Kentucky was north. Twists of unlined asphalt shooting and spiraling through woods so thick the trees on either side of the road occasionally met in ruffling canopies hundreds of feet overhead.
He didn't look for signs.
Jacob Harwell, but I prefer not to let word of that get around.
And your age?
Thirty-four, judging by the date.
What did you do for your birthday?
I can’t remember doing anything.
Unacceptable. Try again. Occupation?
Military intelligence, once.
And after then?
I don’t know.
How did you end up here?
He stole a car in Alabama and we never looked back. I slept until somewhere around Waverly and then I made him pull over and let me drive.
And before then?
I was sleeping. I don’t know.
Where are you going?
I don’t know.
It wasn’t much, but he repeated it to himself over and over while his passenger slept.
Eames believed in counting small favors, so he did. Knowing who he was, that was one, and where he was, that was another, but everything else slipped through his consciousness like sand through a sieve. Only hard black blurs of where he had been and what had happened and why there was a strange man dozing beside him with a hard silver briefcase tucked under his seat.
The man had never said where they were going. Eames, half awake and bone tired, had never asked.
“They’re not going to fuck with you again,” said the stranger when he woke. His voice was calm and austere, as if he had never been asleep at all. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be more. This seatbelt is broken, by the way, did you know that?”
“This isn’t first class. Cope or hotwire something better.”
At his side, the stranger was smiling. “Going in style takes much more effort than meets the eye. I'm glad I don't do it that often.”
“After the Fischer disaster, we had to hide.”
Eames said nothing.
“Do you remember?” Arthur asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Eames, evenly enough that Arthur wasn’t sure whether he was lying or not.
Arthur sighed at him, tight-jawed. “You really don’t. What did they do to you, Eames?”
Eames was eating a poppyseed bagel, looking listless. Elbows on the pallid Formica, little black dots on his fingertips, deep black rings limning his eyes.
“Fischer blew the whistle,” Arthur said at last, and sucked in a bitter mouthful of coffee. “Somehow, he knew. Tipped off from inside maybe, someone we bought out who decided it wasn’t worth it, who knows. The point is he’s trying to go public with dreamshare, expose the industry, and now it’s only a matter of time before everyone knows and it becomes the stylish thing to do. A status symbol, if you will: I am important enough that people pay to crack into my dreams.”
“I don’t,” said Eames, staring through the center of his bagel as if there was a more satisfactory answer hidden there, “have any idea what you’re going on about and I really don’t care.”
Arthur was used to watching chaos unfold, not used to being at a loss with how to cope with it. When Eames had fallen off the map for a good two months, he assumed it was deliberate for the first one. The doubt set in when it turned out no one else had heard from Eames either.
He could already see what would happen if Fischer succeeded. Lawsuits forever flying back and forth, politicians and celebrities with gilded j’accuses, every one of them claiming they’d been extracted from and eager to kick up a publicity storm even though of course it couldn’t be proved.
Dreams didn’t leave fingerprints. Dreams didn’t leave data.
When the first tentative prototype of a PASIV was introduced, there were supposed to be monitors for how frequently a person could dream. But, as per usual, the instant some new protocol reared its head there was someone ferreting out the loopholes. The regulations for caps on dreamtime were never enforced very strongly to begin with and there were plenty of ways around them besides. Arthur spent three solid hours strapped in once because the project engineers were too fascinated by his mind’s defense mechanisms to stop exploring them.
Shared dreaming stayed confined to special ops for precisely as long as it took for someone to tire of it and strike out on their own for fun and profit. By the time Arthur joined them, black-market PASIVs were practically a dime a dozen in the underground world of dreaming, cobbled together with hope and ingenuity and carefully purchased intel. He supposed it was only a matter of time before word crept out again and brought crackdown after crackdown in its wake.
Dwelling on the past was exponentially more cheerful than dwelling on the future.
“This is going to end very badly for all of us,” Arthur told him blandly, east of nowhere in the dismal claw of Arkansas. “If shared dreaming is known to the masses, people are gonna go insane from one of two things: the possibility that they’re already caught in a dream or the possibility they could end up caught in one without ever being the wiser.”
Eames only slouched and shrugged, so Arthur kept the rest to himself and sipped burnt black coffee while thoughts pounded the inside of his skull like tiny fists. The technology will run wild and unregulated, everyone eager to get their hands on it for something as small as stealing a homework assignment or as crippling as ruining a life.
At the end of the meal, Eames reached for his wallet, realized there wasn’t one, and nodded his thanks when Arthur paid.
And they moved on, stopping only long enough to eat, to sleep, to buy Eames some more clothes from a strip mall. Eames never asked where they were heading, though Arthur kept waiting for him to.
“I suppose anything’s an improvement on where I’m coming from, isn’t it?” he said once, offhand, while Arthur was pumping gas. And that was all.
He never asked Eames how long they had kept him under.
What is your name?
I go by Eames.
And his name?
Arthur Szafaryn. I had to nick his laptop and poke around a bit. The surname varies, but at least half of him is consistent.
Where are you from?
What do you remember about it?
Everything. Every last sordid detail.
And a week ago, before he came for you, what do you remember about that?
It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.
In the night, he did something stupid, but it came to him so naturally he didn’t think twice. Arthur insisted on always booking two rooms but only using one, on sleeping with a Glock 19 under his extra pillow, on having an endless supply of tea at hand for when Eames inevitably jolted awake half a dozen times each night, his throat raw and his hands groping for the PASIV to make sure it was still closed.
Protection is important, Arthur said once, turning the television onto something mindless and casually placing a folding knife on the bedside table. He always reacted so calmly, like Eames wasn’t a nightmare-riddled wreck in the other bed, like there was no reason whatsoever Eames shouldn’t be trusted around sharp objects. Apparently Arthur had an inexplicably large amount of faith in him. Nothing’s worse than realizing you can’t protect your own mind.
Eames hadn’t seen any reason to disagree.
There were still vials in the dispensers, still clean needles sealed up in their packaging. With Arthur’s wrist hanging over the side of the bed the way it was, one thing led to another.
Later, it would give him pause, how it all seemed like second nature. Swabbing the pale patch of skin under Arthur’s palm, easing the cannula against the sparse blue spill of his veins, and sleeping like he was being paid to do it.
Arthur’s mind was a forest, autumn-tinged green that rustled like gift wrap in the wind. The smell of dead leaves and damp wood was sharp in Eames’s nostrils.
And for a long time, that was all. There was nothing to do but walk and walk, picking out a path through the trees, hearing only the rush of wind and the forlorn chirping of birds.
The sudden crack of a gunshot made him jump, shout, stumble.
The second time, it sounded closer. The third sounded closer still, and seemed to come from a different direction. By the fourth, he was running. By the fifth, the ground was warping into hills beneath his feet. Eames went toppling down an incline with all the grace of a bag of bricks, vaguely disgusted with himself.
“Jesus,” someone was muttering, amidst footfalls and the crackle of leaf litter, and then he was being hefted back to his feet. The stranger surveyed him critically for a moment, gripping him with hard hands and only letting go once he seemed satisfied that Eames was in one piece. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
Eames swallowed, abruptly exhausted even though he was already asleep. “I wanted to learn a little more about what I’m dealing with.” He eyed the man, who was holding a rifle and wearing a bright orange vest. “Maybe you can explain it to me.”
“It’s hunting season,” the man said simply. “You should get out or put one of these on before someone thinks you’re a deer and tries to take you down.”
“I’m looking for—” Eames began, but his companion was already disappearing between the trees, swallowed up by foliage that grew denser before Eames’s eyes.
When an arrow whizzed past his head, he resignedly considered dreaming himself into something eye-wateringly orange, but decided against it. There was no way to be certain it would render him less likely to be considered a target or if it would make him a target, full stop. So he ran, skidding on pine needles and snagging his feet on roots, until his lungs burned and his breath was alone was probably loud enough for any hunter to hear.
The trailer was a surprise.
It sat like a discarded cinderblock in a crop circle of weeds and rubble, gleaming white, seemingly both doorless and windowless. A car, barnacled with rust, dominated the front yard. Beside it, apparently unbothered by the fervor of hunting season, a German shepherd was sleeping.
“The fuck?” Eames asked it.
The dog only twitched a disinterested ear.
When he looked up, the trailer had sprouted a door and Arthur, framed in it, was smirking at him.
“Hi, stranger. Get your ass in here.”
Eames didn’t need to be told twice.
Inside, the place was much larger than logic allowed, a labyrinth of rooms and hallways spilling in all directions.
Obediently, he sat down on a sagging sofa as Arthur wandered off muttering about fetching drinks. There was a remote jammed between the cushions, so Eames had a go at flipping through the channels on Arthur’s television, but each one was nothing more than a blur of static and the same hypnotic drone.
come back, you need to come back, you need to
Eames switched it off, perturbed.
Arthur reappeared, bearing a pair of mugs. “Did you have trouble finding the place?” he asked, passing one over and then passing a hand through Eames’s hair, so casually Eames didn’t have a chance to be surprised. Arthur plucked a leaf off him and studied it. “I thought your sense of direction was better than this. You look like you’ve been rolling around in the dirt.”
“It’s hunting season,” Eames said dryly.
“No, it isn’t.” Arthur looked at him oddly. Then his eyes widened. “Oh my God.”
The earth gave a little shudder beneath them, sending a shelf of kitschy glassware crashing to the floor.
“I can’t fucking believe you.”
Outside, the dog was barking and the sound of gunfire was closing in. Arthur’s voice was calm and cream-smooth, but somehow Eames caught every last word over the commotion. “You son of a bitch.”
There was no way Arthur could possibly have mistaken him for a deer, no earthly reason for there to be a crossbow behind the sofa, but he shot him anyway.
Eames woke up gasping for air.
Arthur was already on his feet, a study in sharp-lined, cold-burning fury. “Here’s some advice. You should be less of an asshole to people who try to help you out or pretty soon you won’t have anyone left.”
“I needed to be sure you are who you say you are,” Eames said. His words were steady, but his mind was still reeling, spilling out reassurances he had no way of knowing were true.
Arthur. This is Arthur, only Arthur, and Arthur wouldn’t play you false.
“I’ve dragged you across several state lines, you do know that, right?” Arthur was frowning, rubbing his wrist where the needle had been. Eames had an urge to tell him to stop being a baby, but the impulse stilled on his tongue. “You couldn’t have just asked me back in Tuscaloosa?”
“I believe I was comatose then, wasn’t I?”
Arthur drew in his legs, rested his chin on one flannelled knee. “About that.”
“Not talking about it,” Eames said automatically.
“That’s completely fair,” Arthur said. “Hey, maybe I should just wait until you’re sleeping and then dig around in your head, how does that sound? You already went through my phone and my computer, so I guess there’s nothing sacred anymore, is there?”
