a r t h u r i s a s l e e p o r f l o a t i n g u n c o n s c i o u s b u t e i t h e r w a y c o b b i s t h e r e i n t h i s
p l a c e – w i t h i n – a – p l a c e
The heat of summer leaks into the room, but Arthur can’t stop shaking.
There are cushions thrown across the floor, a wooden table with a bowl of fake fruit and earthenware and a cutting board. Outside is a walled garden. Without turning his head Arthur can smell the flowers and the grass and the salt of the ocean. When he does look, a child is standing there. Fair-haired and the back of his head toward Arthur even though he’s facing front, he toddles over, legs unsteady but pace sure, and places a bowl of water on the floor, a little to the right of Arthur. And then he wanders through the door again and outside into the courtyard, the back of his head to Arthur the whole time.
Arthur watches the sun go down and the colors of the house turn ruddy, deep oranges and muddy browns. When the air starts to cool, the child comes in again. He climbs up on the counter and gets a bowl from the cupboard and then climbs down and walks into the pantry, emerging with a brightly-colored box of cereal. The child pours one bowl and then sloshes it over with milk, pouring too much because he can’t see. He waddles over to Arthur and sets the bowl down. Hunger gnaws at his stomach but Arthur doesn’t know if he should eat or not. The child flickers, then reaches out and strokes Arthur’s cheek, fingers ghost-cold. It makes Arthur dizzy with nausea. More fingers move across Arthur’s lips, prying them open. Arthur doesn’t resist and the child feeds him lukewarm cereal with a metal spoon and Arthur eats it.
(Maybe if he’s lucky, he’ll choke and die.)
When he finishes, the child leaves, wandering to some other part of the house.
Time passes and Arthur doesn’t die. He sleeps a little bit and the yard outside is in complete darkness when he’s jerked awake by the sound of footsteps. He knows who it is, and sits up as straight as he can. The only light comes from down the endless hallway, and the steps stop at the cusp of the room, a female figure blocking out the orange light.
“Sorry I had James prepare dinner, but I was a bit tied up.”
Arthur struggles violently, but the restraints are firm. The shadow kneels before him and smiles. “It’s just me. Don’t you know me?” Her hands cup Arthur’s face, warm and smooth and thumbs stroking over Arthur’s bruised cheekbone tenderly, too tenderly. “Dom is finally here. You can leave, now.”
Arthur tries to bite, but she pulls away, slinking back into the shadows. “Get away from me,” he heaves against the restraints, spitting in her direction. “Get away.”
“So he’s not trained,” Eames says when they open their eyes for the first time. “That’s a relief. I was afraid I’d actually have to use this formidable item.”
“Put that away,” Arthur hisses, edging Eames’ massive plasma rifle back into his robe. “Don’t alarm the projections.”
“They’re alarming enough,” Eames mutters. “Trust Cobb to build Jerusalem and the subject to turn it into Tatooine.”
“He isn’t trained,” Arthur repeats, but he draws closer to the rest of the team as a bevy of bobble-headed creatures all shapes and sizes mill around them, some wearing robes and some wearing armor, some nearly within arm’s reach. They don’t look hostile, but there are a few carrying weapons. A scholarly-looking creature with a giraffe’s neck and a lizard’s head bumps into Cobb, provoking a grunt; a panhandler with compound eyes and a set of steely-looking pincers sidles up to Eames, tugging at his robe and shaking a wooden bowl full of dirty bronze chips.
“His imagination’s extremely thorough, then,” Eames says. He flips the robe partway to casually display the holster on his hip, and the panhandler scurries away. Arthur watches the projections ebb and swirl around them—none of them display any curiosity or alarm at what just happened. Eames looks as benign as ever, chewing on a toothpick that he probably conjured out of nowhere, damn it.
“We need to go,” Cobb says, the patience running thin in his voice, and that makes Arthur let out the breath he’s been holding. He scans the crowd, straining to see above the mill. “It’s this way,” he says. A group of soldiers clad in white armor turns a corner and the three of them speed along into the open-air market, losing themselves in the crowd.
