"These Days It's Hard to Tell"

part one.

-—-

"I was out paying close attention

Or was I lost inside my thoughts

These days it's hard to tell what's outside from what's in my mind."

Cloud Cult - "Chemicals Collide"

-—-

It was a simple route.

One street, wrapping around parks and hotels and museums featuring Klimt on the side, and no turns. Street lamps lined it; projections crossed it; other cars occasionally passed Arthur as he rode the motorcycle to the train tracks just outside of town (it was such a cliche—he hadn't wanted it, but there it was).

Arthur did most of the passing though.

He revved the engine, watched the speedometer crank up. He didn't know where security had gone and he couldn't care. The job was still unfinished, and he was oh so close. Just a few more miles, and done. Just a stretch of the hand, and he could snatch the file, ride, memorize the data—and done.

Another bike came up beside him, shielded eyes turning to look at him. Security, he thought, and there was a thread of fear sewing up his back, tightening the muscles in a painful way.

But the job was still unfinished, and he was oh so close.

He couldn't care. Not now.

-—-

On the Fischer job, Arthur makes two mistakes.

He assumes that Dom is in his right mind.

He assumes that Fischer is untrained.

He thinks about them often. When he triple checks his data, when he triple checks his extractor. He thinks this means he's learned from them.

He thinks.

-—-

It was a simple route.

"Too simple," Arthur had said, months before he rode it (if he knew then what he knew now). "Johansen won't buy it. Streets don't work that way; chases don't work that way."

"Too complicated though and we could actually lose him in the dream," Ariadne had pointed out. She had stepped forward then, like she was asserting herself, but Arthur hadn't missed the way she came in just between him and Eames.

(She always liked breaking up their pissing matches. She was too nosy for it to be peacemaking, so she probably just didn't understand their purpose yet. Probably kept hoping that if she just pushed enough, something would give. Too bad there was nothing to give.)

"There are easier ways to do this, you know," he had said. "We really don't need to make this a race. We've dealt with security before."

And Eames had snorted. "With so few staff? I doubt it."

(And here it goes:)

"We could get more staff."

"We could be not doing this job at all."

"Please. Enlighten us again, won't you, Eames?"

"I'm just saying, Johansen is trained."

"And we can handle it."

"Not if you're just humoring me, Arthur, please. I have my dignity and my stripes. You're not mentally prepared to work on this."

"Only because I checked and the training didn't work."

"Which is I'm sure a lovely story he would like you to believe."

"I'm being more than safe playing by your instinct."

"Well, you're certainly playing, that is a word I'd use."

"I've done all the research—"

"Oh, yes. Matthew Johansen, aged fifty three, wife Susannah Thomas, no children, twin brother Gary Johansen, parents deceased—all riveting, useful stuff."

"And he hired an extractor, three years ago, to teach him to defend himself and he failed. It was Marques, you really think he knows how to train someone?"

"Marques has a lovely mouth and a knack for lying. Yes, I—"

"Guys?"

And Ariadne's voice had seemed so far away, but at least the look on Eames' face as he'd turned to her had been just as surprised.

(At least he'd not been the only one to forget she was there, then.)

-—-

On the Fischer job, Arthur makes four mistakes.

He insults Eames.

He kisses Eames.

Sometimes he does both at once, but when the job is over they part and he tells Dom that he doesn't think of either one.

He says.

-—-

It was a simple route but Ariadne had gone down first.

All dressed in red, she'd been like a candle dying out. Little ball of red on a little red motorbike, swerving off into the dark until there'd been nothing but black. Blood had trailed behind her, black as ash in the light, and Eames'd almost stopped before Arthur yelled, "Keep riding."

"But we don't know—"

"—Keep riding."

The job was still unfinished, then, and they'd been oh so close. He'd seen Johansen, silver dart speeding ahead. A few more miles, and done.

(He couldn't care. Not now.)

-—-

On the Fischer job, Arthur makes five mistakes.

