Actions

Work Header

nothing's gonna change my world

Chapter Text

Eames; Chicago

It’s not the first time Eames has woken up in a strange bed with no idea how he’d gotten there. It is, however, the first time he’s immediately recognized the naked body lying next to him.

It’s also the first time there’s been a cat.

He’s so distracted by the incongruous presence of said cat purring happily beside him that he doesn’t even react when an even more incongruous kiss is pressed against his shoulder.

“It’s your turn to make the coffee,” Arthur informs him, voice rough and gravely from sleep.

Arthur, who is currently curled up against him, holding Eames in place like he belongs there.

Unable to think of any other viable option, he leaps out of bed and makes a mad dash to the bathroom, slamming it shut behind him.

Breathing hard, he fumbles in his pocket, heart pounding in his ears. But there’s no totem in either of his pajama pant pockets, and it wasn’t lying on the bedside table either. Not good. Because this isn’t real - can’t be real. He doesn’t remember getting here. He doesn’t even know where here is, for gods sake.

He hears Arthur get up, walk across the bedroom, and lean against the door.

“Are you doing this because you don’t want to make the coffee? Because I’ll take myself out to brunch and leave you here to starve.”

“No, you won’t,” Eames banters back immediately, trying to take comfort in the familiar, eagerly awaiting Arthur’s dry and disapproving reply.

Instead he hears Arthur chuckle fondly. “No, I probably won’t. But if I’m making the coffee, the least you can do is be properly appreciative about it when you finally come out of there.”

Eames is, in a word, flabbergasted.

It’s one thing to wake up in bed with Arthur. That is, assuming he’s awake at all. In their business, all sorts of dodgy things happen, especially when sleep is involved. They could have wound up in bed together like that in a myriad of ways. Eames is not currently rooting for any of the pleasant ones, as much as he’s tried to remain an optimist, where Arthur is concerned. Despite his best efforts, he and Arthur have remained colleagues with mild undertones of grudging respect and a modicum of affection, at best. So the fact that Arthur is being pleasant, not to mention flirtatious, about this turn of events is another thing entirely.

He wants nothing more than to stay locked inside the bathroom until he wakes up, but it seems more efficient, and wouldn’t Arthur appreciate that, to stop hiding and actually find his damn totem so that he can prove to himself he is in fact dreaming. Maybe then he can convince Arthur to shoot him, or at least lend him a gun. Not that Arthur’s ever passed up a chance to take him out in one of their dreams before.

“Babe, are you alright in there?” Arthur asks quietly, interrupting Eames’ frenzied reverie.

He pulls himself away from staring at his own pale reflection, splashes water on his face, takes a steadying breath, and the yanks the door open.

Arthur doesn’t move out of his way, doesn’t relinquish an inch of ground. As Eames tries to push past him, Arthur’s quick hands have him by the shoulders, holding him there.

“What’s going on?” Arthur’s question is more of an order, one he seems to fully expect to be obeyed.

“I need my totem,” Eames answers promptly, since there’s no point in keeping it from him anyway, especially when Arthur is clearly not letting him go without an answer.

Arthur’s brow instantly knits with concern, and he drops his hands, letting Eames past.

He can’t bring himself to ask Arthur, or this projection, at any rate, where it is, so Eames starts searching the bedroom meticulously, going through all the normal places his mind usually stores his notched poker chip when he’s dreaming. It’s in none of his pant or jacket pockets, even though he finds plenty of both hanging in the smaller bedroom closet. The larger one seems to be taken up housing a sizable portion of Arthur’s impeccable wardrobe. Another point against this possibly being reality.

As Eames searches, Arthur stands perfectly still, watching Eames with a thin frown on his face, his hands tucked into his pockets.

Eventually, Eames gives it up as a bad job. If he’s dreaming, Arthur could just as easily be one of his projections as any one else’s, so he abandons his pride and asks, “Do you know where it is?”

Arthur’s frown deepens. “It’s in the china cabinet, just like always.”

Eames blinks at him. “Just like always?”

Arthur nods slowly.

“Same place it’s been for the past three years; top shelf, right beside mine.”

Eames doesn’t even bother with a response to that, he just jogs out of the room and into the rest of the flat, which is open and sunlit, and seems to welcome him back even though he doesn’t recognize any of it. One thing is certain, whoever designed this dream, they know more about Eames’ taste in interior design than he previously had. He stands in the living room, feeling perfectly at home in a place he’s never been, sure he’s asleep, but finding, for the first time, that he doesn’t particularly want to wake.

At least not yet.

Especially not when the same strange projection of Arthur steps out into the room with him, all soft smiles and attentive, concerned head tilts. It hasn’t escaped Eames’ attention that this projection’s eyes follow him wherever he goes, that this thing wearing Arthur’s face can’t seem to keep his eyes off Eames’.

He walks towards the china cabinet anyway, opens the glass door, and sure enough, there it is, just like Arthur said it would be, face down beside Arthur’s loaded die. Eames picks up the chip, running his finger along the ridges, waiting for the tell-take mark to let him know he’s asleep.

He doesn’t find it. What’s more, the weight is perfect, solid and familiar in his hand. He flips it, and it lands against the back of his hand, flush, also just as it’s supposed to. He does it again, and again.

“You’re awake,” Arthur assures him, his voice soothing and infused with with a gentleness Eames has never heard before.

He’s coming up behind Eames, making his approach conspicuous, as if that’s going to stop Eames from jumping with surprise when suddenly Arthur loops his arms around Eames’ waist, tucking his chin against Eames’ shoulder.

“It’s been a long time since you’ve had to check to tell the difference,” Arthur says as if Eames’ heart isn’t still pounding in his chest, trying to break free.

As if Eames’ reality wasn’t being called more and more into question with every passing minute.

He pulls out of Arthur’s arms, shaking his head. “If this isn’t a dream - and I’ve not yet entirely ruled that out - then it’s something else.”

He might not have a sodding clue what is going on, but there is one thing he knows, and it’s that he doesn’t belong there, that somehow, this isn’t right, isn’t real.

Arthur would never look at him like he is now, taking Eames in like he’s something sacred, something cherished. It’s as close to a totem as he needs to be sure.

Arthur; Los Angeles

When a persistent pounding against his front door snaps Arthur’s attention away from the research in front of him, the first thing he reaches for is his gun.

Ever since performing inception, their team, despite Cobb’s half-hearted efforts to retire, has been in extremely high demand. Partly out of the shared notoriety that makes them more valuable as a unit, they’ve continued working exclusively together. It’s been a long time since Arthur’s worked consistently with anyone but Dom, but it’s more than necessity or opportunism that holds them together now. Arthur is hesitant to call it a familial feeling, but he will admit to a certain sense of fraternity, a loyalty he feels towards all of them that goes deeper than his professional commitment to only work with the best and brightest.

It doesn’t hurt that that’s what his team is, of course.

Still, their increased popularity has its disadvantages, chief among them being the unwillingness of some prospective employers to take no for an answer. Arthur frequently finds himself missing Saito, and or at least wishing that more billionaires were like him. Not just because no one has purchased him an airline recently to make his job easier.

On the contrary, they’ve had to work a string of jobs for less than savory people, something else Arthur knows Dom had been hoping to avoid after finally clearing his name. But he still has kids, still has a family that can be used against him. Phillipa and James are close enough to being Arthur’s family that there had been no question he would help Cobb do whatever was necessary to keep them safe, even if it meant working jobs they wouldn’t have taken on a bad day before inception.

Being the first people in the world to plant an idea in someone’s head, even if only a handful of people even know that’s what they did, has its costs.

It’s with this danger in mind, then, that Arthur flicks off his safety, cocks his gun, and stalks across his apartment, moving so swiftly and surely that his loafers don’t even make a sound against the hardwood.

As he’s reaching the door, however, the obnoxious knocking is compounded with shouting, and he recognizes the voice instantly.

“Let us in, darling, I seem to have misplaced my key!”

Eames.

Arthur shakes his head, growling across the door, “You haven’t misplaced it, Eames. You just haven’t got one.”

Eames laughs. “Well, not at the moment, no. Come on then, enough teasing. I’m dead on my feet.”

Against his better judgment, Arthur opens the door.

Eames smiles at him wanly, “Ta, darling,” and leans in towards Arthur.

He’s so stunned that it takes Arthur until Eames’ lips are millimeters away from his cheek to realize Eames is about to kiss him.

He takes a jerky step backwards and almost raises his gun.

“How drunk are you?” he demands.

Eames stares at him, looking offended. “Not drunk at all, Arthur.” He narrows his eyes, gaze becoming more calculating. “What about you?”

“I’m not drunk, I was working,” Arthur sputters indigently, waving his hand, which happens to still be holding his gun, for emphasis.

Eames is eyeing Arthur with growing concern, like it’s Arthur who is behaving strangely.

“Pet, do you think perhaps we could continue this conversation after you’ve put the gun down?”

Arthur is forced to admit this is probably a wise course of action. He’s fairly certain this isn’t a dream, and it wouldn’t really do to shoot one of his partners while they’re awake. Even though it would probably feel pretty good.

He sighs, walking away from Eames and putting the gun down on his coffee table.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, starting his floor instead of at Eames.

“I live here.”

“You really don’t.”

Eames comes and sits down beside him on the couch. For a second, it looks like he’s going to put his hand on Arthur’s knee.

Instead, he folds his hands in his lap, and starts looking all around the apartment, neck craning to take in every angle.

“If this is our flat in Los Angeles, which you insist on keeping because of your uncharacteristically sentimental attachment to your misspent, bohemian youth, then yes, yes I do.”

“This is my apartment in L.A.,” Arthur corrects his snappishly, trying to cover his surprise that Eames knows the reason behind his fondness for the city. Not even Dom knows that.

Eames makes a mild noise of disagreement. “I don’t know, it looks awfully like our flat. Same aesthetic of egg shell white walls and dark wood, same regime of utter cleanliness, aside from the piles of research you keep everywhere, and always insist are organized, although according to what system, none among of us have yet to crack. I can’t see it, but I’d wager the bathroom is the same black and white tile, that the dual shower heads have the same heavenly pressure, one of the only luxuries you allow yourself on a daily basis, and that the first bedroom is spartan and refined, duvet corners tucked at military standard, while the second bedroom is really just a glorified closet for your multitude of suits and jackets and shoes.”

Arther can only gape openly as Eames rattles off these facts, secret truths Arthur has worked so hard to keep, even in his line of work, as if they’re nothing, as if he’s long since been given the right to know them.

“Although what we’re either of us are doing here at the moment is a little less clear to me, I must admit,” Eames suddenly says, interrupting his own alarmingly accurate commentary on Arthur’s apartment as he stops to stare at Arthur is growing alarm. “D’you know I don’t even remember the flight? That hasn’t happened in awhile. In fact, I woke up in the backseat of a cab, and I don’t remember - didn’t we agree not to come to Los Angeles until the spring?”

Arthur watches in a daze as Eames starts feeling inside his rumpled jacket, presumably searching for his totem. It seems like the best idea Eames has had in awhile, so Arthur takes out his die and rolls it on the table until he’s assured of his reality by a consistent string of 3s.

Eames is looking likewise sated by his poker-chip, so Arthur feels justified in shouting, “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re not drunk, you’re not dreaming! So why on earth would you barge into my apartment and start making up these ludicrous stories! Do really not have anything better to do with your time?”

Eames stares back at Arthur worriedly. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’m fine,” Arthur grinds out through his teeth.

Eames nods absently, looking far from convinced, and then he’s distracted yet again, peering down at Arthur’s research, which is all around them, and demanding, “What on earth are you doing with all this old extraction intel?”

Arthur wants to grab them out of his hands, but his resists this childish impulse. Whatever is going on with Eames right now, he’s part of Arthur’s team. He can look at the research for their next job if he likes. Maybe it’ll help him focus on reality and stop trying to insinuate himself into Arthur’s apartment when Arthur knows for a fact Eames has a perfectly functional hotel room across town.

“It’s not old intel, it’s the deep background for the Perkins job,” he can’t stop from adding, when Eames just continues to peruse the information like it’s an amusing relic from his past.

Eames puts down the papers and looks at him, and again he’s wearing a face unlike anything Arthur’s ever seen before, his familiar features arranged into a wholly unfamiliar look of concern.

