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Life Could Be a Dream

Chapter Text

"It's rigged."

"How?"

Arthur throws a rubber ball into the air and catches it, testing its weight. "I'm not sure how," he says. "It just is."

With an overhand pitch, he lobs the ball at a pyramid of tin cans. It goes high, over the cans and into the padding at the back of the booth.

"Do you want to try something else instead?" Ariadne offers, nibbling on cotton candy. "Wac-A-Mole? Ring Toss?"

"No, I'll figure it out." He picks up another ball.

He winds up, underhand. When he lets go, a plume of silver and gold dust erupts from his hand, eddying around the booth.

"You threw glitter?"

"You set up a localized gravity distortion."

The glitter is suspended in the air, hanging and bobbing erratically.

He vaults over the counter and jumps up a few feet into the air, towards the prizes hanging from the top of the booth. He snags a sky blue bear and floats back down, handing it to her.

When she reaches for it, he grabs her arm and pulls her into the booth. They crush together, then she floats over him, laughing.

Sparkles dance around them in the summer sun.

Chapter Text

Ariadne sits in a large lecture hall.

Someone whispers, "Can I borrow a pen?"

She grabs one from her bag and hands it over.

Arthur takes it, then gestures with it towards the back door.

With a glance at the droning professor, she packs up her laptop and follows Arthur outside.

"When did you get in town?" she asks.

"A few hours ago."

"How'd you find me?" 

He grins. "A college registrar is child's play compared to what I usually access."

"Ever try accessing a phone, to text me like a normal boyfriend?" she asks with an eye roll.

"I wanted to surprise you."

"Well, mission accomplished."

They walk down the stairs, arm in arm.

Chapter Text

Arthur extricates himself from Cobb as carefully as he can, but it's still enough to rouse him.

"Where ya going?" Cobb asks sleepily.

Arthur aborts his departure from the bed and shuffles to face Cobb, braving his morning breath.

"To make coffee," Arthur says.

"So early?" Cobb still hasn't opened his eyes.

"You can sleep in if you want," Arthur offers, already planning his day in his head.

"You should, too. It's Sunday."

"There's work to do." Lots of research, a few phone calls to make.

"Isn't it a sin to work on the Sabbath?"

"Sure, right up there with thou shalt not steal."

"Touché. But the job hasn't even gotten started yet."

Arthur snorts fondly. Of course an extractor would think that. To them, the job starts at the first dry run.

"The client needs an estimate, but for that I need the head count, but I won't know that without a preliminary—"

Cobb nuzzles his stubble against Arthur's lips, shutting him up.

"Take the day off."

Arthur takes in the stillness of the morning and Cobb's body heat against him. He has to admit, the warmth is pretty inviting.

"Well, even if I sent something over today, the client probably won't look at it until tomorrow."

Cobb has already turned over.

Arthur spoons him and settles in to fall back asleep.

Chapter Text

Arthur lingers in the doorway to Cobb's home office. The door's already open, but he knocks on it anyway to announce his presence.

Cobb doesn't look up until after Arthur enters, crosses the rug, and sits on the windowsill next to a desiccated succulent. So Marie never came in here to water it, and Cobb hasn't gotten around to throwing it out yet.

Arthur thought he'd schooled his features into something casual, but Cobb's sharp eyes dart over him, seeing past it. "I'm not going to like this conversation, am I?"

"You tell me," Arthur replies unfairly.

"Are you leaving?" Cobb asks.

It's a fair question, since they haven't really discussed his presence here. They went their separate ways at the airport, but then the next day Arthur booked a flight to LA, and he's been in Cobb's guest room ever since. But still, Arthur can't help but wish Cobb didn't feel the need to ask.

"No, I'll be a guest in your humble abode for as long as you'll have me."

"Good," Cobb says. "They love you." For a minute Arthur thinks he said something else, until he realizes Cobb means James and Phillipa.

Arthur grins. "They associate me with getting presents." But Cobb won't have to send him here with care packages anymore, now that he's home. Now that they're both here.

"It's more than that. You listen to them. They know they can depend on you."

"Actually, it's the kids I wanted to talk to you about."

"Did something happen?" Cobb asks without urgency. He must know that if it had, Arthur would have gotten to the point by now, but if he's meandering, it must have more to do with Cobb than the kids themselves.

"No, it's something that hasn't happened yet."

Cobb darkens. "You mean the party."

Arthur nods, and then Cobb's off on a tear about being able to handle planning things on his own without Arthur's meddling. "They're my kids." He rattles off the research he did into the local regulations on fire safety and the legality of the types of fireworks he's picking. He rounds it out with, "I want to make something memorable for them."

Arthur looks him in the eye. "They're going to remember it regardless, because it's going to be the first big event you've had together since you got back. They're going to remember it because you'll be there."

"That's not enough."

"Of course that's enough. They don't need a light show, they need a father," Arthur says. "And all their fingers."

Cobb looks sad. Arthur gets up and walks around the desk to be next to him.

Now that he's closer, Cobb all but whispers, "They're only getting half of what they need."

Arthur gives Cobb's shoulder a squeeze.

