Eames wakes up half-drowned, soaked, sunburnt. Lies staring at the blue sky scattered with white clouds. It takes a minute for it to hit him: where he must be. For a minute he just lies there in shock. The gun at his head. That one concussive instant. He's going to be here forever, alone, until his brain turns to scrambled egg.
Then he turns over and sees another body in the surf, a hundred yards down the shore. Someone thin, splayed, just starting to move. He recognizes the suit first. Brown vest, brown trousers, white shirt--if he were closer he'd see the stripes. It's Arthur, rolling up onto his elbows and knees, soaking wet, his hair a dark stripe down the side of his face. His tie dangling down into the water. Of course he's still wearing his tie.
For just a moment, Eames feels a rush of warmth, something almost like gratitude. Because he's not alone after all. Thank God, he thinks. Then he realizes what this means--that Arthur's stuck here too, that they're stuck here together, for fuck’s sake. They're both dead, for all intents and purposes. His stomach drops open like a trap door. He flips and coughs up a gutful of salt water and bile.
Arthur sees him, but doesn't come over. He kneels for a while in the water, ignoring the low surf, facing the sand towers. He seems to be watching their slow collapse, as if there's something fascinating to be learned from the process. At last he stands up, looking shaky and weak--he staggers a bit, and catches himself with his hand on his knee. He makes it halfway up the sand, then turns and sits down, facing the ocean. He props his arms on his knees and doesn't move.
Eames gives him a few more minutes, then goes over. He's wobbly too. He feels sunstroked, almost. His legs are unreliable, his hands are shaking. Somehow, being shot in the head in the third level of a dream takes a greater toll. Still, he rakes his fingers through his hair and wipes his face on his sleeve--he's still in his suit as well, of course--before he sits down near where Arthur's sitting. Near enough to talk, far enough to give him a bit of privacy.
Arthur glances at him, then goes back to looking at the horizon. There's a filigree of sand on his cheek and temple, that he hasn't bothered to brush off.
"So," says Eames. The ocean rolls and murmurs. Behind them, another tower slides down its own face and dissolves.
Arthur nods, takes a sharp breath in through his nose, and studies his hands. He's got his die out, Eames sees. He's turning it over and over.
Eames turns and looks out at the endless ocean, feels the heat of the sun already starting to dry the shoulders of his suit, and thinks, We are so royally fucked.
They walk up the shore toward the towers, toward the city--because what else is there to do? Maybe, Eames thinks, Cobb will have left behind something useful. Some clue or tip on getting out of limbo free and clear. He has no idea what that might look like, but he's willing to take just about anything. A pornographic ditty. A hand-written Post-it. Something.
"What a mess," says Arthur, as they stand in the middle of a long plaza, looking at a run-down two-story house set incongruously by an infinity pool.
"Yes," says Eames. "Well, I'm not sure there was time to tidy up much when he was here last."
Arthur turns on his heel, slowly taking in the whole panorama, from the far end of the long plaza where they came up the staircase, to the miles of skyscrapers in the other direction. Mal and Cobb's sandbox.
"What a fucking mess," he says again. This time, Eames realizes he doesn't just mean the ratty, slumping house. He means the whole place, the whole thing. Limbo.
"Yes," Eames says again.
The sun starts to set while they're in the deep, silent canyons of the city streets. The buildings are immense, beautiful, severe. They seem to go on for miles.
"We should find somewhere to sleep," says Arthur. He's pulled off his tie, rolled it up, and stuffed it into his pocket. His hair is dry now, thick with salt, falling over his forehead. "It's all office buildings, looks like."
Eames walks to the curb and climbs up onto the hood of a parked car, then the roof. From there he can see a little better. Far up the strip, there's a building with an ornate portico, the kind of thing they put on theaters and hotels. He points. Arthur looks that way and nods.
They start walking.
"Funny thing," Eames says. "There's no people." Now that they've left the shore, there's no sound except the scrape of their shoes on the street. "Think that's something to do with limbo, in particular?"
"Maybe." Arthur's hand is in his pocket, has been the whole time. Eames would bet a million pounds he's touching the die in there. "We can still make projections, though. Cobb said Saito had a militia."
"Hm." They walk a while longer. The blocks are enormous, worse than Paris or Chicago. Eames thinks bitterly of Cobb's total incomprehension of human scale. "So if there's two of us in here, does that mean our projections are going to clash?"
Arthur shakes his head, then shrugs. "I guess we'll find out."
It's not a hotel or a theater. It's a little coffee shop, with an ornate, faux-French frontage, twisted green copper and art nouveau letters that spells out just: Café. Eames stands with his hands on his hips in the middle of the street, staring at it in the fading light.
"Mal," says Arthur, walking up to the plate glass window. He cups his hands around his face and peers inside. Then, with a glance back at Eames, he goes to the door and pulls it open.
Inside, the lights are low and the place is empty, as if the staff has all stepped out in the process of shutting down for the night. Arthur goes behind the bar and takes stock, running his hand over the shining silver espresso machine, the beer taps, the rows of glasses. There's a cooler case, with some of those flat French sandwiches inside.
"Guinness," Eames says, sinking onto a stool at the zinc bar. His socks are full of sand, and he toes off his shoes. "Make it a decent pour and there's a fiver in it for you."
He's got the start of a blister, from walking what feels like five miles in wet kit. He takes a white rag from the bar top and dries his feet. The place is warm, at least, and as he sits there rubbing sand off his skin he's hit with a wave of exhaustion. He looks up. Arthur's gone.
He feels a prickle of panic in the back of his neck, a return of the sudden, pitching nausea he felt on the shore. It's suddenly, appallingly clear that Arthur's a projection. That he's alone here after all, for pretty much ever, that he's going to wander this hateful city until he's senile, until he drops dead of loneliness and vitriol.
He stands up, barefoot, the rag dangling from his hand, and looks behind the bar. Nobody.
"There's an apartment back here," Arthur says, stepping through the door in the back of the shop. He looks sunburnt and tired and beaten-down. Very real, very human. "We can sleep there."
Eames takes a breath, then another. He smiles. "Amazing, how tiring it is to be nowhere."
The apartment is small, homely, and dark. There's an overstuffed couch with a doily on the back, and a tiny cluttered bedroom with a narrow bed. Arthur sinks onto the couch before Eames can bring up a coin toss.
"Night then," he says, lingering in the doorway, in his stocking feet now. He has his shoes in his hands, sand still crusted in the seams.
Arthur's almost invisible beneath the big arm of the couch. He's lying on his back, Eames can see, and it looks like he has his hands over his face.
"Good night," he says, in a reasonable enough tone of voice. For a man who's just woken up in interminable limbo.
Eames hesitates a moment longer, then goes into the bedroom and lies down on the abrasive wool blanket. There are wooden shutters on the back windows, through which he can see a sliver of dark blue sky. The world is silent.
He closes his eyes, knowing he's not going to fall asleep for hours.
Somehow he does, though, because he wakes up to a fierce slat of sunshine falling straight across his eyes. His mouth is dry, his head hurts, his whole body aches. The way it would, he guesses, if he'd rolled ashore from halfway drowning, then walked for several hours in a wasteland.
He sits up, looks around at the shabby dresser, the faded wallpaper, the dog-eared French cinema magazine lying on the night table, and feels another one of those sudden heaves of emotion. Like a child, he was hoping to wake up and find it all different. He was hoping he'd wake up for real, in a hotel or warehouse or abandoned schoolroom with a needle in his arm and a faint racing buzz, a sense of having dodged danger yet again. But here he is, in this dowdy French back apartment, with salt in his sinuses and a hundred invisible pounds on his back.
And here Arthur is too, he remembers, standing up and wincing at the pain in his feet. He pauses to listen, expecting to hear movement out front in the cafe, the clink of china and the hiss of steam. Arthur, the ever-ready. But there's silence.
He walks out into the hall and puts his head through the door of the little front room. It's still dark in there, the shutters drawn. He can barely make out the shape of Arthur's body on the couch, unmoving.
He stands there. He has a feeling Arthur's not asleep, not really. And he's right--after a minute Arthur's legs move and he hauls himself up to sitting, making the couch creak drastically. He's got his back to Eames. He runs his hands over his head, clears his throat.
"Morning," says Eames.
Arthur turns his head and looks over his shoulder, his eye slitted like a cat's. He doesn't say anything.
Eames goes out to the cafe and starts the espresso machine.
They keep walking, going the same direction on principle, even though there's no particular reason to believe they'll find anything up ahead, rather than in any other direction. The city is like a forest of old-growth buildings. It goes on forever.
"I rather like that one," Eames says, standing back to look at a steel-and-glass tower canted at an angle like a top resting on its side. "Cobb's, I bet."
Arthur's sitting on the curb, unwrapping the sandwich he took from the cafe that morning. He glances at the building, then looks away up the street. It's sunny again--maybe it will be sunny every day, Eames thinks, with foreboding--and he squints.
"This could go on forever," he says.
Eames considers the wrapping on his own sandwich--ham on baguette with butter, very French--and takes a bite. With his mouth full, he says, "Did you just now figure that out?"
Arthur doesn't answer. He sits with his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging limply out in front of him, staring away up the street. Eames refuses to take the bait. If Arthur wants to sulk, well. It's his eternity.
Licking butter off his thumb, Eames stares up at the tower again. It turns the sun down on him brilliantly, cruelly.
"Definitely Cobb," he says. "With just a touch of Mal."
He crumples up his sandwich wrapping and tosses it into the street when they walk on. Arthur leaves most of his sandwich on the curb, and there aren't even any pigeons to come peck at it.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Arthur asks. It's late afternoon. They're sitting in the shade of an office tower, drinking cold water from bottles taken from a small cash-and-carry place. Eames wonders who had the sense to put those in, here and there. Neither Cobb nor Mal was a very practical-minded designer, he's come to realize.
"Last thing I remember," he repeats, stretching out his legs and wincing at the pain in his calves. "Gun to the head, I guess."
Arthur stares at the street as if there's something written on it. "Me too."
"Which tells us...?" Eames waits, but Arthur says nothing. "Well, it tells us we died and dropped down to limbo, I guess. That's helpful."
Arthur drinks some water. His vest has salt circles under the arms, and he's rolled his sleeves, opened his collar to show a white undershirt, damp with sweat. Of course Arthur wears an undershirt in limbo.
"No," he says. "Not really." He's still studying the street. "But it's somewhere to start."
Whatever small amount of hope Eames may have held out for Arthur to problem-solve them out of this--and he has to admit, he did feel some, because Arthur may be dull as ditch water but he's a point man, by temperament as well as profession. Solving problems is his raison d’être. But whatever small amount of hope Eames feels at seeing Arthur seeming to bring his giant clockwork mind to bear on the problem of limbo, it's gone by evening.
Pretty much all hope is gone by evening, in fact. Because it's late afternoon when Arthur has the idea to go up inside one of the office towers and look around, get the lay of the land, see what they're dealing with. As if they don’t know. They cross a massive marble lobby and take an elevator, a shining steel capsule with mirrors that reflect them as sun-scorched pirates. Eames rests his hands on the steel bar at waist height, leans forward, and examines the freckles that have come out on his nose and cheeks. The tops of his ears are peeling. His lips are cracked.
Arthur stands with his back to the mirror, watching the numbers. There's no music, thank God.
"If it's ninety years of this," Eames says, pulling his collar open and inspecting the sunburn line it leaves behind, "I don't think I'll be able to take it."
"I don't think you'll have a choice," says Arthur, curtly.
Eames turns and looks Arthur over, head to toe. Despite the vicious raking he must have given his hair in the café apartment that morning, to make it lie down flat and wet along his skull, it's falling out now. Limbo lacks hair product. Eames keeps staring but Arthur won't give in, won't turn and look back at him. The elevator dings. Arthur walks out, and Eames follows, sucking his cracked lower lip.
It's the view that kills all hope. They break into an office on the south side, get to a window, and see...the city. Streets and buildings, as far as the eye can see.
"North side," says Arthur, even though they've been coming from the north, walking south all this time. If the sun in limbo is to be believed.
Eames knows already what they're going to see, even before they cross the building and break into another suite and make their way to the CEO's corner, with its sweeping view of three-quarters of the world. Truth be told, he knew before they even came up here. So while he's depressed, yes, he's also surprised when Arthur stands and stares as if he expected something else, besides miles of city and then a limitless ocean. He's surprised when Arthur backs away from the window and sits on the edge of the CEO's massive desk and stares--not at the view, this time, but at some invisible thing in the middle distance.
"We're fucked," Eames says, turning away to wrestle briefly with his own response. It's a whole dead world, a glass killing jar with the lid on, and they're stuck inside.
He goes to the CEO's awards wall, examines the plaques dully, rubs his lips. When he works his way around the room and ends up back at the desk, he expects Arthur to be sitting up straight again, confronting the view. Thinking. That's what Arthur does.
But Arthur is lying on his back with his legs hanging off the desk, his hands laid over his stomach. He's looking at the ceiling. Maybe, Eames thinks, this is Arthur in planning mode. Maybe the glassy expression is actually deep thought.
"So," says Eames. His voice sounds cautious, even to himself.
Arthur rolls his eyes to the side a fraction, looks at Eames without any emotion, then goes back to staring at the ceiling. After a minute he says, "Yeah. We're fucked."
They take the elevator down to the street, which is deep in shadow now. There's no café in sight, nowhere to sleep. They haven't eaten anything except the sandwiches, and Eames thinks he's being fair when he decides they both need a hot bath.
"Come on," he says, and leads the way over to a parked SUV. There's absolutely nothing around to break the window, of course, in this sterile fucking city, so he bruises the point of his elbow on it and tries not to wince. He slides into the driver's seat and pops the ignition casing.
Arthur waits on the sidewalk until he gets the engine going, then walks around to the passenger side and stands with his hand on the door handle. Eames drops the power window.
"Let's go," he says. Arthur looks at him, frowning slightly, as if he's considering his options and is annoyed that Eames is rushing him. "Come on, we can't keep walking forever."
Arthur gets in without a word, and Eames lets himself feel a moment of pissy irritation that he gets no thanks. Then he puts it in drive and they pull out.
The problem is that even with a car, there's really nowhere to go. They drive for an hour or more, until the sky is black and the stars are out, in between the buildings. The radio, when Eames switches it on, plays only drowsy French love ballads. He shuts it off and they drive in silence, the headlights reeling in the streets.
After some period of time, Arthur turns the heat on. Eames looks over at him, and Arthur shrugs. He's got his arms crossed tightly over his chest, his body curled against the door. He's cold, Eames realizes. Well, he hasn't eaten and he's wearing a summer-weight suit. Nights are cold in Cobb's city.
"I'll see if I can find somewhere to eat," Eames says, by way of understated apology. For what, he's not sure. He's the one who got them the car.
There are no more French cafés, no more restaurants or bars at all. If Mal had a quarter, they haven't found it yet. The next variety store he sees, Eames pulls over, even though the window is dark.
"Don't break it," Arthur says. "We can't afford for you to sever an artery."
"From what I remember," Eames says, "if you die in limbo, you just wake up again. In limbo."
"Don't break it," Arthur says again. He sounds tense, as if the thought of one more thing getting broken is more than he can stand. Stubble is starting on his jawline, and in the faint light of the car's dash lights he looks thin and tired and young. Arthur is young, Eames remembers. Not a kid, but still. Young.
He gets out, peers through the window at the shelves of crisps and pop and other rubbish, then goes back to the car. He opens the driver side door and pops the trunk lock.
"You think Mal designed this with a spare?" Arthur asks, sounding wryly amused. Eames gives him a little smile, then goes around and opens the back. Under the carpet, in a recessed compartment, is a jack kit. He takes the jack out and swings it experimentally.
"The thing about dreams," he says, walking to the shop's door, "is that they design themselves, most of the time."
He smashes the glass, reaches in carefully to unlock the door, and goes in. They take the best of what they can find. A few apples from a basket by the till, some beef jerky, some chocolate. Eames wonders what happens if you starve to death in limbo--do you ever actually die or do you just linger in anguish forever?
Arthur grabs a newspaper on their way out, and leaves a quarter on the till.
They sleep in the SUV, when it gets so late that Eames can't keep his eyes open to drive.
"You take the back," he tells Arthur. "I like chairs." He doesn't, not really, but Arthur looks hammered and he did take the couch last night.
Arthur gives him a look, then climbs into the back without discussion. Eames powers his seat back and down, drapes his jacket over his chest, and tries to find a comfortable place to put his head. Behind him, he can hear Arthur curling up on the leather seats. There's no blanket in the car.
He doesn't so much sleep as skate along the surface of consciousness, waking up every time the seats creak.
At one point, when it's still pitch black, he wakes up and realizes Arthur's talking. Arguing, actually.
"I don't care," he says. "That's not the point. That is so not the fucking point right now." He sounds furious.
"Arthur." Eames pauses. He can imagine getting punched in the back of the head for this. By accident, but still. "Go back to sleep."
Arthur says something grumpy that he can't quite make out, then falls silent.
Eames sits staring at the stars through the windshield until his eyelids drop.
When they wake up they're both stiff, exhausted, and in bad moods. When Cobb talked about limbo he made it sound bad enough, but he didn't mention not being able to find a place to eat, sleep, or even wash up. Eames catches scent of himself when he gets out to piss against a building, and winces.
It's weird, still needing to eat and sleep and have a slash. He would have thought all that would go away in the unconscious world, if he'd ever paused to think about it. But apparently all the physical details still hold true, the body's too used to them to give them up. Maybe after ten or twenty years of this they'll be prime elementals, levitating around and eating lotus blossoms. But right now they're still stuck with themselves.
Eames climbs back into the SUV and looks over at Arthur, who's moved up to the passenger seat. He's got his head propped on one hand, and he's squinting through the windshield at the blue sky above. He looks gaunt and pale. There are puffy circles under his eyes.
Arthur nods, then gives a bitter little half-laugh and rubs his face. "Great."
"Sarcasm," Eames observes. "That's good, that's useful." He says it sarcastically, of course, but gently too. It's occurred to him that if Arthur goes depressive or barmy, that will make eternity feel quite a bit longer. Being stuck in limbo is bad enough; being stuck there with a catatonic sounds terrible.
"It's like it's denatured," Arthur says, as they drive through streets that look more or less the same as the ones they drove yesterday. "I mean..." He's rubbing the stubble on his chin, staring out his window. Eames glances at him and waits. "I can't imagine them designing it to look like this. It's too uniform. It's boring."
"It's a fucking nightmare."
Arthur nods. "And didn't Saito build a compound? Where'd that go?"
Eames blinks. He'd forgotten about that. "I don't know."
"Maybe we missed it." Arthur's pressing his fingers to his forehead now, so hard that his nails have gone white. "But Cobb found it right away when he came down. Maybe...maybe he landed somewhere different. That's possible, I guess."
"Sure. Maybe you land close to whatever's there."
"But there's nothing here." Arthur runs his window down and stares at the buildings filing past. "It just repeats."
Eames drives a while, watching the compass in the dash. They're still heading south, away from the ocean. There's no sign of the city stopping anytime soon.
"Maybe," he says, "it's losing character." Arthur turns his head and looks at him. "You know, because they aren't still building it. It is limbo, after all. Maybe if you don't keep building, it loses...focus."
Arthur nods slowly. Then his face changes completely--his eyes sharpen, his jaw slackens. "Pull over."
Eames frowns, but stops the car. He doesn't bother to pull over; there's no traffic.
Arthur's leaning over a little in his seat, taut and urgent. "Can you still forge?"
Eames purses his lips--he hadn't considered it. "Let's see." He looks away, at the sunshine glaring on the hood of the car, the hot asphalt in front of it. It's strange, it's harder to gather up the loose ends than it usually is. Instead of meeting him where he expects to find them—the memory of a face at a certain angle, the moment of insight that opens up a whole seam of character--they slip away. He has to go hunting, pinning each element down and holding onto it while he nets the others. When he has the whole thing in place and it feels more or less like it usually does in dreams, he turns to look at Arthur. "Yeah?"
Arthur's looking at him with an expression of amazement, mixed with excitement. "I've never seen that part before."
"What part?" Eames turns the rear-view mirror and sees that yes, he's looking at himself in Cobb's skin. Cobb's weary blue eyes, Cobb's full jawline and messy hair, Cobb's aura of gloomy distraction.
"Changing," Arthur says. "That's...weird. But yeah, you can do it."
Eames frowns--no one else has ever seen him change before, because in dreams it always happens in hidden moments, when the dreamer's attention is elsewhere. There's no melting to it, no half measures. He's himself one moment, and then, when the dreamer looks back--he's someone else, and in the dream it makes perfect sense. That's how forging works.
"I'm such an idiot," Arthur says, popping his door and sliding out into the sunshine. "Jesus, we're both idiots."
Eames cuts the engine and gets out on his own side. "Sorry, why am I an idiot?"
"Limbo's still dreamspace," Arthur says, staring around at the buildings. "It's not exactly like a dream, but it's still dreamspace. We can still do things." He walks over to the stone steps outside an office building and puts a hand on the metal railing. The gesture is cautious, almost ginger. He looks up at the building itself, towering over them in the blue. "Everything's so fucking big."
Eames turns and looks around. There's a stop sign up ahead on the corner. He nods at it. "What about that?"
Arthur turns, looks at it, then looks at Eames. He looks tense, almost frightened. It's on the tip of Eames's tongue to say something, he doesn't know what--just something to take the edge off the situation--but then Arthur looks away again, back at the stop sign. His face breaks open into a smile, and his shoulders sag.
Eames looks back at the sign. It's not a stop sign anymore. Now it says, "Slow Children at Play." After a moment, when he's not startled anymore, he laughs.
"I'm such a fucking idiot," Arthur says, sounding almost woozy in his relief.
Limbo's not exactly like a dream, but it's still dreamspace, and of course they can use it to build. They should have seen that right away, Eames thinks, but they were probably in shock. And there was the city--Cobb and Mal's endless city, which has its own strange oppressive power. It's like a giant mausoleum, he says to Arthur.
"Necropolis," says Arthur.
"Right," says Eames. "That."
They're back in the SUV, driving slowly west because that puts the sun at their back. Eames is himself again. It was a strange kind of relief to let the Cobb skin go. He had the feeling, which he doesn't have time to examine now but will later ponder at length, that if he held onto a skin too long down here, he might start losing himself in it.
Arthur's himself again too, in a different way. He's sitting up straight, his eyes tracking on each building they pass, assessing it all for its viability to be reworked into something useful. They've agreed on a hotel first, before everything else. Somewhere with beds and baths and decent food.
"Can't you use anything?" Eames asks, peering out his own window at the massive footing of another skyscraper. "I mean, it's dreamspace. You can do anything with it."
"Can you forge without an original?" Arthur asks, sounding remote rather than annoyed. He's seen something interesting; he's turned to look backward. "Maybe Mal and Cobb can fold a skyscraper into a cottage, but I can't."
"Well, you're not going to find any cottages around here."
"Make the block." Arthur's sitting back in his seat, not looking at any more buildings, just staring out the windshield. After a minute he closes his eyes. "Come back around, slow."
Eames turns right at the next corner, crawls down to the next one, and finally comes back around to the street they were just on. This time he can tell there's something different about it. There's a break in the skyline, he realizes. Instead of a solid row of tall buildings, there's one slightly smaller one, a missing picket in the fence.
He pulls up in front of a mid-sized hotel with apricot walls, cream shutters, a portico. There's no sign, but he can smell Italy all over it. He looks at Arthur, who shrugs.
"I had to make something small."
"If it has hot water," Eames says, getting out of the car, "I don't care if it's a fucking dollhouse."
They leave the SUV on the curb and go inside, where there's a marble floor and a few palms in pots, and where the light seems completely different. It's warmer, lower. Eames turns to look out the window while Arthur goes to the empty registration desk.
"Did you do that?" he asks, gesturing at the window. "Change the light?"
"It's how it is in places like this," Arthur says, pulling the registration book from behind the desk and glancing through it. "We'll have to stay on the first floor. I didn't render past that."
They take keys from the pegboard behind the counter, and go up the stairs.
"No people," Eames observes. Arthur nods, rubbing his forehead.
"I don't know. Maybe they'll show up later."
"Maybe limbo doesn't seed projections very well." Eames checks his key, the worn number 12 on the red clay disc. "Which way?"
Arthur nods left. Number 12 is airy and bright, with a ceiling fan spinning overhead and white gauze curtains blowing over little iron and concrete balconies. The bed is big and looks decent. More than decent, it looks brilliant. The bathroom has a full bath, pushed a little awkwardly into the small space. Eames goes back out into the hall and puts his head into Arthur's room, one down from his.
"Looks all right."
Arthur's standing in the bathroom door, looking at the tub. He turns and nods at Eames. "Leave your shoes out. And there's a laundry bag in the wardrobe. Try it."
"There're no people."
Arthur shrugs and opens the medicine cabinet in the bathroom wall. That's odd, Eames thinks--a medicine cabinet in a hotel. It occurs to him that Arthur must have added it. The bathtubs, too--he put those in.
Arthur's rummaging through the cabinet, pulling things out and setting them on the sink. A toothbrush, a box of soap. A straight-edge razor with a tortoiseshell handle, which seems ostentatious for the situation, but who is Eames to judge? "There's one in your room too."
"Full service," says Eames. "Thanks very much." There's a slight uptilt at the corner of Arthur's lips. Not a smile, not quite--a bathtub and shoe polishing aren't enough to make up for the fact that it's still limbo, after all--but it's something.
When Eames comes down, washed and cleanly shaved—his own bath kit was a mirror of Arthur’s, down to the ridiculous razor—his suit is clean and pressed. He left it in a pile in the hall, and it was waiting on a hanger on his doorknob when he looked out. Arthur's already at a table in the dining room, reading the newspaper by the dim little light on the wall. He's shaved and dressed in suit vest and shirt, his tie in place, his creases crisp again. His hair is combed back flat against his skull.
It's dark outside. Eames stands in the lobby with his hands in his pockets, looking out the front windows at the two globe streetlamps on the sidewalk outside, hung with flowerpots. A couple of moths flutter against the lights. It's too dark to see the office building on the far side of the street, and for a moment he can imagine that he's somewhere real.
He turns and walks back to Arthur's table, puts a hand on the back of the chair opposite him. Arthur glances up.
"Listen to this," he says, and goes back to the paper. "'A woman was arrested for burning down a series of bars, small establishments she purchased and ran at a loss but insured heavily, moving westward across the country until at last she reached the ocean and was captured.'" He looked up. "That's in the paper."
"That's Mal," says Eames, sitting down. "Or it seems like her, at least."
"She loved that kind of thing." Arthur shakes his head and folds the paper closed. "Human oddities."
"Well, she did marry Cobb."
Arthur raises an eyebrow, conceding the point. There's a plate at his elbow, a meal of fish and vegetables, half-finished. Eames points at it.
"You built a waiter?"
"I cooked." Arthur lays the paper down and smooths it with his palm. "There's food in the walk-in. If you want something in particular, tell me."
"You can build food, but not people."
"I can...make it the kind of kitchen that has food in it, yeah." Arthur leans back. He's drinking wine, Eames notices--there's a half bottle under the wall lamp, and a glass half empty. "Have you ever even tried to build?"
"Tried it. Failed miserably." In his earliest days, when he wasn't sure what he'd need to learn, what he might need to do. It took him forever to build a simple block structure, like a giant child's plaything, and when he walked inside it fell down and killed him.
"You're going to get some practice." Arthur pushes the carafe toward him, and Eames takes it with a nod of thanks. The wine is deep red and it should taste rich but instead it's thin and flat. He takes a green bean from Arthur's plate. It crunches, but it tastes like paste. Apparently flavor isn't Arthur's strongest point, no surprise.
"How long do you think it's been?" Arthur asks, staring past Eames's shoulder at the windows. Eames thinks.
"Three days here, that's..." He twiddles a fork. "I don't know, a few seconds?"
"If that." Arthur looks grim. "If time doesn't just stop completely. Maybe there's no correlation at all."
"And maybe there's no way to wake us up, topside. Maybe we're cauliflower." Eames takes another swig of the wine, puts down the glass, and stands up. "I'm going to go cook a steak. Sirloin, if I can get it. And I guess I can."
They drink watery-tasting whiskey in the hotel lobby, spread out across two leather couches that Eames hadn't noticed before. It's quiet and comfortable, and he'd enjoy it if it weren't for the slight niggling in his belly, the sensation that he's resting on the edge of something, teetering. He can't pin it down, because of course he isn't teetering on anything. He's over the edge, he's in. He just hasn't caught up with the fact.
"I keep thinking of things I need to do," Arthur says, after they've been sitting there for a while. Really they're lying down, staring at the ceiling with their feet on the cushions. Eames has to raise his head to look at Arthur, who's got his hand over his eyes as if he's pinching back a headache. "Stupid stuff. I have to cancel a flight, that kind of thing."
