Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Christopher Nolan, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.

The opinions expressed by characters in this story may or may not be those of the author.

Yes, okay, the muse is eating my brain on this one. PLEASE NOTE that, aside from Cincoflex's/CSIClue's most excellent Give Us Pause series, I have read no Inception fanfic to date. Any similarities to other plots are coincidence. Actually, similarities to her plot are coincidence, but we had a good laugh over it.

Chapter One: The Good That Was Given Me

"I don't imagine we'll be seeing much of him for a while," Eames said with a soft smirk, looking after the tall figure that was moving with eager haste towards the security gate.

"You think?" Arthur kept his tone dry. He was glad for Dom's reunion with his family - more than glad - but he was hardly going to cop to it in front of Eames.

The forger shrugged, and swung his bag off the conveyor belt rumbling past their shins. "Can't blame him really." He didn't look at Arthur; it was habit, after a job was finished, to split up and pretend they didn't know each other, lest the mark recognize them. "Want to catch a drink later?"

Normally the answer would be no, but the accomplishment they'd just pulled off was going to require some serious debriefing, and Dom was obviously not going to be there. "All right." Arthur set the big case on the luggage cart he'd snagged. "Call me."

"Bring Sleeping Beauty," Eames said, and sauntered off, bumping casually into Yusuf as if he wasn't watching where he was going and no doubt delivering the message.

Arthur grimaced. It wasn't that he objected to the nickname Eames had bestowed on Ariadne, but technically she was Cobb's protégé, and while he didn't mind tutoring on occasion, he wasn't a babysitter.

On the other hand, a good architect was a rare thing, and Ariadne was better than good. It was a simple matter to dial her number on his cellphone, watching her reflection in the metal wall as she answered.

"We're meeting later for a debrief," he murmured, the perfect image of a businessman calling to let the office know he'd landed. "Though I should warn you, it usually involves Scotch."

The reflection was too blurry to make out her smile, but he could hear it in her voice. "I like a good single malt."

For some reason, that made the corner of his mouth twitch up. "Good. You're buying the first round." He snapped the phone shut and picked up his suitcase, heading towards the exit himself, slowly enough to stay behind Fischer's slender figure and completely ignoring the dark-haired young woman who was fiddling with her passport.

Ahead of him, past the guard, he saw another face he recognized, and felt a strange surge of sorrow mixed with the pleasure as Dom's father-in-law welcomed him home.

He'd chosen an unexceptional hotel, though an excellent one; he liked to keep a low profile, but that didn't preclude comfort. And the better the hotel, the better the privacy.

His suite was large, plush, hushed; the wide windows looked out on the equally wide vista of Los Angeles and a truly splendid sunset. Arthur stowed the machine case carefully next to the bed - there was no point in hiding it, and anyway it was too big - and settled into familiar routine. Unpacking, sending out suits to be pressed, a long shower, dinner sent up.

He was a man used to living on the move, but there were ways to claim the space he inhabited, at least temporarily. The smell of his cologne on the steamy air, his razor and comb lined up just so, the battered wind-up alarm clock on the bedside table, his sleek little laptop open and precisely square on the desk. Small touches; tidy, but definite.

It was enough.

He ate dinner in front of the now-dark windows, listening to Romilda e Costanza and getting up halfway through to dim the lights so he could see out. The city below was canyons filled with light, too bright for the stars to show, and somewhere in the midst of it all - possibly close by - Robert Fischer was mourning his father and thinking a new thought.

All in all, Arthur concluded, they'd done pretty well. He was still embarrassed about missing the fact that Fischer had had anti-extraction training, though laid next to Dom's sins it seemed less grave; still, Arthur prided himself on his detail work, and he resolved to do better the next time. Whenever that might be.

And then it was time to meet the others.

The bar was all dark wood and dim lights, upscale enough to be reasonably quiet but plebian enough to let them go unnoticed, and Ariadne had sprung for the good stuff. Arthur tasted the last of his Scotch and smiled, feeling his spine relax after the weeks of tension; the others around the small round table were experiencing the same release, to judge from the flush on Ariadne's cheeks and Yusuf's rather silly grin. Eames was subtler, but his eyes, narrow and sleepy, betrayed his satisfaction.

"…And when he opened the door, the shark was just circling right there!" Ariadne had a charming giggle, Arthur noted. Yusuf snorted and almost choked on his drink at her punchline, and Eames let out a surprised bark of laughter, leaning back in his chair and raising one finger to signal for a refill.

