Log in

No account? Create an account
Recent Entries Friends Archive Profile Tags fiction index

Master Post

"I told you," Cobb says that night, after a wholesome dinner of frozen pizza, brandishing a crumpled piece of paper at Philippa. "It wasn't on the list."

"We get celery sticks every week, Daddy," she huffs. "It shouldn't have to be on the list."

"I should ban celery sticks from this household," Cobb says decisively. "Food is supposed to give you energy, not use it. Celery isn't nutritious."

It's an old argument by now, and Arthur has to hide his smile in his mug when Phil just leans over to press a kiss to Cobb's forehead. "Dad," she says patiently, "if you stop me from having celery sticks, Arthur's just going to start buying brussell sprouts."

"Arthur has better taste than that," Cobb counters, raising an eyebrow.

"Arthur likes eating healthy," Phil says, loftily.

"Arthur," Arthur corrects, "is not getting involved."

"You say that now," Phil laughs, and Arthur feels warmth pool in his stomach when Cobb joins in. But all that warmth vanishes when they're interrupted by a quiet knock on their backdoor.

It's Yusuf.

Arthur looks up from his coffee, sobering immediately. Across the table from him, Cobb does the same. "Honey," he says, but Philippa's already sighing and rolling her eyes as she stands. "I know, I know, I'm too young for grown-up talk." She eyes Cobb sharply. "But you should know that Mr. Horan thinks I'm totally old enough to join the adult table. Unless you're talking about drugs. Or guns. Or--"

"Philippa," Cobb interrupts, sternly. "Goodnight."

"Fine," Philippa says, scrunching her nose at him. "Goodnight, Dad. Goodnight, Yusuf. Night, Arthur."

"Night, Phil," Arthur says.

"Goodnight, Philippa," Yusuf echoes, with a half-smile. It drops from his face once Philippa's shut the door behind her. "Six weeks," he says, matter-of-factly, as he comes into the kitchen, skipping the pleasantries entirely.

Cobb and Arthur share a look.

"Six weeks?" Cobb repeats.

"Just about," Yusuf affirms, catching Arthur's eye. "There's been rumbling over the past few days, and I received a copy of Payne's flight itinerary this evening."

"All right, then," Cobb says, spreading his hands, all business now. "It's about time we take another look at those blueprints."

Below the table, Arthur's hands close into fists as he nods. "It's about time."

They spend most of the night discussing details - timing, locations, manpower - and then Yusuf heads home to bed, and Cobb has to leave to catch a flight to New York.

"Just for a couple of days," Cobb says, as he adjusts his tie. Arthur quashes the urge to fix it for him. "We'll work out the rest of the plan when I get back?"

"We have six weeks," Arthur says, pushing the coffee pot across the kitchen counter so Cobb can fill his tumbler. "There's still time."

He doesn't think about the look Yusuf had given him the night before.

"And you'll call if--"

"Are we going to act like I've never done this before?" Arthur asks.

Cobb ducks his head a little, laughing, and Arthur follows him down the hall to the front door. "No, you're right," Cobb says. "You're right. You'll be fine." He pauses in the doorway to pick up his briefcase, then turns to Arthur with a half-smile, indulgent and sheepish all at once. "So you'll call, right?"

Arthur rolls his eyes, but his mouth twitches despite himself. "You're going to be late."

"Yeah," Cobb says, with another small laugh. "I'll see you in a few days."

Arthur nods, and watches Cobb disappear out the door. He stands there a moment longer, watching the empty space. A year ago, he thinks. A year ago...

A low rumble in the distance distracts him, then, a groan in the sky, almost like thunder. It takes a second for Arthur to place it.

"Dammit," he says. Because Yusuf is right; he's out of time. Six weeks--

But then the front door swings open again, and Arthur raises his head to see Cobb filling up the doorway. He raises an eyebrow. "Cobb? What did you forget?"

"Arthur," Cobb says, and Arthur only has a second to register the heat in his expression before Cobb's moving, covering the distance between them in two quick steps. Then he's slanting his lips over Arthur's, soft and quick, and Arthur barely has time to react before Cobb's pulling away again, wearing a low, intimate smile. "So you'll call?" Cobb asks, quietly.

Arthur's laugh is more breath than sound, and it comes out rough and shaky. "Cobb," he says. "You're going to be late."

Six weeks, Arthur thinks numbly, standing alone in the corridor after Cobb has gone. Six weeks.

His mouth is still burning.

"You let him leave," Yusuf says, when he comes over, later. It's not a question.

"Yes," Arthur says, putting a newly-rinsed plate in the sink. He's been washing the dishes for over an hour, calm and methodical, but it's done nothing to take away the fire hiding under his skin. It's done nothing to stop him from thinking about - from wondering why, why now, what does Cobb want, will it happen again, will they--

"Arthur," Yusuf says, frustrated. "Why? We have six weeks to implement our plan. He should be here. He needs to be here."

"He has work," Arthur says, simply, wiping his hands on the dishtowel as he crosses the kitchen to Cobb's desk.

