When Arthur signed up for this job, he hadn't been expecting this. This was never in his job description.
He was perfectly okay with the concept of entering someone's dream and the idea of being on the run a lot of the time. He didn't even blink when Cobb had mentioned that sometimes people would have to enter his dreams, possible that they could view his innermost thoughts.
Because he trusted Cobb. Whatever happened, he knew that Cobb would never lead him wrong. Throughout all of the training and the first missions when he was still getting his feet wet, he put all of his faith in him, knowing that it would all be okay. And when things went wrong, Cobb would be there, his gun sharply aimed to end the dream.
For a while, it seemed like nothing could go wrong. Until he saw her.
It had been a routine extraction, and was going quite well. They had closed in on their mark and were about to get the information that had been asked of them. When Cobb saw her, he stopped talking, his face becoming a strange color of grey. He touched Arthur on the shoulder before going over to see her.
Arthur simply watched, knowing that the extraction mission had just crashed and burned. They didn't have enough time to finish it out, now that Cobb had decided to go talk to one of the people in their mark's subconscious.
But as he watched Cobb grab onto the woman's hand, leading her away and whispering things in her ear, a nauseous feeling settled into his stomach. It wasn't just a projection. Cobb knew her.
After the kick set in, Cobb was unusually silent. Arthur yanked the IV out of both of their arms, watching him to see if he would say anything. Instead, he simply walked away from the chair, doing everything that he possibly could except for look at Arthur.
"Who is she?" Arthur asked softly, getting up from his chair and taking a few steps toward Cobb. Immediately, he saw Cobb tense, it riding through his shoulders and back muscles.
He busied himself at the table, scattering papers into folders and clearing off the table. Without even turning to face Arthur, he muttered "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Bullshit," Arthur mumbled.
Like something had gone off in his head, Cobb whirled around, his face enraged. He took big strides, stomping over to Arthur until they were barely inches apart. "Since when do I answer to you? Last time I checked, you're not my boss, meaning I don't have to tell you shit," he yelled, giving Arthur a shove backwards.
Arthur sighed, biting down on his lip. Maybe he had seen this going a little better, and maybe he should just drop it. But given all his training and whatnot, he knew what to look for when someone was hiding something. And Cobb had just left nothing to be desired.
"I'm not trying to be an ass here, Dom. But as your point man - as your friend - I think I deserve the right to know," Arthur replied, crossing his arms.
As soon as Arthur had mentioned the dreaded f-word, Cobb deflated. His shoulders slumped visibly, and he tore his vision away from Arthur. Running a hand through his mess of hair, he sighed. "She's my wife."
From that mission on, whenever Cobb entered someone's dream, Mal was there with him. It was like she was an extension of him. And every time Cobb had to wake up from the dream, Arthur could see it in his eyes.
She was breaking him down. With her pleading and begging for him to join her in the 'real' world, Arthur could see that he was beginning to believe her; that maybe there was nothing left for him in this world. Maybe it would be better for him to leave it all behind.
He was a broken man, and every time they woke up and Cobb realized she wasn't there, Arthur could tell his heart was breaking. And to watch that, he was pretty sure his own might have been doing the same.
"You have to let her go," Arthur brought up one day out of the blue while the two of them were sitting in their hotel room after a surprisingly difficult job. Mal had one again shown up and stabbed Arthur in the stomach, making his tasks twice as hard and painful as fuck. Dom was going to kill him to end it, but he told him not to - that it would just be giving her what she wanted.
Cobb looked up slowly, an unreadable expression on his face. Arthur swore that he seemed hurt for a moment, before the expression was gone and Dom had gone back to rifling through his suitcase. He was an asshole for bringing it up so soon after the incident today, but they couldn't afford to have her fucking up the missions.
The answer was so soft, Arthur was sure he was imagining it. Dom had stopped looking through his suitcase and was simply sitting there, his hands on his knees. Sighing, he placed his head into his hands. "I know. It's - it's just not as easy as you may think."
"So tell me then," Arthur prodded, leaning back against the headboard of the bed. He crossed his legs neatly, hoping that it wouldn't wrinkle his pants or his vest, but he pushed that thought as far into the back of his head as possible, knowing that was the least of his worries right now. They were just pants.