"Your turn, I think," Yusuf said, giving Arthur a look that could only be termed sly. They had finished hashing over the job long since. "Have you no stories of youthful high spirits?"

"Arthur doesn't have spirits to raise," Eames drawled. "He's practically a robot, is our man."

Arthur lifted his glass to Eames in ironic acknowledgment. "I have nothing more exciting to tell than my last thousand-mile oil change."

Ariadne giggled again, covering her mouth with one hand. She was on the edge of tipsy, Arthur guessed, but so were the others; he was the only one who had stopped at one drink. Yusuf rolled his eyes and shook his own glass, making the ice clink. "Just as well. It's getting late, my friends, and my liver thinks it's still over the South Pacific."

"Just so long as your bladder's caught up to this time zone," Arthur murmured, which made Ariadne laugh harder.

Yusuf gave him an extremely rude gesture, mitigated by an impatient grin. "Fuck off. I am off to bed for a few measly hours of sleep before I fly home." He shoved his chair back and stood.

"Going to get a head start on that pleasure garden?" Ariadne asked, propping her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands.

Yusuf sketched a comic bow. "Things grow quickly in Mombasa. Farewell, don't bother to write." He plucked his coat from the back of his chair and walked off.

They watched him make his way out of the bar; he didn't look back. Yusuf was one of the best in the business, Arthur mused, but they had been lucky to talk him into doing more than providing the necessary drugs. He didn't think the chemist would agree to participate in any further extractions, at least on such a personal level.

"I should get going too," Ariadne said, sounding regretful. She was still flushed, but Arthur could make out the circles under her eyes even in the low light. The heavy sedative they'd used had kept them under, but it hadn't provided true rest.

"I think I'll linger," Eames said, accepting another drink from the waiter and nodding in thanks, gaze sliding towards the glossy bar on the other side of the room. Arthur didn't have to look to know that there were several lone women idling there. "The night's young."

"Have fun," Arthur said dryly, and nodded at Ariadne. "I'll walk you out."

It was simple courtesy; but it was also masculine unease at the idea of a young woman waiting alone for a cab in a strange city, especially after several drinks. She just smiled at him and stood, turning to Eames to say goodbye. Arthur felt his jaw loosen with surprise when the other man rose to give her a fond hug. "Remember what I said," he said as he released her.

Ariadne nodded. "Be careful," she replied, and picked up her shoulder bag.

Arthur followed as she wove her way through the bar's patrons and out into the warm night. A faint breeze was stirring the muggy air; there were no pedestrians, but they still moved to the edge of the sidewalk to wait for the next cab. "What did Eames tell you?" Arthur asked idly, curious.

Ariadne's smile was serene. "That I could design for him any time."

Arthur raised a brow. Despite Eames' habitual pose of nonchalance, that was high praise. Not that she didn't deserve it; Ariadne was a natural, and with a little more practice, Arthur thought that she could design for just about anyone.

The architect hitched her bag a little higher, her smile remaining. "Also that he always paid for breakfast."

That made him choke. Eames had hit on Ariadne?

The idea stung, for reasons Arthur wasn't at all ready to consider, and he fought a momentary impulse to go back into the bar and instruct Eames on the nature of respect. But an instant later he'd locked the emotion down, a little shocked at himself for allowing it at all. "You…uh…"

Ariadne looked amused by his lack of response, though her reply was edged. "No, I didn't. Not that it's any of your business."

He gave her a cool look in return. "No. It's not."

The snub had no effect, judging from the way her lips curled. He wanted to touch the bottom one, run the tip of his finger along it, just to know the texture of that little dent in the middle. Arthur glanced up and away, noting the cab approaching and lifting an arm.

"So what happens next?" Ariadne asked, her voice softer, and when he glanced back she looked tired again, and a little forlorn.

He cocked his head in lieu of a shrug, arm still raised. "Go home. Figure out how to spend your share." The cab slowed and veered to the curb, halting neatly a few feet away, and Arthur reached for the door handle. "If you want to stay in the game, build a better mousetrap."

She blinked up at him, brows drawing together in a frown. "There won't be another job?"

He didn't know, and it hurt, that strange surge of loneliness, even though he had never begrudged Dom any share of happiness. "Probably. Eventually. A good architect is always in demand."

If there was disappointment in her face, it was covered swiftly. Ariadne nodded. "All right."

