and see if they let me in.”
“Not a good idea,” Yusuf speaks up. “If Browning’s trying to incapacitate the team one by one, then it isn’t safe for us to go out alone.”
“Then come with me,” Ariadne replies, shrugging as if it’s the most obvious solution. “We’ll take care of each other, while Arthur and Eames watch each other’s backs. That way, we’re not all limited to just doing the one thing because we all need to be in the same place. I can make Cobb talk, guys, I’m sure of it.”
Eames chuckles. “I definitely don’t doubt you there, Ariadne, but there’s also the problem of Cobb being asleep. There’s not much you can do to get answers out of him when he’s hooked up to that machine.”
“Unless I hook myself up, too.” Ariadne levels them with a determined look. “We’ve all read the instruction manual. Someone needs to figure out just what the hell is going on, and if I have Yusuf with me, then he can keep an eye out while I go under with Cobb. It shouldn’t take me long anyway. I know the data Miles gave us says that there’s a high chance that I’m not going to remember what I see—I’m not even going to realise that I’m dreaming the first time—but we need to do this. I’ll have Yusuf with me to remind me what’s real, and that’s enough. If there’s something we can try, then we have to give it a go.”
Arthur nods reluctantly. “She’s right. If we can figure out what Cobb is up to… if we can stop him, or if we can help him, then it’s worth a shot.”
“You take good care of each other, then,” Eames says sternly, looking between them. “If anything comes up…”
“We’ll let you know,” Ariadne replies. “You be careful, too. Grab your bag, Yusuf.”
Arthur watches them go and sighs heavily. “I’m going to call Cobb again.”
Eames pats him on the shoulder once. “I doubt you’ll get through, Arthur.”
“Damn it, I can’t just do nothing,” Arthur snaps. He gets to his feet, pacing the room. He runs a hand through his hair, frustrated. “I can’t, Eames. I know you don’t like him, but this is Cobb and I can’t just let him… fall victim to Browning’s games.”
“We’ll stop him,” Eames assures him. “We’ll stop Browning, and Ariadne will stop Cobb from losing himself. We’ll be fine, Arthur.”
“How?” Arthur turns around, frowning at Eames. “How are we going to stop Browning? If we expose what he’s doing, we expose all of Fischer-Morrow. That’s going to destroy the entire company. Robert Fischer doesn’t deserve to lose everything because of his godfather. The world wouldn’t be able to deal with the collapse of Fischer-Morrow, when they’re one of the biggest sources of entertainment.”
“We’ll find a way.” Eames licks his lips in thought. “We need to expose Browning without harming Fischer’s reputation. The only way we can do that… Arthur, the only way we can do that is by using Fischer.”
“Fischer,” Arthur repeats. “You’re going to bring him into this? Can we risk that?”
“I may not have known Fischer for a long time, but I can guarantee that he would never approve of what Browning is trying to do.” Eames rubs his chin, “We have the documents in your file. The press leak, with all of the PASIV documents, old and new. We show them to Fischer. We let him know how Browning is playing him. Then we leave it to Fischer to confront Browning. To expose him, if that’s what he wants.”
“Which makes it clear that Fischer wasn’t involved.” Arthur nods, “We need to talk to him, as soon as possible. Can you get in touch with him?”
At that exact moment, Eames’ phone starts ringing. He frowns at it before putting it on speaker. “Yusuf?”
“Eames. Just letting you know that we’re in. Ariadne got us past the guards and we found Cobb asleep, hooked up to his PASIV. She just put herself under as well, so I’ll keep you posted on—”
His next words are drowned out by the sound of Ariadne screaming.
“Yusuf!” Arthur shouts. “What's wrong?”
“It’s Mal, it’s Mal,” they can hear Ariadne repeating. She sounds terrified, and her voice gets louder—Yusuf must be holding the phone closer to her.
“What happened, Ariadne?” he asks gently, and it sounds like Ariadne is hyperventilating.
“Cobb… Cobb has some kind of projection of Mal. She’s so lifelike… she looks like the real Mal, but she’s nothing like her. She’s terrifying and she’s angry. She told me I couldn’t steal her Dom, and she stabbed me in the stomach.”
Arthur and Eames look at each other, their eyes wide.
“I knew it,” Arthur mutters angrily. “I knew—”
“Yusuf,” Eames says into the phone. “Cobb’s somnacin supply—it must be somewhere nearby. If we can find it and get rid of it…”
“I already looked,” Yusuf replies, and the resignation is heavy in his tone. “I did a thorough search before I even hooked Ariadne up. Cobb must have known that we were coming. It’s the only explanation I can think of. He’s hidden all of it, so we can’t find it.”
“Then we take his PASIV,” Eames declares, his voice getting louder and angrier.
“That’s not going to solve anything,” Arthur speaks up, shaking his head. “Cobb is just going to end up resenting us for it, and I’m sure Browning will find a way to get him another one.”
“Then what are we supposed to do, Arthur?” Eames asks, and Arthur would flinch at the anger in his tone, if it was meant for him. “If we just leave him—”
The sharp sound of knocking over the phone connection interrupts them, and they both fall silent.
“I think we’re going to have to go,” Ariadne whispers into the phone before hanging up.
“Now what?” Eames turns to Arthur, ending the call.
“We’ll run with your plan. If we bring the project to a close before the PASIV devices can be marketed, we win. There’s only so much somnacin out there and once we don’t have to worry about Browning supplying Cobb without anyone else noticing, we can figure out how to help him. Force him to go without it until it’s out of his system.”
Eames raises an eyebrow. “He’s going to hate you for it.”
“I think that bridge has already been burned,” Arthur mutters, checking the time. “I’m going to call Miles and see if he knows anything about weaning people off the PASIV.”
They sit there for a moment, listening to the phone ring out as it tries to connect to Miles. With a frown, Arthur places the call again. They wait. Miles still doesn’t pick up.
“Bad news,” Arthur says, already getting to his feet and arming himself with the first three guns he can reach. “I’m going to see if I can locate his phone and track him.”
“You think Browning’s after him.” Eames doesn’t bother posing it as a question.
“He’s trying to shut us up,” Arthur replies, and he can’t quite help the small grin that tugs at his lips. “It means we’re onto something. Come on.”
