Disclaimer: Jules is mine, as are some of the other people you don't recognize. Leon Vance and Jenny Shepard belong to a certain Mr. Bellisario. Tosh Sato, Ianto, and Harkness belong to Russell T. Davies. Inception, of course, belongs to the genius Mr. Nolan.
A/N: Technically, this is a part of my multi-crossover series A Moment To Be Real, but you really don't need to read any of the others to get this. All you need to know is that DESI is a federal agency that deals with troubles of the sci-fi variety. I figured dream research falls into that category. Oh, and unlike most agencies, DESI tends to recruit across generations.
One step forward, makin' two steps back
My, oh my
Riding piggy on the bad man's back for life
Lining up for the grand illusion
No answers for no questions asked
Lining up for the execution
Without knowing why... – We Are, Ana Johnson
Brian Hartford, DESI Special Agent, is in over his head and he knows it. This is hardly a new feeling, all things considered, but... Two phone calls. Two social workers, different cities and different states. One in L.A., one in Philadelphia. He has a daughter he never knew existed, and a nephew who is now an orphan. And he is, apparently, the only guardian left for either of them.
Jesus fucking Christ. How is he supposed to handle this? Brian can stay calm while being shot at, when faced with things so strange not even the best sci-fi writer could make them up (and he's in a position to know that a lot of sci-fi writers actually don't, or at least they don't make up the basics). He's stared death in the face a few times, taken a bullet once, and been scared, but never so terrified as he was after getting those phone calls. Because really, what does he know about kids? He hasn't been around them since he was one, and his life was hardly conducive to fatherhood.
He'd decided long ago that he didn't want kids.
Brian never regrets his life, how after serving his time in the Air Force, a superior officer suggested he go to a certain recruitment meeting. But DESI is harsh, and he knows what happens to agents' kids when they're old enough. Training, conditioning, because it's simpler to recruit from inside. So he can't see how life with him is a better fate than life in foster care. But he also knows about foster care, because even though he grew up in a decent home DESI attracts broken kids, and several of the people he's worked with are from foster or worse. He might not be better but he can try at least.
Julianna is bright, and funny, and a lot like her mother, the same ice blue eyes staring out of her face. Brian remembers Andrea very well, a budding musician with a voice that stuck with you, lilting and lovely. Jules sings too, sometimes, child's voice holding the promise of her mother's. But she's not a particularly cheerful child, and Brian knows why. Because Andrea – Andy – is very much a child herself, and any child who was raised by Andy would either have had to grow up early or have serious problems like what she was going to eat that day.
Arthur is different. He's a slight little thing who is almost continually silent, dark eyes watching Brian's hands, always his hands, a boy with one arm in a sling and a black eye. Because Brian's sister, Miranda, didn't die of natural causes. She died because she married an alcoholic, and the creep did his best to kill their son too.
Arthur's his godson, but Brian hasn't seen Mira and her little boy since the christening, and he spent the flight from D.C. to Philadelphia trying to imagine the twelve-year-old version of the infant. He can't. Meanwhile, Jules was next to him, quietly listening to her mother's cassettes in the player he bought for her. Andy's voice, filtering through the headphone speakers, had made him want to scream because Andy wasn't dead, she just decided her career meant more than a kid. So why should Jules still want to listen?
And after the trips to L.A. for Jules and Philadelphia for Arthur, Brian has two dark-haired twelve-year-olds in his three-bedroom apartment, the guest room and office converted into kids' bedrooms, and he has no fucking clue what to do next.
Arthur doesn't speak and Jules doesn't trust him, for their own reasons both children watch Brian suspiciously. Arthur's brown eyes wait for this new guardian to lash out. Jules' blue ones wait for him to leave like her mother did. And Brian just wants to scream. But he doesn't. Instead he reads books about preteens, because research never failed him before.
But it's not research that breaks the ice. It is, ironically, Andy's voice echoing in his apartment, and Jules and Arthur sprawled on the living room floor, listening to it. Their heads are close together, and they're talking, and when they see him they grin as one. And Brian realizes that he wasn't the one who needed to get through to them at all – they needed to get through to each other.
