It feels like a plunge, like a squeeze of a syringe pushing him out of his own body. He wakes in a messy room with the curtains drawn shut and the sound of honking taxis lining up outside on the street. He turns over in the bed, heaviness weighing down all his senses, and tries to come to grip with himself. He doesn't recognize the room, but that's not so unusual. Arthur by now is well acquainted with the concept of blurred out nights and hotels that string together like the images on a zoetrope, only distinguishable from each other by the small details -- the different placement of the soap samples, the taste of mint rather than chocolate.
This isn't a hotel though. At least, it's none that he's ever seen before. It looks like a person's apartment, what with the knickknacks on top of the dresser and the teetering stacks of papers dominating the shag carpet. Arthur doesn't remembering going home with anyone last night, but again that doesn't mean he didn't. Like anyone else, Arthur gets reckless after a victory, and incepting Robert Fischer was most definitely a victory.
That's the last thing he remembers. The airport after touching down. The satisfaction heating his blood, the smirk that he could barely keep off his mouth as Fischer passed him by in the baggage claim. The relief that for Dom the whole nightmare was over, and he could get back in the country to see his kids again. Not to mention they'd all made a shitload of money. It was the best Arthur had felt in years.
And now he's here in a stranger's apartment, stripped down to his boxers, with no taste of alcohol in his mouth and no watch to judge time by.
He makes it to the bathroom. He splashes water over his face. There's a razor on the edge of the sink. When he picks it up, he feels its weight perfectly.
In the living room there are bookshelves, two computer stations, and a tower of servers. Everything is washed with a cold blue light. He finally finds a clock that tells him it's four in the fucking morning. He finds a newspaper that tells him he's in Washington D.C. Arthur presses his fingers to his temples to ward off some of the impending headache. When he was twelve, his family lived in D.C for a few months so that his mother could be closer to her sister, but he hasn't been back other than brief jobs here and there. He doesn't understand why after the Fischer inception job, he'd immediately go to D.C.
He's not understanding much at all. So he goes for his totem, his hand sliding towards his pocket, but the boxers he's wearing has no pockets. He pads back to the bedroom, looking under the bed -- that's where he keeps his totem when there are no pockets and he's at someone else's -- but there's nothing there except old shoe boxes and dust balls. Panic begins to rise in Arthur's throat but he pushes it down and doggedly searches the apartment, overturning it piece by piece before the owner can return. He learns more about the place. Some of it feels familiar -- there are books that he loves on the shelves, and clothes that he would wear in the closet -- so maybe he's been here before and just can't remember. Maybe it's someone he knew in another place first who was then transposed here. Maybe this really is all a dream, and once he finds his totem he'll know for sure.
But he can't find it.
He can't find his totem.
The first person he calls is Dom. He can't find his cell phone either but there's a landline by the kitchen, and he punches in Dom's number by memory. The phone rings and rings, an explosive fear cradled in his hands, and when it picks up, there's a woman on the other end whose voice he recognizes.
Holy fuck, it's Mal.
"Hello? Hello?" she asks, beginning to sound annoyed, and Arthur may prize himself on his smoothness of mind in stressful situations, but this is so unsettling that even he hangs up, his breath caught up tangled and sharp. Well, this is obviously a dream and a painful one at that. There's a chance it could be a lucid dream, one of his own, but there's a greater chance that someone else is messing with him. Maybe Fischer figured it out on his way from the airport and he sent an extraction team after his enemies. Arthur goes to sit in front of the computer stations to think.
No. If the clock is right, it's only been a matter of twelve hours since they left the airport. That's not enough time for Fischer to realize that he's been incepted and put together a team. Teams cost money and fine-tuning. Though if it's not Fischer, it could be Nash trying to get revenge. Or any number of people Arthur's pissed off over the years; he hasn't made any claim to be the friendly neighbour of dream thievery. But this is all, of course, assuming that the clock is right. If this is a dream, there's no guarantee.