"He has work," Yusuf echoes, blankly. "What on earth could be possibly be doing here?" And then understanding dawns, and Arthur sees Yusuf shake his head from the corner of his eye. "You haven't told him."

"No," Arthur says, without looking up from the blueprints Cobb left behind. (Blueprints they don't actually need, he reminds himself.)

"Arthur," Yusuf says. "I heard the music again today."

"I know," Arthur says. "I heard it too."

"So you know that doesn't give us a lot of time," Yusuf presses. "You'd make this easier on all of us if you just told him what was going on."

"I don't need to be lectured," Arthur says. "I know what the situation is."

"Then why does it feel like I'm the only one who's worried about the timeline?" Yusuf demands. "Arthur--"

"I'm going to check on James," Arthur says tersely, pushing back from the table before Yusuf can finish. "It's past his bedtime."

"Arthur," Yusuf tries again. "Leave it be. We need to talk about this, and James is just--"

"He's just a child," Arthur interrupts. "I'm not going to pretend he doesn't exist."

Yusuf shakes his head. "So you're just going to pretend he's real?"

Arthur stops at the doorway, but he doesn't turn around. "I just - I need more time."

"Well, you don't have it," Yusuf says. "In a couple of weeks, Cobb's going to find out that Payne is just a cover story, whether you tell him or not."

"I know," Arthur says, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"We had a plan, Arthur," Yusuf says. "Remember?"

"Don't patronize me," Arthur snaps. "Of course I fucking remember."

He does remember. He remembers everything about that flight.

The way he'd barely even looked at the flight attendant when she approached him during that final stretch; the way she said, "Twenty minutes till we land, sir. Do you need immigration forms?"

"No," he said. "Thank you."

He should've known her name. He's a professional and he's supposed to know these things, would've known, if he'd had capacity then to concentrate on anything that hadn't been counting minutes in his head, seconds, his eyes trained on Cobb the entire time.

That's how he'd missed Saito waking up.

That's how he'd been watching when Cobb hadn't.

Arthur shuts his eyes like that might ward off the memory.

"Arthur," Yusuf says again.

"I remember," Arthur says, and this time his voice comes out even. "I'll keep working on it." He lets out a long, slow breath. "I'm going to check on James. Help yourself to the tea."

When he returns to the kitchen, later, he isn't surprised to find Yusuf gone. The pot of tea sits on the kitchen counter where he'd left it, billowing steam, untouched.

Cobb calls before Arthur can that evening, while Arthur's setting the table for dinner. The kids fight over who gets to use the phone first, and Arthur has to duck his head to make himself look away. He goes back to stirring the pasta, fighting down the sense of contentment he can feel rising in his chest.

Then he feels a tug at his sleeve, hears Phil say, "Arthur," and he blinks his eyes open when she presses the phone into his hand, brings it up to his ear without thinking. "Cobb?"

"Arthur," Cobb says. His voice crackles, small and tinny over the line, but there's so much warmth infused in his tone that Arthur almost shuts his eyes again. "I just wanted to check in, make sure everything's okay."

Arthur isn't supposed to still be thinking about that morning, the Cobb-shaped space he's felt, acutely, all day, but for a moment he's tempted to ask, to make Cobb tell him what he's thinking.

But Philippa's still standing there, watching him with Cobb's eyes, smiling with Cobb's mouth, and Arthur feels a small, familiar tug in his chest. "In case I'd set the house on fire and the kids forgot to mention it?" he says instead.

Cobb laughs, and the heat in it leaks into Arthur's blood. "More like in case they'd talked you into doing their Math assignments for them again."

"I've handled crowds of men twice my size, Cobb," Arthur says. "I think I can manage two tiny humans."

He side-steps James' sneak attack as he speaks, but turns and catches him before he tumbles into the stove. "I am not tiny!" James protests, though he doesn't put up much of a struggle in Arthur's arms. "Daddy! Tell Arthur I'm not tiny!"

Phil just rolls her eyes and takes over stirring the pot of pasta from Arthur so he can juggle both James and the phone without dropping either one. Cobb's laughing again as he says, "As long as Arthur's got you doing your homework, I'm not telling him anything."

"We're fine," Arthur says, smiling as James groans into his shoulder. "No more calls to Mrs. Tomlinson's office for this one." He spares a sly glance at Philippa over his shoulder. "Or hiding stray animals in the bedroom for Phil."

"Arthur!" Phil complains. "It was one time."

"And the last time," Arthur says, mock gravely.

"Never again," Cobb agrees.

Phil sticks her tongue out at him, and Arthur holds his smile back as James leans over to say into the phone, "Don't worry, Daddy. We're fine. Arthur's got it all under control."

"I know," Cobb says, in a tone Arthur's only ever heard in relation to Mal. "He takes care of everything."

Arthur doesn't think much about it till after he puts the kids to bed that night.

He's in the living room, straightening the furniture and clearing the coffee table of crayons and rubber bands, running through his itinerary for the next day (make lunch for the kids, get them to the bus stop on time, do the laundry, fix the broken lamp in Phil's room, make sure James isn't late for baseball practice) when it hits him.