“Arthur, darling, we haven’t worked an extraction in years, certainly not for this Perkins chap, given what you’ve got written down here. What’s more, we’re not even supposed to be here, not for months! Now really, what’s going on?”

“What’s - Eames this is my apartment, and my research, both of which I am very certain about. You don’t live here, you live out of a suitcase, and possibly in a villa in Prague. I can never figure out if that’s true or not.” The admission alone makes him frown.

Eames just throws his head backs and laughs. “It’s not, darling. Never has been.”

Arthur’s frown deepens. “Are you ever going to listen to me when I tell you to stop calling me inane pet names?” It’s sort of beside the point, given the other things Eames has said tonight, but Arthur can’t help his priorities.

The laughter is gone from Eames’ face, and he’s back to gazing at Arthur with alarmingly genuine concern.

“But you did me one better than get me to stop, don’t you remember, darling? You picked a name of your own for me, shut me up for weeks, I was so surprised. That was, of course, until I came to my senses and finally asked you to accompany me out for a proper dinner, which is what you had been waiting for all along.” Eames smiles distantly. “Just had to romance you a little, my Arthur.”

“I’m not your Arthur,” he growls.

Eames looks at him carefully, and at first he looks like he’s going to correct Arthur, but then his face changes, going darker and more troubled than ever, as he says, “No. No, perhaps you’re not.”

Eames; Chicago

Despite Eames’ certainty that something - even if he hasn’t quite figured out what - is wrong, Arthur is adamant, fully committed to the idea that he just needs to accept that he’s awake, that everything around him is real.

They argue about it for hours, and the whole time, the utter strangeness of it is enough to make the hair on the back of Eames’ neck stand on end.

Arthur paces.

He wrings his hands.

He shouts.

Intermittent with these outbursts - so unlike the ruthlessly composed point man Eames knows - he cajoles, soothes, talks to Eames like a frightened animal, like he’s trying to talk him off a ledge. Eames can’t help but wonder if this is how Dom sounded, pleading with Mal.

Arthur, or whatever he is, also won’t stop touching Eames. Hands on his neck, his face, holding him by the shoulders and staring imploringly into Eames’ eyes, repeating, “I’m real, we’re real,” over and over.

The sun is starting to go down by the time Arthur finally lets up, even just a little. He collapses into one of the arm chairs, a look of bleak exhaustion on his face. In all the years Eames has known Arthur, through everything they’ve experienced together, the tragedy of losing Mal, the struggle to keep Dom sane, the countless times they’ve watched each other die, none of it compares to the look he’s seeing on Arthur’s face now.

He finds himself unable to stand it - even if it isn’t real, even if this Arthur is a projection, or a stranger. So he crosses the room to Arthur, and kneels at his feet. He touches Arthur’s face, just once, to make him look.

Arthur smiles at him, weary and sad, and Eames thinks he finally understands why the Arthur he knows is so careful, so determined to keep his emotions off his face. Without that effort, that barrier, Arthur is utterly devastating.

Arthur; Los Angeles

“An alternative universe?” Cobb demands, looking like he can’t decide if he’s exasperated or actually frightened.

Arthur settled on frightened before he and Eames even got halfway across town. Whoever was riding beside him in that cab, whoever is standing beside him in the warehouse now, it’s not the Eames he knows.

“It’s the only explanation I can think of that makes any sense.” There’s an audible scoff in the room, which this other Eames acknowledges with a grimace and a wave of his hand. “I’m not saying it makes a lot of sense, but something is wrong, and I’m not dreaming, and I haven’t had a head injury, I haven’t forgotten who I am or who any of you are - you’re just not right. Only you’re all not right in the same way, apparently, so logic would suggest that I’m the one who doesn’t belong.”

Ariadne is starting to get that look, the one she followed Cobb around with the entire inception job, a tricky combination of anxious and fascinated. She clears her throat. “Are you actually saying that you think you come from an alternate universe and that you can tell because we’re all... different, somehow?”

He nods immediately. “For example, Ariadne, I barely know you. In my world, you’re one of Dom’s many promising grad students, one of his favorites, perhaps, but someone I’ve only had occasion to meet and two or three faculty dinners. Yet here you are, here all of you are, set up in a warehouse like it’s the bad old days only I’ve somehow roped you all in with me. Except,” Eames pauses, looking around them again, “where’s Mal?”

“She’s dead,” Arthur says, before Dom has to.

For a moment, Eames’ face looks like it’s about to shatter, but just for a moment, and then it’s gone.

“Not where I’m from, she’s not.”

Ariadne is quite obviously bursting with follow-up questions, but Cobb holds up a staying hand and says, “Let’s all just slow down here for a minute. Someone needs to sell me on the theory of this before I start hearing all the details of our supposedly alternate egos. Let’s deal with one plane of existence at a time, shall we? We’re all here, Eames, even you. But if this really isn’t your reality, if you believe you’re awake but still don’t believe this is your world, then how do you explain what you’re doing here?” He shrugs. “How did you get here?”

Arthur has been asking him that question for the last two hours, all the way from his apartment here, but just like when he’s asked, all Eames can say in answer is a deeply frustrated, “I don’t know.”

From the back of the room, there is a quiet cough. They all turn, and Yusuf winces slightly before making himself say, “I may have an idea.”

In the next hour Yusuf reveals that he has been experimenting with new compounds for the past few months, compounds designed not just to deepen the dream state, but to alter it. To access more than the deepest recesses of the unconscious mind, to go beyond it, to travel across planes of consciousness.

“The original theory was about astral projection. Shifting where a consciousness could go in this reality. It was a long shot, I never really expected to get anywhere - I just wanted to test the limits of what the chemical aspect of it could do.” He scratches the back of his neck ruefully. “That’s my job - supposed to be my job. But it was nearly all theoretical - it wasn’t meant to work yet - it was just a few minor alterations to my standard stuff - it shouldn’t have been dangerous to test--”

“So you tested it on Eames?” Arthur demands, his voice brittle, furious. He’s almost relieved, in this moment, to have a focus for his confusion, his anger. He’s spent far too long feeling helpless so far today.

Yusuf nods miserably. “He volunteered.”

“Of course he did,” Arthur mutters, animosity dancing back and forth between them. Fools, both of them.

“But I swear this shouldn’t have happened. The dose was too mild - and this is nothing like what they were designed to do anyway. The idea that these compounds could be combined with artificial dreamscapes to alter one’s perception of reality and one’s place in it so dramatically that the barriers between universes could actually weaken to the point where one’s mind could cross over - it’s - it’s never even been considered.”

He looks shell shocked, appalled, but deep underneath that, Arthur can detect a spark of scientific curiosity being ignited in Yusuf. Arthur wishes he could blame him, could hold onto his righteous anger, but it’s already fading. This couldn’t have been predicted, and knowing Eames, it couldn’t have been avoided. To give up the risks of this life they’d have to give up dreaming entirely, and none of them are willing to do that.

Not even Cobb, not even after what this life has cost him. So why should the rest of them be any different?

Eames; Chicago

At seven, after staring at each other in silence for over an hour, Arthur suddenly looks at his watch and exclaims, “Oh, shit, we’re late!”

Eames regards him blankly. “Late?”

Arthur nods, already on his feet. “It’s Phillipa’s ninth birthday, we have to go.”

If someone has put Eames in a dream in order to force him to attend Cobb family get togethers, then they have a truly bizarre and twisted sense of humor. Either way, he’s punching whoever is responsible right in the face as soon as he gets out of this. Whether or not he’ll shoot them after that is still up for debate.

“You want me to come with you to a children’s party? That seems like a good idea to you? And I’m not even saying under present circumstances, Arthur. That would never be a good idea.”

“You’re amazing with kids,” Arthur corrects him gently, his eyes willing Eames to remember. As if that’s the issue here. “And Phillipa loves you, come on, you’re her favorite. I’m still holding out hope for James, but he’s pretty much picked you, too.”

Eames shakes his head. “I’ve never even met the junior Cobbs. I saw them at the funeral, and I’ve seen them in Cobb’s head, but that’s all.”

“What funeral?” Arthur asks, face turning serious all over again.

Eames can barely keep track of his near constant shifts in mood, and that’s supposed to be his specialty. He can’t imagine trying to forge this Arthur, the idea seems impossible.

He’s far too complex, too discordant to be a projection.

“Mal’s funeral,” he answers, even though it doesn’t matter.

No matter how many times he points out the strangeness of this place, no matter how hard and long he focuses on all the details that are wrong, nothing is shaking, nothing is coming loose. If he was really dreaming, he’d know it by now. This is something else, something he can’t just wake up from.

“Mal’s alive, babe, she’s going to be there tonight, you can see for yourself.” Arthur’s voice is urgent, almost excited, and Eames can see that he’s grasping onto this inconsistency like a life line, as if all they need to do is show up on Dom and Mal’s doorstep and Eames will finally come to his senses.

Eames has none of Arthur’s optimism, but he lets Arthur lead him out of the apartment and into their car all the same.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Yusuf spends most of the day doing tests on Eames while Dom and Ariadne examine the dreamscapes Yusuf had Eames experimenting in.

After one good hour spent referring their current client to the best of their competitors and reluctantly faxing his research to their point man, Arthur spends a chunk of the day pacing, trying to think of something else productive to do. All his skills seem useless against this problem, and it’s driving him crazy.

Eventually, he settles for hunkering down at his computer and trying to educate himself about multiverse theory, hoping that if he can get his head around this problem he’ll be able to figure out someway to help fix it.

He’s glad for the distraction, if nothing else. Glad for the excuse to focus on something other than this stranger in Eames’ body, this impostor who Arthur is surprised to discover makes his skin crawl.

He’s never thought about what it would be like to live in a world without the Eames he knows it in.

He never thought about how much he would miss him.

Eames; Chicago

The Cobb residence is exactly the way Eames would have pictured it, if he’d given it a moment’s thought. The house is a triumph of architecture, clearly designed lovingly by Dom himself. Inside, touches of Mal’s class and keen eye are everywhere. Even the mess of two young children seems to blend seamlessly, making things seem more perfect instead of marring that perfection.

When Mal kisses his cheek, left, and then right, in greeting, when he smells her perfume, Eames almost changes his mind all over again. Could something so perfect be anything other than a dream?

Even Cobb’s firm handshake and warm smile is staggering. He can’t remember the last time he saw Cobb look so untroubled and calm, not even after he got his children back.

Eames has in no way become used to the attentive, adoring Arthur he’s spent the day with, but it’s still a shock to encounter even more faces he recognizes looking so completely foreign.

“It’s wonderful to see you,” Mal is saying, kissing Arthur’s cheeks now. She’s smiling radiantly, but when she pulls away, she grabs Arthur’s jaw with her hand, eyes narrowing sharply. “What is it?”

Arthur makes a jerky nod towards the hallway, which seems to be enough for Mal, and for Dom, because his face grows serious in an instant, and he guides Mal in the direction of Arthur’s nod, his hand flush against the small of her back. Arthur turns into Eames like he wants to do something similar, but Eames ducks out of his reach, following quickly after Mal and Dom. Arthur follows immediately, but he doesn’t try to reach out to Eames again.

They enter a room that turns out to a study, Dom’s if Eames knows his taste in furnishings, and even in this world, so clearly not his own, there seem to be some constants. Dom’s affection for Le Corbusier is apparently one of them.

“Something is wrong with Eames,” Arthur declares, voice low and urgent, gaze locked on Dom like he expects him to already have the answer.

Eames hasn’t seen that kind of unconditional trust in Arthur’s eyes in years.

“Eames?” Dom prompts with a raised eyebrow.

“This isn’t my world, mate. I don’t do family barbecues and I certainly don’t live in domestic bliss with Arthur and a cat. I don’t belong here.” He hopes, at least for now, to keep the fact that he also doesn’t tend stand face to face with a living, breathing Mal to himself.

Dom looks at Arthur sharply, getting up from where he was leaning against the edge of his desk, “Does he think he’s dreaming? Did you two go under again, because I told you it wasn’t--”

“No,” Arthur shakes his head vehemently. “We haven’t shared a dream in years, it’s not like that. We’ve been careful.”

Mal is approaching him, her face titled thoughtfully. “Maybe he was experimenting without you. Maybe he finally decided to go back out into the field. You know he misses it.”

Arthur shakes his head again. “He wouldn’t. Not without talking to me about it first.”

