AN: Thank you very much to Ninavs2, smashley007 and an anonymous reviewer for reviewing! :') You readers make me very happy teehee.
Disclaimer: Inception belongs to Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros.
The Absolute Basic
October faded into a cruel, bitter November. The temperature gradually dropped to around eight or nine degrees Celsius, leaving the team no choice but to come in each morning wrapped up in scarves and coats. Frost sometimes decorated the windows as they worked, but the worst was yet to come.
Clara was presently helping Ariadne with the planning of the levels. As usual, they were going to need mazes. They had decided to play on the CEO's attachment to his wife, letting the first level be a seaside resort similar (but not identical, as Cobb had often warned them) to their honeymoon destination.
"But would he make the connection?" asked Clara. "With the resort in our dream and his honeymoon?"
Ariadne nodded, assured. "I think so. It can't be too full-on, can it? Subtlety is needed here. I'll add small details in that are the same. Like, maybe the paintings on the walls. Or the carpets. Or-"
"Just make sure you get the detail spot on," Arthur warned, listening in on their progress as he made notes. "Our Architect in the COBOL job gave everything away with a stupid mistake he made with the carpet."
Ariadne grimaced. "I'll be careful," she decided.
Clara moved various pieces of cardboard around, on which they had sketched out the basic layout of the hotel, including the room where they would send themselves into a further dream.
All the planning, all the coordination was making Clara dizzy with reminiscence. It was so unreal to be here again, plotting and creating. Her gaze swept the warehouse, which was not entirely unlike the ones she and Arthur and Cobb had worked in.
"That's your totem?" he asked, voice genuinely curious.
She felt so proud.
But he wasn't here today. Nor had he been here yesterday, or even the day before. She hadn't realized just how full of life the man was. The past few days had been surprisingly peaceful, rid of worries over how to smile and how to speak. It had been very quiet.
"I'll leave you guys to the designing," Clara murmured, ignoring their glances and throwing on her navy blue coat. "Coffee, anyone?"
"Yes, please," Ariadne answered, the prospect of a hot drink clearly welcomed.
She didn't like the way he was watching her, like he knew what she was up to. She stared back at him, waiting for his measured reply. He at last said, "No, thanks," and bent over his work again, discussing with Ariadne.
Clara left them at it, wrapping herself warm and bracing herself against the biting wind outside. For a second, she thought she saw a shadow of a man flickering a few steps from her. She turned, but saw no one. Feeling uneasy, she followed the Thames, occasionally allowing her fingers to skim over the railings, the icy-hot metal sending sparks through her bones. She sighed, and a burst of white cloud appeared in front of her, disappearing almost immediately.
The Starbucks was just around the corner.
She just needed some time to surrender (don't think, don't remember) and to think, to remember.
"Have you got your totem yet?" asked Eames, sitting one one of Cobb's couch.
Clara nodded from across the room, she was sitting on the carpet with her back against the wall.
"Really?" he said. "That was fast."
"I told her to make one as soon as possible," supplied Cobb, seated on the other end of the sofa, opposite Eames. "She's too keen for her own good, and that can be dangerous."
"How right you are, old man," Eames chuckled, and he leaned forward on his knees to look at Clara. "Can I see it?"
Clara hesitated, but Cobb gave her a swift nod. She trusted him, believed in him in so many frightening shapes and forms. So she smiled and reached behind her neck, quietly unclasping a necklace and holding it out in front of her. It consisted nothing more than a thin metal chain and a small, silver conch seashell, about the size of her thumb.
"That's your totem?" Eames asked, voice genuinely curious.
She felt so proud. She nodded.
"It's cute," Eames remarked.
Clara rolled her eyes. "It took awhile to make, but I think I got the shape just right..."
"How does it work?"
Again, Clara turned to Cobb, who nodded. "Go on. As long as he doesn't touch it, it's fine."
"Okay then. Well...when I bring it close to my ear, I don't hear anything. Not even the ocean; the shell isn't big enough and, well, it's made of metal." She smiled, loving how her totem had surprised her when she entered a dream the other day. "But when I'm dreaming, and I bring it to my ear, I hear music."
There was a pause, then Eames whistled. "Impressive."
Clara bowed her head. "Thanks."
"So what do you hear? Do you hear different music each time or..." Cobb's question drifted off.
She tilted her head to the side. "Liebesträume."
Clara frowned at Eames. "It's by Liszt. It's called 'Dreams of Love' in English."
Eames exaggerated a sigh. "How romantic."
Cobb scoffed at Eames. "Like you would know anything about romance."
"Are you joking? I've got girls trailing after me like hounds."
"Oh really?" Clara quipped, putting her necklace back on.
"'course. All I do is treat 'em to dinner and red wine and they're baited."
Cobb wrinkled his nose. "Please don't talk like that in front of Mal."
Clara continued badgering Eames, "And I suppose you don't tell them that you're a thief?"
Eames winked. "But everyone knows that's the best part."
Clara exchanged looks with Cobb before fixing her velvet eyes on him. "Yes, how romantic."
"Thank you so much."
Ariadne was practically all over Clara in her haste to grab her coffee. Clara handed it over with a flash of a smile and moved away from the others in order to go through the week's newspapers to find anything relevant to their case. It was important to keep up-to-date. Anything could happen in the world of business. It was a fast-paced game of chance and bravado and whatever that special spark was.
Clara sat down at a separate desk and grabbed the large file of newspapers, setting it in front of her and scanning the first page, sipping her coffee; the steam rolled around her face, warming her pink-tinted cheeks. She shrugged off her coat and sighed, feeling slightly energized and heated.
