Seawater. Arthur gags on the taste. He struggles to his feet, the weight of his waterlogged clothes like a pendulum, pulling him back down into the surf. The sky is milky flat and bright, all sun.
Cobb said it would be, that he'd wake up on the shores of limbo with the ocean in his mouth. Cobb said a lot of things. Filling Arthur's half-hour drive with the vexed litany of his disapproval over the phone. You don't have to do this. You're not being objective right now. But Dom, that's just the way it is with me and Eames. Nearly a decade on each other's nerves, in each other's beds, under each other's skins, never for a moment managing anything close to objectivity.
Leaving Eames down here, lost in his own subconscious-- well, he would deserve it. A five-person team, four of them green, unprepared for the burden of Eames's bad blood. Eight years he'd spent screwing people over left and right. Did they expect him to have more friends than enemies? That a line a block long wouldn't spring up at the first chance to tamper with the compounds? Near-hysteria in the voice of the twenty-year-old architect: we can't figure out how anyone could have messed with it, no one else had access. And now he's been under for a couple hours already and the kick isn't working right--
"Why call me," asked Arthur, weary to the bone.
"Because," he said, "you and Eames--"
"We're not, anymore," said Arthur. "Your information's out of date."
"I-- I'm sorry," he said, and then driven bolder by the lack of recourse, "but you're in town, aren't you? Couldn't you just-- drop by, since you're close? We don't even know where the nearest qualified dreamer might be. He could be stuck down there for days, Jesus Christ. How long is that in limbo time? Please, you have to--"
Arthur didn't have to do shit. He swore as he tore his clothes off the hangers, fuck, with each shirt he threw into his suitcase. Fucking idiot. Motherfucker. What did Arthur expect out of this, anyway? For Eames to owe him something, to be overwhelmed with gratitude for his timely savior? To tug Eames out of limbo by the hand and straight into his own life again?
Disgusted at himself, Arthur slammed his suitcase closed, stormed down the hotel hallway toward the elevator. No, fuck that. Good fucking riddance. Arthur wasn't accustomed to begging, and besides, it was Eames who--
Forget it. Fair business and basic human decency, that was all this was, a favor as impersonal as a handful of dirty change. God, what the hell else could he do. In the half-basement studio, surrounded by the anxious greenhorns, Arthur stared down at the slack pause of Eames's face and was consumed with something altogether unpleasant. Too bitter to be sadness, too sharp to be regret. More than a little angry, at any rate.
Ten months, he thought. How nice of you to call, Eames.
He lay himself down on the dilapidated mattress, side by side with the slow rise and fall of Eames's chest. Under their weight, they dipped an inch toward each other, Eames's hand sliding down the incline, coming to rest against Arthur's thigh. Just like old times.
He drags himself onto the beach, against the pull of the waves and the sand breaking under his feet. It's sure as hell not seawater, that wash at the back of his throat. There's none of the acrid burn of sea salt in it. The taste is softer, sweeter, and thinner, something far more familiar than the ocean. Something suggestive and fraught.
Arthur grits his teeth when he realizes it-- tears, he thinks. It tastes like tears. Eames, that son of a bitch, subtle as a fucking hammer to the skull. He must have known Arthur was running a job nearby. If he knew where Eames was, Eames knew where he was.
Something about Eames's carelessness didn't add up. The haphazard team of rookies milling around him, an unnerving imprudence. Probably he hadn't courted the sabotage, that was too unlike him; but if it had been a mistake, a slip of his guard, what had kept him so distracted? What had been on his mind instead? Regardless of how he got there, by the time he understood where he'd ended up, Eames knew that Arthur would have to be the one to fetch him.
Here I am, your villain, thinks Arthur. He peels himself out of his sodden jacket, lets it drop into the water. The rest of him is heavy enough. I came down to get you. I'm not here for your guilting games.
There's no pier anywhere in sight, no boardwalk, and the smudge of buildings in the distance is a blur at best. It's impossible to guess how long it might take him to get to them, and what they would resolve themselves into, if he ever arrived. But with the cloying depth of the sea behind and desolation to either side of him, there's nowhere else for him to go but forward.
A path unwinds at his feet, unpaved but well-trodden enough to make out. It stretches toward the city. Arthur wonders if he's standing at the edge of a gigantic map, too large to read, vast Peruvian sketches in the sand that spell out wherever Eames is huddled away. Eight years a dreamer and he's never stepped foot anywhere like limbo, too unbridled and eloquent for him to wade through alone. The empty air hums, restless with potential.
And so hostile. Under Eames's watch, the expanse seems a weapon. It's enemy terrain, maybe with entire mountains left to climb. Arthur wants a ghost on his shoulder, the warm weight of something watching over him, if only to keep him company. Something more attentive than dice, at least. There's always the thought of Cobb; he knows what it's like here, doesn't he, knows how to stop the dream from getting in. It wouldn't hurt to keep him in mind.
But if he were allowed just one hand to take him through this minefield-- he keeps coming back to someone else. To Mal, in her full imperial benevolence, before she was lost to him. She never really woke up, is the way Cobb put it, but that shard of limbo lodged in her, wouldn't it have pushed out something of her awake? Some bright-eyed part of her, displaced like a crest of water swelling over the edge of a tub. She might be down here still, listening for someone to call for her help. Arthur thinks of her drifting in the ether, a weary owl winging through the void, waiting for someone to need her.
Do you remember me? thinks Arthur. Be good to me a little while longer, Mal. Tell me where he is. Sing me to him.
The city, when he gets to it, isn't much of a city at all. Most of the buildings hardly deserve the name, silhouettes thrown together in dry, desert sand, crumbling at the edges and trickling to the ground in a hushed hourglass whisper. Everything golden, decaying and useless. It's the work of a mind too impatient to linger for long, uninterested in fleshing out architectural minutiae. Quick to bore. All Eames.
Stranded amidst terracotta facades and stray brick pockmarks, there's a single metal door set in concrete. Arthur puts a hand to it, his palm bitten with the acetate edge of his die, and pushes-- it swings open, the only real thing in a counterfeit landscape.
On the other side of the door, he finds a warehouse. Seen one warehouse, you've seen them all, but this one does feel familiar. The lights are off, only the thin sun filtering through a latticework of grime-darkened windows. The floor has been cleared of shelves, populated instead with a setup of shoddy desks and lawn chairs. The whole layout has his touch to it, only, he can't remember ever having worked a job here. Arthur runs a finger across the dusty top of a filing cabinet.
"Maybe that's your mistake," someone says. "Assuming that you'd remember everything."
Arthur takes a step back, hand shooting inside his jacket. Do firearms function as expected, down this deep? He closes his grip around the pistol there, tilting his elbow like he's about to draw it out, and there's laughter from a far corner of the room. That emphysema rattle, he recognizes.
"Madigan," he says, "what are you doing here?"
"Where do you think you are?" asks Madigan. "What do you think I'm doing here?"
He lowers himself off the edge of the desk, stepping out into the grid of squalid sunlight. Eames's recast of Madigan, of course, only a projection, but authentic down to the drag of his left knee, the white beginning to speckle through his stubble. The only kind of detailing that Eames gives a shit about.
At least, that explains why Arthur doesn't remember the job. He never got a chance to run it.
The autumn that Arthur turned twenty-two, Madigan was itching to make something of himself. He had no outfit of his own. Even his PASIV was on loan from his superiors, who were perennially at odds with him as to what cut he deserved of his meager take. Aimlessly ambitious, like Fagin among the urchins, Madigan turned to the army to recruit for his eventual coup.
Arthur never meant to become a criminal. But the army wouldn't let him build and Madigan did, with the ratty first-generation PASIV that Arthur thought was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. The wrong side of the tracks turned out to be no stranger than the straight and narrow, and so it was that Arthur fell in with the wrong crowd, free in his forest of skyscrapers.
Madigan was small fry, in over his head with regard to the finer aspects of dreamshare. But he was an avuncular mountebank who showed Arthur the rudimentary ropes and left him the space to figure out the rest for himself, and when he floated the possibility of mutiny, think of what you could do with your very own PASIV, Arthur was unmoored, thirsty for something or someone to be loyal to.
That was their first and last job together. Madigan, Arthur, and a two-bit forger Madigan had scrounged up from somewhere overseas that wouldn't be joining them until the day of.
"Twenty-five, fresh out of the army just like you," said Madigan. "You've never seen a forger work, have you? It's really something, Arthur, you're in for a treat."
Yes, well. No points for guessing who.
Arthur was tasked with lifting the PASIV from Madigan's bosses, and considering his inexperience in any form of theft up until that point, he was lucky to have made it out after only getting shot once. Knowing his way around guns as he did, maybe he ought to have dispatched a few of them in turn; then again, it was a hell of a lot harder to aim at civilians with a bullet already embedded in you.
It was fucking pouring, the whole world green. He'd lost his phone somewhere. One hand pressed to the searing pain in his shoulder and the other clutching the glossy handle of a second-gen PASIV that he would have risked a few more bullets for, Arthur staggered three miles to the warehouse, the trail of blood behind him washed away by the torrential sheet rain. Good thing I lost them, thought Arthur, and had no idea how he did it, not least because it was taking all his concentration just to keep himself upright.
He made the third mile bent double, the bottom of the PASIV case scraping along the asphalt. It could have gone either way. He knew how to get back, but the rain and the blood leaking out of him blurred each street corner with the next. Providence had as much to do with it as practice when he threw his good shoulder against a door and it turned out to be the right one, the musty warehouse smell suffocating him, the glare of fluorescent lights blinding him all at once. The sudden deafening absence of the roaring rain. Like the runner to Marathon with his duty performed, he said something, and passed out.
Madigan was dozing in a chair next to his bed. Too timid to be unscrupulous. Wincing, Arthur tried to shift his shoulder into view, and immediately regretted it.
"PASIV," he said, blearily.
"Got it," said Madigan, and held it up for him. "You're up a little too late to catch Eames, though."
"Who's Eames?" asked Arthur.
"He was in the backseat with you while I drove you here," said Madigan. "Kept you from bleeding out and everything. He stayed until this morning. Our forger, remember? You didn't see him in the warehouse?"
"I didn't see much," said Arthur. "Where is this, anyway? Fuck, for fuck's sake, I need more morphine."
"You're okay," said Madigan. "You're with a doctor."
"Don't bullshit me, Madigan," said Arthur, closing his eyes to the fleur-de-lis pattern of the wallpaper, the mahogany posts of the bedframe. "Like hell this is a hospital."
"Not all doctors walk the reputable path," said Madigan, "or are licensed to practice. Anyway, I know the guy, he split with my bosses a couple years back. You can trust him. Only he doesn't like charity cases, and he did say that he was going to have to charge you extra for extra morphine. Listen, I know you're broke, I know I'm broke, but-- he's something of a dreamshare hobbyist, and he's willing to trade--"
"Over my dead body," said Arthur. "I'm never working with you again either way, you old bastard, but if you don't get me my morphine, I'm going to snitch on you and wring your neck myself."
"Okay," said Madigan. "Jesus Christ."
"Do you remember what you said," asks Madigan, "when you ran in through that door with the PASIV in your hand?"
"Was it something funny?" asks Arthur, though he knows the answer already. "I hope it was something funny."
