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The Way Out

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Arthur was not unaccustomed to middle-of-the-night phone calls. Arthur, in fact, frequently wasn’t even sleeping in the middle of the night. It was a hazard of a job with a lot of travel over a lot of different time zones, complicated by the fact that he slept for a living and that insomnia was a dreaded side effect of Somnacin. Arthur tried to downplay that, but he was wide awake when his phone rang.

It wasn’t a number he recognized, which wasn’t at all unusual.

Arthur laid in his bed and stared up at the ceiling and lifted his phone to his ear and said, “Yeah.”

“Arthur,” said Eames’s voice. He sounded serious for a change, no flippant term of endearment. So Arthur believed him immediately when he said, “We have a problem.”

***

Eames met Arthur at the airport, and Arthur considered it a sign of great restraint on his part that he didn’t shove Eames up against the nearest wall. But airports were crawling with too much security, so that probably wouldn’t go over very well, and Arthur had more important things on his mind.

“How?” he snapped. “How the fuck could you have let this happen?”

“I’m the bloody forger, Arthur,” Eames snapped back. “I am the person on the team least likely to know when there’s a Limbo risk. Nobody tells forgers anything.”

“Shut up,” said Arthur. “You’re you, you’re always forcing your nose into everybody’s business.”

“I didn’t know,” Eames insisted. “Do you think if I’d known I would have let her in there alone? Ariadne’s good at keeping secrets. She always has been. She kept Cobb’s well enough, speaking of jobs where I didn’t know about Limbo risks.”

Eames had a point, which deflated Arthur’s magnificent rage a little bit. Which was annoying, because if he didn’t have Eames to blame, all he had to occupy his head was worrying about Ariadne.

“So tell me what happened,” Arthur said as they strode out of the airport together into a blast of tropical heat. Arthur pulled sunglasses on immediately against the glare. His eyes were already gritty and aching from frantic travel and far too little sleep.

“What happened is unclear,” Eames said, navigating over to a heap of a car that looked barely capable of driving and so was obviously Eames’s car. “But I will tell you what’s happening.” Eames looked over at Arthur, somehow sunglass-less and not even squinting, so that Arthur could see the determination in his blue-green eyes. “What’s happening is we’re going to get her back.”

***

Arthur demanded to be taken to Ariadne’s side, although he wasn’t sure why. There wasn’t much he could do. Ariadne was silent and still and sleeping, and from their perspective she looked very peaceful. It was just that she was living her entire life in Limbo and apparently didn’t know it.

“She could always come back by herself,” said Roger, the extractor who had been leading the team.

“Shut up,” snarled Arthur.

“I’m just saying that—”

“Shut him up,” Arthur said to Eames, and turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.

The job had been in a dingy, squalid apartment, and Arthur walked out its door into the putrid hallway. There was a baby wailing somewhere in the distance, and people shouting, and a dog barking, and Arthur braced his hands against the filthy wall and thought of how he’d gotten Ariadne into dreamsharing in the first place. Sure, maybe it had been Cobb who had recruited her, but Arthur was the one who had trained her, who had kept showing her more and more until it had lured her in and trapped her. And now she was stuck in Limbo and it was possible he’d stolen her entire future.

Eames stepped out of the apartment and into the hallway. He didn’t look surprised or concerned, just mild and impassive.

“Did you shut him up?” Arthur asked, and straightened away from the wall he’d been leaning against.

“You trained her,” Eames said, instead of answering the question.

“Yes,” agreed Arthur, because it was undeniable that he had.

“I think that increases our chances of being able to get down into her head and save her,” said Eames. “You’ll have insight. You’ll know how she works.”

Arthur was silent for a moment, contemplating the mildewing water stains on the wall. “Is that why you called me? I thought it was because you knew that I care about her.”

“Actually, in this situation, caring about her might be a distinct disadvantage. Or such was the conclusion I drew from the Cobb debacle.”

It wasn’t an unfair assessment, and Arthur acknowledged that by staying silent and pushing his hands through his stiffly slicked-back hair.

Eames said, “I think you and I can fetch her back. Together.”

Arthur wanted to ask where Eames was getting this optimism from. “Have you ever done this before?”

