The memo they all receive at the beginning of training says the following: A totem, in the context of lucid dreaming, is a small object known only to the person to whom it belongs, unique enough that it will help the dreamer to know automatically whether he is awake or not.
Arthur thinks the whole idea is a load of crap, despite the fact that the memo has come down from the highest authority. How can someone not know whether they’re dreaming or awake?
He watches nine different men put bullets in their brains before he realizes that maybe this Mallorie Cobb really is on to something.
He chooses a loaded die as his totem after watching his tenth teammate stick a gun in his mouth and blow out the back of his own head. He’s not a gambler, has never actually picked up a die for a game other than Yahtzee, and he hasn’t even done that in over a decade.
No, he chooses the die because it’s so unfamiliar. Because he’s not comfortable with it in his pocket, he can’t imagine that his unconscious mind would ever be able to forge it adequately enough to trick Arthur into imagining he’s awake.
He never imagines a circumstance where someone else would be able to adequately forge his die for him.
He never imagines a man like Eames.
Not because his imagination is lacking. No, he could never imagine a man like Eames because men like Eames don’t exist in real life.
Eames is an asshole. There’s really no other word for it.
He’s loud and mouthy and too goddamned sure of himself and his skills.
But he’s good. Even Arthur can admit to that, no matter how much it pains him to do so, not that he’ll ever say it out loud. Eames is insufferable enough as it is; he doesn’t need his ego fed any more.
The first time they share a dreamspace, Eames fashions himself a bland sort of business man look that’s so good that Arthur wouldn’t have recognized him if he hadn’t known who he was.
“Good, huh?” Eames asks, his London accent gone, replaced by a generically Midwestern one. He turns to and fro, as if displaying his new body for perusal. Arthur refuses to look anywhere but Eames’s face.
“It’s adequate,” he says, blinking and looking over Eames’s shoulder, following Eames’s projections as they move about. They’re surprisingly… normal.
“Here, hold this,” Eames says, pressing something small and hard into Arthur’s hand before wandering off, whistling slightly off key, hands stuffed in the pockets of his trousers.
Arthur looks down at the red die sitting in his palm for a long moment before he crouches down and lets it roll. Again and again and again he rolls it and again and again and again it lands on reality.
He pulls his own die from his pocket, breathes a sigh of relief when it lands on dream then dream then dream.
“How did you know?” Arthur asks once they’ve awoken. His die has rolled reality more than a dozen times now.
“It’s my business to notice the details, Arthur,” Eames says, fiddling with the pocket watch chain attached to a belt loop on his slacks. His accent is once again his own. “I wouldn’t be half as good as I am if I didn’t.”
Arthur has to admit, if only in his own mind, that Eames has a point.
“What other details have you noticed about me?” he asks, pulling the IV needle from his wrist and pressing a tissue to the dot of blood left behind.
“Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?” is all Eames says before standing and striding from the room, leaving Arthur alone.
Arthur prides himself on his own attention to the details. Like any good dreamer, like Eames, his job depends on noticing the little things, collating the details together to form the bigger picture.
For the longest time, Arthur is certain that Eames’s totem is the worn out poker chip he carries with him everywhere. He’s always rubbing it between his fingers, catching his thumbnail in the grooves along the chip’s edge, hardly ever looking at the chip despite how much time he spends with it in his hand.
It takes two years of working the occasional odd job together before Arthur realizes he’s made a fundamental error in his evaluation of Eames. It’s not the first time he misjudges the man and it won’t be the last, either.
They’re practicing for a job, working in Mal’s mind with Arthur’s subconscious filling in the gaps, the first time Arthur notices it.
Mal is playing with the architecture of the dream still, hasn’t quite decided on her mazes yet. Dom is on one side, offering suggestions; Arthur is silent, watching, on Mal’s other side. Eames stands slightly apart, in front of a mirror that had appeared there upon his request, his reflection shifting every so often.
Dom says something Arthur doesn’t catch, but he does catch the way Mal’s posture stiffens half a second before he hears the gunshot, catches her body as she falls into him.
The ground starts to shake, buildings crumble. Arthur’s projections close in as the dream collapses around them. None of them had thought to include guns in the blueprint of the dream; they are defenseless against the mob that’s risen up against them.
Dom goes down cursing until the very moment he is silenced by a knife severing his vocal cords. Arthur struggles silently, crying out only when his shoulder is dislocated (again).
Eames screams, terrified.
That scream is still echoing in Arthur’s ears when he wakes, his eyes going straight to Eames, who is sitting hunched over, IV still in place, with his open pocket watch cradled in his hand.
“Oh,” Arthur says, glancing away when Eames raises his head.
Arthur pays closer attention after that, catches the clues now that he knows what to look for. He wonders how it slipped his notice for so long.
No matter what Eames wears, there is always a watch chain visible on his person: on his waistcoat, hooked to his belt and leading to a pocket, once leading from a shirt button to chest pocket.
But no matter how Arthur watches, no matter how many times his eyes linger on the silver chain hanging from Eames's clothing, he doesn't see the pocket watch itself for years, almost long enough for him to forget about it completely.
Mal's funeral is a quiet affair. Arthur watches through high-powered binoculars from as far away as possible. He fingers the die in his pocket, knows it will come up reality if he rolls it, but its weight is comforting nonetheless.
He doesn't startle when Eames steps up beside him, has been expecting the man for quite some time if he's being honest with himself.
"I keep checking," Eames says and Arthur can see the pocket watch nestled in Eames's palm. "I don't think I've ever hated reality more."
"You forged my totem once," Arthur tells him, neglecting to mention the gut-churning fear that had inspired. Eames doesn't need to know about that. "What makes you think someone isn't doing the same to you right now?"
"No one else is that good," he says, tucking his watch carefully away.
Arthur shakes his head and passes over the binoculars when Eames holds his hand out for them.
Arthur is good at his job. He makes mistakes, but never the same one twice. When Dom stops building, Arthur recommends Nash. When Dom takes Saito's job offer after leaving Nash to Cobol's tender mercies, Arthur studiously doesn't mention Eames.
Dom recruits Eames anyway and Arthur makes brand new mistakes, but none of them involve Eames.
Arthur thinks he might be evolving as a human being.
"What's Eames's totem?" Ariadne asks him one day while they're going over the models for his dream level.
"Why do you think I would know?" Arthur replies, tilting the model up and studying the maze. It's not bad, but it could always be better, especially with so much riding on their success. He grabs the pad and pencil out of Ariadne's hands and starts sketching out a revision.
"You two seem to know each other pretty well," she says, leaning over his arm to see the sketchpad. "I was just curious."
Arthur thinks about that and if he took the time, he could come up with a refuting argument, but he can see how Ariadne would come to that conclusion based on what she knows of them, of their surface interactions.
"Curiosity will get you killed in this line of work," he tells her instead.
In the end, Dom gets off a plane and goes home to his children.
Arthur collects his bag and heads for departures, buys tickets to Tokyo, London, Monte Carlo, São Paolo, Johannesburg, and Bangkok. He shuffles the tickets in his hand and gets in line at Starbucks. He orders a plain black coffee and asks the barista to pick a number between one and six.
The coffee ends up in a trash can and Arthur ends up on a plane to London.
Somehow, Eames ends up in the seat next to him.
Dom calls with a job six months later because one last job to get home to his kids could never be just one last job. Arthur listens to the details and doesn't hesitate to offer to bring Eames in when Dom mentions the need for a forger.
After all, Arthur prides himself in never making the same mistake twice.