You don’t notice right away that you’ve stopped dreaming. You don’t miss what’s not there, like getting better after an illness and forgetting your pain was ever once the only thing in your world. There is no constant reminder, no metaphorical tree roots for your mind to trip over and say: oh, so there it is. You go to sleep and you wake up refreshed: that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Blackness, oblivion, the end until the beginning.
Yet in that darkness you begin to realise that there should be light, there should be a stuttering film reel of implausible situations in implausible colours. There should be ideas half formed and wishes half made, but instead there is nothing. That doesn’t sit right with you somehow. You’re not the kind of man to be sentimental, to hold on to what’s not there, but this isn’t like keeping a photo in your wallet. This is so much more than saving your childhood teddy, Mr Chip, in your parent’s attic.
This is like losing a piece of you, as important as your love of vanilla ice-cream, expensive tailored suits and Richard Siken poems. This is like losing the brown from your eyes.
You ask Dom about it once, over coffee in a Parisian café, but he doesn’t want to talk about it and steers your conversation away to other topics. You think you know why he hedges, shying from your questions. Dom knows what it is to dream and not dream. He taught you all you know, and you know a shit-ton. You begin to realise that with Mal gone Dom walks a tightrope, a blade so fine it could cut a hair in half lengthways. You try to imagine what it must be like to only ever experience the world of dreams as a place where your beloved wife tries to kill you, where she hates you, fighting across your subconscious in some private anguish of guilt. Nothing is left of the beautiful abstracts, not for Dom, not any more.
Fleetingly, you wonder what it must have been like to experience such passion from the inside. You’ve only ever looked on as an impartial observer, face pressed against a sold, invisible barrier. Mostly you’re okay with this, you’ve got your work and you’re plenty passionate about that.
The first time Eames kisses you, up against a wall in a swanky Shanghai hotel, you can’t catch your breath. It’s surprising, and yet, not at all. You consider punching him in the face for taking liberties, for wrinkling your favourite silk tie, but that’s all you do, consider it and then send it to the discard pile. You submit, because you think you see a glimmer of what you’d witnessed between Dom and Mal – but because this is you and Eames it will look vastly different even if the core is the same. It will look like smirks and heat and boundary-testing; like firearms and sarcasm and the strategic burning of paisley shirts. It will be your own. It’s amazing what can flicker through your mind in the space of a single kiss.
The two of you aren’t exactly inseparable after that but Ariadne and the others make enough jokes about being joined at the hip, and calling the both of you Mr and Mrs Eames, that you seriously consider offing them. You want to give them a death they won’t wake from with no PASIV security-blanket. To make things worse Eames thinks it’s the funniest bloody thing he’s ever heard and likes to play up the domesticity of your relationship, calling you darling a little more often than is good for your sanity. You love him anyway, not that you’re ever going to say this to his face. Encouraging Eames is a dangerous business, particularly when you’re living on the proverbial floodplain.
In private, away from the steady rise and fall of your extraction jobs, you begin to dread the nothingness of your natural sleep and worry about losing too much of yourself in the darkness. You take to drinking anything with a high sugar and caffeine content, drinking so much you lose count of the hours you spend not sleeping, buzzing from a coffee-and-cigarette high. Eames begins to notice because he’s a forger, and if he didn’t notice details like this he’d be out of a job – but then you’d also be out one seriously awkward conversation. Fucking Eames.
He asks you, more than once, if you’re trying to kill yourself. You say no but he gives you a look that says he doesn’t believe you, a look that screams how he would fucking kill you himself if you keep doing what you’re doing. The realisation that Eames loves you, that this relationship has roots, is a revelation. This hits you upside the head and you resolve to cut back on the stimulants, but. It’s harder than you thought. This need to stay awake at all costs has grabbed a hold of you and won’t let go. You don’t like anything having such sway over your life, but you can’t keep the bone-deep fear of going back to how you were before, back to the reason you started all of this in the first place. Dreamless.
So you hide your failure as best you can.
You’re on a job for some rich asshole with a stupid name -- Keller Kellerman, would you believe? – who wants Dom’s team to dream a way of stealing his competitor’s newest and brightest idea. The idea is easy but the imagination that spawned the idea? Impossible. It is astonishing that so many assume it is the idea itself that matters and not the process, but it happens so often in your job and it amazes you a little less every time. You hate the job but you like the money. After a hard day of making plans, reviewing schematics and pretending you’re not drinking your weight in coffee, you lie in a hotel room bed wound up tighter than a coiled spring. Eames lies beside you. He’s asleep. For a horrible moment you hate him; you hate that he can close his eyes and that the dreamless plains of his sleep don’t trouble him like they do you. But you’re wrong, he isn’t asleep. He’s been watching you through the gloom.
Arthur, darling, stop it, Eames says to you, holding your face in his palms. Why won’t you just close your eyes? Why won’t you just sleep?
And you open your mouth, ready to lead him down the wrong path, smoke and mirrors, a Penrose staircase made of words. But that’s not what happens. Instead you yell at him, throw a sleep-drunk punch at his shoulder, wrestle with him until finally, too tired to do anything else, you sob against his chest, tears dripping against his inked skin. He hushes you, rocks your body against his.
Don’t be afraid, he says. Shut your eyes, I’ve got you, he says. I know you Arthur, I know you inside and out. You’ll never lose yourself, not when part of you belongs to me.
You barely put up a fight as sleep takes hold, the sound of Eames’ steady heart pressed tight against yours is better than a lullaby.
After the Kellerman job is finally over with, thank God, you and Eames head due south, as close to the equator as you can get. Sao Paulo, Brazil. So much city and so much heat. You lay naked in a bed without sheets because it’s too hot to have anything on your body but your own skin and even then you’d like to peel it away from your bones, open up a breeze to your heart. Despite the sweltering press of air, you can’t stop rutting lazily against Eames, nor he you. Even when his blunt fingers open you up, preparing you with nothing more than some well-aimed spit, so hot you start sweating, you don’t want to pull away. Eames is flushed and beautiful, hair soaked and dark against his head. You arch up and lick a path of salty-sweat from his neck, tracing the curve of it playfully, languidly. He laughs and finds the place inside you that ignites lightning.
It feels a little like what dreams used to be.
And yeah, it’s fucking corny but you don’t argue with the truth, whatever guise it comes in. You think that maybe, just maybe, you’re okay with the darkness of your uninterrupted sleep, because waking up to such a reality as this is so much more than you could have ever have dreamed.