author: Fee (linckia_blue)
word count: approx. 15,500 (omg. how the fuck did that happen?)
disclaimer: I do not claim profit or ownership of any recognizable plots/characters.
warnings: non-linear narrative, non-graphic talk of torture and violence
summary: Arthur wakes up and realizes the last ten years of his life have been a dream. He is nineteen, and he can barely remember where he is. What he can remember is the ghost of Eames’ hands pressed down on his chest trying frantically to stop the blood flooding up around his fingers as Arthur died (as he woke up).
This story now has a gorgeously awesome title-card/fanart thing by hermine which you can see (here).
FEATURING ARTHUR IN HIS ARMY SHIRT. YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO SEE THAT.
Also, many thanks to sofiacorsten for translating this fic into Russian. Her translation can be found (here).
(FYI: This link goes to a Russian website that I don't know much about. I've never had any problems, but click at your own risk.)
EXCITING NEWS: Also see the brilliant podcast version of this fic, read by the incomparable podcath and crinklysolution. Links for download can be found in (this post).
In Our Line of Work
In the years after Arthur woke up from the long dream, he would sometimes sit up in the night, rigid with shock and throw himself forward in the bed, coughing and sweating and scrambling to turn the lights on as though the swell of yellow against his walls might crush down the panic climbing up his throat. He would always calm himself by remembering that he hadn’t felt surprised at all when it happened for real; he’d woken up and known. It was as simple as that.
Arthur woke up and he knew that it had all been a dream.
There was the feeling of sedative, loose and heavy in his limbs. He blinked his eyes slowly open to a bleakly white-grey ceiling. Everything was blurred around the edges so he rubbed his eyes, yawning and knowing; knowing the life he’d lived had never existed.
It felt like reality. Of course, life had felt real in the dream, but now that he was awake, everything felt truly real, as though real-ness was an ache under the surface of his skin and in his bones and running like a cord of nerves down the length of his spine.
When Arthur woke up it was like waking up always was: he felt like he’d been asleep a long time. Arthur was very good at telling how long he’d been under: twenty-three hours and five minutes exactly. The calculations came fluidly. Assuming he had been three layers down (which seemed about right for the vivid quality of the dream) he’d dreamed ten years of life.
He fumbled at the floor beneath the bed for his totem; of course, it wasn’t there. He hadn’t even heard of totems until he’d been shared-dreaming for nearly two years. He expected some sense of fear at the lack of that essential safety net, but he already knew he was awake now. The die would be useless anyway; irrevocably jeopardized by the fact that he’d once believed the faithfully repeated number four and it had lied all along.
He rolled halfway over, just enough to see the date in glowing print beneath the time on his radio alarm clock. It was the thirtieth of November, and Arthur was nineteen years old.
He’d just been in another place – a place where he was twenty-nine and dying in the semi-detached house just outside of London curled into Eames’ arms, surrounded by hit men, when the world had melted away and he’d woken up and known that he’d lived ten years of life in a world that didn’t exist.
The alarm clock was the same one he’d thrown out his window in a fit of rage after Mal died. That was four years into the dream life.
He sat up. His grey t-shirt, with ‘ARMY’ printed across the front in dark blue letters was hanging from the bedpost. He picked it up; it still smelled of sweat. This life was faded and far away, but Arthur figured he must have been running in this shirt yesterday the morning before. He remembered that he used to go running, back when he was in the army, and nineteen. He used to run before he had anything worth running from.
Except, he was nineteen now. Now he ran just for the feel of his legs stretching out and covering ground.
Arthur had cleaned the bathroom floor with an old scrap of that same shirt last week. Last week he’d researched a job Ariadne needed a little extra help with. Eames had made salad niçoise for lunch and they ate it on the floor of the living room watching a rerun of Grand Designs, which Arthur liked because he could always predict exactly how many days over the deadline the house remodel would run.
The following Monday he and Eames had been fighting with each other in the kitchen, too loud to notice the front door creaking open. Too angry to hear the telltale snick and click of guns. On Monday, Arthur died and woke up.
Arthur looked at the clock again, and remembered why the date was familiar. It was the day after he’d first found out about dream-sharing. The commander had pulled him aside, and told him that there was an important job he had been specially selected for, and to please meet him in the training room at fourteen hundred hours. Arthur had gone, and discovered what he was meant for.
He’d met Cobb a few months later on his second job, extracting from a general in the Russian military. Then Cobb had met Mal (already a criminal), who helped them both transition to the other side of the law after government dream-sharing fell apart. The year after that, Arthur met Eames…
Eames, he thought suddenly, and surprise finally shuddered over his shoulders. Oh God, Eames.
Arthur met Eames when he was twenty-one. He was angry back then. He was angry at the military for chewing up it’s best and brightest and spitting them into murky water, and angry that he’d been stupid enough to get too caught up in dream-sharing to work in anything else. He was angry he’d killed men when he hadn’t meant to, and let men who should be dead escape. Mostly, he was angry that he didn’t know who he was yet.
They pulled a job together that nearly went to hell too many times, and afterwards, Eames got Arthur drunk while they ate fish and chips in London. Eames slid his hand under Arthur’s shirt and pressed his thumb into the softest part of Arthur’s hip as they laughed in the lights reflected from the River Thames. Arthur forgot to be angry for a little while.
Arthur figured himself out the next year. When he met Eames again, Arthur had learned to be a point man and he’d learned to know things other people didn’t and he’d learned to be thin and quick and sharp rather than angular and gawky. He learned to stand still for a suit fitting. Eames taught him that.