It was then that he realized that Dom was looking at him strangely. With his chin cupped in his palm, he stayed like that, his eyes unmoving from Arthur. There was something in his eyes that made Arthur want to stutter out an apology and leave the room as quickly as he could, but that was what Cobb wanted. And if Arthur was going to help him, he couldn't leave.
"Why do you care?"
"You weren't the one who was stabbed by her today."
Cobb chuckled at that, finally moving from his static pose. "Touche," he mumbled, a smirk lighting up his face. He pushed the mess of sideswept bangs out of his face again, before clasping his hands together a few times. After working together for almost a year, Arthur knew that this was the way Dom acted when he was nervous. He tried to avoid whatever was making him anxious by pretending it wasn't there, and hoping that maybe it would go away.
"It's my fault she's dead. I brought her into that world, I let her stay there for so long, I - I should've seen what was coming. I can't let her go... because I don't want to. She's a part of me, Arthur. And she always will be. She's not someone I can just throw away."
He didn't know what to say in response to that. He'd never been in love, he'd never had any really close friends - hell, he'd never even been close to his family. He honestly couldn't think of someone who would make him hang on, clinging to just the remnants of a Shade.
He looked up at Cobb, who was in the process of pulling his shirt off so he could claim the first shower.
Arthur cleared his throat, as if he was going to be caught looking at Dom any second now. In a flurry of movements, he clambered off the bed and pushed past Dom and out the door, ignoring the calling of his name.
Once he got outside the hotel, he closed his eyes, enjoying the feeling that the room was no longer closing in on him. Taking a deep breath of the cold air, he tried to quell the nauseous feeling that had just started up in his stomach.
That was definitely new.
"Can I ask you a question?" Arthur mumbled, trying to fit the needle for the IV into Dom's hand, which was proving more difficult than usual. Maybe considering the fact that Arthur probably slept about twelve minutes last night, waking up with ugly purple circles lining his eyes, he was lucky he hadn't cut off Dom's hand yet. Cobb cocked his head, giving him a curious look. They were working another case - a corrupt Russian diplomat with ties to the mob.
Stepping back, he felt the weird ball of nerves twisting in his stomach. It hadn't settled down since last night - since he made that... startling discovery. When he got back to the room, Cobb was sitting in bed, fresh out of the shower and in just a pair of loose sweatpants. He quirked an eyebrow at Arthur, who waved it off. From that point on, it was different. And not in a good way. Everything that had been normal wasn't. He was pretty sure that Dom didn't realize anything going on, but Arthur was going insane.
He wasn't any type of sentimentalist, but figuring out that he would hang onto any piece of Dom so he wouldn't lose him came as a bit of a shock. Especially since he knew it wouldn't have been the same for him.
"Why me?" he finally asked, not daring to look Dom in the eye.
Dom frowned, his brows knitting together. "Why would you ask such a question?"
Arthur shrugged, knowing that his face was giving everything away. Turning his back to Cobb, he started to wring his hands, one of his own nervous habits. He was a horrible liar, on top of it all. Feeling Dom's eyes on the back of his neck, he groaned. "What - what worked about me? From what you've said, you could never hold down a point man for more than six months at a time, so I don't - I don't get it. Why me?"
Dom's lips quirked up. He slid the needle out of his hand, walking over to where Arthur was currently standing. "Because we work well together. Because you and I together - we're a team. We're partners, Arthur, and it works out well. You know everything about my past, and I know when you push yourself too hard."
He almost retracted the hand, but slowly he placed his palm onto Arthur's shoulder, squeezing gently. Arthur flinched slightly under the touch, causing Dom to retract as well. "Is everything okay?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah, I'm - I'm fine," Arthur lied, looking at him and giving him the biggest smile he possibly could (which wasn't saying very much on Arthur's part). But still, he could see that Cobb appreciated it when he smiled back, clapping back down on the shoulder before pulling him into one of those awkward one-shouldered man hugs. Still feeling Arthur tense under the touch, he wrapped the other arm around him, squeezing tightly until he felt the rigidity under his fingers subside.
