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Contestant Satisfaction Survey

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Arthur is exceptionally handsome, a genial companion, and owns five properties in mostly useful locales throughout the world. He enjoys travel, is generous with his money, and not particularly quarrelsome. There are worse people Eames could have foolishly fallen in love with. And being in a committed relationship with him is--well, it's not as bad as Eames imagined.

There have been, of course, some arguments. For instance, about the fact that Arthur transforms all of their living spaces over the course of days into filthy hovels. Eames leaves a spotless flat and returns a week later to dirty laundry and plates of half-eaten food on every conceivable surface.

To his credit, Arthur has been making some effort to reform after Eames vocalized his displeasure. Arthur has now hangs the majority of his clothing (rather than leaving it in assorted piles on the bed) and tosses the laundry into a hamper rather than onto the floor. Most of the dirty dishes migrate into the sink (eventually), and Eames once spotted him with a vacuum cleaner. Jars of food are still left open on the counter, there's at least an inch of dust on everything, and Eames is pretty sure he's the only one scrubbing the toilet--but it's progress, he supposes.

Eames is not the only one with complaints. Their most recent fight took place on their anniversary--or at least, the date that Arthur arbitrarily decided to be their anniversary with no word to Eames about the matter. Arthur had arranged for a trip to the US Virgin Islands, a lush resort hotel, and a suite with a balcony overlooking the water. After an evening of delicious food and more delicious sex, Eames awoke to Arthur in a nightmare of a mood.

"I can't believe you forgot," Arthur said, gesturing at their environs. "This is where it happened, one year ago. This suite, that same platter of food--which I had to custom order, by the way, because the hotel restaurant no longer makes half of those things--"

"How was I to know we were now commemorating random moments in time?" Eames replied, bewildered by the anger directed his way. "The food was not--"

"Celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of our relationship isn't exactly some obscure practice--"

"If you really want to recreate the beginning of our relationship, we should get sloshed at a seedy pub in Mexico and hump each others' legs for ten minutes," Eames said, at least partially in jest. Arthur did not appreciate his wit.

"Yeah, because that's real fucking romantic," Arthur snarled as he disappeared into their bathroom. What romance had to do with anything, Eames had no idea.

He chalked that debacle up to one of those parts of Arthur he'd never fully understand, like Arthur's propensity for leaving wet towels strewn across the bathtub. Another aspect: Arthur's endless enthusiasm for being a human guinea pig despite being keenly aware of the risks of untested Somnacin blends.

"It's a formula that could help marks relax and be more forthcoming," Arthur explains, as if his health and mental stability were an acceptable trade for the vague promises of some addled chemist. "Make it easier for us to extract what we need."

"Or it could do neither of those things and make all your hair fall out," Eames counters.

"Hair grows back," Arthur says. "It's worth trying. Think about the implications if--"

"I'm aware of the implications and I don't care," Eames says. "Test it on some uni students first. They can be bribed with a platter of fish and chips to make all manner of poor decisions."

"It's already been tested on--people." Arthur looks shifty.

Eames sighs. "You've already used it, haven't you?"

"I still have hair. I need someone to join the dream with me and--"

"Absolutely not."

"In order to test actual efficacy--"

"No."

"Eames--"

"No."

"Baby--"

"Don't you 'baby' me. Under no circumstance will I be your unpaid lab rat in these ridiculous experiments."

* * * * *

"Let the record show I am only doing this under extreme duress," Eames says as Arthur navigates the veins of Eames' arm as skillfully as his own.

"If this works, think of the possibilities," Arthur burbles happily, ignoring Eames' plaintive expression. "Fewer kicks out of a dream due to violent projections."

This Somnacin blend (which is probably a mix of horse tranquilizers, rat poison and high fructose corn syrup) is supposed to make the dreamer open up about their inner desires, which hopefully means more likely to reveal their secrets. But chemists will say virtually anything to secure themselves a willing human trial.

"My skepticism abounds," Eames says, trying to puncture Arthur's occasionally endearing--but mostly irritating--American optimism.

"Give it a try before you shoot it down," Arthur replies. "I have a secret number, three digits. You have to figure it out before the timer runs down."

"Must I?"