Being sixteen, Arthur thinks, is really not all it's cracked up to be. Especially not when you're sitting in eighth period on a Friday, thinking about the fact that you know – absolutely know – that there is so much more to worry about than who homecoming king and queen will be. He can't get it out of his head, the things his uncle's been showing him and Jules for the past few weeks. Uncle Bri does it with a sad look in his eyes, like he doesn't want to corrupt them and feels guilty because they don't mind. DESI likes to keep things in-house, he says, so agents are all but required to train their kids.
As it happens, Jules doesn't have the same eighth period that he does. But her class is across the hall, and they both sit in line with the open doors. Blue eyes meet brown as the bell rings, and they're the first kids out. They've been able to do this almost since that day in the living room, listening to Andrea Sinclair. Jules doesn't have her mother's last name anymore, just like Arthur doesn't have his father's; they've both taken Brian's last name and in a legal sense – and an emotional one – they're both his kids and they are siblings, not cousins. And really, all the world cares about is the legalities and all they care about is the emotion, so it works out.
They still listen to Andrea, because even though the car they share has a CD player, it also has a cassette slot, and when Jules drives she often prefers her mother's voice to everyone else's. Arthur doesn't quite understand, but he knows his cousin – sister – loved her mother and still does. He can remember his own mother, and he'd loved her, sure. He'd tried to stop his dad on the night that still haunts his dreams. All he got for it was a broken arm, a concussion, and cracked ribs – and a gravestone with his mother's name.
But he remembers that what happened that night also brought him Jules and Uncle Bri, and though he wishes his mother hadn't paid with her life, he can't wish himself back.
Jules is driving today, so it's her mother's voice flowing through the speakers, and while Arthur stares out the window, she thinks about her mother, and where Andy (because it was always Andy, her mother hated being called "Mom") is now. She tells herself it doesn't matter, because she has her father and she has Arthur, but she knows, she knows she's just lying to herself. Because it still fucking hurts, the way her mother left her.
They go home, where a man named Leon Vance is there to help training. He's there with a tall redhead who introduces herself as Alex Shepard, and she's Vance's probie. Probationary Agent, it means she's basically Vance's apprentice. Arthur likes her right away, flashing green eyes and dry wit, and he knows Jules thinks the same. It's not a crush, though, not like some of the boys in his year have on the new student teacher, because Arthur has just figured out that he doesn't even like girls. His crush is on the other new student teacher, a guy from UCal who has sun-streaked blond hair. He just likes the wicked grin Alex flashes him and Jules when Vance and Uncle Brian aren't looking.
It's Alex who keeps coming back, who swings by to talk to them on weekends, sitting at the picnic table in the yard with them. Alex is from D.C. as well, she went to school in New York and Philadelphia and her sister is working in Europe, a member of a different government agency. NCIS, which apparently is tied to the Navy. Arthur never knew about that.
"You know, once you two are out of college, you'll need an agent to be attached to," Alex says one day, toying with her bottle of Mountain Dew. Jules puts down her Sunkist and Arthur closes his Pepsi, they both look at her sharply. Alex smiles faintly, then continues. "Most agents would want to split you up, but... I don't. They won't let Brian train you, but they'll let me train you both."
Training comes a lot sooner than they think. Because it's only a month after that when Alex and Vance show up at the house, and Brian was away on a job, and Arthur and Jules look at each other and they know exactly what the agents are here to tell them.
The funeral is quiet, and Jules thinks she's glad it's overcast but not actually raining. It shouldn't be rainy, because that would make a mess of everything and her father was always so neat and tidy – and Arthur's just like him, even though Jules takes after her mother in this – that it makes sense for the day to be neat too. Even if it's fucking awful.
Alex comes up to them after. "Hasling wants you to move in with me," she says, her voice grim. "Jen's not coming home anytime soon, so she won't be around to ask questions." Jen being Alex's sister, who last Jules knew was somewhere in France, doing undercover work with a boss she's also sleeping with. Alex will say whatever she's thinking very bluntly if you catch her right, which is how Jules knows about the affair. And also that just now the redhead is terrified that her big sister is setting herself up for heartbreak.
But she still takes the teens home, and she makes them hot chocolate, a wry smile on her face as she explains how her sister once told her it was magic. "And I know it's not, and you're too old to fall for that, but hell. It still makes Jen and me feel better, and God knows I don't know what else to do. My sister and I drink it whenever something bad happens, I don't really know how else to help."