"They're getting everything they need. All of you. All your love and attention. All the effort you put into doing things for their sake. All the voices you put on when you read them stories and tuck them in at night. And if you need a hand, I'll help pick up the slack."

That scatters Cobb's gloom. "Heard those, have you?"

"I'm partial to your Mr. Lion."

"Yeah, he's my best one."

~

Cobb cancels the fireworks, the caterer, and the sound system. He crosses most of the names off the guest list.

On the Fourth of July, the only things on fire in the Cobb family backyard are the grill and two pairs of sparklers.

Cobb burns the burgers, but all in all, it's enough.

Chapter Text

"Up early, huh?"

"Jet lag."

"Ditto."

He joins her on the hotel balcony.

They watch the sun paint rooftops orange.

Chapter Text

Cobb's been wanting more fresh air, so Arthur started looking into local hiking trails.

They take a preliminary hike, just the two of them, to see if it's the kind of place they want to bring James and Phillipa.

They're on the tail end of their loop around a duck pond, not far from the parking lot.

"Not bad," Arthur says. "Plenty of trees for shade. A little steep in places, but nothing the kids won't be able to handle."

"About the kids," Cobb starts. "I've been meaning to have a talk with them."

"What about?"

"You."

If Arthur thinks anything of it, he doesn't show it. He just takes it in stride. "What about me?" he asks, cool as the breeze.

"They still call you 'Uncle Arthur.' But you're more than that to them. You cook them dinner and help them with their homework."

He's more than that to Cobb. He's stopped sleeping in the guest bedroom.

"I don't mind." Arthur shrugs. "It's not like I expect them to call me 'Dad' all of a sudden."

"Do you want to get married?"

Arthur doesn't take that in stride. In fact, with his wide eyes on Cobb, he trips.

~

"That wasn't a 'no,' by the way," Arthur clarifies later.

Cobb's been waiting for him to get back to it, but the fall took precedence.

"That wasn't the proposal. I just wanted to know if it's on the table. I wouldn't want to spring it on you if it's not."

Arthur looks at his ankle, propped up, wrapped, and iced. "I don't think that qualified as not springing it on me."

"Sorry."

"It's alright. Just promise me something."

"Anything."

"Never carry me like that again."

At the time, Cobb didn't even think twice, he just knelt down and positioned Arthur's knees up, then pulled his arm and hoisted him over his shoulders.

Cobb smiles. "Not even across the threshold?"

"Not even then."

Chapter Text

"Again?" Ariadne asks.

It's the third time Cobb's asked Arthur to dry run Ariadne's level with her.

Arthur shrugs. "That's what he said."

Yusuf insists they have to stay down for at least an hour. Something to do with a new formula he's testing out.

Arthur and Ariadne walk around her reproduction of the mark's house.

"Well, everything's pretty much where I had it the last time you saw it, besides the gazebo."

Arthur stops walking. "A gazebo? Where is it?"

"In the backyard. I know there wasn't one in the recon photos Eames took, but he said the mark's planning to build one, so we should have it, to keep the dream aspirational, so he's more..."

She trails off because Arthur isn't listening anymore. He's walking out the back door.

She rearranges the furniture in the dining room with aspiration in mind until she hears a gunshot.

She goes outside, sees his body on the grass in front of the white latticework and red roses, and follows him out of the dream.

She awakens in the middle of a commotion.

Eames is on the ground, bearing teeth in grin or grimace, saying he won't be able to tail the mark in this condition without raising eyebrows.

Yusuf's kneeling next to him, dabbing Eames' bloody nose with a wad of tissues.

Cobb is holding Arthur back, who's snarling about how, on top of ruining everything, what a violation it is to touch a man's private property while he's sleeping.

But they all turn to look at her when she stands up.

"What's going on?" she asks.

"Nothing," Arthur has the gall to claim, still braced in Cobb's arms.

"The mark's not building a gazebo, is he?" she asks.

"No."

"Then why did I?" She's looking at Eames, but he's looking up at Arthur, in deference for once. They all are.

Arthur shakes off Cobb, then walks to his workstation, straightening his collar. "Well, now that it's been spoiled," he grumbles. He takes out his black notebook, flips to a page, and hands it to her.

There's the gazebo, just as Eames had described it to her, and some writing beside it in Arthur's tight shorthand. After she reads it, she returns the notebook with a kiss on Arthur's surly cheek.

"I would've hated this," she says. "I wouldn't have told you, but I would've."

"Of course," Arthur snaps. "It wasn't supposed to happen in the middle of a job. But Eames—"

"Cobb and Yusuf were in on it, too," says Eames as he stands.

"Not just that. I would've hated it because I wouldn't want it to happen in a dream."

"Knew it," gloats Eames. "But he wouldn't have listened to me if I told him that. Had to force things."

"You were trying to ruin it?" says Cobb. "I thought we were helping him do it. What's wrong with it happening in a dream?"

Ariadne says, "It should be real."

~

So two months later, when Arthur proposes, he does so in reality.

Chapter Text

Ariadne heaves her carry-on off her shoulder. It's good to be back in a familiar apartment.

