The first time you attempt to forge Mal, it’s barely a month after her death. You don’t do it for Dom, initially; you’re curious and becoming her is akin to a personal challenge. Your mind is taunting you in the sweetest ways, and who are you to deny what it wants? The fact that Dom requests it is only secondary to the original formation of the idea.
“I didn’t know her, I hope you realize,” you say calmly as you and Dom hook yourselves up to the PASIV. “You’re going to need to describe all the details as best you can.”
Dom nods, closing his eyes. “She’s my other half. I can.”
Dom, it turns out, cannot.
“The eyes, the eyes are wrong, Eames. They’re blue, not fucking grey.”
You sigh, and rub your (Mal’s) manicured nails through your (her) hair. “That doesn’t help, Cobb. Blue is a color, not a shade. I need more than that. Were they icy blue? Dark? Sky?”
“They’re beautiful, is what they are.”
“Okay.” You drop the beginnings of the forge to return to your own form. “Okay, we need to set some ground rules. First off, you don’t speak about her as if she still is. Mal is dead, and you are not. Secondly, I am not, nor will I ever be Mal. And finally, for this to work, you need to look at things from a subjective point of view. It does me no good to hear you describe her hair as waves of chocolate. On that same note, don’t become a poet.”
Dom grunts in what you hope is understanding and you start over in silence. One piece at a time.
“A little narrower. I should be able to see your collarbone.”
Knees and toes.
“More boney, but not wobbly.”
(Knees and toes).
“Not as round, yeah, more like that.”
“Not as…far out. Closer to her head.”
“Good, that looks about right.”
Head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
(Knees and toes.)
“Mon cheri, I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Where are the children? James, Phillipa?”
Dom places a comforting hand on your (her) shoulder. “They’re fine. They’re staying with relatives right now.”
“Mm. I see. Bring them next time. We could stay here as a family. Together.” You, (no, you’re Mal, right now you’re her) smiles.
Dom removes his hand and places it on the table in front of them. “Mal…”
“Dear, wouldn’t it be lovely? We’d all be so happy.”
“Mal,” Dom tries again. “I would love to.”
“You would love to what?”
Except your lips aren’t moving. Her lips are not moving.
“Is this what you do in your free time, love? You imagine me, when you could actually have me?”
Dom pauses, looks at you in confusion, and turns towards the voice.
“Dom,” you offer tensely. “What is this?”
She grins (not you, it’s not you, you’re nothing like that); an open-mouthed, no teeth, black hole smile. “I’m a better version of you, dear.” Her eyes narrow slightly. She calmly walks over to herself-
(-Eames, your name is Eames. You’re not her, remember, you’re not-)
-and runs a manicured nail down your shoulder blade.
The forge flickers slightly.
Her grin widens as she leans down next to your ear. “Vous ne serez jamais aussi belle que moi,” she whispers before she bites gently on your earlobe.
And Dom, fuck him to all realms of Hell, pipes in at that exact moment. “No one can compare to you. Not even him.” He shoots himself, and you find yourself mesmerized by the blood and the splatter of his head against the wall.
You don’t move purposefully the entire time she rips you apart, only flinching a few times as reflex.
You don’t drop the forge once. You’d pat yourself on the back, but that’s hard to do without any hands.
Did you mention that you hate Dominick Cobb?
You awake with the feel of manicured nails behind your eyes. You open them slowly, focusing on a small coffee stain by the foot of the chair, before you push it back (push the bile and the nausea back) and walk towards the bathroom. You ignore Dom’s apologetic pleas.
“I didn’t think.”
“Eames, she’s not usually that bad.”
“She was just jealous.”
“I’m sorry. Please, can we try it again?”
You close the door to the bathroom slowly, hearing the lock click into place. You close your eyes in front of the mirror and roll them around behind their eyelids, relishing in the feel. You open each one carefully, knowing that they’re there but needing to see. You laugh a little and hold up your hands.
You touch your cheek, your hair, your forehead where you can still see the scar from the first time you were captured during war.
You run your hands down your neck to your collarbone. You feel your arms. See the veins that connect you to the PASIV, going-
-down past your stomach and your thighs to the scar tissue and slight crookedness of your patella from kneeling on concrete floors too often-
-until you’re doubled over and touching your feet.
You slowly come back up, again, and breathe a little easier.
