Sunshine slanted through the windows, washing the hardwood floors with summer light. Family pictures lined the hallways in matching cherrywood frames. Eames cleared his throat. "Arthur?"
Arthur turned furious eyes on him. "This must be that damned new mix. Come on, there's guns in the kitchen."
"This didn't happen during testing?" Eames headed toward the Cobbs' kitchen. He'd spent more than enough time there to know the layout blindfolded.
"No, worked perfectly. Pellegri isn't above trying a new mix during a practice run to double his results though."
Eames nodded. He looked around kitchen, taking in the warm wood and granite countertops that were exact replicas of the real thing down to the cracked corner and the bottle that was broken by a stray ball and never removed that lived on top of the corner cabinet. Laughter drifted through the kitchen window, along with the scent of roses and oranges. "Non, petite chou-chou. Hold her in the crook of your arm. There, much easier."
Eames froze. Arthur stepped up to the window. Grief, unfamiliar and angonizing to watch, creased his usually passive face. His left hand lifted to trace the edge of the window, betraying his usual control.
"You will not let Dominich make my daughter a dream-child. And *you* will not make her a dream-child. Comprenz?" The familiar comanding tone informed him.
"Oui, Mal." Projection-Arthur's voice was soft. Eames stepped up to look out at the trio of Mal, Arthur, and infant Phillipa. He rested an arm around his partner's shoulder. "I turned out okay," the memory-Arthur muttered.
"And you have been in therapy with me, non?" Mal scowled at the young man. "And you are here to look after Phillipa because of the damages. What were you thinking?"
"Keep Mal safe. She's pregnant."
Projection-Arthur was a razor thin version of the pointman Eames knew. It was clear that he was still recovering from some sort of major injury. Bandages ran up both arms and there was a healing laceration peeking out from under the worn collar of his tee-shirt. "You have no regard for your own safety."
"How can I relax when you seem dead set on dying?"
Projection-Arthur snorted. "I'll just wake up." Arthur, the real Arthur, made a small wounded noise. Eames pulled him closer.
"This is reality," Mal stated.
"All dream levels feel real when you're in them." Arthur shivered under Eames' hand. "The trick is being willing to live in each layer as though it's real. Right now, this is real. When I next wake up, that layer will be real."
"Oh, Mal," Arthur's voice broke. "If you'd just talked to me!" He turned and buried his face in Eames' shoulder.
"Have you cried for her yet, love?"
"I don't cry." The thickness of the voice that was muffled by Eames' check belied that statement.
"You need to mourn her."
"If she'd talked to me. Told me. God. I could have convinced her to just live in the layer – real or not!" He pulled away, pushing at Eames' chest with both hands. "Guns are on the fridge."
"Promis me you'll stay in this layer, Arthur; that you'll raise my daughter."
"Don't make me promise, Mal. I'll just disappoint you."
Eames fetched the guns. Arthur stared out the back window. "I should be in LA making sure Dom's really gone cold turkey."
"No one I know is supplying him. There's the clinic?"
"Not after what happened with Mal. He's presona non grata. I have connections there."
"We'll need to compare notes."
"Mon Arthur," Mal brushed the hair from Arthur's shoulder. "Is this world so unpleasant? With me, with Dom, with Mr. Eames?"
"Mal, stop. Any dream can be a nightmare. I'm just still fascinated by the puzzles here."
Pellegri smiled widely. "The additive makes it real right?"
"The additive set us down in a memoryscape." Arthur's voice was brittle. The chemist blanched. "We'll try the formula we agreed upon tomorrow. Come, Mr. Eames. Let's leave Marcus to work."
The chemist gulped audibly at the confirmation that Arthur knew his real name. "I'll mix up a new batch right now."
Eames gave the man's shoulder a squeeze. "Chin up, man. He hasn't shot you yet."
Pellegri shuddered. "Is that likely?" He should have gone into a safer line of work – juggling lit dynamite, or lion taming.
"Depends on how good the local bar is."
Arthur's dry chuckle made him jump. "You wish."
Arthur took another sip of Sotch. He was loose in the shoulders now and his hands moved expressively as he talked. "They saved me from the American Academy, you know."
"Bloody Hell, Darling. You were one of *those* dream-children? Explains why you're absolutely terrifying."
Arthur smirked. "Oh, Eames, didn't Mal warn you?"
"Only that you were a dream-child." Eames shrugged. "Plenty of them in the dens. I had thought perhapse one of the brothels. She was always protective of them."
"I was a teacher before I turned ten. Photographic memory. There were seven of them in the Academy, sharing in the dreams. You should see my library."
"And they crushed your imagination."
Arthur shook his head. "I can simply imagine worlds that are realistic. They smell right. They have dirt. The Academy was a castle. Makes Hogwarts seem like a tiny place." He smirked. "We trapped our instructors three levels down, in a dream they thought was real."
"Totems are traps, sweetheart," he said, not unkindly. "We took them down, and in what they thought was reality their totems worked. Harder to do now that people are cagier about their totems. They trusted children."