"I hope it's settled that we're never working with Adrian again." The man was a terror.

"Not if we can help it," Arthur muses far too generously, "but it's not a business where we can afford to burn bridges too early."

"Speaking of burning, can you at least promise we'll never have to work above a restaurant again? God knows if I'll ever get that greasy smell out of my clothes."

He gives her a peck on the cheek. "That I can promise."

"Good. I never want to eat takeout again."

~

Ariadne finds the bed beside her empty when she wakes up. She showers, then heads downstairs.

The aroma of cinnamon greets her. She peeks into the kitchen. Arthur is in a black apron, standing over the stove. He drops a spatula into a spoon rest and starts stirring a pot on the back burner. His movements are tight and practiced.

She watches from the door frame for a few minutes before she enters.

"Good morning." Arthur says when he sees her. "I hope you're hungry."

"I am."

"How do you take your eggs?"

"Scrambled is fine."

He cracks eggs one-handed, then takes a peek into the oven.

"Anything I can help with?" she asks, even though from the looks of things, he's got it all covered.

"You could set the table."

She gets the utensils from a drawer next to him. Their arms brush, and he leans over for a kiss. She obliges.

~

Arthur serves cinnamon crêpes, scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, and hash browns.

She takes it all in as they both sit down at the table.

"God..." she marvels. 

He perks up, closes his eyes, and bows his head, reaching for her hand. 

She stares. "Oh, I just meant, like, 'God, what a spread.' I'm not... I'm agnostic." 

"Oh." He sits back up. "Atheist."

"You don't believe in God, but you were ready to say grace?" 

"Well, I wasn't gonna be rude."

Ariadne pours syrup on her crêpes, then takes a bite. They're light and buttery.

Arthur says, "I should've asked before I went shopping, but do you have any dietary restrictions?"

She swallows, then answers, "No, but I'm surprised you don't already know."

"Have I asked before? I couldn't recall."

"No, but I figured you'd looked up my medical history."

"I haven't. That's private."

"But on the Fischer job, there was that coffee run where you came back with muffins, and Cobb asked if there were any banana walnuts, and you said no because Yusuf has a nut allergy. But Yusuf was like, 'I never told you that.'"

"I looked up Yusuf's. I was trying to rattle him. I had a bad feeling about him. I was right to. But I haven't looked up yours. Cobb had me run a background check on you, though, to make sure you weren't a federal plant."

"What about your background? Did you used to be a chef or something? This is food is just so good. And you made things look so easy in the kitchen, like you really knew what you were doing."

"I was going to be one."

"Really?"

"I went to culinary school in Paris. Then I met Mal, got into dreamshare, and dropped out."

"Oh, wow. All I know is how to follow the directions on the back of a TV dinner. Maybe you could teach me some recipes."

He smiles. "I'd love to."

Chapter Text

 

Your Recent Text Messages from Contact: 1

2: ETA?

1: 30m

1: Traffic

1: Is 4 there

2: Everyone is here but you

1: Start w/o me

1: Don't forget

2: ?

1: YTD

2: YTD? Year to date?

1: Yes Ter Day

2: ?

2: Oh

2: I'm not going to tell them

1: Y not

2: I'm just not

1: U promised

2: I did no such thing

1: Call me

Alert: [You missed a call from 1 today at 10:32 AM]

1: Pick up

Alert: [You missed a call from 1 today at 10:35 AM]

1: So you're ashamed of me is that it

2: No

2: We'll talk later

Alert: [You missed a call from 1 today at 10:44 AM]

2: Going down, talk to you later

1: Tell them

1: Please

1: For me

1: For both of us

1: Or else I'm not coming

2: I told them

1: Because I wasn't coming?

2: No. I told them while we were down. I read that afterwards

1: And?

2: And now they know

1: And??

2: And I'm not ashamed of you

1: I meant what did they say

2: They were supportive

2: And vulgar

1: E.g.?

2: 3 asked who's the "point" man and who "extracts" from him

1: Lol

2: ETA?

1: 5m

Chapter Text

James calls dibs on his dad, but Phillipa doesn't mind having Uncle Arthur on her team.

Pillows fly in a cloud of giggles and the occasional loose feather.

In the end, the adults turn on their teammates with tickle attacks.

Once everything has settled down, Phillipa asks, "Uncle Arthur?" 

"Yes?"

"Are you gonna be our Uncle Arthur forever?"

He strokes her hair. "I'll be here for you kids for as long as you need me."

"But are we gonna call you Uncle Arthur forever?"

Arthur cuts Dom a look that asks if he put her up to this, but Dom raises his hands and shakes his head.

"You're not really Daddy's brother," James adds. "You're his husband."

"I'm not his husband yet. We're dating each other. We're not married."

"Are you gonna be married?" asks James.

"Someday, yes," says Arthur.

"When?" asks Phillipa.

Dom says, "Someday soon."

Chapter Text

From: "A." <a@sablemail.net>
To: "A" <ri@sablemail.net>

Thinking of you

Missing you

There once was a man who missed a girl.
If he didn't see her soon, he was going to hurl.
So he wrote her a letter
(Started bad, but got better,
Like a clam that inside held a pearl).

