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Wake the Rocks

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Inception goes like this:

“I need my mother to forgive herself,” says Prisca Tozoun. She is the daughter of a woman who was piloting a boat across Lake Togo when a sudden strong wind had capsized it. All of the other four people on board died—her aunt and two family friends. Her mother was wearing a life preserver, had put it on at the first sign of rising winds. She didn’t deem it necessary to warn the others. Now they’re dead and she’s suicidal. She dreams about the shipwreck every night.

She tells them the whole story in a Ha Long Bay hotel suite with large glass panes overlooking the water. Arthur listens attentively and tries not to snap at Eames, who is sitting in the armchair closest to the window, fidgeting and casting frequent glances out at the water, as if he wishes he were going for a swim right about now instead of listening to a girl share her heartbreaking story about a mass drowning.

“Can you do it?” Tozoun asks them.

Eames' left knee jiggles compulsively. “Well,” he starts.  Arthur leans forward, palms down on his thighs, and beats him to it.

“We know your major work is assisting ivory poachers,” he says. “If we do this, you give us clean currency.” Eames’ eyes narrow. Arthur mentally flips him off.  “Half upfront. If we trace the serial numbers and find anything dirty, the deal’s off. Can you do that?”

Tozoun stares at him for a moment. She swears in French. “I can wire you twenty percent by the end of the day. Thirty percent in cash by the end of the week. The rest after.”

Arthur nods. When Eames jumps in and starts talking, Arthur swears he’s holding back a laugh. Tozoun doesn’t pick up on it. Not that this makes up for the lack of professionalism. Arthur lets out a sigh as soon as she’s gone, and Eames peers at him as if Arthur’s something interesting in a curio shop.

“Since when do we refuse to accept black market money?”

“Since I stayed in a hotel that had Animal Planet,” Arthur snaps. “Since when do we enter unconstructed dreamspace?”

“But it’s not really unconstructed, is it?”  Eames is beaming. An eager Eames is never a good sign—at least not for Arthur’s mental health. “We know what we’re going to find. She’ll fill the recurring dream with her own projections of the people on the boat, we’ll convince her she couldn’t control what happened and she was right to save herself. Hell, if she’s acting out the scenario on a nightly basis she’s clearly trying to find some catharsis from it. She’s halfway to incepting herself already.”

“It won’t work,” Arthur says. “We’d have no control over how long the dream lasts or who’s down there with us, and we’d have no idea what else her subconscious decides to throw at us.”

“But all we’d have to do is formulate a test run to—”

“Eames,” he says. “This isn’t happening. We can talk about making a replica of the scene she experienced. We’d need to increase the size of the job, but it’s negotiable if we can cut back on—”

“Arthur,” says Eames. “You said that we’d try experimental jobs, jobs that tested the possibilities for what dreamshare could do and how we could interpret Inception.”

“I didn’t say we could start building jobs in unstable dream space,” Arthur says curtly.

“But it won’t be unstable, will it?” Eames eyes are bright with that keen glow he only gets when he’s being either very brilliant or very lascivious, and, there, that’s the gut-clench Arthur’s been dreading. “Arthur. It’s a recurring dream. We know it will be stable because she’s been dreaming the same thing every night. Up to the part where the drowning starts we should have a recurring and easily predictable pattern to follow, no surprises. We can go under and observe the dream a few times just to get a feel for the landscape, then run it ourselves.”

“Yeah, up until the part where the subject starts to drown us,” Arthur says. “If she’s guilt-tripping then her subconscious is going to be injecting her dream with recurring chaos, and we’ll be right in the middle of it.”

“I know! Won’t it be amazing?” Eames' grin spreads to his eyes. “Arthur. Arthur, if we can pull this off, imagine what that could do to dreamshare. Not only can we manipulate people’s minds, but we can go into their dreams—not ours, theirs—and make them dream whatever we want them to. We can use their own dreams against them!”

And he knows it’s a terrible idea, but somehow, even as Eames is putting words to the niggling thoughts in Arthur’s head, he believes it: he believes that they could do it, that they could make it happen, and that it will be just as amazing as Eames says it will; and in spite of everything the thought must show on his face, because Eames practically glows at him, leans over, and kisses him on the cheek. Arthur pulls away abruptly, surprised and embarrassed. If his face has immediately turned bright red, Eames must be too caught up in his own genius to notice.

“I knew you’d see it my way, darling,” he says, and Arthur realizes that really, there was never any doubt.

If nothing will ever top the original inception, and the feeling of watching Cobb wake up on that plane just as it lands, the novelty of pulling off a one-level inception so soon after their first one comes close. Afterwards, he and Eames find their way to the nearest bar and toast to a job well done, and Arthur tries not to smile into his beer foam, or list into Eames when they walk back to the hotel, the night wind cool on Arthur’s cheek, and reminding him of a kiss he’s too drunk to pretend he’s forgotten.

Madeline Traadsen is weeping into the handkerchief she brought with her into the cafe, and Eames is rubbing sympathetic circles over her shoulders while Arthur tries not to do more than they already have to attract the attention of bystanders. “I need my mom to get over her fear of flying,” she says. “She has to be at my wedding, she has to be. There’s no way we can afford to fly all of Trent’s family to Boca Raton,” she says. “A cross-country train trip takes nearly ten days. Ten days! And all she’d have to do would be to get on the plane. But she’s terrified. I don’t know what else to do. She’s tried therapy. She’s tried hypnosis. We’ve tried everything.”

“Shhh,” says Eames. “Say no more.”

Arthur is going to quibble with Eames about how they can possibly fill a constructed plane full of non-hostile projections when the woman projecting them is terrified of what they might do to her, how they can possibly keep her subconscious from adding turbulence into a flight scenario, how the client is supposed to pay the team fee when she can’t even afford to pay ten grand or so for plane tickets.

But he looks at the way Eames is bending in, reassuring and kind, the look on his face one Arthur rarely gets to see when it’s not being trotted out as part of a forgery. And he thinks, goddammit, and starts visualizing ways to construct turbulence-free flight paths, and a dreamscape so detailed they’ll have to control wind patterns.

Eames accepts a third of his usual fee so they can bring in a (slightly confused) meteorologist to consult, without charging Traadsen more. Arthur cuts his own fee in half so he can bump up Eames’ share. He keeps waiting for Eames to mention the increase, but Eames never does.

They pull Ariadne out of grad school—again—and Arthur doesn’t feel too guilty about it when they tell her she has to recreate half of the city of Ft. Lauderdale, and concourse C of Seattle-Tacoma Airport, and he sees the realization dawn on her that she’s got to reconstruct most of the U.S. and fit it into Arthur’s head.

Arthur has an enormous amount of fun piloting the plane. Eames has an enormous amount of fun playing six different parts at various stages of Mrs. Traadsen’s journey through the airport, and especially being the short-skirted flight attendant who frequently enters Arthur’s cockpit to check on him, leading with her long, long legs. Mrs. Traadsen has an enormous amount of fun being pampered at every turn.

Instead of taking her three levels deep, they take her on the plane ride three times in three weeks, using slightly different weather patterns each time. As far as logistics go, it’s both one of the simplest and yet most difficult jobs he’s ever done.  Each time they take her on the flight, Mrs. Traadsen gets demonstrably more comfortable with the setting, in no little part to Eames treating her like a queen in each of the hilariously elaborate flight attendant guises he wears. On the third run, Eames has to do some last-minute adjusting because she spontaneously decides to hop into the ‘experienced traveler’ lane.

It works. It’s awesome.

Afterwards, Arthur packs up their equipment on the first floor of Mrs. Traadsen’s house while Eames stays upstairs for a bit to make sure she’s sleeping soundly. They weren’t going to use Ariadne in the dreamscape, but Arthur couldn’t argue with her observation that she probably needed to ride in the cockpit so Arthur’s co-pilot wouldn’t be a projection. She’s helping him pack up, occasionally giving the PASIV fond looks, and a loving stroke once when Arthur is mostly turned away.  

“So you guys are partners, now,” she says after a few moments. “You and Eames.”  When Arthur shrugs, all she says is, “Huh.”

It’s the way she says it that makes Arthur’s stomach swoop.

Eames joins them long enough to grab his jacket. “You lot are coming out tonight. Drinks on me.”

“I can’t,” Arthur immediately starts to say, realizing even as he says it that he can, that for the first time in recent memory he doesn’t immediately have a pile of unfinished tasks to take care of.

“Of course you can,” Eames says, and instead of the buttery tone Arthur is half-expecting, it’s businesslike, matter-of-fact.  “You did excellent work on this job, as always, but this go-round you kept an entire continent mapped and stabilized in your head, all while controlling wind patterns and piloting a Boeing.  And you did it, not once, but three times. At the very least you deserve to get a free drink out of it. So let’s stash the PASIV and get to it.”

