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[Inception] [Arthur/Cobb] [NC-17 for violence, implied torture, and sex]

Otherwise known as five ways they didn't meet each other (and one way they did). Or, alternatively, the prompt that got away from me. FML, this fandom is going to be the death of me. Written for this prompt at [ profile] inception_kink.

As Dreamers Do

Author's Note: None of this would have been possible without [ profile] bloodbelieve, who was basically the most amazing beta ever and helped me look this over EVEN THOUGH REAL LIFE WAS BEING DOUCHEY. I cannot, cannot, cannot thank her enough, and I have to apologize for being too impatient to wait for edits on all of it, so if any of this sucks, you'll know those are the parts she missed. ♥

i. on campus

Cobb's already running late when he heads into the Regular Joe's across from the architecture building. It's a quiet morning, thank god, and aside from a couple of glassy-eyed students and a table of faculty members Cobb doesn't recognize, there's no one in the cafe.

Or behind the counter, for that matter.

"Ben," Cobb calls, as he rifles through his files, trying to get his sheets in order. "Could I get the regular? And fast?"

"Sorry, Professor Cobb," someone distinctly not-Ben says, and Cobb looks up from his briefcase, frowning. "I'm gonna need a little more specificity than that."

"I'm sorry?" Cobb echoes. "Do I know you?"

"Not exactly," the barista says, looking almost sheepish. "I was in your Introduction to Architecture lecture last semester."

Cobb tilts his head, taking in the dark sweater vest beneath the apron, the matching pants. It doesn't ring a bell, but then the introductory lectures are always huge, full of students looking for easy 'A's in all the wrong places. "How'd you like the class?"

"Uh," the barista says. It's almost cautious, but then he shakes his head a little, and shrugs. "It was interesting. Not the right fit for me, but now I know the difference between Chicago windows and dentils."

"Well, Arthur," Cobb says, reading off his nametag. "I'll give you points for honesty if you give me my double hammerhead and a bagel, toasted."

"Oh, yeah, yes, of course," Arthur says. If he sounds flustered his hands don't show it, and that's good enough for Cobb. He's got Cobb's order capped and bagged in under two minutes, and he cracks a smile as he hands it over. "This is pretty strong stuff."

"It's a pretty big class," Cobb says, and Arthur's smile widens when he drops a couple of dollars into the tip jar.

He makes it all the way to the door before Arthur calls, "Hey, Professor?"

Fifteen minutes late and counting, Cobb thinks, but something compels him to turn back anyway. "Yeah?"

"That speech you gave last week," Arthur says, and Cobb notes absently that his hands have disappeared behind his back. "At the pride parade? That was really--uh. I just - thank you. It meant a lot to a lot of us."

"Oh," Cobb says, caught off-guard. It takes a moment, but then he slants a grin in Arthur's direction. "You're welcome. Someone needed to say it."

It's a little like magic, the way Arthur's face lights up when he smiles.

(Arthur's there to get him the regular everyday for the rest of the semester, and by the end of it, he's at Cobb's apartment more days than not, making coffee for two.)

ii. en parís

It's a skill that takes years of careful honing, but Cobb's put in the time, and he's now an expert on people-watching. He's quick enough to catch the wry twist to the waitress' mouth when one of her regulars takes longer than absolutely necessary to slip her a tip, to hear the awkward beat of silence that falls after the busker on the street outside finishes his piece on the guitar and no one even pauses to look, to know from her reflection alone that the girl seated behind him is so engrossed in her book on Victor Baltard that she's going to scald herself on her next sip of coffee.

That the man who just walked into the café has already lifted two wallets from the table of gossiping ladies sitting by the door, and is looking for a third mark.

"Pardon," Cobb says, and the women turn to him, smiles melting into blandness when they realize he's American. The thief turns, as well, and there's something about him - the curious spark in his eye, the careless quirk to his mouth, the flick of his hand - that makes Cobb falter, just for a moment.

By the time he collects himself enough to add, "Avez-vous perdu vos portefeuilles?" in stilted, halting French, the man has disappeared.

Later, Cobb learns that the disappearing act is just part of his routine.

He's on a park bench a couple of days later, so focused on the scratch of pencil on paper that he doesn't realize he has company till he hears, "Wasn't very nice of you, giving me up like that."

Cobb's head snaps up. "Wasn't very legal of you, stealing their money like that," he counters.

"C'est la vie," the thief says, and the smile he aims at Cobb is sharp and practiced. "I'm Arthur."

Cobb studies him for a second. "I'm a starving artist," he says, eventually.

"I'm not here for your wallet," Arthur says, matter-of-fact, like the suggestion doesn't bother him at all. He tips his head to the side to study Cobb's sketch. "You're good at people."

Cobb shrugs in place of thanks, because it's true. "I'm better at buildings."

In some other life, he thinks, he would've made a great architect.

