There isn't any point in lying to someone who's been in your head, but Arthur does it anyway. "Yes, I do," he says slowly. "I made the reservation before we left."
"Ah," Eames says.
Something about his tone makes Arthur ask, "You?"
"I'll be back on a plane in about —" he looks to his watch, "six hours."
That gets a laugh. "You'll be able to reach me, if you need to. If you're not looking for another line of work after this." Eames' tone isn't unkind. Maybe wistful.
And it's true, he might be ready for something else, anything else, it's not like he doesn't have options. This was — this was an ambitious disaster, and as much his fault as anyone's. Arthur sighs, looks at his own watch. It's not even five yet, local time, but subjectively it's the middle of the night.
There's a knock on the glass. An airline-uniformed man, security badges dangling from his neck, has dragged up a pair of black nylon suitcases. Eames is thanking the man and slipping him a tip before Arthur's even out of his chair. Arthur picks up his briefcase, slings his garment bag over one shoulder, takes the second case, and walks toward the cab stand. He doesn't look back. He doesn't have to, he tells himself, he really doesn't have to.
In the cab, he sorts the right card out of his wallet, snicks it into his telephone, and books himself into an unexceptional discount hotel on the westside. The water in the shower isn't as hot as he likes, but it rinses off the worst of the stink of the airplane and the chemicals that have run down the inside of one bruised arm.
Wrapped in a towel, after, he phones Saito's assistant Hiroko. She says the transfer was uneventful, they're at a private clinic in Westwood. Where is he?
Arthur won't tell her, writes down the clinic address on the back of a receipt and says he'll be there in the morning. She can find him, if she's determined enough; of that he has no doubt. He is tired enough, right now, to be reckless, and he thinks, after the interview Saito's chief of security subjected him and Eames to, in that little room next to the baggage claim, that they should understand how exhausted he is. What a very bad idea it would be if he went back in now, however much he, or anyone else, wants him to.
He drops the phone on the pressboard nightstand, switches the light off, and drops the towel on the carpet as he climbs into bed.
In his sleep, he's standing outside a library he knows in Prague with floor-to-ceiling windows, watching books turn into tombstones. The flat white marble tablets lengthen, reach up and up into cliffs, into skyscrapers with names and deaths'-heads carved across their tops, and he's walking down the street, looking through the windows, watching the people — the projections, he insists to himself, because he has been doing this too long not to be lucid, the projections — as they walk and talk and eat and shop and in the room the women come and go and there's a big arrogant statue, marble, in the square in front of him, which flicks away its fig-leaf, shakes its curls, takes a great naked leap off its pedestal, looks at him, shakes its head and turns away. It walks on up the street and disappears around a corner that wasn't there before, that isn't there a moment later.
He couldn't see who it was supposed to be, he tells himself. Too far away.
The phone chirps. He thumbs it on, the little screen glowing in the dark. It's a missed call, from a number he doesn't recognize. He's quite sure he knows who it is. He wants a scotch, he wants a salad with sweet dressing and cucumbers, he wants to be someone else. He settles for tepid tap water and returning the phone call.
"Where are they?"
"You were leaving," Arthur says. "On a jet plane."
"Missed my connection," Eames says smoothly. "Where, Arthur?"
He pulls the paper toward him, reads it off. "There's no reason for you to—" he says, and then stops when he realizes the line's gone dead. Arthur drops the phone and rolls back into darkness.
The morning, the real morning, this time, brings a message in the electric drop-box from a carefully anonymized address: Ariadne's followed directions and is back in Paris. She hopes he'll call if there are future professional opportunities. That's a nicely oblique way to put it.
It's also a relief. He hopes there will be future professional opportunities, but that's going to be contingent on his ability to satisfy their existing contract in a way that doesn't leave their employer comatose. She hasn't asked about Dom, not directly, and Arthur's not sure what that means. Because she cares about what happens to him, Arthur's sure of that. His hurried debrief of her in the first class washroom yesterday made that extremely clear. I promise, he'd said. Everything I can do. It will be easier if I know you're safely away. Please. He passed her a dry airline tissue and left her leaning against the lavatory cabinet.
There is no note from Yusuf, but he wasn't expecting one.
Arthur showers again, dresses, calls a cab and leaves the keycard on the table.
The clinic is a white stucco Spanish revival building, long and low with a red tile roof, surrounded by a moat of well-watered green lawn. The signs are discreet, the place is gated, and he's thoroughly outnumbered by security guards, who search him and exchange his Glock and the flick knife he keeps clipped to the back of his belt for a plastic-laminated slip of paper with the number 12 printed on it.
Hiroko turns from the nurse she's speaking with when she sees him. "They are right through here. Your associate has already arrived," she tells him. "We are expecting a prompt resolution."