Arthur says, “Oh,” and Ariadne loops her arm through his, “I’ll buy you a drink, too, Arthur, if you promise to tell me what I missed on the Tozoun job,” and Arthur thinks about how Eames had looked as the Angel of Death, standing on the prow of the boat as it started to sink, grey translucent wings folded by his side. He has to swallow, because Ariadne’s right. They are partners, there’s really no sense denying it, and the thought makes Arthur want to fistpump instead of beat his head on the table.

And that’s a thought he definitely needs alcohol to deal with.

"Ariadne," Eames says, slurring the 'r' a little because he's on his third or fourth beer, Arthur's given up keeping track—not that he ever was to begin with. "Ari, d'y'know what the best part is of doing inceptions over extractions?"

"Yes, Eames," says Ariadne, who's a little giggly. Or—wait, maybe that's Arthur who's giggling. Shit. "Yes, I know, because you've told me 80 times since the job started. The best part of inception is no one gets shot."

"Drink to that!" Eames says, hoisting his bottle. Arthur manages to raise his cider a few inches or so off the table. Close enough. "No one gets shot because no one wakes up and realizes we've stolen something from them the next day, because we haven't. We've left them presents instead." He laughs. "We're like life-improvement Christmas elves, really."

"You say that like you like being a do-gooder," says Arthur. Eames has the decency to blush. Unless that's just intoxication.

"You have no proof," Eames says, looking a bit abashed. But then he follows it up with a wink, directed at Arthur over his glass as he raises it to his lips. Arthur definitely looks at the space between Eames' left ear and the fuzzy edge of Ariadne’s head as he drinks, and not at the way his lips purse over the rim and come away dotted with foam. "But I do like the not-getting-shot-at. It's my favorite—apart from working with you all again, of course." He flashes Ariadne a smile made to melt hearts. Ariadne just snorts and lists into his side.

“You do know your jobs are getting crazier, right?” she says, eyeing Arthur, who’s trying not to smile openly at them both. “You’re playing around with recurring dreams, what the fuck, trying to manipulate the weather, doing one-level inceptions like it’s no big deal—what’s next, performing inception in broad daylight?”

“No fun in that,” Eames says. “I believe they call that hypnosis. Arthur wouldn’t get to have nearly as much fun in that case, anyway. And we all know how Arthur likes his fun.”

Ariadne turns her head to lie against Eames' shoulder. She gives Arthur a long, contemplative look. “I can think of some fun Arthur can have outside the dreamscape,” she says. Then she snorts and buries her head in her arm.

“He’s off the market,” Eames says curtly, following it up immediately with a smooth, “He’s married to his work, aren’t you, darling?”

And there, that’s the buttery tone Arthur’s been waiting on. He’s drunk enough to acknowledge to himself that he feels better when he hears it, less off-kilter. Drunk and smarmy Eames is a safe Eames. Competent, steady, subversive, unexpectedly professional Eames is someone Arthur is still learning how to cope with.

Huh,” says Ariadne, which isn’t any kind of—anything—and Arthur drowns the rest of his cider in one long gulp.

When he sets it down and motions for another, Eames is looking at him across the table, his eyes considering and warm.

His second drink doesn’t arrive fast enough.

“My boyfriend is a composer named Craig Hermann,” says Alec Masterson. “I need him to decide to divorce his wife.”

Over Masterson’s shoulder, Eames looks up from his perusal of the impressive bar that came with their suite and mouths, “Boring!” at Arthur.

“Mr. Masterson, we don’t normally involve ourselves in romantic entanglements,” Arthur starts. “Too many variables to try to factor, there’s too much ambiguity around the subject’s—”

“No, you don’t understand,” Masterson says. “He wants to divorce her. He hates her. She hates him.” He swallows. “We’re in love.”

Behind him, Eames smirks, but still continues to sip his brandy in a way that suggests that were Arthur not glowering at him, he’d’ve poured it over Masterson’s head. Masterson looks like a kid trying on grown-up clothes. He’s wearing a suit a size and a half too big for him, and the business words he used when he walked in the door, “collaboration” and “enterprise,” sounded ill-fitting coming from his young, freckled face. Eames is evidently unimpressed, and Arthur is feeling just contrary enough to wonder if this is the kind of impression he first made on Eames when he started. And since the answer is obviously yes, Arthur invites Masterson to keep speaking when he ordinarily would have been showing him the door.

“Why can’t he get the divorce?” he asks. Eames grimaces at Arthur, but he offers Masterson a drink and gives him an encouraging, fake smile.

Masterson rakes a hand through his hair and downs the brandy in one gulp. “Because he has a pre-nup that states that if it’s anything other than amicable—and trust me, it wouldn’t be—he he has to give her half of everything. Which in this case includes half of the rights to the musical he’s been composing since college, and which is finally about to get its first investor hearing.”

Arthur frowns before he can stop himself. He knows how Masterson found them, but at the same time, how did a guy like this find them?

He opens his mouth to refuse and then sees the look on Eames’ face. He has his head tilted like a hound dog trying to catch the scent.

“So you’re not asking us to implant the idea that he needs to leave his wife,” Eames says. “You’re really asking us to implant the idea that he isn’t passionately in love with his life’s work.” He narrows his eyes. “Kind of a poor way out, isn’t it?”

“No!” says Masterson. “I’m not asking you to make him love his work less, just to make him prioritize being with me over the financial risk. He’s afraid that if he gets into a costly divorce now, he won’t be able to get the musical off the ground—and that even if he does, she’ll take it away from him.”

“Well, he’d be right,” Arthur says. “Not accounting for what his wife might do, it’s increasingly hard to produce musicals of any kind these days.”

“Yeah.” Masterson shoves his hands in his pockets. “But this one... it’s almost certainly not going to get the investor backing he wants.”

Eames scoffs. “That’s overly pessimistic. Even Carrie got a run on Broadway. How bad could it possibly be?”

Masterson just looks at him. “Let’s just say it’s not the typical fodder for a musical.”

Arthur shakes his head. “That’s not how this works, we need to know as much information as we can upfront.”

Masterson says, “Can I have another glass?” After he’s downed his second tumbler, he winces, and says, “It’s a musical about the life of Frederick Douglass. Aside from the fact that Craig is a Jewish guy from Milwaukee writing about a black man from Maryland, nobody wants to get depressed when they go to the theatre.”

“Because Les Miserables was so cheery,” says Arthur.

“That was the 80’s,” Masterson said. “People could afford to be depressed back in the 80’s when they didn’t have to go home to Abu Ghraib and Newtown and Occupy Wall Street and Edward Snowden and their own damn lives. Maybe he could set it up as some kind of tourist attraction in Maryland, at the birthplace of Frederick Douglass. But Broadway?  Who’s gonna go see it?”

“Black people, maybe,” says Eames, his mouth sloping down into something that’s not quite a frown, not yet. “Or people who like musical theatre. The show's target audiences? Just a thought.”

“Broadway can’t sustain a show that doesn’t appeal to tourists,” Masterson says. “You know who the tourists are? White people. Or Asian or Indian or—” He waves his hand impatiently. “Whatever. This show is going to collapse before it ever gets off the ground. In the meantime, the two of us could be having a life. But he’s afraid he’s going to lose his entire livelihood before he’s even gotten it, and it’s starting to tear us apart.”

“Have you tried therapy?” Arthur suggests.

“He doesn’t think this is a couples problem,” Masterson says stiffly. “He thinks I need to get over it.”

Arthur’s about to politely say something along similar lines, when Masterson blurts, “I’m willing to pay five million upfront, seven after.”

“If you’ve got that kind of money, why don’t you just finance his play?” Eames asks. “Hell, why can’t you just support the poor bastard through his risky divorce?”

“He won’t let me,” Masterson says.  “It’s this or nothing.”

“So we make him abandon the idea that his success or failure hinges around a single project,” Eames says. “It won’t work if we can’t do a positive catharsis somehow. You’re asking him to essentially embrace and brace for failure.”

“Is there a demo cut we can listen to?” Arthur asks. Eames sends him a mockingly impressed look. Whatever. Arthur will ask him how he knows so much about Carrie: the Musical later.

“I brought it with me,” Masterson says, and he pulls it out of his jacket. "You're probably not going to like it."

He plays them the big pre-intermission number, a dramatic montage reworking an African-American Spiritual. It’s actually quite clever, with Hermann’s music and lyrics through-composed to give the listener the action, using the song as a centerpiece. The scene revolves around a the Sunday School meeting that Douglass has been using to teach his fellow slaves how to read.  A deep bassist—Hermann’s demo singers are impressive—sings, if I don’t praise him, the rocks are gonna cry out, as a mob of plantation owners descends upon the church and attacks the slaves.

Ain’t got time to die, the singer intones, amid an ironic background of terrified screams and crackling fire. The string section overtakes the solo in an ominous swell that leads to the climax of the scene and, presumably, the Act One curtain.

It’s powerful, Arthur thinks. He says so. “This could be the next Ragtime, or Fiddler on the Roof,” he says. “This could elevate the genre.”

