A/N: Nothing belongs to me, save Maxine and the other non-film characters. This one shot came to me after the first security scene inside Fischer's dream. It's my first venture into writing and posting fanfiction after years of reading it.
Note: There are several shifts in point of view and not all the background plot is given. I'm not sure if I need to warn for that but there you have it. And thanks for r/r!
"We need a regulator."
Miles smiled slightly as he leaned back in his old leather chair. It was his favorite chair, suited his form nicely and made it easy to fall asleep in. He held the phone close to his ear and closed his eyes.
"Hello, Dom," he said into the phone. "It sounds as if you're doing well. How are the children?"
Miles heard a soft chuckle.
"Sorry," Dom said. "They're doing great. Miss their grandpa but, you know. Growing up like weeds."
The pleasure in his voice was clear and Miles felt something loosen in his chest.
"Good to hear it," Miles said earnestly. "Give my regards."
"Another job, Dom? I thought you were out of the business."
"This one is worth taking on. It's a challenge. Something good and unique."
"You were always one for challenges," Miles said. "But a regulator? Sounds dangerous."
"We need security. Someone strong, who can handle multiple threats but protect at the same time. Someone who can anticipate attacks but can handle surprises."
Her name floated up to the surface of his mind and Miles sighed inside.
"I know of someone..."
"Of course you do."
Miles smiled and shook his head. Force of habit, even though he knew Dom couldn't see him.
"But… it will be difficult. She's… retired and not inclined to come out of retirement."
"We'll see. Send me her information."
Maxine Emory was twenty-eight and a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She was a prolific researcher and well-regarded in her field.
She was also a widow, three years in.
"Pretty," Eames commented as he picked up her file. Her university headshot, among several other images, was clipped to the inside of the folder. "Very pretty. Doesn't strike me as having a sunny disposition though, no?"
"Think with your other brain, Eames," Arthur muttered.
Cobb raised his eyebrow at Eames from his place at the desk. Behind the closed door of his home office, he could hear his children playing with the nanny. He liked to stay close to them, as close as it was safe, anyway. Though he'd been home for some time now, he still couldn't shake the idea that he would be pulled away from them again. The anxiety would fade, he knew, but… still.
He looked around at the rest of his team- at Arthur standing in the corner, Ariadne on the chair in front of the bookcase, and then back at Eames, who stood before the desk, staring down intently at Emory's file.
"Her husband died in a dream," Arthur said. His dark eyes were focused on Cobb, face pinched and vaguely disapproving. "How can we be sure her issues don't leak into our job?"
Cobb narrowed his eyes. He knew Arthur didn't mean it as a jab; he was truly concerned about their current subject and knew that Cobb was no longer compromised. But still, the question stung as if it had been directed towards him.
"She went on a dozen commissions after his death," Ariadne said, glancing at Arthur and then back at Cobb. "All of them were successful and her colleagues reported no issues. If anything, she seems remarkably self-aware and contained. It's… impressive."
And then she shrugged. "But who knows? Maybe she stopped because she knew she couldn't handle it anymore. We should at least ask. It's worth a shot."
Cobb said nothing. He glanced up at Eames who finally looked up from the file.
"She's a regulator," Eames said finally. "A damn fine one, if all I've heard checks out and good regulators are rare. She's practically an endangered species. I'm with fair Ariadne. Mrs. Emory deserves a test run, at the very least."
He smirked, dropping his gaze back to her file. "I volunteer for the first run, if you don't mind?"
Cobb sat up, pulling the file back from Eames' hands. He glanced briefly at it before closing it; he already knew what the contents contained and what she looked like. Large gray eyes, black hair, and pale, almost fragile features.
She was striking and would have been beautiful but she was a shade too thin and far too solemn.
Like Eames noted, it didn't look as if smiling came easy to her.
"No," Cobb said finally. "We'll all be there. If she's as good as we hope she is, she'll be able to handle it."
The annual Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference was in September, which gave them enough time to formulate a plan. Yusuf had given them a topical sedative, one that was fairly innocuous and timed to hit within ten minutes of application. Cobb had been able to smear it on Emory's luggage handle as she was distracted during check-in at her hotel.
