"You go into someone's head, it's a risk," Roque tells Aisha, 'cause it always falls to him to be down-to-earth while everyone else is flying.
Clay flashes Roque a grin across the table, all the thrill of doing an extraction in his eyes. "A risk like no other."
Then they dive, and—
"You're gonna die very badly," Clay says, soldier calm, teeth bared as he digs his thumb into Roque's good eye.
It turns out to be true, but what happens as well is: no one truly dies.
Roque opens his eyes and opens his eyes and opens his eyes and he's tired of seeing the same goddamn shore.
The team's sprawled around the room each time Roque wakes up, everything that happened while they were in the dream just that: a dream.
Roque rolls his die 'cause he knows they can't trust that shit, especially after going three levels deep and one level away from an endless fucking nightmare. Clay likes to be reckless. Roque likes getting the job done.
The red die hop across the table. They're loaded to land six up, so there's never any question. It's simple, gets the job done with one roll. Roque watches the corners skipping over themselves. It's how Clay likes to build his mazes, always testing the boundaries of the mind, pitting reality against the dream and pushing what's possible.
The die stop at the edge of the table and land on six.
Roque rolls again. He's not taking any chances.
"Fuck," Jensen wheezes, grabbing Roque's attention.
He turns and flicks a glance Cougar's way, too, when Cougar wakes with a grunt of his own. Jensen gulps down air, eyes bright behind his glasses. He's looking at everything like the room holds a lie. Cougar takes off his hat, runs his fingers through his hair, and looks to Pooch, who's holding his head in his hands and relearning the same tricks to breathing.
They've had a lot of practice at extraction and things going wrong but not a lot of practice at this complete clusterfuck of a mission.
When Jensen checks his Tamagotchi toy, that queues Roque to check his own totem. He turns around and spots one die on the table, the other on the floor. Both say six. They're back in the real world.
Everyone begins checking their totems, twisting and turning them to get a grasp on the structure of reality again. It has rules. Not everything is possible here. Not everything should be.
It's when they turn and look at Max.
It's when they turn and look at Clay.
"Fuck you, man."
These days, it seems those are the only words Roque's got left, thrown at Clay's back.
Nothing ever changes. Not even in a dream.
"How deep?" Jensen asks, voicing the question for the whole team while they look, like a prayer is going to pull Clay's ass out.
Should've trusted me, man, Roque thinks, but Clay's too far to hear. Always too far — in his own head, in his own plans, in his goddamn need to—
Roque shakes his head and says, "All the way."
It's Cougar who sucks in a breath, lowers his eyes, and murmurs a real prayer, hat tipped low enough to hide his eyes.
"Shoot him," Aisha says from the back of the room. The slant of her smile and the way she holds her daddy's gun — Roque knows she's not kidding. "Put him out of his misery." She and Clay still have that score. One more time Clay didn't listen.
Before they dove in, Clay said, "This'll work. All we have to do is …"
Accomplish the impossible.
What Clay and Roque have learned in fifteen years at this job was that in a dream, nothing is impossible.
This was supposed to be simple, but Roque knows that while nothing is impossible, nothing with Clay is ever simple.
Roque tries this:
Simple recon. Figure out the lay of the land and locate the target.
He sees the soccer field and thinks, Fuck, no, Clay, don't do this. The game plays out anyway, a happy ending too vivid to ignore. The team's on the bleachers, Jensen as vocal as ever, and Jolene's there, too, the swaddle she's got cradled in her arms easy to identify as a baby even if Roque can't see it. Everyone's there, except for him.
Clay spots him. Roque goes for cover and tries to rethink his plan.
Roque stares down at Clay, laid out on the bed, monitors beeping. The private care facility is Aisha's revenge.
When Roque asked why, Aisha shrugged and said, "He's as good as dead."
"Look at you now, asshole."
Roque pushes up from his chair with the same anger that helped him leave Clay in Bolivia, in Miami, in a maniac's head. But just like in Max's head, Roque comes back. He always comes back.
The next time, Roque tries this:
He sits across from Clay for a round of cards. Clay calls him William, and it feels wrong coming from his mouth, makes Roque wonder if he's the one who's stuck with no way out. He's not. The totem in his pocket is proof of that, and he fingers the edges of the die as he lays down an ace.
He wonders why Clay's not using his totem or if Clay did something stupid like make Roque his way out. If that were true, this would be easier. Roque thinks, too, that limbo should leave an imprint if you've been there before, but there's a lot they haven't mapped yet. So much to explore. That was part of the problem.
"The mind is endless," Roque says. "You could make up a story, and it would be true." He stares at Clay across the table, wonders when Clay stopped listening, and knows it all started with Max and an idea.
Clay sets down his cards, face up. It's a shit hand. Anyone would fold, but it's Clay, who never learned how to. "Or we could just not talk."
Roque knows it's fucked up when he lays down his own hand, leans forward, and kisses Clay, grabs him up and fucks him over the table, even though Clay could've given them a bed. That was never Clay's style, and the painful familiarity makes Roque laugh, bury it against Clay's shoulder as he shudders apart.
"We can't stay here forever," he says.
But as always, Clay's not listening.
Every second they waste is a lifetime of Clay fucking this all up again, and every time Roque gets close, it's the plane exploding, it's Clay putting a gun to his head, it's the goddamn shore of Clay's unconscious mind, and Roque was tired before this ever began.
"Why, hello there, Roque," Max says, appearing out of nowhere just as Roque hauls himself up.
Some men deserve a bullet, and Clay's steadily putting himself on that list. Fact is, Roque can put him there, 'cause he knows no one dies. Not in a dream.
"I just want to know why," Clay finally says, the question that's kept this dream going for too long.
Roque stares at the cards in his hands, watches as the ink fades on his aces 'til all he's got left are blank cards and Clay's question. It's probably a metaphor for something.
"Fifteen years," Clay says, leaning forward, voice too soft.
Lifetimes, Roque thinks as he looks into Clay's eyes. "It's time to stop. It's time to go home."
Because all inception is is the planting of an idea, and Roque needs Clay to start believing in this one.