Summary: Arthur, Eames, and Ariadne take on a job with a new Extractor, only to find that their mark may be more than they can handle.
Pairing: Established Arthur/Eames
Word Count: Around 9700
Disclaimer: Inception and related characters belong to Christopher Nolan. Sherlock and related characters are credited to ACD, Moffat, and Gatiss.
A/N: Because there need to be more of these. Takes place post-movie and somewhere between Blind Banker and The Great Game.
Warnings: Language, violence, m/m kissing. One OC, only because it felt wrong to bring Cobb in. Sherlock may seem OOC in some parts, but I stand by the characterization.
Angelo's was bustling with one rush or another -- lunch, judging by the unfiltered sunlight coming through the window to his right, because he didn't feel like turning to look at the wall clock. A baby was crying in the family off to his left, and the woman -- mother of the baby but not of the slightly mongoloid three-year-old; avid gardener considering her short and slightly dirty nails and the not-quite-washed-out grass stain on her knees; now red-haired but naturally a blonde -- picked it up and cradled it in a vain attempt to quiet the thing. The dark-haired, bleary-eyed young man on his laptop at the next table--
--furrowed his brow in annoyance and bounced his leg and tapped his keyboard without pressing any keys -- college journalist with writer's block that was exasperated by too little sleep battled with too much caffeine; military background judging by the set of his shoulders and the tattoo peaking under his sleeve; hoping to score with the attractive waitress because he wasn't doing well in his current relationship. The waitress, dressed stylishly and smelling pleasantly of vanilla, was returning his flirting in a professionally friendly manner -- not interested in anything but a good tip; her girlfriend would be meeting her after work; they'd be going somewhere nice, judging by the extra care taken to her hair and nails. At the bar--
-- another man, ramrod-straight brown-leather-clad back to their table, sipped his coffee mechanically -- waiting for something that he wasn't looking forward to; used to trouble; hints of OCD in the way his slicked hair and leather shoes were immaculate; well-off, if the tailored trousers were any indication, but practical, as the flash of wrist-watch gleamed of stainless steel rather than a vanity metal.
Sherlock gave his lunch companion a tolerant smile. "What, John?"
"Have you been listening to a word I said?"
"Of course," Sherlock said automatically, recalling the conversation so as to replay it word-for-word the way he usually did. Trying to recall, at least, until it struck him that no, he couldn't remember it, and that was terribly strange. How distracted had he been? Normally taking in and cataloguing his surroundings only took a few seconds, and he couldn't remember if he had a case on his hands to preoccupy him...
John noticed his confusion and rolled his eyes. "Right. Anyway, as I was saying. I'm going to write my blog in any case, and I would rather the scathing commentary not continue, thank you very much. But you cannot expect me to document your cases with more detail if you won't explain a bloody thing. I can't very well write what I don't know."
"I'm given to understand that other writers manage it," said Sherlock, the derisive tone coming easily even as part of his mind struggled with the persistent feeling that something was wrong. He couldn't remember - he'd been at the flat, and then... then what?
"Yes, but other writers have this little thing called research that they can do. Something tells me that Google won't be much help in explaining your thought process during the Baverstock case."
Sherlock met his eyes and raised an eyebrow. "The Baverstock case, John? Is that all?"
John shrugged. "It's a start."
"Very well. Let me use your phone."
John looked startled as the topic shifted gears and ground the clutch. "What -- don't you have yours?"
"Left it at the flat," said Sherlock, gesturing impatiently. With an exasperated sigh, the phone was deposited in his outstretched hand. He brushed his fingertip over the edge and slid the keyboard out and typed out a quick search, then closed it and handed the phone back. John glanced at it before pocketing it again. Sherlock swept his gaze around the room once more, noting the three-year-old asking daddy for ice cream, the slight shift in the tense man's posture as the waitress refreshed his coffee, the smile Angelo was sending their way from the door of the kitchen. "Did you bring your gun?"
He heard John shuffle in discomfort and lower his voice. "Gun?"
"Yes, John, your gun." Sherlock huffed, looking back at him. "I asked you to grab it before we left."
John blinked and frowned and rubbed his temple. "Sherlock, I thought we were just going to lunch."
"Yet further proof that the thinking should be left to me. No matter -- I'll work around it. Come on." Sherlock stood and dropped some money on the table, expecting it would cover the meal that he hadn't touched. John stood as well, glanced at the undisturbed plate, grabbed his cane and followed Sherlock out of the restaurant.
He heard John ask where they were going and sent an intellect-questioning glare over his shoulder in answer. John rolled his eyes again and focused on keeping up with the detective's long stride.
Sherlock stuffed his hands into his pockets and tipped his chin down and let his eyelids droop, leaving them open just enough to dodge the pedestrian traffic. He couldn't stop himself from noting details of the pavement and shoes and trouser-cuffs and ankles and socks and the tiny panting dog that passed by him, but it was still a narrower field of vision, and it allowed his mind to turn a little energy away from the chaotic external environment and delve instead into the unrelenting feeling of wrong.
A few seconds later, his mental search returned two words: The Uncanny. He could not help his fond smile at the memory of John in the sitting room, making clumsy attempts to explain his use of the term 'Uncanny Valley' to describe some children's show until he'd finally gotten frustrated and just shoved a Wikipedia page under Sherlock's nose. Sherlock, of course, was already intimately familiar with the concept.
Sherlock's smile grew slightly, and he turned out of the alley that he had been striding down, opening his eyes to look up. John stepped out behind him and stopped short. Before them, where it had absolutely no business being, rose the off-white brick wall, carved high over their heads with familiar block script:
St. BARTHOLOMEW'S HOSPITAL
John had just shifted his grip on his cane when Sherlock spun, catching his heel in the back of the knee on the doctor's good leg. John's back slammed into the ground, his breath leaving his lungs in a gasp, and before he could get it back Sherlock struck the heel of his palm into John's solar plexus, leaving him immobilized and struggling to breathe.
Sherlock straightened. Two unremarkable passersby altered their course to walk over, picked John up under the arms without a word and frog-marched him toward the gate. Sherlock picked up the cane and followed. No one else even glanced their way.
