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one.
daemonic, cthonic (a source of movement)

--

Mal's voice is bright down the line. "Hello, Yusuf," she says. "It’s been a while."

He was eating dinner, Chinese takeout out of a carton, chopsticks splintering between oily fingers. His thumb slips over the casing of his cellphone. "Whoa," he says. "I was starting to think you'd died." (Immediately after he said it, he winced; her husband isn't dead, but he might as well be.) "I’m sorry-- about Dominic."

He never met Mr. Cobb, but he's known Mal for  years -- there aren't that many chemists who deal with Somnacin as elegantly as the two of them. They’ve been alternately competing and working together for the past ten years or so-- and everyone who's dreamed (legally, or not) knows of Cobb. He's genuinely sorry and worried about Mal, who has been unreachable by  anyone  for the past month or so.

"Thank you," she says, but there's an edge to it; he recognizes it from when they were both scientists, when it was all about the lab, all about the  creation --not so much the people, or what you could do with it. Mal's a single-minded terrifying  force , like a hurricane. She was -- is -- a very good chemist, but her chances of forgetting to eat, sleep, shower and follow ethical guidelines were pretty high when she wanted something. "I need a favour."

Yusuf says, "I am going to regret this, aren't I?"

Her laugh is dazzling, too light; he knows Mal, can hear the falseness and the tension in it. "That’s no way to look at an opportunity, Yusuf."

--

Dominic Cobb is not what he expected. 

(To be quite honest, no one could be what Yusuf expected him to be: some mix of Batman and Albert Einstein and ten feet tall besides. Cobb's reputation in the circles Yusuf runs is kind of absurd.)

He's almost small on the bed, a crumpled figure against white linen, wires sprouting from his veins like spiky Victorian-Goth wings. He’s nothing like the man whose reputation as an architect has spread across five continents.

Mal leans in the doorway of Cobb's hospital room, eyelashes very dark, hair curling elegantly around her ears. "Thank you for coming," she says, careful, shutting the door behind her and taking a step forward. "He’s been dreaming for four weeks. I  think  first level but I can't be sure. I went in to check but it was a mess; his head's a mess. I tried shooting him, which didn't exactly win me his undying love." She looks down, at her hands, twined together against the rich red fabric of her dress. "I took him off the Somnacin but he hasn't woken up. I need to manufacture a compound that will slow his dreaming. He’s getting old in there, Yusuf. He’s getting ancient ."

He swallows, tries to phrase it delicately. "Mal, not that I don't-- how do you know he's still-- in there?"

She bites her lip, tucks her hair behind her ear, clicks across the floor to Cobb's bedside. "I don't," she says, looking Yusuf straight in the eyes. "But I have to try. He’s--" Her eyelashes flicker as her gaze cuts away from him. "I have to try."

Her lab is well-stocked, well-lit, very neat.

He had forgotten just how good she is.

She looks at him, over a sheet of formulae, written in his neat cramped handwriting with her sleepily sketched molecular structures underneath it. "I’d forgotten how good you are," she says.

He grins. "I was about to say the same thing about you."

--

They test it on Arthur first. He’s an experienced dreamer, like Cobb.

Eames says, "I didn't expect to see you here," but in a way that's more pleased than surprised.

Yusuf looks pointedly at Arthur and says, "I could say the same to you," but it's more friendly than pointed.

(It’s been a month without Eames dropping in unexpectedly; this isn't out of the ordinary, but Yusuf was starting to miss him.)

Arthur says, "I’d better not grow a second head," but he stretches out his arm for the Somnacin, delicately balanced.

The short brunette adjusts her neck-scarf. "You'd be more likely to get delusions, right?" and ducks out of the way of his flailing hand.

--

Arthur wakes up an hour later.

Mal, Yusuf and Eames have been having tea; Ariadne's working on something that involves a lot of glue and papier-mache, which was her excuse, but Yusuf thinks it was probably the history that got her. Baby architects are always ridiculous about things they don't know; either they're going on a manhunt for information, or they're burying their heads in dreams and buildings. He’s almost surprised she hasn't cornered him with questions yet, but he supposes she has time.

"Hi," Arthur says, from the couch.

Mal slides to her bare feet, slips across the floor too fast, to press her fingers against the pulse at Arthur’s wrist and check the measured beep beep beep of his vital signs on the monitor.

Eames swallows the last of his tea. "You all right there," he calls across the room.