In person, she was taller than expected and perhaps more brittle than fragile. She was dressed in neutral colors, as if she wanted to blend into the scenery, and her long dark hair was pulled back into a careless bun. She kept her eyes down as she went through her business at the front desk.
Cobb thought that Eames looked not a little intrigued as he studied her from his vantage point. Flashy as he was, Cobb knew that he didn't truly understand what she was doing.
Emory was an intentional Cinderella, hiding herself from the world. Shielding herself in ashes and dust.
She walked towards the elevators and Cobb and Eames followed behind her, watching as she paused and looked down at her hand in confusion when she picked up her small bag.
"What floor?" Emory asked when they stepped into the elevator after her.
"Fourteen," Eames said with an easy grin. Emory's gray eyes studied him for a moment and Cobb thought he saw a flicker of unease in her gaze.
Cobb smiled at her, making sure to seem less predatory than his colleague.
"Same for me," he said.
"What a coincidence," Emory said, but Cobb heard the distinct note of suspicion in her voice. She pressed the button and took a step back as the doors closed.
Once the elevator began to move she turned around and looked at them both, a mixture of confusion and anger in her large eyes.
"What have you done to me?" she said.
She collapsed before either man could respond.
Max looked up from the papers she was grading and nodded at the student in front of her. During office hours, her door was open and many students took advantage of the fact.
"What can I do for you, Lindsay?" she asked, leaning back in her chair. She put her pen down and glanced briefly at her wedding ring. It twinkled in the dim sunlight that filtered through the window behind her.
"Well, I read chapter three, you know, in our textbook? And I was wondering if you could elaborate on some of the theories…" Lindsay flipped open the book in her hand and held it out to Max. "The one about creating a mental sanctuary?"
"No problem," Max said, glancing at the page. "Is there a part that you'd like to start with?"
"Yeah, actually, Doctor Rubin's theory of protection- that everyone needs to be able to protect themselves in a safe place inside their dreams," Lindsay said. She shook her head and shrugged almost helplessly. "And to root out the bad stuff. I don't get how you even begin to do that. I mean, he lists out examples but I… don't get it, I guess."
Max nodded and studied the page again.
"So that's what this is about?" she said. She glanced up, feeling dread and exhaustion in the pit of her stomach- as real as the ring on her finger felt.
"I'm not a fan of masks."
A man stood where Lindsay had; momentary shock clouded his handsome face. Max thought his features were too overt, too obviously charming- the face of a playboy, a con-artist. And yet he had mimicked her student almost perfectly.
A master forger then, not simply a thief.
The surprise disappeared quickly though, hidden behind bright, laughing eyes, and he let out a soft chuckle.
"Less than three minutes, love. You're good."
Max stood up and held his gaze. "Yes, I am."
His smile grew wider but she could see the tension nearly crackling around him.
"Modest too," he said. "I like that."
Max said nothing. Instead she looked around her office, noting each item to the last detail. She took a deep breath and let it all wash over her, feeling the edges blur, letting her mind move freely for a moment…
"Where are the other three?" Max said, taking a step back. Her chair squeaked as it wheeled across the floor. "Who do you work for? What do you want from me?"
"Please, stay calm."
Max looked over the forger's shoulder and saw more people had arrived. Two more men, one blonde and one brunet, and one woman who was still more of a girl really.
"My name is Cobb," the blonde man continued. He nodded at the man who had been Lindsay. "That's Eames and this is Arthur and Ariadne."
"I have nothing worth knowing," Max said evenly. She narrowed her eyes, angry at the deception… at the intrusion, and took in a deep breath.
It doesn't matter.
"And if you did, I doubt we'd get through to it anyway," Cobb said, holding out both of his hands, palms up. He took a step forward, causing Eames to move behind him.
She could feel all of their eyes on her but she didn't look away from Cobb. It was clear he was the leader. Eames, the forger who had taken on the skin of her student.
Ariadne and Arthur. Which one was the architect and which one the point?
"I don't know what you gave me or how you did it," Max said, "but I can kick all of you out, even the architect."
She saw the girl's eyes, Ariadne, widen slightly.
So the girl was the architect and the boy was the point.
"Yes, we know," Cobb said. "I have a job offer for you. It's-"
Max held out her hand.
"We're done here."
The world around them disappeared.
When they all came to, the bed where they had placed Emory's limp body was empty.
