"Oh, damn." Arthur thought he was quite restrained under the circumstances. Too restrained, Eames would have probably said, but there was no time. Things were moving more slowly for Arthur, the effects of adrenaline he knew, but it meant he himself had time for several regrets, a slight embarrassment at the repetitiveness of the situation, and to say, "Sorry," to Eames' horrified face, before he was falling away from the ledge of the building he had previously been climbing around. There was a burning sensation in his leg, that was caused by the bullet that had winged him and caused him to fall, but it didn't stop him firing one last shot as he went, and even gave him a split second of satisfaction as he saw the shooter begin to fall away in a long slow motion arc of his own. Eames would be alright now.
Arthur was not expecting to wake up. The instant of agony that had been the last experience he had naturally assumed was his - not being a great believer in afterlives of any stripe - turned out to be something that slipped away into a dream, a familiar sensation, as the kick turned into slowly returning consciousness. His eyes were already closed or he might have shut them again with a wince. So Mal had been right. Paranoid, crazy, suicidal Mal had had the right of it. How embarrassing.
The second sensation was the ozone and iodine smell of the sea, all salty freedom and ice cream, in its associations for Arthur. And a mild instant of panic, that his memories were faulty - that he was actually in Limbo, that he'd been on a job... Except he knew that wasn't right. It meant he opened his eyes too fast, in the end, and winced from the glare, blinking away sudden tears. It meant he was prepared for anything, and perhaps that was just as well.
The saltiness was the smell of the liquid he was suspended in, while the glare was the sun, more yellow-white in tone than he was used to, and... bigger? He was staring through at least two layers of glass though so Arthur dismissed that as some trick of the light. He was in a metal bath like affair, with a translucent cover, in a warehouse of some kind. There was a PASIV needle in one arm, and another IV in the other. Given his chosen career and lifestyle, Arthur supposed, it said something about him that it wasn't the strangest situation he'd ever woken up in.
There was also a blinking red light on the panel above his head. Of course there was - Arthur was awake now, wasn't he? That obviously meant some kind of alarm had been triggered. Which meant the guards, or doctors, or inmates of this place were on there way to... What? Put him under again? Torture him? Something more unspeakable, that Arthur didn't have the imagination for? Arthur had a mind that was just as imaginative as it needed to be, which meant that he was taking out the needles with slippery wet fingers as soon as he saw the red light, and scrabbling for the release mechanism on his ridiculous tin bath seconds after that. He prided himself on his efficiency, and he didn't think anyone who worked with him more than once could doubt his ruthlessness. He was naked, which was a distraction, but not one he could afford.
What Arthur didn't expect was his body to betray him. As soon as he scrambled over the side of the bath to touch the floor, his legs refused to hold him up, and he crashed to the ground, muscles shaking. He'd been in there a while then. Possibly a really long while. Arthur swallowed and wondered if it was worth finding out how far he could crawl. Of course it was, but rhetorical questions were all he had. There was no-one to throw a quip at, to lend him a helping hand, or to make him so angry he got up anyway. It was a silly pang really, but Arthur found he really missed Eames.
The window that the sun was streaming through wasn't far away, and there looked like there was some kind of door there too. In the eerie quiet, Arthur began to crawl his way to the exit, and presumed freedom, his soft gasps of exertion the only thing disturbing the unnatural silence. He was quick, even with his muscles trembling - after all, he had a great deal of experience in running for his life. As he reached it he heard the echoing clunk of a door opening somewhere far away in the warehouse, and the soft measured footsteps of someone who's not trying to hurry. Arthur pulled himself up as best as he could manage and flipped the latch on the door, a simple affair, with no lock - another jarring thing about this place, although he supposed that since everyone was asleep, perhaps it wasn't such a strange idea, after all - and literally fell out into the burning day. There was clear blue sky above him, some kind of earth beneath his fingers, together with scrubby patches of what felt like tough fibrous grass.
They must be somewhere hot, maybe near the equator. Kinshasa perhaps, or São Paulo? Once he rolled himself into a sitting position, preparatory to having another go at running, or rather crawling quickly, Arthur could tell he would have to revise his opinions yet again. There was water too. An awful lot of water. The salty, iodine smell was back, and stronger too. Waves lapped at the ragged shore not two hundred yards away, and there was nothing else, only bright blue ocean as far as the eye could see. How James-Bond-villain of them - it seemed he was on an island.
"Well, it's not exactly an island," said Wendy Kosinski, shading her eyes with hand, as she stared out at the sea. "Except... I suppose it is now."
Wendy Kosinski was dressed in a frankly appalling collection of garments. There were flowers on the shirt and stripes on the skirt, and also odd socks. She looked like she'd dressed from some kind of welfare bin. Arthur would have been more contemptuous however if he wasn't dressed entirely similarly although not, he was thankful to say, in a skirt. He found he was comforted well beyond what might be considered reasonable by his discovery of an Yves Saint Laurent jacket, even if he had to pair with it with a shocking pair of chinos. But being clothed at all was infinitely preferable to nakedness.
Wendy Kosinski had been an infant school teacher before she'd been hit by a skidding truck. She also had a beloved sister who she was looking forward to seeing again. Arthur thought that wasn't quite how the system worked, but he didn't try to argue because Wendy had a glint of something in her eye - obsession perhaps, or hysteria. Arthur wasn't about to rock any boats, not when Wendy was the only person here who could tell him anything at all.
There were no guards, no doctors, and only inmates or prisoners in the loosest possible sense. Arthur tipped his baseball cap and pushed his sunglasses up his nose, to lessen the glare as much as possible. He had to admit, he had never expected the end of the world to be quite so peaceful.
