Three days into Arthur's second job, the extractor, a scrawny man by the name of Fauvre, turned to Arthur and said,
"I don't suppose you know how to forge?"
"Forge what?" Arthur asked absentmindedly, his attention divided between balancing his chair on two legs and going over the mark's schedule for the next few weeks.
"Didn't think so," Fauvre grumbled. "We need Eames," he said to the architect, a French woman called Mal.
"Eames?" Arthur glanced up. The name didn't mean anything to him, but that wasn't exactly surprising. At twenty-two, he had been out of the military for less than a year, and while he'd been keeping tabs on the dream sharing community for longer than that, there weren't always names attached to the stories of past jobs that got told. "Wait," he said, letting the front legs of his chair drop back to the floor. "Forging as in, in a dream?"
He'd heard of it, but he'd never seen it.
"Yes, that's right," Mal said and turned to Fauvre. "I don't know why you sound so put off at the prospect. Eames is very talented, is he not?"
"I wouldn't suffer him if he weren't," Fauvre said, spitting to the side. Arthur made a face and kicked back in his chair again. It was just a warehouse floor, but they had to walk there. Was it too much to ask that people didn't splatter their bodily fluids around?
"I've only worked with him twice," Mal said, "but I thought he was quite charming."
"Sure, he can be, when he wants to be," Fauvre said, "but see how charmed you are when he runs off with half your pay."
"Oh?" Mal leaned back in her chair and put one leg over the other. "The way I heard it, he saved that job and quite possibly your lives. Perhaps he deserved whatever extra he took?"
"Is that what he's telling people?" Fauvre asked, his nostrils flaring with affront.
"Can't be too far from the truth if you're not out for his blood. But no, I heard it from someone else." Mal brought her fingers to her mouth, half-obscuring her smile. "I do not think you want to know what Eames has been telling people."
Fauvre made a sputtering sound and apropos to nothing, so it seemed to Arthur, launched into a rant about the lack of professional conduct and the general state of affairs in the dream sharing community; Mal did nothing but make the occasional, seemingly innocent comment that only fueled Fauvre's indignation. Judging by the way she kept hiding behind her hand, she was well aware of what she was doing.
Arthur thought Fauvre might have a point, somewhere in there, but he wasn't too bothered about it; he definitely wasn't getting in the middle of it. Instead, he reached over to his desk and picked up a green highlighter, choosing to tune out the argument and go back to the mark's schedule. Someone had to keep working if they wanted to have any hope of completing the job in a timely manner.
It was fall in Prague. The air was crisp with the promise of winter, and all Arthur knew of Eames was that he was a thief and a forger.
Arthur was new to the world of extraction but not to dreams. If he was honest with himself, he'd been looking forward to the focus of said dreams being on stealing information instead of killing people. He'd gotten more than his share of the latter while in the military. He wasn't naive enough to think he'd never again have to look a projection or a teammate in the eye and pull the trigger, but as long as it was just a part of the job, rather than the main course, he didn't have a problem with it.
Establishing contacts within the relatively small, loose community of mind crime had been a slow task and often frustrating. For all that the members of the community liked their secrets and generally avoided names when talking about past jobs, people usually found their way in through recommendations and word of mouth; no one had wanted to take a chance on someone who appeared seemingly out of nowhere and had little experience he was willing to speak of.
It could have been even harder for Arthur to get his foot in the door, but whatever his perceived flaws were, he had one, undeniable advantage: he had a PASIV.
"However did you get your hands on it?"
As far as Arthur could tell, there was nothing but idle curiosity in the question, but he couldn't be certain it wasn't something sharper and more dangerous, something that only masqueraded as idle curiosity. He'd never been very good at reading people, and Eames, the thief, the forger, was a master of masks.
"Got lucky," Arthur said, because lying seemed like the only safe thing to do.
"Yes," Eames said, running his eyes over Arthur in a manner that was frankly dismissive. "It would seem so."
Arthur had to consciously relax his jaw before he could speak. He knew that despite his best efforts, he still looked younger than he was -- but there was no need for Eames to be a dick about it.
"Whatever you might think," he said, the words clipped and terse, "I promise you, I can pull my weight."
"Ah," Eames said, his eyes flickering over Arthur's body again. "Perhaps. Army, yes?"
Arthur's spine straightened with surprise; he hadn't exactly planned on giving that away. What looked like genuine amusement flared up in Eames' eyes, there for a heartbeat and then gone, and Arthur's displeasure at the situation grew. Eames tapped the side of his nose and turned back to the PASIV.
"Don't get too worked up about it, darling," he told Arthur, skimming his fingers over the machine like he was feeling out a musical instrument. He had big hands; wide palms, strong fingers. Arthur wished he hadn't noticed. "Let's just hope they taught you something more useful than saying Yes, sir."
"Sir, yes, sir," Arthur deadpanned, and Eames, evidently taken by surprise, laughed. It made him look younger, carefree.
"I'll admit," Eames said, the corners of his eyes crinkling, "it does have its appeal when you say it like that."
Like what, Arthur wanted to ask but didn't. Eames' voice was raspy and warm, several degrees removed from the low, cool tones he'd been using up until now.
"A kid like you with a PASIV of your own." Eames ran his tongue over his bottom front teeth. "You'd better use it as a pillow and sleep with one eye open."
"Is that a warning or a threat?" Arthur asked, unimpressed.
"I haven't decided yet," Eames said. "No, you needn't glare at me like that. I'm just telling it like it is; if you don't keep an eye on it, you don't deserve to keep it, full stop."
"Don't worry, I'm keeping it," Arthur said, raising his chin. "I already broke one guy's arm over it in Tallinn."
"That was you?" Eames asked with a delighted smile. "Richardson, right? The greedy bastard had it coming."
"Yeah," Arthur said, uncomfortable with the sudden, easy rapport. Not the response he'd expected; it felt like a trap. The Tallinn job had been his first -- a clusterfuck, though not one of his doing. If someone was talking about it, it was probably the architect. Arthur doubted Richardson, the extractor -- who, in retrospect, had likely arranged the job just to get his hands on a PASIV, severely underestimating Arthur in the process -- would have been eager to share how he got his ass kicked by a newcomer who looked like he was under the legal drinking age. In Estonia.
Sadly, Arthur was only exaggerating a little about that last bit.
"He's been avoiding me since Greece," Eames said, looking contemplative. "Pity. I'd have broken more than just his arm. Always was a sorry fuck up, that one."
Arthur didn't know anything about the history between the two and didn't really care to.
"You think you could do better?" He asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, I know I could." Eames' smile was not friendly in the least. "Trust me on this, pet," he said, his voice dangerously soft. "You don't want to challenge me."
There was nothing overtly menacing about Eames' words, tone or stance, but that didn't stop tension from gathering in Arthur's muscles, like some part of his brain was expecting a fight.
What he said was, "Yeah? How about this: if you promise to never call me pet again, we won't have to find out what happens if you do."
What his instincts said was, danger; stay the fuck away from this guy.
What his body said -- well, Arthur preferred not to think about it. He must have gotten his wires crossed at some point while the military was messing with his subconscious.
"You've got balls," Eames said, and between one blink and the next, the half-realized threat of violence was gone. "I do like that in a guy."
"I mean it, Arthur," Eames said, the way he drawled Arthur's name just shy of mocking. "Prove that you have what it takes on the job, and I might even put out a good word for you."
Based on what Arthur knew of Eames so far, he had to wonder whether Eames recommending him would work in his favor or against him. It probably depended on who Eames talked to.
"And if I screw up?" Arthur asked, not out of concern, but curiosity.
"Then you'll be carted to the nearest hospital without a PASIV to burden you," Eames said, his crooked smile showing a hint of teeth. "Cheers."
At the time, Arthur just shook his head, reluctantly amused. Later, he thought it was a minor miracle that he wanted anything to do with Eames after that first job. Or maybe miracle was the wrong word.
Tragedy was probably a better fit.
The job could have gone better, was the thing. All right, so having a forger on the team had been a good idea, and the tales about Eames' skills, as it turned out, had not been greatly exaggerated. Arthur was even willing to privately concede that Eames had had some good ideas when it came to putting the plan together, but there was a point where good ideas turned into elaborate ideas turned into absurd plans, and Arthur felt a little betrayed that not even Fauvre, with his vocal reservations about Eames, had noticed that they'd passed that point fairly early on. Despite Arthur's best attempts, Eames had ended up with far too much creative freedom, and now --
Eames was laughing. Granted, it was sort of weak and not aimed at Arthur, but still, laughing. The bastard.
"There's nothing funny about this," Arthur said, keeping his voice low. Not that the volume made a difference; the only thing separating them from a gruesome death was a barricaded door that might or might not hold for the eight or so minutes they had left in the dream until the timer ran out.
He paced the windowless room, trying to rein in his temper. There was blood running down his arm, a steady drip of red at his fingertips. Eames was squatting with his back against the far wall, a gun held loosely in one hand.
"Arthur, Arthur," he said, shaking his head. "Cheer up. I'll be quite happy to shoot you in the head if they get through before we wake up."
"Thanks, but I brought my own bullets," Arthur said, flexing his bloodied hand. "I'm capable of putting one through my skull without your help."
"Suit yourself." Eames tapped his fingers against his gun, eyes on the door. "Do me a favor though and sit down, will you? It's giving me a tension headache just looking at you."
"Then don't look," Arthur said, but it wasn't like the pacing was helping anyone. He didn't sit, but he did take a position against one of the side walls, keeping both Eames and the door in his line of sight.
"You're very prickly sometimes," Eames told him, casual, like he was talking about the weather. "It's almost charming when it's not, you know, irritating as shit."
"Prickly," Arthur said, his tone flat. "I'm missing a chunk of my arm --"
"It's just a nick, darling," Eames interrupted a bit snidely, "and you're handling it admirably --"
"--your fault, by the way," Arthur kept talking over him, "so excuse me if I --"
"--really, no need to fling exaggerations and accusations around like that --"
A long, drawn out moan from the other side of the door brought their bickering to an abrupt halt. The door shuddered on its hinges, and Arthur tightened his grip on his gun.
"Eames," he said, using the sort of tone of voice that promised violence if not listened to. "Next time I tell you zombies are a bad fucking idea --"
"Noted," Eames said, his expression resigned as he pushed himself to his feet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, winning the argument didn't do the slightest to improve Arthur's mood.
"I wouldn't worry about it," Mal said, looking at Arthur with dark, solemn eyes.
The bar they were in was dimly lit, and in their little corner booth it felt like they were separated from everything else, existing in a place meant for just the two of them, a place where both the lights and the sounds of the bar seemed muted, unobtrusive. Or maybe that was the alcohol.
Both Eames and Fauvre had taken off after the job, but Mal had lingered, asking Arthur to accompany her for a night out. Arthur hadn't been able to think of a good enough reason to say no, which she had taken as a yes. He hadn't particularly minded; in fact, a drink or two had sounded like a really good idea at the time.
"I'm not worried," Arthur said. Then he realized he didn't know what Mal was talking about. "What are you talking about?"
"The job," Mal said, continuing to look at Arthur with dark, solemn eyes.
"It went pretty well, right?" Arthur peered into his glass, frowning. "I mean, apart from the whole," he made a vague gesture. The thing with the zombies. That blew up in our faces. Like I said it would. By the way.
So he still wasn't quite over that. Maybe after another shot or three.
Mal nodded very carefully.
"Eames, then," She said, leaning forward with her arms loosely crossed on top of the table.
"I'm worried about Eames?" Arthur frowned. No, that wasn't right. He was irritated by Eames. Yes, that was it.
"He wasn't worried about you," Mal said, not like it was a reason for concern, more like an observation. It was Arthur's turn to nod very carefully.
"We were mutually unworried," he said. "Good. Okay." Then, a bit desperately, "Mal, is this conversation making any sense to you?"
Mal dropped her head onto her arms and started giggling. The way her hair moved, Arthur thought she might be shaking her head.
"That's a no, right?"
"Yes," Mal said, her voice muffled. "It's a no." She eventually emerged, resting her chin in her hands and meeting Arthur's eyes with a mournful look. "We're so drunk."
"So drunk," Arthur agreed, saluting her with his glass before knocking back what was left in it. He put it down on the table with too much force and pushed it to the side with the others of its kind. "We should, like, make a pyramid with those. That's what you do, right?"
Mal wrinkled her nose.
"I don't think it'd work. They're not all the same size." She looked around blearily like she was scouting the place for abandoned glassware suitable for their pyramid. No, wait, that was what Arthur was doing. He scratched at the side of his nose, trying to decide if ordering another drink was such a good idea; his lips felt kind of numb.
"I'm not really an architect, you know," Mal said out of the blue.
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked. Her maze had been pretty damn good. It wasn't her fault that Arthur and Eames had gotten themselves trapped. That had been entirely on Eames. Zombies, for fuck's sake.
"Most architects in the business," Mal said, and Arthur told himself to stop thinking about the job and focus on her. "They start out in the real world and end up in dream sharing because of, I don't know, there's a demand, or the pay is better, something."
"But not you." Arthur crossed his arms on the table, mirroring her earlier pose.
"No, not me." Mal leaned forward, like she was about to tell him a secret. "I'm a chemist. I have a degree and everything."
"Oh. I didn't know," Arthur said, a bit surprised.
"And now you do," Mal said with a quick smile that faded into something pensive and faintly troubled. "There is rarely a need for a chemist out in the field, though."
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Makes sense."
"I do like being a chemist," she said. "I'm good at it. I should be happy staying in the lab, but sometimes I -- I'm not."
"So you go out and build instead," Arthur said. He could sympathize with her. Dream sharing. Extraction. It was a hard world to give up, once you were in. "You're good at that, too, so no reason you shouldn't do it, right?"
"My father would disagree. Dom, too."
"My husband," Mal said, touching a necklace she was wearing. She'd been keeping it under her shirt during the job; Arthur hadn't paid much attention to it. She didn't bother hiding it now, and he could see that instead of a pendant, there was a ring threaded on the chain.
"Huh." Another thing about her Arthur hadn't expected. "They disapprove?"
"My father, he would have a fit if he knew how I am using what he taught me." Mal waved a hand as if to brush away a philosophical debate she'd had many times before. "Because of that, I have not told him. Dom knows, but he doesn't really -- get it. So it is not that they disapprove; it is that they do not approve."
"I've had too many shots to see the difference," Arthur admitted, and Mal reached out to pat his hand.
"It's okay," she said. "I only see the difference when I've had a few. The truth is probably somewhere in between."
Arthur snorted and rubbed at his eyes.
"Definitely too drunk for this," he said, shaking his head
"Or not drunk enough?" Mal suggested, smiling.
"Could be." Arthur shrugged, dragging a finger through a ring of moisture left on the table from a glass. "So your dad's the one who taught you. He's -- an architect?"
"He and Dom both are, but yes, I learned dream sharing from my father. He's firmly on the academic side of things." Mal picked at the worn surface of the table with her nails, her mouth pulling down a little. "He wouldn't agree with what I'm doing, but I do it anyway. I just can't stand not having my way, it's terrible of me, really."
"And your husband?" Arthur asked, not interested in passing judgement on Mal's choices.
"He's -- doing legal work. Experimenting with dreams, mostly, in a research program my father founded. Sometimes militarizing people."
"You're not interested in any of that?"
"Oh, I am," Mal said, her expression keen for a moment. "Dream theory especially, it's fascinating."
"Sure," Arthur said, taking her word for it. He didn't deny there was wonder in dreaming, but he'd always been more interested in the technical aspects, himself.
"But sometimes," Mal said, looking down at her hands, "sometimes I simply must get away, and extraction --"
"Is the furthest you can get while still dreaming," Arthur finished for her. Mal looked up at him and smiled.
"Yes, you are quite right, Arthur." Mal laughed a little, shaking her head. "Listen to me, telling you my whole life story. And you, nothing in return!"
She sounded supremely unconcerned. Arthur felt vaguely guilty, but not enough to respond in kind.
"You should come visit us some time," Mal told him; it didn't sound like she was joking. "I think you would like Dom."
"You're drunk," Arthur said, shaking his head. "Inviting near-perfect strangers to meet your husband."
"Arthur," Mal said, very nearly pouting. "I do not say things I do not mean. Come on, tell me you'll visit."
"Maybe." Arthur shrugged. "I like you," he said, because that much was true.
"Of course you do," Mal said, reaching over to pinch Arthur's cheek in a manner he probably should have taken offense to; he didn't. "I like you too. It's not just any near-perfect stranger I invite to my home."
Arthur ducked his head, smiling despite himself.
"Ask again when we're both sober, and I'll think about it," he promised, and Mal sat back, looking satisfied.
"It'll be wonderful," she said. "You'll see."
Arthur wasn't sure he believed her -- but he didn't not believe her, either.
Waking up was usually an unremarkable event. Waking up after a night out with Mal wasn't what Arthur would call remarkable, but it was definitely out of the ordinary for him, and far from a positive experience.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd had an actual, shoot-me-now hangover.
There was a pitiful moan somewhere to his left, but he didn't turn to look, busy telling himself that he wasn't actually dying, it just felt like he was. Maybe if he stayed absolutely still, the feeling would go away.
Mal blindly reached out and patted at Arthur's chest.
"We didn't have sex, did we? Still wearing clothes. That's good."
"Urgh," Arthur said by way of agreement. Mal's arm flopped down, her knuckles pressing against his side.
"Are we sober yet?" She sounded a bit queasy but was obviously expecting an answer, for which Arthur hated her a little.
"I dunno," he muttered. "Yes?"
"Yes, all right then. You're still invited, by the way," Mal told him. She slapped a hand over her mouth, her voice muffled. "Ohhh, I'm going to throw up."
She practically fell off the bed in her rush to get to the bathroom. Arthur's stomach rolled at the sound of her retching.
"Urgh," he said again.
The ceiling stared back at him, utterly unsympathetic.
Arthur took another job, just him and an extractor-architect, a no-nonsense woman who introduced herself as Victoria and regarded Arthur with skepticism right up until they were ready to part ways, at which point he got a grudging nod and a hard slap on the back.
"No offense to you or Eames," she said, "but I like to make up my own mind."
"You gave me a chance because of -- Eames?" Arthur asked, trying to make sure he'd understood correctly. Eames keeping his word wasn't something Arthur had been counting on. People broke their promises all the time, especially casual ones made to some guy they'd just met, and Arthur knew better than to trust a con-man.
"Yes." Victoria gave him a tight little smile, genuine but not warm. "He does have a few friends, still."
"That's not what I -- sorry, I just meant, he said he would, but I didn't know how serious he was about it, or if I even met his criteria."
Mildly incoherent and not necessarily much better than what she'd assumed he'd meant. Luckily, Victoria seemed amused more than anything else.
"Not everything a liar tells you is a lie," she said. There was a hint of humor in her voice, some private amusement Arthur wasn't privy to. "Be seeing you, Arthur."
He nodded and let her go without voicing any of the questions he wanted to ask; she didn't seem like the type to indulge him.
The last stretch of the year was uneventful in Arthur's life, so much so that apart from the welcome absence of Christmas songs while shopping for groceries, he barely noticed the old year making way for the new. After spending weeks in his apartment in New York, neck deep in freelance research for three different jobs, he emerged, on the fifth of January, to find one email from Mal and two job offers, one in Europe, the other stateside.
The job in Madrid paid more, but Arthur wasn't desperate enough for money for that to be a deciding factor. The stateside job was in San Francisco. Arthur noted, with some amusement, that he'd already done the preliminary research for it. The mark -- one Samuel Rowse, high up on the corporate ladder -- wasn't militarized, but he was safety-conscious, borderline paranoid, which added an edge to an otherwise straightforward extraction.
Mal's email boiled down to Happy New Year with a side order of why haven't you made an appearance yet? Like Arthur was just next door, instead of on the other side of the country.
She had a point.
Arthur sent a message to one of his contacts, saying he wouldn't be taking any research jobs for a while, booked a flight to San Francisco, and wrote a short email to Mal, telling her he could drop by within the next month and a half if all went well.
Arthur included, the team for the Rowse job consisted of four people. The extractor, Josef Bastian, was a tall, dark-skinned man with an easy smile. He'd decided to tackle the mark's natural defenses by going on the offensive, so in addition to the architect, a Swedish woman called Miriam, he'd hired Arthur and a man named John Cutler to create a distraction and deal with the resulting fallout while Bastian focused on Rowse.
They were holed up in a slightly run down studio apartment, the space cluttered with desks, lawn chairs, papers and personal items. It was clear that Bastian, Cutler and Miriam all knew each other beforehand, but Arthur fit in well enough.
"It's enough for me that both Eames and Victoria spoke favorably of you," said Bastian early on, slouching down in his chair like he was used to trying to appear more inconspicuous than his height allowed.
Cutler, an American by all appearances, spoke without looking up from the dossier he was reading.
"I did do a background check on you, just so we're clear." He had a faint Southern accent. "Got nowhere fast. Not that my opinion counts for much, seeing as you're already here."
"Victoria is solid, and I don't know about you, man," Bastian said, flashing Cutler a hint of teeth, "but Eames isn't going to screw me over by vouching for a fuck up. I've not done anything to piss him off in two years and counting."
"You're keeping score?" Arthur wasn't sure whether he should be amused or take notes for future reference.
"With Eames, it pays to know which side of him you're on." Bastian shrugged, unconcerned.
"I doubt Arthur needs to worry about that," Miriam said, giving Arthur a sly look. She had an asymmetrical haircut, a single hot-pink stripe standing out among the white-blond of the rest. "Seems to me like Eames took a shine on you."
Arthur almost choked on nothing.
"You're kidding, right?" He said, half-laughing.
Cutler made a disgruntled noise.
"You think Eames is the sort to go around recommending people out of the goodness of his heart?" His tone was borderline confrontational. "He might give you his opinion on someone if you bother to ask, but he won't volunteer that information. He sure as hell wouldn't do it for me."
"Touchy, touchy," Miriam teased. "Are you still bitter about Shanghai?"
"Hell yes, I am --" Cutler snapped his mouth shut and gave her a suspicious look. "What do you know about that?"
"Just what I've heard," Miriam said, fluttering her eyelashes at him.
"Goddamn knitting circle, that's what this profession has boiled down to," Cutler said, reminding Arthur a little of Fauvre. "Which, I might add," Cutler continued, "makes it that much more suspicious that no one knows anything about Arthur here."
"I am a man of mystery and intrigue," Arthur deadpanned. "Chicks dig it," he added for flair, even though he mostly preferred guys.
Miriam chortled. "In your dreams. And do not," she said, raising a finger, "say whatever it is you're thinking of saying right now, or in the future I'll be forced to only ever refer to you as 'that creepy guy' while talking to my many friends within the business."
"And by friends," Cutler said, "she means French Poodles."
"Hey!" Miriam leaned over to poke him in the shoulder. "They were my great aunt's, and it was only once."
"I don't want to know, do I?" Arthur asked Bastian, who shook his head ruefully.
"No, you really don't."
"Anyway," Miriam said pointedly, "I don't think there's a problem here. He's done a couple of jobs, no complaints, and I spoke with Anton a while ago, he said that Arthur was good at thinking on his feet in Tallinn. I think we're all willing to believe it was Richardson who was to blame for that job going south."
Bastian looked at Arthur contemplatively, like he hadn't known about Arthur's involvement in that particular mess, but after a moment he nodded.
Cutler shrugged grudgingly. "I still think it's weird not even Archer has anything on this guy. No offense," he added.
"None taken," Arthur said, keeping his expression bland. When it came to buying information, Archer was the standard in the business, and had been for more than a year. Arthur had contemplated on whether to use that to his advantage, but had ultimately decided that giving suspicious people false facts was more dangerous than his real life persona being mysterious. If nothing else, Archer's reputation as a reliable source of information was in many ways very useful to him, and he didn't want to compromise that.
"You were willing to pay Archer's fees to get dirt on a teammate?" Miriam asked Cutler, a hint of laughter in her voice.
"It was just an inquiry," Cutler snapped, "and yes, I do like to cover my bases. You're going to end up in a ditch somewhere if you don't start doing the same."
He sounded more upset at the idea of Miriam ending up in a ditch than at being mocked by her. He seemed to realize it at the same time as everyone else in the room, and hunched over the papers on his desk, glowering as he picked up a pen.
After a minute, Miriam went to sit by him. Arthur ignored the resulting conversation, focusing on his work. He was willing to take the distraction and be glad for it; he'd gone to a lot of trouble to bury his past, and the less people asked about it, the better.
He'd started cultivating contacts while still in the military, building a network he could use to gather and distribute information. It had been a personal project in the beginning, but after his enlistment had come to an end, he'd turned it into a source of income. When it came to planning an extraction, a lot depended on good research. Not everyone had the skills, resources or manpower to dig for what they needed, and many were willing to pay for someone to do it for them. The exchange was anonymous; sometimes Arthur was asked to do a background check on a potential team member, but as a rule he knew more about the marks than about the people who stole their secrets.
Now, being out in the field, Arthur had been spending more time looking into the other side of the equation, finding out what he could about his colleagues; but there would always be people like Mal, like Eames, who, before appearing in his life, had never pinged on his radar. There was also the fact that knowing someone's past didn't necessarily tell Arthur anything about how they operated within the mind crime community. No one kept records of past jobs and teams, and no one was eager to open up about such things to someone they didn't know.
Despite all the information he did have at his fingertips, Arthur often felt like he was flying blind, feeling his way forward with his eyes closed. In dream sharing, trust was a dangerous game everyone was required to play, and in some ways, having no past was like a safety net, something to fall back on if things went wrong.
That Eames had been able to take one look at him and correctly guess he'd been in the army was irritating and ever so slightly alarming, but Arthur doubted anything more would come of it. Having a military background wasn't unique. Even if someone pegged Arthur as ex-military, as Eames had, they had little reason to look deeper into it unless Arthur gave them an excuse to do so.
Lepiej dmuchać na zimne, as his grandmother used to tell him; better safe than sorry. Arthur wasn't planning on getting close to anyone, Eames least of all.
Arthur had never quite figured out how to have friends. Following social cues and making acquaintances was easy enough, but being genuinely close to people wasn't something he had a lot of experience with. It was rare for him to get attached to people. When he did, he cared too much, too deeply.
He'd learned to keep his distance, knowing how much it hurt to lose people, but sometimes there was no helping it. Sometimes people simply refused to be held at arm's length, slipping through Arthur's carefully built defenses with ease that, if he stopped to think about it, was nothing short of appalling.
Such was the case with Mal and Dom Cobb.
Arthur had only thought to gain another contact, a friendly face within the dream sharing community. They'd gotten along well, he and Mal, but one enjoyable, drunken night and a few emails didn't make them friends; Arthur hadn't thought there would be any harm in visiting her once. He hadn't thought it would change anything.
It changed everything.
"How was your flight?"
Mal had been waiting for him at LAX. She looked wholesome and well rested, neither of which Arthur could currently relate to.
"Not bad," he said, following her to her car.
"And the job, not as well as expected?"
Arthur gave her a sideways look.
"In your email," she said, "you told me you weren't sure when exactly you'd be available for a visit, but knew enough to give me a vague idea of when to expect you. I've been under the impression that you usually prefer the New York area, but you flew in from San Francisco. I can read between the lines and make educated guesses." She gave him a sympathetic smile. "And I've seen that look on your face before, in the mirror, after a difficult job."
They came to a stop next to an old Ford pickup -- not at all what Arthur had pictured for her -- and Arthur smiled back at her, rueful.
"Took longer than expected," he said, throwing his duffel in the back and climbing in the passenger seat. "And it was a close call -- we almost ran out of time."
"It's easy to think you have more time than you actually have when you're under," Mal said, backing out of the parking space. She drove a little too fast, with the easy confidence of someone who'd spent a lot of time behind the wheel. "I was on a job last year that failed for that very reason."
"I'm pretty good at keeping track, but, well." When Arthur hesitated, Mal finished for him, saying, "but not everyone is, it's just a fact."
"I've been thinking," he said after a moment's reflection, not entirely sure if getting into theoretics with Mal was a good idea. On the other hand, being curious about the work Mal and her husband did, the possibility of their research having practical applications, had been part of the reason why he'd decided to come. "I've been thinking," he said again, "it might help if there was an early warning system of some sort, a reminder that there's half-an-hour, or twenty minutes, or five left in the dream."
Mal hummed a little, her eyes on the road. Arthur tapped his fingers against his knees, feeling self-conscious. He kept talking regardless.
"I thought, maybe a look-out could drop in, give a heads up, but --"
"-- there's no way to be certain of exactly where in the maze you find yourself," Mal said, catching up quickly, "or where the others are at any given moment, not to mention --"
"-- depending on the extraction, it might not be feasible for someone to just walk in and be like, hey --"
"-- exactly, yes, it would have to be something more subtle --"
"-- so I thought, music. I mean, it's worth a try, right?"
"Oh, Arthur," Mal said, her eyes sparkling as she glanced at him, "I knew bullying you into visiting us was one of my better ideas."
"Do you always get your better ideas while drunk? No, don't answer that, maybe I don't want to know."
Mal smacked his shoulder with the back of her hand.
"It could definitely work," she said, back on topic. "We already know that sounds can penetrate the sleeping mind, can influence a dream or, if the mind interprets them as dangerous, wake the dreamer."
"Then if the dreamer is lucid," Arthur said, frowning a little, "they should --"
"-- be able to recognize the sound for what it is, yes, and if it's instigated by someone in the waking world at a specific, agreed-upon time --"
"-- it'd be like, like a musical countdown."
"Elegant," Mal said. "As a theory, I like it. We'll have to test it, of course."
"Yeah. Do you think --"
"Dom will love it." Mal sounded so certain that it didn't even cross Arthur's mind to doubt her. "He'll be all over it, I promise. He's not entirely happy with my -- hobbies, you could say, but he won't be able to resist a good theory, especially one that makes it potentially safer for the team going under to perform the extraction."
"If it works, we should probably test it with someone who isn't proficient in lucid dreaming, as well," Arthur said, not really wanting to get any closer to discussing Mal's marriage. "If it disrupts the illusion of reality for the mark, it's all moot."
"Yes," Mal said, the line of her mouth soft. "Dom will definitely love you."
The drive didn't feel half as long to Arhur as it should have, given the distance between LAX and the apartment Mal shared with her husband.
Mal's father was English, her mother French; she'd grown up in France, where her father had a long-standing position as a Professor of Architecture at Ecole D'Architecture, and had met Dominick Cobb, an American, when he'd come to Paris to study.
They'd gotten married a few years later, followed by a move to U.S.
"How did you say you two met?"
It was Cobb asking the question, looking between Arthur and Mal with mild confusion. No suspicion, though; no hint of jealousy. Arthur liked that.
"The job I took last fall, in Prague," Mal said, pouring coffee in mismatched cups. "I did mention it to you. What was it, Arthur, your second job? Afterward, I thought we should celebrate, so I got him drunk."
"There was mutual drunkenness," Arthur put in, not wanting the facts to be misrepresented.
The apartment was on the small side, the kitchen bordering on claustrophobic with three adults in the room. It should have felt awkward, but Mal and Cobb were both acting so natural, like they hadn't noticed or didn't care that Arthur was still basically a stranger to them, that it didn't.
"Don't remind me," Mal said, sliding a cup of coffee in front of Arthur before falling into a chair next to Cobb. "I had the most awful hangover," she confided to him. "Like after that one night on our honeymoon, with the wine, remember?"
Cobb's forehead wrinkled even as he took Mal's hand in his.
"Mal, you know that's not safe." Earnest; it was the only word Arthur could think of to describe the look on Cobb's face. "You should always separate after a job, meet up later somewhere else if you have to."
"Listen to him, talking like he's an expert." Mal looked at Arthur like she was inviting him to share the joke, but her fingers were threaded through Cobb's. "He's technically right, of course, but I would like to point out that I'm not completely reckless -- it was a low-risk job, and it's not like we were at the mark's hotel, waiting for him to get thirsty and wander downstairs for a drink."
"It's a big city," Arthur said loyally. "Lots of bars."
The look Cobb gave him was a little bit disapproving, but mostly resigned, even fond, though that last one was clearly not directed at Arthur.
"You shouldn't enable her, you know," Cobb said. "It leads nowhere good."
"Says my biggest fan." Mal smiled at Cobb like she'd forgotten Arthur was in the room. Cobb, far from disabusing her of the notion, pressed his lips to the back of her hand.
Arthur, feeling oddly not uncomfortable around them, sipped his coffee and failed to mention that enabling people, in both good and bad, was something he'd always been good at.
He'd only meant to stay with them for a week, at the most, and he'd meant to stay at a hotel, at that; but Mal would have none of the latter, and it took three weeks for Arthur to notice that he hadn't left yet.
"Doesn't it bother you to have me around all the time?" He asked Dom one evening, when Mal was out with a friend and Dom had his nose buried in the data from some experiment or another. He had a habit of bringing work home and then forgetting it was work. Arthur could relate. "Aren't you tired of me and my stuff cluttering your space?"
"Hm?" Dom, sitting in his favorite armchair, barely glanced up. "Oh, no, you're very neat."
"Missing the point," Arthur said, setting a cup of tea at Dom's elbow and retreating to the sofa with his laptop. He'd picked up his research again; there was always someone willing to pay for it.
"The point?" Dom finally looked up, blinking owlishly. "No, no, it doesn't bother me. Or Mal. We meet new people all the time, and Mal has this habit --"
"She keeps inviting people over?" Arthur had no trouble believing it.
"Well, not that often," Dom said, "and I think you're the only one from -- she usually keeps our home life separate from her side business -- but, no, there was one girl, Berg-something, a Swedish name I think --"
"Yes. Bergström." Dom shifted in his chair. "You know her?"
"I just met her not long ago," Arthur admitted.
Dom made a thoughtful sound at the back of his throat.
"She stayed with us for a couple of weeks a while back, helped with my research on experimental dream architecture," he said, drumming his fingers against the papers on his lap. "Very proficient, clean designs and a good understanding of paradoxes. You must have gotten along well with her."
