"The Bitter Glass"

-—-
"Arthur, you can cut it out now."

5'10", 140, brown eyes, black hair—

" . . . Arthur?"

. . . and, and 5'10", 140, brown eyes, black hair—
-—-

Arthur's eyes snapped open, but in the dark he couldn't see.

Where am I?

Dreaming.

He was dreaming—or had been. How could he tell? He had a way. And why was it dark? Was it collapsing? No, just dark. Woods. They were in the woods—no artificial light, just flashlights—where was his? The mark was Canadian, lived in Ontario—

Totem. Chinese finger trap. That was how he could tell. Silk, not bamboo or paper.

His hands flew to his pockets—empty, both front and back. Then where—

Someone—Eames, he remembered, though he wasn't sure why him or who that was really, he still couldn't see in this dark—gripped his wrist. Shined a flashlight in his eyes and Arthur tried to draw back but the grip was firm.

Eames turned his palm up and dropped the trap. His trap, silk-smooth.

"You all right?" Eames asked.

It echoed in the night.

-—-

Arthur is an excellent forger.

(Putting modesty aside, now: he is the best.)

-—-

For Mal's birthday, Arthur gives her a videocamera.

It doesn't take long to regret it.

"Now, Dom. What is a forger? What makes our Arthur special?"

Arthur ducks his head out of frame but Dom reels him in easily, dropping him back on his seat and keeping him there with a hand on his shoulder.

"Not everyone can forge. People think it's easy. If you can make a dream, you can make a new you. A you that looks however you want it to look. But it's not that simple. Forging isn't dress up. A forger does not become someone else, someone different than who they were a second ago. A forger is. And that's Arthur. Give him anyone—anyone—and Arthur will be that person, better than they could be. He'll have their habits, their vices; their imperfections and their strengths."

"And then where is Arthur? When he's these people?"

Dom doesn't answer, so Mal turns the camera on him. "Well," she asks. "For posterity. Where does Arthur go?"

He shrugs.

-—-
—black jacket, red vest, white Oxford, pearl cufflinks—
-—-

"Mr. Eames—"

"—Mr. Arthur."

"Arthur's my first name."

". . . Well, damn."

"Just get dressed, Mr. Eames."

"I am."

Arthur turned and it wasn't a lie. Somewhere along the conversation, Eames shrank five inches, lost forty pounds, and sprouted a foot of curly red locks from his head, tiny wisps frazzled around the crown like a halo.

Arthur knew he was staring when Eames stepped closer and whispered, still in his own voice, "It's easy when you're meant to do it."

-—-

Arthur is an excellent forger.

(In fairness, now: he had to be good at something.)

-—-

"Why do you do this, Arthur?"

"Why do you film?"

"Posterity." Mal laughs. Arthur wonders if that camera has ever seen her face. What it must be like to have a voice with no image to call its own. She kicks him with her foot (deliberately out of frame, he notices), and he rolls his eyes. "I like to," she says honestly. "I've always wanted a diary to record my life but I always felt so self-centered. This way, it's about you and Dom. People who are important in my life. Not just about me."

"Hmm."

"Your turn."

"I don't know. Why does anyone do anything?"

"Passion," she says, and he laughs, enough to make her kick again. It doesn't hurt—it looks almost graceful, in his eye, like a ballerina taking off and colliding. He wishes she'd film it, just a little.

"Are you not passionate, Arthur?" she asks, bringing his attention back.

"I'm not much of anything."

"I don't think that's true. Your grades were excellent."

"I'm glad my report card impresses you." She kicks again and he defends, knocking her foot aside. "Grades are just letters; they don't really mean anything."

"And what means something? What about you means something to you?"

He shrugs.

-—-
—black pants, black suspenders, black shoes, white socks—
-—-

"Eames. I want to get something very clear. You're here because Mal's a friend, and you need money. There is really no reason we need another forger."

