Cobb stood back and watched as Mal swabbed the washcloth over Arthur's chest. The young extractor had broken out in a fever during the night, his sleep growing fitful. He worried that they might have to break their promise to Arthur and take him to a hospital after all if the fever persisted.
"It's enough to break my heart," said Mal, looking up at her husband as she ran the washcloth over one of Arthur's scar clusters. "These were deliberate. Someone held him down and cut him like a slab of steak. What sort of monster could do something like that to such a sweet young man?"
Cobb smiled sadly. "What I keep wondering is how did he turn out the way he did? How can anyone keep a moral compass after something like that?" He gestured toward the collage of scars that covered Arthur's chest and stomach. "How can anyone be that strong?"
Mal dipped the cloth into the bowl of cool water resting in her lap, wrung it out, then pressed it against Arthur's forehead. "He's that strong because he is a knight, of course," she said playfully. "He is the Pendragon, you might recall."
Cobb sat down beside his wife and kissed her temple. "He's a good kid," he told her. "And we owe him so much."
"It's a pity we can't adopt him," said Mal, cupping Arthur's sleeping face. "It tugged at my heartstrings when he mistook me for his mother."
"Philippa's devastated that we can't keep him too," said Cobb. "Legally adopting him might be out of the question . . . but you know we could offer him the next best thing. There's room in our subconscious security firm for a man like him, don't you think?"
Mal smiled but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "I don't think he'll accept," she admitted.
"Because they money won't be good enough?"
"No," said Mal. "Because he still doesn't trust us. His eyes have that haunted look, like a puppy that's been kicked too many times. That's not going to change overnight. Not even for something like this, I'm afraid."
"He works with other extractors," pointed out Cobb.
"Not regularly," said Mal. "If the rumors are right then Penrose is the only one he works with regularly. All others are on a need-to basis only."
She was right, Cobb knew, but he didn't like it. "I just want to help him," he said.
"We'll make the offer," said Mal. "He'll refuse it this time, but somehow I doubt this will be the last time we see him."
"What makes you say that?"
"Our paths have become so entangled in only one day," said Mal, "and the world of extractors and contractors is not so large. We'll run into him again, I'm sure. Of course he might always surprise us and accept this time. If not, we'll just have to be persistent. We know he'll be worth it."
She pulled the comforter over Arthur's sleeping form and tucked it around him.
Arthur sat on a sandy beach, watching the waves crash on the shore. It was hot. Dreadfully so. Heat haze rose up from the golden sand, distorting the air all up and down the beach. It was only dumb luck that he was wearing khakis and a polo shirt instead of one of his trademark three piece suits. Or maybe not luck, since what he was wearing now covered less skin and he was certain that his skin was going to start searing in the sunlight.
He looked around to see if maybe he'd brought some sunscreen with him, because God knew he was going to need it, since he didn't feel like having to take time off from work to get a couple melanomas removed. But he didn't see anything around him. No beach blanket, or umbrella, or ice chest, or even a chair. He didn't even have any shoes or socks.
The wrongness started to creep up on Arthur as he realized the oddity of this.
How did I get here? he asked himself. He couldn't remember. He couldn't even think of a reason why he'd want to be here. He hated the beach.
He jerked his head sharply to look over his shoulder. Cobb was approaching, dressed in jean shorts that ended at his knees and a Hawaiian shirt. He looked much more like he was prepared for a day at the beach than Arthur was.
"What's going on?" demanded Arthur. "Why are you in my head again? And if you had to do this, couldn't you have chosen somewhere that wasn't so damn hot?"
Cobb sat down beside him, still looking worried. "Sorry about invading your head again, kid –"
"Don't call me a kid," said Arthur automatically.
"Right. Anyway, you've been unconscious for awhile and I wanted to check on you."
"Unconscious?" asked Arthur. "What? Why?" Memories flickered through his mind at a speed that made him wince. "Philippa! Is she okay?"
"She's fine," Cobb told him. "Thanks to you. I owe you everything –"
"You owe me an explanation," said Arthur flatly. "What's going on?"
"You're still unconscious," Cobb told him. "Around midnight you developed a fever. Mal's got you covered with about seven blankets, which is probably why this dream is so sweltering. Eames has some connections to a pharmacist in case we need to get you medicine off the books, but Mal had the idea of hooking you up to the PASIV since the somnacin has antipyretic properties, and since there was no chance of you being allergic to it. I thought it would be a good idea if one of us came into your dream and checked on you so that you knew what was going on."
