As Good As He Was, Or Better

Cobb needed the best, and didn't care what it looked like. But he should have, since the best looked like a beautiful girl and Arthur was a young man with no regrets. Cobb watches A/A blossom, and worries about what it means for the job.

"…a chance to build cathedrals, things that don't exist—things that can never exist in the real world…"

As Cobb fell into a familiar spill about how magical it could be to build in the dreamscape, he could see it on his father-in-law's face that he was doing it again, that thing where he let it show that he had spent far too long playing God in Limbo.

"Come back to reality, Dom," the old British man said kindly.

"Those kids, you're grandchildren, they want to see their father again. And this job, this last job, is how I'm going to make that happen. That's reality." Cobb sighed, and returned to the point of his visit.

"I need an architect who is as good as I was."

Miles leaned back in his chair, put on his glasses, and smiled, "I have someone better."

Standing in the hallway of the university, watching the young masses bustle by, full of potential, Cobb remembered his own college years and they felt like they were a hundred years ago. In his mind they literally were. He was as old as the man he stood beside, and getting older.

Then, in a flash he saw down the road. Phillipa would be here in ten years. Just ten. His chest tightened and his stomach dropped and he thought he would break in half. He had so little time with them, and he wasn't even there … and if he couldn't pull off this Inception job then he would never be there.

"Ariadne!" Miles called and Cobb gave the girl who broke apart from the flow of human bodies a smile as she approached them. Miles introduced them.

"Work placement?" she asked.

"Not really."

Saito had warned him to pick his team a little more wisely, and he was going to. This time, he wasn't going to settle for good enough, as he had for Nash on the COBAL job. This time, he was going to find the best. He didn't care that she was young and inexperienced, (he'd been told he was a good teacher), and as she proved her worth, he, of course, noticed that she was pretty, but he didn't care about that either. Because the problem in it didn't occur to him until he got her back to the workspace.

"Arthur," he called as he stepped in with the new architect at his side. His partner was sitting on his haunches at a trunk, unpacking the equipment. He looked up at Cobb's call and stood gracefully. His dark eyes immediately fixed on the new face. His lips gained a quirk in their corners rarely seen, a reserved but flirtatious smile.

As introductions were made, Cobb noticed Arthur's smile and that the handshake lingered, and that Ariadne smiled sweetly while gaining some color in her cheeks, but it didn't exactly register on Cobb what any of that meant because he was far too focused on the job. He was so focused on choosing his team wisely he was forgetting to be wise.

Then Ariadne released Arthur's hand and popped to her toes. She jumped her eyebrows, breathed a laugh and held Arthur's gaze as she said, "So tell me about this not strictly speaking legal job you want me to do."

Arthur chuckled, something that Cobb knew he rarely did, unless—warning bells finally went off in Cobb's head and all the little things he'd seen in their introduction, but had not put together, crashed into his head.

Sexual. Attraction.

Ariadne went to the lawn chairs that Arthur pointed out to her and Cobb caught his partner's arm before he could follow her.

"What's up?" Arthur asked, turning away from Ariadne, who was poking her nose into all of the business spread out on the table and frowning as she studied a PASIV. Cobb looked pointedly at the pretty girl then he met Arthur's eye and put on his best I'm Older And Wiser Than You So Listen To Me Face.

"I need you one hundred percent focused on this one, Arthur. So don't."

Arthur snorted, his eyes flaring to life defensively, "What and you're always keeping Mal out of your head?"

Though an excellent point about the uncontrollable nature of the subconscious, that felt uncalled for. Cobb couldn't help the flinch that made Arthur's hard face smooth into regret. Cobb pushed air through his nose and said through his teeth, "That's different."

Guilty, Arthur shifted his weight, glanced down at his polished shoes. When he looked back up, he was shaking his head and smiling. He snorted again, "Okay."

It couldn't be that easy.

Cobb's eyes darted around the point man's face as he asked, "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Arthur echoed, but he didn't look happy about it. It was Cobb's turn to feel guilty. After all, Arthur was a young man who had already sacrificed significant aspects of his life in order to follow his friend into the criminal life when everything went so horribly wrong after Limbo, making it impossible for Cobb to work legitimate dreaming jobs. That didn't change anything, though.