An important thing to remember about the Rising is that idiots did not survive. They were the first to go, after the unfortunate souls that were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anyone who actually survived deserves their fair share of respect for keeping their wits about them, for making sure they stayed ahead of the shambling hordes.
Jonathan Miles is among these people, and he certainly did not survive by accident. When Arthur tracks his position to find a recent report of a sudden outbreak, he knows that it’s no coincidence. They wait for Yusuf and Ariadne to return, and then the four of them bundle into the van, driving right towards Miles’ position. It takes twenty minutes with Yusuf’s driving and it’s longer than any of them have any right to expect Miles to survive, but when they get there, his van is still intact. Miles is on the roof, a shotgun in his hands, and he startles at the sight of them approaching before he recognises them.
“Arthur?” he asks, his voice tinny and breathless over their speakers. “Is that you?”
“We’ve got some powerful enemies,” Eames mutters, typing away at his screen. There’s a full-screen report on his main monitor that declares that their current location is the site of a spontaneous amplification, and that it is to be avoided until the entire area is cleaned up. They’re on the outskirts of town, just far enough from people that they would have no trouble avoiding it. Far enough away that nobody would have noticed if a single van had been overwhelmed by a pack of zombies.
Arthur can count almost ten dead bodies on the ground, each of them dispatched with a bullet to the head—no doubt from Miles’ shotgun—but that still leaves them with another ten to get rid of before the zombies begin calling in their reinforcements.
“Eames,” he says, loading his own gun. “They’re distracted by having two targets. If we can clear the area now…”
“The cameras aren’t on,” Arthur announces, an instruction to Yusuf and Ariadne to keep it that way, as well as a reminder to Eames. “No need to show off.”
Eames grins down at him from where he’s climbing the ladder to the top of the van. “Like that’s ever stopped me.”
Where a small pack of zombies converging on one van would have caused a problem, it’s easy to take them down with Arthur and Eames helping. They’re quickly taken care of, and Arthur calls Miles, putting him on speaker so that all of them can hear.
“Thank you for your help,” Miles says, and he truly does sound grateful. “I honestly thought I was a dead man.”
“It was pure luck that we found you in time,” Arthur replies seriously. He’s not sure that he’s going to stop frowning until this entire job is over. “Browning wants you dead because you have information that could get in the way of what he’s trying to do. Once he realises that you’ve survived, he’s going to try again.”
“Bloody hell, I’m going to have words with Dom once this all clears up,” Miles sighs. “I don’t suppose—?”
“He isn’t any better,” Eames answers, his gaze fixed on the road. “Worse, if anything. We don’t have the time for this. Miles, you can’t stay at our house because it’s the first place Browning will look. You can’t stay with Marie and the children because that might put them in danger—”
“How about my place?” Ariadne suggests. She lives with her parents and they’re friendly enough people. Their house is certainly large enough for Miles to stay without being noticed. “Just until we stop Browning. After that, you’ll be safe.”
“Right, we’ll do that.” Arthur is beginning to grow impatient. There are files he needs to leak, and an unsuspecting acting-CEO to deal with. “First things first. We need to get out of this area before anyone notices us. After that… Ariadne, you join Miles and give him directions. Yusuf, you stay with her. If you so much as suspect that someone’s after you, let me or Eames know.”
“And we’re going to talk to Robert Fischer?” Eames asks, though the look on his face says that he already knows the answer. There’s a grim kind of satisfaction to Eames’ expression; he may say that Arthur’s the one dedicated to the truth while he’s more interested in the performance, but Arthur knows that it’s not really the case. The truth matters just as much to Eames and this is important to him; helping Fischer realise that he’s been lied to all this time won’t be pleasant, but it’s something that Eames has to do.
“Help me put together all the documents we’ll need to leak to damage Browning’s chances of getting the PASIV device mass-marketed, and you can tell Fischer whatever you want.”
“Deal,” Eames nods, and it’s not until later, when they’re driving back home alone, that he turns to Arthur and murmurs, “I have a feeling this is going to be extremely messy.”
“You’re probably right,” Arthur replies softly. “Fischer isn’t going to want to accept the fact that Browning has been using him all this time. You said it yourself; he trusts Browning with all that he has.”
“What happens after this?”
Arthur laughs with no real amusement. “You don’t need to ask me that. Fischer will kick Browning out of the company, and if he’s particularly sharp, he might even find a way to get Browning arrested so he can’t try pulling anything like this again. Then Fischer gets back to work, with his eyes open this time. He’ll know better than to sit idle and let anyone else do his work for him after this.”
“He never liked letting people do his work for him,” Eames points out.
“True, but he never stopped them before. That’s the problem with inaction, Eames. It’s too easy. You can see a problem, and know that you need to do something about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, you just need a little extra push to actually get there. I’ve known for a while that we shouldn’t let Cobb back into the team, that he’s unstable and that no matter how much I want it, we’re not going to get him back.”
“But when he pulled his gun on you…” Eames says softly, understanding.
“Sometimes you need a little slap in the face.” Arthur smiles, but there’s no point in trying to fool Eames, who always knows how Arthur is feeling, especially when he wishes he could hide it.
“But you can use that feeling, yes? Give Fischer a way to relate to you, because you’ve both been let down by the one person you’d looked up to for guidance.”
“I’m not as lost as he’ll be,” Arthur says quietly. “I have you, and I always will.”
Eames looks taken aback, the way he does every time Arthur acknowledges their strange relationship, but then his expression softens and he reaches for Arthur’s shoulder, squeezing it. “You’ve got that right.”
Arthur leans into the touch for a moment, savouring Eames’ warmth before he pulls away. “Okay, let’s go. We’ve got work to do.”
Eames gives him a lazy salute, followed by a wink, and continues driving home.
. . . You are waiting for a train, she tells me, and beckons with her smile. A train that will take you far away.
We don’t know where this train will take us, and I tell her so. We know where we hope it will take us, but we don’t know for sure.
She takes my hand. She smoothes my hair.
But it doesn’t matter.
How can it not matter?
Because we’ll be together.
—From Escaping Limbo, originally published in Dream Within A Dream, the blog of Dominick Cobb, October 3, 2040.
When the notification pings on Arthur’s screen, he immediately stops typing. Eames is in the kitchen making them more coffee, and Arthur doubts that the sound would have carried that far. He’d set his computer up to give him any notifications of activity from Cobb on their site, as soon as they’d returned home. It’s been nearly two hours since then, and it’s the first time Cobb’s been online.
