Washington DC. April, 1953
Dressed in cheap working-man’s garb – jeans, a wool fisherman’s hat, a peacoat, boots - the man was loitering outside the men’s toilets on the Mall, a cigarette caught in his lips. Anyone passing by would presume he was a hustler, one of dozens that skulked around the alleys and toilets on Friday nights. Arthur saw him as he was stepping out of a taxi, on his way to cocktail hour at his local bar. Their eyes met from across the street.
The man turned slowly, with purpose, and went into the public bathroom. Arthur checked to see if anyone was watching him – nothing like being a CIA agent to spark one’s sense of paranoia – and then followed him.
Inside the bathroom, the air was damp and cool. Arthur wrinkled his nose at the smell.
“I like the new glasses,” a familiar voice spoke from behind him. The man was leaning against the wall, a cocky grin on his face. “Hornrims suit you.”
“All the talented things you could be doing with that mouth,” Arthur said stepping closer, “and you’re using it to compliment my glasses?”
The look of surprise on Eames’ face made Arthur laugh.
“Nice getup, by the way. Real subtle,” Arthur said, or tried to, but Eames had pinned him against the damp, mildewy wall and was trying to kiss the breath out of him.
“We all do what we must to get by,” Eames said, between heated kisses.
“We can’t do this here,” Arthur said, pushing him away, hating that there was a blush on his cheeks. “Come on.”
The apartment was shit – it was Arthur’s secondary apartment, with a false name on the lease and the rent paid in cash, because even a spook needed to keep secrets from his employers – and Eames’ surprise showed on his face.
“Would have expected something more posh,” he said. Posh. English accents did terrible things to Arthur’s libido, and had even before he met Eames.
“It’s on the government’s dime, of course it’s cheap,” Arthur said, then wondered why he was wasting his breath explaining.
Arthur shut him up with a thumb on his lip, the skin plump and slick under his touch. Eames leaned into the touch, letting his eyes slip closed, tongue darting out to lick at the pad of Arthur’s finger. Arthur let his hand migrate downwards, his thumbnail pressing the skin of Eames’ chin and throat, rasping against stubble, then further down, popping open the buttons on the peacoat.
Eames’ eyes were still closed. Arthur kept his open, peering over the rims of his glasses, as he pushed Eames’ coat off and onto the floor, revealing hard planes of muscle under a cheap cotton shirt.
Arthur stepped closer, let his mouth brush against Eames’ ear, and whispered, “I haven’t seen you since that shit went down in New York. Seven months, you can’t send a post card?”
“Sorry, darling,” Eames answered. “I–”
“You meant to, sure.” Arthur moved closer into Eames’ space, ghosting his hands over Eames’ hips, around to the small of his back. He pulled out the semiautomatic that Eames kept there, popped out the magazine and flipped on the safety, and then tossed the unloaded gun onto the table beside him.
Eames’ breath was hot on his neck, and he dragged the tip of his tongue against Arthur’s skin.
“Where do you go when you disappear?” Arthur asked, as he pushed his hands under Eames’ shirt. “It’s like you drop off the face of the earth, and all I can find of you are rumors and tall tales.”
“I’d tell you if I could,” Eames said, nuzzling against Arthur’s neck.
“But then you’d have to kill me, right?” Arthur said, letting their mouths drift closer together. “Shut up and touch me already.”
“Thought you’d never ask,” Eames said, and surged up against him.
He had met Eames in 1947, back when he was still a military attaché and translator in Berlin. Arthur had been pushing his way up the diplomatic ranks since the end of the War, aiming to eventually join the newly-formed Intelligence Agency. He’d been in a bar, and had just turned down the second prostitute that had propositioned that evening.
“Can’t blame them for trying, really,” said a man a few seats down the bar. “There are certainly worse ways to make money than spending the evening with a good-looking young American. Or twenty minutes, whatever.”
Arthur looked at him sidelong. “I can send them your way next time, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The man barked laughter. “No thanks. I get my kicks from cleaner sources.”
He’d picked up his drink and moved to the bar stool next to Arthur. “What are you having?” he asked, signaling the bartender.
“Manhattan,” Arthur replied, eyeing him curiously. “Or what passes for one in Berlin.”
“Risky business,” the man agreed, “ordering a cocktail in a beer country. What’s your name, soldier?”
“Arthur, and I’m with Foreign Service. Formerly of the Marines.”
“Apologies, Arthur of the American Foreign Service,” the man replied sardonically, then ordered two Manhattans in perfectly accented German.
“Thanks,” Arthur said. He shook out a cigarette from his pack of Luckies, putting it between his lips. “What’s your name?”
“Eames,” the man said, producing a lighter. He lit Arthur’s cigarette with a slight flourish. “My name is Eames.”
“Is that your first name or your last?”
“Neither, or both. It’s all the name I’ve got, though,” he said, like a character out of a detective film.
The name stirred something in his chest, some faint recognition, and Arthur stared hard into the man’s pale eyes. “Have we met?”
Eames took the cigarette from Arthur’s fingers and took a drag. “Not in this life. Trust me, I’d remember.”
Arthur shook his head as he took the cigarette back, as if he could dislodge the odd feeling of familiarity by force. “Are you with the RAF?”
Eames glanced down at the greatcoat he was wearing, which was free of insignia or a name tag.
“No, darling, I’m what some call ‘self-employed’,” he said, as if it were a point of pride, rather than just a fancy way of saying he was a con man. Eames then nodded towards the door. “Watch yourself, Arthur. Here comes trouble in a tight dress.”
Another prostitute had spotted them on her rounds through the bar, and started making her way towards them. Eames laid his hand high up on Arthur’s thigh as she approached.
“Sorry, sweetheart. You’re barking up the wrong tree,” he said, patting Arthur’s leg.
She glanced from Eames to Arthur, and then back to Eames, her coquettish expression transforming into a scowl. She spat on the floor and left, tossing ugly words over her shoulder at them.
“How rude, really,” Eames had said, turning back to the bar. He glanced down at his hand, which was still resting on Arthur’s tense thigh. “Is this all right?” he asked, fingers hot against Arthur’s inseam.
Arthur let out a breath. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine.”
Eames nodded down at their two mediocre Manhattans on the bar. “You know, I’ve got booze back at my flat, and I promise I can make you a better Manhattan than Jerry over there.”
Arthur swallowed, trying to loosen the sudden tension in his throat, the heady rush of panic and desire. “All right,” he said, getting up from his seat.
They never got around to drinking. Eames’ mouth was on him only minutes after they stepped inside, kissing Arthur hot and deep, gentle and yielding. He pulled Arthur out of his uniform, piece by piece, letting his hands drift across Arthur’s flushed skin.
They fucked, then talked for hours: Arthur let Eames draw him out, feeling more comfortable around the man than he had around anyone for ages.
“You and I,” Eames said, “we’re cut from the same cloth, Arthur. Between the two of us, we could do anything, I bet.”
It was sentimental, but Arthur inexplicably agreed with him.
Arthur rolled out of bed around dawn, exhausted and sore and still elated. He dressed in the faint light, aware of Eames’ eyes watching him as he pulled on his clothes.
“I hate good-byes,” Arthur said, at a loss for words.
“So do I. But this isn’t really good-bye, you know.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, as he slipped on his shirt. “It’s not, huh?”
“Trust me,” Eames said. “You’ll be seeing me again.”
And he had. Eames had been slipping in and out of Arthur’s life for the last six years, like a thief returning to the same crime scene, year after year.
Arthur stared at Eames from the doorway of his bedroom. “The Oneiros files?”
Arthur huffed a disbelieving laugh. He’d known Eames would want something from him; it was rare that Eames dropped in for nothing more than sex and to boast of his latest misadventures. But the Oneiros files?
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m deadly serious,” Eames replied.
“It’s been said. Mind if I smoke?” Eames asked, picking a pack of Lucky Strikes off the bedside table. Arthur snatched the pack out of his hand and sat down on the chair next to the bed.
