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

Notes: Written for the following inception_kink prompt: Arthur notices that Cobb still wears his wedding ring when they're dreaming.


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


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


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


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


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


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


"Sorry. I wanted to warn you."


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


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


* * *




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


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


Arthur, of course, never does.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



* * *





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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


He can hear the hitch in Cobb's breath.


"It's nothing," Cobb says.


"Really? Because –"


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


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


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


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


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


"What was that?" Arthur asks.


"What was what?"


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


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


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

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


That night, Arthur sleeps alone.



* * *




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


* * *



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Arthur nodded. "Let's do it."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"Really?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"I've experimented a lot."


"So have I."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



* * *




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"So no more dreamcades for you, then?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


Arthur knows exactly what she means.


* * *




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"Can we eat now?" she asks.


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


"No, anything's fine."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



* * *





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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


He wonders how Cobb copes with success.


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


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


"Do you miss it at all? Extraction?"


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


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


"The guy who slugged me is named Tomas."


"Never heard of him."


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


"She any good?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"It'll be fine, thanks."


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


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


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


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


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


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


He's not the only one awake.


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


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


* * *




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


James perks up at this and smiles hopefully.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"Hello?"


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


"Yeah . . . ."


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


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


"I'm Liz? The babysitter?"


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


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


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


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


"So, should I stay or what?"


"What did Mr. Cobb say to do?"


She just shrugs.


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


"Fourteen."


"You live nearby?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



* * *





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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"What's in there?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"It was your idea to come inside."


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


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


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


"Shit, Cobb, take it easy."


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


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


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


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


"A few more minutes."


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



* * *





Arthur's luggage resurfaces at the end of the week. When he finally gets it back, his stuff finds its way into Cobb's bedroom. His clothes fill up the empty side of the closet. Cobb gives him a drawer in the dresser.


There are two sinks in the master bathroom. One of them is surrounded by Cobb's things: his comb, his shaving cream and razor, some hair gel . . . . The other side is bare and dusty from disuse. Arthur wonders if the second sink used to be Mal's.


Both he and Cobb are morning people. It takes some time to get used to sharing a bathroom in the morning.


"Sorry," Cobb says one time, with an apologetic smile, after bumping into Arthur while he's trying to brush his teeth. "I'm not used to sharing like this. Mal never got up before ten if she could avoid it."


A few days later, Cobb looks at him across the kitchen table and says, "You know, I was thinking you could move the rest of your stuff in. That stuff you have in storage or wherever."


Arthur looks up from the newspaper and tries to smile sarcastically. "Are you seriously suggesting I move in? A little premature, isn't it?"


The kids are playing not more than ten feet away, pushing toy cars around on the polished wood floor.


Cobb shakes his head. "No. No. I mean, of course you can stay here as long as you'd like. That's a given. But I thought you could use a safe place for your things, whether you're here or not. There's no reason for you to pay for storage."


He lays it out like he would the details of a job. Practical. To the point. That's the way to get Arthur on board.


Arthur shrugs and returns his gaze to the paper. "All right, I'll consider it. Thanks."


"And your car. You still got that Corvette you were so crazy about? We have a two-car garage. There's room."


Arthur nods. Cobb is right, of course. And he's sure they'd consider such a move even if they weren't sleeping together. He, for one, would be more likely to do so. Accepting a kind offer from a friend is simpler than moving his stuff into his lover's house.


Between his time in the army and the years of living out of hotels, the idea of a permanent home is foreign to Arthur. Cobb's house becomes the next best thing: he's mostly comfortable, and has no immediate plans to leave.


That doesn't mean there's nothing to adjust to.


First, Arthur isn't used to sleeping in the same bed with someone every night. It makes him feel unexpectedly vulnerable.


One night, he wakes up in a sweat, his heart pounding. He hears Cobb ask, "What's wrong?"


He fumbles around for the bedside lamp. He pulls the chain, and feels a little better when the room has some light.


"Nothing," he says.


"Nightmare?" Cobb still sounds concerned.


Arthur wonders if he did anything embarrassing to arouse Cobb's worry: talking in his sleep maybe, or thrashing around. No way to know.


He swallows hard. "Yeah. It's not a big deal." He can still feel Cobb's eyes on him. "Sometimes I have dreams about Afghanistan. Nothing serious."


It usually isn't. Of course, he usually uses the PASIV enough to suppress natural dreaming, an advantage of regular work that he hadn't realized until recently.


He's never told anyone about this before. He never thought he would.


Cobb, wisely, seems to sense that silence is best. Arthur excuses himself and goes into the bathroom for a drink of water. While he's there, he splashes some of the cold water on his face. When he comes back to bed, Cobb is still waiting for him with his eyes open. He doesn't turn over and close his eyes until Arthur has settled into bed and turned off the lamp.


Second, there's the sex, or the lack of it. They can't do it whenever they want. The kids have to be in bed, and they have to be asleep. By the time that's done, sometimes Arthur is ready to go to sleep, himself.


One morning, Arthur wakes up with an erection. Cobb is already awake, and he notices the tent in Arthur's pajama bottoms when he turns over.


"Dreaming about me?" he asks with a grin.


Arthur snorts. "You wish, huh?"


Cobb reaches for the drawstring securing his pants. "How about I take care of that for you?"


But he's barely loosened Arthur's pants when there's a soft knock on the door, and a tearful "Daddy?"


Cobb pulls back, and Arthur climbs under the sheet before James pushes the door open and comes in.


"What's wrong?" Cobb asks.


James sniffles. "I fell out of bed and hurt my arm."


Cobb gets out of bed and rushes over to James. He pulls up the boy's sleeve and says, "It looks okay, but let's go make sure."


He spares a quick glance back at Arthur before leading James out of the room.


Arthur waits a few minutes, and it's soon clear that they aren't going to finish what they started. It's also clear enough that there's no medical emergency. So Arthur gets up and heads for the shower.


His cock has mostly softened, but as he steps under the warm water, he thinks about getting himself off. He might as well. But the moment after he starts palming his cock, the bathroom door opens and Cobb comes in.


"Sorry about that. James is fine – he was just shaken."


He stands by the sink and starts brushing his teeth. He looks in the mirror, where he can see Arthur in the shower behind him. Arthur has moved his hand away from his cock, but he knows Cobb can see the burgeoning hard-on he managed.


Cobb hesitates for a moment, like he's waiting to see if Arthur will finish what he started, or maybe invite him to join in.


Arthur does neither. He's never been much of an exhibitionist, and the mood has passed.


He's forgotten what it's like to lack privacy. Cobb has probably seen more of him recently than he has in years, and now Arthur gets the pleasure of Cobb's comments on his habits, comments like, "Jesus Christ, Arthur. How much Red Bull have you drank today? You're gonna give yourself a heart attack or something." or "I thought you quit smoking last year."


Arthur tells him where to go, and mentally decides to pick on Cobb's annoying habits sometime.


Still, it isn't like they don't have their space. Cobb spends most afternoons in his study. He runs on the treadmill for a while, and then he does, well, whatever it is that he does in the absence of work. Read and use the computer, Arthur supposes. The kids mostly entertain themselves, though Cobb comes out now and then just to see them. He'll lean against the wall and watch them play, smiling like a man who has everything.


Occasionally, the kids will acknowledge Arthur. James will call him over to see some structure he's built with blocks, which Arthur will summarily praise. Phillipa, who's taking violin lessons, will use him as an audience.


He usually has his headphones on, truthfully to block out the sound of the violin. But when Phillipa runs over, and says, "Arthur, listen to this," Arthur will take them off, look up from whatever he was doing, and smile through yet another squeaky round of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."