Masterson huffs. “Broadway is hopelessly Disneyfied now,” he says. “You think people are gonna line up to see a history lesson when they’ve got the damn Wedding Singer right across the street?”

“What about this,” Eames says. “What if we skip trying to make him hate his own work and focus on this. Time is fleeting, life’s too short not to be with the person you love, his own musical tells him that.”

“You want to incept him with singing and dancing,” Arthur says.

“And acting,” Eames says. “Has to be a triple threat, darling, otherwise he’ll never take it seriously.”

Eames' grin always seems to feed off of Arthur’s annoyance, like a weed that’s taken root in the soil of his irritation; the more frustrated Arthur gets, the bigger it gets.  At the moment, Eames is beaming, Arthur is glowering, and Masterson is looking between them curiously, like he’s putting something together.

That’s not why Arthur says what he says next, but it does make saying it a lot more satisfying.

“You need to think through this more carefully,” he says, standing up. “You need to figure out whether trying to interfere with your boyfriend’s dream just as he’s about to realize it is really what you want to do. Think it over. If you’re still convinced there’s no other way, give me a call in seven days.”

He holds out his hand. Masterson blinks at him a few times before shaking it.

When he leaves, Eames lets out a heavy sigh.  “We don’t have to do this one.”

“Masterson’s an ass,” Arthur says firmly, walking to the bar. “And racist.” Eames is at his side a moment later, hips jostling in the small space.

“So why give him the option?” Eames says. “You know he’s going to want to go through with it.”

Arthur empties the decanter of brandy between their two glasses. Eames gives his a perfunctory clink against Arthur’s, and Arthur catches his eyes as he drinks. Up close, they’re a warm pewter-grey today, a little deeper than usual because Eames is wearing a colbalt suit that Arthur wants to strip him out of and then help him into in the morning. He thinks of their hands fumbling together over Eames' tie, Eames swatting his own hands away and then capturing them a moment later. Eames' mouth hot on his neck as Arthur attempts to do his own buttons and Eames attempts to distract him.

For a moment he can see all of this so clearly that realizing it hasn’t actually happened yet is like blinking and then waking up. He averts his eyes and focuses on his glass.

“You said you wanted interesting,” he says, trying to keep his voice as detached as possible. “I’m thinking we buy out a box seat to a theatre where the boxes have curtains,” he says. “We pay off the ushers, get Masterson to take his boyfriend to the theatre, put him to sleep and do the inception right there during the performance. If we can take him at least a level deeper we should be able to get in and out in two hours, no problem. The difficulty will be avoiding notice during intermission but with a private box it should be fine.”

”On the first level we can make him think he’s seeing a performance of Rent,” Eames says. “He’ll already be thinking about how there’s ‘no day but today’ and ‘measure your life in love’ and all, so he’ll be doing our work for us. Then we can take him a level deeper and use his own musical to send him the message.”

“I can design a theatre maze, no problem,” Arthur says. “What would you be forging, Masterson or one of the actors?” He’s aware that the two of them are leaning close together.  Eames has his elbows on the bar, long and relaxed, his body open to Arthur like a buffet spread. Arthur gets a bottle of scotch out of the cabinet and pours a large helping for himself.

“Masterson, I think,” Eames said. “On level one. Level two, I think I should be the soloist. Unless we’re doing a rehearsal. Maybe that would work better. We could suggest to him that he needs to make Douglass’s relationship with Anna Murray the focal point of the second act—his urgency and need to be with her overriding all other concerns.”

“Then we could take him a level deeper and have him make a choice between his love for Masterson and his love for his play,” Arthur says. “The wedding date is the same as the opening night and he has to choose which one to cancel, maybe.”

“We give him a song and dance, literally, about how true love won’t wait,” Eames says.

“So a standard three-layer inception.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it standard, but yeah, sure.”

“We’ll need a bigger team.”

“With a payout like this one you can have all the people you want, my dear Arthur.”

“What happens if he doesn’t take the bait?”

“You mean if he still goes for the drama instead of the romance?” Eames shrugs. Then he smirks. “Then we kick back, enjoy some eine kleine Sondheim, and tell Masterson when he wakes that his boyfriend’s never going to make it to the altar. If we can’t do an inception, we an do an extraction instead.”

Arthur smiles. “Sounds like we have a plan, Mr. Eames.” Beside him, if possible, Eames grows even more pliant, a gnarly sunflower opening up just to Arthur.

“The real question,” he says, “is now that we’ve unexpectedly got a whole week of free time ahead of us, how are we going to spend it?”

“I’ve got to get on the phone, start working the contact list,” Arthur says. “It’s too soon to call Ariadne away from Paris again. I can do the maze design but we’ll need at least two more people on the second and third—” He stops because Eames is watching him with an overt leer on his face. When he catches Arthur’s gaze he waggles his eyebrows ludicrously.

“Oh, shut up,” Arthur says.

“Cheers, mate,” Eames answers with a wink, and Arthur proceeds to get very, very drunk.

“S’not true,” Eames slurs, two hours and about a third of the bar contents later. “True love will wait.”  They’re slumped together on the plush velvet couch, sinking deep into the confines of the plush velvet cushions and losing themselves in the plush velvet pillows. Arthur is tempted to lean his cheek on one, so he does, only it turns out the pillow is actually Eames' upper arm, which is surprisingly plush, too.

“True love,” Arthur agrees, “will be very annoyed at you for being so late, but yes.”

“True love will be a passive-aggressive arse about how you’re always stringing it along,” Eames says, punctuating the thought with a giggle, “but it will wait for you, in the end.”

“True love sounds high-maintenance,” Arthur declares to Eames' shoulder.

“No,” Eames says, his voice close and fond. “True love sounds lovely.”

“Oh,” says Arthur. He turns his head until he can see Eames peering down at him, upside-down. His hair is coming untucked from where it normally lies slicked unfairly to one side or the other. He looks less card sharky, younger. Arthur thinks about poking his hair back in place, but his arm is made of angry jellyfish so he leaves it lying where it is.

“I keep waiting for there to be a limit to you,” he slurs up at Eames. “There must be.”

“I think there was,” Eames says. “Before you came along.”

“Oh,” says Arthur.

“Yes, ‘oh,’” Eames says, and he pulls away slightly in order to substitute his arm for a real pillow. He shifts back, leaning Arthur and the pillow down onto the couch. Arthur gratefully flops over onto it and wriggles, comfortable and snug, when Eames draws out a blanket that he got from who knows where.

“Blanket,” says Arthur.

“Yes,” says Eames. “Now go to sleep before I ravish you.”

“Don’t ravish me,” says Arthur. “That sounds mean.”

“I’m never mean to you.”

“I like it when you’re never not mean to me,” Arthur says. “Shut up.”

Eames' smile, warm and soft, is the thing Arthur shuts his eyes to, and the lost memory that haunts him in the morning.

Arthur wakes up dry-mouthed, aching all over, and desperately needing to evacuate around forty different bodily fluids at once. The blanket he’s been huddled under all night is too hot and looks vaguely under-washed, possibly because he’s been sweating in it. Not that Arthur is going to quibble when Eames clearly gave him a dirty blanket and then took off for god knows where.

He scowls at the fresh coffee and aspirin on the end table beside him. Then he scowls at the dirty bottles still scattered on the floor, because of course Eames left them all there to remind Arthur that he isn’t perfect, as if he needed reminding. Arthur sits up, rubs at his temples, and fails to sort out his feelings before he grumpily gives up and heads to the bathroom. He scowls at his own reflection in the mirror, at the crease in his cheek from the pattern of the pillow he slept in, the bags under his eyes, the way his hair is sticking straight up. He looks far too much like the messed-up kid he used to be, a person he barely remembers. He ducks into the shower, makes it as viciously cold as possible, and doesn’t think about Eames at all.

But the coffee sitting by his makeshift bed is still warm when he’s out, so maybe Eames hasn’t gone far.

A concentrated work ethic is the best thing Arthur has found for the occasional moments when dread gathers in his stomach like a hand slowly curling into a fist. So he sits down at the suite desk, still wrapped in his towel and sporting embarrassing shower hair, and dives into his files on the dreamshare community, refreshing his memory and updating intel on his top candidates for the Hermann job.

He tries not to feel vague alarm at how long it’s been since he’s worked with any of these people. Somehow, while his back was turned, six months passed since the Fischer job. Ever since he’s worked almost exclusively with Eames. Eames and rarely anyone else.

Annoyed at himself and not wanting to think too closely about why, he calls the first person on his list of potentials.

“Lined up for anything at the moment?” he asks when Adebayo answers.

“Arthur. Good to hear from you at long last. I hear you’ve moved on to planting instead of reaping?”

“Huge crop to prep next week if you’re interested,” Arthur says.

“I might be. Send over the details. I assume the boyfriend will be on this one as well?”

Arthur needs a moment to parse this, and then another moment of shock. He finally says, glaring at his phone since he can’t glare at the person on the other end of it, “Eames is the team lead. It’s three levels. We’ll need a team of four for backup on the lowers.”

