Inception runs like a fault line through Arthur's life, the gap between the shuddering plates of now and then, the vestiges of an earthquake sketched in blood and shadow and the last good years of a long-dead empire. Reality shatters under his shaking palms, yellows like the pages of forgotten history books; he could rewrite it, but he figures that's getting old.
He'll never have to work again, so he rents a car, rents another, shakes off the Cobbs like a dog after a rainstorm and sings along with the radio. He learns again to dress for occasion, instead of for the person he wishes he could be--he learns again to enter a room without checking the exits first, to listen for listening's sake instead of for whatever it is he's not being told. He opens his mouth in Freeport in January, lets snow gather against his tongue until his lips are numb, and reads John Irving novels by the handful. He's not his own person, but he's not anyone else's.
The words point man lose their bitterness, and then their meaning, and then wind around again until they're almost funny. Arthur learns to be a pointless man, writes not all who wander are lost on the back of a postcard and sends it to an address he hasn't quite forgotten, eats corn dogs at a county fair and dreams of aimless vines curling up an old oak tree. His fingers get sticky, so he buries them in the sand just past a rest stop on the Georgia coast, lets a summer peach drip juice down his chin, believes in nothing but the rising dawn.
Eames finds him in Little Rock, looking worse for the wear but better for the sunshine. He's leaning against a gas pump and smoking a cigarette, courting danger with sparks instead of Somnacin, too thin and not ashamed of it. He shows teeth when he grins, and Arthur doesn't bother asking the hows or whys of what he's doing here; it's obvious he's waiting, and Arthur remembers the life he once led, where all information was a commodity, where everything was just a question of trading costs.
"Where're you headed?" says Arthur.
"You tell me," says Eames, and Arthur lets him in the car.
The parts of Arthur that killed for sport are roosting in a birch tree, keeping company with old owls who know better than to trust them. The parts of Arthur that kept faith with madmen drowned over the Pacific, shed during a long flight that felt longer. The parts of Arthur that looked at Eames and wanted were, once, locked up where even extractors couldn't find them. They're not anymore. Arthur is too old for tricks.
"You're different," Eames says, the shadow of a thunderstorm tailing them down an Ohio highway, his eyebrows up. "You've…shifted, I s'pose, not that I could tell you how. I didn't think that happened to people."
"Shifting?" says Arthur, and Eames shakes his head, bites the end of a toothpick, tosses his cigarette out the window. It sparks behind them, catching Arthur's eye in the rearview mirror, before the sky lets out a bellow and releases its bounty at last. The cigarette drowns. Eames' eyes are warm.
"Change," he says. "I think people are who they are, no matter what they're playing at. Have to be, don't they? Couldn't fake them properly, otherwise."
Arthur slants him a smile and pulls off at the nearest exit, winds the car down and away from I-75 until there's no remnants of civilization in sight. At the far edge of his vision, an old grain silo has gone to rust; in front of him, Eames is looking at him like he's a safe he can't quite manage to crack.
Arthur climbs out of the car, takes off his shoes, sinks his feet into the mud. He shuts the door when Eames starts asking question and climbs, staining the windshield brown as as he goes, stands with his head tipped back and his arms outstretched as the dampened air whips around him. This is a stupid, silly thing to do, but Arthur is no longer afraid of being a stupid, silly man. That part of him was born in a classroom in Long Island, stoked in the fires of his parents' art-deco living room, brought to keening, unrelenting fruition at the hands of a man who'd once lived for someone else. That part of Arthur was Arthur's last kill.
"You're mad, you know," Eames calls up to him, his door cracked open just enough to let the words carry. "Completely mental. That last job did something to you, I swear it."
"Change, Mr. Eames," Arthur yells back, working to be heard over the thunder shouting him down, and Eames' laughter carries over the sound of the squall.
"Where are we going?" Eames asks, once.
"Wherever we feel like," Arthur says. "Somewhere else. The next stop. The world's largest ball of yarn--I don't care. We're being untethered."
"I knew you hadn't changed," Eames says, but it's soft, so Arthur doesn't get angry, doesn't even try.
"I loved you, you know," Eames says. "Before, when we--"
"Of course I know that," Arthur says. "I loved you too; I just couldn't sort it out. Reality got too hard."
"I suppose we'd know from reality."
"I suppose we would," Arthur says, and thinks of something. "Is that why you think people don't change? Because that was easier than optimism, in the long run?"
"No," Eames says. "I think people don't change because I never did."
"Egotistical of you," Arthur says. "False, too. You're not the man you used to be."
"Am I not?" Eames asks, and when his mouth comes for Arthur's again, it's hungry. "I could've sworn."
Arthur's totem lives in the glove compartment instead of his pocket. Eames' totem finds its way out from between his twitching fingers eventually, but it's a long fight.
"We could stop running," Eames says to Arthur in February. It's cold like the end of the world outside, cold like an ice age is creeping on silent feet towards the room of the Super 8 they're lately calling home. Arthur wouldn't mind, really, if an ice age came. He'd be frozen like this for future generations to find, twined up in something he never wanted to escape to begin with, a borrowed smoke hanging between his lips like all the things he's never learned to say. It wouldn't be so bad, as eternities go.
"We're not running," he says, instead. "I'm not running. Are you running?"
"Depends," Eames says. "Do you mean towards something, or away from it?"
"I can't forge anymore," Eames confesses, the dead of night in April, like it hurts him to say the words aloud. "Being someone else felt like cheating, afterwards. There's only so much the body can do, if the spirit's not willing at all."
"I started driving because it was easier," says Arthur, on an overpass in Montana in May. "And because I didn't know who I was anymore. And I guess I thought you wouldn't follow me, if I didn't give you something to chase."
"Well, what do you think I was doing at that gas station," Eames demands, and something Arthur's chest sparks, shudders, blooms like the forest that cuts up around them, going steadily greener in the mid-morning light.
"People don't change," Eames says one night, his head dangling off the back edge of the porch swing, his feet kicking aimlessly up the chains holding it aloft. "But maybe lives do. I'd be willing to concede the point."
Arthur could answer a hundred ways, but he's still too old for tricks. He's driven the country and danced in the rain, eaten a summer peach in Georgia and swallowed snow in Maine, tasted autumn on someone else's tongue. He's right; nothing's ever constant. Eames is right; he will always be himself.
"You should put that on a plaque," Arthur says, very dry, and Eames' laughter carries across the yard. That night, Arthur dreams of old empires, of abandoned shackles; of people falling in love.