To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
— Arthur Ashe.
Arthur meets Mal because she's his TA, and so exquisitely French and chic that Arthur feels vaguely like he should be cowering away from her like the rest of the people in his morning drafting course. Except he loves the fishtail cuts of her pencil skirts, the coy flirtation in them, and the sensible, dark jeans and blue-and-white striped shirts that stretch over her pale and lovely collarbones, the way she wears pearls and vividly red lipsticks and how she smells: like honey and vanilla and very fine poplin.
One day, during a work session, she makes an admiring noise over his pocket square, and Arthur allows himself to tell her the vintage kitten heels she's wearing are beautiful, and they're off.
Mal is six years older than Arthur, an artist turned architect where Arthur started off in an engineering class, and it shows in their sketches: Mal's as dreamy and impressionistic as a fashion plate, and Arthur's clean, straight-ruled. They both love a bone dry cappuccino, Klimt's lesser-known works, and art deco.
"And boys, no?" Mal asks, and Arthur just glowers at her. "Or shall I say, men."
"Uncalled for," he accuses.
"Just to clarify, darling," Mal laughs, and loops her arm through his own, dragging him into the lamplit darkness blanketing Harvard campus. "I wouldn't want you to break my heart over secrets we're keeping."
Arthur raises an eyebrow but lets her drag him along. "I'm hardly a heartbreaker, Mal."
She purses her mouth in disagreement, but he manages to distract her with the prospect of catching a train into New York for an exhibit at the Met's Costume Institute, and she lets it slide.
Arthur finds that Mal only looks flawless, that like a pearl, the imperfections are expensive and vast, cover her all over, but only if you know how to look. It makes him like her even more, to know that she snores and has a tendency to drool when she falls asleep on his shoulder on the train into Grand Central, that she never knows how much money she has or where she keeps her cell phone. Mal is spoiled and self-centered and overly generous, divorced from the discomforts of reality that most people grow to know, and Arthur turns into one of those people who just exacerbates the problem: keeping track of her cell phone, buying her coffees, letting her sleep over whenever she wants. She learns that he's hiding underneath all of his perfectly pressed clothes, that he wants things he can't afford, that he's greedy for things he shouldn't have, anyway.
"I don't see why you shouldn't have everything you want," she tells him, matter-of-fact and drowsy across their shared bed in a friend's sixth-floor walk-up in Yorkville, a stone's throw from the river and the Vinegar Factory, after a long day on Museum Mile. She combs Arthur's bangs out of his face with short, chewed-on nails, unbecoming of a beautiful French woman but perfectly Mal.
"Oh, just because you do," Arthur mumbles, already half-asleep, and he barely hears it when Mal whispers:
"You should be spoiled, darling."
It's an otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon when Mal sights someone across the room and latches onto Arthur's arm, hissing, "Arthur, that's him."
Arthur resists the urge to shout about her fucking up the weave on his new cashmere sweater and begins prying her fingers off of him.
"What? Who?" he asks.
Mal, who is stronger than she looks, just digs her nails in deeper, whispering, "That's Dominic Cobb."
Dominic Cobb turns out to be an awkward, haystack blond man wearing mass-produced denim, a hideous tweed jacket with honest-to-God elbow patches, and a washed-out blue button-down underneath. He is also drinking dining hall coffee out of a fuck-ugly WORLD'S BEST ARCHITECT mug without even a touch of irony — which at least explains where the coffee stain on the front of the washed-out blue button-down comes from. He looks like he hasn't shaved in a week, and possibly like he slept in the library last night. Arthur looks at Mal in revulsion.
"I know," she admits. "But he's lovely, Arthur."
"What part?" Arthur asks pointedly. "The part where he probably smells like tragedy and failure, or the part where I am embarrassed to be friends with someone who could be attracted to him?"
Mal just beams at Arthur, manic. "He works with my father. I love him."
"No way," Arthur disagrees, because Dom doesn't look like he would appreciate Mal's dreamy whimsy at all. "Not allowed."
"He's going to be the father of my children," she goes on blithely, and puts her head on Arthur's shoulder, sighing, lovesick. "You'll love him, too."
"Not a fucking chance," Arthur swears.
Mal ignores him, as she always ignores him in the subjects of romantic entanglements, because apparently overprotective interest between them on the subject of dating is unidirectional, and only Mal is allowed to veto people Arthur wants to date, no matter how many times Arthur points out how hideously unfair the arrangement is.
Ever efficient, Mal has Cobb drop her off at Arthur's apartment instead of her own at the end of her date, and she's still peeling off her scarf in his doorway when she starts giving Arthur the rundown.
" — and he knows embarrassingly little about wine, Arthur, he ordered the most expensive bottle on the menu — "
"And you let him," Arthur cuts in, giving Cobb — still parked in the street and staring after Mal, baffled but obviously smitten — a dismissive go away already wave before shutting the apartment door. "Does he know you don't live here?"
"Of course I let him order it, I wouldn't want to hurt his pride," Mal tells Arthur, kicking off her heels in the entryway and padding into the kitchen, raiding the fridge, since she enjoys fostering sexist standards like 'women shouldn't eat too much on dates.' "And no, I didn't say either way — why?"
"Because now I bet you he thinks I'm your other boyfriend," Arthur says.
Mal looks thoughtful, emerging from the fridge with half a meatball sub Arthur was saving for another day. "I hadn't considered that," she admits.
"You," Arthur snaps at her, "you are the reason I cannot get a date."
She sniffs at him. "It's not my fault that my rigorous vetting process eliminates so many of the tattooed delinquents you're attracted to," she replies, and carries on, "Anyway, it was wonderful, Arthur. He has beautiful dreams, I think."
Softening, Arthur says, "Well, that is a point in his favor."
Arthur's not used to having a best friend, so sometimes he's still surprised by the ease of it, how he fits so effortlessly into Mal's spaces and she so easily into his. He knows where her coffee mugs are and her favorite drink, and she shouts at him through her bathroom door and he sits on her bed while she gets dressed. She blackmails him into grading her papers for her, and the time he gets sick — one of those shitty, late-summer bouts of the flu — she comes over and sits with him all night singing French torch songs in her smokey, off-key voice, and Arthur falls asleep with her hand on his forehead.
For a week in the fall, she goes back to Paris and comes back with a half-dozen presents for him — of which she has to select one for Cobb, since she forgot they were dating while she was gone — and she and Arthur sit in the wreck of her bedroom and she slides in and out of English and in and out of French as she reports on her trip. Arthur tells her that he accidentally called her four times.
"Oh?" she asks, curious.
"I've never done that before," he mutters, embarrassed.
"I did that all the time as a little girl with my best friends," Mal says, reproachful, and she reaches over, tucks a dark lock of Arthur's hair behind his ear.
Arthur says, "I never did that with anyone."
He wants to ask how it is that they're friends, when they have so little in common, and why someone so lovely and sophisticated and older and smarter would spend any time with him. He wants to know why she likes him when he has a tendency to snap at her when she is at her flakiest because he's always precisely on time and she is perennially 20 minutes late, and he disapproves of almost everything she does with her life, and who she does it with. It's as dizzying and nonsensical as lust, this small, aching thing between them, and Arthur thinks miserably how sad it is that he's 21 and trying to puzzle out the sinews of a friendship, how lonely he must have been before.
She only says, "Well, nevermind that, you have me now," eyes warm on his face, and Arthur thinks that she's probably right, that the rest of it doesn't matter anymore.
As Boston is thawing into spring, Mal tricks him into meeting Cobb, finally.
"Hi," Cobb says, rising to his feet in the restaurant and extending a hand for Arthur to shake. His face is shiny and clearly, he hasn't dressed himself for tonight, because despite the mediocre tailoring, he looks very well put together, and Arthur sighs and relents, takes Cobb's massive hand into his own and says:
"Hi, I guess this is inevitable."
Cobb, awkward, says, "Um. Right. So Mal says you're her best friend."
"It's what I hear," Arthur deadpans, and catches the waiter's eye.
"Cobb is into architecture, too," Mal says, and she tilts her body into Cobb's, possessing in a way that means Arthur's going to have to deal with Cobb for a long, long, long time.
"Amateur," Cobb clarifies. "Just sitting in on some classes."
"You're one of those 30-year olds who's afraid to pick a career, aren't you?" Arthur asks.
Thankfully, the waiter intervenes then, bringing them menus, and Arthur wishes they were doing this someplace loud and a bit smokier. He and Mal elect to share a carafe of red, and Cobb gets a pint of Sam Adams, and Arthur gives him a point for being himself; he's met a lot of men who have forced down a lot of glasses of wine in an effort to win Mal's approval, and it's never worked.
"Drink," Mal instructs both of them. "Drink more."
"Mal," Cobb says, long-suffering, "we're not going to suddenly become friends if you get us hammered."
Arthur makes a noise of agreement.
Six hours later, Arthur says, "Cobb, you are not as terrible as I thought you were."
Cobb doesn't bother to pick his head up from where it's lying in Arthur's lap. They've relocated from the restaurant, emigrated through a bar or two, and have found themselves in Arthur's living room, where Mal arranged them on the couch and went to go raid Arthur's closet for sleeping clothes.
"Sadly," Cobb answers, "I am not any less jealous about you."
Arthur leans over Cobb's blurry, alcohol-flushed face. "Jealous?" he asks.
Cobb reaches up, and his fingers are surprisingly soft on Arthur's mouth.
"All her stories are about you," Cobb says, tripping over his own words, and Arthur feels a pang for him, for the first time. He can't imagine what it must be like to want Mal so badly, to have her and still know you have to share, and it's probably the vodka and sympathy that make Arthur admit:
"One day, all her stories will be about you, instead."
The next morning, they're both wrecked, huddled at the breakfast counter while Mal burns toast and brews coffee merrily, wandering around barefoot in nothing but one of Arthur's shirts — hardly oversized on her at all.
"I'm so hungover I can't even find this sexy," Cobb says bleakly.
Mal pours him a coffee, black, three sugars. "For you," she announces.
"I hate you," Arthur tells her feelingly. "You're an awful person."
She pours him a coffee, too, cream, no sugar, and dots a kiss to his cheek. "And you."
"Sometimes, I can't stand her," Cobb grinds out, clutching at his head.
Arthur raises his coffee mug in a toast to that.
Dom — Mal pointed out it was creepy for Arthur to keep calling him Cobb, and that it was similarly creepy Dom never objected to it, too, and then she'd given both of them a suspicious look — is three years older than Mal, a psychology student turned engineering student turned dabbler in architecture, an eternal academic. He's bookish and tweedy like his ugly jacket and adores Mal, adores her father, Miles, and when he realizes he's a whole pre-adolescent's worth of years older than Arthur, he apparently decides he adores Arthur, too. It's not terrible, as being the object of Dom Cobb's friendship is warm and easy and comforting like an old sweater, and even Arthur has to admit Dom is growing on him: his constancy, his utter dependability, the unexpected and all-the-more-delightful-for-it streak of wickedness in him.
The downside is that Dom has decided to adore Arthur like a little brother, and to Mal and Arthur's extreme irritation, starts treating him like one.
"It's fucked up, right?" Arthur asks her, where they're hiding during one of her parents' parties, the type that spill out across the dark green of their lawn, where everybody's laugh sparkles and Miles will take to the piano shortly, to play sloppy and bright.
Mal nods. "Very fucked up. I almost regret making you two like each other."
"Yesterday, he asked me how my coursework was going," Arthur confides, staring down at the party beneath the balcony, where Cobb and Miles are caucusing with a man in the severe lines of a military uniform, an unexpected blemish in the merriment of the night. "Not in a, 'hey, how was class?' way, in a 'as an authority figure, I care about your future' way."
"It's awful," Mal agrees. "He's so...responsible sometimes. It's like you, only boring."
For a woman in love, Mal commits the worst character defamations upon Cobb's person, but Arthur guesses she's allowed. And the way she blows a kiss down to him when he turns to look for them — to catch Mal and Arthur's eyes — is genuine.
"Boring's not necessarily bad," Arthur says, looking across the yard, across the sparkling lights over the tent and the string quartet and into the valley of trees behind Mal's parents' sprawling estate. "It's better than being greedy, right? Wanting things that are impossible to have."
There's a long break before Mal says, "Arthur — nothing is impossible to have."
He slants her a look, but finds her solemn. "Nothing?"
"No," she says, and grins, all-knowing, "you just have to look in the right places."
Sometimes Mal says things, has this knowing look, that makes Arthur think she has a whole life outside of his grasp, that he only knows tiny parts of her, and that he only ever will, and it makes him feel helpless and angry and jealous — worse than the way he feels sometimes when Mal goes away with Dom, when Dom is too tied up with work to spend any time with them. Arthur is bad at having things.
"I'll just have to rely on you to show me, then," Arthur allows, because he's comfortable being bereft.
In the time he's known Mal, she's fallen in love with Dominic Cobb, traveled to three continents, and started half a dozen paintings; Arthur worked on an agonizing model for a class, taught himself the newest version of Auto CAD, and looked longingly at the fall menswear line from Jil Sander. It's an old fight between him and Mal, but under the skin, Arthur knows the truth: some people are meant to have extraordinary lives and other people aren't. He's glad he can watch Mal's, at least, and whenever he's told her this, her cheeks go red with fury and Arthur thinking yearningly of earplugs. Arthur is precise and careful and knows better than anybody his limits, and he's content with that, if nothing else.
Only instead of looking reproachful, Mal looks wondering.
"Arthur," she says, and closes her hand around his wrist, "do you trust me?"
He frowns at her. "Why?"
"Come with me," she whispers.
Even though the hideous-ass cartoon rabbit is expressly telling her not to, Mal always pops the pneumatic handle on the subway while it's still skidding to a halt, and then Arthur's dragged, hopping dangerously out of the carriage as the brakes squeal, toward the sortie indicators down the cavernous white-tiled metro platform. They're in the 5th Arrondissement, and Mal is taking him up the wide and tree-lined Boulevard St. Michel until they're at the fountain, watching the statue of Saint Michel killing a demon, and Arthur says, "Jesus, I'm starving, how long has it been since we've eaten?" and Mal tells him to follow her. She buys him a chocolate crepe and herself one with strawberries and whipped cream and they eat them staring at the Pantheon, which is enormous and somewhat soulless and bleak, set on the top of a hill at the end of the street with nothing but blue sky and more yellow stone around it.
"Voltaire is buried here," Mal tells him around a mouthful of crepe. "And Rousseau."
"So is, apparently, Marie Curie and Foucault," Arthur answers, reading off of a plaque in front of the building, talking over all the people milling around them in sleek windbreakers and camel-colored trenchcoats, red and blue and green scarves waving in the late summer wind. "I'm still unimpressed."
Mal scowls at him, a perfectly hideous look for a perfectly lovely woman.
"You have no romance in your soul, Arthur," she scolds him, and ushers him off and away, down Boulevard St. Germaine this time, and somehow or other they end up in the Tulleries, in a pair of painted-green reclining metal chairs next to the fountain, reflecting a perfectly cloudless blue sky while spraying water in their faces.
They have dinner on a boat in the Seine, floating smoothly along so the wind is whipping at Mal's dark blue dress, and Arthur gives her his jacket — it's YSL, fall/winter collection, and Mal tells him the way it falls over his back is lush — as the lights of Notre Dame sparkle over her shoulder. Overhead, Paris is boozy and veiled, dark blue with lavish handfuls of stars and the yellow-orange of gaslights, romantic like a movie Arthur saw once, and the air smells like rain, although Mal assures him there won't be any. She pours him another glass of champagne and Arthur savors a mouthful of steak au poivre and Mal asks:
"Well? Do you like it?"
"Paris?" Arthur asks, after he swallows. The champagne is fizzy on his lips, sweet like the bolts of it Miles and Marie had been serving at their dinner party. "It's wonderful."
"You've never been before, no?" Mal asks, and she leans forward, cups her chin in the heels of her hands, elbows resting on the table, their trio of tealight candles flickering. "I should take you other places, too — Vienna. How would you like to go to Vienna?"
On the tip of Arthur's tongue, he wants to say yes. He wants to go to Vienna, and Zurich, and Madrid and Lille. He wants to see everything and go everywhere and try everything, once, at least, because Mal may accuse him of having no imagination, but Arthur tries to make up for it with experience. Sometimes he thinks about how short life is and how impossible it is to do all the things he wants — needs — and feels suffocated inside of his his own skin, hemmed in.
"Vienna would be nice, sometime," Arthur allows. "But — "
"No buts, Arthur," Mal cuts him off, frowning. "Life is short."
Arthur says, "There are things I'm supposed to be doing," but he can't remember, exactly what they are, and now that he thinks about it his head hurts wondering how long he's been in Paris instead of in Boston, if he's missed a lot of classes. Holy shit, how did he let Mal talk him into this? He's going to fail out of this semester and have to take everything over, and then it's another six or nine months wasted, an eternity, and so much money, too, down the fucking toilet, and —
Mal puts a hand on his face, soothing. "Breathe, darling," she murmurs to him, rubbing her thumb over his cheekbone and looking so fond of him, her face a map of well-loved memories, and Arthur can feel his heart calm down where it's rattling in his chest as she soothes, "I'm here, darling, don't worry."
He breathes in and out a few times, until the dizziness and sudden flare of heat recede, and he says, "Sorry, I don't know what came over me."
"Don't be," Mal tells him, and her grin gets wider, now, "My first few times were spectacular failures."
Arthur frowns at her. "What are you talking about?"
She just laughs, and pours him another glass of champagne, and Arthur is asking how come there are birds singing so late at night, when the sky goes convex and the stars wink out and then in, and Arthur blinks and is staring at Mal's still-sleeping face, her cheeks flushed, curls dark across the pillows on her bed.
Arthur can hear the party downstairs, still, people laughing and crystal jangling, Miles on the piano — moved onto old jazz standards, now — noise and music slipping in under the closed door of Mal's bedroom. They're sprawled out on her bed, hands linked together, still in their party clothes in the dark of her room, the PASIV machine humming on the floor, an ache in his elbow from the IV Mal has pressed under the skin, saying, "Trust me," earlier that night.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Mal asks, suddenly, her voice raspy with sleep, eyes half-lidded, just a gleam in the dark.
Arthur nods slowly. "What was that?"
"Lucid dreaming," Mal answers. "It's what my father and Dom have been working on."
"Was that your dream?" Arthur asks, and suddenly he has so many questions, cascades of them pouring out of him into the dark between them. "Why was I in it?"
"It was my Paris, yes," she says, curling up closer, pulling her knees in, and Arthur sighs and helps her rearrange them and the clunky machine until they're under her blankets, warm at last in the coolness of the air conditioning. Arthur knows he should be panicking, that this should feel stranger, but mostly he feels like he's still dreaming — that they're both still dreaming — and he feels wondering and endless and curiously happy, safe, because he is with Mal, and she would never let anything bad happen to him. "But you were sharing it. We were there together."
He smiles at her in a daze. "Your Paris was beautiful."
"Thanks for coming with me," she whispers.
Arthur's body is heavy, and even though he's been sleeping, he guesses, he doesn't feel rested at all. He feels like he's run a marathon, like those nights where he wakes up more tired than when he went to bed, and Mal clucks at him, draws him closer to her, until their foreheads are pressed together and she murmurs:
"Where shall we go next, darling?"
Arthur feels the corners of his mouth draw up. "Where can we go?"
"Anywhere you want," Mal laughs, secret and just between them, drawing him closer, until she can whisper against his cheek: "We can do anything you like."
The machine lives at Mal's father's home, sometimes at Dom's, and so they can only get at it once in a while, but when they can, they go everywhere together.
She takes him to Vienna, dreams them into Prague during a deep, snowy winter and onto a cruise along the Danube, where everything looks enormous because she'd taken it as a little girl, and she and Arthur spend the entire time negotiating with giant-sized lawn chairs and tables with pastries just out of reach. One week, Dom is out of town for work, and she and Arthur break into his beige and boring apartment and take a week-long journey on the Orient Express. Mal is lavish with ermine and pearls and she sighs with delight at Arthur's herringbone-patterned coat and very fine tuxedo and they drink sherry and look out the train windows and are delighted.
Arthur trades her his own memories: the blurry copper of autumn in Virginia, the white beaches in SoCal, his family trip to the Grand Canyon when he was fifteen. He introduces her to his father in a dream, and maybe it is just Arthur's memories being biased and so inclined, but he likes Mal, and gives her an extremely continental kiss to the cheek before he bids them goodbye. Arthur's throat aches from missing him when they wake up, and Mal just strokes his cheek and says his father would be so proud, if he could see Arthur, now.
When he graduates his mother and Mal take turns crying all over him. To Arthur's unending horror, Dom clutches him into one of those paternal hugs he's nowhere near old enough to be giving out, and it takes Arthur over a minute to claw him off. Generously, he lets them pack him up and dispatch him to his prestigious internship — too prestigious; the entire thing reeks of Miles — in New York, and he finds himself reading emails from Mal as he frowns out at the soggy city heat, missing Boston and missing Mal like a phantom limb. He even misses Dom.
In September, when Arthur's employers are starting to make noises about bringing him on full time to do the same boring but necessary work at which he excels, Mal calls him at three in the morning sobbing her eyes out.
"Jesus Christ," Arthur says, retreating to the bathroom with the cordless phone and tugging the door shut, hoping his three drunk, emaciated, hipster roommates are going to be more understanding about this than he's been about their performance art in the shared living room. "Are you all right? What happened?"
He wants to ask, is it your parents? Is everything all right? Oh God, is it Dom? but he realizes that if it is Dom, Arthur doesn't know what he'll do.
Dom is a pain in the ass and treats Arthur like he's sixteen and once, showed up at Arthur's apartment looking trapped and declaring, "Mal told me you needed me to beat some guy up," after Arthur's one and only one-night stand. And then he'd said, "Oh, thank fucking God," when Arthur had made clear that the very, very, very last thing he needed from Dom was for him to attempt physical violence. But Dom also makes Mal happy and remembers Arthur's birthday and memorably, carpooled with Arthur through a fucking blizzard to Mal's house for Christmas one year, singing shitty holiday music off key the entire time, fingers white on the steering wheel because his car's heat was busted and he'd given his gloves to Arthur.
Mal wails something at him, and Arthur is doing a mental tally of how much money he has and if he can get a red-eye to Boston when she finally manages something coherent:
"Dom asked me to marry him."
Arthur blinks, finds himself staring into the mirror over the sink, at his own exhausted face, at the pale purple rings under his eyes and his stubble and his hair a wreck, barefoot in on the tile in a threadbare HARVARD t-shirt. He looks as young as Dom treats him, right now, and his breath catches in his throat.
It takes him two tries to say, "That's a good thing, right? You wanted that?"
"Yes, but Arthur," Mal cries. "Arthur — I'm going to be married."
Arthur doesn't know what's happening, he doesn't understand it at all, the sharp wrench of pain in his chest, the poisonous jealousy and sudden grief, the way he feels like the earth has moved beneath his feet. He feels happy for Mal, somewhere deep in his chest, but mostly he feels like someone has punched him in the solar plexus, all the air evaporated from his lungs, and he slides down the wall of the bathroom and listens to Mal cry, swallowing hard around the lump in his throat.
Everything will be different now, he thinks, and thinks, I told him that one day all of your stories would be about him. Arthur thinks about how she'll never sleep in his apartment again, that they won't go out to wine bars and drink too much, how she'll have a ring that will act as the Rubicon between them, that the way their lives have knit together like the fibers in a sheet of paper will have to come undone now, dissolve.
Arthur has always known that it would hurt to dower away all the territory Mal has ceded to him over the years, but it's always been an abstract thought. Arthur had thought that of course they would marry, but nothing else would change. He recognizes with a burst of heat that it's idiotic, to think that she and Dom could redraw the map of their relationship without somehow changing the demarcations of Arthur's claims. He's sick with it, envy and loneliness and reasonless hurt layered over one another like the leaves of a fan, pressed too tight against his chest.
"We knew it was coming," he says finally, because Mal is still crying. "I mean, he tried to make me go ring shopping with him, once."
Mal barks out a wet laugh. "Did you hit him?"
"I said even if I was having sex with four men at once on a float during Pride, I still would not be gay enough to go ring shopping with him," Arthur tells her. She can probably imagine the way his face had looked when he'd said it, too, the way Dom had gone pale and wretched at the mental image. "Is it pretty?"
"It is terribly tasteless and huge and I don't know how he afforded it," Mal reports, nasal, and her voice is echoing, too.
Arthur can imagine her huddled in her bathtub in the cramped one-bedroom she and Dom have shared for more than a year now, the wind brisk outside the creaky window over the toilet. She and Dom will move, of course, and buy a house, and it will be a place Arthur has never known before, and he can just imagine how awkward he'll feel stepping inside the first time, how she'll have neighbors he doesn't know and maybe live in a town even further away. They are losing each other, right now — they are losing each other in one of those achingly bittersweet moments you can't prepare for.
When long enough goes by without an answer, Mal says, "I don't want to get married."
"Of course you do," Arthur huffs. "Remember? Father of your children? You didn't care he was tragic and smelled like chalk and office hours?"
"I do," Mal admits, and she starts crying again, softer this time. "I'm going to miss you."
Arthur keeps swallowing around the ball in his throat but it won't go away. "Don't be stupid, I'm not going anywhere, nothing's going to change," he says, but they both know it's a lie, and they sit on the phone for the rest of the night, running up the long distance charge and saying very little at all. They can be happy for her, happy for Dom and the future they'll share together tomorrow, when it's morning and they're done being sad for whatever it is between them they're burying now.
It turns out that Dom got the money to pay for the outlandish ring through military contracts, which Arthur and Mal discover when they are sitting in the piazza in front of St. Mark's mutely feeding the pigeons after a long, terrible day of traveling.
"What the fuck are you two doing?" is how Dom decides to interrupt them.
Arthur spills the birdseed all over Mal and she starts screaming as all the birds go Hitchcock on them, which apparently is just the vertigo-inducing fear that knocks all three of them awake: Mal and Arthur slumped together on the papasan in the bedroom, Dom sitting on the ground in front of them, all three locked together with IV leads, the PASIV still spinning between them.
"You were supposed to be out," Mal says.
Arthur pulls the IV out of his arm. "Not helping, Mal," he mumbles, and thinks, this is going to be an awful Thanksgiving.
"That is top secret, classified military technology!" Dom yells at both of them, spots of red on his cheeks in fury.
"You leave it in an unlocked briefcase under the bed!" Mal protests.
Arthur tries to slide off the papasan and out of the room, except Dom just directs his laser glare at him and says, "Don't even think about it, Arthur," before adding, "How the hell do you even know what to do with it?" He doesn't give either of them a chance to answer before he's tearing at his own hair. "Jesus Christ, you could have — I can't believe this! How long has this been fucking going on?"
At this point, Mal is so furious she lapses into French, which Dom doesn't understand, and when she's angry she talks so fast that Arthur isn't fluent enough to catch more than all the swearing. He hears, "self-righteous," and "not a big deal, anyway," before Mal graciously calls Dom a "dick" in English.
Not that it matters, because Dom just keeps shouting over her, English and French overlapping, and Dom points at the PASIV and shouts, "Do you know how dangerous what you were doing was? How unstable that was? I'm sure it seems like all fucking fun and games, Mal, but that dream could collapse any minute, and — "
"It's not dangerous," Arthur hears himself interrupting, because he hates it when Dom gets like this, right in Mal's face. It doesn't matter that she can take it, Dom shouldn't talk to her like this. "None of our dreams have ever collapsed."
Mal says something blasphemous in French, which Dom ignores because now he's staring at Arthur.
"What?" he asks.
"Dominic Cobb, look at me when I talk to you," Mal snaps.
He does, but then he looks back at Arthur, and there's a strange look on his face. "How long? I mean, how long had you guys been in that dream before I found you?"
Frowning, Arthur hazards a glance at Mal before he ventures, "I don't know, an hour? Maybe two hours? How long does it take to walk from Rialto Bridge to St. Mark's?"
"Accounting for often we got lost?" Mal snorts, because she'd remembered that none of the signs pointing toward Rialto Bridge actually led there, and then inflicted it upon their dream, for which Arthur's feet will hate her forever. "It could have been days."
"And nothing flickered?" Dom demands. "Nothing wavered? Everything was structurally sound the entire time?"
"The island is sinking slowly, not folding in on itself," Mal retorts. "What is your point?"
Dom just glares at both of them. "You're both still in huge fucking trouble, but I need to make a phone call, first."
It takes watching Dom's dreams collapse and explode and fray away into nothing about a dozen times before Arthur and Mal will believe that it happens at all.
Dom dreams them into strangely fractured malls from his childhood, bleakly discolored beachfronts, a house where none of the window or door frames fit — and each scene is overflowing with people, so many it's hard to hear one another, and they're all grateful when finally the sedative runs out.
They nearly die in Dom's last dream, an earthquake in San Francisco — something fragmented from when he was a kid — and they all hide under a rickety staircase and cling at one another. Dom says, "It's okay, we just wake up if we die here," but Arthur doesn't particularly believe him, and from the way Mal is grabbing at Arthur and hiding her face in Dom's shoulder, neither does she. Arthur is shaky and dizzy with gratitude when they wake up before they have to find out either way.
But none of that explains why it happens. Why doesn't it happen with them?
Mal's dreams are gauzy with memory and a degree softer than reality, but always impossibly stable, the cobblestones underneath their feet or the hum of subway rails or even the clouds in the sky a perfect match. Arthur's dreams are less impressionistic, feel like they have sharper, crisper edges, but they are steady nonetheless, and when he'd taken Mal under and to Falling Water, they'd sat on a rock outcropping and dipped their feet into the waterfalls and listened to the birds sing, and it had been indistinguishable from when his father had taken him as a kid.
"I have a theory," Dom says, after he's piled them into the car. It's bitterly cold outside already, the gold and red and russets of fall melted into the dirty brown and gray of late November, and Mal and Arthur are leaning against each other in the backseat for warmth. "About why your dreams were stable."
"If this is classified military technology, did we just commit treason?" Arthur asks, because it needs asking.
Mal leans over the backseat. "Does it have to do with the dosing?" she asks. "Arthur and I always used more than you did just then."
Dom gives her an alarmed look, and Arthur braces himself against the car door when they nearly slip into the opposite lane. "How much were you guys dosing with?"
It depresses Arthur immeasurably that he's both the youngest and most practical person in the car. He presses on, "If it was treason, and I'm going to be sent to federal prison, I need to start planning an escape."
"Nothing will happen to you," Mal dismisses.
"Technically, it's sort of illegal," Dom says, and Mal punches him in the arm, which manifests itself in a jerk of the car.
"Jesus fucking Christ," Arthur says. He tries to think of countries with loose and dubious extradition treaties with the U.S., but all he can come up with is Switzerland, and then all he can think about is fucking Roman Polanski. "Could you just let me off somewhere close to public transit where I have ATM access?"
"It might have something to do with the architecture of your dreaming," Dom answers Mal, instead of answering Arthur. "You and Arthur think about the world very differently — you've been trained to."
"Are either of you assholes listening to me?" Arthur demands. "I would do fucking terribly in prison!"
Mal gives him a measuring look, and Dom just catches Arthur's eyes in the rearview mirror, saying, "First, you'd be terrifying in prison, and second, you're not going to jail."
"Or prison," Mal agrees.
Arthur doesn't really process their reassurances because he's staring out the car windows, and he hears himself shout, "You don't have to help, but don't drive us toward a fucking military base."
General McCallister, in addition to having four stars on his shoulders and a fistful of chest candy, possesses an incredibly good sense of humor, because instead of deporting Mal to the French Alps or dispatching Arthur to be cannibalized by prison gangs, he just peers at them curiously while Arthur cases the windows and doors and ponders escape.
"Perfectly stable dreams, then?" McCallister asks, utterly unperturbed.
Arthur elects silence. Mal says, "Yes," short, flat, like a gunshot through a silencer.
McCallister turns to Arthur pointedly. "Where were you? When Cobb caught you?"
"St. Mark's," Arthur bites out, his voice surprisingly level for how shit-scared he is on the inside, but it's reflexive, this exterior coldness, and he adds, "In Venice."
The general grins and waves at one of his minions. "Show me."
Mal builds the Rialto, the fat snake of a shimmering canal lapping below, littered with gondolas guided by a phalanx of handsome, olive-skinned men, and they all lean over the side of the bridge and peer off into the blurry edges of the scene. She peoples the streets with faces she remembers from childhood trips, and Arthur goes downstairs to the gelato shop that she always frames in while McCallister and Dom are peppering Mal with questions. Arthur comes back with two scoops of chocolate and listens to Dom and Mal snap at each other until McCallister turns to him and says:
"Well, what about you?"
Arthur's best at building Falling Water, which he remembers with almost clinical perfection, and he would take Dom, but not McCallister, so he builds Manhattan instead. He lays in the winding piping of the subway and then the heavy concrete slabs of the sidewalk, the opened manholes belching steam in the early morning in Alphabet City and the brick walls covered with murals, the sidewalks overflowing with NYU students in skinny jeans and their irony. He pulls up the Chrysler building, because he loves its lines and curves, the way the lights of it are stark and beautiful against the blue-pink morning skies. He paints in the flour delivery trucks in the small hours, the meandering NYPD sedans, the fruit carts setting up, the diner lights flicking on, the way the trains are louder above ground in morning, before the rest of the city wakes up.
McCallister buys a coffee and walks next to Arthur, up 14th street, crossing Avenue A, and walking toward Union Square, buildings flying up as Arthur remembers them, stretching out like the long legs of a city.
"All right," the general says, grinning, "you've convinced me."
Arthur raises his eyebrows. "Not to arrest us for treason?"
"Sure," McCallister agrees, easy, and nodding up the street, at where the sun is cresting over the city, he adds, "And if you can get me a good bagel — maybe I can get you a job."
Reflexive, Arthur wants to say that he doesn't want McCallister's job, that he's not really into working for the military-industrial complex, that he's had a sick-scared feeling in the back of his throat since he realized this project was for the army, anyway. He and Mal haven't ever constructed any monsters, but Arthur has woken up from nightmares just like anybody. It must show all over his face.
"Or, you could say no, and we could send you to prison with your pretty friend there," McCallister says, perfectly amiable and pointing at Mal, who's buying Dom a clutch of daffodils now in the Saturday morning greenmarket that's sprung up around them. "Your choice, really."
Arthur grits his teeth. "Follow me, I know a great bagel shop."
Being coerced into working for the U.S. government isn't as terrible as the alternative, but that doesn't mean Arthur's not furious at Mal and Dom about the whole shitshow. Mal more than Dom, after a while, because at least Dom seems penitent.
"You can't ignore me forever, Arthur," she says, following him around the compound, which is as soulless and gray as something that is commonly referred to as a "compound" deserves to be.
"Dom," Arthur says to Dom, who has been wearing a terrible hang-dog expression on his face for the entire month Arthur and Mal have worked with him at the compound, "tell Ms. Miles that I can ignore her however fucking long I want."
Dom winces. "Guys, this is really awkward for me."
"Guess how much I care," Arthur prompts, which only makes Dom pull a persecuted expression and stare at him bleakly.
"This is very childish, Arthur," Mal tells him, which Arthur decides to respond to by hanging an abrupt left into the men's room. Mal shouts at him through the door for less than a minute before giving up with a heartfelt merde and vanishing lower into the bowels of the complex, the click of her shoes clear through the lowest-possible-bid door to the bathroom.
That leaves Arthur sitting in the handicap stall with a sheaf of graph paper and a battered notebook, working on diagramming the buildings, trying to flowchart his thought process and explain something he's not doing on purpose. It feels like when he'd been little, before he had the vocabulary to properly tell a story, and he ends up doodling like he's eight years-old again, trying to capture a thought in shaky and crosshatched shadows.
McCallister has Arthur and Mal working on the structural integrity of dreams from two directions, eliminating unimportant variables and trying to isolate what makes their versions of Venice and New York, Paris and Stockholm and the painted desert in Arizona different than the rest. When Dom tries it, replicating Manhattan, he lasts fifteen minutes before he wakes up, and then he refuses to talk about what happened to kick him out of the dream. The handful of other trained dreamers — apparently, there's training — don't fair any better, dying at the hands of massive earthquakes or typhoons or something out of the Dune novels, in the desert.
He still doesn't know why he and Mal can plot out sprawling rooms and elaborate cities and Dom can hardly manage a mall, and he lets the tip of his ballpoint sketch comforting right and acute angles on the pale blue squares dotting the paper as he stares at the stall door, the scuffs and nicks and wear from use and that's when it hits him.
When Arthur bursts into the dream lab, breathless and red-cheeked, he's crying, "You're trying to get it too right," at Dom, except he ends up shouting it at McCallister, Mal, Dom, and another man he doesn't recognize, all huddled around a blueprint on the table — all of whom look up at him in the sudden echoing silence after his shout.
"Arthur," McCallister invites mildly, "care to share that with the class more slowly?"
He would, but he pauses, feeling himself go hot with embarrassment, shy suddenly in the face of a stranger, and his voice abandons him momentarily before he clears his throat and says, "I — who's that?" pointing past McCallister at the new arrival.
The man smiles, and it's a little bit heart-stopping.
"Flight Lieutenant James Eames," he says, the Anglicized stretch of his vowels and soft edges on his consonants a surprise, made sweeter and a touch rougher by the grin on his full mouth. "Apologies if I surprised you, Arthur."
Which evaporates any blush that might be advancing on him long enough for Arthur's reflexive and generalized distrust to kick in.
"How do you know my name?" he asks.
"Everybody knows your name here," Eames says, eyes crinkling as his smile gets wider, and Arthur's not sure, but it's possible the man's fond of hostility. "You and Miss Miles are famous."
"Famous?" Arthur barks. "Hardly — " he frowns " — and you're not American."
Eames's smile gets somehow even wider, and he leans against Dom's drafting table — seemingly oblivious to Mal's blisteringly angry glower — and says, "No, love, I'm not."
Usually, it takes longer than this for Arthur to want to hit someone in the face, but it's probably the 'love' that tips it past the line so efficiently. He's rescued from his own furious retort when McCallister sighs:
"Eames, contain yourself. Arthur — your discovery. Slowly this time. With details."
The mall that fell on Dom's head the last time he tried to build it is steady and humming this time, populated with people Dom swears he's seen before, one or two times, nobody particularly distinct or important, but they hustle around with shopping bags and strollers and dashing into and out of stores.
"I don't get it," Dom says, slumping onto a bench next to Arthur, where they're shaded by an enormous, anonymous green plant, watching women buy shoes across the walkway, the overhead lights a steady, color-dulling halogen hum. "What's the difference between this, and what I was doing?"
Arthur grins at him and points at the floor. "What do you see?"
Dom looks, and then looks back up. "Flooring? Tiles?"
"Do you remember what your mall floor looked like?" Arthur asks.
"Since you're dreaming my childhood mall, I would hazard a guess the same," Dom says, dry as tinder and surprisingly bitchy, which is one of Arthur's favorite things about him.
"Not at all," Arthur tells him. "These tiles aren't really interesting at all: they're just flat. There's no detail. Not a scuff, not a blemish — not realistic for a functioning mall at all."
Frowning, Dom settles back against the bench. "So you're saying it's stable because it's less detailed?"
"I'm saying it's stable because I'm not trying too hard," Arthur clarifies. "Think about it: when you dream — naturally, when you dream naturally, you don't think about the little details. You definitely don't try to memorize blueprints. What comes out when you do? Unless you have a photographic memory, you get a jumble, stuff gets mixed up. If we extrapolate from that, maybe that's what's happening: you try too hard without the bandwidth for it, and you get collapse."
Arthur can see Mal peering into a bookshop a few storefronts down, flipping through a novel with a blue cover and frowning before setting it down and grabbing another book at random, some magazines, a picture book — all getting the same thirty-second treatment before being abandoned for something else. A few yards beyond that, Eames — lean and distracting and unfairly handsome in a green-khaki colored uniform — is inspecting an ice cream stand. Most of the store windows are bland, nothing specific, and there's a Gap and a pretzel shop and the faint neon of a faraway Chinese restaurant in the food court, but nothing distinct, nothing detailed, just suggested. If you weren't looking too hard, it would all just skim past as normal — if you went up to the windows and started to poke around, then it would get strange.
Dom says, "But that doesn't make sense. Venice, New York, all of those dreamscapes you and Mal came up with were enormously detailed, far more complicated and with a lot more moving pieces than anything we tried here."
"Yeah, but Mal and I know those places better," Arthur replies. "Or hell, maybe we have better memories, visually trained memories, so we just note the details better — but even in New York, I didn't fill in everything. I didn't try to get every grate or every piece of gum or all the hobo pee smell or get every subway line right. We were standing at Union Square and the only train I remember seeing on the sign was the six — there're like seven or eight lines that go through that stop."
Mal comes up to them again, holding a copy of Good Night Moon, only the cover is just a blur of yellow and blue and green streaks beyond the words.
"I think he might be right," she says, settling in on Arthur's other side and curling her knees, tucking her feet up on the bench and resting her cheek on Arthur's shoulder. She smells like vanilla and Ivory soap and Arthur decides it's too much trouble to be angry with her when it would be so much easier just to lean right back, so he does. "None of the books have any real text — just The quick brown fox blah blah blah written in them."
"Wow," Dom says. "You can't be fucked to remember the rest of that sentence?"
