roily_rogue: (Tom is swell.)
([personal profile] roily_rogue Mar. 31st, 2011 12:47 am)
It is done. I have earned cheesecake.

Title:
The Quiet House
Characters: Arthur, Eames, a few OCs.
Genre: Gen, Drama, Angst
Rating: PG-13 for violence.
Word Count: 8504
Warnings: Death of a parent. Someone has a stroke. Also, some violence.
Summary: Arthur has a very good reason to be back in his hometown. He has a very good reason for inviting Eames there, too. Probably.
Author's Note: Post-Inception. A friendship fic, disguised as a background fic for Arthur.


Now:

"So, I heard you're doing a job in your old haunts."

Arthur rubbed his eyes and looked out the hotel room window, phone pressed against his shoulder while he removed his cufflinks. The town looked better at this hour, he thought, when it was nothing but lights on black.

"And I heard you retired," he replied.

"Yeah well. You know how it is." Cobb cleared his throat. Behind him, the kids were screaming and his voice muted briefly as he turned away to yell that daddy was on the phone and could they please go somewhere else. He came back with a quick apology.

Arthur stretched. "Anyway, it's not a big thing. Routine, practically."

"So why are you taking it? I thought you didn't like going back there."

"I have to be here for a while," he said while pulling off his tie. "Personal."

"Oh. Everything alright?"

"Could be worse."

Arthur could practically hear Cobb restraining himself from asking. Instead he just said:

"Well, you know. If you ever-"

"I know. Thanks."

"Yeah. Listen, it's way past the kids' bedtime, so I'd better...but you take care, alright? And don't be a stranger."

"Alright. Tell the kids I said 'hi'."

After hanging up, Arthur sat down on the bed and rubbed his neck. His head was pounding, his back aching and he hoped to God that there would be no phone calls from the hospital tonight. He closed his eyes and inside his head started the ticking of a clock, growing louder alongside his own heartbeat.


-----------------------------------------


Next day, he drove down cracked streets, past his old school, the stripmall that had once housed the dojo, and the Dairy Queen where he had worked his first job. The streets were as good as empty, but he still felt self-conscious.

He met Eames at a steakhouse with wood panelling, a sullen waitress and country music playing softly in the smoky air. Outside, a hand-painted sign announced the annual tractor races.

"Now I am very curious." Eames leant back in his seat, a toothpick dancing between his fingers.

"It's a job," Arthur said while salting his fries. "You'll get the details tomorrow morning along with Dan, the architect. He arrives tonight."

"From what you told me, it doesn't sound terribly advanced. This fellow wants us to extract from his uncle?"

Arthur nodded. "Uncle and co-inventor of a new fertilizer they'll have the patent on soon. He suspects the uncle's about to rip him off, but he has no solid evidence and no idea what to do about it. So we'll help."

"Is there a catch? Something that makes this extra challenging?"

"Nope." Arthur sipped his water. He looked dull-eyed, Eames noted, and his shirt had wrinkles like he had slept in it. He sat spread out on his seat with his ankle on his knee, like he was in his living room and Eames was a guest.

"Then why did you, of all people, call me, of all people?"

"Because I need an extractor and I know you can do it."

Eames grimaced. "You also know I don't like to. I'm more comfortable on the periphery."

"Right. I forgot what a wallflower you are."

Eames waved his hand dismissively. "You know what I mean. The responsibility and all that."

Arthur shrugged. "You'll live. And you'll get paid."

"You still haven't answered my question. Why me?"

"Because now that Cobb's out of the game..."

"I always wondered why you clung to him like a barnacle. And vice versa."

"...now that Cobb's out of the game, we'll probably find ourselves working together more often. Or are you planning on leaving the business any time soon?"

"Perish the thought."

"So let's learn to work together."

"I thought we always worked just fine."

"I meant, amicably," Arthur explained patiently. "Without jabs or pranks or hair pulling."

Eames' eyes twinkled. "Oh. So...this is a 'let's be friends' thing?"

"It's a 'bury the hatchet' thing. A 'let's act like civilized adults' thing. Is that unreasonable?"

"'Civilized adults'," Eames chuckled.

"I'm dead serious."

"Yes, that always was your problem. But all right. Fine. We will attempt to bury the hatchet and become civilized adults." He raised his beer glass in a toast.


-----------------------------------------


It was easier, Arthur had to admit to himself, to be here when he wasn't alone. He knew Eames still had questions and some of them might be uncomfortable to answer, but he felt better regardless. They hadn't even reached his car, though, when a voice called out and his brightness disappeared.

"Artie!"

The call came from a scruffy man with long, stringy hair, a weathered jeans jacket and a rusty old bike. "That really you??"

"Johnny," Arthur said with a tight smile. "How you doing?"

"Jesus!" Johnny blubbered. He tugged at Arthur's coat. "Look at you, all fancy and shit! Come a long way, huh?" His grin was wide, yellow and wolfish in his stubble. One of his teeth was silver.

Arthur shrugged. "Maybe."

"So what brings you back? Most rats don't come back to a sinking ship! And hey, who's this?"

Eames smiled warmly and shook his hand. "Eames. A co-worker," he said with a perfect American accent.

"I'm Johnny, I grew up with Artie here. So what do you guys do?"

"Security consulting," Arthur said quickly.

"Christ," Johnny rolled his eyes. "You would. So, you gonna be here long?"

"A week at most," he lied.

Johnny grinned again. "Maybe I'll see you around. Take care." He biked off, swaying like a drunken rooster.

Eames looked after him as he disappeared, then turned to Arthur with raised eyebrows.