The kids will come to their room at night sometimes, usually because of nightmares. James, more often than Phillipa. Arthur suspects that, despite Cobb's efforts, she's learned the unfortunate lesson that parents cannot be relied on to protect her. Arthur is a light sleeper, and inevitably wakes up before Cobb does. Though Cobb, even being the deep sleeper that he is, never fails to hear one of his children calling for him.


But one night, Arthur wakes up to nothing. He listens for a second, thinking it might have been James who woke him up, but there's no sound. Then he realizes he can't hear Cobb's soft snoring, either. He rolls over and sees the bed is empty beside him. It's like the emptiness woke him.


His first thought, of course, is that Cobb is just in the bathroom. But the bathroom door is open and the light is off.


Arthur checks the time: it's after one in the morning. He slips on his flip-flops and gets up. He wanders out into the hall, listening for a sign that Cobb is with one of the children, maybe calming another nightmare. But their rooms, which he can see through the cracked-open doors, are dark except for the nightlights. The kitchen, too, is dark except for the one dim light that's always left on.


But there's light coming out from under the study door.


Arthur walks to the door and knocks softly. "Cobb?" he says. "You in there?"


There's no answer, and Arthur opens the door slowly, his hand sweaty on the metal doorknob.


What he sees doesn't surprise him, even though he's not expecting it. Cobb is sitting in a wing chair by the window, his head flopped to the side. An IV leads from his wrist to the PASIV set up on the floor.


Arthur wonders what dream could be so important that Cobb has to have it now. The idea of Cobb going under alone doesn't bother him, but he's almost positive Cobb hasn't been doing so during the day, even in his hours holed up in here. So the real question is, what's he doing that he wanted to wait until Arthur was asleep, and wouldn't know?


He looks at the clock on the PASIV. It's counting down 2:32, 2:31, 2:30 . . . . Arthur backs away, deciding he'd rather not be around when Cobb wakes up. He knows that even if this is innocent, his presence will lead to a discussion he doesn't want. Instead, he goes back to the bedroom and climbs into bed.


It's perhaps ten minutes later when Cobb comes in. Arthur doesn't look, but can hear him put the PASIV away in the safe, his actions hushed in a way that's clearly intentional.


Arthur lets him believe he's asleep.



* * *




One morning, Arthur gets out of the shower and leans in the doorway to the bedroom, watching as Cobb rushes around in a pair of black dress pants. Behind Arthur, the mixed smell of shaving cream and Cobb's aftershave hangs in the air.


Cobb steps into the closet and emerges with a white shirt. He sticks one arm in a sleeve and his brow creases with confusion. Then he chuckles and looks at Arthur.


"I think I just grabbed one of your shirts by mistake. Couldn't figure out why it didn't feel right." He takes it off and tosses it on the bed.


Arthur scoffs and smiles. "How'd you do that? I keep all my stuff separate."


"Hey, give me a break. I've never shared a bedroom with another man before." He looks at his watch. "And I'm running late." He goes back in the closet and comes out with the correct shirt. As he walks by, he glances at Arthur, who's naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist. He eyes him up and down with a lascivious look before going on with his business.


Arthur puts his own shirt away, smoothing it out so it won’t wrinkle. He pulls on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, making sure to stay out of Cobb’s way as he does so.


Once Cobb is finished dressing, he faces Arthur and stands up straight. He straightens his dark red tie and the hem of his jacket and asks, "I look all right to you?"


Arthur studies him, purses his lip, and nods. "Yep, great. At least you shaved."


"Let's just hope my portfolio is equally impressive, huh?"


"Either way, you'll ace the interview. You're great at that kind of thing."


Cobb has his first interview with an architectural firm today. Arthur is too realistic to expect him to get something on the first try, but he pretends to be confident for Cobb's sake.


In the foyer, while Cobb tries to give Arthur instructions for the children's lunch, James attaches himself to Cobb's leg.


"Not right now, James. I've gotta run."


James tries to stand on Cobb's foot, his sneakers scuffing Cobb's polished black leather shoe. "No . . . but you said—"


Cobb gently pushes him off and crouches down. "Later, James, all right? When I get home, we can spend some time together, but I have to go now. Be a big boy for Arthur, okay?"


He ruffles James's hair and stands up. He grabs his portfolio and an umbrella, and then he's out the door.


James stares at the door until he hears the car engine start. He reaches for the doorknob -- his small hand is just able to grasp it, but the deadbolt is engaged, keeping the door shut.


Before Arthur can say anything, James bursts into tears. "Daddy . . . ." he cries out. He pulls down on the doorknob like he’s trying to pull it off the door.


The loud cries stun Arthur into inaction. James has cried before during his stay here, but never like this, and Cobb has always been around to take care of it. Arthur realizes this is the first time he's been present to see Cobb leave the kids behind. Does this happen often? Does it happen when Liz watches them? He wonders if he should call Liz.


He immediately dismisses that idea. He has too much pride to call a teenager for help.


Phillipa says, "He'll come back." Her voice is soft and sad in a way that suggests this isn't a new occurrence.


Arthur gently pulls James from the door and crouches down in front of him. "Hey, James, it's okay. Your dad will come back. He just had to go out for a little bit. He'll be back in a few hours, I promise."


James scrunches up his face and lets out an agonized cry. When Arthur reaches out to hold him by the shoulders, he backs away and rubs his eyes with his fists.


Arthur doesn't know much about developmental psychology. He seems to remember hearing something about small children and their concept of time, and wonders if James is old enough to understand what "a few hours" means.


He knows he should do something, but he also knows his control here is limited. He can't force James to stop being scared, and he hasn't spent nearly enough time with the kids to know how to comfort them.


Distraction, that's what he needs. Noticing the tears are starting to lighten up, he says, "Hey, James, tell you what: why don't we watch a movie? Would you like that?"


James just stares at him. His face is red and wet. Phillipa, however, smiles and jumps up and down at the suggestion. Arthur herds them into the family room and hopes Phillipa’s enthusiasm will rub off on James.


He opens the cabinet under the TV and tells him to pick whatever they want. James doesn’t budge, but Phillipa gets down on the floor to choose something. She must take “whatever” literally, because her first choice is Scarface. She hands it to Arthur, who immediately puts it back on the shelf, saying, “You dad might not be happy with me if I let you watch that. Choose something else.”


Her next choice looks harmless enough, so Arthur puts it in. The kids flop down on their stomachs on the floor, and Arthur stretches out on the couch, resting his head one arm and his feet on the other.


For the first half hour, he pays vague attention to the movie. After James’s meltdown, he doesn’t think he should leave the kids alone. But after a while, he dozes off.


When he wakes up, it’s to the sound of a crash. His eyes shoot open and he’s awake before he realizes what woke him.


The movie has reverted back to the DVD menu, and the kids are nowhere to be seen. Knowing this can’t be good, Arthur pushes down the rising dread and gets up to investigate.


He finds the kids by the hall table, staring at a shattered lamp on the floor. James has his thumb in his mouth, a nervous habit he’s yet to give up, and Phillipa is holding a Barbie doll by the legs. They look up when they hear him approach.


“We didn’t do anything,” Phillipa says. “We were playing--” she points to the end of the hall “--over there, and it just fell, all by itself.”


She’s not that good a liar, but trying seems to come naturally enough. In a few years, when she perfects her technique, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.


“Yeah, right,” he says, “I’m sure you guys are totally innocent.”


James’s eyes start to water. “Daddy’s going to be mad.”


Arthur blinks. “What? Of course he won’t. Trust me, nobody’s going to be mad. It’s not like it was valuable.”


He doesn’t actually know that, but he thinks Cobb keeps anything of value in the study and the master bedroom.


And if Cobb gets mad at anyone, it’ll be him. He’s supposed to be responsible, here. What if the lamp had fallen on one of the kids’ heads? He’s not actually sure how much supervision they need. He realizes he doesn’t know much at all about watching children.


