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The Waking World

Mombasa, September, 2010

 

The thing was, Yusuf thought as he stuffed the notebook in the jar, sometimes being the best at something was a liability. Sure, it was great when you were offered the world—or at least a very huge sum of money—because of your special skills. Or when people came to you for relief they couldn’t get elsewhere.

But it was something else when those special skills attracted the wrong element.

He knelt and pushed the jar to the very back on the bottom shelf, behind all the others. If they looked, which he knew they would because they’d be stupid enough, maybe they’d think he was stupid enough to hide the formula in such a ridiculous way, in such a ridiculous place.

“Boy,” Riitho said behind him.

“I know. I’m hurrying.”

“Yusuf?”

“I’ve still got fifteen minutes, maybe more. I need to download the last of the data and destroy the drive. Are you ready?” There was no answer, and he added, “I know you said to leave a liter of the compound, but I’m leaving five. That will give them enough to sleep for a week and by then, we’ll be back and—”

“Yusuf.”

Riitho’s voice wasn’t loud or strident, but Yusuf stopped his babbling and turned.

Riitho was standing in the doorway to the cellar. Always old, even when they’d first met, he now looked ancient. Bent over, holding onto the doorframe, puffing heavily as if he were drawing what might turn out to be his last breath. “I’m staying.”

Yusuf’s eyes widened. “What? No, of course you’re not. It’s been decided.”

Riitho shook his head. “It is impossible. I am too old. I will slow you down.”

He jumped to his feet and rushed over. “I’m not leaving without you. You can’t think I will.”

Riitho smiled and clasped his shoulder briefly. “Boy, you know this is how it must be.”

“Riitho—”

“Yusuf? Do you know of the little brown bird that lives in burrows in the ground? A thrush, it is called?

Yusuf frowned, completely confused. “What are you talking about?”

“It is a plain bird, not much to look at. My father told me a story of this bird. When being threatened by a leopard or cat, the mama bird will leave the nest, dragging her wing, pretending to be wounded. The cat, fool that he is, thinks she is an easy dinner and follows.” Riitho smiled. “When the bird has taken the cat far enough from the nest, she jumps in the air and flies away.” He clapped his hands and fluttered his fingers, mimicking a bird in flight.

“Yes, I’ve heard of that. A lot of animals practice the same strategy. But what has that to do—”

“I will be your bird. I will stay here and distract your pursuers, dragging my wing, as it were. It will give you time to get away.”

Yusuf was already shaking his head. “No. It’s ridiculous.”

“It is the only way.”

“Riitho, they will kill you.”

Riitho made a face. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Yusuf shook his head and said around the lump in his throat, “I can’t.”

“It is not for you to decide. I am staying.”

Yusuf stared at Riitho for a too-long moment and nodded reluctantly. “Very well.”

“And I will keep our guests…” Riitho nodded at the floor. “Safe. As always.”

“I’ll contact you when I can.”

“I know this.”

“Will you watch out for her?” He nodded to Geetika who was hiding from the sun behind a large beaker of valerian.

“Of course.”

“And Mr. Eames?”

“If he returns your call, I will tell him what has occurred. If he is as smart as you say, he will know how to find you.”

“Riitho—”

“No.” Riitho shook his head. “This is not the time for grief, Yusuf. You need to go.”

Yusuf jerked his head then picked up the case and turned away. At the last minute, he dropped the case and spun around, rushing back across the room to where Riitho was standing. He pulled him in for a quick embrace, choking back the words that clawed at his throat, then let go and hurried off, grabbing the case on his way through the back door.

The corridor to the alley entrance was cool and dark and he felt his way, touching the clammy wall for guidance. Down the few steps then around a corner and down again until he came to the outer door, limed by bright afternoon sun. He unlocked it, then pushed it open slowly. He peered out. He didn’t see anyone but he waited to make sure. Finally, knowing he had to move, he stepped into the narrow street and began walking. Down, then right, and right again, trying to make it seem as if he were simply out for a stroll, no worries here.

It wasn’t until he was a half a kilometer away that the reality of the situation hit him and he stopped, sagging against a sun-hot wall.

What had he done?

He’d jeopardized his research, Riitho, and many other lives, all in the name of vanity. It wouldn’t end well—it couldn’t end well—and he actually felt his face crumple in grief.

He indulged himself for only a moment. Then he pushed away from the wall, gripping the case with new determination. If Riitho had sacrificed his life, it wouldn’t be for nothing.

So he dashed away his tears and walked faster, heading for the park, hoping Eames had got the message.

_________________________________________________________________

 

 

Wednesday, September 22

 

“And that’s why you don’t fuck around with them. I mean, look at me—you don’t catch me sniffing around their territory, do you?”

Eames kept his sneer to a minimum and spat out a sunflower shell. “The way I heard it, you invited Boyle to your place for a little aperitif. So much for distance, Freddy.”

Simmonds’ self-satisfied smirk wilted and he leaned back, making the chair creak. He’d put on at least two stone in the past year, most of it fat. Probably because he’d take up with a girl who was rumored to be a fantastic cook. Understandable, but extra weight wasn’t a good thing in their profession—it made everything that much more tricky.

“How do you know about that?” Simmonds asked suspiciously. “You were in Madrid.”

“I hear things.” And I wasn’t in Madrid.

“Like what?”

“Like, you tried for the job Boyle was shopping around. He let you get close and just when you were ready to purchase that eighty-meter yacht you’ve been eyeing, he gave the job to someone else.”

“Who told you that?”

“Boyle. We had a good chuckle about it when he called and offered me the job.” He crossed his legs, wanting to laugh at the way Simmonds’ face grew red with anger. “And forget about that Glock you’ve got in your trousers, digging a hole in the small of your back. I’ll break your wrist before you can draw it. Why,” he added as he picked up another handful of seeds, “the hell are you even carrying, Freddy? You’ll only shoot yourself in the ass with it.”

Simmonds shifted in his seat and Eames tensed imperceptibly, waiting for him to do something stupid. But Simmonds grunted and relaxed, his shoulders slumping. “It’s your fault, you bastard.”

He raised an eyebrow. “How d’you mean?”

Simmonds shrugged. “That job you were on last year? The one for Cobol?”

Eames, about to pop a seed in his mouth, paused. “I wasn’t on a job for Cobol.”

“Yeah, well, you better tell them that. They’ve been questioning your associates.”

“You don’t say?” It seemed as if missing the flight out of Calais had been lucky after all. Arriving at eleven instead of three would give him a few hours to plan, at least. He straightened up, making his gestures casual and unforced; just as casually, he looked around. The small bar was dim, almost empty. He knew everyone by name, but that didn’t mean much. Not these days.

“I do say.” Simmonds smoothed his tie and followed Eames’ glance furtively, as if expecting to find a dozen Cobol bad guys hiding in the corners. “It’s making me nervous.”

“Hmm,” he answered blandly.

Too blandly, apparently because Simmonds stopped his fussing and cocked his head, a nasty smile growing on his thin lips. “You mean you really didn’t know they were looking for you?”

“No.” He might as well give Simmonds this one—it couldn’t hurt. “I really didn’t.”

“Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t wait around—you never know when they’re going to turn up. Even with your connections.”

Eames finally let his smirk show. Simmonds was always throwing his military associations in his face. As if he were ashamed of them. “Thank you for the advice, Freddy. I’ll take it to heart.”

“You better take it somewhere else. Now that they’re onto your friend—”

His smirk died. “What friend?”

Simmonds smiled, obviously all too happy to be handing out bad news. “Your Indian friend. The one you were faffing about with last year.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about, but…” He stood up. “Thanks for the information. It’s been illuminating.”

He turned to leave but Simmonds stopped him with a hissed, “Eames!”

“Yeah?”

“How much did you make? On the job for Boyle?”

He smiled a smile he didn’t feel and said, “Enough to make it worth taking away from you.”

And he was gone, Simmonds still sputtering behind him.

The night was typically warm and he unfastened another shirt button as he strolled down the street. It had been raining in Calais when he’d left and the switch from mild to hot was almost shocking.

Maybe he was getting too old for the job. Maybe the job was getting too old for him. It happened all the time in his line of work—guys got tired of the criminal life and retired to Majorca or Fiji to live out their days in the sun. He’d always thought they were barmy, but maybe they had something…

He sighed and glanced around. The thoroughfare, like the night, was typically Mombasan—winding and narrow with shops and houses edged either side. There was no one about, no white men in cheap suits lurking in the shadows or leaning against the lampposts.

Too bad that he’d stopped by his flat to drop off his bags and change his clothing. Going back to retrieve his guns and clothing would be a mistake if Cobol really were after him. He could manage with what he was carrying right at that moment, but he’d rather not.

He snorted softly; Freddy’s fear was infectious. If Cobol wanted him dead, he would never have made it out of the airport gates.

But, no sense in being foolish—when he got to the intersection that led to his flat, he turned left instead of right. It was probably pointless, but he’d go the long way home, hopefully losing any non-existent pursuers in the maze of streets.

He stuck his hands in his pockets and touched warm plastic. Huh. He’d thought he’d lost the mobile in Calais, had even notified the hotel manager of the theft, yet here it was, stuffed at the bottom of his trouser pocket.

Telling himself he wasn’t worried that he hadn’t noticed it when he’d gotten dressed, he slid it open and switched it on. Nine messages and damn it, that meant his service had fucked up again and had delivered the messages weeks late—he rarely got more than three a month. Which meant he’d need to follow up on his threat to dump them and get a new plan.

He looked around, then ducked into a nearby arched doorway and retrieved the first message.

It was from someone named Jonathon from the Royal Service who had a ‘proposition that will interest you greatly.’ He deleted it before the man had finished talking. The second was from a girl that lived in the flat above him, wondering when he’d be back. He deleted that as well, only a little more quickly. The third was from Cobb asking how Calais was. He saved that one for no reason and was thinking of just deleting them all because he was suddenly tired when the fourth message began to play…

‘I know you’re not back from Calais just yet, but I wanted to tell you about an idea I have. I think you’ll find it interesting. Come for tea. I’ve got that Assam you like so much.’

He shook his head. Yusuf’s voice was typically cheerful but no doubt the ‘idea’ was something involving one of his weird sleep experiments. Eames deleted the message, then went onto the next. It was also from Yusuf. “I hear through the grapevine that you’ve not arrived yet. When you get back, please call.”

Yusuf’s voice was still relaxed but something made Eames shift from foot to foot as selected the next message, recorded two weeks after the first. “It’s Yusuf again. Sorry to be a bother, but when you get this, please call. I’ve run into someone I think you know. Call me.”

The next was short and to the point, ‘Eames. You need to call. As soon as possible.’

Eames frowned. Yusuf was chatty to the point of annoying, but he was rarely rude. Arrogant, yes, but not rude.

He pushed the button for message number eight, a knot forming in his belly as he listened to Yusuf’s voice, this time tight with worry, ‘Hello. It’s Yusuf again. I think I’m in trouble and I don’t—’ There was a noise in the background like a bang and then he came back on, this time speaking in a whisper, ‘I’m not sure who else to turn to. I thought about Cobb, but he’s on the other side of the world and he won’t leave his children. Not for this. Are you still in Calais? I hope not. I hope you’re on your way home. Please call.’

“Damnit,” Eames muttered. Yusuf was brilliant, no doubt about it, but he had as much common sense as a child. If he’d gotten in with someone dangerous—

The next message was left two days ago. ‘It’s me again. Yusuf. I guess you’re not getting my messages or— No matter. Riitho and I are leaving for a bit. Until the coast is clear, as they say.’ He chuckled dryly. ‘Anyway, we’ll be staying in that place I showed you last year. Remember? We’ll be there. Don’t go to the shop. It’s not safe. If I don’t see you again…’ There was a noise, like he was clearing his throat. ‘But that’s silly, isn’t it? This has all been just a misunderstanding and they’ll see that once they calm down. Goodbye, Eames.’

On that ominous note, the message ended with the obnoxiously polite, ‘You have no more messages.’ He stood there, staring down at the phone, thinking furiously. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that Yusuf had tangled with the wrong people and given what Freddy had said earlier, it was probably those bastards at Cobol.

He tapped the cell with his thumb. ‘We’ll be staying in that place I showed you last year…’ That could only mean one thing, but it was almost an hour’s drive. If his car would start after the months spent under the canvas sheet. If he could manage to retrieve it without alerting the entire neighborhood and anyone watching his place.

In any case, it was probably nothing. Yusuf tended to be excitable and was always coming up with one conspiracy theory after another. The best thing for it would be to run by the shop and start from there, warning or no.

He turned the mobile off, stuffed it in his pocket, then headed out.

***

It was almost one when he got to the twisting avenue that ran perpendicular to Yusuf’s place. He stopped in the shadow of a closed kiosk, waiting for movement, for noise. The vendors were long gone and the street was empty of life. The only thing that moved was a mongrel dog nosing its way down the cobblestones. It passed Eames with a disinterested glance and continued on.

He waited another few minutes, then strode up the slight incline that led to the shop. Nothing was out of place and it was probably just Simmonds’ mean sense of—

He stopped, ten meters from Yusuf’s door. There were no streetlights in this section, but the half moon gave enough light to see that the door was hanging off its hinges, allowing pale light to spill out into the dark.

Wishing he had a gun, he crept up the steps until he was on the stoop.

He pushed the door open and tightened his lips. Someone had taken their anger out on the shop and that was certain. The place was destroyed; every bottle smashed, every drawer dumped. There was a heavy chemical odor that made his eyes sting and he winced, hoping it wasn’t poisonous because he had to look. He crossed the threshold room, trying to avoid spilled liquid and glass, hoping whoever had done this hadn’t been bright enough to look in the basement.

They apparently had been. The door was kicked in or maybe shot out—the lock was now a great splintered hole, jagged with broken wood. He hesitated for a brief moment then went down, not really needing to see—the air smelled of damp and blood and he knew what he’d find.

And yes, the sleepers were still there only now they weren’t sleeping. Most had been shot in the head but a few had their throats slashed. He touched one of the bodies, a sixty-something white man, one hand clutching his chest. He thought that rigor hadn’t had time to set in, but what did he know? He wasn’t a coroner.

He made his way along the cots, peering into the gloom, trying to see if the old man was among the dead. But no, he wasn’t there. Which made sense—Yusuf’s message had said they were both getting out, right? He took one more look around, then turned to the stairs.

He should call the authorities. They were under the thumb of Cobol, but they couldn’t possibly ignore this. But—he shrugged uneasily—it was none of his business and a little voice was telling him he’d overstayed his welcome and now it was time to run. And he never, ever, ignored the little voice.

He was picking his way across the shop floor when a soft cry jerked him to a stop. He reached for a broken beaker, then realized what he was hearing. He crouched to find the cat, hiding under a table. “Geetika,” he scolded in a relieved whisper. “You almost got yourself beaned, you silly girl.” He reached out. “Come here.”

She’d never shown him much affection before, but now she cried again and trotted forward. He grabbed her before she could step in a blue-tinged liquid and straightened, holding her close. “I know. It’s a mess, isn’t it?”

She began to purr, a rough rasp that was obscenely out of place. He kissed the top of her head because, fleas or no, he just couldn’t help it, then settled her firmly against his chest and peered out the door. The street was empty and he left, this time going north.

***

He ended up stealing a car. It was just simpler than taking a chance on his neglected Fiat, never mind the fact that Cobol was probably waiting for him.

He found a likely suspect four blocks from Yusuf’s shop, a dark Land Rover that had decent tires. He smashed the window with his jacket and a rock. He didn’t bother with hotwiring—he searched first in the glove compartment then the visor, finally finding the key under the passenger-side mat.

There was a tricky moment when the engine coughed to life—someone hadn’t been taking care of her and she grumbled and spat. He gave her a bit of petrol and the car jerked forward. “Fuck.”

Geetika mewed.

He shook his head. “Not talking to you, sweetheart.”

When she cried again, he nodded. “I know. You’re scared and you’re hungry. We’ll get you a bite to eat but now,” he peered through the windshield, muttering, “we need to find your papa. And if he’s where I think he is, I’m going to kill him.”

Because Haller Gardens wasn’t on the other side of the world, but it was far enough to make getting there a pain in the ass. It was a broad stretch of reclaimed land that used to be ugly and now was a veritable paradise. He didn’t have much use for botanic gardens—he didn’t get the fascination of looking at plants. But Yusuf loved the place and had dragged him off for a visit one memorable day. He’d guided Eames from path to path, growing more excited as he rambled on about the medicinal uses for this or that plant and his hypothesis that wild animals experienced the same dream world as humans.

He’d been studying his cat, he’d said, and found that she had moments where she seemed to be dreaming, twitching and softly crying, just as humans did. But, he’d wanted to study animals in the wild to get the ‘truest sense of themselves because, after all, I’m a scientist and scientist’s deal in facts.’ Unfortunately, he was also a city boy and the closest he’d allowed himself to wildlife was the local animal park. He’d set up a blind about twenty meters outside the western boundary where he could observe and take notes.

He’d insisted on showing Eames the makeshift research lab on their way back to the city. Eames had taken one look and said that nothing could make him spend a minute in it and then he asked if the keepers knew that Yusuf was stalking them. Yusuf had replied haughtily that scientific discovery demanded sacrifice and that it wasn’t so bad.

Eames didn’t know how the research was going—the week after, he’d gone to Calais on a simple forgery job that had eventually turned into a long, lovely holiday.

Something that now seemed like a dream because when he got to the park, he took a wrong turn and ended up on the northernmost edge among the mud and muck.

So, back again until he found the road that bordered the southern boundary. It was a mess, rutted and uneven and he cursed as he hit a hole, sure he’d got the axle. But no—he cocked his head and listened closely—no sound of metal on metal. He kept going.

He stopped where the road curved to the north and petered out. He’d only visited the once and had no idea what lay beyond—it could be sheer bloody jungle for all he knew.

He cut the lights and told Geetika, “Stay put. I’ll be right back.”

If he’d been thinking clearly, he’d have brought a torch. The path that Yusuf had shown him was almost invisible, covered by brambles and he stumbled along, swearing every few seconds until he came to a clearing.

The blind was right where it should be, a small structure under a stand of neem trees. He crept up to the makeshift door and listened. There was no movement, but it was after two—if Yusuf was inside, he’d be asleep. Still, when he called out, “Yusuf?” he kept his voice low.

There was nothing for a moment and he drew a breath to call louder when he heard a thump and the muffled sound of footsteps. And there was Yusuf, pushing back the canvas door, mouth open in complete surprise.

“Well?” Eames said sarcastically.

Yusuf lunged forward so quickly it took Eames a second to realize he wasn’t being attacked—he was being hugged. He patted Yusuf awkwardly on the back, then pushed him away. “I’m glad to see you, too, but can we get out of here?”

“Yes,” Yusuf said hurriedly, “yes, of course. But…” He reached out and gripped Eames’ biceps. “I knew you’d come. I just knew it.”

“Yes, I’m here. Can we go?”

“Sure. Just let me…”

Yusuf disappeared back into the blind and returned with a torch, a knapsack and a silver metal case held to his chest. It was similar to the one Cobb used to hold the PASIV device and Eames’ bad feeling got worse. “Where’s the old man?”

“Riitho? He wouldn’t leave. He’s at the shop.”

Eames started to say, ‘Have you seen the shop?’ But something, maybe just a need to not have it out here in the dark, made him mutter, “Good. Let’s go.”

He took the torch from Yusuf and led the way back to the car. Yusuf followed, uncharacteristically silent, dogging his heels, almost tripping him up.

When he got to the car and opened the door, he was greeted with a small cry.

Yusuf breathed a surprised, “Geetika?” and pushed Eames out of the way. “Geetika!” he scolded as he picked the cat up. “Here you are.”

As if he’d been looking for her everywhere, out here in the wild. Eames grinned briefly, got in, then started the car. The engine turned over sweetly this time and he breathed a sigh of relief. The last place he wanted to be stranded was out here in the back of beyond. Yusuf’s blind might be fine for hiding from animals, but from assassins? That was another story.

He turned a careful U, then, when they reached the paved road, he said sweetly, “Now, Yusuf, what have you been up to?”

***

What Yusuf had been up to, apparently, was messing about with the Somnacin chemical, contacting a grab bag of interested buyers and trying to sell his new formula to the highest bidder.

“But I told you,” Yusuf said, “my success last year opened all sorts of avenues and I simply couldn’t ignore those. All the rest of it didn’t matter. Can’t you see that?”

“I see that what you’ve opened is a very dangerous can of worms and they’re not just —”

“It’s not a can of worms, Eames. It’s my life and I have a right to do what I—”

Eames clenched his fists around the steering wheel. “Not when it puts the rest of us in danger. You say an old friend of mine from University is working for one of these groups? A Charles Williams? I don’t know any Charles Williams, Yusuf.”

Yusuf took a startled breath. “You don’t?”

“No, and if I did, he sure as hell wouldn’t be looking me up in Mombasa.”

“I—”

“And what was that about Cobb?” He was working up a good steam now. “One of those men mentioned him?

“Yes. Just to say we had friends in common and that because of the job last year—”

“You didn’t tell me that. Did they mention the job? They used those words?”

“Yes.”

“Did they bring it up, or did you?”

Yusuf was silent for a moment, then muttered, “They did.”

“Did they mention inception?”

“No.”

He sighed. They were five kilometers from the resort and a good thing—he was starting to get tired. “Well, that’s good news. Among all the not good news, of course.”

“I wasn’t thinking, all—”

“That’s clear enough.”

Yusuf gathered the cat up and turned to the window. “You don’t have to be rude.”

Eames sighed again. “This is what you get for trying to set a job up on your own.”

“Cobb does it all the time,” Yusuf protested. “Or so you said.”

“Well, he’s good at that sort of thing. You’re not. You’ve really cocked things up.”

“That wasn’t my intention. I was just—”

“You were just playing them off each other. Yusuf,” he said tiredly, “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. You’re not a child, you should have realized the consequences.” When Yusuf didn’t answer, he looked over. Yusuf was holding Geetika, petting her furiously, not that she seemed to mind—her eyes were closed in pleasure.

“Yusuf,” he tried again. “These people don’t care about you. They care about your research and where it can take them. I know you’re the best at what you do but just this once—” He broke off, then asked baldly, “Was it the money?”

“What?”

“Was it money, because I can—”

“No,” Yusuf cut him off with an offended glare. “It’s not the money. I’ve used some from the job last year, but I’ve more than enough.”

Eames nodded. “Good. Because we’re going to need it.”

“Why?”

He grinned. “You’ll see.”

***

“Are you sure this is wise?” Yusuf asked as Eames pulled up to the curb. “It looks expensive.”

There was no one in sight, not that he’d expected anything less. “It is.”

“Hmph,” Yusuf muttered. And then, “How do you know a room will be available?”

“I know the manager. Now,” he opened the door, “you and your kitty stay here. I won’t be a moment.”

Without waiting for another word, he sauntered up the walk and through the double doors as they slid open. The lobby was empty and his footsteps echoed on the marble floor. When he got to the deserted reception desk, he tapped the bell. A man came out of the back room a few seconds later. He was wiping his mouth with a napkin, rather sloppily—there was a white dab of mayonnaise on his cheek.

“Yes, sir?” he asked suspiciously.

Eames smiled. “I need a room for the night.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re—”

“Is Phillip Keller still manager?”

The clerk hesitated. “Yes, but he’s—”

“Then I have a room waiting for me. Phone him and tell him that David is staying the night.” Eames turned back to the doors, calling out over his shoulder, “And make it a suite. I’ve a friend with me.”

He went back to the car and opened the door for Yusuf. Who just sat there, holding Geetika. “Well?”

“What about her?” Yusuf raised the cat.

“Bring her along.”

Still, Yusuf didn’t get out. “Are you sure?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yusuf—”

“All right, all right. Here—”

Yusuf held Geetika up, and after a moment, Eames took her. “Don’t forget the case,” he said.

“As if,” Yusuf muttered as he bent down and got his things.

Eames grinned and tucked Geetika under his arm. She started purring again.

The clerk was waiting for them by the reception desk. “Mr. David,” he said, not bothering to hide his displeasure, “you’re staying in room three twenty-two. It’s a modified suite with a full bath. That cat,” he glanced briefly at Geetika and added, “is staying in your car. We don’t allow pets.”

Yusuf drew a quick breath and Eames broke in smoothly, “You do tonight.”

“That animal might have fleas.”

“She would never—” Yusuf began, but Eames interrupted him again, “She’s fine. Any damages can come out of his pocket.” He jerked his head to Yusuf. “Do you need a card?”

“Yes,” the clerk said reluctantly.

They took care of the formalities, each handing over their I.D.s. His was a perfect fake, but he remembered too late that someone might have an electronic tail on Yusuf. Oh, well—it was necessary. It was getting hard to think, he was so tired. He needed at least six hours of undisturbed sleep and then he’d be fine. Then he could figure out what to do next.

When the clerk was finally done, he handed them two keycards. “Do you need assistance getting to your room?”

Eames smiled. If he wasn’t so tired, he’d make the clerk lead the way—he so obviously didn’t want to. “No. What about a meal?”

“The kitchen is closed.”

“I’m not hungry anyway.”

The clerk tightened his lips. “Then…” He gestured towards the back room and Eames waved.

“Yeah, thanks. C’mon, Yusuf,” he touched Yusuf’s sleeve. “Let’s go.”

***

“Wow,” Yusuf said when they opened the door and looked around. “This is the life. How is it that you know the manager?”

Eames threw the deadbolt. “We played cards one night.”

“And because of that he lets you stay here?” Yusuf sat Geetika on the floor. She immediately began to investigate.

“No, because I caught him cheating a very high ranking Kenyan official out of a small fortune, he lets me stay here.” He turned the overhead lights on, then went to the balcony doors and made sure the safety bar was in place.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” He turned. Yusuf was holding the case to his chest again, standing in the middle of the room. Now that they were in a well-lit place, Eames could see that his face was drawn, his eyes shadowed. “How long has it been since you’ve slept?”

“I—” Yusuf paused, then shook his head. “I can’t remember. Three days ago?”

“Then take the bedroom. I’ll sleep out here.”

“Are you sure?”

He went to the sofa and began to toss the overstuffed pillows on the floor. “I am.”

“Very well.” Yusuf turned to the bedroom, then stopped. “Eames?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think Cobb is in danger?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll find out, all right?”

“Okay. Eames?”

He had to forcibly not sigh. “Yes, Yusuf?”

“You went by the shop, didn’t you.”

It wasn’t a question and he froze in the middle of reaching for a throw. “Yes,” he finally muttered, not turning around.

“Was it— I lost my mobile so I couldn’t— Was everything okay?”

“Nothing that a little clean up can’t handle.”

“Are you lying to me?”

He hesitated too long.

“Ah,” Yusuf said. “I see. And Riitho?”

And he couldn’t answer again, mostly because he didn’t know. When Yusuf didn’t answer he turned around.

Yusuf had picked up the cat and was petting her absently. He looked as if he’d aged a year in the space of a few seconds. “Ah,” he repeated, blinking several times.

Eames shrugged. “I’m sure everything will be okay. We’ll find him. You’ll see.”

“Yes, you’re probably right.”

Eames sighed and straightened up. “Are you okay?” It was an odd question and he wasn’t quite sure why he asked it because he didn’t really care.

“Yes, I’m fine. Goodnight.”

He watched Yusuf shuffle to the bedroom and he thought that was all it would be, but Yusuf stopped again and looked over his shoulder, “I didn’t know your given name is David.”

He smiled. “It’s not.”

Yusuf, if possible, looked even more dejected. “Oh,” he said, and then he closed the door.

Wishing he’d lied about the shop, wishing he hadn’t lied about his name, he skirted the room, turning the lights off and checked the locks again.

He sat down on the sofa and got out his mobile. He dialed quickly, looking at his watch, trying to remember what the time difference was between London and California. In the end it didn’t matter—the call went straight to Cobb’s voicemail. ‘Hi. I can’t get to the phone right now. Leave a message.’

He hesitated, then said quietly, “Cobb. Give me a call at this number when you get a moment. It’s urgent.”

He hung up, then set the cell on the table and took off his shoes. He was almost too tired to sleep he lay there, wondering what the day would bring.

 

___________________

 

Friday, September 25th

 

He drove up the drive slowly. Annie’s car was parked by the hedge, but the construction crew hadn’t arrived yet even though it was almost ten. Normally, he’d stew about it, but not today. Today he was grateful for the quiet, for Mick’s absence. He needed a few hours to come up with a story, something good that would satisfy both Mick and Jeannie.

He parked the car and climbed out, then went around to the trunk and got the groceries. The morning newspaper was half on the steps, half off, but he left it there. It would just be news about the trouble in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Or the unemployment crisis. He’d read it later on.

He was on the porch when he realized something was out of place, tugging on his peripheral vision. He looked around and saw a large white box on the patio chair. He stood there for a long moment, then unlocked the door and went to get the box, even though he already knew who it was from.

And, yeah, inscribed in the center were the words, ‘Beverly Wilshire.’ He picked it up and went into the house. The vacuum cleaner was buzzing in the study and he shouted, “I’m home, Annie!”

He thought he heard her answer but didn’t wait to find out. He sat the bags on the counter and the box on the table. He began to put the groceries away and managed to get the ice cream in the freezer before curiosity got the better of him.

He sat down at the table and lifted the lid on the box. And raised his eyebrow. In the box were two neat piles of clothes, bound by a broad gold ribbon with the hotel’s logo—a suit, three shirts and a pair of trousers. He recognized one of the shirts—Saito had worn it on Monday, when he’d first visited.

He shook his head, still bemused, and looked for the card. He found it, tucked under the lapel of the jacket. It read, ‘I don’t have much time, but wanted to thank you for last night as I hadn’t yet done so. I had to make room in my suitcase for your gift and ask that you hold on to these few things. I’m sure you’ll know why. Please say goodbye to Phillipa and James for me—tell them I will see them soon. MS.’

Dom sat there for the longest time, staring down at the card, the overly formal words. He knew why Saito had left the clothes, knew that he could have easily bought another suitcase to hold the art if he’d wanted. No, these were for his next visit—for his return, just as he’d promised.

Unable to stop his small smile, Dom rose and put the rest of the groceries away. When he was done, he took the box to his bedroom and hung the clothes up, carefully, as if it were very important he get it all just right.

Then, he returned to the kitchen and leaned against the countertop, thinking.

He’d planned on spending the school winter break in Paris. Miles would like it and Marie would never forgive him if he didn’t. But they had almost a month off. Maybe they could stay in Paris for two weeks, then fly to Tokyo for a few days.

He smiled, then touched the bruise on his neck and, with the comforting drone of the vacuum cleaner in the background, got out his phone to check his messages.

The first was from Mick. ‘Hey, you just left. I guess you have your cell turned off. I just wanted to let you know if you want to spend some time with your lady, we’d be happy to take the kids to school. Just saying.’

He deleted it without thinking too much about the, ‘your lady,’ comment. The next was from Arthur. ‘Cobb. Wanted to check in. I’ve got a lead on a job that might interest you. Ariadne thinks so, too. Give us a call.’

He smiled as he deleted that message. Apparently Arthur had stopped pretending that he and Ariadne weren’t a couple. It was about time.

He thought the third message was blank until he heard, ‘Dom. It’s Hiro.’ His hand jerked and he accidentally turned the cell off. He frowned and started over. ‘Dom. It’s Hiro. You are sleeping now, in my bed, on your back. Do you always take up so much room? I am going to have to get a larger bed, I think.’ There was a slight pause—Dom could almost see the smile in Saito’s voice. ‘But that is not why I am calling. I thought you might want my numbers in Tokyo. The first is the number at my office. Zero, three…’

Dom leaned over the counter, scrambling for a pen, writing quickly as Saito ended with, ‘The last is my personal number at the flat. You are welcome to call anytime. I hope you will. Goodbye.’

He replayed the message, telling himself that it was to make sure he got the numbers right and it wasn’t just to hear Saito’s voice again.

‘Dom. It’s Hiro…’

After listening for the second time, he hesitated, then saved the message. He gave himself no reason, just that he might need it. Just in case.

He smirked at himself, at his ‘just in case,’ and listened to the next message, from Phillipa. ‘Dad. Can you pick us up early? I want to wear my purple dress to school.’ She said something else, something he couldn’t catch, then, ‘Me and James miss you. ’Bye.’

He smiled and saved that one as well.

It took him a moment to identify the next caller and when he did, his chest tightened. ‘Cobb. Give me a call at this number when you get a moment. It’s urgent.’

Eames. Sounding worried. And since Eames hardly ever sounded worried…

He frowned and as the last message began to play. ‘Cobb, it’s me. Something’s up. I just got off the phone with Eames. He’s looking for you. Apparently, Yusuf has done or said something that might compromise you. Call me.’

“Shit,” he muttered under his breath as he dialed quickly. Arthur had sounded just as worried as Eames.

Arthur picked up on the third ring. “Where’ve you been?”

Fucking our last client, if it’s all right with you. “What’s up? I get a call from Eames, then you.”

“Is this line safe?”

Dom laughed briefly. “It’s a cell phone, Arthur. Of course it’s not safe.”

“Yeah, all right. It’s just… Something’s wrong.”

“So you said. Do you want me to find a landline and call you back?”

“No, no. Sorry. It’s just they’re freaking out and—” There was a noise in the background and when Arthur spoke again, his voice had lost it’s urgency. “Okay. Let me start over.”

“Please.”

“Yusuf has gotten into trouble with someone or someones and Eames is worried they’re gonna come after you.”

Dom opened his mouth to ask if it had anything to do with Mal, then realized what Arthur was saying. “Is this about last year?”

“It looks like it might be.”

He ran his hand over his hair. “Does it have anything to do with our last client?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you sure?” he demanded.

“Jesus, Cobb. No, I don’t know. Really.”

He put his worry for Saito away and took a calming breath. “So we’re sitting here worrying about nothing?” He looked up as movement drew his eye. Annie had finished in the study and was putting the vacuum cleaner away. She waved. He waved back.

“Yeah, about that—”

Dom sighed. “What is it?”

“Don’t blame this on me, okay? It wasn’t my idea.”

“Arthur.”

“Okay— Eames and Yusuf want to come out there. To California.”

Dom choked back the words that sprang to his lips. Annie was ten feet away now and he couldn’t say what he needed to say. He got up and went outside, walking until he got to the edge of his property line.

“Cobb?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“You’re pissed.”

“That’s an understatement.” And it was—anger was gripping his throat, making it hard to breath.

“I think they’re doing it for you.”

“So leading whoever’s after them to me is supposed to benefit me?”

“Well, it’s a good bet that whoever’s after them knows where you are. You haven’t exactly been hiding out, right?”

“Arthur—”

“Yeah, okay, I don’t get it either.”

“Listen. Eames left me a message. I’m gonna call him and see what’s going on.”

“Call me back.”

“Yeah.” He hung up without another word, then took a deep breath as he dialed Eames’ number, trying to push away the residual anger. The call was picked up immediately.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Christ. First Arthur, now you.”

Eames laughed snidely. “Please don’t compare me to Arthur. It hurts my feelings.”

Dom ignored that. “What’s up?”

“Yeah, right to business. Listen,” Eames lowered his voice. “I’m in Heathrow with Yusuf. We had to get out of Mombasa.”

“Why?”

“Too hot.”

“For you or me?”

“Unfortunately, I think for all of us.”

“How so?”

“Yusuf’s been dealing with someone that doesn’t play nice with others, if you know what I mean.”

“Does this someone have a name?”

“He has a company and it starts with C and E.”

So it was Cobol Engineering. So much for squaring things. He thought he’d have more time but he should have known… “That’s not good.”

“No, it’s not.”

“But that’s not enough to make you run—what’s really going on?”

“Rather not go into that over the phone, if you don’t mind.”

“So when?”

“Our flight to Los Angeles leaves in three hours.”

Dom shook his head. “No.”

“Cobb—”

“No. You’ll put my kids in danger and I won’t have that.”

“Yeah, that’s what I told Yusuf.” Eames was quiet for a moment, then said, “What about rendezvousing someplace else? Like New York or Miami?”

He hesitated, then said slowly, “You hate New York.”

“I do, indeed.”

“No,” he said finally, firmly. “I can’t risk it. Not when things have finally settled down for me. I’ll find some other way to fix it. Maybe next year when the kids are older.”

“So Yusuf can just go hang. Is that it?”

“It won’t come to that and since when do you care what happens to Yusuf?” There was no answer and he tried again, this time trying for reasonable, “Listen, our friends would be idiots to try something outside their comfort zone. Just hang tight; things will calm down.”

“You’re making a mistake.”

“Well, it’s mine to make.”

“All right,” Eames said, deadly soft. “But don’t come running to me when Lightman decides to pay you a visit.”

He hung up before Dom could answer and he stood there, listening to the dial tone, telling himself that Eames was wrong, that everyone was panicking for no reason.

***

The rest of the day passed quietly.

At noon, Annie left with a cheerful wave and a ‘See you in two weeks.’ Dom fixed lunch then went to his workroom and opened up his laptop. He actually managed to lose himself in a proposal until thoughts of Saito and Marcus Lightman crept in again. At two, he finally gave up and switched off the computer.

He left to pick up James a half an hour early. For no reason, he told himself as he backed out of the drive—he wasn’t used to James’ part-time schedule yet and it would be nice, spending the day with the kids to make up for the night before.

Still, he was uneasy and it wasn’t until he was striding up the steps on the south side of the school that he realized what it was. He didn’t look around, didn’t stop. He just kept going, up and through the doors. When he got inside, he ducked to the side, then peered out the narrow window.

His instincts, honed sharp during his long exile, were buzzing like crazy—someone was watching him, he was sure of it. But other than a teenager walking by and a couple women standing by the fountain, the area was clear. No suspicious cars or loiterers.

So, either he’d gone soft or he was going crazy.

Feeling like a fool, he straightened up and went to the administration office.

A woman he vaguely knew as Sarah was tacking pictures on the bulletin board when he came in. She turned around and smiled.

“Hi, Mr. Cobb. Is everything okay?”

“Sure. I just wanted to pick the kids up early. I have an unexpected meeting at three.”

He was explaining too much, but she just nodded. “Do you want me to get them?” She made to set her photos down and he shook his head.

“No, that’s okay. I’ll go. I don’t want to disturb you. I’ll be back to sign them out.”

She nodded again and he left before he could start babbling.

The hall that housed the pre-school classes was empty but underneath the quiet, he could hear the murmur of childish voices. It was somehow comforting and the tension that had been gripping the back of his neck vanished. When he got to James’ classroom, he was smiling.

They were right in the middle of story time—the children were sitting on the floor around Miss Taylor in a semi-circle. James was on the far end, elbows on knees, hands clasped, listening raptly. Dom forgot the reason for his visit and leaned against the doorjamb so he could watch his son.

James had grown an inch in the last month. His face was thinning out and he looked less like a toddler and more like a boy. And that wasn’t the only change—he was becoming more serious, more thoughtful. But still, he had that same intense focus, the same zest. Dom loved the way his emotions were so visible, how he could see him feel the story.

What would Mal say, seeing him so? Probably whisper something about how beautiful their child was, how special.

Dom frowned. For the first time, he couldn’t quite picture her, how she’d look, the sound of her voice. Usually, his memory of her was so clear…

He swallowed the tiny pain and stepped inside the room. Miss Taylor raised her head and stopped reading. The children all turned to look.

James’ face brightened. He sat up straight and called out, “Daddy!”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Dom said to Miss Taylor. “I need to pick James up early today.”

Miss Taylor closed the book with a smile. “We’re almost done. Maybe five minutes?” She was young, not yet thirty, and he always caught her staring at him. Not unusual—he knew his looks drew attention—he’d built a life of crime on that fact. That didn’t mean he was comfortable with it, though.

“That will give me time to get Phillipa.”

“Okay,” James said happily, his head bobbing up and down.

Dom nodded to Miss Taylor then left, feeling her eyes on his back.

Phillipa’s classroom was on the second floor; he jogged up the stairs, waving to a passing janitor. He stopped at the landing and looked back, trying to remember if he’d seen the man before. Yes, he’d been with the school for some years—his picture was on the wall in the office.

He shook his head at his paranoia and kept going.

Phillipa’s class was at their desks. Most of the kids, including Phillipa, were bent over their papers. A few were staring out the window. He could sympathize—thirty years ago, he’d be one of the daydreamers.

Mrs. Franks glanced up and came to meet him at the door. She looked less tired than the last time he’d seen her—hopefully the fallout from her affair was dying down.

“Mr. Cobb,” she asked softly. “Can I help you?”

“I’ve got a sudden business meeting and I’d like to take Phillipa out early.” The lie came easier the second time around. He looked over to find Phillipa watching him with a frown. “Is she working on anything important?”