"Well, I think things have become even more interesting," he said, then beamed and added: "...Artie."

Arthur sighed.


-----------------------------------------


"So, you left and became a career criminal in three-piece suits, while Johnny stayed and became a lush in a jeans jacket?"

"Something like that, I guess." Arthur drummed his thumbs against the steering wheel, waiting for the light to turn green. They still hadn't done anything with that empty lot up ahead, he noted. The trees glowed a dull yellow and it had started to rain. He eyed Eames' hands irritably where they tapped a complicated rhythm against the car's window ledge. The man couldn't sit still for five seconds.

"What's so funny?" he asked when Eames broke into a grin.

"I'm just entertained by the idea of you as a...a hick."

"Then you must be really bored."

"It's hard to be anything else here. This town is as good as dead, isn't it?"

"And it wasn't much better when I lived here," Arthur muttered.

Eames looked at him. "You know, that explains so much."

"You think I became boring by osmosis?"

"Now, I wouldn't be a very civilized adult if I said that, would I?"

"Speaking of civilized adults, you really should rent a car of your own."

"I dislike driving. The taxi service has served me surprisingly well thus far. By the way, there is something you're not telling me. Why are you here if you hate the place so much?"

Arthur stared straight ahead, pokerfaced. Then he said: "Private affairs."

"Family?"

"Private."

Eames made an impatient face but said nothing. They arrived at his inn, a quaint Colonial place that only kept half its rooms open anymore.

"I don't have to ask you to keep a low profile, do I?"

Eames scoffed. "Please."

"I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at eight thirty. And hey?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks for coming."

Eames' eyes widened, then narrowed suspiciously. "You are welcome," he said slowly.

Arthur just shook his head and drove away.


-----------------------------------------


Eames' room had little pots with fake flowers in them, a quilted bedspread and embroidered Bible verses on the wall. It all made him feel like a sinful man, and his lungs screamed for a cigarette, so he dropped his bag and went outside.

Leaning against a tree, he studied the boarded-up building across the street. The weather was cold and wet and windy, which he hated, but it helped clear his head. It was a curse sometimes, the way he was drawn to people. He was here purely because of Arthur the Automaton and it was probably a bad idea. But as frustrating as it could be, he mused, there was something refreshing in the man's stoic simplicity. Something comforting, even.

A man had once told him, that, in this field, once you knew too much about someone, you had to be either their best friend or their worst enemy and so it was best to keep things as casual as possible. In the end, we all die alone anyway. Eames blew out a plume of smoke. He felt old and tired.

"Are you the gentleman in 37?" said a voice behind him. It was a buxom woman with white hair and a blue shirt as bright as her eyes.

"That would be me, ma'am."

She smiled luminously. "Glad to meet you! I just wanted to tell you that the lock gets stuck sometimes and if that happens, just pull the handle up and wiggle the key a bit."

"Will do. Thank you very much."

"I'm afraid there's not much entertainment around here," she continued, "but there are a couple restaurants and a few bars open downtown if things get unbearable. Be careful, though," she said, raising a finger. "Stick to the main street after dark, so you don't get mugged."

"Oh? Does that happen often around here?"

She shrugged. "Kind of. Still, nowhere near how it used to be. Be glad you weren't here ten years ago, is all I'm saying. My husband, he was a police officer and I know he's got stories he will never tell me, and some of the ones that he did..." She shuddered and shook her head.

"Pretty bad, then?"

She nodded. Her eyes gleamed. "This was the worst drug district in the county. Young kids, throwing their own lives away and ruining others'..." she shuddered again, shaking the memory off like a pesky fly. "There was never anything for young ones to do around here and you know...oh I'm sorry, I don't mean to go on."

"Not at all. I'm fascinated, actually. I would love to hear more."

"Well, I have some work to get back to. But I'm sure I'll see you again, Mr...Lewis, was it? I'm Laurie. Next time, I'll give you all the gossip, cross my heart." She winked.

He smiled. "Until we meet again, Laurie."

Going back to the tree, he almost laughed to himself. This was a spy's paradise and worst nightmare. Why had Arthur invited him here?


-----------------------------------------


Then:

His dad really hadn't been as tall as Arthur remembered him, but he was lanky and tough like an old leather whip. He would rarely say much and almost never raise his voice, but there was a tension to him that kept many people away. Arthur never really knew him at all, but he was Dad and that was enough.

He had been in the war and now he liked things quiet. So their house was always quiet and guests were expected to be quiet too. They never had many guests.


As a tiny, pale, bookish kid, Arthur was prey to those who weren't. The first time he came home from school with a split lip and a nosebleed, his mom cried and fussed. His dad just frowned and put him in judo class. This proved helpful. Arthur would go on to learn five different martial arts, but his dad would never know.


Years later, he was fourteen and watching two men in uniform fold the flag over his dad's coffin with a hushed, reverent precision that he would never forget. They played taps and Arthur failed to hold back tears and he knew, then, that he wanted to be a soldier. He looked at his mom in the hope that she thought it was beautiful, too, but she just looked down at her lap and when she accepted the triangular bundle, her hands were limp.


It was one of Arthur's less rational traits that he, after all his various trainings and experiences, still found himself asking, "What would Dad do?"


-----------------------------------------


Now:

They were based at an empty farmhouse outside of town, surrounded by a tall wooden fence and oak trees. They met Dan, the architect - a quiet, balding, rotund man - and their client, whose name was Ralph Carlsen and whose gaze fluttered around the room throughout the briefing, always going back to Arthur like he was Ralph's anchor and savior. He appeared to regard the PASIV as a magnificient but hostile animal. Arthur returned Eames' glance with a reassuring one: there would be no tourists on this job.