“You’re chasing a dream. They don’t exist,” Arthur said, pulling a cigarette out and lighting it. He did not give the pack back to Eames. Arthur didn’t share his smokes with crazies, and anyone who wanted the Oneiros files was definitely crazy. That was a campfire ghost story for the kind of folks who read little green men into the headlines about Roswell, a few years ago. Arthur knew some men at the Agency who were into these kinds of things: secret societies, black magic, astral projection, prophetic dreams. Arthur dealt with facts, though, hard-won truths that he got by lying, misdirection, blackmail, violence, and the occasional burglary. He didn’t have much patience for fantasy.
“I assure you that they do exist,” Eames said. “And I want them.”
Arthur scoffed. “I’m not your fairy godmother, Mr. Eames. I can’t make them magically exist for you.”
Eames smirked. “Not that the image of you in a pointy hat and high heels isn’t appealing, but what if I told you that I knew where they were kept and how to get them?”
Arthur looked at him, exhaling smoke through his nostrils. Eames seemed deadly earnest. Arthur took another drag and said, “If that were the case, I’d want to know why you couldn’t get them yourself.”
“International criminal record,” Eames said shortly. “Makes getting into CIA headquarters a bit more difficult.”
Arthur leaned back in his chair, taking in the other man: the tattoos, the intense blue eyes, the carefully relaxed pose. “Why should I do this for you?” Arthur asked.
Eames smiled, lips curving dangerously.“That’s not the question you should be asking,” he said, sitting up in bed and letting the sheets pool around his waist.
“Oh yeah?” Arthur said, interested in spite of himself.
“You should be asking what I’ll give you when you do.”
Arthur laughed at him “You think I’m going to turn traitor to my country just because you’re a good fuck?”
Eames rolled his eyes. “Oh please. Let’s not play at being patriotic. You’ve got your own games going, just the same as I do. You’ll have a hard time convincing me that all your loyalties are to Uncle Sam.”
Arthur grinned. Eames knew him too well.
“Just name your price, would you?” Eames said. “All the talented things I could be doing with my mouth, Arthur, remember? Let’s not waste time on lengthy negotiations.”
Arthur laughed at that. “All right. First, I want a peek at whatever you’re getting me to steal.”
“I knew your curiosity would get the better of you. What else?”
“I want to know where you go, when you disappear so thoroughly even I can’t find you.”
The smile slipped off Eames’ face. “Arthur–”
“That’s my price,” Arthur said. “Call it a gesture of good faith.”
Eames held his hand out for the cigarette. Arthur gave it to him, and let him smoke it as he considered Arthur’s proposition.
“Bloody hell,” Eames said finally. “You’re not going to let it go, are you?”
“My curiosity has gotten the better of me,” Arthur said drily.
Eames tamped out the cigarette. “You’re going to be the death of me, you know that?”
“You’re the one who’s convinced me to break into CIA headquarters and steal top-secret state files for you.”
Eames grabbed at him, and Arthur, smiling, let the other man pull him back into the narrow bed.
All things considered, it was strangely easy to get the files from the sub-basement archive. The security wasn’t as heavy as Arthur had assumed it would be, though finding the one file amidst the maze of boxes and stacks was.
(“Think about it,” Eames had said. “Where’s the best place to hide a book?”
“A library,” Arthur had answered.
“The Library of Congress,” Eames had corrected. “With its impenetrable cataloguing system.”
“And the best place to hide a secret is in the CIA’s terribly organized archive.”
“If you can’t erase something completely, make finding it nearly impossible,” Eames had said with a grin.)
Eames had given him directions through the winding, labyrinthine stacks. Arthur had memorized them the night before, going over them with Eames until he could repeat them backwards and forwards.
Arthur held the roughly drawn map in his mind’s eye as he turned, left, left, right, left again. He walked calmly, without hurry, refusing to second-guess his memory or instinct.
Left, straight, left, right, left. Arthur was aware that he going in a vaguely spiral pattern, which made it a little bit easier. Finally, he was at the center of the maze-like stacks. Third shelf up, fourth box from the right. Arthur pulled the box onto the ground, after taking a quick look around to make sure he wasn’t observed. He pulled the lid of the box and quickly shuffled through the files, all of them apparently named after Greek and Roman demigods: Eros, Eumenides, Hyacinth, Mnemosyne, Oneiros, Thanatos.
Arthur pulled out the Oneiros file, and withdrew the sealed manilla envelope it contained. It was slightly bulky, and as Arthur folded it and slid it into his shirt, he could feel the blunt corner of some small object pressing against his stomach. He replaced the file with an identical one that he had brought with him, full of blank carbon paper he’d stolen the last time he’d been at the office. He had a moment of weakness, wondering what was in these other strangely-named files, but suppressed it. There would be time some other day, if he got the urge to commit further acts of treason against his country.
He put the lid back on the box, placed it back on the shelf, and started the long journey back to the front desk.
“I could kiss you, Arthur, if it wouldn’t result in both of us getting arrested for public indecency,” Eames said, as Arthur approached the bench he was sitting on in the courtyard of Arthur’s apartment building.
“For god’s sake, Eames, control yourself,” Arthur said, opening the door. They climbed the stairs in tense, excited silence.
Inside the apartment, Arthur closed the curtains while Eames waited at the kitchen table.
“Damn it, Arthur,” he said. “Would you hurry it up?”
“If anyone’s watching the place, I’d rather them think we’re about to fuck than look at state secrets.”
He snapped the last curtain shut, and sat down next to Eames. He fished the envelope out of his shirt and laid it on the scratched Formica surface. “Go on,” he said to Eames.
Eames ripped open the envelope, looked inside, and said, “Oh, bollocks.”
“What?” Arthur said. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s not here. It’s empty, the documents are missing.” Eames stood up, running a hand through his hair. “Fuck, I was so sure–”
“Eames, calm down.”
“Fuck you, I’ll bloody well carry on if I want to–”
“It’s not empty,” Arthur said. “The documents are missing, but there’s something in there. I could feel it when I was carrying it.”
Eames immediately quit the histrionics, snatching the envelope off the table. He opened it again and shook it, until he could see whatever the envelope held.
“Oh,” he said softly.
“What is it?” Arthur asked.
“Hold out your hand,” Eames said. Arthur did so, and Eames tipped the envelope, shaking it until its contents came loose.
A red die fell into Arthur’s open palm.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “That’s it? I committed treason for a game piece?”
Eames licked his lips. “Roll it.”
“Roll the bloody thing!”
“Give me a fucking break,” Arthur said, but let the die slip from his fingers. It clattered onto the table below, eventually coming to a stop on the number four.
Arthur looked up, a sarcastic remark ready on his lips, but fell silent when he saw that Eames was watching him, rather than the die.
Eames suddenly turned and grabbed his peacoat off the coat hook by the door. “I have to go,” he said, dashing over to the bed to get his bag.
“Wait, what?” Arthur said, grabbing the die off the table.
“There are things I need to do,” said Eames, tying his scarf around his neck. “I can’t explain right now, but Arthur–” He laid his hand on Arthur’s jaw, thumb stroking the tender skin below Arthur’s ear. “I promise, I will someday.”
“Sure, Eames,” Arthur said, discomfited by the sudden intensity in Eames’ gaze.
“I mean it,” he insisted.
“I believe you,” Arthur said.
Eames exhaled, took a step back. “Good.”
“What about this?” Arthur said, shifting the red die in his palm. “Don’t you want it?”
Eames glanced down at it. “Keep it safe for me.”
He kissed Arthur, briefly but passionately, then ran out the door.
“Hey!” Arthur shouted, as Eames thudded down the stairs. “What about the other half of my payment?”
“Bedside table!” Eames called over his shoulder. “Top drawer!”
And then he was gone.
When Arthur looked in the bedside table, it was empty, except for a postcard. Greetings from California! it said, with a picture of a couple on a beach. On the back, there was a heavy brass key taped inside the address box.
Arthur snorted. How very like Eames, to answer a question with a further riddle.
He dreamed of Eames that night. A white room, a large bed. French doors that opened to a patio, curtains shifting in a quickening breeze. Dark gray sky outside, filled with ominous clouds. The promise of rain.
Eames’ voice in his ear, the brush of lips, a rough whisper: “They’ll never catch us now.”
