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Darling, Don't Fade On Me

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It’s been ten years since the biggest job in Arthur’s career.

It’s been a full decade since he helped to revolutionize dreamsharing and showed everyone that an idea could be generated, it could be planted, it could be done.

Sometimes, he can’t believe it’s been that long. Sometimes, it feels far shorter, like ten years has no business stretching out so endlessly and reminding him of how harsh time can be to people.

Sometimes, it feels more like...

“Visiting hours will be over in ten minutes,” the nurse says as she leans down in front of Arthur to catch his eye.

She’s wearing a polite smile that they must be taught when they’re going through school. It’s probably part of a detailed syllabus amidst the learning of how to change bedpans and how to insert catheters. Right in between, Arthur’s sure they learn how to smile at loved ones in such a patient manner even in the face of crises and disaster.

Arthur genuinely believes that Nurse McCraney could smile through the apocalypse and not break a sweat. “Would you like us to take him back to his room?”

Arthur is barely paying attention. He’s been whispering a story like a mantra under his breath about a time in Thailand when it rained and poured and it didn’t matter because their dreams were sunny and safe and they were rewarded with more money than they ever needed.

Arthur refuses to let go of his hand and holds on tighter with both of his own as he turns his attention upwards to regard the Nurse. “No,” he says, his voice breaking mildly. “No, I’ll take him back.”

Today is a good day. Which is to say that he thinks he’s living in someone else’s skin, but at least he’s calm.

“Are you taking me back now, darling?” Eames asks, peering up at Arthur with a worried look in his eyes. Eames clasps his hand firmly and brushes the space of warm skin on his ring finger. “Why aren’t you wearing your wedding ring, Arthur? Did we have a fight? Did I forget? I’ve been an absolute tit about forgetting things lately, god knows how you still put up with me.”

Arthur forces the smile on his face. “It’s okay, Eames,” he promises. Early on when the splinters had first begun to show, he’d been given a hefty amount of literature by Ariadne and all the texts agreed on the same thing:

Play along.

They’ve been on this playground of falsities and lies for two years now. It’s been ten years since they incepted Robert Fischer and Eames had been fine for eight of them before too much pressure was applied and now he’s splintered into so many pieces and people.

Arthur visits daily. He’s bought a little apartment just down the street and comes to visit Eames every day, even when he’s not himself. “Come on,” Arthur coaxes, helping to get him back onto his feet. “Let’s get you back to th...to our room,” he corrects himself.

Today is a good day, Arthur has to remind himself, as he tucks Eames into his bed and brushes back the lanky strands of hair from his forehead. It’s been growing out since Arthur caved in to the inevitable and admitted Eames into the hospital.

Arthur simply can’t give him the kind of care he needs.

“Eames,” Arthur murmurs, rubbing his thumb over Eames’ neck and leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek. He lifts up the blankets and slides into bed, pushing in against Eames’ body carefully. His current personality believes that he and Arthur have been married ever since the Tangiers job. His current personality is a female version of himself and lives in the utter belief that they are, apparently, very happy.

Arthur knows to play along and so until Eames falls asleep, Arthur will be present.

“Eames,” Arthur repeats softly, stroking his cheek with his palm. “I’m going to make this better. I’m going to make everything better.”

“I’d be happy if you just fixed the curtains, darling,” is Eames’ tired response. “They’re atrocious,” he mutters, which gives Arthur cause to look over the mustard-yellow fabric. He smiles ruefully and wraps his arms tighter around Eames.

“I promise, I’ll fix them,” he assures.

They stay like that until Nurse McCraney comes into the room at one in the morning, looks at her watch, and then at Arthur. Eames is asleep and Arthur takes the opportunity to slowly slide out of bed and nudge his shoes back on, adjusting his shirt jacket and accepting that he won’t get the wrinkles out until he sends it for dry-cleaning.

“Watch after him,” Arthur requests politely.

Nurse McCraney smiles at Arthur and squeezes his shoulder lightly. “I’ll do my best until you come back tomorrow at three on the dot. Like always.”

He wonders when he’d become so predictable. He knows that if he actually wants to put a precise date on it, all he needs do is look at Eames’ admission papers.

“We have a friend from Paris who’s coming to visit,” he says at the last minute, folding his suit jacket carefully over his forearm. “Would it be possible to book the private suite on the first floor when she comes?” Arthur smiles wistfully as he thinks of the porch, enclosed with the sun shining in and warming you up from the outside-in. “He loves that room,” Arthur says, even though Nurse McCraney knows that fact as well as he does.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she promises. “Go home. Get some rest.”

Arthur doesn’t know how to say that every night when he returns to an empty apartment devoid of Eames’ clothes, the smell of his cooking, and the prospect of a night without bantered conversation, inane (and occasionally insane) arguments, and lazy idling, he finds himself too depressed to cope with the situation. Some days, he wonders if it would be so bad to lose his mind to the grief.

At least that way, he could keep Eames company during all the hours of the day.

Arthur’s never been a defeatist. Rather than let himself lose reality, he plans to bring it back to Eames.

*

Arthur had missed all the warning signs until it was too late. If he’s honest, he’ll admit that he was ignoring them.

Back when they worked all the time and they spent an equal amount of times in dreams as much as out, Arthur had simply overlooked what later came to be distinct and worrying warning bells. They would come out of the dream and Eames would take far longer than usual to put himself to rights. Arthur and Cobb would already be debriefing while Eames locked himself away in small bathrooms and spoke to his reflection as though it could shed some light on the situation.

“Is he all right?” Cobb always asked.

And Arthur had shaken his head to dismiss Cobb’s worries, as though he could wave away Eames’ issues and they would disappear.

There’s something almost painfully comical about the fact that Cobb was the first to notice that Eames was going off the rails – the first to see the trouble and the first to want to do something about it. Arthur, though, had promised that Eames was fine.

Weeks and weeks pass and eventually, others started to notice as well. Ariadne wanted to bring in a psychiatrist and the passing array of coworkers started to swear off working with Eames because he was unbalanced. You never knew who he was going to be when you stepped into a dream with him.

For Arthur, a man who liked to live by a plan and consistency, it should have been more terrifying than it was. Instead, Arthur continued to make excuses.

That kind of wilful blindness is gone, now. He can’t pretend any longer.

Arthur accompanies Cobb as he brings up his suitcase, having checked into his hotel room just minutes ago. “How are the kids?” Arthur asks, putting aside inflections and emotions in his voice and keeping an even-keel so he doesn’t have to focus on things like how wrong he was or how Eames is suffering for his inattention to detail.

In ten years since the Fischer mistake, Arthur’s been impeccable, but he’s paying for it by screwing up in such a grandiose way that it makes him wish he’d been fucking up in small ways all along so this never had to happen.

He knows that it’s psychological, that it’s not karma doing this to Eames, but some days Arthur wonders and prays to an assortment of deities as if that would ever help.

Cobb looks well. He no longer bears the tense look around his eyes of a man on the run and Arthur’s glad for him. He hates bringing him out of retirement for this, but Cobb had insisted. “Miles has them. Phillipa complained the whole way about how she doesn’t think she needs a babysitter, seeing as she’s sixteen,” Cobb continues with a knowing look.

“She played hooky last week to go joyriding around the city, didn’t she,” Arthur points out, as if reminding Cobb of things he already knows is going to make Arthur feel better – and secretly, he admits that it does.

Cobb smiles ruefully. “She insists that was a motion of speaking out against her school’s intolerance for student freedom of thought by forcing them into dingy labs like rats.”

“Let me guess. She hates chemistry?”

“She really hates chemistry,” Cobb agrees with a heavy exhalation. “Yusuf’s offered to tutor her, but...” he trails off warily. “The thought of Yusuf explaining how he and I know each other puts me off the idea. She’ll get a tutor. She’ll figure it out.”

Arthur nods at that, clasping his hands tightly behind his back as he wonders how much longer they’re going to spend on niceties and small talk.

“Arthur, we’ll discuss the research,” Cobb promises as he glances up from unpacking his suitcase. “I can practically see you vibrating with anxiety. Do you mind if I go by the hospital and see him?”

Arthur hesitates at that.

“I don’t have to...” Cobb says quickly when Arthur still hasn’t replied.

“No. No, it’s not that, it’s just that if it’s a bad day, I don’t want you seeing him in that kind of state. When he’s lucid, Eames is pretty adamant that he doesn’t want any of the people he cares about to see him this way,” Arthur admits, breathing out heavily and knowing that he’s an exception because he’s there for all of it – the good, the bad, and the strange.

He’d been at Eames’ side the day that he checked into the hospital and he intends to be there the day he breaks him out. Here they sit, now, in a small hotel room on the brink of a solution and Arthur just has to hope that it’s going to work.

“I’ll swing by the hospital later and give you a call if he’s okay to accept visitors,” Arthur promises, watching as Cobb starts unpacking his larger suitcase, bringing out the old standbys of the job. Arthur can’t lie – he’s inordinately pleased to see them because he knows that before Cobb retired, he’d been the best and he’s come prepared.

Arthur hesitates as he watches Cobb start to amass research slowly and methodically in the manner that Arthur prefers – something he doesn’t have to do, but it’s enough of a personal touch that Arthur is quietly pleased. It’s such a little gesture, but right now under the circumstances, it means the world to Arthur.

He checks his watch and adjusts his coat and bag carefully. “I should get going,” he says, voice clipped. “If Eames is having a bad day...” If Eames is having a bad day then Arthur is going to devote his night to helping him as best as he can. “Well, I’ll see you later,” Arthur says instead, all false smiles and forced cheer.

It’s draining him more than he can bear to deal with on a daily basis. But Arthur is a patient man and he’ll continue on.

He leaves Cobb to the work they’re best at and goes back to the routine that’s become his life over the last while.

He sits with Eames for hours that night. The blessed lucid state lingers as the sun sets and Eames sits up in his bed and Arthur plays poker with him, betting large buttons and losing every round while Eames laughs with delight. “You’ve such a terrible poker face, darling,” Eames chides, collecting his winnings. Arthur ought to call Cobb and let him visit, but he’s feeling selfish and doesn’t want to share Eames, especially when the good days are few and far between.

Arthur just grins and leans his elbow against the beddings, staring up at Eames and wishing that he could figure out how to prolong this state. He’d tried, once, with the PASIV, but the results had been unwieldy at best and had left him completely unconvinced that he could ever draw out one of the good days.

“The last I recalled, you like my face,” Arthur calmly replies, sliding a card from the deck into his hand and trading down a low two for it, trying to memorize the easy smile on Eames’ face and the way he seems at home in his body. Arthur soaks in the fact that he can, at least, recognize Eames’ body language rather than trying to translate all manners of foreign poises.

Eames groans ruefully as he folds his cards and regards Arthur patiently. “While I’m terribly worried about those lines on your forehead,” he clarifies, reaching over to brush two fingers over the lines – and Arthur closes his eyes in blissful calm at the warm touch. “Yes, I do love that face of yours. You need to stop worrying about me.”

Arthur gives him a pointed look. “Eames...” he deadpans.

“I know, I know, I’m mad as a hatter now,” he sighs. “Have I apologized today?”

“If you do, I’m going to kick your ass, regardless of how much the nurses will hate me for it,” Arthur warns. “Don’t apologize.”

Eames does this every time a lucid state comes around, as if somehow he’d brought this on himself. Arthur just wants to rid him of that ridiculous notion.

Arthur wins the hand and busies his attention by dealing again, even though Eames’ fingers have begun to trace the rest of his face and cards are the last thing on either of their minds. Soon, the light touches are replaced by Eames’ lips and Arthur is so desperate for the attention that he leans into every scant touch and seeks out every inch of warmth that Eames can offer.

It doesn’t last very long. There’s something about the hospital environment that keeps the both of them from ever feeling too romantic and so they never progress further than kisses. On occasion during a lucid day, Eames has been released into Arthur’s custody and they spend the day at the apartment doing nothing more than fucking.

They haven’t had one of those days in months and Arthur is hurting for it.

“New hand?” Eames suggests, collecting the discarded deck and putting it back together, dealing them a new hand. They play several rounds and Arthur begins to suspect that Eames has been letting him win before, because now he cleans up tidily with flushes and straights and four of a kinds.

He shakes his head and clucks his tongue as he pulls in the last of Arthur’s winnings. “I must admit, I think I’m disappointed.”

“Eames, you’re a thief,” Arthur reminds him.

“As are you. I’m in wonderful company.”

“You’re a thief and a habitual gambler,” Arthur corrects himself. “If you weren’t winning, I’d wonder why anyone ever hired you.” And wonder whether he was losing on purpose.

Without pausing, without smirking, Eames simply deals the next hand. “Why, Arthur, that’s simple,” he says calmly. “I give the best blowjobs in the hemisphere. What, you think I got any jobs on talent?” he scoffs, winks, and then softens when Arthur winces slightly. He’s always hated when Eames disparages his talent like that because of an old rivalry that ran between them so very long ago. “Well, Arthur, are you in or are you out?”

To get Eames back permanently, Arthur is in so deep that if he fails, he’s never going to be able to dig his way out of the hole filled with far-flung hopes.

*

This job is not like any other job.

Arthur can prepare as long as he likes, but he’s never going to feel like he has all the answers and for that, he feels like they should cancel, they should back out. He doesn’t like going in without knowing everything and the stakes are too high this time around. Arthur has constant moments where he wants to push Cobb back to his children and tell him to enjoy all the good moments, like Arthur didn’t. Now that he’s lost Eames, Arthur starts to hate himself for wasting those moments that they did have.

The plan is still coming together slowly – almost too slowly for Arthur’s liking. It’s been a year since he thought up the idea and it’s taken every minute of that time to start developing chemicals, allies, crew, and the necessary aid in order to make it all work.

Cobb had been his first phone call when Arthur realized that Eames couldn’t be fixed by slapping a bandage on him and insisting that he simply toughen it out. Arthur had asked if this was how Mal had presented and when Cobb told him that what’s happening to Eames has never happened to anyone before, Arthur started to think of new ways to fix a new problem.

Saito is too busy running his company now that Fischer-Morrow no longer stands in his way of capturing market share and dominating energy in parts of the world that Arthur refuses to take jobs in. One phone call and three words got them the financial backing they require for a venture of this magnitude.

Three words was all it took: Eames needs help.

Saito lives by honour and down in the mazes of inception, Eames and Saito had managed to do their share of bonding. Whatever friendship they struck up is enough that Saito sends a blank cheque to Arthur and tells him that he is to spare no expense in helping Eames.

“When he is better,” Saito says over the phone, “tell him that there was simply no room for tourists.” Arthur can almost hear the smile in the words that follow. “I think he will enjoy that.”

He has the personnel he needs. He needs three dreamers apart from himself and now that Cobb is willing to build again, he has two architects for the job and a chemist. He knows it’s risky to bring in the forger as the subject of the dream, but they have little choice.

“What sort of levels are we looking at, here?” Ariadne asks when she first arrives and immediately sets to work as if they’re on a strict timeline. Arthur’s appreciative of her sense of urgency. While Eames’ condition isn’t worsening, Arthur would rather not let him waste another moment in the collapsed chaos of his mind.

