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Blanche

Arthur has apartments in New York, Paris and Bern. And a little bungalow in a tastefully moneyed section of an Orlando suburb.

He hates Orlando. It’s flat and tawdry, tatted together out of faded strip malls and bright, empty fast food castles that seem to sprout directly from the sun-blasted concrete. On top of that, it’s muggy and hideous eight months a year. But it’s got one of the best airports in the country for a man who desires few questions and countless international flights, and anyone who prefers the crush of tourism and the ceaseless swirl of anonymity - and the easy access to thousands of hotels and convention halls packed full of potential marks.

During the summer, the city is dwarfed by a sullen sun broiling through blue and white and blue and blue and blue and bruise gray - a thunderstorm always seems to be threatening, but the sky is as wide as a dream.

And it’s pleasant enough in the early morning, when the humidity leaves heavy twists of spiced mist that hover at ankle height during his morning jog - or at night, when the moon is looming and the jasmine and oranges are in bloom, and the air is redolent with rainwashed asphalt and the tang of truck diesel from the highway.

He keeps a seamstress and her 46 year old son on retainer in Little Vietnam. They’d created a sand colored suit he’d ordered to match the fawn shoes he’d had made in Milan. Qui did exquisite work, and her son Chinh had an intuitive grasp of design - the jackets Chinh tailored always fell away perfectly when Arthur needed to reach for any of his many concealed weapons, cunningly secreted in any of a number of hidden, hand-sewn pockets.

The suits and the drag races are enough to bring him to the city four or five times a year.

*

Arthur meets Eames at a drag race of a very different kind.

The Parliament House was a bit of a landmark. Shambling, ramshackle and lurid, it was a cockeyed eyesore full of tourists of every stripe: the newly out, the sexually rapacious, the curious, and the clueless. Its regulars were dancers, tweakers, players, dealers, pros, and the jaded queens who came back again and again to the scene of past crimes out of a deathless hope that this time would be different.

Arthur knew all this, although he’d never actually been inside. This visit was courtesy of a mark, an idiot frat kid and a few beer buddies on an outing at the behest of a neighboring sorority with a sense of humor. Georges Anton, feckless son of a Lockheed Martin team lead, was waiting his turn for the drag race, drinking something huge and pink while his pals kicked off their flipflops and jammed their wide feet into four-inch leopardskin stilettos in an effort to be the first to totter across the stage to the finish line while bedecked in feathered boas, girdles and bullet brassieres.

Some sunbronzed gym bunny in loud shorts stumbled into Georges, spilling his drink and apologizing effusively. He was very handsy, but then this was a gay bar, and Georges was pretty enough if you didn’t mind a 2.8 GPA. Arthur watched him pocket the kid’s wallet and lurch away again, redfaced and laughing, for all the world like a harmless drunk.

Arthur watched him melt into the crowd and debated following him, before deciding to stick with the mark. And maybe checking the kid’s drinks, since it was entirely possible that Georges was being sized up for extraction by a second team - possibly even a good old-fashioned kidnapping.

A few minutes later, a whiskey-soaked whuff of air curled against the cup of his ear, and a plush mouth purred, “I could feel your eyes positively boring into me, darling. Had you been a copper, you’d have had your knee on my neck long since. Tell me, who are you working for?”

 

Verte

Ah, The P, his favorite wretched hive of scum and villainy in this plastic little town. In his opinion, it was one of the few buildings in the city with any real character.

His new stonefaced companion merely glared at him, as tightlipped as the primmest nanny.

“Come dance, then!” Eames bellowed cheerfully over the booming bass, waving an inviting hand at the sweaty writhing of a dozen shirtless personal trainers.

“I’m working,” his young Adonis said repressively.

“Are you, now? I must say, I hadn’t figured you for that. Are you his bodyguard?” Eames drew close again, and said lightly, “Or his bodyguard?”

The sleek young creature frowned at him in annoyance, checked his watch, glanced again at the mark, and then turned on his heel and stalked out.

Eames naturally followed him.

The wet breath of a hazy summer evening met him, a sweaty palm against his skin after the industrial air conditioning of The P. Clove cigarettes and Camels choked the air, and Adonis stood by the door like a tiny cock-sure bouncer.

“Oh, do share. Maybe we’re not even doing the same job. We can split the work. A generous offer. Twice the manpower, half the time, double the profit.”

He was unsurprised when Adonis steadfastly ignored him.

“As a gesture of good faith, darling, I’ll go first: he has a girlfriend with more money than good sense. She comes from oil money, her daddy’s the life and soul of OPEC apparently, and what she’s doing at a state school, who can say, but she wants to see if he’s cheating on her. Anyone with a car and a camera phone could tell her that, but she wants to see if he’s dream-cheating on her. Can you imagine?”