Eames recoiled, silent.
“Zorig is dead,” murmured Arthur, after Eames had counted out two chilly minutes of silence. “I was with you when he came in, and the others—you wouldn’t wake up and they would have—”
He sighed and Eames counted out another minute. “I had to pull the cords and run. They had you deep. You’d lost weight, but it was still a bitch getting you and the PASIV out to the car. People who use them for backstabbing shit like that shouldn’t have access at all.”
Eames was quiet.
“What were you thinking, taking a job under someone named Zorig?” Arthur demanded, his voice going brittle. “That’s the kind of name that screams ‘mustache-twirling supervillain.’”
“The money was good. He’d worked with Abraham. I’d always wanted to see Tuscaloosa.”
Arthur’s laugh was brief and broken. It made Eames feel profoundly uncomfortable. “Fuck you, you’re such a liar. I can tell you remember that much, at least. You used to be better about lying, though.”
For a long while, Eames only studied the wallpaper pattern and thought of how Arthur had insisted on sharing a room, how he had swept the room for bugs and laid his gun on the side table like a vase of flowers. “Let’s try something different, then. No lying. Not even by omission.”
Arthur looked up, still loosely clasping his wrist in the opposite hand. “You tell me yours, I’ll tell me mine. Deal?”
“If I can.”
“I’ll start. I grew up in a shitty little town in West Virginia called Ansted. You?”
“London for me.” He suspected Arthur knew this already and was only testing him. Eames couldn’t begrudge him that, not when he was still testing himself.
“You should tell me about it.”
Eames was familiar with the art of cultivating aspirations. Council flat, graffiti and brick and the urine-stench of the stairwells, beer for breakfast when there wasn’t any milk, poured over cornflakes and swallowed with cotton-tongued staunchness. Trousers and ambitions too big for his hometown. He wondered if Arthur’s dream had been pure imagination or if there had been an element of memory at work there, if he’d seen fragments of a life Arthur no longer lived.
He knew better than to mention this.
“I’d rather not.”
“Fine. I didn’t want to tell you about Ansted either. Next one: I’ve got two brothers, one of them in the navy and one in the mines. You?”
“No blood siblings, but my stepsister is an art restorer.”
“That’s hilarious,” Arthur said dryly. “One more: I was in the marines for two years before I threw my hat in the ring for Project Somnacin.”
Eames’s mind went blank. He tensed, palms pressing flat to the bedspread. “SAS. There was a branch of—I was—I underwent training as part of—”
“We met in Zahlé,” said Arthur, not blinking. “The first job we worked together was for Hammond, in Swansea. You got stabbed in Lagos and still have the scar on your ribs. You worked for Fischer Morrow for a few weeks before we tried inception and now you’ve got a price on your head because Fischer swears you were fucking around in his head and at least half the dreamsharing community is always ready to turn on the other half for the right price.”
“I need to sleep,” Eames told him firmly, his brain throbbing against the walls of his skull.
“Sleeping is a big part of that training you mentioned.” Arthur was looking at him, his gaze level, the shadows making his face seem gaunt and sharp. “You remember that much, though, don’t you? But not much else.”
Eames turned off the light and settled back under the covers, making as much noise as possible.
Arthur, not dissuaded, kept going. “There’s someone who’s studied this, but it’s someone I’m not on the best of terms with. I’m trying to get in touch with them about helping us, they’re just not making it easy. I want you to know that, Eames. I’m not hauling you around just for the hell of it.”
“And I would never fuck around with your subconscious like that,” Arthur whispered fiercely, a sharp surge of electricity in the darkened room. “Never. If anything about me is going to stick in your mind, make sure it’s this.”
Ansted was something Arthur tried to leave behind, but could never quite outrun. Methadone eyes, chewing licorice on the rusted bumper of an Oldsmobile, scabby knees and mosquito-bitten shins, back when he stopped taking his lithium and formed his own prescriptions instead. Backwater bootstrapping.
He still hadn’t patched in all the gaps, still hadn’t formed a complete picture of what had happened in those weeks of radio silence from Eames’s end. But even now, even with a blank hole in Eames’s mind where dreamsharing had once been, he could still made Arthur feel like a kid again, furious and out of his league and struggling to do something that mattered.
“You were brilliant,” he reminded Eames in the morning, there in their motel room with carpeting the color of curdled milk. “You literally contained multitudes.”
Eames glanced up from where he was frowning at Arthur’s laptop screen—purportedly playing solitaire, but Arthur knew better, expected no better, and let Eames snoop to his heart’s content anyway. “Are you going to tell me what I turned into? Make me believe something different, maybe?”
“No,” said Arthur. His throat was sandpapery, but he didn’t hesitate. “I’m giving you the facts, since you don’t have them anymore.”
Eames leaned back in his chair.
“We all made sure to cover for Ariadne since she barely got her toes wet, but the rest of us, we were in this up to our necks,” Arthur went on, feeling the phantom sting of a needle against the inside of his wrist and willing the memory away. “You talked about your training, or you started to. Do you remember dreams?”
“I remember impossibilities,” Eames said quietly.
For the sake of not having to meet his eyes, Arthur crossed to the kitchenette and surveyed the coffeemaker critically. “Occupational hazard. It’s very easy to lose yourself in a job like this.”
He abandoned the coffeemaker, moved onto double-checking the contents of his suitcase, and pretended not to notice the clumsiness of his hands. “You’re always sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for your next big opportunity, or maybe you end up stuck in a rut and reliving all the chances you blew while the rest of the world moves on without you. There’s no second prize, no grace period, no time to stop and stand back and admire what you’ve done before getting all gussied up for your next attempt. It’s attempt after attempt after attempt. Then maybe, maybe, if you’re good enough and consistent enough, someone who really matters will notice you and pay you every penny you deserve. If you’re not so lucky, someone with an axe to grind notices you too.”
If Eames had found any of this at all surprising, he wasn’t letting on. He was still gazing at Arthur, lines creasing his brow. “And of course, in dreams, mad things can exist.”
Arthur drew a breath. “Yes.”
Anything from eternal utopias to nightmares that stretched on for entire lifetimes, terrifying and impossible and inescapable. His own subconscious must have been trying to fight off Eames’s invasion, but he’d been weak and let him in all the same. Every night, he went to sleep knowing there was a chance Eames would cut and run sometime before morning, and every day he woke up with his heart leaping in his throat. Of course his subconscious would welcome him if push came to shove.
“Is that what you saw in my head? Mad things?”
“Do you think I’d still be here if I saw anything all that mad?” Eames demanded. “Or are you just fishing for compliments on the décor your bizarre little brain saw fit to provide? The sadistic tree roots were truly inspired.”
Eames was still there. Living and breathing and making snide remarks and blithely poking through the contents of Arthur’s laptop and iPad. Still there, slouching in his seat with his hair tufting up and his sleeves rolled high enough to show off a slew of fading bruises. Arthur wanted to go back and murder every member of Zorig’s team twice over for sloppy technique alone.
His ears were ringing, fingers white-knuckled around his suitcase handle. “Think about it, Eames. Think about how easy it was for you to break into my mind. You’ve been dragging the PASIV around like a teddy bear, but I bet it was like coming home when you finally opened it.”
For a long time, there was no sound save the tap of Eames’s fingertips against the keyboard.
“That was what we did together, wasn’t it?” he said finally. “You and me and a heap of opportunists just like us. We drove people mad by spelunking into their heads and rooting around until we found what we wanted.”
Arthur sank into the chair across from him and gently shut the laptop. “It’s not a bad way to make a living, as they go.”
Eames stood up and strode into the bathroom, clicking the door closed behind him like a trap.
With Fischer, there had been no publicity. Governments could never allow public knowledge of dreaming technology. But that couldn’t keep him from trying.
“You haven’t heard from Eames,” Cobb had said, nine weeks after the inception, nine weeks after word started spiraling through the dreamshare underbelly that Robert Fischer was out for blood.
“He’s lying low,” Arthur had responded immediately. “Last I heard, he was in Malaysia.”
“He isn’t.” Cobb had said crisply. “Don’t tell me you haven’t been turning the world upside down trying to figure this out, Arthur. I know you.”
Nine weeks of Fischer swearing this thing, this futuristic-sounding terrorist tactic that let strangers cherry-pick thoughts from people’s heads, was possible. Anyone familiar enough with the darker side of dreaming to recognize the truth of his claims kept their head down. Security measures regarding military usage of dreamshare devices tightened up even further, authorities cracking down on illegal dealings to which they’d previously turned a blind eye, banning Somnacin just as eagerly as bigwigs were trying to get ahold of it. Fischer needed to be silenced before anyone else could come forward, but other finger-pointers were already coming out of the woodwork; Arthur remembered hearing about a team where the mark had an allergic reaction to the sedative and ended up hospitalized, then woke up swearing it was due to an extraction attempt. The team had scattered, disappeared the way everyone else was. Arthur couldn’t say whether they were safe or whether dreamshare once again had eaten its own.
Nine weeks of Saito’s empire crumbling along with his clout. Powerful, impenetrable Saito. spending wildly to salvage his reputation. Fischer hadn’t broken up his father’s company, therefore Saito’s own was no better off than it had been before the inception attempt. And now the cogs in his own system were turning on him, speaking up about his involvement with questionable activities even before the Fischer incident. All the bribes in the world aren’t enough for this kind of unprecedented scandal. Arthur had seen firsthand the cutthroat games that played out between moguls and mindcrime and he knew for a fact anyone with a good eye and a nose for trouble could have attained footage of Saito at a number of dreaming arcades. But Saito still hadn’t said a thing about Fischer, which would only indict him further if he were to weigh in.
Nearly nine weeks of Cobb on the run once more, everything ripped away from him all over again now that his friends in high places weren’t so high anymore.
During that week they all spent in the first level of Fischer’s subconscious, in Yusuf’s dismal cityscape of a dream, Eames had let his forgery fall and sworn no dreamer had even woken up with so much as an inkling of what had happened.
Eames had been in Sydney for weeks leading up to the inception attempt, had openly worked for Fischer’s company, and in the end it was only his face, his forged paper trail, and the name Mr. Charles that Fischer had to go on.
“With a price on my head that big, I’d turn the world upside down to turn myself in,” Arthur had said.
But Cobb had only sighed at him.
“When you’re a wanted man, dreamshare can be unscrupulous about turning on its own.”
None of them were going to be safe if their connection to the Fischer job was somehow proven. So when it all came down on Eames and Eames alone, Eames had let it.
“Okay,” said Eames, bored. “Where?”
“Seattle,” Arthur told him.
Eames could feel his brows ticking upward. “Isn’t that approximately as far away as Mars?”