Arthur leans down to brush a kiss over Eames' lips before he depresses the plunger. "I'll see you in a bit."

* * * * *

Eames opens his eyes to an unfamiliar dreamscape: a room with rich purple walls and Art Nouveau detailing. There's a fireplace covered in an elaborate grill made up of looping swirls and floral motifs that echo throughout the molding, the wallpaper. The crackling fire smells pleasantly of fresh pine. Candles flicker, held by elegant wall sconces cast in vegetal forms. He's standing beside a red velvet sofa and feels as though he's been transported to the center of a glowing jewelry box.

There's movement in his peripheral vision. "Rather sweeter than your usual," Eames says as he turns to face Arthur.

But there's something off about Arthur's demeanor--not merely the disconcerting handlebar mustache that's taken up residence under his nose. All becomes clear when Eames says his name, cautiously.

"My name is not Arthur. I am Arturo!" the man--projection?--proclaims with a flourish.

Eames stares. "Are you serious?"

"Do I look like I'm joking?" Arturo chuckles. "Of course I do!"

"I don't understand." This must be a result of the Somnacin, but Arthur didn't mention anything about odd projections of himself dressing up in costume. Perhaps he wasn't aware of this particular side effect.

"Have a seat, make yourself comfortable," Arturo says, beckoning Eames closer to the sofa.

When Eames sits, a farting noise rips through the air. Arturo claps his hands and giggles in child-like glee. "You made a butt burp!"

"I didn't--" Eames twists round and fishes the whoopee cushion out from underneath him. "Did you put this here?"

"No," Arturo draws out the syllable in a singsong voice. "Here, let me have it."

Eames holds up the cushion as Arturo steps close. But instead of taking it, Arturo inexplicably pokes him in the face and retreats, giggling madly. "Got your nose!" Arturo crows, holding up an open palm that contains, improbably, Eames' nose.

Eames pats his face. He is dismayed to discover a smooth patch of skin where his nostrils had once been, as well as the sudden inability to smell anything. This sort of surreal shit is one of the many things Eames hates about experimental blends of Somnacin. "I'd rather appreciate that returned, thank you."

"Come and get it!" Arturo slaps a palm to the wall and a full-length mirror appears. Eames watches him cackle as he leaps into it, and sighs.

Eames approaches the mirror. The surface has cracked into a thousand fragments, reflecting no light at all.

"Must I?" Eames asks aloud, but nobody responds. He sticks one arm in it and steels himself. Nothing bites on the other end, and after a minute, he steps through.

And winds up in a narrow tunnel lined with yet more mirrors. Some distort his reflection, warping his face (even more now that he is noseless) or enlarging his midsection (most disturbing). A few reflect him naked (everything seems in proportion) or reflect him dressed in bizarre costumes: Eames with a sideburns (acceptable), with a mohawk (not bad), as a child (startling), as a decrepit old man (horrifying, must hurry past).

At the end of the hallway is a larger mirror, one with a reflection of him dressed in his most splendid tuxedo--the one Arthur purchased for him six months ago--and impeccably groomed. Eames is clean-shaven, eyebrows plucked, hair styled, with shoes shined. It's a level of effort he rarely bothers with in his day to day appearance.

In the mirror, this dapper Eames is guiding a blindfolded Arthur into a candlelit room. Presenting him with a bouquet of flowers. Arthur, who is dressed in his running clothes--the most dressed down he ever looks--reacts with obvious surprise and pleasure. Beams and buries his face in the flowers, then takes Eames' hand.

The image vanishes, leaving a swirl of rose petals behind.

"I could use either a number or my nose back," Eames says, not expecting an answer. This mirror has cracked as well, and he resignedly steps through.

* * * * *

He finds himself in a convention center. Hanging from the ceiling is a giant banner that proclaims, "Live your best life: ask us how!"

The building is teeming with projections. It takes Eames a moment to realize that they're all some variant of Arthur: Arthur with a goatee (alarming), in a top hat and cape (odd, but not terrible), dressed as a Starfleet officer with pointy ears (typical), in a skirt and blouse (interesting). A convention center filled with Arthur, all talking amongst himself.

Eames winds through the crowd, eavesdropping on various conversations. There's earnest conversation about better living mixed with the more typical projection chatter of nonsense sentences.