"My — yes, good," he says, taking it in stride. "Of course." He wasn't asleep, then, on the telephone. Shit. He wonders if this is going to be like the Beirut job, echoes of the drugs following him up and down for days or weeks after. Whatever was in that mix, he doesn't want to do it again, except for how he sort of does because that's what addiction is.
Cobb and Saito are stretched out on hospital beds, covered with white sheets and cotton hospital blankets, arms trailing IV lines. Eames is sitting in a little chair, off to one side. "You took your time getting here," he says.
Arthur glances back at the hallway. Hiroko is giving him an expectant look. "We'll get this squared away," he says, calm and reassuring, smile politely fixed, and closes the door on her. "What are you doing here?" he mutters at Eames.
"I got to thinking about it, and I realized what you were going to do, and I realized I wasn't interested in being on another continent while you did it," is the answer, delivered with a smirk that makes Arthur want to slap him.
It's good that he knows what I'm going to do, Arthur thinks, because I don't. He lays his jacket across the foot of Cobb's bed, rolls up one sleeve. "Is there a pillow in the closet, there?" he asks, gesturing at the closed door.
Eames frowns and hands it to him. "You shouldn't go in alone," he says.
"I don't think it's up to you," Arthur tells him, "and how many of us do you think we need to lose in there?" That, he doesn't know the answer to himself. "Don't need you cleaning up my messes."
"Especially Cobb's." He lays down on the floor, taking the tubing with him. "If I don't come out, get on that plane. Go somewhere else. I mean it."
"How much did you know about what he was doing?" Eames asks. He's already leaning over the box, resetting it for three rather than two.
Arthur sighs and adjusts the pillow under his head. "Not enough. More than I should have." And somehow it hadn't kept him from running jobs with the man. The needle is cold, and stings, and the last thing he hears is Eames saying, "You stupid bastard."
Arthur's always been a good swimmer, and he was half-expecting this, from something Dom told him once. The next wave crests behind him and he ducks under it, one hand scraping against the sand. Surfacing, he sees the shore, like a madman's Santa Monica, high cliffs of sand and dream slumping into the water. Another wave, another ducking, and he shakes his hair out of his eyes and swims in to shore, feet on the sand, bearing him up and out of the water.
He wants a towel, and it's there, and he smiles. This is as easy as it's ever been. Easier. He wipes his face, walks up the shore, waves lapping at his ankles.
He steps up onto a boardwalk, after a while, and he shrugs his shoulders against the wet cotton and wool on his back and thinks that he should be dry, and he is. And then he thinks that he should come around the next turn and find a set of stairs going up the cliff, and he's setting his foot down, white paint peeling off the handrail, sand blowing across the treads, switchbacking up and up impossibly high until they take him where he wants to go. The climb doesn't tire him.
There's a house on the cliff above, a very familiar house, full of lanterns and staircases and empty of life. He walks through it, twice, before he finds the blown-out rice-paper window. Looking through it he sees a tower, beyond it something green, trees maybe, and then there's a sharp sound behind him and Arthur's falling, weightlessly, through the window and down over the cliff.
He snaps to, lying on checkerboard linoleum, cold and slightly gritty under his cheek. And that was a kick, he thinks, I know that feeling, I know that like I know my bones. He sits up. It's a hallway, long and echoing, doors opening off it on either side. Institutional. A school, maybe, or a hospital, or — no, a school, Arthur decides, right the first time. He walks down the corridor. The doors are all closed, dark wood, and there's an echo, of his feet, of something else, a laugh or someone calling. He walks and walks and realizes that the hallway never starts, never ends. He's in a loop.
He reaches for the door handle nearest to him, rattles it. Locked. Well. He glances up and down the hallway, then slams his shoulder into the door, breaking the bolt out through the frame behind. It dangles there, a splintered bit of wood and screws, as he edges into the classroom.
There's an old man there, crammed behind a child's desk, looking up expectantly.
"Mr. Saito," Arthur says, "I'm here to help."
"You are —"
"Someone you used to know."
"Oh?" the old man says, wearily. "I have gone a long time, without seeing anyone, I think. It is all empty rooms."
"You haven't seen Cobb?" Arthur asks. "Dom Cobb, he should be —" But Saito is shaking his head.
"He was here. He was here, and then he was gone." Saito lifts one hand, like a bird, fluttering. "He said that he knew me, he looked terrible, he said that he was here to take me home, and then he was gone."
It is not exactly unexpected news, but it isn't what Arthur wanted to hear. "I'm sorry."
"Will you be disappearing, too?" Saito asks.
Arthur draws the Glock, aims it, pulls the trigger because there's no point in putting these things off. "I hope so, Mr. Saito. I very much hope so," he says to the corpse, which turns into a cascade of butterflies, yellow and orange and black, flying through the blown-out rice-paper window.