He thinks about calling Ariadne or Yusuf, but he doesn't know Yusuf that well and Ariadne is still such a rookie that if he's been tricked, there's no doubt she is too. So he casts his mind back to a number that he's only ever used once before, and it doesn't even make sense that he would still remember it, except, well, that one of the reasons why Arthur makes such a good point man is that he has a near photographic memory. He punches the numbers in a breathless rush, hating himself a bit for needing this particular person's help. But he just heard Mal, seemingly alive with Dom nowhere in sight to be responsible for her projection's existence, and her voice has stripped him of his pride. He never dreams of Mal on his own. It's not that he didn't love her because he did, with a sort of desperation that no word can pin down. But Arthur is different from Dom. His dreams are impersonal; they are a method of escapism.
The phone rings twelve times, but Eames doesn't pick up.
He doesn't have a gun on him, but he does have the razor.
Then he shakes his head.
He's not that desperate and he wants to find out the answers first.
By noon the next day, no one returns to the apartment, so Arthur figures that it's probably supposed to be his. That would explain the books and the clothes. He has to give credit to the researchers and the architects on this dream. The clothes aren't too hard to figure out -- anybody who's looked at him can see what he likes -- but he doesn't talk about his taste in books much, or even bring reading material to his jobs. So that probably required an extra bit of digging around. Someone of Eames' quality, most likely, if Arthur hadn't even noticed being investigated.
He finally manages to find his wallet. For some unfathomable reason, it's inside the microwave.
His driver's license says Arthur Janowitz. The last name is definitely not correct, and that sets him cold because why would a great recon team get his taste in Kafka and Borges right but mess up his last name?
He's in between debating whether he should stay inside or go out to look around -- he needs to find a gun, or some type of weapon that will, you know, kill projections and bad people -- when his phone rings.
"Arthur! It's Jack. Where are you?"
"Who is this?" he asks coldly.
"Aw come on, that's not funny," Jack says. "You were supposed to be in at work at least three hours ago. If you skip anymore, I can't cover for you, dude. There's only so many grandma's funerals I can make up for you."
"And where do I work?" Arthur asks.
"Jesus fucking Christ, Art, I know you think you're like an ironic hipster shit, but Boss Lady Lilawati's starting to eye your cubicle and shit, she's looking at me right now. I gotta go." Jack hangs up. Arthur blinks at the phone and then decides, well, he's not going to get answers staying in his apartment the whole time. He might as well play their game. So he digs into his wallet until he finds his business card -- because Arthur knows himself just that well, dreaming or not; he knows that he never travels anywhere without a business card. It has his name, his work number, and it also says Pangaea Games and games designer.
What the what now? He's a video game designer? Well, that might explain the two computers and the servers. The apartment does look like the home of someone tech-oriented. Which doesn't make much sense either. Arthur's no Luddite. He knows how to navigate programs and dig out information from even the most stubborn of encrypted sources, but it's just something he does for his job. It's not the job itself.
He boots up one of the computers and googles Pangaea Games. Thank god this dream includes Google. It's nice to see there are still some professional standards in dream extraction.
When he arrives at the D.C branch of Pangaea Games, there's a woman who accosts him in the hallway and says sweetly, "I'm sorry your grandmother died of prostate cancer."
There's a man standing behind her by the water cooler looking guilty. That must be Jack.
"It was awful," Arthur said sadly. "We were all very sorry to see her go."
"Indeed," says the woman. "I'm taking it off your pay check. So get back to work. Headshot 4 won't design itself, you know, and there's no way I can leave Jack in charge of it without coming back and finding the game has turned into some kind of panty-raiding adventure."
"That's not fair, Lilawati," Jack says. "It wouldn't be an adventure. It'd be a holy experience."
Lilawati flips him off as she goes back to her office.
"So," Jack says, sidling up to Arthur. He's wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Chaotic evil means never having to say you're sorry. "Did you get laid last night? Is that why you were too out of it to come into work this morning?" He pauses and adds wistfully, "Was she hot?" Arthur nods absently as he gazes around the row of cubicles for his own. Oh look. It has his name on it. How convenient.