Drops started to fall, staining the brick. Arthur let himself lean back into the solid warmth of Eames’ body and believe it was true.
Arthur woke up, and remembered nothing but a dream of rain, tinged with inexpressible loss.
Marseilles, France. March, 1954
He saw the flash of the photograph from the corner of his eye. Arthur blinked and stopped walking abruptly, processing what he thought he’d seen. Beside him, his contact Étienne walked on a few steps before realizing Arthur was no longer by his side.
“Arthur?” he asked. “What is it?”
Arthur turned around, and walked a few paces until he was again standing in front of the small electronics shop, with its glass display of RCA televisions.
There, again. Eames’ face, on one of the screens. He looked awful, the photo starkly showing the cuts and bruises on his face. Arthur took a sharp breath, then let it out slowly.
The scene cut back to the newscaster. He looked grave as he recounted, as far as Arthur could tell without the sound, the shooting of a government official in Paris.
“Ah, did you not hear about this? It was in the papers this morning,” Étienne said, coming to stand beside him. “They caught the man who murdered that député last week. He was hiding down by the Old Port, and they still haven’t identified him yet. It’s quite the mystery.”
“You don’t say,” Arthur said, turning away from the screens. “No, I didn’t have time to read the paper this morning. Had a bit of a late night, you know?”
“You dog!” Étienne exclaimed. “Tell me all about it, I haven’t had time to go out and get laid in years, it seems like.”
With half his attention on concocting a pleasantly sordid tale for the other man, Arthur sorted through his whirling thoughts. Eames had shot a man in Paris, then fled to Marseilles, where Arthur had been working for the last four months, infiltrating groups of Communist sympathizers.
Nothing about this was a coincidence.
By the time they reached the bar they had been walking to, Arthur had formed the rough edges of a plan.
The police force in France was a morass of conflicting bureaucracies and politics. This worked very well in Arthur’s favor, as he showed up at the station with orders to transfer Eames immediately to Paris. He’d reluctantly bribed Étienne to pose as his partner, knowing the police would never allow a single officer to be in charge of transporting a dangerous criminal.
“What the hell is this?” the lieutenant asked. “I thought we were transferring him up north ourselves next week.”
“Special orders from the Minister of the Interior,” Arthur said, handing over a sealed envelope. “They want him for questioning immediately.”
The lieutenant slit open the envelope and skimmed its contents. “They think this was a political assassination?”
“It’s best not to speculate, lieutenant,” answered Étienne. “There are things it’s best not to know, if you understand me.”
Arthur shot Étienne a glance, wondering if this was supposed to be some kind of jibe aimed at him. Arthur had paid Étienne with enough cash and promises of favors to ensure his willing ignorance, but the man hadn’t bothered to hide his curiosity.
The man dropped the papers on his desk and rubbed at his eyes. “Take him, then, by all means. I’ll be glad to have the mystery man off my hands. The man attracts reporters like flies to shit, and I hate talking to them.”
The lieutenant sent his secretary off to type up the necessary paperwork and offered Arthur and Étienne some coffee. As he drank, Arthur couldn’t stop his mind from wandering; it had been nearly a year since he’d seen Eames, and six months since he’d any communication from him. What the hell had he been doing in France? Why kill a politician? The dead man hadn’t even been a very important political player, having only been elected this year.
Finally, the secretary came back with all the paperwork. Arthur, Étienne, and the lieutenant all signed off on of it, and then went downstairs to the cells.
“You must be careful with this one,” the lieutenant warned them. “He put two of my men in the hospital, and that was after we disarmed him.”
“A fighter, is he?” Étienne asked.
“Yes. But don’t worry, we’ve softened him up a bit.”
Arthur thought back to the bruises and cuts he’d seen on Eames’ face during that brief news segment, and clenched his jaw.
The lieutenant stopped in front of the last cell in the long, damp hallway, and banged on the door with his baton. “Get up!” he shouted. “You’re getting shipped back to Paris, you piece of shit. Not a moment too soon, either.”
Arthur swallowed as he saw a figure on the bed twitch, and then slowly rise, moving as if in pain. Eames looked beaten; it was in the set of his shoulders, the way his head drooped.
Two guards pushed past Arthur with a set of handcuffs and leg chains, and Arthur watched Eames as they secured them.
“Take him out the back,” Arthur said. “The car’s there.”
Eames’ shoulders stiffened at the sound of Arthur’s voice, and he glanced up, meeting Arthur’s eyes for a moment. Arthur felt the brief contact like a shock, and lit a cigarette to cover the sudden rush of emotions flooding him: anger, relief, desire.
The guards shoved Eames out of the cell and down the hall, and Arthur made to follow, leaving Étienne to say his goodbyes to the lieutenant.
Étienne rode with them until they were out in the suburbs of the city. “This is good,” he said, pointing at a cafe. “I can hitch a ride in from here.”
“Thanks, Étienne,” Arthur said. “I owe you.”
“Damn right you do,” Étienne said, grinning. He turned to the backseat. “Hey, back there. Don’t get into any more trouble. Your friend’s been an insufferable asshole since he found out you were in jail.”
“Thank you, Étienne, you can go,” Arthur said, pushing him.
“Au revoir, Arthur. Good luck,” he said, shutting the door behind him.
They drove in silence until they reached the main road out of Marseilles. Finally, Arthur couldn’t contain it anymore.
“You idiot,” he hissed.
“Hello, darling,” Eames said, smiling. “I’ve missed you, too.”
“You asshole. You stupid shit-for-brains imbecilic jackass–”
“Yes, yes, we’ve established that I’m–”
“–Dumb-fuck bastard son-of-a-whore–”
“–A twat, I know, Arthur. Can we pretend you’ve already yelled at me in six different languages and move on?”
“You moron,” Arthur spat, tearing off his sunglasses and throwing them onto the seat next to him. “You killed a fucking politician, what is wrong with you–”
“He needed to die,” Eames said quietly, still looking at Arthur’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Why, was he crooked? A rapist? Did he beat kids and kick puppies? Give me something here, Eames, I just risked my ass to save you, so you better have a damn good reason–”
“He was after you.”
Arthur’s hands tightened on the wheel. “What?”
“He was one of the people who created the Oneiros files,” Eames said, his voice patient but strained. “And he knew that you’d seen part of it. That you had the die.”
Arthur looked at Eames in the rearview mirror. “It’s just a die. You can get the same thing at any toy store in America. What’s the big deal?”
Arthur didn’t mention the way the thing gave him the creeps. He had started having nightmares about it, dreams he could never quite remember, but left him feeling disturbed and restless when he woke from them. He kept it in a locked box, along with the brass room key and postcard Eames had left in his room.
“Just keep it safe, okay?”
Arthur sighed. “Don’t worry, it’s safe. So why kill him? Why not just tell me?”
“I barely got to him in time as it was. Another day, two at the most, and he’d have closed in.” Eames sighed. “I was coming to warn you in person, but the bloody police caught up with me.”
Arthur snorted. “Amateur.”
Eames grinned tiredly. “Piss off, you sod.”
Arthur pulled the car off the highway, onto a little-used local road that led into a sparsely-populated farming area. A mile down the road, he pulled over, just behind a rusting truck, in which he’d hidden some clothes, papers, maps, and food.
He turned off the car and sat a moment, chewing on the inside of his cheek, processing what Eames had said. “I still think you’re an idiot.”
“That makes two of us. Tell me you’ve got a key to these cuffs, Arthur. I’d pick the lock, but it’s hard with three broken fingers.”
Arthur helped Eames out of the car, then leaned him against it while Arthur made short work of the cuffs and chains. The second they were off, Eames pulled Arthur against him, pressing their hips together, and kissed him soundly.
“I didn’t think you’d actually do this,” Eames said quietly against his lips. “I thought the only way I’d get out of this mess was in a body bag.”
Arthur suppressed the shudder that threatened to shake down his spine, pressing his hips more firmly against Eames, touching his bruised jaw with his fingertips. “Have some faith in me. And don’t get caught next time, for god’s sake. I might not be there in time to bail your sorry ass out.”
“Don’t worry, darling. They’ll never catch me now.”