He can handle this, at least. He gets the kids to show him where the broom and dustpan are, and he sweeps the shards of ceramic and light bulb into an old paper shopping bag. The children watch him with relieved expressions -- Arthur gets the sense that his calm reaction has endeared him to them.


When the clean-up is complete, it’s about lunch time, and he gets started on making sandwiches for the kids. Since Cobb isn’t around to chide him about his diet, he doesn’t make anything for himself, but instead leans on the kitchen island with can of Red Bull while the kids eat.


They’re almost finished when Cobb comes home. They push back their chairs and run to greet him. Arthur can hear them running down the hall, and giving Cobb an elated greeting. Arthur trails behind.


With the kids vying for Cobb’s attention, it’s several minutes before Arthur can ask him about the interview. Finally, Cobb goes into the bedroom to get changed, and Arthur follows.


"So, how'd it go?" he asks.


Cobb takes off his jacket and lays it on the bed. He sits down to untie his shoes.


"It went great. I think I made a good impression."


Arthur has no doubt of that, but he can tell Cobb is leaving something out.


Cobb stares at the floor. "I think . . . maybe they want someone with more recent experience. But they were impressed with my older work. I think I have a good chance."


This is what happens, Arthur supposes, when one drops out of the legitimate workforce to work in dream share and extraction. Arthur’s sure there are ways to mitigate two years of unaccounted-for unemployment. Cobb could say he took time off after the death of his wife, for example. The problem is, Arthur is also pretty sure that Cobb's murder charge was mentioned in the media. Potential employers can find that sort of stuff on Google. Putting it all together, everything about Cobb screams, "Spent time eluding the police."


Arthur shrugs. "Well, if you don't get this one, it's not the end of the world."


Cobb clicks his tongue and sticks a finger in the knot of his tie, loosening it. "Of course not. But I'd like to find a job."


“Have you thought it out, though?”


“What do you mean?”


“For one thing, what are the kids going to do when you start working again? Who’ll watch them?”


Cobb shrugs. “It’ll work out. Phillipa’s starting kindergarten in the fall. And Liz is just across the street.”


“Liz? Liz is fourteen. Even if she could watch the kids every day, she sure as hell won’t want to. She’s a babysitter, not a nanny.”


“Obviously,” Cobb says with a frustrated sigh. “I wasn’t suggesting I leave them with her every day.”


“What about their grandmother? Mal’s mom? Is she not willing to help out anymore?”


Cobb’s jaw tightens. “I’m not going down that road.” He stands up and starts to empty his pockets. He tosses his wallet and keys onto the nightstand roughly, followed by a handful of change. A penny rolls onto the floor, but Cobb ignores it.


“Wanna tell me why not?”


For a second, he thinks Cobb isn’t going to answer. He often doesn’t. But Cobb looks away and says, “She told them I wasn't coming back, Arthur. Do you know what it’s like to always hear about how ‘Grandma’ did things? How she cooked for them? How she read to them at night? When I came back here, I didn’t even know what their favorite books were.”


“Then why not wait until you can figure out a way to work from home or something? Is money an issue? 'Cause you know I'd help out."


Arthur's savings are lessening daily, and he's going to have sniff out a job eventually, but he's got enough to last for a while.


Cobb shakes his head. "No, money is fine. But it's not infinite, either. And I loved being an architect, so there’s no reason not to try to get back in it. The kids are getting old enough that I can.”


Arthur shrugs. “All right. I guess I just don’t see the rush.”


Cobb takes a sharp breath. "No offense, Arthur, but you don't exactly know what you're talking about. Not all of us have rich parents. Some of us do have to work."


"Excuse me?"


"Let's face it," Cobb says, turning around to face him, "you've never had a real job before. I'm not judging—"


"What? The army doesn't count? 'Cause being shot at in Afghanistan is a fucking walk in the park, right?"


"You wanna raise your voice some more? I don’t know if my kids could hear that.”


They stare at each other. Arthur has never been good at backing out of an argument. He prefers to derail them at the first sign of tension. Too late for that, now.


Cobb speaks first.


“I was talking about civilian jobs. Don’t twist my words."


Arthur puts his hands on his hips and chuckles humorlessly. "Right. Whatever. And just for the record, my parents buried themselves in credit card debt a long time ago. And if they could afford to give me money, they still wouldn’t do it. So don't tell me about my ‘rich parents.’"


Cobb raises a hand, palm outward. “Fine. Look, I promised the kids I’d play with them today. I’m not wasting any more time on this conversation.”


“Good.”


Arthur turns around and storms out the room. He walks straight to the back porch, pausing only to get his pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the kitchen. He goes out onto the porch and closes the door behind him.


More than anything, he’s mad at himself for getting riled up. Sometimes it embarrasses him that Cobb knows enough about his life that he can hit nerves if he wants to. Sometimes he wants to keep secrets, like that will make up for what Cobb already knows about him.


He barely knows anything about Cobb. On the rare occasion that Cobb volunteers information about himself, Arthur takes it with a grain of salt. The only stuff he trusts is what Mal told him. He thinks Cobb was honest with her.


As he lights his second cigarette, Arthur grudgingly thinks that Cobb is probably right: he should quit. He’s done it cold turkey before, but he thinks if he tries to quit now, he’ll need some gum or a patch or something. The thought that he’s addicted scares him worse than the health risk. He’s done a lot of things that could result in an early death.


Then again, what right does Cobb have to want him to quit? Arthur didn’t smoke nearly as much before he moved in here.


But then Arthur chides himself for being unfair. He’s just pissed at Cobb right now.


He waits ten or fifteen minutes, and then sneaks back inside. He listens, and thinks he can hear Cobb in one of the kids’ bedrooms. Feeling safe he won’t face another confrontation, Arthur goes back in the master bedroom to get his laptop.


He spends the next few hours surfing the net, trying to relax and lower his blood pressure. He shouldn’t be upset about something like an argument, but he is.


By five o’clock, he’s not feeling much better. Only, instead of anger, now he has a guilty feeling in his stomach that won’t go away. He debates with himself for a few minutes, and then he gets up and ventures down the hallway.


At James’s room, Arthur peeks around the doorframe. Cobb is sitting cross-legged on a large blue rug. The kids are sitting with him, and there’s a colorful board game set up on the floor.


Cobb is smiling, and saying something about it being Phillipa’s move. Arthur clears his throat, and Cobb looks up. His smile fades to an expression of apprehension.


“Hey,” Arthur says, “I don’t know if you have plans for dinner, but I was thinking I could call in for a pizza.”


The lines on Cobb’s brow smooth and he gives Arthur a careful smile. “That’d be great, thanks.”


Later that night, when Arthur is climbing into bed, Cobb says, “I’m sorry about earlier. I wasn’t trying to insult you.”


Arthur nods. “I know.”


“I’ve just been under some stress lately, with applying for these jobs and waiting to hear back. But it’s no excuse. And I shouldn’t have made a comment about your family. I know -- I know you don’t get along well with them.”


“No, I’m sorry, too. It’s not a big deal.”


Cobb climbs into bed beside him. He smiles. “Yeah? I was sorta hoping it was a big enough deal that we could have some make-up sex.” He runs a hand along Arthur’s bare thigh.


Arthur grins back. This is the sort of apology he can appreciate. If that makes him weak, if it means he’s addicted to Cobb’s mouth and hands and cock, then so be it.


Cobb pulls Arthur’s boxers off and slides his lips around his cock. Arthur closes his eyes. Arousal creeps up on him. His cock hardens in Cobb’s mouth and his heart starts to pound. For a man who spent a lot of his adult life married to a woman, Cobb is very good at giving blowjobs.


Arthur bites back a moan and clutches the sheets in his fists.


