In the years after Arthur woke up from the long dream, he would sometimes sit up in the night, rigid with shock and throw himself forward in the bed, coughing and sweating and scrambling to turn the lights on as though the swell of yellow against his walls might crush down the panic climbing up his throat. He would always calm himself by remembering that he hadn’t felt surprised at all when it happened for real; he’d woken up and known. It was as simple as that.
Arthur woke up and he knew that it had all been a dream.
There was the feeling of sedative, loose and heavy in his limbs. He blinked his eyes slowly open to a bleakly white-grey ceiling. Everything was blurred around the edges so he rubbed his eyes, yawning and knowing; knowing the life he’d lived had never existed.
It felt like reality. Of course, life had felt real in the dream, but now that he was awake, everything felt truly real, as though real-ness was an ache under the surface of his skin and in his bones and running like a cord of nerves down the length of his spine.
When Arthur woke up it was like waking up always was: he felt like he’d been asleep a long time. Arthur was very good at telling how long he’d been under: twenty-three hours and five minutes exactly. The calculations came fluidly. Assuming he had been three layers down (which seemed about right for the vivid quality of the dream) he’d dreamed ten years of life.
He fumbled at the floor beneath the bed for his totem; of course, it wasn’t there. He hadn’t even heard of totems until he’d been shared-dreaming for nearly two years. He expected some sense of fear at the lack of that essential safety net, but he already knew he was awake now. The die would be useless anyway; irrevocably jeopardized by the fact that he’d once believed the faithfully repeated number four and it had lied all along.
He rolled halfway over, just enough to see the date in glowing print beneath the time on his radio alarm clock. It was the thirtieth of November, and Arthur was nineteen years old.
He’d just been in another place – a place where he was twenty-nine and dying in the semi-detached house just outside of London curled into Eames’ arms, surrounded by hit men, when the world had melted away and he’d woken up and known that he’d lived ten years of life in a world that didn’t exist.
The alarm clock was the same one he’d thrown out his window in a fit of rage after Mal died. That was four years into the dream life.
He sat up. His grey t-shirt, with ‘ARMY’ printed across the front in dark blue letters was hanging from the bedpost. He picked it up; it still smelled of sweat. This life was faded and far away, but Arthur figured he must have been running in this shirt yesterday the morning before. He remembered that he used to go running, back when he was in the army, and nineteen. He used to run before he had anything worth running from.
Except, he was nineteen now. Now he ran just for the feel of his legs stretching out and covering ground.
Arthur had cleaned the bathroom floor with an old scrap of that same shirt last week. Last week he’d researched a job Ariadne needed a little extra help with. Eames had made salad niçoise for lunch and they ate it on the floor of the living room watching a rerun of Grand Designs, which Arthur liked because he could always predict exactly how many days over the deadline the house remodel would run.
The following Monday he and Eames had been fighting with each other in the kitchen, too loud to notice the front door creaking open. Too angry to hear the telltale snick and click of guns. On Monday, Arthur died and woke up.
Arthur looked at the clock again, and remembered why the date was familiar. It was the day after he’d first found out about dream-sharing. The commander had pulled him aside, and told him that there was an important job he had been specially selected for, and to please meet him in the training room at fourteen hundred hours. Arthur had gone, and discovered what he was meant for.
He’d met Cobb a few months later on his second job, extracting from a general in the Russian military. Then Cobb had met Mal (already a criminal), who helped them both transition to the other side of the law after government dream-sharing fell apart. The year after that, Arthur met Eames…
Eames, he thought suddenly, and surprise finally shuddered over his shoulders. Oh God, Eames.
Arthur met Eames when he was twenty-one. He was angry back then. He was angry at the military for chewing up it’s best and brightest and spitting them into murky water, and angry that he’d been stupid enough to get too caught up in dream-sharing to work in anything else. He was angry he’d killed men when he hadn’t meant to, and let men who should be dead escape. Mostly, he was angry that he didn’t know who he was yet.
They pulled a job together that nearly went to hell too many times, and afterwards, Eames got Arthur drunk while they ate fish and chips in London. Eames slid his hand under Arthur’s shirt and pressed his thumb into the softest part of Arthur’s hip as they laughed in the lights reflected from the River Thames. Arthur forgot to be angry for a little while.
Arthur figured himself out the next year. When he met Eames again, Arthur had learned to be a point man and he’d learned to know things other people didn’t and he’d learned to be thin and quick and sharp rather than angular and gawky. He learned to stand still for a suit fitting. Eames taught him that.
“Arthur, you fidget during when they do the inseam,” Eames said, chewing on the end of a cigarette. “Don’t be a Eton schoolboy, darling. In fact, perhaps Eton schoolboys have more class in a tailor’s shop.... I’m sure I did, anyway.”
Arthur watched Eames change, too. When he first met Eames, there wasn’t a trace of subtlety to him. Everything about Eames seemed theatre-trained, or thief-trained, and the two halves mixed like water and oil on Eames’s skin -- which is to say, they barely mixed at all. Eames was too fast with his emotion, almost unstable, and he was too sure he knew best to choose the right thing every time. But he grew up. They grew up, together.
They fucked in hotel rooms across Europe and once in a boat between Japan and China, and when they weren’t somewhere together Eames sent Arthur postcards and packages with cigars Arthur never smoked but saved all the same.
They hated each other. Arthur fell in love with the feeling of hating Eames. He laughed when Eames left bruises on the inside of his thighs and he smiled too wide (so wide it hurt) when Eames left his goddamn tea cups next to the sofa for Arthur to accidentally step on and nearly kill himself falling over.
Arthur fell in love, knowing Eames was the only person in the world Arthur could hate so well. It wasn’t something they talked about, but it was a fact draped between continents and the jobs they pulled – the streaking line of a light across film on a long-exposure camera.
So maybe they were in love, but it wasn’t something they talked about. It wasn’t something they could talk about. Arthur was careful to make sure they didn’t need anything more than the unspoken; Eames didn’t always agree. That was what they had been fighting about on Monday night. For Eames, Monday night was the night Arthur died. For Arthur it was the night he woke up.
Only, none of that ever happened.
Maybe Eames didn’t exist. Maybe none of them existed (not Cobb or Mal or Yusuf or Saito or Ariadne or Nash that bastard or Tanya from the café down the street or Beanie, the kid who sold him newspapers and gum).
Arthur didn’t believe it, though. He couldn’t. He’d have nothing if he didn’t believe that they were out there somewhere, waking up just like him. He knew the difference between a real person and a projection, and he knew the difference between a genuine person and a forgery (he knew that very well). So what if he learned it all in a world that didn’t exist -- he still knew, he still knew.
He’d just have to find them. (He’d have to find Eames.)
Dear Subject No. 23657,
Thank you for your help in the extremely sensitive experimentation program on extended shared-dreaming. The Extended Expansive Uninterrupted Use of PASIV Controlled Dreaming project has been a carefully planned goal and your contribution to the project is deeply important to the safety of your country and fellow Americans.
Due to the undisclosed nature of the project, you will be briefed with further information approximately four hours after your awakening. During this time we ask that you collect your memories of life before the extended dream.
After the briefing, your memories of the dream will be terminated to better help you re-acclimate to your work here in the military.
Extended dreaming is new territory in dream-share technology. It has great potential for dealing with war criminal psychosis in a humane fashion and as a way to simulate the possible outcomes of world events. We are certain the technology has further, unexplored depths, which your work will help us to understand.
We understand it creates a vivid experience for the dreamer. The important thing to remember as you wake is that none of what you remember is real. Nothing in that place is real. You are awake now. This is real.
That was what the letter on the army-issued dresser said.
Arthur understood with biting clarity that he was dealing with the most dangerous sort of military force. Whoever had put him into the dream was an idiot with a lot of power who didn’t understand their own technology or their own soldiers.
He stood up and tried the door. It was locked, of course.
The people who put him here were stupid, though; the window opened easily. He pulled the screen in through the window and looked down. His room was three floors up (just like it had always been), but the wall was made of rough-hewn brick. It would be terribly easy to climb down. He swung his leg over the window ledge.
As he was climbing down the wall, his hands began to hurt in a way they hadn’t since he was so young, and he remembered again that he was that young, the crushing force of which made him clings tightly to the wall. He’d never climbed anything like a vertical wall in this life. Military training prepared him for some things; this was the kind of work that being a thief taught him. Thank God he still knew how to do this. The calluses and the muscle memory would come again, with a little time.
He dropped down to the gravel silently and tried to recall which way the training armoury was. His hair was bristled and short under his fingers as he rubbed his hand over his head in frustration. He took the wrong left twice. He moved liquidly despite his shaky memory. He felt like he could breath twice as much air as he needed. The stiffness in his left leg from that gunshot wound was totally gone, and he could stretch his elbow out all the way again. Nineteen was young compared to twenty-nine, but it was very young compared to the hard worn twenty-nine Arthur had been. He was practically brand new.
He finally made it to the armoury. The door codes hadn’t been changed, which shouldn’t have been so surprising since it had only been a day since he last opened them. He was looking for anything he could conceal under his closely tailored suit jacket when he realised he wasn’t wearing a closely tailored suit jacket. He settled for a holstered handgun, dropping it low around his waist.
There was a noise from the door, and Arthur turned slowly and silently, hoping the sound was only a shuffling mouse or the wind shifting the leaves.