“Yep,” Arthur said. “Wake me up in a couple hours and I’ll take a turn driving. Or whenever you get hungry and we’ve got a prayer at finding someplace that doesn’t have a drive-thru.”
Arthur kept making him eat, which was something Eames saw no point in fighting him on. Even though Seattle really was approximately as far away as Mars and they’d swapped out their first car for another equally dilapidated one a few days back, Arthur drew the line at fast food or anything that would leave the interior smelling like grease. He didn’t seem to care how much time he was wasting by insisting on force-feeding Eames meals that had legitimate nutritional value, if time was even an issue at all. Eames couldn’t be sure on that front—Arthur was tight-lipped about exactly what was waiting for them in Seattle, and Eames was content to be anywhere other than strapped to a cot in Tuscaloosa. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was carrying any cash or cards of his own, and Arthur seemed convinced that any kind of account activity on his end would result in both of them suddenly sporting neon targets on their backs.
“I do have bank accounts no one else knows about,” he tried to explain once. “You do realize this, don’t you? I’d hate to go on burning a hole in your pocket the way I’ve been.”
“Bank accounts you think no one knows about,” Arthur said moodily. He was squashed up against the passenger’s side window, failing as always to actually sleep. Eames kept making him relinquish the driver’s seat. Direct routes were not Arthur’s strong suit, it seemed. “Sorry if I’m a little hesitant about taking your word as gospel. It’s nothing personal, but that gaping hole in your memory makes me nervous.”
“I’ve got three different names I can give you that I guarantee no one knows but me. And I’ve got a place in San Diego, I remember that quite clearly.”
“Yeah, you do, but we won’t be going there.”
Of course they wouldn’t. Too risky, which Eames knew already. People must have checked his last dozen known residences over and over hoping for him to show his face.
It didn’t make him any less annoyed about having no possessions, no identification. He’d been staying at a hotel in Tuscaloosa and they’d left everything behind when Arthur stole him away from there but there was no going back now. And he certainly wasn’t going to complain about Arthur saving his life even if it had wound up costing him a MacBook Pro, three pairs of Prada shoes, six fully documented aliases, and the jacket he’d had tailored in Milan. Funny, the things that stood out in his mind.
Still, sometimes, when he was disgusted with the world and the way his own mind had mutinied and Arthur’s staunch refusal to swing by a Whataburger just once, he indulged himself.
They were taking a couple days to crash at a midrate hotel when he borrowed Arthur’s iPad and did something he’d been on the fence about doing from the start. Arthur was perched on the edge of the other bed, fiddling with the PASIV and musing aloud that carrying it around was just one more liability. Eames, reading an article about the three bodies found in a house outside Tuscaloosa, hardly heard him.
“You said Zorig was dead. You never mentioned the rest of the team.”
Arthur paused midsentence. “The other two were under, same as you.”
“Let me guess.” Eames set the iPad aside. “They died in their sleep.”
“I asked long they’d been keeping you. He didn’t say, wouldn’t say, even without his kneecaps.” He shrugged, stone-faced. “You don’t do that, Eames. Even thieves have an honor code. You don’t lock someone inside their own head and refuse to let them out until they give you what you want.”
Clean gunshot wounds to the forehead, according to each other the reports he’d read. No prints, no leads, no PASIV. Eames’s gaze fell on it, spread out on the bedspread, wires weaving between Arthur’s long fingers. “Of course you do. Isn’t that exactly what this line of work entails?”
“I wasn’t leaving you there and I wasn’t taking any chances,” Arthur snapped. “I prefer having you alive. Excuse me for not knowing you were terribly attached to the alternative.”
Arthur didn’t spare him a glance, smoothed a thumb along one of the vials, slid it back into place. “We should get rid of this.”
“No,” Eames said instantly, without quite knowing why. The idea of disposing of the PASIV made his heart lurch. “That is, unless you’re planning on putting us on a plane and don’t reckon they’ll accept it as a carryon.”
This was something he had mentioned before, usually in the midst of musing about wanting to make himself a new set of identification—all it would take was a little pickpocketing, a little cutting and pasting—but Arthur didn’t seem keen on planes, no matter how much shorter they would make the trip.
“The last time we stepped off a plane together, nothing good came of it.”
Eames was used to not being identifiable, but it was always by choice, and he usually had a few extra identities sewn into the lining of his luggage for good measure. “Am I going to be asking you for pocket money forever, then?”
“Relax. I’ve got someone working on IDs for both of us. It’s a faceless transaction, but it’s better than nothing.” He actually sounded a bit guilty. “There aren’t many people I trust not to turn you in.”
“Didn’t think my mind was worth that much, did you?”
Arthur closed the briefcase with a click, his brow furrowing. “Of course I did.” He palmed his phone and disappeared out the door, silent as the grave.
During dinner, Arthur watched him like a hawk to make sure he finished, then ordered dessert and shoved a slice of cake across the table. He didn’t utter a word until Eames had obligingly spooned the last of it from the plate.
“Cobb wants us to stay safe,” Arthur said, after.
“That’s a corker, isn’t it,” Eames muttered. “Why does this Cobb care?”
“We tried to keep him safe once. It wasn’t our fault it didn’t work.”
One of the most gratifying things about extraction was that it left no evidence that would hold up in court.
Unfortunately, Fischer hadn’t wanted to put Eames on trial for some intangible crime. He wanted to extract from him to see if he was lying about his involvement with the company, which of course he was.
When Eames’s name alone had surfaced in connection with Fischer, Arthur had known for sure what he had only suspected up until then. Eames was the only one Fischer remembered well enough to zero in on. There were still records of his employment with Fischer Morrow, though of course they weren’t under his proper name. It still only took a little detective work to pinpoint his actual identity.
Cobb had been the first to learn of it.
When word had gotten around that Dom Cobb was playing with fire, taking on firetrap after firetrap of a job in order to get back home, nobody was left in the dark. Half of the industry had given him a wide berth, the other half had been ready to hand him over to the authorities without so much as blinking, and absolutely everyone had wanted to know what he would do next. Even after losing everything, Cobb didn’t deprive himself of resources.
“I heard from Hara,” Cobb had said. “Just this morning. She’s been hired to track down a former Fischer Morrow employee.”
“Hara just wants front-row seats to this train wreck,” Arthur had grumbled. “Really nice of her to tip you off and then disappear like that.”
“People are going to be scrambling to get their hands on Eames, you know,” Cobb had told him.
Arthur hadn’t had a rebuttal for that.
He’d been right, of course. Fischer’s claims that someone had been in his head might not have held water in the waking world, but anyone who’d ever had a brush with shared dreaming knew exactly what he meant.
Arthur thought sometimes about how disastrous it would be if someone came up with a way to use extraction evidence as a legal proceeding, about just how slippery that particular slope could be.
“If Fischer’s mobilizing the entire world of shared dreaming to find Eames, it’s just a matter of time before he pins down everyone else.”
“Eames wouldn’t,” Arthur had said shortly, sounding naïve and starry-eyed, not caring. “He’ll deny it. He’ll say he was undercover at Fischer Morrow to line his own pockets only, nothing more.”
“Everyone knows he’s a wanted man,” Cobb reminded him. “Everyone knows he had a hand in something that tipped Fischer over the edge and thereby endangered every other dreamshare participant in the process. With that kind of deck stacked against you, denial isn’t always an option.”
Eames was a star masquerading as a perpetual unknown. He’d made a career of pretending to be anyone but himself. Anyone who tried to peel back his layers wasn’t going to make it to the center without a struggle.
Cobb was a different case entirely. Still grieving for Mal, still dangerous and brilliant even though he looked like a corn-fed, McMansion-bred middle American good boy who’d wandered onto the wrong side of the tracks and couldn’t find his way home. He had already had his kids and assets seized, and the law never did right by him so he turned his back on it all over again. There’d been a time when the government would have done anything to keep Cobb’s mind on their side, and now that Saito’s influence wasn’t far-reaching enough to help him anymore, there was a good chance he was never going to get home at all. Not with another crime laid on him, a fugitive twice over.
Nearly three months after the inception attempt, after weeks of searching and suborning and desperation, Arthur had dialed him from a borrowed phone, not using names.
“I’m with him,” Arthur had said. “They tried to dig into him, but you know how he is, he’s like a stubborn little kid. He’s not the type to let himself be forced into anything.”
“Anything can be forced,” said Cobb. Dominic Cobb, who once had children of his own. “Look out for yourselves.”
“Do you remember what they wanted with you?”
Outside the diner, a humid, velvet-thick night pressed at the windows. Eames stared into it for a long time before answering. Arthur studied his profile, the slight flaring of his nostrils, the fullness of his lips thinning in displeasure.
“No. Whatever it was, they fucked up.”
“They wanted you to sell out your team. Me. Cobb. All of us. Fischer was very clear about wanting you alive and in one piece, but they tore your mind apart trying to pull out the thoughts they wanted.”
Like groping for olives in a jar.
Selfishness clawed at him. Despite having lost nearly everything he’d known about dreams, despite having to learn Arthur again, Eames had shown little sign of wanting to. Not beyond the demands of self-preservation that manifested in the times he’d picked through Arthur’s computer and, that one time, peeked into his dreams. Now that Eames seemed satisfied Arthur wasn’t going to strap him down and stab needles into him, he treated Arthur with a placid politeness that made Arthur want to scream.
It was very hard not to be maudlin.
“But you didn’t give them anything,” Arthur said softly, watching the vulnerable dip of Eames’s throat as he swallowed. “How?”
“If I tried so hard to purge all this from my mind, maybe you shouldn’t be stuffing it all back in, hm?”
Arthur slumped back in his seat and said nothing.
“I should ring my mother.” Eames’s fingers were drumming against the table. Arthur clasped both his own hands around his mug in order to keep from reaching out and quieting him. “She gets worried.”
Arthur knew Eames hadn’t been in touch with his family for years, but he took the hint.
“You could let me in,” said Arthur. “You know how this works. Extraction is exactly what it sounds like.”
Neither of them had opened the PASIV since Arthur had disassembled it in the middle of an ugly floral hotel duvet and inventoried its parts. Eames had taken to sleeping with it within reach, close enough for him to drape an arm over the side of the bed and make sure it was still there, still closed, but the idea of letting anyone into his mind was enough to make him shudder.
If Arthur noticed—of course he noticed, Eames had learned there was precious little Arthur didn’t notice—he was kind enough to pretend he hadn’t. “Do you want to see for yourself what’s going on in that head of yours? Or are you honestly happy carrying on the way you’ve been?”
Eames fiddled with a pen, twirling it between his fingers, but Arthur’s gaze wasn’t drawn away from his face for an instant. “I want to calibrate it myself. Nothing personal, but you understand. For all I know, we’re asleep already.”
“God,” Arthur groaned, “don’t start thinking that, you’ll drive yourself crazy. Where’s your chip?”
