“The Fischer Job made it disturbingly clear that we need to improve the way we deal with subconscious security,” Cobb says, leaning back against the partially decomposing card table set against the wall of the warehouse.
Eames watches Arthur’s face pinch into a nearly imperceptible frown. He’s probably still blaming himself for everything that went wrong during inception. In Eames’s personal opinion, Cobb’s guilt issues and delightfully inconvenient habit of neglecting to provide all the facts of the matter was the real crux of the disaster, but Eames isn’t afraid to admit that his personal opinion is slightly biased.
After all, Arthur has his sleeves rolled up this morning, exposing the pale and smooth and wiry strong lengths of his forearms -- and nothing can ever sway Eames as quickly as the sight of Arthur’s skin.
“How do we do that?” Ariadne asks, setting her elbow on her knee and leaning forward to rest her cheek against her palm. She seems tired. It’s been six months since the Fischer Job and they’ve taken on only two extractions since then, both easy in comparison. Even so, Ariadne is young and inexperienced and Eames has started to worry that they've all forgotten those important facts in the face of her brilliance.
“Arthur,” Cobb replies, simply.
“Arthur?” Ariadne asks. “What do you mean by that?”
Eames grins wolfishly, “What he means is Arthur is the best.”
Ariadne glares at them both, “Okay, now it is time for you to stop being obnoxiously vague and get on with it.”
Arthur leans back in his chair; Eames itches to kick it. “In a business like this one,” Arthur says, “as new and selective as it is, the people who were the first to ever do something are still around, and it’s never difficult to find out who the best in the world is. For example -- and I am not given to flattery -- when I say that Eames is the best forger in the world, I’m not exaggerating. He was the first person to discover the art and examine the possibilities, and no-one's figured out how to do it as well as him. Yet.”
Eames preens under the compliment even though he knows Arthur means it when he says it’s not flattery. “Hey, wait a minute,” he squawks, “Yet? I’ll have you know I am always one step ahead of the pack.”
“Only one step?” Arthur asks, feigning concern. Eames considers sticking his tongue out, but he resists the temptation.
“So what are you the best at?” Ariadne questions Arthur, rolling her eyes at them both.
“Security,” Arthur says. “You can’t steal a secret from me. It’s impossible.”
“It can’t be impossible,” Ariadne says, “Nothing is impossible for us.”
Eames shrugs, “It’s as close as you can get.”
Cobb’s phone rings and he answers it quickly. He talks for a few minutes and then drops it. “I’ve got to go talk to Phillipa’s teacher; she’s acting out again,” he sighs.
“Can I come with?” Ariadne asks. She loves Cobb’s kids -- Phillipa especially, who she feels needs more positive motherly influences.
“Sure,” Cobb says, grabbing his coat. “Anyone else want to tag along?” It’s unclear whether he’s being sarcastic or not, so Arthur and Eames both shake their heads.
“I’m supposed to wait for Yusuf to show up so I can help him with lab equipment,” Eames says. Arthur just gestures to the stacks of paper on his makeshift desk as if to say, have you seen the amount of work I need to get done?
They walk out and Eames slides off his broken wicker chair, smirking.
“Oh, Arthur,” he says, tugging the list of contacts Arthur’s been looking through out of his hands, “You need to get out more.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. Eames can’t see his face, but he knows anyway. “You need to stay in more,” Arthur retorts.
“I’d stay in, if it was with you,” Eames murmurs into Arthur’s ear, leaning over his desk and sliding an arm luxuriously across Arthur’s shoulders. Something about the weight and heat of him against the back of Arthur’s chair is dangerous and exotic and too unpredictable. Arthur isn’t stupid enough to be lured in by a sharp glance and lingering scent—or, at least, he’s not stupid enough to show it.
“You should be careful,” Arthur says, turning to face Eames with a sudden intensity that makes the tiny hairs on the back of Eames’s neck stand on end. He feels caged by Arthur’s darkening gaze and he stands and ruffles Arthur’s hair to cover the thrill of nerves shivering up his spine. “Someday,” Arthur continues, speaking smooth and low, “Someone might take you seriously.”
