mirabella: (Inception Arthur suit and gun)
mirabella ([personal profile] mirabella) wrote in [community profile] mirabellafic2011-10-31 06:35 pm
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So as usual I failed utterly to complete a Halloween fic, but I felt like posting something festive, so. Here's the first half of my second-priority WIP, the one behind the NotUnderage!Arthur fic which I swear to god will be out within some reasonable time period.

Title: The Kith of the Erl-King
Fandom: Inception, Arthur/Eames, R.
Summary: Pain is in the mind. So are other things, like fear. An extraction on a serial killer doesn't quite go according to plan.
Warnings: Gore



Half a mile past the warehouse, Arthur pulls carefully over and, eyes fixed on his rear-view mirror, speed-dials Dom. The phone rings, and rings, and then goes to voice mail.

"Damn," Arthur says softly, and hits the next number on the dial. Eames picks up almost immediately.

"Hullo, darling," he says, cheerful as only Eames is capable of being when the sun is barely up.

For a minute, Arthur lets himself pretend, makes himself pretend, because the first rule of lying is to believe the lie yourself; and his voice when he speaks is soft and fond. "Hi, baby. Where's Dom?"

"In the loo, currently, but I feel certain he's deputized me to grant your every request. More to the point, where are you?"

"Well," Arthur says, looking back over his shoulder into the light stream of traffic, "I was on my way in."

"Until?"

"Until I saw the client cruising along in a vintage Mustang convertible with the mark's wife riding shotgun. Does it still count as a walk of shame if you're driving?"

Eames gives a short bark of laughter. "Well. That does put a rather different complexion on matters, doesn't it?"

"Very. I'm going to tail them for a while, see where it takes me. I'll be in later this afternoon."

"I'll tell Cobb. Good hunting, darling," Eames says, and Arthur hears: They're professionals, be careful.

He ends the call. There's a pickup truck stopped at the next light; Arthur throws his phone into the bed, parks his car in a tow-away zone, and runs.



Eames clicks his phone shut, looks away from Cobb and down the barrel of a SIG Sauer. "Bad luck," he says lightly. "Looks like the party will be one short."

"Track his phone," says the woman standing behind Cobb. "And the GPS in his car, if he hasn't disabled it."

Eames does manage to contain his snort at the idea of Arthur making a rookie error like not disabling his GPS, but it's a near thing. At the other end of the table, two techs bend over their equipment, tracking the signal from Arthur's phone.

"Charge us with something," Cobb says evenly, "or get the fuck out of my warehouse."

"All in good time, Mr. Cobb," she says. She's tall and blonde, fortysomething, with gunmetal grey eyes, and Eames can't wait to try her on.

"His phone is northbound on I-5," says one of the techs. "Six miles and moving away."

"We'll lose him," SIG Sauer warns.

The woman looks over at Eames. Looks at him for rather longer than is comfortable, cool and unhurried, and all Eames can see in her eyes is the shadowed passing of long streams of data.

"He's on his way here," she says finally. "Keep Eames covered."

Shit, Eames thinks as the barrel of the gun comes down against his temple.



They're US government agents. Arthur can tell that just from watching one of them walk in front of the window. Clearly they're not expecting to get shot at by anyone who would risk the lives of Cobb's team. He doesn't know how many there are, and all he has is his Glock.

On one hand, they haven't killed anyone yet. On the other hand, there's a gun to Eames' head.

There are two agents by the door. Arthur takes them out fast and silently, then tightens his hand around the gun in his pocket and walks into the warehouse.

The agent holding a gun on Eames sees him first and pushes the gun just a little harder against Eames' temple. Arthur stops where he is, watching.

"Okay," he says. "I'm here. Now what?"

"Now," says the woman standing by Cobb, "you drop your weapon and come sit down. If you can do it without disabling any more of my men, I'll even have Carter stand down before Mr. Eames finds himself facing forty years in Sing Sing for assaulting a federal agent."

The gun is still against Eames' temple. Eames' attention is all on Arthur, waiting patiently for a signal.

"You've done your homework," Arthur says, pulling his gun slowly out of his pocket and setting it on the ground in front of him. He nudges it with his foot, kicking it away from him, but not too far. "Too bad you're not CIA. I don't think they care what happens to their operatives."

"We're not CIA," she agrees. "Sit down, Arthur, please. You're holding up the meeting."

Arthur smiles thinly. "How rude of me. If your man Carter doesn't get that gun out of Eames' face by the time I count ten, it's going to go really badly for him."

In his head, he reaches three before the woman makes her decision and signals to Carter. He lowers his gun and steps back, a little reluctantly, keeping a weather eye on Eames. Arthur isn't naïve enough to breathe freely now that the gun isn't pointing straight at Eames' head anymore, but it gives both of them a little more room to maneuver, and that's something. He comes and sits down at the table. The two guns he took from the agents outside are pressing into his kidneys; it might be an oversight that the woman hasn't had one of her goons frisk him, but it would be a stupid way to bet, and now he's curious.