Adonis could not, and his face said so. Eloquently.

It was of course a shocking lie, but Eames didn’t expect Adonis to know that. At least not right away.

“Patel sent us both on the same job,” Adonis said decisively. “That asshole.”

And the young man brushed past him only to eel away into the massive parking lot, leaving Eames looking wistfully after him and his trim little arse.

Eventually he noticed that Mr. Anton’s liberated wallet was no longer in his pocket. Strangely, his own was untouched.

*

Patel was, in fact, an asshole, but he was a chatty and shockingly well-informed asshole, and quite happy to blither on about Eames’ newest friend.

*

Eames was positively broiling. The blacktop was taffy-soft and baking hot under the thin soles of his flip-flops, and the humid air simmered above the track, distorted with heat and the exhaust of idling beasts.

Arthur (even Patel hadn’t known his last name--or his real one) had a low, sleek midnight-blue funnycar emblazoned with a set of red dice on the sides. Enameled flames licked along the frankly outrageous tailfins. To Eames’ unending delight, he was wearing a full racing suit, enticingly zippered throat to crotch, as he leaned over to tinker under the hood.

“Arthur, you are Bruce Wayne.”

He was inclined to pout when Arthur neither hit his head on the hood nor so much as lifted his eyes to acknowledge him.

“Don’t you want to know how I found you?”

“Deep pockets and Patel’s big mouth,” Arthur said, wiping his hands on a rag before straightening up to drop his hood down with a gentle click.

“I’m looking for a partner, and you intrigue me.”

“Don’t make me kill you,” Arthur sighed, and neatly hooked himself into his car through the window. He settled a pair of sunglasses on his nose and said, “I don’t want to see you again, Mr. Eames.”

And then he roared away, fire leaping like a dragon’s breath from enormous twin exhaust pipes.

Well, if Arthur knew his name, his interest wasn’t entirely one sided, then.

 

Absenta

Somehow, Arthur was entirely unsurprised to find Eames curled up on his couch when he finished at the track. He was wearing an awful and seasonally mysterious tweed blazer for some reason, and tiny tortoise-shell prince-nez, a tumbler of Laphroaig in one hand and Arthur’s neat leather ledger in the other.

 “Your accounts are so orderly, Arthur. How absolutely in character.”

 And private, Arthur didn’t bother to say.

“The Chinese say the saving man becomes the free man.” Arthur had long since decided Eames was no physical threat. While the dossier he’d cobbled together suggested Eames wasn’t above employing violence, he wasn’t one to start a fight. Everything pointed to thief, and very little to assassin.

“I prefer Russian proverbs, myself,” Eames opined. “It’s not money that brings happiness, darling, it’s lots of money.”

“I have money.”

“Not enough,” Eames said grandly. “As you are not yet free.” He gave Arthur a penetrating look. “Now don’t be boring. I have a proposition for you.”

“Of course you do.”

***

Arthur tells Ariadne that the military developed dream sharing as a training program where soldiers could strangle, stab and shoot each other, then wake up. To some extent, it had been a tool in learning to resist torture. And of course, to learn how to commit it with some finesse.

But first, it had been an experiment in repairing minds shattered by PTSD.

For Arthur, dreams were magic mirrors: people held them up and saw what they wanted to see. Contractors had seen lessons in pain, a pair of psych students had seen tools for healing. Cobb saw Mal. 

Arthur saw the most refined vision of himself, the one he strove to be every waking moment. Cool-headed, competent, resourceful. Independent. This vision, with careful hair and crisp suits, had been the armor Cobb and Mal had helped fit him with when they invited him to join the PTSD group at 20, after six months of night terrors and screaming himself raw as he watched the rest of his squad burn and liquefy every time he closed his eyes.

“Today,” Mal had said on their second day of dream training, “I want you to wear this.” And she’d held out a hunter green tie in a heavy silk twill.

“For you,” Dom had promised with magnetic conviction, “This tie’s going to be Superman’s cape.”

“You will be reminded that, in dreams, you are invulnerable,” Mal had said brightly.

And Arthur, desperate, had agreed to believe it.

*

“You have an eye for detail,” Mal had said later in a measuring tone. “How are you with color?”

She took him shopping at Hermes and ordered him to choose a scarf for her. She bit her lip and smiled when he brought her a filmy silk in a turquoise that shaded at the edges, knotting into a tulip-pink bow against her slim throat.

“Yes, you will do very well. You’re a natural, Arthur.” And she bought him a saffron gold handkerchief, “For that taupe jacket.”