Something clenched in Arthur’s chest. Those words, something about them, stirred some deep sense of longing and loss in what, if Arthur were more sentimental, he might call his soul. The feeling was as strong as vertigo, and he swore he could feel the world shift underneath the soles of his feet.
“Arthur?” Eames asked, brow furrowed. He touched the side of Arthur’s face with his uninjured hand. “What is it?”
Arthur cleared his throat, tried to swallow past whatever blockage had formed there. “Nothing,” he said. “You should go.”
Eames pulled Arthur back against him and kissed him again, and Arthur gave himself up to it, just for a moment, to the sensation of Eames’ mouth on his, the solid weight of him.
“We’ll always manage to escape somehow, the two of us,” Eames said, his warm breath blowing against Arthur’s cheek.
“I don’t need to escape,” Arthur pointed out. “I’m not the asshole that got caught in the first place.”
Eames leaned back, smiling. It was different from his usual smirk, tinged with some kind of sadness that annoyed Arthur as much as it confused him.
The image of it stayed with Arthur, long after Eames drove away and out of his life.
Budapest, Hungary. April, 1958
There was so much that was ugly about Budapest: the crumbling apartment blocks, the skeletal, half-repaired bridges over the river, the gutted buildings and streets still scarred from the war, even a decade later.
But there was beauty here, hidden behind the ugly tiled buildings and shuttered windows. Budapest looked like a city under a spell of sleep, caught in a perpetual winter.
But spring had come early this year. The breeze that came through Arthur’s window was warm, and smelled of damp earth; a spring smell, like the furrows in a field ready for planting. The wind blew warm mist against Arthur’s cheeks as he smoked a cigarette and surveyed the street from the open window in his one-room apartment. People were gathering on the streets, sharing thermoses of tea and black-market vodka, talking into the night, singing old songs and lighting each others’ cigarettes. Something was happening. People were excited, animated. There was hope in the air, a whisper of change, a sudden pride and optimism. It was hard not to get caught up in it. Arthur pitched his cigarette out the window, watching the small knot of people on the street talk and sing.
This is what he’d been working for, the last eight months. Fomenting revolution, watching social alchemy at work. Trying to act as a catalyst, or support those who were. It was good work, he knew. Something to actually be proud of, for a change. Arthur smiled as he tamped out his cigarette.
The telephone rang with a discordant jangle, startling him. The last he knew, the telephone service had been shut off again on this block.
There was no reason anyone should be calling him. His contacts knew better than to reach him by telephone, where anyone could be listening in. His superiors had better ways of getting in touch with him. Still, his curiosity piqued, he picked up the receiver.
“Szia?” he said, cautiously. There was a strangled cry on the other line. Arthur’s brows furrowed. “Алло?” he asked, trying Russian instead
“Arthur?” someone whispered.
Arthur blinked. “Eames?”
As far as Arthur knew, Eames had been killed in some kind of mob hit in Chicago three years ago. Arthur had gotten so drunk he’d spent the next two days a miserable, nauseated wreck, unable to do more than drag himself from his bed to the bathroom to vomit. He should have known better than to believe it. He would know better, next time.
“Jesus, fuck, Arthur–” Eames said his name in a whispered swell of sound, nearly a sob.
“What are you– how did you even get this number? This line isn’t secure, you shouldn’t–”
“I need your help.” Eames took a ragged breath. “I... God, I fucked up big time.”
A cold feeling seeped into Arthur’s chest, made his lungs clench and his insides go liquid. “Where are you?”
“Stalingrad. Jesus, it’s good to hear your voice, you’ve no fucking idea–”
Arthur swallowed past the blockage in his throat. “I’m coming, Eames. Hold tight, okay? I’m coming for you.”
The line went dead. Arthur stared at the phone for a second, then placed it back in the cradle. After that, he moved quickly. He threw clothes, ammo, bread, cigarettes, and two bottles of vodka in a duffel bag, then gathered up all the cash, weapons, and documents he had. It took ten minutes. He left the door unlocked when he left; better to have the neighborhood’s thieves going through his stuff than the KGB.
His Russian wasn’t perfect, but with a slight Yiddish/Ukrainean lilt, most people assumed he was just a hick Jew from the ass end of the eastern bloc. His papers were forged, but so were everyone else’s, and his bribes were good enough to get him to Stalingrad.
There his job became slightly more difficult. It took him five days of worrying that Eames had already been sent to a gulag before he finally got the right KGB officer drunk. After that, it was three days of bribery, lying, presenting false diplomatic identification, and hard bargaining to get an audience with Eames’ captors.
“We wish to avoid an international incident,” Arthur – or rather Mikhail Martenau, Soviet diplomatic liaison with the French Foreign Service – said.
“We are civilized men,” Comrade Saburov said. He poured tea from a silver service into Arthur’s cup. “We can, of course, come to some agreement.”
Arthur had come to hate men like Saburov; he hated seeing all this opulence with a man he doubted could ever appreciate it, when there were good people starving in the outskirts of the city or being tortured by the secret police in Budapest.
Arthur smiled politely at Saburov, but didn’t touch his tea. In the end, he knew that he would give the man almost everything he had. But if it got him Eames – alive and more or less intact – Arthur would part with it willingly.
Eames was only semi-conscious when he was released into Arthur’s care. His face was swollen and discolored with bruises, some healing and others fresh. He had fresh scars, thin white lines on his jaw and cheek.
“We have to stop meeting like this,” Arthur whispered to him.
Eames groaned, grabbed his hand, and squeezed it. “Such a fucking cliché.”
At least they hadn’t broken his fingers again, Arthur thought.
They left Stalingrad as soon as Eames could travel. It took most of Arthur’s rubles to get Eames a decently forged diplomatic passport, and the calling in of several favors to get them to Odessa, where Arthur had a safe house and enough connections to get Eames on a boat to Turkey. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable ride, traveling in cramped train cars and large freight trucks. Eames healed slowly, any progress offset by the rough conditions. He spoke little the entire time, but chain-smoked Arthur’s shitty Hungarian cigarettes. He didn’t touch Arthur, not beyond that first half-conscious, pained touch, but he was also reluctant to ever let Arthur out of his sight.
“How long has it been?” Eames asked after five days of hard traveling. They were still 150 miles from Odessa, huddled together in an abandoned sheet-metal shack off the main road. It was a damp night, with a cold that seeped straight into one’s bones.
“Since when?” Arthur asked.
“Since we last saw each other. Since Marseilles.”
Arthur thought for a moment. “Four years.”
“Jesus,” Eames said. “That long?”
Arthur didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he nodded. “That long.”
“You’ve got gray in your hair,” Eames said, brushing his fingers over the silver strands collecting on Arthur’s temple.
“I’m thirty-six, it happens. I heard you were dead.”
Eames smiled for him. “Didn’t take, as you can see. Rumors of my demise, etcetera.”
Arthur lit one of his cigarettes, then asked the question that had been burning in his mind. “What were you doing in Stalingrad, anyway?”
Eames plucked the cigarette from Arthur’s lips with one pale hand. “Same old, same old.”
Arthur watched him take a drag, then exhale a stream of smoke. “The Oneiros files? You’re still looking for them?”
Eames grinned, and handed the cigarette back. “Not anymore.”
Arthur felt something between awe and dread, burning hot and cold in his chest. “You found them? The missing documents?”
“I found them. Saburov’s men got to me before I could escape, but I found the fuckers.” His voice was tight with triumph, the most expressive it had been in a week.
Arthur rolled the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger in silence for a moment, trying to think of something to say.
“You’re not even curious as to what’s in them,” Eames said; it wasn’t a question, though his voice hinted at his disbelief.
Arthur held up his hands in a gesture of – what? Supplication? Apology? “Eames–”
“After all of this, you don’t want to know what was there? What I found out?”
Arthur took a drag from his cigarette, trying to formulate an answer, trying to articulate to himself why he was so damn reluctant to find out. He was a snoop, a spy, a fucking CIA spook. He’d managed to sneak through the Iron Curtain, not once but a number of times. Leaving stones unturned was not in his nature. And yet...
“Arthur,” Eames said.