The desert sun is starting to beat down on them and Arthur can feel himself sweating. Eames’ cotton robe is already starting to darken around the armpits. Only Cobb remains impervious, giving no indication that he’s feeling the heat at all.
“And as I was saying before,” Eames elbows Arthur’s bicep, “what if the subject doesn’t put in the specific algorithm we need? Then we’re stuck out here in the desert without anything to quench our thirst, and—oh.” He gives Arthur an appraising look, “at least we’ll have each other, won’t we?”
Arthur ignores him. “Cobb designed the dream to have three failsafes. If he doesn’t code in the algorithm at the first checkpoint, we’ll still have two chances.”
“And he’s literally questing for the Fountain of Youth?”
“He’s searching for something important to him,” Arthur huffs, and sees Cobb looking back at them, already a few steps ahead. “It just happens that he wants to live forever. Now let’s go.”
“You shouldn’t rush so much, Arthur, unless you want to lose your glowing complexion. Oh, unless that’s really the reason why you want to find the subject— to get to the Fountain?”
“Mr. Eames,” Arthur sighs. “Perhaps you should go in front of me.”
“And why is that, darling?”
“So your running mouth doesn’t get ahead of you.”
“A-ha.” Eames narrows his eyes, but his mouth quirks up in a smile.
They eventually edge their way out of the market section of town. The streets are paved but still dusty, doors and windows darkening as they venture further down into the heart of the residential district. Buildings grow taller around them, brick-and-mortar mingling with sandy stucco exteriors, a patchwork of texture in the winding streets and the growing shadows. Wires hang overhead, lined with lights and the laundry of projections; a shirt flaps, sheets wave, and black birds look down at them from their perch. From a window up above, somebody is singing, voice carrying down the road and back out to the market, the sound of distant foot traffic buzzing in a dull thrum in Arthur’s ears, as pervasive as the dust and sand in his shoes. He shrugs it off, phantom stimulation of the cochlear nuclei.
“He’s in one of these houses,” Cobb says. “We just have to wait for him to come out and follow him.”
“Nice world you’ve got here, Cobb,” Eames fans himself with the plasma rifle, “but did you have to make it so bloody hot?”
“It’s to highlight the contrast between this plane and the next one,” Arthur explains, saving Cobb the trouble. “Once he gets into the forest setting, it’ll be much cooler. The contrast makes the experience more emotionally immersive for the subject.”
“Thank you for the lesson, professor, but I already knew of its—immersive properties,” Eames murmurs, and swipes a finger along the back of Arthur’s neck. Cobb doesn’t see, so Arthur doesn’t let his surprise show, but he’s pretty sure he’s glowering. “We should form a union. Demand better working conditions. You’re sinking in your own sweat, you know.”
“That’s inappropriate,” Arthur grits out, sotto voce.
“My proposal for a union, or your perspiration?”
“Mr. Eames,” Arthur hisses, the same time Eames takes a step back and announces, “All right, let’s go in.”
“What?” Cobb’s lips are pursed.
“I’ll pretend to be his grandmother. Bubbe can deliver a pie. Actually, no, he’s partial to omelettes. But I doubt those keep very well in this weather.”
“His grandmother’s been dead for ten years.” Arthur tries not to flush with embarrassment, first and secondhand—Eames’ Yiddish is terrible. “She’s irrelevant.”
“Since when is one’s grandmother ever irrelevant, you unfilial thing?”
Cobb gives Eames a cautious, appraising glance. “All right then,” he says. “Pick one.”
“That one.” Eames gestures to a red brick house sandwiched between two sandy stucco ones, sporting a sloping red roof and a verandah that wraps around the second floor. The windows are large enough that they can see the shadows inside. Potted plants trickle from the windows, stone pathway leading up to the front door from the street. A fountain fills the air with the trickling sound of water on rock.
Cobb half-shrugs, half-nods. “Arthur, you stay out here. Keep an eye on the street.”
The two of them walk up the garden path together and Arthur heads down the street a little further, keeping an eye on them as they knock on the door. Eames is hunched over and almost completely gone except that his hair is still the same, slicked back, pomade-encrusted locks flat against an old lady’s shrunken head. Cobb’s disappeared from sight to scout the perimeter.
