Sometimes, it seemed to Arthur that he was forever doomed to play the role of point-man, even out here in the real world.
He more or less invited himself to stay at Dom's house the night of Mal's memorial.
Dom was a wreak through the service, hair unkempt and retreating to his hole of a bedroom as soon as he could escape. It had been up to Miles and his wife to wrangle the kids, field calls from agitated law enforcement and even more agitated lawyers.
As for Arthur… he accepted condolences on behalf of the grieving family, made sure food was sent up to Dom's room, and took over babysitting duty while the two grandparents sat out on the porch, holding one another and speaking softly. And he waited.
But he knew he wouldn't be waiting for long.
It was late. Attendees had left hours ago leaving the house dark and quiet, save for the crackle of the fireplace and the slight creak of worn leather as Arthur leaned back in an almost obscenely comfortable recliner. Mal's purchase, of course. The woman had an eye for the absurd, and a burgundy leather chair which had been cracked and abused by years of sea salted air, had stood centerpiece in an otherwise put together living room.
Her touch was visible everywhere in this house, from framed pictures of land, sea, and air dotting every wall, to a half completed jigsaw puzzle – a shameless tourists' vista of The Eifel tower – taking up nearly the whole of the coffee table.
Arthur waited, the very picture of a man with infinite patience; a glass of merlot in one hand, a glock 19 with silencer already attached, resting comfortably by his knee.
If he found Dom had pushed Mal out that window, Dom wouldn't have to worry about the police closing in. Arthur would take care of the problem himself, and there would be no closure for his unquiet spirit.
So Arthur kept waiting, fighting the drowsiness caused by the warm fire, excellent wine, and too many nights looking into his friend's haunted eyes and wondering if he had killed his own wife.
He knew she had come at last when he drew in breath and the air tasted chill. When he exhaled, it left his mouth in a visible cloud.
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, seeking his center to steel himself, before he placed the wineglass on the side table and rested his hands loosely in his lap.
"Is there something you want to talk about?" he asked.
No answer. Not that he truly expected one. And when he opened his eyes again she was standing there, looking out the window, her back to him.
Mal wore the same open-backed black dress she had in death. One shoe was missing, canting her balance awkwardly to the right. She hummed three notes to herself, as Arthur quietly watched, but didn't turn.
"Dom will be along shortly, I think," she said, at last.
"Why do you say that?"
She laughed, then. One hand braced against the wall, fingers spread. "But of course he will follow me. We are together. And besides… I have made all of the arrangements."
Arthur let a low, expelled breath. Something he didn't even realize was frozen, seemed to thaw in his chest. His fingers were resting on the handgun, he realized, and he quietly thumbed the safety back on. There was no need for that now.
When he looked up again, she turned to face him.
Mal's skin was paler than it had been in life, and there were now rivulets of blood dripping from under her hair and down her face. Her eyes were shadowed bruises, glinting hard when she raised her head under the lamplight. She was beautiful. She was terrible.
He was used to this, but it always hit harder when it was someone he knew. Arthur felt a muscle in his cheek twitch, and knew at once she saw it – Mal had always been able to read him like no other. Her mouth pulled to the side in her classic sardonic smile, as if she were the only one in the world who knew the joke. But it was a touch too wide and brittle, and the air about her nearly crackled with cold.
"Dear Arthur," she purred, stepping closer to him – her walk a limp without one shoe. "Don't feel sad for me. You can come, too. It's as simple as… waking up." She said the last two words with a slight giggle, tossing her head which only exposed more blood and bruising. She had hit the ground hard when she fell. "We all have to wake up, sometime."
"I am awake, Mal," he said, evenly.
Her smile showed teeth. "Are you sure? Where's your totem?"
"I don't need a totem." His voice was quiet, pained. "I can see you."
The reminder struck home. Her face contorted in a flash – going from the friend who had once completely taken over his apartment when he was flat on his back from the flu, and force-fed him chicken soup and made him watch horribly sappy romantic-comedies for three days until he was back on his feet, to a mad-woman. She screamed at him, "You're LYING!" and the whites of her eyes showed around her pupils as she struck the wineglass from the table. It fell to a floor with a shatter, the dark red liquid spilling like blood along the wooden floor.
Arthur himself kept very, very still. It had been a long time since one of them had hurt him physically, although it could happen. It had happened.
"Why did you do it?" he asked. "You had a loving husband, Mal. Children—"
"Those aren't my children! They aren't r—" she stopped at once head snapping sideways to stare at the stairwell leading down from the upper level of the house.