"And here's the seed bank. For when, you know, the waters recede," Wendy was saying as they ambled around the facility. Arthur made an approving noise and they continued on, although privately he wondered if it was really going to be as simple as that. Probably not, but he could see that efforts had been made. He himself would have organised things differently, he suspected, even as his fingers itched for his Blackberry, or a sheet of paper at the very least. But he hadn't been there. He... didn't know who he'd been then.
She took him to see the other side of the world; it took them roughly an hour. Arthur narrowed his eyes as they stared out at the edible kelp beds, the mycoprotein vats and the infinite gleam of solar panels, bobbing about endlessly on their chains of pontoons. She showed him the many levels of the main building, with Earth's population in their tin baths, or life-pods as Wendy insisted on calling them; the number was smaller than he'd hoped, but larger than he'd feared.
She showed him the databases too, details of people and the skills available, but with no names, and no way to identify who was who. Looking for loved ones would be too tempting a prospect for those who die and then wake up, Arthur assumed, but if something broke there needed to be a fail-safe. Some way of retrieving the relevant skill set to fix things. So there was security, but not nearly enough of it, in Arthur's opinion. Frankly, it was a miracle that someone violent or psychotic hadn't awoken and smashed all the systems, Arthur felt cold as he thought about it - all it would take was for someone less than sane, or more than desperate, and humanity would become an extinct species. The entire gamble made his stomach churn.
Wendy Kosinski had been awake a long time, possibly months, probably not as much as a year, but she'd lost track so she wasn't sure. It was her understanding that they all did this, replacing each other as guardian in turn as people died in the dream. It was a long time to be alone at the end of the world.
Arthur shook Wendy Kosinski by the hand when she went into her pod, and thanked her. He ignored the fact that her fingers trembled in his, because he knew the dream would sort everything out, that a new life would help. He had confidence in that, even if he didn't think she would see her sister again. He wasn't precisely convinced her sister hadn't in fact been a projection, but it felt cruel to try to explain. It seemed dream technology still wasn't that widely understood, even after the apocalypse.
There had been one other person who had woken up, Wendy had explained, a shade of contempt in her voice, but she'd simply been insane. Couldn't handle the fact that her children weren't real. Wendy had sniffed her opinion of this, while Arthur bit his tongue. He was grateful to Wendy Kosinski, but he couldn't deny he was unutterably glad when she decided she'd told him everything she could and went to join the rest of the dreamers.
Solitude was hard, but it was preferable. And he wasn't even entirely on his own.
She was standing at the edge of the sea. Her hair was a tangled mess covered in a makeshift headscarf, her dress a tattered rag. She was brown as a nut and her feet were bare, but it didn't really matter. Arthur could not possibly have been happier to see anyone, he thought, excepting perhaps Eames. But that wasn't fair to Mal. Mal who was alive, and here, her toes being brushed by tiny wavelets. He watched her wriggle them when the water glittered and broke against her feet, and it felt real, because he knew how he'd gotten here, and he knew what he had to do next.
He walked up to join her, a little way further down the makeshift beach - there was a distinct lack of sand, it occurred to Arthur idly, but then, this had presumably been a mountain not all that long ago. Mal didn't acknowledge him, but then Arthur hadn't really expected that she would. His legs ached, and his shoulders. He knew he couldn't stand for very long, but also didn't see why he needed to, so he took a step or three back behind the tide line and sat down. They literally had all the time in the world - Arthur could wait. He glanced at the flotsam that littered the shore before knuckling at his eyes behind his sunglasses. He hated that he had to, that suddenly he felt an overwhelming set of emotions that he couldn't even define, all mashed up together in his chest, that it hadn't hit him, not properly, not until... There was a doll's plastic head in among the seaweed, and a coke bottle. There was the plastic casing for a cell phone. That was all that was left.
"Arthur." Mal's voice was close now, and sharp, like she was reminding him to be polite in a social situation, not that Arthur ever needed to be reminded of such niceties. He blinked up at her face, a dark blur with the sun behind it.
"It's good to see you, Mal," he said, even though he couldn't see her, not properly. His vision was blurring still, and he blinked the moisture away, not wanting to rub his eyes again, showing his weakness.
She snorted, in a way that seemed very French to him. "I am happy to see you too, although, I hope you will forgive me when I say that I am glad you are not one of them, but that I wish you were a different one of us. Yes?"
She moved gracefully to sit on the ground at his side, and suddenly she was just Mal again, not some crazed survivor, a mad woman he'd heard stories about. Her hair was bleached at the ends from the same too-bright sun that had melted the polar ice caps, and just that thought was so odd, so surreal, that Arthur had to put out his hand and check that she was real. He found himself wishing he still had his totem with a visceral longing so strong it made the hair on his arms stand on end, but how much use would a totem from a dream be now anyway? Maybe everything he knew about lucid dreaming was wrong.
But Mal was warm and real under his hand, her skin soft and her bones sharp. She twitched a little, like a cat might arch its back when you stroked it, before abruptly settling in against his side, his arm curling around her shoulder.
They sat like that for a while, but they didn't talk - because what could they say? Should Arthur tell her what had happened to Dom and the children, to Stephen and Marie? To himself? Were the details of their lives real enough to report on - was it news or fantasy in Mal's eyes?