"Thanks," he said sincerely.

Arthur nodded and things passed between them.

I know you miss your kids, and I want to help you get back to them.

Thanks. You're a good friend.

So are you.

Then it got awkward so Arthur got down to business, striding over to the new architect and asking her to be careful with the technology.

"What is it?" she asked as Cobb joined them.

The exact same smile that Cobb had just warned Arthur to control was back as he answered, "That's the job."

Ariadne frowned sweetly, pushed hair behind her ear and turned away from his naturally intense gaze with a shy smile. Cobb watched Arthur study her for a moment more before Arthur noticed that he was being watched. The younger man instantly put on a stoic mask of business and got to work explaining.

Cobb hung his head and breathed out slowly, reminded himself that Arthur was a man of his word. If he said he would focus, he was going to put everything he had into that focus. If a smile slipped out here or there, it didn't have to be a big deal, and anyway Cobb knew he wasn't exactly in a position to lecture anyone about control.

The team spent the next few months waiting for Maurice Fischer to die, passing the time by constructing the intricate and precise plans for the job. They fell into easy camaraderie and since each one of them was the best at what they did, they worked well together.

To Arthur's credit, it seemed to be only smiles and light flirting between him and the cocky little architect. Cobb made it his business to notice, since one slip up on the point man's part could shatter all hopes of seeing his children again.

From what Cobb could tell, Arthur was holding up his end of the deal, though he still stood to the side chatting with her occasionally and they both threw flirty smiles around a lot, but since it never seemed more than that, Cobb didn't worry about it.

At least, he didn't worry until Arthur returned from a food run one day.

Somehow, it had just become one of Arthur's many duties to grab lunch. Sometimes he took orders, but sometimes he didn't. This time he'd gone out without taking any from anyone and had returned with several bags and two drink trays.

All the bags were full of fries and burgers fixed the same. All the drinks were the same, too, except for one. Five of them were paper cups filled with soda, but one was a clear plastic cup with thick yellow liquid inside and heavy condensation clinging to the outside.

The rest of the team converged on the bags and trays, and Eames commented loudly on how Arthur's lack of variety stemmed from his lack of imagination, which clearly stemmed from not being loved as a child. Arthur returned the jab with a dry insult and snatched the smoothie away from Yusuf.

Cobb watched him take it and one of the bags over to the desk in the corner, where Ariadne had not moved a muscle. She was bent low over her desk, lost in the work on a sketchpad. Arthur settled his weight on the edge of the table, dangled the smoothie in front of her face.

"The pineapple mango you've been craving, mademoiselle," he purred. She looked up, gasped, snatched it and took a long draw on the straw, falling back in her chair with a low moan of approval, which Arthur watched eagerly.

Cobb saw the whole thing as he tore into his La Royale with cheese and he swore silently. Arthur knew her cravings, and he made it his business to satisfy them.

This did not bode well.

The next time Cobb had a chance, he brought it up.

"What are you doing with Ariadne?" he asked lowly, even as Arthur watched her leave the workspace for the night. "You promised me you'd focus."

Arthur sighed, wouldn't meet his eye for a moment, and in that moment Cobb got the strangest sense that he was a father cornering his teenaged son in the living room to deliver a lecture about missed curfew.

It was gone in a flash, however, as the dangerous point man met his eye. In his expression, it was clear to Cobb that Arthur was his own man, with his own rules, and none of it was really any of Cobb's business, but he understood where Cobb was coming from so he wasn't angry.

"Nothing that's going to get in the way," he reassured.

Cobb raised his eyebrows and studied his partner. Arthur was patient under the analytical gaze. Finally, Cobb sighed, "Alright. I trust you, I guess."

Arthur nodded, then asked firmly, "Can I trust you?" and Cobb followed his dark and pointed gaze to the PASIV that Yusuf was sitting up for his private Mal visits. Cobb swallowed and met Arthur's eye. He nodded, gave a weak laugh, and answered truthfully, "Only as much as always."