“Hey, is someone in here?” A voice called. It was someone Arthur knew. He hadn’t heard the voice in years (or hours, depending on how you looked at it) but his perfect recall supplied a face, and the name Private Jeffery P. Baker. They had been friends, once.
“Jeff? It’s just me: Arthur,” he said, trying to affect the slight nervousness of someone ten years younger and far less competent than Arthur felt.
“Arthur?” Jeff replied sounding confused. “Huh, they said you were on a field mission and not to expect you in until Thursday.”
“Oh, well, finished early,” Arthur said.
“What are you doing in here?” There was a click, and the fizzing sound of electricity The overhead fluorescent lamps snapped on, flooding the room with sterile green-white light.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Arthur said, slowly. “Insomnia.”
Jeff was looking at him strangely. It was technically against the rules for Arthur to be in here after hours, but not so much so that Jeff would be looking at Arthur like that, like he was afraid Arthur wasn’t even who he’s said he was.
“You look different,” Jeff said after a minute. Arthur inwardly sighed at himself. He’d never been a good actor (that was always Eames’ job). It was really no wonder he looked different to Jeff, and it was no wonder Arthur couldn’t hide it. Ten years change people in ways that seem physical even if they’re not.
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, trying to play dumb.
“I dunno?” Jeff said, hesitantly. “You’re standing up too straight. You look tired. You look…kinda scary. Jeez, man, are you okay?”
“Sure, sure, I’m fine,” Arthur said.
“I don’t know,” Jeff replied, shifting his grip on the standard-issue gun he was carrying. “You seem really different. Look, I’m gonna call Lieutenant Rogers in, yeah?”
“I’m afraid we can’t have that happening,” Arthur said, quietly. “You see, I am trying to escape without detection. I don’t count you as detection but I do count the Lieutenant.”
“Arthur?” Jeff asked, a distinct nervous shake edging into his voice.
Arthur smiled wryly and tugged the gun from the holster, pulling back the slide and clicking off the safety smoothly. “Put down your gun, Jeff.”
“What the fuck, Arthur?” Jeff said, eyes going wide and shocked. “You look like…like you’re gonna kill me if I do something wrong.”
“I would kill you,” Arthur replied, flatly. “Jeff, I must applaud your observational skills, you’ll make an excellent soldier some day. Here is some advice. Whatever you see in me that made you understand I’m a different person today than I was yesterday – remember it. This is what happens to someone when they’ve been thoroughly fucked over by an institution they thought they trusted. This is what happens to someone when the only thing they’ve ever really loved is taken away from them – or when they find it was a lie to begin with. You remember it. Maybe someday it’ll save your life.”
Arthur kept the gun trained steadily on Jeff’s chest. He was sure he hadn’t been able to hold a gun like that when he was nineteen. Jeff certainly looked like he’d never seen Arthur hold a gun like that before -- like Arthur knew very well what to do with it.
Arthur slid into the safe blanket of darkness out the doors. He was long gone before Private Jeffery P. Baker unfroze enough from his shock to call the lieutenant.
Two days later found Arthur in a joke shop wearing a new off the rack three-piece designer suit. It was a nice suit. It fit him well. The pinstripe was thinner than usual, which Arthur liked. But it wasn’t the product of a personal favour, and it wasn’t close to what he’d once owned (never owned).
Arthur looked at the rows of loaded die and shifted uncomfortably into the not-quite-right lines fabric. He thought longingly of his closet in the house near London with the handmade three-piece grey English suit and his cashmere sweaters and his straight, precise ties and his long 32 oz. wool navy pea coat.
He picked up a package of green dice. The note on the side said they’d land with the four face up, and Arthur set them back down. He needed a different number. He remembered making his previous totem, the chemical stink of the liquid plastic and red dye.
There had been three of them. One, Arthur kept. One, Arthur mailed to his mother’s house with instructions to burry it in the garden under the snail statue. The last was for Eames, which he’d slid into his pocket smiling at Arthur from the side of his mouth the way he did when he was thinking about secrets, presumably to clink pleasantly against the black painted one-hundred percent clay of his poker chip, (the same chip Eames’ grandfather had won in 1943 in Monte Carlo).
He decided couldn’t buy cheap dice, which might have meant anything to anyone. He left the store. He was in Vegas. Arthur liked Vegas when he’d used to go as a man with connections (as a criminal, also) because people knew him.
He’d glance around at the old Vegas types, dotted there at a bar and here at a poker table which looked like all the others but wasn’t for anyone who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, and the Vegas types would nod. A tip down of the chin to say, I see you. I know you know who you are and who we are, and everyone of us is a smart shark.
It wasn’t the same now. Even dressed up so carefully and with the kind of easy, gliding walk that people who know who they are and what they are carry, Arthur looked young. Even if he was older in many ways, the restless energy that had driven him to dream-sharing in the first place was back like an itch just beneath the surface of his skin.
He slid into an empty seat at a bar and set his elbows against the table. The bartender turned to serve Arthur, despite the long line of women in terribly short skirts hanging from the arms of tall, broad men.
“Hey,” the first in the line said. “I was next.”
“Wait your fucking turn,” the bartender said, amicably. “What can I get you?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur replied, picking at a slightly crumpled napkin left on the bar. “Something hard and expensive.”
The bartender gave him half a smile. “One of those days, huh?” he said.
One of those lifetimes, Arthur thought, but he didn’t say it. He just nodded bleakly. The bartender set two fingers of whisky in a crystal glass on the bar in front of him and Arthur tipped it back. The burn felt new and familiar at the same time, dirty-hot settling in his stomach, and Arthur blinked at the wetness welling in his eyes and thought that if he was a different person, this would be the start of the kind of night that would end with Arthur sobbing and throwing up in a garbage bin.
“I’m wondering if I should card you,” the bartender said, after a moment.
Arthur raised his gaze from the smooth grain of the bar top and stared at the bartender. He was much older than Arthur, with a touch of brown stubble under his jaw line just like Eames’. Arthur laughed the kind of laugh that grated painfully at the back of his throat. “Really?” he asked.
The bartender studied him for a long moment. “No,” he said. “Maybe not.”
A man broke away from the back of the line just then. He inclined his head towards the stool next to Arthur, asking with the tilt of his chin, is this seat taken? Arthur shook his head.
“Can I buy you a drink?” the man asked.
“No,” Arthur replied.
“But the seat isn’t taken?” the man said, sounding a little confused.
“No,” Arthur said. He shrugged. “I let you take the seat so I could steal this poker chip from you.”
“What?” the man asked even as Arthur set the chip on the table between them. It was black – one hundred dollars. “What the fuck?” the man said, shoving his hand into his pocket and realising a chip was in fact missing. “Did you just steal that from me?”
“Yes, I just said I did, so you can assume I did,” Arthur said, wryly.
“What the fuck?” the man repeated, laughing now. “How did you do that?”
Arthur looked down at the bar top again. “It’s a secret. The man whose seat you’re sitting in taught me how to do that.”
The man looked at Arthur, confused. He turned to the bartender who was still standing close enough to be paying attention. “He just stole that chip from me.”
The bartender laughed. “Well take it back,” he said. “It’s sitting right there.”
The both seemed to think that Arthur was playing a kind of game. Arthur was, in a way. A different game than the one they assumed, though. The man moved to pick up the chip, but Arthur got there first and dropped it into the inside pocket of his vest. “Oops,” said Arthur. His voice had a bland tilt to it, exactly the opposite of his deft, quick hands. “Can you remember the room number 528?” Arthur said.
“Sure,” the man replied, eyes widening. He was taller than Arthur but with the same thin build, and dark hair. Arthur didn’t think they’d fit together well even if Arthur intended on taking him up on the offer he was clearly giving with the coy, open lean of his body against the bar.
“Good,” Arthur said. He slid of his stool and left. The man never saw him again.
Arthur took his first ever job in dream-sharing two and a half months after he woke up from his life. He was still only nineteen. His first ever job in real life was a much better one than his other first ever job had been.
That first job had been the kind with too many disasters for how simple the plan was. Extracting from one businessman for another. It was corporate espionage at it’s most basic, boring level – the kind of thing that Arthur could already do in his sleep by the time he’d met Eames or started to work with Cobb and Mal.
This time around it was still corporate espionage but the mark was highly militarised, and Arthur had a hell of a lot of background research to do. Even more complicated was the fact that the mark was bipolar. His subconscious was deeply unstable and Arthur had to set up of lot of complex shit with the architecture and sedatives and handling of the projections or else they’d all end up trapped in a bubble of mood swings.
Arthur took the job over the phone. He didn’t have a network like he used to (metaphorical acres of people connected to people who could get Arthur anywhere and anything) and worse, he didn’t have a reputation yet. The processes were still the same. Arthur at least knew the places to go and the kinds of things he needed to say to get what he wanted.
He began his notebook again. Arthur’s notebook had been a thing of legend in the dream life. Even people who didn’t know Arthur had heard of his notebook. The world of dream-sharing was one of tenuous connections. The closest that anyone had to a big picture which might give an idea of how many people were involved or where they were or what they did and had done was in that notebook.
Despite himself, Arthur found it fascinating to discover what parts of that other world had been completely faked and which were real. From what he could guess so far, people whom Arthur had worked with in person a few times were either projections of real people, or people who’d been in the dream and forgotten it. This was useful, because Arthur could remember phone numbers and addresses and sometimes if he’d held leverage over them before, it still worked.
