The path ends abruptly, and so he searches for another way.
Arthur remembers he has a flashlight, and fishes it out of his back pocket, flicking it on. The tiny beam makes the night seem even darker, more foreboding, and he feels a rumble beneath his feet. He has to be far down; the air is wet here, with the smell and the weight of the ocean. Then he catches the glimpse of a narrow alleyway. Just a space between two buildings folding into each other, and he slips through, heat and darkness more and more oppressive with every step he takes.
The earth is moaning, full of sorrow and unhappiness. Arthur slides down the narrow aperture, one foot siding the next and he thinks about Cobb. He tries to imagine Cobb. Maybe he'll be surprised to see him, maybe not. Maybe angry, what took Arthur so long. Maybe pissed, how did he let this happen. No worries, they still have half a day and Arthur knows that he's getting close. He's not sure what he'll say when he sees Cobb-- maybe, hey, come around these parts often?
Probably not. He'll leave it to the moment.
The air grows hotter and hotter, like he's walking toward a furnace. His little light bobs against the endless stretch of black in front of him. When he points it down, he sees the shiny wet gleam of running liquid; he's walking in a gutter. It smells like it. The walls are closing in, narrowing, making his shoulders scrape against the brick.
The buildings end, of course. Arthur pushes himself out through the gap and instinctively looks up, hoping for the sky or the stars, but there's only the lowering red glow of steam reflecting the light of something else. Arthur looks around, guarding against the frantic bubbling in his heart, sees if he can see the source. There's a window behind him, set very low in the ground. He kneels down and shines his flashlight through it but all he gets is a tinny reflection. He reaches out and pushes at the window-- it slips left easily. He lays down in the mud and the shit and slides his legs through it, pushing himself into it with his hands.
There's a fall, and Arthur is frightened long enough to hope that it won't kick him up, but then his feet hit the ground. He's not sure if he's inside or outside anymore-- there are walls all around him but the floor here is dirt. Arthur shines the light around him and again from the corner of his eye he catches a glimpse of a red glow. Moving cautiously, he turns off his flashlight. It's another corridor and at the end of it, a small, flickering fire. Arthur feels himself drawn toward it like a moth, like he's always known the path.
He arrives in the clearing to find Cobb throwing small twigs into the fire. He sits with his long legs folded and his head bowed down, a hand over his eyes. Arthur sees his eyes through the spaces between his fingers, staring into the fire. Then he sides around the fire and sits down next to Cobb.
"I know you're not real," Cobb says, "so just go away."
"I'm real," Arthur says, and Cobb's head twists up sharply. His face is filthy, streaked with dirt and that streaked with sweat, a network of paths written on his face. Arthur knows how he must feel, for his own clothes are torn and stained and he has a mile of dirt in his shoes and in his lungs. He aches all over, finally weary.
"You didn't think I'd come?"
"No." Cobb tosses another twig in the fire, and Arthur sees his mouth had curled into a shy smile. "No, I knew that if anybody could find me, it'd be you, Arthur."
Arthur nods, smiling to himself, and sighs. "How'd you get here?"
"They sent me. That one. I, uh, I took something of his."
Arthur looks back up from the fire at him. Cobb had stolen something? "What did you take?"
Cobb laughs mirthlessly, and pulls from his pocket two narrow spiked leaves. Arthur puts his hand around Cobb's and pulled it closer to his face. "What is it?"
"Rosemary. From his garden."
"For rememberance," Arthur whispers, not sure how he knows this.
"Arthur, am I--are we dead?"
Arthur takes a breath. "No, Cobb," he says, absolutely certain. Arthur closes his hand over Cobb's, feeling the shape of his knuckles new against his palm. It makes Arthur take a breath. "We're fine. Just a long way from home."
"Yeah." Cobb stares into the fire. "Long ways."
"Uh," Arthur squints, trying to remember. "Cobb, is anybody else here?"
"Nobody. Just wondering. But we need to go."
"Can we?" Cobb looked carefully at Arthur. "I thought that nobody could leave this place."
"Well, we are," he said firmly, and took Cobb's hand again. "Come on. Up you go. It's a long way back. Cobb," he added quickly. "Have you had anything to eat or drink here?"
"Nothing anyone here gave you."
"No reason. Just a feeling I have. Promise you won't."
"Okay. I guess, if you think it's important."
"I do. Now come on, Cobb. Start marching."
