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Fic: "How to Know," Inception, Mature (1/3)

Title: How to Know
Fandom: Inception
Characters/Pairing: Arthur/Cobb
Rating: Mature/R (sex, language)
Word count: 22000
Summary: Arthur builds a relationship with Cobb, which begins as casual sex between friends and gradually becomes more. But as it does so, Arthur's lack of confidence in Cobb weighs on him.

Notes: Written for the following inception_kink prompt: "Arthur notices that Cobb still wears his wedding ring when they're dreaming." I posted it there anonymously, and now I've cleaned it up a bit and am reposting. Not sure how it got to be this long!


Cobb has both hands on Arthur's head. The heaviness and warmth make Arthur feel like he's in a fever dream. He runs one hand through Arthur's hair, not rough but nonetheless pulling hard enough that Arthur's scalp will be tender. He runs his left hand down the side of Arthur's head, over his ear, before resting it on his neck.


This is how Arthur notices the ring. He feels the metal band against his skin, like a reminder of why he should feel bad about this.


Arthur's jaw and tongue are starting to ache, but he doesn't stop. He strains his eyes upward, trying to look at Cobb's face without removing the cock from his mouth. Cobb's eyes are closed and his lips are parted. The usual lines are gone from his forehead and around his eyes, making him look five years younger. It might just be the light.


Arthur closes his own eyes, only to open them again when Cobb tightens his grip on his hair and chokes out "Jesus. . ."


That's the only warning he gets before Cobb comes in his mouth. He quickly swallows, and most of it ends up down his throat before the taste can settle on his tongue.


He sits back on his heels and looks up. Cobb winces.


"Sorry. I wanted to warn you."


Arthur shakes his head. "Don't worry about it." He nearly mentions that he's tasted come before.


He stands up, ignoring the stiffness in his knees. Cobb reaches out, hooking a hand in the waistband of Arthur's pants. He pulls Arthur close and unbuckles his belt.


* * *




As it turns out, Arthur is wrong. In the following weeks, he spends as many nights in Cobb's bed as he does in his own.


There's always something . . . tentative about it. Cobb will touch him lightly, like he expects Arthur to shy away. When he invites Arthur to his room, he keeps his voice casual, like it doesn't matter to him, and like he thinks Arthur will refuse.


Arthur, of course, never does.


A couple weeks after that first night, the wedding band is gone. The only sign of its existence is a ring of skin that's a couple shades lighter than the rest of Cobb's hand.


Arthur never imagines it's because of him. It's just how Cobb deals with stuff. He doesn't close the door on the past; he slams it in its face. It's impossible to spend much time dreaming with someone without learning how their mind works.


The first time Arthur leaves in between jobs, he doesn't tell Cobb until after the plane ticket is purchased.


"Just for a few weeks," he says. "I've gotta take care of some stuff."


He never promised to stay by Cobb's side. He still has his own life.


Cobb nods and takes a bite of his food. They're in a restaurant, having dinner. It's not a date.


After he swallows, he says, "No, that's fine. Do what you need to. I'll call you if a job comes up."


He sounds disappointed, but Arthur doesn't acknowledge it.


A couple months later, Arthur meets up with Cobb in Athens. Cobb has found them another extraction job, and Arthur is barely off the plane when they're sitting in an outdoor café, waiting for this new client. When he looks at Cobb's hands in the sunlight, there's no sign he ever wore a ring at all.



* * *





The next time Arthur notices Cobb's ring, they're in a dream.


To say Arthur pays attention to detail would be an understatement. This is why he's so good. This is how he tells dreams from reality.


He knows what to look for. He knows how to tell the difference between a real building and a maze that looks like one, and a real person and a projection. Cobb talks about using his totem to tell reality from a dream, but Arthur has never worried about being confused, not even after Mal's death. When he chose his own totem, he was thinking about someone trying to dupe him, make him believe he was in his own dream when he was really in theirs. Perhaps this says something about the level of trust he places in people.


At the moment, he's walking around Cobb's newest maze. It looks like they're in the lobby of an office building. When Arthur looks down, he can see his and Cobb's reflection in the marble floor.


"I'm hoping that by making the level an office," Cobb says, "we can bring Mr. Pappas down here and he'll associate it with his work."


"But this isn't his office. He'll know that."


"Right, but I don't think that'll be a problem. We can make him think he's here to meet with us, get him to tell us the development plans directly."


Arthur nods. That will take some acting, but nothing beyond what they're used to. It's just a simple extraction job. Corporate secrets are some of the easiest to prise out of a subject.


The late-afternoon sunlight shines on them through the plate glass windows. Arthur sees it reflect off something metallic and looks down.


Cobb is wearing his wedding band, for the first time in months. But then Arthur realizes he probably never stopped wearing it in his dreams. Arthur's eyes linger on it.


It shouldn't surprise him, but it does. Cobb never talks about Mal. There are times when it's easy to forget what brought them here in the first place. Perhaps he wants to forget what brought them together.


Arthur can't help but think back to this morning, when he was in the shower with Cobb, making up for time spent apart. There's no logical reason for Cobb's wedding band to make Arthur feel guilty, but it does.


Deciding to focus on work, he lets Cobb lead him around the rest of the lobby, showing off his handiwork. Projections, men and women in suits, walk past them with briefcases. Arthur smiles and nods at a woman sitting at the reception desk.