-A.

From: "A" <ri@sablemail.net>
To: "A." <a@sablemail.net>

There once was a lyrical cheater
Whose poems were lacking in meter
He sent her emails
With intentional fails
Not what she expected would greet her

~A


Meter is a ploy from Big Poem
To get people to buy more poems.
So is rhyming.
It's more about combining words for the intended effect.
The norms of the form? Forgo 'em.

-A.

For the sake of her neurotransmitters
She entreaties that he reconsiders
Being such a damn clown
In pursuit of the crown
And the title of "King of the Kidders"

~A


But if he's funny, she might smile
And forget her troubles for a while.
But if he's too rigid,
She might find him frigid
And leave him for Danny or Kyle.

-A.

He needn't be worried about
the notion that she'll throw him out.
He should just be himself.


...Be it impish elf,
Or old fuddy-duddy, or lout?


Sure.


There once was a man whose assignment
Had kept him in all but confinement.
He'd left her alone,
But soon he'd be home,
To woo her with all his refinement.

-A.

Chapter Text

They got back to the hotel later than ideal. 

It was ill-advised to have spent so much time with a client right after a job, but it would have been worse to spurn his hospitality and risk offending him before his deposit hit their account.

Cobb kept slotting the key card in the door and trying the handle, but all it did was beep at him.

Arthur placed his hand over Cobb's. Cobb yielded the card. It opened for Arthur.

Cobb returned the favor a little while later by removing Arthur's tie, slowly and deliberately, careful not to ruin the fabric.

The next touch they shared was Arthur's hand on the small of Cobb's back as he sidled past him brushing his teeth.

Their last touch of the evening was a kiss goodnight.

Chapter Text

Ariadne rolls over in bed and asks, "So, what's the plan for tomorrow?"

"I'll be putting out feelers," says Arthur, his hands enmeshed over his chest.

"You think it's time to get back to work?"

He looks over at her. "Not if you disagree."

"It's been nice, having time off," she says. "Time together. I know we're together on jobs, but, you know. Just the two of us."

"Well, it's not like we can't afford to take as much time off as we want."

"But you'd want to get back to it," she says. "You'd miss it."

"Do you want to retire?" he asks.

"I wouldn't mind it. What about you?"

He thinks it over, then says, "Sure."

"But you'd miss it."

"A little. But as long as we keep the PASIV and dream together once in a while, I wouldn't mind."

He reaches over and takes her hand, stroking the back of it with his thumb.

"It wouldn't be the work I'd miss," he says, "it'd be dreaming with you. Seeing your designs come to life."

"That's sweet. But you wouldn't miss being a point man?"

"I haven't always been a point man. I can do something else."

"Like what?"

"I don't know yet. I'd experiment. How would you feel about one last job, though?" he asks.

"One more job, and we decide after if we want another one? Or we decide first, going in knowing it's our last?"

"The latter."

She thinks it over, then says, "Okay. For closure."

"Alright. I'll find us a good one."

"Of course you will," she says.

They share a kiss.

He turns out the light, and they settle against their pillows.

Chapter Text

Ariadne doesn't want to marry Payton Tanner, Arthur's alias with the most plausible paper trail. She wants to marry Arthur. But the trouble is, legally speaking, Arthur is dead.

So they have a ceremony to exchange rings and vows, but they don't sign any paperwork. He worries that might disappoint her, but she says it doesn't and what makes it real is that they'll spend the rest of their lives together. She doesn't need his fake last name.

It's also real because she got to invite her family. She'd been picturing getting walked down the aisle by her father since she was a little girl.

He couldn't invite his family, so she tells hers he's an orphan who never got adopted and who doesn't want to answer any questions about it. He rounds out his half of the seats with his best man Cobb, other dreamsharers that he trusts with his life, and Eames.

~

Arthur and Ariadne enter the reception to a celebratory tune as they make their way to the dance floor.

Notes of piano and violin begin the waltz.

They pace apart in practiced steps around each other, his arms behind his back, hers flowing with her dress.

He places a hand on her waist and they move with each other, through lines and arcs and dips, hand in hand. 

He spins her away, until they have both their arms out and open, connected only by the fingertips of one hand each, and then they rejoin, palm to palm.

Finally, he lifts her up in his arms. She places her hands on his cheeks and kisses him, warm and true.

Their family and friends erupt in applause.

Chapter Text

"Here, Roger!"

A mass of grey fur comes barreling through the park towards Arthur. He kneels to pet it.

"My parents never let me have a dog," he says as Roger licks his face.

Ariadne asks, "What breed is he, a husky?"

"He's a wolf. I had a fantasy of going into the woods, finding a cub, and taming it."

Arthur gives Roger a bone, and he starts gnawing on it.

"I used to drag a belt around to take him on walks. I'd pretend to sneak him food under the table at dinner."

Ariadne reaches towards Roger but Arthur says, "Careful, he's pretty wild. He was only loyal to me."

But Roger has already dropped the bone to start licking Ariadne's outstretched hand. 