The bizarre little group proceeded down white-washed stairs to the mortuary. Molly at the desk glanced up and narrowed her eyes as the projections passed with John; just as quickly smiled at Sherlock. She was wearing lipstick. "Everything's set up," she said, ever eager to please.
"Watch the door," he said, wasting no courtesy on the projection. Behind him, her face fell a little.
The examination room had been prepared for autopsy, with trays of sterile cloth-covered instruments arranged on the counter beside the cold naked metal of the exam table. John, somewhat recovered by this time, struggled against the projections that lifted him onto the table and held him down, one pinning his legs and the other holding his shoulders. Sherlock stepped over, pulling straps out of the metal and binding John across the upper chest and at the wrists and ankles. The straps pulled tight of their own accord. The projections left the room.
"Sherlock, what in the ever-loving fuck is going on? Sherlock!" John strained against the bonds, his expression somewhere between confused and annoyed, with just an edge of panic.
Sherlock tugged the cloth off one of the trays, playing his fingers over the cold steel instruments and selecting one. He heard the sharp intake of breath as the curved blade came into John's sight.
"I'm going to ask you a few questions," Sherlock said as he turned. "And I'm going to expect truthful answers. If you are not being truthful or forthcoming, I will carve off one of your fingers." He grabbed the nearest hand, forcing all but the smallest digit to curl back and pressing the last finger down. John's eyes widened. The edge of the knife clicked against the tabletop and rested on the last joint of the extended pinky.
"Sh-Sherlock... this isn't funny..."
"It's not meant to be. Who are you?"
"Wha-- Sherlock, it's John." Terror made his voice high and tremulous. "Y-your flat-mate, remember? Doctor John Watson, from Afghanistan? Stamford introduced us? Sherlock, please, whatever you're doing, it's not funny! This is insane! Please!"
The panicked babble was so genuine, the terror-wide blue eyes so true, that Sherlock almost couldn't bring himself to do it. He stared down at the prone man, studying all his familiar features, expression carefully neutral. John sucked in an uneven breath and held his gaze. For a long moment, neither of them moved.
The blade hissed against the tabletop and sliced through flesh and cartilage, stuttering on the bone before sliding cleanly through the joint. John screamed.
"We have to back out of this job, now," Arthur had somehow shouted without raising his voice, storming into the warehouse only two days after they set up in it. Ariadne looked up from the images she'd been studying; Eames opened his eyes on the plastic lawn chair; Dwyer stood up from his desk and moved out into the middle of the area.
"What's wrong?" Dwyer demanded.
Arthur crossed his arms over his chest and pressed pale, manicured fingertips into the corners of his eyes. Before he could answer, Eames leaned forward and chimed in, "Yes, darling -- do tell what makes our MI6-connected sociopath detective suddenly too much to handle." His voice was light, but he was genuinely curious what could discourage the Point Man so drastically.
The comment earned him a glare. "He's not sociopathic. He's never had a proper psychiatric diagnosis, but the evidence all points to autism, not sociopathy."
Eames looked unimpressed. "And that's a problem?"
"Yes." Arthur didn't look away from Dwyer this time, his steely glare conveying his dead seriousness to their de facto leader. "The psychology is all wrong. Autism is also a social disorder, but one of the defining characteristics -- one that we know our mark has in spades -- is heightened senses and attention to detail. In other words, everything is his totem because he can't help but to notice every detail the moment he interacts with it."
The room fell silent for a moment. Dwyer sucked his teeth and then said through them, "you said he hasn't been diagnosed. How... badly would you say he has it?"
"High-functioning, on some level. There's no agreed-upon measure."
Dwyer threw his hands up. "Of course there isn't." He turned and ran a hand through fluffy chestnut curls and turned back. "Look, I thought you three were the best."
"We are," Eames answered immediately.
"That's beside the point," said Arthur.
"No, that is the entire point!" Dwyer snapped. "If we can't do this job, then who can? Either we get the information or they kill this man, that's the deal."
Arthur's gaze flickered to the concrete floor of the warehouse. Eames rose from the lawn chair and strolled over, gripping the Point Man's shoulder. "We'll do the job, Dwyer. We just don't want to take any unnecessary risks, that's all. We need to know exactly what we're dealing with."
Arthur nodded stiffly. "I'll need to do more research," he said, shrugging off Eames' hand and walking to his desk.
Now, with his wrists and ankles and chest bound, his forged form unravelled, and the last knuckle of his little finger lying in a bloody puddle in a tray just within his sight, Eames wondered if maybe he shouldn't have trusted Arthur's instincts over his own.
Above him, through the haze of pain, he saw the mark smile, saw the stiff line of his shoulders ease slightly. "That's much better." Eames realized with a shock that the man hadn't been certain until the guise had actually dropped. He couldn't decide if he should be proud of that fact or terrified by it, and the debates were cut short by a fresh lance of pain as antiseptic was applied to the wound. "Breathe deeply," the mark suggested in his oddly soothing baritone.
Eames fought to bring his breathing under control. With each breath the pain became more manageable, still present but something he could think around once more. He forced a smile that was all teeth. "What gave me away?" he asked, his voice less steady than he liked but more than he'd have expected.
Sherlock Holmes -- Eames found he couldn't quite think of him as 'the mark' when he was in such a position of power -- leaned over him, dark curls falling to frame his angular face while he considered Eames. At length he smiled in a self-satisfied way and said, "The Uncanny." He chuckled at Eames' confused expression. "It's one of Freud's less-popular concepts, since it has nothing to do with incest taboos or repressed sexuality. It's the idea that something can be familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously, creating a sense of cognitive dissonance. In essence, the Uncanny is something just familiar enough that the familiar aspects only serve to emphasize the unfamiliar." He straightened and turned away.
"Oh, is that all?"
"Hardly. Your phone also has nowhere near enough scratches."
Eames let out a bark of laughter. "You could have just said that first."
"Where's the fun in that?" Holmes turned back, his smile softening until it was almost friendly. "What is your name?"
Eames' smile fled. Holmes quirked an eyebrow and grabbed his hand, again forcing all but the little finger to curl. "Eames!" the Forger all but shouted. "It's Eames."
"Just Eames. I run through surnames and pseudonyms faster than toothpaste."
Holmes smiled again. "That's all right. There aren't that many thirty-three-year-old brunets from Hammersmith, it shouldn't be too difficult to trace you once we're back up top."