Eames lets his head drop. "I'm supposed to meet a man about a job in two days." He thinks about it, the extremely large amount of money that's connected to it, the risk that lies all too clearly beneath the surface of the few texts and emails he's received. In a week he might be a great deal richer, or he might be in an Albanian prison cell. For that matter, he might be dead. "I wonder if I'll still care enough to do it, when we get back."
"You're an optimist." Arthur is smiling; Eames can hear it in his voice. "You didn't say 'if'."
"Never saw the point in pessimism."
"I like realism," says Arthur. He reaches down for the bottle of whiskey, pours some into his glass, and brings the glass up to sit on his belly. "I'm a big fan of reality."
"Well," says Eames, "it's a good thing I'm around. As far as I know, I'm the only real thing in this whole bloody world."
The next day the car isn't an SUV anymore, it's a Jaguar XK. Two-door, grey. Eames stands on the curb, fingering the key in his pocket, which is different now, a Jaguar key--he can feel it without even seeing it. Arthur stands beside him, silent and full of unforeseen layers.
Eames holds up the key, but Arthur shakes his head.
"I can't build and drive at the same time." He steps off the curb and starts for the left-hand door, and Eames realizes--he's put the driving column on the right. It's as startling as it was to come downstairs and find a copy of the Guardian on the lobby counter. Full of nothing but nonsensical stocks and abortive political coups, but still.
It strikes him, as he gets into the car, that Arthur is glad to have his company. As glad as he is to have Arthur's.
They drive the neighborhood slowly, around and around, while Arthur stares at buildings and Eames props his head on his hand, waiting for something to spark. At first Arthur seems tentative, almost nervous. He cranes his neck at building after building, focusing on details that Eames can't figure out. He's tempted to ask what the hell Arthur's waiting for, but he doesn't. Forging, when he first tried it, was a scare and a thrill every time. Like jumping off a ledge and hoping the net was there to catch you.
"Make the block," Arthur says at last, settling back into his seat and closing his eyes. Eames spins the beautiful, rumbling car around a couple of blocks at regular pace, to give them time, then brings them back to the same street. In place of one of the office towers is a low brick building with plate glass windows, cafe tables out front, a few trees for shade. They coast to the curb and study it.
"Somewhere familiar?" Eames asks.
"New York." Arthur looks at it for a while, then turns away. "Keep going."
Slowly, he gains confidence. He builds a sake bar, a Brooklyn brownstone, a stern-looking post office with columns and an American flag. Right next to it he puts a strange-looking building that looks like it's made of giant metal ribbons laid end to end. Eames looks at it, then turns to Arthur with the question in his face.
"Museum," says Arthur, squinting at it. "I doubt it's structurally sound, though."
"It looks like something I'd build."
Arthur laughs. "Like I said. Don't go inside."
Inexplicably cheered, Eames drives on. On a second pass down the street, there's a flatiron building where there was none before. He brakes for a closer look.
"You must have changed the streets, then." A flatiron won't work on a grid; there's no reason for it. Arthur's pinched two streets together into an acute angle. "What's on the other side?"
"Go around." Arthur sits back and closes his eyes again, and Eames drives them around to the next block. When he comes down the street he sees immediately what's behind the flatiron, where the angled streets open come out in a sharp pie wedge to meet the grid. There's no building at all there. Instead, there's a green park filled with pink-blossoming cherry trees.
He pulls up, cuts the engine, and gets out. His chest has gone tight and his eyes are hot. It's ridiculous, it's just a park. But something about it--this little green park in the middle of the bleak and endless city--tugs at him. He walks over to the sidewalk and stands with his hands on his hips. The breeze rustles the trees. Shade patterns play across the grass.
Arthur gets out and comes to stand beside him. They don't say anything for a while. From the corner of his eye, Eames can see Arthur rubbing his jaw and temple.
"Pretty," Eames says at last, watching petals drift to the lawn. "But it doesn't smell." He turns to look at Arthur. "It should smell."
Arthur nods. "I can't get that part."
Eames looks back at the park, then walks down into the grass, pulls down a branch, and sniffs it. The scent is faint, almost dusty, like an old sachet left in a drawer. He thinks about how cherries smell in spring, when the pink blossoms are full and open, and smells the branch again. It's better this time. "Here."
Arthur doesn't move for a moment; then he walks down across the grass and stands beside Eames as if he's waiting for a lesson. Eames breaks the branch and holds it out. "Smell that."
Arthur looks at him, his eyes wary. Then he leans forward and carefully, sniffs the branch. It's almost funny, Eames thinks. How cautious he is.
His eyes register the difference, and he leans back. "How did you do that?"
Eames shrugs, brings the branch back to his own nose, and sniffs it again. It's even stronger now, damp and floral and sweet. He smiles and drops the branch.
"They made this whole fucking city," Arthur says. "I can't even imagine how long that took."
"I very much doubt they made it like this. It's denatured, right? You said that."
Arthur nods, but he doesn't seem to be paying attention. "It's so big. I could build for years and never write over it all." He's sitting sideways in his chair, ignoring his plate. He keeps rubbing his head, pinching the bridge of his nose, squinting when he turns to look at something. Eames lays down his own fork and pushes away the rest of his meal. Steak's already getting old, which bodes ill for the next hundred years.
"You don't have to write over it all," he points out. "You've built a hotel and a restaurant and a wobbly museum. What more do you think we need?"
Arthur shakes his head. Eames suppresses the urge to sigh.
"You're not an architect," he says, calmly and firmly. "You're a point man who got shot in the head and dropped into limbo. You're doing fine. Look at me, what can I do? Forging's a fucking party trick down here." Arthur glances at him, and as quickly as he can, he pulls Cobb back on. Then, while Arthur's still looking at him, a little startled, he shifts to his fallback tart, the blonde. He smiles fetchingly, but something crosses Arthur's face--a look that might be disgust, or just displeasure--and he turns away.
Eames drops the tart.
"Sorry," he says. "You're doing fine."
"Thanks," says Arthur, sounding hollow.
Arthur goes upstairs to his room, and Eames digs around in the lobby until he finds a pack of cards. He sits on the leather couch, laying out solitaire games and playing them through, drinking the rich-looking, watery-tasting whiskey in the hotel bottle. At one point he hears Arthur's voice upstairs, pitched fiercely, as if he's in an argument. Italian hotels. Thin walls. It goes on for a bit, then subsides.
It takes more than three hours for him to finish a hand all the way through, no cheating.
The next day Arthur goes out on his own, before Eames is awake. There's a note on the hotel lobby counter, on the hotel stationery: Back for lunch. Arthur's choppy, terse handwriting is familiar--it's been all over background files and whiteboards on the jobs they've worked together. It strikes Eames that he's living in a world created entirely by Arthur. Except for the smell of the flowers.
He cooks eggs on the hotel range, noticing that they taste a little better than the steak the night before. Then he sits fiddling with his poker chip, staring out the window at the globe lamps, and at the Italian newsstand Arthur's put in across the street.
"Finally," he says. "Some peace and quiet around here." His voice bounces off the marble floor and comes back to him.
At last the silence gets to him, and he goes out for a walk, thinking he'll find his way to Arthur's park. He's got the Guardian under his arm out of habit, because he never goes anywhere without a prop, even if it's a deadly dull one. When he gets to the park, he thinks, he can sit on the grass or on a bench if Arthur's put one in, and open the paper and look like any well-to-do man sitting out in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, catching up on world events. For whatever the hell that's worth.
The Jaguar's on the curb, which for a moment makes him think that Arthur can't have gone far, since he'll be on foot. Then he remembers that Arthur can take any car on the street--can even make it into any other kind of car he wants, maybe even turn it into a helicopter--and he might be halfway back to the ocean by now.
He pats the Jaguar's roof as he walks past it. It is a lovely little car.
The streets are perfectly still and bright with sunshine, the shadows already getting shorter. The glare beats down on the parting of his hair, the back of his neck. He's still freckled from wandering through the urban wilderness for two days. Thank God, he thinks, that Arthur finally twigged. Thank God Arthur's here with him at all, to build things. And if Arthur does turn out to be a projection, just a wily ruse of Eames's own unconscious to get around his own loneliness and inability to build--well, thank God for him anyway.
He walks for a while, up the long block of office towers, then hesitates at the corner. The park is up a ways further, then one block off. He can't see the flatiron from here, but he remembers. He thinks.
Ten minutes later he's still walking through office blocks, and he hasn't seen one of Arthur's builds yet. It's starting to bother him. He's usually all right with directions. He stops walking, looks around, and realizes that the city looks pretty much the same in every direction. Big generic-looking concrete towers as far as the eye can see. A prickle of sweat runs down his neck.
He can find his way back to the hotel, he knows--all he has to do is turn around and walk back the way he came up. That's simple. He's not lost. But it occurs to him that if he were lost, if he were to take a turning and forget it, if he got distracted or rushed and didn't mark his way...well, then. He'd be fucked.
He stands there struggling with himself, over the urge to try a turn just for the sake of it, to show he's oriented and not afraid--versus the urge to turn around and go back to the hotel. Which would be the smart thing to do, he knows. If he got lost, how would Arthur find him? By driving every street in the city, probably, in a carefully plotted, methodical, efficient pattern. Still. It sounds laborious.
He sighs, slaps the paper against the flat of his hand, and looks up at the brilliant blue sky. If Arthur's gone off and gotten lost, that'll be another kind of disaster. But not one he can do much about, right now.
He turns and walks back down the street to the hotel.
He's dozing on the leather couch with the front door chocked open when Arthur comes back.
"Nice drive?" He heard Arthur pull up outside, although he hasn't seen what kind of car it is. Arthur looks exactly the same, maybe a little more tired and cross-looking, but still in his brown vest and trousers, his crisp white striped shirt. It's mildly surprising he hasn't built an Ermenegildo Zegna yet.
Arthur drops into the other couch and rubs his forehead. "I built a hill."
"A hill?" Eames leans up on an elbow. "What for?"
"We need to start building in some landmarks. It's all too flat, it's a maze."
Eames nods. It hadn't occurred to him that Arthur could change the landscape like that--not just put buildings on it, but move the ground around. "Where is it?"
Arthur jerks a thumb over his shoulder, north. "Ten miles out, due north. I put a church on top of it."
"A church." For visibility, probably. But Eames wonders if there's more to that, if Arthur might be a closet religious case. It would explain so much. "Catholic?"
"All the ritual, none of that bloody Papery."
Arthur shrugs. Eames sits up. "You probably want a drink. Gin or whiskey?"
Arthur shakes his head and leans back against the couch, his eyes closed. He crosses his arms over his chest and slumps into the back, like a man about to try to fall asleep on a train. Eames studies him.
"You're having headaches," he observes. "Is it from building?"
Arthur doesn’t move. "Yeah."
"Maybe you should take a break. We have plenty of time, after all."
When Arthur doesn't answer, Eames picks up the paper and slopes off to the kitchen to make himself something with gin in it.
Arthur builds a series of hills to the north, an orderly progression from gentle to vertiginous. At the foot of the gentlest hills he lays a river. That means bridges, and it takes him a week to build the first one. Eames sits in the shade of a maple and watches him work. Mostly it involves lying on the grass of the river bank with his fingers laced over his chest, his eyes closed, getting sunburnt. When Eames looks at the river, there's nothing but the big concrete stubs of the bridge footings. When he looks again, there's a deck laid overtop. When he looks back, it's fallen apart again.
"Mal and Cobb didn't put bridges in," he says, gently reproving, watching Arthur pick at his plate of chicken and broccoli in the hotel dining room. "Why bother?"
"There's a river," Arthur says, "in case you hadn't noticed. We might want to be able to get over it someday."
"Yes, there's a river. You put it in, you can take it out. And why would we need to get over it, exactly?"
Arthur shrugs and pushes his plate away.
"You look terrible," Eames tells him. "I think you should back off it for a while."
"And do what?" Arthur says. There are circles like thumbprints under his eyes. He talks in his sleep almost every night, longer and longer sessions of it, arguing some unwinnable point with some faceless opponent.
"Arthur," says Eames, then stops. There's no good way to tell another man that you're worried about him, that you're watching him crumble and you'd really rather he didn't, because he's the only real, living thing in the world and if he goes, he'll take you with him.
Arthur must read it in his face, though, because his eyes harden and his mouth firms. "It's not like you're looking great, yourself," he says, and gets up, dropping his napkin on the table. "We're in fucking limbo, Eames. Basically, we're in hell."
Eames sits alone after Arthur goes upstairs. There's food on his plate and wine in his glass, but he knows without trying them that they're tasteless.
"I'm sorry," Arthur says, the next morning. "About what I said last night. I was out of line."
Eames shakes his head, dismissing it.
"I'm going to take a few days off," Arthur goes on. "Maybe just...walk around."
Arthur lingers a moment longer, taps two fingers on the back of the leather couch, then smiles thinly and goes out.
After a few days of not building anything, Arthur looks better. His eyes aren't red-veined and he stops pinching his nose all the time. On the other hand, he builds up a kind of anxious, jittery energy that Eames understands but still finds annoying. It's limbo, there's nothing to do. It's enervating for anyone, terrible for a personality like Arthur's, which depends constantly on accomplishing things in order to feel right. The same qualities that make Arthur such a good point man, his endless foresight and calculation, make him terrible at sitting still.
"I'm going for a walk," he says, for the third time that day, and Eames squares his cards on the table. He's won more hands of solitaire in the last week than he's probably played before in his life. The cards are getting soft and worn. He knows half of them by their marks, without seeing their faces.
"Why do you think there're no people?" he asks. Arthur stops and considers.
"I don't know. I've tried building things that should have people in them. But it doesn't work."
"Someone does the laundry, though."
"It's a dream," Arthur says. "Or it's close to a dream. There's dream logic."
"My dreams tend to have people in them."
"Mine too." Arthur sits down again and watches Eames shuffle the deck. "Cobb used to talk about it like it was just him and Mal, the whole time. Growing old together."
"But Saito had his men."
"Saito wasn't here to build. He was just waiting out his time."
Arthur rubs a hand over his face. "What does it matter? They'd just be projections anyway."
"Maybe I'm just a projection. Maybe you are. But we can have a conversation, and it passes the time."
Arthur gives him a sour look. "Dream theory 101."
"I'm just saying. As lovely as you are, I wouldn't mind seeing someone else around this place once in a while. It gets a little...eerie."
Arthur watches him deal out another hand of solitaire. For a few seconds he's blank, deflated--then he sharpens. "You're cheating."
Eames looks at him.
"You're bottom dealing."
"Surely not," says Eames, smiling, riffling the cards in one hand. Arthur frowns. "Possibly. Just to see if you'd notice."
"That's your idea of whiling away eternity. Cheating at solitaire." Arthur leans back with his hands loose on his knees, not exactly smiling, but still. Amused. More relaxed than he's looked in days. Eames, feeling triumphant, gathers up the cards and shuffles them.
"Here," he says, popping them from one hand to the other, then fanning them. "Pick a card, any card."
Then there's sex, of course. He may be in limbo but he's not becoming a monk anytime soon, Eames thinks, looking down at the mess in his hand. Eating tasteless food, playing meaningless card games, reading nonsense items in the newspaper, day after day... He puts his hand into the shower spray and rinses it clean. His body feels real, even though he knows it's not. He's been walking every day, now that there are landmarks to steer by. He's not eating much. He's lost weight, put on lean muscle, grown a lazy scruff of beard. His cock is still alive, and functional, and insistent when he tries to ignore it.
A hundred years of masturbation, he thinks, putting his face into the spray. When he was seventeen it would have been heaven. But he's not seventeen, he's thirty-six. It's purgatory.
"How do you make things smell?" Arthur asks. They're eating on the grass in the little park, sharing a bag of plums that are the right density, the right firmness, the right kind of juicy--but that taste bland and vague.
Eames smiles and says, with a note of oily crudeness, "Do you really want the answer to that?"
Arthur acknowledges the joke with a tip of his head, shrugging it off. "Yeah. I do."
"Hm." Eames lies back in the grass on his elbows. "I don't know. It's memory, I suppose."
"Like my memories of buildings."
"Maybe. Not as precise, I don't think."
"I'm not precise with the buildings." Arthur points at the line of cafes across the street, little ones he's popped up in spare moments without, apparently, much effort. "Those aren't exactly like the ones I've been in. They're just...mash-ups."
"More precise, then." Eames smiles. "Surely you've smelled flowers before."
"You've been in buildings."
Eames shrugs. "Touché." He takes a plum from the bag and holds it in his hand, feeling its cool weight, the sweet little promise it makes against his palm. It has a pearly blue dust on its purple skin, he knows that without seeing it. Inside, the flesh will be yellow-green, tender and juicy, the rough small pit lying loose in the center. He knows what it will taste like, how the sweetness will hit his tongue and the slight tartness will pucker the sides of his cheeks, almost painfully, down by his jaw. He holds it out to Arthur. "Try it."
Arthur takes it from him, his expression doubtful. He raises it to his nose, sniffs it, gives it a close look, then bites into it. It's juicier than the others; it squirts a little, and he covers with his other hand. But the look in his eyes--open, startled, pleased--says everything. The plum is sweet, sweeter than the rest at least. He wipes his mouth and hands the uneaten half back to Eames.
Eames takes it with a semi-conscious alert flaring up at the back of his mind, a little message he tries not to pay attention to. It's saying something about the way his fingers touch Arthur's when he reaches out. The way he extends himself to make the contact happen. The little electric heat that sends up his hand, to his arm, to his chest.
Arthur's the only real human being in this place, he tells himself. There's no one else around, Small wonder there's an instinct to touch him. Small wonder it feels good.
He lies back and puts the plum into his mouth entire. It's sweet, cool, almost melting. The pit rolls on his tongue like a tiny pitted rock.
"That's amazing," says Arthur. He sounds a little dazed, a little off balance. Eames takes the pit out of his mouth between finger and thumb, and holds it up to look at it. It looks like a plum pit, brown and moist, pointed at the end, a tight seam tying it up. "How do you do that?"
Eames shrugs and tosses him the pit. Telling himself, it's nothing personal.
The next day Arthur's back at the riverfront, working on the bridge. Eames tags along for the morning, then gets tired of watching pilings fall into the current and walks over to tap Arthur on the shoulder.
Arthur looks up, startled. He's sitting on the grass staring blankly at nothing, his arms wrapped around his knees.
"I'm off for a bit," Eames tells him. "I'll see you for dinner, yeah?"
"Sure." Arthur turns back to the water, one hand rising absently to his temple and rubbing. Eames sighs.
"That’s a terrible tell," he says over his shoulder, in a moment of pettiness. Arthur's hand drops, but he doesn't turn around.
Eames takes the Jaguar up to the top of Church Hill, as he's started thinking of it. Not very imaginative, he can admit. But there is a bloody big church on top of it, with a giant white cross that somehow looks more like a cross-hairs than any sort of religious icon. The name does suggest itself.
The church itself is a massive granite block, with small dark windows and heavy eaves, completely uninviting. Eames has driven around it before, thinking that if it's just a placeholder that's one thing, but if it has any religious significance for Arthur, it's just depressing. In either case, it's telling that Arthur didn't think to put anything else up here--a park, a garden, a petting zoo. It's just a bare, windblown rock with a two-lane access road.
Eames goes up anyway, because he likes the view. He parks the Jag and gets out, walks to the base of the cross, and stands staring at the massive block of the city, now starting to be jigsawed by Arthur's shops and hotels and restaurants. The flatiron stands out, a reliable marker in the grid. The river is a dark winding line, the thickness of his little finger. Half the bridge is up, pilings and deck. As he watches it seems to waver, then holds still.
He looks up at the endlessly blue, cloudless sky. There's nothing to see but the cross, reaching up a hundred feet into the air. It seems suddenly obnoxious to him, almost oppressive--this huge white cross looming over the landscape. As if religion has anything to do with where they are, in limbo. Nowhere. He has to piss anyway, so he does it against the cross. When he's done he zips up and waits, thinking that this will be the moment when the sky will finally break, a lightning bolt will shoot down and fry him, or a horde of projections will surge out of the church and tear him to bits.
Arthur must not be religious, or his unconscious must not care much about symbols, because nothing happens.
A week passes, or more. Eames has lost count of the days. Arthur's back on the river every day, working on the bridge. He comes back in early evening, sun-browned and exhausted, touching his head and then dropping his hand when he catches himself at it.
Eames cooks. He's good at it, and things taste better when he makes them, even if he doesn't concentrate.
They don't talk much. There isn't much to talk about.
When he shaves, washes, brushes his teeth, Eames finds himself staring into his own face fixedly, memorizing the lines of his eyes and cheeks, as if he were looking at someone he might someday need to forge.
"I got the bridge up," Arthur says one night, after they've already eaten and sunk into the couches. The hotel lobby is starting to feel like home, even though every time they leave it tidies itself.
Eames raises his head. "You didn't say."
Arthur shakes his head, then lifts one shoulder in a gesture that Eames would call self-conscious in anyone else. "It took me long enough."
"Congratulations." Eames sits up and peers out the windows. It's almost dark. "Let's go up and see it."
"It's just a bridge." Arthur frowns. "It's not even cantilevered."
"It's up," says Eames, standing up. "That's enough. And besides, what else is there to do?"
They take the Jaguar, Eames balancing a glass of slightly peaty-tasting whiskey in his crotch despite Arthur's black look. "I promise I'll be careful. It's not like there's any other cars on the road."
There are more globe lamps along the riverside, lighting a path along the water. The bridge is a great black arm reaching over to the far shore. It's functional, not beautiful, but it's there, it's working. They walk down to the edge, where they can hear the water running. The sound is right, Eames thinks, but it should smell more. Rivers smell like water and mud. He'll have to come back sometime and see if he can work that out.
"So." Arthur's got his hands in his pocket, rocking on his heels. "It's a bridge."
Eames leans back, puts his hands on his hips, and takes the whole thing in. "It's bloody brilliant."
"It's a bridge."
"It's fucking gorgeous." Eames turns to Arthur. "You worked weeks on this. It's huge."
Arthur gives him a sideways look. "You don't have to make a big deal about it. I mean, I didn't tell you to make you--" He shrugs. "It's just a bridge."
"Sorry." Eames steps back, feet together, contrite. "You're right, it's just a bridge. I rescind my congratulations."
Arthur smiles, very slightly. "Thank you."
Eames turns to look at it again. Unlike the cross, there's something soothing about it. It's enormous and simple. It does a job.
He sips from his glass, then passes it to Arthur, who takes it, drinks, and passes it back. He's smiling now, looking tired but happy. Eames doesn't think about it. He just puts out his arm and gives Arthur one of those rough one-armed hugs that men give other men.
"Well done," he says. Arthur smiles, and doesn't step away. They stand there for a minute, and then Eames raises his glass to the bridge, drains it, and claps Arthur on the back. "Fucking gorgeous," he says again.
“I could give you some variety," Eames says a few evenings later. They're playing a modified version of hearts for two, but they need a new deck of cards. They both know all the marks now.
Arthur's studying his hand, slumped in the opposite couch. "What?"
"Variety. The spice of life. I can't make buildings, but I can make company."
Arthur looks up at that, his eyes still a little blank, not quite tracking. Eames shrugs.
"I won't be offended, believe me. If you'd like to see someone else across the dinner table once in a while."
"Forging," Arthur says. "You mean, forge someone else?"
"It's what I do." Eames spaces his cards in his hand. "It'd have to be someone I've seen, of course. Cobb's easy, or I could do Mal--"
"No," Arthur says. "Not Mal."
Eames licks his finger and straightens the edge of a card. "All right. Someone else, then." Someone who didn't build half the city and then jump out a window.
Arthur says nothing.
"Ariadne," says Eames, unable to stop himself. "You liked her."
"Why would I want you to be her?"
"I'm not saying you would. I'm just saying, if you want a bit of a change. I can be someone you've never met." He shrugs. "Could be nice."
"Nice for what?" Arthur lays down the eight of spades, leaves his finger on it a moment, then takes it away and leans back. "It would still be you."
"Dream theory 101," Eames says. "I'd be whoever you thought I was."
"I'd think it was you."
"Well." Eames lays down his own spade and leans back. "That part's out of my hands."
Arthur looks at his cards, but his mind is obviously elsewhere. Thinking it through.
"Eternity's a long time," says Eames. "There must be people you want to see."
"I wouldn't be seeing them." Arthur looks up at him, his forehead creased. "Anyway, what about you?"
“I already said, I don’t mind. I can do anyone you want.”
Arthur stares at him. “I mean, I can’t forge. You’re stuck with me. So it’s not exactly fair if I get to see other people.”
Eames laughs. “Are we seeing other people now?” To his delight, Arthur flushes. “You’re a gentleman, Arthur. If it doesn’t go both ways, you won’t do it?”
“No, seriously.” He flicks the cards with his fingernail. “It’s the least I can do. If you weren’t here, I’d be wandering through office towers for all eternity. Eating crisps and chocolate bars.”
“You don’t owe me anything.”
“Just think about it,” Eames says. “It’d give me something to do for a change.”
They play out the rest of the hand. A few times, Eames notices Arthur giving him quick sideways glances.
He forges for himself, just to keep in practice. In the bathroom, in the mirror. He stands watching himself turn from Yusuf to Kurt to Madeleine to blonde tart to Gerald to Alex to Cobb to Kruger to the wall-eyed ginger accountant he saw in the Tube once, with the black ink stain over his breast pocket.
When he comes back to being himself, he has to look carefully to make sure he has all the details right. To make sure his eyes are the right color, the dip of his clavicle just so.
He forges Arthur, and it’s easier than when he does himself.
Arthur builds a second bridge, half a mile downstream from the first one. It takes him most of a week and it has a huge round arch, like a split wheel, arcing from one side to the other. He comes back to the hotel when it’s finished, after a marathon two-day session on the shore. He’s pale-faced and wobbly, but he’s smiling.
“Done?” asks Eames, from the couch, where he’s reading deadly boring things in the paper.
“Done,” says Arthur, then goes quickly upstairs and, by the sound of it, throws up in the toilet.
Eames sighs and cracks the paper, and reads another article about covert operations in El Salvador.
A morning sometime after that, Eames wakes up and doesn’t feel like getting up. There’s sunshine in the window, a gentle breeze in the curtains--where does the hotel breeze come from? he wonders. There’s no breeze outside, there’s no weather at all. It must come from Arthur’s memories. He pulls the covers up and rolls over.
Sometime later he hears Arthur open his door and go downstairs. He dozes.
Sometime long after that, there’s a knock.
“What,” he says, without getting up. The room is small, there’s no other noise--he doesn’t have to yell.
Arthur pauses, then says, “Are you sick?”
Eames rubs his eyelids. “Can you even get sick in limbo?”
There’s a pause.
“I’m not sick,” he says. “I’m just lazy. Go about your business.”
Then Arthur’s feet go away from the door, and down the stairs. Eames rolls over and looks at the curtains until he can sleep again.
He stays in the room all day. Calls room service and leaves a message for croissants and sausages, finds them outside his door on a tray, leaves the tray out when he’s finished, and falls asleep listening to hear if there will be footsteps coming to make it disappear.
The next day he gets up as usual and eats breakfast downstairs, with Arthur. Arthur gives him a few looks, but doesn’t say anything.
“Another bridge?” Eames asks, taking the Guardian off the counter. The date is always smudged, impossible to read.
“Yeah.” Arthur takes an orange from the bowl and stands up. “I’ll be at the river. If you want to, uh.” He pauses, looking a little uncertain. “Come by.”
“No doubt I will,” Eames says, into his paper.
Eames chooses an orange and holds it for half an hour, thinking of sunshine, Florida, crisp green leaves, little fragrant white blossoms, brilliant pith, the acrid spray that comes out of the rind. When he opens it and tries it, it’s delicious.
He spends a whole day in the kitchen, cooking messes of food. When Arthur gets back he’s too sick to eat, and Eames isn’t hungry anyway, from all the sampling. He leaves it all in the kitchen and by morning it’s gone.
He walks the river path, working on the smells. Without telling Arthur, he goes to the condemned museum and ventures into the lobby. The light is gorgeous, white and clear. He climbs an office tower, lies down on the desk of a trout-faced CEO, and jerks off.
He cuts himself shaving, and licks the blood from his finger.
He lies down in the middle of the street at dusk and stares at the stars until he falls asleep.
The third bridge is a drawbridge, probably immeasurably more complicated and certainly more imposing than the previous two. Arthur looks deathly. Eames stands staring at it, his glass in his hand, trying to work up some enthusiasm.
“It’s terrific,” he says. “Look at that great ruddy thing. What a monster.”
Arthur turns. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Come down here and pretend to admire it. I don’t need you to do that.”
“Of course you don’t, you’re the master builder. Still.” He swigs and squares his shoulders gamely. “It really is something.”