That drew a quirk into the corner of Arthur's lip, as one eyebrow lifted slightly. "Right," he said.

Ariadne finished building the third level in record time and they all went under together to appraise her work. They arrived with swift abruptness and, being the first time they were down there, took a moment to get their bearings. It was cold, damn cold, but beautiful.

Cobb whistled long and lowly as he took in the sight of the hospital perched on a snowy mountainside. Ariadne was smiling ear to ear, happy to show off her baby.

"She's good," Eames said, shaking his head and draping an arm around the architect's shoulders.

"Very," Cobb agreed craning his neck to inspect the towering firs around them, all their branches loaded down with a fresh snowfall. He caught her eye and gave a sincere smile, "She's as good as I was,"

"She's better," Arthur corrected with as smirk, following the vein of talking about her like she wasn't there.

Feeling playful and a little defensive, Cobb winked at Ariadne and replied, "Well, I don't know about that."

"She loves it more than you did," Arthur informed his partner with dry certainty and wiry smile. "That's makes her better,"

Arthur's eye left Cobb's to meet Ariadne's at the end, like punctuation to the statement. There was a beat and then she gave a snort, rolled her eyes, and Cobb saw her blush after she had turned from the point man. Arthur had a little color himself and a sly smile as he adjusted his ski equipment.

Behind Arthur's back, Eames gave Cobb a significant look. The Brit's eyebrows were up near his hairline and his mouth was tugging down in a frown. He was literally too surprised by Arthur's blatant display of knowing Ariadne better than anyone to tease him about getting a heart. Cobb sighed and tried to put faith in Arthur's ability to do his job no matter what else might be going on.

Ariadne took her general nosiness to a completely new and shocking level, riding the old elevator down into the middle of Cobb's most private memories.

"I'll come back for you!" he cried, as Mal rattled the cage, "I promise!"

Once out of the dream, Mal's angry screams were still echoing in his head and his heart was pounding in his ears, and Ariadne was giving him a look that burned into him; she was not going to drop this.

It distantly registered with Cobb that maybe if he'd let Arthur do whatever he needed to do then she would have had better things to do tonight than invade on his private Mal business. She made some excellent points about how silly it was to try to cage her up in a series of dreams and then Saito was breezing in and Arthur was turning on some lights.

Maurice was dead, time to go.

"I'm going with you." Ariadne breathed.

"No," he answered promptly, "I promised Miles."

Her brown eyes bore into him and she spoke lowly. "You need someone down there who understands what you're going through. It doesn't have to be me, but then you have to show Arthur what I just saw."

It would be the wisest thing, the neater, less risky thing, to show the point man what was going on… but it was bad enough with just Ariadne knowing his business. He couldn't imagine Arthur seeing all of that.

And if they both knew, they'd discuss it in private and Cobb didn't want to be the subject of any such discussions. They'd forever after be trading looks whenever he was around and he'd be wondering what the looks meant…

So instead of doing the smart thing, Cobb gave the order to book another seat on the plane for Ariadne. He saw Arthur's expression as he did so and tried to slip away before anything could be said, but his best friend caught his arm. As Saito tried to worm it out of Ariadne what had just happened, Arthur's dark eyes burned into Cobb.

"What are you doing?" he demanded lowly under his breath.

"She'll be useful," Cobb answered lightly.

Arthur's nostrils flared and he echoed, "Useful? Cobb, she's not a part of the plan—what will she do down there?"

To Cobb's trained eye, Arthur's worry was clearly more than a point man upset that his carefully laid plans had been wrinkled, which was how the question had been purposely worded. Cobb's stomach twisted at the thought of the dangers the heavy sedation presented that he and Yusuf were still keeping from the team, and he hated himself, but Ariadne was right, he needed her. Without her, Mal could ruin the only chance he had to see James and Phillipa again.

He held up his hands, "Hey, what are you worried about?" and then he lied, even as he did so praying harder than ever that sheer will power could make a lie the truth, "She'll be in no more danger down there with us than she has been up here for the past few months."