It doesn't take him long to come, and it feels much too soon. But when it’s over, Arthur is exhausted. He feels like he could go to sleep. But Cobb pulls down his pajama bottoms and smiles hopefully, and Arthur is too kind, and far too fond of sucking Cobb off, not to reciprocate.


Still, it doesn’t stop Cobb from getting up again that night for another round with the PASIV. Arthur adds tonight to the tally he’s been keeping in his head: this is the third time in two weeks. That he’s aware of, at least. This time, he doesn’t wait to hear Cobb return. He dozes off, and when he wakes up in the morning, Cobb is curled up under the sheet beside him, as peaceful as if he’d never gotten up.



* * *






Arthur hasn’t answered his phone in a long time. He checks for messages every day, but he seldom returns them.


He's sure by now he's missed out on several jobs. Worthwhile ones, probably not. He doesn't lose sleep over it.


When his sister calls, he waits until he thinks she'll be at work to call back so he can leave a message. He learned a long time ago the minimum he needs to do to convince people he's alive and well.


One afternoon, he's on the bed reading a magazine when his phone rings. Like always, he takes it out to look at the display. But this time, when he sees the name, he pushes the green "answer" button.


It's Ariadne.


"Hey," she says when he answers. "Haven't heard from you in a while."


"What can I say? I've been busy."


"Working?"


He pauses. "Not that much." After a second of thought, he adds, "I've been staying with Cobb."


Now she pauses.


"How is he?" she asks.


"Good. He's great. So, what to what do I owe the pleasure?"


"I've come across a job. Thought you might be interested."


He sits up and props a pillow behind his back. "Yeah? Tell me about it."


"It's . . . standard corporate espionage. I'm in Chicago."


Chicago. That's not a bad trip to make.


"How many on the team?"


"Three, if you come."


She tells him about the extractor she's hooked up with. It's not someone Arthur knows, but the business changes so damn fast, he's not too surprised.


He tries not to rush a decision, but there's no actual reason to turn the offer down. He's told himself for months now that he'd take an offer from someone he trusts.


Then Ariadne's voice grows serious. "I'd like it if you joined in. Sometimes I feel like I barely know what I'm doing."


That cinches it. Maybe it's a sign he's getting older, but he likes the thought of being the voice of experience. Of mentoring someone, even.


The first thing he does after saying goodbye to Ariadne is get on his laptop to book plane tickets. Then he sits back and thinks about how he's going to approach the next step.


Finally, he goes outside to tell Cobb.


Cobb is in the backyard swimming pool, trying to teach the kids to swim. The kids seem more interested in floating in their brightly-colored inner tubes and whacking each other with large foam noodles. Arthur steps inside the fenced-in enclosure and crouches by the side of the pool.


"What is it?" Cobb asks. Phillipa splashes him, and he wipes his eyes.


"I've got to go to Chicago for a week or two. Job opportunity."


"Oh yeah? Who with?"


"Ariadne."


Cobb blinks, either from surprise or from the chlorine in his eyes. "I didn't know she decided to go into the business."


Maybe Arthur should have told him about that. Ariadne was his find, after all. He's not sure why he didn't.


"I guess she has."


"Did she tell you what the job is?"


Arthur shrugs. "A little bit. But you know me: I don't like doing business on the phone."


Cobb rests his arms on the edge of the pool. He gazes past Arthur with a preoccupied look in his eye. Arthur sees something in his expression that looks like professional curiosity. It reminds him of the old days.


"When do you fly out?" Cobb asks.


"Tomorrow."


For a moment, Arthur imagines Cobb is going to come with him, join the job. He knows it's unrealistic. He knows there's no way they could possibly find someone to stay with the kids on such short notice. He knows Cobb is still technically retired. But when he looks at that curiosity in Cobb's eyes, he's sure it'll happen.


"I'll give you a ride to the airport."


Arthur nods, but he feels like his stomach sinks. He tells himself he didn't really expect anything more.


He does most of his packing that evening. Cobb watches with his arms crossed, but doesn't offer to help.


"Are you doing this to help Ariadne, or because you want to?"


Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Can't it be both?"


Cobb shrugs. "Well, yeah . . . ."


Arthur is a folding a shirt. After he places it in his luggage, he looks up at Cobb. "What are you trying to say? That you don't think I should take the job?"


"No. You should do whatever you want."


"Thank you," Arthur says, more harshly than he intended. "I will."


"What I meant," Cobb says, rolling his eyes, "is that I've gotten the impression you're feeling disenchanted these days. And I wouldn't blame you. Half the people in the business are criminals who don't know what they're doing. The other half actually cares about dream sharing but would rather be doing legitimate work in it. After a while, it gets old. Believe me, I should know."


"C'mon. You know it's not that polarized. There are talented criminals out there."


"Okay, fine. You have people like Eames—"


"And us."


Cobb hesitates. For all he likes to present himself as the innocent family man, the law-abiding architect who was forced into a life of crime, he's too dishonest and manipulative not to have an inherent criminal nature.


Arthur isn't judging. He likes Cobb just fine the way he is. Though maybe part of him thinks that if Cobb were how he presents himself, then Cobb would be too good for him.


"Sure," Cobb says, finally, "like us. That's why we stuck together, remember? Compatibility."


Arthur keeps packing.



* * *





Arthur arranges to meet Ariadne and the extractor in the hotel restaurant after he gets checked in. When he walks in, his legs are still tired from sitting on the plane. He doesn't see Ariadne, so he waits at the bar and orders a scotch.


The place is packed, mostly with people in suits and business casual attire. Arthur leans on the counter and says to the bartender, "Busy tonight, isn't it?"


The bartender is a woman about his age. She smiles and says, "There are a lot of people here for a convention."


Arthur suspected as much. There are signs in the lobby welcoming some manufacturer of auto parts. They seem to have reserved a large portion of the hotel.


Ariadne finally shows up with the extractor in tow. He's wearing a crisp but unassuming suit, and he's older than Arthur expected: He has salt-and-pepper hair and his face, while not old, has lines around the eyes and mouth that add maturity.


He introduces himself as Marcus. Arthur wants to like him, but he never knows how to feel about people who don't meet his expectations.


Arthur would like to make a good impression, but it's hard to be upbeat when he's just flown into town, is starving, and wants to know more about the job. After dinner, they agree to go up to Ariadne's room to discuss it. But first, Marcus goes outside for a cigarette, and Arthur tags along.


It's quiet outside. It's a warm night, but not stifling like the crowded restaurant. Arthur gets a light from Marcus and looks up at the clear, dark sky. The stars are starting to come out.


"People are saying you and Ariadne performed inception," Marcus says.


He doesn't beat around the bush. Arthur likes that, but he doesn't confirm or deny. He has no idea how word of the Fischer job got out, but this isn't the first time it's been mentioned to him. Like always, he's not sure how he feels about it.


Initially, he was pretty proud of himself for pulling it off. Now . . . he supposes he's still proud. Just not as much as he thought he would be. Mostly, he feels weary.


"If you're hoping I'll do it for you," Arthur says, "you're out of luck."


Marcus chuckles. "I'm not that ambitious. I was just complimenting your skill. It's not easy to find good people. I'm sure you're aware."


"Yes, I am aware."


Marcus flicks his cigarette into an ashtray and heads for the entrance to the hotel. Arthur snuffs out his own cigarette and follows, accompanying Marcus up to the sixth floor, to Ariadne's room.


Ariadne spreads papers and photographs out on her bed. Arthur kneels on the floor to look at them and Marcus leans against the wall, not really paying attention. The rundown Ariadne gives about the job is clearly just for Arthur's benefit, to catch him up.


The job itself is simple enough. The mark is in town for the convention downstairs, and Ariadne has already secured a maid's help so they can get access to his room. All they need is to do is find some blueprints and report on what's in them.


When hears the amount they're being paid for this, he raises an eyebrow. "Really? I've done harder jobs for less."


