It wasn't a very big cough, but it was enough that it managed to silence the whole room. The pencil dropped from Ariadne's hand, bouncing onto the floor and laying there. Cobb looked up over the top of his computer, while Eames glanced up from his notebook. When Arthur finally realized that they'd all gone silent, he saw that the others were staring at him as if he'd sprouted another arm.
"What? I covered my mouth," he said defensively before turning back to his computer. They were still staring at him, but Cobb eventually broke the silence, chuckling and shaking his head, before turning back to what he was doing.
"You coughed! You're not supposed to cough! You're like a robot or - or Batman..." Ariadne told him, her eyes big and her hands waving all over the place. A lot of times, she reminded Arthur of a life-sized doll; one of those that you could wind up and then just never shut up or stopped moving.
Eames sighed and rolled his eyes, standing up from his chair at the table and walking over to where Arthur was sitting. It was hard to believe that sometimes in this room, he often felt like the most mature. He stood over him for a second, until Arthur finally gave in and looked up at him, eyes narrowing. "You know, if you would like my attention, Eames, there is such a thing as asking for it. Not everyone is charmed by your oafish rogue."
Instead of saying anything, Eames just placed the back of his hand on Arthur's forehead, despite Arthur's violent squirming. "You're burning up, love. Were you ever going to share the fact that you were sick with the rest of us?"
"I'm not sick! I'm fine," Arthur exclaimed, his voice going from zero to one hundred in a matter of seconds. He crossed his arms, glowering at Eames, who was frowning at him now.
"Eames, he's never going to admit he's sick. I had to physically drag him to the hospital one time after he went through a weeklong bout of food poisoning. This was, of course, after he hid it from me. I figured it out because he had lost ten pounds and passed out at work one day," Cobb remarked, sending a glance Arthur's way.
Arthur threw his hands up in the air, making a sound of disgust. "I wasn't sick! And I'm not now! It was just a cough!"
Cobb laughed. "Really. And you just enjoy getting food poisoning?" Arthur didn't say anything, but his lips pulled into a tight line said enough.
"Arthur, you have to take better care of yourself. Seriously, you could end up with something terrible, like the black plague, or pneumonia..." Ariadne started, before he drowned her out, still glowering at Eames, who was practically grinning at this point. Stupid Eames and his stupid thermometer hand.
Arthur climbed out of his chair, starting to head for the coffee machine. But not before he jabbed Eames in the shoulder. "I hope you're happy with what you've now accomplished, because she isn't going to leave me alone now. And in return, I hope you get the plague…"
The next morning, when Eames saw Arthur, he immediately grabbed into his pocket for his totem, because he had to be dreaming. Standing there, hands shoved in a pair of very tight jean pockets, and mussed hair covered by an oversized sweatshirt hood, was none other than their point man. Who also looked like he was about to pass out.
"Say a word, and I will-" Arthur never got the chance to finish his threat, as loud, body shaking coughs erupted from within him, doubling him over. Eames wanted to go to him, pull him in his arms, and send him back to bed where he could be taken care of, but he knew that wasn't his place at all. Instead, Eames placed a hand on his back, running it firmly up and down his spine and keeping the other on his chest so he wouldn't go tumbling down.
When Arthur finally calmed down, looking paler and even more exhausted than before, Eames sighed. "You can't go through with this today, Arthur. You're too sick. Just tell Cobb, and he'll-"
Arthur scoffed, a dark laugh hoarsely passing over his lips. "Tell me to suck it up? How this little cold of mine is nothing compared to the importance of the job? He's right, and I'm not that sick, so stay out of it." Eames wanted to believe him, but the fact that Arthur couldn't even deliver that without some poison or some sharpness in his tone proved just how sick he actually was.
Eames took a step forward, pulling the hood off of the point man. His dark, usually strictly gelled hair, fluffed out around his eyes and forehead. He brushed a hand along Arthur's forehead, his jaw, his neck – all of which were burning up, but Arthur was shivering. "Darling…"
Trying to pull his face out of Eames' grasp, but failing miserably, Arthur just sighed weakly, wrapping his icy hands around Eames' own. "I appreciate the gesture, Eames. I really do. But you don't know Cobb like I do. His job comes before anything else. If we put this off, it puts all of us in danger, and I can't do that to you…" Eames watched as Arthur glanced over at Cobb, who was tearing into Ariadne for something she'd done earlier today. Eames knew it – they all knew it – when it came to a job, Cobb put his fucking life on the line for them, and his way of dealing with it was throwing himself entirely into it…
Eames looked back at Arthur, who was practically swaying on his feet. "Please, Eames," he begged, his voice lacking any form of strength.