Arthur opened the taxi's door. She stepped into the gap he'd opened, hesitated, and then reached up. The tug on his immaculate tie was startling, but it brought him low enough, and the press of her lips on his cheek was a live, fleeting warmth.

"Thank you," she said in his ear, soft and solemn, and then she'd released him and was ducking into the taxi. Moving automatically, Arthur closed the door, and watched as it pulled away into the empty street, the taillights vanishing around the corner.

He walked back to his hotel, trying very hard not to think.

The offers were still out there, even if Dom was busy. Arthur let the usual few months pass - they almost never did jobs one on top of another, it was too dangerous - and then went to pay a visit to his old friend.

It was good to see Dom so…relaxed. It had been years, Arthur realized; years that Dom had spent carrying the weight of guilt and fear and loss. Now, as he leaned back in a chair on a sun-dappled lawn and watched two children play on the swingset not far away, the strain was gone, though Arthur could see the lines in his face laid down by sorrow.

"You look well," he said, his voice low enough to not disturb Phillipa and James at their game.

Dom shot him a wry smile. "I feel...good," he admitted. "Sometimes it's still hard to believe."

"Do you spin your totem?" Arthur asked, half-teasing, half-not. His own was a small hard knot in his pocket; a constant presence, the occupational hazard for their profession.

Dom's smile softened, and he looked back to the kids. "Every day."

Arthur watched them himself for a while, conscious of the haven around him - built for Mal, but kept now for her children. He could understand the fear of finding out it wasn't real, but he'd never suffered Dom's doubts. There were times in the Dream when he thought himself awake - hence the token - but almost never while awake did he think himself asleep. Reality was a solid truth for him; Eames always said it was because he had no imagination.

Arthur preferred it that way. Every extraction team needed someone unimaginative to be the anchor.

They chatted over inconsequentials and beer for a while, but behind it all was a question, waiting to be asked and answered, and the longer it lingered the more Arthur suspected what the answer would be.

He waited until the light grew golden, though, and the savory smell of dinner crept out the kitchen windows. "We've got a job offer. Robitech wants the latest on upcoming patents from YYD Propulsion Systems, and they're willing to pay top dollar."

Dom didn't answer for a moment, gaze lingering on the small forms not far away. But the quirk of his mouth bespoke regret, and Arthur knew. "I can't."

"Not now?" Arthur asked bluntly. "Or not ever?"

Dom blinked, and looked back to him. "Not now," he said. "I…don't know about the rest." He gestured with his bottle, rushing on. "I can't leave them again so soon, you know that…and I'm not sure I can handle the risks any more."

You were willing to handle them before, Arthur carefully didn't say. Back then, Dom had been desperate to get back to his family, pushing boundaries beyond even Arthur's comfort level to achieve his goal. Things were different now.

"I get it." Arthur took a sip of his beer without registering the taste. They'd worked with many different professionals, over time; but it had always been the two of them together, Dom leading, Arthur anchoring. "But I don't know where else I'm going to find a decent extractor."

He'd laced the words with humor, and Dom's smile returned, wistful and the slightest bit wicked. "You could do worse than Eames."

Arthur sat up straight, outraged. "Please tell me you're kidding."

Dom leaned back in his chair. "You underestimate him."

Arthur shook his head. "He's unreliable, untrustworthy…you've seen what he's like in there, way too overenthusiastic! He's a fucking loose cannon."

"He's reliable," Dom retorted quietly. "You just don't want to give him credit for it. His forging skills - his ability to shapeshift - it makes him an asset."

"Maybe." Arthur huffed, annoyed because Dom had a point. "But he's not - "

Dom set down his bottle, reaching into one pocket and bringing out his totem. "Careful, Arthur. You protest too much." There was a little glass-topped table between their chairs, holding the bottle opener and the discarded caps. Dom reached down and set the top spinning. The look he shot Arthur held sympathy, and Arthur turned away, feeling angry and bereft.

A small form hurtled into his chair, and Arthur blinked as James swarmed up into his lap. "Mister A! It's almost dinnertime!"

Arthur automatically put out an arm to keep the boy from toppling. "Really?" he asked, distracted despite himself. He didn't generally care for children, but Dom's were engaging. "What are we having?"

James went into enthusiastic detail, and Arthur missed hearing the click of metal against glass when the top finished its spin. But when he glanced back at Dom, he could see the challenge in his old friend's face.