ciircee: (bought the airline)
[personal profile] ciircee
Part 1



He tried not to think of how he went back to California when he was finished, how he went back after almost every job, went back to visiting Mal and Dom and Philippa and seeing Eames whenever Eames rolled through town. He tried not to think about watching Eames and Mal get into mischief together and he tried not to think about helping Dom on his mazes.

He did his best to not think about working with Eames again, going dreaming with him again, debriefing each other about talent in the field or picking up stray jobs that the Cobbs didn't know about together. He tried not to think about doing crazy shit like trying an inception with him.

He'd forgot how much fun it was to work with Eames and he'd forgot how much of a pain in the ass Eames was and he'd forgot how after a while they sort of started living under each other's skin all contentious comfort and easy irritation. It made them good at what they were doing, whatever they were doing, but it also pushed Arthur into doing things he should have thought better of before it landed them in a Mexican whorehouse, paying off the madam and wearing pilfered clothing because they couldn't go back to their own shady base of operations. Eames made him forget too much, remember too much.

Eames made him want things and Eames was a variable he couldn't control, made himself a variable he couldn't really control very well either.

So Arthur took jobs on his own, building a reputation in the underworld of dream sharing. He stayed away from Dom and Mal and Eames more and tried not to keep too much in touch. If he sometimes called Dom or Mal with a hypothetical question or asking for a hypothetical suggestion it was all in the name of business, in being thorough. If sometimes Eames showed up unexpectedly halfway through a job, it was simply good timing. It wasn't as though Arthur was looking over his work and discovering that there had been an Eames-shaped space in the plans all along. It was simply that Eames was adaptable, changeable.

People asked, sometimes.

He worked alone, Arthur said, but sometimes he wondered if he actually did, if he really was. Sometimes he wondered if that was what he really wanted.


He quit wondering eventually but he didn't come by his answer the way he wanted to. It was more like the military blindside of his early days of leaving. And for once his certainty didn't come with any backup plan at all.

Mal was somebody who touched a lot by nature. She put her arm around Eames' waist, she hugged Arthur when he showed up after time spent away. She carried Philippa and James as often as they'd let her scoop them up. She leaned into Dom's every touch, her hands almost constantly on him somewhere when his weren't on her.

Arthur was gone for nearly six months and when he came back from a job in Adana, Mal didn't hug him at the door. "Arthur," she said, smiling slightly. "I was wondering when you would come."

She seemed distant, sad in a way Arthur couldn't place. "I didn't know I'd been gone for so long," he said lightly, thrown off "that you'd wondered."

Head tipped just slightly to the side, Mal smiled. "It's nice to see you, Arthur," she said. "This is always how it is. Even in a dream, you are welcomed."

Arthur shifted and wondered why he was still on the doorstep instead of inside, with Dom offering him a beer and Mal needling him about where he'd been and the kids asleep down the hall. "I—" he said, about to ask to go inside, something he hadn't done since the first time he'd shown up.

"You'd hate to see my projection of you," Dom said. His voice, too, was strange. Strained and determined. "You're even worse down there than up here; you dress alphabetically by color from the top down and the inside out." He put his hand on the nape of Mal's neck, stroking. "Come in, Arthur. What are you still doing out on the porch?"

Going inside things were normal, mostly. Mal leaned into Dom and stroked her fingers over his when his hand moved to her shoulder. They drank wine and talked but Arthur noticed things that were not really normal at all, things that were missing. Mal never talked about the kids, only Dom did. Mal didn't ask about Eames even though she knew he'd worked with him briefly (in between two of Arthur's own less-than-legal jobs and a long con Eames was running) in Damascus. Dom didn't mention dreaming.

Dom walked him to the door. "It's nothing, Arthur," he said when Arthur very obviously hesitated. "Just…just a problem with a dream we were working on," he said. "Don't worry about it. We'll work it out."

He trusted Dom and Mal. He did trust them, probably as much as he trusted Eames. He trusted them and if Dom said not to worry, he wouldn't.

Except that Arthur's job was to worry about things and so he did. But only a little. He called Eames, pulling to the side of the road a few miles from his apartment. It was the first time he'd phoned him in their entire history together though they'd always had each other's numbers.

Eames must have been aware of that because the first words out of his mouth were: "Who's died?"

"Nobody. Jesus." And Arthur had thought that he was paranoid.

"We already knew that, Arthur; bloody Sunday school kids know that," Eames said, sounding much more cheerful.

Arthur mentally gave him the finger, all but hearing the way Eames was smiling down the wire. "Really, Eames? That old chestnut?" He felt his own smile pulling at him.

"Why have we rung me up, then?" Eames asked and Arthur felt his smile vanish.

It was something he didn't know how to phrase, nothing he could put his finger on. "Nothing," he said, shaking his head even though he knew Eames couldn't see him. He let out a short breath. "Something." There was silence from the other end of the line and Arthur felt a little stupid for calling Eames with something he couldn't put to words, a jangling, discordant feeling. "A feeling."

"Serious thing, that," Eames said. He sounded thoughtful, serious, no longer teasing. Eames had known him for long enough to know him.

Arthur pictured him and the way he slouched and straightened with his moods. "It's Mal. And Cobb. I wouldn't mind your thoughts."

"Should I come back to Los Angeles?"

Yes. No. For crying out loud, Arthur thought, he needed to get a grip. The Cobbs were celebrating their anniversary soon. There were plans being made, schedules to keep. "There's no rush," he said. "It's just a niggling little thing."

"I'll give you a niggling thing if you'd like," Eames said, fondness in his tone, "but it won't be little."

Arthur closed his eyes and laughed. It was ridiculous how Eames' ridiculousness made him feel better, more on top of things. "I'm hanging up on you now."

"You aren't. Arthur, you know you aren't."

"Goodbye, Eames."


Four days later the cops were at his door, telling him that there had been an incident.

Telling him that Mal was dead.