"Well enough," Arthur said. It was true that he had a fondness for dream paradoxes, partly because he figured such architectural loopholes could only make his life easier as the guy most likely to be left to deal with projections. It had been one of the first things he and Dom had talked about, but the same couldn't be said about Miriam, who'd had a clear vision for her maze and had required no input from Arthur. He wouldn't say no to working another job with the San Francisco team, as a group or as individuals, but on a personal level, he hadn't clicked with any of them. He wasn't complaining; he'd never expected or wanted anything more from them.
Dom shuffled his papers, frowning. A moment later he found what he was looking for, and his expression cleared.
"At any rate," he said, his attention already half-gone, "feel free to stay as long as you'd like. I'd probably be fine with spending all my time with Mal, but it's healthy, having other people around."
"It's odd, you mean," Arthur said, "not minding having other people in your home for weeks on end."
"Do you mind having us around?" Dom seemed honestly puzzled.
"It's not the same --" Arthur gave up. He usually told himself he liked being alone, and most of the time it was even true. He was maybe a little bothered that being around Mal and Dom had turned out to be so easy, but he didn't feel up to giving it any serious thought. "Drink your tea."
Dom squinted at him for a bit, but Arthur kept his eyes on his open laptop, pretending to work. It didn't take long for Dom to go back to his tea and his papers, and eventually Arthur got sucked into his research for real, the conversation put aside and forgotten.
They were still in the living room, still working, when Mal came home past midnight. They were both mercilessly teased for it, but even as tired as he was, Arthur couldn't bring himself to mind.
*If there are any Polish speakers here and "dmuchać na zimne" does not, in fact, mean "better safe than sorry" or is something a Polish speaker would not say in the given context, let me know and I'll change it.
ETA 6/13/2014 - Changed to "Lepiej dmuchać na zimne." Thanks so much to Carden for the correction! ♥
Arthur's first stay with Mal and Dom, counting the time spent in dreams, lasted nearly six weeks. At the end of it, he promised, against his better judgment, not to be a stranger.
He took a job in Germany, another in Singapore; he kept running into things that made him think, there has to be a better way to do this.
Frustrating as it was, it did make it easier for him to keep his promise to the Cobbs, leading to him setting up a secure connection so he could share his grievances with an appreciative audience. Not having the same education, and lacking their interest in the purely theoretical, Arthur couldn't quite keep up with Mal and Dom when they got too deeply into academics, but he could give them a problem and then poke and prod at them until something useful came out of it, or come up with practical solutions on his own, based on their experiments.
It wasn't a bad set up, and if Mal sometimes used it as an opportunity to pry into his personal life, well, he could live with it.
Even among people with both money and connections, dream sharing in general and extraction in particular were more rumor than reality, but there were still plenty of opportunities for those willing to take risks and believe in the impossible. Arthur, still relatively new to the business, didn't have a foolproof weeding process for jobs -- some he ended up liking less than others.
Stateside; catching one James Kenward, employed by a major corporation, on a business trip. The extraction was simple enough to be boring, Arthur found the extractor to be subpar, and while the architect -- Anton Kozlovsky, whom Arthur had first met in Tallinn -- was competent, he wasn't what Arthur would call scintillating company.
Arthur wondered if working in an office was always this uninspiring, then made a note to never find out. When Eames ended up being the single most interesting thing about the days leading up to an extraction, something had to be wrong, surely.
"If it turns out Kenward is indeed selling corporate secrets," Eames said, wearing a face that belonged to a pretty, middle-aged office worker, "I'll give up gambling."
Arthur, busy keeping up appearances by photocopying files that had absolutely no pertinent information on them, made a noncommittal sound.
"Braun can keep trying," Eames continued, referring to the extractor, "but he already struck out with Kenward, and the projections don't know a thing. We're not going to find what's not here."
"Yeah, I agree," Arthur said, glancing at the open door of the copy room to make sure no one overheard. Not that he needed to, since Eames already had it covered, surreptitiously keeping an eye on the projections outside; maybe it was just that Arthur remembered how it had ended the last time they'd gotten trapped in a room with only one exit. "The files are all innocuous, nothing to suggest he has anything to hide."
"Well, except the fact that he's cheating on his wife," Eames said. "But that's a bit beside the point, yes."
Arthur picked up the copies the machine had spit out and tapped them into a neat stack. Feeling Eames' gaze on him, he glanced at him, questioning.
"You're bored," Eames said, an observation. Arthur thought of denying it. He thought of saying, aren't you? In the end, he just shrugged.
"Admit it." Eames lowered his voice. "You miss the zombies."
"I do not," Arthur said, somewhat emphatically, because that was a step too far. "Any plan that requires the presence of the living dead is doomed for failure."
"Not the zombies specifically, then," Eames conceded, "but at least they weren't boring, you'll give them that much."
"Not everything needs to be a challenge," Arthur said.
"No, but it's rather more fun that way, wouldn't you say?" Eames sounded like he didn't expect Arthur to disagree. Like he thought he had Arthur's number. It was grating.
"Why did you agree to this one, then?" Arthur asked, because if there was one thing this job was not, it was fun -- not that he would come right out and say it. Early on, when he'd been transferred into the military dream sharing program, just the knowledge of being awake in a dream -- a shared dream, at that -- had been enough. It was almost sad, Arthur thought, that the strangest, most wonderful things could become so commonplace that a person could forget they'd ever seemed strange or wonderful to begin with.
He hadn't gotten jaded enough to feel that way about dreaming in general, but he thought that maybe it was true for some of the people in the business, and maybe that explained why so many of them seemed to be stuck repeating the same old patterns, never taking the path less traveled. Eames, to his credit, was not one of them.
"Needed money more than I needed a challenge. Gambling debts," Eames said, like it was no big deal. "I find that paying up is usually preferable to having to disappear and consequently avoid certain parts of the world for the foreseeable future. I can't be arsed with the latter right now in any case. You?"
"No reason. I guess I'm still figuring it out," Arthur said with some reluctance.
"Word for the wise, then. Avoid Braun if you can, Adams and Roubini too if you want to play it safe -- or not, as the case may be. They're adequate at best, and tend to take the easy way out."
"Why are you telling me this?" Arthur asked, remembering what he'd been told about Eames' tendency to not offer information freely. It didn't seem like Eames had ulterior motives, but then, they still barely knew each other. Eames had no reason to be helpful, and Arthur was uncomfortably aware of the fact that he might not be able to spot a lie, especially not one coming from Eames.
"Why not?" Eames asked, absently scratching the bridge of his nose. The overhead light caught on the sleeve of the silky blouse his office lady was wearing. "I've got nothing better to do at the moment, and it would be a shame if you took your lovely, top of the line PASIV and your charmingly stuck-up attitude -- I'm starting to quite like it, really -- and quit out of boredom."
"You'd miss me and my attitude terribly, I can tell," Arthur said dryly.
"The way you handle your gun, too, I assure you," Eames said, winking. "Plenty of reasons to help you find jobs that allow you to showcase your talents better than making photocopies in the mind of a man who probably hasn't stolen so much as a pack of gum in his entire life, never mind corporate secrets."
"I might still get my chance," Arthur said, "if Braun continues to harass the projections and aggravate the mark."
It wasn't an altogether happy thought. Excitement was all well and good when it was planned for, but a simple office job ending in a shootout wasn't something Arthur wanted on his resume.
"And on that note," Eames said, standing up straighter, putting on the persona of an efficient office worker, "I'd better go check up on him."
Keeping tabs on the extractor might have been more a point man's area than a forger's, but Eames had a stealthy habit of taking more control and responsibility than was necessary, given to, or expected of him; Arthur wasn't sure most people noticed.
Either way, Arthur wasn't protesting. Eames had been better at listening to him this time around, overall, though whether it was because of the easy job, or because he'd learned from the zombie incident, remained to be seen. If he wanted to be the one to deal with Braun, Arthur was of a mind to let him.
"Good luck with that," he said.
Eames tossed his forgery's hair and gave Arthur a confident smile as if to say luck wasn't needed; then he walked out of the copy room and into the office proper, kitten heels click-clicking.
Arthur found himself smiling and quickly ducked his head, schooling his expression into something more neutral as he flipped through the useless documents in his hands.
They wrapped up the job with no surprises. Braun and Kozlovsky took off soon after they'd cleared the mark's hotel. Arthur headed back to the warehouse they'd used for planning to make sure nothing there could lead back to them, and Eames tagged along to pick up his things, as he'd elected to crash there rather than pay for a hotel stay.
They were just about finished, ready to head out, when there was -- a sound? Arthur paused, listening. Nothing. He scanned the warehouse, thinking back to when he and Eames had arrived; had there been anything outside that he should have paid more attention to? Had anything inside been touched while they were gone?
Nothing seemed out of place, but the back of his neck was itching, and if there was one thing he'd learned from the gruesome games the military had paid him to play, it was to trust his instincts. Something was off.
"Eames," he said, taking out his gun and picking up the case containing the PASIV.
Eames looked up and stilled for a moment, taking in Arthur's expression, his tense body language. His gaze swept the empty span of the warehouse, lingering on the walls like he was trying to see through them, and nodded, grabbing his own gun and shouldering his duffel bag.
"Side door," he said. "Unless we're surrounded, I'd wager they'll be expecting us to come out through the front, where we left the car."
If the guess was wrong, they were screwed -- but that was a chance one took when playing the odds. If there even was a threat. Eames hadn't wasted time asking stupid questions or voicing doubts, which Arthur appreciated, but in this instance, he thought he would be equally glad to be proven wrong. Exiting or not, being ambushed by persons unknown didn't exactly fit his idea of a good time.
They made it outside without being immediately spotted. Eames was on point, and the way he moved, focused, contained, made Arthur think military; it surprised him, since Eames had shown some derision toward Arthur's own army days. Arthur didn't have long to wonder about it. When they reached the corner of the building, a bullet hit the asphalt inches from Eames' feet.
Eames ducked behind an industrial garbage bin without needing to be pushed, and Arthur threw himself down next to him, his back smacking against the metal side of the bin, the ground hard under his ass. More shots rang out, and Arthur exchanged a look with Eames.
"Which one of us do you think they're after?" Eames asked in deceptively light tones.
"I don't know," Arthur said. "How bad are your gambling debts?"
"Funny thing about owing people money," Eames said, "they tend to prefer you alive. Not necessarily in one piece, mind, but alive."
"Point." Arthur let go of the case containing the PASIV, inconveniently large considering their current situation, and shifted around. "Have you pissed anyone else off, lately?"
"Not this badly," Eames said, checking his gun. "Have you?"
"Not that I know of," Arthur said. He tried to get a location on the shooters and got nothing for his efforts but a bullet whistling past his head, way too close. "In the unlikely event that they attempt to negotiate via something other than bullets, should I be worried about you trying to bargain for your life by giving them mine?"
"More likely I'll just take off at the first opportunity and leave you to fend for yourself."
"I'm going to take that as a testament of your faith in my abilities," Arthur said, earning himself a roguish grin. "Cover me."
Eames did as told, aiming in the general direction of where the shots were coming from while Arthur stuck his head out and managed not to get his brains blown out. Dropping back down, he shook his head.
"They don't have the best angle -- they were definitely expecting us to come through the front -- and there can't be too many of them or they'd have all the exits covered, but forget getting to the car. There's no cover, except the one we're already using."
The thought of having to turn tail and try to escape on foot didn't sit well with Arthur. Eames tapped the fingers of his free hand against his knee, making a thoughtful sound at the back of his throat.
"What if we gave them something else to worry about?"
"A distraction," Arthur said. "Like what?"
In response Eames put his gun on the ground and tugged his duffel around so he could rummage through it. After a moment, there was a sound like a metal box being pried open, and he came up with --
"A grenade?" Arthur asked, feeling his eyebrows climbing up. "You're carrying around a grenade topside?"
"Two, actually," Eames said, like it was perfectly normal. "So I was thinking, they're in the next building over, right?"
"That's what it looks like, yeah. As far as I can tell, there's one on the second floor, and the rest are on the ground."
"Good, here's what we'll do. We'll toss an explosive little gift their way, duck for cover, run to the car --"
"-- throw the other one, duck behind the car, get into the car, get the hell out of here." Arthur shook his head, thinking of the distance between them and the car, the hostiles and the car, and the damage shrapnel could do to said car, their one and only getaway vehicle. "This is a terrible plan," he said. "How's your throwing arm?"
"Excellent bordering on exceptional," Eames said with a winning smile. "I'm sure you'll be able to come up with other exceedingly flattering adjectives once you've seen me in action."
Under the circumstances, Arthur could appreciate the lack of false modesty, and only rolled his eyes a little.
"Fine, okay," he said, giving in to the inevitable, because it's not like they had much choice. They were already in a bad spot, and if their assailants were even half-way competent -- not something Arthur would necessarily put money on, but expecting the worst usually served him well -- they wouldn't be staying in one place, taking potshots, for much longer; Arthur was not about to let himself get caught between hostiles. "Two things, though," he said as he grabbed the PASIV case, ready to move.
"Yes?" Eames adjusted the duffel strap across his chest. The grenades, their destructive tickets to freedom, sat innocently on the ground, waiting to be picked up and used.
"I'm on point," Arthur said, his tone inviting no arguments "and I'm driving."
"Splendid," Eames said like he'd been counting on Arthur doing just that. "Shall we?"
"Terrible plan," Arthur said again, for all the good it did either of them. His blood thrummed in his veins, adrenalin skirting along his nerves; his senses felt sharper than usual.
When Eames grinned, the corners of Arthur's mouth pulled up.
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Yeah, let's do this thing."
Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about the fact that the plan actually worked. They were alive; there was that. On the other hand, he was now sharing a banged up car with the sort of lunatic who carried around grenades just in case, or maybe because he liked explosions, or had been planning on selling them, Arthur didn't know and wasn't going to ask.
In the backseat, Eames was laughing. Objectively speaking, it was a rather pleasant laugh, throaty and full; unlike the last time they'd been in a similar situation, Arthur found himself not minding. It was probably the endorphins talking. It also probably helped that, this time, everything going to hell might not have been Eames' fault.
"How's that for excitement?" Eames sounded a little breathless, laughter lingering in his voice. A madman, Arthur reminded himself.
"Next time, I think I'll pass," he said.
Eames chuckled. Leaning forward, he filled the gap between the two front seats, resting his elbows on top of them. His forearm brushed against Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur, hyperaware of the touch, forced himself not to shift away from it. A flush spread across his skin. Endorphins, he told himself; that's all.
"I can't say that I blame you," Eames said. "That wasn't exactly what I had in mind, either."
"We still have to figure out what they were after," he said, redirecting the conversation. They needed a game plan beyond getting rid of the car.
"Hm," Eames said, agreeable. "Should we split up, or should we stick together, what do you think, Arthur?"
Split up, Arthur almost said without thinking. Splitting up was the smart thing to do, the obvious choice. Apart from everything else, why would he volunteer to spend any more time with Eames than he had to? It wasn't that Eames was bad company. It was that it was a bad idea.
Arthur curbed his first instinct and gave the matter some serious thought.
"Stick together for now," he said. Going to ground separately had its benefits, but Arthur was pragmatic enough to take advantage of resources when they were offered. "We don't know which one of us was the target, or if we both were -- we don't know anything. If we need to play divide and conquer later, that's what we'll do, but right now our chances of finding out what's going on are better together than apart."
"Keeping an eye on me until you've got everything figured out being a mere bonus," Eames said, not sounding ticked off about it in the least. Arthur shrugged, nonchalant.
"I've gotten pretty good at sleeping with one eye open."
That got an amicable snort out of Eames, so Arthur counted it as a win.
They left the car, wiped clean of their prints, on the side of the road and stole a replacement for just long enough to swing by Arthur's hotel. In addition to his calculated failure to let the team know where he was staying, Arthur had used an alias to check in and had paid in cash. Unless he'd failed to spot a tail, he doubted the location was compromised, but he was nonetheless quick and cautious as he picked up his things.
The stolen car got the same treatment as its predecessor, after which they used public transportation to get to the other side of the city; their third car was bought cheap from a used car dealer.
They rented a cabin a couple of states over and put their energies into tracking down exactly who had come after them, and why. The payment for the job had come through, and there was little reason to think either Braun or Kozlovsky had betrayed them, though it was still possible that one of them had talked about the job to someone they shouldn't have. It was also a fair assumption that their assailants had been hired by a third party. Weeding out bad information from among the good was a slow task, but not as slow as Arthur had first feared. Together, they quickly narrowed down the list of suspects, and once the pieces started falling into place, putting the picture together wasn't difficult in the least.
The cabin was small, consisting of two bedrooms with a shared bathroom, and a front room with a kitchenette in one corner. It was afternoon, and Arthur and Eames were in the main room, occupied by their respective laptops, loose notebook papers and empty mugs littering the rickety coffee table.
Arthur scratched his cheek and frowned, vaguely embarrassed when he realized he'd forgotten to shave that morning. No matter. He knew he was close, knew he would have his answers soon.
He was right; not an hour later, he sat back on the sagging sofa, scowling at his laptop.
"You've got something," Eames said. It wasn't a question. Slouched down in a faded armchair, wearing an equally faded shirt and a pair of sweats, Eames looked scruffy and tired, and Arthur felt an unexpected pang of regret, knowing that they'd soon part ways. He shifted his gaze back to his laptop, pushing the thought away.
"It's Richardson," he said, dismayed that it had taken him all week to figure out. "Looks like the son of a bitch really wants a PASIV. Mine, to be more specific."
"Ah." Eames' expression darkened. "That explains some things."
"How do we deal with this?" Arthur was willing to take suggestions. He hadn't been sleeping well, the uncertainty, the not knowing, eating away at him. He'd been so focused on the task at hand that he hadn't stopped to think what would happen once he completed it.
"We're not going to deal with it," Eames said, closing his own laptop and setting it aside. "I am."
"He came after me," Arthur pointed out.
"He came after both of us. The PASIV might've been the objective, but I don't doubt that having us both dead was a close second on his Christmas wish list."
"All the more reason for us to work together," Arthur insisted, even though he could see that Eames wasn't going to back down on this.
"No," Eames said, getting to his feet. "I'll do it alone. This isn't the first time he's tried to stab me in the back, but it will be the last."
Arthur had known there was bad blood between the two. Eames had talked about it almost flippantly, like Richardson was an annoyance -- an unreliable snake, to be sure, but not worth the energy hunting him down would require. There was nothing left of that leniency now. Eames' expression was humorless, resigned. A line had been crossed, and to a story like this, there was only one ending.
Arthur had only ever killed in dreams. He hadn't come into this business thinking he'd end up shooting people in real life, even though, on some level, he'd always known it to be a very real possibility. People came into dream sharing from all walks of life, and the intersecting circles were often violent and dark.
The people Richardson had sent after them had known the risks. Laying awake at night, restless, Arthur had wondered who they'd been, if they'd survived. Gunfire and grenades, unsubtle as they were, had surely drawn the attention of the local authorities, but the incident had been kept from the press. Arthur had resisted poking his nose into the investigation. Tempting fates, as Mal would have said, rarely ended well. Not that it ever stopped her, or Dom, for that matter.
"Let me know when you're done," Arthur said, giving in. He missed, quite suddenly and with an unexpected intensity, Los Angeles and one particular, small apartment there. Right now, that apartment might as well have been on the moon; until he could be sure no violence would follow him there, he would have to stay away, as far away as he could.
Eames nodded, his gaze lingering on Arthur for a moment before he turned and disappeared into his bedroom. Arthur told himself it was fine. If, in the future, he was given different choices, so be it; he wasn't eager to have blood on his hands, but there was no guilt in doing what had to be done, and sooner people learned there were consequences for coming after him, the better.
But he could, this once, allow Eames to have his way.
Arthur set his laptop aside and went into the kitchenette to make coffee. It had been a few hours since he'd last eaten, but the idea of food didn't sit well in his stomach.
Three weeks after leaving Eames at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, Arthur received a message, short and to the point, the last he heard from Eames for more than a year:
Sweet dreams, darling.
"I told you to aim for the head," Arthur choked out, coughing up blood.
"I did." Dom protested, sounding guilty.
"Jesus," Arthur said.
"Oh for heaven's sake." Mal pointed her gun at Arthur's forehead and pulled the trigger.
Arthur opened his eyes, blinked, and closed them again. He rubbed at a spot between his eyebrows, wincing.
Arthur lowered his hand and smoothed out his expression, glancing to the side where Mal was just getting up from her chair. At her expectant look, he shrugged.
"I'll see if I can tweak the mix," Mal said, a little frown of worry marring her forehead.
While the basic formula for somnacin was always the same, there were minor differences depending on the chemist and the batch; not all versions agreed with Arthur. It wasn't a big deal, and Arthur didn't want to turn it into one by fighting over it, so he just nodded his thanks. Arguing with Mal never did him much good anyway.
Case in point, being roped into helping Mal and Dom with a militarization of a federal agent whose subconscious was fairly ferocious to begin with. The facilities for dream research on Dom's campus were secreted away in a little used wing of one of the older buildings, and Arthur, Mal and Dom had been practically living there, among the accumulated debris of Dom's research, for a full week prior to the mark -- client -- showing up. They'd successfully worked through mazes one and two, designed to teach the client's subconscious awareness and order. It was now the second day, and they were on maze number three. Down under, it was getting harder and harder to stay alive.
After losing his gun and the use of his right arm, Arthur had figured he'd be more useful making notes topside. He'd thought a bullet would be the fastest, easiest way out of the dream, but with Dom holding the gun, that had turned out to be a false assumption. Speaking of which -- "We need to work on his aim."
"We need to work on his heart, you mean," Mal said, throwing away the disposable needle from her line.
"His heart?" Frowning, Arthur took out his own line and stood up.
Mal's smile was both rueful and fond as she went to check up on Dom, taking his pulse.
"He's not a bad shot when it comes right down to it," she said. "Unfortunately, his aim suffers when he has to shoot someone he likes. He's never been able to do as much as point a gun at me."
"That's --" a liability, Arthur thought. "Okay. Or, not okay, but at least in the future I'll know to ask for his gun instead of a bullet."
He meant it as a statement, not reproach, but Mal shook her head. Her expression was pinched.
"It's only happened a couple of times," she said, "so I didn't think to warn you. I should have, I'm sorry."
"Hey, no," Arthur said, hating the unhappy twist of her mouth. "What's a little pain between friends, right?" His insides only twitched momentarily at the word 'friends', and it made a reluctant smile appear on Mal's face, so he decided could live with it. He nodded at Dom's unconscious form. "How do you think he's doing?"
Down under, Dom had been on his own for maybe half-an-hour by now. Certain hang-ups notwithstanding, Dom was pretty good, and the maze was designed to give it's creator all the advantages, but the situation hadn't been rosy down there when Arthur had died. He doubted it had gotten any better since.
Mal checked her watch, followed by a glance at the PASIV display. She pursed her lips.
"I'm going to end up doing the dishes for the rest of the week if he makes it through alive."
"You bet against your own husband?" Arthur grinned, sliding his hands into the front pockets of his slacks. "That's heart-warming."
"I hate doing the dishes," Mal said, dismissive, "and since this is the second run of the third maze, it's a safe bet he won't last for much longer."
"He might," Arthur suggested just to see if he could rile her up.
Mal tsked. "He better not. He'll be insufferable all day."
"I bet he's thinking the same of you," Arthur said, not trying to hide his amusement.
"No bet," Mal said, tapping her nose in a manner that reminded Arthur -- with sudden, sharp clarity -- of Eames.
Arthur shook his head to clear it, only for his headache to flare up. Before Mal could notice that Arthur had dropped the ball on the conversation, Dom came awake with a sharp inhale, sitting up fast enough to almost topple out of his chair.
"Ha!" Mal crowed even as she steadied him.
"Goddammit," Dom said, without much heat, yanking the line out of his arm.
There were fifty-six seconds left on the PASIV.
Arthur had done a cursory check on Eames after their first meeting, but nothing much had come up. At the time, it had been enough that no red flags of the kind that would compromise the job had jumped at him, but after working and, very briefly, living together, Arthur had allowed curiosity to get the better of him. Consequently, he'd spent far too much time digging into Eames' past. It wasn't that there was no information to be found; it was that there was too much of it.
Take Jonathan Edmund Reed. With some effort, his life could be traced all the way back to the hospital in London where he'd been born. A decent family hadn't succeeded in countering the effects of a bad neighborhood, and despite the records making it clear that Reed had been an above average student, in the eyes of the greater society he'd never amounted to anything. From around the time he turned twenty, he'd gone completely off the grid.
Jonathan Edmund Reed was also entirely fictional, but Arthur doubted most people would notice. The construct was so convincing, right down to Reed's descent into crime and, eventually, one assumed, dream sharing, that even a dedicated researcher, one with no pressing need to take a second or a third look, might have been satisfied by their findings.
Arthur had no pressing need, but he was tenacious and throughout, and once he got past Reed, he fell headfirst into the rabbit hole of Eames' false lives: his parents had been doctors, missionaries, factory workers; he'd been posh and poor and safely middle-class; he was an only child, one of two, one of many.
The aliases did not all have the same level of attention to detail, but they were, almost invariably, convincing at first glance and, Arthur was certain, useful in more ways than just as a buffer for those prying into Eames' life.
When following the tangled mess of Eames' real life forgeries lead nowhere, Arthur tried a different approach -- but it seemed that either Eames' friends and acquaintances had taken a page out of Eames' handbook, or else they'd never met the real Eames, whoever he was. For a while, Arthur thought he had a lead with Victoria, but when he was left picking apart yet another alias, he finally admitted defeat.
Until he could come up with something new or figured out a way to sort the crumbs or truth from the landmasses of lies, Eames would have to remain a riddle. As annoying, frustrating and maddening as Arthur found the whole mess, it was also a little bit genius, a little bit amazing.
By the time he was done, Arthur might have been a little bit in love.
A year after their first meeting, Arthur was sitting in Mal's kitchen, watching as, across the table, Mal picked at the remains of her dinner.
Arthur had been staying with the Cobbs since the militarization of the federal agent a few weeks ago, and for the past eleven days, Mal hadn't touched the PASIV, not once. Dom hadn't noticed.
Deciding it was time to push the issue, Arthur had asked Mal to join him on an upcoming job. It was clear what her answer was going to be.
"You're not coming," Arthur said.
Mal's hands tightened around the knife and fork she was holding before she carefully set them down. After a long moment, she met Arthur's eyes, her weak smile not reassuring in the least.
It was the last thing Arthur expected her to say. He stared at her, surprise turning his mind blank. On the wall behind him, an old clock was ticking the time away, loud in the absence of their voices.
"You, uh," Arthur said, then tried again, his tone cautious, his words less so. "You don't seem too happy about it."
Mal exhaled through her nose, turning her head to look outside.
"I'm not unhappy about it," she eventually said, tapping her fingernails against the table. Her nail polish was a dark, burgundy color, chipped and flaky; she liked her nails painted but was careless and forgetful about it, keeping the same coat of polish until there was nothing left but worn, uneven little patches of color.
"I'm not going to get rid of it," she said. "I'm glad it's Dom's."
Arthur looked up, met her eyes. "But?"
"But I'm going to be a terrible mother."
"You are not," Arthur said, no thought required. He crossed his arms, sliding down in his seat. "Why would you think that?"
"I've never wanted children," Mal said, drawing invisible circles on the table with the tip of her index finger. "I don't hate the idea; I just always figured it wasn't for me. Dom and I, we've talked about it, I think most couples do at some point -- but it was always in terms of maybe, some day. It didn't seem real."
"And now it's some day." Arthur said. "And you don't think you're ready."
"I don't know what I think, or feel," Mal said, lifting a hand as if to bite her nails, then thinking better of it. "That's the problem."
A horrible thought occurred to Arthur. "You have told Dom already, right?"
Mal didn't say anything, but her silence contained a trace of defiance. Arthur groaned, putting his elbows on the table and pressing his palms against his eyes.
"I'm not supposed to know before your husband, Mal, for God's sake."
"Supposed to, supposed to." Mal reached over the table to smack his arm with the back of her hand. "This is my crisis-slash-celebration, don't make it all about you."
"I'm not -- this is -- why me?" Arthur wanted to know, not particularly expecting an answer.
"See, there you go again," Mal said, "Really, Arthur, I'm hurt."
Arthur leaned back in his chair, lowering his hands. "I don't know why I'm friends with you."
"It would be too sad to have to tell people you don't have any friends at all?"
"That must be it." Arthur rolled his eyes. "But seriously --"
"I was going to tell him," Mal said, sobering. "I am going to tell him. I'm just waiting for the right time."
Arthur stared at her until she sighed.
"I know," she said, pushing her plate aside and crossing her arms on the table. "I know."
"For what it's worth," Arthur said, more than a little bit awkward, "I don't think Dom will share your concerns." After a moment's hesitation, he reached across the table and offered Mal his hand, palm up; hers, slotting in place, was warm and dry. "I seriously can't imagine you not being an awesome mom."
This time, Mal's smile was real. She squeezed his fingers, saying, "Well, it helps that I have Dom. And you."
Arthur laughed. "No, don't put any of this on me if you want a well adjusted kid. You'll do fine. Dom will --"
"He'll be a wonderful father," Mal said with conviction.
"He'll try really hard," Arthur agreed. Sort of agreed.
"He'll be wonderful," Mal repeated. There was a speculative gleam in her eyes that Arthur didn't like one bit. "I bet you're great with children."
"Uh, no," Arthur said, alarmed. He tried to pull his hand back, but Mal dug her nails in; Arthur suppressed a wince. He had a feeling he'd already lost the battle, but -- "I don't know anything about kids."
"Neither do I," Mal said, with a serene smile, "but I'm sure we'll all learn fast. Don't you think so?"
Like Arthur was going to say no to that after she'd opened up to him about her fears. "You're pretty evil, you know that?"
"Yes," Mal said, releasing his hand with a final pat. "And lucky: you love me anyway."
For days after Mal finally told Dom about her pregnancy, he walked around with a stupid, dazed little smile on his face. When Arthur raised his eyebrows pointedly at Mal behind Dom's back, she rolled her eyes, but it did a poor job of disguising the fact that her doubts were already fading.
A few months later, Arthur helped them move into a beautiful, architecturally interesting house that ate most of their not inconsiderable savings. Dom gestured with his hands as he showed Arthur around, almost as exited about the house, it seemed, as he was about the baby. He waxed poetic about the neighborhood as well; a good place for raising kids, he said.
Kids, plural. Mal didn't contradict him.
When Phillipa was born, Arthur was on the other side of the world, having sex with a Russian extractor.
"Sorry," Arthur said when he saw the number flashing on his cell. "I've gotta take this."
"You are not serious," said the Russian extractor.
Arthur flipped them over so that he was on top, his free hand flat against the man's chest. "Stay put, I'm not done with you yet. This shouldn't take long."
"It's a girl!" Mal's tinny voice exclaimed a nanosecond after Arthur hit 'accept'. She sounded gleefully exhausted.
"What's a -- no way!" Arthur sat up straighter, drawing a grunt from the extractor. "You weren't supposed to --"
"--until next week, I know! I guess someone was getting impatient."
Someone was, but Arthur was content to ignore that for the time being. "That's -- congratulations. You know I would've been there --"
"I know, I know, don't worry," Mal said. "You'll see her soon enough. We're naming her Phillipa."
"You are not," Arthur said on automatic. "Seriously?"
Under him, the extractor made a face, looking about ready to storm out and slam the door while he was at it. "Yes, this, seriously?"
Arthur put a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet.
"It's after Phillippe, my grandfather," Mal was saying. "Dom, Arthur doesn't approve of the name." There was indistinct muttering in the background.
"No, no, I approve," Arthur hastened to say. "I do, really. It's a lovely name."
The extractor tried to say something, but Arthur just pressed his palm down harder. He didn't quite manage to suppress the noise he made when the extractor wrapped his hand around Arthur's cock.
"Arthur?" Mal asked.
"Uh, nothing. I'm really happy for you," Arthur said, even as the extractor pushed away the hand keeping him quiet.
"Put down the phone already," he said, ignoring Arthur's glare.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and then Mal said, very calmly, "Arthur. Are you having sex with someone as we speak?"
Dom's yelp came through loud and clear. "He's what?"
"I am not -- Okay, yes, I am," Arthur said, because he'd never gotten into the habit of outright lying to Mal.
"Just so you know, I'm never going to let you forget this," Mal said. "And you've traumatized my poor Dominick."
"That's fair," Arthur said, torn between amusement and cheek-burning embarrassment. "Sorry for any lasting trauma."
"Oh, he'll get over it. Not sure Phillipa will, when she's a teenager and I tell her all about the day she was born."
Arthur laughed over Dom's muffled protests. "You would, too."
"Are you surprised? No, but I should let you get back to it, have fun. One of us should, and I'm not having any for the next ten years or so, I've decided."
"I'll give you two months," Arthur said. "Also, this conversation is going to disturbing places. I'm gonna hang up now."
"Wear a condom!"
Arthur hung up.
"Thank God, finally," said the extractor. "I was beginning to think I was stuck in a nightmare."
"That was like, two minutes," Arthur pointed out. "And what, you have nightmares about getting cockblocked by phone calls?"
"You think you're so smart," the extractor said, his fingers digging into Arthur's skin.
Arthur barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes, shrugging his shoulders instead. "So put me in my place," he said. "If you can."
The extractor did try, but alas, even the rather satisfying sex that followed wasn't enough to stop him from eventually storming out (and slamming the door while he was at it).
That was okay. Arthur had a plane to catch.
Arthur watched as the bartender poured him a shot of whiskey, his second for the evening. He gave her a smile in thanks and took a sip before setting the glass down.
Dublin had welcomed him with clear skies but now, a few hours after his arrival, it was raining. His overcoat had protected him from the worst of it during the short trip from his hotel to the pub, but even with alcohol in his blood, he was still feeling the chill.
He'd come to Dublin to meet a potential client, but that had been a bust, and now he wished he hadn't bothered. He could be in Los Angeles right now. Somewhere not surrounded by strangers. He took another mouthful of whiskey, closing his eyes briefly as he swallowed.