“So how do you know Arthur’s got the best subconscious security?” Ariadne asks. Her feet are propped up on the car dashboard as they drive out to Phillipa’s school. The radio hums softly in the background and weak sunlight filters through the cloudy sky to diffuse across her corduroy pants.
“It’s how we met, actually,” Cobb says, glancing at her briefly before re-affixing his eyes to the road. “I was hired to steal some information about a previous job from Arthur’s mind. I got very close, but…well, let’s just say we decided we’d be more lucrative combining skill-sets.”
“Haven’t we pulled a job with a level filled with Arthur’s projections?”
“Sure,” Cobb says, “We use Arthur’s subconscious all the time, as long as we don’t need the mark to bring any of his projections along, like we needed on the Fischer job. Arthur can turn the security on and off, to some degree.”
“So how does the training work?”
“Here’s the plan,” Eames says. He’s standing on top of a folding chair with a metre stick in his hand. The chalkboard next to him has a confusing tangle of arrows sketched haphazardly across it.
“Get off the fucking chair, Eames,” Cobb says.
“People might think you’re overcompensating for something,” Arthur adds disdainfully.
“Right,” Eames says, smiling with teeth as he steps off the chair and spins it around to straddle the backrest, somehow managing to look like he’d been intending to do exactly that all along.
“As Cobb so graciously informed you, our dearest Arthur has the most gruesomely brutal subconscious security system known to man. For the training, Cobb has been into Arthur’s dream while the security was down and placed twenty-one flags in various locations known only to Arthur--”
“Question, Mr Eames.” Ariadne raises her hand politely.
“Ariadne,” Eames addresses.
“Why does only Arthur know the locations?”
“I switched the maze around after Cobb left,” Arthur replies.
“Excuse me, Arthur,” Eames says, stern. “Only the teacher should answer questions. If you would like to contribute to the conversation, please raise your hand and wait to be called on.”
Cobb pinches the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb, “Okay, your turn for explaining is over, Eames. Yusuf, you’re with me. Ariadne and Eames make up the other team. Arthur will be available for distress calls; each team gets two saves. We have five hours in the dream; the team with the most flags at the end wins. Let’s go.”
They all settle themselves in for a twenty-minute nap, pulling lines from the PASIV device in the middle of the room.
“Bon voyage,” Eames crows as Yusuf lays down next to the device and reaches up to press the button with one hand. He goes limp.
The maze is in a mall , but it’s not the sort of mall that Ariadne has ever been to before. Every store looks untouchably perfect, with rows of designer outfits arranged according to colour. She’s in a gondola being driven by a tall, gaunt man in a striped shirt down the middle of a row of shops selling only cufflinks. Above her, walkways crisscross on different levels of the mall going up and up and up, with too many floors to count. She cranes her head to look down a hall and she can see that the ground floor is all made of waterways.
“Ariadne,” says the gondola driver in a distinctly familiar accent, “Would you like to take the flag behind you?”
“Is that you, Eames?” She asks as she turns around, tugging the pale grey flag from the tail of the boat. Upon closer inspection, she notices that it is a pocket kerchief tied to a number two pencil.
“Well, I prefer to be called Alfonso,” Eames says dryly, as he melts back into his usual self. He’s wearing a sharply cut English suit that Ariadne feels sure must be straight out of one of the designer fashion magazines Arthur hides underneath his laptop case. The thin tie and precise pinstripe seem out of place on Eames, even if he does look striking. He accepts the flag from Ariadne as she hands it over and slips it into a pocket concealed on the inside lining. The lining is red and purple paisley silk; comfortingly typical of Eames.
“We must dress you in something a little more to Arthur’s tastes,” Eames says, gesturing around as he steps off the boat and offers her his hand. Ariadne follows the movement of his hand and notices that not a single one of the projections wandering about has even a strand of hair out of place. The men all wear sleek jackets and trousers, the most casual of them in ironed dark wash jeans. The women wear classic dresses or long, flattering pants.