"Says the man who was eaten by a sandworm like forty-eight times," Arthur retorts, and from down the mall, Eames calls back to him:
"Darling, lovely mall and everything, but I think you've cocked up this ice cream."
The ice cream, when Arthur and Mal and Dom go to inspect it, isn't cocked up at all, it's Dippin' Dots, and Arthur steals Dom's wallet go buy some for himself and Mal and Dom, and when Eames's pout becomes unbearable, he steals Dom's wallet again to buy one for him, too.
"These are frozen pellets," Eames argues. "How the fuck is this ice cream?"
"It's the best ice cream," Arthur assures him, seeing Eames in a whole new and more tragic light now, to think of his entire rainy, English upbringing without a single item of NASA-inspired food. "They shoot it through liquid nitrogen. Just try some."
Eames looks dubious, but tries some, and when a smile breaks out over his face, that blush Arthur earlier averted in no way returns.
Dom dreams his childhood room, and braces himself defensively in a corner waiting for it to fall apart for the entire hour Mal and Arthur and Eames sit on Dom's bed, bored and playing Go Fish. But Dom doesn't waste effort of sanity trying to think of his old linens, what toys would be in the room, the precise color of the carpet. It's mostly the same, he says, but slightly off, not entirely authentic, but if he took a quick look around, it would pass. Next, Dom dreams up his office at the compound, the apartment he and Mal share. Carefully, he dreams up Harvard campus, sketching in buildings and greenways and Arthur projects in people: guys from his morning classes, a few people he saw around the dining halls, an odd professor or two, and everything hums along peacefully, Mal spread-eagled on the grass, soaking in the summer sunshine.
"Fantastic," Eames murmurs, head tilted back to look at Dom's clear blue sky.
Arthur tries not to stare at the line of his throat, the faint, late-day stubble gathering at the line of his jaw, and so he looks down at Mal instead, the familiar, beautiful lines of her. She cracks open one eye and grins at him, a little rueful, and closes a hand around his wrist. "You're not angry with me anymore?" she asks.
"Not at the moment, no," Arthur says, relenting, and he lets her pull him down to the grass, until he's got his face pillowed on Mal's shoulder, the sun hot on his cheeks, Dom's footsteps scratchy in the grass just past their feet, and Eames's voice a hush overhead, murmuring down at them:
"Now that, darling, is a gorgeous picture indeed."
It's not the universal answer, but it's a start, and they begin experimenting.
Some people — Corporal Hayes, for example — can't hold even the simple and blandest of dreams together, and others, like Mal, spin elaborate fantasies that feel as real as stepping out the front door and into the biting air of early winter. Eames, when he is the dreamer, constructs lush and sensual fantasies that are utterly unconvincing as reality, with even the blandest offices and parking lots humming with that half-step off that always gives it away as a dream. But his dreams are, apart from Mal's, the most fun: taking them to Monaco and Istanbul and one time, he wakes them all up in the ballroom of a Jane Austen movie and immediately asks Arthur to dance the first set of waltzes — which Arthur figures is what cements the fact that Mal loathes him.
"He's the SAS liaison to a U.S. military project," Arthur reminds her. "He's hardly in the same category as those so-called tattooed delinquents you claim I'm so weak to."
She only narrows her eyes across the room, at where Eames is staring over at them, eyes half-lidded and grinning lazily, before she takes a step closer to Arthur. "I should make Dom warn him off from you," she decides. "Man to man."
Vivid in Arthur's mind is the potential awfulness of that moment.
"Mal, it's really sweet how much you think Dom has the ability to hit people and be intimidating," Arthur says, trying to be kind of about the whole thing, "but seriously, Dom doesn't have the ability to hit people and be intimidating at all." He pauses. "Also, I would murder both of you in your sleep if you tried it."
"Your crush on that man is unacceptable," Mal tells him.
"Oh, but he's lovely, Mal," Arthur teases, smirking and crossing his arms over his chest, since the last three months of insisting he doesn't have a crush on Eames has been fruitless to the extreme. "He's going to be the father of my children. Come on, eventually, you'll love him, too."
The look she rewards him with is vile.
"You and Miss Miles looked like you were have a terribly intense conversation earlier, darling," Eames says later, bright-eyed and curious, and whenever he gets like this, Arthur is struck with the warring urges to hit him or kiss him. "I hope you were talking about me."
Eames has dreamed them into a stately pleasure dome decreed, the air lush with spices and sweet with the smell of imaginary fruit, birds singing faintly in the distance. Everything is green and rich and so hot that Arthur has rolled up the legs of his jeans and is sitting on the grassy bank, amid the purple and white and cornflower blue wildflowers, dipping his feet in the clear, cold water of the sacred river Alph. The air is thin, like they're at the peak of a mountain, and Arthur traces over the opium dream verses of Kubla Khan and wonders if Eames has gone so far to send the river all the way down the peak, into caverns measureless by man, and what might be waiting there, underneath the surface — if it is wonderful like this garden.
"Well, Mal was angry, so obviously, we were talking about you," Arthur says, and lies back in the grass, feeling the midday sun hot on his skin, the breeze cool as it whips through his bangs. He loves Eames's dreams best — could stay here for days.
"I suppose I can't blame her," Eames says philosophically, and reaches over, runs a hand through Arthur's hair: easy, proprietary. Arthur knows he should stop him, that he should say something or protest or put up even a token fight, but he's lazy with heat and all his bones feel liquified. Mal thinks Arthur has a crush, and maybe, in the beginning, he did, but now he thinks it might be something else entirely.
Arthur turns his cheek to press against the grass, cracks his eyes open to see Eames settled next to him, the weight of Eames's fingers on his head is good like the rest of this dream is good, and he only makes a vague murmur instead of asking the question.
"You must know I have awful designs on your virtue, love," Eames explains, the corner of his mouth curling up. "And none of those irritating don't ask, don't tell rules to impede my pursuit of your favors, either."
The garden is so beautiful and the wind is so cool, and Arthur feels so loose and easy and Eames's touch is such a comfort that Arthur just laughs, bright and wide-open. He says, "Eames, nobody talks like that."
"I'll have you know I practiced that speech in the mirror several times this morning before coming here to dream up this lovely garden for you," Eames says, huffing with false offense, his fingers never ceasing their carding through Arthur's hair. When he speaks again, his voice is softer. "And how lovely you are in this garden."
Arthur just closes his eyes again, the smile still stretched on his mouth. "I didn't know you liked Coleridge."
"What's not to like?" Eames asks. "So twice five miles of fertile ground, with walls and towers were girdled round: and there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, where blossomed many an incense bearing tree. And here were forests ancient as the hills, enfolding sunny spots of greenery."
Cracking one eye open again, Arthur says, "There will be no wailing for a demon lover, Eames, nor any ceaseless turmoil seething, as if this earth in fast, thick pants was breathing," which brings forth a horribly undignified pout on the part of Eames, who apparently doesn't concern himself with having a proper military bearing for a man of his training and status.
"Don't be cruel, Arthur," Eames whines, leaning over him, a broad-shouldered shadow across Arthur's chest. "I spent all night memorizing this poem, too. Just for you."
"Eames," Arthur says, trying to sound scolding and utterly failing, "we're in a room in a military compound — General McCallister is watching right now — as we speak."
"And if we weren't?" Eames asks, a sudden, sharp awareness in his voice. "If we were elsewhere, if no one were watching — if it were just you and I?"
When Arthur opens his eyes this time, Eames's pout has vanished, leaving in its place just Eames's face: the strong jaw and the brush of stubble, the divot in his chin that Arthur has wanted to touch, sometimes, gray-green eyes that are watching him carefully, his mouth wet. Eames wanders around the base all day in military casual and reports in to his own government, vanishes off with the the project management. He flits into and out of Arthur's awareness with easygoing flirtations that Arthur has never really believed meant anything until now. Until this very moment.
"What do you say, Arthur?" Eames asks, his voice a gravely scrape down Arthur's spine. "Would you have me?"
Arthur is suddenly parched, frozen, all his muscles locked. He says, "Eames."
"Just something to think about, darling," Eames tells him, relenting, the intensity drained out of the moment.
The hand that had gone still in Arthur's hair resumes its stroking, and Arthur lets himself relax into it again, letting the tension unwind, drifting off to sleep — strangely, he sleeps better inside of other dreams — and when he wakes up, he wakes up on base again, Eames in the next chair over, favoring him with a lingering, thoughtful look.
He feels hot all over, like the pink beginnings of a burn he had in the dream have transferred over into waking, and he squirms in his seat, says, "What?"
"Nothing, love," Eames murmurs, rising to his feet, and when he stands to leave the room, he stops first to run a hand over the crown of Arthur's head, as if that's allowed topside, and says, "Just contemplating the milk of paradise," as he goes.
Almost everybody has some level of ultimate ability in dream design, although there seems to be a specific combination of training required to unfold something detailed: a marriage of engineering and memory and art. There's a lot of trial and error. Mal, the first time one of Dom's more complex dreams falls down on her head and snuffs her back into waking, confiscates his WORLD'S BEST ARCHITECT mug, which is still better than the first time McCallister requests they take an armed contingent down, too, just to see what the presence of military elements in a dream can do.
It's utter fucking chaos.
By the time Arthur swims back up to the surface of consciousness, his first act as a waking man is to curl up onto his side and throw up all over the floor. His arms hurt and his stomach hurts and he knows that there's nothing wrong with his leg but he pulls it close to his chest, clutches at the muscle of the thigh, heart racing to try and remind himself that there isn't a bone sticking out, that he's not bleeding in agony in a puddle on the floor. He can hear Mal crying quietly in the next bed, and when he reaches for her, he finds her fingers mid-air and they link together weakly — a tiny, reassuring point of contact in the swaying nausea.
He doesn't know how long he lies there, spitting the taste of sick out of his mouth and trying to breathe normally — it can't be long, there's chaos in the control room, lots of shouting and a door being more or less kicked open — but soon Dom is there, pressing a hand to Arthur's neck, saying, "Hey, hey, breathe, it'll be okay," and then taking two steps over to Mal, hushing her, too, and her fingers break away.
And before he can panic about that, losing that tenuous grasp on something solid, he hears Eames, feels the familiar weight in the air of him at Arthur's back.
He's saying, "It's okay, love, just breathe, I'm here," and says, "Here, come here, darling, I have you," and helping pull Arthur up, away from the reclining chairs of the dream chamber, his hands warm and rough and enormous on Arthur's back.
Arthur's still sick and terrified enough that he ignores the humiliation of his hand, fisted tightly in the BDU shirt Eames is wearing, his body turned toward where Eames is running alongside the gurney as the base doctors rush him and Mal to the infirmary. Eames keeps a hand closed over the back of Arthur's neck, hot against the clammy cold of Arthur's skin, and he is saying nonsense words, empty reassurances, but Arthur's still grateful for the reminder that this is reality, that the bullets ripping through his leg and his arms and his stomach and the blood and absolute horror of looking at his own intestines falling out of his body was just a fucking nightmare.
"What happened?" Eames asks, still hovering when the doctors lock the gurney to a stop, and vanish to yell at each other a few feet away.
Arthur just blinks up at him, eyes wet with the memory of pain and the visceral feel of gore, the hot slick of his own blood on his fingers and the crystallized, awful moment he'd seen Mal just a few yards away, telling everybody to stop, not to shoot. They had, anyway — a stray bullet ripping through her chest, over her left breast. He'd started screaming then and he's pretty sure he came awake doing the same thing, what felt like an hour later.
He doesn't know why all their dream projections had gone vicious, how the safe boredom of the base, dreamed, had turned into a fucking bloodbath. The projected MPs had cocked their guns and the unarmed civilian consultants had attacked the soldiers who'd come down, too, with nails and teeth and anything sharp enough to be a knife, and Mal and Arthur had been standing in between them trying to stop everything from going crazy so they were the first to go — maybe the last to go.
Arthur feels sick again, thinking about lying on the floor, his own blood soaking into the back of his shirt, staring at the pockmarked ceilings of the dream and wishing he'd die faster, cold from shock and dizzy from vertigo and crying and thinking, Mal, Mal.
"Mal," he chokes out, and grips Eames's shirt more tightly. "Is she okay?"
"She's fine. She woke up, same as you," Eames promises, his free hand scraping sweat-soaked bangs from Arthur's face now, surprisingly gentle, and Arthur thinks, see, you are a nice man. "She's just in the next room — Cobb's with her, she'll be fine, love."
"They shot her," Arthur manages, gasps it between heaving breaths. "She didn't die immediately." Eames's face is terrible, wrecked, and he strokes Arthur's cheek and murmurs, "Oh, sweetheart, oh, Arthur," and Arthur is crying, he can't help himself from crying, and he says, "She bled to death across the floor from me."
The next 48 hours are profoundly horrible.
Arthur can't sleep, and neither can Mal, obviously, because she sneaks into his room in the infirmary and crawls into the too-small bed. They clutch at each other and Arthur puts his face in her throat and starts crying again, because he doesn't care about looking like a pussy in front of Mal, and listens to her heartbeat and just aches. She digs her nails into his back, holding him close, and she gets his hair wet, his hospital gown wet, keeps asking if he hurts anymore, if he's okay.
The doctors find them an hour into this and try to separate them. When reasoning doesn't work and pulling doesn't work, they try to sedate them, at which point all hell breaks loose, and Arthur punches someone and rips out his saline drip. Mal shoves someone into a wall and scrapes three long, bloody scratches down their cheek — all things they have never done before, that he never thought they could or would do, and he's babbling, threatening, begging, all the time: he won't go. They can't make him. He never wants to fucking sleep again.
Mal isn't much better, but they get her first, jab a needle in her neck and she goes limp — which is so momentarily and distractingly horrible they get Arthur, too.
He wakes up hours and hours later, McCallister peering down at him with an unreadable expression.
"How're you feeling, son?" he asks.
"Fuck you," Arthur tells him.
Non-nonplussed, McCallister says, "That good?"
"I quit," Arthur croaks. "I quit. I never want to do this again."
"But you and Miss Miles were having so much fun before," McCallister points out, blandly reasonable and completely unperturbed, and Arthur remembers now, the way McCallister was never shocked or surprised and how he never reacted to anything. It had seemed benign, then, even a comfort to know he had a slow-burning temper and an even-handed approach, but now it makes something cold echo in his chest, like that bottomless feeling during long, sleepless nights when you think that one day, you will die, that all of this will be over, that there won't be anything more. "You'd made so much progress. Why let one little setback discourage you?"
Arthur closes his eyes. "No — no. I quit. We quit."
"Arthur," McCallister says, kindly enough, "I thought I had been thoroughly clear when you two were recruited — you don't really have a choice in this."
They're not prisoners, really, they just don't have any say when it comes to the status of their employment.
"I know you would disagree, Arthur," McCallister tells him, "but your last venture with the PASIV was actually a success."
Arthur just keeps his mouth shut, locks up everything he wants to say. He's not allowing McCallister another inch, another minute of himself. Arthur can't outrun the government but he can control himself, keep himself locked up, give nothing away.
"At this point, I'm sure you're curious about what the actual nature of the PASIV project is," McCallister goes on, blithe and unconcerned.
Arthur didn't notice before, but McCallister moves like a shark, constantly circling; he's never seen the general sitting down, and it makes Arthur feel stupid for having settled into the uncomfortable plastic chair in front of the ugly wood-laminate desk in this prison cell office.
"No matter how charming your versions of Europe's greatest treasures are, Arthur, it was never meant just for pleasure trips," the general says. He smiles. "But I'm sure you figured that out already."
He explains the military wants to use the PASIV for training soldiers, special forces, that the more realistic they can make the dream world the more effective it will be for preparing men for the uncomfortable truth of warfare. Arthur can read between the lines of that, and he thinks about the MPs that patrol the hallways at The Compound, the ones who always share fresh donuts with Arthur and help him with the sudoku and the NCOs that drop in shoot the shit and Eames, too, thrown into a nightmare like he and Mal had. He can't help but think about dying again, about his vision swimming at the ceiling blurring overhead and the way he'd been clutching at his jeans, fingers going weak, his hands skidding in blood — he thinks that in any sort of training, it means doing it over, and over and over again.
Arthur wants to slide his hands under his thighs, keep his cold fingers warm and give him something else to think about, something to do, but that's a tell, that's a giveaway, and won't do it, not in front of McCallister.
"Of course, it's not pleasant," the general allows, "but it's necessary, and an opportunity for us to truly prepare our men to the harsh realities in a way we've never been able to before, Arthur. Now, I know you're angry with me now — "
Anger is hot and clumsy and stupid, and Arthur doesn't feel any of those things. He feels calcified in patience. He's not sure what he's waiting for, but he feels a cold certainty he can keep doing it. Arthur has never been the smartest or the most talented or the fastest or the more creative, all he's ever had is the fact that he didn't quit, that he'll keep grinding at it, that he operates with a certainty he'll get it in the end — the same way he survived his father's death or got a five on his Calculus BC AP exam or learned differential equations or got a scholarship to Harvard, he knows that he's waiting for something. That right now, he can't do anything, but that McCallister, like everyone else, has underestimated him.
" — but you're doing a great service to your country," McCallister consoles him. "And now that we're clear on that, I think we can move on to something more complex."
'More complex' means that on Monday, after the base psychologists give him a pass, Arthur's ushered to a shooting range, that Eames is already there waiting for him.
"Darling," Eames says in a hush, and Darden, the MP standing at the door, rolls his eyes with the elaborate commitment to revulsion that comes from being barely twenty-one and still sort of a shit. Arthur loves that guy. Ignoring that with impressive grace, Eames looks Arthur up and down, murmurs, "You're looking much better today."
Arthur is used to a flicker of heat under the skin when Eames does that, but he can't enjoy it today — just stares at the heaps of guns spread out across a table, waiting for him. He's never been this close to a real gun and looked at it before. He's been around them, strapped to the military police that patrol the base, seen them on television, but he's never been this close to one, doesn't really want to touch any of them.
He touches the edge of the table instead, doesn't meet Eames's eyes.
"So you knew about this," he says, voice flat. "The plan. The whole time."
Eames is quiet for a long time, but at least when he opens his mouth again, he doesn't try to feed Arthur any of his typical bullshit. He just says, "This doesn't have to be terrible, love."
"Sure, okay," Arthur says, passive, shrugging. He nods at the guns. "You're going to teach me how to use these?"
"McCallister thought you might be less inclined to shoot me than someone else," Eames offers, and he walks around to Arthur's side of the table, closing the distance between them. The SAS really must recruit the ambitiously suicidal, because he reaches out, touches Arthur's wrist with two fingers, not caring that they're standing next to a table of two dozen revolvers and semiautomatic weapons and that Arthur feels like his heart is breaking, like he's drowning standing up, trapped and crazy. Eames asks, "Was he wrong?"
Arthur swallows hard, hard enough to distract from the wrench in his chest, the flurry of things he wants to say to that, and how angry he is with Eames, with Mal for getting them into this, with Dom for working on this fucking project. He's mad that he's not brave enough to run and run away, that he just lets himself get driven home in the evenings and here in the mornings and that he drinks coffee and jokes with his handlers and watches Jeopardy and has managed to carve out a life in imprisonment, comfortable in his captivity like someone too languid to break out.
When he'd gone over to Mal and Dom's last night, she'd been looking at topographical maps of Afghanistan, Iraq, depressingly, of Pakistan, North Korea, mountain ranges and deserts and jungles. There'd been satellite images layered underneath wedding magazines, estimates from caterers, and he and Mal had split a bottle of Riesling after dinner and talked about where she and Dom should go for their honeymoon. He doesn't know what it says about them, that their waking hours are dreaming hours, now, that the military has Arthur studying the way bones break, the mechanical workings of cars, that they want Eames to teach him how to shoot a gun, and that he can go home and listen to Mal fret over a wedding dress. He guesses this is their life now, but he also guesses this has to be their life — that they're only human, that they don't have any other choices other than to try to keep going.
There's an urgency simmering under his skin and he doesn't know what to do with it, how to deal with it, and he wants to kick over the table and scream.
Instead, Arthur says, "I'm not going to shoot you," and he makes himself look up, taking the two seconds to fold all of it, everything he knows he's so close to giving away, into an origami crane in his chest and tuck it out of sight. He sees Eames's face, closed over, but his eyes dark and worried and tender in a way that hurts like a half-healed cut, and Arthur says, "Go on, Mr. Eames, show me how to shoot a gun."
Eames does, a hot, heavy weight against the line of Arthur's spine. His hands cup Arthur's as they close his fingers around the butt of the gun, slip his fingers where they belong, and the first time Arthur pulls the trigger, it's with Eames skintight against him, Eames's arms banking him in, Eames's mouth wet and moving against the skin behind Arthur's ear — muffled through the safety gear — saying:
"That's right, darling, just like that."
The first time they roll out the training program, it's a rough sketch at best, with Mal holding the dream together and Arthur populating the landscape with projections of anonymous enemy combatants. They hide in a bunker, one made out of solid steel, fitted with slivered windows, and the soldiers who go down with them drop outside — they hear them, one by one — the too-quiet at the beginning and then the panic, and Arthur holds Mal's hands and they lean together, forcing themselves to breathe steady. Arthur's dreamed up the enemy guns, the landmines planted among the weeds and buried in the vast hills of sand and rough grasses that Mal constructed. He's learned more about guerrilla warfare than he ever wants to know, and Mal has the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan memorized, and they manage to keep it together until they hear someone screaming, someone dying.
Arthur doesn't know whose panic whipped up the sandstorm, or how the earthquake began, which one of them made the shelter collapse, that got them trapped in an airless space waiting to die to wake up. He knows he dreamed up the gun, because he recognizes it as James Bond's Walther PPK, but Mal is the one who takes it out of his hands, presses a hand to his cheek and says, "Arthur, it's okay — I can — just close your eyes," and pulls the trigger so he doesn't have to watch her die again.
When he wakes up, it's to Dom staring down at him, his eyes wide and worried.
"You okay?" Dom asks.
Arthur blinks at him, once, twice. He says, "I'm fine, Dom," because telling him the truth seems like a pretty pointless exercise.
"Bullshit," Dom retorts. "Mal said the same thing."
"Maybe both of us are fine," Arthur argues, pushing Dom out of his face so he can sit up, work at the crick in his neck. He's only been out for half an hour — but that's ages in a dream, and he wants a shower to wash all the sweat and dust off of himself, to try and shake off the shivery feeling of the gun's cold metal on his skin, Mal's stiff upper lip.
"Maybe that scares me more than you guys being fucked up," Dom mutters, but he moves, gives Arthur room to get up. "Mal's packing up to go home. We'll sort through the data tomorrow — you want a ride?"
"By which you mean, you want me to drive so you guys don't have to do it in the snow," Arthur mutters, because they'd pulled this shit on him when they'd needed someone to put chains on their tires, too.
Unashamed, Dom says, "I grew up in California. I don't know what this white stuff is."
"Thousands of much more stupid people manage to drive in it every year," Arthur tells him, but relents, because he knows he's going to end up driving Dom and Mal back to their house.
And when he gets there, Arthur knows that Dom is going to make pot roast and that he'll end up sleeping in the office slash guest-room on the futon that is basically his second home, and when he wakes up in the morning, Dom — zombie-like — will end up kissing him on the cheek and mumbling, "Morning," before he does the same thing to Mal.
Out of some sort of misplaced chivalry, Dom helps Arthur up, off of the reclining chair, touches a hand to the small of Arthur's back like a guide. Another thing that Dom does with both him and Mal, and Arthur doesn't know if he's depressed by that or wants to confront Dom about their ambiguously emotional polyamory — and either way, before he makes a decision, they pass Eames in the hall.
"So solicitous, Mr. Cobb," Eames purrs, but there's something a little ugly under the surface there, and his eyes are fixed at Dom's hand, where his fingers just touch the dip of Arthur's spine. "Does the future Mrs. Cobb know?"
Dom's answer is to look confused. Arthur frowns, grabs Dom by the elbow, and steers him down the hall faster, saying, "I'll meet you guys at the car, okay?" which earns him a curious look from Dom, but nothing more. He's pretty sure that Mal's going to hear about this, and that means Arthur's going to hear about this again at dinner, heavy with Mal's intense disapproval.
Eames's eyes follow Dom as he walks away. "I hate to accuse you of any sort of poor taste, Arthur, but falling in with your best friend's fiance is a bit gauche, love."
Arthur stares at him. He thinks about the Eames in the garden, the weight of his hand in Arthur's hair, and the easy certainty in him then that is absent now. "Are you serious?"
"Are you?" Eames replies.
"It's Dom," Arthur tells him, because he's not really sure what else to say about that.
"Exactly," Eames agrees. "I never thought he was your type. So serious, and bookish and boring. All theory and no spine at all, love — "
Beyond admitting that he might not totally hate Mal's boyfriend, life partner, and future father of her children anymore, Arthur's never been given to too much deep introspection about his emotional relationship with Dominic Cobb. Dom is, objectively, lame, and boring, and to say he's not good enough for Mal is a factual statement. But Arthur knows that he doubts anybody is good enough for Mal, and that Dom is a good man: smart and careful and genuinely kind. He loves Mal and in his own way, he loves Arthur, and Arthur trusts him as much as he's ever trusted anybody.
But still, the immediate and stomach-churning fury he feels at Eames is a shock. He didn't know he liked Dom so much, and it takes a minute to wrap his head around it, to lock down the hot flare in his chest that makes it hard to say anything.
" — Look at what he's letting the government get away with, and with his two favorite people, too. If it were me — "
"It's not," Arthur interrupts, fierce. "So you can shut the fuck up about Dom."
Eames doesn't look contrite, but he does look surprised, and the startled expression across his handsome face melts into something else, something longing. After a beat, he says, "What I'd give to have you feel the same about me, darling," and there is something in his voice that's so cracked open and unexpectedly honest that it's all Arthur can do to spin around and bolt down the hall, toward the exit, his heart hammering in his chest.
It's late winter before McCallister decides enough people are sufficiently competent as dreamers to relieve Arthur and Mal of training duties. They celebrate by passing an entire week without having to take turns shooting each other in the face and try not to think about how blase it's become to them at this point, and spend the entire time awake when they should be, asleep when they should be, and doing things in between. They explore the breadth of dreams, the scope of them, how long a person can be in one; he and Dom talk for hours about the best way to differentiate a dream from reality, and then Mal says, "Oh, I have a top — it only ever falls down in real life," and they make her show them what she means.
It's intimate and easy and comfortable sharing dreams with just Mal and Dom, and Arthur builds them imaginary skyscrapers he's drafted, takes them to Lake Michigan, the Outer Banks for long conversations on the beach, using wet sand as a white board. Mal dreams them out to Majorca, Santorini, and Arthur ignores whatever deep and earth-shattering conversations she and Dom are having in favor of walking up and down the white sand beaches, dipping his toes in the water and soaking up the sun, reflecting off of the gleaming white houses, that cling to the sides of hills.
Mal and Dom like the theory of the dreams, too, the structural idea of them, the philosophy and possibilities of their actual architecture. They wonder what happens if you go into a dream within a dream, whether your ideas are manifest in physical objects here, in the landscape of thoughts. Dom thinks that's too literal; Mal thinks it would be delightful. Arthur's too practical for their hypotheticals, so he just starts pushing over rocks and turning over enormous conch shells, and it takes him all of fifteen seconds to find a pair of Mal's lost earrings, the first flower that Dom had ever given her — a sad-ass carnation from a gas station — the keys to Arthur's apartment.
"But you'd need someone to decode them," Mal points out, taking the flower and the keys and putting on the earrings. "If you two didn't know me the way you do, none of these things would make sense."
"Maybe they're not clearer because we know you," Dom posits. "Maybe if a stranger was looking at that carnation, he'd see something different."
Arthur nods solemnly, the sea wind whipping his hair. "Yeah, maybe that flower would be less horrible and pathetic."
Dom throws him into the ocean.
Out of pure spite, Arthur lulls Dom into a false sense of safety before casually suggesting he host the next dream, which is how he and Mal end up in Dom's childhood bedroom, digging out all of his wrinkled J.C. Penney catalogs from between his mattresses.
"You two are such assholes," Dom tells them.
From downstairs, Dom's mother says, "Dominic Cobb! Language!" and Dom yells back, "Sorry, Ma!" while Mal and Arthur page through the one pathetic, late eighties Christmas edition Playboy they find, gaping in horror.
"Dom, all of these articles are dogeared," Mal says.
"They had an excellent editorial history in addition to tasteful erotica," Dom barks at them, and tries to rip the magazine out of Mal's hands. They end up falling out of the bed and crashing into one of Dom's many stacks of scifi paperbacks.
On Wednesday, the day before Arthur turns twenty-three, they dream themselves into the two-story arts and crafts style house on the corner of Abernathy and Franklin that Mal has coveted for three years now. They've never seen the inside properly, so they fill it with whatever they imagine: beautiful oak, stained glass in the doors, long hallways and exposed beams, sunlight streaming in, and they settle into the living room, on a large and friendly rug, and Mal pulls out the PASIV she dreamed under the lumpy, comfortable sofa squatting next to the fireplace.
"Are you sure about this?" Arthur asks. "This could be dangerous."
"I don't see why," Mal reasons, setting up the machine and checking the Somnacin doses, cleaning the IVs. Arthur has done the calculations, restricted the PASIV in the dream to a half-dose of a normal run — a five minute dream instead of ten. "It's just a dream, Arthur. You said yourself you've dreamed inside a dream before."
Arthur frowns at her. "That was from natural sleep inside a dream, Mal, this is different."
"Well, that's why we have you," Dom says, nudging Arthur in the side.
"Yes, because my helplessly watching you two do something reckless and stupid for five minutes will be so useful if anything goes wrong," Arthur retorts.
Mal looks at Arthur through a curtain of her curls. "I'm sure you'll think of something."
"Oh ye of too much faith," he complains, but he settles them on the carpet anyway, sitting between them with the PASIV on the ground in front of him. He touches both their wrists, where the IV is trailing in, reflexive, without reason, just to check, and he says, one more time, "Are you two sure about this?"
Dom closes a hand around Arthur's ankle, over the line of his sock and the tongue of his dark blue Chucks. "Arthur," he says, with something deep and sure in his tone, "I trust you absolutely."
"Both of you are assholes," Arthur informs them, and engages the PASIV device, watches Mal and Dom drop off and feels the earth fall away from his feet as he stares at his watch, tapping out the seconds with the thrum of his pulse and the worry in his throat.
Time actually folds in on itself. He knows that time in dreams moves more slowly, that their hour-long getaway here is a ten minute nap topside, but it seems unending, and maybe it's his worry, but the bright morning sunlight in the windows turns gold and richly orange and slants across the room — daylight rushed with his worry, and after a while his wristwatch starts marking time with the hour hand ticking for every second, and Arthur is forced to abandon it.
He hasn't found a totem, like Mal's top, for himself yet, and he makes himself lie down flat on his back and stare at the ceiling of the rapidly darkening house, tries to think about what it could be, what he should take. It has to be something reliably unchangeable, immutable. Something small, to carry around when he goes under.
Dom has an old wind up dinosaur, one of those cheap plastic toys from a McDonald's Happy Meal, that stopped working in the real world but that still ticks and ticks and stomps its little dinosaur feet in a dream.
So far, Arthur's just been relying on Dom and Mal to tell the difference, but he thinks that in May they'll be married, that he can't hide under their shared wing forever. He considers a broken pocketwatch — hell, his broken wristwatch, he thinks bitterly — maybe a whistle? But nothing really fits right, and he's mulling the possibility of a coin when he hears Mal waking up.
He scrambles up to his knees, leans over her, checks her pulse. She still looks far away for a minute, before she blinks twice and says, "Arthur."
He nods, and glances at Dom, whose eyelids are fluttering now, too. "Yeah — hi, Mal."
She smiles up at him. "It worked."
"You dreamed?" Arthur asks, incredulous, and he doesn't know why. They know nothing about this technology, really, or even how exactly it works beyond knowing that it does. But it still feels like everything untried is constrained by the demarcations of impossibility, and he helps Mal up, helps Dom up, removes their IVs. "What was it like?"
"Bigger," Dom says, wondering. "How long were we under?"
Arthur thinks, too long. "Five minutes," he says, because he has to trust his calculations, the numbers he ran when they were still awake, before they came here to the house and this dream and this living room and this second PASIV. "You were down for five minutes."
"It felt like an entire day," Mal says.
She sounds hungry for something, like she found something under the skin of sleep there, in that second dream, that she wanted to bring back with her — that she wanted to stay with, maybe. She leans against Arthur's shoulder and hums, content and near-purring. Dom pulls out his dinosaur and Mal retrieves her totem, and the T-Rex stomps in circles around the ever-spinning top as Mal tells Arthur about waking up in Naples, about catching the ferry to Capri and taking the speed boat around the island, the hot sun and stinging salt water, and the blue lagoon, lit up from below.
"It was beautiful, Arthur," Mal says to him, lazily watching the top spin and spin, never wavering on the perfect hardwood floors. "You would have liked it."
Arthur want to say, I'd rather see it for real, but he doesn't, just nods and presses a cheek to the top of her head, and they watch the shadows slant the rest of the way across the living room floor, until darkness steals into every corner of the house and they wake.
The PASIV project is actually a joint operation between U.S., Canadian, British, and German military researchers, but the Canadian is only a part-time contributor, the German guy doesn't like interacting with the experimental subjects, which leaves the Americans trying to make conversation with the English, most of the time. All that means is that whenever Arthur is mocking something up in the dream lab, there's a chance Eames is going to break in and destroy his concentration.
"Darling, you'll be thrilled to know I've memorized another thoroughly naf poem for you," Eames declares, sidling up along Arthur's drafting table. "Come in with me. You look like the type who's always wanted to see Ozymandius's grave."
Arthur doesn't look up from his blueprint. "Setting aside the fact that's morbid as hell, I'm busy, Eames."
"You always have time for Miss Miles and Cobb," Eames pouts.
"Those are experimental dreams, Eames," Arthur says, vague, because Dom and Mal have gone to the second layer of dreams twice now, tried to get him to go, too, but he's dragging his feet.
"You know when you say things like that, all I can think is that you're having a threesome on company time," Eames says, reproachful, and then he presses himself along Arthur's back, peering down at the blueprint now, too. "What's this, pet?"
Arthur shouldn't, but he does — he leans back into the solid heat of Eames, the strong lines of his chest, tips his head back so that it's resting on the crook of Eames's shoulder. He keeps his eyes down though, at the blueprint, at the silvery lines criss-crossing it, and says, "I'm trying to build a self-contained dream — something easily controlled."
Eames settles one hand on the edge of the blueprint, and Arthur's breath catches in his throat to think he's being hemmed in, caught on three sides between the table and Eames. Who smells like military issue soap and sunshine and like the cigarettes Eames swore he was quitting. And — Jesus Christ — that's when Eames's dog tags slip out of the collar of his button-up battle dress uniform top, the metal still warm from his skin, chain skidding down the side of Arthur's neck until the tags brush his collarbones.
"I'm bright enough, love, but possibly not bright enough to understand this," Eames admits, turns his head left, so that his gaze is hot and close and the warm heat of his mouth is even closer when he says, "Can you show me?"
Arthur constructs the dream in one of a thousand steel and glass offices he's seen, with quiet, busy projections hustling papers and cell phones and the daily grind. When Arthur had floated this idea past the General, he'd dreamed them into a building and slotted them into carefully bland suits, anything to keep the projections from noticing McCallister, who generally inspires pretty ferocious violence from Arthur's subconscious. With Eames, Arthur is loose and unconcerned in his sneakers and jeans, and Eames still in his uniform, the two of them obviously out of place.
"Have you ever heard of Penrose steps?" he asks, leading Eames toward a glassy staircase that winds its way up, folded like an accordion.
"It's an impossible object, right?" Eames ventures, sticking close, and he cups a hand at Arthur's elbow, guiding. Arthur should really put a stop to this shit.
Instead, he says, "Exactly — it's a paradox, obviously, in a three-dimensional world, like the blivet or the impossible cube, it can't exist."
"I'm sensing a but," Eames prompts.
"But in a dream," Arthur says, and wonders when Eames will notice how long they've been on the staircase, walking ever upward and going nowhere, "they can — and I think that if you can master them, you can restrict the space of the dream."
Eames pauses, then, and frowns, looking at the stairs beneath their feet, the other accordion fold steps that wind nearby, that rise impossibly into a descent, and how they chase one another endlessly, in an optical illusion sprung alive.
"Cheeky bugger," he says, and Arthur can't help but grin at that.
"Don't worry," Arthur says. "It took Dom like half an hour before noticed."
"And to think he didn't even have the excuse of being overcome by you," Eames muses, before asking, "Now, the rational follow-up question being: what is the point of limiting the dream?"
Arthur leans over the railing of the stair, watches office drone projections circle endlessly around and around. "It's more the principle than the exact duplication of the stair — the idea being if you can make a functional, concealed paradox within a dream, you're not going to be in a position where you can accidentally change the dimensions of the space, or add a structurally unsound extension to the reality of the dream. If I'm right, then maybe this could stabilize the dreams."
Eames joins him, warm at Arthur's hip, and Arthur doesn't know if Eames is doing it on purpose, but he's stroking the backs of his fingers over Arthur's forearm, thoughtful.
"You, Arthur, are terribly, terribly clever, aren't you?" Eames says.
"Um," Arthur says, without any cleverness at all.
Eames turns to him, close enough that if Arthur just leaned over — had a burst of courage, just a little momentum — he could press their mouths together. Eames's eyes are dark and secret this close, and Arthur's breath is trembly and too loud, but he still hears, clear as day, when Eames says, "Oh, sweetheart, you're wasted here."
"If I'd stuck to architecture, I'd be fifty before they'd let me design a building," Arthur points out, because his is a practical heart.
"Even more wasteful," Eames says, disapproving.
"It's just the way it is," Arthur says, and he can feel the tug of wakefulness, now, knows the dream is almost over. "Nobody gets everything they want."
Eames pins him with a look Arthur can feel searing through the cloth of his t-shirt, through his skin and into the marrow of his bones, and it makes him want to gasp like the earth in a Coleridge poem when Eames reaches out, presses his thumb against the corner of Arthur's mouth.
He says, "But you should, darling. You should have anything you want — everything."
In March, a young general's fancy apparently turns to interrogation, and he and Mal and Dom spend a month tiptoeing around the idea of fucking mentally torturing someone for information before Mal says, "I don't see why it has to be unpleasant."
Dom stares at her. "Torture doesn't have to be unpleasant," he says flatly.
"I mean it doesn't have to be torture at all," she argues, scowling at him.
"Oh," Arthur says, realizing. "Like the beach."
They practice on each other, first, Mal and Dom and Arthur like little children, running wild through each other's subconscious trying to find hidden treasures of secrets, an endless and constantly changing scavenger hunt. They decide to hide meaningless secrets, first, something without any intimacy, no personal connection, to see if the discoveries are any clearer than a flower and some earrings. They meet in the dream briefly before they all scatter to the four corners of the Forbidden Palace — Dom's dream, this time, labyrinthine in its complexity, with so many hiding places Arthur almost doesn't want to find anything, just wants to keep discovering.
It takes two hours, and a lot of confused and mute Chinese tourists, but Arthur finds Mal's secret first: a perfect strawberry macaroon, packaged carefully in a striped pink and white pasteboard box and tied up with a ribbon, the address of the bakery attached on a neat white tag. He dreams up a massive bottle of water — apparently, Dom's Beijing is in the middle of a heat wave — and goes to sit near the enormous bronze crane, looking at the clear blue sky over the city go orange and pink before Dom and Mal appear, one by one, looking sweaty and manic but smiling.
"Well?" he asks. "Did you guys find anything?"
Mal holds up a squished penny, the copper elongated, pressed smooth, with a horse and carriage embossed on it now. It gleams in her hand and she says, "Amish Country is the best place to take a vacation, apparently." She considers Arthur a beat before she turns to Dom instead. "No, this must be you. Arthur is more fun than that."
Ignoring her, Dom holds up a Dean Koontz novel, already battered from being stuffed in Arthur's bag so often and so hurriedly.
"Seriously? This is your new favorite book?" he asks.
"It has superintelligent dogs in it," Arthur says primly, and snatches back his copy of Watchers before handing Mal her macaroon. "And apparently, your favorite bakery is in the 5th Arrondissement."
Mal eats the macaroon, and Dom steals the rest of Arthur's water.
"So it works," Dom says, pleased.
"It does," Mal agreed.
"Fantastic. Now we get to give it to the government," Arthur sighs.
They are careful to sound less than certain when they explain the prospect of extraction, which Arthur prefers to interrogation — less loaded — and they do a quick and bloodless trial run by conscripting Eames.
"Darling, you must know I'm choka with secrets," Eames sighs, when Arthur leans over him to prepare his IV line. Just like every other day, Eames smells a little like cigarette smoke and the recycled air of the base, and Arthur has to resist the urge to smack him on the shoulder — dead giveaway, and Mal's watching him like a hawk. "You lot aren't going to trick me into betraying my government, are you?"
"It's just a test, Eames, nobody wants your missile codes," Arthur tells him tartly, pressing the cannula of the PASIV device into Eames's wrist. Reflexively, he closes his hand along the underside of Eames's forearm in a warm squeeze, reassuring, a habit he picked up from putting Dom under, from putting Mal under, and he turns bright red to see the manic smile on Eames's face. He warns, "Don't say a word."