Then he spots someone off the side, sitting on a bench on the far end of the lobby. He stops, initially assuming his eyes have tricked him. But when he looks, he sees he was right. Mal is sitting there, watching them.


"Cobb," he says. When Cobb turns, Arthur nods in Mal's direction.


He can hear the hitch in Cobb's breath.


"It's nothing," Cobb says.


"Really? Because –"


Before he can get the words out, he hears the faint sound of music. Cobb notices it, too, and looks at the ceiling.


"Let's just finish this. We'll be waking up soon."


Cobb walks away, and Arthur begins to follow. He resists the temptation to look back at Mal.


The next thing he knows, he's waking up in a chair in Cobb's hotel room. He blinks, gets his bearings, and reaches to pull the canula out of his arm.


In front of him, on the bed, Cobb stirs and finally sits up.


"What was that?" Arthur asks.


"What was what?"


"You know what I mean. Mal showing up."


Cobb inhales deeply and swings his legs around to the floor. He runs a hand through his hair. "I told you. It's nothing."


Like that, he shuts down. Won't meet Arthur's eyes.

When he thinks about Mal, and the wedding ring, Arthur realizes what he really knew all along: that Cobb is still married, in heart if not by law. If Cobb thinks he's really buried anything, he's deluding himself.


That night, Arthur sleeps alone.



* * *




A few months later, Cobb says, "I think we should look for an architect."


Arthur is sitting in front of the PASIV with a screwdriver in his hand and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He does routine maintenance on the device every couple weeks, just to make sure everything is in working order.


He looks up at Cobb and says, "You're an architect."


Cobb is staring at the floor. "Yeah, but you can't do a job with two people. You can't take care of all the angles when you're juggling different roles. It doesn't work."


That's bullshit. They've pulled it off with just the two of them more often than not. And Arthur can argue about weak links, and how the more people there are on a job, the better the chance one of them will screw up.


But they've worked with others sometimes, too. The dream sharing community is small, and the illegal dream sharing community is even smaller. At first, there'd been some intention of keeping their business to themselves, but they need connections to buy Somnacin and find jobs.


"And you've made it clear you're not comfortable designing large levels," Cobb says, "so the only option we have is to find an architect."


Arthur shoots him a glare, not happy with the patronizing tone or the implication that this is somehow his problem. Like he should have gotten an architecture degree instead of enlisting in the army straight out of high school.


In his annoyance, he asks, "Is this 'cause of Mal showing up?"


"No," Cobb says, too quickly. "That's not the problem."


"Then why don't you want to build anymore? You used to live for it."


"Yeah, well, if I want to build I can do that on my own time. As for Mal . . . everyone has projections of people they know. It'd stranger if she never showed up at all."


Arthur rests his arms on his knees and dangles the screwdriver from his hand. He doesn't say anything.


What Arthur wants to say is that shared dreaming doesn't work like that. Sure, shared dreaming, just like natural dreaming, takes place in the subconscious. But it's not totally subconscious. There's logic and control to it.


Arthur has projections of everyone he's ever met or seen. But his sister or his old drill sergeant isn't going to show up in the middle of a job, because Arthur is in control and they don't belong there.


He doesn't say this because he'd just be repeating what Cobb already knows.


Arthur's gut tells him something is wrong. It feels like things are going backwards, getting harder as time goes by instead of easier.


The Pappas job went all right. But on the next job, right in the middle of it, Arthur lost contact with Cobb for over a half hour, maybe a few minutes in real time. Cobb was supposed to give him a signal to set off an explosion, and it never came. In the end, Arthur had to improvise. When they woke up, Cobb said he got the information they were after, and wouldn't say anything more. But he was shaken, and Arthur could tell they'd been lucky, even if he didn't know why.


Arthur didn't ask about it. And he doesn't ask what Cobb does when he hooks himself up to the PASIV alone. He tells himself that if there were a problem, a serious problem, Cobb would say something.


Maybe Arthur just wants to trust him. If there's anyone he wants to trust, to take that leap of faith on, it's Cobb.


Arthur lifts his screwdriver and checks that all the screws in the PASIV are tight. He dusts off the device with a microfiber cloth before closing it.


"I was gonna go back to the hotel," Cobb says. "You want to come with me? To my room, I mean."


When Arthur doesn't answer right away, Cobb says, "I bought some condoms."


Arthur chuckles. "Is that supposed to impress me?" he asks with a smile. "That you were brave enough to go into a drug store and pick up a box of condoms? We're not teenagers."


Cobb grins. "It was a statement of fact. You interested or not?"


He is, of course. He actually likes Cobb's inelegance. When it comes to work, Cobb always knows what to say. If he were more comfortable viewing himself as a liar and a thief, Cobb would make a damn good conman.


When it's just the two of them, Cobb's more hesitant and less confident, and it makes him seem honest. Arthur likes that.


Later, when it's dark and quiet, they're tangled, naked, in the sheets of Cobb's bed. Arthur starts to get up, and Cobb stops him and says, "What's the hurry?"


Arthur stops, but doesn't lie back down. "I’m going up to my room. If I have to pay for it, I'm gonna actually use it."


"Just stay for a bit, okay?" His tone is serious, like it's important.


Wordlessly, Arthur tucks himself back in the bed, wrapping his body in the covers. He feels Cobb's foot against his shin.