Eames wonders what the other Eames must have done, how he managed to earn the unswerving faith this Arthur has in him.

Dom seems to take Arthur’s word for it, however, and shrugs.

“He’s still a forger, Arthur, and even if he doesn’t use his skills in the field anymore, he still teaches them at the college. Things can go wrong, even in the kind of simulations we run in the classroom. Maybe something went wrong with one of the compounds - maybe someone even sabotaged them. I know you don’t like to think about it, but Eames still has enemies, even now. Even though he left that world behind,” he shakes his head, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s left him behind.”

Jesus.

The compounds.

Yusuf’s experiments.

Bugger.

“So what - somehow, either because someone wanted it to or because someone screwed up - he’s gone so deep under that now that he’s awake he still doesn’t believe his world is real? How can that happen? He has his totem - he knows he’s awake!”

Arthur, Eames is once again amazed to observe, is approaching hysterics.

Mal puts an arm around his waist, steadying him. “It’s alright, Arthur. We can figure this out, we can help him. If he really went that deep - if Eames actually went into limbo - then we will find a way to bring him back, to help him believe what the rest of us are sure of. That this is real, and he is ours.”

Eames can’t help but think that they’d probably have a better time convincing him of that if they all stopped talking about him like he wasn’t even in the room.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Arthur wants some other name to call the person standing with Yusuf, wearing Eames’ face. He wants some kind of verbal barrier separating the two. He wants this, but at the same time, this other man is Eames, undeniably, even while he’s completely a stranger, and Arthur can’t imagine what else to call him, anyway. Arthur just knows that every time he refers to him as Eames, it feels wrong.

Eames; Chicago

They take him to a psychiatrist, a specialist who works with dreamsharers. Eames protests the whole way, but Arthur has finally shut down, and he ignores Eames, clamping down on his emotions so hard Eames almost recognizes him, now.

He’s silent the whole drive, Eames’ arguments washing over him without the slightest lasting impact.

When they arrive, Arthur leaps out of the car like it’s a cage he’s been desperately trying to escape, but he still comes around to the other side of the car and solicitously opens Eames’ door for him.

Eames, for his part, is taking some time off trying to figure out this man’s motivations, and he just takes the hand helping him out of the car and doesn’t shake Arthur off when he keeps hold of Eames, gripping him by the forearm as they walk.

Eames spends the next few hours attempting to convince the doctor that he’s not insane, that he knows he’s not dreaming, and that just because this world is real, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s his reality. He’s accepted that much, at least. However this happened, whether it was Yusuf’s compounds or something else, whoever all these people around him are, they’re no projections. No one is this good, no one can dream a world full of places and people who all look and smell and feel so real.

Unfortunately, trying to convince someone you’re from an alternative reality isn’t the best way to prove to them you’re sane.

Arthur; Los Angeles

By midnight, they’re all starting to flag, even Arthur, and he hasn’t done much other than stew uselessly all day.

Ariadne is the one who eventually calls them all to a stop, reminding them that they all need to sleep, that they’ll never figure something this complex out in a day, or even a few days, and that running on caffeine and adrenaline isn’t going to work forever.

As she talks, Arthur feels a pang of regret, smoothed around the rough edges by fondness. He half-wishes, sometimes, that they hadn’t pulled her into this life. That he hadn’t let Dom draw her in. But those thoughts never last, never go too deep. He’s too grateful for her, for her steadying presence in Dom’s life, in his mind, for her brilliance and ingenuity, her strength, to ever really be sorry she’s theirs.

Dom offers to take her home, their usual practice, the implications of which Arthur is usually careful not to examine too closely. Tonight it feels loaded, amplified with significance. Like everything else.

Yusuf isn’t ready to give up yet, though, so once Dom and Ariadne leave, Arthur crowds in on the other side of Yusuf’s shoulder, watching him work. But apparently having both Arthur and Eames hovering at his sides isn’t conducive to Yusuf’s thinking process, because he only lasts a few minutes before throwing up his hands and shouting at them to give him some room to think.

Arthur looks to Eames, silently asking him what he wants to do.

Eames stuff his hands in pockets and sighs. “Could I oblige you for a ride to the Roosevelt, or shall I call a cab?”

“I’ll take you,” Arthur responds gruffly, not looking forward to that long alone with him, but finding himself unable to say no.

It’s not this man’s fault he makes Arthur’s nerves coil so tight he’s afraid they’re going to snap.

As they drive, Arthur almost finds himself laughing at his own discomfort. To think he’s spent years complaining that Eames was insufferable, constantly accusing him of gunning for Arthur’s sanity and general peace of mind, when all he wants now is for that obnoxious, flirtatious, aesthetically-challenged disaster to come back. To think he’s spent years snapping or glaring every time Eames addressed him using a cheeky endearment and yet now all he wants is for Eames to crack a lecherous grin and make an obvious double entendre while calling him darling.

In that moment, Arthur almost reaches for his totem.

Eames; Chicago

He spends a week with the doctor, performing tests, having long discussions Eames knows get reported to Arthur afterwords. His sanity is too far in question to be trusted, the madness they are damning him with too severe.

Arthur never leaves the facility, he almost never leaves Eames’ side. They sleep in twin beds in one of the recovery rooms every night, although sleep rarely comes to either of them. Arthur gets paler every day, as if he’s been out of the sun for months instead of days. Eames hasn’t seen him smile in at least three days, hasn’t seen any expression on his face at all in two.

But his eyes still follow Eames wherever they go, he still reaches out to touch Eames so blindly, so often, that Eames decides Arthur must not be able to help it. Possibly he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

What’s more, he can’t help but wonder if it’s all that’s holding Arthur together. The only strength Eames can see in Arthur now comes from the painfully strong grip he keeps on Eames throughout the day, as if he’s afraid Eames will disappear with a puff of smoke if he ever lets go.

So Eames lets Arthur retain his hold, even as every touch is torturous, an all too visceral reminder it isn’t his Arthur who is clinging to him so tightly. Arthur would never let himself need anything as much as this man seems to need Eames.

Arthur; Los Angeles

When they arrive at the hotel, Eames turns to look at him for the first time.

Arthur concentrates on keeping his emotions in check, on keeping the flinch of missrecognition off his face when he looks at Eames.

“You didn’t seem very happy to see me, last night. Even before you realized who I was.”

He pauses, looking thoughtful. Arthur is briefly reminded of the way Eames has always looked right before he’s about to change in a dream, when he’s figuring out the last details of a person he needs to forge them.

“And we’re certainly not--” he aborts that line of questioning, seemingly already confident about the answer. Arthur can guess, he supposes, given that Eames showed up thinking they lived together.

Eames rests his chin on a hand as he examines Arthur more closely. “Are you even friends, you and your Eames?”

Arthur finds he doesn’t know how to answer that.

Eames; Chicago

On the eighth day, Dr. Shapiro calls Arthur and Eames into her office with an air of finality. Eames assumes she’s ready to officially declare him insane.

It bothers him less than he expects. Given what she knows, it’s a sound diagnosis. He’d probably think he was crazy too.

He just wishes Arthur wasn’t taking it quite so hard. He wishes Arthur wasn’t so ready to believe her.

She talks for a long time about limbo, about the other cases she’s seen, the success rates for reintegrating patients with reality. Arthur nods and takes a lot of notes, which is almost enough to make Eames smile.

He’s far less in a smiling mood when she finishes her mini-lecture by turning to Arthur and addressing him like Eames isn’t even there. He’s getting awfully tired of people doing that.

But, from the way Arthur’s nails are digging into Eames’ palm, at least someone still knows he’s in the room.

Dr. Shapiro is saying, “Above all else, Arthur, you mustn’t enable his delusions. It’s imperative that you never entertain with him the possibility that the world of limbo he’s remembering is his real one. Take him to familiar places, tell him stories about your life together, show him photographs, home videos if you have them. Surround him with everything that has been important to you, even the smallest things can help the mind stay grounded, you just need to find out what those triggers might be. If you stick with it, if you work hard and don’t lose your patience or your resolve, I believe you can help him come to feel at home in reality again.”

Arthur nods gravely, sharing a small, determined smile with Eames. Eames wishes he had the heart to smile back.

Arthur; Los Angeles

The next week passes in a blur. Every morning he picks Eames up from his hotel, and drives him back every night. These are the only times they’re alone, the only times when they can stand to look at each other directly.

It seems to pain Eames physically to look at Arthur, to be near him and still so far from his own Arthur.

Arthur can relate, although he’s continually surprised by how much.

Eames; Chicago

As Arthur is driving them back to the apartment - to his apartment - Eames realizes he’ll have to run.

There’s no way he’ll be able to convince Arthur of what’s really going on now, not when every fibre of Arthur is so obviously geared up for every possible challenge Eames could make, viewing every counter-argument as a battle Arthur thinks he has to win for Eames’ sanity. This may not be the Arthur he knows, but he’s similar enough that Eames can see when he’s beat, when the depths of stubbornness and self-sacrificial loyalty Arthur is capable of are combined towards one singular goal.

He remembers the way Arthur, his Arthur, disappeared into himself after Mal died, the way every day was a fight to keep Dom alive, to keep him at least mostly sane. Eames had left them in the midst of that, unable to think of a way to help Dom, unable to stand looking at what trying to help him was doing to Arthur.

It’s like that with this Arthur, here and now. The only difference is that it’s so much worse. The loss Arthur is being threatened with is so unacceptable he’s rejected it physically, he’s locked the possibility of failure deep inside himself, and nothing Eames can say would change his mind.

There will be no way of finding the help he needs here, no way to begin the process of finding his way back home when everyone around him is so determined to convince him he’s already where he belongs.

And so he will run until he can find someone who does believe him.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Yusuf thinks he has a breakthrough on the 13th day. But the mix of compounds he tries to enable the same type of consciousness transfer to happen knowingly instead of by accident turns out to cause an explosion and be of no other use.

Arthur has to leave the warehouse before he puts his hand through a wall.

Eames joins him outside a few minutes later.

“How do you stand it?” Arthur hears himself ask, a question he’s been swallowing down for days.

Eames pulls out a cigarette and taps it against his silver case absently before lighting it. As he smokes, he seems to be thinking about Arthur’s question, so Arthur remains silent, trying to be patient. He’s less and less capable of that, these days.

“You mean being here, I take it,” Eames says, checking for Arthur’s nod before continuing. “I stand it because I have to stand it. If I don’t keep a hold of myself, how would I be able to keep a hold of my reality? Maybe if I started acting like a madman, you would start believing I was one, and I can’t have that. I need Yusuf’s help, I need all your help. I’m just trying to get home.”

Arthur nods, quietly impressed. He may not like this Eames, but he certainly respects him. He hasn’t Eames crack, not even a little. Hasn’t seen a flash of doubt on his face, hasn’t seen him raging, furious at his other self, at them, for letting this happen.

“What’s home like?” Arthur surprises himself again by asking yet another question he’s been steadfastly suppressing since Eames arrived at his doorstep.

Eames smiles, and with it, his whole self is transformed, not just his face but the way he’s carrying himself, the rigidity in his shoulders relaxes, the way he holds his cigarette.

“Quite different from around here, as you may have gathered. We’re not in this world any longer, for one thing. Extraction, I mean, all this espionage in dreams you lot seem to get up to. Did you really perform inception?”

“Yes,” Arthur confirms softly. “It was largely down to you, really. You convinced me it was possible, you figured out a way to get the idea inside. It was beautiful.”

Eames smiles again, only this time it doesn’t make him seem quite so far away.

“In my world, you’re a consultant, which is a bureaucratic way of saying your paid to know everything all the time, so I suppose that’s not so different from being a point man. Only it’s the United States government that signs your checks. And I’m a college professor by day and a military trainer by night. I teach advanced in-dream forgery techniques to soldiers and defense against mind-forgery to my students. It’s a nice bit of circularity. Dom and Mal both teach as well. Sometimes we even do group demonstrations.” He laughs, apparently at himself. “We carpool.”

Arthur’s surprise is clearly evident, because Eames chuckles darkly before continuing. “I wasn’t always a house kitten, mind. When I met Arthur and Dom I still had plenty of dirt under my nails. We met in Dubai--”

“So did we!” Arthur exclaims excitedly.

Eames glances sideways at him. “Did you really? What year?”