Someone fell against the bar, jostling Arthur's shoulder even though there was room enough on either side of him to avoid contact. When Arthur glanced up, recognition rushed through him; he took a slow, measured breath, and didn't speak.
Leaning against the bar top, Eames called out an order before looking at Arthur.
"All right there?" Eames asked, an Irish accent rounding his words. "Didn't spill your drink?"
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "No, but thanks for asking."
"I'm a bit scuttered, you see." Eames leaned closer. "Sorry about that."
"It's fine," Arthur said. He hadn't seen Eames since the whole mess with Richardson, and to run into him here, now, in Dublin -- it was a bit too much of a coincidence.
"Here on business, then?" Eames shifted where he stood, restless bordering on impatient.
"Something like that," Arthur said. "You?"
Eames flashed a smile at him. "We'll see."
Then the bartender was back, and Eames threw a few crumbled bills on the bar before gathering up his order, judging by which he had company waiting for him.
"Thanks, love," he told the bartender. A few feet away, he half-turned, almost colliding with another customer. "You have a nice stay, now," he called out to Arthur
Arthur held up two fingers in acknowledgement before turning his back to Eames, ignoring the burst of noise as Eames got back to his table. Arthur finished his drink without hurry, not checking his pockets until he'd gathered his things and was on his way out.
The note was a blank business card with a time and a place written on it in small, neat letters. On the flip side, in a messy scrawl, Eames had written: Fancy meeting you here.
At noon the following day, Arthur was standing in a hotel hallway. He took Eames' card from his pocket and needlessly double-checked the room number before knocking.
He didn't have to wait for long before the door swung open. Eames, wearing ratty jeans and a green sweater, crossed his arms and leaned against the frame, giving Arthur a long, thoughtful look. "Well, aren't you looking fancy."
"Hello to you too, Jonathan," Arthur said, raising his eyebrows fractionally. "Or should I say Ian? No, let me guess -- Douglas?"
"Someone's been busy." Eames gave Arthur another once-over, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "But no, plain Eames will do. Well, come on in, then."
"I'm not the one blocking the way," Arthur pointed out.
"I've missed your sensible ways," Eames said, stepping aside so Arthur could pass.
"The same way I've missed how you can deliver a compliment so that it sounds like mockery," Arthur said, shrugging out of his coat once inside.
"Since you're rather good at that yourself, I think we're having a bit of a pot-kettle situation here, wouldn't you say?"
Arthur snorted but didn't reply. He walked past Eames into the sitting room and draped his coat over the back of a chair before sitting on the couch. It was a nice hotel and a nice set of rooms; Eames wasn't hurting for money.
"Mind telling me why I'm here?" Arthur asked, leaning back against the cushions.
"No small-talk?" Eames dug out a bottle of water from a bag by the windows and tossed it to Arthur. "Let's not be uncivilized. What have you been up to, lately?"
Eames sat down in one of the chairs opposite to the couch, and Arthur stalled for a moment. He imagined saying, oh, you know. A job here and there. Babysitting. Having a fling with Ivan Rozhkov -- do you know him? and thought better of it. "The usual," he said, shrugging a little.
Eames made a noncommittal sound. "I heard you're in bed with the Russians now."
Arthur looked down at the bottle in his hands, checking for signs of tampering before twisting the cap open. "Just one," he said, taking a sip. He kept his voice light, because there was no reason to think Eames had meant what he'd said to be taken literally. "It's an informal arrangement."
"So he wouldn't mind if I borrowed you for a job?" Eames asked, tilting his head a little.
"You already have an extractor?" Arthur asked instead of answering, because Ivan was the sort who probably would mind, but that was his problem, not Arthur's.
Arthur rolled the water bottle between his palms. "I can think about it, but I'm here to meet someone --"
"Your meeting was yesterday, before I ran into you," Eames said.
"Okay," Arthur said slowly, "but I'm --"
"Between jobs," Eames interrupted again, carelessly confident. "No pressing engagements in sight."
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "I don't know if anyone's told you this before, but stalking is not attractive."
"Funny," Eames said, "coming from you."
"It's called research," Arthur said with dignity.
"Well, there you go." Eames was mirroring Arthur's slouch, a smile pulling at his mouth. "You have your contacts, I have mine. Fair's fair."
Arthur shook his head but conceded the point. "There are other ways of getting a hold of me, you know. You didn't need to hunt me down."
"I prefer doing business face to face," Eames said, shrugging.
"And staging a chance meeting? Was that necessary?"
"Can't be too careful."
Arthur, sipping his water, didn't argue.
The job was high paying but not particularly complex. The people Eames had chosen to work with were good, if a little too ambitious in ways Arthur wasn't sure he approved of.
"There's research," said Hogan, the extractor, looking stubborn. "It's possible."
Arthur nodded, well aware of the research. "Of course it's possible. In theory anything's possible. I'm saying that a job like this doesn't need two dream levels. Making things more complicated than they need to be rarely ends well."
"Oh, is that what you think? You think we can't do it?" Hogan crossed his arms, his mouth a tight line. He reminded Arthur a little of Dom just then.
From the corner of his eye, Arthur could see Eames leaning against a desk, but carefully did not look his way. Off to the side, Diego, their architect, was examining his nails like he didn't have the slightest interest in the outcome of the conversation.
Arthur sighed. "Look, I have no idea if you can do it. All I'm saying is, for this job, it's a bad idea."
"Trust me, mate," Eames put in, "when Arthur insists something's a bad idea, it's best we let it drop."
Arthur tried not to let his surprise show, keeping his expression impassive as he waited for Hogan's response. Arthur was a troubleshooter, not a decision maker; all he could do was point out the problems as best he could, and if his team refused to listen, either work with what he was given or walk away.
After a tense moment, Hogan's shoulders relaxed and he snorted at Eames. "Speaking from experience?"
"It was a difficult lesson to learn, but learn I did." Eames said, his tone flippant. The look he slanted at Arthur was amused.
Diego let out a soft laugh. "You must be some teacher, Arthur. You know what they say, of old dogs and new tricks..."
Hogan laughed over Eames' gamely protests, and Arthur just shook his head. Eames had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and was always looking to learn more. Despite the joking remarks, Arthur had a feeling everyone in the room was already well aware of that, and as wary of it as they were amused.
The job was over and done with within three weeks. Two days later, Arthur was in Spain, following Eames down a narrow set of steps into a basement where Eames had set up a workshop of the questionable kind.
Tools and documents and cutting edge tech covered most of the available surfaces. Arthur looked around with idle interest while Eames went to fiddle with a camera attached to a tripod; one corner of the room had a studio set up.
Arthur had no need for the kind of maze of aliases Eames had amassed; the ones Arthur had were easy to create and burn through, good enough for traveling but nothing to build a life on. Nothing that would hold up under scrutiny. While he'd been careful to keep his original identity clean, he'd come to the decision that having another, comprehensive identity to fall back on would be something worth investing in, and when the opportunity presented itself in the form of Eames, whose skills Arthur had fist-hand knowledge of, well. He hadn't hesitated to hand over his share from this latest job to Eames, nor set aside a cut from his savings to complete the payment upon receiving the papers for his new identity.
"This is what you've been doing?" Arthur asked, running the backs of his fingers along the edge of a table.
"Among other things," Eames said. "Be a dear and come here. Sit. Do try to look ordinary."
Arthur raised an eyebrow but did as told, taking the indicated seat.
Eames snapped a picture. "Ordinary, I said. Pretend you're an accountant. I bet that was a childhood dream of yours."
Arthur surprised himself by laughing. Eames snapped another useless picture, and Arthur shook his head.
"Not even close," he said. "But feel free to keep guessing."
Eames hummed thoughtfully. "No accounting for Arthur. Tell me again what you've been up to, lately?"
"I thought you wanted me to think boring thoughts."
Eames snorted, and for a while, there was nothing but the click-click-click of a shutter as Eames took one picture after another.
"That should do it," Eames finally said, straightening. "I'll try to pick one that looks suitably awkward for the official documents."
"Thanks," Arthur said, his tone dry. "I appreciate it."
"And I know exactly how much." Eames said. "I wouldn't expect a discount just because we know each other, by the way."
Arthur stood up and stretched. "Do you have gambling debts again or something?"
"You think so little of me, Arthur. It's quite hurtful."
"That's not an actual answer, you realize," Arthur said, and -- "Stop pouting, you look ridiculous."
"I was going for 'tragically wounded', but I can see there's just no pleasing some people," Eames said as he unhooked the camera from the tripod.
Arthur pressed his lips together, unable to fully suppress his smile. "Sure." He hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his slacks and looked around the basement again. "Have you dreamed at all over the past, how long has it been? A year? Longer."
Eames shrugged. "A couple of times. Not having a PASIV of my very own, my access to one has been limited. That'll change now that I've started taking jobs again, of course."
"Yeah." Arthur blinked and looked away when he realized his gaze had been lingering on Eames' shoulders.
"What about you?" Eames looked at Arthur with a speculative look in his eyes. "Planning on taking your new alias and walking away?"
"No," Arthur said, surprised. "I just like the idea of having something solid to fall back on in case I need it. My back-up plans needed an update."
Eames hummed, noncommittal. "Sensible. But then, you usually are."
Arthur didn't feel sensible, some four months later, drunk on wine and beer and vodka and already regretting all three.
"We are the architects of the future," said Boris, a sturdy man in his fifties, possibly somehow related to Ivan, though Arthur was still hazy on the details. "We are changing it, one mind at the time."
They were in someone's home. The apartment was cramped full of people, and it was perfectly possible, as far as Arthur could tell, that all of them were somehow related to Ivan. Interest in dream sharing and various other less than legal activities ran in the family. Still, Arthur wasn't sure most of them even knew what they were celebrating. Not that it mattered, though completing a job that had not only benefited from but successfully utilized two dream layers, even if it had in the end been more luck than skill that had seen the team through, was certainly something to celebrate.
"We have more choice than most pawns," Arthur told Boris, trying to ignore the way his head was swimming, "but we're still just pawns, being paid to do someone else's dirty work. It's a corporate game."
"Not in Russia." Boris argued. "Not in many places, I think."
Arthur shook his head. "I don't do politics."
"Not with me he doesn't," Arthur said, throwing back the rest of his drink.
"He is your partner," Boris said, his tone somewhere between disapproving and imploring. "You go where he goes; you are a wolf, yes, but not a lone one."
"I'm a lone wolf when it suits me," Arthur said, pretending the conversation made sense. "Politics? They don't suit me."
"A stubborn wolf." Boris' shoulders shook with good humor. He poured Arthur another shot of vodka. "Very well, no politics for Arthur. Perhaps I should feel relieved, yes? I was beginning to think you had no flaws, and a man without flaws is a dangerous man. Unnatural."
Arthur barked a laugh. "Oh, don't worry, I have plenty of flaws. Ivan can make a list."
Boris' eyes cut to the side, his brows lowering when he found Ivan in the crowd. "That boy. Sometimes I don't know what goes on in his head."
"I'll drink to that," Arthur said, amused.
It didn't seem as amusing the next day, when on top of the hangover from hell, he had a fight with Ivan about something so inconsequential that by the end of it, he couldn't remember what had started it. It didn't help that they were heading for dinner at Ivan's mother's house.
Arthur had been there once before, because while he generally tried to steer clear of Ivan's tangle of relatives, they were often impossible to avoid. They weren't the sort to take no for an answer.
Not that all of them were bad. Talking with Boris, for example, Arthur had enjoyed well enough. Ivan's mother was another story. American, she'd said when they'd been introduced, her tone making it clear she disapproved. For the rest of his visit, she'd spoken nothing but Russian even when she'd been addressing him directly.
If not for his hangover and the icy silence from Ivan, Arthur might have found the energy to be more annoyed. He was certain Ivan's mother didn't want him around, yet apparently, she would be greatly insulted should he not show up. It was a mess.
A horribly domestic mess, Arthur thought with sudden spike of nausea; he'd never intended family dinners to be part of this thing he had with Ivan.
He didn't have a whole lot of time to think it over, especially once they were in the house. Dinners were never a small affair in the Rozhkov household, it seemed; the house was half-full of people, more like another party than a family gathering -- but then, Arthur had never had a family like this.
"Vanya," Boris called out when they entered the living room, and then, when he caught sight of Arthur, "Ivan! Ivan and the wolf!"
"Not so loud, old man," Arthur said, trying to keep the tension running through him from showing in his voice and posture.
There was scattered laughter, Boris' loudest of all. "How do you say -- lightweight? The wolf can't hold his drink."
"I'm better off than Ivan," Arthur said, and there was more laughter. Ivan stalked across the room toward kitchen without looking at Arthur, and people called after him with what Arthur assumed were insults.
Arthur sighed and found himself a corner to hopefully be overlooked in. Once this was over with, he was going to get himself a plane ticket to Los Angeles and spend a week doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and maybe taking bad photographs of Phillipa for Mal to pin on the fridge.
Sometimes, Arthur wondered about his life.
"Sartorialist," Ivan had said once, fingering the lapels of Arthur's suit jacket.
"I don't know what that means," Arthur had said, putting his hands in his pockets.
"Elegant. Well tailored. Sexy."
"You're making that up."
"Maybe that last one isn't part of the official definition," Ivan had admitted. "But it should be."
It was one of Arthur's better memories of his time with Ivan. All the fighting aside, they'd worked well enough together, and the sex had always been great; it was the way things eventually ended that soured every good thing that had ever existed between them.
Arthur's ribs ached. He probably should have listened to Mal when she'd insisted he should take a good, long vacation instead of another job -- it wasn't the smartest idea he'd ever had, going back to work less than two weeks after the sort of bad break up that had left him with bruises -- but he'd been going stir crazy, sick of marinating in his own thoughts. When Josef Bastian had contacted him about a job, Arthur hadn't hesitated to say yes.
"So I can't change your mind," Mal said. She was standing in the doorway, watching with narrowed eyes as Arthur packed his suitcase. "Do they have an architect?"
"It's Bastian," Arthur said, almost shrugging before he thought better of it, "so he probably has Miriam on call."
"Do they need a chemist? Never mind, I'll find out for myself."
"What --" Arthur turned, but Mal was already in the hall, out of sight. Arthur cursed under his breath, tossing a half-folded shirt on the bed and going after her.
"Mal," he said when he reached the doorway of the study she'd disappeared into. "I don't need a fucking -- there's only one person under this roof who needs a babysitter, and that person is an actual baby."
"I'm not sure what you're trying to say," Mal said, booting up her laptop. "I've been cooped up in this house for months; it's past time for me to get out for a while. You wouldn't deny a friend a small thing like this, would you, Arthur?"
Cooped up in the house. Yeah, right.
Mal hadn't taken any jobs since Phillipa's birth, true, but she had friends, hobbies. She'd hardly been trapped in the house, and she'd been -- happy. Settled. And while she hadn't been with Phillipa every hour of every day, there was no way she was okay with going weeks without seeing her.
"C'mon," Arthur said, feeling the weight of all his aches and sleepless nights. "You're not seriously suggesting leaving Phillipa and Dom alone for however long it takes to complete this job."
"You said this would be a quick one, didn't you? And I know how you like to poke fun at Dom, but be serious now, yourself. We both know they'll be fine."
"A quick job usually just means it'll be more risky," Arthur argued. "And yeah, okay, but you know what else will be fine? Me, going by myself. If you're really that worried, you can supply the somnacin so we can both be reassured I won't get a migraine on top of everything else."
"I think I will indeed supply the somnacin," Mal said as she began typing. "I will also take this opportunity to go in the field, if you don't mind. It's really been too long since the last time, and as it happens, Miriam owes me a favor."
"It's fucking impossible to argue with you," Arthur said, for all the good it did him.
"And that is two for the swear jar," Mal said, unruffled.
Arthur ran a hand through his hair before trying again, this time without cursing. "I don't need a babysitter."
For a moment, Mal didn't say anything, her eyes fixed on the screen. When she spoke, her voice was quiet but no less certain for it. "You do need a friend right now, and I'm not sure you have any, where you're going."
Arthur swallowed past the lump in his throat. Mal was -- fucking infuriating, but -- there was a reason Arthur kept coming back here, to this house, to these people. He didn't need anyone to hold his hand while he got over a break up, of all things, but if it had to be someone -- if it made her feel better -- it might as well be Mal.
"Fine," Arthur said with lingering ill grace. "You get to tell Dom."
The smile crinkling the corners of Mal's eyes almost made Arthur forgive her for the rest of it.
Dom wasn't thrilled, but didn't protest too much. He knew as well as Arthur did that once Mal made up her mind, it was near-impossible to make her change it. Watching the way she kept checking the rear view mirror as they left for the airport, Dom and Phillipa getting smaller and smaller in the distance before vanishing from sight as Mal took a right turn, Arthur wished he'd tried harder to convince her to stay.
"You could just drop me off," Arthur said, aiming for casual and hitting tentative instead.
Mal gave a little huff and turned the radio on. "You'll have to try harder than that if you want to be rid of me."
"I don't -- I'm just saying."
Mal said nothing for a few beats, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel. "I'll see them again soon enough. Now shush," she said, turning up the volume on the car radio. "I like this song."
The job was in Munich. Through his contacts, Arthur had made short work of finding a vacant loft they could use during the planning stages, and after swinging by their hotel, Arthur and Mal headed there. They were the first to arrive; Arthur set up the whiteboards and chairs and unpacked the PASIV while Mal went through the lab equipment she'd brought with her.
The fourth member of the team Josef Bastian had put together walked through the door a few hours later; Eames looked slightly jet-lagged, but his expression brightened when he saw Mal.
"Mallorie," he said, coming forward to take her hand and brush his lips against the back of it. "Josef told me you were coming, but I could scarcely believe it. I'd thought you'd moved on from these particular shores of wonder."
"Hello, Eames." Mal said, clearly amused. "It's been a long time. Arthur tells me you haven't lost your touch."
"Is that what Arthur tells you," Eames said, his eyes glinting with good humor that dimmed a little when he got a good look at Arthur. His gaze lingered on the barely noticeable discoloration around Arthur's left eye, but before he could comment on that, he caught sight of Arthur's left hand.
"That's a lovely ring you're wearing. Are congratulations in order?"
Arthur's hand twitched without his consent, and he glanced down at it, at the simple golden band on his ring finger.
"Right, yeah," he said, gesturing at Mal. "We're married now, apparently."
"Engaged, Arthur; engaged," Mal scolded. For Eames' benefit, she added, "we didn't have time to make our aliases match."
"Or, we could have just gone without the whole charade," Arthur said, because being 'engaged' to Mal was plain weird. "We're here on business, so I don't see why we couldn't go with that if anyone asks."
Mal, bastion of maturity that she was, stuck out her tongue at him. "Don't be a stick in the mud, Arthur. I haven't been out in the field for a long time. Adventure, intrigue, secret identities! Do not deny me these things."
Eames was laughing. "I'm afraid it'll be difficult for you to convince me Arthur here doesn't make for a terrible fiancé. Next time, you should ask me; I know how to treat a lovely lady such as yourself."
"I'm sure you do," Mal said with a wistful little sigh, "and you are right, he is quite dreadful. But the heart wants what it wants."
Arthur rolled his eyes, ignoring the twinge of pain from the nearly healed bruise. "Let me know when the two of you are done, yeah?"
"We are quite done," Mal said, her tone not particularly convincing. "Eames?"
"Quite done," Eames agreed, amiable, but his eyes flickered to the left side of Arthur's face like he couldn't quite help himself.
Mal followed his gaze.
"If anyone asks," she said, "he got the black eye while defending my honor."
Arthur snorted. "You'd give me a black eye if I tried."
"Unlike some people," Mal said a little stiffly, "I don't resort to violence when words will do."
Eames picked at his lower lip absently before speaking. "A job gone bad?"
Arthur hesitated, and Eames let out a snort. "No, it's more personal than that, I'd wager. Mal has a lovely poker face, but I can tell she's practically seething over it."
"I fell down the stairs," Arthur said, meeting Eames' skeptical expression with a challenging one of his own. It was true, technically speaking.
Of course, Mal had to add, "He had help."
"Fine, I had help," Arthur said, because there was little else he could do. "It's none of your business, so could we start focusing on, like, business."
"A nasty falling out with that sometimes-partner of yours, then," said Eames, the obnoxious bastard. "Rozhkov, was it?"
Arthur pressed his lips together in a thin line and went to stand next to the PASIV, needlessly checking it over. Eames was looking at him like he was still expecting an answer, and after a minute, Arthur's irritation made him snap. "What? You have it all figured out. He punched me, I fell down the stairs, we decided to part ways."
That was the sanitized version, anyway. It had been after Arthur had told Ivan they should break it off that things had taken an ugly turn; there had been accusations and shouting, and even after giving Arthur a black eye and bruised ribs, Ivan had descended those stairs intent on doing more damage. That fucker. Arthur rested one hand on the PASIV and the other against his ribs, and forced himself to take a deep, even breath.
"Rotten way for a partnership to fall apart, but I've seen worse." The twist of Eames' mouth made it clear he was well aware of how fucked up that was. "I do hope you gave as good as you got."
Mal flicked her fingers against Arthur's arm like she wanted to make sure he knew she was there. Her voice, when she spoke, was subdued -- a little sad, a little fond.
"Arthur always does."
Once Bastian arrived, everyone focused on the job, for which Arthur was grateful.
"Two layers." Mal glanced at Arthur before looking back at Bastian. "Have you ever done it before?"
Bastian grimaced, spreading the fingers of one hand in the smallest gesture of surrender. "Once; it didn't work. But we all know it can be done, and we could use the extra time on this one."
He looked at Arthur; so did Eames. Arthur exchanged a look with Mal -- a slight questioning tilt of his eyebrows getting a barely there nod from her in return.
They were, the four of them, sitting in a loose circle in the middle of the loft. It was early stages yet; apart from a single photo of the mark -- Erica Anderson, private sector, working in the field of cybernetics -- the whiteboards were empty and waiting.
"I don't disagree," Arthur said, leaning his elbows on his knees. "But everyone here also knows how risky it is. Why didn't it work out for you, the last time you tried it?"
Bastian was a good extractor, but he often had a direct, aggressive approach to executing the jobs. It was effective, in most cases, but Arthur wasn't sure explosions would get them far this time.
"Perhaps we didn't plan it well enough." Bastian lifted one shoulder. "We definitely didn't have the right mix of somnacin. We believed we'd be able to keep it together long enough to get what we came for, regardless, but once we went in and the mark became part of the equation, well."
"The dream collapsed," Arthur said, and Bastian nodded.
In the early days of dream sharing, creating a stable dream environment had been a challenge. These days, a little experience and the right mix of somnacin, easily purchased if you knew your way around the black market, meant that a stable dream could be achieved with very little effort. Start messing with that basic structure, though, and things could go downhill fast. Multi-layered dreaming had all the pitfalls of regular dreaming, made ten times more risky by the increased likelihood of the whole thing falling down like a house of cards.
"What's the verdict, then?" Eames asked, raising a lazy eyebrow, like he wasn't at all invested in what said verdict would be. "Is it worth the risk this time?"
Eames sounded a little like he was mocking Arthur, but that was nothing unusual. By now, Arthur was ninety per cent sure that Eames held a certain amount of genuine respect for Arthur's opinions, which made his baiting easier to ignore.
Arthur glanced at the lonely photo on the whiteboard. They were on a tight schedule. The window of opportunity here was short. Having more time overall, and being able to fall back on plan B should the first attempt fail, was nothing to sneer at. They had a good team, and with Mal there, an access to a modified somnacin mix that should reinforce the fabric of the dream enough to keep it from collapsing at the first sign of trouble.
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Let's do it."
A week into the planning, with the deadline fast approaching, Arthur was monitoring Mal and Eames while they were testing the mazes down under. So far, the somnacin Mal had cooked up for her experiments with Dom had worked well.
Not that Arthur had had doubts about that -- he'd already field tested this particular mix with Ivan on the job where they'd successfully utilized two dream layers. Still, every job was different, and Arthur was hoping this one would succeed a little less because of luck, and a little more because of the skill of the people involved.
Bastian came in, having made a quick trip down the street for take out Chinese. After setting the food down on one of the tables, he came to stand next to where Arthur was sitting.
"A few more minutes," Arthur said, nodding at Mal and Eames. "You remembered the spring rolls, right? Mal likes those."
"It's like you really are married," said Bastian, who'd been as quick as Eames to notice the rings, and about as amused.
Arthur snorted. Instead of gracing the comment with an actual reply, he gestured at the food Bastian had brought in. "If you have nothing better to do, you can give me one of those. Anything with chicken is fine."
Bastian gave him an unimpressed look but complied nonetheless. That alone made Arthur pause before he snapped apart the cheap chopsticks Bastian handed to him along with the food.
"Thanks," he said, digging in. He made a point of ignoring the fact that Bastian was still standing next to him, making no move to get his own food.
"It's good that Mal came with you," Bastian said after a few increasingly awkward moments. He gave Arthur a brief, hard to read look, as if unsure of whether he should elaborate.
"Yeah?" Arthur said, keeping his tone noncommittal.
"Yes, it's -- blast it." Bastian sat down in one of the unoccupied chairs, visibly agitated by something. "It's Miriam. She's been distracted of late."
"Cutler," Arthur said. It was a shot in the dark, but earned him a surprised look that quickly turned rueful.
"Cutler," Bastian confirmed. "Not like you think, though. I mean, they do have a thing -- of some sort, I've told them never to give me details -- but it's --" he hesitated before trying again. "We've been working together on a semi-regular basis for a long time now. We were all on that failed job, where the dream came down around our ears. Nobody wanted that to happen again, so we've been trying to figure it out, practice, you know?"
He seemed to expect some sort of response, so Arthur nodded, half-distracted by his food. He wasn't too bad with the chopsticks, but used them rarely enough that it always took him a minute before he got the hang of it again.
"A few weeks ago," Bastian was saying, "something went wrong. I'm not sure..."
He trailed off, and Arthur looked up, frowning. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure," Bastian repeated, looking down at his hands. "Everything seemed fine. Everything is fine, except sometimes, Cutler -- he keeps spacing out. Gets this confused, grumpy look on his face."
"So business as usual," Arthur said, but it sounded forced even to his own ears. His chopsticks rested between his fingers, unmoving.
"He says -- we've asked him, and he says --" Bastian broke off. For a moment, he just sat there with his head bent, his hands tangled together like in prayer.
When he raised his head, there was something tired in his eyes, lost, and Arthur felt a chill down his spine even before Bastian finished his sentence.
"He keeps waiting for the music to come."
So apparently Cutler couldn't quite tell the reality from dreams anymore. A part of Arthur wished Bastian hadn't told him, the same part that couldn't help worrying about what it meant in the greater scheme of things, or wondering if Bastian was as distracted by it as Miriam would have been. But he imagined he knew why Bastian had felt the need to share.
Dream sharing was still, in many ways, a new frontier, with hidden dangers and unseen potential, and mapping out the ever-shifting landscape of it wasn't a job for any one person. Arthur couldn't fault Bastian for hoping that the dream sharing community at large might come to think of a solution that hadn't yet occurred to him. In the end, it was probably all Arthur could do -- spread the word so that people with more knowledge in such matters might come up with an idea on how to fix it.
Right now -- Arthur felt callous, but he was too used to seeing information as something to be gathered, dissected and sorted to treat this new development any different. It was easy enough for him to compartmentalize the matter and set it aside, to be examined at a later date. He didn't have time to dwell on it. There was work to do.
Sometimes, it didn't matter how well you planned, or how good your players were; sometimes, the game was rigged from the start.
By the time Erica Anderson's flight landed in Munich airport, they had everything ready. That evening, at Anderson's hotel, Mal was the one to bring Anderson her room service order. After enough time had passed for the drugs to kick in, the team let themselves into her room.
After some debate, Mal had volunteered to stay topside to monitor them and put on the music when the time came; Bastian didn't trust outsiders, even well-paid outsiders.
The first ten minutes in the dream, everything was normal. Arthur found Eames, and together they located Bastian. Finding the mark turned out to be harder, but that wasn't uncommon.
Eleven minutes into the dream, the projections started losing their facial features.
"Well, this is ... delightfully creepy, wouldn't you say?" Eames was looking around with a troubled expression.
Arthur wondered how the projections, especially with their faces smoothed out, would react to the sight of a gun. He was fairly certain he'd feel better with a gun in his hand. Somehow, the fact that the projections were acting like nothing was wrong only made them more disturbing. "We should abort."
Bastian, standing a little to the side, shook his head. "No, we're at least going to find the mark first. The projections aren't presenting an immediate danger. We should give it a little more time."
"Something's obviously wrong," Arthur said, not willing to let this go. "Even if it's just that the mark's subconscious is seriously messed up -- that's not something we're prepared to deal with. And if the mark sees them the way we're seeing them, then we've already lost any chance we had of convincing her this is real."
"We don't know that," Bastian said. "Eames --"
Before he could finish, there was a ripple of sound rolling across the clear, cloudless sky. Some of the projections turned their blank faces up, like they were expecting rain.
Arthur had his gun out and pressed against his temple before he had time to so much as blink. The last thing he saw before he squeezed the trigger was Bastian's startled expression, and Eames' grim one as he reached for his own gun.
Arthur came awake to a dark-clad figure standing over him, the barrel of a gun pointed at his head. It was reflex more than anything that saved him, got him past that half a second of confusion after coming out of a dream; he slammed the heel of his hand against the gun, sending it skittering to the floor, kicked the guy in the ribs, and rolled to his feet.
His own ribs were screaming at him, but he had no time to care about that. A quick glance told him there were total of two hostiles in the room. The other one was up against Mal -- Mal, who was alive and fighting, not bleeding on the floor like Arthur had feared after realizing the sound reverberating through the dream had been a gunshot. As far as Arthur could tell, Mal was holding her own, but he was still glad to see Eames awake and getting up from his chair.
The guy Arthur had disarmed took advantage of Arthur's brief moment of distraction and slammed his shoulder into his side. Arthur went down under the guy's weight, hitting the floor hard; his body was slow to obey him -- he barely managed to block a punch.
Then the guy was practically lifted off him, and Arthur could do nothing but watch as Eames slammed the guy's head against the wall until he crumbled to the floor. On the other side of the room, Mal and Bastian had already taken care of the other assailant.
Arthur let out a wheezing cough, trying to push himself to his feet. He didn't protest when Eames gripped his upper arm and hauled him up, but his ribs did; he had to close his eyes for a moment to get rid of the black spots dancing on the edges of his vision.
When he could stand without swaying, he took stock of the situation. Two unconscious hostiles on the floor. The mark --
"The mark --"
"I'll make sure she stays under," Eames interrupted, letting go of Arthur's arm.
"Mal --" Starting to move toward her, Arthur realized that she was pressing a hand against her side, blood seeping out from between her fingers. He staggered to a halt, feeling like someone had sucked all the oxygen from the room.
"It's a graze," Mal was saying. "It's nothing but a graze."
And then she was standing in front of him, her hand gripping his, and he forced himself to take a shuddering breath, then another, deeper, more painful.
"Okay," he said. "Okay, fine." He tugged his hand free of Mal's hold and yanked at his tie until it came loose, folding it and pressing it into her hands. "Keep pressure on it."
She gave him a brief glare, which oddly made him feel better -- she didn't need him to tell her what to do, of course she didn't. Nonetheless, she placed the folded cloth against the wound.
"We need to go," Bastian was saying, and fuck, how had everything gotten so fucked up.
The assailants' guns had suppressors, but that didn't make them silent -- and even if someone hadn't recognized the gunshot for what it was, they were bound to have heard the sounds of fighting.
Somewhere in the room, there was a bullet with Mal's blood on it, and they had no time to linger, to clean up.
"It's fine," Mal said, like she was reading his mind. "We'll be fine."
Arthur couldn't make his throat work well enough to form words. He went to pack up the PASIV, but Eames beat him to it; Arthur didn't have the energy to argue, so he didn't.
They left the room less than fifteen minutes after entering it, each of them a little worse for wear.
"Someone tipped her off," Bastian said. "The mark, someone tipped her off."
They were in the loft, making sure no trace of them was left behind. There was tension in the air, prickling at Arthur's skin.
"In light of that, it makes sense, in a twisted, unsubtle sort of way," Eames said. "The projections, I mean."
"Never mind the projections," Mal said, short tempered. Her wound had been cleaned and bandaged; she'd been right about it being little more than a graze. "What are we going to do? I know none of us sabotaged the job. I know it."
"It wasn't me, that's for sure," Bastian said. "And I've definitely not pissed anyone off lately, not bad enough to merit this sort of trouble."
Eames looked at Arthur with narrowed eyes. "What about you, Arthur? Have you pissed anyone off lately?"
Arthur bristled. "Don't ask questions you know the answer to."
"That's our best bet, then," Eames said.
Bastian slammed a folder shut and grabbed his bag. "I'm out of here," he said. "I'll have enough trouble explaining this to our employer -- I want nothing to do with this mess. Don't expect to hear from me any time soon, Arthur," he added. "The next time we work together, if there is a next time, you better make sure your six is clear, or I'll put you down myself."
"Acknowledged," Arthur told to Bastian's retreating back. There was a slow-burning anger coiling at the bottom of his stomach, but it wasn't directed at anyone in the room.
"So," Eames said once it was just the three of them. "Rozhkov."
"Unless there's something you haven't told me, yes, he's our best bet," Arthur said, half-wishing Eames had left with Bastian. "I'll have to find out more first, but all considering --" Arthur paused, swallowing. Ivan had a temper, but it was hard for Arthur to accept he'd resort to this kind of retaliation. But then, he hadn't thought Ivan would kick him down the stairs, either. "It's probably him."
Eames nodded, the look in his eyes unreadable. "You have to take care of this."
"I know. I will," Arthur said. "He won't be a problem."
"Do you need a gun?"
"No." Arthur glanced at Mal, whose face was as unreadable as Eames'. "I'm not going to kill him."
