He wakes up alone, and he knows that he's alone, and he knows that he isn't supposed to be alone, and that's all. He pats himself down, his soaked-through suit clinging to his thighs, the grit of sand and salt rich on his lips, and sighs.
There is a red die in his pocket, and a knife tucked into the back of his pants, and a note in his hand, paper folded and folded and folded again.
I will find you, it says.
He thinks about pencils until one appears, freshly sharpened, bite marks in clustered grooves around the eraser. He doesn't know who he's writing to, why the paper isn't wet, where the pencil came from, what he's doing here, but he thinks he can remember being the kind of man who trusted his instincts.
He writes, Not if I find you first, and lets the scrap drift off on the wind that has suddenly picked up.
The sun moves wrong.
He watches, splayed in the sand, fingers beating a pulse into the ever-shifting surface. It dances haphazardly across the sky, east and west and north and south, like it's looking for something. He stares right at it, and voices whose origins he can't quite recall play a chorus in the back of his mind, telling him not to.
His eyes never tire. He can't remember blinking.
It's enough, though, it's enough, eventually he's had enough, and he thinks darkness, and darkness falls. There is no preamble to it, no buildup, just sudden stars winking at him in a sable sky, and a moon.
It is dark, and then it is light again.
Darkness, he thinks. It is dark, and then it is light. Darkness, he thinks, and it is dark, and then it is light, and he repeats this pattern for some time, until it's going too quickly, until it's a game, and he's laughing, because somewhere, somewhere, someone else is here. Someone is arguing.
A wine bottle washes up on the shore. There is a piece of paper folded and folded and folded again, tucked inside.
Darling, it says.
He builds a boat.
He forgets the wind sometimes, and when he forgets the wind the boat doesn't move, and when the boat doesn't move he thinks about diving into the ocean and failing to surface. He misses his beach and his sand and something else, something he can't put his finger on. He wants to find it. He wants to know what it is he wants to find.
He knows he is alone, and that he is not supposed to be alone, and that someone else is here. He knows he had a name, once. He knows he is looking for something.
He learns to remember the wind without remembering the wind, learns to make it come without thinking of it, learns to focus without focusing. He stretches out against the mast and lets it run across him, the relentless push of it, sharp and salt-strung. His knife becomes a compass becomes a rudder becomes a dictionary, and he flips from page to page, seeking.
(Arthur (ˈɑːθə) -n
masc. proper name, from M.L. Arthurus/Arturus, from Welsh arth "bear," cognate with Gk. arktos, L. ursus (see Arctic). Arthurian "pertaining to the series of tales of British King Arthur and his knights", is first attested 1853.)
Arthur, he thinks. He rips the page, leaving ragged edges, and finds the wine bottle in the rigging.
You? he writes, a messy scrawl, sheathed like a dagger between the typeset. He folds it and folds it again, slips it into the bottleneck, sends it away on the waves.
It returns, the bottle, looking worse for the wear, some leagues later. Inside the definition remains but the header is gone, the name ripped clean, like it was needed elsewhere.
You, I think, is written along the margins, tucked into the whitespace like a life line. It hurts, looking at it, hurts somewhere deep and forgotten in the recesses of his chest--the I think, sharp and stagnant, drawing on an uncertainty that he'd thought was his and his alone.
Me, then, he decides. The dictionary is a knife again, smooth and familiar under his palm, and he carves the word (A-R-T-H-U-R) into the ship mast, relishing the sound of it.
He won't forget.
He makes land.
There is a jungle, no sand anywhere, lush and verdant. It rises up out of the sea, beautiful in a sharp, distant way, and it stretches as far as Arthur can think to look for it.
He packs up the ship, folds it and folds it and folds it again, until it is small enough to fit in his pocket. It nestles there, his named carved into the mast, and he feels something else, something square and hard, smooth edges, but he doesn't both to check what it is.
He walks, and sometimes he makes the sky flicker, thinks darkness just to watch the light flood back, just to remind himself. Leaving the ocean had meant leaving the wine bottle, after all--there'd been no point carrying it with him, though he has kept the note (You, I think) wrapped in amongst the sails of the tiny ship. He makes the sky flicker and remembers that he is Arthur, that he is alone, that he is not supposed to be alone, that there is someone else here, that he is looking for something.
He walks, and as he walks the trees get taller, and the leaves get brighter, and there are flowers now, and animals. He thinks that this is like the wind--that he is doing it, that he has learned to do it without paying attention at all--and he smiles.
He walks, and then there is a bird, so he stops.
It's beautiful, the bird, and that's what gives him pause at first--he is not used to so many colors on one creature, so much bright and vivid at once. It is beautiful and it is insistent, far closer to him than the animals normal get. It swoops down to land on a branch, eye-level with him, fierce gaze boring holes into his head.
He stretches his palm out, riding on instinct, and the bird lets out a high pitched caw and drops a poker chip into his hand.
