Level One [2/2]
They caught up to the others almost a half hour later and Arthur gratefully lowered Yusuf to sit on a random stack of bricks they were waiting beside. The world stretched out in a long and seemingly infinite line, and Arthur wondered just how much further they were expected to go before reaching the next level.
“We lost sight of it,” Eames said, moving to stand at his side. Arthur nodded, his eyes riveting on Cobb, who was staring off into the middle distance, his chest still heaving from the exertion of the run.
“There’s nothing else for it then,” Saito said. “Now we play the game.”
Arthur nodded absently, watching as Cobb turned and kicked out angrily at the wall of bricks, the structure crumbling easily around his boot.
“Feel better?” Eames asked, stepping forward.
Cobb glared at him. “Are we ready?”
“One moment.” He moved towards the brickwork, reaching out to push aside large chunks of red brick before coming up with—
“—bullets?” Yusuf’s disbelief was palpable. Arthur’s eyebrows retreated into his hairline as he moved in for a closer look.
“What’re the chances of these being the exact type needed for our guns?” Eames asked, twirling the magazine in his fingers.
“Slim to none?” Arthur hedged.
Eames shook his head. “Exact match,” he said before kicking at the brickwork much in the same way Cobb had done and scrabbling around in the debris. Nothing. He did it again. Nothing. Again. Nothing.
“Eames—” Arthur started.
“Don’t you get it yet?” Eames frowned, interrupting. “We’re playing Mario here. You know the drill, Arthur.”
Cobb stepped in then, pushing in beside Arthur and helping Eames to break down the stack of bricks section by section. Saito moved to pull Yusuf to his feet as they neared his end but Yusuf waved him off, pushing to his feet and jiggling his leg a moment.
“Good as new, I think,” he tested the weight, grinning as he remained standing.
Cobb gave a frustrated noise from behind them - only one magazine for their efforts. Arthur kept his mouth closed, watching as Eames handed it over to Cobb, who took it without thanks before moving forwards. With no other choice but to follow, to play the game, they stepped into place and started the long trek to wherever this road would lead them.
- - -
Stoicism in the face of what had transpired was never likely to last long with men like Eames and Yusuf around. Arthur had known Eames long enough to understand that sometimes his joking around was a front to hide whatever dark emotions were broiling just beneath the surface. It could be annoying and insensitive at times, but it was something Arthur generally tried to ignore about him, especially in situations like this where joking in any form was never going to be the best of ideas.
He hadn’t known Yusuf as long as Eames, but Arthur knew Eames well enough to recognise that pairing him up with Yusuf was always going to be a cause for concern.
Whilst they were following the one and only path they could, it had changed from being an overgrown pathway plush with grass and foliage to an actual dirt track; dry sand puffing up around their heels with every step. The long grass lining the fence was turning brown; drying out with the unrepentant heat of the sun still hanging, high and unmoving, in the sky above them.
They found themselves soon dragging their feet through a series of pipe-like structures protruding from the earth, in a variety of greens, and reds, and yellows. Arthur swore he could hear scratching noises as he passed by one of the larger ones.
“Oh, go on!” Yusuf goaded suddenly.
Arthur watched as Cobb’s jaw tightened fractionally as half-covered chortles of amusement sounded from behind them. Arthur shot a heated look over his shoulder and received two defensive palms-up from Eames and a huge-ass grin to boot. Saito shrugged helplessly when Arthur turned his attention to him, but he turned towards the other two and the three of them paused a moment in discussion, allowing Arthur and Cobb to put some distance between them
“We’ll get her back,” Arthur said after a long moment of silence, turning back to look at Cobb.
“Yeah,” Cobb answered. Arthur almost sighed in relief at getting even a one word response from him.
“You know she was coming to visit me? Before we were taken, she was about to get on a flight to LA,” Cobb said, somewhat offhandedly. Arthur frowned at him.