"Me too," Arthur says, sounding surprised, and it's all those years of practice that help Cobb see the subtle shift in Arthur's smile, small but genuine. "What a crazy, random happenstance."

Cobb can't help it; he laughs.

And then he lets Arthur buy him a coffee with money Cobb isn't sure he has.

But Arthur makes that easy to forget; it's been a while since Cobb's seen a familiar face, been even longer since he's been back stateside, and Arthur is all Parisian poise and easy conversation, tempting Cobb into bed without much effort, methodical hands and warm, warm skin enough of a draw that Cobb barely puts up a token protest the first time it happens, Arthur leaning over to share his mouthful of cigarette smoke, staying with him long enough to steal it back.

Cobb doesn't protest at all following that.

Arthur leads and Cobb follows, catching his rays.

They don't fight, or talk about more than the weather and the latest American-hating article in the newspaper. Arthur's past is a secret only he knows, and won't let Cobb broach. They don't discuss Arthur's too-clever fingers, or Cobb's talent withering without an outlet.

Instead, Arthur all but moves into Cobb's shitty one-room apartment, and they spend too much time together, alternating between watching other people stroll down sun-drenched streets and lying under the covers, skin to skin, sharing lazy kisses as they listen to the rain tap its melody against the windows.

Cobb only has to look to know that Arthur isn't asking to be saved, and he trusts Arthur to know that he refuses an end that requires the justification of his means.

Eventually, he stops sketching buildings, starts on portraits of the human body almost full-time; the curve of a shoulder, the sharp line of a jaw, the edge of a smile, falling away into shadow. Arthur looks at each one when he's done, Cobb's mouth turned into the heat of his palm, and says nothing.

Until one day he does.

He's across the room from Cobb watching him work, silent and silhouetted in the sunlight seeping in from the window, and it's just like every other day from the past four months except for the way Arthur's suddenly saying, "There's this job I've been working up to."

It's not so much the words as it is the gravity Cobb hears in Arthur's voice that makes him look up, makes his pencil skitter across the page.

"I leave for Mombasa in the morning," Arthur adds, already standing. It's a small apartment, and in two strides he's already by the door. "I was never going to be here long."

He lingers a moment there, lapsing into silence, and Cobb thinks this is it. This could be their turning point.

"So," Arthur says, but there's no lilt to it, no question, and Cobb doesn't ask him to stay.

He's tired of following, can't anymore, not when they both know disappearing is a solo act.

Arthur doesn't ask Cobb to come with him.

iii. at an interview

Cobb can name plenty of reasons why him and Arthur have made up the best team in the business for three years now: they're both good in teams and big jobs, and training clients to defend their subconscious in case of outside attempts at extraction is something of a specialty of theirs. (Not one of their clients has been cracked yet.)

Then there are the side jobs, the ones only just this side of legal, the ones they're hired for with money passed under the table from men with corny pseudonyms.

They're pretty damn good at that, too.

But if there's one thing Cobb's learned about dreamsharing, it's that change is the only constant.

That, and the fact that there are always exceptions to the rule.

So the current scenario is nothing new: Cobb, musing over his newly-acquired information as he flexes his wrist, Arthur snapping the briefcase shut with a sharp, decisive nod to signal that the room and the client are both clean, and that it's time to get moving.

It's not new, either, for Nash - a new partner, one Cobb is keen on never seeing again if he can help it - to clap his hand over Arthur's shoulder as they vacate the client's private limo and murmur, "You're lucky he took you in first."

Arthur doesn't respond, barely even twitches, but he inclines his head to show he's heard, and waits for Cobb in the shadow of the apartment building as Cobb watches Nash slink away.

"You could say something one of these days," Cobb says eventually, as they fall into step, headed for their hotel four blocks down the street. "Correct them."

Arthur shrugs, shoulder brushing Cobb's as they turn a corner. "What would be the point?"

"Arthur," Cobb says, more seriously now. "You don't want them getting the wrong idea--"

"They already know I'm the best," Arthur interrupts. "The wrong idea would be that I'm interested in a new partner."

Cobb falters, then, almost tripping over the cobblestone street, but Arthur's footsteps never slow, and Cobb thinks he catches a hint of a smile lurking at the edge of Arthur's mouth.

It's not unlike the smile Arthur had given him what feels like forever ago, pen held loosely in one hand and a notepad in the other, a tape recorder whirring on the coffee table between them, next to a sheet of paper filled with journalistic credentials in neat, bold print.

("It's necessary precaution," Cobb had said, when Arthur handed it over. "I'm sure you understand."

"Of course," Arthur replied, with a brief nod. "It won't take too much time, Mr Cobb. I just have a few questions for my article before I get out of your way.")

Ever the consummate professional.

Arthur's good at what he does, had been even then, and minutes turn into hours as he prods gently at Cobb's field of work, phrases questions so Cobb answers them even when he knows he shouldn't.