For a few minutes, they don't speak. Arthur can hear the faint sound of the TV in the next room.


"I wish things could be different," Cobb says. His voice is strained. "I really do."


"Don't know what you're talking about," Arthur says. He's not sure if it sounds reassuring or defensive, but he's being mostly honest. He's not sure what Cobb means, though he can imagine it has something to do with the tension lately when they go under, and the reason Cobb is looking for an architect.


He waits until Cobb is asleep, and then he carefully climbs out of bed, gets dressed, and sneaks out.


* * *



Arthur is frequently accused of being either overly confident or overly cynical.


This amuses him, both because of the contradiction of it, and the fact that he likes to think he knows himself, and he's not nearly that one-note.


When Arthur likes someone and they start to share personal things, he occasionally tells the story of his high school swimming championship.


The story goes that Arthur was on the swim team for a while. He wasn't the best, but he was good enough to make it to championships in his junior year when one of the guys who was better than him got sick. He never expected to win, and he didn't. He exhausted a lot of energy not letting anyone see how scared he was, and when it was over, he was just glad he did passably well, that he didn't embarrass his coach, his team, or his school. When senior year came, he quit swimming, and told everyone he just didn't have the time for it.


Arthur can tell a lot about someone from how they react. Some people ask him why he would quit something he enjoyed, just because he didn't win many medals. Others act like they understand, but Arthur can tell they really don't: they would care about the medals, but Arthur didn't. Not really.


When Cobb heard this story, he smiled and asked, "So, can you still swim?"


They'd only known each other for a couple days, after meeting at one of the few lectures on PASIV technology that were open to the public, and therefore open to Arthur.


"You don't forget how to swim," he said.


"No, I mean, if you raced me, do you think you could win?"


Arthur looked at him for a moment, trying to read his expression. Then he chuckled, a little nervously. "Depends on how good you are."


Somehow, this led to a challenge, and the next afternoon they walked down to the beach from their hotel with Mal following behind, carrying a beach blanket and a straw tote bag.


While Cobb walked to the edge of the water, Arthur stayed with Mal for a minute while she unfolded her blanket, opened her bag, and pulled out a bottle of sun block and a dog-eared paperback written in French.


She looked up at him, her face partially obscured by her wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. "Did Dom mention he's a swimmer?"


Arthur looked at Cobb, who was surveying the ocean with a hand over his eyes, and then back at Mal. "Competitively? No, I guess he forgot."


Mal smirked. "When we met, he was competing in long distance events. On our first date, we were on a boat and he told me if it sank, I could cling to his back and he'd get us to shore in under an hour. I believe he was just trying to impress me, but he is very strong."


Dom called him over then, and pointed to a buoy bobbing in the water maybe fifty yards away. "That look good to you?"


Arthur nodded. "Let's do it."


Unlike Cobb, Arthur has never swum competitively in open water. But since high school, he's spent a lot more time at the beach than the pool. He knows how to swim in the ocean.


He lost the race, but only by a second. He reached the buoy right after Cobb, and then they both held onto it, bobbing up and down in the water, while they caught their breath.


Arthur looked at the beach, which looked much farther away than it really was. He could still make out Mal. She lifted her head and waved at them, and Cobb waved back.


"Thanks for the race," Cobb said, raising his voice above the sound of the water breaking around them. "You're right, you're good."


It was a calm day, perfect for a swim, but water still pushed against them, trying to propel them back toward the shore. Better than being propelled away from it, Arthur figured. The water was cool, almost cold, and Arthur didn't want to spend too much time in it.


"You never said you've competed before. Asshole."


"Never said I hadn't. If I wanted to be an asshole, I would have put money on this."


Arthur's legs were getting tired from treading water. He was about to suggest they swim back when Cobb said, "Mal and I have a PASIV."


"Really?"


"Yeah, you should come by our room later. We'll show it to you."


Cobb pushed off the buoy and started back toward the shore. Arthur took a deep breath and followed.


The point of the high school swimming championship story isn't that Arthur only cared about winning. It's that he doesn't like setting himself up for inevitable disappointment and humiliation. He's not overconfident by any means, but he doesn't think he's cynical, either. He prefers to see himself as sensible.


That day, while he followed Cobb back onto the beach and watched the water drip down his bare back, a seed planted itself in his mind. Later, alone in his hotel room, Arthur imagined Cobb knocking on his door. He pictured how it would go: the rough, passionate kissing before Cobb would pull him to the bed and strip him out of his clothes.


Never for a moment did he expect it to become reality. Maybe sometimes, in the months that followed, Cobb would look at him or smile in a certain way, but Arthur wasn't one to dwell on things like that.


So, Arthur can be forgiven for being skeptical. He finds he's happier if he assumes he won't get the things he wants.


These days, Cobb tries to reassure him. After they fuck, he mentions the men he was with before Mal, old college experimentation, stuff like that.


"You're not gay," Arthur tells him. They're lying in bed, and Arthur is reaching around under the covers for his boxers, which got lost hours ago.


"So what? Besides, Arthur, you've been with more women than I have. I guarantee it."


"I've experimented a lot."


"So have I."


Arthur finally feels the waistband of his boxers with his foot. He tries to hook them on his ankle and use his foot to pull them into reach.