You’re you, and you’re fine.
“Fuck you, Cobb,” you say as he offers one more apology that doesn’t quite sound sincere.
You meet a man in a bar in Mombasa. He offers to take you to a place where the booze is cheaper and tastes better, and you reluctantly agree. You manage to sneak a look at his wallet. Yusuf is his name, so at least you know if something happens to you, you’ll die knowing he wasn’t a complete stranger.
It’s strange, what you find comforting.
He takes you back to an apartment, that just so happens to be in the same complex you live in. He offers you a clear glass of what looks like beer, and you hold it up to the light.
“Just making sure you didn’t poison it,” you tell him, only thirty percent jokingly.
He laughs as if you said the funniest joke in the world. “I think I like you…” he trails off. “I’m sorry, I never caught your name.”
You blink a couple times. “Eames.”
He doesn’t ask you if that’s your first or last, if you have something you prefer to be called, what kind of a name is that? You’re grateful. You don’t think you could answer if he had questioned you.
“Eames, hm? I’m-”
“-Yusuf, I know. I went through your wallet.”
He cocks his head. You wonder what he’s thinking, but then he smiles. “I take what I said back. I don’t think I like you. Bloody hell, I know I like you.”
Yusuf lifts his own glass, toasting the air, and swallows it down. You look at your own, cautiously sniffing it.
“It’s okay, I made it myself.”
Well, in that case…
You drink it all in one go. Might as well go out in a bang.
You don’t die, although it feels like it the next day.
(The hangover helps though. It grounds you. You can’t get truly drunk in dreams.)
“Bloody hell, this is incredible.”
You’re not sure if this is friendship or not, but you’d love it to be if it gets you more of what you just had.
“I like you, but I think I like the beer more,” you tell him.
He smiles, and then falters slightly. “Thank you. I made it myself. I’m a…” he pauses, searching for the right word, “…a chemist. But it’s not entirely legal, so you can’t go around telling all your friends about this.” He looks at you with pleading eyes.
You inhale, knowing this could be a huge mistake. “Yusuf. What do you know about dreamsharing?”
The first time you show Yusuf the PASIV, he nearly pees himself in glee.
“This is just incredible! This is the real thing?”
“Yes.” You give him a brief history of it. You condense Miles and Mal and Dom and the army into a couple minutes, hoping he can follow. He can.
“What happened to them?” he asks after you explain how Dom and Mal got trapped in limbo.
“Mal went crazy and killed herself. Dom hasn’t forgiven himself.”
He looks at you warily. “Do you want him to?”
You blink before you answer. “I don’t know. I never met her.”
“But you’ve met him.”
“Yes.” You don’t say anything else.
“Tell me more about the team.”
“It’s not really a team. I’ve helped Cobb with a few clients. He extracts information, Arthur plans things out and preps us, and I forge.”
“Tell me about that.”
You’re confused until he elaborates. “Forging, tell me about that.”
So you do. You tell him about the learning process. About not just looking like a person, but becoming them. You tell him about the first time you tried it, how you were terrified when you watched yourself morph, how the change completely threw you and when you left the dream you spent the next couple days with a pocket mirror to verify you were still you. You tell him about how you wouldn’t accept any jobs until you knew you could forge with control. You don’t tell him that you practiced and practiced and it became your religion, your addiction, you. You tell him that sometimes when you’re bored you create your own forges. They’re never as good as real people, but they often come in handy. You don’t tell them that you sometimes make them because you’re lonely.
“Show me,” he says.
So you go under, again. You forge him. His dark skin, curly hair, brown eyes, wide smile. You forge him and he says nothing. He touches his (your) cheek, feeling the day old stubble beneath his fingers.
“Incredible,” he whispers.
“It is,” Yusuf’s own voice echoes back.
You show him a few more. Dom and Arthur briefly, Miles, your parents. He’s curious about Arthur. You forge him as unrelenting and open minded. You forge his cheekbones, his jaw structure, his eyes, his dimples, all without qualm. You know this information; it’s always in the back of your head. You forge his lean, wiry figure, and one of his clean cut suits. He’s all lines and angles, geometric and brutally honest.
“Is that what you see?” Yusuf questions.
You don’t quite understand the question. “What do you mean?”
“He’s important to you, isn’t he?”
