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Master Post

"Hey, is everything okay?" Cobb says, later that night. They're in the backyard, both of them lying side-by-side in the grass, just watching the stars. They'd started out a party of four, but James had quickly gotten bored and talked Phil into going inside and teaching him the basic rules of Scrabble. "You've been pretty quiet tonight."

"As opposed to my usually verbose nature?" Arthur says, mustering up a smile he doesn't quite feel.

Cobb huffs a laugh. "You've been quieter than usual tonight," he amends.

"Yeah," Arthur says. "No, yeah, I'm fine. It's one of those days. Just wondering about the choices I've made, if I'm doing the right thing."

"Choices like extraction?" Cobb asks.

"Yeah," Arthur says, watching the shadows flicker over Cobb's side profile. "Choices like that."

"Do you miss it?" Cobb asks. His hands are tucked beneath his head, and his eyes are barely open. It's the most relaxed Arthur's seen him in a long, long time. "Dreaming?"

Arthur should say, "It's hard to, considering I'm living in Limbo."

He should say, "Do you remember how you got here?"

He should say, "It's time to wake up, Cobb."

Instead, he thinks about waking up here, in Limbo, thinks about regaining consciousness only as he'd been swept up onto shore, the grit of sand and sea-salt in his mouth. Beside him, Yusuf had been sitting on his heels, coughing up water. He waved off Arthur's concern, already struggling to stand as he wiped a sleeve over his mouth. "All right," he rasped. "What now?"

Arthur stumbled to his feet as he looked around, taking in their surroundings. His mind felt heavy, sluggish, inching away from him like the falling tide. There was a moment he felt unsure of who he was, where, and then there was nothing but confusion and longing and an aimless, burning desperation settling low in his stomach. For a moment, Arthur was tempted to give in to instinct.

The sun burned, bright and hot, as a building collapsed in the distance.

Arthur breathed.

"Now," he said. "We look for Cobb."

They'd walked a stretch in silence. Arthur had taken in their surroundings, calculating minutes over miles as sand gave way to cobblestone and tar. "Is this all Cobb's?" Yusuf asked, eventually, of the grime-covered walls they passed, and the ivory-glass towers in between. "It looks like--"

"It's Cobb's," Arthur interrupted, without looking at him. He recognized the buildings like a faded re-enactment of a play he once saw. "But Cobb isn't here."

Yusuf didn't ask how do you know, and Arthur didn't explain. "How do we find him?"

Arthur shook his head. "I'll figure something out."

The unease on Yusuf's face had been plain to see, and Arthur hadn't liked the idea of going in blind anymore than Yusuf had. He works best with the definitive, specificity, the hows and whens and whats of execution. He fills in the details, but charting their course has always been Cobb's speciality.

"I'll figure something out," he repeated. "In the meantime, keep an eye out." He smiled, grimly. "This is Cobb's subconscious we're dealing with; the last thing you want to do is let him catch you off-guard."

"What should we be looking out for?" Yusuf asked, warily. "Suicide bombers? A militarized tank? A field of landmines?"

"No," Arthur said. "Cobb's the best in the business. He doesn't go for the obvious."


"Think of this as a hunting game," Arthur said. "Cobb's a vampire, and you're the prey. First, he needs to lure you in, get you to voluntarily invite him into the house."

The sun glinted off the top of a roof, a too-bright flare that made Arthur avert his eyes. His next step forward was slow, measured. "It's going to be subtle," he added, and raised a hand to block Yusuf's path. "So subtle you don't realize he's got you trapped until--" Then the landscape glimmered in front of their eyes, sunlight staccatoed over metal shillings, bouncing off glass, filling their vision, and suddenly the sound of the ocean disappeared; when Arthur blinked again they were in the middle of a desert. "Until you're already there," he finished.

"Impressive," Yusuf said, as he dropped his hand from his eyes.

"And it's all his subconscious, so he doesn't even realize he's doing it," Arthur said absently. He wondered how long it would be till nightfall, when he could try tracking their location by the stars.

"I can't imagine the damage he can cause when he is trying," Yusuf muttered.

"Trust me," Arthur said. "You don't want to. Come on, we need to get going."

It's strange, Arthur thinks, that that's exactly what he should be saying now, too.

He should be saying a lot of things.

"Do you?" he asks, instead.

"Miss dreaming?" Cobb says. He shakes his head, mouth tugged up in a strange, pensive smile. "Not as often as you'd think."

A sudden burst of noise pierces the silence then, and Cobb sits up, alarmed. "What was that?"

"Music," Arthur says dully, but he doesn't take his eyes off Cobb. They're running out of time. This can't go on. "Cobb--"

"What?" Cobb says distractedly, still looking around for the source.

"There's something we need to discuss."

The music's barely faded before James lets out a shrill cry from inside the house, and Cobb winces. "Hold on a second," he says, on his feet before Arthur can even think to stop him. "James? Sweetheart?"

Arthur leans up on his elbows and twists around to see James huddled into Cobb's side, face turned into Cobb's shirt. This, Arthur thinks suddenly, this is what James is missing. James, who is real and alive and already one parent down--this is what he's missing. And every minute Cobb spends here is a minute he could be up there rectifying that.

Arthur presses the heels of his palms against his eyes.

But hysterics have never been his area of expertise, and by the time he hears the tell-tale creek of the glass doors sliding open behind him, he's steady again, resolute.

"Everything okay in there?" he asks, without looking up.

"Everything's fine," Cobb says. He sounds amused, and it still catches Arthur off-guard, that Cobb's starting to sound like himself again, starting to sound like before. "He asked for you."

That's a second blow Arthur doesn't see coming. "What?"

Then Cobb's settling in behind him, bracketing Arthur between the heat of his thighs, and that's strike three. "Cobb--"

"My son just asked me if Arthur can tuck him in tomorrow, because Arthur knows way more about worms than I do."

Cobb's temple brushes up against Arthur's cheek with each word, and his breath is hot on Arthur's skin, and there is nothing in his voice save warm affection. Arthur feels drunk on it already, on the heat needling at his skin as Cobb leans even closer.

"We've been planning a mutiny," Arthur hears himself say, thickly.

"Hmm," Cobb says, and presses his mouth to Arthur's neck, soft and teasing. "Telling me that probably wasn't the best idea."

"Cobb," Arthur says, and then he's tipping his head back, and Cobb's moving to meet him, fitting their mouths together. It's a chaste kiss until it isn't, until Cobb's worked Arthur's lips apart, and all Arthur can breathe, taste, feel is Cobb. It's a heady sensation, one that leaves him insensible to anything but Cobb and the need burning in his blood.

Then Cobb reaches between them to palm Arthur through his jeans, and the sharp breath Cobb steals from his mouth leaves him dizzy. Cobb keeps kissing him, his mouth, the underside of his jaw, his neck, his shoulder, and Arthur feels each one like a sharp jerk in his gut. He lets out a long, low moan when Cobb finally gets his jeans open, doesn't even try to bite it back, and he can feel Cobb's smirk against his skin.

"Shut up," Arthur says, but it comes out breathless, and he loses what little credibility he has left when Cobb twists his wrist, and he drops his head back onto Cobb's shoulder, arching into him. It's been so long.

Cobb doesn't even pause, just hums a little, low in his throat, and works Arthur a touch faster. Arthur's breathing is ragged and shallow as he pushes his hips into Cobb's hand, and Cobb leans in to swallow the quiet, helpless noise he makes. Arthur wants - he needs more friction, more heat, more - just more.

He's already shaking, and his lips feel raw and used, every part of his body burning where Cobb's touching him, fuck, this isn't - he's not -- he can't even imagine, if he looks half as fucking wrecked as he feels--

"Jesus," Cobb whispers, and Arthur's stomach clenches at the wonder he hears in Cobb's voice. "Jesus, Arthur."

And then Cobb's dipping his head, leaving a trail of hot, wet kisses in the hollow of Arthur's throat, skating his free hand over Arthur's neck, his jaw, as his fingers work Arthur fast and steady--

Arthur sets his jaw as he comes, his bare feet curling into the grass. Cobb's right there behind him, mouth pressed against Arthur's collarbone like they're both stifling sound.