Arthur took a breath before he broke their silence, but he didn't hesitate. "Why are you still here, Mal? Why haven't you gone back into the life-pods?" It was the only question that really mattered. He was still essentially the same man, Arthur thought, and he'd never liked prevarication. He liked information and research, with facts that could be checked. There was a system here and by her actions Mal was breaking it, although the consequences were undetermined. Wendy Kosinski couldn't wait to to get back to the dream, to her sister, and all Arthur wanted to know was why.
He had a terrible feeling he knew the answer, but he had to ask. He wouldn't be himself if he didn't ask.
"Silly Arthur." Mal's voice was a kitten's purr, her accent a warm buzz against his chest. "If I go back into the dream I will die. Mallorie Cobb will cease to exist, and I will become a new person. Someone who doesn't remember Dom, or Phillipa, or James. And do you expect me to commit suicide? Really? Do you think so little of me?"
There was a creeping coldness beneath Arthur's breastbone. He could say, you already did once. He could say, I don't know what to believe any more. He hadn't thought her capable of it the first time, had been shocked and horrified when Dom had rung him with the news. But she had been right then. What if she was still right? But he couldn't be sure - was it worth holding on to memories like that, of people who would be moving on with their lives? They were only one level down but time in the dream was still so much slower - a week here could be months there, depending on the strength of the compound. Dom had grieved and accepted Mal's death - finally. Philippa and James were growing up.
He specifically didn't think about Eames.
"I say that I need to take a better look at their systems. I need to know if we can enter the dream where we need to," said Arthur, at last.
Mal reached up and patted his cheek. Her skin felt rougher than he remembered.
"Dear Arthur," Mal whispered, "What would I do without you?"
Arthur was younger than he remembered. It had taken a while for him to notice because there weren't exactly a lot of mirrors lying about - he'd found a scrap of broken hand mirror that he used to shave, but that was all. He had given up so much, it felt good to keep himself neat in that way, even if in no other. But he forgave himself for not noticing the lack of years because he wasn't paying that kind of attention, although possibly he should have been. Why should it all equate, after all? Perhaps everyone was forged when they went in. Perhaps he didn't even look the same as he remembered? All he could see in his fragment of mirror were scraps, a piece of chin, a glimpse of cheek, the slope of his nose. They looked the same, he thought, but he wasn't certain. In the end it was his hands that gave him away - age could always be told by the hands, his mom had told him, and it had been simply one more piece of information that he'd stored away, ready for use, filed and catalogued and ordered.
The backs of his hands were too young, the skin too smooth. All his scars were gone, although that was to be expected. The puppyish roundness of his knuckles however, was not. It made Arthur go for a walk around their island, when he realised, steady endless circuits that he tried not to count, but that didn't quite tire him out enough. He could have been in the dream his whole life. He could have been in the dream for several lifetimes. And he wouldn't even know.
To keep so many subjects in the same dream there must be a sedative involved, probably a strong one. But Mal had wakened, and Wendy, and Arthur. So the problem of dropping to Limbo after death under sedative must have been solved? Or another method of keeping that many dreamers under at once had been found? He hated the position he was in because he hated to be ignorant. But the world had ended - and there were so many things he hated about that, he knew his own issues paled in comparison. It also meant he tried not to get angry, because it wouldn't help anything. Most of the time he failed.
He spent a lot of his time with the databases and automatic systems. There was a lot of redundancy, which he liked, but an awful lot of misdirection, which he didn't. It was a rush job, that much was evident, nothing pretty, nothing more than functional. A lot of the programming looked way beyond his level, in languages that he was only passingly familiar with, and the systems themselves looked old, compared to what he was used to. Arthur kept flashbacking to his old SNES, in all its 16-bit glory - all bright colour and blocky graphics. But he didn't even know if the SNES had really existed.
Arthur wanted to experiment with an eagerness he could taste on his tongue, but he was also loath to try in case he interfered, in case he hurt people, or even killed them. In case he woke everyone up, in the most nightmarish scenario, which would mean they'd run out of room pretty damn quickly, and not have enough food for them all either. But he was bored to death and so he persisted in trying to track the wires and work out where the PASIV was located, or follow the code, tracing it out from memory in a patch of mud that he dampened with sea water. A fruitless task, but there were a lot of things that could be worse than wasting a portion of his endless time and limited patience.
He thought about Wendy Kosinski. How eager she had been to be relieved of duty, and to leave this drowned world behind her. He'd liked that about her, how she'd been as conscientious as hell, even when desperate to leave. He wanted to be eager like her too, but Arthur could admit it to himself, even if he couldn't admit it to Mal, that he couldn't pretend ignorance of the consequences, because unlike Wendy Kosinski, he knew exactly what was going on. He had never had to work at being diligent and thorough, it came naturally to him, part of what made him a good point man, so of course he was going to keep the system going, wait until the next dreamer woke up, teach them what they needed to know - but it wasn't only that.
Could he go back into the dream, knowing it was only a fantasy? That this was what was real - the endless sea and endless sky, the slap of water against the last earth and rock, the pitiless sun. That was the sum of the world now and it was little enough, compared to the endless richness of the dreamworld. But he was a dream technician, he'd worked with dreams for years, he didn't live in them. Or so he'd thought. Arthur didn't know if he could make himself go back in, knowingly, consciously, however bored he got. They were in an impossible position, literally between the rock and the hard place.
It made Arthur smile occasionally. They'd all been so careful, so worried about ending up in Limbo, and yet despite the precautions here he and Mal were, stuck in the real thing. It wasn't like him to be so irresolute, and he was willing to bet that a certain fondly remembered someone would have been shocked at the admission, but nevertheless Arthur had to face facts. The irony made him smile, but it made him frown as well - because he couldn't decide what to do.
