Somewhere in the world, a man dreams of his father. They are walking on a dirt road, pushing a cart that is much too empty for all the hours they've put into the day, and the son is heaving with sweat, swatting flies with every step. His father hums, not with contentment but not with anger either – these are not the rolling, buzzing hums that signify his displeasure, such as when the son declares that he'll drop out of school. No, the father says, and puts a hand on his son's straight young back. His own back is crooked like a badly drawn hanzi.
The son dreams. There is a pulse in his wrist. It beats.
Eames visits Yusuf during an unrelated job, and Yusuf says, "I talked to Saito."
"Wait," says Eames, stopping in the middle of examining a particularly suspicious bottle. "You talk to Saito?"
"Is there something weird about that?" Yusuf asks. There may or may not be a defensive tone to his voice. Interesting. Eames will have to investigate that.
"Well, generally, I don't see rich and powerful men swooping to your doorstep, which, by the way, is covered in bird shit." Eames peers at Yusuf. "You know that's why Arthur never does business with you unless he has to, right? He can't be arsed to put up with bird shit."
"He visits," Yusuf says. Then he shrugs. "I don't see why you care anyway. You and Arthur are unbearable whenever you're together."
"Yes, darling, we are," Eames says. He puts the bottle on the counter. "So what fascinating conversation did you have with Saito that you need to tell me about? Has he got a new job for us?"
Yusuf imitates him – "yes, darling, he does" – but he lacks the proper Britishness to really make it stick. He doesn't much care. He goes back to fiddling with his concoctions and saying, almost absently, "There's someone he wants to do business with, someone very big, but the other man isn't so eager and—" Another shrug. "He has heard that Saito has connections."
"Ah," says Eames. "How much is Saito paying?"
Yusuf smiles; now they're talking. "Enough."
They meet Saito in Tokyo, in a posh twelfth story complex that overlooks the manic nightscape of the city. Saito's maid pours them sencha tea and they sit in a semi-circle around Saito and a large Asian man in a stiffly pressed grey suit. Ariadne is there in jeans and a t-shirt, having just flown in. Yusuf is there, fidgeting in a new pair of shoes. Cobb isn't there. He's been busy with his kids; Eames hasn't heard from him in months, not that he expected anything by the way of letters and cards to begin with. Arthur...yeah, Arthur is there, coiffed and perfectly attired, his fingers resting on his leg. It's hard to tell if those fingers are consciously placed or not. Arthur leaves as little as possible to his subconscious; maybe the obvious result of someone who dabbles in dreams. Purposeful or not, those fingers are awfully distracting. Just a little higher and --
"Mr. Eames, I asked if it was possible," Saito interrupts, and everybody turns to look at Eames. He removes his eyes from Arthur's inseam, slowly, and can feel the subtle glare Arthur shoots him.
"Sure, it's possible," Eames drawls. "I've just got to observe Mr. Chan for a while so that I can imitate him properly. But I'm sure it won't be hard. People are all kind of alike, after a while." He gives Saito a dirty smile, daring him to remember the blonde in the elevator. Saito looks uncomfortable. Eames laughs under his breath.
"Augh! Hot! Hot!" Ariadne blurts, and she's fanning her tongue. "Sorry. Drank it too quickly."
Arthur turns a disbelieving look on her, but it's soft at the edges -- Eames knows because he has made human expression his own personal field of study. Arthur has never turned that look on Eames before, not even after they fuck.
He leans back in his chair. Spreads his legs a little. "So, Mr. Chan, I guess you've got a shadow for a while."
(He doesn't mind staying in Tokyo. He keeps a list of all the cities he's made Arthur come in, and Tokyo so far hasn't been one of them).
Arthur is a slow shot. Eames had a fantasy at first where he'd just push inside and Arthur would come like a fuse, but that hasn't been the case. He hasn't decided yet if Arthur's naturally slow to come or if he's holding out on Eames; he's starting to suspect that the difference between the two isn't very vast. Fucking Arthur takes patience and control, which is why Eames is the perfect man to do it. He can read the little clues of Arthur's body to know when Arthur needs it harder, when he wants it slower, when it's too much, when it's not enough.
This time he corkscrews into Arthur's gorgeous arse, and he listens to Arthur's catch of breath. There's sweat in a shining line down Arthur's back -- Arthur likes it from behind; either that or he doesn't like facing Eames -- and Eames put his tongue to that line, where Arthur's sensitive pink skin is sure to hurt.