Franks hesitated, then said, “Nothing that can’t wait. I still need to give out homework.”

“I’ll wait outside.” He nodded to Phillipa, then went to wait in the hall.

On the wall above the lockers were a series of drawings from the class. He didn’t have to search to find Phillipa’s—it was the one neatly contained within a thick red border. It was an illustration of their dining room, done in the felt markers he’d bought her at the start of the school year. It was a good representation of the room, even down to the perspective. Still, it was too sterile, too cautious and he crossed his arms over his chest. There was something going on with her, some wall he couldn’t break through and—

“Dad?”

He turned with a smile. “Hey, honey.” She was pulling her backpack on, looking up at him with the same frown as before. He reached out. “I’ll carry it.”

“Okay.”

She gave him the backpack and he hefted it up, saying with mock seriousness, “What have you got in here, bricks?”

She smiled and some of the stiffness melted from her features. “Daddy. They’re my school books.”

He turned to the stairs, touching the back of her head gently. “Well, they feel like bricks. I don’t want you to hurt your back.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind. Where are we going?”

He made his smile bland. “I just have some stuff to do at home. I thought it would be nice to get you early so we can spend some time together.”

She stopped abruptly, one foot in the air. “Are you leaving again?”

He was two steps below and he paused as well, twisting to look up at her. Her expression had evened out, but her eyes were watchful, almost sharp. “No, honey. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. C’mon, we need to get your brother.”

She nodded slowly and started down again. He touched her shoulder as she passed, like one would touch a piece of wood for good luck.

He shouldn’t be surprised that she’d figured him out so easily. She was smart and intuitive. And—he thought with a sinking feeling—had probably been waiting to ask that very question ever since he got back.

***

On the way home, he kept an eye on the traffic. If there was anyone following him, he couldn’t see them, but just to be sure, he took a different route.

Even then, he couldn’t spot anything out of place and it wasn’t until they were on Canyon, making the last climb, when something, a flash of bright light in the rearview caught his eye. It was a car, non-descript silver, about two hundred yards back. He slowed down. The car slowed down as well.

He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and nodded absently to James who was chattering about a kitten one of his friends had gotten as a birthday present.

The car followed, still a rough two hundred feet behind, and he reminded himself that that wasn’t unusual. Intersections in this area were few and far between—unless one was going to a specific house, one had little choice but to keep driving. So, it could be anyone en route to anywhere…

But, no, his instincts were shouting now, saying something was wrong and all he wanted was to throw the SUV in reverse and bring the fight to whoever was behind him. But, he couldn’t do anything stupid, not with the kids in the car.

So he kept to a sedate speed and when he got within sight of the house, he hit the gate remote a few seconds early and turned into the drive right as the gates opened, barely missing the left arm. He didn’t wait until he was clear, but hit the remote again then darted up the driveway to park close to the house. He got out quickly and hurried to the other side of the car and opened the door.

“Daddy?” James said.

He watched the street through the tinted glass. “Yes, sweetheart?”

“Can we have root beer floats for dessert?”

“Sure.” The car finally came into view.

“Because Lisa’s mommy gave her root beer floats and she said only her mommy could make them. That’s not right is it?”

He patted James’ arm, saying absently, “No, it’s not.” The car didn’t slow down and the driver didn’t look up at the house.

“I thought so,” James said smugly.

“Guys?” He turned to the kids, saying brightly, “Stay here for a moment. I need to check something out.”

He didn’t give them time to answer, but shut the door and strode down the drive.

Early in the fall, he’d had the landscapers install a path to the water main. It was a narrow strip of bark-covered dirt, bordered by tall privacy shrubs and trees. He inched along the path until he came to the tall fence. The street would be empty, he told himself as he edged around a fir. He was going crazy and his imagination was—

The car had stopped. About fifty feet up under a thick row of Coulter pines. It was far enough to be out of sight from the house, near enough to see any traffic coming or going and if it weren’t for the kids—

He took a deep breath and shoved the fury away, making himself think.

Because he couldn’t go out and beat them up. Landing in jail for assault, even if it were for only a few hours, was something he couldn’t risk.

He edged back to the drive, then ambled to the car, a lie already on his lips. Phillipa had opened the door and was leaning out, watching him.

“Dad?”

“It was nothing, honey. Mr. Clarke and I have been talking about fixing the fence. I wanted to check it out.”

“What’s wrong with the it?”

“It’s just old. It might need to be replaced.” And, before she could probe further, he swung her out of the car and kissed her. “C’mon, you guys. I bet you could use a snack.”

***

He waited until the kids had eaten and were in the backyard playing before he got out his cell. Arthur wouldn’t be asleep—not with this hanging over them.

Sure enough, Arthur answered immediately, “Did you talk to Eames?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And…” He ran his hand over his hair. “I should have taken care of the wrap-up on our second-to-last client.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“What happened?”

“Someone followed me and the kids home from school today.”

There was a brief silence and then Arthur said slowly, “It could be a coincidence.”

“There’s no such thing. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Arthur agreed quietly. “So, what are you going to do?”

He sat on the window seat. Phillipa was pushing James on the swing and even they were turned from him, he could see they were laughing. “The only thing I can do.”

“Arrange a meeting?”

“Yes. And finish it, whatever it takes.”

“Where?”

“New York or D.C. Maybe Atlanta.”

“I suppose you won’t listen if I offer to go in your place.”

“No.”

“What are you gonna do about the kids?”

“What do you think?”

Arthur paused, then said grimly, “Good luck with that.”

“Thanks.”

“When are you leaving?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Okay. Let me know where and when and I’ll meet—”

“No. I do this on my own.”

“No way. How’re you gonna—”

“Arthur. It’s going to be bad enough with just me.”

“Cobb—”

“I’m serious, Arthur. If you show up, I’ll tell Ariadne about Caracas.”

“Jesus, Cobb.” And then, a little caustically, Arthur added, “You know he’ll double-cross you, right?”

“He’ll try.”

“And you’re just gonna let him?”

“What choice do I have?” Arthur was silent. “I’ll fix this. On my own.”

“Okay.”

“Call Eames and tell him the heat will be off Yusuf by Monday.”

“Okay.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“You too.”

He hung up before Arthur managed to talk him into making it a group effort. He waited a moment, then dialed a number he’d memorized the year before. As he waited, he reached in his pocket and felt for the totem that wasn’t there.

The call went immediately to voice mail and he had a split second to make a decision that really wasn’t a decision at all. At the prompt, he said, “Marcus, it’s Cobb. We need to talk. You can reach me at this number.”

He ended the call and scrolled through his address book. He had one more call and he’d give anything not to have to make it.

She picked on the fourth ring, her beautiful voice cold and distant, “Hello, Dominic.”

She always said his name that way—as if they were complete strangers or very casual acquaintances. “Hello, Marie. How are you?”

“I am doing well, thank you.” There was a pause—he could almost hear her silent, ‘And why would you care?’ “Are the children all right?”

“Yes, they’re fine. May I speak to Stephen?”

“Yes.”

He could hear a muted clink as the phone was set down and he breathed a sigh of relief. She hated him and he really couldn’t blame her.

“If this is about that transept,” Miles said cheerfully, “then I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I have no idea how to fix the mess you’ve made.”

Dom smiled. Thank God for Miles. “I already figured it out, no thanks to you.”

“Then it must be about the final meeting with Harold? Because I told you, they’re not expecting you even though—”

“Miles.”

Miles drew a deep breath—loud enough that Dom could hear it. “What is it? Is it the children?”

He ran his hand over his hair again. “No, they’re fine.”

“Then what is it?”

“I might need to leave for a day or so.”

“Is it the charges? You told me they were—”

“No,” he said with a little laugh—for some odd reason, he’d never considered that the criminal charges against him would be opened again. Saito had never explained how he was able to clear his name with a single phone call, but Dom had no doubt that it was all taken care of. “No, it’s not that.”

“Dom? I’m an old man. Will you just tell me what you don’t want to tell me?”

“It’s about a job.”

“I thought you were done with all that?”

Miles’ voice had changed, became challenging, and Dom reassured, “I am. I’m done.”

“Then what is it?”

“I wasn’t able to complete a job and—” He made a cutting gesture.

“Ah,” Miles said after a moment, the short syllable heavy with meaning. “And I take it this is something you can’t refuse?”

“As much as I’d like to, no, I can’t. I need to take care of it.”

“Ah,” Miles repeated.

“And I was wondering—”

“If one of us can watch the children?”

“Preferably, you. And it’ll only be for a day or so, but…” He looked blindly up at the sun, trying not to imagine what the ‘but,’ might entail.

“When?”

“In the next week or so. I’m not sure, yet.”

“Dom—”

“Miles.” He rubbed his forehead. “Don’t.”

“All I was going to say was that I’ll talk to Marie, but I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

He sighed. “Thank you. You know I’d ask someone else if—”

It was Miles’ turn to interrupt, “No. After what those children have been through, it’s best if they have family around.”

‘In case you don’t come back,’ were the unspoken words and Dom closed his eyes. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ll call you later on with the details.”

“I’ll be here.”

Miles hung up and Dom sat there, eyes still closed. Guilt, his long-time companion, coiled slickly in his stomach and he wondered what the hell he was doing. Maybe it would be better if he took the kids and ran. Or maybe he should just sit tight and hope that Marcus was wise enough to let sleeping dogs lie. Maybe he should never have come home.

Maybe, maybe, fucking maybe…

He snarled and squeezed his eyes tight for a brief moment, then took a deep breath and straightened up. No. No matter what happened, he’d been right to do whatever he’d had to get back to the kids. They needed him. And he needed them.

So when he was done with Marcus, that chapter of his life would close and he’d be free. Finally.

He pocketed the cell, then got up to make a cup of coffee.

___________________

 

Friday, September 24th

 

Saito recrossed his legs and tapped his fingers on the armrest of the very comfortable chair, feeling anything but comfortable.

Robert glanced up from the book he was reading. “Do you want me to ask the attendant what’s going on?”

He shook his head. “It will be the same answer as before.” Weather-related issues. A generic term that could mean anything from snow to rain, but was in fact due to hurricane-force winds whipping through the Pacific. He’d wanted to chance it, but the pilot had waited too long to make a decision and they were caught. In Oahu, waiting for the storm to die down.

At least they were off the plane, resting in the airport’s private section saved for the most important—and wealthy—of guests.

He looked at his watch. They had been waiting for three hours. Three hours that he could have spent in L.A. With Cobb. He recrossed his legs and tapped his fingers again.

“Are you hungry?” Robert asked.

“No.”

“Do you want to go over Kaneda’s report again?”

“Not at this time.”

“Do you—”

“I think…” He rose with a strained smile and picked up his jacket. “That I will go for a walk. When I get back, maybe we will eat then?” He left before Robert could answer and pulled on his jacket as he hurried across the thick carpet to the double doors. He nodded as the attendant opened the door and was out on the concourse.

Even with the delayed flights, the airport was half empty. Off to the right, three servicemen stood in a circle, laughing about something that was apparently very funny. A group of girls where huddled a few feet away, glancing at the men every few seconds. Beyond them sat an older couple and two young boys. The boys were hitting each other as the couple read their newspapers.

It was a measure of his ever-present obsession that just the sight of the two children reminded him of Phillipa and James. Before he knew it, he was pulling out his mobile and striding off to the left to find privacy by the floor-to-ceiling windows of an empty American Airlines waiting area. He dialed quickly, half-watching two workers refuel a plane, remembering, ‘If I get off this plane and you don’t honor our agreement, I go to jail for the rest of my life.’ That day seemed so long ago and yet, as if it had only happened yesterday.

The phone rang seven times and he was preparing his message when it clicked through.

“I was just going to call you.”

He raised his eyebrow at Cobb’s words, at the rush in his voice. “You were?”

There was a long pause, and when Cobb spoke again, his voice had changed, “Saito?”

“By that reaction, I take it you weren’t just going to call me.”

“I– No, no. I thought you were my father-in-law.”

He nodded, seeing his faint reflection do the same. “Would you like me to call some other time?”

“No,” Cobb said. “No. I have time to talk.”

Which implied that he might not, soon, have time to talk? “I wanted to say hello.”

To his own ears, the words seemed so juvenile, but Cobb just breathed a laugh and answered, his voice lowering, “Yeah, hi. Where are you?”

“I am, unfortunately, stuck in Oahu.”

“What? What happened?”

“Weather-related issues.”

“Which means?”

“Many things, but in this case, a hurricane over the Pacific.”

“That’s not good.”

He turned from the window and found a seat, truly at ease for the first time that afternoon. Three rows over, a young white woman and her little girl were huddled together. The child was almost asleep, the woman was fighting it—her head kept bowing then jerking up again. “No. It is not.”

“Are you spending the night at the airport?”

“We might. It depends on the weather.”

Cobb hesitated again, then murmured, “It’s too bad.”

“That I left? I’ve been thinking the same.” Cobb didn’t respond and after a moment, he said, “And what are you doing?”

“Nothing. I’m going to start dinner soon.”

“What are you preparing?” He didn’t cook, but he had a sudden desire to be there, watching Cobb make a meal. Watching his movements as he moved about the kitchen, no doubt casually neat and precise as always.

Cobb laughed again. “My standard: soup and sandwiches.”

“It sounds delicious,” he murmured. He’d walk up behind Cobb and wrap his arms around his waist, pulling him close, pausing only a moment before kissing the back of Cobb’s neck. His body reacted predictably and he crossed his legs.

“Saito, I…” Cobb said softly, then, “Hold on a second.”

There was a rhythmic noise, unrecognizable until he realized it was footsteps, and then Cobb said, “There, I’m alone.”

He smiled. “Where are you now?”

“In my bedroom.”

He closed his eyes as the fantasy sprung to life—Cobb splayed out, naked, taking up too much room as he had at the hotel. And that also seemed a lifetime ago.

“Are you still there?”

“Yes,” Saito murmured regretfully. “Unfortunately, I am not alone, myself.”

“Is Fischer there?”

“No, he’s back in the lounge. I needed to stretch my legs so I took a walk. I am in the middle of the airport, though.”

“People all around you?”

He glanced at the woman. She was reading a book, now. “Near enough.”

“Ah.”

“I suppose I couldn’t convince you to take a short holiday? I could send a plane for you and the children. I’ve a friend with property near Hanuama Bay. He never uses the house. There is a swimming pool and game room for the children.”

Cobb sighed. “As much as I’d love it, I can’t.”

“It’s the weekend,” he urged, the idea taking hold. Cobb could stay a few days longer, maybe until Tuesday. They could hire a nanny service and he and Cobb could spend at least a few hours in bed. “Please,” he added, the word sounding a stiff to his own ears—he wasn’t used to saying, ‘please.’

“I can’t,” Cobb repeated softly, insistently.

Too soft, too insistent, and Saito sat up straight, all thoughts of sex and impromptu holidays gone. “What is wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“Something is wrong.” His certainty gelled as he spoke. “What is it?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”

Cobb’s voice evened out, became the one Saito recognized from their first acquaintance—confident, smooth and blandly charming. He was lying and trying to hide it. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course I’m sure. I’m just tired. It’s been a long week and I didn’t sleep much last night.”

Said slyly, meant to distract and distance. Saito wasn’t fooled. “Are you telling me the truth?” he asked again absently, already thinking ahead.

“Yes, Saito-san, I’m telling you the truth.”

If he wasn’t sure before, he was now because he remembered that voice as well—still smooth, but now smart, edging up to insolence. “I see.”

“I better go.”

“I, as well.”

“I’ll talk to you soon?”

“Yes, soon.”

“I’ll call tonight to see if you made it out.”

“If you wish.”

“Okay.” Cobb hesitated, then repeated, “I’ll talk to you soon.”

He waited for Cobb to hang up and was surprised when he didn’t. He opened his mouth to say, ‘Please, wait,’ or maybe, ‘Tell me what is the matter,’ but before he could, he heard a soft click and then a dial tone.

He sat there, staring at the phone for a brief moment, then called another number.

“Sir?” Ito said.

“I need you to find a telephone number for me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s from the investigation of two years ago. It will be in the file folder in my safe, the one marked ‘Cobb.’”

“Yes, sir.”

“Find the contact information of a man named Arthur and text it to me.”

Ito hesitated, then said doubtfully, “Is everything all right, sir?”

“Yes, Ito. Just send me the number.”

Ito hung up after a reluctant, “Yes, sir.”

And he was left with another dial tone. Like before, he didn’t wait to start dialing again. This time he had to think a moment before he remembered the number. Most of his interactions with Ian had been via email.

“You must have ESP.”

Saito got up and retraced his steps to the lounge, this time quickly. “Meaning?”

“Meaning, I was just going to call you.”

Ian’s heavily accented Australian voice was as calm as always, but there was an undercurrent of tension that Saito didn’t like. “About?”

“Your friend.”

“What about him?”

“Something’s up. He took the kids out of school early. He’s jumpy.”

“What does that mean, ‘jumpy’?”

“When he brought the kids out of school, he kept looking around and then he went home a different way. Took some side streets. I almost lost him a couple times.”

He stopped in front of a display of newspapers and stared at them without really seeing them. “He thinks someone is following him.”

It wasn’t a question and Ian knew it. “He may be right.”

“What do you mean?” he asked again.

“A silver Toyota followed your friend from the school to his house. They stayed back a ways, but it couldn’t have been chance, them taking the same streets. They parked about forty meters away from the house and stayed for five minutes. I followed them. They lost me in one of those blasted streets, but I got some snaps.”

“And?”

“Two men, average build, no distinguishing marks. One had brown hair, the other is balding.”

“And the car?”

“Belongs to a Mr. Patrick Williams.”

“Who is Mr. Patrick Williams?”

“Hell if I know, but his car was stolen last month and never recovered.”

An odd weight began to grow in Saito’s chest. “And Cobb? Is he all right?”

“He’s a sneaky one, and that’s for sure. When they got to the house, he doubled back through the foliage and watched them. I thought he’d call the jacks, but they never showed up so I guess he’s handling it on his own.”

There was a question in Ian’s voice that Saito ignored—it was too soon to tell Ian why Cobb wouldn’t want the police anywhere near him. “And?”

“And, he hasn’t come out all afternoon. He looks out the window occasionally, but he hasn’t let the kids come out to play in the front yard, either.”

“Hmm.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Stay close.”

“From what you’ve told me, he can handle himself.”

“I am not worried about him. I am worried about the children.” A half lie, but Ian didn’t need to know that.

“Okay.”

“Do you need anything from me?” His mobile buzzed—the text message from Ito had arrived.

“The next invoice will be double the usual amount, but no, I’ve got everything I need.”

Meaning weapons and men. “Good. Nothing will happen to the children, yes?”

“Yes, sir. They’ll be fine.”

“Good.” He hung up and retrieved the text message. Ito, always efficient, had not only sent Arthur’s number, but also Professor Miles’ and the girl, Ariadne’s. He called Arthur even though it was about four in the morning in France and wasn’t surprised when he got a recording in Arthur’s deep voice, ‘I’m not here. Leave a message,’ and then a beep.

He paused before saying, “Arthur. It’s Saito. I’m worried about Cobb. Call me please.”

He hung up and stood there, absently gazing at the mobile in the palm of his hand.

“Who’s Cobb?”

He didn’t react, but turned slowly.

Robert was standing a foot away. His hands were in his pockets as if he hadn’t a care in the world, but his face was flushed and his lips were pressed in a tight line.

Saito shrugged and pocketed the mobile. “No one in particular.”

“And yet you’re worried about him. Or is it a her?”

“Him,” Saito said softly. “It is a him.”

“Is he a business associate?”

“No.”

“Then a friend.”

“Yes.”

“Is he the one that gave you that?” Robert’s gaze dropped to the bite mark on his throat.

“Yes,” he murmured. He wouldn’t lie about that. There was no point.

Robert opened his mouth, then smiled bitterly and shook his head. “I tried to call to tell you the weather is clearing. The pilot says we can take off in a half hour. That is, if you want to go home.”

Saito hesitated. Contrary to his thoughts of ten minutes ago, he needed to get back to work on Monday. He had reports to review and proposals to consider. And then there was the October meeting with the oversight committee—it would take weeks of preparation, at the very least. Returning to California would be pointless—there was little he could do to help Cobb.

Except make sure the children remained safe, make sure Cobb lived to see another year.

“Well?”

A dismissive, ‘There’s no reason not to continue,’ was on his lips and he surprised even himself when he said firmly, “Yes. I want to return to Los Angeles.”

***

They were back in the air by seven. Robert had regained his composure quickly and when Saito spoke about this or that, he answered evenly, if quietly.

Eventually, Saito gave up trying to make conversation and turned to the window. It was too dark to see much, but he looked all the same.

It was odd, returning to where he’d so recently been. He rarely questioned his own actions, rarely altered his course once he’d started off in a direction.

He’d felt earlier in the year that he was on a new path, a new him. But maybe there was no new path. Maybe he was simply wandering aimlessly from one moment to the next. A behavior so unlike his old self that it suddenly seemed as if he were two different people with two different agendas.

Or, as if he were in a living dream.

His heart jerked at the thought and he rubbed his chin on his fist, using the rough pressure as a reminder that the fear was baseless. That he’d faced that demon once before and conquered it soundly.

“Are you all right?” Robert asked, without looking up from his magazine.

He relaxed his fingers and murmured, “Yes.”

“Uncle Peter called. He wants to fly to Tokyo.”

“To review the plant?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.” Robert had been avoiding Browning for months. Saito wasn’t sure if it had something to do with the job, or if it was fallout from his father’s death.

“Hiro?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry about what I said earlier. About my curiosity.”

He turned around. Robert was still looking at the magazine, but he wasn’t really reading. “You do not need to apologize.”

“Yes, I do. That is…” Robert tossed the magazine down on the table and faced Saito. “If we’re to work together.”

He shrugged. It was true, after all. The little niggling idiosyncrasies that every business relationship had to surmount were magnified when the personal was added. In the past, he’d kept his contact with his associates at a minimum, preferring to let Ito handle the day to day. It had always worked so well but he wouldn’t go back to that old way of working, if he could. Those days of casual control were over.

“Do you have a picture of him?” Robert asked.

The question took him aback and he raised his eyebrow. He had many pictures of Cobb, but none he could pass around—they were too clearly surveillance photos. And even if he did have a photo that he kept in his wallet, he wasn’t one to share such personal aspects of his life. “No.”

“Oh.”

“It’s not that kind of relationship. Not the kind you are thinking.”

“What am I thinking?”

“That it is a romance, a…” He waved his hand, unsure as to what he was indicating, only that it was important that Robert understand. Or not understand, as the case may be.

“Where did you meet?”

“In Tokyo, a year ago.”

“What does he do?”

‘He’s a robber. He steals secrets from the minds of men, from their very souls. He’s a puzzle, he’s a distraction.’ “He’s an architect.”

“Ah.”

As if that simple fact told the whole truth of Dominic Cobb. “Robert?”

“Yes.”

“I need to ask a favor.”

“What is it?”

“I need you to not investigate Cobb. It’s not because of me or even him that I ask this of you.”

Robert crossed his legs and folded his hands together. “Then, why?”

“Because he has two young children. And I don’t want them harmed in any way.”

Robert didn’t speak for the longest moment. Saito could see he was surprised and even more curious, but measuring his response. Finally, he said cautiously, “Okay, I’ll leave it alone.”

“Thank you.”

Robert shrugged and picked up the magazine again. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes.” Saito stood up, needing to move. “I’ll inform the attendant.”

***

They ate soon after, a simple meal of fish and rice. It was fairly good for airline food, but he wouldn’t expect anything less of Robert’s crew. Still, he ate mechanically, distracted, unable to stop his mind from spinning increasingly vivid scenarios of Cobb hurt, of Phillipa and James afraid, or worse, in pain.

Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he went to the galley and asked the attendant for privacy. She left and he pulled the door to, then got out his mobile.

He wanted to call Cobb, but it was after ten in California and the children would be in bed. He called Arthur and left another message, then called Ian.

He answered on the first ring. “Everything’s fine.”

“You are at the house?”

“Yeah, I figured it was better to be safe rather than sorry, you know?”

“Thank you, Mr. Hunter.”

“Well, you’re footing the bill. It’s the least I could do.”

“Nevertheless, I’m grateful.”

“What’s our next step?”

“We wait and see.”

“I enlarged the photos of his stalkers and examined them.”

“And?”

“No one I know. Do you want me to email them to you?”

“You won’t have to. I am returning to Los Angeles.”

“You’re kidding?”

He smiled—the tone of disbelief in Ian’s voice was almost comical. “No, I am not.”

“Huh.”

“Please put a twenty-four hour watch on the house until I get there.”

“Very good.”

“When I get to L.A., I will call you.”

“Sounds good.”

“Good night.”

He leaned back against the countertop. If he had his way, he’d purchase the house next to Cobb’s and simply assign Ian’s firm as Cobb’s retinue, instructing them to not let Cobb or the children out of their sight.

That’s what he’d do if he had his way, but with Cobb, one had to be careful. He could be touchy about certain things.

He was still standing there when his cell rang. He looked at the display. Ito. Who should still be in bed. “What is it?”

“I wasn’t sure if I should wait to tell you until you returned, but Sir…”

“What is it?” he asked wearily when Ito didn’t finish.

“It’s about Miss Miko. I’m sorry to say that she has moved out.”

Saito smiled grimly. Of all the news he’d had that day, it was the most minor of all. “When?”

“Sometime last night.”

“Ah.”

“She took a few items.”

“What?”

“The vase your sister gave you and a few personal items, including your gold watch and your father’s signet ring.”

Saito shook his head. “Retrieve the vase. Let her keep the rest.”

“Sir—”

“Ito, it doesn’t matter. The jewelry holds no sentimental value. She could take all the furnishings and I would not care.”

“Yes, sir,” Ito muttered.

“Recover the vase. Take Kim, if you need to.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I won’t see you for a few days. I’m returning to Los Angeles.”

There was a long pause and Ito said softly, “Sir?”

The same disbelief as was in Ian’s voice, and not comical in the least. “I’ve decided to stay on for at least a week.”

“But, sir—”

“Ito,” he murmured, warning not to go any further.

“Yes, sir.”

“Call me when you’ve got the vase.” He hung up. Ito was unhappy with him. He didn’t blame him. He was unhappy with himself, but not in the way Ito would understand.

So much for his association with Miko. He’d gotten off lightly, all things considered. No messy arguments, no tears. She’d, of course, be telling all her friends how she got the best of him, but he didn’t mind. As long as the Picasso vase was retrieved, he’d call it even.

He shrugged stiffly and returned to his seat. Robert had fallen asleep. Saito wanted to do the same, but he was wide-awake, staring out the window when the plane touched down in Los Angeles.

 

 

___________________

 

Friday, September 24th

 

Eames sighed. And didn’t look over as Yusuf pulled out the cable again and plugged it back in. Again. As he’d been doing for the last hour. Interspersing his tinkering with complaints about the flat, the quarantining of Geetika, the lack of amenities because Eames hadn’t planned on returning to London anytime soon and it showed.

Yusuf was right, of course—the place was a disaster. Dirt everywhere, holes in the walls. That’s what he got for letting it out to a friend of a friend’s girlfriend. At least the electricity hadn’t been shut off, he thought as he watched the stove’s heating coil turn red. At least he could have a cup of tea before he sat down to figure out what to do about the mess Yusuf had gotten them into.

“See,” Yusuf muttered from under the desk. “It’s not working. Why can’t I use the one in your bedroom?”

“I intend to use that room for sleeping, Yusuf. Not for listening to you type away on that thing at all hours.” He jerked his head to Yusuf’s laptop, then picked up a small container of nail polish. For some reason, Angela had left some of her cosmetics in the kitchen, lined up on the bench top. This one was bright pink, and it was called—he turned it over and squinted—Posh Pink. He snorted and set it back down.

“I won’t be, ‘at all hours.’ I need to sleep, too. And by the way…” Yusuf crawled from under the bench. “Where am I sleeping?”

“On the couch. I don’t want to wake up to your ugly mug.”

Yusuf huffed. “Thanks a lot.”

He sighed again and turned back to the kettle. He pushed it a little to the left, centering it on the coil. “I’m sorry. That was rude.” And more than a bit of a lie. Yusuf wasn’t conventionally handsome, but he wasn’t ugly, either. It was his eyes—he had beautiful eyes. And then there was his mouth and skin—

Uneasy at where his tired thoughts were leading, he adjusted the kettle again.

“Eames?”

He looked over his shoulder. Yusuf had one arm over the chair’s seat and was staring off into space, cable forgotten. “Yeah?”

“This Marcus Lightman. Is he really as bad as you say?”

“‘Bad,’ isn’t quite the word I used.” The water was finally boiling. He turned off the heat and poured the water into his cup, then Yusuf’s.

“You know what I mean.”

Yes, he knew and he shrugged. “‘Bad,’ is relative, Yusuf. I’ve seen men do much worse.”

“But?”

“But, they’ve usually done much worse in a time of stress, like war or on a mission.” And then, because Yusuf would just ask, “I suppose, compared to some, Lightman isn’t any worse, but relatively-speaking, he’s a bloody nightmare.”

“How so?”

“Because he has no limits.” He picked up the cups and went to sit on the sofa. Yusuf got up and joined him, reaching for his tea with a smile.

“Because,” Eames said thoughtfully as he shook the cup gently, making the packet of tea swirl, “he rules the roost and is in bed with the local government who tolerate him because he helps keep their own people in line. Because he provides energy to most of the country and they need him. And, last but certainly not least, because he gets off on pain.”

“Oh.”

He sipped the tea even though it wasn’t anywhere near done steeping. It wasn’t very good. “Hm-mm.”

“How do you know him?”

“I’ve come across his handiwork a few times with my last employer.”

Yusuf cocked his head, his face alive with curiosity. “And who would that be?”

He smiled into his tea. “Never you mind.”

Yusuf leaned closer and whispered, “It was the British military, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t kiss and tell.”

Yusuf frowned. “Eames, I won’t tell anyone. You know I’ve done work for various governments.”

“Yes, and I know that your compound can make anyone blab anything. Yusuf,” he leaned forward, matching Yusuf’s pose. “It’s not because of you I won’t tell you, it’s for you. If you don’t know, you can’t be forced to confess. It’s as simple as that.” He stared into Yusuf’s eyes. The moment went on too long and he made himself sit back and look away.

“All right,” Yusuf said slowly. He took a sip of tea. “This tea is really awful.”

“I know.”

“I wish I’d brought my own.”

He crossed his legs and smirked. “Do you want to go back and get it?”

“Ha-ha.”

He shrugged and they sat there, silently drinking the bad tea. He wasn’t sure what Yusuf was thinking, but he was back to trying to come up with a solution other than stay in London as Cobb had suggested. Normally, he wouldn’t even consider such a thing. Normally, he’d cut his losses and take off, on his way to the next job or holiday.

He was still sipping his tea, thinking his gloomy thoughts, when his mobile rang. He dug it out and looked at the display. “It’s about time,” he muttered, then said sweetly, “Hello, Arthur.”

“Eames,” Arthur said.

“I take it you’ve an update for me?”

“Yes.”

He gave it a moment, then said, “Well?”

“I think Cobb is fucked.”

He grinned. “Would that be literally or figuratively?”

“Damnit, Eames—” Arthur said, sounding just as tired as Eames felt.

He lost his grin and sat his cup on the side table. “Calm down, Arthur, and tell me what’s up.”

“He’s going to meet Marcus Lightman, that’s what’s up.”

“You’re joking.”

“Does it sound like I’m joking?”

“Not really, no. What else did he say?”

“Just that he needed to take care of it and that I’m to stay out of it.”

“So he’s going it alone?” He smirked. “Vintage Cobb.”

“I know.”

“Where’s the meet?”

“I don’t know.”

“When is he leaving?”

“I don’t know.”

“Jesus, Arthur! What do you know?”

“Nothing, Eames,” Arthur growled. “Other than Cobb’s doing this because of his kids. Because of us.”

“So he’s a sacrificial lamb all of a sudden?”

“No, he’s just Cobb.”

Eames thought about that for a long moment, then said, “Yeah, okay.”

“So I was thinking…”

Arthur trailed off and Eames filled in the blank. “Of heading them off at the pass.” Yusuf raised an eyebrow. He winked. Then smiled when Yusuf blinked in confusion.

“Something like that.”

“Okay.”

“Does that mean you’re in?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. Yes. When and where?”

“Okay, when and where,” Arthur said absently. “My best guess is New York.”

“Why?”

“Because he mentioned three places: New York, D.C. and Atlanta, and of the three, he knows New York the best. Besides, Marcus has an apartment there. Near Central Park.”

“So you and Lightman are friends, are you? He’s had you over for a cuppa?”

“No,” Arthur said shortly. “We found out about it when we were vetting him for the job. He sometimes spends Christmas in the city.”

“So the next question is, when?”

“Soon. Cobb thinks he was followed today and if I know Cobb, he’ll act quickly.”

“His impulse control is sadly lacking,” Eames agreed.

“I suppose.”

Arthur sounded distracted and Eames rolled his eyes, wishing Arthur were around to see it. “What’s wrong now?”

“Have you talked to our last client?”

He opened his mouth to ask, ‘what last client?’ then understood. “No. Is there a reason why I should have?”

“No. I was just curious.”

“Why?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Arthur? If you’ve got something to say, just say it.”

“It’s nothing,” Arthur repeated, then, more slowly, “I was just wondering if he should be brought in.”

“Why?”

“Because of his wealth and power—”

“And influence, yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck, remembering the, ‘I bought the airline. It seemed neater.’ Wealth, power and influence could go a long way. “It’s not a bad idea. Besides which, he and Marcus run in the same circles. The real question is, do you think he’ll help?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It’s just—” Arthur hesitated for a long moment, then said, “Saito left a message a few hours ago; apparently he’s also worried about Cobb and I think it’s a connection we should exploit.”

“That’s suitably cryptic,” he said snidely, then added before Arthur could huff and puff, “Okay, yeah, I’ll give him a ring. I have his number somewhere.”

“Why you?” Arthur asked, suspiciously.

“Because he and I have our own rapport.” He made his words lofty, just to make Arthur growl.

Which he did, on cue. “You’ll call if there’s any news?”

“Yes, and you’ll do the same I trust?”

“I will.”

“Goodbye, Arthur.”

Goodbye, Mr. Eames.”

Eames tossed his mobile on the table

“What happened? To Cobb, I mean?” Yusuf asked.

“He’s playing the hero and drawing attention away from his children.” When Yusuf didn’t say anything, he looked up. Yusuf was staring at him, his eyes stark and sad. “What is it?”

“Riitho said almost the same thing to me. He said he would distract Lightman’s men so I could get away.”

Eames tapped the mobile with his thumb, making it spin. He wished he hadn’t asked, wished Yusuf would stop looking at him like that. “You don’t know if anything has happened to him.”

“I know he doesn’t answer his mobile.”

“He’s probably in Marrakech, living it up on your dime.”

Yusuf cracked a smile. “Probably.”

“C’mon,” he touched Yusuf’s knee as he stood up. “Why don’t you check the flights to New York while I contact Mr. Saito. We might leave as soon as tomorrow.” He grinned. “And since you’re paying, we’re going first class.”

Yusuf glowered, but at least the sadness was gone. “If I’m to use the internet, I need the jack in your room.”

He jerked his head, ‘Go,’ then went to the kitchen where the light was brighter. He bent over his phone and began to scroll through his folders. He found the one with just the initial, ‘I,’ and then a series of numbers with no attached names. No doubt if Yusuf saw the numbers, he’d ask, ‘Why so paranoid?’ ‘Because,’ Eames would answer, ‘in certain situations, one can never be too paranoid.’ He’d learnt that the hard way, long ago.

He found the number he was looking for and dialed. The number went to a message immediately and he heard Saito’s elegantly accented voice, ‘I cannot answer at this time. Please leave your message and your number.’

He waited for the beep, then said, “Mr. Saito, I need to speak with you as soon as possible. It’s about the project last year. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll call again. Thank you.’

He closed the phone, then went into the bedroom. Yusuf was sitting on the bed in the dark, bent over the laptop. The bright screen reflected off his glasses, giving him an unusually solemn air. “Did you get hold of him?” he asked without looking up.

“No. I left a message.”

“Do you want me to keep to a specific airline?”

“No.”

“We have our choice. We could leave in three hours, if you want.”

He shook his head. “Let’s not go crazy.” Now that he’d made his decision or rather, now that the decision had been made for him, the need to move was growing. Lightman was a cold bastard and there was no way Cobb was going to a simple meeting. But, as important as it was to act, it was just as important not to react too rashly. “No,” he said slowly. “The last thing we want, when dealing with Marcus Lightman, is to not think things through.”

Yusuf bent back over the laptop. “Okay.”

“I need to sleep. Are you going to stay up?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Wake me if anyone calls.” He took off his shoes, then padded around to the other side of the bed and lay down. The mattress wasn’t big and his shoulder pressed against Yusuf’s hip. He crossed his ankles and folded his hands on his belly, smiling a little because he knew Yusuf was staring down at him bemusedly.

He waited for some comment, but after a little sigh, all he heard was the soft sound of the keys and the even softer sound of Yusuf’s breath.

***

He woke hours later. The room was dark and Yusuf was curled up against him, back to his side. He grunted and tried to make himself move, then fell back asleep.

***

The next time he woke, he was alone and weak morning sun was shining through the dirty windows. He squinted crossly. There was a cobweb hanging from the ceiling, drifting this way and that on some invisible current. He really needed to get someone in to clean the place up.

But not today, and he rolled to his feet and went to find Yusuf.

Who was just coming in, a sack in one hand, a rolled up newspaper in the other. “Good morning,” he said cheerfully.

Eames wanted to say, ‘What’s good about it?’ but settled for, “Morning.”

“I just met your neighbor. Mrs. Singh?” Yusuf set the paper and sack on the table and began to rifle through it. “She wanted to know how long you’re planning on staying as she didn’t like your friend very much. She said she was noisy and never took her trash down to the bins.”

“Really?”

Yusuf brought out a tray of drinks from the sack and then two wrapped lumps that Eames hoped was breakfast. “She also said that the girl had all sorts of unsavory people in, sometimes staying for days. One of them was a drug dealer. Or so Mrs. Singh says.” He went to the kitchen, brushing by Eames, and got out two plates, two mugs and flatware. He must have been snooping, to become this familiar with the kitchen.

“What else did Mrs. Singh say?”

“That she doesn’t know you well, but you’ve always been very polite.” Yusuf sat the table, precisely, making sure everything was straight. “Oh, and she has a daughter she wants me to meet. She’s at university.”

“Mrs. Singh is at university? Isn’t she a little old for it?” Eames asked lightly, mostly to dispel the sudden surge of irritability at the thought of his neighbor, whom he didn’t really remember, trying to set Yusuf up.

“Don’t be daft. Her daughter. Her daughter is at university.”

“Sorry,” he murmured, even though he wasn’t. “What did you buy?”

“A proper breakfast.” Yusuf sat down. “Tea and buns. I couldn’t bear to investigate your cupboards too closely. I’m sure you’ve mice.”

Eames pulled a chair out and sat down. “Probably. I’m not here much.”

“So I gathered.” Yusuf unwrapped one of the packages and put it on Eames’ plate. “You know, Geetika is a fantastic mouser.” He poured his tea into a mug.

Eames didn’t bother transferring his—he sipped it and closed his eyes in pleasure. Wonderful. “It’s too bad she’s not going to get a chance at them.”

Yusuf looked down at his meal, his expression darkening.

And damn, that was the wrong thing to say—it was like accidentally kicking a puppy. “So,” he said, to make up for it, “we’ve some time today. What do you feel like doing?”

Yusuf looked up with a big smile.

***

What Yusuf felt like doing was typical tourist things and even though Eames tried to talk—then argue—him out of it, two hours later he found himself walking through the wide courtyard of the British Museum.

***

It wasn’t that bad. He hadn’t been since he was a kid and as he followed Yusuf around, he found himself enjoying the sights. First the ground floor with its Greek and Roman knick-knacks, then the second floor. Yusuf had a weakness for the Medieval and they spent an hour wandering through a room full of armor and pottery and books.

They were side by side, peering into a display of manuscripts when Eames murmured, “It’s odd.”

“What?”

“When I was a boy, I never dreamt I’d actually visit the place this document was written.”

He expected Yusuf to ask about pre-Roman Germany, but instead he said, “What was your childhood like?”

He straightened up and smiled benignly. “Interesting.”

Yusuf frowned. “No, seriously.”

“Yusuf, I’m not going to tell you about my life.”

“C’mon. I told you about my family.”

“Well, that was your mistake.” Yusuf’s childhood had been one of privilege—the best schools with parents and siblings that loved him. And as Eames had listened, he’d been hard pressed not to compare the two very different upbringings.

