Eames stubbed the cigarette out with the toe of his shoe and dug his hands into his jacket pockets until his elbows locked and the material sagged. The sun was setting, making his shadow stretch out in front of him like elastic.
Arthur pulled up in a black ’97 Chevy Cavalier—not the car Eames had seen him in earlier in the day. It looked like the sort of car someone would sell for a couple hundred dollars on a street corner with a scribbled “For Sale” sign taped into the inside window with masking tape. That, or a car Arthur liberated when he got Eames’s text. It could go either way with Arthur.
“What’s so urgent—“ Arthur asked, slamming the door unnecessarily loudly behind him.
“I need an in,” Eames said, nodding towards the Weisman Art Museum. “And that’s a black tie gala in there.”
“I hardly see what you need me for,” Arthur sniffed.
“Come on, pet, I can hardly wander in there without a date,” Eames said, digging into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes.
“I’m going to try to guess your logic,” Arthur announced. “I bet you think—and rightly so—that there’s no way you can slip around unnoticed when you’re dressed like someone’s mad uncle. But, with a sharply dressed young someone on your arm, you’ll just come off as eccentrically unkempt instead of homeless?” He stole the pack out of Eames’s hands. “You could have told me to wear my tux.”
Eames raised an eyebrow. “You dress like you’re walking a red carpet every day,” he pointed out. Arthur was proving his point, lounging against the hood of his piece of shit car in some Italian wool suit complete with tie clip and pocket square. Eames knew for a fact that nothing but research had been on Arthur’s docket that day—nothing but sifting through paperwork and compiling finances. Yet, there he was, pressed and perfect.
Eames held out the lighter, his hand cupped around the tiny flame.
Arthur huffed, something like a laugh and exasperation mixed together, and leaned in to light his cigarette.
“I’m thinking I’ll be the charmingly eccentric lordling experimenting with rural Americanness and you can—“ Eames said, taking a puff of his own cigarette after Arthur had leaned away again.
Arthur blew out a puff of smoke, irritated. “I don’t need training wheels, Mr. Eames,” he said. It would have sounded petulant, probably, from anyone else. “It’s not my first time out of the gate.”
“You’re saying you can keep up, no matter what yarn I spin?” Eames asked.
“Don’t mix metaphors.”
“I’m just clarifying.”
Arthur pulled another long drag from the cigarette, his cheeks caving inwards dramatically. Of course he would smoke like there was a prize for getting to the stub first, Eames thought.
“I dare you to try,” Arthur said, finally. Tendrils of smoke curled around the corners of his mouth.
And that was how they ended up playing their game.
Eames introduced him as “Eduardo” and dropped a couple of salacious hints to a grande-dame type wearing an enormous feather hat that Arthur was the pool boy. She smiled knowingly over a glass of champagne.
She whispered something in Arthur’s ear later—Eames saw it from across the room—and Arthur…he immediately looked like the pool boy, dressed in a fancy suit and trotted around a formal gala, would look like: equal parts embarrassed and thrilled.
Eames looked away, trying to find something else to look at besides the way the blush—the blush, honestly, an actual fucking blush—was spreading across Arthur’s dimpled cheeks.
The rules were murky. Eames only found them by pushing, watching to see what was too far and what Arthur accepted unhesitatingly.
Arthur had never wavered in telling Eames when he went too far, not in all the years they’d worked together. On their very first job together, he’d put a machete into Eames’s ear in the dream and called it a warning shot when Eames protested back in the real world. There had never been, in Eames’s whole life, anyone else who was so clear when they set boundaries. This, yes, he always seemed to be saying, but don’t you dare go past this.
That was why it was so surprising, at the beginning of the game, that Arthur wasn’t making walls. No more lines in the sand, no more “abandon hope, all ye who pass this point” signs. Eames jumped hurdles before he even realized he was jumping into vacuum, not Arthur’s carefully scheduled plans.
So the rules were murky.
“I’m ever so sorry, haven’t I introduced you to my friend yet?” Eames asked, catching Arthur’s arm as he passed. The young woman Eames had been talking to—Margaret—held out a hand in that daintily aristocratic angle that demands, absurdly, a kiss to the hand instead of a handshake.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” she said, letting her the lift in her voice at the end of the sentence ask for a name instead of anything so gauche as a direct question.
“This is my husband, Frederick,” Eames said. “He’s a ballroom dance instructor.”
Arthur didn’t even blink. He took the proffered hand and kissed it with easy grace.
“How fascinating,” Margaret said, her eyes lighting up. “I’ve been studying with—“ a French name Eames didn’t recognize but Arthur nodded to knowingly “—ever so long. Oh—and there’s a waltz starting!”
There were strains of a Viennese waltz starting unmistakably and Eames felt a twinge of guilt for dumping Arthur so unceremoniously in it.
“If my husband doesn’t mind, would you care for this dance?” Arthur asked politely, confidently.
Eames gaped. There’s no way Arthur knew a Viennese waltz. There just wasn’t any chance of it. What sort of person just casually knows a proper Viennese waltz?
