Passing stranger! You do not know how longing I look upon you
Arthur keeps expecting Eames to be there. He doesn’t know why.
(He knows why.)
New York. Johannesburg. Dublin. Mexico City. Paris, over and over again.
Arthur lingers in airports, now, however unsafe it may be. He checks carry-on luggage, then watches the undersized bag go around and around on the baggage carousel, until the bags from the next flight come tumbling down (5 a.m. to midnight) or the airport employees begin wondering if they should remove the seemingly unwanted item (past midnight).
He watches the passengers, cataloguing them, waiting and waiting and waiting for one of them to—finally—melt into Eames.
Even though this is reality, and Eames can’t become just anyone.
Because Eames is—well.
Eames is still somewhere where Eames can become just anyone.
It’s stupid. And foolish. And pathetic.
But Arthur lingers all the same, hand on the die in his pocket, staring at the arrivals board, as if, right under DTW, it might say, “EAMES: just arrived.”
The board doesn’t say that, of course, and when Arthur grows tired of hovering and delaying and that god-awful anticipation of a “darling” that never comes, he leaves.
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking
Arthur tries to go on jobs without Eames.
He does the research and completes the mission and gets paid exorbitant sums of money and never goes back to hotels and fucks the forger (because the forger is never Eames), and it’s awful.
The teams aren’t awful, of course. Arthur’s been in dreamsharing too long to accidentally work with shitty teams, and he’s too good to be forced to lower his standards.
They get the jobs done, but Arthur always feels like they’re running on slightly different clocks, like he’s a half-second ahead or a half-second behind, and he keeps turning to empty air and waiting for Eames to contradict him and tweak his plan, only Eames isn’t there and no one questions Arthur, and this all leads to—not close calls, exactly, but close-ish calls.
Arthur keeps accidentally skipping steps in his explanations, leaving out the minutiae of what he expects the others to do, because he’s become so damn used to Eames just knowing.
Eames, already there, with a pen or a cup of coffee. Eames, kicking at his chair.
Eames, letting Arthur slip the IV in, his eyes laughing, trusting.
Arthur didn’t have many friends growing up. Or at least, not very close friends. Not best friends. With everything else going on, finding the person who would be his Millennium Falcon co-pilot didn’t seem to be a priority.
At the beginning, it had seemed like Eames was more likely to fight him over the Empire—over the mission, the chair, the last piece of cake in the shitty barracks canteen—but the part that mattered was that they didn’t stop fighting over these things. They didn’t give up on each other.
Which meant, yes, sometimes, Eames gave him the chair by the window and the last piece of cake.
Which meant that when Arthur was ready to get out, Eames was, too.
(it comes to me, as of a dream,)
Arthur wakes up.
He wakes up, and checks his totem, and it’s still fucking reality.
Since—since everything—since the thing that mattered most—since… Well. Since, he’s started dreaming naturally again, which is irony at its finest.
Arthur never finished his first year of college, so don’t ask him to differentiate between irony and paradox and oxymoron and basic unluckiness.
(He knows the fucking definition of “irony.” This is not “irony.” This is sadism. This is Arthur being the worst creature in the entire universe in each of ten thousand past lives and karma being a bitch.)
He wouldn’t mind the dreams if they were just about him sleeping past his alarm or getting lost on the way to the grocery store.
He wouldn’t mind the dreams, maybe, if they were about him and Eames getting lost on the way to the grocery store.
The thing is, Arthur has a fantastic memory. He has a marvelous eye for detail.
(Mal told him so, back in his short-lived Parisian university days, when she and Dom had promised that their dreamsharing would help him deal with the demons the Army program had left in his brain.)
Arthur dreams Eames.
Not just any Eames, dropped into the San Francisco apartment he’s never been to or the post office he’s never walked past, but Arthur’s Eames.
Arthur’s Eames, the first time Eames tapped him on the shoulder by baggage claim and asked if he had anywhere specific in mind.
Arthur’s Eames, in the flat in Manchester that wasn’t theirs—except it was.
Arthur’s Eames, when they nearly froze to death in a warehouse in Sweden, only they didn’t, and the Northern Lights put on a show just for them, congratulations, you crazy bastards, the universe was rooting for you two.
Arthur doesn’t feel that way about the universe anymore.
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you
“Fucking insane,” Arthur panted as they stumbled into the hotel room.
“I’m sorry, darling, I can’t hear you over the sound of the very illegal gun you promised me you’d left in Sarajevo,” Eames said.
“Are you complaining?”
“It was a very nice car,” said Eames.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Then you shouldn’t have brought it along for a job in which you knew there was a distinct possibility of a car chase. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“And Ariadne was worried the romance had gone out of our relationship.”