“Two thousand and two! Dom and I were doing field research, I was just his research student then, not his point man. We were having lunch at a cafe and you--”

“Stole your wallet?” Eames guesses, although it’s clearly not quite a guess.

Arthur snaps his fingers, “Exactly! I threatened you with a broken hand when I stole it back.”

Eames smiles fondly, and Arthur is overcome with the strangeness of suddenly sharing a memory with the other man.

“Instead, Dom decided to hire me on as a consultant, which you pretended you were more upset about than you really were.”

Arthur feels his ears go pink; he’s liked to pretend he’s been more convincing than that, even back then.

“We worked together for a few months, and then Mal was due to deliver Phillipa, so he and I flew back. We didn’t see you again for another two years.”

Eames laughs. “The casino in Rome!”

“You almost got shot,” Arthur continues, almost laughing himself. “And once we got away, you made me blow on your poker chips for good luck for the rest of the night. I can’t believe I did that. But Dom said it was worth my trouble if it helped keep you alive, and I admit, you certainly came in handy finishing that job, even if we did stray a little further past legality than Dom was comfortable with, back then.”

“A few months later, you were mine,” Eames concludes, lost in the memory again.

Arthur shakes his head, feeling none of the same wistful fondness for what came next for him, for them.

“A few months later, Mal died.”

Eames’ face darkens, and for a moment, he looks as if he’s going to reach out to Arthur, to touch him when he’s been so careful not to all this time. In the end, he keeps his hands to himself.

Even so, Arthur can’t stop himself from saying, “I thought I knew. When Dom lost Mal, I thought I understood what it was like, how it felt to lose a part of yourself - maybe not the same part, maybe not quite what he’d lost, but I thought I at least had some inkling.” He shakes his head bitterly. “I had no idea.”

Eames; Chicago

He sits through a very sombre dinner with Arthur, thankful Arthur doesn’t try and engage him in conversation, leaving him free to plan his escape. He’s considering Mombasa, on the hope that Yusuf may be living there in this reality also. If there’s anything that explains what the hell has happened to him, it’s Yusuf and his scientific curiosity. Eames makes a mental note not to sign up to be his guinea pig ever again, that is, if he ever gets back to his own reality.

After dinner, Arthur puts on some Ella Fitzgerald and starts a load of dishes. Eames follows him into the kitchen and automatically starts to help dry. They work in silence, save for Arthur’s quiet instructions concerning where the dishes go. Eames sees a flicker of disappointment ghost across his face every time Eames needs to be told.

Once they’re done with the dishes, Arthur seems tired enough for sleep, which is understandable given the week he’s just had.

The cat - Roger - keeps circling Eames’ ankles, mewing persistently.

“What does it want?” he asks Arthur.

Arthur’s face crumples a little, and for a horrifying moment, Eames actually think he’s going to cry.

He’s never seen Arthur cry. Not even when Mal died. Not even when he’s been shot or stabbed, even in reality.

It seems it won’t be when Eames doesn’t recognize their cat’s needs, either, because Arthur takes a deep, steadying breath and kneels down, picking up the cat, scratching her behind her ears and murmuring, “I’m sorry, I know we missed dinner,” before dropping her down gently and heading back into the kitchen.

“She was hungry,” he explains, when he returns.

“I see,” Eames says awkwardly. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands.

Arthur rubs tiredly at his face. “Do you think you can sleep, now that we’re home?”

Eames furrows his brow, feeling oddly apologetic, as if he’s letting Arthur down when he says, “But I’m not, Arthur.”

“What?”

“Home.”

Arthur; Los Angeles

Dom still has kids to look after, so he’s at the warehouse the least.

Arthur wishes Dom were around more, if nothing else, to give him someone to talk to other than Eames, who makes Arthur feel equal parts inadequate and angry, or Ariadne, who looks at Arthur with more sympathy than he can bear. Yusuf is so focused on his work it’s like the rest of them aren’t even there, most of the time.

There still isn’t anything for Arthur to do, but he can’t bring himself to stop coming in everyday, either. He won’t abandon his team. He won’t abandon Eames.

Not the one here with them now, and certainly not the one lost to them, somewhere across the universe.

Eames; Chicago

He waits until he’s sure Arthur is asleep, and then waits an hour more, before getting out of bed and moving stealthily across the apartment, making a silent apology to Arthur’s sleeping from when he steals Arthur’s wallet and keys.

Luckily they both have up to date passports in the china cabinet drawer. Eames takes his, and his totem, just in case.

He takes a cab to the airport - taking the wallet and keys was just a precautionary measure, a head start if Arthur happens to wake up, or figure out where he’s going, although Eames is hopeful he won’t.

He books his flight, trying to select connecting flights in countries he’s most familiar with, in place he has a reasonable knowledge of how to get lost in.

If all goes well, he should make it to Mombasa in three days.

He has no luggage, so he makes it through security with relative ease; that is, as easy as it is to get through security onto an international flight in LAX.

Once he’s past security, he feels calmer, more confident that his plan will come together, that this early luck will carry through to Mombasa and that perhaps he’ll even be able to find Yusuf when he gets there.

This hope is dashed when he suddenly feels a hand on his shoulder. He looks up, and there Arthur is.

“I suppose I should say bravo,” he says, greeting Arthur with a twisted parody of a smile. “How did you find me so quickly?”

Arthur makes a derisive sound at the back of his throat, and Eames is reminded, fleetingly, of home. “I put a track on your passport days ago.”

Eames can’t believe he overlooked something so obvious. Just because Arthur isn’t the best point man in this world doesn’t mean he’s anyone’s fool. “Of course you did. How silly of me.”

Arthur sighs heavily and deposits himself into the seat beside Eames.

“Why Mombasa?”

“Lovely country,” Eames responds evasively.

Arthur nods, rolling his eyes and then looking away.

After a long silence, he asks, “Would you at least let me come with you?”

Arthur has, thus far, simply looked angry and unimpressed. But now he’s starting to look... sad.

Eames finds he can’t bear it, even if this isn’t the Arthur he knows, the Arthur he -- well. It’s still Arthur, and he is still apparently loathe to cause him pain. In that instant, he feels his entire plan dissolve, helpless against the dejected slope of Arthur’s shoulders.

So he stands up, and offers Arthur a hand.

“Why don’t we just go home?”

Arthur; Los Angeles

It’s Ariadne’s idea to put Eames under.

“I’m not saying test any of Yusuf’s compounds - I know we’re not ready for that - but don’t you think it would be helpful to understand more about how this shift in consciousness manifests itself? I mean, if this is really another version of Eames - just in our Eames’ body, then the mind should behave differently!”

Arthur can’t believe none of them thought of it sooner.

He starts getting the PASIV ready before she’s even done speaking. “Me and Eames will go under, I’ll be the dreamer, he’ll be the subject. That way we can see how his subconscious reacts and--”

“Arthur,” Ariadne interrupts gently, “are you sure it should be your dream?”

He stares at her blankly. “Why not my dream?”

She glances between them nervously. “It’s just that there’s a certain level of, well, animosity between you and I don’t think--”

“It’ll be fine, pet,” Eames assures her smoothly, smiling the same way Arthur remembers his Eames doing right before a con. Ariadne doesn’t know him quite well enough to be able to tell the difference between it and his real smile, and given the strangeness of having keep track of two Eames’ worth of facial expressions and trickery, Arthur can’t exactly blame her.

Dom, on the other hands, can absolutely tell the difference, but luckily for Arthur, he can also tell when there’s no point in arguing. Not with either of them.

He still adds a cautionary, “Be careful down there, huh?” before putting Arthur under. He manages to nod before he’s asleep.

He wakes up in his apartment, and hears Eames chuckle somewhere behind him.

“Breaking all the rules at once, are we?”

Arthur wants to ignore him, for one spiteful moment, but forces himself to focus on the task at hand.

“The purpose of this exercise is to see how your subconscious reacts to the dreamer, to me, when I change things. You said, that first night, that you knew my apartment. That we lived there together, where you’re from. You got a lot of it right, but there have to be some things I’ve arranged differently, in my version of the apartment. There’s nothing that belongs to you, here, for instance.”

“It’s also just us, in here,” Eames points out.

“I know, we’re starting small. Look around for anything you don’t recognize, anything foreign to you. If that doesn’t have your subconscious banging at my door, then we’ll try something a little more drastic.”

Eames gives him a look expressing his acquiescence and mild appreciation of the plan. Arthur is appalled at himself over how much he misses how easily he used to be able to impress his Eames.

Eames starts surveying the apartment, picking up Arthur’s books and smiling at some titles, frowning at others.

“Something you don’t recognize?” Arthur prompts after a more pronounced grimace.

“No, just depressed to discover you have the same stuffy-shirted taste in reading material in both realities. Who on earth reads Epictetus in the original Greek?”

This is clearly a rhetorical question, so Arthur ignores it.

Eames abandons the living room, possibly in protest of Arthur’s book collection, and wanders into the bedroom, clicking his tongue disapprovingly.

“This bed hasn’t been slept in for days. Is this a keeping up appearances thing or have you really not slept in your real bed for this long out there?”

Arthur strives to pretend this question is also rhetorical, but he quails under Eames’ concerned disapproval. He’s surprised by how much the worry in Eames’ eyes affects him.

“I’ve been working,” he excuses, somewhat lamely.

“On what? This is mostly Yusuf’s problem to solve, and while I know it drives the rest of you starkers having me here, there’s not much any of you can do about it.”

“It’s not - having you here,” Arthur fumbles awkwardly, “it’s having him gone.’

Eames bobs his head agreeably. “Quite so. Either way, I’m sure none of you are as eager for me to be gone as I am.”

Arthur really hadn’t considered this, obvious as it now seems. He’s simply been too preoccupied thinking about getting his Eames back to wonder what it might actually be like to be the one who is missing.

“Do you think they’ve figured it out, over there?” He voices another thought he’s amazed to only be thinking of now, blaming the strangeness of this situation for his woeful obliviousness.

“I don’t know,” Eames says, with casual honesty.

He stuffs his hands in his pockets and moves away from the bed, coming to stand by Arthur’s armoire, peering into the small mirror he keeps there.

“They’ve figured out something is wrong, certainly. Arthur won’t miss the changes in me, if any of your reactions to me are an indication. But this business about alternate realities,” he makes a humming sound, “it’s a bit more tricky. I doubt you lot would believe me if it wasn’t for Yusuf. And we don’t have one of those.”

Arthur processes this. “So you’re saying that, over there, Eames is probably trapped? That no one will believe him, that no one will try and help him?”

Eames looks at him, his eyes suddenly dangerous, cold. “I never said that, did I?” He shakes his head. “No, they’re trying to help him. Arthur would use his last breath to try and help me, and that’s who I assume they think he is. Still me, just, not quite right.” He sighs. “They probably think he’s gone insane.”

“Would they know about dreams - you said you met me the same way I met my Eames - that--”

“Oh, they’ll know about dreams. Even a bit about limbo, although not with the dubious benefit of personal experience, of course. And as I said, I still forge, just in a mostly law-abiding sort of way. But there are still plenty of ways people could get inside my head, make me doubt my reality. Plenty of explanations for them to choose from that will appear infinitely more plausible than what’s really going on, I’m afraid.”

“So it’s just us, then,” Arthur says, trying to focus on the importance of getting him back rather than imagining what it must be like for Eames over there. “We’re his only hope of getting home.”

Eames lips turn up, just for a moment, more of a facial tick than a genuine smile.

“And mine.”

Eames; Chicago

Even before it became his job, blending into any and every environment, making himself appear to belong in any set of circumstances, was always a skill Eames prided himself on. It’s part of being a good forger - not only knowing how to imitate someone, but knowing how to gauge the feeling of a room, to know what the people around him need him to be to feel comfortable.

He’s been practicing this particular skill since he was a boy, but now, in the in the slice of domestic heaven Arthur guides him around all that next morning, Eames finds himself totally out of his element.

He knows what Arthur wants, of course, as he carefully walks Eames through all the nooks and crannies of their apartment. He knows Arthur is tracking his every reaction obsessively, hoping for even the briefest spark of recognition, something that he can hold onto, anything that shows him that Eames is starting to see something here that might be part of a life he could believe in.

But Eames wakes up feeling as disconcerted in their bed as the first day he arrived. He’s once again so alarmed to discover a cat sleeping on him that he almost flings the animal off his chest instinctively until he remembers where he is.