"What's the most resilient parasite?" Cobb says finally, and waits for the twitch of Arthur's eyebrow before he goes on. "A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?"

Another twitch, this time at the corner of Arthur's lips.

"An idea," Cobb finishes with a flourish, leaning forward in his seat. "Now imagine having the power to pluck that out of someone's head, to put something new in. The question isn't why I do what I do, Arthur. It's why everyone else isn't beating the doors down trying to get a piece of the action."

Arthur ducks his head when he smiles. "Fair enough."

Then he reaches over to hit the stop button on the recorder, and his (perfectly tailored) suit rides up to reveal an inch of (perfectly pressed) pink dress-shirt just above his wrist. It's a momentary distraction, one that keeps Cobb from noticing what he's saying till it's already out there. "I have a proposition to make, Mr Cobb."

Cobb knits his eyebrows, unease settling heavy in his gut. "Which magazine did you say you worked for again?" he asks. And then Arthur's putting down his pen and paper (completely blank), and Cobb's frown deepens. "Who the hell are you?"

"Someone who's been beating the doors down," Arthur says, very quietly, and Cobb's indignation starts to dissipate despite himself. "In a manner of speaking."

"What do you want?" Cobb asks. It's less wary than he thinks it should be, all things considered.

"Look, I've done my homework," Arthur says, and spreads his hands, palms-up. "You need a new point man, and I want in."

Cobb almost, almost, flinches at that, the sting of losing Mal ("I want a normal life, Dom! I want a life here, in reality, where I don't wake up and find all my creations are gone!") still fresh, and for a second he's tempted to stand, to leave, to flip the coffee table over with his bare fucking hands, and who the hell does this kid think he is.

"This is my resume," Arthur says, before Cobb can do any of that, and he's sliding his folder of research across the table, calm and easy. When it hits his fingers, Cobb picks it up on reflex.

On the first page alone there are half a dozen glowing references, all names Cobb recognizes, some he can't even put faces to, elusive as they are. There's a letter of honorable discharge from the navy, hand-to-hand combat and weaponry training and a slew of military terms Cobb doesn't understand, AIK and riverine operations, and it's only just starting to sink in that Arthur is actually serious about this.

When he looks up again, Arthur's watching him, eyes dark and intense. There's reverence there, too, and it's just like Mal before everything went to shit--

"You're the best in the field, Mr Cobb," Arthur says, and shakes his head when Cobb opens his mouth to interrupt. "You're going to be; it's only a matter of time. And I'm the best at what I do. And there's a whole world of possibilities out there just waiting to be explored."

Cobb is silent for a long, long time, long enough for Arthur to nod, to get to his feet, to press his card into Cobb's hand and say, "If you change your mind, I'm always available at that number. It was a real honor, Mr Cobb."

Barely two hours later, Cobb had made his mind up, and when Arthur picked up the phone all he'd said was, "If you give me your coordinates, I can be there in an hour. We need to talk details."

As it turned out, details were only one of Arthur's areas of expertise.

Cobb can still picture it now, five years later, and with the fading sunlight dappling the street, with Arthur warm and solid and reliable at his side, with the knowledge that change is the only constant in their field, believing that some things never will makes it a little easier to breathe.

iv. by the dim light of a nondescript streetlamp

Cobb doesn't know what he's looking for, crawling through back alleys in his car at one in the fucking morning (that's a lie, he knows exactly what he's looking for) but he sure as hell isn't expecting to find it on a street corner, in too-tight jeans and a worn leather jacket, ankles crossed and face angled in shadow.

Life is funny that way, he hears, in Mal's voice.

The engine grumbles as Cobb slows to a near-stop.

The kid makes no move towards him, but others aren't as standoffish, and when Cobb winds his window down, he's surrounded right away. There's a dirty blond with an English accent, accosting him with a wicked leer. "Pity," he says, when Cobb averts his gaze, shakes his head.

Then it's a girl with dark eyes and a cherry-bomb smile; she looks young enough to be his younger sister, Mal's, and Cobb waves her off sharply, goes on to ignore the copper-colored man with a genteel smile.

The swarm around him clears as suddenly as it came, and Cobb's glad for it. He knows he's been noticed, has just enough light to see the curve to the young man's mouth, muted but there. Cobb leans an elbow on his window, feels a wave of need settle in his gut when he gets a slight incline of the head in response. "Hey," he says, loudly enough that there's no mistaking what his wants. Who.

There's an angry bark in a language Cobb doesn't quite catch - Japanese, he thinks - from a figure cloaked in shadow. Pimp, Cobb's mind supplies helpfully, and confirms his suspicion when the kid's expression twists as he finally straightens and starts in Cobb's direction. There's an easy, languid grace to his walk, and for a split second Cobb sees possibilities: three-piece suits and PASIV devices, research and post-it notes in precise, impeccable penmanship.