“He’s a vital part of every job he’s involved in.” You don’t think that’s what Yusuf meant, but you’re not sure what you mean, either.
“You trust him.”
You avoid answering directly. “He’s the best at what he does.”
He looks at you, an unnamable emotion in his eyes. It disappears as quickly as it comes. “Is there anyone you can’t forge, Eames?”
You think back to Mal. “Yes, there is.”
You breathe deeply and stare into the mirror for a few minutes, gathering your wits.
You can do this. You can become her. You don’t need to know her to be her.
You watch as your face becomes hers. Your figure slims and chest grows and chin sharpens. Your hair lengthens and waves and lightens a bit. Your eyes change colors.
When the transformation is complete, you turn to face Yusuf.
“Hello, my name is Mallorie. But please, call me Mal.” You hold out a hand.
Yusuf shakes it. “French? You’re…she’s French?”
“Yes, I am.”
You smile, and that’s when things go horribly wrong. You’re not sure what’s wrong about it, but it doesn’t feel like a smile should. It doesn’t feel warm or inviting, and judging by Yusuf’s expression, it doesn’t look it, either.
“Jesus,” he chokes.
You contemplate dropping the forge, but…
But no. You can do this. It can’t be that hard. You focus on each aspect of the smile. The lips, the teeth, the feel of your (her) tongue inside the mouth. It’s a smile. It can’t be that hard.
You glance at Yusuf’s shocked face, the mirror, her own face staring back at you. You smile.
It’s dark, uninviting, unyielding, disconcerting, and inhuman. Your lips are spread unnaturally thin and look as if they’re being pulled by a string. When you open your mouth there’s blackness where there should be the natural glimmer of teeth, and when you move your tongue around, you can taste and see the dark red blood escaping between your lips.
“It’s okay,” you hear yourself say. You swallow, inadvertently stomaching some of the blood, and drop the forge.
You don’t have to turn around to know who’s behind you. Yusuf is saying nothing, which you’re thankful for.
“Vous êtes un échec,” she tells you sweetly. “But it’s okay. It’s part of what makes us human.”
“You’re not human,” Yusuf says wide-eyed. “This is a projection, right Eames?”
You’re silent, choosing to look at her instead.
“Why?” you ask.
She taps her nails together, running her eyes over your body. You breathe deeply as she walks over to Yusuf. You hold it in as she runs a hand over the front of his throat. He looks terrified, and you briefly wonder if you have a similar expression on your face.
“Pourquoi pas?” she says, and snaps Yusuf’s neck. You have to force yourself not to come to his aid; as much as you want to, you know it’s too late. “You’re not me, darling.”
“Why can’t I be?”
And this time, when she smiles, it’s sweet and open and alarmingly gentle. “Because you cannot be what you are not already.”
This time, when she kills you it’s less vicious, but slower. She slices across your neck, nicking the jugular. She tilts her head and watches as you bleed down your collarbone. You follow a line of blood down to the ground with your eyes. She looks on as you lose feeling in your legs, knees buckling beneath you, and you hit the ground hard.
You try to speak, but all that comes out is a guttural groan and pink spit.
It takes an hour for you to bleed out completely. You’re awake the entire time. You’re too numb to laugh at the irony, but you manage to crack a smile.
Arthur knows something’s wrong. You’re not sure how, but he’s looking at you a little differently, and there’s a sadness in his eyes you can’t quite place.
You join him and Dom on an extraction, forging a widow’s husband. Dom’s Mal follows you and the team, but she keeps her distance. Only you know it’s because your own projection of her is hiding in the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
You go off to make the forgery, to complete the persona change, and she follows you. This isn’t the distraction you need, so you shoot her. But, unlike the other projections, she doesn’t disappear or die or fall over; she simply shimmers. It reminds you of the shards of glass you used to find in the alleyways back home; how they would shine and glow and gleam while reflecting the lights that hit them from all angles. Like the broken windows of the houses your mother warned you to stay away from as a child, you can’t help but want to explore.
It’s almost beautiful, in a heart-wrenching, terrifying way.
For a moment, you think this is what you want.
(For just a moment, it is.)
You reach a hand towards her, wanting to touch, but not wanting to disturb the image. Your hand slides across her shoulder and you gasp as your skin splits and the blood wells over your fingertips. You pull away to observe the shallow cuts. The blood shimmers slightly under the light. You’re mesmerized, paralyzed.