“I can’t,” Arthur said, exhaling the words out in a cloud of smoke. There was a feeling of tightness in his chest, something close to panic. He thought of the red die, tucked into a secret pocket of his duffel bag, next to a brass room key. He still had dreams about it, and woke up gasping. “I just– I can’t.”
Eames put a hand on his arm, quieting him. Then he took the cigarette from Arthur’s suddenly numb fingers. They smoked in relative silence for a while.
“I’ve a game for you,” Eames said suddenly.
“A game. It’ll while away the time. It’s called ‘Would You Rather?’”
“Sounds exciting,” Arthur said dryly.
“In it, I give you a choice between two scenarios and you have to choose one. Like, would you rather.... sneeze Jello or fart tapioca pudding?”
Arthur gave Eames a look, trying to silently convey that he was seriously reevaluating his choice to save Eames from torture or imprisonment. “What?”
“That was just an example,” Eames said. “Though you strike me as a Jello man.”
There was no possible answer to that. Arthur just shook his head and went back to staring at the sky.
“Here’s a better one, promise. No disgusting bodily functions involved.”
“If someone told you that your entire life was a dream, would you want to wake up? Or keep dreaming?”
Arthur looked over at Eames, who was staring at him intently. How in the world did someone go from sneezing Jello to questioning existence? Who did that?
Arthur asked, “What kind of question is that?”
“A hypothetical one. Would you want to be woken up?”
“I’d need more information than that before deciding,” Arthur protested.
Eames gave him a fond smile. “Course you would.”
“Shut up.” Arthur thought for a moment. “Is this person telling the truth?”
“You have no way of knowing.”
“Do I trust this person?” Arthur asked.
Eames shrugged, then see-sawed his hand. “Maybe. You’re not exactly the trusting sort.”
“Not really, no,” Arthur agreed; he was talking to pretty much the only person he really did trust, and his reasons for that weren’t entirely clear. “Okay. What would I be waking up to?”
“You don’t know. Something entirely different than this, maybe. Another life.”
“What would waking up involve?”
Eames leaned back against the wall of the hut, considering. “For you,” he said eventually, “it’d be like dying. There might be pain, panic, and fear. But you’d wake up at the end.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “So, just to be clear: someone I only sort of trust, who may nonetheless be lying, tells me that my entire life is a dream. Waking up would mean dying, more or less, and I have no idea what I’d be waking up to. Hell of a leap of faith to take.”
“Terrifying, isn’t it?”
Arthur nodded. “But so is the possibility that everything you know is an illusion. It’s the kind of thought that drives people mad.”
Eames’ eyes were closed off, shadowy. “Indeed. So, would you rather–”
“Wake up,” Arthur said, without hesitation.
Eames sat motionless for a second. “What?”
“Any truth is better than a lie,” Arthur said. “So I’d rather wake up.”
“Seems like a dangerous attitude for someone in the intelligence game.”
“These aren’t state secrets. This is my life. I’d rather it be real than not.”
“Who says dreams aren’t real?” Eames protested.
Arthur just rolled his eyes. “What are you, Peter Pan?”
He was aware of Eames’ eyes on him as he searched his pockets for the last of his cigarettes. He turned to see Eames holding out a Lucky Strike, gleaming in the faint light, pristine.
“Where the hell did you get that?” Arthur asked. “Have you been holding out on me, Eames?”
“I was saving it for a special occasion,” he said, then dropped it into Arthur’s open palm.
Arthur woke to warm breath on his cheek, a hand smoothing down his stomach. He turned his face to meet Eames’ mouth, already open and warm, wet, yielding.
“Eames,” he whispered, pulling at the other man’s arms, wanting the full weight of Eames’ body to be bearing down on him. “I missed you.”
He’d been thinking it since the phone call. Eames’ absence had been an ache he’d been living with for the past few years, but he hadn’t wanted to burden the other man with it. It seemed easier, however, almost natural, to say it in the half-light of the gray dawn, their commingled breath forming clouds in the cold air.
“I’m sorry,” Eames whispered. He shifted his hips against Arthur’s. “I didn’t mean to–”
“I looked for you,” Arthur said, arching up against the other man. “I carried the die and that damn key all over the world, looking for you in every city.”
“I’m sorry,” Eames said again, tucking his face against Arthur’s neck.
Arthur wormed his fingers down past the waistband of Eames’ pants, clutching at the warm skin. “Where were you? Where did you go?”
“Arthur–” Eames said, voice breaking. Arthur knew what Eames would say next: that he couldn’t tell him, not yet, maybe someday. Arthur bit him, high on his neck, near his jaw, and whatever words Eames had been about to say disintegrated into a rough moan.
“Come on,” Arthur said, hands fumbling at the buttons on Eames’ pants. “I want–”
Eames sat up long enough yank off his shirt, revealing a pattern of fading bruises superimposed on the skin of his chest. Arthur ran his fingers across the mottled skin, feeling it break into goosebumps in the cold, damp air.
They lay together, skin to skin, as the sun rose the rest of the way into the sky, burning off the mist; a new morning, cold and clear.
Monterey, California, February, 1968
Arthur’s leg throbbed in the rain. Every winter he’d spent in California, he’d considered moving to the desert, just to get away from the pain that came with every low pressure system. Every year, he stayed anyway. Applied liniments and salves to the scarred flesh of his thigh and massaged the tissue around it. Used the madrone-wood cane he’d bought at a craft market in town. Kept a hot fire lit in the cottage. Relearned, every year, how to live with the unending bone-deep pain.
Arthur had bought the cottage for its solitude and its unspoiled view: from the front porch, he could see the town laid out below him, with the ocean shining out beyond. He had neglected to think about what the view might be like in winter, a dull wash of fog that obscured nearly everything. Arthur found that he didn’t mind. The fog had its own beauty, even though it made him feel like ground glass had been poured into the joints of his leg. He found himself sitting on the porch more often than not, drinking coffee, listening to the rain on the awning, watching the fog shift and twist in its subtle movements.
Arthur looked down at his coffee cup. Only a few more sips, and then he’d go back inside, build the fire up, let his leg soak up the heat.
When he looked up again, there was a figure standing at the bottom of his driveway, his face obscured by the mist. Arthur knew, without a doubt, that it was Eames. It had been ten years, but his posture and bearing, everything about him was the same.
Arthur watched as Eames climbed steadily up the steep driveway, feeling his heart thump beneath his breastbone. He rubbed his leg absently, barely feeling the persistent ache now.
Finally, Eames stood before him. He’d shaved his head not too long ago, and carried a duffle bag on one shoulder; he looked like a soldier on leave from Vietnam. Eames blinked up at Arthur, jarring raindrops loose from his eyelashes, and said, “Hello, darling.”
Arthur snorted. How typical. “Mr. Eames. Nice to see you again.”
“I know it’s been a while–”
“It’s been ten years.”
That seemed to stop Eames for a moment. “So it has. It’s good to see you, though.”
Arthur smirked, and began the arduous process of levering himself out of the chair. He was aware of Eames watching him, and was grateful that the other man didn’t offer to help. He grabbed his cane from where it leaned against the railing and said, “Come in out of the rain.”
Inside, Arthur kicked off his shoes and hung up his coat, and went into the kitchen as Eames did the same. “You want some coffee?”
“I’d love some,” Eames said, following him in. He settled into one of the stools by the counter, and looked around as Arthur went through the motions of making more coffee. “How long have you lived here?”
“Three years,” Arthur replied, setting the percolator on the stove. “Though I’ve owned it for twice as long.”
“It’s nice,” Eames said. “It’s quiet up here.”
“I like it well enough. I’ve earned some quiet.”
“You’ve retired, I take it?” Eames asked. “I honestly never thought I’d see the day.”
Arthur leaned against the sink and nodded down at his leg. “I was in Jakarta three years ago. Took a bullet to the leg during some riots, and the wound went septic. I got flown out eventually, but...” He shrugged. The damage had already been done, and a good portion of his thigh muscles had become necrotic. “I’m lucky they didn’t amputate it. Hell, I’m lucky I can walk at all.”
“Jesus, Arthur,” Eames said. “That’s bloody awful.”