Cobb's nothing but a fuzz of color when Arthur opens his eyes again, sated and boneless. He tries to reach for Cobb, but Cobb just shakes his head, leans down and kisses him again.

"It's okay," Cobb murmurs, with a warm, indulgent smile. "We have time." His mouth brushes the shell of Arthur's ear when he adds, quietly, "And I have plans for you, believe me."

Arthur feels his mouth go dry, and he doesn't protest again.

"I'll be right back," Cobb adds, before he slips away. "I'm just going inside to get cleaned up."

Arthur's too distracted by the thought of what Cobb's plans entail, of when they can be executed, to stop him. He sees Cobb's face, pupils blown black, hair damp and tangled against the sheets; hears the same wonder in Cobb's voice, wonder and desire and now, Christ, Arthur; smells Cobb's scent on his own skin.

It's with a start that he realizes that he's thinking impossible things, wanting them even more. Then he sees that it's been twenty minutes since Cobb disappeared inside, that Cobb isn't back, and Arthur works past the inertia to force himself to his feet.

When he goes inside, he finds Cobb asleep at his desk, hunched over the blueprints like he's been working at them for hours.

Whether or not Arthur wants to decipher what it means, this is serious now. He's thinking about the future as though there's going to be one, and that's not - this was never supposed to happen. Any of this.

He corners Cobb after the kids leave for school that day, watching as he rifles through his closet. Cobb doesn't startle when Arthur clears his throat, doesn't even look up except to say, "Green or blue tie?"

It's not an unusual occurrence, but today, the ease and familiarity in Cobb's voice makes Arthur ache.

"Cobb," he manages to say, past the dread stuck in his throat. "We need to talk."

"I'm going to be late for a meeting," Cobb says, still studying his ties. "Can it wait?"

It's an out, and Arthur nearly takes it. But then the thought of this, of a million scenes just like it, flash behind his closed eyelids, and it doesn't feel out of his reach, not like it used to; it feels--

"No," Arthur says, steeling himself as he shakes his head. "I should have told you this when I first moved in. It can't wait anymore."

Cobb turns to him, then, finally, forehead creased. "Arthur--"

"It wasn't five years," Arthur says, before he loses his nerve. He's faced down international terrorists, militarized tanks, worse, but it's never been like this. He's never had more to lose waking up than staying under. "I know it felt like it, but--"

"I know," Cobb interrupts.

Arthur's heart stops. "What?"

Cobb takes a step forward, then seems to think better of it. "I got your messages, Arthur," he says, at last, scrubbing a hand over his face. Suddenly, he's the Cobb Arthur recognizes from inception all over again, shoulders weighted down by guilt he thinks he deserves. "I should have called, made you come to visit, to see the kids, but I - I didn't know what to say."

For once, Arthur finds himself speechless. "I left messages?" he hears himself ask, eventually.

Cobb frowns at his carpet. "Every other month, almost." He lets out a quiet laugh, almost brittle. "It didn't feel like five years, Arthur. It felt like ten. But I wasn't surprised you stayed away." He looks up, then, and the wonder Arthur sees in his face makes his pulse stumble. "I was surprised you came back."

"Cobb," Arthur says, and nearly laughs himself. Oh god, they've gotten everything so wrong. "Where else was I going to go?"

The sentiment doesn't seem to surprise Cobb, but the lack of surprise does. "I'm sorry," Cobb says, after a moment. "About - on the Fischer job, I was out of line. I should've told you--"

"Forget it, Cobb," Arthur says, shaking his head. Ariadne got her answers because she'd demanded them, probed unrelentingly till Cobb gave in. Perhaps, Arthur thinks, he should've done the same, should've asked, should've combed through every single detail before agreeing to the plan, but he hadn't thought he'd had to. Neither had Cobb. The only difference is: Cobb had trusted his point man to do his job; Arthur had trusted his friend to tell him... not everything, but enough. Arthur's always made stupid decisions when it comes to Cobb, and that's nobody's fault but his own. "It's over."

"No," Cobb says. "No, Arthur, I should've--"

"I said forget it, Cobb," Arthur repeats, gentle but firm. "You thought you could handle it. I know how that feels."

Cobb raises his head at that, and catches Arthur's eye, holds his gaze for a long, long moment. Arthur doesn't know what Cobb's looking for - sincerity, forgiveness, maybe a combination of both - but he must find it, because he turns back to his closet with a nod. "So that's what you couldn't wait to talk about?" Cobb asks, a teasing lilt to his voice. "That's what couldn't wait till after my meeting?"

"You know how I feel about oversharing," Arthur says, dryly, with lightness he doesn't feel. But when Cobb smiles, it's the most relieved Arthur's seen him, and Arthur can't make himself take that away. "You can still make the meeting if you hurry," he says instead, nodding towards the closet. "And you should go with the blue."

"You're cutting it too close," Yusuf warns him, the next time they see each other.

Arthur says nothing.

They're both sitting in Arthur's kitchen, and Yusuf's stirring his tea, placid as always, but they've been through too much together for Arthur not to recognize that it's all a façade. There's no missing the strain lurking in Yusuf's eyes.

"This was your idea," Yusuf says. "You said we would integrate ourselves, gain Cobb's trust, and then tell him the truth."

"I've been doing that," Arthur says, impassively.

Yusuf laughs, but there's no humor in it. "That isn't all you've been doing," he mutters. "It's not going to work, Arthur. You may cook their meals and share their house, but you can't just take over--"

It's like a kick he isn't expecting, and Arthur feels his breath knock right out of him. "You think I'm trying to replace Mal?" he growls, voice dropping low and feral. "You don't know a goddamn thing, Yusuf."

Yusuf won't back down. "I'm not going to go another round with you like a child," he says, angrily. "I told you you were getting too comfortable here, and I'm done waiting for you to admit it! We have two weeks till we're supposed to leave, and if you won't tell Cobb the truth, I will."

Arthur's hands are shaking, panic and fury twisting in his gut like white-hot knives, and he hears his chair screech across the floorboards as he stands. "Stay out of it," he snarls. "It's none of your business."

"Like hell it isn't!" Yusuf roars, slamming a hand down onto the table. "You dragged me down here with you, Arthur! You put me through a year of Limbo! I'd say it bloody well is my business!"

Arthur opens his mouth to retort, but then Yusuf's letting out of yelp of pain and jerking away. His left hand is red and raw, angry blisters already appearing on the grooves between his fingers. The teapot has vanished, and hot tea is rippling across the table, spilling off the sides to pool at Arthur's feet, close but not quite touching him.

"Christ," Yusuf hisses, wringing his wrists, and Arthur fights through his shock to reach for him, saying, "Here, let me--"

He stops short when he sees the rest of Yusuf's arm. It's covered in bruises and paper cuts and tiny scratches, blisters blooming around them. "Yusuf," Arthur breathes. "What the hell?"

It's like walking through the desert all over again, trudging for days through the heat as their feet rubbed raw and blistered against the sand. And yet, all they'd seen was acres of nothing stretching out around them, vast and endless. The air was still, and the heatwave was stifling, seeping into their skin. Their clothes were dry by then, and Arthur's rubbed stiff and scratchy against him. Inhaling took almost too much effort. He couldn't tell if the sun was sinking, and Yusuf's steps had become steadily heavier behind him, the only sound filling the silence between them.

"How much further?" Yusuf asked, at last, exhausted.

"I don't know, Yusuf," Arthur said, wearily. "Does it look like I have the blueprints to Cobb's subconscious?"

"I'd settle for a map of this desert," Yusuf said. "Regardless, there's no need to get testy."

"I'm not--" Arthur snapped, but he cut himself off before he could finish, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Look, your guess is as good as mine. We don't have exact coordinates, but I'd prepare for a long journey. And an arduous one."

He'd long discovered that things with Cobb often were.

"Not so arduous, perhaps," Yusuf said then, and when Arthur frowned, he gestured towards the horizon with a tilt of his head, smiling. "Where there is cacti, there is water."