"Let's leave, you said, like you were about to ask for the check," says Madigan. "Almost eight years ago, wasn't it? What a nestling you were back then. You've changed."
"I'm exactly the same," says Arthur. "So are you here to tell me about how Eames dragged me to the doctor, kept sleepless watch over me for the better part of three days, and generally did a bang-up job of saving my sorry ass? Because I've really had enough of that story, to be honest. It's one of his favorites."
Every damn time. Eames put his fingers to the raised edge of skin, tracing the scar slowly like Arthur was something he'd brought back to life. Like Arthur was something he'd created. Eames held him down by his arms, made him listen as he said, I had you on my back while Madigan got the car. God, you were so cold, I was half afraid that you were dead already--
Eames, said Arthur, pushing up against him, this isn't really working for my libido.
And I had my jacket on you to keep you as warm as I could, said Eames. You bled straight through it, through your own jacket and your shirt, my shirt too, it was stained all over with your blood when I got you into the back seat. White as a sheet, you were. I tried to feel you for a pulse, and your fingers were fucking cold as ice while I fumbled with your wrist--
"Do I owe him something?" asks Arthur. "I've more than made up for it, since then. I've gotten him out of more scrapes than he can keep track of. Or does he think that if I felt beholden to him somehow, I'd try a bit harder to be what he wants? That I'd do a better job of pretending?"
"You really think that's why he put this warehouse here?" asks Madigan. "So that you could look at it and feel thankful? For Christ's sake, Arthur, he likes this story because that's how you two met. He likes it because that's how it started. Because ever since then, he's been a little in love with you."
"Of course," spits Arthur, a mouthful of the ache in his chest, because it's nothing he hasn't heard before. "Those precious, frantic five minutes when he thought I just didn't have it in me to run. Hoping I'd shake him free and dart right off as soon as the stitches were out."
"Just because you have some sort of trouble," says Madigan, "with letting people see you with your guard down--"
"You think that's what this is?" asks Arthur. "Jesus Christ, that's what Eames thinks I've been on about all this while? That I didn't want him to talk about that job because I fancied myself too good to get shot? Does he seriously think I'm that fucking stupid?"
"What else is your goddamn problem, then?" asks Madigan.
"I'm not here to chat with you," says Arthur, and breathes in, deep. "He's been down here for a while-- I need to get to him, Madigan. As fast as I can."
Madigan considers it. He leans back on his heels, his back sagging, Eames draining out of him, harmless and clueless again with the fire quenched. With nothing to rail against, Arthur deflates in turn. He shoves his hands back into his pockets, oddly bereft, digging his die into the meat of his thumb.
"Use the car outside," says Madigan. "The one we drove you to the doctor in."
"How do I know which road to take?" asks Arthur.
"There's only one road," says Madigan. "He didn't build anything he didn't want you to see. Keep driving, you'll get somewhere."
He'll get somewhere. Not necessarily where he wants to end up. Of course Eames wouldn't stop at just the one hurdle, not when he's had this much time to shape limbo to his own liking, to paint himself a fucking polyptych of resentment. How much time is this much time? Eames is the type to be readily lost, less concerned with stumbling free of a maze than with prying his way deeper into it, drawn to the ineffable weight of the Minotaur at its center. It shouldn't matter to Arthur; this whole mess is Eames's own doing, anyhow. But-- well, it's always hard to uproot someone that's taken hold in you, flower or strangler fig.
It takes time, Arthur is thinking, certainly longer than ten months, when a faint scent drifts by him. Something like lemon, sharp, there and gone too quick for him to follow. Scant as his memories of the warehouse are, he knows that's definitely out of place, too bright and fresh to be anything it has to offer. With one hand already on the doorknob, he looks over his shoulder to ask about it-- what's that smell?--
--but wordlessly, Madigan crusts over into sand right before his eyes, a pillar, like a lesser Midas has brushed against his back. His face swallowed last by the grains sweeping over his skin. And as Arthur watches, transfixed, tendrils of sand begin to creep across the walls, across every piece of furniture, until the whole room starts to shudder and cave under its own uncertain weight.
The doorknob crumbles in his grasp. Arthur pitches out of the warehouse through a curtain of sand, and a sudden gust of hot wind whips past him, nearly staggering him off his feet. He throws his arms up, lips drawn and eyes squeezed tight against the sand stinging his skin. The gale roars through his ears.
When he raises his head again, the land is a flat stretch straight to the horizon, all the makeshift buildings razed to the ground. The beaten path lies waiting at his feet. So this is what you do to the things you don't need anymore, he thinks, and looks around. Just him and a beat-up Ford Escort as far as he can see.
One of Madigan's fuck-ups, they tagged him. Word spread fast. Arthur almost wished he hadn't kicked Madigan to the curb as quickly as he had, because at least with Madigan he would have been assured a career, small-time though it might have been. He would have had a rung to climb up on.
Otherwise work was slow to come by. Like any other industry, dreamshare was kind toward experience, toward a certain amount of age and accompanying sense. Any sort of formal training at all. No one adopts a dog straight out of a fighting ring, they told him. You've got the stench of the wrong kennel on you. But how am I supposed to smell like anything else, when none of you will take me in? What a lousy fucking metaphor. No, please stop asking, obviously I didn't bleed to death a couple months ago. Arthur had nothing, a toxic hired hand, even his PASIV still too hot to put to work.
Worse yet, the market was saturated with architects. Academics dipping their toes into the questionably legal waters, for a fast handful of cash or a taste of the forbidden before legislative loopholes closed in on them. The only way Arthur could run any job at all was to switch his position to point, drop his rates to rock bottom, and put himself out for rent at something close to half the going price.
That other one must be having a better time of it, he thought. Forgers are hard to come by.
He holed up in a studio and took to practicing on his own, loath to fall behind in a dry spell. Clocked more hours on the PASIV than he spent awake. Working point was a different set of skills from the boundlessness of building, called for a brutal physicality and a passion for the breakdown. Arthur found himself caught up in the rejection of things, further immersed in practicalities than the ornery idealism of dream architecture, and thought, with a distant understanding, maybe this is how people are made to change.
Resentful as he was of this theoretically fortunate and well-employed Eames, the long-lost classmate from his school of bad beginnings, Arthur only met him almost a year later when they were roped in together for something off the coast of somewhere. It was a beach resort. Madigan had put him in a suit for that first botched job, but at twenty-three he still itched in it like he'd itched in his dress blues, inside anything that wasn't made of denim or otherwise cotton. He showed up at the lobby in jeans, a bake sale t-shirt from high school.
"Jesus, Arthur," said Eames when he saw him. "Is this what you look like when you're casual?"
"I'm sorry," said Arthur, "do I know you?"
"Madigan's other fuck-up," said their extractor, snapping her nicotine gum.
"Oh, that," said Arthur, and extended his hand.
Exile has been kind to you, he thought. Here he was, then-- Eames, twenty-six, with none of the hungry impatience of the recently blacklisted, probably hired at several times what Arthur was making. Someone he had to run to catch up to. That proffered handshake was as much a challenge as it was a salutation, daring Eames to show him the smallest flicker of pity.
But listen. Regard is a thing easy enough to spot in the smallest of gestures. The right dip of a tilted head, the soft hesitation at the end of a question. What happened was that Eames had a rather nice handshake, and his palm was a warm weight, pressed against Arthur's. The curl of his fingers steady. Eames took his hand with the barest of tugs, like he wanted to see Arthur from closer up, like he wanted to peer into all of Arthur's corners and dust off the pieces of him left discarded along the way, hunting for treasure, polishing the burnished bronze of Arthur's scrap metal.
And for a moment, Arthur forgot to let go, lost in the face of someone so ready for him.
The years threw them together, job after job. A series of cities that Arthur didn't care to commit to memory, mad-lib encounters, on the tail of a different mark for each ephemeral rendezvous. Arthur remembers wisps-- what they were having for lunch, what the weather was like. The sudden hot streak of a flash of detail, like the muscles in Eames's jaw pulling tight. The nick of skin where he'd cut himself shaving. The sizzle of his cigarette, a burn down the length of Arthur's spine. The smell of the rain.
Delicious mud-thick coffee, overcast skies. Eames asked him about the suit he'd been wearing when they'd met, whether he still had it. There was some singeing around the bullet hole, Arthur told him, and the splash of blood turned out to be a bit troublesome for the dry cleaners. Eames didn't fight the sarcasm, only nodded and let it slide off of him, and Arthur wondered if Eames had read something into the bite that wasn't there. If Eames thought Arthur was uncomfortable with the reminder of the firefight, or worse, that he was scared. I only mean, you look good in button-downs, said Eames, simple as that. Sartorial advice. Just think about it. When he set down his cup, there was a spot of sludge on his upper lip.
An Italian bistro, balmy on the edge of autumn. I swear I can feel it, said Eames, I'm growing older by the minute. Isn't a life on the run better suited for a younger generation than mine? Do you know, there was a time I hardly believed jet lag would ever affect me. It was only half a joke, the way all his jokes were-- or half a joke, the way all his candor was. So what, said Arthur, biting into his sandwich, you want to settle down? This is too much excitement for you? Eames toyed with the condensation on his glass, guiding the beaded water droplets into a converging trickle. Then I'd have to earn a living somehow, he said, and my back's not what it used to be. Eames was twenty-six. That's not being old, said Arthur. That's needing exercise. He was wearing a button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up past his elbows in the late dazzling glow of the sun. Well, what do you know about it, said Eames, good-naturedly.
Take-out deli containers, the magnolias beginning to bloom. Arthur had found someone suitably trustworthy yet disreputable enough to file off all the serial numbers tucked away in his PASIV. You wouldn't think it, said Arthur, but there are identifying markers branded onto every last piece of that machine. You have to take the whole thing apart, sand it and weld it, and then put it back together in working order. He was champagne-giddy with the future. You can use it on jobs now, can't you? asked Eames. Yeah, I've already got the word out, said Arthur. All of a sudden, I'm in demand. It feels odd. Eames worried a cherry tomato with the prongs of his fork and said, so you'll be building again? That's what you like best, isn't it? Which was true, Arthur hadn't forgotten. With the PASIV he had the edge up on most other architects, could go right back to building and never lack for work again, on the steady track to glory doing what he loved. But there was no rush-- so as long as he had the PASIV, he could schedule a comeback at his own leisure. He would slum it as point for just a little longer, because the thought of chasing after an architect's job made him feel like it was running from him, like it would drift to someone else if he didn't reach for it, and that wasn't true, was it? He could have it anytime he wanted it. His waiting was the proof. Later, he told Eames, I'll have plenty of time to get to that, and wondered how Eames knew what it was that he liked best.
Paper cones of roasted chestnuts, snow an inch deep. Have you been sleeping enough? asked Eames, looking at him like a curio he wanted to take apart, feature by feature. Arthur was too stubborn to duck into the folds of his scarf. Yes, he said. Enough to make a living. Eames peeled a chestnut, then a second, and didn't eat either. You know that's not what I mean, he said. Arthur knew; it was none of Eames's business. The silence was flat, muffled by the snow, and Arthur couldn't decide if he wanted to break it or not. The words were on the tip of his tongue, I've stopped dreaming, nights-- but it seemed childish, cozying up to Eames like that, asking to be spoiled and fretted over. No other side effects, and maybe it was only temporary. And if his dreams weren't coming back, then so much for that, surely it wouldn't matter when Eames was told of it. There'll be other times to let him know, thought Arthur. In the end, it was Eames that spoke. Sometimes I don't quite understand you, he said, and didn't seem upset. Most of the time. Most of the time, I don't quite understand you.