"Found anything?" came Arthur's voice after about twenty minutes of silent reading.
Clara glanced over her shoulder as he walked toward her. She showed him one of the clippings she had cut out. "Nothing important except this."
Arthur leaned forward to inspect the news article. Clara helped explain, "It's about Trollope's wife. There's been rumours about her planning to remarry and become business partners with her suspected new boyfriend."
Arthur rubbed his chin. "I see. Good. We can use this." He patted her on the shoulder. "Thanks."
Clara smiled up at him. "You sure you don't want some coffee?" She offered her own cup.
Arthur paused, and Clara knew what was coming next. You always knew when he was going to make a point, because Arthur was just the sort of person who got right to the heart of things.
"You act weird when he's here," he stated flatly. "And you act weird when he's gone."
Clara pretended to study another broadsheet. "It's none of your business, Arthur."
He scowled, and Clara immediately regretted her choice of words. "I'm sorry," she muttered quickly.
"Can't you just forget whatever's on your mind?"
Clara bit her lip angrily. "No. You're asking the impossible of me. You can't expect me to just forget-"
She stopped herself right there.
Arthur leaned in an inch closer. "Who can't you forget, Clara?"
She saw in his face that he already knew.
Clara felt the cold creep back into her body, and she took the newspapers to a different desk, away from Arthur and his prying questions and his deduced answers.
Eames sat in the back of the Chicago conference room, quietly taking notes as Stephen Trollope stood and ordered his workers around. They were posing questions on how to manage their sector of the hotel company, and were completely ignoring the British man behind them, who had been introduced as a reporter doing an insider's article into the workings of the company (he had already made arrangements and had shown them his ID), but was really, in fact, a thief.
As the meeting stretched on, Eames was starting to learn Trollope's personality. He was not stubborn. Instead, he seemed more cautious. He was a man who felt safe in his own plans and ideas, instead of other people's suggestions. This was only going to make the Inception harder. Eames sighed quietly as he scratched his temple. And Trollope was loud, too, talking over people and bordering on the edge of rudeness. He was a difficult man, no doubt, but all this information would be vital to the team.
Eames had also acquired some knowledge about Trollope's closest friend. The CEO of Dynasty Resorts had received a phone call in the middle of the meeting. A man named Daniel Tuck. Trollope had paused the meeting just to speak to the man. Eames had jotted down the name quickly, and had picked up a few words about golfing and a dinner.
Throughout the rest of the day, Eames tailed the older man around, asking questions here and there to appear interested. In truth, though, he was secretly observing his every move. What he found annoying, what he approved of, how he expressed himself. He suspected that, this time, analyzing the Mark was just as vital as surveying his ex-wife. He followed the man up and down flights of stairs, around department blocks, in and out of rooms...
Yet his mind kept drifting back to her.
How was she coping back there? Was it cold (of course she was, it was November in London)? Did she feel like a third wheel with Ariadne and Arthur around? He grinned a bit at this thought, then fought the expression off his face. He had no right to joke about her. Not like this, not yet.
"Has anyone told you just how thoughtless you are?"
"Snap out of it," he murmured under his breath, smoothing his hair back as he wrote down a few more words.
This was boring, though. And he had gathered enough information. He was just loitering, continuing on for the sake of it.
How foolish of him. How pointless.
"Has anyone told you just how thoughtless you are?" Clara snapped at him, following him up the empty and dark lamp-lit street.
"You're not the first to say so, love," Eames retorted through gritted teeth. He quickened his pace, trying to lose her, but she was suddenly in front of him like a (fragile) brick wall.
"Has it never occurred to you that your actions actually have consequences?"
"Oh, no, Ms. Etheridge. That has never occurred to me."
"Don't be sarcastic, Eames. You...you shot a man today!"
Eames stopped trying to walk around her and stared at her. "I was trying to protect us. That man was out to kill, don't you get it?"
"Only because we stole from him-"
"Oh, I'm not allowed to steal, but it's fine for him to try and kill me?"
Clara's eyes hardened. "Exactly my point. Stealing has consequences."
"I seem to remember that you were actually willing to help me with this one. Hypocrisy has no place here, so if you're quite done lecturing me-"
"I'm not lecturing you. I'm trying to get you to grow up!"
"Grow up?" Eames spat out with a laugh. "Grow up?! No. You grow up, Clara. The world isn't full of good people and you can't expect me to be so - so goddamn normal!"
Eames snarled in frustration and kicked the pavement. "Oh for God's sake you know what I mean! We're not like you, Clara. We don't live in the same world as you do. We can't see your fucking quixotic reality. We're not perfect people; we're twisted and - I'm bloody sorry to tell you this - we simply can't live up to your expectations!"
"You think Arthur's some kind of angel? Get real. He's fake, like the rest of us. And you think Cobb is any better? You can't change us, darling. We were born fucked up."
Clara shook her head, and Eames wanted to reach out and shake her. "You're not fucked up, Eames," she stated strongly. The swear word sounded so heavy on her tongue. Eames looked away.
"I am. You keep saying so."
"No, you're not. You're just-"
"Scary." Eames took a step forward. "Are you scared of me?"
He felt a vivid memory of skin and moaned breaths envelop him.
"No." She was glowering at him, but even as he watched, those eyes began to change. Soften. Dim.
"I'm not scared of you," Clara replied coldly, and stepped away from him. "I'm scared that you don't care."