“No,” Eames said. “But I’d never performed inception before, either. You don’t know until you try.”

He had a point. Arthur just hated that they were going to have to pull off a complicated first-time operation on Ariadne instead of a random stranger the way Robert Fischer had been.

Arthur said, “Maybe Cobb would—”

“No offense,” said Eames, “but I don’t want Cobb involved. He didn’t exactly do a good job getting Mal out of Limbo.”

“He got himself and Saito out of Limbo, though,” Arthur pointed out.

Eames was silent for a second. “Fine. You can call him and ask him for some advice, but I don’t want him coming and getting involved. I don’t trust him. I know you do, but you shouldn’t, so let me cover your blind spot for you, pet, and tell you no, we won’t have Cobb involved.”

Arthur blew out a breath and decided that this was, again, a fair point by Eames. So he just said, “In the meantime, I want Ari moved out of this hellhole.”

“Utterly agreed,” said Eames.

***

It was Eames who coordinated moving her. When he had to be, Eames was actually eminently reliable. It was why Arthur put up with the rest of Eames, his stupid nicknames and constant teasing and inability to behave like a professional. When it counted, Eames was the person in dreamsharing Arthur trusted the most.

But then again, before Eames it had been Cobb, and look how well that had turned out.

Arthur wanted them to settle with Ariadne in Paris, hoping that maybe something in the air would trigger something for her, and he also wanted to make sure none of the rest of Eames’s team knew where they were going.

“I don’t want them anywhere near us,” Arthur informed Eames calmly. “And if they attempt to find us, I will cut their throats.”

He said this in front of Eames’s team and was satisfied at the looks of terror on their faces.

Eames just said, “Absolutely, pet,” because he was annoying, and then, “I’ll take care of everything,” because he was sometimes good to have around.

So Arthur left the logistics to Eames and called Dom.

Dom answered with, “Arthur! Hello! Good to hear from you!” as if Arthur ever made social calls.

Arthur just said, “How did you get you and Saito out of Limbo?”

“What?”

“When we did inception, and you and Saito fell into Limbo, you got out, no problem. How?”

“It isn’t hard to get out of Limbo, Arthur. The hard part is realizing you’re in it in the first place.”

***

“We’re going to need to remember,” Arthur said, from where he was sitting in a tiny, elegant chair scribbling in a Moleskine.

Eames was standing at the window of Ariadne’s room, which opened up onto a lovely courtyard garden. In the distance, beyond, Eames could hear children playing, and cars going by, everyone going about their everyday lives. The air was just this side of bearably warm and smelled sweet with flowers. Eames had chosen this place because if he was going to spend the rest of his life asleep, he’d want it to at least be in a place as lovely as this.

“Remember what?” asked Eames, not looking away from the window.

“That we’re in a dream. That’s the problem with Limbo, right? You live so much in your own head that you think it’s real. So we need to remember that we’re in a dream.”

“We have totems,” Eames said.

“What if we forget they’re totems?” asked Arthur. “What if we lock them away? What if we like life down there too much?”

“We won’t,” Eames said. “What could there to be like about Ariadne’s Limbo so much that we wouldn’t want to come back? That’s our whole reason for going there.”

“I am not the world’s expert on Limbo,” Arthur snapped. “I’ve never been there, so I don’t know. And you won’t work with the world’s expert on Limbo, so this is what we’re doing.”

Arthur kept snapping a lot, but Eames knew Arthur was keyed up. Arthur liked Ariadne, and Arthur was worried and Arthur was snappish when he was worried. It was fine; Eames was used to dealing with it.

He said, “The world’s expert on Limbo got his wife killed getting out of there, and I haven’t exactly checked in with Saito to make sure he’s okay. Let us not forget that Cobb’s expertise appears to be getting people out of Limbo who are only in Limbo because of him. Ariadne falls outside of that area of expertise. And we’re very good at our jobs, Arthur. We are rather excellent at our jobs. Some might say we are the best in the world at our jobs. We’ll go into Limbo, and we’ll get her out. It might not be a walk in the park, but it will get done. You and I got bloody inception done, Arthur. We can do this.”