"Oh." Well, that explained some things. And with those answers Arthur was finally able to relax a little bit.
"Are you feeling okay?" asked Cobb.
Arthur considered then nodded.
"Why do I have the feeling that you're lying?" Cobb wanted to know.
"Maybe because you don't know me very well," suggested Arthur, annoyed.
Cobb shrugged and looked out at the surf. "You like the ocean?" he asked after they'd sat in silence for several minutes.
"No. I especially hate beaches." Arthur made a face. "I don't find salt, murky water, dead fish, heat waves, and sand to be a good combination."
"So that explains it," said Cobb.
"Why you dreamt this place." Cobb explained. "This is your dream, not mine. We were worried that you might have created something . . . painful. The result of your subconscious taking your wounds and fever into account. I was surprised to find that you'd actually created a nice dreamscape. Or at least one that I consider nice. But if this is the sort of place that makes you uncomfortable . . ."
Arthur looked around the dream beach then shrugged. "It's better than dreaming myself back in Marx's villa. You should choose your friends more carefully, for the record. Most people draw a line in the sand where pedophiles and human traffickers are concerned."
"I didn't know," said Cobb. "If I'd had any idea I would have turned him in myself. If I'd had the chance I would have shot him myself for what he tried to do to my daughter."
Arthur looked away from him and stared at the surf again. "You're a good father, then." He couldn't quite keep a wistful note out of his voice, and he knew that Cobb was too sharp not to pick up on it.
"And you're a good person," Cobb told him.
Arthur almost laughed at that. "I'm not."
"I'm a dream thief. All the research shows that you hate people like me. I hack into peoples' minds and steal their secrets, then sell them to the highest bidder. I kill people and I cuss in front of children. Your daughter's probably picked up some four-letter-words that neither you or your wife will appreciate."
"If she's alive to develop a colorful vocabulary that's good enough for me. And you . . . . You have morals. You know where to draw the line. You protect people." Cobb it seemed was adamant about believing the best in him. "You're a good person, Arthur. June knew it too."
Arthur exhaled sharply then glared at Cobb. "Don't talk about her. She's none of your business."
"She was a smart woman. She could see the type of person you were. And she was right. Every good person should have at least one other person who knows that they're good, even if they try so hard to hide it. Well, now you have four people who know that you're a good man."
"Me, Mal, Eames, and of course, your new little sister." Cobb smiled wryly. "She keeps asking us if we can keep you. I told her we'd talk to you about it."
Arthur was confused by that. "What?"
"I want to offer you a job," said Cobb. "Come work for my security firm."
That one was a no-brainer. "Hell no," Arthur told him.
"We pay on commission, give bonuses twice a year, and offer benefits."
"I'm an extractor, not a contractor," said Arthur angrily.
"Eames used to say the same thing." Cobb's frown made it clear that he knew that sometimes Eames still said the same thing. A forger as good as Eames could pass undetected in just about anyone's dream, but in the circles extractors ran in they were anything but unnoticeable. Arthur had heard plenty about Eames and knew that he still did extraction jobs on a regular basis.
"I like what I do," said Arthur, deciding not to bring that up.
"I'm not just offering you a job," said Cobb. "I'm also offering you friendship. A chance for a new life, a new family. No more running and laying low, always having to look over your shoulder. Think about it –"
"I don't need to," said Arthur curtly. "The answer's still no."
Cobb shrugged. "Well, if you ever change your mind –"
"It's an open offer," continued Cobb as if he hadn't been shot down multiple times already. "If ever you want one, you've got a job with us. But the friendship offer isn't linked with the job. You've got that whether you want it or not."
"I'm touched," muttered Arthur, and decided to turn the tables on Cobb. "But you know . . . the work you and your team did wasn't half bad. The whole dream within a dream thing. That's actually an excellent idea for performing extraction."
Cobb frowned at him.
"Don't worry, I won't be sharing it," promised Arthur. "I'm planning to keep it for myself. Well, I'll probably tell Penrose about it, since it looked like you need at least two people to pull it off, but no one else. We've got to stay ahead of the competition after all. So the only extractors benefitting from your brilliant idea will be me and Mr. Penrose."
"Why does that not make me feel any better?" wondered Cobb.
"I couldn't tell you," said Arthur, "but I will say, if you ever want to go into extracting, look me up. I'd be willing to team up with you for a couple jobs and help you start making a name for yourself. Within a year you could probably be known as one of the top ten extractors."
Cobb shook his head. "Just when I was starting to wonder if you had a sense of humor."
Arthur was affronted. "I wasn't joking."