"Your accent's been cleaned up, but it slipped just now. Next question - how many levels in are we?"
"One," Eames answered just a little too quickly, still off-kilter from the accurate deduction of his hometown. Holmes looked unimpressed. "No -- no, two! It's two!"
The knife sang. Eames screamed.
The bleeding stump was cleaned and Eames steadied his breathing and shoved the pain to the back of his mind as before, and Holmes placed the blade against the last knuckle. "As I told you, I want the truth, and I want it fast. Lying to me will only result in the loss of another knuckle."
"You sick son of a bitch," Eames spat.
"Hardly. Maybe if I was enjoying this, but I assure you that I find it as distasteful as it is necessary."
"Distasteful." Eames laughed through his teeth. "You really are a psychopath."
"And you're stalling. Next question: How many members of your team, including yourself and those on the upper level or in reality?"
Eames glared and grit out, "Four."
"How many on this level, also including yourself?"
"Names and specialities?" Eames squinted his eyes shut and turned his head away, entire body tense and trying not to tremble. Holmes nodded. "Very well." This time the Forger successfully stifled his scream.
Once the wound was clean and a bandage taped over it, Holmes pulled the next finger straight. "Names and specialities," he repeated.
Holmes' eyes narrowed, and he drew the knife back once again.
The entire ring finger found its way in pieces to the tray before Holmes set the knife aside and pressed his fingertips together, regarding the shaking, sweating and still tight-lipped Forger thoughtfully. "It seems I may have underestimated your loyalty to your team. Commendable..." He tapped his forefingers against his underlip. "But inconvenient. It seems I'm going to have to get insistent. I hate to skip so far so fast, but we do have a time limit, after all..."
Arthur straightened his perfect tie and smoothed nonexistent creases out of his jacket. He'd lost count of how many times he'd done exactly that in the last fifteen minutes -- somewhere in the double digits -- but refused to quite acknowledge that he was fidgeting. Arthur did not fidget. Even if he was anxious as all hell and could not help but rake his gaze across both streets and every window and rooftop and CCTV camera every five seconds, as if Eames and the mark might appear just to slip by him if he wasn't at the peak of vigilance. Unfortunately, that concern was not entirely irrational, seeing as that was pretty much what the mark had just managed.
If he'd only waited thirty seconds instead of a minute to get up and follow them. If he'd only followed immediately, and to hell with being inconspicuous. The mark had called the dream quickly enough on the first level, with no one trying to impersonate his closest (only) friend -- Arthur should have known better than to let Eames go through with it, and nevermind the Forger's injured ego. He should have known that Holmes' curiosity would have him lead one of them off for questioning rather than attacking or trying to wake up.
Of course he would take the one who was right in front of him. Of course he would disappear with Eames before Arthur was even out of the restaurant.
Arthur adjusted his tie and surveyed the streets again. The projections were ignoring him, which only served to compound his tension. He knew Holmes most likely had training, courtesy of a protective older brother in government, though who had trained him and when and how much was beyond even Arthur's research skills. So why were there no militarized projections? Why wasn't there even the usual cursory interest of the aware subject's subconscious searching out the dreamer?
A cab pulled over to Arthur's left, Dwyer hopping out almost before it had fully stopped. Arthur's eyes narrowed at the sight of his cheap black suit and baby face. With Cobb in New York reconnecting with his children, they'd had no choice but to find a new Extractor. Eames had recommended Dwyer, and though the wide-eyed, stocky little Eradicator -- not Extractor, but a similar skillset -- hadn't looked promising to Arthur's critical eye, the three of them had worked well together for two jobs. That didn't change the fact that Dwyer had gotten them into this job, and it was already going wrong.
"Where's Eames?" Dwyer demanded. He had a disarmingly deep, luxurious rumble of a voice which had proven to be a versatile tool. At the moment, the low register blended into the background noise of the city, so that only Arthur could decipher words out of it. "Where's the mark?" An edge of a brogue crept into his 'R's.
"I don't know. They left the restaurant, I got up to follow a minute later and they were gone. This corner was the last place I saw them." Arthur kept his voice carefully even, but he could hear the strain in it, and he knew Dwyer could, too.
Dwyer's expression mirrored the frustration and concern boiling under Arthur's composed facade. He opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, and groaned instead. He ran a hand through his hair and glanced around at the milling projections. "Why aren't we being targeted?"
"I've been trying to figure that out for the past..." Arthur checked his watch. "Twelve minutes."
"Let's walk. You look like you expect to be sniped at any second."
"I do." Arthur fell into step beside Dwyer, adjusting his pace to match the Eradicator's. "Did you get anything from the police?"
"Nothing. He doesn't think too highly of any of them but Lestrade, who wasn't present at the case in question, so they were uniformly unhelpful. What's your theory?"
"At best? I'm overreacting, Eames has him completely fooled, his attention to detail is filling in more rather than making the missing ones more notable, and Eames is getting our information as we speak. At worst? He's got specialized training I've never seen before, his projections are ignoring us because he wants to lull us into a false sense of security rather than chase us away, he's observing us through the CCTV, and Eames is currently being tortured for information."
"And Eames says you have no imagination."
Arthur winced. Dwyer didn't notice. "Worst-case scenarios are a noted exception."
"Great. So what do we do about it?"
The harsh peal of a telephone sounded from just ahead. Arthur jumped and reached for the pistol tucked in his waistband and looked around, his gaze coming to rest on the public phone bolted to a corner store's brick sidewall. The phone rang a second time. A few projections glanced at it in confusion, but no one moved to answer.
"Keep walking," Dwyer said. The phone rang once more behind them, and then fell silent. Arthur wasn't surprised when the phone booth ahead began to ring instead. He looked up, searching out the nearest surveillance camera and finding it on the opposite roof. It turned slowly, making no effort to hide exactly who it was tracking.
"Worst-case is looking more and more probable," Arthur mused and put his back to the lens. "We've got nothing right now. Might as well see what the mark is holding."
Dwyer deliberated for a moment. "Let's get to a phone that's not in a booth."
Arthur didn't bother to voice his agreement, just started walking. Halfway down the next block they found another phone set in stucco and marked with the residue of bright yellow graffiti. Arthur made a beeline and picked it up at the first ring. "Hello?"
