Miles is standing just outside the doorway to customs, and Arthur cringes internally to see him there. He is dressed in his best tweed, a professor to the last inch, and his hair is whiter than Arthur remembers. Losing Mal had been hard on him. Arthur can’t imagine what scars this will carve, losing the last bits of the family Miles and he had worked so hard to protect.
Miles doesn’t frown when he sees Arthur, nor smile and wave; he knows just as well as any of them that it’s better not to be seen together, that it’s safer to have a quick and easy split. Arthur keeps walking because the instinct to fight through instead of fold is ingrained, even knowing that Miles is waiting for Cobb but is only going to find disappointment. He can’t think that there isn’t an easier way, but he doesn’t know it; Miles is not an actor, and there are cameras.
The car isn’t hard to find. Miles had told him the week before how his knee was acting up, so he looks for it near the elevators. Arthur picks the lock and sits inside, and waits for Miles’s optimism to fade.
It takes two hours.
Miles doesn’t say anything at first. He unlocks the car and drops himself heavily into the driver’s seat. His fingers shake when he puts the keys in the ignition, but they don’t turn the car into start.
“He didn’t wake up.” The words taste like stomach acid in Arthur’s mouth, and he spits them out as quickly as he can. Two hours in the car didn’t leave him with any better ways of saying it, any easier way of letting Miles know that Cobb is gone, never coming home. “He fell into limbo, and he didn’t come back out. He… the inception took. He’s a free man. But he’s not waking up. Saito had him sent to a hospital nearby.” Arthur swallows and suddenly feels three sizes smaller, deflated and exhausted, crumpling under the weight of his own rigid shoulders. “I don’t know what else to do.”
Miles wants to take him home, but Arthur doesn’t know what he’ll tell James and Phillipa when they ask him where their dad is. The thought paralyzes the breath in his lungs, so he shoves it away – the thought, the reality, and whatever semblance of a plan he might possibly construct for the next few weeks.
He checks into a motel nearby. He hasn’t stayed at a place this cheap since he was in his teens and had just run his first con. The showerhead is weak and the hot water finite, and the sheets scratch against his skin. There is nothing on T.V. and he is too nauseated to eat the room service he orders.
When he can’t stare at the ceiling any longer, he gives in and grabs his cell phone.
Eames picks up on the second ring. “How are you?”
“I,” Arthur says, pressing a hand to his eyes. “Not good.”
All he can hear is Eames’s breathing, a regular, soft sigh against the receiver, then, “where are you?”
“I can and I am. Where are you?”
Arthur, helpless, gives him the address.
“I’ll be there in an hour. Do yourself a favor and start in on the minibar, will you?”
“I’m at a Motel 6,” Arthur says, and laughs, or tries to – it comes out sounding more like a gasp. “There isn’t a minibar.”
“What sort of hotel doesn’t have a minibar?” Eames sounds more irritated than curious. There are sounds filtering in from beyond the receiver: closed doors, elevator buttons – the sounds of motion. “Where’s the nearest bar, then?”
Arthur shuts his eyes. “I don’t know.”
“Ha,” Eames snorts. “Well, though that is something I’d never hoped to hear you admit in my lifetime, I imagine it’s because you haven’t yet put your considerable resources to use in finding out. Put down the phone, darling – find a bar, text me the address, and have a few shots to start with. I’ll join you soon.”
Eames has to pour him into bed. He takes entirely too long once Arthur is there, which Arthur would protest if he weren’t so… spinny. He makes irritated sounds when Eames gets too handsy in the process of his disrobement – they’re not like that, never will be like that, because Arthur tries to make more good decisions than he does bad and there are not enough good choices in the world to make up for how bad an idea it would be to sleep with Eames. He tries to explain this to Eames, who does not seem offended; then again Eames has had a lot of scotch and is generally more prone to causing offense than feeling it.