They'd all been dreaming of falling and for so long, too long, there was nothing to stop the fall.
Emory was gone.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you on the spot."
"I wanted to apologize," Cobb said. He stood in front of Emory, outside the front door of her small townhouse. It was twilight, and the street lamps in her quiet, sleepy neighborhood had just flickered on.
In the dim light, Emory looked even more exhausted than he had last seen her, a week ago at the hotel. Guilt and pity flooded his throat and Cobb swallowed thickly.
The gun she held was angled at him in a way that showed she was familiar with the weapon.
He had no doubt she'd fire it without hesitation.
"What we did was-"
"Yes," Cobb admitted. "And wrong. I should have approached you in the real world. I'm sorry."
"I was impressed, to be honest," Emory said, as if she hadn't heard him. Her hair hung limply past her shoulders and her dark dress made her seem paler, smaller. But she was still sharply beautiful. No amount of grief could blur her edges.
He wondered briefly, but not for the first time, what she had been like in her past life.
"You're good. Your team is good. But I could still get out."
Cobb looked at her thoughtfully, carefully avoiding the weapon in her hand. "Was that a factor of the drugs or the dream?"
"A little bit of both. The sedative wasn't strong enough to keep me. Neither was the construction. I was only a level down, wasn't I? I don't know if that was an act of courtesy or stupidity."
"Pure courtesy," Cobb said. "We wanted to meet you. We didn't want to alarm you."
"But also to see how I'd do?"
"That too, yes." Cobb smiled. "You knew Eames was a fake within seconds but you let him approach you. You were uncomfortable but nothing attacked us. You could have kept us down for longer but you didn't. Thank you."
Emory didn't smile back but she lowered her gun.
"I'm sorry we made you miss your conference," Cobb went on. "I hope your department head understood."
"You know how sudden the stomach flu can be," Emory said, repeating the lie with ease. She took in a deep breath. "I'm not interested in a job."
"What if it could save a life?" Cobb asked. "What if you could help us extract information that could save someone's life?"
"You mean, like how I couldn't save my husband's life? Take one over the other, make amends that way? You're assuming a lot about me."
Cobb frowned and shook his head. "No, that's not what I meant. That's not at all what I meant, Emory."
"Let me guess," Emory said. "Your mark is trained. And has layers upon layers of security projections that you need to get past. You need protection from these measures, and a way to combat them without harming yourselves or damaging the mark."
"I know you've done this before," Cobb said, nodding slowly. "And I know that you're the best at it. We need the best."
"That's your selling point?"
"I can give you more details."
"That's not necessary, Cobb."
"Call me, Dom," Cobb said. He held out a card with his number on it. She looked down at it thoughtfully before taking it.
"My name is Dominic Cobb."
"Oh, I know who you are," Emory replied. "And I know who your colleagues are. You don't think I'd ask around after that day?"
He smiled slightly. "Point. But I didn't know who you were at first. I had to ask for the best and you weren't exactly in the phone book."
"Regulators are hired guns. We tend to be targets," Emory said, still serious and impassive. "We learn to keep that particular talent on a strictly need-to-know basis."
"I'll make it worth your while."
Emory stared at him for a moment and her gaze felt like a weight on his face. She was measuring him, appraising him.
And she found him wanting.
"There's always someone better, Mr. Cobb," she said. The use of his name stung- it was a clear rejection of his offer and of himself and the team. "Find that person and you'll be fine."
She took a step back and began to push the door forward, closing it on him and the job.
"But don't kid yourself into thinking that you'd have anything I'd want."
"How did you do it?"
Max's head jerked up as she exited the classroom and something inside of her flared up in rage before quickly dissipating.
She found it hard to muster up enough emotion or sustain it for anything these days.
Ariadne stood in front of her, softly pretty, dark eyes curious but kind. Max decided that she liked the other girl; there was something appealing about her. Something of the teacher inside seemed to recognize a life-long student.
Max looked around at the empty hallway.
She shoved the papers she'd been holding into her bag and glanced down at her wedding ring. It caught the light overhead and shone brightly for a moment.
"I suppose I should ask you the same question," Max said lightly. "Does Cobb know?"
"No, but he won't stop asking you," Ariadne said. A fond look crossed her delicate features. Perhaps more than simple fondness, Max thought after a beat. "He's convinced you belong with us."