“Arthur, you fidget during when they do the inseam,” Eames said, chewing on the end of a cigarette. “Don’t be a Eton schoolboy, darling. In fact, perhaps Eton schoolboys have more class in a tailor’s shop.... I’m sure I did, anyway.”
Arthur watched Eames change, too. When he first met Eames, there wasn’t a trace of subtlety to him. Everything about Eames seemed theatre-trained, or thief-trained, and the two halves mixed like water and oil on Eames’s skin -- which is to say, they barely mixed at all. Eames was too fast with his emotion, almost unstable, and he was too sure he knew best to choose the right thing every time. But he grew up. They grew up, together.
They fucked in hotel rooms across Europe and once in a boat between Japan and China, and when they weren’t somewhere together Eames sent Arthur postcards and packages with cigars Arthur never smoked but saved all the same.
They hated each other. Arthur fell in love with the feeling of hating Eames. He laughed when Eames left bruises on the inside of his thighs and he smiled too wide (so wide it hurt) when Eames left his goddamn tea cups next to the sofa for Arthur to accidentally step on and nearly kill himself falling over.
Arthur fell in love, knowing Eames was the only person in the world Arthur could hate so well. It wasn’t something they talked about, but it was a fact draped between continents and the jobs they pulled – the streaking line of a light across film on a long-exposure camera.
So maybe they were in love, but it wasn’t something they talked about. It wasn’t something they could talk about. Arthur was careful to make sure they didn’t need anything more than the unspoken; Eames didn’t always agree. That was what they had been fighting about on Monday night. For Eames, Monday night was the night Arthur died. For Arthur it was the night he woke up.
Only, none of that ever happened.
Maybe Eames didn’t exist. Maybe none of them existed (not Cobb or Mal or Yusuf or Saito or Ariadne or Nash that bastard or Tanya from the café down the street or Beanie, the kid who sold him newspapers and gum).
Arthur didn’t believe it, though. He couldn’t. He’d have nothing if he didn’t believe that they were out there somewhere, waking up just like him. He knew the difference between a real person and a projection, and he knew the difference between a genuine person and a forgery (he knew that very well). So what if he learned it all in a world that didn’t exist -- he still knew, he still knew.
He’d just have to find them. (He’d have to find Eames.)
Dear Subject No. 23657,
Thank you for your help in the extremely sensitive experimentation program on extended shared-dreaming. The Extended Expansive Uninterrupted Use of PASIV Controlled Dreaming project has been a carefully planned goal and your contribution to the project is deeply important to the safety of your country and fellow Americans.
Due to the undisclosed nature of the project, you will be briefed with further information approximately four hours after your awakening. During this time we ask that you collect your memories of life before the extended dream.
After the briefing, your memories of the dream will be terminated to better help you re-acclimate to your work here in the military.
Extended dreaming is new territory in dream-share technology. It has great potential for dealing with war criminal psychosis in a humane fashion and as a way to simulate the possible outcomes of world events. We are certain the technology has further, unexplored depths, which your work will help us to understand.
We understand it creates a vivid experience for the dreamer. The important thing to remember as you wake is that none of what you remember is real. Nothing in that place is real. You are awake now. This is real.
That was what the letter on the army-issued dresser said.
Arthur understood with biting clarity that he was dealing with the most dangerous sort of military force. Whoever had put him into the dream was an idiot with a lot of power who didn’t understand their own technology or their own soldiers.
He stood up and tried the door. It was locked, of course.
The people who put him here were stupid, though; the window opened easily. He pulled the screen in through the window and looked down. His room was three floors up (just like it had always been), but the wall was made of rough-hewn brick. It would be terribly easy to climb down. He swung his leg over the window ledge.
As he was climbing down the wall, his hands began to hurt in a way they hadn’t since he was so young, and he remembered again that he was that young, the crushing force of which made him clings tightly to the wall. He’d never climbed anything like a vertical wall in this life. Military training prepared him for some things; this was the kind of work that being a thief taught him. Thank God he still knew how to do this. The calluses and the muscle memory would come again, with a little time.
He dropped down to the gravel silently and tried to recall which way the training armoury was. His hair was bristled and short under his fingers as he rubbed his hand over his head in frustration. He took the wrong left twice. He moved liquidly despite his shaky memory. He felt like he could breath twice as much air as he needed. The stiffness in his left leg from that gunshot wound was totally gone, and he could stretch his elbow out all the way again. Nineteen was young compared to twenty-nine, but it was very young compared to the hard worn twenty-nine Arthur had been. He was practically brand new.
He finally made it to the armoury. The door codes hadn’t been changed, which shouldn’t have been so surprising since it had only been a day since he last opened them. He was looking for anything he could conceal under his closely tailored suit jacket when he realised he wasn’t wearing a closely tailored suit jacket. He settled for a holstered handgun, dropping it low around his waist.
There was a noise from the door, and Arthur turned slowly and silently, hoping the sound was only a shuffling mouse or the wind shifting the leaves.
“Hey, is someone in here?” A voice called. It was someone Arthur knew. He hadn’t heard the voice in years (or hours, depending on how you looked at it) but his perfect recall supplied a face, and the name Private Jeffery P. Baker. They had been friends, once.
“Jeff? It’s just me: Arthur,” he said, trying to affect the slight nervousness of someone ten years younger and far less competent than Arthur felt.
“Arthur?” Jeff replied sounding confused. “Huh, they said you were on a field mission and not to expect you in until Thursday.”