Arthur has been formulating this plan for years and so when she asks, he already has his answer. “We need familiar places. The chances are that Eames is going to populate the levels with his own projections and imagery,” he warns. “We need to be able to accommodate them.”

“Okay,” she says, tapping her pencil against her paper as she begins to think.

“Oh,” he says, as though offhand, as though this wasn’t coming at some point, “and Ariadne?”

“Yes?”

“He’s militarized.”

She pales for the briefest of moments, but that’s quickly subverted by a stubborn look on her face and she nods with great determination. “I think I can make it work with a maze on one level,” she promises. “But you’re going to have to figure out something for the first and third,” she warns. “But then again...” she goes on, tapping her pencil in a slightly faster rhythm against the page. “There’s no reason that three intricate mazes won’t be able to do the trick.”

For days, they work on nothing more than the problem of getting through Eames’ subconscious without being dropped into limbo far too soon. They’re on a very tight time-table within each dream and any change to the plan could ruin inception before they even get a chance to start it.

“We have to get the inception ideas down,” Arthur says heatedly when they get into yet another argument about Eames’ goddamn militarization. Sometimes, he wishes for Eames to be sane so he can barge into one of these endless tiffs and shout some embarrassing non-sequitur that gets everyone’s attention and pushes the topic back to rights.

Yusuf shakes his head and pins his finger down on his notebook – filled with chaotic scribbles. “Until we’re sure we can avoid being shot and sent straight to limbo, we can’t touch the messages. We need to assure we have the time to plant the seed. You remember the Fischer job.”

Arthur flares red in fury and humiliation at once. He hates being reminded of that job and would almost rather go back to feuding than discuss his fuck-up one more time as a textbook example of what they’re trying to avoid on this job.

The issue of militarization has split the group into their own various camps which they’re all reluctant to abandon. Ariadne argues for her mazes, Cobb wants to run Mr. Charles, and Arthur is sure that he’s going to be able to slip through the cracks of Eames’ subconscious with no problem. It’s Yusuf who finally breaks up the argument and steps away from the compounds he’s studying with his microscope when they devolve into the sixth argument on the subject.

“There’s no reason we all can’t be right,” he points out. “We’re going to need to stabilize him on multiple levels. Running Mr. Charles can only work for so long and Arthur, you cannot actually support each level as the dreamer,” he theorizes. “I have something we can use,” he guarantees, lifting up an octagonal-sided bottle filled with an amber-tinted liquid. “I have just the thing for Mr. Eames.”

“Yusuf,” Arthur says warningly. “We’re not here to reinvent the wheel. We just need to help Eames.”

“Getting killed on the first level isn’t going to get us anywhere,” Yusuf argues. “He’s my friend too, Arthur. I wouldn’t do this if I weren’t sure.”

“Are you?” Cobb finally speaks up, turning away from the storyboards that Ariadne’s sketched for the job in order to keep events and messages in order. “Sure?”

Arthur digs his nails into his palm and regards Yusuf with the kind of judgment that he reserves for anyone – he has high expectations of the people he works with and it’s the reason that he very rarely works a second job with anyone that’s disappointed him.

“What is it?” Ariadne asks, bearing the brunt of curiosity for all of them. She wanders over to his work-bench and picks up the bottle with delicate fingers, studying it curiously before leaning over and skimming through his notes, touching each page and rifling through them. Her gaze narrows as if she’s seen something she recognizes, but doesn’t quite understand, and the way she turns that look back to Yusuf worries Arthur, just slightly.

“What?” Arthur demands.

“That’s the formula for producing ecstasy.”

“How would you even know that?” Yusuf asks, bemused, crossing his arms over his torso.

“Contrary to what the world might think of me, I didn’t spring forth from an ocean of innocence,” Ariadne cuts back at him. “And I’m older now. We’re all a lot older and I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve done a lot of things. Why do you think that ecstasy will help subdue Eames’ projections?”

Yusuf grins, tapping his nose just slightly. He’s excited now, beaming and basking in the recognition and Arthur sighs. They have time, but he has no patience for side-trips down academic peaks of pride, not on this job. He crosses his arms and leans back in his chair, vowing to pay attention when the information becomes pertinent to the job.

“The assumption of the projections with a dreamer, in a militarized mind, is the conscious awareness that someone else is perpetrating the landscape,” Yusuf reminds them.

“We know,” Arthur interrupts, sharply.

He gets glares from Ariadne and Cobb at that and he shoots them back a glare of his own. They all know how this works, they’ve been doing it for decades.

Yusuf clears his throat and rolls his eyes. “What if Eames wasn’t entirely aware that he had outside sources building and supporting his dream for him?”

“You think ecstasy will dull his ability to descend on the dreamer?” Arthur interprets, edging back his disbelief as he actually gives thought to the concept. “Would it alter the strangeness of the dream?”

“Most likely,” Yusuf confirms. “But I’ve amended the ecstasy to isolate the calming variables. We’ll lace the somnacin as we go into the dream with my compound and he shouldn’t be able to process the foreign nature of a dream.” He hesitates. “Not at first, anyway.”

Arthur takes a moment to think about this.

That’s when Cobb pipes up. “Yusuf,” he says calmly, managing a tight smile. “Ecstasy-laced somnacin going into the first level...?”

“Yes.”

“Which means we’ll all feel the effects as well?” Cobb continues.

There’s a longer pause, this time. “...Yes.” Yusuf flashes a sheepish smile. “If I’m the dreamer on the first level, I shouldn’t be too affected. Not with the amendments I’m making.”

“Good,” Arthur says, trying to cut this off before it can turn into personal sharing time about their pertinent drug histories.

That doesn’t matter at the moment and Eames isn’t even here to poke fun at Arthur for having a stick up his ass just because he doesn’t want to talk about the one and only time he’d ever been on E, when Eames had been there with him and they swallowed pills in a dark alleyway outside a seedy bar in Rome.

“We have the first level figured out. As for the second level, Ariadne, you’ll be the dreamer and use your mazes to evade projections. Cobb, third level posing as Eames’ security. And I’ll run the rest,” he assures, tidying up his papers and gathering up his things. “Good job, everyone. Tomorrow we’ll go over the ideas and messages we need to plant.”

“Arthur,” Ariadne calls quietly, getting his attention as he slides into his coat.

“What?”

“You said that he’s going to appear splintered. How are we going to know what to expect down there?”

“He’s already exhibiting their personalities up here.” He tries to calm her by offering a half-smile, something that might have convinced her in the old days, but they’re a long way from that now. “We’ll go over that tomorrow, too, Ariadne. Don’t you worry.”

“I’m worried about you,” she confesses and heads to the door to put on her coat, matching him step for step. “We don’t have to talk here, but we should. Arthur, are you sure that you want to be doing this?”

It’s been ten years since Cobb first brought her around to the warehouse and she hasn’t changed much in that time. She works primarily on an individual basis from a drafting studio in Paris, going out into the field only when strictly necessary. She spends whole nights building impossible cities in her dreams and she wears the knowledge of a creator in her gaze. She looks older than the girl she is and Arthur can understand why.

Dreams age people prematurely, shows them worlds they can only have in certain lights. Dreams put the dreamer through entire lifetimes in the span of one night.

She doesn’t possess as much naïveté as when she started, but she hasn’t become cynical in her work. Three years ago, she started dating another architect in the dream-sharing business, but they work on opposite continents and so Ariadne has insisted on a letter-sent romance. His name is Ethan and he’s been good for her. He’s not half bad himself when it comes to drafting mazes, but she’s got a knack that Miles had spotted and hadn’t been wrong about that puts her head and shoulders over the competition.

“Arthur,” she gently says, touching his shoulder. “Where are you going?”

“I need to go see Eames,” Arthur says sharply. “I need to know what his mood is like today.” Who he is today.

“I’ll come with you.”

Arthur swallows down his thanks because he’s not sure if he’s grateful to her for coming with him when he’s not sure if he’s going to want anyone to see Eames as he is. He knows that she won’t be dissuaded, not when her mind is made up, and so he lets her trail along as he signs them both in and gives polite and proper hellos to the staff on their way in.

He stops at the nurse’s desk to talk to Nurse McCraney and awaits the verdict with heavy trepidation resting against his chest like a weight.

“It’s her,” she warns Arthur. “She’s been asking for you. We couldn’t get you the suite,” she says apologetically. “He’s not stable enough to move him down to the first floor.”

“Of course. That’s fine,” Arthur murmurs. Ariadne looks at him quizzically and Arthur wonders how he’s going to explain this. Eames has probably been in this state for some time and has likely been expecting him. Arthur braces himself for what’s to come.

“Honestly, look at you!” comes the verbal assault the moment he walks in the room. Eames is out of bed, pacing the floor and sipping a cup of tea in a manner that would best be described as practiced. “I asked the help when you were going to visit me, but they said you were busy. Busy,” he harrumphs. “You’re always too busy for me. And you’re skin and bones,” he sharply comments.

“Ariadne,” Arthur says, very calmly. “I’d like you to meet one of Eames’ most common forgeries,” he offers. “As far as I can tell, it’s a cobbling of personalities ranging from his mother, my mother, and various schoolmarms he had when he was younger.”

“Maternal figures,” Ariadne interprets, fidgeting with her fingers as she adjusts her jacket.

Arthur paints a polite smile on his face as he approaches and very carefully reaches out to take hold of Eames’ hand and press a kiss to the back of it. “I was just busy at work. You’re always on my case about needing to be strong and needing to work,” he reminds Eames, playing the game with aplomb.

This particular mix and melee of personalities is Arthur’s least favourite because it does nothing more than remind him of his own disappointed mother so very far away, a woman that Eames had met on one memorable occasion and pronounced ‘lovely’ with only the barest hint of sarcasm. Arthur agrees – his mother is all kinds of lovely until she starts harping on Arthur for not working a more traditional job with a more traditional schedule that allows him to visit his family more often.

Lovely doesn’t really sum it up best when that starts to happen.

“You’re both just in time for tea,” Eames says brightly, gesturing to the table by the window. “Sit,” is not a question.

Arthur skirts around the furniture – the hospital had let Arthur bring in some of their possessions from the apartment, but try as he does to make it seem like a warm and welcoming place, he can’t quite manage. Every time he brings in a new tablecloth or new curtains, he sees the angry glare of the hospital bed’s metal and he knows that this isn’t home. They lock the doors at night and ask Arthur to leave when visiting hours are over.

This isn’t home because he can’t come back to it and stay.

He sits down in the adjacent seat to Eames’ and smiles politely when he pours a cup of tea, doing the same for Ariadne. She looks blessedly calm, as if this is just any old situation that she’s been thrown into and can handle with grace.

Arthur tucks one of the silk napkins onto his lap and keeps a wary eye on Eames. He’s been judging his moods lately in order to assess whether or not they can take him under. Arthur’s been waiting for the calm of the storm, but he can’t predict it and he’s beginning to think they might as well jump in while the weather’s wicked – the chaos might help them to blend in.

“How are you doing, ma’am?” Arthur politely asks.

Eames seems to be onto Arthur’s strategies and turns to Ariadne as he sips at his tea. “This boy,” he remarks. “Goes off and expects he can just swan back into a woman’s life with a polite little phrase and a smile on that beautiful face of his. Are you married yet, Arthur?”

Arthur grits his teeth together and forces a smile. Eames can’t help it, he reminds himself. Eames’ whole body language has changed, his voice, his general being. His skewed thoughts have changed as well and he isn’t doing this on purpose.

“I told you that I would tell you if I did,” Arthur promises calmly – and doesn’t he find it odd that there is a forgery somewhere in Eames’ mind that believes them married. Apparently, she and the maternal coalition haven’t sat down to have a chat.

“Don’t wait too long,” Eames says with a firm nod, sliding three biscuits onto Arthur’s plate with a pointed look that he needs to eat them. “You may think that you’re wise putting your career ahead of your personal life, but one day you’re going to wake up and look in the mirror and realize it’s too late.”

Arthur goes stiff and cold at that, a shock of grief racing through him. He did realize it’s too late and now he’s faced with the prospect of this for the rest of his life if he can’t fix it. He’d almost rather Eames think he’s just a gender to the right because at least he remembers their history perfectly.

Ariadne seems to be able to read the situation – and Arthur is more than grateful for her talents in the matter – because she reaches over to take a biscuit before diving headfirst into deceit. “I don’t know that I ever saw Arthur as the marrying type,” she admits. “There was this one guy...”

“You’ll know more than I do,” Eames remarks politely, every vowel and consonant professionally clipped. “Arthur never talks about his love life.”

“Well,” Ariadne murmurs with a sad smile. “Arthur’s crazy about this guy. He’s not so bad. I mean, they’re definitely good together, even if they drive each other crazy. He’s just a little unavailable right now, but Arthur is doing his best to get him back,” she says, so determined and so furiously forward that Arthur believes she’ll stop at nothing to help him. “And then maybe, maybe...”

“Oh, no,” Arthur cuts in and warns her off. “Don’t you start.”

“I’m just saying, you’ve been together a long while.”

“Stop it, Ariadne,” he groans and slumps in his chair – perfect posture now a thing of the past. If suddenly Ariadne and Eames are going to form an alliance against him – which they always used to do when Eames was in his right mind – then he can’t be expected to have any kind of manners.

They drink tea and Eames keeps his eyes on Arthur, as if judging him constantly, and Arthur doesn’t want to admit that he likes it because it’s still Eames and Arthur is apparently still his centre of attention. During some of the harder times, that’s enough to make his day.

Nurse McCraney ducks her head into the room when the hour arrives and relieves Arthur from the constant worry about what Eames might say next. “Time’s up,” she says quietly and apologetically.

Ariadne looks to Arthur to take the lead in leaving. Eames has begun to tire and some of the sharp maternal disapproval has faded, replaced with something like a desperate longing to be anything but alone. Eames has a grip on Arthur’s wrist and tugs lightly when Arthur stands.

“Arthur,” Eames gets out, sharply pleading.

“I have to go. I can’t stay,” he apologizes, leaning down to press a kiss to the back of his palm before pressing it to the table. “Stay well. And don’t forget, I’ll come visit soon. I promise.”

“You always promise,” Eames mutters and there’s that discontent rankling in his voice once more. Arthur helps Nurse McCraney ease Eames back to bed and waits at his bedside for the nightly regiment of pills to help him sleep.

When that routine is over, Arthur lingers in the doorway.

“Do they ever let you stay?” Ariadne asks quietly, reminding Arthur that he’s not alone anymore.

Arthur shakes his head. “Officially, no, but a couple of the nurses look the other way if they find me here in the morning. I try not to, lately. Eames is confused enough in the mornings as it is. My presence doesn’t help.”

Arthur’s whole life has become a desperate attempt to do nothing more than help Eames and so he stays over less and less, even though the nights at home alone grow worse with every passing week.

Ariadne stays extremely close to his side as they leave the hospital and at some point, she bumps over until she’s twined her fingers with his and clasps tightly onto his hand in support. They make it to the car before they speak again and then it’s only for Arthur to ask where she wants to be dropped off.

“The hotel is fine,” she assures and Arthur turns his attention to driving and obsessing over Eames – as is his wont when he allows his mind to wander.