Adebayo whistles. “For a three-level, it better be a good harvest,” he says in his clipped Nigerian accent. “Even for inception. For the chance to work with the best.”

“Eames is the best,” Arthur says, trying not to grit his teeth. “He has a very specific skill set.”

“Yes,” says Adebayo. “If even half of the rumors are true, his skill set lately is ‘everything.’ But he’s not the only one on this job, is he?”

He’s still chuckling, as if he can sense Arthur’s discomfort over the signal, as he rings off.

Arthur’s headache is back and apparently people think that he and Eames are dating. If Adebayo, whom Arthur has never known to give credence to gossip, thinks he and Eames are dating then it must be fairly widespread by now. Arthur doesn’t understand it: he worked with Cobb consistently for over two years and no one ever thought he and Cobb were together. Possibly because Cobb wore grief like most men wore tight suits—pinched together over his hunched shoulders.

But this thing with Eames has been different. Arthur’s known that from the first time he called Eames to ask if he wanted to partner up.

It’s not like Arthur hasn’t been completely out of touch with the rest of the community. He could have worked with them any time he needed them. But he hasn’t needed them.

Hasn’t wanted them, because he’s been with Eames.

His stomach churns in irritation. He thinks back to Ariadne quizzing him about his partnership with Eames, about Masterson’s look between them the previous day. He tries to remember what happened last night, but everything after the second bottle of bourbon is a blur. He strongly suspects, given the lack of evidence to the contrary, that it was all completely innocent and pedestrian. Because of course Eames always has seen him as some kind of blushing virgin, trying desperately to be taken seriously and failing. Of course Adebayo wants to work with Eames, only the best, the way Arthur does, the way everyone does. Eames could demand far more than an equal share of the cut, especially for their last two jobs, and Arthur wouldn’t blame him.

Arthur’s not even sure he needs to be here.

He’s lost in the middle of this litany of thoughts when two hands suddenly cover his eyes, and Eames’ voice purrs, “Guess who?”

Arthur jumps up from the desk so quickly Eames doesn’t have time to react. His shoulder impacts with the front of Eames' chest as he turns to bark, “Don’t touch me!” and for a moment, as he says the words, he hates Eames for assuming he had the liberty and himself for whatever he’s done to make Eames think he has the liberty, and himself for letting Eames sneak up on him, jesus, that’s never happened before, and fuck Eames, fuck Ariadne, fuck Adebayo, they’re—

“We are not in a goddamn relationship,” he snaps, shoving Eames away from him. Eames stumbles back, his hands going up automatically, and Arthur watches the smile he’d been wearing drop and twist painfully several times before it vanishes altogether and settles into a thin, cold line across his hardening features.

“Of course not,” Eames says. He does the thing where his features go utterly blank, the thing that means he is trying very hard to keep Arthur from reading him. And Arthur doesn’t know when he picked up this information about Eames, where or how he learned to read him so well, but he can read him so clearly anyway—the tense edges of his mouth, the sharpness of his eyes, the way his adam’s apple is throbbing.

Wanting Eames has never been something Arthur has let himself feel—it’s been something that sneaks up on him in his vulnerable moments, a thrum of longing that never quite surfaces to make itself into an issue. Now, he looks around him at the suite he didn’t hesitate before sharing and realizes that for months Eames has been quietly trying to move them along a patient trajectory towards something. The blanket draped over his shoulders, the painkillers and coffee Eames left for him this morning, the warmth of his voice tucked against Arthur’s side—they’re pieces of a long job Arthur never even saw coming, yet more proof of how easily Eames blindsides Arthur—how easily Arthur fails to measure up.

Eames swallows. “I apologize for surprising you. And for touching you without your consent.” Even as he says it, he’s backing out of the room—Arthur sees now he’d bought bagels from the pastry shop downstairs. They’re sitting on the floor where Eames had presumably dropped them as he snuck up on an Arthur who was too unforgivably wrapped up in his own thoughts of Eames to even hear him coming.

“It’s fine,” he tries, but that doesn’t slow Eames’ retreat. “Eames, it’s—” he gives up when he sees the way Eames’ features flinch into a half-hearted attempt at smiling as he backs out the way he came.

Arthur thinks: Fuck.

Eames is gone for most of the day. When he comes back he retreats to his bedroom without a word.  

Arthur doesn’t try to talk to him.

It’s not like Arthur hasn’t always known he can be an asshole.

Inception started like this:

After Cobb left the business to go be with his kids, Arthur flew to Albany to visit his family and managed all of six days before he was fed up of having to field worried looks from his mom, the comments from all of his relatives about how exhausted he seemed, and the constant refrain of: so why haven’t you been able to visit again?

The problem was that they were also right: he was tired of getting shot at, tired of having so many other people’s lives in his hands—and thanks to Cobb, he’d done that unwittingly on the Fischer job. As much as Arthur hated to admit it, it was a much-needed reminder that there were too many fucking variables in the kind of corporate-level jobs they’d been doing for him to ever successfully control. Maybe five, even three years ago he wouldn’t have cared. But three years ago Mal was alive; and right now, Arthur felt like the walking dead.

He took the safest job he could line up quickly.  It was an extraction on a kindly bachelor who’d started as a chemist and made millions in the food manufacturing industry. He now spent most of his days sleeping. It was the most mundane of extractions: find out what was in the will. Quick, easy, the whole thing took place on a cosy, scenic stretch of the Chesapeake, and best of all, Cobb wasn’t the goddamn extractor.

The extractor was a red-headed Irish woman named McGowan, and she had always hated Cobb. Arthur had never worked for her before—he’d barely worked with any other extractors—and he might have called her up out of a few years’ worth of passive-aggressive vindictiveness. She’d spend the workday busting everyone’s balls and then cheerfully offer to buy them all drinks on the way out the door. Arthur liked her, though he wasn’t sure he could speak for the other members of the team. Lin, their architect, packed up as soon as she’d finalized the design: the chemist had to fly back to Chicago as soon as he was done working up the compounds. It wasn’t a difficult job, but compared to inception, it was lonely.

Ten days into the job Arthur finally let himself do what he’d told himself firmly that he would not do: he got very drunk in a crab shack and texted Eames. The bar sat at the end of a long, spindly-legged pier, as if it had gotten drunk and wobbled out onto the bay. Arthur liked it. He ordered a pile of shitty Coronas and sent Eames six texts in a row that said variants of hey asshole and you suck and you better not have burnt this phone already u fucknut before the phone finally rang and Eames answered Arthur’s name in his rumbly voice.

“You’re an asshole,” said Arthur. “Why aren’t you working that job in São Tomé? I know they asked you.”

“I’m fine, thank you for asking!” Eames said gaily. “How’s the seafood in Pickering Creek?”

“That is a stupid name,” Arthur announced. “You’re stupid. Don’t you like to forge things? You could have forged things in São Tomé.”

Eames’ laughter was light, like ripples out over the water. Arthur wondered if he could trail his hand through Eames’ laughter, if it would stay slippery and cool on his fingertips like dew drops.

“I’m taking a vacation,” Eames said. “Don’t you ever get vacations?”

“I already had mine. You’re lazy. Come do this job with me.”

“Are you inviting me to crash someone else’s party, darling? That’s sweet, but I don’t think your extractor would be pleased.”

“Our mark is boring,” Arthur said. He liked getting drunk because he could be petulant when he was drunk. “The research is boring. Boring.”

“If you’re so bored, why don’t you just turn it around?” said Eames.

You turn around,” Arthur replied.

“Not you, darling, the extraction,” Eames said. His voice was so smooth. Arthur wanted to rub it on his skin. “Why not give the client what he really wants, and incept what’s-his-name to leave the money to his favorite nephew? It’s more complex, there’s a nominal difference in risk, it will leave the client even more satisfied, and you’ll be able to charge more.”

“Turn an extraction into an inception,” Arthur repeated dumbly.  “That’s...”

“It’s just practical, really,” says Eames. “More fun, more money, more value to the client—less getting shot at after they figure out what we stole, because we didn’t steal anything.”

“More gratifying for you,” Arthur stated. “You watched Fischer get his big moment of catharsis and now you’re hooked.”

Eames hummed into the phone and Arthur’s mind went briefly blank. “You have to admit, there’s a significant value add. Not everyone has access to information that’s worth stealing. But everyone has something they want someone else to do for them.”

“And you like to play God,” Arthur said. “Your ego, Jesus.”

“You’re the one who wants me to fly all the way out to join you in Bumfuck, Maryland, because he’s bored,” Eames said. “Mind you, if you were running an inception, there’d be a reason for me to be there. But a two-person extraction, in and out with no militarization and no high-powered corporate interests to poke around afterwards—you don’t need me there even as a thief.”

Arthur couldn’’t really argue with that, so he didn’t say what he was thinking. A moment later Eames said it for him anyway.

“You got drunk and called me because you miss inception.”