He hadn't thought about telling Cobb once that entire phone conversation, had spent it instead taking care of things, talking about things, places, people who don't really exist, made to-do lists for children who aren't really there.

Let it be, he hears Yusuf say.

"Fuck," Arthur says, crumpling a paper napkin in disgust.

He stays up late that night, watching infomercials and re-runs of Days of Our Lives. The pictures are fuzzy, and the dialogue jumps, awkward cuts that don't make sense. They're a mish-mash of episodes he's already seen, things he remembers from some of the long-haul jobs him and Cobb had taken before--before, and Arthur thinks, tiredly, that this is why none of them watch TV.

They're just projections, he tells himself, when he folds into his bed at seven that morning, eyes already at half-mast. They can miss a day of school. They're just--

Down the hall, James' alarm go off, then Phil's.


But it only takes a second of hesitation before Arthur's up again, shuffling down the hallway to roll the kids out of bed. They come easily, like always, two lolling sleepyheads flanking him on either side as they trek slowly towards the bathroom, and Arthur has to keep one arm around each of them to keep them from falling over.

"You're better at this than Daddy is," James says blearily, later, curled around the edge of the sink. Arthur only narrowly rescues the tube of toothpaste that slips out of his hand.

"Way wehher," Philippa adds, around her toothbrush, still leaning against him, half-asleep.

That's when Arthur knows that Yusuf's wrong; because these kids - they're not just anything.

Yusuf's still maintaining complete radio silence when Cobb gets back, a few days later. The kids have already left for school by the time Cobb gets in, and he looks so worn out that Arthur goes to make him a fresh pot of coffee almost before he's made it all the way inside the house.

"Thanks," Cobb says, with a low groan, when Arthur sets a mug down in front of him. "God, I could sleep for a week."

"I take it the trip didn't go well."

"No," Cobb says, stifling a yawn. "No, it went fine. It's just been a long couple of days."

"Meetings run long?"

Cobb shrugs. "Something like that."

"Hmm," Arthur says, noncommittally, as he sinks into the chair across from Cobb. He doesn't press for details; he knows when there are things Cobb won't talk about.

Cobb doesn't seem inclined to talk about what happened the other morning either, or to repeat it, and Arthur wonders briefly if this is going to be just another item on the list of Things-Cobb-Won't-Discuss. He pushes the thought, and the pang that accompanies it, firmly out of his mind.

Because it doesn't matter. It doesn't change anything. It can't.

We had a plan, he thinks, as he draws a deep breath, sets his jaw. He has to tell Cobb, and he has to tell Cobb now, before he changes his mind, or loses his resolve, or--

"Arthur," Cobb says, watching him with too-dark eyes.

Arthur swallows. Now, he thinks.

But he can't think of the right way to say, "You didn't wake up, Cobb, and I came to get you."

He can still see it, though. Every detail: the plane landing; Fischer leaving; Cobb remaining motionless in his chair.

"He came for me," Saito had said. "He convinced me that I was still dreaming."

"And then he convinced you to let him shoot you first," Eames supplied, shaking his head as he releases a long breath. "The conniving bastard."

"I don't understand," Ariadne said helplessly, as the team gathered around Cobb. Arthur stayed where he was, seated and watchful. "Why wouldn't he come back? There's nothing left for him there. Mal's gone."

She sounded surprised; Arthur wasn't.

"I don't know, darling," Eames said. "And I don't fancy wasting my time making guesses about what might have happened. What I want to know is what we plan to do about it." He glanced over at Yusuf, who was taking Cobb's pulse. "Yusuf, how long till the sedative's out of his bloodstream?"

"The chemicals will show up if he's tested within the next twenty-four hours," Yusuf said, as he jotted a couple of words down in his notebook.

"We can't bloody well leave him here, then, can we?" Eames said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "They'd bring us all in for a round of questioning."

"My men could take him to the nearest safe-house," Saito offered gravely, his eyebrows knit.

"So we can all be charged with transporting a known felon when they get caught?" Eames said. "I'd rather skip that bit, Saito, if it's all the same to you."

"We can't leave him," Ariadne exploded. "We can't take him with us, we can't pin it on the air stewardess because she'd just give the cops our names. I'm not seeing a whole lot of options here."

"Perhaps--" Yusuf began.

"Will he be able to come home?" Arthur interrupted, calmly, and looked up at them all unflinchingly when they startled, as if they'd forgotten he was there. "If Cobb does wake up, is he going to get past airport security?"

Saito didn't hesitate. "Yes. I have made the call; Cobb's records are clean."

Arthur nodded, glancing briefly back at Cobb. "How much time can you buy me?"

Ariadne made a quiet, choked sound. "What? Arthur--"

"Ten minutes," Saito said. "I will try for more, if you require."

"All right then," Arthur said, and finally stood to retrieve his PASIV device.

"What exactly is it that you intend to do?" Eames asked, as Arthur pulled a cotton swab out of the case and swiped it over Cobb's wrist, then his own. "Stroll into Limbo and drag him back here?"

"If I must," Arthur said, reaching for a fresh set of needles.

"It's common knowledge you've done a number of ridiculous things in your time, Arthur," Eames said. "But this is borderline suicidal."