“Huh,” said Arthur, reaching up with one hand to undo his tie. “And how are we feeling about that?” He let the tie drop to the ground. “No spark?”
“If we were dreaming, there’d be fireworks,” said Eames, winking.
Arthur made a face.
Eames laughed and almost casually backed him up against the door.
“How are we feeling about this?” Eames asked.
Arthur pulled him into a kiss.
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured
“Arthur,” Dom called from across the warehouse. “Come meet our new forger.”
Arthur turned away from his files and—Eames was right there.
He and Eames had left (fled, escaped, deserted) the Army together, but they hadn’t stayed together. That had never been a question. They had shaken hands at the airport, like they hadn’t fucked in a hundred dreams and a dozen storage closets besides. Arthur had driven them to the airport, and his hands had been trembling on the wheel the whole ride, trembling from adrenaline and fear and exhaustion and hope. When his hand had touched Eames’s, though, it had stopped quivering. It was like the whole world had settled.
But now Eames was there again, and this Eames was a little bulkier, his hair a little longer, with new tattoos peeking out from beneath the open top buttons of a truly horrific shirt.
“Hello,” Eames purred.
“Hello,” said Arthur. “Mombasa, was it?”
“And Montpelier, then Paris for university, for you,” Eames replied without missing a beat.
Dom looked between them. “Do you two know each other?”
Eames’s left hand stiffened, just a fraction, and it was such a small movement that Arthur almost missed it, would have missed it, except he’d watched Eames learn to forge, watched him slowly rid himself of tics, and knew the ones he hadn’t completely lost.
“Yes,” said Arthur, and it was worth it, just to watch Eames’s fingers relax.
“You haven’t worked any jobs without me,” said Dom.
“I haven’t,” Arthur agreed.
“So Eames is…”
“I predate you,” said Eames.
“Huh,” said Dom.
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me
They sat on opposite sides of the conference table, because their commanders had decided that the American and British team members couldn’t possibly intermix during debriefs, never mind that they were an officially bi-national, integrated unit.
Arthur was careful not to look at Eames during these meetings.
He listened as the commander scolded them for the way the dream had collapsed, six times in a row, as if Arthur hadn’t told him after the second try exactly what was wrong with the new compound they were using.
He listened as the others detailed their deaths from the afternoon runs, when they’d managed to last long enough for projections to rip them apart.
Arthur turned to the head of the table. “I shot myself in the head once it became clear that the projections had us surrounded, sir.”
He’d managed to keep his voice steady. He was proud of that.
“This wasn’t a combat simulation, Private,” said his commander, frowning. “Why did you have a gun?”
“I gave myself one, sir,” said Arthur. “Right before the projections came in.”
“No, you didn’t,” interjected one of the other Americans.
“Excuse me?” said Arthur.
“You were right next to me. You got ripped apart like the rest of us.”
“No,” said Arthur. There had definitely been a gun. Hadn’t there? He’d dreamed up the gun, held it in his palm—what was he even thinking, he had dreamed up the gun—but he would remember if the projections had killed him, he’d always remembered every other time.
“That was me,” said Eames, and, oh, that explained it. (Later, Arthur was going to kill Eames for letting the projections get him. Well, maybe not kill. Something more along the lines of a very drawn out petite mort.)
“No, it was Levi,” the American insisted. “You don’t exactly look alike.”
“In a dream, we can,” said Eames.
Arthur kept his eyes focused on his belligerent compatriot.
“Explain,” snapped the commander.
“We can change everything else about a dream—our surroundings, our possessions. I figured, what if we could change our appearance?” said Eames.
The others’ eyes widened.
“And can you?” asked the commander.
“I can,” said Eames.
“And you picked Levi?” sniggered the Brit to Eames’s left.
“Got a prettier face than your ugly mug, hasn’t he?” Eames said lightly.
“Enough,” said the commander. “You’ll demonstrate to us all tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” said Eames.
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only, nor left my body mine only
They snuck into cities a few days before a job started, when they let themselves work together. They didn’t always, of course, they couldn’t always, but when they did—well, Arthur could never say that when he and Eames worked together, he remembered why he’d gotten into dreamsharing in the first place, because that had never been his choice, but he remembered why he’d come back, why he kept coming back.
They took those days—two, three, four, maybe five, if they were stationed in Paris or Hong Kong or New York—and learned the best take-out places within a six-block radius of headquarters. Arthur preferred Thai over Chinese; Eames preferred Vietnamese over both. They compromised.
They roamed the streets at odd hours, stopped in art galleries where Eames whispered in his ear which paintings he’d forge and which ones he’d steal, then fell into bed during all the times in between. There was never as much time for sex during jobs as Eames liked to think.