When Arthur followed Yusuf's line of sight, he saw the row of cacti too, a few yards away, just barely visible over a nearby dune. It was a small, unexpected mercy, which only made Arthur more hesitant as he followed Yusuf's lead. It was very unlike Cobb. The sand sunk beneath their feet as they trudged up the hill, then shifted, abruptly, as the wind picked up, swirling dust around his ankles. Arthur was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that they had gotten no closer to their destination than they were fifteen minutes ago. Which could only mean--

Paradox, Arthur realized, belatedly, and grabbed for Yusuf's arm. "Yusuf, wait!"

But he was still a beat too late, and Yusuf let out a shrill yell as he fell. The path ahead of them crumbled into nothing. "Fuck!" Arthur swore. "Motherfucking--"

All at once, he found himself buried him knee-deep in sand, the wind howling in his ears, a growing monster spitting sand in his face. Arthur raised an arm to his face, shielding it, and scrambled with his free hand for something to hold onto, anything, as he was dragged towards the edge of the drop.

He was fighting so hard against it he almost missed the muffled cry of, "Arthur!" from somewhere below him.

Yusuf, Arthur thought, and chanced a glance down, his eyes stinging with the effort of keeping them open, and--Jesus fucking Christ.

There was a fucking twelve-foot hourglass rising up out of the sand, and Yusuf was trapped in it. He was slamming his fists against the glass, pressing his full body against it, trying to get it to budge, but the sand was rising, fast, already had him swallowed from the shoulders down.

"Fuck," Arthur snarled, again, clenching his fists. "Goddammit, Cobb!"

And then he grit his teeth and dove off the cliff.

It wasn't a short drop, but Arthur didn't waste his time trying to catch his breath when he landed. He rolled to his feet once he hit the ground, but barely righted himself before the wind swept them out from under him again. He looked up, blindly, trying to figure out how much time he had, how long before Yusuf--

The sand had risen up to Yusuf's neck, and Yusuf was shouting, a litany of garbled words Arthur couldn't make out against the desert storm. He looked terrified.

Arthur's heart was thrashing against his ribs as he pushed to his feet again, a war-cry he hadn't known he'd need. He jerked his gun out of its holster, and fired off three rounds near the base of the hourglass before it was ripped out of his hands.

But the glass was too damn thick to be punctured that way, and Yusuf clawed at it, helplessly, as Arthur casted about for something else. Yusuf was going to drown if he didn't do something, he fucking needed--

A machete materialized in his hands.

Arthur didn't question it. He couldn't even see Yusuf when he swung, blindly, once, twice.

A sudden outpour of sand knocked him off his feet, and Arthur braced himself for impact.

Impact that never came.

When he opened his eyes again, he almost didn't recognize where he was. The wind had stopped, and the sand was motionless beneath him, though the heat was just as oppressive as before. He sat up, cautiously, and was greeted by the sight of Yusuf down on all fours a few feet away. He was retching onto the sand, but he was still with Arthur. Still alive.

"Jesus," Arthur said. His lungs were burning, and he threw an arm over his face as he collapsed onto his back. When he saw Cobb again, he thought, he was going to set Philippa's copy of Aladdin on fire.

It's been seven months since they found Cobb now. Seven months since Arthur first moved in, and Aladdin is still sitting innocuously on the bookcase, next to the television set.

Arthur hasn't forgotten the terror that'd been written all over Yusuf's face in the hourglass; or the relief that had taken its place, after. And yet, the desert seems little more than an unfortunate detour compared to this, to what he knows he's supposed to do.

"Yusuf," Arthur says again. "How--"

"It's not uncommon in my house," Yusuf says, left hand already curled gingerly against his chest. "Especially after I've spent time with you. Just another reminder Cobb doesn't actually want me here."

"Let me get the bandages," Arthur says, quietly.

But Yusuf only moves towards the door, shaking his head. "Medical attention isn't what I need from you," he says, frostily.

He leaves before Arthur can stop him.

When faced with unpleasant situations, Arthur's come to realize that most people turn to comfort food.

Philippa adds a pint of strawberry ice cream to the grocery list they leave tacked to the fridge, James asks for a square of chocolate every half hour, and Cobb sends him text messages asking if they have any Famous Amos cookies lying around the house.

Arthur, on the other hand, indulges in routine.

He starts with the living room: vacuums the rugs, wipes the windows, straightens the pillows on the couch; then moves on to the kitchen: does the dishes, cleans the sinks, thaws the beef in preparation for dinner; then the backyard: mows the lawn, hangs the laundry, weeds the garden.

He pulls off his gloves when he hears the clock chime two. He should start marinating the beef.

When he looks down the road, Yusuf's house is silent, his doors shut, his curtains drawn, and Arthur wonders when he let himself become the perfect suburban housewife.

You can't just take over, he hears Yusuf say.

Arthur closes his eyes and breathes in the too-fresh scent of grass. It's the middle of July, and there are daffodils blooming in the garden. Arthur puts his gloves away, and starts walking over to Yusuf's.

He doesn't need to knock, doesn't even need a key, and he ducks out of the way of the throwing ax that hurtles straight at him when he walks through the doorway. It lodges into the wall beside his head. "Jesus," he says, as he pulls it free, testing its weight in his hands. "And you think Cobb's paranoid."

"Well, he wasn't bloody wrong, was he?"

Arthur almost startles at the voice. When he turns, Eames is in Yusuf's armchair. He twitches his fingers in a mocking wave, cocksure grin growing as he absorbs Arthur's shocked expression.

"Hello, Arthur."

"Mr. Eames," Arthur says when he finds his voice.

"I do believe I'm witnessing Arthur at a loss for words," Eames says, clearly pleased with himself. "Yusuf!"

Arthur's still gaping when Yusuf walks out of the kitchen, what Arthur can only assume is a robot following behind him, somehow balancing a pot of tea, milk and sugar, and a plate of cookies in its three arms. "Arthur," Yusuf says. He doesn't sound surprised at all.

"It seems he isn't as thrilled to see me as you were, darling," Eames says, eyebrows quirking wickedly as he leans back in his chair. "Though I imagine it would be rather difficult for anyone else to be quite so enthusiastic."

Yusuf doesn't even acknowledge he's there. "Ignore him," he says, with a long-suffering sigh. "He's just a projection." To the robot, he waves a hand and adds, "Here, please."

The robot promptly collapses into itself, and when Arthur blinks again, there's a coffee table in its place, the plate of biscuits just within Eames' reach. "There," Yusuf says to him. "Now you can keep your mouth occupied."

Eames laughs delightedly as he reaches over, fitting a hand to Yusuf's hip. "Not now, love," he says, and suddenly his voice dips, low and smoky with so much promise that Arthur has to look away. "We have company."

"You're incorrigible," Yusuf says, but he doesn't sound upset, and Arthur doesn't even know where to begin. "Get out."

Eames grins, crookedly, but he rolls to his feet, and stops to press his mouth to Yusuf's temple on his way out of the room. Arthur can't hear what Eames says next, but he can see Eames' eyes over the top of Yusuf's head, green and gleaming in the sunlight, can see the way Yusuf is fighting not to smile.

"Right, then," Eames says, as he straightens. "Don't keep him too long, Arthur."

"Yusuf," Arthur says weakly, after Eames disappears into Yusuf's bedroom. "He's - but why--"

"Did you think you were the only one who got lonely?" Yusuf asks, but it's not unkind, and Arthur feels guilt well up in his stomach as he turns to him.

"I didn't know you and Eames--" he says, a little helplessly.

"For a little while," Yusuf says, shrugging. "When he lived in Mombasa. A few times after, when he came through the area."

"But you're not," Arthur says, and trails off when he can't figure out the rest of his sentence.

"We enjoy each other's company," Yusuf says, and there's only the smallest edge to his smile that suggests they enjoy much more than that. "And postcards, when that is lacking."

Arthur glances up at Yusuf's closed bedroom door, letting it all sink in. "But how--"

"I'm not sure myself," Yusuf says, shaking his head with a chuckle. "You know Eames. He showed up one evening and made it very clear he was here to stay. I can't say it was an unwelcome surprise."

It's so much like Eames that Arthur allows himself a smile. "When did you realize he was a projection?"