“She wanted to meet the kids. She- she saw a lot of Mal before the Inception job. Memories of Mal,” he corrected. “And the kids too.”
“Cobb,” Arthur hesitated, not quite sure how to proceed. Cobb very rarely shared personal information, even with Arthur who was the closest thing he had to a friend. Not since Mal…
“I put her in danger,” Cobb muttered, almost as if to himself. “I put you all in danger.”
“No. Cobb, listen, we - all of us - we were careless. We knew the risks, we knew what we should have done after the job and none of us followed through. We’re all at fault for this.”
Cobb shook his head. “I was in charge,” he said, “I should have made sure. If I hadn’t been so—”
“You can’t blame yourself for this, Cobb.” Arthur pressed.
“Maybe not for you, Arthur. Or even Eames and Yusuf. But for everyone else the Inception job was the first and we – I - failed to see things through to the end. I was so blinded—”
Arthur grabbed at Cobb’s arm. “Listen to me,” Arthur squeezed his hand, causing Cobb to look up. “We’re going to get her back. We’re going to get out of this… this game. And then we’re going to finish this.”
“I saw them coming, you know,” Cobb said instead of offering his agreement to Arthur’s speech.
“What?” Arthur stopped, his footsteps faltering.
“The men who came to kidnap me. I had the kids at the park—” he drifted off. Arthur blanched. “They let me call Miles to pick them up. Said if I went quietly, they wouldn’t hurt them.”
Arthur swore under his breath. “Are they okay? Did they—”
Cobb shook his head. “Miles got them. Didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t put up a fight, Arthur. I couldn’t- not with…”
“We’re going to get out of this,” he repeated, needing to hear the words himself.
“I don’t want to have to run again, Arthur.”
“You won’t have to.”
“You can’t promise me that,” Cobb spat then.
“We’ll finish this,” Arthur said, and it sounded very much like a promise even to his own ears.
Cobb opened his mouth, probably to argue, but whatever words had been on the tip of his tongue fell away at the sound of laughter coming from some way behind them. They turned towards the sounds to find that Eames had clambered atop some of the pipe work they were currently passing by. He was jumping on one of the larger pipes to laughter from Yusuf. Even Saito looked like he was amused if the slight lifting of his mouth was any indication.
“Oh for the love of—” Arthur sighed. He squeezed once more at Cobb’s arm before making his way towards the trio.
“Maybe you need to use your ass?” He heard Yusuf say before the two of them started chortling like schoolboys. “Just like Mario!”
“That’s got to hurt,” Saito commented, dryly, nodding at Arthur and his frown as he joined them.
“Eames, what the hell are you doing?” he called up, glaring as Eames smiled innocently down at him.
“Just passing the time,” he answered innocently, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket.
Cobb’s face darkened at his words and Arthur hurriedly stepped in closer. Eames lowered himself into a seated position, legs dangling over the edge of the pipe.
“Damnit, Eames, we don’t have time for you to be playing—”
“—games?” Eames interrupted. “Of course not, darling, but while you boys were having your little tête-à-tête, we thought we’d test out a theory. See just how much like the game this level is.”
Arthur touched Eames’ knee fleetingly. “Are you finished?” he asked, trying to hide his aggravation.
“It has, admittedly, been a while since I last played, but in the actual game you could slip down some of the pipe-work. It worked as a shortcut to different areas of the same level. Sometimes they would lead you to a game within a game, but mostly they worked just as a way to get from A to B whilst skipping everything in between.”
Arthur looked thoughtful. “You think we might find a shortcut to the next level?”
“Maybe not to the next level, but certainly to the end of this one,” Eames answered with a shrug.
“We don’t have time,” Cobb began, not bothering to hide his irritation at all, “to jump on every damn thing we pass and hope it does something useful. We need to get to the end of this stupid game and get Ariadne, who is three levels down and having who knows what done to her by that monster.”
“She should be okay,” Yusuf offered. “I mean in the game the princess was never actually hurt.”
