The first time Arthur dreams something beyond his normal dreams he is seventeen, nearly eighteen, and restless with the reality of his life.
He steals the 34S PASIV Prototype from his father’s closet and sets himself free. It takes months of work but he figures it out and the first time he plugs himself in he lands on the edge of an ice blue lake. There are mountains and sheep and flower dotted fields and he half-expects a woman with braided hair to come skipping down the hillside singing gaily about birds or blue bells or something equally inane.
He spends what seems like glorious hours there, just relaxing and staring up at the blue, blue sky. It is the perfect day and when he wakes, the world around him seems gray and dismal by comparison. He writes it all down in his notebook, the one he keeps hidden beneath his dresser and fills with all his meandering thoughts. Better to write about the dream, he thinks, to revisit it, and so he does, methodical and completely thorough.
He is lucky. His father has no idea what Arthur has done and Arthur carries the secret of it with him for weeks on end. He spends the afternoons after school - bored with everything - daydreaming about that place. Soon the pages of his notebook are crumpled and he has lost the feel for it, the dream itself turning soft and fathomless in his mind.
It doesn’t take long before he steals the 34S again, slips into his dad’s office and jimmies the lock on the closet door. This time he sneaks it into his bedroom, planning on enjoying his living daydream from the comfort of his own bed. Ever cautious, Arthur locks the door and pulls the curtains. There is a little thrill shooting through him, and his hand shakes slightly as he hits his vein with the needle. ‘This is what a junky must feel like’, he thinks, and presses the button. The world changes and his stomach drops.
There is no serene and beautiful lake this time, no flowers or sheep. There is a woman, however, with dark hair and dark eyes who looks at him strangely. “Who the fuck are you?” she asks and then she shoots him in the head before he can answer.
Arthur wakes gasping, his hand flying to press against the smooth skin of his forehead. There is no hole, no blood at all, but his head is pounding mercilessly. All the deep breathing in the world can’t hold back the nausea and Arthur stumbles from his room and vomits until his stomach is empty.
He sneaks the 34S back into his father’s office. ‘Never again,’ Arthur thinks, and it works for awhile. He goes to school and is bored. Hangs out with his friends and is bored. Goes on a date with a kid he meets online and is bored. But being bored is nothing like being shot in head and so he makes do, for awhile.
Of course it doesn’t last, because Arthur is bored and curious and too smart for his own damn good. It is a Tuesday when the boredom becomes too much and he is once more sneaking into his father’s office.
The 34S PASIV is sitting there, nice and tight and shiny in its case. Arthur likes the delicate jumble of wires and the bare bones display. He had done his research, when he first discovered it, but there was little enough to find out. He’s been making due with what he does know - about the IV and the button. It’s a dream maker, he reasons, and the woman from last time must have been his subconscious telling him he was being stupid.
It had been risky, the last time. After all, there is no way to reasonably explain the presence of the 34S in his bedroom. Better to go somewhere neutral all together, where he won’t be easily discovered. With great care he carts it up into the attic and sets up camp in the far corner, beneath the dusty window and in a warren of boxes. It’s not ideal, but his mom only comes up here at Christmas time, to haul down the boxes full of ornaments and decorations. It is the safest place to be in the house.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur pushes the button once more. Instantly, he is plunged into a busycity street. “Watch yourself,” some one says behind him, shoving him out of the way as he blunders past. Arthur stares around himself in wonder. The sky is lit up with neon and cars race past in a dizzying blur.
“Excuse me,” a girl stumbles past him, on the arm of a much smaller man, “Tourists are so boring these days. Heathens.”
‘Tourist?’ Arthur thinks, and shifts off of the sidewalk. He walks cautiously, keeping his head down, observing everyone around him. The people here are different than the people he sees everyday but he can’t quite put his finger on how. He follows a few of them, for a bit, just because he can, but the explanation is evading his grasp.
He wanders for hours, through the strange city, cataloguing everything that he can. This is his third time dreaming, and no one dream has been the same. There has to be a reason for it, and it bothers him that there is no easy answer. No matter how much he thinks about it, the beautiful lake will not appear. He does find a lake, eventually, but it is more like a swamp than anything else and there are things on the edges that he doesn’t want to look at too closely.
This time, no one forces him out of the dream and he wakes, naturally, to his mother calling his name. They are home early, from whatever dinner date they had, and Arthur’s heart nearly stutters to a halt.
