Don't start yet.
Mal wasn't the first person to lose themselves. She wasn't the last, either, but that's not the point. Dreaming has always been an experience to people. Whether it's terrifying or enlightening depends on the individual, but everyone must begin somewhere.
Every story must begin somehow.
This story does not begin with Mallorie or Dominick Cobb. It does not begin with Dream-sharing or Cobol or even the military. It simply begins with an apology.
It all starts with a dream. Or perhaps it starts with a child named Arthur. It may even begin with a totem.
That's hard to say, though.
We'll simply say that, like all things, it begins with an idea.
"Everyone needs a totem," someone tells Arthur. He doesn't remember who, anymore. He's sure it wasn't Dom.
It might've been Mal.
As it is, Dom is the one who explains the concept of a totem to Arthur. Mal, however, is the one who helps him pick one out.
"You'll want to rely on it," Dom says. "Don't."
"Then what's the point?"
"It keeps you braced. But it doesn't always speak the truth. Do not let anyone know the secrets of your totem. It can and willbe used against you."
In a court of law, Arthur adds sarcastically in his mind.
"I see," he says aloud.
"Dear," Mal's voice lilts onto the balcony, "you're scaring the boy."
"Dear," Dom mocks, "he's not a boy."
"All the better reason not to treat him like one," she laughs.
Arthur is confused. He supposes humor runs differently in families. His didn't really have one.
Stop. Change scenes.
"Do it again."
"Dad, I can't."
"Sir," he corrects. "You will. Redo it. I won't have a failure as a son."
"Sir, I'm trying. "
The buildings are shifting slightly, but it's not enough. The projections still manage to reach them.
"You screwed it up."
"Don't apologize. Prove it through your actions. Show me how sorry you really are."
The older man shoots himself.
Arthur screams as he wakes.
Pause and reflect.
He laughs awkwardly as Mal drags him around town.
"I'm not getting you a totem. I'm simply showing you examples of totems."
"The more you show me, the less I have to choose from."
She smiles. "You're learning."
He salutes her.
The die wasn't Arthur's original totem.
Well, actually, it was, but it wasn't the only one.
He had a die. And he had The Die.
"A die? Really?"
"There are so many ways it can be used, dear," Mal says. "A totem in reality is simply an object. In a dream it is something brand new. Perhaps a watch doesn't work in real life, yet when you're under it ticks perfectly. A chain is no longer broken. A top spins forever."
"It's a die, Mal. It rolls."
"Darling," she hands the red cube to him, "test it out. Roll it."
Arthur looks annoyed. "Are we done?"
Mal shakes her head. "Not until you figure it out."
Two. Two. Two.
"Oh," Arthur says, understanding. "Does this mean it rolls like an actual die in my dreams?"
"Only if you want it to," Mal explains. "It's a subconscious thing, Arthur. You could make it blue, you could make every side have seven dots. It doesn't matter, as long as you understand the implications. However strong your totem is, though, you must never rely on it completely."
Yes, looking back now, the irony is quite strong.
He doesn't lose the die, per se. He may have accidentally misplaced it, but that's not the same as losing it.
He bought another one.
It wasn't the same though. It was loaded, yes. It was red, yes. But it always made him second guess himself. Maybe his subconscious realized it was still a loaded die? It rolled two all the time. Dream, reality, nightmares.
Two, two, two.
It still felt wrong.
"I think my totem is broken."
"Nonsense, dear. You can't break a totem," but Mal looks perplexed. "Dom, can you break a totem?"
"Like physically? I don't see why not."
"Not physically," Arthur says slowly. "More like, can a totem stop being a totem once your subconscious realizes that it's a totem?"
"The whole point of a totem is for your subconscious to realize what it is. Otherwise everything would be a totem, and that makes things too confusing," Dom explains. "You're not making sense."
Mal pipes in. "His totem, it's…it's not working quite right. It seems to be forgetting what it is."
Dom squints in concentration. "Oh. I see."
"Where's your totem?" he asks.
Arthur looks down at his hand, where the die is resting in his palm. "Here."
"No. Arthur. Where is your totem?"
"Here…?" Arthur asks.
"Where. Is. It?"
"…I don't know."
Mal looks aghast. "You don't know? Dear, you need your totem."
"Why can't this be my totem?"
"That's not how it works, Arthur," Dom says. "Your mind has accepted your totem. It's not ready to change so soon."
He looks away. "I don't know where it is."
"You need to find it."
It starts with a loss. It starts with an apology, a meeting, a handshake.