"I never knew you cared, love," Eames coos at him, fearless. "Well this changes everything, Arthur — go forth, take all my secrets, I'll defect and come live with you."
Arthur glares down at him. "America doesn't deserve you."
Over the intercom, Culpepper, who's co-running the experiment with Arthur today, says, "Jesus fucking Christ, Eames. Don't make me regret having signed that petition about getting rid of God damn Don't Ask, Don't Tell, okay? You're making me nauseous."
Shameless, Eames says, "They're just jealous, pet."
"Right," Arthur says, turning to where Mal is leveling a vicious glare at Eames and Dom is shaking in silent laughter. "Are you two ready to go?"
"I think I should redo his IV line," Mal says, instead of answering.
"Darling, don't let her," Eames hisses, with a note of what sounds like genuine fear in his voice. "She turned me into a sieve last time."
Dom says, "Yes, Arthur, I'm ready," and Arthur decides that Dom is his favorite person this week, because nobody else seems to want to do their fucking job, just make Arthur crazy and embarrassed and see how much they can get him to blush.
"Culpepper," Arthur says, "your show."
Over the intercom, Culpepper clears his throat. "For the purposes of this experiment, Cobb, your goal is to acquire the answer to the question, in the base library, where did Arthur hide a copy of The Stranger earlier today?"
Eames makes a face. "Camus? Really, Arthur?"
"Maybe Mal should redo your IV," Arthur says innocently.
"Because in my view, he's an under-appreciated genius, and it speaks volumes of your taste and style that you enjoy him," Eames continues smoothly.
Arthur can't help his smile. "Yeah, that's what I thought," he mutters, and leans in, too close, unnecessarily close, and he hears Eames's breath hitch in his throat when Arthur presses his lips against Eames's ear. He whispers, "The answer is: in the garbage can by the door."
When he pulls away, Eames his eyes are soft and so fucking fond it makes something under Arthur's skin itch, makes him feel shy all over, the way he's never really felt shy before. Eames says, "Right, love, I'll remember that," and Arthur thinks he should do something here, that he should say something, or close the broken circuit between them with a kiss, but thankfully that's when Culpepper yells, "Hey, get out of my fucking control chamber," and snaps the moment in two.
The next five minutes are mostly occupied with Mal accusing Arthur of encouraging Eames's bad behavior, and Arthur protesting he's doing no such thing. Around minute six, Culpepper puts on an egg timer, spins around in his chair, and says, "Seriously, you totally encourage him."
"How?" Arthur demands.
"You ignore him," Mal says, poking him in the chest. "You give him no reaction — terrible men like Eames love that."
Arthur looks at Culpepper, who he finds nodding in agreement.
"The only thing you could do to make it worse is if you were consistently mean to him," Culpepper says, "because I think he might get off on that even more — fucking freaky deaky English."
"This conversation is over," Arthur tells them both.
"You can do better," Mal says, instead of letting the conversation be over. "You could date Ramsey."
Ramsey, who is standing in the doorway wearing a hangdog expression and strapped with an impressive array of weaponry, turns neon pink and makes a high-pitched gasping noise. Arthur covers his face in mortification.
Culpepper says, "No, no way, man, look, I do not care who you date, but for fuck's sake, stop flirting with English in my control chamber, okay?"
Mercifully, the egg timer goes off, and a few seconds later, Dom wakes up, eyes snapping open and his face hot with irritation, shouting, "Eames, what the fuck!"
Right on cue, Eames wakes up, too. "Don't give me that shit, Cobb, you started it."
It takes half an hour and Mal and Arthur and Culpepper arbitrating before they get to the root of the thing, and that's with Eames making a lot of bitter asides like:
"Miss Miles, I beg you, reconsider marrying this man, because while he may look like a mild-mannered twat of an ordinary caliber, he is a bloody sociopath when interrogating someone."
"It was for the experiment!" Dom protests.
"You shot out my kneecaps," Eames yells back. "Over a fucking book!"
"Let's call it even, then, because then your fucking projections ripped me to pieces," Dom says bitterly, rubbing at a phantom ache with the unhappy dissatisfaction of everybody who's been violently offed in a dream.
"More importantly," Culpepper interrupts, "Cobb — did you get it?"
Just like that, Dom grins, bright and easy as always, that million dollar smile that Mal fell so in love with, and he says, "Trash can, right by the door."
Hours later, Eames is still sulking about the whole thing, so Arthur brings him a cupcake and a paperback copy of The Stranger to tear up in rage.
A terrible truth Arthur learns early on about working with the military is that success only breeds regret, and it's an unchanging fact the thinks about a lot over the course of April, when McCallister authorizes a series of less harmless extractions and sets Mal and Dom and Arthur to it.
Nothing's ever scared Arthur as badly as that first time, when the soldiers had gone down into the dream with them and he'd ended up trying to hold in his own God damn guts, but it comes close.
Prying secrets someone who's been trained not to give up is a vastly different proposition than playing hide-and-seek with macaroons and books and kitschy souvenirs from Amish country. They try designing the dream first, compiling bland and harmless landscapes — the bloodless terrain of office parks and bank head offices — letting the subjects populate the dreams, thinking maybe that will give the secret up more easily. That only gets them killed in spectacularly fucked up and horrible ways. Arthur, out of a morbid need to have a record of the lunacy of his everyday existence, commandeers a white board in the central lab and starts writing it all down. He jots down, "shot," "stabbed," "choked," because they're the most obvious and they've all happened so often he's almost numb to them, divorced from it the way distance runners ignore a twinge in the knee and architects ignore a twinge in the back. A week into the project, the projections get more creative, and Arthur rubs at his neck and writes, "throat slashed," and "beaten to death," and "choked — with object," and ignores the way Eames is leaning in the doorway, watching as the marker traces out the words.
"What did they choke you with?" Eames asks, too gently.
Arthur slaps the marker into the white board tray. "Something," he snaps, and walks away to the locker rooms, where he spends the next hour trying to brush the coppery metal taste of his own blood and the barrel of a gun out of his mouth.
Mal doesn't say anything about Arthur's list, which is how he knows she hates it. He doesn't know how to explain it to her, how like his meticulous files of notes from school and his neat collection of experimental notes from their work on the PASIV project, he needs to see this written out. Arthur's not stupid enough to think that if he writes it down, it's some sort of exorcism of demons, that to flush out the truth means it doesn't still linger in his head or keep his up at nights. He just knows he wants to write it down, to be able to look at the white board — bled out, glass cuts; explosion; car accident; massive head trauma — and know it happened, that it was real in the dream, that it won't slip into the territory of things that never happened.
The second week, Dom starts, too. The flabby curls of his penmanship are stark around Arthur's slanted print, writing, lynch mob, lit on fire, drowned, windpipe crushed.
They try it the other way around, letting the subjects construct their own dreams and filling it with the extractor's projections. It works better, on a whole, but when it fails, it fails in spectacular and fantastical ways. Arthur starts another board.
Giant crevasse opens up and swallows the entire fucking building, he writes. Tornado. Dream disintegrates and leaves us trapped in terrifyingly blank white space. Forest suddenly fills up with Mothmen (How are Mothmen not projections but scenery?). Mall turns post-apocalyptic.
Mal gets eaten by a whale, which Arthur and Dom try very hard to pretend isn't funny from the point of view of people who haven't been eaten by whales, but they don't try very hard, or at least not until Dom gets killed by the garbage compactor from the fucking Star Wars movies. In his personal favorite total catastrophe, Arthur manages to get Lieutenant Yamakawa's name, rank, and serial number — the generic secret they use for all the subjects — but as soon as he closes the leatherbound book it had been written in, tucked away in Yamakawa's grandmother's house somewhere in Japan, a fucking A-bomb drops on the dream. Arthur wakes up snowblind and wheezing and nauseated, still convinced he's dying of radiation poisoning even though he knows he isn't.
He spends the rest of the afternoon in the infirmary, a cold compress on his face, and Mal sits at his bedside. She's taken her shoes off, kicked her feet up onto the hospital gurney, a copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler opened in her lap as she reads out loud to him. Around chapter four, Dom tags her out, and Arthur falls asleep, listening to Dom's voice, husky from tiredness and worry. He wakes up in the middle of chapter eight, to Eames, now, reading in tired, soft-edged vowels, his accent run away with him.
When he peels the towel off of his face, the room is dark already, the day's sun gone away, and Eames is reading by the faded orange light from a street-light, pouring in through an opened window, hoarse already. Arthur feels bad about Eames reading to him in a way he never would about Mal or Dom, like he's imposing, and he touches Eames's knee to get his attention, says, "Hey, you don't have to?" his voice nearly as wrecked as Eames sounds when he answers:
"It's the only thing I can do, love — let me do it, yeah?"
Of all the three of them, only Dom seems to have a natural talent for extraction. He lets the subjects build their own environments, and when he goes under, he doesn't ask them any questions. He sneaks around. He breaks into buildings. He gets Eames to show him how to pick locks, because of course Eames knows how to pick locks. When he's awake, he's studying safecracking, cryptography, reading enormous white papers about organic patterns, about Fibonacci sequences.
They elect to talk about it in a dream, because their other alternatives involve labs covered in their gory deaths, and this time, Arthur plants them all in in the Space Needle at night, looking at Seattle twinkling below.
"Thank you, Arthur," Dom says, and Mal dreams up a silver pen to hand to him, and he's off, scribbling across the wide windows, the words stark against the black and starry sky.
"Arthur, where do you keep your secrets," Dom calls over his shoulder.
"In my head," Arthur answers dutifully. "Neatly tucked away somewhere other people can't reach."
Turning back to both of them, Dom's grin is a little wild. "Exactly," he crows, but Arthur doesn't get it, not really, until Dom takes them on a scavenger hunt of the Space Needle, until they find themselves rappelling up the side, clinging perilously to the side. That's when Dom says, "See? I think that's it!" and points, up, up at where the light at the very highest point is flashing, and tied underneath it – neat as a pin — is a letter on on linen-colored stationary, whipping around in the Pacific Northwestern wind.
"What was that secret anyway, Arthur?" Mal asks him, later that week, sitting in the back room of a bakery trying cake samples.
"The point of a secret, Mal, is that I don't tell anybody," Arthur explains to her, for which he gets a fork in the hand, which he figures he deserves.
After she's done stabbing him with it, she points the fork at his face. "I know you, Arthur — that secret was about that dirty pervert, wasn't it?"
"I really think you're just mad at him because you're French and he's English," Arthur deadpans, because it's probably better than admitting she might be right.
"He looks like he drives a windowless van around neighborhoods looking for unsupervised children," Mal complains.
Arthur decides not to address the issue of her interpreting him as some sort of hapless kid who's about to get locked into a sex offender's garden shed, and makes a note not to let Mal and Eames get six hundred miles within a PASIV device together.
Snatching the fork away from her, Arthur says, "I just want to point out that — ignoring the fact that I do not have a crush on Eames — you are being an incredible, shocking hypocrite here."
Mal makes a face. "That's different," she argues. "That was Dom."
"It's not different at all!" Arthur shouts at her, because he can't help it, and he loves Mal, he really fucking loves Mal, but sometimes, she's completely God damn insane. They fight as they pick the cake for the wedding and on the drive home, and they're still arguing when Dom staggers into Arthur's apartment carrying a bunch of Chinese takeout and a six-pack of beer.
"Do I want to know?" he asks.
"Eames is a terrible man, yes?" Mal prompts, the same time Arthur says, "No."
Dom tells them later, over spring rolls and egg drop soup redolent of MSG, that in order for extraction to work, they have to change the paradigm, game the system. Subconsciouses, even the most otherwise docile, don't respond well to invasion, and they have the white boards to prove it. Whoever is being extracted can't think they're being forced, they have to give it up willingly, or not know that they're giving it up at all.
"Come, Dom," Mal declares when Dom finishes his speech with a flourish, grabbing her coat and her fiance. "We need to go, it's late and your entire explanation has been strangely sexually alluring to me."
"I hate both of you," Arthur swears at them. "I really, really do."
They do a soft run with Eames again.
The dream, when they all go under, is nothing like the others Arthur has known within the perimeter of Eames's sleep. It's a vast and undistinguished countryside, with rolling hills of browning grass and washed out blue-gray skies in a muggy morning; Arthur thinks he remembers the landscape, the way the two-lane road winds through it, but the last time he was here with Eames the sky had been cerulean sharp and the field like a blanket of emeralds. He walks to the edge of the steep drop-off and looks down, and there are ugly yellow rocks at the base of cliff, nothing like the luminous white stones from the last time Arthur was here.
"I don't think this is the right place," Arthur says, more to himself than anything.
"It is," Eames says, sidling up to him, wearing a hideous sweater and old khakis, and looking impossibly English. "Still Beachy Head — south coast."
Arthur frowns down at the water again, an uninspired gray lapping at the shore. "So what does Beachy Head actually look like? This? Or before?"
"Somewhere in between, probably," Eames admits, and slants Arthur a grin. "My subconscious is probably just sulking because your friends are intruding on our time."
"Well, you could just give up all your secrets, and then they'd be out of your hair," Arthur teases, except then Eames reaches over and touches Arthur's cheek, considering, and says in an uncharacteristically quiet tone:
"Might be worth it, I think."
Arthur knows he should smack Eames's hand away, that maybe he should make a joke, break the tension. Any minute now, Dom and Mal are going to show up, and there's a plan and another benign secret for them to uncover, that Eames will need to hide away somewhere, but all of those protests die in Arthur's throat because he's so close here. He's always been too careful, measured in everything he does, and Eames is a universally bad idea, in any state of wakefulness. But Eames also read him the last third of Arthur's favorite book, and is standing here now touching Arthur's face, mulling surrender, and it makes all the words fall out of Arthur's mouth.
"I don't want your secrets, Eames," Arthur says finally.
He doesn't. It's why he's all wrong for this: no curiosity, Mal always says about him. He doesn't ever want anybody's secrets, really, least of all Eames's. Arthur wants something else entirely. Maybe that was what was in the envelope, tied and flapping delicately at the top of the Space Needle.
"Which makes the fact I want to tell them all to you all the more frightening, pet," Eames murmurs.
Nobody's ever been in love with Arthur, or even tried to pretend they were, and he doesn't know what to say to something like this. He doesn't know what to do with the immodest flush of pleasure that curls up his spine at that, about the heaving fear, the way that Eames's hand is rough and warm and perfect on Arthur's face.
He just closes his eyes, because looking right into Eames's wide-open face is killing him, ripping something out of his chest by degrees, and says, "Eames, stop."
"If I were a thief," Eames murmurs, sounding speculative, like he's thinking about it, the way he thought about it when he'd taught Dom to pick locks and steal cars, the best way to do some light B&E, "I would run away — I'd take you with me."
"I couldn't go with you," Arthur says, answering the question in between the words, and makes himself take a step back, a tiny tip of his head that breaks the contact between them as he adds, "And you would never make me."
The lines of Eames's face are unbearably fond, wry and already rueful when he says:
"Arthur — no one could ever make you do anything."
Arthur thinks, that's not true, I make myself do things all the time, but he doesn't say it out loud, keeps it hidden underneath the skin, tucked somewhere near his spine.
Dom and Mal, when they finally show up, are objectively busted: drenched from a rainstorm Mal says followed her here, muddy and covered with chalk-gray dust, exhausted from walking up a rocky hill — and Arthur doesn't even bother to look perplexed, just looks at Eames, who also does everybody a favor and doesn't bother to look innocent, either.
"You're a piece of shit, Eames," Dom swears at him, and Mal just sits down on the grass and gasps for breath, glaring up at the sky. "And if you so much as think about making it fucking rain again — I will throw Arthur off of a fucking cliff."
Arthur frowns. "Hey."
"I would make your lives considerably more uncomfortable than with just rain if you threw Arthur off of a cliff," Eames retorts.
"Jesus Christ," Arthur mutters, and pulling a notepad and pencil out of thin air, a stopwatch materializing around his neck. "Are we going to do this or not?"
They do, but not before Mal digs a rock out of the field and throws it at Eames's head. It's his dream, so of course she misses, but then finally they can all get down to business. Eames, rightfully, points out that he's not particularly inclined — subconsciously or otherwise — to keep secrets from Arthur, which leaves him as their dedicated secretary, and Dom and Mal as the extractors. Topside, they've programmed the PASIV for thirty minutes, six hours in a dream, plenty of time to figure out Eames's secret.
"And on that note, Cobb, Miss Miles," Eames says, taking Arthur's free hand as he starts the stopwatch, "I bid you both happy hunting."
"Eames, what are you — " is about all Arthur manages to get out before the vast southeastern coast of English disappears, collapses from waxy blue and green and grays into the electric nightscape of Tokyo.
It's almost pitch black in between the neon signs going berserker in the background and the people talking loudly nearby do it in incomprehensible white noise. There are fairylights in the trees and cabs with green signs, lit up from the inside idling nearby, and when Arthur looks down, he's in his favorite dark jeans, a heather gray t-shirt, the chocolate-colored leather jacket Mal bought him for his birthday. A school of teenaged girls walk by, and they all give him a sidelong admiring look before bursting into giggles together, and Arthur checks his pockets — finds a reporter's notebook and a ballpoint pen and his stopwatch, still ticking, and figures he should have seen this coming.
Wayfinding in someone else's subconscious is the worst sort of navigation, Arthur has learned, a combination of pantomime and pattern recognition and a strange and necessary intimacy is needed to find your way.
"Okay," Arthur says to himself, quiet and under his breath, Eames's rivers of projections with beautiful wide eyes and dark gleaming hair swimming past him, "fine."
Arthur's never been to Tokyo, not even in any shared dreams, since Mal had limited her excursions to European destinations, Cobb had skipped Japan when he'd backpacked after his first degree, and Eames always claims that his travel history is a map of potential acts of accidental treason. Needless to say, Arthur also doesn't read Japanese, but apparently, neither does Eames, because the signs are in a mix of elegant gibberish and a few visually and immediately familiar characters. The important signs, the ones Arthur thinks he probably should pay attention to, are written out in what Eames's brain must think is broken English — which would probably be more convincing if they didn't utilize the word "whilst."
The first obvious sign is a glowing red sign advertising a titty bar called DARLING — Arthur makes a note to shoot Eames in the face in the next dream they share for that bullshit right there — and he follows the effusively lit arrows down an increasingly dubious-looking alleyway until he finds a wide-opened back door. There's a bartender with an eyepatch smoking behind it, waving Arthur inside while saying, "Well? What are you waiting for, sweetheart?" which is how he knows he's in the right place.
There are two shallow steps, all the brightness of the strip clubs exterior lighting gone dim in the sienna shadows, until Arthur gets close enough to a grotty curtain to realize it's a grotty curtain to begin with. He stands behind it a long, long while, looking at the light seeping in from underneath, hearing the soft sound of music on the other side, and he weighs a curiously divorced sense of dread against the way he can't stop smiling. Mal hates being in Eames's head. She says all the colors are hypersaturated and everything is too loud, like he's cranking it up on purpose so she can't pay attention to any one thing, and she always throws herself under a bus or jumps off a building or something to get the hell out of dodge as quickly as she can. But Arthur has always liked it here, through the cubbyhole door into whatever Eames is dreaming, and all of it has always felt intimate and exquisitely detailed — lavish, and this is no different.
Arthur is expecting a catwalk, some stage with a stripper pole at the end, Eames stretched out with his legs spread open, smoking cheap cigars and looking like an oil slick — but when he goes through the curtain, everything goes quiet and surprisingly green, the trappings of the club vanishing entirely.
He's in a tatami room now at night, his feet — where are his shoes? — bare against the cool grass mats on the floor, and all the paper screen doors are thrown open to a verdant bamboo forest outside, moonlight streaming through the razor-sharp leaves. There's no one else in the room, or on the spare wooden walkway outside, just a squat little table and a cushion, a ceramic carafe of plum wine and a book of poems, opened to the very last page, and when Arthur leans over to read it, he sees all the words have fluttered off. The black lines of calligraphy turn silvery when they leap off the pages of the book and off into the air, and Arthur dashes after them, tracking them through the bamboo and over a brook before they vanish with three pops and leave him standing in the middle of a pachinko parlor fairly crawling with whores and yakuza.
"Fucking Eames," Arthur says to himself, and manages to keep from being pickpocketed or taken against his will by a series of incredibly aggressive crossdressing prostitutes, on his way to the front door, which has a buzzing sign saying, THIS WAY TO SWEET LADIES COME ON WELL DRESSED GENTLEMAN!!!!
It's cold on the street when Arthur gets to it, and he's spares a moment to be glad Eames likes to perv on his leather jacket as he zips it up, lowers his head to stare at his feet — this time, his Chucks are red where they'd been blue before — and follows the lightning white reflections of arrows in the rain-slick sidewalk. He turns right, he turns left, he spends a minute paused at a sudden and unexpected park, its high walls overflowing with flowering trees, before he looks left and right, and tries the handle on the gate.
The gate should be locked, by all accounts, the walls are certainly imposing enough, but it just opens without a sound, not a squeak or protest, and Arthur pushes it open enough to hazard a glance inside, left and right.
It's not just any garden, Arthur thinks, and his hands go nerveless on the door as he takes two more steps inside, the grass soft underneath his feet. It's Xanadu again, huge and endless, the trees overhead drooping with pears and oranges and champagne grapes, the moon a silvery disc overhead, and Arthur knows this place like the back of his own hand — knows exactly where to go.
Even knowing the way, it takes an hour in the dream to get there, going through torchlit and empty harems and picking his way through an enormous lily pond, ignoring the mermaids swimming curiously around him, and when he gets to the golden gate into the menagerie, Eames is waiting for him, looking exactly as he did at Beachy Head, in the same ugly sweater and everything.
"You found me," he says, sounding pleased.
"It wasn't hard," Arthur tells him snippily, but he lets Eames take his hand and guide him over the threshold anyway.
When Mal and Dom find them, it's almost four hours later, late into the evening and Arthur and Eames are sitting on the only two stools at the counter of a hole-in-the-wall ramen shop, engaged in losing negotiations with a pair of chopsticks.
"You guys made it," Arthur says, and checks his stop watch. It took them five hours and forty-five minutes in total to get back, he notes, and glances back up, at where Mal is eyeing Arthur's ramen with rapacious desire and Dom is leaning heavily against a wall. "Did you find anything?"
Dom throws a locket down on the table, the metal clanking, and Eames looks momentarily and genuinely shocked by it — enough so that Arthur doesn't immediately touch it, just lets it sit in the space between them.
"You look surprised," Arthur says slowly.
Eames blinks up at him. "I — let's just say that wasn't the secret I'd hidden for them."
"Yeah, we found that, too," Dom says, showing off now, Arthur is sure. Dom takes a pocket rocket vibrator out of his jeans and sets that on the table, too. As soon as he does, it dissolves into a sheet of paper: name, rank, serial number. "The other one we found on our way over here, left in a pair of blue sneakers in a Japanese house."
"Blue sneakers," Arthur repeats, and when he goes to catch Eames's gaze, Eames won't meet his eyes, just reaches between them and closes his fist around the locket, possessing and a bit shaken.
"Did you look inside?" Eames asks, the first time Arthur has ever heard him nervous.
Mal raises an eyebrow. "There was nothing really there," she says, by way of apology.
"Just two tickets for the Paris metro," Dom says, shrugging. "They disappeared on the way over here."
Eames clears his throat. "Right, well, well done, you two, you've found my secret love of the French — our antagonism has been sexual frisson all along then, Miss Miles."
Ignoring him, Mal says, "Arthur, give me your noodles before we wake up," and then Arthur is busy trying to keep Mal away from his dream dinner, but not too busy to see the way Dom is eyeing Eames, pensive, like a puzzle, and the way Eames keeps staring at the locket, closed up in his fist.
Later, long after they've woken up, when Arthur and Dom are sitting in the dream lab deep in the night, finishing up the last of their paperwork before everybody takes a break for the wedding, Arthur asks:
"What did it mean, the locket?"
"What do you think it meant?" Dom asks, the same way Arthur's eleventh grade English teacher had when he'd asked about poetry — ironically, about Kubla Khan. The answers to all of those questions have always seemed to be, "They don't mean anything," to Arthur, but not here, not right now.
He shrugs, draws a the beginnings of a staircase in his notebook. "It could mean anything. Maybe the locket belonged to his mother."
"What about the shoes?" Dom points out, and he's set down his pen and paper now, hands folded together and studying Arthur intently. It's not the first time Arthur has wished Mal were here to act like a buffer between them, but it's the first time in years. "Don't they factor into this?"
"I don't see why they would," Arthur says, keeping his voice even. "They're just shoes."
"They were your shoes, weren't they?" Dom asks.
"They were shoes Eames dreamt me into," Arthur argues.
"Which made them yours," Dom rejoins, easy, non-confrontational, and when Arthur elects to glare at him instead of rising to the bait, Dom just adds, "I don't know, Arthur — I don't really know him well enough to put all the pieces together, but I know that they were your shoes, and his locket, and inside were two tickets for the place you want to see most in the world, and that as soon as I touched them, they disappeared."
Arthur's parched, all of a sudden. "It could mean nothing, too."
Dom just squints his ugly squint at him and says, "Arthur — it's a dream, of course it means something."
The idea of it is parasitic, grasps onto the tail of every one of Arthur's thoughts and refuses to let go. He doesn't see Eames at all before he and Mal fuck off to Vegas for an excruciatingly stereotypical pre-wedding trip, renting a convertible and driving through the desert, pushing the engine up past 170 miles per hour in the deadly hot flatness of Nevada, but Arthur thinks about him relentlessly. Eames seems to have bunkered down in all the corners of Arthur's thoughts that had seemed otherwise harmless before, ruining wholesale all Converse sneakers of any color, possibly for the rest of time, and also the prospect of the Blackjack table, since along with lockpicking Eames was an expert at cheating at cards.
"God, you have that look on your face," Mal says to him, when they're strolling through the arcade of high-end boutiques in their hotel, watching roving gangs of retirees in track suits make the long pilgrimage between the buffet and the slot machines. "Well — what are you thinking?"
Arthur frowns. "Nothing," he says viciously. If he wills it hard enough, maybe it will be true, too. "I'm not thinking about anything."
"Let me rephrase: what are you thinking about Eames," Mal prompts, with infinite patience.
Arthur thinks that Eames is a puzzle that he feels tired just thinking about, much less trying to solve. He thinks that eventually, Eames will have to go back to England, and that Arthur will get fired from being a dream terrorist and draft soulless office buildings and be godfather to Mal and Dom's children. He thinks that in the wide world of things that don't belong, he and Eames are easily the most obvious example. He thinks about the fact that he doesn't actually think about Eames all that much — pent up sexual tension and curious longing aside — because he thinks about the PASIV project more, the way he can feel it eating away at all of them, how even though they've wallpapered over their circumstances the designs still spell out T-R-A-P-P-E-D, clear as day.
He thinks that he wants to be able to like dreaming again, with an aching hunger for the first few times he and Mal went under, when it was only discovery and nothing to fear, and before he learned how badly this could all be twisted around. Arthur wants to watch Mal get married and eat cake at her wedding and wear Chucks without worrying about the subtext and he still wants to go to Paris and sit by the Seine and drink espresso.
"He said if he were a thief, he'd steal me and run away," Arthur blurts out.
Mal mouth softens into an 'o' of surprise.
"Obviously I said I wouldn't let him," Arthur continues.
When Mal is curious, she leans into you, presses her whole body into Arthur's like an enormous pleading question mark, and they are so close Arthur thinks their eyelashes might touch. He has a momentary thought that if this were anybody else, he'd lean back, pull away, but that Mal is so omnipresent and so tangled up with him that the heat of her touch is only ever a comfort, and he blinks at her wide, brown eyes.
"If he didn't steal you," Mal asks. "If he was leaving, would you want to go?"
Arthur pushes her away. "Mal, come on."
"If he asked you to go with him, would you?" She pulls Arthur back to her, hands tight on his elbows and her voice even. "Did you want to go with him?"
"It's a hypothetical, and therefore meaningless," Arthur snaps in reply, because there's no point in talking about this. He's very aware of what he can and can't do, and as if the dreams aren't bad enough, now they've got to drag this asinine exercise into waking hours, too. "And anyway, I can't, can I?"
"I keep telling you, Arthur, there's nothing you can't do," Mal sighs at him.
"I thought you hated him," he hears himself saying, petulant.
Mal just rolls her eyes, finally relenting, and they are walking past a Dior boutique when Mal says, easy as that, "Oh, like you didn't hate Dom, too."
"Let's not talk about this anymore," Arthur pleads. "You're getting married."
"God, isn't it awful?" she agrees.
Back east, probably, Dom is being dragged out for some awful bachelor party organized by the guys on base, a pretty even split between soldiers and research scientists, so it's probably going to be trivia and strippers in one long, regretful blur of an evening. West Coast, Arthur and Mal aren't much better, and they spend their last night in Vegas in the a hugely overpriced bar, in a booth facing out a seamless, curving window, looking into the vast and endless darkness of night and the lights of the city down below. Arthur drinks whiskey, neat, because he's trying something new and he's learning to like how bitter it burns, going down, and Mal is drinking dirty martinis and looking far away.
"Are you happy?" Arthur asks, out of nowhere. She must be; she loves Dom.
She shrugs. "I am, but I've been happy about this for a long time," she admits, and she looks at him from the corner of her eyes. "Mostly, now, I'm sad about everything that will change."
"I'll still be there," Arthur says, uncomfortable being uncomfortable with Mal by now. "It's not like everything will be different."
And this time, the look Mal gives him is so soft around the edges, like somehow their positions have been reversed, and it's her being left behind.
"I'm not so sure about that, Arthur — I'm pretty sure Eames is a thief," she tells him, spinning her top idly, listening to the metal clink against the glass.
"I'm not drunk enough for this conversation," Arthur admits to her.
She waves for the waitress. "We can fix that."
They're both so, so amazingly hung over the next day, and it's by the grace of God and black coffee that they make it to the airport with enough time to slump, miserable, at the gate and groan in regret at all of their terrible choices the night before. Mal drinks two liters of water, throws up twice, and Arthur walks around and around all the stores because every time he sits down he gets helplessly dizzy and nauseated — it's a cold comfort that almost everybody else around them looks just about as busted.
He ends up wandering around the same shitty souvenir store three times, browsing the aisles and trying not to think about his stomach, or any food he'd ever eaten, and he buys a pair of dice purely for whimsy's sake. They're red, with white pips, loaded to land on three — $10.99 for the set.
"Planning on cheating people out of some money back home?" the man at the counter asks, making change for Arthur's twenty.
"No, I just don't like to leave things up to chance," Arthur says, and realizes he's telling the truth.
Mal's wedding is in the Hamptons, in May when the summer is ripe and just a tease, and since most of the women Mal knows hate her, she lavishes the energy she should be spending torturing her bridesmaids into developing eating disorders into dressing Arthur. In theory, he knows he's supposed to hate it, protest every step of the way, but he likes the ritual and complications of a well-tailored suit, he finds, and when everything is buttoned up and knotted tightly, the cuffs falling perfectly over his polished shoes and his hair brushed out of his face, he looks like the adult he doesn't feel like he's grown into quite yet — all his awkward edges smoothed out.
Miles and Maria have spared no expense, although mostly it's wasted on Arthur since he spends the hours before the ceremony grinding pilfered Xanax into Mal's champagne or helping Dom with his bowtie and convincing him not to burst into hysterical, panicked tears with the healing powers of Jim Beam. Arthur wishes they had more friends, so someone could tag him out, but he thinks if they did, he'd be horribly jealous. So he just runs between the bridal tent and the groom's tent and hopes he doesn't accidentally drug Dom or tell Mal nobody can see she dresses to the left.
The vows themselves are ludicrously short — she's Mallorie Miles and then less than twenty minutes later she's Mrs. Mallorie Cobb, and everybody is spilling out into the afternoon sun, across the dark green lawn, headed for the open bar and chocolate waterfall and Arthur is left standing by the band, feeling suddenly bereft.
All the uncertainty that Mal seemed to wear like tired jewelry leading up to the wedding has evaporated, and she and Dom cling to each other on the dance floor, whispering secrets and effervescently, chemically happy. She is luminous and Cobb is drunk with happiness and Arthur feels othered like one of those women from Mal's bookshelf filled with third-wave feminist literature.
He drinks champagne, dances with all of Mal's adorable baby cousins. Clearly he's drunk, because then he lets Mal deliver Dom — red-faced and grinning like a maniac — into his arms for a spin around the dance floor while Mal goes to mug somebody for a pair of flats, and instead of hitting either of them, he lets Dom lead.
"I'm really glad you're Mal's best friend," Dom tells him, a little too loud and stepping on Arthur's feet, and Arthur thinks that probably Dom and Mal will turn into another statistic about the number of people don't actually get around to having any sex the night of their wedding. "I'm glad I'm marrying her."
"You already married her," Arthur reminds Dom, keeping Dom from waltzing them into Miles and Marie, who are more or less inconsolable with laughter, the assholes. "You've got that part covered."
"Great, great," Dom cheers. "I'm glad, that's great."
"You are so, so horribly drunk," Arthur laughs, helpless, because they keep veering dangerously close to enormous displays of champagne flutes or old French people or hell, that poor waitress with a massive tray of salmon tartar.
"Because now that we're married," Dom just keeps going, "we get to share everything, which means you're my best friend, too, right?"
The glib retort is right on the tip of his tongue, Christ, you two really need to go outside and meet some new people, but Dom looks glazed over with happiness, trying to dip Arthur on the dance floor at his wedding. They've built cathedrals together and fled collapsing continents together, wended through one another's secrets. Maybe Arthur only ever met Dom because Mal has questionable taste in men and even worse taste in flowers, but by now their origin story is sort of pointless because this is the truth as it stands: Dom and Mal are his best friends. He's dancing at their wedding, and no matter how tightly that fist in his chest is clutching at his heart, the ache is bittersweet, still.
"Yeah, Dom," Arthur says, and starts hauling him toward some chairs. "I'm your best friend, too, now."
Dom says, "Fuck. Yes," with way too much enthusiasm, and Mal reappears armed with some sneakers and two more glasses of champagne — both of which she drinks before she drags her husband back onto his feet, Arthur laughing himself sick the entire time. There's going to be a lot of really regrettable footage on this wedding video.
Late afternoon, when the sun is beginning to go orange and red and sidle down toward the horizon, Arthur excuses himself to sit on the porch of the house with a gin and tonic and his thoughts, listening to all the partygoers out back, muffled through a house, the music singing high overhead. Arthur, because he has that kind of face, has been given possession of no fewer than six half-smoked packets of cigarettes throughout the day by people who have sworn up and down and on top of a stack of bibles to loved ones they've quit, and so it's easy to find one he likes.
If Culpepper were here, he would accuse Arthur of looking like Distillation of Hipster in Repose, and Mal would gush that he looks so French. Dom would point out that those are pretty much the same thing, and that's what gets Arthur laughing a little, at himself, a Marlboro ultralight hanging from his fingers and smoking meditatively.
When he stops, he's rubbing away the stinging in his eyes — trying to stay on the right side of the absurdity/grief divide — and through the blur, he sees Eames, standing on the steps of the porch, limned by the sunset, watching Arthur with a soft and terribly, meltingly intimate look.
"Hi," Arthur says, and blinks.
Eames smiles at him, small and private. "Hi, Arthur."
The other details — other than Eames's very beautiful jaw, the comfortingly thick span of his body — are filtering in, too: the ugly paste-paper green polyester suit, the salmon-colored shirt, collar defeated already, with too many buttons open down Eames's chest, so that Arthur can just see the dark and curling tendril of a tattoo. Arthur's never seen Eames outside of the base, outside of their shared dreams, and he is utterly surprising, standing here haloed in flaring orange light, holding a silvery suitcase in one hand, the other slipped into his pocket too casually.
Arthur frowns. "Were you invited?"
Eames laughs, sudden and suddenly loud in the quiet before. "Unless Miss Miles experienced a sudden and revolutionary change of opinion about me, then no."
"It's Mrs. Cobb, now," Arthur corrects, apropos of nothing, and adds, "Mal doesn't actually hate you, you know, she told me."
Except that just makes Eames raise his eyebrows. "Don't be ridiculous, Arthur, of course she hates me — "
Arthur opens his mouth to protest.
" — I'd hate anybody trying to take you away from me, too," he finishes, glib, and he closes the last few feet between them, hand sliding out of his pocket and coming up, fingers trailing up the line of Arthur's forefinger to snatch the cigarette out of his hand and hold it away. "These are very bad for you, you know."
Arthur wishes he had a mouthful of smoke so he could blow it into Eames's face, since that's the only answer that deserves. Before he gets the chance, Eames says, "Here, love, let me be your filter, then," and keeping Arthur's gaze, Eames is bringing the cigarette to his mouth and pursing his mouth around the filter in a way that makes Arthur's heart rattle in his chest, his dick twitch.
This has been a long time coming, and never once has Arthur arrived at a compelling reason to deny himself if it was on offer, so it's easy to stand, to lean in, tilt, and let Eames press his body hot and hard against Arthur's and seal their mouths together.
We're going to burn the house down, is what Arthur thinks, letting Eames lick into his mouth and huff smoke into his lungs — cigarette discarded, and Arthur doesn't have enough oxygen to hope that it's somewhere nonflammable because two seconds later Eames is sliding a fist into Arthur's hair, giving him a possessive, possessing jerk.
Eames tastes like the cigarette they're sharing, the new-familiar burn of whiskey, he tastes sweet like skin, and Arthur chases after that, the clean smoothness of Eames underneath the smoke and liquor and everything else. He's fisting his hand in the lapel of Eames's jacket, scraping his teeth over Eames's lush and red bottom lip. He's ravenous, touch-starved, and he clutches at Eames's arms, slides his hands under the jacket, up the muscled lines of Eames's back. Arthur hasn't kissed anyone in years, and right now he's glad for it, so that the only taste on his tongue is Eames, whose hand slides down Arthur's back and splays, hot and huge at the small of Arthur's back, over the cut in his suit, pressing Arthur's belly against Eames's, tight, claustrophobically tight. Arthur thinks that if he told Eames that there hasn't been anybody in so long, that maybe he's been waiting for this since the first time they met, it would be even better, maybe it would get Eames to make that wounded noise again, something desperate and surrendered, press them even more closely together.
Arthur loops his free arm over Eames's shoulders, clawing at the fabric of his jacket and letting Eames tip him backward, so their mouths separate, and Arthur gasps for oxygen while Eames slides his lips down the line of Arthur's neck — teeth grazing his throat and making noises like it hurts to stop.
But just that makes Arthur miss him, sharp like a broken bone — he knows what those feel like, now — and Arthur says, "Eames," like he's gone far away, and Eames's head comes back up, trailing curious, exploratory little kisses: at Arthur's chin, the rise of his cheek, the side of his nose, the divot above the bow of his mouth, the edge of his eyes, mouth wet against Arthur's lashes. All before Arthur begs, "Eames," and Eames murmurs, "Right here, love," and closes his lips over Arthur's again, sipping at his mouth, rolling their hips together.
"Come with me," Eames says, bites it into Arthur's mouth, stroking Arthur's throat now, the other hand still clutching his fucking briefcase.
Arthur just laughs, a little crazy. "Eames, it's Mal's wedding, you can't wait another — "
"Come away with me," Eames revises, presses another hot, open kiss to Arthur's mouth, runs his tongue over the seam of Arthur's lips, curves his palm around the back of Arthur's neck. "Come with me — I can't bear the thought of leaving you, pet."
Arthur kisses him back, messy and affectionate, because he has to, but he promises, "Later. Once Mal and Dom are off for their honeymoon, come to my house, we'll — "
"I don't mean to bed, Arthur," Eames says, too serious all of a sudden, but he's still nipping the words into the line of Arthur's jaw, makes it hard to pay attention. "I meant away — out of the country, off of the grid. Come with me. Let me steal you away."
Arthur stares at him, the serious lines of Eames's face. "Mal said you were a thief."
"I am," Eames says, solemn as a church, "the best of thieves, Arthur."
He feels like he's trapped inside of Eames's dreams: everything a little too bright or too loud and for the first time he understands why Mal doesn't like them — he can't quite get his head around it, or maybe for the first time the dream isn't for him.
"You're serious," Arthur says instead of asks, just watches Eames's face, familiar and completely foreign, too, because, if Eames is a thief, then, "You're not SAS."
"I would have failed the morals and ethics bit of serving my country peerlessly," Eames quips, too light to be anything but a deflection, but his hands are still all over Arthur, clutching him close, and there's something comforting in the honesty of his yearning, at least, so that Arthur is feeling dizzy but not stupid, not yet. "You've nearly ruined the longest of my cons, Arthur, I'm almost three months overdue for delivery — have mercy: come with me."
Arthur wants to take a step back, maybe a hundred, run straight to Mal, but Eames is still pulling him close, and at least his hands are earnest.
"You steal things," he mutters. "You're stealing — " he looks down at the briefcase " — you're stealing the PASIV, aren't you?"
"And I have about twenty more minutes before they realize it, love," Eames says, and he strokes Arthur's back in comforting circles, like he knows this must be very hard to process, but he would like it very much if Arthur would try, "so I'd love it if you would make one of your famously sensible split decisions and come with me."
Arthur can hear in his head already, I can't, but he doesn't want to say it, just buries it deep and curls a hand into Eames's jacket, asks, "Where would we go?"