"What happened to them when they woke up?"
"If they woke up, I assume they went into the very dark hole the government made for them."
"You didn't look for them?"
"Why would we? I miss my classmates sometimes, but I see a few of them."
"Who?" Eames leaned forward. This information would be worth its weight in gold.
"No. You need to earn that. Mal was my 'therapist.' French spy who got her hands on an interrogation specialist who was fine with setting the world on fire to see if it burned."
"She turned him while he was in school. He's loyal to her. She's loyal to France."
"And you are loyal to?"
"Myself." Arthur leaned forward. "I am not nearly drunk enough. Kiss me."
Eames laughed. "That was actually romantic. Come on then, luv." Eames gathered the younger man up and led him to his hotel room.
Arthur stared at the ceiling. Eames was curled around him, one broad hand resting over Arthur's heart. There was something wrong, but Arthur couldn't put his finger on it. He examined the memory of Mal. Was it grief or guilt that shaded it? And why the memory of Phillipa and not James? And the talk of totems with Eaems. Eames never used a totem. Or rather never a consistent one. Why would he be surprised?
His phone rang. He glanced at the text. Pellegri begging not to die and that the new batch was ready. He glanced through his emails. He stopped at a saved message from Mal.
It was the last message she'd sent. "If you are my Arthur, I will see you when you wake up." He'd flown immediately to her only to find her dead. Phillipa and James clung to him – not yet comfortable with their mother's parents.
Miles and Cora snarled at him for that, but he was their only link to their son-in-law. The French government had tried to send in a new controller. He'd drown the man in a toilet at the bar. Arthur frowned. Again – something felt wrong. He toyed with the loaded die that he carried as a totem.
He paused at the thought. His totem. When did he start carrying one?
Eames watched Arthur servicing the PASIV. It was the longest they'd managed to travel together. Arthur was sure to run soon. More than four months without a major fight or a blown job. He settled his hands on the younger man's shoulders. He dodged the screwdriver that headed for his chest. "What have I told you about statling me?" Arthur snapped. "I could have killed you!"
"Spice of life." Eames placed his hands once more on the tense shoulders. He bent to kiss Arthur's neck. Arthur's breathing was still a bit heavy. He'd frightened him badly.
"Are you trying to distract me from something, Mr. Eames?"
"Oh, dear, I'm 'mister' again. How ever can I get back into your good graces?"
Arthur considered. "Tea with brown sugar?" He gave Eames a child-like smile.
Eames chuckled. "Of course, my sweet." He stroked down Arthur's arms and loosely rested his fingers around his wrists. The adrenaline surge was fading and Arthur's pulse was steady. He kissed just behind Arthur's ear to feel him shiver. Then, he moved to their small kitchen.
"You're going to be the death of me," Arthur muttered.
"Not if you kill me first."
"Oh, fuck you, Mr. Eames."
"Eames?" Arthur shifted his weight like the child he almost remembered being.
Eames looked up from the pen and ink study he was copying. The magnifying goggles made his eyes look like a bad sci-fi alien. Arthur snorted. "Something wrong, Darling?"
"I've got a job."
"It'll be at least three months, probably closer to four. I'll be off the grid." He paused, unfamiliar guilt pooled in his stomach. "Completely."
Eames studied him for a long moment, his glasses shoved up to reveal his eyes. "Completely," he echoed.
Arthur grimaced. "It's mafia related. I owe someone. I don't want any of their spies getting their hands on my things. I'll use the dead drop address in case of emergencies."
Eames didn't say anything. There were calculations that Arthur couldn't parse behind his eyes. "Do be careful, Darling."
Arthur's shoulders relaxed. "Thank you for understanding."
His lover's face softened. "Oh, Arthur. You'll be keeping me in stout for the rest of the year."
Eames lounged on the bed. Arthur was supposed to have returned in time for breakfast, but there were always delays that even Arthur couldn't control. He let his poker chip walk across his knuckles. He frowned. Since when had he carried an actual totem? As Arthur always said, totems were traps. Especially one he'd been public with.
He glanced at the clock. It was perfect and yet it felt wrong. Everything had started to feel subtly off as soon as Arthur had failed to arrive on time. He chewed on his lip and counted back days to the last time he'd used the PASIV. Not dreaming would explain his growing paranoia. "As soon as Arthur gets home," he said to himself. He snorted at the fact that he was talking to himself now.
A sharp crack drew his attention to the window. A crack ran from top to bottom. Then, by some unseen force, the window exploded into thousands of fragments. The pictures on the wall started to flicker. Eames swallowed hard.
Arthur woke the way he always did, perfectly alert. He didn't open his eyes immediately though. He was laying on a bed that smelled of lemon and lavender. The bed shifted.
"Open your eyes, mon petit." Mal's cool fingers brushed the hair from his forehead. He could feel the feeding tube in his nose, but this was no hospital that he knew.
"Mal?" he tried to say.
"Hush." She slipped ice inot his mouth. She looked the way he remembered. Her hair was black and hung in waves to her shoulders. She wore a low-cut blouse edged with lace and a silver necklace to draw attention to her cleavege. He reached up to capture a lock of her hair.