He slides into his chair as Jack gets distracted by his sudden need to pee. There's a cork board by his computer that he can barely recognize as a cork board because it's so full of sketches and drawings. He peers at them. Most are of brawny men and scantily clad women. Character designs probably. He recognizes his own handwriting making notes on each one, and there's an even larger board at the end of the room where presumably the big picture material goes.
He drums his fingers on the table. Right. What to do now. Jack and Lilawati are no doubt actors; their facial expressions and voice nuances seem too complex for them to be projections, though Arthur could be wrong about that. He's seem some great projections before. He watches as Jack ambles out of the washroom and goes back to his own cubicle. He watches Lilawati on the phone through the glass screen of her office; she gesticulates wildly as she talks.
Arthur's thinking about how best to corner them and wring some answers out of them when a shadow falls over his lap and he looks up to see
There are two options here. Either Eames is a projection and/or forgery, or he's real and sharing Arthur's dream. Arthur can't read either one into the way Eames smiles at him, open and affectionate. It's nothing like how Eames has ever smiled at him in real life, which makes Arthur's brain shift towards the projection end of the scale, except that it's an awfully good projection. He may not have firsthand knowledge but the smile is exactly how he has seen Eames smile at other people before, and this Eames smells right, and looks right, down to the small imperfections of skin and hair.
How Arthur knows the minuscule details of Eames' physique is not something he really wants to think about right now. Suffice to say that there was a time in Johannesburg with too much wine and too much curiosity on Arthur's part to follow the line of Eames' sweat down his chest. But that was five years ago.
If Eames is real and sharing this dream, he's an annoyingly relaxed sharer. He comes into Arthur's cubicle and perches on the edge of Arthur's desk, shoving aside the pens and drawings like he knows he's more important than they are. "You've got something on your face," he says, and he reaches out a long finger to rub Arthur's cheek. Arthur has to struggle not to recoil out of shock.
"There. It's gone now," Eames laughs. "Seriously, Arthur. You may dress fancier than any gaming geek I've ever known, but then you go and forget to wipe toast crumbs off your face, and I wonder about you. I really do."
"What are you doing around here?" Arthur asks. There are probably better ways to phrase that question but his patience for the day is running low, and his skin is still burning from where Eames touched him oh so briefly.
"Other than pick up after you?" Eames says. "Here. I've brought you the dialogue options for the fourth act that you wanted." He slides a folder across the desk. "I added more specificity, just like you asked."
Arthur picks up the folder and rifles through it without really looking. "Okay," he says.
Eames peers at him. "Jack was right. You don't look so hot. Were you up all night working on that game of yours again?"
"Please. A monkey trying to fuck a giraffe could design Headshot 4. You're wasted here. We all are. No, I mean your other project, the one you're trying to sell to the big guys upstairs. Inception, right?"
Arthur takes a deep breath and wooshes it out again.
"It's a clever idea," Eames continues, picking up a pencil and twirling it between his fingers. Arthur watches the movement with a ball of tension in his stomach. Wait it out, he tells himself. Wait it out and see what he wants. "Stealing ideas in dreams, the whole shared unconsciousness. Kind of like Jung, you know? And yes," he adds, even though Arthur didn't ask, "I know Jung. I'm not a total yokel. I have an English degree and everything, even if it's not from an Ivy League like you." He sounds amused but also slightly defensive, and apparently in this dream Arthur is an asshole who goes around making fun of people's education credentials.
In real life, Arthur never went to college. He never even finished high school. His mom was sick and he didn't have the luxury of kicking it around for four years while she died in pieces at home. The day she died was the day he got blindingly drunk, rode aimlessly on the subway, and finally puked on a woman's shoes. The woman turned out to be Mal, who took him home and made him some hot tea.
That this dream gets it wrong makes him angry. He doesn't care about his last name or what he does between nine and five, but that whoever created this tried to erase his history -- he sees red for a minute. His hands clutch the seam of his pants.
"Right," says Eames, sliding off the desk. "Try to get that stick out of your arse, at least for today. We've got a lot of work to do if we want to finish the pre-production report by Tuesday."