Then the passenger door slides open, and Cobb peels out onto the main street as soon as it's shut. There's a slow burn in his veins already, building into something bigger. More. He doesn't take his eyes off the road. "What's your name?"

"Neil," the kid says easily, from where he's slouched against the door, half-turned towards Cobb.

"How much for the night?"

It's not much in the way of romance, but Cobb knows that's not what this story is.

"Two-fifty," Neil says. Cobb can feel his gaze, bullet-sharp, and his pulse spikes. "Extra if you're into weird shit, and I'll need to know before it happens. No marking, and I'm not into the whole orgy thing, but anything else we can work around."

Cobb risks a quick glance in Neil's direction. Neil's shifted in the seat, has his head tipped back against the headrest now, baring the line of his neck. His legs are spread, hands resting on his thighs. The pose is obviously practiced.

Doesn't mean it doesn't work.

"Good," Cobb hears himself say, voice sandpaper rough, and forces his eyes back onto the road.

The drive home suddenly feels un-fucking-bearably long, and the need humming under Cobb's skin crescendos by the time they get back to his apartment. Neil's watching him, quiet and intense, dark hair falling into his even darker eyes and Cobb wants to touch him, wants to wrap his fingers in those curls and devour his mouth till they both forget what it's like to breathe.

Wants to mark territory with his teeth, stake his claim, leave finger-shaped bruises down the curve of Neil's body.

It takes every ounce of control Cobb doesn't know he has not to do just that, not to just take the way he wants to.

Instead, he hands Neil a glass of water - he says he doesn't drink on the job - with steady hands and says, "Ever heard of dream-sharing?"

Neil's eyebrows knit, and he takes a sip of water before he answers. "Maybe. Why?"

Cobb tips his head, gestures towards the PASIV device sitting in plain view in the living room. Exactly where Mal left it when she left, two months ago.

Neil's eyes narrow with sudden comprehension, and he opens his mouth--

Cobb recognizes the shape of the protest before Neil even speaks, and he closes the distance between them to swallow it. He tastes smoke and sex on Neil's tongue as he shoves seven hundred dollar bills into Neil's hands, and he feels Neil thumb through them, deft but careful, before Neil's protest falls away into a moan.

Later, Neil hisses when Cobb nips his lower lip (the same sound he'd made when Cobb had slid the needle in, only that had been wary; this isn't, and the difference is like molten heat in Cobb's veins), whines when Cobb drags his mouth lower, sucks a bruise into Neil's jaw, the column of his throat, his shoulder blade.

"Jesus," Neil pants, already glassy-eyed. The handcuffs rattle when Neil does, straining up under Cobb, and a thrill sparks in Cobb's stomach on that alone.

"Not so fast," Cobb murmurs, low and quiet, runs a slow finger over Neil's bare stomach and watches it clench, watches Neil jerk against his restraints a second time, involuntarily. "Stay still; I'm not done with you yet." He presses closer, mouth to Neil's thigh now, and works his way up, slow and easy, like Neil isn't practically vibrating beneath him, so tense Cobb doesn't know how he hasn't snapped (not with this mix, especially, his two-year anniversary gift from Yusuf. He is so fucking sensitive right now, is turned on from just the sounds Neil's making, desperate and needy, the way his breath ghosts hot over Cobb's skin every time he tries to lift his head for a better vantage point, and he can't even imagine how Neil's holding still).

"Jesus," Neil repeats, voice going high and thready as he shudders beneath Cobb's tongue, "God, fuck, I can't - why are you--"

"Were you waiting for me, Dom?"

Cobb snaps his attention to Mal before he's even fully conscious she's there, and Neil's ragged gasping is the only sound in the sudden stillness of the room. "I don't do threesomes," he manages, lowly, but his hands are clenched into the bedspread, and he doesn't move.

"It's not a threesome if she's only a projection," Cobb says, almost absently. "Hello, Mal."

"Cobb," Neil says, struggling with the cuffs again, and Cobb looks at him for a second, drops a hand down between them, and Neil mewls - mewls, fuck - when Cobb slips two fingers into him without warning, knuckle deep, slow and easy.

Mal's mouth is a flat, hard line. She looks just like Cobb remembers. "Did you want me to see this?" she asks. "You and this boy, on our anniversary, using our bed and our somnacin."

Neil looks like he might speak again, but Cobb slips a third finger in, and Neil's eyes slide shut as his thighs fall even further open, voice catching in a breathless plea. Mal's still watching them, eyes gray and inscrutable, and Cobb is hard and aching with need. "Is this really necessary, Dom?"

"You seemed to think so," Cobb says, pleasantly. "And from where I was standing, Tom didn't look like he had any objections."

Underneath him, Neil sucks in a sharp breath. Mal doesn't even look at him.

"We both know this isn't going to change anything, Dom," she says. "I'm not coming back."

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Neil interrupts, but his voice dissolves into a low, dirty moan as Cobb twists his fingers again.