Dumplings, monsoon. Eames's hair was limp in the humidity. The rain had let off and they were huddled outside under a parasol, the sun glinting silver off the puddles. Muggy in his jacket, Arthur took it off and pulled up his sleeves, reaching across the table for the soy sauce.
Arthur, said Eames, and caught him around the elbow. What the fuck is this?
He was staring at the inside of Arthur's arm, bruises staining the skin, creeping up past the cuff of his shirt. In the unforgiving white light of the outdoors, the mark seemed starker than Arthur remembered, and he faltered for a moment, fascinated by the startling expanse of it.
What's going on? asked Eames, fingers tightening.
Never mind, said Arthur. I'll get it out of your way, if it bothers you.
Is this from the needles? asked Eames.
Trihypnyl, said Arthur, irked by the dispproval in Eames's look. As though what he did with himself in his own damn time was any of Eames's concern, as though the sheer ridiculous scope of Eames's meddling gave him the right to revulsion. It's the toxicity buildup. Trihypnyl's not known to be the most easily metabolized of drugs, but it's the strongest available compound on the market right now--
Why are you using Trihypnyl? demanded Eames. You were fine with the standard-issue Cyclotraumine, last time I saw you. You liked the dilation rate. I remember you said that.
Cyclotraumine's too weak, said Arthur, it doesn't hold up under repeated use. Too easy to develop resistance to it. I can't stay under with Cyclotraumine anymore, soon after that job, it started jolting me up topside. Trihypnyl's the only thing that still works.
You're immune to-- how much bloody dreaming-- said Eames, and dropped his eyes to Arthur's arm again. Are you still using the same site? For injections?
Can't, said Arthur. The veins went into hiding, is what the chemist on my last run said. I can't find anything to stick a needle into. She had me switch to my foot, though, that seems to have solved the problem for the time being.
You fucking idiot, said Eames.
ALT levels through the roof, said Arthur, as casually as he could.
But the quiet film of cease-fire that settled over them felt too grimy to be a cause for triumph, the furrow of Eames's forehead like a knot in Arthur's stomach. What a nosy son of a bitch, judgmental and sanctimonious like I've managed to personally betray him, but his silence was an unpleasant weight. Stifling as the monsoon mist. Why the hell did either of them give a shit-- Arthur rolled down his sleeves, vindictive enough to refuse to ask, but miserable enough to make nice.
They're developing something, have you heard? he asked, an awkward flurry. It's supposed to be a drastic improvement from anything in circulation right now, easier to take, harder to build resistance to. Still in the testing stages, but they've got the dilation rate stabilized around twelve. Word is that it's steady enough to hold two layers at once. What's that like, do you think-- what do you suppose it looks like, that far down below? They haven't got a name for it yet. They say it smells like witch hazel.
Jesus Christ, Arthur, said Eames.
We'll switch, said Arthur, when they release it. No more nausea, no more loss of appetite. The only thing we'll have left to worry about is the saline flush. God, I fucking hate that taste, but I guess we can't get rid of everything. As an afterthought, though he wished they were talking about anything else at all, but this-- this will fade in time. You know.
Why did you do it? asked Eames, still stiff. Was it practice? Because you thought you would fall behind?
That was always some part of it. The need to keep abreast of a shifting landscape, treading water just to avoid drowning. But maybe that was just a cover story all along-- underneath it, there was a mandate more desperate than the pursuit of excellence, a drive that had nothing to do with competence, with anything as luminous as self-improvement.
I don't know, Eames, said Arthur. I guess I screwed up.
His beautiful, untraceable, obsolete second-gen PASIV. Arthur took a hammer and a chainsaw to it, the day after he had his own serial baked into his third-gen device. The wreck of the LCD splintering, the sparks skipping across the oil-stained floor. Delighted with the boy's-dream of the mayhem of destruction, he rubbed his welding goggles clean of debris and turned to Eames.
"I'll let you have a go at it," he offered. "Maybe it'll cheer you up."
Arthur had rented himself a house for recon in some suburb somewhere, and in the far corner of the garage, Eames sat puddled in a folding lawn chair, looking like it was his head Arthur had been sawing open. He'd just been militarized, in a foul humor still from the aftermath of the process. Shut-eye and a half-assed attempt at meditation will help, Arthur had advised him, take my word for it, but Eames had insisted on following him to the garage where he winced his way through the screech of metal meeting metal.
"To think, just yesterday you were so fond of that heap of rubble," said Eames. "Have some heart. Don't you feel an inkling of pity for it? Isn't it anything like dismantling your own child?"
"Have you seen the third-genners?" asked Arthur. "Lightweight cases, shockproof construction, battery life up to two hundred fucking hours. There's an internal memory chip for retaining output flow rate across sessions, Eames. Where the hell does pity come into it?"
In spite of his indisposition, Eames laughed, stretching as he stood. "Let's put your new love to some use, then," he said. "I'll go mad if I'm down here another minute longer listening to you work out your aggression by way of power tools."
"I have to get rid of it somehow," Arthur told him, "the PASIV, I mean, not my aggression," but he set the goggles down and jogged after Eames anyway, through the door he held open behind him.
Everything that passed between them and around them, Arthur catalogues now in loose Dylanesque ebbs and flows, a folk song retrospective of the years. Well, his PASIV has been the third-gen model for a while now, worn along the corners and a little temperamental at the hinges. The fourth-gen, he found to his chagrin, did away with the extra vial storage compartments in favor of IV lines coaxed to a monstrous twenty feet in length. Assholes, we're not using the tubing to go mountaineering, he thought, and wondered if progress had grown stagnant after all.
He's in suits more often than not, and Eames is thirty-two, perhaps finally old enough for the complaints about his back to carry some weight-- but really thirty-two is young still, sturdy as an oak. Twelve times as young, the first level down. They've thrown themselves together, they've wrenched themselves apart, and Mallorie and Dominic Cobb have worn their slow furrowed grooves into both their lives, snail trails deep as the dig of fingernails, indelible and raw. Eames, too, has long since stopped dreaming at nights. The witch-hazel compound Somnacin came and conquered them all.
And here I am again, at the door of the chapel I dreamed for us, our bodies strewn across the pullout couch. I recognize it. Arthur steps out of the car, raising his eyes to the spires overhead, a stark towering imprint against the halo of the sun. The stairs at his feet are running sand, and there are grains trickling from the mouths of huddled gargoyles, but other than that restless inattention, it's a decent enough replica of the church they built for the job.
Of the church their architect built for the job. Arthur was on point, lips sewn shut, itching to tweak the layout to his liking.
"God, you want to rip this place apart," said Eames as they strolled down the nave, their footsteps echoing off the vaulted ceiling. "What is it you hate so much about it?"
"I don't hate it," said Arthur. "Did you leave the garage door open? I think I smell gasoline--"
"The carvings keep shifting," said Eames. "I can see it out of the corners of my eyes. You're dissatisfied, aren't you?"
"It's just-- look, the whole thing is just so inefficient," Arthur relented, digging his hands into his pockets. "I get that a little dim organ music in the background adds atmosphere, but I could easily take a couple bars of something obscure and turn it into a Shepard melody. The stained-glass shards could self-replicate, and the pews could all stem from one mother object with some randomized imperfections superimposed on each instance-- the way it's set up now, the entire level is built without any loops or shortcuts. As the dreamer, I'm very frustrated."
"As an architect, you're very frustrated," said Eames. "Did you talk to Reznikov about it?"
"Reznikov is a senile fascist who is terrified of heterarchies because he doesn't understand the first fucking thing about them," said Arthur. "I can dream it, no problem, but the amount of unnecessary sprawling bullshit here is incredible. With an approach like this, you can't build anything beyond the scope of a block or two, you know? What sort of breakthrough is that?"
Seething, he dropped into a seat in the chancel, the marble cloaks of the saints stirring in his inquietude. Eames crossed his arms and leaned his hip against the altar, commiserating. Each unnecessary sprawling inefficient piece of colored glass let the sunlight through, casting kaleidoscope patterns across the floor, and even though he was in the right -- even though Eames knew he was in the right -- Arthur felt a bit petty, like he'd thrown a tantrum rendered insubstantial in the vast shadow of divinity. He hated it.
"And also, I don't like churches much," he said, out of spite.
"Not very religious, I take it," said Eames.
"There's another thing that's frustrating," said Arthur. "Why all that insistence on the great life beyond, anyway? What about this one? What about the one we're already thrust into the middle of? Isn't this one good enough to make something out of-- or bad enough, it's probably the same thing, but I don't know that there's a point to always chasing after what you don't have."
"Well," said Eames, vague, "maybe you needn't be quite so dogmatic about this."
"No, really?" asked Arthur, pleased by the revelation. "You're religious? Seriously, you? Eames, the great iconoclast, the quintessential skeptic?"
"And you thought me a lone wolf," said Eames.
"A mongrel," said Arthur, gently.
Eames spanned the chapel with his eyes, reaching into the speckled light, letting the colors play across his hand. Arthur was still caught in the implications of his discovery -- did Eames practice, he wondered, did he attend mass or was it Anglican services, and wasn't he uneasy with giving himself up like that for someone else to inhabit, or was that territory well-mapped by the art of forging -- when Eames cut through his reverie and said, "Don't you want to try it?"
"Try what?" asked Arthur.
"Building this dream the way you want to," said Eames. "With all the loops and shortcuts that make for an elegant solution."
Arthur thought of it, and shivered. There were arches, confessional grilles, fractal laces of filigree gold, all the mouth-watering potential for a chapel magnificently folded upon itself; and if the rooms were constructed in Bramantine symmetry, maybe it would be possible to set up a figure-ground illusion where the inverse of the nave would serve as the transept and no transept would have to be built at all, a subconscious bargain at half the blueprint for the full perception--
"I'd kill for it," breathed Arthur. "I mean, I don't know that I'd be able to do it on the fly, especially with as many reflexive and paradoxical elements as I'd ideally like to include in a setting this conducive to geometry, but-- do I sound pedantic right now? This isn't interesting to you, is it?"
"What's interesting, I think," said Eames, "is the part where you do it."
In his concentration, Arthur found himself perched on the pew assuming an attitude of prayer, eyes closed, hands steepled together. It was a matter of juggling all the pieces at once, like poetry in translation, or picturing someone you'd loved. Silencing the point in him for a little while, because the way he wanted to do it was no more practical than Reznikov's pigheaded ineptitude. It wasn't for the sake of feasibility that he yearned for the impossible chapel. Only for the helpless exhilaration of it, for a taste of of the autumn he'd turned twenty-two, what had granted him the first intimations of flight.
A bit of warmth brushed against his wrist. Startled, Arthur jerked away, and the crucifix in the sanctuary came loose by one arm, swinging in a perilous arc.
"Go on," said Eames, and Arthur knew he was hunting for the bruising there.
"Hey," snapped Arthur, "I thought we were done with this shit," knocking his hand away.
In return he expected exasperation or contempt, a stern talking-to, frosting up all the easy air between them. Fuck you, not this again. Who are you to think you can bend me into shape? But instead, Eames just took his arm, his grip gentle enough but firm, wordlessly determined.