“I’m not building them for you,” Arthur says, turning away. He looks like he’s been punched in the eyes. Even more telling, he looks like he’s slept in his clothes. Still, it’s one of the more interesting things he’d said in a while, so Eames leans closer.
“Course you’re not. I’m the one that told you we didn’t need a bridge at all.” He studies the stubble on Arthur’s jaw. “But I have to admit, now that they’re up, they look good.”
“They’re useful. And they keep me busy.”
“They make you sick,” Eames says, then raises his hands. “Not that it’s my business.”
Arthur clenches his jaw, but doesn’t say anything for a minute. “No,” he says at last. “I know. You’re right. But what the fuck else is there to do?”
“You’re not the sitting-around type,” Eames observes, feeling sympathy.
“Nobody is. Not when you’re talking about eternity.” Arthur bites at his thumb savagely, then drops his hand as if he’s schooled himself not to do it. “It’s worse than being dead.”
“You don’t know that. Being dead could be horrible.”
“This is horrible,” Arthur spits, turning on him. For a moment Eames is sure Arthur’s going to shove him, and the thought both shocks and excites him. It would be contact, at least. He’d like a fight, if it came to that. But it passes. Arthur keeps his fists down, and turns back to the bridge. “This is a fucking nightmare. And it’s endless.”
“They’ll wake us up,” Eames says. “They’ll give us a kick and we’ll wake up, and this will all be over.”
Arthur gives him a look of disdain. “This isn’t a dream. We don’t just wake up, like we would in a dream.”
“Well, what do you want me to say? That we’re stuck here sniping at each other until we’re a hundred?”
“It’s the truth.”
“You don’t know that. Saito got out.”
“Because Cobb came and got him. And he was an old man by that time. A few minutes in the third level--a few seconds topside, and it was forty years down here.” Arthur shakes his head. “Forget it. We’re stuck.”
“Look, I know you’re upset but you’re not the only one--”
“I’m not the only one who’s mad? You lie around in bed all day and eat fruit. You don’t seem mad to me, you seem checked out.” Arthur’s really angry now, his mouth is pinched white and his eyebrows are drawn down sharply. “How the fuck are you going to spend eternity, Eames?”
“Listening to you whinge, apparently.”
“I can live without the fruit, okay? Maybe if you tried a little harder you could figure out how to do something that actually fucking matters.”
Eames stands there for a second, thinking about how it would feel, his fist in Arthur’s face. The crunch of bone, the solid jolt up his arm. It would feel good. Very good.
He steps back, looks down, and sees he’s still got the glass in his hand. He pitches it into the darkness and turns to look at the river.
“I’m...sorry,” Arthur says, although he doesn’t sound particularly sorry. “That was...I’m tired.”
Eames nods. After a minute he says, “I’m going to walk back. You can drive, yeah?” He tosses the key over without waiting for Arthur to answer, and walks off down the grassy slope to the line of globe lamps leading away into the dark.
When he gets back, after a few hours of walking around the city, the Jaguar’s parked at the curb. The hotel lobby is dimly lit, the upstairs windows are dark. The whole place is silent.
There’s a new deck of cards sitting on the table by the couches. Still sealed. He touches it with one finger, then puts it in his pocket and takes it up with him, in case the hotel decides to tidy it away in the night.
It’s amazing, really, that they haven’t fought harder, and that nobody’s thrown a punch. Eternity, in limbo, with a coworker. That’s hardly anyone’s idea of a decent time, even if the coworker is someone who gets the job done, provides a nice view, and can occasionally flirt a bit without it having to mean anything. Arthur is all right, on the whole. But if Eames had had his pick of people to bring down with him... He spends some time considering it, while he shaves off every trace of his beard.
There was a German girl, for a while when he was in his twenties, with amazing tits and a whipcrack laugh. Hulda. He could have stayed with her, he thinks, if he hadn’t been too young and stupid to know a good thing when he had it. She might have stayed with him, if he’d grown up a bit.
He forges her and studies her face in the mirror. Her soft pale skin, her dark eyes. It wasn’t true love, he doesn’t believe in that, but it was something. He might have been happier if he’d given that a chance.
He doesn’t have Hulda but he has her marvelous tits, so he steps back into the shower and rubs off under the spray. When he comes he sounds like her, which makes him come again. Orgasms in female skins are always better.
Later, drying off, he hears Arthur walk out of his room and go downstairs. Italian hotels. Thin walls.
Eames looks at himself in the mirror, at his smoothly-shaved cheeks, his tattooed shoulders, his familiar chin and mouth. He brushes a hand across his stomach, pulls appraisingly on his cock. Arthur must have heard. And a woman’s voice, too. He’ll know what that’s about. Maybe he’ll imagine it a little.
Eames thinks of Arthur saying it’s not exactly fair--not fair that Eames can forge company for Arthur but not the other way around. No imagination, that’s Arthur’s problem. If anything’s not fair, it’s that Eames can make company for himself, can show himself whatever bodies he wants to, when Arthur’s stuck seeing and being and probably fucking himself. For eternity.
The next day Arthur says, “Drive me up to the church, will you?”
Eames looks up from his roll and coffee. “What, up the hill?” It’s a pointless question; Arthur’s only built one church. “What for?”
“I want to try something.” Arthur’s drinking his coffee at the bar, sketching on a napkin.
“If you’re going to blow that fucking church up, I won’t stop you.”
“I’m not going to blow up the church.”
“Just a thought.”
They drive up and park, looking out over the river and the three bridges and the city. In the far distance, there’s a gray bar on the horizon--the ocean.
Arthur slides out of the Jag, walks around to the front, and stands staring at the city for a minute. Then he climbs up on the hood and sits there, cross-legged.
Eames puts his head out the window. “Are we going to be here long?”
“I don’t have anything to read.”
Arthur doesn’t bother to reply to that. Eames gets out and goes for a walk around the church, inspecting it from all angles. It’s equally hideous from each side.
He comes back to the lookout but there’s no change--just Arthur sitting on the hood, staring out at the silent, sunlit city. Eames goes up the church steps and, with some misgivings, opens the door.
It’s quiet inside, of course. Dark and austere, the floors made of shining heartwood, the long ranks of pews all empty. Eames hasn’t gone to church since he was a boy, and he didn’t think much of it then, but he walks around looking at the stained glass windows and tapestries. They’re mostly punitive, bloody saints and crucifixes, confirming Arthur’s issues. Eames sits down on a pew and takes a Bible from the shelf in front. He starts reading with Genesis, the creation of the world. Halfway through the chapter, he falls asleep.
When he wakes up he knows some time has passed; the angle of the light through the windows has changed. He slots the book back into the pew back and goes out.
Two things are different. First, the ocean is gone. Instead, or in front of it, there’s a blue and purple mountain range on the far side of the city. Mountains. Eames stares at them for a few seconds, trying to understand. It takes him that long to notice the second thing, which is that Arthur is hunched over on the Jag’s front bumper, clutching his head.
Eames runs down the steps, crosses the drive, then pauses. He doesn’t know if he should touch Arthur. If that’s allowed, or if it would even be useful.
“You made mountains,” he says, in case Arthur hasn’t heard him coming. “How the hell did you do that?”
Arthur glances up, and Eames sees he’s not clutching his head--he’s got his fingers pressed to the bridge of his nose. Blood is running out of it, down over his lips and chin. There’s blood, shockingly red, all down his shirt and vest. His eyes are watering and he looks exhausted.
“Did it work?”
“Jesus Christ.” Decided, Eames goes over and takes Arthur’s arm, turns him, and pushes his hand away from his nose. The blood runs out faster. “Come on, tip your head back.”
Arthur shakes his head. “Common misconception. You swallow blood, you get sick.”
“It’ll make it stop.” He puts Arthur’s hand back over the bridge, and goes into the Jag to find a cloth. There’s some fancy windshield rag in the glove box. He brings it back and bundles it under Arthur’s nose.
Arthur’s not paying attention; he’s looking out at the mountains. His expression isn’t delighted or awestruck. It’s pragmatic, assessing. “They’re smaller than I wanted.”
“They’re fucking mountains,” says Eames. “They’re very impressive. Get in the car, we’re going home.”
Arthur laughs a little, and Eames hears himself: nagging, shrewish, like a mother.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were going to do that,” he says, despite himself, then takes another look at the mountains. He can’t quite believe he’s seeing them. Mountains in the distance, with blue shadows at their base. A little white snowcap on top. He looks at Arthur, fumbling with the passenger door handle, and feels his throat tighten. Fucking mountains.
“I don’t think you should do this anymore,” Eames says, trying to keep his voice low and reasonable. “It’s obviously not good for you.”
Arthur’s slumped on a stool on the other side of the long kitchen island, his elbow propped on the cutting counter, his cheek propped on his hand. He’s taken off the blood-stained shirt and vest--good luck to the hotel laundry with them, Eames thinks--and he’s in his undershirt and trousers. There’s dried blood on his cheek and knuckles. He looks meditative, almost dreamy.
“Are you listening to me?” Eames asks, pulling the kettle off the range. “Or am I just talking to myself?”
“I’m listening,” Arthur says. On the ride back he sat quietly, holding the cloth to his nose and staring at the mountains. Saying nothing.
“You may not have noticed,” Eames goes on, sloshing hot water into a cup with a teabag, “but we are in limbo. If you turn yourself into a vegetable down here, I’m going to be very upset.”
“Arthur.” Eames turns, puts the cup on the counter in front of him, and lays his elbows on the counter too. He leans close, expecting Arthur to pull back. But Arthur just sits there, gazing back at him with glazed, reddened eyes. There are lines at the corners of them, and the skin beneath is translucent, almost gray. “I’m serious. You’re making yourself ill.”
“I don’t think you can get sick in limbo,” Arthur says, reaching for the cup.
“You can get an impressive nosebleed, though. Honestly, don’t you think you’ve built enough?”
“Enough for what?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Eames draws back. “What do you want me to say? Please, darling Arthur, stop beating your head against brick walls, I’m worried about your brain?”
Arthur lifts the cup and takes a careful sip. When he puts it down he’s smiling. “Oh, Mr. Eames. I didn’t know you cared.”
Eames balls up a damp dish rag and throws it at the wall. “Fine. Turn yourself into a turnip.” He goes out and stands in the lobby, fighting the urge to turn right back around and go in shouting. Arthur’s urge to build is starting to seem less like nervous energy or practical necessity, and more like an idée fixe. He has all the right qualities for an obsessive masochist. He’s a point man, after all--it’s his job to obsess, and to throw himself into harm’s way. He would have made an excellent kamikaze pilot.
Eames is still standing in the lobby thinking darkly about Arthur’s self-destructive tendencies when he realizes something’s different. The light outside has changed. It’s late afternoon, not yet evening, but the light’s faded. It’s almost as if—
He goes to the door, which is always chocked open now, and looks out. The sky is sheeted with heavy grey clouds. While he stands there staring, a few flecks of rain hit his face.
“Weather,” says Arthur, from just behind him. Eames looks at him. He smiles, a little lopsided, a little punchdrunk. “That’s...what I was hoping.”
Eames stares. Arthur steps past him, out into the street, and shades his eyes with his hand to look up. The rain’s started to fall harder, in bigger drops. They mark his undershirt, hit his arms and run down, streaking his skin. He lifts his arm and looks at it, looks at Eames, and smiles.
Eames walks out into the street beside him, and they stand there together while the rain starts to pour down.
“I still think you should give it a rest,” Eames says. They’re drinking whiskey toddies on the lobby couches. Arthur’s wrapped in a blanket from one of the rooms upstairs, his towel-dried hair finger-combed back off his face. Eames is in the hotel robe, his bare feet up on the table. They’re both tired and giddy from the hard cool rain pounding down on their skins, soaking through their clothes and hair, filling their shoes. It’s still raining, as the sky darkens toward night.
“Nag,” says Arthur.
“I used to tell Cobb you had no imagination,” Eames says. “I could have sworn I was right.”
“It’s not imagination.” Arthur pillows his head more comfortably on the arm of the couch, his eyes on the plate glass window. “It’s meteorology.”
They sit a while, listening to the rain on the roof. When Eames looks over next, Arthur’s eyes are closed and his lips are parted. He’s breathing softly. Asleep.
“You are surprising, aren’t you?” Eames asks. He watches Arthur sleep for a while, then leans over to pull the blanket up. Arthur’s eyelids flutter open halfway. “Go back to sleep,” Eames tells him. “Tomorrow I’ll make orange juice that actually tastes like oranges.”
Arthur smiles, and closes his eyes, and goes back to sleep.
The next morning Eames wakes up to the sound of Arthur coughing. He lies in bed for a moment, reassembling--the mountains, the rain--then puts a hand over his eyes. Arthur’s exhausted, probably underfed and dehydrated, and he stood out in a cold rain for...how long? Eames doesn’t remember. It’s a bit blurry, the adrenaline and the whiskey get in the way. But apparently it was long enough.
“That answers one question,” he says, putting a cup of tea down in front of Arthur, who’s still on the couch, still bundled in the blanket, hacking up his lungs.
“You can get sick in limbo,” Arthur says, smiling weakly, wiping his mouth. “Good to know.”
They spend the day in the lobby, Arthur tossing on the couch. He doesn’t go to his room, doesn’t shut himself off, which is what Eames would have expected him to do. He seems quietly glad for company, curled up shivering in his blanket while Eames reads the paper in a chair nearby. It would be a nice domestic scene, Eames thinks, if Arthur weren’t sick as a dog.
It rains all morning, a quiet pitter-patter against the windows. The air is cool and fresh-smelling. They’ve shut off the overhead fan and closed the door.
At noon Eames opens a tin of soup and brings Arthur a bowl. “Have that.”
Arthur takes the spoon with a self-conscious smile. “You did tell me.”
“Maybe next time you’ll listen.”
“Probably not.” He’s pale, with pink circles in his cheeks and a tuberculotic gleam in his eyes.
Grumbling, Eames goes upstairs to get a thermometer from the medicine cabinet. Arthur’s temperature is 102. Eames gives him aspirin and a glass of genuinely orange-tasting orange juice.
“Tell me something,” Arthur says, taking the pills from Eames’s palm with hot fingers.
“Tell you what?”
“I don’t know. Something. How’d you learn to forge?”
Eames sits down on the other couch. He feels stupidly, momentarily pleased that Arthur’s asking about him. It’s just to pass the time, he reminds himself. But still. A real conversation, after all these weeks of arguing over headaches and bridges--it’s welcome.
“I won’t tell you that,” he says. “But ask me something else.”
Arthur sinks deeper into his blanket, his eyes glittering with fever. “What’s your family like?”
“You’ve read my backgrounds.”
Arthur lifts a shoulder. “Only child. You had money. You went to private school.”
“Public school. Westminster.”
“But you didn’t go into the family business.”
“There wasn’t a business to speak of. My grandfather was a stockbroker, my father was a solicitor. Now, if we’d had a small vegetable stand...”
“What was your dad like?”
Eames puts his head to the side and looks at Arthur, considering. “A good man,” he says at last. “But weak.”
“Cheated like mad. On my mother, I mean. Though it was all so blatant, I don’t know if it really counted as cheating.” He runs his hand down his leg, smoothing the fabric of his trousers. “My father was not cut out for monogamy.”
“What about your mother?”
“Oh, well. A very good wife, I think. Lovely face, excellent taste in clothes, and a blind eye to my father’s many flaws.”
Arthur nods. “Did you get along?”
“What, with her? I suppose so. She was fairly--” Eames waves a hand above his head, to convey something of his mother’s aloofness, her bare infrequent affections. “We got on better once I was grown up.”
“And your dad?”
“You are full of questions, aren’t you.”
“My dad died when I was seven.” Arthur says it easily, without force or defensiveness, the way he’d say, I need to redo that exit, or I’ll have the garden salad. “He worked in a department store.”
“Really.” Eames knows this, more or less--and of course, Arthur knows he knows. They’ve worked together enough times to know each other’s backgrounds by heart. But they’ve never talked about any of it, never raised the subject of family or home lives. Not even after jobs were finished, when they were flush and happy with each other. What Eames knows of Arthur is what’s written in black and white and what he surmises. He’s fairly good at surmising. “Do you remember him much?”
“Sure. I used to like watching him shave. He used a straight razor.”
“Ah.” It makes sense now, the shaving kits Arthur created. “That’s a nice ritual.”
“And he brought boxes home from work, so I could make forts. It drove my mother nuts, having boxes all over the place.”
“The start of your building career.”
Arthur doesn’t seem to hear that. He says, “When he died my mother lost the house.” He’s flushed, dry-lipped. “So we lived with her sister for a while. That was...nuts. They had four kids, in a tiny little apartment in Philadelphia. We ended up going to California and living in a trailer until I was thirteen.”
Eames says nothing. This is probably not something that Arthur is going to be pleased about having shared with him, come tomorrow.
“You know how he died?” Arthur asks, and Eames shakes his head. The background didn’t have that detail. Not that he isn’t curious.
“Aneurysm,” Arthur says, and laughs. “Cerebral aneurysm. He was in a coma for a couple of weeks.”
Arthur shrugs. “Ironic.”
Arthur looks at him. “Because I make my living doing something that has a high likelihood of putting me in a coma. Because I guess I’m in a coma right now. So are you.”
Eames purses his lips. “My father died in a traffic accident.”
“Shit.” Arthur looks genuinely stricken. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t mean there’s any greater chance that I will, too.”
Arthur nods and scratches his head. “What did your mother do? When your father died.”
“Moved to South America.” Eames smiles at Arthur’s look. “Where she opened a lingerie store.”
“A small chain, actually. She was always good with figures, I wish I’d got some of that. She’d been to Buenos Aires before she married, she...nostalgized. She ran her little business and lived in a house by the beach and had inconsequential affairs. She lived there very happily until just a few years ago.”
Eames inclines his head. “Cancer.”
Arthur sits staring at the table, then suddenly smiles. “Lingerie. Seriously?”
“I used to visit, and sit in on the model fittings. It was...stimulating.”
Arthur laughs, and Eames laughs too, feeling pleased with himself. They’re good memories--his mother smoking her long cigarettes, casting him sidelong glances as the gorgeous, leonine girls walked around the back room in tiny panties, fluttering lacy little bras, camisoles, teddies. The afternoon sunshine lying in long bars across the wooden floors, the blue sky through the high arched windows. The conversations that floated from point to point, without ever landing on the specifics of what, exactly, he was doing with himself these days. The cool kiss she brushed across his cheek when he got up to leave, some girl always waiting for him at the door.
“My mom got her associate’s,” Arthur says. “Bookkeeping. She did night school.”
Eames pulls himself out of his memories, and clears his throat. “Good for her. There’s always work for someone who can keep books.”
“And then what? After California?” Eames sees the faint flatness that comes across Arthur’s face, and thinks--that’s it, the wall’s come down. Arthur doesn’t want to talk about after California, so he’ll deflect the way Eames did when he didn’t want to talk about his father, or learning to forge.
But Arthur doesn’t deflect. He pauses, but then his mouth twists sardonically and he says, “She married Deacon Tinter.”
“She did the church’s taxes. Tinter started coming around after that.” Arthur’s expression is tight, almost disgusted. “They got married and we moved into his house.”
“You and your mother.”
“And Philip.” Oh yes, Eames thinks--there was an older brother. “He was sixteen. Jesus, they used to fight.”
“Philip and Tinter.”
“Yeah.” Arthur rubs a hand over his face, looking up at the ceiling with a kind of hopeless humor. “I hated that guy so much.”
Eames lets that sit. He thinks of the church on the hill, the giant stone pile--ugly from all angles--that Arthur felt somehow obligated to use as his first landmark. If he remembers correctly, Arthur’s brother still lives in California. Odd jobs, truck rentals. Something like that.
“How did you meet Cobb?” he asks, because he’s wondered.
Arthur looks vaguely surprised, as if he’s been pulled out of his own memories. “I took his class.”
Arthur shakes his head, smiling. “He was doing postdoc work, he taught a class on the psychology of dreams. I was interested. And it was supposed to be a gut course.” Off Eames’s look, he adds, “Easy A. I thought.”
“And was it?”
“No.” Arthur’s eyes drift away. “After I dropped out I tracked him down. He’d told me about this experimental stuff he was doing, and I just...wanted...” He trails off.
Eames looks away, at the rain-streaked window. It’s late afternoon, time soon for him to go into the kitchen and make something taste edible.
“Anyway,” says Arthur, sounding tired and a little embarrassed. “That’s more than you wanted to know.”
“No,” says Eames. “It’s really not.”
Arthur’s fever breaks that night, and he spends most of the next day asleep in his room with the door closed. When he comes down the following morning, he’s in a plaid check shirt and khakis. Eames, sitting on the couch trying to bring life to a cup of coffee, gives him a questioning look.
“My suit’s trashed,” Arthur says. “And anyway. It was getting kind of old.”
“Eternity is a long time to spend in one waistcoat,” Eames agrees, going back to his cup.
Arthur takes an orange from the bowl and sits across from him. “I’ll put clothes in your room too.”
“I don’t get to pick?”
“You can tell me what you want.” Arthur’s focusing on peeling the orange in a single strip. He’s still wan, but he seems more relaxed, more comfortable, maybe a little happier. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“You can’t convince me you’ll get the fit right. I pay a man in Hong Kong an obscene amount to camouflage my failings.”
Arthur glances up at him. “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of your fit.”
Eames pauses. “Cheeky.”
Arthur laughs, drops the peel on the table, and goes to the kitchen to make his own cup of tasteless coffee.
The rain tapers, then stops. They go for a slow walk, because Arthur’s still got a cough and as Eames points out, what’s the hurry? The sidewalks are wider than he recalls, the street narrower. There are more trees, more little shops and restaurants, their scalloped canvas awnings steaming dry in the sun.
“Salma Hayek or Rachel Weisz,” says Arthur. They walk a bit while Eames considers.
“Wrong. Definitely Weisz.”
“There’s no wrong answer. That’s not how it works.”
“You just like her because she has an accent.”
“They both do.”
“An English accent.” Eames smiles. “I can’t blame you. Pleasant associations and all that.”
“When you forge,” Arthur asks, “what does it feel like?”
“What do you mean?”
Arthur frowns. “Does your body feel like yours, or like the other person’s?”
“So how do you know what that feels like?”
Eames shrugs. “Imagination.”
“I can’t believe,” says Arthur, “that you can’t even do this much.”
“Thank you. Perhaps later we’ll have a session on making things taste decent.”
“It’s a shed, Eames. It has four walls and a roof. How can you not build that?”
“Obviously it’s not for want of a sterling teacher.”
Arthur puts his hands up and walks away. Eames goes back to visualizing a small garden shed, like the one behind the house when he was growing up, just four solid plaster walls and a thousand-year-old roof covered in moss and leaves--
There’s a creaking sound, and the shed he’s half-built collapses in on itself, flattening the grass of Arthur’s park. Eames stares at it dejectedly.
“Okay,” says Arthur, walking back. “Let’s try foundations again. Just a basic concrete pad.”
“It’s six months today,” Arthur says. Eames looks up from his paper. “Since we’ve been here.”
“Is it really.” Eames sits back and tosses his napkin on the table. “Well, happy anniversary, I suppose.”
Arthur smiles thinly. “Right.”
“We should celebrate,” Eames says. “Have a proper dinner. Go out.”
“Go out where?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere new.” He pauses, thinking. “You could build something.”
Arthur frowns. “Like what?”
Eames suppresses an urge to whack Arthur with the folded paper. “I don’t know, you’re the builder. Something interesting. And pleasant,” he adds hastily. “Nothing religious, nothing too educational. Something...” He pauses. “Something for the occasion.”
Arthur sits back from his coffee cup, his arms crossed, his eyes narrowed in thought. “And you’ll make dinner?”
“Anything you want.”
Arthur sits for a minute. “I can’t think of anything.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Well.” Arthur stares away across the room, his attention somewhere else. “I don’t know, make whatever you want. But if you can...” He hesitates. Eames waits. “Some more plums. Would be good.”
Eames smiles. “Done.”
Arthur leaves shortly after, looking distracted. Eames sits with his coffee for a while longer, thinking about food. He cooked a little, topside, but it wasn’t a passion. Fortunately he’s always been a good eater, and he has impeccable memory for the many outstanding meals he’s had in his life. He sits reviewing them--ceviche and white wine in Mexico, new potatoes with mint and cream in France, the tenderest and most innocent leg of lamb in all of England. It’s all luscious in his memory, but none of it seems quite right. You can’t have ceviche without a view of a crystalline blue ocean, or new potatoes without an early spring dusk. Arthur’s weather is wonderful--they have breezes now, and cloudbursts in the afternoons--but it doesn’t suit any of Eames’s food.
He goes back upstairs to shower, and gets distracted by Hulda’s breasts. Midway through rubbing off, he succumbs to a murky half-thought and changes skins. To Arthur. Instead of Hulda’s soft wet cleft against his fingers, he’s got Arthur’s hard cock, the head swollen and purple, rubbing through his fist. He’s got Arthur in his mind, the thought of him doing this to himself, stroking himself fast and neat, then messier as he gets close to orgasm, almost punishing himself. It’s sweet and hot and immediate, and just before he spills he thinks of fucking Arthur, of thrusting into him, Arthur making a throttled sound of pain, pleasure, surrender--and that’s it, he’s done. He comes violently, stifling his mouth with his forearm because he doesn’t want to make a sound in Arthur’s voice, for Arthur to hear. That, he thinks, would be in poor taste.
He stands naked in front of the mirror, examining Arthur's skin, Arthur's body. It's a nice body, both what he's seen of it and what he imagines it to be. Lean and muscled, narrow in the waist and broader in the shoulders, with a tight ass and good hands. Eames likes hands, and he's spent many hours observing Arthur's. Not watching, precisely, not anything as intentional as that. But it's Eames's job to know people's details, their fingers and thumbs and moles and quirks, and he knows the neat, precise strength of Arthur's hands as well as he knows his own.
Standing looking at himself, at Arthur, he feels a faint warning bell going off inside him. He's felt it before, and every time he feels it he ignores it. They're in limbo, for God's sake. What point is there in being sensible in limbo? They have lifetimes to fill.
Anyway, one of Eames's strengths is his easy access to his own intuition--and standing in front of the mirror, he realizes he's wearing Arthur's body for a reason. He's been thinking of dinner wrong--thinking of his own best meals. He leans close to the mirror and studies Arthur's dark eyes, his face that gives nothing away. That trailer in California, and then the deacon, whoever he was. The details that weren't in any of the background folders, but now that he knows them it's as if puzzle pieces are fitting into place and he sees a bigger picture.
He touches Arthur's temple, the spot beside his eye that he presses on when he's been working too hard. Topside, sometimes, when they're running a job. Down here, when he's building bridges for days on end. He thinks of Arthur smiling bleakly at the ceiling. I hated that guy so much.
He has a sudden, clear vision of Arthur as a boy, fourteen or fifteen. Thin and precise, wary. Sitting silently at a kitchen table with his hands placed in his lap. Under a long shadow.
Not a sit-down meal, he decides. Nothing remotely formal. There's been enough formality in Arthur's life, enough insistence on what's right.
He runs his hand down Arthur's cheek, touches the soft lower lip, then bares his teeth at himself. He lowers his head to rinse his face and when he looks again, he's not Arthur anymore, but himself.
When Arthur gets back late that afternoon, he's wearing a private half-smile that means he's happy with his build. He nods at Eames, who's laying out cards on the coffee table, then goes straight upstairs and disappears into his room. Despite himself, Eames listens to hear whether he's sick, but all he hears is the shower running. Arthur's sprucing up, apparently. Eames smiles and rubs a hand over the stubble on his own cheek, wondering if he should shave. He decides no. It's not a date.
Around six Arthur comes downstairs in a crisp white shirt, grey vest, charcoal trousers. The collar of the shirt is open and he's got a tie around it, hanging loose. His hair is wet, slicked back, the comb furrows clean and sharp.
"So," he says, holding the ends of the tie in his hands. "Do I need this?"
Eames looks up from where he's lying on the couch, re-reading the paper. He's started to notice interesting things in it, here and there. Little stories of adventure and heartbreak, tales of domestic woe. They always cut off after a few words, and when he tries to find the rest of the story inside the paper, he can't.
He looks Arthur over, head to toe. "If you like."
Arthur looks nonplussed, then a bit irritated. "Well, it would help if I knew where we're going."
"Not really." Eames drops the paper on the table--a pair of bank robbers holed up under a hail of gunfire, details A5, except not--and stands. He's wearing khakis and a jumper, in deference to Arthur's weather. "Shall we go?”
Arthur pulls the tie off, drops it on the desk, and gestures toward the door. They go out into the cool early evening, and Eames starts walking north, toward the river.
They walk a few minutes in silence, no sound but the strike of their heels against the pavement. Eames has his hands in his pockets, his head down. He's concentrating, in case it will help, on how this is going to taste. He already spent most of the afternoon thinking about it, but he's putting in a last few minutes because he quite honestly wants this to be good.