"No," Cobb agrees. "But this'll make me feel better."

And then he's twisting his fingers again, and Neil is leaning up into him, fusing both their mouths and bodies together, and Cobb lets him, couldn't look away if he tried. The hot press of bare skin is enough to drag Cobb's attention back to this, the way Neil is moving against him, fucking Cobb's fingers with his hips and Cobb's mouth with his tongue, demanding it, and Cobb leans back for a better position--

And Neil jerks back into place. "Cobb," he gasps.

"Dom," Mal tries.

And Cobb would turn, would look at her again, except Neil tips his head up and distracts Cobb with all that fucking skin, and when Cobb bends to taste it, he says, "Lady, you can watch if you want to - oh, god - but shut the fuck up."

Cobb raises his head to look at Neil, then, and with a start, he realizes Neil's eyes are wide open again, hazy but lucid, and he looks Cobb dead-on as he adds, "And there are better things you should be doing with your mouth right now."

"Yes sir," Cobb says, lips twisting wryly despite himself, and then Neil is kissing him again, hard, curling his tongue into Cobb's mouth as he works Cobb's fingers, and oh, god, it feels good, it feels fucking amazing, Jesus.

His skin feels like it's on fire, and when he pulls back to breathe, Neil's back is arched off the bed as he strains up into Cobb, pupils blown black and his lips parted like sin, damp hair curling at his temples. He's practically shaking, wrists rubbing raw against metal, and Cobb's stomach clenches at the sight, wanting. Fuck, needing.

A slow blink and the cuffs are gone, and Neil surges up to meet him, mouth opening up under his like it's never meant to be anywhere else, never meant to do anything else, fuck. And then he's wrapping his thighs around Cobb's waist and lifting, finding the right angle, and oh, oh sweet jesus, it's like Cobb's heart is about to slam right out of his chest.

Cobb's leaving half-moon indents in the slope of Neil's shoulders as his breath catches, and he mouths at the skin beneath Neil's ear when Neil's head lolls forward, bites hard enough to leave his mark. The sound Neil makes is dark and approving, and it burns in Cobb's skin, this slow, searing heat.

Neil builds to a steady pace, rocking hard and rough against him, and Cobb's blood is roaring in his ears, pulse keeping time with Neil's hips like some off-beat metronome. He doesn't have to look to know Mal isn't there anymore, and he dips his head when he feels Neil shudder against him, feels his body tremble in response.

His fingers slide down to dig into Neil's arms as he clenches his jaw against a groan, and he loses track of his mental countdown as he closes his eyes and feels.

When he wakes up, he's in his living room, his bed nowhere in sight, and his heart is pounding like gunfire against his ribs.

"Jesus Christ," he says.

"Close," Neil says, would-be flippant, but he sounds breathless and groggy, and the high flush riding his cheeks gives him away. "But not quite."

Cobb swallows, hard, reaches for his totem and closes his fingers around it, tight. The die sits heavy in his palm, a solid, familiar weight. He knows without having to ask that Neil won't press him about Mal, and he's not offering any answers.

"It's something else, huh," he says instead, quietly, once he feels in control again.

Neil's got his head tipped back into the cushions, and he looks over when Cobb speaks, looks past the PASIV device to watch him, eyes darting to his mouth and back again. Cobb feels that jerk in his stomach again when Neil smirks, graces him with a one-shouldered shrug. "Sure is."

They stay that way for some time, just breathing, Neil not trying to break the silence and Cobb not at all sure how, clumsy in a way he hasn't been in a while.

Eventually, Neil says, "I should go before I fall asleep on your couch."

And Cobb doesn't stop him as he gathers his jacket, doesn't watch him push his fresh wad of green into his front pocket, doesn't tell him to stop as he heads for the door.

But he does say, "Neil," before he gets all the way there, and Neil pauses, half-turns to look at him. "S'that your real name?"

Neil pauses for a second, looks at Cobb searchingly. Cobb isn't sure what he sees, or if he likes it, but--

"It's Arthur," he says, finally, angling his cleverly-twisted mouth. "Don't wear it out."

And then he's reaching for the doorknob.

For a second, Cobb almost reaches out, almost says, "You want some coffee?" and Neil - Arthur - could be persuaded to agree, Cobb thinks, would come with him into the kitchen and thank him after with a blowjob, and if he played his cards right (and Cobb already knows he would, knows he's too professional to do anything but) Cobb could afford one more night, two, a third, and then it'd become an arrangement, Arthur in his home three times a week, maybe more, till they learned each other so well Arthur would be expected to move in, stay full-time even, and--

The door swings shut with a quiet, final click.

--and this isn't that kind of story, Cobb thinks, wryly, as he closes his eyes and sinks back into his couch.

He never sees Arthur again

v. on (the opposite sides of) a job

His first thought is, Mal was wrong.