Arthur looked across at him for a long time. Then he said, “You got inception done. The rest of us just executed your plan for you.”

Eames lifted his eyebrows. “Are you feeling all right, petal? That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“Remind me of that,” Arthur said, as he stood and started readying the PASIV.

“What?” asked Eames, not understanding.

Arthur handed him his IV. “Remind me that you got inception done, when we’re down there. Because I think you’re better in a dream than I am, and I might need to be reminded of that.”

Eames didn’t even know how to respond to that. It was, on the one hand, a stunning compliment. But it was also, on the other hand, alarming to him that Arthur had reached the point where he was admitting that.

Before he could come up with what to say in response, Arthur said, “Hurry up, Mr. Eames. Time to sleep.”

***

Ariadne built mazes. It was what she was good at. It was what she excelled at. She couldn’t quite remember why, but she kept building them. Circular mazes and square mazes and triangular mazes. Mazes made out of concrete and diamond and gold leaf and lilac bushes and yarn. There were mazes everywhere on her island. Now she was old and getting tired, and they were achievements she was proud of. Ariadne wandered between her mazes and loved them and thought there would have been worse ways to spend a lifetime.

***

They washed up on a beach together, inelegantly, and Eames coughed up what felt like an entire lung’s worth of salt water before rasping, “Fuck,” and collapsing onto his back in the sand. The sand was cold and clumpy and uncomfortable, and the waves were still breaking over his legs, but this was good enough for now.

Arthur, sprawled next to him, seemed to agree.

They lay in silence for a time, until their breathing sounded less labored.

“I thought Ariadne’s Limbo would be nicer,” remarked Eames, looking up at the gray sky overhead. “I thought it would be all sunshine and rainbows.”

Arthur didn’t say anything. Arthur pulled himself up to standing.

So Eames followed suit, stood next to him while they took stock of their surroundings. The beach stretched as far as they could see in either direction, edged by walls of different colors and shapes and sizes.

“I don’t think Ariadne’s here on the beach with us,” remarked Eames.

“That would make our job too easy,” said Arthur, and coughed again.

“Here you go, pet,” said Eames, and handed him a bottle of water.

Arthur looked at him strangely. “Where did you get that?”

Eames looked surprised, then confused. “Oh, I…I guess I made it. Huh.”

Arthur looked down at the suit he was wearing, soaking wet. And then it was another suit entirely, a pale color, perfectly dry. “That’s easy here,” said Arthur. “Easier than it usually is.”

Eames didn’t ever think it was exactly hard to manipulate a dream, but he saw what Arthur meant, because he was also dressed in new dry clothing before he could finish thinking about it.

Arthur drank his water and pushed his hair off his forehead. It instantly settled, dry and slicked-back into place.

Eames looked at the ocean and said, “So does the ocean represent human consciousness? Who thought that?”

Arthur ignored him, walking up to the seawall nearest them, which looked like it was made of a shiny, polished black granite. There was an opening carved into it. Arthur stuck his head inside, then pulled it back out.

“What’s in there?” asked Eames.

“It’s a hallway,” Arthur said. “I think we should follow it.”

“You think it’s going to lead us to Ariadne?”

“I think it’s pretty clear Ariadne isn’t on this beach.”

Eames shrugged, and followed Arthur into the granite opening.

***

The corridor they were striding down was granite underneath their feet and granite on either side. It was so highly polished that looking down revealed their reflections in such detail that Arthur felt dizzy. There was already something off-kilter enough about being in Limbo, an unsettling biting feeling at the back of his brain that he didn’t like. The mirror-floor effect wasn’t helping.

So Arthur kept his gaze ahead of them, following the corridor. Their footsteps made a matching rhythm along the floor, and it was nice to have Eames’s shoes tapping in counterpoint with his own. Arthur had toyed briefly with the idea of leaving one of them topside, but had dismissed it because he hadn’t wanted either of them to be alone in Limbo. The PASIV would shut off when it would shut off, and they would either emerge from Limbo—knowing they were waking up—or they would stay where they were, too caught up in their own heads to even realize that waking was an option.