“Nice night.” Arthur sounds odd, and Eames glances at him. Arthur is watching him with a slight, strange smile on his lips. The evening is cool, cloudy--the kind they’ve been having for a couple of weeks now.
“Yes.” Eames tries to parse Arthur’s smile. “Have a good day?”
“Sure.” They walk a little farther. “You seem like you’re taking this pretty seriously.”
“Well, it’s not every day you have a six-month anniversary.” Eames makes his tone light, but he’s caught off guard. Is he taking this too seriously? Maybe, but if so it’s only because they’re in fucking limbo and there’s nothing else to do. “I’m assuming you’ve outdone yourself.”
Arthur laughs, sounding surprisingly relaxed. “I wouldn’t assume that.”
“You wouldn’t assume anything. You’re not the assuming sort.”
Arthur smiles and says nothing. Eames wonders if they’re flirting. With Arthur it’s hard to tell. He decides they are.
“I hope you haven’t built another bridge,” he says, watching carefully to make sure he’s not treading on sensitive ground. “My idea of a pleasant evening isn’t watching a drawbridge go up and down. Not that yours isn’t lovely.”
“No bridges,” Arthur says, easily. “I hope you’re not taking me to a steakhouse. Because I’m getting pretty tired of eating steak.”
“Bite your tongue.”
They pass the flatiron, and Eames catches a glimpse of cherry blossoms in the park behind. “You know those drop.”
Arthur shrugs. “I like seeing them.”
“No complaints. And I appreciate that you keep the grass so neatly mown.”
“It mows itself.” Arthur’s looking ahead, frowning a little. “Where are we going?”
“Ah.” Eames smiles. “That would be telling.”
Arthur gives him a look, but says nothing.
It takes twenty minutes to get to the riverfront, and they arrive just as the sun is really going down. It’s not much of a sunset because of the clouds, but there’s a settling sensation as the sky fades to dark. The glow lamps along the riverside path are already lit up. Eames turns to lead the way down the path.
“Eames.” Arthur’s following, sounding nonplussed. “There’s nothing down here.”
“Oh ye of little faith.” He keeps walking, enjoying the river smell he’s started to catch down here. It’s clean water, no industry--it smells like late summer, like mud and rushes.
“If I didn’t know better,” Arthur says, “I’d be getting suspicious around now.”
“Only now? I thought your sense of self-preservation was better than that.”
“And by ‘suspicious,’ I mean I’d have a gun in my hand.”
“That’s the spirit.” They round the curve and the view opens up to show the truck parked on the marine ramp. He left the engine off but the ignition on, to keep the string of cheap little lights burning along its top and sides. The awning over the counter is faded but the lights pick it up: red, white, green. It’s pretty, if he does say so.
Arthur stops walking and stands looking at it. Eames watches him a few seconds to make sure it’s all right. When he sees it is, he rubs a hand over his mouth to hide his smile, and walks on ahead.
“This can’t be sanitary,” Arthur says, walking up to the little picnic table where Eames is eating tacos from a red-and-white checkered cardboard tray. There’s a little color in Arthur’s cheeks. He looks startled, but also a little pleased. Like a man who’s just been poked with a pin, and liked it.
“I’m sure it’s not,” says Eames, licking his thumb. Arthur looks at his food, then goes to the counter and looks at the hand-written menu on the whiteboard.
“How does it work?”
“Decide what you want,” Eames says. “Then go away and come back.” It works in the hotel kitchen, he reasoned, so it might work here, smaller-scale. And it did. Dream logic, go figure.
Arthur frowns at him, then studies the menu as if it’s a mark file. The food’s whatever Eames can remember from taco truck meals across America. He’s had a few. The carnecitas are particularly good.
Arthur goes and stands for a few minutes with his hands in his pockets, looking at the river. Eames drinks his Tecate under the little lights.
When Arthur comes back he reaches through the truck window and brings out a plate of what turns out to be soft corn tacos, filled with fried fish and cabbage. There’s a little paper cup on the side. Eames frowns at it.
“Ceviche,” says Arthur.
“From a food truck.”
“What doesn’t kill you,” Arthur says, and digs in.
Eames goes back for a second beer and drinks it slowly, passing time by intensifying the lime and the clean, sharp beer taste. When Arthur’s finished he puts his empty plate aside, rubs his palms together, and nods.
Arthur gives him a sidelong look. “Very good.”
Eames laughs. “You don’t have to be stingy in here, there’s nobody to see. You can tell me exactly how wonderful I am.”
Arthur says nothing, but he looks out at the river and smiles. The little lights make the side of his face golden, pick out all his hard clean lines. He looks unconsciously, heartbreakingly handsome, and it’s on the tip of Eames’s tongue to tell him so. Instead he reaches into the pocket of his trousers and holds out the plum he’s been thinking about all day.
Arthur looks at the plum, then at Eames. Then he takes the plum from Eames’s fingers and holds it for a minute, looking at it.
“It’s not going to nip,” Eames says quietly.
Arthur gives him a quick look that’s, strangely, almost anxious. Then he lifts the plum to his mouth and bites into it. He’s neat, but Eames has put the plum at its highest, most giddying moment of ripeness. The juice runs down through Arthur’s fingers and makes a dark spot on his leg of his trousers.
Eames notices the mark, and waits for Arthur to say something about it. But Arthur just looks at it, then looks away and sucks juice from his fingertips.
They walk slowly back into town, not saying much. The evening is cool and calm, no wind. Eames feels strangely at peace, almost outside of himself. He can observe his situation--stranded in limbo, probably vegetative--with equanimity. Maybe, he thinks, he’s getting close to lotus-bloom territory. Maybe soon he’ll leave his dross body behind.
It would feel more likely if his dross body weren’t so fully, almost painfully aware of Arthur walking beside him. Arthur, with his sleeves rolled to the elbows and his jacket hooked in his finger, dangling over his shoulder. Arthur, lanky and silent. Arthur, who looks at some moments like a frustrated accountant and then, at others, like a fine Greek statue. Obstinate, boring, predictable Arthur. Who is of course turning out to be someone different from the person Eames took him for.
“I don’t know if you’re going to like this,” Arthur says, sounding nervous, and Eames just stops himself from saying something ridiculously fond back, like I’ll like anything you make. It’s not true--if Arthur has made the Imperial War Museum, for instance, Eames is going to be very unhappy. But it feels true at the moment.
“We’ll just have to risk it,” he says, and tries to decide what to make of the quick look Arthur shoots him in return.
Halfway back to the hotel they turn down a new street. It all looks the same to Eames--enormous office buildings everywhere he looks--but Arthur takes another turn and there, on the opposite side of the street, is something new. A small cinema, with an old-fashioned light-bulb marquis. The Aladdin, it reads, in flowing script.
“You can make movies?” he asks, dumbfounded, and Arthur shakes his head.
“Not really. I mean, just parts. They don’t really make sense.” He shrugs. “But I miss seeing them.”
Eames steals a quick look--another unexpected layer, revealed--then throws his arm over Arthur’s shoulder. The contact of their bodies is warm and sudden, unexpectedly intimate. He can feel Arthur tense, but he doesn’t draw away.
“Marvelous anniversary present,” Eames says. “Bloody brilliant. Let’s go see a movie, shall we?”
It isn’t really like seeing a movie--it’s a jumbled reel of parts and pieces, scenes from some of the movies Arthur remembers best, mostly ones he likes. Arthur likes Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk. He likes Darren Aronofsky and Werner Herzog. He liked The Hurt Locker and he liked District 9. It’s fascinating, watching the sequences appear on the screen, flowing into each other without pause, following some natural ebb and flow that creates lulls and crescendos.
“How are you doing it?” Eames asks, his eyes on the screen. Chinese people are sword-fighting in a green, swaying stand of bamboo.
Arthur shakes his head. “I’m not. It just plays.”
“I just sat down and..thought about movies I’ve seen. And it started.”
Eames lets out a breath of appreciation, and goes back to watching the screen. Indiana Jones is on now--the original. The funny one, when Harrison Ford was still decent-looking. The sequence lasts all the way through the chase out of the temple, and when it’s over Eames claps.
Something miserable comes on after it--naked Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, doing something breathy and mannered and incomprehensible. Eames turns to look at Arthur.
“Sometimes it’s the stuff I hated,” Arthur says, and shrugs. “Sorry.”
They watch the scene through, a little uncomfortably.
“Funny you can’t make things taste, though,” Eames says, to distract their attention from the awful sex happening on the screen. Arthur looks tense.
“You can’t build,” he points out.
“I’m not taking the piss,” Eames says gently. “I just think...you could probably do it.”
“Maybe trying’s your problem.”
Arthur gives him a heavy-lidded look. “Maybe not trying is yours.”
Eames sits back and folds his hands over his stomach, obscurely pleased at how prickly Arthur is being. “We can’t all have such well-regimented minds. Some of us have to be lissome and free.”
Arthur studies him for a moment, then looks back at the screen. It’s changed over to something Eames recognizes vaguely: a high black-and-white shot of a stone angel standing over a city. Arthur’s face relaxes.
“I haven’t seen this in years,” he says. They watch in silence. It’s a confused series of scenes from that Wim Wenders movie, Wings of Desire. The angel who becomes a man for love. It has Lou Reed and Peter Falk and a trapeze. Partway through the black and white turns to color, and Eames watches with his chin on his hand. Poor, divided, devastated Berlin. The segment runs longer than any of the others have, and when it finishes it fades out with the words "To be continued," on the screen.
Arthur clears his throat. "That's how it ends," he says.
"I know." Eames watches Arthur's profile, not trying to hide it.
Arthur sits looking at the dark screen for a few seconds. A muscle in his jaw tightens, then disappears. For a moment, Eames is sure one of them is going to say something. One of them is going to acknowledge what's going on here--what's been going on for weeks, months, who knows--and once that's done, they're going to do something about it. They are the only two people here, after all.
The moment draws out, then further out. Then a little further.
Arthur's mouth twists into a tiny, almost imperceptible smile at the corner. It might be amused or bitter, Eames can't tell. He stands up and takes his jacket off the seat beside him, and looks down at Eames, his face neutral and ordinary.
“Ready to go?"
On the walk home, there are fireflies in the park. The sky is low and heavy, the air warmer than Eames remembers it. His skin feels tight and sensitive, alert. The hairs at the back of his neck want to stand up.
"Thanks," he says, in the hotel lobby. "That was lovely."
Arthur stands a few steps away, his jacket slung over his shoulder. He looks serious, almost grim.
"Yeah. Thanks for dinner."
They stand there a second longer, then Arthur turns and goes up the stairs and into his room. The door closes.
Eames goes to the front door and opens it, puts a hand on each side of the frame, and leans out into the darkness. After a few minutes the clouds reflect sheet lightning somewhere down south, far away through the buildings. He waits. Faintly, he hears a growl of thunder.
He stays up another half hour, but the storm doesn't move any closer. At last he closes the door, goes upstairs to his own room, and lies on top of the covers in his clothes, staring at the ceiling. The curtains blow in the breeze. Next door, in Arthur's room: silence.
Vaguely, he knows he can hear Arthur arguing with someone. It's not an all-out fight, not yelling. It's a low, continuous, acrimonious exchange. He can only hear Arthur's side of it, but Arthur sounds taut and furious, pushed to the edge.
"I don't fucking care," he says clearly, at one point. At another: "This is none of your fucking business."
Go to sleep, Eames thinks, half-asleep himself. Go to sleep, Arthur.
He's awake. It takes him a second to realize why: there was a knock at the door. He sits up, looks automatically to the night table for his gun, then remembers he has no gun, he's in the hotel, he's in limbo. It's dark outside, almost dark in the room except for the faint light from the bathroom, where he's left the door ajar. He's still in his clothes, on top of the covers.
It's warm in the room, almost stifling.
He stands up feeling prickly, almost woozy. "Just a minute," he says, and pulls off his jumper. He's wearing an Oxford shirt beneath, the collar bent up and the sleeves rolled. His skin feels hot. It's Arthur outside, he realizes. They're the only two people here.
"What's the matter?" he says, as he opens the door--it's occurred to him by then that Arthur wouldn't knock on his door in the middle of the night for anything other than a serious emergency. His heart picks up a little.
Arthur's standing in the hall, his own shirt rumpled and loose. He isn't bleeding, as far as Eames can see. He isn't carrying a gun. He's got his hands on his hips and he's staring at the carpet. He looks up when the door opens. His cheeks are flushed and his eyebrows are dark, angry slashes.
"Hey," he says. There's a pause. He says, "Can I come in?"
Eames steps back from the door. Arthur comes in, and stops just inside the threshold.
"We're stuck here," he says, without any preamble. "Probably for a really long time."
"It would be pretty stupid," Arthur says, "to do anything to...rock the boat. Because if we piss each other off we're probably going to kill each other."
Arthur wipes his hand over his mouth, looking not at Eames but sideways, at the floor. "So. I think you can probably handle telling me to fuck off, if you want to. And I can definitely take it." He flicks a glance up at Eames's face, dark and furtive. "You can tell me to fuck off. It's fine."
"Arthur," Eames says, as gently as he can. "What are you trying to say?"
Arthur takes a breath and shoves it out. "I just...we might as well."
Eames waits. After a moment he says, “Might as well...what?”
Arthur gives him a searching look. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m screwing this up. What I meant was--” He lets out a forced breath. “Maybe you never did background on me, but I’m--I like guys. I mean, I like women too. But guys...work.” His cheeks have gone pink, almost red. There’s a roll of thunder outside.
Eames realizes they’re both waiting for someone to say something. “Right,” he says. “No, I knew that.”
Arthur nods, his mouth pressed tight. “So. It’s been six months, and I just thought, it’s getting ridiculous. There’s nobody else here.” He sounds a little desperate, more than a little inarticulate. Almost angry.
“I know,” says Eames. “Okay. Right, I get it.”
Arthur shoots him another quick look, this one grateful. “Okay. So, you can tell me to fuck off now. Or--” His gaze drops to Eames’s mouth, and stays there. “You can tell me what you want.”
Eames thinks, Christ. Arthur is gorgeous, his lean face taut and controlled, his eyes downcast. He hasn’t abandoned himself, he’s left them both a way out of this, but still. He’s standing in Eames’s room in the middle of the night, offering sex. Asking for it, if Eames reads between the lines.
“Or you can tell me to fuck off,” Arthur says quietly, and Eames realizes he’s let the silence go too long.
“No,” he says. “No, no. Sorry. Just--I wasn’t. Prepared.”
“Right.” Arthur’s mouth tightens even further. “Sorry. I really--”
“It’s not a bad thing,” Eames hastens to add. “I’m not telling you to fuck off. Honestly, I’ve been trying to think of how do this for ages.”
Arthur looks relieved. “Okay. Good.”
“I was starting to think I was going to have to trip you and fall under you.”
Arthur gives him a dry look. They’re still standing a few feet apart, Eames notices. He puts out his hand and runs it up Arthur’s arm--a ridiculous gesture, old-world seduction, but it feels like the right first step. Arthur looks at his hand, then at him. His face is neutral.
“Oh,” Eames says. “Did you want a woman?”
Arthur looks startled, then uncertain. “I--if you want.”
Eames tries to decide how to take that. “Might be easier,” he says. “You know, another face.” He shifts to Hulda, at her most milk-skinned and curvaceous. Arthur’s face registers interest, and when Eames takes his hand and puts it on her breast, he flushes.
“That’s--” he says. “That works.”
“Course it does,” Eames says. He’s still wearing the loose Oxford, but nothing else. In Hulda’s skin he draws Arthur back to the bed and sits, then lies back. The shirt rides up a little when he does it, he can feel. Arthur glances down, then reaches down and slides his hand along the side of Hulda’s thigh, over her knee, up the inside. His skin is hot and dry. He’s hard, his dick pressing up and ruining the line of his trousers. Eames smiles.
“Lovely girl,” he says, slipping his hand inside the collar of Arthur’s shirt, feeling the lean hard muscle of his neck and shoulder. It’s fascinating, a little dizzying. “And such a tight pussy.”
Arthur stops moving, closes his eyes--and Eames wonders if he’s overstepped, dirty-talking too soon. But no, Arthur’s taking short shallow breaths and looking away at the sheets. His pupils have blown wide, his lips are wet and pink.
“Christ,” Eames says, in genuine astonishment. “You’re on the edge from that?”
Arthur darts a glance at him, and says nothing.
“You’d think you don’t have a right hand.” Eames slides his own hand down Arthur’s side, over the sharp line of his hip, then down the hard, trembling muscle of his thigh, avoiding his dick. “It’s not actually a sin, you know.”
Eames laughs and brings Arthur’s hand between his legs, to tease Hulda’s tight coarse curls and the ready wetness in between. Arthur’s eyes close again. Eames plays his fingers over Arthur’s, touches Hulda with and through them.
Arthur has long fingers, precise on a keyboard, quick with a clip. He has clean, neat fingernails and a habit of beating the side of his thumb against his leg when he’s impatient. Eames guides the tip of Arthur’s forefinger inside Hulda, feels the tremble that goes through Arthur’s body, feels his own body ping-pong between Hulda’s arousal and his own. It’s delicious, the sense of slippage. He thinks of Arthur fucking him in this skin, lying over him and thrusting into him, pressing him down--because when he’s Hulda, Arthur is bigger and stronger.
A little implosion happens at the base of his skull, a silent fireworks of lust. Without thinking, he buries his face in the curve of Arthur’s neck and rubs Arthur’s fingers hard against Hulda’s clit. She was always fast, ready to pop as soon as he touched her. The feeling is like a pleasurable tension, a hot elastic band pulled tighter and tighter up between his legs into his belly.
Arthur makes a sound somewhere between a grunt and a moan, thrusts his dick hard against Hulda’s thigh, in rough sequence with the rubbing. Eames comes almost immediately, gasping and clutching, his own fingers slippery and hot in Arthur’s. Arthur holds the back of his neck until he stops panting, then frees his hand from their sticky latchwork between Hulda’s legs, fumbles his trousers open, and jerks off hard and fast, spilling over Hulda’s thighs.
They fall apart and lie separately, Eames on his back and Arthur more or less face down beside him. A cool wind has started to blow, pushing the curtains into the room, smelling of rain. Eames lowers a hand and touches the wet pool on his belly, then reaches lower and rubs his wet fingers against Hulda’s soft, soaked vulva. His brain tells him, that’s Arthur’s come. The information feels flat, meaningless. His brain puts itself back on hold.
After a minute Arthur says, “How does that work?”
“Well,” says Eames. “A man and a woman like each other very much--”
Arthur rolls over. “In other words, you don’t know.”
“Have you had sex as a woman before?”
“Course.” Eames turns his head. Arthur’s lying on his side, his head propped on his hand. His shirt is open wide, showing the smooth skin of his throat and shoulder, a little dark hair on his chest. His face is flushed, his lips swollen. They never kissed, Eames realizes. He realizes he’s staring at Arthur’s lips, and looks away. “Show me a man who wouldn’t, if he could.”
Arthur smiles. It gives Eames a happy, buoyant feeling in his gut. It’s dangerous to feel that way about Arthur, his brain tells him. Again, the information seems to mean nothing. He’ll deal with it later.
“I guess so,” Arthur says. Then he raises an eyebrow. “Can you come more, like that?”
Eames smiles, lets his eyelids lower, and starts to rub off. It’s a little slower this time, but he enjoys the build, the drawing-out sweetness. Especially when Arthur rolls over and shimmies down the bed and adds his tongue to Eames’s hand. Then it’s unbelievable, and he digs his heels into the mattress, pushes his hips up, and tangles a hand in Arthur’s hair to move his mouth where it needs to be.
Arthur wraps his hands around Hulda’s thighs, licks her hard, slips his tongue and then a finger inside her, and Eames says something stupid and unintelligible and comes for a long time, like pouring bubbling wine out over the throat of a bottle. Grinding and writhing, his feet slipping on the sheets, sweat running up the crack of his ass and up his spine, his hair wet across his face.
When he’s done he’s limp, and Arthur sits back smiling, wiping his face. His dick is up again, hard and red, a damp peony protruding from the open fly of his very nice, completely ruined trousers. His chin and mouth are red, abraded.
“One minute,” Eames says. Hulda’s voice cracks a little. “Just--a minute.”
Arthur laughs and pushes him over onto his stomach. He slips his dick into the wet valley of Hulda’s ass, covers her body with his, and thrusts like that. The feel of it--Arthur’s belly and dick against his ass, his hard thrusts, the grunt and shove of his breath against Eames’s ear--is nuclear. It’s almost what it would be if Arthur fucked him, pushed his dick into Eames’s ass and fucked him until he came, until they both came, probably--and Eames realizes that yes, he wants that. He wants it so much he loses track of the skin he’s in, and he can feel his body trying to get an erection, trying to get wet, trying to somehow do both, fuck and be fucked.
He scrambles to get a handle on it, straighten things out, but then Arthur bites his shoulder, shoves painfully against his lower back and goes taut, taut, taut--and makes a small, screwed-tight noise. Eames feels a pulse of hot wetness against his ass. He sees a blossom of white inside his eyelids, and a sensation almost like cramp in his lower belly.
He’s in his own body, he realizes. Arthur’s lying on top of him, breathing hard. There’s come on his back and under his belly, soaking the sheets. The last time didn’t feel sweet and wet, like Hulda’s orgasms. It wasn’t so much eating a plum as biting into an orange rind. His own body, knocking out a third orgasm in a row--Christ, he thinks, stupidly.
Arthur rolls off. They lie for a couple of minutes in silence, in the cool night breeze.
“Sorry,” Eames says at last. “Lost it a bit there. At the end.”
“No problem.” Arthur swipes a hand over his own belly, then wipes it on the sheet without looking at it. He’s still fully dressed, except for his open fly. “Jesus Christ. Six months.”
Arthur gets up and goes into the bathroom, closing the door. The water runs. There’s a long pause. When he comes out his hair is finger-combed back against his skull, his shirt is buttoned up. The crotch of his trousers is still ruined, though. Eames looks at it.
“Laundry staff will have some questions,” he says. He’s pulled off his own clothes and is sitting up against the headboard, the sheets up to a modest height. He catches Arthur looking at the tattoos. No way to tell what he thinks of them, though.
“The nice thing about a hotel in limbo,” Arthur says, “is not having to worry about what the staff think.”
Eames nods. “So, does that mean you’re sleeping here?” He already knows the answer to that, but feels perversely compelled to ask.
Arthur doesn’t smile, doesn’t try to shrug it off. “I think,” he says, “it’s better if we don’t rock the boat.”
“Just the sex, then.”
“We are the only people here.”
“I’m flattered.” Eames lets his tone sharpen just a touch there, to make his point. He’s done Arthur’s background. He knows how Arthur handles these things. But perversity drives him on.
“I meant, we can’t afford to piss each other off.” Arthur’s still being reasonable, one hand on the door handle. “We could be here for years.”
“And sleeping in the same bed would run that risk, whereas fucking doesn’t.”
Arthur’s face goes a little flat. “If I was unclear when I came in here--”
“No, you were perfectly clear.” Eames smiles and shakes his head. “I’m sorry, I’m being an idiot. You’re right.” And the thing is, Arthur is probably right. An eternity together--what are they going to do, set up house? Go on outings together? Side-by-side hotel rooms and rationed-out pressure-valve sex is by far the saner option.
Arthur stands looking at him for a moment, reading his face.
“I’m sorry,” Eames says again. “That was lovely. Come back anytime.”
“If it complicates--”
“It doesn’t,” Eames says. “Really. It’s fine.”
Arthur looks at him a moment longer, then nods. He goes out without saying anything else.
Eames listens to Arthur walk down to his room and close the door. Then he clicks off the bedside lamp and sits staring out through the open window. He’s already wondering what the rules will be, whether he’ll get any say or whether it will all be Arthur. Precise, careful, thoughtful Arthur, painting the lines and keeping them both between them. He’s perfectly capable of it, Eames knows. He’s probably the one who’ll get them through this thing.
He feels weak, abraded, pulled out of himself. He runs his fingers down between his legs, rubs his thumb lightly over the head of his cock. Outside, it’s started to rain, and the curtains are getting wet.
The next morning he goes downstairs a little later than usual. Arthur’s already down, in suit and tie, eating a piece of toast and reading the paper.
“Morning,” he says, looking up at Eames with no particular expression. His lips look a little puffy, a little pink. “Coffee’s on the counter.”
“Thanks,” Eames says. “I think I’ll make tea.”
There’s nothing about the rest of that day that would indicate, to an outside observer, that anything had changed between them. And in some ways, Eames thinks, nothing has.
Arthur takes himself off in the Jaguar to build for most of the day--not in an escapist way, just in his usual way. Eames goes for a walk to the river, then around the city, through the streets that are filling constantly with more and more landmarks, more recognizable buildings and businesses. Arthur’s getting better all the time. He can take a forty-story office building and fold it up into a block of row houses, a string of shops, a park, a plaza--he’s done it all. And he’s not just doing it randomly now, testing out what he’s capable of. He’s going back through and changing what he’s already built, making the city fit a plan. Arthur likes Brooklyn, from what Eames can tell. He likes street trees and brownstones and bodegas.
He spends the day walking around, stumbling over new places he hasn’t seen before--a tiny art gallery showing what look like Francis Bacon sketches, a narrow restaurant where he sits on a stool at a zinc bar and eats a tasteless bun with butter under a beautiful rotating fan. Several times he’s seized with intense, full-body flashes of the night before. Arthur’s lips and tongue between Hulda’s legs, Arthur’s fingers digging into Hulda’s hips. Arthur’s dick pressed to Eames’s ass, wet and hard, coming.
He sits under the fan, the bun and butter forgotten, staring into space.
When he gets back, late afternoon, he takes a nap on the leather couch with the door standing open. He wakes up to find Arthur leaning over him, a finger on his shoulder. His face is troubled.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he says. Eames blinks at him, baffled.
“Sleep with the door open.” Arthur stands up and walks away across the room. “It’s bad practice.”
Eames sits up. “What, are you going to murder me in my sleep? There’s nobody else here.”
“Yet.” Arthur gives him a quick, sideways look. “We don’t know how it works. There could be projections anytime.”
“Bring them on.” Eames settles back on the couch. “We could use the company.”
Arthur says nothing. He disappears into the kitchen, to make something bland for dinner, probably. It’s past seven, almost dark outside.
They play cards at the table until ten o’clock. Arthur takes Eames on every hand but one.
“You’re off your game,” he observes, drawing Eames’s last losing hand across the table towards himself and working it into the deck to shuffle. His sleeves are rolled up, and the muscles in his forearms play under the skin, well-defined. His fingers are long and careful and quick. “We should be doing this for money.”
“I’m sure you’d take me for everything I had,” Eames says. “Fortunately, I have nothing.”
“Except your family estate.” Arthur says it deadpan, without rancor. Still, Eames hesitates.
“Mothballed,” he says. “And the plumbing’s terrible. You’re welcome to it.”
“Maybe I can build it sometime. If you describe it for me.” Arthur’s still shuffling the cards, but his eyes are on Eames’s face. It’s impossible to tell whether he’s pushing this for some reason, or just making conversation.
“It’s a big pile of ivy,” Eames says carefully. “With a turret on top. Man in a frogged jacket to take your carriage around back.”
“So, typical English castle.”
“Except for the dyed doves. Those are extra.”
Arthur keeps shuffling, smiling. It’s a joke then, Eames decides. Or maybe not.
“You’re awfully hard to read just now,” he says.
“No I’m not,” Arthur says, with the same flat smile on his face. Then he changes tone abruptly and says, “I’m sorry. I’m just tired.” He lays the cards down, squares them, and stands up. “I’m going to bed.”
Eames watches him go upstairs. After half an hour or so of waiting, he hears thunder rolling in the far distance. He checks the lock on the front door, turns out the lights, and goes to bed.
Arthur knocks a little after midnight. Eames is awake, flipping through a picture book he stole from a bookshop earlier in the week. Without getting up, he calls, “Open.”
Arthur comes in and stops just inside the door, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. He tips his head and looks at the book.
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar?”
“It’s what there was,” Eames says, closing the book and putting it on the night table. “Your backstory, not mine.”
“My mom used to read me that book,” Arthur says. “When I was a kid.”
They look at each other. Eames raises his eyebrows.
“And you are here for...?”
“I was sort of hoping I could suck your dick,” Arthur says, walking over to the bed. “Or, you know. If you want to be a woman. Either way.”
Sometime later, Eames is leaning back into the headboard, watching dazedly as Arthur’s lips slide over the head of his cock. Arthur’s mouth is hot, messy, his lips rough with use. His cheeks are pink, his hair’s come uncombed. Eames has one hand in it, the fingers pressed to Arthur’s skull, guiding him. One of Arthur’s hands is around the base of Eames’s dick, and the other is down between his own legs, pulling.