"Anywhere you like," Eames says, inviting, murmuring it into Arthur's mouth. "Prague, London. I could take you to Sao Paolo, we could go to Belize, there're beautiful beaches there — and the sunblock would be an excellent excuse to grope you in public."
The laugh is automatic, punched out of him in surprise, and Eames looks too pleased by it to be anything but serious, Arthur thinks, clutches it close to his chest.
"But actually," Eames admits, "I bought tickets to Paris."
Arthur leans into him, greedy to memorize this, all of it. He should probably be angrier about the stealing and probable high treason and the possibility he's been used, but he can't be bothered — not with Eames still wrapped around him whispering possibilities as lavish and effusive as their shared gardens in dreams.
"Did you?" Arthur asks.
"There's an old building, in the Latin Quarter, with shite stairs and terrible air circulation during summer, but it's got beautiful windows and a juliet balcony, and it's where I keep all of my books," Eames tells him. "I think I'd like to install you there."
"I like books," Arthur says, punctuating the thought with a kiss to Eames's jaw.
"But you won't come," Eames finishes for him, looking unsurprised.
There are a lot of things Arthur could say here, justifications and explanations about how crime is wrong, but it boils down very neatly — convenient, since his throat hurts so badly all of a sudden. "I'm not a thief, Eames," Arthur reminds him. "And I can't leave Mal."
"Christ, she's married now," Eames spits out, anger erasing the blurry edges of his wanting, and hand holding Arthur close is clenching, now. "She's got Cobb — you don't have to stay just because she's used to having you around."
Arthur also has a mother, and an apartment, a car, unanswered mail. He thinks stupidly about all of his clothes and the laundry he didn't finish folding and the chicken he left defrosting in the fridge last night; they all seem small and infinitely meaningless in the face of Eames's pleading expression, but they're not, and they aren't meaningless, and Arthur has always known better.
"I'm also not a thief, Eames," he says softly. "What would I do if I went?"
Eames gives him a strange look. "Arthur," he says very seriously, "I don't know if you've noticed this yet, but you can do any fucking thing you want, and nobody could ever stop you."
That seals it.
"I can stop me," Arthur decides.
Maybe Eames, like Arthur, has known all along this would be the answer. That doesn't really make sense though, to have gone to so much trouble conning his way into the program to steal the technology, only to risk it to ask a question that he already knew, but Eames is insane, to put it mildly, and Arthur resigned himself to that months ago. And more than that, Arthur doesn't care why Eames decided to come and get turned down in person, because since he's here, Arthur can cup Eames's slack and tired-looking face in his hands and kiss him again, lingering and sweet and delicate. He's comprehensive, careful, learning all the details of Eames's mouth and nipping at the seam of his lips until Eames's hums something hurt but accepting, and lets Arthur in again — kissing him wet and warm and a comfort, an apology.
"Be careful," Arthur says, in between one breath and another. "Don't get caught."
Eames pulls away, finally, the disciplined tension in his body and the space between them as convincing as any other part of military con. He winks at Arthur, takes a step back — that fucking suitcase banging against his knee — he says, "Only when I feel like it, darling. Only when I feel like it."
Arthur watches him go, the easy lope to the nondescript car, and then he stands on the porch and feels like an idiot, like his heart is trying to thrash out of his chest and go after the Honda vanishing down the road. But he's sure, in that awful way that people are sure, that he's doing the right thing, that the only actually stupid decision would have been to leave everything and run away with Eames, to let himself be shelved along with Eames's books — loved, but sorted away — in Paris, to let himself rely to totally on another person, to burn all his bridges.
This is better, Arthur tells himself. This is the right thing to do.
He goes back in for the rest of the reception and gets uproariously, riotously drunk. He's right about the wedding video: that thing is fucking hilarious.
While Mal and Dom are honeymooning wherever they are honeymooning, Ramsey comes out of the dream and can't tell he's come out of the dream. Arthur tries to talk reason to him, but Ramsey won't believe him, and Arthur doesn't have any compelling arguments: their dream constructions have advanced to the point where they can be indistinguishable, and Arthur had been running everybody through a routine drill on base — projected terrorists in every corner. What makes this worse, of course, is the fact that unleashing a crazy, screaming person through a military base is guaranteed to bring everybody else running, guns at the ready, and Arthur has about two seconds to think, oh, no, before Ramsey opens fire, first.
Ramsey's total body count at the end of the day is six dead, seventeen wounded. Arthur is one of the wounded — a nine mil round through the gut from friendly fire, of all fucking things — and the doctors say he's exceedingly lucky to be alive.
Arthur's total body count that day is one dead — from when he'd groped his way across the floor, covered in broken glass and ignore the hot slick of blood gushing from his belly and grabbed a dropped Sig Sauer. He'd remembered Eames's voice, warm in his ear, saying, "Just like that, darling," and just like that, he'd fired.
"You have a commendable way of getting shit done, I have to say," McCallister tells him, when he goes to visit Arthur afterward.
Arthur closes his eyes and pretends to be falling asleep. "Seriously, sir, fuck off."
"Happily," McCallister says. "Now that I know you'd shoot to kill."
Ramsey's shooting spree is the second major blow to the project in as many weeks, and no particular progress is made on either front.
Despite hours of interrogation of everybody on base — and remotely, when Dom and Mal got sequestered in their hotel suite for a day — nobody has any information on Eames, or where he might have gone, or how the fuck he got access. There's egg on the face of everybody involved, but mostly the Americans are saying the British fucked up, letting someone con their way into their highest military projects, and the British are saying the Americans fucked up, letting someone con their way into their highest military projects. The recursiveness of the entire argument is actually sort of astonishing, and Arthur would dedicate more energy to mulling it if he wasn't so busy trying to grow new flesh to fill in a hole in his gut and making lists of things he thinks should be mandatory training elements for PASIV participants.
The intelligence breech and the unfortunate incident just show that there have been extreme shortcomings in training, and as soon as Arthur is capable of being upright and conscious for any period of time, he makes someone bring him a notebook and a pen.
Computer security, he writes. Identity confirmation — database searches, legal and otherwise. Weapons training. Combat training — hand to hand? Everybody who works on this fucking projects needs to know enough to take care of themselves, to recognize infiltration and identify risks, and even McCallister gets in on the act, adding practical sessions on offensive driving and demolitions.
"Should I be worried about how good you are with C4?" he asks Arthur, later.
Arthur just shrugs and says, "I like being good at everything," which is true, but also not the truth.
The second week after Arthur's been shot, he finally convinces the base doctors to let him go home by lying horribly about having someone there waiting for him. Instead, his apartment is dark and musty and abandoned-looking when he gets there, and he staggers into his room and sleeps for nearly sixteen hours as a first order of business, before getting up, pissing like a racehorse, and going back down for another ten.
Next time he wakes up, it's to a neat-as-a-pin home nurse knocking on his door.
"Oh, Jesus, I told McCallister I was fine," Arthur sighs, leaning against the frame.
She blinks ambivalent brown eyes at him. "I don't know who McCallister is, but Mr. Eames seemed unconvinced." She produces a note. "That's why I'm here."
You can imagine how distressed I was when I found out that those fuckers had gotten you shot. While I would prefer to be there to kiss your wounds better and explore the tensile strength of your hospital bandages in a sexual manner, my legal representatives at my current location assure me sending a professional is less likely to result in myself being frogmarched off to one of your prisons to be sodomized (against my will) or for you to be sent to one of those prisons (presumably to raise an entirely new and terrifying organizational force within its existing social hierarchy).
Lisa — that is her name — has been instructed not to ask too many questions, or to re-enact any poorly plotted pornography with you.
Your servant, Eames.
PS — I would have slotted you in right between the Coleridge and the Donne.
Arthur clears his throat. "So, Lisa."
She points at his stomach, where there's a rapidly-spreading red spot on his t-shirt. "I think you ripped a stitch," she says, not unkindly.
He spends the rest of the next week lying still in different places in his apartment, Lisa quietly and competently keeping him from bleeding or starving to death, and Arthur takes the time to stare at his ceiling and make plans, let them stretch out in three dimensions. He feels that thing, so long calcified in his stomach, start to break out.
Mal has absolutely no sense of humor about Arthur getting shot, which he can't even blame on her being excessively French, because Dom is — if anything — worse. She spends the first week after returning from the honeymoon camped out in Arthur's apartment, tending to him with none of Lisa's efficient skill: burning dinner, making him shitty coffee, letting him stay up way too late to watch old black and white movies, and Arthur suddenly remembers how much he misses her, slumped against her warm and curving side, her fingers stroking through his hair.
They're watching His Girl Friday when Mal asks, "So. Eames."
On the screen, Rosalind Russell has just forgotten she's quit the filthy newspaper business, settling down at a typewriter at a rolltop desk in the midst of all the chaos. Arthur shrugs and says, "Yeah. Eames."
"Not a member of the SAS," Mal continues, thoughtful.
"Probably not, no," Arthur agrees.
"So a delinquent after all," she sighs. "I should have known."
"He had tattoos, too, it turns out," Arthur says. "I never stood a chance."
Mal makes an irate noise, but she doesn't pull away and her voice stays that languid, low murmur Arthur likes so much, that only comes out when she's tired and they're alone, when there's nobody else there to watch them be whatever they are at each other.
She asks, "Do you regret not running away with him, then?"
Arthur frowns, because he hadn't told anybody, not McCallister, not any of the military interrogators they'd sent to lock him into colorless rooms for hours and make closer-than-comfortable-to-the-truth implications.
"Don't be ridiculous, Arthur," Mal says, answering the unspoken question. "Of course he asked you to run away with him."
"I don't regret it," Arthur admits, but it comes out sullen. He's been very successfully not thinking about it until this moment, and it makes him feel prickly and hot all over now, curled up on this couch with Mal reading him like a roadmap of uncomfortable confessions. He knows he shouldn't, but he can't help himself. He asks, "How did you know?"
Mal touches his face, kind. "Oh, Arthur darling. His secret was a heart-shaped locket left in your shoes — what else could it possibly mean?"
It's among a library of things Arthur should be smart enough not to ask, but he can't resist, and Mal is so near and so familiar and easy that Arthur asks, "Do you think I should have run? I mean — should I have gone with him?"
"You're beholden to no one, Arthur." Mal's face is serious and lovely with sadness. "Even if you did go, would you have been happy to be taken?"
Arthur just swallows hard, nods, watches the flickering television. He's been finding memories and regrets all week, packaging them carefully and filing them away where he won't run into them when he isn't paying attention or trip over them on the way to something else. He's already sort of forgotten the way Eames smelled, how much was the smokiness of unfiltered cigarettes and how much was the clean cotton of his uniform, and Arthur had spent an entire night carefully boxing up every one of Ramsey's wide and friendly smiles, sliding them under his ribs where he won't be blinded by them by accident.
Sometimes, when he doesn't think about it, the last two years of his life have seemed almost ordinary: he gets up in the mornings, he drinks a cup of coffee and he goes to work; he eats shitty food out of a vending machine for lunch and he comes home and sometimes he goes to Mal and Dom's and they split a pizza or go to a movie. He knows better than to push deeper underneath the surface of scar tissue. He knows it's changed him, that he talks less these days — Arthur knows, and it hurts like a fist to the gut, that if he met Mal now, he wouldn't tell her she had beautiful shoes, and he'd never let her touch his pocket square. They wouldn't have gone to New York or gotten drunk off of shitty champagne and kissed, sat up late into the night with each other. They're such different people now, and Arthur spares a moment to be grateful that as they have changed, they've left room for each other; he doesn't know what he'd do otherwise.
"Are you unhappy now?" Mal asks.
Arthur smiles for her. "No, Mal," he promises. "I'm fine. Don't worry."
She looks unconvinced, but Arthur is telling the truth.
He figured out a while ago happiness isn't a watermark or a beat; happiness happens in the middle of other things, a moment of perfect clarity in all the other shit. There's something romantic about the idea of being so lost or so damaged happiness is totally out of reach, but Arthur's never had the capacity for that level of melodrama. He's fucked up, he knows, but he's still functional, and he'll mourn Ramsey and Della Bright and Matthew Hoxton, who Ramsey killed, and Eames, even, but he'll also get up tomorrow morning and fret over what pants to wear and stop in the drive-through of the Starbucks. He'll check his email and eat lunch and try not to think about it. Before they started to talk about this, when it was just Arthur and Mal and many, many potato chips and a movie they've both seen too many times, he'd been happy — and later, like little surprises, he will be again, too.
The PASIV project is disbanded three months after that: too expensive, not enough results, too high-risk, not enough practical applications, training process too impossibly fucking difficult.
"That's it then, right?" Arthur asks, over nondisclosure agreements. "We're done?"
"Arthur," McCallister says patiently. "We've spent hundreds of millions on you and Mr. and Mrs. Cobb — we'll never be done."
The night before he does it, he goes to Mal.
She's sitting on the porch of the house on Abernathy and Franklin — a wedding present to one another when she and Dom had gotten married — in dark, straight-legged jeans and a heather-gray cashmere sweater, her hair swept up by the wind. She's wearing perfect, shining stud earrings, and she tilts her cheek up to catch Arthur's kiss when he sits down next to her.
She loops her arm through his, and for a minute, between the smell of her perfume and the soft weight of her hair on his shoulder, how their shoes brush up against he other, they could be at Harvard again, talking about weekend trips to New York and judging one another's romantic tendencies.
"So?" she asks, and the rest filters in: the pale purple marks under her eyes, the rings on her fingers. "What did the general say?"
"CIA," Arthur says. "Research."
Mal blanches. "Do you have to go?"
"He's made it clear he'll make it uncomfortable for me if I don't," Arthur tells her mildly.
She's quiet for a long time before saying, "It's your fault for being so good at everything."
"Well, it's too late to start faking incompetence now," Arthur says.
There's a briefcase in the backseat of Arthur's car with passports in other peoples' names; they're not great copies, but it's the best the guy Arthur had met and traded a dream for could do. He's acutely aware that the scope of his list of contacts is anemic at best, and the idea of trying to figure out how to figure out the utilities of living on the run is exhausting already, but at least it's something to do, and Arthur has always been able to break challenges down into their component parts.
"What about you? And Dom?" he asks.
She shrugs. "We can go back to Harvard, but we stay contractors."
Arthur nods slowly. "Could be worse," he allows.
Mal doesn't nod, and doesn't come back with any sort of response for so long Arthur is starting to get worried, but then she says, "Arthur — I'm so sorry."
"For what?" he asks, because Mal is never sorry about anything.
"For dragging you into this, for getting you involved," she says, and her eyes are red when she meets his gaze. Mal almost never cries about anything important, none of the stuff that actually matters, just long distance telephone commercials and awful romantic movies, and when Dom says mean things that don't mean anything. When she's actually upset, her face closes over, she swallows her regrets. "I know you wanted to do other things. I know you wanted to build buildings."
Maybe he did once upon a time, but now, mostly Arthur just wants not to work for the CIA, or ever to see McCallister again — manageable goals. And maybe that's a tragedy, that somehow lucid dreaming has fucked up all his more abstract ones, but it is what it is now, and he doesn't really see the point in mourning something that isn't going to change. Arthur remembers worrying that he wanted too much he couldn't have, and being afraid of how greedy he could be, that it would eat him up inside-out. That's still the case, but the things he wants are so far beyond reach — normalcy, not to have killed Ramsey — it's not worth consideration.
"It's okay," Arthur says, because, "it's not your fault," would be a lie. "I'm not mad."
Mal nods, jerky, wrapping her arms around her knees. "Okay," she says.
Arthur looks at the overgrown yard, Dom's battered Hyundai in the driveway, the familiar-looking furniture and paintings and prints on the wall through the opened door. He can hear through the window Dom clanking around in the kitchen. Any minute now, he'll come out on the porch and fuss at Arthur for sitting out in the cold, because apparently he's going to be fragile forever now, and hustle him and Mal inside to have coffee and ask, awkwardly, how things went with McCallister with the urgent and simmering guilt of a man who left a trap wide open. Arthur and Mal are not the type of people who sit around looking for people to blame for their own decisions; that's fine though, because Dom does it for them, with a continuous and slow-simmering thread of regret that manifests itself in letting Mal and Arthur get away with murder, do whatever they want without anybody to hem them in.
None of them want this — this living on the edges of things — they don't have to do this.
"If I were to leave," Arthur starts. "Would you come with me? Would you and Dom?"
She looks completely unsurprised. "Would you go after Eames?"
Arthur makes a face. "Mal, this is serious."
"So am I," she retorts. "It's not like you have a lot of experience being on the run."
"I'm sure I'll pick it up along the way," he tells her stiffly, because it's something he's worried about, too, and been too paranoid to write down. Arthur never really thought about the easy comfort of tracing words over paper until he couldn't do it, and he feels like he's going crazy sometimes, tending lists in his head and whispering to himself. Still, needs must. "Would you?" he asks again.
Mal hesitates, the way Arthur must have hesitated, and he feels it as sharp as a cut across his palm.
"Dom won't go," Mal says, looking away, her face turned back toward the house, where the radio's come on — NPR, Terry Gross reading the headlines. "He'd — I already asked him, if he would. He says it's not worth it. It's not safe."
"I have a plan," Arthur says, too casually. "I may have done some research."
Mal's smile is wan. "Arthur," she says, and hazards a look at him, from underneath her lashes. "I can't leave him, either."
From inside, Dom says, "Mal? Is Arthur here yet? Dinner's up."
Arthur holds Mal's eyes, watches her shake her head, mouth, "sorry." He shrugs, but he understands; he's been on the other side of this conversation before, after all. He wonders if he should stay, too, suffer through it, but of all the things he can't have, being free is one he can, and Arthur can't bear the idea of letting it go.
"Yeah, Dom," Arthur says, getting to his feet and reaching a hand to Mal. "I'm here."
She takes it, closes their palms together, lacing their fingers together.
"Don't disappear completely, okay?" she whispers to him. "Dom will be angry."
Arthur grins at her. "Dom will be angry either way," he points out.
"True," she murmurs, and she draws him through the front door, into the warm orange light of the living room, toward the kitchen that smells like lasagna and store-bought garlic bread, and sounds like Dom banging around looking for a corkscrew, and Arthur feels a pang already, for the opportunity cost of what he's going to do. "But you know Dom — he worries."
"You won't?" Arthur asks.
Mal laughs. "I know you better," she says. "I'm worried about everybody else."
Arthur takes the PASIV out of spite.
He doesn't particularly like the thing, but Arthur knows it's at once his albatross and his best leverage. He's signed one out overnight before, once or twice, when he'd needed to trade access to it for some preliminaries to the plan: IDs, some cash, a guy who knows a guy. The first couple of times he'd gone to Chase, who lived four doors down and reeked of weed all the God damn time, had been a tragedy. It got worse when he talked Chase into hooking him up with his supplier, because Tapper is a sociopathic shitshow, and it took two weeks of getting uncomfortably high and working triple time to avoid accidentally letting the guy fuck him to get Tapper to cough up Cowan. Cowan is also worse, but at least he's useful, and when Arthur walks onto base the morning after he eats lasagna with Dom and Mal and kisses her good night, he's ready.
Building inroads to the underbelly is fucking hard work, and if Arthur never has to talk to another guy who sells pot out of his living room to find the best guy who does the best fake IDs who will admit his product is bullshit and give Arthur the name of somebody better — it will still be too soon.
The labs are mostly deserted by now, manpower and researches distributed to new projects and new bases, and everybody's so used to him, nobody really even pays attention. Carlton, who replaced Ramsey, says hi, and goes through the motions of frisking him, putting him through the paces with the fingerprint scanner and retina scanners before waving him off.
"Packing up for the CIA?" Carlton asks, hanging around the door not paying attention, the way he never pays attention around this time of day because it's when his kids are headed for school — sending him text messages from their mother's cell phone, in the backseat of the family minivan pulling away from their two-story in base housing.
Arthur shrugs, opening a PASIV case and checking the Somnacin levels, the tubing — new and carefully cleaned and three times as long as the normal cord. He starts the machine, because Carlton's a good soldier, and his inattention comes from long familiarity and a genuine love of his family, and Arthur doesn't want to have to do anything terrible like shoot him in the fucking knee.
"Yup," he says, and quietly, the way he perfected hiding from soldiers in dreams on this very base, he stabs the IV into the base of Carlton's neck and closes his hand over the man's mouth. Between the shock and the triple dose, it's five seconds before he's out, fifteen before Arthur's easing him out on the ground, plucking the IV from Carlton's neck carefully and taping up the wound. It'll be three hours before he wakes up — two before anybody at base security gets curious about what the hell is taking so long, so Arthur figures he probably has one, no questions asked, and gets busy.
It's easy to slide the PASIV into one of the old, defunct garbage chutes, one he'd memorized when McCallister had sent one of his lackeys to bring Arthur the base blueprints for a training exercise, and one he'd measured when Mal had argued an enemy combatant couldn't fit in it. He hears it thunk away at the other end and tosses down a Walther PPK, a Beretta, enough rounds to get him out of immediate trouble if he needs it, and shuts and locks the chute again. There's a part of his brain that wants to hoard as much weaponry as he can, but it's pointless to be greedy about this shit, especially when Tapper's list of fucked-up acquaintances includes a downmarket as hell weapons dealer who'd taken a ride on Arthur's PASIV, once, and promised him a discount if he brought around his little silver box again.
He crawls in the ductwork next, because God damn, Mal, the garbage chute had been too small, but not the 1960s ventilation system. Arthur climbs in ass first, sliding backward carefully and trying not to panic and count his way through 3,600 seconds faster than he should, breathing too quickly as he grabs the grate and pulls it back shut — he just needs it to stay, not stay forever, so he doesn't bother with the screws, and he shimmies down the slide decline carefully — 3000, 2,900.
In a phenomenal error of building infrastructure engineering, and the reason why nobody ever ate lunch in the fucking break room, the air vents collide with the garbage chute. From the ground, when Arthur had been walking around the facility mindlessly with a notepad weeks ago, it's a ten minute leisurely stroll from point to point — through the ductwork, it takes longer — even longer if you try to stay quiet doing it.
The vents and the garbage chute are divided by an ancient HEPA filter, a short drop away the handicap bathroom toward the front of the facility, where everybody with a problem with military accessibility could see it. Arthur takes the Swiss army knife tucked in his pocket and slits the filter out of its metal frame — 1,702 — and moves back, until his feet hit nothing and he flails, momentarily, until he gets his bearings, tilts back, and lets go.
There's a thud when he hits the ground but if he's done this right, it'll be right as night shift — which always tags out fifteen minutes early — and day shift — which always staggers in ten minutes late — have missed each other. He experiences a moment of sheer, bewildering realization that he's standing in a garbage chute, about to go on the lam from the U.S. military, and it would terrify him if he wasn't chanting 1,623, 1,622 under his breath.
"Okay," Arthur says to himself, and crouches down, for the crowbar he threw down here weeks ago, when they'd had a going-away party in the central lab and everybody had looked the other way when Dom had brought in a bottle of whiskey for the crew. It's just long enough to catch the end of the PASIV case, to scoop the guns closer, and Arthur wishes he'd brought some plastic bags or a pair of gloves, because of course they're all now covered in fossilized garbage scum. He hates being a criminal already.
The guns, when he gets them, he doesn't bother trying to clean up, just shoves the PPK into the PASIV case, crushing some extra tubing and a fuckton of pilfered Somnacin in plastic and unbreakable bottles. He loads the other one and sticks it down the back of his pants, safety off, and thinks that if after all of this, he blows himself a new asshole, it's going to be the most God damn embarrassing way to die ever.
The climb back up to the ventilation tubing fucking sucks for reasons including but not limited to the fact that having to tie a twenty-pound suitcase filled with guns and soon-to-be-stolen military technology to yourself with your belt is never ideal. He makes it, but he's glad he'd made himself do pull-ups every day for a three months before he tried this. He still ends up wasting thirty precious seconds heaving once he gets back up there.
And from there it's easy, it's too easy. He gets down in the handicap bathroom, cleans himself up, washes his hands, scrubs down the PASIV, the guns. He sticks the Beretta in the case now, too. His bangs are soaked from scrubbing down his face, so he gives up and just pushes them back, out of his eyes, and he thinks, that's not bad, for a second before he's stepping out of the bathroom.
Gavin is settling into his seat at the security counter, hands full with his coffee and donut, and Arthur sets the PASIV on X-ray conveyer. The case is lead lined, and it's above Gavin's security clearance, so he doesn't even pay attention to it, just nodding at Arthur as he passes blithely through the metal detector, saying:
"Hey, man, early morning?"
Arthur shrugs. "Last day in this facility," he explains. "Start something new tomorrow."
"Oh, I heard," Gavin says, and offers Arthur a donut. "You excited?" Arthur takes it, because he doesn't know if he can get Dunkin' Donuts where he's going.
He smiles, all his teeth showing. "Extremely."
He collapses in a shitty youth hostel at the end of a thirty hour trip that started with a blazing fast drive into New York, followed with sneaking onto a fucking cruise ship out of port, involved finding the one shady guy in Halifax, another boat ride — Arthur fucking hates boats — and then finally, a plane ticket under the name Arthur Aquitaine. He'd spent most of the first twenty hours thinking he was going to get caught, that any minute, McCallister would pop out of the woodwork like some sort of well-groomed demon and he'd be shot, point-blank, and Mal would dig him up and kill him all over again for dying on her. The last four hours of the trip involved slipping through the absolute shit security at Termini after having slipped through the absolute shit security at the Rome airport, and taking a puddlejumper from Italy into Paris with an European Union passport and a sufficiently persecuted look on his face that nobody asked too many questions.
But fourteen hours after that, he wakes up in Paris. The PASIV is in storage along with a bunch of tourist luggage and buried under a pile of skies, and the hostel is filled with brightly friendly Australians who have lots of advice for Arthur, first time world traveller, and he soaks it all in, remembers every word — marvels in the luxury of writing it down.
"Where are you thinking of going next?" one of them asks him. He's gorgeous, blond and sun-bronzed with bright green eyes, and he's been touching Arthur too much, laughing a little too hard at everything Arthur says. "After Paris?"
Arthur just smiles back politely, at a distance. "I'm not sure," he admits.
"You could always come with us?" Gareth invites, beaming. "We're headed for Madrid."
"Thanks," Arthur says, and runs his thumb over the rim of his coffee mug. "Actually though — there're some books I wanted to find, in Paris."
The futility of that plan is pretty immediately evident. He spends days and days walking around the 5th Arrondissement, but none of the buildings with beautiful windows, great light, and gorgeous juliet balconies seem to immediately and evidently belong to Eames. And anyway, it's not exactly as if Eames would be at home, staring at outside, watching for a sad-ass looking kid he may have forgotten about already. The more Arthur thinks about it, the more glamorous and fantastic Eames's life must be, and how small and boring his months-long con for the PASIV must have been.
And Paris, despite how big it is, feels entirely too small; he's hiding it pretty well but the paranoia's killing him. He doesn't really feel off the grid, and he's running out of cash. He'd shredded all his old debit and credit cards to destroy the temptation before he'd even left the States, but that leaves him with 500 euros and no particular inclination to begin his second career as a hustler.
He's surrounded by the city and the churches and the history and the art and he's not enjoying any of it, at which point Arthur makes a decision to strategically retreat back to Italy, which he already dislikes, and to tell the obviously sketchy driver who picks him up from Termini that if he wants to try it, Arthur has an amazing high for him.
The first year is tremendously terrible.
He cycles through a dozen countries, never for longer than a few weeks, and he avoids Paris entirely out of some dimly romantic hope that when he finally gets there (again) he'll have there wherewithal to actually enjoy it. He blames Mal for this. He spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself while trying to get shit done, which is a surprisingly effective combination, and he makes a lot of friends in low places, selling them the best dreams money can buy. He's glad he got used to being killed with A-bombs and dismembered by screaming crowds and memorably, burned to death, because people ask for some deeply, deeply sick things, and Arthur's growing reputation is built on his ice-cold and unflinching ability to provide it. Four people try to steal the PASIV from him; three end up dead, one of them ends up Arthur's chemist, because he runs low on Somnacin at some point and international fugitives can't be choosy about where people got their biochemistry degrees before becoming an addict and falling into a life of crime.
The chemical details of Somnacin had come with him, along with the case, and it's easy enough to mass produce it at lower quality but higher quantity. Arthur makes everybody pay up front, so it's not exactly like he's going to be crying his eyes out for missed profit if someone has an allergic reaction or possibly a heart attack.
The government looks for him, obviously they look for him, but Arthur doesn't have the depth of sourcing needed to see how they're looking and where, and that bothers him because he's pretty sure he could, or that someone else does. He likes to operate with all available data at hand, and for the past twelve months Arthur feels like he's been groping around in the dark with a penlight, hoping for the best.
It turns out that even when your profession is incredibly, extremely illegal, it still operates on the same fundamental principles: be good to your customers, make sure you keep your service to a high and reliable standard, and pray for luck. Two of those variables Arthur has well in hand, the third one, he trips into when his chemist says, "Hey, so this guy — he heard about you."
The guy is an investment banker — wears Thomas Pink shirts and ties and Ferragamo shoes like they're an excuse from basic courtesy, but he's rich, and better than that, he says he knows other people who are rich and interested, too.
Arthur sets up Jerome — whose nose bears obvious signs of a long-term coke habit — to win an Olympic gold for swimming in his dream, and Jerome tips Arthur outrageously before passing along his contact information to a few colleagues. Nobody particularly useful in that round, Arthur thinks with some disappointment, and applies a celebratory Dior suit to his frustration and waits. It's in the middle of his next round, between taking Helen Jackson to the Library of Alexandria and installing Jacob Weinberg as the Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt that Arthur runs into Greg Traveler, who manages $100 billion in fixed-income assets and credit derivatives and has enough money to pull some serious levers.
"I have some friends who would pay you handsomely for a trip like yours," Traveler says, nearly post-coital after his dream, languid on his living room couch as Arthur packs up, cleaning the machinery and discarding the length of medical tubing. He always works in peoples' homes, makes it a rule that no third parties be involved, and hits clients with a touch too much Somnacin before he ever puts the IV anywhere near his arm — it keeps them loose, and down a bit longer, easier for Arthur to control the situation.
"Lucky for them, I work through referral only," Arthur says primly, closing up his case.
"Do you work in Europe, only, too?" Traveler asks, mild with curiosity.
"Let's say I have compelling reasons not to return to the U.S.," Arthur says, evasive.
Traveler tilts his head up, clarity coming back to his eyes, and there's something about him that makes Arthur feel dissected, sometimes. "How compelling, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I do mind," Arthur answers.
Grinning, Traveler says, "So, very."
Arthur rolls his eyes. He has this operating theory that smug assholes are just drawn to him, helpless like douchey fireflies. He clears his throat. "Goodbye, Mr. Traveler."
Traveler nods, still smiling. "I'll be seeing you around, Arthur."
It's a test. Like every other time a client with the power and contacts to express interest, Arthur just leaves them hanging, wants to see what they can find.
He's sure he's posted somewhere on a most wanted list at the FBI or NSA or CIA, but the government has to play this close to the chest, not like they can say what he did, or where he might have gone, elaborate at all on what sort of technology he'd made off with. Usually, the clients come back empty handed, or with something so asinine as to be evident via a two-minute internet search. So what, he's a fugitive from the U.S. military, at this point, his mother knows that, and she'd had to find out when Arthur had left her a letter and Mal's home address, since there wasn't time to make his apologies and he figured Mal could do it for him.
Twelve hours later, his cell phone rings, and when Arthur answers, Traveler says:
"Man, those are some seriously compelling reasons not to go back to America."
Arthur doesn't let himself get excited. "Nosey, Mr. Traveler."
"Call me Greg," Traveler says, smooth. "I can help you, Arthur."
Arthur leans back in his chair, kicking his feet up on the windowsill of his tiny attic studio, listening to people shouting at each other in Czech downstairs. He'd liked Prague, but it was big enough that people would look there, so he'd settled in Brno and built a base of operations. He works with three chemists, now, who make differing tiers of Somnacin, accepting payment in koruna or euros or dreams. He has a closet full of suits now, too, bought on business trips: YSL, Hugo Boss, Versace, Jil Sander. It's not in his interest to look his own age in this business.
"What makes you think I need help, Mr. Traveler?" Arthur asks.
"Greg," Traveler emphasizes. "And I know you left some people behind — must miss them by now. Your mother. Mallorie and Dominic Cobb?"
Arthur swallows hard. "So what. People on the run aways miss someone."
"You're far, far too interesting a proposition to let something as petty as theft of military technology restrict you, Arthur," Traveler scolds. "Besides, my sources tell me Mrs. Cobb is expecting."
Arthur's heart trips over itself.
"You're her best friend after all," Traveler goes on. "You wouldn't want to miss that."
"Some would say you'd be aiding and abetting a crime, Mr. Traveler," Arthur points out.
"Arthur, I'm an investment banker," Traveler reminds him, and his laugh is so round and delighted and full-throated at that something unwinds in Arthur's chest for the reassurance of Traveler's high-handed arrogance. "Trust me when I say there is nothing I like better than fucking over the government."
Having a patron is strange, Arthur decides, but not intrinsically terrible.
Traveler is a collector of rare things, he likes flouting procedure; he made his fuck you money a decade ago with Salomon and then he made it again with Lehman, but none of it pleases him in the face of the unending boredom. The first week Arthur ran with him, Traveler bought and crashed a Lamborghini. He's manically awake and consumingly smart, and Arthur thinks if he'd met Traveler, first, he might be tempted by the way Traveler would never lower himself to demand droit de seigneur, but has made it clear he wouldn't fight it if Arthur decided of his own volition to suck Traveler's cock.
It's obvious why he needs the PASIV so badly, Arthur thinks. Traveler dreams about being Alexander the Great, William the Bastard, has Arthur construct him entire worlds to bend at his feet. He's also asked for much quieter things: a cul-de-sac house with his first wife, two kids Arthur knows never existed, dinner with his parents, a night in with his brothers. The geography of desire, when there aren't any boundaries or limitations, is both bigger and so much more humble than most people think, and Arthur just keeps watching and making notes and keeping his thoughts to himself.
Traveler's criss-crossing brain is too complex and quickly changing to sustain anything close to a stable dream, and he's let Traveler try enough times on his own to know it's true. Arthur has seen worse, and in theory and with enough motivation, he could teach Traveler how to maintain something stable, but he's not really in the business of rendering himself obsolete.
"I have a client," Traveler tells Arthur one day, wandering around his Stockholm apartment with a tumbler of very good bourbon. "He has need of your unique skills."
Arthur just raises an eyebrow, because he senses a but coming.
"He's located in New York," Traveler concludes.
Arthur worries incrementally less now, or maybe he's so used to it already that it's baseline, but he's not over it enough to risk U.S. borders. He's added a little art to his hustle. He also took a month off — no matter how much Traveler bitched — to learn the PASIV machine inside out. Arthur doesn't think he can duplicate it from memory, but he inventories the components and maps out a design, in case anything happens to it, and he leaves copies of it in a half-dozen subway lockers in Tokyo, a Swiss bank account in Zurich, mails Mal a copy from Spain, and sews one into the lining of his leather jacket, just to be safe. He has back-up plan on contingency on exit strategy, and in all of his interactions with Traveler, Arthur has always been careful to establish an escape route for when, inevitably, he has to run.
Frowning, Arthur says, "It's not like — "
"Arthur, really, would I have brought this opportunity to your attention if something as stupid as international law was going to get in the way of your doing a very good friend and client of mine a favor?" Traveler dismisses. "No."
Arthur doesn't bother to ask how. "When?"
"A week from now," Traveler replies, producing a flash drive and tossing it to Arthur. "He wants to relive his youth."
"And then?" Arthur prompts.
He's not asking for permission so much as finding out how much lying and maneuvering it's going to take to get out of Traveler's radius and see Mal. He's been keeping a calendar; she's due any day now. Arthur wants to see her; he misses Dom. He wants to see his mother, apologize for putting her through this.
Traveler's not a billionaire for nothing. He shrugs. "And then, as long as you're still reachable, I don't particularly care," he says, and hands Arthur a a plane ticket. "Arlanda — tomorrow morning, seven a.m. flight."
Seeing as it's nothing but the best for Traveler, and by extension Arthur, Arthur spends the interminably long flight from Stockholm to JFK International miserable in the finest of trappings. He drinks water, only, and suppresses three separate panic attacks through the five-course tasting menu and ignores Traveler's poorly concealed curiosity.
"You're not nervous?" Traveler asks.
"I'm nervous as hell," Arthur retorts. "I'm prepared to bolt at the slightest provocation."
"Your honesty has always been one of your most admirable qualities," Traveler says evenly, and presses a hand he probably means to be comforting to Arthur's knee. "No provocations, I promise."
Arthur's not prepared to be anything but untrusting, and the knot in his stomach doesn't unwind until he's at passport control, watching a woman named Cindy look over his paperwork with blithe disinterest.
"You in the country for business or pleasure?" Cindy asks, stamping a page, inspecting the convincingly rendered Tier II work visa Traveler's sources had taped into the pages.
"Both, actually," Arthur answers, and she flashes him a detached smile as she slides his British passport back through the plastic divider.
"Right," she says. "Welcome to New York, Mr. Aquitaine."
Harlan Rogers has two daughters, $357.5 million in liquid assets, another billion tied up in the bond and currency markets, a building in Singapore, and a three-story penthouse in Tokyo. He's on the president's council of economic advisors. Nobody gets to where Harlan Rogers is without a fuckton of regrets, and when Arthur meets him in person, Rogers is nothing like the bombastic shouter Arthur has seen in CNBC clips and has read in Heard on the Street columns. He's quiet and surprisingly shy for a man of his wealth, but Arthur supposes that dreams are a great equalizer, and confessing them must feel too religious to some.
It must also hurt like an open wound, Arthur can sympathize, because up until two months ago, Rogers had three daughters.
Arthur has three interviews with Rogers and his wife, Amelia; they cry all three times. He steals one of Traveler's many cars and drives the long and quiet route from the Rogers' Central Park West home to Ashley's private school, loiters around the riding club she'd attended, buys a coffee and listens to her prep-school friends sit in an alternately subdued and overly upbeat circle at the NYU Starbucks on the weekends. He flips through her closet, reads her journals, laughs when he finds a sheaf of cartoons Ashley must have drawn, chock full of cruel and absolutely accurate character defamations of some of the assholes in her classes. She filled out her school planner in five different colors and most of the calls on her mobile phone are to Susan and Melita, her mother and father. Ashley was a good girl, and Arthur watches Harlan and Amelia mourn her with a real and too-close sympathy.
"What is it that you want, exactly," Arthur asks during their last meeting before the job. "I can stretch out time for you, and I imagine cost is no object."
"It's not," Harlan interrupts. "We just — " he starts, and stops himself.
His mouth is slack with grief, his whole face aged a hundred years since the last photos of him taken, just months ago, at Rogers Fund's last ritzy cocktail party, Amelia laughing vibrantly on his arm, her makeup smudged.
Now, Amelia is as drawn as her husband, but she puts a hand on his knee and turns to Arthur, says in a voice even with discipline, "We want to know what she would have been like. To watch her grown up a little. We want to know the person she was growing up into." She hesitates. "Can you do that? Is that even possible?"
Arthur closes his notebook, slides his pen into the jacket pocket of his suit.
"Mrs. Rogers," he promises, "anything is possible."
He takes two extra days to construct the dream, because the Rogers are paying him a fortune and he wants them to know Ashley, too, see her grown up. He thinks about the baby Mal is having, maybe right now, and redoubles his efforts, and when he rolls up to the Rogers' house in the Hamptons that weekend, it's to find it empty save for his clients — the ocean lapping at the shore in a steady rhythm outside the wide-open windows.
"The staff is gone, just like you requested," Amelia reports, nervous. She nods toward the kitchen. "Harlan's just on the phone with our lawyers."
Arthur arches a brow. "There's no reason to worry, Mrs. Rogers."
"I know," she sputters, hands fluttering. "I know. Greg is — Greg is one of our oldest friends. He would never lead us astray. But it's just that this is — "
She cuts herself up here, and Arthur thinks about how when he'd done his digging on the parents, he'd learned that before Amelia had vanished into the woodwork of Rogers' empire, she'd been a terrifyingly brilliant corporate lawyer at an M Street firm in D.C.
"I just want this to work," she admits, exhausted, shoulders slumped. "I just don't know what to do anymore."
Arthur chooses the solarium of the house to set up. He explains what he's doing every step of the way, Amelia and Harlan watching him with curious eyes as he sets up the tubing, shows them the Somnacin doses. Smart people — and Arthur doesn't work for anybody who isn't smart anymore — usually like to be appraised of anything anybody injects into their bodies, and he's developed an entire song and dance about it. He talks to them about the way the dosing will affect their bodies, and they have a moment of unexpected levity when Amelia accuses Harlan of outright lying about his weight.
"I am not that heavy," Harlan says bitterly, bright red with embarrassment.
"Unless all the hair on the top of your head weighed an astonishing twenty pounds, you sure as hell are," Amelia retorts, and makes Arthur redo all of his calculations.
Harlan stares at Arthur balefully. "Are you married, Mr. Aquitaine?"
Arthur bites back a smile. "No," he says.
"You are a lucky man," Harlan mutters.
Arthur is careful when he presses the IVs into their arms, soothing when he starts the Somnacin drip, waits until both of them are out before checking all the locks, setting up his own emergency kick and going under himself.