A projection at a booth--looking every bit the corporate drone in an overlarge polo shirt, baggy khakis, and a name-tag labeling him Arbio--waves Eames over. "Hey, mister, want to enter our raffle?"

"I suppose I do," Eames replies. Best to play along and get it all over with. He fills out the two fields on the raffle ticket (Name and Star Sign). "What's the prize?"

"The key to everlasting happiness, of course." Arbio gestures to a key the length of Eames' arm inside of a glass display case. "You've got a pretty good shot at winning it. You're only entry number three hundred and fifty-seven."

Eames makes note of the number--could be significant, could mean nothing at all. "And what does the key open?"

The projection points at a colossal heart-shaped door at the end of the convention hall. "The entrance to personal fulfillment."

"Is that where my nose is?"

Arbio squints at Eames' face. "I suppose a nose could be personally fulfilling… Do you know who took it?"

Eames takes a deep breath through his mouth. Play along. "Arturo."

"Never heard of the guy." The projection thinks for a minute. "You know who I bet would know? Arlo."

"Arlo," Eames repeats.

"Arlo. He should be delivering a presentation Room Three-five-seven."

"Time to see this… Arlo, then," Eames says. "You'll be drawing the winning entry soon?"

"Sure will. If you win, we'll find you."

Eames makes his way into a TV studio with rows and rows of seats facing a stage. The projection at the front of the room--Arlo, presumably--looks up with a dazzling smile full of orthodontically engineered teeth. He's dressed in an electric green suit that's somehow not hideous, his skin is bronzed, and his hair is coiffed to perfection. To add to the game show atmosphere, behind him is a giant board lit up to spell the word, "Welcome!"

"Our first contestant has arrived," Arlo declares, voice booming through the room of Arthur shaped projections. "Come on down!"

Eames approaches the stage warily as the audience claps. "I don't suppose opting out is an option?"

"You're here to win the golden shovel, aren't you?" A photo of heart-shaped shovel--that does indeed seem to be made of solid gold--flashes across the board.

"Why--"

"Alright, Contestant number one," Arlo says as a drumroll sound effect echoes throughout the room. "Your first question: how happy do you consider you and Arthur to be?"

Eames blinks as the entire audience turns to him, awaiting his answer. "I… I resent the Americanness of that question."

Rather than seeming annoyed at the evasion, Arlo turns to the audience with a wink. "Let's see what answers our studio audience wrote in." The board flips over to reveal a percentage breakdown of the most popular answers. Arlo reads them out, "Third most popular answer is: terribly. Second most popular answer: could be happier. And the answer with the most votes: no answer at all because Eames avoids the question, probably using some cultural excuse."

The audience laughs while Eames blinks.

Arlo quiets the room and turns back to Eames. "Now, onto the next round. Contestant number one, you have questions for me, don't you?"

Two projections run up to Eames, shoving a microphone and camera in his face. The board flickers with live footage of him. "I’m here about my nose."

"Arturo has your nose. He's waiting for you behind the door to personal fulfillment," Arlo responds promptly. "But that's not what you really want to ask, is it?"

Eames pauses, unnerved by all the projections focusing on him. None have seemed hostile thus far, but that could change in an instant. "What's the number?"

"Three hundred and fifty-seven," Arlo replies. "Last question, Contestant number one."

Eames hesitates a moment. "Where's Arthur?"

A bell chimes as Arlo begins to smile again, the crowd bursting into raucous cheering.

"Congratulations, you've won the grand prize!" Confetti releases from the ceiling as a bell sounds. Arlo presents a beribboned golden shovel, which weighs approximately as much as Eames does. Projections rush in to take photos while Eames nearly drops the blasted thing onto his foot.

"I don't think I need--" Eames starts to protest, but is interrupted by Arbio appearing with that giant key.

"Guess who won our raffle!" Arbio says, and continues without waiting, "Entry number three hundred and fifty-seven!"

More jaunty music plays as a parade of cheering projections surround Eames, sweeping him outside of the studio and back into the main hall. He's brought to the giant heart gate where he fumbles the oversized key into the lock. Thankfully, it fits and the doors swing open into a dark, half-dug tunnel. The crowd stays behind as Eames steps through the gate.

