part two.

-—-

"I was out catching up to tomorrow

Or was I caught up in the past

These days it's hard to tell what's out in front from what's behind"

Cloud Cult - "Chemicals Collide"

-—-

"You don't need to do this job."

"Is that Cobb?" Eames'd chimed in from the bathroom, but Arthur'd swiveled the chair around and bared his back. He'd shifted the phone, hot against his ear, but hadn't said a word, and eventually Dom had continued:

"Saito's taking care of it."

"Saito and Cobol aren't exactly on great terms."

"He said he'd give them the info they wanted. He's not interested in that market anymore anyway. He thinks it's about to do a downturn."

And he'd smirked, then. "Always a businessman."

"First and foremost."

"Yeah, well. It's an easy job. Probably would be a lot easier and it's get them off our backs for good."

"That's not what Eames says."

"Eames says a lot of things."

"Sometimes he's right."

"Sometimes."

"Especially about you."

And Arthur's eyes had wandered as he'd picked at a loose thread on his shirt (and Eames' arms had come around him, he remembered, trying for a tickle before Arthur'd batted his hands away, had glared and scolded him off with anger he didn't think he meant, not now), but it'd needed a response and so he'd sighed, and had said, "Sometimes."

"He really does love you."

"Hmm."

"He does. He just won't say it because you won't, trust me. Mal and I could have played that game—"

"—You didn't."

"But we could have. We're both stubborn enough."

"Can't deny that."

"I'm just saying. You don't always have to take care of me. You can take care of yourself too."

And Arthur'd dropped his chin on the back of the chair, and had let the phone sit hot against his ear in silence, because what am I supposed to say?

He'd never really done that before.

(And why is that?)

-—-

Before the Johansen job, Arthur makes one mistake.

He doesn't listen.

It costs him more than he'll remember later.

-—-

The water was cold against Arthur's skin but he crawled up on shore only far enough to pull his head away from drowning before he collapsed again. The sand was hot, scalding as the sun beating down, and it wasn't long before he welcomed the water on his arms and feet. (His shoes, he'd lost . . . where? He'd slipped them off and they'd been carried away before he could clear his mind long enough to process it.)

He couldn't lie here forever. He didn't know how long the sedative would last, didn't know how long he was stuck here for. He had to do something to keep him sane. Find Eames, find Ariadne, knock some sense into them if they weren't lost already.

Or maybe they're not here. If Ariadne didn't die, she wouldn't be here. Eames wouldn't be here.

He'd be alone, then.

He picked up his head and glanced around but there was nothing as far as he could see. Just more sand, more grey sky, more blazing sunlight than he could stand. Wouldn't they have built by now? Ariadne would be too afraid to try, to afraid of getting stuck, but he knew Eames couldn't resist the temptation this long. Eames, the gambling addict. He'd take a chance. He'd build.

So if there's nothing around but sand and sky, sea and sun . . .

I'm alone.

But that was good. If he was alone, it'd be okay. He could handle it. Ariadne was tough but eventually she'd forget, she'd slip. And Eames, Eames would be lost in a few decades. Eames dedicated his waking life to getting lost, limbo would be no different.

But if Ariadne's not here, then she's probably still injured. She'd been shot in the stomach, he remembered. All dressed in red, she'd been like a candle dying out, a little ball of red on a little red motorbike, swerving off into the dark until there'd been nothing but black. But as painful as it probably was, it wasn't life-threatening, and he'd always thought it'd be better but now he wasn't so sure. How strong a sedative did it take to send a soul to limbo? Would she have to go a whole week? More? And security was still there, searching for them.

He'd be fine, in limbo.

Would they, in the dream?

He sunk back down, hands combing the sand, and when he felt a seashell he sat up threw it into the water. His grunt, the splash, broke the silence and he flinched. Frustration still knotted his stomach, pulling him down till his back hit sand and he curled in on his side.

He'd be fine, in limbo, but they needed him. They couldn't fight off security, not alone, not with Ariadne injured.

"Fuck," he said. The sound pierced the air again and this time he cringed.

Sound in a vacuum, he thought, looking at the ocean without waves. It's unnatural.

-—-

On the Johansen job, Arthur makes one mistake.

He doesn't learn, and so he thinks he's right. And so he goes to limbo.

It costs him more than he'll remember later.

-—-

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

Memories, mostly, that he couldn't forget. He had to be careful not to build. Limbo was malleable, more so than the regular dream. It begged to be shaped, to be your mind for you. An upturned nose as his wet shirt clung to his arms made his clothes dry. A wipe at the sweat collecting at his brow turned them into a tee shirt, a pair of shorts, breezy and light. But so long as he thought of things as the past, things he couldn't touch, he could mostly control it. A building would sprout here and there, but they were small things, buildings. Nothing to get lost in, nothing to distract from the sand and sky, sea and sun, and he could easily bring them down again.

So he filled the time with thoughts, keeping them all on a schedule. The Johansen job had top priority—he thought about it every hour (what he decided would count as one). He had to remember how he got here. It was always the first to go and lose that and he'd be stuck, really stuck.

