In the morning, Eames traces a single finger all the way from Robert’s heel to his crown and kisses him sweetly before he’s properly awake. In the afternoon, Eames tries to crawl out the window to a twenty-three story drop. Robert screams and lunges for him.
Robert finds a group of them living together in the remotest part of the country, so far from any town or even single households that he cannot believe it exists in his time. It’s an unofficial colony, and it’s made of the victims and their caretakers, most of them like Robert and Eames, one brought in by the other; for the most part, there seems to be a silent agreement that if you bring someone, you’re expected to stay with them until you leave and they leave with you - or until it’s just the one of you that can leave.
The exception is the oldest of the inhabitants, and how she ever got on Somnacin and dreamshare, Robert can’t fathom; she must be at least eighty now, and the technology has only existed for the past ten years that he knows of. Everyone keeps an eye on her collectively; she believes this world is a dream simply because she has neighbors, friends, and caretakers – a multitude of people that were never there before. They find out much later that she had no family once her parents were deceased, was never married, never had any children therefore, and the single living thing that she could call her own was a terrier named Nelson. From then on, Robert understands why she found Somnacin – so she wouldn’t have to be alone anymore.
Well, she’s not alone. Not until she walks eight miles away from the camp to the closest river; it’s not very deep, nor very wide, but it’s deep enough. They find her body while it’s still faintly warm but no matter how many compressions they perform they only break her ribs without a heartbeat to be had.
Robert stays closer to Eames than ever after that. Of course, Eames isn’t affected by her death in the slightest. “Wake up, Robert.” He says this to him every day. “This isn’t real. She isn’t real. We’re dreaming. We’re still dreaming.” Of course he believes that this group is made up of projections from his subconscious – to him, it makes perfect sense. Robert doesn’t want them to wake up – he’s surrounded them both with projections that will keep them from anything that can be used to wake up with.
“Projections don’t kill themselves,” Robert mumbles feebly. He feels so lost here, more lost than ever before, a greater sinking than when he woke up on a landing flight from Sidney to LA without any recollection of even boarding the plane. Here, he is no one and has nothing except Eames, his charge, given to him only by himself.
“That’s because we’re in limbo, darling,” and Eames gives him that look, that pitying look Robert can’t stand, because Eames believes Robert is the one that needs to be rescued.
Robert knows the story of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast. He devoured them when he was still small enough to sit in his mother’s lap and watch them with one arm around her side and the other around a stuffed toy or juice box. He grew up knowing these stories and understanding that they all involved a boy rescuing a damsel, so he waited through the prime of his adult life assuming that one day he’d meet a damsel to rescue and fall in love with.
He never imagined that said damsel would be a thirty-something-year-old man driven mad by Robert’s own designs.
Robert’s psychiatrist calls it several things; what he doesn’t call it is a breakdown, but most of the world, including the tabloids, recognize it for what it really is – a breakdown. He breaks his father’s empire into pieces, he severs ties with the closest thing he has to family, Peter Browning, and he avoids venturing into public anymore. His skin doesn’t feel right any longer, and he just can’t figure out how and when he began feeling like this. Before he always felt some contempt for himself, a healthy dose of self-loathing brought on by a loveless childhood after his mother’s death, but this is different now.
In time, he pinpoints the rough departure from sanity to insanity – and it seems to have happened after Maurice Fischer’s death. He takes his flight back to LA like he has to, and – well, he almost remembers picking up his suitcase and waiting for his driver. He sits down to dinner with many of his father’s best men, he orders the barramundi, and then all of a sudden he feels physically ill. He dry heaves in the bathroom before staggering his way upstairs. His head could have split open on the way ip from the intense pain ricocheting in his skull – when he sees it still looking the very same in the mirror in his room he feels shock and more sickness.
Walking past a street fair now, Robert feels the slightest twinge of happiness and lightness when he sees a child’s pinwheel, red and blue and almost spinning in the breeze. He takes home a bouquet of them, but sitting far above the ground where the wind should carry them, they remain static. Robert watches, waits, but it’s a disappointment.
He’s sinking faster, maybe in a whirlpool, because he can’t even hit the bottom, even when he thinks that it will be a relief to do so. He spends his nights in a panic, unable to sleep, and when the morning comes, he can’t leave his apartment anymore. He moves from one place to another without any recollection of doing so. His phone rings nonstop, so he disconnects it.
