Then, as it was,
then again it will be
Though the course may change sometimes
rivers always reach the sea
** ** ** **
Arthur is eleven, and school is almost out, when his Dad tells him that, surprise, his Mom's family from overseas are coming to visit for the summer. They're from France, like his Mom. That's really cool and exciting. He's never met any of his cousins before. Okay, so he only gets to meet one of them, and she's not a cousin cousin, but his mother's sister's step-daughter or something, and she's about five years older than he is. She's a teenager, and that's pretty important. He'll be able to show his cool family off to his friends. Well, his friend, anyway. Tommy Plakehart, who he goes to school with, hangs out with Arthur sometimes because they like a lot of the same things. Tommy is a good guy. He wears glasses like Arthur does (they tried to get matching ones,) and he helped build the treehouse in Arthur's yard. Well yeah, Arthur's Dad built the basics of it, but he and Tommy had nailed up the walls and made the ladder. Also, they had painted the inside blue.
It's a great place and he is definitely going to hang out up there with his cousin. If she feels like it.
The week before his aunt and cousin arrive, his Mom tells him at the breakfast table, "Mallorie is troubled, Arthur. I want you to be careful around her. If you see her doing anything bad, you'll tell me or your Papa right away."
"Like what?" he asks his Mom. "You mean like smoking, and kissing people?" Because if that's the case, he is definitely not going to tell. Arthur doesn't believe in being a tell-tale, and anyway, if she's a teenager, then she's old enough for that stuff.
"No," his Mom says. "Other things. Mallorie has had some trouble at home. This is why she's coming here. You'll tell me if she's mean or cruel to you."
That sounds like a lot less fun than it had before.
But June finally arrives, and Arthur is ecstatically excited the day his Mom and Dad go to pick them up at JFK. He doesn't know what to do with himself while he waits, (and he's at home alone – of course he is, because Arthur knows better than to set the house on fire or do any dumbass crazy thing like some other kids would do.) He goes from his room, to the kitchen to make sure there's good stuff in the fridge, to the TV, then back to his room.
He looks around to make sure everything is clean. His room is pretty neat. It's tiny, with one old, cracked window. The walls could use a coat of paint. Well, the entire house could, really. And a new roof, because this one leaks. They have to put buckets down when it pours.
He goes up to the treehouse and scans the small yard. Weeds and dried grass. Not too nice to look at, now that he thinks about it.
When the car pulls up into the dirt driveway, he gets tingly all over, but he wants to play it really cool. He's going to hang out in the treehouse and then jump down like a ninja once he's in their line of sight. Like, hey, no big deal, he jumps out of the tree all the time.
Also, he can spy on them from up here. He can see his Mom and Dad in the front seat undoing their seatbelts and stuff. He's trying to see into the back, to see his aunt and cousin, but he can't yet.
Finally, finally, all the doors open. His aunt Sylvie gets out first. She's small and elegant, with blonde hair twirled around tight at the back of her head. She's wearing high heels and clutching a little purse.
Then he sees his cousin, not cousin cousin, but still someone in his family. Someone associated with him. And his jaw drops. She is just so pretty. She's beautiful in a way he's never seen girls be beautiful before. Her hair is brown and wavy, and even though her face looks a little mad or something, he can tell that the angles all line up the right way. She looks like some kind of painting.
He hopes that the kids at school will get to see her, like maybe if he sees them around town or something (because they don't come to visit him.) They'll see her, and they'll know that this beautiful girl from a whole 'nother country is his cousin.
They start walking up the driveway, and she—Mallorie--is struggling with a big suitcase and her own little purse.
Forget making a grand ninja entrance. Arthur climbs out of the treehouse to go and help her. That will definitely make a better first impression. Much more mature.
He runs up the driveway (which he knows is uncool, but at this point, whatever,) and doesn't bother saying hi to Mom or Dad or even his aunt. Just to Mallorie.
"Hey," he says. And oh man, her eyes are really blue, and she's a lot taller than he is, especially wearing heels. She's so adult that he doesn't know what to say aside from, "Um, I'm Arthur. Um. I'll help you with your bags."
Mallorie just frowns at him, her mouth pursed, her head tilted back like a queen's. She looks from him to her mother (step mother, or whatever,) and shoots off a whole bunch of words in French. Really fast French. Arthur can speak a little, because of his Mom, but this is too much at once.
He does get one word out of the whole thing, though: "Boy."
** ** ** **
For the whole first week, maybe more, Mallorie hides in the spare room, where she sleeps, and ignores everyone. She comes out a few times during the day to have something to eat. She doesn't speak a word to anyone other than her step mother, Arthur's Aunt Sylvie.
In fact, Aunt Sylvie mostly ignores him, too.
Arthur's bored. This is not as exciting as he thought it was going to be.
One day, Tommy comes over. They're playing video games on hand-helds in the treehouse. It's hot as hell. The treehouse smells of mold and dust, but it's a smell that he loves.
Without looking up from his screen, Tommy says, "When do I get to meet your cousin?"
"She doesn't come out of her room much," Arthur says with a shrug. "Mom says she's troubled."
"That sucks," says Tommy, and leaves it at that. They don't really have to talk to be comfortable, because they're best friends.
Arthur continues beating the hell out of Tommy in a melee game, when the smell of cigarette smoke drifts through the slats. His parents both quit smoking a few years ago, so he knows it's not either of them. He pauses his game and parts the curtain of the treehouse to look outside.
Mallorie is sitting on the back porch, wearing shorts, her hair pulled back into a thick ponytail. She's smoking a cigarette. And she's doing it right, too, and not coughing at all.
Tommy leans over Arthur's shoulder to look past him. He's using binoculars, like a total asshole.
"Stop," Arthur says, shoving him back. "She'll think you're weird."
"Your cousin is really hot," Tommy says.
Arthur elbows him in the stomach until he retreats back behind the curtain. He watches Mallorie for a few more seconds.
She glances up toward the treehouse and catches him looking. Arthur feels a flush of embarrassment, but realizes it would look really stupid if he ducked behind the curtain to hide. So instead, he waves. Casually.
Mallorie blows a perfect smoke ring and, with a smile, nods in his direction.
Arthur's entire day is made.
It's not until the next week that he sees her again in more than passing.