It means that he has to be awake, Arthur thinks, already reaching for his phone, but that’s when his gaze falls on exactly what Cobb has posted. It’s a small piece of prose on his Fictional blog, and it can’t be more than a hundred words. It’s enough. It’s all Arthur needs to look over his shoulder and shout, “Eames!”
There’s a clatter in the kitchen; the urgency in Arthur’s voice is enough to make Eames literally drop what he’s doing. He races into the room as quickly as he can, his eyes wide, the unspoken question what’s wrong? on his lips.
“Cobb,” Arthur says, pointing to the screen, and it’s all he can say because his mind is already racing, filled with thoughts like, I should have seen this coming, and, oh god, please, not again.
“Fuck.” Eames’ voice is low, and just as panicked as Arthur feels. There’s already a gun tucked into his waistband; neither of them are going to feel safe enough to be unarmed in their own home until this entire thing is over. “Do you think he’ll—?”
He doesn’t finish the question, perhaps because he can’t, or perhaps because he already knows the answer. It doesn’t matter. He and Arthur are already on their feet without another word, heading straight to the garage, united in thought at the best of times, and the worst. The roads aren’t busy, and Arthur drives as fast as he can, paying no heed to the traffic laws. Eames’ hand is on his shoulder; grounding him, comforting him as he tries to block the thoughts that he can’t deal with right now, that they’ll be too late, that even if they reach Cobb’s house as soon as possible, it still won’t be soon enough.
There’s a different guard at the entrance this time, one who knows Arthur and Eames well, who follows Inception’s blog. Even if he didn’t, Arthur is sure that the intensity of his glare would be enough to get people to stop asking questions and start co-operating. It takes a good five minutes of blood test and identification checks before Arthur and Eames are actually allowed past the gates. Each second feels like a waste to Arthur, but he stays calm, clinging to his mask of composure until they’re at Cobb’s door.
“It’s locked,” Arthur growls as he tries the knob. “Fucking bastard, he knew we’d come after him—”
“Stand back,” Eames mutters, and that’s all the warning Arthur gets before he kicks in the door. There are shouts of alarm from the guard station, but Arthur ignores them as he follows Eames inside. Let the guards come, he thinks. The story’s going to be all over the internet by tonight and Arthur’s going to report it right, with nothing but the truth.
They can hear the sounds of someone struggling further inside the house. No, Arthur corrects himself. Something. Eames pauses, and Arthur comes up beside him, a hand resting lightly on his back, and takes point.
“Arthur, you know what we’ll find in there.” Eames’ voice is low and upset. Despite their issues, Arthur knows that this is the last thing Eames would have wanted.
“I know,” Arthur replies. He flicks the gun’s safety off and doesn’t look at Eames. “You’ve got my back.”
It’s not a question because it doesn’t need to be. Eames exhales quietly. “Always.”
The door to Cobb’s bedroom is locked. Cobb and Mal’s bedroom, Arthur’s mind supplies. Cobb always did insist that it was still Mal’s, even after she’d passed. He knows to look here even without the tell-tale sounds on the other side of the door.
Arthur waits for a moment, the urgency bleeding out of him now that he knows that it’s already too late. He takes a deep breath, pushing his despair down as far as it will go. You can do this, he thinks, or perhaps it’s Eames whispering in his ear. Either way, he nods. He steels himself and kicks the door down.
The room reeks of death, of Kellis-Amberlee, of blood. Cobb had chosen a slow, painful way to die, and his blood is almost black as it follows the grooves on the wooden floor. The one, small, thing to his credit is that he’d had the foresight to tie his hand to the end of the bed. The creature that is no longer Cobb scratches at its own hand, not caring about the red lines it leaves as it tries to break free. The sight of fresh meat makes it struggle even more, congealed blood oozing from its stomach wound, and Arthur feels a hollow laugh bubbling up from his throat, even as his eyes grow wet.
“Goddamn it, Cobb, you couldn’t even shoot yourself in the head.”
He fires his gun twice. The heavy footsteps behind him tell him that the guards have caught up, that they’re watching this, too. He ignores them, focusing on nothing but the weight of the Glock in his hand, and the presence of Eames, right behind him.
The first bullet stops the zombie from struggling, and the second is a clean head shot, killing him instantly. The shots ring out loudly, echoing in the small space, and Arthur stands there, frozen. There’s a silence that settles around him; a silence that isn’t really there, because he knows that the guards are saying something, and Eames is replying to them, but the actual words are drowned out by the rush of thoughts in his head. Is this how Eames had felt, two years ago, when he’d shot his mentor? So violently disconnected from reality, so unwilling to accept what he knows?
“Arthur.” Eames’ voice is quiet, and his hand is on Arthur’s back like a question that he knows better than to ask. They’re alone, save for the body on the floor, and instead of asking him if he’s okay, instead of assuring him that they couldn’t have done anything, Eames simply says, “Arthur, love, come here.”
Arthur goes. He lets himself be folded into Eames’ arms, lets Eames rock him from side to side, and doesn’t try holding back the broken sound that escapes him. Eames’ grip on him tightens, slowly ushering him out of the room.
“We should go, Arthur.”
“You’re right,” Arthur replies, barely more than a whisper. From the way Eames’ grip on him tightens, he hears the resolve in Arthur’s tone. He knows what’s coming next. “We have a lot of work to do.”
“What are we going to do first?” Eames asks cautiously. “Do you want to write up—”
“That’s exactly what Browning is going to be expecting me to do right now. I’ll do it later. We’re heading straight to Fischer-Morrow. Call Robert Fischer. Tell him that we need to talk to him.”
“We’re going to tell him now?”
Arthur pats the pocket of his pants, glad he’d had the presence of mind to load the PASIV leak files onto a USB and keep them on him from the moment he was done compiling them. “The truth doesn’t wait, Eames.”
Eames sighs. “Of course, Arthur. Come on, then. We’re not going to get anywhere until we pass a few blood tests, so we might as well get them over with.”
Eames makes the call to Fischer as Arthur drives. Arthur listens to them talk, but is silent himself. There’s no need to say anything when he knows that Eames will say it for him.
“It’s absolutely important that you’re alone,” Eames is saying into the phone’s speaker. “Nobody can know that you’re meeting with us, Robert, it puts all of us at risk.”