"I agree although I reserve the right to change my mind."
Max allowed herself a smile.
After all, it wasn't real.
"Call it a natural talent. I'm good at hiding; deflecting attention. At manipulating and unraveling thoughts and ideas. You've heard the antibody analogy, I'm guessing."
"Yes. The unconscious mind acts like white blood cells, attacking intruders."
"I can hide or mask intruders to protect them. I can push them out of the dream, if I need to. I just have to be familiar with those intruders. Get a feel for them, if you will."
"You can kick off sedatives."
"Not all, no."
"You kept us dreaming when you woke up."
"I kicked you out of my dream and into yours. You rode out the length of the time the sedative was supposed to work, that's all."
"You'd have to work closely with me, you know. I'm an architect."
"In general, regulators have to work closely with everyone on a team," Max said. She looked away. "They have to know what issues may arise, the dark things that people hide, in order to keep them in check in a dream."
"And what about the regulator?"
"They're good at compartmentalizing," Max said simply. She began to walk and Ariadne followed.
The hallway seemed endless.
"It's not repression. More like, indifference. Almost all regulators can accept their own shadows and walk away, without letting it affect the environment. Water off a duck."
"The potential is there. Most are born with it. Some have to cultivate it."
"And which one are you?"
Max continued to walk without answering for several minutes. The light remained steady, the walls clean and free of the usual student debris. Ariadne walked quietly beside her, noticing the still empty hallway.
The walls flickered and changed colors. Doors opened and shifted, turning into glass, stone, wood and metal.
They passed by arches and gates, bridges and tunnels.
"No attacks," Ariadne said, looking at Max. "Even though I'm changing things."
"So? It doesn't matter to me. In other people's dreams, I can… dampen their reactions. I can't stop someone's subconscious from acting but I can slow it down. Suppress it. Or send it in another direction."
"Is that what you did? With James?"
Max glanced at her from the corner of her eye. Ariadne looked uncomfortable, unsettled.
She was testing her again, trying to see how far Max's defenses- her control- would hold in a dream. But it was clear Ariadne did not like asking the questions.
"I'm assuming you're asking about my reaction to his death and not accusing me of killing him."
"Yes. You pushed it down, which is why you were able to continue with other jobs. Right? It was Christian Novelle that killed James, wasn't it? Left him in a dream that James couldn't wake up from. And you had to pull the plug after you couldn't pull him out."
Ariadne blushed deeply in shame and embarrassment but she held her head high.
Max stopped walking.
"That was hard for you to say."
"I… I didn't…"
Max tilted her head to the side and shifted her bag up on her shoulder.
"Where am I in the real world?"
"Asleep at your desk. It was the water bottle- Eames. You left it open in your office. He… he slipped in when you went to make copies."
"I see," Max said.
She looked around again and the walls began to crumble silently, large pieces of concrete and drywall, tumbling to the ground. Ariadne looked alarmed though Max knew she was perfectly safe.
She'd been taught a few tricks, after all.
"You should go now. I hope you're not around when I wake up. I'll call the police. No matter how untraceable you think your drugs are I know chemists who are at the top of their field. Evidence is evidence, Ariadne, and I've been drugged against my will."
Max held out a gun, grip out.
Ariadne looked down at it and pressed her lips together.
She picked it up after a moment. "Will you wake up too?"
And then she was gone.
Max continued to walk through the grass that had appeared, eyes towards the destination before her. It wasn't perfect but it was close enough that she wanted to stay asleep. The drug she'd been given this time felt stronger and she decided to ride it out.
Just for a little while longer.
"No, he's good enough. Emory's better. We need her."
"She won't say yes, Dom. Let it go."
"The other regulators we've looked into are second rate in comparison and we're running out of options."
"She wants to be left alone. She's done with this."
"I know, Arthur. Don't you think I know?"
"Look, you tried. You sent her the case file and she sent it back unread. She doesn't want the money. There's no motivation here for her. A challenge isn't enough."
"The family, that little girl might die, if we don't get a good regulator. If we don't get the strongest regulator out there. Emory is a good person. A little lost now, but decent. She won't say no if she knew what it was she'd be doing."
"Arthur. She's it."