"Experimentation means you're willing to try. It's not something you base any decisions on."


Arthur knows all about it. He certainly made enough vain attempts at heterosexuality when he was younger. As for Cobb, it's not that he doesn't believe he could be bisexual. The fact he's interested in fucking men at all makes it pretty likely. But in Arthur's own experience, bisexuality is something he hopes for when the men he's interested in start telling him about their former girlfriends. But so far, all the men he's been interested in have simply been straight.


Believing Cobb could be capable of genuine feeling for him seems risky, and Arthur doesn't set himself up for failure.


Cobb reaches out and presses a finger against Arthur's shoulder. "This isn't experimentation," he says softly. "I know what I like."


Maybe that's true, or maybe he's just trying to reassure him. If it's the latter, it does work, in a way. Arthur figures the chances of getting together with his widowed bisexual friend are substantially better than the chances of getting together with his widowed straight friend.


Regardless, lying in bed with Cobb is the only time Arthur ever considers that his life might actually be a dream. His fingers itch for his totem.



* * *




After Arthur helps perform inception, the only member of his old team that he keeps in touch with is Ariadne.


More accurately, she's the only one who keeps in touch with him. When they first met, he'd scribbled down his phone number and e-mail for her, and she hasn't been shy about using them. He doesn’t mind. Sometimes, if he doesn't hear from her for a while, he calls her. Just to touch base.


"I crossed the channel over to England," she tells him one afternoon, "and I met up with that guy you and Eames told me about. Mike?"


"Oh, yeah, was he able to help you out?"


"Yeah, he was great. I have my own PASIV now."


Arthur is in his hotel room, holding his phone between his shoulder and his ear while he tries to make a cup of coffee. "Need any help with it?"


"I think I have it all figured out, but if I don't, you know I'll call."


"So no more dreamcades for you, then?"


She laughs. "Right. It really doesn't compare."


"We spoiled you. It's like driving a go-cart after you've had a Ferrari."


Arthur is admittedly biased against dreamcades, mostly because he hates seeing one of his life's passions reduced to cheap entertainment. Even so, he's glad to see Ariadne being proactive. The question of whether encouraging her interest is wise crossed his mind briefly and then never returned. Arthur likes her willingness to explore, and he's not around to be anyone's father or conscience.


"Have you talked to Cobb lately?" she asks.


He pauses, wondering if he was supposed to have spoken to him, and if he's missed something important. "Not that recently. Why? Have you?"


"I've only talked to him a couple times. I . . . don't want to intrude, you know?"


Arthur knows exactly what she means.


* * *




Arthur arrives at Cobb's house on a Friday evening in June. It's shaping up to be an agonizing summer, and when he parks his rental car in the driveway and gets out, it feels like stepping into a sauna.


He's texted Cobb telling him he's running late, but Cobb still opens the door before Arthur has a chance to ring the bell.


"Let me help you with your bags," Cobb says.


"This is it," Arthur says, indicating the bag on his shoulder. "The airline lost my suitcase."


Cobb nods at Arthur's bag. "You got everything important?"


"You know me, always prepared." Arthur has flown enough to take precautions. He always takes as much as he can in his carry-on luggage.


Arthur steps inside and notices the children. Phillipa is standing behind her father, and James is further back, partially hidden behind a doorway. Arthur wonders if they remember him. It's been a while.


Cobb follows Arthur's gaze and smiles. "Phillipa, James, you remember Arthur, right?"


James hides himself further, and Phillipa tugs on Cobb's shirt.


"Can we eat now?" she asks.


"Sure," Cobb says. He looks up at Arthur. "I was thinking we could go out, but if you're tired from the flight, we can order in."


"No, anything's fine."


They end up eating at a restaurant a few minutes' drive away. After they finish dinner, Arthur and Cobb talk while Phillipa and James eat their child-sized sundaes.


"You all right?" Cobb asks him. "I couldn't help noticing your face." He touches his own cheek to indicate what he's talking about.


Arthur has almost forgotten about the bruise on his left cheek. Or, at least, he's learned to ignore the pain when he uses of any of the muscles in that area.


"It's nothing," he says. "Just this job I was doing." Cobb looks concerned and Arthur quickly adds, "It was this guy I was working with. We had some creative differences."


"Yeah? That I would have liked to have seen."


"You'd like to see me get knocked out?"


Cobb laughs and shakes his head. "No, I mean I just can't imagine you getting into it with someone like that."


"Yeah, well, it made me miss working with you, I'll tell you that."


Arthur feels something brush against his hand. He looks down to see that, for the fourth time tonight, James has pushed his placemat over to him. It's one of those coloring placemats, and it has a scene of a kid skateboarding on it. James seems to prefer to have Arthur color it in, so Arthur absently picks up a green crayon and fills in the kid's shirt for a minute before doodling cubes in the margins instead.


Cobb takes a sip of water and says, "I've missed you a lot, too."



* * *





When they get back to the house, it's dark. James has fallen asleep in the back seat of the car, and doesn't wake up until Cobb unstraps him from his car seat.


Cobb fumbles with the front door lock while balancing James on his hip. Phillipa trails behind, stooping down to watch some insect that's slithering across the front path. When Cobb calls her over, she pushes past Arthur and runs to the door.


Arthur watches all this and wonders if he should offer some sort of assistance. It doesn't seem like his place.