“Nobody?” Fischer repeats, a little shakily. “Are you sure it’s safe to meet in my office, then? It might be better if I meet you in the parking lot—”
“Nothing that requires a blood test,” Eames interrupts. Arthur is usually the paranoid one, but when it’s Eames, there’s usually a good reason for it. If Browning has the right contacts, then he could have them tracked by looking at where they’ve been tested. It’s a risk that they’d rather not take.
“There’s a delivery bay out the back of the building,” Fischer tells them. “Your van is going to look out of place, but there shouldn’t be anyone there right now. If you let me know when you’re nearby, I’ll come down and meet you there. We can talk while we drive, if you think that’s going to be safer.”
“He can think on his feet,” Eames says, grinning at Arthur. “I like him.”
Arthur tries to smile in return, but he can’t. Clearing his throat, he leans towards the phone to speak. “We’re about five minutes away from the building, Mr. Fischer, so you’d better start making your way down now.”
There’s a short silence after Eames ends the call, and he rests his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. Stopping at a red light, Arthur draws a shaky breath to speak, but no words come. He doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t even know how to articulate his grief. He should have anticipated Cobb’s actions, he should have done something to stop it from ever happening. He takes another breath, turning to Eames, but all he can manage is a weak, “I’m sorry—”
“No, Arthur.” The fury in Eames’ voice takes him by surprise. “You have nothing to apologise for, you hear me? This isn’t your fault, so don’t you dare think for even one minute that it is.”
The light changes and Arthur starts driving again, but not without a grateful look in Eames’ direction.
Eames pats Arthur’s arm, and doesn’t move his hand away. He probably needs the contact just as much as Arthur does. “If you’d let me, I would have told you to go home and take a break until you feel ready to start working again.”
“Except you know exactly what I would have said in reply.” Arthur does manage a small smirk at that. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, Eames, and there’s no easy way to do it. Without Cobb, we owe nothing to Saito. We could just go ahead and tell Fischer exactly what we were doing at Fischer-Morrow, but…”
“Saito is much too powerful an enemy to make,” Eames finishes easily. “So Fischer doesn’t need to know anything about the fact that Saito hired us to stop the PASIV from being released. We achieve the end result anyway, and we walk away without pissing anyone off. Except for Browning, of course.”
“Oh, we’re doing to do much more than just piss Browning off,” Arthur replies, a dangerous edge to his voice.
“I need you to reel in your homicidal urges, sweetheart. The turn’s just up there. Fischer should be joining us soon.”
Turning into the delivery bay, Arthur keeps the engine running as they wait for Fischer to show up. He doesn’t take long; it’s less than a minute before he opens the door leading outside and catches sight of the van, heading straight towards it.
“Welcome onboard,” Eames says once Fischer is inside, grinning at the way he looks around in wonder. “Thanks for agreeing to see us on such short notice.”
“I had the impression that it wasn’t something I should turn down,” Fischer replies cautiously, sitting down in one of the empty seats, nodding in greeting to Arthur before doing a double-take at his bleak expression. “I can tell something’s happened. What’s wrong?”
Just like before, Arthur lets Eames do the talking. For now, while they’re still this close to Fischer-Morrow, it’s just non-specific information that should still serve to capture Fischer’s attention, like the fact that Browning has let them take a look at some of the projects that the company is working on at the moment. Arthur glances into the rear-view mirror just in time to catch the way Fischer goes tense at that piece of information. His shoulders stiffen and he sits up straighter, listening closely. Arthur knows that it’s no mistake that Eames has chosen to lead with this fact; Eames is the one who spent the most amount of time with Fischer, and would have seen just how little information he’s been receiving about anything going on in his own company. The fact that a press team knows more about the company’s current projects than he does is sure to strike a nerve.
Arthur drives away from the city and the more heavily-populated residential areas, until their surroundings are quiet and still far enough from zombie-infested areas to be safe. He puts the parking brake on, but lets the engine idle, and turns around to face Fischer.
“We have some important information for you, Mr. Fischer, and you’re not going to like it.”
Fischer’s lips twitch. “I knew it had to be bad news.”
“I’m not going to lie to you, Robert, it’s extremely bad news,” Eames says with a sympathetic smile. “There are people doing terrible things, and we need your help to stop them. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be safe.”
“…Oh.” Fischer’s voice is quiet, and his eyes a little unfocused as he thinks. He looks down at his hands and his next words are reluctant, like it takes all of his will-power just to say them. “It’s Uncle Peter, isn’t it?” He clears his throat and looks at them. The resignation in his eyes would make a lesser man cringe, but Eames meets them steadily, waiting for Fischer’s thoughts to form into words. “…All those times he told me that I could relax, that the company was in safe hands. He never meant me.”
“I’m sorry,” Eames murmurs, and Arthur is glad that at least they didn’t have to spell it out. For Fischer to come to the realisation on his own, it means that he must have been suspicious of Browning for some reason, if only on a subconscious level.
“What has he been doing with my company?” Fischer asks with a heavy sigh, pushing aside his need to recover in favour of focusing on the work that needs to be done. Arthur can appreciate—and empathise—with that.
“Have you ever heard of Project Oneiros?” he asks, turning his monitor on to show the blueprints of the PASIV device. Fischer’s expression is blank. “Shared dreaming? The PASIV device? It’s a machine that people connect themselves to intravenously. Like a virtual reality tool, but far more powerful.”
“It connects to your mind?” Fischer asks in wonder, leaning closer to the screen to read it better. “You can dream lucidly with it? Wait… the seal on these blueprints… this is classified military information!”
“From over a decade before the Rising.” Eames points out the date. “And now, these blueprints, which you may find a little more familiar.”
Arthur hits a key and watches Fischer’s eyes widen as the image on the monitor changes.
“These are Fischer-Morrow blueprints… of the exact same thing?” Fischer’s eyes close and he sighs. “Right, Uncle Peter was in the army before the Rising. Okay, so he’s continuing production on a device that was made before Kellis-Amberlee. That’s hardly a crime on its own.”
“Next document,” Arthur says, bringing it up. “A thorough risk-assessment report filed by the specialists brought on by the military to assist Project Oneiros. It outlines all the concerns they had about releasing the PASIV device on a restricted basis to be used within the army in the pre-Rising world.”