Arthur wakes up early naturally, even when school is out. All the good cartoons are on in the morning, anyway. He crunches on some dry cereal as he watches his shows on a TV that's older than he is. His parents go off to work. His aunt goes off to one of her mysterious meetings that she's always going to. That's what they're called, "meetings." Not a job or something like that.
He may as well be alone in the house, but he knows that Mallorie is in her room, probably still asleep. She usually gets up at around noon. At first that was probably jet lag, but she should be over that by now.
Maybe today, he'll take a walk down to the creek or something, maybe look for the treasure he and Tommy buried there last summer (fifty dollars in the waterproof lunch container Arthur doesn't use anymore.) Maybe he'll go in the treehouse to read one of his summer assignments, or maybe he'll play video games all day or something. His plan is to have no plan at all.
This all changes when he goes to the kitchen around noon, and finds Mallorie there, looking into the fridge for something to eat.
"Oh," Arthur says. "Hey."
She turns with a bottle of water in her hand, regarding him like she always does, which is to say, a little like a frog she found in her back yard.
Then she says, "'Allo, Arthur."
He's never heard his name from her before. It sounds a little like when his Mom says it, at least the accent. In her voice, it sounds – he's not sure. More meaningful, maybe.
"Bonjour," he tries.
And then, in what sounds like a teasing tone, she asks, "Oh, parlez vous Francais?"
"Uhh," Arthur says, "Un petit peu. Ma mere parle Francais, umm, elle est Francaise. Uhh. Parlez vous Anglais?"
Mallorie tilts her head, considering. Smiling a little. Then she says, "Take me to your tree."
Arthur literally has to refrain from skipping all the way there. He walks at a leisurely pace through the back yard, as cool as he can be. When they get to the tree, Arthur goes up first, because he's seen enough movies where boys look at some girl's butt as she's going up the ladder, and he doesn't want her to think that's what he's doing. Anyway they're cousins, for godsakes.
Mallorie follows, climbing one-handed, holding her bottle of water in the other. Arthur parts the curtain to let her inside.
Now that she's in it, Arthur can see how shabby the treehouse is. Motes of dust float around in the sunlight that breaks in through the slats. The boards creak. The two beanbag chairs are torn, and repaired with duct tape. A girl like Mallorie shouldn't have to sit on duct tape.
But she does anyway. She takes a look around and declares it, "Cool. Very cool, Arthur."
Blushing like an idiot, Arthur murmurs "Merci, Mallorie."
She giggles, and tells him, "Mal, if you please. Papa only calls me Mallorie."
Arthur nods, looking down. He's not sure what he's supposed to do now. But he's had his share of adult conversations, and he's pretty sure he can at least act a little bit sophisticated.
"So," he says, "aimez vous Amerique?"
She laughs like she's delighted with him, opens her bottle of water, and takes a sip. "You smart little boy," she says. "America, it is not bad. Boredom, sometimes."
"Me too," Arthur agrees. "So why did you come here?"
Mal shrugs. Then she takes a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket, draws one out with her lips, and lights it with a metal lighter. She takes a long drag before answering. "I have had trouble at home."
Arthur's not sure how much he's supposed to ask, but he has to say something. "What kind of trouble?"
Instead of answering, she takes the cigarette out from her lips, turns it in her fingers, and holds it out to him.
This is dangerous territory. He could get in so much trouble. But he doesn't want to let her down. It would be so cool if she would come up here and talk with him like this—like adults—all the time. But he really doesn't like the smell of the smoke, and also his parents told him about how bad they are.
"Thanks," Arthur says, "but I don't smoke."
Mal laughs again, and says, "Of course not. Too young. It is good of you to say no. Saying no – important. But only sometimes." She takes another drag herself, and curls her long legs under her. Then, with her cigarette in her mouth, she holds her arm out to him.
For one horrifying moment, Arthur isn't sure what he's supposed to do. Touch? Look? Or what? Then he sees them: small, horizontal scars on her forearm. On the back of it though, not the front, where a person would try to kill themselves.
"Did you do that to yourself?" he asks, his voice suddenly quiet even though he didn't try to whisper.
"Yes. But not why you think. No, this is because I have sleep disturbance. I do this in sleep. With my... With my..." Unable to remember the word, she demonstrates by scratching her finger along her arm.
"You did that with your nails?" Arthur asks.
"Mmm. My Papa is a--" She taps the side of her head--"a doctor. Mama - real Mama, and also Sylvie - also doctors." Again she taps her temple. "Doctors of sleep. My Mama took a sleep drug in pregnancy. So, I have a sleep disturbance."
"Oh," Arthur says. "Wow. Sorry about that."
"Yes." Another drag of her cigarette, another sip of water.
"So is that why you came to America? Is that the trouble you got into?"
"Oh, no. That was boy trouble."
Arthur doesn't know what to say to that, aside from, "Oh." His face and ears are so red; he can feel it. He probably looks like a big beet. There's no way to play it cool now.
"Not what you think," she says again, smiling. "I just," she stops to kiss the air a few times. "Kiss kiss. But the boy, he wants more. I tell him, Non. He still wants more so I..." She makes a fist and jabs it at the air. But her fist is turned the wrong way, not like a regular punch to the nose.
"You punched him?" Arthur asks, not sure what else she could mean.
"Non, non. With a knife."
"Holy shit! You stabbed someone? Did he die?"
"Non. But he went to hospital. I hurt him."
Wow, is all Arthur can think. Wow, and, "That's awesome."
She shrugs. She's not smiling anymore. "Yes. But there was a time, when I knifed him, when I hurt him. It felt very, very good, Arthur. To hurt him felt good." She stops for a drag, and a sip. "So, the boy went into hospital, and he was very rich. I got into trouble."
Still trying to process the part about hurting people feeling good, Arthur just nods. His Mom had said something about this to him before Mal came, had said that she might hurt him, and to tell on her if she did anything bad, or strange. He doesn't understand how it could feel good to hurt a person – but maybe, if they were trying to hurt you – but either way, he's not going to tell. Mal has told him a secret. A bunch of secrets, even. And she's up here in his treehouse, talking to him like an adult, trusting him like he's some kind of friend or something, and Arthur is absolutely, definitely, never going to tell on her.