Telling him they had questions about Dom.

Catching him flatfooted and unaware, so woefully unprepared for what they were saying. He had always hated surprises as much as he'd loved thinking on his feet. He let them in for lack of any better idea.

He gave a statement in his living room and agreed to be available if they had any further questions. He walked them out and shut the door, unflinchingly polite. He stared at the phone on the wall until it stopped being a shape and became something that meant something to him. He called Eames.

"Don't," he said when Eames answered, before Eames could say a word. It couldn't start with Eames' voice, with Eames not knowing and sounding happier than he should be. "Just. Mal." Arthur held his breath for a moment. Eames was a wild clash of sound in comparison—shifting cotton and breathing and jangling change and street-side chatter all around him, long distance static between them. Arthur let out the bit of air he'd held on to. "Mal's dead. She—I think the cops think Dom. But. She—"

"Arthur?" Eames asked. His voice was so soft that Arthur had to strain to hear it.

Get here, Arthur thought. Come now. "Mal committed suicide earlier tonight. The funeral is…nothing is decided yet. Soon, though. Once the medical examiner finishes." Arthur told him. The words didn't shake, didn't crack, weren't anything but steady. He was horrified at himself for the way they didn't. He was horrified by the way he was more concerned with getting Eames a flight in that allowed time for the jet-lag to wear off before the funeral. He was horrified at how much it all mattered. How shattered he felt inside. "Eames."

The phone line went dead.

Arthur went online, traced the signal to Gaziantep, hacked their street cameras, and watched the phone call happen. He watched Eames destroy his phone, lift a pack of cigarettes from a passerby and then smoke three of them in a row, one off the other off the last before disappearing into the crowd in a way that Arthur couldn't track. Arthur closed his laptop and went to work, planning for a job he didn't want to do.


Eames was there the day before the funeral. Arthur was waiting for him at the airport, slumped against the baggage carousel. Eames was wearing his watch chain, carrying his totem. Arthur had only ever seen him do that when they were about to go two levels into a dream. Only when Eames thought he could possibly doubt his reality. Arthur didn't take his bags, simply led the way out to the car.

He had thought about taking Eames to his apartment but he'd booked him a hotel instead. He watched Eames disappear up the stairs, wordlessly, and he impulsively booked himself into the room next door. He leaned against the closed and locked connecting door between the room he was in and the one that had Eames in it, listening to the jagged, discordant sounds beyond him.

He fell asleep for the first time in three days. He dreamed of Mexico, of a kiss, of going with instead of away.


"It's fucked up," Arthur whispered to Eames as the priest spoke on and on about a person that could have been Mal if Mal had been some average, everyday woman.

"Yeah," Eames said softly.

The backs of their hands brushed and then stayed pressed together, the only point of contact between them, the only thing Arthur could handle when too much was already pressing in on him.


After the funeral the kids went with their grandmother and Stephen went home and Arthur and Eames and Dom went to Dom's house to drink and talk and, apparently, let the shit hit the fan in a way Arthur didn't anticipate. Mainly because Arthur started it and he really hadn't realized he was going to or wanted to or would.

"What did you do?" he asked, setting down his glass with a final sounding clink that should have been a warning of what was to come.

"Arthur," said Eames. And that should have been more than enough warning, that tone. That tone in front of Dom.

"What are you getting at?" Dom didn't look at him. Dom spun Mal's top over and over and over.

"Don't fuck with me, Cobb," Arthur said. He wasn't even sure why he was so angry so suddenly. "What did you do?"

"Arthur."

"What did you do to her?"

"Are you trying to ask if I killed my wife?"

"Yes." Arthur hadn't meant to say that. Not like that, vicious and low. It was too late to pull his punches. He wasn't sure he wanted to anyway. "You had to have done something for her to go through all that fucking effort to set you up. You told me to trust you and I fucking trusted you." Shit, he thought. There it was. He was a selfish bastard. "I trusted you, you son of a bitch!"

Eames was there, in his face, in his space, tugging at him. "Up you come, Arthur, up you come now. You're drunk." Eames' breath smelled like whiskey. "Let's find you a bed, all right?" His voice was hushed and hard worn. "Sleep this off, yeah?" Eames was drunk as well and trying to get Arthur to behave. Like he thought Arthur was going to regret whatever he might say.

Arthur felt frayed, flayed, and the slap of that from Eames hit him so coldly that he froze for a moment. "Fuck off," he managed tightly.

"Get him out of here, Eames," Dom said. "He's—"

What he was, Dom didn't say because Eames cut him off furiously. "I said he's drunk, Cobb, I didn't say he was wrong."

"You too? Today? Both of you. Jesus. Jesus Christ!" Dom shouted.

"He called me a week ago because something was wrong and he's a right fuck for doing this now, you're not wrong either, but now is a good time to get it done. So you might as well say if you did so Arthur can gloat or that you didn't so we can both stop thinking you might have, yeah?"

"Fuck you!" Both Dom and Arthur said it at once, Dom shouting and Arthur quiet and murderous.

Shoving Eames out of the way, Arthur leaned close to Dom. "Fuck you, you answer me: Did. You. Kill. Mal."

"No." Dom broke, folding in on himself, crumpling. "I tried to save her. I tried so hard to save her. She was waiting and I tried. I tried. I tried."

Arthur realized that Dom was sobbing and he stood over him, confused. "You—" he said. And then: "You." He was stuck in a loop of confusion and fury, an ouroboros trapped between the venomous bite and the pain. "Fuck. You can't do this. You can't. Fuck you if you do."

"Sit down, Arthur, for god's sake," Eames said, shoving him back to his seat. "On your feet, Cobb, off to bed with you. The Cobblets will need you in the morning." Arthur watched for a moment as Eames hauled Dom up and pushed him down the hall towards the master bedroom. He watched Eames being gentle and steadfast, things Arthur was not and could not be.