“My what?” said Eames, scratching a portion of the hotel logo off the pen with his thumbnail.
Arthur pulled a face that knocked about ten years off his age. “Never mind.”
Thinking nothing of it, Eames unlocked the PASIV.
When his mind wound up considerately chucking the two of them into a prison cell, Eames wasn’t surprised. Barricading himself from intruders was still something that came naturally even if he’d lost some of the finer points of it. His palms were already itching for some sort of a weapon to hold, but Arthur seemed to have no intention of trying to force his way in.
Arthur wasn’t even looking at him, engrossed in pressing his hand lightly against the stark white cinderblock surrounding them. As Eames watched, he paced down the length of the cell, fingertips brushing the walls as if he was seeking out a pulse there.
“What is this place?”
Eames chuckled mirthlessly. “Where I always reckoned I’d end up for life.”
If Arthur was disappointed in the lack of a straight answer, he didn’t show it. He completed his circuit of their space and stood where he’d first begun, his face made ghostly by the fluorescence. The walls were chilly, Eames know that from experience, but Arthur’s hand was smooth and warm when it wrapped around his own. “Change for me.”
The walls flickered, collapsed silently into a cellar with dripping ceilings and no visible end to it, something Eames recognized as another security standby even if he couldn’t recall where he’d picked it up.
Arthur’s smile was swallowed up by the darkness almost too soon for Eames to catch sight of it. “This is very cheerful, but I didn’t mean change the scenery. I meant change this.” He gave Eames’s hand a squeeze. Arthur had never touched him before, not that Eames could recall. It made Eames jumpy. Being reassured was usually a predecessor to something especially unpleasant.
“Trying,” he lied, still not sure what Arthur was on about. “Can’t.”
Arthur’s fingers gripped his once, then dropped away. Eames immediately spun around to face him, fully expecting Arthur to be wielding a flamethrower or backed by an army of hungry alligators.
But Arthur was staring at the ground, both hands shoved into his pockets, apparently oblivious to the Beretta Eames had summoned up and half-drawn.
“You’d use a mirror,” he said in a thin, level voice that sliced across Eames’s skin like a paper cut. “When you forged, you’d always start off with a mirror.”
Something about that resonated, something that corkscrewed its way through Eames’s mind and dug in deep. “Did I.”
Eames couldn’t grasp it, the jagged-edged shrapnel of a thought that kept gouging its way into his head, trying to get out, eating through his composure and forever slithering just out of reach.
Something was wrong. His stomach seized up on itself.
When he dreamed the Beretta into his hand a second time and tore the doubt from his mind in the most direct way he knew how, he woke up feeling no better.
At the desk across the room, Arthur sat up and surveyed him without a word.
The second time, he was determined not to let his own brain get the better of him.
“How did you learn?” Arthur asked. “You never told me, but I always wondered.”
They were having lunch in an establishment far more upscale than anything either of them had set foot in lately. Arthur was dressed to the nines, tucking into his bruschetta with perfect teeth and perfect table manners. Eames had his spoon in a stranglehold and was wondering how long it would take for the rest of the patrons to start descending on Arthur in a cyclone of subconscious self-defense. “I could only do bits and pieces at first. Just for a lark, just for a short time.”
“Do you think you can still do it?”
He’d done too many things for the sake of a lark, once. A brave kid who’d had huge hopes and made the wrong connections.
“I got into trouble once, in a place like this.” The restaurant hemmed in around them, accordion-like, before smoothing into a grim gray rectangle of a room with grim glass rectangle spanning the entire length of one wall.
Eames regarded it with a frown, tapped at it with one finger until the two-way mirror flickered to life. “I got into a heap of trouble and had to watch myself suffer for it. After a time, I decided I didn’t want to see that anymore. So I changed.”
The only pieces of furniture were a table and two chairs, all of them upright and colorless and bolted to the floor. Arthur fit in perfectly. “How long did it last?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Eames lied again, looking Arthur’s reflection dead in the eye. “I really couldn’t say.”
One of them had been laughing hysterically, just a kid himself, with enormous ears and a face groaning with spots.
Eames had no particular issue with his own body, but there was just something about being able to shuck it off when the need was on him. Something a little vain, a little cavalier, and immensely exhilarating about being able to form whatever face he pleased. He’d gotten his start while he was too young to know better, becoming whoever he was paid to become, too stupid to realize he’d only barely scratched the surface of what shared dreaming could provide.
Against the glass, his hand was slippery with sweat.
“Eames. Hey.” Arthur sounded urgent. “Keep it together for me. Let’s go somewhere else, how does that sound?”
The street that their prison warped itself into was as familiar as his earliest memory, so Eames immediately discarded it, let it transform into another street entirely. This one was sand-colored and sun-warmed, lined with street venders’ bright umbrellas.
Beside him, Arthur drew a sharp, hissing breath.
“Oh,” Eames murmured. “Jesus.”
Mombasa sprang up before him and Eames’s senses whirled. “The projections aren’t giving you hell,” he noted in lieu of actually answering the question. “Aren’t they supposed to do that?”
Arthur was studying a sign that advertised smoked samaki in three different languages. “It’s just me,” he said simply. “Your subconscious got used to having me in it ages ago.”
Eames was about to take him to task for that remark when they passed a few unassuming stone steps and he stopped in his tracks.
Everyone within view was suddenly staring at him as if he was an intruder in his own thoughts.
“Bangalore,” Yusuf once told him, “is worse.” He worked tweaking his formulae to give an added edge, selling to the highest bidder, testing on anyone who needed a spare bit of pocket change.
This was a mercy. In some places, these things hit the market without any testing at all.
Eames nodded knowingly. “Everyone wants a dream wedding, everyone wants to live in style for just a little while, and of course once you have it the first time it’s never enough."
“We tried regulating,” said Yusuf, “but that was a mess from the start. It’s just a matter of time before you begin cheating the system to get around the paperwork so no one knows how often you dream. It’s a liability and an addiction like any other drug, Somnacin is.”
Eames’s mouth had gone arid, but somehow he coughed up a few words. “I need—I need to wake up.”
When he blinked, the world vaporized around them, blazing into starry whiteness as far as the eye could see.
Arthur was already pulling a gun on him.
“No,” Eames snapped, shoving it aside. “Don’t. Don’t you fucking ever—”
“Okay,” Arthur was saying, hushing him even as the metal under his hand dissolved into thin air. “Okay, I won’t. See?”
Eames was suddenly exhausted. It made him want to laugh, the absurdity of being tired while he was already asleep. When he sank into a sitting position, the dream world obligingly let him although there were still no visible surfaces, only a gleaming endless nothingness that seared itself against his eyes no matter how tightly he squeezed them shut.
And he stayed, waiting it out with Arthur’s hand between his shoulder blades until the timer ran out and they woke in silence, stretched out side by side in their beds like a pair of freshly dead corpses.
They kept driving.
“Fine,” Eames sighed, after establishing that Arthur had to be choosing the most circuitous routes possible for reasons that had nothing to do with losing a potential tail. “Tell me what the holdup is.”
“There’s another member of the Cobb family. That’s who we’re taking you to see. We’re not exactly welcome, but no one will think to look for us there. I don’t think we’ll even be allowed in the house, but it’s taken a lot of convincing just to get this far.”
“Mallorie,” Eames said, and Arthur nearly drove off the road.
“You remember Mal?” he demanded, after batting Eames’s hand off the wheel.
Something: a shadow of a memory, tickling at the base of his skull, fighting its way free.
Mallorie jumped, he heard, another scientist gone round the bend.
“All those brilliant brains were nothing but a smear on the pavement in the end,” sighed Abraham, who’d been teaming with him as chemist for the past few weeks, and Eames frowned at him.
“Don’t say those things about her.”
“No,” Eames finished decisively. “Not hardly. But she died, didn’t she? I’m sorry.”
Arthur turned on the radio.
It stayed on through Oklahoma, through Colorado, Arthur mentioning in passing that he was making sure the two of them were skirting any regional contacts he remembered. He never added that avoidance wouldn’t necessarily be enough to keep them under the radar, but Eames didn’t need to hear it aloud to know it.
The car sputtered out a death rattle outside Pueblo and so they walked, Eames pilfering a pair of handcuffs from Arthur’s luggage and shackling himself to the PASIV so it couldn’t be mislaid or taken from him.
Arthur kept saying they should smash it, that it was more of a liability than an asset, that anyone who recognized what they had would be onto them in a heartbeat and by rights he should have shot it to smithereens along with the rest of the team in Alabama.
“It’s still worth keeping,” Eames said. “It’s what we lived for, until now.”
“Listen,” said Arthur sharply, “you were a useless heap of meat before I brought you back. You didn’t breathe for two fucking minutes, you fucking flatlined on me, did I ever tell you that? So maybe now is a good time to reconsider what you live for.”
“I don’t care,” Eames murmured. He leaned his back against the blackened trunk of a petrified tree and wished he were dead again.
There were bright spots, sometimes. Taking a detour to Denver, picking up their new sets of identification from the P.O. box Arthur had specified, and finding that they more than passed muster even by Eames’s standards.
There were even allies, albeit few and far between since Arthur had perfected the art of covering his tracks.
“I know how it feels to be chased,” Kinerney told him when Arthur reluctantly agreed to meet for dinner while he and Eames were in town. “I also know you can’t run every second of the day.”
Another of Miles’s former students, Kinerney had been where they were, but had long since retired and slept every night on stacks of money he’d made by riffling through unsuspecting marks’ minds. Arthur both admired and resented his success on principle.
It still felt ridiculously daring, doing something as mundane as meeting an old coworker for an hour or two. Just a few businessmen making small talk about current events, about who had their foot in the door with regard to the Fischer situation now that Fischer Morrow had gone trigger-happy with lawsuits.
“It’s like an episode of Jerry Springer that’s gone on for months,” Kinerney said brightly. “Half the people involved are trying to convince the other half that Robert Fischer is mentally unstable, and half of them are hoping for a meltdown so they can be there to see it.”
Across the table, Eames’s brows lowered. Arthur calmly cut into his salmon. “So I’ve heard. Once you start talking about people stealing from your dreams, it’s hard to be taken seriously.”
“Think of what could happen if enough people corroborate his story. Lots of sensationalist publicity about conspiracies, the Man literally trying to get inside your head, the whole enchilada.”
“Your empathy is going to make me cry,” said Arthur. “Pass the salt.”
“Do you actually believe that could happen?” Eames asked, looking up for the first time. To the untrained hear, he sounded droll, but Arthur knew a tell when he heard one.
Kinerney shrugged. “You’re the one who knows how it all began. You tell me.”
“I knew you had an ulterior motive,” Eames said triumphantly. “But I don’t give up news this juicy after just one date, sorry.”