And he'll forever blame this on being delirious from the fever, but when Arthur fell into Eames' arms, burying his fevered face into the crook of Eames' neck and just standing there for a while, Eames couldn't do anything but do what he asked.
When they began to job, Eames couldn't believe how wrong he was.
The plan had been for them to go into Arthur's dream, but it seemed like Arthur had forgotten. As Cobb was running through the plan and mention that, Eames saw Arthur tensed slightly. He was silently begging the point man to tell Cobb the truth; that he wasn't up for the job today. He knew that Cobb of all people would understand.
Arthur slid the needle into Eames' hand, avoiding his eyes - especially since he missed the vein the first three times because his own hand was shaking so much. Eventually, Eames just grabbed onto his hand and guided the needle in. When he finally got it right, he caught Eames' eyes for just a second. "Please. Please don't say anything."
When they finally did enter the dream, the landscape looked nothing like what Arthur's dreams usually looked like, nor nothing that Ariadne would ever create.
It resembled a college campus, with the tall dorm buildings, the rustic gates, and the sloping archways of the libraries. But it wasn't like any college campus Eames had ever seen. Granted, he hadn't seen a ton in his life, but he'd seen enough to know what they looked like. And this wasn't what a normal one looked like.
It was completely empty. No one was around except for them. The sky was an ugly purplish orange color, and strong winds blew what was left of the leaves on the trees down around their feet. Without a sound, the tree soon began to tumble over, As they did, the leaves burst into flames, causing the buildings to catch fire before they exploded as well. When Eames looked up again, the sky was dark, crackling with electricity.
Oh, and they couldn't find their mark. Or Arthur.
"What the fuck are you doing? What happened to sticking to the plan? I told you never, never improvise!" Cobb snapped, glancing at Ariadne, who watched as a tree landed on the library before the roof went up in an orange ball of flames.
Ariadne whirled around, suddenly angry. "Me? I'm not doing this. This is Arthur's dream. Go yell at him about all this!"
"So fix it," Cobb stated simply, as if it was as easy as screwing in a light bulb. Ariadne made a face, opening her mouth to protest, but she eventually gave in and closed her eyes, beginning to concentrate. Eames and Cobb watched the dreamscape around them as more lightning above them continued to crackle. When she finally opened her eyes, she blinked a few times, before her eyes slid closed and she started to fall over.
Cobb grabbed her under the arms, pulling her against his body until the two of them slid onto the pavement. "What the fuck is going on?" he asked to no one particular.
She groaned, grabbing at her head. "Whatever's going on with Arthur, it's too powerful for me to change it…"
"I told him not to…" Eames swore under his breath, before freezing at the fact that he had said it aloud when he found both Cobb and Ariadne looking at him. The fire, the electricity, the weird things with the trees – he understood what was going on finally. But he wasn't supposed to.
Eames sighed. "Arthur. He is actually sick, and he went through with the job even though I told him not to. Didn't want to let you down or something. It's a fever dream…" He shrugged, trying to play like he knew as little as possible. Getting on Cobb's bad side was something he'd prefer to not do today, if ever.
Cobb slowly got to his feet, brushing his hands on the back of his jeans. "You knew he was sick?" he whispered darkly, pointing a finger in Eames' face. "You knew, and you didn't bother to tell me? What, was it some kind of secret? You thought it was okay to send us in here?" He shoved Eames slightly. "Didn't know you were in charge now."
Putting his hands up, Eames wasn't really sure what was happening. First he'd been looking around what looked like the college campus from any B-movie sci-fi flick, and now he was almost positive Cobb was threatening him. "I didn't know what would happen, and he begged me not to say anything."
Cobb groaned angrily, letting go of Eames. He grabbed at his head, tugging at the messy strands of hair. "Since when does Arthur listen to you? Go to you for advice instead of me? Doesn't he realize…" Dom deflated slightly, his eyes scanning the dreamscape before he crouched down, running a hand through his hair.
"Realize what?" he demanded.
"In your dreamworld, having a fever is just like sleeping with one. It brings on hallucinations, delirium, and nightmares. Only much worse. Control is lowered, memories of the past come out, projections are more violent. It's a recipe for a disaster. We can forget about finding out mark…" Cobb finally said, his voice much softer. If it was possible, Eames heart would've stopped then and there.
"Where's Arthur?" Ariadne finally whispered, her voice now filled with fear.
Cobb walked over to Eames, who thought his legs were going to fall out from underneath him at any second. "That's why he should've come to me."