He didn't stay where Eames had put him. Fuck him. He could leave if he wanted to, he didn't have to stay. He went outside and called a cab—he was drunk and fuck his car too. Let Eames drive it and kill himself if he wanted. Arthur didn't realize he was going to shoot out both of his front tires until he did so.

"Oh, Arthur," Eames said sadly from behind him as he tried to put a bullet in the engine block. "Now what will you do?"

Arthur shoved him against the door. "You're not driving it. You can't even fucking drive in this country. You stupid shit."

Eames touched his face. "Are you worried about me?"

Arthur slapped his hand away. "Don't be an asshole." I can't handle you right now, he thought. "Maybe I'm worried about you killing a bunch of innocent people."

"Don't be insulting," Eames growled. "There are lines even if you are drunk." His eyes softened seconds later. "He didn't kill her, Arthur."

"I fucking know that," Arthur snarled. He noticed how close he was still standing and pushed away, moving with furious grace. "I looked at the security footage. I looked at the goddamn traffic cameras, didn't I? I know she jumped. I know she set the scene. I know that. He was alone. He didn't kill her; Mal killed herself."

"He feels like he did. Whatever he did do, he mortally wounded her. He wounded them both." Eames' hands went into his pockets, the watch chain swaying gold and bright in the quickening gloom. "I won't stay."

He knew that. Arthur sighed and holstered his gun, fumbling until he closed his eyes and relied on muscle memory. "I called a cab." He didn't want to be here, where there was broken trust and uncertain ground. "For you." He didn't want to leave because it would be running and he didn't want to be that guy, that coward. He didn't want to burn a bridge he couldn't rebuild. "To pick you up."

When the car pulled up he wanted Eames to drag him with, to tell him to get in the bloody car because staying here hurt a lot and "Arthur, you're a stick in the mud, but—"

Arthur wanted to let him finish, wanted to go, but he also knew that it could only make things worse in the long run. The bitter regret on Eames' face told him that they both knew it. "Shut up, Eames, and get out of here."

"Why are you always such a condescending ass when I try to be nice to you?" Eames asked, standing in the open door of the cab.

Because we can't risk the alternative, Arthur thought. "That's me being nice to you, asshole," he said quietly.

Eames smiled at him. "Did you know that you are the only person who can get me with a phone call? Everybody else has to come to me personally in a place of my choosing."

"Felon," Arthur said softly. No matter what Eames was. Like it or not. "Quit making people want to kill you. I have dibs."

The car door shut, the cab left, and Arthur went back inside. He was drunk and he was angry and he was hurt and he was as unhappy as hell but Mal was dead so he might as well get on with cleaning up the living room and figuring out why the cops were trying to build a case when the only evidence of the crime was in the mind.

Mal was dead and Arthur picked up the empty bottles and the empty glasses with careful, careful hands. Careful between the moments that cost him.


Arthur was a realist, however, and reality didn't always leave room for care to be taken. When Dom made the run, Arthur was waiting to meet his plane in Cadiz.

Dom's first words to him were: "I have to get home, Arthur. I have to get back to my children."

"Yeah, well, it's not happening, Cobb." He stuffed him into a car and pointed the car towards the Portugal border. "The cops want you bad."

"What? No, Arthur, they know—one of the federal marshals said—"

"Oh, I know that. And he told your lawyer. You were told you'd be met here by an ex-pat, a scholar, a researcher like you. He's actually an extractor and he was supposed to take you under." The government was good, but Arthur was always, always better. "In about four hours they're going to notice that he's not calling them. In the meantime I'm getting you to Lisbon and on a flight; Eames is going to pick you up in Kuala Lumpur and ship you back to me in Amsterdam."

"Why?"

Arthur glanced at him. "Extradition laws."

"I mean why are they doing this? The cops. The—the government."

The truth was often inconvenient and usually awful. "Stephen was one of the original architects brought in to Project Somnacin. It was top secret, everything, but he taught Mal all of it and then she stole the PASIV technology. They knew immediately, of course, but the project needed him so they couldn't do anything about it. They used it against him, though, keeping him while Mal went dreaming. They made him use her. It's why his wife left him. It's how I knew to find you all those years ago. It's why Eames let Mal bring him home with her. A lot of the people who came through to investigate your research weren't who they said they were, they were people in mind heist or who wanted to be. Stephen ran most of them off. Mal wasn't…she wasn't in it for that. Neither of you ever were but they can use you, if you need what they can give you."

"You were trying to fix things," Dom said slowly. "The lawyers you were always talking to weren't lawyers, were they? You were trying to fix this."

He was trying to be a better man than he was.

"Unfortunately we need a bigger stick. Or at least a lot more money."

Dom shifted against his seatbelt. "Then I'm going to get it. I'm not going to run away." When Arthur looked over Dom was staring at him, eyes piercing. "I don't care how illegal it is. I don't care how morally questionable it might get. My children…"

Arthur looked back at the road and pulled a sharp turn. "You're going to have to prove yourself to people. You're a researcher. They're going to have to know that you're in this."

"I don't have much to lose, Arthur, and I'll risk anything to keep what I've got. How's that for proof?"


It was better than gold, was what it was. Arthur had been known in the right circles for years and Dom had been known of in those same circles. Dom turning up to work was like a rock star taking the stage. Everybody knew he was up for anything as long as the money was good. Everybody knew he was a genius and innovative and desperate.

Desperation was as alluring as pricy perfume in the right circles.

The jobs were far flung, well financed, and high profile. They were illegal and risky. They had their pick of dangerous jobs and they picked a lot. Arthur had never minded danger or back to back jobs before.

Not before.

But they failed a lot, messed up extractions that should have gone smoothly. Dom was always trying something, always searching for something that would get him enough to go home on. Arthur was along for the ride and it never ended and he didn't like it anymore. It aged him inside in a way days and days of dreaming never did. It made him call Eames at odd hours of the night or day. It made him e-mail and text and reach for him because Eames was somehow something immutable. Somebody to be certain of.