His second, as he strides across the hotel lobby: This kid is worlds above decent.

Cobb doesn't even have to get close enough to overhear the conversation. He's reading the mark (smiling too wide and leaning too close), then Arthur (shoulders too sloped to be anything but smug), as he closes in on them and Arthur's all of two seconds from sealing the deal when Cobb sidles up to him, presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth and snakes an arm around his waist to reel him in, too-tight. "Sorry I'm late, sweetheart."

To his credit, Arthur doesn't even flinch, but he tenses where Cobb's got him trapped against his side, shoulder to hip. Cobb steals a sideways glance, and Arthur's narrowed eyes tell him Arthur knows exactly who he is.

The mark squints, eyebrows knitting as she looks from him to Arthur, and all around them, the buzz of conversation comes to a jarring halt. Cobb squeezes Arthur's hip, hard.

"Honey," Arthur says, after a second. His voice is even. "I thought you had that meeting today."

"I did," Cobb smiles, guns for sincerity with too much teeth and a loose tilt of the head. "And then I realized there isn't any meeting worth missing the famous Ms. Gumerty for."

Sheila titters prettily and dips her head, and the world around them goes back to normal. "Oh, you're far too kind," she says, "Mr.--"

"Cobb," Arthur finishes, voice just barely this side of hard.

Cobb's hand tightens on Arthur's hip again, but he's all smiles as he leans into Sheila's space to take her hand. "Please, call me Dominic."

"Well, it's a pleasure, Dominic." Sheila beams when he kisses the back of her hand, completely charmed. "Now tell me, how long have you and Arthur been seeing each other?"

Arthur's smile is as stiff as his posture.

"Oh," Cobb says, grinning like he's trying not to laugh. "You're going to love this story. How about we do this over drinks? I hear they mix the most amazing martinis here."

"Martinis?" Sheila says, frowning again, and looking to Arthur in askance. "Arthur was just telling me he isn't fond of drinking."

"He'll have coffee," Cobb says, too-quickly, and Sheila's eyes narrow for a moment. "Black, two sugars, just the way he likes it."

Arthur lets out a long, heavy breath, a not-quite sigh, and Cobb doesn't turn to look at him, but Sheila relaxes again, says, "Well, in that case--" and lets them leads her towards the lobby bar.

Arthur remains stubbornly silent as they make their way there, and when Sheila promptly disappears into the ladies' room, he slides out immediately from Cobb's hold, jaw clenched, fixed smile wiped clean off his face. "I don't know why you're here," he says, without preempt. "But this is my job, and I almost had her."

All business, Cobb thinks, reluctantly impressed. "Cobol must not have trusted you to get it done," is all he says. "They sent me her file two days ago."

Arthur's expression darkens, turns calculative. "What's happening up there?" he demands, voice low. "You got a gun to my head? Sedatives?"

Cobb gives him a long, hard glare, but Arthur won't be cowed into looking away. "That's not how I do business," Cobb says, finally. "I'm just here to get the information, so take my lead, let me finish this, and we both walk away."

Arthur swipes a hand over his mouth, but says nothing, and Cobb takes that as a good sign. He glances over his shoulder and smiles when he sees Sheila making her way back to their table, raises his hand in a wave. "Okay," he says, as he turns back to Arthur, "Now this is how it's going to work."

"I don't think so," Arthur says, and then he's on his feet, reaching for a flute of champagne off the nearest waiter's tray. Cobb has a split second to think, well, fuck, and close his eyes before he's dripping in bubbly, and he almost groans when he hears Arthur set the glass down, fuming, "Don't even try telling me you didn't know he had fucking syphilis!"

Cobb knows he's lost his chance even before he hears Arthur storm away, and when he opens his eyes again it's to the sight of a gaping Sheila Gumerty.

Cobb does groan this time.

Saying, "Sheila," is his first mistake; raising a conciliatory hand is his second.

Her mouth thins as she stops the next waiter who crosses her path, and Cobb's rewarded with yet more alcohol on his suit.

"Enjoy your martini, Mr Cobb," Sheila says, primly, as Cobb reaches for a fresh napkin. "I'm going to check on Arthur."

Cobb's almost tempted to shoot himself as he watches Sheila leave, just to fuck with Arthur, but he waits the next twenty minutes out with all the grace four years of experience has given him, and when he wakes up, the chair beside him is empty, and Mal's rolling his IV line back into the briefcase, mouth twisted in what Cobb thinks looks like amusement.

"We have to leave," she says, before he can. "The mark will wake any minute now."

Cobb scrubs a hand over his face as he nods, feels the last of his post-dream wooziness slip away. "Where--"

Mal does smile this time, just a quirk of the mouth, and she hands him a card as they make for the door. "Arthur left a moment ago. He said to tell you to call him so you can buy him that coffee. What were you doing down there, Dom? You were supposed to be working."

