Arthur’s been at the warehouse for an hour when Eames finally arrives, lost in thought. Eames sits down, stares at the corner of his desk, and taps his fingers against his chair.
Without looking up from his moleskine notebook, Arthur tells him, “You know, Eames, as the extractor, you actually have to show up to planning sessions in order for us to get this job done.”
Eames startles and meets Arthur’s eyes. “What? Of course not. Of course I don’t, because I’m brilliant. Right, so I’m thinking that what’s going to happen is we’ll take Duckworth directly into the center of the building and then shift the dream into the second maze so his projections won’t be able to follow him in— Marcus, you can do that, can’t you? It’s dangerous, I know, but the second one’s more intricate so hopefully it’ll be more difficult for the projections to come after us—”
Everything comes tumbling out of him in one breath. Arthur puts his pen down and closes his notebook, listening.
Arthur likes specificity, honing skills into exact sciences. He can appreciate a bit of unique talent. But he knows Eames’s talent is even more than just a talent; there’s a reason he was the first forger in the world.
People have approached Arthur in the past to ask dreamshare’s best point man how they might learn from dreamshare’s best shapeshifter, the man who could change from stocky to willowy to curvy to whatever-he-damn-pleased so quickly that he was almost incorporeal.
And here’s what Arthur knows: research, being a hired gun, making up for distracted team members’ deficiencies— these are things that you can learn easily if you have to. But learning to shed the mold of your own body requires sacrificing a little more than just a few nights of sleep over a too-bright computer screen displaying pages and pages of insurance records, or sometimes seeing a ceiling painted with arterial spray when you close your eyes.
Eames moves like his mind is several steps ahead of his body and movement is an afterthought.
He’d tried to teach Arthur to forge once. After five hours of dream time, Arthur could barely even change how tall he was. Eames had shaken his head, said, “You’re much too grounded for this type of thing, darling.”
“And that’s supposed to be a bad thing?” Arthur had countered, embarrassed. The blond thatch of curls atop his head snapped back to brown like releasing a stretched rubber band. Meanwhile, at his side, Eames was morphing through bodies seamlessly.
“No,” sighed Eames. “It’s not. It’s just not conducive to forging, I’m afraid.”
With that, he conjured up a Browning handgun and shot himself out of Arthur’s dream.
Arthur blinked a couple times, first surprised then infuriated, and headed towards a bar at the end of the street to wait out the timer. He ordered a scotch on the rocks; the bartender slid a glass to him coastered by a napkin covered in Arthur’s own spiky handwriting:
what’s it like to be so in sync with yourself all the time i wonder
He tucked it into his jacket pocket. It wasn’t there when he woke up. Arthur didn't know why he was so surprised.
The client on this job is the chair of an investment firm who hired Eames to get information about a rival firm’s investment plans. Arthur tends to work with Dominick and Mallorie Cobb more often than not these days, but he still hops around on other teams. He met Eames on a job when he was fresh out of the Special Forces, back when his buzz cut was still growing out and his suits were still awkwardly cut. Arthur hadn’t even known what forging was back then.
Marcus, their architect, has a knack for building dream layers on a small scale, which is perfect for this job considering that their mark is an agoraphobic businessman whose office is just a couple floors below his apartment.
They decide to construct a building, all steel and tinted windows and classical interior design, sufficiently similar to Jonathan Duckworth’s actual building to make his subconscious feel at ease. Of course, the layout won’t be the same.
The planning runs quickly. For all of Eames’s unpunctuality and pretend-sloppiness, he’s ruthlessly effective as an extractor. Arthur would probably pull Eames aside and ask him what the hell he’s doing as a forger when he can brainstorm an extraction just like that had Arthur not witnessed Eames’s forging capabilities.
“He sees a therapist,” remarks Eames, looking down at the dossier Arthur compiled.
“Sharon Klein, licensed social worker, Duckworth’s been seeing her for… two years and five months,” Arthur supplies.
“Excellent. So he trusts her, doesn’t he? Tells her a lot?”
“Oh,” says Arthur, comprehension dawning on him. “Oh, yeah.”