“That’s an idiotic assumption to make,” Arthur said. “Why would I miss the worst job we ever did?”

“Maybe because it turned out to be the best,” Eames said. “We got out alive, Saito thinks we’re superheroes, Cobb got his kids back, and you got a good excuse to finally stop working with the little shit without beating yourself up over it, didn’t you?”

“Fuck you,” Arthur responded easily, but there wasn’t any heat to it.  Eames chuckled.

“Plus, it was fun, wasn’t it, darling?”  When Arthur didn’t answer, he went on briskly, “After all, you couldn’t possibly have called because you miss me, so Occam’s razor.”

Arthur thought, No, it definitely wasn’t because I missed you. “Goodnight, Mr. Eames,” he said, proud that he didn’t slur any of those words.

“Wrong, sweetheart,” Eames said as Arthur fumbled to end call. “The sun’s about to rise.”

For all that Eames is usually always in Arthur’s way on jobs like these, he’s extremely good at making himself scarce when he wants to be. It’s two days before they’re both in the same room for long enough to chat about who else to bring into the job, and as soon as Arthur opens his mouth, it’s a disaster.

The thing about Eames—about Eames and Arthur—is that when they’ve found their equilibrium, they work better together than nearly anyone else Arthur knows, Cobb and Mal included.

When they’re off, however, having to work with Eames means constantly being punched in the gut with the force of how stilted the conversation is, how full of edges, how much can go wrong when the chemistry they rely on is bad—and he doesn't mean the Somnacin.

When they’re off, they argue about everything—everything—and in the rare moments they agree with each other, it’s even worse, because then they’re brought up short by an unexpected wave of camaraderie that has no place in the atmosphere they’re wielding.

“Can’t use Grant, he’s a ratfucker,” Eames throws out, after they’ve axed three different chemists. He’s tapping his foot so impatiently it’s practically vibrating. He’s lucky he’s wearing soft-soled loafers because otherwise Arthur would be obliged to take out his Glock and shoot him just to make the noise stop.  He might just do that anyway.

“He’s solid, I’ve worked with him before,” Arthur grits out.

“Oh, you’ve worked with him before, have you,” Eames says. “And it makes no difference that I barely got out the once I worked with him because he laced the compounds with experimental additives and sped up the mark’s brain chemistry so the projections moved like they were on acid and we were all down there for an extra day and a half trying to avoid getting ripped apart. No, thank you; he’s out.”

“Fine,” Arthur snaps. “Who do you—nevermind, forget I asked.”

“Just because you’re taking your anger out on Yusuf—”

“Yusuf screwed us over.”

“No, Cobb screwed us over. Cobb screwed you over.”

“And Yusuf endangered our lives. We both trusted them. We were both wrong. We both got fucked.” Arthur has stopped scrolling through his spreadsheet and is clenching the mouse instead.

“See it however you want, he gave us a clean compound and it worked like a charm.”

“Yeah, and he lied about what it would do to us.”

“Because Cobb told him to!”

“You’re the one who vouched for him, you’re the one who should be pissed off that he fucked you over,” Arthur says, giving up on going through the list and going to the bar island to pour himself a drink instead. They’re going to run up a tab that’s bigger than their whole hotel bill.

“You’re the one who covered for Cobb’s shifty arse a million times, you should have a little more sympathy—”

“Think whatever the fuck you want, it’s not happening.”

“No, of course it isn’t, nothing ever happens unless the decision comes from you, does it, Arthur?” Eames turns to Arthur’s laptop and scrolls, ignoring Arthur’s warning not to touch his computer, before landing on what’s apparently a random name.

“There,” he says, highlighting it and then shoving the mouse away from him. “There’s your chemist. She’s perky and precocious, just your type.”

Arthur doesn’t even bother replying. Eames storms out.

By the time Masterson calls Arthur the following Monday to tell him he’s considered all his options and he wants to go through with it, they’ve got a five-person team assembled: Eames, Adebayo, and one more forger, Arthur, and the chemist whose name Eames had highlighted.  Her name is Jivana, and Eames is right, she is Arthur’s type. He flirts with her ruthlessly for all of a day, until she takes him aside and tells him that she’s not going to sleep with him.

“I’ll do the job, and that’s it,” she says. “Maybe another time would have been better, but I’m not going to be your distraction while you’re sorting out whatever your problem is.”

“I don’t have a problem,” Arthur says blankly.

“Good,” she says. “If you still don’t have a problem after the job, we can get a drink.”

But she leaves after she’s tweaked the compounds, and Arthur doesn’t ask. He feels marginally less like an asshole that way.

Most days Arthur loses himself in his work and tries not to think about the way cups of coffee have stopped magically appearing on his desk, the way he and Eames barely talk unless they have to exchange information. He constructs the three mazes for the dream: the top will be a maze replica of the Belasco, the theatre they’ve lined up to use for the job.  Arthur constructs an expanded version of the theatre’s actual blueprints, then fills it with pockets to get lost in.  On the second level, he designs a replica of the rehearsal space.

Eames works with the forgers on learning the “parts” for the roles they’ll play. On the top level, they’ll be laying out the “Seasons of Love” scene from Rent, which won’t require a lot of effort since presumably Hermann will fill the theatre with his own projections, orchestra, singers, and all, after which they’ll just put themselves under again, along with him. On the first and third level, Eames will be forging Masterson, reminding Hermann how much he loves him, how much he wants them to start their life together. The second level is the trickiest; Eames will be playing the actor who sang the part of Frederick Douglass on Hermann’s demo score. Claire, the other forger, will be the actress playing Anna Murray. Adebayo will be the spiritual soloist. He’ll be the one to suggest to Hermann that he needs to repeat his song in the second act, but modify the lyrics to reflect Douglass’ frustrated longing, his determination to escape slavery once and for all in order to be with Murray: If I can’t love her, the rocks are gonna cry out: Glory and honor! Ain’t got time to die, so that the refrain, ain’t got time to die, evolves into the mantra of escape.

At first Adebayo is bitterly skeptical that the idea will work. “Hermann could never get away with changing these lyrics in real life,” he argues. “Nor should he. You can’t just go around erasing the original meanings of Spirituals, and surely a gay Jewish man would know that. Not to mention, our version is very silly.”

“Let’s see how it plays in the dreamscape,” Arthur says. “If it’s not working, you and Eames can come up with something better.”

Adebayo scoffs. “This is a half-assed plan. Like something you came up with as a joke.”

“You mean like something that could only work in a dream,” Eames interjects.

Adebayo changes his mind completely after they run through it two levels down. Arthur doesn’t see it when it happens, because he’s holding the dream in place one level up in his theatre maze. But when Adebayo wakes up, he looks over at Eames and laughs.

“I ain’t got time to die!” he said. “Who knew?”

“So it went okay?” Arthur asks.

Adebayo looks as if he’s just witnessed a revelation. “The thing that I failed to take into account,” he says to Arthur, “is that in the dream state, where there are no aesthetic limitations on the subconscious, the message and the words of the song make artistic sense as well as emotional sense. And we’re giving him thematic ideas that could easily carry over into reality. That is what makes it feel real. It’s emotionally real, and the technicalities don’t matter. Like a projection whose features are blurred. And we’re not just incepting him, we’re really making his play better for him.”

He looks back and forth between Arthur and Eames. “How long did it take you to come up with these levels, these themes? It’s brilliant.”

Eames grins at him. “Arthur and I?  What was it, two, three minutes?” He glances up just as Arthur yanks his gaze away, embarrassed to be caught out hoping to meet Eames’ eyes like a kid with a crush. When Arthur chances a look back a few minutes later, Eames has stopped beaming; but the glow of pride he felt is still there, somewhere, curled in Arthur’s ribs.  

Because they’re both too obstinate to stop sharing the suite, Eames usually walks on eggshells in the evenings, avoiding Arthur and humming, “ain’t got time to die,” under his breath. That night, after the successes of the day, the formalities strike Arthur as especially ridiculous.

He corners Eames when he’s making himself a cup of coffee in the kitchenette, because it’s small and Eames can’t easily maneuver around Arthur without looking like he’s actually trying to run away. “Hey,” he says. “I really am sorry about the way I reacted that time. It’s not you, it’s--” he breaks off awkwardly, mid-platitude, but Eames has already visibly stiffened.

“Look, Arthur,” he says in an odd voice, “you did nothing wrong.” He’s stirring his coffee in slow concentric circles, with a look of intense concentration that doesn’t come anywhere near meeting Arthur’s gaze. “Just leave it alone.”

“But I—”

“Just leave it, for god’s sake,” Eames bites out, throwing his coffee-stirrer in the sink with a violence that would probably be comical if it didn’t make Arthur’s stomach frost over. Eames jostles past Arthur, elbow bumping him awkwardly as he tries not to spill the coffee. In the half-second he meets Arthur’s eyes, his own are pleading. Arthur bites his lip, hard, and stands there in the kitchen for a moment or two, until he hears the determined click of Eames’ door being kicked shut.