"Come on," Arthur says.
"Sorry, love, you got somewhere better to be?" Eames asks.
"I don't have all day."
"You've got plenty of time," Eames tells him, and bites his shoulder hard. Arthur hangs his head and groans. "And I know where I want to be. Right deep in your arse." He thrusts again and Arthur shoves back, taking him in.
Mr. Chan is the owner of a very big company in China with backing from the CCP. In 1968, when he was fifteen, he read a red book, listened to a lecture at school, kicked a ball with his friends, and then went home and denounced his bourgeois father. The guards came to take his father away, and Mr. Chan didn't see him again until 2008 when he ran into an old man sweeping the streets in Shanghai.
(Lucid dreaming can be wondrous, awful, but worse is the nightmare you can't wake from).
"Right, so I should study up on Chinese architecture," says Ariadne.
"I'll book you a ticket to Shanghai," Saito promises.
"I...don't really need to do much other than have the drugs ready," Yusuf says. "I'll be in my store. Come get me when the rest of you are ready."
Eames kicks Arthur's ankle. "You're staying with me."
"Why would I stay with you?" Arthur asks, and there's a bruise on the side of his neck that he's tried to cover up with makeup. Eames itches to lick it.
"Following around an old geezer all day is bound to be boring."
"You followed Peter Browning," Arthur points out.
"Yeah, well, he didn't know about it. Chan knows. He wants me to. Hence, boring. But also that means I can drag you along." Eames beams at Arthur. Then he leans forward and fiddles with Arthur's collar, right below the bruise.
"What are you doing?"
"It's uneven," Eames says.
"I doubt that."
"You doubt it?" Eames raises his eyebrows. "Even you can't be perfect all the time."
"I'm not perfect," Arthur says. But he doesn't say anything more about shadowing Chan, so Eames knows that he's won. The thing about Arthur is that Arthur isn't a leader. Not like Cobb, not like the way Ariadne is shaping up to be. He can step in and get the job done if he has to, but he would rather pick someone trustworthy and follow their orders. That suits Eames fine. Better than fine, really. (Eames isn't a follow or a leader. He's best as an independent agent, though these days he doesn't mind having the gang around. Inception = better at making you friends than a fucking tea party).
As Eames suspects, Mr. Chan turns out to be boring. All businessmen are boring, even Saito when he's at work (when he's not at work, that's a different story. Eames trailed Saito around one day, just for the hell of it, and the things he knows now...).
Mr. Chan is quiet, stoic, and efficiently polite with Eames and Arthur. He gives them two rooms in his house and tells his staff to accommodate their every need. Eames barges into Arthur's room and throws himself on his bed, ruffling the Egyptian cotton sheets. "So this is what a communist country is like," he says, and Arthur smiles amusedly.
"You want to go steal a car?" Eames asks.
"Tempting," says Arthur as he hangs up his suits. Eames eyes those suits appreciatively. Though he likes them better when he takes them off Arthur's shoulders.
"I like staying in other people's homes," Eames muses. "Damned better sight than my own ugly flat."
"Where do you live?" Arthur asks.
"I do believe that is the first bit of curiosity you've ever shown about me. Other than the size of my dick."
Arthur rolls his eyes. "For the record, I find it difficult to believe that you don't spend your money on outlandish decorations for whatever den of iniquity you call your home. Oh wait. Perhaps ugly flat is the right description then."
"I'll tell my mother that you said so."
Arthur looks at him.
"She happens to live with me."
"Now that," says Arthur, "is a piece of acting I hope you improve on before we visit Mr. Chan's father."
"I'm hurt that you don't believe me," Eames says. "Now come lie down on this bed so we can screw our brains out."
Ariadne dreams about failing her finals, about the cute boy she saw at the diner down the street, about creating entire worlds out of wisps and stalks. Her dreams are complicated and layered, intellectual architecture despite the simplicity of her subject matter (the boy, the final, the world).
Yusuf dreams about showing up to his fiancé's parents in his underwear, about reneging on his gambling debts, about his lab. His dreams are always complicated and usually raining (Yusuf always drinks two glasses of water before he goes to bed).
No one but Ariadne knows what Cobb dreams about.
No one knows if Arthur dreams at all.
Eames dreams rarely, but when he does he sees the boarding school he went to as a boy, the tree-lined lane, the sharp sunlight shining off the clean whites of his shoes. He dreams of a gun in one hand and a cigarette in another. He dreams of the perfect con, of looking himself in the mirror and not knowing for sure which one is real. His dreams are always very guarded and watchful; he's been invaded before, when he was still new to the business, and it was one of the worst experiences of his life.