Yusuf frowned again and started to say something else when a flash of movement caught Eames’s eye. He looked up and across the room just as a man glanced away.

He froze for a split second, then leaned over the case again, crowding Yusuf, making him edge away. “Yusuf,” he said conversationally.

“Well, I wouldn’t have asked, but you brought it up, you know.”

“Never mind that now. Take a look at this illumination.”

Yusuf bent closer. “I already did. It’s not half as good as—”

“I just needed you closer so I won’t have to shout.” And when Yusuf opened his mouth, Eames interrupted him again. “I know your first reaction will be to look around, but I need you keep looking at the manuscript.”

“Eames—”

“Keep looking and when I tell you to, just follow me out of the room.”

“What’s wrong?”

“We’re being watched.”

Yusuf took a breath, but Eames was ready. Using the case to hide his motion, he gripped Yusuf’s wrist. “Don’t, okay?” Yusuf’s wrist was surprisingly narrow and he eased his hold.

“Yeah,” Yusuf said after a moment. “Okay.”

“I’m going to turn to the right and we’re gonna head back out the west door. Walk casually and whatever you do, don’t look behind. All right?”

“Yes,” Yusuf said again, this time breathlessly.

“C’mon.”

He let go and turned on his heel, herding Yusuf, keeping his back to the far door where the stalker pretended to examine a ridiculously gaudy coat of arms.

They walked out of the room, moving as if they were out for a Sunday stroll. When they got to the outer room, he guided them left and was almost to the main corridor that ran down the east side of the building when Yusuf said, “Who was it?”

“Not sure.”

“Shouldn’t we try to find out?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because he has a friend.”

“Where?”

They were passing a series of wall hangings and he stopped to look at one. “Promise not to be obvious about it?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Down at the end, near the marble bust.”

Yusuf, as he’d promised, didn’t turn his head. “But he’s just reading a guidebook. How do you know he’s a bad guy?”

“Because he just lifted that guidebook from that woman’s bag. See? The young lady by the staircase? The one that’s looking around?” He jerked his head towards the young woman trying to turn in a circle while holding on to her little girl’s hand.

Yusuf glanced sideways and his expression changed. Still, he said, “That doesn’t mean anything. He could just be a normal thief.”

They were almost to the stairs. “Yusuf?”

“Yeah?”

“Trust me on this. We’ve got at least two tails and it’s a good chance they’re Lightman’s men.”

That shut Yusuf up and when they descended the stairs, he went too fast, almost tripping in his haste.

Eames grabbed his elbow. “Don’t go breaking your leg. I don’t want to have to carry you anywhere.”

He meant it facetiously but Yusuf’s expression darkened and he yanked his arm away. “Don’t worry. You won’t have to.”

Eames shrugged, but didn’t let go until they were on the ground floor, heading towards the entrance.

Luckily, the place had grown more crowded making it that much easier to lose their pursuers, now numbered three. And maybe one other, hanging out by the main doors? But no… He gave a small sigh of relief. Number four was actually just waiting for his wife and kids.

“What now?” Yusuf asked tersely.

“Now, we mosey outside and duck into the nearest cab we can find.”

“‘Mosey’? You never told me you like American Westerns.”

He smiled. “I don’t.”

And that’s all they said as they made their way through the doors and out to where the cabbies waited. Eames directed the driver to take the scenic route back to his flat. It added thirty minutes to the trip and when they got out, five blocks from his place, he was confident he’d given the slip to whomever had been following them. Which, of course, would only matter if they didn’t know where he lived in the first place and he couldn’t be sure of that, now could he?

He hustled Yusuf into the building and up the lift. And then, without a word, he got Yusuf’s computer and handed it to him, saying grimly, “Book us two seats on the next plane to New York.”

 

___________________

 

Saturday, September 25th

 

“Dominic. This is a surprise.”

Dom grimaced. Marcus’ lightly accented voice was as pleasant as ever. “I imagine so.”

“To what do I owe the honor?”

He looked over his shoulder. The kids were in the living room watching Saturday morning cartoons, but just in case… He got up and went to the workroom. “I thought we should talk.”

“About?”

“About not fulfilling the contract.”

“Yes,” Marcus murmured. “I was wondering when you’d get around to that. Been busy, have you?”

He ignored the jab. “Now. Now, is when I’m getting around to it.”

There was a long pause and he pictured Marcus’ face—angular and thin, as attractive as his voice. “Is there really anything you have to offer?” Marcus finally said. “I mean, besides the obvious?”

Dom shook his head. Marcus had tried to seduce him two days into their negotiations. He’d turned him down, saying he didn’t sleep with clients. Marcus hadn’t taken it gracefully.

The memory of Saito’s face, their conversation about that very thing, came rushing in but he shoved it away. “You know what I can do.”

“Yes, and I know what you can’t do. You demonstrated that quite well last year.”

“That wasn’t my fault. You provided the background.”

“I provided what you asked for.”

“Except for one very important detail. That the subject knew about extraction. He knew what we were doing from the very start.”

There was another silence and he was wondering if he’d pushed Marcus too far when Marcus answered, “What do you propose?”

“A last job.”

“Maybe I don’t have any need of your… Distinctive services.”

He smiled. “A man like you always has need of a man like me, Marcus.”

Marcus chuckled. “You do like to play with fire, don’t you?”

‘No, I like to stay alive.’ “Well?”

“Let me think about it.”

“No. I need to know now.”

Marcus sighed. “I should just send my men after you—it would be so much simpler. But working in the States is such a pain in the arse these days. You people are so suspicious.”

Dom craned his head to look out the window. He didn’t see his mysterious followers but no doubt they were there. Still, it was never good to tip one’s hand with Marcus. “Are you watching me?

“No, but if I was, it’s only what you deserve.”

Which meant, yes, and Dom clenched his jaw but kept his voice even when he repeated, “Well?”

“In exchange for what?”

He tugged the blinds closed and sat down. “You leave me and my associates alone. For good.”

“Ah. You’ve been talking to the chemist.”

“No.” Which was nothing more than the truth. “I just know you. But I take it you’re after Yusuf?”

“No. He doesn’t interest me in the slightest.”

‘Liar.’ “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Do we have a deal?”

Marcus hesitated, then murmured, “Yes. I suppose I can find something for you to do.”

“It needs to be quick, here in the States, and a one-man job.”

“Because?”

“Because it will just be me. And I won’t be going under. We do it without the drug.”

There was a long pause. “I thought you needed a second? That’s what you told me last year.”

Dom shrugged. It was true—he hadn’t worked alone in years. “It won’t be a problem.” I won’t let it be a problem.

“Where’s Arthur?”

“In Buenos Aires.”

“Really? I thought he was in Paris with the girl. The one from that last job?”

Son of a bitch. That meant they were all being watched. He needed to call Arthur. “It will just be me.”

“Yes. All right. I’ve got just the thing—a simple acquisition. You’ll be perfect.”

“It needs to be done out of state—I was thinking New York.”

“That’s a little tricky, but I can make it work. And it will be good to visit some of my old haunts.”

‘Screw your old haunts.’ “And this will be it? You’ll leave us alone?”

“Yes, Dominic. After this, you’ll never hear from me again.”

Marcus hung up and Dom was left with just the dial tone buzzing in his ear. He turned the cell off absently. No doubt about it—Marcus was going to attempt a double cross and the only trick would be to stay one step ahead.

And that meant he had to be on his toes. He dialed Arthur’s number, the beginnings of a plan already forming.

***

He spent the next few hours trying to work, only to find his mind returning to Marcus and his proposal. At noon, he strolled out to the driveway, outwardly casual, inwardly tense as he scanned the area. The street was empty, the feeling of being watched gone and he went back inside, determined to get something done.

His determination lasted all of five minutes and soon he was wandering restlessly from window to window, mind racing. After the fourth pass, he decided he’d infect the kids with his worry and he loaded them into the SUV and drove them to the zoo.

He hadn’t been in almost four years. Like a lot of things, the last time had been when Mal was alive. She’d loved taking the kids on excursions, her excitement and curiosity almost as childlike as the children’s as she pointed out this animal or that.

Today, the children were quiet at first. James stayed close by his side, Phillipa lagged behind. But, as they got deeper into the park, they relaxed and ran about, calling out, ‘Daddy! Come see this!’

They stayed too long at the kid’s center and by the time he got them in the car, it was almost four. James fell asleep within minutes; Phillipa followed a short while later, leaning towards James. He glanced at them in the rearview, wishing he could take a picture. If someone was with him, like Mal or Miles, they could do it for him.

And it was only then that he’d realized the day had been a little off. That he’d been more than lonely as he’d watched the kids. Probably because the place was so relentlessly family-oriented; full of parents and grandparents, all focused on their children. It would have been nice to have someone there, someone that smiled when he pointed out something that James was doing, what Phillipa had just said. Like he used to have with Mal.

He shifted in his seat, remembering his thoughts of a few weeks ago. His knee-jerk reaction date with Carrie, a woman he hadn’t thought much about other than his next-day appointment to get tested—that said everything didn’t it?

So, if Carrie had been the result of some weird panic, what was Saito?

And then he realized that the night, not quite twenty-four hours old, was still singing in his veins, a subtle backdrop to his every thought and action. That all he had to do was open that door and the newborn memories came tumbling out. So, that had to mean something too, right?

He shook his head to get rid of the memory of Saito, dressed in nothing but black silk, and told himself to concentrate on the present. That it was the only thing that mattered.

***

When they got home, he was surprised to find a taxi in the drive, pulled off to the side. His heart jerked in his chest. There was no way Saito would have returned, not this soon…

He got out and hurried to the taxi and opened the door.

It was Miles. He was sitting in the back, reading a newspaper. He looked up and smiled briefly, then said, “Here he is,” to the driver and folded the newspaper.

“That was fast,” Dom said as he stepped back to give Miles room to get out.

Miles gave Dom the paper and stood up. “The wonders of modern transportation.” He stretched his arms. “Do you know that the first time I flew to Los Angeles, it took twenty-three hours and two stops? It seemed forever.”

Dom touched Miles’ arm. His smile was the same, but his face was pale and drawn—he must have left for the airport as soon as he got off the phone. “I’ll take care of the taxi.”

Miles patted his arm. “Of course you will.”

He got out his wallet and said to the driver over the hood of the car, “How much?”

“Eighty.”

Dom went around and gave him five twenties. “Keep the change.”

“Thank you.” The driver got out Miles’ suitcase then gave it to Dom.

He hefted it. It was surprising heavy—which meant Miles had packed for the week, not a few days like they’d first discussed. Dom waited until the taxi was backing down the drive before saying, “Feels like you brought everything you own.”

“Dom?” Miles said, his head angled back in that way he had.

“Yes?”

“Before we play out our charade in front of the children, why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”

Dom gripped the suitcase’s handle—the feeling of being watched had suddenly returned. “We need to get into the house.”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

“Stephen, please.” He forced himself not to look around. “I want to get the kids inside.” He turned to the SUV, but Miles grabbed his arm.

“No—”

Dom leaned close. “I think someone has been tailing me, okay?”

Miles’ expression changed and he murmured, “Dominic, what have you gotten yourself into?”

But he let go and followed Dom to the SUV. Dom opened the door and said, “Look who’s here?”

The kids woke up, rubbed their eyes and gave simultaneous, sleepy, ‘Grandpa’s! They were out of their car seats in a moment and Dom herded them all into the house as they fired comments and questions at Miles. He wondered if Phillipa would ask about the suitcase, but she just glanced at it when he said he was going to put it in the guest bedroom and said nothing.

By unspoken, mutual agreement, they concentrated on the children, sitting around the dining room table, only talking of school, the zoo and the artwork done in the past month.

Dom got up at five and started dinner, chopping lettuce as he listened to James telling Miles about the diorama he’d built the week before. He was smiling at James’ explanation of where dinosaur’s came from when he realized the calls he’d expected had never come. He wiped his hands on the dishcloth and got out his cell. And shit, he’d somehow turned it off—the message light was blinking like crazy. “Hey guys?” he interrupted James in mid-gesture. “I’ve got a few calls to make.”

Miles smiled evenly and said, “That’s all right. James was going to show me what he learned in physical exercise class, weren’t you James.”

James shouted, then popped up and ran to the center of the room, calling out for Phillipa’s. As Dom left for the workroom, he gave Miles a speaking glance, then retrieved the messages.

There were seven. One from Mick, one from a women who had a fabulous offer for a timeshare in Big Bear, two from Eames, two from Arthur. He ignored those, choosing the last, the one he’d been waiting for all day. ‘And here I thought you’d be waiting breathlessly by the phone. Call as soon as possible, Dominic—don’t keep me waiting.’

He grimaced as he dialed.

“I was beginning to think you were having second thoughts,” Marcus said cheerfully.

Dom leaned back against the long worktable and glanced out the window. “You only called five hours ago.”

“Yes, well, you’re usually so prompt. But you’re a family man now; I suppose one has to expect that kind of behavior.”

The words were smoothly snide and Dom frowned in response. Marcus had five children by three ex-wives and the only mention he’d ever made of them was a complaint that the two oldest boys were millstones around his neck. “Have you made your arrangements?”

“I have. We’ll meet in New York at seven tomorrow evening and discuss it then. I’ve already purchased your ticket.”

“What are your terms?”

“You do as I ask. No questions.”

He ground his teeth. “And this is a day in and out, right?”

“Theoretically. The time difference will be a factor, but it should take an hour to complete. We will meet at my flat and then—and only then—will I give you the background information.”

“I can’t just go into this blind, Marcus. Who’s the subject?”

“Trust me, Dominic, knowing in advance won’t matter in the least. It will be like stealing candy from a baby.”

He frowned. Marcus had obviously never tried it taking candy from a baby. “And that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

The sun had fallen behind the hills and it was too dark to see much other than the vague shape of the swing set against the mass of surrounding foliage. Everything in him was shouting ‘trap,’ but he’d learned long ago that sometimes running into the burning house was the only way to remain unscathed. What had he said to the team last year? Something about the only way through was down? “All right,” he said slowly. “All right. Send me the flight information.”

***

Miles, of course, had things to say.

“It’s like one of those movies where the hero says goodbye to the townspeople and rides off into the sunset. Everyone knows he’s riding to his death, but he keeps on riding. It’s ridiculous.”

He was whispering, but Dom glanced at the porch. As soon as they’d eaten dinner, the kids had gone out to build a fort out of the patio furniture. They were too far away, too busy to hear. He scrubbed the pot harder, joking falsely, “So now I’m a cowboy?”

“No,” Miles answered pithily, “Now you’re an idiot.”

“Stephen, I have no choice.” He finished the pot and put it in the drainer. “Arthur’s being followed, Eames is being followed and…” He glanced around again. “I know I am, too. And if I’m being followed, that means the kids are. I have to do this.”

“Okay. Call the police. It’s their job, you know.”

“No.”

Miles made a sharp gesture. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to give them an excuse. If they find any connection to my previous line of work…”

He didn’t have to explain and after a long moment, Miles nodded and said roughly, “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow. The client is flying to New York to meet me.”

Miles sighed. “All right. But I need to know that this is the last time. You know how much I care—” He broke off and looked away, blinking and shaking his head a few times.

Dom dried his hands and turned to clasp Miles’ arm. “I know, and yeah, this is it. I should have taken care of this last year. But I didn’t, and I need to fix it.”

“Okay,” Miles said again, this time patting his hand. “Okay. What’s done is done.”

Dom nodded. “Do you have room for dessert and coffee?”

“Just coffee. I’ll get the children.”

***

Marcus emailed the information later that night after Miles and the kids had gone to bed. Dom called Arthur and Eames, getting neither. He thought about calling Saito, but what would he say? He’d already lied to him once that day—he didn’t want to do it again.

He stayed up until midnight, reviewing his will, his insurance policies, making sure everything was up to date. He thought about working, but finally turned off the lights and went to bed. He stopped by the kids’ rooms, first James’ then Phillipa’s. He watched her sleep for a moment, then told himself it wasn’t the last time, that he’d do the same, tomorrow night and to just go to bed.

***

The next morning, he dragged himself up an hour early and got out his overnight bag. He didn’t pack heavily—an extra suit, a pair of jeans and a couple t-shirts, just in case.

He was almost done when a small sound made him look up.

Phillipa was standing in the doorway, still in her nightgown, her hair mussed, her arms crossed. “You’re leaving again, aren’t you?”

He nodded slowly. “I have to go to New York for the day.”

“You said you were staying.”

He tucked a pair of socks into the corner of the bag then went to pick her up. She was stiff with anger and wouldn’t look at him. He sighed and sat on the foot of the bed. “It’s just for the day.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Tonight. You won’t even know I’m gone.” He made it a joke—she didn’t smile.

“Do you have to go?”

“Yes.”

She finally relaxed, just a bit and turned in his arms. “And you’ll be back tonight?” She touched his watch.

“Yes.”

“Do you promise?”

The one question he’d been dreading and he hesitated too long. She looked up. Her eyes were a clear turquoise blue, a sweeter mirror of his own and he found himself unable to lie. “I can’t do that, sweetheart, as much as I want to. My plan is to be back tonight, but I might be gone for a few days. I need you to be good and help your grandpa as much as possible.”

“Are you in trouble?”

He cocked his head. Once again, her expression was closed off, blank. “No, of course not. Why would you think that?”

She looked back down and shook her head. “Never mind.”

He stroked her hair. “Phillipa?”

She didn’t quite shrug off his hand as she slipped out of his arms. “It’s okay, Dad. I’m going to make sure James isn’t bugging Grandpa.”

And she was gone, running out the door, her hair flying out behind her.

***

The taxi arrived ten minutes early. He hugged and kissed the kids, said goodbye to Miles and left, calmly as if he were off for a walk in the park, ignoring the lump in his throat. When the taxi pulled away, he made himself smile and wave, the lump now a fist, almost choking him.

***

He half expected to be stopped during check-in, but he was nodded through with no problem and when he got to the gate and the attendant announced the boarding time, he realized he was disappointed. That he’d been hoping whoever had helped Saito clear his name hadn’t done a good job and he was on some no-fly list.

No such luck.

***

The first half of the trip was uneventful, even a little boring. Except for someone bent over a laptop in the very back, he was the only first-class passenger. Still, it gave him time to himself and he got out the latest Economist from the rack. He fell asleep soon after and woke at four, disoriented until the flight attendant came by to ask if he was ready for the lunch he’d slept through. He nodded, asked for water, then looked out the window.

They were passing over a flat plain of blue and it took him a second to realize that it was water. Either Lake Eerie or Ontario. Which meant they’d land in about an hour, give or take.

“Sir?”

He looked up. The attendant was back, holding out a glass. He took it with a soft, “Thank you.” It tasted good and he finished it with a gulp.

She came back a few minutes later with his meal. It was chicken and vegetables and even though it was probably very good, he only picked at it. He was poking at a piece of potato, idly wondering if he was in the mood for a dessert when his seat moved. Someone was leaning over him.

He turned to look up with a frown, his, ‘What the hell?’ dying in his throat.

Marcus Lightman.

Leaning over him like a gargoyle, smiling that shark’s smile of his.

“Guess who?” Marcus said happily, his smile widening at Dom’s shock.

“Marcus.”

“I was worried you wouldn’t show so I decided to surprise you. But then,” he straightened and moved to the side of Dom’s seat. “You’re not the type of man to back down from a challenge, are you?” He leaned down again and brushed his lips against Dom’s cheek, casually, as if a kiss between them was a common occurrence.

Dom kept perfectly still, hoping his pulse wasn’t visibly pounding in his throat, unwilling to retreat, to show weakness. “So you hid in coach?”

Marcus chuckled, then pushed away and took the seat across the aisle.

He looked tired, was Dom’s first thought. Tired and debauched. His hair was still dark, his eyes still that startling blue, but too much sun and too many cigarettes had taken their toll—he looked easily ten years older than his real age of fifty-two.

Marcus smiled charmingly as if he knew what Dom was thinking and leaned back, fingers steeple in front of him. “Actually, I was in the back.” He cocked his head. “You didn’t notice me. Which worries me a bit. How effective will you be if you don’t notice what’s right under your nose?”

“Marcus,” Dom said, making his own smile just as charming. “When we get to New York, I can easily get off this plane and get right back on another.”

Marcus rolled his eyes. “Dominic. You are always so dramatic. But,” he waved his hand, as if waving away Dom’s next pointed observation, “You are looking well. California obviously suits you.” His gaze traveled up and down, inspecting Dom’s body with a proprietariness that set his teeth on edge.

“Thank you.”

“This is where you say, ‘You look well, also, Marcus.’”

“You look well, also, Marcus,” he mocked.

Marcus laughed and when the attendant came by, he looked up and said, “Sake. For my friend and I.”

“No, thank you,” Dom said quickly, before the attendant left. “I’m fine.” He crossed his legs.

Marcus raised one eyebrow. “It’s not poison, Dominic. You still don’t trust me, do you?”

“Would you, in my place?”

“No. But then, the way I see it, I’m the wounded party. I did, after all, pay you a considerable sum for a job that was never completed.” The attendant returned. Marcus took the glass with a nod that turned into a shooing gesture.

Dom waited until they were alone before saying, “And we undertook that job with the caveat that you’d given us a complete dossier on Saito.”

“Don’t blame me for that. He’s a sneaky bastard. All Japanese are, you know.”

Dom clenched his jaw and reminded himself that even though he hadn’t seen them, Marcus’ men were no doubt close by. That even though it would give him great satisfaction to smash the smile from Marcus’s face, he couldn’t cause a disturbance on a plane. Clever, clever Marcus. “No,” he finally said with a shrug. “I didn’t know that.” In a pointed show of dismissal, he unclasped his watch and set it to New York time.

“It’s true. Did you know he came to me after the failed job and offered you in exchange for a share in my South African interests?”

Dom stilled in the middle of adjusting the dial, then bent his head, feigning concentration.

Marcus was lying, of course. Saito would never have approached him if he’d had another plan for Proculus Global in mind. And he sure as hell wouldn’t have dissolved the company after their own deal was completed—why bother if he was going to continue business as usual. “Did he?”

“He did.”

“I take it you weren’t interested?”

“Not at the time, no.”

He looked up and made himself smile. “And now?” He slipped the watch back on and tugged his shirtsleeve over it neatly.

“And now?” Marcus said as he waved his glass in an oddly hypnotic motion. “Now, I think I’ve changed my mind.”

“How so?”

Instead of answering, Marcus said, “Have you given any more thought to my proposal of last year?”

Dom ran his hand over his hair. He always reacted quickly in any situation, but the idea that Saito might have been playing him all this time had been a shock. Just as shocking as the wash of relief that had swept over him moments later. A relief that was sharp and sweet and completely out of proportion to what he should be feeling. “What proposal was that?” he asked absently. He suddenly felt lightheaded and oddly heavy, both at the same time.

“Come work for me,” Marcus murmured as he leaned forward. “On a full-time basis. I’ll make sure you’re taken care of, make sure your children want for nothing.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

‘Because you’re a bastard. Because you want to fuck me and throw me away, just to say you did it. Because I’m not letting my children anywhere near you.’ “Because I don’t need the money.”

“That’s a rather spurious reason.”

“Nevertheless, it’s true.”

“Really? From what I hear, you’re running through your cash like water.”

Who had he been talking to? Eames? Arthur? No, not Arthur. He would never— “You heard wrong.”

Marcus sat back. “Ah.”

Dom shifted in his seat—a headache was building at his temples and he thought his pulse might be racing again. “Can we get down to business? What’s this job you were talking about?”

Marcus’ eyes widened and he shook his head, smiling gently.

“Marcus?” he said, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m sorry, Dominic, but it’s almost funny. It really is.” Marcus’ expression shifted from humor to calculating. “You used to be smarter.”

He held his breath, his vision suddenly swimming. “What does that mean?” He struggled to his feet, but Marcus was there, easily pushing him back with one hand to his chest, whispering in his ear.

“That you were right to mistrust me, but wrong to trust the security of this airline. And the water you drank earlier.” He leaned closer, his lips to Dom’s ear. “You see, my dear Dominic, Masahiro Saito isn’t the only one who can buy things.”

Dom shook his head, surprised by the soft sound that escaped his lips.

“Yes, as of two o’clock Saturday afternoon, I own this airline. Plus a few other things that are neither here nor there.”

“Why?”

Obviously a stupid question—Marcus’s smile turned cruel as he murmured, “Because I know it will be worth it. I know you’ll be worth it.”

He took a deep breath to clear his head, to force his muscles to respond, but Marcus shook his head.

“Don’t bother,” Marcus said, still too close. “It’s pointless.” And when Dom sank into the seat under a wave of lethargy, Marcus looked over his shoulder and said loudly, “Miss? My friend seems to have taken ill…” And, “Too much stress…” And then, “Yes, when we land, I’ll—”

Dom made a last effort, shaking his head again, surprised and not surprised when the movement made the vertigo worse, breaking the tentative hold he had on consciousness. He felt for his pocket even as he tumbled, even as he let the wave take him.

***

He came to at one point, unable to see, hearing a voice say apologetically, “Thank you, officer, I’m sure he’ll be fine. My men are trained for—” His mouth was so dry, as if he’d swallowed sand and he licked his lips. That somehow made everything worse and he tried to move his head.

A streak of pain arced bright and he retreated, back into the comforting dark.

 

___________________

 

Saturday, September 25th

 

“I’m sorry, sir,” Ito said again.

Saito murmured, “No. I should have taken care of it before I left. Have Mr. Muto in to appraise the condition, to be on the safe side.”

“Yes, sir.”

He could hear the chagrin in Ito’s voice. “It is fine, Ito.”

“She was very upset when we left. She said she would call her lawyer.”

He shrugged, imagining the scene—Miko screaming a variety of threats while Ito tried to placate her; Kim calmly tucking the vase in its specially-made case. “The lawyers will handle it.” He’d paid off mistresses before—this would be nothing new.

“Mr. Weston called.”

“Yes?”

“He was wondering if you were available for dinner.”

He smiled. “I am assuming you told him no.”

“I did. I said you might have time at the end of next week. I wasn’t sure if I should say you were out of the country.”

Saito smiled at the, ‘I’ll show that pushy Brit who’s boss,’ tone in Ito’s voice. “He wants the new data on the reactor. He can get that from Kaneda.”

“Yes, sir. Will you be going out?”

“No. I will be dining at the hotel if you need me.”

“Very good.”

He hung up, then wandered over to the windows. Being back in the suite he’d so recently vacated was disorienting, as if he were in a dream or under the effects of the Somnacin drug. And if it were the latter, it would be a simple matter of turning, the force of his own imagination and will creating what he most desired—Cobb, standing by the sofa, face flushed, eyes glittering with lust…

He shivered.

Then sighed again and tugged at his necktie and turned away from the night. He’d shower, then eat.

***

He declined Robert’s invitation to dinner and ate in his room while the television played in the background, reciting the news of the day. Protests over the last developments with North Korea, unrest in Afghanistan the Baltic, sea-faring pirates capturing another tanker of crude.

Eventually, the news turned to the stock exchange and as the figures reeled by, he found himself staring blankly at the screen, not thinking much of anything.

It was almost midnight when he finally made himself go to bed.

***

He dreamt that night…

Of climbing a long staircase each step higher than the last. Of stopping every few seconds, weak and tired, unable to draw enough air into his lungs to counter the wheezing. When he reaches the top, he finds himself looking at a door, the Western kind, waiting in the shadows at the end of a long hall. He turns to retreat but in the way of dreams, he is suddenly standing in front of the door, already reaching out and he wants to do anything but what he is doing because it is—

He woke with a start, breath trapped in his throat, almost afraid to move, afraid his body would be stiff with arthritis, making every effort a struggle. He finally exhaled a deep breath of exasperation at his fear and sat up, swinging his legs out of bed in a smooth, pain-free motion. The nape of his neck was cold and he touched his skin; he was sweating.

He stood. Sunlight edged through the cracks in the draperies and he glanced at the clock. Already ten-thirty, too late for breakfast but he called the concierge and ordered anyway, needing the normal to counterbalance the nightmare of being in limbo once more.

***

He was standing in front of the window again, breakfast finished, wondering if Cobb would be at home when his mobile rang. He checked the display—Robert. No doubt inquiring about the day’s schedule. He hesitated, then pocketed the mobile unanswered. He wasn’t up to making small talk but it was moments later when the mobile rang again. He growled and got it out again. This time, it wasn’t Robert, but Ito.

“Good morning.”

“Sir?”

“What did Muto say? Was there any damage done to the vase?”

“Sir?”

He took a breath, only then realizing that Ito was speaking with his worried voice. “What is it?”

“I received a call today. From Mrs. Takahashi. There’s been an incident.”

“What kind of incident?

“I’m not sure if it means anything, but the airline contacted Mrs. Takahashi yesterday. About one of your new employees. Apparently, a flight attendant by the name of Naomi Walters was found in the Sydney harbor.”

“And?”

“She’d been strangled.”

He froze, finally placing the name. He’d handled the interviews, after all, finding a likely candidate that understood the meaning of discretion. “I take it this is the same flight attendant who assisted Mr. Cobb and I last year?”

“Yes, sir. She was the one who, ah, carried the device.”

‘Smuggled,’ was more like it. “When did it happen? The murder, I mean.”

“That’s another disturbing thing, sir. Apparently, she’d been dead for some time. Maybe as long as a month. And, sir?” Ito swallowed. “She’d been tortured.”

He didn’t answer.

“Yes. Do you want the details?”

“No,” he said harshly. “Why am I only hearing of this now?”

“I do not know. I think they had an issue with identifying her. After so long in the water, you see.”

Ito’s voice was pained, but then, he’d never been one for violence. “Did she have a family?”

“Yes, a boy.”

“Make sure he’s taken care of. Through the company, mind you, not through me.”

“Of course not, sir.” Ito paused, then said, “Would you like me to contact the Australian authorities? At the moment, the Sydney police are not looking any further than the local population.”

Saito didn’t mistake his meaning. If he left the matter alone, there’d be no connection to him, to Cobb. “Let me think about it. In the meantime, we’ll start our own investigation.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Telephone Mrs. Takahashi—tell her to telephone you the minute any new information becomes available. And call Inspector Ishikawa and carefully inquire if he has a contact in the Sydney police force.”

“Is that wise, sir?”

“His wife was born in Perth. And it’s about time he pays me back for all the work I have thrown his way.”

Ito was silent for a moment and Saito knew he was thinking that, ‘all the work,’ had paved the way for Proculus Global’s rise to power. And that Ishikawa had long since paid with his silence and not-so-subtle decisions that always seemed to run in the company’s favor.

“And Ito? Tell Kaneda and Kim what has transpired. Tell them to increase security at the plant and the office.”

“What do you think has happened, sir?”

“I am not sure, but it’s better to be prepared.”

“Yes, sir.”

In any lesser employee, there might more questions, but Ito held his tongue—it was one of the reasons why Saito valued him so. “Thank you, Ito.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Call if you hear anything else.”

“Oh, about that—someone left a message on the corporate number. A Mr. Eames?”

Eames. Yes, there was definitely something wrong. “Forward the message and I’ll call when I can.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Goodbye.”

Saito disconnected and dialed quickly, thankful he didn’t have to calculate the time difference as he normally did. He began to pace as he listened to the soft ring.

“You really do have ESP,” Ian answered with no ceremony. “I was just going to call you.”

“About?”

“Our bird has flown the coop.”

He stopped pacing. “Meaning?”

“Mr. Cobb left in a taxi about thirty minutes ago. And before you say anything, I tried to call.”

He started pacing again. “What happened?”

“Okay. About three yesterday afternoon, Cobb’s father-in-law arrived by tax—”

“Professor Miles is there? In California?”

“Yeah, he is. And he was carrying a suitcase large enough to hold clothing for a month. Like he’s expecting to stay a while.”

Damn Cobb for lying to him. “And then?”

“Nothing much—they all stayed inside for the rest of the day, everything hunky dory. But this morning, another taxi arrived, this time for Mr. Cobb. He wasn’t carrying much luggage, just an overnight bag. I sent one of my men after him—they’re heading towards L.A. and my bet is he’s going to hop on a plane.”

Saito rubbed his jaw, thinking quickly. “Do you trust your man?”

“Yes.”

“Instruct him to follow Cobb.”

Ian paused. “Even if he gets on a plane?”

“Yes. Pay whatever price, but get him on that flight.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to call the authorities, say Mr. Cobb is sick or a danger to himself? Something like that?”

“No, above all, don’t do that.” If Cobb were taken into custody, if he were detained for even a few hours, that might raise the issue of the old charges.

“Okay. Hold on. I’m putting you on hold.” There was a brief, tense pause, and then he came back on. “It’s done.”

He sat down on the sofa, suddenly tired. “Anything else?”

“Just that our friends in the silver Toyota did a drive-by yesterday, around dinner time.”

“Have you obtained any more information about them?”

“No. I’ve got one of my boys working on it, though. We’ll find out who they are.”

“Sooner rather than later, please. Something has just come to my attention that might be trouble.”

“What is it?”

“I’ve told you some of my business dealings last year, yes?”

“You’ve been pretty cagey about a lot of your past,” Ian said baldly, something Saito didn’t mind—he appreciated honesty even if it bordered on rudeness.

“I can not tell you the particulars, but last year Cobb and I worked with a woman employed by my new airline. She was recently pulled from the Sydney Harbor, dead.”

“Shit,” Ian breathed. “I take it her death wasn’t accidental?”

“No. She’d been tortured.”

“So unless there’s a serial killer in Sydney and he just happened to pick your employee…”

“Yes.”

“Shit,” Ian muttered again. “Look. I get that this is a sensitive subject, but I’m not going to go into a situation without knowing the details. I won’t send my boys in, either. Toby will get on that plane, but that’s it. If you want me to back off and stay on the sidelines, fine. But if you want my help, I need those particulars. Trust goes both ways.”

Saito hesitated, then said, decision made, “It does. Pick me up in thirty minutes and I will tell you what I can.”

***

Ian was early. Saito had just exited the lift when he spied a familiar figure coming through the revolving door.

With bowed legs and pale hair that had long since thinned out, Ian Hunter was a hand span shorter than Saito and dressed as if he were a day laborer. But he was the best security man Saito had ever met. He’d been so impressed, he’d tried to purchase Ian’s services and when he’d been turned down, had tried to purchase the company. Ian had just chuckled and said that he didn’t need the cash and preferred the freedom that freelancing gave him.

They met by the large center floral arrangement in the center of the lobby. Ian held out his hand, “Mr. Saito. It’s good to see you again.”

“And you, as well. Did you learn of Cobb’s destination?”

“New York.”

“When did he leave?”

“At noon.”

Damn it. He’d missed Cobb by an hour. “When will he land?”

“In about four hours.”

He looked at his watch. “That would be eight o’clock, correct?”

Ian shrugged. “Roughly.”

“And your man?”

“Got on the same flight. He called a couple times with updates. He had to get a coach seat but he’s managed to look in on Cobb. Everything is fine.”

He nodded, then got out his mobile.

“Who are you calling?”

He held up his finger and waited for Robert to answer.

“Saito?” Robert said in a rush, “I was wondering where you were. The concierge said you hadn’t—”

“Robert?” he broke in, in much too big a hurry to be polite, to be concerned that Robert hadn’t called him, ‘Hiro.’ “I need a favor. A very large one, I’m afraid.”

There was a long pause, then Robert said, “And what is that?”

“I would like to borrow your plane.”

 

___________________

 

His mobile started ringing the moment he turned it on. He glanced around the cabin. Yusuf was staring at him curiously, but their fellow passengers had started chatting the minute the stewardess announced they could turn their wireless devices on. No one was paying attention. Still…

He answered, his voice lowered, “Yes?”

“I’ve been trying to reach you for the last three hours.”

“Well, you know how airlines are, Arthur. The plane would come crashing down if we were allowed to make a simple telephone call.” The man across the aisle glanced at him briefly and he choked back the snarky addition of, ‘sweetheart.’ It would be funny, but he needed Arthur and, as much as he hated to admit it, pissing him off would serve no purpose.

“Right,” Arthur said grudgingly. “We just got in, anyway.”

“Got in where?”

“New York. We’re on our way to my apartment.”

“You have a place in New York?”

“Yes. For emergencies.”

“I hope it’s in better condition than my ‘emergency’ flat or there’s going to be a problem.”

“The apartment is fine, Eames. What did you find out?”

He looked around again. For all it was first class, it was still close quarters. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll call you back.”

“Fine.”

***

He didn’t get a chance to call until they were off the plane. He jerked his head to Yusuf and led him to a gate that was dark and empty. He sat down. Straight ahead was a poster of a beach and a beautiful sunset with the word, ‘Fiji,’ scrawled across the bottom. He dialed Arthur’s number absently wondering why the hell was he in cold New York when he could be someplace warm like Fiji?

“What did you find out?” Arthur repeated as the phone clicked through.

“Not a lot. Just that our admirers followed us to London.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, it is not.” He looked around for Yusuf. He’d stopped in front of one of the many television sets hanging high on the walls and was watching a news broadcast. His silver case was cradled to his chest as it had been most of the trip.

“Did they follow you to New York?”

He crossed his legs, really wishing he didn’t have to answer as Arthur would give him grief. “I don’t know.”

And right on cue, Arthur growled, “How can you not know?”

“Because, Arthur, I’m not a computer geek. I can’t hack into the airline’s database to see if any of Lightman’s employees purchased a ticket on the same flight. Just as I wouldn’t know who they were to begin with. He employs a lot of people, you know.”

Arthur was silent for a moment, then said quietly, “You’re right. There’s no way to know.”

“And what about you two? Has anyone been after you?”

“Not yet. Well, not that we’ve noticed.”

He nodded. Arthur was a pain in the arse, but he was good at what he did—if he was being followed, he’d know it. He got out a pen and a scrap of paper. “What’s the address of Marcus’ flat?” Yusuf was still watching the TV, but he’d stepped closer to the set until he was right under it, squinting up.

“You’re going over there now?

“You have a better idea?”

“I was thinking we’d get together and talk it over. You know, instead of doing something stupid?”

There was a sound he thought was a radio or TV until he realized it was Ariadne saying something about, “We can’t just go in…” He grinned, realizing he was looking forward to seeing her again. He liked her. “I suppose you have a point. Where are you?”

“I’m at 2850 Briggs Avenue. Apartment 212.”

“212,” he murmured, writing the number down. “Is that far?”

Yusuf sat down next to him and whispered, “Eames?”

“Far enough,” Arthur answered.

“Yusuf is paying for it, then.” He grinned and then looked over Yusuf. He was still cradling the case, but now he was gripping it so hard his fingertips were pale. Arthur was still talking, saying something about parking, but Eames didn’t hear him—Yusuf was staring at him with eyes that burned.

“What is it?” he asked, then added, “Arthur, hold on. I think something’s come up. What is it, Yusuf?”

Yusuf leaned forward, speaking to both, “We might have a problem. The flight attendant last year? The one that Mr. Saito hired?”

“Yes, what of her?”

“She’s dead. She was found floating in the Sydney Harbor a few days ago.”

“Christ,” Eames murmured, just as Arthur’s tinny voice hissed, “Shit.”

“And to make matters worse,” Yusuf continued, “if that’s even possible, she’d been tortured.”

“Are you sure it’s her?”

Yusuf nodded. “Yes. I trained her, remember?”

He nodded, recalling the nights Yusuf had sat with the girl, going over the details of the machine. After a minute, he said, “Well, that answers the main question as to how Lightman found out about the compound.”

“Eames?” Arthur said loudly, “put me back on.”

He brought the mobile to his ear. “That puts a kink in our plans.”

“No, it just means we need to act quickly. If Marcus knows about the flight attendant, then he knows about the job. And if he knows about the job, then everything is fucked. Everything, Eames.”

“Yeah, okay, I get it,” he said slowly. “We’ll be there soon.”

“While you’re at it, think up a way to find out how many men Marcus brought with him. We’re going to need to know.”

“And how do you propose I do that?”

“I have no idea.”

“Brilliant.” He made the word extra sarcastic and wasn’t surprised when Arthur muttered in return, “Eames…”

“Right. Never mind. You better call Saito. Update him on the latest news.”

“All right.”

“See you in an hour.” He hung up, then flashed a quick grin at Yusuf, still sitting there, frown darkly.

“C’mon,” Eames said. “Let’s find that cab.”

He tried to stand but Yusuf stopped him with a hand on his arm and a low, “We need to find Lightman.”

“No, we’ll go to Arthur’s place and see what’s what.”

“Eames?”

Eames sighed. “Yusuf, Arthur was right. We can’t just go haring off to Lightman’s place. We need a plan.”

“No. We need to go there. Now.”

“Yusuf,” he sighed, “What aren’t you telling me?”