He parks the car in the lot of the hotel and turns off all the lights, expecting to say goodbye to Ariadne and to tell her what time he expects her at the conference room the next morning, but he finds he can’t speak. He finds that all he can do is think about what he just brought her to see and whether or not it’s as bad as she might have imagined.

They sit in the car for longer than they necessarily need to outside of Ariadne’s hotel that night. Arthur wants to bid her goodnight, but his mind inevitably strays to the job and instead they sit in the car while he asks questions about the job and go over logistics and details.

Eventually, Ariadne quiets him by reaching over and pressing her warm palm to his thigh. “Arthur,” she says evenly and quietly. “You’re not alone in this.”

Years after the first inception job and years before Eames started to lose his mind, there had been a temporary point in which Arthur had been happy -- so very happy because he and Eames had stumbled their way into a happy truce that made sense to the both of them. It made sense every morning they woke up to a new day, every day they drank coffee together over worn newspapers. It was comfortable and perfect when they spent their afternoons wandering through parks discussing security, cons, and extraction, and every night they went to bed together fighting for the covers and arguing over the pettiest things.

Then the signs started to pile up, Arthur continuously ignored them, and here they are.

“Ariadne, imagine if this were Ethan,” he says, his voice remarkably steady. “And you’ve known him for twenty years and suddenly he doesn’t even know who he is most days. Some days he doesn’t know you, some days he thinks he married you, and some days he’s himself. Those days when he’s himself,” Arthur says, his gaze drifting out the window to affix on a spot in the distance so he doesn’t have to look at her as he says this, “I think those days are the worst. It’s just a painful reminder of what I lost because I didn’t seek help sooner.”

“Is there a psychiatrist who deals in this sort of thing?” Ariadne promptly demands.

“...No,” Arthur admits.

Ariadne takes that opportunity to give him a light shove at the arm. “So stop blaming yourself. We’re diving deep into his mind to try and make things right. Isn’t that enough, Arthur? You’re going to do the dreaming equivalent of moving mountains for Eames and when he’s in his right mind, he knows that it means you care for him. Isn’t that enough?” she demands one more time, almost angry.

“Honestly?” Arthur says, exhaling shakily. “It just doesn’t feel like it. We’re attempting to incept sanity into a broken mind, Ariadne. This is a shot in the dark. It’s...it’s one degree shy of hoping it’ll all turn out for the best,” he says with disgust.

They sit there in the dark for another few moments of awkward silence before Arthur decides that he’s had enough of obsessing over this issue. He refuses to turn back now and any doubts he might have will have to be set aside.

“Let’s go inside. We need to get some rest. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day,” he says, knowing that it’ll be doubly so if they can’t manage to get the ideas down pat.

Eames needs to be whole, but that idea needs to take, and at the moment, Arthur is left wanting for Eames’ creativity and imagination when it comes to layering an idea in such a subtle way that it’s an art of its own.

*

When all the plans are made and every level matches a message and bears the hallmark of inventive and impossible architecture, there’s no reason to linger any longer without going forward.

Arthur knows that unless they act, all that’s left is the possibility of abandoning their plans. It’s now or never before they hesitate their way into missing a window.

Arthur has been watching the hospital and memorizing their shifts. He knows when to move and the shift change going into the night staff is the perfect time of opportunity. There are less staff, enough confusion as people arrive and depart, and they have the additional cover of night to protect them. Most of the patients are sleeping, which gives them their entrance time.

They arrive on schedule. Cobb and Yusuf are holding onto the weapons and the equipment (respectively) and Ariadne hovers behind Arthur as he picks the lock of the front door and uses the keycodes he’s dutifully memorized to get them inside the security office without setting off a single alarm, timed so that the guard is checking patient rooms instead of live feeds.

He signals for the other to head down the hallway once he’s assured that he’s cut the lines of the security feeds and quickly manoeuvres his way up the stairwell in order to get them to Eames’ room. Arthur slides his fingers over the door handle and uses the electronic key card he stole from the nurse’s station to gain entry.

Sitting there, beside the bed, is Nurse McCraney – just as Arthur hoped she would be. Earlier that day, he had slipped her a folded piece of paper with instructions and a request that she be in Eames’ room after the shift change. He’d included a cheque issued in her name as incentive to come with the promise of more money to follow.

She looks tired and shaken, as though she’s already lived through the worst of something. Arthur wants to tell her that she has no idea and that she’ll be the innocent bystander in this.

“I don’t know why I came,” she says, her lower lip jutting out stubbornly as she stares at Arthur. There’s a flurry of activity around them as Cobb starts to set up the room. Arthur can see her nametag from here and he stares at her full name – Eve McCraney – and wonders if she’s ever loved anyone enough to be willing to die for them. He doesn’t want to ask because in this case, money does a better job of talking than his words will ever do.

Arthur digs out the remainder of the promised money and thrusts it towards her, barely glancing up from the bag he’s digging through for supplies. “I’m not going to hurt him. None of us are,” he insists sharply. “I’m still Arthur. I’m still the same man who visits him. I just need to try and help him.”

She might be wary about this, but she still reaches forward to take the money from him skittishly, as if she’s afraid that any minute, he’s going to change his mind and take the offer back. It’s a fair sum of money and hers is a common reaction, but there’s a part of Arthur that’s still mildly disgusted at how far people will bend their morals for a sum of cash.

“If you hurt him, I’m calling the police,” she warns.

Arthur just nods and glances over his shoulder to see Cobb holding up the line. “We’re ready, Arthur. You said he’s sedated?” Cobb asks of Eve.

She nods rapidly. “When he took his evening pills, I slipped in heavy sedation, just like you asked me to.”

“That should put him in a relaxed state, open to the drugs on the first level,” Yusuf says and Arthur realizes that he’s begun to hold in his breath anxiously.

Arthur settles on the bed next to Eames, bracing up the edges so that he’s not going to fall out. He carefully swabs Eames’ forearm and pushes the cannula in, turning to Eve and giving her a firm nod. “Play the music according to the timeline we gave you,” he instructs her as he adjusts his shirt and his position, getting comfortable in Eames’ near-embrace. A the last moment, he shifts just an inch more and slides his arm over Eames’ torso, sliding the IV into his arm and looks at Nurse McCraney with an apologetic look in his eyes. “I have to try,” he whispers.

“Please don’t hurt him,” she begs, her shaking hands hovering over the deployment device on the PASIV.

“Do it,” Ariadne insists, slumped and ready in a chair nearby.

Eve McCraney takes one last look at the strangers in the room and lets her gaze settle on Arthur as she pushes both hands down with a steadiness that wasn’t there a moment ago.

The drugs race through the tubes and bring on the familiar heady sensation of jumping from off the highest cliff without knowing what’s waiting down below. Arthur closes his eyes and prepares himself for whatever dreams may come.


Arthur feels strange. It takes him roughly five minutes to even put a finger on what he feels.

It takes even longer than that to recall that he’s dreaming.

It takes even more time to remember that the Somnacin they’ve used for this job has been laced with Yusuf’s own personal brand of ecstasy and that might be the cause for why he’s suddenly feeling so dizzy and calm at once. If he feels like this, he can only imagine what Eames is feeling – who has been dosed to receive the lion’s share of Yusuf’s work.

Arthur has to struggle to find a centrifugal focus. He still doesn’t know where Eames is and worse, he doesn’t know who he is, but he quickly finds Yusuf and the rest of the team in the lobby of a modern-styled office tower.

Cobb has designed this level and it’s of New York’s sprawling streets and they’re right in the heart of the business district. Arthur shouldn’t be thinking this because he has his own failings, but a part of him keeps wondering if a train is going to intersect the side-streets at any moment.

He presses his palm to his forehead and tries to quell the dizzying sensation running down his spine and settling into his bones, but every attempt he makes inevitably ends up in his watching the world spinning and he stares at Yusuf with a dire look. “Please tell me you brought something to temporarily counter-attack the ecstasy until the next level,” he breathes out sharply.

He could almost sing for joy as Yusuf produces a full vial of a green-tinted substance. “Whatever balm they offer will be temporary,” he warns, rolling up Arthur’s sleeve and swabbing the skin with an alcohol swab. “It won’t buy you the kind of time you need to wait out the week on this level, but it will give you the time you need to get you lower.”

Arthur scowls at the sharp prick at his arm, but almost instantly the world settles. He doesn’t feel half as queasy as before, just in time to register a flash of familiarity in the distance. He grips at the sleeve of Ariadne’s jacket suddenly.

“That’s not you, is it,” he says, his eyes tracking the man across the street from them. “If that’s any of you casting the projection, say so now,” he adds, sharper than before.

Up above, Arthur isn’t privy to the looks a forgery wears. He sees the mannerisms and hears the voice. He knows the history of each varied personality as far as Eames will tell him, but he’s never seen the faces that Eames’ splintered sanity wears. Even while planning this, he could never guarantee which of Eames’ forgeries would merge to the surface in the course of the levels (and if Eames would even be confined to just one or whether his mind was so torn that he would manifest in more than one projection in each level).

The man that Arthur sees across the street is too personal to just be any old projection. There are definitive hints of Robert Fischer in the man they’re all studying and Arthur has to wonder if on that third level all those years ago, the two men formed some kind of strange connection.

He wonders, briefly, if in Fischer’s mind, Eames is there as well as some kind of haunting echo of an idea that changed his world.

He doesn’t look exactly as Fischer ought to. His eyes aren’t the brilliant blue Fischer sports, but the colour of Eames’ eyes on any given day and his mouth is fuller. His suit is one of Arthur’s favourites – a grey Dunhill resplendent with waistcoat and a pocketwatch fastened tightly to it. It’s the suit that Arthur wore for Eames’ birthday five years ago when they officially bought their first piece of property together.

It’s these details that convince Arthur that this is more than just a projection – that this is Eames.

He’s on a cell phone and pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. Arthur counts it as lucky that they’ve spotted him so early because every second spent is an additional second for Eames’ sub-security to figure out what’s happening. Every time there’s a flash of movement in the corner of his eye, Arthur flinches as if he’s expecting gunfire to open up at any moment.

So far, there’s been no sign of danger, but Arthur wonders what’s going to happen if Eames realizes that his world is being created by someone else.

“Cobb, Yusuf, set up the secure zone. Ariadne, you and I are going after him,” he says, ready to get on with the job. The faster they go down through the levels, the faster that Arthur gets to the hard part. The others have the easy task. Cobb, on the third level, is going to have to wait the longest and might run into a scrape or two, but Arthur is planning to devote years to this.

Arthur barely waits for the crosswalk signal to change. He signals for Ariadne to come with him and charges across the street, following Eames into the lobby of another building, eavesdropping on his conversation for no more than five seconds.

“Mr. Fischer!” Arthur calls out, on a vague hunch.

It pays off.

Eames stops where he is and turns, giving Arthur and Ariadne a curious look as they approach, all smiles and presenting a calm front. “I’m sorry?” Eames says in a polished American accent. Arthur starts to recognize this for what it is. It’s the professional forge that Eames puts on when he needs to assuage marks that he is of a commercial and like mind. They’ve run this con so many times together just the two of them, but back then, Eames had always been a slick businessman, resembling no one from the world of actual commerce.

In bed one night, their legs twined together, Arthur had joked that Eames’ businessman forge was the unholy mixture of Tilda Swinton and David Bowie. Apparently Eames took offense to that, because it’s changed to something sickeningly familiar and Arthur misses that shock of platinum white hair and those stunning blue-green eyes and androgynous body.

“My name is Mr. Smith,” he introduces himself and keeps steady and calm through deep breaths. “Sorry, there’s been an accident outside and I just need a phone. Can we...?” he asks, gesturing to the phone.

One more time, he’s holding his breath and Ariadne is standing with her back almost to his, guarding the door from any possible threats that might burst in through the front.

Eames pauses and seems to consider the merit of handing his phone over to a stranger, but his reluctance passes. He hands over the phone and Arthur breathes relief as he cooks up a plan to get the message through using the presented medium. Improvisation isn’t one of Arthur’s weaknesses, no matter what Eames likes to mutter on about in the community.

He frowns and stares at the phone before turning back to Eames, handing the cell back.

He’s called the number that Cobb had set-up specifically in the case that they could get Eames near a telephone and they could arrange for him to hear the incessant bleating of the phone, beeping on and on.

“You’re disconnected,” Arthur says, catching Eames’ gaze as he presses the cell phone back into his palm and lets the contact linger for a long moment. “You’re disconnected,” he repeats, as though Eames didn’t hear him the first time. “Do you know a phone number that you can call to help us? Our car broke down, I need a phone number, the first one that comes to mind is all I need,” he insists.

If Eames were in his right mind, he’d recognize this gambit from miles away, but one of the most terrifying parts of Eames’ forgeries has always been the depths in which he dives into when he really focuses.

This forgery knows nothing more than the stocks and funds of the market, the cut of his suit, and probably what the Dow has opened at for the last week. This mask and costume that Eames is wearing knows nothing about extraction and Arthur prays and hopes that this is enough to keep the militarized subconscious away, but the mind has a funny way of overcoming even the heaviest of denial and charades.

Eames shakes his head and sputters. “I don’t...”

“Any number,” Arthur prods, quickly, before Eames can think too hard, before he can shift and forge into something else. “I’ll dial it,” he says, forcing a warm smile onto his face. “If it’s the wrong number, I’ll try again. Any number.”

“Okay,” Eames says, looking so puzzled that Arthur almost hates this for a moment. “Seven one four, one nine seven nine.”

Arthur pales as he punches in the numbers and feels Ariadne turning to stare at him.

The number rings, rings, and then cuts out.

“Still disconnected. You’re still disconnected,” Arthur says, fighting past the mild shock of the moment. He wants to stay and make sure the message takes, but they’re not going to know for sure until they get into the next level and see what Eames does with Ariadne’s design. He hands the phone back to Eames apologetically and doesn’t need to scribble down the number on his hand.

He knows it by heart and has his whole life.

“Arthur,” Ariadne sounds warningly and Arthur turns to see a man in black edging along the edge of the building. It looks like their time is running out. It’s only a matter of time now before Yusuf’s compound wears off just enough for Eames to realize that his subconscious has company. He gives a nod to tell her he’s aware.

He can’t help turning back to Eames and tries to look past the foreign face. He eventually focuses on his gaze because those are still Eames’ eyes and no matter how much is different, Arthur can still lock onto a piece of Eames in this falsity.

“Thank you,” he breathes out heavily, reaching out to grasp Eames’ hand lightly enough for a brief squeeze.

This is not the level for Arthur to be spending time with Eames. That’s coming and it’s going to span a time longer than Arthur’s ever spent in a dream. Cobb’s been trying to prepare him for it, but had warned Arthur that no amount of talk, no amount of sketches, and no amount of warnings were going to be enough.

It all comes down to the moment you wash up on that shore, Cobb had kept saying. “If you hold onto your focus in that moment and remember why you’re there, you might have a shot in hell of holding onto yourself.”

That’s still levels away. Right now, there are more men in dark clothing gathering at the front of the building.