She grins at you. You don’t compare her to the dark beauty of the ruins, anymore. The blackness of her smile doesn’t quite match the darkness of the alleyways, or the dusty dimness behind the cracked glass. Those areas were curious, strange with their hidden shadows within shadows and corners you couldn’t quite see around. Mal (this isn’t Mal, though, Eames. This is you.) isn’t that. She’s an abyss, a black hole that may look pretty, but doesn’t act it. Her blackness isn’t the dustiness you’re used to, or the shadows that follow you down the street. It’s empty, and you don’t bother looking into it because you know there’s nothing there to find.
You hear a shuffling behind you, but you don’t turn to look.
You snap your head away.
You blink, turn back to the scene in front of you, and watch as she shatters completely, littering the ground with glass that melts together and looks like mercury except not as silver. It’s a color you can’t quite define, somewhere between the not quite black colors of the night sky and the color you see in perfect darkness.
(Eigengrau, you remember.)
It’s sliding across the floor, crawling up your leg, and it’s cold and sharp and contrasts with the hot rush of blood flowing down your trousers.
You choke out a small scream, and watch as Arthur jumps back a step, apparently not expecting that reaction.
Her voice is in your ear, in the air around you. You swear you can feel it moving around inside you, but that’s silly because voices can’t do that.
“Savez-vous comment vous vous sentez incroyable?” She whispers to you (at you, in you). “You want to become me? Would it be like this? Would it be like me being inside of you, being you? This is what you want, is it not? Vous voulez être moi. You have to let me in, dear. Let me become you, darling. Permettez-moi en, Eames.”
“No,” you gasp. Her words feel cold and they travel slowly through your bloodstream, like sickly sweet molasses on a winter day, but with more sickly and less sweet. You can see her behind your eyelids, you can feel her inside of you, the liquid shimmering and pulsing and flowing through your veins under your skin.
(No no no oh god no please not like this this isn’t what you wanted what you meant Mal stop stop stop st-)
(-ease don’t you can’t it hurts Arthur please help stop it no nononononono-)
He shoots you. He shoots you in the leg because he’s scared (you think; you would be). But she’s (it’s) still inside of you, growing and shifting and sliding over your muscles and bones and filling up your throat so you can’t breathe.
Arthur grabs at you, forces you to your knees, and you gasp loudly. You give a couple of full body shakes, and she’s gone. You feel nothing of her, just the solidness of Arthur’s hands holding firmly onto your shoulders. You can feel his pulse, not pounding as fast as yours, but still increased.
She’s gone? Is she gone? Is it gone, Arthur? Please, tell me it’s over, you want to plead.
You look at him. His eyes are wide, scared, horrified at what he witnessed.
“Did you shoot me?” you ask instead.
He pulls his hands away, and you can’t help but feel a little saddened by this. He stays nearby, though, choosing to sit beside you. You watch as the blood from your leg wound smears onto his cleanly pressed suit.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I thought, maybe, something was happening topside, but then you started talking and it wasn’t you, Jesus, it wasn’t you.” He stares at you. “I just…you…you were…I don’t even know what happened, Eames. Explain to me what happened.”
You blink a few times, shiver, and touch your hand to the blood (your blood) on him. It’s a deep red, staining the pads of your fingers.
“I don’t know.”
You wish he knew. He’s Arthur; he’s supposed to know everything.
“I’ll figure this out someday, Eames.” He narrows his eyes while nodding at you.
You hope he does.
“I hope you do.”
Because maybe then he could explain it to you and you wouldn’t be so scared.
He smiles, a sad smile, but a smile. On a whim, you drag his hand to your lips, and whisper a hushed thank you over his fingertips. He jerks it away, but his smile seems a bit more honest now.
You’re not upset. You’ll take what you can get.
Just as long as it doesn’t try to take you in return.
You forget the dream by the end of the next day. It’s simply like fuzziness in your mind. Something happened, something strange and full of emotion, but you remember none of it.
Arthur stands a little closer to you, you notice. He smiles at you a bit more and buys you tea (although it’s not the good stuff, but you don’t complain because there’s so much honesty in it).
You kind of sort of want to kiss him (or have him kiss you, you don’t care which).
No worries, though. You have so much to do.
Mal awaits, after all.