“Oh, well, finished early,” Arthur said.
“What are you doing in here?” There was a click, and the fizzing sound of electricity The overhead fluorescent lamps snapped on, flooding the room with sterile green-white light.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Arthur said, slowly. “Insomnia.”
Jeff was looking at him strangely. It was technically against the rules for Arthur to be in here after hours, but not so much so that Jeff would be looking at Arthur like that, like he was afraid Arthur wasn’t even who he’s said he was.
“You look different,” Jeff said after a minute. Arthur inwardly sighed at himself. He’d never been a good actor (that was always Eames’ job). It was really no wonder he looked different to Jeff, and it was no wonder Arthur couldn’t hide it. Ten years change people in ways that seem physical even if they’re not.
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, trying to play dumb.
“I dunno?” Jeff said, hesitantly. “You’re standing up too straight. You look tired. You look…kinda scary. Jeez, man, are you okay?”
“Sure, sure, I’m fine,” Arthur said.
“I don’t know,” Jeff replied, shifting his grip on the standard-issue gun he was carrying. “You seem really different. Look, I’m gonna call Lieutenant Rogers in, yeah?”
“I’m afraid we can’t have that happening,” Arthur said, quietly. “You see, I am trying to escape without detection. I don’t count you as detection but I do count the Lieutenant.”
“Arthur?” Jeff asked, a distinct nervous shake edging into his voice.
Arthur smiled wryly and tugged the gun from the holster, pulling back the slide and clicking off the safety smoothly. “Put down your gun, Jeff.”
“What the fuck, Arthur?” Jeff said, eyes going wide and shocked. “You look like…like you’re gonna kill me if I do something wrong.”
“I would kill you,” Arthur replied, flatly. “Jeff, I must applaud your observational skills, you’ll make an excellent soldier some day. Here is some advice. Whatever you see in me that made you understand I’m a different person today than I was yesterday – remember it. This is what happens to someone when they’ve been thoroughly fucked over by an institution they thought they trusted. This is what happens to someone when the only thing they’ve ever really loved is taken away from them – or when they find it was a lie to begin with. You remember it. Maybe someday it’ll save your life.”
Arthur kept the gun trained steadily on Jeff’s chest. He was sure he hadn’t been able to hold a gun like that when he was nineteen. Jeff certainly looked like he’d never seen Arthur hold a gun like that before -- like Arthur knew very well what to do with it.
Arthur slid into the safe blanket of darkness out the doors. He was long gone before Private Jeffery P. Baker unfroze enough from his shock to call the lieutenant.
Two days later found Arthur in a joke shop wearing a new off the rack three-piece designer suit. It was a nice suit. It fit him well. The pinstripe was thinner than usual, which Arthur liked. But it wasn’t the product of a personal favour, and it wasn’t close to what he’d once owned (never owned).
Arthur looked at the rows of loaded die and shifted uncomfortably into the not-quite-right lines fabric. He thought longingly of his closet in the house near London with the handmade three-piece grey English suit and his cashmere sweaters and his straight, precise ties and his long 32 oz. wool navy pea coat.
He picked up a package of green dice. The note on the side said they’d land with the four face up, and Arthur set them back down. He needed a different number. He remembered making his previous totem, the chemical stink of the liquid plastic and red dye.
There had been three of them. One, Arthur kept. One, Arthur mailed to his mother’s house with instructions to burry it in the garden under the snail statue. The last was for Eames, which he’d slid into his pocket smiling at Arthur from the side of his mouth the way he did when he was thinking about secrets, presumably to clink pleasantly against the black painted one-hundred percent clay of his poker chip, (the same chip Eames’ grandfather had won in 1943 in Monte Carlo).
He decided couldn’t buy cheap dice, which might have meant anything to anyone. He left the store. He was in Vegas. Arthur liked Vegas when he’d used to go as a man with connections (as a criminal, also) because people knew him.
He’d glance around at the old Vegas types, dotted there at a bar and here at a poker table which looked like all the others but wasn’t for anyone who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, and the Vegas types would nod. A tip down of the chin to say, I see you. I know you know who you are and who we are, and everyone of us is a smart shark.
It wasn’t the same now. Even dressed up so carefully and with the kind of easy, gliding walk that people who know who they are and what they are carry, Arthur looked young. Even if he was older in many ways, the restless energy that had driven him to dream-sharing in the first place was back like an itch just beneath the surface of his skin.
He slid into an empty seat at a bar and set his elbows against the table. The bartender turned to serve Arthur, despite the long line of women in terribly short skirts hanging from the arms of tall, broad men.
“Hey,” the first in the line said. “I was next.”
“Wait your fucking turn,” the bartender said, amicably. “What can I get you?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur replied, picking at a slightly crumpled napkin left on the bar. “Something hard and expensive.”
The bartender gave him half a smile. “One of those days, huh?” he said.
One of those lifetimes, Arthur thought, but he didn’t say it. He just nodded bleakly. The bartender set two fingers of whisky in a crystal glass on the bar in front of him and Arthur tipped it back. The burn felt new and familiar at the same time, dirty-hot settling in his stomach, and Arthur blinked at the wetness welling in his eyes and thought that if he was a different person, this would be the start of the kind of night that would end with Arthur sobbing and throwing up in a garbage bin.
“I’m wondering if I should card you,” the bartender said, after a moment.
Arthur raised his gaze from the smooth grain of the bar top and stared at the bartender. He was much older than Arthur, with a touch of brown stubble under his jaw line just like Eames’. Arthur laughed the kind of laugh that grated painfully at the back of his throat. “Really?” he asked.