The boy looked so young; looked like he should have nothing to do with Arthur. But then again, when Eames thought about it, Arthur in his sweatshirt and jeans today looked like he belonged back at a local high school.
The other boy was dressed in an oversized black pea coat with a tight pair of ripped jeans. His hair hung artfully in his face, so when he laughed or smiled or shook his head, it swung around, moving out of his face. Eames recognized the black-rimmed glasses he wore from a pricey department store in the city.
He seemed cute, funny, sweet. From where they were standing by the door, Eames could tell that he was making Arthur smile, making him happy.
Cobb's warning from before – how fever dream let all forms of control go and bring out the worst memories – was echoing in his head. If this was just a glimpse into what could only be described as Arthur's worst memories, Eames' wasn't sure he wanted to see the rest of them. Immediately something clenched in his stomach, telling him to get Arthur out of there as soon as possible.
The boy on the bed grabbed Arthur's hand, entwining their fingers together, his thumb running lines over Arthur's palm. Arthur laughed, clear as day. He turned his head slightly to the side, before the laughs tumbled past his lips, filling the room with a sound so foreign to Eames, yet one of the most amazing things he'd ever heard.
"Cobb, who is that?" Eames asked softly, still staying with his back pressed against the wall. It seemed that Arthur hadn't noticed they were here yet, and for now, maybe it was for the best. But when Cobb didn't answer, Eames turned his head to face the other man. Dom was shaking his head slightly, and his mouth was moving, as if he was trying to form words, but nothing was coming out. "Cobb?" Eames repeated.
"It's – it's Frankie," Dom said softly, barely above a whisper, still not facing either Ariadne or Eames.
Eames pushed himself off the wall slightly, trying to ignore the fact that only a few feet away from him, Arthur was embracing this newfound Frankie, their lips brushing as he ran a hand through Arthur's hair. "Who is the hell Frankie?"
Cobb spluttered slightly, before shaking himself out of it. "I just saw a few pictures of him. I knew he was Arthur's roommate in college. I never knew," Cobb paused, watching with horrified eyes as Frankie grabbed onto the collar of Arthur's shirt, yanking him forward. Ariadne cleared her throat, causing Cobb to jump slightly. "I just never knew that this happened…"
"But this is supposed to be one of Arthur's worst memories. From what I'm seeing now, it definitely doesn't look like one," Ariadne argued, pointing to the two men making out of the bed.
Before any of them got the chance for rebuttal, a single phrase was uttered, quiet enough to be intimidating, yet loud enough for everyone to be able to hear it.
The atmosphere in the room froze. With those two words, the feeling of the room had turned from one of passion and lust into one of confusion (and on Eames' side – anger).
Arthur pulled away, staring at Frankie, who was glaring at him now. "What did you call me?"
"You heard me. I called you a slut. Which is what you are, Arthur. You think I don't hear what goes on around here when I go home for the weekend?"
Pushing himself back a few inches, Arthur's head dropped. His face was genuinely confused. He cocked his head, before looking away. "I honestly don't know what you're talking about.
Frankie chuckled, crossing his arms across his chest. "Really? You don't know anything about those nights with Jamie, or those study dates with Timmy? Don't play me like I'm stupid, Arthur, because I'm not. Boys talk, especially about their cheating boyfriends…" Eames shot a look at Cobb, who looked like he was going to be sick. This made no sense. Arthur was the last person, the last object on Earth that Eames would ever think of to cheat on his boyfriend.
Arthur threw his hands up. "I didn't do anything. I spent the night at Jimmy's because he was so drunk I thought he had alcohol poisoning, and with Timmy, I don't know what he's telling you. I'd expect you to believe me over them!"
Something flashed in Frankie's eyes at that. "So it's all good, then? We can just forget about this because you said nothing happened? Do you know what else they said, Arthur?" Silently, Arthur shook his head. Frankie grinned, obviously taking complete glee out of this situation. "They said you're a piece of trash."
So Frankie was the projection of the memory that was Arthur's worst.
"Piece. Of. Trash," Frankie articulated. "You're just another used up, dirty, easy to throw away and forget about piece of garbage. They said about how you came to them, begging to be loved and needing to be wanted-" Eames flinched at just about every word before shooting a look at Cobb, who looked like he was going to be sick. Yet Ariadne was holding both of them back, knowing that if they caused a scene, it could possibly make everything much, much worse for Arthur.
The grin was gone from Frankie's face, replaced by something much darker, something that made Eames' stomach clench over and over. "I won't allow that Arthur. I love you, and I won't be known as some sort of pushover. I've given you everything you've ever needed and possibly could've wanted, and in return, this is what I get?"