Next was Eames. And Mal and Cobb and Ariadne, they were all on the same rung, they were.

And yet not.

He filled the time with thoughts of them all but too often it came back to Eames, lying on his bed the day after the Fischer job. He'd been fiddling with his poker chip, tossing it and catching it in the air, and Arthur was the one with suits and cufflinks and tightly tied Italian leather shoes but Eames had been the one who seemed so painfully clothed. Arthur hadn't said a word from his seat, a newspaper in his hands that he must have seemed to be reading, but his eyes lingered on Eames' forearms, sleeves pushed up past his elbows. His chest, top few buttons undone and a hint of hair curling out.

"You sure you don't want to come with me?" Eames had said, and Arthur had shaken his head again. "Mombasa is lovely."

"Mombasa is Cobol's backyard," he'd said, deja vu quirking his lips into a smile.

"Cobb survived."

"Barely."

"We could go somewhere else then. Somewhere . . ."

Eames had trailed off then, missing the chip and letting it fall on his chest (thick, muscled chest, practically more ink than skin), and maybe Arthur should have asked "What?" but he didn't. He didn't, and Eames had stood up and whatever had been there (something he still couldn't name) was gone as he said, "But, never mind. I should go. Thanks for the layover. Greatly appreciated, as always, Arthur."

"Right."

"Goodbye."

"Bye."

And Eames had left as he always did and as Arthur filled the time with thoughts (had more time for thought than he'd like) he couldn't help but think and why is that?

-—-

On the Johansen job, Arthur makes two mistakes.

He doesn't realize the second at the time, and it seems a logical choice to make.

It costs him more than he'll remember later though.

-—-

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

The Johansen job came first, but Eames seemed to sneak his way in more and more, even in this. He couldn't remember where Ariadne stood, what exactly she'd say when she'd break into their pissing matches, but he thought he remembered Eames' laugh, the way his eyebrows had sprung up in surprise to see her there, in remembering she had in fact always been there.

Or he remembered Eames' eyes, 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."

Or he saw Eames' smirk, shit-eating and dirty and cocky and Eames and he would have done well to burn that into his memory but he knew he hadn't seen it, just heard it in the edge of his voice as he'd asked "And whatever would that be?" knowing perfectly well what Arthur meant.

And why is that?

But Arthur felt it slipping away though, the job, and if he couldn't keep Eames out he would have to build. Nothing big. Nothing to get lost in, nothing to distract from the sand and sky, sea and sun. Just the key things. He built the warehouse, careful to use every detail. The cobwebs that had turned his stomach but he'd never gotten round to cleaning, stretched out over the back windows in the space no one used. The three desks, shaped like a bracket, Eames to his left and Ariadne to his right because if Eames could monopolize his view he'd never get anything done. The one flickering light in the corner that Arthur hadn't felt like wasting money to replace, not when they'd be out of this place soon enough. The cement floor, the blank walls with the cracks in the plaster—every small thing in a small thing.

And then, eventually, he built the road. He didn't walk or ride it. It was enough to see it there, to know where it led.

He had to remember how he got here. It was always the first to go and lose that and he'd be stuck, really stuck.

-—-

On the Johansen job, Arthur makes two mistakes.

He doesn't realize the second at the time, and it seems a logical choice to make, so he makes it again.

It costs him more than he'll remember later though.

-—-

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

(He had to fill it with something.)

The job (Johnson . . . Johansen, he told himself, Johansen) had started so simply. Like any other. He'd called Eames. Eames had pretended not to get it, but he'd shown up, on time, at Arthur's apartment, a bag tucked under one arm and a rolling suitcase propped up against the door. He'd offered a smile and Arthur'd opened the door and there was always the question, of what greeting to give, and so he gave none.

And Eames' cologne had wafted into his nose, some brand Arthur couldn't name but smelled so rich and British and distinctly Eames, and instantly he had regretted not doing something more before he went on ahead and said, "So, Matthew Johansen."

(And why is that?)

The job . . .

The job . . .

It'd been twenty below zero, the day he'd first kissed Eames, but the alcohol had made him warm and Eames had been too, deep in a parka and scarf and gloves like he wasn't from London and shouldn't be used to this.

"Now the question is," he'd said, British more prominent with a bottle of scotch in him, "will you do this in the morning?"

"Probably not."

And he hadn't.

(And why is that?)

"I spy with my little eye—"

"—Eames. I am not playing this game. You see the—"

"—Someone who is French and dead."

And Arthur'd turned, but he had already known who he would see: Mal, sitting on a bridge, overlooking the water.

He had shrugged it off; had said, "Just a projection. She's harmless."

And Eames had asked, "When'd you meet Mal?"

"None of your business," he'd said quickly,

(And why is that?)

"Need some help with that needle, Arthur?"

"No, Eames, I do not."

"Because you haven't removed it yet."

And Arthur had pulled it out and glared; he'd said, "Just because you don't want to be here. You don't have to be a brat."

(And why is that?)

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

(He had oh so much time.)