Eames scoffed. "Look, I don't like it any more than you do, but it's got to be done. It's a bad idea to leave a live enemy at your back. Look at what happened with Richardson."
"I know," Arthur repeated. "It's -- I know Rozhkov. He's petty, but he won't keep it up. I'll make sure he won't keep it up. I'll lie low for a while, contact some people. I'll take care of it."
"He was willing to kill you," Mal said, her voice cold.
"Not in person. And -- he knows me. Sending two thugs after me when I have a team of four? He wasn't trying that hard."
"That's a shitty excuse," Eames said.
Mal nodded, disapproving. "You're injured, and you weren't supposed to wake up in time to defend yourself."
"I get it, okay?" Arthur snapped. "I get it, but it's not that simple. If he turns up dead, then I guarantee you, there will be trouble. So just -- let me contact some people. Figure a way to get out of this so no one else gets hurt."
Mal let out a breath, her shoulders slumping. "Fine. It's -- fine. I do not like feeling this blood-thirsty."
Arthur looked at the bruise blossoming on her cheek, thought about the wound covered up by her shirt and a layer of bandages, and didn't tell her he knew exactly how she felt.
"All right, then," Eames said. "No skin off my nose, I suppose. Don't contact me until you've taken care of it, yeah? I'm afraid I have to agree with Josef on that much. I do like you, you understand, just not quite enough to risk my neck on another job like this."
"Yeah." Arthur rested his palm against his ribs. "I get it." Turning to Mal, he said, "I don't think it's a good idea for me to go back to L.A. -- or for us to go anywhere together right now. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry," Mal said, coming forward to cup his face in her hands. "Be safe."
He dredged up a smile for her. "Sure."
She narrowed her eyes threateningly, and Arthur's smile became a tiny bit more genuine. "I promise," he said, taking her hands into his and lowering them.
"Very well," Mal said, squeezing his fingers. "I'll hold you to that."
"This is all very sweet," Eames said, interrupting, "but we should probably be on our way to someplace not here." He winked at Mal. "I can accompany you, if you'd like. We've already established that I'm better marriage material."
"Better at pretending, maybe," Arthur said with a glare. For some reason, Eames flirting -- and with Mal in particular -- put his teeth on edge. Apart from that, well, he wasn't sure he trusted Eames to accompany Mal or -- anyone, really.
"But of course," Eames said, careless and easy, like the whole disaster of a day was already over and done with. Like there was nothing left to worry about. "Do contact me when you've got this Rozhkov mess sorted out, darling. I have every faith in you."
"Thanks," Arthur said. "That means a lot."
"As it should." Eames gave him a gracious nod.
Mal was hiding a smile behind her hand. Arthur gave her an unimpressed look before deciding that she and Eames deserved each other, and neither would receive any further encouragement from Arthur.
He needed better friends; the thought was a fleeting, weightless lie, and for a moment -- in spite of his uncertain future and all his aches and sleepless nights -- Arthur felt content.
Moscow Domodedovo Airport was familiar to Arthur, but after everything that had happened, there was no comfort to be found in said familiarity. Arthur's fingers twitched with restless energy, and a persistent itch at the back of his neck kept reminding him that he was on hostile territory.
His breakup with Ivan Rozhkov was more than a month in the past. Physically speaking, Arthur had made a full recovery. Immediately after the disastrous job with Mal, Eames and Bastian, Arthur had still held on to a faint hope that it hadn't been Ivan behind the set-up, but once he'd started digging deeper, that hope quickly dissipated.
As a general rule, Arthur was quick to forgive and slow to forget, not holding on to grudges so much as learning from mistakes, be they his own or other people's. This time, however, he was having a hard time finding room in his heart for forgiveness.
Do you need a gun, Eames had asked, and no, Arthur didn't need a gun, even if some small, ugly part of him wanted it; Ivan had put Arthur's whole team at risk for petty revenge, and that wasn't something Arthur could just let go. A gun, a bullet, a lover turned enemy -- on paper, it was a simple equation, as clean and neat as anything involving blood ever could be. In reality, killing Ivan would be neither clean nor neat, and would only end up bringing more problems to Arthur's doorstep. He couldn't retaliate in kind; he couldn't even teach Ivan a lesson, not without drawing the kind of attention he wanted to avoid. With his hands tied and his mind conflicted, Arthur could only do what he'd promised Eames and Mal he would do, and that was to make sure Ivan wouldn't cause any further trouble.
The cold truth of it was that if he wanted to be smart about it and avoid taking drastic measures that might keep him in hiding and out of dream sharing for a long time to come, there was really only one viable course of action available for him.
Thus, Moscow. Whether the gamble was actually worth it, well. He'd soon find out.
Once he'd decided on what to do about the situation with Ivan, there had been several people Arthur had contacted. Boris had been third on the list.
He was waiting for Arthur outside the passenger terminal and, after a subdued greeting, led him to his car. Arthur, traveling light, kept his bag with him when he got in on the passenger side, putting it down between his feet.
Once they were on the highway, Boris seemed to gain back a little of his usual countenance, glancing at Arthur and shaking his head a little.
"I want you to know," he said, "whatever happens, I appreciate this, you coming to us. I appreciate wanting to talk it out." Boris took one hand off the wheel make a vaguely apologetic gesture. "Vanya, Ivan, he is not so good sometimes, impulsive, yes? But he is family. You understand. And I still like you, even if Ivan does not. I want everyone to be okay. Yes?"
"Yeah, I want that too," Arthur said. It was true enough. "And thank you again, for arranging this meeting."
"No thanking," Boris protested. "At least, not until it's over and no one has shot anyone. Then, we find a bar and you buy the first round."
Arthur snorted, half amused, half apologetic. "I don't think that'll happen any time soon. Even if everything turns out okay, I don't intend to push my luck by lingering around here once everything's sorted."
"I understand," Boris said, easily enough. "I understand. But one day, when we are friends again, you still owe me the first round."
"Fair enough." It took less effort than Arthur would have thought, to give Boris a smile and make it look genuine.
Galina Rozhkova had inherited her position as the head of the family from her father and from her husband, and had held on to it by being more ruthless than the two of them combined. These days, she liked to pretend she'd retired, but everyone knew the truth; in practice, she hadn't given up an ounce of the power she'd fought to keep.
At least, that's what Ivan had said of his mother, once upon a time. Arthur's research backed it up, which was why he was here, in Galina Rozhkova's kitchen.
The house was quiet, the rooms empty of the people who had occupied them on Arthur's previous visits. Boris stood just inside the kitchen doorway; on the other side of it, just out of sight, stood another man whose face was vaguely familiar but whose name Arthur could not recall. Mrs. Rozhkova was sitting at the table, across from Arthur, and leaning against the counter behind her was her eldest daughter, Yelena; she was about as fond of Arthur as her mother, which was to say, not at all.
"Would you like a drink?" Mrs. Rozhkova asked after they'd exchanged polite greetings and Arthur had taken his seat. "Coffee? Tea?"
Her English was accented but otherwise impeccable.
"No," Arthur said. "Thank you for the offer."
There was a long moment where Mrs. Rozhkova regarded him in silence. She was small of stature, and there were long streaks of grey in her dark hair. At a glance, she didn't look dangerous, but her eyes were hard, and the way she held herself was enough to tell Arthur she hadn't needed to bow to anyone, not for a long, long time. "Arthur," she finally said, her mouth twisting as if she disliked the taste of his name in her mouth. "I do not like you."
"The feeling is mutual," Arthur said, and it was true enough. It was very difficult to like someone who had made their dislike of you so clear, and there were some aspects of her business that were, at best, distasteful; regardless, Arthur did have a certain amount of respect for her, and under other circumstances, he thought he might have liked her.
"And so, why should I listen to anything you have to say?"
"I can be useful," Arthur said, keeping it straightforward, "or I can be dangerous. You wouldn't have agreed to meet me if you didn't already know that."
Mrs. Rozhkova narrowed her eyes, her nails tapping against the surface of the table once, twice. "You are threatening my son."
"I didn't start this," Arthur reminded her. "Your son did. I'm here to give you a chance to put an end to it."
"You are here," she said, making a small gesture that encompassed her daughter, Boris, and the man in the doorway. "You are alone. I could, like you say, put an end to it, and worry no more."
Arthur kept his breathing even, his shoulders relaxed, and didn't take his eyes off her. "If you think I haven't made arrangements in case I disappear or turn up dead, then you're not as smart as I think you are. Killing me won't keep your son safe. Get him off my back, on the other hand, and everyone lives. I'll even owe you one."
Mrs. Rozhkova scoffed. "Why should I want favor from you? You are small and alone; you are no one."
"Sometimes, a single pawn can win you a game," Arthur said, flattening his hand against the surface of the table. "A pawn doesn't need to be liked, it just needs to move when you tell it to."
"And will you move, Arthur? When I tell you to?"
"One game," Arthur replied. "One move."
After a tense moment, Mrs. Rozhkova leaned back in her chair, her eyes hooded. Arthur thought he detected a faint, odd sort of amusement in her expression.
"Vanya won't like that you came to me."
"He'll still do as told," Arthur said, something within him relaxing, very slightly, for what felt like the first time in weeks. "That's all I care about."
After his business was concluded, Arthur left Moscow not by a plane, but a train to Helsinki. From Helsinki he flew to London, from London to Shanghai; he had little reason to think Mrs. Rozhkova wouldn't keep her word, but he still took his time getting back to L.A., wanting to make sure no ill will followed him there.
He'd traveled a lot because of his job, but had rarely played tourist unless the job demanded it. He tried to think of this detour as a holiday, but the concept sat upon his shoulders like an ill-fitting suit. Despite his initial intentions, he found himself spending most of his time in hotel rooms with his laptop for company, doing research and keeping an ear out for trouble.
He did take a day here and there to wander the streets of whatever city he was in, aimless and drifting, as if at sea. Over the years, he'd memorized the maps of dozens of cities all over the world, the lines and colors twisting in his mind like a contemporary art installation; an extractor would have wept trying to make sense of it, but it only took a thought from Arthur for the relevant street layout to unfold and rise to the surface of his mind, the mental map and the concrete streets under his feet aligning and clicking into place.
There was little comfort to be found in it. He might not have been lost, but he was adrift, feeling disconnected from his surroundings, from the people he passed by. Slipping into the role of Archer helped, but he couldn't immerse himself in the research as fully as he could in his apartment in New York, or in L.A. with Mal and Dom. As far as distractions went, it wasn't a match for his current mood.
He'd long ago learned to live with fear, with insecurity and uncertainty. Had learned to keep busy. It was no use, dwelling on the past, thinking about things he could do nothing to change, wondering if one day something he'd left behind and forgotten, worse than Richardson, worse than Ivan, would catch up with him.
Useless; having so little to do made him feel useless, and without a purpose to anchor him, all these cities, with their strange-familiar streets and shifting masses of people, were making him feel like he could disappear into a crack in the asphalt on an anonymous street corner, and no one would notice, and no one would miss him. Some part of Arthur thought he should be above such nonsensical notions, that he was too rational to give into fanciful thinking. Keeping track of reality was enough of a task without adding existential crisis into the mix.
It was because he did posses a practical mind that he was eventually able to see that enough was enough, and that stretching his so called holiday any further would do him no good. Everything had been quiet since he'd left Moscow. No red flags, no indication that anyone was looking into him or the team he'd been with on that last job. No money being transferred from any of the accounts Arthur had privately flagged, no rumors or murmurs on his network of contacts.
It wasn't a guarantee, none of it, but in this line of work, it was as good as it would get, and Arthur was tired; he wanted to go home.
He booked a flight to Los Angeles that evening, but it wasn't until two days later, speeding away from LAX in Mal's old Ford pick up, that Arthur felt the last of the stress he'd carried over the past weeks and months drain out of him. He closed his eyes; the sun was warm on his face, and beside him, Mal was telling him about a friend's art project, her voice soothing and familiar.
A few nights after his arrival, Arthur, Mal and Dom were wasting the evening away in their living room. Phillipa had been put to bed hours ago, and there was an empty wine bottle on the coffee table. Some wine still remained in the long-stemmed glasses, and it wasn't quite time to retire for the night yet. There was something in the air, like Mal and Dom were both waiting for something. When Mal gave Arthur a thoughtful look and then glanced at Dom, Arthur knew he wouldn't have to wait for much longer to find out what that was about.
Mal reached into her pocket and took out something small. She held it up for a moment, letting Arthur take a good look at it, before setting it on the coffee table in front of her.
"Can you guess what this is?"
It was a spinning top, small and dark, smooth and metallic; but if the obvious answer was the right answer, Mal wouldn't have posed the question. Frowning, Arthur reached across the table to pick it up, only to be stopped by Dom catching Arthur's hand in his, his grip almost painfully tight for a second before he pushed Arthur gently back and released his hand.
"Sorry," Dom said, but didn't fully relax until Arthur was leaning back in his seat. "It's complicated. We should have started with an explanation instead of guessing games."
Mal waved off the mild reproach in Dom's tone and picked up the spinning top, rolling it between her fingers as if to feel out its shape.
"I've had this since I was very young," she said. "I've always liked it as an object. The surprising weight of it, the smoothness, and how it spins and spins, sometimes for so long I'll start to think, maybe it will never fall. But of course it will, always does, sooner or later." She looked up at Arthur with a smile. "This is the real world, after all. Everything falls, in the end."
Arthur took a sip of his wine, narrowing his eyes at Mal. She would get to the point eventually, whether Arthur played along or not, but she'd take the long way around just to see if he'd get there before she did. Arthur had enough patience to wait her out, but more often than not, he ended up playing along. He'd gotten into the habit of humoring her, and no amount of huffing from Dom -- the hypocrite, Arthur thought fondly -- had been able to break him out of it.
The real world, Mal had said, and Arthur could already see where this was headed. All roads led to Rome, and in this house, most conversations led to dream sharing.
"In a dream," Arthur said, fairly sure he was on the right track, "you could make it spin for hours. I don't know why you'd want to, though, except maybe for the novelty of it."
"It's strange, is it not?" Mal's eyes went a little distant, her fingers restless. "Years go by and suddenly you have all these things, filling up all the nooks and crannies you don't remember exist half the time. All those little things that make you think, I don't want to lose this, or I might need this later, and so you put it aside, and forget about it until you come across it again while looking for something else."
Arthur shrugged; he'd never been particularly sentimental about physical objects, and he didn't have packrat tendencies to speak of. Growing up, he'd had neither the money or the space for many possessions, and being in the military had only enforced the habit of not being held down by what he owned. He had an apartment in New York, these days, but there was really nothing there that would be missed or couldn't be replaced. There were a couple of bespoke suits he'd be sad to lose, sure, but he could always get new ones, and that wasn't the sort of clutter Mal was talking about, anyway.
"I was going through some drawers a couple of weeks ago, looking for god knows what, and I came across this." Mal briefly held up the spinning top again. "And I thought about the house I grew up in, and how I used to watch this spin on the wide windowsill in my room, and those moments when it almost seemed like it would never fall. And I thought about how I could do that now, dream up my old bedroom and make this little remnant of my childhood spin and spin and never fall. And then," Mal said, meeting Arthur's gaze, her eyes bright and keen, "I thought of that man you told me about. Bastian's friend."
"Cutler," Arthur said, carefully setting his wineglass down.
Mal nodded. "This probably isn't any kind of a solution for his situation, and I'm not sure whatever went wrong could have been prevented by this, but if we consider the greater implications --"
"Recognizing the line between dream and reality," Dom put in, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. "It's always been a concern. The leaps we've made with somnacin and the structure of the dreams, the sharp clarity we can now achieve --"
"Right," Arthur said, mirroring Dom's pose. "The better we get, the harder it will be for the mind to separate the two, especially if we're recycling reality, using elements from our own lives. And in our line of work, the chances are someone might target that weak spot on purpose."
"There's always the old 'how did I get here' trick," Dom said, "but --"
"Like the saying goes, one trick ponies rarely get very far," Mal finished for him.
Dom blinked and turned to look at her. "We're ponies now, in this metaphor?"
"All I know is, I'm not sure I want to follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion," Arthur said, picking up his wineglass again, the building intensity of the conversation briefly dispelled.
"Logical conclusion," Dom repeated, blinking at Arthur.
"Sausage factory," Arthur and Mal said in unison, and Dom made a little 'ah' sound, looking pained.
"The point being," Mal said, setting her spinning top down on the coffee table in exchange for her neglected glass of wine, "there should be more than one way to tell whether we are dreaming or awake; a way to check if we're in someone else's dream. Considering the risks we face, it's only prudent."
Arthur flexed the hand Dom had grabbed, staring at the tiny, innocuous looking object laying on its side on the table. "Let me see if I'm getting this right. You've had this for a long time. It's something pretty much only you know the weight and feel of, and you can make it behave differently in a dream than it does in the real world. Even if someone knew about it, then as long as they don't get their hands on it, they can't make an exact replica of it. So if they pull you into a dream, no matter how good the construct, you'd know something was wrong."
"I think of it as a totem of sorts," Mal said. The corners of her eyes crinkled, like they always did when she was pleased. "A physical representation of reality, if you will, an item only I hold deep familiarity with. It is, of course, not a solution without its flaws, and as the situation with Cutler shows, the risks of delving into dreams are anything but predictable."
"It's clever, though," Arthur said, because it really was.
"It rather is, yes." Mal had never been one for false modesty; it was something Arthur had always liked about her. "I do believe it has the potential to be very useful."
"We were thinking you should get one for yourself," Dom said. "Something small you can carry with you."
"I'll think of something," Arthur promised before raising an eyebrow at Dom. "What about you? Do I get to know what your totem is, or is it a secret?"
Dom rolled his eyes and dug into his pocket, taking out a small object Arthur identified as a compass even before Dom flipped open the protective cover to let Arthur have a brief look at the display inside.
"I found it at a yard sale," Dom said.
"It has a weird flaw, here, see?" Mal took hold of Dom's wrist and angled it so the compass display was visible to Arthur. "The letters for East and West have swapped places."
"You picked a flawed compass to keep you from losing your way?" Arthur asked Dom even as he leaned in for a closer look, amused.
Dom twisted out of Mal's hold, flipped the compass shut and put it back in his pocket. "Do you want me to make fun of your totem when you get one?" He asked without heat. "Because I can do that."
"You can try," Arthur said with a smile before finishing what was left of his wine, already thinking of suitable totems. "Yeah, you can try."
Arthur stayed in Los Angeles for six weeks before he started looking for the next job. During that time, Arthur mostly worked as Archer and assisted Dom and Mal with their experiments and their grocery shopping and Phillipa-watching. His sleep was undisturbed, his body seemed to have forgotten its old aches, and his mind was calm; it was nothing like a holiday.
Getting back to work as a point man held some minor challenges. His reputation had taken a hit, and while it was far from unsalvageable, he still needed to tread carefully. People who knew him only by reputation, or had worked with him but didn't know him well enough to take him at his word, were wary of him. To their credit, only time would tell if Arthur's plan had truly worked, or if there was another double-cross waiting for him in the future. By all evidence, it was unlikely that he'd have more trouble from the Rozhkov family any time soon, but he couldn't blame anyone for withholding their judgement. To take up with the sort of people who wouldn't be wary of him -- the new, the unconnected, the sloppy -- would be an invitation to a different sort of fuck up. Not inevitably, of course, but the risk was there, and the last thing Arthur needed right now was another mark against him.
He tried not to wonder what it said about his situation that, at the end of the day, his best option was Eames.
Like it or not -- and many people did not -- Eames was an established member of the dream sharing community, one whose skill set was highly sought-after. Even those who disliked him as a person were usually willing and able to put aside that dislike in exchange for his level of expertise. In some ways, Arthur thought it would be easier if he could dislike Eames, who was as aggravating and mercurial as he was talented and charming. Alas, and regardless of certain parts of their mutual history, Arthur had never quite managed dislike. The opposite of dislike, however, had been easy enough.
Since it probably it said more about how messed up his head was than it did about Eames as such, Arthur didn't usually give it much thought. The positive side of things was that he had, in turn, gained a measure of good will in his professional dealings with Eames. If Arthur said his six was clear, Eames would likely do him the professional courtesy of giving Arthur a chance to prove it. Of course, if it turned out he was wrong, Eames would probably take a page from Bastian's guide book and shoot Arthur himself. Perversely, that was another reason -- perhaps the main reason -- Arthur felt comfortable contacting Eames; he could be trusted to take care of himself.
Three weeks later, Arthur flew from LAX to Vancouver International Airport, wasting a couple of hours reading a trashy paperback someone had left behind and drinking too much coffee while waiting for Eames' flight to arrive. From YVR, the two of them would make their way to a ski resort that was to play the main stage in the extraction. Victoria, whom Eames had talked into giving Arthur a chance, again, would join them shortly after.
Eames, when he finally arrived, gave Arthur a lingering, searching look before the slight tension around his shoulders vanished and he favored Arthur with a slight but genuine smile.
"You look better."
"Hello to you too," Arthur replied with a half-smile of his own. "You're not so bad yourself."
Eames' smile widened, gaining a cocky, mischievous edge that instantly made Arthur wary. He tried to step back when Eames moved closer, but was prevented from doing so when Eames caught his hand and pulled him in.
"What?" Arthur asked, his voice a little flat.
Eames tugged at Arthur's lapels with his free hand, as if to straighten them. "That's a nice suit."
"Thanks?" Arthur glanced down at his clothes, frowning.
"Goes with this nice ring you're wearing, doesn't it?" Eames raised Arthur's captured hand to eye level, and there, on his left ring finger, was a ring made of clean lines and gleaming titanium.
Arthur stared at it for a long moment, refusing to believe what he was seeing. How had Eames slipped it on him without him noticing? He looked up, giving Eames a scathing glare.
"Not funny," he said, reaching to tug the ring off. "How the hell did you --"
"No take-backs," said Eames, like he was five, and stopped Arthur by catching his hand again, completely unrepentant. Arthur glared some more, to no effect. "I created us connected aliases. We're not going to throw away all my hard work just because you happen to be a stick in the mud when it comes to certain matters. A lovely, well-dressed stick in the mud, but still, Arthur, honestly."
He tugged at Arthur's elbow to get them moving, and Arthur had little choice but to follow, not unless he wanted to stoop to Eames' level and start dragging his feel like he was five years old himself.
"Eames." When Eames ignored him, Arthur tried again, louder. "Eames, this is not --"
"Shush, darling. If you must raise your voice, the passport says William. We could go with Will, I suppose, but I don't really look like a Will, do I? And Billy's not working for me, either. I should've thought this through."
"William," Arthur echoed, closing his eyes for a brief moment, looking for strength. "And what does my passport say? Actually, I'm not sure I want to know."
Regardless, when Eames slipped him a passport -- and had Eames been wearing that ring all along, or had he just put it on? Arthur was appalled at the apparent state of his own observational skills -- he flipped it open, expecting the worst.
Arthur Cole, the passport said, sporting one of the pictures Eames had taken of him a lifetime ago, in Spain. He gave Eames a sideways look.
"You let me keep my first name."
"Well, the way I figured, I had to leave you with something, or you'd never go along with it."
Eames looked -- smug. Pleased with himself and the world.
It looked good on him.
"I wish you and Mal had never met," Arthur said, ducking his head as he put the passport away for safekeeping, despairing at himself at the realization that he was, in fact, going to go along with it.
Him and Eames being 'married' affected the job about as much as him and Mal being 'engaged' had affected the Anderson job, which was to say not at all. It was just a way for Eames to amuse himself, and maybe to get back at Arthur for the mess he'd inadvertently made of that last job -- and if so, then all considered, Eames was letting him off easy; he should probably just let it go and not even try to keep arguing about it.
It bothered him, though. He wasn't sure why it bothered him so much, but it did. Being 'engaged' to Mal had been weird, but it had made her happy, so whatever. Being 'married' to Eames was also weird, but in a different way. With Mal, it had mostly made him roll his eyes. With Eames, he was uncomfortably aware of the weight of the ring on his finger, like a piece of a puzzle that didn't belong, the jagged edges out of place and impossible to avoid. He found himself brushing his thumb against the unfamiliar shape of it without thinking, did it again and again over the course of the day, and hoped that Eames hadn't noticed.
No, the fake marriage had no effect on the job.
The weather, on the other hand, might yet.
By the time they arrived at the ski resort, the wind was picking up and the first snowflakes were falling from the darkening evening sky. Less than two hours later, they received a message from Victoria saying she was delayed and wouldn't make it until the next day, weather permitting.
"As long as she arrives within the next two days, we should have enough time to get everything in order," Arthur said, sitting on the couch, worrying the ring. There wasn't much they could do right now, what with their architect-slash-extractor unavailable and the storm picking up pace outside.
"She'll be here," Eames said, his tone indicating that she'd be here even if she had to walk the whole way, barefoot, in the snow. "She's reliable like that. Wine?"
Arthur craned his neck to look at the bottle Eames was brandishing, and shrugged. "Sure."
An evening spent indoors with Eames, a lit fireplace and, as it turned out, far too much wine -- it had a bad idea written all over it, didn't it? But at the time, Arthur's mind was on other things, and so he settled deeper into the cushions, accepted the offered glass of wine, and didn't protest when Eames sat down on the other end of the couch with a glass of his own.
Arthur wasn't sure how much time, or wine, it took before sliding closer to Eames started sounding like something he should do. Outside, the night had fallen and the snow was still coming down, the wind pushing against the windows. The conversation was amiable, the wine warmed Arthur from the inside out, and the rough, round edges of Eames' voice made him want --
Titanium clinked against glass as Arthur set his long stemmed glass down on the coffee table, and maybe he had decided to do it even before then, but that sound --
He brushed his thumb against the ring, and it was crazy, it was all crazy, but he had this ring, and they were married, sort of, for now, so why not, why not --
Eames could have stopped him. He could have tensed at Arthur's hand on his thigh; could have shaken his head when Arthur turned a little, enough for his knee to knock against Eames'; could have pushed Arthur away or said no when Arthur leaned in, too close, close enough for their breaths to mingle.
Eames did none of these things. He was warm and solid where Arthur was pressed against him, and leaned ever so slightly into it when Arthur pressed his fingers gently against his stubbled cheek. When Arthur closed the last inch separating them, Eames' mouth fit against his, soft and lush, and Eames --
Eames wasn't kissing him back.
The realization cut through Arthur, sharp and sudden like a bucket of cold water, and he felt nauseous with his abrupt brush with sobriety. He pulled back, reasserting the space between their bodies, and reached for the wine. His skin felt hot and tight, rejection burning in his throat, making it hard to swallow.
"Sorry," Arthur forced out after draining his glass. "Miscalculation on my part."
"Look," Eames said after a pause Arthur could have lived without. "You're well fit, I don't need to tell you that. Generally speaking I'm not terribly opposed to casual sex, but I get the feeling you're looking for a quick rebound, and I don't do those."
Arthur wasn't sure what showed on his face, but it made Eames snort.
"So you were indeed in bed with the Russians," he said before Arthur could find his words. "Literally. I thought so."
"Just one," Arthur managed to get out; he almost sounded normal to his own ears. There was an odd tightness in his chest, ebbing a little with each exhale, only to surge back when he took the next breath. Under other circumstances, he might have found some amusement in the exchange, but on the heels of Eames' rejection, it just felt like insult to injury, which was ridiculous.
He blamed Eames. He'd been off-kilter ever since Eames had slipped the ring on his finger, so clearly, clearly this was all Eames' fault -- except for all the ways it wasn't Eames' fault at all.
Arthur had known all along that the so-called-marriage was just a joke, just like it had been with Mal. Arthur had been the one to think, even if he turns me down, so what? Arthur was the one who hadn't expected it to hurt; he was the one hurting.
"I, uh," Arthur said, running a hand over his face. "I think I should go get some sleep."
"Yeah, all right," Eames said, glancing at the bedroom door. "You go ahead and take the bed. I'm good here."
And of course there was just the one bed -- Arthur wasn't sure how that had slipped his mind. Any other day, he would have argued. The bed was definitely big enough for two people, and he didn't mind sharing, usually. Today, having a door between them sounded like a mercy he wasn't about to contest.
He went to bed alone, and he got up in the morning alone, and in between, he stared at the ceiling of his room and listened to the storm outside, trying to ignore the tightness that still lingered in his chest. He didn't take off the ring, because if he took it off, he knew he wouldn't be able to make himself put it back on, and that would mean something, and he didn't want it to mean anything. He rested his left hand on his stomach, pretending he wasn't all too aware of the piece of metal that didn't belong, the weight of it; and in between the fingers of his right hand, he held a red, weighed die, which he refused to roll.
He might wish it was all a dream, but he didn't need a totem to tell him it was not. He wasn't that lucky.
The only person to suffer from Arthur's foolish late night bravado was Arthur himself. Eames acted like nothing had happened; Victoria, when she arrived, didn't seem to notice anything amiss; and despite the fact that Eames' nonchalance was somehow worse than if he'd been weird about Arthur's advances, Arthur finished the job with them like a goddamn professional.
Afterward, the only concession he made, to give himself time to get over this ridiculous thing, was to make sure he wouldn't end up on the same team as Eames any time soon, which was called strategic planning, thank you very much, Mal, not avoidance.
The two separate people Arthur slept with when he got back to L.A. were also part of the plan. Maybe he hadn't been thinking of it as a rebound when he'd kissed Eames, but that didn't mean Eames was wrong. Arthur needed to get it out of his system. It, Ivan, Eames. All of it.
By the end of the year, it did seem like things were looking up, for Arthur as well as the Cobbs. People in the dream sharing community were willing to work with Arthur again, Archer was more in demand than ever, Phillipa had started testing out words, and Mal was pregnant again. Arthur had nothing to complain about, not when Mal, Dom and Phillipa were safe and happy, and his life was back on track.
If he still thought about Eames more often than he should have, if he still sometimes brushed his thumb against a ring that was no longer there -- no one needed to know.
When James was born, Arthur was at the hospital, looking more like a patient than a visitor. The last job he'd done had gone off without a hitch, but his exit plan had left something to be desired for, and as a result he had two broken fingers and an ugly scrape across his cheek.
Mal's parents had flown in from France the week before and were at the house with Phillipa. Arthur had flown in two days ago, and only Mal's insistence had prevented him from booking himself a hotel room. He liked Mal's parents well enough, even if her mother was a little distant and her father had a few too many questions for comfort, but even with Mal, Dom and Phillipa as buffers, sharing a house with Mal's parents was -- awkward. Every time they interacted, Arthur could see the unanswered questions in their eyes. He could hardly blame them for it; the most explanation they'd gotten had basically been, This is Arthur.
He'd never questioned the easy way he slotted into the Cobb household, but after seeing himself through the eyes of strangers, he felt like the piece that didn't fit. If there wasn't a word to described his place with the Cobbs, could he truly belong with them? He was a fork among spoons, a book in a pile of magazines; he was more than a houseguest or a friend, but less than a lover, though he had a horrible suspicion that Mal's parents were starting to think the latter.
After Mal and Dom had left for the hospital at half-past six in the evening, Arthur had lasted three hours before going to the hospital himself. He couldn't actually physically be with them in the delivery room, as per hospital policy, but the anonymous waiting rooms and plastic cups of crappy hospital coffee were still better than wandering the hallways of a familiar house that had suddenly grown odd, unwelcoming corners.
He forgot all about it, briefly, at four in the afternoon the next day, when a warm, sleepy bundle was placed in his arms, and Dom, a little teary-eyed, said, "We're calling him James, after my father," and Mal, smiling a fond, secret smile, said, "Is that acceptable to you, Arthur?" and Arthur held James carefully, carefully, and nodded his approval, and wondered if, maybe, the hospital staff was starting to get the wrong idea about him and the Cobbs, too.
A week later, Eames went missing.
That in itself was nothing unusual; Arthur had, for reasons, been keeping tabs on Eames for a long time now, and Eames went missing all the time. That Arthur followed up on it at all was pure habit, a natural tendency to be throughout.
When he started getting results in less than a day, his stomach went cold.
One of the many things about Eames was that, nine times out of ten, when no one could find him, he didn't want to be found. When he could be found, either he'd planned it that way -- and by now, Arthur was an old hand at recognizing the crumbs with Eames' signature on them -- or he was in trouble.
Arthur didn't have much experience with the latter, but this -- this sloppy, clumsy trail -- could mean nothing else.
There was blood everywhere. It was on the ground, under Arthur's bare feet, wet and warm, making a soggy mess of the floor of the rainforest. There was blood on the trees, on the leaves, dripping, dripping down, thick; the cloying smell made him nauseous.
He was in a rainforest, but the rainforest was a small room without a door, the walls wet with blood, blood dripping, dripping down from the ceiling.
He was alone. There was blood, but there were no bodies.
He was bleeding, but it wasn't his blood. Someone had died, and they'd given Arthur all their blood, and it was filling up his lungs, pouring out of his nose, dripping, dripping, and Arthur was drowning, drowning in someone else's blood.
He was --
Arthur woke up with a choked off sound, sitting up in a hurry. Blood dripped down on the scratchy blanket he was clutching in his hands, and for the span of one drop, two drops, Arthur just stared at the blossoming dark stains, the dream still clawing at his consciousness. He caught the third drop on his hand, cursing, and pinched his nose shut, trying to stem the flow.
"Fuck," he said, tilting his head back. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Above him, the sky was dark, darker than it ever got in cities, and the stars were out. He stared at them and focused on facts, obvious and comforting. He was in South-America, because that's where Eames currently was. He was in a clearing in a rainforest, because Eames was held in the area, not far at all. He was surrounded by mercenaries, because that's what money and connections had gotten him. He closed his eyes. The smells and sounds of the surrounding rainforest were unfamiliar, alien, but there was some comfort in the sound of a group of armed ex-military types milling around, sleeping, talking in low voices. Arthur could feel a headache coming on, and fervently hoped it wouldn't work itself up to a migraine. It was a distinct possibility; he felt like he'd just come off a bad somnacin trip, only there was no somnacin involved. He didn't have time for this crap right now.