Ariadne and Saito arrived at their sides then.

"I'm going," the girl said to Arthur as if as to answer something.

He gave her a dark look, which he then shot back at Cobb and even saved a little bit for Saito.

"You'd better know what you're doing," he growled, and whether or not he was talking to Cobb, Ariadne, Saito, or all of them, was unclear. He turned and charged away.

It was raining, no pouring. Cobb turned on the windshield wipers, agreed with Arthur's string of curses, and hoped this would be the one and only glitch in the whole operation.

But then the train arrived.

And then the bullets started flying.

What was supposed to be a peaceful city that Yusuf was going to drive around in for a week became a half-drowned, unpredictable war zone.

In the warehouse, Arthur knelt by a dying Saito and pressed firmly on the entry wound. His attention instantly snapped to Cobb, "Where were you?"

"We got blocked by a freight train."

Arthur looked up at Ariadne, "Why did you put a train crossing in a downtown intersection?"

"I didn't!" she cried.

"Where did it come from?" Arthur asked. He didn't bark the question like he would have to anyone else, and the proof that Arthur treated his prettiest team mate differently than the others gave Cobb a way to deflect blame from himself.

"I have a question for you!" he screamed, panicked now because everything that could go wrong was going wrong and Limbo was just a breath away for the only man who could help him see his babies again—and it was all because the point man missed something.

He missed the most important, goddamn thing.

"Why were we ambushed?" he screamed at Arthur, "Those weren't normal projections—they've been trained!"

"How can they be trained?" Ariadne asked tightly.

"Someone has taught him how to defend himself against extraction so his sub conscious is militarized. It should have shown in the research, I'm sorry," Arthur answered, but that wasn't good enough. Cobb was pissed, beyond pissed. He was scared as well as angry and that made him outraged. He screamed savagely about how poorly Arthur had done his job until Arthur sprang to his feet to defend himself.

Then Eames was about to shoot Saito and Cobb managed stop him in time, but it was too close for comfort.

"Don't do that! Don't. Do. That." His grip on Eames' wrist shook he was so near the edge.

"Why not? "Eames asked, alarmed. "He's in agony. I'm waking him up."

"It won't wake him up."

"When we die in a dream we wake up," Eames said evenly. Cobb managed to explain and a moment later, Arthur was in his face, looking betrayed and pissed and failing to hide how freaked out he was at the thought of slipping into Limbo.

"You had no right," he said darkly.

Guilt twisted Cobb's gut but now was not the time for that, nor was it the time to fling accusations back at him as he was so sorely tempted to do.

Maybe if you had kept your head in the job, and not in the clouds with Ariadne, like you promised me you would, then we could have been better prepared for this!

But he didn't go there. He forced himself to calm down and focus on how to get out of this alive.

"Downwards is the only way forwards."

The Mr. Charles Gambit was working. So far. Cobb had reached that Zen-like place where he said, and did, and behaved exactly as he needed to in order to succeed. It was what made him the best. Tremors shook the dream and Fischer's subconscious was looking for Arthur in order to destroy him.

Worried for his friend, Cobb glanced up to the lounge area in time to see Ariadne allow Arthur to lean in and then she planted a simple, sweet kiss on his lips.

Heat flared in Cobb's face. The only reason she was down here at all was to help him with Mal, but what was she doing? Kissing! Sure, they could all be lost in a moment, but if anything that was incentive to work harder, not to play.

Cobb would have gotten even angrier about it, but a moment later, something outside one of the windows caught his eye—it was a shoe, a single black woman's shoe, which had fallen to the sidewalk. He swallowed and threw his mind back into the work, trying to find that Zen–like place again. Gravity shifted and he used it to make Fischer believe he was dreaming. He played the part harder than ever and Fischer bought it all, totally and completely.

Maybe, just maybe, they could do this despite Arthur and Ariadne's gland games.

"Security will be all over you."

"And I will lead them on a merry chase."

"Just be back before the kick."

"Go to sleep, Mr. Eames."