"How do you hold yourself together, the way that you are," said Eames. "I'll never know." And then, so grave and clear-eyed that Arthur couldn't bear to look away: "Take care of yourself, please, Arthur."
"You--" he faltered.
"Ready, set, build," said Eames, and kept at rucking down the sleeve of Arthur's shirt.
At the touch of his skin Arthur thought, topside, we're lying next to each other, the reminder of it strangely ticklish to consider, like he might burst out laughing at any moment. He worries-- about me. Worry, not scorn, his solicitude no sermon. He worries about me? God, the sound of it, scarcely real.
Instead of laughing, there was something Arthur wanted to say. An apology and a half. Sorry I was wrong, I thought you were trying to make me a better man. Sorry I made you worry. But trying to give any shape to the words made it seem as though it was the last time he could, digging his own grave, concocting a finality out of his own agitation. There would be better chances. One day, the stars would align.
They had time. So Arthur closed his eyes again, let Eames's fingers trace the discolored mottle of his arm, more tender than he had any right to ask for.
That's what you remember, isn't it, thinks Arthur. That's what you want me to remember, the way you took me under your wing in the rain. Showing me I could still build.
Arthur stands in the chancel arch, staring down the withered body of Jesus hanging from the wall. Of course he could still fucking build. It's not a skill you lose with disuse, any more than you can forget how to ride a bike, or how to recognize your own reflection in a mirror. Yes; Arthur closed his eyes and bowed his head and dreamed up a gorgeous fucking wonder of the world, every last bit of the chapel curving back on itself-- but it was no singularity. It wasn't anything he couldn't do again. It wasn't ever anything to write home about, Eames.
So what did he bring me here for? he asks the crucifix. What happened here that's worth reliving? Does he remember what I did to the chapel at all? Or does this saga come to a convenient end for him, the moment he put his hand on my arm like he could heal it?
The air in the sanctuary tastes stale, the sand beginning to hiss across the mosaic floor. And the chapel, so callous and quixotic in the flaunting of itself-- completely useless, like a monument of shame to his own precocious youth. It's not a building, it's a work of masturbation. He wants to rip the whole place apart.
Cobb, in his brief telephone rundown, taught him that space was shared between dreamers in limbo. As the domain of no one in particular, anything created there is necessarily collaborative in nature. The only danger, said Cobb, is complicating the path leading to Eames. You can't know the repercussions of any given change.
But Eames's limbo isn't Cobb's, formed without streets or neighborhoods or cities. A domino block set in the middle of the desert can only fall alone, and what's the worst that can happen, anyway? The two of us are already down as deep as we can go. Arthur raises his eyes to the stained-glass windows and thinks of untangling the ouroboros, soothing the snake into vomiting up its own tail. Severing each feedback loop, unknotting each goddamn Penrose staircase into a long honest line of steps leading nowhere.
It fights him. The corpus is the first to go. It shivers and disintegrates into a handful of sand, leaving an empty cross behind-- before the cross crumbles in turn. The windows crust and choke out the light. Arthur grits his teeth together, unsure if it's the instability of limbo against him, or Eames exacting his demolition on a landmark with its purpose served. Either way, the sand weaves through the pillars and the arches of the ceiling, and he braces himself for the collapse, shit, the mountain of sand to come rushing down on his shoulders.
No, not quite-- there it is again, the wind. It scatters the sand above him, a blast of heat that surrounds him like the eye of a hurricane. Sure, that's one way to rip it apart, he thinks, wincing. Through the rush of the grains he picks out a distant sound too silver to belong, airy and sweet. A chime? But it's a hell of a job to ask himself questions in a sandstorm. He shakes out his hair when the roar dies down, left ankle-deep in the remnants of pipe organs, confessional booths, someone's skeletal savior.
At the mouth of the winding road, half buried alongside him, Arthur uncovers a motorcycle. Its frame glows hot beneath the layer of sand, like something just pulled from a blacksmith's forge.
There's no name to put to the bike. No one cares how unfamiliar you are with them, his extractor had said. It's an urban dream. What the hell else are you going to ride, the metro? which had truth to it if not tact. Speed and mobility and stealth. So he cobbled something together from pictures of an MV Agusta F4 Tamburini, and his extractor rolled her eyes and laughed when she saw it.
All right, I see where you meant to go with it, she said. Fix the steering head and at least give it a black paint job if you can't bear to make it homelier, which he couldn't.
The details are unclear; on the one hand, it was before the advent of Somnacin. On the other hand, he thinks, Eames was already militarized by then. They were running a pair of different jobs in a pair of different cities, but Arthur needed someone's head to rampage through, and Eames needed someone's rampage to put his head to the test.
"But Arthur," said Eames, "no mark you will ever target in your entire life will be equipped with militarization of my caliber. You may be overpreparing."
"You don't know that I won't extract from you someday," said Arthur, phone against his shoulder, rifling through an issue of Cycle World. "Who'd you get it done from, anyway? Who's so good that you don't think I can break it?"
"Fatima, but that's not the point," said Eames. "It doesn't seem to be a function of the militarization so much as it is a function of my own subconscious-- it's a bit difficult to explain, really. The best way to tell you would be for you to taste the bile of your own defeat."
"What an asshole," said Arthur, and was knocking on Eames's door with a duffel bag on his shoulder by Saturday afternoon.
It wasn't so difficult, the first time round. Arthur sped through the alleys on his Frankenstein motorbike, an ambush, a rushing of the bank where the safe deposit box served as the primary hotspot. Familiarity with the geography, the element of surprise. Only five shots fired in toto. He woke with his hand clenched tight like he still held the scrap of paper he found, a child's-scrawl on a sheet torn from a notebook. It was some city or some town, he thinks, though he can't recall the name. He told Eames what he'd read there.
"Was it now," said Eames.
"All in all, I don't know what you were scaring me for," said Arthur. "It seemed pretty straightforward. I got in, got the info, and got out. Were you overconfident, or am I just overqualified?"
He propped himself up on an elbow, drawing his leg up, fingers to the cannula at his ankle. Eames caught him by his shirt and tugged him back down onto the floor.
"Give it another go," said Eames. "It's not the full experience until you've repeated it."
The second time round, Arthur woke up drenched in sweat, gasping for breath. Fuck, he was coughing, Jesus fucking Christ, palm pressed to his ribcage just to feel it there, intact. Eames slid free from his tubing and padded into the kitchen, returning with a cold glass of water.
"Why didn't that happen before," asked Arthur, between gulps of water and air alike.
"It's an adaptive mechanism," said Eames. "Standard-issue militarization, but it works a little differently with me, for better or for worse. The security system appears to extrapolate the extractors' method of approach based on previous attacks it's fended off, and concentrates all defensive effort into the channels it predicts will be the most effective. Since you used the grid plan of the city to your advantage in approaching the bank in your first offensive, my subconscious minimized guard personnel and decided instead to-- well, decided to bring the city against you."
"I was fucking pulverized," said Arthur. "The buildings, Eames. They moved in on me. When I was in that alleyway--"
"Yes," said Eames, fiddling with the IV line like he was apologetic.
"Seriously, I mean it, no mark in the world will ever be half this hard to extract from," said Arthur. "Let's go again."
With his topographical edge rendered meaningless, Arthur opted for scorched earth. He dreamed himself an arsenal fit to bring down Jericho, peppering the landscape with repositories, every nook a depot for more firepower. In the dusking twilight, the four-lane road cutting the city open was a desolate stretch, bare for him and the security van swerving closer behind him.
Thrilling with the speed and the blood rising in him, Arthur tore off his helmet, discarding it with a merry clatter somewhere along the asphalt. Like music to his ears. He yanked a hand grenade from his belt, eyes narrowed against the wind. Wrong guy to mess with, he thought, taking a moment to bask in his enjoyably musty bravado. Frag out, you sorry bastards.
He leaned forward, grenade lever squeezed tight, pressing his chest flat against the gas tank for balance. His other hand would have to stay on the handlebar, keeping this gorgeous purring beast steady underneath him. My Agusta Tamburini. Were you a woman, I probably couldn't keep up with you. He bit down on the pull ring of the grenade, clenched his jaw tight, and jerked his head away.
Later, much later, Eames would run his index finger down the length of Arthur's neck, slicked with the sweat between them. Remember that time right after my militarization, he asked, when you were trying to break in by blowing up everything within sight?
I was adapting, Arthur told him, humming against the curl of Eames's hand resting over his throat. Just trying to get through before your subconscious murdered me again.
You were on a bike, said Eames. You didn't know it, but I was standing at a third-floor window, watching you go by. I kept seeing it for days on end on the insides of my lids, you pulling that pin from the grenade with your teeth. The stretch of your neck above your jacket. When you bared your teeth like you were smiling, I thought you were tearing straight inside my chest--
Chew through bone and spit out your heart, said Arthur.
He hooked his heel around Eames's calf and turned them over, and Eames went down without fighting it, landing in the sheets with his hand still resting against the back of Arthur's neck. Outside in the afternoon haze, a piping chorus of children were hawking something in a language neither of them spoke. Arthur dipped his head down and took the damp heat of Eames's cock into his mouth, sheathing his teeth.
Fuck, Eames would choke out then, his voice shuddering, hand grasping for the strands of Arthur's hair-- and he would come without the presence of mind to warn for it, so suddenly that there was something unfair about it, and Arthur would suck in a sharp breath and swallow down every last bit of him. But that would be much later.
In Arthur's dream, wracked with the hit, the security van careened into the divider between the roads. Arthur didn't turn to look when the blast sounded behind him, but he figured that it made a slow-motion sight for sore eyes, him and his bike kissing the highway to a backdrop of smoke and blooming fire. Some real Hollywood shit, wasn't it; who didn't love Hollywood. He dug a Javelin launcher out from behind a dumpster, and oh, honest to god, listen. He brought a fucking chopper right out of the sky.
If you'd shipped me off to the front lines somewhere back when I'd enlisted, maybe I'd have less of a taste for this sort of thing. But Arthur watched the propellers flutter and shatter in the brief ardent light of the explosion, and then he razed down the wall of the bank with the same Javelin, shooting stars skimming the surface of the darkened city. Eames watched him, perhaps.
"Got it," said Arthur, still warm from the heat of the flames he walked through, his palms thick with the residue of ash. "The paper was a little charred because I got carried away, but I'm sure you won't mind." A woman's name, thinks Arthur, and can't bring it to mind either. But Eames nodded, said yes when he was told it.
"You're not half bad at this," said Eames. "You ought to consider making a career of it."
"So the next time someone goes in," asked Arthur, "your subconscious will know how to fend off a full-frontal offensive like that?"
"More or less," said Eames. "If that's the way the extraction attempt seems to be going, that's the way the militarization will respond. I mean, that's what it appears to be doing, because neither Fatima nor I have the faintest idea how this really works or why it does what it does."
"Does it have anything to do with forging?" asked Arthur. "Extended practice, primed pathways."
"Right, that's her guess," said Eames, "but of course that's only the conjecture closest at hand. Probably in this line of work, there will never actually be a point where we know all there is to know."
"Like all other worthwhile lines of work," said Arthur. "I think I might be a little jealous. If I take some classes on basic forging from you, do you think my subconscious will pick up on this whole adaptation mechanism? Or hey, maybe Fatima's experimenting on you and she's just not telling you about it. Have you considered that?"