Arthur hadn’t found anything to confirm that anyone had lived that ten-year life in the dream with him. The dream itself had been shockingly well crafted. Arthur only appreciated it now, as he pieced together histories in the new notebook.
The warehouse they were working out of was in Munich. Arthur liked flying to Munich. On the plane, with his perfectly forged passport, he almost felt like himself again. He’d had to write his age in as twenty-four; he’d wanted to put twenty-nine, but it would have been pushing boundaries too far. He stared at the birthday sometimes when he had trouble falling asleep, hating the fact that he couldn’t even fake himself into the person he felt like he was.
He finished almost all the research and sent it off to the extractor before he ever met anyone on the team face to face.
Arthur pulled up to the warehouse in a sleek black car. He turned the collar of his long navy coat up against the cold. It was an almost exact replica of his coat from the dream. Arthur went to four navy surplus stores in three different states to find it.
Ramirez, the extractor, and Clark, the architect, were already setting up models of the city blocks the dream was set in. Arthur coughed politely as he approached them to give warning. He knew he was too silent on his feet for them to notice him otherwise, and Arthur had nearly been accidentally shot by Eames too many times not to know that people in the dream-sharing business never scared well.
Arthur had a silver briefcase containing his specially designed PASIV in one hand. They needed the PASIV because of the bipolar issue.
“Hey, kid,” Clark said in stunted German, squinting at him. “This is private fucking property. Turn around and back off.”
“I’m Arthur,” Arthur said, setting the PASIV on the floor.
“Right,” Ramirez said, raising an eyebrow. “You’re Arthur. Arthur who sent me the most precise little fucking plans I’ve ever seen and who knows how to rig his own PASIV and who drops names like he’s a fucking Rockefeller? I don’t think so. You look like a twelve year old.”
Arthur shrugged. He didn’t say anything.
“Look, kid,” he continued. “It’s not like I’ve never met a child prodigy, but all the diagrams and work and shit you sent to us doesn’t have that theoretical flare. That stuff was the real deal. I can tell the difference. There is smart and then there is knowing shit. Gritty realism. You can’t be old enough for that. So turn your ass around and send me Arthur.”
“Do you want to test me?” Arthur said, monotone.
Ramirez sighed and glanced at Clark who inclined his head as if to say, why not?
“Fine,” Ramirez grumbled, crossing the room to a leather couch coughing stuffing from multiple splits at the seams. “Come on, kid, let’s have a go.”
Arthur tugged a folding chair away from a corner and sat down across from Ramirez who was sprawled across the decrepit sofa. Clark slipped the needles into their wrists deftly and Arthur tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes again to a park. It looked like every park Arthur had ever been to. He could recognize bits and pieces here and there. The benches were straight from Hyde Park in London and the trees were all tall, tired Eucalyptus, those lithe silver beige and green giants that covered California.
Light filtered dimly through the trees. Arthur stood up and smiled darkly as the familiar weight of an assault rifle dropped from nowhere into his hands. Across the park a band of men in black militant uniforms were already assembling.
Ramirez tried out simulation after simulation on Arthur, but there was never anything he couldn’t handle. It was all routine, and predictable. Arthur could do predictable drunk and drugged if he had to. There wasn’t anything like Cobb’s shade of Mal or like the sudden discovery that death would land you in limbo or like the job he and Eames had once pulled where they were tricked into fighting each other rather than the projections and only figured it out when it was nearly too late.
Ramirez found him after what Arthur judged to be four hours. Arthur was covered in rivulets of crimson blood, but barely any of it was his. His hair felt long – back to the length it had been in the dream-life and there was a thin line of sweat along his hairline.
“I am…surprised,” Ramirez said. “Really. I guess, I should say it’s very nice to meet you, Arthur. Fucking hell, you can put up a fight, huh? I mean, the bit where you flipped the trees upside down – that was something.”
Arthur smiled thin lipped and with a tiny thrill of pleased satisfaction. He’d forgotten how good it felt to work in a dream. Two and half months was a long time without it. He dropped the gun he was holding and it melted into water as it touched the ground. He accepted Ramirez’s hand for a shake.
“I have to ask,” Ramirez said, “why make yourself so much older in the dream? It’s only a simulation, and only me after all.”
“What?” Arthur said.
“You look about thirty,” Ramirez explained. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you looked like a teenager before, either.”
Arthur looked down at his hands. The scars on his hands were back. He recognized the marks on his left hand from the time he was tortured by the Russian Mafia and also the almost invisible glass cut from when Eames set Arthur on the kitchen counter and Arthur stuck his hand through a wine glass when Eames unzipped Arthur’s trousers with his teeth.
“Oh,” Arthur murmured, surprised. “Well,” he said, seeing no reason to lie completely. “Have you ever met someone who fell into limbo?” he asked.
“Jesus Christ,” Ramirez whispered at the implication. “Are you saying you’ve been stuck down there?”
“No,” Arthur replied, hand in his pocket and slipping the black poker chip through his fingers, feeling for the place where the ‘E’ carved into the surface wasn’t. “I’m saying what happened to me was worse.”
Arthur told Eames he loved him exactly twice during that ten-year dream. The first time, Arthur was twenty-five and Eames was twenty-nine and they were at the pinnacle of everything. They had been together long enough that Arthur wasn’t turning around every second afraid that Eames might have slipped from his grasp when he wasn’t looking but not long enough to depend on him, to be sometimes almost living together or to know what Eames was thinking when he looked out train windows with a sad, tired weight over his shoulders.
They were in a grocery store in Saigon and Arthur was staring at a refrigerated crate of durian fruit like it was going to hurt him, which it probably could have. Eames’ thumb was tangled into Arthur’s back belt loop and the store was lit fluorescently so things seemed close and visceral and angry and beautiful.
“Do you think we lost them?” Arthur asked, a little breathless.
“Sure,” Eames said grinning with his teeth as he craned his neck around the tampon aisle.
“Eames,” Arthur said, laughing out of the corners of his mouth like he was bleeding the sound. He wrenched Eames further towards him so they couldn’t be seen from the windows. “Don’t, they might see. And you don’t think we’ve lost them at all. I can tell when you’re lying.”
“No you can’t,” Eames said.
In fact, Arthur could tell when Eames was lying but he’d only just learned. It was a brand new feeling to notice the way Eames’ mouth twisted down to the left just slightly when he wasn’t telling the whole truth. Twenty-five was an age that made Arthur think he’d already experienced all the new feelings worth experiencing so when a new one like this came along, like this, he fell into it madly, exhilarated.
Eames went silent as Arthur led him down the bread aisle. Then, they were staring at each other in the silence with the loaves of French bakery bread leaning down from the higher shelves like an arched lattice.
Arthur was so close to Eames he could feel their collective heat underneath his skin, and Eames smelled like cheap deodorant and expensive cologne and, inexplicably, wet wool in winter. Arthur’s hands were already on Eames jacket, but he found himself curling his long fingers into fists around the fabric, and Eames was looking down at Arthur like he could tell when Arthur was lying too, and they were so fucking close.
They hadn’t kissed since the night before, and Arthur wanted to so badly all of the sudden, but the door to the small market crashed open with a little too much zeal for someone simply looking to do shopping.
“Shit,” Arthur whispered.
“Did they see our faces?” Eames asked rapidly, quiet enough that Arthur wouldn’t have heard him if there was even an inch of space between them.
“No,” Arthur said, “I was careful. But it’s not like there are a whole lot of westerners lazing around in Saigon supermarkets.”
“Just follow my lead,” Eames replied. And pulled away from Arthur explosively. He grabbed a loaf jar of pickles from the nearby shelf and threw it at the floor next to Arthur’s feet.
“You fucker!” Eames screamed in French. “You swore you’d never sleep with that whore again!”
Arthur swallowed in surprise, but his hesitation was only slight before he yelled back, still in French “I never touched her, asshole! You’re the one who ran off with that good for nothing tennis instructor last year. I’m faithful, you dick!”
For good measure, Arthur ripped open a bag of sliced bread and threw three pieces at Eames head. The flour powdered his shirt dusty white, and Eames screamed like he laughed: loud and broad and inclusive.
Three store employees came around the corner a second later, half-way through Eames’ monologue about how Arthur could no longer fulfil his sexual needs, and Arthur launched himself at Eames throwing carefully judged stage punches. One of the employees shoved her broom handle between them to pry them apart. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur caught sight of a tall man in a long black leather coat. His hand was deep in his pocket like he might be holding a gun. Arthur threw himself towards Eames with further abandon.
“Merde! Merde! Vous êtes une merde!” Arthur screamed.
“Please, stop! You must leave,” the tiny Vietnamese woman with the broom said, caught between anger and nervousness. She hit Eames hard with the broom across his wrists and he let go of Arthur, rubbing at his hands.
“Duoc. Xin loi. Toi xin loi.” Eames said, backing away. His accent was atrocious, but Arthur knew he must have been putting it on. His Vietnamese was usually perfect. He tilted his chin to the side, a gesture if Arthur were looking for one.
“Drive me home. I’m taking my stuff. I’m leaving. You shit.” Arthur really couldn’t not laugh anymore. Jesus Christ. Eames was going to have a bruise from being beaten with a broom. He let himself crumble into hysterics curling in on himself like he was sobbing instead of cracking up.