Peter comes to his door and forces his way in with the two big, surly bodyguards he has with him. One looks familiar – did he work for Robert before? He can’t recall. He’s too busy staring at the man’s thick fists, wondering if he’d smash his face in if he paid him to.
No one would recognize him then.
“Robert, this has to stop,” Peter says, gripping his elbow, but not hard enough. “Come back to reality now, Robert.”
Ripping his arm out of the man’s reach, Robert puts as much distance as possible between them.
“This is your father’s life, his empire, his gift to you! This is your father.”
He can’t remember ever hating Uncle Peter like he does now; before, he never even once resented the man his father considered family, the man Maurice Fischer put even before his own son. Now, Robert can’t stand to look at him. Is this all because of his father’s death? Has it turned him against Peter in bitterness? It’s not as if his father left Peter Browning the company; no, he left it to his son, as expected, but perhaps not as he wished.
Nothing makes sense. Robert wants someone to anchor himself by, and if Uncle Peter isn’t that person, then he has no one. Peter was outside the door when his father died – he remembers numbly walking to the door, opening it, and calmly telling him it was over, and the relief he felt when Peter hugged him. Peter hugged him, and it was okay.
Now he can’t be touched. It’s all he wants, and he can’t have it. But why? “Robert.” He’s calling him again. “Robert.” Peter slowly moves in front of him. His eyes are tracing over his face, lingering in places. Behind him, Robert sees himself in the mirror and notices for the first time a vivid streak of grey in his hair.
His scalp begins to itch, so he tears his fingers through his hair. “Robert,” he keeps chanting. “Robert. Robert, what are you doing? Stop that.” He snatches his wrist, but Robert tears away once more.
“Don’t touch me!” Peter puts his hands up where he can see them. Robert begins to pace. He can’t or won’t stop moving.
“Don’t you see, my boy? This isn’t you. Something happened to you.”
“My father died!”
Peter steps in front of him so he has to stop, but he doesn’t try and take his arm again. “No, Robert, this goes beyond that, I’m afraid.”
Even though he feels himself sinking, drowning, disappearing - Robert hears his pulse hammering in his ears.
What Robert Fischer knows of inception happens in a twenty-four hour period: from nothing to everything. He learns about Somnacin, and dreamshare, the delicacies of it and the danger, the early stories from the military, but most of all, he learns the key players in the game, and he learns the few rumored names that supposedly are capable of inception.
Robert has almost ripped out all of the gray hair by the time he gets to the names, because most are only names with no leads. Cobb. Cobb. Cobb. This is the man he needs to find. This is the man who supposedly is the most linked to the idea of inception, but he’s also a ghost in any system he runs through. There is nothing to grasp, nothing to hope for as he rips through the short list of other names.
At his request, Peter puts feelers out for the men; Robert’s sure that he’s doing it more for himself than he is for Robert, but he doesn’t mind this time if it’s going to get him something. Anything. He’s going to find these men if it takes years and an entire head of grey. He’s going to find them and rip their lives apart, and if he can, their minds too.
Unfortunately, Robert’s training sessions under don’t go well; he never acquires a knack for controlled dreaming beyond defending his own subconscious, even though his tutor insists he’s doing well in the sessions where Robert invades his mind. He’s paid to say that – and Robert doesn’t listen to a word of it. His plans must change, he’ll never be able to convince expert dreamers of anything – however luckily, his tutor does teach him one useful thing.
“It’d be in your best interest to make a totem.”
“Regular dreamers pick or make some kind of personal item that only they are familiar with to ground them and remind them which reality they’re in – the one they were given or the one they made.”
Even in a group, Robert can’t take his eyes off Eames for a moment; Eames is his, it’s both his understanding and the group’s, just the same as they know they are responsible only for themselves and whoever they brought with them. Robert turns his back for a few minutes to breath and count the grey hairs on his head, and when he returns to reach for a hand that’s always there, he comes up empty.
“Where is he? Where’d he go?” He asks everyone, but no one knows. They don’t say a word, don’t even look at him with anything akin to pity in their eyes. Robert breaks from their little cabin and runs to the next, but still they say nothing, except the slump in their shoulders lets him know what they suspect.
But they’re wrong. Eames is here, somewhere, and he’s fine. He has to be fine, because he is Robert’s now – he’s the figure in the back of his mind at all times, in his waking thoughts and sleeping ones too. Eames has become what tethers him to the earth, the difference between what he knows and what he thinks he knows.