For the rest of the summer, Arthur's pretty sure they're good friends. Mal comes out of her room when his parents go to work, and Sylvie goes to her meetings. They watch television. She lets Arthur show her his video games. He does backflips in the yard, and she claps her hands and yells, "Hourra!" He teaches her English words she doesn't know (although, she's already very good at English,) and she corrects his grammar when he tries to speak French. He knows he's going to do so great in French class next year. He won't even have to study for it.
Even Tommy gets to meet her a few times, although he just stutters and acts shy, and doesn't know what to say to her. Arthur can understand that, because that's how he felt at first, too. But not anymore.
She tells him some of her secrets. About the crazy things she dreams, about her first cigarette and her first kiss. She tells him what it's like to get drunk, and says that one of these days she'll sneak him a glass of wine, just not yet. She tells him that her father couldn't come to America because his secret is the biggest of all. It's the one thing she can't tell Arthur.
But that's fine with him, because he doesn't need to know everything. He just wishes he had some better secrets to tell her, but he doesn't yet. He hasn't kissed anyone, or stabbed anyone. His parents are pretty boring and they don't do anything top secret. But one day, he will have some really good, really juicy secrets. And then he'll tell them to Mal, and only Mal.
Mal and Sylvie leave at the end of the summer. Mal and Arthur write, in a mix of French and English, over the school year. Arthur gets an A in French. Mal meets a boy, crashes her car, and blames it on someone else. Her secrets are still awesome, and interesting, and dangerous.
She comes back next summer, and again the next.
Arthur won't have any good secrets for her until he's sixteen, when he'll tell her, haltingly, and blushing around her for the first time in five years, "I kind of had sex. Sort of. A little."
Mal will laugh and let him sip her wine as she asks, "Did you kind of have sex with a girl, or with a boy?"
God damn it, she knows his secrets before he even tells them to her.
** ** ** **
While across the ocean, a sixteen year old boy fumbles his way through his first sexual experience—his biggest secret to date—a nineteen year old boy sits in his professor's private study. He's known the value of secrets for years. He never guessed that his own secret would break his heart like this.
His professor tells him, "Eames, you're the best student I have, and the smartest man in the room, up until I walk in." His smile is sad, stern, and kind all at once. "There has got to be a way I can convince you to stay at uni. This program needs young men like you."
All Eames can say is, "Can't, sir. Sorry."
Professor Miles's face softens into sympathy. "Is it your father? Because if it is, I can have a word..."
"I just can't," Eames says. And that's all he's going to say. His silence is to protect everyone else.
But Eames's story doesn't start here. It starts a year ago, with William.
Well really, it starts ages ago, back when he was a toddling little bastard. Back when he learned to read people out of self preservation. When he learned to watch his father's every expression, to better know what was coming next.
But the reason he's sitting in professor Miles's office, dropping out of university to join the military, well, that's because of William. Or at least, it's because William is no longer a secret.
** ** ** **
At eighteen, Eames likes to think that's he's done a little bit of everything and everyone. He'd tried running away from home a few years back. He could steal – was, in fact, brilliant at it – but was never willing to pay the price of getting sold out. This he learned early on, when he woke up in hospital with two broken fingers, three fractured ribs, six stitches across his eyebrow and a week's worth of memory gone. His father came to take him home. That was worse than what had landed him in hospital in the first place.
Eames's mother had left when he was six. He understood why, although he often wondered why she hadn't thought to take him along.
At eighteen, Eames is bright enough for UCL, which works to get him the fuck out of his father's house, and also earns him enough approval that his father pays for his fees and living costs, for as long as he's willing to stay out of trouble. The decision about his course of study is the easiest he's ever made: psychology, neuroscience and language studies. He's been navigating other people's minds since childhood anyway. Might as well see if he can make something of it.
It isn't easy, but it's good.
He meets William at a series of lectures called "Time, Reality and Experience in Dreams," given by professor Steven Miles.
There are a few jerk-offs in the lecture hall, sitting there texting, or pretending to take notes. Eames can't even imagine wasting time like that. Well, perhaps, but only if he was doing something uninteresting, like architecture or maths. This, though – this is the core of human experience. Consciousness. The greatest mystery humankind will ever try to fathom. Never mind space, the ocean, physics or any of that. What makes life real? That's what Professor Miles is on about. That's what turns Eames on.
"There are experiments abroad," Miles says to the class, "being carried out on soldiers returning from battle, with post traumatic stress, night terrors, and in some cases, psychotic breaks."
The screen at the front of the hall switches from a picture of men in the dirt, taking cover behind an overturned armored vehicle, to a photograph of a young man in a pristine white room, on a bed, with electrodes attached to his head.
"A few of these studies are working with dream suppression, and in some cases are reporting absolute cessation of all remembered dream activity. Subjects report absolute loss of consciousness. Like being anesthetized. Recorded measurements of their brainwaves confirm this, in some cases. Anyone have any ideas what might come of that?"
It's odd for a speaker to stop a lecture like this to ask questions. Feels more like primary school.
A young man in the first row raises his hand. No, not exactly. It's more like he gestures politely, barely moving his forearm, holding up one finger, softly, like he doesn't want to be noticed too much. Yet he's sitting in the front, so he obviously wants to participate. Eames can't see his face, because he's in the exact middle of the theatre.
When the man begins to speak, Miles interrupts him to say, "A bit louder, please."
The man clears his throat, a perfunctory noise. "I just thought that perhaps if these soldiers were suppressing the release of their unconscious minds, it's likely they'd find the issues they're trying to avoid manifesting consciously. Disinhibiting the prefrontal cortex during sleep would—might, I mean—disturb executive functions in waking hours. Or at least this seems to be the case in sleep deprivation."
Miles answers with a restrained smile and says, "Is sleep deprivation the same thing as dream deprivation?"
This time, Eames raises his hand. Miles points him out.
"It's not the same," Eames says. "Both states can be artificially induced through chemicals that inhibit acetylcholine. You can sleep without awareness, like with anesthesia. Or you can disinhibit the prefrontal cortex while awake, artificially. Induce a dream-like state, but without entering REM sleep or losing consciousness at all."
Miles says, "Or, to put it simply, the typical university experience."
Only a few people laugh. Eames and the man in the front row are among them.
"So now," Miles says, "we're skirting the subject of addiction, which isn't exactly where I wanted to go, but does bring up a good point. When we're talking about either sleep deprivation, dream deprivation, or chemical addiction, the prefrontal cortex is a common thread. What else comes to mind?"