“You don’t mind do you?” Margaret asked Eames, already pulling Arthur away. As she twirled away, Eames could just hear her say, “My teacher says I’m making fantastic progress with my waltzing…”
And that would be it, surely? Surely, there was no way Arthur could keep up the façade and Eames could have kicked himself for going too far, for letting a perfectly good opportunity to observe Margaret’s father (the mark) go to waste simply because he couldn’t stop himself from raising the bar on Arthur.
But that’s not how things went. Eames should have known by this point that Arthur liked pulling the rug out from under him almost as much as Eames enjoyed the reverse. Margaret and Arthur were glorious on the dance floor; the kind of couple that everyone clears out for even if they don’t see them right away. Margaret just had all the lines for ballroom, all curves and arches and uncompromising grace. And Arthur kept lifting her in these dainty movements, in between the most intricate footwork Eames had ever seen. They spun around and around, somehow twisting around without breaking their clasped hands and then—so quickly and effortlessly—Arthur hooked his arms around Margaret’s back and she—how did she know what he going to do that, that’s what Eames wanted to know—pressed her hands into his hips and she was off the ground, hovering, spinning, and Arthur didn’t stop the delicate series of steps. Not even for a second.
It was like they had timed it, as if they had met with notebooks and planners and decided a series of tricks, a rehearsal schedule, and the timing of every single motion. As Margaret slid back to the ground, the music slowed and stopped and she was left laughing into the crook of Arthur’s shoulder.
“Daddy!” she exclaimed, looking past Eames’s shoulder, “You simply must invite Frederick and his husband to dinner.”
Arthur didn’t smirk through the following conversation. Margaret’s father was famously misanthropic and nearly impossible to get to; the team had nearly despaired of finding him alone for the time they needed for the dream. And now one dance—one glorious, perfect dance—and they were being invited to his home.
This round indubitably went to Arthur.
“Oh, this is Edward, my brother. He’s in government work, it’s all very hush-hush,” Eames said.
“Is that so? What do you do exactly?” the man asked, turning to Arthur.
Arthur smiled his tiger smile, the one that had all his teeth and dimples but suddenly looked murderous. It was like a sheath of blinding white teeth hovered just in front of any potential amusement and said to you, You. I could eat you and I wouldn’t even spit out your bones. It was the smile that had once made a ragtag assortment of heavily armed yakuza thugs drop their guns at Arthur’s feet. It was also, coincidentally, the smile that first made that thing in Eames’s gut twist uncomfortably—it happened sometime between the machete to the ear and the heart-wrenching night when they’d gotten that call and Mal disappeared with enough finality to spin them all at least partway into madness.
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Arthur said happily.
“Charlotte, meet my first and only love: this is Chase,” Eames said.
“Pleased to meet you,” Arthur said.
“And what do you do?” Charlotte asked. Eames opened his mouth to answer for him—it was part of the game, after all—when Arthur beat him to the punch.
“The kids take up most of my time,” he lied easily. He turned to Eames and it was only the fact that he knew so many of Arthur’s tells that Eames could see laughter in the corners of his eyes. “And George keeps me in the best suits money can buy so, really, working would be a tedious waste of my time.”
Charlotte nodded absently, obviously uninterested and just phoning in polite conversation. “Isn’t that nice,” she said.
“I should say so,” Eames agreed. It wasn’t a picture he had ever painted for himself before but it rang true, right down through the tips of his toes.
“This is Sergei,” Eames said, holding onto Arthur’s elbow, “I’m afraid he doesn’t speak English, though.”
That time Arthur cracked for a fraction of a second, just long enough to glare at Eames behind the waiter’s head.
It was Eames who ended up frustrated and—somehow, again—losing because Arthur spoke fluent Russian. Fluent, beautiful Russian. He chatted with a linguist for most of the gala and the man asked Eames later if Arthur was secretly Russian nobility.
“What? No!” Eames said with just a tad too much force.
He could see the thought form in the man’s mind before he said it: “He’s not actually a street urchin you taught how to speak proper Russian, then?” He sounded entirely too hopeful.
“You read too much Shaw,” Eames said understandingly, patting the man’s shoulder companionably.
So the game continued, like the most inexorable game of chess Eames’s grandmother had ever made him sit through when he was a child. Chess, at least, had the added bonus of having a goal: this game with Arthur had nothing, no signposts, no goals, no final tally. Just move after move, piece after piece, and nothing changed.
And none of it was ever real.
Eames started to fill notebooks with characters. He made up names for them (“Bobby Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury and Sir Evelyn Gascoyne-Cecil” for when he’s feeling romantic, “Doug and Phillip Smith” when he’s feeling staid) and whole hosts of lives.
It was almost like forging. With forging, he had to change into someone else through-and-through—believe he wasn’t who he was, that he didn’t like what he liked, that he didn’t think what he thought. And there always had to be the other, the real, to come back to afterward. There were two clear sides: the fantasy and the real, never the twain shall meet.
But this game with Arthur meant, for the first time, the walls Eames was pushing against had dwindled down to this simple one. Fantasy and real and had never seemed so dangerously close before.