He took jobs on his own, sometimes, left Dom in other countries while he went away. He was hoping to clear his head but the jobs just made him feel run down, like he was chasing something else for a moment instead of Dom. He felt like an old man, a failing fighter, going to Eames, tracking him down to some Belfast pub just to talk. He felt like an idiot when Eames was waiting for him with two pints and a handful of darts.

"Honeymoon over already, Arthur?" Eames asked, handing him a drink.

From the smell of the liquid in the glass it was poteen and Arthur wrinkled his nose. "What the hell do you know?" It was a legitimate question. Eames undoubtedly knew something. Probably a lot.

"Drink up and I'll let you know once you've finished spilling."


During their third game of darts and after at least four rounds of drinks and possibly some food, Eames asked. "Why don't you just tell me the main bit and we'll skip all the other stuff as always, yeah?"

Arthur threw another dart and hit just off center of the board. He cursed in Gaelic just to check how drunk he was. "He's too intense. I get that he needs this, that he wants nothing more than to go home. He needs the work but there's no time to actually enjoy the job. Jobs. We're too busy running from people to sit back and like any of it. The thrill of being chased wears off after the first handful of bullets."

"Mm, well, you're certainly making names for yourselves, I'll give you that. Lots of people looking to chase you down these days."

"I want more than that," Arthur snapped as Eames' dart landed next to his own. They were evenly matched. Playing was almost pointless. "If I wanted to do stupid shit and get myself killed I'd have stuck with you after Mexico."

"No you wouldn't have done. I didn't want you to, remember?"

He set his darts down. "I didn't want to go with you. Do you remember? I was—" He'd been driven by the want of something more than reality. He'd needed to stretch and explore and take what he found and use it well. He'd needed the freedom and the thrill of the challenge, the chase. He'd been happy—or if not happy, at least content—with the Cobbs and the balance between working and going to a place where he could have a place if he wanted. At the very least content to see and work with Eames again, to remember once more why they'd went their own ways.

He sat down heavily at the bar. "It doesn't matter. We'd have killed each other before too long. We didn't. We get along all right now except for when you're being an asshole."

"So condescending. You're not exactly a day feeding ducks at the park yourself. We might certainly have tried to off each other, I suppose you're right there," Eames agreed easily. "But we'd have always got on all through it and again out the other side. We always have and that's a fact. You're on the brink of hating Cobb, aren't you?"

Oh, he was. "He's a good friend."

"That's why you hate him for what he's done."

He was ruining the best thing Arthur had, grinding away at it with his hopelessness, his misery, and his inability to just let go. "He's not going to get what he wants this way. Even with the reputation he's building. I know it and he knows it. It's been almost a goddamned year. He's going to burn out. He's burning me out and I—" he was the only thing keeping them from getting killed some days "—it's not going to work, no matter how many extractions he does."

Eames' hand was in his hair, scrunching up the pomade and making a mess of it. "Then find a different way with him. Or leave."

"I can't leave," Arthur admitted. Eames' hand was heavy on his head and the warmth of it eased the near-constant headache behind his eyes.

Eames was watching him when he looked up. Arthur watched his muscles flex as he took his hand back and he remembered sharply don't ask, don't tell, do not—. "Of course you can, Arthur."

Arthur snorted and drained the last of his last pint. "No, I really can't." He looked right back at Eames, eyes hard. He couldn't leave. It wasn't leaving if you carried somebody around in your head like an inverse of a totem. If you couldn't forget how much you wanted to remember. He could never leave. "You know that I can't."

Eames stared back at him, something like anger in his eyes. "Arthur…"

"Your flight to Kenya leaves in an hour. You might want to get yourself to the airport, Eames. If I recall correctly you owe several favors and a lot of money to some people there."

Like a spell had been broken Eames surged into motion, throwing money at the bartender and grabbing for his suit coat. "Fuck me but I have to—I meant to—damn it, Arthur." Eames paused for only a second. "Dream bigger, yeah?"

Stupidly it made Arthur laugh. "Thanks for being specific."

"Oh, piss off," Eames said and was gone.

Arthur went back to dreaming and wanting more than he had and wondering when it would finally be what he wanted or if it would finally just end.

He dreamed and dreamed and wanted more.



When it came, it was not how Arthur thought it would end. Not with this sweeping change. Not with a powerful Japanese business man who wanted—of all things—a level playing field and a leap of faith. Not with the goal of leaving the seed of an idea rather than taking the fruit ripe on the branch. Not with inception. Eames, he thought, would be pleased as punch with the whole thing. Eames was going to give him so much shit when he showed up. Eames.

"So, who is this Eames guy?" Ariadne asked.

Arthur paused briefly as he was wrapping the PASIV cuff around her wrist. He went back to making sure the needle wasn't jostling as he fastened it tight. Ariadne knew that Dom had gone recruiting. If she'd heard the name it was because they were on their way back. "Eames is a forger. Thief. Con-artist." He shrugged and attached the tubing and the electrical lead to the cuff on Ariadne's wrist and then on his own. "Call it acting if you like. He's the best at what he does." He pushed the button even as he stretched out in the lawn chair.

"But you don't trust him," Ariadne said as he joined her in the dream. It was a nice office building, tastefully done in cream and beige and taupe and earth. There were touches of glamour to it, though, with live plants and real artwork on the walls. It was pretty much perfect with the spikes of chrome surfaces and plate glass windows. Arthur was impressed.

"Nice," he said. "Now, let's see if I can find your paradox."

"But you don't trust him," Ariadne said again as they walked.

Well, he wouldn't think she was competent if she wasn't persistent. He smiled, felt his lips twitch against his will. They owed Stephen for her. "No, I trust him." He tipped his head. They were on her paradox, a hallway with an ugly potted plant. "Lose the plant. It's a nice touch but obvious. The projections might be sort of dumb but the subjects won't be. Fischer won't be."