"It took me some hours," Yusuf confesses, and pauses to sip at his tea. "We were otherwise occupied at first. But eventually I started asking him questions he couldn't answer, because I couldn't, either."

There is no gentle way to ask his next question, so Arthur doesn't try. "Can you control him?"

"Not well," Yusuf admits. "He responds to my requests in an approximation of the way my subconscious believes the real Eames would, and that is often quite unpredictable to me."

It's like the possibility of Mal all over again, and Arthur feels completely blindsided. "Yusuf, do we have anything to worry about?"

"I don't know," Yusuf admits, with a backwards glance over his shoulder. "Even if I could vouch for Eames, there's no telling who else might eventually turn up, and it seems the longer we spend here, the stronger our subconscious grows."

"So what does that mean for us?"

"It means the sooner we get out of here, the better," Yusuf says, calmly. "And since that was the original plan, I doubt there's any real cause for worry."

Arthur's about to say--something, more, but Yusuf negates the need for it when he smiles, serenely, and says, "Tea?"

It's only then that Arthur realizes Yusuf's hand is bandaged, and he remembers why he came. "Sure," he says, and takes a cup from Yusuf, watching as Yusuf smiles and makes gentle, cooing noises at the table. It's been a year, Arthur thinks. It's been a year, and Yusuf's been alone. "Did you build that?"

"I did," Yusuf affirms. "And its twelve companions." He waves his hand, gesturing around the room, and Arthur watches as various pieces of furniture shimmer briefly into compact, metallic parts, before resuming their original state. "Unlike Eames, they act only on my command. Our unconscious projections seem to operate on separate mechanisms from what we create when conscious that way."

Arthur doesn't try to hide how impressed he is. "There's also the extra security system at the door."

"Ah," Yusuf says, smiling. "You liked that, did you? I'm very fond of it myself."

"As fond as you are of Eames?" Arthur adds, unable to help himself.

"And my four cats," Yusuf agrees, eyes lighting up in a way that's altogether too familiar.

He'd looked the same way once Arthur had told him about dreaming up the machete, and they'd both realized the implication behind that: "Yusuf, I think we can build here."

The machete had disappeared, but Arthur was suddenly much less worried. There was a good chance he'd be able to do it again, once he figured out how. And details, after all, were part of his domain.

That, evidently, had been the right thing to say, because they spent the next few days creating. Yusuf had taken to it like a duck to water, and while Arthur busied himself experimenting with weapons and shelter and, sometimes, Penrose stairs, he developed wild, novel devices: raincoats made of UV-ray resistant plastic; an anti-dehydration watch that they pulled moisture from the air and released it into their bodies; a cap with sunglasses attached to the brim with an in-built compass and a toggle for night-vision.

Each creation delighted Yusuf more than the last, and when he laughed, or let loose a triumphant shout, it was worlds away from the man who'd almost suffocated to death in an hourglass, the man who'd lain in the sand for near on an hour, pale and shaken.

Yusuf's gadgets made it much easier to adapt to their new environment, and they spent the next few months in relative comfort, trying to figure out a way to get to Cobb.

It was only when Yusuf conjured up the first of his four kittens that Arthur was struck with the idea.

"A homing pigeon," Yusuf said. He held his watch thoughtfully to his chin, then tapped it twice, and it threw a fine spray of mist up over his face. "I suppose it couldn't hurt to try."

The pigeon pecked at Arthur's finger. "At least we'll know if it doesn't," Arthur said. "It can't get any worse than this."

"Hmm," Yusuf said, and watched as Arthur set the bird free. It weaved unsteadily in the air, and only narrowly escaped flying into a row of cacti. Yusuf cringed. "Do you really think this will work?"

"I don't know," Arthur admitted, pulling his cap over his head as he tracked the pigeon's progress. The arrow on the compass at the very corner of his vision pointed northwest. "Maybe."

"Well, then," Yusuf said, pulling the hood of his raincoat firmly over his head. "It's time we bring Cobb back."

The homing pigeon had worked, Arthur thinks now, mirthlessly. But bringing Cobb back is turning out to be easier said than done.

Yusuf pats his table, then, fondly. "I've enjoyed myself here," he muses. "Very little concrete scientific progress has been made, but the ability to build whatever I want and have it work has been incredibly satisfying." He pauses momentarily. "What I don't understand is why Cobb would want to stay."

"You just said--"

"Yes," Yusuf concedes, "But I can do all of this in my regular dreamscape, without worrying about losing my mind." He pauses for a moment, then continues more slowly, "There must be something else keeping him here - someone--"

"It's not about Mal," Arthur hears himself say.

Yusuf frowns.

"It's not just about Mal," Arthur amends.

"But Ariadne--"

"Ariadne saw Cobb at his worst," Arthur says. "Self-destructive, desperate, lost. And she wasn't here long enough to know what it's like. She hasn't been building long enough to know how it feels." Arthur lets out a breath as Yusuf leans forward in his chair. "I saw Cobb when he came out of it the first time, with Mal. When he told me he'd been down here fifty years, I thought--he's never going to want to go under again. Fifty years, Yusuf. For most people, it would've been enough. But for Cobb?" Arthur shakes his head. "No. He was addicted."

"To the building?" Yusuf asks.

"No," Arthur says. "That was only a part of it."

"And the other?"

Arthur can see it in his head, like a photograph he doesn't remember taking: a stranger wearing Cobb's face, too busy trying to explain what they'd seen, what they'd made, to notice the ghost with Mal's eyes watching warily as Cobb's fingers closed over her own.

"You've seen how eager he is to share his work," Arthur says, quietly. "He doesn't just want to build. He could do that anywhere. What Cobb wants is to share that with other people, to build with them. And Limbo's the only place you can do that."

"But--he's not creating anything," Yusuf says. His gaze flickers to his bandaged hand, then back at Arthur. "Not intentionally, at least. Your theory doesn't hold."

It pains Arthur to say it, but: "Maybe his subconscious knows there's the possibility. Maybe that's enough."

Understanding ripples over Yusuf's face. "You think he knows he's in Limbo. You think he wants to stay."

"On some level, perhaps," Arthur says, tiredly. "But this is guesswork, not a hypothesis; I can't test it."

They lapse into silence for a moment.

"You have to tell him, Arthur," Yusuf says at last, expression grim. "If you're right, if this is his subconscious playing tricks on him, you have to snap him out of it. You have to convince him there's more for him in the real world than there is here."

"I know," Arthur says. "I'm trying."

"Well," Eames says, as he pops his head out of the bedroom. "Time's almost up, so you're obviously going to have to try a little harder, aren't you?"

Having Eames tell him that he's out of time, projection or not, is catalyst enough for Arthur to steel his resolve. Cobb's car is in the driveway when he gets back to the house, and Arthur barely waits to get indoors before he's calling, "Cobb? Do you have a minute? There's something I need to--"

Philippa barrels out of the kitchen and straight into him before he can finish. James is right behind her, gunning straight for Arthur's hip. They're both beaming. "Arthur!" James trills. "Arthur, guess what?"

"Uh," Arthur says, momentarily distracted. He wraps an arm absently around James' shoulders when James begins to slide down his thigh. "What?"

"We got into the school play!"

"Both of us!"

"I'm going to be a mermaid!"

"And I'm a crab!"

"And we're gonna have costumes and everything!"

Arthur catches himself on the brink of a laugh. "That's very exciting. When do you go on?"

"Next week," Philippa says. She's practically bouncing.

"It's a little soon," Cobb says, and Arthur looks up to see him standing in the kitchen doorway, hands in his pockets, watching them with fond amusement. "But a couple of kids are down with chicken pox, and they needed extra help."

"I get to be a crab!" James crows. "It's gonna be awesome!"

"You're gonna come watch us, right, Arthur?" Philippa asks, still flushed and wide-eyed with excitement.

"Um, duh," James chimes in before Arthur can answer. "He has to come!"

"I don't know, James," Arthur says, with a quick glance at Cobb. "It might not be appropriate."

James goes completely rigid against him. "Oh," he says, in a small, small voice. "You mean you're not coming?"

He sounds so much like he did the day Arthur first got here that it makes Arthur's chest ache.