“This isn’t the same game!” Cobb snapped. “Did those creatures look anything like the ones you played with? No! Do you think for one moment that if we get killed we’re just going to spring back into existence with an extra life? No! Just because this looks the same as the goddamned game doesn’t mean it’s anything like it.”
“Cobb, they know,” Arthur said. Cobb’s face was flushed with anger as he turned on Arthur.
“Do they? Because they look like they’re more inclined to dick around than to actually do anything.”
Eames shifted and Arthur glanced up, watching as Eames’ smile morphed into to a glare he directed at Cobb. Arthur discreetly touched his leg, shaking his head.
“We know, Cobb,” Arthur tried again. “Look. We’re all a bit out of our comfort zones at the moment. We just all need to focus and move on.”
“Right,” Eames said tightly, wriggling his way towards the edge of the pipe. “If you would kindly step aside, Arthur, I’ll just— oh!”
Whatever Eames had been about to say was lost as he suddenly fell backwards, his legs flying up and over as the pipe he sat upon suddenly opened, sucking Eames inside within seconds and sealing itself closed an instant later.
“Eames!” Arthur cried out, launching himself at the pipe. He wasn’t thinking entirely clearly when he started trying to scrabble his way up in a desperate urge to get up and then in after Eames. All he knew was that he needed to get Eames back.
Hands grabbed at him from behind, dragging him away from the pipe.
“Let me—” he struggled against whoever it was holding him. “I have to—”
“Arthur, you can’t,” Cobb stepped in front of him, grabbing at his shoulders and stilling his struggling. “We don’t know where it goes and we can’t risk it. We need to keep going.”
“We need to get Eames back!” Arthur pulled himself almost violently from— Saito, he noted, half turning to see who’d been holding him. Behind Saito he saw Yusuf scrambling unnoticed up the pipe work.
“You’d do the same,” Arthur said, more calmly. The sudden change in his temperament was enough to send alarm bells ringing for Cobb and Saito, who turned in time to see Yusuf sitting himself at the edge of the pipe work, exactly where Eames had been, and wriggling on the spot.
“Yusuf!” Cobb yelled, throwing his hands up into the air.
Arthur bit his lip, heart hammering in his chest as he waited for the pipe to open up and suck Yusuf down to wherever Eames was.
Yusuf frowned, meeting Arthur’s eyes with a helpless expression. He tried again with the same results, and Arthur turned away with a silent curse. He didn’t wait for the others, he just started walking.
Cobb caught up with him first, his fingers tentative as they touched at his forearm.
“Arthur—” he began, voice just as tentative as his touch.
“Save it. I know the speech off by heart.”
Cobb nodded once, hand falling away. Yusuf slipped up beside him soon after, with Saito moving to Cobb’s other side.
None of them spoke and Arthur was more than happy to trudge along the dirt track in silence. They ended up moving through more giant mushrooms and seemingly randomly placed brick pyramids; they even passed a floating cube or two, but Arthur barely noticed any of it as he forced himself to keep moving, to not think about Eames and where he could be, if he was even still alive…
He tried to shake his thoughts away from that line of thought but he kept returning to it. He felt the lack of laughter, the constant hum of back and forth bantering, the most. There was no more joviality between them, whatever there had been since Ariadne’s kidnapping. Second kidnapping, he unhelpfully corrected.
Arthur pressed his fingers to his temple. They’d lost two of their party already and they were still only on the first level. At least they knew for certain Ariadne was on the third level (though what state she would be in), but Eames? Arthur had no idea if they’d ever see him again, if he was simply somewhere else in the game or somewhere worse. He bit at the insides of his cheeks. It wouldn’t do to think about that now.
Fischer hadn’t been joking when he’d said the stakes would be just as high as with the Inception job. Arthur wished he knew how Fisher had found out, how he’d made them all and formulated this plan. He wished he hadn’t been so short with Eames.