“Why were you in the attic?” She asks him when he climbs down and brushes the cobwebs from his hair, “I was calling you for fifteen minutes.” Arthur makes excuses and distracts her by unloading the dishwasher without being asked, his mind still firmly in the attic. He is anxious; the 34S is still upstairs and he needs to get it back to his father’s locked office before he realizes it is missing.
That night, long after his parents are in bed he returns it to its hiding place. He spent three long hours after dinner detailing the dream. Parts of it are still vivid in his mind and he reads through what he has written again before he finally falls into uneasy sleep.
Two days later, Arthur goes out and buys a matching case. He spends a day with sandpaper and a file, weathering it until it nearly matches the case containing the PASIV Prototype. Now when he borrows the machine, at least the dummy case will still be there. He weighs it down with a half of a brick wrapped in a towel and gives it a different combination in the hopes that it will slow his father down a little.
And then he waits. It is nearly a month later before both of his parents are going out again. Arthur nods at his mom, exasperated as she goes over the rules for the fortieth time. Yes mom, he knows that he can’t have more than one friend over. No, he will not stay on the computer for all hours and yes, he promises to eat a good dinner. His heart beats quickly, in excitement, at the world he will uncover this time.
It is not long before he is tucked in the attic again, nestled down in his now favorite hiding spot. His father has been using the machine, he thinks, because some of the wires have been shifted and there is a whole new bottle of Formula 62. Looking closer he can see that the 62 has been crossed off and rewritten 63.
Taking a deep breath and hoping that he isn’t making a big mistake, Arthur plugs in and falls down. This time the drop is both quicker and slower than before. Sound filters in before he can see anything, starting slow and sticky like a record just starting up. His vision returns just as the sound hits him at full volume and Arthur realizes that he’s been dropped into a war zone.
“What the fuck?” A smooth voice rolls over him but the person who spoke is in shadow above him. “Come on darling, up you go.”
Arthur is pulled roughly to his feet by an attractive man in a military uniform. Arthur realizes, in the back of his mind, that he too is in uniform. It’s eerily similar to his father’s, the one that hangs on the door of his closet.
The man is attractive, a little older than Arthur, but not by much, pretty eyes in a pretty face and a mouth that makes Arthur’s feel more than a little dry. He is staring but he really can’t help it. The man is the first person in any of the dreams to actively interact with him.
The thought barely processes before the other man is tugging him away, out of the line of fire and towards a camp tent.
“Who are you?” Arthur asks, for the lack of anything better to say. He’s kind of enjoying the grip on his wrist, truth be told, and it’s looking like this dream is going to be as interesting as the last one.
“I’m Eames,” the man says, “And I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but thisis my job and if you fuck it up...” The threat is left unsaid but Arthur gets the gist of it.
“What job?” Arthur is smart, not eloquent, and he’s kind of confused right now.
“Ramsey keeps getting ‘em younger and younger, huh. Did he offer you the usual or are you only making twenty percent?”
“Look,” Arthur says, shaking the man off. He’s less impressed with finally getting to interact with other people, if this is what he gets. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The man snorts. It is as inelegant in this dream world as it is in reality. “I’m sure. What’s your name, kitten, so I can know who to hunt down later.”
“Kitten? Are you serious?” Arthur is about to ridicule the man’s poor taste in nicknames, except the world lights up like New Year’s Eve and all he hears is “fuck” before the world goes dark.
His own world is dark when he opens his eyes. He just stays on the floor, staring at the ceiling and the hint of moon visible through the window. There is no rush of panic like there was when the woman shot him, just a slight unsettled feeling, like he’s missed something important.
He takes careful notes, once he’s back in his own room, filling up page after page in his notebook. This dream takes up five more pages than any dream previous. Arthur forces himself to write neatly but uses every abbreviation he can think of. He’s begun keeping a running list of words he’s shortened, but he’s getting better and better about remembering them.
For four nights in a row he sleeps without the machine but dreams about the war all the same. It’s not quite right, he realizes in the morning after the first dream, but there are details that stick out. The man, for one, is always there though he never looks the same. Regardless, Arthur knows that it is him.