It starts with Arthur. It starts with Eames.
It starts with a loaded red die.
"I found this," an English voice speaks up, a week later.
"Who are you?" Arthur asks.
"I'm not you," he says.
"Closer, but no."
"Darling!" Mal squeals. "I see you've become acquainted with Eames."
"Darling?" Eames laughs. He focuses on Mal. "Love, it's good to see you."
She kisses his cheek. "Likewise."
"Now, who's this lovely young lad?" Eames motions to Arthur.
"Arthur! You never introduced yourself?" she scolds.
Arthur glares. "Now there's no reason to."
"Arthur," Eames hums. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He holds out his hand, but Arthur's gaze is fixated on the small, red die being shuffled from one hand to the other.
"Is this a joke?"
Eames has the nerve to look confused. "What? No, it's really a pleasure. Well, not as much now, but my point still stands."
"I'm serious. Where did you get that?"
Eames looks confused. "This?" He holds out the die. "I found it wedged between someone's desk and the wall."
Arthur's jaw twitches slightly. "Did it ever occur to you that perhaps that it belongs to someone?" he grits out.
"The thought never crossed my mind," Eames replies sarcastically. "It's a die. Sorry for thinking no one would care. Bloody Christ, it wasn't like I was stealing it. I tried to tell you I found something. I mean, you can always buy another one, Arthur."
He's not mocking him, Arthur knows this. How can he know anything about the totem? About the fact that he's not sure whether this is real or a dream and that's how his whole week has been going. Every car chase. Every gunshot. Every. Single. Creak in his house, and he's not sure if this is the end or simply him waking up. He's scared to sleep, because that might mean he's actually getting closer to Limbo, or that he's already there.
He swallows around a convulsive, "Fuck you," and walks off.
"Oh, dear," Mal whispers to the floor.
Dom shakes his head, and fixes his gaze on the door.
"The fuck," Eames says to no one.
He throws the red cube—with a sneer—onto Arthur's desk approximately two minutes later. It rolls to a stop next to his wrist.
Oh, thank God.
Arthur makes Eames a cup of coffee the next day. It's an expensive blend, something he had to do many favors to get. Something that isn't even sold in the United States.
It's exquisite, he's thinks, but he doesn't know for sure because he doesn't drink any. He instead brews up a cup of French Roast for himself and Dom, and sets the cup of foreign liquid onto Eames' new work place.
"What is this?" Eames asks, sniffing the cup curiously.
"Coffee. Really expensive coffee," Arthur offers a small smile.
"What a waste."
"I really don't care for coffee, thank you though." He shoves the mug back at Arthur, who takes it and turns on his heel without another word.
He sips it slowly at his desk, trying to internalize all his thoughts about the new forger.
Piss-ant. Arrogant. Ass. Fucktard.
All synonymous with Eames.
The coffee doesn't taste as good as he'd hoped.
He rolls the die that evening before going to bed.
He doesn't sleep.
He studies the art of forging. Studies Eames. About the newest job. He studies everything, scrupulously.
He learns little.
Mal is losing herself. Just slightly. She knows the difference, she says. She's not dead. She's awake. She's going to let a babysitter take care of the kids because this is an important job, Dom tells Arthur, not because she's scared of becoming attached.
They say that about all the jobs, Arthur says back.
"You don't know shit," Dom snarls.
"You're losing her. I thought you loved her."
"You're losing yourself, Dom."
"Get the fuck out."
He intends to slam the door, but doesn't mean to crack the frame.
Eames doesn't look up from his work, but judging from the small frown on his face, it's obvious he heard enough.
Arthur doesn't bother rolling the die.
Go to sleep.
Recreate your reality.
Mal screams at him.
"I don't need you fighting for me, Arthur. I'm not weak."
"I know that, Mal."
"Keep out of it."
"I just want—"
"Don't. Leave it alone. Maybe I shouldn't have let Dom hire you, if you're just going to get involved in all our problems."
"I'm sorry, but—"
Mal laughs. Dark, dangerous, terrifying. "That's your issue. You can't even apologize properly. Fuck you and your "sorry's"." She slaps him and walks away.
It's not painful.
It's ominous, is what it is.
Two. Two. Two. Six. Three.
He stays standing until he wakes.
Continue where you left off.
He fixes the door the next day. He comes in early, before everyone else. Before Yusuf can mix chemicals or Nash can make architectural plans. He fixes it and Dom nods and Mal smiles and Arthur breathes again.
Eames narrows his eyes at the computer screen.