Kinerney was smirking. Arthur could swear he’d seen his ears prick up at the word date. “To answer your question, yes. I actually do. There really are some extractors who’ve decided they can cover their asses by validating every claim Fischer makes.”
“Bullshit. No one wants their world shaken apart by spilling the truth of it to outsiders.”
“People have enemies and the Fischer Morrow empire is incredibly powerful,” Kinerney pointed out, spearing a piece of broccoli with far more force than necessary.
Eames gave Arthur a disgusted look. “Christ, why’d you even wake me up if this is what the world is coming to?
And he stood up and left without waiting for an answer.
With a sigh, Arthur excused himself and followed.
Outside, Eames had produced a cigarette from somewhere and seemed to be trying to light it with nothing but the force of his glare. Arthur plucked it from his fingers and slapped his new wallet into his hand. “Stop sulking. Is this because I handled something that’s usually your job? That isn't particularly mature.”
“I suppose,” Eames said calmly, tucking it into his pocket, “I could just cut and run now that I’m allowed to exist on paper again, couldn’t I? You’d get your old life back, whatever it was.”
“You’re chipper today.”
“Fuck off. Like you had nothing to do with dragging me into this.”
Arthur counted to ten. “It’s not going to kill you to sit through an hour of polite conversation. You’ve dealt with way worse than this.”
“Maybe not, but it might kill me if you keep talking to me like I’m a dog who chewed through his leash.”
“Then stop acting like one,” Arthur gritted, tossing the unlit cigarette onto the sidewalk out of sheer spite. “You used to slut yourself out in dreams, so having a decent meal on someone else’s dime should be nothing.”
“Says the trailer park boy.” Eames sneered. “I’m sure your story is so much nobler than mine.”
He’d been shy and scrawny growing up; it always used to surprise people who didn’t know him when he cursed or knocked back a shot. “Fuck you,” Arthur said bitterly, because he could, because hearing him swear surprised no one now. “Don’t try and use my past against me. We both know all you have to go on are guesses.”
Eames soundlessly drew out another cigarette and turned his back on him.
As he watched Eames walk away, Arthur didn’t say that he was constantly reliving every memory he had of him, that he was constantly polishing and stacking them one on top of the other like precious coins.
Instead, he went back inside and fed Kinerney a few straight-faced excuses, which went about as well as expected.
“Did you just lose the most wanted name in the business?” Kinerney demanded. “How did you even make it this far? Do you have any i—”
“I need a drink,” Arthur interrupted. “Are you gonna make me get one alone?”
Kinerney’s pragmatism was one of the things Arthur had always liked about him. He did make a point of regularly mentioning how important it was for Eames to stay off the beaten path, but he never once cautioned Arthur against drinking himself into a very irresponsible stupor.
By the time he staggered back to the hotel, his mind was swimming.
The last thing he expected was to find Eames there waiting for him. He was wearing a pair of striped pajama pants and poring over something on Arthur’s iPad, which had become more like his own given how often he borrowed it.
At first Arthur wasn’t sure he was real.
“You’re…here,” Arthur pronounced.
“Of course I am,” Eames said scornfully.
He took a few precarious steps forward, then a few more when Eames didn’t dissolve into the ether. “I didn’t think you were gonna be.”
“Don’t be silly. Someone has to look after you.”
Arthur shook his head and fell into bed with his shoes still on.
“You’re the worst bodyguard in existence,” Eames informed him, setting a bottle of aspirin on the nightstand and starting in on his shoelaces. “In history.”
“’m not your bodyguard,” Arthur whispered to the pillow. “’m not.”
He was asleep before Eames had his second shoe untied.
Getting drunk was a mistake, Arthur had known that even while he was doing it.
He woke up to the sound of Eames gasping, which wasn’t new. Half-awake, Arthur assumed at first that it was night terrors.
In actuality, it was Eames shaking him the rest of the way awake.
“Arthur. Arthur. Little help here? I think I got carried away.”
Even through a haze of sleep, regret, and too-dim lamplight Arthur could see the blood on his face. He shot into a sitting position, groping for the gun under his pillow even though the rest of him was screaming for mercy and a few more hours’ rest.
Eames laughed, his face ghoulish. “I’m afraid it’s a bit late for that, love.”
It was a nosebleed, Arthur realized. Eames matter-of-factly lifted the hem of his shirt to stanch the flow of it. Arthur was too bewildered to appreciate the view. “What…?”
“I didn’t get a look at who it was. But really, when someone breaks into your room in the dead of the night, you don’t ask questions, do you?”
“What does this have to do with anything?”
Eames grimaced and jerked his head towards the other bed.
All the alcohol in Arthur’s blood promptly turned to ice. “Fuck.”
Kinerney was sprawled flat on the floor.
Abruptly, Arthur was replaying everything in black-and-white flashbulb pops that flared and settled into snapshots on the insides of his eyes.
He’d gotten shitfaced enough to sleep like the dead, Kinerney had been friendly enough to drop him off at the hotel, had probably learned which room he was in and that he was sharing it with Eames, then let the hours roll by until he assumed they were both sleeping. It was exactly the sort of thing Arthur himself had done to marks in the past.
But Eames never slept through the night and always slept with the PASIV close by. Arthur had seen him reach out to it in his sleep before, tracing fingers over the fastenings as if to make sure it was still locked and not being used against him.
“If we hear from the front desk about the noise, it’s because I bashed his head against the footboard a few times,” Eames said helpfully.
Arthur’s own head was throbbing from alcohol and disbelief. “Is he alive?”
“For now. Did you want to wait until he wakes up and have a chat?”
Arthur shoved the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. “We don’t have time for this.”
The memory of his own words crashed through his mind. It’s not going to kill you to sit through an hour of polite conversation.
He thought of just how many people would have stooped even lower to get their hands on Eames, on the knowledge he’d managed to erase from his own mind, and be the one to hand it over to Fischer. Arthur’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t for the life of him make a single word come out of it.
“What can we do with him?” Eames asked gently. He’d thrown a dress shirt on over his bloodstained undershirt and was already packing. “Let’s be logical about this.”
Arthur forced himself to move, calculating how long it would take to load the car, scour the room of every trace of them, and be on the road before dawn. “Dixie National Forest. Full of canyons, wolves, and natural marvels. Not so full of people.”
“Think he’d fit in a garment bag? They sell those in the gift shop. Or…” Eames trailed off, looking speculatively at the beds.
“I’m not stuffing a body in a hotel mattress,” Arthur hissed.
“If you’re going to act out an urban legend, the back end of Utah is the place to do it.” He looked up, eyes luminous, nose swelling from whatever scuffle Arthur had been too comatose to notice. “So this is really how it’s going to be, is it?” All the levity had left his voice.
From the floor, Kinerney groaned softly.
Arthur tasted bile in his throat and stubbornly swallowed against it. “Do you know what would have happened to us if you hadn’t been awake?”
“Bloody hell. Of course I do,” Eames said fiercely. “It’s just. Arthur, I—”
Kinerney stirred, eyelids flitting furiously as if he were dreaming.
Eames knelt and snapped his neck.
Utah was crammed full of geological wonders, but Eames hardly noticed.
“It was my fault,” Arthur told him in a penitent, hungover murmur. They’d been driving in silence for nearly an hour since their venture into the forest to lighten the load. “I fucked up everything.”
And for the next hour, he folded into himself and slept—actually slept, rather than pretending to sleep while furtively keeping an eye on the road.
“I didn’t mean it,” Eames said, after they pulled over several miles short of the next rest stop so Arthur could bolt out the passenger door and keel over in style. “When I said you shouldn’t have made me wake up. I’m glad someone came for me and it was you.”
“This really is not a good time,” Arthur groused, retching.
He mellowed somewhat when Eames chucked a water bottle and a pack of Altoids after him.
“Fuck this,” Arthur announced finally, stomping back to his seat and scowling at his seatbelt when it failed to cooperate. “You’d think someone like Kinerney would’ve wanted to keep his distance from this whole mess.”
“I wouldn’t,” Eames muttered. “You’re never too rich or successful to stop yourself wanting more.”
Still struggling with the tangle of his seatbelt, Arthur didn’t seem to hear him. “I mean, I highly doubt he told anyone else, he’s always been out for himself. But you never can tell. Having a support network in this industry is really fucking futile. Even you were ready to turn Cobb in, before. It’s all about whatever benefits the individual, and fuck this thing too.”
“Small wonder I’ve got any friends left.” Eames reached over and deftly tugged the strap into place.
They abandoned the car in Salt Lake City, booked a room in a motel with walls the color of arterial spray and beds so appallingly saggy Arthur took it upon himself to wrestle one of the mattresses off its frame and flip it over to see if it improved things. Eames shucked off his outer shirt, stripped the bloody undershirt from his back, and toppled onto the other, letting Arthur have the shower first. They were both somewhat worse for the wear, but Arthur had both slept in his clothes from the previous day and disposed of a body in them. He was also, Eames had noticed, entertainingly concerned with his appearance for someone who was on the run.
He woke up to find Arthur staring out the window, wearing nothing but a pair of briefs and the unselfconsciousness of the severely exhausted. His hair was still damp, curling at the ends.
“What do you need?” Eames asked. His voice and vision were both blurry with sleep, but it seemed like the thing to say.
“A manicure and a martini would be nice,” Arthur replied instantly.
“You know that's not what I mean.”
“Look. After a certain point, you take small victories as they come. Have you ever been trapped in a dream?”
Eames didn't answer. I’m sick of driving, of waiting, of never knowing, of having nothing of my own, and all I want is to rest my head instead of battling whatever’s left inside it.
“Right,” Arthur continued, stalking over towards the bathroom like an irate underwear model. “At least you have the luxury of not being able to remember. So please do us both a favor and keep your mouth shut.”
There was the sound of water running, of Arthur sighing, hidden from sight by the open door.
“What’s the longest you’ve ever been held under?” Eames asked when he reappeared.
“Only a day.” Arthur put a knee to the mattress and leaned over him, taking the edge of a damp cloth to his face. “But a day can last a very long time, can’t it?”
Eames closed his eyes and let Arthur work the worst of the day’s grit from his skin with a practiced hand. The cool tickle of cloth felt nice and there was something especially soothing about the way Arthur’s fingers combed back his hair to get at his forehead.
“We were a bit more than occasional colleagues, weren’t we?” mumbled Eames.
Arthur’s touch faltered. “A bit.”
Eames opened his eyes again, pushed the sheets down enough to bare the curl of scar tissue on his flank. “You said I got this in Lagos, is that right?”
“Yeah,” Arthur said thickly. “Two years after we met.”
Eames caught him around the wrist when he tried to lift the cloth again. “Maybe someday you won’t have to tell me these things about myself anymore.”