One of the techies turns a laptop around. On the screen is a photo of a girl, late teens or a little older, with long dark hair and a brilliant smile.

"This is Anna Malone," the techie says.

Eames spins a pen in his fingers. "Who is she?"

"She's a college student from –"

"No," Arthur says. "Who is she?"

The woman tilts her head a little to look at him, her eyes giving nothing away. Arthur waits for an answer; because the goons might be FBI but the woman is black ops or worse, a cobra in a cage full of garden snakes, and he really wants to know why Anna Malone is even on her radar.

"She's the most recent victim of Jonah Klieman, whom you may know from media coverage as the Harvester, and we believe she might still be alive," she says, not answering.



Arthur's the smallest of the four of them, physically. He's never felt it as keenly as he does in this moment, with a two hundred pound door slamming behind them with a raucous buzz and leaving them surrounded by prison guards and staring down a long, dimly lit hallway. His first instinct is to cover Dom's back, but that would leave Eames wide open; but Eames is an asset here, and Dom can at least hold his own for a moment, but Yusuf isn't much use in hand-to-hand –

Dom's standing stock still, shoulders drawn in, face set in that pinched expression like if he just squeezes himself down far enough he can keep reality from touching his skin. Yusuf is clutching his bag to his chest, bottles rattling worryingly inside it. Eames is splayed out, feet planted solidly, taking up space; he's not as big a man as he looks and violence is rarely his first choice, but he knows how to create the illusion, and right now he looks like he's weighing the advisability of taking down one of the guards just to keep the others from getting ideas. It's subtle, all of it; but Arthur sees it, and sees the rings of white around their irises, and it makes him almost crawl out of his skin with the need to take point and get between his team and danger.

The hallway is institutional green, windowless and airless, echoing faintly with the sharp buzz of old fluorescent lights. Past the guards, Arthur can see two federal agents and a man in an Army uniform, high-ranking. Arthur's internal flinch is reflexive, but the soldier is no one he's ever met.

"Mr. Cobb," says one of the agents, moving forward with his hand outstretched. Dom eyes it for a minute, then reaches out to shake hands. "It's a pleasure to work with you. I'm Special Agent Dowling; this is Special Agent Freeman and Brigadier General Morris."

Freeman isn't FBI. Arthur would bet his favorite gun on it. He's starting to wonder if there's something to Eames' theory that Klieman is a rogue operative. It would certainly explain why there's no arson or cruelty to animals in his past, no history of burglary or minor sex offenses, no drug or alcohol abuse, nothing to indicate that he would one day become what he is.

If he is. If Klieman is the Harvester. If this whole thing isn't some elaborate setup for God only knows what purpose. There's nothing Arthur would rule out at this point.

"Mr. Klieman is currently awaiting transfer to Kirkbride Commonwealth," Dowling says, turning to lead them down the hall. The guards move with them, not quite a unit. "Do you know it?"

"It's a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane outside of Fairfax, Virginia," Arthur says.

Dowling glances back over his shoulder. He looks a little troubled. "Gentlemen, let me be clear. There is very little chance that Mr. Klieman will be found competent to stand trial. There is no chance that he will ever respond to treatment. Never mind what the movies tell you – you have got to be the special kind of fucked up to meet incompetence standards. I don't know what you're used to finding in people's subconsciouses, but don't expect to find it here. Klieman is not sane."

"He was sane enough to kill eight girls before you found him," Dom says.

"And we don't want him to kill nine," Freeman says sharply. "Klieman knows he's being transferred. He knows he's being sedated for the transfer, and in fact he's been under light sedation since this morning. You should have no trouble hooking in."

Pointedly, he shepherds them into an operating theater. Harsh white halogens glare down over a semicircle of uncomfortable lawn chairs where the operating table should be. On a low table in the middle is a PASIV device; hovering over it is a reedy, glowering man in a white labcoat, scowling at them from under a dark thicket of hair like a cockatiel's crown.

His eyes flicker over all of them and settle on Yusuf. "You're their chemist," he says in a slow Southern drawl. "Figured you might bring your own juice. Well, c'mere and look the PASIV over, man, it ain't gonna bite."

Yusuf barely waits for Cobb's nod before he goes over to examine the device. Arthur glances over to be sure that Eames is keeping a weather eye on Yusuf's bag.

"Doctor Harris will be co-supervising the PASIV operation," Dowling says.

"Klieman's on Thorazine," Harris tells Yusuf.

Yusuf cocks an eyebrow at Freeman. "You said he'd been under light sedation."

"He's got acute intermittent porphyria," Harris says. "Doesn't respond well to Haldol either, not that he's ever gonna respond well to anything. Thorazine keeps the porphyria under control and keeps him from ripping out anyone's throat; we're just upping the dosage to put him under for the extraction."