"Right."

Ariadne didn't sound like she was talking about the plant and Arthur walked her paradox again. "I trust Eames," he repeated, "but he's…"

"I'm simply lovely," Eames said. He was leaning against the wall in the place the plant had been. He was beaming at them, scruffy and effusive and broad. "I'm a lamb."

"Jesus, really?" Arthur sighed.

Eames looked down at himself. "Am I Jesus, then?" He smiled delightedly at Arthur. "I knew you liked me," he said charmingly. He turned to Ariadne and was even more charming. "He likes me, really he does."

Ariadne laughed and stepped toward Eames, hand coming up for a shake. "I'm—"

"He's a projection," Arthur interrupted even as Eames took her hand and kissed the back of it.

"I'm hurt," Eames said with a mild sort of pout.

"A projection?" Ariadne asked. "Yours?"

Arthur very carefully didn't roll his eyes and shot Eames in the face with the gun he always carried on him in dreams. It was, as always, satisfying to watch him fall down and then step over his body. "Yes, one of mine," he said though he could see that she was already wrinkling her nose a little at herself. "He's fairly accurate." He thought of Dom and the new Mal that clawed in his subconscious, treacherous and cruel under the weight of all Dom's inexpressible guilt on her. He thought of Eames who never let anybody know what they really had in him. "Don't base your opinion of him off of it; never let anybody else tell you what to think," he told Ariadne.

She smiled and tapped the side of her head, telling him that she would remember that. "You don't like him."

There was always somebody who thought that. Somebody who saw the distance kept and couldn't fathom how it was both true in and of itself as well as a minor mirror image, a reversed reflection. "It's not that. It's just…." There aren't words, Arthur thought.

There was no way to explain the world of himself and Eames in a way that made any real sense. Eames was the first person to ever kill Arthur in a dream out of mercy. Eames was the first person to ever get Arthur riotously drunk and the last person to let him sleep in his own vomit. Eames had spent hours shooting with him, even more hours going over hand-to-hand combat with him. Eames had visited his mother and had taken him shopping for his first suit because, he'd said, he felt like he'd kidnapped a child and not a decorated soldier of the American military and a suit made him look an adult. How did he explain that Eames was the only person to ever get Arthur arrested and the first person who'd ever tended to Arthur's gunshot wounds—namely because Arthur had stepped between the bullet and Eames.

How did he tell Ariadne, still innocent and still in school, that Eames had attended a funeral with him, had been his getaway driver the one time he'd needed it, was his sounding board and his imagination. How could she be made to understand that Eames got into his head and he got into Eames' and they couldn't be in the same space for long without acting like dicks to each other and they never worked with anybody so well as they did each other. How could anybody understand the divide between them that pulsed like a heartbeat neither of them wanted?

It was never that he didn't like Eames it was only that…

"…he's Eames," Arthur said. It was out loud because they had already woken up. Arthur would have been surprised at how long it actually took him to find the only words that worked but honestly he couldn't be. It was Eames.

"You always make that sound like such a bad thing," Eames said, kicking the lawn chair lightly. "And after I brought you a pressie, too." He dropped a manila folder on Arthur's chest. It pressed on the weight of the die in his pocket and he knew it was real. Or at the very least, reality.

Arthur barely spared Eames a glance. "It'd be a nicer present if you quit pissing off the mungiki. I had to pull some strings to get you out of Mombasa. Saito had to pull strings." He flipped open the folder. A handful of papers about—and photos of—Peter Browning and Robert Fischer spilled out, a bit of history in silver-salts and type written text. Eames had notes crammed between the spaces left over, sloppy and rude. "What do you need me to do here?"

Eames gestured, not nearly as expansively as it seemed he should. Arthur always remembered that part wrong and he knew it. "Kick over a hornet's nest for me; I'm going to be a paralegal."

"Legal work. This is funny on two levels," Arthur said, already lining up what needed to happen to get Eames in. "They've got nothing here that would bring them in if pushed. Nothing in England, off the top of my head. Maybe Australia. Give me a day."

"Given," Eames said. But it was distracted. "Who is this lovely creature and why am I not supposed to fall utterly for her. Somebody, please, do break the suspense."

Arthur knew that Eames was sizing things up, figuring it out. He arched an eyebrow at him instead. "No."

Ariadne laughed. "I'm your architect. Ariadne. You must be Eames."

"I am captivated," Eames assured her.

Arthur swung out his legs and stood up, the PASIV lines coming undone with absentminded ease. "If this were any sort of legal job you'd be sexually harassing her."

"You'd be sexually harassing me but you don't see me being uptight about it." Eames beamed at him from far, far too close.

It figured, Arthur thought, that Eames wouldn't have the good graces to step back when he stood up. He never had before, after all. "Brush up your résumé, Eames, I don't actually need the full day." He put a hand on his chest and lightly pushed him back a step, letting his hand linger for just a moment.

"I never said that you did," Eames said, his hand coming up to cover Arthur's, cupping warmly over it for a second before Eames pushed it away, as Arthur was already pulling it away.

Hello, Arthur thought. I won't say I've missed you.

Dom came in with their new chemist at that moment, Saito right behind them. There was a round of introductions to which Arthur paid strict attention despite that he'd already looked into Yusuf far more than Dom had done.

Gathering a team was the easy part of the job. Learning to work together…that would be the harder part. That was the fun part, though. And Arthur could feel it, the beginning of that fun, that rush. He hadn't felt it in a long time, with Dom. It felt like waking up, like living.


"Do you trust him—Yusuf?" Ariadne asked him later.

Arthur didn't look up from his laptop screen. "He's already in so it's a bit late to not. But—" As much as possible in this business, he thought but this was her first job and probably her last. "Yeah. Eames vouched for him. He's good at people."