And he drew him down, tucked an arm around his waist, his face against his shoulder. Arthur sank into the mattress with a sigh, rigid as a plank but letting him. He smelled clean.
“You’re not sleeping.”
“Brilliant observation. Neither are you.”
Arthur gave a fitful little squirm that made his collarbones look like art personified. “One of us should stay awake and I had that nap on the drive up.”
“You don’t need to punish yourself for what happened.”
“I’m not,” Arthur argued unconvincingly.
Eames hummed, nosed into his hair. “Fine. If you insist on being a contrary prat, at least be interesting about it.”
“Do you want me to tell you a story?”
“Go right ahead. Tell me something about yourself I don’t know.”
There was quiet for a while, leading Eames to assume Arthur had either decided to let the issue lie or maybe dozed off after all.
“In my town,” Arthur said suddenly, “not many of us grew up and became brilliant. You always expect great things when you grow up, right? I remember thinking I was so much smarter than everyone else, but we shot up like weeds and some of us choked and some of us thrived and some of us never changed much at all. I hated that. I didn’t get smarter or stupider, I just stayed the same. But I kept on wanting a reason to stand out for something even though I was sure I never would. Even in the marines. Then I started dreaming.
“You know what I used to think dreaming would be like?”
Eames made a noncommittal sound into the warm hollow of his neck.
“I thought it would be all about learning. Spending so much time in other people’s minds that you could learn anything you ever wanted. Just taking whatever knowledge suited your mood. You could go to sleep for an hour and be teaching yourself how to crack safes or speak Thai or kill and kill and kill.”
His voice trailed off, somber, soft as falling rain. “I’m not much of a storyteller. And everyone knows you make a million mistakes before you learn anything.”
“The killing felt familiar,” said Eames, curling his arm around Arthur’s middle a little more tightly.
After a few minutes, he felt Arthur’s fingers thread themselves through his hair.
Taking a plane the rest of the way went so easily Arthur was almost offended. He knew he should have been pleased about slipping under the radar, but after all the fretting he’d done to ensure Eames’s new persona existed on paper it just made him want to throw things.
Arriving at Cobb’s old house was like a nostalgic kick to the face that made him want to throw things for a different reason. There were signs of James and Phillipa everywhere even though the kids themselves were their grandfather. The last time Arthur had visited was during the too-short window of time after the Fischer job where Cobb had been able to come home, before everything fell apart.
“Why isn’t Mommy home?”
“She died.” Phillipa sounded far too world-weary for someone who hadn’t yet started kindergarten.
“When does she come back?”
“She died,” Phillipa repeated.
“Mario comes back when he dies,” James said, pointing with certainty to Phillipa’s Princess Peach t-shirt. “Optimus Prime comes back.”
“It’s not the same.”
Arthur remembered glaring at Cobb as his kids bickered in the next room. “Is there a reason you haven’t explained to your son why he won’t see his mother again?”
“I’ve tried.” Cobb looked at his hands. “They miss her. And they keep asking for Marie. They want their grandma back.”
Less than a week later, the Cobb children had gotten their wish. Arthur really had thrown things when he found out, even though surely they’d all known from the start that successfully performing an inception was only a possibility.
And now, in a smart Seattle suburb, at a dining room table scattered with toy dinosaurs, Marie Miles was scowling at him as she worked away at Eames’s head.
Marie had gotten her start as a neuroscientist, made her name working on a project that used virtual reality to map brain activity. Ultimately, this had advanced to learning ways of sending brain signals from one person to another in order to let one inside the other's mind. From there, she ventured into the chemical side of dreaming after becoming curious about the compounds and how they might be tailored to the characteristics of each individual’s unique subconscious. She was Miles’s partner in crime until the divorce, extremely sought after right up to the day she cut ties with the dreaming world.
“I’ve heard of forging yourself a clean slate, but this is almost too literal to be true,” she said, setting a pitcher of orange juice in front of him with a rather funereal thump.
Arthur meekly accepted a glass. “Thank you for helping us.”
“Why would I help you? I can’t stand you. You ruined my life.” Her sense of humor was like Mal’s had been, so deadpan Arthur couldn’t tell if she was telling the truth.
Arthur knew she didn’t like him, that she couldn’t help but associate him with Cobb and his role in her daughter’s death. But he had learned, in their correspondence while he was trying to convince her to see Eames at all, that she didn’t like Fischer trying to take dreamshare to the masses either. In Marie’s opinion, the fewer people who know about dreamshare the better.
“Eames was working with your daughter months before I even met her,” Arthur ventured. “One of the only things that’s come back to him is how brilliant Mal was.”
Marie sat down across from him, her eyes gray and weary. “Do you always have to call her that?”
“Mallorie was curious about everything,” Eames spoke up. “She always pushed for more.”
Arthur couldn’t tell if this was memory or bullshitting on his part, but it seemed to be working. Marie’s face softened slightly as Eames continued. “That kind of curiosity doesn’t come out of nowhere. Arthur says you’ve been out of the game for years, but none of us dreamers have ever been much good at ignoring a challenge. We’ve checked, there’s no apparent precedent for this.”
“Define this,” Marie said deliberately.
“This,” Eames answered without hesitation, “is what comes of wanting so intensely for something to be true that you actually pull it off.”
“Arthur swore you were a case like nothing I’d seen before.” She sighed, begrudgingly conciliatory. “He’s not wrong.”
Under the table. Arthur’s nails were digging into the flesh of his palms. “In the marines, medics didn’t know how to treat PTSD sustained from dreaming at first. It was a completely new kind of psychological damage.”
“But they learned,” Marie said dismissively.
“No,” Arthur argued, “they didn’t. Not enough. This is still too new and there’s still too much guesswork, and I don’t know anything either because I was only ever on the receiving end. I’m not a scientist.”
Marie didn’t reply, preoccupied as she was with hefting the PASIV onto the table amidst the juice glasses and dinosaurs. “Extractors forget the spatiotemporal nature of dreaming. Dreams are continually drawing from where you’ve been and the impressions you’ve taken away from that. Hiring the most accomplished architects in the world doesn’t mean a thing if no one accounts for the kind of havoc a person’s subconscious could unleash on the structures you try to impose on it.”
“So we’re doing this?”
“The worst that could happen is you lose yourself,” Marie answered, perfectly serene. “Wouldn’t that be a shame.”
“And what’s the worst that could happen to me?” Eames asked.
Marie poured a glass of juice and frowned at him until he took a sip. “You get dragged into Limbo or you get to live in a world that's going to hell anyway. That’s a really spectacular set of options, isn't it?”
She said it with dark significance, the L clearly capitalized, and Eames seemed to shudder without knowing why.
They ended up in another hotel because Marie requested the rest of the day to get her bearings and refused to let them stay in the house any longer than necessary. Arthur took his leave graciously, but the second they were out the door he was grumbling to Eames that she probably assumed they’d be a horrible influence on the children just by occupying the same space at different times.
For once, there were no rooms left with anything but king-sized beds, so they booked separate ones. Eames was a bit disappointed; he’d gotten used to having Arthur around at all hours, keeping time by solemnly fixing tea when Eames couldn’t get back to sleep and pointedly blow-drying his hair if he felt Eames was oversleeping.
This time, Arthur hesitated but handed Eames a twin of the Glock that usually went under his own pillow, complete with strict instructions not to shoot anything that didn’t deserve it if he happened to wake in the night.
When Eames phoned him, hours later, it wasn’t waking in the night that was the problem. “Hey. I can’t sleep. Can you?”
“I’m awake now.”
Eames winced, said nothing.
Three floors up and nine rooms over, Arthur sighed. “Spit it out. What’s bothering you?”
“I don’t want to let anyone else into my head. I don’t know what’s in there anymore.”
There was a long awkward silence. “What’s bothering you?” Eames said, imbuing his voice with as much cheerfulness as he could muster.
“Nothing quite that dire,” Arthur admitted, wry.
“Tell me anyway.”
“It’s fucking cold in here, that’s what.”
“Do you want a space heater?”
“Do you actually have one?”
“I’ll be over in five minutes.”
He hung up, threw on a robe, and traveled the three floors up to Arthur’s room.
“I brought you a space heater,” Eames said, breezing past him and sliding into bed.
Since Tuscaloosa, Eames had developed a tendency to sleep curled up into himself as if to keep warm or protect the more vulnerable parts of his body. He hated it, woke up with his back aching from it more often than not, but he couldn’t seem to stop. With Arthur there, he could breathe a little easier, let himself be lulled by his presence.
One of the lamps was still on, illuminating Arthur’s poleaxed expression to great effect.
“You risked a lot by coming after me,” Eames said conversationally. “The least I can do is not let you freeze to death in the night.”
“For me? This sort of thing is getting almost routine,” said Arthur. He locked the door and joined Eames in the preposterously huge bed, keeping to his own side for all of five seconds before giving in and letting himself be gently dragged towards the center. “I do okay.”
“You do okay,” Eames repeated. He sounded tired even to himself, but sleep still refused to come even now, lying wrapped in darkness with the warmth of the blankets over him and Arthur beside him.
Arthur, still there after everything.
“You’re not asleep,” Eames noted eventually.
“Brilliant observation,” Arthur mocked. “Neither are you.”
And kissed him.
His lips were soft, bringing up gooseflesh on Eames’s arms and neck. When Eames didn’t pull away, Arthur parted them a little further, taking his mouth almost reverently. One of Eames’s hands caught at the worn cloth of his shirt almost before it occurred to him he’d moved at all, knuckles dragging along the firm planes of his stomach.
But Arthur didn’t display so much as a hint of disapproval. Arthur groaned quietly and Eames drank in the sound, lapped at it, Arthur’s tongue a tiny curl of heat against his own, Arthur’s hands splaying cool and wide against the bare skin of his back. Eames trailed his touch up the smooth slopes of his shoulders until he was until he was cradling Arthur’s hot-flushing face between them instead, feeling the warm shapes of ears pressing against his palms. He let his head fall back against the pillows as Arthur kissed him, let Arthur’s fingers ease their way into his hair the way they had in Utah—slow, careful, gentle to the last, as if Eames were a blushing virgin. He could hear the rush of Arthur’s breath in his ears, taste the kick of the pulse in his neck when he mouthed there.
He nearly didn’t hear it when there was more.
“I missed you,” Arthur was whispering, his lips barely moving, his words barely audible. “God, Eames, I missed you so much.”
Eames traced the line of his nose, tapped the tip of it lightly. “Darling, I hardly know you.” He meant for it to sound teasing, but it came out far too somber.
Arthur made an odd choked sound and twisted so that he was facing the other direction. “I know."
Impulsively, Eames spooned up behind him, earning the bite of Arthur’s nails in his forearm when he tried to touch his cheek.