"Schizophrenia," says the man in the front row, at the same time Eames says, "Psychotic break."
"So, all in all," Miles says, "these studies don't sound very promising. Let's talk about what does."
The lectures continue in much the same way for a few more weeks. Professor Miles is subtle, engaging, and accessible. He asks questions, and Eames finds himself eager to supply the best, most cutting edge answers and observations. The man in the front row does the same, even if his answers are a bit more conservative.
Once, they find themselves saying essentially the same thing. The man turns around briefly, to acknowledge Eames. His eyes are vividly blue. His smile is so honest that Eames resents him for a moment: How spoiled he must be, to be so open. Still, he can't help smiling back.
A few weeks rush by, and soon Miles is wrapping up his series and dismissing everyone, with gratitude and grace and words of encouragement.
Eames is coming down the stairs when professor Miles catches his eye. He gestures, Come here, and then turns to beckon someone else over to him. It's the man from the front row, of course.
"Professor Miles," Eames says. "It was a pleasure."
"Yes," the other man says, "It was." His voice is soft. He's shy, now that he's not speaking academically. His blond hair looks soft where it curls at his temples. Eames can't see how blue his eyes are now, because he's looking somewhere at the podium.
"The two of you really got into it," Miles says. "And that's it, you see. That's why I teach. You find a few gems in the mud."
"Thank you, sir," they both answer.
"I called you both here because I could use a bit of help, you see. With something I'm working on."
Eames and the other man glance at each other, then back to Miles.
"It's a paid position. Mostly theoretical, but you'd be working with delicate equipment. I need some input. And to be honest with you both, I need some test subjects. No chemicals involved, no drug trials at this stage. It's all perfectly safe. If either of you have got the time, I thought you might be interested."
"I'm interested," the other man says, so quickly that Eames suspects it's because of the money.
"Yeah, sure," Eames says. He couldn't care less about the money.
"I'm William, sir," the other man says, holding his hand out to Professor Miles. "William Ashford."
"Oh, William Manwaring," Eames says. "But call me Eames. It was my Mum's maiden name. No one bothers with the 'William.'" Except my father, he doesn't add, because no one needs to know that. "I cede the right to my first name."
It's one of those moments that sticks.
** ** ** **
The trials take place in an abandoned warehouse. So, not really on the up and up, Eames reckons. He doesn't care how above-board it is or isn't. It puts the rest of his life on hold because it's so fascinating. He knows, as soon as Miles and his wife, Sylvie, explain it to him, that this is what he wants to do with his life.
He sits in a lawn chair while Miles and Sylvie attach electrodes to his head.
"No drugs involved," Sylvie says, pushing his hair out of the way. "In this we test the equipment, not you."
Miles wheels over a cart which supports a dark screen. "This," he says, "is a prototype. It's quite primitive as a mind interface. We've had a bit of luck with it with certain people. Let's see if we can get anything out of you. Don't feel pressured, Eames. Just relax."
Eames is too excited to relax. Mind interface? He's heard of them, but never seen one at work.
Miles pulls up a chair behind Eames, facing away, and pulls the screen around.
"Don't I get to see?" Eames asks.
"Not this time," Sylvie says. "I'm going to show you images. Miles will sit behind you, looking at the screen. If this works, he should be able to tell me what you're looking at. All you have to do is think about the image you see. Concentrate on what it looks like. What it does. What it means. All right?"
"Right," Eames says. "Easy enough."
"It can take a few minutes," Sylvie says, "for the image to solidify into waves that the screen can translate. Just relax your mind and don't worry about how long it takes." She takes a folder from the table and sits down across from him, then pulls out a photograph of an airplane.
"And," Miles says, behind him, "if it doesn't work this time, don't fret. It's early stages yet, and the equipment-- oh my goodness. Airplane."
Eames doesn't miss the quickly-hidden widening of Sylvie's eyes.
"Try another," Miles says.
She takes out a photo of a shark.
"Shark," Miles says.
Sylvie flips through the folder, shuffling the photos around. It could be that they're in the same order each time; Eames doesn't know how many times they've done this before. Maybe the computer has solved an algorithm or something – some maths / computer thing he wouldn't understand.
She takes out a picture of a flower. He barely glances at it (blue purple white spiked petals green center) before Miles announces, "Passiflora."
"What?" Eames says.
"Passiflora," Miles says. "That's the kind of flower I'm seeing. Good god. It's so clear. Christ, Slyvie, just look."
Eames has to see, too. He can't help turning around to look at the screen. And there it is: a hazy, wavering representation of the flower in the photograph.
His brain is doing that. That image is from his mind, and he hasn't put it there with his hands, or drawn it, or done anything other than to think that image into existence. It's from his mind.
"Shit," he says.
Sylvie tucks the pictures away and says, "Let's try something different." Over his shoulder, she shares a glance with Miles.
"Yes," Miles says. "Let's. Level two."
"Level two?" Eames asks. "What's level two?" He can't think of anything beyond this. This is amazing – that screen translated his thought into an image. Entire movies could be made like this. It would eliminate the need for cameras, sets, actors. Not now, but years down the road, maybe a few generations. It could be used to extract locations from people – hidden things, secrets, if used against their will. He considers briefly what he'd been told earlier: 'No drugs. Yet.'
Sylvie puts her hands over his, softly, and says, "Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Clear your mind."
It's always been hard for Eames to clear his mind. Stray thoughts bombard him from all directions. True clarity is a myth, he thinks.
"I want you to picture something random. Think of a very specific thing – not an emotion or anything abstract. Something solid, real, an actual thing. But totally random. Once you think of this thing, concentrate on it. What does it look like? Feel like? Smell like?"
Eames is starving. A cupcake would be brilliant right now. Chocolate, with icing. Moist, almost too sweet, with sugary crystals of flavor on his tongue. A dark, rich...
"Yes," Miles says, with a little breathless laugh, "that'll do. We should break for lunch. I could have a cupcake, too."
Eames turns around again just in time to see the image of his cupcake waver on the screen, before the warehouse door opens.
"Oh, hello," says William. "I'm so terribly sorry to be late." His smile is tentative, yet brilliant. His eyes--
The cupcake flickers off the screen, replaced by a starburst of blue.