The bartender studied him for a long moment. “No,” he said. “Maybe not.”
A man broke away from the back of the line just then. He inclined his head towards the stool next to Arthur, asking with the tilt of his chin, is this seat taken? Arthur shook his head.
“Can I buy you a drink?” the man asked.
“No,” Arthur replied.
“But the seat isn’t taken?” the man said, sounding a little confused.
“No,” Arthur said. He shrugged. “I let you take the seat so I could steal this poker chip from you.”
“What?” the man asked even as Arthur set the chip on the table between them. It was black – one hundred dollars. “What the fuck?” the man said, shoving his hand into his pocket and realising a chip was in fact missing. “Did you just steal that from me?”
“Yes, I just said I did, so you can assume I did,” Arthur said, wryly.
“What the fuck?” the man repeated, laughing now. “How did you do that?”
Arthur looked down at the bar top again. “It’s a secret. The man whose seat you’re sitting in taught me how to do that.”
The man looked at Arthur, confused. He turned to the bartender who was still standing close enough to be paying attention. “He just stole that chip from me.”
The bartender laughed. “Well take it back,” he said. “It’s sitting right there.”
The both seemed to think that Arthur was playing a kind of game. Arthur was, in a way. A different game than the one they assumed, though. The man moved to pick up the chip, but Arthur got there first and dropped it into the inside pocket of his vest. “Oops,” said Arthur. His voice had a bland tilt to it, exactly the opposite of his deft, quick hands. “Can you remember the room number 528?” Arthur said.
“Sure,” the man replied, eyes widening. He was taller than Arthur but with the same thin build, and dark hair. Arthur didn’t think they’d fit together well even if Arthur intended on taking him up on the offer he was clearly giving with the coy, open lean of his body against the bar.
“Good,” Arthur said. He slid of his stool and left. The man never saw him again.
Arthur took his first ever job in dream-sharing two and a half months after he woke up from his life. He was still only nineteen. His first ever job in real life was a much better one than his other first ever job had been.
That first job had been the kind with too many disasters for how simple the plan was. Extracting from one businessman for another. It was corporate espionage at it’s most basic, boring level – the kind of thing that Arthur could already do in his sleep by the time he’d met Eames or started to work with Cobb and Mal.
This time around it was still corporate espionage but the mark was highly militarised, and Arthur had a hell of a lot of background research to do. Even more complicated was the fact that the mark was bipolar. His subconscious was deeply unstable and Arthur had to set up of lot of complex shit with the architecture and sedatives and handling of the projections or else they’d all end up trapped in a bubble of mood swings.
Arthur took the job over the phone. He didn’t have a network like he used to (metaphorical acres of people connected to people who could get Arthur anywhere and anything) and worse, he didn’t have a reputation yet. The processes were still the same. Arthur at least knew the places to go and the kinds of things he needed to say to get what he wanted.
He began his notebook again. Arthur’s notebook had been a thing of legend in the dream life. Even people who didn’t know Arthur had heard of his notebook. The world of dream-sharing was one of tenuous connections. The closest that anyone had to a big picture which might give an idea of how many people were involved or where they were or what they did and had done was in that notebook.
Despite himself, Arthur found it fascinating to discover what parts of that other world had been completely faked and which were real. From what he could guess so far, people whom Arthur had worked with in person a few times were either projections of real people, or people who’d been in the dream and forgotten it. This was useful, because Arthur could remember phone numbers and addresses and sometimes if he’d held leverage over them before, it still worked.
Arthur hadn’t found anything to confirm that anyone had lived that ten-year life in the dream with him. The dream itself had been shockingly well crafted. Arthur only appreciated it now, as he pieced together histories in the new notebook.
The warehouse they were working out of was in Munich. Arthur liked flying to Munich. On the plane, with his perfectly forged passport, he almost felt like himself again. He’d had to write his age in as twenty-four; he’d wanted to put twenty-nine, but it would have been pushing boundaries too far. He stared at the birthday sometimes when he had trouble falling asleep, hating the fact that he couldn’t even fake himself into the person he felt like he was.
He finished almost all the research and sent it off to the extractor before he ever met anyone on the team face to face.
Arthur pulled up to the warehouse in a sleek black car. He turned the collar of his long navy coat up against the cold. It was an almost exact replica of his coat from the dream. Arthur went to four navy surplus stores in three different states to find it.
Ramirez, the extractor, and Clark, the architect, were already setting up models of the city blocks the dream was set in. Arthur coughed politely as he approached them to give warning. He knew he was too silent on his feet for them to notice him otherwise, and Arthur had nearly been accidentally shot by Eames too many times not to know that people in the dream-sharing business never scared well.
Arthur had a silver briefcase containing his specially designed PASIV in one hand. They needed the PASIV because of the bipolar issue.
“Hey, kid,” Clark said in stunted German, squinting at him. “This is private fucking property. Turn around and back off.”
“I’m Arthur,” Arthur said, setting the PASIV on the floor.
“Right,” Ramirez said, raising an eyebrow. “You’re Arthur. Arthur who sent me the most precise little fucking plans I’ve ever seen and who knows how to rig his own PASIV and who drops names like he’s a fucking Rockefeller? I don’t think so. You look like a twelve year old.”
Arthur shrugged. He didn’t say anything.