"Oh," he says, puzzled. "Never mind." 

She scratches Roger behind his ears. His tail wags.

"Well, ready to show me yours?" asks Arthur as he stands.

Ariadne nods, then she turns and walks behind a tree. She comes out hand in hand with a little boy in a toga with the head of a black and white calf.

"My dad's obsessed with Greek mythology. He used to read it to me. I felt bad for the Minotaur, all alone in the maze. I wanted to be his friend."

Arthur crouches and waves, but the boy hides behind Ariadne's legs.

"I guess he's feeling shy," she says. "We used to play games together, and I'd read to him."

Arthur stands. "Want to know about Cobb's?"

"You've seen Cobb's imaginary friend from childhood?" she asks with surprise.

"Yeah, it's kind of a thing for dreamers to show theirs to each other as a sign of trust. I shouldn't tell you what his looks like without his permission, but I have to tell you what he named him."

"What?"

"Mr. Charles."

Chapter Text

Cobb and Arthur board the red-eye from Malé to Istanbul.

Cobb opens a book, but Arthur takes out two travel pillows and drops one in Cobb's lap.

"We won't get a full night's sleep," says Cobb.

Arthur straps on an eye mask. "Which is why we should take what we can get, right?"

"Alright." Cobb stows the book. "You got any ear plugs?"

Blind, Arthur reaches into his bag and hands Cobb a pair.

Cobb clicks off the overhead light, and they both recline.

Chapter Text

After the civil ceremony, Arthur is Unc— I mean, Father for a while, but Phillipa and James catch on fast enough.

As in, "Unc— I mean, Father? Where are my shoes?"

"On the shoe rack. I know that's not where you left them, but that's where they belong."

~

Dom's still Daddy.

As in, "Daddy, can I have thirty bucks?"

"Sure."

~

Dad is yelled most often, to the response of either one of them.

As in, "Dad, I'm going to Brendan's, I'll be back for dinner."

"Did you finish your homework first?"

"Yeah."

"Alright, then."

~

Arthur had already started saying Dom instead of Cobb a while before he became a Cobb himself.

As in, "Dom, where are my keys?"

"Oh, I've still got them. I couldn't find mine, so I borrowed yours."

~

Dom's been trying on honey lately.

Like right now, it's "Hey honey, need a hand in here?"

"Thanks. I'll wash, you dry."

Chapter Text

"It's the dreamer," argues Arthur, his hands on his hips.

"No," Cobb corrects, arms crossed, "the dreamer sets the parameters, but each sleeper's subconscious influences their own details."

"The dreamer's conscious takes precedence over the other sleepers' subconsciouses."

"Not the subject's subconscious."

Arthur raises a finger. "The subject populates the dream, the subject doesn't choose what they're wearing. The dreamer does."

Cobb holds out the sleeve of his dress shirt and gestures at it with his other hand. "Everyone wears clothes that are tailored to fit them, even if the dreamer doesn't know their size. You influence your own wardrobe."

"You're the one with the history of adding things to dreams," Arthur accuses.

"From my memories," says Cobb. "I think I'd remember if I had a memory about—"

"You've been to France."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Marcel Marceau?"

Cobb squints. "I don't know who that is."

"He's the world's most famous—"

"Well, I've never heard of him. Is he French, is that your point?"

"Yes. They all are," Arthur says. "Well, they have roots in Italian commedia dell'arte, but—"

"Only someone who wanted to be one would know all that."

"I don't— Everyone knows that mimes are French. Why do you think they wear berets?"

"You tell me," says Cobb. "You're the one wearing a beret."

And a blue and white striped marinière, suspenders, white gloves, and face paint.

"Because you put me in it," Arthur says.

"No, you did it to yourself."

"No..."

Chapter Text

"What did you do?" Arthur asks at the door.

"What?" Cobb steps indoors. "I didn't do anything. A man can't bring his partner some flowers every once and a while?"

"What do you want, then?"

Cobb holds out the bouquet. "I want to make you smile."

"I am smiling." Arthur unfolds his crossed arms to accept the bribe. "Because this is rich, that you're pretending like you aren't leading up to something, like I don't know you."

Cobb sidles out of his coat. "Alright, fine. I got a nice offer today, and I thought we could consider it."

"It's a militarization, isn't it?" Arthur asks, rolling his eyes.

"It's good money, is what it is. But yes, it's a—"

"We don't do those anymore. You militarize someone one week and you have to extract from them the next. It's bad for business."

"One, that never happens. Two, so what if it does? You don't like a challenge?"

"Of course I love a challenge." Arthur turns around to go get a vase. "I love you. You're a challenge in human form."

Chapter Text

"I don't only like women," murmurs Cobb blearily from the cot, eyes half closed.

"That's enough. I'm driving him home," says Arthur, standing over him.

"Not yet," says Yusuf from his chair. "We have to observe the effects of the compound."

Arthur says, "It doesn't work. It had no effect when we were dreaming. It'd be useless on a job."

"I've done jobs," Cobb offers. "I experimented in college."

Yusuf stifles a laugh with a cough. "I wouldn't call it useless, per se."