He throws the coffee stirrer in the trash can where it belongs and goes back to work.

It’s been a long time since “running point” was an afterthought in the job Arthur worked—and even longer since he’s really gotten to design architecture that he could hold in place without fighting for his life.

The maze Arthur has built should keep Hermann’s projections busy for long enough to run through a full hour’s rehearsal on the second level, and roughly fifteen minutes on the third. Really, it should keep them for much longer than that, but Arthur’s not going to jinx himself by getting cocky.

Especially not when this is his job, not Cobb’s, one of the first he’ll have worked with people in the dreamshare industry besides Eames where he’s not taking orders from anyone.  He and Eames are partners, working both sides of the jobs with equal autonomy—for the most part. Anything Arthur gets wrong will ultimately be to his credit or failure, no one else on the team.

Arthur has resolutely not been thinking about what their partnership will look like when they come up from the dream. He’s not thinking about it at the theatre, when he and Eames settle into their box seats behind Hermann, their fingers brushing over the armrest between them—because, like Hermann and Masterson, they’re only lovers enjoying a night out at a play. He’s not thinking about it when Hermann drops right off to sleep fifteen minutes into act one and he and Eames silently go under.

Arthur wakes up on the top level exactly where they are in reality; Eames, forging Masterson, is sitting beside Hermann, stroking his arm. Just as planned, Hermann immediately projects actors onstage, and when Eames murmurs, “I think they’re about to play ‘Seasons of Love’ next,” the first familiar piano chords start up.

Arthur doesn’t often get to watch Eames in action when he forges, but as Masterson there’s something hypnotic about him. Arthur would say irresistible if he were feeling charitable; as it is, he wonders if Hermann will see through the facile, manipulative guise that Eames is wearing to the person beneath it. The thought that Eames is cheapened by having to play parts like this twists Arthur’s gut suddenly. He’s conned more people than Arthur can count by making them think he’s as shallow as the personas he wears. Arthur knows better. He has for a while. Masterson, slipping Hermann his second sedative as he leans in, whispering key phrases in Hermann’s ear (“No day but today; measure your life in love”), is a fraud down here and upstairs.

But Eames. Eames is real on any level, in any world you put him in.

Arthur swallows as the song ends and Hermann drifts off.  “This is where I get off,” he says dryly, conjuring up the PASIV.  

Eames looks back at him as he’s setting it up and says, “Have a merry chase, darling,” with a smile that drops off his face as quickly as it began. Arthur blinks at him, startled. But Eames holds his wrist out to Arthur as he says it, and the memory of this part of the Fischer job rushes over him, a single moment of stability, of something reliable to cling to in the whirlwind of changed plans and hasty improvisations.

He’s never known what it meant that Eames trusts Arthur to insert his cannula for him—he always has, but since the start of this job, he’s been doing it himself, an irony that isn’t lost on Arthur. He doesn’t know what it means that Eames is letting him do it now—or that he wants him to do it at all.

Arthur knows that he trusts Eames. He does. He’s just not sure what he trusts him with.

Craig Hermann not only knows all the words to “Seasons of Love” but everything after that, apparently. Topside, they should only be asleep for around seven minutes—there are ten on the clock just in case anything goes wrong, and Masterson knows to start Arthur’s ipod in the middle of Act One. Down here, Arthur doesn’t need to do anything but wait.

When he can actually kick back and let the mazes do the work they were designed to do, his dreams feel different—lighter, somehow.  The best part is that when he’s down under, Arthur can feel the contours of the dream subtly pulsing at the edges. It’s as if the mark’s mind is shoving on the dream in all the places where there could be cracks. But sure enough, the dream always springs firmly back into place.

Down below, Eames is pulling out all the stops, working Hermann over in rehearsal and insisting that Act Two is a wash unless he changes it to emphasize the urgency of Douglass’s love for Murray. Adebayo is singing “If I can’t love her, the rocks are gonna cry out,” while Eames is laying it on thick, making a big speech about how love should be the priority over everything else.

Arthur has to admit it’s pretty good. He and Eames are amazing at this. And it’s not just the two of them. Something about the possibility of performing inception makes everyone on their team better, makes them work harder, fear less. It inspired Fischer to dive into his own subconscious. It inspired Ariadne to build half a continent, inspired an 86-year-old woman to jump into the expert traveler line when she’s terrified of flying. Inspired Eames to give himself wings.

By the time the first projections make their way to the hallway outside of Arthur’s box seat, confused and lost, Hermann’s memory of Rent has skipped a few scenes and plunged into the finale which features the refrain Eames had whispered to Hermann before he went under: No day but today.  That must mean that the inception is taking hold—that they’ve actually pulled it off in under ten minutes.

“‘Cause I die without you,” sing the women onstage, while Arthur grins and thinks to himself, Sorry—ain’t got time for that, and shoots the first projection in the head.

Topside, Masterson wakes the others and has time to get them all out of the box before Hermann wakes beside him. The PASIV is with Adebayo, who’s meeting them back at the hotel. Eames is still beside Arthur, his hand resting lightly against Arthur’s own.

“You dozed off,” Masterson chides Hermann when he wakes.

“But I had the greatest dream,” Hermann says, and he leans over and presses a wet kiss to Masterson’s temple.

They leave at the intermission. Eames and Arthur wait a few moments and then follow them out. Outside the theatre, rain sparkles on the road and splotches the sidewalk. Eames shoves his hands in his coat while Arthur tries to hail a cab. The gallery window across the street thrums in green neon, while the asphalt stones of 44th Street wink in and out at them like burning cigarette ash.

Even with his hands in his pockets, Eames is stiff and on edge, lingering on the curb and darting his tongue over his lips.

“You’re not going back to the hotel?” Arthur guesses as a cab finally pulls up.

“No, I— I packed up already,” Eames hedges. “I’ll have Adebayo send it on.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Arthur says, as firmly as he can given the way all the air feels trapped in his chest. “Come have a drink with me, at least. We can discuss the next job.” He opens the cab door and gestures Eames inside.

“Arthur...” Eames tilts his head and gives Arthur the lean, assessing look that he first gave him years ago, the first time he ever heard Arthur dismantle Cobb’s extraction plan with a series of carefully asked questions. Arthur knows, logically, that the hard lines in the corners of his eyes and the thinning of his lips are all part of Eames lowering his guard, just a little. But it always makes him feel like he’s failing a test he never knew he was taking.

“Not that I’m not appreciative of the gesture,” he says at long last, removing one hand from his pocket and twirling something between his fingers—an agitated tic Arthur is long familiar with. At first he thinks it’s a toothpick, but then, with a shock, he realizes it’s Eames’ totem. He can’t remember the last time he saw him take it out, even in a dream. “But I don’t think that would be useful right now, do you?”

When Arthur doesn’t answer, can’t answer, Eames nods once, as if it was just what he was expecting. Arthur's skin burns while he watches Eames re-pocket the totem and dig out a twenty for the cabbie. He leans in to tell the driver to take Arthur wherever he wants to go. Arthur stands frozen in place, without any idea what he should say or what he wants to say.

“You were excellent as always, Arthur,” Eames says when he leans up again, one arm still on the cab roof by the open door.  

At this, Arthur finds his voice. “Likewise,” he says, trying for urgent and coming out flat anyway. “We do good work together, Eames.”

“Always have,” Eames says, and he nods once more before turning and strolling down the sidewalk, back towards Time Square.  Arthur watches him until he weaves into the crowd, falling instantly out of sight.

In the summer, Arthur celebrates the anniversary of Inception by visiting Ariadne in Paris. She lives in a third-floor walkup near the Sorbonne, and Arthur feels nostalgic for things he’s never experienced just walking from her flat to the corner patisserie and back. She insists on not asking him any questions about dreamshare for the first day he’s in town.  Instead she takes him around campus, introduces him to friends who all think he’s her secret long-distance boyfriend, and tells them all that he’s very dangerous and could kill them with a safety pin if he wanted.

Then she takes him out and gets him hammered and makes him tell her everything.

“You’re a bad influence,” he tells her after he’s lost count of the vodka shots they’ve passed between them.

“No, you’re a bad influence,” she says. “Yusuf says no one’s doing inception anymore because you and Eames broke up.”

“What?” Arthur says. “Yusuf? Since when do you talk to Yusuf? Don’t talk to Yusuf, he nearly got you killed.”

“I like Yusuf,” Ariadne says. “We’re on the same cat forum. Besides, Cobb nearly got us killed way more, and you still talk to him.”

Arthur slumps in his seat and drinks more vodka. Ariadne pats his sleeve. “It’s okay, Arthur,” she says. “I’m here to put you back in the saddle. But not in a creepy kind of way.”

“There is no saddle,” Arthur says. “Eames and I weren’t ever together. He doesn’t want me because I’m an asshole.”

“Oh,” says Ariadne. “I meant ‘broke up’ in the business partner-y way. But, um. Okay? Maybe you should drink more.”