"And that is precisely why I'm not asking you to join me, Eames," Arthur replied, evenly.

"Arthur," Ariadne pleaded.

"It's time for you and Eames to deplane, Ariadne. If we all stay behind, it's going to look suspicious."

"What about Saito?"

Saito shook his head before Arthur could answer for him. "Cobb saved my life," he said. "And I can mediate with the authorities from the plane. I will stay."

"All right," Yusuf said. "So I'll just--"

"About that," Arthur interrupted. "I'm going to need someone to go down with me."

Yusuf looked gobsmacked. "And you think I'm the right choice?"

"Yes," Arthur said. "You're steady, reliable, and good on your feet in a tough situation."

"Well then, we'd best be going," Eames said abruptly. His tone was blasé, his posture was not. "I look forward to telling my future employers about the men I pulled off inception with, never mind the fact that half of them will have lost their minds."

But Arthur didn't have time for theatrics. He didn't even look up when Eames let out a low, irked sound and towed Ariadne away. He was still watching Yusuf. "You want to push the boundaries of science?" he goaded. "This is the way to do it."

Yusuf wavered, one hand already half-stretched towards his duffel bag. "Is this really the best course of action, Arthur?"

"I don't need approval, Yusuf," Arthur said then, sharply. "I need a partner."

"Yes," Yusuf said, quietly, "But I have had my share of adventure, and real-life experimentation seems unlikely to become my forte. There are many aspects of Somnacin that I can study from Mombasa, away from the dangers of--"

"You can have my share of the payout," Arthur said flatly. "All of it."

"Ah," Yusuf said, as he rolled up his sleeves. "Well, there's an old adage about science often requiring a certain amount of risk."

Arthur nodded, passing Yusuf a needle before sliding one under Cobb's skin, then another into his own. "Saito--"

"I will activate the device," Saito said, already sinking to his knees in preparation.

"Three minutes," Arthur said, because he didn't know anything about Limbo. He didn't know anything about anything. "Use the music so we know when the kick's coming."

Saito nodded solemnly. "Good luck, Arthur--"

"--Arthur?" Cobb is saying, when Arthur starts paying attention again. "Are you all right?"

No, Arthur thinks. There's no easy way to say any of that.

For as long as he can remember, his priorities have been the job first, Cobb second, and self-preservation an optional third.

When he says, "Everything's fine, Cobb," he wonders when all of that changed.

"It's too early to be attempting conversation," he adds, looking away. "You should take a shower, put on some fresh clothes. I'll make breakfast."

Cobb hesitates for a second, but then he nods and gets to his feet, and Arthur tries not to stiffen when Cobb lays a hand on his shoulder as he passes him on his way to the door. But Cobb doesn't say anything, just lingers for a moment, and Arthur presses his knuckles against his eyes when he feels Cobb's hand fall away.

There's the sound of a door closing, and Arthur breathes the silence in, relieved to be alone with his thoughts, however briefly.

Then Cobb says, "Arthur," very quietly, and Arthur startles. Cobb's right there when he looks up, and Arthur sees that warmth again, that unexpected tenderness, just like the other morning. Despite himself, despite everything, Arthur feels his stomach flip.

This, he thinks, this is a fucking terrible idea.

But he lifts his head when Cobb leans down, parts his lips when Cobb slides their mouths together, makes a low, helpless noise when Cobb presses closer, insistent and wanting.

Then Cobb pulls away, and Arthur lets out a harsh, ragged breath.

"It's good to be home," Cobb murmurs, fingers light on Arthur's jaw, and there is nothing Arthur can do to immunize himself from the slow burn that ignites under his skin.

Over breakfast, Cobb asks about the job. "How's the plan coming along? All we managed to talk about the other night was the first level, and we definitely need at least one more."

"Well," Arthur stalls. He almost wishes he'd been caught off-guard, instead of being purposefully unprofessional.

Cobb frowns, putting down his fork. "Arthur," he says. "We have less than six weeks."

"I know," Arthur says. Yusuf's warnings are a constant, low hum in the back of his mind, and time is all he can think about lately. He should be using his to come up with ways to tell Cobb the truth, but instead he's spent most of it trying to devise a plan for the Payne job that doesn't seem half-hearted. His efforts have proven futile, however, since he's been constantly distracted by the memory of Saito saying, grimly, "Bring Cobb back," before he went under, then by the memory of waking up alone, in an unfamiliar landscape.

The solitude had given him the minute he'd needed to take in his surroundings: a neighborhood of half-formed glass buildings, jagged cobblestone and marble beneath his feet, the sky so blue it hurt to look at. Older architecture intermingled with the new, a castle, a church, a graveyard. So much of it said Cobb that Arthur could almost imagine they'd built this world together.

Then he spotted Yusuf in the distance, amongst a few projections, all of them taking in the view, bemused.

"It's quiet in here," he said to Yusuf, when he made his way over.

"Apparently, my subconscious prefers flight to fight," Yusuf replied, still looking around, and Arthur had been unabashedly grateful when Yusuf hadn't said more.

He made sure to get a clean hit when he clipped Yusuf over the side of his head with his Beretta.