Fischer is silent as he reads, finally looking up when he reaches the end. “And you’re telling me that Uncle Peter wanted to release this—to get Fischer-Morrow to market this as an entertainment device—in this world. If they had all of these concerns before the Rising…”
“It gets worse,” Arthur tells him, tone as gentle as he can manage. “This is the risk-assessment done by Browning’s people.”
Arthur personally hates this document. It’s not something that would be released to the public, but it’s still filled with lies, playing down the threats that the PASIV poses until they can be ignored. He hates reading lie after lie knowing the truth, knowing what it’s already done to Cobb—
“Oh, Arthur.” It’s not until he hears Eames’ quiet voice that he realises there are tears in his eyes. He blinks them away, but as Eames crosses the small space between them, they begin to fall.
Eames’ arms come around him and he goes without protest, soaking up whatever comfort Eames is willing to give, ignoring the fact that Fischer is right there. He presses his face against Eames’ shoulder, sucking in a shaky breath.
“Uh…” Fischer sound slightly uncomfortable and Arthur takes another deep breath to compose himself before he pulls away from Eames, wiping his cheeks.
“Browning has realised that we know what we’ve shown you. He’s been targeting people who know too much. First, Jonathan Miles, an old member of Project Oneiros, who gave us the information we needed to begin our investigation. We managed to get to him before it was too late. After that—Cobb.”
“Cobb,” Fischer repeats, and his eyes widen. “Oh. Oh no—”
“He died less than an hour ago,” Eames says softly, checking his watch.
“No.” Fischer looks at them disbelievingly, but the truth is in Arthur’s eyes, in the way Eames stays close to him. “Uncle Peter killed him…?”
“Not directly, no,” Arthur replies. “And perhaps that wasn’t his intention—maybe he just wanted Cobb temporarily out of the picture, but Browning gave him a PASIV. He knew that Cobb would be vulnerable to it, and…”
“We need to stop Uncle Peter,” Fischer declares. “No matter what, we can’t let him release the PASIV, and we can’t let him get away with what he’s done.”
Eames smiles cautiously. “We were hoping you’d be willing to help us.”
“You already have a plan, don’t you?” Fischer looks at Eames, and then Arthur. “Count me in. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
There’s a quote from a great man in the days long before the Rising that goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
We’re already blind. We’re running scared and we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. We can’t see the warning signs until it’s far, far too late and there’s nothing to do but deal with our loss.
The so-called activists who thought it was a good idea to release an unstable viral compound into the air were blind then, and we’re still blind now.
Dominick Cobb is dead. This isn’t how I wanted to tell you. To be honest, I never wanted to make this kind of announcement. He was a founding member of Inception, my good friend and mentor and—you all know who he is. I don’t need to write this.
Dom Cobb died because people are afraid of the truth getting out. I have dedicated my entire career to making sure that nothing gets in the way of the truth, and nobody is going to scare me off.
That is a promise.
We might all be blind already, but that’s not going to stop me. I am going to destroy you. You know who you are. That’s a promise, too.
—From Paradox, the blog of Arthur Wolff, October 4, 2040.
With the amount of secrecy surrounding their investigations at Fischer-Morrow, none of the team have been able to post much. In light of Cobb’s death, Arthur decides that they’re going back to basics, to who they were before they’d ever stepped foot inside the offices of Fischer-Morrow.
“We’re going into the field,” he decides in the morning, when the four of them are sitting around the table, eating breakfast.
Ariadne is taking refuge at Arthur and Eames’ house because she doesn’t really know how to deal with Miles and his grief over Cobb’s death. Yusuf is with her, citing Eames’ earlier instruction to make sure they’re keeping an eye out for each other. Nobody says it, but it feels much safer when all four of them are together like this.
“You’re joking,” Eames says, putting his coffee mug down as he looks at Arthur. “It’s far too dangerous right now.”
“Like you’ve ever been scared off by the danger, Eames.” It’s only been a day since Cobb’s death and Arthur is well-aware of the fact that he looks like shit. The rest of the team is going to think that this is about Cobb somehow. It’s not. “Look, we have an entire day to kill while we wait for Fischer to put the plan into motion and I can’t just sit here and feel like shit for what Browning’s doing to us. First Miles gets attacked and then Cobb kills himself because of his dreams about Mal. I am not going to let him scare us.”
Ariadne takes a deep breath. “He’s got a point. And anyway, we haven’t really been out in zombie country since we started the job at Fischer-Morrow. The viewers have got to be missing it by now.”
“And if Browning sees that we’re fucking around in ghost towns crawling with the infected, he’s not going to suspect that we’re up to anything,” Arthur points out, looking directly at Eames.
The two of them stare at each other for a long moment before Eames sighs explosively, looking away and swearing under his breath. “Fine, Arthur. Fine.”
Arthur nods, glad that the first battle is over. “I want you to stay in the van with the others. If you take the bike, you’re going to be far too easy to attack out there. They could make it look like it’s just a stupid Irwin accident and we’re not going to risk that.”
Eames scowls. “And what’s the point of even going out into the field if the Irwin’s riding in the van where it’s nice and safe and boring?”
Arthur smiles, and does his best to hold onto the expression. “I never said that I’d be in the van with you.”
“No,” is Eames’ immediately reply. He shakes his head emphatically. “No, Arthur. You are not going to tell me not to take my bike because it’s too dangerous and then turn around and take yours. That doesn’t even make sense.”
“You’re an Irwin,” Arthur says simply. “I’m not. I don’t get the urge to find a whole horde of zombies to annoy. I know when to stay the hell away, and we need someone out there if we want footage that’s actually going to be half interesting. Between the two of us, I’ll be safer. You know it’s true.”
“Fuck you, Arthur,” Eames grumbles. “I hate when you’re right like this. Look—I have my conditions, alright? I need you to do a few things for me and if you disagree, I swear, I’m going to knock you out right here and no one’s going anywhere.”
Arthur’s lips twitch into a small smile. “Fine. I’ll wear however much body armour you want me to. I’ll even—”
“Use the run-flats,” Eames finishes for him, and his expression makes it clear that he is not going to budge on the matter.