Yusuf leans on the back of the couch. "So," he says, watching the set of Mal's mouth, the line of Arthur’s waistcoat as he breathes in and out. He can't help feeling just a little nervous.

"One hour," Arthur says, and grins, teeth bright.

--




two.
a king at nightfall.

--

Ariadne is the only one who's never met Cobb, Dominic. This is fine, she often thinks: she has Cobbs Mallorie, Phillippa and James instead. She doesn't need to have the brilliant man at the heart of the world to walk through buildings in Mal's dreams and know who built them.

(Sometimes, though, she traces her eyes over glass and arching steel and linear wood moving in ways wood isn't supposed to, and wishes she could know this man, could sit and watch him sketch, could settle into the crevices of his mind and  learn .)

It's irrelevant, anyway. Cobb is dreaming. She hasn't seen the body, and she doesn't really want to.

--

Mal is-- compelling, is the best way Ariadne can put it. a centre of gravity; a magnet. She cannot comprehend what Mal must have been like with the other half of her. Part of her does not want to, possessive of the Mal that she has, the Mal that is real. 

Mal does not talk to Ariadne much. Her eyes skim across Ariadne as though she is not there, as though Arthur made a mistake, as though--

As though Ariadne is a child, and needs to be protected, and the best way Mal can do that is to keep her out of Mal's irresistible gravity. 

It’s like with boys, in high school: being ignored only makes you want them more. Ariadne has always been far too curious.

--

It’s like Mal thinks that because Ariadne can feel joy that she is a child. Ariadne wants to say,  you can make anything you want and you strip it down to hotels and mountainsides ; she wants to say,  don't you understand we can make anything.  She wants to say,  not being jaded doesn't make me naive.

Arthur had said,  you can be unlimited , fixing her with a calm, cool stare, but he doesn't understand, not really. He isn't a builder. She doesn't begrudge him that, but sometimes it saddens her; there is so much of the beauty, she wants to explain, so much that they are losing.

Eames is the only person who takes her seriously. She thinks maybe it is because Arthur and Mal have their own saga; he understands what it is to be on the outside. Maybe it is because they both make things; Ariadne worlds, Eames people, who are worlds of their own. 

He is sitting outside, smoking. His fingers hold the cigarette delicately, carefully. She has seen how precise he is capable of being.

It is raining and her hair is wet. 

She says, "So, Dominic Cobb."

His eyes are very dark. He breathes out smoke. "I met the two of them-- a long time ago. Arthur and I weren't speaking; he didn't introduce us. I knew Dom before I knew Mal; Arthur didn't want me to know either of them."

Ariadne raises an eyebrow. "You and Arthur?"

"It was never anything," he says, "not compared-- Arthur was really only waiting for them. Only ever."

Her nailbeds are wrecked. She tries to smooth a hangnail and waits.

He is looking out into the woods behind the house. The light filters through the clouds, catching the well-worn lines of his face. (They change, when he is dreaming. He doesn't mean them to, but they do.) "I almost understood, when I met them. Cobb-- Arthur didn't know Cobb had asked me for this job; I didn't know Arthur would be there-- Cobb did, Cobb planned for the whole thing because that was what the mark needed.

He is-- he was-- the kind of man who needs all the information. Brilliant, obviously. watching him build-- I’ve never seen anything like it. Everything is very real, realer than-- usually you get some idea, when you've dreamed enough, of what's real and what's not, but with Cobb-- the lines kept blurring."

He looks at her, then, eyes catching hers. "You remind me of him, sometimes."

She doesn't know if that is good or bad.

"Mal sees it too," he continues. "I’d bet you anything the reason she's skittish isn't because you're naive, because she thinks you can't do it. If you ask me, it's because she's afraid you can."

Arthur has shown her Cobb's work, in the deep recesses of his dreams; huge towers, all harsh angles and perfect lines. Arthur remembers the structure with an unparalleled precision but it is the feeling of it that is missing, the essence of the creation.

All of them are brilliant at what they do but none of them are  architects  and Ariadne wants to cry with frustration, sometimes, because all she wants is to understand, to be  taught,  but none of them can do it. She needs to know what the buildings look like, she needs to get it right because she can mimic for days but that's not what dreams need-- dreams need you to believe them.

Eames says, "The Cobbs spent a lot of time in each other's heads. I’m sure some of it bled in." He tosses a ball to James, who catches it happily. When he winks, Ariadne isn't sure who it's for.

