The day Arthur is tapped for dream training is the happiest of his life. It’s a case of right place, right time. So exactly what he needs that Arthur could fall in desperate-forever love with the colonel, if he weren’t such a prick.
It comes after two years too many in the desert, stop-lossed into a seemingly unending deployment. He’s been told he’s essential personal, the right man for the job, a body that knows when to shut up and just do that job. It takes him longer than most to get tired of it, but he gets there all the same.
Years--years of life that amounts to routine and not-routine: picking off insurgents, when they can even find them, going crazily, desperately bored back at the base, spending a week stateside and then shipping out again. There are months where he loses the trick of speaking to anyone out of uniform; loses the trick of living without a gun strap over his shoulder, without a helmet mic that connects him to his brothers. There’s a visit with his grandparents - never repeated - where he wakes up at dawn everyday to run, sometimes until he’s choking with exhaustion, and where he spends the rest of the time out on the ocean, communicating only rarely and one syllable at a time. It takes him longer than most, but he finally realizes that the thing he is losing is himself.
They come to him when he’s fresh on base, three days in from a month in the less travelled parts of the desert. His fingers still itch to check his scope. They’d seen action. Another job well done. Three years ago Arthur would have been down in the mess celebrating. Now, he’s happy to sink into a bath that’s bigger than the whole bathroom in his childhood home, and just drift away to the intermittent, echoing drip of the faucet. The base is an old hotel complex, one of those makeshift affairs that crop up in newly secured areas, and last only a few months before command comes up with something ‘better’. It’s not his base, obviously, and the soldiers he parts company with were only briefly his unit.
He’s almost asleep, dreaming of his grandparents’ cottage, minus his grandparents, when someone speaks. “That’s a good one.” He drops the battered novel he’d been considering - onto the floor thankfully, and not into the tub - and attempts to come to attention. Hard with your feet up and your forearms clinging to the back of the tub, barely keeping him above water. He manages to sit up and twist around to look at the invader. Sirring immediately, upon seeing the oak leaf on his uniform.
“Don’t stand up,” he says, waving Arthur back down into the bath. The urge to get out, wrap a towel around his waist, and salute properly is by now burned into his bones - only, there aren’t any towels. “You can salute me once the laundry cart’s brought fresh ones.” The colonel settles into rest, not parade ready, but the relaxed stance of an old soldier, perfectly comfortable chatting with a subordinate who’s sitting in his cooling bathwater.
“Your best quality is your follow through. That right?”
“I don’t care about modesty,” he says with a slight smile. “What I need is a soldier who can get the job done. Is that you?”
“If it's possible. Yes, sir,” is the only response possible.
“Good answer,” the colonel says. Then the laundry cart rattles by, and he opens the door wide enough to yell out for a couple of towels, which he hands to Arthur. In response, Arthur climbs out of the bath, wraps one of them around his waist, and salutes. The colonel smiles again at that. Salute returned, Arthur puts his hands behind his back and waits, with no idea what to make of any of this. He’s grateful for the bath, though - coming to attention should have been harder after a month sleeping mostly in what amounted to a shallow grave. He’s got no aches or pains, despite the plethora of bruises and lacerations the mission had served up - so there’s that.
The colonel gives him an obviously assessing look. “You’re being reassigned, kid. Get dressed and be in the mess in ten.” He leaves before Arthur can get out the yessir that’s automatic. Arthur’s toweling his hair - a quick swipe - dry and moving onto his body before the door even closes. He pulls on a clean uniform - a new one, because the last hadn’t survived the desert - but the same battered old boots. If there’s one thing that’s the same from war to war, it’s the shortage of good boots. He makes it to the mess, formerly a grand dining room, with two minutes to spare. He doesn’t have much gear or much hair to groom, so there’s nothing to stow or slow him.
Even stripped down and redecorated Army style, the room bears marks of its former glory: huge windows overlooking a courtyard that’s now full of boxes and grunts moving them; whitewashed friezes of aPersian epic. The mess is decorated with with a strict grid of folding tables and loud men and women in uniform. Even the contractors, clustered around a handful of tables in the back have their uniforms.
He scans the sea of khaki and camo until he finds the colonel, sharing a table for eight with one man--master sergeant, his patches say, career non-com.
"You made it," says the colonel.
"Sir," is of course the only possible response.
"Well?" The colonel turns to the master sergeant. Green, according to his breast, looks Arthur up and down, shrugs. Fucking kid, is what he's seeing, as spit and polish as you can be in a war zone. Looking sixteen in years and pounds-- and that's wet.
"Go get some grub kid," Green says. "You look like you could use a meal or ten." As he's walking away, Green yells after him. "And bring me some pudding. Vanilla."
They watch him closely while he chows. Arthur's long since past minding. At least they won't try for his cream corn.
"How're the classes coming?" The colonel asks. Arthur's been doing them correspondence, when he can't get be in a classroom. More often than not, with him off base so much in the last few years.
The colonel grunts his agreement. "How bored of killing people are you?"
"Excuse me?" Arthur forgets--doesn't forget--to sir.
"Hey man," Green says, holding up his spoon like that's going to somehow lead Arthur into a zen state. "The colonel wasn't insinuating anything." Green smirks and Arthur's not sure how to interpret it. "But you've got one of the dullest psych profiles I've had the pleasure of skimming. Even Steven, right down the line."
The colonel's chin dips in a lazy nod. "Got a pretty transcript and a damn fine record, but it doesn't make for good reading."
"Exactly what we're looking for."
Arthur finishes the last of his meal, puts down his cutlery, carefully wipes his mouth, and shoves his tray to the side. Looks the colonel in the eye and asks, "What are you recruiting for, sir?"
"Tell me exactly how you got here, son."
"To this table, on this day."
He dropped out of college, joined the army, killed some people, got transfered into special forces, killed a lot more people, lather, rinse, repeat. Not a lot of soap, but a hell of a lot of sand. Arthur gives them the last month and a half, which was given over to planning the mission and executing it. He gives them the crick in his back from the last base's decidedly unergonomic desk chairs; the sores he's got from sand getting under his clothes, in places it wouldn't be polite to mention at the table if this weren't the army; what he'd done when the MREs had run out and he'd gotten low on water. He finishes up with an unwise, non-regulation smirk.
Green laughs. "Yeah," the colonel says. "You'll do."
After that, things get less linear. Arthur copes. Arthur excels.
The first dream he builds, when they finally let him try it, is all water. So deep and so wide he can't see to the end of it.
"Not what I was expecting," Dom says.
"What were you expecting?" He doesn't answer.
Dom drowns him in a bathtub. It's a chipped blue and white porcelain antique, with clawed feet and everything. Arthur goes under screaming; the water fills his lungs that much faster. He throws a desperate last punch, but he's already too weak for it to mean anything.
"Stop analyzing me," Arthur tells him.
"It's part of my job. The colonel-"
"Stop analyzing me." Dom stares at him a while, hunting for secrets. "Read my file, Dom. That's all you need to know. I'm a boring guy."
"Sure," he finally says, and offers Arthur his hand.
The colonel dies in what's quickly labeled an accident, and the program falls apart. It's the happiest day of Arthur's life.
"Unconscious, industrial espionage," Dom says when everything's settled down.
"Lot of money in it." They share a grin.