The placement of his toothbrush on the left instead of the right side of the bathroom sink feels and is wrong.

The clothes he gets dressed in are tasteful and fit him perfectly, all elegant lines and subtle hints of colour, nothing like the clothes he would pick out for himself.

He can’t help but flinch when Arthur tucks a stray hair behind his ear or passes him a cup of coffee with a soft, “Here you go, babe.”

He finds nothing familiar about the careful organization of the kitchen, the alphabetized spices or the series of french cookware Mal apparently gave them for their wedding.

“We’re married?” He’s so surprised that he can’t help but ask.

Arthur blushes and ducks his head, a strange reaction among a series of strange reactions. Eames supposes he should be grateful that the question didn’t make Arthur’s face go shuttered and distant, the way it so often does when Eames points out another thing he doesn’t remember, doesn’t understand.

“In some places.”

They move on from the kitchen, into the living room, which Eames already knows is perfect, but that it doesn’t make it any more familiar. Still, he wants to sink into the burgundy arm chair he can easily identify as belonging to the other Eames, something slightly shabbier and more comfortable than the rest of the furniture in this place, which predominantly reflect Arthur’s tastes. He wants to pull Arthur down with him, into his lap, to smile and kiss his worried frown away.

Arthur would almost certainly let him, and Eames wants to, wants to take what he can get, wants to believe this could be his.

But it’s not.

Maybe if he lived here for years he could lock that secret away, he could forget this truth the way Mal once did, in her own way.

But for now, the touch of Arthur’s hand at his back is all he needs to remember none of this is his, that none of the trust and love Arthur is offering him is his to take.

Arthur; Los Angeles

“What happened down there?” Cobb demands as soon as they wake up.

“Nothing,” Arthur replies instantly.

When Cobb squints suspiciously, Arthur expands. “We stayed in there for hours. I changed things, small things, then big things, nothing. We went out into populated areas, it was the same. His projections were there, they just looked right past us. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not even in the most well-constructed dream.”

“What does that tell us?” Ariadne pipes up.

Arthur shrugs. “I don’t know yet. It’s not normal, that’s for sure. But we knew that already. I’m not sure if we can use it for anything,” he walks across the warehouse, approaching Yusuf’s make-shift chemistry lab, “Yusuf? Do you think it could be useful?”

Yusuf looks startled to be addressed directly, especially by Arthur. He can admit he hasn’t been the most gracious towards their chemist, of late.

“It may be. Right now, it’s data, and we need all the data we can get. Wait a few hours, or perhaps take the day, and go under again. See if you can’t provoke a reaction with more extreme measures.”

“Like what?” Ariadne asks.

Eames chuckles darkly. “I think he means violence, pet.”

Arthur considers this. Violence he can do.

Eames; Chicago

He’s actually a little relieved when Arthur shows him where they keep their guns. At least some things around here make sense.

“I’m trusting you not to use these,” Arthur tells him gravely, looking down at the stash of semi-automatics he keeps locked in a safe behind a false door in what is ostensibly their linen cupboard.

“Don’t worry, I know full well my way out of this isn’t a bullet to the head.”

Far from having the comforting effect intended, this statement causes Arthur to flinch visibly. Eames can’t help but reach out and lay a hand on his shoulder, squeezing reassuringly.

Arthur looks up at Eames and smiles.

Arthur; Los Angeles

They spend a few hours the next day shooting Eames’ projections with machine guns. At one point, for old times sake, Arthur even dreams up a grenade launcher. Eames doesn’t even comment, and it takes Arthur a minute to realize there’s no reason he should.

The whole experience is far less satisfying than Arthur had envisioned, especially because the projections put up no form of resistance, their targets dropping like flies while the ones around them do nothing.

So he’s relieved when Eames eventually throws his gun down and says, “This is depressing me.”

He says it so seriously, yet so nonchalantly, that Arthur can’t help but laugh.

“Just this part?”

After a second, Eames laughs too.

Eames; Chicago

After familiarizing Eames with their apartment, Arthur starts in on their daily routine.

He informs Eames that it’s his job to feed the cat in the mornings, and that she will start meowing at least ten minutes before her actual breakfast time.

“I refuse to bow to feline terrorism,” Eames informs Arthur seriously.

The statement transforms Arthur, seeming to make him whole inches taller, turning his face bright and beaming. “You always say that!” he says triumphantly, his eyes begging Eames to celebrate this imagined victory with him.

Eames can’t take it away from him, but he can’t participate, either, so he just nods a little and asks, “What’s next?”

The excitement in Arthur’s body dims slightly, but he carries on, his voice brighter and more confident than before. “I work from home, so you always put a full pot of coffee on for me in the mornings before you leave for the college. On Mondays and Wednesdays you pick Mal and Dom up from their place on the way, and on Thursdays they pick you up.” He stops, chewing uncertainly on his lip. “I’ve canceled your classes, for now, of course - but--”

“It’s fine,” Eames says, knowing Arthur has been instructed to give him as many details about their life together as possible, even the ones not immediately relevant to him.

Arthur nods and continues, “We generally go for a run together when you get home, I’ll take you this evening, if you feel up for it, we can always just walk the route we usually take if you--”

“I’m perfectly capable of keeping up, Arthur,” he assures him. The body he’s currently inhabiting may not be the one he knows, but he can feel the strength in it all the same. For all that these two live like toothless yuppies, they clearly haven’t let themselves go to seed.

Arthur seems pleased by this, “Good, we’ll run tonight then. Normally, after a run you make dinner or if it’s my turn to cook I--”

“Order in?” Eames guesses, thinking of his own Arthur, who is good at almost everything, but an absolute menace in the kitchen.

It seems it’s true here as well, because Arthur just looks away bashfully and then says, with the steadfast self-confidence Eames is growing familiar with, “My ordering skills are unparalleled.”

Eames laughs, “I’m sure they are.”

Arthur; Los Angeles

Once they give up trying to get the projections to fight them, Arthur opts for a more diplomatic approach.

He walks up to a particularly pleasant looking projection, a willowy blond who reminds Arthur of the distraction Eames used to smooth over the Mr. Charles gambit within the second layer. She’s sitting at a cafe Arthur dreamed up out of several of his favorite places in Paris, and he sits down at the table beside her.

She doesn’t look up from her book, Watership Down.

“Hello,” Arthur tries uncertainly.

She keeps reading.

Eames takes the last empty seat at the table. “I don’t think there’s anything for it. Whatever happened in the crossing, my subconscious isn’t registering anything here.”

“She sees you, though, surely. Your body might not quite be yours, but your mind is united, your projections should still recognize you.”

Eames nods, granting the point, and says, “That’s my favorite book, do you like it?”

The projection looks up, smiling in a banal sort of way. For a long time, this is her only response, and Arthur is growing sure she won’t speak at all when the projection says, looking Eames right in the eye, “We don’t belong here.”

Eames; Chicago

They go for a run earlier than is evidently normal, but after struggling through the rest of the “Eames, this is your life” tour and a very awkward lunch, neither of them can stand the confines of the apartment any longer.

Still, Eames can’t help but watch in fascination as Arthur strips out of his tailored pants and matching waistcoat - of course even this tamed and settled Arthur would have to look his best at all times - and into a set of leggings and light hoodie.

He looks impossibly young, painfully beautiful. But it’s too much, this level of intimacy, and Eames has to look away.

He wishes for his own Arthur, all hard, sleek edges and control. He never imagined what it would be like to see all Arthur’s emotions cross his face so openly. He never imagined how vulnerable it would make Arthur, how much it would make Eames want to protect him.

How it would make him want to lie.

“Are you ready?” Arthur asks, looking cautiously hopeful under Eames’ scrutiny.

“As I’ll ever be.”

They run. Arthur guides them through their neighborhood, clearly designed to attract young urban professionals who want to be reassured they’ve escaped the homogeneity of the suburbs. As they run, Arthur points out their favorite spots.

The bakery where they get their bread, but not their bagels, that’s a different place a few blocks later. The place they went for their last anniversary. The stand where Eames picks up the morning paper for Arthur on Sundays. The piano bar they go to with Dom and Mal when they can get a sitter. The park where they sometimes stop to stretch and feed ducks.

“Ducks, really?”

Arthur just smirks at him, “You love ducks, and you know it.”

“Do I?”

He nods, still running, always just a few steps ahead of Eames.

“I can hear it in your voice.”

It has to be said, Eames really does love ducks.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Even though they’re not really finding anything useful down there, Arthur and Eames keep going back into dreams.

Sometimes they spend the whole day in them while the rest of the team works. There’s not much for either of them to do in the warehouse, and even though they don’t accomplish much, Yusuf keeps insists all data is good data, and it’s as close to productivity as either of them can get, at least when Yusuf doesn’t need Eames to run all manner of tests on him.

If things weren’t so serious, Arthur would swear Yusuf is making some of them up to amuse himself.

When they dream, they tend to stick to the same routine, Eames as subject and Arthur as dreamer. A few times, however, they try something different.

One such occasion, they try bringing Ariadne in as the dreamer.

Eames’ projections ignore her just as completely, but there is a whirring tension in the air the whole time she’s dreaming with them. She doesn’t suggest testing this arrangement again.

A few days later, they try having Eames be the dreamer and Arthur the subject, but Arthur’s subconscious turns on Eames so violently and so immediately that they’re only under for a matter of minutes before Eames has been torn to shreds, leaving Arthur standing in the eye of a frenzied crowd. He shoots himself instead of waiting out the clock.

When he comes to in the warehouse, Eames is already staring at him, his face calculating.

“Not too happy to see me, were you?”

Arthur shrugs. “Try not to take it personally, my subconscious isn’t a fan of interlopers.”

“Unless I start offending the laws of physics, your subconscious is always perfectly nice to me,” Ariadne points out.

Cobb happens to be here today, which is just Arthur’s luck, and he echoes Ariadne’s assessment. “You have an ordered mind. Your projections don’t take well to foreign stimuli, but you’re perfectly hospitable as long as dreamers play by your rules.”

“I guess that was my problem, then,” Eames concludes with a cynical smile.

“But your subconscious hasn’t reacted to Eames like that before this, right? So that’s important, or it could be. We should see how the rest of our subconsciouses react to him,” Ariadne suggests.

They do, but Arthur isn’t surprised by what they find. Cobb’s subconscious is indifferent to Eames until he starts changing things, Yusuf’s ignores him completely, and Ariadne’s is almost friendly until Eames shifts his form, becoming a near perfect copy of Ariadne herself. That little trick gets him slapped in the face so forcefully he changes back.

The common conclusion, however, is that it’s only Arthur’s subconscious that’s particularly interested in violently expelling Eames, although Arthur doesn’t really think they needed to go through all that testing to arrive at said conclusion.

His conscious mind is eager enough to get rid of this Eames; why should his subconscious be any different?

Eames; Chicago

When they get back from their run, Arthur showers while Eames wanders around the apartment aimlessly.

The cat follows him wherever he goes.

Eventually, he kneels down and picks her up, surprised by the way she immediately starts to purr, going liquid in his arms. Experimentally, Eames scratches the cat’s ears, and the purring increases in volume.

He carries her over to the couch and Roger curls into a happy ball on his lap. He pets her gently, almost warily, but his various attempts are rewarded equally with purring and the occasional nuzzle at his hands, so he stops thinking about it too much. It’s oddly soothing, sitting there together.

This is how Arthur finds him, fresh from the shower, his cheeks still pink from the heat of the water, his hair tussled and curling from the humidity. Eames does his best to avoid looking at the parts of Arthur that aren’t covered by his towel.

“You said you were only letting me get a cat so that I would have someone other than myself to talk to while you were away at the university all day, but she’s loved you best since the day we brought her home.” Arthur tells him, smiling wistfully.

Eames thinks of reminding Arthur that he only met this cat a couple weeks ago, that he’s never said anything of the kind to Arthur, but instead he just leans down closer, listening to Roger purr as he scratches the underside of her chin.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Arthur gets a call in the middle of the night. He’s not sleeping anyway, so he answers it on the first ring.

It’s Dom. “Yusuf’s got a new idea, he wants to pitch it to the team. Can you get Eames?”

Arthur is completely alert, but he’s still confused enough to ask, “Why didn’t you just call him yourself?”