Eames beams at Arthur’s look of understanding. His eyes are bright. “So really, all we need for Duckworth to spill his secrets to us is to have him have a little chat…”
“With his therapist,” Arthur finishes. “How are you gonna bring up business plans in a therapy session?”
“Oh, leave that to me,” Eames responds easily. “The key is to target his career-related anxieties through conversation about upcoming business developments.”
Eames poses as a client with an anxiety disorder struggling to get through his recent divorce in order to gain access to Jonathan Duckworth’s therapist (seventh floor, sandwiched between Duckworth’s apartment and his business headquarters). With a flexible deadline for the job, Eames is able to have four weekly sessions with Sharon Klein before he declares his forge sound enough to pass inspection.
Arthur bribes her into letting them set up in her office, and just before Duckworth shows up for his three o’clock appointment, Arthur slips a sedative into the waiting room coffee. By the time they carry him to the couch in Klein’s office, he doesn’t so much as flicker his eyelids in his sleep.
“You think Teresa got the dosage a little too high?” Arthur asks, nodding down at Duckworth’s lolling head.
“No,” Eames laughs. “No, she’s too accomplished of a chemist for that. We’ve assembled a good team.”
Arthur pretends to read a magazine in the waiting room that Marcus has constructed about halfway between the outer edge of the maze and the center, watching projections walking up and down the hallways of the maze via the live security camera feed on his laptop. Granted, a socially anxious agoraphobiac like Duckworth doesn’t have many projections in his head, but in Arthur’s experience, the more paranoid the subject is, the more rabid the projections are once they’re riled up.
His Glock 17, silencer attached, is holstered at his side as always, but he wants to delay shooting any projections as long as possible because this would undoubtedly raise alarm in Duckworth’s subconscious and cause them to swarm. Now would be a good time for Marcus to switch the dream layout into the second maze, keep the projections at bay for at least a little while.
Sure enough, a minute later, he receives a text from Marcus just as Duckworth and Eames file into Sharon Klein’s office: Maze has shifted into second design.
The projections have noticed the change and are moving a bit faster now, but don’t seem to be anywhere close to finding their way through the maze.
He switches the main display to the camera in Klein’s office. Eames-as-Klein is sitting in her usual desk chair, facing Duckworth on the couch.
Arthur hasn’t seen Eames’s forge until now. He used to make a habit of checking up on Eames’s work over the course of the planning phase, but after the fifth job where Eames had produced an absolutely stellar forge, he realized that even if there were anything to critique, he wouldn’t be able to spot it anyway.
The camera is angled towards Duckworth, who is gesturing as he talks, but Arthur focuses on Eames. He’s sitting with his legs crossed, nodding sympathetically at Duckworth whenever he falters.
The affectation is so un-Eames that Arthur has to close his eyes for a moment, remind himself that this is just a forge, he’s acting, he’s acting, this isn’t who Eames really is.
“Do you ever… have trouble um, shaking a forge?” Arthur asked once, in a Santiago bar.
Eames considered, then said, “Quite often. But I also sometimes wonder if I ever really shake a forge… Two years after a job, I’ll find myself waving my arms around the same way a mark’s business partner did when he got agitated in meetings, and I’ll realized that I’m talking to my team in the same condescending way that he did. They did deserve it, mind you, because they were a bunch of bloody idiots, but Jacobson— the business partner, that is— was such a prick that quite frankly, I was a bit embarrassed to be acting like him.”
“Maybe it wasn’t Jacobson at all. Maybe you’re just naturally condescending to other people and haven’t noticed it.” Arthur flashed a snarky smile to hide just how unsettled he was by the idea of a complete human being cobbled together by other people’s mannerisms. Eames probably thought Arthur was transparent, a terrible liar, but the truth was that anyone worth a damn in the industry had to be able to pull off a few good lies.
“And maybe you’re projecting,” Eames retorted, leaning back and hooking an arm around his chair in a very Eames-ian way.
“Fuck off,” muttered Arthur. But the feeling in his gut eased.
