Inspired by fowl68's "Tit for Tat". Best Inception story I've ever read.
He feels his knees wobble and his heart begin to race when he reaches the antechamber outside the strong room. Fischer's on his back, eyes closed, and there's another figure beside him. Oh God. Oh God, no. Through sheer force of will, Eames remains standing, and he kneels beside Fischer, turning so her body is hidden from his view. He can't look at her. He can't see the face that's been burned into the insides of his eyelids ever since that evening at the restaurant with Arthur, the night they'd gotten the call. It felt like a lifetime ago.
From behind he hears Cobb and Ariadne come in, and he asks, "What happened?" He doesn't want to know, but he can't say anything else, and he's relieved his voice is as steady as it is, because he can feel a hard lump rising in his throat and he can feel the sting in his eyes and the blood pounding in his ears.
"Mal killed Fischer," Ariadne says, and the blame is so unmistakable Eames winces. There is a harsh animosity in her tone, anger and resentment and Eames is forced to remember that the only Mal the architect knows is a psychotic killing bitch. Because of Cobb.
"I'm sorry," Cobb was saying. "We're done."
And Eames is so angry he can't even feel sorry for Cobb. "Well, it's not me that doesn't get back to my family," he says, and it's true. Because as much as he loves the wife and daughter he left so long ago, there are two other people whom he'll never get back because one is dead and buried and still lying behind him though he refuses to look, and the other is broken and into shattered pieces, sifting through Eames' fingers, slipping away more and more the tighter he holds on. That person is somewhere above him right now, moving through a sleek hotel room with the clinical efficiency of a robot, because even though he says everything is alright and he smiles when he must and laughs when he should, it isn't real, and it hasn't been real since the first time the woman burning a hole in Eames' back closed her eyes and never opened them again.
Everything broke that night, the entire planet skidded to a jarring, devastating halt, and the rest of the world didn't even know. The architect didn't know. Cobb thought he did, but what did he know? He had a wife. He buried a wife. He spoke to her every night, held her, caressed her. What did Eames have? He had an icy point man who's every sharp and cutting word was a reminder of when his smiles had been genuine and his tone gentle. He had a folded photograph so secret he'd never even shown Arthur of three grinning people, none of whom existed anymore, even if two were still alive. He had the cultivated ability to pretend that he didn't care, when in reality every fiber of his being was screaming as though set on fire.
And now Cobb gets to stay with her forever, because Eames knows that he's never coming back. He knows Mal's allure, and he knows that were his and Cobb's places switched, he would sweep her up in his arms and never look back.
He blows the hospital and lets the knowledge of their success buoy him and shield him from the look of her face, dark against the bright white of her fatigues, smooth and calm as though she were merely sleeping. He swims to the surface with Fischer and lets the rain wash Browning away like dirt off a windshield, feeling layers and layers of personality and memories slough off and puddle at his feet. He can still feel her closed eyes watching him, x-raying him the way they had in life. They seemed to know his every secret, see his every thought. He hadn't minded sharing his life with her, and he knew even secretive, private Arthur hadn't either. He knew that Mal knew Arthur's real name, and Eames' too. It was just what she did.
Eames wasn't at all surprised when Cobb did not wake up on the plane. He lied easily to the paramedics who arrived on seen minutes after landing, said he didn't know the guy, just saw him getting on the plane. He watched Arthur wrap an arm around Ariadne's shoulders. She was crying unabashedly, genuine sobs. Arthur kept his arm around her, draped his coat over her shoulders, and Eames was reminded agonizingly of an afternoon years ago when the three nonexistent people had stood huddled in a sudden, drenching downpour on a roadside in Paris. Arthur had removed his jacket, an old leather thing that had seemed as much a part of him as his skin back then, and draped it over Mal's shoulders. They had all laughed raucously when a cab splashed past them and, instead of stopping, sprayed muddy water all over them. Eames remember Mal in Arthur's apartment, her still wet hair hanging in strands to her shoulders, remembered her kissing him on the cheek and handing him a cup of hot tea.
Arthur raised his eyes to meet Eames', and a flash of understanding passed between them. They both knew exactly where Cobb was, and neither blamed him for it. Given the chance, they would have done exactly the same. Because Mallorie Levalier was and is more addictive than cocaine, and the more you try to let her go, the more you end up loving her. Both Eames and Arthur knew this, and knew Ariadne never could. Arthur comforted her at the gate, opened the cab door for her like the perfect gentleman he was. That was part of the reason Mal loved him, she had said once. "Always the perfect gentleman."
He didn't get in the cab, though. He waited, and it took Eames a full ten minutes to realize what for. He raised his eyebrows in surprise and pointed at his chest, questioning.
"Are you coming, darling?" Arthur asked.
In that moment, Eames might have believed in magic, in superpowers and gods and goddesses. He realized, in that moment, that Mal may in fact have been a goddess, and she had been holding them hostage all these years, until tribute was paid. She had her Dom, and now she waved her magic wand so her boys could have each other.
Eames slid into the cab beside Arthur with the sensation of pouring hydrogen peroxide on an open wound; it was going to sting for a while, but the worst of the pain was over. They were free.