"Hello, Arthur," replied the smooth deep voice of their mark. Arthur felt the hair on the back of his neck bristle at the sound of his name on that man's lips. "If your friend Eames' well-being is of any value to you, you and Mr. Dwyer will meet me at the bridge to Queen Mary's Gardens in Regent's Park immediately. It will take you twenty minutes to walk there if you start now."
"And if we don't?" Arthur said, voice flat, calm, just slightly challenging.
The voice at the other end didn't miss a beat. "You're considering just shooting yourselves and kicking Eames awake on the first level. I wouldn't recommend it - not if you want his mind intact." Pause to let that sink in, and his smile showed through his voice when he said, "You must think I'm bluffing, of course. There's nothing you know of that could do what I'm threatening. But then, my dream is just full of unexpected discrepancies, isn't it? Face it, dreamworker, you have no idea what I'm capable of."
"Prove that you have him. Alive and..." Well didn't seem right. "...coherent."
The mark gave an impatient huff. "Fine." There was a crackle as the mouthpiece was covered, and several muted words were passed before it was uncovered. Faint footsteps echoed. "Your friend wants to talk to you," Arthur heard him say.
A deep, ragged breath came over the line. "Arthur?"
"Eames," Arthur said.
"I'm sorry, darling," Eames said, his voice cracking though he struggled to keep it level. "I'm afraid you were right on this one. Get the hell out -- I'll be--" The sentence was lost in a muffled protest, and he began to struggle. Something shifted and several metallic objects clattered to the floor.
Holmes' voice came back on the phone. "Eames is remarkably devoted. I doubt you will repay it by leaving him behind. The bridge, twenty minutes. Start walking." The line clicked and went dead.
Arthur hung up the phone, only realizing how tightly he was gripping the handset when he had to peel his fingers away from the plastic. He flexed the ache out of his knuckles and turned to Dwyer. "You caught all that?"
"Yeah. Regent's Park is this way."
They walked. As they walked, Arthur thought. He thought very, very carefully about the sound of metal striking metal, plastic, linoleum; the sound of hard flat heels against linoleum echoing in an uncluttered room. He thought about every little piece of information he had gathered on their mark; about the list and descriptions of places that he frequented.
"I know where he took Eames," Arthur said.
They separated at the edge of Regent's Park without warning -- one moment the dreamworkers were shoulder-to-shoulder on the path, the next moment Dwyer was alone, Arthur darting through the blind spot between the rooftop and pole-mounted cameras and into a dingy back-alley. With his back to the brickwork, he checked his watch - three minutes left before their 'deadline'. Holmes should be away from his main terminal by now, but he could conceivably patch the CCTV signals through a portable device and monitor them until the last minute, or set up a projection to watch for him.
At this point, assuming that 'conceivably could' meant 'definitely has' just seemed like common sense. Time to blind him.
Arthur jogged down the alley, shedding his jacket, tie, waistcoat, and suspenders as he went and running fingers through his hair until the gel relinquished its hold and the strands fell in a fringe across his forehead. At the mouth of the alley he paused, manifested an ID badge, a clipboard, and an electrician's belt, and rolled his sleeves up to his elbows. With some hesitation, he abandoned the Glock, as well.
Hooking his thumbs in his belt loops, he emerged from the alley and headed down the street at the quickest pace he could manage while still looking casual. He smiled at the projections he passed and they smiled back, showing no signs of suspicion.
He made his way to the nearest major intersection and approached the remote access terminal, palmed a pocket prybar and levered the metal box open. Balancing the clipboard atop the case, he pulled a handheld data terminal out of his belt and hooked it up. Nimble fingertips danced across the small keys with the ease of practice. In a minute he had the information he needed and he stowed the handheld, pried the faceplate off the terminal and stuck a small charge into the bundle of wires and circuitry behind it. He shut the case and continued on his way, heading back toward the corner where the mark had disappeared with Eames. At the next terminal he repeated the process, compared the results, and began typing again as he walked.
After another two minutes -- too long, he berated himself -- the screen flashed with a result that pleased him. He didn't have time to dwell on it, just stashed the handheld, pressed a button on the remote in his belt, and darted up the nearest fire escape.
The charges in the terminals went off with an unobtrusive 'thud'. Thin tendrils of smoke seeped out and made their way towards the heavens.
Regent's Park was dressed for the tail end of autumn, the magnificent splendour of sun-gilt trees decked in all the shades of warmth given way to a landscape of skeletal branches awash in weak pale light, just waiting for the first snowfall to make it a proper winter scene. Dwyer mused on what that said about Arthur's subconscious -- or possibly the mark's, it was hard to tell at this point -- as he tread the path toward Queen Mary's Gardens. The leaf layer crackled and shuffled about his feet, and after careful consideration he decided that it was purposeful no matter which mind had generated it, as it made stealth all but impossible.
The footbridge drew into sight up ahead, flanked on both sides by tangles of bare bushes. A young couple stood against the railing in the middle and pointed at the water and laughed. No sign of the mark. The couple walked off the bridge arm in arm, passing Dwyer on the path without noticing, eyes only for each other. Dwyer crossed to the middle of the bridge and leaned against the same stretch of railing. The water below reflected everything as smudges of indistinct color, his reflection looking back at him through an impressionist painting.
Crunching leaves alerted him to the mark's approach soon enough. Dwyer turned and rested his elbows on the rail, watching the tall young detective close in. Pale blue eyes raked him up and down, noting and cataloguing a dozen things that Dwyer couldn't even begin to guess at.
"Where's the other one?" Holmes asked, stopping an arm's length away in the centre of the bridge. Dwyer made his tone at 'polite curiosity', not irritation or surprise.
He gestured vaguely. "Around. He didn't like the idea of both of us being out in the open. 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket', and all that."
"Hm." Holmes acknowledged the answer with his eyebrows. His expression was unreadable.
"What about Eames?"
"He's safe. Nothing will harm him."
"Further," Dwyer added pointedly. Holmes' lips flickered in a smile. "How much did he tell you?"
"Enough. You mustn't beat him up too much about it, though. I've found that there are only a few select categories of men who can stay tight-lipped whilst their manhood is filleted, and Eames does not belong to any of them."