They were three blocks away before Eames consented to stop yelling at Arthur in French. He collapsed against a wall leaning his head back against it as he laughed in huge gorgeous gulps. Arthur fell into him, leaning his head onto Eames’ shoulder shaking with fits of hysterics.
“Oh my God…” Arthur gasped. “The broom! She was at least five feet smaller than you.”
“Shut up, shut up,” Eames said, finally calming enough to breath.
Arthur sighed as he his laughter trailed off. He felt weightless, and it made him a little scared. “Come on,” he said, glancing behind him. “We better go. They’re still looking for us.”
Eames nodded, returning his thumb to Arthur’s belt loop as they crossed the street.
They checked out of the resort and spa hotel they’d been staying at knowing it would probably be under surveillance by nightfall. Arthur made a few calls and they ended up knocking on the backdoor of a beautiful house in one of the gated communities filled with rich westerners.
“Arthur!” the woman who answered to door cried, opening her arms.
“Auntie May,” Arthur said catching her up in a one armed hug. Eames cocked his head as if to ask, is she really your aunt? and Arthur shook his head, no in response, vehemently.
“May, this is my friend and business partner, Mr Eames,” Arthur said, stepping out of the way while Eames shook her hand. “Eames,” Arthur continued, “This is Mrs May Smith. I helped her husband’s business out of a little trouble a few years back.”
“Oh, Arthur’s always underplaying his work,” May said, tugging them into a huge open room. Plates of fresh fruit under decorated mosquito nets were set out on the thick wooden table. “He saved us when we were sure nothing could.”
“Well, that’s Arthur, isn’t it,” Eames said, raising an eyebrow. “Paragon of virtue, suspensor of good deeds.”
Arthur rolled his eyes when May turned away to pick up a slice of dragon fruit. He made a made a motion with his hands that implied he’s been paid very well for ‘saving’ the Smiths.
They talked aimlessly for a few minutes, and Eames yawned expansively, which prompted May to tell them they must have had a long day and to go up to bed. “Arthur’s room in the Yellow room on the left of the hall and Eames, you’re in the Green room on the right.”
“Thank you ever so much, ma’am,” Eames said, smiling charmingly and kissing May on the cheek as he passed her on his way up the stairs. She blushed, looking younger despite her graying hair and old hands. Arthur followed after him smiling that flash-quick smile, there one second and gone the next.
The Yellow room was large and airy. Arthur didn’t turn the lights on but he could see the old gold colour of the frames on the walls and the buttermilk of the huge plush duvet.
Arthur stripped out of his suit until he was wearing only his underwear. The suit was a lighter fabric than he usually liked – it was too humid in Saigon to wear anything heavier. It was wrinkled from running for half the day and he shook it out gently and threw it over the back of a chaise in the window alcove.
There was more fruit on a side table and Arthur took a piece of melon, eating it a little messily as he sat on the edge of the bed. It was dark and quiet. Only the hush of the oscillating fan in the corner of the room broke the stillness in the room. Arthur felt wide awake – still high on adrenaline and feeling like he was vibrating in a world much to slow and soft to contain him.
Arthur lay back on the covers. A strange emptiness settled over him. He reached out blindly and took another piece of melon, eating it almost furtively.
I think I feel lonely, Arthur realized with surprise.
He turned on his side so that his back was to the door. There was a tiny crack in the shutters. Arthur could see magnolia leaves lit blackly by the moon through the sliver of space. He watched the leaves shift breezily for a long time. Everything smelled sweet and clean and Arthur pushed his face into the pillows, breathing deeply and slowly.
He dropped his hand over the side of the bed and picked up the gun from where it was lying, partially covered by the dust ruffle.
“It’s just me, Arthur,” Eames whispered as the bed dipped with his weight. Arthur released his hold on the gun, which clinked with a plastic-on-metal sound as it hit his die.
“Hi,” Arthur said, turning over to look at Eames. Eames was stripped down to his underwear and a wife beater with three holes just above the hem, which revealed spots of tanned skin.
“Hello,” Eames said, rolling so that he could slide his arm over Arthur’s side and draw them flush together, pressing a hand to the middle of Arthur’s back. “Jesus,” Eames murmured against Arthur’s mouth, not really kissing him, just breathing with him, “You’re practically shaking.”
“You say that like it’s unusual,” Arthur said, huffing crossly.
“Mmm, my Arthur,” Eames whispered, “so high-strung.”
“Kiss me properly,” Arthur said, ignoring Eames’ taunt. Eames slid their mouths together wetly, rolling so that Arthur was caged between his arms and pressing down over him hot and slick and velvety and Eames’ mouth slid to Arthur’s neck and then back to his lips, smiling into the kiss when Arthur gasped little breaths.
Eames fucked Arthur like he kissed him, languid and soft even when Arthur wrenched them close and moved with an almost angry edge, panting things like more and harder. Then they were blissed out and against each other gently, and Eames fell asleep with his face pressed between the pillows and Arthur’s shoulder, breathing long, exhausted, even breaths. The sound lulled the tension out of Arthur’s spine like other things couldn’t.
“I love you,” Arthur said to Eames, because Eames was asleep and he’d never know Arthur had said it; because he was afraid it would be real if Eames heard him.
“I love you,” Arthur said to Eames, because it was true and Arthur was more afraid that it wouldn’t be real if he never said the words out loud.
Only, none of that ever happened.
Four months after Arthur woke up, he was in Paris following a lead. Arthur been taking easy jobs here and there, but the only consistency in his life was looking for leads on the Extended Expansive Uninterrupted Use of PASIV Controlled Dreaming project. He was searching for Eames, really, but he liked to tell himself that he’d feel better if he found anyone he’d known in that world who remembered it.
He found some information in Clark’s notes, which had given him the number of someone in the SAS. Arthur’s conversation with the SAS officer was largely useless for finding out specifics, but he’d recognized those vague reference words that usually signified something connected to dream-sharing. From there Arthur had figured out that an event of interest to dream-share technology had concluded about a month ago in France.
It was enough for a tiny, dangerous spark of hope.
Arthur spent the first two days in Paris slipping effortlessly in and out of underground government databases, and finding absolutely nothing useful. On the third day, tired, stressed out and utterly rigid with frustrated tension, Arthur allowed himself a break.
He sat on a bench overlooking the River Seine, eyes darting to follow the slow-moving boats ferrying tourists up past the Eiffel Tower. The colour of the water was just the same as it had been when he met Eames and they’d watched the Thames, all grey-blue and glinting like an old nickel.
“Oh my God,” a girl’s voice said behind him. Arthur recognized it instantly. He had to forcefully make himself look down at his notebook to stop himself from leaping to his feet.
Arthur was wearing a hat tipped low over his face and the collar of his pea coat was turned up, which might have explained why, when another girl’s voice cut over the first to ask: “What? What’s wrong?” Ariadne only replied: “Sorry, I thought I saw someone I knew. Never mind though, it’s just my imagination.”
“Is this about that dream again?” the girl Arthur didn’t recognize questioned.
“Yeah, I guess,” Ariadne said. She sounded sad. “I don’t want to talk about it. You already think I’m a nutcase.”
“Ari, don’t be mad at me,” the girl whined. “I don’t think you’re crazy, I just think you’ve been overwhelmed with the work and being in a new country and stuff, and I wouldn’t be worried if you didn’t keep saying it was real!”
“You don’t understand,” Ariadne said, almost petulant. “I don’t think it was real. I think that some of the stuff I did when I in the dream is like stuff happening in the real world.”
“Right, right. The PASIV device and ‘dream-sharing’. Sure.”
“That’s why I don’t want to talk about it,” Ariadne said, defeated. “You think I’m crazy.”
“Jeeze. Sorry. Come one, I’ll listen. What did you see?”
Aridne sighed. “I thought…I knew a guy, in the dream. He was called Arthur. He taught me…a lot of things. And then he died. It was a real mess, after he died. I don’t know how to describe it. I died in that car crash a few months later, so I don’t know what happened after that.”
“That’s why I get worried,” the Ariadne’s friend said, gently. “You say ‘so I don’t know what happened after that’ like it continued on without you.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Arthur began to wonder if they had walked away too quietly for him to hear, and then the friend said, “Who looked like that guy?”
“Hmm…?” Ariadne asked, vaguely. Then she answered, “Oh, that guy at the bench over there looks a lot like him, but he’s way too young.”
Arthur stood up and walked towards them. He slipped his hat off and flicked his cigarette into the gravel.
“Ariadne?” he asked. Ariadne gasped. Her hands flew up to her mouth.
“Oh my God,” she said, “Oh my God. Arthur?”
Ariadne’s friend was small with riotous blond curls and all colour drained from her face as Arthur offered his hand to Ariadne to shake. He was smiling, and if felt foreign. It was the first time he’d smiled properly since before the dream.
Ariadne launched to her feet, knocking Arthur’s hand out of the way as she wound her arms tightly around Arthur’s middle. She shivered little shaky breaths against him, and Arthur leaned away after a moment so he could wipe a tear from her cheek with his thumb.
“Jesus, don’t cry,” he said, laughing a little.
“I’m not. Oh fuck,” she laughed back, watery. “You know I fucking hate crying.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I know. God, I’m really really glad you remember the dream. You’re the first person I’ve found who does.”