Eames just smiled and this, this, was why Arthur hated these little visits. They happened more and more often, these days (and always around a job, as if Eames could smell the scent of money on the wind that carried him) but it was the smile he really couldn't take, dirty and wide as an orange slice. There was so much smugness trapped in there he was surprised it could all fit. That it didn't pour out as Eames said:

"No, but you do need a forger. And no offense, Arthur, really—you seem very good at the business as a whole—but, you're just not cut out for the position you're in."

His hands balled into fists, but he waited. One chance—that's all he gets to apologize. One shot.

"Excuse me?"

"Just saying. That's all I'm doing."

He let the swing fly and Eames plummeted, face smacking against cement loud enough to draw Mal in from her brewing. She didn't speak though, or even look at him; just tended to Eames, and Arthur's nails dug into his palms.

"Yeah. Well, while you leap in and out anytime you want to, this is what I do."

This is what I do.

-—-

Arthur is an excellent forger.

(Putting honesty first, now: he is not the best.)

-—-

"You don't even have the fucking camera."

"Oh, please. For curiosity's sake. Who are you, right now?"

"Don't know why you're so curious. Shit, woman."

"Who are you?"

"I don't know; some dickhead on the floor below me. Fucking swears like it's his motherfucking job. Wife's a cunt too."

". . . Arthur, talk like you."

"Fuck off."

"Please, Arthur."

". . . What?"

"Arthur—"

Arthur. Not you.

Arthur blinks, and anchors himself: 5'10", 140, brown eyes, black hair. He shivers. ". . . It's harder, to keep it that way. It's—"

He convulses. He can see Mal's hands tremble, but she knows him (thank you) and keeps her distance. His face melts, chins disappearing and plump cheeks slimming. His hair darkens, bleach blonde to black. Whoever was there before was a river of sweat but the sweat's his own as he straightens back, himself but somehow smaller, younger than the twenty-two year old that'd been there before the change.

He smiles—just a tug of the corner. "See?"

"Gone," she says. "I see."

Arthur doesn't miss the hint of relief.

-—-
—. . .red tie—
-—-

"How do you do it?"

"Do what, darling?"

"Stop that." Arthur took another drink, let it scorch all the way done. Do one job with Eames filling in as a wife and suddenly it was 'Darling, your paper' and 'Love, get the hell off my foot'. He licked his lips, and said, "Forge. Like you do."

Eames stared, premature wrinkles deepening in the corners of his eyes and damn it there was the smile, a slow, short laugh slipping out. "Sorry to tell you, Arthur, but that's how everyone does it."

"But no one's as good as me. Except you. But you don't think I'm good."

"Are you only asking this because you're drunk?"

"I'm not drunk. I'm tipsy."

"Tomato, tomato, dar-ling. So, is that yes or no?"

"Doesn't matter. . . And it's an important distinction. And stop that."

"Such a stickler for the letter."

Eames laughed, took another sip, and closed his eyes. "That's really your problem right there," he said, voice quiet under the chanting of frat boys and sport nuts.

Arthur leaned in. "What?"

Eames opened his eyes. He glanced at him, look unreadable, before pulling out with a sigh. "You're a stickler," he said slowly. "So you do it, all the way through? Until there's nothing left of you?"

He turned his stool around to face Arthur, and their knees bumped together. Arthur's eyes gravitated to the touch (warm, he thought, only now shivering in the overly air conditioned bar) but Eames poked at his chin, drawing his gaze back up.

"Do you know why not everyone can forge, Arthur?"

He shook his head, though half of him was still focused on the warm.

"We should all be able to, technically, right." Eames asked-and-didn't-ask. Rhetorical, Arthur thought, just in time to stop himself from answering as Eames continued, "Yet even in natural dreams, it's rare. You can be anyone you want to be, no restrictions, but fact of the matter is that we believe there are; we think of the world in terms of ourselves, and don't want to cross outside of it."

"But forgers do."

"No. Good ones don't. And we shouldn't," he added, taking his glass but not drinking. He swirled it around, as if looking for something. "That's the trick," he said. "To know that you can cross, and that you shouldn't."

And he looked up and smiled—awful, wide, beautiful, heat in my gut and heat on my knees orange slice smile.

And he said, "A mask's just a mask without a face behind it, pet."

-—-

Arthur is an excellent forger.