“Come on,” Ariadne hisses and tugs at Arthur’s hand, leading him up to a bank of elevators and a door to a supposed maintenance room. Arthur spares one last look at Eames, who is staring down at his phone in confusion and seems to be addressing the fact that it’s disconnected. Arthur abandons staring at the forgery when he realizes that the projections are going to be closing in on them soon enough if they don’t do anything.

Ariadne swipes a keycard through the door and they duck inside. Quickly, they change from the suits they’re wearing into more casual wear to try and buy them just that much more time. They need to rendezvous with Yusuf and Cobb quickly in order to get stabilized in the maze-like version of the Empire State Building that Cobb has made. Seventy-three elevators that all lead to different floors, and boasting stairwells that open to the outside, and Penrose stairs around every corner.

“They’re closing in,” she says, sounding slightly worried. “How are you feeling?”

“A little dizzy,” Arthur admits and loads up the ammunition for his Glock, tucking it into the back of his pants and adjusting his jacket to cover it up. “I think Yusuf’s temporary cure is wearing off, but I think we got the message to Eames. We’re ready for the next level,” he insists. “Okay, you get Eames to come back here and I’ll drug him,” he says, taking deep breaths and trying to ready himself for this. It’s not hurting Eames, he tells himself – they have to kidnap him and sedate him in order to help him.

She salutes him lazily with a ‘you got it, boss’ and heads for the lobby.

When five minutes pass and she isn’t back, Arthur begins to worry that she needs help. She doesn’t go into the field as often as he does and he’s not sure if she’s really ready for this, but after seven minutes, he hears her voice again.

“We got the number working, but we just need an extra set of hands. You’re so amazing to be helping us out with this,” she’s saying. “Thank you, again, from the bottom of my heart Mr. Fischer. It won’t take more than a second.”

And that’s Arthur’s cue.

He’s standing behind the door, ready with the sedative and when Ariadne opens the door, Arthur slides in from behind and gets Eames in a chokehold, dropping three droplets of sedative onto his tongue and bracing him until all the fight goes out of him and he slumps down to the ground.

“Well,” Ariadne pipes up, sounding vaguely bemused in a giddy and strange sort of way. “At least he forged a lightweight.”

“When did you turn into such an optimist?” Arthur grumbles, arranging Eames into a fireman’s carry in his arms.

Ariadne looks at him with an almost sad smile. “I’ve always been one, Arthur. You just don’t visit enough anymore to remember.”

Great. Not only is he trying to incept sanity back into his boyfriend’s mind, but now one of his closest friends is guilting him into visiting more often at the same time as they’re on ecstasy and being pursued by Eames’ militarized subconscious. He adjusts Eames on his back and glares at her as they push out into the street via a back door.

He urges her along, trying to calculate where they are in Cobb’s version of New York. “How far are we?”

“There’s a shortcut!” she says, tugging on Arthur’s sleeve when he keeps lumbering past 32nd street. “Here!” she insists, bringing him down the sidestreets and even though they were just near 1st, they’ve somehow managed to make it to the Empire State Building through a short series of turns. They hurry into the lobby and find Cobb and Yusuf waiting for them.

By this point, Arthur is swaying more than before and the weight of Eames on his back seems to have tripled.

“Well?” Yusuf demands, hurrying over to help Arthur shoulder the burden of Eames’ body.

“We called the number,” Arthur says, “and I repeated the message. We need to be on the lower level to see if it worked and if it didn’t, we’ll course-correct there. The projections were just beginning to circle as we were finishing up.”

“Arthur,” Ariadne cuts in. “The number...”

“It’s not important,” he insists.

Not important? Arthur, he shouldn’t know anything about himself, but that...”

“He’s still got the same colour eyes. Ariadne, he’s not forging by his own will, he’s splintered,” Arthur hotly retorts in reply. “Just because he happened to rattle off numbers of some significance doesn’t mean he’s aware of what’s going on.”

Cobb and Yusuf are looking at them warily as they enter one of the elevators and Cobb presses the sixth floor button.

“It’s not relevant,” Arthur insists. “He’s splintered. He barely knows who he is.”

“He picked your birthday,” Ariadne says. They get off on the sixth floor and Cobb hurries them across the bank of elevators to get away from the glass walls. They stay out of sight and board another elevator that brings them up to the seventy-second floor, at which point they transfer once more and go down to the fifty-first.

Arthur wants to believe that there’s a part of Eames that’s conscious in that forgery and that he’ll manage to call off the projections or at least slow them down long enough for Arthur and the team to travel deeper.

He knows, though, better than anyone that Eames has no actual control over what he’s doing.

He focuses, first, on getting Eames settled away once they get into the room, bolting the heavy doors behind them. Yusuf has a way to get out through the ceiling should he need to lead the projections on a merry chase (so to speak), but they’re afforded protection in case they come searching.

“Arthur,” Ariadne is trying to get his attention as they barricade the door and start in on the preparations for the next step. “How did this manifest? Does Eames even know who he is anymore?”

“Yes! I wouldn’t have brought us here unless I thought so,” he snaps, eyes wide at the implication that they should discuss this now of all times. “This is really something we could have talked about during our sessions, Ariadne.”

“We never went under with Eames, Arthur,” she lectures right back, mimicking his tone perfectly. “I had no idea what I was going to find. A clone of Fischer with Eames’ eyes wasn’t exactly what I prepared for.”

“What did you expect, the Queen?” Yusuf mildly comments in the background as Cobb drags out the PASIV from the safe they’ve hidden it in.

Ariadne rolls her eyes and shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess, I guess I just thought that the forgeries would be more faceless. More anonymous.”

Arthur’s sure that Eames has a dozen anonymous forgeries tucked away, but the dreamers are personal and most of them are used to speaking with Arthur – someone familiar, someone he knows.

“What happened, Arthur?” Ariadne is asking now, lost.

Arthur wants nothing more than to drop down to the next level and continue on, but she’s looking at him so plaintively that he feels bad about ignoring her. “One day, I woke up and I realized that Eames’ little confusions and odd little phrases weren’t just him being eccentric,” he says, speaking quietly. As much as he trusts Cobb and Yusuf, he feels like this is personal and that Eames doesn’t deserve to have all of them gossiping about him while he’s sedated. “I woke up and I realized that Eames wasn’t just being strange for the sake of it, he’d fractured into a dozen pieces and I didn’t even see it coming. He just worked so much and forged so often that it broke the levee.”

“And there’s no precedent?”

“No one forges quite so well as Mr. Eames,” Arthur admits with a rueful smile. “I think that’s what did him in. His absolute belief in who he was, even when he wasn’t himself.”

“And his totem?”

Arthur smiles wryly at that as he drags a chaise over to Eames’ side and settles back against it. “Eames always used to base reality on whether or not he could look in a mirror and see who he actually was. It was handy up until the point that he lost his mind,” he says, blunt and knowing it’s the honest truth. “Can we please keep going? The longer we linger, the more chance the projections have of finding us.”

She assents with a nod, but the way she purses her lips together tells Arthur that she has more to say on the subject. He sighs and ignores that for now, letting the dizzy feeling of Yusuf’s Somnacin-ecstasy compound kick through his veins and makes him feel almost like he’s flying. He takes deep breaths and tries to regulate his control of the situation, inserting the IV with only mildly shaking hands.

Arthur glances across the room to Yusuf. “Be careful,” he warns. “I know that you think your compound is going to work, but I know Eames and I know his training. If his projections get a hold of us, we’ll be in bad shape.”

Yusuf displays the gun in his hands and flashes Arthur a steady and confident grin. “I’ve learned a lot since the last time you saw me, Arthur,” he assures and hurries to check on everyone’s progress as he draws out the lines to give them more slack. “Be careful down there.”

“Be safe, Yusuf,” Ariadne says desperately, as if she needs to get that out.

Settled, Arthur starts to count down as he watches Yusuf plunge the deployment of the drugs for the next level and he holds onto his focus as tightly as he can, his gaze settling on Cobb across the room.

“Focus,” is all Cobb says, his voice heavy with sleep.

Focus.

In Arthur’s last waking moment of this world, he reaches out for Eames’ hand and their fingers brush for the barest of moments, but it’s enough to help him focus on what he’s diving downwards to fix.


Arthur wakes to a sharp glare of light in his eyes as the sun casts bright reflections off what seems to be a maze of mirrors in front of him. There are hedgerows supporting the mirrors, making it look more like a garden maze than a children’s house of horrors. He spins carefully in a circle to try and locate the others, not wanting to call out and attract the attention of any projections just yet.

In the distance, Arthur sees a house that looks like a mix between the Hôtel Biron and a house only familiar to Arthur because of his personal history with Eames. It appears to be miles away, but the familiar facade lets Arthur know exactly which projection to expect here.

He catches Ariadne’s gaze and manages a thoroughly displeased shake of his head. He knows what’s coming and he wishes he didn’t. “Arthur...?”

“Did you design it to look exactly like the Rodin museum?”

“Yes,” she agrees, seeing what he’s talking about. “Eames must be affecting the dreamscape.”

“Those are pieces of his mother’s home,” Arthur says, signalling to the house in the distance. “Ariadne, lead us through the maze. If Eames is going to be anywhere in this level, it’s up there,” he says with certainty, jutting a finger in the direction of the house.

When Arthur gets a closer look, he finds that the mirrors are all shattered. They splinter and form sparkling cobweb patterns in the bright sun and Arthur can’t help but feel relieved.

On some level, their message has taken and as they move deeper, he hopes (thinks, prays) that maybe they’ll continue to have luck. Ariadne takes the lead, wandering through the maze like she’s Alice finding her way through Wonderland.

Arthur takes point and Cobb covers the rear and there isn’t a single indication from up above that things are getting hairy. It’s a good sign. They’re nowhere near the end of this task – and Arthur reminds himself to focus -- but if they can stabilize three levels before Arthur jumps down lower, he’ll have more time to do his job when he gets down there.

“Watch your step,” Ariadne warns and Arthur casts his gaze down to the idyllic-coloured grass to see that there are shards of glass littering the ground.

Arthur looks skywards to the blazing sun and then checks with Cobb to make sure they aren’t being followed. “Are we taking the broken mirrors as a good sign?” he asks, his voice steady, even though Arthur is beginning to think that the peaceful quiet surrounding them is just a prelude to someone discovering that they’re there.

“We just told Eames on the first level that he’s, essentially, broken,” Ariadne points out, searching the area around them. “These were supposed to be whole. I think this is a good thing.”

Arthur glances over his shoulder to keep an eye on Cobb. Not for the first time since they started this mission, he begins to worry that someone is going to bring a projection in and because of the habits of old, he half-expects he’s going to turn a corner and find Mal standing there with a sawed-off shotgun ready to blast him down.

Cobb’s insisted that he’s fine now, that the children and therapy have helped him to assuage his guilt and to move on. “Arthur, this is only the second level,” Cobb pipes up, as if sensing that Arthur is entertaining thoughts of unrest. “If you don’t feel comfortable incepting Eames, we can stop here.”

“And leave Eames to his fractured sanity,” Arthur points out, not even considering the possibility, “which is only going to get worse if the last year is any indication. No,” he says firmly. “No way in hell, Cobb.”

“It’s an option, Arthur,” Ariadne says, which is all the proof he needs that this is a thought that’s been passing through both minds. Arthur purses his lips tightly together, his forehead pinched thoroughly together.

He shakes his head and sidesteps a cluster of pointed shards in the grass. “If this doesn’t work, I will step back and let life go on,” he negotiates. “But we’ve still got a long way to go and I’m not pulling out. I’d appreciate if both of you kept your involvement at the same level as me for this job.”

“Arthur, there’s no way we wouldn’t,” Ariadne promises, squeezing his shoulder in a show of her support.

She steps away from him and continues to lead them to the house. Arthur can see an exit approaching around the same time as he starts to see quick flashes of someone else in the mirrors – wearing dark clothing and sporting dark hair.

“Cobb,” Arthur says warningly. “How much time have we got?”

“We’re about forty feet ahead of them, but we need to move,” Cobb replies. “Ariadne, when we get out of the maze, can you change it without Eames noticing?”

“I can try?” she offers, sounding slightly worried, but capable. “We need to get out of here. I’ll seal off the exit and move the architecture around just enough that I shouldn’t call attention to the changes,” she promises, turning to look over her shoulder at Arthur. “Take the lead.”

Arthur readies his weapon and treats the exit of the maze like a room, clearing it quietly and quickly, not wanting to waste any time, especially if the projections are closing in. He has no doubt that they can handle them, but the last thing he wants to do is leave Ariadne to deal with this. He turns his gaze back to the Biron and looks over his shoulder to Ariadne.

“Can you hold them down in the house?” he asks. “Or do you want us to lure Eames back out to the maze?”

“If he didn’t change the layout of the house, I’ll be safe there,” she promises. “I layered in a hidden servant’s floor where you can go under and I can hide out.”

The journey to the house is easy from there. Ariadne seals off the maze with a large slab of an unbroken mirror. From there, the only hazard on the way to the house is the assorted and wayward pieces of jagged glass on the sloping lawn that leads to the front door.

Everything here is broken. Eames’ subconscious has taken on that message and has created a landscape reflecting what he must know deep down and Arthur takes the first moment since they started this mission to feel hope that what they’re trying to do is going to take.

They stop at the door and Arthur presses his shoulder up against it, listening to see whether there’s movement inside.

Cobb catches his gaze and raises his brow to ask if he hears anything.

Arthur dismisses that with a shake of his head.

No sooner than he’s about to open his mouth and say that Eames must be somewhere else does the door draw open and there is the very physical and real manifestation of Mrs. Celia Eames staring back at him.

Arthur did have a bad feeling about this level.

He tries for charm and innocence, smiling broadly as he regards Eames in this disguise, this forgery that he must feel safe in. Arthur prepares himself for the likely barrage of questions. And they’re not even going to be very good things, they’re going to be things like...

“Well, you’re late,” she bluntly states. Arthur takes a deep breath in and nods, knowing that this isn’t even going to be the worst of it. The worst of it is most certainly yet to come. “You might as well come in. I’ve put afternoon tea on. Three places? You don’t have any other company expected? No other men I should know about?”

“It’s just us, ma’am,” Arthur replies, with all due politeness owed to a man who thinks he’s a woman that needs to evaluate Arthur for her son.

She keeps a critical eye on him from behind her glasses, pinching them at the band as she regards Arthur and he stays very still, ignoring his raging heartbeat. Every minute that passes and they don’t make any progress, he worries about the projections closing in on them. If they don’t time everything perfectly, they won’t be able to go further.

Cobb shoots Arthur a wary look as they sit down at the linen-clad table and Arthur returns it with heated impatience. He’s no more pleased about this delay than Cobb is, but they have to run with it. They have no other choice.

Celia pours the tea and Arthur stares at her and can’t quite reconcile the fact that somewhere buried in there is Eames. He sees all the traits that Eames inherited from the woman – the cleft of the chin and the earlobes, the colour of her eyes and the absolutely beautiful smile – but he can’t bring himself to acknowledge him in her.

“You’ll have to forgive the lack of food,” she murmurs with a critical look Arthur’s way. “I was under the expectation that the guests would provide something.” ‘Lack of food’ in this case means that she only has scones, biscuits, and a plate of small sandwiches out.