As the briefing was wrapping up, Arthur's phone rang and Eames noted the way his face froze. Arthur disappeared into the next room, leaving Ralph lost and bewildered.

"So, are you guys ready to start then, or...?"

"More than ready, Mr. Carlsen," said Eames with a warm smile. "Don't you worry about a thing."

When Arthur came back, his face was pale and closed.

"Mr. Carlsen, we're done here. Keep your phone on in case we need to contact you, but otherwise you can leave everything to us. If anyone asks questions, you know what to tell them. Now, I have to go."

And he did, leaving the three of them staring after him.


------------------------------


The hospital was tucked away amongst lush trees. Inside, the decor was bright, the air sterile and the hushed atmosphere broken only by the sharp clacking of Arthur's shoes.

She seemed somehow even tinier than last time, pale and brittle, her body almost swallowed by the bed and pillows. Her room was sunlit and filled with the low humming of machines and faint birdsong.

He put his hand on hers. "Mom?"


Two weeks prior, the first time he had come here, her eyelids had fluttered. She had turned her head slowly and her eyes had grown wide and horrified. He hadn't been sure if she had recognized him.

"They're going to kill me," she had whispered and he had felt a pang of relief that she could still talk.

He had squeezed her hand. "No, Mom. They're taking care of you. You're here to get better, remember?"

She had shaken her head. "They're killing me." She had repeated this a number of times. He had just stroked her hair.

"You're safe, Mom. I promise."

"Why do you always have to go,?"

"If you want me to stay, I'll stay."

"You never stay."

"I'll stay." She had held his eyes for a long time before falling asleep.


This time, she didn't say anything and she didn't open her eyes.


---------------------------------


He was not very popular with the doctors and knew very well why. He also knew, on some level, that they probably did what they could, and so, after restraining himself from a lengthy tirade, he excused himself with all the restraint he could muster.

He had had a renowned specialist from Belgium flown in, but the man only advocated patience. Arthur thought he was usually very good at patience - he had been working with Cobb for five years, after all - but now he was on edge.

There was a beautiful, sprawling park outside, neatly trimmed and perfectly planned, but Arthur was too tired to appreciate it.

He fished out his cell phone and called Eames. "Hi. I might be a while."

"Oh, you're bailing out already?"

"I can do research from where I am. Something important came up. Just...just trust me, OK?"

Eames hummed. "Alright. I will. For now. But you are not getting out of telling me what is going on. I've had it up to bloody here with secrets."

He hung up and Arthur frowned at the phone, remembering the Fischer job, his thumb twitching restlessly over the buttons. Slowly, he typed three words, stared at them, then deleted them. It was too much. Too soon. And it might be unnecessary. She could still get better.

---------------------------------

Then:

She didn't speak to him for two days after he told her he was joining the army. The goodbye was awkward, weighed down by duffle bags, and she cried into his shoulder as he promised her that he would be back just fine. She just shook her head as he walked away, like she couldn't believe it was happening.

He returned years later - harder, sharper and no longer entirely hers. He hugged her anyway, grinned and told her to start packing. They were going to buy her a house. He was going to buy her a house. Like that would make up for anything.


---------------------------------


Now:


The next few days passed in a spotty monotony - Arthur would call often and show up at the base on occasion, looking a little more haggard each time. Eames was wondering how much of Arthur's absence was necessity and how much was simply trying to avoid questions. Either way, it got on his nerves and Dan was not a very entertaining presence.

Eames was sorely tempted to look up one of those bars Laurie had talked about, but it was hard enough to stay inconspicuous in a town like this, so he opted for walks instead. It was during one of those that he encountered a familiar figure.

In the yellow lamplight by a disused warehouse stood Johnny, Arthur's gaunt friend with the bike, talking lowly to another man in a sweater with the hood pulled up. The distance and the fall wind made it impossible to hear what they were saying, but something exchanged hands, Johnny pocketed it and they parted ways.

Switching off his phone, Eames turned right, walked up the street and waited in a doorway, lighting a cigarette. After a minute, he saw Johnny's hunched figure in the lamplight, walking in the direction from which Eames had come.
He stopped, sniffed the air and looked right up at Eames, who waved, then walked down to meet him.

"Nice evening?" Eames said.

"Hey, aren't you Artie's guy?"

"Maybe in some sense," Eames smiled politely.

Johnny frowned deeply. "He ain't around much, is he? Not at his hotel, not at the bars or any of the old places. You know where he is?"

"Oh, that's just Arthur. He's got bees in his veins, as my mom used to say. Always buzzing around."

A wide grin cracked Johnny's face. "Bees. That's funny. And 'Arthur'", he cackled. "He wasn't called Arthur much. It's funny. But I guess it goes with his fancy new style, huh?" He shook his head. "He was a skinny, quiet little geek. They used to beat him up."

"Oh, really?"

Johnny cackled. "Yeah. He didn't have many friends. But who needs'em? We became best buds, he and I. Beautiful, ain't it? Happy ending." His smile was a little stiff at the edges.

"Sounds lovely."

Johnny snorted. "I'm just boring you. It's this town, you know, everything's interesting compared to this town. What do you think of it?" Before Eames could work up a reply, he continued: "It's a piece of shit and it always was."

"Then what keeps you here?"

He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. "The old classic: no money. I got out of jail a couple years ago. Wasn't sure where to go after that. This place, at least I know it and the folks in it. Tell me: are you two as filthy rich as you seem?"

Eames chuckled. "Probably not."