A bell rang in three long drilling pulses, just like a fire alarm. Then Arthur mentally kicked himself because it probably had been a fire alarm once, before the flood, but his pulse was still pounding from the shock of it so perhaps he could forgive himself for his less than instant assessment. Being marooned on a desert island was doing nothing for his readiness. He ran towards the main building, a matter of seconds from his vantage point on the southern shore next to the water purifier, but it still felt far too long. The bell was presumably a warning, but the number of things that might have gone wrong was stupefying, the stupid fragility of all of this absolutely terrifying... Arthur swallowed against his harsh panting breaths, automatically calculating what he knew already against what he could fix without the proper tools, and praying it wasn't too fatal. He hated the fact that he couldn't be properly in control, by their very situation.
As he skidded through the doors into the control room, wondering where Mal was, he realised that a light was blinking on the life-pod indicator board. Which simultaneously explained why Mal had not appeared, and brought his heart-rate down to something manageable. Someone had woken up. Mal wouldn't be interested in that, Arthur knew instinctively, unless it was one of her people. And if it was, well, then they would find her.
Our people, Arthur reminded himself. He and Mal were Us, not Them.
As he took the lift down to the right level, and walked steadily towards the animating life-pod, Arthur wondered what he would say. Don't worry, everything's fine? Don't worry, but the world ended? Worry actually, everything is fucked up.
He reckoned that Wendy Kosinski would have been more comforting. Arthur wasn't sure he knew how to comfort anyone, when you got right down to it, and when he got frustrated or embarrassed he had a tendency to yell...
There was no-one at the pod, which surprised Arthur a little. There was a slimy damp trail leading off into the twilight dimness of the room, which explained it however, although for a split second Arthur was still reaching for a gun that wasn't there. He followed the trail slowly as he debated the merits of calling out versus silence. Would his shout have an adverse effect on the mental state of the awakened? It was hard to say.
Then his legs were being swept out from under him and he was falling, catching his elbow a nasty crack against the nearest pod as he went. There was the unpleasant feel of an arm tight across his windpipe, and the slight trembling of the muscles in that arm didn't outweigh the fact that an overactive child could continue this hold for quite some time. Arthur would have cursed if he had the voice, he'd gotten sloppy.
There was the usual scent of salt and ozone that Arthur associated from his own revival, and the feel of a naked - male - body behind him. There was the sound of controlled breathing, with a panicked edge to it, Arthur would have said. He waited patiently for an opening, although he reckoned that he would be dead already if that was immediately on the cards.
"Apologies for the cliché, but where the bloody hell am I?" demanded a familiar voice, and Arthur would have swallowed if he could. He wanted to cheer, and he also wanted very badly to run away. He wasn't sure that Eames would appreciate either.
Arthur realised he was really fucking cold, as though he could still sense the sharp whip of the wind in his hair as he fell. When he thought he was dying. He wondered who or what had got to Eames in turn, whether he'd been working a job at the time. Whether the job had gone to hell, or if it was something more mundane like a car crash, or skiing accident. Wondering if the same job would have gone smoothly instead if Arthur had been there.
"Let go of me, you asshole," Arthur managed to gasp with as much irritation as he could muster, and felt the body language change, felt Eames thighs beneath his own tense and release, then tense again. The arm on his throat eased up though, so it wasn't all bad.
Arthur rolled off and out of Eames' lax hold. He resisted the urge to rub at his throat, and instead just stared at him, at the man that he potentially knew better than anyone, and still couldn't say that he entirely understood. Arthur couldn't even be sure that the Eames he knew was really this man, because he too might have been many people in the dream, with Eames only being the last of them... Although did it matter? Given that Arthur tended to leave this kind of existential shit to Mal and Dom, he didn't know why he was worrying so much about it now.
It was Eames lying so impossibly next to him, his dark blond hair long and straggly, still slimy with fluid. He was so skinny. Arthur wondered if he'd been as thin himself when he first woke up. He looked down at Eames' pale hairy legs and marvelled; Eames looked like he was older than Arthur remembered, his beard was even showing some grey. The beard looked weird in general, but Arthur had woken with one as well, so it wasn't as though he could complain. That much. No, what was the strangest thing, the freakiest shit he could imagine, was seeing Eames without his ink, his chest pale and bare. His shoulders were still broad though, there was no change to the underlying bone structure, but still.
Arthur could feel the warmth from Eames' skin bleeding through his excuse for a shirt, rolled up to the elbows to disguise its ill fit. Their shoulders were brushing. Arthur could feel the beginning of a shiver raising goosebumps on Eames' bare flesh, damp from the life-pod, but he still couldn't make himself move. He swallowed, his throat dry, and dug his nails into the palm of his left hand. It wasn't much use, because if this was a dream, he would still feel the pain, and he didn't have a totem any more, so he couldn't even check. But if this was a dream surely his projection of Eames wouldn't look like this? Surely he'd be more how he remembered him? Maybe the Eames that Arthur recalled was the projection, maybe this man didn't know him at all? Or didn't recognise the stupid young kid he'd turned out to be in real life? Maybe...
Maybe Arthur should pull his shit together and stop panicking. Eames had recognised his voice. He'd let him go. These were demonstrable facts. Arthur was out of control.
He turned to him, and opened his mouth to answer the question, Eames' perfectly reasonable question, when Eames moved. He lifted an arm, a slight tremble in the bicep, and hooked his hand over Arthur's shoulder, his fingers tangling in the longer hair at the back of his neck, cool enough against his skin that Arthur shivered, his mouth opening to ask what Eames was playing at. Then Eames pulled, sharply, in a jerk, and mashed their lips together, the taste of salt biting at first, but gentling as Arthur leaned in to the kiss, almost against his will. Because this was Eames, and it had been so long. This might be a bad idea, but Arthur had died. Sort of. He deserved this.