It really is nothing more than a polite and sharp little jab at Arthur.

Back when Arthur had first met the woman, Eames had whispered softly into his ear that his mother was an expert on using etiquette like a scalpel and making tiny incisions that would inevitably bleed you out until you were simply so exhausted, you couldn’t bear it.

“It’s the talent of all English mothers,” Eames had wryly remarked before showing that polite indifference was the best defense.

So now he sits at the table with his palms folded politely in his lap and sips at his tea slowly, taking every barb about his hair, his dress, and his relationships. He takes it all and simply smiles coolly the whole time.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Ariadne looking at him with worry, but it’s only when she clears her throat and taps her watch that Arthur tries looking for a segue into the topic of the hour.

“...and anyway, I just told them that I refused to pay that much money for such a poor job,” she’s harrumphing about the roofing job that she’d had done. “That’s simply robbery.”

Arthur dabs the corner of his lips with his napkin and slowly stands, offering his arm out to Mrs. Eames. “I couldn’t agree more,” he smoothly agrees. “Would you like to take a walk with me, Ma’am?”

She eyes him dubiously, but inevitably accedes with a smoothed hand over her grey tweed skirt. Arthur could almost laugh. After all, it’s the same colour as one of Eames’ favourite suits back home and it brings him right back to knowing that there could still be something of Eames lingering here.

In some way, Eames could even be helping by showing them that he’s still conscious (even if it is on a base level). Arthur clings onto that idea, as though it guarantees that Eames’ militarized subconscious isn’t simply going to start attacking at any minute.

It’s pure denial, but for a scant moment, it almost makes Arthur feel better.

He shoots a look over his shoulder to Cobb and Ariadne and mouths – five minutes – and sets himself a schedule. Plant the idea, get her to the quarters, and dive deeper.

“You’re getting thin, Arthur,” Mrs. Eames murmurs in worry and Arthur’s grasp on her arm tightens just that bit more at the continued verbal assault because he wonders if, deep down, these are Eames’ thoughts as well. “I worry about you.”

“I’ve been busy,” he counters. “And I’m the same weight I’ve been since I was eighteen,” he says with great patience. “You just want something to needle me about.”

“Perhaps I’m guilty of that,” she hums as he takes her out to the balcony, staying behind the glass doors. He doesn’t want to lead her out too far where she might be able to see the men coming to the house. Arthur expects them to still be in Ariadne’s maze, but they won’t stay lost for too much longer.

Arthur starts the gambit.

He turns, just slightly, and looks out on the sprawling backyard, making a small distressed sound when he casts his gaze out to the maze of mirrors.

“What?” she asks, perfectly keyed into his every breath and move. “What is it?”

“Look,” he says, easing in just behind her and angling her gaze until she’s looking in the direction of the maze. From here, he’s essentially whispering the truths he’s invented to plant the right idea in Eames’ head, coaxing them into his head until they turn and shift and convert into a self-generated truth that Eames knows – that he is broken and he needs to be fixed. “All your pieces, they’re broken,” he goes on, as if this is a surprising turn of events.

She drifts closer to the window and adjusts her glasses, regarding the grounds with a heavy look of dismay in her gaze. “What on earth,” she remarks, haughty and dignified despite the seeming disaster. “When did this happen?”

“It’s been happening slowly,” says Arthur, pressing a hand to her back gently, trying to ease the message in without causing too much panic. “Your broken pieces need to be fixed.”

She turns to look at him and in one heartwrenching moment, Arthur is sure he sees Eames’ awareness there, but it flickers and is gone as quickly as it had come.

“I’ll have a word with the staff straightaway,” she insists with determination, which is Arthur’s cue to hurry Eames along to the servants’ quarters where Ariadne is waiting with the PASIV. It’s a veritable maze to get there, one that should take fifteen minutes for someone who knows the way and so they need to move and quickly.

Arthur smiles as politely and perfectly as any potential son-in-law should (as he plays the role with aplomb) and nods thoughtfully. “I’ll help,” he remarks, offering his arm to her. “Shall we?”

She slides her arm into his easily, like it’s always belonged there. It’s tacit permission that allows him to lead and he quickens their pace before knocking lightly on the door that Ariadne has told him will lead straight to a narrow hallway that ends in their hideout.

“Do you know anyone who can fix them?” Mrs. Eames is asking as they bustle about with no time to lose. “I don’t want to spend too much money, of course.”

“I think I know just the person. You know,” Arthur says, aware he’s about to push the next level before he should, “your son isn’t half bad at mending what’s broken. Maybe he can put this all back together.”

There’s a long silence that spans the whole length of the narrow hallway as they walk single file – her in front of him – and Arthur holds his breath as he waits for the answer.

“I haven’t seen that boy in years,” is her quiet remark. “I think he’s scared to come see me,” she continues, speaking truth in every word. She knows every emotion that’s ever passed through Eames’ mind and here in an unguarded subconscious, it all tumbles loose. “He thinks I’m disappointed in him, that he can’t measure up to what I expect, that his relationship with you is something to be ashamed of.”

“I know,” Arthur says, having accepted Eames’ beliefs long ago, even if he thought that they could be conquered. “I tried to get him to visit,” Arthur says, his hand on the keypad. It won’t enter without a code, but Eames has provided them with the numbers that unlock everything in this dream-world.

Arthur keys in his birthday as he keeps his eye on Mrs. Eames, never once looking away on the off-chance she tries to get away from him.

“He loves you so much,” is what Arthur says, giving a forgery some kind of peace. “He’s just scared. He was so scared that you’d take one look at him and see how broken he was. I should have brought him to you, just for that. A mother always knows.”

Arthur should have seen it, but he didn’t. He hadn’t wanted to.

It’s too late to start playing what-ifs, but Arthur’s constantly going over the art of the possible and the hypothetical in his mind. He can’t help thinking about where they would be if he had just been more attentive.

“Where are we going, anyway? I sincerely doubt we’ll find the proper help in here,” Mrs. Eames remarks dismissively as Arthur locks the door shut behind them and nods once to encourage Cobb forwards with the cloth soaked in sedative.

She keels over in Arthur’s arms and his demeanor goes from polite young man to the ruthless taskmaster he can turn into on a job. He snaps his fingers for help, urging Cobb over instantly as they help Eames over to the nearest chaise and Ariadne starts closing multiple doors, each with their own combination.

“Bulletproof?” Arthur asks.

“Even better,” Ariadne promises as she starts loading up weapons. “Bombproof. If they get to this point, I’ll have good warning they’re breaking through.”

“And you armed some with combinations Eames won’t know?”

“All from my own mind,” Ariadne promises with a tap of two of her fingers to her temple. “Don’t worry. You’ll have time.”

“I need years,” Arthur reminds her as he winds out the length of the lines of the PASIV, trying to get across how important it is that he has full use of the planned time. “And you need to be able to drop us when the time is up.”

“Don’t worry,” Ariadne promises. “While you were having tea and distracting Eames, I set some things in place beneath the supporting columns on the floor below. We’re ready, Arthur. You’re ready to go deeper.”

Arthur wastes no time arranging himself on the chair after sliding the IV into Eames’ arm and takes one last look at Cobb.

“Are you ready?” asks Cobb.

“Work quickly,” Arthur says brusquely. “We won’t have much time to convince him to go against his security.”

“I may have been out of the game,” Cobb says wryly, his hand hovering over the plunger of the PASIV, “but I was doing this long before you were, Arthur.”

“When we get out of here, you can tell me all about it and the time you walked uphill five miles in the snow,” Arthur deadpans, smirk on his lips. “You can even tell me twice, old man.”

“Just remember it, kid,” is Cobb’s patient reply as the drugs flow through their systems and Arthur remembers just how much time has passed. Phillipa is dating and looking at colleges, James is becoming a young man, and Arthur isn’t half as young as he used to be.

They’re all older and Arthur would like to pretend they’re wiser for it, but he’s still not sure how wise this gambit to save Eames is so much as desperate and bordering on selfish.

Still, he refuses to feel guilty.

Instead, he focuses on what’s coming next and the fact that every step deeper takes Arthur closer to what he’s been training his mind for ever since he embarked on this plan.


This level of the dream looks worryingly normal.

Colours are off by a slight shade and the world is askew by only the smallest of millimetres and Arthur experiences a moment of hope that the lack of change means that they’ll find Eames without a mask. Eames has done very little to change Cobb’s design. This is memory, pure and simple. It almost bodes well.

The projections ignore them, for now, and Arthur takes the opportunity to load up on ammunition in every holster that he can. “I suggest you do the same,” he says to Cobb as he keeps an eye out for the militarized projections that are inevitably coming for them. “At least until we can find Eames.”

“And then what?” Cobb demands. “We’ve barely kept ahead of them on two levels. What happens if this is the level that they catch up to us before I can jump you deeper?”

“I’m running Mr. Charles and using you so that you’ll be protected when I jump the level,” Arthur says with assured conviction that he isn’t entirely sure he possesses. He’s bolstering himself up to give himself a push, knowing that he’s entirely capable of this, but at the same time everything is so important on this job that he absolutely and utterly cannot fuck it up. He hasn’t dealt with pressure like this since the Fischer job. “It’s the only way to buy you some time down here. I’ve seen how Eames trained, you don’t want the depths of his subconscious ripping you apart,” Arthur says and he’s not just worried about Cobb.

If Cobb falls, he falls into limbo. If Cobb falls before Arthur can get deeper, the dream collapses. If he falls, they fail and Eames stays as broken as the mirrors they found on the level above.

“Where are we?” Cobb inevitably asks. “Where do we need to go?”

Arthur looks at the marquees around them and the busy shops lined with tourists. “Leicester Square,” he says, knowing where he has to go from here. “There’s a small restaurant two blocks away. There’s a bar there. Eames will be there.”

“How can you be sure?”

Arthur tenses his grip on his gun and keeps charging forward. He knows this place because it’s not just a dream, but a memory. It’s a memory just slightly amended of a time years ago when they met around a small table and their knees knocked against each other. It’s a memory of the first time they kissed.

“Of all the places to do it,” Eames had whispered with a throaty laugh pressed against Arthur’s pulse, his fingers busy with emptying the packets of sugar on the table into the coffees that had just arrived, “you choose here.”

“You don’t choose the moments that really matter,” Arthur had replied back with absolute certainty. “They’re all just waiting to happen.”

Arthur stops and reaches out to stop Cobb from barrelling forward. He sees the table, he sees the waiter and the meal he so distinctly remembers, and then instead of seeing Eames as he should be, he sees her.

“Crap,” Arthur exhales.

“What?” Cobb asks, sounding alarmed.

“I was hoping it would be anyone but her,” Arthur admits, gravitating forwards and swallowing hard. The plans have to remain the same. They have to run Mr. Charles and he knows that he has a better shot of this, but Cobb is going to be the one that remains behind, so Arthur grasps hold of his arms and pilots him to the bar. “Stay here,” he advises. “Until I give the signal. I’m going to convince Eames that you’re the security. It shouldn’t be hard. You already militarize people for a living, why not manifest sub-security with your face?”

Cobb arches his brow and studies Arthur warily. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to handle this on your own?”

“With Eames wearing that forgery?” Arthur asks, glancing over his shoulder and smiling when she waves at him and beckons him closer. “Trust me. It’s best if you just give me some time to lay the groundwork. Wait for the signal.”

Arthur turns to head towards the table, but he feels Cobb’s hand at the fabric of his shirt and he feels a sudden strike of panic bolt through him at the thought of a delay that might somehow alter the kicks.

“What?” he hisses.

“I’ve never seen that forgery before,” Cobb admits. “Who is she? And this level. Arthur, this is practically London as it should be. Eames hasn’t made very many modifications at all. What’s going on?”

“Eames uses this forgery when he wants to feel comfortable without giving the mark a look at his true face. It’s Eames, once removed, with all the same history and the same personality, but a different body and a different face so a mark won’t be able to place him once they wake,” Arthur admits under his breath.

All the while he speaks, he can’t stop himself staring across the restaurant as she picks up a menu and starts rifling through it. He watches the way the light catches the gold band on her finger.

“The stress and the number of jobs he was taking fractured Eames from reality and he lost control of the narrative. It splintered off from reality. Now this forgery thinks that we’re married and that we live together when we’re not off extracting from people. It was...” he struggles to explain, to fight past the look of Dom’s disapproval, “It was a good forge when Eames was in control. The marks loved her because Eames played it like a natural, because it was so easy for Eames to work in that skin. It just got convoluted.”

Suddenly, Cobb looks entirely like he understands. “Like you just lost control of how things were supposed to be.”

Arthur hesitates at the heavy and sudden blanket of grief that seems to cover them. He knows that the subject has grown to loved ones and that Arthur’s trying to do what Cobb never could.

“I don’t want to lose him,” Arthur admits, roughly. “But it isn’t the same. We’re going this deep in order to prevent it from being the same.”

He looks to the side to gauge whether Cobb understands and he’s met with a knowing look. Cobb orders a gin and tonic from the bar and settles down on a stool in order to look unassuming and professional at the same time. Clad in the suit he’s wearing, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince Eames that he’s dreaming and that Cobb is there to secure him from extractors.

He takes a deep breath and ignores the pit in his stomach as he crosses the restaurant. When he’s halfway there, Eames rises from her seat and shifts around the table to press a kiss to his cheek. “And here I thought you were going to be late for our anniversary,” Eames chides. “I’d have had to hurt Cobb if you’d done that.”

Arthur leans into Eames for a long moment and takes in the slight differences – how the cologne Eames usually wears is sweetened, but pressed to the same pulse points that Eames always uses, right at the neck and the wrist. He takes in the god-awful floral print of the dress, the same print that’s on two of Eames’ favourite shirts.

He braces himself and sits down opposite from her, making sure that he keeps his mind focused on his plan. “Eames,” he starts, knowing that he’s about to cause a great deal of chaos.

“You know, you’re allowed to use my first name,” she dryly notes.

“Maybe later,” he quips, trying not to laugh at that with helpless despair. He’s saving the name for last, he’s saving it for when he needs it to do the most work. He reaches over the table and gently pries Eames’ hand into his own, manipulating her ring finger and brushing his thumb over it in careful and constant circles. “Eames,” he says quietly. “I want you to look around.”

“Are we playing a game?” she asks with slight bemusement.

“Eames, really look at this place. Look at the sky, the way everyone here keeps staring at me occasionally. Eames, you’re dreaming,” he says, clasping her hand just slightly tighter than a moment ago to ride her through the panic. “But it’s okay,” he continues, barely pausing. “You brought your security into the dream with you,” he says and shifts in his chair to subtly indicate Cobb at the bar.

Eames harrumphs and then lets out a crow of amusement.

“Something funny?” Arthur asks.

“I suppose I’m not entirely surprised that Cobb is the face of my security down here,” Eames admits. “But my god, does he have to look so bloody constipated while he does it? He’s such a pretty man when he’s not contorting his features into that. But don’t worry, Arthur, I only have eyes for you,” she assures.

She’s still staring at Cobb and Arthur holds his breath. This is the moment in which Eames is going to decide whether the truth is being told and this will be the moment in which Eames decides to work with them or whether Eames is going to let the projections rip them apart. They will, anyway, when Arthur needs to employ their exit from this level, but there’s no sense in bringing them down earlier than need be.