Cobb had been unsurprised to see Arthur on his doorstep, and James had been nothing short of thrilled, had thrown himself around Arthur's legs and refused to budge till Arthur, albeit hesitantly, picked him up.

"Arthur!" James trilled, against his shoulder, and Arthur felt his mouth curve despite his best efforts against it.

Philippa peeked out at him from behind Cobb, shy but smiling, and offered Arthur a small wave when he glanced at her. The smile she aimed at Yusuf was warier, but Cobb wasn't turning them away, and Arthur was inclined to count that a small victory in itself.

"Well," Cobb said, then. "Do you want to come in or are you just going to stand in my garden all day?"

"Oh thank god," Yusuf said, collapsing in the doorway.

But Arthur hesitated. They were without a plan.

("He might shoot us on sight," Yusuf had said, when Arthur suggested one. "So I don't see the merit in that."

And Arthur, after everything they'd been through, had been inclined to agree.)

I should tell him, Arthur thought, then. Avoid any collateral damage.

Except James snuffled against his neck before he could speak, then, eyes wide and wary as he said, "You don't want to come in?"

And Arthur heard himself say, instead, "That depends on your dad."

He could feel Cobb's gaze on him, then, curious and appraising, could feel Yusuf's incredulous one, and he added, "I have a job to do some time in the next couple of months, and I came to talk to your dad about it."

"Oh," James said, and glanced over at Cobb. "Are you going to talk about it, Daddy?"

"Arthur," Cobb began, guardedly.

"I could use your eye," Arthur said, quietly, watching as Cobb looked away.

He'd known, in that moment, exactly what Cobb would say next.

But when Cobb says, now, "There shouldn't be a problem; it's family only," Arthur doesn't see that coming at all.

James lets out a loud, delighted whoop, and Philippa squeals. "That means you're coming, right?"

"It appears that way," Arthur says, eventually.

"I told you so," James singsongs, triumphantly, and Phil rolls her eyes and smacks him on the arm, grinning the whole time.

When Arthur looks over, he sees James' expression mirrored on Cobb's face, and it's impossible not to laugh.

"No," Yusuf says, flatly, when Arthur goes to see him the next day.

"Yusuf," Arthur tries again. "They're just--"

"No," Yusuf repeats. "Arthur, listen to yourself. They're projections. What you're asking--"

"What Yusuf means," Eames chimes in, "in a very roundabout way, is that you're being ridiculous."

"Eames," Yusuf says, sharply.

Eames subsides, but he arches an eyebrow at Arthur, daring him to disagree. Arthur ignores him. "I know there's a deadline," he says to Yusuf. "And I know it's coming up, but there's time for this, Yusuf. The kids aren't coming up with this by themselves. These are things Cobb wants to do for them."

"And he can do them when he's awake," Yusuf says. "Arthur--"

"It's a school play," Arthur interjects. "It's one play. You don't know what he's missed up there, Yusuf. Don't take this from him."

Yusuf pinches the bridge of his nose, frowning, and Arthur adds, more quietly, "I came to you with this. I don't want to regret it."

"Arthur," Eames sounds both scandalized and impressed. "You manipulative--"

Yusuf puts a hand on Eames' knee and shakes his head. "You get this one last week," he says, eventually.

Arthur lets out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "One week," he repeats.

"And you have to tell him right after."

"Right after," Arthur echoes.

Yusuf nods, once. "It's settled, then."

"Thank you," Arthur says.

The look he gains from Yusuf in reply is dry and unimpressed. "Let's not pretend you wouldn't have done it, regardless of what I said."

"Yeah," Arthur agrees, somberly. "But I wouldn't have liked it."

The children get Arthur involved in everything, from running lines to practicing songs to costume fittings.

Six days, as it turns out, isn't a lot of time when you're dealing with two overzealous children impatient for their big stage debut to arrive. This is especially true when there are costumes involved. Costumes that are continuously in need of mending. (James Cobb is notoriously careless with his outfit.)

There are the songs to be memorized on top of that, and as a mermaid, Phil has about two lines of dialogue. She spends hours practicing twelve hundred variations of those lines, asking Arthur's opinion after each one.

Arthur gets through each day the same way he does any other seemingly insurmountable task: stoic and methodical, one impossible task at a time.

He catches Cobb watching him once or twice, from his work desk or the living room couch, sees him chuckle at the endless amount of taffeta Arthur's entangled in, the four different bobby pins he has in his mouth at any given time. "You could give me a hand," Arthur suggests wryly, once.

"I could," Cobb concedes. "But it's so much more entertaining this way."

For the next two days, Cobb's coffee is inexplicably cold by the time he gets to it at breakfast.

"It's here!" James announces at the dining table, the morning of the play. "It's here, it's here, it's here!"

Philippa can barely sit still, and she beams at Cobb over her bowl of cereal. "I'm going to be a mermaid," she says, practically glowing.

"Nuh uh!" James declares. "You're going to be the best mermaid! And I'm gonna be the bestest crab! Right, Dad?"

There's more milk on the table than in James' bowl by this point, the way he's vibrating in his seat, and for once, Arthur lets it slide, hiding his smile in his breakfast.

"Totally the bestest," Cobb says, straight-faced. He bumps James' tiny fist with his own, then wraps an arm around Phil's shoulders. "And the prettiest."

"And the awesomest!" James says, waving his spoon in the air.

Phil giggles when Cobb leans over to press a kiss into her hair, and Arthur doesn't know which one of them looks more thrilled.

"Come on," he says, then, averting his gaze. "We've got a play to get ready for."

"That was awesome!" James says, later that night, as Arthur crosses the threshold into the house.

It's not the first time he's said it that evening, it's not even the hundredth, but it's the first time he's mumbling it into Arthur's shoulder, still in his crab costume, his head heavy where it's tucked against Arthur's breastbone.

"That was way awesome," Arthur murmurs, quietly, one hand low and warm on James' back, and he's rewarded with a sleepy laugh against his skin.

Behind him, Phil's wilting too, already listing into Cobb's side. He nods when Arthur catches his eye, and Arthur leans over so Cobb can ghost a kiss over James' temple. "Think it's past someone's bedtime," Arthur says, then, and James barely even puts up a token protest as Arthur carries him into his bedroom. He's asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow, barely even stirs as Arthur takes off his shoes and costume.

"G'nigh," James slurs, into the sheets, as Arthur runs a quick hand through his hair.

"Goodnight," Arthur says, quietly, and turns out the light.

Cobb's already standing in the hallway, just outside Philippa's room, wearing a smile that Arthur hasn't seen for a while, tender and content.

Right after, Arthur thinks, watching him, and right after is now.

"Cobb," he says.

Cobb looks at him, then, so much warmth in his smile that Arthur's voice dies in his throat. Even in the dim light, Cobb's eyes are startlingly blue. The house is silent, and the three quick steps Cobb takes to cross the distance between them echo like gunfire in Arthur's ears, like crashing thunder, or the unsteady staccato of his heart.

"Arthur," Cobb says, and then he's backing Arthur into the wall, twisting his fingers into the fabric of Arthur's shirt, kissing him slow and sweet and sure. "Arthur," Cobb says again, breathlessly, when he pulls away, an eternity later.

Arthur knows that look, has seen it countless times, but this is the first time it's been directed at him, and when he closes his eyes, the image burns against the back of his eyelids. A burst of heat vaults up Arthur's spine, and then Cobb's kissing him again, one hand warm on the back of Arthur's neck, the other wrapped in Arthur's tie, and Arthur lets Cobb tug him forward, lets Cobb lead him to the bedroom, lets Cobb press him back against the bed, keep him there.

Cobb's never had to say anything for Arthur to understand exactly what he means.

It's dark inside, nothing but a patchwork quilt of moonlight illuminating the room, but Arthur doesn't need it, neither of them do, and he barely even fumbles with the buttons on Cobb's shirt, slides out of his own when Cobb does the same.

Cobb stretches long and languid above him, and Arthur's breath hitches in his throat. Arthur raises a hand to Cobb's cheek, and Cobb leans into it, no hesitation at all. There's incredulity filling Arthur's lungs as Cobb looks him over with dark, dark eyes, once, twice, wets his lips.