It could have got urgent, was starting to do so, becoming hot and dirty just the way they liked it, when Eames himself pulled back. He looked even more pale, if that was possible, with a slightly teasing, apologetic air about him.
"Darling, I'm sorry to disturb our touching reunion but I may be about to pass out. Arthur? It is you, isn't it? I'm not hallucinating or... is this another level in the dream? I don't remember getting here..."
He swayed, even though he was sitting down, and Arthur swore in his ear, even as he clung on, tugging the too thin body into his arms until the urge to hit him passed. Of course Eames was about to pass out. They hadn't seen each other for weeks, or relative months, or even years, depending on the factor of time in the first level down, and Eames was half dead, half-hard and fucking half-assed as well.
Nothing ever changed.
Arthur had met Mr Eames straight after he left the military. He was a breath of fresh air that Arthur wasn't sure he wanted, and a con-man that Arthur wasn't sure he could trust. It didn't stop them working together - it didn't stop them ever working together, but every time Arthur had reservations that he never shared, Eames seemed to sense them anyway, and to play to them. Dom had laughed at Arthur for his paranoia, and kept employing Eames - who was very good at what he did, after all, and Arthur had never denied that. His ability to do his job was never an issue, it was all the rest of his bullshit that Arthur was constantly unsure about.
Luckily Eames had found it hilarious rather than offensive, not that Arthur cared particularly either way. Except that it meant he also became Eames' newest and best entertainment on every job they worked. Arthur remembered the way he'd have to put up with all sorts of teasing and honest-to-god practical jokes - who else used a Whoopee cushion over the age of twelve? He had to endure sly innuendo and not so subtle touches - although they were fleeting, just enough to dishevel him, or to make him feel like he was dishevelled, at least. It kept him on edge throughout their association, which Arthur had objected to until he realised that it also kept him sharp and at the top of his game as well. Besides, if he could cope with Eames, he could cope with anything that their life could throw at him. Or that's how it felt at times. Arthur, to be fair, didn't quite equate Eames' behaviour with torture in a South African gulag, but it was close. The fact that it was actually Eames who rescued him from that South African gulag had nothing to do with it.
Professionally speaking, Arthur worked so much better with Mal and Dom Cobb than he ever did with Eames. It meant the three of them became known as a team, while Eames was called in to help upon request. The fact that the 'request' came more often than not was something they all ignored, partly because you didn't ask those kinds of questions of colleagues in their particular field, and partly because Arthur didn't really want to know the answer. The fact that Eames was always the first face he looked for when they surfaced from a dream, or that Eames' heavy-lidded gaze was the first thing Arthur felt whenever he walked into a room was completely by the by.
They got together in Brighton of all places. The English seaside town well known for its gay community. Arthur nearly objected to the cliché on principle, even though they were mainly there to work, to extract the real story behind the phone-hacking scandal from a senior Conservative politician. But when Eames persuaded him to come with him down onto Brighton beach in the middle of the night, and then proceeded to go skinny dipping without even pushing Arthur particularly hard to join him, well. Then Arthur knew he was fucked. Because he almost wanted to go. He almost wanted to run down the stupid beach with its annoying pebbles bruising his feet and throw himself naked into the freezing English Channel. With Eames. The image screwed with his mind so much that when Eames came back out, shivering as he dripped water all over Arthur's Ferragano loafers, instead of mocking him mercilessly Arthur threw a fluffy white hotel towel around his shoulders and kissed him instead.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Predictably, Eames loved the end of the world.
"But darling, there's sun, sea and sand - what more do you want? It's like you're recreating our first date. How sweet of you."
He blinked at Arthur, looking ridiculously relaxed in his mismatched cast-offs. It took all Arthur's willpower to stop himself grinding his teeth.
"There's no sand because a very few years ago this used to be a mountain," Arthur forced out between tight lips, "In Africa would be my best guess, looking at the stars. So it could be Kilimanjaro or possibly Mount Kenya. There's mud, and rock, and really boring food. This is not a resort, Eames."
Who smiled at Arthur and trailed a hand down his arm. "I miss whisky, I have to say. And tea. Nothing like a good cuppa in the morning to wake you up."
Arthur knew the concession was an apology. Just as he knew he didn't need to acknowledge it. He stayed silent as Eames took his hand and ran a caressing finger over his knuckles, while Arthur stared out to sea getting some measure of control back. It distressed him how little the implications of the current situation seemed to bother Eames, but he supposed it was his nature. Perhaps he should know that sort of thing about him after all this time, but neither finding the other predictable was part of what kept the relationship fresh.
But the exchange had solidified something for Arthur. Even if it wasn't real, he wanted cizilisation back. He wanted that whisky, that cup of tea for Eames. He wanted hundred thread count sheets and designer labels, he wanted... their world again.
"Come on," said Arthur, finally, slightly morose with the view of a horizon that would never be broken by the silhouette of a ship, or the flight of a bird again. "We'll go and see Mal."
"Oh goodie," said Eames, and Arthur shot him a warning glance. Just because Eames had never got along with Mal as well as Arthur was no reason to be rude. Except that this was Eames he was talking about. He got up, and Eames let go of his hand reluctantly, his fingers holding on to the very last second.