"How's the PASIV?" Cobb asks.

Yusuf transfers the eyebrow to him. "Indeed, it won't bite," he confirms mildly, then starts rummaging around in his pack. Arthur isn't entirely sure Yusuf's focus on Somnacin composition issues could be cracked by a direct hit with a SCUD missile.

"Y'all remember what I told you would happen if there was any unpleasantness," Harris says to Freeman. "These gentlemen are my guests."

Freeman gives him a humorless, razor-thin smile. "I believe you'll find they're currently guests of the United States –"

"United States of my ass. You got any other neurologists on call who can handle Klieman's drug cocktail and a PASIV device? Then don't dick around with the one you do have."

"Doctor Harris," Dowling says. "This is Anna Malone's best hope for survival. We're all working toward one goal here."

Harris gives him a sharp look. "Her best hope for survival would have been to stay home and watch TV last Friday," he says flatly. "That girl's dead now or worse and you know it."

"We're hoping for better, not worse," says Freeman.

"Mr. Freeman," says Harris, "sometimes dead is better."

Yusuf holds up a phial full of Somnacin, cobalt blue in the light.



Klieman is wheeled in on a gurney by stone-faced orderlies, already under. There's a sheet pulled halfway up his chest, washed clean of color by the halogen lights. He's in his forties, dark hair thinning at the crown, sharp nose and the corners of his mouth drawn down in perpetual disapproval; he looks to be five foot seven at best, just at that height where men seem to start being afraid they've been cheated out of some portion of their masculinity. He doesn't look like a monster. He looks like a janitor; or rather, with prison and porphyria both leaving their mark in the pallor of his face, he looks like a cadaver ready for autopsy.

He's stronger than he looks, though. Arthur knows this because he's seen what Klieman did to the girls he killed. Arthur's not sure he could physically have done it himself, which is another data point he's not quite sure what to do with.

Harris sets his fingers on Klieman's neck and takes his pulse. Even Harris keeps his distance, though, touches Klieman lightly, as though half afraid he'll regain consciousness suddenly and grab for the first throat he sees. Arthur doesn't think Harris was joking about that.

"Unprepossessing, isn't he?" Eames murmurs in Arthur's ear. "I was rather expecting Charles Manson."

Arthur doesn't really need to check to make sure that every part of his body is right where he left it, but sometimes Eames makes him feel like he should, just to be sure that he hasn't swayed into Eames like the pull of the tide. It's tiring sometimes, being around him, for reasons that have only gotten more complicated as the years go by. "I'd rather not wake him up so he can give you the crazy eye," he whispers back.

Eames' laugh is a light, soundless puff of air against Arthur's ear. "My Arthur, practical as always."

Cobb takes off his jacket, lays it over the back of one of the lawn chairs, and rolls up his sleeves. "Yusuf, how's our stock?"

Yusuf shakes his head, not looking happy. "Antipsychotics I was prepared for. Porphyria causes tachycardia and neuropathy of every sort. I don't know how he'll take to the Somnacin."

"Nobody knows," Harris puts in. "And nobody knows what'll happen if something goes wrong and you need a kick to come out. Like the man said, neuropathy of every sort. Cranial neuropathy, specifically, can involve any or all of the twelve cranial nerves. Including the vestibulocochlear nerve."

"We might not be able to feel a kick," Arthur translates. "Just from the outside, or from the inside as well?"

Harris shakes his head slowly. "Nobody knows," he says again.

"Yusuf?" Cobb asks again, quietly.

"We have what we have," Yusuf says. "There's no guarantee a different compound would be any better."

"That Thorazine ain't gonna hold him forever," Harris observes. "Gentlemen, we're big on informed consent where I'm from. You're informed; are you consenting?"

"Let's do it," Cobb says with a thin-lipped smile, and doesn't look at the agents and prison guards surrounding them at all.

"You?" Harris asks, sharp gaze fixing on Arthur.

"I'm in," Arthur says.

"And you?" Harris asks Eames.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Eames says dryly.

"Hm," Harris says, eyeing him. "You I might not worry about so much. You sit on these other two and keep them on the straight and narrow, though, you hear me?"

"I hear and obey," Eames says. Arthur thinks he himself might be the only one who catches the faint unease in Eames' voice.

"Good," Harris says, and claps his hands. "The rest of you get the fuck out."



Going under into a shared dream, there's always a moment when the mind panics and fights back instinctively, like drowning. People who are very good at dreamsharing can learn to suppress it. People who are very good and very experienced learn not to. The costs of compromising the mind's defenses are higher than the cost of a handful of seconds of blurred and not always benign images flashing behind your eyes. The Somnacin floods into his vein, and Arthur closes his eyes and sees –

– a wheat field under a sullen orange sky, looming scarecrow with a real girl's hair streaming out from under the garish sack it has for a face and a pole sticky with blood all the way down to the ground; Eames' eyes flying open in shock and then closing tight with pain as a hot sting of blood splashes into eyes that aren't Arthur's own; a hypodermic needle touching down on Klieman's skin; Mal as she was in Cobb's mind, after; a branch snapping hard against a window and leaving a crack across glass –

– and when he opens his eyes, he's not where he's supposed to be.