** ** ** **
Three weeks later, Eames and William sit back to back in lawn chairs. They are alone in the warehouse. Miles and Sylvie gave them keys. It's the most Eames has ever been trusted with anything, and he is not going to fuck it up.
Eames is hooked up to the machine, and the screen faces William.
"A goldfish," William says.
Well, Eames had been thinking of a koi, but they're about the same thing.
"Oh, that's a raven," William says.
A crow, but again, close enough.
Now, he's going to try something he's never done before. So far, they've thought stock images to each other. Animals, objects, things that could be replicated, or were replicated naturally through biology. Now he's going to get a little more complicated.
"It's blank," William says.
"I know. Give me a moment. Concentrating."
William goes quiet, waiting. Eames breathes deeply, closes his eyes. He thinks of the way Miles speaks, first. The cadence of his Cockney accent, south London. Then his hands, how he braces them firmly on his podium, or links his fingers when he sits at his desk. His white hair, his height, the blue of his eyes.
"My god," William says. "That's professor Miles!"
"Am I doing it?" When he turns to look at the screen, the image flickers away.
"You did it. For a few seconds, I saw him on the screen. Like you drew him out of nothing."
Eames feels a little breathless, as he always does when this mind-sharing thing is a success. "We've got to write this down in our notes." He reaches for the electrodes on his head, but William's hand stops him.
William is facing away from him again, still staring at the screen, but gently holding onto Eames's hand, behind him. "Wait, not yet. Just... I want you to try something else, first."
"Oh. Right. Don't know if I can, but I'll give it a go." He settles back into his seat, suddenly aware of the press of their chair-backs up against each other. Of William's blond curls behind him. If he leaned his head back, he'd be able to feel them.
William links their little fingers together and says, "Try me. Try to do me."
A nervous little laugh escapes Eames; a sound he's never heard from himself before. He's not laughing at the innuendo, but out of a weird kind of pressure he doesn't understand. He wants to do it—wants to impress William—but it's something more. He wants to get this right for its own sake. To be able to do something amazing that no one else can do.
"Give me a moment," he says. They both go quiet.
Eames stills himself inside and out. The only point of contact he has with William is their linked fingers, but he can call him to mind easily, detail for detail. He's always been able to put his finger on the details, to collect accents, impressions and mannerisms. He used to entertain his Mum with impersonations, before it all became too much for her.
But he's not meant to be focusing on her now, or on his father. He thinks first of William's eyes: vividly blue. High forehead, and straight, aristocratic nose. White, even teeth, mouth usually smiling. His hair: strawberry blond, he'd call it, and curling. William is stunningly tall, he's got a few inches on Eames. He dresses nicely, though his clothes are inexpensive. His hand gestures are soft and unobtrusive. He tilts his head when he's listening. He is reserved and polite, but not obsequious or timid.
Eames's concentration is broken by a startled little gasp from behind him. He holds onto the threads of his image, trying to project it fully, knowing he's succeeding.
William tugs on his finger a little, to get his attention. "It's amazing, Eames."
When Eames turns around to see the screen, William turns at the same time, blocking his view. Eames never gets to see what he created, because William is kissing him – still shy, but not unsure.
It is, of course, not long before they're sneaking to Eames's residence hall (he's got a private room,) pretending to read notes all the way, and making small talk about their studies. Eames feels like everyone's watching them anyway, that everyone knows what they're going off to do. His blood hums through his veins, tingling. He's done this before, with boys and girls – girls proudly paraded in sight of his father, and boys hidden away in the backs of fancy cars, alleys, closets. He always looks forward to the pleasure, the exploration. And in some ways, he looks forward to the secrecy, too.
Soon they're on Eames's bed, and when he reaches for the top button of William's shirt, William says, "Erm."
Eames stops, because "erm" has many meanings, none of which belong in sex.
William laughs, a charming little sound, and says, "I want to impress you, actually, so I'm a little nervous about making a fool of myself."
"'Course you won't. It's going to be brilliant."
"Well, I've done a bit. But just a bit, you see."
"Ah. Erm, yes." Eames inches away slowly – not a rejection, just an offer of space. "Well, we'll do exactly what you want. Nothing more."
"And nothing less, I hope."
Eames laughs, casual and friendly. "I hope not, too. You can do me, if you like? Or I could do you. Or we could just lie around for a bit and snog."
"No, I think—you should do me. Since I've never done... that before... I know this sounds terribly saccharine, Eames, but I want it to be you. Because you try hard to do everything well, I have to imagine this wouldn't be an exception."
"Right, no pressure," Eames says. He smiles into William's neck.
"Just try your best," William says, laughing a little again. "I'm sure it will be fantastic."
It is. It is fantastic, and awkward, and nerve-wracking, and absolutely the most brilliant sex Eames has ever had.
And, he reckons, the best he probably will ever have. Because it's different, this time. William is different.
They go on for the entire next year together, and the studying and discovering they do with Miles and Sylvie are damn near as good as the sex. If Eames's other grades suffer, and if he becomes a little less guarded in his happiness—a little careless, maybe—then it's not something he stops to think about. He's happy. He's got work that stimulates his mind in ways he's never imagined, and a lover who is just as enthusiastic about the work as he is. And William is talented, too. He's taken to building structures with his mind and projecting them onto the screen.
Towards the end of the year, Miles and Sylvie introduce the second stage of the experiments: screenless mind-share. They've been hooking up directly to each other. If you can project images onto the electric passages of a computer, then why not skip the middleman and go right into the neural pathways of another person?
"We like dreaming bigger," Sylvie says.
But this process requires a deeper state of consciousness to operate, and so in this phase, chemicals are involved. Miles and Sylvie bring their daughter into the lab, a young, bloody brilliant woman named Mallorie, who studies neurochemistry. She's clever as hell, with a ruthless streak that Eames can see in her, no matter how she hides it behind the sweetness of her smile. He likes her, but he's wary of her. Her edges are rough and sharp. Like his used to be, before William.
Eames and William are going to be included in this phase of the study after winter break. A winter break which Eames will most certainly not be spending at home.
He'll visit the old man, and that'll be it. One day. Not even; just a few hours, just to show his face and then get the fuck out for another year. He doesn't even pack his clothes. He doesn't say goodbye to William, since he's only going to see him the next day.