"Oh fuck you all," Johnny smirked. "'course you are. Anyway, whatever. When you see Artie, tell him Johnny says hi and that the best man always wins, huh?" He gave Eames' jacket lapel a friendly slap. "I gotta run. See ya."

He shoved his trembling hands into his jacket pockets and walked on.


Eames fished out his phone and texted Arthur.


*your friend jonny should go easy on the substances*

After two minutes, he got a reply:

*If Johnny wants to sabotage himself, that's his business.*

*he's disapointed youre not around* Eames typed back. *said to tell you that "the best man always wins". mystery?*

*Stay away from Johnny. I don't know how much sway he has in town these days, but he used to be a big deal. Until they booked him.*

*did you have anything to do with that?*

*Classified.*

*sick to death of classified. i need to know if johnny wants to shank me in my sleep to get back at you.*

Several minutes passed before the next message.

*Yes, I had something to do with it. I don't know if he knows, though. He might suspect. You're just a co-worker, you should be safe.*

*your not the only one with a past, you know.*

*I know. Sorry. Sorry it's ended up like this. This plan looked different on paper.*

*dont they always.*


---------------------------------


Then:

They had people over constantly after Dad died. Strange people, cooking strange foods, surrounding his mother with whispered concerns. People he barely knew, trying to hug him and looking at him with clouded eyes. "Poor boy," they would call him, and Arthur hated them from the bottom of his soul.

Then they showed up less and less until he and his mom were alone, but she had changed. Everything had changed. The silence of the house was stringent now and the sound of the old grandfather clock had turned from soothing to a suffocating backdrop Arthur wanted to do anything to get away from.

He would escape to the library, curl up in a corner with his books and his homework. It smelled of mold and dust and old-people sweat, but he was left alone.

Then along came Johnny. Johnny never felt sorry for him. Johnny was smart and tough and anything but quiet. He was three years older than Arthur, but it didn't seem to faze him much. He said he thought Arthur was cool. Arthur soaked up his company.

They would smoke together in the culvert south of school. Arthur would listen to him ramble about how much everyone and everything sucked, and quietly agree. Then one day, Johnny led him to an empty warehouse surrounded by nettles, and, after carefully making sure that they weren't being watched, he pulled out a tiny bag with white powder in it.

"We're gonna get rich," he whispered.


-----------------------------------------


Then (Years later) :

Arthur hated the isolation of the house - perched on a hill surrounded by acres of wheat fields - but one look at Mom's face and he knew he wouldn't be able to say no. She glowed.

"It's beautiful," she whispered. "So peaceful. And the air, it's so fresh."

"What if there's a fire?" he pointed out. "Or some other kind of emergency? That's the nearest neighbor, right there." He nodded towards a tiny house in the far distance.

"Art. Please." She put her hand on his wrist and he sighed.

"You don't think it'll be lonely?"

She shook her head. "I just want quiet."

The house was beautiful - a Victorian thing painted a sunny yellow with ornate, white trim. And her eyes sparkled.
So he talked to the nearest neighbors and exchanged phone numbers, added three fire extinguishers, instructed her on how to use a gun and a rifle and pleaded with her to keep her cell phone with her at all times.

In the end, that didn't help as much as he would have liked.


-------------------------------------------


Now:

The prep work was drawing to a close and they were getting ready to move. The night before they were scheduled to strike, Arthur's mother went into emergency surgery.

Underneath a willow tree in the hospital park, he breathed and fiddled with his phone, shivering in the wind. He had to ask them to postpone.

"Are you out of your mind?" Eames snapped.

"Something came up."

"Bloody HELL it did. We planned this, we timed this, this is the ideal time to strike or we will have to wait another WEEK. Do you think I want to be here another week?"

"No, of course not. I just... Look, nevermind. I'll be there. We'll go through with it as planned. Forget I said anything."

"Thank you," Eames said coldly and hung up.


-----------------------------------------


Back at the base, he shook his head and pocketed the phone. This trip had actually looked interesting. He had even looked forward to it, as dumb as that sounded now. Instead, he had spent days being confused, annoyed and bored out of his mind and now he just wanted it over with.

Dan was off visiting the mark's country mansion in the guise of an electrician. Eames was just getting ready to call a taxi back to the inn when Ralph showed up in the doorway with a huge fruit basket, of all things. He smiled shyly at Eames' confused expression.

"Mr. Carlsen, wha-"

Ralph cut him off. "I just wanted to thank you all for doing this for me. I didn't think I had anywhere to turn and now, I just...I sleep so much easier now and I'm just...infinitely grateful."

Eames accepted the basket and gently put it on a table. "That is very generous of you, but there's really no need. We are all-"

"...and that you were all willing to do it even though I can only pay half right now, is just-"

Eames froze inside. Thankfully, he was a very good actor and so his smile barely shifted. This was not Ralph's fault.

So he put a hand on the man's shoulder, gave him an amiable handshake and after some friendly chatting, bid him a polite goodbye, waving him off as he drove away.

Then he took out his phone.

Arthur was not answering. Eames almost threw the device into the wall. Instead he took several deep breaths and sent a text message.



Mr.Carlsen is very grateful that we accepted this CHARITY MISSION, Arthur. He brought fruit. I'm saving a few apples for you.



It was half an hour before he got a call back.

"What's going on?"

"That, Arthur, is my line. This is the final straw."

"If you'd just let me-"

"What is it," Eames spat, "Did all that time with Cobb rub off on you and now you get off on screwing people around? Or were you inspired by him losing his mind altogether?"

A sigh. "Have you checked your accounts?"

Eames frowned. "What?"

"Check your accounts and call me back."



Underneath the willow tree, Arthur received a call a few minutes later.