“Staying off the radar is all in the detail,” he says, murmuring.
Ariadne looks down at her comfortable jeans and University hoodie and feels out of place. She’d never even thought that how she looked might affect the way a dreamer’s subconscious saw her. “How do I change it?” Ariadne asks. Eames looks surprised.
“I do buildings,” she says defensively. “Big things. I’ve never had to change myself around before.”
“Just imagine whatever you ought to be wearing right there in front of you and step forward into it, like a shower of water. That’s how I do, anyway.”
“Is that the way to forge?” she asks, closing her eyes, imagining a black slip dress and short jacket suspended in the air in front of her.
Eames laughs, smoky and low. “Sort of,” he says. She can hear his grin, “It’s a little more complex than that.”
“That’s perfect,” Eames exclaims when she opens her eyes. “And you managed to fix your hair up as well. One more thing,” he says, tapping his bottom lip thoughtfully, “When you imagine things the way you want them, try to think about it as little as possible.”
“What do you mean?”
“The more energy you expend on thinking about how something should look and feel and be, the bigger the change seems,” Eames says, “That’s one of the reasons you’re a good architect. You naturally make things that fit into the surrounding space, or create out of what’s already there. Projections sense something is wrong when you make big changes, so if you don’t think of what you’re doing as a serious change they won’t either.”
“I get it,” Ariadne says, smiling. “So where do we go first?”
They have six flags before Ariadne starts to feel the uncomfortable itch of the projections’ eyes following her movements. Mostly, this is due to the fact that they barely change around anything in the maze at all. When they do change things, it’s usually Eames affecting something so smoothly that Ariadne can barely tell, even watching Eames do it.
Eames kills two projections climbing after Ariadne as she scales a railing to retrieve their seventh flag (an indigo kerchief stuck in a light fixture), but none seem to look twice at the shots. She slides down, flag in hand, stumbling when a loud crash echoes up from two floors down.
She and Eames lean down to look over the railing of one of the bridges to see what’s happening.
“You’ll have to run faster than that to catch me,” comes the unmistakable sound of Cobb, screaming to someone behind him. The dark form of Cobb goes tearing halfway across a bridge and then he leaps over the edge and latches on to the railing of the bridge below. A few seconds later, Yusuf appears and dives after him. They’re closely trailed by huge black cat.
“Is that a panther?” Ariadne asks.
“Perhaps dear Arthur has some imagination after all,” Eames says fondly.
“I feel like we’re having an easy time of it,” Ariadne notes, eyeing the tense body of the panther and the lazy flick of its tail.
“Stick with me, kid,” Eames replies, as if it’s an appropriate explanation, but Ariadne can hear something in his voice that sounds just as confused as she is.
On their twelfth flag, things finally spin out of control. Ariadne spots the pocket kerchief, this one pale yellow and crimson, tied to the handle of one of the window panes in the glass ceiling.
“I know a perfect spiral staircase I could build,” Ariadne says, eagerly. She’s hasn’t even affected the dreamscape yet, except the trick with her clothes at the beginning. Eames is running all the interference while she grabs the flags and no one’s even noticing him. She’s beginning to think that Arthur’s supposedly incredible security is highly overrated and she can see Eames thinking the same thing.
“Go for it,” Eames says, shrugging. He’s been looking almost bored since he shot the two projections during Ariadne’s retrieval of the seventh flag.
The staircase sprouts up in front of her step by step as she thinks of it, trying to follow Eames’s directions about not concentrating too hard. There’s a single quiet moment where Ariadne puts her first foot on the stair and everything seems fine and then twenty heavily armed men in identical black suits spring up out of a fucking grate in the ground and surround her.
“Jesus Christ!” she and Eames say at the same time.
Where did that grate even come from? Ariadne thinks.
“Where did that grate even come from?” Eames shouts.
“It was just one staircase,” Ariadne cries, “Not even a complicated one.”