Cobb looked at his watch. "We don't have too much time left," he told Arthur. "I'll be waking up soon. Your somnacin will be wearing off too, but I don't know if you'll wake up yet."
Arthur hesitated a moment, common sense battling with his mistrustful survival instincts, before he finally decided that Cobb probably felt enough gratitude toward him not to misuse what he was about to reveal, and that the possible consequences of not speaking up were too risky.
"If you use Eames' pharmacy connections," Arthur told him. "No penicillin."
"You're allergic to it?" asked Cobb.
Arthur gave him a dark look, which Cobb interpreted as a yes.
"Are you allergic to anything else?"
Arthur shook his head.
Cobb put a hand on his shoulder and Arthur couldn't suppress a flinch. "Trust us," he said, catching Arthur's gaze and holding it with his own. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you. Not after what you did for my family. As long as you're under my care you're safe."
Arthur felt a prickling behind his eyes, a sensation he wasn't used to at all. He blinked rapidly and tried to steel himself against the emotions that were coming unbidden.
Cobb watched him with an odd look on his face. He seemed to be debating about whether or not to say something else. He glanced at his watch again and then decided to speak.
"And Arthur? If . . . I want you to know that . . . If you'd been my son I never would have let anyone hurt you like that." His eyes dropped to Arthur's chest, and Arthur knew he was thinking of the collage of scars hidden beneath the polo shirt.
And then, without warning, he was gone. As was the hand on Arthur's shoulder. But not the tightness that had begun welling up in his chest. Arthur closed his eyes against the pain.
And when he opened them he was no longer on the beach, but staring up at a pale yellow ceiling. Blankets were covering him, practically smothering him. Just to the left of the bed he saw an IV stand with a bag of clear liquid dripping slowly through the tubes and the needle in his arm. For a second he panicked, but then remembered the events that had led to him passing out the last time. He was in the Cobbs' care. That much was obvious just from the fact that he wasn't tied down. So it was probably sugar water dripping into his arm rather than sodium-pentathol or some sort of sedative to keep him under.
His dream came back to him in hazy flashes, but there was no PASIV device in his field of vision, so he hypothesized that some time had passed between when the dream ended and when he'd woken up. It didn't occur to him for a second that his dream had only just ended, and that it had been a natural one. He hadn't had a dream without using the device since he was sixteen. The combat training that his mentor had put him through alone was enough to rid him of any images flowing through his head naturally when he entered a REM cycle.
Slowly, Arthur sat up. It took more effort than he would have liked, but he managed, then checked his bullet wounds. They were all dressed neatly, much better than his slipshod job of bandaging them up with cut up motel towels. He could smell the sharp scent of healing salve, and the skin directly around the new bandages wasn't inflamed. Always a good sign.
He leaned against the headboard because if he laid back down then it would take too much effort to sit up again, then concentrated, trying to figure out how much time had elapsed since he'd passed out. He had an unusual knack for keeping track of time, even when he was unconscious. Or particularly when he was unconscious. It was very useful in dreams to be able to always calculate how much time had passed in the dream, as opposed to in the real world, and how much time he had left in either one.
As near as he could tell, it seemed like fourteen or fifteen hours had gone by. Not too bad, all things considered. His fever must have dropped off awhile back since he didn't have someone constantly monitoring him . . . though he did spot a baby monitor right beside his bed and felt particularly affronted by it. As quietly as he could, he removed his pillow from its case and wrapped the monitor in it to dampen any sounds, then put it under the pillow itself, before unhooking himself from the IV and getting out of bed. His personal effects, like his wallet and the disposable cell phone he'd last seen Philippa holding, were on a nearby chair. There was also a set of clean clothes there too. They must have been Cobb's things, Arthur guessed, because they fit him but were a little big on him. And a lot more casual than how he usually dressed. T-shirts were not his usual choice, and he couldn't remember the last time he wore jeans. He hadn't been this dressed down since he was sixteen!
Walking wasn't as bad as he'd feared it would be, probably because the Cobbs had kept him hooked up to an IV and kept him hydrated. He made it all the way across the room without falling down once. It was easier in the halls since he had a wall to lean on.
When he got down to the kitchen he found that Mal was cooking something. From the looks of it, it seemed to be chicken soup. Her back was to him but she must have heard him enter because she called back over her shoulder, "Could you grab a colander for me, Eames?"
Arthur searched his mind for a definition to match this word then came up blank. "What's a colander?" he asked.
Mal dropped what she was holding and spun around to face him. "Arthur! What are you doing out of bed?" she demanded.