His father's house (and that's what it is: his father's, never his,) is an ostentatious beast that Eames has always hated, every second of his life that he's had to be there. What his father lacks in taste, he makes up for in expense. He's got a liquor cabinet that he only opens for guests, because no alcohol ever passes his father's lips. A deer head hangs from the wall over the fireplace, a startled-looking expression on its dead face, like it can't quite imagine how it ended up here. Eames feels the same way.
"Ah," his father says, coming out of his study, "here you are. Late, as always." His blue eyes are mild and just a little too wide.
"Sorry," Eames says. "Can't stay too long—studying, you know—but I've got groceries in the car and I can cook din--"
"Ah," his father says again. The sound is like an alarm bell. It's how he begins all of his "important" conversations. "Yes, your course of study, yes. What is it you're studying, William? Psychology, yes, I know, but what are your courses?"
This is not a line of questioning that Eames expected, and it throws him off. His father has never asked about what he was doing before, not unless he was angry about something. He can feel a chill begin to creep up his spine and down his arms.
"Err, dreams, currently."
And this is how quickly it happens: His father takes a photograph out of his pocket. Before it's even in Eames's hand, he already knows it's a picture of William.
"And who's this?" his father asks.
"That's William." He's not blushing, or flushing with heat or embarrassment or anger. He's just afraid, and trying his best to hide it. His father already knows who it is. He knows the whole thing, probably. This is part of the game.
"Ah. I see. And tell me, my William, tell me, because I'm not clear on the details here. What is it that you and this other William do?"
Eames knows there's no use in lying, but he does it anyway, because it comes naturally when he's in this house. "We're in the same program. We study."
"Mmm. Yes, of course. And this would be William Ashford, wouldn't it? William Ashford of London, father Harold Ashford, mother Olivia Ashford nee Leighton, no siblings, etcetera. And this," he pulls another photo out of his pocket, "would be his car, I believe. Which he gets serviced at Globe Motors."
"Yes." Eames doesn't have to look at it to know. His father is nothing if not thorough.
"I see." He takes both photos back and paces around the sitting room, quiet. "I've been doing a bit of thinking," he says, turning to face Eames again, with his awful, mild eyes. "I'm not sure you're suited to life at university. Your particular interests and set of skills are just being wasted there." As if he knows even the first thing about Eames's interests or skills. "Academic life is not for you. No, a lad like you needs more structure."
His father just meets his eyes, and Eames stops. "A young man like you needs to learn more about life than you can pick up in books. You need to learn such things as how to look out for your best interests, and the interests of the people in your life. I know you've got a soft streak in you. I know you care about other people. You're not a self-serving bitch like your mother was. Are you a self serving bitch like your mother?"
"No sir, indeed you are not. You care about other people's well-being. You are the kind of young man who will do what's best, even if you don't want to. Do you know, William, the way to make a man do what you want? You don't. It's a secret, but I'm going to share it with you. The way to make a man do what you want, is to simply offer him what he wants more than anything. Offer that to a man, and he'll do whatever you ask. What is it you want more than anything, right now?"
Eames wants his father dead more than anything, but he's not going to say that, or even look like that's what he's thinking. He wants William to be safe. That's all. That's what he wants more than anything. For William to not be hurt just because he happened to fall in with Eames.
"Yes," his father says, smiling. "There we go. How simple that was. You get what you want, and we both benefit. So! I'm glad that's cleared up. We're not wasting any more time, or any more of my money, at university. No, a man like you needs discipline. There's only one place in the world for the kind of rigor that you require."
** ** ** **
"I just wish," Miles says to him, "that there was something I could do, Eames. Anything at all."
Eames wishes there was, too.
** ** ** **
For Arthur, the military was a choice. Or at least, he joined voluntarily. It was his only option if he wanted to continue college without loans hanging over his head for the rest of his life. His parents weren't crazy about it, but they had no way of helping him.
While it was a choice, that doesn't mean he's in love with it. He'd enjoyed the training. Discipline had come naturally to him; the structure had made him feel in control, and had given him control over himself. He could fuck up, sure, and he had, quite a few times. But those had been bumps on the path. Everyone fucked up. Training had also carved him a body he never thought he'd have. He'd discovered endurance and agility in his bones and sinews. He'd learned to defend himself.
His deployment, and this war, on the other hand, Arthur does not enjoy. This is chaos. As much as he tries to keep structured, nothing can prepare him for every new day in the field.
He's in the middle of his second tour, having already seen more than enough shit for his lifetime, when he meets the man who's going to trigger another cataclysmic change. And it all happens in the space of a few hours.
Arthur is at an internet cafe during his three-day-pass, typing an email to Mal. It's early evening. Over the dim, tinny sound of American radio, he can hear reports of firearms in the distance, an intermittent "POP-POP-POP-POP" that is so much background noise to him these days. The air sticks to him. Even indoors the heat is oppressive, and sweat crawls down the back of his shirt. He feels gritty all over with sand that seems to never wash off.
He's not going to burden Mal with any of that. He's not going to pour everything out to her, about how badly he wants to come home. About how he wanted to learn architecture, but instead he's learning how to watch people die, and in some cases, to kill them himself.
He will tell her that he misses her, and he misses home, and that he'll be on leave soon enough. He writes that he wants to meet this boyfriend of hers that she seems so serious about. Other Marines tell their sisters, 'You tell that boyfriend of yours that your brother is a Marine, and if he ever hurts you...' Arthur says no such thing. People learn early on not to fuck with Mal. Mal fucks back, with a smile.
He hits send, gets up to leave, and walks straight into some stranger, who spills tea all over his clothes.
"I am so sorry," the stranger says. "Terribly sorry, I'm too clumsy." He is extremely British.
"It's all right," Arthur says. "It's not even that hot, don't worry about it. I should have been watching where I was going. First thing they teach you."
"Oh yes, of course," the man says. "You're military, of course you are. And American. Please let me at least buy you a cup of tea."
"It's all right. You don't have to."
"I'd like to."
Arthur looks up (this guy is tall,) and meets a pair of vivid blue eyes. One thing that combat hasn't managed to kill off yet is his attraction to a certain type, and this man is that type. So he smiles and says, "Sure, okay. Why not." He reaches out to shake hands. "Arthur Calloway."