“You’re in control, Eames,” Arthur says, giving Eames the message for this level. “In this dream, in everything, you’re in control. What do you want to do?”

Eames eyes Arthur critically and there’s something dangerous about that look that Arthur doesn’t want to lend much thought to. It typically comes right before Eames says or does something that Arthur wished he hadn’t.

True to Eames’ nature, the next words out of her mouth are a very calm and thoughtful, “well, then, let’s talk about us.”

“...Us.”

“Yes, us, darling, have you gone deaf now, too? I want to talk about our future.”

Arthur hears the click of his jaw cracking as he tenses up, almost unable to believe that he’s about to spend valuable time in a dream discussing what’s over the horizon. “Eames,” he gets out, needing to voice his concerns aloud. “I’m...you’re...we’re dreaming and you want to just put everything aside and take out our planners so we can synchronize?”

“Well, I didn’t imagine we’d have planners,” she replies. “But yes, Arthur. Better here than anywhere else. I feel like I barely see you.”

He feels like he’s going to snap at Eames, but putting her in an emotionally unstable state is probably bad as far as plans go. “Eames, the point of all of this is to make sure we even get a future. We don’t see each other,” he agrees. “That’s true. When you wake up, things are going to be different, so different,” he insists.

He knows that it’s going to be different for Eames if this works. If things go well, Eames will be losing several personalities that have been with him for years crafting memories of their own, but Arthur wants Eames to be sane, not to be happy in so many splintered fractures.

“You’re not cheating on me?” Eames warily asks.

Arthur lets out a breathless laugh of disbelief as he shakes his head. “Oh god, Eames, is that what you think it is? You think because you never see me, I’m cheating on you? Are you kidding me?”

“Honestly, Arthur,” Eames gripes, half petulant and half angry, “you don’t have to make me sound like I’m an idiot for thinking so.”

“Eames, I’m there with you all the time. If anything, I’ve given up large portions of the life I used to have, for you. And before you even say it,” he warns, when Eames opens his mouth to speak, “this is not meant to be a guilt trip.” He takes a deep breath and rubs his palm over his forehead, glancing at Cobb to check how much time they have.

Not much, if the way Cobb is tapping the face of his watch is any indication.

“Eames, you’re in control and I’m going to follow you,” Arthur says, sticking to the truth. “I’m not cheating on you. If you’re worried that we don’t have a future because I’m drifting, there’s no need for that,” he promises, grasping hold of her hand and squeezing it lightly. “Now, Eames, come on. You’re dreaming and we have to move before the people who are here for you can get to you,” he lies smoothly.

It’s strange in a way that makes Arthur’s stomach uneasy. Right after that first kiss, they had sat at this very table and talked about their future. The fact that he’s being made to go through a parody of the same now is almost like a cruel taunt from above.

There’s a very tense moment in which Eames looks across the bar and freezes up and Arthur looks to find out what’s going on and when he sees what Eames sees, he goes stiff as well. At the end of the bar, directly opposite from Cobb, sits Mal.

Mal is there.

Fuck. Arthur didn’t expect this, he thought that Cobb was better, after all, it’s been ten years. He gives Eames an apologetic smile and shoves his chair back. “I’ll find out what’s going on,” he promises.

“I thought he was better,” Eames says, her brow furrowed with concern.

“You and me both,” Arthur insists, hovering over the table. He leans over Eames and presses a kiss to her cheek, “Don’t move,” he pleads. “Stay right here and I’ll find out what she wants.”

Arthur reminds himself to breathe with every step that brings him closer to Mal and he practically strains himself telling Cobb to stay where he is.

“Hello, Arthur,” Mal greets him calmly as he sits down in the stool next to him. She’s not looking at him, stirring her gin and tonic with a plastic swizzle stick, wearing a peaceful smile.

She looks nothing like the ghost of a madwoman who haunts Cobb’s dreams and instead almost reminds Arthur of a melancholy spectre lingering to protect the ones she cares about. Arthur is glad to see she isn’t stabbing or shooting him, but her presence is still worrisome.

“What are you doing here, Mal?” Arthur asks worriedly, casting his gaze over his shoulder to Eames to make sure that she hasn’t decided to go visit Cobb or come and aid Arthur in his conversation.

She looks up, now, and regards him with a fond smile. “Don’t be mad. I know what’s coming next and I want you to be prepared.”

“I’ve prepared,” he replies sharply before she’s even finished speaking. “Mal, it’s critical that this goes according to plan. You can’t be here,” he insists. “Whether you’re here because of Cobb or me or Eames, you can’t be here. Please,” he begs, staring at her and sure that his face is fraught with emotion.

“Don’t be so emotional, Arthur,” Mal chides with a roll of her eyes. She sips at her drink and crosses her legs smoothly. “I’m here to help. Dom knows how important this is to you.”

Arthur lets out a stressful exhalation and isn’t sure whether or not he can trust anything that she says, but abandoning the plan to worry about outliers like Mal at this point isn’t going to do him any good, and so he simply grips the bar tighter.

“You know what’s coming next,” he says, his eyes stuck to the granite of the countertop he’s gripping.

She gives a thoughtful hum. “Limbo,” she agrees. “You’re going to the world that Dom and I built.” She reaches over and presses her fingers to his cheek to turn his gaze towards her. “You must promise me that you won’t get lost.”

“I’m going to find Eames,” Arthur insists. “I won’t lose myself when I’m going there to find him.”

“You’d better hurry,” she says, her accent playing with the vowels and making words of warning sound lilting and lovely. “Eames’ security is going to be here soon.” She gives him a light push at his back and Arthur takes a second to compose himself again before returning to the table and passing Cobb in the meantime.

“Is she...”

“She’s yours,” Arthur says, his voice clipped. “She says she’s here to help. I don’t trust her, Cobb,” he warns. “One wrong move and I’ll pull the trigger.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” Cobb promises.

Arthur returns to the table without the certainty that they’re safe, but now he really needs to push harder. “Eames,” he says, feeling the rush of the moment and the panic that’s starting to sink in, three levels down. “Eames, you’re dreaming. Cobb is your Mr. Charles, I need you to trust me, will you do that?”

She eyes him as the dream starts to quake and the projections begin to stare at Cobb.

“No, Eames, look at me,” Arthur demands. “Trust me.”

She’s up on her feet as the roof of the restaurant begins to tremble and the light fixtures begin pouring out fine dust onto their heads. Eames looks as though at any moment, militarized projections are going to swoop in and take Cobb out.

Arthur pushes forward and wraps his arms around Eames from behind, trying to calm her via swaddling, as though the presence of his heartbeat so close will do the job. “Eames, please,” he begs. “Do you trust me?”

“Until the ends of the earth,” Eames replies, “but none of that trust applies to Dominic Cobb and his murderous projections,” she finishes wryly.

“Cobb is mine,” Arthur lies. “Cobb is my projection. He’s not really here. Just like Mal isn’t really here. You only need to trust me, Eames, and I’ll get you through this dream.” He signals to Cobb – who is already on his toes and edging closer to the both of them – and Arthur grips Eames tighter than before.

Subsequently, it’s what makes her start to panic slightly and struggle. “Arthur, what are you doing?”

“You said you’d trust me,” he reminds Eames. “You have to trust me, right now,” he says sharply. “Right this second,” he insists. “You have to believe in me. I need you to accept me as part of your subconscious, Eames,” he begs.

She moves slightly and it brings her cheek to his lips and he brushes a hasty and clumsy kiss to the skin there, inhaling a scent that reminds him so strikingly of Eames that he forgets for a second that this is only a forgery and not the real thing – not yet.

“I’m part of you, Eames. I’m half of your whole,” he goes on, his voice growing guttural as gunshots start to ring out nearby, just down the street. “Eames...”

If the struggling worried Arthur, then Eames’ sudden limpness makes him fret twice as much. It’s as though she’s given up, completely. Cobb is in front of them now, brandishing a weapon and steadying it in his hands.

“Arthur, we’re running out of time,” Cobb warns.

Eames is pliable and lifeless in his arms and that’s enough to make Arthur shake her harder. This is just another shade of Eames, a deep fragment that has broken off from his sanity and lodged loose in a level so deep that even though it’s almost him, it’s still not quite there.

He’s off. He’s wrong. She goes slack in his arms and Arthur closes his eyes tightly and stares at Cobb. “You know what you have to do,” Arthur insists, voice low and devoid of emotion.

Eames struggles, now, as if she knows what’s coming and Arthur braces his hold tighter, keeping her in close. “Arthur,” she protests, all-but-shrieking as she bucks against him. She’s pleading as though it’s all he needs to change his mind – and Eames isn’t entirely wrong, but this isn’t any normal situation. “Arthur!” she begs. “Arthur, don’t do this. Arthur, it’s me. It’s Eames, this might not be our reality, but what are you doing, you’ll send us both to limbo,” she begs. “Don’t do this, Arthur, please don’t do this.”

Arthur holds on as tight and watches Cobb load the gun with two bullets.

“You kissed me here,” Eames is begging. She’s stopped fighting and is staring down the gun. This forgery is dangerous because this forgery knows everything there is to know about extraction and the minute that Cobb shoots, Arthur can’t imagine that Eames’ subconscious is going to be very kind. “Remember, Arthur? You can’t choose your moments. You can’t choose this,” she insists sharply, a frustrated growl to that usually melodic tone he has while wearing this forgery.

“Eames, there’s only one option,” Arthur says, keeping his voice even and he lets go of her just slightly, giving Cobb the signal. He has to time this message with Cobb’s shot carefully otherwise she’s bound to run. “You’re in control. If you want to kiss me again and make another moment, you can. It’s all up to you, Eames. You’re in control of what happens when we wake up.”

She stares at him and he keeps a hold of her forearms. Her back is to Cobb and Arthur can see him over her shoulder as he aims the shot. Mal is still there, but she’s running point and helping them, taking out Eames’ security with well-placed shots from her pistol.

“Eames, you are in control,” Arthur promises and tightens his grip on her. “You’re in control,” he insists, his gaze sliding just to the side of her face where he gives Cobb the signal – a blinked now in Morse code – and holds his breath as Cobb pulls the trigger once, then twice.

Arthur barely has the time to remember how much he hates the feeling of dying in a dream before his body is crumpling on the ground of the restaurant.

The last thing he sees is Mal urging Cobb to get the bodies in order to set things up for the kick.

The very last thing he hears is Eames taking one last gasping breath before Arthur’s drowns in a whitewash of absolute silence.

The next thing he knows, he can’t breathe and there’s water rushing past his ears.

The next thing he’s aware of, he’s made it to limbo.


He’d expected to wake up on the shore of his own subconscious.

Ever since he’d begun planning this a year ago, Arthur has been training his mind to come to expect what limbo will be like. Great depth is what he needed for this job and so he’s sewn in certainty of what is reality and what isn’t. He’s solidified his sense of self and put his trust in his totem and has prepared himself for the sands of limbo.

When he opens his eyes, that’s not what he finds. He’s in a bathtub, underwater, and it takes him exactly three seconds to clasp the sides of the tub and haul himself out. His suit is soaked and he’s spitting up water, but he knows who he is and knows that he’s dreaming.

He just doesn’t know who designed the room he’s in.

He doesn’t wonder about that any longer when he sees the shape of a man in the doorway smiling down at him with fondness and looking so familiar that Arthur could cry. He fists for his totem to ground himself in the fact that this is not reality and when he’s sure of the weight, he turns his attention back to Eames.

“I was waiting for you to arrive,” Eames says with a smirk on his face. He looks like himself, sounds like himself, and for a brief moment Arthur wonders if the idea has already taken root in Eames’ mind and if that means they can go home. It’s too soon to risk it, though, especially when they only have one shot. Arthur is not willing to simply throw it away. In fact, he’s willing to spend a lifetime down here in order to be sure that the idea takes. “Do you like what I’ve done with the place?” Eames asks, gesturing around them with a pleased smile.

Cobb’s bullet had hit Eames first.

In the space of seconds on the third level, Eames has had time to create from nothing and has somehow managed to summon Arthur directly to his designs. Arthur is too busy swimming in bathwater and relief to focus too much on what that means – and if it means that he and Eames are connected in more ways than one.

Arthur struggles his way out, dripping puddles of water on the tiled floor of what appears to be their bathroom from their shared apartment.

“Eames, you shouldn’t be creating from memory,” Arthur accuses, scrubbing his hands through his hair.

Eames casts a disdainful and chiding look over his shoulder as Eames goes about putting on a pot of tea. “Arthur, my entire mind is fragile as a delicate eggshell. Are you telling me that your greatest concern at this very moment is whether or not I create from memory?” He begins to steep the tea. “Do you still take it two milk, one slice of lemon?”

Arthur stares numbly forward, trying to dry himself off with one of the towels hanging beside him – that looks disturbingly similar to one of the towels hanging on a rack in his apartment bathroom. “Yes,” he manages to eke out. “Eames, do you know why we’re here?”

“I imagine it has something to do with me,” Eames murmurs as he fetches the teacups, blue and white patterned china that Mrs. Eames had given to her son for his thirtieth birthday. “All this fuss about me, I hope it’s important, Arthur.”

“It is,” Arthur says, his voice hoarse and he barely manages to get the words out past the lump in his throat. He’s frozen in place as he watches this functional version of Eames that he hasn’t seen in almost two years and begins to realize how much he’s missing. It’s the simple things. He misses the sureness in Eames’ fingers and the confidence in his voice. He misses those bright smiles and the way he moves his body like he knows how every muscle and tendon with every inch given.

He crosses the room and clasps hold of Eames by the shoulders, staring him in the eyes and knowing that they’re going to start today. Arthur is going to grip onto reality as tightly as he can and they’re going to hold on.

The kettle is whistling away, but Arthur has no time for tea.

“You,” he begins, not letting Eames blink or do so much as look away, “are William Eames and you are whole. And that’s how I love you.”

Cobb had agreed that it was somewhat manipulative, that it was risky when emotions and situations could change, but inception works better with positive reinforcement and with Arthur’s emotions backing his words, he knows that he has a better chance of driving the message home like this.

“You’re William Eames, you’re whole, and I love you.”

“Arthur,” Eames says fondly. “I don’t make tea for just anyone.” He leans in to press a light kiss to the corner of his lips. “I love you, as well.”

It’s a start. It’s a good start.

From there, Arthur settles into what seems to be the life that was meant to be waiting for him. He has so many questions, but for the first two weeks, he settles himself into his focus point of incepting a message into Eames’ mind. Every breakfast he brings Eames’ tea to him and tells him that he’s William Eames, that Arthur loves him, and that he is whole. Eames smiles distractedly and goes back to peering over the London Times with his reading glasses and it’s so normal that Arthur could cry.

Finally, three weeks in, he dares to ask.

“Eames, do you know what’s going on?” he asks, watching Eames scrape marmalade against a slightly-burnt piece of toast. He doesn’t want to alert Eames to the surroundings being limbo, just in case it brings everything crashing down, but he wants to ask whether Eames knows that this is all just a dream.