-—-

On the Johansen job, Arthur makes two mistakes.

He doesn't realize the second at the time, and it seems a logical choice to make, so he makes it again and again.

It costs him more than he'll remember later though.

-—-

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

Memories, mostly, or things that felt like them. He didn't enjoy it. Memories were depressing. He looked back on his life and with almost a decade to fill, they repeated often enough for him to see his failures in too great detail for him to bear.

He remembered Mal, in her dress, as she'd sipped her Earl Grey tea and said she wasn't sure what to do with Dom's love of dreaming, she wasn't sure how deeply she wanted to delve.

(He said, "I don't know. I don't really see the harm.")

He remembered Ariadne, in business attire, hair wrapped up in a style that hadn't suited her as well as he'd thought it would, her lips soft and hurried against his.

(He said, "It was worth a shot" but what did that even really mean?)

He remembered Dom, in clothes thrown together on a whim, knocking at his door with tickets he'd snagged off some business man he'd sworn wouldn't miss him.

(He said, "I'll go," because when has he ever not?)

He remembered Eames. Just Eames.

(There were too many to pick.)

Sometimes he imagined. Ways his life could have gone, things he could have done. He never could have been anything but a point man, he decided, but there were so many routes too complex at the time that captivated now. But sooner or later, he returned to reality. Before he could build, and he always felt it coming, the urge.

(He couldn't build. Nothing to get lost in, anyway. There was sand and sky, sea and sun, and it was important not to forget that.)

He had the warehouse, and the road. He didn't remember what purposes they served but he knew he came from them and he knew that was what mattered.

You had to remember your roots. Lose that and you'd be stuck, really stuck.

("An old man filled with regret," as someone he couldn't remember once said—another failure to add to the list.)

-—-

On the Johansen job, Arthur makes two mistakes.

The second he repeats, again and again, because he doesn't know what else to do.

It costs him more than he remembers.

-—-

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

(It was all he knew to do.)

He'd called Eames for some reason, and then he had been there. And Eames' cologne had wafted into his nose, some brand Arthur couldn't name but smelled so rich and British and distinctly Eames, and instantly he had regretted not doing something more.

(He wasn't really sure what he did instead but the regret stayed fresh.)

"Now the question is," he'd said, British more prominent with a bottle of scotch in him, "will you do this in the morning?"

"Probably not."

(And he probably didn't.)

"I spy with my little eye—"

"—Eames. I am not playing this game. You see the—"

"—Someone who is French and dead."

And Arthur'd turned, but he had already known who he would see: Mal, sitting on a bridge, overlooking the water.

(Someone so pretty shouldn't look so sad and he wondered why.)

"Just because you don't want to be here. You don't have to be a brat."

(Just a line out of context, but he liked to remember it. It seemed to sum up things well.)

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

(And why is that?)

-—-

On the Johansen job, Arthur makes two mistakes.

He doesn't build. And it seems a perfectly logical choice to make so he never really does, not for decades. Not until there's really nothing left but sand and sky, sea and sun.

It costs him so much more than what he knows.

-—-

Arthur filled his time with thoughts.

His life was a boring one. He walked the shoreline, watched the water. He had painted once but the image never changed. It was always sand and sky, sea and sun, and after a few paintings of that he found no joy in doing it again. Reading meanwhile he found useless. His books were incomplete, pages and pages filled with bleary text he couldn't read. And he couldn't speak as there was no one to speak to and sound, in a vacuum, he found unnatural.

So he filled the time with thoughts, with stories of people he imagined he'd once known. An architect (whatever that was) with a penchant for scarves. An extractor (whatever that was) who'd become cracked and broken but was still seen as art.

(The names were hazy, for these two, sitting on that edge of sky and sea that he often glimpsed but never could reach, but he remembered their roles. Their stories were always interesting)

And then there was Mal, whose stories made him sad.

And there was Eames.

Eames' stories made him sadder still, but Arthur still liked those best. As long as he stopped before the ending, he could pretend those were happy.

It wasn't a surprise to him when one day Eames appeared. It happened sometimes. He remembered shapes and thought about them long enough that they came. They weren't supposed to, he knew, but that was how he had books and painting so he'd eventually learned to ignore that nudging fear and allowed it.

It wasn't like he knew what most of the shapes did anyway. He mostly just liked how they looked. Which was why he was surprised when Eames spoke, the sound of it harsh against his ear.

"Oh, Arthur. Waking up is going to be quite the shock to you, isn't it?"

What do you mean? he there was light that wasn't sun and sound he couldn't name but it was loud and unnatural and his hands leapt to his ears and he shut his eyes but nothing changed ('Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won't make time stand still,' he remembered, from one of his books somewhere) and there was pain in his forehead and a whisper of "Pun intended, unfortunately."

And he woke up.

And he woke up.

And his hands leapt to his ears and he shut his eyes but try as he might, if time didn't stand still it wouldn't go back either.

-—-

On the Johansen job, Eames makes one mistake.

He won't realize until later how far the echo will carry.

-—-

to be continued.