--

"Mal," Ariadne says, breathing in deep, "I need-- I need to see Cobb's work, in your dreams."

Mal blinks. "Hasn’t Arthur shown you?" It is Mal's night to cook and Ariadne thinks that what is beneath Mal's hands is lasagne but she hasn't ever seen one that shade of yellow. It is always a bit of a risk when Mal cooks but usually Arthur steps in and salvages everything. Ariadne is pretty sure she saw a casserole in the freezer just before.

"Arthur remembers lines," Ariadne says, carefully, "which is useful, but if you want to go into Cobb's mind and fool him into thinking he's in a world he has control over, it's going to have to be more than that."

Mal's hair is a beautiful sweep at the nape of her neck. She turns away from Ariadne and the line of her back is harsh, like a skyscraper Arthur dreamed, once. "All right," she says. "Tomorrow?"

--

Mal's fingertips are careful, light, pressing gently on Ariadne's wrist as the line goes in. her mouth curves in a reassuring smile; "See you soon, Ari."

If there is anything that they are really good at, Ariadne thinks, sinking her head back into the headrest, it is the timing. Everything goes black.

When she opens her eyes she is in a big square house, all clean lines, sharp washes of colour. She recognizes it instantly as one of Cobb's, but there's something deeper to it-- a feeling, like Cobb was really  there,  like he walked through and left fingerprints on this windowpane, on this load-bearing beam. Dreaming is really not at all like reality; reality isn't all echoes.

She looks out the window, off a cliff into rushing emptiness, into clouds; everything clicks into place and she stands there with Cobb's ghost hanging over her shoulder and she thinks,  oh,  because she can see it, she can see everything. She understands Cobb, more than she has ever understood another architect: she can see everything about him in these clean lines and soft puffs of cloud, minimalism twined with fantasy, rules (barely) imposed on chaos. 

She can extrapolate, from this, what it would feel like to dream with him.

Beautiful, spare; but terrifying. 

"We built this house together," Mal says, dreamy and French, something thick and heavy like love hanging on all her syllables, and she turns around to look at Ariadne. Her eyes widen.

Mal is wearing green, unusually, and her eyes are very dark. Her heels are sharp and high enough that Ariadne thinks they could double as knives, in a pinch, and this is a dream so they probably are honed. "Ariadne," Mal says, and her mouth is a little bit open, like surprise--

Ariadne has only ever seen Mal surprised once and it was the day she came home with Arthur. Mal then had looked surprised and angry; Mal now looks surprised and kind of terrified? Ariadne has never seen Mal afraid but she thinks, possibly, this is it.

Ariadne blinks, checks over her shoulder for a projection that Arthur assures her will never be a problem; nothing. She looks down at herself: Ariadne is an honest kind of dreamer, she wears the same clothes she sleeps in, the same messy hair and half-assed makeup, comfortable sneakers that Arthur keeps threatening to burn. Today it's jeans, red sneakers, scarf, coat--

That's not my coat,  Ariadne thinks. It’s heavy and patched at the elbows and a little bit too big-- a lot too big, Ariadne should really start dreaming herself taller-- and it smells faintly of cologne, of the house.

Oh,  Ariadne thinks

and then there is a sound of thunder, 

(a gunshot)

and she's sitting up in her comfortable chair, yanking the IV out, "what the fuck just happened?"

--

Arthur says, "So, this job." His cravat is neatly-tied and his hair has a lot of gel in it.

Ariadne shrugs. She has been avoiding Mal, trying to put these puzzle-pieces together, but also she keeps flinching. It's stupid because it's not like she's never been shot in a dream before, Arthur in particular is an asshole and likes to do that instead of just waiting the hour out, but. There had been something in Mal's face and she-- ugh.

"You need me on it," she says, lightly, because she's been looking at what they want and all the ways it's true. They’re going to need a convincing environment, one that can shift, and neither Arthur nor Mal seems particularly enthused to know all the background, all the details, and Eames is going to be busy enough wearing somebody else's body without also running the dreamscape.

"Yeah," Arthur sighs. "I didn't mean to put you in danger," he adds.

She shakes her head. "You showed me what my dreams look like," she says, meaning it. "There’s nothing that isn't worth it."

He’s kind of smiling, just a little bit. "That’s what I said, when they taught me."

She has known him for a little while, now. She can tell that  they  means the  Cobbs .

She remembers the sound of the gun and is not even momentarily jealous.