"It's all there." Eames sounded bewildered.

"And Dan will find his entire promised share as well, if he looks."

"He's not here. He doesn't know."

Arthur pursed his lips. "Are you going to tell him?"

There was a pause. "I have half a mind to. It's always good to know when you're working with a madman." But his voice had lost its edge. "You are seriously paying for this out of your own pocket...?"

"I'll get it back before long. I looked into everything, I checked the guy's background. He's never stiffed anyone in his life and he's got money coming in. It's not as much of a gamble as it sounds."

"In this business, it is. Especially for you. What is really the reason behind all this? Because I think your reputation might be at stake at this point."

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose.

"It's my mom," he breathed. "She had a stroke a few weeks ago. She was doing alright at first, making progress. But I needed to stay here a while and when I heard about Carlsen, I approached him with an offer."

"And then you called me."

"Yes."

"For some reason."

"I told you why."

"You haven't done a very good job of convincing me we should work together, you know." He sounded almost disappointed.

"No. I guess I haven't," Arthur sighed. "Anyway, she got a second stroke on the day of the briefing. Which is why I had to leave in a hurry and why I've been away. I figured you'd pack up and leave if I told you and I guess I was hoping she'd just...get better."

Eames grunted. "So how is she doing now?"

"She's in surgery again."

Eames sighed. "If you want to wait another week, I suppose we could."

Arthur chewed his lip. "That would be ideal. If you want to find another place to stay-"

"...then I'll find one. But I have a lovely host, so no thank you. In fact, I just might give her a fruit basket. I'm not sure any of us have truly earned this one."

Arthur grinned faintly.

He hung up and breathed a deep sigh of relief, until he saw the nurse standing at a respectful distance, her hands clasped and her face lowered in condolence.





The room had been aired out. There were new flowers added. The body was very small and very pale in the bed, the thin fingers threaded together, at rest. He stood three feet away and watched her for a while, then walked around the bed to gently adjust the arrangement of the flowers on the other side.

The doctors were tense behind their walls of condolences. Arthur dutifully signed all the paperwork and left.

On the way to the car, he sent Eames a text message.

Never mind another week. Let's proceed as planned.

Then he drove back.



Then:

"I just hope you're picking your friends better these days," she said and wiped her hands off on a rough towel. The sunlight slanted in through the window and reflected in all the family portraits on the wall.

She stood in her new dining room, by the currently covered teak table, potting an orchid with delicate hands. All the old tension was gone from her shoulders these days and her lips were never far from a smile.

Arthur had recently been introduced to Cobb. As far as she knew, he had gone into the field of security consulting and met a nice new work partner named Dominic.

"Of course I do," he said.

"It's just that I think you tend to latch onto these flaky people and they end up wanting a lot from you." She shook her head. "It keeps me up at night sometimes."

He raised an eyebrow. "I'm a little too old to be fretting over, Mom."

"No one is ever too old for that," she said primly and planted a kiss on his head.


-----------------------------------------


Now:


When he showed up at the base a half hour later, there was only Eames and a ridiculously large fruit basket waiting for him. None of them said anything, Arthur just threw his jacket over a chair and pulled out his laptop, ignoring the gaze on his back.

It was some time later that he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"How about getting some air?" said Eames.

It was night outside, Arthur noted with some surprise. It wasn't often these days that he got to hear cicadas over traffic.

"First of all, my deepest condolences."

Of course he had figured it out. Arthur just nodded.

"Second, as much of a cad as this makes me..." Eames cleared his throat. "...after what happened with Cobb..."

"This is nothing like what happened with Cobb."

"How can we be sure of that?"

"This is nothing like the Fischer job, first of all-"

"I know. I know. I think we would still rather avoid everything falling apart. And think of Carlsen."

Arthur nodded. "Fine. I'll give you what proof I can."

Eames gestured through the open door towards the PASIV case. "Be my guest."


-----------------------------------------


They were on an empty playground under a bright, sunny sky. Eames sat on a swing, pendulating softly, expectantly.

Arthur put his hands inside his coat pockets and looked around. Suddenly, there were children, milling about, building sand cakes, moving up and down the slide. None of them made a sound, which made Eames' barely suppressed chuckles all the more jarring.

"What?" Arthur snapped.

"Nothing."

Arthur rolled his eyes. Eames focused and let the slide grow, expand, turn a million different colors, swirl and loop until it was the most magnificiently monstrous thing Arthur had ever seen. The children kept playing on it, silently, and didn't even look their way. Eames nodded thoughtfully.

"Satisfied?" Arthur asked.

"Almost. Let's try it the other way around, shall we? Let's see your dreams."

Arthur frowned.

"I'm not going to be the dreamer," he said.

"Suppose there's a last-minute change of plans?" Eames shrugged. "It's happened before."

"Fine."

They watched the children silently play until the timer ran out.


Arthur's dream was a stark skyscraper, dull and devoid of flourishes. It was mostly nondescript offices and Eames spent much time walking up and down the floors, studying details, searching for the slightest crack, peeling wallpaper, dead plants, anything that was off. There was nothing. Except - he halted and listened.

"What's with the ticking?" he asked.

Arthur blinked and just like that, it stopped.

Eames scratched his chin, then shrugged, turned around, looking at Arthur with something like a mixture of admiration and disappointment and said, "Alright then. I guess you are still the master of steel and concrete."

"I could give you more proof," Arthur said tonelessly.

The skyscraper abruptly turned into a run-down residential street and they stood in front of a bungalow painted a garish green.

Eames' insides twisted a bit. "Is this..."

"This is where I grew up," Arthur said, with his business voice. "Let's see if Mom's in there. You can't be too careful."