Dwyer actually felt the blood drain out of his face. "Dear god, you're a monster."
"Says the man who's busy invading my mind. You'll forgive me if I don't have much sympathy for your moral outrage."
Dwyer balled his hands into fists to keep them from trembling. "I should have just let them kill you."
" 'Them'?" Holmes quirked an eyebrow.
He moved the hospital. He moved. The hospital. Arthur hadn't even felt the dreamscape shift.
Honestly, he didn't know why he was surprised anymore.
Inside, St. Bart's was cold and sterile, all sharp lines and cool light colors. A breeze followed him through the open door, sending a pair of renegade leaves skittering down the hall. He held the door so it closed with a quiet click instead of a thud, and once it was closed, the air stilled. No sounds of life reached his ears -- no doctors or nurses discussing prognoses, no patients moaning, no loved ones pacing in the waiting room, no medical students chattering. The lights overhead produced a steady electronic drone, and far away, a machine bleeped steadily. Arthur's breath sounded too loud in his ears. He manifested his Glock once again and replaced it in his waistband, feeling instantly calmer with the weight against his back.
The mark spent his time here almost exclusively in the morgue or the chemical laboratory. Arthur stole down the stairs towards the former, encouraged when the beeping grew louder, the sound of the heart-rate monitor familiar despite having no personal experience with one. The reception desk was as deserted as the rest of the hospital.
A wall of frigid air met him as he stepped into the morgue proper, raising goosebumps on his bare forearms and condensing his breath into a visible fog. The thermostat by the door read -20C. He shivered and quickened his pace, the soft tap-tap of his dress shoes echoing off the rows of stainless steel drawers lining the walls, guiding him inevitably toward the door at the end. A window stretched across the wall beside it, blocked by a speckled white curtain.
Arthur curled his fingers around his pistol grip and pushed the door open. The room beyond was a stark hospital room, walls nylon white, counters topped in white laminate, sink and cabinets and tray tables all gleaming stainless steel, even the heart monitor giving a silver-gray readout instead of the expected red or green. He took this spotless grayscale backdrop all in as an afterthought, his eyes immediately drawn to the freestanding exam table and to the only colors in the room.
Eames' face was nearly unrecognizable, both eyes swollen, the side closest to Arthur bruised and crusted with blood from a cut on his cheekbone. His horrendous salmon shirt had been ripped open and sliced away from his body with no regard for the flesh beneath; one sleeve had been removed completely and tied into a makeshift gag. His left shoulder was dislocated and had swollen up purple-black, his elbow turned at an unnatural angle, and his right hand was less two fingers. Each finger, separated into three clean lengths of knuckle, lay instead in a pool of congealed blood in a nearby tray, next to a series of bloodstained instruments whose very image turned Arthur's stomach.
"Eames!" Arthur gasped on a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. The figure didn't stir. Only the ceaseless bleep of the monitor revealed that he was indeed alive.
Arthur rushed over, seizing the strap over Eames' wrist. At the touch, Eames started with a muffled scream, his eyes snapping open and brimming with terror. "Eames, it's me," Arthur said, ghosting his fingertips over Eames' ruined cheeks until the fear gave way to recognition. He gently removed the gag. "It's okay, it's just me."
"Arthur," Eames croaked. "You shouldn't have--"
Arthur shushed him. "Don't speak," he said, returning to the bonds. "I'm going to get you out of here. Holmes has gone to meet with Dwyer, we don't have much--" He was cut off by the sound of the door opening behind him, followed by a gasp. Arthur whirled to his feet.
The morgue director -- Molly Hooper, Arthur remembered -- stood just inside the door with both hands raised over her mouth. "Ohmigod, what are you doing?" Her wide eyes were fixed on Eames' battered form.
She looked harmless enough, but Arthur reached for his gun anyway. His evasive answer died in his throat as his fingers closed on empty air.
The pain came almost before he heard the roar of the shot, an all-too-familiar agony searing all along his leg as a bullet shattered his kneecap. Arthur screamed and dropped to the ground, his right knee no longer able to support his weight. Breathing hard through his teeth, he twisted, calculating where his assailant could be and how he could--
His train of thought ground to a screeching halt. Eames was sitting up, perched on the edge of the table with his legs spread carelessly, the gun in his three-fingered hand and trained loosely toward Arthur's stomach. Even through the disfiguring bruises, his expression was horribly alien, his eyes emotionless and calculating.
Betrayal stabbed into Arthur's gut and twisted, just as vicious and painful as the bullet itself. Blood roared in his ears and the room swam in his vision as he mouthed the Forger's name.
Eames looked up, one eyebrow arching curiously. "Well," he said. "I guess that settles whose dream this is."
The man wearing Eames' battered body hopped off the exam table with entirely too much grace while Molly knelt next to Arthur. "Calm down," she said. Her voice was sweet and gentle and entirely out of place. "Just breathe. It'll be over sooner if you don't fight him." She smiled to match her voice and stood up, hard flat heels clicking on the linoleum as she walked out of Arthur's limited range of vision, to be replaced by two tall, expressionless orderlies.
The world rippled. That was really the only way to put it: it rippled, like someone had grabbed the corners of the canvas and shaken it. The bridge under their feet shuddered and groaned and branches snapped off the trees to land amongst the shivering leaves. Projections in the distance screamed in fright. Holmes remained where he was, but his expression twisted almost in pain.
The whole thing stopped after a few seconds and the world resettled itself, but Dwyer had already seen what he needed to see. "You're just a projection," he said.
"Yes, I suppose I am."
"Something's happened to Arthur."
"So it would seem. Specifically, he's now in audience with the real me. Care to join them? I have a car waiting."
"Do I have a choice?"
Holmes smiled. "Not really."
Eames didn't pray very often. He hadn't been to church since he'd left home, and he'd honestly never paid much attention before that, either. Prayer had just never struck him as being worth his time, but here, in the midst of a dream, he found himself praying anyway. He prayed fervently to any and every god he happened to remember, hoping against hope that one of them would keep Arthur from coming for him.
When he heard the scream from the next room, he knew that no one had heard him -- or that Arthur had defied them all anyway, because Arthur damn well would.