Whether or not Harlan and Amelia know it, they have known Ashley as she grew up already. They're good parents, and they knew every moment of her life, aged her in their heads a hundred times over, spent entire nights lying awake together, talking about the delight of watching her grow up, how interesting she is, what she likes, what she'll be like. And it's so easy for Arthur to build the landscape and let Harlan and Amelia fill in their own blanks. He sets up a modest apartment in the Bay Area, cluttered with letters and photographs of Susan and Melita, her other sisters, a dust-covered photograph of her parents by her bedside, a family portrait taped up next to a well-used drafting table. There's a clamp light, hovering over the sheets of white paper, half-inked along with plastic rulers and artist pencils, rubber erasers. He lets Harlan and Amelia stand, marveling a moment before he makes a clanging noise from the kitchen from his vantage point in the window seat, monitoring.
Amelia tenses, looks at him. "Is that — ?"
He smiles at her. "Why don't you go find out?" he suggests gently.
And that's when Ashley pokes her head out of the kitchen. She looks like her mother, mostly, but with a bit of her father's unfortunate and slightly snubby nose. She's too practical a girl to have opted for plastic surgery, though, and right now, standing with her hair in a messy knot, flour on her face, Arthur thinks she is lovely, and just as predicted — a perfect and vivid projection of her parents' hearts, flawless and real as anything else Arthur had put into her apartment.
"Mom? I wasn't expecting you guys for another two hours?" Ashley asks, sounding baffled, before saying, "Oh, Jesus — Dad, are you crying?"
Harlan is, but he says, "No, sweetheart," and Amelia chokes out, "Sorry for barging in on you."
"It's okay," Ashley assures them, coming all the way out of the kitchen now — inkspots on her hands, smudges of God knows what on her shirt — a worried look on her face as she goes to her parents. "I was just trying to make a cake."
"Oh, honey, you know you failed home ec," Amelia tells her.
"And I still would," Ashley agrees glumly, and then Arthur looks away, because that's when Harlan grabs his daughter, when Amelia grabs onto both of them, and they drag one another into one of those desperate hugs it hurts to watch. In the background, Arthur can hear Ashley saying, "Mom? Dad? Are you sure you guys are okay?" and Amelia crying, "We're fine now. Now we're absolutely fine."
Arthur wakes up first, one hour later, dissolving the dream carefully, leaving them sitting at a restaurant with Ashley, eating cioppino and laughing at Harlan's awful puns, and when he sits up, he spares a minute to look at the way Amelia and Harlan are curled in toward one another, holding hands, their faces wet.
He has another ten minutes before the Somnacin will wear off for them, and Arthur doesn't bother with his normal post-dream routine, doesn't clean up or pack anything or worry about the locks on the door. He just listens to the ocean outside the house and hurts all over, like he's been pummeled with fists because he wants Mal. He wants Dom. He wants his mother. He wants Eames.
Harlan pays him twice the absurd amount Arthur was already charging.
"When can we hire you again?" he asks. He looks crazy, heart huge in his eyes. Amelia is still in the solarium. "I'll pay you double. I'd like to keep you on retainer."
Arthur feels like a shit, but he knows he's going to say it already:
"I've had some legal tangles in the past — I'm usually not in the States."
"Let me make some calls," Harlan says, ruthless with efficiency.
Harlan's contacts are more impressive than even Traveler's, and when Arthur washes up in LAX two weeks later, it's with a the full financial force of Rogers behind him, with new papers and a squeaky clean history. Traveler had pouted furiously for days like a neglected mistress, until Arthur had been forced to detour to Chicago and Traveler's penthouse there and drop him into a fucking Indiana Jones movie to make him shut up.
"I didn't think you were the type of man given to jealous fits," Arthur had pointed out, watching Traveler watch as Arthur rolls up his sleeves.
"I didn't think you were the type of man to be so easily wooed with money and access," Traveler had retorted.
"I think, Mr. Traveler, you've been operating under some grave, grave misgivings about why I tolerate your presence, then," Arthur had said, light, and jabbed him with an IV.
Traveler is incrementally less bitchy by the time Arthur lets himself out of the apartment, fucks off to O'Hare and takes the red-eye to Los Angeles. It's a shitty flight, with turbulence over Denver, and even after they land, they end up taxiing for nearly an hour before somebody gets their thumbs out of their asses and finds them a gate. He's murderous by the time he gets his rental car, which puts him in a perfect mindset to drive in L.A., apparently, and gets him to the bungalow on the outskirts of the city.
It's just after nine, and Arthur dithers on at the front door a few minutes before he nuts up and hits the doorbell.
He hears it singing through the house, a beat passing before a baby starts screaming, and then Dom swearing, "Oh, fuck me," before there's the thump of angry feet and the door being jerked open with extreme prejudice.
"What the hell do you — " Dom starts, and then loses his train of thought.
Arthur grins at him. "I'm guessing I woke the baby," he says.
"We just got her down," Dom says stupidly. "Mal's going to kill you."
"That's unfortunate," Arthur says. "I just spent like sixteen months clawing my way up the criminal ladder to get back to you guys, too."
And that's when Mal comes around the corner, a baby wailing on her shoulder.
Her hair is a wreck, longer and pulled away from her face in a tight ponytail. Her face is rounder and she's curvier than Arthur has ever seen her, dressed in a robe that looks almost as tired as she does, expression murderous.
"Hi, Mal," Arthur says, when she sees him in the door.
She barely misses a beat, closes the distance between them and holds out her baby: she's a screaming, red-faced, squirmy infant like all other infants Arthur has ever seen up close, completely unremarkable except for the part where she's part Mal and part Dom, and therefore most amazing thing Arthur has ever come across. Arthur strokes a thumb over the baby's red and blotchy cheek, tacky with tears, and murmurs, "Hi, you."
"Her name's Philippa," Mal informs him.
"Hi, Philippa," Arthur says, smiling.
"Okay," Mal says, and shoves the baby at Dom.
Arthur just has time to say, "Hey, can I hold — " before all the wind is knocked out of him, before Mal is clutching him to her chest, fingers clawing at his Balenciaga jacket, her face hot in the curve of his throat. He can feel her swallowing hard around all the tears she's still not going to cry around him, and Arthur just clutches her back.
"I called you hundreds of times," Mal says into his shoulder. "Hundreds and hundreds of times — I forgot you weren't going to be able to answer every time."
Arthur feels Dom's hand, the weight of it a warm and familiar comfort on the back of his his head, and he closes his eyes. "Me, too," he admits, because it's true, and Mal is his best friend, and he's safe in her hands.
For the first time in more than a year, Arthur gets really, really drunk. He doesn't really even like being drunk, but it's the revelatory freedom of knowing he can be that's the draw here, and Mal gets drunk with him and they lie in the living room of the house while Dom fusses over Philippa and sighs over them both.
The first three days, all they do is talk and order delivery, exhausting every restaurant in a two-mile radius and eating a prodigious amount of pizza. Arthur does everybody's laundry and gets up for Philippa's midnight feedings, because he can, and because she's lovely and has Mal's eyes and Dom's hair and he already loves her with a possessive ache that makes him feel exposed all over. Dom declares on about the second day, waking up groggy and finally rested after two months of nonstop midnight feedings, that he is now a steadfast believer in polyamory, because the only way two human beings can raise a baby is if they have a third person involved in the marriage.
Arthur tells them about his first shitty months wandering penniless around Europe, going from hostel to hostel. He tells them about how annoying it is to convince sketchy people you're interested in becoming a sketchy person, too, until Mal's sobbing she's laughing so hard.
"I can be sketchy!" Arthur protests. He doesn't know why. He's trying to argue this point while wearing True Religion jeans and an Armani Exchange t-shirt; even he feels like a moron trying to win this fight.
Dom squints at him. "Arthur — you iron your jeans."
"Fuck the both of you," Arthur swears.
Traveler calls six times the first three days Arthur is in L.A.; he answers on the sixth call and before Traveler can get a word out, Arthur says that if this number shows up on his cell phone again, he's throwing it in the river and telling Harlan the only way Arthur will work for him again is if he pulls all of his money out of Traveler's fund.
There's a long silence before, "You're a filthy little shit, Arthur."
"Bye, Mr. Traveler," Arthur says evenly, and when he hands up, Mal is looking contemplative in the doorway of the kitchen, her hands circled around a mug of tea.
"Did you find Eames?" she asks suddenly. "When you ran?"
Arthur shrugs. He'd looked, but he had also remembered what Eames said, about only getting caught when he wanted. "No," is all he says.
Mal is quiet for a long minute, reading all the other things into the silence before she clears her throat, says, "Well, I always hated him anyway."
"Yes," Arthur agrees, a smile tugging at his mouth, "you did."
Mal and Dom moved out west a few months after Arthur left, government relocation program. They still contract, but the work is being done small scale, and every time Arthur asks about it, as delicately as he can, Mal's mouth goes into a hard and angry line and she has to excuse herself to go check on Philippa. He gives up after a week and asks Dom instead, and he pulls one of his resigned smiles and says, "Terrorist interrogations," which is basically all that needs to be said on that subject.
He stays with them a month, bunking down on the same fucking futon he slept on in college, taking intermittent business trips to wherever Amelia or Harlan happen to be and carving out some neutral time to deal with Traveler, who's progressed past once-favored mistress into crazy ex-girlfriend territory with aplomb.
"How would you know?" Dom asks. "You've never had a crazy ex-girlfriend."
"I read," Arthur says primly, and thankfully whatever Mal wants to say about that is cut off when his phone rings and it's Traveler, raving:
"What the fucking fuck, Arthur? Who the fuck is Eames?"
After Arthur says stupidly, "Eames? What are you talking about?" Mal more or less wrenches the mobile out of his hands and puts it on speakerphone in the middle of the kitchen table.
"Eames!" Traveler is roaring. "Some fucking dick named Eames like he's a fucking post-modernist furniture designer fucking stole all my fucking money, Arthur!"
Dom's eyes get big; Mal mouths, "I knew it!" Arthur covers his face with his hands and says through his palms, muffled and exhausted already just thinking about this, "Okay, great, Mr. Traveler — but I fail to see what this has to do with me."
"Oh do you," Traveler spits at him through the phone. "Here, let me fucking enlighten you!"
There's a violent rustle of papers before Traveler bellows, over-enunciating every word:
"Dear Mister Traveler — I cannot tell you how chuffed I am that after enjoying the favors of our mutual acquaintance, Mr. Aquitaine, for so long, you would decide to patronize my little service."
"Jesus Christ," Arthur says out loud and to himself. "He left a note?"
"Obviously," Traveler continues, "you may have noticed by now that he and I have varying professional styles: he enjoys being kept and wearing cunningly tailored suits, and I prefer to take all your money so you can't afford to buy them for him anymore."
Across the table, Mal's shoulders start shaking; the warning look Arthur gives her is utterly ignored.
"Mr. Traveler," Arthur tries.
"Anyway, while I am sure you are sitting there, slack-jawed in your thoroughly looted apartment by now, wondering what the hell's just happened, I wanted to let you know that while Mr. Aquitaine is a love and would never sink so low as to root around your subconscious, steal your secrets, and then use them to access your accounts, he did help pioneer the practice. Anyway, fabulous working with you, etc etc. Eames," Traveler concludes in a volcanic shout.
"Let me get this straight," Arthur says, ignoring the way Mal and Dom are collapsed all over each other, silent and weak with laughter at this point, "somewhere between the last time I flew in to see you and right now, you hired Eames to take you dreaming."
"Are you fucking working with him?" Traveler screams, near hysterical. "I swear to fucking God, Arthur, I will fucking end you. Do you fucking understand me? I will fucking ruin you, I will ruin your fucking friends if you don't — "
Arthur snatches the phone off of the table and brings it to his ear, turning off the speakerphone and saying into it quietly, "Traveler, I haven't seen Eames in years. I don't even know how you got in contact with him, or that he still had access to PASIV technology. The fact that you were stupid enough to let a confirmed con man into your house tells me you were either sloppy in your vetting or cocky beyond belief."
He glances at Mal and Dom, who look a bit shaken, and looks back at his bare toes against the black and white tiles of their kitchen floor.
"And it would do you good to remember what Eames said, Greg," he says. "Because it's true, I did help pioneer it, and I'm good."
Traveler is quiet over the line, like the realization is finally sinking in.
"Don't threaten me, Mr. Traveler," Arthur tells him. "Don't threaten my friends. Are we clear on this subject?"
There's a mulish silence on the phone until Traveler bites out, "Crystal."
"Good. Make a list. Tell me how you found him. I'll be there tomorrow morning," Arthur says, and hangs up the phone feeling dizzy and crazy and out of breath, like he's run a marathon standing still. He stares at Mal and Dom and they stare back at him. "I think I need to go to Chicago."
Going from the lush, seventy-degree winter of Los Angeles to the Arctic shitshow of Chicago in January's thrall is completely crap, and the situation isn't necessarily improved by the way that Dom has invited himself along on the trip. Arthur has reams and reams of arguments why Dom should stay as far away from the uncomfortable complications of Arthur's life as possible but Dom's an immovable object when he decides something, and they end up taking the red-eye into O'Hare at o'dark thirty with Mal's blessing and a couple of carefully-concealed alloy weapons, dissembled into innocuous pieces and tucked away in Arthur and Dom's carry on luggage.
"Cab?" Dom asks, standing shivering in the bleak freeze of Chicago at 5 a.m.
Arthur points toward the Hertz desk. "See, this is what I'm saying about you having the makings of a truly unsuccessful criminal," he sighs. "Cab would mean we were stuck there if we had to leave fast."
Dom looks around them, paranoid. "Should you be talking about that so loudly?"
"It's Chicago," Arthur reminds him. "Have you heard about their mayor?"
He rents a sturdy SUV with four-wheel drive and wends them through the ice-crusted streets, to the sleek block of highrises that Traveler calls home when he's in the Second City. Fatima at the front desk just smiles and waves him and Dom through, murmuring, "Mr. Aquitaine," the indulgent way everybody does for Arthur in the context of Traveler.
"So," Dom asks, when they're in the elevator, rocketing up to the 40th floor, "tell me, does everybody think you and Traveler are fucking?"
It's gratifying that Dom doesn't. "Pretty much, yeah," Arthur mumbles.
"And you've never felt the need to disabuse anybody of this notion?" Dom asks reasonably, sounding fascinated and grinning, too casual for a man about to get into it with an extremely hostile millionaire who's just been robbed and is looking for someone to take it out on.
"I find it useful when people underestimate me," Arthur says, watching the digital readout in the elevator tick upward, and slides a hand into his trouser pocket, where that Beretta he stole so long ago is ruining the line of his pants. "Get ready."
When the elevator doors whisper open, Arthur spares a moment to feel genuinely stunned.
Traveler is the definition of conspicuous wealth: he wears the most fabulously ostentatious bespoke suits, drinks only the best wine, drives a new car every year. He owns a Tesla and parasails. He gives millions to charity and shows up at every gala and all the society pages, haunts the hallways at Sothebys and Bonhams and Christies, hoovering up everything from lesser-known Impressionists, Spanish medieval altarpieces to post-war British painters and hangs them haphazardly around his dozens of homes across the world, artfully lit by his decorators and — in the case of the Francis Bacon's — by Arthur. Most flashy of all, Arthur has admitted privately to himself, is the way he flaunts Arthur: dragged him from Moscow to Shanghai to Sao Paulo in private jets, installed him in precarious buildings in Malibu, clinging to the sides of hills, monopolized his time and doled out Arthur's services to his friends and enemies.
Traveler never has a hair out of place, never lets anybody see him sweat.
Which makes the absolute chaos of his apartment something of a wonder.
All the art has gone missing from the walls, a series of hideous post-modern African tribal masks has been smashed, there are papers everywhere. Every piece of breakable glass looks like it's been broken. The gas fireplace is still smoking, and in the ruins of the ceramic logs, Arthur can see a couple of books that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the first edition Ayn Rands that Traveler rubs like Talismans. The furniture is all overturned or smashed into pieces — Queen Anne chairs and colonial sideboards turned into firewood.
In the middle it all, on a slashed-open suede couch, Traveler is sitting with his head in his hands, arguing with someone on the phone, but Arthur can tell his heart's not in it.
" — the Barbados account, too?" Traveler's saying. "That's — okay. Fine, what about — "
"Mr. Traveler," Arthur interrupts, and he feels Dom warm and close to his back, and he realizes it's the first time he's known the luxury of it. "You summoned?"
Traveler shoots him a murderous look, saying into the phone, "Look, Arthur just got here — yeah, fuck you, too — I'll call you back," before hanging up and pointing at Dom, asking, "Who the fuck is that?"
Before Arthur can say, "none of your business," Dom snaps, "Brother-in-law."
"Great, fucking perfect," Traveler grinds out, rubbing at his temples. "Look — just fucking fix it."
Arthur toes a piece of shattered ceramic and realizes it's the probably-fake Ming vase Traveler had picked up and smuggled into the country from Taiwan last year.
"Mr. Traveler, I know the customer is always right, but the scope of your request is significantly beyond the scope of my abilities," Arthur says evenly, and before Traveler's tomato-red face can translate into even more shouting, he adds, "Do you have the information I asked you to prepare? I can take a look."
When Traveler gathers all of it, it's not much: a few notes in a familiar-looking cursive scrawl, a telephone number, and a business card, the name Eames, and Acquisitions and Depositions. Arthur holds it up, arching one eyebrow.
"I think he meant dispossessions."
Traveler stares at him. "Are you seriously fucking spellchecking the guy?"
"I meant that more in the, you hired a guy who fucked up spelling dispossessions sense," Arthur explains, and passes the business card to Dom, who smiles down at it fondly.
Grinding his teeth, Traveler starts picking through the wreckage of his apartment, snatching up salvageable books and papers, saying, "You were otherwise occupied."
"And you were that desperate?" Arthur asks, reaching down for a hardback.
"It was a spur of the moment thing. His name came up two nights ago and I jumped. I hoped it might send you a message," Traveler admits, righting himself, holding an excruciatingly ugly Attic fertility statue — still in perfect condition, pity.
"Oh, it certainly did." Arthur turns over the book in his hands and realizes it's a poetry collection — greatest works, and he hesitates a minute before he opens it to the table of contents, and then turns to page ninety-three.
If I had known this is what you wanted, I could have been a bigger twat, Eames has written, handwriting jagged, across the top margin of the page, the curls of the 'g's dipping into the heading: KUBLA KHAN.
Dom, reading over his shoulder, makes a snorting noise.
"What?" Traveler demands, reaching for the book. "What is it?"
Arthur snatches it out of his reach, passing it over to Dom and collecting the rest of Traveler's scant evidence against Eames and tucking it away in his jacket.
"I'll be in touch," Arthur says, and he and Dom sweep out of Traveler's apartment. They're halfway down the building, elevator humming, before Dom can't fucking help himself anymore and says:
"So when you say, nothing really happened between you and Eames."
Arthur glares at him. "Seriously, I'll kill you."
"I can't wait to tell Mal," Dom says to himself. "This is going to make how angry she is about the war in Afghanistan look like child's play."
Stepping out of the building — "Not staying tonight, Mr. Aquitaine?" — and into the unheated parking structure is like walking into a fucking blast freezer, but at least it keeps Arthur clear-headed, and he thinks furiously through the situation.
Eames must work mostly in Europe, the fact that he didn't ping anybody's radar when he'd done the job for the PASIV is a sign he's careful, and possibly hasn't been around the U.S. Enough to build up too much of a jacket here. Just the paintings he'd taken out of Traveler's apartment have an insurance value of more than $50 million, and any attempt to fence them would have to be done carefully, over time, and through trusted and skilled sources — most of whom operate out of New York, and nowhere near Chicago. It's possible Eames could have already taken a flight out of the city, but properly transporting as many pieces as he took would be a logistical nightmare, especially if he was interested in resale and wanted them to remain as pristine as possible. Traveler said earlier it was a spur of the moment thing, so even if Eames had marked Traveler for pillaging from the start — highly likely, Arthur thinks with unbearable fondness — it's still unlikely Eames could have predicted exactly how many pieces were worthy of theft in Traveler's house. A significant number of those were acquired through private and under-the-table transactions for tax reasons.
Still, Arthur thinks, settling into the driver's seat of the SUV, Eames is good.
"You think he's gone already?" Dom asks, frowning down at the papers Eames had left behind, at the business card like there's something there Arthur hasn't seen already.
Arthur clutches at the steering wheel. "I'm not sure," he admits. "There're too many logistical possibilities — he's a thief."
Dom nods, distracted, squints at a torn-off sheet of yellow legal paper, a half-illegible phone number scrawled on it, and starts digging something out of his pocket.
"He knows people," Arthur continues, even though he suspects at this point he's just talking to himself. "He could have lined up everything beforehand."
Making a noise of agreement, Dom starts stabbing numbers into his three hundred-year old Nokia.
"He could be miles away already," Arthur concludes, feeling a little heartsick, his stomach turn, like he's wandering around Paris feeling lost and stupid and reasonlessly hurt, fifty euros in his pocket and nowhere to go, a thousand miles from home, and so scared he could throw up, all over again.
"Hi," Dom is saying into his cell phone, "yeah, sorry — my friend said to call if I hadn't heard from him by five, and it's way past. I'm just wondering, have you — yes, English."
Arthur stares at him.
"Great, great," Dom is saying, motioning to Arthur for a pen. "Where did you say the bar was, again?"
"Are you shitting me?" Arthur shouts, fumbling with his jacket and giving Dom his pen. "Are you fucking with me? He still has the phone?"
Dom just nods like the guy on the other end of the cell can hear him. "Thanks so much, we'll be there in two shakes," he promises, and hangs up.
"He's still in Chicago?" Arthur croaks, feeling only twenty-five for the first time, like he's not sure he should be driving in this weather and that Mal should have made him wear a heavier coat, and that he wants Dom to tell him what to do.
"Yeah, Arthur," Dom says, kindly, in a way that makes Arthur glad to know him. "Here, take your astronaut pen and let's go find him."
Arthur thinks he would fight a bear if it meant that he could get a navigation system in the car, because the alternative is realizing that Dom is apparently map dyslexic, and it takes them forty minutes to find Milwaukee Avenue, at which point Arthur is only a thin line of self-control away from slamming on the breaks, pulling over onto the side of the road and absolutely losing his shit. He stares at the roving herds of giant parkas walking around in skinny jeans like marshmallows on stilts and hates all of them, thinks that if he misses Eames this time, he absolutely is not going to be responsible for what he does.
"Arthur, it'll be fine," Dom says soothingly. "The bartender said — "
"Dom," Arthur cuts him off. "Shut the fuck up and tell me where to turn."
When they find the bar — "The guy said there wasn't really a sign out front, per se." — Arthur pulls into a spot but he and Dom both sit there in the car for a long minute, marveling in mute wonder. It is, Arthur thinks, objectively the most amazing bar he's ever seen: there isn't a sign, or any markings, really, on the outside other than a neon palm tree, blinking tiredly — all but one of its leaves gone out. There are hot pink coconuts nestled at the top of its trunk that look like breasts.
Dom says finally, "Well, it is sort of him."
"Christ," Arthur mutters, and gets out of the car.
He suffers a moment of nightblindness when he steps into the bar, Dom's hand cupped around his elbow like no time has passed at all since they were all idiots first mapping out the geography of dreams. Arthur had resented it then, Dom's overprotective streak, and now he leans into it, is grateful for it in that long, harrowing moment before the low lights start to resolve themselves he can see again.
So the first time Arthur sees Eames in two years and a handful of weeks, Eames is hunched over the end of a bar, wearing a black leather jacket and faded jeans. Arthur can't really see his face, but the shoulders are instantly familiar, that long arc of his back, Arthur would recognize the profile anywhere. Eames is clawing at his own hair — it looks longer, Arthur thinks — staring into a cheap tumbler on the wet bar, looking objectively busted, so drunk he keeps nodding off and jerking awake again, and Arthur thinks that right now, Eames is the most wonderful thing he's ever seen.
Dom makes some noises about not wanting to see this and checking into a hotel, and Arthur gives him the car keys and shoves him away. There's a brief, horribly cold blast when Dom opens the door and ventures out again, and then it's just Arthur staring at Eames, trying to figure out what to say, how to work his jaw.
He thinks about Traveler's trashed apartment, about Eames leaning over his shoulder and asking about Penrose stairs, about rivers leading down to a sunless sea, and about the way he used to lock himself into unattended rooms and go down into the memory of Mal's wedding, the searing orange sunset, and give himself the freedom of choosing something different.
And then it just seems wasteful to stand here, five yards from what he wants and too scared to take it, so Arthur weaves past a disinterested-looking waitress, three drunks further down the bar, and puts a hand on Eames's shoulder.
He must not be as drunk as he looks, or maybe Eames is just too good to be totally off his guard, because Arthur feels all his muscles tense under the warm leather of the jacket as he turns.
Arthur hasn't thought about this as much as he would like to. It gets depressing every time he's tried, because there were always so many fantastical possibilities and so little chance of it ever coming to pass, and he had things to do and reasons to get up and get dressed and showered in the morning, and languishing in self-pity was never particularly helpful. But he has thought about this — thought about what Eames might look like now, if his hair would still be shorn short or if that was strictly for his military con, if his eyes were really were the rare gray-green Arthur remembers, if Eames would still look at Arthur and make him feel wanted and singularly unique.
He does, Arthur thinks, and says out loud, "Your hair is longer."
Eames blinks at him, lazy with with surprise. "Darling," he murmurs.
Arthur smiles for him, and he knows it's shy, he feels shy, but he lets his hand slid from Eames's shoulder, trail up to stroke through the dark blond curls of it at the nape of Eames's neck, slow. "It looks good on you," he says.
"How drunk am I? Right now?" Eames asks, but he leans into Arthur's touch like a cat, eyes shuttering a minute before he forces them open, back to Arthur's face.
"Very," Arthur tells him. "The bartender said he took your phone and keys."
"But you're real?" Eames asks. "Actually here."
Arthur's smile gets wider. "Yes, Mr. Eames, I'm real. Actually here."
Eames swallows, and Arthur watches the bob of his Adam's apple, the dark shadow of his lashes over his cheeks. Eames is hot and alive under Arthur's hand, and Arthur doesn't have any words for it, how he feels right now to be here.
"Are you here about Traveler?" Eames asks, sounding unsteady, eyes blurry. Arthur slips onto the stool next to him, cards his other hand through Eames's bangs to put them in order. God, he wants to take Eames home, take care of him.
"Sort of," Arthur admits. "You did a number on his place."
Eames groans, and leans forward into Arthur's hands, his head heavy and his hair damp, and Arthur puts a palm on the back of Eames's neck, strokes a thumb over the knob of his spine in comfort.
"I did it on a lark," Eames says, long pauses between the words, like he's trying to be careful and mostly coming out slow. "I thought — he had you, why did he need everything else, the fucker."
"Eames," Arthur says, and Eames looks so needlessly wrecked that Arthur just leans in and catches his mouth, presses their lips together, and Eames makes a noise like he's been in pain for hours with no relief.
It's not like their first kiss, the other kiss, their only other kiss. Eames is hesitant and needy and there's no real heat behind it, just a bewildering tenderness Arthur is going to blame on long separation and booze, and if he cups Eames's face in his hands, it's just because Eames is drunk as hell and nothing more.
"I don't have that kind of money," Eames mumbles, in between kisses, tiny sips at Arthur's mouth, and his hands have come up to fist the lapels of Arthur's dark woolen overcoat, dragging him close. "I mean — I have a lot, plenty to keep you in those suits you like. And I kept some of his paintings, the ugly post-war ones, because I know you like them even though they're terrible."
Arthur huffs a laugh into Eames's mouth. "Eames, seriously — "
"And I wouldn't make you live in this frozen hellscape," Eames goes on, babbling now, words tumbling one over the other, bubbling out of him. "You're too skinny for cold weather and all the big coats ruin your couture — we could still go to Paris. I have wallspace for your ugly paintings."
"In between the books?" Arthur can't help but ask, and he's grinning like an idiot, an actual moron. The entire bar must be staring at them by this point and he doesn't care — his heart is exploding in his chest.
Eames looks heartbroken, pleading. "Darling, I have read such terrible poetry in absolute shameful yearning for you," he confesses. "I've run out of shit in English — I'm going to have to read German love poetry next."
"That would be a tragedy," Arthur agrees.
"So you'll come with me this time?" Eames asks, suddenly overjoyed, and still so so incredibly drunk Arthur bets none of this conversation is actually passing through any of Eames's higher cognitive functions.
Softly, Arthur says, since Eames probably won't remember this tomorrow or ever again, "I wanted to come with you last time, too."
"But this time you will," Eames asks again, petulant.
"Yes," Arthur says, presses it smiling into Eames's mouth, "this time I will."
The bartender, who is a good sport and thanks Arthur for the great floor show, helps him get Eames to a cab, which helps him get Eames to the lobby of the Peninsula, at which point the concierge and a bellhop help Arthur get him into his suite. He tips them both outrageously, which still doesn't stop either of them from looking at Arthur like he just went to Boystown and roofied the nicest looking piece of rough trade.
It's late, and Eames is well and truly passed out by now, utterly unhelpful as Arthur takes off his shoes and peels off his jacket, manages to roll his dead weight under the covers. Eames is red faced, still distressed-looking, and Arthur sits on the edge of the massive bed, the 1000-thread count hotel sheets smooth under his fingertips, and watches him breath for a long time, brushes the hair out of Eames's face.
No matter what Mal says Arthur is hiding underneath his waistcoats, he really doesn't have much in the way of romantic inclinations. Arthur is practical and boring and he is exactly what he looks: competent and efficient. It's never bothered him, really, but it also leaves him wholly unprepared for the swelling ache in his chest, like the afterimage of a bruise, when he looks at Eames. Arthur doesn't know where Eames has been, or what he's been through, if he's been happy or scared, but he wants to. He wants to make Eames wear shirts that actually fit, stop drinking in shit-sad bars in Chicago and giving the rock star treatment to other people's houses out of misdirected anger. He wants Eames to wake up, and look at him and say, "darling," and he wants to go to Paris with him and see all of his books, find the perfect spot to hang all the paintings Eames stole for him. Arthur feels ridiculous and jittery, like he's never going to sleep again, like he's just going to sit on the edge of his bed and watch Eames all night.
He remembers Eames in the hallway at the base long ago, saying he wished Arthur felt for him a fraction of what Arthur felt for Dom, and Arthur is swept away by the strangeness of that, now. Arthur thinks he would raze entire cities for Eames.
He ends up starting to nod off, so he kicks off his shoes and slips out of his coat, leaving his suit and tie and shirt and trousers in a pile by the other side of the bed and creeping under the covers too carefully. He stares at Eames's sleeping face, woozy with exhaustion, and falls asleep counting his breaths.
Arthur wakes up to Eames's soft-eyed stare, Eames's hand on Arthur's face, in the warm cocoon of the hotel bed where they are curled like parentheses toward one another, keeping their secrets in between. His voice is hoarse when he says, "Morning."
"It's three a.m.," Eames corrects, his words just as raspy. "So you're real, then?"
Stretching, it takes longer to answer, the first syllable coming out like a long hum instead. "Yes — real."
Eames looks sick. "Then that entire conversation happened, even the bit about the German poetry."
"Sadly, yes," Arthur reports, still muzzy with sleep. He's loose, happy, too tired to be anything but.
"And yet," Eames says, sounding wondering, "you're here."
"It's my room, Eames," Arthur mumbles, closing his eyes again and turning his face into the pillow. He feels like he hasn't slept for days, and between the heavy weight of the comforter and the smell of Eames's cigarettes and aftershave he thinks he could probably just drowse in the easy comfort of this for days. "Of course I'm here."
"And yet, I am here," Eames revises, and Arthur just makes a humming noise of agreement at that, enjoys the brief silence before Eames asks, "Were they right? About you and Traveler?"
Arthur cracks one eye open. "No one is right about me and Traveler," he manages. "There is no me and Traveler — and next time, instead of gossiping about me with strangers you should just call and ask."
He's expecting a smart comment, a filthy innuendo, but Eames just says in a hush, "So you aren't? With him?" His eyes are vast like the ocean in the dark of the room, and Arthur reaches over to trace a finger clumsily over Eames's eyebrow, to touch the tip of his nose, trace the weary line of his jaw. "Are you with anyone else?"
"No," Arthur promises. "There's no one."
Eames leers at him, reflexive, with no real intent behind it just yet, purring, "Arthur," and Arthur doesn't know why he says it, but he says it, blurts out:
"There hasn't been anyone — not since you."
"Christ," Eames says, sounding stricken, reaches his arms out and draws Arthur in closer under the covers, strokes his palm in warm circles on Arthur's back.
"I don't really like that many people," Arthur says, feeling his face go hot — he's not sure he's embarrassed, but he's something. "I don't really want that many people."
Eames's hands stroke under the tails of Arthur's shirt, along the line of Arthur's spine, the rough pads of his fingers warm points in the well of Arthur's spine, skittering across the curve of his ribs. But there's a carefulness to his hands that makes Arthur relax, like understanding telegraphed, and Arthur lets himself lean into the touches, arch into Eames's palms.
Eames whispers, breath warm on Arthur's cheek, "That's a long time to be alone."
"Well, you read German love poetry," Arthur retorts without any heat — Eames has wonderful, wonderful hands, and Arthur can feel Eames's smile as he leans in, murmurs, "Almost read German poetry, love," and kisses him.
Arthur makes Eames give back all of Traveler's money and most of his art.
"Where's the Bacon?" Traveler demands, sorting through the canvasses with rough hands, and Arthur swallows a sigh, thinking of the way Eames had touched them — wearing archivist gloves, affectionate, careful. "And the fucking Lucian Freud?"
Shrugging, Arthur says, "Gone when I got there."
Arthur had loved the Lucian Freud, Ib and Her Husband, the chaotic smears of neutral paint in the upper background and the proletariat jeans and ugly coral sweater of the subjects, curled up together in sleep, the man's arm around Isobel's waist. Arthur had seen the painting before, in a few gallery leaflets, and known it was going up for auction, but he hadn't known Traveler had acquired it, and Traveler had never displayed it. Arthur had sat in Eames's warehouse in Skokie and stared at it and stared at it in the dim yellow light yesterday morning — the shirt he'd stolen from Eames that day sliding off of his shoulders — and loved it, the way Isobel's hands looked curled together against her cheek, and Eames had come up behind him, murmured into Arthur's ear:
"Let's keep that one, shall we?"
"Jesus, are you lying to me?" Traveler bites out, manic. His apartment has mostly been put back to order — sadly, the hideous African masks have been repaired — and all the broken glass replaced. The walls look spare, for once just the Chicago cityscape on display in the small hours, sky pink and blue with the first blush of morning.
Arthur says, "Maybe," smiling a smile that shows all his teeth, possibly as a twist of the knife for a year of carting Arthur around like a favored whore.
Traveler claws at his graying hair, swears under his breath, and Arthur takes pity on him.
"Look, file with your insurance company," he advises. "You've got legitimate papers on both of those pieces and significant policies, you're out the art but not the capital. Besides which, Mr. Eames has already agreed to return all of your funds. They should be reappearing in your accounts as soon as the banks cycle through them."
"What I want to know is, why the fuck did he come after me?" Traveler says through gritted teeth. "I'm not the only one you've worked with."
Arthur strokes a hand over the frame of the Auerbach, wonders if he should have held that back, too, but the brush strokes in Head of Julia are so bleak and defeated, desaturated, and Eames had given it that look he gives things that are upsetting.
"Not for me to say," Arthur temporizes and favors Traveler with a wan smile. "Either way, I imagine our business is concluded?"
Glowering, Traveler says, "Going forward, too?"
"Unless you'd like to be robbed some more," Arthur says, easy with it, this surety that pooled in his stomach and makes him feel buoyant. Like sometime this morning in the blistering cold Eames had hollowed out all of Arthur's bones and filled them with certainty instead, called him spoiled with it, so well-loved by the people lucky enough to love him, and Arthur had been pliable in Eames's arms and purring, to know that he's been waiting for something, and not the hope of something after all.
"Just get out of my fucking house," Traveler snarls.
"Goodbye, Mr. Traveler," Arthur says politely, and because it hasn't been all bad, he pauses before he goes to the door, puts a careful hand on Traveler's shoulder, where the sloping line of it tips into his arm. He says, "And Greg, next time, be a little more careful with yourself."
Traveler is fighting a smile, Arthur can tell. "Jesus, Arthur, just go away."
Arthur does, down the forty stories to the ground floor, where Ari bids him good morning and goodbye and Arthur jogs back out to the SUV he'd rented, idling sullenly on the corner with Eames behind the wheel, filling up the cabin of the car with cigarette smoke and pouting abominably.
"Are you seriously smoking American Spirits?" Arthur asks, grabbing the carton out of the change tray and balking.
Eames shrugs. "It was the only thing that bar last night was selling."
"How much longer do you want to pout?" Arthur asks solicitously. "Because I don't mind, but eventually, we're going to get a ticket or Ari is going to wonder why you're parked out here like a goon with Mr. Traveler's boyfriend and call the cops."
Flicking the cigarette out the opened car window, Eames glares at him. "You're a brute, Arthur — a proper twat, I hope you know that."
"Go on," Arthur just says, smiling, "and stay on the right side of the road."
"I don't like this," Eames complains, clinging childishly to his sullenness but turning the key in the car ignition, easing it into drive, "this thing where you're leveraging the two years of idiotic affections I've harbored for you to mock me and make me helpless to your commands."
Arthur leans over, presses a kiss to the top of Eames's shoulder, and says, "Too bad, because I do," as they merge into traffic, the light getting brighter over the city.
They spend a week in Maryland, in the house Arthur grew up in, the first few days of which Eames respectfully makes himself scarce so Arthur can tell his mother a highly edited version of events. She'd known — he'd made sure of it — where he was, that he was all right, that when the military officers came to her door with news that Arthur had been killed while being apprehended, it was all a sham, but that hadn't stopped her from hurling herself at him when he'd knocked on her door. In a separate, funny-because-it's-terrible-fact, coming out of the closet to your mother is supremely easy and mostly an afterthought when she's just overjoyed her now-international criminal son is alive. Eames experiences pirate culture and crabcakes for the first time and loiters around Arthur's high school for long enough that the public safety officer starts giving him black looks. In full brownnosing capacity, Eames bakes scones for breakfast and refers to Arthur's mother exclusively as "gorgeous," which works with embarrassing speed to win her favor, and by the time they leave, she says to Eames a lot of mortifying things about taking care of Arthur, which even more mortifyingly, Eames seems to take seriously.
Mal calls to swear at Arthur the entire time they're at the airport, while Eames is at the front desk sorting out tickets. When he comes back, Arthur's holding the phone an inch from his ear; Eames looks delighted.
"Is that Mrs. Cobb?" he asks loudly, toward the mouthpiece. "Are you yelling in French yet?"
She yells something in French.
"My God that is so good for me," Eames says, effusive with glee. "Talk about that bit where I'm going to leave Arthur used and in a gutter like a hapless milkmaid again."
Arthur shoves him away with a hand in the face and goes back to trying to placate Mal, who's convinced Eames is going to ruin his life in some sort of melodramatic fashion, Philippa crying in the background like she agrees. At some point, Mal interrupts her own raving to ask, "Arthur — are you sure?"
"Yeah," he promises, watching Eames buy many, many cartons of duty free cigarettes. "I'm sure."
"All right then," Mal says, resigned, before taking a deep breath and going straight back into her raving. By the time Eames lumbers back to their perch at the gate — arms laden down with liquor and smokes — Dom has liberated the phone from Mal and is updating Arthur on Philippa's growth and development in excruciating detail, with Mal adding defamatory asides about Eames's character in the background.
"Is she still busy hating me?" Eames asks, slipping into the seat next to Arthur's and leaning heavily on his shoulder.
Arthur shakes his head, reconsiders, and nods. "Sort of," he murmurs, putting a hand over the mouthpiece of the cell phone. "Dom's telling me about the baby — Mal's still ranting in the background."
"They had a baby?" Eames asks, soft-eyed, and of course Eames likes babies. Arthur offers up his wallet and shows him pictures, and eventually gives him the phone so that Dom can talk to a more interested party about Philippa beginning to show signs of walking, how the way she throws babyfood is shockingly aerodynamic. In the background, Arthur just hears Mal accusing Dom of being a traitor.
Later, they're somewhere over the Atlantic, cramped in together in economy, Eames sleeping fitfully against the window and Arthur using him a pillow and suffering from ecstatic insomnia. It was like the best days when he was a kid, exhaustion weighing down on his limbs, and Arthur trying to stay up just a little longer, to savor it, the taste of the day on his mouth and the slight buzz of his incipient sunburn and the smell of the beach, the memory of roasting corn on a bonfire and his mother's laugh, the sip of beer his dad let him steal. They lose their vivid colors after sleep, and Arthur doesn't want to let it go, the brightly saturated memories of this, and he stays awake and stays awake until Eames cracks open his eyes and slides an arm around Arthur's shoulders, croaking, "Darling, go to sleep," and Arthur does.
Eames would make an appalling tour guide, confessing once they land at Charles de Gaulle he doesn't speak a word of French, hasn't really done much exploring of the city, and that he actually hates Parisians.
"Why the hell do you have an apartment here, then?" Arthur asks reasonably, watching as their cab driver takes what is possibly the longest, most circuitous route from the airport to the Fifth known to man.