"Thank you for that," Eames said, leaning hip-cocked against the back of Arthur's chair, appearing as though from out of nowhere. There was a mirror set up half way across the open space in front of Arthur's desk—Arthur had set it up for Eames specifically—and Arthur watched Eames in it. Eames smiled at Ariadne. "Ariadne, you are so very shiny that you all but squeak. It's time for me to rub that off."

"Ew," said Ariadne. Arthur was proud of her. When Eames had first said it to him he'd gone along with it and got himself killed by trapdoor spiders.

"Cobb's already killed her," he interrupted mildly.

He didn't have to be looking to see Eames' eyebrows raise just a smidgen. He could picture it clearly, an ineffaceable tell. "Really? That must have been lovely. So which was it? Top or tail?"

Arthur snorted and Ariadne looked confused. "Which…?"

"I threw up," Yusuf volunteered, shaking a vial and coming over to stand. Arthur thought idly about moving his work table out of the center of the room. "Thankfully I had the sense to not eat before going under but even tea doesn't make a very good companion coming up."

"Arthur here," Eames said magnanimously, "shit himself."

"I did not," Arthur sighed. He had only nearly done and it was only in his files at all because he'd still been green enough to tell the full truth to the people in charge when they'd asked for everything.

"Only because of that stick rammed so far up your—"

"Really, Eames? That's what you're going to go with?"

"It's reflexive, Arthur, no need to be embarrassed," Eames spread his hands innocently.

"I'm not because I didn't." Arthur folded his arms, "And it's all because of a little something called 'having a working sphincter'. You should know what that is because you're an asshole."

"You're a bad man," Eames said sweetly.

"Wait, what? Before you two devolved into children you said—" Ariadne broke in and then off to take a deep breath. "I just…I just yelled at Cobb."

That made Eames whistle. Arthur had thought it would. "You were killed by a—" he paused to look to Arthur for the answer.

"Knife to the gut." He mimed it quickly and nodded at the impressed look Eames shared with him before switching it completely over to Ariadne.

"—and you went right to reaming out Cobb?"

"She stopped to ask a few questions while he woke up," Arthur put in.

"I'm in love," Eames declared. "Come away with me and be my queen."

Yusuf laughed. "On your own time, Eames. I need to do a test dose on her as she's been under only rarely. And a blood draw. Just a vial or two, with my apologies," he gave the slightest of bows to Ariadne, who was already turning back her shirt sleeve.

Arthur watched her walk off with Yusuf and his waiting liver-panel before going back to toppling legal dominos.

"This is a good team," Eames said quietly. "This will work."

Arthur stopped typing. "It could. Even if it doesn't, it will end things."

"Will it?" Eames asked mildly as he picked up Arthur's discarded newspaper. "End things?"

End. Arthur watched Eames shuffling the newspaper back into order and thought about that. He'd be back to working on his own. Back to loving what he did. Back to what he'd been once. Or as close to it as he could get given the emotional ricochet of working with Dom. "Change, then, but yeah. End."

"You shouldn't conflate changing with ending, Arthur."

"You shouldn't be a pain in the ass when I'm booking your flight to Sydney. I'd hate to send you away when you've only just arrived."

Eames laughed, low and liquid and delighted. "I do believe you would."

Arthur couldn't deal with it. "Whoops, looks like your plane leaves in an hour."

Eames laughed again, louder and brighter, and this could work Arthur thought.


There was background research to be done while Eames was away, mazes to build, to memorize, and a plan of action to broach to Dom. He still waited until Eames was back to bring up teaching Yusuf and Ariadne and Saito how to fight or, at the very least, to shoot. He also made a mental note to make Yusuf their level-one dreamer to give them a steady place to fall back to if needed. Arthur was seesawing between emotions and the dream wasn't stable because of it. It wasn't really very noticeable but Arthur's job was in the details.

"It's necessary."

Dom wasn't happy about it; his body set like his spine was made of concrete. "They don't—I told you, I've got this. Trust me," he verbally swiped at Arthur as the dream trembled around them.

"I do." He always had. Even if he hadn't or didn't now, it had been too many months of too many things with Dom for the words to have any impact anymore. The world shook a little bit more noticeably. "But if they're going down, they're going armed. I don't care if it's a churchyard in his head."

"I once cold-cocked a nun," Eames said reminiscently. The dream was crumbling around the edges from tension rising in Arthur. "In a—oh, what's the word?"

"Abbey?" Ariadne offered helpfully.

"Church?" Yusuf tried.

"Nun factory!" Eames said decisively. "The mark literally had them stamping out nuns in his subconscious. And I went bare knuckle with one of them! Isn't that right, Arthur? You do remember, don't you?"

He did remember. He remembered the way they'd laughed in the dream and out of it, remembered shadow-boxing on the street after. The dream steadied. "Yes, we're all very proud of your blasphemy," he said like an indulgent pat on the head as the clock ran them up and awake. "Now go forge us some papers so we can arm the innocents." He let Dom have an arched look.

Dom squinted at him. "I liked it better when you two were against each other, not me."

"We're always against each other," said Eames, sprawling more firmly in his chair. "We are perpendiculars, Arthur and I."

"Guns, Eames, focus."

"I have other things to do," Eames said loftily. "Besides, I already did those papers."

Dom squinted at Eames but Arthur nodded. Eames was good at what he did and part of what he did was giving Arthur what he needed to do his own job.

"Why real guns?" Ariadne asked.

"Because as Arthur has apparently not explained to you in the midst of your maze building," Eames said, getting up and going to the mirror, practicing some motion over and over again "you're actually limited in the dream world. When you build it, when you fill it, you have to know what's there and what you're carrying. You must know because if you have to think something up on the spot you're going to call attention to yourself and the rest of us and then we all die horribly."