Cobb sighs, but takes the card and slips it into his front pocket, feeling a phantom dampness to his jacket that makes his fingers twitch. "I don't want to talk about it."

vi. at a heavily militarized prison base

They hadn't told him much, only that one of their brightest had been compromised on a job in France, and Cobb's worked for enough friends of the government to know how this is supposed to go down. General Tanner had patted him down before handing him his papers and a passport, a familiar routine, even if the details differ (he's Danny Archer this time, a big-shot South African diamond dealer in the black market who's recently set his sights on conquering the world of dreams).

"Good luck," Tanner had said, with a sharp nod, expression flipping from professional to grave as he added, "We don't want to lose him if we can help it," and Cobb had quirked an eyebrow.

That'd been a first.

He thinks, wryly, that if he'd paid more attention when they'd told him Arthur was one of their brightest instead of mulling that over, he wouldn't be where he is right now: tied down to a chair with belts and chains alike, cool metal stealing heat from his skin.

His restraints don't budge when he tries them again, the third time in as many minutes, and he risks another glance towards the door when he hears a muffled grunt right outside. "Arthur," he says. "Arthur, you don't want to do that."

Arthur's voice is too-even when it travels back to him. "I'm done with this. Shut up, or I'll kill you too."

"Arthur," Cobb says again, quieter this time. "I'm trying to help."

"Them, yeah," Arthur says, still eerily calm. "I think you made that pretty clear."

"Admittedly, things aren't working in my favor right now--"

"Stop," Arthur says, sharply, and something twists in Cobb's gut. "I don't have time for this."

"Arthur," Cobb repeats, quieter still. "Don't hurt her."

"Shut up," Arthur says, but Cobb hears a groan alongside the thud of a body hitting the floor, and he lets out a long breath, even as Arthur's footsteps melt away.


"I'm fine," she says, weak but sure, and Cobb allows himself to slump in his chair for a fraction of a second. Then she's easing the door open with a shoulder, left arm cradled gingerly against her chest, and she hisses as she limps over to him, all the while surveying the knotted chain. "He didn't hurt me too much, but I can't get you out like this, Dom."

Cobb winces just looking at her, the unnatural angle from shoulder to bicep, and shakes his head. "Do what you have to."

Mal frowns. "But the projections--"

Cobb shakes his head. "It'll take them at least eight minutes to get through the fortress, and if I don't have him convinced by then, it's a lost cause."


"We don't have time for this, Mal. You saw what they're doing to the kid up there. If we don't get him out of here, he's as good as dead."

Mal's expression darkens, but then the room spins and his chain falls away as the ground begins spitting up step after step after step.

Cobb doesn't even hesitate, takes them twice at a time in a bid to make it to the top. He's reaching for his handgun even before he hits the landing, skids to a stop with it pointed at Arthur's back.

"Nicely played back there," Cobb says, as he closes the distance between them, keeps just enough that his weapon would stay out of Arthur's reach, even if Arthur turned around. His voice is hard, and Arthur's gone stiff under the muzzle of his gun. "But the game's over. Now step away from the vault."

For a second, Arthur hesitates, and Cobb gives him a second to calculate his chances. They both reach the same conclusion, and Arthur does as he's told, squaring his shoulders as he goes to stand by the wall in three carefully measured steps. "How long?" he spits, before Cobb can start to explain. He turns his face a fraction of an inch to the right, and Cobb can see the ugly twist to his mouth.


"How long?" Arthur repeats, voice rough. "Because they tell you what it's going to be like in training, they try, but I've been here seventeen days, barely any food or water, screaming my fucking throat raw because all I can think about while they're doing whatever the fuck they want to me is that I have to bite my fucking tongue till it's all over--"

He swallows, hard, angling his face away again, and Cobb chest clenches, hard and fast. "So I want to know. How long? How long before you gave in and sold your fucking soul--"

"They were going to kill you!" Cobb interrupts, and has to take a breath when he realizes his voice is raised, has to force it level again. "They were going to kill you, Jesus, what was I supposed to fucking do, just let you--"

"So you promised them, what?" Arthur snarls, whipping around to glare at Cobb. "That you'd make me their new toy? That you were going to make me believe I was on their side?"

Cobb can't find it in himself to answer, the sight of Arthur like this again slamming the breath straight out of him, Jesus. His right eye is so swollen Cobb can barely make it out, his bottom lip split in two places. There's rope burn around his neck, an angry red brand, and he's wearing a litany of thin, red cuts like sleeves over his arms. The cotton shirt he's wearing is torn in three places, ragged wounds visible beneath them. His breathing is harsh and shallow, each inhale a sharp, unwilling sound, and Cobb doesn't want to know how many ribs are cracked. The rest of his skin is mottled with dark, purple bruises, every one clearly cataloged even in the dream, the perfect, broken little soldier.

"Jesus," Cobb blurts, before he can stop himself. "No wonder they want you back in one piece."