Arthur watches the rest of Duckworth’s conversation with Sharon Klein detachedly. He sees Marcus pacing up and down the hallway outside the office, and when Sharon finally stands up and knocks on her office door, Marcus pulls out a handgun and shoots himself in the temple.
The dream collapses quickly. Arthur winces as a chunk of ceiling plaster hits him in the face, and then—
“—without a hitch,” Marcus is saying, rolling up his IV line. “Seriously, damn, that forge, I’ve never seen anything that realistic!”
Eames nods and turns to Arthur. “How were things on your end?”
“Pristine. Didn’t need to fire a single shot,” Arthur responds. Duckworth’s still out because of the sedative on top of the Somnacin, which is supposed to keep him in REM sleep for another fifteen minutes or so, just enough for them to pack up and leave.
“Hey Eames, I was wondering, was your Klein like, actually a woman?” Marcus asks. He motions vaguely to his crotch area, grinning. “You know, all the way through. In the important parts.”
“Erm,” Eames says. “I suppose so.”
Marcus looks impressed. “Jeez, how’d you even get that much detail—”
“Jesus Christ, it was a good forge, do you really just care about the goddamn vagina?” Arthur snaps. "Shut the fuck up."
“Whoa, Arthur,” Marcus says, holding up his hands in surrender. “It was just a question, jeez, calm down.”
Arthur stares at Marcus, indignation flooding through him. What the fuck did the asshole think he was —
“Arthur.” Eames’s hand grips his wrist. Arthur turns to look at him. “Come on. It’s all right.”
“Whatever. I’m gonna go. Just wire the money into my account, cool?” Marcus says.
Arthur nods, barely. Marcus grabs his messenger bag and walks out of the office.
“Are you all right?” Eames asks.
Arthur huffs. “I mean, sure. Christ. What an asshole.”
“It’s an underground criminal industry, Arthur, what’d you expect? Honestly, he’s one of the less unsavory people I’ve met in this business,” Eames says.
“Still,” Arthur mutters. “Not gonna be working with him again anytime soon.”
“Why not? He’s a decently accomplished architect, even if he does have questionable character.”
“Is it so hard to understand?” Arthur demands. “He— he said all that creepy shit—”
“Don’t worry about it.” Eames lays a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “I don’t care. Really.”
He doesn’t care.
He doesn’t fucking care.
Suddenly Arthur’s limbs are shaking with rage. “Is that all it is to you? A game, a fucking joke? Using bodies like that, letting people talk shit about— about—”
“—saying things like, ‘Oh, what a piece of ass, I’d fuck her if she were real— if you weren't a dude, Eames, 'cause I'm not a queer’—”
“Arthur.” Eames takes Arthur’s hand, wraps it in both of his. His voice is very quiet. “No. No, darling. Of course not. What I meant was,” and he turns away to look at Duckworth sleeping on the couch, “I’m used to it.”
When he looks back at Arthur, his gaze is subdued, so unlike his usual vibrance.
Arthur is hyperaware of Eames’s hands, large and rough, clasped around his. He flicks his eyes down to make sure that no, he isn’t just imagining it.
Eames follows Arthur’s gaze. “Right.” He clears his throat and lets go. “Sorry.”
Arthur feels satisfied, usually, after finishing a job. Sometimes relieved, if it was a risky one that worked out in the end. Sometimes angry, if someone fucked up big-time and they botched the job because of it. But he’s never felt fucking sad about it.
He downs the last of the tiny bottle of cheap whiskey from the minibar and struggles not to cough, like all of a sudden he doesn’t know how to drink liquor properly. His fucking laptop screen is too fucking bright. It’s making his head hurt.
He should do something. Go to a bar, find someone pretty, take ‘em home and fuck ‘em through the mattress. Get dressed and slip out the door while they’re asleep. Get himself out of whatever weird funk he’s in. But his gut recoils at the idea and the more he considers it, the more distasteful it seems. Plus, he’s already well on his way to being drunk, and not in the good pregame way that has his blood pumping and his adrenaline coursing. He feels sluggish and disoriented.
Fuck, he isn’t having some kind of weird quarter-life crisis, is he?