“Here,” Saito said from beside him and Arthur started a moment at the sound. He hadn’t even noticed that Yusuf was no longer walking at his side. Saito had moved to walk beside him, and he was holding something out towards him. Arthur reached for it instinctively and found himself staring down at a magazine much in likeness to the one Eames had found earlier.
“Where did you get this?” he asked, frowning.
“Yusuf and I are checking as we go, just in case.” Saito answered and Arthur turned to see Yusuf a couple paces back, kicking at another stack of bricks.
“I— thanks,” he answered lamely, and Saito touched lightly at his shoulder, the gesture unexpected and fleeting. Before Arthur could bring any attention to it, Saito had already stepped away, falling back to join Yusuf. Beside him Cobb ran a hand over his face.
“I guess it’s not such a waste of time,” Arthur commented, pocketing the magazine.
“I guess not,” Cobb said. It was as much an agreement as either of them was going to give.
- - -
They’d been walking for just over forty-five minutes, heads down and feet dragging, the sun above them relentless as it bore down hot and heavy upon them, sapping at their strength, before their next break came.
The world ahead shimmered under the glare of the sun, but through it they could just make out another collection of pipes and what looked to be some kind of pyramid a little way past that.
“Is that—” Yusuf started. Arthur looked at him, seeing the other man squinting up ahead. “Eames?”
“What?” Arthur quickly turned his attention up ahead, eyes straining to make out the outline of a person standing beneath the shadows of the pipe works.
“I think it’s Eames,” Yusuf said. They all picked up the pace without prompt. Arthur felt his heart pick up pace, too, adrenaline coursing through his body as they all but ran towards the pipe-work to find a very smug looking Eames leaning quite casually against one of the pipes.
Arthur found himself skidding to a halt just feet away from him. Yusuf rushed past him laughing and clapping Eames on the back. Eames returned the gesture, announcing with glee that the pipe had indeed been a shortcut! Yusuf filled him in on their own attempts to follow, but with no luck.
“You’re lucky you didn’t end up somewhere else,” Cobb hedged and Eames nodded, smile fading just a little as he accepted a handshake from the other man.
“Yeah,” he agreed, in a more sober tone. “I’ll remember that.”
Cobb nodded, stepping aside. Beside him, Saito dipped his head in greeting.
“There’s a fortress up ahead, just past that staircase,” Eames said then, gesturing towards the pyramid of bricks. “I didn’t want to explore too much but I suspect it’ll be through it that we get down to the next level.”
They all nodded and started moving forward again, all but Arthur. He hadn’t moved since he’d come close enough to see Eames, alive and real and in front of him. Eames waited for the others to step away before turning back to Arthur.
“You alright?” he asked, casual as anything.
“I thought—” Arthur swallowed against the sudden dryness of his mouth. He hadn’t wanted to think it, but the idea that Eames was dead had crossed his mind.
“Ah,” Eames teased, “did you miss me, love?”
Arthur felt his jaw clench tight both at the patronising tone and the pet name. He didn’t know whether he wanted to kiss or kill Eames right now. So he did the next best thing and stepped up to him, his fist coming almost out of nowhere to crack across Eames’ jaw. Before Eames had even finished gasping out his shock at being hit by Arthur of all people, Arthur had grabbed him by the lapels of his horrendous suit and jerked him forward into a hard and unforgiving kiss.
Eames, despite the hurt to his jaw, let his mouth open just slightly, relaxing his lips against Arthur’s assault. He touched his hands to Arthur’s sides, his fingers stroking their way soothingly up and down as he whispered his apologies against Arthur’s mouth.
“You pull that shit again, Mr Eames, and I will kill you myself,” Arthur whispered, pulling back, his fingers still white-knuckled in their grip on his jacket. Eames reached up to cover them with his own before leaning in and pressing his mouth to Arthur’s in a gentler kiss.