That's not good. That's not at all good. Arthur swallows, crosses the room, and looks through the window again. It's a southern California canyon, all dry grass and live oaks, the broad leaves of a sycamore turning in the wind. At the top of the ridge he sees a house he knows, an irrigated lawn, a deck. He pushes through the window, tearing out the last of the paper, and jumps down into the weeds. There's a hot wind blowing as he starts up the hill.
It's very good, he thinks. It's as good as it ever gets, as convincing as it comes, because it was built by the best in the business. There are foxtails caught in his socks, smears of dust across his trousers, across his palms where he's caught at the hillside, and it's work, real work, to get up to that shining lawn, with the warm yellow dirt sliding away under his shoes and pattering down the slope. He climbs up, and up, and up, sweat running down his back, into his eyes, as the sun stays high in the sky above him. Finally, he reaches up with one hand, and there's grass under it, and he thinks about how distances are deceiving and time even more so.
The grass is wet. It even smells wet. Arthur comes up over the edge and he's on the edge of that lawn, a great stretch of lawn, with a big white house in the distance and a row of tents, set up for a party, before him. Little lines of white rented folding chairs, very neat. "No," he mutters, "no, I was right there, I was — dammit." There was a disconnect there, somewhere, coming up that hill, and he missed it, and now he's not where he needs to be. Not if he wants to find Dom, bring them both out of here. Arthur brushes the dust off his pants, walks across the grass, and takes a glass of wine from a waiter's passing tray. There's a string quartet, off to one side, and the projections pass by, slowly, greeting one another and lingering over canapes.
"My dear boy," says a woman's voice, low and purring, in his ear, "haven't you found him yet?"
Arthur throttles back his first reaction, which is violent, and turns to her with a smile. "I'm sorry, have we met?" She's wide-eyed, dark-haired, with long brown legs under a short red dress.
"Do beautiful strangers often walk up to you and ask you leading questions?" she asks.
"More often than you'd think." He waits a beat. "Eames?" Just because he told the man not to come in after him doesn't mean he hasn't.
"Who else?" she says. "I came to on the grass out there, and I've been at the world's most tedious garden party ever since."
Arthur swallows the rest of his glass of wine, which is almost real enough. "Come on."
"Where are you going?"
"To get my car."
"You've got a car?"
"I believe so," says Arthur, "and that's what counts, isn't it?" He takes her hand, leads her toward the house. "There will be a valet, at the front driveway."
Eames' voice slips, just a touch, into something deeper and more English. "You sound like you've been here before."
"I have," he says. "Local job we did, a year and a half ago, the client had us take someone out of this party. We built the whole thing so the guy never knew he'd left."
"Nice," Eames says. "What'd he think —" and then he's not saying anything else, because Arthur's kissing him. He has to give Eames credit, the forge doesn't slip, never mind that Arthur's pulled him up onto his tiptoes and he can see, Arthur hopes, the very angry-looking projection of Ariadne that's leaving her keys with the valet parker. No, Eames just wraps an arm around his neck and murmurs, "I didn't know you still cared," as Arthur's mouth moves across that lie of a jaw and down his neck.
"Don't," Arthur breathes. "Just wait." He catches Eames' mouth again with his, because he might as well, because he's here and he has an excuse, and that warm, soft woman's body curves up into his.
"She's gone," Eames whispers. Arthur drops a last kiss on one cheekbone, just to keep it convincing, he tells himself, and catches up Eames' hand.
The car is a late-model Mercedes sedan, wide and smooth-handling, and he turns it onto the streets of Cobb's personal hell like he knows what he's doing. Beside him, Eames is himself again, wide-shouldered and square-faced, in a calico buttondown and jeans. "We're going where, now?"
"I choose to believe this is Pasadena," Arthur tells him, "which makes this," he brings the car around a curve, under the big freeway overpass, and up to an intersection, "the way to Mr. and Mrs. Cobb's house, thank you very much." He lets the clutch out and turns the Mercedes downhill into the Arroyo.
"You think he's at home."
Arthur glances over. "I'm sure of it."
He hears the whine of the police sirens before he sees the cars, moving impossibly fast along the winding road, flashing lights appearing and disappearing between the trees, and then he is completely, completely sure this is the right direction, because weaponized does not begin to describe Dom Cobb's subconscious, not if it's got something it thinks it wants. Something Arthur doesn't think it should have, not like this. He slides the Mercedes onto the wrong side of the road as the cruiser comes up behind it, then swings back over, the trunk of the Mercedes into the nose of the police car, pushing it back and away, and —
This time he feels the break clearly. The world goes black, and when the subjective lights come back on he's on his back, naked, in the Cairo apartment, ceiling fan spinning overhead against the dry inescapable heat, jiggling a little just like it always did. Arthur pushes up onto one elbow and there's a hand, suddenly, warm and familiar, on his elbow.