He lets himself fall back onto the bed with a huff. He can’t shake the memories of the afternoon out of his system. Images swirl in his head: Marcus’ stupid sneer, Sharon Klein’s guilty expression as they packed up the PASIV and left Duckworth unconscious on the couch in her office. And over and over again, the soft, wistful look on Eames’s face when he said no, darling.
His stomach is warm from the alcohol. His face feels flushed, too.
He decides that picking up another job will help him take his mind off things. Definitely not with Eames, it’s too soon after… whatever just happened to work with him again. Dom and Mal are expecting their second child any day now, so they’re out of the question as well. He juggles between offers in his inbox for a couple of days before taking a job from an Argentine extractor named Moreno. She puts him in charge of finding them an architect.
Not fucking Marcus, that’s for sure. He runs through options in his head and comes up short, and decides it might be a good idea to ask around.
“Zhang Jingya,” Arthur greets. “Nice to meet you. I’m Arthur.”
Their architect shakes Arthur’s hand. He’s never met her, but she comes as highly recommended by both an extractor and an architect whom Arthur has worked with before.
“It’s an honor, Arthur. And please, call me Alex,” she says with a light accent. She runs a hand through the top of her undercut.
Arthur frowns; he took Mandarin for a few years in high school. “Sorry. Did I butcher your name? I thought my tone was okay.”
“Your tone was fine,” she says.
“Oh. Okay,” says Arthur.
Alex shrugs her thin shoulders. “I just prefer Alex.”
Arthur apologizes and hands her a manila file on the mark. He’s done a basic background check on Alex already— born in Hangzhou, twenty-four years old, studied architecture at Tongji and RISD, got introduced to dreamshare through the academic side— and he feels confident in her as a team member, but wonders about her weird hang up about her Chinese name. Maybe too many non-Chinese speakers mispronounced it and she got tired of going by two names. Or something. Anyway, it’s not like it’s his business.
Truth be told, Arthur prefers corporate espionage over political espionage because there’s not as much room for his moral compass to slide, but Ana Moreno is a dependable extractor with a not-half-bad conscience that he trusts to not lead them wrong.
Besides, there are worse things he can do than help to spill a few secrets of a corrupt city legislator. Miguel Gutierrez is running for re-election in La Legislatura de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires in a few months. Moreno has been hired by a legislator on the opposing party named Pablo Romero who suspects Gutierrez of accepting bribes from an Argentina-based corporation.
“It’s best if I’m the only one to communicate directly to Gutierrez,” Moreno says early on. “His English isn’t good enough, and Arthur, your Spanish accent is too Mexican-sounding.”
“Had a Mexican teacher,” Arthur mutters. “Never learned vos.”
“And I speak almost no Spanish at all,” Alex says.
“Yes,” says Moreno, chuckling. “You two will just work with the dream while I speak with him.”
Which is just fine with Arthur. He’s never had the charisma or the confidence to be an extractor. He’s good at what he does, sure, but he knows exactly where his limitations are. And there’s still work for them to do, even after Arthur has finished his research on Gutierrez and Alex has finished constructing the dream.
She takes him under, leads him through the maze. The only criticism he can make is that the fire hydrants are a little off.
He’s impressed by Alex’s builds. She’s constructed something similar to Barrio de Belgrano, where Gutierrez grew up, but the streets twist and wind and hit dead ends and double back on themselves like some sort of mutated organism. It’ll be a bitch to memorize the layout, but hey, he’s got a good memory.
“Do you do this on every job?” she asks.
“Do what?” he mumbles, peeking down a dank alleyway to see if it leads anywhere, which it turns out it doesn’t, just hits another building a few yards down.
“Manage the other team members to make sure we are doing our jobs well. I haven’t worked with a point man before. Not everyone sees a reason to have them, you know?”
He looks up at her, wondering if that was supposed to be a jab or not. Her expression is one of open curiosity, so he says, “I think as a point man, you’ve gotta be a jack-of-all-trades. Or at least, if you’re a good point man. That way, you can handle the logistics of working as a team. So I watch the extractor’s six, make sure they have everything they need to pull the job off. And that involves knowing that the build is sound, so I gotta work with the architect. That means knowing a bit about architecture. At least, dream architecture.”