He moves to leave, but Arthur stops him. He doesn't know why he does it, but despite the obvious falseness of this Eames, he's still the most recognizable thing Arthur has found yet. "Wait," Arthur says. He clears his throat and tries to smile. He's not sure if it comes across as demented as he feels it is. "My other game, this inception thing, do you mind if I bounce a few ideas off you?"
"Strictly speaking, it's not part of my work contract, darling," Eames says. "I'm here for Headshot 4 and Headshot 4 only."
"Please," Arthur says. "I could buy you a coffee."
Eames' eyes crinkle around the corners. "Oh la la. In that case, sure. We'll meet up after work."
There's a coffee shop down the corner. It's a Starbucks. Arthur hesitates and then decides that he's not going to live up to the dream and be a pretentious hipster shit, so he orders a cappuccino and finds a seat at the back tucked beside the laptop-clacking hopeful novelists. Eames follows him with a coffee, all black. He's wearing a leather jacket that does awful things to Arthur's nerves, but Arthur doesn't let that on. He keeps his expression calm as he sips his drink and regards Eames critically.
"As dates go, I don't think you're supposed to be looking at me like you're trying to size me up for dinner," Eames says. "At least, not this early in the night."
"Are you really a writer?" Arthur asks.
"Is that supposed to be a comment on the quality of my work?"
"No," Arthur says. He smooths his voice out. Tries to smile again. "I don't know what I've said to you before--"
"Okay, so I do know," Arthur lies, playing along. "But I was an ass, okay? I was a fucking big ass with a lot of assness in my ass. But if we're going to work on this...project," he adds gingerly, "I want us to get along. I don't want us to be snapping at each other all the time. You're an important member of the team."
"Did you go to a Zen retreat while you were missing this morning?" Eames asks. "Did you sit under a waterfall, meditate, and discover your feelings? Sparkly text included?"
"Fuck you," Arthur says, but laughs.
Eames shows his teeth when he smiles. "If we're going to be all honest here -- and let me tell you how much it hurts for me to be honest; all writers are liars and all that -- I'll say that I've always liked you, Arthur. Even when you were being an arse. You're not bad in bed either."
Arthur chokes on his cappuccino.
"This was before I was married, of course."
"You're married?" Arthur asks disbelievingly.
"And you, love, are being purposely obtuse. You even gave me a wedding present, remember? It was that awful toaster that never even worked. Typical, I thought. But that was when I was all bitter about you never calling me back. It's water under the bridge now, right?" Eames finishes his coffee. "So, your game. You wanted to talk about it?"
"Er, yes," Arthur says, still trying to wrap his mind around Eames and married and being bitter about Arthur never calling him back. "I was going over the character designs today, and I was wondering if you could make any suggestions. Because you're a writer. A good one, I mean."
"I thought your old idea was pretty decent. Having the team composed of an extractor, a point man, a forger, an architect, and a chemist. Five-person teams work well in games. You did mention something about a tourist though."
"For the tutorial," Arthur says, and surprises himself with how easily the explanation comes. "I was thinking about having a character that the player could act through the tutorial, and then have the character retire into an NPC. Maybe become the person who gives quests."
"It seems like you have it all figured out. What's the problem then?"
-- and this is the point where Arthur has to make a decision about how much he wants to say and how much he wants to keep to himself; this is the point where he needs to start planning out his next move if he ever wants to escape.
So he looks Eames in the eye and says, as truthfully as he ever can, "I'm dreaming right now, aren't I?"
Eames laughs. "What? Are you messing around with me, Arthur? Is this some kind of in-game joke?"
"No, I'm dreaming right now," Arthur says, and it's ludicrous that they're having this discussion in a Starbucks of all places while Katy Perry is being piped over the speakers, but he forges on. "This is all a dream. You're either not real or, more likely, an extremely talented forger that someone has hired to impersonate Eames. Who are you, really? Are you Blume? Chang? DiAngelo? You must be someone I've heard of before in the business."
"You really need to get more sleep," Eames says. He reaches out to feel Arthur's forehead but Arthur scoots back and pins him with a hard stare.