In the foyer, Cobb turns to Arthur and says, "I have to get these two ready for bed. If you want, you can make some coffee."


Arthur goes to do just that. If this were anyone else's house, he'd feel uncomfortable making anything in their kitchen. It's been a few months since he's seen Cobb, but it clearly hasn't severed any sense of intimacy he might have.


The coffee has long finished brewing by the time Cobb reemerges. He pours himself a cup and says, "Want to go out on the porch?"


Arthur follows him out back. Cobb leaves the glass door open but turns the porch light off, to discourage insects, probably.


The house is surrounded by trees, creating the illusion of isolation. Arthur has only been here once or twice before, back when Cobb and Mal first bought the place, so he doesn't remember it much. He suspects that during the day, the neighboring houses are more visible. But right now, the only sign that they're not alone is a few faint lights through the trees, and the sound of laughter from an open window in the house to the right.


It's not what Arthur would choose. He's never seen himself settling down in suburbia. Then again, it's been a while since he's seen himself doing anything. He's never functioned well without an objective in front of him.


He wonders how Cobb copes with success.


"Congratulations," Arthur says, "it looks like everything's worked out great for you."


There's a heavy pause before Cobb says, "Yeah, I guess so."


"Do you miss it at all? Extraction?"


Another pause. "I don't know. I guess not. Too soon to tell, maybe. Who have you been working with these days?"


Arthur takes a sip of his coffee. It's too warm for it, but it tastes good. He sits down on a wood and wrought-iron bench against the wall. Cobb is standing with his back to him, leaning on the railing overlooking the back yard.


"The guy who slugged me is named Tomas."


"Never heard of him."


"He doesn't have much of a reputation yet. He works with an architect named Elena."


"She any good?"


"She's decent. Has some strange ideas about dreams, though. I think she's read too much Freud."


Cobb murmurs unintelligibly. Arthur says, "I'll be honest; I wish I could be working, but you know how it is. It's so damn hard to find decent people, let alone a client who won't screw you over. I probably need a vacation, anyway."


"You still got your apartment to go home to?"


Arthur smiles, even though Cobb can't see it. He ignores the pain from the bruise on his face. "Haven't had it for a while. Couldn't justify paying for a place I barely lived in. I put my stuff in storage."


He can't remember if he's told Cobb this before or not. He let his lease run out almost a year ago, long before the Fischer job. Either he forgot to mention it, or Cobb has forgotten. Maybe one of them should feel embarrassed.


They don't speak for a few minutes. The silence reminds him of the countless hours he and Cobb have spent together on airplanes and in cars, and how much he misses how things used to be. Of course he's happy for Cobb. He wouldn't change how things turned out for anything. But he still misses the old days.


Eventually, Cobb clears his throat. "There's something I wanted to say." He starts to look over his shoulder, but stops. "I know things didn't exactly go as planned on the Fischer job. And I'm sorry about that."


"I know," Arthur says, quickly, because nothing makes him uncomfortable like receiving an apology. "I am too."


"And I'm sorry if I did something to drive you way." Cobb says this with an unconvincing touch of laughter to his voice, like he's trying to make it sound half-joking even though it isn't.


This, Arthur doesn't expect, because it's not like he's gone out of his way to avoid Cobb. It isn't like he would have ignored a call or e-mail. Hell, he answered Cobb's invitation, didn't he? He's here.


"No. No, it's not like that," he says.


"Yeah? I thought you might be avoiding me. I thought you might feel guilty, because of Mal."


"I don't." He wonders if it would have been more polite to say he does. He adds, "I figure she would have wanted you to be happy."


Cobb nods. "I guess she would. I don't know if she would have wanted me to be with someone else, though. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not saying she was jealous, or possessive, or anything like that. She wasn't, at all. But I don't think either of us ever considered what we'd do if something if . . . if something happened, you know?"


"I figure it's none of my business."


"But the thing is . . . I've never been good at self-denial. When I really want something, it's hard not to go after it."


Arthur should say something, but this is probably more than Cobb has said about them, or about Mal, in the past year. If ever. How the hell does he respond? He wishes he could have a cigarette, but thinks he might overstep his bounds as a guest if he does.


Cobb clears his throat again. "I just wanted to say that."


Normally, Arthur might say something like, "So, this is why you called me to fly halfway around the world?" But he's smart enough to know he'll sound like a bastard if he does, and he's not a bastard.


And besides, whatever Cobb is saying, Arthur believes it's the truth. Cobb is a good liar, and Arthur's life is easier if he doesn't trust people, but this time, he believes he's hearing is the truth. He owes some truth in return, and tonight, he's not sure what that is.


He lets the silence linger for a minute, and then says, "If you don't mind, I'd like to settle in soon. I had a long flight today, you know? Maybe you could show me the guest room."


Cobb turns around, frowns, and nods. "Right, the guest room. Of course. Let's do that now."


They step back inside. Arthur leaves his empty coffee mug in the kitchen, and collects his bag from where he left it in the foyer earlier. When they reach the hall, Cobb steps softly as they walk past the cracked-open doors to the children's rooms.


The guest room is at the end of the hall. Cobb turns on the light and says, his voice low, "I went ahead and unfolded the futon and put all the bedding on it. You should be comfortable."


"It'll be fine, thanks."