He gestures at the buildings around them, and suddenly the ground folds, curving around them like they’re standing in the eye of a rolled-up newspaper.
“And then there’s research— on a lot of teams the extractor does that, but then I think the division of labor’s imbalanced and the job isn’t run as efficiently as it could be. That’s why it’s my main role.”
Alex nods, but her attention is stuck on the ground arcing around them. She turns slowly in a circle, eyes narrowing as she considers the dreamscape. The way she moves seems familiar somehow, in a way that Arthur can’t describe, her gait giving him a sense of deja vu.
He lets the ground unbend so all the buildings lie flat again; she looks back at him, which he takes as an invitation to go on. “The only thing I can’t do is forge, and not for lack of trying. I had a good teacher and I know the theory and everything, and I can critique other people, I just… can’t.” He smiles ruefully.
“Why not?” Alex’s attention is fully on him now.
“He said something about… being too grounded… in my own body. I don’t know. Eames is a weird fucking guy.”
“Eames?” Alex says in surprise. “You know Eames? He was your teacher?”
Arthur always finds it a little strange how Eames is regarded as kind of a celebrity in the dreamshare community as the first person to look at how dreamers could change the architecture at will and think, Maybe I can do that with myself, too. It's a remarkable ability, of course, but it frustrates Arthur that people appreciate the fact that Eames can forge more than the meticulousness that goes into producing a good forge. And it's this kind of mentality that undervalues point men: there's no magic to research, nothing impossible about figuring out how to do it well, but people fail to realize just how much detail goes into Arthur's work.
He shakes off the self-pitying train of thought and grimaces. “Yeah, well, he tried to. He’s tried to teach a lot of people. Hasn’t had much luck, though, so he’s stopped. I mean, there are other forgers in the world, obviously, but he was the one who figured it out all on his own.”
“He’s the best, I have heard,” Alex says. “It sounds like you know him well.”
Arthur frowns. He knows Eames better than he knows almost anyone else in the industry, save Dom and Mal, but he’s not sure if he really knows him at all. It bothers him more than he’d like to admit.
In the end, all he says is, “I’ve known him for a while.”
The day before the extraction, Arthur walks into the rented apartment they’re working out of and finds Alex bent over, sketching in a notebook of graph paper. There’s a little wooden teapot sitting on the kitchen table next to a box of tea leaves.
“Hello,” she says. “Do you drink tea? I made some. Tieguanyin… do you know?”
“Yeah, Iron Goddess. Green tea, right?” He sticks with coffee most of the time, but he’s not about to turn down what is likely, considering her hometown, high quality Hangzhou orchard-picked tea leaves, harvested this year.
He pours himself a cup and sits down beside her, nodding at her notebook. “What’s that?”
She slides it over to him. On the page, she’s drawn a little looping ribbon, diagrammed with arrows and little notes in cursive Chinese on the side.
“A Mobius strip,” Arthur says.
“Yes.” Alex grins. “I was thinking about the thing you did with the ground in our first dream together. We can build things in dreams that cannot exist in real life, right? Structures that defy gravity, or physics, or logic.”
“Paradoxes,” Arthur says.
“Yes,” Alex says again. “But dreamsharers, we are never satisfied with just creation. We have to use it, in some way. We feel as if we must justify its creation.”
“There’s nothing wrong with pure creation,” Arthur says. “But there’s nothing wrong with pragmatism, either. Isn’t it good for something to have applications?”
“It is, I agree. I am an architect, my creations are always useful. That’s why I’m trying to think of… some way we can use this.” Alex taps the Mobius strip on her paper.
Arthur considers for a moment. “There’s definitely some way we can confuse projections with it.”
“Mn, but how?”
Silence stretches in the apartment.
“I’m not sure,” Arthur says. “I mean, could we consider other paradoxes? A Klein bottle, maybe, or the Penrose steps. The steps are impossible to construct in reality, but I’m sure that in a dream, you could build them.” He sketches them quickly in Alex’s notebook in case she isn’t familiar with the English names for them.
“How long would it take for the projections to realize that they are going in a loop?” Alex muses.