Marcus shrugs. "Our employer has no previous experience with extraction. He was inclined to over-pay, and I wasn't going to stop him."


Arthur is no better than Marcus in this regard. Looking over everything, at all the work that's already been done, he can't imagine he'll lend much value to this job. He's only here because Ariadne wanted him, and perhaps because Marcus wants to work with people who are good enough to perform inception. But Arthur will gladly take a paycheck, regardless.


At a quarter to eleven, Marcus pointedly looks at his watch and excuses himself. He promises Arthur that they'll speak more tomorrow, and then leaves him and Ariadne alone.


Glad for a chance to talk to her, Arthur says, "So, you graduated, huh? Congratulations."


She smiles. "Thanks. And you're with Cobb?"


She doesn't need to clarify what she means. Arthur's first instinct is to lie, probably because when he and Cobb were working together, they agreed to be discreet. Realizing that would serve no purpose now, and that denial would only imply shame, he says, "I am."


"I guess I'm not surprised. Eames said you and Cobb were together."


"He did?" Arthur asks, raising an eyebrow. "When?"


Ariadne shrugs and smiles awkwardly. "When we were preparing for the Fischer job."


Well, so much for "discreet." He doesn't even ask how Eames figured it out.


"He just mentioned it," she continues, as though she can tell Arthur is curious. "It's not like we were talking behind your back. He also thought you were gay, but I didn't believe him."


"I am gay, actually."


Ariadne shoots him a look. "I was willing to believe that after you kissed me. It was like I was your sister or something."


"You should explain that to Cobb. He thinks a willingness to try something is the same thing as being a natural at it."


Ariadne starts to gather the folders into a neat pile, but stops. "Are you guys happy?"


"Yeah, I guess we are."


She looks like she's about to say something, but she hesitates. Arthur knows, whatever it is, it isn't going to be good.


Finally, she says, "I learned some things about Cobb when we were working together. About him and Mal and . . . what happened in Limbo."


Arthur's stomach tightens. "You learned he incepted her."


Ariadne looks up at him, meeting his eyes in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable. "You knew?"


He didn't, actually, but he's suspected it for a long time. Now he does know. He's surprised at how little he feels.


Ariadne sits back on the floor and curls her legs under her. "Did he tell you?"


He shakes his head. "No. But I've been his friend for a long time, and he's not as good a liar as he thinks he is. I know enough."


"I don't know if you do. I think I should tell you exactly what I saw."


"No. You don't need to tell me." His legs are cramping from kneeling on the floor, but he's frozen in place, as though staying physically still will keep his mind and voice calm as well.


"Yes, I do. You need to—"


"I don't," he says, firmly. "Trust me, you never want to know what's going on in the head of someone you like."


She leans forward, pressing her hands against the bed. Her eyes flash with defiance. "But if you don't know what's going on in his head, how can you trust him?"


There's no way he can explain it to her. He's too kind to say, "Why do you think he hasn't kept in touch with you?" But that's the crux of it, isn't it? Cobb isn't the sort of man who can let people see his weaknesses and failures, and he's racked up enough of those that he can't let people get close at all. He'll push them away, like he did with Ariadne after the Fischer job. Arthur can turn a blind eye, and resist the urge to pick away at Cobb's defense mechanisms. In return, he gets Cobb.


Arthur is very pragmatic about what he does and does not have.




* * *





When Arthur returns to LA a week later, Cobb is waiting for him at the airport. It isn't necessary – Arthur could have gotten a cab like he usually does. But still, this is nice. As they walk out together, Arthur realizes this is the first time in years that he's had someone waiting when he got off a plane.


"So, tell me about the job," Cobb says, once they're in the car.


It's been a long, rushed day, but Arthur does his best. He's practically been off the grid these past few months, and while it's been a good break, it's nice to have done something. He's been looking forward to telling Cobb about it.


"Honestly, it was pretty straightforward. I wouldn't mind doing two or three jobs like that in a year. I could live pretty comfortably."


Arthur looks out the passenger window. At first, the surroundings are only vaguely familiar, but as they drive on, the streets and buildings and trees they pass are not only familiar but comfortable in a strange way.


Arthur realizes it's because it's been a long time since he returned to place he's familiar with.


He plans to rest when he gets in. But when Cobb pulls the car into the driveway, Arthur sees the kids peeking out one of the front windows from behind a curtain. When he steps in the door, they ambush him before he can even put down his bag.


He hadn’t imagined they would miss him, but James wraps himself around his leg like a ball and chain, and Phillipa bounces on the balls of her feet, saying, “You’re back! Did you bring us anything?”


Cobb frowns. “C’mon, what did I tell you about asking things like that?”


But Arthur is prepared. He smiles and says, “I did, actually. And if you let me get into my bag, I’ll show you.”


James releases him immediately, and Arthur sets his bag down on the hall table. The kids are watching him eagerly, and he wishes he’d found the time to get them something nice. But when he hands them the postcards from the hotel gift shop, their faces brighten and they clutch them in their small hands, admiring the glossy pictures of Chicago.


Arthur could get used to this sort of ego boost.



* * *





The next day, Cobb recruits Arthur to take Phillipa to her violin lesson.


"You don't have to do anything," Cobb assures him. "You just have to drive her there, wait during the lesson, and drive her home."


Arthur stares him down, but Cobb just says, "Just this once, all right?"


Right. Arthur suspects this is just the start of a regular thing. By the end of the year, he'll be doing kindergarten runs. But it's not like he does much of importance around the house. More importantly, he's never denied Cobb anything.


During the drive home, Phillipa asks, "Do you think I'm good at the violin?"


"Yeah," he says automatically, "you're great. The best in your class."


The thing about Phillipa, that he's still learning, is that as good as she is at lying, she's also good at seeing through other peoples' lies. She's hard to convince, even at her age.


"No I'm not," she says. "And I don't like it. I'd rather take karate."


Maybe he should encourage her to stick with the violin. Perseverance is good for kids, right? Then again, he hated it when his parents tried to get him to do stuff he didn't like.


"That could be fun," he says. "You should talk to your dad about that."


It's beginning to get dark. They're only a few blocks from home, but Arthur wonders if he should call Cobb to find out if he should pick up some dinner.


"Are you Daddy's boyfriend?"


The question, coming out of nowhere, stuns him. Instead of answering, he asks, "What makes you think that?"


"My friend Sarah says you are," Phillipa says, her voice firm as though she's caught him at something.


"I don't even know your friend Sarah. How can she know anything about me?"


He glances at her in the rearview mirror. Phillipa is staring back at him.


"This is something you should ask your dad about," he says.


"He won't tell me," she says, sullenly. "He never tells me anything."


Arthur can believe that. But what can he say?


That night, when he's getting ready for bed, the conversation is still at the forefront of his mind. He's in the master bathroom, brushing his teeth, and he can't help glancing at Cobb, who's at the other sink.


He spits out his toothpaste, rinses his mouth, and turns to Cobb, who's washing his face.


"Has Phillipa spoken to you at all?"


Cobb turns off the water and picks up a towel off the counter to dry his facewith. "No. Not about anything particular. Why?"


"She asked me if I'm your boyfriend."


Cobb freezes with the towel in his hands. "What did you tell her?" he asks, staring at the floor.


"That she needed to talk to you."


"Good," Cobb says, nodding. "That's probably best."


Arthur watches out of the corner of his eye while Cobb continues about his routine. He lets it go on for a minute before asking, "Well? What are you gonna do?"


"I'll talk to them."


"Mind letting me know what you plan to say? I'd like to know the party line for the next time this happens."


"The truth. I'll tell them the truth. No reason we can't be honest, right?"


Right. Of course not. Arthur bites his tongue to keep from asking what the truth is, exactly, because he can think of a few different versions of it.