"Well, this is off to a rousing start," Eames observes. His voice comes back off the stark white walls in an oddly muted echo.

In theory, they should be in a reproduction of Klieman's ramshackle two-story home, stretched out and altered to accommodate a maze. Instead they're standing in an operating theater, not much different in structure than the one they just left. The light is coming from everywhere and nowhere, harsh white that, paradoxically, obscures the far corners of the room like a fog. There's an empty surgery table in the middle of the room.

"Arthur, can you get this back under control?" Cobb asks.

Arthur closes his eyes and tries; but he feels odd, off-kilter, and he can't think with the blinding white shining in through his eyelids. "I don't know. Not yet."

"Harris and Yusuf warned us," Eames says. There's warning in his voice as well, and in the glance he shoots at Cobb; since the Fischer job he's been quick to get between Cobb and Arthur, a little too quick to snap if he thinks Cobb is being unfair.

Cobb's changed too, though, and now all he says is, "You're right, they did. We'll have to do this one on the fly. We need somewhere safe for him to put his secrets, somewhere he can't miss. Where's a safe place in a hospital?"

"For Klieman? God knows," Arthur says.

"I don't bloody like having him running about here where we don't know where he is," Eames says.

Arthur's mind vomits up a lightning-fast image, Eames' grey eyes and a gout of blood spraying in someone's face. He closes his eyes for a moment and shakes it off. "Let's see what else we have to work with," he says, and turns toward the door.

Behind him, Cobb makes a soft, uneasy sound. Arthur looks back over his shoulder to see Cobb hunched over a little, hand under his mouth like he's going to spit something out. A thin stream of viscous red spills out from between his lips; when he opens his mouth, his teeth start spilling out into his hand in a rattle of bloody enamel.

"Jesus Christ," Eames says.

Cobb cups his hands and spits the last of his teeth into them. For a moment he works his jaw, turns his head and spits blood to the side, then upends his hand and dumps the teeth onto the floor in a gory scatter. When he opens his mouth again, it's as full of teeth as it should be, not even a streak of red to mar the white. Thoughtfully, Cobb prods at a canine and satisfies himself that it's solidly in place.

"It's a dream, guys," he reminds them.

"Well, I fucking well hope it hasn't started as it means to go on," Eames says.

"Cobb's right," Arthur says. "Let's go see what we're up against."



He steps out into a hallway. It's tall, long, and wide, with ceiling tiles littering the floor and green institutional paint peeling off the walls in wide swathes. There are high windows along one wall, plate glass sandwiched around chicken wire; wind blows in through them where the panes are broken and the chicken wire rusted out, carrying October leaves in with it to skitter and eddy on the floor. Outside, a long stretch of trees angles down toward water. The sky is almost black with storm clouds.

THIS IS THE LORD'S DOING is scrawled in red spray paint across the crumbling papers on the wall. At one end of the hall, steps lead down to a room Arthur can only see the shadows of in the near-dark. At the other, a dilapidated wheelchair is lying on its side, half in shadow, one wheel spinning slowly. Arthur feels the weight of a flashlight in his pocket, pulls it out, and switches it on.

"I wonder how far this place goes on," Eames murmurs close to his ear.

"Would it do any good to kick out and come back in?" Arthur wonders.

"Let's see if we can get a handle on this first," Cobb says. "I don't want to risk kicking out when we don't know what will happen if we try."

"If we –" Arthur begins, glancing back toward Cobb.

When he turns around, though, he's standing in the middle of a wheat field, alone.



"Shit," Arthur says, and takes stock.

He doesn't see anything from one horizon to the other except wheat stalks, but he suspects he's standing on low ground. The stalks themselves are weirdly tall, taller in places than Arthur himself, as if he were seeing them from a child's vantage point. The sky is overcast with the weird greenish-black light that he vaguely associates with tornadoes. He still has his gun in his shoulder holster; but when he pulls it out to check it, the heavy-smelling wind blows drops of blood onto his hand.

Arthur turns around. Behind him, a scarecrow looms on a low pole. He recognizes this from crime scene photos: Callie Carpenter is inside the hay-stuffed flannel clothes, her torso emptied out, her hands cut off and replaced with sticks lashed onto her wrists like Titus' Lavinia. Her hair, long and dark, streams out and into the wind from under a sack on which a face has been painted in broad, crude strokes of scarlet and blue.

She's only a projection, and not even a live one. He dreams up a knife and cuts her down, opens up the scarecrow, and pushes aside sticky red hay that stinks like rot. There's nothing inside but Callie Carpenter, chalk white and gutted like a deer, brown eyes staring blankly up at the sky.