They’ve already done this once. It lasted about five minutes, before they both went off. This second time, they’re making it go longer.
“You,” Eames says, a little raggedly, “are very good at this. Arthur. Very very good.”
Arthur’s eyelids flutter halfway open, then closed again. He gives the shaft of Eames’s cock a lazy stroke with his hand.
“Very very very good,” Eames says. “Oh--God--”
When they finally finish, Arthur rolls over where he’s lying, his head level with Eames’s hips. He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, then falls still. His eyes are closed. Eames studies him for a few seconds, then gives in to his own torpor and just drifts.
He wakes up when the door opens. Arthur’s leaving. He doesn’t say good night, doesn’t look back. He closes Eames’s door, goes down the hall, and after a moment there’s the quiet click of his own door, closing.
Arthur doesn’t need Eames to be a woman. He doesn’t need Eames to be anyone else in particular. This is interesting information, from Eames’s perspective. It suggests that however backward and fucked-up Arthur is--and he certainly is backward and fucked-up, no points there--at least he isn’t a self-hating homophobe.
He may be genuinely bisexual, Eames thinks, watching Arthur peel an orange over the morning paper. They’ve had sex with Eames wearing three or four different skins by now, all women. Arthur gets hard for all of them, as hard as he gets for Eames himself. So maybe he’s simpler than he seems. Maybe he’s as simple as he claims to be. Just a man who wants to get off, without complications.
A couple of weeks after their first time, Eames is still trying to figure out where the lines are--but as far as he can tell, the only lines are around sleeping together, around endearments and shared habits, around things that lean over the line between tension valve and emotional attachment. Maybe that’s limbo, or maybe it’s just how Arthur always runs things. Eames has read his file, after all. He’s well aware of the tidy line-up Arthur has in his rear-view mirror. None of them longer than a couple of months, none of them too serious.
Things Eames has pushed on, in the spirit of experiment: Kissing. One night as they were jerking each other off he caught Arthur’s head in his free hand and brought their mouths together, half-expecting Arthur to jerk away. Instead Arthur kissed him back: readily, hotly. He took Eames’s tongue into his mouth and bit his lips, and didn’t pull away even when Eames came, panting, sharing breath. Arthur’s mouth tasted clean. He didn’t kiss Eames again that night, and hasn’t on any night since.
The two-way street. Eames spent a few days wondering what would happen if he knocked on Arthur’s door, if it was him running the show instead of Arthur. His own hard-on demanding attention. He had a vague idea that Arthur would fob him off, or at least get it over with fast, a quick handjob and good night. But Arthur didn’t look at all surprised, didn’t hesitate, just stepped back to let Eames into his room, which looked exactly the same as Eames’s but neater. He dropped to his knees to take Eames’s cock out of his trousers, blew him fast and messy, then slow and messy, then pushed him back onto the bed and jerked off onto his chest, holding him down with one knee. When it was over Eames thought about falling asleep in Arthur’s bed, just to see what would happen--but Arthur was sitting up against the headboard studying him with dark, knowing eyes, and he didn’t have the stomach to try it.
Fucking. Eames introduced that one first as a woman, thinking that Arthur wouldn’t agree to it. Thinking at least he’d make them wait until he’d conjured up a condom from the full-service medicine chest. But no. They were having sweaty, grinding sex in Eames’s bed, with Eames wearing the skin of a woman he’d known for about six nights in Lisbon, and he couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take Arthur’s fingers and tongue between his legs but not his dick. He started babbling, the way women and some men had babbled to him before, the sex-drunk litany of fuck me, fuck me, do it--, and without hesitating Arthur had slid his dick into Eames’s pussy, had fucked him blind, had come inside him, had rung every bell there was. Later, lying side by side as always, Eames had said, “No condom, mate?” Arthur had shrugged, barely. “You’re not really a woman.” Eames, hardly able to feel his lips: “Still.” Arthur made a subvocal, dismissive sound. After a while, Eames slurred, “Fucking brilliant.”
In their own bodies, two men, he thought it might be different. Lots of men would do blowjobs and handjobs, all kinds of things--but not fucking. Lots of men had issues with it. Eames himself, once upon a time, had had his issues. But when he found himself face-down in Arthur’s bed on another night, Arthur’s dick sliding wetly along the crack of his ass, Arthur’s fingers pushing in between and just barely inside him--it made him nuts enough to ask for it. That time, Arthur hesitated. Just for a while, long enough to get Eames so worked up he wasn’t asking anymore, he was practically threatening. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he said, wetting his mouth first so he could talk. “Will you fuck me already?” Arthur got up, went to the bathroom, came back with lube, and fucked him. It hurt and it felt incredible and it made reedy sounds come out of Eames’s throat. It made Arthur lean over his back and mutter filthy, encouraging things, things that made the nerves short out in Eames’s legs all the way down to his feet, things that made him hard even though he never got hard when he was fucked. Arthur didn’t use a condom that time either, and he came without pulling out. Eames didn’t care.
“If you’ve given me dream Hep C,” he murmured, lax in the sheets, “I’ll shoot you in the head.”
“I’m clean,” Arthur said. “God, that was good.”
After that, Eames can’t think of very many more limits to push. Except for emotional attachment, which he can’t push on very easily--it has a tendency to backlash. He settles for watching Arthur more carefully than ever, trying to get past the suit and tie, past the neat slim-muscled body, past the careful habits and the short, meaningless conversations to something else. But Arthur is Arthur, which means he’s always a step ahead.
He’s not stupid. He knows that fifty years alone in a fishbowl with Arthur is going to drive them both crazy. The sex is a release valve, but it’s also dangerous, it’s fuel on a banked fire. You can’t live next to a man, eat with him, play card with him, fuck him silly before you say your polite good-nights and go your separate ways, and not want to kill him, sooner or later. Eames is just surprised--he tells himself--that he hasn’t wanted to kill Arthur yet. Sooner or later one of them is going to dream up a gun, and things will get interesting.
He’s not stupid. He sees what’s happening, in himself. Arthur is more and more fascinating, more and more absorbing. Eames finds himself watching Arthur for long silent minutes, and he knows Arthur’s aware of it. So far, Arthur hasn’t told him to fuck off.
Eames almost wishes he would.
He goes for a long walk on a cool, cloudy day--the weather’s damped down a bit now that Arthur’s getting laid. All the way down to the river, and then up the other side. Up the road to the top of the hill, where the church and the cross loom over everything. He stands beneath the cross and looks out over the city, his hands in his pockets, his feet aching.
Arthur’s down there somewhere, building. He treats it like a job, like someone’s paying him to do it. Eames stands looking at the city from above, notices that some of the roads curve now, that there are traffic circles in the distance, wide boulevards and huge civic-looking buildings like Paris by way of New York. He waits a while, wondering if he’ll see something happen before his eyes--another office tower knocked down, a row of condominiums going up in its place. The city’s silent, unmoving.
It starts to rain a little, cool flecks against his face. He sighs and turns to look back at the church--and for a moment, he thinks he sees something. Some movement by the back corner, just disappearing around the massive granite foundation. He hesitates, a little dumbfounded. It was probably just his eyes, but-- He jogs across the drive and has a look.
There's damp lawn around the church's base. No sign of anyone around, no footprints. He walks all the way around and doesn't see anything else.
The skin on the back of his neck is prickling, the little hairs standing up.
He tries the door, but it's locked. Too heavy to break it in, and if he did, how would Arthur react? Breaking into a church made up out of Arthur's unconscious seems like a terrible idea. Still, the fact that it's locked now, when it was open before--it troubles him.
He goes back out to the drive, puts his hands on his hips, and stares up at the church's facade. It's like an immense, granite face--long and narrow and suspicious-looking. The windows are dark. After he stands there for a few minutes, rain getting in his eyes, he thinks he sees something move past one of them. He can't be sure, it might just be his imagination.
"If you're hiding out in there," he murmurs, "you're even more twisted than I thought." It's a little chilling, the image of Arthur holed up alone in the dark church, doing--what? Beating himself with hymnals, probably.
The rain is coming down harder now, as if the whole place wants him to leave. He could call out, he could knock. Instead he wipes his face and starts walking down the drive. Halfway down the hill he stops to break into a parked car, a Lexus, and drives the rest of the way back with the heater on full blast.
"I went up to the church today," he says, over cards that night. He's paying close attention, while appearing not to. Watching for any little sign that Arthur might give him. "Up the hill."
Arthur keeps his eyes on his hand. There's a pause. "Yeah?" he says, and puts down a three of spades.
"Mm." Eames studies the card, then pretends to look at what he's got. "Funniest thing. I thought I saw someone up there."
Arthur looks up at that. "Who?" His voice is even, he's frowning slightly. He might just be casually interested, just the right amount of interested for someone who doesn't know a thing about this.
Eames shrugs. "Don't know. I thought it might be you, at first. We are the only people here. After all." He lays down his card, and takes a look at Arthur from under his eyelashes.
Arthur's looking thoughtful, as if this is a genuine problem he's trying to solve. The way he solved building and food and laundry. "I was south all day."
"Not on the hill, then."
Arthur shakes his head. "What did you see?"
"I don't know. I must have imagined it."
"What did you imagine?"
"I would have said--a person. Flitting around the church, and then inside." Eames folds his cards and lays them face-down on the table. "But you weren't there, and nobody else is in here, so. I must be starting to lose it."
Arthur stares at him. He looks young, Eames thinks. He's sloughed off his suit--soaked by the rain while he was out building--and he's wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. It makes him look twenty-five, twenty-seven. Somewhere in there. He's thirty, Eames knows. And he wears suits because he likes them, but also because he wants to be taken seriously. Arthur always wants to be taken seriously.
"What did you see?" he asks. "Exactly?"
Eames shakes his head and smiles. "Nothing. I'm sure it wasn't anything."
"You wouldn't bring it up if it was nothing."
"You never know, I might. It's bloody boring in here."
"Eames." Arthur's mouth tightens. "Tell me what you saw."
Eames hesitates. "Is there something out there for me to see?" he asks quietly.
Arthur flushes, and that's it--that's an answer. Not the answer he was expecting, actually. Eames feels his heart thump once, twice--erratic, adrenaline-spiked leaps. He feels sweat spring out on his palms.
"Fuck me," he says. "There is, isn't there?" Arthur says nothing, just stares at him with dark eyes and a tight mouth, and suddenly Eames is angry. It's like not letting a man in on what's happening on a job. It's like telling him he's stupid, not worth informing. He stands up. "You've got to be kidding me. When were you going to say something?"
Arthur still doesn't speak. He stays where he is, seated at the table, his face turned halfway to the side, his eyes on the door. The muscle in his jaw jumping.
"Thanks a lot," Eames says. He's full of hot, furious energy now--he wants to punch something. He walks to the other side of the room, stands staring blankly at the register book, then knocks it to the floor. Arthur doesn't move. "I think you owe me an explanation," Eames says, biting off the words.
Arthur takes a long, careful breath. "It's nothing to do with--"
"With me? I'm in here with you, in case you hadn't noticed. It's you and me and nobody else, unless you count me putting on skirts for you. It's been fucking months--" He's inarticulate.
"It's personal," Arthur says, laying the words down individually, with concentration. "It's none of your business."
"None of my business?" He's going to punch Arthur, he is. He goes back to the table and stands over him, too close. Looming intentionally, to provoke him. "I'll tell you what's not my business. Getting shot in the head in the third level of a dream and ending up--"
"I didn't shoot you," Arthur says evenly, still staring at the door. "And I got shot too."
"Fucking hooray. I'm not the keeping secrets, am I?"
"I'm not keeping secrets, I just--"
"Christ, you’re such a fucking liar--"
"I haven't lied--"
"No, you've just been too gutless to tell me what's going on--"
"--don't tell me to shut up, I'm fucking pissed at you--"
Arthur stands up suddenly, maybe just losing his patience with being yelled at, maybe past his breaking point and striking out. His shoulder hits Eames in the stomach, and Eames doesn't think, he just swings. His fist hits Arthur's cheekbone with a red-hot jolt that goes straight up his arm.
Arthur goes halfway down, sprawls over the chair and knocks it over, but keeps his feet. He stays that way, half-crouched, one hand up over the side of his face where Eames hit him. Eames stands there, his fists down but ready, waiting for Arthur to come at him. Wanting it, wanting to brawl it out.
Arthur takes a shaky breath, then drops his hand and stands up. He doesn't look at Eames. His face is drained white, except for the red mark of the punch against his cheek and the side of his eye.
"I'm--I'm going for a walk," he says. His voice sounds strange, almost tentative. As if the punch has knocked something out from under him.
Eames searches for something to say, but finds nothing. If Arthur won't talk and won't fight, he can't think of anything else to do.
He stands there with his hands at his sides, stolidly not apologizing, while Arthur pulls his coat off the back of the chair and leaves. The door swings closed behind him. Eames's reflection stares back at him in the glass.
It starts pouring rain a few minutes after Arthur leaves, pounding the ceiling and the windows.
Eames stays downstairs, in the lobby. He doesn’t feel like going up to his room, going up to bed as if everything’s all right. Even though the invisible laundry staff will have made the bed, whisked away any traces of the night before, he doesn’t want to lie down in a bed that reminds him of Arthur. He picks up the chair and sets it back at the card table. He stares at the cards, thinks about tearing them into pieces. He doesn't. He sinks into the couch and drinks the rest of a bottle of whiskey, just for the hell of it. By the end of the bottle he can almost taste the alcohol.
Four o’clock in the morning, he lies sprawled on the couch with the bottle propped on his stomach, staring at the ceiling. Thinking it through. There’s a projection down here with them, someone Arthur knows. Someone he doesn’t want to talk about. He has his reasons, Eames is sure. Doesn’t everyone.
But still. It’s not something you can keep to yourself. It could be dangerous. For both of them. And the longer Arthur doesn’t come back, the more Eames worries. The rain slashes against the windows, a clear signal. Things are wrong, violently wrong, in Arthur’s city right now. And he’s out in it, with God knows who. Some mysterious shadow of a person with a fist wrapped round the base of his brain, down where careful plans and details don’t help him much.
Eames stays up until morning, more or less. He dozes a little, holding onto the bottle. It’s all he’s got down here. If someone’s going to come through the front door at him, he wants to be able to swing something heavy.
Around seven o’clock he forces himself up, out of the couch, and up the stairs to his room. He’s miserably hung over, gritty-eyed and sore-headed, all his joints aching. His fist hurts. The first two knuckles are swollen. He thinks of the red-hot jolt of hitting Arthur’s face and feels both satisfaction and remorse.
He showers. Shaves carefully, cutting clean swathes of soap off his face with the long blade. Chooses a shirt and trousers from the wardrobe Arthur’s made for him, all of it nicer than Eames would choose for himself, all of it a perfect fit.
When he goes downstairs, Arthur’s sitting on the couch, his elbows on his knees, his body hunched forward as if he’s tired or sore. He has a cup of black coffee in front of him on the table. It’s stopped raining.
Eames pauses at the foot of the stairs, not sure what to say. Arthur hears him, and looks around. The side of his face has swollen and gone purple. The eye on that side is nearly closed.
“Shit,” says Eames. “I’m sorry. About that.”
Arthur shakes his head. “My fault. I should have told you what was going on.”
Eames walks cautiously forward, noticing that Arthur’s changed his clothes sometime--he’s back in a narrow brown suit. There are rain spots on the shoulders, and the right cuff’s been torn or cut.
“All right?” he asks. Arthur drinks from his coffee cup--his hand doesn’t shake--and nods. “Then are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Was going on,” Arthur says. “It’s over now.”
Eames sits on the opposite couch and says nothing.
“Deacon Tinter,” says Arthur, without emotion. “He’s been showing up for...a while. Just dreams, first. Dreams within the dream, I guess.” He smiled briefly. “Then he started coming around when I was awake.”
“Deacon Tinter,” says Eames. “Your father.”
“Stepfather,” Arthur says, a little tightly.
“Anyway. I didn’t think he was a threat. I thought he was just...a nuisance.”
“You told me to lock the door,” says Eames, remembering.
“I wasn’t sure.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me? About him, I mean.”
Arthur gives him a fixed look. “He wasn’t here for you.”
“But you weren’t sure.”
“It wasn’t your business.”
Eames takes a breath. “Let’s...not start that again.” He smiles, and Arthur acknowledges it with a nod.
“Right. Sorry. I...should have told you.”
“For one thing, if there’s one projection in here, there could be others.”
“No,” says Arthur. “There aren’t any others.”
“How do you know?”
“Unless you have any?” Arthur waits for him to shake his head, and nods. “Tinter was my only one.”
Eames shifts a little in his chair. “What do you mean, ‘was’?”
“I killed him.” Arthur says it simply, almost nonchalantly. Eames’s eyes go to his torn cuff.
“You killed him.”
“I should have done it months ago,” Arthur says. “I don’t know why I didn’t.”
Because he was your stepfather, Eames thinks. Stepfather, father, looming church, giant cross: the unconscious doesn’t know the difference. Arthur built the church and put the cross on the hill in front of it, almost before he did anything else in the city. He did it to get his bearings. He needed it there, in the corner of his eye, so he could function.
“You killed him,” Eames says again, testing the words out. “How?”
Arthur doesn’t answer. He drinks from his coffee cup, sets it down, wipes his mouth with his index finger.
“A gun?” Eames asks, genuinely curious. “I didn’t know you had one.”
They sit there for a minute. Eames’s head throbs. He rubs his temple, pulls at his hair. He needs a haircut. Arthur’s done it for him a few times already, very neatly--better than the cuts Eames has given him. He’s good with scissors, with a razor blade.
“He won’t stay dead,” Eames says, feeling tired. “You can’t honestly think he will.”
“Yeah. I can.” Arthur’s bruise looks awful, grotesque. It must hurt like hell. He turns his head so he can look squarely at Eames, despite his swollen eye. “I’ve never killed him before. Not in any dream, anywhere. He’s dead.”
Eames looks at him. “It was because of the sex, wasn’t it?”
Arthur doesn’t say anything.
“Right.” Eames leans back and presses the heel of his hand to his poor, throbbing skull. “So, what--he meddled with you?”
“What? No.” Arthur sounds affronted. “No, he was...he was a religious man.”
“And that type never diddles little boys.”
“And I was thirteen when they got married. I was old enough not to...God, no.”
Eames opens his eyes. “So?”
Arthur says nothing for a minute. He stares at the table as if he’s trying to read something on it. Then he shrugs minutely and leans back, his hands lying loose in his lap. “He didn’t like me. He was a religious man and I was...he didn’t like me. He made it clear. From the beginning.”
“Because you were queer.”
Arthur smiles thinly. “Because I was…I don’t know. Anyway, I wasn’t stupid. I never gave him anything solid.”
Ah, thinks Eames. And there, in a nutshell, is Arthur. “But you were,” he says wearily. “And he knew it, even if he couldn’t prove it in a court of law.”
Arthur shrugs. “What did you do? You look like hell.”
“Nothing. Drank a bit. Say the rest.”
“That’s it. He didn’t like me, he used to...make an example of me. Philip fought with him, I didn’t. There wasn’t any point.”
“You just took it.”
“I just killed him.” Arthur stands up. “I’m sorry it went so far. I misjudged the situation.”
“I’m going to bed,” Arthur says. “You should too.”
“Made an example of you,” Eames says. “What does that mean, exactly?”
Arthur looks down at him. His expression is bleak and tired. “Go to bed, Eames.”
Eames props his head on his hand and watches Arthur disappear upstairs.
The next few days are quiet. They’re both subdued, tired, turned inward toward their own thoughts. Eames makes a habit of locking the front door of the hotel whenever they’re at home. The weather stays cool and neutral.
“See a movie?” he suggests one night, as they’re finishing up dinner. Arthur pauses, then shakes his head.
“You could try. I bet it would work.”
Eames thinks about sitting alone in the dark theater, watching bits of films he’s seen before spool out across the screen. “Sure.” He knows he won’t do it. The image is too depressing. “Or maybe a walk to the river.”
“I’m wiped,” Arthur says, standing up and picking up his plate. “I’m going to bed.”
Eames sits back in his chair and fiddles with his fork while Arthur takes his plate to the kitchen, then passes back through the lobby to go upstairs. “Night.”
“Good night.” Arthur doesn’t really look at him as he says it. He’s thinking of something else, miles away.
After five days, Eames knocks on Arthur’s door around midnight. There’s a long pause. He waits in the darkened hallway, examining his knuckles. All healed.
The door opens. Arthur’s hair is uncombed, he looks like he’s just woken up. He’s pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, or else he fell asleep in them. He still has a dark purple ring halfway around his eye, and a little yellowness, a little puffiness, in the cheek. It makes him look...something. Bruised.
“What’s wrong?” he says. Then, rubbing his good eye: “Oh, right. Sorry.” He steps back. “Come on in.”
Eames doesn’t move. “Not if it’s not a good time.”
Eames leans a forearm on the doorframe. “Be careful. You’ll have me swooning.”
“Sorry.” Arthur squares his shoulders and raises an eyebrow, dipping his chin in a parody of suggestiveness. “Please, Mr. Eames. Let me invite you into my boudoir.”
“Boudoir?” Eames goes in and stands with his hands on his hips, looking around. The room looks the same as it always does. “You should make one of those--you know, with satin sheets and peacock feathers and all that.”
“Sure.” Arthur closes the door--he always does, Eames has no idea why--and walks over to him. “What do you want?”
“Just a handjob would be fine.” Eames says it crisply, half-hoping Arthur will laugh, or tell him to fuck off, or say him if that’s all he wants he can do it himself. But Arthur just nods and sits on the edge of the bed, waiting for Eames to sit beside him. Feeling both ogreish and turned on, Eames sits. The sheets are kicked half-off, and he can tell at a glance that Arthur was just in them, asleep. The mattress holds a shallow imprint of his body.
“This would be easier if you undid your pants,” Arthur says. Eames gives him a look, then undoes his trousers and sits back a bit while Arthur slips his hand inside the fly. He pauses when he feels that Eames isn’t hard yet. “You want me to go down on you a bit?”
“If you like.” Eames lies back, props himself on his elbows, and watches while Arthur slides to his knees on the floor. Between them, they get Eames’s trousers down enough to accommodate. Then Arthur leans in and takes Eames’s soft cock in his mouth. They haven’t done it like this before, they’ve always been hard from the start. That was the point, after all--they’re men, they need things like this, and they’re the only people here. They use each other to satisfy the need, that’s all.
Arthur doesn’t flinch or complain, though. He closes his eyes and licks the head of Eames’s cock, slides his lips down over the length of it, rubs gently with the pad of his thumb beneath the base. The sight of him--the wet pink sheen of his mouth, the hollowing of his clean-shaven cheek, the fading bruise around his eye--is incendiary. Eames feels a flare from his dick up through his gut and spine, flowering in the base of his skull. He wants to fuck Arthur, wants to sleep with him, wants to smother him with a pillow and punch him in the nose--and hold him, hold onto him, kiss him and cook for him and say stupid loving things to him. Hear him say stupid things back. He wants Arthur, very badly. He has for some time.
He’s hard now, and it’s not awkward anymore. He reaches down and rubs his hand over the back of Arthur’s head. Arthur lets him. His hair is soft, his cheek feels smooth and lean. When Eames runs his finger along the edge of Arthur’s mouth, Arthur turns his head obligingly and trades cock for fingers. His eyes are open now, halfway. He looks drowsy and turned on. Eames sits up, brings his other hand down, and takes hold of Arthur’s jaw. Firmly, his fingers fitting into the strong, slender curve of the joint. He runs his other fingers, wet, around Arthur’s lips. Arthur sinks back on his heels, his hands loose. He’s hard now too.
“Here,” says Eames, pulling him forward by his head, his jaw. Arthur yields, a little too fast, and they kiss hard. Arthur’s teeth crush Eames’s bottom lip, but it feels good, it feels electric. He gets the jolt all the back down to his cock. He keeps firm hold of the back of Arthur’s neck and kisses him. Fumbles to touch his cock through his jeans. “Let me--here.”
Arthur doesn’t reply, but he kisses Eames back, and when Eames gets his zipper down and grips his cock, he grunts and twists to push his hips up, hard and fast. Eames pushes him back onto the bed, into the sheets, and fits his leg between Arthur’s. Their cocks brush, the damp heads meeting. Eames keeps kissing Arthur, bringing both hands up and cupping his face, rolling on top of him, humping his leg. It’s practically just kissing now, Eames holding Arthur still and kissing him as if he’s trying to say something that way. Which he is.
Arthur gets it. Eames feels the moment when he does--the sudden tension in his body, the way his mouth stops responding. He tries to draw his face away, and Eames keeps hold of him.
“Stop it,” Arthur says, bringing a hand up and knocking one of Eames’s away. “Cut it out.”
Eames pulls back, and they look at each other. Arthur’s face is flushed, his mouth is wet and red. His eyes are angry.
“Arthur,” Eames says, very gently. “You have to know--”
“Get off.” Arthur’s jaw is tight, his stomach has gone flat and hard. “Get off of me.”
Eames doesn’t move. He can still feel Arthur’s dick, pressing hard into his thigh.
Arthur’s mouth twists, and he flips Eames off, rolls away, and stands up. He turns away, rakes a hand through his hair, and zips up his trousers.
“I’m very close to calling you a terrible name,” Eames says, trying to smile.
“All right, you’re a prick. You’re not worried we’ll kill each other if I spend the night in here. You’re just afraid you’d like it.”
“I told you--” Arthur turns around, rolling his sleeves compulsively. He’s still hard, Eames can’t help but notice. “There are rules.”
“I don’t like them.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“For fuck’s sake.” Eames sits up, shoving his hand into his crotch to try to kill his erection. “We’ve been here months. You can’t expect me not to feel--”
“What do you think is going to happen when we wake up? We’re in the warehouse right now. What are we going to do?”
“Clap and thank God for Yusuf, I don’t know.”
“It’ll be ten minutes up there, Eames. It could be eighty years down here, but up there it’ll be no time at all. You think we’re going to wake up and be happy about this?”
Eames sat for a second or two, taking that in. Then he said, trying to make his voice light, “That’s your reason? You can’t unbend an inch because eighty years from now you might feel silly about it?”
“I think I’ve unbent plenty.”
“No you haven’t. You’re just doing what you always do. You fuck people, but you don’t respect them enough to get sloppy over them.”
“To...?” Arthur takes a step back, his eyes shuttered. “Did you ever think that maybe I just don’t feel that way about you?”
“Certainly,” Eames says. He hasn’t, really. But now that Arthur’s said it so baldly, he can’t think why not. “But why don’t you take the guesswork out of it for me?”
Arthur takes a breath through his nose, then another. He looks furious, too furious to talk. But he does. “I’m not in love with you,” he says. The words sound stilted, almost rehearsed. “I’m not going to fall in love with you. If you can’t handle that, then we should stop this now.”
Eames sits for a minute. He’s surprised at how heavy his stomach feels. But then, he’s always surprised at himself, in moments like this. There have been others.
The silence goes on until Arthur takes another deep, uneven breath, and turns away. He goes to the door and opens it.
“Right,” says Eames, sliding to the edge of the bed. He zips himself up, stands up. “Well, thank you for that. I suppose.”
He goes to the door. Arthur stands back, almost to the wall, his face frozen. As if one of them has become contagious.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Don’t be.” Eames hitches his trousers with a smile. “Glad to have it settled.” He goes out, down the hall, into his own room. Closes the door. Lies on the bed on his back, in his clothes, and stares at the ceiling.
Sometime after that, after ten days or two weeks of quiet, polite days and solitary evenings, Arthur looks up as Eames starts up the stairs.
“Just so I know,” he says, “have we stopped?”
Eames pauses. He’s had time to think it all over, over and over, angry and morose and rueful and humiliated and finally just tired. “Yes,” he says. “I think we have.”
Arthur nods. “Okay.” He goes back to his newspaper. “Thanks.”
There are still cherry blossoms on the trees in the park, and Eames walks that way almost every day. He lies in the cool grass and looks up through the branches at the white-grey sky, searching for the patches of blue.
He doesn’t fall asleep out there, or anywhere else he can’t lock a door between himself and the world. Arthur thinks a loveless, controlled existence will keep Deacon Tinter at bay. Fine. There’s not much Eames can do to change his mind. But that doesn’t mean he believes it too. And it doesn’t change much for him.
“I want to show you something,” Arthur says, over coffee one morning. Eames has recently started finding crosswords in the back of the paper, and is in the process of doing one with his full attention. His spelling is awful, but he thinks even if it weren’t the puzzles wouldn’t work out. They’re all just a little bit off.
“Mm,” he says, not paying much attention. Arthur gets up and comes over to the table, puts something down beside him. The keys to the Jag.
“You’re driving,” he says.