“I don’t think I was supposed to,” Ariadne murmured. “I woke up in my dorm room, and there was this water bottle right next to the bed, and I knew I hadn’t put it there, so I used it to water my house plant and then I threw it out in the hallway garbage and when I did this sleazy looking guy hanging around the garbage chute gave me a weird look and left. I think he was supposed to make sure I drank the water. And then I felt crazy, but I don’t now.”
Arthur grinned. “We trained you well.”
“Oh my God, he’s got a gun!” Ariadne’s friend said shrilly, at just that moment. She grabbed Ariadne’s coat and pulled her away from Arthur.
“It’s okay, Amy,” Ariadne said. “Don’t shout so loud.”
“No, seriously, like maybe you think that you know this guy because you both tripped out at a party or something together, but he’s actually got a gun, I saw it when his coat moved, and you are actually not sane.”
“Amy, it’s Arthur. Of course he has a gun. Let go of me.”
“I’m trying to be a good friend, Ariadne. And friends don’t let friends go off with men they clearly had a lot of drugs with and who have guns. My uncle was a police officer. I think it’s, like, a glock. There is no way that’s legal.”
Ariadne smiled widely at Arthur and let Amy pull her back far enough that Arthur could pretend not to hear them. They whispered to each other for a few minutes, Ariadne becoming steely and Amy becoming frantic before Amy finally threw her hands up in the air, shouting, “Fine! I’m only trying to protect you. You’re so eager to get killed by this guy, be my guest.”
Amy stormed off, grabbing her coat from the bench, and Ariadne came back over to Arthur, linking their arms and pulling him into a meandering walk along the water.
“Your friend has a point, you know,” Arthur said after a few minutes. “Even putting aside the fact that we really could have been tripping out together, how do you know it wasn’t me who put you under for the dream?”
Ariadne turned her face up to him. “Was it you?” she asked, softly.
“Of course not,” Arthur replied.
“Well, that’s how I know. Because you wouldn’t do that. You look too lonely, anyway. Can’t fake something like that.”
Arthur sighed, turning to look over the river again, thinking of Vietnam and the room with the buttermilk sheets and those aching words I think I feel lonely, and discovering he wasn’t really alone at all.
“So, I guess you haven’t talked to anyone else, then?” Arthur said. It was a horrible feeling to realize that even though he’d found Ariadne, the ache in his chest was barely abated, and the flare of hope mostly gone.
“No. Sorry. I wasn’t even sure it was real, like I said to Amy.”
“I understand,” Arthur said.
“Why are you so young now?” Ariadne asked, shifting into him as a cold breeze blew off the river. “You look younger than me probably.”
“I’d lived in the dream for almost nine years by the time you met me,” Arthur said. “I was only in the dream for twenty-four hours, though.”
“Ten years, fucking hell. I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Ariadne said, “I mean, I was only two years older in the dream, and you know, you guys pulled me out of university and threw me right into that inception job and I never looked back. It wasn’t hard to believe it was all a normal dream, I just slipped right back into real life after.”
“It wasn’t like that for me, so much,” Arthur said. “Everything was a lot more gradual. It was just like real life.”
That was all he said about that long time difference to Ariadne. They talked for a little while about jobs Arthur had been pulling and how Ariadne was partially pleased to actually get a chance to finish her degree. They went to a café, and Arthur bought them black coffee.
“Do you miss it, then?” Ariadne asked, stirring sugar into the coffee. Arthur laughed and it was a dark, awful sound.
“More than anything, Ari,” he said. “More than…more than…more than anything.”
Ariadne got a strange, wide, and sad look in her eyes all the sudden, “Shit,” she said, “Shit, I hadn’t realized before.”
“What?” he asked, meeting her eyes.
“Eames. You don’t know where Eames is?”
“No.” Arthur said.
“Than he must be out there somewhere and he doesn’t know you’re real and not dead. Fuck, Arthur, you have to find him.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing for the last four months!” Arthur snapped.
“No, Arthur. You really have to find him. After you died in the dream, he totally lost it. It was bad.”
“You mean he didn’t die when I did? I though…I mean, the assassins…”
“No, I’m pretty sure he was still alive when I died, and that was months later,” Ariadne said. “It was practically legendary, what he did to those assassins. People started trying to hire him as a killer. He tortured them all with his bare hands and tied them down and burned your house to the ground leaving them in there. Then tracked the guy who hired them, who was not the kind of guy that’s easy to track, and killed him too.”
“No…” Arthur said, softly, feeling something ugly and sad knot beneath his breastbone.
“And he started taking all kinds of jobs that were likely to get him killed,” Ariadne continued, quietly. “He spent all the time in between in dream dens. Cobb called me and said he’d pulled a job with Eames and there was a projection of you hanging around through most of it, and that he was afraid that what had happened to him with Mal was going to happen to Eames. Everything got really fucked up.”
“Fuck,” Arthur said, dropping his head to his hands. “I guess I thought everyone would have woken up the same time I did.”
“I guess not,” Ariadne whispered, watching him worriedly. It made Arthur feel young and foolish, and tired. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Keep looking for Eames. Except faster and better,” Arthur answered.
He found Cobb next. Actually, he found Mal. It wasn’t hard to find her, and he was a real idiot not to have tried it before, but he was looking through newspaper archives for any mentions of PASIV technology and there, from two months ago, was a headline that made Arthur’s heart jump to his throat.
Mallorie Cobb’s lectures at Columbia on ‘mind heist’ and criminal action in the new field of ‘lucid dreaming’ bring in record numbers of law students.
It was a tiny article caught up in a newspaper with far bigger stories, but Arthur stared at it for a long time before his breathing returned to normal.
He googled Mal’s name, hating himself for not having researched through such obvious routes sooner. Hundreds of articles appeared. He found an address through a university website and was on a plane to LA the next day.
It was too early in the morning to knock on the door when Arthur’s taxi dropped him off outside the quaint house. It was the house Cobb and Mal lived in when he first met them. He’d been there hundreds of time. The first time he ever woke up with Eames next to him in bed was Christmas morning the year before Mal died, in the spare bedroom in that house. The house was even before Phillipa and James and those awful days when Arthur would bring them presents because Cobb couldn’t.
Arthur walked up the steps to the front door and leaned his head back against the door, closing his eyes and breathing long, calming pulls of air through his nose. He was scared to knock, and it was too early so he still had an excuse not to.
There was a soft click and Arthur opened his eyes. Cobb was standing in front of him, a gun trained on Arthur’s chest.
“Who are you?” Cobb said, gruffly.
“What!” Arthur asked, “Jesus Christ, Cobb, put the gun down. It’s me, Arthur. I know I’m pretty young but I don’t look that different.”
“Arthur?” Cobb asked, tilting his head in slight confusion. “I don’t recognize the name. I can see you’ve got a gun there from the way you’re holding yourself, so don’t try to lie, just take it out, with two fingers, and put it down on the ground.”
Arthur put up one hand and used the other to do as Cobb instructed. He couldn’t help but stare at Cobb he did so. Cobb looked shockingly young. His hair was soft and loose in his face and he was practically skinny. Cobb from when they first met had been something like this, but broader from military training and a little age.
“Cobb, maybe you don’t remember me, but I promise I know you,” Arthur said, steadily.
Cobb’s eyes flicked to Arthur’s face and then away again. Holding the gun as steady as possible with only one hand, he reached behind Arthur and pushed the front door open. “Mal,” he called, “Mal, there’s a guy here. Name is Arthur. Do I know him?”
There was a familiar shriek and the sound of footsteps crashing down a staircase. Mal flung herself out the door, slamming into Arthur, laughing as her hair (much longer than Arthur remembered) got in the way of her kiss to his cheek.
“Arthur! Arthur, look at you, you’re a child. I am so glad to see you. Dom, put down your gun, please, please come inside, you must meet Arthur. This man saved your life too many times for you not to share a glass of wine with him.”
She was talking too fast, tripping over the shape of the words in her mouth, and laughing, and Arthur was nearly shaking apart because Mal wasn’t dead.
Mal tugged them both inside and she really did open a bottle of wine even though it was barely six thirty in the morning. Cobb was looking at Arthur like he was a little afraid of him, which was strange all on its own.
“They got to Dom too quick,” Mal said, by way of explanation. “He doesn’t remember the dream. It’s probably for the best, you know. I’m sure he was insufferable after I died.”
“The inception,” Arthur asked, knowing it wasn’t the time, because they shouldn’t be worrying about that kind of thing right now, and yet unable to help himself. “It didn’t carry over? I mean…you know this is real?”
She pursed her lips and glared at him good-naturedly while Cobb sank down into the space beside her. “Maybe it would have. I don’t really know. It didn’t. Inception is tricky. I know you know this. It stays if there is some reason for it to stay, and otherwise, it’s only an idea. It can just as easily blow away. Perhaps my mind was only holding on so tight because I was right all along.”
“I’m so glad…you’re here,” Arthur said, softly.
“Yes, yes, so tell me what happened after I woke up. Dom is useless to me. He remembers only that it was a long dream, nothing else.”
Arthur told his story until they’d finished the bottle of wine and he was feeling sleepy and heavy with the weight of the alcohol though it was barely nine o’clock, and caught between the feeling of deep joy at Mal’s aliveness, and the painful undercurrent of Cobb having forgotten Arthur completely. He smiled like Cobb smiled and talked like Cobb talked, but he was missing so much of himself. It was like losing a brother without being allowed to grieve.