He has more questions, but he wants to start with the easy ones – easy being relative to the inquiries that Arthur is holding back.

Eames glances up and gives a thoughtful hum. “Would this have to do with being in limbo, Arthur? Actually,” he scoffs out, pressing his palms to the table. “It’s a terrible relief to be here. My other forgeries are all clawing through different levels, but I’m myself here. I don’t feel that tug pulling at me and trying to confuse my memories. I know who I am. Arthur,” he breathes out, so reverently and fondly that it makes Arthur shiver. “It’s the first hint of peace in years. Thank you.”

He says nothing about leaving and Arthur briefly panics and worries that if Eames finds too much peace and solace here, he may never want to leave.

That’s a bridge he didn’t think he’d have to cross.

Arthur tries to steady the panic, but he finds that he can’t exactly manage. One more time, he’d failed to factor something monumental into his plans and now he’s going to pay for it if he can’t course-correct. “Eames,” he says, the name tight and controlled. “You know this isn’t reality. You know you can’t stay here. I’m trying to help you. I’m going to make it peaceful up top. I promise.”

Eames looks at him almost sadly and begins to pour tea into mugs. “Arthur,” he chides quietly. “Don’t make promises you don’t know that you can keep.”

Breakfast is spent in silence – panicked on Arthur’s part – until finally Eames sets aside his paper and regards Arthur curiously. “Have you looked outside the window, yet?” he asks, gesturing to the curtains. “Cobb left behind a great deal to explore. I’ve yet to strike out there, mostly because I’ve no idea how this place works. I didn’t want to step outside to peruse the architecture and lose ten years of life because I couldn’t remember how to get back.”

Arthur, suddenly, feels gripped by the sheer desire to see what Cobb made down here, what he and Mal created. It’s like a spectre of her is still lurking and all he needs to do is go outside and find something of her that he’s never encountered before. It surprises him in how much it aches to realize how much he wants it.

But he, too, doesn’t know how memory and control works down here. It’s risky.

The question is, is memory and love worth risking it?

“Do you want to go look?” Arthur asks, trying to keep his own tone calm and nonchalant.

“It’s theirs,” Eames says thoughtfully, “but it’s also hers. If we can find an anchor, maybe,” he says. “I just don’t want to lose the precarious holding pattern of sanity you’ve managed to give me.”

Arthur knows that they have plenty of time to explore the world and they can save that for when Eames is more stable. For now, Arthur gets up from his chair and rounds the table to cup Eames’ cheek. “You’re William Eames,” he says, the lump in his throat thick and his breath shallow, “and you are whole and that’s how I love you.”

Eames smiles, but it’s weak yet. “Are you going to tell me that every day?”

“Every day,” Arthur promises, clasping Eames’ hand tightly in his. “Every single damn day.”

*

Every once in a while, Arthur feels the resonance of the other levels in minor disturbances. His water glass will tremble while he’s cleaning his gun or the weather will take a small turn for the worse and he wonders what’s going on up there.

Eames notices, as well.

“Am I missing a party?” he remarks as he sets aside the crossword he’d been perusing. “The cupboards keep trembling.”

“It’s the other levels,” Arthur says, his gaze worriedly on the ceiling, as though somehow the others will be able to communicate a message down to them through sheer desire of thought alone. “If I had to guess, I’d say the third. Yusuf and Ariadne were in fairly well-defended mazes, but your projections on the third level were already on Cobb’s heels, Mr. Charles or no.”

“I do have some very vengeful fuckers in my subconscious,” Eames agrees in a mild tone, as though the possibility of Cobb being ripped apart just one level above – the possibility of all of Arthur’s plans failing – is clear as day.

Arthur stops paying attention to the ceiling when rationality kicks in and he remembers that looking up isn’t going to do a thing. “Eames, are you there when the forgeries have the driver’s seat? Do you even have any control?”

“Quite a limited amount. Good forgery has always been about total and true belief,” Eames says, not even looking up from his crossword as he dabs the nib of the pen with his tongue and scribbles in an answer. “I believed wholeheartedly in who I was, but every once in a while, I had a flash of recognition that I was mad. Tiny moments,” he says, his voice growing smaller, “when I wasn’t lucid, that’s all I had. Tiny moments and all I could think about was that you were still there, still stubbornly by my side. Idiot,” Eames finishes fondly, finally looking up.

“You’ve called me worse,” Arthur replies, trying to force down the lump in his throat.

“There you were,” Eames goes on, shaking his head as he gestures with two fingers for Arthur to join him.

Arthur, never one to be cowed, scowls and smacks Eames’ fingers away – a gesture that elicits a loud laugh from the other man. He still ends up going to his side, but only when Arthur is through scribbling down today’s journal entry. He arranges himself on the couch opposite Eames, his feet pressing against Eames’ thighs.

“There you were,” Eames repeats himself, the crossword in his lap and Eames’ attention on Arthur, “being an idiot and throwing away your own life for me.”

“I still took jobs,” Arthur says defensively. “I just stopped travelling for them. I started consulting. Not everyone needs a point man in the dream. Sometimes people just need the research.”

“The Arthur I met when I was just a young bloke wouldn’t have said that,” Eames says, scoffing. “Christ, he’d have had your head for saying that. The sheer notion that you compromised anything for me, the notion that you’re here for me...I don’t think I ever realized how much I mean to you,” he admits. “I’m supposed to be a master of reading people. And here I was, so very stupid for so long. Can you forgive me for that, Arthur? Can you forgive me for being an idiot?”

The lump isn’t vanishing and Arthur finds it difficult to look at Eames for too long – Eames in his sane perfection – and so he looks away instead, right out the window at the lovely weather they’re having.

“I’m sure they’re fine on the other levels,” Arthur says, his jaw tensing up from setting it so firmly to avoid showing too much emotion. “Cobb’s a professional and I think his projection of Mal was trying to help.”

He only turns when he feels a light touch at his side and looks back to find Eames staring at him. “Arthur...”

“Don’t apologize. Stop apologizing,” Arthur orders, because he can’t take it anymore. “I always knew how you felt. And you always knew enough about my feelings. You might be an idiot and I might have given something up for you, but it doesn’t mean we were emotionally stunted. Just...”

He trails off, because Arthur doesn’t know the word for it.

“Just talented in our idiocy,” Eames finishes for him, leaning over to press a brush of a kiss to Arthur’s temple before he returns his attention to the crossword.

They go on like this in their own world for what feels like minutes, but is actually years. Arthur only keeps his grip on time through his journal and he even begins to forget to log entries some days – mostly because Eames grabs him by the wrist and hauls him back to bed before their day can even start.

They while away whole days like that in limbo’s strange architecture of time. Arthur loses time, but he blissfully surrenders it if it means he can Eames like this.

They finally decide to go out into the world around them years after they arrive. Eames leads and Arthur trails after him, never letting him out of his sight. Arthur keeps a slow pace, hands in the pockets of his worn jeans, and barely looks at the architecture around them. His focus is entirely on Eames.

The landscape around them so very clearly reflect Dom and Mal. Arthur doesn’t want to look too closely. He doesn’t need to give himself any reason to prefer limbo to reality and he still fears that memories of Mal in combination with Eames’ sane presence at his side might be potent enough to do just that.

“It’s mad, really,” Eames is saying as he stops to regard Mal’s childhood home. “It’s all still right here.”

Arthur catches up to him and presses his hand to the small of Eames’ back for just a moment. “Cobb is in the network of dreamers. He and Mal created all this and he’s dreaming right alongside us. His memory of her might be just a shade, but his memory of her architecture is exact.”

“Who did you bribe to get to me, incidentally? Please don’t say it was the sweet old lunchlady,” Eames begs.

“It was your nurse. McCraney.” When Eames doesn’t look like he recognizes the name, Arthur tries a different tack. “Eve.” And there’s the dawn of epiphany on Eames’ features.

“She’s a lovely woman, you know,” Eames says, taking hesitant steps forward as though he wants to go right up to the door of Mal’s childhood home and knock, as though there will be someone waiting inside.

“She had a soft spot for you,” Arthur admits.

“And you,” Eames says. “Don’t think I didn’t have enough sane moments to notice how often she bent the rules for you. Even in your forties, Arthur, you look like a man decades younger. You look elegant and flawless.”

Arthur slides his palm upwards to press between Eames’ shoulderblades lightly, a gentle touch to remind him that he’s going to be there without the need for flattery.

“Eames, I need to ask you something,” Arthur says, his eyes stuck on the windows of this dilapidated house before them. The years of disuse show in its cracked facade and Arthur wonders how many lifetimes have been pressed to this architecture between Cobb, Saito, and now them.

Eames finally tears his gaze away and Arthur is glad for it. He doesn’t want to go into that house with its secrets and a safe waiting to lock away the world.

“Why are those forgeries the ones down here?” Arthur has to wonder and though he’s waited years to ask, he needs to know the answer. “Why Fischer? Why that near-exact replica of your mother?”

Eames looks at him with great sympathy and Arthur grits his teeth.

“Don’t,” he warns, voice low. “I don’t need your pity.”

“You keep looking for logic in all of this, Arthur. Don’t you understand?” Eames says, shaking his head as if disappointed in Arthur’s inability to comprehend the situation. “There is none. For all we knew, it could’ve been a fabrication of Cobb the moment we dropped dreamside. The second level might have been my father. Maybe it’s just that those forgeries have come topside recently. Maybe they’re close to home. Maybe they mean something to me, or to the network of dreamers,” he allows. “But sense? Sense in all this? There is no sense in madness. Next you’ll be asking what broke me into pieces.”

Arthur still doesn’t know the answer to that, either, and for a man who lives his life with a head for facts and figures, it’s a daily barrage to his rationality.

“Sometimes, there are no clean-cut answers,” Eames goes on. “And that’s okay. Why Fischer? I’ve no idea. But, tell me this,” he prods, grinning with a cocksure smile and sliding his arm around Arthur’s waist. “Was it a good one?”

Even in the throes of madness, Eames is still concerned about the aesthetics of his forges.

“It was perfect,” Arthur says, hating that Eames’ talent for perfecting the habits and mannerisms of others led him down this road. “Eames, when this is over...”

“This is the part where you tell me I can’t ever forge again?” Eames pipes up when Arthur trails off, unable to even bring up the words – and certainly not as the ultimatum he needs them to be. “I don’t know that I can do that, Arthur.”

“It’s been ten years since we performed inception, Eames, what else is there left to do?” he tries to argue, not half as stubborn as he might have been years ago. He’s grown tired of fighting against a disease that he can’t even see. He doesn’t need to argue with Eames atop it all.

Eames is silent and rather than answering, he takes Arthur’s hand in his. “Come on, let’s go. There are a few city blocks nearby. From what Cobb’s said in the past, I think that’s where their current home is. I’d like to see it.”

They don’t talk about what will happen when they come out of the dream. It’s an avoided subject for years after that day they spend studying Cobb’s streets.

Arthur never stops thinking of it or about how, if this works, he could still lose Eames all over again if he goes against good advice and decides to forge anyway, taking himself back down a dangerous path.

He’s not sure he can endure this twice. He’s sure that no man or woman could.

*

Up above, though Arthur can’t know, things are not going half as well as he imagines them to be, even in the secure labyrinths they’ve built.

Yusuf has had to leave the sanctuary of the room and is poised halfway off the fiftieth story of the Empire State Building, gun in hand, pigeon on shoulder, with two projections dangling from the window-washer scaffolding below him, shooting wildly. The dreamers are safe, though.

Ariadne’s mazes have held safe, but she’s had to leave her post in order to check the charges for the kick. What used to be a long hallway in the style of the old French mansions has now become something of a twisted hall of mirrors and she navigates it with ease, gun clasped tightly in hand just in case.

Cobb and Mal have set up their post at the restaurant. It’s hardly recognizable for what it once was and they hide behind shot-through tables and destroyed fixtures. Just once, just before Mal takes a graze to the shoulder and Cobb suffers a burn on his leg, they kiss and when he eases back, he looks her in the eye and feels nothing but the grief of memory and none of the guilt.

All this is happening as Arthur ages onwards.

In the blink of an eye for Yusuf, in the space of a sentence for Ariadne, and the length of a conversation for Cobb, Arthur ages and incepts Eames and they turn the wastelands of limbo into their own world.

*

It takes ten years for the chilling thought Arthur had once feared to resurface. Eames is at peace here and in great control of his sanity. Eames isn’t faltering. Despite a daily ritual of an idea placed in Eames’ mind, he never talks about going back up through the levels and ending up in reality. Eames is aware that they’re in limbo, but he never speaks about getting out.

It sends a chill through Arthur’s spine and he’s almost too frightened to ask the question he needs to. So instead he avoids it until days become months and then months become years. When Arthur checks his notebook and discovers that ten years have passed and he’s no closer to finding out if Eames is going to abandon reality for the sanity in limbo, he knows that he has to do what’s hardest and ask the question he’s been avoiding.

“Eames,” Arthur says, catching at Eames’ wrist when the other man is about to head out for a morning run.

They’ve made rules about how far they’re permitted to go. They’ve made something of an invisible perimeter, as if that will guarantee they don’t lose themselves.

Arthur wonders if they really believe their silly rules will actually work, but he has to hold onto belief in something. Eames pauses and raises a brow, waiting for Arthur to speak.

It’s taken him ten years to get to this point, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s a struggle for Arthur to even coax the words past his lips.

“Arthur,” Eames sing-songs with a bemused smirk. “I know that time is rather endless here, but I don’t exactly want to spend it trying to read your mind.”

Arthur rolls his eyes, but he laughs and it breaks the tension that’s been surrounding him tightly.

“Eames, it’s been ten years.”

“Yes,” Eames concurs with a nod of his head. “Bravo for being a calendar, Arthur. I knew you had it in you.”

That gets another laugh and the tension is practically pouring out of Arthur, now. He feels like he can ask this question, but he’s not sure that he’s going to be ready for the answer. “Eames, do you want to stay here?”

He receives nothing but silence in response, which is – frankly – almost more terrifying than an answer could ever be. Instead, Eames just smiles and leans in to press a kiss to the corner of Arthur’s lips in parting. The lock of the door as it closes behind Eames is practically deafening and Arthur flinches at the sound of it and can’t stop thinking about the question.

He lets it go temporarily and brings it up two months later.

Again, there’s no answer. This time, Eames is simmering a sauce for dinner and makes Arthur taste the acidity of it and they don’t talk about whether or not Eames is ready to abandon the real world over appetizers, dinner, or dessert.

It becomes routine for Arthur to ask every two months: Do you want to stay here? and every time he sees the same thing – a flickering of wariness in Eames’ expression and then a blank canvas. It never changes, no matter how many times Arthur asks.

Ultimately, Arthur does the only thing he can to ensure he doesn’t go mad himself from wondering whether Eames has abandoned reality.

He has faith. He has faith that every morning he will give Eames a message and that one day when Arthur is sure it’s taken and the kick comes, he has faith that they’ll both be ready to go.

Time passes in dual rapid pushes and halting spans of slowness and Arthur stops asking the question. He starts to notice other things, though. He notices the world they’ve slowly begun to build around them and he notices (with great and desperate relief) that they’ve gone back to their old habits and ways.