The whole time, Arthur wanted to die.
He'd been in dreams where he'd drowned, he'd jumped out of planes, and he been shot in the head.
But this hug with Cobb? Who was warm and smelled like a mixture of hotel shampoo and coffee? Who was hanging onto Arthur like he meant it? Whose body hit Arthur's in all the right places?
That was the most torturous thing Arthur had ever endured.
Cobb should've seen it coming.
He'd known her for so long. He still did know her. She was never one who enjoyed sharing, which was just more reason as to why he should've caught on early in the game. She wanted him back in to her life, and just him.
It was his fault.
They hadn't even gotten the chance to reach their mark, because as soon as they had entered the dream, his projections jumped them. And nothing about it would have seemed out of the ordinary, for they went through it like always. Fists flying, bullets hitting, bones crunching - it was just a part of the job.
Until he heard her. She had been so quiet coming up on them that he didn't even notice her at first. "What is he doing here again?" she whispered in a tiny voice, like she was heartbroken.
At this point, the projections had stopped moving around him. He got to his feet slowly, taking a step towards her. "Mal, I've told you this before. This is Arthur, he's my - my business partner."
Mal was now glaring at Arthur, looking him up and down. He shot as quick glance at Arthur as well, holding his eyes for just a second. It was long enough to see that Arthur was shaking slightly. There was no training for something like this. He stepped to the side slowly, wanting to place himself in between in the two of them.
"Why do you do this to me?" Mal exclaimed hysterically, stamping her foot down on the ground. "Why do you tell me you love me and care about me, but then bring him here? You're a liar, Dom. You don't love me! You don't!"
"I do, honey. You know I love you more than anything. Arthur and I just work together. That's it," he pleaded, not daring to look back at Arthur and give her more ammunition. Mal was cunning and intuitive. That was why he had fallen in love with her. By insinuating that the relationship between him and Arthur was anything more that professional, even a friendship, she would go mad.
She stood there silently, running her tongue over her lips for a second before she placed a hand on her hip. "You say he means nothing to you?" He hesitated before nodding slowly. "Fine," she shrugged. "Then this will mean nothing to you as well."
He barely had enough time to ask 'what?' before the projections launched themselves on to him. At least a dozen knocked him to the ground, piling themselves on top of him and holding him down. Mal stood next to Arthur, who was being restrained by only a few of the projections. She motioned with her hand to all of the projections to follow her into a building that resembled the warehouse.
"Mal, what are you doing?" he grunted, struggling as the projections tugged and pulled him to his feet. He tried to get his hands free, tried to get a free shot at them, but he was deadlocked. She turned on a heel to face him.
"You said he means nothing to you. So if he means nothing, than this should not bother you," she explained, walking up to him. Her lips turned up into a smile as she casted her eyes over to the projections holding onto Arthur. Without a word, one of them delivered a forceful blow to his stomach, knocking him to the ground.
It took all of Dom not to wince as Arthur raked in wet, shaking gasps.
Mal tucked an errant lock of hair behind his ear, she caressed the side of his face, before chastely pressing her lips against his. "Dom, if you love me, you will see why I must do this." She was gone from him as quickly as she had come over there, taking her position back in front of the projections that were half-holding, half-carrying Arthur.
Arthur shot a look to him. To Cobb, it came off as unreadable, but maybe that was because the mix of emotions in the younger man's eyes was so foreign and new that Cobb didn't know how to react to it.
It's probably the screaming that gets to him first.
He's seen Arthur hurt, seen him deal with pain before. But every time this happens, Arthur deals with it in composed silence. And every time, Cobb has been able to brandish his gun between his partner's brow, ending it before it gets too bad.
Not this time. It was his fault.
It had been going on for so long Cobb had started to lose track of time. The sound of bone breaking, fists pounding flesh, metal slicing skin – they were ugly.
When Cobb had been training Arthur, he'd told him 'don't ever let them see your pain'. He then promptly shot Arthur in the leg, and for the first time in which he'd trained anyone, Arthur didn't yell out. He hissed a little bit, falling awkwardly onto the pavement. It was then that Cobb knew that he was the one.