Arthur's pulse is racing, and oh god, this is a terrible idea, he shouldn't be - he can't--

"Cobb," he says, on a shaky breath. "Dom--"

That's when he sees it, the sudden emotion flooding Cobb's face. Arthur's heart stops.

"Dom," he croaks. He wants to say I know, wants to say me too, but when Cobb slants his mouth over Arthur's, slow and deep, Arthur presses his hand to Cobb's chest, feels Cobb's heart thudding beneath his fingers, and knows he doesn't have to.

The morning after is the day of the job. It doesn't feel different from any other day.

Arthur makes breakfast. He listens as the rest of the house comes alive. He catches James before he trips over the edge of a chair. He settles him and Phil at the table. He plies Cobb with coffee. He smiles as they chatter.

It doesn't feel different at all.


Except earlier that morning he'd woken up tucked into Cobb's side, skin to skin, and Cobb had curled an arm around him as he tried to get up, had pulled him into a slow, sleepy kiss and murmured, "Where are you going?"

"The kids will be up any second," Arthur'd mumbled back, trying not to be tempted back into bed. "And I need a shower."

"Isn't that strange?" Cobb had said smilingly, against Arthur's mouth. "So do I."

Cobb's looking at him with that same smile now, from across the table, and everything is different, because this is the last time. This is their last morning together.

Arthur feels an involuntary wave of panic when Cobb reaches for seconds, because that's the cue for Phil to shuffle to her feet, for James to peek under the table to check his laces before joining her, for them to head to the front door, calling, "Bye Arthur! Bye Daddy! See you after school!" without waiting for a reply.

And this is the last time he's going to be here to see it.

Arthur's heart lodges in his throat as he watches them from the kitchen window, identical blonde heads tipped up into the sunlight. When they disappear around the corner, it's like he forgets how to breathe.

"Arthur," Cobb says, then, and Arthur startles. "You ready to go?"

This is the last time.

It takes a moment, but Arthur squares his shoulders and tears his gaze from the window. "Yeah," he says. "Let's go."

Yusuf meets them in a deserted back lot at LAX, already dressed in a three-piece suit, a driver's cap pulled low over his head. He walks up to the car as they pull into a space, and Arthur shakes his head as their eyes meet.

Yusuf's expression darkens.

"Yusuf," Cobb says, already giving orders as he slides out of the car. "Look for the car and get the driver. Arthur, you're gonna cover him. I'm going to look for Payne."

For Arthur, working with Cobb again feels like getting his bearings back after losing his way, and slipping into his role is easy as breathing. He nods, and by the time Yusuf says, "Cobb," Cobb's striding away.

"What are you doing?" Yusuf hisses, as he rounds on Arthur.

"I couldn't tell him," Arthur says, tersely. "I tried, and I couldn't. Let it go."

Yusuf grabs Arthur's arm, alarmed. "What are you saying? That you won't come back? That you're going to stay? With him?"

Arthur shuts his eyes.

"Arthur," Yusuf says, desperately. "You can't--"

"I'm not going to stay." Just saying the words leave him feeling raw, and Arthur takes a deep breath before he goes on. "I just needed more time with him before--"

"This is all the time you get, Arthur!" Yusuf fumes. "The cops could come barging into the plane any minute now! We have to get out."

"I know," Arthur says. "I know, look, once Cobb gets back from scoping out the location--"

"How long do you think that's going to take?" Yusuf asks, frustrated. "He's looking for a mark that doesn't exist!"

There's a distant rumble in the sky, like thunder and foghorns, and Yusuf grips his shoulders, tight. "This is it, Arthur! We're out of time! Just get him back here so we can--"

Yusuf stops with an abrupt gasp, and then he's slumping foward into Arthur's arms. Arthur lets out a surprised shout, and suddenly there's blood on his hands, his shirt. Arthur fumbles for his Glock, barely managing to hold onto it with his slick, wet fingers. When he looks up, he almost drops it all over again.

It's Cobb, standing just a few feet away.

His revolver is still smoking.

"Jesus Christ, Cobb!" Arthur shouts. He doesn't lower his gun. "What the fuck?"

Cobb doesn't answer for a second. He's looking at Arthur like he's seeing him for the first time. When he steps forward, Arthur takes the safety off his gun. "Don't fucking move," he spits. "Not until you tell me what's going on."

"He'll be fine," Cobb says, calmly. "And I think I should be the one with the questions here."

"What are you--"

"You came to get me, didn't you?" Cobb interrupts, in that same, even tone.

Arthur freezes. "What?"

Cobb tilts his head a little, watching him, and takes another step closer. This time, Arthur doesn't protest. "This isn't real."

Slowly, Arthur lets his arm drop. His stomach is in knots. "Cobb."

"I'm still dreaming," Cobb says, inching closer still. "Because I got stuck in Limbo when I tried to get Saito out."

"Cobb," Arthur says again. His hands are shaking at his side, from relief or fear or a heady mixture of both. "How did you--"

"I recognized the music," Cobb says, and finally steps into his space. "I put two and two together."

"I tried to tell you," Arthur says, fighting the urge to lean closer. "I wanted to tell you, but it never seemed like the right time."



Cobb shakes his head, clearly lost. "Why did you want to tell me? I thought we were happy here."

"Cobb," Arthur says, and his breath stutters when he laughs. "That's not - that's never been the problem." He wraps his fingers in the collar of Cobb's shirt and presses his forehead's to Cobb's, closes his eyes when they start to burn. "I've tried to forget that this isn't real. Believe me, I've tried, but I - when I looked at the kids--" He shakes his head. "You don't want this, Cobb. Not like this."

But Cobb pulls away from him, and Arthur feels dread settle in his gut. "I'm happy here, Arthur. Don't I get a choice?"


"I'm happy here," Cobb repeats. "We've built a life together, Arthur. Stay and live it with me."

Of all the possible ways Arthur anticipated this could end, he never saw this coming. He should pull away, should move his hands from Cobb's shirt, but instead, traitorously, his fingers try to curl. And oh god, he wants to say yes.

"But James and Philippa--" Arthur makes himself say.

"Arthur," Cobb says, fiercely, and his eyes dizzyingly dark. "Stay."

And then Cobb's kissing him, hot and wet and needy, one hand curled around the back of Arthur's neck, anchoring him, and the startled sound Arthur makes dissolves into a long, low moan. Jesus, he can't - he doesn't know how to say no to Cobb. Never has. And maybe it won't be so bad, here, like this, Cobb leaning into him like he's never going to stop, like he's--

Distantly, he hears someone say, "Arthur?"

It sounds like it might be Cobb, but that's not - Cobb's fingers are still curled around the back of his neck, sliding up into his hair, hard and possessive.

Then he feels the muzzle of a gun pressed against his ribs and his eyes jerk open.

He sees Cobb first, standing by the car, looking shell-shocked.


Arthur shakes himself then, and looks at the Cobb holding him (hostage, his mind supplies, his own projection is holding him fucking hostage) in slow-dawning horror.

"Cobb," Arthur breathes, winded and rattled, and doesn't know which one of them he's talking to.

"You know he's happier here," Cobb-with-the-gun says. "You could've been too."

He shoots.

Arthur wakes up gasping, both hands clasped over his abdomen as phantom pain rips through him like it's his first time facing the barrel of a gun. Yusuf and Saito are staring at him, Yusuf's mouth set in a thin, hard line.

Anger, Arthur realizes, sluggishly. And it's completely justified. Yusuf doesn't even know it wasn't Cobb's subconscious back there, doesn't know it was Arthur who pulled the trigger, and it's still completely justified. But there's no time for that now, oh god, there's no time--

"Put me under," he says, through a mouth that feels like cotton.

Saito looks concerned. "You just woke up."

"Five seconds," Arthur snarls. "Fucking put me under."

This time, Yusuf doesn't offer to come with him.

"I'm sorry," Arthur says to him, as he lies back down, and then he's out.

Arthur doesn't waste any time on the beach.