Robert never made a totem. He never had to. There are some things he just agreed to when he took Eames on.
He runs to the river because it’s the only other place he can think of to look, but the waters are calm and he sees nothing in either direction along the shallow banks. He stares down into the dark, gentle current and prays to whatever last goodness there is that Eames isn’t down there somewhere.
There isn’t much of a road to the cabins, but there is a dirt path, so he follows that until it’s gone, washed out awhile ago it looks like, then wanders until he finds where it picks up again. He’s wandering around deliriously before he realizes there are dusty footprints on the path.
In the dark, he nearly passes the crouching figure near a picket fence another mile down the path. He’s so relieved to see him still breathing, Robert can’t find a single thing to say; he just throws his arms around Eames’ solid back and pushes his face into the back of his neck. It’s windy out, a slight chill rolls through, but he has a living, breathing Eames to warm him.
Even though Eames grips his hand tightly enough to drain the color of it, his voice keeps a carefully maintained teasing quality. “Ah, but nothing is fun without you anymore, Bertie.”
“You didn’t leave.”
“No, I stayed.”
They walk back to the cabin huddled together since neither of them is dressed for the night’s temperature drop. When they walk through the door and ignore the curious glances of the others in their dwelling, they collapse into their shared bed in their tiny room, all dark corners and spider webs, and Robert pushes his feet under Eames’ bottom while he sticks his chilled hands under Robert’s arms.
As the cold leaves their bodies, they both lean toward each other, waiting for sleep, but Robert knows that Eames is looking out the window, wondering when he’ll convince Robert to leave with him.
The answer might be sooner than he thinks.
Eames is the name of the man Peter tells him. “He’s in Monaco now, but he won’t be there long, most likely.” Robert packs his things, even though he hasn’t ate anything proper in days and standing for more than five minutes at a time tends to fatigue him. He catches one flight then another, occupying himself with the slim file Peter sends with him. It’s a lucky find; he most likely won’t get another chance at this. He tries to force down food and enough water; he will be his own strength when the time comes.
Whoever this one-name Eames man is, he’s reckless. Unlike the other names inception is linked to, this man has allowed himself to pop up on their radar, whereas no matter how long he searched he couldn’t find a material trace of Cobb. He, or someone else for him, has covered his tracks well. Eames, not so much. There might not have been much of a trail previously, but now there’s a glaring red beacon, and his father’s wisdom comes in handy: “You’ve got to follow the money, Robert.”
So he does – to Monaco, where a man with a penchant for reckless gambling has garnered him more attention than he well knows. Robert’s never been to Monaco; it’s not somewhere his father did much business and he was never a man of leisure. Needless to say, Robert doesn’t know French or the geography and can’t stand to have any kind of guide around him, so he takes to the streets alone. This becomes his in, as it were.
He finds this Eames in a casino, and from the first moment through the door, he can distinctly hear that the man is not American or French, but English, and it’s just learning this one tiny detail about a man he knows nothing else about that drives Robert mad. He’s simultaneously struck by how angry he is that this man was in his mind and now he goes about his own life as if he never touched it, but he’s more angry at himself for what he’s about to do.
The man is boisterous in a way where he mingles and commands every player at his table, but escapes the notice of other patrons across the floor. All expect Robert, of course. He waits for the hand to finish then sits down next to Eames, who is broadchested with more stubble than is probably appropriate in this casino.
Without even knowing what the game is, Robert slides several chips across the table and watches the man next to him. Eventually, he turns to him, eyebrow raised. He greets him in French despite speaking English previously.
“Sorry?” He says, because he has no idea what this man’s opening line will be, but he’s ready to wreck his entire life regardless.
“I said this clearly isn’t your game.” Eames nods at his bet, which Robert realizes is substantially larger than everyone else’s. “This is a warm-up table really, people don’t normally set so much down, especially before they’ve been handed anything.”
Robert shrugs, watching the other man as he slides a chip between his fingers. Back and forth. Such ease. Such familiarity.
“May I take the immense pleasure in believing you sat at this table for me?” And then he’s wiggling his eyebrows and winkling. It’s ridiculous.
“Think what you like,” Robert says, because it’s what he would have said in this situation any other time. Always hard to get, because even though Robert could afford anything, he can’t afford to give anything to another person. Luckily, Eames isn’t the sort of man to take the first no seriously.