"I'm supposed to lead." He sounds certain.
"Not now. Now it's my turn, okay?"
Cobb smiles at him, exhausted, his teeth gleaming in the firelight, and Arthur slides his arm around Cobb's waist to guide him back up the long incline. But when Cobb tries to rise, his legs collapse. "Hey, hey," Arthur said, easing him back down. "Let's try it again in a minute."
"Dom." His voice is rough with emotion, name slipping from nowhere, and he clears his throat, embarrassed.
"I can't leave."
Arthur studies Cobb more carefully. Behind the filth, the relieved smile, the exhaustion, he sees something else. "Why can't you leave?"
"I don't know. But I can't."
Arthur taps his fingers against his thigh, and sighs. "Okay. Did someone tell you that? How did you get here?"
"I don't really remember."
"Okay. You had to. So you left the room and went where--down all those stairs?"
"Yeah, I remember them all right." Cobb rubs his knees in memory. "On and on. When we got to the bottom, there was a little patio, really hot. And somebody told me that I'd stolen from him. I told I didn't, but he pointed to my pocket. Then I remembered the rosemary."
He looks at Arthur. "I only took two leaves. It smelled sweet, and reminded me of-- I just--just two leaves, Arthur. How'd he know? I mean, how'd he even know?"
Arthur pats Cobb's shoulder and tried to remember what little herbal lore he knew. Rosemary. Included in funeral wreaths as a symbol of remembrance and in wedding bouquets as a symbol for fidelity. Said that if you touched a lover with a sprig of rosemary, they'll be faithful.
He sighs again, and says, "I don't know, Cobb." And then it occurs to him, haltingly, not the full picture, but important. "We're in his world, and of course he'll know." He hears Ariadne's voice in his head and almost smiles, until he remembered that Ariadne isn't here. "Cobb, Ariadne is waiting for us. Others, too. You have to leave, if only to help me find them."
"They're here, too? Everyone's here?"
"It's okay, we'll get them back. But I need your help. Come on, Cobb. Try. There's nothing keeping you here. I don't see any chains, we're not huddling in a cage, it's just us. Around a campfire. How many times has it just been us? In how many places? This is just one more. Come on, Cobb." Arthur hears a note of pleading enter his voice, but he doesn't care. "Please, Cobb. Try. For me." He stands and offers Cobb his hands.
Cobb stared at him, then dropped his eyes to study Arthur's hands. He reached up and took them, and Arthur could feel his pulse beating furiously. "Oh, Cobb," he said, and knelt again to embrace his friend. "Don't be afraid," he whispered. "Let's just go."
"I don't remember how."
He pulls Cobb into an even tighter embrace, gently rocking him. The stones beneath his knees cut into his skin, right through the fabric of his suit, but he hangs on. That's all he's doing. "It's okay. You don't have to remember. You just have to trust me. Let me do all the work, okay?"
Cobb tries to stand again, leaning heavily against Arthur, but he can't move his legs. Arthur even bends over and tried to lift his foot, tugging at it while Cobb leans over him, but nothing happened. Nothing. It was as though he's grown roots.
Arthur sits back with another deep sigh. "Sorry," Cobb says, looking embarrassed. Arthur could see that, even under the dirt and sweat, he is blushing. He pats Cobb's knee.
"So we'll stay a while. I'm tired, anyway. Let's get some rest." Cobb nods, looking as miserable as Arthur can remember. To his pleasure, to his fear, Cobb leans against Arthur again, so the weight of his body rests against Arthur's shoulder. Arthur puts his arm around Cobb and pulled him back a little. "Just rest," he says again, hoping he sounds soothing and not idiotic. He feels Cobb take a deep breath and, when he releases it, feels his muscle tension decrease.
The fire burns weakly, illuminating the dismal ground where they sit. The earth around them is cracked, as if by drought, yet muddy water glinted in the cracks. The stink was heavy here, and he wondered how far below they were.
Without realizing it, he begins to hum. He becomes aware he is singing an old Beatles tune below his breath, almost speaking the words. When Cobb relaxes even further, he smiles to himself. "There are places I remember," he whispered huskily, "all my life though some have changed. Some forever not for better, some have gone and some remain." He forgets the rest of the lyrics, but hums breathlessly, the weight of Cobb in his arms as comforting as the song.
Just when Arthur thinks Cobb has fallen asleep, he whispers, "My fault."