"Arthur, this isn't-" But Arthur walked right past him towards the door.

Inside, it was immaculate but unremarkable, with a stained carpet and a big grandfather clock in the living room. The door was open to what must have been Arthur's childhood room, but Eames stayed put in the foyer while Arthur walked around, yelling, "Mom? You there? MOM?" until Eames felt like slapping him. Then he raised a finger.

"We have one last place to visit," he said.

The house was suddenly a small apartment. There was no sound. Not from their footsteps on the carpet, not from the tap dripping in the kitchen, not from Eames, when he opened his mouth to ask. The living room here had the same clock as the house. There was no sound from that either, but the air was pulsating with soundwaves - vaguely at first, then stronger and stronger until Eames' eardrums felt like they were going to burst. He tried to plug them up with his knuckles and screamed silently at Arthur, who shot him a sideways glance. The air stilled.

"Where are we?" asked Eames now that he could speak.

"This is where we lived after Dad died." Arthur took out a hand grenade and pulled the pin.

------

Eames stayed sprawled in his chair upon waking up, watching while Arthur gathered the IV lines with quiet precision.

"Tomorrow at nine," he said, taking a deep, shaking breath.

'Tomorrow at nine," said Arthur.

They drove back in silence.


-----------------------------------------


The job panned out so precisely according to plan that Eames was almost disappointed. Afterwards, Dan left for the airport and then it was just Arthur and Eames, disposing of evidence at the base and packing the PASIV into Arthur's rental.



They picked a roadside pub, both of them reluctant to go downtown. Arthur smoked, which Eames had never seen him do, and rubbed his eyes repeatedly. He looked hollowed out. Eames was trying to figure out what to say, but Arthur beat him to it:

"I'm sorry. This was a disaster."

Eames shrugged. "The job went well, didn't it?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess it did."

There was a drawn-out silence. The corners of Eames' mouth twitched. "May I ask a question?" he said.

"Shoot."

"Did you call me here simply because you didn't want to be alone?"

Arthur blew out smoke and didn't answer.

"I know you realize all the things I could find out about you here. You didn't think it was a little risky, in a business that deals with the subconscious?"

"I did."

"So you are saying that you trust me?”

“I’m saying I decided it was worth the risk.”

“And now? Do you regret inviting me here?”

Arthur looked at him. “Not yet. I guess we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”

Eames frowned and drew stick figures in the condensation of his glass. He hadn't actually made a single effort to dig up any dirt on Arthur, but there was no point in telling him that. Part of him, he realized, just didn't want to know. Didn't they chafe each other enough?

“I’m a paranoid man, you know,” he said after a while. “I don’t make alliances easily. People are fickle creatures. Governed by whims and emotions.”

“And you’re not?”

“Oh, me especially.”

“Well, everyone needs alliances.”

Eames shrugged. “Temporary ones, certainly.”

“Not just temporary ones. If anything, it’s those that you can’t trust.”

“I see you really learned nothing from the Fischer job,” Eames sighed, wondering why that should set his temper rising.

“That was different,” Arthur said tiredly.

“No, Arthur, I really don’t think it was.”

Arthur glared out the window.

“So where are you off to now?” he asked.

“I’m not sure." Eames tapped his fingers against the table. "What do you think Louisiana would think of me?”

“That’s a big question to ask a drunk guy,” Arthur murmured.

"Oh, you're not drunk quite yet."

"Too close to it. I'm driving," He scratched his head. "I'm not sure what I was thinking."

"I can drive you back to your hotel."

Arthur shook his head. "I need to go to Mom's house. Pack her stuff. Sooner I get it all over with, sooner I can leave."

"You should probably get some sleep first."

But Arthur was staring, absentmindedly, at a small group of teenagers hanging out by a dumpster, cigarettes and beer cans clutched in their hands.

"No." He pulled out his phone. "What's the number for the taxi?"

Eames waved the phone away dismissively. "If you want, I can drive you out. As a goodbye."


---------------------------------------


They drove into a countryside ravaged by fall and something churned in Eames' guts. He suspected it was guilt, which annoyed him, because really, he had done his part, he had gotten paid for it and now he was free to go.

Arthur was already beginning to sober up in the passenger seat, getting some of the steel back into his composure. The next time they met, they would both pretend things were just like before.

He turned onto a smaller road at Arthur's direction. They passed a man selling organically grown apples in crates. It was almost a shame to see him pull out something as crass as a cell phone in the rearview mirror.
Harvested fields stretched out for miles on either side and there was something oddly soothing about the sight.

"It's nice out here. Serene."

"Mom liked it," Arthur said. After a while, he pointed. "That's it."

They pulled up in the driveway and Arthur got out, stood watching the house with his hands shoved into his coat.

Eames shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Going to be alright?"

Arthur nodded. "Thanks. I'll see you."

"One more thing." Eames bit his lip. "And it's fine if you don't want to answer. You've really told me too much already. But...what did happen between you and Johnny?"

"I ratted on him," Arthur said simply.

"So I figured. Why?"

It took a while for Arthur to answer and when he did, his voice dragged from exhaustion.

"I was fourteen, Dad died and things got pretty rough. Mom was way out of it and I couldn't help her...it was just easier to avoid everything. I met Johnny. Big talker, full of ideas. Ambitious. We became friends. Then he started dealing. He became a pretty big thing before long, but he was shit at organizing stuff, so I'd do that for him. We were a team, though not many people knew it."

"You kept it secret?"

"Johnny was fine spending time with me, less fine with others knowing he relied on a kid to map out his routes. Can't blame him."

"And then...?"