"Your militarization is more than adequate, I'm sure you realize," said Eames, as he rummaged in the clean-up kit. "In fact, it could stand to tone down the vicious relish a notch or two. That time with the practice run in Chennai when the sedative accidentally neutralized your suppression of the--"
"What are you doing?" asked Arthur, craning his neck to peer over Eames's shoulder. "Are you-- shit, fuck, that's cold, why are you-- are you flushing the line, Eames? Why are you flushing the line?"
"Well," said Eames. "That's enough fun for today, isn't it?"
He didn't turn to give the answer, the set of his back brittle as he adjusted the saline flow. The details are unclear, but on the one hand, it was before the advent of Somnacin. Arthur glanced at the inside of his own elbow, covered beneath his shirt sleeve. Caught somewhere between annoyance and gratitude. An old, familiar place to be held, when it came to him and Eames.
"Come on, I've only been down three times," said Arthur, keeping the words as light as he could. "What's the problem? I want another go, and you said so yourself, the extrapolation is based on attacks your subconscious has already fended off. The more data it has to work from, the better it'll function. It's like building up your immune system. Get us under again, will you, this is good for you--"
"Good for me," echoed Eames.
In the pale light through the blinds there on his living room floor with the tubing coiled around his fingers, he looked so afraid that all Arthur could think was, please don't run. And yet; what would you be so afraid of, if you knew you could run whenever you wanted? Are you afraid because you're going to stay?
"Okay," said Arthur, "you're right," slumping in a simulacrum of defeat, though it didn't feel a bit like losing.
"You ought to," began Eames, "you really ought to know better."
"I really ought to a lot of things," said Arthur.
"Listen, what I think is," said Eames, like it took effort just to dislodge the words from his throat, "you might want to take a break."
"From what?" asked Arthur. "From this? What are you-- dreaming, you mean?"
Eames toyed with the IV line, pressing nicks into the plastic with the edge of his thumbnail. Of course that was what he meant. Might want to take a break, or in layman's terms -- via the mouth of anyone less consumed with the constant need for prevarication -- take a break, you goddamn wreck, I don't know what the hell is the matter with you.
"I appreciate your concern," said Arthur, decent enough to put him out of his misery. "But see, Eames-- it's just that sometimes, with the way that things are, the cure ends up hurting more than the disease. It's no one's doing, really. Just the way that things are."
"What disease," demanded Eames.
What disease-- that shut him up. Arthur's turn to fixate on the tubing, gingerly worrying the entrance site on his ankle beneath the mound of tape and dressing, intent like he hadn't heard Eames ask anything at all. The answer was much too obvious to give, an embarrassment to even try to put into words. Something rendered laughable in the saying of it. Life, I meant, Eames. Of course that was what I meant.
Dreaming, the cure for life, thought Arthur. Isn't that inane? But you know what I mean by it; I mean the only thing it can mean, Eames. The way we live life, the way we drag ourselves through it, second by excruciating second, sixty minutes to an hour, plodding like a pack mule, our heads down. I don't care for it-- do you? I don't think anyone does. And if a stiff arm and some bruising is the price for being allowed to wrench myself away from that, I think it's as good a deal as any. I'd much rather bleed a little.
"Do you know," he asked instead, "what happened to Dreamer Zero?"
"It's all hearsay," said Eames. "Not exactly worth our time."
"I heard that he died," said Arthur. "But then again, I suppose any other end to the story would be disappointing."
Maybe if we were allowed to look behind us once in a while, we wouldn't be so fascinated with our own tracks. But here we are, sad as sharks, grazing the ocean floor one inch at a time. Like Lot's wife with the sound of fire and brimstone in her ears. As he slows the bike to a stop and the sand gives way to an anemic cluster of half-hearted buildings, Arthur knows that's why he never asked Eames about that city, that woman, whatever and whoever they might have been. His hometown, his mother's maiden name, his tender schoolboy love, what the fuck did it matter? That was life, and dreaming -- yes, say it again, like it wasn't mortifying enough the first time around -- was the cure. It always was.
He knows it's just a dumb animal response, not much more than the drooling of a dog taught to listen for a bell, but Arthur puts his hand on the door in front of him and all his blood runs hot. The vertigo of his racing heart. It's a little thing that he can't help, what his skin remembers-- what his bones will cling to ten months after he's turned and left.
Sand rustles under his feet, like ball bearings nudging him forward. He knows this bar. Years ago when he walked into it, the jukebox was a flashing, living thing, whirring in the corner, dancing for a dollar. He remembers eyeing it as he climbed up onto a stool, elbows on the plexiglass expanse of the counter. The lights behind the bartender were neon blue and green. What the hell kind of place is this, he thought, and ordered a martini because he had no idea what else to do.
A second, when he drained the bottom of the first. His phone stayed blank. It wasn't a team he knew entirely well; the extractor was a well-respected veteran he'd never worked with before, and despite the clear aridity of his Pacific Northwest accent over the phone, Arthur half pictured him a Sean Connery with a beard like bristle. The chemist, he'd run something with a couple months back, but he wasn't sure he could pick her out in a crowd. The architect was a new recruit he'd never even heard of, and then there was Eames-- tardy like the rest of them, wherever he was.
"Eames?" someone said from further down the bar, like they were plucking the name from his reverie. "No, not yet, but I intend to steer clear of him as best as I can. I've done some asking around. With what I've heard of him so far, I'll count myself lucky if we can just wrap this job up without him fucking us over."
Arthur eyed him over the rim of his glass. Mid-twenties, weak jowls, one foot jittering against the leg of his chair. And you must be our architect. Glib and desperate to impress the extractor, who sat hunched over in a parka with his back to Arthur. Some juvie graduate who flunked out of a design school somewhere, arrogant enough to assume the criminal lifestyle would suit him. Someone's going to have to wipe up the mess that idiot makes, thought Arthur. Guess I'm playing babysitter on this one. He tapped his empty glass for the bartender.
"Just a lot of really foul stuff," -- god, he was still at it -- "and not just about him being a dick or whatever, because hey, I get it, we're not the good guys here. We gotta be dicks. I'm a dick, I'm proud of it. But this Eames is some kind of weaselly son of a bitch, you know? Greasy spineless fuck. Isn't he English or something? Keep the hell away from him, take my word of advice. And never hire him again, what are you, nuts?"
Some clown had put Friends in Low Places on the jukebox, like the irony of it would render the bar habitable. Arthur wrapped a hand around his gibson and meditated on the lyrics; where the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases my blues away. That's right.
"Like this forging bullshit, know what I mean?" -- and it was none of Arthur's business, nothing to do with him at all -- "You get me a PASIV and I swear to god, that fucker's out of a job. Any dumb bastard could do that shit. And what, he just swans in with his play-acting and swans right back out and leaves it to the rest of us to get our hands dirty? And then laps up the paycheck anyway? The hell do we even need him for, man? He's not here, you're his boss, just fucking send the goddamn double-dealing bastard back to his fag-cave where he--"
It was Garth Brooks that made me do it, your honor. Just wasn't in the mood for his twang. Arthur didn't really intend to, but nevertheless, he found himself standing above the new architect with a stream of gin and vermouth drizzling over him from his upended martini glass. The cocktail onion hit and slid off the straggly crown of his head.
"Good morning, you asshole," said Arthur.
"What the fuck," spluttered their architect, stumbling to his feet, bar stool crashing to the floor.
"Yes, well," said Arthur, "save the rest of it and say it to his fucking face," and clocked him as hard as he could.
It caught him just under the cheekbone, a little lower than he'd aimed. I gave it my best, that's what counts, thought Arthur, as their architect fell in a heap of stainless steel chairs and the bartender came rushing over from behind the plexiglass counter. The dull throb in his knuckles felt like a medal of honor, the adrenaline like a cool flood of mint and winter air. I didn't mean to cause a big scene, just give me an hour and then--
"Arthur," said the man in the parka, "Jesus Christ."
He turned to find Eames staring at him, eyes wide.
This is what happened:
There in the middle of the havoc, the racket of the mob, Eames reached out a hand and took him by the elbow, quiet and slow. He put his thumb to the skin beneath the rolled-up edge of Arthur's sleeve, so goddamn careful that Arthur thought his knees would give out from the rush of heat inside him. Oh, god, how it burned. Eames could probably feel it, that thrum of blood under his finger, calling his name, inviting him in. Arthur grabbed blindly at Eames's shoulder, unsure if it was eiderdown or muscle he was clutching at, dizzy with the solemn brush of Eames's thumb where the bruises had washed away. Soft as a caress over a string drawn taut.
Eames, he began, and had to bite his lip just to keep from screaming.
How strange it is, like the trembling of the earth under your feet, to know the sudden weight of your own want. The crushing inertia of the years left voiceless. Whatever Eames saw in his face when he looked up, whatever it was that made Eames curl his hand around the back of his head and kiss him, it couldn't have been anything less than an avalanche. The colors of the bar swam like northern lights.
Arthur opened up into the kiss because he was shaking apart, unsteady as a man pulled from the edge of death. The taste of vodka and coffee, bittersweet and warm, barely tethering his feet to the ground. And the old apostasy wasn't enough to hold him back from prayer when he closed his eyes and thought, Mother Mary, I don't know how to let him go.
"I told-- I told you it would fade," said Arthur, stuttering over the hitch in his voice. "Once I was off the Trihypnyl, it was only a matter of time before--"
"God, look at you. What a live wire," said Eames. "What'd you sock him for, anyway?"
"I don't know," said Arthur. "What were you letting him step all over you for?"
Eames didn't answer, only ghosted his teeth over the shell of Arthur's ear. He laughed when his hand caught in Arthur's belt buckle, and Arthur felt the sound wash hot across the nape of his neck, unraveling him stitch by stitch, every seam he'd painstakingly drawn closed and simmered under. That's all right, though, isn't it. I came this far to let you undo me. He lay back and sank into the hotel sheets, thirsty.
"You fucking hooligan," said Eames, unbearably gentle. "I want to fuck the metal straight out of you."
Or maybe he said mettle, but Arthur was hardly listening. Yes, he thought, yes, please. Under his clothes, Eames was an edifice, terra incognita where the dragons lay coiled. Lands that cartographers dreamed of knowing. Mesmerized, Arthur mapped him with his fingers and his tongue, swam up his rivers of ink. Seven miles across, a granite wall.
By the time Eames had him pinned to the bed, they were flushed and out of breath, the sheets a tangled heap around their ankles. Under the hazy glow of the bedside lamp, Eames was made of gold. Shadows pooled around the tense knot of his smile.
"You have no idea," he said, "how long I've wanted--"
And that was true, of course; neither of them knew the private histories they'd harbored away, the ever-sinces and the when-we-firsts. But there were better things for them to do right then than one-up each other, and the thick, damp line of Eames's cock seemed a better prospect than idle conversation. Save your confessions for Sunday, why don't you. More peevishly than he meant to, Arthur bucked up against Eames's hands on his shoulders, straining under the hold.
Eames went deathly still, his grip tightening. For a long suspended moment Arthur thought something had gone wrong, that he'd fucked it up somehow-- and then Eames tilted his head, his eyes wild in the lamplight. Darker and stranger than he remembered.