Arthur wakes up in his boxers and one sock, with Eames sprawled across his chest and drooling. For a brief moment he is dizzyingly, nauseatingly certain that he has finally given in and fucked everything up. It takes a few seconds to realize that he didn’t, that Eames is still dressed and the buttons of his suit are pushing uncomfortably into Arthur’s sternum.
He shoves Eames off him – Eames doesn’t stir – and spends the better part of an hour throwing up in the bathroom, only the first 10 minutes of which are due to his hangover. The rest is because Cobb is dead, or nearly dead at most optimistic, and he has chosen to stay that way instead of come back to his kids and to Arthur and Arthur has no idea what to do with that, no way of knowing where to begin.
Cobb has been his anchor in the wake of Mal’s death as much as he’s been Cobb’s; they’d been close before and inseparable after, through fights and losses and the heartbreak that threatened to crush them both. But Cobb has cut free. Cobb has given up. Arthur doesn’t know where the fuck that leaves him.
Phillipa tries shaking her father awake the second they’re in the room, and collapses into a puddle of tears when he doesn’t respond, when Miles pulls her away and says she could be hurting him. James hovers in the doorway, staring at his father’s face. Arthur wonders if he even recognizes the man; the deep hollows beneath Cobb’s eyes and the flattened pallor change the shape of his face. He looks dead.
Arthur regrets, violently, asking to be here. He has no talent for feelings, for comfort – what did he possibly think he could lend to the situation? He watches Miles tug both of the children into a tight embrace and barely understands the point. Their father chose ghosts over them – they have every right to be miserable.
Miles packs the children up into the car. Arthur elects to stay behind, and watches the heart rate monitor jump and fall until the nurses kick him out. He wants to tell them that their machines are lying but Arthur is rational, Arthur is reason above all else and he knows they wouldn’t believe him. They’d just think he was grieving. He is grieving, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong: Cobb has killed himself, even if his body hasn’t yet caught up.
His phone rings as he exits the hospital; it’s an unknown number, which typically means Eames. He takes the call.
“Don’t do it.”
Arthur wipes a hand over his face. “Don’t do what.”
“You’ve wasted enough of your life on him, don’t waste any more.” There is a definite slur to Eames’s voice, unsubtle enough that Arthur doesn’t think it’s faked.
“Are you drunk?”
“Possibly. Possibly I’m sitting in the bar nearest your hotel room, and possibly I’m there getting properly plastered. Why, do you care?”
“No,” Arthur snaps, and shuts the phone, which spends the next hour ringing incessantly and sending him increasingly incomprehensible texts:
8:10 I saw you at the hospital. I was dressd as a nurse, very sexy, shame you didn’t turns round you would’ve lved it
8:16 I’m serios thouhg, He chose to stay, you dont have to try to convence him otherwise
8:22 He’s not worth your santy. you can’t chase him forevr
8:23 Don’t do it, I’m serius. your worth thre of him darling andwe both know it
8:43 pick up youphone
8:44 pickup pidk up
8:45 I can do this allnigt Arthur you bastard
8:49 pls pick up this is imprtant
9:01 idont want u to lose your mindtoo
Arthur stares at this last text message for a long time, the background noise of the TV drowning out the whirring of his own bemused brain. He knows that Eames is a consummate faker, by nature and by nurture (Arthur’s background checks are always thorough, and he’d spent two days following Eames’s mother around). This doesn’t feel like that though, like the false brand of brightness that Eames wears around as he trounces and lies his way through life.
He taps out a response before he can think better of it, and turns his phone off so he can pretend he’s going to sleep.
9:08 I’m not going to follow him down. He made his choice. Stop drinking before you get arrested, I don’t have time to bail you out.
In the morning, Eames has texted back several times. All of the texts have the same timestamp from when he turned his phone back on, but he can tell they must have occurred throughout the night due to the reduction in base sentimentality and increase in cockiness. He deletes all but the last one, which he saves as proof of ability for later arguments about Eames’ disinclination towards proper spelling.