Flat tyres have always been inconvenient, but when they became the difference between escaping a horde of zombies and being overwhelmed by them, people began developing run-flats. Tyres that continue working, even when they’re flat. The van has them, and Eames uses them on his bike. Arthur’s never liked them, because of how rough they make his bike on the road, but Eames has always stored an extra pair of tyres in the garage on the off-chance that Arthur will agree to use them.
“It’s safer,” Eames points out, when Arthur doesn’t say anything. “You know it is.”
“Fine,” Arthur sighs. He and Eames never ask much of each other. It’s how they know that the other is being serious when they do. “You go and put them on my bike while I get changed, okay?”
It isn’t long until they’re heading out. Arthur rides beside the van, staying in Eames’ field of vision the entire way there, and they stop in a quiet area. There are no zombies milling about just yet, but it’s far from civilisation and it’s only a matter of time.
“Yusuf, turn the cameras on,” Arthur says, scanning the area. It’s extremely quiet, with no birds or small animals to be heard. “Let’s go find something interesting, shall we?”
“Some zombies for you to lead on a merry chase?” Eames asks, chuckling. “I know how much you like doing that.”
A small pack of zombies finds them, drawn by the noise and the scent of fresh meat. They don’t look too old—they haven’t started to decay yet—but not fresh enough to pose any real threat. Arthur rides close enough to taunt them, driving past them before turning and looping around them on the other side. They try to follow him, but none of them are fast enough. Still, Arthur keeps a sharp eye on them—there are five of them and only one of him—and makes sure that his gun is in easy reach.
“They’re not going to like the fact that you’re teasing them,” Eames murmurs, sounding amused as Arthur circles around them again. “And you say I’m the only Irwin here.”
It’s true; they’re moaning louder, blackened fingers reaching towards him. Arthur rides a little closer, just to annoy them as he drives out of their reach again. Eames may be the Irwin, but that’s never stopped Arthur from enjoying the adrenaline rush.
“Um, guys?” Ariadne speaks up. “There’s a car behind us. I saw it a while back, when we were still near civilisation, but it disappeared for a while and now it’s back.”
Arthur frowns, glancing in its direction. “You think it’s following us?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s best if we’re cautious, right? Especially now.”
“Grab the binoculars,” Eames says, and Arthur can hear the frown in his voice too. “They’re keeping a good distance from us, but I want you to see if you figure out…”
He trails off, remembering that his voice is on the live feed. Ariadne seems to understand anyway. Arthur turns his attention back to the zombies, riding past them once again, and that’s when two extremely bad things happen at once.
First, he sees the reason for the ominous silence around them: an approaching horde of zombies. The fresh ones lead the way, a savage hunger in their eyes. They’re heading straight for him.
Second, Ariadne shrieks, “Gun!” just before a loud shot rings out.
“Arthur!” Eames cries. It takes him a moment to realise that it’s not the van that’s being shot at. The bullet hits one of his tyres, and even though the run-flats are doing their job, the force of the impact sends him reeling.
The small pack of zombies that had been so easily thwarted earlier grows smarter now, with the approach of the rest of the horde. They advance on him as fast as they can, and Arthur realises that they’re in between him and the van.
“Arthur,” Eames says, even more urgently this time as another shot is fired. It misses him, but Arthur can hear Eames giving the van’s controls over to Ariadne. He hears the click of the sniper rifle Eames keeps stored in the van. He’d always wondered when Eames would ever use it, but the sound of a shot being fired, and Eames’ victorious, “Take that, you bastard,” tells him enough.
Now all Arthur needs to worry about are the zombies surrounding him. He revs his bike, firing at the ones closest to him as he rides past them. He can feel them grabbing at him, fingers scrabbling for purchase, and he forces himself to just keep going and not look back.
“Arthur, I’m going to do my best to cover you, but we need to get out of here,” Eames is shouting over the communication link. There are shots being fired and zombies dropping around him.
“You need to go,” Arthur replies. “You need to get out of here before they start swarming the van, too. Start driving, Ariadne, I’ll be right behind you.”
“No.” Eames’ voice is tinged with desperation. “Don’t be an idiot, Arthur, you won’t survive. We’re not leaving you behind!”
“Well, I’ll just have to prove you wrong and make it, won’t I?” Arthur laughs, but it comes out as a short, rough bark. “Now go. That’s a direct command from your superior, Ariadne.”
“Oh, fuck you for pulling rank,” she mutters, but she starts driving all the same. “There’s a hill just ahead of us, Arthur. You’ll climb it faster than any of them will. Just make the hill, and we’ll be fine. Then it’s just a matter of outrunning any that are stubborn enough to keep chasing us.”
“You hear that? You just need to make the hill,” Eames says, and under his breath—so quietly that he probably doesn’t realise he’s saying it at all—he adds, “Please make it, Arthur.”
There are too many zombies to fight through for Arthur to spare time or breath for a reply. He isn’t sure how he manages it, but the adrenaline takes over and it becomes a blur of flying bullets and flailing arms. Then the haze clears and he’s climbing the hill, engine revving loudly as he pushes it to its limits. The zombies are behind him, giving up their chase when they realise that he’s not worth the effort.
Yes, he hears inside his head, yes, yes yes, you made it, Arthur, I knew you would.
It’s Eames’ voice, he realises, coming back to himself. The van is driving ahead of him, but it’s going slow enough for him to catch up. All he needs to do is keep driving. He’s safe.
And then he looks down at himself, and his heart sinks.
Eames is still crowing praise in his earpiece, and Arthur can’t hide the way his voice trembles when he says, “Yusuf, cut the live feed.”
“What’s wrong?” all three of them ask at once.
“Are we recording?” Arthur asks as he approaches the van.
“No, Yusuf’s stopped it. What’s the matter—No. No.” Eames is at the window, shaking his head in denial when Arthur rides close enough to the van. “Tell me that none of that is your blood. Please.”
“I can’t remember,” Arthur says quietly. “They were grabbing at me and—I’m sorry. I’d better take a blood test.”
“No,” Eames says weakly, before pulling himself together. “We’ll stop by the side of the road, just ahead. We’re safe now.”
Arthur is the first to pull over, killing the engine of his bike. He approaches the van when it stops, and the door slides open. Eames is standing there, looking at Arthur.