--

Mal says,  "You don't go deep. " The French comes out stronger when she is stressed; it's so thick, now, that Ariadne's surprised any of the words are English.

Ariadne puts her hands in the pockets of her red coat. There is ink on her hands and she’s been dreaming about the Cobol plans. "You need me," she says, carefully, quietly. "You know you won't crack Cobol without me."

Eames slings his arm around her shoulder. "She's right, Mal."

Mal snaps, " Eames ."

He shrugs. "I’m sorry, Mal. You know I don't bullshit."

Ariadne smiles, very softly. "I’m a builder," she says. "The rest of you don't match me. And you know you need a builder on this one."

--

"My husband went mad," Mal says, very softly, very sweetly, like there was never a gun in her hand pointed at Ariadne's heart. "That is what dreaming does, Ariadne."

Ariadne swallows. "You forget," she says. "I don't get lost."

Mal's smile is wry, painful. "That’s what he said, Ariadne. He was-- he was better than you. And he got lost. You understand why I’m worried."

In dreams, Mal is paler and thinner and wears a lot of black. In this space, reality, she's warmer and curvier and there is, even right now, a little smudge of red finger-paint on her left wrist.

"I think," Ariadne says, "that might be to my advantage. I’m not about to forget that I can fuck up." She keeps tripping over her words. She really needs to stop doing that. 

--

The space for Cobol is a vast snowy labyrinth in Mal's mind, all high arches and gravity-defying stairs. Ariadne crunches across snow and glass in thick boots and a coat that isn't hers, an old battered thing with patches at the elbows and heavy, full pockets.

Arthur shades his eyes as she steps towards him. "Ariadne," he says, and he pauses, startled.

Mal is wearing a long black dress that swirls like ink through water when she turns around. "Nice of you to join us," she says, half-smirking.

Ariadne puts her hands in her pockets. There is a ring in one of them; a smooth band that she knows without checking will be gold, will match the circle sitting on Mal's bedside table. She looks at Eames, who smiles very carefully. "This isn't my jacket," she says, shrugging it off.

Mal's lipstick is perfect. "It’s cold, Ari," she says. "Keep it on."

--




three. 
the still point of the turning world

--

Arthur had said, "I need your particular skill set." His voice was clipped and tinny through Eames' cell.

Eames should have known Arthur didn't mean  for a job.  He should have read the lines: Arthur prides himself on specificity, something Eames lacks. 

He thinks maybe he got hung up on  I need  and let the rest of it go. He’s always had a soft spot for Arthur. He’s always liked a challenge.

(And, realistically, if Arthur had said  Mal needs you  Eames would have been on the first plane. That's the problem with Cobbs. They get under your skin, no matter what you do; impossible to get rid of.

It’s unfortunate that Arthur is practically one of them.)

--

The first time Eames met Mal she was wearing red, dark red, like lipstick, like blood. There were test tubes in her hands, hovering above a complicated array of wiring, tubing, glass that sparked when you looked at it wrong.

She smiled at him, heart-stoppingly beautiful; "You must be Mr. Eames."

Cobb slipped past him to put an arm around her waist, to bend and kiss her cheek. "This is my wife, Mal," he said. "She’s the chemist."

"Pleasure to meet you," Eames said, kissing her free hand.

Her lips quirked, lovely and dangerous. The test tubes splattered onto him and 

"I see you've met the Cobbs," Arthur said, bone-dry, winding an IV cord around his hand. "Mal's lovely, isn't she?"

--

"What the hell, Arthur," Eames said, "you really think we can  wake Cobb up? "

Arthur shrugged. The brittle set of his shoulders made him look younger, vulnerable. "The first time we met," he said, "you said you liked a challenge."

Eames thought,  I said it to get into your pants,  but both of them were well aware that didn't make it untrue. "Jesus," he sighed. "Well. At least now I know you really do like me."

"Fuck off," Arthur said, "you're the only one I could get on short notice."

For someone so dangerous, Arthur was really not a very good liar. There was something warm in his eyes, something comfortable; even if Eames and Arthur were never going to have a torrid exciting love story Eames was glad that they were friends.

Even if it did mean he was going to be part of a plan to break into the sleeping mind of their generation's paramount dreamer. Even if they were going to have to convince said dreamer's brilliant, vindictive, emotionally damaged wife that she wanted in, too. Even if everyone involved happened to be obnoxiously stubborn.