Arthur frowned down at him. Eames had got clingier than he remembered. But then it was the end of the world, perhaps that made a difference. He wasn't a robot, whatever Eames may have shouted at him in various arguements, Arthur understood emotions - it just didn't mean he wanted to wallow in them. But he tried smiling, in the hopes it would be enough, and Eames smiled back, with a certain wonder.
Finding Mal, given the tiny size of their island, was ridiculously difficult. If Arthur didn't know better he would have accused her of hiding, but Arthur didn't think she would do that, not from them. He found her at last, sat on the edge of the closest solar panel pontoon, her feet dangling in the water, and when she glanced up and saw them, she looked pleased. It made Arthur's heart thump ridiculously. In that moment, she was still just as lovely as the first time they'd met, and it made him wish futilely that things had been so different.
"Another one of us then, I'm glad," said Mal, although she didn't get up. "It makes me wonder - so many of us who work with dreams have now woken up. I wonder if it was not just myself who could sense that something was wrong with reality as we knew it." She smiled with a satisfied air.
Arthur felt Eames stiffen at his side, and he reached for his wrist without thinking, without analysing the odd reaction, without even wanting to analyse it. This was their family now. This was it - they had to stick together, despite Eames old antagonism towards Mal, still present in this new form.
"I think it more likely reflects our penchant for leaping into ridiculous amounts of danger," said Arthur, his tone dry, "And for getting ourselves killed."
He felt Eames flinch under his touch, just the tiniest amount.
Mal looked petulant. "Well, have it your way, if you insist. I'm still glad to see you, Eames."
"Likewise, I'm sure." Eames was languid, his voice belying the tension in his frame.
"So," said Arthur, restraining the urge to rub his hands together, "Now we have to decide what to do. I've done my best to analyse the set-up, they seem to have a number of PASIV-like machines linked in series, which allows for such a large number of people in the dream, and the dreamer itself doesn't seem to be a person at all, so far as I can find. It's an extrapolation but I am assuming that the stability of the dream must involve some kind of outside help - whether that means a kind of artificial intelligence or a human brain turned cyborg it is impossible for me to tell, but those seem the likely options given the scenario. Also, relying on my assumptions to be right - and believe me I don't like operating with so little data - I think I can insert us into the dream at any point within certain limits, and more importantly, I believe I can keep us aware of ourselves. It would be better if we had our own chemist, but beggars can't be choosers."
Eames smirked faintly. "That's my Arthur - always planning."
Arthur grinned at him, exhilarated. It was the first time he'd actually articulated any of his research. He still wasn't one hundred percent sure of things, but sounding confident had always been half the battle with Dom, and Arthur was an excellent improviser.
"There's still a lot to check, but in principle, does that sound good? Do you want to consider where we want to appear? It can be literally anywhere in the world, and we'll stay physically adult, if I can tweak our Somnacin..."
Mal made a little moue of disgust and turned away. Arthur didn't understand. Her shoulders were hunched and he wanted to lean forward and touch her, perhaps even draw her into a hug. "Mal? You said..."
She whipped her head around. "I said that I had no intention of committing suicide - and I still haven't! You don't know what you're doing, Arthur, you said so yourself. How can I trust to your maybe - when if I wait here, Dom and the children will come to me. That is what I want, and that it will happen is certain! If I succumb to your experiment then I could lose myself in another's dream if you are wrong, and the dream, it is not real." Mal lifted a hand as though to waved them away. "Leave me alone. Je ne regrette rien."
Arthur jerked as though she had shot him, as her shade had done so many times before. He stared at her back, in its welfare cast-offs and its spurious certainty. She looked diminished somehow. Her quotation of their song shook him to the core, the indication of a kick that was never going to come. He'd thought she'd been doing well, that she accepted the way things were, but this was a revelation. It seemed he'd been more wrong than he could possibly imagine - and he had a feeling that she would never be right again. Arthur wished he could feel more sadness, but he'd mourned Mal once already. He'd grieved her death for years. He groped blindly for Eames' hand and caught it in his own, solid in its warmth and certainty.
Mal would be alright. There was food and water, and one day Dom would wake up. Maybe that would be enough for her, although he doubted it. But Dom would almost certainly stay with her, and perhaps his all-consuming guilt would nourish them both. Arthur shut his eyes, to block out the sun, and his own sense of responsibility.
Thank goodness he had Eames. Arthur was sick to death of pretending to be alone.
It was sunset. Which would have been a fitting metaphor if it hadn't been an accident of timing. Arthur supposed many metaphors were. He turned to Eames who was sitting idly nearby staring out of the window as the orange sun lowered itself into the endless waters.
"I've finished the programming. We're good to go. I think. I'd give it 70%-30% we'll go in as ourselves with our memories intact - but it's the best odds I can come up with. Eames? You ready to take a chance?" Arthur knew he was too eager, but he couldn't seem to stop himself.
Eames had a faint smile on his face that set alarm bells ringing in Arthur's head. That was the smile of the forge from Warsaw - sincere and interested and fake as all hell. But he wasn't running, and that was something. Arthur knew Eames, and his default reaction was always to beat the fastest retreat a man was capable of - although Arthur supposed there wasn't anywhere for him to go. What mattered somewhat more was why.
"Eames?" Arthur was quieter now, silent on his feet, as though approaching a live grenade, or a delicate bomb. His heart was racing, it made him feel the most alive he'd managed since his death by building.
"It's all right," said Eames, still smiling, "You've been your usual efficient self. I appreciate all you've done, Arthur. I do want you to know that."
"Easy thanks is hardly your forte. What's wrong?"