“And can we use the looping dreamscape to our advantage…” Arthur’s head is spinning. He’ll have to ask Dom about this when he next sees him.
“Have you ever wondered… if we build a dream, what is beyond it?” Alex asks suddenly. “Like, we only build as far as we need to. Does the subconscious create anything beyond that? Is a dream flat? Or round like the Earth? And… all paradoxes are objects in either 2-D or 3-D space, so there must be space that exists outside of the paradox if we build a dream shaped like paradoxical architecture.”
“I’m a point man,” Arthur groans. “I don’t know, ask an astrophysicist what’s outside of the universe.”
Alex laughs. “Okay, okay.”
They lapse into silence again, but Arthur can’t stop thinking about falling out of a dream, out of constructed subconscious and into the raw unknown. It’d be a terrible way to get lost.
“Hey,” Arthur says suddenly. Alex looks up at him. “So, maybe, it’s not the paradox itself that we can use, but the unbending. Sooner or later, the projections or the subject or whatever are gonna realize that it’s looping, right? And then we can unloop it, catch them off guard.”
He picks up his pencil, sketches a little flight of stairs right next to the Penrose steps, shaped like Escher’s Waterfall. He draws a sharp arrow down from the top of the stairs, right into nothingness.
“Make them think they’re just gonna keep climbing, and… let them fall straight down.”
“Do you think he has actually accepted bribes?” Alex asks, once they’re inside Gutierrez’s subconscious.
Arthur shrugs. “It’s not unlikely. But we’re here to find out, aren’t we?”
“What happens if he didn’t?”
“We tell Pablo Romero and hope he’s a decent enough guy to not take his disappointment out on us.”
There are projections flying at Arthur, trying to smother him, and Alex is screaming from across the room as one of them tears into her shirt. Her gun is lying on the ground, about halfway between them, having been kicked away by the projections.
He rips his Glock from the shoulder holster. It’s not a clean shot, and he knows that from this angle there’s a fifty-fifty chance that he’ll hit Alex instead of the projection. But this is a dream, and it can’t hurt to try.
He grips the gun tightly and takes a deep breath, squeezes the trigger on his exhale.
The projection goes down; Alex gasps and runs for her gun. But buying time for her means that the projections are closing in on him. Driven into a frenzy by the gunshot, they all crowd him at once and push him up against the wall. He fumbles for his Glock again, but one of them pins his arm and wrenches it from his grip—
“Got it!” Moreno’s voice yells from the next room over.
He feels a pair of hands close around his throat and closes his eyes.
When he opens them again, he knows he’s topside because he sees Gutierrez sprawled in the armchair across from him, still hooked up to the PASIV. Next to him, Alex rubs her eyes.
“What’d you find?” he asks Moreno as he removes the cannula from his wrist. She’s already standing up, scribbling on a slip of paper.
“It’s not just Abundans Corp,” she says breathlessly. “Two other businesses as well, hoping that once he’s re-elected he’ll vote for looser business regulations in Buenos Aires. Romero will be pleased.”
Arthur nods. “Ten minutes left on the clock for Gutierrez. Let’s get out of here.”
“You said that Eames does not teach how to forge anymore,” Alex says around her draft beer, which she's working through very slowly. They’re sitting in a bar in Palermo, one of the less tourist-filled ones in the neighborhood, and Arthur is learning that Alex still has a college student’s taste in cheap alcohol, even though the payout from any job worth her time could easily cover any student loan debts she might still have from RISD.
“Yeah?” Arthur says. Moreno’s not here; she’s gone to meet with Pablo Romero about the info they’ve extracted, and without his technically-boss around he feels like he’s just having a drink with a friend.
“Because no one could do it, right?”
Arthur shrugs. “Barely anyone. I’m sure some people managed to get it, but I couldn’t.”
Alex cocks her head. “If I told you that I want to learn to forge, would you give me a way to contact him?”
Arthur raises his eyebrows. “Sure, I mean, I’ll give you his email right now if you want, but that doesn’t mean he’ll agree to teach you.”
“Thank you. You’ll have to put in a good word for me,” she laughs.