Eames waited. Waited for Arthur to come to his sense and throw his mumbo jumbo words at this prick. Go off on some sarcastic rant about how Arthur was so much better because he was smarter and better looking and wore better clothes – he used those all the time on Eames. Arthur could've done anything.
He dropped his head, his chin burrowing down into his chest. He was biting down on his lip, but it was clear that it was quivering. Long eyelashes met his cheekbones, making the perfect route for a single tear to slide down. "I'm sorry," he finally whispered.
It happened too fast for any of them to be able to react. Frankie was off the bed, his fist flying. Arthur threw his hands up in front of his face in defense, but it was too late. The hand collided with his cheeks. Arthur clutched his face, dropping his head between his knees.
"What the…" Cobb muttered, starting to run forward. Right as he was about to reach the bed, the walls went up in flames, and a line of fire separated the rest of them from Arthur and Frankie.
The sounds continued; the ugly sound of flesh hitting against flesh, followed by a grunt from Frankie, and then finished by a soft pant or whimper from Arthur.
"Arthur," Cobb eventually called out, trying to get his attention. Ariadne hit him, but Cobb tore away from her, ignoring her remarks about how he was fucking up. "Arthur!"
"Arthur, I'm so, so sorry," they heard, the voice sounding like a completely different person. Eames was waiting again, was waiting for Arthur to shoot him, to kick him in the balls, to rip his face off… anything.
It never came.
Instead, he heard soft crying, and the hushed sound of Frankie whispering "I'm so sorry, Arthur. I – I don't know what came over me. My temper is so out of control. I know – I know you'd never do anything to hurt me. I should – I should trust you…"
The crying stopped. Arthur let go of his horribly bruised face and stood up, grabbing the blanket off his bed. He dropped it onto the fire, which temporarily doused the flames, giving him enough time to look at the three who stood there waiting and watching.
"Arthur," Cobb repeated, extending a hand. From where Eames was standing, he could see the Dom's hand was shaking. "You need to come with us."
With doubtful eyes, Arthur frowned and stared at the hand in front of him. He watched it for a moment, waiting to see if Cobb was going to do anything else. When he seemed to realize that Cobb wasn't going to do anything else, he jumped back, scrambling across the bed in a flurry of limbs.
"Get away from me. All of you," he pleaded trying to get as far away from them as possible.
"Arthur, this isn't real. You know that. You graduated from college years ago," Cobb continued, stepping forward again. "Frankie, he was your roommate. You told me all about him."
"Stop it, stop it, stop it," Arthur mumbled over and over, pressing his hands over his ears and shaking his head. "Just go away. Leave me alone! You're not real!"
"You told me how you were best friends. You roomed together all through college. And you came to me when you found out he had died," Cobb tried again, reaching a hand out to grab onto Arthur.
With a shaking hand, Arthur punched Cobb weakly. "You're not real," he repeated over and over. "None of you are real. Leave me here…" he whispered, closing his eyes before turning and looking at the projection of Frankie, who smiled softly, before opening his arms to Arthur.
It was at that point that Eames realized how much trouble they were in. It wasn't like Dom, who knew that Mal was dead and acknowledged it and was just having difficulty moving on. This was Arthur, who had clearly suppressed these horrible memories so far down that at his most vulnerable state they blew up. Now, in this burning dream, he couldn't tell the difference between the dream and reality. He couldn't remember which was which – and honestly, it looked like he didn't care.
Silently, before Arthur could find himself in the arms of the projection, Dom buried a bullet in Frankie's forehead. When Arthur watched him crumple onto the ground, he whole body deflated. Slowly, he turned to face them, his face void of any emotion.
"Arthur, you need to come with us. This is a dream. We're real. Please," Cobb tried again. "It's going to be fine. You just – just need to…" At that point, he finally broke down, swearing and kicking a wall. Going through this once was bad enough, but to have to go through it twice – and both times with probably one of the most important people in your life – is never something to be desires.
Ariadne took a deep breath before stepping towards him. "Arthur?" Nothing changed. "Arthur, we're here with you. We went into a dream with you, before. We're all back at the warehouse. And when we get back, we're going to lock you up and force feed you Tylenol until your fever goes away." Eames bit down on his lip, just wanting to see the light burst into the point man's eyes like always. He wanted that familiarity back in his eyes.
He wanted the old Arthur back… the one who was snarky and sharp and yelled and insulted his clothes and rejected his crude advances and told him every which way to shove it and everything of the sort.