Either way, Arthur thought, it was better to be facing that with someone else. He felt for Ariadne, alone in here somewhere.

The corridor met up with another hallway at a ninety-degree angle.

Eames said, “Left or right?” He didn’t broach the notion of splitting up.

Arthur supposed he was feeling the nibbling creepiness of the place as well. Arthur looked up and down the hallway and realized, “It’s a maze.”

“What?” asked Eames, after a second.

“She built a maze,” Arthur repeated.

“But…” Eames paused for a beat. “There was a wall all along the beach. Are you telling me that it’s all a massive maze?”

“She’s Ariadne. They’re all mazes. Fuck.” Arthur pinched at the bridge of his nose.

“So you’re saying that to find Ariadne, we need to negotiate the world’s most enormous maze?” clarified Eames. “This is going to take fucking forever.”

“And look,” Arthur remarked. “It’s already getting dark.”

***

Arthur was the one who came up with the system to make sure they would know where they’d been in the maze, because Arthur was the one who figured out that they could change the appearance of the maze. So they walked along, with torches bouncing light ahead of them, with a gold streak slicing through the granite in their wake.

Eames said, “Ariadne could just come along and take the gold streak out.”

“She could just do that with anything we do to try to keep track of where we’re going,” said Arthur. “But you’re right. We should keep track of turns.”

Which they do using a voice recorder that they dreamed up.

Eventually they were too exhausted to keep walking, and they dreamed themselves up some food and a tiny wood fire, and Arthur sat by it using the voice recording to sketch out what he thought the maze looked like so far. Eames fell asleep to the scratch of Arthur’s pencil.

He woke to daylight and Arthur curled close to him, relaxed in sleep. He watched him for a little while, the dusting of freckles over his face, the loose waves of his hair, the shadow of his eyelashes against his cheek, his darling petulant mouth, still frowning even in sleep.

Eventually Arthur woke, blinking his eyes open and looking across at Eames.

Eames smiled at him.

Arthur actually smiled back.

It was really very nice.

Then Arthur said, “Day two,” and stood up.

***

Arthur’s Moleskine was the anchor of their days, although neither one of them realized at the beginning how important they would be. As they walked they talked about everything, from their favorite movies and books to their favorite subjects in school to their childhoods. What they had wanted to be when they grew up, who their first romantic crushes had been, whether they thought they would ever live up to the promise they had held when their respective militaries had both chosen them for dreamsharing, because they had been the best and the brightest.

Arthur, Eames realized, was hilariously funny in a way he had never fully appreciated. He was nice to have around, calm and capable and clever, with witty observations and good stories.

And there came a night when Eames realized abruptly, by the light of the campfire, while Arthur scribbled his notes, that he couldn’t remember what they were doing anymore. It was something very important, he knew that, but he felt as if his world had closed up to include just Arthur and the constant journey.

“Arthur,” Eames said slowly.

Arthur grunted.

“Don’t be alarmed, pet,” Eames said.

Arthur looked up, eyes narrow. “Is there a spider near me?”

“What? No. What are we doing?”

“Going to sleep for the night.”

“No,” Eames said. “What are we doing here?”

Arthur opened his mouth, and then closed it.

Eames waited.

Arthur frowned and said, “Wait. Is this a relationship question? Do we have to put a label on this?”

Eames sighed and sat up. “Darling, we haven’t even kissed. What label would you put on this relationship?”

“Complicated,” Arthur said, still frowning. “Do you want to kiss?”

“I… What sort of bloody stupid question is that? Of course I want to kiss.”

“Okay, then,” Arthur said. “Let’s get it over with.”

“That is not very romantic,” said Eames. “That is not very romantic at all.”

“You’re the one who wanted to know what we’re doing here,” Arthur pointed out.

Which reminded Eames. “Yes. Exactly. What are we doing in this maze, Arthur?”

“We’re trying to get out of it,” Arthur answered readily.

“Why?” persisted Eames.

Arthur opened and closed his mouth again.

“See?” said Eames, and settled back down on the sleeping bag he’d dreamed up for himself. “It was something important. I know it was something important. It was something we weren’t supposed to forget.”