Arthur makes quick work of his search. It feels disrespectful, opening up her belly to see if Klieman has left anything behind. And he doesn't know why, because Arthur has seen projections in every state of trauma imagineable, he's blown them to smithereens and tossed them off buildings and bashed their heads in. They're walking, talking dolls, nothing more. They're not real.

It doesn't make any difference for some reason. Her eyes are so empty, and Arthur can't shake the irrational crawl of superstitious dread that's inching up his spine. Annoyed with himself, he wipes his hands on flannel, fixes his cuffs, and turns away.

There's a path through the wheat in front of him, carpeted with autumn leaves and thin tendrils of fog. Callie is standing in it, blood smeared down the front of her outsized flannel shirt and over her jeans, sleeves hanging down over her knuckles. She's staring at Arthur, expressionless.

"Where's Klieman?" he asks her.

For a few long breaths, she doesn't move. Then, slow and deliberate, she lifts her finger to her lips: shhh. Her mouth is sewn shut.

"Callie," Arthur says to this thing that isn't Callie. "I'm lost. Can you help me?"

"You aren't lost," she says from right behind him. Arthur whirls, tripping back a step, heart hammering in his chest. "None of us are lost. We're all right where he can find us."

Arthur rubs his hand over his mouth and keeps his hand away from his gun, for the moment. "I have something for Klieman. But I need to put it somewhere safe, somewhere no one can see. Do you know a place like that?" he asks. Engaging the subconscious this directly is risky, but all Arthur can see around him is wheat and this dead girl and he's not sure he has any other options.

"Callie," he says when she doesn't answer, "where did he keep you?"

Callie lifts her finger warningly to her lips again. Her eyes are somber and not the slightest bit sane. "In the attic," she whispers. "In the well. Under the flowers that bloom in the dell. Catch us if you can, point man. Fast, fast, it's a race now. You find us, or he finds your forger."

"Eames," Arthur says. "Callie, where the fuck is – Callie?"

She's gone. The wind blowing down the path smells like snow.

"Callie!" Arthur shouts.

Nothing answers him.



Arthur barely remembers what natural dreams are like. It's a bigger handicap than it sounds, in his line of work. So he pays attention: he watches dream sequences in movies, takes notes when he's reading them in novels, reads books on symbolism and lucidity. He knows dreams, real dreams, are disjointed and fluid, that sometimes they're suffused with fear or sadness or joy that colors everything about them with free-floating significance. But this is a Somnacin dream, Arthur's dream, Arthur who's done nothing but dream lucidly and bend other people's subconsciouses to his will for the last ten years, and now suddenly he can't keep it from shifting under his feet.

He's in the wheat field. Then he blinks and he's in the warehouse they rented for their last job, quietly setting a steaming mug of coffee down in front of Eames as he and Cobb, both sulky and out of sorts from jet lag, argue over whether a second level is going to be needed. The mug clicks down onto the table and Arthur is standing on a lawn overgrown with trees in front of a building that looms against the dim grey sky, remembering that moment in the warehouse with a sharp pang of grief and loss out of all proportion to the actual event.

Ivy is slowly pulling the building down, unchecked, creeping tendril by tendril into the broken windows and cracked cornices. There's chicken wire in all of the windows and bars on the higher ones; Arthur didn't need them to tell him that this is the abandoned hospital they'd first found themselves in, but it's nice to have the confirmation. Sensitive to the emotional currents of the dream in a way he's usually not, Arthur realizes that hospital is somehow simultaneously the childhood home they'd tried to recreate; the sense of sterile and cold and imprisonment poisons them both.

Arthur remembers some things about dreams. Irrational terrors. Strange, overwhelming compulsions that only make sense in the context of the dream itself. He has to find Eames.

(It makes sense, Arthur decides after testing it. Cobb is the best extractor in the business; it's his job to find what's buried here, whatever projections of dead girls might say. Arthur is the best point man in the business, and his job is to protect his team. He'll find and secure Eames first, then the two of them will be in a better position to track down Cobb, if Eames and Cobb aren't together already.)

There's a large stone fountain in the courtyard, choked with weeds and lily pads. On the platform in the center a solemn marble angel holds a broken urn upside-down over the water, one hip tilted out, leaning to watch a stream that must have stopped flowing years ago. Arthur starts to skirt the fountain on his way to the hospital doors – and then stops, backtracking.

On a carpet of lily pads, there's a tangle of long blonde hairs, trailing down into the murky water underneath.

"Shit," Arthur mutters, strips off his jacket and rolls up his sleeve, and plunges his hand into the water. It's slick and icy, foul-smelling, and his hand slips half a dozen times on the knot of hair underneath the scummed surface before he finally gets a hand wrapped around it and pulls. The girl the hair is attached to is cadaver-white, and it takes him a moment to place her as Klieman's first known victim.