Eames argued with him about this frequently.
Sometimes, he won.
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return
The Army was a way out, and Arthur took it.
He’d expected the exhaustion and the yelling and the macho posturing of everyone else in his platoon.
He hadn’t expected dreamsharing.
He hadn’t expected Eames.
The U.S. Army was not, after all, the best place in which to have a sexuality crisis.
It wasn’t even so much of a crisis as, weirdly, having enough structure in his life to finally allow him to pay attention to things beyond the immediate chaos, which apparently included the idea that guys were hot and Arthur would maybe (definitely) like to have sex with one, at some point, albeit probably not when he could be kicked out of the Army for doing so.
The comical and awful thing about the dreamshare program was that everyone else was so bad at it, which meant that Arthur and Eames could get away with almost anything.
Mostly, this meant a lot of quickies in rooms no one else knew existed, and then Eames could walk away and pretend to be a harmless projection before returning to the group as himself, and when asked where he’d been, he could grouse about Somnacin effects and that would be that.
If Arthur were a more patriotic sort of person, he’d be seriously worried for the safety of the American populace.
But he wasn’t all that patriotic, so he kept creating secret nightclubs in the basements of respectable office buildings, and Eames teased him that, if he wasn’t careful, he’d pull all the projections. Eames thought it was hilarious that Arthur insisted they fuck in the loo, even though it’s a bloody dream, darling, they’re not real.
But we are, Arthur always wanted to say.
I am not to speak to you
Arthur had read, once, somewhere, that coma patients were more likely to wake up if you talked to them, so he sat next to Eames’s bed in a backroom in Yusuf’s stupid, horrid shop and talked almost nonstop for a week until Yusuf kicked him out.
“But, coma patients—” Arthur protested, for the hundredth time.
“He’s not in a coma,” said Yusuf. “He’s in Limbo.”
“We don’t know that much about Limbo, you don’t know, this could be—”
Yusuf shook his head, even though they really didn’t know much about Limbo, even though they knew even less about the experimental compound Yusuf had switched into Eames’s IV as soon as Arthur had woken up and realized Eames hadn’t. The compound was supposed to make Limbo-time closer to real-time. The latest version—the version that was currently dripping into Eames’s veins—hadn’t yet been tested on Yusuf’s den of willing dreamers.
“There’s nothing you can do,” said Yusuf. “Nothing you can do to help him. He’s got to do it on his own.”
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut.
He should be down there with Eames. He would be, except the absolute idiot who was supposed to be overseeing things on the third level had fucked up, fucked up too late for Arthur to fix anything, and as soon as Arthur had woken up, the priority had been ensuring Eames spent as little subjective time in Limbo as possible—even though it meant Arthur couldn’t go back down, because previous versions of Yusuf’s experimental formula hadn’t worked properly when additional dreamers had entered Limbo.
“I just need him to know that it isn’t real, whatever’s down there. That this is real.”
That I’m real, that we’re real.
“You need to trust Eames,” said Yusuf.
“I do,” said Arthur at once. More than anything. Too much, probably.
“You should go,” said Yusuf. “It’s been a week.”
“Exactly,” said Arthur. “It’s been—” he refused to do the math, even assuming Yusuf’s new compound was working and had flushed out the regular Somnacin before Eames had been in Limbo for more than a few minutes real-time “—ages and ages for him. So he has to—it should be soon, right?”
“It’s been a week, and he’s not awake yet, but he’s not…” Yusuf peered closely at Arthur. “He’s not dead yet, either, so I think we have to trust that Eames knows what he’s doing.”
Arthur and Eames had discussed the risks of Limbo after the near-disaster of the inception job. They’d filled up two of Arthur’s notebooks developing a plan that relied on using Eames’s forging and Arthur’s architecture abilities to keep them sane—turning what most people saw as Limbo vulnerabilities into assets, into ways to ensure you had a chance of still being yourself if you managed to wake up. They’d reasoned that, if Yusuf could nudge Limbo-time into passing more like topside-time, they could forge and paradox each other’s way out of insanity.
Of course, the strategy had relied upon both of them being stuck in Limbo. Together.
“I haven’t touched his totem. It’s still in his pocket,” said Yusuf. “He’ll know it’s reality without you here.”
“Go,” said Yusuf. “Go see Cobb’s kids. Go bother Ariadne. Just—go.”
“Fine,” said Arthur.
He stood up. He was so, so tired. He’d been afraid to sleep for more than an hour at a time. He’d been afraid to sleep, period, as if Limbo could claim him all on its own.
Arthur looked down at Eames, at the way his chest rose and fell steadily with each breath. Arthur reached out and placed his fingers at Eames’s pulse point. He counted off a full minute’s worth of heartbeats.