"Then..." Arthur sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "It went on for a couple years...until I came home one night and found Mom asleep, her bed surrounded by empty cracker boxes. The only food around was canned and nothing had been cleaned in ages. And I hadn't realized before, but then...well...I was the only thing she had."

His last words trailed off. A crow squawked in the distance.

"So you ratted him out for your mother?"

Arthur nodded. "I knew way too much for him to just let me go, so I didn't even ask. I was supposed to meet him at a house where we kept a stash. Instead I went to a phone booth and made an anonymous call to the police. They raided the place. Caught him red-handed."
"And he didn't gave the police your name?"

Arthur shrugged. "No idea. Maybe he did. Maybe they didn't care because I was small-fry? I never partied much, never did any drugs, never got into trouble, always kept a low profile. Even maintained an A- average at school. As gangsters go, I kind of sucked."

Eames couldn't help but chuckle at that.

"I was paranoid for ages afterwards, but...no one ever came after me. I graduated and left to join the army."

Eames nodded thoughtfully. Then he cleared his throat and patted the car door. "Well," he said. "I had better be off."

Arthur smiled tightly. "Take care."

"You too, Arthur."


Eames rolled up the window and pulled out of the driveway. His plan was to park the car in the agreed-upon spot, call a taxi, pick up his things, say goodbye to Laurie and then fly some place warm and distracting. He busied himself making travel plans to avoid the memory of Arthur's image in the rearview mirror as he drove away, facing the house like he intended to fight it.

The man with the apples glanced at him when he passed. Eames' attention was quickly taken by something else, though, as he got on the highway. It was a white van with six men in it and one of them was familiar. He had seen that face inside of a hoodie, lit by lamplight next to a warehouse, making some kind of exchange with Arthur's childhood friend Johnny.

And now the van turned onto the small road from which Eames had just come. His jaw clenched and he pulled out his phone.


-----------------------------------------


As soon as Arthur opened the door, he was hit in the face by the sound of the clock. Taking a deep breath, he gathered himself and walked slowly into the dining room on the left, where framed family photos hung on the walls and perched on the mantle, all in perfect symmetry. The air was a bit musty and everything had a thin layer of dust, most noticeable on the large teak table that had probably never served more than two people at once.

He walked through every room, without being sure why, before returning to the dining room.
The clock ticked on, stale and unforgiving.

His cell phone rang and he jumped. It was Eames.

"Arthur, you're about to have visitors," he said breathlessly. "A bad kind."

Arthur swore. "Who and how many?"

"No clue and six. They'll be there in less than ten. I'm on my way, for what it's worth."

Arthur hung up, checked his watch, rushed for the key bowl and swore loudly when her car keys weren't there. No time to look for them, so he grabbed a sturdy mop from the cleaning closet and headed for the entry room.

There loomed a large glass cabinet filled with china and Precious Moments figurines. He dragged it to the right of the front door, ignoring the obscene crash and clatter of it. Using the mop, he propped it up at an eighty-degree angle by the entrance. Once that was secured, he made a bee-line through the hallway for the kitchen, where he grabbed wine glasses and arranged them on the floor.

Underneath the sink was a large jug of dish soap. He poured it out on the linoleum, starting by the back entrance and moving on to cover most of the kitchen floor, leaving glimmering streaks on the wine glasses. Then he used the fridge to block all but a sliver of the kitchen window.
It was then that he heard tires on gravel and ran upstairs.

Climbing from the attic window up onto the backside of the roof, Glock in hand, he peeked from over the crest at the men in the driveway. He saw no clues as to who they were or who they were working for, but they carried their guns like they intended to use them. He aimed and prayed to God that they weren't cops.

Before they could reach the front door, he nailed two of them in the head. The retort took chips out of the chimney while he scrambled back inside.

A shout and a loud crash from downstairs announced that they had tried the front door. Arthur crouched behind the upstairs railing, looking down at the mess of the entry room - mounds of porcelain peeked out from underneath the cupboard, covering the head of a very still body, a pool of blood growing rapidly underneath. The light from outside cast a vague shadow of someone waiting on the other side of the doorway with a rifle. The clock ticked three times and then the shadow moved, slowly. Arthur poised himself, watching the muzzle come around the corner, followed by the rest of the gun. And as soon as there was a hand in view, he aimed and shot.

The man screamed, dropped the rifle and withdrew. Arthur lept over the railing, grabbed the rifle and finished him with a single shot. Three men left unaccounted for.

The back door broke open in the kitchen. Arthur spun around and shot one of them right as the man slipped and fell on the wine glasses. One of the other two took cover behind the corner and fired right back, through the door, through the hallway. Windows shattered in the entry room and a couple of the bullets ricocheted off the wall, one clipping Arthur's right arm before he could get properly covered.

Then the bullets stopped and Arthur waited. There was no sound from the kitchen. They were coming up front. No time to wrap the arm and he was too keyed up to feel much of the pain. He retreated to the dining room and managed to turn the teak table on its edge just before the two survivors started shooting at him through the entry door.

He was screwed. The thought was strangely clinical and far away, that he would die the day after his mother, in her house, killed by unknown men for unknown reasons. Around him, breakable things broke and bullets lodged themselves in the flower-patterned walls. The stale air was now full of gun powder.

One of the two stepped an inch too far to the left and Arthur caught him in the liver. Just one left. Just the one, but blood was seeping into Arthur's eyes from his temple, where a splinter from the table had grazed him, and it was getting hard to see.

And then there were two shots, different, and the man in the doorway shook, froze and dropped. Then: silence.