Then she’d bought him a Diet Coke at an Orange Julius stand and quizzed him about Dom. Did he like him? What did he think of his politics? Did he think Dom would like a salmon pink pocket square?

For nearly six years, she treated Arthur as her personal shopper, relying on his impeccable taste and goosing him into buying the occasionally horrible necktie (“Where’s your sense of fun, Arthur?”). A day too late, he will realize that he had helped her choose the shoes she had worn the night she died. He’d suggested the plum colored heels, and she had bought him a relatively staid new violet pocket square as a thank you, as her goodbye.

People sometimes ask him how he and Cobb met. What no one ever tries to ask is why he’s so unswervingly loyal to a man who is at best a demonstrably and dangerously unstable thief, and at worst a wife-beating murderer.

Cobb chose him. Saved him from a life of sleepless nights, and made him a full-time dreamer. But Mal taught him how to be the best imitation of himself, and for that, he will show the gratitude he can never express by watching Cobb’s six until he inevitably walks off a cliff.

For several nights after, he had imagined her body floating as light as a silk scarf on a waft of breeze, drifting to the pavement as light as dandelion fluff. She had a plum-colored parasol in her hand, and was laughing at him.

She hadn’t died right away, even falling from such a height. She made it all the way to the hospital, only to die on the gurney on her way from the ambulance to the emergency room.

He had been in the bland beige waiting room with a hand on Dom’s shoulder as he’d hunched on a couch with his face in his hands. His sobs had sounded like dry heaves. Miles had come in, whey-faced and stoic, and Arthur had pressed his palm to his lips and swallowed hard.

When the knot of adrenaline and black coffee became a fist in his gut, he banged into a bathroom stall and leaned against the cubicle wall, panting with his knees bent, wondering if he should do something dramatic like throw up, or wrench the stall door off its hinges. He wasn’t inclined to do either, and after all, it wasn’t his place.

Someone had taken the time to carve something into the cheap black paneling with a pen knife, revealing the honey-colored pressboard. All Arthur could do was stare at it and press his tongue against the back of his teeth: He who saves a man against his will does the same as if he killed him.

*

His true loyalty, like Cobb’s, is to Mal’s memory. Part of him still blames Dom for what happened to Mal, although he is also certain that there had been no other way to persuade her.

He prefers to remember her the way she’d been, rather than the woman who had been gutted by a pernicious fever, the idea that had hollowed her head until her soft radiance had been replaced by the single guttering flame of mania, her face as fragile as a paper lantern, always threatening to burn.

 

Hausgemacht

Yusef looks up, smiling beatifically. “Tincture of absinthe.”

The hotel spread looked like a waiting room full of Aramis models had been bored to death. Eames did his best to be professional and not to ogle Arthur, neatly arrayed on a couch beside Shcherbina, and easily outshining the other sleepers in his tailored shirt.

“Will that distort the dream?” Eames asked, rolling up his sleeves. He waited a moment and then undid the band of his watch, tucking it in his pocket. Eames’ watch was an antique - and stolen, naturally. From his commanding officer’s desk, as he’d brought the colonel’s wife off with one hand and had picked the lock on the drawer with the other.

“You will let me know. They paid for a party, and so. Favors!”

Arthur would not approve. Eames was inclined to agree. A hallucinatory shimmer to the dream might make the mark queasy and intractable.

“Which one is Ogden again?”

Twitchy and broad shouldered, Shcherbina sighed and ran his hands through his thinning hair. His accent was Russian, thick, and exasperated. “The little redhead. He wanted to impress his boyfriend. Sadly, his boyfriend wants to beat him to the patent.”

Eames cocked an eyebrow. “Which one is the boyfriend?”

“Do you never read the reports I bring you?” moaned Shcherbina.

“Him, that one, there. ” Yusef pointed at an unremarkable gentleman in a dark suit, dark skinned, neither tall nor short, with one sideburn slightly longer than the other. Nizam, the boyfriend’s name was Nizam.

“He’ll do nicely, yes.”

“This had better be smooth as baby’s ass, Eames. Arthur may be dull, but maybe I like dull, my heart can’t take excitement of improvisation. Do your reading next time!”

Eames found himself oddly offended by the characterization of Arthur as dull. A lazy classification if ever he’d heard one. If Arthur wasn’t the most polished person of his acquaintance, he’d hang himself with one of Arthur’s matte-finish ties. The idea that anyone could perceive Arthur as either boring and/or not very bright was rather repugnant.