“I was thinking…”

And when Yusuf didn’t continue, he prodded, “Yes?”

“See, I didn’t think it was a big deal. But if Lightman knows about the job, then he might… I should have told you this in the first place, but—”

“Yusuf, if you don’t just spit it out, I’m going to—”

“Lightman has forty-five milliliters of my new compound.”

Said so fast, Eames had to ask again, “What?”

“Lightman,” Yusuf said slowly, as if to a child, “has forty-five milliliters of my new compound.”

He took a deep breath. “And I’m almost afraid to ask, but what’s so special about it?”

Yusuf hesitated, then mumbled, “I found a way to increase its potency.”

“Christ.”

“And that’s not all.”

When Yusuf didn’t continue, Eames rubbed his forehead. “Yusuf, so help me, if you just don’t—”

“All right, all right!” Yusuf gripped the case tighter. “It’s just— It has an unfortunate side effect. I was in the first stage of the trials, but a new client wanted to try it out—they needed it for an upcoming job. I administered it, and it caused the client to drop into a deep sleep.”

“You mean a coma?”

“I’m not sure. Not all of the subjects experienced the same effect. This particular client’s brain functions are high, reading almost normal, but they won’t wake up. They’re in hospital. I told the staff it was due to an accident.”

“And you gave Marcus Lightman a bit of this technological soup of yours?”

Yusuf drew back. “You needn’t put it like that. I didn’t know who he was. At first. And I didn’t give it to him. I gave it to one of his representatives.”

“Well, that makes it all better, doesn’t it?” He rubbed his face, trying to work out the ramifications of Yusuf’s news. “You think Lightman is going to use it on Cobb, don’t you?”

“Well, you’re the one that said he’s unbalanced.”

He nodded. It would be just like Lightman—his streak of cruelty was deep and wide. “Are you sure he knows about the effects of your version of the drug?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” he said as he stood up. “Nothing’s changed. If we jump the gun with Lightman, he’ll be gone. If he’s got Cobb, he’ll move him to a new location, if he doesn’t kill him first. If they’re even at his flat in the first place. We need to coordinate with Arthur and figure out the best approach.”

Yusuf clasped the case tighter. “All right.”

“It’ll be okay,” Eames said after a moment, unable to stay mad at Yusuf for longer than a few seconds. “Is there anything else you haven’t told me about the compound?”

“No,” Yusuf said quickly. Then, “Well, a few of my test subjects experienced a slight drop in blood pressure, but that’s not abnormal.”

Eames gave him a searching look. “That’s it?”

Yusuf nodded. “Yes.”

He sighed. He wasn’t sure if Yusuf was lying but even if he were, they had to be on the move. He took Yusuf’s arm and pulled him up. “C’mon, let’s get some cash and out of here.”

 

___________________

 

He came to. As if rising through himself, slow and heavy, then lighter and lighter until…

He opened his eyes. He was in a dark room, flat on his back in a wide bed. He was mostly dressed, missing only his jacket and—he felt his throat—tie.

He turned his head. To his left was a wall of glass divided by French doors. The curtains were drawn and one of the doors was opened a crack, letting in the low buzz of traffic and the comforting smell of exhaust, wet brick and pavement.

He pushed to his elbows. A mistake and the room tilted and his vision darkened. He fell back and groaned, waiting until the brief pain vanished before looking around again.

Directly in front of him was a long dresser and above that, an oval mirror. To the right against the wall, was a sofa and a chair. Two doors bracketed the sofa, both were closed.

He sat up again, this time slowly. Like before, his vision blurred, but he gave it a moment and the fog soon cleared. He’d never been drugged before but he’d done enough drugging to know the after effects; headaches, dizziness and a mouth as dry as cotton. But, oddly enough, he felt none of those things; in fact, he felt absurdly normal.

He swung his legs off the bed and stood. Still only a mild vertigo. Which could mean several things, probably just that he’d been lying there for longer than he’d thought. He peered at his watch. Eleven-seventeen on Sunday evening.

He rubbed his forehead. He’d been on a plane, hadn’t he? Flying to see—

He shook his head because he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember and that wasn’t good and a sick thrill raced up his spine. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then another.

He’d been on a plane. Flying to meet someone. A meeting he’d been dreading. But why?

He rubbed his forehead again then shrugged away his unease and crept to the door on the left. He pressed his ear to the wood. He heard nothing and he turned the knob. It was a large, empty bathroom, just as dark as the bedroom. He closed the door and turned to the right.

This time, when he pressed his ear to the other door, he heard a soft sound that had an odd cadence to it, rhythmic and pulsating, and he realized his was listening to a talk show. He touched the doorknob, then—because there was little choice and he had to know—he pushed the door open.

“Well, it’s about time,” came a cheerful voice. He looked around, not really needing to see because memory rushed back in a wave that almost hurt: Marcus, the plane, the fucking roofie. Anger tightened his jaw, his chest.

“I’ve been waiting for hours, you see,” Marcus added, twisting briefly to glance at Dom before returning to the wide screen TV. “Have a seat.”

The room was beautiful, full of sleek, modern furniture. On the opposite side, near the door, stood one of Marcus’ men, hands clasped before him. Dom thought he recognized him, and yeah, it was the asshole that had tried to mow him down last year in Mombasa.

“Not going to sit?” Marcus said without looking around. “Then maybe you’d like a glass of wine.” He held up a glass.

He didn’t move. “So you can drug me again?” His voice was rough and he touched his throat.

Marcus laughed. “Oh, that. That was just to make sure you didn’t run. An insurance policy, if you will.”

‘Insurance policy, my ass.’ “Where am I?”

“My flat, of course. I invited you a few years ago, remember?”

“I remember. I also remember that when you invited me, I was wanted by the authorities.”

“I was surprised by that, you know.”

“What? That I didn’t fall for your trap or that they thought I had killed my wife?”

“It wasn’t a trap, but no, I was surprised that you weren’t clever enough to find a way in and out of the country. You’re supposed to be so clever.”

Dom took a deep breath. Marcus was too good at baiting him. It was important to remember why he was here. In and out—that’s how it needed to be; his ego could take a little bruising.

Marcus cocked his head, glancing back at Dom. “Did you, by the way?”

“Did I what?”

“Kill your wife?”

He should have been prepared—after all, he’d brought it up. He should have been prepared but he wasn’t and anger bloomed hot in his chest. He stared at the TV screen. There was a commercial on; a woman and a duck were talking to each other. “What do you think?”

Marcus shrugged. “That an innocent man wouldn’t have run.” When Dom didn’t say anything, he added, “Anyway, I’d like to think you were the kind of man who could kill anyone. It would make things so much easier.”

And before he could respond because what the fuck did that mean, Marcus waved his own comment away. “But, no matter. You could have murdered twenty wives and I wouldn’t care.”

“What a surprise.”

Marcus patted the arm of his chair. “You must be thirsty. Come, sit.”

Dom hesitated, then went to the sofa, pointedly giving Marcus wide berth.

Marcus had changed his clothes. Instead of the suit, he was wearing a blue polo shirt and slacks. As if he were on vacation and not a job. “What’s going on? I thought I was here to work.”

Marcus sighed and stood up. He walked to the bar and bent down, returning with a blue bottle of mineral water and a glass. He sat the glass and bottle down in front of Dom and urged, “Please. I know you’re thirsty.”

The words, ‘I’m not fucking thirsty,’ were on Dom’s lips when he realized, that yes, he actually was thirsty. And that the headache he thought he didn’t have was beginning to grow at the base of his skull. So much for feeling fine. He opened the bottle, poured the water and then took a drink. He sighed. Because it tasted wonderful and he closed his eyes in pleasure.

“Yes,” Marcus murmured, “I imagine that tastes good.”

He was standing too close, almost between Dom’s knees. Dom looked up, steadily daring him to make the mistake of trying anything stupid. Finally, Marcus stepped back and returned to his chair and picked up the remote. He began to flip through the channels, one by one.

“Marcus?” Dom asked after a moment, because why the hell was he sitting here, watching some reality show with Marcus Lightman of all people?

“Yes, Dominic?”

“Since it’s obvious I’m not here for a job, why don’t you get on with the torture.”

Marcus actually laughed, a loud bark of humor that died as quickly as it had come. He leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs. “Whatever gave you the idea that I’d want to hurt you?”

Dom just looked at him.

“No, Dominic. I wasn’t planning on torturing you. Well…” Marcus amended with a gentle smile. “Not in the way you must be imagining. You watch too much television.”

Wanting to growl, ‘Don’t fuck with me, Marcus,’ he asked as coolly as possible, “Then what are we waiting for?”

“Oh, my dear, I thought you’d never ask.” Marcus reached out and touched Dom’s knee. “We’re waiting for the chemist, of course.”

 

___________________

 

Sunday, September 26th

Memory was such an odd thing. He’d only been to Cobb’s house twice and yet he felt as if he knew every tree, every shrub, every rise and fall of the road as they drove by the wrought-iron fence. Even his body seemed to remember, his legs and arms unconsciously compensating when Ian turned into the drive and took the hill too fast.

Ridiculous, he thought dismissively, angry at his own reaction. It was impossible to become that familiar with something so quickly. The notion was sentimental and so unlike him as to be, well, ridiculous.

He tapped his fingers on his thigh, then stilled when Ian glanced at him.

“How do you want to play this?”

Ian’s voice was cool—they’d had a minor disagreement when Saito had insisted they make a stop in Pasadena before heading to the airport. Ian had finally given in, naturally, but he’d been quiet the entire trip, speaking only when absolutely necessary.

“If Cobb has informed his father-in-law of his circumstances, we can talk to him openly. If not…” He shrugged. Involving the Professor might put him, and the children, in jeopardy.

Ian smiled briefly. “I might have a clue about that. The other night I was bored—” His smile broadened. “And I did a quick check on Professor Stephen Miles. Did you know he was rumored to have worked on some hush-hush project for the British military back in the sixties?”

“No. I did not.” ‘Hush-hush’ could only refer to the Cold War-era Somnacin studies that he’d a few stories about.

“He did, supposedly. Now, I can’t find anything about the project, but in ‘61, he was sent to France for a few years. He returned to the UK in ‘64 where he took up teaching at Imperial College, then University College. In ‘74, he returned to France after he was offered a position at the Université de Paris.”

He pronounced it, ‘pah-ree,’ and Saito hid a smile. “That would make sense. Cobb’s mother-in-law is French. I gather he and his wife, Mal, met there.”

“If it helps, I could dig a little deeper.”

He shook his head. “No. It is of no account.” He wouldn’t take a chance that Cobb might learn of the inquiry—he wouldn’t appreciate being investigated.

“Are you sure? I’ve found that even the smallest bit of intel can help—”

“No,” he interrupted with a cutting swipe of his hand. “It doesn’t matter. Leave it.”

A pointed remark to remind who was footing the bill and Ian muttered, “Understood.” He glanced up at the house. “So, we assume that the professor knows what his son-in-law is up to?”

“For the time being, but we must tread delicately. My primary concern is the ensure the children’s safety and to learn whom Cobb might be meeting in New York.”

He waited for a pointed comment that they could have easily called, but Ian just nodded. “Understood.”

“Then, come.” Saito got out of the car and made his way up the drive.

The grounds were empty of workman—he remembered that it was Sunday and Americans generally took that day off. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t work when Cobb was gone? He hoped their absence didn’t have anything to do with Cobb’s own sudden trip. He should have had them investigated—if he’d been thinking clearly, he would have done it, first thing.

“I checked them out, sir,” Ian said at his shoulder. “The company is owned by a Michael Clarke. He’s from Pasadena and he met Mr. Cobb when they bid the remodel. There are a few sketchy characters in his crew, but they’re mostly legit.”

He raised an eyebrow but kept walking. “Should I be worried, Mr. Hunter, that it is you who seem to be able to read minds?”

“Nah. I just know that look when I see it.”

“Hmm.” Still, he felt a measure of relief and was almost smiling when he climbed the stairs and pushed the doorbell. He heard steps in the hall, then a shadow darkened the opaque glass.

A moment later, the door opened and a man stood there, clearly blocking the entrance. He was tall but stooped, with white hair and faded blue eyes that still managed to be keen. He was wearing, of all things, a red-checked apron that said, ‘Kiss the Cook!’ and holding a paring knife. He didn’t let go of the door handle. “Yes?”

“Professor Miles?” Saito asked.

“Yes?”

“I am a friend of Cobb’s.”

Miles glanced at Ian and then back at Saito. “Yes?”

“Professor Miles, my name is Masahiro Saito. Cobb and I worked together. May we come in?”

Miles pointed the knife at Saito. “You’re the client from last year, aren’t you? The one…” He paused and looked briefly over his shoulder, then lowered his voice. “The one who managed to clear his name?”

Ian shifted from foot to foot. Saito ignored him. “Yes.”

“And you know what’s going on? Where he’s gone”

“I know very little. I gather it’s about a job. Or rather, a job that didn’t go as planned.”

“He said it was a job he couldn’t complete.”

“Yes.”

“And who is he?” Miles pointed the knife again, this time at Ian.

Saito shrugged. There was little sense in lying. Miles would have to know if things played out the way he intended them to. “Ian Hunter, a private security professional. I hired him last year to watch Cobb, to ensure that he and the children came to no harm.”

Miles’ eyes narrowed. “You did, did you?”

“Yes.”

Miles turned back to Ian. “And did Dom know you were following him?”

Ian shrugged. “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if he did, sir.”

“You can’t be all that good—he was followed the other day. He told me so. It was one of the reasons why he—” He broke off and tightened his grip on the knife.

Ian looked over at Saito, then took a step closer, saying firmly, “That wasn’t because of me, sir. He and the children were being followed by two men. I got their automobile plates and found out the car had been stolen. I don’t know who they are, but I’ve a man keeping tabs on them. Right now, they’re holed up in a motel on Colorado. I haven’t alerted the authorities as I was waiting to talk to Mr. Saito about our next steps. Unfortunately, your son-in-law forced my hand by leaving so quickly. Otherwise, I’d never be on this stoop, telling this story.”

As Ian spoke, Miles’ expression changed from surprise to alarm to composure and Saito remembered Ian’s comments about his possible military connection. Or maybe his control was due to his years as a professor? In any case, it was almost as if he were listening to a recitation of the weather.

When Ian finished, Miles didn’t say anything. Finally, he asked, “That’s quite a tale. Why should I believe any of it?”

Ian shrugged again. “To be completely honest, I don’t care if you do. The only person’s opinion that matters to me is my employer’s. But, to ease your mind, I’ll just say that your router signal reaches the drive and I’ve got a guy that could hack in at any time. Which means that if your son-in-law booked his trip on the internet like he probably did, I could download the receipt. And from that I could discover where he is and where he’s going. But that will take time and from what Mr. Saito says, time is in short supply.”

It was a well-spoken, logical answer but Miles’ face darkened and he didn’t move as the tension only increased. Saito was never sure what would have happened if a ninety-two centimeter deus ex machina hadn’t solved the stalemate for them.

“Grandpa?” came a small voice from the house.

“Go back with your brother,” Miles answered, hiding the knife in the folds of the apron as he stepped back to close the door.

“Who is it?”

Saito leaned sideways to see Phillipa come down the hall. She stopped just behind Miles and matched Saito’s pose, leaning sideways to peer around. She was wearing purple shorts and a white t-shirt decorated with a pink sequined heart. She was also very tired or maybe she’d been crying. Her eyes were swollen, shadowed with dark circles that didn’t belong on a seven-year old.

Still, her face brightened when she saw him. “Mr. Saito?”

He bent low and nodded. “It is good to see you again, Phillipa. How are you?” He glanced swiftly up at Miles—his stance was unchanged.

But Phillipa tugged on Miles’ trouser leg, saying urgently, “Grandpa? This is Mr. Saito. I was telling you about the party he gave for me and James, remember? And the doll?”

Miles hesitated, then finally released his grip on the doorknob. “Ah, yes,” he said to Saito. “I’ve heard all about the party. And the gifts. Apparently you made quite an impression.”

There was something else behind his gaze, something quietly suspicious, but Saito just nodded and murmured, “It was nothing.”

“Clearly not.” Whatever reassurance Miles had needed had been answered—he stepped back and pushed the door open for Saito and Ian.

The house seemed much as always but as he followed the professor down the hall to the kitchen, he realized there was something wrong, a subtle dissonance as if he were walking through a dream of Cobb’s house and not the real thing.

It wasn’t until they were in the dining room that he realized what it was—the house felt empty. As if it required Cobb and his smile and his voice—his very presence—to give it life.

The thought stung more than it should and he had to clear his throat before he turned. Phillipa had followed them and was standing by the kitchen countertop, watching him. He caught Miles’ eye, then nodded discreetly towards Phillipa.

“Sweetheart,” Miles said with false cheer. “Why don’t you go outside and play with James. We’ll be out in a minute.”

She hesitated, then said reluctantly, “All right.” She left them with one swift look back.

“Okay,” Miles said as soon as she was gone. “What the hell is going on? Are my grandchildren safe?”

Saito gestured towards Ian and he said, “Yes, sir. I’ve got two men stationed outside, one in front about fifty meters up the street and the other is on the block just west of here.”

“That’s not very reassuring.” Miles sat down heavily at the head of the table. “And I’ll ask you what I asked Dom—why not just call the police?” He laid the paring knife on the table.

“Because,” Ian said, “these men haven’t done anything wrong. They haven’t approached him or threatened him.”

“They’re stalking him. Isn’t that enough?”

“The threat is too vague. It will take time to prove and time seems to be something that is in short supply.”

“And you’ve had so much experience in ‘vague threats,’ have you Mr. Hunter?”

Ian tightened his lips and Saito answered for him, “If the local authorities make inquiries, I’ve instructed Mr. Hunter to inform them of his assignment, but we are not expecting help from that area.”

“No, you’re just out scaring the neighbors with all your skulking about.”

Saito shrugged. He could give a damn about the neighbors. “Professor,” he said, changing the subject. “Can you tell us why Cobb left? I talked to him two days ago and all was well.”

“What do you know of Dom’s former line of work?” And then, before he could answer, Miles waved a hand. “This whole mess is making me forget my manners. Please, sit.”

When they were seated, Saito said cautiously, “I know quite a lot.”

“Then you know that former line of work was dangerous?”

“And that he worked for dangerous people, yes.” He didn’t bother saying he was one of those people—Miles already knew.

Miles gave him a sharp glance as if hearing his thoughts. “Yes, well, apparently one of those clients was unhappy with Dom. About a job he couldn’t complete and—”

Saito leaned forward, his hands clenching into fists. “That is what he said? That it was for a job he couldn’t complete?”

Miles nodded.

He sat back. “Ah.”

“I take it you know this person?”

“I have a good idea, yes.”

“And what job would that be?”

He hesitated before answering. “It was for Cobol Engineering.”

Miles shook his head—the name clearly had no association. “And they are?”

“An organization with a wide variety of interests.”

Miles smiled, not cheerfully in any way. “That sounds vaguely ominous.”

“Yes.”

“And he’s gone to New York to make amends?”

“Rather to work on a new job, I would imagine. Although how that would come about, I am unsure—that particular client rarely comes to the States and he never deals directly with his…” He made a brushing motion. “Contractors.”

Miles frowned. “Are you sure about that? Dom said he was meeting the man himself.”

Saito stilled. “The client is here? In the States?”

“Does that make a difference?”

Saito nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. This man is very powerful, very unpredictable. If the job goes wrong and he gets the opportunity, he will simply kill Cobb and count it as a debt paid.”

Miles stared at him, the moment somehow thickening. He could hear the muted tick of the refrigerator, a car horn in the distance.

“Professor?” he finally questioned softly.

“He’s at the Four Seasons,” Miles said evenly. “I tried his mobile, but it’s turned off. The number of the hotel is…” Miles rose and got a slip of paper on the countertop, then sat back down. He handed it to Saito. “Here.”

“Thank you,” Saito said gravely. After the antagonistic greeting, when all was said and done, he hadn’t expected such quick and thorough capitulation. He reached for the paper.

As he was taking it, Miles looked down and his gaze grew dark. He looked up. “Mr. Hunter,” he said without taking his gaze from Saito’s. “I need a private word with Mr. Saito, here. Can you give us a minute?”

Ian raised an eyebrow, then got up. “Of course,” he said smoothly. “I need to check in with the boys, anyway.”

Miles waited until Ian was on the porch and the door closed before saying tersely, “My son-in-law has a watch almost just like that one. According to Phillipa, it was a gift. From you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I thought he might enjoy it.”

“What kind of man gives another man a gift that has to cost at least a thousand pounds?”

“It was much more than that and I think we know what kind of man gives another man that kind of gift.” He cocked his head—challenge offered, challenge met.

“I see,” Miles said after a moment. “So you’re not helping him out of the goodness of your heart?”

Miles’ small smile was caustic. Saito made his just the same. “Why I am involved is none of your business.”

Miles leaned forward. “When it concerns my grandchildren, it is. When it concerns a boy I’ve come to love as my own, it is.”

They stared at each other for a long charged moment until Saito finally nodded. He needed Miles’ cooperation and in this case, Miles was entitled. It wasn’t a comfortable thought. “You are right, of course. I am not used to—” He shrugged his shoulders, unable to find the words in English to explain his frustration at having to constantly justify his actions. It was another thing he’d been long accustomed to—having his every request obeyed instantly. One more thing he’d need to get used to if his association with Cobb was to continue.

Miles drew a heavy sigh, then said, “Well, we’ll leave all that aside for now. It’s clear Dom trusts you or he’d never have introduced you to the children.” He glanced away, then back. “Can you help him?”

“Yes.”

“Even if he’s in danger?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Miles rose, pushing to his feet like the old man he was. Saito didn’t make the mistake of trying to help him. “Let’s see what the kids are up to.”

The children were in the back play area. Ian was crouched by the sandbox, talking with James. Phillipa was sitting on one of the swing set’s crossbars, her back to the house. Saito hesitated, then walked slowly towards her. When he got nearer, she stiffened and didn’t turn.

After a moment, he said, “This is a pretty view.” And it was. The sloping hill looked over the tree-filled neighborhood and beyond that, the city and the invisible ocean.

She didn’t say anything, but then, he didn’t expect her to. “Did Lu-Lu enjoy her hula skirt?”

And that made her smile. She nodded and turned to him. She’d been crying again although her cheeks were dry. He gripped the swing’s upright to prevent himself from reaching out.

“Do you want me to get your grandfather?” He finally said.

She shook her head, then looked down at the ground. “Mr. Saito?”

“Yes, Phillipa?”

“Is my dad a bad man?”

He frowned, surprised. “No.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Why would you think that?”

Again, she didn’t answer and he wondered if he should get Miles when she looked up and blurted out, “Kenneth Thomson says he is. His daddy told him my daddy was in jail because—” She broke off as tears sprang to her eyes. She turned her head to the ground again.

He had no experience with children and had no idea what to do. “Maybe you should talk to your Grandfather about this. I will go—”

“No!” She leaned sideways and grabbed his arm as he was turning away, then let go just as quickly. “No. He says that I should ask Daddy and I can’t.”

He wasn’t sure why she was asking him just as he was sure he wasn’t the best one to handle the situation. But it hurt to witness her hurt and he had to try. “Did Kenneth Thomson’s father say that your father killed your mother?”

She swallowed hard before choking out, “Yes.”

“Then, Kenneth Thomson’s father is wrong.”

She looked up at him. “He is?”

Her eyes were so blue, just like Cobb’s, and a little ache took root in his chest. “Yes. First of all, your father was never in jail. Second, your father loved your mother very much. What happened to her was an accident.” She would never know her mother had killed herself just as she would never know that her father had been indirectly responsible. “Your father blames himself for her death, but not because he caused it, but because he loved her. He misses her.”

She wiped her arm across her face. “He does?”

“Yes. Very much. Just as you and your brother do.” His English was fracturing under the ache that had only grown. He got out his handkerchief and gave it to her. “Please.”

She took it and scrubbed her face. “So why did he leave us for so long?”

He hesitated again. “Maybe your father should tell you that.”

“He just says that he wants to wait until I’m older.”

Her small face was sharp with curious dread and he wondered if Cobb saw her as the three year-old she’d been, not the growing girl she was. “I can’t tell you everything. He would not want that. But I can tell you that your government thought the same thing as Kenneth’s father.”

“Why would they think that if he didn’t do anything?”

“I don’t know, but they were wrong.” A partial lie, but a necessary one.

“So he stayed away because he was scared?” She was looking at the ground again.

“No, because he thought it would be best for you and James.”

“Why did he get to come back home?”

“I helped him.”

“You did?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“I have a lot of friends. They helped me with the people that cleared your father’s name.” Not a lie, if one thought of millions of yen as ‘friends.’

She said nothing—just kicked her feet, obviously considering his words.

In the distance, high above them, a small plane buzzed across the sky, reminding him they were on a tight schedule and time was growing short. He didn’t move.

Finally, she said, “Are you here because he had to leave again?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to help him again?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ll bring him home?”

“Yes.”

She looked up at him, and this time he didn’t see Cobb in her small face, but her mother. “Do you promise?”

“Yes.”

She nodded, just as Miles had, saying just as firmly, “Good.”

***

They had said their goodbyes and were in the car, backing down the drive when a shout made Saito look around. The professor was hurrying towards them, one arm raised.

Saito rolled down his window.

“I almost forgot this,” Miles said, holding out a folded piece of fabric. “Give it to Dom, will you?”

Saito frowned but took it. It was a handkerchief wrapped around a hard lump. He started to unfold it, then didn’t. He knew what it was even though the last time he’d seen it had been in a dream. What did it mean, that Dom didn’t have it with him?

He squeezed his fist around the cloth-covered totem, using the minor pain to steady himself, then looked up at Miles and said gravely, “Thank you.”

 

___________________

 

He hated New York. The rest of the States—what he’d seen of them— were okay, but he hated New York. Nothing good ever happened to him here, almost as if the city was bad luck.

But Yusuf, on the other hand, was having a ball—as soon as they got in the cab, he’d turned to the window, his face almost plastered against the glass as he drank up the sights.

It was kind of endearing, Eames reluctantly decided as he watched Yusuf watching.

Which meant he’d really taken leave of his senses and he looked away, focusing on the road and not Yusuf. His effort didn’t succeed, probably because the cab was small and Yusuf kept pressing up against him as he pointed at this brightly-lit building or that distant bridge. By the time they pulled up in front of an odd-shape building that was perched on an odd-shaped strip of land, he was itching to get out.

The cabbie muttered, “A hundred and ninety-eighth and Briggs,” then suspiciously accepted the handful of dollars Yusuf thrust at him.

Yusuf reached for his wallet. “Is that enough? I’ve more.”

Eames crossed his arms, giving the cabbie the stink eye in case he tried to stiff them. The man took the bills, glanced in the rearview mirror at Eames, then gave most of them back to Yusuf.

Eames smirked, got his bag and climbed out. Yusuf followed, clutching his suitcase and the ever-present silver case.

He was looking around, searching for the entrance to the building when he heard a soft whistle. He looked up the block—Arthur was leaning from a dark doorway, waving. Eames touched Yusuf’s arm and jerked his head, ‘This way.’

Arthur didn’t say anything as they climbed up a staircase that was too steep and too long. There was no way he’d live in such a place but he liked the mental picture of Arthur toiling up the stairs with an armful of groceries.

Arthur reached the threshold first and held a door open for them. Eames brushed by him with a nod.

The place was sparsely furnished but bright, almost cheery thanks to the wide windows that let in the afternoon sun. There wasn’t much furniture, but what there was, was decent.

“Hi there.”

He turned around. Ariadne was standing in the doorway of a tiny kitchen, a dishcloth in her hands. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with an advert for a French cafe. She looked good but somehow different and he realized she’d cut her hair. Not a lot, but enough to make a difference.

But her smile was just the same—a mixture of caution and friendliness. He smiled. “Ariadne.”

“It’s good to see you,” Yusuf chimed in.

She smiled again then surprised him thoroughly—she rushed forward and gave him a hug and then Yusuf

“Hi, guys,” she said as she stepped back. “It’s good to see you, too. Even if…” She shrugged, indicating the circumstances, then wiped her hands on the dishcloth and backed into the kitchen with an awkward wave of her hand. “We’ve got dinner ready. If you’re hungry.”

Yusuf sat his cases on a chair and followed her. “What did you make?” He peered over her shoulder at the stove.

“I didn’t make it. Arthur did. It’s kind of a shepherd’s pie.”

Yusuf asked another question, but Eames didn’t wait to hear. Arthur was over by the windows, gazing down at the street through the thin curtains. Unlike Ariadne, he looked the same as always: trousers, vest and a striped shirt that he no doubt considered fashionable but really just looked like it belonged on an eighty-year old banker. It was so typically, ‘Arthur,’ and he had to stop from making a joke about a young man in an old man’s body.

He dropped his bag by Yusuf’s and joined Arthur at the window. “Anything interesting?”

“Ariadne thought she was followed yesterday on the train. She went the long way home. And,” he turned and gave Eames a sideways glance, “I want to make sure you two weren’t followed. That’s the last thing we need.”

“It’s good to see you, too, Arthur,” he murmured sweetly.

Arthur didn’t respond as usual, though. He just sighed and let the curtain fall. “Believe it or not, Eames, it is good to see you. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Don’t go all mushy on me.” He looked around, then sat down on a sofa that was much more comfortable than it appeared. “What have you heard?”

“Nothing. I tried Cobb again, no answer. Then I called Saito. He’s been trying to get in touch with you all day.”

He got out his mobile. “That’s bollocks. I’ve had it on all day.” He thumbed through the menu. “Did you tell him what’s going on?” There were no messages. Damn service. He stuffed it back in his pocket with a frown.

“I didn’t have to.” Arthur dragged a chair closer and sat down across from Eames. In the kitchen, Ariadne and Yusuf were chatting about something as she washed the last of the dishes.

“What does that mean?” Eames said absently. He’d never really thought about it, but Yusuf was a big guy. When they’d first met, years ago now, he’d been paying too much attention to his mark and not much to the chap who was motoring on to the barkeep about dreams and how they were the gateway to the soul. But now, seen at a distance and anew, as it were, Yusuf looked so tall. Or maybe it was just that Ariadne was so short?

“It means he’s been doing his own investigating. Did you know he’s been out to see Cobb a few times? He even hired a security company to watch Cobb and the kids.”

Eames frowned, turning back to Arthur. “Saito did? Why?”

Arthur shook his head. “I have no idea.”

“Did you ask?”

“Of course, I did, Eames. He said it was none of my business.”

Eames shook his head. A small burble of laughter made him look around again. Yusuf, somehow, had gotten hold of a ginger tabby and he and Ariadne were petting it, still chatting. It was too bad about Geetika, but she would be all right. Animals were quarantined every day of the week.

“Eames?”

He crossed his legs, finally giving Arthur his complete attention. “Yes, right, Saito won’t tell. But what do you think?”

Arthur hesitated, then muttered, “I’ve got a few ideas.”

“Which are,” he said testily when Arthur didn’t continue.

“One, he’s working with Cobb on the side.”

Arthur’s voice was a low growl and Eames cocked his head. “Why should that bother you?”

“It doesn’t. Except for the fact that I asked Cobb months ago if he was still in the business and he said no.” Arthur glanced at Ariadne, then leaned forward and whispered, “I brought in three good prospects and he brushed me off. Said he was done.”

He couldn’t help his smirk. “So, aside from your obvious jealousy that he no longer wants to play in your sandbox, why should that matter?”

“Because if it’s not that, then Saito is following him for another reason.”

“And you want to know what that reason is?”

Arthur sat back. “I’ve worked with Cobb for a long time, Eames. I don’t want him to get hurt. Even if it’s because he’s going to do something really stupid.”

He got up and looked out the window again. There were a couple kids standing on the corner and a women wearing colorful headdress pulling a grocery cart behind her. “Do you want me to ask him? Maybe he’ll open up to me.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot—you two have a connection.”

Arthur’s sarcasm ignited his own and he opened his mouth to fire back an answer when Yusuf called out, “Hey, Eames!”

He looked over his shoulder. “Yes?” The cat was gone and Ariadne was dragging on her jacket.

Yusuf jerked his head to the door. “We’re going to the market. Come with us?”

He raised one eyebrow. “You can’t be serious.”

“We need to get some bread for dinner,” Ariadne said. She patted her pockets. “It’s just down the block.”

Eames sat back down and rested his arms along the back of the sofa, making his intentions quite clear. “No, thank you. I’ve had enough running around for today. I’m not going to move unless and until I absolutely have to.”

Yusuf made a face, but followed Ariadne to the door. He was almost gone from view when Eames called out. “Yusuf! Pick up beer, will you? Not American, if possible.”

Yusuf leaned back in. “Okay. Anything else?”

“Crisps!” The smell of lamb and pastry was starting to get to him—he hadn’t been hungry before. He was now.

Yusuf rolled his eyes, waved, and pulled the door closed.

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. “We have beer.”

“No you don’t. Not the kind I like.” He stood up again, like a flipping jumping jack he thought as he pulled the curtains back to look down. It took a few seconds for Yusuf and Ariadne to come into view. Ariadne was saying something, her hands making quick arcs of motion, as if it weren’t enough to merely speak—she had to show. Yusuf answered the same way, with an elegant wave of his hands that illustrated how not British he was, no matter the accent. Then they were gone, around the corner of the building, out of sight. “Where’s this market of yours, Arthur?”

“Three blocks away. Why?”

“No reason.”

“Don’t tell me you’re worried about them?”

Eames released the curtain with a casualness he didn’t feel and smiled brightly. “Me? Don’t be silly. Now,” he added as he made his way across the room to the kitchen. “What’ve you to eat? I’m starving.”

It ended up that Arthur didn’t have much other than a loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, and three bottles of cheap American beer. Eames, arm resting on the open fridge door, shook his head. Typical. Contrary to what he’d always told Cobb, on the job Arthur was meticulous and thorough. Off the job, however…

He reached for the beer and closed the door and went back to the sofa.

“I thought you didn’t drink American?”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, Arthur.” He twisted the cap off and tossed it on the side table. “So what have you been doing?”

Arthur shrugged. “Nothing much. Living in Paris.”

“With Miss Ariadne?”

“Of course.”

“Setting up house?”

“No,” Arthur growled. “She needs to finish up the year and then there’s the practicum. Besides, her parents aren’t too fond of me. They seem to think I’m a bad element.”

“Which is only the truth,” he said.

“Yeah, but they don’t know that.”

He said it so grudgingly that Eames had to laugh. He was still chuckling when Arthur’s phone rang.

“Hey.” Arthur’s expression went from irritated to shocked. He jumped up, giving Eames a dark look. “What? Where?” There was a heavy pause and he spoke again, his voice was tight with urgency. “Okay, stay with the crowd. Don’t go anywhere on your own. We’ll be there in a few minutes.” He hung up even as he was grabbing a ring full of keys off the dining table. “C’mon.”

“What is it?” Eames asked quietly, getting up to hurry after. Even though he already knew. Even though he’d somehow known.

“Someone just grabbed Yusuf off the street and stuffed him in a van.”

 

____________________

 

It was one thing to wait for something you were looking forward to, another thing entirely to wait for something you absolutely did not want to happen.

But in the end—as he entertained one crazy escape idea after another—it was just a few long minutes before he heard a noise in the hallway and the door burst open. He tensed, readying himself to jump up and run when Yusuf came tripping inside, pushed by a short man in a dark grey suit.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Yusuf jerked free and called over his shoulder. “You can’t do this!” He stopped cold when he saw Dom. “Cobb?” he whispered.

Another man followed, pushing him further into the room.

“Cobb!” Yusuf strode forward. “What is all this? We’ve been looking everywhere for you and now you’re—” He broke off again—his expression changed as he glanced to where Marcus was sitting. “Who are you?”

“A long-time admirer, Mr. Yusuf.” Marcus stood. “Even though we’ve never met.”

“That’s flattering, but who the hell are you?”

“I purchased some of your delightful compound not too long ago. Does that ring a bell?”

Yusuf’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “Mr. Lightman.” And before Marcus could respond, he added, “I have you to thank for my shop, don’t I?”

Marcus nodded. “I was simply trying to collect on what I’d been promised.”

“I never promised you anything. We were beginning negotiations when I realized that you weren’t someone with whom I wanted to deal. Your threats made that clear.”

“I wasn’t threatening you. I was merely encouraging you. And before you try to trick me again, you should know that my men found your research data. You should have been more careful.”

“If you’ve got the formula, why do you need me?”

“We both know that was simply to throw me off the scent, as it were. You left out a key ingredient, according to my lead chemist. The compound doesn’t work without it.”

Yusuf shook his head. “Well, neither will I. Work with you, that is. How can you think I would?”

“Pfft,” Marcus said, waving away Yusuf’s words as if he’d been complaining about something as trivial as the weather. “That’s all water under the bridge.”

“Not to me, it’s not.”

“Well, it will have to be as I didn’t bring you here for a discussion. In fact…” Marcus looked at his watch. “We need to start.” He made some gesture and the men released Yusuf and he came to stand near Dom.

“Start what?” Yusuf asked, glancing quickly at Dom.

“The job that Dominic is going to complete for me.”

Yusuf’s eyes widened. “You want me to give him a dose of Somnacin?”

“Not Somnacin, per se. Just your particular version of it.”

Dom’s chest squeezed— “Marcus,” he rasped, “I told you, no drugs.”

“I know you did, Dominic, and I—if you recall—never agreed to it.”

He shook his head, then touched his temple when the room tipped.

“He’s ill.” Yusuf said. “I can see it from here.”

Dom frowned. He didn’t feel ill—a little disoriented, but not ill.

“Well, ketamin will do that to a person,” Marcus said absently.

Yusuf’s mouth dropped open. “You’re joking? You gave him ketamin and now you want me to add Somnacin?”

Marcus sighed. “You don’t know me, Mr. Yusuf, so let me explain—in these circumstances I never, ever joke.”

Yusuf leaned forward. “Mr. Lightman, there is no telling what the reaction will be. Violent seizures and hallucinations may well be the least of it. How much did you give him?”

Lightman shrugged. “Not much. About five milligrams.”

Yusuf’s tight expression relaxed. Dom didn’t know if he was relieved or not but he didn’t care. He’d told Marcus no drug and he’d meant it. He scanned the room. Four to two, not great odds considering one of the two wasn’t on the top of his game. Still, Yusuf had handled himself surprisingly well during the Fischer job, he could do it again now.

“It’s too dangerous,” Yusuf insisted.

“Then give him a reduced amount and monitor him. What I need won’t take very long—five minutes at the most.”

Yusuf’s gaze somehow sharpened. “What do you need?”

“Information.”

“Why not just ask him?” Yusuf gestured sharply towards Dom. “He’s right there.”

Dom wanted to smile. They were talking about him as if he were no longer in the room. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he’d floated up and through the ceiling to the room abo—

“Because we made a deal, Dominic and I, and he is going to see it through.”

“No,” Yusuf muttered as he shook his head and repeated, “My formula is too unpredictable—it could be disastrous for his heart.”

“I think it’s much better for Dominic’s heart if you do as I ask, Mr. Yusuf. I’m used to getting what I want.”

“I don’t care much what you’re used to, Mr. Lightman,” Yusuf said firmly. “I won’t do it.”

“Then,” Marcus sighed, “we have a problem. Or rather, you and Dominic have a problem.”

“What does that mean?”

Marcus shrugged. “Why should I let you walk out the door if you can’t help me out with a simple task?”

“There are laws—”

“Yes, there are, Mr. Yusuf. Many, many laws. For those who get caught. Because, even if you don’t do as I say, there’s no one to hear you, no one to come to your rescue. Not only is this flat very soundproof, but I own the entire floor and the one above. I could rip you apart, limb from limb, and no one would know.”

Dom gripped the armrests. His head was getting worse and he’d get up, but he didn’t think his legs would hold him.

“No. They’ll—”

Marcus interrupted him again. “No, they won’t. My men are good at cleaning up and as far as the world knows, or cares, I’m at my home, at work as usual.”

Yusuf opened his mouth one more time, but Marcus raised his hand and the man by the door came forward. “This conversation is done. Either you hook Dominic up or Eric will slit his throat. And after we’re done watching him bleed out, Eric will take care of you.”

Yusuf stumbled back as the man skirted a chair and pulled out a switchblade, flicking it open with a smooth twist of his wrist. Dom looked around wildly, finding all the ways blocked. It was stupid not to have planned ahead—he could make a run for the balcony in the bedroom, but there was Yusuf—

But it didn’t matter. The guys that had brought Yusuf in had somehow crept up behind. They grabbed his shoulders and held him easily as the other guy, Eric, kept coming and coming, almost on top of him when Yusuf lunged forward again, hand outstretched.