"What," asked Arthur, too loud in the sudden silence.
"I figured that's how it would go," said Eames, and leaned down and kissed him again.
Shit, thought Arthur, what's going on, because the touch unnerved him. It was a measured, dangerous thing, almost angry in its restraint. What was Eames asking for, anyway? As though he'd caged a wildcat, waiting for it to lunge at him, anxious that it wouldn't jump for his throat. Afraid that something or someone had managed to tame it--
Then, with a start, he knew it; Jesus, he wants me to fight him. The narrative Eames had fashioned for them was written in the contrarian set of Arthur's jaw, an homage to every recalcitrant bone in his body. That's the way he figured it would go. That's how he figured Arthur was.
I'm not who you think I am, Arthur would have told him, but when he bit at Eames's lips as a prelude to his full irritation, Eames made a strangled sound and shot out his hand, fumbling with the condom on the coffee table. The ashtray toppled to the carpet, a dull report. Like checking for blood, Eames licked his mouth and swiped at it with the back of his hand.
Maybe they were both out of their minds, but in that moment, Arthur was less annoyed than thrilled. What Eames was looking for wasn't triumph or conquest, but the exhilaration of a leased happiness. For a bird of prey to take a shine to him, to fold its unpinioned wings and let him smooth down its feathers for a minute or two. And the thought of Eames wanting him bad enough to hold him down-- that, Arthur liked.
It was the wrong foot to get off on, wasn't it. Predicating their time together on a promise of flight. You make me want to stay just to prove you wrong, thought Arthur, through the slow welcome ache of Eames pushing inside him. You make me want to run just to prove you right.
Later, Eames put his ear to the tremor of Arthur's chest, like listening for distant horses. Languid in his exhaustion, Arthur allowed the weight to linger, only shivering a little as Eames traced absent patterns over his skin.
"It's pounding so fast," said Eames, low, like he was in awe. "I did that, didn't I? It was me?"
It was a wonder you could hear it at all over the clamor of your own doubt, thinks Arthur, toeing at the sand across the floorboards. Maybe if you'd really listened, if you'd taken a little time to mull over the frantic Morse tap of my heart, you would have known the answer I gave you years ago. What you had lying in the palm of your hand all along.
It was me, you said, as though the most you could ever do to me was make me come hard enough to need to catch my breath. Of course it was you, Eames. You fucking asshole. Isn't that what made you run, in the end? Because I let you down by asking for you?
The recess of the bar crooks into a corridor behind the jukebox, a passage through the wall that Arthur doesn't remember. The creak of wood under his feet, that he can blame on the aging floor, but he can't explain away the breeze at the back of his neck. Warm and light, not the unforgiving blast of a limbo sandstorm. Familiar, but nothing he can place. An artifact.
A different bar in a different city, a different time. This one is a bit more straightforward. Carpeted floors, leather seats on the bar stools, and the music was just loud enough to drown out the bark of Eames's laugh. Arthur only guessed it from the twist of his mouth, the incredulity in his face.
"Fancy seeing you here," said Eames.
"You've had enough," said Arthur, and yanked his drink away from him. Eames reached for it. Not in the mood for keep-away, Arthur took a long pull from it instead-- a nutty dark beer he might have enjoyed at any other time. The sort of thing he might have liked tasting on Eames's tongue, if things had been simpler between them. Eames watched him a moment, then relented, swiveling back toward the counter.
"So call me a cab," he said, eyes fixed on the liquor shelf. "Small town, isn't it? Small sort of world, I didn't think you'd end up tripping over me here, of all places. Sorry I got in your way, must have ruined your evening. Should I leave?"
"How've you been," asked Arthur.
"Please, spare me the pity," said Eames. "If you gave the slightest fuck at all, we'd be having a different conversation right now. Either this is really some unfortunate coincidence or you're just here to gloat, and whichever way, I think you can do me the courtesy of letting me alone now, thank you."
Arthur sits at the empty bar, legs dangling, the bottles on the shelf full of sand. He wouldn't look at me, he remembers. That was how he knew Eames was lying without meaning to, skirting the truth like ice he was afraid to tread on. And that was how he knew Eames would break the silence first, too restless to let the indifferent noise do the talking for them.
"But I don't understand," said Eames, at last, "what could have possibly scared you into running."
"Any number of things," said Arthur.
"You're the fucking bogeyman," said Eames. "You're the stuff of nightmares, Arthur. You don't scare. Least of all by anything I have to offer."
"You have a lot of notions," said Arthur. "Maybe a lot of them are wrong."
"Yeah?" asked Eames. "You think I'm wrong?"
Of course he was. It wasn't coincidence that brought Arthur there, and he hadn't come to gloat. A check-up, Eames. Half to see how you've been doing, and half to see how I've been doing. If you would still frighten me as much as ever. Because that was what Arthur ran from; the prospect of Eames, of coming to know him too well.
Not the dread of ennui, or the festering of stagnant water. Not boredom. But a sinking of the heart you feel when you hold an animal in your arms, and your fingers brush over that velvet inch of throat you'd slit to let out its blood. It's a terrifying thing to see someone in his entirety. To know him too well, to get too used to him, to learn where to touch him, where to stab him, how to love him.
"And here you come, pleased as you please, slipping back onstage like nothing ever happened," said Eames. "Well, then, welcome back. What do you want? I'm still here for you to mangle, I suppose. Ready when you are. In the immortal fucking words of Khalil fucking Gibran, if your heart is a fucking volcano--"
To know when he was drunk, long before the messy slur of his tirades. Arthur motioned for a glass of water, nudged it toward Eames with the back of his hand, waiting it out. It wasn't the last time he would run, and Eames would eventually be the last one to bolt-- but the gash was raw, then, and neither of them any good with forecasts. It was worth a rant or two, severe weather ahead or not. Arthur still understands.
"But I do wonder, Arthur, have you ever thought of this the other way round?" asked Eames. "How things would go then?"
"How things would go when?" asked Arthur.
"If I was the one who up and disappeared," said Eames. "If I was the one who strolled in here, snatching your drink from you, and you hadn't the slightest idea why I'd been gone, or where I'd been, or why the bloody hell I was back. Would we be this civil, I wonder? Could you manage to restrain yourself from shooting me in the fucking face?"
There were a great many things that needed to be said to that, starting with Eames, I am not actually in the habit of pulling my gun on every little annoyance, but it didn't seem the moment for quibbles. And Eames wasn't really being civil at all, was he? Or maybe Arthur had just learned too well how to read the barometer of his unhappiness, every familiarity a handful of clay, building a full person out of him. God, he couldn't bear it.
It wouldn't be the same thing at all, Arthur meant to say, if you were the one to run. It wouldn't be the same because I know, beyond a shred of doubt, why I've come to find you here. With you, it would only be guessing games. That's why it would be different. At least, like this, I know that I--
Listen, Eames. I still--
But there it was again, the truth too obvious to offer up naked on its silver platter. Too visceral for the open air, and Arthur steadied himself with a mouthful of beer, letting it quench him to some semblance of composure. It wasn't the moment for unwanted truths, either. There would be better chances. They had time. And the thought of confession was like watching the fall of a stone cast into an abyss, because wouldn't that turn him human, someone with the capacity for regret? Someone too mortal for Eames to love? What a pair they'd make then, two bodies of meat and bone, lost in the wilderness, dumbly waiting for time and their own piece of shit karma to catch up with them. With nothing to look forward to but decay.
Arthur swallowed, still a little dry, and inched his hand on top of Eames's. His fingers flinched under the touch, and Arthur thought, I know. I'm just as scared as you are. But the warm, rough ridge of his knuckles and the way he didn't move away, surely that was a testament to want in the midst of terror. It had to mean something.
Instead of everything else he could have said, Arthur bent his head to Eames's ear and murmured, low enough to hear over the music, sorry. Eames wavered, like the mirage of an oasis, and turned toward him.
They left the city by train. Bruises dotting them black and blue beneath their clothes, the angry trace of teeth. The sky rushing past them, too, was mottled purple, yellows and greens, the remnants of a bad memory.
"Storm coming," said Arthur.
"No," said Eames. "It always looks like that around here."
Around where? Where was here, where were they-- what were they doing? All Arthur remembers is the throb of his tailbone. The severe upholstery on their seats. The faint spice of Eames's cologne, a sheen of sweat and musk. He leaned his head on Eames's shoulder, just to test the waters, and Eames only tensed a moment before he shifted and carved out a little nook for him. So they were all right, if only because Arthur wouldn't take anything else for an answer.
Sleep on the go had never been his forte, though with his eyes closed and in the lull of the train, it was close enough an approximation of repose. He really was sorry, honest to god. It was the truth, if not the full truth. He never meant for any of it to happen, but he'd thought of it too much, when he knew he shouldn't have. All the blood he'd drawn from Eames between their sheets, all the blood he'd offered up in exchange, he meant as an apology.
"Arthur," said Eames, under his breath.
He didn't answer. You're cinnamon and nutmeg and salt on my tongue, Eames. Black pepper and leather and smoke, the crunch of snow through a Scandinavian forest. The rasp of your stubble on the insides of my thighs.
Eames didn't say anything, either. Just ran a finger across Arthur's wrist, the kind of touch so gentle it could set you on fire, like he didn't know what would happen if he held on too tight. Five feet nine inches of spun sugar, bullshit. Arthur could have wept at the injustice of it, only he'd forgotten how to breathe.
How dare he treat me like I was too good for him. Arthur didn't know where to begin, drowning in him, nothing for his fists to pound against. So he did the only thing he could-- kept quiet and waited for the train to jolt him awake, listening to the soft click of Eames's totem against his fingernails. Will you stop checking it, I'm still here, he didn't say. I came for you. I never could stay away.
A flash of gold glints off the sand in the liquor bottles, the late light slanting through the glass. That's not what Cobb said, is it, not the days without edges blurring into one another, fifty years as seamless as any sluggish afternoon. If it isn't a sunset to mark time, then it's a sunset to make a point. I must be nearing the end of something, thinks Arthur, and puts his hand on a westward window, the silhouette of his flesh translucent against the glow. You and your metaphors.
A horn honks outside, bleary, cutting through the haze. Arthur creaks the window open and sees a car idling at the door.
"Taxi?" shouts the driver. "You called for a taxi, no?"
With a shrill, bright sound behind him, a bottle bursts apart on the shelf. It's not quite gunfire, but Arthur ducks by instinct anyway. Sand streams down the racks. The bottle next to it shatters in turn, a domino explosion of silver dust, and the edge of the counter begins to dissolve into grains. A third bottle, then a fourth. A bar stool collapses and scatters on the floor.
"Yeah," says Arthur. "Yeah, I think so-- hang on."
He darts outside, the desert wind at his back. There's no need for him to linger on the wasteland left behind, and he only bothers to look after he tumbles into the backseat of the cab, shutting out the howl of the ravage. The sand beats against the frame of the car, a pitter-patter cool as rain. Only the dim echo of white noise corralled where it can't hurt him.
"I suppose I ought to know you," says Arthur, shaking out the collar of his shirt.
"Not necessarily," says the driver. "These are his memories, not yours." He's a pair of eyes in the rearview mirror, a shoulder in a khaki jacket past the bulletproof partition.