What is she doing? Arthur had time to wonder. They're not usually aware like this, before he, too, heard the sounds; someone coming down the staircase with heavy feet.
"Arthur?" came Dom's voice. "You still here?"
Arthur blinked, and between that moment and the next, Mal was gone, leaving behind the spilled wine and shattered glass. He took in a breath of relief – the air was noticeably warmer now – and quickly slid the gun under his folded vest, left on the couch. "Yeah, I'm here," he called, and a moment later Dom peeked into the room. His blond-brown hair still mussed and his eyes red-rimmed.
"Huh. I thought I heard voices."
"No," Arthur said. "Just me." His hands were shaking and he closed them into a fist, scrubbing at his face. When he lowered them again, Dom had walked to the thermostat to check the temperature.
"You said you and Mal became lost in limbo, and when she came out…" he trailed off meaningfully, a hawkeye on the other man.
Dom's shoulders tightened for a beat. Almost as if… as if he, too, were waiting for the gunshot. After all, Arthur reflected glumly, Dom was a master at reading people's emotions, and perhaps Arthur had not been as subtle as he had thought.
But the other man never answered his question. He only turned to regard Arthur, blue eyes wary. "Do you believe me?"
Arthur met his gaze squarely, even as out of the corner of his mind he caught a flash of movement – a limped walk. "Yes," he said. "I do."
Arthur had learned how to speak French from a woman named Dafna Sinclair. She had drowned in a pond on sweltering summer day while her sweetheart at the time had watched from the banks, either unwilling or unable to help. Eventually, she said, the pond had been drained away and bulldozed over; made way for the park where Arthur played kickball at school.
He learned his German from a black man named Frank who had learned it from his Master. Frank's back had been split into dozens of weeping lashmarks, but he had a kind, mellow demeanor and taught Arthur with a patience which had always seemed infinitely deep.
When Mal had heard him speak both languages, she had laughed right in his face, declared him "charmingly old fashioned" and set about teaching him the more modern versions, complete with slang and curse words. He couldn’t tell her he'd learned it from people who had died before the 20th century.
When she had figured it out, after an ill-fated trip into his subconscious mind, she had held his hand and promised to keep his secret.
Now Mal was a ghost as well, and Arthur knew from hard worn experience she wouldn't be the type to sit down and keep company of lonely little boys.
Arthur had never truly needed a totem. Ghosts could never follow him under, and he held onto that fact as his grip on reality – knowing that if he couldn't see them, then he was truly asleep.
Until the day, six weeks after Mal's death, he and Dom were doing what was supposed to be a simple extraction from a mark in Johannesburg. Arthur had been keeping quiet watch as Dom sat with the mark, calmly discussing business over a dreamscape steak dinner, when he felt a tap on the shoulder.
Mal was standing behind him – still in her black dress and more beautiful than she had ever been in life. And all Arthur could do was stare at her, frozen, the hair prickling up the back of his neck.
He swallowed, making a dry click. "What are you doing here, Mal?"
She only smiled at him as she brought her hand around, slamming a steak knife up to its hilt in his neck.
Arthur came back to himself, gasping, only to see Mal standing over him again; eyes now dark and face bloodied, but wearing that same eerie smile as she had in the dream.
She raised her empty hand as if in greeting, but he'd been stabbed only seconds before and he lurched back in pure panic, falling out of his chair onto a thinly carpeted office-room floor, IV ripping from his wrist.
No, no, no, no...
"Arthur!" Someone grabbed his shoulders roughly. Dom. He had come awake too, and he was speaking, assuring Arthur that was awake, but Arthur couldn't take his eyes off of her. His neck still throbbed in phantom pain and she was watching the whole exchange, humming again and –
"Your totem," Arthur rasped. His hand fisted in Dom's shirt – he felt he was holding onto reality by the strength of his fingers alone. "Where's your totem?"
Dom stared at him a moment and some distant part of Arthur realized the other man had probably never seen him this undone – Arthur had not felt like this for a very long time. Not since he was nine.
But Dom hesitated only a moment before fishing out his top – Mal's old top – and set it spinning along a smooth tabletop. It toppled only moments later.
"You see?" Dom said, and his smile was overly bright – strained and false. "She was just a projection. I – it won't happen again, Arthur. I promise. I got it under control."
Arthur shoved him away and stood, breathing deeply and taking care to straighten the rumples out of his vest and tie. Mal didn't make a move towards him, Dom couldn't see her, and Arthur finally made himself to look away.