Someone cleared their throat then. Arthur froze, abruptly remembering where they were, and perhaps more importantly who they were with. He licked his lips almost unconsciously as he pulled away from Eames, who didn’t seem in the least bit fazed at having been caught kissing a co-worker.
Cobb’s eyes were narrowed, his look long-suffering, when Arthur looked at him. He could see that Yusuf was hiding a grin behind his hand and Saito had partially turned away as though to give them privacy.
Arthur cleared his own throat awkwardly, hands fluttering over his suit and straightening it uselessly.
“Shall we?” Eames asked, half-bowing and gesturing in the direction of the staircase.
“Let’s,” Arthur agreed, ducking his head as he moved past the others, Eames falling into step beside him, arm brushing almost casually up against Arthur’s with every step.
Cobb moved to take up position at his other side and Arthur slanted him a somewhat anxious look. The look Cobb returned was carefully neutral.
“Something you’ve been meaning to tell me, Arthur?” he asked carefully.
“Can this wait until after we wake up?” Arthur sighed. Eames snorted back laughter and Arthur jabbed at him with his elbow.
Cobb opened his mouth to answer at the same time a tinny tune started to play out across the world. They all stopped, pausing for a long and curious moment before Yusuf and Eames simultaneously shot each other panicked looks and yelled out for everyone to start running.
“What is it?” Arthur gasped as Eames grabbed his arm and all but dragged him towards a short pyramid of bricks. Arthur hurried to follow, scratching his hands against the brickwork as he scrabbled up the somewhat steep incline.
“It’s the countdown,” Eames yelled over his shoulder. “We need to get into the fortress before—”
“Before what?” He grabbed Eames’ proffered hand as he reached the top.
Eames ignored the question.
“You need to jump, aim for the flag pole then get your arse into that fortress,” he gave Arthur a rough shove towards the edge.
Arthur looked down, saw the flag pole and the fortress and flashed back to playing Mario as a teenager with a stomach-rolling sense of déjà vu. This could not be happening. Arthur looked back, hearing Eames shouting for the others to hurry up. He turned to check on Arthur and his expression turned half exasperated, half angry.
“For God’s sake, Arthur, will you just go!” he cursed before shoving Arthur unceremoniously over the edge.
Thankfully the gravity of this world was still holding true, Arthur thought with a scowl as he grabbed onto the flag pole half-way through his free-fall. He quickly lowered himself to the ground and then hesitated, not willing to move onto the perceived safety of the fortress just yet. Not with the rest of the team still on the other side of the steps.
And then Cobb was jumping over the edge, then Eames and Yusuf, and Saito, ever the gentleman taking last place. Cobb flew past him, diving for cover in the fortress just as the world began to shake, unexpectedly destabilising itself.
Eames reached him next, growling as he grabbed Arthur’s arm and yanked him towards the fortress. Yusuf followed, and Saito, just sliding his way down the flag pole when the music abruptly stopped and the whole world outside of the fortress suddenly collapsed in on itself, like paper being scrunched up.
“Saito!” Arthur cried out, horrified.
But it was too late.
They watched, helplessly, as Saito’s body seemed to crumple in on itself before being sucked down into the nothingness suddenly surrounding them. Only the fortress itself remained intact and standing.
Arthur’s knees weakened and he pressed himself to one of the walls of the small stone fortress they’d found their safety in. Through the open windows and doorways Arthur could see nothing but deceptive blue skies and billowing dust clouds. He swallowed heavily, tasting bile. He was pretty sure that that had never happened in any game of Mario he’d ever played. Not even on Level Eight.
The only sound for a good few minutes was that of their heavy breathing. Arthur bent slightly, head bowed as he tried to slow his breathing and resist the urge to empty the contents of his stomach at the same time. There was a ringing in his ears that he couldn’t quite attribute to the silence.
“Damnit,” Cobb’s voice echoed angrily off the walls startling him, “I am not going back down to Limbo for him!”