He holds onto his totem, which is an faded photograph of a young woman with the edge torn off and writing on the back so worn out it looks like it's been gone over with lemon juice. Only he knows what it says.
E.J at the park, 1952.
Arthur bends over the desk, his thighs strong as Eames licks into him. Eames' goal is to make those thighs quiver and he gets his wish about seven minutes in, when he stabs deep inside Arthur and Arthur lets out a throaty groan.
"Like that, don't you?"
Arthur's cheeks are flushed and his mouth is lush and open. Eames wraps a hand around his tie and yanks him so that they're kissing sloppily, like teenagers. He can't imagine Arthur kissing anyone else this way. An impish, part masochistic, thought occurs to him, and he suddenly wills himself to look like Ariadne. He imagines himself smaller, female, and wearing a set of baby pink lingerie with ruffles on top.
Arthur pushes him away. "What the fuck."
"I thought I'd spice up our sex life," Eames says. He strikes a pose and feels the edge of the thong dig into him. It is not his favourite part of playing a female.
"One, Ariadne is nothing like that, and two, I don't want you looking like her," Arthur says.
Eames studies Arthur. There's nothing that suggests he's lying. "Okay," he says and changes back. Arthur reaches for him and touches his mouth. Eames wraps his lips around his finger and Arthur smiles ruefully.
"I'm serious," he says.
"I suppose it's gratifying to know for sure that you aren't imagining Ariadne's luscious body when you're with me," Eames says. Then he smiles a smile of his own, rougher and more meaningful. "Turn back around and hold onto the table tight."
"One day," says Arthur, "I'm going to learn how to refuse you."
"One day," Eames agrees. (And for all his mastery of human expression, he doesn't catch the way Arthur says it, that particular tone of voice that he reserves for all the efforts that he knows are lost causes).
"Daddy issues," Eames says dismissively. "Oldest story in the book. I mean that. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel? All about daddy issues."
"I didn't take you for a religious man," Arthur says as they wait outside the office for Chan to finish his meeting.
"I went to Catholic school. I was a very, very good boy." Eames runs his tongue over his mouth. Arthur holds his gaze. "Plus," Eames adds, "I bet I can make you pray on your knees."
"Not in public," Arthur warns. It's a shame, really. A naked, horny Arthur would be quite the masterpiece. They could put him by the fountain with all the other art. Give the stuffy businessmen a show.
But it doesn't seem as if Arthur is sharing that particular fantasy of public sex, so Eames says, "Let's go over this before Yusuf and Ariadne arrive. We break into Chan Senior's dream, I make him believe that I'm his son, and we what exactly? Fiddle our thumbs and play the fucking banjo?"
"Chan wants to know what his father thinks of him." Arthur glances up at the glass ceiling and blinks.
"He got his father sent to jail and hard labour. What does he expect?"
"Forgiveness," says Arthur, and there's something in his response; a measure of a beat when wax melts paper that makes Eames stop kicking the side of the fountain restlessly.
"Oh no, not you too."
"What?" Arthur says irritably.
"Nothing," Eames replies. They're quiet for a few moments, which is a few moments wasted that Eames isn't trying to get into Arthur's Armani pants. Arthur rebuffs him at every move, and then Chan comes out of his meeting and gives him an odd look that makes Arthur flush, much to Eames' delight.
"You really are the dog that follows me home and pees on my shoes," Arthur says. Eames laughs and takes it as a compliment.
"Ah, but I don't have to be a dog. I can be anything you want."
Eames is the actor but it's Arthur who hooks Chan Senior in Shanghai. He knocks on his door and pretends to be a foreigner looking for directions and it's a signifier of how calm and cool Arthur is that he's imminently respectable, even to seventy-year-old Chinese men who can barely see out of their left eye. Arthur starts explaining his situation to Chan Senior in Mandarin, and that's pretty hot. Who knew Arthur could speak Chinese? (But Arthur does what he has to do, and China is a country with a lot of dreamers).
Fifteen minutes later, he emerges from Chan Senior's apartment with an empty syringe. "It worked," he says to Yusuf, who is bent low in a conversation with Ariadne about something or the other.