--

Mal's getting better lately; she's stopped drinking so much, stopped staring off into the distance. Eames can't believe that she trusts him with the children, but for all the sharpness Arthur is one of the best friends he's ever had and he thinks, probably Mal is running on autopilot. If Eames was running on automatic he would, of all people, trust Arthur. He’s had better friends but nobody quite so reliable.

Ariadne asks about Mal, about Cobb; Eames says,  they're the best dreamers I’ve ever met,  grateful for the contraction hiding the tense of it. He likes Ariadne, sees why Arthur picked her, why Mal let her stay; he's a little bitter that Arthur asked this little girl first, but she is such an even mix of Cobb's scattered brilliance and Mal's clear sharp mind and Arthur's sheer efficient precision that he can't hold it against her.

He and Arthur end up planning the job, mostly out of necessity; Mal is better but that doesn't mean the idea of dreaming doesn't make her flinch, and Ariadne's so green that it's better for everyone involved to let her sleep their planning time away.

Arthur says, "You'll have to be the wife, of course."

Eames nods. "Nothing's going to surprise me, right?"

Arthur shakes his head. "You’re completely informed, Eames." His eyelashes don't even flutter.

You fucker,  Eames thinks, a little proud. If he's going to lie, at least he's better at it than before.

-- 

Mal is well enough for Somnacin and cooking; she looks up at Eames from a cup of tea and says, "Really, thank you for coming."

Eames shrugs, unspooling the tie he wore for recon. "Arthur's cooking," he says, "who wouldn't?"

She laughs, quietly. "My kids will never forgive me for not moving him in earlier." She has lovely eyes, he's always thought; dark side of the moon eyes. They don't give anything away.

Eames sits down and puts his hands flat on the table, palm-down. There’s no delicate way to phrase this. "What happened to you and Cobb?"

She doesn't flinch, doesn't wince. Her tea is jasmine and still steaming, strong and fragrant. "You know what happened, Eames."

"I know what Arthur told me," he says. "You don't tell him everything." (Unspoken:  you will always protect him. )

She exhales deeply. "Eames--"

"You need me," he says, quietly. "You want him back like Arthur does. I am not going to walk into this without all the information. Ariadne's naive, Yusuf doesn't dream-- if I’m going in there I need to know everything you know. There is going to be something to trip us up and I’m going to be prepared, Mal, because if you think I’m spending the rest of my sanity in limbo you'd better think again." 

Her expression is Arthur's when Eames has won, a little sideways twist of the mouth. "Not now," she says. "I’m not quite sure what happened, yet." He thinks she means,  I’m not sure what to tell you  and that's fine because it means she's going to give him something.

"I understand," he says, quietly. "But soon."

--

Yusuf calls him, asks, "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

"It’s the Cobbs," Eames says, "when the fuck does anybody know what they're doing?" He's chain-smoking outside, for the first time contemplating the possibility that he might be in actual shit. He’s never seen Arthur or Mal quite like this: single-minded and terrifying. If it wasn't for the children, Eames thinks they'd probably not have bothered with him or Ariadne, just dove right in, reckless.

Yusuf sighs. "You know, I never met him. Just her."

"They didn't like to bring people in," Eames explains. "If it helps, you didn't miss much. He was-- is, I guess-- brilliant, but kind of an asshole. You’d learn more from looking at his past jobs than actually talking to him."

"Sounds like somebody else you know," Yusuf laughs.

"Fucking Cobbs," Eames says, smoking furiously. "Christ."

"If only they weren't so damn pretty." 

"Sorry I didn't tell you." Smoke curls from between Eames' fingers, out into the twilight. 

"Nah," Yusuf says, "I get it. Confidentiality. I’m glad they've got you, though. Sounds like it's shaping up to be a shitshow."

"Totally fucked," Eames says, and lights the next cigarette off the previous one's end. "It’s going to be one for the storybooks."

"Be careful," Yusuf says, "if you get stuck in whatever shit they're pulling I won't have anyone to use my extra broadband."

"That would be a total goddamn waste." Eames smiles, but it's too tight, lips stretched too thin. "I’ll see you soon, Yusuf."

--

"He incepted me," Mal says.

Eames is fanning through pages of pictures of the mark's wife; he is in Mal's lab because the lighting is better there and also because he may or may not have been supervising James with paint when he fucked up one of Arthur's suits and Arthur isn't suicidal, he isn't going to yell at Eames in Mal's lab where there are dangerous, potentially fabric-ruining chemicals around.