“Look, kid,” he continued. “It’s not like I’ve never met a child prodigy, but all the diagrams and work and shit you sent to us doesn’t have that theoretical flare. That stuff was the real deal. I can tell the difference. There is smart and then there is knowing shit. Gritty realism. You can’t be old enough for that. So turn your ass around and send me Arthur.”
“Do you want to test me?” Arthur said, monotone.
Ramirez sighed and glanced at Clark who inclined his head as if to say, why not?
“Fine,” Ramirez grumbled, crossing the room to a leather couch coughing stuffing from multiple splits at the seams. “Come on, kid, let’s have a go.”
Arthur tugged a folding chair away from a corner and sat down across from Ramirez who was sprawled across the decrepit sofa. Clark slipped the needles into their wrists deftly and Arthur tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes again to a park. It looked like every park Arthur had ever been to. He could recognize bits and pieces here and there. The benches were straight from Hyde Park in London and the trees were all tall, tired Eucalyptus, those lithe silver beige and green giants that covered California.
Light filtered dimly through the trees. Arthur stood up and smiled darkly as the familiar weight of an assault rifle dropped from nowhere into his hands. Across the park a band of men in black militant uniforms were already assembling.
Ramirez tried out simulation after simulation on Arthur, but there was never anything he couldn’t handle. It was all routine, and predictable. Arthur could do predictable drunk and drugged if he had to. There wasn’t anything like Cobb’s shade of Mal or like the sudden discovery that death would land you in limbo or like the job he and Eames had once pulled where they were tricked into fighting each other rather than the projections and only figured it out when it was nearly too late.
Ramirez found him after what Arthur judged to be four hours. Arthur was covered in rivulets of crimson blood, but barely any of it was his. His hair felt long – back to the length it had been in the dream-life and there was a thin line of sweat along his hairline.
“I am…surprised,” Ramirez said. “Really. I guess, I should say it’s very nice to meet you, Arthur. Fucking hell, you can put up a fight, huh? I mean, the bit where you flipped the trees upside down – that was something.”
Arthur smiled thin lipped and with a tiny thrill of pleased satisfaction. He’d forgotten how good it felt to work in a dream. Two and half months was a long time without it. He dropped the gun he was holding and it melted into water as it touched the ground. He accepted Ramirez’s hand for a shake.
“I have to ask,” Ramirez said, “why make yourself so much older in the dream? It’s only a simulation, and only me after all.”
“What?” Arthur said.
“You look about thirty,” Ramirez explained. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you looked like a teenager before, either.”
Arthur looked down at his hands. The scars on his hands were back. He recognized the marks on his left hand from the time he was tortured by the Russian Mafia and also the almost invisible glass cut from when Eames set Arthur on the kitchen counter and Arthur stuck his hand through a wine glass when Eames unzipped Arthur’s trousers with his teeth.
“Oh,” Arthur murmured, surprised. “Well,” he said, seeing no reason to lie completely. “Have you ever met someone who fell into limbo?” he asked.
“Jesus Christ,” Ramirez whispered at the implication. “Are you saying you’ve been stuck down there?”
“No,” Arthur replied, hand in his pocket and slipping the black poker chip through his fingers, feeling for the place where the ‘E’ carved into the surface wasn’t. “I’m saying what happened to me was worse.”
Arthur told Eames he loved him exactly twice during that ten-year dream. The first time, Arthur was twenty-five and Eames was twenty-nine and they were at the pinnacle of everything. They had been together long enough that Arthur wasn’t turning around every second afraid that Eames might have slipped from his grasp when he wasn’t looking but not long enough to depend on him, to be sometimes almost living together or to know what Eames was thinking when he looked out train windows with a sad, tired weight over his shoulders.
They were in a grocery store in Saigon and Arthur was staring at a refrigerated crate of durian fruit like it was going to hurt him, which it probably could have. Eames’ thumb was tangled into Arthur’s back belt loop and the store was lit fluorescently so things seemed close and visceral and angry and beautiful.
“Do you think we lost them?” Arthur asked, a little breathless.
“Sure,” Eames said grinning with his teeth as he craned his neck around the tampon aisle.
“Eames,” Arthur said, laughing out of the corners of his mouth like he was bleeding the sound. He wrenched Eames further towards him so they couldn’t be seen from the windows. “Don’t, they might see. And you don’t think we’ve lost them at all. I can tell when you’re lying.”
“No you can’t,” Eames said.
In fact, Arthur could tell when Eames was lying but he’d only just learned. It was a brand new feeling to notice the way Eames’ mouth twisted down to the left just slightly when he wasn’t telling the whole truth. Twenty-five was an age that made Arthur think he’d already experienced all the new feelings worth experiencing so when a new one like this came along, like this, he fell into it madly, exhilarated.
Eames went silent as Arthur led him down the bread aisle. Then, they were staring at each other in the silence with the loaves of French bakery bread leaning down from the higher shelves like an arched lattice.
Arthur was so close to Eames he could feel their collective heat underneath his skin, and Eames smelled like cheap deodorant and expensive cologne and, inexplicably, wet wool in winter. Arthur’s hands were already on Eames jacket, but he found himself curling his long fingers into fists around the fabric, and Eames was looking down at Arthur like he could tell when Arthur was lying too, and they were so fucking close.
They hadn’t kissed since the night before, and Arthur wanted to so badly all of the sudden, but the door to the small market crashed open with a little too much zeal for someone simply looking to do shopping.
“Shit,” Arthur whispered.
“Did they see our faces?” Eames asked rapidly, quiet enough that Arthur wouldn’t have heard him if there was even an inch of space between them.