Arthur blinked, his brain racing to catch up. Then it all snapped into place and he got out from behind the table and stumbled up to the front door.


"Eames! Coast is clear!"

Eames emerged from behind the engine block of the white van.

"Well, Jesus," he breathed, then took in the blood on Arthur's arm and face. "Need a hospital?"

Arthur shook his head, which hurt, so he stopped. He looked around gingerly.

There were bullet holes in the wallpaper. Broken glass scattered on the blood-stained carpet. The air was acrid with gun powder and something was different, was missing. Dazed, he approached the grandfather clock. A bullet had lodged itself in the mechanism. Cogwheels were charred and bent out of shape. It was quiet.

It was then that he realized that she was gone and he started shaking.


-----------------------------------------


Eames stitched him up by the teak table. Outside, the sun was setting, the light collecting in the frames and split glass that littered the room. Arthur sat quiet and sunken and Eames tried to shake the feeling of being an intruder.

"Your mum was a lovely lady." He nodded towards a photograph on the wall where she stood, neat and bird-boned, next to a lanky man who looked like a vulture by comparison. Arthur had his mother's eyes and his father's jaw. There were pictures of him as a baby, a smudge of jam on his cheek. Another one of him as a teen, sullenly peeking out from a frayed, red hoodie.

"She was."

"That's your dad, I take it? "

"Yeah."

"He looks stern."

"Yeah," Arthur murmured wistfully, then added hastily: "He was a good guy, though."

"That's good to hear. Mine was a piece of shit"

"Sorry."

"Oh, don't be. He's long gone. Tell me more about yours. If you want."

"He was in 'Nam," Arthur slurred, touching the gauze around his head. "Worked in a tire factory until he had to quit and get a desk job. PTSD."

"How did he die? If you don't mind me asking."

"Car accident." He snorted and wiped at his red eyes. "Funny, isn't it? Surviving a war and then dying in a minivan."

"The black comedy of life," Eames murmured. "There," he said, dabbing the stitches with peroxide and reaching for the gauze. "Not quite as good as new, but we'll take what we can get, right?"

"I guess we will."

Eames couldn't help but take a deep, shuddering breath and Arthur glanced at him for a second, as though he was going to ask a question, but then let it go. They both rose and got to work.



Frisking the corpses revealed nothing and the serial numbers were filed off on all the guns. None of this was particularly surprising. Eames piled them all in the garden shed and wrapped them in a tarp while Arthur made phone calls.

"I think Johnny had a hand in this." Eames said when he came back, heading straight for the little bathroom to wash his hands. He told Arthur about what he had seen by the warehouse that night. "Just drugs, I thought, but now..."

Arthur frowned. "Johnny's just a two-bit drunk these days. This is way out of his league."

"I'm not saying he orchestrated it," Eames pointed out, wiping his hands on a rose-printed pink towel. "All he needed to do was sell information about you to someone who was already after you. Like, say, the location of your mum's house."

Arthur's frown grew deeper. "I should have all scores settled in the States. Must be someone new. Probably someone wanting information. It's happened before."

"No hard feelings regarding Johnny, then?"

A shrug. "I sold him out first. I figure it's fair and square."

Eames pursed his lips, nodded. "I think you should get some sleep," he said.



Some hours later, a U-Haul truck pulled up in the driveway and two men got out and rang the doorbell. They were greeted by Eames with oven pads and a plate of cookies.

"Ahh," he said. "You must be the garbage men. Arthur told me you'd come and then he went and fell asleep like an arse. Snickerdoodle?" He put one in his mouth and offered them the plate.

They accepted hesitantly. Eames gestured towards the back of the house.

"They're in the garden shed. All yours."

He watched as they loaded the bodies into a hidden compartment underneath the truck floor. Then one of the two got behind the wheel of the white truck and the other got back into the U-Haul and they eased out of the driveway while Eames waved them off.

When he came back inside, Arthur was on the stairs. His shirt was wrinkled, his hair mussed and there was a pillow mark on one cheek, but his eyes were wide and sharp.

"...cookies?" he asked, bewildered.

Eames held out the plate. "I found baking mix in the kitchen. Just added water. Are you ready to start packing this house down?"

Arthur took a cookie and studied it reverently. "She always made these when I visited."

"Then I'm sure she would approve of you having one."

Arthur did.

~Fin
Tags:
kyrenekyorl: (inception a/e hands)

From: [personal profile] kyrenekyorl


You have earned ALL the cheesecake! <3 Excellent work on this - and THANK YOU so much for not making up last name for Arthur!! It doesn't bother me as much as a made-up given name for Eames does, but it's one of the things that makes me twitch. ^.^;; And the fact that you were able to write an entire lengthy fic involving Arthur's mother without mentioning his/their family name and keep it from being awkward... well, that was skillfully done. <3 I didn't even realize until I was done reading, and then I was not only happy, but impressed with how you'd pulled it off! ^_^

All that said, this was an excellent little (or not so little) character piece. ^_^ It was a quick read, despite the perfectly respectable length of it, but only because it was so smooth and enjoyable to make my way through. <3

I'm so glad you finally finished it and posted and that I got to read it. Thank you~!!! *hugs!*
zing_och: Grace Choi from the Outsiders comic (Default)

From: [personal profile] zing_och


I really liked this! It feels so quiet and sad (despite the violence and, well, Eames *g*) and made me really feel for Arthur.
dossier: the ancient ancestor of Herbatus Unimoosis (Default)

From: [personal profile] dossier


I love this story. Arthur and Eames dynamic feels solid, you fulfilled the promise in the beginning. The familial relationships are just as wonderful, drawing us into their history, both sad and hopeful. thank you!
.

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