"You go on to bed," Cobb says. "I think I'll do some more work first."


"Since when do you stay up late to work? Thought you were a morning person."


Cobb smiles. "Just not tired yet. Must have been that coffee I drank. I'll be in a few."


The bigger question is what the hell kind of work Cobb is doing when he holes himself up in his study. It's not like he has a job. Perhaps he's got the PASIV stashed away in there.


But Arthur is being paranoid now. He's not going to become someone who worries about betrayal when no promises have been made, and sulks about going to bed alone.


Sometimes he misses the days when their relationship was just that of two friends who fucked each other. Arthur has always been partial to no-strings-attached sex, and he thinks he could have been happy for a long time, maybe forever.


He can tell himself nothing has changed, but that obviously isn't true. The truth is, this has turned into the type of relationship where it might matter if Cobb doesn't come to bed with him, choosing instead to lock himself up in a fantasy of someone else. Arthur's pretty sure this sort of thing is why his parents got divorced.


He always promised himself he'd have more success.



* * *





One night, Arthur is watching TV with his stocking feet on the coffee table when Cobb comes in from putting the kids to bed.


Cobb sits in an armchair across from Arthur. He breathes a tired sigh and shakes his head.


"Kids give you trouble?" Arthur asks with a smirk.


"You know how difficult James is about brushing his teeth lately."


Arthur is watching some news program, and he turns down the volume when he realizes Cobb is going to stick around to talk.


“The kids’ grandparents are probably coming to visit for Christmas,” Cobb says. “I know that’s a while off, but I thought I’d let you know. They'll probably be in town for a week or two.”


Arthur nods and swallows back guilt. Cobb obviously takes for granted that he'll be there for Christmas, as well.


“Actually,” he says with a sigh, “I think I need to leave.”


Cobb narrows his eyes in confusion. “For the holidays, you mean?”


“No, I mean leave. I can visit, if you want. I just don’t think I should live here anymore."


He isn't prepared for this discussion -- he was going to wait until a good time came up, maybe when the kids are out visiting friends. Part of him has fantasized about simply not bringing it up at all, but sneaking out in the middle of the night or going away on a job and not coming back. He hates himself when he thinks like that.


It’s probably better to have gotten it out, but Arthur doesn’t feel any relief. Instead, dread squeezes his stomach like a vise. He wishes he could rewind time and keep his mouth shut.


Cobb stares at him for a long time, and Arthur avoids his gaze. Finally, Cobb says, “Do I get to know why?” He doesn’t sound angry, but his voice is cold, and the confusion in it almost makes Arthur wince.


Arthur wishes he has an answer planned, but he doesn't. He doesn't know how to vocalize these things. “I don’t know," he says.


“Is it getting too serious? Is that it?”


Arthur shifts on the sofa. He doesn’t want to face the TV, and he doesn’t want to face Cobb. He settles for something in between, and keeps his eyes focused on his knees.


“Getting serious is probably inevitable, if we keep this up.”


“And that’s a problem? If it is, just say so.”


Cobb sounds pretty certain that's the issue, and it's like a punch in the gut. Because Arthur has been serious. He's the one who's moved in, had his stuff shipped from across the country. When Arthur's gone, Cobb will still have his kids. Arthur won't have anyone except for parents he hasn't seen in years and siblings whose calls he won't answer.


Arthur sighs. “Look, I always figured I’d settle down eventually, and I like this. I like Phillipa and James. But this is your family. And I know you still love Mal, that no one will compare to her. I get that.”


“Arthur --”


“No, listen. If it was just us, I’d probably stay. But your kids are getting used to having me around. The longer I stay, the more disruptive it’ll be if I leave. They deserve some stability.”


He feels good, like like he's justified things adequately. But Cobb frowns.


“You think I haven’t considered all this? You think I would have let you move in if I thought it’d hurt them?”


“Frankly, I have no idea what's going on in your head. But okay, I believe you. That still leaves us. Maybe I don’t want to wake up one morning and realize I’ve wasted my life with someone who isn’t that committed to me.”


Cobb starts to say something, but he stops and his expression hardens.


“Fine," he says, finally, "If you’re worried about wasting your life with me, maybe you should leave.”


He stands up and walks out of the room before Arthur can formulate a response.


Arthur stares at the muted TV, not even trying to pay attention to the news segment that’s playing. This should be good, he thinks. This should be easy. Cobb isn’t going to fight for him – he can leave without fuss.


Isn't that just what he wants?


But then Arthur realizes something he wasn't positive of before, that he could only realize by letting this play out: he doesn’t want to leave.


Standing, he storms over to the study, where he assumes Cobb has holed himself up. He opens the door without knocking, and finds Cobb sitting at the desk, going through some papers but not really looking at them, doing something just to occupy himself. He looks up when Arthur comes in, and Arthur can see him frown in the dim light.


“Can we talk about this?” Arthur asks.


“I think you made your point.”


“No, I haven't.”


Cobb scrunches his eyes shut and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Okay, then tell me, Arthur: what the hell am I supposed to do? What'll convince you that I'm committed to this? Because I've let you move in. I trust you with my kids. If you can't see the seriousness in that, I don't know what else I can do. So tell me, please."


"You haven't done anything wrong," Arthur says, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat. He realizes, somewhat to his surprise, that he believes it. "But I know this isn't what you would have chosen. You'll always wish I was her. I don't think I can handle that in the long run."


Cobb drops the papers on the desk and stands up. "Do you have any idea how unfair that is?"


Arthur can tell he's trying to keep his voice low, probably so as not to wake the kids, but it doesn't stop him from finally sounding upset. It's almost good to hear, preferable to the coldness.


"In case you haven't noticed," Cobb says, jabbing a finger at Arthur. "I don't have the option of choosing Mal over you. You can make all sorts of assumptions about how things could be different. But you can't make decisions based on a bunch of what-ifs that are never going to happen. That's not fair. I bet I can think of a thousand things you'd choose over me if you got the chance. But no, this is how things are. We've chosen this. We're together. That's what matters."


"Right," Arthur says, not swayed. "I know you go under when you think I'm asleep. I know what you've been doing."


Cobb's silence is damning. He closes his eyes and swallows.


"Again," Arthur says, "I'm not blaming you. It's just . . . it is what it is." He crosses his arms across his chest like armor.


"How long have you known?"


"A long time."


Cobb shakes his head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made it look like I was hiding something from you."


"Just made it look like it?" Arthur's voice rises without him intending it. "Are you kidding me?"


Cobb glares at him. "I was trying to get some time to myself. I thought you'd get suspicious or insulted if you knew. Obviously, I should have handled it better."


"Obviously," Arthur says with a scoff. "Look, I can guess what you've been up to."


"I don't see her, if that's what you're implying."


Arthur doesn't believe him. If this isn't what Cobb's doing, then why hide it? Arthur isn't clingy. It's not like he can't respect why someone might want to go under by themselves. But he knows "suspicious" when he sees it.


"Don't lie to me," he says. "Whatever you do, just don't."


He thinks he can handle anything but that. Secrecy, detachment, those he can accept. Outright dishonesty is his limit. He deserves better, and has more than proved himself worthy of it.


Cobb sits back down in the desk chair in a dejected slump and runs his hands through his hair.


"I don't see her," he repeats.


"Then what's the big deal?" Arthur challenges.


"Because I wish I did. And sometimes I try to see her." This time, his voice is sad in a way that sounds . . . real. Arthur frowns.


"What? You're saying you can't?"


Cobb shakes his head.


"Still not seeing the problem."


"That's what you don't realize about letting go," Cobb says, looking at the floor. "It's harder than living with whatever it is you need to be rid of. And a part of you is always going to want to hang on."


It's the most Cobb has told him about his feelings, and the most Arthur expects to ever hear.