Emory thanked the girl at the counter and took the cup of coffee, holding it carefully in her small hands. She moved towards the condiment bar, her lips tilted slightly in pleasure and anticipation as she poured just a dollop of cream in her drink.
"I would have taken you for a straight up coffee drinker," Arthur said softly beside her. "Black. Strong."
"Is that what your research found?" Emory said. She didn't seem startled by his presence and he felt a tinge of… something… as her face grew resigned and her smile faded.
It didn't make him feel good.
"No, it was a guess," Arthur admitted. He took his hands out of his pockets and held it out. "We haven't been properly introduced. I'm Arthur."
Emory looked at his hand for a moment and Arthur was unsure if she would take it.
He wouldn't have blamed her. They'd been actively pursuing her for nearly a month now.
It was clear she was a solitary creature. She preferred to stay behind the scenes, teach a few classes, write papers that spoke on her behalf. She went to bed early and woke up early, and had a set routine.
Emory avoided the spotlight when she could.
Their chase must have been an exquisite form of torture- forcing her to be the center of attention the way she was now.
He could understand that.
"Max Emory. Your people call me Emory apparently," she said, finally taking his hand.
He noted, with no little surprise, that her grip was firm and strong. It seemed she was not so frail, after all.
"But you prefer Max?" Arthur asked. She stared at him for a moment before looking away.
Emory gestured at an empty table and held her cup close, almost as if she were hiding behind it. "We might as well take that. It's been a long day and I'd like to sit down."
Arthur moved quickly, pulling out a chair for her and she threw him a bemused glance as she sat down.
"The point man, always such a gentleman," she said. "And sticklers for details and rules."
Arthur let out a puff of breath in an almost-laugh and flushed. He glanced down at his buttoned vest and shirt, his pressed trousers and shined shoes, and suddenly felt naked.
"It goes with the job," he said, half seriously. "We have to be good story tellers. We have to be able to plan for anything."
"I know," Emory said. She took a sip of her coffee and something in her demeanor relaxed. "Otherwise, it all falls apart. You set up the story; the architect builds the world…"
"And the regulator clears the stage."
Emory held out her cup in a mock salute. "So what brings the ghost of Christmas present to my side? Or is it the ghost of Christmas future? I've lost track."
The faint sarcasm was nice. The first touch of real personality that he'd noticed, outside of the melancholy.
"Cobb was Marley. That makes me the present."
"I suppose Cobb told you that the job could save lives."
"He said a life. But yes, he told me. And no, the amount doesn't matter."
"There's a child involved."
"The mark has information-"
"I'm not interested, Arthur," Emory said. "No amount of information will change my mind. And Ariadne's already tried making emotional parallels between James and your job."
Arthur winced inside.
"I'm sorry about that."
Emory waved her hand, as if she could brush away his apology. As if it meant nothing.
Perhaps it didn't to her.
"Point men are known for their research," Emory said. "Details, Arthur. It's all in the details. So tell me about myself. Tell me about James and Christian."
Arthur cleared his throat. His collar felt too tight, by far.
"Don't you think, after all of this, I deserve to hear what your people think they know about me?"
Arthur looked up at her and nodded sharply once.
"James was your husband. He was your architect. Christian was the point man. They were both…"
Arthur trailed off.
Images flashed through his mind. James had been a slight man, a few years older than Emory. He'd had dark, unruly brown hair and mild green eyes. His smiles had been small, subtle expressions- fitting well on his kind face.
Christian was tall and noble; the dashing hero type with blonde hair and bright, happy blue eyes. He was the prototype for the white knight in shining armor. Tall and strong and healthy. Vibrant.
"They were what?"
In the pictures where James and Emory had been together, she looked happy.
"Both in love with you."
Emory smiled slightly. Bitterly.
"Christian led James into a dream somehow. He created a maze, a loop that James wasn't strong enough to get out of it. You found out too late. The dream became his reality."
Emory said nothing but her eyes seemed to bore into him. They were such an odd, pale color.
Or maybe her eyes were simply devoid of color.
"Your husband was still alive but his mind was gone. His body was here but his mind was somewhere else. You kept him on life support until… until you didn't."
"He was already dead," Emory said. Her voice was flat and emotionless.
Arthur nodded once. "There was nothing you could have done. You held on for years."