She opens her eyes when she's free of the water, gathering her legs under her so that she's kneeling in the fountain, and lifts cupped hands up into Arthur's line of sight. Viscous green water streams down through her fingers.

"Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!" she whispers, and opens her hands. There are two pearls in them the size of irises, soft grey with unnerving black blemishes that look almost like pupils.

"Edie," he says. "Where did Klieman put my team?"

"Shh, shh, shh," Edie whispers, lifting a finger to cold white lips, sounding disturbingly like a mother shushing a crying infant. "You'll have to do better than that, Arthur. Not good enough, not fast enough. But that's all right, we weren't good enough to save ourselves either."

Arthur grinds his teeth. "Edie, where –"

Her eyes slip closed again, and Arthur finds himself gripping a waterlogged corpse for a moment before her scalp separates with a soft, horrible sound. She slips back under the water, disappearing in the murk, leaving Arthur holding a hank of her hair.

Swallowing hard, Arthur drops the hair, wipes his hand and arm clean on his suit jacket, and leaves the jacket where it falls by the side of the fountain. He's almost up the steps to the huge arched doorway when water splatters on him from above like a brief dash of rain. Blinking and brushing at his face, Arthur steps back and looks up.

Edie unfolds herself from a windowsill two floors above him and steps off, falling half again the length of her body before she's brought up short by the noose around her neck. Her tennis shoes hit the window below her with slow, rhythmic thuds as momentum and dead weight swing her back and forth against the building. Even from here, Arthur can see the black thread wound through her pale lips.

There's a rusted iron padlock holding the front doors together. Arthur shoots it off. It takes him two tries.



Arthur steps across the threshold and it's night. Somewhere moonlight is spilling in, he can see faint echoes of it down the hall, but in front of him there's nothing outside the circle of his flashlight but pitch black. He could look back to see if the door has disappeared from behind him, but it doesn't matter. This is where he last saw Eames and Cobb, and this is where he's going to start looking.

There's debris all over the floor, fallen ceiling tiles and brittle leaves and age-yellowed paper. The floor under the debris is sparkling white, as if the hospital were shedding an old and damaged skin to show the new one underneath. Arthur's flashlight picks out a gurney resting aslant against the wall, a door with a broken-out window set into it, a chain of brightly colored construction-paper letters spelling out TOD Y IS BR ND NEW D Y! over the nurse's station where the hall widens.

"Too slow," Edie whispers in his ear, and Arthur's heart rate spikes. Arthur closes his eyes tight and doesn't turn around; he stands there in the dark instead, listening to damp footsteps pad down the hall away from him and disappear.

"Why am I being so goddamned stupid?" he whispers to himself, opening his eyes. "None of this is real."

It isn't, either. It isn't real and he knows it. There isn't even anything frightening here, just old papers and someone else's projections. He could get hurt in this dream, hurt badly, and it would in fact suck, but nothing worse would come of it than being kicked out of the dream early. For a minute, his hand even strays to his gun; but this isn't the dream he was supposed to be in, and if he tries to come back in he has no idea where he'll go, and Cobb and Eames will be left with no cover.

None of it's real. He knows it. But he also knows that more things than pain live in the mind, and he can't stop the skin on the back of his neck from crawling.

"There you are, darling," Eames says from behind him; but when Arthur turns around, there's no one there.



He opens every door in the hall, because there's no telling where any of them will lead. So far they've all led to tiny offices or tinier storage closets or examining rooms with red sharps buckets falling off the wall and spilling rusted needles across the floor. So far he's been maintaining the best balance he can between speed and silence, but he's starting to lean toward not giving a fuck how loud he is, because this hospital is huge and he doesn't know where Cobb and Eames are, let alone Klieman – and because he can't close his eyes without seeing Eames' blood geysering up into whatever face Arthur's wearing over his own like a mask, and the need to find Eames before Klieman does is an itch in his bones that makes him want to claw off his own skin.

When he finds the stairwell he pauses with one hand on the door, trying to decide whether to finish searching this floor first. But it's occurred to him, and will inevitably occur to Eames and Cobb as well, that a man whose skin blisters in the sun isn't likely to store his secrets anywhere the sunlight can get in; so he lets the door swing shut behind him and shines his flashlight down into the inky dark.

"You run about, my little Maid," Callie says from the staircase above him. "Your limbs, they are alive. If two are in the churchyard laid…"

Arthur swallows his heart back down into his chest. "Not now, Callie," he says.

"Then we are only five," Callie whispers, and disappears, leaving behind a pool of blood where she was sitting that spills down onto the next stair in slow-running rivulets. Against his will, Arthur finds himself counting. Callie, Edie, Klieman; Arthur, Eames, Cobb. Eight dead girls on Klieman's tab, plus another probable. Even counting Callie, Edie, and Klieman as one person, the count doesn't come up right.