Eames looked away, so Arthur couldn't see his eyes. But he was closer now, he could put his hand on Eames' shoulder, he could curl his fingers up in his shirt - even knowing Eames could slip out of it, or dislocate Arthur's thumb if he was feeling tetchy, it still made Arthur feel better. There was the solid heat of him under the pads of his fingers, even if his mind seemed to be flying further and further away.
A horrible thought occurred. "You don't want to go, do you?" Surely Eames didn't want to stay with only Mal for company? They'd drive each other mad in a week. Or less.
Eames shrugged. "Perhaps it isn't that, darling, so much as the fact that you haven't actually asked me yet."
Arthur frowned at him, wondering at that. He never asked Eames anything, any more than Eames asked him. They assumed, and they pushed, and they cajoled, and they bribed. They didn't ask each other anything. No, it was a deflection, and Eames was a master at those.
"So - I'm asking then. Will you leave this paradise behind and go back to a world where coffee still exists, and where our skill set might actually be useful?" Arthur fought to keep his tone light and even, but he wasn't as good an actor as Eames.
Eames was terribly silent. In fact, as Arthur thought about it, his mind travelling as slowly as molasses, he realised that Eames had been generally quieter since he woke up. His irrepressibility was legendary but maybe the end of world could put anyone in a bad mood?
"Hey..." Arthur said, softly, "What can I say? Civilization, even if it is a shared dream, is preferable to me. It was all real once, and I want to live in the world where that's still true. So sue me."
He saw the curve of Eames' lip curl upwards at that, and felt ridiculously pleased with himself.
Eames reached over and began to finger the edge of Arthur's jacket, smoothing the wool blend between his fingers. "You're still wearing this - even though it doesn't fit."
Arthur shrugged. "It's all there is."
And Eames laughed, a short choked sound. "Yes, that's about right. Also, trust you to miss designer suits more than people."
"You know I'd sell my grandmother for a bespoke Savile Row."
Silly agreement felt more real to Arthur now than anything serious he could offer. They didn't do this - they didn't talk, not about stuff like this. Huge stuff, important emotional ridiculous stuff. He hated not knowing what to do.
"I'm... not so sure I do want to go back in," said Eames, suddenly, in a rush of words, "Not that I wouldn't miss you, love, I'm sure I would, but it's not so bad here. I never take holidays normally, and you know me - laziness is my middle name, or would be if I had one. I'll enjoy it. No one will be trying to kill me, that will make a nice change. And someone has to be here to explain it to the next person who wakes up, don't they? I mean, I doubt Mal will do it. So it's a service really. To humanity. The remains of humanity. I'll be an unsung hero. I've always wanted to be a hero - I imagine it must be fun..."
He trailed off. Then Eames abruptly threw his arms around Arthur's waist and buried his nose into his stomach, pulling him flush against him. He began to mouth at the cotton, getting it damp, and licking through the shirt between the buttons, sly jolts of wet heat that made Arthur jump in his pants, already half-hard just from the anticipation. When Eames began scrabbling for the buttons of his chinos, it was one of the most difficult things Arthur had ever had to do, but he pushed Eames to arm's length.
"Wait!" It looked like the last thing Eames wanted to do was stop, but Arthur was breathing hard already just from his proximity. They'd left sex alone because Eames had been so physically weak, he'd needed to build his strength back up, and Arthur could wait. He could wait for Eames forever. But now... Now Arthur needed to know what Eames was distracting him from, because he wanted all of Eames, all the time; he didn't just want to be a distraction.
"Eames! I don't believe you - what is it really? Fuck. I'm so bad at this shit. Jesus." Arthur slumped down to the floor and put his head in his hands. He was so frustrated in so many ways, he could scream. "I don't want to do this without you," Arthur said slowly, finally, driven to a tiny revelation of his own. Which was crazy, but it felt like he was peeling a tiny bit skin off and then waiting for Eames to rub the salt in.
"I was trying to do this with you, actually darling," said Eames, his eyes too bright, and a flush high on his cheeks, "You're the one who's suddenly decided chinos are the new chastity belt."
"That's not..." Arthur trailed off. He was getting nowhere. They were both so cautious about themselves, and while that would usually be an asset, right now...
Arthur sat back and leaned against the wall. If Eames didn't want to come back down to where the rest of humanity was dreaming then - what was the point? Arthur tried to think about what it would be like, tried to imagine slipping into his old life without Eames, returning home alone, working without him to back him up, even if it could be assumed that the time factor hadn't already made that impossible. He couldn't do it. His mind kept sliding away from the concept. Fuck it. The major reason why Arthur had been trying to get back down was to find Eames, and he was right here, so why was he even worrying? Arthur took a deep breath and looked around. Sun, sea and sand. That's what Eames wanted, so that's what they'd have.
"Ok, you win," said Arthur, and pushed himself forward again, reaching for Eames' belt with eager fingers, "We're staying."
Eames was uncoordinated and off-balance, Arthur could push him to the floor easily. The cheap lino was cool against their skin, but Arthur decided he didn't care, if they were doing this, then they were doing this now. He leant over Eames, holding his weight off, but sliding one leg possessively over Eames' thigh. He began to trail kisses along Eames' collar bone, light and feathery, nipping at the skin of his neck.
"What, just like that?" Eames voice rumbled next to Arthur's ear, deep and mellow, like a caress all its own. "When you were so gung-ho for going back?"
Arthur leaned up on his elbows, exasperated. "Look, haven't you got it yet? I go where you go. If you stay, then I'll stay. If you want a vacation then we'll have a vacation - although if you want my opinion, reality will bore us to death. But if that's what you want... The important part is that we're together!"