"A week longer than we planned." She fussed with his blanket.
"Dreaming still. We disconnected you both from the shared PASIV." She kissed his forehead. "I don't doubt your ability." She frowned. "We had to send Eames in when Dom stopped responding."
She fed him more ice. She shook her head. "As himself. Surely he found you?"
"Wonder if she was Dom's then. His attempt to find his way out of my maze." He started to flex his arms. They felt heavy and weak. Nothing tha ta little exercise and some food couldn't repair. He pushed himself upright. "Eames?"
"I sent him off for a shower." She wrinkled her nose. "He wanted to go back in with you."
Arthur shrugged. "Is my chair here?"
"Of course. We are in Monique's clinci still. You remember?"
"Beautiful black woman with the small afro and pink shell earrings her daughter made."
"Have I passed the sanity test?"
Mal laughed. It was a deep warm sound that comforted him like hot apple pie. "Uncle Arthur!" Phillipa's high, clear voice carried through the hall.
"Quietly, Princess," Eames chided. "Arthur's not going anywhere. You're riding in his chariot."
Eames' eyes were puffy. His hair was still wet and the beginning of a beard prickled along his chin. Phillipa was dressed in her favorite blue dress with silver stars along the bottom hem. Her hair was in the complicated basketweave braids that Eames always did.
"Hullo, Darling. Sleep well?" The forger kissed Arthur's cheek. He lifted Phillipa up onto the bed.
"Uncle Arthur." She threw her arms around him and he hugged her close, falling back into the pillows. "Is Daddy happy now?"
"He is. He loves you very much, Princess."
She nodded. "I was scared you wouldn't wake up. Mama said I had to wait until you made Daddy happy."
"Oh, Pip." Her hair smelled of Tinkerbelle perfume. Arthur closed his eyes. Mal fed him a few more pieces of ice.
"Why wasn't Daddy happy here with us?"
"Your Daddy's a very silly man."
Eames settled on the bed on the other side. He rand his fingers through Arthur's hair. Phillipa's arms tightened around Arthur's neck. She buried her face in his chest. Arthur raised his brows at Mal. She shrugged. The divorce had been a little more bitter than Arthur could understand and hard on everyone involved.
"Everyone out. I need to talk to my patient," Monique announced from the doorway. She looked very much like herself, but there was a distinct bump developing at her waist.
"Be good, Arthur." Eames kissed his lover's temple. He swept Phillipa onto his hip and gathered Mal with his other arm.
Monique took Arthur's vitals. "Well, everything looks to be in order. You'll need physical therapy. And you need to regain some weight. We'll start you on broth and clears in about an hour. Water to start. Sip slowly." She tapped the center of his forehead. "And if you ever pull a job like this again, I will personally trap you in your library."
Arthur had never told Mal that he and Monique were both from the American Academy. "Do I need to kill someone or was this planned?" He gestured at her stomach.
Monique snorted. "I'm still married."
"That means nothing." He eagerly took the glass of water. The fact that it was a Disney princess toddler's cup didn't phase him. He'd drunk from worse.
"Have you and your boy officially adopted the Cobbs?"
"Just Phillipa. Mal can take care of herself."
Monique patted his wrist. "I'll let the family back in. You'll be here at least another week."
"Don't be silly. I know the exercises and Eames can help me."
"That was a statement not a suggestion. One week or I'll tell Mal you need to be here longer."
He scowled at her. "Your sadism is developing more quickly than I thought." She smiled at him, then kissed his forehead.
Eames watched as Arthur arranged himself in his wheelchair. It was his chair, not the clinic's and had angle wheels to increase its stability and four blades hidden in the struts of the wheels to annoy airport security. He was looking relaxed and young, the way he hadn't since Mal and Dom had started the divorce proceedings. Since they'd been fighting over him as well as Phillipa, Eames supposed he was entitled to feel stressed.
He was dressed casually. They both were. Phillipa was aching to get out of the house and into the summer sun, and no companion would do except her Uncle Arthur. His maroon tee-shirt was long-sleeved to cover the track-marks and scars on his arms. He'd push them up at some point and the pitying looks would start, assuming that he was ill, not paralyzed.
"What finally woke you up? I've been in your frighteningly real dreamscapes. When you didn't wake up shortly after I did, I was sure I'd lose you to it." Eames flicked the ashes off of his cigarette. Arthur put his hand out. Eames let him have the lit cigarette and fished out one for himself.
"You were too short. And you were still using that poker chip as a totem." Arthur exhaled a lazy stream of smoke.
Arthur reached up a hand and Eames bent for a smoke-laden kiss. "Too short. I can walk in the levels below this one. Besides, you didn't smoke."
"Oh, Darling. Are you saying you woke up because of me?" Eames batted his lashes.
"Don't put words in my mouth, Mr. Eames. Just go get the car. My favorite princess is on the way."
Eames chuckled. He brushed a kiss against his Arthur's crown. "I live to serve."