Stupid. So many things seem incredibly meaningful in dreams that are nothing more than the random firings of the brain at rest. It's something to watch for, one more danger when you spend your working life in other people's heads. Not everything that seems important is, and Callie is only a personification of Klieman's disordered thought. Arthur shifts his grip on his flashlight and starts down the stairs.



A flight down, the stairs turn to slick, polished wood under his feet, and the rail against the wall becomes a dark oak banister. Arthur knows these stairs; he designed these stairs, and the last time he saw them they were in the replica of Klieman's childhood home he and Cobb designed for this dream. They're starting to fall apart now, more decrepit the farther down he goes, drifts of paint shards in the corners of the risers and cracks running through the wood. The smell of dust and decay is thick in his nose. If things haven't changed, there'll be a hallway at the bottom of these stairs, and a door at the end of the hallway, leading up a flight of stairs to a windowless attic where Klieman hid as a child, safe from the sun.

There's a door at the bottom of the stairs, plain and institutional. Arthur eases it open and aims his flashlight through. As far as he can tell in the dim light, the walls of the hallway beyond are from Klieman's home as they should be, but the floor underneath is hard white tile, and the ceiling is a decaying mess of asbestos panels and old fluorescent lights. His light doesn't reach the end of the hall.

"Cobb?" he whispers into the dark. "Eames?"

Nothing answers him. Arthur pushes the door open with his foot, brings up his gun crossed over his flashlight, and starts down the hall.

The wallpaper is sepia-toned Midwestern floral, faded and shabby above the dark oak wainscoting. Every few feet there are paintings hanging on the wall, dusty in the glare of the flashlight. In the real house they're uninspired landscapes; here they're Goya's madmen, Rubens' terrible cannibalistic Saturn, Doré's Charon, von Cornelius' Horsemen. An old black and white photo of a woman he thinks might be Klieman's mother, twisted over and away from the camera, hand raised as if to defend herself from the beam of Arthur's light. On the stretch of wall past her, the light hits a broad splash of darkness that runs down the wall in a dozen long, stringy trails, and Arthur realizes, in the slow-burning oh, of course of dreams, that he's been smelling blood since he came into the hall.

Arthur follows the trails down with the flashlight's beam. They run onto the wainscoting and become almost invisible against the darkness of the wood. Below them, crumpled against the baseboard, is a familiar tweed jacket.

Feeling sick, he closes his eyes, just for a moment.



When he opens them, he's lying in warm morning sun, down quilts pooled around his waist in a sea of white. Someone's pressed against his back, hand resting over his heart where it's going a hundred miles an hour in his chest. Arthur jolts upright, scrambling toward the side of the bed where he can see his pants – and his totem – a few feet away.

The hand that was over his heart slips down around his waist, forearm across his stomach, keeping him where he is. He could break the hold, but he doesn't want to; he just wants to know where the hell he is.

"Hey," Eames mutters, hoarse with sleep. "Where in the world are you going in such a hurry?"

Arthur blinks for a moment, then turns to look. Eames has half his face buried in a fluffy pillow and one eye open, looking up at Arthur in cranky bewilderment; he doesn't like waking up too abruptly. Still disoriented, Arthur moves back, easing down onto his elbow to trace over Eames' tattoo with a feather-light fingertip.

"Mm," Eames hums, closing his eyes again, a smile quirking his lips. "Better. Come here, darling, it's early."

Arthur closes his eyes, takes one breath after another, and leans down to follow the path of his fingertip with his lips, dropping soft, slow kisses onto the hard curve of Eames' bicep. "You feel so real," he whispers.

Under him, Eames tenses, then lifts himself onto his elbow to frown at Arthur. "Arthur," he says slowly, brushing away the hair that spills loose into Arthur's eyes.

"I can't find you," Arthur says, and touches him. "You or Cobb. Give me a hint here, Eames."

"Darling, you're not dreaming," Eames says. His breath is coming a little sharper now. Eames doesn't panic easily, but after Mal, this is a hair-trigger for all of them. "Arthur. Look at me, pet, I'm right here."

"I am so in love with you," Arthur breathes – to Eames, right to his face, and the stupid giddy relief of saying it out loud after so long, here where it can't hurt him, has him unable to keep from laughing.

"Jesus Christ," Eames says tightly. "Listen, just – just stay where you are, all right? Don't move, promise me. I'm going to call Cobb."

"Eames," Arthur says, grabbing hold of his wrist. "The Klieman job. If you were lost inside his dream, where would you be?"

"The Klieman – Arthur, Klieman's heart stopped and it kicked us out of the dream two minutes after we went in. We never found that last girl." Eames lifts his hand to Arthur's face like he can't keep it away, cupping Arthur's cheek and ducking his head so their eyes meet. "Don't you remember?"

Arthur tilts his head and drops a kiss into Eames' palm. "You were lost for a while. Tell me where you were."

"Let me call Cobb," Eames says.