Arthur shrugged again. “Could have been worse. Agency offered me a desk job, but I wasn’t about to get chained to a typewriter for eight hours a day in D.C. I retired instead.”
“I like it out here,” Arthur said, turning back to the percolator. “Like you said, it’s quiet.”
He filled a mug for Eames and slid it across the counter to him, then poured a fresh cup for himself. “Do you take cream?” Arthur asked, honestly unable to remember Eames’ coffee preferences. He had an idea that Eames generally preferred tea, but his memory was untrustworthy these days.
“No, black’s fine.”
They sipped at their coffee for a moment, each waiting for the other to speak. Arthur decided that it wouldn’t be him to break the silence, and lit a cigarette to keep his hands occupied.
“I suppose,” Eames said eventually, “you’re wondering why I’m here.”
“Whatever it is, you’re probably going to be disappointed.”
“I doubt that,” Eames said, grinning. It made Arthur angry all of a sudden, Eames’ easy smiles and his handsome, still-youthful face. It made Arthur feel old, old and worn out.
“I’ve got nothing you could want, Eames,” he said steadily. “I’m out of the business. Most of my contacts are dead, in hiding, or out of the country. I can barely walk, so I’m useless on most missions. And if you wanted to fuck, you’re going to have to wait until the weather shifts, because this rain makes it feel like I’ve got burning coals shoved in my joints. Kind of kills the mood.”
“Why are you here, Eames?” Arthur asked, setting down his coffee.
“Maybe I just wanted to see you. Maybe I missed you,” Eames said. Ridiculous, Arthur thought, because Eames never dropped into his life without wanting something.
“I’ve been in this house for three years,” Arthur pointed out. “Where were you?”
Eames looked down at his coffee, and Arthur felt a thin, petty triumph.
“I never could find you when you disappeared,” Arthur said. “Eventually, I learned to stop looking.”
Eames looked shaken. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice rough.
Arthur sighed. “So you’ve always said.”
He left his coffee on the counter and the cigarette burning in the ashtray, and went into his bedroom, shutting the door softly behind him.
There was a hollow book on Arthur’s shelf, a hardcover of East of Eden. In it, Arthur kept five hundred dollars in cash, a passport in another name, a medallion with the chai symbol that had belonged to his grandmother, a red die, a brittle postcard, and a brass key. He hadn’t opened the book in nearly a year, but he took it off the shelf now, blowing the dust off the spine.
He’d last seen Eames in Prague, only a few months after the Stalingrad debacle. Arthur only saw him from across the cobblestone street, as he was getting into a car, and decided against saying anything to him, in case it blew either of their covers. But Eames had looked up, as if he’d sensed Arthur’s presence. Their eyes had met for a moment, long enough for Arthur to see that all the cuts and bruises from his time with Saburov had faded from his skin. Then Eames smiled, tipped his chin in acknowledgment, and got in the car.
That had been ten years ago. Arthur was closer to fifty than to thirty these days, and it showed: the limp, the gray hairs that brushed backwards from his temples, the receding hairline, the slight paunch around his stomach. He had met Eames half a lifetime ago, in a Berlin that hadn’t yet been torn in two.
Between the two of us, Eames had said, we could do anything. Arthur had believed it then.
Arthur picked up the red die, feeling the plastic warm between his fingers. He hadn’t dreamt of the die in years, hadn’t once woken up trembling with some nameless dread. He’d put it away in the hollow book and forgotten about it.
Eames brought the inexplicable anxiety back with him. Arthur could feel it settling into the pit of his stomach, like a cold iron ball.
Arthur took a deep breath, then another, and let the die slip through his fingers. It fell onto the book, rolled, and finally landed on a five.
Arthur, staring at it, thought: It’s not like it matters anyway. None of it does.
Oddly, this made him feel better.
When he came back out of the bedroom, it was to the smell of garlic and onions cooking. He rounded the corner to the kitchen, where Eames had two or three pans on the range.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked.
Eames glanced back over one shoulder. “I was thinking we could eat hamburgers for dinner.”
Arthur leaned against the door frame, taking the weight off his bad leg. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cook before,” he said. Eames appeared to know what he was doing, though; he seemed at home in Arthur’s kitchen, amidst the sizzling onions and bellows of steam, like he belonged there.
“I can do a decent fry up, when the mood takes me.” He pointed at a bottle of wine on the counter. “Would you mind opening?”
Arthur looked at him for another moment, then shook his head, smiling to himself. He limped forward to grab the bottle and opener, and sat down to open it. When he had the cork free, he said, “The glasses are on the top shelf.”
Eames nodded, and pulled down two dusty wine glasses. “Could you– I mean, would you mind...”
“What?” Arthur asked, rubbing at his leg again.
“Maybe put on some music?” Eames asked.
Arthur smiled. “This sounds like it’s becoming a date.”
“Does it?” Eames asked, all innocence as he wiped out the glasses.
Arthur got up. “I’m too old to be wined and dined, you know.”
“And yet...” Eames said, pouring the wine, and handing Arthur a glass. Their fingers brushed as Arthur took it from him.
“And yet what?”
Eames smiled. “Go put some music on, would you?”
Arthur rolled his eyes and walked into the living room, where he kept his record player. He flipped through a few 45’s before finally settling on Otis Redding’s last album. Arthur pulled the vinyl out of its sleeve and settled it onto the player, placing the needle down carefully. The song started with the familiar sound of crashing waves, then the slow guitar melody.
Sitting in the morning sun, Otis Redding sang, I’ll be sitting when the evening comes–
“I know this song,” Eames said softly, from the doorway.
Arthur shifted, but didn’t turn. “They’ve been playing it nonstop on the radio.”
“Ah,” Eames said. There was the sound of footsteps, and then Arthur could feel Eames’ breath on his neck, the warmth of him hovering behind his back. His hand rested lightly on Arthur’s hip, cautious, as if Eames wasn’t sure whether or not it would be welcome.
If he were younger, Arthur might have at least tried to sustain a pretense of anger. If he was anything but the old, crippled, lonely man that he was, he’d at least make Eames work for his forgiveness.
Instead, he leaned into Eames’ warmth, the solid, comforting mass of his chest. One of Eames’ arms slipped around Arthur’s waist, while the other stayed on his hip, a warm, grounding weight. In his ear, Eames hummed along with the music.
“You’re off key,” Arthur whispered.
“Never could carry a tune,” Eames agreed.
Looks like nothing’s gonna change, Otis sang. Everything still remains the same.
“How apropos for you,” Eames said.
Arthur sighed. “I guess it is, isn’t it? No wonder I like the song.” He shivered as Eames ran his lips against the skin of his neck. “I sit on my porch all day, looking out at the ocean.”
“Do you actually watch the ships roll in?” Eames asked. Arthur could feel his lips forming a smile.
“Not when it’s foggy like this,” Arthur replied. There was a huff of breath as Eames laughed, and he tightened his hold on Arthur. Arthur tilted his head back, and allowed Eames to kiss him.
It felt, as he’d known it would, wonderful. It wasn’t a heated kiss – the pain in his leg had about the same effect as an ice bath would on his ardor – but there was an unspoken emotion behind it, the weight of years.
“I really did miss you, you know,” Eames whispered. “I always miss you when I’m gone.”
Arthur smiled a little at that. Even if it wasn’t true, it was a good line. “Go finish cooking your romantic dinner, you sap,” he said.
Dinner passed pleasantly. The hamburgers were good, and the wine – which Eames had apparently picked up at a vineyard a few hours north – was better. They talked about old schemes that they’d pulled, hairy situations that they’d managed to extricate themselves from. They talked a little about Vietnam, about the crazy kids out in Berkley, about the massive music festival that Monterey had hosted the year before, which had had Arthur chasing hippies and beatniks off his property with a rifle.
“You didn’t,” Eames said.
“I don’t object to what they stand for,” Arthur said. “World peace and free love sound great to me. I just object to them trying to start their revolution in my front yard.”
“You also think they’re idiots, don’t you?” Eames asked.
“Of course I do,” Arthur agreed, sipping at his wine. “But they’re entitled to their idiocy. They come by it honestly enough.”