He fishes a pen out of his pocket, scribbling Eames’s email onto a bar napkin and handing it to her. “Why do you want to learn how to forge?”
“Just curious,” Alex says nonchalantly.
Arthur frowns. “You’ve gotta have a little more motivation than ‘just curious’ to be good at forging.”
“I bet you,” she says, draining the last of her beer, “that I will be very, very good at it.” She pats him on the shoulder clumsily. “I think I am going to go. Thank you for the email, I hope we work together again.”
With that, she drops a couple of bills on the counter, picks up her bag, and flounces towards the exit. Arthur watches her go, and—
—and how did he never see it before? Alex is much smaller than Eames, but they move the same way, carelessly, but somehow graceful all the same.
“It’s Arthur. I, uh, I know you don’t normally do this, even with a fee, but there’s this architect I just worked with who um, wants to learn to forge from you. I don’t know, I feel like she’d… I feel like she’d be able to pick it up. She’s good— sound builds, pretty creative. She’s got promise. If- if my opinion means anything. Her name’s Alex Zhang. I gave her your contact information. Just wanted to let you know. Bye.”
Eames knocks and then enters the hotel room to find a slight Asian woman sitting a lounge chair, working at a laptop.
“Hello,” she says, standing up and striding towards him. “I’m Alex.”
“Eames,” he responds, shaking Alex’s hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” she says, and it sounds oddly formal, but perhaps that’s just the accent. “Please sit down, make yourself comfortable. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. Arthur tells me that you do not usually do this.”
“Mm, no, not normally, but I’m willing to make an exception when Arthur tells me about a lovely architect whose competence he can vouch for himself. Shall we get started?” He nods toward the PASIV at the foot of the bed.
“If you would not mind,” Alex responds.
Eames picks up the PASIV, unlocks the briefcase, before saying, “I’ve got a question, if you don’t mind my asking.”
Alex nods. “Go on.”
"Why do you want to learn to forge?" Eames asks. "What's so appealing to you about becoming a different person, hm?"
“No,” she says, shaking her head. "No. I'm becoming who I really am."
Something light blooms in Eames’s chest; satisfaction, maybe, but also a faint glimmer of hope. "I reckon we can work with that.”
Alex grins at him, wide and lovely.
“Well. Why don’t we put five minutes on the timer and see what we can do?” he suggests. Alex nods and rolls up her sleeve.
Eames goes under to find himself sitting on a park bench next to Alex. It’s a bright day, birds twittering in the trees, the buildings beyond the park a mix of neoclassical and futurist, vaguely reminiscent of The Bund. He knows Alex went to university in Shanghai; he himself enjoys the city immensely, never mind all the stares he gets as a laowai.
“I think the reason I forge so easily is because I try not to have much physical self-awareness topside. If I don’t think about my body, then it doesn’t really factor into my sense of self and thus it’s easier to change,” Eames explains. “Now, in theory, your subconscious self-projection manifests without any, well, conscious thought, so you should appear in a dream however your mind expects or wants you to. But the reality is that it’s hard to let go of conscious expectations, so it takes a little work to lower those inhibitions and let your subconscious take over.”
Alex nods. “Makes sense. That is what I have to work on, right?”
“Precisely,” Eames says. “Now, if we define forging as manifesting differently in a dream than how we present in reality, then it’s easier for people whose physical appearances don’t correspond to their subconscious self-perception to pick up the skill.”
“Yes,” Alex says carefully, judging Eames’s face with a tense expression. “But that still does not mean that it will be easy for me.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Eames agrees. “But of course, forging another already-existing person is a whole other matter. A step beyond the basics, if you will.”
“That’s okay, the basics are my priority for now,” Alex says.
But she masters the basics remarkably quickly. Sometimes she goes under and appears exactly the way she looks topside, but sometimes the angles of her body are sharper, her jawline more cut; sometimes she’s several inches taller, bulkier, with day-old stubble dotting her cheeks. One day she has waist-length hair and wears a lovely floral sundress.
“I haven’t looked like this since secondary school,” she admits. “It is not a part of my life that I thought I wanted to revisit. But today… today I think I like myself like this.”