“Stop! I’ll do it. Stop!”

Marcus smiled. “Of course you will. I have everything you need, over on the table.” He nodded to far side of the room.

Yusuf gave Dom a quick look, then turned away, reluctance in his every step. He returned with a silver case.

Dom tried once more, straining to stand. The short guy held him tight. “Yusuf,” Dom managed. “Don’t.”

Yusuf shook his head, not meeting his glance. “I’m sorry, Cobb. At least this way, you get to live.” He sat down on the sofa and opened the case. “Roll up his sleeve, please.”

Marcus bent over and unbuttoned Dom’s sleeve. His fingers were freezing.

“Damn you, Marcus,” Dom growled, “Don’t.”

Marcus stroked the back of his hand. “Don’t worry, Dominic. In a few short hours, it will all be over.” He pulled Dom’s shirtsleeve up. “There, all ready Mr. Yusuf.”

Unable to do anything but clench his fists and jaw, Dom watched as Yusuf took a deep breath and—

It was perfect, he thought later when it was all over. Perfect timing, perfect execution. The needle had just touched his arm when the door slammed open again and a man, tall, Asian, came running through, gun drawn. Before anyone could call out, he shot Eric, then the men holding Dom, first one then the other.

“What the hell?” Yusuf whispered next to him. It had happened too fast, the rescue—even Dom was stunned.

Marcus made some move. Dom was never sure if it was to run or attack, but their rescuer didn’t wait to find out—he turned the gun on Marcus and pulled the trigger. Marcus dropped, landing on the coffee table with a sickening thud.

“Who the hell are you?” Yusuf demanded.

“He works for me, of course,” came a voice from the door. He craned his head to see Saito standing in the threshold, one hand casually in his pocket, as if he were at a cocktail party or posing for a picture.

Dom took a breath and whispered, “Saito?” Next to him, Yusuf sighed shakily.

Saito nodded. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

Dom shook his head. “What the—? I mean—” He shook his head again. Of all the people that he would have expected— “What are you doing here?”

Saito came in to stand by the dining table. He made a smooth gesture, indicating Marcus, the men on the floor. “I might ask the same of you.”

He combed his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, sorry about that. Things…” He trailed off, helplessly. “I take it you decided not to go home?”

“As you see. A business contact of mine telephoned with news that Lightman was flying to the States.”

“And you put two and two together?” It was a leap, but Saito was smart and had seen through Dom’s deceptions before.

Saito nodded. “Yes. Apparently, you have something he wants.”

Dom shrugged. “Well, he sure as hell didn’t tell me what it is. He didn’t even ask.”

Saito cocked his head. “It must have something to do with the job last year.”

“Maybe. Has he asked about Fischer?”

Saito cocked his head. “Robert Fischer? No, he has not. What do you mean?”

“It doesn’t matter. Listen…” He got up. The dizziness hit again and he had to take a moment before hurrying over to where Saito stood. Listen,” he said again, “We need to move. Marcus owns the entire floor, but someone must have heard the shots.” And that was odd, now that he thought about it. He couldn’t hear any sirens or shouts. It was New York, sure, but this was an upscale building…

Saito shifted from foot to foot. “I think we should wait and find out what Lightman was up to.”

“Yeah, later.” It was finally coming to him—Saito, here, in New York, right in front of him. He smiled and reached out, touching Saito lightly on the arm. “This is becoming a thing with you, isn’t it?” he murmured.

Saito frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You know. Mombasa, now here.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Cobb.”

“‘Mr. Cobb?’” He couldn’t help his laugh. Lightheadedness had turned to relief, making him almost giddy. “Seriously? What the hell are you talking about? Here… Come here.”

And screw what Yusuf thought, what Saito’s man thought. It wasn’t the time or place but he reached out again and reeled Saito in, suddenly so hungry for contact his entire body ached. He kissed Saito, first the corner of his mouth, pressing his advantage when Saito took a breath, opening Saito’s lips with his own, but gently because even though it had only been less than twenty-four hours, he’d really missed this and—

—and Saito wasn’t kissing him back. He had, in fact, stilled, muscles so stiff that it felt as if he’d turned into stone.

Dom let go. And took two steps back.

And looked.

This time seeing.

Saito was gripping the chair, eyes wide with shock, mouth open. He was wearing a formal, pleated shirt tucked neatly into his dark gray pants, matching morning coat and shiny black shoes. Not unfamiliar—after all, Dom had okayed Arthur’s costume suggestions when they were first planning the Cobol job. But why was Saito wearing them now, in this place, in this time?

The answer hit just as Saito came alive and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. As he stumbled back, back and back, to spin, sprinting for the door.

Dom didn’t follow. Just watched, not surprised when Saito bled like a watercolor in the rain, light hair appearing under dark, tall figure shortening to maybe five ten or eleven. He turned around, body stiff with shock. Saito’s man and Yusuf were gone, as well.

He reached blindly for support, his turn to grip the back of a chair.

Oh, fuck.

Oh, fuck.

 

___________________

 

Sunday, September 26th

 

They were two hours into their flight, the sleek plane speeding east when Ian leaned over, elbows on knees and said, “Now, what was so secret that you couldn’t tell me over the phone?”

Saito touched the mobile sitting on the seat near his hip. He’d tried to call Cobb, Arthur, and Eames. All calls went straight to their messaging services.

“Sir?” Ian prodded.

He shrugged and folded his hands in his lap. “It’s a project Cobb and I worked on last year.”

“So I gathered from your conversation with the professor. What was it?”

He hesitated. There was a very real reason to keep Ian out of the loop, but as he’d insisted not four hours before, he needed the information to do his job.

“Mr. Hunter,” he finally said, “Have you ever heard of the concept of dream sharing?”

***

Ian, of course, hadn’t—only a handful of people outside three major military organizations and one international consortium had. And, as Saito would’ve expected if he’d actually imagined their conversation, Ian didn’t believe him, either.

“You’re shitting me,” Ian said for the third time, this time low, soft. He was angry, as if thinking Saito was funning him.

“I am not, Mr. Hunter. Does it sound like something one could make up?”

“How would I know, Mr. Saito? I’m not into the supernatural.”

“This has nothing to do with the supernatural or the mystical. It’s simple chemistry. Look…” He crossed his legs and laced his fingers over his knee. “You know about drugs that make people sleep, yes?”

“I’m not an idiot. Of course I do.”

Saito ignored the sarcasm. “This drug works in a similar fashion. Except it makes the mind receptive to others in an unusual way.”

It was a parochial way of explaining the drug’s affect, and Ian said blandly, “By connecting two minds together. Through dreams.”

“Yes.”

Ian made a dissatisfied noise and sat up straight. His face was hard and closed off—he clearly didn’t believe. “Have you experienced this yourself?”

“A few times, yes.”

Ian looked out the window, then back again. “And you’re really not joking.”

“I am really not joking.”

“So what does Cobb do in these dreams?”

“He steals secrets.” For the most part; he was reluctant to explain in detail—they didn’t have the time and Cobb’s methods of operation were his own business.

“Secrets, huh. Like the job last year?”

“Yes.”

Ian hesitated again and when he spoke, his voice had softened. “It sounds dangerous.”

“It can be.”

“A lot of people would kill a lot of other people to get hold of the drug, right?”

“It was a closely held secret for decades. Now…” He shrugged.

Ian leaned forward again. “So this woman that was killed, your employee—she knew something about it?”

“Yes. She didn’t know the specifics, just enough to assist us in case anything untoward happened.”

“Apparently she knew enough to get herself killed.”

Saito smoothed the crease of his trousers, “Apparently, yes.” He waited for more questions as Ian took a deep breath but before he could say anything, his mobile rang.

He got it out and looked at the display, then glanced up at Saito. “It’s my man.”

Finally, Saito thought as he rose to get something to drink; they’d been waiting hours for the call.

“Hey,” Ian said. “Where are you?” He listed for a moment, then said on a sharper note, “When?”

Saito, in the middle of reaching for a Perrier, froze and looked back. Ian was waving him back. He returned to his seat, heart beating too fast.

“What? When?” There was a long pause, then Ian asked, “And that’s all you saw? Did you ask the— Yeah, okay.” He rubbed his jaw and then his forehead. “Yeah, we’ll be there in two hours. Get to the private field and wait there.” After another pause, he shook his head. “No. Under no circumstances are you to do that. Wait for us.”

And finally, a little more tiredly, “No, it’s not your fault. There was nothing you could do. Yeah, see you.”

Ian hung up, making a production of putting the mobile away.

“What is it?”

Ian looked up. “That was Toby. Mr. Cobb was taken ill on the plane. When they landed, he was escorted out. Toby tried to follow but they held the passengers back. When he got into the terminal, he contacted security. He lost his cool and they detained him. He was in custody for almost two hours. They did a background check and just let him go. He has no idea where Cobb is. He wants to break into the airport security system to see if he can download the video footage, but that’s a headache I don’t need. I told him to wait for us at the gate. We’ll decide where to go from there.”

Ian’s clipped recitation ended and Saito sat there, unable to move as he tried to grasp the meaning of the words. They weren’t complex—his command of English was far better than that. But still, they faded in and out and he realized he was completely shocked, utterly furious. Mostly at Lightman, but also at Cobb—he knew the risks and had foolishly—

“Are you all right?” Ian asked.

He took a deep breath and forced his shoulders to relax, his fists to uncurl. “Yes. I am fine.” He picked up his mobile and dialed quickly. Ito answered, alert as if it weren’t an ungodly hour and Saito reminded himself that it was already eleven in the morning in Tokyo.

“Yes, sir?”

“Contact Mr. Frederick Willis in Washington. Tell him I need access to the video security at the JFK airport in New York. I wish to find out what happened on flight 406, landed at eight p.m., New York time.”

“Does this have something to do with Mr. Cobb, sir?”

“Yes.”

“Very good.”

“Call as soon as you have news.”

“Yes, sir.”

He hung up and found Ian giving him a long, searching look. He set the mobile on the table, very carefully, very precisely. “Yes?”

Ian cocked his head. “I’m wondering what kind of man is able to demand a video feed from one of the most tightly secured airports in the world?”

Saito made a brushing motion, already planning the next steps. “The kind of man who does not need to answer those kinds of questions.”

Instead of frowning or arguing or even cowering, Ian simply chuckled and leaned back in his seat.

Saito picked up the mobile again. The ache that had rooted in his chest back in California had turned into a fist and he’d need to be careful. In his youth, times like these had brought out the worst in him and he’d done things he’d regretted. The key was action; take little steps even if they turned out to be pointless. He called Arthur again, not really surprised when he got nothing but a bland automatic message. He gave an equally bland response, then hung up.

Ian was still watching him with that odd look and Saito wondered if he was going to ask about his connection with other American politicians and policy makers. But all he said as he closed his eyes was, “It’s a good thing for Mr. Cobb you’re on his side, isn’t it?”

***

They arrived just after eleven.

A rough landing that shook the plane and ratcheted up Saito’s anger.

Which was a shame because he loved New York. Loved the pulse of the city, the culture, the verve. After Tokyo, Paris and London, it was his favorite city. But he felt none of the usual excitement as he deplaned into the cold night, as he walked across the tarmac at a sharp clip to the waiting limo.

The driver opened the door and took his bag. He got in. A stranger was already there, waiting. He was white, young, with very short dark hair and an intense look that said ‘mercenary.’

“Mr. Saito, this is Toby Gillis. He’s been with me for eleven years. You can talk in front of him.”

Saito gave Ian a long look, remembering, ‘Trust goes both ways,’ then nodded to Gillis. “What happened?”

“Nothing for the first two hours. I had a seat in the rear of the plane, Mr. Cobb was in first class. I managed to check in on him a few times.”

Gillis was American, his accent much like Cobb’s with an odd inflection on certain vowels.

“About four hours into the flight, I strolled up the aisle and saw Mr. Cobb talking to a man. I hadn’t seen the man before but figured, so what? Because of the angle, I couldn’t see the entire first-class cabin.”

“What did this man look like?”

“Dark hair, late forties, early fifties. His suit and shoes were expensive—they had to cost a bundle.”

Saito got out his phone and quickly typed in a web address. “Did it seem as if he knew Cobb?” The picture he was searching for was about ten years old, taken when Cobol had just gone through a shift in management and Marcus Lightman had taken over.

Gillis hesitated, then said, “I don’t know. I think, yes. There was something between them, if you know what I mean.”

Saito did know and sudden jealousy burned his belly. He wanted to snarl, but he kept his voice even when he held up the mobile and asked, “Was this the man?”

Gillis took the mobile and held it up so Ian could see as well.

“It could be. He’s a little thinner.” He handed the mobile back.

Saito nodded. “What happened next?”

Gillis shrugged. “It was odd. One minute everything was fine, the next, there was a commotion in first class. By then we were almost on the ground. When the plane landed, an emergency team was waiting on the tarmac. They got Mr. Cobb out of the plane and into an ambulance. I tried to see what was going on but was stopped by the flight attendant. When the plane docked twelve minutes later, I contacted security and was told to mind my own business.”

“And then you were grabbed?” Ian growled.

Gillis nodded stiffly. “Sorry about that, boss.”

“You know better that to get into it like that.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Gillis said heatedly. “All I asked was if the man who’d taken ill was all right and they strong armed me into a room and locked me up.”

“Okay,” Ian said with a placating gesture. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Yeah.” Gillis shrugged again, his anger dying as he said, “Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m guessing they had orders to detain anyone that asked questions. Why else would they jump me so quickly.”

“Which means,” Saito said thoughtfully, “that Marcus Lightman also has pull with the airport. At least in the security department.” He tapped his knee. “My assistant should be calling soon with the details of the abduction”

“Are you sure this Lightman is behind all this?” Ian asked.

“Yes.”

There was a long silence, and then Ian said, “What’s our next move?”

“We find Arthur. And then we find Cobb.” He got out his mobile and scrolled through the messages until he found the one from Ito. He handed it to Ian. “Please instruct the driver to go to this address.”

***

He heard the voices before he was halfway up the stairs—sharp staccatos of anger and accusation. When he got to the flat, he found the door open and he simply walked in.

The girl, Ariadne, was standing near a galley kitchen, arms tight across her breasts, her pretty face pinched with worry. Across the room by a street-side window stood Arthur, hands coolly tucked into his pockets. Eames was the only one moving, pacing back and forth, throwing out his words, gesturing wildly. He was saying something about “…like that’s gonna help—”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Well, it would if you would just—”

“If you tell me to calm down one more time, Arthur, I’m going to—”

“Gentlemen?” Saito called out.

They all turned. Ariadne gasped, Eames stopped pacing and Arthur actually smiled.

“It’s about time,” Eames growled. His face was red as if he’d been shouting for hours.

Saito raised his eyebrow. “We made no arrangements. I came as quickly as I could.” He gestured and Ian shut the door.

“Mr. Saito,” Arthur said tightly, giving Eames an annoyed glance. “I’m glad you’re here.”

He glanced around. “Where is Yusuf?”

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Eames interrupted, “That’s just what we were talking about.” He looked over Saito’s shoulder. “But who are your guests? I understood this was a private party?”

Saito gestured, first to his right, then left. “This is Mr. Hunter and Mr. Gillis. They work for me.”

“They do, do they?” Eames said, coming closer, head down as if he was about to charge. “Well, they don’t work for me; now’s not the time for strangers.”

“They are not strangers. And they are staying.” He took a step and then another, holding Eames’ gaze.

It was a brief, ugly contest, out of proportion to the situation. Luckily, Ariadne was there.

“Eames,” she pleaded. “We don’t have time for this.”

Eames drew a deep breath and nodded at her. “Yeah, okay.”

“What happened? Where is Yusuf?” Saito asked again.

“It appears we’ve been one-upped,” Eames said. “Three hours ago, someone snatched Yusuf off the street. We’re assuming it’s Lightman.”

Damnit. “And roughly four hours ago, he abducted Cobb from a plane.”

His quiet announcement was like a bombshell. After a moment of stunned silence, Eames and Arthur began to talk over each other again, their voices rising with each rejoinder. Only Ariadne said nothing; she just gripped her elbows tighter and looked on.

Saito let them have at it for a few seconds before saying loudly, “Gentlemen?” And then again, “Gentlemen. What’s done is done. Arguing is pointless.”

With a tight frown, Arthur stopped first. “You’re right,” he said, glaring at Eames. “What’s done is done.”

“Which means we need to move,” Eames insisted. “Lightman is a slippery devil. The longer they’re in his hands, the more time he has to—” He made a sharp gesture as if that said everything.

“Will he try to leave the country with them?” Ian spoke for the first time.

Arthur shrugged. “Doubtful. Even with Cobb’s cleared passport, the government keeps tabs on him. Right?” he added to Saito.

Saito nodded imperceptibly. It was something he hadn’t been able to expunge completely, Cobb’s record. The criminal charge had been dismissed, yes, but Arthur was right—there was a good chance that no matter where he went, Cobb would be watched. “Most likely, but we can’t expect help from that quarter. And it means nothing if we don’t know where they are.”

“I’ve been on the phone,” Arthur said, “calling my contacts. Marcus arrived in New York yesterday, but before he left Mombasa, he made a purchase. A purchase large enough to be in the news.”

“And what was that?” Saito said.

“An airline, Mr. Saito,” Eames said silkily. “Lightman bought an airline, lock stock and barrel. Sound familiar?”

There was another long silence and then Gillis murmured, “So that’s how he was able to give me the slip. We were on his own damn plane”

“Undoubtedly,” Saito answered. The news was confirmation of some of what they already knew, but still, it was a blow.

“And he took this Yusuf, too?” Ian asked. “Why?”

“There can be only one reason,” Saito said heavily as Arthur spoke at the same time, “He’s going to put Cobb under.”

“Yes.”

“Is this about that drug, Somna-whatever?” Ian asked.

“Yes,” Saito said again.

“Then why are we standing around talking?” Eames said harshly. “We know where Lightman is. Let’s go get him.”

Arthur fired back, “Because he’ll be waiting for us!”

“Eames is right, though,” came a small voice, making them all stop and turn. It was Ariadne, speaking very quietly. “We don’t have a choice, do we? So this Lightman guy knows we’re coming—so what?” She shrugged. “We still have to try. He would do it for us.”

Saito nodded gravely. “He would. And although, in this case, our hands are tied and we have only one move, that doesn’t mean our next will be dictated.”

“So, we’re going?” Eames asked, a light in his eye.

He nodded again. “Yes. But we prepare first. Arthur is right about that.”

 

___________________

 

He stood there for a long time. Mind racing to catch up with what had just happened. Finally, he made himself move, consciously telling his hand to release the back of the chair, his feet to start walking.

He took the path the others had taken. Out the door, turning to the left. He passed two doors, but he ignored them, making a beeline for the elevator at the end of the hall. He hesitated then pressed the down button. The doors opened with a hiss and bright sunlight streamed in. He threw his arm up to shield his eyes, then stepped from shadow to light.

He looked around, his breath stuck in his throat.

He was standing on the edge of a plaza, in the heart of a very familiar city.

The last time he’d been here, the world was being blown apart with the violence of the layered kick. And if he’d ever have let himself think about it, he would have assumed that his world in limbo had been destroyed, wiped clean of everything man-made.

It hadn’t been wiped clean; it was, however, badly damaged.

He was in the epicenter; the buildings around him were mostly intact and there was little rubble to be found. But beyond the circle of calm were jagged stumps of concrete and exposed metalwork. He walked out into the middle of the plaza and stopped. Then turned, not really expecting to see anyone, but somehow disappointed when he found himself alone.

So, two choices—he could wait until Marcus showed up again or take care of it himself.

And it was then, standing in the cool shadows of his old home when he realized he’d missed a fundamental factor, something he should have registered the second the elevator door opened. He was in limbo and no matter the circumstances, if he was under the influence of Somnacin, he should have woken up in a dream. Maybe in New York or Mombasa, even California, but still, in a dream.

But, here he was in limbo. His limbo. Directly down, do not pass go.

He wrapped his arms around his chest to stop the shiver that had nothing to do with the cold and reminded himself that he knew what to do, if it came to it.

After all, he’d done it before.

***

He headed for the beach, driven as if by some invisible command to hurry, hurry, hurry. Along avenues that seemed more like a war zone than the world he and Mal had created. When he got to the boundary between cement and sand, he scanned the area.

The monolithic buildings that had lined the shore were completely gone. All that was left were a scattering of massive, half-buried slabs of pitted concrete. It all had an organic feel and if he didn’t know better, he would have thought they were natural, created by some violent seismic shift of the false earth.

He stumbled to the water’s edge and turned to look back on his dead world, wondering what to do.

His choices of only an hour ago, now seemed premature and a little stupid. He was only assuming that he was in limbo when he could be in a simple dream-layer. If Marcus had learned of limbo alone with everything else, he was cruel enough to re-invent it. Like putting a mouse in a maze, just to see him run.

Which mean there was the possibility that if he put his head on a railroad track and called up the train, he might wake up. Or simply drop further.

He couldn’t take the chance on the latter. The stakes, high before he’d managed to clear his name, now seemed towering—he had to get back home.

He wasn’t sure if it was having a taste of what was turning out to be a normal life, or if he knew what it would do to the children. For all he’d had a little over a year back in the real world, it had been what he’d wanted, what he’d needed.

But how long could he stay here? Yes, he’d made no promises about the time of his return but the children would never understand that.

And then there was Saito…

He frowned and ran his hands over his hair, as if that would smooth out his tangled thoughts and make it easier to make a decision. When it didn’t, he settled down on the beach, facing the ocean, arms clasped around his knees so he could watch the tide.

He stayed there until the sun began to set, then got up and made his way back to the edge of sand. He searched until he found a place to bed down for the night. It wasn’t much—a bank of earth and sea grass rising around a rim of concrete to form a kind of protective wall. But it was better than nothing and it shielded him from view of the city—for some reason, the ruined buildings were giving him the creeps.

He sat with his back to the concrete, crossed his arms over his chest and tried to sleep. Just as he was nodding off, the memory of kissing the fake Saito returned and he groaned, sleep forgotten. He didn’t give a fuck who knew he was sleeping with Saito, but letting Marcus in on that little secret would be disastrous. No doubt he was already scheming, already planning his next line of attack.

Which meant Dom needed to be prepared. Which meant he needed rest. But still, it was hours before he finally dropped off.

 

___________________

 

They analyzed the approach to Lightman’s place via the internet.

The building was built in the 20s and then renovated in the 90s. There was no easy access on the ground floor or parking garage, which meant they’d have to think of a way to get in the building that didn’t involve hacking the security system. And then there was the fact that Lightman owned the entire twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth floors; he was, as Eames said several times, incredibly paranoid and there was no chance the place wasn’t wired with cameras and sensors.

After a tense back and forth with Arthur about the route, he let Arthur do most of the talking because it was just that—talk. As Ariadne had said, they didn’t have a choice and when it came down to it, any plan was good as long as it involved action.

Saito’s pet PI watched silently with a cynical eye that told Eames he was thinking much the same thing.

Eventually, he left them to it and went to stand by the window, looking down at the dark street. It was so stupid, Yusuf being caught that way. If he’d been thinking about things other than how tired he was, how hungry he was, he would have insisted on going and he would have been around to—

He snarled under his breath because it had to stop, this thinking of Yusuf as a child with no real-world experiences. He was a man and could take care of himself and didn’t need Eames to protect him.

“Mr. Eames?”

He turned. Saito was standing by the table, head cocked, watching him. “We’re ready?”

Saito nodded. “Yes.”

“I wish we had something more than strong words at our disposal.” He touched his pocket for emphasis.

Saito raised an eyebrow. “We are not licensed to carry weapons in the United States.”

“Right,” he muttered. “Let’s go.”

***

At Arthur’s suggestion, they parked two blocks from Lightman’s flat and walked the rest of the way. Surprisingly, there was no doorman, which posed their first problem, and they had to wait until someone came out. Ariadne, pretending to talk on the phone, stood on the stoop and when a man exited, she shrugged apologetically, pointed dramatically to the phone and smiled when the man held the door for her.

They waited until the man left, then trooped up to the door.

When they were all inside, they split up—Arthur’s idea was take advantage of the different entry points in case Lightman had guards at the lifts. Like everything else, Eames didn’t think it much mattered, but said nothing.

Saito, Hunter and Gillis took the north-side lift while Eames, Arthur and Ariadne followed in the other. When they got to the twenty-eighth floor and the doors opened, he peered out and surveyed the hall. There was no one about. “That’s odd,” he muttered.

“What is it?” Arthur whispered.

“No security.”

“That’s not good,” Arthur said, stepping out as well to look around.

“No, it’s not.”

“Do you think he knows we’re coming?”

“I guarantee it.”

Arthur sighed, then nodded towards the middle of the hallway. “There’s Saito. Let’s go.”

Saito was waiting for them at the cross-section where hallway met hallway. When the met up, he nodded, then led the group down to the door at the very end.

They were halfway there when Eames glanced up. “Saito,” he said under his breath. “Don’t look now, but we’re being watched.” Roughly the same words he’d said to Yusuf not a day ago and his banked anger grew again.

“Cameras,” Hunter answered before Saito could. “They’re hidden in the molding about every ten yards. Either the management is very paranoid or—”

“Or Marcus Lightman is,” Saito finished heavily.

“We’re walking into a trap,” Ariadne said.

“Something we already knew,” Eames countered. “So let’s just—”

“Finish this,” Saito interrupted grimly. “Come.”

They continued on, en masse, down the hall.

There was little point of subterfuge, but still, when they got within two meters of the door, Hunter directed Eames and Gillis to the right and Arthur and Ariadne to the left.

Saito glanced at them all, saying a silent, ‘Ready?’ then stepped to the door and raised his hand. But before he could press the bell, the door opened. A man, short, stocky, and clearly a heavy, stood there, face impassive. The room behind him was dark; Eames could make out the grey shapes of a sofa and a lamp, but no Cobb or Yusuf.

“Is Mr. Lightman available?” Saito asked, rigidly polite.

The man didn’t answer, but stepped back and held the door open.

“I’m not going in there,” Arthur whispered as he shook his head. “Not until we know Cobb is in there for sure.”

Eames turned to him but before he could say anything, someone from the room called out, “Of course he’s here, Arthur. Where else would he be?”

Eames stepped to the side to see a figure moving through the gloom towards them, his features becoming clearer as he got closer. It was Lightman. “Hiro,” he said congenially. “You’re early.”

“Marcus,” Saito replied, just as falsely pleasant.

Eames had never met Lightman although he’d seen his mug in the occasional news journal and on the television. Of course, he’d come across his handiwork more than a few times—one could count that as, ‘meeting,’ he supposed. He wasn’t quite what Eames had expected—he was tall and fit, wearing beautiful clothes as if he’d just stepped out of a men’s leisure magazine.

Lightman gave Saito the once over. “You look tired. Long flight?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but regarded the group. “Arthur? How are you?”

Arthur nodded shortly. “Lightman.”

Lightman smiled playfully, like he was getting off on the whole charade. “Let’s see. I know Mr. Eames although we’ve never officially met. And I recognize you, my dear,” he said to Ariadne. “How is Paris?”

She said nothing. Lightman smiled and turned to Hunter. “You, I don’t know, but it’s easy to guess. You’re the private investigator that’s been following my men in California, correct?”

If Hunter was surprised by Lightman’s words, he didn’t say anything other than a calm, “I am.”

“You’ll be happy to hear I called those particular watchdogs off. They’re flying home as we speak. Or rather,” he turned back to Saito, his eyes suddenly sharp. “You’re the one that will be happy, correct?”

Saito shrugged. “We’re looking for our associates, Marcus. Do you have them?”

“‘Associates?’” Lightman mimicked. “Is that what they’re calling it these days? But yes,” he added as he turned away. “Come with me, one and all.”

Saito hesitated, just a moment, then followed.

Eames’ eyes adjusted to the low light as they walked across the room and he was able to see a large room with the usual furnishings. The balcony doors were open and a light breeze pushed the curtains to and fro. It was almost a let down, the normalcy, and he wondered what he’d been expecting, Cobb and Yusuf hanging from a rack?

He glanced at Arthur just as Arthur glanced at him. His face was at its most impassive which meant he was feeling the same tension.

Lightman stopped at a door, hand on the knob. He put his fingers to his lips, mock concern in his every gesture. “You’ll need to be quiet. Someone is taking a little nap.” And then he pushed the door open with a dramatic sweep and went in.

It was just a bedroom, Eames thought as he followed Saito, as Saito stopped suddenly, just inside the room. No need for the fear that tightened his gut. Except…

It wasn’t just a bedroom. The room was lit by a single lamp on the nightstand and maybe that was what made him feel as if the room were stuffed with cotton wool, as if every sound he’d make would somehow be absorbed by the very air. He took a heavy step, then another, slipping around Saito so he could see better.

“Eames?”

He looked over. Yusuf was sitting in a chair on the other side of the bed, stethoscope around his neck. They stared at each other for a moment that was too intense, and then he looked down.

He’d assumed they’d find Cobb bound in some way, either by rope or handcuffs. But he was bound in another, more insidious way…

Fast asleep, flat on his back, still wearing his coat as if he’d fallen asleep where he stood. His head was cocked towards the wide French doors. One arm was resting on his chest, the other was stretched out, palm up and cupped, mimicking relaxation. He didn’t look hurt or in pain. Just asleep.

“Well?” Lightman asked. He was still watching Saito and Eames saw it again, a lurking glee that was at once avid and triumphant. But Saito, whether he was angry, shocked or simply uncaring, said nothing.

“Well, what?” Eames demanded, eager to get it over with, the same time Arthur pushed by Eames to sit on the side of the bed, saying, “What have you done to him?”

“Nothing, Arthur,” Lightman answered, ignoring Eames’ challenge. “He’s asleep. I had planned on giving him the whole forty-five milliliters, but Mr. Yusuf talked me out of it.”

He should ask Lightman what he hoped to accomplish, but he found himself saying to Yusuf, “Are you all right?”

Yusuf blinked. “I’m fine.” And then, more softly, “I’m so sorry.”

“You should be,” Eames muttered. “Of all the silly stunts, letting yourself get kidnapped.”

“Eames,” Ariadne murmured reproachfully.

He tightened his lips. He wouldn’t apologize—it was a stupid thing to do. And maybe Yusuf thought so, too. He got up and moved to the foot of the bed.

“He’s not hooked up—he’s on the Somnacin?” Arthur said.

“Thanks to the brilliance of your friend,” Lightman nodded to Yusuf, “there’s no need for a continual feed. It opens the process up to so many possibilities, don’t you think, Hiro?”

Saito hadn’t moved from his place by the door. “Was it his wish? Is he doing a job for you?”

“No,” Yusuf muttered before Lightman could speak. “He was unconscious when they brought me here. Mr. Lightman forced me to give him the new compound.”

“How long has he been under?” Saito asked tightly.

Lightman waved his hand. “Almost an hour.”

“An hour?” Ariadne started forward.

Arthur reached for her but before he could, Yusuf leaned over and grabbed her arm. “No!”

She tried to jerk free. “We’ve got to wake him up!” She insisted, twisting in Yusuf’s grasp. “Let me go!”

“Yusuf, let her go!” Arthur hissed just as Yusuf said hurriedly, “No! You can’t wake him up. Not now.” Ariadne stopped struggling.

“What does that mean,” Saito asked, finally coming forward to stand by the bed.

Yusuf gently pushed Ariadne back and just as carefully let her go, holding his hands up as if to a frightened child. “He won’t wake up. Not until the drug is out of his system. Or until he wakes himself up.” His voice was almost apologetic.

Saito touched the bed covers. “And how long with that be?”

Yusuf gripped his stethoscope and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe a few hours, maybe a few days. Mr. Lightman had given him ketamin.” His glance at Lightman was accusatory. “That plus the issues with my compound…” He shrugged.

“Yusuf. Pretend we’re not all chemists,” Eames said tiredly. “Just lay it out for us.”

“Well,” Yusuf said slowly, “given the abnormal ratio of normal time to sleep time—”

Eames held up his hand. “Wait—‘abnormal ratio’—what does that mean?”

Yusuf shifted from foot to foot. “I haven’t worked out the exact calculations, but I think it’s about one to two.”

Saito frowned. “Then, for every hour here, Cobb experiences two?”

“No,” Yusuf shook his head. “For every hour in real time, Cobb experiences a week. Or so.” He shrugged again. “It might be a little longer. I don’t know exactly.”

“Yusuf?” Eames murmured because, damnit, they’d talked about this.

“Yes?”

“Remember when I asked you if there was anything else I needed to know about the compound?”

Yusuf’s eyes narrowed and opened his mouth, but Saito broke in. “So wherever he is, it is as if he has been there a week.”

Yusuf nodded.

“And I suppose…” Saito turned to Lightman. “If I ask you to give him to me, you will say no.”

“No, indeed,” Lightman answered happily. “We’ve only just begun, as the song goes.” He clapped his hands together. “Gentlemen. And lady.” He turned to Ariadne and bowed. “We’ve a long night ahead of us. Let’s make ourselves comfortable.” He pushed by Saito and sat on the bed.

Saito stepped forward quickly. And then he stopped, aborting the motion.

It was an oddly shocking moment, Eames thought, made more so by the insistent notion that something was going on between Saito and Lightman and he just couldn’t figure it out.

“Come.” Lightman urged playfully, mostly to Saito. “Don’t be shy.”

Eames looked around. They didn’t have many choices—the chair on the other side of the bed, a long sofa, and a loveseat sort of thing by the dresser. He chose the love seat—it gave him an unobstructed view of the entire room. Hunter and Gillis chose to stand next to the sofa, probably for much the same reason, but the others stayed clustered by the door. After a moment, Saito, gave Lightman a withering glance, then walked around the bed and sat down.

“Now, how did I know you’d take that chair?” Lightman murmured.

“Let’s get down to business, Marcus,” Saito said, crossing one leg over the other.

Eames did the same. “Now that we’re all here, Lightman, can we get down to business?”

“I’m surprised, Mr. Eames. I’m told you’re generally not so oblivious.”

Eames smirked. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Just that playing dumb doesn’t suit you. Dominic,” he turned to Cobb and took his hand, “tried a similar stunt and look what happened to him.”

Eames glanced over at Saito. He was pointedly not looking at Lightman and Cobb. “So, we’re here by hook or by crook. Why?”

“By hook or by crook,” Marcus mused. “That’s an apt way to put it. I hadn’t planned on gathering you all together, but you helped me out in that regard. Very obliging of you.”

“Marcus,” Arthur muttered. “Get to the point.”

Lightman shrugged. “In the beginning, I wanted revenge for the lost revenue.” Lightman turned to Saito. “I paid Dominic a pretty amount to retrieve the information about your expansion plans. An amount that was never refunded.”

Saito smiled and said contemptuously, “Is that what all this is about? Money? Just tell me the amount and I’ll have it wired to an account of your choosing within the hour.”

“No.” Lightman shook his head. “It was about the money. In the beginning. Now it’s about so much more. You see, I’ve found out a few things about you.”

“Such as?”

“Your little adventure last year? The one where you managed to crush your main competitor?”

Eames was expecting it, but still it was one thing to know, another to hear.

“And what adventure would that be?” Saito asked.

“Please, Hiro.” Lightman actually rolled his eyes. “Playing the naif suits you even less.” He let go of Cobb’s hand leaned forward, his gaze hardening. “I know what you did. What you all did. And I wonder what Robert Fischer would say if he knew the of it.”

Saito tightened his lips in what Eames hoped was mock confusion. “So this is some attempt at blackmail?”

Lightman waved his hand dismissively. “No, I told you. My plan of monetary revenge altered when I learnt of your scheme.” He leaned on one arm pressing the mattress—Cobb rolled towards him. “It took time, and a great amount of money, to figure out the whole of the affair, but once I did, I realized you had placed me in a unique position.”

“You want my company,” Saito stated blandly, as if they were discussing the weather.

“Yes,” Lightman answered just as matter-of-factly. “I know it’s jointly held by your odd little collection of super power wannabes, but that’s just in name, really. You’re the real power behind the throne and you’ll sign me on as a full partner in all your dealings with Robert Fischer and you’ll do it tonight. Six months from now you’ll retire, giving me complete control. After that, I expect I won’t hear much from you ever again.”

Saito smiled. “And I will do this why?”

Lightman chuckled. “My dear, Hiro, I have been waiting for you to ask that question. For the last few months, I have been waiting. You see, not only do I have the details of the abduction last year, I also have the specifics of your agreements with Japan, South Africa, France, Germany, Sweden, and all the other countries you’re in bed with.”

Saito didn’t stop smiling. “My agreements, as you say, are not secret. They are a matter of public record.”

“Yes, but you signed an ethics clause, stating that your affairs and contracts are above board and transparent. How many countries will want to deal with you once they read the report I’m writing on how you willfully drugged, then manipulated a grieving CEO out of his inheritance? The dissolution of your company will be the least of it. I imagine it will involve some kind of international trial and a lengthy prison sentence.”

If Saito was angry or afraid, he hid it well. “As if anyone would believe such a piece of fiction.”

“Oh, I think they’ll believe it when I back up my claim with names, places and dates.”

“And you got those names, places, and dates from whom? Miss Walters didn’t have those to give.”

“No, she didn’t, not everything,” Lightman agreed with mock sadness. “Poor girl. She just gave me a breadcrumb that led to another and another.”

“Then this is all a bluff?” Saito made to get up, but hesitated as Lightman’s smile widened to a grin.

“Ah, that’s the beauty of it all. This is no bluff. I have it straight from the horse’s mouth, as they say.”

“Who?”

Lightman raised his hand then crooked a finger and a woman came in from the room to Eames’ left, walking slowly to the center of the room as if into a spotlight.

And for the first time, Eames saw Saito truly shocked, truly thrown. He was staring at the woman as if he’d seen a ghost, his mouth open but no words coming. Finally, in a moment that couldn’t have been as long as it seemed, Saito swallowed, then whispered, “Yoshiko?”

 

___________________

 

He spent the next day inspecting his old city. The damage wasn’t as great as he’d first thought—most of the structures around the central core were ruined but the neighborhood he’d always thought of as ‘his’ was more or less intact.

He investigated their old homes, but carefully—most of them were dangerously unstable. He strolled along the avenue where Mal had recreated the outdoor market from her childhood, the building where he had set up a studio because he’d been almost giddy with the freedom of having all the space he needed to create and build.

Each night he returned to the beach and slept there, curled up in the sand.

On the sixth day as he was roaming the plaza, he realized he wasn’t just wandering, that he was intentionally keeping in plain sight so whoever was coming for him wouldn’t have to search. That he wanted to get the job over with so he could be on his way back home.

No one came but he didn’t stop wandering; he couldn’t stop and as he strolled, his mind raced with thoughts he couldn’t control: Had Miles informed the police of his disappearance? Were the children all right and would they ever trust him again? Had Saito—surely back home in Japan by now—tried to call and if so, what was his reaction? And most importantly, who was the forger?

At first Dom thought it might be Eames, turned against him by a large sum of money but, no, that wasn’t right—Eames didn’t work that way and besides, he preferred to stay in his corner of the world.

There were a handful of forgers in Eames’ class, of course. Lacey and Burke were still active—Lacey was working out of Belgrade and Burke had re-located to the UK. Cascajo was also still working—he had the chops to pull off a difficult forgery—Dom had briefly considered him for the Proculus Global job but had eventually decided on the double-talented Eames. But, he remembered, Cascajo had disappeared a few years ago so it couldn’t be him.

Whoever it had been, the who of it wasn’t the real worry—the real worry was how did the forger get out? It couldn’t have been a gun—Dom would have heard that. It could’ve been a jump off a high building but wouldn’t Dom have heard that as well? There was poison, of course, but poison was messy and unpredictable. Maybe Marcus had somehow discovered a kind of door between the world above and the world below?

But however, he had no visitors and on the ninth day, already tired of his new pattern of living, he decided he needed better shelter than the beach could provide. He got up that morning, made his daily trek to the city center, sat down by the fountain in the middle of the plaza and began to build.

Everything in him objected to the idea of reinventing his old homes so he cleared a space to the left of the high-rise and created. First the foundation and framework. Then—and he always had to close his eyes at this point—the interior, constructing wall by wall, floor by floor, painstakingly putting everything in place.

When he was done, he opened his eyes. And stared.

He’d meant to recreate his home in Pasadena, the beautiful Greene & Greene styled in the traditional cedar siding and dark wood accents. Instead, he’d achieved something else entirely and if he’d been thinking clearly, he wouldn’t be so surprised. Because standing before him, rising between the detritus was Saito’s fortress. The one he’d spent his false lifetime in until Dom had come to rescue him.