"You don't know where you are," Arthur says, and swallows hard against the disappointment. "Because you're my projection, not bleed-through from Klieman."

"Son of a – Arthur, love. Let me find your totem –"

"You don't have to," Arthur says, and touches Eames' lower lip with his thumb. The window is open, breeze that smells like a summer garden belling sheer curtains against the bed. "This is my totem. And this isn't real."

"Arthur," Eames says helplessly, and kisses him like he can push reality into Arthur's mouth with his tongue and his breath and his love. Cobb must have tried the same thing with Mal, Arthur thinks, right up until the very end.

Because it isn't real, Arthur kisses him back. Because it isn't real, he doesn't stop even when Eames makes a soft, hurt noise into the kiss and blood spills between their mouths and down onto the sheets like claret.

"Too late, point man," Callie whispers in his ear. "Too late now, for everything."



Arthur opens his eyes and he's standing in a long hallway, grimy and institutional green, decaying tiles underfoot and two unsteady fluorescents dividing the hall into pools of shadow and dim light. His hand is shaking on the grip of his gun, and for a minute he feels sick and disoriented.

That sense of urgency is still crawling through his spine, screaming at him to find Eames before whatever Kleiman's projections were threatening him with comes to pass. He doesn't trust it now. He's lost control of dreams before, but he's never – even when he just started, even the first time he went under with no idea what a dream felt like from the inside – lost himself like he just did in that imaginary bed with an imaginary Eames.

"Fuck," he says quietly, runs a shaky hand across his chin, and pulls himself together. A dozen yards down the hall, one of the burnt-out fluorescents gives a sharp, cracking buzz and sparks into life.

There's a girl standing underneath it, long dishwater-blonde hair hanging in her face in lank strands; she's barefoot, wearing a hospital gown that's slipping off one thin shoulder to show the long, disfiguring tail of a Y incision. It's hard to tell in this light, but he thinks she's Megan McDowell, Klieman's fourth. Her mouth is sewn shut; Arthur wonders how long it will last.

A door opens in the hallway behind her and Dr. Harris steps out, holding a syringe. He slips the needle into Megan's carotid artery, depresses the plunger, and watches as she collapses in front of him like a rag doll dropped from a child's hand. "Well," Harris says, looking down at her. "That's a hell of a thing."

Somewhere in the dark, Callie whispers Arthur's name.

Arthur keeps his grip on his gun steady and doesn't move any closer. "Dr. Harris," he says.

Harris glances up at him. "Well, I found one of y'all, anyway."

"You were down here looking?"

"We're having some problems up top." He's turning the empty syringe slowly in his fingers. Arthur doesn't remember him having that particular tic in reality.

"What's the problem?"

"Klieman's heart," Harris says. "He's gone tachycardic. If he flatlines he might drag you right down with him. For Christ's sake, son, you want to drop that gun before you shoot me right out of the dream?"

Arthur tilts his head, examining Harris narrowly. "Klieman's tachycardic. And… what?"

"And Cobb and Eames are showing brainwave patterns I don't like the look of, we can't wake them up up top and there's no sign of them down here. You been in this business long enough to know what happens if you die in a dream and you can't wake up for some reason?"

Cold, wet fingers wrap around Arthur's elbow. "Arthur, come away," Edie pleads.

"Come away," Callie echoes.

"He isn't real," Edie says. "Can't you tell?"

Harris gives her an unimpressed look. "Well, that's the pot callin' the kettle black, ain't it? Of course I'm real. Would Klieman know your friends' names?"

"That kind of bleed-through happens sometimes, when whoever's doing the dreaming doesn't entirely have the dream under control." Arthur tells him. "Harris strikes me as the type who'd know that."

"Son, I'm ninety percent sure your friends are in Limbo right now having their brains turned to mush," Harris snaps. "We don't have time to play twenty goddamn questions."

"So I could shoot myself and go down after them. Or I could shoot myself, get to Limbo, and find out none of this was real and no one's going to find out what happened to me for hours. Hours topside. It'd be suicide, in a very literal sense. Those aren't odds I like, Dr. Harris."

"Did you think you could leave?" Callie whispers.

"You've got six hours of dream time left down here," Harris says. "If Klieman finds you, whether you kill yourself or not is gonna be a moot point. You do it now and you still have a chance to save your friends."

Klieman's subconscious wants him out. That's a given. It would be stupid to try to kick out of the dream now. But…

But he can't find Eames, can't find Cobb, and if you don't count Harris there are five of them now. Callie, Edie, Megan, Arthur, Klieman. And two in the churchyard laid.

"No," he says. Just beyond his line of sight, Edie giggles, high and mad. "Cobb's lived through Limbo before. Eames can live through anything Klieman can throw at him. And I've got a job to do."

On the floor, Megan opens her eyes and slides a razor-sharp scalpel out from underneath her. Arthur doesn't stay to see what she does to Harris with it.

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