"He's delirious," Arthur scowls. "This is asinine."

Cobb says drowsily, "I don't want anything going up there. But other than that, I'm game."

"It seems to be having the intended declarative effect," says Yusuf mildly.

"You said it would help us interrogate projections. This..." Arthur stops to choose his words. "...isn't that."

"The results so far have been... effusive, but that doesn't rule out interrogation applications. We haven't tested how he responds to direct questions."

"We're not going to ask him any questions."

Cobb mutters, "It's unprofessional."

"See?" Arthur tells Yusuf. "He doesn't—"

"There's a power imbalance. I'm your boss," Cobb tells Arthur.

Arthur frowns. "You're not my boss. We're business partners. Friends."

Cobb nods. "I'm your boss. I tell you to do stuff and you do it."

"No, we tell each other what to do all the time. Like right now. Shut up, Dom."

"If I asked you to kiss me, then you would, but I wouldn't know if you did it because I asked you to or because you wanted to."

Yusuf clears his throat. "Well, you could ask him now, Cobb. He got the same dosage of the compound as you. I swear."

Arthur's eyes widen. "What? Then how come I'm not—"

Cobb starts, "In college—" but Arthur shoves a hand over his mouth.

"...doing that?"

Yusuf strokes his chin. "Maybe it's less effective on people who are deeply repressed."

"I'm not..." Arthur pauses. "I mean, maybe... I'm self-restrained, but—"

Cobb sits up abruptly, dislodging Arthur's hand. "It's working! Arthur, do you wanna kiss me?"

"I... I..." Arthur breathes deep. "Yes. I do. I've wanted to for a while, but I never... I couldn't... But I do."

Cobb smiles fondly at him. "Me too."

"That's my cue," says Yusuf, standing up to leave. 

Arthur turns towards Yusuf. "How long will the compound's effect last?"

"I can't say, but I'm sure you'll be able to tell it isn't working whenever Cobb's back to his usual dishonest self again. Until then, you two have a heart-to-heart. I mean, that's what a good relationship is founded on, right? Honesty?"

Behind Arthur's back, Cobb makes a quick throat-slitting gesture, glaring daggers at Yusuf. But then Cobb puts the bleary-eyed expression back on his face.

Chapter Text

Ariadne is cross-legged on the carpet with a photo album in her lap. Arthur sits beside her, one knee up. 

She points to a photo of herself blowing out candles. "That was my 10th birthday. My mom baked that cake."

"You were a cute kid."

"I wish I could see baby Arthur."

"Well, I don't have any baby pics, but I kept something I shouldn't have. Just a sec."

Arthur stands up and walks to his office.

Ariadne puts the worn green album back on the shelf and takes down one that's white with gold trim.

Arthur comes back with a wallet in hand. "I can tell you the combination to the box I keep it in, if you want."

He sits back down and hands her his student ID from a private school, with a rectangular hole cut in the middle where the last name used to be.

"Ooh, before you started slicking your hair back," she says.

In the photo, his hair was buzzed short.

"I liked it long then. My father didn't."

"You have the same eyes as you do now."

He points to the bow of his lips. "And the same scowl. That's when I perfected it."

He looks at the album in her lap she's picked out next.

He taps the cover. "But I was smiling that day. Best day of my life, at the time." He takes her hand and kisses her knuckles, above the ring. "We've been topping it ever since, of course, together. Last Thanksgiving ranks pretty highly."

She smiles wide. "Are you sure you didn't mind Uncle Hector over-explaining the rules of football to you?"

"Well, I did have the gist of it going in, but it never hurts to be thorough."

"I think he got your 'orphan' cover story confused with 'alien.'"

"He just didn't want me sitting there on the couch and not knowing what was going on. I appreciate that. Your family's been very welcoming to me."

She leans into him. "Well, you're one of us now."

"I certainly am."

She opens the album and they look over their wedding photos together.

Chapter Text

"Keene, you're off on recon. McLaughlin, keep me posted on your progress. Arthur, you'll be sleeping with me. I mean right now, but also tonight." Cobb winks.

Arthur waits until they're both under, alone, to say, "You don't have to keep saying things like that."

"Like what?"

"You know exactly what I mean. Can we just focus on the job and leave our personal lives out of it?"

Cobb folds his arms. "I'm not going to pretend like I don't love you just because we're at work. People should know we're a couple now."

Arthur's hands are in his pockets. "Our friends, maybe. But not everyone we work with, at all times."

"If I can't work with you openly and honestly, I'd rather not work at all."

"Can we compromise?"

"Of course. What do you have in mind?"

~

When they wake up, Arthur leans over and readjusts Cobb's crooked collar.

"You didn't feel that against your neck? That's been bothering me all day," Arthur says.

Before Arthur withdraws his hand, Cobb takes it in one of his and raises it from his neck to his cheek. "Well, I'm glad you can tell me when things are bothering you. Even if it's me."

"Love you," Arthur mumbles.

"Glad to hear it. I love you, too."

~

At work, it isn't announcements to the room anymore.

It's a gentle touch on Arthur's arm before they go under.