Made of cement and stone, it rose three stories high, each smaller than the last, decorated with the traditional curved roofs to keep away the demons. It was surrounded by a moat of glass-still water, at least forty-feet deep, the only access was a narrow path that cut arrow-straight from the plaza to the front steps.

He swallowed thickly, then walked to the edge of the moat and stepped gingerly onto the path. He half expected it to dissolve, but it didn’t—it stayed firm and he took another step and then another. The dark reflection of the building leisurely rippled from a soft breeze that appeared out of nowhere and he picked up the pace until he was almost running.

When he got to the top of the steps, he stopped and looked around. From this height, he could see down the avenue that led to the beach. The street was as cold and lifeless as ever and he told himself he shouldn’t be so disheartened, that it was important not to lose hope.

He turned on his heel and strode to the tall double doors and pulled them open with a jerk. They swung to without a sound and he crossed the threshold as if stepping into a cave.

And oh, yes, he remembered this clearly.

A dark fantasy of Oriental opulence that was more museum than residence. Subtle lighting that highlighted the strategically placed art, large rooms off to either side, floors that rose and sank, all connected by staircases that angled here and there to hide the fact that the entire place was a maze.

He made his way to the room that lay at the head of a short staircase, touching the edge of a glass case that housed an ancient sword from the Tang dynasty.

When he got to the gold-paneled doors, he hesitated for the first time, then gathered his courage, slid them apart and stepped inside.

It was just the same.

The ceiling made low by the hundreds of hanging lanterns that gave off no heat. The room-length table shined to a mirror finish. And here…

He walked up to the empty chair at the head of the table and touched the curved back. Here was where it all started…

…resting his arm on the table with a casualness he didn’t feel, Arthur on the other side, tense, but hiding it well. Saito listening as he ate, neatly cutting into his sea bass with a disdainful elegance.

‘What is the most resilient parasite?’

And much later, exhausted from his weeks spent trying to find Saito, burned by the sea and the sun, struggling to reclaim reality as he asked Saito to do the unthinkable…

He shook himself free from the memories and went to the safe and opened it, just to see if his own subconscious did what all dreamers did. But no, it was empty.

So much for that. He shut the safe and turned back to the room, suddenly tired. And hungry.

He needed to find a suitable room so he could build a livable space. He left the room, closing the doors gently behind him.

***

He was asleep, dreaming he was dreaming, when the dream changed. He half woke with a smile and pushed back into the arm that had slipped over his waist. “I’ve missed you. Where’ve you been?”

“Here,” Saito whispered. “Looking for you.”

‘I was here all the time,’ he wanted to protest because he’d had two weeks of waiting and he was beginning to lose it. But his body was waking up as well as his mind and he reached for Saito’s hand, murmuring, “Hiro.”

“Yes.”

He brought Saito’s hand first to his lips, kissing his palm with a smile, then down his chest to his belly and waited.

For Saito to hum deep in his throat, to press closer and stroke his stomach with warm fingers.

“Don’t stop,” he muttered, rolling back so Saito was against him completely.

“No. Never.”

He smiled again at the sincerity in Saito’s voice, then groaned when Saito slipped his hand under his shorts. Down again, reaching even as Dom guided him, his cock already hard. He tipped his head back, his gasp louder this time.

“Dominic,” Saito murmured, and again, “Dominic,” when he gently pushed Dom flat on his belly.

He spread his arms out, only helping by raising his hips as Saito drew the sheets down and his shorts off.

“Beautiful,” Saito whispered. He kissed Dom’s spine, urging his legs apart.

He sighed and thrust into the sheets, his whole body somehow turning to liquid as Saito stroked the inside of his thigh, up and down, up and—

It had to be wrong, how good this felt, the air cool against his skin, Saito’s fingers so warm. It was like something from a dream, simple and easy, even though it had been years since he’d been fucked and that time hadn’t been simple and easy. “You feel so good.”

“I’m glad.”

“Don’t stop?”

“No. Never.” Saito rolled on top, his weight pressing Dom into the mattress, covering him with all his weight. “At least, not until you tell Marcus what he needs to know. Then we’ll go home.”

“Home,” he repeated because just the idea was also like something from a—

He stiffened, swift apprehension freezing his arms, his heart. “Hiro?”

“Yes?”

“You never call me ‘Dominic.’”

There was a slight pause, then Saito said, “What do I usually call you?”

But he didn’t answer. Suspicion had gelled to certainty and he twisted free, panic making his movements wooden and clumsy. But it also cleared away the cobwebs, bringing reality into sharp focus.

Saito was lying on the bed, looking up at him with a bemused frown. He was wearing a Western-style grey silk suit and blue tie, but this time Dom wasn’t fooled. He closed his eyes briefly, telling himself to look better and when he opened his eyes, he saw. Like viewing a fish in a murky pond, the forger’s true form rippled under the surface disguise; there and gone again.

With a snarl, Dom leaped and landed on the fake Saito, sending them both to the floor. Saito tried to fight, but Dom had position and fury and he lashed out, smashing the forger across the jaw. “Who are you? Who are you?” He brought his arm up again, but was thwarted—like magic, a crowd of black-suited men rushed into the room and dragged Saito away from him.

“No, wait! I need to question him!” he called out, one arm raised, but they were too quick. With a smooth move, one of the men grabbed Saito’s head and snapped it sideways. He fell to the ground in an awkward heap, three feet away from Dom’s outstretched arm.

Dom lay there, naked and panting as the head of his subconscious security asked calmly, “Will that be all, sir?”

 

___________________

 

Sunday, September 26th

 

Yoshiko.

Here, in New York.

With Marcus Lightman.

The last time he’d seen her, sitting on the other side of a broad table with her solicitor patting her shoulder, she’d been calm and collected and beautiful, but somehow old as if she had aged thirty years in the space of a few hours.

She’d cut her hair short in a style that was probably meant to lend her an air of severity but it merely emphasized her pretty features. She was dressed well—he didn’t remember her owning a pink Chanel suit, but it had been almost two years since they had seen each other.

“Yoshiko,” he said again, this time a statement. “What are you doing here?”

“I might ask you the same.” She answered in Japanese—he forgot that as much as she could speak English, she hated to.

He responded again in English, a pointed reminder as to who was in control here. “I am conducting business. Which is no concern of yours.”

Her eyes flashed down at Cobb, but all she said was, “I am here because Marcus asked me to come.”

He leaned back, heavily. She was lying, but then, she was never any good at it. “Whatever you think you will gain from this venture—”

“Now, Hiro,” Lightman said condescendingly, as if he were speaking to a child. “She was a surprise to me, as well. Here I was, minding my Ps and Qs, when I get a call out of the blue. Masahiro Saito’s ex-wife, bringing news.”

The others scattered about the room made various gestures of surprise. Ariadne put her hand to her mouth, Eames raised an eyebrow and Ian shifted from foot to foot. “Yes? And what news would that be?”

“Very interesting tidbits,” Lightman answered, his expression darkening with pretend sorrow. “And I was surprised, Hiro, by the tale she told. You should be more careful with your women. Abandoning Miss Miko like that…” He actually clicked his teeth as he shook his head.

“She wasn’t abandoned, but it’s none of your affair,” Saito said.

Yoshiko spoke again, muttering something about ‘decadence’ under her breath. He shot her a stinging glance.

“Eh,” Lightman shrugged, watching the exchange with obvious delight. “If you say so.”

Saito smiled in return—he was already weary of being on the defensive. It was time for his own attack. “Are you sleeping with her?”

Lightman laughed, the bastard. As if this were all a joke. “Your ex-wife? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean she and I don’t have a common goal. Besides, don’t you really mean, what has she told me?”

“Very well then, what has she told you?”

“For starters, about the ethics clause and the details of your contracts.”

“Again, something that is a matter of public record.”

“Plus,” Lightman added a little more forcefully, finally reacting visibly to Saito’s dismissive words, “she told me about your troubles after the Fischer job. Not sleeping, not working. No, er…” He glanced at Yoshiko with a sly grin. “Marital duties.”

Saito raised an eyebrow, but didn’t speak.

“And finally,” Lightman ground out, his pretend anger becoming real, “she told me about Dominic.”

And that hit, try as he might to avoid it. He recrossed his legs. “What about him?”

“I know you visited him after the job last year.”

“And?”

“And again, months later.”

Saito shrugged. “He was doing a small job for me.”

“Is that what they’re calling it these days?”

They were the same words as before, said with the same sneering derision. He brushed an invisible piece of lint off his trouser leg. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Here…” Lightman reached into his pocket and brought out a slim mobile. “Let me enlighten you.” He pushed a button and then another and held the mobile up.

There was soft buzz and someone began to speak—it took him a moment to recognize his own voice—he sounded drunk or as if he’d been sleeping.

‘Dom. It’s Hiro. You are sleeping now, in my bed, on your back. Do you always take up so much room? I am going to have to get a larger bed, I think. But that is not why I am calling. I thought you might want my numbers in Tokyo. The first is the number at my office. Zero—’

Lightman hit another button with a flourish and the message ceased.

The silence before was nothing to the silence now. He wanted to shout and leap and smash, but he didn’t trust his voice to do what he wanted.

“These devices…” Lightman shook the mobile and smiled at it as if in wonder. “They can do so many things. All you need is a user name and password. You really should have changed yours, but I gather you had other things on your mind.” He glanced at Cobb, then back up with an exaggerated leer. “And thanks to Miss Yoshiko…” Lightman bowed his head. “I have both. I know that you were in California last week, just as I know you spent that time with Dominic and his two children. So sweet.”

Saito sat back and made himself smile. “You know I’m sleeping with Cobb. So?” His voice was calm, even, just as it should be.

“So, indeed,” Lightman murmured. “I confess, when I heard the recording, I was taken aback.”

‘More like furious,’ Saito thought with no small amount of satisfaction—he recognized jealousy when he saw it.

“But,” Marcus continued. “I’m good at making lemonade out of lemons, as they say, and this new information makes everything so much easier.”

“You can announce the affair to the world, Marcus,” Saito said. “I won’t give up control of my company.”

“Hiro,” Lightman said with mock concern. “Never mind what your own countrymen will say once this gets out. Never mind what Robert Fischer will say. If you don’t sign your company over to me, I will simply put Dominic to sleep. Permanently.” He waved. “Mr. Yusuf?”

Yusuf straightened up. He was sitting on the love seat next to Eames. “Yes?”

“Bring me the syringe.”

With a swift glance Eames’ way, Yusuf picked up the syringe and went to the bed.

Lightman nodded. “There’s enough of that left to put him under for weeks.”

Saito shrugged, using the small motion to ease the sudden fear. “Something you could have done hours ago.”

“That’s true, but this way, I get to make him—and you—suffer before I get what I want. Imagine it: he’s down there, thinking he’s in a dream, waiting for a question I’ll never ask. And when he decides to end it all, he’ll pull a trigger or jump off a roof, only, guess what? He’ll think he has landed in that place you all call limbo. And since possession in this country is nine-tenths of the law, I can keep him sedated in that dream of limbo until I grow bored. How many lifetimes will he have lived by then?” He reached over and stroked Cobb’s cheek. “How insane will he be, by then?”

It would be a living nightmare. Dom would try everything to get back to his children and each time he did, each time he thought he’d finally made it, something would happen to make him realize he was still dreaming.

The fist in Saito’s chest turned to a stone and he thought he might be sick. He needed to end this, now.

Later on, when he had time to think, he wondered what he would have done if Ariadne hadn’t acted first. With a little grunt, she darted forward and grabbed the syringe out of Yusuf’s hand. Saito had a split second to think, ‘She’s going to destroy the serum,’ but she surprised him one more time.

As if she’d been planning her strategy for days, she deftly placed the needle to her wrist and depressed the plunger.

 

___________________

 

The forger returned eleven days later.

Eleven days of moving from window to window, sleeping only when he was so exhausted he couldn’t not sleep and even then, his rest was disjointed and shallow. Because every day, he managed to put away the memory of the attack, but it returned right as he was dropping off, diamond sharp in its clarity as if it had just happened. He told himself that it wasn’t rape, that nothing had happened. But it didn’t stop him from tensing up every time his mind and body relaxed. It was enough to drive one crazy.

His new security force didn’t help. They were, after all, not real and he kept expecting them to vanish at any time—one minute there, the next minute gone.

He tried to distract himself by going through Mal’s old library, picking a book at random, then returning to the living room to read. But he was unable to get through more than a few pages before lifting his head to see if anyone had entered the room on the sly.

On the twentieth day of his imprisonment, he decided he needed a break from paranoia and went down to the beach with a book and beach towel, his silent guards in tow. He settled at the edge of the tide while he tried to lose himself in the book. He’d actually managed it, sort of, when movement out of the corner of his eye broke his concentration.

He looked around. To see Saito coming towards him. He was wearing a beautiful tan suit, one hand was in his pocket, the other up in greeting. He walked unhurriedly across the hard sand, smiling as he called out, “Dom? Please—”

He didn’t wait to hear what the fake Saito had to say. He jumped up with a snarl. He gestured to his security detail to head left and he gave chase, hoping to drive the forger into the arms of his men. He ran, stumbling over sand and then concrete and finally onto pavement. It almost worked—at an intersection he managed a sharp burst of speed and touched the forger’s shoulder, but he was too quick. He veered off at the last second, losing Dom in a maze of a broken buildings.

Fuck it.

He stood there, hands on hips, trying to catch his breath.

“Sir?”

He didn’t turn around.

“I can send the men out again.”

He shook his head.

“He can’t have gone far.”

He turned around. He’d trained a dozen executives on how to create their own subconscious security force but had never found out why the projections always seemed the same. This one was tall, muscular and black, but still, he was the same. “No.”

“Would you like me to keep a guard posted?”

“No.” He picked up a rock and threw it at a blown-out window, the small gesture somehow quieting his leftover fury. “He’s gone.”

“Here, sir.” The guard held out his book.

He took it, murmuring, “Let’s get back to the house.”

 

___________________

 

The scene that followed wasn’t anything like those times when he’d been involved in an operation that went south. Those times, everything had become crystal clear as if he were moving in slow motion, but this, this was chaos.

As soon as Ariadne put the needle to her wrist, Arthur had leapt forward with a shouted, “No!” arms outstretched. He caught her as she crumpled but crashed into Yusuf, bent on the same task. At the same time, the tallest of Lightman’s heavies charged in from the other room, knocking Gillis over as he headed for Arthur, Ariadne and Yusuf. Hunter jumped forward to tackle him, and the melee was on.

He grabbed the guy that had Yusuf, hauling him back by the scruff of the neck. The man in turn used their momentum to propel them back towards the bathroom. They smashed into the doorframe, then landed on the hard tile floor.

Eames bucked, trying to get the man off him, but the man’s weight was too much. So, plan B—he wrapped his other arm around the man’s neck and held on, gasping for breath because the fucker was heavy and suddenly it was over—with a sigh, the man passed out and Eames slid free.

He rolled to his feet, poised to kick the man in the face if he so much as blinked, but the man was truly down. He straightened up, wincing at the pain in his side, then returned to the bedroom.

Arthur was calmly tying his man up with electrical cord, one knee in the small of his back while Hunter handled the third. Yusuf was arranging Ariadne in the corner of the sofa, propping her up as if she were taking a nap. Gillis had herded Lightman and Saito’s ex into a corner and Saito was still by the bed, standing guard over Cobb with a gun in his hand. So much for not being licensed to carry a gun in the States—it was probably Lightman’s.

“Is Ariadne all right?” he asked, without taking his eyes off Saito.

“I don’t know,” Yusuf said. “It was a very foolish thing to do, considering the dose was for Cobb.”

“What are we going to do now?”

But it was Arthur who answered as he pushed to his feet. “We’re going after them.”

“Take a dose of Yusuf’s new compound?” Eames asked with a little laugh. “Oh, joy.”

Yusuf and Arthur looked over at him at the same time, each wearing identical expressions of disbelief. “We can’t leave them there,” Yusuf said.

“You were all right with leaving that fellow, one of your guinea pigs down there to rot. Remember?” His barb was cruel, both in words and in tone, and Yusuf’s expression changed.

“Why do you think I’m doing this? And my test subject was not a man; it was a woman.”

Eames said nothing. He’d assumed, but that’s what he got for assuming and he didn’t know why he was so angry. He just wished Yusuf would stop petting Ariadne. “So it’s some sort of chivalry thing?”

“No, it has nothing to do with that,” Yusuf responded hotly as he finally let go and got up. He hurried over to a metal case and opened it up. “We have to do this; we have no choice.”

“We’re going, Eames. You can stay here if you like,” Arthur said brusquely. “I’m gonna find something better to tie them up with. Be right back.” He left, brushing by Eames roughly.

“Yes, we do have a choice,” Eames insisted, stepping over a bad guy to stand close to Yusuf, speaking as if Arthur hadn’t just decided for them. “There’s always a choice.”

Yusuf took a deep breath. “Eames. I should have gone after her, my test subject. The minute after I realized she couldn’t wake up, I should have done it. But I didn’t and now I have to make it right.”

“I thought you never go into the field,” Eames muttered. Hunter had finished with his guy and had gotten up to stand next to Saito.

“I sometimes make exceptions, you know that.”

The words were oddly blithe and he frowned, unsure what he could say to make Yusuf think, when Arthur called from the other room. “Guys? You better get in here. Now.”

Saito handed the gun to Hunter with a soft, “Watch them. We will be right back.”

Hunter nodded and they all trooped out.

There was no one in the main room and Eames said, “Arthur? Where the hell are you?”

“Back here,” Arthur called out again. “There’s another bedroom back here.”

There was indeed a second bedroom, tucked in the corner of the room. Eames had seen the door, but had just assumed it was a closet. It wasn’t a closet, it was a bedroom and on the bed was—

“Holy shit,” Eames whispered.

“Who is it?” Yusuf said, peering down at the figure on the bed, fast asleep.

“Cobb’s last architect, Nash,” Saito said heavily. “But who’s that?” He nodded to the figure draped over the armchair across the room.

“A forger by the name of Cascajo,” Eames muttered, “and if he’s working for Marcus, we might be in trouble.” Cascajo and Nash were hooked up to the machine and by the looks of it, they had another ten or twenty minutes left.

“Why?” Saito asked.

“Because he’s very good.”

Saito leaned over Nash. “Is he under the effect of your version of the compound, Yusuf?”

“No,” Arthur said before Yusuf could answer. He bent over the machine. “This is standard grade Somnacin. How much of the other stuff did you sell them, Yusuf?”

“Just the forty-five milliliters.”

Eames edged by Arthur and bent over Cascajo. “How long do you think they have, Arthur? ” He touched the back of Cascajo’s hand—his skin was cool, almost cold.

“Maybe eight minutes.”

“Which means they have about a day left to do whatever it is they’re doing to Cobb. Should we bring them out of it, do you think?”

They all looked at each other. Eames nodded, “Yeah, better not until we know what they’re doing down there.” He took a deep breath. “So now we just have to decide who’s going down there.”

He glanced at Saito, who just murmured, “Before we take that leap, are we sure there are no more dreamers?”

Arthur nodded. “I’ll go look.”

He hurried off leaving Eames and Saito to stare down at Nash.

“What are you doing, Mr. Nash,” Saito murmured, as if talking to himself.

Eames glanced at him. “I gather something happened in Tokyo?”

“Kyoto. He failed Cobb in Kyoto.” The words were soft but Eames felt as if they echoed, as if Saito had shouted them at the top of his voice.

“It doesn’t change things, though,” Arthur said as he returned, carrying a bunch of flexi-cuffs. He held them up and tossed a couple to Eames. “Courtesy of Mr. Hunter, and I have it on good authority that Nash and Cascajo are the only ones involved.”

“Whose good authority?” Eames asked as he knelt beside Cascajo and began the fun task of tying him to the chair.

“Lightman’s,” Arthur said with a small smile. “Gillis got it out of him by threatening to cut his little finger off. He’s good.”

Eames smiled. “Wish I’d been there to see that. There,” he added as he stood up and brushed off his pants. “All finished. Now,” he turned to Yusuf. “How much of your compound do you have left and is it enough for all of us?”

It wasn’t Yusuf who answered, but Arthur. He was finishing up with Nash and said over his shoulder, “You and Saito are going.”

Eames said nothing for a moment. He would’ve thought— “Why not you?”

Arthur got to his feet, his face like stone. “Because one of us needs to stay and that person should be familiar with the city in case we have to run with the bodies. And because if they really are in limbo, Saito has been down there before and that’s an asset.” He glanced down, then back up again and for once his gaze was filled with worry. “And because I trust you to bring her back to me.”

Eames stared. An hour ago, he would have said Arthur’s attachment was nothing more than extreme fondness but it looked like he was wrong.

He nodded and glanced over at Saito—his expression was calm and resolute with no hint of dread or fear. ‘He’s been down there before…’ More like he’d been stuck down there before—fifty or sixty years according to Yusuf. Who’d want to do that again? And then, on the heels of that thought came another—who else would Saito risk limbo for?

It was an disquieting notion, that Saito would take such a chance for Cobb, but all Eames said was a resigned, “How will we get back? Can we use a kick?”

“No, no kick.” Yusuf shook his head. “The drug is too powerful. You’ll have to bring yourself out.”

“Great,” Eames growled. He put his hands on his hips and said to Saito, “So, no choice?”

“No choice,” Saito agreed gravely.

“Then, come on. Let’s get this show on the road.”

They went back to the first bedroom. Lightman and the woman, Yoshiko, were nowhere to be seen—they were probably tied up somewhere and as he made himself comfortable on the sofa across from the sleeping Ariadne, he entertained thoughts of what he’d like to do to Lightman.

Yusuf followed with the small metal case. “Move over.” He sat down next to Eames and put his glasses on.

Eames obeyed. This close, he could see the marks of stress in Yusuf’s face—a rough stubble of beard and faint lines that bracketed his eyes and mouth. When they were done with this mess and back in Kenya, he’d suggest a holiday, maybe someplace with a beach. Fiji? Mexico? Someplace warm with a lot of blue, blue water.

Yusuf opened the case and began to fuss with the syringes.

“Aren’t you going to hook us up together?” Eames asked, mostly to have something to say.

Yusuf nodded. “It’s not necessary, but it’s imperative that you arrive together. Arthur is going to inject Saito the same time I do you.”

The words were unfortunate and Eames couldn’t help his choked laugh.

“You know what I mean,” Yusuf chided. He drew the drug into the syringe, squinting at the liquid. “Even a second’s delay could mean hours.”

“Right.” Eames willed the humor away and unbuttoned his shirtsleeve, peering around Yusuf to say to Arthur, “Whatever you do, make sure those bastards in there don’t get away.”

“We’ll take care of it, Mr. Eames,” Arthur said pithily as he reached for the syringe that Yusuf held out.

“See that you do,” he answered with a grin that changed to a shiver when Yusuf touched his wrist.

“What?” Yusuf asked softly.

“Your fingers are cold,” Eames answered, just as soft.

Yusuf started to say something, then closed his mouth when Saito settled onto the bed next to Cobb. He did it so naturally, it was as if he’d been sleeping next to Cobb forever.

Eames glanced up at Yusuf, thinking to share a grin, but Yusuf was looking down at the syringe, his cheeks a bright red, surprising Eames all over again. He didn’t have time to joke or tease—Arthur went around the bed and leaned over Saito.

“You might want to order something in,” Eames said to Yusuf. “Who knows how long we’ll be.”

Yusuf nodded and turned Eames’ arm over, his touch gentle. “Just go in, find them and come back.” Then he twisted around and said to Arthur, “On three, please. One, two, three—”

The needle stung for a brief second and he sighed—here came the hard part.

“I’ll be waiting,” Yusuf muttered.

He opened his mouth to say, ‘What does that mean?’ but it was already too—

 

___________________

 

The forger tried a handful of times after that, a quick succession of lighting-fast visits, appearing before Dom had a chance to really see him, then vanishing again before he could get close. Once more with the Saito disguise, then Arthur, Ariadne, and finally, Phillipa. She’d come bouncing towards him, arms outstretched calling ‘Daddy!’

He’d done the running away that time, unable to even imagine hurting his daughter, even if she was a fraud.

He couldn’t figure out what Marcus wanted. After that second time, there were no attempts to communicate, to instruct. Just there and gone and he promised himself after the Phillipa incident that he’d keep his cool and wouldn’t react other than to ask calmly what was going on.

But oddly enough, that was the last of it and somehow that was even worse, being alone with only his own projections for company.

He took to restoring the buildings around him—it gave him something to focus on and he desperately needed that. He worked in the morning, then, when he was tired and his mind was a confusion of lines and angles and curves, he’d return to the house and rest.

But eventually even that paled and after a couple weeks of restoration, he gave it up. He decided that he’d been right and there was a good chance he missed Marcus’ contact because he’d been holed up in the city.

So, that day, he made his lunch and stuffed it and a book into a backpack and went down to the beach, his security following silently.

When he got to the shore, he scanned the coast. He saw nothing but the same old sand and water, so he climbed up to the shelter he’d found that first day and got out his book.

He read until noon, until hunger interrupted the flow of words. He closed the book, then got up and stretched, scanning the coast automatically. Like before, he saw nothing so he sat back down and ate his lunch without really tasting it. When he was finished, he bundled up the leftovers and opened the book again.

He stopped reading when the light was mostly gone and looked up. The sky was filled with layered clouds ranging from a bright coral to a deep maroon. It was so beautiful. He picked up his backpack and rose. Then he and his men went home.

When he got inside, he ate dinner and went to bed.

Just as he was falling asleep, a memory slipped in, this one of someone in pain mumbling something about ‘waiting to die alone.’ He was too sleepy to follow the memory to its source and soon fell asleep.

***

The next day he repeated the same schedule: breakfast, shower, beach, dinner, bed.

***

The next day he followed the schedule except he skipped dinner—he just wasn’t hungry.

 

___________________

 

Transition.

Never a transition between there and here. Between the bedroom and the ocean.

It just was.

First there, and then here, trying to find up, mostly finding down as the waves grabbed him and tossed him about.

He finally touched bottom and staggered to his feet, then pushed through the surf to stand on the relative safety of dry sand. He slicked his hair back and looked around.

“If this is limbo, you can bloody well keep it,” came a voice behind him. He turned. Eames was on his back, flailing in the water like an upside down turtle and if they weren’t on such a serious mission, he’d laugh. He went back in and reached for Eames’ hand, pulling him upright.

“Why water?” Eames asked, once he was on his feet.

Saito cocked his head. “I don’t know. I never thought to ask.”

“When we get to—” Eames looked up and his mouth dropped open. “Holy Christ—did Cobb build all that?”

“Yes.” Saito nodded, following Eames’ glance. “He and his wife. They built for years.” The words echoed in his memory, heard through a filter of pain and fear.

“Impressive.”

Saito said nothing.

“Was it in this bad a shape when you were here?” Eames said doubtfully, still looking around.

Saito glanced up the coast. Huge slabs of concrete dotted the shore as if dropped from a great height. “I don’t know. I’ve never been here before.”

Eames looked over his shoulder. “Come again?”

Saito gestured, sending a spray of water across the sand. “In my limbo, the one Cobb rescued me from, there was a stronghold up on that hill. I lived there.” He pointed and they both looked up. There was no stronghold, just a slope of pale green grass that bled into a half-demolished concrete wall. “There was no city.”

“Well, it was a dream—maybe you’re mixing it up with another?”

“No,” Saito said firmly. “I am not. I spent fifty years there, after all.”

Eames looked around, nodding. “Did you travel anywhere? I mean, when you lived here. Maybe we should go there.”

Saito turned to look at him. “There was no where to travel. There was the house and nothing more.”

“That sounds more nightmare than dream.” And then before Saito could respond, he asked, “Does anything look familiar?”

Saito shook his head. “Other than the hill, nothing.”

“Then,” Eames sighed, “let’s go find them.”

“Where?” he asked, looking around at what had to be thousands of hectares worth of city.

Eames shrugged. “Well, they’re not here, that’s for certain. The buildings look more intact further in—maybe that means something.”

Saito doubted it, but he just bowed and gestured for Eames to precede him and they made their way across the sand towards the city. When they got to the invisible line where nature ended and man began, Eames stopped. “Anything now?”

Saito shook his head. “No.”

“Didn’t Cobb ever talk to you about his time down here?”

“Not as such. Why?”

“Because any information will be useful.”

Saito hesitated. He had a vague memory of Cobb telling Ariadne of his time in limbo, but all he remembered was, ‘We built a world for ourselves.’ “No,” he finally said. “We never talked about it.” Along with other topics such as wives, both dead and ex-.

Eames tightened his lips and Saito wondered if he was thinking something along the lines of, ‘So, you’re sleeping with him, but you don’t talk about what turned out to be one of the most important days in his life?’ But all he said was, “Well, if you remember anything, let me know.” He touched Saito’s arm. “C’mon.”

 

___________________

 

He woke up tired.

Lying in bed on his side, facing the broad window, watching as the sun gradually revealed the furniture’s true shapes and colors. It was tempting, the idea of staying in bed all day, maybe finish his book even though it seemed more than ironic, a man spending his days in his own mind reading, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

He made himself get up. Made himself shower as usual and eat as usual. When he was done, he gathered the men and left. He glanced up at the sky as they walked. It was going to be another beautiful day.

The beach was equally beautiful. He settled down, but didn’t open his book. He stared out at the water for a while, at the clouds low on the horizon, then fell asleep.

 

___________________

 

They walked down a long, wide avenue towards what looked to be the heart of the city, ruined buildings on either side. It was tense going, not just because there was debris everywhere, but because he couldn’t help feeling that they were being watched. The ruins were full of places to hide—they’d be easy pickings for a sniper.

He kept an eye out for tracks. There were none. Never mind Ariadne—if Cobb had been down here even a week, wouldn’t there be some sign of him? But no, the city was dead quiet as if it were populated by ghosts. In fact, the empty doors and windows looked kind of like entrances to crypts or graves—if he shouted, would it bring the dead stumbling out?

Both thoughts were a little creepy and he couldn’t help his shiver.

“What is it?” Saito murmured.

“Nothing.” He waited for Saito to call him on his lie, but after giving him a sharp look, he just kept going.

And so they walked down the avenue that seemed to only get longer and he was thinking that maybe shouting was what they should be doing when they reached a broad intersection that opened to a vast plaza.

He frowned and put his hands on his hips.

“What is it?” Saito asked again.

Eames shrugged. “Not sure. Does this seem right to you?” The plaza was dotted with buildings that were separated by pools of water. So strange.

Saito nodded without looking. “Yes.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because these buildings are relatively undamaged.” Saito waved his hand. “See? When we first started walking, the buildings were almost leveled. But not here. And there…” He pointed again. “In the distance, the buildings are increasingly damaged again. Can you see?”

Eames squinted. Now that Saito pointed it out, yes, he could see it. “It’s like a blast radius gone backwards,” he murmured, then, “You think that means something?”

“Yes. Cobb has been here. He’s been building.”

Eames shot him a skeptical look but the idea of wandering around the city wasn’t appealing in the least. Besides, the sun was behind them now—night would arrive sooner rather than later and he had no wish to spend the night in the open. “All right. Where first?”

Saito looked around, then pointed to square, Italianate two-level.

“You sure?” The house looked old; even from this distance he could see it wasn’t in the best shape.

“No.”

He grinned and muttered, “Here goes nothing,” then stepped out onto the plaza. Like before, he scanned the buildings as they walked, searching for movement. When they got to the narrow path that led to the house he stopped. “You know, we have no idea how deep that water is. We’ll be exposed every second of the way with nowhere to run.”

Saito nodded firmly towards the house, “Please continue, Mr. Eames.”

He tightened his lips and took a first step when Saito drew a loud breath and touched his arm.

“Look.”

He turned, preparing for the worst. But it was nothing. To the left of a tall high rise stood another building surround by water. Sure it was huge and menacing, but it wasn’t enough to scare a person like that. “Well?” he asked sarcastically.

“That’s my house,” Saito answered in a hushed voice. “The one that used to be on the beach.”

He raised his eyebrow. “This is your house? The one you were telling me about?”

After a short pause, Saito murmured, “Yes.”

“Fuck me,” he whispered, shaking his head. “You do like to live large, don’t you.” And then, when he realized what Saito had meant, he frowned. “How did it get here?”

“I have no idea.”

He sighed. He had to ask, even though he already knew the answer. “I suppose you want to go in there.”

Saito didn’t answer at first. He stood there, staring up at the building, a blank look on his face. Finally, he said, “I suppose we must.”

Well, that sounded less than positive but Eames just waved his arm. “After you.”

 

___________________

 

He was sleeping, dreaming…

…he licks the seawater off the man’s neck, following the slick trail down to the hollow at the base of his throat. He laughs, or thinks he does, because this indentation, common to everyone, was surely made for his tongue…

“Sir.”

He laughs again and the sound reverberates like a bell, going on and on and—

“Sir?”

Dom jerked awake, rolling to his back to look up. The head of his security was a foot away, looking down at him. His rifle, normally slung at his back, was in his hands.

“What is it?”

“There are reports of a disturbance, sir. In the city.”

He rubbed his eyes. He’d fallen asleep in the sand again. “What kind of a disturbance?”

“Apparently a girl has been seen wandering around.”

He closed his eyes. There was only one girl he knew that wandered his city and he was damned if he’d see her again. It hurt too much. “Take care of her.”

“Sir?”

“Take care of her,” he repeated dully, trying not to think what he was really saying.

“Very good, sir,” the man said. He waited for a moment, then got out his two-way and spoke softly into the mic.

Dom closed his eyes again and let sleep take him again.

 

___________________

 

When they crossed the walkway that spanned the moat, they crossed into a deep shadow made by the building to the right. Saito told himself that it didn’t matter, that absence of light didn’t make a place dangerous or not. Still, he was relieved when they made it up the long flight of stairs unscathed.

“Do we knock?” Eames asked, looking all around.

Saito wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. “No. If this is the house from my dream, there will be guards inside. There is a door around that corner.” He pointed to the right of the building. “It will take us in through a side entrance. In case anyone is waiting for us.”

Eames nodded. “It’s your show. Lead the way.”

The door was where he remembered. Which should bring relief, but didn’t. There was something subtly wrong here, like a flat note played at a concert. When he pulled on the handle, he caught himself thinking, ‘Please be locked,’ like a child afraid of the dark. But, of course, the door wasn’t locked. It opened smoothly and they went inside.

He remembered this as well—a narrow corridor softly illuminated by sconces, paneled in glossy wood with a door at the end. The thing he didn’t remember was the way the walls seemed to close in on him, as if they were collapsing as he walked. It was nothing, he assured himself—just an optical illusion brought on by stress and uncertainty.

Still, when they got to the door, he didn’t use caution but opened it immediately. And then closed his eyes as a cool breeze caressed his face. He was sweating for some reason.

“Well?” Eames whispered behind him.

“Give me a moment to make sure we are alone.” ‘To collect myself.’

And he did and they were. The hall was empty, filled only with display cases, art, and his memories. He took a few steps and then a few more. Eames followed.

“So, this was your house?” Eames asked softly as he examined the room.

Saito turned to a short flight of stairs the led down to the center of the room. “While I was in limbo, yes.”

“It looks like a museum.”

“I suppose.”

“At least you got your exercise, all these stairs.”

Saito stopped, hand on rail, and looked back. Whatever anxiety he was feeling faded under Eames’ devil-may-care expression. He smiled briefly. “At least. It got tiring after a while. I prefer much smaller homes.”

“Like Cobb’s?”

It was asked casually, but it hit the mark and he said cautiously, “Yes. Like Cobb’s.”

Eames shrugged, obviously dismissing the subject. “Where to now?”

He thought about it. “There is only one room I know of where Cobb might be.”

“And that is?” Eames asked.

He pointed. “Up those stairs.”

“What’s in there?”

“A formal dining room. Where I used to entertain my guests.”

“Why don’t you want to go up there.”

He looked over his shoulder, carefully hiding his surprise at Eames’ insight. “No reason, Mr. Eames.” And he continued down the stairs and strode across the center of the room, now walking quickly.

It was only at the wide, ornate double doors that he hesitated again for a brief second. Then, he straightened his shoulders, grasped the handles and tugged.

“Ah,” he hissed in unhappy shock.

“What the hell?” Eames murmured as he pushed by Saito and entered the room. “You entertained important people here?” He turned and his gaze sharpened when he saw Saito’s face. “I take it you didn’t entertain important people here.”

It wasn’t a question, but Saito answered anyway, “No.”

“Do you know this place?” Eames asked.

“Yes.”

“Where is it?”

Saito stepped inside the room and looked around at the dark, glossy furniture, at the windows open to the bright city beyond. “Los Angeles.” The balcony door was open and the draperies fluttered in a breeze that wasn’t there.

“You’re joking.”

Saito stopped next to a long sofa and rested his hand on it. “This was—is—my suite at the Wilshire. Where I stayed when I visited Los Angeles. But it’s not the same. That picture, for example…” He wandered over to the far wall and touched the framed piece of art. “That was not in my suite.”

Eames followed and looked over his shoulder. “I should hope not. It’s ugly.”

“It’s a Patrick Heron; very rare, very expensive. Dom gave it to me a few days ago.”

Eames was silent for a moment, then said harshly, “C’mon. Let’s see if anyone’s about.”

‘And get the hell out of here’ was his unspoken addition, but Saito didn’t move. He knew why the suite was here just as he knew why the drawing was on the wall. The sick feeling had returned, many times worse.

“Well, if you’re not going to…” Eames muttered as he slipped by Saito and strode to the bedroom door. He touched the handle. And jumped when the door was pushed open to reveal a small figure.

“Jesus, Ariadne,” Eames growled. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“What are you doing here? Where’s Cobb?” She was clutching her chest and her cheeks were white. They’d startled her as much as she’d startled them.

Saito touched the drawing once more, then turned away, saying, “We came to find you and Cobb. We haven’t seen him.”

“What were you doing in there?” Eames asked, peering over her shoulder.

She flushed and glared. “What do you think?”

“Well, next time you decide to do something stupid, make sure you go to the bathroom first.’

She opened her mouth, but Saito interrupted, not wanting to hear them bicker, “Did you find any trace of him?”

She relaxed her grip on her coat and admitted, “No. I searched his old houses, but—”

“What old houses?” Saito broke in.

“He and Mal recreated all the places they’d lived. Those are their houses down there.”

It shouldn’t be such a blow, the realization that Cobb was living in a world created by he and his wife, that he was rebuilding their world. It shouldn’t be such a blow, but it was.

“And what did you find?”

“That’s what I was saying,” she said. “If he lived there, it was a long time ago. The only place that looked used was here. Look…” She pushed the bedroom door open and waved.

Yes, this was his room, the one he’d shared with Cobb and his brief jealousy faded away. The bedclothes were in a jumble as if someone had just gotten up and there were a pair of trousers on the chair as if someone had just changed. The only anomaly was a collection of children’s toys lined up on the dresser.

Ariadne gestured again. “The bed was slept in. That means he was here, right?”

They both turned to Saito. He shrugged. “It would seem so.” He wanted to pick up a pillow and smell it—maybe Cobb’s scent would still be on it.

“And look at this—” She squeezed between them and went back to the main room and then to the kitchen. “See?” She opened the refrigerator. The shelves were filled with food. “And that was there when I got here.” She pointed to the countertop where a cutting board, knife and folded newspaper lay. Saito edged by Eames and picked it up, running his thumb on the blunt side of the blade.

“That means something, doesn’t it?” she said again.

“Yes,” Saito murmured.

“What?”

“That he’s trying to stay sane, Ariadne,” Eames answered for him. “That he’s surrounding himself with familiar things that give him comfort.”

Saito remembered the feeling, remembered gradually losing all sense of his past, his very self…

He laid the knife down and looked around. There was a pad of paper stuck on the refrigerator door with a magnet. On it were ten neat rows of hash marks, the kind accountants once used, and he didn’t need Cobb by his side to tell him what he’d been doing—marking the days off. Sixty-two, all told. Impossible. It had to be more like fourteen.

He tore the paper free and handed it to Eames.

“Shit,” Eames swore under his breath.

“Yes,” Saito agreed.

“What now?” Eames asked absently, still looking at the note.

“Cobb was here. But he won’t be now.”

“Where will he be then?”

Instead of answering, he turned to Ariadne and put his hands on her shoulders. “Ariadne? Can you take us to the place where you first entered limbo? The time you came looking for Fischer?”

“I was already there.”

“I know. But let’s try again.”

He turned to the door, only thinking about Cobb and the need to find him now when he heard a faint noise and then another. He held up his hand, and listened more carefully. Voices, low and urgent, right outside the door.

“Mr. Eames?” he whispered. “We have company.”

 

___________________

 

He woke, realizing only then that he’d fallen asleep for the third time that day.