"No, it isn't, Cobb."
"Mine. Wanted to go before you."
Arthur stills, trying to understand Cobb's words. He shifts his position, so he can cross his arms around Cobb's chest. "Just sleep."
"It's okay? That I want to go before you do?"
"Go to sleep, Cobb. It'll be okay."
Sorry, he thought he heard, but it might have been the hissing of a green twig in the fire. He feels Cobb slip into sleep, suddenly heavier against him. "In my life, I love you more," he whispers into the gloom.
Indefinable hours later, when Cobb stirs, Arthur releases him, not wanting to embarrass him further. "Hey."
"Hey." Cobb sniffs deeply and rubs his face, still miserable. "Jesus."
"Yeah. Listen, I have an idea."
"Getting out of here." At Arthur's words, Cobb blushes again, and drops his eyes. "I'm gonna try something, but you can't laugh at me."
"Hell, spoil my fun," Cobb says.
"Okay, you can laugh later, if it doesn't work. In the meantime, just, just sit there."
"Oh, like I have much of a choice." Arthur grins at him, and lightly taps his dirty jaw.
"I think this is a transitional area." At Cobb's blank look, he continues. "Like a, a hotel lobby or an airport."
"Or a foyer, anteroom, entrance. A transitional area. A waiting room."
"And we're waiting for..."
Arthur bites his lip. "I don't know. Don't want to know, either. But we need to get out."
"Arthur, I've tried." Arthur just stares at him. "It's true. Goddammit, you act as though I've decided to stay here."
Hesitantly, but feeling compelled, Arthur says, "I think you have, Cobb." He pauses and then asks, "Cobb, what do you think you deserve?" Cobb looks away, his face tight and shuttered. "I mean it." He puts his hand out again to Cobb's face, this time cupping his hand around Cobb's chin and gently turning him toward him. "What do you deserve?"
"I left you," Cobb says brokenly.
Arthur swallows. "When?"
"It's okay, Cobb."
"It isn't. I've left you, shot you, killed you. And you've never."
"I promise, Cobb, it'll be okay. But you have to come back with me." More firmly, he says, "Or I'll kick your ass all the way back home."
Cobb's tone is gruff and wet and he says, "'d like to see you try."
After a moment, Arthur takes the two rosemary leaves from Cobb's hands and presses them flat, so they lie together. Then he sets them into the fire. "Watch," he tells Cobb. The smell rose, fresh and sweet, a reminder of the wider world, as the leaves crackle and burn. But they stay together and merge in their tiny conflagration, until there are only ashes left.
"What's that mean?" Cobb whispers.
"A loyal relationship."
"I guess." Arthur laughs. "Nobody else here."
He waits for what seemed like a long time. Eventually, the fire trembles and begins to die. He feels his mouth pull into a grimace. Some of the water escape the flames and trickle over the hardened ground toward Cobb's booted foot. Arthur watches it, nearly hypnotized from staring into the flames so intently. It pools around Cobb's foot, and then darkens the sole of the shoe. Arthur discovers he needs to breathe.
When he looks up, Cobb is watching him intently, his face pained. "Let's go, Cobb," he says quietly, and reaches out his hands across the scorched and muddied earth where the fire had been. For a moment, he thinks Cobb will refuse, but then he stretches up both his hands to Arthur, who pulls as hard as he could. Cobb rises easily, and steps across the embers.
Without another word, they begin the hike back.
Arthur wakes up first, still caught in the descent of fire and brimstone before he remembers that he's not in between collapsing buildings, that he and Cobb aren't really running for their lives. He breathes shakily through his nose for a few seconds before he disconnects himself from the line and sits up. The subject is still asleep, eyes twitching under his lids.
Cobb sits up with a gasp a moments later.
"Hey," Arthur calls, not to say anything in particular but just to let Cobb know that he's here. "Subject still asleep." And in a lower voice, murky with memory, "we've got to go."
Cobb's shoulders relax, but he doesn't turn around. "Pack up," he says, and Arthur can hear his voice full of relief.
Later, Cobb asks him why Arthur hadn't just left him down there. The kick would have occurred eventually. He could have waited. Cobb says all this in a quiet voice over the roar of the plane engines and Arthur can barely hear him.
"I'd forgotten," Arthur replies, eyes steady on Cobb, for a brief moment before he looks away. "Lost track of--"
Lost track of time, is what he thinks he wants to say.