There’s a long pause across the line. “You’re the only one who knows where he’s staying,” Dom answers eventually.

“Oh,” is all Arthur can think to say. He regroups with a crisp, “We’ll be at the warehouse in 20 minutes, tops,” and hangs up before Dom can say anything else.

He abandons the timeline he’s been working on the last few nights - his attempt to sketch out where the instances of overlap between the two universes began to diverge. He knows that Mal’s death is a pivotal moment of rupture, that the paths each Eames embarked on following this event are radically different, but he’s possessed by the need to understand the details of it, the small moments that led up to the change. Why didn’t Mal and Dom go deeper, why did they avoid limbo and all its consequences? How did Eames go from the person Arthur knows to the one he’s spent the past two weeks with, the man who speaks of his Arthur with unabashed adoration, with devotion, with pride.

He’s mulling these and other questions over and over as he drives to Eames’ hotel, so preoccupied that he doesn’t even remember to call and let Eames know he’s on his way. Luckily, when he calls up to Eames’ room from the front desk, Eames answers immediately.

Evidently Arthur isn’t the only one who hasn’t been sleeping.

“Yusuf has news, let’s go,” is all Arthur says, knowing it will be enough.

Eames is down in the lobby in less than three minutes. They smile at each other, sharing a moment of grim hope before Eames follows Arthur wordlessly into the car.

When they arrive, Yusuf’s news is good, but not as good as Arthur had hoped.

“I’ve finally isolated the formula needed to recreate the initial conditions of consciousness transfer, one that should be a great deal stronger, but more stable than what I had Eames’ testing.”

Arthur isn’t interested in waiting, so he voices the silent “but” at the end of Yusuf’s sentence.

“But I still haven’t quite worked out how to establish a strong enough link between universes to ensure he will cross over to the correct one.”

“What do you mean, the correct universe? Are we assuming there’s more than two?” Arthur asks, annoyed at himself for not already knowing the answer.

Yusuf nods. “Absolutely. The theory implies an infinite number of universes - ones of ranging degrees of similarity and dissimilarity to our own. The number of possible versions of this world are limitless, for all we know there could be--”

“A universe full of nothing but shrimp?” Ariadne interjects, grinning.

They all stare at her blankly, and she makes a face.

“What, none of you ever watch television?”

Eames; Chicago

Arthur invites Dom and Mal over for dinner, for which Eames is very grateful.

As disconcerting as he finds spending time with the whole and blissfully un-traumatized Cobbs, he finds Arthur far more overwhelming when they’re by themselves. When it’s just the two of them, there are far too many opportunities for Eames to disappoint Arthur, and for Arthur to unknowingly trample over Eames’ heart with his constant outpouring of tenderness and affection.

Mal greets them both with kisses, and Eames realizes he’s missed her far more than he’s let himself think about. He never fancied himself all that close with Mal, or even with Dom, back when he met them, but Mal had a quality that made it almost impossible not to fall at least a little bit in love with her, and this Mal is no different.

She ushers Arthur into the kitchen, where Eames assumes she is giving him a comforting pep talk or whatever it is friends do for each other when one of their spouses is thought to be insane. Eames wouldn’t really know. He got the hell out of dodge before he could be party to any such conversations when it was happening in reverse.

It would appear he’s in for his own crash course, however, given the way Dom is sizing him up as they linger together in the foyer.

“How are you holding up?” Dom asks eventually.

Eames shrugs and tries to look like a person in full control of his mental faculties. “I’ve been in worse messes.”

Dom shakes his head. “I’m not sure the rest of us have. But I know Arthur. He’ll figure out a way to make you believe.”

Eames smiles to cover his grimace. “He’s certainly hard to disappoint.”

Dom laughs, just little, at this. “That he is. I’ve talked myself out of more than one dubious life choice for fear of facing Arthur’s wrath.”

“Really?” Eames inquires, indulging his curiosity.

Dom nods, and he leads them into the living room. They sit down, and he pulls two cigars out of his breast pocket.

Eames is delightfully scandalized. “So you do still have some of your bad habits here as well!”

Dom ignores that, probably just as Arthur has instructed him to whenever Eames references his own world, and instead continues explaining to Eames the many poor decisions Arthur’s potential disapproval has saved him from.

They spend almost an hour talking while Mal and Arthur work in the kitchen. Dom’s list ranges from things as mundane as fashion faux pas Arthur prevented him from making, to the time Arthur’s glare of disdain caused him to quit smoking cigarettes, and the time after that when imagining a similar frown in his head got Dom over his case of cold feet on his wedding day.

He ends with the apparent moral of this story, although to Eames’ shame, he didn’t even see the lesson coming. He keeps forgetting that Dom is a teacher, here. And that he’s always been a father.

“The time that really mattered, of course, was when Mal and I were spending far too much time in dreams. We lost whole days to it, sometimes we barely remembered to come out of it so we could pick Phillipa up from preschool. We were losing our grasp on reality, on ourselves, but I still wanted to push it, to go deeper, and I knew Mal would follow me there, so what could go wrong? But Arthur was against it from the start, and eventually he convinced us we had to stop.”

“How did he do that?”

“He came over to our house one morning with and found us dreaming, but that wasn’t all he found. James had cut himself playing outside on the swing, but we had been too deeply sedated to hear his crying and wake up. It wasn’t a bad cut, but he was in pain, and if Arthur hadn’t come along when he did, who knows what could have happened. Phillipa was too young then to know what to do, and by the time Arthur got there, she was just sitting with James, crying too. Arthur woke us up, he woke us to that and right then we knew. We had to stop being so selfish, we had to grow up. It was as if, down in the dream, we’d been able to forget, almost, that we had children waiting for us. That we had a family, friends. We probably would have forgotten entirely if it wasn’t for Arthur.”

Eames digests this, and can’t help but wonder what his own Arthur had been doing that day. Maybe he had come over, but hadn’t let himself in when no one answered. Maybe he had been delayed, caught in traffic or distracted by someone or something from visiting at all. He thinks back, but all he can remember of those days is the look of restrained fear in Arthur’s eyes, and his own clumsy attempts to woo Arthur, partly made out of desire, partly in an effort to distract him from the troubles with Dom and Mal he hadn’t thought it was Arthur’s responsibility to solve.

Evidently he’d been quite wrong about that.

Arthur; Los Angeles

“So you’re saying you think you can recreate the conditions that brought this alternate Eames over here, but there’s no guarantee it’ll get him back to the right universe. Or that it’ll bring our Eames back.” The way this is starting to sound, Arthur doesn’t know if this even qualifies as good news at all.

But Yusuf is still looking excited. “That’s actually the easy part, getting our Eames to switch with this one. The universe seeks balance, always, and between universes there should theoretically be a quest for balance also.”

“The universes want to correct this mistake and switch the correct Eames into their bodies, their worlds?” Arthur has experienced a lot of strange things in his line of work. He’s planted a foreign idea in another mind, for gods sake. This situation makes that seem like child’s play.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Yusuf responds triumphantly.

“So what’s the problem, then?” He’s read through at least a dozen multiverse theories, by this point, and generally considers himself to be a person of above average intelligence. But everything about this situation leaves Arthur feeling appallingly dense.

“It’s more than just getting the chemicals right and switching their consciousnesses. I think the reason it happened at all, especially given the low doses I was testing Eames with, is that I must have happened to be preforming the test at a moment of uncharacteristic harmony between our two universes. The theory has always suggested that are times of what you might call thinness in the barriers between realities, times when the quantum vibrations of our two realities must have aligned such that--”

“So you actually just need to isolate the next occurrence of that kind of overlap before risking putting me under?” Eames interrupts, looking cautiously optimistic.

Yusuf snaps his fingers. “Precisely. Until now I had been assuming I needed to focus on how to train your mind to choose where you wanted to go - but I really think that’s superfluous. As long as I can get the timing right, which should take me some time to calculate, but shouldn’t impossible - your mind will automatically search for its own plane of consciousness.”

“So now it’s a waiting game?” Ariadne asks.

“Indeed, I have to finish examining the conditions of the experiment that brought this about, now that I know I need to look at the quantum mechanics of it instead of the chemical or mental aspect, I should be able to determine what patterns I’m looking for and identify the next instance of overlap. It may take awhile, but I think this should work.”

“Yusuf, do correct me if I’m wrong, since this is hardly my line, but are you saying you’ve figured out a way for me to go home?”

Yusuf smiles, and it’s the first time Arthur’s seen him look like himself in weeks. “That’s exactly what I’m saying, Mr. Eames.”

Eames; Chicago

Time passes more quickly than Eames is entirely comfortable with. It’s not that he’s starting to feel at home, here with Arthur and the cat and the almost nightly visits from Dom and Mal and occasionally their children. It’s not that he starts to believe he belongs.

But he starts to want it. Not just some of the time, in little moments where Arthur is especially sweet or when Mal is so utterly alive that it breaks his heart. No. He’s starting to want it all the time. To wish he could believe.

It certainly hasn’t escaped his notice, for example, that after one rather half-hearted attempt at getting away and getting answers, he’s essentially given up and is, if not participating in, at least enabling Arthur’s fantasy that eventually Eames will look at him and their life and suddenly reclaim it all as rightfully his.

His misses his real Arthur, he misses the thrill of forgery and theft, he misses traveling the world, being responsible for no one, expect his team, just a little. He misses all of them, even misses the broken, fraying way Cobb carries himself, the impenetrable cloak of aloofness that Arthur wraps himself in. He misses Ariadne’s optimism, the way her sharply insightful mind always tries to find the best in people, in any situation. He even misses Yusuf, for heavens sake, even though he’s quite certain Yusuf’s the one who landed him in this mess.

He misses it all, and he’s no less certain of what is his and what is not. But despite that certainty, despite the longing for home, he can’t help but wonder if he would be better off if he could forget about both.

Arthur; Los Angeles

When Arthur drives Eames back to his hotel the morning after Yusuf announces his breakthrough, he finds himself taking unnecessary detours down side-streets, strangely reluctant to part company with the other man.

Eventually, Eames points to an open parking spot and says, “Why don’t you just pull over, Arthur.”

As he does so, it strikes Arthur that this is one of the first times Eames has called him by his name. Far from peppering their conversations with casual endearments, as his own Eames used to, this Eames has been perpetually reluctant to even call him “Arthur.”

He’s always wondered why, and now, stopped in the middle of the city, with the chance of a real solution finally before them, seems the perfect time.

“Why won’t you call me Arthur?”

Eames doesn’t look particularly surprised by the question. “I was wondering when you were going to get around to asking me that. You’re a lot more stubborn than my Arthur, particularly about denying yourself the things you want.”

Arthur scoffs, although he’s not sure at which one of them. “You aren’t the first Eames to tell me that.”

“No, I’d imagine not,” he replies, smirking slightly.

It’s such a familiar expression that it makes Arthur’s chest ache to watch it on man who is still essentially a stranger, for all the secrets they’ve come to know about each other in these past weeks.

“I miss him, you see,” Eames continues, capturing Arthur’s full attention again. “And missing him as much as I do, while being here with you, so like and yet unlike him... let’s just say it could have gone very badly for me. You’re not as different from him as you might think, not really. On the surface, perhaps, you certainly guard yourself much more vigilantly, but the same secrets, the same heart is inside you, underneath that cool exterior. I knew I needed to be careful not to let myself get, not confused, but distracted, by you.”

“Distracted?”

Eames smiles sadly. “There’s so much disappointment in you, Arthur. So much I can’t help but wish I could change, could fix. But that’s not for me to do. You’re not mine to care for. I had to find a way to keep my distance, at least emotionally, from you so that I could focus on what really matters. Getting back to him has had to be my singular priority, and I’ve done what I can to ensure I remember that.”

“Like refraining from calling me by his name,” Arthur states, voice too flat to be a question.

Eames nods anyway. “Like that, yes. But I’ve tried my best to stay as removed from all of you as possible, although you of course have posed the greatest challenge.”

“So you don’t,” Arthur really can’t believe he’s going to ask this, but here he is, about to, “well... hate me?”

Eames laughs, although it’s not a happy sound at all. “Only a little, only for all the ways you aren’t the man I love.”

Arthur surprises himself even more by saying, “Yeah. I know the feeling.”