Two suns move sluggishly over the sky, making heat rise even in the shade. Everything beyond a certain point a mirage emerging from the dust, and Arthur sees the suggestion of walls in the middle of the street. He’s about to turn back and head the other way when he sees a familiar visage in a shimmer up ahead, vague and loose around the edges before it steps out of the wavering heat and onto the sidewalk, heading into a house.
“Shit,” Arthur swears, and pulls out his radio. “Dom. We’ve got a bogey seven houses down.”
A crackle of white noise, and then Cobb’s voice, mulled by static. “Projections? You said they weren’t armed.”
Something like that. “I’m going to check it out.”
“Call if you need backup. Eames is already inside.”
Arthur tucks the radio back in his pocket and heads up the road.
When the door opens again, it’s Cobb. Arthur gasps through the haze, Dom, before he can stop himself. He has a knife and is cutting the cloth around Arthur’s wrists and ankles.
“How’d you find me?” Arthur manages.
“Had to strike a deal,” Cobb says, and helps Arthur sit up. Arthur doesn’t want to ask what deal. The other negotiating party must be the one down the hallway, somewhere in the dark of the house. Maybe he doesn’t want to know.
Arthur doesn’t forget himself, though. “Where’s the subject.” His voice is a hoarse whisper, worn from screaming. “Where’s Eames.”
“It’s finished,” Cobb says dully. “We got it.”
The silence hangs between them, an iron curtain. Mal’s presence in the next room over is enough explanation for what happened here, in the shadow of Cobb’s old home, and Arthur isn’t going to include this in the post-job briefing, he’s not going to say a thing because Cobb already knows. His face is still wet with tears and he’s bruised all over and one eye is swelling up so badly he can’t see. The both of them sit on the floor with their faces turning red with heat and embarrassment and Arthur is going numb all over, shame drawing all the nerves out of his body. Cobb can’t meet his eyes either, mouth twitching like he wants to say something but is saying nothing.
The way he offers Arthur his gun is telling.
“It’s early,” Arthur says. There’s still time on the clock. Even through the pain he’s been keeping track of the days.
But he still clicks the safety off. He takes aim. The anger keeps his focus tight, the numbness keeps his hand steady. Anything he wants to say to Cobb, he can say with this. Cobb is letting him.
“I know,” is the reply. Cobb sits back on his haunches, head tilted back and a great sigh escaping him as he closes his eyes.
It takes Arthur a second to gather himself. He fires.
He knocks on the door, once, twice. After a minute, when nobody answers, he tries the doorknob.
It turns, and the door swings open. Gun steady in front of him, Arthur closes the door quietly behind him and heads down the foyer. The house is all dark wood and warm lighting, paintings hanging on the wall, vibrant splotches of color progressing from blue to green to yellow then red. He can still smell the ocean even from inside, and in fact, it might be stronger. There are candles burning, scattered along the floor, and Arthur attributes it to that. He’s not sure who would be burning candles in the afternoon, but if this is what he thinks it is—
When Arthur reaches the kitchen, he realizes where he is. He breathes in sharply and turns around, heading back down the hallway before one of the doors swings open and Mal steps out.
“Oh, Arthur. Always leaving without saying goodbye.”
He shoots her and she doubles over, a pained groan escaping her lips. Shoving past her and down the hall, his hand is extended, ready to grasp the doorknob and twist it open.
Except where the door was, there’s now only a wooden panel. He wills it into a door, but it only flickers, mocking him. Arthur looks back down the hallway, and Mal is holding her stomach, inching toward him and a manic smile on her face.
“Is that really any way to treat an old friend?” Blood is frothing on her lips and Arthur will not look, will not let it register.
He veers to the left and heads upstairs. There used to be a door in Mal and Cobb’s bedroom that led to a terrace. The terrace had steps down to the backyard, which had a door that led to the front yard. If he’s fast enough, if he’s fast enough, he can make it before she realizes where he’s going.
He barges into Mal and Cobb’s bedroom and it’s just as he remembered it, the few times he did see it. It even smells like the two of them, Mal’s perfume mixed with the clean scent of Cobb, just laundry and a hint of cologne and salty like the ocean, and suddenly Arthur feels his anger choking him, making him take a step back. How can Cobb—still hang onto this, like it’s all yesterday—how can Cobb make this when they’re supposed to be on the job, on the fucking job?