He looks down at himself, grimacing. He’s covered in blood. He’s sure he can feel some on his face, but he doesn’t want to check, he’s too afraid to touch it, just in case. He looks back at Eames, at the tears in his eyes, and there’s no easy way to do this. “I need the test kit, Eames. Right beside the door, in that small box—”
“Shut up, I know where it is.” Eames sounds angry, he looks devastated, and he’s holding their emergency test kit in his hands. It’s the most expensive one they carry, and the most accurate. “Catch.”
Arthur fumbles, his hands shaking, and he hears the hitch in Eames’ breath. He looks up, and he feels the prick of tears in his eyes. He wonders if he’ll feel them dry as he turns. If he turns. He unwraps the kit, his shaking hands giving away his fear. “Eames. I need it to be you. Please.”
Eames makes a pained sound but nods, taking his gun out of its holster. He points it at Arthur. His voice is a hoarse whisper. “Take the test.”
Dropping his gaze back to the kit in his hands, Arthur begins to open it.
“Arthur—” Eames begins, cutting himself off and squeezing his eyes shut. He takes a deep breath, looking at Arthur again. “I love you. I should’ve told you every single day. Professionalism be damned, I love you.”
Arthur looks down, letting an errant tear escape. He holds Eames’ gaze as he says, “I love you. I love you so much.”
He places his hand in the kit, hissing sharply in pain as countless tiny needles bite into his skin. Good, he thinks. He still feels pain. Good.
Then, the lights start flashing, alternating between red and green, and Arthur holds his breath. His chest hurts, but he doubts that it has anything to do with his lack of oxygen.
“Remember the first time we kissed?“ Eames asks, with a reminiscent smile.
“The only time we kissed,“ Arthur replies, with a smile of his own.
“The day we realised we would be amazing together—“
“—but we decided not to risk it,“ Arthur finishes. “If I could redo that day…”
“Arthur,“ Eames says softly, as the lights slow down. It lingers a moment too long on red, and Eames whispers, “Please.”
Then, with an air of finality, it settles on green.
Eames sags against the van’s doorway, letting out a sob of relief. Arthur’s legs feel weak, but when Eames takes a step towards him, he quickly takes two steps back, keeping a safe distance between them.
“I’m still covered in blood,” he points out. “That’s a risk. I need to go home and get cleaned up.”
“Of course.” Eames looks at him with so much affection that it doesn’t even matter that they can’t touch. Then, before he goes back inside the van, he adds, “I told you it would be too dangerous, you bloody idiot.”
Arthur laughs as he returns to his bike. He rides close to the van the entire way home, and Eames waits before Arthur is safely inside before going to drop the others at Yusuf’s place. By the time he returns, Arthur has showered and decontaminated, and he’s sitting at his computer, having reassured people on their site’s forum that he’s still alive.
He’d thought, all this time, that Eames would be the one to die first. That Arthur would have to be the one left alive, alone. The thought of it being the other way around—of Eames being the one having to live without Arthur—hurts more than he can bear. He’s always been prepared for the soul-wrenching pain of having to live without his other half some day. The thought of Eames going through that much pain is wrong. It can’t happen. And Arthur isn’t going to sit around and let them waste their time any longer.
He hears the door close downstairs, and Eames’ familiar footsteps ascending the stairs. By the time Eames is in the doorway, Arthur is already standing up, waiting for him.
For a moment, they just stand there, watching each other. Then Eames says, “Arthur,” and they’re crossing the room to get to each other, their mouths crashing together in an artless kiss. It doesn’t matter that their noses are squashed against each other, or that they’re holding onto each other too tightly for comfort. They kiss and kiss, remembering the taste of each other’s mouths, memorising the way they feel in each other’s arms.
“I think,” Arthur murmurs when they pull apart, staying close enough that their noses brush against each other. He grins, licking his lips, loving the way Eames’ hands feel on his sides. “I think it’s about time we stopped being so stupid.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Eames replies, and pulls him in for another kiss.
“Are you ready for this?” Arthur asks, sitting in front of his computer. Eames is sitting beside him, chin on Arthur’s shoulder and their fingers entwined.
“As ready as I can be,” Fischer answers. Arthur’s monitor shows a video feed direct from the camera hidden in Fischer’s tie-clip.
“Yusuf?” Arthur glances over his shoulder, to where Yusuf is sitting at his own work station.
“Picture quality is good,” Yusuf replies. The camera is his doing. Nobody hides recording devices quite like Yusuf does, and Ariadne had been the one to get the tie-clip to Fischer without being noticed.
“Okay, Robert,” Eames speaks up. “You know what to do. Just remember, everyone’s going to be watching, and we’ll be right here if you need us.”
“Right.” Fischer takes three deep breaths, and the camera shifts as he gets to his feet. “Okay. I’m going to his office now.”
The camera gets a glimpse of the folder that Robert picks up. It contains printouts of all the documents in the leak files that Arthur has put together.
There’s a draft post sitting open on Arthur’s secondary monitor. It’s a high priority post tagged to spread to all news sites, containing two very important things: the leak files in a compressed folder for anyone to download, and the live feed straight from Fischer’s camera. He double-checks everything and then finally nods, satisfied, and hits the post button.
“We’re live, Fischer. Good luck.”
They hear Fischer’s quiet exhale, and Eames squeezes Arthur’s hand gently.
Arthur can tell that Ariadne is watching them, and he raises an eyebrow in her direction, squeezing Eames’ hand in return. Ariadne grins at him, and he smiles back.
On the screen, Fischer approaches the door to Browning’s office, knocking before opening the door and letting himself in.
“Robert.” Browning looks and sounds genuinely surprised to see him. There are files spread across the desk and Browning sweeps them into a manila folder, putting it aside. “Can I help you with something?”
Fischer is silent for a moment, and just as Arthur begins to worry, he says, “I was just wondering how much I know about my own company.”
Browning laughs. “What kind of question is that? Everything that happens in this company needs your approval. You already know that.”
“Do I?” Fischer’s tone is cold. “Interesting.”
Arthur can see the way Browning immediately tenses. He’s sitting up properly, like he’s ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
“Be careful,” Arthur whispers to Fischer “You can’t get him worked up too soon. You need to make him admit to what he’s done.”
“Did you really think that I wouldn’t find out about your plans with the PASIV device?” Fischer asks angrily.
Browning’s expression remains utterly blank. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t lie to me!” Fischer brandishes the folder in his hand. “It’s all in here. You think you can just fool me?”