Eames; Chicago

Eames doesn’t sleep much, most nights. He gets an hour or two, here and there, usually once Arthur is deep enough asleep that Eames can roll out of his reach without disturbing him. When he does sleep, he dreams, nothing like the clear, logical dreams of a skilled architect’s creation, just the random, confusing snippets of a normal dream. Something he hasn’t had in almost a decade. In his dreams he never sees Arthur, not his Arthur, but sometimes he can smell his cologne, or hear the sound of his laugh, dry and just a little scornful, echoing in the distance.

Arthur; Los Angeles

After dropping Eames off, Arthur drives himself out of the city until he reaches desert. He pulls his car onto what is more dirt than road, and parks it, getting out and sitting on the hood, staring up at the stars.

He’s never considered himself to be a sentimental person. He’s never believed in much of anything, not in people, not in gods. He believes in himself, and he’s generally considered that to be enough.

He doesn’t like what it says about himself that it took someone from another universe showing up at his doorstep to prove how wrong he was.

Eames; Chicago

Arthur has been silent all morning. Through coffee, through breakfast. He doesn’t even smile or say anything when Eames compliments his pancakes, or when Eames picks up Roger and sneaks her a bit of his bacon.

“What is it?” Eames finally asks.

Arthur startles, like Eames has shaken him out of a deep sleep.

“Would you go somewhere with me, if I asked?”

Eames is surprised by this question, but he plays it off coolly, “Not to Mombasa, I take it?”

Arthur’s smile is pained, but he just shakes his head and says, “No. Somewhere else. Would you go anyway?”

Given his behavior the past weeks, Eames doesn’t know why either of them is so surprised when he says, “Of course.”

Arthur; Los Angeles

He doesn’t go back to the warehouse for the next three days. He checks in with Dom once, by phone, and tells Ariadne where she can get a hold of Eames if anything happens.

He stays out of the city for most of it, sleeping in his car when the mood strikes him. Mostly, he stays awake, and keeps driving, as though if he keeps moving long enough, fast enough, then he’ll outrun this whole world and finally be somewhere new.

Eames; Chicago

He can’t defend himself against this Arthur. He can’t lie and dissemble, not to a person so guileless. Can’t say no to him. Can’t taunt or jibe. Can’t flirt outrageously to cover up for the fact that he’s so desperately in love with Arthur that he can’t see straight.

This is all made somehow worse by the knowledge that, even though this isn’t the Arthur he loves, he’s probably also the only Arthur who will ever love Eames back.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Dom calls him on the fourth day.

All he says is, “Enough, Arthur.”

Arthur drives back to warehouse without stopping.

Eames; Chicago

The day of their flight, the destination of which Arthur still hasn’t told him, Mal comes over to pick up Roger. She’ll be staying with them until Arthur and Eames get home.

As usual, Mal presses kisses to Eames’ cheeks, her gaze always so knowing, so thoughtful as he regards him just after.

He guesses she knows more about this trip than he does.

“You will try, just a little, won’t you?” she asks him. “For Arthur?”

He smiles. “And for you.”

Arthur; Los Angeles

His return to the warehouse is unexpectedly warm.

Ariadne shakes her head but then hugs him. After a second of confusion, he hugs her back.

Yusuf waves to him over some smoking beakers, possibly winking behind his safety goggles. Arthur is just grateful to see him wearing some.

Dom is there too, and he pats Arthur on the shoulder as he walks by. Arthur hopes Dom can see the half-smile he gives him, can tell it’s meant as an apology and a thank you.

Eames is last, perched against Arthur’s desk, arms folded in a picture of indifference. That is, until he smiles. The sincerity of it ensnares Arthur, causing him to automatically smile back.

“D’you know, as much as I hate having you around, I actually hate having you gone more?” He says it teasingly, like they’re sharing a private joke.

Arthur laughs. Maybe they are.

Eames; Chicago

“Why Paris?” Eames asks. Now that they’re on the plane, it’s become harder for Arthur to keep their destination a secret.

But apparently the why is to remain mysterious, because Arthur just smiles at him, so hopefully that Eames has to smile back, and says, “Just trust me, babe.”

Eames wishes he could, so he just says nothing.

Arthur; Los Angeles

“Two days,” Yusuf announces sometime that afternoon.

They all stare at him.

“Two days?” Eames finally asks, clearly fighting to keep the excitement out of his voice. Arthur can see it straining against every inch of him, despite these efforts.

Yusuf nods. “Tuesday morning, we have a 12 minute window between 9:17 and 9:29. We’ll put him under using the compounds I’ve created, and then it’ll be up to the universe to set things right.”

Arthur still can’t believe they’re putting their faith in the universe. At least there’s some hard science behind it as well.

Maybe there’s something else to believe in, too, something in Eames’ eyes. A determination, strong and unlike anything Arthur has ever seen. Arthur supposes it’s what they call the look of love.

Eames; Paris

“I loathe Paris,” Eames announces as they’re caught in the rain between the airport and their hotel.

Arthur purses his lips at this, although his displeasure seems to be directed towards the weather.

“No, you don’t,” he contradicts anyway.

Eames takes Arthur in, eyes roaming greedily over his suit, already drenched and wrinkling from the persistent rain, his hair, plastered to his face. He looks young and brazen, like the Arthur Eames first met.

“No. I don’t.”

Arthur; Los Angeles

Those last two days pass intolerably slowly. Arthur almost wants to sedate himself and just get it over with, but that’s so clearly cheating that he can’t allow it. He suggests it to Eames, though, but he’s equally against the idea.

“Can’t take the easy way out now.”

Arthur is reminded again of how much he’s come to admire this man, even though he’s nothing Arthur wants. Nothing like who he really wants.

When the time finally comes, every one's movements are sparked with tension, expect for Yusuf’s, who has gone calm and certain after weeks of frazzled apologies and explosions.

He sets everything up, but lets Arthur do the honors, actually hooking Eames up to the specially formatted PASIV.

Just before he’s lost to unconsciousness, Arthur whispers to him, “Good bye, Mr. Eames.”

Eames; Paris

They dry off in the hotel, and change into new clothes. Eames considers a warm shower after the rain and a long flight, but he’s talked out of the idea by the smell of the room service Arthur has ordered.

They sit on the bed together, eating smoked brie and fresh baguette, and Eames feels like one of them should be wearing a red striped shirt and a beret.

He tells Arthur as much, who laughs and says, “You say that every time we come here.”

After their meal, the rain has cleared, and Arthur is practically humming with energy, so Eames assumes it’s finally time for the great purpose of this adventure to be revealed.

“Shall we go?” he asks, even though he doesn’t know where they’re going.

Arthur smiles, suddenly brave and sure.

“Follow me.”

Eames has never had a problem doing that.

---

They walk for almost an hour. The city is beautiful in the approaching night, there is a soft, cool breeze and everything smells fresh and new from the rain.

Eventually, Arthur’s steps slow, and Eames realizes they’ve almost reached their destination. They come to a full stop on a small footbridge crossing the canal.

Arthur leans against the railing, his back to the water.

“This is lovely,” Eames can’t help but say, because it is. Because Arthur makes it so.

Arthur’s smile grows on his face, slow and luxurious, as if he’s drawing it out, savoring the feel of it on his lips.

“This is where we had our first kiss,” he says softly, and Eames thinks, of course it is.

Of course they would have done this right, too. In Paris, overlooking the water. Nothing like the one, brutal, desperate kiss Arthur gave him at Mal’s funeral, just days before Eames disappeared.

“I don’t remember it,” he says to the Arthur standing in front of him. “I’m sorry.”

Arthur shakes his head. “I didn’t take you here to remember.”

“Oh?”

Arthur is approaching him now, still smiling, soft and sweet.

“I brought us so that we could have our second first kiss here, too,” and before Eames can say anything, Arthur is kissing him, holding onto him like they were made for it, for each other.

Eames closes his eyes, and doesn’t even try to stop himself from kissing back.

Eames; Los Angeles

When he opens his eyes, he’s still face to face with Arthur, but they’re definitely not in Paris anymore. And there’s nothing sweet about the cold, guarded look Arthur is giving him.

“Jesus,” he coughs, the shock of what this must mean hitting him like a physical thing, like a blow to the chest.

“Eames?” Arthur demands gruffly, peering into his face, “Is that you?”

Eames blinks at him, at his own Arthur, and he can’t help but think of how much older he looks. As if every fibre of him is exhausted.

But the way he’s staring, hard and calculating, measuring every inch of Eames, searching for imperfections, Eames knows he can’t be anywhere but home.

Arthur; Los Angeles

He wants to pull Eames close, wants to hold onto him so tightly that he can never be lost to Arthur again. He wants to put his mouth to Eames’ skin and mark Eames as his, irrevocably, so that there will never any doubt again.

Instead, he steps away, giving Eames the room he’s practically screaming for, even without saying a word.

He looks uncertainly to Cobb, who steps a little closer to him, but doesn’t any have any answers for Arthur.

Ariadne is rushing over to Eames, doing what Arthur couldn’t, hugging him in a gesture of completely unselfish happiness. He watches the moment Eames stops being rigid in her arms, the moment he pulls her in tighter and hugs her back.

“It’s good to see you again,” he tells her, and Arthur’s body strains towards them, greedy for even the sound of Eames’ voice.

Ariadne smiles at him, and Arthur wonders if he’s imagining the way she seems to be blinking back tears.

Maybe he’s just confused by the stinging in his own eyes.

“It’s been too long.”

Eames; Los Angeles

Now that he’s finally back with them, he’s stunned by how much, how desperately he feels the need to get away.

He feels out of place in his own body, in his own world, and he turns his totem over and over in his fingers like a lifeline, even though needing to reassure himself that he was really awake has never been the problem.

Yusuf runs some tests while the rest of them hover, but Eames can’t look at them, especially not Arthur. Not yet. Not now.

Eventually, Yusuf proclaims him exactly where and who he’s supposed to be, and while Eames is grateful to be returned to unity of body and mind, he wishes the victory didn’t feel quite so hollow.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Eames’ face is haunted and pale. He won’t look at any of them in the eye. Arthur watches him endure Yusuf’s tests, and he knows before Eames says anything that he’s going to bolt as soon as he’s able.

He’s right. As soon as Yusuf’s tests are complete, Eames all but leaps from his chair, making a dash for the exit while muttering a few garbled sentences about needing some time alone. He doesn’t stop until he’s halfway out the door, and then he turns and says, “Thank you for bringing me back, I’m forever in your debts,” before disappearing behind it.

Arthur is disturbed by the fact that he can’t tell if this is a lie.

He decides to follow Eames regardless.

Eames; Los Angeles

He knows Arthur is tailing him, and isn’t even that surprised. Probably Arthur thinks he needs to make sure Eames isn’t going to do anything stupid, isn’t going to make himself into a liability for the team.

They still have enemies here, after all.

Eames wonders if he’ll be able to go back to it, to dreams, the whole life. He wasn’t even out of it for a full month, but already his own life feels like it belongs to a stranger.

It’s all rather unfortunate that now is the time he’s finally decided to go mad.

Arthur; Los Angeles

He follows Eames to a bar so seedy it’s almost like it’s trying too hard, but Arthur can’t help but relax a little, once he gets inside and spies Eames immediately, hunched over a drink in the darkest corner of the place.

He wants to go sit with him, to take the drink out of Eames’ hands and replace it with Arthur’s own, but he’s trying not to push it, not quite that much. So he satisfies himself with taking a seat that gives him full view of Eames’ table and all three possible exists. He only orders a coffee but tips generously every time the waitress comes by to refill it.

An hour passes, and then another. Eames abandons his table, leaving it littered with shot glasses, and Arthur gets up to follow him, until he realizes Eames is only going to the bathroom. Arthur checked the windows from the outside before he even stepped in the place; Eames isn’t getting out of here that way.

When he comes back, Eames seems almost disappointed to see Arthur still sitting there, watching and waiting for him across the bar. A second later the look is gone, replaced by something else, a blankness Arthur’s gaze can’t penetrate.

Eames turns, picks up the last full glass from his table, and raises it towards Arthur in a silent toast. Arthur returns the gesture, looking down, just for a second, while he takes a drink.

When he looks up again, Eames is gone.

Eames; Los Angeles

They go on like that for awhile. Eames spends his days sleeping off hangovers in a string of nondescript hotel rooms, but every night he goes back to the same bar, and every night, Arthur finds him there.