Cobb lingers, like he'd like to say more, but he eventually nods, says goodnight, and leaves.


It's not that late, but Arthur has been in Portugal for the last two weeks. Now he's in California. Arthur can fight jet lag, but it's a luxury not to have to. He gets out his toiletries and goes to the bathroom to get ready for bed. Once he's back in his room, he promptly strips down to his boxers (he had pajamas; they were lost with the rest of his luggage) and crawls into the bed prepared for him. It isn't difficult to fall asleep, even with his conversation with Cobb rattling around in his brain.


He wakes, abruptly, later that night. His legs are twisted in the sheets and his heart is racing. He reaches for his travel alarm clock and hits the button to illuminate the display -- it's after two in the morning.


He doesn't dwell on the details of the nightmare, and they slowly fade until they're almost harmless. The latest study on shared dreaming, done by MIT last year, found that subjects who used Somnacin "frequently" suffered from nightmares and troubled sleep as soon as two days after discontinuing use of the drug. Arthur could have told them that. Now, he counts the days and realizes he's past due for withdrawal symptoms.


His PASIV is in his bag. It adds over twenty pounds and is the reason he couldn't pack pajamas, but he always, always keeps his PASIV by his side. He thinks about hooking himself up now, but he'd have to get up to wash his hands before handling the IV line. In spite of the nightmare, he's still too tired to want to get out of bed.


While he considers it, he hears a noise coming from what he thinks is the kitchen. He listens intently for a moment, but is quickly assured that the sounds are that of someone familiar with the house, getting a drink or a snack, and not an intruder.


He's not the only one awake.


And with that, he realizes he wants to get up. He wants to go to Cobb, and drop the pretense he hardly knows he's keeping. It's hard to stay in bed and listen, each second bringing him closer to a missed opportunity. He keeps telling himself that that in another minute, he'll get up. Eventually, he hears receding footsteps, and the sound of a door being closed.


Arthur wants a lot of things, and if he thinks about them too much, he starts to wonder why he shouldn't have them. Unlike Cobb, however, Arthur is good at self-denial.


* * *




At breakfast the next morning, Arthur stands to the side with a cup of coffee while he watches Cobb struggle with the kids.


James takes one bite of his oatmeal and immediately spits it back in the bowl. Cobb sees this and looks a little horrified, like it never occurred to him that a three-year-old could be capable of it.


"James, no. That's disgusting. You know better than that."


James frowns. "But I don't like it."


"How can you not like it?" Cobb says, his voice growing exasperated. "You liked it yesterday."


"He probably wants more sugar," Phillipa says. She's stirring her oatmeal with a spoon, and is taking a bite every twenty seconds or so. "But I'm eating my breakfast. See?"


"Yeah, that's great, sweetheart. Do you think maybe you could eat it a little faster?"


She keeps stirring. "Grandma said if we eat too fast, we'll choke."


Cobb visibly considers this for a second. "That's true . . . but I think we can eat the oatmeal a little faster than this, okay?"


Phillipa looks at James, and then back at Cobb. "Grandma made us pancakes."


James perks up at this and smiles hopefully.


"Well, we can't make pancakes today," Cobb says, but there's no strength behind it. "Just eat your breakfast, please."


Arthur keeps his distance. When he looks at Cobb, he sees low-level panic in his eyes, like he's just waiting for everything to fall apart.


The kids can probably see it, too. Hell, they can feed off it.


Arthur pointedly looks at his watch. "Hey, if you don't mind, I think I'm going to do some shopping this morning. I need to replace a few things from my luggage."


The best planning aside, he can only go so long without the stuff the airline lost. But more importantly, he just wants to get out for a bit. He wants to see the area, and he feels like he needs to clear his head.


Cobb turns to him. He looks almost happy for the distraction. "Oh, sure. Actually, I've got an appointment today, myself. That's why I'm trying to get these two fed. One second . . . ."


He leaves the table and goes through the door that Arthur believes leads to the study. A few minutes later, he returns and hands Arthur a brass key.


"Here, it's a house key. That way you can let yourself in if I'm gone."


Arthur goes ahead and puts it on his key chain, even though he expects to give it back by the end of the day.


He spends most of the morning away from the house. He gets his own breakfast from a fast food place, and spends the rest of his time getting the few items he needs. He doesn't rush; this is supposed to be a vacation, after all, and he rarely gets a chance to enjoy his surroundings when he travels.


When he gets back, Cobb's car is gone. He's glad – he likes the idea of having some time by himself. He uses the key on the door and steps inside, freezing only when he hears the television on.


He follows the sound to the living room. There's a teenage girl sitting on the sofa, watching TV. The kids are on the floor, playing with a Monopoly set.


"Hello?"


The girl jumps and turns. She puts a hand on her chest and says, "Oh, are you Arthur?"


"Yeah . . . ."


"Mr. Cobb said you're staying here."


He stares at her, and she smiles nervously, exposing a line of metal braces.


"I'm Liz? The babysitter?"


"Ah, right," he says with a nod, even though Cobb hasn't mentioned anything about this girl. At least the kids seem comfortable with her.


He returns to the hall and finally sees a note in Cobb's handwriting sitting on the narrow mahogany table against the wall.


Arthur, it says, I'll be back soon. Liz is watching the kids. If she needs to go home, tell her I'll pay her later.