"But I'm implicated in them," says Arthur. "I've come this far, I saw what he's been making of limbo. Still lying to my fucking face. Jesus Christ, like he ever wanted me to want him, when he just fucking turned tail and fled the instant he realized that he-- haven't I been in your cab before?"
"No," says the driver, "you haven't."
"So--" says Arthur.
"So the question is," says the driver, "why not?"
The view is dreary, cities looming and fading away in the distance like through a fog. Arthur tilts his forehead against the window, and his breath steams up a damp patch of condensation, a sudden tinge of chill to the air that threads inside. Winter, he thinks, when I wasn't with him.
"He had a suitcase," says the driver. "I thought he was off to the airport, so I helped him load it up into the trunk. He pulled the door shut and didn't tell me where he was going. When I asked, he just told me to drive wherever, and I would have thrown him out if he hadn't taken out his wallet then. Stranger people come and go, I guess. He didn't seem like trouble so I let him be. Do you remember? One of those grey wool coats, we were heading into December. Do you remember what it looks like from the back?"
Just once, seared into him. Had he grown complacent? But the view of the coat he knows best is from the front, half of Eames's face tucked away beneath a scarf, his cheeks ruddy with the wind. He didn't think he'd ever need to watch Eames walk away-- although if it was any consolation, Eames seemed every bit as startled to find himself doing it.
Rewind the tape a little further. Adrenaline, endorphin, it was the thrill that had shoved them into each other again, a train collision. At LAX with Cobb stumbling past the baggage carousel in his sailor's trance, Eames knew to wait for Arthur before they'd said a word to each other.
"Seems like we're on again," said Arthur, congenial, as Eames fell into step beside him.
"Can't think of a better way to celebrate," said Eames, "can you?"
He looked at Arthur and the stars danced in his eyes, lotus flowers spurting to life on the vinyl floor beneath his heels. Somewhere, an oboe blew a long note and a celestial orchestra began to tune. That'll happen when you've just defied a decade's worth of industry wisdom. It gets to you, just a little. Arthur grabbed him by the front of his shirt and kissed him.
They lived like kings in the daze of triumph, punch-drunk with their own immortality. Hopping from city to city just because they could, conquering continents, drinking oceans. But in the end it fared no better than their old song and dance. That'll happen when you catapult yourself into a tangle of knots you've never learned how to undo. A soft place to land, but when it's time to come up for air, you have to cut your way out.
By the time they were ready to ruin things for good, they'd found themselves a second-floor apartment somewhere, a bedroom and kitchen that Arthur had been maudlin enough for a few months to start calling home. The plumbing was ghastly, their landlady disobligingly laissez-faire. Barcelona, Ipanema, Crete, Capri, Cape Town. Or was it waterfront at all? He isn't sure. One city or another, what did it matter. Eventually neither of them wanted to stay.
"You just don't give a shit," said Eames. The zipper of his suitcase came apart in his hand, and he tore it open the rest of the way, like a butcher.
Arthur leaned against the dresser and crossed his arms to nail his heart in place. "About what," he asked.
"About anything," said Eames. "What are you doing? You're just going to stand there?"
"I don't want to get in your way," said Arthur.
"You don't want-- Arthur," said Eames, "I'm going to leave," a drop of lucid patience in his frustration, as though he hoped Arthur would finally get it if only he explained it well enough. As though that had been the problem all along, just a few crossed wires. What did he expect, oh, I see now, please don't go, I love you?
He had been telling him and telling him, hadn't he, and whose fault was it that Eames refused to hear it? Whose fault was it that Eames pretended not to hear it, relishing only the feel of Arthur bucking underneath him, fighting his hold. Only ever content with a malcontent, only stooping to love what didn't love him back.
In the words of the sages of old, I probably should have seen it coming. But how our own want blinds us. Maybe I ought to have remained feral for you, but what you don't know is, I never was when it came to you. Like I'd been bred for the indoors, I couldn't voice half the things I meant to say. You have no idea how long I've wanted--
Eames paused with his hand on a pile of shirts, looking at Arthur like he was insane.
"Did you ever want this at all?" asked Eames. "Any of it?"
"I'm not fucking answering that," said Arthur, because there was only ever one right answer, and Eames ought to have known it. Eames had to know it. What was the good of breathing sound into it, when it was exactly what he didn't want to hear?
Inside the emptied house, Arthur stood with his back and both his palms braced against their door, because he knew he'd run out if he didn't stop himself. How he shook.
Might as well be at the airport, Eames told the driver, but let's take the scenic route. He watched the road unfurl behind them through the side mirror, the curves of the highway coming loose. The radio meandered through a jazz standard. Having contemplated the purr of the snares for three or four exits, Eames sat back, and drummed his fingers on the seat.
"Something wrong?" asked the driver.
"Isn't it funny," said Eames, "when the one person you thought might care enough to mourn for you-- well, it doesn't matter. Nothing's wrong."
As though you would have ever needed me at your funeral, when you could do the job yourself. It's not so difficult, do it just like you mourned your own disavowal of me, rending your garments and bathing yourself in ash. Your little taxicab hearse. What sort of game is it to hold down someone who doesn't want to leave, to leave someone who would have held you down if only they'd been brave enough to try? Did I fight you too hard, just like you wanted me to?
Long past sundown when Eames's ride came to a stop, Arthur was nursing his gin and tonic, face in the crook of his elbow. Bastard, he said, though past the pulse of the music and his drunken tongue, he could hardly make any sense of himself either. The bartender shook his shoulder.
"Sir," she said, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to--"
"No, I'm fine," said Arthur, "just tired. Please, it's been a long day. Could I have-- no, wait, I'll finish the one I've got here. I'm all right. I won't give you any trouble, I'm not a rowdy drunk anyway. Can you hear any of what I'm saying? Isn't it a bit loud in here?"
And honestly he didn't catch much of what was asked him later, come here often or what's your name, but the hand on his waist was clear enough a conversation without words. He felt sloppy, a puddle on the floor for someone to mop up. Someone, sweep me into my skin and sew me closed. He laughed, because there wasn't anything he had to say, and he laughed, and he couldn't stop, a charging locomotive with its brakes out of commission.
"You okay?" asked whatever his name was, something blunt and thick and fucking stupid like Bruce, or maybe Chad. If it had been an English name.
"Why does everyone keep asking me that," said Arthur. "He's such a bastard."
"Yeah, he is," said whatever, his hand sliding in under Arthur's shirt, thank god.
They even had speakers installed in the goddamn restroom. For a frantic minute when the most important thing in the world seemed like grappling with the zippers on their pants, it was almost welcome, the thudding of the bass line torquing his heartbeat to its rhythm. Won't anything else be kind enough to do my job for me? he thought. The wind to breathe in my stead, someone else to live out my life. All I'd need to know is how it ends.
Without warning, the fever drained from him, and the whole performance of lust seemed absurd. Bruce or Chad, built blunt and thick as his name, pawing at Arthur's belt. Less than clean shaven, solid hands. Was that a hint of ink beneath the neckline of his shirt? Oh, Jesus fucking Christ, what am I doing. Arthur pulled away, jerking his jacket back onto his shoulders.
"Get the fuck off me," he said, and lurched out of the stall.
"What the hell, you wanted--" the voice chased him as he went, "--you fucking asshole."
A sad, predictable asshole. It was a gorgeous night out, the horizon stained by city lights, only a few stubborn stars flecking the pale expanse of the sky. Arthur walked his way back to the apartment, hands thrust in his pockets out of the cold. What does it feel like to be able to take your leaving as an excision, an extirpation, a load off your mind? To have the ability to bid good riddance to the things you renounce. Eames must be light enough to fly, cut free of my cumbersome weight from his side.
He wouldn't get out of the car, when I pulled up at the terminal, says the driver. We're here, I told him, but he didn't move. Don't you have a flight to catch? No, he said. Nowhere to be, except where I came from. But I think that was the only place he couldn't be.
Arthur wanted him to stay, he knew. He had to know it. But if this isn't all just an exquisite blame game, if the testimonies you've placed in others' mouths carry the weight of the truth, then how possibly-- how could you not have heard me asking you to stay? What were you listening for instead? You, so keen you thrilled me, never missing a single thing.
Somehow years' worth of prayers slipped right by you, and I don't know why or how it could have happened. Did it happen? I don't know where your lies stop, Eames. I don't know where they begin. Arthur swings the cab door closed behind him and it crumbles on impact, a heap of grains at his feet.
In its masquerade as a humdrum office block, metal and glass, Arthur doesn't recognize the building from the outside. But it's unmistakable as soon as he steps in; the soft creak of the wooden floor, the wooden steps, the landlady's geraniums sunning themselves on the lobby windowsill. A quiet breeze puffs in past the curtains, stirring his hair. It's a handful of space he can navigate blind, only a staircase away from home. There's no sand to be seen anywhere.
Ten months since he locked the door and returned the keys. A long span for radio silence, but just a step over the threshold for memories. He dusts them out from where he's kept them under lock and key, like a photo album tucked away beneath a pile of winter sweaters, a sheaf of envelopes grown brittle over time.
Because he remembers his remembrance:
What are you thinking of? asked Eames, voice rolling in his chest under Arthur's ear.
Oh, you know, said Arthur. Nothing in particular. A thump, a thump, a thump. He caught a whiff of lemon, fleeting enough that he wanted to trace it to the vendors outside, but probably it was the landlady's air freshener. That was all right, in its own way. A wind chime, left swinging in the window by the previous tenant, began to stir.
Still warm, when the raindrops came. A sound like the beating of wings, and a flurry of dismay as awnings and parasols flowered open above the market stalls. If he'd looked out, he would have seen the colors blooming down the street, but what a perfect moment to be lazy, curled up between the mattress and Eames's arm.
A thump, a thump, a thump. The illusion of eternity, this steady assertion of health. Just keep beating, and you could live forever. Was it really an illusion, anyway, when they could stretch out time, twelve whole years in one at the mere pinprick of a needle? With Eames's heartbeat in one ear and the rain in the other, the lemon and wind chime winding around them, Arthur folded the memory away.
For the sort of rainy day when he'd have to look for cover. It wasn't a rift he was dreading, not the two of them running from each other. That wasn't it. Only, when everything had an end to come to, there were bodies waiting to fall apart, the current of time to thrash against. More fears to harbor than he could even name.
But right then, he was happy, the moment pure and sharp as crystal when he held his breath. A perfect aching instance of bliss. No matter what we'll run up against, he thought, remember that once, there wasn't a single thing I wanted to change. That I, too, knew a rapture that I wished would last forever.
That's rare, said Eames.
What, asked Arthur, muffled.
You, like this, said Eames. At rest. His hand threaded through Arthur's hair.
Home, the provenance of artifacts. All those shards scattered through limbo where they didn't belong, vestiges of scent and sound. Lemon, the chime, the shift of wood beneath his feet. Maybe Eames had left them there-- or maybe it was Arthur that had brought them with him, no stranger to the hoarding of memories himself, the hushed press of a precious instant to his chest. Who was he kidding, with his heels digging into his own sides, spurring him faster and faster through life?
If your heart is a volcano-- well, listen. No one can run fast enough to leave himself behind. With all his hunger for an existence less than human, to be a creature of lava and light, a fearless silver bullet molded hot enough to burn, it was the warmth of skin on skin Arthur had always wanted to come back to. Maybe nothing perishes in a garden suspended in time, but what would you find growing there? As though there would be any heartbeat at all in something built to last an eternity.