“Don’t move,” says one of the men, “You are hereby charged with breaking and entering into the mall. Your only options are immediate execution, or slow torture. Which do you prefer?”
“Uh…neither?” Ariadne ventures. Maybe a panther is the easy way to go, she thinks.
She glances up to meet Eames’s eyes. He looks calculating. She can seem him trying to decide if they’re more likely to win the game if he lets them kill her and continues on by himself, or if he saves her but ultimately draws more attention to them both. He smiles at her pleasantly the exact moment he makes his decision.
A curious sensation stirs the ground under her feet, like an earthquake, but more liquid. Abruptly a transparent sheet bubbles up out of the tile floor and folds over the twenty men, capturing them in a glass dome. The projections collide with each other and knock their guns against the glass to no avail. They fall out of formation and panic. What’s going on?, she hears them shout to each other, sounding like they’re underwater, It wasn’t the girl. Who did that?
A thoughtful expression appears on Eames’s face. “Hello, boys,” he says to the men in the glass bubble, “I’m right over here.” He salutes them.
Not a single projection glances up. Their eyes slide over the space he occupies like he’s just empty air.
“Very peculiar,” Eames says. “Did you get the flag?”
“Right here,” Ariadne says, waving it a little. She’s pleased that her voice no longer shakes after being accosted by heavily armed men out for her blood.
“I think we need to discuss this curious turn of event with Cobb and Arthur and Yusuf,” Eames says. He beckons Ariadne over to his side. “But first let me just…”
Eames blinks deliberately and suddenly it’s pouring rain and streaks of lighting glance across the open space around them. Ariadne and Eames both stay perfectly dry even though she can feel the drops of water hit her skin. The storm stops as abruptly as it began. A moment later the whole mall seems to be filled with hundreds of birds of different colours and sizes. One lands on Ariadne’s shoulder and sings a few bittersweet notes before fading away into coloured smoke along with all the others.
“Are you doing that?” she asks.
“Yes,” Eames says and presses his finger over his lips, asking for silence. He stands perfectly still. He’s waiting for something, but nothing happens.
“You’re trying to see if they’ll come for you, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but they aren’t,” he replies. “Now, I need you to try something. Make a flower appear in your hand.”
“Just a flower?” she asks,
“Something small,” he says, “Something small and easy, whatever you want, but something you barely have to think about.”
An image of a red ribbon appears errantly in her mind and she brings it forward into the dreamscape, plucking it out of the air. The second it’s fixed in her hand, there is a whooshing sound and a faint breeze. Suddenly a metal cage drops from nowhere over her head, hitting the tile floor with a deafening clang. Even though they’re only inches apart, the cage has missed even touching Eames, and he stand completely unharmed on the other side of the bars.
“Yes, that is very peculiar,” Eames says, a key appearing in his hand. He opens the door to the cage, which hadn’t existed a moment ago and Ariadne steps out, looking up at the towering metal bars with trepidation.
“What the hell are you doing, Eames?” Arthur’s voice carries from the other side of the bridge. He’s holding an M4 semi-automatic rifle in one hand and there is a faint scent of lightning singe lingering around him.
“It appears I am doing whatever I want,” Eames replies, magnanimously. “Your lovely subconscious doesn’t seem to mind.”
“What?” Arthur asks, clearly thrown.
“Darling, your security doesn’t work on me.”
Arthur’s mouth turns down at the edges and Ariadne is surprised to see the realisation of an explanation dawn on his face.
“Do you know why it’s like that?” Ariadne probes.
“No,” Arthur says, but he’s never been a very good liar. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
With that, he turns his gun towards his head, careless of how oversized it is, and pulls the trigger. The glass ceiling shatters instantly, shards raining down and cutting Ariadne across her cheek and knee and arms and then, with a whispering slice, puncturing a hole right into her lung.
The last thing she sees before blacking out are Eames’s eyes wide with astonishment as debris falls from a world collapsing in on all sides, and yet manages to leave a small circle around him perfectly, protectively clear.
“What happened?” Cobb asks, sitting up and wrenching the line from his wrist. “I wasn’t quite dead yet.”