“You remember bits and pieces about Yusuf. Mal. Dom. The fucking jacket you left in Alabama.” Arthur’s words were softer still now. His body gave a little jerk, which Eames recognized as an aborted attempted to curl into himself. “Where am I?”
For the first time, even though they were finally precisely where they needed to be, he sounded lost.
Carefully, Eames urged him back over. Even in the dark, he could see the tension in Arthur’s jaw. “You’re here.”
He grazed his thumb across Arthur’s lips until he relaxed enough to open them. Eames slid both hands into his unruly hair, pressed their foreheads together, whispered against his mouth and tasted nothing. “You’re here.”
Eames let Arthur crush him in a bear hug so tight he suspected Arthur was trying to physically get under his skin and fix everything that was wrong inside it. He held him as hard as he could in return, smoothed his hair off his face, felt Arthur tense and tremble when he kissed him.
You’ve come this far with me, and that’s enough. You’re right where you should be.
The beauty of being at Cobb’s place was that no one would ever expect to find them there. Marie had been extremely vocal about slicing off all ties with dreamshare. She was also still fighting for full custody of the kids since Cobb had been deemed unfit and then some, but Marie didn’t exactly have a pure and spotless past herself. It wouldn’t do to go endangering her reputation.
If he could figure out a tasteful way to do it, Arthur would have remind her that Eames could forge her any number of dazzling character references.
Marie, striding a few steps ahead of him, didn’t seem to be in the mood for conversation. Eames’s mind was a desert, tall and graceful dunes, sharp blue skies cracked by cirrus clouds. The instant Arthur opened his mouth, he could feel his body being drained a little drier.
The deception was Marie’s idea, though Arthur had tried to argue against it initially, hearing his own words in his head all the while. I would never fuck around with your subconscious like that.
And they had done it anyway, drugged Eames’s tea and slipped into his dreams as he lay there on the red leather couch in the Cobbs’ living room. “Going into a person’s subconscious when they’re expecting you is completely different from going in when they’re not expecting a thing,” Marie had told him, impatient as Mal had always been about having to catch someone up to speed. “I would also like to remind you that this is never going to amount to a thing if you keep letting your emotions get in the way.”
Arthur had admitted defeat, but he had at least made sure Eames was stretched out in a comfortable sleeping position first.
Two minutes later, he and Marie were pausing in Eames’s sand-strewn subconscious to survey what appeared to be a tree full of goats.
“Um,” said Arthur.
As he stared, a small bronze plaque appeared at the base of the tree, bearing information about argania spinosa and Moroccan climbing goats. Arthur rolled his eyes. Asleep or not, Eames could be insufferable about showing off his wide and varied knowledge.
Marie uttered a delighted peal of laughter. “This is looking promising already.”
“Are you serious?”
“His subconscious is giving you satisfaction by manifesting information, but presumably nothing you’d be able to use against him. Unless you know something I don’t about Eames and goats.”
Arthur didn’t even know where to begin responding to that.
“Do you know how many levels deep they went with him?”
“Only one,” he said derisively. “Zorig couldn’t handle anything more advanced than that.”
Marie seemed satisfied with this answer. “Most people know better than to tempt fate so blatantly.”
The dunes stretched on forever, peppered here and there with scrubby vegetation and more of the same goats. “Why is it so empty?” Arthur asked.
“Security.” Marie was still a half-step ahead of him. In the dream world, she seemed far less demoralized than she did in real life. “Militarization is more than just schooling your mind to produce an army. I trained one client’s projections to respond to threats by communicating in whichever language an invader didn’t understand. She was a translator with the French secret service. Of course, if there was an intruder who spoke all three of the same languages she did, the projections just became mute. There are plenty of alternate ways to keep your subconscious from giving you away.”
Without any further explanation, she materialized a shovel and began digging into the sand.
The wind picked up, tried to blow over it, but she showed no sign of stopping. Bewildered, Arthur dropped to his knees and started scooping away the excess with his bare hands.
“What are you—”
Marie waved a hand at him. “Hush.”
When the shovel hit something solid, she redoubled her efforts, eventually throwing aside the shovel and using her jacket to wipe away the last fine dusting of sand.
Beneath them, hidden beneath the soft sand, was what appeared to be a vast sheet of glass. Thick, shatterproof, not bearing so much as a mark when Arthur stabbed at it with the shovel.
His stomach turned.
Under the glass were more people than he could count, their faces turned upward, their eyes locked on him and Marie. Some of them wielding weapons, some of them pounding the glass with their fists, some of them clearly screaming at the top of their lungs although Arthur couldn’t hear a thing. He couldn’t find any edges when he scrabbled at the slick surface with his fingers, couldn’t begin to fathom how far it went on.
Marie’s smile made the desert seem bitterly cold.
“Ah,” she said at last. “There we are.”
They left the desert behind. The sand smoothed out into soil and on the horizon Arthur could make out the grimy outskirts of what resembled an abandoned industrial town. He could picture it already, the sort of place filled with asphalt and abattoirs and not a single living soul.
“It wasn’t like this when I was here.” He hadn’t said a word since Marie had revealed precisely what sort of ground the two of them were treading on.
Marie didn’t spare him a glance, sipping thoughtfully from a canteen and still staring into the distance. It occurred to Arthur that she was probably seeing something completely different. “Of course not. He knows you far more intimately than he does me. No one likes having strangers digging through their thoughts. His abductors must have found this very frustrating indeed.”
Arthur thought about what Eames had said, about not wanting anyone else in his mind.
“Tell me why you’re doing this for him,” Marie insisted.
“Not everyone who dreams is a self-aggrandizing asshole,” Arthur snapped, and immediately expected her to tell him to watch his language. Mal had done the same thing on multiple occasions. Arthur wasn’t used to censoring himself in front of small children.
“I didn’t ask you to disprove common industry stereotypes. I asked why you took this upon yourself.”
“I want him back. The same way Cobb would have done anything to have Mal back.”
“The two of them went too far,” Marie said. “They got careless. And please stop using Mallorie as a point of reference for your own situation. It unsettles me.”
Arthur walked beside her in silence. There were no roads, and Eames’s mind only rumbled with earthquakes when Arthur tried to create them. “I guess he’s had enough driving,” he murmured.
“Or he’s determined to make transportation as difficult as possible,” Marie pointed out, and Arthur had to admit she was probably right. Even gravity seemed to press a little harder.
The sky was heavy and gray by the time they reached the town.
Arthur paused in front of a boarded-up storefront. “Cobb and Mal were geniuses. They revolutionized the notion of multiple dream levels. I’m not a genius. I’m a professional second-in-command. I don’t have any big ideas or strategies, I just want to salvage what I can.”
From where she had settled onto a bench, Marie smirked up at him. “So you seek out old women trying to live peaceful lives now that they’ve lost too many of their loved ones to this job. I see.”
“No. I seek out the best.”
“You really,” Marie said sadly, “should have looked into a different career when you had the chance.”
“Everyone wants to find out who’s responsible for the upheaval. Zorig’s team just got to him first. They wanted so badly to rip the information out of him, but they couldn’t. He stuck it away, out of their grasp, but out of his own too. He wouldn’t give up his team, his history, anything.” Arthur’s head was throbbing, his mind’s eye seeing Kinerney on the floor and Eames in a bloody undershirt all over again. “Can you blame him for that?”
“Blame is a peculiar animal,” murmured Marie. She stood. “Incidentally, as interesting as this landscape has been, we aren’t going to find him here.”
“The hell you aren’t,” said Eames.
Around them, the world fell to pieces.
“I thought we were all in this together,” Eames snapped, wrenching the cannula out of his arm.
Marie didn’t seem bothered. “We are. I needed to go in cold to see what we were working with. Now I know.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Arthur. The needle mark on his wrist was still evident when he dropped his face into his hands, an insult the size of a pinprick. Eames rounded on him.
“No. You’re not allowed to be the wilting flower here.”
“You’re a terrible houseguest,” Marie sighed. “Arthur, both my grandchildren and my idiot son-in-law have been sick on this couch. Go right ahead.” Methodically, she released the Somnacin vials from their cradles. “We’re going to need a different blend for going into your mind.”
“Wilting flower?” Arthur repeated incredulously.
“This has all gone so fucking well so far,” Eames grumbled at Marie’s retreating back. “I certainly hope someone’s got a plan B because I’m fresh out.”
Arthur was laughing now, sounding a little hysterical. “Why is this suddenly a problem? You didn’t have any hangups when you went poking through my dreams without permission.”
“Because I was being dragged across the country by a complete stranger who could have had a thousand different ulterior motives,” Eames exploded. “The situation isn’t remotely comparable.”
“I haven’t been a stranger to you in years. Go fuck yourself.”
“What, and deny you the pleasure?”
Arthur couldn’t have looked more stunned if Eames had struck him.
When Marie returned and began reinserting the vials, Eames kept his eyes on her despite feeling Arthur’s glare burning holes in the back of his skull.
“Exactly what are we doing?”
Marie finished sterilizing a needle and passed it to him. “It’s time to see what Arthur has now.”
“Must we? Arthur’s mind is like flipping through a book of architectural templates.”
Arthur glared daggers at him, intimidating as a sulking schoolboy. “How would you know?”
“I just do,” Eames said pettishly. “The best defense you could come up with was bloody hunting season. How imaginative.”
“He’s right,” Marie agreed, passing Arthur another IV line. “Mallorie always said you were impressively reserved for a dreamer. Entire worlds at your disposal and you make yourself office buildings.”
Now Arthur looked like a schoolboy who’d taken a ruler slap to the wrist. “She seriously said that?”
“Lucky for us,” Marie went on, a little too cheerfully for Eames’s liking, “this compound was created specifically to target inhibitory interneurons.”
And she pushed the plunger before Eames had time to chuckle.
In no time at all, Eames was eating his words. Arthur’s dream was an inferno filled with projections that fired at him until Eames was out of ammo and his muscles were screaming for relief.
“I could do with a nice quiet office building right about now,” he admitted, crouched amidst the remains of what had once been part of a library.
Marie, whom the projections hadn’t targeted at all, calmly passed him a sniper rifle. “I assume our trip into your mind elicited some strong emotions between you. Excellent. Dreams are fascinating when a dreamer’s emotions are running high to begin with.”
“Do I need to apologize?” Eames yelled. “I’m sorry, Arthur, all right?”
Arthur was lounging in an armchair, unfairly engrossed in a volume roughly as thick as Eames’s neck. Given the the new round of gunfire that pummeled the bank of file cabinets Eames was using to shield himself, he doubted Arthur could catch a word he said.
“Did you hear me? I said I’m sorry. You did what you had to do, I understand that now.”
Arthur only licked a fingertip and turned the page.