Sensing movement, he opened his eyes to find a napkin being offered to him, and he took it with a red-stained hand, nodding his thanks.
"You used to get those," said his benefactor, Rebecca Messer, aka Rooney, squatting on the ground next to Arthur's bedroll. The flickering light from the camp fire left her mostly in shadows. "Back in the day. Nosebleeds and migraines."
"Yeah," Arthur said, his voice muffled. Reluctantly he added, "Still do, sometimes."
"I thought it was the somnacin."
Arthur recognized the faint frown of worry marring her forehead, and looked away, feeling like he'd swallowed something sharp. It had been years since they'd last seen each other, longer since they'd worked together, been part of a team. It should have been harder to read her.
"It usually is the somnacin," Arthur said, because -- because maybe he felt like he owed her for something, though he knew better than to say it out loud. "I've made some progress on that. But I used to have an occasional migraine growing up, and who doesn't get nosebleeds sometimes? I think the somnacin just -- acts like a trigger, aggravating a pre-existing condition, I don't know. The doctors at the base, the stuff they said, it never made much sense to me."
"So you're predisposed to head-splitting migraines, and the wrong mix of somnacin pushes all the wrong buttons," Rooney summed it up, looking unimpressed. "Remind me again why you're still using that shit. Actually, tell me why you're still hopping around in people's minds. I thought you wanted out."
"I did get out. And it's a job. It pays well."
"I wouldn't go back to that mindfucking shitshow for all the money in the world," Rooney said, shuddering a little. "There are other jobs. Well-paying jobs. You could have done anything once you were free; I thought that was the point. But you went right back in, the first opportunity you got."
"It's not like it was in the program. There's no one at my shoulder, telling me what to do and how to do it, and what to think of it," Arthur said, though he doubted they'd come to agree on this. They'd both quit the army for similar reasons and gotten as far away as they could. They'd just chosen different directions. Arthur was into mind crime, and Rooney, well -- "You're a mercenary. You took the skills we were taught and decided to apply them in the real world. I took what we were taught, and figured I could do better."
Rooney snorted. "You always did wear arrogance well. You're lucky you're smart enough that you can usually see it through. But I get your point. It takes a certain kind of person, with certain kind of training, to do what I do. I like it; I get paid, I'm in a position to make calls people listen to, and when people die, they die for real. It matters. It takes a different kind of person, with a certain kind of crazy, to do what you do."
Arthur reached out to give her shoulder a playful push, and she just minutely adjusted her balance, in no danger of falling over.
The bleeding had mostly stopped, and Arthur lowered the soaked and stained napkin, feeling his jaw clench. He almost never had natural dreams anymore, and when he did, he always became lucid, pretty much right away. This dream though -- he'd been stuck in some kind of in-between place, half-aware of it being a dream, and the other half of him caught up in it, unable to rise above the disgust and terror. He'd already been on edge before, and now he felt like all he needed to fall over that edge was one, small push.
Arthur looked up and made a conscious effort to relax, uncurling his hands and unclenching his jaw. Rooney didn't need to worry about him on top of everything. "No one's called me that since, well, you know when. It's a stupid nickname. You should call me Arthur."
"Sure, Sandy," Rooney said, her grin made mean by the shifting shadows. "In your dreams. As long as I'm alive to use it, you're stuck with it. Anyone tries to go along with your whining, I'll set them right."
"I don't look like a Sandy," Arthur said, settling in the old, comfortable argument. "Everyone says that."
Rooney's amusement took years off her face. "Yeah, that's --"
"Half the joke, I know, you always say that." Arthur rolled his eyes, mostly for show, before absently touching the space between his nose and upper lip, happy to find he wasn't leaking blood anymore.
"I have the next watch," Rooney said, pushing to her feet. "You should clean up and get some more sleep if you can. We'll get your friend out tomorrow."
Rooney gave him a small, curt nod of acknowledgement and made her way to the edge of the camp, clapping a member of her team on the shoulder and exchanging a few words Arthur was too far away to make out.
Arthur lay back down, curling up on his side. He should clean up, his hands and probably face were still stained by dried blood, but he couldn't be bothered. He'd deal with it when he got up for real.
We'll get your friend out tomorrow.
Fighting not to tense up again, Arthur closed his eyes and tried not to think about it.
We'll get your friend out.
It had been less than two weeks since James' birth. Arthur's fingers were still in a splint, though the scrape on his cheek had mostly healed. He should have been back in L.A., trying to get along with Mal's parents, trying to come up with an explanation that sounded better than whatever they were thinking. Better than the truth, too, because someone with Mal's dad's views on extraction probably wouldn't be happy to have someone like Arthur hanging around his family.
Instead he was in the middle of a rainforest, about to do something really stupid. Story of his life, basically. Except for the rainforest. That was new.
Friend might not be the best word to describe what Eames and Arthur were, but Arthur hadn't been able to come up with a better one that Rooney would get. He was definitely not going to say it's complicated; he'd never hear the end of it. It was true, though. Much like there didn't seem to be one word to describe his relationship with the Cobbs, there wasn't an easy way to describe Eames, or what he was in relation to Arthur. Colleague, co-worker, acquaintance; gambler, forger, thief. They all said too little, made up partial truths and left behind half-asked questions.
Arthur wasn't sure what he was doing here, in a rainforest, looking for Eames without a clear picture of who had taken Eames or why. He only knew that not coming here hadn't been an option.
He still thought about that last job with Eames, sometimes, worried it like a smooth stone from a beach, though he tried not to. In retrospect, he could hardly comprehend his own actions. Kissing Eames had been reckless, stupid. Making a move on a co-worker right before a job, not knowing how they would react -- Arthur usually thought things through better than that. Eames flirted with him sometimes, true, but that could have been, and probably was, just an amusing way to pass time.
He'd avoided Eames since that job. Sensibly, he'd thought. Except now, wondering if they'd find Eames, if Eames was even still alive --
Arthur cut off the thought, tightening his grip on his gun. Not so far away, there was gunfire. Shouting. Business as usual, except this time, it was all wrapped up in solid reality, and Arthur had less experience with that. He thought his experience in dreams would translate well enough to reality -- it had, after all, been the original purpose of Project Somnacin -- but Rooney had flat out told him to stay behind in the truck, which was parked in a bend of the road not far from the building Eames was supposed to be held in, and shoot anyone coming his way he didn't recognize.
It grated, being left behind, but he could see her point; he was injured and not part of the team, not used to the way they operated. Results mattered more than his pride, and results were what he got.
He could see them coming, Rooney and her ragtag bunch of highly trained killers, and among them, supported by two of her men -- Eames.
Arthur didn't bother raising his gun; they weren't being followed. He moved to the back of the truck when they climbed in, bringing Eames with them. There were a few shouted orders, the truck rumbling to life as Rooney hopped in, the last on board. Soon after, there was the booming sound of an explosion, the isolated building Eames had been held in going up in flames.
They'd brought Eames to the back and seated him across from Arthur. His eyes were closed, his breathing labored, but he was alive and conscious. Arthur looked him over, cataloging the visible injuries. He was beaten, but not seriously. His feet were bare and bloodied, all signs pointing to torture, and that was harder to stomach. Still, for someone who'd been held, by Arthur's best estimate, for at least five days -- it could certainly have been worse.
After a long, long moment, Eames opened his eyes, half-way, like that was all he had the energy for. He didn't look surprised to see Arthur, thought Arthur couldn't say if it was because Rooney or one of her men had mentioned him, or because Eames was simply very difficult to surprise.
"Hello, Arthur," Eames murmured. "You're a sight for sore eyes."
"Eames," Arthur said, letting out a long exhale, only a little shuddery. "You've looked better."
Eames huffed a laugh that seemed to cause him some pain. He didn't seem to care. His gaze flickered to the splint hiding Arthur's broken fingers and then back up, observant as ever. "Another bad break up?"
"No," Arthur replied. "Just the usual hazards of our line of work."
Eames made a sound low in his throat, indulgent, thoughtful. "So tell me. What were you doing in these parts, looking for little old me?"
Arthur licked his lips, buying himself time, because he didn't really know the answer to that himself.
"There's a job," was what he finally settled for, and it wasn't a complete lie. There was always a job, and most of them could use someone with Eames' expertise.
Eames laughed some more, soft and amused. "Of course there is."
They drove for a long time, the team's medic giving Eames rudimentary medical help, saying he could do a little more once they stopped for the night, but that it would be best to get Eames to a hospital as soon as they crossed the border.
It wasn't until they'd set camp for the night that Rooney came to find Arthur and said, "They had him hooked up to a PASIV."
And that was not good. That had the potential to be very, very not good. Arthur had thought Eames had gotten off fairly lightly, all considered, but they'd had a PASIV and five days -- there was no telling how badly they'd made Eames suffer, or for how long.
After a beat, all Arthur said was, "Did you bring it? The PASIV."
Rooney narrowed her eyes, like she was wondering how good friends Arthur really was with Eames, if he'd known about the PASIV, if that had been the real objective all along. But he could see her dismiss the thought as soon as it occurred to her, knowing that had that been the case, Arthur wouldn't have needed to use a ruse.
"Yeah," she said, "we got it. Not sure I'm going to just hand it over to you, though. You know how much those things go for."
But she had a look that meant it wouldn't take much to convince her to hand it over. Arthur had paid her and her team handsomely for the job, and her distaste for dream sharing meant she might choose to give it up rather than make a profit from it. She had few principles, and they came out to play at the oddest times.
"Was there somnacin still in? Or vials that were laying around that you happened to pick up?"
"Some still in. Didn't stay to turn the place over for more. Why?"
"I'd like to see what kind of mix they pumped through Eames' veins. Anyway. Throw the somnacin in for free, and I'll pay you for the PASIV. You'll get a fraction of what you'd get in the black market, but on the plus side, you won't have to deal with the black market."
"A fraction, huh?" She regarded him with some amusement, dry as dust.
"You know I could wheedle it from you for free," Arthur said, showing his dimples. "And who knows where those guys got it or if they knew how to take care of it. You might be getting a better price for it than you think."
It was mostly bullshit -- even a defective PASIV would fetch a hefty price if you found the right buyer -- but they both knew that, so it was okay.
"We'll see," Rooney said, but Arthur knew he'd already won.
On the last night before Arthur and Eames were to part ways with Rooney and her mercenaries, the two of them were sitting by a camp fire with Rooney and her second in command, a short, sturdy man they called Rabbit.
Eames was half-sitting, half-laying down, propped up on assorted gear and high on pain meds, while Arthur, Rooney and Rabbit passed around a bottle of cheap vodka.
"But how does a man come to be nicknamed Rabbit?" Eames wondered, apropos to nothing, his voice mellow and kind.
Rabbit coughed up vodka, and Rooney snorted, stealing the bottle from him.
"It started when he tried being a vegetarian for a while," she said.
"Which is a completely valid life choice," Rabbit said, still coughing a little.
"Of course," she said with undisguised fondness. "Anyway, certain dickheads started calling him Rabbit Food, and then some other guys said it should be Rabbit Foot, because he's a little too lucky, a little too often. The two sides never could agree, even after he gave in to the siren song of meat again, so. Compromise. He doesn't run too well though, so it's a little misleading."
"I don't get scared, either," Rabbit said, his grin showing his teeth.
"Yeah, bunny dearest," Rooney said, taking a swig from the bottle. "You're kinda stupid that way."
"What about Arthur here?" Eames asked, eyes half-lidded and way too shrewd for someone drugged up to the gills. "You keep calling him Sandy."
Arthur snagged the bottle from Rooney and took a swig himself. It had been too much to hope Eames hadn't noticed, but he could have had the decency to not bring it up. Arthur had basically saved his life.
"He doesn't look much like a Sandy," Rabbit commented, looking Arthur up and down.
Rooney grinned, quick and brash. "Yeah, that's --"
"Half the joke," Arthur finished with her, shaking his head but grinning all the same. He sobered a little thinking about the good old days, the bad old days. He and Rooney hadn't really had a chance to talk, not about that. Or maybe neither had been in the mood. With vodka in his system, Arthur found himself asking, "How's the rest of the gang doing? Have you heard from them?"
Rooney's grin faded and she lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Otter's still in, last I heard, but nowhere near the old Tripper circles. Trippers is what they called our old unit, back when," she added for Eames and Rabbit's benefit. "For a while there, new recruits and guinea pigs rotated in and out, but the six of us, we were at the center of it, solid, you know? Anyway, Betty, well, far as I can figure it out, he had a quarter-life crisis or something, fuck knows, moved to some godforsaken corner of Connecticut and got married."
"Betty got married," Arthur repeated, flat with disbelief.
"Yeah, beats me too." Rooney shrugged. "He sounded happy when I talked to him last year. Weird, right?"
"Super weird," Arthur agreed, but nonetheless raised the bottle and drank in honor of his old teammate's happiness.
"Haven't heard from Blackjack in a long time," Rooney said after a few moments of reflection, her voice subdued. "She dropped off the radar not long after you quit, and never resurfaced."
"I haven't heard from her, either," Arthur admitted. "But that doesn't mean anything. You know what she was like."
Rooney snorted. "She always did have the devil's own luck, that's for sure. Would have given you a run for your money, Rabbit Foot," she added, poking Rabbit in the ribs.
"She better turn up and prove you right, then," Rabbit said, not trying to avoid her fingers, "'cause if she doesn't, I'll keep believing I'm the luckiest guy alive."
"Luckiest guy, maybe."
Rabbit gave her a grin and leaned his elbows on his knees. "So that's five, including you two. Where's the sixth?"
It was a question Arthur should have seen coming a mile a way, and yet he still managed to get blindsided by it. His stomach clenched with old hurt, which he covered by taking another mouthful of vodka.
"Dead," Rooney said after a long, tense moment, making Arthur feel guilty for letting her to be the one to say it. "He's dead."
"Well, shit." Rabbit put his hand on Rooney's shoulder and squeezed, once, before letting go.
And that's really all there was to say about the death of Alexander Guillen, and so that was that.
After a long, morose moment, Eames spoke up, his tone light, saying, "Did I ever tell you about how I used to work for Her Majesty?"
Rabbit perked up. "MI6? You're shitting me."
"He is shitting you," Arthur said, glad for the change of topic. Though, thinking about it, there were rumors far more unlikely than that, floating about in regards to Eames.
"Afraid not," Eames said. "If it makes you feel any better, I didn't last long."
"I'm shocked," Arthur said, handing the vodka over when Rooney made grabby hands at it.
"Show a little kindness, I'm injured."
"Yeah, Sandy. Show a little kindness," echoed Rooney, the rat-bastard she was.
"No, but MI6, really?" Rabbit wanted to know.
"Really," Eames said. "Truly. In fact, it was my past working for Her Majesty that got me in this mess Arthur paid you to rescue me from. Certain types, they just never learn to let things go. It's a disgrace."
"You're a disgrace," Arthur muttered, reaching out to take back the vodka, because he definitely needed it more than Rooney.
Rabbit looked a little dubious, but still far too willing to be strung along, which Eames did with all the cheerfulness his pain medication allowed him.
Arthur eyed what was left in the bottle, wondering if they had more stashed somewhere. Eames really was a disgrace. A lying, cheating, stealing, breathing disgrace, and listening to his bullshit had never made Arthur happier than it did right then.
It was a week later, in Mexico, that Arthur again parted ways with Eames. He wasn't entirely happy about it -- Eames wasn't sleeping enough, and after the first few days he'd cut back on the pain meds more than Arthur thought he should have -- but Arthur wasn't his mother, or his caretaker, or his anything much, really. Eames had promised to let him know when he was up in working condition; Arthur had, half-by-accident, promised to keep in touch; and that was that.
He went to Los Angeles, because that's what he did, these days: he went to Los Angeles, and he played with Phillipa, and he watched over James, and he spent long evenings talking with Mal and Dom. In a few days or weeks or months, he'd pick a job and book a flight, and in another few weeks, he'd be back in Los Angeles, helping with dream sharing related experiments and entirely unrelated household chores, taking long walks alone and short ones with Phillipa, snapping bad photographs and rolling his eyes when Mal pinned them on the fridge.
And he still didn't have a word for it, until one day Mal's cousin sent them a wedding invitation, and Mal wanted him to come with them, and when he protested, she said -- "Of course you'll come. You're family."
And it was both entirely unexpected and perfectly obvious, and she must have seen the realization on his face, because all the stubborn willingness to argue melted out of her, leaving behind something fond and exasperated.
"Oh, Arthur," she said, cupping his face in her hands. "What are we to do with you?"
And she kissed him, hard, on the cheek, and made him smile.
Later, Arthur looked back to that moment and thought, that was one of the last times she ever saw me, really saw me.
They never did make it to the wedding.
Coming home to L.A. after a job, Arthur turned the key in the lock and opened the front door, letting himself in. It had taken months for Arthur to start using the key after Mal had slipped it to him, months of her rolling her eyes when she came to open the door for him, pointedly asking if he'd lost something. He didn't think of it much anymore, didn't feel like a trespasser -- which was why it was such a shock to him, to find Mal in the kitchen and to have her look at him like he was something unexpected. Like he was the last person she wanted to see.
"Oh," Mal said, and that faint sound of disappointment and hurt alone would have been enough to tell Arthur that something was horribly wrong.
"Dom!" Mal shouted, not taking her eyes off of Arthur.
It only took a few, tense moments before Dom hurried into the room, looking frazzled. "What's the -- Arthur. I didn't hear you come in. How was your, uh, your trip?"
He was aiming for normalcy, but at the same time he was clearly distracted, his efforts nowhere near sufficient to cover up the truth; something was off in a way that made chills run down Arthur's spine.
Mal pursed her lips and turned to Dom, accusing. "Did you do this?" Before Dom could do more than open his mouth, Mal dismissed her own words with a wave of her hand, the sharpness in her receding, leaving behind something weary and sad. "No, it was me, wasn't it? I do miss him quite terribly."
"Miss who?" Arthur asked, his hand slipping into the pocket of his slacks, his fingers brushing against the red, weighed die there.
"You, silly," Mal said, stepping close enough to reach out and cup Arthur's face in her hands. "Can't you see, Dom? They're all waiting for us. Our children, Arthur, our friends, my parents. Everyone. We have to get back to them. We have to wake up."
Arthur stood there, frozen under her touch. Even as she ran her fingers over his cheekbones, as if to remind herself of their shape, the look in her eyes was one of distant fondness, like she thought she was touching a memory. In some fundamental way, she was looking right through him.
Dom stepped in, taking her hands in his and directing her to sit at the kitchen table. "You're not feeling well," he told her before glancing over his shoulder at Arthur. "She's not feeling well."
Mal yanked her hands out of Dom's hold, anger flashing in her eyes, and that was it -- Arthur turned on his heel and bolted down the hallway, into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him with too much force. He leaned his back against it and slid down, his chest feeling tight. He fumbled for the die in his pocket, trying to block out the raised voices carrying from the kitchen. He rolled it once, twice, three times.
He usually checked his totem once or twice a week, but that was a precaution, a routine, no different from half a dozen other precautions he took as part and parcel of his line of work. He'd never rolled it with trembling fingers before, not knowing what outcome he was hoping for.
In the kitchen, something shattered against a wall, the pieces falling on the floor, scattering. A plate, maybe, or a mug, a breakfast bowl; Arthur tried to remember what had been on the table, on the counter, within arm's reach, but his head felt like someone had stuffed it full of cotton; he couldn't remember. When he made a fist, the hard, plastic edges of his totem bit into the flesh of his palm.
"We were experimenting with layered dreaming. If it's possible to have more than one layer, why stop at two? I kept pushing. I didn't understand how --" Dom broke off and was quiet for a long time. "I didn't understand."
"You went in too deep," Arthur said, aching with how obvious the answers were, how little they helped. "You got lost. She got lost."
There was another long moment of silence, almost like hesitation, before Dom said, "Yes."
Having a conversation with Mal was like having a conversation with a ghost.
"He talks to me like I'm a child," she said once, regarding Dom. "Like I don't understand."
"And you don't really look at me anymore, even when you speak to me. At me." Arthur didn't mean to say it, it just slipped out.
Mal did turn to him then, searching his face, quizzical. Then she smiled, so warm that Arthur's heart jumped with hope.
"That's because you're not real, honey, and sometimes, when I look at you, I miss the real Arthur so much I feel it here," she put a hand to her chest, "in my heart. And I know how you worry, but you don't need to. Everything will be all right when Dom and I wake up."
"I wish you were truly here. You would understand, I think." She sighed, weary, with an edge of fondness. "Dom is so stubborn. I don't know why I don't just wake him up myself. But we've been together for so long -- the thought of it --" She shook her head. "And maybe it's silly, but I need to know he believes me. I need him to choose me." The smile she gave him then was as heart-stopping as her words. "That's what love does to you, Arthur. It drives you crazy."
She patted him on the cheek, her attention already slipping away.
When she left the room, Arthur didn't follow.
It was summer, early afternoon, and Arthur was sitting on the back steps of Mal and Dom's house, looking up at the clear sky. From inside, a low murmur of a small crowd could be heard. The sound of running roused him from his thoughts; small feet on wooden floors; a child. Arthur opened his arms in time to steady Phillipa as she climbed onto his lap.
"Hey, Princess Pea," Arthur said, frowning as he took in her serious expression. "What is it?"
"Ow," Phillipa said, pointing at Arthur's broken fingers.
Arthur looked down at the splint, confused. The bones had healed a long time ago, before Mal --
"Ow," Phillipa repeated, pointing at his cheek, and -- she'd done that, but it had been months ago.
Arthur touched his cheek and found blood on his fingers.
"Sandcastles!" Phillipa said, perking up and sliding out of Arthur's hold. "Paint the windows red. See what I mean? No babies allowed!"
She glared over Arthur's shoulder, her little eyebrows drawn together, and Arthur turned, half-expecting to see Mal or Dom there with James, whose existence Phillipa had only recently started warming up to -- but there was no one, and when he turned back, Phillipa was gone too.
The sky was still clear, a perfect stretch of endless blue.
"I can help with that," said Eames, coming to stand next to him. "Do you need a gun?"
Arthur shook his head. "It's just a dream."
"That's fine." Eames shrugged and knelt down, pushing Arthur on his back and straddling him in one smooth motion. "I'd rather do it like this, anyway."
Eames' hands closed around Arthur's throat and began to squeeze.
"I wonder," Eames said, casual, unmoved by the way Arthur gasped and strained. "Will you wake up? Or will you just keep falling until you find her."
Arthur blinked, slow, his body giving up on fighting, his vision wavering and fading. Mal smiled down at him, her hands around his throat, her nails digging into his skin.
"Find me," she said, and Arthur --
-- woke up. He fought down a shudder and brought a hand up to his throat, pressing down a little. Fuck his subconscious. Fuck natural dreaming. Fuck long term somnacin use for not fully suppressing that shit as advertised.
At the sound of his name, said in a very small voice, Arthur turned, not entirely surprised to find Phillipa standing next to his bed. Her fingers were tangled in the hem of her pajama top.
"Hey, Princess Pea," Arthur said, hushed, and the momentary sense of déjà vu forced him to take a deep, measured breath. He ran a hand over his face, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "Can't sleep?"
Phillipa tugged at her pajama top, looked down, her toes curling and uncurling against the hardwood floor.
"Bad dream?" Arthur tried next, and Phillipa nodded. "Yeah," Arthur said with a sigh, shifting to make room for her. "Me too. What did you dream about? Want to tell me?"
"You tell first," Phillipa said in a whisper, curling up against his side, clutching at his shirt. She never used to come to him when she woke up in the middle of the night, and why would she? She had Mal and Dom, and Arthur was often gone for weeks at a time. Used to be.
"A friend of mine," Arthur said, briefly pausing to consider the simplest way to describe the dream. "They hurt me."
Phillipa nodded, and Arthur rubbed her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her, waiting her out.
"I had the one," she said. "The same one."
Arthur swallowed, tilting his head so his cheek was resting against the top of Phillipa's head. It was always the same dream, these days, and he didn't know how to make it better.
"Mommy looked at me. Then I disappeared. Then baby disappeared too."
"You need to call Mal's parents," Arthur said, standing by the kitchen windows with a mug of coffee held between his hands. In the backyard, Mal was standing still, staring at nothing with her arms wrapped around her middle. "They deserve to know."
For a while, it seemed like Dom might refuse to respond. Arthur didn't push.
"What am I supposed to say to them?" Dom said eventually, not looking up from where he was sitting at the kitchen table, going through whatever papers he'd dug up to distract himself with.
"I don't know, Dom. The truth? That an experiment went wrong and their daughter 'isn't feeling well'. Isn't that how you put it? Maybe if they visited, she'd -- I don't know."
"Snap out of it?" Dom asked with no small amount of bitterness.
"I don't know," Arthur repeated. "But they deserve to know. I deserved to know."
"You deserved to know," Dom said, slowly.
Arthur met his eyes without flinching. "She's my friend. You both are. This went on for weeks, and you didn't even think to call?"
"You were working," Dom said, a sheet of paper crumbling under his hand. "And what was I supposed to say? She didn't even admit it to me, at first!"
"But you knew!" Arthur said, raising his own voice, unable to help himself. "You knew something was wrong --"
"I was going to fix it," Dom snapped, getting to his feet, the chair screeching against the floor as it was pushed back.
They stared at each other for a long, tense moment, and then Dom sagged forward, arms braced against the table.
"I am going to fix it," he said again, quiet, with a desperate sort of conviction.
"And if you can't?" Arthur asked, earning himself a glare. "Dom, she needs help. Therapy. Something. She thinks you need to die. She thinks I'm not real. She thinks Phillipa and James --"
"Don't talk to me about --"
"She's a danger to herself, to you, to your kids," Arthur continued on, merciless. "She's fixated on getting you to -- to choose to die. What if she decides that the way to do that is to remove everything that's keeping you here? Dom, she could --"
Arthur swallowed, tearing his gaze away from Dom. The unsaid words settled like stones in his stomach. Outside, Mal was staring at the sky. Perfect, blue sky, Arthur thought, feeling nauseous.
"I'm handling it," Dom said, the tone of his voice inviting no arguments.
Arthur nodded, not taking his eyes off of Mal. He drank his coffee, listened to the rustle of papers.
The house felt too quiet. Haunted.
"Some days," he said, "I feel like I'm living with strangers."
Dom didn't answer.
Things did get better, was the thing.
It was slow going, but Dom eventually let up a little, Mal agreed to see a therapist, and little by little, she started to seem more like herself. She stopped fighting with Dom, stopped talking about waking up; she spoke to her parents, met up with her friends; she spent more time with Phillipa and James, and while Phillipa still had nightmares, they became less frequent.
Arthur ignored the nagging little voice in his head saying, too easy. Dismissed it as paranoia, because nothing about this had been easy. To have Mal back, to have her greet him with a warm smile in the morning, like normal, it was too much of a relief.
She started making noises about how he should get out more, how she'd never meant to turn him into a de facto babysitter, how awful she felt that he'd been forced to put his work on hold for so long because of her.
"That was my decision," Arthur said, cleaning up after dinner while Mal leaned against the counter nearby, absently toying with one of James' stuffed animals. "It's not your fault."
He'd said it before, and he knew she wouldn't listen to him this time any more than she had then, but that, too, was familiar.
"You can make different decisions now," Mal insisted. "I'm feeling so much better, and I love you, but you were never meant to be stuck here like this."
Arthur hesitated. While he didn't regret staying where he was needed, he did miss being out in the field. He'd taken apart and put together his PASIV -- both of them -- more than once, in addition to running routine diagnostics on them; they'd never been so well maintained while seeing so little use.
Mal, evidently sensing blood in the water, kept talking. "Take a little time off. Find a job. I know Dom has already talked about having plans for our anniversary in a few weeks, but my mother said she could come stay here for a while, to help with the children, so you don't need to worry about that. We'll be fine."
"If you're sure," Arthur said, conflicted.
"I'm certain," Mal said, firm but not unkind. "And you know how I can't stand not having my way. We'll see each other again soon, Arthur, I promise."
Arthur capitulated, partly because he was itching for work, and partly because, more often than not, arguing with Mal really was an exercise in futility. One way or the other, she always got what she wanted.
The PASIV Arthur had salvaged from Rooney had been functional and at least a couple of years newer than Arthur's own, but the previous owners had clearly lacked the know-how to properly maintain the device. Arthur had taken it apart, checked and cleaned everything, changed the fuse, and replaced the IV lines. He'd taken the time to do a few experiments to make sure everything was working properly, but hadn't had a chance to field test it.
It didn't occur to him that taking it with him on the job might be a bad idea until the moment Eames touched the scratched casing, obviously recognizing it.
Arthur had known Eames would be on the team. He just hadn't thought it through.
"Sorry," he said, sort of wishing he could go back in time. "I wasn't thinking. I mean, I didn't mean to, you know, bring up bad memories."
Eames snorted, his expression losing the slight contemplative edge. "The experience obviously didn't put me off PASIV use for life, and the fact that it was this PASIV in particular they used doesn't make much of a difference, now does it?"
Arthur shrugged, because it might have, right?
"Really, Arthur, you needn't worry about it," Eames said, dismissive, like he could read Arthur's mind and didn't think much of what he saw there. "They didn't bring it out until the third day, and even then, they weren't very creative."
"Okay. That's good," Arthur said. "I mean, not good, but better than the alternative."
"I know what you meant." Eames quirked his lips, amused at Arthur's expense, which, fine. Whatever. If Eames didn't want to make a big deal out of it, Arthur wouldn't, either.
"I'm not giving it up," Arthur said, just in case it needed to be said.
"And I have no intention of reimbursing you for the money you spent on my rescue, so you might as well keep it," Eames conceded easily enough. "Probably safer for all concerned that way -- I have little patience for the mechanical details, upkeep and such."
As if Eames would turn down a free PASIV, should it come to that. But Arthur wasn't offering, and the fact that Eames wasn't fighting him on it, well, it meant something. That they were even, maybe.
Arthur knew he should let the whole thing go right there, but he couldn't help it, he wanted to know --
"Did you have nightmares, after? Did you ever dream about it?" He could feel Eames looking at him, but didn't look up from the PASIV. "You don't have to answer that, I was just wondering."
"No," Eames said. "I didn't dream."
Eames shifted to lean his hip against the table, slouching with his arms crossed across his chest. He had nice arms. Nice chest. Arthur wished he could stop noticing sometime soon.
"Have you been dreaming, Arthur?"
"Obviously," Arthur said, waving a hand at the PASIV. When Eames just looked at him, unimpressed, Arthur shrugged. "Sometimes. It's just, I've been using somnacin for so long -- it shouldn't be happening at this point."
"Funny thing, brain chemistry," Eames said. "Doesn't always do as it should."
"Yeah, well, I keep drawing the short stick."
"Nightmares, then," Eames concluded. "Regardless, some people would see it as a gift, retaining the ability to dream naturally."
"I'm not some people," Arthur said, feeling snappish.
"No, you aren't," Eames said, and there was something in his voice that made Arthur look up.
He caught a glimpse of whatever it was in Eames' eyes, but it was gone too quickly for Arthur to even begin to sort it out. He breathed in and let it go, gave Eames half-a-smile as thanks for listening before going back to making sure the PASIV was in working order after being in transit.
It never did him any good, to wonder.
Afterward, Arthur couldn't quite recall the details of the job. He didn't even try. It was the only extraction he'd ever committed himself to that he didn't see through.
The extractor was new, the architect Arthur had worked with before, and then there was Eames, who idly questioned Arthur's long absence from dream sharing, but didn't push when Arthur sidestepped the topic. Everything was going smoothly, that much Arthur knew.
He was at the workshop with Eames; the moment stood out to him, later, bright in the middle of a field of vague recollections. He was laughing at something Eames had just said, laughing despite himself. When he answered his cell, it was with a smile still lingering in his voice.
"Dom, hey," he said, mentally skipping time zones. "How did the anniversary --"
And Dom made a sound, a horrible, strangled, gut-wrenching sound that punched through Arthur like a physical thing. Every last trace of amusement within Arthur shriveled up and died a quick, silent death, his insides clenching with a fear too big to name.
"She's gone," Dom said after a few moments of silence stretched thin over the Atlantic. He sounded raw, like he'd been crying.
"What do you mean, gone?" Arthur asked carefully, because there was no way, no way --
"She jumped." Dom's tone was harsh, as if he was having trouble getting the words out. "She's dead."
Arthur didn't say anything, couldn't say anything, and after too many heartbeats filled with nothing but ragged breathing, Dom hung up.
Arthur must have stumbled, or looked sick, because Eames reached out for him. It wasn't that Arthur had forgotten Eames was in the room, exactly; it wasn't that he was startled. He just couldn't stand the thought of being touched, not right then. He lashed out.
It wasn't even a punch, just a sloppy swing of his arm, easy for Eames to avoid. Rather than backing off, however, Eames used the movement to his advantage; Arthur's back slammed against the wall, his phone clattering to the floor, and as sudden as it had appeared, the violence bled out of him, leaving him hollow and shaking. Eames' hands were like brands around his upper arms, the only thing holding him upright.
Eames hesitated before letting Arthur go, taking a step back. Without him, Arthur slid down the wall, closed his eyes. Maybe it was a dream; maybe he was dreaming.
He was forced to open his eyes, blinking, when Eames crouched in front of him, his hands warm against Arthur's knees.
"Arthur," Eames said, sounding lost. "What the fuck just happened?"
"I have to go home," Arthur said. "Mal's dead. Mallorie. She's dead."
Eames' expression shifted, and the warm weight of his hands turned into a hard, unforgiving grip.
"I have to go home," Arthur repeated, and Eames nodded, not saying a word.
That evening, Arthur sat on the floor of his hotel room with his back against the bed and his elbows on his knees. Eames was sitting next to him, and while Arthur despised being an object of pity, he couldn't find it in himself to tell Eames to leave.
He wanted to be on a plane heading to L.A. He wanted to be able to do something. But the earliest flight he'd been able to get wasn't until the following day, and until then, his options were limited.
Mostly, he was feeling numb.