"I haven't had time," Arthur hears himself say, then, as he shakes the memory off. "It's been a busy week. I thought we'd get the rest of it fleshed out together."

Cobb watches Arthur for another long second, unconvinced. Arthur returns his gaze, level and steady. Eventually, Cobb nods. "I'll see if Yusuf's around," he says. "We should get to work."

Yusuf is around, of course, and Arthur busies himself brewing the best tea in the house there is. (Yusuf's favorite, naturally, since Yusuf's the one who dreamed it up.) The gesture is in equal parts wanting to make amends and staving off the guilt of not telling Yusuf about whatever it is he's doing - done, because it's not a pattern, it's not established, it's not anything - with Cobb.

He knows what Yusuf would say, though, if he learns about it. It's nothing Arthur doesn't already know, even less what he wants to hear, so he makes tea.

It pays off, because Yusuf softens the moment he steps into the kitchen and the scent registers. "Arthur," he says, when Arthur passes him a cup.

"Yusuf," Arthur nods.

"We were talking about what to do for the second level," Cobb says, oblivious to the ending of their impasse. "Do you have any ideas?"

Yusuf shoots Arthur another look over Cobb's shoulder, but he seems appeased enough by the tea to let it go, at least temporarily. "Well," he says gamely, "Considering Payne's love for singing, we could think about making the second level a karaoke lounge. I could tailor the mix such that his blood pressure would elevate to disorienting levels when he perceives sounds of high amplitudes."

Cobb spreads his palms over the blueprints, slow and reverent, and Arthur feels a strange mix of pride and relief at getting to watch him work again, getting to watch him build. "I think that could work," Cobb says. "Arthur?"

Just like that, things click into place. Like a well-oiled machine, Arthur steps into Cobb's space, and points out four different things he can already see potentially going wrong.

The three of them spend the better part of the week with their heads bent over Cobb's desk, editing floor plans, arguing exit strategies, discussing the merits of various cons, both classic and new.

Yusuf isn't any less vocal than either of them, but he shoots Arthur these looks every so often, a sharp reminder Arthur chooses to ignore.

It's the closest to normal Arthur's felt since they've been here.

They end up losing most of their days to blueprints and the dreamspace, but the nights are always the children's.

They start by having dinner together, sometimes with Yusuf, mostly without, and after they migrate to the living room carpet, curling up against the couch, or on the floor in front of the fireplace, James snug in Cobb's lap, Phil's head tucked against Arthur's side. They talk about their day, like they've been doing for the past seven months, share smiles and inside jokes and easy affection in a way Arthur hadn't thought Cobb remembered anymore.

If working with Cobb is the most normal he's felt since they've been here, this is--

This is what Arthur's fighting not to get used to, what he's fighting even harder not to want.

It's hard enough when it feels this close, all of it, but it's almost impossible when it's just him and Cobb after the kids doze off, and Cobb cuts Arthur off before he can suggest they take them back to their rooms.

"Slow down, Arthur," Cobb says, his eyes flashing bright and blue. "They're fine where they are."

Arthur feels Philippa snuffle against him at that, a cross between a sigh and a murmur, and Cobb's laugh is warm and unhurried, nothing like the smiles he'd given in the days after Mal, each one surprised and involuntary, a stolen pleasure he didn't deserve. Cobb's fingers brush Arthur's arm as he reaches to push a strand of hair back from Philippa's face, voice low and tender as he murmurs, "I don't think you know how much they love you, Arthur."

And Arthur prides himself on his restraint, has even made a bit of a name for himself in the business because of it, but it's been a week of pretending not to notice every time Cobb enters the room; a week of pretending he isn't drinking Cobb's proximity in whenever he can get it; a week of pretending he isn't thinking about the heat of Cobb's skin, of Cobb's mouth, crushed against his own, needy and fervent, and Arthur's not made of stone.

"Cobb," he breathes.

And then he's reaching for Cobb, fisting a hand in his shirt and wrenching him closer, kissing him hard and fast and desperate. Cobb makes a startled noise as he freezes, and Arthur feels his pulse jump, a string of disconnected beats.

He tears himself away. "Cobb," he rasps, pained.

Because he isn't - Cobb doesn't--

Cobb's just staring at him, wide-eyed and confused, and Arthur's throat goes dry. "Arthur," he says, unsteadily. "You're--"

Arthur shakes his head, hard, looking away, and Cobb doesn't finish. For a second, there's nothing but the sound of Cobb's short, shocked breathing, intermingling with the children's, even and unperturbed. "I'm sorry," Arthur says eventually, into the silence, when it feels like he can speak without his throat closing up. Cobb's still watching him when he raises his head, and Arthur can't -- he focuses on a point just over Cobb's shoulder. "I must have misunderstood. I thought--"

Cobb kisses him before he can finish his sentence. It's brief and careful, nothing like it was in the hallway, or the living room, and it jolts something hot and aching in Arthur's stomach. He nearly follows Cobb's movements when Cobb pulls back, chasing the heat of Cobb's mouth.

"Cobb," he says. It's quiet, but there's no missing the hitch in his voice.