That night, Mal cooked dinner and Arthur told the story of the time he and Cobb and Eames had been chased across Brooklyn by the NYPD and had to climb down into the sewer to avoid being caught, and Cobb laughed in the same places he did when he used to tell the story himself in the dream life.
After dinner Arthur sat on the back steps and lit a cigarette, watching the curls of smoke climb upwards and then dissipate.
“Cigars,” Cobb said, coming down the steps and sitting one above Arthur, stretching his legs down.
“What?” Arthur asked, turning towards him.
“I don’t know. I just saw you sitting there, and I thought of cigars. It happens sometimes. I don’t remember the dream, but I get little flashes.”
“Eames used to send me cigars when we didn’t see each other for more than a few months. I had boxes and boxes. I kept them on a bookshelf and alphabetized them by country of origin. Eames liked to mix them around when he visited to see if I’d notice they were out of order.”
“I bet you noticed,” Cobb said. Arthur couldn’t see his face in the dark but he knew the sound of Cobb’s voice when he smiled.
“Yeah, I did,” Arthur said.
“Are you looking for him?” Cobb asked.
“Yes,” Arthur said. It was a simple answer for a complicated question.
“And when you find him, what if he’s forgotten you?”
Arthur had considered the possibility, but it didn’t change the fact that he’d keep looking for Eames until he found him. It was terrible to imagine finding an Eames without any of the history that had stacked up between them and shaped them both into people who fit together around the edges almost gracefully like pebbles in a riverbed sliding against each other for millennia. It was much more terrible to imagine never seeing Eames again at all, so Arthur left it at that and tried to not think about it if he could help it.
“It doesn’t matter,” Arthur said, finally.
“I hacked into the camera systems in the room I was in while dreaming. They never had us in the same place at the same time. Somehow they’ve been doing long-distance shared dreams. But that’s not the important part. I thought you’d want to know that I was tested after the dream and before I was drugged to forget, and the guy who did it is called George Clark. Maybe the name will help you find Eames.”
Arthur felt a shiver creep down his spine. Clark he thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It was fucking Clark. He allowed for approximately thirty seconds of anger for being so close and yet so far before he lurched to his feet and turned on his heel, going back into the house.
“Thanks,” he called to Cobb. Mal was in the hallway, and she looked at him, perplexed as he headed straight for the front door.
“Are you leaving now, Arthur?” she asked, sounding worried.
“Lead on Eames,” Arthur said. “Cobb mentioned the name Clark. Well, I know him.”
“Call if you need anything,” Mal said, seriously, not fighting at all to make him stay, understanding like he knew she would. “Don’t get hurt, either.”
“I won’t.” Arthur promised, lying. In all honesty, Arthur would go through worse than hurt if it meant he found Eames.
“What the fuck?” Clark muttered at the feeling of the cool muzzle of Arthur’s gun against the top of his spine.
“Clark,” Arthur said, voice low and smooth. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“This is my fucking hotel room,” Clark said, breathing fast and short and fearful. “Is that…Arthur?”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “It’s me. Come along, lets have you go close the curtains, and then you can take the gun out of your holster and leave it on top of the TV.”
Clark’s hands shook as he pulled the cheap blackout curtains across the window, and he made a little whimpering sound of nervous energy when they caught half-way, sticking on the old track the curtain hooks were slotted into.
“Easy there, Clark,” Arthur said. “I’m not going to shoot you yet.”
Clark set his gun down on the TV next, and watched as Arthur’s hand darted out to take the gun. He recognized the black leather gloves Arthur was wearing from the Munich Job. Arthur had worn them when they’d temporarily kidnapped the mark’s wife to lure him out to the warehouse.
Clark had asked Arthur why he was wearing the gloves and Arthur had said, in that flat little voice he used sometimes that made shivers slide down the back of Clark’s neck, “I always wear gloves when there’s a chance I’ll have to kill someone.”
“Why did you take my gun?” Clark said. His breath seemed very loud in his own ears.
“It will look like a suicide if I use your gun,” Arthur replied evenly.
“Look, whatever they’re paying you to get info out of me, I’ll double it. I swear to God. Even if I don’t have the money right now, I’ll get it. I know rich people.” He felt desperate even as he spoke, “Arthur, come on man, we’ve worked together. We’re fucking associates. I trusted you, man…”
“Don’t go there, Clark,” Arthur whispered against his ear. “Don’t bring trust into this, because that might make me angry. Let’s sit down on the bed now. We can talk some that way.”
“Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll triple it,” Clark said, as Arthur eased him down onto the cheap mattress. The duvet crinkled like newspapers as Clark sat. Arthur didn’t join him, but moved so they were facing each other. Arthur looked taller than Clark remembered. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Arthur was still growing. He looked about seventeen; if you ignored the way he held his shoulders painfully tight with exhaustion.
“I don’t want your money,” Arthur murmured. “I want to know what you know about The Extended Expansive Uninterrupted Use of PASIV Controlled Dreaming project.”
“Fuck,” Clark muttered. “Look man, that’s military shit. You think you’re scary, standing there with your gun, but they won’t just kill me, they’ll torture me and then do me in. I can’t talk about that.”
“You think I won’t torture you, Clark?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Clark said, slowly. “You’re just a kid though. You can’t have the practice they’ve had.”
Arthur smiled a little, thin lipped and not pleasant at all. “Maybe when I was the age I am, that would have been true, but I was in that lovely little project for ten years, Clark.”
“Oh,” Clark said. His upper lip beaded with sweat. “Is this a revenge killing, or something?”
“No,” Arthur said. “It’s exactly what I told you before. I want to know what you know about the project. Specifically, about an involved party, a man called Eames?”
Clark went a little pale. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him.” he replied stiffly.
“Yes?” Arthur asked. Clark noticed that Arthur’s eyes darkened almost imperceptibly, and Arthur leaned forward, his grip on the gun a little tighter.
“Look Arthur,” Clark said, “That guy, he was just a subject like you, so if you’re looking for revenge he’s not your guy. And as far as I know, he’s dead.”
“What?” Arthur said, softly.
“Something happened to him in the dream in his last year in there. This guy he was sleeping with in the dream got pulled out of it and I heard he went practically psycho. They had to pull him out too because he was killing off all the government guys in the dream…”
“That doesn’t mean he’s dead,” Arthur said harshly.
“Look, what I heard was, they woke him up and he freaked out on the assessment team, demanding they give him information and shit, and he got a hold of a gun and…” Clark shrugged limply, “Well, he was a central part of the whole thing. An interesting case, you know. But they weren’t gonna let him kill the assessment team. He disappeared off the records, and that’s just a clean way saying they killed him, isn’t it?”
“Fuck,” Arthur whispered brokenly. His grip on the gun didn’t change but he dropped his head into his free hand, pulling at his hair and swallowing against some emotion caught in his throat.
“Jesus, Arthur, I already told you he wouldn’t know any more about the project than you do.”
“You’re a fucking idiot, Clark,” Arthur said, voice still quiet but lined with the weight of grief. “You think I really care so much about revenge? I was the guy, Clark. I was the fucking guy.”
“The guy…?” Clark asked.
“The guy that died and sent Eames into a psychotic rampage. The guy he was sleeping with. That was me.”
“Shit,” Clark said, staring up at Arthur. “Arthur. Fuck, I knew I recognized your name…. Shit. Sorry, man.”
Arthur looked across to him incredulously. “Don’t fucking apologize, Clark. I can’t…I can’t….” He gasped a long shaking breath that would have been a sob if he were some other kind of person. “I’m so angry,” he muttered, almost sounding awed about the furious heat bubbling up under his skin. “I didn’t know…I could be so angry.”
The gun in Arthur’s hand was trembling now, and Clark stared at it with a sick sense of realisation.
“You’re still gonna kill me, aren’t you,” he whispered. Arthur’s eyes, more black than brown now, snapped to his.
“I want to,” Arthur said softly, like it was a terrible secret. “I’ve never really wanted to kill someone before,” he admitted.
“Please….” Clark murmured. Arthur’s hand shook around the gun. There was a click. Clark’s eyes fluttered closed. His head raised just a tiny bit and his neck was pale orange and exposed in the cheap sodium lamplight.
Arthur hesitated, and then he spun on his heal and left, the door to the hotel room shutting behind him with a soft snick.
Clark, who had never witnessed the miracle of mercy before, slid off the bed to his knees and retched into a waste-paper basket, shivering and coughing and gasping with broken thankfulness at the rush of air in and out of his lungs.
It was quiet in the lonely room.
Arthur checked up on Clark’s story, but he couldn’t find anything to contradict it. He went back to Paris to see Ariadne; she cried when she saw him, and then yelled at him for making her cry twice, and repeated how she hated to cry. Arthur got drunk for the first time in his life, and threw up twice in Ariadne’s ancient claw footed bathtub.
He went back to LA and slept in the spare bedroom at the Cobb’s for three days straight. He woke on the third day with the strange feeling that he’d never be able to sleep naturally again. Mal brought him soup like the fog hanging around him was a winter cold and he ate the soup and then dropped the bowl out the window watching it break to white sharp pieces when it hit the ground, beautiful like slivers of crystallised milk.
Ramirez called his cell phone and told him some guys had been asking for his number to do a job.
“Sure,” Arthur said. “I haven’t got anything else to do.”
“Hey, you’re okay, right?” Ramirez asked. “I was talking to some guys, and when I mentioned your name they said the government had you in on a fucked up project that they pulled a few months back.”