They never speak, but Eames raises his glass to Arthur at the end of each night, and Arthur always joins the toast, even though he must know it’s Eames’ way of asking to be let go.

Arthur; Los Angeles

After a week of having Eames back and not even talking to him, never mind touch him, Arthur can admit to a certain loss of patience.

Which is his excuse for the way he gets from one end of the bar to the other entirely without planning to, all so that he can yank away the hand that has found its way onto Eames’ arm.

Arthur’s face is apparently doing a good enough job of saying, “get the hell away from him,” on its own, because the guy he’s watched hit on Eames for the last five minutes backs away without a fight, disappearing into the crowd.

Eames doesn’t look particularly charmed by Arthur’s chivalry.

“Is this going to be a part of the game, now?” he asks, sounding nothing so much as tired.

Arthur musters the courage to say, “If you want someone to take you to bed, let it be me.”

Eames face turns from blank into something colder as he replies formerly, “Thank you for your charitable offer, Arthur. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline.”

That night Eames walks out of the bar without even bothering to raise his glass in a silent farewell.

---

After that, Eames seems to take Arthur’s hovering disapproval as incentive, a challenge he throws himself into wholeheartedly, getting as drunk as possible as quickly as possible so that Arthur can watch him stagger out of the the bar night after night with the first person who’ll have him.

It makes Arthur want to snarl and tear Eames away from these interlopers as he had the first night, but remembering the look on Eames’ face as he walked away is enough to restrain him.

He never imagined what it would be like to be the one trying to win Eames’ heart and attention, never stopped to think about what it would feel like to be the one on the other side of the kind of cold dismissals he’d served Eames with, time after time.

If this hollowness in his chest is anything like how he made Eames feel, then Arthur is glad he’s finally getting what he deserves.

Eames; Los Angeles

Nothing he does shakes Arthur off. It doesn’t matter how much he drinks, or how many times he whores himself out with cheap smiles and innuendo. Every night, without fail, Arthur is there, like a brooding guardian angel, watching his every move with an ever deepening frown.

Eames is almost reminded of the other Arthur, all too real and yet far too perfect to seem like anything other than a phantom, now, a projection of Eames’ far too ambitious hopes.

It’s not the expressions that are familiar, even at his worst, Eames never saw that Arthur look so hopeless, so angry. But the way every thought and feeling is etched onto Arthur’s face, clear and naked for all to see, that’s something Eames only ever thought he’d see in another world.

Arthur; Los Angeles

Sometimes he goes into the warehouse, during the day. Cobb is never there, nor Ariadne, but Yusuf still is, sometimes.

They don’t have a new job, but for now, Arthur is just grateful they’re warding off potential offers. The last thing they need right now is an over-eager corporation wanting their competitor’s pending drug patent or some independently wealthy busy-body trying to get them to extract inane secrets from their next door neighbor.

For now, Ariadne is back at school and Dom is with what’s left of his family, and Eames is fully occupied falling apart. And so on many afternoons that just leaves Arthur and Yusuf, sitting in the warehouse together, letting their guilt fill the silence between them.

Eames; Los Angeles

He decides to take some time off drinking and whore-mongering after he wakes up beside a naked man, a gun, and a cat. This particular cat, unlike Roger, had hissed and clawed at Eames as soon as he moved, so he got out of there as quickly as possible, leaving behind half his clothes and not realizing until he was half-way across town that the gun was actually his.

Arthur; Los Angles

Arthur notices the drop in Eames’ alcohol intake and the absence of bimbos on his arm. He continues to follow Eames back to whatever dive he’s staying in each night, and he tries not to let the fact that Eames doesn’t pick anyone up between the bar and his hotel either make him too hopeful.

On the fourth such night, however, he gets bold, just momentarily, and he orders Eames a drink, asking waitress to tell Eames it’s from him. She does, with the same confused look in her eye every employee in this place has been giving both of them the past weeks. Arthur supposes they aren’t being very inconspicuous, but they both tip well, and that’s really all that matters.

When his drink arrives, Eames looks utterly befuddled, and when he looks up at Arthur across the bar and Arthur meets his gaze steadily, smiling, just a little, the state of confusion only dominates Eames’ face further. After what seems to be a rather violent internal debate, he picks up the glass, raises it to Arthur, and then downs the shot.

Arthur has his own drink to swallow, as usual, but it’s the first time that Eames has still been sitting there by the time he’s done.

---

He goes to see Dom the next day, because he hasn’t really talked to him since Eames got back, and because Dom called.

They sit out on his back deck, watching James and Phillipa play.

Arthur is glad to see the contentment in Dom’s face, even if it’s nothing like the depths of happiness the man he first met was capable of.

“How are things coming with Eames?” Dom asks, once Arthur has run out of questions about the house and kids to distract him with.

“Has he forgiven you yet?” Dom presses, when Arthur doesn’t answer.

He’s surprised to hear Dom phrase it so bluntly, but part of Arthur is grateful for the honesty, because it allows him to be just as honest when he says, “I don’t think so. But I’m working on it.”

Eames; Los Angeles

The next night, he waits until Arthur arrives and then gets up and sits down across from him.

Arthur is visibly shocked, but he also appears afraid to say anything, lest it cause Eames to leave.

“I’ve stopped the shame spiral, darling,” Eames says, trying to keep all emotion but cheerful self-mockery from his voice, striving for the polished, charming veneer he used to be able to coat his words in so easily when talking to Arthur. “So you really needn’t keep following me back here night after night.”

This doesn’t seem to have any effect on Arthur, so he adds, quite honestly, “This place is beneath you.”

Arthur just shakes his head, and reaches across the table to brush his fingers against Eames’ cheek.

“From now on, I go where you go,” Arthur vows.

Eames closes his eyes and allows himself a moment to imagine what it would feel like to believe him.

Arthur; Los Angeles

They spend their evenings sitting together, after that. Arthur never suggests they go somewhere else, and they never really speak to each other, but they nurse their drinks for hours, staring openly at each other across the table, each searching for something on the other’s face.

Arthur never quite finds what he’s looking for, but he hopes for it every night. Most of all, he hopes they’re searching for the same thing.

Eames; Los Angeles

There comes a point where Eames realizes he’s been back as long as he was gone. He checks his watch, and discovers it has, in fact, been longer by a day.

He feels that this is news momentous enough to share with Arthur, even though he’s half-certain Arthur is only still sitting with him, night after night, because he doesn’t want to be the one who blinks first.

Still, he feels like he owes Arthur something for waiting him out this long. More than that, Eames decides he owes it to himself. He traveled across the universe and back, the least he can do for himself is risk a little honesty.

“I’ve been back longer than I was gone,” he announces softly, knowing Arthur is paying close enough attention to hear. “But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like I was gone for years, like time was different there, even though it was just as real as this is. Somehow it never quite felt that way, even though I knew it was all really happening.”

“It felt that way here too,” Arthur says, startling Eames with the swiftness of his response.

Eames furrows his brow, and Arthur clarifies.

“With you gone, nothing ever quite felt real.”

Arthur; Los Angeles

Once Eames has finally started talking, Arthur is desperate to keep the conversation alive, so he blurts out, “What was it like? On the other side?”

“Perfect,” Eames answers without thought.

Arthur feels a jolt of jealously shoot through him, but he ignores it. “Do you miss it?” Miss him?

He’s sure Eames will say yes, but Eames shakes his head just as promptly as he answered Arthur’s first question.

“Because you knew it wasn’t your world? Because you knew he - the Arthur from over there - wasn’t really yours?”

“No, I could have gotten over that, I think, given enough time. I’m afraid the real trouble was something else entirely.”

“What?” Arthur asks softly, although he’s afraid of the answer.

Eames’ face is only partially visible in the dimly lit bar, but Arthur can hear him perfectly when he answers, “He wasn’t you.”

Eames; Los Angeles

Whatever he was expecting Arthur to do after his admission, it wasn’t lunge at him over the table and practically crawl into his lap.

But, somehow, there they are, drinks and baskets of peanuts scattered on the floor by Arthur’s shockingly graceless scramble, with Arthur suddenly crowded in against Eames’ side of the booth, his hands attached like limpets to Eames’ arm.

“Are you having some kind of a fit?” Eames asks him, with genuine concern.

Arthur laughs, just softly at first, but then he seems unable to stop, dissolving into hysterical giggles, retaining a dubious measure of his dignity by pressing his face into Eames’ shoulder to muffle the sound.

“Arthur, honestly, do you need me to take you home? I really hadn’t thought you’d had this much to drink.” Arthur doesn’t respond, so Eames settles for patting him awkwardly on the head until the shaking subsides.

After staying pressed against Eames for a few steadying intakes of breath, Arthur pulls away, and Eames is surprised yet again by the blinding smile on his face.

“Was it the grenadine I started getting them to put in your drinks? Because I just thought a slash of flavor would liven up your--”

“Eames, it’s not the grenadine. Grenadine isn’t even alcoholic. I do like it, though. Thank you.”

Eames just stares at him blankly. “Then what is it?”

Arthur continues to beam at him, shaking his head. “You didn’t like him better.”

“What? The other Arthur? Of course not.” Eames scoffs.

“I thought you must have, though.” Arthur admits, almost sounding shy.

“Why? Why would you even think about something like that? What would it matter to you if I had?”

Arthur is still close, so close that Eames can feel the little tremor in his hands as he says, “It matters because you would probably have been right to. I saw projections of him, sometimes, when I was dreaming with the other Eames. Even just as a projection, I could see how much better he was.” He swallows. “Better than me.”

“Did you like him better? The other Eames?” Eames parries, not able to process this shocking admission of vulnerability.

Despite everything he’s just said, Arthur seems offended by the very notion. “We could barely stand to be around each other.”

Eames almost laughs. Of course. “So it’s not just me you can’t abide, then? It’s all Eames’ everywhere?”

Arthur does not look nearly as amused, not even morbidly so, as Eames is.

“No. It wasn’t like that. We just - we hated each other for everything the other wasn’t, everything we couldn’t be. All he wanted was to get home.” He pauses, leaning even closer and tilting Eames’ face towards his so their eyes meet. “All I wanted was for you for to come back.”

“Well here I am,” Eames croaks, amazing himself that he can speak at all with Arthur’s face so close he could probably count individual eye lashes, or the freckles slashed across his cheek that only come out in the sun.

“Here you are,” Arthur echoes, as though it is a great and wondrous thing. “But will you stay with me? Will you stay and be only mine, my Eames?”

Maybe it’s the way Arthur’s voice breaks, just a little, as he says Eames’ name, or maybe it’s the wide, wanting look in Arthur’s eyes, but suddenly Eames doesn’t have to wonder what it would be like to live in a world where he believed that Arthur loved him.

He’s already there.

Arthur; Los Angeles

He watches Eames’ face transform into a smile as he nods, their foreheads pressed so close that they’re nodding together. As he looks into Eames’ eyes, Arthur realizes he hasn’t been waiting for forgiveness to appear there. He’s been waiting for faith.

Eames didn’t have to forgive Arthur to be his; he just had to believe Arthur actually wanted him to be.

“I love you,” Arthur says, because Eames deserves to hear it from his own mouth, and because it’s true.

Eames just smiles wider still, closing the distance between them.

Arthur can feel Eames whisper back, “I know,” just before their lips meet.

 

EPILOGUE

Arthur and Eames; Paris

Arthur never stops kissing Eames.

He rides the change in Eames’ body, only clinging to him tighter, kissing him harder, when he begins to feel the kiss returned, not just with heat and longing, but with years of knowledge, with thousands of hours spent memorizing exactly how to make Arthur’s knees to weak, how to make him moan.

When they finally break apart, it’s only a fraction of an inch, just enough to meet each other’s eyes, their hands gripping each other’s faces, holding each other close.

“I missed you,” Arthur breathes, dizzy from the kiss, from the shock of having Eames finally look back at him like he isn’t a stranger or an aberration.

Eames kisses him again, harsher this time, as if he’s trying to reclaim Arthur’s heart, his soul. Arthur pours himself into the kiss, and Eames does the same.

“Where did you go?” Arthur asks, their faces still pressed together, foreheads touching.

“Far away,” Eames answers, closing his eyes and resting his lips against Arthur’s cheek.

“You’re not going to go away again, are you?”

Eames shakes his head. “Not unless we go together.”