James stirs, then, whining in discontent as he's jarred by Cobb's sudden motion, and Cobb's eyes are hooded when he says, "It's getting late. I should put them to bed."

"I can--"

Cobb shakes his head as he gathers James up, not quite meeting Arthur's gaze. "I'll manage," he says, rubbing a patient hand over Philippa's shoulder till she gets to her feet, groggily, already wilting into his side. "Goodnight, Arthur."

It takes a second for Arthur to shake himself enough to say, "Goodnight," but by then the door is swinging shut, and Cobb's already gone.

Arthur doesn't sleep a wink.

He's put on a pot of coffee and has already moved on to flipping pancakes on the stove when Philippa and James shuffle into the kitchen at seven-thirty the next morning. Cobb's right behind them, pulling out chairs at the table for them to topple into. Both kids are yawning as they pillow their heads in their arms.

"Morning," Cobb says neutrally, as he pours himself a cup of coffee.

"Good morning," Arthur says, nodding his thanks when Cobb pulls a stack of plates out of the cabinet and sets them on the countertop.

"It's so not good," James complains, with a groan. "Mornings are the worstest."

"The worst worstest," Phil agrees tiredly. "I never learn anything in the morning. Can't we just be home-schooled, Daddy?"

Cobb's shoulders seem to lose some of their tension as he joins them at the table. "Sure you can, sweetheart," he says, mock-seriously. "I just have to find you a couple of tutors and a way to pay them enough money to get them here."

"So that's a no," Phil says, disappointedly.

"But we don't need tutors, Dad!" James points out. "We have Arthur! He's the smartesest. He knows everything. He could teach us!"

Arthur's startled into a laugh. But he schools his features as he dishes out the pancakes and says, "Flattery is not going to get you out of school, James Cobb."

"But Arthur!"

"And now we are tabling this discussion," Cobb says, shaking his head. "Eat your pancakes. The bus is going to be here any minute."

James huffs, but he barely waits two seconds to start wolfing down his breakfast without any complaints. Arthur's knuckles brush Cobb's as he sets a fourth plate of pancakes on the table. Cobb stays focused on his own plate, and Arthur doesn't press.

He's only just slipped into his seat when James sits up and announces, "I'm done! Come on, Phil, hurry up! Let's go!"

"What?" Phil protests, as he grabs her hand and begins tugging her out of her seat. "James, I'm not even--ugh! James!"

"James!" Cobb calls after them, as Arthur sighs and says, "Phil!"

The only answer they get is a distant, chimed chorus of, "Bye Daddy! Bye Arthur!" and then the sound of the front door, opening and shutting.

It's quiet for a moment, and then Arthur looks over at Philippa's half-eaten pancakes. His mouth twitches. "Home-school," he says.

"Oh god," Cobb says, somewhere between a laugh and a groan. "How serious do you think she was?"

"I don't think you want me to answer that," Arthur warns, barely suppressing his smile. None of them had believed Phil was serious about her new vegan diet till after she'd spent two months eating nothing but fresh fruit and celery sticks.

"I'm doomed," Cobb groans. "I don't even know where they get these ideas."

I do, Arthur thinks suddenly, unbidden and unwelcome, and his good mood evaporates. He can hear the discomfort in his own voice when he says, "Cobb--"

Cobb must hear it too, because he averts his eyes and pushes away from the table with an abrupt, "I'm going to take a shower."

"Cobb," Arthur says again, but Cobb's already disappeared, and Arthur drops his cutlery onto his plate exasperatedly. "Jesus Christ."

He's lost his appetite, so he stands to collect the dishes, trying to fend off the annoyance he can feel building in his veins. This dance is old-hat by now, Arthur being shot down till he finds the right angle to approach Cobb with. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," Yusuf likes to say, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating now than it was when they first started working together seven years ago.

He lets out a breath, and stacks Phil's still-full plate on top of his own. He hears footsteps as he reaches for James' knife, and then Cobb slides in behind him. They're so close that Arthur can feel the steady rise and fall of Cobb's chest against his back, the warmth of Cobb's arm where it's brushing against his elbow, the way Cobb exhales, hot on his cheek. Arthur swallows, hard. They stand like that for a second, unmoving, on the cusp of touching but not quite making it there, till eventually Cobb puts a careful hand on Arthur's hip and squeezes it. "Thanks for breakfast," he murmurs.

Arthur feels like the ground's been swept out from under him.

"You're welcome," he says, to the table, when it feels like he's in control of himself again. But when Arthur turns around, the kitchen's empty, like Cobb was never there at all.

Clearly, Cobb's decided they're not going to talk about this. But Cobb isn't pretending it isn't happening. And Arthur knows him well enough to know that he isn't asking Arthur to pretend, either.

It's a good enough start.

Arthur's in the garden helping James collect worms for a science project a couple of mornings later when he hears a familiar thunderclap in the distance.

"What's that?" James asks.

(Cobb's already left for work. He'd hovered at the door for a second, wearing a small, uncertain frown, and when Arthur said, "What?" he'd leaned in and kissed him, then left Arthur staring after him as he slipped out without a word.)