He didn't say anything to Dom, but the man was a trained extractor. Dom could probably read his expression almost as well as Mal once had.
Dom took one look at his face and winced. "We can try again tomorrow."
The mark, thankfully, was still hooked up to the PASIV machine with enough sedative to let him wake up in an hour or two – with any luck he'd think he had only fallen asleep at his desk.
Arthur nodded and left; Mal's leering smile at still his back.
It was a long, surreal trip back to his hotel. Arthur opted to walk; the better to study the faces back on the street. But they were all people, alive and normal, and he felt his hand itching to the concealed gun in his pocket because he wasn't sure he wasn't still dreaming and –
Someone approached him from behind at a jog; a young woman who suddenly stopped and grabbed his elbow to get his attention.
"Have you seen my child? He's a brown haired little boy about this tall." She held up her hand to her waist, just under where fresh blood had spilled from the gaping cut in her neck and down her dress. "He's supposed to be in school, but when I went for him he wasn't there."
Arthur let out a breath, half laugh and half a sigh. His hand fell away from the hidden gun and rubbed at his chin, instead.
Always the point-man. It was what he was born to do.
"I'll walk with you," he suggested. "Maybe we can find him together."
That night, Arthur stopped at a tourist gift-shop. He bought a pair of trick loaded-die which reminded him of the time when he was fifteen and his mom had gotten remarried in Atlanta Georgia. He'd had spent the night before the wedding talking with old school card sharks (very old school – they'd both died in the Depression when their hotel had caught fire), and spent the day entertaining his new step-sisters with card games.
They were both eleven at the time and therefore would be thoroughly unimpressed with his magic disappearing penny trick.
Arthur promptly crushed one die under his shoe when he got to his room and pocketed the remaining – the one set to always land on four.
The thing was, it wasn't long before it started to land on four in his dreams as well. Eventually, Arthur took to carrying it with him to keep up appearances. It would be child's play to memorize and duplicate the weight of a loaded die. He had his own secrets – as imperfect as they might be – to tell him which end was up.
Mal was the only exception.
"You know, you don't really strike me as an Arthur," Eames said, settling back into the cheap warehouse lawn chair.
Arthur didn't answer for a long count of ten: choosing to let the silence speak his annoyance for him. He busied himself by bringing out the case for the PASIV. With a smooth click, he flipped it open. "Is that so."
"It is." Eames took a long pointed moment to let his gaze wander over him. "You look more like a Phillip or a Malcolm."
Arthur spared him an irritated glance and unrolled the main lead, handing it over. "Five minutes on this new solution should give you an hour of dreamtime. Will that give you enough practice?"
"Darling," Eames drawled, "I don't need an hour to practice this forge." He paused. "Why don't you come down with me? I can show you things you've never dreamed of."
"I have work to do," Arthur said, after wincing at that pickup line.
Again, Eames grinned. "Just thought I'd offer."
Arthur's reply was to push the plunger down on the machine, and within a few seconds Eames was asleep.
"Your name is Cole, isn't it?" came a high, breathy voice right behind him.
Arthur turned to see a little girl standing a few feet away– her sunflower yellow dress the only real color in the middle of his otherwise stark warehouse. He'd seen her before; always in the presence of Eames, which indicated she was attached to him somehow – a sister or niece or, God forbid, his daughter. Arthur had tried speaking to her before, but sometimes ghosts didn't want to talk to him. Not until they were ready.
"Who told you that?" Arthur asked, frowning down at her.
She shrugged and skipped over to the PASIV and read the blinking count-down timer. "The angry lady said so. The one with one shoe."
Arthur felt himself grow cold, and it had nothing to do with the ghost in the room. "Mal speaks to you?" Ghosts didn't interact with one another as a rule... They didn't see each other. Most of the time they didn't even know they were dead.
The girl shrugged a shoulder, now looking at Eames, and then said, "I'll tell you secret. Come here," and gestured for Arthur to bend down.
He did and chill wind touched his ear as she whispered, "His first name is James, but mommy calls him Jamie. He hates that."
Then she was gone.
Arthur straightened and looked down at the still unconscious Eames. He knew he should be more than a little bothered – there was something off about Mal, even for an unquiet spirit. She wasn't typical, her actions were premeditated – almost alive.
Yet... Yet when Arthur breathed in, the air was warm and there was a small, half smile still lingering on Eames' face as he slept.
"Jamie," Arthur muttered, then shook his head and made himself turn back to his laptop with some important schematics and the task at hand. He had work to do.