They head east, on familiar streets at first and then they merge onto a freeway that Eames doesn’t remember being there. Arthur sits looking out his window, his body relaxed. He’s wearing a dark shirt, a grey suit. His hair’s getting a little long. Eames tries to keep his eyes on the road.
“Going to tell me where we’re going?” he asks, after a few minutes on the freeway.
“Nope,” says Arthur.
They drive ten minutes, soaring past apartments and theaters and something that looks like the glass triangle in the middle of the Louvre, only bigger--until Arthur says, “Take the next exit.”
There’s only one exit coming up, with a sign that says 32A, nothing else. “Mileage?” Eames asks, gearing down.
“Kilometers,” Arthur says. “From the hotel. Metric makes more sense.”
Eames refrains from comment. They come down a ramp and Arthur points left at a blinking red stoplight. Eames turns that way.
“If you’ve found a way out of limbo,” he says, “I wish you’d tell me now. No point keeping me in suspense.”
“Sorry, no such luck.” Arthur sounds almost jovial, and when Eames looks over, he’s smiling.
“You’re pleased with yourself,” Eames observes. Arthur shrugs, rubs his mouth, and says nothing. “My interest is piqued.”
“Left turn,” Arthur says. “Then follow it up the hill.”
The road is narrow, just two lanes with fields on either side, fronted by a rolling wood and wire fence. It looks like farmland. Eames buzzes down his window, and the car fills with a warm rush of air. He thinks about how it should smell--sweet, fresh, like grass and sun. After a minute or two he can tell he’s getting it.
“That’s good,” Arthur says, buzzing his own window down, nodding a little in appreciation. “I wish I could do that.”
Eames looks at him in surprise--this is the most open Arthur has been in ages, the most relaxed. He’s still smiling, looking out the window as if it’s all new, as if he didn’t make it himself. He looks young and pleased, boyish. Lovely.
“No cows,” Eames says, forcing himself to look back at the road. “Is a cow harder than a skyscraper?”
“Much harder.” Arthur laughs. “I didn’t even try.”
The road narrows even more, and starts taking them uphill. Wild rose hedges have grown up in the ditches, waving pink blossoms with gold centers. The grass is knee-high, rich and green.
“Slow down,” says Arthur. “Here, turn in.”
There’s an old post by the road, with a sagging metal mailbox nailed to the top. Eames pulls into a gravel driveway and eases the car up past a stand of what look like old apple trees. There’s a house up ahead, he can see. A big stone pile with a portico, a covered porch, a bay window.
“Just pull up.”
They park under the portico, and Eames cuts the engine. Arthur gets out before Eames can say anything. Eames sits for a moment, fingering the key. Then he gets out and crosses the gravel drive to where Arthur is standing, shading his eyes with his hand, studying the house.
It’s early Victorian, leavened with a few modern Americanisms--bigger windows, more generous proportions, everything a little wider and more open and expansive. Ironic, Eames thinks. Considering who built it. A honeysuckle vine covers the trellis on the porch--California, coming through--and the upper windows are casements, opened outward. It’s the color of buttercream, with a russet trim and a couple of red brick chimneys. A lovely house, well thought up and well placed on top of its hill. Looking at it, Eames can’t help but think of a high-end apology gift, a parcel from Saks or Zegna, something expensive and beautiful and in the very best taste.
“What’s it for?” he asks, to postpone the inevitable. Arthur glances at him.
“It’s a house. It’s for living in.”
“Mm.” Eames takes a step back, turns, and looks over the grounds. There’s a long green lawn to the fence, and beyond it some woods. “Pretty.”
“You never told me what yours looked like, so I made it up.” Arthur still sounds easy, pleased with himself.
Eames turns back and looks at the house again. “Ours was smaller. And it had bits falling off.”
“I can rip the gutters off this one, if you want.”
Eames says nothing. He puts his hands in his pockets and studies the house. There’s no address anywhere he can see, no name. The longer he looks at it, the more he can see Arthur’s hand in it. Its essential neatness, its regularity. He’s done a good job of weathering it and fitting it into its site, but there’s no real decline in it. No age, no relaxation.
“I thought you’d like it,” Arthur says quietly.
“Well,” says Eames, “there is an old tradition of shipping mistresses to the countryside. Once they’ve passed their prime.”
Arthur says nothing.
“Sorry,” says Eames. “It’s a very nice house.”
“You don’t have to live in it. It’s just...for a change.”
“Right. Of course.”
“I just wanted to do something...” Arthur puts his hands on his hips under his jacket, wrecking the line. “I was trying to do something nice.”
“I know. It’s lovely, it really is.”
“I wasn’t trying to...buy you off, or ship you away.” Arthur gives him a hard look. “It’s here if you want it, or you can forget it. It’s just another build.”
“I’m being stupid,” Eames says. “Let’s go look inside, shall we? I’ll tell you everything you’ve got wrong.”
Arthur looks at him for a few seconds, trying to tell how he means it--then relaxes, and half-smiles. Smiling, he has dimples. Eames looks away.
“After you,” he says. And is careful not to look at Arthur’s ass as he follows him up the stairs.
It's a lovely house inside as well, full of spacious rooms with pocket doors and deep window ledges, fireplaces, picture rails, wooden wainscoting--some of details right, some of them wrong, but all of them suited to the place. There are peonies and iris in a vase on a side table, a little old-world sketch of a fruit market behind a door. It's homier than his own family's house ever was. He can't help thinking, as they walk through the rooms, what it would be like to live here with Arthur. Properly. Foolish thought, he knows.
"You can see the city from here," Arthur says, standing in front of the picture window. He's pleased again, cautiously proud. "And the mountains from the south windows."
Eames stands beside him to look. The city's a blue-gray mass on the horizon, a few towers recognizable. Above it, the hill with the white cross still standing--the most visible landmark.
"You cleared a lot of land for this," Eames says, still looking at the cross. "You're not getting headaches anymore?"
Arthur shrugs. "I just do it a little at a time. It's not bad."
"How long did this take?"
"I don't know. A couple months, maybe?"
Eames turns in surprise. Arthur's been doing this--clearing land, building the house and its acreage--since they started having sex. Maybe before. Which means it's not an apology gift. Or not just an apology gift.
Arthur seems to know what he's thinking, because he looks a little abashed. "I thought, some open land--it might be good. The city's kind of...intense sometimes."
"It is." Eames turns back to look at it, his eyes drawn by the huge white cross. He almost says something about it, points out how nice it is to be out here, not under that thing's shadow--but before he can, Arthur says, "There's a bottle of wine in the fridge. If you want to make it taste decent."
He says it politely, carefully, almost deferentially, and Eames feels himself give in a little further. He can't stay angry or remote, he never could. He's like the wall around a sand castle, melting in the tide.
"It would be my sincerest pleasure," he says. And almost means it.
They drink the wine on the porch, in deep cushioned armchairs, with a view of the mountains. The city and the cross out of sight, for a while.
Eames drives back. Arthur's a little blitzed, lax and sleepy.
"If I'd known you were building me a house," Eames tells him, "I wouldn't have called you a prick."
"I am a prick," Arthur says. His eyes are closed, his head tipped against the passenger window. "You're not the first person to say it."
"I'm sure I'm not." He glances at Arthur, then back at the road. "You dropped out of university."
"What?" Arthur opens his eyes and looks at him, bemused. "Yeah. So?"
"Seems unlike you. To give up on anything."
"Oh." Arthur settles back against the door, crossing his arms over his chest, relaxing again. "I couldn't pay for it."
A faint smile touches Arthur's lips. "Tinter wouldn't let me take it."
"He wanted me to go to faith college. I got into Berkeley and he went ballistic. He started tearing up the mail."
"They send stuff...letters, forms." Arthur yawns. "I didn't get half of it, so there was all this red tape. Total nightmare."
"But you went."
Arthur’s silent for a minute or so. Then he says, "He said if I took the scholarship he'd turn Philip in for dealing. So I went on my own dime." He smiles thinly, nestling against the door. "Which wasn't enough. Turned out."
Eames studies the road. Philip dealt drugs, apparently. Nothing serious enough to warrant a criminal record--that would have turned up in Arthur’s file.
"Nice to have a brother," he says.
"Essential," Arthur says. "He saved my life."
Eames glances at him, surprised. Arthur's eyes are open. He's watching Eames, still smiling faintly.
"You like the house," he says, confirming.
"It's very nice."
"You like it."
"Yes, all right."
Arthur's smile widens. "Good."
“Tell me,” says Eames, knowing he shouldn’t. “This ridiculous, juvenile rule of yours. This romantic attachment thing.”
Arthur closes his eyes, looking pained. “Jesus.”
“Have you always had it?”
There’s a pause, long enough for Eames to think Arthur’s not going to answer. “Pretty much.”
“So--and pardon me for saying it--you’ve never had a real relationship.”
“Says the man who dates lingerie models.” Arthur’s smiling again, just a little.
“Dated. And I did at least stay the night with them.”
“It’s not personal,” Arthur says. His eyes are still closed but he’s sounding a little more awake, a little more defensive. “It’s just good practice.”
“It’s sad,” says Eames. “It’s one of the sadder things I’ve heard in my life.”
“Drop it,” says Arthur, putting his hand over his eyes. “Please.”
They drive a few minutes in silence. The exit appears ahead, the city crouched to swallow them up again.
"You shouldn't give me things," Eames says, slowing down. "It encourages me in all the wrong ways."
"And you need a haircut," Eames says grimly, looking back at the road. "You look like a bloody Beatle."
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, Eames thinks, having sex without strings. He's done it before. In ordinary life, full of distractions and complications, it’s fine. He even thought about trying to start something like that with Arthur, topside. He never followed through because it seemed like it would be too much trouble, it would upset the balance they’d struck. And besides, maybe Arthur wouldn't want to. Badly handled, that would be embarrassing. Better to smirk and stare, drop leading comments--and do nothing else.
Down here, where there's nobody but the two of them, where literally nothing is real except what they think and feel...well, it's a different story. Down here it has to mean something, because they'll be here like this for the next twenty or thirty or fifty years. You can't fuck someone that long, the length of a marriage or a life, be the only one they see day and night for all that time--and never sleep next to them.
Arthur's careful, he’s thoughtful, he’s dogged. He always has an eye on where things are headed, what’s around the next corner. All good qualities in a point man. Eames has appreciated Arthur's qualities many times. Almost as many times as he's wanted to kill him for them.
"Worst cock-up," he says. He's balancing a half-glass of whiskey on his belly, lying on the couch. They’ve had dinner, played a few hands of cards, talked sparingly about unimportant things while the sun went down. It got dark, got late, but neither of them went to bed. After an hour or so Eames got up, went to the bar, and poured them both a glass. That was a couple of hours ago. It must be close to midnight, Eames thinks, but he’s not sleepy. Just drunk.
Arthur's slumped in an armchair behind Eames’s head, with his own glass. He takes a minute to answer.
"The Fisher job was bad," he says slowly. "But everybody got out. Except Saito."
"He did eventually."
"I'm pretty sure he'd call that a miss." He thinks a minute longer. "One time Cobb had a bad reaction to the mix. It was in Budapest. Totally fucked up the job. We had to get back to Italy on our thumbs."
"It was worse for Cobb. He puked for a week."
Arthur drinks; Eames can hear it. He thinks: I know how it sounds when you drink. "You?"
Eames purses his lips. "Dar es Salaam. I was stabbed in the foot."
"No kidding." Arthur cranes his neck, as if he's going to be able to see through Eames's shoe. "I didn't notice."
"I'm very clever about keeping it back," Eames says, although he actually makes no particular effort to hide it. "I'll show you sometime. If you're lucky."
Arthur gives a single amused huff. "Did you get the tattoos there too?"
"Oh, the tattoos." Eames tips his head back and takes an upside-down look at Arthur. "You noticed those, did you?"
"Is one of them an elf?"
"Leprechaun," Eames says comfortably, settling back. "Irish on my mother's side. I was quite drunk at the time."
"You’ve been drunk a lot."
"No, I was perfectly sober for some of them."
"We can't all be as neatly packaged as you are, darling."
"They're permanent," Arthur says, a little disbelief creeping into his tone. "I don't get how you can put something like that on your body for the rest of your life."
"And we don't all have your commitment issues," Eames says smoothly.
Arthur pauses. "Touché."
"Yusuf," Eames says thoughtfully. "No, I can't see that. Not my thing. Robert Fisher, on the other hand--"
"Nightmare," Arthur says. He's tired now, maybe a little bored, his cheek propped against his fist, his eyelids half closed. The conversation has definitely drifted. "Guy's been a billionaire since before he was born."
"You have something against the rich?"
Arthur shrugs. "Some of them."
"That's a shame. They can be very useful. And some of them are very good in bed."
"'They,'" Arthur repeats. "Don't you mean, 'we'?"
"Yes, thank you," Eames says. "Some of us are very good in bed."
Arthur looks away, fingering his glass.
"Ariadne," Eames goes on. "Delicious little slice. Again, not really my thing, but I can see the appeal." He watches closely, but Arthur doesn't take the bait. "You remember I offered to forge her for you."
"First of all," Arthur says, "that's disgusting. And second, I thought we weren't doing that anymore."
"Doing what? I only said I could forge her."
"Of course. You clearly have a filthy mind. I can see why she liked you."
To his surprise, Arthur blushes. "She didn't like me."
"I think she did. Or would have, if you'd given her a chance."
"She didn't like me," Arthur repeats. "She was just...good at the job. She's a good architect."
"Which has nothing to do with whether she liked you."
"She didn't," Arthur says firmly. "Anyway. I don't want you to forge her." He pauses. "How many skins do you have by now?"
"I don't know. Twenty, thirty." Eames thinks about it. "They're easier when they're fresh in my mind. If I don't use them, I forget things."
"Can you still do Cobb?"
Eames concentrates, reaches out for the threads he knows are there, and starts gathering them together. It's more of an effort than he'd expected it to be. After a few seconds he still hasn't got the fit, can't quite convince himself he remembers all the details. He feels bemusement, then a kind of awful resignation. He's forgetting how to forge.
"It's okay," Arthur says quietly. "Maybe later."
Eames closes his eyes, drops Cobb, and pulls on what comes easily, naturally. Which is Arthur.
When he opens his eyes, Arthur is staring at him. His face is shocked, slack. His hand rests forgotten on the rim of his glass.
Eames looks down at his own arm, which is now Arthur's arm. He's slimmer, his bones are lighter. He has Arthur's long careful fingers, Arthur's well-shaped wrist. He's wearing the same checked shirt and khakis that Arthur is wearing.
"Well," he says, with a faint smile. "That one's easy, anyway."
"Take it off," Arthur says, in a brittle voice.
Eames drops it.
"Don't do that," Arthur says. He looks away, then picks up his glass and drinks. "That's...I don't like it."
“Sorry,” says Eames. "It's what I've got.”
"Fourteen," Arthur says. "With Philip. Mom and Tinter were away."
Arthur makes a face. "Vodka and orange juice."
"I couldn't drink orange juice for a year."
"Mine was beer. And I still don't like it."
"I've seen you drink beer."
"I drink it. I don't like it."
Arthur lifts his glass and regards the quarter-inch of whiskey in it. "When we get out of here, I'm never going to be able to drink single-malt again."
"You're an optimist," Eames says, smiling. "You said, 'when'."
"First dream you went into."
Eames smiles at his feet. "Gatwick, 1997."
“Yeah. My trainer was a man with very little imagination."
"Why an airport?"
"Lots of people. Lots of pockets to pick, so to speak."
"And your trainer was...?"
"Bit of a Bill Sykes type. He specialized in finding promising young sorts and bringing them along in the business. Then he got a cut of the take."
Arthur frowns. "You worked for someone? I don't remember that in your background."
"Not everything's in my background." Eames drinks. "Didn't last long, anyway. About a year after he started me he caught a bullet with his head, and that was that."
Arthur says nothing. There's more to it, obviously, but Eames doesn't offer to share. Still, he can feel Arthur thinking. Comparing it to his own entry into the business, under Dom's wing.
"My first dream was Los Angeles," he says after a minute. "Dom blew the windows out of the Getty Center and one of my projections cut his throat."
"Sounds like fun."
"When I woke up," Arthur says, "I said I'd never go back in again."
Eames tips his head to look. Arthur's smiling wryly.
"I was back in half an hour later," he says.
"Smug, self-satisfied pain in the ass," Arthur says. "And a bad dresser. You asked."
"It's all right. I thought you were a stick-in-the-mud bean-counter. Dom Cobb's little shadow."
Arthur nods slightly, no offense taken. He’s past drunk now. "Why...why do you wear some of those things you wear?"
"That purple shirt." Arthur's eyes are glassy, his lips are damp. They've killed most of the bottle. "You're, God, you're...gorgeous, and you wear the worst shit--"
"Excuse me." Eames raises a finger. "Was that a compliment?"
"The worst shit, I can't believe what you show up in sometimes--"
"It's what's underneath that matters, love."
"If I looked like you," Arthur says, "I'd wear...amazing stuff. All the time."
"Well," Eames says, and then can't think of anything else to say. There's too much happening inside his brain. Arthur's complimenting him, saying he's gorgeous. Saying he likes Eames's body. Eames feels dumb and triumphant and more than a little sick. "You've...I've got good suits in here, at least."
"I had to give you some," Arthur says, rubbing his eyes. "I was going to go blind looking at you in that crap."
"I don't know," Arthur says, slurring. "I know, it's stupid. I don't know, I just can't--"
"It's okay," Eames says. The room takes a quarter spin every time he closes his eyes. He forces them open again. "It's okay, it doesn't matter."
"I just...Jesus, I really like fucking you. I really, really--"
"But it gets so fucked up--"
"I mean, we work together--"
"I think now it's a little different," Eames says. He feels like he's scored an important point. Arthur's monologue pauses for a moment.
"No," he says, at last. "It's really not. I mean, down here it is. But up there--"
"But we aren't up there, are we?"
"Yeah, we are. We just don't know it."
"Anyway," Arthur goes on, pouring himself more whiskey with a faltering hand, "I can't stop thinking about it. It's making me nuts."
"Oh Christ yes," says Eames, heartfelt. "Me too. Maybe we can--"
"I don't want to--"
"No, maybe, it doesn't have to be--"
"I'm just saying," Eames says, "if you still want to fuck, I think I can keep the baggage out of it. That's all."
There's a moment of silence. Eames swivels his eyes to find Arthur's face. Arthur is weaving in his chair, looking sweaty and sick and sort of delighted.
"If I weren't so fucking hammered," he says, "I'd blow you right now."
"If I weren't so fucking hammered," Eames says, "I'd love that."
He wakes up on his back on the couch, his mouth wide open, a line of drool running down his cheek. He's covered in the thin hotel throw, his drained glass on the carpet beside him. His head is woozy and tender. His stomach feels curdled. It's just barely dawn outside.
Upstairs, the toilet flushes. He lies still for a minute, groping for the reins of his brain, his gut. He hears Arthur start puking again, and closes his eyes.
After that, the only thing to do is move to the country.
He takes the house—or lets it take him, he’s not sure. There’s not much setting up to do. There’s already food in the refrigerator, art on the walls, even peonies in the vase on the sideboard. They change, he notices. Blowsy white one day, pink the next. No telling whether that’s due to Arthur’s lingering influence or his own.
It’s all perpetually clean and ordered and comfortable, just as it was the day Arthur showed it to him. And it makes a nice change from the pensione. If you have to spend eternity somewhere, he tells himself, you can’t complain about it being a house like this one.
He roasts a chicken for dinner and eats it with his back to the view of the city. It’s good practice. They’ve been living in each other’s hip pockets for months; better to try monastic solitude for a while. Even if Arthur’s absence—the absence of a single other conscious creature, the only person in this world—feels more like an obvious presence, a purposeful omission that only draws attention to itself.
It will get better, he tells himself as he browses the bookshelf at the top of the stairs. Huxley, Johnson, Amis. Arthur’s idea of what English people read, or just his own taste? It will feel normal soon, the way it became normal to always be together.
You can get used to anything, he thinks, lying in bed with a dogeared copy of Crome Yellow in hand, peering at semi-legible lines of text that don’t add up to anything. Give it time and it will all fall into place.
He builds his routines purposefully, the way a man might build a wall of sandbags against rising waters. Up at seven, shower and shave. He’s getting good with the straight razor, he hardly notices it anymore. Coffee, toast, and a period of divination over the newspaper that delivers itself to the front porch every morning. Stunted stories about uprisings and revolutions, kidnappings, market crashes. He allows himself a look at the city after he finishes, just to make sure nothing’s gone up in smoke. Arthur’s alone too, after all.
After breakfast he walks the property line, noting where sections of fence need to be repaired, or fallen branches picked up. There’s always something, enough to get him through to lunch. Sometimes a sandwich, sometimes a quick curry. He’s getting good at tikka masala.
The afternoon is hardest to fill. Usually he naps, and wakes up to a low angle of sunlight through the windows. That’s when he feels most like going straight to the lavatory and slicing his own throat. He forces himself up and does push-ups until it eases off. Sometimes a hundred, sometimes more.
When night falls he sits on the porch with a glass of wine, watching the lights of the city twinkle on the horizon. The wind blows through the grass in the field. He tries to parse the constellations, but the stars are changeable and hard to read.
He’s just sitting down to lunch—cheese and chutney sandwich today—when the telephone rings. It startles him. He never thought about the telephones in the house, hardly even noticed they were there. That’s what limbo does to you, he thinks, setting the plate down carefully and going to pick up. How long has it been since he answered a telephone call?
“Hi,” Arthur says. “Are you in the middle of anything?”
“What?” Eames feels caught off guard, a beat too slow. “No, nothing.”
“I was just thinking, maybe I could come up for a visit. But I didn’t know if you’d want me to.”
Eames stands there dumbly for a moment, then snaps to and says, “No, yes. That’d be fine.”
“Okay. What—when should I come?” Arthur sounds stiff and formal. They both do. Eames’s palms, inexplicably, are sweating.
“I don’t know.” He tries to smile. “It’s not like I’m doing anything else.”
“You should stay busy,” Arthur says. “You have to do things, you can’t just let go.”
“Thanks, I’m aware.”
“It’s all right.” There’s a pause. Eames looks at his sandwich—suddenly it looks pathetic and lonely, a sandwich for one sitting on its little plate, beside a paperback book. “Come for dinner,” he says. “I’ll cook.”
“Okay,” Arthur says, a little too quickly. He can’t cook, Eames remembers. What has he been living on for the last ten days? Sawdust and cardboard. “Eight o’clock?”
“Okay.” There’s another pause, then Arthur clears his throat and says, “See you then.”
Eames hangs up. The kitchen seems somehow even quieter than before. He opens his hands and looks at the miniscule beads of sweat on his palms. It may have been the most awkward conversation of his life.
But Arthur is coming for dinner. He can’t help feeling lighter and better and somehow, already, less alone.
He’s careful not to put too much thought into cooking. The last thing he wants is to squelch this fragile new thing, whatever it is, by making a big production. On his own, he would have made pot roast or done a chicken—so that’s what he does for Arthur. Pot roast with potatoes, a bottle of wine. He bungs it in the oven, takes his book out to the porch, and settles in to read.
At a couple of minutes to eight, he notices headlights on the road leading out of the city. They’re hard not to see, the only moving lights in the world. He refocuses himself on the page and doesn’t look up until the car—a silver Mercedes—is up the drive and the engine cuts out.
He puts a finger in his place and waits, smiling slightly, while Arthur gets out and stands up and peers up at the house. Then he waves. Arthur raises a hand in return and starts for the porch.
He looks well, in a way. He looks like himself. Tanned, slender, neat. Maybe a bit thin, which makes sense if he can’t make decent food. He’s wearing a white shirt open at the throat, and narrow dark trousers. He looks fucking irresistible.
That is not the way to think, Eames reminds himself. He doesn’t get up, but waits in his chair while Arthur mounts the stairs and walks across the porch.
“Hi,” Arthur says, with no apparent edge.
“Hello.” Eames nods at the Mercedes. “New car.”
Arthur nods, and takes in the view. “It looks good out here.”
“There’s wine. And glasses in the kitchen. You know where.”
Arthur stands there a moment longer, nodding as if to himself, then goes inside. Eames reopens his book but it’s getting hard to read in the dusk. Instead he listens to Arthur walking through the dining room to the kitchen, pausing, then opening cupboards. He comes back with a wine glass in hand.
“It smells good.” He smiles. “Like real food.”
“I hope so.” Eames uncorks the bottle and pours Arthur a glass. “To halfway decent meals.”
They drink. Arthur sinks back in his chair. He seems relaxed, which in turns relaxes Eames. Maybe there’s no reason to worry, he thinks. They’re both men, after all. Things don’t need to be complicated.
“How’s the house?” Arthur asks.
“Lovely. You should build another.”
Arthur laughs. “It took long enough to do this one.”
“Well, you do have time.”
“Maybe.” Arthur sips his wine, then sits smiling faintly out at the blue and pink sunset. “Maybe I will.”
“How’s the pensione?”
“Fine. Quiet.” Arthur shrugs. “I’m working on a pub. And a library.”
“I’ve been meaning to say, your books are rubbish.” Eames waggles the one he’s reading, which is supposed to be Lucky Jim but reads more like Joyce on acid. “Now a pub, on the other hand.”
“The pub’s the easy part.” Arthur grimaces. “Well, easier. The hard part is getting the beer to taste like anything.”
“You’ve been practicing.”
“I have to eat.” Arthur drinks more wine and sits back. “I’m starting to get a handle on salty, I think.”
“So this isn’t a social call, then. You’re just desperate to taste something decent.”
Arthur glances at him, startled. “No, I—“
“Sorry. Just a joke.” Eames raises his glass. “A do-over. To good company.”
Arthur hesitates, then raises his glass. They clink.
“To good company,” Arthur repeats, and this time he flushes a little.
They eat, talking about nothing in particular. Arthur’s pub and library, Eames’s habits around the house. They don’t mention Tinter, or their horrible drunken confessional. Every time the conversation veers toward dangerous ground, one of them steers it carefully back to the house, the wine, the weather. Eames finds himself thinking how admirably they’re doing, working as a team.
After dinner they sit on the porch and talk for a while in the darkness. Finally Arthur stands and stretches. “I should get back, I guess.”
“All right.” Eames refrains from pointing out the absurdity—what does Arthur have to get back to, exactly? The empty pensione, another day putting up useless buildings? “Lovely seeing you.”
Arthur says nothing, but starts down the stairs. His car keys jingle in his pocket. Eames lets him get a few feet before saying, “Everything all right down there?” Arthur pauses and looks back at him. “Any reason I should be worried?”
Arthur shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Everything’s fine.”
“Glad to hear it.” Eames taps his book gently against his knee. “I’d hate to find that you were entertaining company this whole time, or something like that.”
For a moment Arthur says nothing. Then he walks back and stands at the foot of the stairs. “I told you, he’s dead. I killed him.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I believe you.”
Arthur studies him. It’s too dark to read expressions clearly. After a moment he says, “Thanks for dinner. It’s…good to see you.”
Eames smiles and nods. “Come back again.”
Arthur turns and walks back to the car. Eames watches the taillights go down the drive until they disappear at the turn. There’s an itching sensation along the side of his face, something he can’t quite place until he turns his head and looks that way. The city’s laid out like a spill of diamonds on black velvet. Over it, standing like a blanched and rigid specter, is what Eames has come to think of as Deacon Tinter’s bloody cross.
He expects that to be it, that’s Arthur’s token gesture toward normalcy. Now that they’ve had their required friendly visit, Arthur will consider his work done and retreat back into solitude. Probably for several years.
So it’s a surprise when the phone rings again two days later.
“The pub is up,” Arthur says. “If you want to try it out.”
Eames does. They meet for a drink at The White Elephant, which is actually a modest brick building with leaded glass windows and a boot-scraper outside the door. The beer tastes like water at first, but Eames puts some effort in and eventually it’s all right.
They play cards for bar nuts. Eames cleans Arthur out.
“A word of advice,” he says, riffling the deck while Arthur shoves his last cache across the bar. “Don’t try to do this for a living.”
Eames smiles. “Exactly.”
When the night’s over they go their separate ways. As Eames is driving back to the house he finds himself replaying the evening in little snatches. Arthur’s fingers around his glass. The hollow of his throat, exposed at the neck of his shirt. The way he thins his lips at a bad hand, and thinks he doesn’t.
This is not the way to think, Eames reminds himself. Not with that bloody cross still up there. Not while they have to live at opposite ends of the city, just to keep old Tinter from rising up out of his grave.
It’s a waste of time, he tells himself, climbing the stairs to the front door. It’s bad for his sanity. Closing up, checking the locks out of habit, he reminds himself: it’s a bad game. He’s better out of it.
He goes upstairs, wanks urgently to the memory of Arthur fucking him, slaps off the light, and falls straight into sleep. Thinking vaguely, ironically: Good thing that’s sorted, then.