He sat up and looked around. The security detail had grown. Instead of one man, there were now five positioned in a rough circle around him. He wasn’t sure who they thought they were protecting him from and he wanted to ask, but as soon as the thought crossed his mind, it disappeared. He lay down and closed his eyes.

•••

It was sometime after noon when he woke next, the sun on its downward climb to the horizon. And for the first time in a long time, he was completely alone. But—he touched his temple, trying to think—he’d always been alone, hadn’t he? Building his buildings, creating his world. Always alone.

The thought felt wrong and he struggled to sit up. But it was such an effort, trying to think and act at the same time. He gave up and fell onto the sand, already asleep.

 

___________________

 

Saito was going crazy, Eames thought as he listened harder. He didn’t hear anything. Just the low hum of non-existent traffic and his own heartbeat. He opened his mouth to say something sarcastic when he heard it—a low murmur and then a squeak of wood. He touched Ariadne’s arm and gestured for her to retreat to the bedroom. He didn’t wait to see if she obeyed because the doors were sliding opening.

Followed by a gun, then a hand and he lunged forward and grabbed the black-sleeved arm and yanked.

Black-suited and white-haired, the man shouted in surprise and tried to respond. It was too late—Eames forced him into the room, aiming the gun at the wall, hand clenched around the man’s neck. Behind him, there was a crash and a shout of pain that he hoped wasn’t Saito’s.

Inch by inch, he turned the gun on the man and when it was pointing in the right direction, he pulled the trigger. As the man fell, Eames snatched the gun from his hand and whipped around.

Saito was struggling with his man, each trying for the gun that was wedged between them. Ariadne, bless her, hadn’t returned to the bedroom but instead was holding the sliding doors closed with all her might.

“Ariadne!” he called out. When she looked over his shoulder, he gestured, ‘Let go.’ She dived to the side, the door burst open and three men rushed in. He didn’t give them a chance to explain—he shot them, one by one.

“Need any help, Saito?” he called out, unable to help the note of black humor because what the hell had Cobb been up to? He recognized the generic faces of the dead men and the even more generic clothes—they were Cobb’s security projections.

“No, thank you, Mr. Eames” came Saito’s strained reply.

“Ariadne?” He found her crouched behind a wing-backed chair. “Are you all right?” He reached out and pulled her up.

“Yeah, I’m—”

There was a sharp report, a muffled bang. She jumped and the man Saito was holding dropped to the ground.

“Finally,” Eames said with more than a little sarcasm.

Saito just gave him a sharp look, then checked the clip of the gun.

“Who are they?” Ariadne asked. “I thought it was just us and Cobb down here.”

“They’re Cobb’s,” Saito said as he pocketed the gun.

“Cobb’s?” Her face cleared. “These are Cobb’s projections? Like Fischer’s?”

“Exactly alike,” Eames answered, stepping over a body, stopping to retrieve the man’s weapon, just in case. “And we better get going before his subconscious decides that five weren’t enough. Come on.”

***

If the way in was tense, the way out was worse. The sun was dropping and the streets were full of shadows. He remembered his thought from earlier about graves and didn’t shiver—the one good thing about shadows was that they gave them more cover.

“Eames?” Ariadne whispered when they were halfway down.

“Yes?”

“This isn’t the way I came up.”

“As long as we get to the beach, does it matter?”

She was silent for a moment, then said, “Why is Cobb’s subconscious coming after us? I mean, he doesn’t know we’re here, right? How do they know?”

“Because he trained his mind for this,” Saito answered before Eames could. “And his own mind learned to protect his subconscious.”

“Yeah, but who taught him that?”

Eames knew the answer to that one. “Arthur.” They were coming up to an intersection that angled off to the left. He didn’t remember it, but he’d been busy thinking of other things. “Just as he trained Arthur.”

She was quiet for a moment, then said, “Oh.”

He shot her a glance, waiting for condemnation or anger, but all she said was, “That makes sense.”

He really didn’t care why it made sense. His little voice, absent the last few days, was back, whispering that something bad was going to happen and it was going to happen soon. “C’mon,” he urged. “We don’t have much time.”

When they got to the edge of sand, he realized Ariadne had been right—this wasn’t the way they’d come in. That spot where they’d surfaced was about six hundred meters to the right. “Damnit.”

“What do you want to do?” Ariadne asked.

“Nothing we can do. If we want to get to where we started, we’ll have to hoof it.”

She stopped him with a light touch on his arm. “Won’t it be easier on the sand?”

He turned to Saito to get his opinion. He was standing there, one foot on a slab of cement, staring out to sea. “Saito?”

“Hmm?”

“What do you think? Is it worth it, trekking all that way down?”

Saito looked over, his face blank as if he were dazed or in a dream.

“What is it?”

Saito shook his head. “I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been here before.”

“You have. A couple hours ago.”

Saito shook his head again, his dreamy expression clearing. “Yes, you’re right. What did you say?”

“We were wondering if there’s any point skulking around anymore.”

Saito opened his mouth to answer, but whatever he would have said was interrupted by Ariadne.

“Eames?” She was standing on her tiptoes, shielding her eyes from the setting sun. “What is that?”

He squinted, unable to see what she was pointing to. And then he saw…

…a dark speck against the white sand and at first he thought it was a bird or maybe a seal, but this beach had no birds and seals and—

The speck moved. It was joined by another speck and then another and they weren’t specks at all… Shit. It looked like he’d spoken too soon. “More of Cobb’s guards. A lot more.”

“How many?” she whispered.

“At least seven.”

“What are they doing?”

“I have no idea.” He wished he had a scope. “They’re just gathered in a group.”

“We’re gonna have to circle back, aren’t we?”

He sighed. “Yeah, it looks like we will.”

***

It took them almost an hour to travel the short distance. Moving from shelter to shelter, like crabs, he thought mordantly after one such maneuver. It worked, though, and they reached their original point of entry, unnoticed. He led them to a shell of a building and they crept through and peered around a shattered window.

“What is it,” Ariadne asked at his shoulder.

“I can’t see anything. Too much debris.” He scanned the area again. They were a stone’s throw from the beach but he couldn’t lead them out there—it was like an obstacle course and there were too many places to get trapped. He turned. Saito had been silent the entire time but not the good kind of silent—it was beginning to get annoying. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

She tried to grab his arm but he was gone, hunched over as he scuttled through out of the building to a wall that curved inward, held up by a few pieces of steel. It didn’t provide the best cover, but at least he could see.

And shit, again. It wasn’t seven, it was nine, standing in a loose, vigilant circle. They were all armed, all dressed in black cammo. And if they were Cobb’s men, there was only one thing they could be guarding which wasn’t a good thing because it meant that Cobb was either injured or dead.

He crept back. “We might have a problem.”

If he expected that to bring Saito out of his funk, he was wrong. He said nothing, leaving it to Ariadne to ask, “What is it?”

“There are nine of them, they’re all armed and I think they’re guarding Cobb.”

Ariadne leaned forward. “What do you mean you think they’re guarding Cobb? Is he okay?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t see him from this angle.”

“But,” she said with a frown. “If he’s dead, wouldn’t his subconscious security vanish as well?”

Eames tightened his lips. Like an idiot, he’d completely forgotten that. “Right. So that means he’s all right, or at the very least, alive.”

“We need to get them away from him. Can you shoot them?”

“No,” Saito finally spoke. “You might hit Cobb.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“Go back the way we came. Draw their attention away. When they’re gone, I will get him.”

Eames stared at Saito a long moment. Facing at least nine automatic rifles wasn’t his idea of fun—down here, a dream bullet hurt just as much as a real one. “All right,” he finally agreed. “Where will we meet?”

“Take care of them and come back. He and I will be waiting.”

Eames took a deep breath, smiled a smile he didn’t quite mean, then took off.

 

___________________

 

His world had become a fog of sleep, in and out, struggling to regain some sort of consciousness, every time slipping back deeper into another dream.

This one was new, of a yellow-gold room and someone calling his name. Over and over again, almost like the cry of a shore bird, ‘Co-obb! Co-obb?’

 

____________________

 

They took shelter behind a wall that shouldn’t still be standing. He straightened and peered around the wall, seeing what Eames had seen—nine men standing guard about thirty meters away. They were all armed in a rough circle around a hill of sand and grass. It was strangely unnatural—the men didn’t move nor did they talk. They just stood there, like statues.

He sat down, back to the wall. His paralysis from the revelation that Cobb had been in limbo for over two months was fading—he felt as if he were waking from a disorienting dream.

“Are you okay?” Ariadne whispered.

He turned his head. She was watching him, smiling cautiously.

“I am fine.”

“When do you think—”

A loud bang interrupted her, then another and another. Finally.

“Is that Eames?” she whispered.

“It must be,” he answered, head cocked as he listened for the sound of running.

“Do you think it’ll work?”

“I don’t know. It should.”

It was a weak response, but all she said was, “I’m going to see if they took the bait.”

She started to rise but he grabbed her arm. “No, not yet.”

“Why? We—”

There it was, the sound of footsteps running at full speed. They crouched in the shadows, frozen as four men ran by within ten meters of their hiding place. Still, he held her arm, just to make sure. When there was no more noise, he let go and they cautiously stood and looked. The beach was empty.

He gestured. They crept out of their shelter and made their way down to where the sea grass had grown in an arch, like a kind of bower, and like every fairy tales he’d ever read, in the bower was the sleeper.

“Cobb?” Ariadne whispered. Then again, when he didn’t move, “Cobb!”

Saito clambered down, sliding on the slick sand to land near Cobb, barely missing his hand. He knelt and turned Cobb over. ‘Not dead,’ was his first thought as he pressed his fingers to Cobb’s throat and felt the reassuring pulse of his heart. So, he wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t responsive, either. He shook him, hard.

“Hmm?” Cobb mumbled without opening his eyes.

“Cobb?” Saito whispered. “It’s me. Wake up.”

Cobb’s eyelids fluttered, then raised.

“It’s me, Hiro,” he said, wishing Ariadne wasn’t within earshot because Cobb’s eyes were unfocused and beautiful and he wanted nothing more than to kiss him awake. “Dom? Dominic?”

Cobb’s expression changed and that was all the warning Saito had as he shoved him back and scrambled to all fours. He pushed to his feet, swaying, arms outstretched as if to find his balance. “Get the fuck out of here,” he snarled. “Stop doing this!”

Saito, on his back in the sand, held his hands up. “I don’t know what you’re—”

Cobb lashed out with his foot. He might have been aiming for Saito’s head, but he got his shoulder instead. Pain burst bright hot and he clutched his bicep. “Dom!”

Cobb drew his foot back to kick again when something, a small click, made him pause. He looked up and his expression changed once more. “What?”

Saito turned, still clutching his arm, to stare up at Ariadne. She was aiming a gun straight at him. “Ariadne?” he asked, confused. “What are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing, Mr. Saito?”

Her voice was wrong, hard and uncaring, with an odd lilt. He got to his feet. “I have no idea. What are you doing?”

She smiled. “Finishing the job, per Mr. Lightman’s orders. First you, and then him.” She jerked the gun towards Cobb and then back.

The words didn’t make sense. That would mean she’d been working for Lightman all these years and it didn’t make sense.

And then it did.

He raised one eyebrow, half in anger, half in admiration—it was a very clever plan. “Mr. Cascajo, I presume?”

The fake Ariadne nodded. “None other.”

“I have been wondering what your part in this charade was,” he said, even though he’d wondered no such thing. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The gun was a heavy weight in his pocket but he didn’t dare reach for it, not yet.

Her smile broadened. “I have been trying to get past Cobb’s guards. Thank you for the distraction, by the way.”

“You’re welcome. And I am sorry to say that you won’t be fulfilling Lightman’s orders.”

“Why is that?”

“Because if you kill me, I will simply wake up and my first act will be to put a bullet in your brain.”

She cocked her head. “Not if the shot is minor. Thank you for reminding me.”

She shifted her aim, pointing to his torso, and a brief flash of fear curled in his gut. He’d been through that before; he did not want to go through it again.

But he needn’t have worried—a sharp report split the air and Ariadne flew back, gun flying from her hand even as she fell.

Saito reached for his weapon and turned to find Eames running up, rifle in hand.

“What the hell was that?” Eames panted, brushing past Saito to look down. Ariadne’s body was gone “Who the hell was that?”

“Mr. Cascajo, your fellow forger.”

“Bloody hell,” Eames swore. “Where’s Ariadne?”

“I have no idea. Probably back in the suite.”

“What’s with him?” Eames asked, nodded at Cobb.

He turned. Cobb was staring at them as if they were ghosts. “I don’t know. Go get the girl.”

Eames glanced at Cobb again, then muttered. “When we’re done with this job, the only traveling I’ll be doing is down to the local pub.”

Saito, gaze still trained on Cobb, nodded but didn’t watch him go. “Dom?” he said slowly. “Are you all right?”

Instead of answering, Cobb pressed his lips tight together and squinted, as if he were looking at Saito from a great distance.

“I know you have been down here for over two months.”

Cobb just shook his head.

“And I am guessing that the forger duped you into thinking he was me?”

Cobb swallowed but said nothing.

Frustrated, Saito took a step forward. Which was a mistake.

Cobb swallowed hard then shook his head violently and retreated, stumbling back to the serpentine line of tide.

Saito followed. “Dom? What is it? Please—” He held his hand out and Cobb twisted, not gracefully, landing on his knees in the surf.

Saito wanted to follow, to take Cobb by the shoulders and force him to understand, but…

…the dying sun broke free of the clouds and the world turned bright as noon and he remembered this.

Dreamt not so long ago, but as if in another life, the pulse of warm surf surging, washing over his feet as he stroked the blond-hair at his knee, tugging gently to turn the man’s head up…

He bent down, took off his shoes and socks, then rolled up his trousers, not thinking about what he was doing, only knowing it was important, that it was vital.

Cobb didn’t look up when Saito came to stand at his side. And he didn’t move when Saito reached down and touched his hair.

“Cobb?”

“Yes.”

“It is my turn.” It wasn’t what he’d meant to say, which was along the lines of, ‘It really is me,’ or, ‘The children miss you,’ but like the other, he was following relentless instinct.

Cobb turned his head a fraction and whispered, “It’s your turn for what?”

He combed his fingers through Cobb’s hair, a touch that was both gentle and demanding. “It is my turn to say it is time for another leap of faith. It is my turn to ask that you to come back with me so we can be—”

“Young men together,” Dom finished hoarsely. He looked down. And cautiously reached out, touching the top of Saito’s foot with just his fingertips. “Hiro,” he murmured.

“Yes.”

“It really is you.”

“Yes.”

“Hiro?”

“Yes, Dom?”

Cobb’s tentative touch turned sure; he gripped Saito’s bare foot and looked up. His eyes were blue, bluer than the ocean, and the knot in Saito’s chest began to unfurl.

“Have you come to kill me?”

He brushed a blond strand from Cobb’s forehead, following the smooth line of brow. “Yes,” he murmured tenderly. “Yes, I have.”

 

___________________

 

The word ‘Yes’ echoed in the air like a bell and he thought he was still dreaming, thought he should be angry or scared. But he was tired of running, tired of doubting. When Eames and Ariadne appeared out of the fog that lined his peripheral vision, he didn’t question their presence.

And when Saito pulled a gun out of his pocket and aimed it at his head he just closed his eyes.

 

___________________

 

Eames watched as Saito took care of Cobb, as his body fell heavily to the sand, then vanished. When it came Ariadne’s turn, he took her hand then touched her cheek and whispered, “Close your eyes.”

Saito was fast. First Ariadne and then, before he could catch her, himself.

 

___________________

 

He opened his eyes then immediately closed them again. He was back in Marcus’s apartment. Nothing had changed but he was too tired to care.

 

___________________

 

He slipped into his body like he was putting on a particularly comfortable glove, seamless and perfect. He drew a grateful sigh at the heavy pull of gravity and opened his eyes. He was still on the bed with Cobb, and—he looked down—their hands were clasped.

They were also not alone and he pulled away and leaned up on one elbow. Cobb was still asleep. “Cobb?” There was no answer. He turned on his side and cradled Cobb’s cheek. His skin was pale and there was a faint film of sweat on his upper lip. “Yusuf?”

Arthur was crouched by Ariadne, speaking to her softly. Yusuf was on the sofa, trying to fuss over Eames as Eames was trying to push him away. He looked over his shoulder. “Just a moment.”

“No. Now.” He sat up and took Cobb’s hand. “There is something wrong with him.”

Yusuf rose and hurried over. He perched on the edge of the bed and got out his stethoscope.

Arthur followed, tugging Ariadne along with him. He bent over Cobb and asked, “Well?”

“Give me a moment,” Yusuf said absently as he listened intently. Finally, he muttered, “It’s probably the ketamin even though Lightman gave him a relatively small dose. We should get him to hospital.”

“Christ,” Eames muttered as he stood up. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

Saito gave Eames a withering look, then said, “Arthur?”

Arthur already had his mobile out. “Yeah, I’m on it.” He pressed a number then stopped. “What should I tell them?”

Yusuf turned to look up at him. “That Cobb had a bad reaction to a sleep aid.”

“And I’ll take care of the rest,” Saito added.

Arthur finished dialing, then spoke low into the mobile as Eames asked silkily, “What does that mean?”

“If I need to explain myself, Mr. Eames, then you are not as intelligent as I thought.” He stroked the back of Cobb’s hand with his thumb and got to his feet. “Everyone should get out of sight. Where are the others?”

Arthur hung up. “They’re in the second bedroom, trussed up. Hunter and Gillis are standing guard. What do you want to do with them?”

‘Kill them all,’ was his first thought. But no, he would do nothing that could be traced back to Cobb. Besides, there was Yoshiko to consider… “We’ll put them on a plane. I’ll take care of them when I return to Tokyo.”

Arthur nodded. “I’ll let Hunter know what’s going on.” Arthur and Ariadne left, brushing by Eames, who’d come to stand near the bed.

“What are you going to tell the authorities?” Eames asked.

“Tell them that Cobb accidentally—” Yusuf began when Eames interrupted him.

“I don’t care about that,” he said dismissively. “Knowing you, Saito, you’ll have the entire American health care system in your pocket by morning. No.” He leaned closer. “What I want to know is are you going to tell them about Yusuf’s role in this whole mess?”

Yusuf twisted around to look up at Eames and Saito raised an eyebrow. “I hadn’t thought that far, but I would normally only involve those who needed to be involved.”

“Done this a few times, have you?” Eames asked sarcastically.

“A few.”

“Well,” Eames said, sticking his hands in his pockets, his expression bland. “As long as we’re clear that Yusuf won’t be questioned, then we’re okay.”

Saito and Yusuf exchanged a confused glance, then watched Eames leave the room. Odd.

But really of no importance. He could hear the faint whine of sirens in the distance, growing louder. “Yusuf.” He jerked his head.

Yusuf got up and left.

Saito stood there for a moment, gazing down at Cobb. He was tired and he’d give anything to have it all done. If he were anywhere but here, he’d dismiss everyone outside the bedroom, station a guard in the hall and join Cobb on the bed. But there was still one more act to complete in this nightmarish play.

He sat on the bed again and took Cobb’s hand. “Dom,” he whispered. “Dom?” Cobb’s eyelids twitched and he bent low.

“Sir?”

He looked up. Ian was standing in the doorway. “The ambulance is here?”

Ian nodded. “A cab just pulled up to the curb.”

“Join the others.”

“Mr. Cobb—is he okay? What’s wrong with him?”

The question of the hour and he sighed heavily. “I don’t know.”

***

American emergency services were quite different from their Japanese counterparts. The team arrived, whisked in, examined Cobb, firing off a series of questions which Saito answered evenly. Then they bundled him onto a gurney and whisked out, calling out the name of the hospital over their shoulders.

He saw them to the door, then closed and locked it. “Arthur?”

Arthur had been listening at the door as Saito knew he would be. He came out, carrying his jacket. “They’re gone? How is he? I couldn’t hear the details.”

“There were none to give. Will you go to hospital to stay with him? I need to wrap things up, and—” He shrugged.

“And I’m an American so there will be no questions asked?” Arthur pulled on his jacket. “Yeah, okay, where is he?”

Saito frowned. “Lennox Hill? They were speaking quickly.”

“Yes,” Ian said, coming out from the second bedroom. “That’s right. They’re taking him to Lennox Hill.”

“I know where that is.” Arthur turned to Ariadne. “You want to come with?”

She was still pale and Saito wondered if she’d grown as tired of killing herself as he was. But she smiled and nodded. “Sure, let’s go.”

“So,” Ian said as soon as they were gone. “You’re really just going to bundle them on a plane and be done with it?”

“What would you suggest?”

Gillis joined them, followed by Eames and Yusuf. “Dump them in the East river,” he muttered.

Ian shot him a sharp look; Gillis shrugged, no remorse in his expression.

“I was thinking something along the lines that Lightman and his men should go back to wherever they came from,” Ian said. “And, while they’re en route, there should be some sort of accident. I know Lightman’s type; he’s not the kind to stop when he doesn’t succeed.”

Lightman was the crux of the issue and while he had no moral qualms about killing him on the spot, it was too dangerous. He would have to bide his time. Cobb wouldn’t like it, but some things were necessary.

He finally nodded—they had little choice and as Ian had said, this needed to end. “Contact my man in Japan and have him book the soonest flight. You and Gillis will escort them to Japan. My people will handle it from there.” He got out his mobile and scrolled to Ito’s number, then held the phone up for Ian. He waited while Ian copied the number.

“And Nash and Cascajo?” Eames said.

He put the mobile away. “Nash had his chance to make good on Cobb’s mercy. He and Cascajo will go as well.”

There was only one person left in the equation, but no one said anything about her—it was something he needed to finish on his own. He straightened his jacket and turned to the second bedroom.

She was sitting in a chair facing a dark window, staring at her folded hands. He ignored the bound men. “Yoshiko.”

She glanced at him in the reflection of the glass, but didn’t turn.

“We need to talk.” He turned on his heel and left the room, knowing she’d follow.

They returned to the main bedroom. She sat on the sofa, as far away from the balcony doors as possible and he suddenly remembered that, how she’d hated the expansive windows and balconies he loved so much.

He should begin with pleasantries, ask how she had been, but he found he didn’t much care, not after her betrayal. “I suppose you are expecting me to ask why, but I know why, so I will make this simple. You are going to go back to Japan and you will stay there. I don’t care what you do, but you will cease meddling in my life. That includes my associations and my businesses.”

“And your lover?”

He didn’t blink. “Yes, that includes Cobb and his children.”

“And if I don’t?”

She finally looked at him, full on. And that was another thing he remembered, that they had never really looked at each other, not until it was far too late. “I have kept this from you for some time, but now…” He made a little gesture. “I have information about your father.”

She took a shallow breath. “What kind of information?”

But she already knew—he could see it in her shamed glance. “I know why he was let go in the guise of early retirement. I know that his predilection for very young girls is on record and has kept him from other state employment.”

She said nothing.

“I will keep that information, and the associated documents, in my safety deposit box unless you force my hand. Please don’t.”

She looked at him again, her expression hardening once more. “You’ve never said please to me once in your life. And it’s because of him.” She jerked her head towards the bed as if Cobb were still lying there, fast asleep.

He ignored that. “I’ll arrange for your flight back to Tokyo. Mr. Hunter will escort you home. If you left anything at a hotel here in New York, arrange for their retrieval with him.”

He waited for her repudiation or at the very least, another dig at Cobb. But she just nodded and looked away again, studying the far wall as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.

He turned and left.

***

The next part of the evening was a blur of decisions.

Eames begged a ride on the plane, asking to be let off at London. Yusuf overheard and managed to talk him into staying so they could sightsee for a few days; Eames agreed with little grace. Arthur asked for the same, except he wanted to be dropped off at Paris—Ariadne had already missed two day’s worth of school and they needed to return.

Saito said yes, wondering when his airline had suddenly become a taxi service.

Then there was the disagreement as to how to get Lightman and his men on the plane. Eames, lounging in the chair by the sofa, suggested knocking them out and saying they’d had too much to drink at the bar; Gillis seconded the suggestion. Ian wanted to give them a dose of the Somnacin; Saito thought the best idea yet.

Finally, Yusuf, stretched out on the sofa, mumbled, “Why even go commercial? Why not just buy or rent a plane—you’ve done it before.”

They all stopped talking for a moment; Eames gave a sharp laugh and kicked Yusuf’s shoe.

When Saito left to find a quiet spot to call Robert and make the arrangements, Eames and Arthur were arguing about where they were going to sit on the plane.

***

Later, Saito didn’t remember calling a cab, didn’t remember the ride to the hospital. He came to, as it were, standing in the doorway of a long emergency room filled with patients. A doctor stood at the end of the line of beds; Arthur and Ariadne were nowhere to be seen.

He took one look around, returned to the reception desk and demanded that Cobb be transferred to a private room, preferably a suite. The nurse raised an eyebrow and said she’d, ‘…tell you the same thing I told that young couple who wanted to hang around—if you’re not a relative, you have no rights.’

Saito responded quietly by saying that when it came to this particular patient, he had all the rights in the world.

The situation deteriorated from there.

Finally, exhausted and out of patience, he used the universal language of money and connections. An administrator arrived soon after and by seven in the morning, Cobb was moved to a private room on the floor above.

Saito followed and watched them position the bed, watched as they hooked Cobb up to various machines. One of them, a tall African woman said something about returning at eight; he nodded, barely listening because yes, Cobb’s color was better and he seemed to be resting normally but his eyes remained stubbornly closed.

When they were finally alone, Saito took off his jacket, draped it over the foot of the bed, then dragged a chair close and sat down. He should call Ito. No doubt he was thinking the worst. He should also call Ian and make sure things were proceeding as planned.

But when he got out his mobile, it wasn’t Ito’s or Ian’s number that he dialed.

The call wasn’t answered immediately and he remembered the time difference. If it was almost seven-thirty in New York, it would be almost four-thirty in Los Angeles and perhaps he should call back at a more —

“Hello?”

“Professor Miles?”

There was a pause, then Miles said roughly, “Mr. Saito. I expected to hear from you sooner.”

“Yes, there were… Complications.”

“‘Complications?’ What does that mean? Is Dom all right?”

He glanced at Cobb. And no, it wasn’t his imagination when Cobb’s eyelids twitched. “Yes. He had a bad reaction to the drug.” An oversimplification, but somewhat true.

“Why don’t I like the sound of that?”

“There is nothing to like or dislike. He will be fine. He needs sleep.”

“What happened?”

“I will let Cobb tell you that.”

There was another small pause, then Miles said, “Fine, but I want him to call the minute he wakes up. No excuses.”

“No excuses,” Saito agreed.

“When will he be home?”

“Tomorrow or at the latest, Wednesday.”

“I’ll let the kids know. They were asking about him all day.”

He nodded. “In that regard, is it too much to hope that Phillipa is up?”

“Of course she’s not up. It’s not yet five and—”

Miles stopped mid-speech. Saito heard something in the background, a muffled voice, and then Miles returned. “It looks like you’re in luck. She’s been listening in, the little pitcher.”

He raised his eyebrow at the odd turn of phrase but only said, “May I speak to her?”

“Hold on.”

There was the sound of the phone being transferred, and then a small, “Hello?”

He smiled. “Phillipa, it is Mr. Saito.”

“Is my dad all right?

Straight to the heart of the matter, just like her grandfather. “Yes, he is well. He is sleeping or I would let you talk to him.”

“When is he coming home?”

“Soon.” Even if I have to carry him on the plane myself.

“Can I talk to him? Can you wake him up?”

“No, I’m afraid—” There was a soft sound and he looked up. Cobb was staring at him, eyes half-mast. “Wait, here…” He covered the mobile’s speaker and whispered, “It is Phillipa.”

Cobb brightened and he reached eagerly for the mobile. He thanked Saito with a caress of fingers then put the phone to his ear. “Hi, honey.”

Saito settled in the chair, watching intently. It shouldn’t hurt so much, witnessing Cobb’s very visible love for his children. He could count on one hand, the people for whom he felt that intense emotion.

“I’m sorry about that,” Cobb said. “The job took a little longer than I’d planned.”

There was a small silence, and then Cobb glanced up at Saito, his happiness fading. “He did, did he?”

She was telling Cobb about their conversation in California, how he’d set the record straight with regard to the charges of murder and fleeing the country.

“He did?” There was another pause. Cobb rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry I never told you, sweetheart. I wanted to wait until you got older. I wasn’t sure you’d understand.” He gave Saito another glance, this one accusatory.

Saito crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap, calmly returning Cobb’s glare. He did not regret his conversation with Phillipa and he would not apologize—it had been necessary.

Cobb must have read his silent message—the fugitive anger faded from his eyes and he relaxed into the bed, head still turned towards Saito. “I know you do, honey. I miss her, too. When I get home, we can talk about it and I’ll explain.” He nodded. “Me too, but I want you to go back to bed and get some more sleep. I’ll see you later on today, okay?”

He listened for a moment again, then murmured, “I love you too. Now go back to bed.” He waited a moment, then hung up and held the mobile out. “I hear you and Phillipa had a conversation.”

Saito nodded. “We did.” He reached out, waiting for the sharp words, but Cobb tricked him. Instead of giving him the mobile, he dropped it and took Saito’s hand instead. He tugged.

Saito rose to sit sideways on the bed, hip to Cobb’s hip, one arm propped on the other side of Cobb’s waist, covering without cover. “We did,” he repeated.

“About?”

“About Kenneth Thomson’s father.”

Cobb frowned. “Who the hell is Kenneth Thompson’s father?”

“A man with apparent knowledge of your recent past. He’d told his son and his son told Phillipa.”

Cobb’s lips tightened. “I’ll talk to him.”

“I can take care of it for you.”

“No. I don’t want him dead, I want him to understand.”

He didn’t smile. Or roll his eyes. “I was simply suggesting that Mr. Thompson would benefit from a visit from an official source.”

Cobb’s expression relaxed and he shifted, pressing his hip against Saito’s. “I should be angry.”

“For my interference? Yes, you should.”

“And you should be at least a little contrite.”

“I am not in the least.”

“No,” Cobb mused, head cocked. “You’re not, are you? If I hadn’t brushed my teeth in two days I’d thank you prop—”

As if Saito cared about clean teeth—he leaned forward, kissing the words off Cobb’s lips, but quickly and gently—Cobb was still in a hospital bed, no matter how improved.

“Well,” Cobb said, as soon as he drew back.

“Well,” he said a little breathlessly, staring down at Cobb’s lips. In the two days they had been apart, he had managed to forget how Cobb kissed.

“Well,” Cobb replied with a soft smile. “Are we going to talk about what happened?”

“Do you mean with Marcus Lightman?”

Cobb nodded.

“What is there to say?”

It was an odd question and he wasn’t sure why he’d said it.

“So that’s it? No interrogation? No accusations.”

“Of course not.” He made himself more comfortable. The sun was finally making an appearance, casting a pleasant glow about the room. “You did what you thought best.”

“Okay.” Cobb hesitated, then asked, “What happened? To Marcus, I mean.”

“I offered Marcus and his men a ride home. He accepted.”

Cobb frowned. “I know there’s more to the story than that, but I’m not sure I want to know.”

The collar of Cobb’s hospital gown was bunched up and he smoothed it out with his thumb, wishing they were anywhere but where they were so he could stroke the hollow at Cobb’s neck. “You are making too much of it.”

“What about Yusuf?”

“He and Eames decided to spend a few days here in New York. Yusuf wants to sight see.”

Cobb frowned again. “Eames is here? In New York?”

Saito looked up, forgetting all about Cobb’s skin. “You know he is. He and Arthur flew in two days ago, along with Ariadne.”

“I—” Cobb began, then stopped. He rubbed his forehead again.

“You don’t remember?”

“No.”

“What do you remember?”

Cobb closed his eyes. “I remember getting on the plane. I got sick, I think. Yes.” He opened his eyes. “I remember getting sick on the plane. Marcus drugged me. And I remember something about a room and then waking up here.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment. “You do not remember anything of limbo? Of a dream?”

Cobb shook his head, his frown increasing. “No.”

Saito laid his hand over Cobb’s heart, feeling the steady beat. “Is that normal? For someone to lose the memory of the dream so thoroughly?”

Cobb shrugged. “It’s never happened to me before.”

It was probably nothing—just because Cobb could not remember meant nothing and was no reason for this rise of helpless anger. It was a good thing Marcus wasn’t in the room, a better thing that he would soon be dead.

Cobb took his hand. “I know that look.”

Saito gathered himself together enough to ask sedately, “And what look would that be?”

“You’re thinking of buying the Mayo Clinic so they can give me hourly brain scans.”

He snorted, Cobb’s absurd words quieting the cresting fury. “Of course I’m not.” He leaned down and kissed the point of Cobb’s chin, murmuring again, “Of course I’m not.” He leaned closer and something sharp pressed against his thigh. “Oh,” he said, remembering. He sat up and reached inside his pocket. “I forgot.” He brought out the handkerchief and handed it to Cobb.

“What is it?” Cobb said without unwrapping it.

“Your totem.”

Cobb raised his eyebrow in surprise. “Where did you get it?”

“Your father-in-law gave it to me.”

Cobb stared at the fabric bundle, his eyes shuttered, his face very still. No doubt he was wondering if he could trust that Saito hadn’t touched it, that it was the genuine article. After a long moment, he put the handkerchief on the bedside tray.

Saito frowned. “You are not going to unwrap it?”

“No.” Cobb shook his head, then closed his eyes. “No. I don’t need it anymore.”

His words were quiet and sad. Confused, Saito watched him fall asleep, then stood up and returned to the chair.

 

___________________

 

“I told you, Yusuf. Once I get back to London, I’m going to plant myself in a pub and not move. For at least six months.”

“But what if I run into—”

“Lightman won’t bother you anymore, remember?” Eames didn’t look up from the paper that he wasn’t reading.

“I remember,” Yusuf grumbled. “Freak railway accident, my ass.”

Yusuf rarely swore and Eames looked up with a startled laugh. The man at the next table, the one who had been listening in on their conversation, glanced over. “You’re not surprised about that, are you?”

Yusuf looked down at his hands. “I suppose not.”

“Don’t tell me you feel bad about him.”

“Not about Lightman or Nash, but Cascajo…” Yusuf shrugged.

“Why the hell would he concern you?”

“Because,” Yusuf said as he leaned over, his eyes bright with excitement. “Arthur was telling of some of his exploits and I was hoping you and he would come work with—”

“Yusuf,” Eames hissed. “He tried to kill Cobb.”

“I know that. But Arthur said that was just business and that he was generally a very nice man.”

He shook the paper in annoyance but only said, “Haven’t you gotten enough?”

Yusuf sat back. “Well, no, why should I? There’s my patient to consider and the tests I need to run. And then there’s my experiments. I’ve still so much to do. ”

“Well, I don’t and I’m not going near any of your experiments or your compound. Not for a good long while.”

Which was the wrong thing to say. Yusuf’s face fell and he stood up. “Watch my case. I’m going to the loo.”

“Have fun but don’t be long. We need to be at the museum in ten minutes.”

Another wrong thing to say. Yusuf huffed and marched across the half empty cafe to the bathroom.

He grinned as he returned to his newspaper and was still smiling when his mobile rang. He opened it up and muttered, “Eames.”

There was a pause, then, “Mr. Eames?”

“Yes?” He couldn’t place the heavily accented voice. “Who is this?”

“We met that once, remember? The afternoon in the cafe? This is Mr. Riitho, Yusuf’s friend.”

He sat up, the newspaper dropping to the tabletop. He craned his head to look for Yusuf. “Riitho! Where’ve you been?” He hadn’t meant to bark and he lowered his voice when he added, “Yusuf was very worried about you.”

“Yes, I am sorry. I tried to get a message to him, but it seems his mobile isn’t functioning. Is he there? With you?”

“He is. He’s unavailable right now, but he’ll be back shortly.”

Riitho sighed. “I am glad to hear it. You cannot imagine what I’ve been thinking, these past few days. Where are you?”

“In New York, but we’re leaving for London in a few days.”

“New York? What in the world have you two been up to?”

Eames grinned. Riitho sounded exactly like his primary school history teacher, scolding him for arriving late to class. “It’s a long story and I’ll let Yusuf tell it. Where are you?”

“Mombasa.”

“Is it safe for you? I mean…” He glanced at the man, still avidly listening. “With the events of the past week?”

“Mr. Eames, the day I let a foreigner run me out of my own city is the day I take the long walk into the desert.”

Eames grinned again. “I’ll remember that.”

“When Yusuf returns, will you tell him I telephoned?”

He glanced at his watch. Eight minutes to go. “It might not be until tomorrow.”

“After all that has happened, tomorrow will be soon enough. Tell him I am hard at work, repairing the damage to the shop. Will I be seeing you in Mombasa as well?”

Eames hesitated. He’d meant it, he really had. All he wanted was a little peace and quiet, if only for a few months. But just then, movement caught his eye and he glanced around to see Yusuf, coming from the bathroom. He stopped in front of a poster advertising some sort of circus. He leaned closer, his face brightening, and Eames couldn’t look away.

Once Yusuf found out that Riitho was alive, he’d insist on returning to Mombasa immediately and no matter what Eames had just said, the idea of him heading out on his own—

Just because Lightman had a not-so-accidental railway accident didn’t mean his empire had fallen. There’d be some idiot ready to take over the reins and the reign.

Telling himself that Yusuf was a grown man and could handle his own problems, he nevertheless found himself saying, “Yes. As soon as we collect a few things in London, we’ll be coming home.”

 

___________________

 

It was like at the aftermath of a really loud action movie. The kind that overwhelmed with excessive noise and visuals and when one left the theater, one was enveloped in an equally violent silence.

He touched the padding on the armrest for the third time, pressing hard, making the vinyl give way.

It was normal, he reminded himself, that he’d experienced some disassociation after a dream before. In fact, many times before. But not this sense that he couldn’t quite feel the things he should be feeling. Like the dense air of the pressurized cabin, the way his body was positioned exactly so in the very comfortable seat.

Of course, the knowledge that it had all been, literally, in his head only made it worse because he couldn’t remember most of it. He’d started out on Monday morning and here it was Tuesday evening.

He glanced across the aisle.

Saito was reading a magazine and he didn’t look up when he asked, “What is it?”

“What are you reading?”

“An article about GE’s new plant in France.”

“Where is it?”

“Near Toulouse.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“It follows our model. Or rather…” Saito turned the page. “Ours follows theirs. In some aspects.”

“Oh.” And when Saito didn’t look up or continue, he returned to the window. That was another thing—if he didn’t know better he’d say Saito was pouting. Well, not pouting, but just being very calm, very quiet.

Saito had been quiet when Dom checked himself out of the hospital against the doctor’s advice. He’d been quiet when Dom insisted he was fine and that flying home would do him more good than hanging around in some anonymous hotel and what was the point of having your own plane if you didn’t use it? He’d been quiet when the plane lifted off with a shudder, only speaking once to ask Dom if he was hungry.

It was odd and a little maddening, but he owed Saito big time and maybe that included breathing space. After all, Saito had sacrificed his time and a hell of a lot of money to come to the rescue. “Do you regret it?”

The question surprised him as much as Saito—he looked up with a startled glance. “What do you mean?”

He turned and propped his shoulder against the bulkhead. “Do you regret not returning to Tokyo?” It wasn’t what he wanted to ask, but the question, ‘What the hell is going on with you?’ was too rude.

Saito’s eyes widened. “Not in the least.”

“Then,” he touched Saito’s shoe with his own, saying, “How about extending your trip.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, come stay with us. We have two guest rooms and the kids would love it.”

Saito hesitated. Long enough for Dom to hear his own words. “I mean,” he backpedaled, “it’s not a big deal if you—”

“Yes,” Saito said. “I will need to work, but yes, I will stay. If you want.”

“I want.”

The words were charged and Dom was actually glad when Saito nodded and then went back to his magazine.

***

It was close to midnight when the taxi pulled through the gates and rolled to a stop at the top of the drive. He’d told Miles not to expect them before one and had made his peace with the fact that he wouldn’t see the kids before morning. But apparently he’d deceived himself—the lights were on and his heart was in his throat and he remembered coming home that last time, so eager to get inside—

He grabbed his bag and climbed out, holding the door for Saito.

“I’ll take care of the bill. Don’t wait for me,” Saito murmured. “They’ll be waiting.”

He hesitated, then touched Saito’s arm. He was up the drive in a flash, trotting up the steps, key already out. He didn’t get a chance to use it. As soon as he reached for the doorknob, the door opened and Phillipa and James were there, both in their pajamas, both talking in unison, arms extended.

He dropped his bag and picked them up, whispering, “Shh… It’s one-thirty. Shh….”

They seemed to think that was hilariously funny and they started to giggle. He kissed them, smiling too hard, reminding himself that it had only been a few days since he’d seen them and not two months. He turned as Saito came up the steps.