He sees it one day when he passes the mirror in their front hall on his way out into the small neighbourhood block that they’ve built. It catches him off guard and he stops with keys in hand – because even though he doesn’t need them, he likes the ritual of it – and stares for a long moment.

“Eames,” he shouts. “Come here.”

Eames isn’t far – he never is – and stops when he arrives at Arthur’s side, looking curious but not asking anything just yet. Arthur takes Eames’ face in his hands, clasping his cheeks and turning his head side to side to look for things that he’s been ignoring.

He’s supposed to be focusing and time is slipping away from him quicker than he expected. Some days, it’s as though he blinks and he loses weeks at a time.

“What on earth are you doing?” Eames protests with a warm laugh that makes Arthur’s stomach twist with delight. Hearing him sound so sane, so calm, so wonderful is something that he’ll never tire of.

Arthur catalogues the changes and knows that he’s lost more time than he can account for. He still hears the musical warnings played by Nurse McCraney so far up above, but those slip his mind as time goes by. Eames looks older now. There are crow’s feet at the edge of his eyes and his hair is going grey faster than Arthur’s. He’s gained weight and wears his glasses far more than he used to.

He’s ageing. They’re both getting older, which means that Arthur is running out of time to get the message into Eames’ mind and for it to stay.

Arthur’s fingers drift over Eames’ face, thumb brushing against the wrinkles by his lips from all the smiling he did as a younger man and shakes his head. “You’re getting older,” is all Arthur manages.

“So are you, you know,” Eames points out. “You’re still terribly attractive, though,” he murmurs, holding Arthur at the elbows. “You’re infuriating that way.” Arthur lets out a dismissive snort, because that had been what stopped him – seeing his own ageing face and the way his hair is thinning and the bags under his eyes seem slightly more permanent than ever before.

“You’re William Eames,” Arthur starts again, the second time today, but he’s never believed that overselling something could do anything but help, “You’re whole...”

“And you love me, I do know,” Eames replies. “It’s been thirteen years of you saying that every single morning to me. Honestly, sometimes I use it as an alarm,” he wryly remarks, earning a light shove at the shoulder from Arthur, but they’re both laughing within seconds. “Do you really think it’s going to take, Arthur?” Eames asks after a long moment in which Arthur refuses to let Eames go.

“I don’t know,” Arthur admits with a shake of his head. “And that terrifies me. The idea of losing you is difficult,” he says, looking into Eames’ eyes and brushing a stray eyelash from off his cheek, “but losing you to this of all things, an unseen, hidden enemy that I can’t fight makes me feel powerless.” He pauses, trying to quell the frustration he feels. “I hate that, Eames.”

“I can imagine,” Eames hums out his reply. “You have a mildly concealed fit when I don’t send the right instructions to the dry-cleaners. God knows how you’re coping with me being insane.”

“Don’t joke,” Arthur warns. “It’s not funny.”

“If it’s not funny, then it’s just terribly sad,” Eames replies, sympathy lurking in his expression. “And I would rather laugh than cry.”

*

Arthur wakes up one morning ready to turn over and press a kiss to Eames’ lips and give him the message. His back aches and Arthur knows dimly in the back of his mind that it’s been twenty-five years since he surfaced from the water of a bathtub that Eames designed. He wakes up ready to say the same thing he’s said every single morning for twenty-five years, but instead of being able to do that, he finds Eames already awake and staring at him.

“What...” Arthur mumbles, but doesn’t have time to finish the sentence. Eames brushes Arthur’s hair with his open palm – Arthur’s hair is much thinner now than it ever was before, let to fall loose over his forehead – and stares at him fondly. “Eames, what’s going on?”

“Don’t you think it’s time, Arthur?” Eames asks, plain as day. “Don’t you think it’s time to see if it’s worked?”

“I have to be sure,” Arthur says stubbornly, feeling panic gripping every inch of him and making him so thoroughly unsure. “If we go up there and it didn’t work...”

“If we stay here much longer, one of us is bound to lose ourselves,” Eames interrupts and counters with such patience that Arthur feels the tables reversing. Eames had always been the one quick to snap or panic and Arthur had been constant and calm. “There are moments, now, when I forget that we’re not supposed to be here. It’s been twenty five years, darling, and if we stay much longer, we’re going to be here forever. You’ve put a lot of hard work into this. It’s time.”

Here they sit, now, positions reversed and Arthur doesn’t like it one bit.

He’s too stubborn to simply let go like this and so rather than accept what Eames has to say, he turns away from his touch and begins going through the regular routine that he’s become accustomed to in limbo.

The world around them thrives, now. The buildings are no longer dilapidated and they resemble architecture from the world, three times over. There are monuments from most continents and adored buildings from the cities they once loved.

Limbo has become their world and Eames is trying to prevent it from becoming their reality. Arthur knows this is the prudent thing to do, but he can’t leave yet.

“How can we be sure it took?” Arthur asks when he comes out from the washroom, drying off his hands.

“That’s just the thing, Arthur, we can’t be,” Eames says quietly, a sad look in his blue-gray eyes. He seems distant, as if he’s enduring as much sadness as Arthur bears, but is trying to push it deep and away. “There are no clearcut answers, remember? It’s never as simple as all that.”

Twenty-five years and all of Arthur’s carefully laid plans are starting to collide here and if they don’t work, he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

He feels short of breath as he closes the distance between himself and Eames and grabs hold of his face with less gentleness than he would at any other time. “Eames, if this doesn’t work...”

“If it doesn’t work, I don’t want you bringing a PASIV around to my doorstep again. I want you to start living your life. If this doesn’t work, Arthur, you move on,” Eames warns, a dangerous inflection in his voice.

“No,” Arthur argues, that fierce stubbornness making a triumphant return. He grabs hold of Eames’ arm and holds him in place. “No, Eames, I won’t. I won’t.”

“You’ll throw your life away.”

“I’m forty-two and a criminal. I decided to chance it a long time ago, long before I ever met you.” Arthur needs to hold on to some kind of hope and right now, that’s the idea that this is going to work. “The kicks are going to come soon, anyway, Eames. Please, please, let’s just...”

“Just what, Arthur? Here we are, attempting inception for the second time.” Eames smiles warmly and brushes his thumb slowly over his lower lip. “How could I have ever said you didn’t have imagination? Look how clever you’ve been. Look how wonderful the world you’ve built is. Maybe. Well, maybe I was wrong.”

Arthur lets out a hoarse laugh that sounds hollow to his ears. “Now I get an apology from you?”

“Yes, well, we were on the outs. Telling people you were a stick in the mud with no creativity helped me feel better,” Eames remarks with a smirk on his face. “Arthur,” he begs, pleads, whispers, “Arthur,” he exhales again, like a reprimand. “It’s time. Let’s go and see the world you tried to create for us, up top.”

Arthur feels the truth of Eames’ words hit him in the chest like a heavy object, bringing reality crashing through so many levels of the dream and he turns away for just a moment to let the worry and panic and emotion of this endeavour to crash over him like waves in the ocean.

He presses his lips together and when he looks back to Eames, his vision has become blurred with tears of frustration and anger and love.

“Eames...”

“For ten years, you thought I wanted to stay here. Don’t turn the tables now, Arthur,” Eames chides lightly, cupping Arthur’s face with his hands and gently brushing his fingers up and down his cheeks. “Even if this doesn’t work, we had a lifetime together, you and I. And it was brilliant, Arthur, don’t you ever think it was anything but.”

“It shouldn’t be over, yet,” Arthur argues.

“It might not be, but you have to take a leap of faith, now,” Eames says. “It took me a long time to acknowledge that we might be waking up to failure, but I can’t be so selfish as to keep you down here where I know who I am. I can’t dare rob you of the opportunity to see if all this worked.”

Arthur’s breaths are sharp and shallow and he feels a hard pain in his chest that faintly seems like heartbreak.

“I might lose you.”

“I know,” Eames agrees and his own calm smile falters now. “But I lost you a long time ago when I lost my grip on reality. I want the chance to have you back, Arthur. Properly.” He brushes his fingers over Arthur’s forehead – over wrinkles that weren’t there before and gray hairs that have grown as the years passed them by.

Arthur stares at Eames and feels lost, suddenly, in this false reality they’ve constructed for themselves. It’s without answers and it requires too much faith for him to appreciate it properly.

“Please,” is Eames’ last gambit.

It’s all Arthur needs for him to crumble and realize that Eames is right.

It’s time.

*

Arthur had expected the kick to bring down the sky in ash and fire when twenty-five years passed and the music permeated every depth of the dream, but it’s not twenty five years when the storm comes.

Every morning as they approach twenty-five years and kick, Arthur looks out the window and witnesses the world they built. He grounds himself in his totem and kisses Eames’ forehead distractedly as he mumbles familiar words into the warm skin of his neck. He continues on with the knowledge that none of this is real. Twenty five years comes and goes, but the kick doesn’t come.

And then, one day when he’s least expecting it, the ground trembles and the sky splits open with fire. Arthur has been in the study with a copy of a map of limbo, something that he wants to leave behind in the event that he’s ever in the situation that someone needs this and he’s in the network of dreamers.

Eames had been outside, smoking – because limbo though it was, Arthur still refused to allow Eames to smoke inside the house.

“Arthur!” Eames shouts up from the sidewalk.

“Eames, get up here!” Arthur’s shouting, throwing open doors and unlocking a path to the roof that he’s been keeping secret for twenty-five years. There’s been no need to jump because the timer was still active.

They would have simply kept returning to limbo and possibly without the hold on reality. Reality...

Arthur fumbles for his totem and checks it as he does every morning when something strikes him as so close to real that he’s not sure anymore. True to his beliefs, the weight registers wrong and he tucks it away in a hurry, assured of his presence in a world that’s false. He starts to grow anxious when the sky starts to crack open and the storm starts pounding at their windows. “Eames! Faster!” he barks, losing his patience.

He grabs a gun from the kitchen drawer and hauls Eames out along with him, taking him by the wrist to shove him down the hall.

It’s far from gentle. It’s as far as Arthur gets from gentle, but when there’s a result to achieve and something he needs to get towards, he’ll do anything.

“I’m coming,” Eames says mildly – as if that will somehow staunch Arthur’s mood.

Right now, his blood is burning in his veins with adrenaline and he would raze worlds in order to get to his end-goal. Now, at this moment, all he needs to do is get to the rooftop and administer the kick. It’s time and if Arthur dwindles any longer, he’s going to want to stay and then they’ll have lost even more to limbo than just a long shot.

Right now, they need to get out and Arthur’s mind is solely focused on this goal.

Eames takes a while, but once he kicks into gear, he’s the same man that the SAS put so much time and pride into so many years ago. Arthur watches him move with grace despite the years of age creeping into the bones and joints of his body and knows with sheer intuition that if Arthur falls somehow, Eames will make his way out. Eames will tap into that self-preservation running through him and find his way up and out.

Somehow, no matter how, they’ll find success in all this.

Arthur fights his way through the warring winds on the roof, squinting through debris and sand and wreckage and holds out his hand for Eames to take.

“Eames,” he calls over, having to shout loud as he can above the roaring storm. “It’s the kick! It’s time to go!”

Eames wanders to the edge of the building and even though Arthur can barely see a thing in the storm, he can see the way Eames looks solely at him. Arthur reaches out and, with shaking fingers, claims hold of Eames’ hand to squeeze it tightly, as if to give himself reassurance that this is the end of the story and he has to turn the page if he’s ever going to know the conclusion.

“I’m ready,” Eames mouths the words and turns until his back is to the edge of the rooftop.

Arthur takes heavy breaths and walks to the edge, letting the toes of his feet rest just over the ledge. He lets go of Eames’ hand and stares alongside to where Eames is standing with his back to the world while Arthur keeps an eye out for him.

He can hear the dimmest of bass notes in the sky – music to bring them home – and Arthur has time for one last ragged smile that’s directed at Eames.

“Race you up the levels?” Eames shouts above the hurricane of chaos and Arthur laughs at that, a sound that barely makes it above the noise, but for the fact that Arthur wills it to.

Arthur nods and though he can barely breathe for the adrenaline coursing through him, he knows that it’s time to take a leap of faith. “You’re on,” he agrees and stares down at the world beneath them.

It’s time he says goodbye to a world he knows is false.

He takes one last look at Eames and when neither of them has jumped yet, he steps sideways and rests his hands on Eames’ shoulders. “I’m coming too,” he promises under his breath and inches forward until his foot is between Eames’, his arms wrapped tightly around his waist.

The wind blows and Arthur stops resisting.

He lets gravity begin to pull him and he closes his eyes as he falls with Eames, down and down until he gasps...

...He opens his eyes and sees for the briefest of moments the restaurant. He searches around him and can’t find Cobb or Eames, but he sees Mal. She smiles at him and leans forward to cup his cheek with her palm.

“Cobb is gone,” he protests, the ground sliding away from him, bringing him moments closer to the level above him.

“Dom isn’t the only one who knew me,” is all she has to say as she presses a fond kiss to his forehead. “A bientôt, mon petit,” she says with great regret and sadness and he feels the world giving way from under him...

...Beneath him, the shards of mirrors are coming ever closer and it’s a quick jolt to his system before he’s...

...back in New York City above the streets and the ground coming ever closer with such speed and in this one moment before reality, Arthur closes his eyes and rides the kick all the way back up, at least knowing that he’s come out of this alive and...

*

When Arthur comes to, he sees the chaos around him first and foremost. Yusuf has already packed away the PASIV and is staring at Eames with the edge of desperation that comes of pulling off a job this big. Cobb is checking his phone and murmurs the name ‘Saito’ under his breath as his fingers fly over the number pad.

He feels Ariadne’s hand on his arm and looks to her for the briefest of moments, never once wanting to take his eyes off of Eames – who is still waking up.

“What was it like?” she asks, quietly.

“It was a lifetime,” is his steady answer, perched up on the edge of the bed and looking over Eames like a prince come to wake the sleeping beauty. “It was perfect until it all came crashing down.”

“Do you want some privacy?” Ariadne asks and Arthur finds himself nodding, needing to be alone with Eames when his eyes finally draw open and the moment of truth dawns on them.

He hears them in the distance as they leave. Cobb ushers Nurse McCraney out with them, explaining in a quiet tone that they’ll know better if this worked in hours. The heavy hospital door closes and Arthur grabs hold of Eames’ hand, holding onto him like a drowning man being given a line of hope.

Every breath feels like endless torture. Every second that passes as Eames slowly rouses feels like a lifetime.

Reality, in the last few moments, has become more torturous than limbo had ever been.

Eames finally opens his eyes and searches the room.

Arthur finds his gaze and holds on tighter to his hand, cataloguing every moment and every small reaction and action. He watches as Eames’ expression softens and he stares up at Arthur with a mixture of fear and fondness.

Arthur can only know that he’s tried.

He knows that he’s done all he can.

So, with a weary and hopeful heart, Arthur smiles down at him and brushes his finger in slow circles against Eames’ palm. His heart trying to beat out of his chest, Arthur reacquaints himself with the reality around him and knows that no matter what happens, they go forward, from here.

It’s time.

“Good morning, Mr. Eames.”

THE END