And that explains the conversation at the picnic table. Alex understood not separating them because she has Jenny. And they have a bond like Jules and Arthur do. It's good to know that someone understands something, because right now, all Jules understands, as she rests her head on the counter in Alex's kitchen, Arthur with his arm around her shoulders, is that nothing makes any sense now.
All they have of Brian now is memories, some photos, and a couple of trinkets. There's his loaded red die. It always comes up one and he used to say it was good luck. Jules tries not to think that on the mission where he died, he'd forgotten it. Arthur is rolling the die with his free hand, and Jules slips her hand into the pocket of her black dress pants. Her father's challenge coin from his Air Force days has a slight imperfection in the engraving, something you can't feel at all and can only see if you know what to look for.
It feels like them, like her and Arthur. Arthur leaves nothing to chance but makes it all look like it just happens, a die that's loaded makes perfect sense for him to keep. And her, well... The boys like her at school – she supposes that's liked now, apparently they're getting GEDs and being thrown right into this shit, no proper college needed when you deal in the impossible – and they don't see her imperfections. Arthur knows where they all are, just like she knows the time he spends planning every little detail of life.
It's not like the hot chocolate tradition Alex tried to share with them, as kind a gesture as that was. Jules and Arthur don't have and don't need patterns like that. They're fine with just each other, and these two little artifacts from the man who brought them together.
It makes sense, six years later, when Agents Hartford – that's how everyone refers to them, Shepard's proteges who can't be split up – are directed to the dreamscape project, that the coin is Jules' totem, and the die is Arthur's. Another agent, who isn't part of the dreamscape program but is in their lab today, watches the two of them with an odd expression.
Neither Hartford knows Paula Ravenwood that well, she's their age but has never worked the same jobs. They know of her, of course, know the fact that she's the top psychic in the building and really, no one should have that kind of power. Of course, there's also the rumors about why her eyes are that weird shade of amber and why she wears those black opera gloves all the time, stories that say whatever power she has was already paid for, with interest.
The fact is, Paula can read minds, she's a goddamn telepath, and today the assignment was to break into her mind with the PASIV. And Jules never, ever wants to do that again. She was acting as extractor, Arthur as architect, and they got in, that was more than anyone thought could be done with someone like Paula, drugged or not, but... "Behind that calm face, you are one screwed-up individual," Arthur tells the redhead as he's putting away the PASIV, and Jules is just glad he said it first.
Paula laughs, head tipped to one side, her American accent holding a British lilt that has never been properly explained by anyone. "And you're not, Hartford?" she asks, a question that should be cutting but is really just a little sardonic. "We work here, is there a one of us who isn't fucked up somehow?"
"Your subconscious has things in it that are just... wrong," Jules tells her.
"Well, it would; don't yours?"
"No," Arthur says evenly. "Ours are protected, but yours is... What were those things?"
"Blocks. They're not meant for blocking extraction, but apparently they have an odd effect on it. Which is good to know." Paula gets up, crosses to the door, and pauses one last time. "Incidentally, the reverse is true too. You dreamscapers are the quietest minds in the building. It'd almost be worth a transfer just to get a damn break from everyone." She laughs, it's a slightly odd, vaguely broken thing, because they got painful secrets from her before the dream went to hell, and then she walks out.
"Christ," Arthur says with feeling, slumping in a chair. "I wouldn't wish my early childhood on anyone, but I wouldn't have wanted hers either."
"No," Jules agrees, especially as her story is closer to Paula's than Arthur's is. One redheaded six-year-old left in a shopping mall, one dark-haired twelve-year-old given a plane ticket and sent on her way. Different, but close enough to leave the adult who used to be that twelve-year-old faintly sick to her stomach. "I really hate how they make us do this. I mean, I get practice, research, what have you, but... Do we have to go around mind raping people for no good reason but practice?"
Arthur shrugs as he loosens the tie around his neck. His suit jacket is draped over a chair, but his white shirt is still fully buttoned. Truth to tell, part of him likes snatching people's closely-guarded secrets, part of him enjoys the chase, but he agrees. Not like this. They shouldn't be delving into secrets for no reason at all. Even being paid for it would be a reason he could live with, something practical. But for practice, it shouldn't be so nasty.