“You called it, don’t act like you didn’t,” Arthur accuses, staring morosely at his pink plastic drink-stirrer. It doubles as a pirate sword. “Also, I don’t think you brought me to an authentic French bar.”

“Arthur, we’re in a Kitty O’Shea’s,” Ariadne says in her unimpressed voice. “And you told me there was nothing to call.”

“There wasn’t,” Arthur insists.

“So I minded my own business and then you went and lost inception,” she says. “You have to get it back, Arthur! Because I don’t want to do extractions! Extractions are boring and they get people shot!”

“That’s what Eames says,” Arthur says.

“Fuck Eames,” says Ariadne. “Inception! You have to get it back, Arthur.”

“But I need Eames to do that,” Arthur says.

“No you don’t!”

“You don’t get it, Ariadne, no one will work with me unless I have him.”

“That’s not what Yusuf says.”

“I’m not talking to Yusuf. He’s not here.”

“Yes you are, don’t be a dick. Not-here Yusuf says no one wants to try inception without the two of you. It’s not just Eames, Arthur! People need your Arthur-ness! You just need to show everyone that your Arthurness is worth twice as much as his Eamesness.”

“That’s not very nice of me.”

Ariadne bangs her fist on the table, probably more loudly than she intended. “Ow,” she pronounces. “This isn’t about nice, it’s about VICTORY. You can do inception! Let’s do an inception, Arthur!”

“We don’t have anyone to incept,” Arthur points out, motioning to the waiter for another shot.

“We can incept the waiter,” Ariadne says as he comes over.

“What’s that?” asks the waiter. He’s tall, with hair like a version of Skrillex that got caught in a rainstorm. His nametag says his name is Bob, but Arthur’s never met anyone under 50 named Bob, so Arthur decides to call him Kevin instead.

“Kevin,” he says. “I have to plant an idea inside your mind.”

“Uh, okay,” says Kevin. “But I’m kinda busy, we’re understaffed tonight, and—”

“SHUSH, KEVIN,” says Ariadne. “Let the master do his work.”

“Oh, okay,” says Kevin.

“I can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Arthur says. “Which would you prefer?”

“Uh, the easy way,” says Kevin.

“Good,” says Arthur.  “I need you to bring Ariadne and me free drinks for the rest of the evening.”

“Why would I do that?” says Kevin.

“Because I’ve planeted the idea in your mind,” says Arthur. "Planted."

“Oh," says Kevin.

“And I’ll pay you three hundred bucks,” says Arthur.

“More vodka?” says Kevin.

Ariadne lets out a cry of triumph and bangs her mug on the table. "See, Arthur?" she says after Kevin's gone and she's done attracting stares by making victory arms. "See how easy that was? YOU ARE A GENIUS.”

She clinks her empty mug against Arthur’s and then drains what doesn’t remain of it.

“What do I do now that I’m a genius?” he says.

Ariadne says, “Oh,” and lapses into silence.  After another moment, she offers, “We could call Eames and gloat?”

Arthur sinks his head on the bar and doesn’t contemplate the hangover he’ll have in the morning.

Arthur keeps thinking that if he works enough extractions, people will line up to return the favor by joining his inception team. He’s lived in the business long enough not to overestimate people’s good will, but even though he knows that no one wants to do an inception without Eames’ name attached, he keeps thinking that the lure of the impossible made real will draw them in. That the enticement of seeing it happen, up close, for themselves, will be enough to interest them.

It’s not.

For extractions, his skills as a point man are far more in demand than his skills as an architect, and he slips back into the routine of painstakingly vetting prospective clients and team members for extractors. Sometimes he turns down the jobs that follow, but not as often as he’d like.

He hears from the grapevine—okay, he hears from Yusuf, whom he reluctantly calls after exhausting every other possible option for a chemist on an extraction he’s agreed to line up for McGowan—that Eames is in the same position, just as Ariadne said. As far as Arthur knows, no one in dreamshare has worked an inception since the Masterson job.

“Why doesn’t he just start his own team instead of trying to be some kind of free agent?” he asks Yusuf, more out of frustration with himself for asking Yusuf about Eames when he could just call Eames himself.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” says Yusuf mildly, “but I understood he had his own team. That the two of you had your own team.”

Arthur swallows. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess we did.”

“Arthur,” Yusuf says. Arthur doesn’t know Yusuf very well—he rarely talked to Arthur during the Fischer job, though he was sociable enough with everyone else—but he thinks he sounds uncertain.  “I want you to know that I—” he stops and over the line Arthur hears him clearing his throat a few times.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” he says, surprising himself. “You did what you had to do. We all did.”

“And somehow, we got to Inception,” Yusuf says. “All of us.”

Arthur wonders what inception looked like when it took hold of Fischer. He wonders if it felt like the swell of promise that uncurls in his chest for no reason at all.

Yusuf winds up taking a pass on joining McGowan’s team.  “It’s just we’re heading into the World Cup Finals,” he explains. “But I am so very glad you called.”

Two weeks later, when he walks into the engineering building McGowan has procured for them to use at her university in Dublin, the sound of hostile voices—one of which he knows well—welcomes him, and lures him all the way down the hall to an open classroom, where Eames turns and greets him with, “Oh, thank god, Arthur, will you get over and tell this idiot that you can’t put a closed loop in the middle of a bloody parking garage unless you want to literally wreck your dreamscape five minutes out?”

The idiot in this case is a newcomer named Racine who instantly reminds Arthur of himself when he was younger and giddy on the language of dream architecture, the feeling that everything around him in a dream was limitless and his for the creating. Eames evidently finds him as frustrating as he must have found Arthur, once upon a time. And, Arthur reminds himself, probably still does.

In the six months since Arthur has seen Eames, he’s gained maybe ten pounds—his shirt is tight around his pecs and shoulders—and let his hair grow out more than usual. It looks windswept and tousled instead of hastily plastered against his forehead and run through with the greasiest comb he could find. He’s boasting more than a few days’ worth of stubble, and Arthur, taking him in after all these months, wants to feel it rasping against his cheek. He wants to run his fingers through Eames’ stupid hair, and the thought makes him think of that day on the pier overlooking the bay, almost a year ago now, when he’d wanted to slip his fingers through the sound of Eames’ voice and trap him there.

The job, from start to finish, is a clusterfuck. McGowan’s client is a high-powered attorney who’s convinced that his employer is trying to frame him for a security protocol breach. Against Arthur’s advice, he wants them to extract secrets, not from his employer, but from his rival at the firm, the man he’s convinced is trying to overthrow him and take his place.

McGowan has insisted on using the workspace allotted to her by the university, which means they can only work in her cramped office during the day or in a series of empty classrooms after 5 pm.  The mark turns out to be militarized, but Arthur detects this early on, so it shouldn’t be a problem if they can just make the maze large enough to trap a bunch of angry and trigger-happy projections. But Racine either goes too big or not big enough. When he thinks big he creates noticeable gaps in his layouts that would instantly trigger a collapse in the dream if the projections drew near them. When he tries to overcompensate and think small, he winds up with entire grids of the maze he has to rework because he hasn’t thought through the continuity of the dreamscape or the path through which McGowan, Eames, and Arthur will have to travel.

Arthur winds up having to correct him after every redraw, trying his best to stay patient while keeping the others from seeing how badly Racine is doing.  Call him old-fashioned, but he likes the kid.

The third night he stays late in order to redo one of Racine’s layouts, he hears Eames dawdling at the door before finally giving up and re-entering the classroom. Arthur’s given him space, and Eames has taken it, but mutual frustration has found them circling each other more than once, close to the breaking point.

“Arthur,” Eames says from behind him. It sounds as though he’s standing a good deal apart, and Arthur thinks with a stab of guilt over the way Eames used to lean into him, so casually their hips and their arms would brush. Arthur never even knew that was a thing to be missed.

He turns around, trying to look and seem neutral, making himself look Eames in the eyes.

“You can’t keep covering for him, you know.” Eames looks uncomfortable. His eyes keep darting over Arthur’s shoulder.

“He just needs a little more training,” Arthur says. “He’ll get it.”

Eames nods, like Arthur’s answer is exactly what he expected. Then he lets out a sigh and mutters, “This job is shit.”

This job is shit, Arthur thinks.  He looks back at the holes in his redraw attempt and gives up, folding the blueprints into his briefcase for tomorrow.  “Come on,” he says to Eames, not looking back as he heads out the door. “I owe you a drink.”

Naturally, they get shot at on the way to the parking lot.

Still, when it comes to unexpectedly having to abandon one's headquarters because a pair of thugs are shooting up the university A-lot, Arthur thinks he could probably do a lot worse than having Eames at his back, laughing long and low at the absurdity of it all, occasionally punctuating the gunfire with, “You know, darling, I think your recoil control has actually gotten worse,” as he fires over Arthur’s shoulder, his body warm and solid at Arthur’s side.