He kisses Ariadne.

He can't say why. There are reasons he can give (she's smart, she's beautiful, she has an air of Mal that he's always found attractive in a woman) but they all imply that he wants to. That it's not just a shot.

It has nothing to do with Eames walking by.

Nothing.

-—-

It was a simple route.

But it'd been oh so clear, and he'd sworn in his head, had felt his jaw clench up.

"There's something wrong," Eames had said, as if Arthur hadn't known. Ariadne had honestly seemed not to though. She'd turned, eyes squinting, and had almost shaken her head.

"What?" she'd asked.

"It's too vivid," Arthur'd cut in. "It doesn't feel right. There's something mixed in to the Somnacin."

And Ariadne had tied it up, a nice and neat bow: "Like with Fischer?"

"Exactly like with Fisher," Eames'd answered her, but his eyes had been on Arthur, steely grey and tight and screaming with "I told you so, I knew it."

"We're in over our heads and the road is simple but long."

"Johansen's mucked up our stock," he'd continued, looking away. "Must have known we were tailing him for months."

"But how could he do that? Can he do that?"

Ariadne'd directed the question to Arthur but he'd already been on the bike, watching the restaurant. He'd known the plan: Johansen would eat, and then he'd leave. He'd take the bike when the valet brought it up and from there it was a simple route. One street, wrapping around parks and hotels and museums featuring Klimt on the side, and no turns. They'd just needed to get the info. The Fischer job had given them fame and glory but no guarantees.

This had been a second chance from Cobol.

(There wouldn't be another.)

"We do the job and get out," Arthur'd said, and he'd meant it. The job was still unfinished, then, and they'd been oh so close.

(He couldn't care, not then.)

-—-

On the Fischer job, Arthur makes six mistakes.

He doesn't protect his investment.

Saito is why he's doing this job. He doesn't need money or glory. He likes a good, carefully planned thrill but inception is impossible to plan, a splatter of paint that can turn either art or mess with a slight shake of the hand to the left. He's doing this for Dom, who's doing this for Saito, and Arthur almost loses him to imbo.

He promises himself later that never again. A debt to Mal doesn't carry this far, to his life and sanity shaking on the edge.

He promises.

-—-

It was a simple route, but Eames'd filled the time driving it with enough questions that Arthur almost missed the turn for their apartment downtown.

(He didn't call it 'their' then. It slipped out more easily than he'd like now, though.)

"Why Piaf?"

"Why not?"

"That's a childish answer, Arthur. I salute you."

And Arthur had slowed, and stopped. He'd hit a traffic jam, and in the middle of July in LA. He'd leaned back in his seat, then, and cranked up the AC, but he still had felt sticky all over from the walk through downtown, the back of his neck clinging to the leather. He vaguely remembered unbuttoning a bit of his shirt, cool air hitting his neck.

Which Eames had taken as as encouragement to try again. "I'm genuinely curious," he'd said. "Why not something else?"

"You don't like Piaf?"

"Everyone loves Piaf. I'm just asking why. Cobb's not here."

And Arthur had shrugged, had said, "Mal chose it. I got used to it. Why the sudden interest?"

"Conversation."

And that was all he'd say, Arthur could hear it in the tone, and so he hadn't bothered to say more. He'd glanced around. They'd been surrounded by cars and a shimmering haze in the air that'd served as painful reminder of how outside and public they'd been, but no one had been really watching. People had been talking and texting and putting on make up and staring at the car in front of them like maybe, just maybe, it'd move if they thought hard enough, but they hadn't been watching.

And so he'd said, "We could do other things than talk."

"And whatever would that be?" Eames had asked, and Arthur had heard rather than seen the smirk (he wished he had—he loved that smirk, shit-eating and dirty and cocky all at once and Eames and he would have done well to burn that into his memory).

"Nevermind." He'd turned on the radio instead; had jumped a little when it'd been Piaf singing but it'd been okay. He remembered how he got there, then, and Eames'd been proof enough he was awake.