Eames blinks his eyes open slowly, hands still clenched around the phantom gun he’d had to kill himself with. Ariadne rolls onto her back on one side of him and coughs a few times.
“Lung puncture is not the way to go,” she says. “Hey -- where’s Arthur?”
Sure enough, his lawn chair is already vacated. His line from the PASIV device is coiled neatly back into the box and Arthur is nowhere to be found.
“Maybe I’ve just gotten that good,” Eames says, not even trying to sound like he believes himself.
“Putting aside the issue of your shocking lack of modesty,” Cobb replies, “You know that’s not true. We tested it. You tried that trick with the birds in my dreams and you were surrounded by guards in under a minute.”
“How do you explain it, then?” Eames asks, setting his elbow on the table and looking bored. “I know for a fact that when we got pulled out of the training dream, you were being water boarded for information by three of Arthur’s projections and Yusuf was trying to keep his own intestines from spilling out. You only managed to collect four fucking flags. Arthur’s security is just as excellent as ever.”
“I have a theory,” Cobb says, quietly.
Eames raises an eyebrow, gesturing for him to continue.
“What do you think of Arthur?”
Eames furrows his brow, confused, “I don’t follow,” he says.
“I mean, do you care about him? Not just as a colleague or…you know…okay, apparently you don’t, but. You know. Do you like him?”
“This is a beautiful moment,” Eames says, smiling at him ruefully. “I’ve reduced Dominic Cobb – virtual genius and the most wanted mind-criminal in twelve different countries -- to a gossiping schoolgirl.”
Cobb makes an annoyed sound in the back of his throat. “I just want to know what your intentions are--”
“Wait, wait, let me savour this moment. I’ve outdone myself. Now you’re a thirteen-year-old cheerleader and an overprotective mother at the same time.”
Cobb sighs wearily and then says, suddenly, “Eames, do you love Arthur?”
They both tense up at the same time. Cobb seems shocked to have been so blunt and Eames is shocked to have driven him there.
Eames collects himself slowly. The sharp lines of his fox-like grin fade away and the easy con-man line of his posture softens into innocence. He leans forward and a few strands of hair fall into his face. He’s close enough that Cobb can smell his aftershave as he whispers, “How could I not, Cobb?”
Eames eyes are bright when he continues, “Have you ever watched him? Looked at him really and seen how beautiful he is? Not his body, which is admittedly something to behold, but noticed the shape of his hands around a gun or the raw edge of his voice when he’s annoyed or how devastatingly quick he is at thinking and moving and knowing? Haven’t you ever seen how…?”
Eames sighs and leans away from Cobb, “You haven’t seen that, but I wouldn’t want you to look.”
Cobb watches at him carefully, holding Eames’s gaze with intent. Whatever he sees there seems to satisfy him, and finally, he nods to himself more than Eames and says, “I have something important to tell you. It’s about why Arthur’s subconscious won’t hurt you. I’ve seen something like it before.”
Eames glances up at him, surprised, “When?”
Cobb looks uncomfortable and he avoids Eames’s eyes. He tugs on the cuff of his shirt, before saying, in an almost pained voice, “Mal and I…when we walked in each other’s dreams, it was the same way. I think maybe….”
“I know,” Eames interrupts, looking uncomfortable.
“How do you know that?”
“I meant that I already figured it out, about Arthur. He won’t hurt me, will he? His subconscious can’t see me suffer. Because…because…well, you know.”
“How did you…?”
“He hasn’t tried to blame me for it,” Eames explains, “which means he must know the problem has something to do with him, not me.”
“Then why aren’t you together?”
Eames looks down at his shoes, prompting a surprised laugh from Cobb.
“You’re fucking nervous! I can’t believe it Eames. I’ve seen you do things…things so dangerous no one would believe me. You propositioned a Shahzada right in front of his father and fourteen angry armed guards and got away with it, but you won’t ask Arthur, whom we’ve now both agreed must at least like you, out for dinner?”