He hears a soft noise, and turns to see Liz leaning against the wall, staring at him. She crosses one foot over the over, bending the foam sole of her green sandal.


"So, should I stay or what?"


"What did Mr. Cobb say to do?"


She just shrugs.


"Then stay, I guess." He doesn't think he should take it upon himself to dismiss the babysitter. And anyway, he feels like resting. He looks Liz up and down and asks, "How old are you?"


"Fourteen."


"You live nearby?"


She nods and points in the direction of the front door. "Yeah, just across the street."


"I'm going to be in the guest room. Just . . . knock if you need anything, okay?"


He carries his shopping bags into his bedroom and closes the door. Now that it's daylight and he's not quite as exhausted, he can take in his surroundings better. It's not so much a bedroom but storage room for old furniture.


Arthur remembers when Cobb and Mal bought this place. They finally had the money, so they furnished the house almost entirely from scratch. Arthur recognizes the furniture in this room from the apartment they lived in when he first met them. The futon, the lamp in the corner, the glass-top desk. It makes him smile.


Because Cobb put him in here, it doesn't feel like snooping to open the closet doors and take a look inside. There are several boxes, some cardboard, some plastic. They have labels on them that say things like "Clothes" and "Books" and "Photographs."


He gets an idea of what he's looking at, and almost closes the doors right then, because this stuff isn't for him to see. But he wants to know if he's right, so he lifts the lid off the "Clothes" container and dips his hand inside. His fingers touch smooth satin and beaded trim. A dress, he guesses. A nice cocktail dress, probably.


That's enough to confirm it: These are Mal's belongings.


Or at least some of them. He's sure she had more things than could fit here. Perhaps everything else has been disposed of and given to Goodwill. It makes perfect sense, of course, to keep only those things that are actually valuable, that hold memories, that one of the children might want someday. It's more rational than Arthur would have given Cobb credit for.


He replaces the lid on "Clothes" and closes the closet doors. He knows when to back away.


He sits on the futon and removes his shoes. The kids are laughing and shrieking in the family room, and Liz's voice can just be heard above the din. But he must be more tired than he gave himself credit for, because when he lies back and closes his eyes, it doesn't take long for him to block out the noise and doze off.


It feels like no time at all when he opens his eyes again to the sound of Cobb's voice. According to his watch, it's been an hour. He stretches, gets up, and wanders out of the room in stocking feet. He runs a hand through his hair to make sure it's not too mussed.


Cobb is in the kitchen talking to Liz. He looks up and smiles when Arthur comes in.


"Hey," Cobb says to Liz, "can you stay a little longer?"


Liz is leaning on the kitchen island, twirling her mousy brown hair around her finger. "Sure."


"I was thinking Arthur and I might do some work today. With the machine. Just five, ten minutes." He waves a hand casually through the air.


When he says this, Liz stands up straight. She glances at Arthur and her eyes are alert, intrigued. She turns back to Cobb and says, "Cool! What can I do?"


Cobb smiles. "Just keep an eye on the kids."


He walks over to Arthur, slaps a hand on his shoulder, and says, "What do you say? Feel like going under for a bit?"


Of course he does. His head is itching for it. But when he joins Cobb in the master bedroom a few minutes later, he has questions. Knowing he may only get the chance to ask one, he takes a minute to decide.


Finally, he asks, "You told the babysitter about this? About dream sharing?"


"I told her enough. I just don't like going under when the kids are unattended. If anything happened, I wouldn't wake up. Five minutes is probably safe, but still . . . ."


Cobb steps inside the walk-in closet and turns on the light. Along one side hangs a neat row of shirts, suits, and pants. The other side is conspicuously bare. In the middle, on the floor, is a large safe. Cobb kneels in front of it.


Arthur has never been in here before. It's clean and neat, but lived in, a contrast to the impersonal hotel rooms he's lived in as of late. The pillows on the bed are crooked. There's a magazine laid open on top of the bedspread. The bed itself is big – it looks larger than a queen, but Arthur can't be sure.


Cobb's voice draws his attention. "Liz is a good kid, don't worry."


"Oh, that's the worst type. She'll probably get scared and tell her parents you use drugs while she's here."


"No, I don't think so." Cobb looks over his shoulder. "What's your deal, huh? You use teenagers all the time."


Arthur bristles at that. He could say that paying some kid to help with surveillance or set up a musical countdown on a job isn't "using" anyone, but he doesn't. Instead, he says, "I never hire anyone who knows my name and home address."


Cobb just shakes his head, but Arthur's caution has kept them out of trouble more times than Arthur can count, and he thinks they both know that.


Cobb opens the safe. Arthur's close enough to get a look at the inside – there's the PASIV, several bottles of Somnacin, Cobb's gun, what looks like a box of ammo, a jewelry box, and a stack of papers. Cobb removes the PASIV and lays it on the bed, setting the magazine aside as he does so.


"I thought maybe you'd quit this," Arthur says.


"No," Cobb says, softly. He runs a hand over the top of the PASIV. "I don't know if I'll ever do that."



* * *





"You do realize this building is impossible, right?" Cobb asks with a smug smile.


"Whatever," Arthur says, shaking his head. "Like you've never built any impossible structures."