Eames lets a slow smile spread across his face.
At the end of it all, even after she’s run through a few different people— her ex-girlfriend, the Taiwanese rapper she likes— Eames doesn’t make her pay a fee. He does let her buy them drinks and some takeout, and they eat it on the floor of her hotel room.
“This is like, not me making a move on you,” Alex says as she slings her slippered feet across Eames’s lap. “I’m sitting on a pillow because I don’t want to touch the floor, it’s probably very dirty. But I need something to put my legs on so they don’t touch either.”
Eames laughs. “You don’t want to make a move on me? I’m insulted.”
She jabs her chopsticks at him. “Aiya, stop it. You are not.”
He pretends to look heartbroken, and she pokes him in the neck with another exasperated “Aiya!”
After a couple minutes of picking through her beef noodle soup to find the vegetables, Alex waggles her eyebrows and asks, “So tell me, who do you want to make a move on you?”
“How did you know that there’s someone?”
She jabs him in the bicep with her foot. “So there is someone! Who is it? Is it Arthur?”
“Is this a bloody slumber party? What, are we a pair of bloody teenagers or something?” asks Eames. Maybe they are, because all of a sudden he can feel himself blushing furiously.
“You are afraid of answering the question! Wa sai, you’re embarrassed!” Alex looks incredibly pleased.
“Fine, fine,” Eames says, trying to seem as unabashed as possible. “Yes. It’s Arthur.”
She grins triumphantly. “Have you told him? Do you think he knows?”
“No, I don’t think so,” says Eames.
“Idiot,” Alex mutters into her beer. “You should tell him. Arthur may be terrible with his emotions, but you’re not.”
Eames says, “Yeah. I’ll tell him.”
Outgoing text message, Thursday, November 3, 10:46: darling i know you aren’t on a job or otherwise occupied currently so would you perhaps like to meet next wednesday. around noon or so. i’ll let you find me because you do seem to find that so very entertaining.
When Arthur unlocks the hotel room door and walks in, Eames is lying on the single bed in the room, already hooked up to the PASIV. Arthur takes him in, the slow movement of his chest rising and falling, the fan of his eyelashes across his lower lids. He runs a finger along the rise of Eames’s cheekbone before reaching for an IV line and inserting it into his wrist.
He opens his eyes.
There’s black asphalt beneath his feet and a light breeze rippling through his suit jacket. The sun is just beginning to set.
He rolls his die. One. One. Two. Three. Five. One more time. Eight.
Maths was never my strong suit.
Asshole. What a fucking asshole. His die doesn’t even have eight sides.
He walks. He walks. He finds someone sitting in the middle of a city intersection.
“Eames,” he says, and the woman looks up. She sweeps her light brown hair out of her face.
“Arthur. Darling.” She extends a hand, fingers blunt and unmanicured. He takes it and sits down, legs folding, feet tucking under him.
“Lovely city, isn’t it?” she asks, making a sweeping gesture at the buildings. Arthur looks around. There’s a bit of London, he thinks, but also Los Angeles and New York and Hong Kong and Mombasa. He sees the warehouse they worked out of on the Duckworth job, grey windows and brown brick exterior, his own Palermo apartment five buildings down the road. Eames stayed there for about a week once, hiding from an angry mark.
Arthur bounces his knee. Something doesn’t feel right here. “You built it. It’s your city,” he begins.
“Indeed it is, darling,” the woman replies.
“Then why aren’t you— why are you… why the forge?” he asks desperately.
Something strange flits across her expression, possibly pained, but it smooths out just as fast as it appeared. “It isn’t a forge, Arthur.”
And then realization dawns, like a train screeching all the way and then slowly coming to a stop. Oh. Oh.
He feels something settle into place deep in his chest.
“In… that case, it’s nice to meet you,” says Arthur.
“Love, I thought you knew by now,” Eames says, resting a hand on Arthur’s knee. “You’ve known me all along, see?”
He has. He does. He sees Eames’ smile, wide and crooked as ever, the familiar impish eyes, the same coiled power running through the same limbs. He sees Eames, strikingly beautiful.