Eames laughed, and then Arthur was telling him about the few weeks when the Agency had had him trying to infiltrate a group of yippies in New York, and what a shitstorm that had turned out to be.
When they were finished, Eames made Arthur sit down while he washed up. Arthur was feeling full and a little tipsy as he leaned back in his chair, content to finish off the wine and watch Eames scrub out pans.
“Do you miss it?” Eames asked. “Working for the Agency?”
Arthur shrugged. “Not so much,” he said. “Or not exactly.”
Eames glanced over his shoulder at him. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t miss the missions,” Arthur said, slowly, thinking it out. “And I don’t miss living a lie for months at a time. I don’t miss the constant paranoia, or moving every few months, or living in the quiet warzones in the USSR.”
“But there is something,” Eames said.
Arthur cocked his head. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. I hadn’t really thought about it before tonight.”
Eames seemed pensive as he rinsed off the dishes, and Arthur found himself reluctant to break this new silence. He finished off their wine in silence, rubbing at his leg when it started aching worse than usual.
When Eames had stacked the dishes to dry, he wiped his hands off on a towel and said, “Do you still have that key I gave you?”
Arthur looked up at him. “Yeah.”
“And the die as well?”
“Of course,” Arthur said. He could feel the weight of both of them, in fact, in his pants pocket.
Eames nodded. “Would you like to take a drive with me?”
Arthur cocked his head. “A drive? In this fog?” It had looked as thick as pea soup the last time he’d looked outside.
“I’ve driven in worse,” Eames said, shrugging.
Arthur stared at him for a long moment. “Does this have something to do with that key? And the die?”
Eames nodded, not looking away. “Yes.”
The anxiety, that dread which had been quieted during dinner, flooded back into Arthur’s stomach. He rubbed again at his leg.
“I don’t know if tonight would be good,” Arthur said. “My leg is killing me, and that fog–”
“Arthur,” Eames said quietly. “Please.”
Arthur swallowed. He thought again of the red die, the odd thought that had popped into his head when he’d rolled it: Not like it matters anyway.
“All right,” he said. He pushed himself up and limped over to the far wall, where he’d left his car keys on a small hook. He tossed them to Eames, who caught them in one hand. “Let’s take a drive.”
They drove in silence, and the fog persisted all the way up the coast. It obscured both the road and the ocean beyond it. Arthur’s car seemed unable to keep the damp out, and it wasn’t long before Arthur was shivering in his sweater.
“Where are we going?” Arthur asked at one point.
“I’m going to show you where I go. When I disappear,” Eames said.
Arthur felt a cold disquiet begin to spread through his chest. He lit a cigarette and didn’t speak again.
Finally, Eames turned off the highway onto a dirt road that had the car rattling over pot holes and loose gravel. The sun had long since set, and Arthur squinted, trying to see by the stark light of the headlamps.
There was an aging, abandoned structure at the end of the road; an old house, faded and bleached by the sun and saltwater. It was tall and imposing, with Victorian turrets and balconies. It looked like the very definition of a haunted house.
“This is where you go?” Arthur asked, unbelieving. He’d lived in worse places when he’d been an agent in the Eastern Bloc, but even he couldn’t imagine the draw to staying in a place like this.
“This is where I go,” Eames answered. “Ironic, that you ended up so close.”
Eames unbuckled his seat belt and opened the car door, and Arthur reluctantly followed him. They walked up the warped steps to the large front door.
“Give me the key,” Eames said. Arthur, with shaking fingers, pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over. The lock turned with a rusty clank, and then Eames pushed open the heavy door. “Come on,” he said, walking inside.
Arthur followed him in. The house was cold and musty inside, the air stale and smelling of dust and rot. It was even darker than the road had been. The disquiet that Arthur had felt in the car was sharpening into full-blown anxiety, and he wondered vaguely if Eames had brought him here to kill him.
So what if he has? part of him answered. It doesn’t matter, none of it matters–
“Come upstairs,” Eames said, gesturing to the narrow staircase.
Arthur grasped the cold, carved wood railing and forced his leaden legs to move. The stairs led to a long hallway, and Arthur followed Eames to a room at the end of it.
“Come in,” Eames said, as he bent down to light an oil lamp. The small flame guttered, then grew bright.
Arthur hesitated, standing nervously in the doorway. He looked around at the room, at the torn wallpaper, the smudged windows, the stained rug.
“Why did you bring me here?” Arthur asked. If he was going to die, he wanted to do it with his eyes open, even if his last sight would be a dingy bedroom in a darkened house.
“I wanted to show you something,” Eames said, standing back up. “Come in, and shut the door behind you.”
When Arthur still hesitated, Eames rolled his eyes. “I’m not a bloody axe murderer, Arthur.”
Arthur sniffed, feeling reassured, probably against his better instincts. “Well, you could have fooled me, with your creepy Hitchcock mansion.”
Arthur stepped the rest of the way into the room, shutting the door softly behind him. He sat down on one of the chairs, and Eames sat down on the bed across from him.
“I’m going to tell you a story, Arthur,” Eames said.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “You brought me all this way to tell me a bedtime story?”
Eames smiled thinly. “Maybe ‘story’ is the wrong word. How about a thought experiment? An exercise in hypotheticals, or something like that.”
Arthur settled back a little into his chair. “By all means, then.”
“Imagine, if you would, that it were possible to break into someone’s mind by invading their dreams. That’s the scenario we’re working with.”
Arthur sighed. “I’ve heard of the Agency researching weirder things. Go on.”
Eames leaned forward. “Now, if you could break into someone’s dreams, imagine how one would possibly defend against it. You could militarize your subconscious, for example, to protect itself against invaders. Or you could think a little more creatively.”
Arthur blinked. “A virus? Like a cold?”
Eames nodded. “A friend of mine – well, an associate, rather – he says that an idea is like a virus. The analogy seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Now, what kind of virus do you think would be a viable defense against someone who burglars your private thoughts?”
“I don’t know,” said Arthur. He rubbed absently at his leg. “We’re talking about dreams. So anything would be possible.”
“Exactly. It wouldn’t have to affect your physical body, would it? It’d be all up here.” He tapped his forehead. “Have you ever woken up from a dream and gone on with your day, only to wake up again, and realize you’d been dreaming the whole time? That whole day that you spent doing errands or going shopping or what have you, it was only your brain firing off random neurons, while you were hanging at the edge of sleep.”
Arthur nodded. “So, this virus could theoretically trap someone in a dream.”
“Yes. It’d be like a sticky trap. Like one of those flowers that lures in insects, then digests them once they’re stuck.”
There was a pleasant image. “Sounds like a kind of torture,” Arthur murmured.
“Ah, but there’s the thing. If you keep that person from ever realizing that they’re dreaming, they’d never fight it. Never try to wake up.”
The question was on the tip of Arthur’s tongue – how would you convince them that what they were seeing was real? – but when he thought about it, he realized it was human nature to just accept what was in front of one’s face. Arthur knew enough about misdirection and lying to know that most people were uneasy about disbelieving what they were told out of hand.
“Wait,” Arthur said instead, because they weren’t talking about most people. “We’re talking about seasoned thieves, who probably know their way around dreams. Wouldn’t they be able to tell if they were awake or not?”
Eames nodded. “Yes, but this is a dream. It’s all a story playing out in someone’s mind. You could mess around with the narrative, the setting, take them backwards or forwards in time, make them children again. You could remove any trace of their old lives, until they’ve forgotten that they ever knew anything else.”
Arthur took a deep breath, tried to calm his heart, which had started beating harder in his chest. “And all that’s left would be déjà vu.”
“Echoes of familiarity. Feelings of vertigo, like you’re in two places at the same time.”
Arthur put a hand to his chest and leaned forward. His heart was now hammering painfully in his chest.
“Arthur, what’s wrong?” Eames asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I think I’m having a heart attack,” Arthur mumbled. He felt as though he were going to be sick, and his chest was aching almost as much as his leg. He couldn’t catch his breath.
Eames pulled him out of the chair and lay him on the bed, hovering over him. “Arthur, stay focused. It’s not a heart attack.”