Eames was drinking; Arthur was not. "I don't drink when people die," he said when Eames offered him the scotch he'd already turned down twice.
Eames paused for a moment, the bottle of scotch halfway to his mouth, before continuing as if Arthur hadn't spoken. Perversely, it was Eames not asking that made Arthur want to talk. What did it matter? Eames might not even remember any of it come the next day, if he kept drinking at the pace he'd set for himself.
"I grew up in a pretty bad neighborhood," Arthur said, tilting his head back against the bed. "My mom died when I was seven, and my dad -- he was an alcoholic, and when my mom -- he just stopped trying. He died when I was twelve, and I --" Arthur swallowed, his throat working as he tried to get the words out. "And I felt relieved."
He'd neither expected nor hoped for Eames to comment, but it surprised him, how grateful he felt, when Eames kept silent, kept drinking.
And Arthur, almost without meaning to, kept talking. "I keep a tally of them in the back of my head. Mom was the first, then my dad. This kid I went to school with, he got shot. My grandmother, she died from cancer when I was nineteen, and I wasn't there. It was too late to do anything about it, and I guess she knew I wouldn't just give up and accept that, you know, because she didn't tell me. I know she always tried to do what she thought was best for me, but I --" Arthur broke off and swallowed some more. "For a long time, I was angry at her. Really angry. How stupid is that? What kind of person is angry at their dead grandmother? I just -- she was always there for me. She was the one person who was always there for me, and she died alone. Fuck."
Arthur pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, hating the pressure he could feel building behind them. He focused on his breathing, unsteady as it was, until he felt marginally less like he was about to come apart at the seams.
"Then there was -- this one guy, a friend. Alex. We were in the same unit in the dream sharing program -- maybe you remember."
"Trippers," Eames murmured, unobtrusive, and Arthur nodded.
"It was -- brutal. The program, I mean, especially in the early days. War games and mind games, torture. People having a bad reaction to somnacin or other experimental drugs. But it could be exhilarating, too. It could leave you feeling like a god. So, we learned to compartmentalize. To balance the good and the bad. And it worked. For a while, at least," Arthur bowed his head, running his fingers through in his hair. "But you do that shit long enough, it starts building up. I'm pretty sure that's what happened with Alex. It wasn't the somnacin, or that anything down under messed up his head, not like -- not like Mal. He just couldn't take it."
When Arthur laughed, he sounded unbearably bitter, even to himself. It wasn't funny, but -- it was almost funny. That he'd lost two people to suicide, but for the opposite reasons. Mal had wanted to live, but she'd been so twisted up in the head that she'd gone about it the wrong way. Whereas Alex had wanted to die and, being Alex, had succeeded.
"I keep a tally of my dead," Arthur said, barely audible, and squeezed his eyes shut.
He wanted to sleep, and never dream again.
For the first time in longer than Arthur was willing to think about, coming to L.A. didn't feel like coming home.
He was slow to make his way across the yard to the house, his luggage still in the rental he'd parked on the street; there was no room on the driveway. He stood in front of the door for a long, long time, the key ready in his hand; the key Mal had given him.
He closed his fist around it, the edges biting into the flesh of his palm.
Waited until he got used to the pain.
Rang the doorbell.
Mal's funeral was held on a clear, sunny day. There were lilies and roses, and a sea of black fabric; her parents and friends, and Dom, Phillipa, James. And Arthur, standing apart from the rest, feeling adrift without her.
Not dead but merely sleeps, said the preacher, and Arthur flinched, and could see Dom flinching.
Parked outside the graveyard and down the street, unobtrusive yet unmistakable, was a police car.
They don't have enough to convict you, Arthur said, at first, but Mal had been meticulous, merciless in her quest to damn Dom's character. There were questions and suspicious looks not only from the police, but from their neighbors, from Mal's friends, and even from her mother. Weighed against that, Arthur's words held little influence. We can fight this, Arthur said. You can't run, he said.
What about Phillipa and James? He asked, and Dom nearly threw a glass at his head.
Because Dom would not be persuaded, Arthur made the arrangements to get him out of the country, and then left before Dom did, so that he wouldn't have to watch Dom leave.
I'll find a way back, Dom said, and Arthur had enough faith left, in those early days, to believe him.
The first time Arthur saw Mal after the funeral, during a practice run for a job, he froze in place, and she slit his throat.
He made up an excuse as to why he'd dropped out of the dream early, promising it wouldn't happen again, and kept the truth to himself.
The next time Mal showed up, it was during the actual extraction. Arthur broke her neck, finished the job, and didn't throw up until he was alone in his hotel bathroom.
He'd wanted to avoid bringing it up, avoid adding to Dom's grief, but he couldn't risk keeping it to himself, not if it compromised their work.
"Have you seen her?" He asked Dom before they started planning for the next job. "Mal," he clarified when Dom didn't respond.
Dom looked down at the gun he was cleaning, his hands slow and steady at their task. He looked guilty, and the pieces clicked together in Arthur's mind -- he'd only ever seen Mal when he and Dom were under at the same time.
"She's yours," Arthur said, something like hurt blossoming under his ribs. "Your projection."
"We need an architect," Dom said after a long moment of saying nothing at all.
Arthur swallowed, and swallowed, and swallowed, until he was no longer in danger of choking on the hollow despair and impotent anger rising within him like a tidal wave.
"Fine," he said, his voice tight. "I'll find us an architect. In the meantime, get a grip, Cobb. I don't want to see her again."
Some part of him wanted to make it an ultimatum, but the rest of him knew it would take more than a twisted projection of Mal showing up again and again for Arthur to walk away from Dom and his demons. He owed Dom more than that. He owed Mal more than that.
Later, after he'd calmed down some, he thought maybe Dom asking for another architect was an answer of sorts. An admission of sorts.
Whatever it was, it would have to be enough.
The first time Dom and Eames met, Eames gave Dom an unimpressed once over, turned to Arthur, and said, "Are you shagging this one, too?"
Dom wheezed like his mouthful of crappy take-away coffee had just gone down the wrong way, and Arthur's lips twitched before widening into a proper smile; the expression felt odd on his face, stiff from disuse. "You're not the first to think that," he told Eames.
"No?" Eames raised an eyebrow, looking mildly entertained.
Dom was still sputtering. "Who thinks that? No one thinks that."
"I'm pretty sure your mother-in-law thinks that," Arthur said before he could think better of it.
Dom's expression soured, and Arthur's smile faded.
"If it makes you feel any better," Arthur said, "it's not new. I think she's thought that since -- since J was born. You know," he added, his breath hitching a little, "you, me -- her."
"That doesn't make me feel any better," Dom said, but he didn't sound angry or even bitter, just sad. "Excuse me," he said, took his coffee and walked out of the room.
"He's never this polite unless we have company," Arthur commented, half-joking, his eyes lingering on the doorway Dom had gone through.
"That was him being polite?"
Arthur turned back to Eames, the question startling another smile out of him. "He said 'excuse me'. Usually he decides a conversation is done and leaves without saying anything, or makes me leave. Without saying anything. It's a thing we do."
Eames leaned his hip against a nearby table, his arms crossed across his chest. "So this Cobb of yours. He's married?"
"He was," Arthur said, looking at the floor with his hands in his pockets.
Arthur glanced up, shrugged. Dom had introduced himself to the dream sharing community by his surname, which Arthur thought questionable considering Dom's legal situation, but what was done was done. Going into the details, though -- Arthur wasn't sure he was comfortable with that, even with Eames.
Eames narrowed his eyes a little, making Arthur feel pinned by his gaze.
"He's Mallorie's husband?" Eames tilted his head, like he didn't expect to be wrong.
"How did you --" Arthur paused and pursed his lips, annoyed at himself. "Did she tell you about him? Did you dig into her background?"
"She didn't tell me," Eames said, "but she always did wear that ring around her neck. I have eyes, I know how close you were with her. She dies, and a few weeks later you show up with an extractor who's knew to the field but whom you've obviously known for a long time. And you're both all fucked up, there's that."
"You have it all figured out," Arthur said, his smile brittle. "Like usual."
"I've yet to figure out why he's here. The couple of jobs you've done are enough to prove he's got what it takes to be an extractor, but -- he has kids. I don't think I misunderstood that part. Does he need the money that badly?"
"No. He --" Arthur glanced at the doorway Dom had gone through. Money was an easy out, but unless something drastic happened, Dom wasn't going to get to go home any time soon, and even if Eames never called him on the lie, Arthur didn't want it between them. Feeling a little like he was betraying Dom for his own peace of mind, he said, "They think he killed her."
Eames gave him a long look, and Arthur frowned back at him.
"He didn't. You really think I'd stay with him if I thought for a second it was true? Mal was -- she was sick. She killed herself and did her best to make it look like -- like it was Cobb. You met her, you know what she was like. She made it convincing."
"Why?" Eames asked, his tone muted, less skeptical.
"She thought she was dreaming, that she and Cobb both were. She thought they needed to die to wake up, and she didn't want to go without him."
"Yeah," Arthur said, curling his fingers around the die in his pocket, for what little comfort it allowed him. "Honestly, I'd rather talk about how everyone seemed to be under the impression that we had some kind of three-way arrangement thing going on."
"I thought it was just the mother-in-law," Eames said, easily playing along.
"The mother-in-law, the father-in-law, the staff at the hospital where one of the kids was born, some of the neighbors, probably," Arthur trailed off with a lopsided smile. "I didn't think Cobb would thank me for explaining the extent of it. It wasn't a big deal, just people trying to make sense of where I fit in. It was pretty awkward when I noticed them just itching to ask but, you know. I wish Mal --"
Arthur cut himself off, his chest feeling tight. He'd never talked about it with Mal, but he thought she'd noticed it too. He could almost picture the conversation, the wicked gleam in her eyes. Isn't it just the most amusing thing, Arthur? I don't think Dom has noticed yet; I'm waiting for the perfect opportunity to mess with his head -- promise me you'll be there. Honestly, if Dom was at all into men, or you were any less like family to me, I'd almost be tempted --
"Anyway, it's amusing now," Arthur said, his breathing shaky with the memory of Mal's laughter. "In retrospect."
If the amusement was laced with hurt, well, that was just the way things were, now. Everything in his life that Mal had touched felt tender, bruised; every reminder, every memory. It was one of the reasons why he couldn't stay mad at Dom. Mal had left them both wounded, and they were still bleeding.
Eames reached out and placed a hand high on Arthur's chest, and Arthur, his heart skipping a beat, looked up; he hadn't noticed Eames moving.
"The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," said Eames, looking at his own hand where it rested over Arthur's racing heart. His eyes flickered up to meet Arthur's, and his mouth twisted into an unfamiliar shape, self-deprecating. "Shakespeare," he said, withdrawing his hand and stepping back.
Arthur nodded, curt, like a puppet on a string.
"I need a smoke," Eames said, already moving past Arthur, toward the door. "Organize your notes or whatever it is you do to relax. We shouldn't start really working until the architect arrives, in any case."
Arthur made a noise of assent, but Eames was already gone.
Turning away from the empty doorway, Arthur took a seat at a table he'd claimed as his, but he didn't touch his laptop or the preliminary notes on their mark. He placed his right hand over his heart, trying to recreate the touch of Eames' hand, the shape, pressure and warmth of it. After a long, drawn-out moment, he lowered his hand, feeling foolish, and blindly reached for his laptop.
He did his best to ignore the lingering warmth weighing down his heart.
It took a while for Arthur to realize he was awake. He blinked sluggishly at the yellowed ceiling, his mind idly categorizing the stains and cracks. He was laying on something soft -- a bed. His hands twitched at his sides, his fingertips pressing against rough sheets. A cheap hotel maybe. Definitely not where he'd fallen asleep. Or was he still asleep? He stared up at the ceiling for a while longer, knowing he should be more alarmed than he was; whatever drugs he'd been given must still be in his system.
There was someone in the room with him. He could hear them over the low, inconsistent buzz from one of the electric lights, but couldn't make out what they were doing. He let his head loll to the side so he could see across the room. His right-hand trigger finger twitched.
"You sold us out," he said before he could rethink revealing he was awake.
"Hello, Arthur," Eames said, not even glancing in his direction. "Good of you to join me."
"You sold us out," Arthur repeated, fury rising up beneath the left-over grogginess from the drugs. He didn't want to believe it, but fuck, it didn't look good. "You son of a bitch."
"Your gun's on the bedside table," Eames said, appearing unconcerned. "Try not to shoot me. You've done so well with resisting the urge up until now."
Eames wasn't lying. When Arthur glanced to the side, he could see his Glock resting on the cheap wooden surface. The magazine had been removed and set to the side, but unless Eames had taken out the bullets, shooting him was a very real option.
Arthur didn't reach for the gun. He should have. He really should have, but he didn't. He pushed himself up to his elbows, shaking his head when his vision threatened to gray out.
"Why?" That was all he really wanted to know.
Eames slanted a look at him, unreadable, but didn't say anything. He was sitting at a table, a cigarette hanging precariously from the corner of his mouth while he counted stacks of money and placed them into an open suitcase.
"Was it money?" Arthur pushed. "Is that it?" He didn't know why he was surprised.
"D'you want a cut?" Eames asked, taking the cigarette between two fingers and flicking the ashes into an ashtray off to the side. "I might be willing to be convinced to give you one. A small one."
"A small one," Arthur repeated, closing his eyes and pushing all the way up into a sitting position so he could rub his fingertips against his forehead. Either he was still dreaming, or Eames was playing some game where only he knew the rules.
"I did do all the work," Eames said, like they were actually negotiating about it. "Saved your life, among other things."
"Like hell you did," Arthur said, his head snapping up.
"It might smart your pride, but it's true," Eames said, tapping a stack of bills against the table to even them out. "I wouldn't feel too bad about it, if I were you. It's hard to fight two fights, one up top and another down below."
"Explain. Now." Arthur thought he probably would feel better if he did shoot Eames. Maybe in the leg, nothing too serious.
"Our architect, Marcel Déciel? Turns out he made some unfortunate decisions not so long ago and gained a rather persistent enemy. A little birdie told the gentlemen who were after him where and when he could be found and taken without a fuss."
"While we were under," Arthur said, remembering how the dream had crumbled into nothing, leaving him in the dark. He curled his hands into fists.
"Yes." Eames moved the ashtray closer to himself and leaned back in his chair, leaving the money alone for the time being. "Luckily, I had a little birdie of my own who alerted me to the situation. A bit last minute, but all considering, I feel like I can't complain. As I heard it, the plan was to take Déciel and kill you, me and Cobb. You can imagine how delighted I was to find out."
Arthur had to consciously unclench his jaw. He hated being blindsided, being the last to know. It was an insult to everything he aspired to be in his chosen profession. To be thus betrayed once was bad enough. Twice, even if it wasn't his past that was responsible this time -- he could barely stand it.
"What did you do?"
"Changed the game." Eames shifted his shoulders with a barely noticeable wince. "Honestly, after spending half a day lugging unconscious bodies around, I should've got paid more."
"So you, what, you drugged us and took us to another location," Arthur said, putting the pieces together. "You gave them Marcel on the condition that they pay you -- how much is that? -- and let you keep me and Cobb. Cobb was part of the deal, right? Why didn't you just clue us in?"
"It was all a bit of a last minute thing, like I said." Eames shrugged, and when Arthur opened his mouth to argue, Eames added, "I wasn't sure you'd agree to the plan. Or that Cobb would. He's in the room next to ours, by the way. He'll be fine."
Arthur fell back on the bed with an annoyed huff.
"You're such a bastard," he said, and decided not to think of what had come of Marcel.
"Going to shoot me?" Eames asked, continuing to sound unconcerned.
"I should," Arthur said, tilting his head and looking at Eames.
"But you're not going to," Eames said, irritatingly sure of himself. "Just as well. I'd rather avoid having to shoot you."
"You could try," Arthur said, his mouth pulling into a smirk on it's own accord.
"There is no try," Eames said gravely, and Arthur snorted.
"You're awful," he said, "and I want forty per cent of the money."
"You'll get five," Eames said, stubbing his cigarette out.
"Twenty-five," Arthur countered. "You drugged me."
"Fine," Arthur said, looking back at the ceiling. "Fifteen."
He heard the sound of a chair scraping against the floor as it was pushed away from the table. A moment later the bed dipped under Eames' weight. Arthur slanted a look at him.
Telegraphing his movements, Eames reached out and put a hand on Arthur's stomach, fingers spread wide. Warmth from his hand seeped through Arthur's shirt, and the weight of it made Arthur conscious of his breathing, the gentle rise and fall of his stomach.
"What?" Arthur asked, pretending his heart rate hadn't kicked up a notch just from this one point of contact.
Eames quirked an eyebrow, an odd little smile teasing at the corner of his mouth.
"Have you forgiven me already?"
Arthur would have liked to say no, would have liked to tell Eames to fuck off. But being mad at Eames was like being mad at the weather, which was to say that it required more energy than it was worth and was, ultimately, pointless.
Come to think of it, that described more than one person in Arthur's life, past and present.
"You're a dick," he said without much heat.
Eames' smile morphed into a smirk, and he pressed down a little, his thumb moving in a caress.
Arthur's cheeks flushed with heat, and he shifted, pushing into the touch almost without thought.
"Feeling me up all day while I was unconscious wasn't enough for you?"
"Who could pass up such an opportunity?" Eames said, his tone light and eyes dark.
Arthur's mind flashed back to a night he'd tried to forget, a storm raging outside, the wind rattling the windows; Eames' eyes had held that same dark look then, too.
Before Arthur could question Eames or his own reading of the situation, the door to the hotel room crashed open and Dom stumbled in with a gun in his hand, looking wild around the eyes.
Eames withdrew from Arthur and held up his hands. Arthur, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, followed his example.
"I can explain," said Eames.
"He can explain," said Arthur.
"Are you sleeping with him?" Dom asked several hours later, when the two of them were on a plane and Eames was long gone.
The question tugged at something in Arthur's chest.
"Would it bother you if I was?" He asked, not sure why he avoided the question rather than telling the truth.
Dom shifted in his seat. "No. Of course not."
"You already knew I like guys," Arthur said, incapable of leaving it alone. "And girls, sometimes, but mostly guys."
"I know," Dom said, frowning as he turned to look outside, pushing the plastic window cover all the way up. They were seated right at the wing, so there wasn't much to see. "I said it was fine, didn't I? It's your life. I'm sorry I asked."
'Sorry' wasn't really in Dom's vocabulary these days, but Arthur didn't say anything, just leaned back against the headrest and looked up at the screen displaying their travel route, estimated time left on the flight, altitude, temperature outside and at their destination.
"We don't have anything else lined up right away, do we?" Arthur asked. From the corner of his eye, he could see Dom shake his head. "I'm going to take a break. Visit L.A."
He felt cruel right after saying it.
"If, you know," he continued when Dom stayed silent, "your mother-in-law lets me in the door."
"She will," Dom said, still looking at what he could see of the sky outside.
Arthur swallowed. "Do you want me to bring them anything? The kids, or…"
"I'll get them something from the airport. Will you -- are you going to visit her?"
Visit her grave, Dom meant.
"I don't know," Arthur said. The thought still made him want to scream.
"If you do --" Dom broke off, his hands curling into fists. "She liked white roses."
"I know," Arthur said. Hesitating, he rested a hand on Dom's wrist. "I'll buy her some."
Dom kept his head turned away, but he didn't shrug off Arthur's touch.
Over the next few months, things didn't get any better. Arthur's life settled into an uneasy routine of juggling Dom's moods, taking increasingly risky jobs, and periodical visits to Los Angeles; hotels, flights, marks, migraines, stuffed toys and white roses.
The more time passed, the more uncooperative Dom became, and more reckless. He gained a reputation in the field for taking the difficult jobs, for being the best at what he did, but also for being difficult to work with; they went through architects at an alarming pace.
Arthur could still see glimpses of the old, familiar Dom, who could be a dick sometimes and got too easily distracted by work, but who was nonetheless a good friend and a good husband and a father; kind, intelligent, and in possession of a wicked, understated sense of humor that came to play at the oddest times. Those glimpses were few and far between, however, and more often than not, Arthur felt like he was sharing space with a stranger. He'd come to hate the faraway look Dom got sometimes, like he was a hundred years old, like he couldn't see Arthur any more than Mal had, in the end.
Dom was snappish and distant, and Arthur became distant in return. Dom's moods, the increasing risks of their work, even his own grief over Mal -- it all became background noise, something to be shrugged off in self-defense, like water off a duck's back. Something would have to break soon, but Arthur was damned it if would be him.
Still, he sometimes felt like he had on the day of Mal's funeral, standing in the sidelines, watching her coffin as it was lowered into the ground.
I'll find a way back, said Dom, but Arthur no longer believed him.
It was winter in Berlin. Arthur wasn't sure whether it was due to adequate layers of clothing or blood alcohol levels, but he didn't feel the cold. After their most recent extraction had been completed, Dom and their adequate-at-best architect had both taken off. Arthur had lingered.
While waiting for the next job, Arthur had nowhere to be and no one waiting for him. He'd visited L.A. not infrequently in the past few months, but it was no longer a home to him, and he tried not to make a nuisance of himself by dropping by too often. Mal's mother always let him in, and always made the guest room for him even when he told her he'd be fine staying at a hotel, but it never stopped feeling like an imposition on his part. He knew his presence reminded her of things she'd rather not think about, and she had enough on her plate as it was.
Berlin was as good a place as any, and better than some, to spend a few days doing little apart from consuming too much alcohol and perhaps seeing some sights.
"Not that I'm much good at that," said Arthur, who wasn't alone in having stayed behind or in heading back to his hotel after spending the evening out drinking. "Sightseeing. Playing tourist."
"I would say that surprises me," said Eames, his smirk half-hidden by his scarf, "but it would be a lie."
Arthur snorted. "And as we all know, you'd never get caught in a lie."
"Caught? No. I am, after all, a professional."
Arthur breathed out a laugh, briefly closing his eyes against the streetlights.
There was a pause, brief and painless, before Eames said, "You could do better than Nash. Professionally speaking."
"Yeah, well. Cobb hasn't exactly made it easy for people to work with us. I've made my peace with it."
"He's not gotten any better over time, then?"
"Cobb?" Arthur hesitated, an image of Mal flashing through his mind, her eyes too cold and nail polish too perfect. "Hasn't gotten worse, either. And you're one to talk. He get's under your skin, don't think I haven't noticed. You still keep saying yes when he asks."
Eames absently scratched at his stubbled cheek. "I keep saying yes when you ask."
And why is that? Arthur bit down on the words, dislodging them with a sharp shake of his head. "You know we're a package deal, so, whatever."
Eames laughed, sharp and short. "Whatever, indeed. Here we are, Arthur. Your hotel."
"Right," Arthur said, blinking a little at the hotel entrance, at his own fogged breath. "You didn't have to keep me company. But thanks."
"You'll find I do very little because I have to," Eames said, "and I suppose you're welcome."
He made no move to leave, and Arthur made no move to go inside.
Arthur put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels a little. "You coming in?"
"For coffee?" Eames asked after barely a beat, his voice just shy of a drawl.
"The minibar," Arthur suggested, and even managed to make it sound casual. Had he consumed any less alcohol than he had during the evening, the conversation might have thrown him off balance. As it was, it was easy not to overthink it -- and to blame his flushed cheeks on either the weather or the aforementioned alcohol already in his system.
After another moment that almost felt like hesitation, Eames motioned Arthur to proceed inside ahead of him. "After you."
Once they were in Arthur's room, cut off from the rest of the world, Arthur didn't make a move toward the minibar. Eames stood close to the door, as if reconsidering his decision. It was strange to see him of all people looking out of place and borderline awkward.
Arthur unwound his scarf, watched the way Eames' gaze followed the movement.
"Sometimes you look at me like I have something you want," he told Eames, willing it to be true.
"Mostly I'm wondering what the hell am I even doing with you."
"You haven't done anything with me," Arthur said as he stepped closer. "Yet."
"Arthur." Eames' voice was low, like a warning, or a plea.
"I might have meant coffee after all." Arthur swallowed, standing well within Eames' personal space. "If I kissed you now --" His gaze flickered down to Eames' mouth, and he took a breath, tried again. "If I kissed you now, would you kiss me back?"
"I'd rather you didn't tempt me," said Eames, and that wasn't a no.
That's all Arthur heard; it wasn't a no.
He leaned in, fitting his mouth against Eames' -- and after a moment, his heart beating too fast for comfort, he was rewarded. Eames tilted his head for better access, pushing in. His hands closed on Arthur's hips, and the next instant, it was Arthur with his back against the wall beside the door. They were still wearing their winter gear, and the extra layers were getting in the way, muting the way their bodies pressed against each other while simultaneously making Arthur feel overheated and all too aware of the places where their skin did come to contact. Eames trailed open, biting kisses down Arthur's throat, and Arthur wanted it, he did, except --
"What?" Eames asked against his skin. Arthur hesitated, and Eames pulled back, just enough to make eye contact.
"I'm pretty sure I'm too drunk for this to go much further," Arthur said softly, apologetic. Maybe under other circumstances he would have felt embarrassed, but his head felt muted, like it too was wrapped in layers. He did want Eames, more than he'd wanted anything in a long time, but he was barely half-hard, and from experience he knew it probably wouldn't get any better.
Eames closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against Arthur's.
"You seem to only ever kiss me when you're drunk," he said, keeping his eyes closed. "Why is that, Arthur?"
"Twice isn't a pattern," Arthur said, studying Eames' eyelashes. It was difficult to keep his vision from blurring, with Eames so close. "Eames?"
"Give me a minute, will you?" Instead of stepping away and putting distance between them, Eames buried a hand in Arthur's hair, his lips brushing against Arthur's cheek, against his ear; he tightened his hold on Arthur without warning, his grip almost painfully tight. "What is it about you? I know bad news when I see them, and you're the worst kind of bad news. I should bloody well just keep my distance, and I never do."
It hadn't occurred to Arthur until then that Eames was himself perhaps more drunk than Arthur had thought.
"I want to make you smile," Eames continued, his cheek against Arthur's, his expression hidden. "I want to make you arch and moan and surrender, and at the same time I'm wondering if this isn't just another kind of rebound for you. I'm always left wondering, with you."
Arthur tried to shake his head, and Eames further tightened his grip on his hair. When Arthur couldn't keep in a pained sound, Eames pressed an open-mouthed kiss against his throat, as if to capture the sound.
"You aren't any good to me," Eames said as he pulled away. "I'd prefer it if you didn't call me."
He stepped out into the hallway, the door closing softly behind him.
For the first time that day, Arthur felt cold.
He didn't call. The next time a job needed a thief, he referred Dom to someone else. The job after that needed a forger, and Arthur took a chance on someone who didn't have a lot of practical experience under their belt. And fine, that could have turned out better, but the point was, they'd made it. There was no need for Dom to keep frowning at him like Arthur was the one with a problem.
Most days, Arthur didn't feel like being honest with himself, let alone with Dom, and so he concentrated on work, both the extractions and the freelance research. When he did feel like being honest with himself, he could admit that not contacting Eames had less to do with respecting his wishes and more with not knowing what he'd say to Eames if he did call.
Once he'd sobered up, Arthur had been mildly mortified by his own actions, though at least this time there was no sting of rejection to deal with, not like last time. Mostly, he was left with questions he wasn't sure he wanted answers to.
Eames had been a part of his life for more than half a decade, on and off. There had always been attraction between them, at least on Arthur's part; he'd never been sure of the accuracy of his reading of Eames, and that one time in Canada hadn't helped. More to the point, on some level he'd never thought that acting on that attraction would be a good idea.
Except when he was drunk, apparently; Eames maybe had a point there.
He'd never articulated to himself why it would be a bad idea for him to act on his attraction. If it was supposed to be just a casual thing, then being rejected shouldn't be a big deal, but when Eames had turned him down, it had hurt far more than it had any right to. In Berlin, Arthur hadn't thought ahead more than a few minutes at the time, if that, and Eames walking away should have been a relief. Instead, Arthur was left with hollow places in his chest, and a conflicted heart.
Eames had once said he wasn't opposed to casual sex, but the things he'd talked about in Berlin had made it sound like maybe in Arthur's case, casual was the opposite of what he wanted.
It didn't entirely fit with Arthur's perception of Eames, but he didn't know what else to think. He could make excuses, like maybe Eames said things he didn't mean when he was drunk, just like Arthur did things like kiss people he wouldn't kiss when sober.
Never mind that the urge to kiss was still there, entwined with the memory of Eames' hands, the sound of his laughter.
Eames was a liar, but he had no reason to lie about this.
The whole thing was messing with Arthur's head. Last time he'd been in anything bordering a serious relationship, he'd nearly ended up getting killed, and worse, nearly getting others killed. Even before that, the relationship with Rozhkov had been far from the best ride of his life, sex notwithstanding. Arthur had long thought that maybe he just wasn't made for relationships.
This thing with Eames, though. It was never supposed to be a thing to begin with, or at the very least, it was supposed to be easy. Everything was always easy with Eames, somehow, even when it wasn't, and if Arthur could have hated him for anything, it would have been for changing that.
But as complicated as his feelings for Eames had gotten, hate had never had a part in it, and that was half the problem.
Not that Arthur actually had a problem, no matter what Dom's eyebrows liked to indicate.
Then there was Saito, using his words to infect Dom with an idea, convincing him to do the impossible by promising the impossible in return.
After his initial protests went unheard, Arthur shut up and got to work. An agreement had been made, and Dom would not be swayed. For all Arthur thought attempting inception was a fool's errand that would likely end up getting both him and Dom killed, he knew that fighting over it would do no good to anyone. He could either walk away or start doing his job, and those being his options, there wasn't any choice in it at all.
Compartmentalize and move on; Arthur had plenty of practice with that.
In Paris, Dom seduced Ariadne into a life of borderline-crime, and if it weren't for Dom's reassurances that she was only there to build and wouldn't come with them on the job, Arthur might have had opinions on that. As it was, she was in many ways like a breath of fresh air, brilliant and new, taking to dreaming like a fish to water. Best of all, she was a distraction.
Thinking about Dom, thinking about Mombasa and Cobol Engineering and Eames, was a useless waste of energy. Arthur focused on Ariadne instead.
Two days after Dom had left, Arthur came out of the dream with a mild headache lurking at the back of his head. He shrugged it off and smiled at Ariadne, who was blinking herself awake in the lawn chair next to his.
"Cobb was right," Arthur said. "You are a natural."
Ariadne stretched out a little. "He said that?"
"He said he's never seen anyone pick it up that fast. Neither have I."
"Huh." Ariadne cocked her head. "How does it usually work?"
"Depends on the person," Arthur said, sliding the needle out of his arm and sitting upright. "Some people remember their dreams pretty consistently. Others don't dream, or don't remember dreaming. A lot of people are somewhere in between, and even when they remember dreaming, the details usually fade away when they wake up. It's like that with lucid dreaming, shared dreaming. Some people have a knack for it. Others need training before it sticks. Some never get the hang of it at all."
"Did it come easy to you?"
"I wasn't as gifted as you, but yeah, pretty easy. The military --" Arthur blinked and got up, went to the PASIV, the unfinished sentence hanging awkwardly in the air.
"The military?" Ariadne asked, getting up as she loosely spooled her IV line.
"The program I was in," he said after some deliberation, "we had a core group, a handful of people who all had a knack for it -- some level of natural talent we could build on as individuals and as a team. We ran simulations and built mazes and trained others. A lot of people that came through, they just weren't made for it. Even with training, a lot of promising people had trouble with remembering the details afterward."
Arthur wondered if he was being careless, sharing this with her, no matter how lacking in detail. Having military background wasn't unique. Being connected to the military side of dream sharing was more rare, and Arthur didn't need anyone digging into his past.
He liked Ariadne, but he didn't know her. He probably should be more careful, but there was something about her curiosity, her open-eyed wonder and thirst for more that made him want to give her all the answers.
Dangerous, but manageable.
"Lucky for us," Ariadne said, hopping to sit next to the PASIV on the table. At Arthur's raised eyebrows, she elaborated. "I know I didn't realize I was dreaming when Cobb first took me under, but I had no trouble remembering everything afterwards. If he'd actually tried to extract information from me -- I don't know, maybe it would have been like any other extraction. But there's probably less risk when chances are, people you're stealing from won't cotton on to what you're doing, at least not right away, and won't remember much afterwards."
"You're not wrong," Arthur said, taking her IV line and winding it back into its place in the PASIV.
"What I'm wondering is, while the dreams are more about the feeling of it than the details, the mazes I've seen so far still mimic reality as closely as possible. Can you bring in elements of fantasy and still maintain that level of believability?"
"As a rule, no. The goal is to create a world the mark's mind recognizes as reality. The more familiar the world, the less of a chance there is that their mind will rebel against it. Once they're convinced, they follow their routines. They're predictable, their movements and thoughts easier to manipulate. Deviating from that is at best unnecessary." Arthur hesitated. "But it also depends on the mark."
"So there are exceptions." Ariadne's hands curled around the edge of the table as she leaned forward, her eyes bright with curiosity. "Like…?"
"If the mark believes in something strongly enough, like divine intervention or, just for a random example --" a slight wince --"zombies, it's theoretically possible to integrate that aspect into the dream, to use it in some way. But when applied to extraction, it's needlessly complicated and practically never advisable, and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, you should question their judgment."
"Speaking from experience?" Ariadne's voice was a little intrigued and a lot amused, like she'd seen right through him.
When Arthur gave her an unimpressed look, she just crossed her ankles and swung her legs, a corner of her mouth pulling up ever so slightly.
Eames was lounging in a chair, balancing an open dossier with one hand. His other hand was at his mouth, playing with a toothpick.
"Arthur?" Yusuf inquired, bringing Arthur's attention back to their discussion.
"Sorry," Arthur said, pretending he didn't notice the way Yusuf's gaze slid from him to Eames and back. "Do you think you'll be able to modify the compound based on these specs?"
"Of course," said Yusuf with a hint of affront to his tone. He frowned at the notes spread on his table, then shrugged. "Probably. It is tricky, but I'm good at tricky."