"What," he says, looking up sharply. The papers slip through his fingers, fluttering to the ground. If this was his dream they would dissolve into birds but it isn't so they just land. 

She’s kicked off her shoes and her legs are stretched out, bare across the hardwood floor with the sunlight falling on her dark blue toenails. The set of her mouth is steady, clean. "My husband and I were dreaming. We-- went too deep, got stuck in limbo. It took us a long time to realize that the world was not real; I almost didn't, not until--" There is something like pain in her smooth voice.

"Jesus  fuck, " Eames says. Inception isn't-- it's not  done . It’s fucked up and dangerous and you just-- you don't. It hurts more than it helps and the potentiality for things to go wrong-- it's immense. There’s very little Eames hasn't done but inception-- he fucking draws the line there.

She shakes her head and her hair bounces, just a little, back in the familiar knot at the nape of her neck. "He did me a favour, as it turns out. He didn't have the -- surety -- to wake up. It looks like it has to be artificial. The brain doesn't like to think it's been fooled."

"You haven't told Arthur," Eames says, not really a question. Neither of them would. It’s Arthur, who would be an island if you let him, who would not be destroyed if he knew this about Dom but it would break him nonetheless. Mal has Dom's children; she knows how to talk to people who love him.

She sighs. "Do you know what it's like to be incepted, Mr. Eames? It’s like the idea is your own. It is like any suggestion that it isn't is wrong." Her eyes cut away from him, to the sunlight on the floor. "I sometimes stare at my daughter's face and think it isn't real. There are days when I don't think anything is real."

"How do you know?" he asks.

"Arthur," she says, quietly. "If he was a projection he wouldn't let me play him."

He thinks:  you have been in Dom’s head.  She told all of them she hadn't.

"Jesus, Mal."

She smiles helplessly. "Sorry, Eames. But here you go; have you ever seen a challenge like this?"

--

"By  your particular skill set ," Eames says very carefully, emphasising the consonants in a way that makes him sound murderous, "you didn't mean forging; you meant my ability to kill."

Arthur looks up, unabashed. "Eames?"

"You know that I won't blink, I’ll pull you out. I’ll pull her out."  I’ll leave him in limbo to rot and I won't think twice about it.

"Oh," Arthur says, absent-minded, the sun falling on his eyelashes. "Yes. You didn't know him, not like we did. It wouldn't-- I wouldn't be able to. She wouldn't either. Ariadne's not skilled enough. It had to be you."

Eames thinks:  you needed someone you could hate .

It’s not like he was under any illusions, doing what he does: he's what people need, not who they want.

But. 

It’s like waking up: it hurts.

"Jesus Christ, Arthur," he says. He sounds so tired.

Arthur sighs, hand through his hair, tie unspooling at his throat. "Who the fuck else was I going to ask, Eames?" He looks away, at the printed page under his fingers. "I really don't understand why you like me so much."

Eames has always wanted things he could not have. "Neither do I," he says. He wants to say,  you know you look a lot like Cobb right now,  but Arthur would take that as a compliment.

He stands in the sun for a long moment. He should walk away.

He doesn't.

--




four. 
a familiar compound ghost

--

Arthur doesn't like to remember his life before Mal and Dom. It wasn't horrible or anything; he wasn't an orphan under a bridge, a stepchild in an attic. It just-- it wasn't. Arthur was bright and he was aimless and if he was not content to drift through life, purposeless, he was complacent enough to accept it.

Dom had said,  is this really what you want? 

Arthur had never seen eyes like that-- eyes that could rip a person apart, eyes that saw right through him. He put his hands in his pockets, said,  I’m fine the way I am.

You're going to need to get better at lying,  Dom said. His smile smashed through the bar of the hotel they were sitting in and Arthur jerked awake.

Mal smirked at him, eyelashes thick, lips red as blood and if he was already half in love, he might as well go all the way after that.

--

Miles called and said, "Have you heard from Mal?"

Arthur was in the south of France. He was thinking about calling Eames so they could have hatesex but thought it would be wasteful; after all, Titanic had got him as a child and he did like French girls. It was strange, he thought, fingers on the keypad, that Miles had not said,  Mal and Dominic . "No," he said, "but they're researching, aren't they?" 

He didn't have the aptitude or the patience for it, and he'd been itching to lie on a beach somewhere. Later, he'd think,  you stupid fuck, why weren't you there?