Cold air swirled into the room as the secret door slid open, and Holmes-as-Eames strode in, wearing the ruined body with confidence. Eames did his level best to kill him with a glare; Holmes did not notice. Behind him trailed the two tall orderlies, towing a limping Arthur between them. Eames felt his heart stop. Arthur's pained scowl melted as his dark eyes met Eames', took in the chains binding him to his chair, the bandage on his right hand, the otherwise undamaged body. Eames looked away before he could see the anger return, see disappointment flash in Arthur's eyes as he realized how little it had really taken to get Eames to talk. The orderlies shoved Arthur into the next chair, one of them restraining the Point Man's attempts to struggle while the other set about binding him.
Holmes dumped the handgun -- Eames recognized Arthur's preferred model -- onto the hardwood desk at the other end of the room and slipped his earpiece into place and picked up a cigarette and lighter. He turned, putting his back to the network of screens that had once held CCTV feeds and now only flashed 'connection failure'. "A touching display," he said dryly, dropping his guise to reveal the lanky young man in the suit that almost met Arthur's sartorial standards. "Eames was especially reluctant to say anything about you, Arthur. It's nice to see that the sentiment isn't wasted."
Eames flinched and hung his head further, squeezing his eyes shut. He could feel Arthur's gaze burn into him. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry, I couldn't..." he trailed off, knowing that all the 'sorries' in the world wouldn't make up for it. He'd broken, he'd violated his team's -- Arthur's -- confidence, and that was the end of it.
Arthur said nothing.
The lighter clicked, tobacco crackling as a deep drag was taken. The floor creaked as Holmes crossed to them. "You disconnected my cameras. Quite the clever one, aren't you?"
"I'm good with computers," Arthur said.
"So I'm told."
A chair screeched and thudded back against the floor as chain links rattled. Eames opened his eyes to find Arthur straining toward Holmes, as far as his bonds would allow. The look on his face -- last time Eames had seen that look, Arthur had slammed a cab into reverse, pinned a militarized projection between his bumper and the next car, and kept gunning the gas. Holmes looked like he'd jerked out of range just in time.
He quirked an eyebrow. "Strike a nerve?" Eames considered how different the look on his face would be if it weren't for the chains holding Arthur back, and he allowed himself a tiny smile at the image.
"I suggest you calm down a little, Arthur." Holmes placed a hand on Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur seemed to seriously consider biting it. "There'll be ample reason to get riled up shortly." At length, Arthur dropped back into his chair. His glare did not lessen in intensity.
Holmes paced to the centre of the room and turned on his heel, taking another drag on the cancer stick while he regarded his captives.
"On the phone," Arthur said, his voice as controlled as it ever was, "you said something would happen to Eames if we woke him up. Mind being a little more specific?"
Holmes shrugged. "Brain damage. Loss of cognitive function and self-awareness. Total braindeath and coma, if he's lucky. If not -- well, the last one is fed pablum thrice daily and gets regular sponge-baths. I understand he even responds to his own name now."
Eames couldn't help but to go pale and shudder. Arthur pressed. "You've done it before?"
"Of course. You don't think you're the first ones to try picking my brain like this, do you? I've had numerous opportunities to develop my defences. This particular one I can remove voluntarily -- which I will do just as soon as I have all my answers."
"What guarantee do we have that you'll keep your word?"
Another languid shrug. "None at all."
The door slid open again, harsh fluorescent light mingling with the warm iridescent overhead. Dwyer entered, followed by a second Holmes in a long overcoat and scarf. "Ah," Holmes the first said. "And our party is complete. Have a seat, Mr. Dwyer." He indicated the chair beside Arthur. The doppelgänger approached and handed over Dwyer's gun and whispered briefly in his ear and vanished. Holmes smirked at Dwyer. " 'Should have just let them kill you'? Now we're getting somewhere.
"Mr. Eames was kind enough to explain what you were looking for, but unfortunately could not explain why you wanted it, or who had hired you. Frankly -- and I don't say this often -- I am baffled. There's nothing to the Baverstock case that your researcher couldn't pull from public record."
"We've been told otherwise," said Arthur.
"By whom?" When it became evident that no answer was forthcoming, Holmes finished his cigarette, flicked the butt onto the Turkish rug, and crossed to stand in front of Eames' chair. He looked sideways at Arthur. "Perhaps you'd like to answer, Arthur?"
"Don't say anything," Eames said.
Holmes set a hand on Eames' shoulder, rubbing at the fabric with his thumb when Eames tensed. "You can say that all you like, Mr. Eames, but the fact of the matter is that withstanding your own torture and withstanding the torture of another are very, very different matters." With that, he dug his thumb into a point under Eames' collarbone.
Eames wasn't actually aware of the pain until the pressure had gone, allowing his senses to again register the outside world. "-ight! That's enough!" He recognized Dwyer's shout over the ringing in his own ears that did not want to dissipate.
"Well?" Holmes said from somewhere behind him.
"I am going to fucking murder you."
It took Eames a full fifteen seconds to realize that it was Arthur's voice he'd just heard. The composure was all a fleeting memory, replaced by a sound formed of absolute, undiluted, one-hundred-percent grade-A hatred. "If you touch him again," the Point Man amended, "I will murder you."
Eames couldn't see Holmes' reaction, but he heard the lighter flare to life and the tobacco crackle and the thoughtful exhalation of smoke. "Death threats. How quaint." Arthur's cheeks turned an interesting shade of cerise. "Need I remind you that you are the invaders here, assaulting--"
"Don't you dare try to claim self-defence," Arthur snapped. "Killing us would be self-defence. This is sadism."
A pause, long enough to draw in a lungful of smoke and exhale it. "Call it what you will. It doesn't matter. Just answer my questions, and you'll save Eames a lot of pain and yourself the trouble of murdering me before your employer gets the chance."
Arthur growled. He actually growled. And then he said, "Henley Carson."
"Arthur--" Eames started.
"Shut up, Mr. Eames," Arthur said. "Next question."
"Why the Baverstock case?"
"You uncovered something while investigating the partner's murder. Plans that were destroyed shortly thereafter. Carson needed those plans and he needed you to not go public with them, not necessarily in that order of importance. So the choices were to either kill you and lose the plans forever--"
"Or extract the plans and then eradicate my memories of them, hence the presence of Mr. Dwyer." Holmes smiled and ashed on the rug. "Clever." The smile disappeared just as quickly. "It's just too bad it doesn't make any bloody sense."