The only real experience Arthur has in letting go of someone is this, right now, and he knows it isn't comparable to what Cobb has lost. Still, Arthur supposes Cobb is right, because he knows, deep down, that he wants to be with Cobb even if it hurts. He doesn't know if this is love, or stupidity. He hasn't loved enough, or made enough mistakes, to feel sure of the difference. How can he know?


Cobb continues. "I can't have you in my head right now. If she shows up again . . . I can't deal with that if you're there."


Arthur nods. He leans against the wall and looks around the room. This space, more than any other in the house, is Cobb's. Perhaps this is why Arthur so seldom comes in here, and why he hesitated when Cobb offered it up as a safe place for Arthur's valuables. Even now, Arthur's record collection, sitting in the corner, looks foreign among the old architecture textbooks and swimming medals. If the room were alive, it would probably attack Arthur's belongings as though they were a virus.


"You feel guilty, being with me."


He says it like it's a revelation, but it isn't. It isn't exactly hard to see that Cobb has guilt issues, and when Mal shot him in the knee, well, it wasn't hard for Arthur to see some significance in it.


Cobb won't look at him. "Arthur—"


"I know. I'm saying I understand. I'd probably feel guilty, too."


"It doesn't mean I don't care about you. I want this to work."


"But I need more. I need to know. I need a guarantee."


Cobb shakes his head. "I can't give you that. Nobody can."


"Bullshit. You've done it before."


"No. If there's anything I've learned, it's that there are no guarantees. All I can promise is that . . . I can't imagine ever not wanting to be with you."


Maybe Cobb is right. Maybe there's no way to avoid taking a risk. Arthur could very well be screwed no matter what he does. Strangely, rather than making things worse, the thought is almost freeing.


Arthur spends the night on the sofa, not sleeping. He spends a vague block of time watching sitcom reruns, and then the infomercials that come on after. Time seems to pass both fast and slow; this is what he's always imagined Limbo must feel like.


When he wakes up, he isn't even aware of having been asleep. He doesn't feel like he's slept, but light is starting to stream in through the curtains and there's a new infomercial on. He's been resting his head on the arm of the sofa, and now when he tries to move, his neck aches. He starts to rub it.


"You're awake. I thought I heard you moving."


Arthur sits up and sees Cobb standing in the doorway. Cobb is still wearing his clothes from yesterday, which are now rumpled. He doesn't look like he's slept.


Cobb tentatively sits beside him on the sofa. When he isn't rebuffed, he slides closer and places his right hand on Arthur's neck, pushing Arthur's hand away and taking over the job of massaging the sore muscles. Arthur closes his eyes and allows it, because Cobb is good at this and his hand is warm and consoling.


"Are you still going to leave?" Cobb asks, softly.


"Do you want me to?"


"You know that I don't." Cobb swallows audibly and adds, "But if you know you don't want to stay, then you shouldn't. You should be happy. But if you give me a chance, I'll make it worth it."


"Then I'd rather try to stay, if that's all right."


Cobb kisses his shoulder through his shirt sleeve.


Arthur reaches for the remote and switches the TV off. They sit together in silence for a few minutes, while the rising sun brightens the room around them.


"This is hard for me, too," Cobb says. "I know how easy it is to lose someone. It's hard to know that and still want to try. But I can't imagine not having you here. So I'm sorry if I screwed it up."


Arthur shakes his head. "It's not just you. I've never been good at this. I've never had anything this serious before, where I had to take a risk on it. But if you'll try, I will."


He turns to look at Cobb. Cobb's eyes are bloodshot and he looks like hell.


"You should get some rest," Arthur says.


Cobb groans. "I can't. I promised the kids I'd take them out for breakfast. They won't have forgotten that."


Arthur smiles and shakes his head. "You spoil those kids, you know."


"I know. They're worth it."


Later, when Arthur emerges after showering and dressing, Cobb has the kids ready to go. Arthur doesn't actually know if he's invited, too, but the kids grin when they see him and he ends up in the car with them. He's glad they don’t seem to sense anything amiss.


The restaurant has only just opened when they get there. The good thing about eating with the kids is that they command a lot of attention, and there isn't much pressure to talk. He thinks he's reached his quota for discussing stuff with Cobb, at least for the day.


Arthur spends most of the meal helping James cut up his pancakes into bite-sized chunks.


Afterward, while Cobb goes up to the front counter to pay the bill, the kids beg Arthur for change so they can play some car racing arcade game in the corner. He hands them a few quarters, and keeps drinking his coffee until they come back a few minutes later, pouting and pleading for assistance.


When Cobb returns, Phillipa exclaims, "Look! Arthur's helping us play!"


Arthur isn't helping. He's playing the game for them while they watch. He shoots the grinning Cobb a glare, but he doesn't actually mind.


Cobb just pats him on the back.



* * *





"If my dad is going to have a boyfriend, I guess you're okay."


Phillipa is leaning on the dining room table, watching Arthur while he checks his email on his laptop.


"Yeah?" he says, glancing in her direction.


It helps, he supposes, that the kids know him. That, and he is blatantly trying not to parent them. He doesn't know how that strategy will work in the future, but he chooses not to worry about it.


She nods solemnly. Then she asks, "Can I have some gum?"


"No." On reflex, he grabs the pack she's pointing at, pulling it out of reach. "It's for adults."


She narrows her eyes at him, skeptical. "Why?"


"It's supposed to help me stop smoking, that's why."


She appears to consider this for a moment. "Does it work?"


"Not as well as I'd like."


He sticks the pack in his front shirt pocket, deciding it best not to leave it lying out. If Cobb finds out Arthur's trying to quit, he'll think it's due to his influence and his ego will be insufferable.


But then, Arthur doesn't mind as much as he pretends to.


Cobb pokes his head in then, and calls Phillipa over. To Arthur he says, "I'm just going to walk them down the street. I'll be right back."


Arthur nods. He remembers something about the kids visiting a neighborhood friend this afternoon.


Cobb lingers awkwardly for a second, like he might say something more. But then he leaves and Arthur hears him hustling the kids out the front door. Arthur returns to his email.


The past few weeks have been good. The future holds promise. If he wants to, he can probably land another job before the end of the year. And Cobb is . . . trying.


The things Cobb does these days, Arthur doesn't need. He doesn't need an arm around his shoulders while he watches TV. He doesn't need a kiss and a smile when he wakes up in the morning. He doesn't need someone to make him breakfast on Sunday mornings. But he supposes Cobb is trying to demonstrate something.


Cobb returns a few minutes later. He comes directly to the dining room and leans in the doorway.


"There's something I wanted to tell you," he says. "I got a call this morning. I got the job at Pierce."


Arthur closes his laptop and turns to face Cobb. "That was the interview last week, right? The one you really wanted?"


Cobb nods. "That's the one."


"Congratulations. I'm happy for you."


Cobb rubs the back of his neck. "I'm glad to hear that. You know I've always trusted your judgment."


"No, I'm happy."


And he is, even if the thought of Cobb going back to designing buildings after years of designing dreams rankles somewhat. Arthur doesn't think he'll ever not miss working with Cobb. From Cobb's demeanor now, his ambivalence must have shown.


"I think I'll be able to work from home a lot. This guy I'll be working for is flexible about that." Cobb hesitates and adds, "He knows Miles, actually."


Arthur hears the doubt, like Cobb is worried that's the only reason he got the job. Hell, maybe it is. Maybe he wouldn't have gotten hired somewhere if he didn't enlist his father-in-law's help. If Arthur didn't think it'd embarrass Cobb to acknowledge it, he'd assure him it doesn't matter, that he's worth something regardless. Instead, he huffs and says, "It's all politics and networking, you know. Why do you think I've rejected legitimate, tax-paying careers?"


Cobb smiles. "Yeah, I guess you're right."