As Arthur helped Saito next, the billowing curtains of the room's window caught Cobb's attention and for a moment he was lost in his post painful memory. He shook himself out of it in time to see Arthur on his knees in front of Ariadne's chair. He was helping her with the Velcro strip across the IV in her wrist.

Cobb didn't miss the brief grip his hands took on her arm and knee as he said, very lowly, "Be careful down there, okay?" Ariadne nodded giving Arthur a nervous smile, returning the grip briefly. That exchange rewrote everything Cobb had been assuming.

They weren't playing.

Ariadne slipped away into the dreamscape, leaving Cobb the only one awake. He had paused with the IV ready to go in but hadn't shoved it in yet because of the curtains, and still didn't now, so that he could have a moment with the point man about what he'd just seen.

"Hey," he said catching Arthur's attention. Unable to find words, the exchange was silent.

I'll keep her safe.

Ha! I blame you for her danger in the first place.

Listen, you're not going to lose her, okay?

…Okay—thanks. And, hey, I don't want to lose you either.

Well, that makes two of us.

The IV went in and then Cobb was in the snow, looking through a long-range sniper scope…

"Come back with me, so we can be young men together again."

The bullet from Saito's gun hit him in the forehead and then he opened his eyes onto a brightly lit first class airplane cabin. Waking up from Limbo the second time was easier than the first, though he'd been down there just as long this time as the first time, searching for the only man who could help him.

He opened his eyes and it only took a moment or two for him to remember where he was. The familiar faces around him in the cabin reconnected him to reality. The PASIV was packed up and out of sight. Arthur's worried face broke with relief when Cobb looked at him. Fischer was staring pensively out of his window. Eames was smiling broadly. Ariadne was grinning. Saito was looking around blinking, completely astonished to find himself a young man again.

The plane was landing in the states. The job was done, Saito was awake, and the arrangement would be honored. Cobb's heart pounded and his fingers shook with nerves. He did it. This was it. He was going home to his kids. It felt too good to be true.

He thought he was going to be sick with anticipation and worry at customs, but then the man stamped his passport and gave him a smile, "Welcome home, Mr. Cobb."

Miles was there, smiling hugely, shaking his hand warmly. Then they were walking fast to the car, both of them eager to get him home to the kids who missed him so dearly.

"What exactly did you get up to in order to pull this off, Dom?" Miles asked.

"That's strictly classified," Cobb answered with a wink, "But it worked."

"So it did," Miles chuckled. Both of them saw Ariadne in the crowd up ahead, lugging her bags toward a taxi.

"How was she?" Miles asked.

"She was everything you said she'd be and more," Cobb answered. "She has a bright future ahead of her. You should be proud."

As they drew nearer to the budding architect, they exchanged covert looks with her, but otherwise pretended not to know her. Then, suddenly, someone practically materialized at her side and helped her with the heaviest of her bags.

"Let me help you with that, miss," Arthur's smooth deep voice said kindly. He'd been the one to arrange the plan about not knowing each other, yet there he was, talking to her.

"Oh, thank you," she said, pushing hair behind her ear. "Hey—weren't you on the same flight as me just now?"

He put on an expression of surprise and studied her, "From Sydney?"

Cobb could not stop and watch the rest of the act the two were putting on. He had to let the crowd carry him onward, but he risked glancing back and saw them shake hands in a fake introduction and then Arthur hailed a cab. Cobb's jaw dropped at the audacity of it.

Miles had seen it all as well, and he was intelligent enough to put the pieces together. He laughed, "Young lovers will always find a way around the rules."

"You got that right," Cobb mumbled, thinking of all the times Arthur had managed to flirt with her even though Cobb had put her out-of-bounds. He risked another glance around and found Arthur helping her load her bags into the cab.

"It reminds me of something," the old British man said with a fond chuckle laced with sadness, as all mentions of Mal were. He, too, was glancing back at them. He'd never met Arthur before, or he wouldn't have made the next comment. "They'll be as reckless in love as you and Mal were."

"No," Cobb said. Ariadne was laughing heartedly and Arthur looked more relaxed than he had in months. "They'll be better."