“What the hell is this?” Arthur said, panting weakly.
“Look at me, Arthur,” Eames commanded. “Do you remember, after you got me out of Stalingrad? That conversation in that shack in the Ukraine?”
Arthur nodded. “You asked me... Jello or tapioca pudding–”
“Of course you’d remember that, you daft bastard,” Eames said. “What else did we talk about?”
It was hard to focus on Eames through the pain in his chest. It felt like his ribs were being pried apart. “We talked about... you asked me if I’d want to wake up. I said yes.”
Eames gazed down at him. “I’m asking you again. Right now, if I gave you the option of staying in a hypothetical dream or–”
“Wake me up,” Arthur said. “I want you to.”
Eames blinked, and his mouth was pressed down into a thin line. “Arthur–”
“You’re not nearly as subtle as you think you are, Eames. Wake me up, damn it.”
Eames pressed a kiss to Arthur’s mouth, then reached over to the table that stood next to the dusty bed. There was a small metal case in the drawer. He drew it out and flipped the latches. Inside, there were two syringes.
“You’re sure,” Eames said, picking one up.
Arthur fumbled at his sleeve with numb fingers, undoing the buttons and then pushing it up to his bicep. “Do it before I lose my nerve.”
Eames took Arthur’s arm and pressed down on a vein in the crook of his arm. “As if you ever would,” he said.
There was a pinch, a sting as the needle slid into Arthur’s vein. A slight throbbing after Eames pressed down on the plunger, in time to the frenzied beat of Arthur’s heart.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” Eames whispered.
The floor rippled beneath him, shifting and shaking as though from an earthquake. A wave of nausea hit Arthur, and his muscles all began cramping, with pain radiating out from his leg and his chest. He thrashed on the bed, contorting in pain.
He blacked out as the floor fell out from beneath him, and everything that was him, that was Arthur, was swallowed up in the dark.
Half Moon Bay, California. Here and now.
There was light. And then a sound. A voice.
It was a man. His face was familiar, the blue eyes and sandy hair. He looked tired, and that was familiar too.
It took a second. Then: Dom.
“Blink if you can understand me.”
Arthur blinked, too tired to do anything else.
“Thank fuck,” Dom said emphatically, rubbing his hands over his face. “Do you remember what happened?”
No, Arthur mouthed. He couldn’t get his voice to work.
Dom opened his mouth again, but Arthur had apparently used up all his stores of energy for the moment. He shut his eyes and fell into a sleep that was blessedly dreamless.
“Ellison’s team at GenCorp designed the virus as a biochemical defense,” Dom told him, a few days later. “He infected himself with a beta version, then got a third party to hire you to extract from him.”
“Using criminals as test subjects,” Arthur mused. “It’s not without precedent.”
Dom nodded. “When you plugged in, he infected you. You were stuck in the dream. So was Ellison, though. He hadn’t quite worked all the kinks out, I guess.”
Arthur hadn’t bothered to find out where Ellison was, if he was still dreaming or not. He remembered the politician that Eames killed in France and wondered if that was him. Arthur knew he’d ask eventually, but at the moment, he couldn’t work up the energy to care.
“I don’t remember any of this,” Arthur said.
“It’s a side effect of the Oneiros virus, short-term memory loss.”
“That, and it happened more than forty years ago for me,” Arthur said.
Dom grimaced a bit. After a second, he continued, “When the timer went off and neither of you woke, Todashi called Eames, and Eames called me. We brought you here, started piecing together what had happened, how to fix it.”
Arthur nodded, and sipped at his water. “How did you know that you wouldn’t get infected when you plugged into my dream?”
“We didn’t,” Dom answered. “But Eames thought it was worth the risk.”
“Idiot,” Arthur said. Judging by Dom’s grin, it came out sounding much more fond than he had meant it to.
“It paid off. Turns out the virus wasn’t capable of spreading from anyone but the initial carrier. And you had managed to successfully extract the details of the virus from Ellison. They were there, hidden away in the world you’d created. It just took some time to find them.”
“And then some more time to synthesize a cure,” a voice came from the doorway. Eames stood there, slouched against the door frame. “That’s why I was gone for so long, after Stalingrad.”
Dom looked back and forth between the two of them, then stood. “I should go call the kids. Let Marie know I’ll be home soon.”
Arthur nodded, and Dom patted him on the shoulder as he left the room. That just left him and Eames.
“Any interest in going outside?” Eames asked. “It’s warm enough and the sun should be going down soon. There’s a decent view from the back patio.”
Arthur was torn, for a moment, between desperately wanting to breathe fresh air, and just as desperately not wanting Eames to push him around in a wheelchair like some sort of invalid. In the end, though, it was too good to pass up. And he did manage to slither off the bed and onto the chair mostly under his own power.
The patio did have a good view. There was a table out there, made of wrought iron and frosted glass, and Eames rolled him over to it, then sat down next to him.
“I didn’t realize,” Arthur said, looking back at the house. “In the dream, when you brought me to that house by the ocean. It was this one, wasn’t it?”
The three-story house was vastly changed from the one in the dream. This one was clean, in good repair, no broken windows or warped boards. It was painted a cheerful blue, with a red trim.
“We stayed here for a few days in the winter,” Eames said. “After the Rawlins job. Do you remember?”
It took a second, but the memory came back. Eames had invited him back to the house after they’d finished up some work in San Francisco. They’d kissed for the first time in this house, hadn’t they? Arthur hadn’t recognized it at all, not in the dream, and not when he’d first woken up.
“I remember,” Arthur said.
“It feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?” Eames asked.
“It was a long time ago,” Arthur insisted. He looked down at his hands, still surprised to see them so unlined, without the familiar scars. It was like looking up into a sky that was filled with unfamiliar constellations. Without looking up, Arthur said, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to get used to this.”
“What do you mean?” asked Eames, his voice guarded.
“I can remember having two different childhoods, Eames,” Arthur said. “And the one I remember more clearly is the one that never actually happened. How do you hold something like that in your mind? Those two different sets of realities? How do you do that and not go crazy?”
“It’s possible,” Eames said. “Dom can tell you that much.”
Arthur shook his head. “And there’s us,” he said.
Eames looked at him. There were bags under his eyes, and more scruff than usual on his jaw. Arthur thought he looked tired and beaten, like he had in Marseilles. “What about us?”
“I’ve known you for twenty years. But that wasn’t you, not exactly. In reality, we’ve only been dating for...”
“Three months,” Eames said, when it became apparent that Arthur couldn’t remember.
“A good portion of which I spent in a coma,” Arthur pointed out.
Eames took a ragged breath, and scrubbed at his face. “Arthur, darling, what are you saying?”
Arthur looked away, towards the ocean. The sun was setting in a bright array of colors, vivid as a painter’s pallet. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “I’m just... frustrated and confused and I hate not being able to remember all this shit. It’s got me paranoid.”
“Because you don’t remember how you got here?” Eames asked.
Arthur nodded, then laughed miserably. “Thank god I can’t dream naturally. I think I’d be afraid to fall asleep, in case I woke up back in 1968.”
“Arthur,” Eames said, his tone grave. “Do you regret waking up?”
Arthur sighed, and looked back at him. Eames looked like his heart was being torn apart inside his chest.
Arthur couldn’t stand it. He reached out and touched Eames’ jaw, drawing him in for a kiss.
“No,” he said. He made himself sound more sure of that than he actually was, for Eames’ sake. “No, it’s just... complicated.”
Eames took a breath, and drew back a little. He touched Arthur’s breast pocket, where the familiar weight of the die was pressed against Arthur’s chest. “At least you’ve got this now.”
Arthur nodded. “I do.”
“And you’ve got me. If you want me, I mean. I couldn’t give a shit if we’ve only been together for a few months, not counting the time you spent in a coma.” Eames smiled lopsidedly. “I’m yours for the having.”
Arthur kissed him again, and the kiss, the familiarity of it, triggered another memory; a different kiss, in this same house, the whisper of triumphant words as rain fell outside.
He wasn’t sure, not totally, but he thought that maybe it would be possible to live in the uncertainty.
“They’ll never catch us now,” he whispered into Eames’ mouth.