The real dreams frustrate Arthur and the next time he steals the 34S he tries to recreate the experience wholly. The vial still says Formula 63 and he starts at exactly the same time. He is patient, through the blindness and the sound warp and this time, when he opens his eyes, he’s in a bar, tucked into a booth. Across from him sits the woman with dark hair and dark eyes and Arthur is raising his hands in front of his face before he can help it.
“Oh,” she says, her accent lilting and vaguely French, “It’s you. We wondered when you’d be back.”
“What?” he says.
“You are Arthur, are you not? I’m terribly sorry about shooting you, but you really need to introduce yourself properly.”
“How do you know my name?” Arthur has a sinking suspicion, one that is confirmed the instant he is scooted along the bench by a warm, male body.
“I guess you were telling the truth, about Ramsey.” The man, Eames, says, “Can’t blame me though, love, we’ve gotta be careful in this business.” He winks at Arthur like they are sharing an inside joke and Arthur can feel the way the blush makes his face heat.
The woman just laughs at him. “So, Arthur, tells us about yourself.” She is sipping a violently purple drink that bubbles slightly and there is something about her that makes the hair on the back of Arthur’s neck stand on end.
“Be nice, Mal,” Eames says, patting Arthur’s arm, “He’s young.”
“I’m fine,” Arthur says, shaking Eames off. He doesn’t move away, however, comforted by the solid warmth of Eames’ thigh against his own. “And I’m not that young.”
“If you say so, Arthur.” Eames smile is condescending but Arthur just smiles back, showing all of his teeth.
“I do say so, Mr. Eames.”
“Enough, boys,” Mal swishes her drink at them, “I want to hear Arthur’s tale. You will tell me, and then I will decide.”
“There is nothing to tell,” Arthur says, unwilling to give away anything, “I’m just dreaming.”
“We are all just dreaming, Arthur,” Mal says, rolling her eyes, “I want to know how you are here.”
“I’m here because this is where I ended up.” There is a button involved, Arthur thinks, and Formula 63, but that is none of your business.
Mal clucks her tongue. “How disappointing.”
“Sorry about this, darling,” Eames says. He presses his mouth against Arthur’s and the damp heat of it is startling. Arthur catches a hint of something that tastes like licorice right before he feels the cool barrel of a gun against his forehead. “Better luck next time.”
Arthur startles awake, his heart thundering in his chest, the faintest taste of black licorice on his lips. He drags air into his lungs and stumbles to his feet, pressing his face against the cool glass of the window until he can forget the pressure of the gun against his temple. It’s night still but the edges of the horizon are beginning to lighten.
He creeps downstairs, feet quiet on the old pull down ladder but it is of no use. His mother is sitting on the edge of his bed, eyes red and a half gnarled tissue in her hand.
“Oh, Arthur,” she says, “We thought something terrible happened to you.”
‘Something did,’ he thinks, but keeps it to himself. He makes up a lie about liking the attic for thinking and how he didn’t mean to fall asleep. The 34S is still up there, wedged behind a box and he is glad that he didn’t carry it down. It’s one less awkward explanation to make. It feels like he writes about this dream forever and when he’s done, nearly twenty pages later, he feels wrung out and dry.
High school is finally done and the summer stretches out before Arthur like a desert. Ahead of him stretch the long years of his life and Arthur is nothing but bored. It has been too risky, to lift the 34S from his dad’s office again, and Arthur watches him leave with it two weeks in a row. From what little is said, Arthur gathers that things aren’t going well. It’s all couched in military speak and acronyms but Arthur has learned to listen and observe.
He reads through his notebook obsessively, looking for clues and links to Eames. To Mal.
The next time he is able to dream, he takes it, even though the two hours his parents will be gone may not be enough. Formula 63 is gone, replaced by Formula 66. He uses the bare minimum that he can and before he knows it, he is plunged into a world unlike any other he’s traveled.
This one is a desert, one long plane of sand that just goes on and on and on. The heat is intense, the sun a great blinding ball in the sky and Arthur is surprised to find that he dies very quickly, in those conditions. Just before he goes, half curled in upon himself, he feels the barest hint of a hand on his back.
“I’m sorry, darling,” a voice says, “It’s the only way to learn.”
He wakes with Eames’ name on his tongue and he spends the next few days expecting to see the man out of the corner of his eye. It is a disconcerting feeling, and for the first time, Arthur is beginning to wonder what he has gotten himself into. He doesn’t seek out the 34S again.