7:10 Besides, I’ve got picks hidden in my jacket collar and bribe money in my socks. I’d break my own way out, and then come to hound you at your hellishly small hotel room until you regret your callous disregard for my safety.
The fact that it almost makes him smile has nothing to do with it.
“You know you’re listed as godfather?”
Arthur shoves his hands deeper into his pocket and stares out the window at the distant illumination of the city. “I’ll sign whatever you need me to sign for you to get permanent custody.”
Miles is quiet. Arthur listens to the clock ticking in the other room, and wishes that it would rain in this goddamn state. Outside, the air is desert-dry, humming with warmth and life. All of Cobb’s dreams had been like this, with perfect weather and neatly manicured lawns. It had never bothered Arthur before, but now he is furious with it. Perhaps if Cobb had been able to handle a little fucking rain instead of investing in his own perfect world, this wouldn’t be happening.
“Did you know I’m turning 67 in a week?” Miles hums softly, stepping forward to look out the window next to Arthur. “Marie, she’ll be 64 in a few months. Phillipa’s birthday is before hers, though – she’ll be 6 in April.”
Of course Arthur knows that. “Congratulations.”
“When Mal was pregnant with Phillipa, she broke down in tears just a week before giving birth. It was mostly the stress and the hormones, of course, but she told Marie that she was so sorry for having waited so long, that Marie wouldn’t get to know her great grandchildren.”
Miles doesn’t let the words hang in the air – like Cobb, he has the capacity but not the patience for subtlety. “Arthur, Marie and I cannot take care of these children when, in just a few years, someone is going to have to take care of us.”
“I’m not particularly… paternal.”
“You’ve known the children their whole lives. When Dom was unable to come here, you came in his stead. The children love you, and they trust you. When you’re gone, they miss you – Arthur that is the definition of paternal. You take care of people.”
Miles rubs a hand over his face and sighs. “I know that this isn’t something you anticipated. It’s not a responsibility that anyone takes lightly. But please, consider it.”
“I don’t bloody believe this, Arthur!” Eames’s eyes are wide and startled for only a second before they narrow. The line of his mouth tightens. “Your capacity for fucking martyrdom is absolutely astounding.”
“It’s not like that,” Arthur tries, but he’s tired and Eames cuts him off pretty quickly.
“Oh, it isn’t? You followed the man around the globe for two bloody years, through all of his psychotic ideas and plans. You have a price on your head, still, from Cobol and three companies before that – a combined worth of 5 million in US dollars, and don’t think I’m not regretting not turning you in for that!”
Arthur tightens his fingers around the glass in his hands, trying to ignore the people all around them watching. “You don’t have the right to tell me how to live my life.”
“Well someone ought to since you’re doing a piss poor job of it! And if don’t have the right - neither does bloody Cobb, especially considering the bastard’s dead!”
“This isn’t a discussion, Eames,” Arthur snarls, exhausted already. “You’re not my fucking boyfriend.”
Eames stops talking and looks like he’s been slapped. “No. No I am not.”
There is a moment where Arthur sees the opportunity to apologize, to soothe Eames’s feelings and to talk about the fact that there’s something between them, even if Arthur doesn’t always think it’s real. But the moment slips by, and Eames’s face shutters closed and blank. Arthur tosses a few bills on the table and leaves without another word.
Miles and Marie stay, to ‘help him with the transition.’ They sleep in Mal and Cobb’s room, while Arthur takes the guest room. They show him where the school is, help him pick out Phillipa’s favorite lunch snacks and demonstrate the best way to get James to wash his hands. In two weeks, they lay out a complicated web of preferences and procedures that Arthur struggles to memorize. After the children go to sleep each night he finds himself making extensive lists about what veggies aren’t going to get eaten, how much help Phillipa needs with her homework, when their next inoculations are due. It is dizzying, overwhelming, and when Miles and Marie leave a month later he has no idea what to do other than follow their carefully described routine and try not to panic too completely.
“I had this vision, you know,” Eames says on the other end of the line, “of us travelling around the world together after inception, as partners. We’d have been brilliant, Arthur.”