He gathers himself before he can think anymore, racing to the terrace door and throwing it open. His foot touches nothing when he puts it out and Arthur grasps at the door frame with both hands, reflexes hauling himself backwards even as his gun drops down, down, away. He falls down onto the floor, wincing hard. The terrace isn’t there— nothing’s there. The door opens out to an abyss, a rushing of water below. The wind blows the door closed with a slam.
Arthur’s mind is racing furiously, trying to figure out the other exits, but by now Mal will have closed off all escape routes. There’s only one way out, and he knows what he needs to do. Eames and Cobb can complete the job by themselves, and since it’s Cobb’s dream, it won’t collapse if he dies and if he dies, there won’t be a need to warp the dream to escape, to alert the projections to his presence. Arthur pulls himself back up and scrambles for the doorknob, flinging the door open.
It won’t budge. He dashes to the adjoining window and forces it up, but it’s jammed as well. He’s raises his arm and takes aim at the glass, ready to break it, when it suddenly melts away from him, and the window is a brick wall. His elbow smashes against it before he can stop himself and he cries out, feeling something crack in his arm.
“We’re remodeling,” Mal says slowly, from the entrance to the bedroom. Footsteps behind him, and Arthur is nearly delirious with pain, he can’t move. “But it’ll be beautiful when it’s done.”
She hits him with something on the back of his head, and Arthur sinks into darkness.
The three of them head to the airport in the same town car, and maybe they shouldn’t have. Cobb’s gaze is even more stoic than usual and Arthur keeps fidgeting even though he doesn’t want to. Eames has enough courtesy not to ask, but his eyes ask all the questions for him before he realizes that it’s not worth his time and sits back and takes a nap for the rest of the way, leaving Arthur and Cobb to endure each others’ stony silences.
Eames is on his way to Hong Kong for his next job, and Cobb and Arthur are back to Paris.
They alight and get their baggage from the trunk. The driver is unloading Eames’. “Cathay Pacific?” Arthur sees Eames’ e-ticket and tries weakly, very weakly, at small talk. “Good food, at least.” Part of himself is disgusted for even trying, and he doesn’t wonder about the reasons.
“Food isn’t usually a problem when you’re flying first class, is it.” Eames gives Arthur a look of surprise, but his tone is flat. Cobb has already grabbed his suitcase and is rolling into the terminal without so much as a goodbye. “And speaking of food, what’s eating him?”
“The usual,” Arthur mutters.
“Why not, you know, take a break? Get things sorted out first?”
“He already did,” Arthur says. Eames raises an eyebrow.
“I meant you.”
“Oh.” Arthur doesn’t know why he’s taken aback. “Already did that, too.”
“That wasn’t a holiday.” Eames quirks his lips. “A dry run at the clinic? I had a phase like that myself, once upon a time. And not the most stimulating vocational line, I know.”
“Southeast Asia’s beautiful this time of year. Should try Hanoi, Thailand, even Singapore is better than Paris. Or Hong Kong, really. They’ve beautiful beaches, beautiful girls, if that’s your thing. Looks like it would be your thing. We’ll fix you up with a nice local girl and you can forget all your troubles.”
Arthur ignores the invitation. “Who told you? Cobb?”
“About your preference for local flavor?”
He slams the trunk shut and hands the driver a twenty pound tip. “Everybody in our line of work contemplates doing the right thing, at one point or another.” Eames winks, winks at him, and that’s the last straw.
“Goodbye, Mr. Eames.” Arthur sticks out his hand. “Take care of yourself.”
Eames seems amused, amused at Arthur’s expense but when is that ever not the case, so he keeps his hand there until Eames takes it. “Likewise.”
He’s been incredibly stupid, Arthur thinks gloomily, trying to be ginger with his tenderized elbow. The only thing he can do now is keep it together until the time runs out, or until Eames and Cobb find him— unlikely, since when he woke for the first time, Mal had taken his radio away. It was probably in the ocean, with his gun.