It made him wonder—had Arthur ever been the one setting the boundaries before the game began? Those set limits to everything, those hard-and-fast signposts beyond which he never imagined setting a toe—had Eames, perhaps, been the one who drew the lines in the sand, who told himself: this far, no further?
There was no job. There was no job so there was no excuse to call Arthur, nothing to compel Arthur to leave wherever he was (Dublin, at the library in Trinity College—Eames knew better than to attempt pretense in his own thoughts, he always knew exactly where Arthur was) and be here instead. Nothing to compel, nothing to convince, no way to incite activity. An object at rest, after all.
Why Arthur was in Ireland and Eames was in a two-story brewpub in New Haven, Connecticut was a trick of fate that Eames didn’t want to examine too closely. He’d spent too many days scribbling nihilism into the margins of poetry in his university days (he liked to think of it as an extended exorcism—nihilism exiting his thoughts via his fingertips) to be willing to move the two steps backwards into the dark spiral of thoughts such a train would lead him on. Arthur—beautiful Arthur—deserved, in some universe-indebted way, the Long Room to echo his sharp Italian loafers through. And Eames, in his moodiness, in the leftover tracks of all the Nietzsche he had loved, sort of felt he deserved the greasy pizza and the tankard of too-pale ale. Because beauty begets beauty and Arthur begets—he begets something.
And, yes, there was an empty tankard or two as testament to the hours Eames had poured into his moodiness and it was a well-worn track, the alcohol sending him fizzing down the familiar grooves.
Forgers, he had decided (at tankard #1), have to come with a built in sense of their own inferiority. Or at least with the kind of mind that would scream into the tempest, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Because they existed in a world of dreamers, yes, but dreamers who clutch at identity, that hang the albatross of their sorry selves around their necks, that ward off the blurring with their totems of selfhood. Forgers—they dreamed differently. They dreamed in emptinesses where everyone else erected false idols of substance; they were the blind eyes that could blaze like meteors and be gay.
Dylan Thomas would have been a forger, Eames had concluded (at tankard #2). Heidegger too.
But of course the forgers were raging against the dying of the light—the futile battle that they were predetermined to lose because they had lost, they had all lost long ago. Self was the myth; the dreams tore away the mythology. Forgers had to stare that truth in the face and hope to God it blinked first.
Forgers have to madmen, he posited (at tankard #3). And Point Men—they can just be beautiful in their crepe suits and slick-back hair because the world arranges itself for beauty for them. Nothing exists outside the bounds of lists of details and everything, eventually, winds itself into their control.
“Plotinus would have been a Point Man,” Eames told the bloke next to him (at tankard #4). “If the beautiful is the divine made physical to you, you aren’t staring emptiness in the face, see?”
“Oh my god, could you be any more of a cliché?” said a voice at Eames’s side and, impossibly, the voice belonged to Arthur. “Drunken existentialism? I bet you have Dylan Thomas memorized and were planning on ending the night weeping ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ into your beer.”
“You’re the cliché,” Eames pointed out (which was true, but he didn’t bother drawing the connection between the “pointing” and the “Point Man” because, bah, linguistics). Whoever the guy next to him was—the one he had an arm slung around—snorted.
“Sorry, he likes to relive his college days,” Arthur said to the guy and expertly maneuvered Eames’s arm off of the stranger’s shoulders and onto his own.
“I know the type,” the guy agreed.
Wait, wait, wait. Was this the game again? (Should he be referring to it with a capital letter, like a red letter moment—should the typography of his imagination be noting the game/Game for posterity? for luck?) Eames let his head sink into the crook of Arthur’s neck.
“My thoughts feel heavy,” he informed Arthur.
Arthur pressed a kiss onto his temple—ah, this must be the Game, Eames thought—and Eames could feel the curl of his smile.
“What’s my name?” Arthur asked. It sounded like a test—a how-drunk-are-you-really benchmark—to the other guy but it wasn’t. It was another round. It was a dare.
The guy laughed good-naturedly as Eames pulled back, out of the warmth of the dip in Arthur’s bony shoulder. He put a hand just under Arthur’s jaw, holding the line of sight in place and not blinking into Arthur’s steady gaze.
Eames made the rules of the game, he realized. He’d made the boundaries even before that—Arthur had the sharp lines but Eames set demarcations around himself. Arthur had already shown him how far he could stretch into the other—he could be anyone, really, and he’d still be himself. It wasn’t that Eames had more space in who he could be—it was that Arthur was more sure of who he was when he moved into the falsehood. Or was it?
Arthur didn’t blink, didn’t say anything with his eyes. He just waited.
“You’re my Arthur,” Eames said and liked the words when he said them. Stepping into that identity was easy. It was just the foothold he hadn't seen before. But it was still easy.
For the first time since they’d started their game, Arthur faltered. “Am I?” he asked, still waiting.
Too much thinking, too little doing; that was the real problem, Eames decided. He leaned in and kissed Arthur—Arthur, no one else, just Arthur, all Arthur—as solidly as he was able.