Arthur looked up at him. The words sounded harsh but if the expression on Cobb’s face was anything to go by, they were said only in reaction to their current predicament and not to be taken too seriously. Yusuf shifted uncomfortably from where he was sitting slumped upon the floor.
“Is he in Limbo, though?” Arthur asked, his voice sounded breathy and distant even to his own ears.
Eames slipped up beside him then, his arm coming up around Arthur’s shoulders and for the first time since entering the dreamscape Arthur let it lie there without complaint. His cautiously leaned his head down to rest upon Eames’ shoulder for just a moment.
“What do you mean?” Eames asked.
“This is Fischer’s dream. And it doesn’t play by any of the rules we’re used to working with, what if—” he trailed off, trying to find the words to explain himself, “—maybe he isn’t dead. Maybe he’s just been taken to another level?”
“Like the shortcut?” Yusuf asked and Arthur nodded.
Eames tightened his arm around Arthur’s shoulders. “Nah, love,” he said softly, “what happened to Saito… it’s what happens to Mario in the game when he runs out of time. The entire world doesn’t disappear in the game, granted, but no one can contort their body the way his did and survive.”
“What about Fischer then?” Arthur pressed on a moment later.
“What about him?”
“Well, where is he for a start? How is he watching us? How did he survive the timer on this world?”
No one had any answers
Straightening up, Arthur took careful stock of their surroundings, determined not to allow anything else unexpected occur if he could help it.
“Right, well, we’re not going to get any answers hanging around here.” he said, moving away from the wall. Eames stayed where he was. “What have we got?”
“We have one PASIV case,” Yusuf supplied, pointing out the gleaming silver case at his side.
“One of us will need to stay behind to provide a kick,” Eames said and they looked at each other.
“What kind of kick?” Yusuf asked at the same time Arthur said, “How on earth are we supposed to time a kick?” and Cobb added, “Who’s going to stay behind?”
“Ah well, about how to give the kick,” Eames began, smiling slightly, “during my shortcut—” his smile turned slightly sheepish at Arthur’s immediate scowl, “—I did manage to pick up some conveniently placed C4, which we could use to blow up this fortress and kick us back up.”
He pulled out a few packs from his pockets and set them beside the PASIV.
“As for timing, I assume we can give ourselves a kick one level at a time,” he offered. “Once we wake in one level then we give ourselves the kick for the next. I don’t see how we can time it any other way.”
“That would work,” Arthur agreed. “Providing nothing happens on this level - on each level, rather - before we get back to them, we should come out of this relatively unscathed.”
“And for who’s staying behind?” Cobb asked. It was clear that he was not volunteering himself for the job.
Arthur looked at Eames at the same moment the forger looked at him. They looked away almost concurrently, their gazes moving to land on Yusuf instead.
“Well that settles that, then,” Yusuf declared, opening the PASIV and gesturing for them to settle around him.
“We may not need anyone to stay behind,” Arthur said, though he moved to sit beside the PASIV. “If we’re waiting until we’re back before we set a kick then we could all go down to the next level.” He paused. “Couldn’t we?”
“I’d feel safer knowing that someone was watching my body whilst I was under,” Eames commented. “Besides, we may not be entirely safe here.”
“We’ve underestimated this level quite enough already,” Cobb said, darkly.
Eames hummed his agreement, seating himself between Arthur and Yusuf. He pulled out his semi and handed it over to Yusuf. “Just in case.”
Yusuf nodded, checking the safety and setting it aside. He frowned a moment before pulling out the green mushroom he’d stashed in his pocket earlier. He passed it to Eames. “Just in case,” he shrugged and Eames laughed taking the proffered item.
Once the three of them were hooked up, Yusuf gave them all an entirely too-bright smile.
“Try not to have too much fun without me,” he said before pushing the central button and releasing the sedative to take them down to the second level.
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[ Main | Start | Level One [ 1 / 2 ] | Level Two [ 1 / 2 ] | Level Three | Limbo | Game Over ]