"All right, game time," says Eames. He tries not to think about how different it feels without Cobb. It's not a bad different but it's certainly a mark of time and getting older -- it used to be, for example, that when he and Arthur fucked, they had to worry about Cobb not finding out and now it's not a problem at all; Yusuf doesn't care about anything that doesn't harm him and Ariadne was surprisingly open with the possibility the one time Eames joked about it with her. ("You ever imagine spreading Arthur open and making him forget his own name?" he'd asked, and Ariadne had paused thoughtfully before saying, "You mean if you did it? I'd buy the film rights to that.")
Inside the flat, Arthur opens the briefcase and hooks him and Eames up. Yusuf administers the drugs and Ariadne settles herself cross-legged on the couch, flipping open a local newspaper (Eames wouldn't be surprised if she knew Chinese either; her and Arthur and their goddamn Penrose stairs).
It's Eames' dream, and when Arthur shows up he's wearing nothing but a pair of briefs.
"Seriously," he says, and Eames smirks.
"You want to wear something else, you've got to say the magic word."
"Fuck off, Eames," Arthur says. He crosses his arms but it's somehow not as imposing, not when his briefs have little yellow ducks all over them. Eames laughs and laughs. They're standing on a street in a city that resembles Shanghai but older, maybe Shanghai the way it was in 1968, during the revolution. It's the memory of where they are and what happened between father and son that makes Eames serious at last. He changes Arthur into a snappy pinstripe suit, and Arthur looks torn between grateful and furious.
"Shh, here he comes," Eames says. Chan Senior turns the corner and Eames wills himself into Chan Junior, fifteen years old, gangly and nervous and desperate to succeed. It's best to immerse himself entirely into the role. He forgets Arthur and instead he walks towards his father, hesitantly, clutching the strap of his backpack until it digs into his sweating palm.
When the extraction is done and they leave Chan Senior snoring in his home, they meet Saito and Chan Junior in an internet cafe down the corner. It's the first time Chan Junior has shown emotion to them and there is wretched hope on his face. He twitches as Eames, Arthur, Yusuf, and Ariadne take their seats, and he jabs his cigarette into the heavy ashtray. "So?" he barks in English, and Arthur is the one who speaks.
Eames feels Arthur squeeze around him as he comes; a hot gasp of liquid that shoots into Eames' hand. Eames pumps once, twice more, and then he throws his head back and yells as he fills the condom.
Arthur helps wipe him clean. Eames feels a wash of hopeless affection for his fussiness.
Then Arthur checks his totem. He always does this. Eames doesn't need to check his. He says, "You realize that we've never had sex in real life before."
"What, you want me to pop around to your place, say hi to your mother?" Arthur asks.
"She'd like you," Eames replies. "Of course, you'd have to tell her that you work at the Ministry of Finance. She thinks I'm a tax collector, you see."
Arthur's smile has dimples. "That seems fitting. No one likes a tax collector."
But Eames says, "I mean it."
"Do you," says Arthur, buttoning up his pants. "Listen, I've got to go."
(On Monday Eames gets a call from Cobb. They chat awkwardly for a few minutes and Eames lies and hangs up. But Cobb sounds happy, and Eames can hear a little girl's laughter on the other side.
On Tuesday he flies home to Bristol and finds that his mother has bought new curtains. They are uglier and purpler than ever.
On Wednesday he eats roti from his favourite Indian restaurant.
On Thursday he gets a call from Yusuf about another job. He tells him he'll think about it.
On Friday he goes to the park, flirts with some of the teenage girls, and reads the newspaper while wondering what Arthur is doing at this very moment, somewhere across the sea. He has Arthur's number and he could call, but that's not the way they have ever operated. It's not the way Arthur will let them operate.
On Saturday he tries not to think about anything at all.
On Sunday he opens his door to find Arthur standing there with a small smile, very much not a tax collector. Eames, for once, doesn't say anything first. He can't help but remember their last job, and how his father had looked him straight in the eye and denied him forgiveness despite how badly he had wanted it. He marvels at the waste, at the debris of years and poor choices and how maybe if Chan had spoken earlier, if he hadn't waited. Or maybe not. Who can say. Dreams are not the same as prophecy, and nowhere is there an uninterrupted train ride to clarity. Arthur pulls Eames in by the collar and says,
"I don't know what's real or not."
"Your totem," Eames replies.
"I mean," says Arthur, "what is a dream, really, and why shouldn't it count when it all comes from the same source as the rest of you?"
"Ah, philosophy," says Eames.
And Arthur runs his fingers over Eames' throat and says, "This is real.")