A hand on Cobb's shoulder when he's sitting down while Arthur passes behind him.

A pat on Arthur's back after he presents his research.

Or the brushing of their fingers as they hand documents between them.

At home, there's more, but they keep it private.

Chapter Text

"Hey, you wanna... like in the movie?" Arthur thumbs towards the bow of the cruise ship.

"Sure, that'd be fun," says Ariadne. "Only I don't want to have to close my eyes."

"Up to you."

They walk over. He helps her step up onto the railing.

"Do you trust me?" he prompts.

"I trust you," she responds.

He guides her arms open wide. When they're outstretched, he holds her waist.

"I'm flying, Arthur."

"I don't remember what he does after that, before the kiss."

"He sings her a little song."

Arthur baritones, "Near... far..."

"No, it's 'Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,' but I know you don't—"

"Yeah, I don't know that one."

"I wouldn't expect you to. I've just seen the movie a million times."

She brings her arms down and he holds her close, their fingers entwined.

Arthur angles his mouth towards Ariadne, but she says, "We can save the kiss for when we're awake. But we don't have to wake up right away. It's nice up here."

They look out across the ocean waves together.

Ariadne asks, "Hey, don't you think that Jack looks like a younger Cobb?"

"I don't see the resemblance."

Chapter Text

Cobb is standing on the sidewalk, soaking wet and a bit out of breath. "You forgot your umbrella," he tells Arthur. "I was bringing it to you."

Arthur is dry, holding an umbrella over himself in the downpour. "Yeah, I noticed I forgot it, so I bought a new one before it started raining."

Arthur moves forward to get Cobb under his umbrella, but Cobb takes a step back. "It's too late. I'm already all wet."

Arthur looks at his old umbrella clutched in Cobb's fist by his side, unopened. "Why didn't you use the umbrella on your way over here? Is it broken?"

In a dejected monotone, Cobb reports, "No, it works. I just thought you were gonna be all wet, so I didn't want to show up all, Look at me, I'm so dry. But I only thought that after it started to rain.

"Before that I thought, Arthur left his umbrella. Go give it to him, to be nice.

"But before that I thought, Look, Mr. Perfect forgot something for once. He's gonna be all wet, so go show up all dry.

"But I didn't like that I thought that, so then I thought the other thing about being nice. But then it started to rain, and I thought, Maybe I should be all wet, if I was gonna be like that about being dry."

Arthur stares at him, first to make sure he's done, then just because. "That's... thoughtful..."

"But I never thought you were gonna be dry." Cobb's looking down at the puddle at his feet.

Arthur looks up at his new umbrella, then tilts it aside and closes it. "Nope, I'm all wet. I guess nobody's perfect."

"But your suit! Oh no," says Cobb with a large grin on his face.

Rain soaks Arthur's shrugging shoulders. "This was off the rack. It's not my Westcott."

"Would you have let your Westcott get all wet for me?"

Arthur gives Cobb a soggy kiss on the cheek. "No."

Chapter Text

He draws the fleece blanket up over both of their bodies.

She rests her head against his chest, then winds her arm around his stomach.

He strokes her hair before resting his hand on her shoulder.

Outside the window, snow piles up.

Chapter Text

Arthur stops writing as a folded paper triangle lands in his black notebook. He takes it out and looks up.

Across the table, Cobb is holding his index fingers up with his thumbs together, waggling his eyebrows in invitation.

Arthur raises a finger, turns the page of his notebook, and keeps writing. 

Cobb lowers his hands, disappointed.

Seconds later, Arthur displays the latest page to Cobb: an empty scorecard ready for tally marks, with "Dom" on one side and "A." on the other.

Cobb's fingers eagerly return to formation.

Arthur holds the paper football against the table with one finger and readies his other hand to flick it towards Cobb's goalposts.

Chapter Text

"When do you think everyone else is getting here?"

"I don't know. We're early, but not by much."

"I’m cold."

"Here, have my jacket."

"Thanks. I guess chivalry isn't dead after all."

"Not on my watch."

Chapter Text

"So do I put it in the water before or after I get in?"

"Before. But you can get in while it's still fizzing, if you want."

"It's gonna fizz?"

"Yeah, that's half the fun."

"What's in it?"

"You mean what makes it fizz?"

"Everything, fizzing and all."

"The fizzing's just baking soda. Then there's lavender, for relaxation and 'cause it smells great. Eucalyptus oil, to clear your sinuses. Oatmeal, for your skin. And some glitter, just because."

"Glitter? Is it biodegradable?"

"I don't know. Probably?"

"You don't know? That doesn't bother you, putting a bunch of plastic down the drain, to drift out into the ocean for all the little sea turtles to eat?"

"Shut up and give it to me, I'll see if it... Look, it says, 'Made with plastic-free glitter that won't harm waterways.' It's says it's vegan, even. It's fine. The sea turtles are fine. Go take your bath."

~

"Well? Did you like it?"

"Yeah, it was relaxing. I can breathe through my nose again. Good smell. Thanks for the bath bomb."

"You're welcome. Did you do anything while you were in there? Read a book?"