It is not until two weeks before he’s set to leave for college that Arthur finally gives in again. He and his mom have gotten everything for his dorm room and his dad has given him innumerable lectures on everything from studying to sex to healthy eating. This is the last thing, he thinks, that I have to do before I leave.
Once more he carts it all upstairs and settles in for the dream.
This time he back at the beginning, standing by the beautiful icy blue lake with the fields and the flowers and the sheep rising up around him. It is nearly perfect except that there are two men, sitting on the shore and staring out across the water. One of them Arthur recognizes as himself. The other is Eames, dressed in faded khaki and a dark blue button up.
“Fancy meeting you here.” Eames pats the Arthur on the shore on the head before turning to face the real Arthur.
“What are you doing here, Eames?”
“Mal is a little harsh,” he says, “And a little short sighted. She loves to wax poetic about the dreaming but in reality…” he shrugs. “Well, that’s the problem isn’t it.”
Arthur is trying to understand what Eames is saying but he’s a little creeped out by his doppelganger on the shore. He is most certainly Arthur, but not at the same time. It’s as though someone took the idea of Arthur, and turned that into a person.
“Don’t worry about him,” Eames says, “He’s just an image, like when you stare at a light too long. He’ll fade eventually.”
Eames grasps Arthur’s hand, curling their fingers together as he pulls him farther along the shoreline. The sand crunches beneath their feet as they walk and though they seem to make progress, the other him is exactly the same distance away.
“It’s an illusion,” Eames says eventually, “It’s all about intent.” It’s a hint but it’s one that Arthur grasps and just like that, the perspective pops into place. They are suddenly a lot farther from the other Arthur.
“See, you’re getting it.”
They stop walking, eventually, though Arthur couldn’t say how much time has passed. The lake seems to be immeasurably huge at this point and the sun has not shifted from it’s spot in the sky. Eames tugs him out onto a large rock that juts out into the lake like the prow of a ship. The lie back, separate but close enough to touch, and the rock warms Arthur’s back. Eames’ hand is still curled in Arthur’s and while Arthur isn’t quite sure what’s going on, he finds he doesn’t mind it at all. He drifts, drowsy and seemingly weightless, letting his mind go where it will
When he opens his eyes again, he’s definitely closer to the sun. ‘If I don’t think about it,’ he thinks, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Turning, he looks at Eames, who looks far younger in this light than he did in that first dream.
“How old are you?” He asks, curious.
“As old as the sun,” Eames says, “As young as the moon.”
“Huh,” Arthur says, because what else is there to say. “How old does that make me?”
Eames turns his head and looks at Arthur, the slightest smile gracing his mouth. “You are as old as the oak and as young as the acorn.”
Arthur rolls his eyes and Eames laughs at him then and they trade riddles, back and forth, until the sun and the warmth compel them once more into comfortable silence.
It is a long time later, though the sun is still hanging bright in the sky, before Arthur speaks again. “My father says that the machine doesn’t work. That no one dreams any dreams but their own.”
Eames, who has been idly playing with Arthur’s fingers, looks over. “Of course it doesn’t. You need more than the machine to make it work.” With a heartfelt sigh, Eames tugs Arthur up and off the rock. “Of course you would go and ruin a lovely afternoon, by being all logical.” His grumbles are amused, however as they make their way back down the shore towards the shape that sits by the water. Only this time, instead of another Arthur, Mal sits there, peeling an apple.
“You boys waste too much time,” she finishes peeling it with a flourish and then flings her curlicue of peel into the lake. Arthur watches, astonished, as the water darkens and a small hand reaches up to pull it under. He remembers that, from another dream. “You are too slow,” she points the knife at Arthur, pulling him away from his thoughts. “And you are too enamored. I am done wasting my time.”
Standing, Mal tosses the whole apple into the lake. In a flash, the world shifts and they are once more standing on the busy city street. Mal hustles them along, poking Eames once in the back with her knife when he doesn’t move fast enough.
“Watch it, old bird,” he says to her but his voice is fond.
Arthur recognizes the bar right off the bat but it is not until they are inside, drinks in hand, that he asks his question.
“Is this your dream?”
Mal laughs and shakes her head. Eames, to his right, sighs. He is leaning in to kiss Arthur but Arthur already knows how that tale goes and he’s not ready to bow out quite yet.