Miles' exhale was too heavy, too harsh. "You need to see her," he said. "Arthur, there's been an accident."

He thought,  Dom,  and every single cell in his body, it seemed, was composed of a desperate, implacable yearning. He wrapped his fingers around the die in his pocket but every roll landed on three.

--

Arthur likes Ariadne more than is strictly wise; he thinks she probably knows it. This is probably why she asks, "Why Cobb?"

He doesn't know how to explain, so he says, "Would you pick anyone but Mal?"
Her eyes widen at that. She threads her ink-stained fingers together and says, very quietly, "I wouldn't pick anyone but you."

"Yeah," he says, and that is that.

--

Mal wraps her long pale fingers around Arthur’s wrist, turns it vein-up, exposing the IV tracks deep in the meat of his flesh: ingrained, like a tattoo.

He isn't a child and so he doesn't flinch (visibly). She’s always understood him better than is wise; this is part of why he couldn't ever leave her. (The tiniest possible part.)

"Arthur," she breathes.

He exhales white in the chilly Cobol snowscape; it's hers, this time, though when they do it for real it will be Ariadne's-- Ariadne, who has no Dominic lurking in the back of her mind to appear and fuck them all up. He has not brought up his Cobb and Mal has not brought up hers, but they are professionals. They know how dreaming works.

"I miss him," he says, quietly. The deeper you go in your own dream the more-- the more you find the things your subconscious is trying to hide. Sometimes he misses Dom so much it doesn't seem like such a terrible idea to drop through layer and layer and layer to say  hello,  to say,  it's been too long.

It is her dream so she is several degrees cooler than in reality when she wraps her arms around him and kisses his forehead. "If you want," she murmurs, "we could-- we could try to wake him up. We could say hello, see how he is."

Sometimes he hates her. His entire dream-self is composed of desperate, desperate  want  but Arthur is the pointman; it is his job to make sure the plan goes accordingly. "You know," he says, snaps, "that it's Cobb and we'll only get one real try."

And he knows her like he knows himself, like he knows Dom. They are neither of them ready to look into Dom's mind and see that he has rewritten them as horrifying. He knows she knows he has not been to see the body.

--

The Cobol job and Arthur has a gun in his hand and Mal at his side; it's like old times except the dream they are running through is Ariadne's and not Dom's, even if Mal dreamed her in Dom's coat once upon a time.

The air doesn't quite smell like gunpowder; Ariadne doesn't know what guns smell like. Eames flashes them a grin and slips into someone else's skin, out of the realm of things Arthur needs to worry about-- not that he ever stops worrying about Eames but he knows it is completely pointless because Eames does what Eames wants, fuck Arthur and any plan he's attempting to follow.

"Hey," and the voice is familiar and Arthur  knows how to dream  but he is skidding to a stop, Mal's fingernails digging into his dream-wrist,  no, Arthur,  but he is dragging her with him because 

"Dom," Arthur says, a desperate exhalation that sounds nothing like joy, "Dom--"

Dom is smiling in a sleek charcoal suit. His eyes are kind and he is walking steadily towards them. "There's my crew," he says. Arthur had forgotten about the lines on his face, about his stubble and the faint smell of his cologne mixed with the slightest edge of Mal's perfume, about the careful precise slope of his shoulders and the lines of his fingers and his wrists.

Mal says, " Arthur-- "

Arthur tries to say, "I know," but he can't, because all he can do is stare at Dom, Dom, Dom. Dom, who was his first, who he doesn't know how to leave. Dom, who is a creation of Mal's subconscious, of Mal's desperate want; who could just as easily have been Arthur's, but Arthur's Dom isn't about detail, he's broad lines of thoughtless genius.

"Did you think you could do this without me?" Dom asks, in that casually cruel, arrogant way he never meant to have, that they always forgave him for. "Not a chance, Mallorie. Think again, Arthur." He takes a smooth, threatening step towards them and Arthur realizes he is leaning towards Dom. It makes sense: Dom is always north on the compass, Dom is always  home.

The cool edge of Arthur's name in Dom's mouth blends into Mal's, warmer, more gentle, more desperate; "Arthur," Mal is saying, and she is pulling the gun from Arthur's hand and

it's loud. 

God, it's so loud.

Arthur's ears are ringing.

Ariadne knows how gunshots are supposed to sound. Everybody watches action movies. 

--

After, Eames murmurs, "What the fuck happened, Arthur?"