"You cannot be serious," Eames says, dragging the golden shovel along the ground as he follows Arlo into the tunnel. "Am I supposed to actually dig with this?"

"Unless you'd prefer to dig with your hands," Arlo replies, unperturbed. "But before you start, if you could fill out this contestant satisfaction survey, it would be much appreciated."

The card has only two questions, printed in bold typeface: 1, PLEASE RATE YOUR RELATIONSHIP SATISFACTION ON A SCALE OF ONE TO TEN, and 2, IF YOU DID NOT CIRCLE TEN, PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE IMPROVED AND WHY.

Eames stares down at the card, at the golden shovel, and at the wall of dirt in front of him. "Arthur--"

"A pen," Arlo offers. "And if you could print legibly, please."

Eames circles 'eight' and sees Arlo wilt in his peripheral vision. Beneath the second question, he scrawls, 'could pick up after himself more often.'

Arlo accepts the pen and card, tucking them away in his rather deflated looking jacket. "Thank you for your participation."

"Darling," Eames says, catching Arlo's hand before he can walk away. "You know I love you."

Arlo looks down at their linked hands and nods after a moment, a smile stealing onto his face. It's not the big one that was on display for the cameras earlier but a shyer one, sweet and startled.

* * * * *

The tunnel takes a while to dig. The shovel proves as unhelpful as it looked, the soft gold bending this way and that with every scoop. The handle begins to lose its form immediately, the shaft growing to resemble a soggy noodle.

Arlo stands around, claiming that holding up a small lantern to light the passage is somehow vital to this operation. Eames remarks that he could easily hang the lantern from the ceiling and join in the actual digging; Arlo proves uninterested in this suggestion.

Ultimately, Eames does burrow through the last bits of dirt with his fingers, complaining bitterly all the while. Arlo shrugs and reminds him that he could stop at any moment, if he so chose.

Eames chooses not to think about why he doesn't shoot himself out of the dream. He also chooses, somewhat pettily, not to reply to Arlo.

He clears the soil away from another cracked mirror. Relieved to see something familiar in this surreal dreamscape, he eagerly passes through and finds himself in the purple room he started in.

Arturo is seated on the loveseat, giggling to himself. "Still got your nose."

"Arthur," Eames murmurs as he kneels down in front of Arturo and produces a bouquet of flowers from behind his back. "I've been looking for you."

"For me?" Arturo strokes the petals of a hydrangea with reverent fingers.

"For you," Eames confirms, even as a jet of water--emanating from the bouquet--hits him square in the eye. He wipes some of the water away while Arturo titters. "I suppose I should have seen that coming."

"No," Arturo says, dismayed. "Then it wouldn't have been funny."

Eames laughs as all the other Arthur projections file into the room. While Arturo leans in to nuzzle the flowers, each projection merges with him: the immaculate showman, the playful child, the hopeful romantic. Until what's left is Arthur--in all his wonderful, frustrating, complicated entirety.

"They're lovely, Eames," Arthur whispers with that beautiful, sweet smile. "Thank you."

"I can't say I'm a dab hand at this romance business. But I'll try."

"And I can--pick up after myself more." The corner of Arthur's mouth twitches as he reaches into his pocket. "I think this is yours."

"Thank you." Eames accepts his nose and gingerly pats it onto his face. It reattaches, thank Christ, and he inhales the scent of pine mixed with fresh cut flowers. "I've been rather missing that."

Arthur has the grace to seem a trifle embarrassed. "Nothing like this happened the first time I dreamt with this Somnacin blend."

"Your projections were quite forthright indeed. I could hardly escape the number three hundred and fifty-seven," Eames says. "When they weren't stealing pieces of my body and running away."

"It's a good Somnacin formula." Arthur's tone is wry. "But maybe it could use a few tweaks. Some refinement."

"There might be something there," Eames agrees, begrudgingly. "Perhaps worth developing."

"Thank you for doing this, baby." Arthur kisses the tip of Eames' reattached nose. "I appreciate it."

"Well, I should certainly hope so," Eames says. "I dug a tunnel through solid rock with my bare hands for you."

Arthur smiles, making Eames' silly heart flutter. "And I showed you all my secrets."

Fin