He rolls the die across the table, even as, out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jules take out the coin and study it carefully. Because really, as much as they might understand why Paula's mind is such an unpleasant place to be, even in a dream they set up, she scared the hell out of them and it's good to know they're awake. They're the best among the agents assigned to the dreamscape program, it's no surprise they were given Paula for their latest test subject. Always a new challenge, and the Hartfords always prove themselves equal to it. They've built a career out of it.
The door swings open, Alex striding in. She's the one running Dreamscape, so it makes sense she'd want to know if they broke past Ravenwood's defenses. "I passed by Ravenwood," she says with no preamble. "I take it things went well?"
"Hello to you too," Jules quips, peering at Alex over her laptop, still typing up notes. Arthur, who prefers a notebook, just sighs.
"Yeah, Alex, it worked. But we'd rather leave Ravenwood's subconscious alone from now on, if it's all the same to you."
"Well, there's no need, is there? You got through, we don't have anyone stronger in the agency for telepathy. Chances are you won't find anyone in the field stronger either, so we know what we have to."
Arthur and Jules glance at each other. "We barely got through, and it's not something I'd recommend we try on any enemy telepaths," Arthur explains after a moment.
"Duly noted," Alex says, nodding. "Hasling won't be pleased to hear it, but we've got other defenses. Anyway, I thought you should know, we're adding a pair of civilians to the project,"
"Civvies? Really?" Jules asks, finally interested enough to put the laptop aside.
"Yeah. A pair of newlyweds as I understand it. He's quite the architect – with rather good extracting skills to go along with it – and she, apparently, is a brilliant chemist. I know you're both good, but quite frankly, Arthur, you make a better point man than anything, and Jules... I'm not sure what to call your instinct for how to soothe the marks, but that's your best skill."
"Are we getting a forger as well?" Arthur wants to know.
"Not at the moment, no."
"Pity," Jules murmurs. "Could be interesting."
"We have names for these newlyweds?" Arthur asks.
"Dominic and Mallorie Cobb. They start tomorrow."
After Mal's suicide proves to be the disastrous end result of the experiments she and Dom had been working on, Arthur and Jules find themselves doing all they can to hold their research partner and his kids together. It's a fucking mess, and it only gets worse when it becomes clear that Mal set Dom up for murdering her. And Arthur's in Director Hasling's office, losing his temper for probably only the third time in the fifteen years Jules has known him. Because Dom and Mal didn't know it was DESI they were working for, the Cobbs had been under the impression Jules and Arthur were FBI, so Hasling doesn't want to pull the strings that DESI always can to stop Dom's pending arrest.
And Jules knows, she knows because while she had become good friends with Mal, Arthur and Dom had hit it off to the point that they're practically best friends now. 'Practically' because Dom was all caught up with Mal, even before she started losing it, and because Arthur doesn't trust anyone quite like he does Jules. It goes both ways, but still, Jules knows her cousin well enough, knows the bond he's forged with Dom well enough to know what's next.
It's horrible, it fucking hurts like hell, when she watches them leave. Arthur's driving, because Dom is still just enough of a mess that they don't trust him behind the wheel. For the first time since the age of twelve, Jules is alone, only one of the Agents Hartford left, and she doesn't know if she can stand it. But she has to, she has a job to do, and she promised Dom she'd keep an eye on the kids too, so there's all kinds of reasons for her to hold it together.
Arthur doesn't have time to really think about what it's like, to not be always able to look to his left or right and meet a pair of laughing blue eyes. He's too busy holding Dom together, too busy starting them off in the goddamn criminal underground – and how did it come to this, he doesn't understand that - to think about it. And then it's awful, it's not right in fundamental ways that just... But as bad as it is, Jules is still alive, and he can still call, mostly from pay phones or burn phones. And he can listen to his iPod, to that damned CD of Andrea's, because it makes it all a little easier when he can close his eyes and imagine he's twelve again hearing this for the first time.
And that's how they get through the next year and a half. Occasional calls and postcards, plus one night when they run into Jules in Tel Aviv. She's working with Mossad when it happens, but slips away from her handler for a night to sit up with them in their shitty hotel, drink crappy beer, and talk about everything that's been happening to them all. She leaves Cobb with pictures of Philippa and James, and Arthur with a tight hug.
Then, because apparently even apart they have to do things together, their worlds tilt within months of each other. And they're not even dreaming this time.