"William Ashford." His grip is strong. His hands are large, long-fingered, and too soft to be anything other than a civilian's. "Pleased to meet you. Lance Corporal, are you?"
"You've been here a while."
They go to the counter to place another order. Arthur opts for coffee instead.
"Do you like it?" William asks him. "Being a soldier, I mean."
Arthur's sensors perk up at the leading question. "Is this a test?"
"No, sir, not at all." William smiles. "Just curiosity. It's my nature. I'm a psychologist."
Arthur raises his eyebrows. "Really? Are you helping deployed soldiers cope, or something?"
This whole conversation suddenly puts Arthur on edge, and makes him feel defensive. Which probably shows. Which only makes him feel more defensive. He decides to be straightforward. "Are you analyzing me?"
"Oh, not at all. It's funny how everyone asks that."
They get their tea and coffee and take a seat outside. The air is still muggy, but the temperature has dropped by a few degrees and it's cooler outside than inside now.
"So," Arthur says, eager to move the conversation away from himself, "do you like being here?"
William sips his tea. Even Arthur can see it's a way for him to look away. "No, I really don't."
"Then why stay?"
He shrugs. "I'm looking for someone. A friend."
"Strange place to look."
William puts his tea down. He looks like a man out of options. "Well, I all know is that he's in the military."
Mila-tree, he pronounces it. Arthur's always liked that accent.
"I just can't get a lead on him. He disappeared. We were... I mean, for a while we were together, and then he just disappeared."
"How long ago?" Arthur asks. He already has a pretty good idea of what happened to William's friend. (Or lover, actually, if Arthur's instincts are correct.) And what he's coming up with is not good, but he's not about to tell him that.
"About four years ago. We went to university together and we – well, we were close. Very close." He looks at Arthur then flicks his eyes away.
"I hear you," Arthur says.
"I know he had some family problems, and then one day, he was gone. Just completely gone out of everyone's lives. Our professor said he'd joined the military, and that he was deployed, and that's all he knew."
"So you've been looking for this guy for four years?" Arthur asks. Because, shit, that's a long time to pine for someone, and there go his chances. Not that Arthur has any long term plans, but he's been pretty eager for a quick fling, and he was sure this guy was trying to pick him up. The clumsy British thing, the luke-warm tea, the tentative smile. Yeah, he'd been fairly certain he was going to at least be asked if they could see each other again the next time Arthur had a three-day-pass.
To say that Arthur is maybe a little desperate to have actual sex before he's killed in the line of duty is a fair assessment, and he owns it.
"Well, I'm not constantly searching for him," William says. "Only when I've the time, which is rare, these days. So when I'm not working, I ask around. I just want to know what became of him. Maybe he got scared and left. Or he could have died years ago, for all I know."
Killed, probably, is what Arthur thinks. Or—optimistically--he got bored or scared, and ran off. Either way, nothing good. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not hung up on him," William says. "It's not that, I mean, I have moved on from him. It's just a mystery. I'm curious and I don't like leaving things unsolved."
Arthur smiles and says, "I'm the same way. Like a pit bull."
"Hmm, no," William says. "I think you're more of a German Shepherd. If I had to choose a breed, that's what I'd choose for you."
"Is that your professional assessment?"
"It is. As a psychologist, I can say, with confidence, that you're a German Shepherd. I know we've only just met, but I am extremely good at reading people."
"And what are you picking up now?" Arthur asks.
William actually blushes, which makes Arthur blush, too.
"Err," William says, "I'm staying just up the street from here actually. If you'd like to come and have tea? Or, well, yes, you've already got coffee, that was silly of me. I should have asked..."
And yet, it is to Arthur's shock and bewilderment that he actually finishes the evening in a hot British stranger's hotel room, feeling him up. This is not how he imagined his tour. Well actually, it is how he fantasized it, just not how he actually believed it would be. He hasn't had sex since his deployment, and the sex that he'd had before then was limited. He's only twenty-one. It shames him a little bit that he's fought, watched people die, and wounded (and possibly killed) others, but his sex life is still so unsophisticated.
Hell of a life, he thinks, while being kissed up against the door.
He's a little uncomfortable--because intimacy always makes him feel unbalanced and unsure—but excited, too, because he's horny and, well - tall, hot, British guy.
William touches the first button of Arthur's shirt and stops, waiting for permission.
In a show of boldness he doesn't actually feel, Arthur shoves William toward the bed. William laughs and goes along with it.
"We can do whatever you like," William says. He's sprawled on his back, letting Arthur loom over him. "If all you want is to lie around and snog..."
"No," Arthur says, joining him on the bed. "No, I've only got a few days, and there's no way of knowing what will happen after that." He's getting morbid now, so he just stops. "I want do something I've never done before."
Times like this, Arthur pretends to be Mal. He doesn't have her sweetness or warmth, and he can't fake that. But he can fake her confidence, and her willingness to go after what she wants. Mal gets right into things, whether it's her work, or love, or anything she's passionate about. Mal just jumps. Arthur doesn't have that kind of fearlessness (at least when it comes to intimacy,) but he can fake it. He's going to jump, too.
"So then I'll..." William begins. "Or you could..." He flips his hand back and forth. Or you could top, Arthur reads from his vague gesture.
"No. I want you to."
William leans up on one elbow, smiling. Arthur tries to project confidence as he smiles back. It's not that he's ashamed, it's just that this is how he always feels when he lets someone get close to him. Like he's outside of himself, watching.
"I'm honored," William says, and Arthur snorts a laugh in response. "No, don't scoff, I really am. My first time doing it that way was lovely. I think yours should be, too."
"I'm a Marine," Arthur says. "I've been trained to withstand torture, so it's not like it's going to be traumatic."
"The last thing in the world you should be thinking about is torture."
At that, Arthur laughs – a little genuine, and a little bitter, too. He really shouldn't be thinking about that right now, even if it is his reality. This is exactly what he needs to purge that darkness, or he'll go crazy. A little happiness, a little fun, a little sex. Just for one night.
"I'll make it good," William says.
And he does. It's neither as fantastic nor as awful as Arthur had been imagining. It's awkward and he's sweating and nervous through the whole thing, but it is good. William is kind without being condescending. He makes it obvious that he's enjoying himself—enjoying Arthur--instead of just getting it over with. It's nice, is what it is. Lighthearted. A good memory in the making.