“Of course it is,” he says, an idea forming. “It is also Eames’ dream, and my dream too. A collective dream.”
Eames squeezes his hand and Arthur bites back a smile.
“The student learns,” Mal sounds waspish but she is no longer sipping her fizzy purple drink. “Tell me more.”
Arthur is careful. He remembers his notebook, filled from front to back with everything he had ever seen. Only six dreams before this one, and yet there is so much information there that he saw without really seeing. He remembers the rock, the shift of it against gravity, and he understands. Pulling his hand from the warmth of Eames, he removes his notebook from his jacket.
Mal pouts, but Eames is grinning like a buffoon. “Who is slow?” He asks her.
“The machine is just that, a tool.” Arthur is flipping through the notebook, thinking. “It can do nothing more than give the dreamer vivid dreams.”
“It heightens the experience,” Eames cuts in, though he shuts his mouth again when Mal shoots him a murderous look.
Arthur thinks back to the first dream and he can see how it overlays the second. Each dream is stacked upon the other and, just like the perspective shift at the lakeshore, it all slots into place.
“This dream is every dream and it is filled with every dreamer.” Arthur thinks about his friend Joey, imagines his walk and the sound of his voice and suddenly he is there. The dream shifts slightly with his appearance and the bar looks more like a basement than anything else.
“Flashy,” Mal says, “But do you know what it means.”
“If you can find the dreamer, you can find the dream.” It is so clear to him now, each piece of the puzzle slotting together so perfectly that Arthur cannot imagine how he couldn’t see it before.
“Bravo, Arthur.” Mal says. Eames leans in a presses a kiss to his temple, to the spot where he had once pressed his gun. “That is not the whole of it, but it is the beginning. There is so much more for you to learn but it’ll keep, for now.”
Mal leaves them eventually, fades away slowly until there is nothing left. Arthur has been sitting in a trance, watching the world around them. Now that he knows, he can see the seams in the dream, see the points where one catches on the edges of another.
“Why do you feel so familiar?” He asks Eames suddenly, “Have you been in my dreams?”
Eames smiles, guileless, “Of course, darling, there was no way I could just let a handsome man like you vanish on me.”
“That’s stalking, you know.” Arthur grumbles but he doesn’t mind really. Eames fingers are twined once more with his and Arthur has a sudden, clear vision of the future. Of walking through dreams with Eames and with Mal. “What’s next? Mal said that knowing this was only the beginning.”
“Come.” Eames pulls him to his feet and they walk, winding through the city streets until they are in a park. The trees arch above them with branches that look too heavy to be held aloft. It feels like an old place, hums with something that makes Arthur’s chest ache.
Eames turns Arthur’s hand over and writes on his palm. “Go to this place. There is a man there named Dominic Cobb. He is Mal’s partner and a dreamer as well. He will teach you, Mal will make sure of it.”
“Can’t I just dream? Just like I have been?” Arthur closes his fist around the ink. It feels branded into his skin.
“You’ve gotten this far because of Mal. And because of me. Because we can see you for what you are. Not everyone can walk through dreams, even with the machine. Fewer still can understand it.” Eames squeezes Arthur’s clenched fist, “We’ve helped you as far as we can, the rest you must figure out on your own.”
The bells begin to toll and Eames is slowly fading, the same as Mal. Leaning forward, he presses his forehead against Arthur’s. “We will meet again soon, darling. Chin up and study hard.”
As the last bell tolls, Arthur opens his eyes. Above him the attic roof slants away, it’s cobwebs making lacy patterns against the wood. Arthur shifts where he lays, feels different in some inexplicable way, like his bones have shifted without his permission.
His right hand is clenched tightly and he uncurls it slowly. Across his palm he reads the words, ‘Prf Dom Cobb, New Albany College’.
With a sigh, he shuts his eyes and stretches, feels the new world stretch around him. The bone deep desire he had held for the 34S PASIV Prototype is fading, replaced now with something far more substantial. He does not need his father’s toy any more. He packs it carefully, winds each bit of tubing back where it needs to go. Tomorrow, he will return it to its resting place for the last time. Tomorrow, he will tell his parents he’s changed his mind, that he’s going to enroll at New Albany College. Tomorrow stretches out before him, bright with the challenges and intrigues of a whole new world. But all those are thoughts better left for tomorrow.
Tonight, he will dream.