They stared at each other. Eames wasn't totally himself yet, because although he'd managed clean-shaven, he was still as pale as a ghost and he still didn't have any ink. The thought crossed Arthur's mind idly, that if they stayed, he could learn how to tattoo, and imagining being the one privileged enough to cover Eames' newly pale skin gave him a startled thrill. There were fine crow's feet at the corner of his eyes that he didn't have yet in the dream, they gave him a look of maturity that Arthur knew was so, so wrong. Arthur wondered what Eames saw in turn - a stupid young kid, probably. With murder in his eyes if he was lucky.
Then with a painful noise that Arthur had never heard before, Eames surged up and brought their mouths together. The kiss was bruising, completely unlike any of the others they had shared since Eames had woken up, almost as though he was trying to breathe Arthur in, or trying to taste his soul. It made Arthur's fingers tingle, and his toes curl. He went from merely interested to fully hard and leaking in a second as he groaned back into Eames' mouth, and ground his hips down onto Eames answering hardness, blindly seeking out sweet wonderful friction. Things were heating up nicely, Arthur welcomed the easy simplicity of such an animal state, something that had always been so effortless and good between them, and if only he hadn't felt the dampness on Eames' face and tasted the salt on his lips, then everything would have been fine. But fuck. Arthur didn't want Eames crying while they had sex. That was just wrong.
So Arthur stopped. He held Eames down until he was just holding him instead, cradling him against his chest, Eames' face buried in his neck. Arthur tried not to panic, because this was way out his league. Except there was no one else - apart from Mal, and just. No. Eames was his. He'd figure something out.
Arthur could hear Eames muttering something into his skin, and he bent his head down to hear, his bangs just brushing Eames' forehead. "You were dead. Arthur, you were dead, all mashed up on the pavement, strawberry jam and brains, just like in the dream, on the job, only it wasn't a dream, it was real, and you were gone. Oh, bloody hell. I didn't know what to do, ok? I didn't... You left me, Arthur. You left me alone. And. I had to carry on. So I got away, and I delivered the information, and then. I went to pieces. A bit. Sorry about that."
Eames paused and Arthur hugged him harder. "I didn't know I was going to do that," said Eames in a voice more like his own, "I knew you wouldn't have wanted me to, but. You weren't there. I think I went a little crazy, darling." He turned his head and Arthur was glad to see his eyes were dry at last. "I don't remember how I died. But it was a lot later. I think I may have been charging a crystal meth lab in Afghanistan with a machete. But I was high on something so I'm not sure. If I go back, my body might still be pumped full of the shit I was taking. So that might be a problem."
"Then we'll deal with it."
And Eames laughed softly, just a little hint of it, a tiny chuckle, but it did Arthur's heart good to hear it. "That's my Arthur, always so uncompromising." Eames kissed his finger and pressed it to Arthur's lips. "Never change."
They were quiet together then, and Arthur was surprised by how much he liked it, just sitting there holding Eames. Knowing he wasn't alone.
As the crisis seemed to have crested, at least for now, Arthur felt he was allowed to glare again. It made Eames twitch a smile, even when Arthur also shook him lightly.
"I'm not kidding. Whatever it is, we'll deal with it. We have before. I may not always..." He broke off, the words faltering in his mouth. Arthur cleared his throat before continuing. "I may not always know what you need, or... be able to help, but. I always want to try."
There. Surely that was enough emotions for one day? They were such messy things, and made him so uncomfortable.
Eames was scrubbing at his face completely unselfconsciously, it almost made Arthur envious. So instead, he took a deep breath, and straightened himself up. He may still be kneeling on a linoleum floor in an emergency bunker at the end of the goddamn world, but that didn't mean he should be sloppy about these things. The residual arousal was making him jumpy and his nerves felt especially oversensitive, but Arthur tried to ignore that too. There was plenty of time, after all, for that kind of thing. It wasn't what really mattered.
"I want to apologise," said Arthur formally, as Eames looked at him as though he'd suddenly grown another head.
"There's no need, darling - my mess, my fuss, you know."
"Nevertheless. I want you to let me." Arthur took another breath and let it out again. "After I died, I woke up and the world had ended, as you know. That didn't matter so much to me at the time because I knew I'd left you alive and safe. As soon as I woke up I began to work out how to get back to you, how to subvert the systems, doing my research and beginning to plan - just like I always do. But you didn't have that luxury or comfort, and I didn't think about the effect that might have had. So I suppose what I want to say is that... I am sorry I died and left you alone."
Eames was still looking at him oddly, but not without fondness. It made Arthur feel warm, in a way that made him want to squirm. He rather wondered if it was how a favoured child might be regarded when they'd done especially well at a school recital or show-and-tell. As though they'd very nearly got it right, got it perfectly.
Eames stood up, dusted off his knees and offered Arthur a hand. He took it.
In his most sincere voice, Eames said, "I accept your apology." And pulled Arthur to his feet, nearly staggering as weak and floppy muscles almost gave way. It was left to Arthur to catch Eames around the waist and steer them towards the door.
Eames leaned into him, affectionate as always, and nuzzled at his temple. "It won't be forever, you know," he whispered, like a secret, "Just until the next person wakes up, like I said. That'll be enough for me, I expect. And think of all the unanswered questions we could explore - like, how do babies get made in this new unconscious world?"
Arthur dug an elbow in Eames' stomach in warning and exasperation. It was a good thing he could never be bored with Eames around.
Did he really think Arthur hadn't already checked on that?