“In that case, I think we ought to get you a drink.” He waves over a waitress and orders him a very dry martini, which Robert isn’t surprised he guessed correctly about. He tips her generously when she returns, all awhile flipping the same chip around in his hand.
“Is that your lucky chip?” Robert asks, sipping the strong drink in his hand. The larger man watches him eagerly – watches his lips, throat, hands.
“Something like that.” He clears his throat and shifts in his seat. “What do you say, Mr. Fischer?” They had introduced themselves after the third hand. “Have we had enough of a warm-up? Ready to pick up the stakes?”
“Well, that depends on how much you’re willing to gamble.” He glances at the chip in his hand, and Robert knows he’s found what he wanted.
“I’ve got enough to take us to a back room.”
When they enter the back for the high stakes tables, Robert pays the few people already there off. The room empties while Eames returns with another drink for Robert and himself. If he thinks it strange that they’re suddenly alone, he doesn’t comment.
“So, what shall we play?” He asks right in the shell of Robert’s ear; it’s both the rough itch of his stubble combined with the rough voice that bothers him. Pressing him against the edge of a table, one of his hands skims past Robert’s side as he reaches for a deck of cards.
“What’s your game?”
“Trickery.” Eames shuffles the cards with flair. “I don’t play anything particularly well, but I bluff well enough to play any game.”
Robert can only imagine. “Mind tricks, you would say.” And just like that, this man’s charade drops; his face transforms so quickly it takes Robert a belated moment to realize it wasn’t Eames stepping away, but himself, or else he’d be sucked down with him.
“I suppose you could say that,” he says softly, but boldly, without whisper. He leans back against the table, arms crossed. Underneath the sleeves of his shirt, Robert can see muscles moving like a wave down his arm. “Can I ask why you’re in Monaco, Robert?”
Eames cocks a grin at him, sizing him up quite animatedly. “I think I can help you in that department.”
Robert hums as Eames slides closer, his face composing itself into the same mask he wore at the table. “And what would you know about giving me pleasure?”
“Just a trick or two.” He’s nuzzling in Robert’s ear again, the curve of a smile pressed into it. The rough itch of stubble against his clean jaw. Then there’s a kiss, a soft, gentle one, just for the slightest moment, then it transforms into a nipping at his lips. He feels himself being pushed against the table once more, one of the man’s hands lifting him slightly so he’s barely resting on the edge.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Robert knows this feels familiar, but it isn’t until he’s spun roughly around, yanked off the table with a new force driving Eames that it clicks. He has his large hands wrapped around Robert’s hips, pressing a budding erection against his back, and suddenly Robert is being forced forward and bent in half, as if made to bow, and when his head connects with the table, the cards fan out underneath him.
It’s the roughness tingled only with enough affection: the hand under his head that takes the shock of hitting the table, or the gentle swipe of fingers through his hair. This feels so familiar because this is how Thomas would kiss him, and this man must have seen it in his dreams.
The anger is back with a new force; he’s going to end this man’s life without a gun or weapon of any kind, without a PASIV or a shared dream like what was done to him. He waits patiently, lets the man put his hands all over him as Robert watches the cards in front of them. Just waiting for his hand to show up.
It does. It isn’t hard to figure out which chip it is – it’s the one he’s got by itself in his coat pocket, and once Robert has it between his fingers, his jacket off and Eames’ tie thrown over his shoulder, he can’t help but bringing it before his eyes, careless as it is. The man behind him is so busy at present he doesn’t seen to notice his chip being carelessly cast down amongst the scattered chips on the table.
They finish, and the totem never gets picked up.
That night Robert sleeps better than he has in a year, and it matters little that the man who stole his sleep beforehand is in bed beside him. He doesn’t wake until there’s a crash and a crying, and he’s used to these noises, so he it’s a shock to find they aren’t coming from himself but from a separate entity in the room. And then Robert remembers everything, and wishes he didn’t.
“Where is it?” The man screams. In the predawn hours, he wakes Robert by flipping over the armchair and bedside table, and the next to go are the drawers in the vanity. He turns them upside down but they’re all empty; Robert never unpacked.
“Where’s what?” Robert asks, the anger in his brain already beginning to fade, and it sounds like confusion in his voice. This is it. This is what he’s been waiting for.
“The chip!” He hisses, tossing the sheets off the bed and exposing Robert by necessity. He grabs him by the ankle and yanks him as if Robert might be sitting on it.