He drags himself up the shore and storms through Cobb's city, armed with purpose and two semiautomatic rifles. He can still feel the weight of Cobb's mouth - of the projection's mouth, fuck - on his own, and he's fucking furious.

He doesn't know if any of it - anything that happened with Cobb - is real. That night in the garden, all the times that came after, last night, he doesn't know. And it's all his own fault. He may be the best point man in the business, but he is so fucking stupid for Cobb. This is the Fischer job all over again, every other job before that, Cobb not talking and Arthur not pushing him, and now he's here, with half a year's worth of memories that might not be memories at all.

He's done letting Cobb set the rules. He's done playing games. He's not going through the desert or the sandstorms or the goddamn hourglass again.

He wavers, briefly, when he remembers the Penrose stairs leading up to the hourglass, the way it had all felt chillingly familiar, like Cobb had pulled the blueprints for the layout straight out of Arthur's mind. Now, Arthur isn't so sure Cobb had anything to do with it.

But he can't think about that, or where it leaves him, or what it means he doesn't know.

So he loads his guns, goes in shooting and doesn't stop. The streets, the buildings, Arthur aims for all of it. "I'm not playing your fucking games again, Cobb!" he yells, as it rains granite and brick around him. He keeps shooting, round after round after round, at the architecture Cobb built, until the space around him is nothing but dirt and broken glass.

That's when Cobb shows up.

"Arthur?" he says. He looks lost, like he isn't sure how he got here.

Arthur ignores the sudden, sharp twist of pain in his chest. "You're still in limbo," he says. "You need to come back."

He puts three bullets in Cobb's chest.

When he wakes up, the first thing Arthur does is turn to check if--

Cobb's staring at him, clearly dazed, but he's awake. He's awake.

"Cobb," Saito says, offering him a hand.

Cobb doesn't take it. Instead, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his totem.

"Cobb," Arthur says, before he can spin it.

It's like watching a film reel, the way Cobb's shock melts into incredulity and guilt and remorse, and Arthur doesn't even need to check his die to know he's awake. Remorse, he thinks, blankly, as the anger and adrenaline bleed right out of him.

He's swallowing bile as he pushes to his feet, reaching with shaking hands for his coat, his briefcase, almost before he's even fully aware of what he's doing, because Cobb remembers. Cobb remembers, and any chance they'd had of moving past this, of soldiering on like nothing's changed, all of that's impossible now.

"Arthur," Yusuf says.

"Arthur--" Cobb croaks.

Arthur flinches instinctively. He can't - all he can think of is Cobb, in the hallway, the garden, against the bedroom door--

Arthur shuts his eyes, listening to the roar of blood in his ears, and makes himself leave.

He's the first to deplane of the four of them.

He nods at the cabin crew as he passes the door, then at airport security, and he lets muscle memory take him where he's supposed to go once he's past the gates. But he falters when he's out of the terminal, and he stands on the curb for a minute, just breathing, until his vision clears again.

Eames and Ariadne are long gone, and Arthur's glad. He doesn't know how to explain this, what he'd say. He's lived a year - a year - of Limbo, survived getting everything he's ever dreamed of having and then single-handedly fucking it up.

Right now, he just wants to leave.

Except then he hears Cobb say, "Arthur," and he turns towards the sound on instinct.

Cobb's right there, bags in hand, already through customs and striding towards him.

It takes a second for Arthur to register the thought. Cobb's through customs. Cobb's through customs. Oh god, he can go home. The children--

And suddenly, instantly, Arthur realizes he was wrong. Job first, Cobb second; his priorities haven't changed at all.

He's moving before Cobb can make it all the way over.

"Arthur," Cobb says, as he picks up his pace. "Arthur, stop. Stop, Jesus!"

"Go home, Cobb," Arthur says, voice even. He doesn't even slow. "We'll talk when you're settled in."

"Arthur," Cobb says. "I didn't know. Please, Arthur, just--look at me. Let's talk about this."

Arthur almost laughs. "There's nothing to talk about," he says, because there isn't. "I know you didn't know. I was there. I don't need your pity."

"It's not pity," Cobb snaps, running a hand through his hair in frustration as he falls into step beside Arthur. "Jesus, you came down to get me out of Limbo. Twice. You stayed with me for a year. You woke me up. I'm - how do I--"

Arthur does stop, then. His heart is pounding, and his fists are clenched, white-knuckled, around the metal bar of his trolley. He swings around, blindly, and Cobb stops in his tracks. "Fuck you, Cobb," Arthur hisses, humiliated. "If you want to show your gratitude, you can send me a fucking thank-you card."

There's a small crowd gathering now, watching them, and Cobb is already starting to fidget under the scrutiny. "Arthur," he tries again, voice notching low. "Can we not do this here? Miles is outside, let's just go back to my place and--"

Arthur breathes out a short, hollow laugh. "Pretty sure I've already overstayed my welcome," he says, and turns away.

"Goddammit," Cobb says, and then there's a hand on his shoulder, and Cobb's jerking him around. "Do you have to be such a fucking martyr?"

"Maybe it's not all about you, Cobb," Arthur says, curtly. "Did you ever think about that? Maybe I wanted to stay."

"In a world where nothing was real?" Cobb asks, shaking his head in disbelief. "I know you better than that. You're so grounded you don't even need a totem."

Cobb's grip is firm and warm, just like before, the day they'd argued over the damn blueprints, and Arthur has to shake his head to clear it. Maybe that wasn't Cobb at all. Maybe he'd made all of it up. He tugs himself free from Cobb and wipes a suddenly weary hand over his face. It's been a long year. "And if that's true," Arthur says. "What? It doesn't change anything."

"No," Cobb says. "No, it doesn't. It just means you're an idiot."


"You heard me," Cobb says. "Jesus fucking Christ, Arthur. You tried so hard to talk yourself into letting me stay in Limbo you started projecting me. Your subconscious fucking turned against you. Used you. Manipulated you. All to convince you to stay in a world you didn't even believe in. Because you thought that was what I wanted."

It sounds unhinged right now, all of it, and the worst part is knowing that it isn't, it's not out of character for him at all. Different job, same story. Arthur's more dangerous than he gives himself credit for: the lengths he'll go to for Cobb, how much he's willing to do. "You're right," he says then, because what else is there to say? "You're right, Cobb. Is that all?"

Cobb lets out a low, frustrated noise. "You're missing the point."

"Then tell me what the fucking point is!" Arthur snaps. "Because you've covered thank you for nothing, and I already know how fucked up you think I was. So what? What's your goddamn point?"

"That it wasn't all the projection," Cobb blurts, and Arthur turns to him without meaning to.


Cobb ducks his head as he wets his lips, more nervous than Arthur's ever seen him, and Arthur feels something dangerously like hope rise in his chest. "Arthur, last night -- we didn't do anything I didn't already want."

Arthur remembers looking at Cobb, haloed in moonlight and shadow both, remembers how he'd felt like someone had stolen his breath away, remembers hearing, "I love you," without Cobb needing to say the words.

"Cobb," Arthur manages, weakly, and still there's no missing the wonder in his voice. "I'm--"

"You're coming home with me," Cobb says, firmly. "We're going to spend time with the children, I'm going to make you dinner, and then we're going to talk about this. You can do whatever you want after we're done, I won't argue. Just - please, Arthur."

Cobb's hair is glinting in the sunlight, and his eyes are brighter than anything Arthur's ever seen, so earnest and hopeful it almost hurts to look at. Arthur reaches into his pocket--

But Cobb curls a hand around his wrist, thumb sliding over Arthur's pulse point, warm and steady. "You don't need that," Cobb says, gently. His smile is soft, almost shy, and Arthur feels his stomach flip before settling into nerves.

But it's just nerves, fearless and guilt-free, and that's how he knows. He never needed a safety net to tell him what was real before; he won't let now be any different.

Arthur takes a deep breath, and lets Cobb slide their fingers together.

"Arthur," Cobb says again, quieter, but Arthur feels rooted to the spot nonetheless. "Come home with me."

Jesus, Arthur thinks despairingly, he's never going to learn, because right now he wants nothing more than to say yes.

"You're impossible," he says instead, but he moves enough for Cobb to fit his briefcase on top of the trolley, and feels Cobb's palm linger, warm and open, low on his back.