It couldn’t have been that long, but to Eames it felt like he spent the next hour cursing himself, his underestimation of Arthur’s capabilities, and the entire goddamn mass of projections hell-bent on making him pay for it.
“Grenade,” Marie announced mildly, dropping to the ground behind him.
And the rest of the library turned upside down.
Books went flying everywhere, charred pages and toppled shelves littering the floor. The first thing Eames noticed—aside from whether all his limbs were still attached, which they were—was that several feet away, Arthur’s chair was overturned.
“Fuck.” Heedless of anything else, Eames darted over to him.
“Isn’t getting knocked off your feet by your own subconscious a bit off?” He was shouting, but his voice sounded tinny and weak behind the ringing in his ears.
“Do you dream in terms of reality or in terms of hypotheticals?” Marie demanded, primly pushing her glasses up on her head. Somehow, she didn’t have a hair out of place.
Eames gaped at her, still using both hands to feel Arthur’s skull for contusions or gashes. “Is this really the time—”
Marie silenced him with a look. “Your unconscious mind wants to attain katastasis. It wants you to be happy and it will do anything it takes to get you there. If opening fire on your loved ones is part of the process, then so be it.”
“I’m okay,” complained Arthur, nearly causing Eames to drop him, “just let me get up. Jesus.”
Reluctantly, Eames left off taking his pulse. “Make me believe it.”
When Arthur untangled himself from shredded pages and shards of shrapnel, flames placidly fluttered in his wake. Eames’s throat wanted to contract and his eyes wanted to water, but neither happened. Hands that weren't entirely his plucked the blood-soaked fabric from Arthur’s midsection. The skin beneath was unbroken.
Arthur smiled, a devilish set of dimples flashing out at him. “You sentimental idiot. You could have just shot us all out of the dream to begin with, but you made yourself work for forgiveness anyway.”
“No,” Eames insisted, his hand seeking out Arthur’s. “I couldn’t have done that. I’ve never liked killing you, you know.”
A stricken expression crossed Arthur’s his face and the library disappeared.
“I hate this compound,” Arthur chanted. “I hate it. I hate it.”
The dreamscape kept reforming around them and it was unnerving as hell. Arthur had worked hard for years to keep his subconscious under control. Not having autonomy in his own mind was slowly driving him insane.
Marie shrugged unapologetically. “I told you, it targets inhibitory interneurons. You’ve created this world, but you’ve also given up control of it.”
“Maybe there’s a reason inhibitory interneurons shouldn’t be targeted.”
A little ways behind him, Eames was resplendent in a crisp black suit. At least Arthur could congratulate his subconscious on one thing, anyway. “What is this place?”
“Zahlé,” Arthur muttered.
“Ah. Where we met. The day after you had food poisoning.”
Arthur blinked. “Did I tell you that?”
But Eames only frowned at him. He was in uniform now, which was apt but odd. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”
It was something Arthur could still recall with perfect clarity. He’d been a terror to work with that day and had caught hell for it from his CO, shortly before his unit was introduced to its British and Lebanese counterparts.
“Isn’t it?” Eames repeated. “Arthur?”
The world shifted again, into chandeliers and champagne glasses and an enormous plasma screen showing some sort of New Year’s Eve festivities.
“God damn it,” said Arthur.
“You’ll thank me someday,” promised Marie. “Sometimes things need to happen organically.”
“Vegas!” Eames crowed brightly, oblivious.
Arthur wasn’t sure whether to hit him or hug him. “This would be the place to jog your memory, wouldn’t it? But yeah, New Year’s in Vegas. With the Cobbs and one of the architecture interns from the college. Mal had just started testing the effectiveness of totems.” One of his hands had found its way into his pocket out of habit, although rolling his die would do no good in his own dream.
“What do you mean by—” Eames began. Then he stopped short, mouth hanging open indecently. “Oh. That’s…interesting.”
The edges of Arthur’s die bit into the flesh of his hand as he curled it into a fist.
Over by one of the roulette wheels, a projection of Eames was laughing.
Mal, bright and beautiful in blue silk, was saying something to him, studying something in his hand.
Marie had gone very still.
Eames was grumbling to himself about there having been next to no information on either of Arthur’s computers about the extent to which he’d known Dom and Mal.
Arthur sighed. “I’m not an idiot. I knew you’d get nosy sooner or later, so I made sure the only information on there was stuff I was comfortable with you knowing, given your...” he groped for the right word, “condition.”
“Maybe you should have left it alone. Maybe it would have helped.”
“You’re inside my mind,” Arthur burst out. “This is essentially me giving you all my passwords and letting you poke through everything to your heart’s content.”
Eames seemed ready to make some kind of retort, but Mal chose that moment to catch sight of Marie.
“You’re here!” She was beaming, incandescent, such a far cry from the ghoulish shade who’d haunted Dom’s dreams for so long. “It’s wonderful to see you. Dom and I have been so busy.”
Arthur looked away before he could witness Marie’s reaction.
“Oh,” Eames said again, gripping the lip of one of the poker tables.
Without thinking, Arthur glanced up just in time to see a projection of himself walking over to the projection of Eames, a pair of champagne flutes in hand. A hard, resilient ache engulfed him and he braced himself, waiting for the dream to collapse around them on the spot.
“Look at you,” Eames observed fondly. He was smiling. Arthur heart twisted, suffuse with the urge to hope. “So meticulous about everything, even your projections.”
If Arthur strained his ears, he could hear Mal and Marie chatting rapidly in French. Eames was the one who’d taken lessons for twelve years; Arthur scarcely knew how to ask for directions. He gripped his die until his palm went numb and remembered Marie describing how she had militarized an interpreter, training her subconscious not to respond to any languages it recognized. “These aren’t my projections. They’re yours.”
“I heard about a military extraction that fell apart in Medina a few months back,” had been Arthur’s conversation starter that night. “There was blood everywhere afterward and all fingers pointed towards a particular team member. But you know all about that, don’t you?”
Eames had only laughed. “That’s not who I am anymore.”
Arthur smiled into his champagne flute. “Did you read that in a self-help pamphlet?”
“No, literally, I’m not that man anymore,” Eames had insisted, mock-offended. “Harrington was a twat and he never worked another extraction afterward. He and I don’t have a thing in common. No one would ever make the connection.”
“I did.” Arthur smiled again, a little tipsy, a little smug, learning a little too heavily on Eames’s shoulder. “He was you.”
“You’re a master of information gathering. This is why everyone wants a piece of you.”
“But you’re immune, right?”
“Only,” Eames admitted, “in that I’d prefer not having to settle for just a piece.”
As Arthur looked on, his projection slipped one hand around the back of Eames’s neck. The projection leaned in, letting him, poker chip forgotten between his fingers as the real Eames stood slack-jawed at Arthur’s side. Mal was chatting brightly with Marie, who mercifully had her back towards Arthur. And Arthur was clutching Eames’s arm in a death grip, whispering through clenched teeth.
You need to come back. You need to.
When the dreamscape dissolved and resolved for the last time, Marie was the one who pried him away from Eames, red-eyed but still rational to the last. “Arthur. He’s alive. This isn’t a projection of him, this is a living human being. Remember that, no matter what happens.”
“I know,” said Arthur, but even he wasn’t sure if it was the truth.
“Remember,” Marie insisted once more before letting him go, lagging behind as Arthur followed Eames through the front door.
“You talked about this place before,” Arthur said. “It’s nice.”
Eames was studying one of the paintings above the mantel, his lips pursed. “Needed a safehouse on the west coast since I kept ending up there.”
“I wonder why that was,” Arthur muttered, stalking upstairs.
In the bedroom, he found a perfect replica of bed they’d shared in that dismally cold hotel room and promptly turned on his heel, thundering back down the stairs. Ready to run past Eames and back outside, back to Marie and her reassurances, before he said anything he might regret. He paused downstairs anyway, limbs gone leaden, the carpeting catching at his feet like quicksand, and wanted to scream.
Eames’s arms were strong, thicker than they were in reality, when he slid them around Arthur’s waist there on the rust-encrusted hood of a hideous old car, half-overgrown with weeds, that had sprouted up in the middle of their living room. Arthur didn’t have the energy to protest even if he’d wanted to.
“I’ve been running you ragged, haven’t I?” Eames said softly. “What are you doing down here? You need to get to bed.”
Arthur dropped his head against his shoulder and grinned, a little madly. It wasn’t his imagination, Eames was definitely a little broader in the dream than he was in real life. The wild kernel of hope that had taken root in his desperation earlier struggled to bloom. “It’s all I’ve thought of. Taking you to bed.”
“Really. And here I thought you’d been thinking a thousand things at once for the past thirty years. I’ve always found that to be a very impressive skill.”
“Could’ve fooled me, Mr. Eames.”
Eames lightly swatted the back of his head. “Nobody asked for your input, Mr. Szafaryn.”
And suddenly Arthur was laughing so hard his ribs hurt.
“Christ,” Eames murmured, rubbing up and down the length of Arthur’s back as if he were gentling a pet. “You really have lost it, haven’t you? What is it now?”
Arthur was still laughing when he lightly touched his forehead to Eames’s. “No one ever gets my name right on the first try. Ever."
“The inception fucked over everything, didn’t it.” Eames’s inflection didn’t indicate he was asking a question, but Arthur kept hold of his hand and answered anyway.
“Doesn’t matter. We’ll keep going. We’ve gotten this far.”
“You know what I’m always going to remember?” Eames mused. “I’ll remember a scrappy, brave idiot who dragged me out of hell, dragged me across an entire continent, and dragged me into his mind.”
“I’m not scrappy,” Arthur objected.
Eames kissed him until there were no objections left in him, was still kissing him when Marie walked into the room and cleared her throat.
“Are you ready to wake up now?”
Eames opened his eyes.
“Why did you do it?” Arthur asked. Stubborn, ridiculous, loyal Arthur, sprawled out on the Cobbs’ red sofa with his hair askew and his voice roughened by sleep and his hand curled on the cushions just inches away from Eames’s own. “Why would you ever put yourself through that?”
“They were after something they couldn’t have,” Eames said simply. “Some people just never learn what their limits are.”
Arthur was laughing again, his face splotched pink, IV line still dangling from his wrist.
Very gently, Eames drew his arm down and let Marie remove the cannula.
“You weren't meant to die that way, because I gave you up.”
He could tell it was on the tip of Arthur’s tongue to retort that he’d die when and how he damn well pleased, could tell he was a half-second away from smoothing his hair and straightening his shirt and taking a swallow of ice-cold tea and making a face because the Arthur that Eames knew had never met a cup of tea he could handle unless it was anything less than throat-scaldingly hot.
“Arthur,” Eames whispered, as Arthur began the futile task of flattening his cowlick back into place, “Arthur, darling, you’ll never believe where I’ve been.”