Now, he wished he could take back those words.
Arthur hadn't made a sound yet.
And the fact that he couldn't see Arthur, that he could only hear what was happening, Dom didn't know whether it's a blessing or a curse. He struggled against the restraints, but they only cut into his wrists more. If he could just get them off, he could get the blindfold off, get the ropes off…
He stopped, hearing a voice ring out through the silence.
"You think he cares for you?" Dom's head perked up at that. "You think you're different from all the rest? You mean nothing to him." The voice was so cold, so heartless. It was her.
"Don't do this," he whispered to himself in a low voice, silently pleading with her. He knew this, what she was doing now, it was bad – but it was nothing compared to what she was capable of. If she truly wanted Arthur broken, all she had to do was put her mind to it.
A sickening sound was followed by a crunch, and then what could only be considered a shout from Arthur, even though it was practically nothing.
"He uses you. For what you have that he can't do. He doesn't need your companionship or friendship or anything else. He has me. That's all he needs."
Another strangled shout of pain escaped from Arthur, this time louder. The sound was so strange; it made Cobb's blood boil. Yanking against the ropes, he just needed a little slack, a little give in them to be able to get loose…
She began to laugh. "You silly boy, you are pathetic. You think you mean something to him, but you don't realize you are meaningless. Dom likes to replace things when they get out of date. And you're just another thing with an expiration date. A job gone wrong, and someone's ready to step into your spot…"
At first, Cobb believed that the muted sound filling the room was in his imagination. It was so soft and strangled sounding, it couldn't have been real. But as he focused in more, he realized – it was sobbing.
"Mal, you can't do this!" he growled accusingly. "It's not true and you know it. Because if it was…" he swallowed, in disbelief of what he was about to say. "If it was, I'd have forgotten you by now."
A deafening silence filled the room. He held his breath, hoping this was going to work. Before he could do anything else, cool hands were on either side of his face, pulling the blindfold. Mal was looking down at him, a look that was a mix of heartbreak and confusion on her face. "What?"
"I'm sorry. You heard what I said, though. You can't do that to him, because he's more than my point man," he said, trying to keep his voice as even as possible. He stole a glance behind her, trying to see Arthur, who was currently in a heap on the floor, barely moving but still breathing.
"What?" she gasped, falling to her knees in front of the chair where he was sitting. She cupped his cheek, stroking her thumb over the ridge of his cheekbone. "You mean that you've replaced me? With him?"
Dom bit down on his lip, because he knew what the answer to that question was, but he didn't exactly want to say it out loud. Instead, he opted for something else.
With one of the hands he had freed from the ropes, he yanked the other rope off of his wrists. He closed his eyes; he didn't want to do this. But as he looked back over at his point man, who was shifting slightly on the ground, soft whimpers coming from him, he knew he had to.
He looped the rope around her neck and pulled until she sank to the floor. He climbed out of the chair and swiftly made his way across the room, to where Arthur lay in a heap. Trying to prevent as much pain as possible, Dom pulled him to the point where Arthur was practically in his lap. When he looked down at his hands, they were slick and red.
With an attempt to gauge Arthur's level of consciousness, Cobb softly squeezed on his hand. After a moment, Arthur feebly squeezed back, still not speaking or opening his eyes.
"Okay, it's okay now. It's just me," he mumbled, pressing his face into Arthur's hair so he wouldn't have the chance to wince or cry out as Arthur drew in a shaky breath. Fishing around in the inner pockets of his jacket, he found the flick knife he was looking for.
Lacing his finger with Arthur's, who remained motionless on top of him, he lifted his pale arm and with his own shaking hand, traced a neat line across Arthur's wrist. As the blood began to seep out, slowly and sluggishly, he kept his fingers entwined, holding on and whispering hushed apologies over and over.
When he felt Arthur finally go limp, this time was different. It wasn't like all those other times when he'd simply shot him in the head. Something had changed. He laid Arthur down, before getting to his feet and walking out.
Meanwhile, he didn't dare look back to her.