"It's not of critical importance, so if it doesn't mesh up, leave it out."
"Hmm, yes. Ah, does this mean you are volunteering as a test subject? I'll be fiddling with the effect on the inner ear function too."
Arthur had basically set himself up, so. "Yeah, sure. Let me know when you're ready."
Yusuf nodded his assent, already distracted.
It felt a little like sacrilege, leaving Mal's notes in someone else's care, but it wasn't the first time and probably wouldn't be the last. The somnacin formula Mal had developed and tweaked for Arthur's benefit was the only one that reliably left him with no headaches or migraines; with everything else, it was a crapshoot. Arthur wasn't a chemist, and neither was Dom. Outsourcing had been their only option, and when possible, they'd been getting their somnacin custom made. Arthur didn't think Mal would have minded, but it never stopped feeling wrong, sharing her work with others when she wasn't there to have her say about it.
Arthur took a seat near Eames, and only after doing so realized he'd made a tactical error. It was too much to hope that Eames wouldn't notice him immediately getting up and moving further away, so that wasn't an option. It wasn't like he was trying to actively avoid Eames, although it was possible there was some passive avoidance going on. Whatever. Arthur didn't think anyone would blame him. Much.
Things between them were just -- weird. On the surface, everything was amiable enough, but underneath there was something brittle that neither of them seemed to want to touch. Eames' moods shifted from one hour and day to the next. Sometimes there was banter, even flirting. Other times it was like he was looking for hidden barbs in everything Arthur said, and replied to him in similar, borderline-snide manner.
Arthur wasn't sure what to do about it, and ended up doing nothing while privately, quietly going crazy with it.
After a few minutes of sitting there with his notebook open to a blank page, Arthur snapped. "Do you have to do that?"
Eames raised an eyebrow, taking his sweet time before replying. "Do what?"
"That thing with the toothpick. You keep playing with it."
"Sorry," Eames said, not sounding very sorry. "Oral fixation. Trying to quit smoking, so it helps to have something to occupy my mouth with."
"Oh." Arthur steadfastly ignored the suggestive eyebrow waggle that followed the explanation. "Is it working? I mean," Arthur said, substituting an awkward hand wave for the rest of the sentence.
"Third time's the charm, they say," Eames said, looked at Arthur for another beat, and went back to the dossier.
Arthur fingered the edges of his notebook and nodded, not that Eames was paying him any attention anymore. He felt childish and conflicted and, fuck it, he had work to do.
He got up and moved to the other side of the workshop.
Prior to boarding the plane, Arthur felt cautiously optimistic about their chances. They had a good team and as solid a plan as could be expected when attempting something as insane as inception. Cautious optimism was the least he owed, considering the risk Dom was taking just getting on the plane.
It could work. It had to work.
So of course everything went to hell once they were under. Saito, bleeding out from a gunshot wound. All of them trapped with no easy way out, hunted by Fischer's militarized projections. The only thing balancing out the failure of his own research was finding out about Dom's deliberate, desperate gamble with their lives, and that was no comfort at all.
Downwards was the only way forwards; that much Dom was right about.
Alone on the second level, Arthur didn't allow himself to doubt, didn't allow himself time to think about anything that wasn't absolutely necessary to their survival. Some part of him, a big part of him, was still surprised when the synchronized kick worked and, apart from Saito and Dom, they all found themselves back on the first level, more or less intact.
Fischer's mind was peaceful, the projections barely glancing at Arthur, Ariadne and Yusuf as they made their way into the city after giving Fischer and Eames-as-Browning a head start. Once they reached the inner city, the three of them scattered, each with their own plans to lay low for the week.
Granted, Arthur's plan mostly consisted of camping out in an apartment vaguely reminiscent of the one he still had in New York, complimented by copious amounts of alcohol that probably wouldn't have much of an effect on him here in the dream, but whatever. It served its purpose.
Only, once he was inside with the door locked behind him --
He couldn't stop thinking about Dom, lifeless at the bottom of the river, his mind trapped back down in Limbo. Ariadne's words had done little to reassure him of Dom's ability to find his way back, and that, more than anything, made him feel like he was about to come apart at the seams.
There was wine at the apartment, and scotch, and vodka, beer, tequila. The bottles remained unopened, and Arthur spent most of his time on the couch, staring at the ceiling and pretending the tremor in his hands didn't exist.
There were white roses in a vase in the kitchen.
A broken compass sat on the nightstand in the bedroom.
At times, Arthur thought he could hear voices through the walls. His grandmother, speaking in Polish; Alex laughing at something Rooney had said.
His week was filled with ghosts. His week was a wake for a man who was not yet dead.
Waking up on the plane, Arthur felt calm, hollowed out.
Ariadne, clearly wary of Fischer a couple of seats down, turned to glance behind her a few minutes later, to check up on Arthur, Yusuf and Eames. Before turning back, she caught Arthur's eye, like she was willing him to believe like she believed.
The relief Arthur felt when it turned out she was right was like a drug, flooding his veins and leaving him lightheaded with joy and a different kind of calm.
New beginnings, he thought, looking at Dom. At Eames.
He still didn't know what he wanted, exactly, but maybe it was time to find out.
Phillipa frowned. "Why is your hair not longer?"
"I don't know," Arthur said from where he was sitting cross-legged on the ground in the backyard of Cobbs' house. His slacks would be grass-stained after this, but he didn't care. "I just like it short, I guess. Doesn't get in the way."
"My hair is long, and it doesn't get in the way." Phillipa huffed, her frown deepening as she tried and failed to twine a flower into Arthur's hair.
"She has a point," said Dom, sitting on the porch steps and looking far too amused. It was a good look on him.
"Why's your hair not longer?" Arthur fired back.
James ran to them just in time to hear Arthur's question, and practically threw himself against Dom's knees, a bunch of flowers clutched in his little hand. "Why, daddy?"
Dom picked James up and settled him on his lap, taking a moment to send Arthur a dark look over James' head. "Daddy would look awful with long hair. Not everyone can be as pretty as your sister."
James seemed to accept this, and Phillipa looked up at her dad with a bright smile before going back to her attempt to get Arthur's hair to co-operate.
"I'll help," James announced, squirming out of Dom's hold and running to Arthur and Phillipa, offering her the flowers he'd picked. A couple looked liked they'd been taken out of Mal's mother's prized flowerbeds.
"It won't work," Phillipa said. "Stupid short hair."
"Maybe you'd have better luck with your dad?" Arthur suggested.
"I already tried that," she said, looking bummed. "It didn't really work."
Arthur bit his lip. "Are there pictures?"
"No, there are no pictures," Dom said, rolling his eyes. "Hey, guys, you know what you should do? Just put the flowers behind his ears."
With a high-pitched, happy sound, James immediately complied, stuffing the whole bunch of them behind Arthur's right ear. Most of them immediately fell off, but he didn't seem to mind. Phillipa considered the flowers for a moment, then selected a daisy and put it behind Arthur's left ear. She took a step back, pulling James with her, and considered him.
"Well?" Arthur asked, making sure to stay very still so that the flowers would stay put. "Am I pretty now?"
"Yes," said Phillipa, nodding.
"Yes!" Echoed James.
"Very pretty." Dom's dry verdict was followed by the sound of a camera phone going off; Arthur sighed, fairly sure he only had himself to blame for putting the idea in Dom's head.
Phillipa and James both laughed, drawing a smile from Arthur, and Dom took another picture.
"Okay, guys, your grandma said that dinner --" Dom was interrupted by his phone ringing. "Sorry, I have to take this. Just a moment." He got up and disappeared into the house.
The sudden spike of anxiety was almost tangible. Phillipa and James both stared after him, their eyes fixed on the door. Arthur put a hand on James' waist when he tensed, ready to go after Dom.
"Hey, hey now, Little Prince, Princess Pea, he'll be right back. He's not going anywhere. Promise." Arthur swallowed a lump when they both looked at him. "I promise, okay? Hey, have either of you made flower chains? We've got all these flowers here, it'd be a shame to waste them."
"Grandma showed us," Phillipa said after another look at the door. "James is not very good."
"Am too!" James said, defiant, picking up a handful of the flowers scattered on the ground.
"I bet you're both really good," Arthur put in. "You can show me, huh? I'm pretty rusty."
It was true. Mal had made him a flower crown one summer, years ago, but heaven knew how she'd done it.
Phillipa started making one without further protest, explaining what she did as she did it, matter-of-fact. James enthusiastically copied her, and Arthur pretended to be slower than he was at getting it so that they could both laugh at him. They hadn't quite run out of flowers yet when Dom came back. The half finished flower chains were immediately abandoned as Phillipa and James ran to him.
Arthur stayed where he was for a moment longer, the sight of Dom ruffling their fine blond hair easing something in his own heart.
A few weeks later, Arthur was in Paris.
"I was in the neighborhood," he told Ariadne when she came home to find him loitering outside her building. At her look, he shrugged. "On the continent, anyway. Coffee?"
"You're buying," she said, adjusting her shoulder bag. "Something expensive and overly complicated."
"You can afford to buy your own fancy drinks."
"You ambushed me. You're buying."
"Well, when you put it like that," Arthur said, trailing after her when she headed down the street.
"So what is it?" Ariadne asked at the café they'd chosen, her hands wrapped around her expensive coffee drink. "A job?"
"You said you wanted to finish school first," Arthur said, taking a sip of his own fancy drink.
"I did, and I do. So I expect the job offer to be spectacular."
Arthur laughed. "I'm not sure anything could top the last one, so you might want to lower your expectations. I'm not here about a job."
Ariadne tilted her head. "Do you want to date me?"
Arthur choked on his drink.
"Because I like you," she continued, "but not like that."
"Can't a guy just -- never mind," Arthur said, setting down his coffee and pushing it towards the middle of the table. "The answer's no."
"You can forgive me for being confused." The look she aimed at Arthur was pointed.
"Yeah, that." Arthur shrugged, his lips quirking into a smile. "I told you, it was worth a shot."
"You're so full of crap," Ariadne said, but she was smiling too, that small, understated smile she rarely showed anyone, in Arthur's limited experience.
"A few would contest that," Arthur said easily. He put his elbows on the table. "You're smart, you're pretty, and I do like you." it was true, all of it -- she was smart and pretty, and he did like her -- but he knew what he wanted, and Ariadne wasn't it. "But no, I don't want to date you, so we can put awkwardness aside and skip straight to the friendship."
Ariadne gave him a measuring look. "Is that what this is? A friendship?"
"Would a mutually beneficial arrangement where we occasionally meet and exchange ideas work better for you? I know you said no jobs, but by now you're probably itching to get your hands on a PASIV. Adding to your education by unconventional means wouldn't take much of your time. Technically."
"Going once, going twice -- sold." Ariadne leaned back, sipping her drink. Her eyes flickered to the side and surprise flashed across her face. "Something you forgot to tell me?"
Arthur licked his lips, not bothering to follow her gaze. "He's early. And this isn't an ambush, so don't try to wrangle another drink out of me."
"I'm thinking something alcoholic this time."
"And expensive, and fancy, I'm sure."
"You can afford it."
"Can afford what?" Eames pulled up a chair and fell into it in a comfortable sprawl; you could almost miss the hint of tension in his body.
"Drinks," Arthur said, pulling his hands off the table, suddenly not sure what to do with them. "Apparently I'm buying today. Let's save the alcohol for another time, though," he told Ariadne, pushing his chair back and turning to Eames. "You want anything?"
"Plain coffee will do. Thanks."
Arthur nodded and got up. He didn't navigate the tables quite fast enough to miss Ariadne saying, "How come he doesn't complain having to buy you stuff?"
Mercifully, he did miss Eames' reply. Even so, he felt his ears heating up, and for once didn't mind waiting in line.
The problem with new beginnings was that, one way or another, decisions and options were always informed and influenced by the past.
It was a trap Arthur found himself falling into time and again where Eames was concerned. He couldn't erase or alter the history between them, and that made him hesitate when he normally would not. Even now, knowing what he wanted and having decided to go for it, he felt the need to come at it sideways, an approach that felt more characteristic of people like Cobb or Eames. Not that either of them would thank him for the comparison.
Old habits died hard. It had always taken a lot for Arthur to put himself out there, to open up to people, one or two exceptions notwithstanding. He needed to have an honest, open conversation with Eames, and the mere thought of it was enough to give Arthur hives.
Giving up was even less his style, though, and so here he was, in Paris. Bringing Ariadne into it was somewhat dishonest, but he hadn't been able to make himself call Eames for no reason, and on a job they wouldn't have the time or opportunity to talk things through. It wasn't all a pretense -- Ariadne did want and need the training he and Eames could provide.
But three days after his arrival, Arthur was no closer to having the planned conversation -- and then another, equally complicated and vastly more dangerous part of his past caught up with him.
They'd had an early start; it was Saturday, and Ariadne was free and eager to expand her knowledge. They were coming back from lunch, the three of them, heading back to the workshop, when Arthur realized they were being followed.
Surrounded, more like. One coming up from behind, one across the street, two waiting up ahead. They weren't being subtle about it, and Arthur reconsidered his first thought of being followed. This was an ambush.
"Russians," Eames said, voice low and tense.
Arthur bit the inside of his lip to keep from cursing. "How did they know exactly where we'd be? Did we miss a tail?"
"Does it matter right now?"
"No, you're right. Let's just -- see what they want." Arthur had an inkling, and if he was right, it wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen. "Gunning us down in broad daylight would be exceptionally stupid."
"Guys," Ariadne said, her eyes scanning the passersby, trying to see what Arthur and Eames were seeing, but for all her smarts, she was still a civilian who lacked the training and experience. Arthur felt a pang at the though of the kind of life they were pulling her into, but it was her decision whether to continue on this road, and this wasn't the time for regrets.
"We've got a bit of a situation here," Eames told her. "A bloke behind us in a leather jacket, a woman across the street wearing jeans and a white blouse, two guys ahead, maroon shirt and a green tee. Pay attention to the body language, the way they stand, what their clothes hide and the way the woman holds her handbag. They're all armed."
To her credit, Ariadne did not immediately crane her neck to look behind them. She kept her cool and kept walking. "What are we going to do?"
Eames had a gun, and Arthur had a knife strapped to his leg. Ariadne was unarmed. There wasn't much they could do without tipping their hand. Arthur let the map of Paris unfold in his mind, the streets around them becoming escape routes.
"We'll see what they want," he said. "It might be nothing. If it's not nothing, you let me and Eames handle it, and you run. You have cash on you?" Ariadne nodded. "Good. It's probably nothing to do with you, but if they give us trouble, book yourself a hotel room, pay in cash, call Cobb."
Ariadne gave him another small, tight nod.
"Here they come," said Eames.
The guy in the maroon shirt and a black overcoat that looked a little too hot for the weather stepped up to them. To Arthur.
"Galina Rozhkova is calling in the favor you owe her. Come with us."
A sleek, black car pulled up next to them, and Arthur felt a little of the tension leave him. "My friends are free to go?"
The guy glanced at Eames and Ariadne. "You come willingly, your friends are free to go."
"Arthur," Ariadne started to say, sounding worried, but Arthur shook his head, cutting her off.
"It's fine. Go home. Go."
Her mouth was an unhappy, stubborn line, but after a moment's hesitation and a searching glance at Eames, she went. No one followed her.
"You too," Arthur told Eames, watching from the corner of his eye as the guy in the leather jacket got into the backseat of the car.
"Nah," Eames said, hands in his pockets. "Sorry, boys," he told Maroon Shirt. "Better make room for one more, unless you want to make a fuss."
"Eames," Arthur hissed, only to be completely ignored.
After a brief staring contest between Eames and Maroon Shirt, the latter jerked his head toward the car. "Get in."
Arthur climbed in, getting trapped in the backseat between Leather Jacket and Eames, who met his glare with an insolent grin with too many teeth in it. Maroon Shirt took the front passenger seat, and a glance behind them showed Jeans and Green Tee getting into another car.
Once they were on the move, Maroon Shirt turned to look at Eames, holding out his hand. "Your gun, please."
"Since you asked so nicely," Eames snarked, getting out his gun and holding it out, grip first. Maroon Shirt took it without a word and faced the front.
Eames relaxed into the seat, his shoulder a hard, warm pressure against Arthur's. "And this day started out so well, too," he murmured.
Arthur silently agreed.
Before they were allowed onboard the jet waiting for them at a private airport, they were frisked and Arthur's knife was confiscated. They were allowed to keep their phones. Maroon Shirt followed them in, taking a seat up front and directing them to move further up the aisle with a jerk of his head.
A woman wearing a sharp grey business suit was sitting alone toward the back. She didn't get up when Arthur and Eames walked up to her, and only looked up from her phone when they'd taken the seats across from her. Her gaze lingered on Eames for a moment before focusing on Arthur.
"My name is Sophia, and Mrs. Rozhkova has tasked me with briefing you. The matter is time sensitive and somewhat personal in nature." Her accent was french. "We trust we have your cooperation and your discretion."
The plane rolled onto the runway, preparing for take-off.
"I gave her my word," Arthur said. He had expected something more along the lines of high-risk political machinations, but in the end the nature of the work didn't matter. He'd made a promise. He'd have to see it through, even if, after all this time, he'd half-though that Mrs. Rozhkova simply enjoyed holding the favor over him and would never play her hand.
He wasn't sure whether he was relieved or disappointed to be proven wrong.
"And him?" Sophia asked as the plane sped up, indicating Eames.
The brief moment of gravity fighting back as the plane took off barely registered with Arthur. "He's good."
"I'm good," said Eames.
Arthur couldn't decide if he sounded cheerful, sarcastic, threatening or all of the above, but whatever it was, Arthur wished he would to tone it down. Sophia looked unimpressed but didn't press the issue.
"Vera Travkina," she said.
It took a moment before the name clicked. "Yelena Travkina's daughter. Mrs. Rozhkova's granddaughter," Arthur said slowly. "How old is she now?"
"And what does she have to do with why I was called in?"
"She is a curious child with more access to the family business than is wise," said Sophia, not hedging so much as assessing Arthur's reaction.
"Cut to the chase, lady," Eames told her.
Sophia didn't look away from Arthur. "There has been -- an accident, you could say."
"She got her hands on a PASIV," Arthur said, familiar with her game; Mal had always liked making him work for his answers. "Unsupervised?"
"She had accomplices. But essentially, yes."
"And something went wrong."
"They took their somnacin from an untested, experimental batch by mistake," Sophia said. "When the timer went off and Miss Vera and her friend remained unconscious and unresponsive, their lookout called the alarm."
"Jesus bloody Christ," muttered Eames. "What do you expect Arthur to do about it?"
Arthur nodded at Eames. "What he said. This isn't the sort of thing I thought Mrs. Rozhkova would use me for."
"You gave her a blank check," Sophia reminded him. "If you don't like the amount withdrawn, you have no one but yourself to blame. Your reputation has only grown since the deal was made, and so has the value of what you owe."
He was a pawn brought into a battle Mrs. Rozhkova could not afford to lose. That she would call him in for this after biding her time for so long spoke of the gravity of the situation.
"What does she expect from me?" Arthur asked, even though the answer was already all but spelled out.
Sophia's smile didn't reach her eyes. "She expects a miracle."
After Sophia had told them everything she was able or willing to tell them, Arthur and Eames moved a few seats down the aisle, with Sophia at one end and Maroon Shirt on the other. Sophia didn't try to stop them.
Eames dropped into his seat with an aggravated huff while Arthur took the seat across from him.
"I bet there are parachutes on this plane somewhere," Eames said.
Arthur shook his head. "If I go back on my word in a situation like this, things will get messy fast."
"We're good at messy." Eames grinned, but it was half-hearted.
"She's sixteen," Arthur said. "I remember her, you know. Vaguely. She was a sweet kid."
"Unlike her family, you're saying."
It wasn't exactly what Arthur had been going for. "They're not so bad."
"They tried to kill you," Eames said, his voice flat. "You said you'd take care of it, and this how you did it? Postponing the feast, with you as a sacrificial lamb."
Arthur snorted, amused despite himself. "I'm pretty sure I should be insulted. Sacrificial lamb, really? No, I know," Arthur said when Eames opened his mouth. "I'm expendable. I'm their Hail Mary. But this is what I signed up for. It was the right play at the time, and it's the right thing to do now. Ivan's the only one in that family who's tried to actively kill me -- us -- and I'd like to keep it that way."
"Sod it." Eames sounded resigned. "After basically volunteering for this, who am I to call you crazy."
"Yeah, thanks for reminding me," Arthur said, kicking at Eames' shoe. "What the hell were you thinking? You should have gone with Ariadne, made sure she was okay."
"Ariadne will be fine. The odds of her surviving the next twenty-four hours are exponentially better than ours."
"Darling. Do you honestly think she would've left without a fight if she hadn't thought someone had your back? Lucky me, I'm that someone."
Arthur gritted his teeth, turning to look outside. The endless white landscape of clouds below them did little to calm him. He pushed the anger down; this wasn't the time or the place.
"Okay," he said, focusing on Eames. "Game plan. I go in, see if I can't find her, you stay as a lookout, make sure no one shoots me in the head."
"I see your sense of humor still needs some work," Eames observed.
"So you say. All joking aside, that's basically it, though. This isn't your fight, and it makes no sense to subject us both to whatever is going on with that batch of somnacin. Sophia's intel says the team that used regular somnacin couldn't get through, like there was a wall between them and Vera's mind. The guy who went in using the same variant as Vera and her friend still hasn't woken up. Far as I can see, my only option is to take the latter path and hope I fare better than the guy before me."
"The odds are, whoever he was, he had far less experience than you do. That's why they picked you. Aside from you owing them a favor and being expendable, that is," Eames added with a humorless smile. "That doesn't mean you'll succeed. I'm willing to accept that the girl and her friend got trapped partly because they were inexperienced, but they wouldn't have sent an amateur after her. You know what somnacin can do to people, and it sounds like even the people who cooked it up aren't sure what they were trying to achieve with this version."
"Better immersion into the dream," Arthur said, echoing what Sophia had told them earlier.
"I rest my case. Whether they succeeded or failed in reaching their ill-defined goals, the reality of it is ugly. The three people who've tried it so far could all be in limbo, for all we know."
"For all we know," Arthur agreed. "By the time we get to her, she'll have been unconscious for going on six hours, which will mean --"
"Three days. Assuming she's not in limbo."
"Assuming that, yes."
There was more to say, but Arthur felt like he'd used up all his words. All the things he'd meant to talk to Eames about three days ago, two days ago, yesterday -- this wasn't the time or the place. If he survived, if they survived, there would be time for it. If he didn't survive, it would be better for Eames to just move on. No need to make things more complicated than they had to be.
"If I don't wake up," Arthur said, the words clawing their way through the block in his throat, "promise me you won't come after me."
"I'm not promising you shit," Eames said, a flash of anger there and gone in his eyes, like lightning in the distance. An oncoming storm crackled in the air between them. "So you'd better fucking wake up."
The heat was oppressive. The back of Arthur's shirt stuck to his skin as he made his way to the barracks. There was a strange sort of disconnect, a sense of déjà vu, as he walked down the corridor.
He could hear them before he saw them -- Rooney's deadpan response to some inane thing Betty had said, Otter's aside to Blackjack met by a sly comment, Alex laughing --
Alex was laughing when Arthur stepped into the room, his eyes dancing with mirth when he looked up to Arthur.
"Hey, look who's back. What's the word?"
"Zero six hundred hours," Arthur said. The words fell out of his mouth, beyond his control. It was odd, the way seeing Alex felt like a punch in the gut.
Arthur closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the room was silent. Betty was standing by the windows, one hand tucked in his armpit and the other at his mouth; he was biting his thumbnail. Otter was lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Rooney was cleaning her gun, her head down and hands focused on the task. A casual observer might not have noticed she was crying.
Blackjack sat next to Arthur, frozen and still like a northern lake in wintertime. "Do you think maybe he thought -- that maybe he was trying to wake up?"
"No," Arthur said.
Alex was nowhere to be seen.
That's when Arthur decided to do it. That was the moment. It took weeks of planning, weeks of going through the motions, feeling like he was playing a role he didn't quite remember the lines for anymore. When a PASIV, one of three on base, went missing, Arthur continued to play his part. He was questioned like everyone else, but nothing came out of it, and the PASIV was never found.
A few months later, Arthur's enlistment came to an end. There wasn't any point in staying.
"Can't say I blame you," said Otter. "Can't say I blame any of us."
Arthur didn't promise to stay in touch.
In Tallinn, the sound of a bone breaking was louder in Arthur's ears than Richardson's scream. Anton, the architect, had already taken off. At the door, the PASIV clutched in one hand, Arthur paused to look at Richardson on the floor, cursing and cradling his arm.
"If you come after me again, I'll kill you." In that moment, he meant it. He'd paid for this PASIV. Alex had paid for it.
Demons followed Arthur out of Estonia, but they were familiar, had already been at his heels when he'd arrived. He wasn't sure who to blame, in the end. The Army, the program, the team, himself, Alex. The only target available was Arthur himself, and getting eaten alive by guilt -- for not seeing, for not helping -- wasn't smart.
"You hear that, Sandy?" Rooney had said once. "Alex thinks you're too smart for this shit."
"Thanks, Alex. Right back atcha."
"Could we focus, please? Mutual admiration society can wait."
"Aw, Otter. You're just jealous they didn't invite you."
"Shut up, Betty, no one asked you. And in case you missed it, you're not invited either, you dumb hick."
"I'm going to fucking smother all of you fuckers in your sleep if you don't shut your trap."
"Blackjack's having a --"
"Fall back, fall back --"
The world flashed bright, searing white and faded into black. Arthur blinked, dizzy. The bar he was in was dimly lit. He couldn't remember how he'd gotten there.
"I wouldn't worry about it," said Mal, looking at Arthur with dark, solemn eyes.
"I'm not worried," Arthur said.
Mal sat back, looking satisfied. "It'll be wonderful. You'll see."
The lights flared up, fluorescent and cold, and Arthur said, "Not everything needs to be a challenge."
"No," Eames said easily, "but it's rather more fun that way, wouldn't you say?"
Arthur frowned, looking up. His ribs ached.
"I can help with that." Eames stepped closer, his face unreadable. "Do you need a gun?"
Arthur thought, I'm not going to kill him.
Arthur thought, It's just a dream.
Arthur said, "Yes."
Arthur came awake with a violent jerk, his breath coming out in short, panicky bursts as he struggled to sit up, to pull out the needle in his arm.
"Hey, hey, calm down." Warm, strong hands gripped his upper arms. "Arthur, you're fine, look at me, it's fine."
A headache bloomed at the back of Arthur's head. He gripped Eames' arms in turn and squeezed his eyes shut, fighting down nausea.
"Arthur," Eames said, more commanding. "Look at me."
Another shuddering breath, and Arthur did as he was told. He wasn't sure what he looked like, but it couldn't be good. Eames looked outwardly calm, but his hold on Arthur grew harder, more painful. Strangely, it helped, giving Arthur something tangible to focus on.
"What happened?" Eames asked.
Somewhere behind Arthur, a someone said, "She's still asleep," and Eames shot an irritated look over Arthur's shoulder.
"I couldn't find her," Arthur said. "I couldn't find her yet."
"You're not going back in."
"Of course he is going back in," said a woman, her voice sharp and cold. Mrs. Rozhkova.
Eames straightened, his hands falling away, and Arthur grabbed hold of his wrist before he could do something stupid.
"I will," Arthur said, squeezing Eames' wrist in warning. "But I need a break. Ten minutes. And then I need to know everything you can tell me about Vera. Everything you can show me. Photos. Where she grew up, what her hobbies are, who she spends her time with -- her favorite places and books, everything you can think of."
There were eight people in the room: two men guarding the door; a doctor hovering over Vera; Vera, still asleep; Mrs. Rozhkova; Arthur and Eames; and Yelena, standing so still and rigid, she looked like she would shatter if anyone touched her.
"Why?" It was the first thing she'd said since Arthur's arrival.
"It's about memories. The drug," Arthur clarified. "It creates a -- it's almost like an artificial limbo. It drags you in and drowns you in your own memories before you realize what's happening. Better immersion -- whoever designed your drug, they certainly succeeded in that. The problem -- and I'm guessing here, but -- when you don't know to expect it, you don't have control over it. You get lost in a maze of your own past, and it's so real, you don't think to escape. Even after the drug wears off, those structures are still in place; you're still trapped."
"You think you can control it?" Eames sounded unenthusiastic.
"I've got to believe it's possible. In order to find Vera, I have to be able to recognize what belongs to her, which is why I need to know as much about her as possible. Focusing on that should also help me not get lost again."
Mrs. Rozhkova gave him a quick nod and left the room, Yelena following suit after one last look at her sleeping daughter.
What Arthur hadn't told them was that he hadn't seen a single glimpse of Vera in the dream. He hoped it was because he'd been too lost in his own mind to even look for her, let alone recognize anything of hers, but part of him was afraid that the longer a mind lived in memories, more likely it would be that the maze would become limbo, and limbo would become reality.
He had little to back his fear up. Based on his experience, just hours before, he would have said that in order to get trapped in limbo, the dreamer had to go through several layers of consciousness or die in the dream while too heavily sedated. But before the Fischer job, he wouldn't have known about the potential side-effects of heavy sedation, and the way the dream had pulled him in, how absolute the emotional experience of it had been -- he couldn't rule it out.
"How did you figure it out? In the dream," Eames said. "What made you snap out of it?"
"Got lucky," Arthur said, the words like ash in his mouth.
The kitchen was tiny and cramped, the scratched and worn surface of the table covered with an old tablecloth, yellow watercolor flowers blooming across faded white. Arthur could feel the pull of the memory, the way it tugged at his strings, trying to get him to participate.
"Almost ready," said the woman standing in front of the stove, everything about her warm and familiar. "Have you finished with your homework?"
Yes, grandma, Arthur thought, turning his hands palms up on the table. It had been more than a decade since he'd last seen her, since he'd last heard her speak. He couldn't know for sure if the memory was accurate, but like always with dreams, the feel of it was more important than the details.
"Good," she said, "that's my good boy. Now clear away your books and help me set the table."
He shouldn't have given an inch to the memory, should have moved on without looking back. He was in the dream to find Vera, not spend time with someone he'd lost a long time ago. But he cleared his books away and helped her set the table, and then followed her back to the stove. She stirred the soup in the pot, not reacting to his presence, because the teenage version of him would have stayed at the table.
"I know you always did what you thought was best for me, and I'm sorry I was angry with you for so long." Arthur swallowed down a lump in his throat. "I love you, grandma."
He kissed her cheek, and she felt real and tangible and alive, and that was about as much as Arthur could take. He took a step back, about to turn away, when she stopped him with a hand on his cheek. Arthur's breath stuttered to a halt.
"I love you too, słoneczko. I always will."
The moment stretched until it snapped, his grandmother's hand falling away. She picked up the pot and took it to the table. "Eat up, eat up. I don't know where you put it all…"
Shaken, Arthur hurried out of the room, trying to focus on the task at hand. Outside the kitchen was the living room, also small and cramped and painfully familiar, but there was a door on the opposite wall that didn't belong. It opened easily to his touch and he went through, finding himself in another familiar living room.
"Arthur!" Mal called from the kitchen. "A little help here."
When he got there, she pushed Phillipa into his arms and pressed a wet rag into his hand. "I'll clean up the table, you clean up her," she said, muttering under her breath as she went back to the sink.
Phillipa grinned up at him, patting his cheek with a messy little hand. There was food pulp smeared on her chin, on her hands and down her throat. Arthur couldn't help smiling at her, and even though it was a memory, it didn't feel right to just put her down and abandon her.
"Look at you, huh? How'd you get it behind your ear? Yeah, you should be happy about it, it was very skillfully done."
Phillipa flailed, and Mal glanced at them, snorting. "Don't encourage her."
"Spoilsport. She's going to need a change of clothes."
"All right," Mal said, "give her here. You can finish with the kitchen."
Arthur handed mostly-clean Phillipa to Mal even as he shook his head. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing," he called after her as she disappeared into the hallway, leaving him with the second mess.
He shook his head again, this time to clear his head. His smile faded. Vera, he reminded himself; she was the one who needed his help right now, and he couldn't keep getting distracted by his own past.
The kitchen was a mess, but looking closer, there was one thing that didn't belong -- an old book on fairytales he'd seen Vera reading in one photo. He picked it up, patterned brown leather and golden Cyrillic lettering. He flipped it open to and found a picture of the glass doors leading out to the back porch of the Cobb house. Holding the book open in one hand, he went outside. The garden stretched out into a maze made of hedges.
After a moment's contemplation, Arthur concentrated, his eyes on the maze and his thoughts on Vera, and when he flipped to the next page, he found a diagram of the maze. He ran a finger through the twists and turns until he found the centre, then headed into the hedges. Right, right, left; after more than a dozen turns, he reached the clearing in the middle, and in the middle of the clearing stood a mirror.
When Arthur walked around it, he found it to be two-sided. On one side, the frame was bronze, on the other, gold. Instead of his own reflection, he saw Vera. She was sitting in her room, on her bed, texting on her phone. Tentatively, Arthur reached out to touch the surface of the mirror. It rippled under his fingers like water; it was a doorway.
He walked around to the other side and repeated the experiment with the same results. The view on either side was identical. If only one of them was the real Vera, how was he supposed to know which one, and if he picked the wrong one, could he come back and choose again?
Before he could consult the book, he heard movement from behind him. He whirled around and came face to face with Ivan, his heart skipping over a beat as his system kicked into overdrive.
He's not supposed to be here, was Arthur's first, nonsensical thought. Mrs. Rozhkova had promised him Ivan wasn't even in the country.
But Ivan wasn't there; it was just a dream.
"There are two sides to every story," said Ivan, coming closer. Another sound from behind him made Arthur twist and back up, a disbelieving laugh escaping him when he realized there were now two of them, two identical versions of Ivan, both looking at Arthur like they were expecting something from him.
"He lies," said the second Ivan.
"I tell the truth," said the first Ivan.