Arthur picked up his Moleskine and flipped to the front and said, “Ariadne. We’re saving Ariadne from Limbo.”

It burst on Eames suddenly, abruptly, like being doused in cold water. And then he dug the poker chip out of his pocket, the poker chip he hadn’t thought of in forever, and checked the gouge on it. Across from him, Arthur rolled his die.

“A dream,” Arthur said. “We’re in a dream. How did we forget that? We just dreamed up dinner, for Christ’s sake.”

Arthur made a sound of distress, and Eames instantly went into soothing mode. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay, we have your Moleskine, we remembered.” But he said it while staring into an artificial fire that he hadn’t even thought twice about making, and he said it with fear roiling through his stomach.

***

They were running out of conversational topics. So Eames told Arthur how he’d lost his virginity.

“Is this appropriate?” Arthur asked.

“Humor me, love,” said Eames warily. “This is all dreadfully boring.” They kept hitting dead ends. Twice today they’d had to backtrack.

So they exchanged sex stories for the rest of the morning, and then dating stories for the afternoon, and then they walked through the twilight talking about what they were looking for in a relationship, what they wanted out of life in general.

They sat next to their fire and dreamed themselves up dinner, and Arthur said, “I think you couldn’t do that in the real world.”

They were sitting side-by-side, their backs up against the granite wall, while Eames conjured a perfect toasted marshmallow and stuck it in his mouth. “What?” he asked around the stickiness.

“That. What you just did. Make food out of thin air. I think you couldn’t do that in the real world.”

Eames shrugged, unconcerned. “That makes the real world a dull place, doesn’t it?”

Arthur shifted to rest his head on Eames’s shoulder. He said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Eames kissed the top of his head like it was perfectly natural and said, “Me, too.”

***

Eames started telling stories. Fairy tales he reworked into wild works of fiction.

“That’s not how it goes,” Arthur would say.

“You are such a spoilsport,” Eames teased him, and then Eames kissed him up against the wall, because now he could.

Sometimes they spent days sprawled together in the sun, pleasantly naked, dozing, until one of them decided to initiate lazy love-making. Arthur loved it.

He said that to Eames. “I love it here.”

Eames stroked his hand over Arthur’s hair. “I think we’ve been irresponsible.”

Arthur shook his head. “We’re grown men. We can totally fuck all day if we want.”

Eames laughed. “Not that. There’s something we’re supposed to be doing here. I keep saying I’ll bring it up tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes.”

“Because it’s always today,” said Arthur.

“Exactly. But do you remember, darling? What we’re supposed to be doing? It’s important. It has to do with this.” Eames lifted up the poker chip that was always in his pocket.

Arthur looked at it and frowned in thought. “Cards?” he said. “Are we supposed to play cards?”

“No.” Eames shook his head, frustrated. “This is important.”

“It’s a poker chip, Eames.”

“It’s more than that. It means something. I just can’t remember what.”

“Maybe it’s in my notebook,” said Arthur, and retrieved it, and read out loud, “Save Ariadne from Limbo.” Then he frowned and looked at Eames and said, “Is Ariadne in Limbo? Do we need to go get her?”

***

Arthur loved their days, and Eames didn’t disagree, because Eames loved Arthur, and Eames loved every day spent with Arthur. But Eames couldn’t shake the unhappy feeling at the back of his mind that there was something wrong. Arthur was so happy, hummed and brushed kisses over his skin and held his hand and smiled endlessly, and Eames thought, This is wrong, and felt terrible for thinking it. He didn’t want to say anything to Arthur because he didn’t want Arthur to crumple. He wished he could just forget whatever it was he was trying to remember, forget it completely and utterly, and then he could just enjoy Arthur.

And that was when they encountered Ariadne.

Although Eames, for a little while, didn’t know that was who it was. It was a person. Another person in their landscape, in their maze, and Arthur frowned and said, “Who is that? This is our world, don’t they know that?”

It was an old woman, ancient, hunched over, with long gray hair, and she came up to them and paused and said, “Don’t I know you?”

And the voice was old but also familiar and Eames said, “Oh my God. Ariadne.”

Ariadne looked amazed. “Yes! That’s my name! God, I haven’t heard that in centuries!”