It wasn't as though Arthur had been neglecting that but damn it, he'd been busy. "You have to know what you're handling if you want it to work and you have to actually be able to hit a target to do it in a dream," he explained. "You might be able to learn in a dream but that doesn't translate to muscle memory in real life and the same holds true in reverse: you can't give yourself a skill set you don't already have."

"Bullshit," Ariadne said. "Don't tell me you've never flown a rocket to Mars in your dreams or been a mermaid or…or…it's a dream."

"Those are natural dreams. In something like this… It's more to concentrate on," Dom said quietly. "It lets too much of your subconscious loose. You bring in more than you'd think, when you think."

Arthur let it go. He and Dom had history together. He had to let it go. "Eames once tried to forge himself into a dragon and all of his projections turned into his mother. Naked."

"Piss right off, there's a good lad."


The hard part was working together, taking down the walls. Being together, letting somebody else in to the place where you thought and felt and got confused and wondered if you were lonely.


Arthur had a lot of late nights but he wasn't the only one. He could always hear somebody rustling around in the corners of the building—Arthur was still the hub since all the information came to him in the end, no point in not being central—and it had been long enough that he could always tell who it was just by listening closely.

Any time it took him more than a minute to place who it was, he knew it was time to take a breather. When it took him a full two minutes to realize that it was Ariadne, working on her mazes, he took an actual break, getting up and going outside for a cup of coffee.

"Shit, already?" he muttered. Paris was dark with shops closed for the night. If he wanted caffeine he'd have to spend almost nine Euros just to get a coke from the machine on the corner.

Or pick the lock and free one. He got one for Ariadne while he was at it.

"—know her?" Ariadne was asking as he made to open the building door.

Arthur froze, inside and out. "Yes." Eames said. There was a pause, a soft rustle of movement, a beat. "Yes, I knew her."

He couldn't see them but he knew that they had to be by his work table. He could picture the way Ariadne's arm had hugged tight to her stomach all those days ago. The awkward, ugly angle of holding herself together. "Arthur said she was lovely."

"Lovely." He couldn't see them but he knew Eames well. He thought that Eames was probably giving nothing away, giving Ariadne only what she wanted to see. He was probably looking like he was wide open when he was actually as closed off as a windowless room with no door. "She was that. She was opinionated and fun. She liked to have a laugh. A darling sense of whimsy to her."

"Oh." Then, "I guess you knew her pretty well."

"As well as I could in this business of ours. Better than most," Eames said. His voice was soft but his expression must have been very final because Ariadne didn't say anything else.

Arthur missed Mal dreadfully for the space of one heavy heartbeat. He missed the way she'd laughed and been silly and so curious and smart. He missed the way she'd always been so delighted with him, so much Eames' partner-in-crime down in the dreams, so in love with Dom and their children and her life and her work. He missed that life. He missed what should have been between that time and this, if it hadn't come crashing down.

He stepped back and ran straight into Dom. Shit. Shit and fuck. Dom took his arm and led him away from the workshop, ambling away into the night even though Arthur had a metric fuck-ton of work to do. "Get some sleep," Dom said. Arthur nearly rolled his eyes because he knew that Dom wouldn't take his own advice. Monkey see, Monkey do as you're told.

"You too," he said anyway, half habit and half hope.

"Good night, Arthur," Dom said softly as they parted at the corner. Dom had the other coke in his hand as he waved slightly, walking towards his hotel. Arthur went home. Or, rather, to the flat he kept in Paris as one of his houses he kept in case he needed to go to ground—a place he never went unless he was hiding.

It was an older building, a bit shabby, but with lovely windows that he opened wide to chase out the stale air and let in the lavender darkness. He leaned out just a little, feeling the breeze against his face. He was never here unless he was hiding. Out of all the people that he knew he was pretty sure that only Eames knew about this place.

And that he had followed him there. "Your neighbor's cat is prowling around out front. In heat," he said. "Be sure to kick it publicly so you're not offered kittens."

"Come in, Eames," Arthur muttered dryly, turning to see him framed in the doorway. "Make yourself at home." He didn't mind the way he should have, but that was always the way things were with Eames.

"Don't get in a strop," Eames said primly but he did come in and he did sit down on Arthur's white sofa, dark against the fabric. He looked like a down and out diplomat in his slightly out-of-date style of suit, with its wide lapels and fairly boxy cut. He looked familiar and like a stranger both at the same time. Sometimes Arthur could almost still see the SRR soldier in him and at times he couldn't picture it at all despite the memories. He wondered if Eames had the same problem.

"What do you want?" he sighed. He found a bottle of wine in the cupboard and two glasses that he had to blow the dust off of before going to sit with Eames.

"Honesty, what else?" Eames said. "If not that, then a clearer picture." His face creased. "What's Cobb hiding? You know I won't work in the dark, Arthur. I'll walk away despite the Cobblets."

It said a lot. Not so much about Eames but about the type of danger they were walking into. He wasn't going to like it. Arthur pushed the wine at him "You won't like it," he warned.

He didn't, not one little bit. "Wonderful," he bit out when Arthur finished his summary of everything from the debacle of extracting Saito to just why Ariadne knew about Mal. Eames threw an arm over his eyes. "Why are you in this?" he asked. "This is pushed far beyond even your limits. And before you start, I know you want to say it isn't but I know you better so don't bother."

Arthur didn't answer. It was almost shameful how many times he'd run through all the ways he could cut ties without consequences. He could be out easily. It was shameful but he couldn't even feel it anymore. Eames' knee pressed against his own, warm and immediate. Arthur blinked. "Because otherwise I'm a heartless shit and I like to have some illusions about myself." He drank his wine and smiled into it, not that he meant it. "Because I like a challenge. Because I actually care. Because I'm sorry." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Pick your poison, Eames." He rolled the stem of his glass between his hands.

"You're not sorry. You've got more than dreams." Eames put a hand on his shoulder. "No matter what Cobb's lost or gained, you shouldn't be sorry for what you have."

"I'm not apologizing."