"I know that," she said softly. "It was almost right. Almost. But the details are all wrong and you know that while the details don't make the story, they can break them. The details can break the dream."
"So tell me what really happened."
Emory looked down into her cup.
"Why should I?" she said. And then she sighed. "I expected more. I'm disappointed."
And Arthur saw that she was.
It made him feel low.
"But I guess that makes us even. The answer is still no," Emory said.
"I wasn't holding out much hope to begin with," Arthur said. "They think you're stubborn or that more information will make you reconsider."
"And what do you think?"
"I think," Arthur said slowly, carefully measuring his words as if they were weights on a scale, "that regulators know their own minds far, far better than anyone else ever could."
Something like surprise flittered across her features, bringing her to life for a moment. Emory stood up, holding her half full cup and nodded down at him.
"Good luck, Arthur."
He studied her for a moment, noting the details that mere research or recon didn't capture. Her clothes were plain, almost ascetic, yet expensive and well-made. It was clear that they had been made for another body; her belt was cinched tight and there was loose fabric around her waist and chest. Her sweater emphasized the sharp edges of her body and made her look disheveled and unkempt.
"Max," he began and she looked surprised at the name.
He wanted to say "good luck." Or even "take care."
But it all would have really meant-
You're still alive. That's okay. You can be real without him.
You should smile more.
But the words were messy indications of his emotions so Arthur simply shook his head. It would have been improper and imprecise.
So instead, what came out was: "You're alive, you know."
Emory took a sip of her coffee.
"Thanks for the tip," she said. Arthur noticed the ring on her finger as she held up her cup- it was a diamond but something was wrong with it. It was dull. Scratched, as if it'd been damaged in a scuffle.
"Christian isn't a murderer," she said, turning away. Arthur looked back up. "And James wasn't only an architect. It's all in the details, Arthur."
"Max. It's Chris.
I know you won't pick up. You never do. Do you save any of these messages or do you delete them after you hear my voice? I've always wondered. I hope you listen. Even if I tell you things you already know, I just… I hope you listen.
It's okay to be angry. At me. At him. Just not at yourself. I'm not stupid enough to think you'd feel guilty because I know you had nothing to do with it. But don't be angry at yourself. It's not right. You did everything you could to bring us both back.
And if you regret that only I came back, I'm okay with that. I regret it too. I know what it did to you and no matter what, I wish it had been James that got out first.
Talk to me."
Eames stood in front of the driver's side door to her car and Max stopped a few feet away.
It was night and the light from the building behind her cast shadows on his face. His hands were in the pockets of his suit jacket, the top two buttons of his shirt undone and his smile was close-lipped but warm.
Not the shark's grin from earlier.
"It's chilly out," he said, after a short silence. "You should have brought a jacket."
"I'm used to it," she replied. She shifted her bag and took her keys from the front pocket.
"I was hoping I could join you for a drive. Anywhere you're headed."
Eames took a step back.
"I suppose I don't have to tell you that I won't hurt you. And that you can tell me to shove off at any time."
"And if I told you that now?"
"Then I'd walk away," Eames said. His face grew serious. It was an unsettling expression on a face accustomed to mocking and laughter. "I'm not here to convince you."
Eames shook his head slowly. Max felt nothing, no fear, no anger, so she continued walking until she was close enough to slide her key into the lock. Eames leaned down and opened the door for her.
"I don't want you to join us."
His cologne- sandalwood and spices- wafted over her and she looked up to find his wide eyes, an odd mix of blue and green, focused on her.
"You'd only be a distraction."
Max didn't like ambiguity or indecisiveness. She looked away from his eyes and got into the car as he closed the door after her. She started the engine and opened the passenger door and in a few minutes, they were on the road.
"Ariadne's fascinated with puzzles. Arthur prides himself on his research and preparation," Eames said. Max glanced at him and found that he was staring out at the brightly lit streets they passed. "Cobb loves weaving stories together. And yet none of them can see the forest for the trees."
"I like people. I like filling in the blanks." Max could feel his eyes on her now as she drove, but she stared at the road. "But you know the type, don't you?"
Max made a left and the streets became quieter, darker.
"I do," she replied.
"James was a forger."
"It wasn't Christian who led him into a dream, it was James."