Arthur is not drunk, but he wishes he were so that this conversation wouldn’t sting so much. The terrible thing is that he’s not sure that he would have said yes, if Eames had asked him before Cobb tapped out; he thinks it’s maybe just the circumstances that have him aching, burning to leave. He wakes up in the morning and wants so badly to pack his things, to call Eames and dash out the door. Then Phillipa and James wake up, and he forgets about it until the next day, or until the next time Eames calls him.
“I accidentally shrunk Phillipa’s dress in the washer today,” he says instead. “She cried for half an hour.”
There’s a brief pause before Eames shifts gears, before his tone loses its morose edge and slips into teasing mockery. If Arthur lets himself, he can pretend it’s not forced.
“Somehow I have trouble imagining you causing any sort of irreconcilable damage to clothing, darling. You’ve always been so impeccably dressed.”
“Good dry cleaners,” Arthur admits. He still has a wallet full of their cards: one for every city he’s visited, and it’s a startlingly sobering realization that he’ll never likely need any of them again.
“Well, there must be a good dry cleaner in your area – you could send out. Inception ought to have given you more than enough money for all that.”
Arthur laughs, and rubs a hand across his face. “Eames, I’m pretty positive that the correct response to my domestic failures isn’t going to always be making someone else do it.”
“Of course it is - many a suburban trophy wife has followed just that advice. It’s a pity that you’re such a stubborn arse that you insist on doing everything yourself.”
The words are lightly said, but they wipe the smile from Arthur’s face.
“I’m sorry darling, I didn’t mean that,” Eames says quickly, but the damage is done.
“Yes you did,” Arthur replies, then lies, “I think I hear James coming down the stairs. I’ve got to go.” He hangs up, and goes to put some whiskey in his coke. It’ll help him sleep, even if it doesn’t do much else.
Things don’t get better, but they don’t get much worse, either. Cobb stays in a coma, and there are people who want to talk about organ donation. Conversely, James seems to be developing some form of insomnia though that, at least, is something that Arthur is familiar with. While he often feels like an utter failure during the day, nightmares, insomnia and sleep-walking are all common side effects of his former career, and he tries to console himself with those small successes.
Eames starts calling him every night during the 30-minute window after the kids have gone to bed and before James comes creeping down, red-eyed and scared of never waking up. It’s more than they’ve spoken in the entire time they’ve known each other, but Arthur is too grateful to ask why Eames keeps calling. They talk about nothing – football, Arthur’s inability to comprehend Phillipa’s spelling disasters, the latest pathos and scandals of reality television stars, and other innocuous topics. They veer away from anything too painful or legitimate, and they never talk about where Eames is or what he’s doing.
Arthur has never looked forward to talking to Eames before this, but now it’s the best part of his day.
Four months in, Arthur has that panic attack he’s been working towards. He manages to stave it off until Phillipa is at school and James is at the zoo with the neighbor’s son, and he has three hours entirely to himself. He grabs a packet of cigarettes, a lighter, and a bottle of whiskey, and goes to sit on the porch and quietly shake himself apart.
There is a gap, and then Arthur wakes up in his bed convinced that his skull shrunk overnight like Phillipa’s dress in the drier. That or all the booze made his brain swell, but there is a very sudden and pressing size discrepancy between the two. He also quickly realizes that if he doesn’t make it to the bathroom in the next 30 seconds he’s going to have to clean vomit out of the carpet.
He is mostly finished retching when Eames comes in half an hour later, bearing coffee and dry toast. Arthur has had time between dry heaves to catalogue his situation, and found more gaps in his memory than recollections. For one, he does not remember calling Eames.
He wipes vomit off with the back of his hand, and stumbles to his feet. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Eames just holds out a cup of coffee, and after a second Arthur takes it. It’s black and hot, and he uses it to rinse his mouth before taking a gulp. It doesn’t clear his head as much as he wishes it would.