They drank quietly together. The night stretched around them, sleepy and slow like a yawn until it was as dark as the city ever got. Three a.m. in a light-smudged sky. Eames got to his feet like it was some sort of cue. "Chin up, Arthur. And close your windows; there are cats breeding out there in the night."

Arthur nodded but didn't move. He left the windows open and fell asleep on his couch.

In the morning, Maurice Fischer was dead and it was time to move. To move on. To start and to finish. They had to go.


At the airport he ended up in a lounge with Eames. "I don't," Eames began suddenly after hours of silence, "actually give a toss how this job goes off." Technically they weren't supposed to be talking to each other but then again, they weren't supposed to be in the same airport lounge or on the same flight to Sydney either. Unexpected maintenance. It made Arthur a little paranoid but, at the same time, being on the same flight as Eames felt safe.

"Hm?" he asked, surfacing from double-checking the manner of maintenance that had forced the shared flight.

Eames was flipping a poker chip through his fingers. "This job. I want it to work but if it doesn't I don't really…I'm not going to live or die on this. Do y'know what I mean?"

"What the hell, Eames?"

"Do you still dream, Arthur?" Eames asked instead of answering.

Arthur picked up his takeaway cup of coffee. "Sometimes I think you're insane, you know that, right?" He looked at the dark depths of it, the near oil-slick shine of the surface. "But no. Too much time under."

"Miss it?"

"Yeah. Sometimes, I guess." Sometimes it felt like missing a warm bed, soft blankets, deep sleep, a body beside him. "A little."

"Right." Eames said.

He couldn't tell what it meant. What it meant to Eames. He looked over at Eames, sprawled out in the molded chair, He looked at him and looked and looked until Eames was the only thing he could see. "Do you? Dream?"

Eames laughed, bitter and dry like French vermouth. "All the bloody time; it's a thing with forgers, you know. I can't stop dreaming, you lucky bastard."

Arthur was suddenly, unutterably glad that Eames was there. This inception had the potential to be a complete shitshow. It had the potential to be the biggest thing he'd ever done. He couldn't imagine doing it without Eames, couldn't imagine how it might happen without this moment. "Right," he returned.

"It's messed up," Eames said. "This thing with Saito and Fischer and Cobb. All this rubbish they're going through. Saito wants to build an empire on Fischer Senior's bones and doesn't seem to see that he could be Fischer at the rate he's going. When this works, when Cobb goes home he'll still bring Mal with him and what will she do to the Cobblets if they only ever see her in his eyes? Have you thought of that?"

He had. It wasn't entirely pleasant but he couldn't help thinking that at least the kids stood the chance of keeping Dom steady, could do what Arthur couldn't any longer.

"And if you think of that, Arthur, then you'll see how it leads right to Fischer Junior. Saito and Cobb and the want of his father all equals out to him getting his head fucked with. Because his father was always willing to sacrifice him to his bloody company and Saito and Cobb are perfectly willing to sacrifice him to their own ends. In trying to make their own way, they fall right into the footsteps they're wiping out."

It wasn't the most comfortable of thoughts but, at the same time, it was the price you paid when you sat at the table for high rollers. "Look on the bright side," Arthur offered. "At least we've brought Yusuf out of his den and brought Ariadne into the field."

"Ahh, Yusuf and Ariadne. They're brilliant, aren't they? But they're just fodder for the fight. Doesn't matter who they are, does it? They're like something you can kind of shop around for if you need new. An architect, a chemist."

"Morbid," Arthur said. "Probably true but still morbid. It also applies to us, you're aware. We shop around for people, we're replaceable too. A forger, a thief, a point man. Are you having doubts about doing this? Because I will shoot you if you try to back out."

"I'm not backing out and I'm not having doubts. Weren't you listening? I don't give a toss about this job beyond thinking it's a grand adventure and a lovely bit of head fuckery that I find fascinating. I wouldn't mind it working out but I'm in this because I like what I do and I do what I like and you confuse me so very much, Arthur."

"You're confusing me right now," Arthur told him sincerely. "Are you trying to say we're bad people because we're not more personally invested in this and we know it? I think I already knew that about both of us. We're pretty much mercenaries with a side of Mafioso. I am at peace with this."

"What was your last dream?" Eames asked after a moment.

"I—" He wanted to say that he didn't remember but he did and Eames would know if he lied because he was Eames and it was what he did. He was Eames and he lived in the back of Arthur's head all the time. He was Eames and Arthur didn't really want to lie to him anyhow. "I dreamed about Mexico. That last time."

Eames raised his eyebrows. "Fancy a shag, then?" he asked. "Something quick before we go? The toilets are right over there. I can have you off in three minutes."

Arthur flipped him off in answer. "I am so fucking glad you're here for this, Eames, really." It was sad how much he meant that, the irritation and the words both.

"This is probably the biggest job I've ever done. My point…" Eames' poker chip disappeared and his pocket watch came out. Burnished gold in his hands and Arthur wasn't sure how it worked—if it told the time, if it had stopped, if there wasn't a watch face at all. Eames stared at it and then put it away again. "My point is that it changes a lot of things, works or not. And it changes nothing, works or not. I should care but I'd rather hear about your last dream than about Cobb going home. I should care about this because of the interesting things its going to do to the world power structure but mostly I just…I don't know. I don't. This is the biggest thing I've ever done. With you." Eames met his eyes. "Here I am with you. Again."

"I know," said Arthur. They were going to do something wonderful and terrible and who knew what sort of war it would kick off or if it would buy peace for anybody and the one thing he cared about most? The fact that Eames was there and in their simple state of being together they were simple compared to everything else. It wasn't anything. It wasn't even an important part of what they were doing. But it was the thought that had come to define it for him, to define the idea of inception: being there with Eames beside him in a quiet moment, the last quiet moment.

"I know," he said again "and I'm glad you're here."

Part 3
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Circe

November 2012

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