It was, he thinks when it's over, exactly what it should be.
And then it gets uncomfortable. Lying around feeling sticky and sore, Arthur can't think of anything to say that won't sound contrived.
"Can I borrow your shower?" is what he finally comes up with.
William tells him "Yes, of course."
His mind is blank as he stands under the hot water. Not unpleasant, just buzzing with blankness. It's soothing, in a way. He's glad for this. He likes having done it.
Once Arthur is done, William goes in after him. It's not long before they're both dressed again, standing in the hotel room, not sure of where to look or what to say. Arthur's watch tells him it's 2353. Not even midnight, and he feels pretty accomplished.
"Erm," William says, "is it impractical for you to stay the night?"
"It... yeah, I'm sorry, it is. I didn't even think about that. I'm sorry, it's not that I don't want to, I'm not like that, but I have all my stuff at my..."
"No, that's all right," William says, "I understand. I should have thought of it, too. I could walk with you back to the cafe. If you don't mind."
"I'd like that."
During their walk back, Arthur feels fatigue settle into every cell of his body. Just a sudden, utter and devastating tiredness as it all catches up to him. The war. The weekend off. Longing for home. The heat. The suddenness of the fling he just had, and the knowledge, down to his bones, that once his three days are up, he's going back out there and he's not going to feel any different, in spite of what he's done. So he got laid, big deal. Everyone gets laid during their 72 hours. In two days, people are still going to be trying to blow him up.
William must sense this, because he links his arm through Arthur's. It's okay because there's no one else on the street.
"Our having this... this affair," William says suddenly, "doesn't preclude you from talking to me as a soldier."
Arthur laughs tiredly. "It kind of does. I'd rather, I don't know, keep this separate from that. You know?"
"That is also perfectly all right."
They walk the rest of the way in silence that is no longer uncomfortable. When they get back to the internet cafe, it looks so bright to Arthur, it makes the rest of the night seem like it never happened. Like a different world. There are civilians and other soldiers hanging around the cafe, indoors and out. A decent crowd for this time of night, and every internet station occupied. The radio is still playing, audible in the outdoor seating area.
"This one is for all the brave young men and women out there serving your countries and fighting for freedom," the DJ says.
The only freedom Arthur feels is at stake is his own. And actually, no one threatened his freedom until he came here. He was just fine, at home.
He doesn't know why he's so morbid tonight.
Something is out of place.
"Your Shangri-La beneath the summer moon," the DJ says. "May you all return again." The heavy guitar of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" begins to play.
"Well," William says, "and here we are."
There's something about this place that seems wrong, but Arthur can't quite put his finger on it. He focuses, starts to actively look for something, like figures lurking around, people staring too long, shadows out of the corner of his eye. Some people (and probably William) would call this hyper-vigilance, but to Arthur, it's just survival.
"I'd like to see you when you're free again," William says, "if that's possible."
"I'd like that," Arthur answers, distracted.
"Have I kept you too long? You're exhausted. I'm sorry."
"No, not at all, it's not that. I really would like to see you again."
"Whenever you're free. I know your schedule is unpredictable. Can I give you my number?"
"Arthur?" William has to lean down an inch to signal for eye contact. "Everything all right?"
Arthur asks, "Does anything look weird to you here?"
All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground ...
William looks around, alarmed. "No? But you'd know better than I."
Everyone inside the cafe seems to be minding his or her business. No shadows, no lurkers, not even really any concealed corners or dark windows for someone to shoot from, but Arthur can's shake the feeling that he's seeing something he didn't see before. There's a humvee, and a few cars parked outside the cafe. He'd seen the humvee earlier. One of the cars has British plates.
William didn't drive here. We walked. He probably doesn't even have a car here.
Arthur doesn't know why that's so damn out of place, but he finds himself taking William's arm and saying, "Let's go, let's go, now, come on, move." And he knows it makes him sound like he has PTSD and maybe he does, but William goes along with him.
When Arthur turns back to look over his shoulder, he finally sees someone—a hooded figure—running in the opposite direction.
Instinct kicks in. He shoves William, yelling "DOWN!" and trying to shield him, but he's not fast enough. A blast of heat knocks him onto his face. The roar is deafening. His ears are still ringing when another blast goes off a few seconds later.
Disoriented, and with sand and smoke in his eyes, Arthur scrambles to his knees, but feels a strange dragging sensation in his right leg. Sounds fade in and out. There's heat, and a strange pain somewhere, but it's background pain that he'll deal with later. Panic drives him. Get out alive, get out alive, get out alive. The danger is nowhere near over yet.
When he can see a little, he looks back again. The British car is a metal shell, torn to shreds and billowing fire and smoke. The entire front of the cafe is gone. Some people are still alive. Their screams sound dull and too far away. But most of them must be dead, because there are a lot of unmoving bodies on the ground, and some still burning.
He finds William on the ground a few yards in front of him, face down. Arthur crawls to him, dragging his right leg, and manages to hook an arm underneath him. William doesn't feel right. Arthur's hand comes in contact with something that doesn't feel like a part of the human body, but he holds William against his chest and, still crawling, drags him along in the sand. He's not moving fast enough. Finally, he manages to get his legs under him. The right one feels cold, or hot, or wet – he can't tell. But it works well enough so that he's able to half drag, half carry William around the corner where there will be shelter should there be any more blasts.
His vision is blurry, but he can see enough to assess the situation when he turns William onto his back. He's not dead (yet), but there's blood on his face and a shaft of metal coming out of him. He doesn't know what the fuck it is, a piece of the car, most likely, but it looks so fundamentally wrong coming out of a human body, he can't look at it. And he knows better than to pull it out.
All Arthur can think, and say, is, "No, no, oh fuck, no."
William's lips move and he coughs, spraying blood onto Arthur's face. His voice doesn't work, but it's easy enough to read his lips: Help me. Help me. William raises his hand to clutch at Arthur's shirt (which is covered in blood too; how did that happen?) and, briefly, his blue eyes find Arthur's.
"It's okay," Arthur croaks out to him. "You're all right, you're going to be fine, just hang on."
Arthur. William's mouth forms his name like he's just remembered who he's with. Help me.
Then his hand goes slack, and his eyes stare at nothing.
** ** ** **