“What chip?” His voice sounds hollow to him, but Eames doesn’t seem to recognize it.
“My bloody poker chip! It’s –“ he pauses, “my lucky chip.” He whirls around to look at Robert. “Do you have it?”
Robert cocks an eyebrow. “Why would I have it? I hardly have a shortage of my own poker chips.” He stands, pulling on a silky robe left by the door to the bathroom.
“Fuck! I need it!” Eames jumps on top of the bed to dash across it and run into the bathroom, crashing through more things.
“You hardly need it right now.” Robert’s fingers itch like a junkie’s, but he doesn’t know what he needs. He turns to watch Eames as he tears everything apart in his expensive suite, but this costs nothing to him. Nothing. “Besides, I can pay you the money if it’s so important.”
“I don’t need the money!” It’s a bellow, and shortly after the phone rings, a polite volume to no doubt inform them that they’ve woken their neighbors.
“Darling, it’s entirely too early to be doing this.” Robert realizes he sounds like him. He’s sinking into Eames’ skin when all he wanted was to be able to pretend he had his own. He tries to grab him from behind, wrapping his arms around him and pulling him back towards the bed, shushing him.
“I can’t sleep now! I can’t sleep. I can’t. I can’t –“ He’s beginning to rant, that crazed, familiar look in his face. He’s spinning in circles, eyes darting to the window. It takes Robert a longer moment to realize why. This is something he won’t stand by and watch.
“Hey! Hey, now,” he grabs the other man’s wrist and tries stopping him again. “It’s alright; it’s not that big of deal.” He’s lying; he knows it’s a very big deal. He knew what is was when he took it. “You’re going to be fine.” He holds the other man who’s breathing like a bull, ready to run. When Eames raises his arms around Robert, he thinks he might be ready to crush him under his massive arms. He doesn’t. He holds onto Robert instead. Anchored, if only for the moment.
Their stay with the group only lasts three weeks, then one morning Eames wakes up to find their packed bags on the foot of the bed where Robert’s legs should be. Robert is standing with his back to him, hips canted against the doorframe looking out into the living room area. He’s freshly showered and shaved, a sweet scent lingering. “Ready to leave, love?”
Robert turns and smiles at him. “Yeah, I am.”
They walk with their bags down the road until a car picks them up and takes them to the bus station. From there, they make it to a city where they rent their own car. As they climb into the seats, Eames in the driver’s side and Robert in the passenger’s, he smiles. “Where we heading now?”
Robert looks at him, then out the window, lips pursing. “I don’t know.” Eames watches him for a long moment, then puts the car in drive. They pull out of the garage onto the street, and then from the street to the highway. Driving south on the first highway they come to, Eames turns towards him.
“You ready to go home now, love?” Eames isn’t wearing his seatbelt anymore, because somewhere along the way they’d removed them so they could sit closer.
Robert still feels like he’s sinking, faster now than ever before even though he’s come to love Eames. It’s that love that’s dragging him down, the guilt hanging over him because Eames never did find his totem or suspect what happened to it. Instead, he chose to believe something else entirely.
It’s been five months since that night when they met in the casino, meeting not for the first time, but in many ways it felt like the first time. Robert went and retrieved all of the chips left on the table downstairs because he couldn’t tell which one was Eames’, then he took the lot of them and threw them in the ocean. It’s been five months since then, and Robert hasn’t rested a day. After taking Eames into his arms, he became the watcher. There are things Robert knew he would never be, most often pointed out to him by his father, but one of those things is a cold-hearted killer. So he stayed.
And when Eames finds Robert crying silently over a children’s book of fairytales and says nothing, Robert never knows which one of them was the damsel or the gallant knight.
“I’m sorry.” It isn’t Robert who says it, and by now Robert has forgotten Eames ever needed to say it. “I’ll find you. When we wake up.”
Nodding, Robert closes his eyes and leans back into the Eames’ chest; a hand sprawls down over his collarbones and onto the thin skin beneath, the only restraint Robert now has. He never had a totem; he only had Eames, so when the gears in the car speed up, he says nothing. How can he be sure? Reality is what you choose to believe in. In the end, what he chooses to believe is that neither of them deserved what happened, and ultimately everything has to be undone.
He feels a bump. The car sliding off the road. ”I’ll make it right.”
That morning, they wake up and flee from sanctuary. In the afternoon, they rent a car they never plan on returning. This time when Eames lunges, Robert doesn’t pull him back. He lets them go.