"I'm not joking," he says.
Eames' hand falls to his side. "Okay then."
"Consider this a fair warning," Arthur says, each word as precise as an avalanche. "I am going to leave and find a gun dealer. I am going to purchase a pistol and a cartridge of bullets. I am going to shoot myself."
"Arthur," Eames says.
"Whatever information you wanted from me, I hope it was worth it," he says, and gets up to leave.
Eames catches up with him halfway down the street.
"Is this a cry for help?" he asks harshly, grabbing Arthur by the jacket and spinning him around. He's physically stronger than Arthur, always has been. "Is this the part where you want me to break down and cry about how I've always loved you and that you broke my heart?"
"It's not always about you, Eames," Arthur says coolly.
"Bullshit," Eames says. "Let me tell you something. You don't get to complain about how sad you are and how obsessed you're becoming with your stupid little game as if it's better than facing reality, because the truth is, you fucked it up, Arthur. You did, not me."
Arthur thinks about Johannesburg, about his tongue on Eames' tattoos, about the groan he tore from Eames' throat, and about fumbling for his shoes in the morning while Eames slept on. There's no way that anyone can know about that. Probably it's just a guess. Maybe someone somewhere saw the way he looked at Eames when he thought no one was looking. Or maybe it's a manifestation of his own subconscious, and that disgusts him, and wearies him, and makes him want to punch something very hard.
Eames is there, angry and gorgeous and untouchable. So he punches him.
The blood on Eames' mouth makes him feel alive.
"Fuck, you're a bastard," Eames says, and he pulls Arthur into an alleyway and kisses him. It's not real. Arthur is probably actually kissing DiAngelo or Chang, but it feels like Eames felt that night with the too much wine and curiosity. Eames tastes like blood and coffee, and also a bit like ink -- like he was chewing his pens all day, what a nasty habit -- and Arthur shoves his hips against Eames' provocatively and thinks about how it doesn't matter. It's never going to be real anyway, and even in a dream things can be good. He doesn't have to torture himself.
The alley may be fairly secluded and the sun may be setting, casting everything into shadow, but they're still in a public place. Arthur doesn't care. He falls on his knees and undoes the cool metal of Eames' belt, pressing his mouth afterwards to the warmth of Eames' skin and balls. Eames makes that groan for him, just right, and Arthur licks his lips before sliding onto Eames' cock. It's fast, sudden, and Eames bucks reflexively, pushing himself deeper and deeper. Arthur takes him without question. He wants to wring Eames of everything he's got. He wants to plunder him and leave him a sobbing, wrecked mess. If not this time, then the next time.
He has a condom in his wallet. Thank you, dream. He lets Eames fuck him over a crate, his legs in the air, his hair falling into his eyes like a disaster in the making. It's the dirtiest thing Arthur has ever done. There's pigeon shit on the ground and the smell of smoke that clings to his clothes, and there's a subway station nearby that rumbles through him, adding an extra touch of sensation. Arthur holds onto the wood until his fingers get splinters, hanging his head to his chest while Eames thrusts into him roughly, without grace or polish.
It's just like in Johannesburg.
"This isn't real?" Eames hisses into his ear as he fucks Arthur mercilessly. "Fuck you, fuck this, this is real."
Arthur comes at the same moment the subway train rushes by them, and he gasps out his pleasure into the sensitized skin of his arm. There's a swelling in his chest that feels almost like sorrow. Eames helps him up, hands him a tissue that's in his pocket, and they put themselves back together again.
"Are you waiting for the train?" Eames asks, jerking his head in the general direction of the subway station.
"Yeah," Arthur says. "I guess I am."
Eames' expression is shuttered. He puts his hands in his pockets. "So that was a mistake."
Arthur says nothing. He's still sore so he limps as he walks away.
Eames calls him after dinner.
"Now who's the one who can't let go?" Arthur asks. He's sitting at his computer idly checking his bookmarks, and it turns out that he's the maintainer of a major torrent search engine. Once a thief, always a thief, even if he's become a computer geek in the meantime. This amuses him.