Arthur laughed again at the absurdity of it all."Maybe you both lie."
"Yes," said the first Ivan.
"No," said the second Ivan.
"This is a riddle," Arthur said, narrowing his eyes. "Two doors, two guards."
Which indicated that only one side of the mirror would lead to the real Vera. The question was, which Ivan was telling the truth, and were they his projections or Vera's?
Then he realized it didn't matter. "You," he said, pointing at the second Ivan. "If I asked him which mirror leads to the real Vera," he pointed to the first Ivan, "what would he say?"
"The bronze mirror," said the second Ivan.
"Thank you," said Arthur, and stepped through the gold framed mirror.
Vera's room was spacious, with a big, cluttered desk, a huge bed and fuchsia colored walls, one of which was almost entirely covered in posters, photos, cards, drawings and scraps of writing. Books, pens and notebooks littered the floor and the plush white rug. A desktop computer was turned off, but on the bed with Vera sat an open laptop. A glance behind him showed the mirror he'd stepped through, but he could see no sign of the clearing he'd come from, just the reflection of himself and the room.
On the bed, Vera had dropped her cellphone in surprise and was staring at him with wide, frightened eyes. She said something in Russian, but Arthur never had picked up enough to do much more than curse. She spoke again, more urgent, her hand scrambling for her phone.
"I'm not here to hurt you," Arthur said, knowing that whatever calming effect the words might have had under other circumstances was made null and void by the sight of the gun he pulled out after setting down the book he'd been carrying.
"Stay back, stay back!" Vera scrambled off the bed and ran to the door. "I call people, they make you regret --"
Arthur slammed her against the door before she got it open, knowing that if she got through he'd have a hard time finding her again any time soon. "Sorry, I'm sorry." That he was doing the right thing, that he had no choice, didn't make him feel any less like a monster as she struggled against him. "You're dreaming, this will wake you up, your mom's waiting for you --"
Her scream was cut short by the gunshot, her blood climbing up the white door, and in the fracture of a second it took for her mind to leave the dream, her fear rose like a tidal wave, sweeping over Arthur, lifting him off his feet and throwing him back and away from her crumbling form.
He didn't hit a wall -- he fell down a flight of stairs, coming to a stop half-amazed he hadn't broken his neck. His face was throbbing, his ribs screaming at him, and there was the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs, Ivan cursing at him, and Arthur knew he had to get up, get up --
"You are small and alone," Mrs. Rozhkova said, staring him down. "You are no one."
Arthur pushed back the chair he'd been sitting in, stumbling away. Mal was waiting for him in the next room, smiling as she held up her totem. "Can you guess what this is?" She pressed it into his hand and closed his fingers around it, but he'd never held it before, didn't know the feel of its smooth, metallic curves. He looked, and it wasn't her totem he was holding but a white rose, the thorns piercing his skin.
"She's not feeling well," Dom said, pulling Mal away.
The rose fell to the floor, ruined, and Arthur flexed his bloodied hand, dizzy again.
"You used to get those," Rooney said from where she was squatting next to him. "Nosebleeds and migraines."
"Yeah," Arthur said, but Rooney was already gone.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," Eames murmured, pressing Arthur against the wall, "but I don't do rebounds."
The weight of a titanium ring dragged Arthur down. His lips were numb.
"You seem to only ever kiss me when you're drunk." Eames' eyes were dark, resigned.
No, Arthur thought. This isn't the script I want.
"I want to make you smile," Arthur said; it wasn't his line, but it felt right in his mouth.
Eames did smile, then. "Lucky me," he said, and handed Arthur a gun.
Arthur came awake with a spike of nausea that barely gave him enough time to lean over the side of his chair before he threw up.
There was chaos around him, or maybe it just felt like it -- every sound was amplified, sending flashes of debilitating pain through his head. Someone was crying; people were talking over each other. Arthur retched again, and even though he was fairly sure he wasn't dreaming anymore, he wished someone would put a bullet in his head.
"Christ. I'm going to kill you," Eames said.
Arthur choked on a laugh that turned into a protesting, pitiful groan as Eames got an arm around him and proceeded to pull him to his feet. Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, for all the difference it made.
"Come on, you lunatic." Eames grunted, shouldering most of Arthur's weight. "Your work here is finished, and these nice people will be delighted to clean up your puke, I'm sure. On that note -- if you throw up on me, I really will kill you."
"My head --"
"-- is killing you, I know, so I might not even have to bother." More distantly, speaking to someone else, Eames said, "Yes, we're leaving. His debts are paid in full. Don't ever contact him again. No, I don't need any fucking help from any of you. Kindly piss off."
Arthur staggered, trying his best to stay upright as Eames practically dragged him out. "Making friends and -- and influencing --"
"I don't need any help from you, either, especially on that department," Eames muttered. "Now shut up, you're only hurting yourself."
Arthur wasn't sure where the car came from or where they were going; all he cared about was that it felt like forever before Eames lead him to a room blissfully void of other people and cars and sounds of traffic. Arthur crawled onto the bed and curled up on top of the covers.
He could hear Eames walking around, forgiving him for the noise when the room plummeted into semi-darkness, the curtains drawn against the daylight.
He hadn't thrown up again. He almost wished he would, as if that would help with the nausea. Part of him was afraid of falling asleep, afraid of dreaming; another part of him would have given anything to be unconscious. He was usually fine after sleeping, but for now the pain would keep him awake, and knowing there would be no quick relief made everything feel more wretched.
"If I grew my hair out a little --" Arthur felt stupid as soon as he started to speak, and let out a shuddering, pained breath instead of finishing the sentence.
Eames paused where he was in the process of settling down nearby. "I'm sure it would look lovely," he said, quiet and low and far too sincere.
"Flowers," Arthur tried to explain.
"Shh," Eames said, his fingers brushing against Arthur's hair just above his ear, a touch so light it almost wasn't there. "Try to rest."
It took a long, long time, but eventually, between one breath and the next, Arthur was once more asleep.
*If my research is correct, słoneczko is diminutive of słońce (sun), and means little sun, sunshine, or more generally, sweetheart. If I'm wrong about that, I welcome corrections/suggestions.
Arthur opened his eyes. For a moment, blinking against the early morning light, he wasn't sure whether he was awake or still dreaming. He pressed his hands against the sheets, palms down, and focused on the feel of cheap cotton against his skin. Memories of the previous day came to him, sluggish and fractured. He knew he was awake, but a seed of doubt remained in his mind.
He couldn't quite recall how he'd ended up here, in this room. His totem was still in his pocket, seemingly untouched, its hard edges familiar against his thigh. Would using it make any difference? He'd been amused when he'd chosen it; rolling the die, taking his chances. The joke had caught up with him.
A clatter and a muffled curse from somewhere outside the room drew his attention away from his disjointed thoughts. He sat up, feeling uncoordinated and slow, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Someone had taken off his shoes, and for a while he stayed where he was, staring down at his feet, his cream and mahogany colored socks. He curled and uncurled his toes against the floor. It made him think of Phillipa after a nightmare.
He stood up. The door made a soft clicking sound when it opened, and on the other side of it, sitting on a worn couch with an array of gun parts and cleaning supplies spread out on the coffee table in front of him, was Eames.
"Well, if it's not the Sleeping Beauty himself," Eames said, taking in Arthur's appearance in a single brief glance. "I was starting to think I'd have to kiss you awake."
"You consider yourself Prince Charming?" The words appeared on Arthur's tongue easily, without struggle.
"Where you're concerned? I could be up for it." Eames' tone was a balancing act between joking and suggestive, but he kept his eyes down.
After a pause that lasted a second too long, Arthur said, "If nothing else, you've been my knight in shining armor." This much he knew, even if he still didn't have the whole picture. "Thank you."
Eames shifted his shoulders, dismissive. "More like a scoundrel looking out for his own self-interest."
"That's a quick fall from grace," Arthur commented. "From Prince to scoundrel in mere seconds."
Eames barked out a laugh. "That's me," he said. "Falling from grace, and from people's good graces. Something of a specialty of mine, I've been told."
He didn't sound self-deprecating, merely amused.
"One of your many talents," Arthur agreed, and Eames gave him a sardonic look that made Arthur think back on the Fischer job. Your condescension, as always… but Arthur had meant it as a compliment then, and he meant it as a compliment now.
Arthur searched for something more to say, but before he found it, Eames grabbed a cellphone from where it was sitting on the couch next to him and tossed it to Arthur.
"Speaking of talent," he said, "I seem to recall you have a knack for talking to Cobb. I called Ariadne and Ariadne called him, and he's been harassing me ever since. Be a dear and make it stop."
Arthur turned the phone around a couple of times in his hands, feeling out the edges and seams. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Over ten hours. If you want the exact time, Cobb can probably tell you. I started hitting ignore on his calls a couple of hours ago, he's probably feeling a bit peaked by now."
Arthur smiled down at the phone as he put in Dom's number. He wasn't sure if the smile was for Dom or for Eames or for both of them. "I'm surprised it took you that long."
"Yes, well," Eames said, but Arthur had already hit call and Dom answered almost before it had a chance to ring.
"Hey," Arthur said before Dom could get a word in. "I hear you've been giving Eames grief over me."
There was a sharp, shaky breath, as if Arthur's voice had just put an abrupt stop to whatever unflattering things Dom had been about to burden Eames with.
"Arthur," Dom said, and there was such relief in that single word that Arthur had to close his eyes and turn in the doorway to face the empty bedroom.
With Dom firmly on his side and Eames at his back, Arthur almost didn't care about the possibility that he was still dreaming.
It was easier to make promises to yourself when you were in danger of not being able to keep them.
Arthur thought about talking to Eames, like he'd planned to, before his past had come calling. Like he'd promised himself he would, on the plane to Moscow. He thought about it as he finished his call with Dom, as he watched Eames' hands put the gun back together, as travel arrangements were made. He thought about it on the way to the airport, when they stopped to eat, when they were about to part, Eames waiting for a flight to Mombasa via Rome, and Arthur catching a flight to Paris to see and reassure Ariadne before flying to L.A. to do the same for Dom.
He could tease and needle and talk shop, but he couldn't say what he meant to say, couldn't bring himself to ask.
"There's a job," he heard himself say. "Three weeks from now, in Manchester."
Eames ran his tongue over his teeth, contemplative, his eyes taking in the flow of people around them, unfocused and all-seeing.
"I don't usually accept work that takes me to UK," he said. "I could make an exception for you."
"I'll send you the details," Arthur said instead of, You've made a habit out of making exceptions for me.
Eames gave him a crooked smile. "I'll be waiting."
And instead of reaching out to touch that smile, Arthur nodded and walked away so he wouldn't have to watch Eames get swallowed by the crowd.
The enveloping heat of Los Angeles, two excited children and a slightly awkward but heartfelt clap on the shoulder from Dom welcomed Arthur home.
On the drive back to the house, Phillipa and James chattered in the backseat, Dom changed the radio station every few miles, and Arthur couldn't shake the memory of the first time he'd come to stay with the Cobbs. Dom's sensible Toyota wasn't Mal's old Ford pickup, and the radio was a poor substitute for Mal's laughter, but Phillipa and James were a brightness in Arthur's heart, and Dom was a calm, steady presence in the driver's seat, more like himself than he'd been in ages. Not even for Mal would Arthur have risked losing this.
He couldn't talk about Mal, so he talked about the flight, the weather. He couldn't talk about Moscow and Rozhkova, so he talked about Paris and Ariadne. He couldn't talk about work, or Eames, or the slight sense of unease, as if a part of him was still out of sync with reality, so he said nothing at all.
Later, when Phillipa and James had gone to sleep and Dom had broken out the wine, reaching for a third glass before catching himself, Arthur still said little about Eames and less about the rest of it.
Dom seemed vaguely dissatisfied with Arthur's summary of his unexpected trip to Moscow, but didn't push when Arthur directed their discussion to other topics. It helped that since getting a second chance with his kids, Dom had developed a mild aversion to anything to do with dream sharing. He'd gone back to being an architect, now using paper and computer programs and teamwork to envision buildings one at a time in the waking world, rather than constructing cities whole cloth out of nothing.
Arthur had a standing bet with Ariadne as to how long that would last.
He understood, after everything that had happened, why Dom would be wary of taking even the slightest risk to compromise what he'd gained, but Arthur couldn't help but think of it as a sacrifice. Dom was curious, intelligent and creative, and reality had limits he must find frustrating after devoting so much of his life to dreams.
Ariadne hadn't been so sure, and watching the weary contentment on Dom's face, Arthur wasn't either.
Rumors of inception were circulating in the dream sharing community. As Archer, Arthur had started getting roundabout inquiries about it soon after Dom had gotten back home.
Arthur wasn't sure where the rumors were coming from. Saito probably had people in the know, but, Arthur doubted they'd talk -- unless, maybe, Saito thought such rumors would be beneficial to him in some way. Dom would never compromise his good fortune by drawing attention to it, but he had been well-known in the community, and it wasn't unimaginable that it had all started as pure speculation. Arthur had no need to boost his own reputation, and didn't think the others did, either. In any case, there were mercifully no names attached to the whispers.
It was possible that Ariadne, Eames or Yusuf had made an ill-thought remark to the wrong people, or a well-thought one to the right people. It probably didn't matter, at this point. The rumor was out there, and as long as it didn't put Arthur, Dom or their team in danger, Arthur didn't much care.
As Archer, he'd deflected in a way that didn't outright confirm or deny the possibility, but allowed the people making inquiries to feel like they'd gotten more out of him than they had in reality. Satisfied with the nuggets, they didn't go looking for further proof, although Arthur did keep an eye out for anyone wanting more detailed and damning answers.
As for himself --
"What do you think, Arthur? Is it possible?"
Arthur ran his thumb over the highlighter he was holding, smooth green plastic leaving no mark on his skin. He looked up at Diego, the architect, and cocked his head.
"I think it's a pipe dream," he said, because that was more or less what he'd always said when the topic came up.
Unbidden, his gaze found Eames, who was slouching in his chair, smirking. He met Arthur's eyes, and a frisson of electricity sang briefly in the air between them.
"Don't mind Arthur," Eames said, making a lofty, dismissive gesture with his hand, his eyes full of amusement at their shared secret. "He lacks imagination."
"Of course you think it's possible," Diego said, shrugging. "I wasn't even going to ask."
Eames' gaze lingered on Arthur for a moment longer, and when he looked away, Arthur took a breath and held it for a heartbeat, feeling like he'd lost something.
"Of course I do," said Eames to Diego. "I thank you for the compliment."
"What would it take?" Asked Anna, a quiet, intense young extractor. "Have you tried it before?"
Eames tapped his fingers against his chair once, twice, as if he had all the time in the world. "We tried it, a couple years back. Didn't work."
"Why didn't it work?" Anna leaned forward in her chair.
"Lots of reasons," Eames said, his fingers spread as if to say, what can you do? "Which doesn't mean it's impossible. Just bloody difficult, not to mention bloody dangerous."
Truths wrapped in lies. Careful, Arthur wanted to say, but Eames didn't need his advice or his warnings, and Arthur admired him for it, for the ease with which the untruths fell from his mouth. Nothing gave him away, not his tone, not his words, not his body language. When Anna seemed unwilling to let the topic go, Eames segued into a story of a past job, which seemed relevant but skillfully steered the conversation away from inception.
There were many new people like Anna in the business. New blood, new ideas -- and they were hungry for more.
"I think Archer knows," Anna said, later, but she'd lost the sharpest edge of her hunger. "About inception. If it's actually been done."
Arthur met Eames' eyes, more by accident than design. He immediately looked back down, cursing himself as he stared unseeingly at his notes. There was no way Eames had missed that, his unthinking, unfiltered reaction.
"What doesn't Archer know?" said Diego, rhetorical.
He and Anna, at least, had mercifully been too distracted to notice Arthur's momentarily lapse.
"Maybe it just benefits him or her to pretend to know." Arthur traced the letters of his own writing, feeling out the smooth surface of the paper with his fingertip. "Did you ask them?"
Anna hesitated. "An acquaintance of mine did, but he wasn't willing to share details with me."
"I'm sure Archer has better things to do than play fetch with gossips like us," Eames said, somehow managing look and sound casual while staring at Arthur, contemplative. "Have you found a solution for your problem with the maze on the second level yet, Diego? Because I've got an idea."
Eames got up and went to the table where the mockup of the second level maze was waiting, drawing Diego and Anna there in his wake.
Arthur fiddled with his highlighter, wondering if Eames could feel his stare at his back. He glanced down at his notes, closed his notebook, and went to join the others.
Eames leaned his hip against the kitchen counter next to the sink where Arthur was burning documents. The job was finished and Diego had already left. Anna was still around. The kitchen window was open to let out the acrid smell of smoke.
When Eames spoke, he kept his voice low. "Are you all right?"
Arthur brought a lighter to the corner of a new document and watched it catch fire. "Why are you asking?"
"I'm observant by nature," Eames said. His hooded, serious eyes belied the flippancy of his tone.
Arthur focused on the fire eating at paper, letting go when it threatened to reach his fingers. He snatched the next one out of the thin pile at his elbow. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You hesitate when you think no one's looking," Eames said. "You linger on the details of your surroundings. You feel out the things you touch, as if to make sure -- as if to make sure. You tell me, Arthur. What's all that supposed to mean?"
A glance at the doorway showed it was empty, and if he listened carefully, Arthur could hear the muffled sounds of Anna moving in the next room.
"It means you're reading too much into things," Arthur said, reaching for another piece of paper, a photo, to turn to ash.
Eames grabbed his wrist, forcing him to turn to face him.
"What?" Arthur snapped, trying to briefly and unsuccessfully yank himself free from Eames' hold. After another glance at the doorway, he repeated it, softer. "What?"
"Do you trust me?" Eames asked, his expression serious.
Arthur wanted to turn away, but even if Eames hadn't held his wrist captive, his pride wouldn't have allowed it.
No, was the answer on the tip of his tongue, but it would have been a bold lie, and realizing that gave him a pause.
Against my better judgment, he thought next, but that too would have been false. His judgment was just fine where Eames was concerned.
If trust was a game, Eames had won.
"Then why are you lying to me?"
Arthur imagined he could taste ashes in his mouth, the smell of smoke clinging to his nostrils. His not wanting to talk about his messed up mind had little to do with trust, but words like shame, fear, cowardice, uncertainty, sat ill in his mind and on his tongue.
"Can we not do this here?" Arthur asked, and despite his best efforts, it came out sounding like a plea.
"Fine," Eames said after a long moment during which Arthur had little to focus on apart from the feel of Eames' fingers encircling his wrist, their bones resting against each other, cushioned by skin and flesh and warm blood, real as real can be.
Arthur nodded and pulled away from Eames' loosened grip.
"When we've finished here," Eames said, "you better not run."
Arthur nodded again, turning blindly back to the documents. His skin felt cold where Eames' hand had been.
They took a train from Manchester to Preston, from Preston to Glasgow, from Glasgow to Perth. In Manchester, Arthur wanted to say: I'm not being difficult on purpose. In Preston: I'm sorry for making you doubt me. In Glasgow: If I kissed you now --
Mindful of being overheard, they talked about trivial things like the weather, the view, the cities they passed. They talked about work and made it sound boring. A couple of hours in, Eames started sharing improbable anecdotes, coming up with increasingly ridiculous names for the people allegedly involved. Four hours in, Arthur told Eames about flowers in the backyard of a well-loved house, a kitchen with kids' drawings and crappy photographs on the fridge; he talked about Phillipa and James and Dom, and he talked about Mal, because she was impossible to ignore, and because the half-healed wounds hurt less than they used to; he talked about all these things and never once mentioned names, knowing that Eames heard them anyway.
Eames didn't ask about Moscow, the aftereffects of the drug. He didn't ask about Archer. He looked like he already had all the answers, which was as irritating as it was comforting. In turn, Arthur didn't question where, exactly, they were going. He was fairly sure that, whatever their destination, there would be more time than he was comfortable with for questions and answers.
In Perth, they stopped for a proper meal, and Eames met up with an acquaintance who arranged a car for them. They drove an hour north on the A9 before taking to smaller roads. The car was far more private than the trains, but they talked less, Eames focusing on the road and Arthur idly cataloguing the changes in terrain.
It was getting late when Eames stopped at a small village and got out of the car, telling Arthur to wait for him. Fifteen minutes later he came back with keys and a woven basket full of food, both of which he gave to Arthur.
A few minutes' ride from the village, nestled on a hillside, there was a white cottage with dark tile roof. The property had no fences or gates, and Eames pulled to a stop near the door. Inside Arthur found white walls and dark wood accents. A stone fireplace stood out in the living room. The patterned curtains were faded but cheerful in their way, and the space was cluttered but clean.
"This place is yours?" Arthur asked as Eames put the food away.
"Yes, although I rarely visit these days. The climate doesn't suit me."
There were books in neat piles on the floor, and shelves full of them. There were unfinished drawings, pens and pencils and sticks of charcoal on every available surface, competing for space on the coffee table with various car and art magazines. A coiled cellphone charger sat in the corner of a couch, and a closed laptop peeked out from under a throw in one of the armchairs.
Arthur stood in the middle of it all, feeling like an intruder.
"I'm not hungry," he said when Eames asked. It was late, and they'd been traveling for hours. Arthur was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"I'll show you to the guest room," Eames said. "A good night's sleep will do us both good, I'd wager. The rest can wait till tomorrow."
Arthur hesitated in the doorway of the bedroom Eames led him to. He was tired and weary, and he ached to reach out, to pull Eames into a kiss. He dismissed the thought before it could take root. Third time was the charm, and Arthur wasn't in the right state of mind to charm anyone right now.
"'Night," Arthur said instead of everything he'd meant to say for weeks now, maybe years.
Eames echoed the sentiment and nodded, retreating back to the kitchen while Arthur closed the door and rested his forehead against it, running his fingers over the wooden surface, the contours of the doorknob.
He closed his eyes.
In the morning, he was up before Eames. He showered and grabbed an apple from the kitchen, hesitating for a moment before heading outside. Behind the cottage, a slightly overgrown garden lead to a path going up and around the slope of the hill. Arthur followed it at a slow pace, coming to a stop at a bend where he could see far across the land. The weather was clear and cool, the fresh air invading his lungs.
He preferred big cities, found comfort in the press and flow of people. The closest thing to a home he had was in Los Angeles, and he still kept an apartment in New York. The Highlands left too much room for his thoughts to wander.
It was still better than haunting the cottage while waiting for Eames to wake up, and he wasn't entirely blind to the beauty of his surroundings. He sat back on his haunches, his arms resting on his knees, watching as the morning progressed around him. When he eventually got up, he could feel the stretch in his thighs but considered it a small price for a morning well spent.
He was half-way down the path when he glanced at the cottage and found Eames standing in the garden, looking up at him. Arthur raised a hand, expecting Eames to head back inside ahead of him, but instead Eames stayed where he was, waiting until Arthur reached him.
"'Morning," Arthur said, feeling flushed and unkempt with his windswept hair and rumpled clothing, an apple core dangling from his fingers.
"Good morning," Eames murmured, an odd, charmed smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "Breakfast?"
Arthur glanced at what was left of his apple. "Yeah, I could eat."
He offered to help, but Eames declined, proceeding to put together breakfast for both of them. Arthur was again left with his thoughts. He sat at the kitchen table and watched Eames, who was being uncharacteristically quiet throughout the entire affair.
"I know what you're doing," said Arthur when they'd both finished eating in silence and he couldn't take it anymore.
He got an absentminded hum in response.
"It's not --" He stopped, fiddling with a knife. He tried again. "I know I'm not dreaming."
Eames looked up, his eyes unreadable.
"I keep telling myself that, anyway," Arthur pressed forward. "It wouldn't make any sense, and by now, shouldn't I be able to tell? Except Mal should have known better, too. It's not about knowing. It's about feeling, and after Moscow, sometimes, I --"
Arthur choked, unable to keep going. He still couldn't read Eames' expression.
"Does it help, though?" Eames asked. "Using logic, knowing. It makes it easier for you control the way it feels, yeah?"
Arthur licked his lips and nodded. "It does. Things I've never seen or felt or heard of before -- it helps. I could have made up some of it, but there are limits. This, for example. The books you read, the art on your walls. I don't think I could have envisioned this. If I'm dreaming, it's not my own dream."
"You think you might be in someone else's dream?"
"I've tried to pay attention. The details -- a mind can compensate for a lot, but the more lucid a mind, the more difficult it is to deceive. It's harder to prove to myself, though, and after everything, I don't feel like I can trust my totem anymore." Arthur looked at Eames, how calm he was, how steady. "How much of this had you already figured out?"
"Enough to take you here, rather than half-a-dozen other possibilities." Eames leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "Do you remember, few years back, that job in Canada? We got snowed in, more or less, and Victoria came in day late."
Arthur flushed at the unexpected reminder. "I only wish I could forget."
Eames' smile was amused but not meanly so. "That's not what I meant. Wait here."
It didn't take long for him to come back, a small velvet bag half-hidden in one hand. He rounded the table, upended the contents of the pouch on his palm and got on one knee next to Arthur's chair, apparently unable to resist the bit of showmanship.
Arthur's breath caught. "You kept them," he said, frozen to the spot at the sight of two gleaming titanium rings resting on Eames' palm.
"Now, who would have known about these?" Eames' wondered, rhetorical. "This is yours." He picked one of the rings and gave it to Arthur, who took it with nerveless fingers.
Arthur had never actually looked inside before; Eames had slipped the ring onto his finger without him noticing, and he'd worn it until the moment he took it off and gave it back to Eames.
October 2003, Prague
Arthur swallowed past a lump in his throat. "This is when we first met."
"Yes," Eames said. "Bit of a disaster, I seem to recall."
"A bit," Arthur said, starting to smile. "Turned out okay in the end, though."
They looked at each other, Arthur's heartbeat speeding up, and Eames took the ring from him. Arthur almost couldn't bear it when Eames took his hand.
"I want this to mean something," he said. "Tell me it means something."
"It's always meant something," Eames said, and slid the ring on Arthur's finger.
It still fit. Arthur looked down at it, his hand resting in Eames'. It meant something. It meant everything.
"Maybe this is your dream," Arthur said, dazed, and Eames huffed out a laugh.
"You said you trust me," Eames said. He didn't sound mad.
"I did. I do."
"You know I'd never do that. Not to you."
Eames lifted Arthur's hand and kissed it where the ring had found its place. "Not that you're entirely off mark," he said, looking up at Arthur. "I have dreamt of this."
"Fuck," Arthur said, feeling like all the air had been punched out of him. He grabbed hold of whatever part of Eames he could easily reach and kissed him.
"Mmph," Eames said into the kiss, their third kiss, the one Arthur had built up in his mind and held onto until this moment. Right before their fourth, Eames said: "Very eloquent, Arthur, I've always --"
"Talked too much," Arthur cut in, breathless. "You've always --"
And there was the fourth, fifth, sixth, and Arthur stopped counting.
Eames' bedroom was more sparse than the living room. A bed, a wardrobe, an old record player and a stack of LPs in one corner; hung up on the walls were a couple of paintings Arthur thought were probably fake, or maybe not; right this moment, he didn't care one way or the other.
He hadn't felt this nervous about sex since his teens. He tried to shake off the feeling, irritated and vaguely embarrassed by it, but it lingered, making him more hesitant than he usually was.
He got caught up in watching Eames, already shirtless, and didn't realize he was standing there, staring and still mostly clothed, until Eames hands paused where they were working on the fly of his trousers.
"I know they're not pretty," Eames said.
"What?" Arthur stepped closer. "Your hands? I like your hands."
Eames snorted. "My scars, I meant."
Arthur reached out to touch one, a marred patch of skin a couple of inches below Eames' collarbone.
"A bullet I wasn't fast enough to sidestep," Eames said, his hands falling to his sides. The scar on his arm got the same explanation. "Knife fight," he said of the long, faded line running across his ribs on one side.
"I don't mind them," Arthur said, brushing his lips against the one on Eames' arm, pressing a kiss below the collarbone, kneeling down and running the tip of his tongue down Eames' ribs. His hands took up the work Eames had abandoned, getting his fly open and pushing his trousers and underwear down.
He got a hand around Eames' cock, and it was warm and hard and vulnerable and real, and when he glanced up, Eames looked wrecked.
"Come up here, you wicked thing," he said, pulling Arthur to his feet before he could get his mouth on him.
Arthur settled for another kiss, slow and wet and sweet, if occasionally interrupted and turned awkward by the way they tried to keep kissing all the way through getting rid of Arthur's clothes. Arthur fell laughing on the bed, his nervousness almost forgotten, and Eames followed him, pressing a thumb where Arthur knew one of his dimples was showing.
"It's rotten, how much I fancy you," Eames said, settling over Arthur. "Tell me what you want."
Arthur ran his hands down Eames' neck and rested them over his collarbones, feeling the scar under one palm and a quickened heartbeat under the other. "I want you to make me feel it," he said, letting his legs fall open around Eames' hips. "Just like this."
And when Eames had rummaged the nightstand for lube and condoms, his fingers sliding into Arthur, slick and rough and perfect, Arthur said, "Like that, harder, don't be careful. I want to feel this later, yes, Eames, please."
By the time Eames slicked his cock and pushed in, his grip on Arthur's thighs almost punishing, Arthur was so ready for him, he felt like he was made of liquid heat. All he wanted was more, but he didn't last long, his nails raising red lines across Eames' back as he came, his whole body flushed with want. He spilled over Eames' stomach and his own, and lay there, panting.
"Keep going." He gasped for breath, for words, when Eames made to pull out. "I want it. Keep going."
His orgasm always left him too sensitive after being fucked, a soreness that bordered on actual pain if he kept getting fucked, but he wanted all of Eames, the pain and the pleasure both. He rested his hands on Eames' waist, feeling the movement of his body, encouraging him. He couldn't take his eyes off Eames, captivated by the unselfconscious abandon on Eames' face as he chased his own pleasure.
If they were both wrong and this was a dream, Arthur didn't want to wake up. After Eames shuddered and groaned and came, he became a heavy, warm weight that should have felt suffocating, but Arthur only held on tighter to him.
"I'm crushing you," Eames said against Arthur's throat. He was still breathing hard, his ribcage expanding and contracting against Arthur's.
"I like it," Arthur said, running a hand through Eames' damp hair.
Regardless, Eames levered himself up to get a better look at Arthur's face.
"Hi," Arthur said, inane, and Eames kissed him, affectionate and, it seemed, plenty charmed.
Eames carefully pulled away, got rid of the condom and fell on his back on the bed, dragging Arthur to lie next to him, half on top of him. Arthur rested his hand on Eames' chest, staring at the titanium band encircling his finger.
"Do me a favor, yeah?" Eames said after a while. "Don't regret this tomorrow."
"If I was going to regret this," Arthur said, "I wouldn't wait until tomorrow."
When Eames didn't answer, Arthur pushed himself up on an elbow. Eames was staring at the ceiling.
"Look at me," Arthur commanded, and Eames reluctantly obeyed. "You know how to read people. You know how to read me. Listen," he said when it looked like Eames was going to interrupt him. "If it was hard for you to get a read on me in the past, if it was hard to tell what I wanted, maybe it's because at the time I didn't know what I wanted, or maybe I refused to admit it, even to myself." He got his knees under himself, sitting back on his heels. "Take a good look at me now, Eames. Really look, because I've figured it out, and I don't want you to wonder anymore."
Eames reached out, cupping Arthur's cheek in his hand, and Arthur placed his own on top of it.
"It's rotten how much I fancy you," Eames repeated his earlier words, making Arthur smile.
"Complete rubbish," Arthur agreed. He ran his thumb over Eames' knuckles, blinked, ducked to kiss Eames' palm and slid off the bed.
"I'll be right back," he said. "Don't move."
Eames' muttered "As if I could" followed Arthur into the kitchen.
The velvet pouch was on the table, and Eames' ring sat next to it. Arthur picked it up, running a finger over it and taking a peek inside. October 2003, said the script; Prague.
Arthur still got an odd little thrill out of seeing that.
He went back to the bedroom, resumed his kneeling position and grabbed Eames' hand, unceremoniously sliding the ring on Eames' ring finger. "There. Now we're good."
"What, no flowers? No confessions of undying love?" Eames turned his hand this way and that to admire the new addition.
"You already got the latter," Arthur said, his cheeks heating up when Eames raised an eyebrow. "You want flowers? I'll go pick some." He made to get up. "I think I saw a few sorry specimens earlier this morning, so --"
Eames tackled him to the bed before his feet could touch the floor.
In Edinburgh airport, a week later, Arthur took Eames' hand in his and tangled their fingers together.
"There's a job next month," he said. "In Prague, actually. It's basically just surveillance, nothing exciting. I can do it alone but -- I'd rather do it with you."
Eames squeezed his fingers and said, "I'll be there."
Arthur leaned against a wall, turning the collar of his coat up against the wind with one hand as Dom chattered in his ear across the Atlantic.
"Sounds good," Arthur said into his cell. "I'll probably fly in before the fifteenth."
He spotted Eames coming his way, a takeaway cup of coffee in each hand. "Hey, Dom? I'm bringing Eames with me."
"All right," Dom said after a barely detectable pause. "Send me the details and I'll come pick you up."
Arthur knew Dom and Eames had a somewhat antagonistic relationship -- bad first and last and everything-in-between impressions did that to people -- but they'd have to find a way to deal with it and each other, because Arthur refused to get caught up between two people who meant the most to him.
"Yeah," Arthur said, smiling when Eames drew close. "Say hi to the kids."
He finished the call and accepted the coffee Eames waved in front of his nose. He took a sip and hummed in approval before leaning in to give Eames a quick coffee-flavored kiss hello.
"I see where your priorities lie," Eames said, mournfully. "I've already been all but replaced."
"Says the man who actively encourages my caffeine addiction." Arthur gave Eames' sleeve a friendly tug to get them both moving. "Let's go. We have work to do."
It was fall in Prague, and the air was crisp with the promise of winter. Arthur didn't know all there was to know about Eames, but that was okay. They had time.