“Shit,” Arthur says, realizing that the light filtering in through the bathroom window is early, the rays still morning-soft. “Where are James and Phillipa?”
“Down the street,” Eames replies, and offers him some of the toast. “You’re not meant to pick them up until this evening, so you’ve plenty of time to take a shower and change, which is meant to be a very subtle comment on your current odor.”
Arthur takes the hint. By the time he’s stepped out of the shower and into fresh cloths, his brain and skull seem closer to proportional and he feels less like he’s been hit by a semi-truck. His muscles feel looser, and his body strangely light. The drugs are strong enough that it takes him a little while to realize that Eames has given them to him at all.
“Well of course I did, darling,” Eames says without a hint of remorse, lounging at the dining room table with this morning’s paper. “You drank most of a bottle of whiskey last night and later today you have to deal with children.” Eames shudders. “I didn’t think you could do that without a little bit of pharmacological assistance.”
Arthur feels too relaxed to argue with him on that point, especially when he has so many others to choose from. “Why are you here, Eames?”
Eames flutters his eyelashes at Arthur. “Because you called me and asked very nicely, of course.”
It’s hard to level his glare on Eames when his body feels this much like floating putty, but he doubles down and makes it work. “Eames.”
Eames folds the paper and sets it on the table. “Arthur. You called me. Did you really think I wouldn’t come?”
Arthur sits heavily in the chair across from him. He doesn’t understand what Eames is doing here, sitting on the other side of Mal and Dom’s beautiful wooden table, reading the goddamn paper like this is a moment of charmed domesticity instead of the aftermath of a nervous breakdown. Arthur’s not sure what the strangest bit is: the transposition of them instead of the Cobbs, or the fact that he’s glad Eames is here. A few months ago, Arthur would have been concerned about blackmail material or professional standing. Now, he’s intensely, pathetically grateful for Eames’s presence. He can’t make himself believe that it’s just not being alone, or even the mere comfort of a familiar face. He’s far too introspective for that variety of bullshit. If he’s honest with himself, it’s been Eames for a while now.
He stares dully at the bowl of fake fruit between them. “I don’t understand why you would,” he says finally, with more honesty than he really means to, “but thank you.”
Eames leans his head down into Arthur’s line of sight and smiles. It’s fond. “My pleasure, darling.”
Arthur waits for the witty rejoinder, for the comment on how fetching he was with vomit on his shirt. It doesn’t come.
Eventually, Arthur smiles back.
Eames doesn’t stay, but Arthur doesn’t ask him to. This isn’t the life that he imagined, but it’s his now. It would be wrong to ask Eames to sign up for this when he only wants part of the picture. They shake hands, and Eames gets into the taxi. Arthur doesn’t let himself watch the car disappear.
The neighbor gives him a very sad, knowing smile when he goes to pick up James and Phillipa that night. Arthur isn’t quite sure what Eames told her, but the drugs have worn off and he feels like shit again, so he’s sure he matches whatever mental picture she’s spun. The kids don’t seem any worse from the ordeal - James spends the walk home talking about some robot the neighbor’s kid has, which appears to be cool and awesome and has lights on it. Phillipa asks for macaroni and cheese for dinner, with hot dogs, and ice cream for dessert. He figures that this means she’s already discovered her father’s innate talent for manipulation of emotional weakness in others, a fact that is only reaffirmed by the way she adds a few dozen pleases while her features are written over with earnestness.
Arthur gently rolls his eyes at her and agrees to the ice cream but not the dinner selection, and mentally makes a note to look into robots for James’s next birthday. It’s only later that he realizes that the thought of Dom didn’t pull at that wounded place in his chest. There’s still pain there, but it’s diminished, and he’s beginning to think its source isn’t one of the Cobbs at all. He’s not convinced that self-pity is much of an improvement over grief, but at least it’s easier to ignore.
In the way of drunken recollections, memories start to swarm back to hit him at awkward times. One moment there is a void, and the next it is repaired and he can’t believe it was ever gone. The next two days are full of startling and frequently humiliating self-realizations, which, it turns out, are just as difficult to handle as an adult as they ever were as a teen.