“No,” Arthur said, “I was careful. But it’s not like there are a whole lot of westerners lazing around in Saigon supermarkets.”
“Just follow my lead,” Eames replied. And pulled away from Arthur explosively. He grabbed a loaf jar of pickles from the nearby shelf and threw it at the floor next to Arthur’s feet.
“You fucker!” Eames screamed in French. “You swore you’d never sleep with that whore again!”
Arthur swallowed in surprise, but his hesitation was only slight before he yelled back, still in French “I never touched her, asshole! You’re the one who ran off with that good for nothing tennis instructor last year. I’m faithful, you dick!”
For good measure, Arthur ripped open a bag of sliced bread and threw three pieces at Eames head. The flour powdered his shirt dusty white, and Eames screamed like he laughed: loud and broad and inclusive.
Three store employees came around the corner a second later, half-way through Eames’ monologue about how Arthur could no longer fulfil his sexual needs, and Arthur launched himself at Eames throwing carefully judged stage punches. One of the employees shoved her broom handle between them to pry them apart. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur caught sight of a tall man in a long black leather coat. His hand was deep in his pocket like he might be holding a gun. Arthur threw himself towards Eames with further abandon.
“Merde! Merde! Vous êtes une merde!” Arthur screamed.
“Please, stop! You must leave,” the tiny Vietnamese woman with the broom said, caught between anger and nervousness. She hit Eames hard with the broom across his wrists and he let go of Arthur, rubbing at his hands.
“Duoc. Xin loi. Toi xin loi.” Eames said, backing away. His accent was atrocious, but Arthur knew he must have been putting it on. His Vietnamese was usually perfect. He tilted his chin to the side, a gesture if Arthur were looking for one.
“Drive me home. I’m taking my stuff. I’m leaving. You shit.” Arthur really couldn’t not laugh anymore. Jesus Christ. Eames was going to have a bruise from being beaten with a broom. He let himself crumble into hysterics curling in on himself like he was sobbing instead of cracking up.
They were three blocks away before Eames consented to stop yelling at Arthur in French. He collapsed against a wall leaning his head back against it as he laughed in huge gorgeous gulps. Arthur fell into him, leaning his head onto Eames’ shoulder shaking with fits of hysterics.
“Oh my God…” Arthur gasped. “The broom! She was at least five feet smaller than you.”
“Shut up, shut up,” Eames said, finally calming enough to breath.
Arthur sighed as he his laughter trailed off. He felt weightless, and it made him a little scared. “Come on,” he said, glancing behind him. “We better go. They’re still looking for us.”
Eames nodded, returning his thumb to Arthur’s belt loop as they crossed the street.
They checked out of the resort and spa hotel they’d been staying at knowing it would probably be under surveillance by nightfall. Arthur made a few calls and they ended up knocking on the backdoor of a beautiful house in one of the gated communities filled with rich westerners.
“Arthur!” the woman who answered to door cried, opening her arms.
“Auntie May,” Arthur said catching her up in a one armed hug. Eames cocked his head as if to ask, is she really your aunt? and Arthur shook his head, no in response, vehemently.
“May, this is my friend and business partner, Mr Eames,” Arthur said, stepping out of the way while Eames shook her hand. “Eames,” Arthur continued, “This is Mrs May Smith. I helped her husband’s business out of a little trouble a few years back.”
“Oh, Arthur’s always underplaying his work,” May said, tugging them into a huge open room. Plates of fresh fruit under decorated mosquito nets were set out on the thick wooden table. “He saved us when we were sure nothing could.”
“Well, that’s Arthur, isn’t it,” Eames said, raising an eyebrow. “Paragon of virtue, suspensor of good deeds.”
Arthur rolled his eyes when May turned away to pick up a slice of dragon fruit. He made a made a motion with his hands that implied he’s been paid very well for ‘saving’ the Smiths.
They talked aimlessly for a few minutes, and Eames yawned expansively, which prompted May to tell them they must have had a long day and to go up to bed. “Arthur’s room in the Yellow room on the left of the hall and Eames, you’re in the Green room on the right.”
“Thank you ever so much, ma’am,” Eames said, smiling charmingly and kissing May on the cheek as he passed her on his way up the stairs. She blushed, looking younger despite her graying hair and old hands. Arthur followed after him smiling that flash-quick smile, there one second and gone the next.
The Yellow room was large and airy. Arthur didn’t turn the lights on but he could see the old gold colour of the frames on the walls and the buttermilk of the huge plush duvet.
Arthur stripped out of his suit until he was wearing only his underwear. The suit was a lighter fabric than he usually liked – it was too humid in Saigon to wear anything heavier. It was wrinkled from running for half the day and he shook it out gently and threw it over the back of a chaise in the window alcove.
There was more fruit on a side table and Arthur took a piece of melon, eating it a little messily as he sat on the edge of the bed. It was dark and quiet. Only the hush of the oscillating fan in the corner of the room broke the stillness in the room. Arthur felt wide awake – still high on adrenaline and feeling like he was vibrating in a world much to slow and soft to contain him.
Arthur lay back on the covers. A strange emptiness settled over him. He reached out blindly and took another piece of melon, eating it almost furtively.
I think I feel lonely, Arthur realized with surprise.
He turned on his side so that his back was to the door. There was a tiny crack in the shutters. Arthur could see magnolia leaves lit blackly by the moon through the sliver of space. He watched the leaves shift breezily for a long time. Everything smelled sweet and clean and Arthur pushed his face into the pillows, breathing deeply and slowly.