(All they ever did in reality was play games.)

-—-

On the Fischer job, Arthur makes eight mistakes.

He lets Eames come.

He lets Eames go.

They're contradictory, but that's how it is between him and Eames, he thinks.

He thinks.

-—-

It was a simple route.

But as security had run them down (run them down hard, but there was nothing merry about the chase, Arthur thought, not when Ariadne might be dead or gone. A burnt-out candle on the side of the road, a washed-up candle on the shores of limbo, or a lit up candle jumping in her bed and wondering whether to wake them up or not) and Eames had screamed in his ear, Arthur'd almost lost control and landed smack in a wall.

"Arthur, forget this! The job's a wash. We need to get Ariadne and make a break for it!"

"I can see him."

"Arthur—"

"Cobol's not going to let this go. I can see him."

And they'd swerved, bullets firing in a line, but when Arthur had turned round to look he'd been alone.

"Eames!"

"Fuck it, I'm getting Ariadne."

"You don't even know what happened to her."

"Well, I will know soon enough."

"And if she's in limbo?"

There'd been no response, Eames either not caring or too far away, and Arthur had revved the engine. Had watched the speedometer crank up. He'd seen Johansen, he had. One more lap, one snatch, and done.

The job had been unfinished but he'd been oh so close.

(He couldn't care. Not now.)

-—-

On the Fischer job, Arthur makes nine mistakes.

He knows Dom's insanity but still idolizes him.

His determination, his quick thinking, his ability to pick up a lie and run with it. Arthur is meticulous in his planning but throw a kink into his

works and he needs to think, to process, before he can redirect his thinking. Dom, by necessity, is always changing. Every crack in his surface is random, unable to guess until it comes, but he finds them all and shows them off as art, as simply part of the great performance piece that is Dominic Cobb.

He knows, and still he does.

-—-

It was a simple route.

One street, wrapping around parks and hotels and museums featuring Klimt on the side, and no turns. Street lamps lined it; projections crossed it.

In his hand he had the info. Had memorized it easily. Just a snatch, and done.

Just a roll into the bushes, stolen gun in his hand and Johansen pressed against his chest, the gun to his temple. Just words dropping like missiles, clear and cold: "You're dreaming, Mr. Johansen", and "What did you do, Mr. Johansen?"

Just Johansen's voice, blade thin and just as sharp:

"I'm not your Johansen."

-—-

On the Fischer job, Arthur makes one mistake.

He thinks, when he triple checks his data, when he triple checks his extractor, that he has learned from his failures.

Arthur doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't really understand what they mean. So he ups his caution, just a bit, and he thinks he's learned.

He thinks, and he thinks wrong.

-—-

The other Johansen said, "You have to understand. Your game is changing."

("Oh, yes. Matthew Johansen, aged fifty three, wife Susannah Thomas, no children, twin brother Gary Johansen, parents deceased—all riveting, useful stuff.")

He said, "It's not just a few power execs in the know anymore. It's everyone. Marques is just playing ahead of the game; figured he'd side with a company early, work for my brother as his own go-to mind thief."

("Marques has a lovely mouth and a knack for lying.")

He said, "You came crawling around, and he told us from the beginning. He used his considerable resources to keep tabs on you, while you kept tabs on us—"

("Johansen's mucked up our stock. Must have known we were tailing him for months.")

"—and, well, here we are."

There were more guns than Arthur could reasonably count, poking through the bush like steel branches, and his eyes clamped shut.

And the other Johansen said, "I really am sorry," before there was a bang and water all around, filling up his nose and mouth till he coughs.

-—-

On the Johansen job, Arthur makes one mistake.

It costs him more than he'll remember later.

-—-

to be continued.

-—-

"Chemicals Collide" does not belong to me, but Cloud Cult.

Inception does not belong to me, but Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros.

Thanks to Audley as always for the lookover and general reaction and for existing.