He should have shot her in the head. Sympathy had moved his hand down, and he had shot her in the stomach instead, and now he is tied up and getting beat up. No, if he’s getting actually beat up, he probably would still be unconscious, one level down and dreaming of something else. He tests his restraints. Rope binds his wrists and ankles. Arthur concentrates for a moment, can feel them slipping—
Mal is sitting on the broad sill that overlooks the backyard, munching on an apple. Arthur can hear James and Phillipa running through the house. It sounds like there are dozens of them.
Mal suddenly turns to Arthur. “What are you looking at?”
“You,” Arthur grits out.
“Hungry?” She raises up the half-eaten apple.
“Actually, I was wondering how you healed.”
Mal looks down at her belly, almost wonderingly. “Did you really want to hurt me?” She presses her lips together in thought, then hops off the sill and walks over to Arthur. “You look hungry to me. Open your mouth.” She drops the apple on the ground and kicks it over to him. Arthur stares at it until she nudges his head down to the ground with her foot, pressing and pressing until his nose is crushed against the hardwood. “You look hungry,” she repeats.
He inches his way over to the apple and opens his mouth. Too late, a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and he wrenches himself away as Mal kicks the apple across the room, laughing. It lands somewhere under the couch.
“You really enjoy doing this, don’t you,” Arthur mutters under his breath.
“Yes,” Mal says, kneeling down next to Arthur. “I like seeing your reactions.”
“Predictable,” he spits on the floor, unable to spit in her face. Mal looks at the glob and back at him, thoughtful. She wipes at it with her hand and smears it back in his face. Arthur smells his own saliva on his face, sharp and salty and pungent.
“And if I’m so predictable,” she giggles, “why don’t you tell me what to do?”
“I just want to know why you’re so hell-bent on torturing me every fucking time,” Arthur yells, because damn it, he does want to know, and Cobb isn’t here right now, only him and Mal and if Cobb can’t control his impulses than neither will Arthur, damn it, damn it.
“The million-dollar question,” Mal claps her hands together. “Well, I would never. Not normally, anyway. But nothing about this is normal, is it? You’re not supposed to be here, but you’re here. You’re not supposed to feel the way you do, yet you do. Within unnaturalness is naturalness, so then I wouldn’t not never, so isn’t your question— irrelevant?” And then she smiles at him, like she’s doing him a kindness, as if this is all so blindly obvious and can’t Arthur see he’s just being a fool?
This Mal is a projection. She is, in the end, utterly incapable of telling a lie, and maybe she doesn’t know the whole truth, but she sure as hell isn’t afraid to spin circles around it.
“You’re saying it’s wrong of me to do this? To violate our friendship?” Mal reaches out and touches Arthur’s bruised cheek.
Arthur flinches even though the touch is very gentle. “Mal wouldn’t hurt me.”
“You sound so sure,” she says, and puts her whole palm on his face. “Your skin feels so warm, here.”
“It’s from where you hit me,” Arthur’s voice is hoarse.
Mal nods and drops her hands to his shoulders. She leans forward and lays her cheek against his own. Arthur holds himself as still as he can, but he can’t control the stutter of his breath when Mal’s hand curls around the back of his neck and slides upwards, fingers pushing through his hair.
“And your heart’s beating faster,” she says, like commenting on the weather, easy as the day. Her other hand slips up Arthur’s shirt, stroking his belly and then his chest, before she settles for tapping a cadence out against his heart. “You feel warm everywhere, Arthur.” She sits back on her haunches and looks at him. “You’re turning red. Even where I hit you. I can’t even tell now.”
“Doesn’t mean you didn’t do it.”
“Would Dom ever hit you?”
“No,” Arthur says with great certainty. “No.”
“I think he would,” she says, and she slaps his other cheek. It stings, but no real harm is done. Arthur glares at her through hooded eyes.
“Would Dom ever hit you?”
“No,” Arthur says again, and she slaps him again, this time twice, forehand and backhand. His head is spinning.
“Would Dom ever hit you?”
Arthur is breathing hard. “Damn it, Mal.”