"You're not real," Arthur repeated, his voice still shaking. Around them, the room exploded in flames. He hid behind his hands, pressing them over his face in a vain attempt to block out everything else. "None of this. Ruined everything… nothing left…just go." Orange flames lapped against the walls, as the thick grey smoke clouded up on the ceiling.
Arthur simply stood there, hand shoved into his pockets. The fire around him casted a strangely orange glow onto his skin. Eames looked around, realizing that the dream world around them was slowly turning in on itself; crumbling to pieces. And Arthur wasn't dead here, which could only mean one other thing.
Eames groaned, grabbing onto Arthur's wrist and yanking him forward. The two of them collided, Eames wrapping his arms around a trembling Arthur. "Darling, we're real as anything. You need to come with us, or I'll physically drag you out of here myself. And don't think I wouldn't. There's no way I'm letting you go to Limbo all by yourself, love." If Arthur's health on the real world was declining, whoever was left in his dream would surely be dropped into Limbo.
Including Arthur himself. With no hopes of escaping it.
Arthur simply peered up at him from under his messy hair, his mouth open and his eyes wide. Eames sighed, and without even thinking, he pulled Arthur closer and covered his mouth with his own lips. It was brief, and a bit rushed, but it got the job done, because when they broke apart, Arthur was blinking rapidly, clutching on Eames' forearms tightly. Tangling his fingers in Eames' collar, he pressed his forehead onto the taller man's shoulder, eventually asking in a small voice "Is it… it's really you?"
Eames finally let out a sigh of relief, pulling the point man tighter if it were even possible. "Yes, love. It's really me."
hotsohot, burning, baking, sweating, roasting, toohothothot…
"Arthur, love, if you don't open your eyes soon, I'm going to have to come into your head. And I'll be naked. Completely, fully nude. Right in your head…"
" 'fck off Eames," Arthur groaned, pressing his palm against his eyes as the lights above him were way too bright. Much brighter than anything in the warehouse. In fact, the stark whiteness of everything around him was pretty offsetting. He pulled the hand off of his eyes just a bit, but stopped when he saw a plastic band encircling it, completely with his name and every bit of other information on it.
Setting his jaw, he glared over in the vicinity of the other three, unsure of who to blame. "Why am I in a hospital?"
Ariadne and Cobb shared a look before smirking. He placed a hand onto her shoulder as she said to Arthur "Well, we'd love to stay and chat, but we know that Eames has been dying to tell you the whole story…" Eames was stammering, spluttering for words, but by the time he managed to put together a cohesive word, they were gone.
Arthur set his focus back onto Eames, but if Eames wasn't biased, he was pretty sure that it was a lot softer this time around. "Well?"
"Darling, a fever of one-oh-five is nothing any of us can fix. As amazing as my bedside manner may seem, I'm no McDreamy… When we finally managed to get out of that dream-"
As soon as Eames mentioned it, Arthur's attention was peaked, and he opened his mouth like he was about to say something. But he stopped, his cheeks flushing over, and he turned away.
Eames cleared his throat, pulling his chair a bit closer to Arthur's bed. His voice softened. "When we woke up, you were practically thrashing around, twitching and mumbling and unresponsive. It – it wasn't one of your best times…"
"Did that dream really happen?" Arthur asked simply.
After a pause, Eames nodded. Arthur laid his head back against the pillow, closing his eyes and wincing. If it wasn't Arthur, Eames would guess that he was trying not to cry. But Arthur never cried. At least, not in real life…
A few seconds later, Arthur muttered out a quiet "thank you."
He opened one eye, peeking out at Eames. "I said thank you. For not, you know, asking me about everything. If it was anyone else, the other two…"
Eames felt his heart sinking, that strange feeling that's almost like heartbreak, but not in a horrible way. He reached over and grabbed onto Arthur's hand, the one wrapped up in the ID bracelet and with a real IV sticking out of it. He'd never seen anything more beautiful in his life. "Arthur, love, what happened in that dream can stay in that dream. It's your business and yours only…"
Arthur inhaled a thin breath, still biting down on his lip. Eventually, he sat back up, a small smile on his face. He squeezed onto Eames' hand, running his thumb lightly over the forger's knuckles. "I never would've guessed."
"Guessed what?" Eames played along, smiling back.
"That it would've been you. Who could pull me back to reality…" Arthur told him. He caught Eames' eyes. When he looked into them, he saw it was back. That spark. That little smile that hid behind the eyes, showing Arthur's true colors. It was always there whenever Eames' looked at him.
"That's what I'm here for, love."