Eames shrugs helplessly. "Why do I own anything, darling? And besides, it had lovely bookshelves."
Oh, is what Arthur thinks while Eames is forking over an extortionate number of euros to the cab driver when they finally pull up. He stands on the pristine sidewalks in the quiet, cool Paris morning and stares at the white building on the corner, its wrought-iron window boxes overflowing with violets and clematis, juliet balconies crowded with pots of lush green ferns and climbing roses. He has to swallow hard around the sudden and unrelenting sense memory, because he was here, before, wandered this street and this corner with its car dealership and Carrefour and two bakeries, back to back, for hours, looking into all the dark and orange-lit windows and knowing it was pointless.
"You look lost, darling," Eames says, and it's strange, that since Chicago Eames has been so generous with space, leaving entire inches between them where before he always pressed as closely as possible. It makes Arthur feel a little strange — conquered.
"I've been here before," Arthur says quietly. "I walked around this street — " for hours, looking for you in every window, he doesn't say " — when I first ran."
He's come a long way from that kid on the corner in falling-apart sneakers and jeans, scared shitless and chased halfway around the world. Arthur is wrapped up tight in a dark coat and well-cut suit, with options and money and an alibi, but he still has a moment of terrible vertigo, like the earth has given way beneath his feet, of looking at all the windows and feeling weak-kneed with his own helplessness.
Eames asks, "You were here? On this corner?"
"This very corner," Arthur says, quiet with the memory of hurt, and reaches for his suitcase. "Come on, which — "
Eames intercepts Arthur's hand before it can reach the handle of the suitcase and draws it up to his mouth, pressing a kiss, another, a lingering touch of his mouth over Arthur's knuckles, red from the cold. He says, murmuring it into the skin at Arthur's wrist, "I'm so sorry, love, I didn't know."
"Well," Arthur says, brisk, but he doesn't wrench his hand away from Eames, "you couldn't have known, anyway."
The look Eames gives him is hard to interpret. "No, it's true," he murmurs, and he laces their fingers together, guides Arthur through the downstairs door and into the elevator, turning the dial to the 4th floor as he says, "After all, all the spies I'd set on you were operating out of the U.S. at that point."
Arthur thinks, later, that he will be always grateful for his own forward thinking, and for how he'd saved Paris for last, because discovering it by living there is a revelatory experience. Eames says the one trapping of his brief tenure as Flight Commander James Eames he can't seem to shake off is the 6 a.m. wake-up, which means by the time Arthur forcibly ejects himself out of bed in at half past eight there is coffee in the French press and eggs, sunny-side up, and bacon and fresh bread on the breakfast counter, Eames scowling down at a copy of the Guardian he gets from an international newsagent two streets over, just past the boulangerie. Arthur refers to Eames's apartment almost exclusively as the library, because it's true, almost every wall is lined with books he's accumulated from a lifetime, in every language, in every state of care, and Arthur rereads all the Chronicles of Narnia and, in a flagrant tease, The Story of O, while Eames is trying to do highly detail-oriented work on a half-dozen document forgeries that are always spread out around the apartment.
"For the record, I would set myself on fire before sharing you," Eames grumbles that night, into the curve of Arthur's neck as they are falling asleep. They'll drift apart and wake up on opposite sides of the bed in the morning, but Arthur has never minded because that means the first thing he does in the day is reach for Eames.
"I think you're missing the point of the book, Eames," Arthur says around a yawn. "The whole idea is — "
"Christ, shut up, not an iota of romance in you," Eames says, and kisses him silent.
They go to the markets in the mornings, walk up and down the wide streets, underneath the trees, and it all looks exactly like and completely different than the Paris Arthur walked with Mal so many years ago. Everything she built was a bit too perfect, no stray leaves unless they were artful, and although there were always a few projections here and there, the Champs Elysees was never heaving with tourists the way it is in March, at the cusp of spring, when little green buds are starting to grow out of the dormant ceramic flower pots in their kitchen window. Arthur teaches Eames how to order tea and chocolate croissants, drags him to every church in the city and talks extensively about vaulting, about how Eleanor's love of Aquitaine had filtered into the Angevin style, how it had given birth to gothic architecture, with its flying buttresses and huge windows to let the light pour in.
"Why did you choose Aquitaine?" Eames asks, clearly desperate to talk about something else, because even infatuation can excuse only so much discussion of architecture.
Arthur continues rooting through a bin of bargain books in English, settled on the sidewalk near Rue de Severin, outside of a claustrophobically narrow second-hand foreign language store. He shrugs and says, "It seemed fitting."
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur can see Eames picking through a box marked GERMAN — CHILDREN. "What part? She was a French queen — you grew up on the East Coast and think taking taxies is bourgeois."
"She was also the queen of England," Arthur answers, abandoning his search. He'll just have to get Mal to mail him a copy of the book later tonight when he calls. "She was the queen of France and the queen of England, and she gave birth to Richard the Lionhearted, but when we talk about her and when we remember her, she's only ever Eleanor of Aquitaine."
He falters, here, because the reasoning gets iffy, but he remembers the weight of Marion Meade's paperback biography, tucked into his backpack during his freshman year of college, what it meant to him then, what it means to him now.
"She was never anybody but her own person," Arthur concludes, and doesn't dare look at Eames when he says it. "I figured why not borrow her name for luck."
"Darling," Eames says seriously, "I may have just fallen in love with you all over again."
"Ugh," Arthur says, bright red, "I hate you, I don't know why I tell you anything."
In May, Eames finishes forging a Kandinsky, delivers it to his clients, and to celebrate, kidnaps Arthur out of the library and sweeps him away to England for his motherland's two weeks of sunlight. They stay in the Lanesborough for their three days in London, Eames continuously trying to make Arthur wear hideous MY BOYFRIEND WENT TO LONDON AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS T-SHIRT t-shirts, and walking down the South Bank as evening falls, all of London sparkling across the water. Out of what Arthur assumes is probably the deepest of affection, Eames tolerates the entire day Arthur vanishes into Foyles and refuses to answer his phone, and instead of throwing a tantrum about all the books that have invaded their hotel room, just sends a note to the concierge to have them shipped to the library in Paris when they pack to go.
Arthur has never had a particular affinity for the city or the suburbs or the countryside, he usually just goes where he needs to find and preferences be damned, but maybe he falls in love with the way Eames drives too fast down deserted country roads, zooming at a 100 miles per hour through the lush and verdant carpet of the Cotswolds. Eames takes him to the Devil's Jumps, and they wave at a girl in a riding helmet atop a chestnut-colored horse when they park their car on the side of the road. They climb up one of the steep hills at sunset, when the sky is the color of the word organdy and of grapefruits and the yolk of an egg, and Eames presses him down into the scraggly grass and burns the memory of the moment into Arthur's skin.
"You love me best, don't you?" Eames asks, his mouth wet against the skin on the inside of Arthur's elbow, mouthing the crease and sliding hotly down the pale and translucent skin — healed now, from long months away from the work — down to the blue lace of veins in Arthur's wrist. "You'd choose me over anyone else, wouldn't you?"
It makes Arthur frantic, when Eames is so — so, and he just hauls Eames up, murmurs his name over and over again into the warm heat of Eames's mouth.
They spend the night in one of the manor houses Arthur had seen, in little Georgian stone slivers through the hedgerows, the windows of their room flung open onto a wide and thoroughly aristocratic terrace. It's an unseasonably warm night, and they sprawl out across the sheets of the four-poster bed just touching fingertips, listening to the wind and the rabbits and foxes moving outside, staring into the cavernous dark of the ceilings, unhurried.
"I did steal you, Arthur," Eames points out, drowsy. "From everybody else — it's because I wanted you most."
I'm reasonably sure I came to you on my own, Arthur considers pointing out, but it's late, and Eames has never been one for philosophy this late at night, so he just says, "Go to sleep, Mr. Eames," and lets himself drift off.
Arthur takes four trips to New York over the summer, gritting his teeth through punishing turnarounds and snatching sleep where he can in the black towncars that Harlan and Amelia send for him. He meets them in their Central Park West apartment, at Harlan's office, at their house in the Hamptons most frequently, the windows all shut against a brutal summer storm that knocks the power out for three hours and delays the trip down, Amelia fighting with Harlan about why they need a generator the entire time.
He knows he should stop them, or give them some kind of warning, but Arthur's keenly aware he's already too late. He dreamed so rarely when he just got started, and with such a safety net of uncomplicated wonder; once he'd joined McCallister's program, any romance had been peeled away. Arthur still goes under occasionally, with Eames so that they can toy with a new experiment he's been working on — extending Eames's burning desire to con everybody around him to entirely new heights in the subconscious — or with Dom and Mal when he sees them, so they can have day-long conversations without neglecting the children or being interrupted, on their pristine beach on the Outer Banks of Dom's construction. But that's an infrequent occurrence, something for every once in a while, and even Eames doesn't use the PASIV that much anymore. The technology has leached out onto the black market like lead in water, and neither he nor Eames sees the point in getting into a price war with second-tier actors.
But the Rogers are loyal to a fault, or maybe they just know that Arthur knows the interior spaces of a life that their daughter never led like the back of his own hand now. They are, in spite of a constant and still-brittle grief, good people, and at some point by accident or in one of Eames's more contrived accidents, they start accidentally learning things about Arthur's life — mostly because Eames plants things. Like a note in the PASIV case, in his most obnoxiously illegible handwriting.
"Darling," Harlan reads, and Arthur frowns up at him before all the blood drains out of his face at the slip of paper his client is holding, "please don't forget me and shag slutty twinks in the U.S. I am building you more shelves in a very manly fashion as we speak. XOXO, Eames."
"Oh, fuck me," Arthur manages through his searing humiliation and Amelia's screams of laughter.
Harlan hands the note back to Arthur. "So when you said you weren't married."
"This is a new development," Arthur answers, and stuffs the note viciously into his pants pocket. "Soon to be a former development."
Amelia just pats his elbow, kind. "He sounds like a very nice man."
"He's not," Arthur says, petulant. "He's horrible."
Arthur wishes he could wean them off of the machine, but they seem happier, genuinely happier, after they've come out of the dream, as if they've just gone on a trip to visit their other child, and they are comforted enough by her life to come back to their own, their remaining two children and their empires to build in the waking world. He doesn't know, even, how to really explain or convey the sinking feeling he gets in his gut when Harlan and Amelia elect to linger longer and longer in the dreams — they always come out on the other side, are perfectly composed after, since the first time. They still go to charity galas and give speeches about drunk driving and Harlan still rakes in vast quantities of money, vast quantities of which go to Arthur, so who is he to protest?
Out of obvious perverse curiosity, they invite Arthur to their annual Ashley Sarah Rogers charity gala, and because Eames is a pickpocket, obviously, he finds the embossed note card and RSVPs without Arthur's consent or knowledge.
"Eames, they are my clients," Arthur pleads. "I do not socialize with my clients."
"Bollocks," Eames says. "They seem nice enough, and I would do a lot worse than trick you into going to a party in New York to see you in a tuxedo."
The gala is terrible, and Amelia introduces Arthur to everybody as a creative consultant. Eames tells everyone that he's Arthur's young man. By midnight, Arthur is torn between feeling murderous and sick with laughter. By the time they get back to the Pierre Hotel, Eames scandalizes some more people by affecting a very convincing facade of domestic terror, pleading, "Please, Arthur, I know I get silly, but — but — " while Arthur studiously ignores the horrified expressions of the front desk staff and shoves Eames into an elevator, swearing, "God, you need a beating more than anybody I know."
Arthur ends up spending most of fall in the U.S., with Eames electing to engage in what might be called nesting in a 22nd-story apartment on 28th and 2nd Avenue down the street from Kalustyan's and a sketchy blue restaurant called Curry in a Hurry. Between Amelia and Harlan bogarting his weekends as Central Park goes copper and russet with fall and the odd job that Traveler — "Eames, no." — occasionally requests, it seems easier, at least temporarily, to operate out of the States. It also makes it easier to invite Dom and Mal and Philippa for Christmas.
Because he's Arthur, and can't be anybody else, he buys Philippa a picture book of great women in American history, including the first ladies of the United States, Susan B. Anthony, and Sandra Day O'Connor. Because he's Eames, he says, "Right, that's unacceptable, Philippa, come with me," and wraps her up in sixteen layers before snatching her out of the apartment to go God knows where. Mal and Dom, who have either had their spirits broken by the business of raising an overactive toddler or with the fact that Arthur's contacts have recently increased the amount of chatter about extraction, just wave him off and work their way through a bottle of Malbec with Arthur in the living room, watching Miracle on 34th Street on TV.
Eames comes back with Philippa and half the contents of F.A.O. Schwartz, which ends up in a heap obscuring a significant portion of the Christmas tree Arthur had decorated meticulously to match the rest of the apartment.
Looking tense, Dom asks, "Eames, you have to tell me the truth about this: did you buy her a pony?"
In the background, Philippa, who is fully mobile now and a terror, is running around shredding bubble wrap and crawling into massive paper bags, Mal sitting cross-legged on the floor trying to make sure she doesn't eat any zip ties or anything poisonous. Arthur has to bite back a laugh, which he hides behind his wine glass as he perches the ottoman near Eames's knees.
"No," Eames says slowly, "but I did promise I would give her one from my family's estate."
Dom looks at Arthur despairingly. "Does he have an estate?"
Arthur shrugs. "I'm not sure. We could have just conned our way onto the grounds," he says trying to be soothing.
"Philippa, can you say, glue factory?" Mal asks, cooing sweetly in the background, holding out her hands to Philippa, whose wispy blond hair is sticking to her red face. She's overexcited, circling the edge of a tantrum, probably, but that means any minute now she'll drop off and Mal and Dom will tuck her to bed in the portable crib, and the rest of them can sit in the living room watching the city go dark outside, talk long into the night without the intervention of a PASIV.
Dom bought Mal a diamond necklace for Christmas, and Mal gave Dom an early pregnancy test, which they scampered off to check in the bathroom while Eames smiled after them and said fondly, "Breeders. Adorable."
Eames has been giving Arthur presents all day, an antique pocketwatch here, a straight razor and shaving kit there. He finds an exquisite stone replica of Piotiers, and leaves it on Arthur's desk. He woke Arthur up that morning with a serious-faced offer of a pearl necklace, which Arthur had declined in favor of shoving Eames off of the bed.
"So how is it that between Mal and Cobb and me there have been diamonds and meaningful historical references and a sprog, and from you, nothing," Eames asks, more curious than put off, one hand curled into the hair at the back of Arthur's neck.
"I tried to get you a baby, but apparently I'm barren," Arthur deadpans, and sips at his wine. "Check with me again tonight — after everybody else is in bed."
Arthur will argue that his Christmas gift to Eames is basically a cessation of his own dignity, whereas Eames would claim it's Arthur celebrating his erotic imagination. Either way, Arthur is pretty sure that he's not supposed to be using the PASIV to mock up an English all-boys boarding school, or let Mr. Eames fuck him against a desk after class with dust motes floating in the yellow sunlight of late afternoon, but what the hell, it's Christmas.
"I would have been an exemplary student, if classes were actually like that," Eames claims later, smoking with the coal tip of his cigarette hanging out the narrow gap of their suicide proof windows.
Arthur, who is lying indolent on his belly from first round waking world, fifth round inclusive of dreaming, snorts, "Because I'm sure being undersexed was your problem at school."
Suddenly serious, Eames says, "I'll have you know I was spotty and more fat than stocky until I reached my late teens. I couldn't pay someone to fuck me back then." He grins, rakish. "S'why I developed such a ravishing personality."
Arthur can't imagine Eames being disliked or unwanted at any point, or maybe he just doesn't like to. He reaches a hand out, strokes it through Eames's hair, thoughtful, and since he's reasonably sure he's telling the truth, Arthur says, "Well, I would have liked you any way, no matter what."
"I think you might really mean that, darling," Eames says, putting out his cigarette and coming back to bed, a long and well-loved weight against Arthur's side, and Arthur doesn't say anything to that, just kisses Eames delicately until they fall asleep.
Mal celebrates Boxing Day by spending most of the morning throwing up violently and swearing at Dom for knocking her up, Philippa standing in her footie pajamas next to her mother's head and patting Mal's stringy curls with sympathy. By noon, Philippa's all out of patience for everybody tiptoeing around her mother and looks like she's considering a monster tantrum, at which point Eames hurls himself on that grenade, instructs Dom to meet him in the lobby of the building, and bundles Philippa off for a day out and about.
Arthur opens all the windows as much as he can so Mal can get some fresh air, and they lie together on the soft rug in front of the massive Kandinsky Eames had lifted from his earlier clients and talk about nothing for long hours.
"I never imagined myself with children," Mal admits.
"I never imagined myself with Eames," Arthur replies.
Mal gets on her elbows to frown down at him. "That is a filthy lie, darling."
Arthur sighs and stares past her, into the corners of the ceiling. "I never thought I'd be here," he admits, and Mal knows what he means, the full breadth of that admission.
She presses a kiss to his forehead and gets back down on the floor, drags the afghan off the arm of the couch and over both of them, pillowing her cheek on Arthur's shoulder.
"I'm just glad you're still you, and I am still me," Mal says, quiet and into the collar of his shirt. "And that we are still together."
When they wake up, evening's fallen. Mal goes to check on Philippa, and Dom and Eames are puttering quietly in the kitchen, putting together dinner, when Arthur staggers in disoriented and hot from sleep, asking how their day went.
"Good," Eames says, distracted and pulling a roast out of the oven. "We ran into Harlan and Amelia, actually, at the Strand."
Arthur frowns. "Eames — "
"They came to talk to me, darling," Eames cuts him off, and nods at Dom, who has been trying to make himself inconspicuous in the corner. "More than that, they wanted to talk to Cobb. Apparently they've read some of his research."
Dom glares at Eames. "Traitor."
"I have to live with him," Eames retorts.
"You can't even publish your research," Arthur says to Dom, who only raises his eyebrows.
"Arthur, this is the guy who somehow managed to make it look like you'd died in a warehouse fire in Romania," Dom points out reasonably. "I don't really think that my being indiscreet had anything to do with him finding out about our work."
It's a fair point, but it doesn't dampen the blow when come January when Eames fucks off to Toronto to deal with some business and Arthur ends up stuck in New York dealing with Amelia and Harlan, who sit him down and ask about dreaming within a dream.
"From what we've read, it's extends the timeline," Amelia says.
"We'd like to try it," Harlan continues where she leaves off. "Nothing complicated, Arthur, same as usual, but longer. We know we can't be away from our family as long as we'd like to see Ashley, but — "
"Mr. Rogers," Arthur interrupts, "it's an unacceptable risk."
"Mr. Cobb's research said it's been done," Amelia argues. "He more or less told us face to face it had been done."
Arthur sighs. "Just because it has been done doesn't mean it should," he says gently, and waving away any further protests. "Look — do you want to cancel the session for today?"
They don't. They go under, and Arthur nods fondly at their projection of Ashley, who's already asked roundabout if Arthur's some sort of twink her parents are sharing in their marital bed, which engenders all sorts of really worrisome questions if a projection of Amelia and Harlan's mind can come up with that question. The Rogers spend the day at in Napa, on one of those ridiculous wine tours, and they get hammered and slightly sunstruck and all three of them giggle helplessly in the back of a van, stumbling over all of their words. When they wake up, for the first time in years, Amelia is crying.
"Mrs. Rogers — Amelia," Arthur says, "are you all right?"
She just stares at the ceiling, past Arthur's shoulder. "I just miss her so much when we're not there," she says, her voice wet. "It's not like we can call her."
It's not like she's alive, Arthur wants to remind her, but he can't, he can't say it, so he just nods and goes to wake up Harlan.
They don't get better. They book an hour every weekend for a month, then two, and Arthur wonders just what the fuck is happening at home to make them this desperate until he's standing in the bodega on the corner buying a copy of the New York Times one morning and sees an ugly tabloid picture of their middle daughter and the words SEX TAPE. He gives them the two-hour booking.
"This isn't real, Harlan," Arthur tries, at the end of session when spring is beginning to creep back into New York. "I don't think it's good to spend this much time under."
Harlan stares at him, tired. "I can pay you more."
"It's not the money and you know it," Arthur snaps. He looks at Amelia, who had just rolled onto her side and started staring at the wall once she'd woken up from the Somnacin — utterly silent. "This isn't good for you, for her."
"That's for us to decide, Arthur," Harlan retorts. "You just provide a service."
Arthur doesn't know why that stings like a slap. Maybe because Amelia asks after Arthur's young man — or used to — or because he's been to a dozen of their galas now, their once-glittering dinner parties that grew rarer and rarer. Maybe because despite himself, Arthur has always liked Harlan, his thoughtfulness and meticulous care, the way he's harnessed his ambition — how Traveler is so jealous of him he could spit.
"That might be true," Arthur says finally, and closes up the PASIV case, locks it with a code, "but I don't have to provide that service if I think it's hurting you."
Arthur has already died a hundred and one ways, and has spent a morbid amount of time meditating on the subject in addition to all the gruesome murders sponsored by PASIV. He won't say he's unafraid of it, exactly, since dying means he leaves Eames unsupervised with his belongings and Philippa with exactly one firm-handed authority figure in her life, but he's resigned to it the way people expect public transit delays and to get fucked over by their taxes.
He doesn't expect to fly from London to New York, drive into the Hamptons, walk in through the Rogers' front door, and get fucking bashed unconscious.
He wakes up to Amelia's shaky apologies, Harlan checking — oh Jesus — the ties on his wrists and ankles, the PASIV case more or less smashed open on the table and bottles of Somnacin scattered around. Arthur's been gagged crudely, and Amelia's fingers are delicate on the back of his head as she says, "I'm so sorry, Arthur, I really am. But I think your head's okay. We'll be back in just a minute. We did enough research to try it, please don't worry to much."
Arthur's been hit in the head enough to know he's seriously fucking concussed, having trouble focusing on details, and he can't tell how much Somnacin they're using, what they're setting the PASIV for. He's clinging by his teeth and toenails to alertness, and even though the knots Harlan tied aren't tight, he can't seem to coordinate enough to get his hands free, to stop this shitshow from going down. He wants to say, "Guys, stop, I'll take you down, okay? Just untie me. We'll fix this," but all that comes out is a jumbled groan, some muffled noises, and Harlan spares him an apologetic look before he slides the IV into Amelia's arm, before he curls up behind her and slides one into his own.
"It'll be fine, Arthur," he promises, already drifting off. "You'll see."
He stares at them for ten minutes, fifteen, and then he loses track of time because he's out, black eating into the corners of his vision as he goes under, too.
"Don't try to open your eyes, love," is the first thing he hears next.
Arthur does, and the light is so searing it sparks a chemical reaction that starts with the full force of a migraine and ends with him getting turned on his side as he throws up all over himself, all over the floor next to his face, all over someone's shoes.
"There's that lovely, obedient boy I adore," Eames says dryly, but he has a wet towel and he cleans Arthur up, puts a hand over Arthur's eyes to protect him from the light, and hushes, "Don't worry — I'm here now."
"Rogers," Arthur grinds out, even though talking is officially the worst and most terrible thing he's ever done.
"Dom is looking after them," Eames says, and Arthur feels hands on his elbow. "All right, darling, I'm about to do something you'd never let me get away with if you didn't maybe have a skull fracture."
Arthur has enough time to think, Christ, what? before Eames is hauling Arthur up from the ground in his arms, bridal style.
"I know, I know," Eames says for him, "you'll kill me for this later — consider the message received, loud and clear."
Someone drugs him as soon as they get out of the room, the quick prick of a needle in his arm, Eames stroking his hair and whispering nonsense, and Arthur's pathetically grateful for it. He groans, miserable, and turns his face into the warm muscle of Eames's thigh, and lets himself go blank again.
The next time he wakes up, it's even worse than the last, Arthur thinks groggily.
There's a shady-looking man checking him over, ice-cold hands where Arthur surely doesn't need ice-cold hands, and apparently Eames has installed him in a house that doesn't belong to them, because there're pictures of a spray-tanned couple on the bedside table and a fucking elliptical machine by the bay window.
"Did you break into someone else's house in the Hamptons?" is the first thing Arthur says when he can say anything at all.
Eames comes into view, his face haggard and unshaven.
"Arthur, I would never want to give you any sort of complex about how you look because you're exquisitely perfect either lissom as a stamen or voluminous as a rose, or to disabuse you of the notion that I am somehow superhumanly strong, but you are very heavy," he says, and adds, "And I have never actually carried anyone before."
Arthur slaps at him and points at the other man. "Is that guy a mob doctor?"
Looking caught, Eames says, "There is that possibility, yes."
"You found a mob doctor in the Hamptons," Arthur repeats, just to clarify.
"Congratulations, you don't have a skull fracture," the mob doctor in question says, and nods at Eames. "You know the song and dance with concussions."
Eames waves him off, and the doctor goes, which leaves Arthur trying to remember everything that happened and mostly tripping over the same thought over and over again — until the door to the bedroom closes and he blurts out:
"The Rogers — are they okay?"
Instead of answering the question, Eames starts to gather things discarded around the room. He says, "You're out of immediate danger, love, but you'll still need a CT and probably some X-rays, just to be safe — I know some people in New York. It'll all be sorted by the time we get there."
"The Rogers," Arthur repeats, eyes tracking Eames around the room. "Eames."
"I told you, Arthur," Eames says, a bit too gently, "Cobb has them."
Arthur swallows hard. "And he has them in what state?"
Arthur knows then, right then, that it must be terrible, because when Eames comes to sit on the edge of the bed, his face is kind and his eyes are kind and his mouth is very tired-looking. He puts a hand over Arthur, strokes a thumb over the red rope-burn on his wrists, and murmurs, "Darling — we honestly don't know."
The official story is that Harlan and Amelia Rogers suffered a boating accident, and both are being treated at Lennox Hill, where they are stable but unconscious. Their brain functions resemble that of a person in REM sleep, but they're not, obviously, because they're not waking up. The doctors don't have any ideas, and after a few careful calls from the military, Dom's allowed access to monitor their progress by dint of his experience in experimental dreaming and the neurological activity therein. His findings are inconclusive, officially.
"It is a fucking mess down there," he says, when he retreats to the Murray Hill apartment where Eames has been keeping Arthur under twenty-four hour surveillance. Eames hasn't left Arthur's side since they came back from the hospital with a more-or-less cleanish bill of health — although how much of that devotion is to keep Arthur from breaking out of the apartment in search of answers and how much is tenderhearted concern is up in the air.
"In what sense?" Arthur asks, because his other option is to double over from the wrenching pain of guilt in his stomach, which is so far beyond unproductive he doesn't even know where to start.
Dom scrubs at his face tiredly. "In the sense that when I hooked them up to the PASIV, they weren't there at all, not on the first level, not when I went down into the second, just a jumble of fucking chaos. Like everything you'd constructed for them slammed together in a big bang."
Eames tightens his hand where it's resting on Arthur's knee. "But not them?"
"No," Dom says. "If they're in there, they're in the third level or deeper."
Arthur feels something white-hot and furious in his throat.
"Third level," he repeats.
"Fucking hell, Cobb," Eames hisses. "Don't tell me you've — "
Dom winces. "I know," he says quietly. "We were just curious."
Arthur thinks he's actually having a stroke. "Mal went, too?"
"It was fine," Dom says, instead of answering. "It all went fine. It was strange, but it was fine — Miles had Philippa for the weekend. It was before Mal got pregnant again."
Arthur puts his face in his hands, because he can't actually look at Dom right now. He's never been given to hysteria, or to sit there panicking about something that's already happened, but all he can think about is how fucking dangerous it was and how Dom and Mal had gone three levels deep without anybody to spot them along the way. All he can think is that Mal and Dom are his best friends and they could be like the Rogers right now, catatonic in a fucking hospital lost in their own heads, and Philippa would be an orphan and Miles and Maria would be a wreck and Arthur would have to throw himself off of a fucking bridge because what the fuck had they been fucking thinking?
"Cobb, not that it's not lovely to see you," Eames cuts in, brusque, "but I think I'm going to have to ask you to get the fuck out of the flat right now."
"Arthur," Dom tries.
"Cobb," Eames barks. "Up — out."
When Eames comes back, Arthur has decided sitting up is too hard, curled up on his left on Eames's side of mattress staring into their closet, feeling washed out like an overexposed photograph.
"How could they do that?" he croaks.
Eames's hand is a familiar weight on his shoulderblade, warm through Arthur's t-shirt.
"They were just experimenting, Arthur," Eames murmurs. "It's Mr. and Mrs. Cobb — they've always been like this, love, even years ago when we first met."
Arthur closes his eyes. "I'm tired now."
Eames says, "All right, darling, let me just get the curtains for you." And even though it's barely four in the afternoon, Arthur hears Eames strip out of his jeans, his black sweater, and slip under the covers next to Arthur, pressing up close along his back and snaking an arm around Arthur's waist.
As soon as Arthur is safe to move, Eames books them on a flight back to Paris, and installs Arthur in the library with all the books he'd bought from Foyles and hadn't finished reading — pieces of notepaper and pens and randomly, a shoelace, tucked into them to hold Arthur's place. He turns down a couple of jobs, and so does Arthur, and for a long them they both avoid the PASIV hidden in the floorboards of the guest room and do things like take day-long walks around Paris, going in an enormous spiral from the First to the Thirteenth and cutting through back home again.
Dom calls a couple of times, just to talk around the subject and issue furtive apologies around the perimeter of the central problem. Mal tries to pretend the entire affair never happened, and Arthur listens with detached hurt and still-simmering fury as she talks about her pregnancy, about how Philippa is excited to be getting a little brother.
"Are you and Dom still doing it?" he asks finally, when he can't stand it anymore.
Mal is quiet for a long time. "It's just research, Arthur."
He hangs up on her.
By the second month he's sick of yelling at Eames about it, and even though Eames is supremely patient about sitting there and listening to Arthur shout, Arthur is tired just thinking about going through the song and dance again, and he decides just not to think about it anymore. He's also sick of avoiding the PASIV, so he waits for Eames to come home from conning whoever he's conning that day, and says:
"Show me that thing again."
Eames reflexively looks down at his cock.
"That thing in the dreams," Arthur clarifies, which leads to Eames looking uncertainly back down at his dick, at which point, Arthur sighs and says, "The forgery, Eames — the forgeries you were working on?"
When they go under, Arthur finds himself at Falling Water, and the attention to detail makes him go liquid in the chest; Eames has never been himself, only gone with Arthur in dreams like this one, and the way he's memorized it is stunning. At first he thinks something's gone wrong, that Eames is still topside swearing at the PASIV IV like giant baby, but then one of the transient tourists comes up to him, wearing a sackcloth sweater and clutching a guide book, looking dead solemn as she asks, "Did it hurt?"
Arthur takes a step away from her, reaching for the gun he always keeps tucked at the small of his back whenever he dreams like this. "Excuse me?" he asks.
She just keeps staring at him. "When you fell from heaven."
Blinking twice at her adolescent acne, the mom jeans, the horrible mini backpack in a searing royal purple, Arthur says, "You're fucking with me."
"And also," the girl continues, "are those moonpants? Because your ass is out of this world."
Glowering, Arthur says, "I can't believe I'm sleeping with you consensually."
There's a short and indistinct blur before Eames is standing in front of him, all melodramatically slumped shoulders and $10 million pout. "Petal, you wound me."
Ignoring the pet name, which is on the long list of unacceptable ones and Eames knows it, Arthur lets go of the gun and closes the space between them again, marveling.
"That was amazing," he says.
Perking, Eames gushes, "Isn't it just?"
Arthur circles him, considering. "Can you do any other ones?" he asks, and by the time he makes the 360 rotation back Eames has forged himself into Traveler. "Woah."
"Hi," Eames-as-Traveler says, the voice pitch-perfect. "Hi, Arthur. I know you're weirdly fond of me even though I'm a right fucker — "
"American, Eames," Arthur laughs. "Remember: American."
" — But I just wanted to make sure you know I have the tiniest cock known to mankind," Traveler continues earnestly, with the same declarative certainty he had when telling Arthur he was needed in Singapore, when he was pitching a new bond issue to disinterested investors he was sure would be interested eventually. "It's so small that there's an entire department at Harvard — you know that school, Arthur — dedicated to studying how it's possible I have what they're referring to as a pixie dick."
Arthur just grins, wild. "Do a woman."
Traveler melts away into Gillian Anderson, circa season four X-Files, and Arthur rolls his eyes.
"Don't lie to me, Arthur," Scully says, and ones one manicured fingernail down the front of Arthur's shirt. "You know you harbored a burning desire for me to poke holes in all of your crazy theories."
"I don't have crazy theories, you pervert," Arthur retorts, mouth twitching.
"But you're open to poking," Scully purrs, and Arthur snatches her hands into his own, saying, "Okay, okay — change back, please," and sees a luminously happy Eames, smiling reckless and open just seconds later.
"Well, darling?" Eames asks. "Do you like it?"
"Well, of course," Arthur says, deadpan, "now my secret love for Traveler can finally be consummated."
Eames, in a typical fit, sends them both off one of the waterfalls and when they get kicked out of the dream, Arthur is still laughing, Eames shouting, "Not fucking funny, Arthur! Not fucking funny!" as Eames rips out his IV.
He and Mal call a ceasefire for James's birth, bringing Eames at Philippa's request, since as she puts it, everybody is obsessed with the new, screamy thing in the nursery and nobody but Mr. Eames loves her anymore. Arthur doesn't have the heart to tell her that James is a much, much quieter baby than she was.
Eames has been sacrificed to Philippa's sugar high — dragged off wearing a martyred expression — and Dom is in the office taking a couple of calls, which leaves Mal and Arthur and their uncomfortable silence over James's crib.
"He doesn't look like Dom," Arthur says finally, to try and break the ice.
"Yes," Mal quips, "I had a brief but passionate affair with the mailman."
Arthur nods, easy. "Men in uniform are irresistible."
"It is, after all, how Eames tricked you into sleeping with him," Mal says meditatively, and when Arthur runs out of jokes to make in response, she says, "We aren't wrong to want to know, Arthur."
He grips the railing of the crib. "You're trying to find out in the stupidest way possible."
"It's just a dream," Mal argues.
"Did Dom not tell you about the Rogers at all?" Arthur retorts, and he's afraid to look away from James, sleeping sweetly among his twisted blankets, banked in by an enormous stuffed rabbit and a plush train.
Mal reaches down, presses the backs of her fingers to James's flushed cheek. "We're not exactly tourists crazed with grief, Arthur," she says, an edge in her voice belying the softness of her touch. "I pulled the trigger on you half the time."
That always makes Arthur think about the other half, how it got blase toward the end, and how utterly sick that is, to be used to shooting his best friend in he face.
"You have kids," Arthur says. "You shouldn't be taking chances like that."
"How is what we're doing — carefully — any worse than what you do every day?" Mal asks, but she doesn't sound angry, she just sounds tired.
To Arthur, the difference is self-evident, but if she doesn't already get it, it's kind of a pointless discussion to start.
He and Mal used to have hours-long arguments about whether the dream world was more flexible than reality, and it was like they were always coming at the question from parallel schools of thought that would never truly intersect in any meaningful way. Mal argued that the idea reality was more elastic than the dream was lunacy — she could build entire cities, cathedrals out of thin air, fill oceans with a thought and travel through time; even dying was a temporary inconvenience in the context of a dream. Arthur had always pointed out that all of that was fake, done within the confined limits of a dream, and while dreaming you were vulnerable — inside and out of your head. They'd never even come close to agreement, and eventually Dom had forbidden them to continue the argument because he said if he had to hear an iterative version of it ever again for the rest of his existence, he would set himself on fire.
"You have to be careful, Mal," Arthur pleads.
Mal just smiles down at James, strokes his face with her same soft hands. "I know," she promises. "I will."
Amelia wakes up, two months later, which means yet another transatlantic flight for Arthur, going directly from Eames's latest real estate acquisition in Amsterdam to New York. The doctors warn him, outside the closed door to her private room, that she's fragile, and they convey to Arthur with the hardness of their looks that they're only allowing Arthur to visit because a number of lawyers have gotten involved.
"But she's lucid?" Arthur asks, urgent. "She's all right?"
Dr. Frost's face darkens incrementally. "For some value of lucid," she says, curt. "She's having some cognitive trouble, and from what we can tell she may be suffering some aftereffects from oxygen deprivation immediately after the boating accident."
Arthur resists the urge to rub at his temples. "Okay."
"Do not," Dr. Frost warns, "feed into her delusions, Mr. Aquitaine."
"I don't exactly look like the type of man given to wild flights of fancy, do I?" Arthur retorts, and Dr. Frost pulls an expression that prompts Eames's voice to echo, "Bootfaced" in Arthur's head before she lets him into Amelia's room.
She's sitting up in her bed, pale-faced in the late morning sun, hands folded together in her lap. They must have moved her after she woke up, out of the room she'd been sharing with Harlan, who by all accounts is still so deep under the board at his fund has already moved on the company's succession plan. She looks thin, and as distraught as the first time Arthur met her, when she didn't really believe him but was willing to try anything; and how ridiculously different and ridiculously the same she was at the end: when she didn't believe him, and was willing to try anything, too.
He sets down his overnight bag, unbuttons his suit jacket, and goes to sit at the stiff plastic chair turned to face her by the side of her bed — it still takes her nearly a minute of silence to notice.
"Arthur," she says, confused. "You came."
"You asked me to," he answers.
"I'm really sorry," she says, "about hitting you."
"My partner made fun of me for weeks about getting beat up by a girl," Arthur tells her. "You better be sorry."
Amelia used to love Eames stories, and apparently she still does, because it makes her smile, makes her reach out for his hands, which he surrenders without hesitation.
"I'm glad you're okay," she says, strokes her thumbs over the backs of Arthur's hands. "I needed to talk to you — I needed your advice."
"What can I do for you, Mrs. Rogers?" he asks, quiet.
She looks at him seriously, squeezes his hand again. "I need to wake up, Arthur," she says, utterly serious and solemn. "Harlan must be in a panic by now."
"Wake you up," Arthur repeats slowly.
"We fell down so many levels, we did the math," she says. "If one level down is minutes into hours, then another must be minutes into a day, and when we got to the third it was months and months — but then Ashley was getting married, and we thought we didn't want to miss that, and we went down one more time."
Arthur stares at her, his throat so tight it's hard to talk. "Was Ashley down there, too? In the fourth level?"
"There is no fourth level, Arthur," Amelia tells him, and her face is starting to crumble, her heart rate monitor flicking angrily, the steady beeps getting panicked. "It's just nothing."
"Just nothing?" Arthur pushes, because he has to know, too — for Mal, for Dom, if for no one else.
Amelia shakes. "We woke up on a boat in the middle of the ocean."
"How long were you there?" Arthur asks.
"There weren't any fish, and we didn't have any oars, and no matter how far we paddled there wasn't anything anywhere, the sky didn't even have a color," Amelia said, teeth chattering now, eyes looking past Arthur's shoulder at something far away. "We didn't get hungry, we didn't get hot, we just — " her breath hitches " — after two months, Harlan threw himself into the water. I screamed and screamed and nobody came."
"Amelia — this is important: how long were you there?" Arthur repeats.
Amelia starts crying. "I don't know," she sobs. "I don't — Arthur, you have to wake me up. I miss Harlan. I miss my girls."
"Mrs. Rogers — Amelia," he tries, "You are already awake."
And that's when Dr. Frost bursts in, tucking a pen into her pocket and shoving Arthur away from the bed, saying, "Get him the hell out of here," Amelia's weeping turning into screams in the background, and as Arthur is pushed into the hallway, all he hears is her shrieking, high-pitched and desperate and completely insane:
"Wake me up — you have to wake me up."
It takes six tries before Amelia successfully kills herself.
The funeral is a shitshow, and with Harlan's medical proxy gone, the automatic terms of his living will kick in, and Arthur spends the week ignoring all media coverage in Dom and Mal's guest room, drugging himself on Eames's supply of Ambien and moving away from everybody who tries to touch him. He'll be fine in a few days, he just needs to freak the fuck out right now, quietly, efficiently, compiling all of his panic into one neatly defined period of time, after which point, he'll get over it.
He and Dom and Mal stay up late into the night talking about it, parsing out what little pieces Dom was able to get out of Amelia before she'd successfully swindled her way off suicide watch and then promptly killed herself with a plastic knife, a locked bathroom door, and a tub full of warm water. They go under in pairs, for one hour, two, to the first and second levels, trying to learn the physics of the places; they spend entire days down there, weeks that compress themselves into quarters of hours when they climb back up to reality, and when Arthur crawls into bed with Eames he's needy with missing him, for having gone ages without seeing him. Dom and Mal go for three levels down, and it's the longest five minutes of Arthur's life, sitting there on the second level waiting for them, waiting for them all to be kicked back up to the surface. Arthur bogarts the wall of chalkboard paint in the kitchen, diagramming their theoretical structure of the dream world, with Dom and Mal adding asides, sitting up into the early hours of morning when Eames will come downstairs and grimly remove Arthur.
"We're just trying to figure it out," Arthur says, by way of apology.
Eames nods, but he doesn't say anything, just lies on his side of the bed and waits for Arthur to strip down, climb carefully under the covers.
"It's not a puzzle I'm willing to lose you to," Eames says finally, straight to the ceiling.
Arthur looks over at him, at the line of his nose and the curve of his cheek, and thinks there aren't any puzzles he wants to solve badly enough to walk way from this — but even now, even here and just between them, he's too shy to say it.