She looks so at peace, hand raised like she’s about to say hello, like she’s waving goodbye. “Would Dom ever hit you?” and she knocks him one against the jaw, flipping him onto his back. Arthur groans, straining against his restraints.
Mal looms over him, fists cocked. “Well, would he?”
“This is really fucked up,” Arthur wheezes, and this time she knocks his head into the floor.
Cobb goes to get coffee for the both of them, buying Arthur a croissant to go with it. Arthur accepts it and tries to look Cobb in the eye as he tells him thank you, but Cobb doesn’t make eye contact with him. Arthur palms his Blackberry with one hand, checking emails, as he eats his croissant with the other. The flakes get all over his pants.
They’re seated in business class, Cobb in the seat behind Arthur. Arthur can only see so many of the exits from here and he reminds himself, reminds himself that the job is over. Nothing is going to happen on the plane. The mark never saw them coming, never saw them leaving. There’s nothing to worry about.
There’s nothing to worry about.
Repeating that like a mantra in his head, he eventually drifts off. Not to sleep, not to memories, just off.
Mal plunges her hand under the waistband of his pants. Arthur yelps, trying to push her off, ears burning with shame, but this time Mal is ready for him. She catches his bound wrists and yanks him forward, throwing him onto the rug. He struggles to get up, but her hand closes over the back of his neck and she forces his head to the floor. With her other hand she undoes Arthur’s pants and yanks his briefs down past his knees.
He fights wildly, his ears filled with cries and panic and harsh, gasping breaths. Mal’s weight pins him down and he doesn’t remember her being this heavy but he can’t move, her legs spread over the small of his back. Teeth close on the back of his neck and fingernails scrape his chest and he screams for Cobb.
The heat and the weight and the nails go away abruptly and for one absurd second Arthur is sure that Cobb is here.
He is, a part of him realizes, and then Mal’s fingers snake through his hair and she lifts him up so she can punch him with her other fist.
Arthur sags forward. Mal is whispering to him, maybe in French and maybe not, but Arthur could only make out that at least she isn’t hitting him again. It’s just in his head. Nothing more than dendrites and neurotransmitters.
He wonders if Cobb knows what’s happening. If Mal would let him in.
Then Mal’s voice is silk in his ear, “that’s a good boy, Arthur. Sometimes it takes you a while, but you eventually understand what’s going on.”
Arthur lays still. He won’t beg, he promises himself, promises Cobb. It will hurt Cobb more to know it, to know what’s happening, and he’s sure that nothing he says will change Mal’s mind. Cobb’s mind. His head throbs.
He can’t help the hot flush of humiliation, though, as Mal’s hands slip between his legs, stroking and probing. The pain in his arm is now a dull, tight throb, and he focuses on that as Mal squeezes him, as she continues to whisper to him.
“There’s one thing that would make this better,” she says, voice like the air. “If Dom were here. That’s the way I always imagined this.” She spreads him open and pushes a slick finger in. Arthur feels spit trickling down his ass and closes his eyes. “It’d be wonderful if I could bring this to him. You, spread out and willing to take orders.” She leans in and hisses in his ear, “But you do that anyway, don’t you? Every day.”
Her fingers punch into him and Arthur bites his tongue to keep from crying out. A grunt escapes his lips as Mal pushes harder, jabbing at him, fingers wriggling inside him. “Yes,” she murmurs. “Shouldn’t be a surprise, that you like this. Always wondered what would make you cry and beg and scream. You’re always so composed, Arthur. It’s admirable. If Dom were here— maybe you wouldn’t be? You’d just melt like butter, wouldn’t you?”
No, Arthur thinks desperately, panic creeping over him, because if Mal knows, if Mal knows—
Mal senses his body tightening and drags him back, forcing his thighs apart. The point of her knees digs into his calf as she leans into him, and she plunges three fingers into him, hitting his prostate and making him jerk and cry out.
“I know what you want,” she hisses. “But you won’t have it.”
Arthur groans and chokes, sweating in pain and the twisting, unwanted pleasure. He knows he’s losing. He’s forgetting that this doesn’t matter, that these perceived injuries don’t actually exist, that Mal doesn’t actually exist. She’s jerking his cock with rough tugs and fucking him with three fingers, scouring him from the inside out.