In the end, Racine’s shitty architecture doesn’t matter, because two levels down, the mark’s subconscious puts a military industrial complex, surrounded by barbed wire, right in the middle of the layout.

“Well,” Eames says over Arthur’s headset, “I guess we know where he’s hiding the safe.”

McGowan curses. “I’m on the other side of the square. Can you get there, Arthur?”

“I can make it but I’ll need backup.”

“Eames,” says McGowan. “Drop the forge, we need you with Arthur.”

“I’ll be right there,” says Eames, and then there’s static over the connection.

Arthur takes out three solitary projections in a row near the fence perimeter before Eames shows up, but he’s lucked out by taking an obscure route in. He’s pretty sure there’s no way to get across the complex at this point—there are too many people, and he’s got only moments before they realize some of their number are missing. By the time he makes it to the fence, Eames is there, beretta in hand. Arthur is sweating in his three-piece, while Eames looks entirely too relaxed in his cotton shirt, perfectly neat and still-tucked.

“Miss me?”

Arthur rolls his eyes. He ducks down beside the chain links, and Eames produces a pair of wire cutters and joins him.

“How bad is it?” he asks Arthur as he begins snipping away at the wires. Arthur dreams up his own cutters—not as big as Eames'—and starts helping him along.

“We’ve got maybe two minutes to get into the building before the projections are all over us,” Arthur says. “On the other side of that fence are roughly forty or so militarized projections with automatic weapons. If we can get to the other side of that hill, we stand a chance.”

“Hmm,” Eames says, eyes darting over the compound. “We could probably take care of a group that size, but will the dream hold if we start improvising?”

“Hard to say,” Arthur says. “McGowan’s dreams are always solid, but this wasn’t in her layout to begin with, so it’s already an unstable area. But even if one of us gets past them, over the hill, and inside the building, we don’t know how many are inside.”

“Right,” Eames says. “Well, if we’re fucked, we’re fucked. Time to have some fun.” He ducks underneath the opening in the fence and pulls Arthur through after him, just as the first wave of projections come into sight. Arthur’s gun is aimed before he’s even off the ground, and he takes out a projection with two quick shots—oh, but he loves the never-ending bullet supply of dreams—before Eames is tugging him forward and the two of them break into a hard run across the pavement.  

“Eames, handle the perimeter, I’ll get the towers,” he yells as they run, firing randomly back at the approaching jeeps full of soldiers. He assesses the sniper tower in the center of the complex, stops, ducks, and takes his shot at the rooftop. The shot is good, and the console in the middle of the guard room explodes with a deafening boom. A quick look back tells him Eames has already taken out one jeep, hell if Arthur knows how.

“Arthur!” Eames yells, lugging a grenade into the air with a rebel yell.

As Arthur joins him, a bullet tears past his hand, and Eames yells, “Oy!” and fires his machine gun aimlessly in the direction over Arthur’s shoulder before diving over the hill.

Arthur tumbles after him and then pulls up short, his hand throbbing, at a second chain link fence just outside the building.

“Motherfucker,” Eames swears, and breaks out the wire cutters. “Can you take care of—oh.” He looks at Arthur’s hand.

“I’m okay,” Arthur says, staring at the blood pooling there. The soldiers are approaching, and floodlights are coming on. He can hear voices approaching them. The dream is rumbling all around them. It’s obvious to them both there’s no way they’re cutting through the second wire fence in time.

“Just a flesh wound, right?” chuckles Eames. He creates an Ace roll from thin air and starts to take Arthur’s hand.

Arthur can see the moment when he stops himself, when he pulls back. He can see the memory flash over Eames’ face.

“Eames,” Arthur says.

“Here you are,” Eames says, his expression shuttered as he puts the bandages in Arthur’s uninjured palm. “We’re about to die anyway, but that’s no sense not to practice good first aid.”

Arthur steps closer. “Eames,” he says again.

Eames meets his eyes, and his own are wide, his lashes fluttering. Arthur lifts his palm and puts it into Eames’, and Eames wraps Arthur’s hand, carefully, without ever looking away from his face.

When he’s done he starts to pull away, but Arthur keeps hold of his hand. Slowly, deliberately, he raises it and covers his own eyes with Eames’ palm.

It takes Eames another moment, but then he says, “Guess who,” in a voice that’s low and tight.

“You,” Arthur says, closing his eyes and smiling.  “Just you.”

Eames wraps his other hand around Arthur and drags him in, closing his mouth over Arthur’s and summoning an aborted breath when he bites the soft flesh of Arthur’s lower lip. Arthur pulls him in, tries to get his arms around Eames’ broad shoulders, his forearms, his waist, his abs, any part of Eames he can touch.

“I did,” he says when Eames pulls away long enough to press his cheek against Arthur’s. He leans in, wanting to feel the ragged scrape of Eames’ stubble, as real two levels down as anything Arthur knows. “I did miss you.”

“Arthur,” Eames says, tugging on his lip and huffing little laughs whenever Arthur gasps in response. “Arthur, after this—after we get shot and say goodbye to this hellhole of a job, can we please, please go back to doing inceptions?”

God yes,” says Arthur, dragging his head down for a proper kiss. “You should know, though,” he adds against the velvet heat of Eames’ mouth. “I’m more than a little in love with you. In case that makes a difference.”

Eames shudders and holds him even tighter, finally pulling his hand away from Arthur’s eyes and kissing his forehead. Arthur blinks up at him, blinded by the glow of headlights.

“I would have been very lonely if you weren’t,” says Eames. His cheeks are flushed and his smile is lopsided. “But you have the worst timing on earth.”

“You would find something to complain about,” Arthur says, and as the final hail of gunfire rains down on them both, Eames reels him in, and Arthur tastes blood and white lights and kernels of hope on his tongue.

Inception starts like this:

After the job in coastal Maryland ends, Arthur bums around Pickering Creek a few more days, restless and thinking about how he might be able to turn extractions into inceptions. He's had the odd fight here and there with McGowan over it after he floated the suggestion to her, and he's fairly certain she thinks he's some kind of thrill-seeker now, which couldn't be further from the truth. But Eames has a point: why not try to give the client what he really wants?

“It won’t work,” McGowan says when Arthur brings it up a few days after he drunkenly called Eames from the crab shack. “You’d need at least two more people than we have lined up for this job.”  

“Seven, actually,” Arthur answers. “Seven total. Although one of them was the mark. Two of them were only supposed to be tourists, and one of them was only supposed to be a driver. You know, it’s really kind of hard to judge based off one—”

“Yeah, okay, I think I get it,” McGowan interrupts. “Look. We have the job, we have the plan, we do the extraction, we find out what’s in the will, and then you can go off and play inceptor—or whatever you want to call it. Hell, you can go back to the client and offer to do the second job for them, if they like. Just don’t ask me to do it.”

So Arthur sits in the rickety crab shack for an afternoon, shucking oyster shells and peeling shrimp, jotting down the skill sets he needs to have at his disposal on the back of a paper placemat.

And after he’s brainstormed himself dry, he grits his teeth and calls Eames, because no matter how much Arthur might enjoy pretending otherwise, in the end there’s really no one else.

Just as he did when Arthur drunk-dialed him a few weeks ago, Eames picks up on the first ring. Arthur tries not to think too hard about that.

“Arthur,” he says jovially, spreading warmth down the connection and all along Arthur’s spine. “Back so soon?”

“You’re full of shit,” Arthur says. “It’s not before dawn in Ankara.”

“Two weeks ago I wasn’t in Ankara,” Eames says easily. “But you’re still in Maryland. What is the mysterious Arthur up to?”

“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Arthur says. “About turning jobs around, doing inceptions.”

“Hell of a thing to just start offering people, isn’t it?”

Arthur leans back in his chair and looks out over the wan green marshland of the bay. His eyes land on an egret preening its lacey plumage across the way, its long neck curving in on itself, wings lifted, glinting in the sun.

“I want to get a team together,” he says. “A few people running the same jobs together. We commit to exploring safe ways to do inception. Mix things up, get a little creative.”

“Arthur,” says Eames, and he sounds genuinely thrown. “Aren’t you just a jack-in-the-box of surprise.”

“I want to figure out who’s interested, float some prospects,” Arthur says. “What do you think?”

“Darling, I think dreamshare doesn’t know what it’s got, in inception or in you.”  

Arthur opens his mouth at this and finds he has no idea what to say.  Eames continues before he has to force out an awkward thank-you.

“But are you really proposing to marry yourself off to a teammate who’s not Cobb?”

Arthur swallows. “That’s the plan,” he says evenly.

“Who's the lucky extractor, then?”

Across the bay, the egret takes to the air in a ripple of white, its powerful wings grabbing the sky and pulling.

“You are,” Arthur says, smiling despite his better judgment, despite the inevitable constant annoyance that lies in his near future. “If you’ll have me.”

“Oh,” says Eames, on an exhaled breath, sounding utterly taken aback, but also—Arthur hopes—happy.

“Oh, Arthur,” he says. “‘Til death do us part.”