"You won't," he promises, reaches a hand out until his fingers brush Eames's under the blankets, and are snatched up so tightly it hurts. "Eames, you won't."
There's a long pause, like the break before a new sentence, and Arthur has known Eames well enough and long enough that he just waits, patient, and listens when Eames says:
"Let's go back home, all right?"
There's a protest, on the tip of Arthur's tongue, about how he and Mal have barely scraped the surface of understanding of what happened with Harlan and Amelia Rogers, that Eames can go back, first, and Arthur will be along shortly if he misses Paris and hates this futon so much. That Eames has never been the type of person to particularly care where in the world Arthur drifted, so long as he was always within reach.
"I don't like this," Eames goes on, still talking at the ceiling and still holding Arthur's hand. "I don't like that it's like we're back on that base, only nobody forcing your hand and Mal's got you wrapped up into it all over again. It's not a game, Arthur."
Reflexive, almost, Arthur wants to say that it's just a dream, except he doesn't even believe that, has told Mal as much, and he feels something stinging at his throat.
"Believe me, I think it's fun, I think it's wonderful, to be able to go anywhere and do anything," Eames says, "but I have two feet firmly in reality, and sometimes I think you've got one foot out the door."
"Jesus, it's not — I wouldn't leave you," Arthur says, and Eames finally turns to look at him, eyes dark and gleaming like onyx stones.
"I don't think Amelia wanted to leave Harlan, either, darling," Eames says, quiet and damning.
Arthur knows it, has known it in his gut all this time, that there's a right way and a wrong way and he always skates too close to the edge when he's here with Mal, with Dom, with their endless, effervescent curiosity and apparent fearlessness. Eames turns now, onto his side and facing Arthur on the bed, touches Arthur's mouth and his temple and settles a thumb into the hollow of Arthur's throat, that divot between the wings of his collarbone.
"I've never asked you to choose," Eames says, "because I've always been reasonably sure I wouldn't be happy if I did, and I'm not now, but please, walk away."
Eames's voice is conversational, easy, the reflexively dissociated tone Arthur has heard him use with neighbors when Eames is bored or tired or clients or a hundred other faceless, nameless people. It's as comfortable as worn in trainers for Eames to wear this tone, and Arthur knows what it means that he's hearing it now.
He says, "Okay," and "We can go back to Paris tomorrow," and "I'm sorry," and "I didn't mean to — I'm sorry," because he never wants to hear Eames sound like that to him again, like he's sore down to the bones, and so tired it's all he can do to keep up the act. And as soon as Arthur says it, it's like all the bones melt out of Eames's body, his shoulders loosening in a scared-exhausted slump, and he murmurs, "Thank you," and Arthur pulls him close, lets Eames sleep halfway on top of him even though it leaves him breathless all night — weighed down by him, the imperfections of him, and Arthur stares at the ceiling and is grateful that the moment is real.
"You shouldn't let him force you to go," Mal says to him the next morning when Arthur is letting Eames attempt to demonstrate he's the man in the relationship by moving all of their luggage to the car without assistance.
Arthur slants her a look, and Mal rolls her eyes.
"All right, you shouldn't let him guilt you into going," she revises.
"He's not," Arthur says, and he reaches over to take James from her, to settle the baby onto his lap, keep a hand protectively over the back of his downey head. He's eight months now, which still so brand new Arthur thinks he's a marvel: with Mal's sweet eyes and dark lashes and Dom's squint, already. "It's just the right thing to do."
She reaches over, gives James her fingertip to gnaw on industriously.
"Aren't you curious?" she asks, not accusing, just confused. "Don't you want to know?"
Arthur looks at her seriously, because sometimes he thinks she forgets.
"Mal," he says, "we live here."
She blinks at him, cheeks going red. "I know that," she snaps.
For a second, Arthur thinks that this is like that fight they've had for years already, about dreams versus reality and how they're coming at it from cross-purposes, but before he can push her, Dom says:
"Arthur? You should probably come get this last suitcase. I'm pretty sure Eames just threw out his back."
Eames spends their first week back in Paris flat out on his back, whining like a spoiled child and crying surprisingly convincing tears over completely ludicrous things. They stop working by around the third day, but by then Arthur has already brought him tarts, an Orangina, his favorite Clash albums, and sat with him all day instead of doing anything productive.
"So I guess I'm sort of unemployed now," Arthur muses, because he'd stuffed his PASIV in next to Eames's very good black market reproduction and hasn't looked at it since they touched down in France. He likes the lazy feeling of waking up to real sun in the morning and the easy way he falls asleep to traffic noises at night, the irritation of trying to grab the last good bananas at the end of the day at the grocery store. He likes that the world is just as it is, out of his hands, and that he can be safe in knowing that if he can see it or hear it or touch it it's real.
Eames moans. "Seek employment," he begs. "Please, immediately."
"What, and leave you here prostrate without anyone to take care of you?" Arthur asks.
The look Eames gives him is so, so bitter. "You're not taking care of me," he accuses. "You're taking advantage of the fact that I can't walk to throw away all my cigarettes in some sort of terror campaign."
"I gave them to the neighborhood teenagers," Arthur says. "They need them more than you."
"I needed those cigarettes, darling," Eames complains. "I paid for them."
"Your relationship with paying for legitimate goods and services is pretty weak in general," Arthur says blithely. "Now, do you want to listen to the Clash or not?"
"I want twelve fags," Eames barks at him.
"Too bad," Arthur says, turning on the iPod dock and reaching for his book, "you only get one."
Weaning Eames off of smoking involves a lot of trying to keep him distracted enough to do something else, not so distracted that he becomes manic and tries to rob the Musee d'Orsay. It's a delicate balance, and after a few weeks Eames takes to swearing at Arthur and raving about Lysistrata, which Arthur doesn't really think is a fair comparison because it's not like he's denying Eames sexual congress — he's just using it as an excellent window of opportunity to extort promises of good behavior out of him. For a thief, Eames is very serious about keeping promises.
It's weird, because they've orbited one another for so long already, to find himself in that first flush of infatuation, that four month period where he falls off the map and stops talking to his other friends because he'd rather think horribly embarrassing sappy things about Eames, instead, or hold his hand, which is worse, probably.
They go to Vienna; they go to Spain; they go to Capri, and Eames acquires a speedboat and captains them at dangerous speeds around the island, until Arthur can't help but start laughing when they zip past little dinghies of splashed-wet tourists, shouting, "Sorry!" until his voice is a long and echoing ribbon in the Mediterranean sun. They swim in the blue grotto, the light filtering up azure and lapis lazuli, luminous beneath their feet and around their hands, and Eames presses him against the walls of the grotto and whispers all the German love poetry he claimed he didn't read into Arthur's mouth.
Eames suggests they go to Santorini, next, but Arthur says, "No, wait, come with me," and because their real lives are more ridiculous than the span of their dreamed ones, they get on a plane and go to Pennsylvania. Eames calls him crazy, but Arthur insists it's easier to just take another plane to Pittsburgh, and when they land there, Arthur gets a car and drives them another fifty miles out of the city.
Arthur spent his early childhood alone in a lot of car backseats during family roadtrips, which he credits for teaching him to how entertain himself, ignore people fighting nearby, and read while slightly motion sick. His dad had been one of those architects who spent his life fabricating other people's visions, but he'd built models with Arthur and let him come to the office to stare down at the topographical maps, taught him about the steel and concrete bones and flesh of buildings — and he'd taken Arthur to Falling Water when he was ten.
The interiors of the house are slightly out of sync, Arthur has always thought, a little divorced from the perfect clean lines he'd so loved in Frank Lloyd Wright rooms before, but he's imprinted on the house like a bird, the searing gold and red rush of autumn as their car had sped through the countryside, and the roar of water when they got close. Arthur still remembers being young enough his father gripped his hand when he'd leaned down to look at the geometric lines bisecting the view, the way that he'd felt water on his splashes on his face when he'd stared at the white lines of the house through the crush of forest, a sliver of something clean and elegant in the forest.
Eames takes it all in quietly, with an artist's eye, lets Arthur lead the way around the house and listens intently, reads all the signs, is polite to vacationing families and doesn't leer a single time. They're standing at the base of the falls, interrupting vacation photos for a half-dozen families with bulky digital cameras, when Eames says:
"I can see why you love it."
Arthur looks at the water, the way it's making his overpriced loafers wet. "Thanks for coming with me," he says, voice muffled by the waterfalls.
And then Eames smiles at him, so honestly fond and something else Arthur doesn't say, "Eames," just lets him, lets himself be kissed, the side of his face getting wet from the spray, with children screaming all around them and the fall tourist rush rushing, and he thinks that this is perfect. That everything is perfect.
The next morning, 4:36 a.m. East Coast time, Dom calls.
Everybody keeps thanking Arthur for taking care of everything, and Eames keeps interrupting him to say that he needs to rest — none of which makes any sense, because Arthur feels like no time has passed at all since he picked up the phone and that he hasn't done anything since he hung up and said to Eames, "We have to go to L.A."
None of it's hard, it's just phone calls. He calls the hospital to ask about the body; he calls the funeral home, and they talk about a closed-casket ceremony. He calls Dom's lawyer, who backs right the fuck off and recommends some guys in a firm downtown who bill $500 an hour. He calls off the cops, who keep interrupting everybody's grieving process to ask Dom questions they've already asked him before. Arthur calls the psychologists that certified Mal sane before she pitched herself off of a building, and with incredible restraint, doesn't call them any of the things he's thinking quietly to himself. He calls Miles, to come get James and Philippa; he calls Marie, to come get Miles. He calls his mother, who starts crying on the phone at him, and Arthur hears himself say, "It's okay, Mom. I'm taking care of it, it's fine," until Eames takes the phone out of his hands and takes it away to another room, murmuring quietly into the handset.
Miles and Marie have already taken the grandchildren and gone to France, to their summer house in Nice, and Dom's been told by the police not to leave town, so he's catatonic in the guest room, which is the only place that doesn't smell like perfume. But it's still a memorial service — Arthur knows, he ordered all the flowers and called the caterers — and there is a houseful of well-wishers with casseroles and affectionate banal memories who deserve to be greeted politely, so Arthur sets himself up in the living room and does it.
It's nearing five when Eames interrupts Dom's neighbor from three streets over, talking about how Mal made the best cassoulet — Arthur doesn't have the heart to tell her Mal couldn't cook worth shit, and that she bought cassoulet in a can — when Eames sidles up to him and says, "Excuse me, may I borrow Arthur for a moment?"
"Oh, certainly," Mrs. Pages says, and presses a hand to Arthur's elbow. "I'm so sorry — again, so sorry. She was a beautiful woman."
"Thank you," Arthur says to her, rote, "I'll make sure Dom knows you came by."
Eames manhandles him into a corner, brushes the hair out of Arthur's eyes.
"Darling, you haven't slept in four days," he says.
Arthur blinks. "That's medically impossible," he points out.
"You've barely eaten," Eames keeps going. "Have you even had any water?"
"I'm fine. I'm not thirsty, or hungry, it's okay, Eames," Arthur says, because he sees Gavin from Philippa's school in the doorway looking bleak and terrified. "There are some new people here, okay? I have to talk to them. Go check on Do — "
"No," Eames says, and closes his fist around Arthur's arm, dragging him back into the corner, near a vase of somber white lillies and a photograph of Dom and Mal and Philippa and James at the beach near their house and oh God Mal is dead. "No, Arthur, you are not doing this, all right? You need to get some rest."
Arthur stares at him. He thinks that under any other circumstance, if Eames tried this shit with him, Arthur would be furious, but he's just very flat right now.
"I'm not tired," he says, because he's not, and he tries to pry Eames's fingers off of his arm. "Eames, please, can you — someone has to talk to the guests."
"And I will be that person," Eames says, "because I have slept and eaten and drank water in the last four days, all right? Go upstairs. Go to bed."
Arthur opens and closes his mouth until he says finally, "Dom's in the guest room."
"Go sleep in the master, then," Eames tells him, matter-of-fact.
That is ridiculous. That is the stupidest thing Eames has ever said, and Eames spent the entire train ride down the Amalfi Coast trying to convince Arthur that he'd once had a real actual job with benefits and tax implications and ordinary hours of operation.
"That's Mal's room," Arthur says finally, when Eames doesn't seem to get it.
Eames's mouth goes tight. "No one's using it right now, Arthur."
"That's her room," Arthur repeats, just to clarify. "Sometimes, I don't even think she liked that Dom slept in that room."
"Arthur, I'm not kidding: go to sleep, right now," Eames snaps at him.
"I'm not — that's her room," Arthur says, and he can hear something escalating from the pit of his stomach up the back of his throat, acidic. He can hear himself getting louder and louder with every word. "I'm not going to sleep there. I'm not even tired. It's her room. I'm not, Eames, I'm not. I'm not tired. I just want to talk to people and get Mr. Forsyth a fucking drink and I want you to stop fucking asking me if I am tired, okay?"
And at this point, because everybody in the entire house is staring at them, Arthur decides it's time to let out a long, shaky breath, ignore the way Eames looks like his heart is breaking in his eyes, and say, "Excuse me," before running upstairs.
He ignores the guest room, where Dom's grief is so oppressive that if Arthur adds to it they'll collapse the house, and he goes to Mal's room, where late afternoon sun is streaming through all the windows like nobody memoed California about what was happening here today. He kicks the door shut and locks it. He ignores the shirts she'd left unfolded on the trunk at the foot of the bed, the toys she'd gathered up and left on the dresser, the earrings and bracelets scattered around in a wreath — he can imagine her trying to pick what to wear. There's a bag from the dry cleaners, for her dress the night of the anniversary date, but Arthur ignores all of that to go scrabbling under the bed, reach for the cold and familiar handle of the PASIV case.
Arthur hasn't been under in months now, his hands shaking so badly he cuts himself four times before finding a vein, and the minute he's under he starts screaming her name. He's at Harvard, first, the tired classroom where he first met her, but she's not anywhere in the building and when he goes outside he can't see her walking around, either. He goes to all of her favorite places, the coffee shop, the dining hall where she'd told him about Dom the first time, the shitty burrito place open all night that she ate at four times a week. He checks the art supply store, in the back corner where all the modeling clay is, but there's nobody, just vaguely familiar faces from an entire lifetime ago, and when he runs out the door again he realizes he's just stepped into the hallway of the military base, Culpepper in a heated argument with somebody about whether or not it was kosher that the new Starbuck was a girl. She's not in the dream lab, and Arthur goes all the way inside to check, ignoring the way everybody's looking at him like he's a fucking psychopath, and he shouts, "Sorry! Sorry!" when he goes into the women's bathroom and doesn't see Mal's feet anywhere under the stalls. He goes to their shitty breakroom; he checks the main lab, but she's not frowning at their white boards of fatality or collapse and she's not on the roof, either, sitting with Dom, or under in one of the smaller observation chambers.
He climbs out of an opened window and into the house on the corner, with its stained glass and hardwood floors, the front porch where Arthur had promised Mal he'd be careful. She's not there, either, not in the basement swearing at the shitty washer and dryer, or the living room reading; she's not in the hammock out back, and when Arthur checks again, she's still not on the porch. There's just Dom, standing in the doorway, frowning as he says, "Arthur — do you know where she went?"
"I'm looking," he promises, and he goes across the street to L.A., where the house is bigger and it's near enough to the beach that there's sand in the gutters of all the neighborhood streets.
There aren't any somber white flowers or trays of neat finger foods, and the house isn't heaving with people Arthur barely remembers, so it's easy to look through it, but she's not there, either: not with her jewelry, not in the backyard where Philippa is telling James that Mommy will be back any minute, so he needs to get that slug out of his mouth right now. Arthur stops long enough to deslug his godson — it's neon green and purple when it comes out of his mouth, and Arthur really hopes it's not poisonous — but then when he turns around he's in Paris.
"God, I'm an idiot," he says, words disappearing on a brisk wind.
He should have looked here, first. It's where they first traveled together, after all, and he runs between the feet of the Eiffel Tower and through the Tulleries, shouting for her. People look up all around him, but they all just seem to shake their heads like they haven't seen her, either. He goes to the Seine, where the river cruise operator says she hasn't been around in years, but offers Arthur a glass of champagne he declines. Notre Dame is just up ahead, and he pushes past the line of tourists to run through the pews, up the aisles, sneaking into the side chapels to look for her, but there's no sign.
Arthur takes a turn near the Paris apartment and trips, hears a shout, and everything goes black for a beat before he opens his eyes to Eames's face, red and furious, eyes wet as he shouts, "Arthur, I am going to fucking kill you myself."
He's on the floor of Mal's bedroom again. His heart is racing. They are in California, and Dom is in the next room, and Philippa and James are feeding each other slugs in France, where Mal isn't, either. Mal isn't anywhere. He could look forever. He could call her a million times, and no one will ever answer the phone anymore, and Arthur doesn't realize he's saying any of this shit out loud until Eames croaks out, "Christ, Arthur," and pulls Arthur into his arms.
Arthur doesn't really dream that much anymore since the PASIV, but he never dreamed much before, either, so it's not any particular loss. Dreams sponsored by Somnacin and through the PASIV are crisp, hyperreal, easily manipulable — this is something else, with blurry edges and infinity out of the corner of his eye, and no purpose whatsoever. He's in Paris again, not the Paris he lives in or the Paris that Mal constructed but Paris from bits and pieces of his memories; everything is in the wrong places and all the signs are in gibberish, Notre Dame looming over the glass pyramids in front of the Louvre. He's wandering around the first floor of Saint Chapelle, all of a sudden, staring at the searing azure vaulting, the hidden green stripe, the red and gold borders; there isn't anybody else here, but Arthur can hear something, glances left and right, and decides to climb the stairs. It takes ages, the narrow and curling steps, and he thinks he's been moving upward while going nowhere for years before he steps out into the chapel upstairs — all the stained glass like new and casting red and green and blue shafts of light across the inlaid floor. There are two chairs set up in the middle of the room, and Arthur says, "Oh," because Mal is sitting in one of them, he'd recognize the back of her head, her curls, anywhere, and he feels momentarily stupid for having cried earlier because of course she's here. He says, "Mal!" and she turns around, smiles and waves him over, and he goes, tripping over his own feet to settle onto the seat next to her, to admire the windows, until she touches his knee, his hand, and he turns to look at her again. She looks happy. He wants to ask her what's happening, but all he manages is a frown, and she shakes her head at him, hugs him close, a hand on the back of his head and his face pressed into her neck, and Arthur says, out loud and to her and to no one, "You smell like my cologne," and wakes up, his pillow soaked through, his heart still creaking with the slow and ever-aching rupture of tissues tearing in two.
Dom's $500-an-hour lawyers can only do so much, but everybody is already circling the wagons. Eames is patient for two weeks, tolerant for another three, and then when Arthur shows no apparent inclination to go back to France or even uproot himself from where he's bivouacked Dom and Mal's study, the fight is pretty much unavoidable.
"At least get come with me to the hotel," Eames says, standing over the desk.
"I'm fine here," Arthur tells him, flicking through case history. It's not that he doesn't trust their legal representation — they'd come highly recommended by some very terrible people — it's just that he doesn't trust their legal representation.
Eames puts his hand down on Arthur's book, snaps the lid of the laptop shut with a flick of his wrist. "How many nights have you slept on that desk?"
In terms of strict and brute strength, Arthur is never going to win against Eames, who has about fifty pounds and six hundred hours of rest on him at this point, so he just sits back in the desk chair, squares his shoulders.
"Dom needs my help," he says flatly.
"I agree, wholeheartedly," Eames says, "which is why I'm cheerfully helping you bankroll his legal defense fund — what I'm talking about is the way you've recused yourself from things that ordinary, normal humans need to function."
"What things?" Arthur snaps. "Coming with you? Sucking you off?"
Eames stares at him, his face perfectly blank. "If I said I needed you to see to your conjugal duties, would that get you to our hotel for a night instead of sleeping here?"
Something about how completely unaffected Eames is, by everything, by all of this, by the ugly subtext that the police think Dom somehow killed Mal, by the fact that she killed herself, makes something well up in Arthur's throat. Eames had liked Mal, and mostly gotten over Cobb shooting him in the knees, but he didn't love her, he's not mourning her, and Arthur doesn't want to have to explain that sitting at this desk is the best way to keep himself from lying underneath it and giving the fuck up.
"You're flush," he says cooly, and hates himself already, "go buy yourself someone nice for the night."
That actually makes something in Eames's jaw twitch, and Arthur's too good, too, to look away from the too-still lines of Eames's face, but Arthur can hear the pages of the book under his hand tearing.
"I know you're upset, and that's why I'm going to leave, and pretend you didn't say that, Arthur," Eames says, warning and perfectly even. "But if you everfucking talk to me like that again — "
"What?" Arthur snaps, because he can. He's hot with his fury; he doesn't even know why he's mad. That's a lie. He knows why he's mad, but you don't speak ill of the dead, and you don't get angry with them — not the way he can get angry at Eames.
"Best not to find out," Eames finishes, and like he's debating it, stands stock still in front of the desk a beat before walking around it, pressing a brief, unhappy kiss to the corner of Arthur's eye — he tries not to flinch; it doesn't work — and whispering, "Try to get some rest, love," and leaving, closing the office door softly behind him.
He does the next night, and a few days after, but then Dom's lawyers swing by to have a come to Jesus talk and Dom shuts down, goes stone-faced and wordless and Arthur has to sit with him all night being silent, too, because Jesus Christ, he's all Dom has and between them they are all they have will ever have of Mal again.
Being unhappy is exhausting, and Arthur's no good at it.
He's easily dissatisfied, displeased, good at finding things wanting, but he's no good at just being unhappy with them — everything else is impetus for change, unhappiness is an end in itself. He's out of stuff to do around the house, out of people to call, exhausted every legal avenue and checked out a number that aren't. It all just always ends with Arthur and Dom sitting in the house as it gets darker and quieter and colder, nothing to say and nothing to do at the end of the day, trying to figure out what comes next.
Thursday night, they're watching one of a billion different Law & Orders, when Dom asks, "Do you think I killed her?"
"I think you can't even throw a punch in the real world," Arthur says, reflexive, because he's already so angry at Mal he can barely think about her, he refuses to be mad at Dom.
Dom is quiet for a long time. "I could have learned," he says. "You learned."
"You don't need to learn," Arthur replies.
On TV, Eliot and Olivia are arguing over a cookie-cutter New York apartment, standing too close to each other and never touching. Arthur feels like since he came to Los Angeles he and Dom have sat on this couch in their living room and watched a hundred years of this stupid show, and he wishes Eliot and Olivia would fuck already, so that at least something interesting would happen.
"If I ran," Dom asks, "would you help me?"
Arthur grits his teeth. "You'll be fine, you won't need to."
"If I had to," Dom persists.
"I thought the point of all this, this refusing to plead out or cooperate or say anything bad about Mal is because it would fuck up your kids," Arthur says, and he can see Dom's flinch out of the corner of his eye. "How would your running be better?"
Dom is quiet for a long time. "I think I killed her, Arthur."
Jesus Christ, Arthur thinks, and reaches over, puts a hand over the back of Dom's neck. "Dom, no you didn't, okay? She — " he hates saying it " — killed herself."
"Maybe I pushed her," Dom croaks. "Maybe it was something I did."
"What, love her to death?" Arthur asks. "No, fuck that, Dom. It wasn't you."
Dom just seems to collapse in on himself, crumpled up; he's not a small man but he looks tiny now, in the huge and echoing space of the house, Arthur's hand on his neck and the blue-gray light of the television cast over them.
"Why would she do that?" Dom moans, grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes. "We have kids — why would she do that?"
Arthur doesn't know. Mal wasn't an unhappy person, given to less dissatisfaction and introspection than Arthur, even, and she'd always been so happy, so able to see past the discomfort and to the good. She'd loved Dom so much, and Philippa and James, and she was supposed to come visit him in Paris, she'd promised.
He puts Dom to bed and goes back downstairs to the study where his phone says he's missed five calls and has a new voice message. Arthur's pretty sure he knows what it's going to say, so he turns the ringer on silent and goes to lie on the couch until his brain shuts itself off and it's morning again, all of a sudden, and he gets to do this again.
Miles and Marie bring the kids back from France a week later, resigned in their grief as the investigation into the suspicious circumstances of Mal's death progresses. There's about a week where Arthur thinks Dom is going to knuckle under, give up just like Mal did, and he appoints himself on unofficial suicide watch because it's not like he's sleeping, anyway.
"Do you need me here?" Eames asks, the day after that, and it's very quiet in the background. Arthur can fill in the empty space of the hotel room, the way Eames just leaves all his clothes in his suitcase, never bothers to put any of it away.
Arthur looks into the kitchen, at where one of Dom's lawyers is talking to him, at where Philippa and James are playing in the yard through the opened French doors.
"You can go if you want," he says. "You don't have to stay."
Eames doesn't deserve to be grounded in L.A., dealing with Arthur's unending and unrelenting shit. Arthur made a list last night, of who between them had thrown the most complications in the gears. For Arthur, there was refusing to run away with Eames, the first time; he counts Traveler privately, despite publicly saying it was 100 percent in Eames's head; there's the Rogers; there's Mal — now there's Dom. Eames trashed an apartment and once got so caught up robbing someone in the Netherlands he forgot Arthur's birthday, which Arthur had realized when Eames had barreled in, two days late and apologizing profusely, since Arthur hadn't remembered, either.
"That's not what I asked, Arthur," Eames says, and he sounds so tired.
Arthur doesn't know what to say. His throat is dry. He repeats, "You don't have to."
Eames doesn't say anything, but he doesn't hang up, either, and Arthur leans back against the wall, watches Philippa and James digging at something in the garden and hopes for a vivid moment it's not slugs.
"I'll be back in Paris soon," Arthur tells him. "I promise."
"Will you really?" Eames asks flatly, and it doesn't even sound like a question.
"I will," Arthur lies, because he sees Dom dart a look at to him, back through the doors to his kids, the lawyer waving, and something is about to happen. He can tell right now, something is about to happen and his stomach starts to churn.
"Then I'll wait as long as I can wait," Eames says quietly, and hangs up.
That leaves Arthur just enough time to be crushed, feel something go blighted in his chest before Dom takes one last look at his kids, and bolts.
Somewhere between the dystopian bliss of his first years out of college and building up a reputation as a career criminal and retiring to cook his way through Julia Child books and lie in bed with a lover all day long, Arthur had forgotten that Dom was the guy who shot out Eames's knees in a dream because he was keeping a secret. That after Arthur had left to hustle luxury addiction to rich people in Europe and even richer people in the states that Dom had stayed and tortured people in their own heads for years.
Dom is a father, a widower, a professional interrogator, and that by extension he is completely, totally, irrevocably and stupidly insane — he's also fast, and by the time Arthur gets out of the house Dom's already made off with his car, the California rental plates getting smaller and smaller in the distance.
Even though every time Arthur checks his dice, they come up threes, he keeps rolling them, because he's having a fucking terrible sense of deja vu.
Dom's lawyers turn out to be worth their $500 an hour, because even after Arthur hits the guy in the face four times and reminds him who's paying the bill, here, he doesn't so much as open his mouth, just looks at Arthur with grimly serious eyes that speak volumes of lawyer-client privilege. Arthur calls in his car stolen and they sits on police radio after, driving around downtown Los Angeles in Cobb's Rav4 and kicking himself, because how could he have not seen this shit coming?
Conveniently, the cops were on their way to question Dominic Philip Cobb regarding the circumstances around the death of his wife again, and the ensuing nationwide manhunt when he's nowhere to be found should dovetail neatly with Arthur's end goals — breaking someone out of police custody is a lot easier than finding them somewhere, anywhere, on the planet — but of course nobody's looking in the right places, and by the time Arthur's system checks spit out any useful data it's to tell him Dom was last spotted in fucking Calcutta.
Arthur thinks, "Oh God, he's going to starve to death before I find him," because Dom doesn't even like eating food bought at street vendors in countries where he's not likely to get sick off the water. The year he and Mal went to Malaysia he managed to contract something that sounded like dysentery, when Arthur matched up all the symptoms on WebMD. He starts making calls, buying plane tickets, packing up a carry-on bag and making his excuses to Miles, who appears neither interested nor engaged.
"It's going to be fine, Miles," Arthur says. "I'll bring him back."
"What, in chains?" Miles asks, exhausted, cored. James and Philippa are with Marie, asking her to tell them stories. Probably, they'll ask again when Dom is coming back, and James, who hasn't quite figured it out yet, will ask about his mother, too. "My daughter is dead and everybody thinks he killed her — he's never going to be able to come back."
"I'll bring him back," Arthur repeats, and hauls ass out the door.
There are a lot of things that Arthur hates about the frenetic globetrotting that the first months of being on the lam requires, not the least of which are the hygiene compromises you make. It's worse when you're chasing after a genius psychopath, because it means you have to operate on their level: Dom's brain works in a labyrinthine marriage of psychology and statistics and double-crosses, and tracking him across the Indian subcontinent is about as miserable as being it sounds.
The week Arthur spends in Mumbai is the worst. It's hot as hell and miserably humid, and the malaria pills he's taking are making him sick as a dog, and he spends every functional, upright moment he has tracking down dizzying alleyways after the thinnest of clues. He taps out all of his sources in the city, from the electronics engineers that help him stock the inner workings of his PASIV device to the duo of Bollywood directors who'd tapped him to help visualize their next big screen project. There are rumors, but there are also a lot of white guys with sad eyes, and Dom knows how to be discreet when he wants to be, even with just the clothes on his back and the crazy in his head.
"Why is he running if he is not guilty?" Amendeep asks over dinner at his house, a palatial and languid bungalow bustling with servants and overachieving children who speak perfect British English. Eames would love it here, fucking imperialist.
"Who knows why Cobb does anything," Arthur says, and hears his own voice echoing, Because he looks guilty in his head. It's not anything he can dwell on, not if he wants to find Dom instead of letting him rot; there are a lot of conversations Arthur has been putting off having — he wishes he'd pushed earlier, now.
Amendeep looks unconvinced. "There is always a reason, Arthur," he lectures, and one of the dozen servants wanders past with another course.
"Not a movie script, Amendeep," Arthur reminds him, picking at his food.
"And if it was, it would be a flawed one," Amendeep grumbles, annoyed, which is fucking astonishing, since this is a guy who made a movie called Bride and Prejudice and is proud of it. "There's no romance, just everybody being overly mysterious and running around — although I am sure the gunplay will be very compelling."
Arthur makes a face. "Right," he says.
He gets a call the next day from Ulrich, who works at passport control in Frankfurt and desperately, desperately wants Arthur's permission to fuck Eames. Probably it's morally questionable, especially since Eames doesn't actually know about it, but Arthur enjoys having the leverage and the access to Germany's immigration system.
"Got a hit, some guy who looks like Cobb," Ulrich says, in precise English. "Crossed in last night, apparently. Not sure where he went next, but he doesn't seem to have left the country, yet."
"Thanks, Ulrich, I appreciate the call," Arthur says.
"How's Eames?" Ulrich asks, so tragically hopeful.
Arthur deadpans, "Still hesitating — he's so shy, sexually," and hangs up.
Mal had always said Arthur's love of Germany stemmed from some sort of fascist mutation in his genes, but Arthur doesn't think there's anything wrong with liking a place for its efficiency. He gets into Frankfurt on a morning flight, and realizes as he stands on the tarmac, clutching a Starbucks and staring out at the city that he has no idea where to begin looking because he has no idea what the hell Dom is doing. That first kick is panic, but there's no reason that Dom should be running from Arthur. Jesus Christ, what is Dom even doing?
Arthur doesn't find him in Frankfurt, or Dusseldorf, or in Berlin, with the Nefertiti head Dom always seemed to have inappropriate feelings for. He calls Miles four times, just to check on the kids, to see what's happening at home.
"Oh, global manhunt, Philippa cried when she saw her father on television with people saying he murdered her mother, nothing new," Miles says, as breezy and cruel as Mal on her best days.
"Great, thanks," Arthur mutters.
He calls Eames every night. The first couple of times, Eames hangs up; the next weeks after that, he defrosts, talking a little bit and in a circular sort of way about a thing he may or may not be doing that may or may not involve a private collection in Amsterdam. But the conversations never really go well, because Eames always asks, "Are you still keeping to your promise?" and Arthur retorts, "Are you holding by yours?" and they're left at an uncomfortable detente.
Dom's trail goes cold in Brussels for two days, and Arthur seriously considers giving up, packing it in, getting on the Eursostar to Paris and saying fuck it, when one of the guys who sells knock-off PASIVS who owes Arthur big calls to say that he doesn't know if this is Arthur's Dom Cobb, but some motherfucker is out doing interrogations for hire.
"Interrogations," Arthur repeats. It's been four months since Dom ran, and Arthur has followed him through five countries, over two oceans. "Is he calling them extractions?"
"Yeah, man," Jake says. "He's going to put us out of fucking business unless we can level up — people are already paying for some janky shit."
Arthur pulls out a pen. "Where is he?"
This is where they are different: where Arthur endeavors to leave no traces, Dom tends to leave flaming wreckage. Every hint of a job tied to the name Dominic Cobb — crazy, you know, that guy killed his wife after he was tortured by the NSA for years — usually ends in a spray of bullets and a decimated building, hollowed out by fire. Arthur stands in a series of them, looks over the notes in Dom's handwriting, the shell casings on the floor, and he thinks that maybe he doesn't know Dom at all.
It's like after Arthur took the high road to criminal enterprise, so Dom is deliberately going to take the subway, and Arthur finds himself picking his way through a series of increasingly sketchy business ties to Eastern European drug lords and sex traffickers operating out of the border cities between North Korea and China. They always say nice things about Dom's work, that he's quick, that he's smart, that nobody has ever been able to know the things that Dom can find out, but then the fact that Arthur usually has a gun rammed up in the soft tissue under their jaw may be biasing their statements.
He calls Jake again, sitting on a pristine bench in a park in Singapore.
"How janky?" he asks, when Jake picks up saying, "hello hello hello" in one long collection of soft vowel sounds.
"Super fucking janky, like, people getting shot in the fucking face in reality janky," Jake clarifies. "High risk, high reward, I guess. Man, I heard a rumor he's trying to steal the secret Coke recipe."
Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose. "Fantastic."
"Yeah," Jake adds, "but you know, at least your man isn't doing that shit."
Freezing, Arthur says, "What?"
"Like, Eames, all his extractions seem reasonably low key so far," Jake says, and maybe Arthur is quiet too long because he goes on, "Uh, before you come over and kill me — "
"Bye, Jake," Arthur says, and calls Paris.
Nobody picks up at the library; Eames doesn't pick up his cell, his other cell, the other cell, and the cell he hides between the mattresses, which leaves Arthur resorting to calling Maria, who works at the shop on the corner.
"Arthur, you are a horrible, selfish man," Maria says to him, as soon as she recognizes his voice. "Eames has been heartsick — he started smoking again. Where did you go? Did you two fight? If you fight you come home, you apologize, you don't leave."
"Maria, when did you last see him?" Arthur asks, trips over the French, because it's been so long since he's used it, and languages vanish so fast off the tongue.
"I don't know where he is," she continues, accusing. "He said if you called, that he would call you back."
The line is barely dead before Jake calls back.
"I'm serious, dude, this is not on me, okay," Jake argues, and Arthur can nearly see him pacing back and forth in his basement apartment overflowing with hardware. "I'm not like, keeping track of jobs or anything, and fuck you, it's not like it's my fault you assholes like to use me as a de facto sketchy dream criminals Craigslist, okay? He told me he was open for that shit, it's not like I'm snooping — "
"Bye, Jake," Arthur repeats, and hangs up on him again and doesn't let himself go after Eames, too, because Eames is a grown up and he knows what he's doing and he's not half-crazy from grief and on the run from international law enforcement — Arthur will just have to chase him and beat the tar out of himafter he does the same for Dom.
He and Dom have a near-miss in Prague, so close that Arthur wants to tear all of his hair out or kill some innocent bystanders — the coffee cup on the cafe table still warm and all the change left in the dish with the bill — so he's more surprised than anybody when he storms out of the cafe, hangs a left, and walks right into Dom.
"Hey," Dom says, with a half-day's stubble, dressed in slacks and a jacket Arthur doesn't recognize. He's tanned and there're no babyfood stains anywhere on him, and in the sun, for that heart-stopping minute, Dom is as handsome and reckless and exciting as Mal always said he was.
Arthur punches him in the mouth.
"I deserved that," Dom mumbles, spitting blood out on the sidewalk and terrifying the locals, and Arthur just grabs him by the scruff of his shirt and drags him off.
Dom doesn't really have a plan, or at least, Arthur doesn't believe for a second his protestations of needing to pay his legal bills, which is the bullshit song and dance Dom pukes out the entire trip from the cafe to Arthur's hotel. He says that he has a feeling that the extractions will be useful, too, somehow, that in the process of rooting around peoples' brains he will find some magical key that will reset time and everything will be all right. Arthur thinks the listening to Dom talk about his logic is a little like tripping balls in the fucking desert: same unhinged terror, same total lack of linear thought, same heart-pounding fearfulness.
"I had to run," Dom says, when Arthur asks him why. "They were going to arrest me."
"They weren't," Arthur retorts, because he's probably right, they weren't. "They didn't have anything conclusive or they would have come after you already."
The details were suspicious, but not damning; there's probably footage of Mal going up the elevator of the other building by herself, nobody with her, maybe even surveillance images of her in the hallway unaccompanied. Dom had been in the hotel across the street — how could he have pushed her? It looked bad, especially with all the prep work Mal had done, as thorough in this as Arthur had ever been, but forensically, it had been a dubious fucking claim until Dom took it upon himself to flee.
Dom just cards his fingers through his hair, says, "Arthur, I need your help."
"We'll take you back home," Arthur says, reaching for his phone. "We'll call your ridiculous lawyers. They'll figure something out — they better."
Except Dom catches Arthur's hand before he grabs the cell. "Not like that. I need your help with a job."
Arthur collects his hand again. "Dom."
"It's just one job, easy extraction," Dom says.
"I'm out, Dom," Arthur reminds him. "I don't do that anymore."
"You're not out," Dom answers, frowning at him.
Arthur frowns back. "I'm out. Eames is out."
"Jake told me Eames is in Shenzhen swindling an old billionaire into telling him the contents of his will," Dom says in clipped tones, and Arthur feels his mouth press into a tight, angry line.
"Dom," he says, "don't do this. Let's go home, okay? Don't you want to see your kids?"
"I want to see my kids again more than anything," Dom says, and it's such an obvious fucking lie. Arthur doesn't know what Dom wants more than anything, but it's not Philippa and James, not right now. "That's why I have to do this, Arthur."
He says, "Dom, I — "
But Dom just stares at him with his eyes red-rimmed and this shaky smile on his face, and Arthur realizes that whether or not he says yes, Dom is going to do the job, that he's going to be reckless with his own grief and careless with his life, and that there will be a very real possibility that the next time Arthur sees him, it's going to be on the slab of a morgue in some disreputable backwater. He don't want to hold Philippa's hand at any more funerals; he's too young to feel this way.
Dom takes Arthur's hand, closes their palms together, as affectionate and dear as he'd been a hundred thousand years ago, when they'd stood in the old apartment in Boston and Dom had mumbled, "morning" and kissed him, forgetful and sweet, and made Arthur feel kept and protected and good. Dom is Arthur's best friend now — the only one he can still have, and Arthur feels his heart stutter, remembers Mal's smile in the dream, Mal's smile on her wedding day, Mal's shoes, the first time they talked.
" — Give me a day, okay?" Arthur finishes, feeling something crack in his chest. "I don't like to go into things unprepared."
"Great," Dom says, his smile going manic. "Great."
Arthur's meticulous to a fault because he's never done an extraction outside the context of the lab before and because Eames isn't answering his calls. For the first time in years, Arthur doesn't know how to find him, and it feels like a kick to the solar plexus, like being punched in the throat to think of how thin the ice is where he's on his knees hoping. It's all he can do to stay busy. So the one day he asked for turns into five, with his files sprawling out from a manila folder to spread like a plague across an entire hotel room, papering the walls in notes and surreptitious photographs and elaborately detailed diagrams. Dom spends the time memorizing locations, constructing the dream, because he has the time for it and Arthur would rather panic about the sundries, and it's division of labor that sticks after the first job — "Just this other one," Dom pleads. "I don't trust anybody but you, Arthur." — and bleeds into the next.
They steal passwords and chemical formulas, unscramble lost data in the heads of accident victims, work for rival corporations stealing the same data for one another in a spectacularly flawed double-cross that ends with Arthur giving Dom an impromptu lesson in using semiautomatic machine guns and then having to throw him into the deep end.
"Fucking never again, Dom!" Arthur shouts at him after that, ears still ringing and trying to wash fucking powder off of his hands, trying to figure out how to get down to the boiler room of the hotel, because he's going to burn the Zegna suit he's wearing all the memories that come along with it. "Do you hear me? Fucking never again."
Arthur's about to tell him to go fuck himself, that he wants none of this, that guilt can only carry this so far, that Mal didn't mean for him to inherit Dom's grief this way, but Dom just gives him a tight smile, like Arthur's hysterical and will get better in the morning the way all nervous young people do.
Dom says, "We're getting better at this — we make a good team," and "I'll see you in the morning, okay, Arthur?" and vanishes down the hall to his own room.