“Should have done this a long time ago,” Mal whispers, a dying wind past his ear. And Arthur realizes then that she’s rutting against his thigh, wetness leaking through her dress and making the silk slide supple over his legs. He closes his eyes and puts himself far away beyond his own pain, somewhere, where he can see his own body collapsing under the weight of hers as he releases his pleasure, the stricken look on her face as he does and the tears coming from her eyes as she winds her arms around him.
“Why do you stay?” Mal cries. “Why won’t you go?”
Something cold presses up against his arm, jolting Arthur out of his half-sleep. He can’t turn around fast enough and almost ends up knocking the glass of water right out of Cobb’s hands.
“Thanks,” he says, venturing a glance upwards, and there, Cobb’s looking at him now. Arthur feels his stomach turn.
“Told her not to bother you,” he motions at the stewardess, who is serving drinks. “You were sleeping.”
“As I still was just now,” Arthur lets a small smile onto his face, and Cobb chuckles. “I guess waking people up is your jurisdiction.”
“Maybe,” and his eyes are unreadable, and his tone is serious. Arthur feels his throat close. “I’ve been thinking—”
“Ah,” Arthur shrugs. He stares into his water glass and wonders if Cobb added anything. It could be possible. “So that’s what you’ve been doing these past few hours.”
“Yeah.” Cobb swallows, throat clicking, and only then can Arthur look at him again, though Cobb doesn’t look nervous or apprehensive, whatever he’s about to say. Far from it. “I need some time to get a handle on this situation.”
Arthur drains his glass in one gulp, eyes shut against brain freeze. This again.
“I don’t think—” Cobb takes a deep breath. “I’m not sure if I’m the best candidate to build right now.”
“We can find a temporary architect,” Arthur racks his brain for names, for contacts, because he doesn’t like where this conversation is going. “There’s a builder in Palo Alto who specializes in—”
“I’ve already got one lined up.”
Arthur almost wants to say, me, I can do it, but both he and Cobb know that Arthur only specializes in the micro. They need someone who is passionate about the big picture, and Cobb is saying that he’s not that person now. Maybe not anymore.
“All right,” Arthur scrubs at his face, maybe trying to wake up. “What’s the next job?”
“There are a few things I need to test first.”
“So,” he says. “So, you’re doing this alone, is what you mean to say.”
“Yeah.” Cobb’s voice is no more than a whisper now, and he’s leaning back in his chair, trying to put some distance between them. Fidgety, like he does when he gets nervous, and Arthur’s heart surges.
“Cobb,” and Arthur unbuckles his seatbelt and twists around so that he’s completely face-to-face with the other man. “Cobb, look at me.”
“I need to see what I can and can’t do,” Cobb says quietly, eyes everywhere but on Arthur. “Nobody else needs to get involved.”
The words cut him like a knife, and it takes every ounce of Arthur’s will to keep him facing Cobb. “So we’re doing this again,” he says, “nothing’s changed.” The words feel stubborn. He doesn’t know if he’s trying to reassure Cobb or himself. If he’s talking about Cobb or himself, and Arthur’s getting angry. He can’t help it, and he’s trying to, but he can’t. These things he’s saying, they’re tripping uselessly out of his mouth, and they don’t mean anything but it’s the best he can do.
Cobb’s voice is like he’s punching the words out of his lungs. “You know it’s not right.”
“We’ve done a few things that haven’t been right,” Arthur says, and god, what is he saying. He can feel himself heat, and turns around in his chair before he can say anything and before he can see the look on Cobb’s face.