While doing laundry he gets a flash of Eames gently tugging the bottle away, the sense memory fueled by how his thumb had stroked over Arthur’s wrist as he’d peeled the whiskey away. It makes his mouth dry, and he decides to put the sheets away later because he can’t stand the way they feel against his skin.
When he’s toweling off his hair the next morning he remembers the joke Eames had made about not wanting to ruin the extensive pomade slick, and holding back his tie instead as Arthur had vomited. Into the sink, because he couldn’t make it to the toilet, and so Arthur has to alter course for the morning to pour alternate layers of de-clogger and bleach down the drain. It makes him feel better about touching the surfaces of the bathroom, but does very little to subdue the residual mortification.
It’s in the middle of dinner that he remembers that when he’d asked how Eames had gotten there so quickly, Eames had told him he’d never left the city in the first place. Arthur puts down his fork, giving Phillipa and James the remote control and unlimited access to whatever the five unblocked channels can provide them, and calls Eames.
Eames doesn’t pick up. Arthur is so taken aback by the voice mail that he’s not even sure what he’s saying as he stutters out, “um. It’s Arthur. I just, ah.” He takes several breaths, managing to produce nothing better than a couple of stupid pants into the receiver, and hangs up.
“Coward,” he tells himself, and throws the phone across the room in favor of burying his head beneath his pillows.
Arthur stares into the afternoon sunlight, finally understanding the phrase ‘struck dumb’. He certainly feels dumb, and possibly struck, and definitely is incapable of speech. He’d opened the door expecting to find the mailman, or perhaps another of the endless parade of door-to-door religious salesmen that plague the neighborhood. Instead there’s Eames in a button-up yellow shirt and a hideous orange tie, wearing a determined look on his face. There is a vast collection of full plastic grocery bags littered around his feet, and a very shiny minivan in the driveway.
“Don’t say no,” Eames starts, which is ominous in many ways.
Arthur frowns and finds his voice. “Do you have food?”
“Yes. I have food, and videos with uplifting stories about barnyard animals, and toothpicks and baby books and diapers.” Eames tilts his chin up. “I’ve realized that I can’t decide your life for you, but I can decide it for me, and I want in.”
“…in the door?” He really is very tired; it was a two hour ordeal to put James down for his nap today. There was screaming - lots of screaming.
“I want in everything, Arthur! This is the grand gesture!” He waves at the slumped plastic bags at his feet, looking a little wild around the eyes. “I bought formula! I looked at breast pumps without any erotic context!”
There are a lot of things that Arthur could say to this, but his mouth isn’t connecting to his brain in a way that’s terribly useful so what comes out is, “James doesn’t need diapers.”
“I think you are so lost in the details that you are missing the point, darling,” Eames says with a scowl, crossing his arms over his chest. He doesn’t look hurt, yet, just determined; always hard to chase away or offend, Eames.
With difficulty, Arthur refocuses. “What sort of food do you have?”
“I have a cornucopia of delights, including-“
“Do you have pizza?”
“Of course I have pizza! I’m not a fool.”
“No, Mr. Eames, you’re just a man who bought a breast pump as part of a grand romantic gesture.” Arthur can’t help but smile a little, pushing open the door to make room.
Eames brightens and sneaks in beside him, dragging in groceries and undoubtedly more trouble than Arthur is going to be content dealing with. “Well, they were on sale, and I was curious. It’s not like I’m ever going to get an honest opportunity to play with one, now am I? Where are the sprogs?”
“Phillipa’s at school, James is asleep. Finally.”
“Good.” Eames drops the groceries on the kitchen counter then turns to Arthur, reaching out to cup his cheeks. His expression is hard to read: earnest, sober, and too complex to be anything but real. “Don’t say no.”
Inside his chest, something loosens. “Alright,” Arthur agrees softly, and leans in to meet him.