Arthur closes his laptop and pushes his chair back. "We should celebrate," he says.


"Well . . . ." Cobb looks at his watch. "I said I'd pick the kids up at five, so that gives us about three hours. I think we have time for some celebration." When he says "celebration," his eyes dart to Arthur's crotch.


Arthur shifts in his chair. They haven't had sex in a week, and as a good as Arthur is at taking care of his own needs, he's aching for Cobb's hand on his cock and more.


They waste no time in going to the bedroom. Cobb pulls Arthur close and tugs roughly at his shirt buttons, huffing in frustration when they don't give as easily as he wants.


Arthur grabs Cobb's head between his hands and kisses him. Cobb's stubble scrapes his face, and his tongue slips between Arthur's lips. Cobb pulls back and starts to fumble out of his clothes, rushing to pull off his jeans and button-down shirt. Then he sits on the bed to watch Arthur undress.


Once Arthur has tugged his underwear down over his erection and kicked them off on the floor, Cobb pulls him on top of him on the bed, grunting when Arthur's weight lands on him. Cobb pushes Arthur up and rolls over on him, pinning him on his back. He presses his cock against Arthur's thigh while he strokes Arthur.


Arthur grinds against Cobb's hand. When Arthur feels himself getting close, he wonders for a second if he should try to put it off, tell Cobb to lighten up. Instead, he gives in to it, closing his eyes and losing himself.


"Fuck," he says, "Dom, that feels –"


Cobb doesn't react to the use of his name.


After Arthur comes, Cobb keeps grinding against him until Arthur feels a warm, wet spurt on his skin.


They lie beside each other on the bed, catching their breath. Cobb reaches over and pushes a sweaty lock of hair out of Arthur's eyes. The sweat cools on Arthur's skin, making goose bumps on his arms and legs.


Arthur looks at his watch and realizes, to his dismay, that it's only been a half hour. Now, he wishes they had dragged it out longer, taken advantage of the full opportunity awarded them. Maybe he should have jerked off in the shower this morning. He can last longer if he's jerked off beforehand.


Still, this is nice, just lying together in the quiet house. There are worst ways to spend their scarce time alone.


Cobb gets up and walks into the master bath. He returns a minute later with a damp washcloth, which he tosses to Arthur.


"So you think you'll be happy?" Arthur asks. "Working as an architect."


Cobb doesn't answer for a beat, suggesting maybe he's weighed this more than Arthur has given him credit for.


"Yeah," he says. "I think so." He flops down on the bed and props himself up on an elbow. He looks down at Arthur. "I know it's not as exciting, but I don't think I want exciting right now. Maybe someday."


Arthur murmurs in assent. He can understand this, certainly. If he hadn't needed a break, he doesn't know if he would have come here when Cobb e-mailed him. But he says, "I think I need it. I guess I can't imagine doing anything I like better."


Cobb nods. He trails a finger down Arthur's stomach, making Arthur twitch. "I know. I just . . . I want you to stay safe, okay?"


Arthur grins at him. "You know I'm careful. You can count on me."


"I know I can." He hesitates and adds, "I guess I get more than I deserve from you. I know you have a hard time trusting me."


Arthur frowns. He doesn't deny it, because Arthur isn't one for dishonesty. But he's not actually sure how it is. If he feels like being cynical, he can say that, no, he doesn't trust Cobb, just like he doesn't really trust anyone.


But more accurately, he trusts Cobb on certain measures. He trusts that if Cobb misleads him, it's unintentional and self-deluding as opposed to deliberate and cruel. He trusts that Cobb wants him, at least right now. Hopefully always.


And when it comes down to it, he trusts Cobb more than anyone else.


"I want us to do something," Cobb says.


Cobb gets up again. He pulls his boxers and pants on, and heads into the closet. Arthur knows what he's going to get even before he collects the PASIV from the safe.


This isn't at all unwelcome: they're overdue for going under together, as well, and Arthur hasn't gone under solo in days. He's starting to feel the effects of Somnacin withdrawal, again.


"I want to show you something. I want to show you what I work on sometimes, when I go under."


"You want to take me in your dream?" Arthur shakes his head. "I never asked you for that."


"I know," Cobb says, softly. "But I'd like it."


Arthur doesn't. In admitting he knew of Cobb's secret use of the PASIV, he never meant to issue an ultimatum. He never implied he wanted access to Cobb's secrets. And the last thing he wants is for Cobb's desire to prove something to get him shot in the knee again.


But then he looks at the hopeful and tentative look in Cobb's eyes, and thinks he should give Cobb some credit and a chance. So he gets up and gets dressed while Cobb sets the PASIV on the floor by the bed and starts preparing the doses of Somnacin. He lies back down and offers an arm for Cobb to swab with alcohol and stick the IV in. He closes his eyes.


When he opens them again, he's sitting in a bright, unfamiliar living room. Cobb is sitting across from him on a beige sofa. Arthur turns his head toward the window, and sees a broad cityscape. Between buildings, he can make out the glow of the sun setting on the horizon.


"I'd love to design a building like this," Cobb says.


Arthur stands and walks to the window. He looks down, and the street, if there is one, isn't even visible.


"I don't think you can make skyscrapers this tall." Arthur glances over his shoulder long enough to see Cobb smile sheepishly.


"Well, it's a dream."


Arthur smiles and shakes his head. "And you have the nerve to lecture me on unrealistic dream architecture." He hears Cobb stand up behind him, and walk closer. "So, this is what you do with yourself at night? Build impossible skyscrapers?"


"Among other things." Cobb's voice is right behind him. Arthur can feel his breath on the back of his neck. "I've been practicing control."


"Of the dream?" Arthur frowns.


"Of everything in the dream, yes."


"But you can't. If you change too much, actively control too many things, the subject's projections will sense it. Or the dream can get too unstable."


"But if you practice, and you pace yourself . . . look."


The sun sets fast like a time-lapse photo. The sky darkens to deep purple and then almost black. Stars dot the sky.


Arthur snorts. "Now I know this is a dream. You never see stars in the city like this."


Cobb snakes his arms around Arthur's waist.


"You always said not to change dreams much," Arthur continues.


"I know what I've said. You know me better than to listen to what I say. This is important to me. It's important to know I'm in control of myself. That I'm in control of my life."


"Just promise me you won't get carried away."


He doesn't need stress the importance of that. With Cobb telling him that this is what he's been getting up to, Arthur can't help but be relieved. But another part of him knows, at least through observation, how dream experimentation can spiral out of control.


Cobb kisses the back of his neck. "I promise. That's what I've got you for. To keep me in line, right?"


"Damn right." Arthur smiles. "But I'd like to see what you can do."


Arthur turns and takes Cobb's hand in his. He feels the metal wedding band and freezes. Cobb looks down at his own hand. A look of surprise crosses his face.


"I didn't even notice ."


"You always have it," Arthur says. He immediately regrets it: he's told Cobb that he has noticed.


"I won't do it anymore."


There's a hint of sadness in Cobb's voice, but it doesn't match the pang Arthur feels in his gut. This isn't what he wants at all; he would never possess Cobb at the expense of what makes Cobb who he is.


"No," he says softly.


"I can. This is what I'm working on. Controlling the subconscious. Controlling the dream."


"No," he says again. He kisses Cobb on the mouth. "I don't want you to."


The ease with which this comes to him is the closest he'll get to feeling sure. He realizes that knowing, being sure, isn't a guarantee but something he has to trust in, that he has to feel in his gut. Right now, the past doesn't matter to him, even though it will always be there. So maybe, maybe, they can keep this up for the long run.


He smiles.


"What?" Cobb asks, smiling carefully. "What is it?"


"I don't know," Arthur says. He chuckles and shakes his head. "It's nothing."


He kisses Cobb and turns to look at the city stretched out before them.

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