"Yeah," Cobb says, head ducked, apologetic save the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Luckily for me, I've never seen you walk away from a challenge."
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thank you so much; i'm so glad all those elements came across, and that you enjoyed it enough to come back for future reads! that's so, so flattering, especially after your spectacular big bang. (honestly, my face when i realized i'd be posting directly after you, that was not pretty!)

so--yes! in my roundabout, unnecessarily lengthy way, thank you for reading and for the lovely, lovely feedback! :D
Great story! I had a lovely time figuring out the whole so-is-he-Cobb-or-is-he-a-projection-now mindfuck. Also, love your Eames, I mean both of them. In conclusion, you rock \o/
hee, thank you so much! i had a lot of fun playing with that aspect of it, and hopefully there was enough to keep you guessing without giving the game away all at once! :D
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OH MY GOSH, BB, YOU ARE TOO LOVELY TO ME, FOR SERIOUS. i have been too busy to comment on your art (YOUR ART, ALL OF IT, SO MUCH OF IT, OH MY GOSH *____________*) for alchemyalice's story but it was SO PERFECT AND GORGEOUS AND NOW YOU ARE HERE MAKING ME FEEL ALL \o/ AND SHY AND--

i am just glad you enjoyed the story, is all!

I tend to dislike stories about Cobb never waking up/staying in limbo, mostly because after the great mindfuck that was the movie, my poor heart needs to have a happy, straightforward ending.

However, I decided to give this a chance and holy goddamned hell, it was amazing!

Poor, poor Arthur just broke my heart. After I spent most of the story wondering if all the happiness he was feeling was Cobb's subconscious trying to trap him, to have it revealed that it was his own subconscious working against him... ouch!

Really, this is why I ship him and Cobb, they're the only ones fucked up enough to be able to make things work.

I loved this.
oh wow, what a huge compliment, thank you so much for giving this story a chance! i'm thrilled you ended up liking it, especially since i'm with you on the happy, straightforward ending! but arthur and cobb make for such a fascinating, fucked-up dynamic that there was really no other alternative for this premise.

again, thank you so much! this was such a fantastic comment to wake up to, and i'm really pleased that the reveal worked for you!
I just - you know, I had all these things that I wanted to say (mostly repeating the things that I've already said, because I think you should hear them again) but I got to the ending and just -- guhh.

Okay, okay, here are the main points:

- The sex scene, oh gosh. Absolutely perfect and oh so fitting. It slid in so well, I could not tell you'd been worried about it at all if I didn't know, and it flowed completely naturally. It worked so well and it was so beautiful and easy with just a touch of melancholy, I think. Perfect perfect perfect.

- The ending. I TOLD YOU, YOU ALWAYS DO GOOD ENDINGS AND THIS IS DEFINITELY NO EXCEPTION. I just - it wraps it up so neatly and yet there's no definitive ending but there's still hope, and I think that's the main contrast between this and Arthur's dream; there's a hope there that was lacking in the dreamscape, and this is emphasised beautifully. So yay for that.

- Finally, I like how much of a mindfuck this was (and I understood it the second/third times around, haha). I feel like it's so important in Inception fic, to stay true to the original complexities of the film, and you definitely definitely achieved that which is part of why I feel it was such a delight to read.

So - yes, there are a thousand other things I loved (Eames, your Yusuf, how beautiful and flawless your writing always is) but those are the main things I wanted to mention to you. I love this and I feel like it'll stay with me for a while ♥

THIS COMMENT. HOW DO I EVEN--AAKSJHFDOIGJDGs ACE. honestly, you're so - you've just been the most WONDERFUL beta ever ever ever, and i'm always so reluctant to show my work before it's finished, just because it's kind of embarrassing, BUT YOU NEVER EVER MAKE IT FEEL THAT WAY, and again i just have to say thank you so much for helping me get through this (ordeal)!



omg. omg. this was just perfect. everyone was perfect. your yusuf oh my god, i cannot even handle it. aladdin. phil and james, oh jesus, and the entire end thing, arthur going under AGAIN i cannot even fucking handle this or you or life.

oh my god. OH MY GOD.
aaah, so, i couldn't wait to read this after seeing how excited you were about writing it and oh my god what a fantastic read it turned out to be!!!!!!! i've just finished reading it for the second time and, nnnnnnngh, beautiful and heart-breaking but ultimately hopeful, this was so good.

i knew there was a twist coming somewhere (and, i even read the summary!) but i got so sucked into the story that i was convinced it was cobb's subconscious trying to trap arthur and that made it all the better when the actual reveal came. i abolutely love being hit by something unpredictable in a story, so i am glad i was led down the garden path with that one, haha. oh man, exactly like other people have said, i love how much of a mindfuck this was and how in keeping with the film that made it.

your characterizations were so amazing. i adored all the domestic scenes with philipa and james and cobb and arthur. seeing that family dynamic made everything seem so real that everytime we were reminded it wasn't it made my heart break a little bit more. i loved yusuf's role in all of this and when he projected eames into the whole thing i couldn't stop grinning. (oh, and speaking of, all your 1d shoutouts made me giggle!). the pacing and flow was spot on and like ace said you had absolutely nothing to worry about with the sex scene, it was perfect in it's place and pitch.

you write arthur/cobb so well, the angsting and the yearning and it makes your heart clench in the best possible way. natalie, this is so gorgeous and i loved it, a lot. ♥
oh my gosh. oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh ANNEKA. how do i even begin my reply to this epically, lovely comment? i've been seal-clapping since i first read it, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! just - YOU, I FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE BEEN THERE FROM DAY ONE AND ANYTIME I POST SOMETHING NEW, ESPECIALLY IN NEW FANDOMS, YOU ALWAYS GIVE IT A SHOT AND THEN END UP MAKING ME THE MOST GLEEFUL WRITER IN THE HISTORY OF GLEEFUL WRITERS.

i'm SO SO SO SO SO glad the reveal worked for you! and that it wasn't too expected or anything like that. :D :D :D :D AND I AM REALLY DOUBLY GLAD THAT THE CHARACTERIZATIONS DIDN'T FALL FLAT. that was probably my biggest thing, especially with arthur, AND YUSUF. AND--YES. ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

(ALSO. the 1d shoutouts were totally for 1datemylife just saying. :D :D :D)
This, right here, has forced me to cheat on my OTP, and I have no remorse, I would do it again over and over. Oh ARTHUR!

You seriously blew my mind.

:D :D :D

Also, where has this fic journal been all my life? Do you still use the other one or just this one?

also, this is the same fic journal! lmao forever. i just decided a couple of months ago that it needed a name change too. :D
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oh my gosh, most amazing compliment ever, thank you so much! i'm thrilled the ambiguous ending worked for you, and even more thrilled that you felt strongly enough about it to argue your interpretation! :DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD

again, thank you so much for this comment. it made my entire day!

heeeee! thank you so much! ♥
This is really lovely. ♥
thank you so much! (:
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aww, thank you so much, both for reading and taking the time to comment! i'm really glad you enjoyed it!
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When I read this on the plane and the suspicion first hit me that Arthur had his own Cobb to touch, I was so wild with the tragedy of it that I had to curl up into a ball over my screen and kind of stupidly rock back and forth XDDD but then IT TURNED OUT THAT HE HAD HIS OWN COBB NOT BECAUSE HE WANTED TO STAY BUT BECAUSE HE THOUGHT COBB WANTED TO STAY and, and, and basically by that point I was physically gnawing at the screen with my teeth, because Arthur and Cobb, Arthur with Cobb, that is just so perfectly wonderfully it-- always these crossed intentions, Arthur trying to guess at what Cobb wants, trying to do something, anything, and never ever learning when it comes to Cobb. Because that's the way that they love, and god, it's so endless and bottomless and hopeless and beautiful. Thank you so much.
this is such a deliciously lovely comment, THANK YOU SO MUCH. i am so, so thrilled you enjoyed it, and that you bought into their dynamic here, because YES OH GOD THEY ARE SO TRAGIC IT JUST BREAKS MY HEART.

thank you again, so much, for the comment!