Arthur ignores the clench in his stomach, and calls a babysitter for Mal.
For the kids, he thinks.
Rewind before the beginning.
"Come sit with me, Arthur."
"Dad wants me, mom."
"Come, sit with me," she repeats.
"What scares you, darling?"
Arthur thinks. "I don't know."
"Come, now. Everyone is scared of something. Did I ever tell you that I'm terrified of bees?"
"Because I was allergic as a child, and I'm too afraid to find out if I still am."
"Can I tell you a secret?" he whispers. "I'm scared of nothing."
She smiles ruefully. "You'll outgrow that."
"Never. I'm invincible."
The job goes horribly.
No one knows for three weeks.
No one knows until one of their own is taken from underneath them.
No one knows, until Eames is gone.
No one knows until he returns, broken and bruised and bloody and unsure. Until he's quiet and reserved and only sleeping when he feels safe.
No one knows.
No one, besides Arthur.
"I made a mistake."
Dom frowns. "It wasn't your fault."
"It was," Arthur says.
"I should've known better."
"Stop beating yourself up," Dom tries.
"I didn't think it would matter."
He sighs. He doesn't understand. "I should go."
"Get some sleep," Dom replies quietly.
He sits, petrified in the corner. His eyes tightly shut and his hands covering his ears, but not stopping the noises from entering. Not stopping the movie playing behind his eyelids.
"Boy. Look at me."
"Sir," he whispers, "I don't want to do this anymore."
"You need to see. You need to learn."
A shake of his head. "I'm tired, daddy."
The man reaches out. Grips his shoulder. "Arthur."
Blood, red and black and grey from brain matter.
He sees his mother. He sees the gun, the limp hand, the lack of a face.
He sees a memory.
"This is what happens when you can't face the consequences. This is real."
"No," Arthur vehemently says. "It's not."
"It's a memory. It's real. It's not reality, but it's true."
He watches as the scene restarts.
He watches as his father shoots her instead. As the projections become interested.
"Mommy, I'm scared," he wants to cry. "Sir, please," he says instead.
He waves the gun in Arthur's direction. "Take this when I'm done. You need to learn. You need to be safe. Don't become her."
"Boy. I'm going to shoot myself. And you're going to do the same."
His sobs of, "Daddy, please," are lost in the noise of a single bullet leaving the chamber.
He doesn't grab the gun. Instead, he chooses to continue sitting against the wall, fingers digging into palms and the scene restarting again, with the addition of the new body.
He doesn't throw up.
He holds his breath and waits for the kick.
Wake up screaming.
Learn from the past.
"Here." He holds out his hand, palm up, loaded red die resting in the center.
"What is this?" Eames asks, cautiously.
"It's a die. I thought, maybe, you could put it with your poker chip. I don't know. Just an idea," Arthur mumbles.
"Is this a joke to you?" Eames asks, not quite bitingly. Just curious.
"No. Never. I just thought that…"
Eames grabs the die, and rolls it. And rolls it again. Again.
"Is this fucking loaded?"
"Jesus, do you think that little of me? Do you think that just because I gamble sometimes, I always cheat?" His voice is rising. "What the fuck is your problem, Arthur?"
"I didn't realize…" Arthur starts.
"That the job was screwed? That one of us was going to get fucked over? Because obviously you did," Eames sneers.
"I'm sorry," he says the floor.
"Fuck you. You can take your apology and shove it up your arse, because I don't accept."
Arthur bites his lip. "Okay," he deflates, and walks back to his desk.
The die is forgotten on the desk.
Watch from a distance.
Press play, but don't get involved.
Mal notices first.
"Why is Arthur's die on your work station?"
Eames looks up. "Oh? He gave it to me. Bloody arsehole."
"He gave it to you?" Mal sounds unsure.
"Mm. He said, and I quote, "I thought, maybe, you could put it with your poker chip." Fucking wanker. He thinks that'll change my mind about him." He glares. "He can't even apologize appropriately."
Mal doesn't slap him, but it looks like she wants to. "You," she shoves her manicured nail at his chest, "are a complete dick."
"How shallow can you get? Arthur shouldn't have to apologize to you. He deserves you groveling at his feet for forgiveness," she snarls.
"He gave me a fucking loaded die, Mal. How is that not mocking me?"
Mal says nothing, and chooses to narrow her eyes at the forger.
"I'm serious, Mal."
"As am I," she says with an air of finality.
Watch the room.
Observe the occupants.
Recall the mistakes.
Apologize to the air.