Arthur would have shrugged, but it would have pulled on his bullet wounds. "I woke up," he said, knowing that really wasn't an explanation, but not having a better one to offer. Did these people expect him just to lay around once he was capable of being back on his feet?
Mal pulled out a chair and pointed at it imperiously. "Sit," she ordered.
Wondering if that was how dogs felt when given that command, Arthur obeyed. "Is Philippa okay?" he asked once he was seated.
Mal's face softened and she nodded, seeming to remember that the injured young man she was trying to take care of with an iron fist was actually a ruthless killer who'd saved her daughter's life. "She's at preschool. Dom wanted her to stay home, but I insisted she return to her normal routine. She's safe. You kept the unthinkable from happening to her. She doesn't even know what you did for her . . . I wanted her life to continue as normal. Of course Dom is still being a protective father. He's sitting outside in the parkinglot with a handgun in easy reach."
Arthur nodded. He'd expected no less from a man like Cobb. "Your babysitter?" he asked. "She's okay too?"
A smile spread across Mal's face, one filled with unholy glee. "Quite," she told him. "More than okay, she's in love. I'll give you one guess who her desired paramour is."
"She doesn't know me," said Arthur warily. This conversation was going in a direction he wasn't sure how to deal with.
"Who was that masked man who rode off into the sunset?" asked Mal with the air of someone quoting from a movie or television program. "I never got a chance to thank him."
Despite how she was constantly teasing him, Arthur found Mal very easy and pleasant to talk to. Charming, he supposed was the best adjective to describe her. Lovely in looks and personality, sympathetic but not overly so, intelligent and observant and caring and sincere. In other words, dangerous. At least for someone in Arthur's profession. He could tell that Mal would make one hell of an extractor if she ever chose to try her hand at it seriously. For some ridiculously odd reason, the idea of executing an extraction with both Mal and Cobb working alongside him was particularly appealing. Arthur wasn't sure whether it was a better idea to shove those thoughts down and repress them, or to try to convince Mal to join the dark side. It was a conundrum.
They talked throughout the afternoon. Mal continued to cook, finished the soup and fed Arthur a bowl, along with some homemade bread which tasted so good that it nearly brought tears to Arthur's eyes. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a home-cooked meal.
Eames showed up when Arthur was about finished eating. Arthur immediately noticed that the forger was concealing not one but two guns. And he hadn't missed the fact that Mal was concealing three.
They're taking more precautions now, he realized. They're learning. Carrying weapons was second nature to extractors. You never knew who was going to come after you with a grudge and a Louisville Slugger. As security contractors, the Cobbs should have been safe. Or at least safe from the threat of bodily injury or mortal peril. No one should have had any reason to want them out of the picture, except the occasional disgruntled extractor who was tired of getting sniped off by militarized projections, but that was just talk. Contractors were, sometimes, the targets of extractors, since in the course of their works they often stumbled upon their employers' secrets. Arthur himself had hacked into the minds of contractors, at a substantial profit. It was difficult as hell, and it took a lot of balls to even think of trying it, but when it worked it paid off big time.
Eames made a general nuisance of himself until Cobb and Philippa returned. In that time Arthur had learned that the crack down on the human trafficking ring had been on the news all night and all morning, and that all of the ringleaders had been arrested as well as most of their subordinates.
Philippa entered the kitchen with a squeal and a lunge, and Arthur learned just how hard a four-year-old's death grip could be as she jarred his bullet wounds in her attempt to hug him. He barely managed to hold back a curse as the little girl began jabbering to him how she told everyone at preschool about her new brother, and how she wanted to take him to show-and-tell, and that Daddy said no, but since it was clear Arthur didn't always listen to Daddy, maybe he would come anyway?
"I'm sorry, Philippa," said Arthur when the little girl finally had to pause for breath. "But I'm not going to be staying around much longer."
"But . . . why?" Philippa looked up at him tearfully.
Arthur glanced at Mal, Cobb, and Eames, and saw them all barely able to hold back their laughter at this exchange. He was surprised that he wasn't more annoyed, but somehow Philippa seemed to raise the bar for what he would and would not tolerate.
"Well, Philippa," he said, fighting to keep his voice straight, "I have to go hack into someone else's mind, and steal their secrets, and make a lot of money, and your parents don't approve of it."
"But . . . but they're your parents now too, if you're my brother . . ." said Philippa. "Right?"