Nothing’s changed, he repeats, words slipping soundlessly from his lips. But it’s not true, is it.
a r t h u r i s a s l e e p o r u n c o n s c i o u s b u t e i t h e r w a y c o b b i s t h e r e i n t h i s
p l a c e – w i t h i n – a – p l a c e
t h e y a r e l y i n g t o g e t h e r , f a c i n g u p w a r d s l i k e t h e y a l w a y s d o w h e n t h e r e a r e n o b e d s n o c h a i r s a n d o n l y
t h e f l o o r b e n e a t h t h e m
p a s i v b e t w e e n t h e m
b u t t h e r e a r e n o l i n e s t h i s t i m e a n d i n s t e a d t h e i r v e i n s a r e o u t a n d t a n g l e d b e t w e e n t h e m
a g n a r l e d m e s s o f t h r o b b i n g r e d s a n d b l u e s
h e r e a r t h u r c a n f e e l e v e r y t h i n g t a s t e e v e r y t h i n g h e a r e v e r y t h i n g s e e e v e r y t h i n g
u n t i l
c o b b w a k e s up
cobb sits up disoriented b u t a r t h u r k e e p s s l e e p i n g k e e p s l y i n g t h e r e i n t h i s p l a c e w i t h i n a p l a c e d r e a m w i t h i n a d r e a m and cobb he sits there for the longest time
looking at arthur and not moving
finally he reaches over with a knife and saws through the mess of veins and
it takes him a long time because the veins are old and tough and grown in like
tree roots and
there is blood everywhere coming out of him coming out of the machine and
a r t h u r d r o w n s i n i t s t i l l a s l e e p
When he wakes up, Mal is sitting on the kitchen stool, toying with a knife. For a second Arthur’s afraid that she’s going to use it against him, like she’s done before, but her gaze is empty and her body language is slack. She’s looking off to the side, almost disinterested. He follows her gaze.
The door is wide open at the end of the hallway. Sunlight is coming in and James and Phillipa are playing on the porch, the backs of their heads to him.
“You should go,” she says, and stands up. “What are you waiting for?”
He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to get up and go if he’s still tied up. “Get these off me,” he says, motioning at his wrists and ankles.
“Oh, Arthur.” Mal’s look is full of pity. “I can’t do everything for you.”
He drifts in snatches, dozing off against the window and snapping back to wakefulness at the slightest turbulence. He flips through the in-flight magazine and flips through channels on the set in front of him. He eventually nods off with the magazine over his face.
Sometime later, he hears Cobb call his name. Quietly, so quiet that he’s not sure he’s heard it. He doesn’t respond. Let him think he’s asleep. Don’t bother me, please. The plane will land soon. Shouldn’t you be sitting down. Fasten your seat belt.
There’s a gentle pressure on his face, somebody reaching for the magazine, to lift it from his face. And because Arthur’s asleep, supposedly, admittedly, the pressure lingers longer than it should. Individual points of weight—fingers—touch, through the thick paper, the crinkle-sweet smell, over the bridge of his nose, on his right cheek. A stronger touch, the magazine whispers a little, on his lips.
It would be too light to notice if he weren’t awake. If he were asleep, in truth, it would only be something half-felt, in dreams. A dream-touch, wind from the approaching rain. He’s ashamed at the way his body warms to this, the way his chest swells like he’s never breathed before, the way the space between his legs feels heavy, wanting, unsatisfied.
His body, waxing and waning, arches off the chair in a semblance of sleep-stir, and the pressure is gone, the magazine as well. The cloudy grey-light hits his eyes as suddenly as he expected. Cobb’s shadow looms over him, broad and not the sun, but Arthur can’t help but warm, emerge, to this: familiar again. It’s not fair, like a child his mind goes, it’s not fair.
“We’re landing soon,” Cobb says. He’s got Arthur’s magazine in hand and is flipping through.
“I know.” Arthur’s voice is rough with sleep.
So they land. They disembark, go through customs, the baggage claim area. Cobb is ten steps ahead of Arthur and Arthur is keeping his distance. He gets his regular luggage from the carousel and stacks the PASIV on top of it, rolling them both along. The wheels grind rhythmically against the floor and the walk to the exit has never felt longer.
And when they reach the exit, Arthur stops. He stops before the doors and watches Cobb walk further and further away, shielding his eyes against the bright glare of the sun through the bay windows. After ten steps, Cobb turns around, slowly, like he can’t bring himself to look.
They're standing on either side of the sliding doors. Cobb is facing Arthur with his hands in his pockets, mouth pinched in distress and brow furrowed. He keeps his bright blue gaze on Arthur's face the whole time.
"Cobb," Arthur starts, sick with courage. “I—”
The doors close.