Of course, he himself had accused Arthur of exactly that, but he hadn’t actually meant it. As if Arthur could possibly be boring. In those suits and with that mind. Education and taste like that could never be boring. That kind of imagination and fluid grace, that kind of brilliant strength and flexibility... Why, you could fuck him in the trunk of a car and he’d fold up as neatly as a compact umbrella, have him in a phone booth, smooth cheek smearing the glass as you slipped his slacks down, you could roll him up to face you, small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, all balanced strength and steely leverage. Arthur was, quite frankly, amazing.

Eames was sure of it.

 

Bohemia

The bar is carved of ice, slippery and wet against his hands. Eames is behind the bar in a simple black button down, a white tea towel slung over his shoulder like the strap of a garment bag.

“You just look like you.” He qualifies that by leaning over the bar slightly to arch and eyebrow and flick his eyes down Eames’ dark denim clad legs to black boots: Doc Martens tied almost to the knee. “I thought you were forging a boyfriend of his.”

“He’s decided to be maudlin in a bar. All bartenders look the same to a lonesome drunk. Why bother to pretend when I can hide in plain sight?”

Arthur supposes this is true.

“And what can I get you, Arthur?”

“Surprise me.”

“I always like to try.”

It could have gone either way – something pastel with an umbrella and a bouquet of sliced fruit, or a neat inch of Laphroaig in an old fashioned crystal tumbler. Eames does surprise him – hands him a simple glass goblet glowing with what appears to be orange juice.

He knocks it back like a shot and finds it cloying and unpleasantly thick. Touching his mouth with the back of his hand, he grimaces.

“What was that?”

“They call it a Tangerine Dream, here.”

“What’s in it?”

“Honey Tangerine juice. Ginger syrup. And absinthe,” he says deliberately, cocking his head with an expectant curve to his mouth. “How did you like it?”

Arthur hates anise, but Eames actually has had no occasion to learn that.

“Isn’t absinthe an hallucinogen?”

“Science says no to that, but I can’t be blamed for the placebo effect, can I?”

“Placebo effect?”

“I can be blamed for the mickey.”

Arthur can’t feel his own hands, but can feel Eames anchoring him to the bar by the lapels, broad fingers knotting his jacket, as Arthur slumps into unconsciousness.

*

Arthur decides to attribute the beautiful filigree visuals to the absinthe. The bed he opens his eyes in is single, plain, clean sheets and no blankets.

Even in the dream, his midsection gurgles as if he’s woken up drunk. He finds a kitchen at hand and pours himself a glass of crystalline water. He notes a certain mellow floatiness that bobs pleasantly above the mild trouble of his burbling stomach. The kitchen has massive windows, and its gorgeously sunny outside. The light pours in like a wave of lemonade. When he closes his eyes to enjoy its warmth on his face, instead of the traditional deep red pulse of the blood behind his eyelids, there are layers of design and mysterious swirling calligraphy in unknown languages and overlays of gold and sepia. Letters written in vivid, poisonous green and glowing carnelian. Arthur wonders idly if it’s a montage of all the samples of Eames’ handwriting portfolio: Farsi, Han, Cyrillic. Arthur decides to skip the analysis and merely enjoy the intriguing collage as it drifts past: blooming flowers, wafting handwritten letters on crumpled parchment; supersaturated greens of a trip to the park with his fat, lolling Alsatian as a kid, the smell of dog and mud-trampled grass; the swoop and thrill of a sunset caught at the crest of Thunder Mountain before the drop; the whisper-drag of Mal’s filmy silk turquoise scarf slipping through his hand, the gunpowder spark of jet fuel at the drag races; the phantom sensation of having tulips brush against his legs at Keukenhof; the weight and warmth of Eames’ broad hand soaking into his shoulder through the fine cotton of his shirt.

Eames appears before him like an apparition.

“What the fuck, Eames?”

“Ogden worried about Nizam’s loyalty. He didn’t trust his luck, thought Nizam and his soft eyes were out of his league. And he was right. He will take the patent after all, and Nizam’s work on the… oh, whatever it is. It makes his own doodad far more efficient. Something to do with thrust, I think? Rocket science, romance, and intrigue! Very exciting, really.”

“You really only wanted me on the job so you could double-cross me?”

“Hush, you’ll still get paid. I’ll just be paid twice over.” He gave a tilted smile that Arthur did his best to not find charming. When he blinked, Eames had prowled close to purr in his ear.

“We still have ages on the clock, darling, and here’s an empty bed and oh, look, no consequences. Can I tempt you?”

Arthur checked his watch--waiting out the clock was usually preferable to eating his gun, but Arthur wasn’t sure he wanted Eames to have his way--and was startled to see that it wasn’t his own platinum-faced Chopard, but a graceful George Daniel Co-Axiel Chronograph. Glancing up, he saw Eames smiling softly, and idly scratching his wrist. He noticed that Eames had a tan line matching the strap.