They're sitting at a table on glass balcony. Arthur can see the ground beneath his feet, several stories below. If this were real, it might be unnerving, but Arthur grew desensitized to dreams a long time ago. It's like watching horror movies – eventually, it stops being scary. Sometimes he envies the people who flock to dreamcades, the people who can still get a proper adrenaline rush from dreaming without having to try too hard.


"A balcony this size needs a lot more support." Cobb says. "It should be falling from its own weight. Not to mention, I hope this glass is secure."


Great, Arthur thinks. The last thing he needs is Cobb forcing architectural realities into his subconscious. Now they probably will fall to their deaths.


There's a glass of wine in front of Arthur that's almost empty, even though he can't remember drinking any of it. He picks it up and downs the last of it.


Cobb sits back in his chair. "I've been thinking about going back into architecture. Real architecture, I mean. Forgive me if I'm particularly observant."


Arthur nods and pushes his chair back. Standing up, he says, "Shall we take a walk around?"


They're in a . . . well, Arthur isn't sure. He's never been great at making up buildings on the fly – he needs a little time to plan. It's some sort of mansion, a resort maybe, in the countryside. The sort people rent out for weddings and things like that. Only instead of a vast Edwardian manor house or seventeenth-century castle, it's a modern building with white walls and rounded corners.


They go downstairs via a long spiral staircase. There's a surprising lack of projections, though Arthur can hear distant voices in another room. He pauses at the foot of the stairs to listen, and the next thing he knows, Cobb has walked on, toward a set of double door leading outside. Arthur hurriedly follows.


In the back there's a hedge maze. Cobb puts his hands in his pockets and looks at it, his expression intrigued.


"What's in there?"


"Nothing," Arthur says. "It's scenery."


Cobb nods. "Let's check it out."


The hedges seem much taller inside than they did outside. They stretch toward the sky, casting shadows that further block the sunlight.


Arthur should know his way around, but he doesn't. Like he told Cobb, it's just scenery. He hasn't planned this out. He reaches a junction and turns left. It's several minutes and a few more turns later when he looks back and realizes Cobb isn't behind him anymore.


"Cobb?" he calls out. "Where are you?"


There's no answer. It's too soon for them to wake up, so Cobb must have taken a different turn somewhere. Arthur curses under his breath and thinks about destroying the damn maze. Then he considers reshaping it to give himself a new, more direct path. Instead, he pushes onward. Soon, he finds himself at a dead end, and then another. By the time he finds what he thinks is the right path, the frustration is making his heart pound.


He can tell he's getting closer to the center, now. When he finally finds it, Cobb is already there, standing with his back to Arthur. There's nothing else there except a stone bench.


Cobb glances over his shoulder. "I always hated mazes like this. There's never anything good waiting for you in the middle, and then you still have to make your way back out."


"It was your idea to come inside."


Arthur walks closer. He puts a hand on Cobb's back. It's an impulse, no better thought-out than this dreamscape he's built. When Cobb turns his head, Arthur kisses him.


Some barrier between them breaks. Cobb turns and pulls Arthur into his arms. When he returns the kiss, it's rough and frantic. Cobb bites his lip, and his stubble is rough on Arthur's face, but that small pain is welcome. It makes the contact feel real.


Cobb grabs a handful of Arthur's shirt and pulls him down to the ground with him. Arthur lands hard on his back and grunts.


"Shit, Cobb, take it easy."


"Sorry." Cobb sits beside him and puts a hand on his stomach. "And you know, you can call me Dom."


Arthur thinks about that while he catches his breath. He imagines how the name Dom sounds in his voice, tries to hear himself using it in conversation. He shakes his head. "I don't know about that. Old habits die hard."


Cobb nods slowly, and finally smiles. "Okay, fair enough." He reaches for Arthur's tie and loosens the knot.


"We don't have much time left," Arthur warns.


"A few more minutes."


"You realize I'm going to be frustrated when we wake up, right?"


"Maybe that's the idea. Maybe I want you thinking about me." He pulls Arthur's tie loose and unbuttons the top of his shirt, exposing his neck. He kisses Arthur down the length of his throat, sucking at his neck hard enough that Arthur would sport bruises if this were real.


Arthur can't help but think about Cobb's projections seeing them. Specifically, maybe he's worried about Mal, but he won't let himself consider the possibility of her showing up. Instead, he wraps a hand around the back of Cobb's head. He runs his fingers through his hair.


The shivers that course through him are from anticipation more than the cool breeze on his bare neck.


Cobb rests his head on Arthur's chest and closes his eyes. He clutches Arthur's shirt in his fists like he's afraid Arthur will disappear if he lets go.


Arthur peers down at Cobb's hands, at the white knuckles and -- and the third finger of his left hand, still wearing a gold wedding ring. He looks away. He turns his head so that his cheek is pressed against the cool grass.


When he wakes up, Cobb is lying beside him on the bed, looking at him.


Silently, Arthur sits up to remove the IV from his wrist. There's a vague sense of unease in his stomach, but it fades and is replaced by determination.


That night, when the kids are in bed and the house is silent, Arthur knocks on Cobb's bedroom door. Cobb is sitting on the edge of the bed, shirtless and wearing a pair of pajama bottoms.


Cobb says, "Thought you might not come. I've been waiting for you."


Arthur walks into the room. The carpet is soft under his bare feet. Cobb gets up, closes the door, and pushes the little button on the doorknob, locking it.



Part 2
Part 3

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