“Would you expect him to take me seriously? He doesn’t trust me.”
“He trusts you to keep him from getting killed.”
“No one’s trying to kill him at the moment.”
“Well, Christ, Eames, I’m not your love counsellor. You’ve never had a problem wooing someone before. Why not try what usually works?”
“It’s never mattered before, has it?” Eames snaps and stands abruptly, walking out before Cobb can get another word in.
“Arthur, I think you should let me kiss you.”
Arthur presses his lips together in a thin, angry line. He’s so tired of Eames needling, always pushing him to see how much he’ll give. He’s tired of making room for Eames, sliding back inch by inch until he’s at the cliff’s edge.
“I think I shouldn’t,” Arthur replies, flatly.
The room is dark and smoky, the soft murmur of people laughing and shouting just outside the door paints the air with a hazy sordid sound. Eames is shuffling cards on an empty poker table. They’re in the back of a high-end casino, Eames shuffling cards across an empty table. Arthur swirls the gin around the bottom of his glass before taking a drink, revelling in the burn at the back of his throat and the rush of heat to his stomach.
“Why do you always say no?” Eames asks.
Suddenly, Arthur is so mad he can’t even see straight. Eames has everything of him, now, even the ability to walk through Arthur’s dreams like he owns them and Arthur doesn’t mean to be a squabbling child, but it just isn’t fair.
“It’s not fair, Eames,” he says aloud, forcing himself not to cringe at his own ridiculous words. “It’s not fair that you say that but you don’t really want me more than any other mildly-attractive, warm body and I…I…”
He looks up at Eames and swallows visibly. It’s somewhat surreal. Eames has never seen Arthur nervous before and it makes him feel itchy under his own skin.
“I know you,” Arthur begins. “I know you better than anyone; not just because it’s my job, but because I watch you. I know that you always smudge when you write because you’re really left-handed and you make a point to use the less dominant hand so when you fight and switch, your opponent looses their edge. I know that you always forget to shave that one spot under your chin; that is, when you even bother to shave.”
“Arthur--” Eames tries to interrupt, looking more surprised than Arthur’s ever seen.
“Shut up and let me finish,” says Arthur, steely. “I know that you always smoke two packs of cigarettes the day before a job, but never any other time. I know that your middle name is Liam and Eames isn’t your name at all and I know you touch your bottom lip when you’re thinking and when you undo the top two buttons of your shirt during a gun-fight, I can see the edge of your tattoos. You make friends too easily with dogs and children. You never let on when you’re really angry; you just go quieter and more sarcastic. I know…I know that you only eat fucking English pink lady apples and that you imported them to Mombasa when you were living there.”
Arthur falls silent and he collapses into the chair he’s been raving in front of. Eames starts to open his mouth but snaps it shut when Arthur shakes his head. He says, very quietly, “I know that when you kiss, you hold my hips between your thumbs like that’s all you need to keep me enraptured and it’s true. I remember because of that time I was fucking stupid enough to give in, in St Petersburg and I promised myself I wouldn’t fall for you, but I did, I did….”
Arthur breaths out harshly and meets Eames’s eyes, making him feel hot under the collar of his shirt.
Arthur is almost whispering when he says, “And you ask me why I’m always saying no when you ask me…things like you do. So that’s why.”
“Is that everything?” Eames asks, matching Arthur’s quiet tone.
Arthur gets a weird smile, halfway between the face he makes after he’s been shot and the one he makes right before he really, properly laughs at something. “Yes, Eames. That’s everything.”
“Good. Do you want to know a secret?”
“Sure,” Arthur says, his head falling forward as he sighs heavily.
“I’m…asleep…?” Arthur doesn’t bother arguing the point. He has a lot of experience with people wasting twenty minutes trying to convince themselves and everyone else how impossible it is that they’re in a dream. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his die. There is a dusty, disused roulette table next to him. He rolls it across the flat surface. Four dots face up. He rolls it again. Three dots face up. He rolls it again. Three dots face up. He rolls it again. Six dots face up. They are definitely in a dream.