He stares at it. There is panic welling in his chest, panic and terror and something like rage, because this--this isn't wrong like the sun is wrong, this isn't wrong like the constant quiet. This is wrong, deep in his soul I-shouldn't-have-this wrong, wrong in a way he can't begin to comprehend.
He reaches into his pocket, because he thinks there's something in there, something to offer in recompense, something that will ease this ache. It's empty but for his shrunken ship, and he pulls it out and stares at it, aghast.
There is supposed to be something else, he thinks. He opens his mouth to tell the bird this, but his voice is rough, uncooperative from lack of use, and he coughs and coughs again.
A small red die falls out of his mouth and into his outstretched palm, landing easily between the poker chip and the ship, and he blinks at it, stunned.
He crouches, muscle memory a stronger pull than he'd have anticipated. He crouches and he rolls the die again and again against the the earth and it lands on every number but three--one two four five six one two four five six. And he knows that means it's broken, but he doesn't know how he knows, and he can't send the bird away with something broken.
"Take it back," he says, and his voice is unfamiliar to his own ears. "Take it back," and he tries to press the poker chip into those outstretched talons, but the bird snaps at his hands and shies away.
"Take it back," he pleads, heartstopping strungout desperate because he can't give away the ship, because the ship holds his name, and he can't forget. He can't give away the ship and the die is not enough but it's all the bird seems to want, and he doesn't think he's supposed to let it go but he knows he has to give up something, knows this poker chip is not his, knows he has stolen someone else's tether.
He hands over the die and he watches the bird fly away and he's terrified and he's furious and his grip goes white-knuckled on the poker chip and the clear blue sky blackens, fills with clouds.
He walks, and sometime later he thinks he hears a plaintive caw from miles and miles away, and the sky open to the rain.
His hair is plastered to his forehead and he misses the ocean, hates this slick-clean saltless flavor, but he's not cold. He's not cold, can't even remember, not really, what cold means--it's a nonsense word, a descriptor of a sensation that means nothing at all. But he is wet, he's soaking wet, and then suddenly he's wearing a jacket he wasn't wearing before.
It's a faint greenish color, and the material is thick and strange under his fingers, and it doesn't fit him right. But when he takes it off he's wet in seconds, and when he has it on, he's dry.
He forges on.
It rains, for days or weeks or years, because time isn't something he remembers properly, not here. It rains and the jungle grows wildly under it, until it's not beautiful anymore but garish, overwhelming, and he walks. He walks until he finds a clearing and through the clearing he can see the faint outlines of mountains and he's not tired but he stops and sits, lays flat on his back across the ground and stares up to where the clouds are stirring, violent, strange.
He watches, and eventually they begin to look like people.
Fuck, fuck, it's collapsing, says the first cloud.
(He knows clouds shouldn't talk)
Go back up, darling, save yourself, says the second cloud.
(But he can't quite look away)
It's your dream, I'm not fucking leaving you down here, says the first cloud.
(And it all sounds so familiar)
Arthur, Arthur, don't you dare, I swear to god, Arthur, says the second cloud.
(And isn't that a coincidence, that he and a cloud should share a name?)
You asshole, says the first cloud, the Arthur-cloud, what do you think I am?
And the second cloud, the second cloud reaches out, cumulonimbus arms scrabbling against the storm-sky, and it says I will find you, I will fucking find you.
Not if I find you first, says the first cloud, and dissipates, and the storm clears, and Arthur walks on.
The mountains loom closer and closer and then, suddenly, the jungle is gone, falling away, and he is in a valley. He is in a valley and there are mountains all around him, snow-peaked, insurmountable.
In the center of the valley there is a tree, just one. It's massive, its branches stretching out into oblivion, and he is drawn to it almost unconsciously.
He extends a hand when he reaches it, touches the wide, worn trunk, and discovers it is made of thousands upon thousands of leather-bound notebooks.
He selects one at random and flips it open.
Cobb, it says, written in his own hand, Cobb, Cobb, Cobb, a hundred, a thousand iterations of it. It says Cobb, every page says Cobb, and he feels a sudden spike of sharp revulsion and selects another.
Cobb, it says, just like the first, and he shreds it in his hands, unthinking, blind. He rips it to pieces and checks the next one--Cobb--rips it to pieces and checks the next one--Cobb--and there is a pile of shredded paper at his feet and the tree is listing the the side and still he's tearing, he's checking and he's checking and then suddenly, blissfully, there is a new word, there is something else.
It is a relief, until he looks again and realizes it says Mal.
And he doesn't know what these words mean, doesn't know who these words mean. He knows that he is Arthur, that he is alone, that he is not supposed to be alone, that there is someone else here, that he is looking for something, but he doesn't know what these books are trying to tell him, cannot seem to find the point. But it's terrible, whatever it is it's terrible, and the pages at his feet had said Cobb before but now they all say Mal and every book says Mal and all he can think is Mal.