Arthur shakes his head. "Eames--"

Eames' mouth is in a firm line. He lets Arthur have a lot but he won't give him this, and both of them know it.

"It won't happen again," Arthur sighs, hoping it's not a lie. "We got it done though, didn't we?"

Eames shakes his head. "Arthur," he says, "the thing about you and Mal-- Dom always got how to ask for help but you, neither of you do. We came all the way here for you. We’re not going to say no."

"It won't happen again," Arthur insists, and Eames' mouth twists unhappily but he has to let it go.

--

Philippa wraps her arms around Arthur’s neck, pressing her tear-stained face into Arthur’s shoulder. "I want my dad," she whispers, helpless, heartwrenching.

"I know," Arthur says, holding her tight. "I know, Phil. Me too."

Over Phil’s head Mal's eyes are dark and full of sorrow. She sighs, a hand on Phil's back. "Oh, Phil," she murmurs, but neither of them are liars; there is not a lot left to say.

When Arthur slips back between the sheets, they smell like Mal's shampoo, like his own clean soap. 

When he wakes, twisting his face into Mal's hair, the smell of Cobb's cologne is in his mouth; only a whisp, only for a moment, but enough.

Mal wakes swiftly, little grogginess between dreamless sleep and full waking. She tucks her hair behind her ear and rests the full, heavy weight of her gaze on Arthur.

"We need to recon," Arthur says, air thick in his lungs, choking his words. "We have to go into his mind, make sure he's there. We need to try and say hello."

She nods, a perfect, precise gesture, and he knows she has only been waiting for him to say it.

--




five. 
the unfamiliar name (is love)

--

The woman is tall, and very beautiful. She walks like the world is hers.

He would not have a practice if he only told people what they want to hear; if he only told people what they want to hear he would be asleep in some poor bastard's mind, a vegetable in a hospital bed. 

"Mr. Saito," says Mallorie Cobb, "I really need your help."

"Mrs. Cobb," he says. "If your husband is dreaming it is because he doesn't want to wake." Of course he has heard of them. He is a dreamer, after all, if not in those circles. He has never seen them, though, not until now. He did not think he ever would.

"You  fix people, " she snaps, and he thinks she is not used to desperation; she does not wear it well at all.

"I facilitate," he counters. "People come to me when they need me. It’s only a method of therapy, Mrs. Cobb. I’m not a dreamer, per se; I use dreaming as a means to an end. For your husband, it seems the dreaming is the end."

She shakes her head, a fierce sharp motion. If they were dreaming, he thinks, she would be a lioness. "You don't understand, Mr. Saito. I went into his head-- his dreams-- and he wasn't happy. He was dreaming about waking; he was dreaming about me. I shot him. 

I love him more than anything else and in his dream he shot me. He dreams of our children and our daughter's nose is wrong, our son's eyes. He knows he shouldn't be there. He can't wake up on his own."

He thinks about a dream, about his wife with a gun in her hand. The idea of it is a dagger to the heart. But this is not what he does; it's not what he can do. He will not be trapped in some stranger's mind to grow old and die.

"I really can't help you," he says. 

--

Like all regular users of Somnacin, he no longer dreams. But in the space between the blackness of sleep and awakeness, when he is lying in bed with the smell of his wife's hair, he finds himself thinking about Mallorie Cobb, about loss, about the sharp angular lines of her grief.

"What do you think I should do?"

Saika turns, sleepily. Moonlight is bright on the line of her cheekbone, gleaming through her barely-open eyes. "I think you know," she says. "You always do."

--

He kept her phone number on his desk. The subconscious is a powerful thing.

"There’s a man," he says. "If you tell anyone I told you I’ll deny it. His name is Robert Fischer. He works out of California and he incepted his father once. Nobody knows what happened afterwards, but I think he's what you need, not me."

Mal inhales sharply after  incepted,  but says, "Thank you, Mr. Saito."

"Please," he says, staring at his hands, "don't thank me." It is not humility that makes him say it. 

--

Saika asks, "What did you do?"

He says, "I told her how to get into his head. It’s anyone's guess what happens next."

He hopes she does not get stuck but he has been doing this an awfully long time. You do not do this for as long as he does without picking up instincts.

--

Once, a long time ago, Saito met Dom Cobb in someone else's dream. He was a monster, a creeping terrifying monolith that ripped the dreamer apart.

Part of Saito cannot help thinking:  maybe this is the universe catching up to you, Mr. Cobb.