“Ariadne,” Arthur repeated slowly.

Eames pulled out his poker chip and looked at it. There was something about the poker chip—

“We’re dreaming,” he remembered suddenly, and looked at Arthur. “We’re dreaming,” he said again.

Arthur looked at him, then shook his head. “No,” he said. “No, we’re not. Of course we’re not. We’re us.” He waved a hand between them. “And now Ariadne is here.”

“I’m glad you’ve come,” Ariadne said. “Did you like my maze?”

“No,” Eames said forcefully. “We’re dreaming. Listen to me. I am better at this than you, Arthur. I got inception done.”

“We all got inception done,” said Ariadne.

But Arthur was staring at Eames and Eames knew he’d sparked the memory he needed. Arthur said, “What—But—Oh.”

Eames nodded. “Yes. This is all a dream.” And then the implication of that hit him over the head. Arthur, holding his hand, nuzzling close to him at night, grinning at him as he sank into kisses: This is all a dream.

Arthur looked like he was realizing it, too. His eyes were wide and dark and drowned with emotion. He said, “Eames—”

“We have to go,” Eames said, and he didn’t want to say it, and that was why he said it. Any further delay and he would find a reason to stay, and any more time spent down there and he would forget again, and who knew if they would ever find anything like Ariadne to trigger the memory.

“Hang on,” Ariadne said, sounding annoyed. “I’ve spent a lot of time here—”

“You can build all the mazes you like in the real world,” Eames said. “For now we have to go.”

“The real world,” Arthur echoed, and sounded swamped in unhappiness.

Eames looked at him, hesitated, then said with renewed conviction, “Yes. Here we go.”

***

Coming out of Limbo was the most unpleasant experience of Arthur’s life. He wanted to find a hotel room somewhere and hole himself up and just be alone, but he couldn’t, because Ariadne was far worse off and she required constant attention at first, and in the repetition of telling Ariadne that this was the real world, he finally started to believe it.

Eames was quiet, which made sense, because surely he felt as shell-shocked as Arthur. Arthur looked at him where he slouched by the window and thought of turning his face into Eames’s neck, of Eames’s arms pulling him in close, of Eames’s voice murmuring I love you, and how readily Arthur had said it back. It was all a dream, he told himself. Just a sex dream about a random colleague. It never happened.

Sleeping was fraught with peril, but eventually Arthur stopped waking disconcerted, and Ariadne did, too. Ariadne got better and better. And as she improved, Arthur actually felt worse and worse. Because eventually Ariadne would be well and he wouldn’t have a reason to be in Eames’s presence anymore. Eames would leave, because this was the real world, and they didn’t spend all day every day together in the real world.

“I think she’s better,” Eames said one night while Arthur watched Ariadne sleep.

“Yes,” Arthur agreed, feeling exhausted. “Much better.”

“Arthur,” Eames said softly, after a moment.

Arthur really didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want Eames’s pity about how much Arthur was still caught up in a dream. Arthur said hastily, “Thank you for getting us out of there.”

“Arthur,” Eames said again, and caught Arthur’s face between his hands.

Arthur didn’t move. Arthur looked at Eames in the moonlight and thought, Am I dreaming? Is this happening?

“This is the real world,” Eames said.

“Yes,” Arthur agreed breathlessly. He was almost positive about that. His hand closed around his totem in his pocket.

“I love you,” Eames said, like he’d said a thousand times before.

Arthur was pretty sure this was the real world. But, if it wasn’t, he didn’t know that he wanted to wake up.

He closed his eyes and breathed and lifted his hands to close them into Eames’s shirt and said, “If we’re dreaming, let’s just dream together. Let’s just be, like this. Can we?” He felt pathetic, desperate, begging for this.

Eames said, “Darling, I’ll do you one better. We can be just like this, right here, in the real world. Roll your die.”

Arthur opened his eyes reluctantly, removed himself from Eames’s embrace, and rolled his die. Four. Real world. Real world.

“Darling,” said Eames, drawing him in, kissing his neck, “I have a radical idea. Let’s make the real world as good as a dream.”

If anybody could do it, thought Arthur, they could.

 

The end