The knife is in his hand, suddenly, he'd forgotten about the knife but it's in his hand and he's slashing at the tree and it's shaking and it's falling and all around is Mal and he hasn't felt trapped, not this whole time, not until right now. He tears, feral, violent, tears at the tree until it is in pieces, until leather and ink and paper are drifting on the wind and carrying her name along to parts unknown and there is only one notebook left, just one, sitting in front of him.
He picks it up, and it's heavier than the others, and every page is blank except the last one.
Eames, it says, and only that.
"Eames," he whispers. He still doesn't quite recognize his voice and his throat is so dry he can hardly speak and it is the first time, the first time he thinks about what it would be to drink, to eat.
"Eames," he says, and it's louder, it's louder but it's not loud enough, because this is important. He doesn't know why but this is important, like his name carved on the mast of his shrunken ship, like the poker chip wedged between his fingers, like the torn dictionary page he'd swallowed, swallowed down so he couldn't lose it, couldn't let it go.
"EAMES," he shouts, and it sails into the void, and then it comes back.
Eames, hisses the echo, Eames, Eames, Eames, and it's torture, it's torture, it should have stopped but it won't stop and it's louder and louder and it doesn't even sound like him anymore and he can't escape and he has to escape and the only way to go is up.
He choses a mountain, and climbs.
He nearly dies.
He nearly dies, a hundred times, and it's strange, because he's not afraid of dying. His feet slip and he doesn't even scrabble for purchase, just slides down the smooth rock-face and he thinks he's supposed to fall, thinks he needs to fall, because the red die wouldn't land on three. And that's a silly reason for death but it's his reason, he knows it's his reason, and then always at the last second he remembers that he is looking for something and catches himself.
He nearly dies, but he doesn't quite manage it, and when he makes it to the top of the mountain he is free of the echo and the clouds and the rain and the jungle and the sand and the ocean, and it is silent, but it is a good silence.
In the distance, there is another mountain. It is on level with his, rising up, a straight shot, and he watches it until everything else fall away. He thinks--he thinks--he can see the figure of a man atop it, staring back at him.
Arthur raises his hands, and the bridge throws itself out of the ground to span the distance between them, and he walks.
He meets the man halfway across it, miles and leagues in the air, and does not know him. He does not know this man, bearded and haggard, in clothes as shredded as his own must be--doesn't know this man and knows him implicitly and the joy is thick, palpable, on his tongue.
He knows that he is Arthur, that he is not alone, that he was never supposed to be alone, that there was someone else here, that he has found what he was looking for, and another thing.
"Eames," he says.
Relief breaks over the man's face, sweet and sudden, all encompassing.
"Oh," he rasps, broken, "yes, that's it. Been right on the tip of my tongue."
It is the saddest thing Arthur has ever heard, and it's made all the worse when he reaches up a tentative hand and Arthur sees his own name imprinted there, in the palm, the typeset reminiscent of the dictionary he'd had so long ago. Like he's carried it so long the ink has bled into his flesh and he didn't know his own name and--
"Arthur?" he says, and he touches Arthur's face, and there is a fog that is clearing that he hadn't even known was there.
"I wouldn't let you go alone," Arthur says. "I--I think, I think I wouldn't let you go alone--"
"I was so angry," says the man, and he's Eames, this is Eames, Arthur knows that he is Arthur and this is Eames. "I was so angry, but I knew--I knew I was looking for you."
"I thought I was looking for you," Arthur says, and Eames smiles.
"You would," he murmurs, and it is so clear, so obvious, now.
"Eames," Arthur says, because for all that is clear there are things he doesn't know, but he knows this, has known this all along, "Eames, Eames, you're Eames," and Eames shudders and closes his eyes and hauls Arthur forward, kisses him hard enough to bruise.
And Arthur's hands are scrabbling, his fingernails raking down Eames' arms and he might be drawing blood the way Eames is summoning it up under his grip and this is real, and this is real, and this is not real.
"There were," Eames gasps, "there were all these people, and they wouldn't talk to me, but there were people everywhere, and I felt like I'd been them, like I'd worn their faces--"
"We have to get out of here," Arthur says, "Eames, we have to get out of here, we've been here too long, we have to--"
"How do we do it?" Eames says, and his eyes are wild. Arthur remembers the first cloud (It's your dream, I'm not fucking leaving you down here), remembers the red die that wouldn't land on three, the poker chip still wedged between his fingers, the ship with his name carved into the mast.
"We jump," says Arthur. "We have to jump."
"There were so many people," Eames says, and his eyes aren't wild anymore; they're unfocused, distant, and it's frightening, because now Arthur knows why he is frightened. "There were so many people, Arthur, but none of them would talk to me and none of them were the person I was looking for and I think--I think I made them--"
"Eames," says Arthur, "Eames, we jump. We have to jump. We have to go back."
And Arthur smiles, because this is a question he can answer, because this he has always known.
"Somewhere else," he says.
Eames stares at him for a moment, focused, present, hereherehere and Arthur takes his hand. The poker chip is in his palm now and he feels the squared edges of the red die pressing against it and he takes a deep breath and Eames takes a deep breath and--
They step off the edge together, and fall.