"Just some thunder," Arthur says, shaking his head and getting on his knees. "Looks like we're going to get some rain today."

There's a small voice sounding off in the back of his mind, the one that warns him when something's about to blow up in his face.

Arthur ignores it.

Ignoring the escalating tension in the house, however, is not so easy. And acting like he isn't affected by it is infinitely harder.

He's wondered in the past, what it would be like having Cobb's attention. He never dwelled on it, though, chalking it up to imagination he couldn't afford with his job as Cobb's point man, but now--

Now Arthur feels Cobb's eyes on him all the time, a heat-seeking missile, and when he looks up from helping James with his homework, or from tucking Phil into bed, or from cleaning his gun (because it might not need it, but he needs to stay in practice), Cobb is still there. He meets Arthur's gaze levelly, a cautious, smoldering heat in his eyes, and Arthur feels it crackle in the air between them, heavy and charged, feels a blood-burning need settle deep in his gut, a sleeping beast.

They share clandestine moments where they can, too brief kisses behind the bathroom door or in the quiet of the hallway while the children are gone that do nothing to quell the ache hiding under Arthur's skin. He feels nineteen again, re-learning the basics in stealth combat, and it's distracting, to say the least. Arthur almost burns dinner twice in the next week alone, trying not to turn away from the oven to demand Cobb stop watching him unless he plans to do something about it.

But that's an invisible barrier they can't seem to cross, one Arthur never thought he could, and the newfound knowledge coupled with their crippling inability is cruel and unusual punishment.

It might have been easier on them if Cobb was the kind of person inclined to give in to the friction they clearly feel when they cross paths around the house. Unfortunately, they both know by now that Cobb doesn't deal with stress in a manner anywhere close to approximating "normal".

Which is why Arthur isn't surprised when Cobb chooses to spend the next afternoon he gets off rehashing their plans for the Payne job.

"How do we look on time?"

"Payne's ride to the convention from the airport will only take half an hour," Arthur says, mechanically. "So we'll have to be quick, but it shouldn't be a problem."

"What about the layouts?"

"Yusuf's memorizing the first level, and I'm sure you already know the second."

"And Yusuf's still working on the Somnacin?"

"Cobb," Arthur says. "I don't think he's had any breakthroughs since last night."

"I thought you liked being thorough," Cobb says. It's almost accusatory, and Arthur bristles at the implication.

"I do," he says. "But there's being thorough for the sake of professionalism, and there's using it as an excuse for being difficult."

Cobb turns to look at him coolly, but Arthur isn't fooled for a second. "Are you saying I'm being difficult?"

"Are you saying you're not?" Arthur counters.

"You know," Cobb says, short and clipped, "you're the one who sprung this on me. You came to me, Arthur, five years after pretty much zero contact, and you asked me to do this for you. So I said yes. Because you asked. And now you think I'm being difficult?"

Arthur leans back against the wall, arms folded. "With me," he says.


"I asked you to do this with me," Arthur clarifies, steel in his voice. "And I didn't have to put a gun to your head for you to say yes, Cobb, so don't make it sound like--"

"For god's sake, this isn't about semantics, Arthur!" Cobb snaps. "You fucking knew what you were asking. You knew what I would--"

"I didn't know anything!" Arthur explodes. They're not talking about the job anymore; he isn't sure they ever were. "I didn't know anything, Cobb. When I came here, I had no idea what I was walking into. You could have slammed the door in my face. You could have kicked me out. You could have said no." None of this is real, Arthur thinks, wildly, but his throat feels raw, and his fists are clenched by his side. He's given up so much to be here, put everything at stake; he's going all in with chips he doesn't have. "I didn't know you thought - after everything we've done together--"

'After everything I've risked for you' goes unspoken.

Arthur shakes his head. "I didn't realize you were keeping score."

Cobb makes a low, wild noise at the back of his throat, and suddenly he's lurching forward, crossing the room and bearing down on Arthur as he crushes their mouths together, hot and demanding. Arthur jerks in surprise, but Cobb's got him pinned him to the wall with the warmth of his weight and his palms, hands closed over Arthur's wrists like he intends to keep Arthur exactly where he wants him.

Arthur stays frozen for a moment, but he can't hold onto his anger when Cobb leans into him, closer, unrelenting, and tilts his head for a better angle. Arthur's hands close into fists as Cobb nips at his lower lip, not gentle at all, and he can barely stifle his moan.

"You're so goddamn self-righteous," Cobb says, in the second he takes to catch his breath. "I'm not fucking keeping score--"

"Shut up," Arthur says, breathlessly, wrenching himself out of Cobb's grip so he can fist Cobb's shirt and drag him back down, kissing Cobb till he's dizzy with it, his skin humming everywhere Cobb touches him.

"Maybe," Cobb says then, shakily, eyes falling shut as Arthur arches - arches, Jesus Christ - up into him, "maybe we shouldn't ask Yusuf to join us today."

"I don't," Arthur says thickly, head thrown back against the wall as Cobb sucks a bruise into his skin. "I don't want to be talking about Yusuf right now."