“Oh, I guess,” Arthur replied. “That’s why I left the military anyway.”
“Eh, good riddance,” Ramirez said magnanimously.
The extraction was based in Saigon and Arthur was practically drunk on memories by the time he got to the warehouse. He was setting up his laptop in the back corner on some dusty dragon fruit crates, remembering Eames eating slice after slice of the soft white fruit, his fingers sticky with the juice, smiling at Arthur and pressed tight up behind him on a motorcycle, teeth glinting through the dust from the road.
“Hey,” a voice pulled him away from his thoughts. Arthur looked up. There was a man leaning against a chalk-board that he’d apparently been dragging behind him.
“I’m James,” the guy said, “The forger.” He had a generic London accent, and he held himself the same way Eames always had, like he was about to shift into something else at any given moment. It wasn’t quite as convincing as Eames, though; Eames sometimes seemed more like a mirage than a person. Arthur had the sudden terrible thought that he’d always be reminded of Eames in tiny ways, and he’d be endlessly scraped raw every time it happened.
“Right,” Arthur said blankly. “Well, I’m doing research, but Henderson should be around soon, if you’re looking for someone to talk to.”
“Oh,” James said, taken aback at Arthur’s brusque words. “Right, sorry. I’ll just be over here, then.”
It was a two level extraction. They would go in and shake the mark up on the first level; then the forger and Arthur would drop down to the second level in a bid to win the mark’s trust while he was vulnerable, then kick back to the first level and allow the extractor to pull out the information he needed that much more easily.
The first part went almost suspiciously perfectly. Then he and the forger got ready to drop down to the next level and there was suddenly a lot of shouting and a black bag was pulled over Arthur’s head and when he blinked his eyes open again, he was in the second level they’d designed but it was not right, not exactly.
Arthur stood up. There was a woman with acres of long soft brown hair next to him, who looked mostly like the mark’s sister, whom James was supposed to be forging. The difference was that she was too convincing.
James had been a fair enough forger but he didn’t move like a woman would. He was always holding his hips at the wrong angle. If Arthur was looking for it, he could tell there was something off about her. This woman here was perfect. Arthur would have bet his life that she was the real deal.
The mark was sitting in the chair across the table from Arthur and the woman. There was a lit candle in a small glass between them, and a basket of bread. The restaurant was dimly lit and it looked like an expensive steakhouse from the nineties.
“Fuck,” the woman next to Arthur muttered under her breath, “Damn.”
Arthur turned to her, thinking very quickly about what must have happened. “Are you all right…?” he asked.
His best theory was that another team wanted the information they were trying to extract and had carefully infiltrated the dream just after they’d gone under, sending their forger down with Arthur and hoping he wouldn’t notice the difference. It was very clever. If Arthur were a little less smart, he’d probably have unknowingly done the infiltrating team’s work for them.
“No, Arthur,” the woman sighed. “I am not okay, because you are here, and I thought we had sorted this little issue, but apparently that was terribly naïve of me.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Arthur said.
The woman rolled her eyes. “Sure, whatever you say,” she said. “Right, okay, you don’t happen to know where these idiots sent their point man, do you?”
Arthur creased his eyebrows in confusion. “You know,” he said, almost annoyed with this apparent display of incompetence. “If you expect me to believe that you’re James, it would work better if you acted like this was the plan.”
“I think I’ll have the sirloin,” the mark said, conversationally. Arthur glanced away from the woman for a moment, and smiled at the mark absently, before turning back and raising a gun under the tablecloth just where the woman could see. He pressed it against his own stomach.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the woman whispered furiously. “That won’t do anything. You know I have always appreciated my subconscious’s ability to not do a Mal on me, but what you’re doing doesn’t even make sense.”
Arthur brought his free hand up to pinch his nose. “I feel like we’re having two different conversations here and neither has much to do with the other. What are you talking about?”
“Hello, may I take your order?”
The woman’s head darted up at the words, an expression of shock falling across her face. Arthur followed her gaze slowly, already knowing what he was going to see.
There he was. Arthur, standing at the side of the table with his familiar black notebook, now being used to take orders. Arthur blinked at the image of himself in dumb disbelief. He looked just like he had the night he died in the dream. His hair was a little dishevelled from frustrated fiddling and there was the familiar scar just beneath his jaw from falling off a swing set when he was ten and also scars from the dream life – things that Arthur felt on his twenty-nine year old skin but wouldn’t when he woke, like the scars on his hands and the slightly tilted way he stood because of the phantom ache in his leg from a gun shot wound. The shirt that waiter-Arthur was wearing was lower cut than most things Arthur owned and he could see the shadow of a bruise Eames had sucked into his skin hours before he’d been killed.
There was only one man who could dream Arthur like that that.
The second time Arthur told Eames he loved him in the dream went like this:
“Did you miss me?” Eames asked. It was late Monday night, nearly eleven, when Arthur answered the door to find Eames on the other side, holding a bottle of wine and a bag of Chinese takeout.
“You mean in the twenty-five minutes it took you to run to Tesco and to Jade Palace for food?” Arthur asked, raising and eyebrow fondly. “No, I can’t say I did.”
Eames pulled a face, sticking his bottom lip out a little.
“When you do that it makes be think I could set a flowerpot on your lip,” Arthur said, taking the bottle of wine and going into the kitchen with it. “It’s like a fucking shelf.”
“Was that a compliment?” Eames asked, leaning over the counter. “You know I find it hard to tell.”
“It was a compliment if you wanted one, Eames,” Arthur muttered. His mouth was curved into half a smile as he reached up to take two plates down. There was a bowl sitting on top of them and Arthur swallowed a surprised yelp as it slid across the plate, tipped off and fell to the kitchen floor, smashing to white slivers across the grey tile.
Eames, who had been about to swipe his thumb across the strip of skin exposed by Arthur’s reaching, held his hands up as if to say, don’t move.
“Shit,” Arthur said. “I wish you’d stop leaving bowls on top of the plates, Eames. That’s the third one I’ve broken this week.”
“Sorry,” Eames said, voice muffled as he dug through the hallway closet for a broom. “I forget where the dishes go because I don’t, you know, live here.”
“Eames,” Arthur said, exasperated. “Passive aggression really doesn’t suit you. I’ve said before, I’m not trying to distance us by keeping the house in my name and having you keep an apartment. You do live here. It’s just…if something were to happen, it’s better if it’s easy for us to split up.”
Eames reappeared with the broom and began sweeping the shards of bowl away from Arthur’s bare feet so he could walk back out into the dining room. His face was twisted down as he said, “Why do you say things like that, then?”
“Like what?” Arthur sighed.
“Like ‘if something were to happen’. What’s going to happen that’s going to mean we have to ‘split up’?”
“I don’t know, Eames. People can use us against each other. Maybe some past mark or a company will catch up with us. In our line of work---”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that too… ‘in our line of work’. It’s not an excuse, and you use it like an excuse. I ask you, ‘Arthur why can’t I take you as my date to my little brother’s wedding’ and you say, ‘in our line of work…’ and I ask you, ‘What’s your middle name’ and you say, ‘in our line of work…’ and I ask you, ‘Why can’t I stay here tonight’ and you say, ‘in our line of work….’”
Eames looked at Arthur sadly, standing in the piles of broken bowl pieces, spilled around his feet the same colour as milk. “If someone is going to use us against each other,” he finished, “They’d just do it. They don’t care if I’m sleeping in your bed six nights a week versus seven.”
“You really want to have this fight right now?” Arthur said, setting the plates down hard enough that the table shook.
“I don’t want to fight about this at all,” Eames growled. “But I don’t see what choice I have. I mean, we’ve been together for, what is it, eight years now, and you won’t even…I mean…”
“What?” Arthur asked, practically sneering. “What won’t I do? I won’t tell you how much I need you, I won’t tell you how much I care? Is that what you want, Eames? Because those are just words, you know….” Arthur paused, staring at Eames hard. He fists were clenched into tight fists that made his knuckles stand out snowy white. “I love you,” he snapped harshly. “There you go. I said some words. Does that make you happy?”
Eames’s face crumpled like he’d been physically struck. He turned away from Arthur so he was only visible in profile and his shoulders were sloping horribly downwards, devastatingly hurt and Arthur felt suddenly sick.
“Oh, god,” Arthur whispered. “Eames, Eames. Oh, god, I shouldn’t have said---”
And that was when the assassins burst through the hallway door and shot Arthur in the chest. He gasped with the shock of it, crumpling down, and Eames stared at him in confusion for a moment before he understood what had happened and he was launching himself over the counter, collecting Arthur up in his arms.
Arthur’s lungs were filling up with blood too quickly to say anything but he tried anyway, to say I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said it like that. The words came out as a trickle of red blood instead. Arthur was tired, very tired, closing his eyes and fading.
Only, none of that ever happened.
“Who are you?” the woman said stiffly. Even as Arthur blinked, and Eames was there instead of the woman, abruptly, his voice smooth and low and quiet like Arthur remembered it but better.
“Eames,” Arthur whispered.
“I don’t use that name anymore,” Eames said, glaring at him like Arthur was hurting him by being there. The mark was gaping at them. Eames reached out, hand sliding over Arthur’s and he didn’t even think twice before releasing his grip on the gun. Eames lifted the gun and shot Arthur in the forehead point blank. Arthur crumpled over on to the table, the sound of a second and third shot ringing over the restaurant as he collapsed.