"Doesn't it?" Dwyer said.
"No. There are no 'plans'. There's no--" Holmes faltered. His hands twitched upward slightly. "Absolutely no reason to hire--" He flinched and his hands twitched toward his face. "No reason -- no -- what the devil is that noise?"
Over the still-persistent tinnitus, Eames heard drawn-out orchestral notes echo off the brushed burgundy walls. Arthur's eyes flew wide. A woman's voice joined the orchestra, and Holmes winced and covered his ears. The walls began to shake.
"It's the kick," Dwyer said.
"You said you'd set it for two hours," Holmes said, narrowing his eyes at Eames. The computer screens exploded in a shower of sparks.
Eames met his gaze. "I managed to fit one lie in there."
"No!" Arthur yelled in the general direction of the ceiling. "Ariadne, no!" He shifted his attention to Holmes, his voice taking on an hysterical edge. "Holmes--!" Whatever he was going to say was lost in the groaning of wood as the floor beneath their feet buckled.
Arthur found Eames' eyes. Eames smiled, fit his mouth silently around words, "Wake up, Darling."
With a great, splintering crash that reverberated je ne regrette rien, the floor gave out.
Arthur bolted from his chair before it had even hit the ground. He dropped to his knees beside the next overturned chair, ignoring the phantom pain in his leg as he cradled the Forger's face in both hands.
"What's wrong?" Ariadne cried. "What happened?"
Arthur barely heard her, too focused on studying Eames' face. Gray-green eyes slid open. "Eames?" Arthur whispered. The eyes blinked once, and eyebrows rose, forehead crinkling in confusion. "Eames, please, say something."
"Something," came the prompt, slightly disbelieving reply. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief that was almost a laugh, almost a sob, and brought his forehead down to rest against Eames'.
"I'm alright," Eames said, smiling. "At least, I don't feel any differe--" the last half-syllable became a surprised 'mf' as Arthur kissed him, heedless of their audience.
"Don't you ever do that again, you stupid limey git," Arthur said against his lips.
"No promises, love."
"Eames?" Dwyer called, reminding them both where they were -- in a first-level dreamscape modeled into a cheap one-bedroom apartment. Another voice reminded them that they were still in the middle of a job.
"He's fine," Holmes said flatly, regarding them all from where he sat handcuffed to the radiator. "I was lying. I needed to keep you from ascending. Tell me, how long have we been on this level?"
Arthur stood and helped Eames to his feet, placing a gentle kiss on the two now-present fingers before releasing his hand. When the Point Man turned, he was all business once more.
"What happened?" Ariadne repeated. "Did you get anything?"
"You must be Ariadne," Holmes chirped before anyone could answer. "Eames has told me all about you."
Eames took two long strides and cracked a left hook across Holmes' temple. Holmes' head whipped to the side. Ariadne moved to intervene, but she faltered after the first step, seeing that neither Dwyer nor Arthur seemed to mind.
Holmes blinked a few times and looked back up at Eames. "I'm surprised you didn't use the other one."
"I was working up to it." Eames wound up a straight right.
With a high, tinkling sound, the window over Holmes' head splintered, one ratty curtain billowing inward as if from a sudden breeze. In nearly the same instant, Ariadne screamed, and Eames grunted, and both dropped to the floor. Arthur surged forward and put his back to the wall next to the window, the comfortable weight of the Glock 17 leaping into his hand. Dwyer hit the opposite wall with his Smith & Wesson M&P .45 at the ready.
Movement in the building across the street -- just a flash, in the third-story window and atop the roof. Nothing substantial to aim at. "Two shooters," Dwyer yelled. Arthur threw himself away from the window and down next to Eames.
Blood shone between Eames' fingers where he clutched at his shoulder. "I'm fine, get to Ariadne!" he snapped.
Ariadne was worse off, the wound low in her gut and pouring blood. It wasn't fatal -- not for a few hours, at least. She cried out as Arthur applied pressure.
"You can calm down," he heard, Holmes' voice airy and detached. The mark's eyes were closed, his head tilted against the radiator. "They're not going to shoot again. Not just yet, anyway."
Dwyer scowled down at him. "And why is that?"
"Because they've done their jobs."
"What 'jobs'?" Arthur demanded.
Holmes opened his eyes languidly and met Arthur's gaze and held it for a long moment before jerking his chin at Eames. "My projection of John will have shot Mr. Eames, as the immediate threat to my person. The other was one of my security, who recognized your Ariadne as the dreamer."
"Well, your security's a crap shot," Eames said, sitting up against the front of the bed.
"I beg to disagree. The shot was nonfatal center-of-mass, wasn't it? But that's not the important thing now, anyway."
"Mr. Dwyer, please!" Holmes shouted, for the first time sounding as if he was taking his circumstances seriously. "Try to stay with me, here. This is a dream. This is not important. What is important is that someone went to the trouble of hiring a team of very expensive dreamworkers for a fraudulent job. Now someone, tell me, how long have we been on this level?"
Arthur's knee-jerk reaction was to tell him to fuck off, that he had no right to make demands now that roles had been reversed. He was not one for answering to impulses, though, and so he looked to Eames for a second opinion. Eames scowled, but nodded.
"Eight minutes," Arthur answered, after consulting his watch.
Holmes looked relieved. "Good, we still have time. We need to get back to reality." When no one moved to fulfill that goal, he let out a frustrated huff. "Look, this job is lost anyhow. If you don't bring us up to reality, we might all lose our lives on top of that. I know you have no reason to trust me, but you have no reason not to do it, either, and one very good reason to!" He jerked his chin at Ariadne.
The dreamworkers still hesitated. Eames shifted his shoulder and said, "Much as I'm loathe to admit it, the man has a point."
Arthur nodded, pressed his handgun to Ariadne's forehead. She didn't flinch -- not anymore -- just looked at him with absolute trust. He heard Dwyer's .45 crack behind him, and pulled his own trigger. Rising to his feet, he turned, saw Eames' body slumped against the bed and Dwyer with the gun against his own temple. The .45 roared again.