In the morning, Arthur thinks viciously, Dom is going to wake up in Budapest to find this hotel room empty and Arthur back in Paris soaking in his own bathtub and hoping Eames is still talking to him.
He's actually already in Gare du Nord when he sees something familiar out of the corner of his eye on a newsstand and doubles back to stare.
It's Ib and Her Husband, a grainy reproduction of it in its well-loved frame — out of the context of its neighboring books of English history and Walt Whitman, taken out of its home between the Coleridge and the Donne where he and Eames had drunk a bolt of very terrible champagne and hung it, years ago — sold at auction for $19.4 million by a private collector.
Arthur goes back to Budapest, where Dom is sitting at a cafe table at the restaurant next door to the hotel, and when he looks up at Arthur, he's jumping to his feet.
"Are you okay?" Dom asks, taking the overnight bag out of Arthur's hand and pushing him down into a seat. "I thought — you left a note. I thought you were going back home."
In that instant, Arthur hates Dom, the way Marie hates him and the way Eames had screamed once he hated him. Arthur wants to flip the table, to call Interpol, to do something desperate and vengeful and push all the hurt in his throat outward onto someone else.
"Jesus, Arthur, you look awful," Dom says, looking stricken at Arthur's stricken face, and his voice is soft with affection and tight with worry. He strokes a palm over Arthur's cheek, slides it down to his shoulder, gripping him tight. He asks, "What happened? Is everything okay?"
"No," Arthur tells him.
Dom stares at him. "Do you want to — "
"Let's talk about the job," Arthur interrupts him. There's always another job; Dom's made a name for himself, coined an entire field of criminal activity. "Let's just talk about the job, okay?"
"Okay," Dom agrees. "Okay, let's talk about the job."
So they do, and they don't talk about anything but the job. They don't talk about Mal or going back to California; they don't talk about Philippa or James, even, although Dom calls them, Arthur hears him. They talk about schedules and locations, about the need for a professional dream architect, a specialist, to divvy up the labor, and they phone up Jake, who really is like a dream criminal's Craigslist, and he rattles off a list of names.
"Dude, what the fuck happened with you and Eames?" Jake appends at the end.
Arthur clutches the phone so tightly he's pretty sure he can hear the plastic casing creak in protest. "There is no me and Eames."
"Fucking explains it," Jake allows, and hangs up.
It's not until they run a job with Hobbes, a man as philosophical as his namesake in both history and the comics pages, that Arthur finds out what that actually means.
"It's intriguing, really intriguing stuff Eames is doing," Hobbes says, bent over a drafting table and looking down at a model so excruciatingly detailed that Arthur falls a little bit in love with it — its one-twelfth scale fussiness. "You can't control a mark's projections, of course, but if you can plant an actor in, a convincing-enough one, it blows the doors wide open on the possibilities."
Arthur grits his teeth. "Great. Can we stop talking about him?"
Hobbes raises his eyebrows. "Do you not like him?" he asks, benignly curious.
"Ex," Arthur says, and regrets it immediately, feels the remorse like nausea creeping up his throat, all the blood in his body flushing to his cheeks in mortification at the way Hobbs is looking at him with detached sympathy.
When the job goes tits-up, and Hobbes gets shot in the throat with a real gun in a real office during real life, Arthur actually has a brief, terrible moment of totally dissociated gratitude, that at least that moment's died with him.
That tremendously awful thought, at least, is enough to distract Arthur momentarily from the memory of Mal in Dom's dream. She'd been surreally perfect and so vividly real he'd been too startled to act for a beat, struck by fierce recognition and finding her a total stranger: the real Mal's hair never looked so flawless, and Dom's more annoying personal habits usually meant she had some jawline acne. And anyway, Arthur had never seen her look at him with such condescending fondness, and he'd taken a step back, murmuring, "Mal?" before she'd smiled at him, beckoning him closer. She was standing contrapasto, in the hallway of Dom's steel and glass-paradox office building when she'd stabbed Arthur in the throat and watched him go down like a load of bricks, and she'd still been smiling down at him as his vision had faded out completely.
Later, once they've fled the scene, Arthur asks, "Is that the first time? Have you seen her before?" and Dom looks hunted and wrecked and says, "No — no."
Arthur grits his teeth. "Will we see her again?"
"I have it under control," Dom says.
Mal shows up the very next job, and the next job, and at first Arthur thinks that he won't ever be able to shoot her in the dreams, that just thought of it would cripple him. But every job she shows up, she kills him in some horrible fucking way — choking, stabbing, guns, fire — and that's not even counting what she does to Dom.
It takes him another five jobs before he shoves her in front of a bus; he counts it as personal growth when he wakes up and only throws up twice.
Dom doesn't have it under control and he doesn't get it under control, but every time Arthur thinks about leaving, about saying fuck it and giving up, it reminds him all over again that he doesn't have anywhere to go. This is him now, this is his life. He lives out of a series of luxury hotels in big cities and run-down warehouses during jobs; he's tied, professionally and inextricably, to Dominic Cobb, who though he's learned how to better conceal his craziness, hasn't gotten over it or gotten particularly better.
The irony of the thing is that when Arthur had taken off, the wind at his back had been the thought of withering where he was. He'd craved freedom like people have been greedy for gold or earth or oil. He's not tied down to anything anymore: Arthur could go anywhere, do anything, do nothing, even, but he doesn't have anything to do or anyone to go to, and the idea of idleness would make him more batshit than Dom, even, so he just does this, whatever it is. He lets Dom pick the jobs and he cases out the marks, does all the necessary but boring legwork like he's always been so good at doing and goes to sleep at night and gets up in the morning.
As if Dom is purposefully trying to break Arthur's spirit, he gets them a job that straddles London and Tokyo in November, deftly combining appalling weather and a horrendous time difference into a noxious mix of total unworkability. Arthur blames sleep deprivation and a creeping certainty that his determination to endure has ruined everything worth having in life for why it takes him almost a month doing background on the Marzak Solutions job to realize it's too big and too complex for two people.
"We need a forger," he says, and before Dom can open his mouth, holds up a warning finger. "Don't — I'm hiring Trajan."
Trajan's short and blond and buxom, with a fierce crush on Dom and a keen eye for the intangibles. The first time she'd met Arthur, she'd said he'd felt college-ruled, and while Arthur was wondering how the hell to get rid of this woman, Dom had said, "In a creepy way, that's the best way to describe you I've ever heard." Then she'd said Dom made her think of dropping sharp objects that would blow up in her hands.
Arthur looks into Marzak's corporate history — a byzantine process in and of itself — and finds a series of pending international contracts to commodify desalinization and, as a result, water. The company also has billions of bets in the low-volume but high-cynicism business of water futures markets, and the more he looks into the C-suite's investment activities the more apparent it becomes as to why it's imperative for the company to know the progress of their competitors. Marzak's own low-cost, quick-setup, high-production desalinization products will be ready for commercial production and sale in 2014 if all stays on track — it never does — and should dovetail nicely into the over-the-counter interests they have in terms of supply. If their competitors, Elcorp or Silverfish, gets there first, they're fucked beyond measure, both in terms of contract obligations and commodities futures, and the derivative natures of their investments means their losses spiral outward in a logarithmic sort of way. It's the sort of asinine, overly cocky board room malfeasance that starts greedy, gets petty, and then degenerates into hiring thought criminals into conducting corporate espionage.
They're in London this week, set up in a more-or-less abandoned factory banded in on one side by Hoxton's overpriced bars and hipsters and the other by artist lofts in Shoreditch, and a few yards away from a fucking Holiday Inn Express, that Arthur admits he's making Dom stay in out of passive-aggressive annoyance at this job.
Elcorp and Silverish's heads of R&D will both be in Tokyo for the 2009 Nature Photonics Technology Conference — what's a self-powering, self-contained desalinization system without a sustainable solar energy source? — and the three-day event at Tokyo Fashion Town Hall is their best shot. The conference is academic, low-key, high-beta on nerds and Elcorp's Mark McQuaid and Silverfish's Kevin Hong are there as much for the company as they are for professional networking — they'll be loose, off their guard, relaxed, and nobody at their central offices could give two shits about the the three-day jaunt: it's so small it's off their radar. As far as Arthur could tell, their risk departments hadn't even been notified.
The conference is also so excruciatingly insidery Dom nearly knocked himself unconscious when he'd fallen asleep trying to read the documentation for the displays. Arthur, who's been flying between London and Tokyo spying alternately on McQuaid and Hong, thinks he could give Dom's abject boredom a run for its money: McQuaid plays a prodigious amount of Halo 3 in his off hours; Hong apparently likes watching Canadian independent film.
"There's no way to do this," he says to Dom, fresh off a Singapore Airlines flight back from Tokyo and so completely sick of trying to figure out a way to marry Master Chief with fucking Wilby Wonderful in a dream that he's ready to blow his brains out for real. "I say we give up, and run away."
Dom snorts. "I'm pretty sure you're physically incapable of doing that."
"What, running away?" Arthur asks, collapsing into an $800 Herman Miller ergonomic chair he stole out of a Marzak conference room. "I can run."
"As long as I've known you, you've demonstrated a total lack of ability to quit on anything and anybody," Dom says, still frowning down at his sketches, "which is probably why you're still here instead of back in Paris, too."
Dom glances up at him. "Well?"
"Well what?" Arthur asks, around the sudden ache in his throat.
"Well, are you never going back?" Dom asks. "I know you worry, but you don't have to babysit me anymore — I'm doing better."
Debatable, Arthur thinks. "It's not an issue, Dom."
Dom looks up from his drawings, brow furrowed. "It's not an issue in the sense that you and Eames are all right, or it's not an issue in the sense that — "
"This is too complicated a job to be a passive extraction," Arthur interrupts, ripping the blueprints out of Dom's hands. Of all the things in the world, the very last thing he needs to think about is how many months it's been since he's talked to Eames — how even Jake, despite his general inability to help himself, has stopped experiencing verbal diarrhea on the subject and appraising Arthur of Eames's whereabouts. "We need to interact with them — we can't rely on the experience itself guaranteeing their cooperation."
Dom is staring at his palm. "You just sliced my hand open," he accuses.
Arthur points at the blueprint. "Plan, Dom. Marzak."
"Fine," Dom says, "so we won't talk about Eames."
Which is easier said than done, because a month later, when they are balls deep into totally blowing the Marzak job, Arthur turns the corner at the conference and walks right into the man — dressed in a KYOCERA t-shirt and covered in science fair swag: a SHARP lanyard with a conference badge at the end, a DuPont hat, an Evergreen Solar messenger bag. It's almost, but not quite, enough to conceal how terrible Eames looks — which in and of itself is almost, but not quite, enough to distract Arthur from what this means.
"Shit," he hisses. "Who are you working for?"
The look Eames gives him is disbelieving. "Who the fuck are you working for?"
There's a new scar across Eames's forearm, a nicotine patch too close to his elbow, probably concealing PASIV marks, and for a moment the need to peel it back and make sure Eames isn't accidentally tapping out all his veins is so intense it's dizzying. Eames is newly shaved and his hair is razor-sharp short again, and Arthur can't help but to catalog him, every inch of him, study all the differences because if he stops he might say something mortifying, something that would give him away entirely.
Arthur clears his throat. "You should probably abort."
Eames rubs at his face. "Probably — too bad for my gambling debts."
"You don't gamble," Arthur says, reflexive, and only regrets it a beat later, when he's stuck wondering what's allowed here.
Eames's fingers get clumsy on his phone, and he flicks a look up, hesitant. "It's been a year, Arthur — given me all sorts of time to cultivate all sorts of terrible habits I didn't have before," he murmurs, and frowns. "Wait — I should probably abort."
"It's too risky," Arthur says reasonably. "Even if we aren't working on overlapping jobs of some kind, there's — "
"Tell me, Arthur, how come I'm aborting the mission," Eames asks, and he sounds genuinely amused.
"You're clearly exhausted," Arthur snaps, because Eames looks wrecked, like he hasn't been sleeping well in months. "You shouldn't even be here — "
Eames waves a hand. "Leaving aside the fact that your wrists are nearly birdlike — "
It takes an act of enormous will for Arthur not to shout at that, or to tug down his French cuffs.
" — From whatever eating disorder you're fostering," Eames snipes, "I am professionally insulted you'd think I'd let personal issues get in the way of providing my clients with a superior level of service."
Arthur scowls. "Abort, Eames."
"You first," Eames invites.
"If I go, will you?" Arthur asks, because of course in any complex interaction with Eames, he'd be reduced to second-grade negotiation tactics.
Looking intrigued, Eames says, "You? Walk away from a job? Never."
"I'd do it if it was the right thing to do," Arthur retorts.
"That," Eames replies, suddenly so serious and his face so grim it's startling and isolating, even in the hustle of the pre-conference registration, everybody wandering around mingling and gossiping in a dozen different languages around them, "is a bald-faced lie, Arthur."
"Fine," Arthur spits out. "Jesus — fine, I'm a soulless robot and I work 25 hours a day, now, will you get the fuck out of here?"
It's funny; Arthur's so rarely given up during fights with Eames he's not actually familiar with the consequences of doing so, and it's a marvel to watch all the thoughts cross over Eames's face: disbelief, and then irritation that is melting easily into fury.
"I don't understand you," he says, bitter, a ragged edge to his voice that makes the perfectly smooth lines of blandly and indistinctly English accent slip into something unbearably posh. "Why do you even care what I do? I can tell you right now — I've seen your rat-arsed forger wandering around here pretending to be drunk — we're not working on the same job, there's no reason to — "
Arthur feels feverish, a little reckless, but he can't help it, he has to say it, and even though he controls it to a hiss, he grabs Eames's wrist and he says, "Of course I care."
Eames has always had a way of looking at Arthur that makes him feel split open, skin peeled back. Eames called it a professional skill. "But I like using it on you, best, love," he'd cooed, purred it into the hollow of Arthur's throat, rocking into him, in their bed, "to learn you inside-out." It's suddenly very clear to Arthur how long it's been since he's been in this position, pinned under Eames's gaze — more than a year since Eames sold their painting, longer than that since it was really over.
"Oh darling," Eames murmurs, "but you left me."
"I went to chase after Dom," Arthur corrects, but his voice sounds strange.
"You never came back," Eames argues.
Arthur tips his head to the side. This is an old ache, a war wound, and the scar tissue is numbed over; he doesn't know if that's how it always goes — he never wants to find out again — but he's curiously calm right now; he always though that if they ever had this conversation, he'd be tempted to pull out a gun.
"You sold the painting," Arthur tells him quietly, without any accusation. "It seemed as good an indication as any you didn't have room left for me, either."
Eames is staring at him like Arthur has just broken his heart, like all of this history between them is a fresh and still-bleeding cut instead of something that happened long ago, and Arthur doesn't know what to do with that, where to put it, how to unpack any of the sundries that come along with it.
It's a humbling thing to admit that Eames had been so many firsts and onlys, and he wonders if it's always like this, the feeling of a phantom limb, the hot misery and fury that goes cold with regret, the way it all transmutes like an alchemical reaction into lingering hurt, an old war wound. He wonders if Eames feels the same way, if he's already found another painting to fill in the white space on the wall. He wonders what Eames is seeing right now, when he looks at Arthur.
"You chose Dom over me," Eames says. "You said you wouldn't."
In not so many words but so many ways, Arthur will always know Eames the way he knows the geography of his own fears, and he says, "I never said that — and I didn't — " Jesus, what is the point " — I couldn't give up on him, Eames."
"You couldn't give up on him, but you could walk away from — "
"You still have everything I own," Arthur interrupts, because it's the awful, embarrassing truth of the thing. "All of my books. My entire CD collection. You have the coffee cups my mother gave me. I had to go to a Gap somewhere in fucking Dubai and buy like six pairs of jeans one day because all of my clothes were still with you."
Eames looks considering. "Everything except for you was with me, you mean."
"I'm not saying I did it right," Arthur snaps, because this conversation has been a long time coming. "And I'm not saying I did it wrong — I'm just saying I did what I had to, because I can't be that person who does something just because I want to or because it's easier."
"Loyal Arthur," Eames says in a hush.
Chips on the table, now, Arthur hears Eames say, a little piece of a memory from when Eames had wasted an entire month trying to teach Arthur how to game Texas Hold 'Em. It had been a hilariously impossible task, then, but right now, showing his hand seems strangely weightless, too easy, and when Arthur says, "To you, too, still," it's as natural as breathing.
"Arthur," Eames says, and for a second, Arthur thinks that something might happen for them, right here, right now, and then Eames's eyes go flinty with irritation, "Arthur — I may kill Cobb."
Arthur stares. "What?"
From over his shoulder, Dom says, "Hi, Eames."
Arthur whips around. "Dom?"
Dom looks winded, his hair a wreck, and he flashes Arthur an awkward smile. "There's the possibility we've been made, and need to get out of here."
"Ignore him," Eames tells Arthur, reaching over to curl a fist into Arthur's tie, that oh-so-familiar and pout already affected. "Stay here."
Dom rolls his eyes. "He could, but then he'd get shot."
"I would push you in front of him," Eames suggests.
"Jesus, let's get out of here," Arthur sighs.
Eames frowns. "Maybe I wouldn't push Dom in front of you."
"We will talk about this later," Arthur promises, and untangles Eames's hand, grabs Dom by the shoulder, and starts edging both of them out of the room.
"You're a shit, Arthur! A proper twat!" Eames yells after them, but there's a grin on his face, and Arthur sees it because he keeps turning over his shoulder trying to get one last look of Eames — because it's been so long and he can't tear his gaze away.
The first message after that comes as a surprise: you left a half-finished course of antibiotics in the flat — thank you for contributing to the global superbug, Eames texts, from a Denver area code. Arthur doesn't waste his time trying to trace it or wonder how Eames got his number; Eames will always have Arthur's number.
I felt fine, Arthur replies, but he sees an incoming call indicator: DOM, so he just adds, Did the job go all right in Tokyo? before picking up the other line.
"What's your schedule for the next three months?" Dom asks without any prelude.
Arthur glances around the room, at the Chicago skyline through the window and listens to Traveler shouting at someone in the next room.
"Mostly Spielberg movies," he says honestly, and has to bite his lip when he hears the morning trading bell go on CNBC and Traveler begin swearing immediately. "Why?"
"Cobol Engineering," Dom answers. "They're paying a fortune, and they want Saito."
"Proculus Global's Saito," Arthur clarifies.
"Specifically, they want the self-sustaining green energy masterplans the whisper numbers have been talking about," Dom goes on, and Arthur can hear him already, packing wherever he hides out in between jobs; Arthur gave up on tracking his every move about a year ago, and the nominal freedom seems to suit him. Dom likes Rio, he likes Peru, he likes the Philippines — mostly, he likes places he and Mal never went, dreaming or awake. Her absence is the rickety bridge between them, still, and Arthur sometimes lets himself wonder if — in the reading of the will — Arthur was left Dom, or if Dom was left Arthur; maybe it doesn't matter.
"And I want a magical pony that shits mermaids," Arthur answers calmly, hearing his phone chime and pulling it away from his face. He sets it to speaker so he can scroll through his incoming text messages: You said that about having fucking appendicitis, too. Tokyo job was fine, small potatoes, should have been easier than it was, but I was working with some supposedly sub-par point men, so I hear, Eames has written back.
Dom laughs. "Cobol has a plan, though."
"My standard comment about letting clients think they know how to plan stands," Arthur returns, voice cool, and thumb pecks out a reply to Eames:
Hope you didn't have to compromise yourself too badly to get the job done.
"I've looked it over," Dom says mildly. "It looks workable. Obviously, lacking your very special touch, but well within the realm of possibility."
Eames answers, darling you know I never kiss and tell.
Arthur could track Eames's cell, or phone in a few line checks and know in ten minutes where he's been, what he's been doing, who he's been working for. Theirs is a small community of professionals and a riotous marketplace of pretenders, and isolating the big jobs, the complicated jobs, the type of jobs with the type of budget that can bring on the likes of Dom and Arthur and Eames are few and far between. But Eames has never been a research project or a problem to be solved, and if Arthur is not happy not to know, then at least he's all right knowing that he wants Eames to tell him, and not for Eames to simply give himself away.
"It's too big to be a two man job," Arthur says to Cobb, and he looks up to see Traveler on his bluetooth headset, yelling at someone in the room his second ex-wife had soundproofed because she said his screaming upset her cats — he's still loud enough that Arthur can hear the occasional keyword: gold, typhoon, sinking dollar.
It is one of your finest qualities, Mr. Eames, Arthur writes back, and he hesitates before he types, Where are you?
Dom says, "Cobol's already agreed we can pick our own team, up to four members."
I am in a secret location, Eames writes back almost immediately, meditating on the issue of you.
"Jesus Christ," Arthur says out loud, and before Dom's curiosity can fully filter through the phone line, he recovers enough to say, "So — what? A forger? A chemist?"
Dom's quiet for long enough to be suspect. He says, "An architect, I was thinking."
Arthur thinks about Mal, her constant and bloodthirsty presence in Dom's dreams, and how even though it's evident to Arthur that the ghost of her is so completely removed from the woman they loved it's ludicrous to harbor any feelings toward her, Dom has never been able to raise a hand to her. Arthur's taken his share of unnecessary hits, but mostly he's pissed Dom's pathological guilt is borrowing Mal's face; Dom will just take it, whatever she dishes out, expire at her hands like it's his responsibility.
"Might be a good idea," Arthur agrees, and down the long hallway of the Chicago penthouse, Traveler sticks his head out of his vacuum chamber and shouts at him:
"Hey — how did Silverfish's prototypes look?"
"Not as good as Elcorp's," Arthur calls back.
"Fuckin' knew it," Traveler declares, and vanishes back into the room, already waving his arms as the door shuts with a hushed sound, killing his sentence in the middle as he was saying, "See? I told you — Silverish's system is totally bo — "
Dom asks, "Was that Traveler? Are you in Chicago again?"
"I like Chicago," Arthur says. The bar with the palm tree and the pink coconut tits is still here, too, and he likes the Bean, the pizza, the fact that Traveler hasn't bothered to change his locks or his security codes all of these years, just lets Arthur wander into and out of his life like a particularly fascinating stray. It really is a shame, Arthur thinks sometimes, that he didn't meet Traveler first.
"Right," Dom allows, and clearing his throat. The Dom that wore tweed jackets with elbow patches and carried around a long-lost mug in the Harvard dining hall would have wanted to ask if there were feelings involved; the Dom Cobb that was still just a father of one would have laughed. This one just wants to get back to business. "I was thinking Todashi, for our chemist — he's already based in Japan."
"I agree to those terms," Arthur says, because Todashi is easy-going and punctual, precise to a fault, and those are qualities Arthur admires in someone who is mixing up illegal chemicals to inject into his body.
He types back to Eames, finally, Have you come to any conclusions?
Dom makes a distracted noise. "What about Nash? For our architect?"
"I don't know Nash," Arthur admits. Nash washed out of the design school at RISD after failing the licensing exam and is rumored to be given to cutting corners; Jake had said Nash was perfectly competent, just needed a lot of watching. Arthur's a control freak, but never about the minutia — hiring for competence usually eliminates the need for it.
"Neither do I," Dom concedes. "But he'll have you and I looking over his shoulder."
"I'm already going to have a ludicrously large number of shoulders to look over if we take this job, Dom," Arthur reminds him.
Some, yes, Eames writes back, but seeing you again stirred up a great number of apparently lingering feelings of fury I am trying to be mature about.
Arthur is too grown up to find that crushing, but this is Eames, who has always encouraged misbehavior and pettiness in him. Oh? How? Drink, drugs, or gambling? Arthur writes, because he doesn't want to know if Eames is fucking it out of his system.
The last one, love, Eames returns, although all the table stakes here are fucking terrible. What the hell am I going to do with three goats or a virgin?
"We'll figure something out," Dom says, dismissive. "Well?"
I have suggestions, but they are terrible, Arthur writes, because he knows exactly the way Eames will laugh at that, bright-eyed and cackling, that ugly and unpolished bark that he only lets out when he's surprised — that's just for Arthur.
Eames's response is lightening fast: O I have missed you, darling.
"Arthur," Dom presses. "The job?"
"Sure," Arthur agrees. "Fine, whatever."
Three months later, staring at Nash's beat-in face on the far side of a helicopter, Arthur wishes he wasn't texting during working hours and paying more attention. The job is in shambles, and Saito is chilling a bottle of probably very good Malbec, hypnotizing Dom like a snake charmer, the sound of the helicopter blades whipping through the air as Saito says, "Inception."
Given that his other options involve abandoning Dom's best opportunity to go back to his family — he finally seems to want to, really want to, now — or let Cobol's thugs run him down, Arthur of course goes to Paris. He locates a base of operations and sources a number of less than satisfactory lawn chairs to populate the space, avoids the 5th Arrondissement assiduously for fear Marie will see him and throw rotting fruit at him, and Dom goes shopping for an architect.
It's gorgeous here, Arthur writes to Eames, which is a lie since he's been hiding in a Carrefour from a prodigious downpour for over an hour now, but he's not above deceit to get what he wants. You should come to Paris.
He doesn't get an answer before the sky clears, and so it's hours later, after he escapes the store with 200 euros in office supplies and the collar of his trench coat turned up against the wind, that he checks his phone and sees that Eames has written back:
What, and leave the unrelenting dry heat of Mombasa?
Arthur makes a face. I hate Mombasa, he writes back.
I didn't say my initial reasons for coming here weren't childish, darling, Eames replies, but I am beginning to get sick of it here, too.
For weeks now, Arthur has been feeling something under his skin, that same creeping something that hatched out of his chest the day he broke out of McCallister's net, and it's peaceful in its patience. Arthur believes in being prepared for all eventualities and going into a situation with all the facts, being aware of all possible consequences, but there's a breathless sort of anticipation now: something is about to happen.
Forgive me, then, Arthur writes.
There's no reply to that, not for an hour and not for a day, and when it gets too torturous to just stare at his phone feeling continually crushed, he makes himself busy finding the optimum lawn chair to white board configuration and trying to convince his gut he's wrong — that everything is the status quo, to stop hoping that something is changing.
Except it comes after Dom brings Ariadne on board, and after she storms out on Arthur in a righteous fury after a Dominic Cobb special, like she's the first and only person to have noticed that Cobb's completely fucking nuts.
"She'll be back," Dom declares.
He's probably right, Arthur thinks, because there is nothing quite like lucid dreaming, the way the world can curl up around you, or unfold like origami. He watches Ariadne go and thinks that she looks beautiful, with the sun cascading down the waves of her brown hair, and hopes she doesn't end up like them.
"I've never seen anyone pick it up so fast," Dom says. "And one reality won't be enough for her now — when she comes back, get her building mazes."
Arthur arches a brow at him. "Where will you be?"
"I've got to talk to Eames," Dom answers, easy as anything.
"Eames?" Arthur asks, and he thinks this is it. "He's in Mombasa — Cobol's backyard."
Dom levels him a glance, lighter than the moment calls for, smirking like he knows, too. Maybe he does — he's changed, but people don't erase all the people they have been before, just build over them like successive generations, and underneath his tunnel vision and grief and the ragged-sharp edges of him now is still the Dom Cobb who sat on the phone and gushed at Eames about Philippa's teething, told him to put Arthur on the phone just before they got on their flight.
"Necessary risk," Dom says.
"There are plenty of other thieves," Arthur points out, but he's already making plans, he can already feel the corners of his mouth tugging up. This is it.
"We don't just need a thief," Dom replies, and heads for the door. "We need a forger."
It's probably just unsubstantiated courage from having performed the first successful inception or insanity induced by a 12-hour flight to L.A., a night spent at the LAX Radisson, followed by a 10-hour double-back to Paris, but whatever it is, it gets Arthur where he is now, sliding his key into the lock of the front door of the library.
The key still works, too, and Arthur takes a beat to marvel at that before he pushes open the door. It's strange to think that he lived here for a long time, that even though he still knows the creaks in the floorboards and the illogical light switch configuration, he feels uninvited. It's not really breaking and entering if he has the key, Arthur thinks reasonably, and steels himself to step inside.
The apartment is exactly the same and completely different. The coat hanger at the door is still overflowing, a dozen umbrellas hanging or slotted into the stand at the base, a pair of unbearably English wellies dusty and left by the door. The bookshelves are still overflowing, double-stacked with other volumes laid flat on top, but where Arthur had gone through and organized them by genre and then author, all the spines are grouped by color now: the orange Penguin paperbacks in a defensive huddle together against the blue generic classic compilations of Sherlock Holmes and English naturalistic poetry. There are new books, too, in haphazard stacks on the floor, like Eames hasn't gotten around to putting up any more shelves, and the first three titles Arthur sees are all in languages he knows Eames doesn't speak: French, Portuguese, something Cyrillic. Maybe he just liked the cover art, Arthur thinks, and picks his way around them, past the lavishly green plants overflowing their perches, their window boxes, the kitchen table, looks at the tired rugs in desperate need a vacuum. There's a new television where the old one used to sit, and an expensive-looking sound system with none of the cables hooked up — classic Eames, Arthur sighs to himself — and the kitchen smells like rosemary and thyme and mace and the basket of lemons on the counter, basking in the late morning sun slanting across the surface. All the CDs are gone, but the couches are the same and the prism hanging in the living room window is still there — catching his eye like Arthur's mother had said it would. There is still a musty and pea green afghan tossed over the arm of the couch, the same taken-apart copy of the Guardian on the coffee table, splayed open underneath a pitch-colored mug of tea.
There's no art anywhere: the black and white Alexander Cozens prints gone along with their neat Baroque frames, John White Abbott's From the Churchyard at Dulverton, Somerset, 1880 vanished from where it had always leaned against a wall, propped up on a side table. The illuminated manuscript pages Eames collected without regard for authenticity from Portobello Road Market were missing, and over the fireplace, there was a vast and sad-looking empty space where Ib and Her Husband used to sit, across from the couch Arthur used to sit and study it.
Arthur is giving himself a minute to stare at everything and feel really sorry for himself when Eames sticks his head out of the bedroom door and says, wide-eyed, "Arthur?"
Staring, Arthur says, "You've been home?"
"Darling, it's Sunday," Eames says reasonably, still just a head leaning out of a doorway. "Most people rest on Sunday."
"Please tell me you are at least armed, behind the door frame," Arthur pleads.
Eames dutifully produces a gun, and then disappears again before he pads out into the living room, wearing the same hideous pair of sneakers Arthur had implored him literally years ago to throw away, jeans, and a t-shirt. His hands are in his pockets, his hair is a little longer, he hasn't shaved in more than a day and there are still purple bruises under his eyes — and he looks wonderful, Arthur thinks.
"This is a surprise," Eames murmurs.
Shrugging, Arthur turns back to the living room, their shared books and once-shared lives, and the thought of having to separate out which belong to him and which belong to Eames is already exhausting. He thinks probably he won't even try to; he's lived this long out of suitcases and strip malls, what's another rest of his life — that's mostly a lie, that's not what Arthur's been thinking at all.
"You never told me if you did, I figured it was worth coming here and finding out once and for all," Arthur admits, running a hand over the mantel and coming away with a dark line of dust across his fingers. He holds it up to Eames.
"The cleaner's coming tomorrow," Eames swears. "Told you if I did what?"
Arthur turns back to the fireplace, to the places where there used to be photographs and sketches and Arthur's housekeys when he was home. "I can't believe you hired a cleaner," he murmurs.
"I recognize that the clutter and dustiness of the flat is making your very soul itch, darling, but I really do need you to focus right now," Eames says. "What do you mean, I didn't tell you if I did?"
Of all the things that Arthur has done, this is very close to the hardest.
"If you forgive me," he makes himself say, white knuckled and clutching at the mantelpiece. "I asked you before, and you never answered — "
Eames is just staring at him, his face so unattractively blank it must be genuine.
" — but I guess I should have just inferred," Arthur finishes.
He's feeling frantic now, that heavy suffocation of stupidity, humiliation burning him up like a fever. He'd relied on post-job adrenaline and minibar vodka-fueled optimism and flew to Paris and just because Eames hasn't changed the locks means nothing if he'd thought he'd been clear about his disinterest, before. Christ. Jesus fucking Christ.
"Okay, I'll just — here, take the keys, I shouldn't have them anymore," Arthur says, and and fumbles the keys in his pocket onto the mantel. Except the image of them there makes his chest hurt so much it knocks the wind out of him, so Arthur throws them on the coffee table instead, right across the Guardian's fucking incomprehensible crossword and jostling the coffee, sending it splashing.
"Sorry," he says. "Sorry, I shouldn't have barged — "
"Arthur," Eames says then, and when Arthur looks up, Eames looks nuts.
"I can just go," Arthur offers.
Eames continues to look crazy: eyes too wide and red-rimmed, and his mouth is slack and actually, Eames looks a little like he'd looked when they'd been in Shanghai during the World Cup and he'd stayed up until fuck knows when every night for roughly a hundred years to watch the games live.
He's displaying the same level of coherency, too, Arthur thinks, when Eames says:
"Arthur, can you do me a favor, please, and stay right here."
Arthur frowns. "What?"
"Here," Eames requests, eyes gleaming. "Stay here. There's coffee in the kitchen, there's that cake you like, and I filled that hideous fucking cupboard you bought at the antique market with depraved pornography so there's plenty to keep you entertained."
Only in a conversation with Eames would Arthur want to reflexively argue with him about how the cupboard isn't ugly; the porn isn't actually a surprise at all. Feeling the beginnings of a headache, Arthur asks, "Eames, I don't understand what you're — "
"Darling," Eames interrupts, and he closes his hands over Arthur's shoulders, his palms warm and huge and familiar through Arthur's jacket, through his fraying HARVARD t-shirt. "Darling, do me a favor and trust me, all right? Stay right here, will you?"
"I — with you?" Arthur asks, too confused to be happy.
"No, no, I need to pop out," Eames explains. "But I'll be back quick as I can."
"You want me to stay here, while you go," Arthur says, just to be clear on this.
Eames nods, his smile manic. "Exactly."
"You're fucking insane, Eames," Arthur tells him.
"Very," Eames agrees, and darting in, fast and casual the way he had in the past, presses a brief, fierce kiss to Arthur's mouth before he grabs a jacket from the overloaded coat rack, his keys from the dish by the door, and clatters out into the hallway, his voice echoing back up the stairwell, saying, "Just wait right there, love!"
Arthur touches his mouth, checks his totem, and then does it all over again twice before he resorts to saying, "What the fuck," out loud and into the agreeable silence of the apartment. For the first hour, he sits, feeling awkward as hell and trying to touch as little as possible; for the second, he makes himself that cup of coffee in Eames's ancient French press. By the third, he's tried Eames's phone (all of them) multiple times, and if Arthur was at all able to apply logic to the situation, he'd leave now and try to get on with his life; maybe he can go to Chicago and let Traveler fuck him, finally. Instead, he tries all the numbers again, and when they still aren't answered, he says, "fuck it," and starts cleaning the apartment.
Arthur recognizes this is neurotic, and that he's feeding into a mostly untrue caricature of himself, but French television is wretched and a failure of distraction, so he might as well put on the Clash and scrub the countertops.
He starts by opening all the windows, because Eames is apparently still allergic to fresh air, and he lights all the kitchen candles he'd bought and left around the apartment over the years and works around them. Arthur finds the number for the cleaners while he's plucking dried-up tubers of some kind out of Eames's fridge, and he goes back and forth on it for ages before he figures this will be Eames's comeuppance, and calls to cancel the service. Anyway, they don't seem to be doing a very good job because there's a jar of goose fat in the fridge Arthur personally remembers buying. He vacuums the rugs.
Eames is still gone by midnight, and then long past, and Arthur gives up scrubbing the bathroom and decides Eames can go fuck himself, before he collapses into his old bed and falls promptly asleep.
Arthurs wakes up determined to leave that day, and instead he ends up sitting in the living room dragging all the books off of the shelves and reordering them in a way that doesn't confound all human understanding. He's still neck deep in them — they own too many books; one of them needs to suck it the hell up and get a Kindle — by the time evening rolls around, and Arthur, because he's pathetic, orders delivery Thai from that place around the corner that apparently still remembers him, because Mr. Eames is a cheap English bastard and never tips.
The two days melts ever so slowly into three, and Arthur's officially fed up, totally through, and as soon as this day is over, he decides, he's going to leave. Until then, he's going to sort out the new books, the ones in stacks all over the floor, but to do that he realizes he's going to have to put up the shelves.
By six on the third day, he's drunk, having discovered that Eames hasn't moved anything, liquor supply inclusive, and he's many tumblers into a bottle of Courvoisier before he decides that fucking around with a hammer and nails is a bad idea, and surrenders himself to go sit on the window ledge, leaning heavily against the juliet balcony and feeling dizzy. He falls asleep on the sofa at half past eight, the television playing Roman Holiday in the background, dubbed into French, and when he wakes up in the brisk chill of the fourth morning, it's because someone is banging on the door.
"Arthur!" Eames shouts, over the ruckus. "Darling — I haven't got the hands to get my keys! Arthur!"
Arthur has't been so hungover in years, and it takes him about 45 seconds of confusion and two abortive attempts before he manages to make it to the door.
On the other side of it, Eames is leaning heavily against the wall, clutching at something wrapped up in a tarp, a plastic bag hanging off his wrist and cutting off his circulation. He has a cut over his eyebrow and he's wearing lipstick, and he's dressed in a black and white waiter's uniform.
"What the hell, Eames," Arthur yells at him.
"Can I just come in first, darling?" Eames pleads. "Before you shout? My arms are exhausted."
He puts his package on the couch Arthur just vacated, and flops dramatically onto the love seat, which Arthur takes as his cue to ask, "What the hell was that about?"
Peering out from underneath his elbow, Eames says, "I really did work as quickly as I could, love — you're lucky the family was having a dinner party tonight, or I would have been forced to wait until the next time they fucked off to a Buddhist retreat or something to get it back for you."
"Get — " Arthur starts, and goes over to the package, grabs an edge of the tarp, and pulls.
It's Ib and Her Husband, all 66 and a quarter by 57 and three-quarters of it in its gold frame. Isobel's sweater is still as lumpy and coral-colored, and her knees as knobby and vulnerable and sweet, her fingertips pink. The veins on her husband's arm are the same where they loop over her waist, his blue jeans almost an afterthought, but nothing like the back wall over the radiator, where Freud had cleaned his palette in all the browns and umbers and earthy colors that made up the drab sienna sheets they sleep on, the pillow they share, and Arthur drops the edge of the tarp he's holding, nerveless.
"It's back," he murmurs, and steps back until his heel catches the leg of the love seat, and he goes tumbling backward, weak and right onto Eames's lap, who catches him without complaint and stares at Arthur's face. Eames is scruffy with whiskers and a little too thin and there are bags under his eyes, and so handsome that Arthur thinks it's blinding, like looking into direct sunlight.
Eames brushes Arthur's bangs out of his face, tucks them behind Arthur's ears, careful and methodical and knowing, his hands and his touch suffused with knowledge — with things remembered.
"I shouldn't have sold it, love," Eames admits. "It was cruel of me."
"But you stole it back for me," Arthur says, smiling now, curling his hands into the lapels on Eames's single-breasted waiter's jacket.
"Yes," Eames agrees, eyes very soft. "I did."
"You forgive me, then," Arthur says, just to say it out loud, to revel in it, because the worst part of that newspaper at Gare du Nord was the surgical agony of having all of his certainty stripped from him, losing a constant. "You brought me back my painting."
Eames looks around them, at the bookshelves, the spotless mantel. "And you — fucked up my bookshelves and punched a hole in the wall with a hammer, apparently," he says, before turning back to Arthur, amused.
"I also canceled your cleaning service," Arthur tells him, gleeful, and feeling himself sinking, lower, brushing the words against Eames's mouth. He's ignoring the lipstick, because he has a terrible feeling it's one of those things he doesn't want to know.
"While we're making confessions," Eames says cheerfully, and holds up the plastic bag. "I also bought condoms and lube."
Arthur puts his face in Eames's neck, so he can't see how crazy-eyed Arthur's laugh is, and he says, into the familiar and so well-loved weight of Eames's shoulder, "I'm just going to choose to be flattered you didn't already have them on hand."
"Arthur," Eames tells him seriously, close to his ear and over Arthur's head, "it has been a terrible dry spell. You programmed me into being attracted to scorchingly hostile brunettes who have vicious right hooks — it was a terrible, lonely time."
Arthur pulls his head up, studies Eames's face, serious still despite his words. He says, "I'm still not going to be able to abandon Dom — or anybody I care about — if they need me," because it needs saying.
But Eames only nods, faint and distracted, like he's already known this was coming, and he draws Arthur closer, and in that half heart beat before their lips touch, he says, "Then it's a very good thing that out of all of them, I need you the most."
In the morning, Eames will fix the wall and put up the shelves and Arthur will burn the waiter's uniform, both for good taste and to destroy evidence, and afterward they'll rehang the painting. It's funny, Mal said it, Eames said it, and it's only now, when Arthur already has it that he trusts it, that he knows it, too — that he can do anything, that he can have everything he wants.
Arthur sits up after that, drags Eames up, too, by his shitty polyester tie, draws him toward the bedroom — the sheets still mussed where Arthur had slept in them for two nights — and he pushes Eames down among the pillows, among their shared history in their apartment with their painting waiting to be hung, and he says, "You've always had me," and kisses it into the skin of his hands, his neck, the beautiful heat of his mouth, sure and fearless and absolutely free.