He dropped his hand over the side of the bed and picked up the gun from where it was lying, partially covered by the dust ruffle.
“It’s just me, Arthur,” Eames whispered as the bed dipped with his weight. Arthur released his hold on the gun, which clinked with a plastic-on-metal sound as it hit his die.
“Hi,” Arthur said, turning over to look at Eames. Eames was stripped down to his underwear and a wife beater with three holes just above the hem, which revealed spots of tanned skin.
“Hello,” Eames said, rolling so that he could slide his arm over Arthur’s side and draw them flush together, pressing a hand to the middle of Arthur’s back. “Jesus,” Eames murmured against Arthur’s mouth, not really kissing him, just breathing with him, “You’re practically shaking.”
“You say that like it’s unusual,” Arthur said, huffing crossly.
“Mmm, my Arthur,” Eames whispered, “so high-strung.”
“Kiss me properly,” Arthur said, ignoring Eames’ taunt. Eames slid their mouths together wetly, rolling so that Arthur was caged between his arms and pressing down over him hot and slick and velvety and Eames’ mouth slid to Arthur’s neck and then back to his lips, smiling into the kiss when Arthur gasped little breaths.
Eames fucked Arthur like he kissed him, languid and soft even when Arthur wrenched them close and moved with an almost angry edge, panting things like more and harder. Then they were blissed out and against each other gently, and Eames fell asleep with his face pressed between the pillows and Arthur’s shoulder, breathing long, exhausted, even breaths. The sound lulled the tension out of Arthur’s spine like other things couldn’t.
“I love you,” Arthur said to Eames, because Eames was asleep and he’d never know Arthur had said it; because he was afraid it would be real if Eames heard him.
“I love you,” Arthur said to Eames, because it was true and Arthur was more afraid that it wouldn’t be real if he never said the words out loud.
Only, none of that ever happened.
Four months after Arthur woke up, he was in Paris following a lead. Arthur been taking easy jobs here and there, but the only consistency in his life was looking for leads on the Extended Expansive Uninterrupted Use of PASIV Controlled Dreaming project. He was searching for Eames, really, but he liked to tell himself that he’d feel better if he found anyone he’d known in that world who remembered it.
He found some information in Clark’s notes, which had given him the number of someone in the SAS. Arthur’s conversation with the SAS officer was largely useless for finding out specifics, but he’d recognized those vague reference words that usually signified something connected to dream-sharing. From there Arthur had figured out that an event of interest to dream-share technology had concluded about a month ago in France.
It was enough for a tiny, dangerous spark of hope.
Arthur spent the first two days in Paris slipping effortlessly in and out of underground government databases, and finding absolutely nothing useful. On the third day, tired, stressed out and utterly rigid with frustrated tension, Arthur allowed himself a break.
He sat on a bench overlooking the River Seine, eyes darting to follow the slow-moving boats ferrying tourists up past the Eiffel Tower. The colour of the water was just the same as it had been when he met Eames and they’d watched the Thames, all grey-blue and glinting like an old nickel.
“Oh my God,” a girl’s voice said behind him. Arthur recognized it instantly. He had to forcefully make himself look down at his notebook to stop himself from leaping to his feet.
Arthur was wearing a hat tipped low over his face and the collar of his pea coat was turned up, which might have explained why, when another girl’s voice cut over the first to ask: “What? What’s wrong?” Ariadne only replied: “Sorry, I thought I saw someone I knew. Never mind though, it’s just my imagination.”
“Is this about that dream again?” the girl Arthur didn’t recognize questioned.
“Yeah, I guess,” Ariadne said. She sounded sad. “I don’t want to talk about it. You already think I’m a nutcase.”
“Ari, don’t be mad at me,” the girl whined. “I don’t think you’re crazy, I just think you’ve been overwhelmed with the work and being in a new country and stuff, and I wouldn’t be worried if you didn’t keep saying it was real!”
“You don’t understand,” Ariadne said, almost petulant. “I don’t think it was real. I think that some of the stuff I did when I in the dream is like stuff happening in the real world.”
“Right, right. The PASIV device and ‘dream-sharing’. Sure.”
“That’s why I don’t want to talk about it,” Ariadne said, defeated. “You think I’m crazy.”
“Jeeze. Sorry. Come one, I’ll listen. What did you see?”
Aridne sighed. “I thought…I knew a guy, in the dream. He was called Arthur. He taught me…a lot of things. And then he died. It was a real mess, after he died. I don’t know how to describe it. I died in that car crash a few months later, so I don’t know what happened after that.”
“That’s why I get worried,” the Ariadne’s friend said, gently. “You say ‘so I don’t know what happened after that’ like it continued on without you.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Arthur began to wonder if they had walked away too quietly for him to hear, and then the friend said, “Who looked like that guy?”
“Hmm…?” Ariadne asked, vaguely. Then she answered, “Oh, that guy at the bench over there looks a lot like him, but he’s way too young.”
Arthur stood up and walked towards them. He slipped his hat off and flicked his cigarette into the gravel.
“Ariadne?” he asked. Ariadne gasped. Her hands flew up to her mouth.
“Oh my God,” she said, “Oh my God. Arthur?”
Ariadne’s friend was small with riotous blond curls and all colour drained from her face as Arthur offered his hand to Ariadne to shake. He was smiling, and if felt foreign. It was the first time he’d smiled properly since before the dream.
Ariadne launched to her feet, knocking Arthur’s hand out of the way as she wound her arms tightly around Arthur’s middle. She shivered little shaky breaths against him, and Arthur leaned away after a moment so he could wipe a tear from her cheek with his thumb.