Then he left.
I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone
He doesn’t work often, these days. Just enough to “keep him in the game,” as Dom puts it. Just enough to remind people that he isn’t retired, he isn’t soft, he’s still the best.
(His best wasn’t good enough to stop Eames from falling into Limbo.)
When he takes jobs, he goes under for the minimum amount of time required, and he refuses to be the dreamer. He doesn’t know what he would do if he came across a projection of Eames, and he doesn’t doubt that his mind would create one.
Dom approves of this strategy.
In between jobs, he travels. He sees all the best architectural wonders, and all the second-best ones besides. He visits art galleries and museums galore. Steal this for me, he thinks. Forge that.
Hell, he thinks, standing in front of a handful of Josef Albers paintings at the Norton-Simon, even I could paint squares.
He doesn’t sleep well, even when it’s been weeks since he’s gone under. It’s like his body knows something’s missing.
I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again
He’s in Edinburgh when he gets the call on what he refers to as his Eames Phone.
It’s a bit of a misnomer, because Eames has never called this number, doesn’t know this number exists.
Yusuf texts this number once a week. At first, he’d included basic information about Eames’s vitals. Eventually, the texts dwindled to: status unchanged.
Today, though, Yusuf calls. Arthur answers on the second ring.
“Yes,” says Arthur.
“Awake,” says Yusuf.
Arthur takes two large, shaky breaths and slumps onto a nearby bench. After a moment, he remembers to check his totem: reality.
“Awake,” he repeats, a whisper that slips into a laugh because awake.
“Awake,” Yusuf confirms. “Weak, as you might expect, but very much awake.”
“Let me, can I,” begins Arthur.
“No,” says Yusuf.
There’s a beat before Yusuf speaks again.
“I don’t know… exactly what happened in Limbo, but Eames… he says he needs time.”
“Time.” This time, Arthur’s voice is flat.
“It’s his call,” says Yusuf.
“I know,” says Arthur. “Just, fuck. I. Fuck.” He squeezes the phone in his hand.
He needs Eames. He needs Eames with him, right here, right now. He needs Eames with him yesterday.
“I’m sorry,” says Yusuf.
“No,” says Arthur swiftly. “No, he’s alive, he’s awake, that’s all I—that’s more—that’s enough.” He’ll make it be enough.
Eames is awake. Somewhere, in this reality, in Arthur’s reality, he is awake.
Arthur loves him so much.
I am to see to it that I do not lose you
Arthur is supposed to be on a job right now in Santiago, but he cancels. (He finds the team a replacement and forwards the research he’s done already and the extractor assures him it’s fine.) Arthur doesn’t want to be unreachable if (when?) Eames decides he wants to reach him.
On the seventeenth day after Eames wakes up, the concierge at his Barcelona hotel hands him a postcard. The postcard is from the Norton-Simon; it features a Josef Albers painting. (Specifically: Homage to the Square/Red Series, Untitled III, which is by far Arthur’s least favorite).
Arthur, who had been heading out, returns to his room. He cries for half an hour.
He spends the next half hour staring at his Eames Phone (surely Yusuf passed along his number?), but it doesn’t ring.
A week and a half later, Arthur’s in Lisbon. The postcard is from the Louvre. It’s the kind of postcard that features multiple works from the same exhibition—in this case, the new one centered around Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Arthur tucks the postcard next to the one from the Norton-Simon.
The postcards start to come more frequently.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Prague: Museum Kampa.
Cairo: The Coptic Museum.
When Arthur receives a Victoria and Albert postcard, he flies to London and takes the first train to Manchester.
(Arthur still pretends he doesn’t know why they have a flat in Manchester. Eames has a different excuse every time someone asks. Arthur suspects the real reason has more to do with Morrissey than Eames would like to admit.)
When he unlocks the door to their flat, pushes it open and steps inside for the first time in months, he half expects Eames to be there, sitting on the sofa, waiting.
Eames isn’t there.
Eames isn’t there, but—Arthur takes another step. Eames was there, recently. Someone has dusted, and there’s a paperback on the coffee table that hadn’t even been published the last time Arthur had been at the flat, and—he toes off his shoes and walks into the kitchen—there’s an empty tea mug sitting in the sink.
Arthur stares at the mug. He can’t bring himself to wash it. It’s—hastily, Arthur reaches into his pocket and pulls out his totem, checks it. Reality.
Reality, reality, reality.
This is real. Eames is real. Eames was here.
Arthur makes his way into the bedroom.
On his pillow, there’s another postcard (Manchester, of course). He flips it over. In the address space is a single word, and it’s not his name, exactly, but there’s no doubt it’s meant for him.
We are to wait.
I will somewhere surely live a life of joy with you.