"Look," Eames says. "I wouldn't call you if you didn't freak me out so much today."
"Aw, is sex that scary?" Arthur asks. "Did you want me to hold your hand and give you a gold sticker afterwards? Maybe have some parent-teacher conferences about your performance?"
"Your condescension, as always, is appreciated," Eames snaps, and Arthur's sense of humour fades just like that. He clicks on a link on his browser, and then another.
He says, "You know, in Greek mythology--"
"I thought we discussed this trying not to be so pretentious thing."
"In Greek mythology," Arthur continues, "in The Odyssey, there's this image of these two gates. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, has a dream in which there is a gate of horn and a gate of ivory. True dreams pass through the gate of horn. False dreams pass through the gate of ivory. I've always rather liked that image, that you can just sort dreams into these categories and never will the categories mix or get confused. It's always clear which dream goes through which gate. What do you think?"
"I think you're nutters," Eames says. "Absolutely barking mad."
"The gates of horn and ivory are a play of words, of course, that can't be fully translated into English." Arthur clicks the site and smiles. "My first girlfriend was Greek. Did your research ever turn up that? My first boyfriend was too. They were siblings. It was kind of awkward for a while." He pauses. "In The Aeneid, when Aeneas returns from the underworld, he passes through the gate of ivory. No one knows why."
"Yes, wonderful, you know your ancient dead heroes," Eames says. "Now let's talk about you and your sudden desire to blow your brains out."
"Let's talk," Arthur agrees.
As dreams go, it's actually not a bad one. Whoever made it must have known exactly how to seduce Arthur, because they created an Eames who is playful and abrasive and teasing and solemn by turns, and Arthur feels pulled into his orbit like a piece of shrapnel. He lets Eames think that he's about to jump off a building out of despair, and when Eames comes over to check on him like the decent guy he is, he and Arthur fuck. Arthur licks Eames' wedding band, back to front, and Eames gets a look that's dark and malevolent, but Arthur wants it all the same. He wants this particular lie, wants to own it and defeat it and cradle it in his palm.
Except one day, as Eames is fucking him over his kitchen table and the plates are rattling dangerously, Eames says, "I'm going to tell you how this is real."
"Mmm?" Arthur asks, grunting as he holds onto Eames for balance.
"You told me this once," Eames pants. "You said you never told anyone else. When your mother was sick, she used to get confused. She would mistake you for your father. She would scream every time you tried to touch her. You said it was the worst moment of your life."
-- and this is the point where Arthur's entire body clenches, not out of want or pleasure, but because he's never told Eames that. He's never told anybody that. He's never written it down or whispered it into the dark. There's never been anybody who knew, or was present at the time to know, because when Arthur's mom died, it was just the two of them. They couldn't afford doctors or medicine; they were all each other had in the world. And it has never seeped into any of Arthur's projections before. He's better trained than that.
Arthur feels sick. He shoves Eames off of him, ignoring Eames' protest, and he stumbles to the sink where he dry heaves, his back aching and his throat itching.
Eames comes up to him and touches his jaw gently. "Your name is Arthur Janowitz. You are 29 years old. You were born in Colorado. Your dad was an asshole who left when you were in the fifth grade, but you and your mom were close, all the way up until when she died of cancer. You were at MIT then, studying computer programming. Your first job after graduation was at Microsoft, but you quit to design games. Mostly other people's, but you hope to make your own one day. You also suffer from extremely vivid dreams that have you questioning reality. You used to see a therapist for it but you stopped because you didn't think it did any good. That's where you got your idea for the dream inception game. Because that's what your life is like, Arthur, like one waking dream. But it's real."
He slides his hand to Arthur's cheek. "Here's another truth for you. I would have loved you and helped you, but you didn't want me to."
"I want you to get out," Arthur says. "Right now."
It's the little things.
It's how Arthur knows how to program like a mofo.
It's how he knows the language of video games despite having never played one before.
It's how he knows hows how to draw, even though he failed art class in high school, which he didn't even think was possible. Twice.