Arthur barely blinked his eyes open on the first level before Eames was standing over him again, ripping the black bag off his head, and frowning with disgust when Arthur’s face was the same.
“Maybe you think this is funny,” Eames growled. “But it’s not going to be funny when we wake up and I find out who you are.”
He shot Arthur again.
Arthur coughed as he woke. They were in the mark’s living room, and Arthur could see as he stood up and pulled the wrinkle out of his jacket why Eames hadn’t noticed him when the second team came in to infiltrate the dream.
The room was pitch black, and Arthur himself had been behind the sofa, a little away from the PASIV. He tended to put himself somewhere that kept him out of the direct line of fire. Eames, on the other hand, was slumped over in the chair right next to the device. He was already stirring.
Arthur watched him as he woke, drinking in the familiar sight. Eames was young like Arthur was young. Intense around the edges, and dressed too much like someone who knew their own tastes for his relative youth.
His stubble was longer than Arthur liked it, and shaved messily underneath his chin. His hair was just the length Arthur remembered it, but lighter in colour, more dirty blond than brown. He had a military bulk to his shoulders that told of hours spent in the gym, but it was already beginning to soften into the practical broadness Arthur remembered. He guessed Eames must have left the military right when he woke, just as Arthur had.
Arthur hesitated, a few steps away, but as Eames’ eyes blinked open the distance become too great, and Arthur crossed to Eames and leaned over him.
“Damn it,” Eames whispered, seeing Arthur. “I must give your team some credit. You’ll have to tell me how you found out we were infiltrating. And putting another dream layer over the top…. Genius.”
Eames trailed away as he raised the gun underneath his chair, and Arthur’s face creased with fear.
“Eames, no!” he said, urgently. “Fuck, you can’t shoot me again, this is real now.”
“Well, that’s a nice thought,” Eames said, smiling broadly, but not happily. “Unfortunately, you’re dead. I looked you up, you know. Traced you back to your military base in California and found out that you committed suicide three days after they put us all under for their little experiment.”
“You’re dead according to fucking military records too,” Arthur said, exasperated. “They blanked you out.”
Eames fell silent, looking up at Arthur with a shuttered expression that could have been hiding any emotion. “Arthur,” Eames murmured. “What were you trying to say to me, when they killed you? That’s what I dream about, you know. Those red words bleeding from your mouth.”
Arthur experienced the curious sensation of having his heart broken and remade at the same time. He slid his leg over Eames lap, taking the gun out of his hand gently and setting it on the table next to them. He shifted his weight down so he was straddling Eames’ hips. Eames’ hands came up automatically to balance them as Arthur leaned forward to rest his head against Eames’ collarbone.
“I was trying to tell you that I was so sorry I said it like that, but that I meant it,” Arthur whispered. “Not everything, of course. Just the ‘I love you’ part.”
“Oh,” Eames replied, hushed and soft where he spoke against Arthur’s hair. His voice rumbled in his chest shaking through Arthur like warmth. “Okay.”
Then, from behind him, there was that soft click that Arthur was beginning to get very sick of hearing at all the worst moments.
“I knew you’d lead us right to him, Arthur,” Ramirez said, softly.
Arthur swallowed thickly.
“I didn’t know he’d be here,” he replied to Ramirez, not turning to look at him and instead, sliding back enough to see Eames’s eyes. They were very dark in the dim light; he was watching Arthur so closely, like he’d been starved from the sight of him. But even as he drank Arthur in, his face was twisting into terrible understanding.
“I don’t think he cares much either way whether you knew or not,” Eames murmured.
“You understand why I have to do this, don’t you?” Ramirez asked, sounding almost sad. “It’s just that you both know too much, and you’ve proved that you can’t be dealt with the easy way.”
Arthur mouthed when I count to three.. Eames tilted his head just slightly in aknowledgement.
Eames, very slowly and carefully, using Arthur’s body in front of him to block Ramirez’s vision, pulled his gun from the table where Arthur had just set it.
Arthur tugged his own gun from the shoulder holster he was wearing, hoping the dark of the room might mask his movement just enough to draw.
Arthur lunged from the chair, in one direction while Eames went the other way, crashing through a table and knocking a lamp to the floor. There were two shots fired, both speeding uselessly through the chair they’d occupied only a moment ago. Arthur rolled to his feet and spun on Ramirez, who was still caught in that moment of crucial indecision about whether to aim at Arthur or Eames.
Arthur fired just as Ramirez swung around to aim at him. The bullet slammed through Ramirez’s right leg, making him stagger and drop to one knee with a shout of pain. Eames fired his own shot at Ramirez, who finally crumpled down completely as Eames’ bullet buried itself just off centre of his spinal cord. But Eames had been a second too late. He looked up, gasping with adrenaline to see Arthur clutching at his shoulder, cold sweat from the pain already dampening his hair.
“No fucking way is this happening again,” Eames shouted at him, crossing the room in three strides and sinking down next to Arthur. His hand was soaked with blood.
“I’m not going to die, Eames,” Arthur mumbled, closing his eyes tightly and gasping as his shoulder throbbed.
“There would be more blood if it had hit something important,” Eames agreed, ripping the bottom of his shit into strips and tying them across the wound, while Arthur strained away from Eames’ hands though he could escape the pain by distancing himself from his shoulder.
“How long till someone else who wants to kill us wakes up?” Eames said. Even through the haze of pain, Arthur recognized the look on Eames’ face as something he never wanted to see again; he looked utterly heartbroken.
“Approximately ten seconds,” Arthur replied, voice tilting up at the end with a swallowed scream of pain.
“Okay, we’ve got to run.” Eames whispered. “Can you get up?”
“Yeah,” Arthur grit out. Then, as an afterthought, or like he didn’t quite want to say it, Arthur added, “You’ll have to help.”
Eames stood up, leaning one arm down and grasping Arthur’s uninjured side to pull him to his feet. For a moment they were pressed all together down one side, close so that Arthur could smell Eames again, and distantly he heard to beep that signified the PASIV was about to wake everyone else up, but it barely mattered, even the flares of pain in Arthur’s shoulder barely mattered, because Eames was right there.
“Jesus Christ,” Eames laughed, turning to him as he shoved his gun into his waistband. “I’m still so fucking happy.”
Arthur knew exactly what he meant.
“I can’t believe this place really exists,” Eames said to Arthur, picking up a jar of pickles with the hand not tangled in Arthur’s belt loops. There was a certain amount of whimsical marvel present in his expression. Arthur smiled.
“It’s not exactly the same,” Arthur pointed out. “I haven’t seen that lady with the broom around to injure you.”
“You never know,” Eames offered mysteriously. “Maybe it’s her day off. Broom wielding is tiring business.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. Eames pulled Arthur down the bread aisle, ripping a bit off a loaf and stuffing it in his mouth, spilling crumbs of crust down the front of his shirt.
“You better pay for that,” Arthur muttered, disapproving. Eames loomed over him, crowding into his space and kissing Arthur with crumbs still smeared across his mouth. He tasted wheaty, like the bread.
“That’s disgusting, Eames,” Arthur said, trying not to laugh as he pulled away. Eames tugged him closer again, lifting him a little and pinning him against the shelves.
“You’re so goddamn light now,” he murmured against Arthur’s neck. Arthur tipped his head back, forgetting they were in a public grocery store. He let his eyes drift shut, feeling all of Eames’ heat bleed into him sweetly.
“Oh, the wonders of being nineteen,” Arthur said, swallowing thickly so he wouldn’t sound so breathless.
“I bet you’re shockingly flexible,” Eames said, drawing the tip of his nose up the line of Arthur’s neck.
“Could be….” Arthur promised.
“What?” Eames asked, leaning his head back far enough to see a tiny woman clutching a broom in her fists.
“NOT IN MY SHOP. NO. OUT. OUT.”
Arthur clapped his hand over his mouth to keep from screaming with laughter. “Oh my God,” he muttered through his fingers.
Eames turned, pulling Arthur with him as he left walking very quickly and peering over his shoulder with something close to nervousness. He jarred Arthur’s shoulder in his effort to escape and Arthur winced. Eames slid around to walk on the other side, touching Arthur’s wrist apologetically.
“I’ve got to give it to those fuckers, whoever they are,” Eames said once they were a few blocks away, leaning against the door of a closed restaurant. “The level of detail in that dream was beautiful. I mean, really, really beautiful. Their architects are artistes.”
“Hmm…” Arthur agreed, watching Eames slump down onto the stoop. It was too hot and humid to be wearing the suit Arthur had changed into that morning, and he stripped off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, working gingerly around his arm, and sighing at the feeling of a gentle breeze across his forearms. “Have you ever thought of the fact that we get an extra ten years?” he said, after a moment, sitting down on the step below Eames and leaning back so he was resting against Eames’ knees.
“What do you mean?” Eames asked, vaguely, sliding his thumb across Arthur’s neck.
“I mean, we’re so young, but we’ve already had time to screw up and figure ourselves out and here we are knowing things like we’re thirty and living like we’re twenty. Worse things have happened to better people.”
“An extra ten years,” Eames murmured, leaning forward to rest his chin on Arthur's uninjured shoulder. “An extra ten years of you.”
Arthur turned slightly so he could see Eames’ closed eyes, pale gold in the sun and moving restlessly. He felt new and unlined, but smoothed away so Eames could fit against him just right, and it was good to feel so young with Eames feeling so young beside him.