“What’s in the folder?” Browning asks, shaking his head. “I have no idea what you’re going on about, Robert. Why don’t you just sit down and we’ll—”
“Stop. Just stop. I have the blueprints right here. The old, classified military files and the way you’ve copied them and made them your own. You had access to the old files. You were in the military back when the PASIV was first being developed before the Rising—”
“Robert, Robert, Robert.” Browning holds his hands up as if to calm him. “If only military personnel could get their hands on those files, then how do you have them? I might have been involved back then, but that means nothing. Look at those files in your hand, Robert. Can you vouch for them? Can you find my name on any of the documents?”
Fischer pauses, not replying, and begins thumbing through the papers.
“Shit,” Arthur mutters. “Ariadne, check through the files to see if you can find Browning’s name anywhere. Fuck, if we can’t tie this to him and he keeps denying it…”
“Nothing so far,” Ariadne says, and they can tell that Fischer is growing agitated.
“You won’t find anything, no matter how hard you look,” Browning tells Fischer. “I wasn’t involved. It might be someone else in the company but Robert, I would never do something like this to you.”
Arthur shoots a worried looks at Eames, who frowns in thought before leaning towards the microphone.
“Robert, I have an idea, but I’ll warn you now that it’s going to be dangerous. Adjust your tie if you’ll hear me out.”
There’s a brief hesitation, and then the video feed shifts for a moment in reply. Arthur sighs in relief, leaning back into his chair as Eames whispers his instructions.
“You’re right,” Fischer says, with a sigh of relief. “It wasn’t you behind this. Your name isn’t anywhere in these documents.”
Browning smiles. “See? It was all just a big misunderstanding.”
“Exactly.” Fischer slips the documents into his folder and pats it. “Anyway, sorry for bothering you. I’ve got some work to do. I have to show the board these files, so I can catch whoever is really behind the project.”
“The PASIV can’t be allowed to exist in our world, Uncle Peter. If you read the files, you’d understand. I’ll just be going now…”
“No, Robert. I don’t think so.” Browning rises to his feet, a gun aimed right at Fischer.
“Oh,” Fischer says slowly. “Now the truth comes out.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing, Robert. You never did. That’s why I took the initiative. I’m not going to let this company die just because you’re too meek.” Browning walks around the desk and towards Fischer, gun still raised. “Even now—damn it, Robert, just think of how successful the PASIV would be! Everyone would want one, and they’d need to keep buying somnacin from us to keep dreaming. Don’t you see? It’s brilliant.”
“It’s sick. You can’t do that to people.”
“Do you really think you can stop me? Give me the folder, Robert.”
“Careful, now,” Eames murmurs. His hand has a death-grip on Arthur’s, but then Arthur is doing the same to him.
“You think this is the only copy I have?” Fischer asks. “You think that you can stop the truth from getting out by killing everyone who stands in your way? You made sure Miles would get attacked. You gave Cobb the PASIV that led to his suicide. There’s already blood on your hands.”
“Then I won’t mind a little more,” Browning replies. “Especially not if it gets you out of my way. I’ll take charge of Fischer-Morrow, and then I’ll be one of the most powerful men in the world.”
“Robert…” Eames warns.
Fischer snorts. “I’d like to see you try.”
Browning fires his gun, and Fischer ducks out of the way, drawing his own. Browning may have been trained by the military decades ago, but Fischer is a high-profile businessman and he’s been taught how to defend himself. He only has one shot before Browning starts firing at him again, and he needs to make it count.
Arthur holds his breath as he watches. There’s a loud bang and that’s it. The bullet goes right between Browning’s eyes, and he drops to the floor. There’s hardly any chance of Browning reanimating when his brain has been blown out, but Fischer shoots him again, just in case, before he sighs shakily.
He falls into one of the chairs and takes his tie-clip off, holding it in front of his face. He looks terrified and weary all at once. “It’s over, right?”
“It’s over,” Arthur confirms as Yusuf ends the live feed. “Thank you, Mr. Fischer. You did more than we had any right to ask from you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You helped me.”
“Security should be on their way now,” Eames informs him. Ariadne had tipped them off when Fischer had first gone to Browning’s office, as a safeguard.
“I’ll talk to you guys later, then. Thank you.”
The connection is turned off, and there’s a silence that follows. Arthur looks at his team members, and smiles.
“Job well done, guys. Let’s clear up. And never take a job like this again.”
“Amen,” Eames mutters. “Back to poking zombies with sticks for me. Gladly.”
“I need to take my equipment back to my place,” Yusuf says, clearing his throat and getting to his feet. “Ariadne will help me.”
“I will?” she asks, even though she’s grinning with a knowing look in her eyes.
“They’re going to have to work on their subtlety,” Eames murmurs, once he and Arthur are alone. “Though I most certainly appreciate their consideration. Now that I have you all to myself, I can hold you close just the way I want.”
“Like their presence stopped you,” Arthur chuckles as Eames’ arms wind around him. “You can’t keep your hands to yourself, even when you try.”
“Can you blame me?” Eames smirks. “And we do have the entire day to ourselves, now. I’m intending to do a lot more than hold you, Arthur.”
“I love the way you think.”
Eames laughs, kissing him. “Of course you do.”
The next time someone warns you not to date a colleague? Punch them in the face.
This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Yes, that’s right, Arthur and I are together. Properly. Finally. So you can all stop writing fanfiction.
Just kidding. I love the things you lot come up with. Thanks for the tips. ;)
—From Dream A Little Bigger, the blog of David Eames, October 6, 2040.
This job has not been a pleasant one, but I cannot say that it hasn’t been an important one.
I learned a lot. About myself, about the people around me, about the truth, and about realising that one fear outweighs another.
I am, as always, going to tell you the truth. Before the Fischer-Morrow job, I made a post about my relationship with Eames. About how I love him, with all that I have, but was too afraid to do anything about it.
That’s different, now. Sometimes, you just need to take a leap of faith. I did, and now I’m flying.
My life has changed irreversibly. The dead are dead, and nothing we can do or say will change that. I lost a friend and it will take a long time to recover from that.
But I have Eames. I have Eames, in a way I thought I never would, because I was too afraid.
I have Eames, and this one fact makes it much easier to face anything else that life wants to throw at me.
—From Paradox, the blog of Arthur Wolff, October 6, 2040.