They fall into the habit: dinner a couple of nights a week, outings to the cinema or pub. Light dating, is how Eames thinks of it. It’s a relief in a way—he’s not built for a hundred years of solitude. But it’s also incredibly frustrating, sitting next to Arthur in the darkened cinema or at the bar and stopping himself, a dozen times, from reaching over. From letting his knee or shoulder lean just a little bit Arthur’s way. Just enough to make contact.
Arthur never seems to notice, of course. Which is incredibly frustrating in its own way.
But it’s better than endless solitude, so Eames makes his peace with it. Quiet dinners at the country house, evening walks through the growing city. It’s better than nothing, he tells himself. Better than lots of things.
He comes back from his daily walk around the fence line to find Arthur sitting on the back porch steps, which is a surprise. Arthur keeps regular work hours; he only comes up evenings. He’s in khaki trousers and a checked shirt, and there’s something on the step beside him. A kitchen towel, taken from the pensione. Wrapped around something.
“How’s the property?” he asks, smiling. There’s a nerviness to it, Eames notices. Something’s different, he can’t quite say what.
“Fine,” Eames says. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah.” Arthur shrugs, then pulls the dish towel open to expose a clutch of dark blue plums. “I just…I had a breakthrough, I think. With the taste. I thought you might want one.”
Eames steps closer and peers at the plums, then at Arthur. “All right.” He holds out his hand, in the stately manner of a connoisseur. “Let’s have a go.”
Arthur gives him a plum. It’s dense and cool, the skin fogged light blue. When he strokes his thumb over it, it’s deep purple beneath. There are little sun freckles by the stem. Eames makes a so-so movement of his head, and bites into it.
It’s…not perfect. Not the plum of his imagination, the uber-plum he bases all others upon. But it’s sweet, and the juice runs down his knuckles. Compared to the plums Arthur has tried to make before, it’s the best plum in the world.
Eames shakes juice off his hand. Arthur watches him do it, his eyes following every movement.
“Well?” he says, when Eames is finished chewing. “What do you think?”
“Not bad.” Eames passes the rest of the plum back, and Arthur takes it. It’s a moment of déjà vu, so strong it’s almost disorienting. What is Arthur doing here, exactly? Arthur takes a bite of the plum and chews neatly, thoughtfully.
“But not great,” he says, in a clarifying tone.
“Compared to previous efforts, it’s bloody wonderful. Here, move over.” Eames waves Arthur over and sits down beside him, taking another plum from the towel. It’s as good as the last one. Maybe a bit better. He can feel Arthur watching him from the corner of his eye. “You’ve been practicing.”
For a moment Arthur says nothing. He shakes the plum pit in his loosely cupped hand, looks at it, then throw it into the grass. “Yeah. I have.”
“Good for you.”
They sit for a moment in silence. Eames licks his bottom lip. If someone’s going to say something, or do something, it isn’t going to be him. Not this time.
Arthur clears his throat. Then he says, “I miss you.”
Eames tries not to look startled.
“I know we see each other,” Arthur goes on, staring out at the unmown grass. “And that’s fine. I mean, that’s good. I like it. But I still…miss you.”
Eames lets the pause draw out, in case there’s more. When Arthur doesn’t speak, he says carefully, “I’m not sure what you’re saying.”
“I’m not either,” Arthur says. “But I worked really fucking hard on these plums, which I guess means something.” He looks down at them ruefully. “I don’t know, I guess I’m saying I’m sorry. About what I said before. About not…having any feelings about you.”
He’s staring at the grass again, frowning. He seems to be having trouble finding words.
Eames looks down at the plum pit in his hand. Arthur dreamed it up, against his temperament and inclinations. He made it sweet somehow.
“Anyway,” Arthur says. “I’m not saying I’m in love with you. Or that I’m even…I don’t know. But if you want to…start over. We could try it. Or if you don’t. That’s okay too.”
After a moment of silence he adds, “Or if you want to tell me to get the fuck off your porch—“
“No,” Eames says. “No, that’s not what I was thinking.”
“What were you thinking?”
“That that was a delicious bloody plum.” Eames holds the pit up in his palm. Then he leans over. Arthur hesitates, then meets him. His mouth tastes of plum juice, sweet and warm. His breath is quick and shallow. He puts his hand on Eames’s arm—just his hand, just Eames’s arm. It’s dizzying.
“Delicious bloody plum,” Eames repeats into Arthur’s mouth, sliding his palm up Arthur’s leg.
“Jesus,” Arthur says, or something like it. It’s not articulate. He lets Eames shove him back against the porch railing, lets his knees fall open so Eames can crowd in close to him. The plums spill down the steps, thumping softly. “Hey—“
“I’ll make more,” Eames says. “Or you will.” He’s stupidly hard.
Arthur kisses him, tentative at first. Then he seems to leap some kind of fence, and it turns urgent and messy. He gets his hand around Eames’s neck and pulls him closer. His other hand is already sliding Eames’s shirt from his trousers.
“If it’s just—“ Eames pauses to help with the shirt. “If it’s just about the sex, that’s all right. I mean, it’s—all right.”
Arthur looks at him. His mouth is open, there’s high color in his cheeks. He looks almost startled. As if he’s surprised himself.
“It’s not just about the sex,” he says. “It never was. I’m just—I’m just a dick, that’s all.”
“I’ve said that for ages.“
“Shut up.” Arthur pulls him back in.
They end up jerking each other off on the floor of the porch. Arthur on the bottom, his cock thrusting along Eames’s belly. Eames pinning him and grinding into Arthur’s fist. It’s fast and hard, too dry for comfort but they’re both so primed it takes almost no time. Arthur seizes up, his fingers dig into Eames’s shoulders, his face flushes and goes intense, internal. He makes a strangled little sound, like he’s being hurt. After that, it only takes a couple of strokes for Eames to follow after. His brain shorts out, his body takes the lead.
When it’s over he rolls off and they lie without speaking. Eames dozes.
At last Arthur sits up, and Eames feels a quick, familiar wariness. It’s all well and good to talk about plums and feelings when you haven’t been laid in a month. But afterward—
“Hey.” Arthur’s fingers on his shoulder, barely touching him. “You awake?”
“No.” Eames opens his eyes a fraction and looks at Arthur through his lashes.
“Come on.” Arthur’s stuffing his shirt into his trouser front, grimacing at the mess. “Let’s go in.”
“There’s a bed in there,” Arthur says, hauling himself to his feet. “I know, I made it.”
“It makes itself,” Eames says, but something warm and light has touched off in his chest. The plums lie scattered over the steps, glowing like sapphires.
He follows Arthur in, pausing just for a moment in the foyer. Just long enough to notice the lock on the porch door, and turn it. It’s good practice, Arthur would say.
They spend the afternoon in bed, like idiot teenagers. Or not exactly like teenagers, since after a couple of rounds Eames collapses with his face in a pillow and Arthur sits up against the headboard, leafing through a novel.
“Jesus,” he says. “Do you actually read these things?”
“Uhn,” says Eames.
“They don’t make any sense. They’re just…fragments.”
Eames considers replying that they’re Arthur’s own damned frustrating fragmentary books, then decides that they’ve got years to have those kind of conversations. He rolls over, pulls a pillow on top of his head, and clocks out.
And sleeps more deeply, more restfully, more happily, than he has since they first woke up on Cobb’s crumbling beach.
He wakes up suddenly, all senses go. It’s evening, shading into night. Arthur’s on the bed beside him. Breathing evenly, asleep. The house is silent.
For a moment Eames lies there, feeling the pleasant soreness in his thighs and shoulders, wondering why he’s awake. Wondering, for that matter, if Arthur really came over with propitiatory plums and talked about emotions and fell into bed with him. Surely it was all a dream within a dream.
But there’s beard burn on his lips and cheeks, and when he eases one leg over the side of the bed—wincing at the pull in his groin—he feels the ghost of a wet spot on the sheet. And there’s Arthur, after all, laid out beside him like a side of bacon.
Not a fantasy, then. Or no more so than everything else in this place. But why is he awake?
He’s starting to relax again when he hears a faint creak downstairs.
It takes him a minute to find his clothes in the tangle beside the bed. Half-dressed, he eases out of the room and pulls the door closed behind him. He’s actually a bit surprised that Arthur doesn’t wake up. Maybe a bit flattered. Either way, it’s convenient.
Downstairs, he goes straight to the kitchen without turning on any lights, and slides a chef’s knife from the block. The blade is as long as his forearm from elbow to wrist. He tries a hammer grip, adjusts it, makes sure it’s comfortable. The weight feels good.
With the knife in hand, he makes a circuit of the rooms. The porch door is still closed and locked. The back door is the same. He stands still in the darkness and listens.
Then, very faintly—a floorboard creaks.
As soon as he turns the corner in the hall he can see the door to the cellar is standing open. It was closed before. Down in the cellar, a light is on. He can hear a faint, rhythmic tinking sound. The light chain, he thinks. Swinging against the bulb.
He probably can’t kill another man’s phantom. But then again, Arthur hasn’t been able to kill Tinter either. At least not permanently. Not in any way that matters.
Maybe Eames will have better luck.
He goes to the cellar door and takes a quick look, just enough to tell him that the stairs are empty, and that the risers are solid. Trust Arthur not to build a staircase with open risers.
After one last look around the hall, the empty dark doorways to the kitchen and front room, he starts down the stairs. He moves quickly and keeps to the side of the treads, making hardly any noise. At the bottom he puts his back to the wall and studies the open space—stacks of old boxes, dusty bicycles, snow shovels, the big old furnace.
He’s still facing that way, getting his bearings, when Tinter appears in the doorway at the top of the stairs.
He’s just a small-to-middling man with cold grey eyes, wearing a strangely old-fashioned shirt. He’s holding something in one hand—a book. A Bible. In the other hand, he’s got something else.
That’s all Eames sees before Tinter closes the door and turns the lock.
Eames stands for a moment, struck dumb by his own stupidity. Then he sprints up the stairs and throws himself against the door. It shivers and cracks, but holds. He backs down a step, grabs the railing, and boots the door just beneath the knob. The frame snaps. It takes one more kick and then he’s out and bolting for the stairs.
He reaches the top just in time to see the bedroom door close.
“Arthur!” he shouts. Arthur’s asleep. Tinter has a hammer.
He reaches the door in seconds, grabs the handle, and finds it locked. “Arthur—fuck!” This time he uses his shoulder, but the door holds.
Inside, there’s a thumping clatter and a crash. Eames hits the door again, then again.
He’s drawing back for another hit when the lock turns from the inside. The door opens.
Arthur’s naked, flushed and breathing hard, spattered with blood. In one hand he holds Tinter’s hammer. It’s clotted with gore and hair.
Eames pushes the door all the way open and sees Tinter sprawled on the floor by the foot of the bed. His head is in several distinct pieces.
“Jesus,” Eames breathes. He turns to Arthur. “Are you--?”
“Fine.” Arthur gestures loosely with the hammer at Tinter’s body. “It’s all his.”
“Of course it is.”
Arthur’s frowning at the knife in his hand. “You knew.”
“What? No, I just—“ He pauses. “Well, I thought it was likely.”
“I told you I killed him.”
“I’m sorry, are you trying to claim I was wrong?”
Arthur takes a breath, then walks to the bed and drops the bloody hammer on the nightstand. “No. I just—I thought…”
“It’s your unconscious,” Eames says, trying to be kind. “It’s not under your control.”
Arthur thins his lips as if he’s drawn a bad hand. He’s embarrassed, Eames realizes. That he made a mistake. Which—well, it was a fairly large mistake. But given the nature of the unconscious, an understandable one.
“I killed him,” Arthur says again, sinking down onto the edge of the bed. There’s blood on the sheets. “I must have killed him fifty times by now.”
“Then chances are he won’t stay dead this time either.”
“I don’t get it. What am I supposed to do?” Arthur sounds genuinely pained, as if he thinks Eames has known a solution all this time and just refused to share it. “I hate everything about that guy. Why do I keep bringing him back?”
“You don’t,” Eames says. “Your unconscious does.”
“Fuck my unconscious,” Arthur says, stepping into his trousers and sounding so disgruntled that Eames laughs.
Downstairs, there’s the sound of breaking glass. They both freeze.
“How—“ Arthur says, then looks past the foot of the bed. The floor there is empty.
“Fuck,” Eames says.
They go down together, Arthur in front with the bloody hammer in his hand. Eames keeps the knife, although he’s not sure what good it will do.
Tinter’s in the front room, standing by the fireplace with the poker in his hand. He’s small and stocky, his shirt not old-fashioned after all but just cheap and too small, and buttoned all the way up so that the collar bites under his chin. He studies them with cold eyes.
“Who’s this?” he asks Arthur, nodding at Eames. “Your…friend?”
“Shut up,” Arthur says.
“You don’t talk to me like that, boy. I’m your father.”
Arthur flushes, but says nothing.
“You’ve missed service again,” Tinter says. “Your mother and I—“
Arthur changes his grip on the hammer, the muscles cording in his forearm. Tinter sees it.
“You think you’re going to use that on me?” he asks, lifting the poker in a casual gesture. “You get on your knees right now.”
Arthur doesn’t move.
Tinter swings the poker startlingly fast, in a black arc. At the same time, Arthur steps in, takes the blow square on his shoulder, and brains Tinter with the hammer.
Tinter drops like a shot horse, the poker clattering beside him. Eames thinks, a little wildly, that the house is going to be full of dead bodies if they keep this up.
“My arm,” Arthur says, sounding almost bemused. It’s hanging from his shoulder, numb and useless. He stares at it, twitching his fingertips minutely.
The back door slams.
“What if I try?” Eames asks.
“He’s my projection. He’s my problem.”
“Then what about a gun?”
“I can’t afford a gun in here. If I have one, he has one.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I don’t know. I was trying to avoid this. I’ve been trying to avoid this the whole time.”
Eames has a sudden, startling revelation, the kind he sometimes has about things he should have known ages ago. All this time, Arthur’s been repressing like mad, stifling any wayward emotions—but not just on his own account. He’s been doing it to keep Tinter away from Eames. If he feels the wrong thing, Tinter shows up. It’s the rule of limbo. Eames remembers their first few nights in the city, waking up because Arthur was talking to someone. Talking in his sleep, Eames had thought. Or maybe not.
“We need to sort this out,” he says. “We need more time.”
“Yeah. I know. But I don’t—“ Arthur pauses.
Tinter is in the door to the kitchen, holding a cleaver.
Eames glances over his shoulder; there’s no body on the floor. Gone as if it never was. But Arthur’s arm is still dangling, half-dead, from his shoulder.
“We should split up,” Arthur says.
“He won’t go after you unless we’re together. And if I'm by myself I can…get him back under control.”
“What, you can stop feeling anything for the next eighty years?”
Arthur says nothing.
“It’s just going to keep happening,” Eames says. “Until you get out from under him.”
“You watch your mouth, boy,” Tinter snaps.
“Get fucked,” Eames says. Tinter turns a look on him, and it’s surprisingly scary. Heightened emotion, Eames tells himself. A little contagion from Arthur, who isn’t thinking straight right now. Either way, Arthur’s unconscious is fairly dire territory.
While he’s thinking it, Tinter starts to intone. “If a man also lie with mankind, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.”
Eames sighs. “You can try, I suppose.”
Tinter comes for him, swinging the cleaver. Eames backs up, the knife ready. Beside him, Arthur’s traded the hammer for the poker, which has a longer reach. They bracket Tinter, and Arthur clobbers him from behind. Tinter staggers but doesn’t go down, swinging the cleaver in a wide arc that almost slices through Arthur’s belly. He jumps back. From the other side, Eames gets in and cuts Tinter’s throat.
They both stand there breathing hard while blood spreads in a dark slick across the floor. And in this lovely house, Eames thinks. Where he’d briefly thought of living with Arthur, at least for a little while. He has an urge to bash Tinter in the head again, just for fucking that up.
“We should split up,” Arthur says again. “It’s the only way. He’ll just keep coming back.”
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Eames says, “but you really do have some serious issues.”
“I tried to tell you.”
“I am duly informed.”
There’s movement outside the window, in the garden.
Eames considers. “If we split up, he’ll come after you by yourself.”
“I can handle him.”
“Of course you can, but I don’t exactly like being pushed into the corner to wait for word, like a sailor’s wife.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“And then when you reappear, you’ll be keeping me at arm’s length again, I suppose.”
Arthur frowns, flexing the fingers of his dead arm. “I think we have bigger problems right now.”
“No,” Eames says. “It’s the same problem. One way or another, it’s the same thing.”
“I’d rather hurt your feelings than get you stabbed in the gut, all right?”
“And not to be dramatic, but again. It’s the same thing.”
Arthur pauses. “That’s pretty dramatic.”
Eames just looks at him.
“Listen,” Arthur says. “I’m sorry. I never asked for any of this. I wanted to keep things simple—“
Eames barks a laugh, and Arthur flushes. “Okay, maybe that was unrealistic. But sooner or later we’re going to get out of here, and I can just...keep a handle on it. Until then.”
“You do realize Mal and Cobb grew old here, don’t you? And Saito. We might not get out until we’re a hundred and ten. We might never get out.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I didn’t exactly get a chance to prepare myself for this. This is what I’ve got to work with, okay?”
Eames feels suddenly weary. Arthur’s right, of course. Neither of them planned this. And Arthur—poor, lovely, fucked-up Arthur—is doing the best he can.
“You should have got dropped in with Yusuf,” Arthur says, with a weak smile. “You could have played backgammon for eternity.”
The back door opens.
“Company,” Eames says. “I’ll go out the front, then.” He hands Arthur the knife, noticing that there’s no body on the floor anymore. “You’re sure?” Arthur nods. “I’ll see you at the hotel. When you’re ready.” Arthur nods again. “No kiss?”
“It’ll just make it worse.”
“Serves you right.” He kisses Arthur, who just tolerates it for a moment, then seems to slump a little, and kisses him back. It’s hot and angry and urgent, a little desperate. Then it’s over. Arthur shoves him back, almost off his feet.
“I can take the hint,” Eames says, walking backward to the front door. As he reaches it, Tinter appears in the kitchen doorway.
Arthur stands braced, the poker in his good hand and the knife in the other. At least he can hold onto the knife, Eames thinks. It’s madness to leave him here, alone, in the state he’s in. But staying only makes it worse.
Tinter’s eyes slide sideways. The look he gives Eames feels like a knife blade pressed to the base of his spine.
Eames very deliberately turns his back on the man and walks out.
He waits at the pensione for three days.
By the end of the third day he’s out of patience, and too worried to sit still. He’s never been perfectly clear on what happens if you’re killed in limbo. You don’t just wake up, he knows that. Is there some deeper level than limbo? Somewhere worse that Tinter could send Arthur, if he got a chance to use his hammer?
He doesn’t like the thought of eighty more years alone down here. And he doesn’t like the thought of waking up someday, after he’s gone grizzled and grey, to find that Arthur’s an eggplant on the next lawn chair.
By now, surely Arthur’s wrestled down his better nature and gone back to being stiff and invulnerable. He’s probably keeping his distance because he doesn’t want to trigger another visit from Tinter. And Eames did say he’d wait at the hotel until Arthur was ready to come.
Bugger that, he thinks, getting into the Jaguar.
He parks on the road and walks in under cover of darkness, hugging his arms for warmth. It’s gotten markedly colder over the last few days. The house looks different, too. Bleak and looming, instead of warm and generous. Haunted, if he had to put a word to it.
He stands out front for a minute, gauging the place. Trying to decide whether the direct approach is best—in through the front door? Probably not. He starts around the side, just as the front door swings open and Arthur steps out onto the darkened porch.
He’s in a white shirt and dark trousers, clothes he’s worn before but now they seem different. Cheaper, less substantial. Almost like a uniform. They make him look tired and thin.
Still, it’s a relief just to see him. Eames’s shoulders unbind. He walks back around to the front steps and peers up at Arthur in the darkness.
“You should go,” Arthur says quietly, without preamble.
Eames pauses. Behind Arthur, the house is dark and silent. But he can see through the open door that there’s light in the back rooms, the kitchen. Tinter’s still in there, he realizes. “He’s not dead?”
“I had to stop killing him. It was just making things worse.”
“So you’re, what, living with him?”
Arthur rubs his hand over his jaw and glances over his shoulder. “I’ll figure it out. I just need time.”
“Yeah.” Arthur laughs quietly, without humor. “What an unbelievable pain in the ass.”
“Have you tried lighting him on fire?” Eames asks.
Arthur gives him a dry look.
There’s a sound from the back of the house—a door opening. Arthur looks back, his face tense.
“You can’t just live with him,” Eames says. “We’ve got to do something.”
“Like what?” Arthur’s already starting back toward the door.
“I have no idea. Maybe you could stop punishing yourself.”
“Or you could be a huge dick. That could work.”
“If it hasn’t already, it probably won’t.”
“You have to go,” Arthur says, stepping back over the threshold. “Seriously. Before he sees you.”
“Christ, it’s like being a teenager.”
“Thanks,” Arthur says tightly. “For checking on me. I’ll let you know when I get this taken care of.” He closes the door.
“So never, then.” Eames stands there in the darkness for a moment, listening. There’s no sound from inside—no voices, no movement. It’s as if whatever takes place on the other side of that door happens in some other universe.
He feels an almost overwhelming urge to bend down, find a stone, and hurl it through one of the windows.
He turns and walks back down the drive, then all the way to his car. By the time he gets there it’s so cold that he’s shivering.
The next day he drives up to the top of Church Hill to take his bearings. This place, more than anything else, seems like Tinter’s root. Attacking the man does no good—maybe there’s a way to get at him through the cross. Or maybe it would only make things worse. Arthur built it, after all. Burning down the church and cross might do nothing but cause him pain.
Eames parks and sits on the Jaguar’s hood, overlooking the city and the distant purple mountains. Positive emotion is more motivating than negative. Fischer had to want to break up his father’s empire, not because of hate or avoidance, but because of love. But what kind of love could Arthur possibly harbor for Tinter? That’s not the angle to take.
Still. Inception is the key, he’s sure of it. He needs to plant a seed in Arthur’s mind, a memory or idea that can take root and grow on its own.
“It’s all right to have a normal human emotional life,” he murmurs, gazing out at the mountains. Terrible. “I deserve to be happy. I deserve to get out from under my bellend stepfather.” Everything he tries feels awkward and bad. He can imagine Arthur’s raised eyebrow, his momentary stillness before moving on to other topics.
I was thirteen when they got married. Packed into that single terse sentence is a whole novel. Things matter to children. And they linger.
He didn’t like me, he used to...make an example of me.
No, there’s no way Arthur’s relationship with Tinter has any room for love. But-- Eames sits up, snagged by a thought. Maybe that’s not the way.
He drives back down to the pensione and goes upstairs, ignoring his old room. Instead he goes into Arthur’s room, which he hasn’t seen in weeks or months. However long it’s been it looks the same, neat and orderly and almost identical to Eames’s own except for Arthur’s clothes hanging in the closet and a few loose sketches on the nightstand. Eames glances at them out of professional habit, but they’re nothing special, just brownstones and cafes. They’re not what he’s looking for, either.
He starts in the nightstand drawer, which of course holds nothing but a flat black Bible. As a matter of form he does the bathroom next, poking through Arthur’s deluxe shaving kit and the mirror cabinet. Nothing. He goes to the closet and starts to quickly, methodically pat down Arthur’s clothes.
Philip fought with him, I didn’t. There wasn’t any point.
Arthur’s jacket pockets hold nothing. His trousers are all hung neatly over bars, the creases lined up exactly. There’s a low shelf for his shoes, and a rack for ties. Eames finishes searching and stands gazing at it all. He can smell Arthur very faintly in his clothes—his skin and cologne.
He closes the door and looks around the room, trying to think. Maybe there’s nothing here. Maybe Arthur is nailed down so tightly that there’s no way to find what he needs. But he had a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar on the shelves, a relic of his childhood. That was a slip, one that Eames didn’t fully appreciate at the time.
One thing he does know: Arthur doesn’t want to be trapped in his own head with Tinter for eternity. And Arthur is smart. There’s at least a chance he’s left something here that Eames can work with. He knows that Eames can’t do this from scratch, after all.
He does another full round of the room, moving very slowly and carefully. He takes everything out of Arthur’s shaving kit, lines it all up neatly on the sink, then puts it back again. He takes every shirt and jacket out of the closet, puts his hand in every pocket, and lays each one on the bedspread in a regular, overlapping row.
It’s only when everything is out that he looks up and notices a narrow shelf at the top of the closet. Something silver glints. He reaches up and draws out a PASIV case.
He sets it on the foot of the bed and sits beside it. It’s not locked. Inside, the custom foam molding has been removed and there’s a single item. A cheap brown leather wallet.
Eames opens it. There’s no money, just a couple of faded bus tokens and some snapshots. He takes the photos out with careful fingers.
One is of two dark-haired boys on a playground slide, staring down at the camera. The picture is muddy and clouded, but the boy in front, the younger one with the dark hair and slitted eyes, is clearly Arthur. He might be five or six years old. Behind him sits another boy, his face a little longer, his hair wilder. Three years older, Eames remembers. Philip.
Essential, Arthur said.
This is what Eames does. He gets into people’s memories, their minds, their lives. He’s good at it and he’s paid large sums of money to do it on demand. But he doesn’t generally do it to people he cares much about. Handling Arthur’s childhood feels strange, a push-pull of unpleasant and greedy. God knows Arthur, of all people, wouldn’t want him digging around like this.
But this is Arthur’s room, Arthur’s hotel, Arthur’s city. Everything in here is of Arthur’s making. So if he’s left these photographs—even closed up in a PASIV case, hidden away at the top of a closet shelf—there must be some part of him that understands. Or maybe that’s just what Eames has to tell himself to do this.
He goes through the rest of the photos. One is of a woman, dark-haired and olive-skinned, holding up a Christmas wreath in a tiny kitchen with yellow walls. Arthur’s mother—but the mother isn’t what Eames wants. Another is of a small, empty skiff tied up on a river, with a bridge arching overhead in the distant background. It’s blurred and sunspotted, but something about it catches Eames’s eye. It’s Arthur’s river, he realizes. Arthur’s bridge—one of them, at least. More or less.
The last photo is of a man standing alone on a muddy river bank, wearing a trucker cap and a plaid shirt over a white T-shirt. It’s Arthur, in an alternate universe. Broader in the shoulders, a little softer in the face and belly. A scruff of beard over the cheeks and jaw. Philip’s smiling, holding a can of beer, pointing at the camera with his mouth half-open. In the middle of saying something. A joke, maybe. Big brother to little brother.
Eames takes the photo into the bathroom and studies it until he can see it when he closes his eyes. Then he opens them and makes adjustments in the mirror. The eyes a little deeper, the jaw a little longer. The skin a little darker, like his mother’s. Laugh lines around the mouth. He rakes his hair back with one hand and pulls a folded trucker cap from the back pocket of his jeans.
Essential, Arthur said. And, Jesus, they used to fight.
He spends another day at the pensione, perfecting the forge. It takes time to get the details right, especially since he’s never seen Philip in the flesh. He has to guess at the voice and mannerisms, basing them on Arthur’s. He has to guess at everything. When he’s honest with himself he’s not even sure what he’s going to do with this skin, how it’s going to make a difference.
Philip is the way in, he’s sure of it. But how to use him in the right way? With idées fixes like Tinter, the way forward is usually to break the man, bring him to his knees. Fischer in the hospital room with his dead father, the pinwheel in his hands. Weeping. That’s where the transformation happens, in the lowest moment. That’s where Eames makes his money.
But how can he use Philip to break Arthur down?
He sits on a stool in the hotel kitchen and ponders this, drinking Philip’s brand of cheap American beer. There’s a chalkboard in there, which he’s using for notes. It gives him a strange feeling to see the arrows and question marks and rubbed-out spots.
Maybe if you tried a little harder you could figure out how to do something that actually fucking matters. Arthur told him that once, in a heated moment. Something besides making things taste good. Something besides the party trick of the forge.
The feeling in his belly is excitement, he realizes. He’s working a job again. He’s doing something that matters. It feels good.
At last he has to give up on forming a precise plan, and resign himself to taking a flyer. He doesn’t have enough information to do it any other way. And the longer he stays down here worrying over details, the longer Arthur’s up there with Tinter. Doing God knows what kind of penance for being human.
He drives up and parks well back from the house. Walking up the driveway he muses that limbo seems to have a particular affinity for obsession. Mal and Cobb, stuck here for a lifetime, endlessly building. Saito, obsessed with the opposite: breaking up Fischer’s empire. Eames was never clear on how, exactly, any of them got out. But it strikes him now that the exits he knows of seem to have something to do with completion. As if minds in limbo are the equivalent of ghosts endlessly walking the same paths they did in life, unable to finish whatever they meant to do. It’s a kind of exorcism, maybe--getting out.