And Eames, thinks Arthur, surprised to see me at peace. To him I was a conflagration, my flames licking down everything I touched to ashes. The bruises I gave myself, my chainsaw and my Javelin, and he must have thought I would be as fervid in love as I was in taking things apart. Were you watching for smoke on the horizon? You were. So convinced I would set the world on fire for you, so intent on waiting for the explosions in my wake that you never heard me calling your name.
What was it that Madigan said. You really think that's why he put this warehouse here? So that you could look at it and feel thankful? The warehouse was there because Eames was peering into it, turning it over in his hands like a snowglobe, desperate to glean the truth from it. Chapels, bars, scouring all the corners, wringing the fabric of his memories for every last drop of meaning. Did Arthur ever want me? He didn't, did he?
And with his ears tuned to a louder sound, all he heard in every empy room was the silence echoing back at him, only telling him what he thought he knew. My voice just a low hum under his radar. Just because he liked the fight in me didn't mean he liked me any less at rest. He didn't love me for my unattainability, but in spite of it. He wanted me to want him-- eight years he was listening for me--
I wanted you, Eames. We've been at war with the same demons; hushing me even quieter, setting you firmer in your deafened ways. You were the sort to never leave a wound alone, prodding it and tearing at it until it bled fresh. Me, executioner, harpooneer, too eager to cauterize any paper cut with a blowtorch.
This thorn between us. You called it not remembering enough, and I called it remembering too much. You thought you could stare it down, and I thought it would disappear if I closed my eyes to it. Wasn't it stupid of us-- both of us? Do you know we've been going at this fight the wrong way round? Are you still listening? Am I loud enough?
So where is he, thinks Arthur. Upstairs? Is he home, a broken suitcase on the bed, waiting for me to stop him this time? He wonders what the right first thing to say would be, a tip of his hat, Dr. Livingstone, I presume. What Eames would say in return. If he would be happy to see me, or if it would be some other expression darting across his face. God, his face. Ten months I haven't seen him looking at me.
As he stands at the foot of the stairs, peering above him like into the heights of a dark tower -- did this staircase always seem so long? -- something rubs against his shin. It's a dog that must have wandered in from outside, a ragtag and disheveled thing. Absently, Arthur reaches down to scratch behind its ears, burying his hand into a tuft of matted fur.
"Is he upstairs?" he asks.
It touches a cold nose to his palm and lies down, tail swishing in tired sweeps across the floor, too tattered to bark out an answer or a hello. Paws caked with mud. Arthur crouches down on his heels, and it nudges a little closer, rheumy eyes drooping. He keeps expecting the landlady to walk into view, armed with her hard-of-hearing English. The lobby remains empty, though. Just him and the haggard dog.
Do I know you, wonders Arthur. The way you greet me, like I was the only thing missing from your rest. Like you're ready to lie down and die, now that I've come back. Who am I to you? Close at my feet like you've been waiting for me-- have you been waiting for me?
Have you been--
--oh, mongrel. You've been waiting for me. Listening for my footsteps all these years.
He kneels, wrapping his arms around the dog, its emaciated ribcage. They're back in Arthur's chapel and young again, the heat of their bodies still foreign to each other. Eames in the light of the stained-glass windows, thumb on the inside of Arthur's elbow.
"Mongrel," he whispers, into its neck. "It's you."
It tenses in comprehension, a wary quickness it shouldn't have been able to muster up, and jerks away from him. It nearly shakes him loose, Eames nearly shakes him loose, not willing yet to be unmasked in his silent scrutiny. His reconnaissance. Arthur locks his fingers together and holds on as best as he can, trying to keep the jumping, thrashing, desperate bundle in his embrace.
Then the armful of animal turns liquid, slipping out of his grasp. Its fur shimmers, colors into rust, and the eyes that flash back at his are feral amber and gold. A fox like a puddle of mercury. Arthur just grapples and clutches it tighter, all he can do, his teeth gritted together hard enough to hurt. Jesus, he bites out.
Eames shifts form again, when the wriggling doesn't free him. Arthur finds himself with his arms looped around the neck of a deer, still fawn-soft but wild as a bronco. Hooves thump bedlam against the wood. Exhausted and frustrated, almost dashed to the ground by the bucking, he digs his nails into Eames and throws all his weight behind a tackle, all six of their legs a tangle.
"Goddammit, Eames," he gasps. "I'll fucking hunt you down if I have to--"
And they're tumbling together in Eames's grey wool coat, as awkward a mess of limbs as ever. The collision is a graceless, earthy, beautiful thing that knocks the breath out of both of them, a heavier impact in Eames's human shape than they were prepared for, and for a minute they lie sprawled on the floor, half on top of each other, panting. The rasp of their heaving dissolves into the balmy silence.
Eames is too close to make out in his entirety, but Arthur is caught in the half-parted pause of his mouth, listening for thunder. He's not changed much. Lost a little weight, maybe, but ten whole months like a decade, didn't it feel like an age? Eames seems to agree, lying there mute, looking up at him like the sun is too bright. A smidgen embarrassed, Arthur punches him in the shoulder, hard enough that Eames coughs and rubs at the spot.
"Arthur," he says at last, a hoarse and strangled hymn.
The relief is so immense that Arthur drops his head to Eames's chest, all unwound. In an instinctive, familiar reach, Eames's arm comes to curl around his waist.
Midday, a hint of salt and surf in the air. Too warm for Eames's wool coat. Arthur helps him shrug it off, inch by inch. Please don't run, says Arthur, I'll chase you, but don't. Neither of us ever wanted to leave, do you know that? I have to tell you-- and he stops himself, because it's a longer story than that, meant for the liberty of clearer and undreamed skies.
There are a lot of things he says. Well-- come on, let's go. Let's get the hell out of here, Eames, and honestly, was this the best way you could think to call me, and you fucking idiot, seasoned with another punch to his shoulder, and when the taste of that isn't sharp enough, a kiss.
Eames is a trifle dazed. So much of it was an accident, he says, and the rest was the sort of gamble you take to lose. I couldn't be sure you'd show up--
The only kind of gamble you're good at, says Arthur. This was the best way you could think to tell me what you meant. But I found you, didn't I? My notions, just as outlandish as yours, and both of us with our weapons railing against the fathomless ocean. Lies, mistakes, half-swallowed words a lump in our throats, choking us up. A pair of fuck-ups from the day we met, and somehow we've found the long way around. Oh, I called you so many names.
It's no certainty for Eames that Arthur has shown up at all, limbo a much stranger place than can give rise to a convincing mirage. Totems only go so far. Has it happened before, asks Arthur, me coming to fish you out? Eames shakes his head, but they're in the sort of maze where suspicion is a virtue.
Can't fall any deeper, though, says Arthur, a haphazard stab at cheer. Eames is good enough to laugh. Arthur charts the fine lines of his kindness with the tip of his finger. If only we'd been rooted to the ground like trees, pushed up against each other with no room to look away. Maybe if we didn't have the whole world to run across.
Against all odds, says Eames, I think you really must be him.
Don't be too sure just yet, Arthur chides him. Tell me again, later, with our feet on solid ground.
Anytime, says Eames.
Their bathroom sink had stopped working. Arthur fiddled with the hot spigot and then with the cold, clockwise and counterclockwise, only drawing forth a dim gurgle of discontent from somewhere beyond the wall. Still nothing, when the front door creaked open.
Well? he asked, and Eames called back, she says we ought to leave it be. She'll ask someone to look at it. Arthur gave the valves another experimental, futile twist. At least it's still working in the bathtub, he said, half to console himself.
Maybe she'd meant it, and maybe if they'd waited long enough, someone would have eventually come to help them. Or if they'd called someone themselves, or if they'd rolled up their sleeves and torn away the tiles, delving into the labyrinthine rust with a wrench and a flashlight to guide them on their way. Waiting was no chore, they thought, and didn't mind the inconvenience too terribly much. Craning their heads over the bathtub to brush their teeth, perched on the lip, laughing through a lather of shaving cream. The twinge in their backs a fine joke.
Only, they never did last the winter. The frost was a sheen on the windowpanes when Arthur locked the door behind him.
"So we'll fix it," Arthur says now, thinking of their sink running dry as dust. "We'll go home and we'll try again. No more of going through life with your best years behind you, or too far ahead to reach for-- if you follow me up, we'll do it better this time around. Everything we can think of. And if you don't--"
"What do you mean," asks Eames, "if I don't?"
"I want you to come on your own two feet," says Arthur. "It should be okay for you to stay under until you think I'm gone topside, so as long as you don't start forgetting where you are. Look, Eames, I came for you, but I need you to believe it. I need it to be your call to make. Before we break the surface, you can turn back whenever you like."
"Arthur--" begins Eames.
"I won't look behind," says Arthur. "I promise."
In the end, it isn't nostalgia that turns us to pillars of salt. Only our fear that we must have lost something important along the way, buried invisible in the indent of our own tracks. Whatever it is, we think, we'll never get it back. Some of us turn back and kneel in the sand, ever swept onward, looking in vain until our eyes burn hot. Some of us choose to fly faster. But god, all the things we could be, unshackled from that dread--
Water starts to cascade down the steps, seeping into the thirsty wood, welling up damp when Arthur shifts his weight. He takes a step and wonders if he might hear Eames behind him, the clearing of his throat or the the scraping of his soles. Some sign of life, still. He can't. Just the faint, soft murmur of the faucet upstairs, but that's all right. The real faith is in trusting that the world remains with you, even when you close your eyes.
Droplets bead on the ceiling. The trickle turns to a gush, soaking Arthur's shoes, cold and clear. A step, then another. Well, then, river run. The water rises to his ankles, strong enough to sway him off balance. A churning, frothing rapid, growing deeper yet. The weight of everything stacked between them and waking. Follow the river flow. He puts a hand on the wall and keeps scaling his way home, upstream, up waterfalls.
At his knees, it starts to slow him down. There's a light to the water, flowing from some bright height, like home is where they can drown awake at last. Have you ever watched the sky from the placid bottom of a pool, the sun webbed on the surface a hundred miles above you? You thought it a different world. Arthur shivers, drenched in the ice of mountains. What a lonely walk it is, only the roar of the water for company. No; somewhere behind him, Eames is struggling, ungainly through the current. Just because he's a little out of sight-- take another step. Hang in there, Arthur shouts for him. The flood lifts him off his feet, and he wades through it with his hands, his fingers numb. The spray stings his cheeks. Louder and louder the water rushes, the squeeze of it vice-tight around his chest.
Don't look behind. In the bone-chill and lungful of mist, Arthur coughs, each foot forward a slip of memory in his breast pocket. Hang in there. Let's leave. Always, you carry your love with you. The real faith is in remembering it. Eames's hand, warm over the bruises at his elbow, brushing like a kiss over the jag of scar tissue on his shoulder. The loose spill of Eames's body under the sheets, time and space enough to dream an architect's dreams. A dancing jukebox in the corner of a forgotten bar. The sudden hot streak of a flash of detail, like the muscles in Eames's jaw pulling tight. The nick of skin where he'd cut himself shaving. The sizzle of his cigarette, a burn down the length of Arthur's spine. The smell of the rain.
Every breath they take a lionsong. They climb.