“How did you get me here?” Arthur asks. Now that he remembers, he knows he fell asleep on the sofa in his hotel room around one-thirty in the morning.
“That’s not important,” Eames says. “Follow me.”
“Where are we?” Arthur asks. “Is this my dream or yours?”
“It’s all mine,” Eames replies. “This is my dream, my projections. No risk for you, so let’s go.”
Eames opens the door. The casino is all red and gold and antique. The carpet is so lush that Arthur’s feet sink down with every step like walking on sand. The slot machines are wood, played by women in slinky black retro dresses pulling down on carved ivory handles. The men smoke cigars, ignorant of the orange-red flairs of ash settling onto the card tables around their piles of chips. There is nothing of the disingenuous, plastic feel of a Vegas casino. Everything is crafted to be as authentically solid as possible.
Arthur looks up but he has to avert his eyes at the sudden sense of vertigo. The ceiling is maybe four hundred feet above them, soaring up so far away that Arthur feels like he should see a cloud system forming. Chandeliers dripping with silver and crystals hang down from everywhere catching the light and sending it spiralling off into hundreds of tiny refracted rainbows.
“Almost there,” Eames says, slowing as he approaches a set of gilded doors. He throws them open and suddenly they’re on a cliff. Eames catches Arthur at the waist and pulls him towards the edge. The irony of Eames literally forcing him off the edge of a cliff does not escape Arthur’s dreaming mind and he stops and refuses to take another step before they get there. “Please,” Eames asks quietly, “Come look out at the view.”
Arthur sighs and follows Eames the last few steps. There is a wrought iron fence along the edge. It’s low enough a person could easily be tipped over, but high enough for Arthur to feel comfortable looking down as he leans against it. He turns around briefly; he can still see the casino, but it’s much farther away than the few steps it took for them to get here from the doorway. It’s moved up a hill and on the other side of a tall green hedge maze.
Eames it right. The view is worth it. Even though it’s night, the sea below them is perfectly turquoise and calm, stretching out in unending jewel-toned aquamarine. The sky is navy blue and littered with pinprick stars. Where it touches the sea, in a perfectly straight line, not obscured by distance or curvature, the stars are leaking out of the sky and running into the water like drops of luminescent ink.
Even Eames’s mind is fucking stunning, Arthur thinks.
“Tell me something,” Eames asks.
“What?” Arthur asks.
“You and Cobb trained my subconscious. How long should it take for someone to take you down if you build a bridge to touch the sky?”
“To touch the sky?” Arthur replies, calculating in his head, “I’m assuming that means I’d have to stabilise the horizon so I could build to it, which is essentially just creating an image of my own that looks the same as yours so I can manipulate it properly. That’s tricky. I don’t know if I’d be able to even finish the bridge. Probably three or four minutes. As long as I don’t fight back, of course.”
“Of course,” Eames agrees. “Try it.”
“What?” Arthur stirs from his relaxed lean against the railing. “I’ll be killed, though. If you want to wake up, we might as well wait for the kick. Or you could just kill me.”
“Humour me,” Eames says, mouth tilting into some kind of smile that makes Arthur squirm inwardly.
Arthur takes a deep breath. He doesn’t want to fight with Eames anymore; well, maybe he likes fighting with him a little bit, but only when it’s edged in teasing. It’s easier to follow directions.
He imagines the curtain of stars and water just as he sees it right in front of him, blue and blue and blue and pulls the picture out of his thoughts, shaking it out like a blanket to hang in the sky. It expands and distances itself from them once he’s tossed it over the edge of the cliff. Arthur imagines pinning it in place just under a half a mile away.
He holds his own imagined sky in place as he thinks of a bridge extending from the face of the cliff. It begins to form slowly and then gains speed, arcing over the glass-still water like a train accelerating across a field. The difficult part isn’t creation, but making it seem like something that could really exist. If a dreamer came upon the bridge, but didn’t recognize it as possible, they would merely block it out.