The front of the house is dark. He goes silently around the back until he reaches the kitchen window. The light is on, the curtain is drawn back. He looks in.
Arthur is sitting at the kitchen table, his back ramrod straight, his hands in his lap. He’s staring at the table. Beside him, Tinter sits eating dinner. Breaded chicken, mashed potatoes, some grey-green vegetable. There’s no plate in front of Arthur.
Tinter eats mechanically, in silence. Between bites he rests knife and fork in his fists beside the plate.
Eames watches for several minutes, until Tinter puts down the utensils, picks up the chicken leg, and starts to eat from the bone. Arthur’s eyes shift. From beneath his brows he gives Tinter a look of blackest hatred.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Tinter drops the chicken leg, grabs Arthur by the cord of muscle between his neck and shoulder, and wrenches him out of the chair. Arthur doesn’t topple. He seems to expect it, and he lands on his knees with his hands still down at his sides.
“Pray,” Tinter says.
Arthur kneels with his head lowered, not looking very prayerful. Tinter sits back with his arms crossed.
“Pray for forgiveness,” he says. “Pray for a righteous fear of our Father in heaven. Pray that he plucks your filthy soul from eternal hellfire.”
Eames drifts away from the window and continues around to the back porch. Inside the house, he can still hear Tinter telling Arthur what to pray for.
He goes quietly up the back steps. On the way his foot brushes something soft and heavy. It’s the bundle of plums Arthur brought, wrapped in the kitchen towel. When Eames twitches the corner open, he sees a mess of stamped-on fruit moldering inside.
He pauses for a minute, to get his breathing under control. To focus his mind.
Then he opens the back door and goes in, as Philip.
Arthur’s still on his knees with his back to the door. He starts to turn as soon as he hears the hinge, but Tinter grabs him by the hair and holds him still. The back of Arthur’s neck flushes.
Tinter stares at Philip. At Eames, wearing Philip’s skin. For just a moment, there’s something new in Tinter’s eyes.
He covers it almost instantly, but it’s too late. Eames has seen it. In an instant he knows he was right. Right to invade Arthur’s last vestiges of privacy, right to take on Philip’s skin. Because Tinter is afraid of Philip.
Jesus, they used to fight.
Following his intuition, Eames stays silent. He looks at Tinter’s hand, fisted in Arthur’s hair. Then he looks back at Tinter.
For a moment, Tinter does nothing. Then, in a sudden movement that’s as much a shove as a release, he lets Arthur go. Arthur rocks back onto his heels.
Eames holds his breath. Arthur’s going to turn and see him, and know it’s Eames behind the mask. And if he can’t tolerate that, there’ll be no point in carrying on with it. In the end it’s not what Tinter thinks that matters. It’s not Tinter who needs to suspend disbelief.
Arthur doesn’t turn his head.
He stays where he is, kneeling on the floor beside Tinter’s chair, not moving.
He knows, Eames thinks. On some level, he understands. He’s holding himself still, giving Eames time.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Tinter says in a low voice. “I kicked you out a long time ago.”
Eames takes off the trucker cap, folds it, and slips it into his back pocket. He goes to the refrigerator. His brand of beer is in there, where it wasn’t before. He takes a can from the six-pack, stands up, and cracks it loudly.
“I thought I’d stop by,” Eames says, in Philip’s flat California accent. He takes a long sip of the beer. “Check up on things.”
“Check up on things,” Tinter mimics, sneering. “Is that what you’re going to do? With your devil weed in your pocket, you’re going to come into my house—“
“It’s not your house,” Eames says. “You didn’t build it. You’re just a squatter.”
Tinter sits back in his chair, takes his napkin from his lap, and starts to fold it meticulously into a triangle. “The eye that mocks a father will be picked out by the ravens of the valley.”
“You’re not Arthur’s father.” Eames takes another long sip of beer, leaning against the fridge. “Not mine, either. What’s the Bible say about usurping?”
Tinter lays his napkin on top of his plate. “I believe I’ve lost my appetite.” He nudges Arthur with the toe of his shoe. “Wash up.”
Arthur gets up, takes Tinter’s plate, and goes to the sink. He doesn't look at Eames. His face is flushed, his expression fixed. He seems to be concentrating on something.
“And you,” Tinter says, rising. “Your body is a holy temple of our Lord. It’s not for you to pollute with your devil drugs, or with sinful depravities.” His eyes slide sideways to Arthur as he says that. “Impurity abounds, but the righteous man stands firm.”
Eames looks at Tinter. He’s not a big man. And Eames isn’t Philip at sixteen—he’s Philip in his middle twenties, full-grown and broad-shouldered, hardened from physical work. He has calloused hands and a heavy gold ring on his right hand, one that will leave an imprint.
“Get out,” Tinter says, but he’s still standing at the table. He seems unwilling to take that first step.
Arthur starts the water in the sink. The tops of his ears are red, but other than that there’s no sign he’s heard any of this. He’s playing his part, Eames thinks. Philip fought Tinter. Arthur only endured.
Eames sets his beer down on the counter and cracks his knuckles. Tinter flinches at the first crack, then holds himself still.
There’s a kind of vibration in the air, that particular tremor that tells Eames when he’s reached a critical juncture in the dream. A misstep here will break the spell, bring the whole thing down. But what should he do next? He’s still unsure. Usually by now the path presents itself; this time he’s still groping in the dark. Arthur and all his damned layers.
Tinter seems to pick up on it. His expression changes slightly—he smiles, pushes back his chair, and steps away from the table. In a firmer voice he says, “There’s nothing for you here, boy. Get out. Go peddle your drugs, and wait to feel the fires of hell. ”
Eames takes a deep breath and looks at Arthur. Tinter chuckles.
“He’s not going to help you. He’s got his own hellfire to think of.”
Arthur nudges the tap off with his elbow and turns to face Tinter. His sleeves are rolled back to the elbow and he’s holding a clean wet plate. It drips on the floor by his foot.
Tinter frowns. “Keep that in the sink, boy. You want to mess up—“
Arthur opens his hands and drops the plate. It shatters into several pieces, spraying out across the floor. Eames jumps.
Arthur doesn’t move. He just stands looking at Tinter, who stares at the plate, then at Arthur. His face darkens. “You little shit.”
It hits Eames at that moment, what Arthur’s doing. Tinter’s already yanking his belt from its loops, starting across the room. Philip and Tinter always fought. This is how it went.
But Eames isn’t Philip, he’s just wearing Philip’s skin. He’s a grown man who’s spent most of his life in places of ill repute, learning how to fight. Not the way a teenaged boy fights his bullying stepfather, but the way a man fights when he’s been stabbed in the foot with a rusty knife, when the only way out of a room is through three other men.
Tinter gets the belt up and cracks Arthur one glancing blow across the neck and chest. Arthur doesn’t try to deflect it. He stumbles back a step but doesn’t raise his hands. By that time Eames is there, grabbing the belt and wrenching Tinter’s arm around, feeling the turkey-leg twist of the torqued sockets, jamming his foot into the side of Tinter’s knee. Tinter goes down like a sandbag. It’s unbelievably satisfying.
“You—“ Tinter sputters, scrabbling to right himself. He’s panicked now, his eyes popping. “You can’t—“
Eames punches him twice, quickly, in the face. The gold ring makes a solid cracking sound against Tinter’s cheek. Blood flies out and spatters the floor.
“You’re not welcome here,” Eames says. In Philip’s capable body, with his own sordid back-alley experience, he grabs Tinter’s windpipe and rams him against the kitchen cabinet. Dishes shatter. Tinter makes a sputtering sound. The belt flails loosely in his hand.
It’s unbelievably satisfying, and it’s something else as well. Eames can feel certainty flowing into him, an almost totemic rightness and strength. It seems to be coming from the floor, the walls, the light overhead. From the cabinets and broken dishes and even Tinter himself, who seems to be shriveling in proportion. Bloody, coughing, scrabbling for balance. A weak old man with frightened eyes.
“You should leave,” Eames says, bashing Tinter’s head against the cabinet. A dish overturns, spilling salt or sugar over Tinter’s face. He howls and coughs. “Out the same way you came in.”
Tinter tries to raise the belt, and Eames catches it easily. Taking it away, he’s careful to break Tinter’s finger. The snap is sickening and wonderful. He tosses the belt away across the floor, grabs Tinter by the front of his horrible tight-buttoned shirt, and hauls him to his feet.
Dangling there, blood and salt caking his face, spit hanging from his lips, fear in his eyes, Tinter looks like nothing. Nothing at all.
Eames turns to Arthur, who’s standing a few feet away. The belt strike must have cut his jaw; the blood is bright red against his skin. He’s staring at Tinter.
Eames gives Tinter a shake. “Look at that. Nothing, see?”
Arthur looks at him. His eyes skim quickly over Philip’s face, his hair and clothes. For just a second, he looks impressed. Then he shakes his head. “It won’t work.”
“What?” Eames looks at Tinter, who’s practically weeping. “Why not?”
“I’ve killed him so many times.”
“It doesn’t matter. It won’t—“ Arthur seems suddenly to notice the blood on his jaw. He raises his hand, touches it, and looks at his fingers. Anger crosses his face.
“I can do it,” Eames says. “You know I can. All you have to do is—“ Believe, he wants to say. But it’s not as simple as that. Arthur’s right. Even as Philip, he probably can’t make Tinter stay dead.
Nobody but Arthur can kill Tinter, and Arthur can’t do it. So nobody can. Period.
Eames looks back at Tinter, who’s watching them through swollen, bloodied eyes. A small smile has appeared on his lips, revealing his cracked teeth.
“Upstairs bathroom,” Eames says. “Get my shaving kit.” Arthur doesn’t move. Eames glances at him, and sees confusion on his face. “Go on. I’m taking him out back.”
Arthur hesitates a moment longer, then turns and goes out. Eames waits until he can hear Arthur’s feet on the stairs, going up. Then he pulls Tinter’s face close to his own. Tinter smells sour, like food gone off.
“We’re going to close this up now,” Eames tells him quietly. Tinter tries to grab at him, and he bashes the man’s head against the cabinet again. It leaves a bloody mark. “You can walk or I can drag you. Either way.”
Tinter spits in his face.
He grabs a dish towel to wipe it off, then stuffs the towel in Tinter’s mouth and drags him out the back door, down the steps, and into the darkness.
The grass has grown long and it’s wet with night dew. He trudges to the edge of the golden circle cast by the porch light, drops Tinter, and digs a foot into his belly. Tinter rolls, gagging. When he claws the towel from his mouth, Eames crouches beside him and puts a knee on his wrist.
“You’re leaving now,” he says. “Because if you don’t leave, you’ll know nothing but misery from now on. Do you understand?” Tinter tries to roll away. Eames catches him by the jaw and turns his face back. They’re close enough to kiss. “Do you understand?”
“Fuck—you—“ Tinter pants.
“Philip can beat you,” Eames says. “He may not be able to kill you, but he can beat you. He can keep you from hurting Arthur, and he can kick the absolute living shit out of you. And that’s exactly what he’ll do.” He puts more of his weight into his knee, pressing down on Tinter’s wrist until he writhes. “That’s what I’ll do. Over and over, as long as it takes. We’ve got eternity down here. I’m not busy.”
Tinter lies still, panting for breath. His eyes are fixed somewhere over Eames’s shoulder.
Behind them, the porch door opens. Arthur comes down the steps holding something in his hand. It’s not the kit, of course. It’s what Eames really wanted from it, but didn’t say. The straight razor.
Arthur walks over with it, a slight frown on his face. The blood on his jaw has soaked the collar of his shirt. “I’ve cut his throat before. It doesn't work.”
“Give it to me,” Eames says, holding out his hand. It’s still Philip’s hand. He’s still in Philip’s skin.
Arthur gives him the razor. Eames takes it and opens it one-handed, so that the blade shimmers in the moonlight. Tinter’s gaze tracks it.
Eames leans down, his full weight on Tinter’s wrist, and speaks into his ear. “This is over now. Because if it’s not, I’ll use this on you myself. And every time you come back. As long as it takes. You understand?”
There’s a moment of inheld breath, when the heat of Tinter’s bloody cheek radiates against Eames’s face. A moment when he almost feels pity for this poor fucked-up dunce of a man. It passes.
Tinter makes a faint groaning sound, then gives the tiniest of nods. Eames feels it against his ear.
“Good,” he says. He sits back and holds up the razor between them. At the same time, he drops the skin. He’s himself when he puts the razor in Tinter’s hand.
“What—“ Arthur says, sounding alarmed.
In one quick movement, Tinter slashes his own throat. Blood gouts out, soaking Eames’s trousers and sleeves. Tinter chokes, gargles, twitches—then lies still. The razor drops into the tall grass.
Eames looks up at Arthur, who’s staring at him open-mouthed. He looks almost comically stunned. The light from the porch is behind him, framing him in gold. Gold and blood-red, that’s how Eames remembers it.
Because by that time Arthur’s already gone. The space where he stood is empty, as if he never was.
And Eames is alone in limbo.
How do you free a man caught in a trap? Break the trap. If you can’t break the trap, break him. If you do it right, you can give him enough room to maneuver and he’ll get out on his own. It might be painful, it might be ugly. But it might be the only way.
Can you do it to yourself, though? It’s one of those abstract notions certain people like to ponder. Cobb, for instance. Yusuf. It’s a topic of deeply unserious, meandering late-night conversations. It’s not a practical question. It has no direct application.
Except it does. And Eames now knows the answer.
The first year is the worst. It takes time to get used to the silence. To stop turning around at every little sound—the wind in the grass, the front door easing shut on its hinge—and starting to speak to someone who’s not there. To get used to seeing his own face in the mirror every morning, lathered with shaving cream, hungover, whatever—and remember that it is the only human face left in the world.
He stays in the country house. There doesn’t seem to be any point in moving back to the city, to the pensione. He thinks of that as Arthur’s, which is silly—everything is Arthur’s. But still. He stays in the house.
There’s an awful mess to clean up. He’s fleetingly glad, as he scrubs blood and hair off the kitchen cupboards, that he had the foresight to drag Tinter outside for the coup de grace. That much blood on the kitchen floor—he never would have got it out. As it is, there’s a particularly green spot on the lawn out there but no other sign. Tinter’s body disappeared on its own. Go figure.
He drives through the city, visiting Arthur’s landmarks. The flatiron, the cherry-blossom park. The river and its bridges. The taco truck is still down there, its windows shuttered and its lights dark. He goes to the modern museum and the old café, the one Mal built. He goes to the pensione and stands in the lobby, staring at the leather couches. Perversely, he checks the register. There’s no newspaper delivery anymore. No half-legible stories of thwarted passion and adventure.
Up on Church Hill, the church itself is locked and dark, and looks less ominous than tired. The cross still stands, until the day Eames takes a gasoline-powered chainsaw up in the Jaguar’s trunk and risks getting flattened to chop the thing down. It falls the wrong way and crushes the Jag into a heap of slag. He has to walk down the hill to find another car to drive home, and after that he can’t go up to the top anymore. Not that he wants to.
He goes to the cinema and sits in silence, watching images flicker across the screen. A burning river delta, plumes of orange smoke, helicopters firing tracers into the trees. Men grappling against a chain link fence, the muted pop of gunfire. A man slaps a woman across the face. He leaves and doesn’t go back.
He makes the sweetest, juiciest, most pliant and nubile plums he can imagine, and eats them sitting in a puddle of sunshine on the pensione threshold. He finds the key to Arthur’s room on a hook behind the counter and goes up. It’s exactly as he left it—Arthur’s suits laid out on the bed in neat overlapping fashion. The empty PASIV case lying open on the chair.
He lies down on top of Arthur’s suits, puts his arm over his eyes, and tries to sleep. He’s been having trouble lately. Sleep doesn’t come, but when he turns his head he can smell Arthur’s skin and hair and cologne in the suit beneath him. Heat rises in his groin, in his chest. He fumbles his fly open and jerks off with his face buried in Arthur’s suit jacket. Seeing Arthur in the darkness behind his eyes, outlined in gold and red. Arthur beneath him, in the country house pillows. Flushed, teeth clenched. Right on the tipping point, when he can’t control himself anymore.
When he’s done, sleep descends like a sledgehammer.
He wakes up in darkness, staggers to the toilet, and clicks on the mirror. Reaches out and finds Arthur’s skin right there, right at his fingertips, as easily as if Arthur himself had handed it to him. He stares at himself, at Arthur. Looking tired and sad. Needing a shave. Needing a wash. He leans close, touches the skin of his cheek—Arthur’s cheek—and for a long, vertiginous moment he’s not sure who he really is.
Not one of his finest moments, he thinks later. And later still: he was a little depressed.
That first year was the worst.
He always thought that living alone in limbo would drive him mad in no time, but his coping mechanisms turn out to be better than he’d thought. He falls back into his routines around the house. With Arthur gone things start to fall into actual disrepair—before there was always a sense that things were going wrong to oblige him, to give him something to do. Now it’s serious business, maintaining a big old house alone, with limited resources.
Because with Arthur gone, the city starts to denature again. It takes a while for Eames to notice it, but when he does he sees it everywhere. Buildings have cracks in them. Dust collects. The cars no longer have a limitless supply of petrol—if he drives them long enough, they’ll run out. He has to switch cars every couple of weeks, and roam farther and farther afield to find new ones. There are no petrol stations. Arthur didn’t build any—why would he have? He didn’t need them.
The first bridge falls down when Eames is up on the roof, cleaning out the gutters. He hears a distant boom, looks that way, and sees as if in slow motion the long, arcing spans of Arthur’s first bridge come down. They hit the river in mammoth, watery explosions. When the deck’s all gone, the pilings crumble after it. In less than a minute, there’s nothing left. The river looks high and muddy, with white crests swirling down it. A little while after that, even the river looks the same.
Eames watches for a while. Nothing else happens. Finally he goes back to work.
The next morning half of the wheel bridge is gone. By afternoon, all of it. That one gives him a pang—it was really lovely.
Within a couple of days there are no bridges left. No way to get across the river anymore, unless Arthur built a ferry he didn’t share. There’s nothing Eames needs on the other side of the river, but it still bothers him.
He stands on the porch and stares out at the city, trying to decide if he notices any difference. He can never tell for sure, but within a few weeks he can see the grid has started to reform. There are fewer gaps and angles and boulevards, more uniform grey towers.
He wonders if he’ll end up living in a corporate boardroom, eating cellophane-wrapped muffins from a cart. Forever.
At moments like that, it’s hard not to hate Arthur a little bit. It’s not his fault, of course. But still. It’s hard.
One thing that doesn’t disappear, thank Christ, is food. He’s not sure what he’ll do if that happens. For now he tries not to think too much about how the refrigerator replenishes itself. Cooking is one of his sole pleasures. Roast beef and boiled potatoes and green beans and gravy. Sole with lemon. Chicken with paprika. Rabbit with red wine, mussels with white. It’s pathetic not to have anyone to cook for, but what else is he going to do?
He grows a beard. Lets his hair grow down over his collar. Sticks it in a tiny, bohemian pigtail for amusement. He’s always hated that look.
He spends half a day focused on peat and smoke, then gets hammered on a bottle of whiskey and cuts his hair with a pair of kitchen scissors. The results are theatrical.
He stands in the toilet, red-eyed and hungover, holding the open straight razor against his throat. Staring at himself, eye to eye. Holding a private conversation. A conversation he’s not sure he’s even fully invited to, himself.
He shaves off the beard, rinses it all down the sink, then has to clean out the clogged-up p-trap.
The second year is better. He’s used to his own company by then, and he knows what to expect from limbo. The city continues to revert below him, but so far there are no signs of decay on the house property. The grass is still green, and still needs mowing. The house gets dusty, but it doesn’t seem inclined to turn into an office tower.
On a whim, he finds a hardware store and makes a mental order of a dozen bare-root apple trees. They’re waiting, packed in a waxed cardboard box, when he goes back. He plants them in a neat rectangle in the back garden, then finds a pair of loppers and prunes them until they’re just bare sticks. It’s brutal but necessary. His father taught him how.
The third year, there are branches on the apple trees, and leaves. Eames goes out to walk the fence line, studying the view of the city as he does. The flatiron is gone. Church Hill has subsided gradually to nothing. The city is almost entirely back to its old self.
He keeps an eye on the mountains in the distance, which seem to be diminishing. When the mountains go there’ll be no more changes in the weather. It will be like it was the first few months: just sunshine, day after day. Endless, bleak, harrowing sunshine.
“You gave yourself a nosebleed doing that,” he says, studying the purple line of the mountain range. “You bled all over the car.”
He talks to Arthur periodically, and to a few other people. He refuses to feel guilty about it. The longer he’s here, the less hope he has that he’ll ever get out. If he’s going to die here, alone and old, he’s not going to do it in silence.
The fourth year, the mountains are definitely smaller. The weather has started to get…banal, is the word that comes to mind.
He sits on the porch in the evening, noting with half of his mind the fact that the floor paint is chipping and needs to be touched up, and at the same time reliving the deep, wonderful, punishing heat of Mombasa. The city itself, over a million people in it. The streets full of them, the bars and restaurants and markets. The smells—spices and goats and open latrines, cooking meat and hashish. How good it was just to stand in a doorway and watch. All those faces, all those people. Everyone different, and you could just walk out and talk to anyone you wanted. Make a bet, propose a deal, start a fight. It’s almost sexual, the pleasure it gives him to think about it. People everywhere. None of them the same.
The floor needs painting, his mind informs him. And he’s the only one here to do it.
He gets up at eight, studies the sunshine with a critical eye, then goes to the toilet to wash. In the shower, he has his customary wank while thinking, customarily, of Arthur. He cleans up, goes downstairs, and has toast and egg for breakfast. Reads a few pages of an incomprehensible novel from the bookshelf. Tidies the dishes. Feels passing regret that they no longer tidy themselves.
The apple trees need pruning, so he goes to the back porch and pulls on gumboots. To his surprise, it’s turned grey outside. There’s a sharpness to the air, almost like fall. After so many days of sunshine, it’s startling. He stands on the top step and looks at the mountains. They’re still there, receding by degrees.
If limbo’s prepared to give him a day of randomly enjoyable weather, he’s determined not to look it in the mouth. He finds the loppers and, as an afterthought, pulls on a rough wool jumper that’s been hanging disused on the back porch hook for months. Then he goes down the back steps and into the orchard.
It’s a proper orchard now—small, but decent. The trees are all coming along well. He walks through them first, inspecting them. Looking for crossed limbs, dead wood, signs of disease. There are a couple of spots that need work on the end row. He starts in.
Half an hour later he steps back and studies the tree he’s been pruning. The shape is good, a clear open vase with plenty of space for air. The leaves are still early, so there’s enough room for the tree to breathe even after they come in full. And there are lots of heavy white blossoms, so many he’ll probably need to do an early summer prune—or whatever passes for summer here.
He’s still studying the tree when something catches his eye by the side of the house. He looks that way automatically.
Arthur’s walking across the lawn toward him.
He’s wearing the same clothes he was wearing when he disappeared. When was it—five years ago? More? They’re clean, no blood. He looks tan and lean and strong. He looks amazingly…real.
Eames stands still, saying nothing.
“Eames,” Arthur says. He’s not smiling. He looks serious and intent.
Eames opens his mouth, but it’s dry. He wets his lips. “So—have I finally lost it?”
Arthur’s mouth thins, as if he’s pained. He shakes his head. “I came back as soon as I could.”
“Came back?” Eames’s brain is having trouble ordering itself. “From topside, you mean.”
“But it’s been—“ Eames stops short. He’s being stupid. “How long has it been up there?”
“A couple of minutes. I got back in as soon as I could.”
“Nice of you.” Eames looks at the pile of cut branches at his feet. He’s not sure how he feels, right now. There’s a strange kind of anxiety in his chest. Almost fear. “So, what now?”
“Now we leave.” Arthur takes something from the back of his trousers. A gun. Eames stares at it.
“You’re serious.” He wants to laugh. “You want to shoot me.”
“I want to wake you up.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s not that bad down here.” Eames can hear the tension in his own voice, almost cracking. He’s not sure what he’s saying. He’s been wanting to get out of here for years. But-- “How do I know you’re real? Maybe you’re just my own projection.”
Arthur hesitates. “You don’t, I guess. But I’m real.”
“That’s the trouble with solipsism, isn’t it? You can’t trust anybody.”
“Eames.” Arthur steps forward. It’s as if he never had a cut on his jaw. The skin is smooth and clean. As if Tinter never existed. “Let me get you out of here.”
“Hm.” He glances at the gun, then turns away and walks to the fence. He feels almost panicky. The mountains—they’re so familiar now. Every day he’s stood out here and watched them. They’re shrinking, going away by degrees. Everything is. He can’t stay here, he knows that.
Arthur comes to stand beside him. Together, they study the view.
“How long has it been?” Arthur asks. “Down here, I mean.”
“Oh, five years. A little more, maybe.”
“Jesus.” Arthur sounds sick. “Eames. I'm so sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’ve made my peace with it.” He tries to make his tone light. “I’ve gotten very good at tikka masala.”
“Eames.” Arthur puts his hand on Eames’s arm. The touch, even through the thick wool sweater, is startling. Eames jumps. Arthur doesn’t take his hand away. “Listen, I know it’s been…a long time down here. Up there, it’s been five minutes. I haven’t exactly had time to process. But—“ He pauses. “Jesus, I don’t know what to say. Thank you. I guess.”
“Well, you’re here to return the favor.” Eames looks down at the loppers in his hand, the blades still damp from sap and dew. He drops them into the grass by his feet. “Fair enough. I’m game.”
Arthur just looks at him. His eyes are deep and watchful.
“You’re sure it’ll wake me up,” Eames says, nodding at the gun. “Not send me down to some deeper level of office-building hell?”
“It’ll work. Yusuf took us off the sedative, your body just doesn't know it.”
“Convenient.” Eames turns to present himself head-on. “Right, then. I’d appreciate a double-tap if you don’t mind. Assuming you’re doing the honors.”
Still, Arthur doesn’t move. He stands staring at Eames with that strange, sad expression. Then he steps forward and kisses Eames gently on the mouth.
It’s strange and familiar and almost overwhelming, the touch of Arthur’s lips. His taste, his smell. Eames feels a taut, panicky flutter in the base of his throat. He’s standing there stiff as a mannequin, he knows it. All those mornings wanking to the thought of Arthur’s mouth, his hands, his cock. All those years, God. Missing him.
And here he stands, frozen solid with fear. What a farce.
Arthur feels it and pulls back. With one hand he touches Eames’s shoulder. “Sorry,” he says. “I just—“
“Don't be. I’m a little…rusty. That’s all.” Eames tries to smile, but they’re standing too close together to hide anything. Arthur is right there, looking him in the face. In a rush he says, “It’s just, I remember a conversation we had once. About eighty years down here being ten minutes up there. And about what would happen when we woke up.”
Arthur doesn’t pull back. He doesn’t take his hand off Eames’s shoulder. “I remember that conversation,” he says. “It was…a long time ago.”
“Well, time is relative. But I suppose I just—“ Eames looks away, at the house. The big country house Arthur built for him, its paint now flaking away, its shingles curling. “I suppose I’ve got used to thinking of you in a certain way. Whether you were here or not. And up there—“ He shrugs. “You were always clear about how you wanted things, I’m just being stupid.”
“Eames.” Arthur’s hand curls around the back of his neck. His palm is warm. “That was a long time ago.”
“Not for you.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says. “For me.” He pulls at the back of Eames’s neck, and this time Eames’s body relents and he can kiss Arthur back. This time it’s like the first sip of water after weeks of thirst. He can hardly stand it, how good it feels.
“This is going to drive me mad,” he murmurs, half-forgetting that Arthur is real and standing right there. Arthur pushes him back a step and holds him at arm’s length. His cheeks are flushed. His face is deadly serious.
“No,” he says. “This is real.” He cocks the pistol, still pointing it at the ground. Eames looks down at it, then up at Arthur. Arthur raises his eyebrows. “Ready?”
“Just for the record,” Eames says, “I’ve had more romantic propositions.”
“When we wake up,” Arthur says, without missing a beat, “I’m going to ask you out on a date.”
“What kind of date?” Eames can feel something flickering back to life, very faintly, inside him. A lightness. “Will there be a limousine?”
“Limousines are tacky,” Arthur says.
“I exorcised your personal demon. I think I should get to set my terms.”
“Okay.” Arthur raises the gun and places it gently against Eames’s forehead, between his eyes. “Your terms. But no limousines.”
“Dinner, then. And a movie. Something decent.”
“I think you’re going to want some time to acclimate,” Arthur says, in his maddening way. “But when you’re ready, yeah. Sure. Dinner and a movie.”
“I look forward to it,” Eames says, smiling. He closes his eyes and nods.
And wakes up.