“Jesus, don’t cry,” he said, laughing a little.
“I’m not. Oh fuck,” she laughed back, watery. “You know I fucking hate crying.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I know. God, I’m really really glad you remember the dream. You’re the first person I’ve found who does.”
“I don’t think I was supposed to,” Ariadne murmured. “I woke up in my dorm room, and there was this water bottle right next to the bed, and I knew I hadn’t put it there, so I used it to water my house plant and then I threw it out in the hallway garbage and when I did this sleazy looking guy hanging around the garbage chute gave me a weird look and left. I think he was supposed to make sure I drank the water. And then I felt crazy, but I don’t now.”
Arthur grinned. “We trained you well.”
“Oh my God, he’s got a gun!” Ariadne’s friend said shrilly, at just that moment. She grabbed Ariadne’s coat and pulled her away from Arthur.
“It’s okay, Amy,” Ariadne said. “Don’t shout so loud.”
“No, seriously, like maybe you think that you know this guy because you both tripped out at a party or something together, but he’s actually got a gun, I saw it when his coat moved, and you are actually not sane.”
“Amy, it’s Arthur. Of course he has a gun. Let go of me.”
“I’m trying to be a good friend, Ariadne. And friends don’t let friends go off with men they clearly had a lot of drugs with and who have guns. My uncle was a police officer. I think it’s, like, a glock. There is no way that’s legal.”
Ariadne smiled widely at Arthur and let Amy pull her back far enough that Arthur could pretend not to hear them. They whispered to each other for a few minutes, Ariadne becoming steely and Amy becoming frantic before Amy finally threw her hands up in the air, shouting, “Fine! I’m only trying to protect you. You’re so eager to get killed by this guy, be my guest.”
Amy stormed off, grabbing her coat from the bench, and Ariadne came back over to Arthur, linking their arms and pulling him into a meandering walk along the water.
“Your friend has a point, you know,” Arthur said after a few minutes. “Even putting aside the fact that we really could have been tripping out together, how do you know it wasn’t me who put you under for the dream?”
Ariadne turned her face up to him. “Was it you?” she asked, softly.
“Of course not,” Arthur replied.
“Well, that’s how I know. Because you wouldn’t do that. You look too lonely, anyway. Can’t fake something like that.”
Arthur sighed, turning to look over the river again, thinking of Vietnam and the room with the buttermilk sheets and those aching words I think I feel lonely, and discovering he wasn’t really alone at all.
“So, I guess you haven’t talked to anyone else, then?” Arthur said. It was a horrible feeling to realize that even though he’d found Ariadne, the ache in his chest was barely abated, and the flare of hope mostly gone.
“No. Sorry. I wasn’t even sure it was real, like I said to Amy.”
“I understand,” Arthur said.
“Why are you so young now?” Ariadne asked, shifting into him as a cold breeze blew off the river. “You look younger than me probably.”
“I’d lived in the dream for almost nine years by the time you met me,” Arthur said. “I was only in the dream for twenty-four hours, though.”
“Ten years, fucking hell. I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Ariadne said, “I mean, I was only two years older in the dream, and you know, you guys pulled me out of university and threw me right into that inception job and I never looked back. It wasn’t hard to believe it was all a normal dream, I just slipped right back into real life after.”
“It wasn’t like that for me, so much,” Arthur said. “Everything was a lot more gradual. It was just like real life.”
That was all he said about that long time difference to Ariadne. They talked for a little while about jobs Arthur had been pulling and how Ariadne was partially pleased to actually get a chance to finish her degree. They went to a café, and Arthur bought them black coffee.
“Do you miss it, then?” Ariadne asked, stirring sugar into the coffee. Arthur laughed and it was a dark, awful sound.
“More than anything, Ari,” he said. “More than…more than…more than anything.”
Ariadne got a strange, wide, and sad look in her eyes all the sudden, “Shit,” she said, “Shit, I hadn’t realized before.”
“What?” he asked, meeting her eyes.
“Eames. You don’t know where Eames is?”
“No.” Arthur said.
“Than he must be out there somewhere and he doesn’t know you’re real and not dead. Fuck, Arthur, you have to find him.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing for the last four months!” Arthur snapped.
“No, Arthur. You really have to find him. After you died in the dream, he totally lost it. It was bad.”
“You mean he didn’t die when I did? I though…I mean, the assassins…”
“No, I’m pretty sure he was still alive when I died, and that was months later,” Ariadne said. “It was practically legendary, what he did to those assassins. People started trying to hire him as a killer. He tortured them all with his bare hands and tied them down and burned your house to the ground leaving them in there. Then tracked the guy who hired them, who was not the kind of guy that’s easy to track, and killed him too.”
“No…” Arthur said, softly, feeling something ugly and sad knot beneath his breastbone.
“And he started taking all kinds of jobs that were likely to get him killed,” Ariadne continued, quietly. “He spent all the time in between in dream dens. Cobb called me and said he’d pulled a job with Eames and there was a projection of you hanging around through most of it, and that he was afraid that what had happened to him with Mal was going to happen to Eames. Everything got really fucked up.”
“Fuck,” Arthur said, dropping his head to his hands. “I guess I thought everyone would have woken up the same time I did.”
“I guess not,” Ariadne whispered, watching him worriedly. It made Arthur feel young and foolish, and tired. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Keep looking for Eames. Except faster and better,” Arthur answered.
(Forward to: PART TWO)