Arthur isn’t paying attention to Eames or the time it’s taking or anything except the sheer exhilaration of dream-building. He extends the bridge from the cliff in a graceful arc of rock that appears almost naturally occurring.
It’s easy to make an object in a dream and even easier to make an image. The thing that only professionals can do, like Arthur and Cobb and, best of all, Eames – because he’s a forger -- is create an experience.
The only way to trick people into believing something exists when it can’t is that tangible spill of emotion that makes a dream more vivid than real life itself. Arthur picks a feeling from somewhere deep inside himself, of catching up to something impossible, pride and awe and the bittersweet note of finding the end of a beautiful thing. He fixes it to the last inch of the bridge in the space right between stone and sky.
“Done,” he says, almost breathless as he stands back and smiles at the roughly hewn stairs leading to the bridge in front of them, where the railing used to be. “I can’t believe I managed to finished it before your subconscious caught up with me.”
Arthur turns around. Eames is sitting cross-legged on the ground, leaning against an oak tree that hadn’t been there before. He doesn’t even remember Eames moving. “How long has it been?” he asks, furrowing his brow.
“A half an hour,” Eames replies.
“But then why hasn’t…” Arthur glances back to the maze, imagining men with pitchforks spilling out of the exit. He supposes it’s possible he underestimated Eames’s maze building skills. Two projections of girls are playing hopscotch in the foliage. The one in the yellow dress looks up at him when he turns to her. She smiles and waves. Her grin looks just like Eames’s.
“Hi, Lucy,” Eames calls.
“Hullo, Eamesie,” she replies. “Do you want to play with Katie and me?”
“I’m talking to Arthur,” Eames replies.
“Okay. How ‘bout later?”
“Sure thing,” Eames replies, smiling contentedly. “That’s my cousin,” he says to Arthur, by way of explanation.
“Are you doing all this to try to tell me something, Eames?” Arthur asks, annoyed when his voice comes out almost nervous and entirely to soft.
Eames grins at him, as if to say, we both know you're not stupid.
Then the ground falls out from under Arthur’s feet.
When he wakes it’s dark and he’s too warm underneath his duvet. He starts to push it away, but something heavy is lying across the other side of the bed, tangling the sheets too much for Arthur to move them easily.
He feels unfocused. It takes a moment to remember what he’s just been dreaming of. He remembers falling asleep on the sofa instead of the bed. The IV in his wrist makes itself know with an itchy pulse and he tugs it away, rubbing at the sore spot it leaves behind.
“Good morning, darling,” says the heavy lump beside him. Eames sits up from his half of the bed. He’s still fully dressed in a brown herringbone sports coat and a cranberry coloured dress shirt. He’s on top of the covers, while Arthur’s beneath them, but Arthur isn’t willing to bet on Eames’s apparently gentlemanly behaviour, seeing as Arthur definitely fell asleep wearing a shirt.
Fortunately for Eames, Arthur can’t make himself care. Not with the moon spilling into the room and making everything hesitantly golden and Eames looking so pleased with himself and his hand soft over Arthur’s knee and then his shoulder and then the back of his head, tugging their mouths closer and closer together, until they’re sharing the same oxygen, until they’re kissing.
Arthur pushes the covers away, for a different reason than before, and Eames slides on top of him, slotting his thigh between Arthur’s legs. Eames’s hands slide into Arthur’s hair, already dishevelled from sleep, and he rakes his fingers through the fine strands, making Arthur’s bare chest rise and fall rapidly against him.
“So,” Arthur gasps when they finally break apart, “I guess I’m taking you seriously now, Mr Eames.”
Eames runs his hands achingly slowly across the places where the rough texture of his jacket imprinted Arthur’s skin and trails his mouth up the same path his hands take, smiling against the silkiness of Arthur’s stomach. Eames smells English to Arthur; like tea and curry and grass that’s been watered too often, but especially good underneath -- wild, unlike anything else. When Eames reaches the pale column of Arthur’s throat he pauses for a moment, caught by the sudden feeling that the points of contact between them are the only thing keeping his heart tied back to the ground.