Fast forward two weeks.
Roll the die.
Two. Two. Two.
Second guess yourself.
Arthur is fine, he tells himself. Arthur is strong. Arthur doesn't need to rely on a totem.
Arthur is lying.
Fast forward three days.
Pause your life.
Cover your eyes.
Hold your breath.
Arthur wakes up in a warehouse.
He's fine. He hurts. It's okay, though.
Arthur sighs, and rubs his sore wrists. Amateurs. Couldn't even tie a proper knot.
"Fuckers," he kicks at a limp form. It groans.
He reaches for his totem.
He shoots himself.
He wakes in a chair.
Dom squints. Mal tilts her head. Eames ignores.
He stops going under. He doesn't know anymore. Doesn't know if it's real or not.
Doesn't know who to believe.
Doesn't know what to believe.
Pause on a memory.
"Can I tell you a secret? I'm scared of nothing."
"You'll outgrow that."
"Never. I'm invincible."
Reconsider your words.
Dom finds Eames absentmindedly rolling the die.
"Where the hell did you get that?"
"Arthur gave it to me," Eames rolls his eyes. "I don't really get it. Is he trying to be funny?"
"Arthur gave you that?" Dom asks incredulously.
Eames narrows his eyes. "Funny. Mal had the same reaction."
"You need to talk to Arthur."
And that's the end of that.
This is what Arthur does:
Arthur sleeps. Arthur wakes. Arthur lives. Arthur dies.
He forgets, gets confused, rolls the die, and curses as it always always always lands on two.
Arthur drinks too much coffee. Arthur shakes. Arthur second guesses himself every single time he checks his totem.
Pause. Change scenes.
This is what Eames does:
He watches Arthur.
He rolls the die.
He watches Arthur as he rolls the die.
Eames observes as the point man flinches with each casual touch from Mal or Dom. As he avoids the PASIV, choosing to stay behind in case things get dirty. He watches as Arthur palms something in his pocket, as he frowns, and meets Eames' gaze.
He watches as Arthur turns around, pulls something out, and pauses.
Eames sees Arthur turn around as he pockets something.
Eames sees the flash of red. The edge of a square.
He looks down at his hand. Looks at the die.
Looks at Arthur.
And finally, he sees it.
They're running through the maze of the hotel, bullets whizzing past them and through them.
But he's not. He can't feel anything below his waist.
"I'm fine," he repeats, less convincingly.
Eames kneels down next to him, and partially carries him to a closet nearby. He pulls the chain to the light. They both wince.
"Shit, shit, fuck." He attempts to staunch the flow of blood. "I'm so sorry."
"Why?" Arthur gasps out.
"You gave me your totem," Eames says gently.
"Oh, I didn't…didn't me-mean to."
"Oh," and Eames sounds sad.
"Don…don't get the wro-wrong idea. I th-thought I…I gave you a rep...a replica." Arthur wheezes. "Oh, fuck, it hurts."
Eames bites his lip. "I know, I know. Just wait."
"Yeah. We still have an hour."
But if he slides closer to Arthur, well, that's nobody's business.
"I'm sorry," he tells Arthur.
"You fixed the door frame."
"I don't th-think I'm…I'm going to make it an h-hour."
"You got me coffee," Eames continues, pressing down harder on the wound.
Arthur lets out an indignant laugh, whether it's from the pain or from the memory, Eames isn't sure.
Arthur isn't, either.
"Damn ex-expensive shit."
"You gave me your totem." He takes off his shirt, wads it up, and pushes that against the entrance point, instead.
"Replica," Arthur gasps. "Fuck, put you…your shirt back on."
"See something you like?" Eames jokes.
And Arthur laughs, but says nothing.
"Arthur?" Eames inquires cautiously.
"Sorry," he whispers.
"Shit, don't. Don't apologize." Eames hardens his gaze. "Prove it to me. Prove how sorry you are."
Arthur lets out a small chuckle. "You-you would s-say that." He meets Eames' eyes. "You're on."
He doesn't make it an hour. Neither of them expected him to. But if Eames stays next to his body, still unrelenting on the wound, long after he's gone, well, that's just his little secret.
He rolls the die.
And if he presses a chaste kiss to his forehead, well, that's not really relevant to the story, is it?
Pause for a second.
Watch the credits roll by.
Like some stories, this one doesn't begin in any certain place or in any specific way.
It does, however, end with a beginning.
It ends with a dream. With an apology. With a loss.
It ends with Arthur.
It ends with Eames.
It ends with a loaded red die.