"He was jealous. Worried that you and Christian-"
"But you weren't," Eames said. "You're loyal. You were in love."
The silence seemed filled with Eames' surprise.
"Men can be such idiots, darling. Myself included."
Max looked at Eames again; his full mouth was at a half tilt.
"But in less frequency."
"Jim told Chris he wanted to try something new," Max said, as she drove. "He built a labyrinth, one that a mark could get lost in while the extraction happened elsewhere. Chris was game, he always is. Was. Jim made sure he got lost."
Max turned on her blinker and made a right. Eames stared at her through the darkness.
"I was never meant to go in but I did. When I saw them lying there, in our office, I knew something was wrong so I entered the dream."
"You found Chris and pushed him out."
"Jim was a talented forger. He could project at will. On multiple canvases, all at once."
"I see," Eames said, in a soft breath. The revelation seemed to knock the wind out of him and she could almost hear him thinking things through.
"James was Christian. And Christian was James. When he realized you were in the dream, he decided to create another puzzle. Another test."
"Chris was my best friend. We had grown up together back East. I loved him. But Jim was… he was mine."
"So you went after Christian first, thinking it was James. And the dream fell apart before you could reach the real James."
"The drugs were more hallucinogens than simple sedatives. Chris unplugged me before I could reach Jim. He didn't know any better; he just knew I was in danger of getting stuck. I tried to go back but Jim's dreams, his mind… it was a mess."
"That wasn't your fault, love."
"I know. None of this is a secret. I've made my peace with it all."
"Have you now?"
"You don't believe me."
Eames leaned forward, so close that his breath was on her cheek.
"I believe you're still stuck in a dream, this perpetual state of mourning, and it doesn't suit you, darling. Not at all. Not what from what I've seen and you know I've been watching. You're not an architect and so you've built the worst sort of maze around yourself made up of frustration and anger and loneliness and you're still trapped in it."
His words were sharp and aggressive and almost pleading. Max could feel the faintest brush of his lips against her jaw.
"Wake up, Maxine. Job or no job. You need to really open your eyes now and walk out of Jim's labyrinth."
"Where are you staying?" Max asked calmly. As if she didn't smell his sweat underneath his cologne, or hear when he swallowed. "I'll drop you off."
Eames sat back in his seat, disappointed. "Downtown. The Four Seasons."
Max turned the car around.
When she pulled up to the hotel, Eames opened the door and got out but instead of walking away, he leaned one arm against the hood and bent down to look at Max in the car.
"I lied, you know," he said. The half-smile, half-smirk was back but his eyes were subdued. "I want you to join us for this job. I wanted to convince you somehow."
"You wanted to fill in the blanks."
"Yes." Eames' smirk grew. "You know, this could be the part where I ask if you want a nightcap. My room here is excellent."
"It could be but it won't," Max said. She felt… amused? Maybe. She wasn't sure. It had been a long time.
"Because you'd say no."
"Because I'd say no."
"A shame, that," Eames said.
Max nodded at the open door. "If you wouldn't mind closing that now, please. I have to get home."
"Open your eyes, love," Eames said. He stood up straight. "You deserve to see the world again. I have no doubt you can protect us in dreams. But you shouldn't protect yourself from life."
"Good night, Eames."
"Yeah. I… Hi, Chris. It's been awhile."
Dom held the phone closely to his ear and waved at everyone to quiet down. Ariadne looked at him curiously, the pen in her hand poised above the whiteboard, before leaning over and turning off the music.
"Emory?" Cobb said. He saw Eames' head shoot up from where he'd been hunched down over the notepad. Arthur stood up from his seat.
Everyone was looking at Cobb. Anxious. Hopeful.
"I won't join in your job. But I can teach you things, ways to protect yourself, while you're under."
Cobb smiled and Ariadne's eyes grew wide. He shook his head and shrugged, but he couldn't not smile.
"That would work, Emory," he said earnestly. "Any help would be great. I'll take what I can get. We all will."
He heard a laugh on the other end and it sounded off, as if she were slowly getting used to the act again. Still, it was a lovely sound.
"Somehow I doubt that, Cobb."
"It's Dom. Call me Dom," Cobb said. Eames stood next to Arthur and nodded at Cobb.
"Then I guess you should call me Max."