The groan Cobb tries to bite back is all the agreement Arthur needs.

Yusuf is uninvited from most of their meetings after that.

Arthur isn't surprised the next time Yusuf drops in unannounced, while Arthur's folding the laundry. "I came for tea," Yusuf says pleasantly, when Arthur looks up to see him at the door.

Arthur simply nods. It takes immeasurable effort not to slam the door in Yusuf's face.

"It's been a while since our last meeting," Yusuf adds, conversationally, as Arthur puts the kettle on to boil.

"We've been busy," Arthur says, shortly.

"Hmm," Yusuf says. "Where's Cobb?"

Arthur doesn't turn from the stove. "At work."

"So you haven't told him," Yusuf says, flatly.

Arthur's fingers tighten around the edge of the kitchen counter. "I said I'd handle it."

"There are only twenty days left, Arthur," Yusuf says, already teetering on the dangerous tightrope between aggravated and weary. "You can't keep the Payne excuse up forever. What are you going to tell him when he wants to practice the dreamscape?"

"That I've done it without him," Arthur says, without missing a beat. "And that everything checks out."

Yusuf scoffs. "And he'll be willing to believe that?"


The kettle begins to whistle, then, and Arthur takes it off the stove, reaching unthinkingly for the teacups. It's only when Arthur puts the tea down on the table and pushes the milk and sugar over to him that Yusuf speaks again. "Where's his totem?"

The non-sequitur catches Arthur off-guard. "What?"

Yusuf looks graver than Arthur has ever seen him. "Where's Cobb's totem?"

Arthur falters for a moment, but then he just shakes his head and shrugs. "He told me he lost it years ago. The day he came back from the Fischer job."

Yusuf narrows his eyes. "You never told me that."

"No, I told you it was complicated," Arthur snaps. "If it was that simple, don't you think I would have taken his top and told him to spin it the first day we got here? Jesus. Is this interrogation over yet?"

"Arthur," Yusuf says. "There's no need--"

"If you tell me there's no need to get testy," Arthur snarls. "I swear to god--"

Yusuf holds his hands up, placating. "I just want to have this explained to me, that's all. I'm only now finding out that Cobb lost his totem, and--what? That doesn't bother him?"

Arthur draws in a breath as he scrubs a hand over his face, willing himself calm again. "No," he says, at last. "No, it doesn't. You know why? Because he thinks he's awake, Yusuf. I haven't seen Mal at all since we've been here. He isn't looking over his shoulder anymore."

"And he told you this," Yusuf says skeptically.

"No," Arthur admits, hesitantly. "I haven't asked."

He's never planned on it, either. He doesn't probe because he knows Cobb will answer, even if he doesn't want to. Cobb's the best extractor there is, but he's never liked lying, and Arthur respects him enough to keep up the charades, to let Cobb protect his privacy.

Yusuf is watching him in utter confusion when Arthur looks up from his tea. "You haven't asked," Yusuf repeats. "Arthur--why?"

"Because I don't need to," Arthur says. "I've seen it. And I know Cobb. You of all people should understand, Yusuf; this is his reality now."

The bewilderment leaks out of Yusuf's expression, then, and the smile he slants at Arthur is slow and sad. "But it's not ours."

Arthur presses his lips together. Yusuf's cup is untouched, but he stands to refill it anyway, and from his angle it's impossible to miss the way Yusuf's eyebrows knit, or the way his smile evaporates.

"I think you're starting to forget that," Yusuf says, sharply.

Arthur takes an involuntary step back. "What?"

"You're sleeping with him," Yusuf says.

Arthur raises an involuntary hand to his neck, shocked, and feels the faintest twinge of pain. He'd thought the bruise had faded, but he catches a brief glimpse of purple reflected in the kettle he's still holding. Oh god.

"How long has this been going on?" Yusuf demands.

"We're not," Arthur says, his mouth suddenly dry. "Yusuf, we're not sleeping together. We're just--"

"Does it matter?" Yusuf says. "What were you thinking, Arthur? We're supposed to be here to rescue Cobb! We've been here a year to make that happen! We've done the work, we've come this far, and we're so close! Would it have been so hard to wait six weeks? This could jeopardize everything. Why would you--"

Then Yusuf stops, abruptly, and Arthur feels his heart sink when he sees comprehension dawn on Yusuf's face.

"Arthur," Yusuf says, unevenly. "Arthur, Jesus Christ. How long have you been--"

Arthur's throat is tight, and his stomach is churning. He puts the kettle down, turns away so he doesn't have to see the pity on Yusuf's face. "It's not - it doesn't matter. I've got it under control, Yusuf."

"Arthur," Yusuf says, urgently. "You're becoming too invested in this. It's not real. Don't lose yourself here."

"I know," Arthur tells the stove, but it lacks conviction even to his own ears. "I'm handling it."

[The Falling Phase]
I'M HERE, I'M HERE AND I AM EXCIIIIIIIIIIITED. I'm still sick, so feedback may be a tad incoherent, but I am SUPER stoked even if it's all going to come out sounding like gibberish. /o\ SO SHUSH SHUSH, NAT, READING TIME, GOD.