“Consider it a bonus. And now… how about a little mood setting.”

The simple room melted away, becoming the white corners and trim landscape of Mainstreet USA.

“The day I met you, it was only my second time in Orlando.”

“What did you steal the first time?” Arthur finds himself genuinely curious.

“A lot of hobbyists in the dream world. People with money and idle curiosity. WD40; Coke; eleven herbs and spices,” Eames hisses in distaste.

Arthur smiled in spite of himself. He and Cobb had stolen the Coke formula twice already.

“We just waited the same amount of time it took us the first time, charged them for expenses,” Arthur said agreeably.

“I charged double on principal--for lack of imagination. Ever tempted to poke around, do a little off-roading as it were?”

The sun was making the hair on the top of Arthur's head hot to the touch, and a crowd of families straggled past, the younger children shrieking and overstimulated, the teenagers pretending to be bored.

In the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of orange.

“Other people's secrets are their own - I never give anyone anything other than the secret they actually pay for.”

“I just meant, keeping something for yourself. A souvenir?”

Eames smells like amber resin and oak, almond oil and oranges. Arthur doesn't wear cologne. When you're slipping behind someone with piano wire, you don't want to announce your presence with scent.

Arthur takes note of the level of detail, the orderly flowers, the scent of sunscreen, new vinyl and fresh paint, the aggressive cheer of the princesses waving softly nearby.

“So you've been here before?”

“Many times since - it’s a candy land of passports and wallets fat with cash. No one carries cash, these days, and credit cards can be so tiresome. Casinos and Disney - that's where the dosh is.”

Another flash of orange. Arthur doesn’t bother to hope that Eames has missed it.

“Any particular reason Tigger is following us?” Eames casually widens the distance between them and Tigger veers off course.

“Wait, he's been following me… And the little soldier in the Nutcracker parade. How is it that he has snow on his shoulders in this tidy little hellscape?”

“I hate fake snow. It should never snow here,” Arthur bitches.

 

Absinthe

“You followed someone here. You had sex for the first time here! And... something went wrong.” Eames gives a short happy laugh. “You got busted by the Mickey police, didn't you?”

“I forgot about the security teams,” Arthur admits. His ears are dull hot red and he’s scowling, shifting on his feet. Like a callow youth humiliated while jacking off a hot tourist.

Magnificent.

“There are cameras everywhere here,” Arthur continues.

“Not everywhere. You know this place like the back of your hand. Since then you've made it your business to know every detail of their security,” he says coaxingly. “So where can you and I have it off together without the Empire’s storm troopers breaking up our little tet a tet. It will be good for you! Heal your past. There's a reason there's a song called Sexual Healing.”

Arthur pitched an eyebrow at him.

“I know you're not serious about this.”

“Yes, but don't you want to try anyway? So much resentment - how good it shall feel to let it go!”

Arthur shook his head, clearly despairing of him.

“No. When you go under at Disney World your subconscious is automatically militarized - all Disney dreams come with security. Everyone feels it, even if only on a subconscious level. That's also what makes it so easy to extract here--people feel safe.”

“Ah, no wonder you hate it.”

“That and it’s one of the most dangerous places in the world,” Arthur mutters. “It’s way too easy to confuse reality with the dream here.”

“Which is of course why it's such a popular dream setting for espionage,” Eames agrees thoughtfully. “But you… you know the gritty reality of the park too--a summer job here is a rite of passage for local teens.” Arthur’s glare intensified. Eames knew far more than he should about him. But some details still tantalized. “Were you literally Prince Charming, pet?”

*

Arthur remembered this place in 15 minute intervals of stultifying heat gasping in a costume that weighed 25 pounds and reached an internal temp of 120 degrees - he’d vastly preferred the Syrian desert. He still remembers the miasma of Lysol, Febreeze and pure funk - the legacy sweat of fifty teenagers boiling in their own skins.

“Hmm, Arthur. Between this jewel of a false city, the airport and the gay scene, there’s much to offer the dreamthief community. For you, there’s the added bonus of the speedway. For me… there’s--” (you), Arthur hears him decide not to say it. Instead, he smirks and supplies, “Isn’t there a nude beach nearby?”

Arthur glances at his new/old Chronograph.

“Technically, it’s not legal to be naked at Playalinda,” Arthur says, as the bluegreen shallows and salt-white sands shimmer into view with a flat, endless horizon.

“You little rulebreaker,” Eames says, smiling, openly charmed. Already shrugging out of his shirt.

 

END