"No, it was just me and the essential oils."

Chapter Text

Now that the gunfire has stopped, Cobb can finally race down the alley to Arthur's side. "Where'd you get shot?" Cobb asks.

"Nowhere," says Arthur.

"But I saw you go down."

"I was dodging. I'm fine. What about you?"

"I'm fine. I can't believe... I thought I lost you."

Cobb pins Arthur's mouth in a desperate kiss against the wall.

Arthur says, "Let's get out of here."

Chapter Text

Ariadne lies on the couch with her head in Arthur's lap. He pushes the button, and they both fall asleep.

They dream above the clouds, with the sunrise at their backs.

Arthur sports a grey and red skydiving suit and a silver jetpack.

A macaw's wings have emerged from Ariadne's shoulders, blue on the back, gold inside.

On the horizon, a checkered banner is strung between two hot air balloons.

They chant together, "Three... two... one... GO!"

Chapter Text

The doorbell rings.

Arthur grabs a fistful of candy from a bowl and opens the door.

It's possibly Yusuf, in the same blazer he's wearing topside, plus a goblin mask.

"Trick or treat," he sing-songs.

In any case, Arthur isn't glad to see him. He didn't invite Yusuf. It's been years, but Arthur still hasn't forgiven him for concealing the danger of the sedative on the Fischer job.

But Yusuf arrived tonight anyway, arm in arm with Eames. He gave Yusuf a peck on the cheek and called him his plus one whose invite must've gotten lost in the mail. That settled that.

Maybe-Yusuf-maybe-Eames holds out a hollow plastic pumpkin.

"And who are you supposed to be?" Arthur asks by rote, dropping candy into the bucket.

"I thought that was obvious," he answers, still sounding like Yusuf. But unless Eames coached him recently, Yusuf still hasn't picked up the minor tricks some non-forgers learn, like voice mimicry or height changing.

Arthur presses a gun to the forehead of the plastic mask. Technically he's skipping ahead, but it's not against the rules.

"Cocky, aren't you?" escapes the air hole at the lips of the mask.

Eames would have acted surprised, but Yusuf, instructed to feign Eames, would snipe at him.

"Yusuf," Arthur states more than guesses.

"Well, you've got me there."

Arthur shoots him, and Yusuf's corpse flops on the porch. Arthur flips a switch beside the door frame, and the welcome mat swings away to reveal a trapdoor.

He's glad he thought of that one. It beats going outside and dragging the bodies to the cellar himself.

Arthur closes the door, sits back down on the couch, and waits for the next one.

They do it every October. Eames came up with it. He pitched it to Cobb as a training exercise, but it's become more of a party game.

Whoever dreams the suburban townhouse it takes place in practices their perception. The trick-or-treaters who drop into the dream one at a time practice their deception, with costumes and whatever forgery tricks they have under their belt, or by being themselves and hoping the dreamer guesses they're Eames.

If the dreamer guesses wrong, they get woken up and replaced by whoever they failed to recognize. But if they guess right, as Arthur tends to, they get stuck on house duty while everyone else stays awake most of the night, placing bets and getting wasted.

The doorbell rings again.

Up next is a white mascot costume at about Cobb's height.

A paw holds up a paper bag. Arthur deposits a handful of candy.

"And who are you supposed to be?" Arthur asks.

The blue-eyed wolf shrugs and takes the option of staying silent. It's a rarity for Eames, but it doesn't rule him out.

"Eames," Arthur guesses.

The wolf shakes its head and reaches its paw into the bag, taking out a gun.

~

When everyone sees Arthur's awake, the room erupts in claps and cheers. Yusuf adds a tally to the whiteboard under Ariadne's name.

"You're welcome," Cobb elbows her. "That was my idea. I call it ' The Lone Wolf.'"

"What?" says Eames. "Ariadne pitched staying quiet and being your height."

Cobb counters, "But I pitched the wolf costume, and that makes it. The blue eyes? That's gotta be me, or you playing me, and it leaves her off the table."

They all give Ariadne a hearty round of congratulations, then send her under so she can build the house.

Arthur says, "Whoever goes next should impersonate me. She'll think I'd want to go in and take the house back from her."

"I'll do you playing Yusuf," says Eames.

"Try my Cobb," Arthur insists. "If it really were me, she'd be expecting my Cobb, that's my best voice. I can do Cobb's voice topside." He clears his throat. "No, you're doing it wrong," growls Arthur in a Cobbish tone. 

"That sounds nothing like me," grumbles Cobb, though it's enough to crack Eames up.

"I'll go," says Cobb. "I'll do my Arthur. King Arthur, in a suit of armor, with Excalibur and a crown."

Arthur bets on him with a clap on the shoulder, then grabs a beer.

After Cobb's down, Eames and Yusuf bet on Ariadne. It's the safer bet, but Arthur wanted to flatter him.

If Cobb fails, he'll go next. He'll be Ariadne's height, no voice, ensconced in a long scarf. She'll probably know it's him, and it'll help her start to overtake his lead. Then he'll be back up brainstorming gambits with everyone else, and he can finish his beer.