Arthur's eyes the gun warily, fists clenched by his side. "They who?"

Then part of the roof caves in beside them, and they both hit the ground. "Fuck," Cobb swears; the projections must have gotten to Mal, must be--

And then Arthur tackles him, knocks the gun straight out of his hands and flips him onto his back. He has one arm crushed against Cobb's throat. Cobb gasps for air and rears up against him. Doesn't work.

He scrabbles at Arthur's arm with one hand, reaches blindly for his gun with the other. Arthur's jaw is clenched as he holds him down, and Cobb's eyes roll back in his head. Fuck, fuck, fuck. His fingers are numb against the granite floor, oh Jesus, he can't breathe. He's arching desperately up off the floor, hips and back and shoulders, but Arthur is a solid weight pinning him down. Bright, white spots color his vision already.

And then suddenly, miraculously, his fingers brush up against the hilt of his gun. Cobb scrambles to pick it up and swings it wildly at Arthur's head. It's hard enough that Arthur's grip loosens, momentarily, and Cobb swings it again.

Arthur rolls off him, and Cobb goes on all fours, gasping and heaving and coughing up air all at once, fuck. He feels dizzy and light-headed, but he turns back to Arthur anyway, still drawing deep, helpless breaths, and cocks his gun. His hands are shaking. "I'm here to fucking help you, Jesus!"

"You said that already," Arthur says, but he's blinking slow and dazed, and his temple is streaked with fresh blood.

Around them, the ground begins to crack apart.

"Listen to me," Cobb demands, fisting Arthur's shirt and shaking him, hard. "Tanner sent me to get you the hell out of here. The French want information they think you have, and when we wake up, you're going to tell them exactly what they want to hear. That you're part of a newly formed governmental team trying to start negotiations with the Soviet and North Korea that will give the US military training access to their nuclear technology, and that you're in a prime position to help the French gain more intel if they send you back."

Arthur's gaze is glassy, see-sawing between confused and unfocused, and Cobb lets out a low, frustrated growl. "Arthur," he snaps, catching Arthur's chin in between his fingers and forcing his head up. "Arthur, focus, god damn it, you fucking stubborn son of a bitch. You're dreaming right now, and in a couple of seconds we're both going to wake up. Follow my lead on this one, because we need to convince these people you're playing for the right team if we're going to get you out of this alive. Do you understand me?"

Arthur opens his mouth, but says nothing, clearly struggling to stay conscious even as he shuts his eyes. A crack appears in one of the walls, spreads like lightning to the one adjacent.

Cobb's grip tightens. "I said, do you understand me, Lieutenant?"

Arthur shudders under him at that, forces his eyes open again with what seems like sheer will. "Yes, sir."

"What did I say?"

"I'm dreaming," Arthur repeats, voice slurring now. "When we wake up, I'll follow your lead and we'll feed the French bastards a cover story to send me home."

"That's right," Cobb says, so shaky with relief that he lets himself sag forward, forehead just grazing Arthur's as he feels the knot in his stomach come undone.

Then the roof shatters, rains dust and grit and cement, and takes the world with it.

When Cobb opens his eyes again, Mal's standing over him, eyebrows knit, and she sweeps him into a hug once he's pulled the IV from his arm. At their feet, Arthur blinks awake himself, and is immediately surrounded, wrists pulled behind his back as his ankles are shackled. Cobb catches his eye, doesn't realize he's been holding his breath till Arthur looks away, mouth stretched in a thin line, and nods, once, at the floor.

Arthur doesn't have to say, let's go home for Cobb to hear it, and Mal goes to the men right away to play her part.

They walk out of the French embassy four days later, accompanied by diplomats and secret service agents alike, and Arthur waits until they're on the plane, sitting side by side, both nursing twin cups of black coffee laced with copious amounts of alcohol as Mal dozes in the seat across the aisle from them, to speak.

Cobb isn't sure what he's expecting: thanks, maybe. An apology. Maybe even a reward.

Instead, Arthur says, "Let me join you."


"I want my men to know what it's really like in there, what they do to you, so they know how to fight it. The army could use your expertise, and you could use a man like me."

"Arthur," Cobb says, and falters. "You're just coming back from three weeks of--"

"You saw what we did back there," Arthur says, reasonably, and something in his voice makes Cobb think, unshakable. "Imagine what we could do if we were working together."

Cobb just stares.

Arthur takes another long sip of his drink, and the quirk of his mouth when he looks back at Cobb is hesitant, but genuine. "Think it over. It's a long flight."

vi. at the beginning

Cobb says yes before they land.

(And later, once they're home, once they're safe, Mal will finally let herself look Arthur over, gently touch his cheek as she insists she already likes him more than Cobb does.

Cobb will smile, watching Arthur duck his head in an uncharacteristic moment of shyness as Mal fusses over him, and privately disagree.)
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