It's how he doesn't remember how to speak Spanish or Hindi anymore.
It's how he has a scar on his left thigh now.
It's how when he goes out walking, he catches glimpses of familiarity that strikes the breath from his chest -- the feeling of I have been here before and I remember. And despite himself, he's starting to think that he does.
Eames doesn't obey his order. He comes back. He visits him during the evenings, riding up to Arthur's apartment in his motorcycle and leather jacket. He strides up the stairs, unlocks the door with the key that Arthur's given him, and he kisses Arthur against the badly painted walls, his hand always stealing to Arthur's palm as if inspecting Arthur's lack of gun, knife, or other lethal weapon. Arthur asks about his wife exactly once, and Eames says, "She's in London right now on a business trip." He doesn't talk about it further, but Arthur has a vague memory, now open like a broken dam, of smiling wedding photos and a tender kiss. He's sure that Eames loves his wife, and it's a different kind of love from how he loves Arthur.
On the nights when he comes over, Eames cooks for Arthur. He makes pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches, simple foods that he looks slightly embarrassed about until Arthur tells him that it's what his mom used to make, okay, and he loves them. They eat in front of the TV, watching sports silently, and Arthur does the dishes before making the executive decision to straddle Eames on the couch and take off all their clothes.
It's not much, but it's all right. Arthur is trying to learn how to fit into his new skin. Some days he's better at it than others.
What he regrets most, however, is that there's no way to capture a dream. Given time, he'll forget what Dom and Mal and Ariadne and even Yusuf and Saito looked like. He'll forget their little tics and their varied expressions. Some days he already struggles with the memory, and here is where his photographic abilities fail him, because dreams work on a different logic, it seems, than his social security number or which brand of shaving cream is Eames' favourite.
Arthur looks at his conceptual drawings for his game, fiddles with them until they're right, and then he scribbles the names down.
Point Man: Arthur
He thinks about writing Shade: Mal, but he doesn't want to. In this life, Mal lives.
And he might have learned to live in this way entirely. Maybe. Perhaps. If he'd tried harder or wanted it more, but Arthur has been called a stubborn bastard by many people in his life, starting with his father, and that never changes. One day after Eames calls him to say that he can't come over tonight because his wife is back from her trip, and the bosses upstairs say they might be interested in the inception game but not with Ariadne because female characters don't sell, and Arthur tries to make soup but burns his hand -- and he's never done that before; he's never hurt himself while cooking, Jesus Christ --, the air inside his lungs seems to compress, leaving him a stranger in a strange land. And he's always going to be that stranger, he thinks. He's always going to wake up in the mornings and reach for his totem.
He types a quick email to Eames, stripping it of sentimentality because he doesn't want to do that to Eames, to leave him with the long lost ghost of a fuck buddy past. Then he turns off his cell phone and grabs his coat where it hangs over his chair. He tugs it on. It's autumn. The leaves outside are mid-colour change, and everything is dry and sharp and utterly beautiful.
And for the first time in a long while, Arthur is at peace with himself. He is at peace and in love.
-- and the kids passing him on their bikes
-- and the shoppers tugging on their grocery bags
-- and the peeled paint of the store that never closes
-- and the smell of BBQ from the porch one over
-- and the buskers playing for spare change like their hearts are about to break
Arthur empties his wallet for the buskers. "Hey, thanks!" one of them says, and she looks young and has a neckerchief, and he immediately thinks of Ariadne.
"No problem," he smiles.
And he walks past them, stepping nimbly into the subway station, where he doesn't come out.
He's in Johannesburg.
"Mmggh," Eames says, turning over in the bed beside him, his hand brushing the inside of Arthur's thigh where there are bite marks from the night before. Their clothes are strewn all over the floor alongside the wine bottles, and there's plenty of opportunity for Arthur to sneak out right now if he should want to. He looks down at Eames, whose mouth is slightly agape and snoring, and then at the brightly lit windows.
Eames makes another sound and cracks one eye open slowly.
"Good morning," Arthur says, and stays.