"You're awake already?" Eames murmurs, looking like himself this time. Which isn't a relief, Arthur thinks.
"Afraid so," he says, and smiles, turning to kiss him again. "Sorry," he whispers as he pulls back, pulls the Glock from under the pillow, and shoots him. Just under the jaw. It's ridiculously messy, blood and bone and brain splashed across the white sheets and onto the walls, and he turns away, puts his feet on the floor, gun dangling from his hand. He does not want to look, not at all. "You really think I'm hung up on the man, don't you, Cobb?" he asks the air. "It was three years ago."
He stands, tells himself and the world around him that he's dressed, and holsters the pistol under his jacket, next to his heart. Then he takes a deep breath, reaches for the bedroom door handle, and pulls it open onto the hallway that runs down the north side of the Cobbs' house. The etchings, the carpet runner, the clear shining gold of the oak floors — it's all right. It's all where it should be. He's where he should be, at last. Arthur walks down the hall, into the dining room with the big view out over the canyon, and pulls out the chair he always sits in.
"I have a job for you, Dom. A good job," he says. There's a green glass vase of flowers on the table, Gerbera daisies and baby's-breath.
Footsteps and a rustling behind him: he knows who it is. He's waiting to see if he's going to get shot. He did just shoot Cobb, if you want to look at it that way, which Arthur would rather not. We're none of us responsible for our subconscious, particularly when it imagines it's fighting for our survival.
The shot doesn't come. Instead there's a long pause, and a sigh, and a very tired voice saying, "I'm retired."
Arthur doesn't turn. "Are you, now."
"I told you before, a man with grandchildren has no business taking on our kind of work. It's been years since I was any good at it, anyhow. The mind atrophies, it takes so many drugs to get me under —" Cobb laughs. "And the hangovers are terrible."
"I can imagine," Arthur says.
"I'm sorry," Cobb says, "I just — I think I'm finished with all of that, Arthur. I know you came here hoping there would be one last hurrah, one more big job before we hang it up, and, look. I don't have any hurrah left."
Arthur waits for a moment. "How are the kids?" he asks.
"Oh, they're great. Phil and her girls were just here last week, you know, on their way down to San Diego."
"Good, good," Arthur says. "That's good. And the old gang?"
"They stay in touch," Cobb says. Arthur still hasn't looked around. "Mostly they call if they want something," he says, a little pointedly.
"I hear you," Arthur tells him. "I do hear you. Well." He takes a deep breath.
"I'm sorry," Cobb says again.
"I'm — I'm sorry, too, Dom," Arthur says, as he pulls out the pistol. "Very sorry."
His back is sore against the clinic floor, cold and sore, and he opens his eyes slowly. The fluorescents are institutionally bright. They've wheeled Saito's bed out, which has to be a good sign. Eames leans forward. "Arthur?"
"Yeah." His throat is dry; he clears it, then reaches to loosen the band and slip the needle out of his arm. "Can you get me a glass of water?"
"Sure," Eames says, reappearing a minute later with two plastic cups. He's looking at Cobb's body. "Arthur, why isn't he coming out of it?"
Arthur swallows. "I don't know that he will."
"You didn't —"
"I did what I could, dammit," Arthur says, and the catch in his voice isn't a lie, at all. He did everything he could and then some, and yet he couldn't, in the end.
Eames is silent.
"You have a plane to catch," Arthur says, finally.
"Someone should be here if he wakes up," Eames says.
"I'll call you." The clinic will call him, he'll call Eames, Ariadne will weep, and Dom will kill him. Or worse yet he'll be understanding about the whole business. Everything will go beautifully back to normal. In no time. He's sure. Very smooth. He can't meet Eames' eyes, contents himself instead with swallowing the rest of the water in his plastic cup.
"You're not going to go back in, are you?" Eames asks.
"No," Arthur says, and it's the truth. "I don't see that working." To prove it he stands, tucks the dangling cords back into the PASIV case, and then slowly, gently, reaches out and pulls the needle from Cobb's wrist, unhooks the band. The apparatus goes back into the machine, winding around and around on itself. Arthur flicks the little switch and powers down the batteries.
Eames pushes the door into the hallway open, stands in it for a moment. He looks tired. "Well," he says.
"Thank you," Arthur tells him, because it was good of him to do this. It was good of him and probably more than either of them deserved, for Eames to watch them while they slept. "I'll be in touch, if there's any news."
"Do," Eames says, and then he's gone. He leaves the door open behind him.
Arthur closes the case.