Arthur crossed to the radiator, Holmes' eyes tracking his every motion. "Man of your word," the mark said, smiling.
He was still smiling when the lead pierced his skull, jerking his head back against the radiator.
Eames opened his eyes.
"Shit," an unfamiliar voice said. "This one's awake."
Eames ripped the IV out of his wrist the moment he registered the first word and rolled off the lawn chair into a crouch. He counted three unknowns, two standing while one crouched over the PASIV, all in dark jumpers and jeans and shiny black gloves. The standing men had an air of military polish with an undertone of easy criminality that said they wouldn't hesitate to do Very Bad Things to him, and might even enjoy it. The croucher was skinnier, a pencil-neck, but his hands on the PASIV's wiring were steady and dextrous and he probably knew how to use the gun strapped to his ankle.
Eames cursed at his lack of a weapon. This was why he preferred the dreamspace -- easier to improvise when trouble started.
One of the standers -- the blond germanic-looking one that Eames couldn't help but mentally dub 'Hans' -- started toward him, and Eames took an impulsive step back. A gasp from Ariadne drew Hans' attention, though, and Eames took full advantage of the distraction to tackle the intruder. He didn't have enough space to get up momentum, but with his mass and the element of surprise he still managed to knock the man to the ground and get in a punch.
At the edges of his vision, he saw Ariadne snatch the drafting square off the nearest worktable and swing it at the dark-haired tough ('Guido', Eames' mind helpfully supplied), while Dwyer pulled Pencil-Neck away from the PASIV, and Arthur jumped up, pulling the IV out for Holmes before moving to assist Ariadne.
Hans rolled them over and grabbed Eames' throat in one meaty hand, pinning him to the floor. Eames struck the extended arm at the joint, buckling it, and slammed his forearm into Hans' throat as it came close. The man fell away, gasping for breath. Unfortunately, Eames was in the same state -- only the Forger didn't have the luxury of a gun in his hand. Wheezing, Hans brought the muzzle to bear on Eames' skull.
Dwyer's boot came down hard on the offending wrist. The gun skittered away. A kick to the temple put Hans down pretty definitively.
Pencil-Neck and Guido managed to break free of the others and bolted for the door, Arthur hot on their heels. The door slammed, shots rang out, and there was silence for a long count of three before Arthur darted back in and over to rip the newsprint off one of the windows. "Brown Mercedes sedan," he called. "Plate's covered." He smacked the windowsill in frustration and stormed over.
"Everyone all right?" Arthur asked. The chorus answered in the positive.
"Arthur, come look at this," Dwyer said. He was leaning over the PASIV, examining the exposed wiring.
Eames, meanwhile, put himself to work going through Hans' pockets. He turned up empty. "No identification," he called. "Not even a wallet." Hans groaned and brought a fleshy hand up to scrub over his face.
"Look at this," Dwyer repeated, more to himself than to Arthur or anyone else, and ran a hand through his curls. "He cut the-- and this is out of-- what the hell was he trying to do?"
"I have no idea," Arthur admitted.
"We could wait for Hans here to wake up and tell us," Eames said.
"He's not going to wake up," Holmes said matter-of-factly. "That was a suicide pill he just took."
"Bloody--!" Eames grabbed at Hans' face, but the man was already seizing. "Fuck!"
"Well, there goes that lead," Arthur said.
"I doubt he would have had much to tell, in any case," said Holmes. "Although, if you were to untie me, I'm sure I could shed a little light on the subject. That is what I do, you know."
Arthur glanced over his shoulder at Dwyer. "He did save our lives." At Dwyer's nod, Arthur set about loosing Holmes from the complicated knot-work.
"Yeah, about that," said Eames, "how did you know we were in danger?"
Holmes' eyelids flickered in an approximation of a dismissive gesture. "It was the only logical answer. There were no 'plans', nor any reason for anyone -- much less Henley Carson -- to think there would be. Based on what you told me, getting ahold of you four was not easy -- you were not 'in the neighbourhood', you were not cheap. Carson went through some trouble to get ahold of you. Therefore, someone wanted all five of us, together, hooked into a PASIV -- and why?"
He sat up, thanking Arthur and rubbing at his wrist where the needle had been. "I knew it couldn't be for anything simple, and whatever it was, it banked on us being in the dreamscape." He gestured to the PASIV. "Obviously, our friends' goal was to sabotage the chemical relay so as to deliver an overdose of Somnacin to our systems."
"Oh, obviously," Eames said.
"Hang on, why would anyone go through so much trouble to kill us?" Ariadne said.
"I have an opponent who is fond of elaborate plans that provide little to no culpability. I can only assume you've managed join me on that person's bad side. I'd have to look into your recent jobs to say for certain." Holmes rose and adjusted his coat. "Now, if my part is done here..." He started toward the door.
"Holmes!" Dwyer called. Holmes stopped and turned, raising an eyebrow. "Are you going to be all right?"
Holmes shrugged. "I'll be fine. It's not the first time I've had a price on my head." He took another step toward the door, stopped, and turned back. "Watch your backs. I'd like to meet you again one day -- preferably on more friendly terms. It's been a long time since I met anyone in the dream-sharing business." And with that, he swept through the door, and was gone.
A week later, a message appeared in the forum section of The Science of Deduction.
Re Mr Hettling, the header read, followed only by three words:
Second bird Versailles.
The usual commenters were baffled. In a small flat in Barcelona, a thirty-three-year-old brunet from Hammersmith recognized his legal name and chuckled.
"Dare I ask what you're laughing about?" asked Arthur, sitting down next to him.
"Holmes unravelled our little mystery," said Eames.
Arthur leaned over and read the screen. "Versailles. I'm not surprised. That job pissed a lot of people off." A little crease appeared between his eyebrows. "Hettling?"
"Long story," said Eames. "I'll tell it you over lunch, darling. Come on, I found this lovely place just yesterday..."
I stand by the idea that Holmes is some level of autistic rather than sociopathic. If you don't believe me, check out the symptoms list for autism at PubMed Health, particularly the Social interaction, Response to sensory information, and Behaviors lists.
Eames' age and place of origin based on his actor, Tom Hardy.
Yes, the spelling does switch between British and American for different sections. Yes, that was on purpose.
Critique and comments welcome and encouraged!