"Err . . ." Arthur looked at Cobb and Mal, willing them to jump in and help him out. But it was obvious at a glance that no help would be forthcoming. Their expressions were tolerant and amused, despite the admission of what he intended to do. Well, it wasn't like they didn't already know. He'd wondered how much Philippa knew about her parents' work, and how much she actually understood about what he'd just said, but asking would make him feel too much like he was pumping the girl for information. "Well, they don't want any extracting done under their roof," Arthur told her. "Not that I'd be doing the actual extracting in their house. Extraction requires quite a bit of specificity, so I'd have to identify a suitable window of opportunity which would allow me to drug my subject and hack into his dreams to –"
"What he's saying is that he has to go back to school," said Mal, finally interrupting. "College. Big kid's school, remember? Where they sleep away from home. But he'll come back and visit. Won't you Arthur?"
Arthur hesitated. Not likely, was the real answer, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to say that in front of Philippa. "Yes," he said. "When I get a chance." And somehow, as the words left his mouth, he knew that he would indeed be coming back to visit, though he didn't quite know why. "I'll even bring you a present," he added on a whim.
Philippa's eyes lit up. "A present? Like what?"
Arthur blanked. What sort of present was appropriate for a four-year-old girl? Or rather, what sort of present was appropriate that he would actually be willing to get her? Somehow he couldn't picture himself walking into a toy store and buying a doll. How young was too young for nice jewelry?
Thankfully, Philippa offered him a suitable suggestion. "I want a pony."
"Philippa," chided Mal. "Your father and I have already told you no ponies. And you can't ask someone for such an expensive present. It's rude."
I could get her one, Arthur realized, feeling a wicked sense of glee. I could buy her a whole damn stable if I wanted to. He had long ago acquired far more money than he was ever likely to spend in his life. And he had long since realized that he didn't do extractions anymore just for the money. It was the extractions themselves that made it worth it, and the feelings they brought. A sense of purpose and the thrill of the hunt as he researched his subject. The rush that came with ferreting out a target's secrets. The sense of satisfaction after a successful job, the feeling that he'd accomplished something as he turned over the information to his employers and watched his subjects get their just deserts.
And then Arthur realized, much to his chagrin, that what he was feeling right now, there in the kitchen of the Cobb family's summer home, was something else that he wanted to feel again. Serenity. Warmth. Good humor. A sense of . . . belonging? The only thing that Arthur had to compare it to were some faraway memories from long ago that had been tainted by the much darker memories that followed, and the commraderie he felt while working with his mentor, Penrose. And he knew, right then and there, that like extraction this was something that he'd be coming back to.
AN: Sorry it took me awhile to get this last chapter written. School started, and I've got a ton of homework, and cross country practices and meets, and a couple books I've been waiting to read came out in the past few weeks. (Sorry if this story slips into first person. I reread the first two Hunger Games books to be ready for when Mockingjay came out, and it seems that my tendency to mimic what I see is working against me again)
There's also a book by a new author that just came out, that I'd never heard of before, but I picked up a copy because it looked really good, and I wasn't disappointed. It's called Nevermore and it's by Kelly Creagh. It's the story of how a girl on the cheerleading squad of her highschool and one of the school's biggest Goths are assigned to work on a project together for English class, and end up doing their project on Edgar Allan Poe. Then, as if their clashing personalities didn't make it hard enough for them, things start to get really, really creepy. And it's not the clichéd 'the stories start to come to life' type of creepy that I was expecting. It's more of a look into the heart of madness and questionable realities type of creepy. And dream theory and dreams within dreams were dealt with in the book as well. At some points it actually reminded me of Inception, probably because they both used Poe's works as their inspiration.
Confession: I'm a huge fan of Poe's works, so part of the reason I loved Inception so much was that I could see the influence of his poetry on the movie. If you've never read his poem "A Dream Within a Dream," please look it up and check it out. It adds a whole nother layer to the movie, from the ocean imagery/symbolism, to the themes about reality, it just fits so perfectly. Not that I wouldn't have loved Inception anyway, but it's like how the perfect soundtrack makes a movie that much better. That poem, in my mind, is like another track for the movie.
Sorry, I tend to go on and on when talking about things that get me excited, like good books, movies, poems, etc. Time to wrap this up, but first, to answer a question I've been asked a lot, yes, I am going to write a sequel! I think it will be interesting to write how Arthur's relationship with the Cobbs progresses from here. Them trying to get him to give up his life of crime, him trying to convince them to join the dark side, Eames along for the ride, and Philippa . . . well it will be interesting to see if she gets a pony or not, lol. I hope you'll check back and read the next fic, but in the meantime, please review!