“C’mon.” He sat Phillipa down and picked up his bag. “Let’s get these two inside before they wake the entire neighborhood.”

That set them off again and he waited until Saito had brushed by him, then closed and locked the door.

The kitchen light was on. Miles was putting a kettle on and he smiled when they trooped into the kitchen. “Here he is, as I told you,” he said to the kids after giving Dom a pat on the arm. “And now that you’ve seen him, it’s bedtime—you have to be up in five hours.”

They both groaned but when Miles reached for James, he went willingly. “Come on, Miss,” he said to Phillipa. “You too.”

She gave Dom a hug. “’Night, daddy. I’m glad you’re home.”

He bent and kissed the top of her head. “I’ll see you in the morning, sweetheart, and we’ll talk about Kenneth Thompson’s dad.”

She hugged him again, hard, burying her face against him and then she stepped back. Her eyes were wet, but shining. “Can I read for a while?”

“No, it’s too late, but I’ll be in in a while to check on you.”

Miles took Phillipa’s hand and gave an almost-bow, saying sincerely, “Thank you, Mr. Saito, for bringing him home.”

Saito was standing on the other side of the dining table. He nodded. “You are welcome.”

“Come on,” Miles said and was almost out the door when Phillipa whispered, “Grandpa, wait.”

She tugged free and ran across the room and gave Saito a lightning-quick hug. “Thank you, Mr. Saito,” she said, her tone and manner a copy of Miles.

Saito touched her shoulder briefly. “You are welcome, Phillipa.”

The same words but completely different and Dom swallowed hard. They were somehow perfect, Phillipa and Saito, and he wanted to hug them both. He glanced up. Miles was staring at him, an odd look on his face.

He knew.

Miles knew that he and Saito were more than just associates, more than just friends.

The realization collided with his happiness and his smile became stiff. “You better get to bed, honey,” he said to Phillipa. “You can talk to Mr. Saito in the morning.”

Miles’ expression grew guarded and Dom didn’t have to guess what he was thinking. But he was too tired, all of a sudden, to deal with it now. He’d take care of it in the morning.

He took a deep breath and turned. To find Saito watching him.

“She is a loving girl, Cobb,” Saito said, not moving from his place behind the table. “You should be proud.”

“I am.”

The two simple words stayed in the air, solidifying the moment into a bubble of intense solitude. Like last Friday on the pier or just a few hours ago on the plane, and he’d give anything to stride over and pull Saito to him, falling back on the table or window seats and thank him properly for risking his own life and sanity.

But the table separated them, a physical symbol of everything that lay between them. Big things like Miles and the kids. Little things like the lie he’d told on Saturday to throw Saito off the scent or what all his associates would say if they knew.

Of course, there was always the possibility that he was assuming too much because Saito might be watching him, but he was still so damn quiet, still closed off. As he were merely a replica of the man Dom had slept with and not the real thing.

A thought, slippery cold, tried to worm its way into his mind but he drove it away. He couldn’t think that way, he couldn’t

“Well…” he began, no real idea what to say. He was very tired.

Saito nodded. “It’s late.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps you should go to bed.”

“Yes.”

“Shall we…” Saito gestured and Dom nodded.

They were almost to the guest bedroom when he remembered. He stopped. “I forgot,” he whispered. “You stayed here last time, remember?”

Saito nodded gravely. “I remember.”

He rubbed his temple. “I forgot.”

“Dom.” Saito was suddenly right there, too close in the narrow hall. “It is all right. I will be fine. Please, go to bed.”

He nodded. “Yeah, okay. You know where the bathroom is, right?”

“Yes, it is across the hall.”

“Yeah.” He nodded again.

“Go to bed,” Saito said again. “I will see you in the morning.”

“Yeah, okay.”

He touched Saito’s arm and left, walking slowly, fingertips brushing the wall for balance. The kitchen was empty—Miles had turned the stove off and all there was left to do was get the light above the sink.

He padded through the house, making sure all the windows and doors were locked. Then checked on the kids. They were both fast asleep and he didn’t linger.

When he got to his bedroom, he closed the door, took off his shoes and started to strip. And it was suddenly too much, taking off his clothes. He fell across the bed like he was diving into a pool of water, already asleep.

***

He woke to warmth on his face and in his arms. He cracked one eye open and looked down—James had crawled into bed with him and was curled close. He smiled, then closed his eyes again.

***

He stayed in bed most of the day, periodically rousing only to fall back asleep before he could truly wake.

It was almost five when he finally woke, his mind clear. He got up, changed into a t-shirt and sweats, then staggered out of the bedroom, down the hall and to the kitchen. Miles was at the table, reading the paper. The children were in the backyard—he could hear them laughing, and fainter, he could hear the whine of a band saw—the crew was back at work.

He scratched his head and yawned.

“It’s about time,” Miles said without looking up. “I was getting worried.” He pushed away from the table and rose. “Are you hungry?”

He thought about it and shook his head and yawned again. He was still tired, still a little disoriented, but his exhaustion of the day before was gone, almost like he’d dreamed it.

“Then, how about some tea.”

“That sounds great.” He ambled to the island and leaned on the countertop. There was a pile of mail stacked neatly on the dark granite. He touched the top letter—he’d go through it all later, when he had time. And funnily enough, it was only then that he remembered they had a guest. He straightened and said as casually as he could, “Is Saito around? Did he go back to the hotel?”

“Oh, no,” Miles said wryly, “he’s here. And the hotel has come to us.”

“What do you mean?”

“All morning long we’ve been getting deliveries of computers and equipment and clothing and suitcases.”

Dom looked around again. There was nothing out of place.

“And,” Miles added, “you might want to ask him to stop buying gifts for the children. It’s like a bloody toy store out there.” He jerked his head to the porch and Dom went to look, and, wow. There were dolls and trucks and stacks of books and art supplies.

Dom told himself that it didn’t mean anything, that Saito was used to spending money in excessive ways.

But still, he couldn’t help his small grin that he took care to hide when he returned to the kitchen. “I’ll speak to him,” he said blandly. “Where is he?”

“Where he’s been all day—in your workroom. Here.” Miles handed him a mug. “As you like it.”

“Thanks. I’ll go…” He waved his cup vaguely in the direction of the workroom.

Miles nodded but said nothing.

***

His workroom door was closed and he pushed it open slowly. So, just computers and equipment? It was a hell of a lot more. The east side of the room, the side he never used, had been rearranged to accommodate a long table, a chair, a computer with a monitor the size of his flat screen TV. In the corner stood a pyramid of boxes, still sealed.

Saito was sitting in front of the computer, talking to someone via Skype. For once, he wasn’t dressed in a suit—he was wearing a pair of canvas pants and a black sweater. He’d pushed his sleeves up to the elbow and it was odd—Dom had seen him naked but somehow that glimpse of everyday skin made his pulse race and his mouth dry.

He made a noise. Saito stopped talking and turned around. Their eyes met.

He smiled, or tried to. “Morning.”

“Good afternoon, you mean,” Saito corrected gravely.

“Am I interrupting you?” He nodded to the screen.

“Just one moment—” Saito turned back to the monitor and said something in Japanese. There was a quick exchange that Dom didn’t pay attention to—he’d wandered nearer and was watching the way the afternoon sun turned the back of Saito’s neck a deep gold. Beautiful.

Saito tapped a few keys and the screen went dark. “My operations manager wants to know if your house is as big as it looks.”

“Did you tell him it’s a lot smaller now?”

Saito swiveled around. “Due to me?”

Dom smiled and took a sip of tea.

“I needed the equipment, if I am to stay for any length of time.” Saito paused. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“You could have bought in a dozen computers and I wouldn’t care.”

Saito cocked his head. “And the toys?”

“Yeah.” Dom took a step closer. “That’s got to stop. You’re going to spoil them.”

Saito turned again until his foot met Dom’s. They were so close—all it would take was a sidestep and he’d be between Saito’s legs. Then another step, this time forward and—

The band saw stopped and the sudden silence was filled with the children’s laughter and the construction crew’s shouts. He swallowed and looked away—the bank of windows that faced west were high enough that it would take some doing to see in, but still…

He retreated a few feet, trying to make it look natural and not like he was running away. “Do you need anything else? For work, I mean?”

“A T3 broadband connection?”

Dom frowned. “Seriously?”

“No. I was just joking.”

“Ah.”

There was a slight pause and then Saito asked casually, “How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

Saito cocked his head. “The doctor in New York seemed to think you might have residual effects from the ‘sleep aid.’ Are you—”

“I’m fine,” he broke in, speaking too quickly, too vehemently.

This time the pause was uncomfortable and he was grateful for the running steps that distracted them both. The door burst open and the kids came running in, first Phillipa and Emmy Clarke, then James.

“Daddy!” Phillipa called out. “You’re up!” She didn’t rush to hug him but James did. He sat the mug down on Saito’s table and held his arms out as James threw himself forward.

“How’re you guys doing? How was school?”

“We didn’t go to school,” James crowed.

“Grandpa said we could stay home ’cause we were so tired,” Phillipa added, a slight measure of worry in her voice.

He tugged on her hair to let her know he wasn’t mad. “Missing a day won’t hurt. And we need to get your hair cut soon, you know that?”

But instead of complaining that she wanted to grow her hair, she gazed up at him beseechingly and said, “Dad? Mr. Saito said he’d take us horseback riding. Can we go today? We don’t have any homework.”

“Honey.” He looked at his watch. “It’s too late. We’ll be eating dinner soon.” And before she could argue that they had plenty of time, he said firmly, “No. Maybe this weekend, but not today.”

She nodded, her face the picture of glum. She took Emmy’s hand and they trudged out.

He shifted James from one arm to the other and gave Saito a sideways glance.

“I am sorry,” Saito said softly. “I didn’t think she’d take my offer so literally.”

He grinned. Who would have thought Saito’s Achilles heel would be a seven-year old girl. “Welcome to my world.”

“Daddy?” James asked.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Did you see what Mr. Saito bought me? He gave me a truck I can ride in!”

“I saw that, James. Maybe you can show me how it works?”

James nodded happily and squirmed out of his arms and took off running, back down the hall.

Saito stood and picked up Dom’s cup. He handed it to him, the small exchange somehow as charged as the one before.

“Thanks,” Dom said. “Are you finished for the day?”

Saito nodded. “I need to check in with Robert soon, but it can wait.”

Dom nodded. His unexpected jealousy, almost a week old, flared again and he made sure he kept his voice even when he said, “Can you eat dinner with us or do you and he—”

“With you,” Saito interrupted softly. “I will eat with you.”

Dom gripped the cup, using the small pain as a reminder that kids and Miles were a relatively few feet away. He nodded and turned to the door.

When they got to the kitchen, the kids were nowhere to be seen and Miles was on the porch, talking to Mick. Shit. If he’d been thinking clearly, he would have remembered that Mick usually stopped for a beer before he went home. Still, he couldn’t backtrack now.

“Hey there.” He sat the cup down on the counter and went out to the porch. “Mick? This is Masahiro Saito. Saito—”

“Yeah, we met,” Mick said before Dom could finish, coming forward to shake Saito’s hand.

He frowned. “When was that?”

Mick furrowed his brow. “Just the other day. Tuesday? Maybe Wednesday? Anyway, I heard all about him from Emmy.”

Dom would give anything to know what Emmy had said, but he nodded. And changed the subject. “How’s it going out there?”

His words sounded false, even to himself. Mick just smiled. “It’s good. We finally got that underlayment you wanted so we can start on the playroom tomorrow.”

“Oh,” he said, frowning. He’d completely forgotten that. The room would be sealed off but the noise would be unavoidable. “Saito is using my workroom for a temporary office.”

“It won’t be a bother,” Saito said, coming to stand next to him. “I just finished the renovation of my building in Tokyo,” he said to Mick. “I am used to dust and noise. Besides, with the time difference, I will be working at odd hours. In fact, I have a meeting with my board of directors in about two hours.”

“Are you sure?” Cobb asked.

Saito nodded. “I am sure.”

“Okay,” Mick said, glancing back and forth between them. “We’ll start in the morning. Hey, man.” His expression changed; he leaned forward and lowered his voice. “How’d your date go the other night? You know, the one you—” He grinned and raised his eyebrows suggestively.

Shit, again. He’d forgotten that as well—it seemed so long ago, that night at the Wilshire. “Fine,” he said, looking everywhere but at Saito. “It was fine.”

Mick grinned again and clapped him on the arm. “I better get going. Jeannie and I are going to a movie.” He was halfway out the back door when he stopped. “Hey—if you want to double-date with your lady friend, let us know. Jeannie’s dying to meet her.”

He made himself nod casually, noncommittally. “We’ll see.”

“Sounds good.” Mick waved and then left with another smile.

Miles gave Dom a sharp look, then said, “I was thinking of fish for dinner but maybe we should order in. We missed Pizza Tuesday, by the way.”

“Okay.”

He was about to follow when Saito said, very calmly, “You went on a date last week? With a woman?”

He was standing there, one hand in his pocket, like he was posing for a magazine. But Dom could see the vigilant displeasure and it was suddenly funny, his comedy of errors. He smiled blandly at Saito and leaned close, close enough to smell his aftershave. “Yes, I went on a date last week but it wasn’t with a woman.”

He waited for the knowledge to sink in and when it did, when Saito’s eyes narrowed, he bumped Saito’s elbow with his own and left to go order pizza.

***

Dinner was noisier than usual. The kids—whether wired from their visitor or the fact that he was home—were boisterous, bordering on obnoxious. Saito picked at his pizza while he and Miles talked about French and Japanese architecture. Dom divided his time between the kids and their conversation, losing most of it as he listened to Phillipa’s speculation about the color of the horse she would ride that weekend and James’ questions about the truck and whether or not his teacher would care if he brought it to school.

Dom glanced at Saito several times to appraise his reactions to the controlled chaos, half apprehensive, half assessing. Being part of a family wasn’t always easy and it was important that Saito knew what he was get into.

That was, if he was planning on getting into anything because his attitude from the day before hadn’t changed. Except for that brief moment on the porch, his interactions were without fault but still annoyingly subdued.

As soon as dinner was over, the kids settled on the window seat to read a little before bed, Saito murmured he needed to get back to work. He thanked Dom for the dinner, Miles for the conversation, and said a general goodnight to the kids, then left.

Dom got the kids to bed an hour later. He read to them both, first James, then Phillipa—they both dropped off as soon as he started reading and he was done by eight.

It was still early enough to do his own reading or maybe some work, but he was as tired as the kids and he ended up going to bed soon after.

***

The next day, he woke up after a restless night, fed the kids, then drove them to school. He returned to find Miles in the kitchen making his own breakfast. Miles silently pointed to a stack of FedEx envelopes on the dining room table. Dom picked them up—they were all for Saito, signed by Miles. He scooped them up and took the coward’s route, muttering something about work as he hurried from the room.

Like the day before, Saito was on Skype, talking with someone in Tokyo. When Dom entered the room, he looked up and smiled, then went back to his conversation.

Dom shrugged internally and set the envelopes on Saito’s desk. It was cool, that Saito obviously had things to do because so did he. He sat down at his desk, woke up his computer and pulled up the proposal he’d started the week before.

And it was sort of nice, that first hour, hearing the pleasant timbre of Saito’s voice, the small sounds as he did whatever he was doing. Until Dom realized that he wasn’t paying attention to his own work, that he was really just staring blankly at the screen, too aware of Saito, eighteen feet away.

He finally gave up at ten. He got up, said he needed to do some cleaning, then left without waiting for Saito’s reply.

When Saito came out of the workroom around noon, they ate a quiet meal with Miles. After lunch, Saito returned to his work and Dom returned to his cleaning, choosing Phillipa’s room this time.

Miles said nothing. He stuck his head in at one point and volunteered to pick up the kids. Dom accepted gratefully and actually managed to concentrate for a brief time before inexplicably finding himself outside the workroom door, hand already reaching, heart pounding in his throat. He touched the knob because he couldn’t help himself, then forced himself to return to Phillipa’s room and the jumble that was her closet.

***

The next few days settled into similar pattern and as he worked and cleaned and avoided, he wondered if it were possible for a person to go completely crazy from simple lust.

***

But in the end, the solution to his problems were solved by Miles, as they so often had in the past.

***

“Phillipa? He’s not there.”

She stopped in her tracks. “He’s not?”

Dom shook his head, not looking up from the checkbook. “He had to meet someone in the city. He’ll be home around six.” The word ‘home’ sounded too right and he frowned.

“I wanted to ask him about Japan. I’m doing a book report and it’s due—”

He glanced up. She was standing in the doorway of the dining room with a big book in her arms. “It’s not due for three weeks, honey. You can ask him tomorrow.”

“But—”

“Phillipa?” he warned. She sighed, put the book on the countertop, and stomped back outside to lay in the hammock.

He shook his head. She’d been haunting Saito all week in a not-so-subtle effort to bring up the subject of horseback riding. Dom had caught her trying to sneak into the workroom three times that day, twice in the morning and now in the afternoon. It was almost funny—in a way he’d been fighting the same urge, only he didn’t want to ask about horses or Japan.

“Did she try again?”

He looked towards the porch. And smiled. Miles had been showing James the value of load-bearing walls in the sandbox. His knees were dusty and his hair was sticking up. “Third time today. Fortunately for Saito, he’s still at his meeting.”

“She’s persistent, that one.” Miles sat down at the table with a grunt. “Just like her mother.”

Dom’s smile faded. “Yes, she is.” Mal had never stopped from going after what she wanted—she’d been focused and determined and resolute. He murmured again, “Yes, she is,” and returned to the checkbook.

“Dom?”

“Hmm?” He was still thirty-seven dollars off and it probably didn’t matter, but his accountant would sigh in disappointment—she’d been trying to get him to be better about his receipts.

“I’ve a proposal for you.”

He looked up in surprise. “What do you mean?”

Miles clasped his hands before him and stared down at them. “I won’t pretend I understand what’s going on between Mr. Saito and you, but you can’t go on this way.”

He let the checkbook fall closed and sat back. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not sleeping, you’re not working. You’ve cleaned every room and window in this house. Twice.” Miles shook his head. “I’m worried you’re going to kick me out so you can start in on my room.”

He tried to make a joke of it, but Dom didn’t laugh. His cheeks were burning and he didn’t have to look in a mirror to know he was flushing. “Miles—” he mumbled, but Miles shook his head again.

“My daughter has been dead for almost four years now. And I don’t imagine you planned on living the rest of your life in eternal celibacy. I can’t say I approve of Mr. Saito, but that’s mostly due to the fact that I don’t know him and I don’t trust him.”

Dom ignored that last part. “What’s your proposal?”

“I’m taking the children on a short holiday. I’ve booked us a suite at the Disney Californian in Anaheim. We’re leaving this afternoon by taxi and we’ll be back by five on Sunday. That will give you some breathing room.”

“You hate Disneyland,” was all he could think to say, stunned by the conversation.

“Yes, well,” Miles said, smiling as he stood up, “the children will love it. I packed their bags while you were picking them up. I’ll go tell them now.”

He turned to the porch but Dom called out, “Miles?”

Miles smiled, a little sadly. “Consider it my, ‘I’m glad you’re back to stay,’ gift. Remember, forty-eight hours, just like Cinderella.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me too much—I used your credit card.”

Dom watched Miles leave, then rubbed his hands over his face and hair. Miles had all but given permission for him to have sex with Saito. It was bizarre and more than a little humiliating, mostly because he hadn’t known he was that transparent.

Oh well, he thought, fuck it. He’d take the two days and live the hell out of them.

He got up—checkbook forgotten—and hurried outside just as the kids began to shout with glee.

***

He lit the last candle and stood back. No, still not good. He was going for romantic but had ended up with cheesy. Maybe because it was only five and not dark enough for candles? Whatever, he had time to fix it—Saito wouldn’t be home for another hour.

He tossed the matches on the table and went to get the wine.

Saito preferred red Bordeaux, a wine that he, unfortunately, didn’t have on hand. He had a so-so Merlot and a rather good Cabernet. The rest were whites. He could run out to the store—he had time. He could pick up the Bordeaux, a better Merlot, and some beer.

He uncorked the Cabernet and got out a glass.

He was frowning, glass in hand, when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the windowpane. He made a face at himself. Why the hell was he freaking out? He’d been on dates before and had seduced more than his share. He knew what to do.

Of course, that had been on the job, and his last real date had been almost ten years ago and ten years notwithstanding, it had felt exactly like this—like he couldn’t quite catch his breath, like he was going to burst into flame if he even so much as thought of—

He took a deep, deep breath. He needed to get it together or the evening would be over before it started.

So he calmly placed the glass on the countertop, went to the stove and lifted the lid on the sauté pan. He was trying a new recipe—salmon, jicama and dill. He poked at the jicama. It was supposed to be getting tender, but it was still hard. It was too late to change to rice so maybe just the salmon and a salad? Of course, eating before seven was a fairly distinctive American trait. No doubt Saito wouldn’t mind if they ate much later which would give the jicama time to—

A click and a muffled thud made him pause.

“Cobb?” Saito called out.

Shit—an hour early. “Yeah, I’m here, hold on—” He dropped the fork and the lid and rushed over to the table. He blew out all the candles, then turned.

To find Saito, standing in the doorway, jacket was over one arm, briefcase in one hand. He was gazing about in confusion at the spotless kitchen and dining room. “What is this?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “A vacation.”

“A vacation?”

“Yes. For you and me.”

Saito looked around again. “The children are gone?”

He nodded. “Miles took them away for the weekend so we could—” He shrugged. “That is, if you want—” He shrugged again, feeling like a complete idiot. This used to be easier, or maybe it had always been hard—he couldn’t remember now.

But Saito’s eyes narrowed and he tossed his very expensive jacket onto the dirty countertop and let his equally expensive briefcase fall.

They met in the space between kitchen and dining room, colliding so hard it was almost funny and Dom took a breath for a nervous laugh but Saito was there, hand on his jaw, tilting his head for a kiss.

Saito tasted like tea. And something spicy, maybe ginger or—

Saito moaned and bit him. On his lip, and a streak of heat raced up his spine. He arched, mumbling, “The door…” but he didn’t let go and when Saito shoved him towards the table, he went willingly.

Back until he hit the edge, until he was almost sitting, thighs spread, pulling Saito to him with arms and legs.

“Cobb,” Saito whispered into his mouth. “Are you sure? I don’t want to…”

He gripped Saito’s shirt and yanked, ripping fabric, sending buttons flying.

Saito’s eyes widened and he muttered something too low for Dom to hear and he grabbed Dom’s hips and kissed him again and then again.

Saito didn’t speak after that. Except in gasped Japanese as he rode Dom’s thigh, as he pressed Dom’s cock through his pants until they both came, one after the other.

 

___________________

 

He edged to the left. “I must move.”

“Yes.”

“Because that chair is digging into my hip.”

Dom’s lips curved into a smile, pressing into Saito’s clavicle. He sighed in pleasure and didn’t move, chair or no.

But Dom pushed and he straightened up. And smiled. Because Dom’s eyes were half-mast, his cheeks flushed. He looked beautiful and debauched and it was a good thing Miles was gone—it wouldn’t take a genius to guess what they’d been doing.

Dom took his hand. “That’s a good look on you.”

“What is?”

Dom gestured and Saito glanced down. His tie was still loosely knotted but his shirt was open, ripped in several places. He raised his eyebrow. He’d purchased the shirt on Friday—he’d rather liked the color and the fit.

Dom kissed his palm and he forgot about his ruined shirt, humming in pleasure. “I hope your neighbors are not curious,” he murmured, pressing his hand against Dom’s lips.

“Hmm?”

“Your neighbors. You have no curtains.”

“The house sits pretty high up.” Dom moved on to Saito’s fingers, biting gently. Saito tipped his head back, hearing Dom’s words as if he were some distance away.

“Besides,” Dom added, “the place behind is for sale. There’s nobody living there.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

His mind cleared of desire because, yes, that was interesting. He’d been thinking, just the other day, of how to install a security team nearby and here was this bit of news, out of the sky, as it were. He’d call Ito as soon as possible. He’d have to find a workaround for the American property laws, but hopefully by this time next week, everything would be in place. Only…

He cocked his head. “What is that smell?”

“What—? Oh, shit!” Dom shoved him back and lunged for the kitchen, pulling up his trousers at the same time. He grabbed the lid off a sauté pan and muttered, “Shit,” again.

Saito fastened his own trousers and followed. He looked over Dom’s shoulder and asked, “What was that supposed to be?”

Dom picked up a fork and poked at a black lump in the pan. “Dinner.”

He put his hand on Dom’s waist and tried not to smile. “Yes?”

“Yeah. I guess I’ll have to start over.”

“Never mind.” He stroked Dom’s back, enjoying the sweep of warm muscle. “We will change clothes and I will take you to dinner.”

Dom nodded dropped the lid back on the pan with a clang.

***

They ate at a local restaurant, Green Street, in the heart of the city.

It was a small place and quite crowded. Saito slipped the maitre’d ten dollars and they were shown to a corner table near the plate glass windows, away from the other diners.

Dom had the steak, he had the salmon, and if anyone had asked, he would have been unable to say whether the fish was any good. Because he was in that lovely post-coital daze where every gesture and look was charged with meaning. He ate mechanically, trying to make conversation, talking about the company and his hopes for it. Until he realized that Dom had left off eating and was just watching him, chin on fist.

Saito stopped talking, fork and knife poised over the last bite of salmon. “What is it?”

Dom smiled and shook his head and Saito’s heart jerked. He knew this, knew that Dom had lost the thread of the conversation and was just listening to the sound of his voice.

He set the knife and fork down. Then he wiped his mouth on his napkin and murmured, “Are you finished? Let us go back.”

***

They managed a sedate return to the house until Dom, pulling to a stop at the top of the drive, accidentally brushed Saito’s hand while reaching for the gearshift.

It was just that, a simple touch, but it was too much and Saito leaned over and caught hold of Dom’s jaw and turned his face. They kissed, out in the open where anyone could see but he didn’t care.

“Have you ever had sex in a car?” Dom whispered.

Saito smiled. “Not recently and not now. I want you in bed, with no clothes on.”

Dom kissed him again, lips hard, then drew away. He parked the SUV at a haphazard angle and they got out.

***

Dom reached for him as soon as they cleared the threshold and it was more kisses, long and hungry even though neither could possibly be hungry, not letting go as they did a deft dance down the short hall into the kitchen.

There they stopped, Saito up against the countertop, suddenly bereft of Dom’s warmth.

Dom was looking down at the answering machine. He paused, then leaned over the counter and said, “I better…”

Saito took his hands away and watched as Dom retrieved the message.

‘Dom,’ Miles said, ‘I wanted to let you know we’re fine and having fun.’ In the background the children shouted something about, ‘Daddy!” and, ‘Mickey Mouse!’ ‘As you can hear, they’re very excited. I’ve got to go and try to calm them down. I think that hot chocolate was a bad idea. See you on Sunday.’

By the time the message was finished, Dom was smiling. “And here I was feeling guilty.”

Dom’s words were quiet, almost grave and Saito had a moment of doubt. “They are having fun.”

“Yes.”

Dom looked up at him and it was back, that wonderful moment.

He held his hand out. “Come.”

If he had thought about it in advance, if there had been any planning, the decision of which bedroom to use would have been a difficult one. Choose the shared marital bed or the room that was still clearly Mal’s?

But now, with Dom standing before him looking tired and beautiful but not doubtful, he didn’t hesitate. The where wasn’t important—his rights would be honored no matter which bed he chose. So he led and Dom followed.

When they got to the big room, they undressed each other slowly. Jackets first, then ties and shirts and trousers and briefs, the clothing ending up on the chair and the floor.

When they were both naked, it was a short step to the bed where he urged Dom down until he was sprawled out across the comforter.

He lifted Dom’s foot and kissed his anklebone. “What do you want?” he murmured, even though he already knew the answer, had known the minute he’d walked into the kitchen to Dom’s unexpected and charming scene of seduction.

Dom sighed and half closed his eyes. “I want you to fuck me.”

He closed his eyes briefly as a cold heat raced up his spine, then kissed Dom again, this time on the inside of his calf. Dom sighed again and pulled him onto the bed with foot and hands.

He lay on Dom, pressing lightly, teasing them both with mouth and body, then settling when Dom gasped and gripped his arms tight.

“Wait,” Dom murmured, stretching out his arm to the small nightstand on the other side of the bed. “I need to—” He opened the drawer and searched until he pulled out a white tube.

His heart tripped and not necessarily in a good way. “Should I be jealous?”

Dom looked over at him. “Of what?”

“Of whomever you bought that for.”

Dom smiled and closed the drawer. “I bought it at the grocery store on Thursday. When I ran out of Windex.”

He raised his eyebrow. “Oh.”

Dom’s smile changed to a grin and he dropped the tube and rolled, pushing Saito to his back. “Were you jealous?”

He shook his head. “No.”

Dom kissed him. “Liar,” he whispered, softening the accusation into almost a love note and Saito smiled, his irrational displeasure gone under the force of Dom’s kisses, forgotten as Dom began to explore his body,

Spending long moments concentrating on his chest and belly, lips warm and sweet as he moved leisurely down…

It was odd, being the focus of such a vigorous investigation and it threw him out of himself, as if he were two people, the one in bed with Dom and the one only dreaming about being in bed with Dom. It was like nothing he’d experienced, truly of the sensual and he groaned and gripped the back of Dom’s hair, gently tugging. “Stop. I can’t—”

Saito wasn’t quite sure what he was demanding, but Dom apparently knew.

Because he straightened then rolled, bringing Saito with him. He fumbled for the tube, then uncapped it and held it up. “Give me your hand.” He spread the lubricant on Saito’s fingers, his own, then tossed the tube aside and reached for Saito’s cock.

“Ah,” he hissed, tipping his head back, gripping Dom tightly. Too good. Too— “Take care.”

“All right,” Dom whispered. “All right. All done. Here…” He took Saito’s hand and reached between his own thighs, guiding, showing.

Dom was tight and warm, and it was his turn to take his time. Pressing in slowly, waiting for muscle to give in. “Am I hurting you?”

Dom opened his eyes. “What?”

He shook his head. He’d forgotten his English for a moment, something he rarely did anymore, so he asked again, “Am I hurting you?”

Dom smiled, a little strained. “No. I’m fine.”

‘Now who is the liar?’ he wanted to say, but it would pass and all he needed was patience because—

Dom gasped and arched, forcing Saito’s finger in deeper.

Ah. There it was and he added another finger, searching, feeling the sweat break out on the back of his neck.

Dom grabbed his hand and pressed, hard. “There,” he moaned. “There…”

He pressed again, entangling his leg with Dom’s, wanting only—

“Hiro?” Dom asked, his voice husky and deep.

He withdrew his fingers and shoved Dom’s legs apart and yes, there.

Inside Dom, slipping in, no strain, only joy. Thrusting once to seat himself, then again, gathering the rhythm as his two selves merged with a force that surely Dom must feel.

“Hiro,” Dom whispered.

He groaned in answer and began to thrust harder, following the ebb and flow of his body’s whims, his thoughts flying apart under the chaos of desire…

There.

***

A noise woke him, soft and familiar. He frowned and pushed his face into warm skin.

It happened again, a soft burring ring and consciousness returned.

They’d fallen asleep on their sides, the bedding at their feet. He disentangled himself and got to his feet, stumbling around the bed to find his trousers.

“What is it,” Dom asked, still curled around the pillow.

He got his mobile and looked at the screen. “Kaneda.”

“Do you need—”

“No.” He turned the mobile off and tossed it on the pile of clothing. He got back in bed, climbing over Dom. “I turned it off.” He drew the covers up and curled around Dom, huddling into his warmth. “Go back to sleep.”

***

He awoke again, lazily opening his eyes. The windows were grey-dark—dawn was just around the corner. He hummed deep in his throat and kissed the back of Dom’s neck.

Dom made a soft sound and pushed back. “I’ve missed you. Where’ve you been?”

Saito hesitated, then whispered, “Here?”

“I was here all the time.”

He opened his mouth, confused at Dom’s words, but Dom took his hand and pulled him close. “Hiro.”

“Yes?”

Dom kissed his palm. “I missed you.”

“I’m here.”

“Don’t stop.”

“I don’t understand.”

But Dom didn’t explain. He just gripped his hand and rolled to his belly, pulling Saito on top.

“Dom?”

“You sound so sincere.”

“What—”

“When you said, ‘No. Never,’ you sounded so sincere.”

“Cobb—”

Dom sighed and moved under him. “You feel so good.”

“Dominic.”

Dom stilled, his entire body somehow turning to stone. “Hiro?”

“Yes?”

“You never call me, ‘Dominic.’”

And before he could answer, Dom shoved him, pushing so hard he fell to his side, watching in complete surprise as Dom threw back the bedclothes.

He reached out, just as Dom was almost free and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Dom! What is it? What—”

Dom shoved again, this time using his elbow, catching Saito in the jaw. He cried out before he could stop himself, the noise shocking even himself.

They lay there, both frozen in place, only Dom was panting, his back heaving as if he’d run a mile.

“Dom?” he said, one hand to his jaw. When Dom didn’t answer, he reached out and touched his shoulder.

Just that light touch, but Dom fell to his back as if Saito had grabbed him again. His eyes were wide and blank, his mouth pressed in a tight line.

“What is it?” Saito asked even though his confusion was fading away. He knew what this was. “What is wrong.”

Dom said to the ceiling, “I was dreaming.”

Yes, but not quite the truth and anger bloomed hot in his belly. “That wasn’t a dream. That was a memory.”

Dom opened his mouth to refute, then nodded, still not looking at Saito.

“Was it Marcus?”

Dom shook his head.

“Then, who?”

“Cascajo.”

The forger he’d briefly met. “Did he rape you?”

“No.”

He gritted his teeth, but made himself asked calmly, “Are you sure?”

Dom glanced at him. “Yes.”

He hesitated. Dom wasn’t lying, but neither was he telling the truth. And he was waiting to be called on that half lie. Something Saito couldn’t do, not yet. “I am glad he is dead.”

“Me too.”

He touched Dom’s shoulder. “We should go to the doctor.”

“Because of the drug or the PTSD?”

It took him a moment to recall what ‘PTSD’ meant, then he said, “Both.”

Dom shook his head again. “And what will they do? We can’t tell them what happened.”

He made a sharp, frustrated, gesture. “So what do you propose?”

Dom gave him a long look. “Just give me time, all right?”

“Dom—”

Dom rolled to his side, facing Saito. The frozen, blank look was gone; in its place was a steady questioning. He was waiting for Saito to press the issue, to insist. And if Saito had needed to assert his rights, maybe Dom did, too.

So he just stroked Dom’s cheek, kissed him once, and said, “Very well. You’ll have your time.”

***

This time when he opened his eyes, he woke completely. The sun was pouring through the windows, patterning the floor and bed with yellow rectangles. Outside, he could hear a bird chirp and softer, further away, the sound of a car engine.

He turned on his back and sighed.

“Finally,” came a soft voice.

He turned his head. Dom was standing in the doorway, holding two cups. He was wearing only shorts and Saito smiled but didn’t move, inviting with his entire body.

Dom’s face brightened and he came to sit on the bed. He put the cups down on the nightstand, then leaned over and kissed him. His hand was hot and his mouth tasted of coffee. He pulled back. “The kids called. Phillipa wants you to go with her next week so she can show you Splash Mountain.”

He raised one eyebrow. “Splash Mountain? That sounds wet.”

Dom grinned. “It is. You’ll hate it.”

“Then, of course, I will go.”

Dom’s expression changed and he leaned down and gave Saito a kiss that somehow hurt. “What do you want to do today?” he asked against Saito’s lips.

“I want to not leave this bed.”

“I can do that.”

Dom made to kiss him again, but Saito held him back by his shoulders. “Won’t your contractor friend and his crew be working today?”

“No,” Dom grinned. “I called Mick up and told him I needed a break. They’ll finish up next week.”

“Won’t he be unhappy, losing the money?”

“No, because I paid him and the crew a week’s wages to make up the time.”

Saito raised his eyebrow.

“You see, Saito-san,” Dom murmured silkily, leaning in to kiss him. “You’re not the only one who knows what to do with money.”

He wanted to laugh in surprise, he wanted to chide. But as Dom slipped on top of him, his weight pressing him into the mattress, he could only sigh and smile.

 

____________________________________

 

 

Coda

 

“But, sir—”

“Ito. It is fine.” He made a gesture, indicating the vase that stood in the middle of Ito’s desk. He could see the small crack in the lip where Miko had taken out her anger. “It will affect the value, yes, but I wasn’t planning on selling it.”

Ito said reluctantly, “Very well. And Mr. Weston?”

Ito was becoming accustomed to their long distance conversations and no longer spoke too loud or sat too close to the monitor. “Mr. Fischer will handle it.”

“Very good, sir. Will that be all?”

“For the moment. We are going up the coast on Friday with the children. To Napa Valley and Stanford. I will send you the information as to where we will be staying.”

“Sir—”

He waved away Ito’s incipient question, the one he’d been not asking for the last two weeks. “Has my ex-wife’s solicitor sent the papers?”

“Yes, sir. I copied them and will courier them today.”

“Thank you.”

“Sir?”

He rubbed his eyes. “Yes, Ito?”

Ito hesitated, then said quickly, “Will you be returning home soon?”

He didn’t sigh. Ito needed to know, after all. “Yes, sometime around the first of November. We will take a trip to Shimodo soon after, to open up the house.” Phillipa had a full week off, towards the end of November. She was already talking non-stop about the trip and the plane ride.

“Very good.”

“Good night, Ito,”

“Good night, sir.”

Saito pressed a button and the screen went dark. He rose and stretched.

It was only eleven, but the house was dark and silent as he walked from the workroom to his bedroom. He was unused to going to bed so early, but he’d learned quickly that Dom’s house ran on the children’s schedule.

He paused in the front hallway, then padded to the door and peered out. Ian’s man was at the gate, as he should be. Good. If he hadn’t yet convicted Dom yet of the importance of security, at least he’d been given this.

The children’s doors were closed as he walked by but he didn’t stop. It had been a long day, full of early morning meetings and late night conversations. He had seen Dom only once, at noon, and that had been in the presence of his friend and contractor, Mick.

The bedroom door was open and he slipped in, then closed and locked it. Walking to the bed was like walking through a deep surf. Desire, put away for expediency’s sake, crept over him, slowing him down.

When he got to the edge of the bed, he stopped and gazed down. Dom, was, as expected, sleeping neatly on his back, contained as if he were lying on a chair or sofa. It was only after sex, Saito had found, that he relaxed completely enough to sprawl out, arms and legs wide. Saito was never sure if it was a holdover from his life as a dream thief or if it was his natural state.

He wanted to ask, but held back. He’d promised Dom time, and time he would give him. Even to the point of not pushing any discussion Marcus and his insane idea to drive Dom mad. Or any questions of his health and well being.

He’d watched, of course, subtly looking for signs of sleeplessness and nightmares. And when they made love, he did so with firm intent, saying without saying, ‘Yes, this is me, not someone out to trick you.’

Dom made no mention of those times, but Saito would sometime catch a sidelong look that told him that Dom knew, that he was grateful.

It was little enough. He’d do much more to keep Dom and his children safe. He had done much more.

“Hey.”

He jerked his head up. Dom was watching him, eyes barely open. “Your meeting is over?”

“Yes.”

“How’s the reactor?”

“Coming along. Mr. Weston, of course, had thoughts he needed to share.”

Dom stretched his arm out. “I imagine you had thoughts to share in return?”

Saito shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed. “Robert will take care of him. He’s much better at placating than I.”

Dom stroked his thigh, from hip to knee. “I don’t know—you’re really good with Phillipa and James.”

He began to say something along the lines of, ‘With them, it is easy,’ but the words—and their wealth of meaning—caught in his throat.

A year ago, those two children meant little to him. A year ago, the man before him meant slightly more, but still…

And it was not they that had changed—it was himself. Transforming from one man to another so quickly and naturally… It was as if he’d been waiting all his life for such a metamorphosis. What had Dom said that day in the hot Mombasan sun? ‘The seed that we plant in this man’s mind will grow into an idea and that idea will define him. It may come to change everything about him.’

He’d been dismissive at the time, watching removed and skeptical as the thief he’d hired tried to explain the complexities of inception.

He was no longer removed, no longer skeptical—standing in the dream surf, his feet wet, his heart aching, had shattered all illusions of that.

“What is it?” Dom asked, taking his hand.

He swallowed thickly and said, “I was wondering if you were too sleepy to join me for a light dinner as I missed mine.”

If Dom heard the slight falsehood, he said nothing. He just sat up, kissed Saito once and said, “Sure. I’ll cook. I’m wide awake.”

 

 

 

fin.