(Funny thing, now: they made him one, and now they won't let him be one.)

-—-

"You're pouting." There's a giggle in her voice, and as always she sounds more French when she laughs. More like the girls he remembers from grad school, all short skirts and long Parisian legs. He squashes the thought as the camera squeezes in, begging for a look. "You've been pouting all day. Come on—one shot, for me. For—"

"—Would you cut it out with the posterity?"

". . . Arthur? Is something wrong?"

He keeps silent, and she rushes closer. She reaches out a hand, touches his shoulder, and he shrugs it off.

". . . Is it Eames?" she asks, dragging out the name, and the giggle's back again already. Like there's nothing really wrong. Like she already half-knows what the problem is (and you do, you do, so why the hell are you pretending otherwise?). "Is he still playing his games?

"There's nothing wrong," he says. But he glares, and she laughs, and in the very corner of the frame if she were watching she'd see his fingers twitch, curling in.

"I love Eames. I love him," she says, "but he's like a little boy, Arthur. And you play games too, you know."

"This is not about Eames." And his jaw clenches and tightens because it isn't, not really; Eames is there, floating in with the ocean wind, but it's not him.

It's the wind.

"Okay!" And the camera shakes as she puts up a half-hearted hand in surrender, as she laughs. "Then what?"

". . . I know."

"You know what?"

And when he realizes (you really don't have a clue) he can't help it. He's too angry to leave it and too controlled to say it, so he snatches the camera out of her hands, and spins it back on to her.

"You tell me," he says, to the image in the monitor, washed out and open eyed (still just a ghost to the camera, Mal). "Let's start with why Eames is here."

" . . . Oh."

-—-
—pomade, slicking back . . .—
-—-

"Hello, Arthur."

Eames' hands grabbed for their usual spot (around the waist, like one kiss after six shots of tequila means I'm his) and Arthur slid to the side, kicking the chair back with his feet. Though: No darling? No love? That's new. He didn't ask about it though, choosing instead:

"What do you want, Eames?"

"Heard that you found out." Short and simple (and very not Eames, he thought), as Eames leapt up on the desk, deliberately covering up the files. "Sorry. But, yeah, I was hoping you weren't taking it too hard."

"No, I'm really very used to people stealing my job and then trying to hook up with me."

"And failing, so no harm done, right? We're both wounded losers in this battle."

Arthur got up—or started to. He leaned forward but something grounded, forcing him back. He looked up, watching the ceiling fan's blades spin in vain (his suit was ruined with sweat).

"Why'd you do it?" he asked.

"What did Mal say?"

"I don't give a fuck what Mal says."

"Always so ready to hide yourself, Arthur. Of course you do."

He looked to Eames but the man didn't notice. He lit a cigarette, flipping through the files like a child read magazines in a lobby, pulling out pages and shuffling them back together any old way, and Arthur had to call back his attention:

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I'm not your therapist. Figure it out for yourself." He frowned though. Took a drag, then put it out, burning out the end on a coaster. "Anyway, wasn't my idea. Mal was the one that asked me to do it. Do you think I like coming all the way out here? Awful stink of a country."

Arthur looked up again. Watched the blades go round once. And again. And—

"She said she had to. Use you. She said she didn't want to see me lose myself."

A lighter sparked—why put one out if you're just going to smoke another? "And? What do you think?"

"I think I'm a forger."

"And?"

. . . And round again.

-—-

Arthur is an excellent forger.

(But really, now: who is he?)

-—-

"And what means something? What about you means something to you?"

He shrugs, and in comes the kick again. "You just can't kick someone anytime you want an answer, you know."

"Come on, Arthur." The name is dragged, each syllable its own song. "Tell me about yourself. I hardly know anything about your life before."

He sighs, throwing his head back. "There's nothing really to tell," he says, head bobbing back up again. "I had a really, really normal life."

"Think. For me."

And he does, as he always does eventually (kicking gets her everywhere). "You know the kid who sits in the back?"

"Yes."

"Gets A's but reads the whole time? To the point that . . . you look at a photograph, right, and you're scanning through the rows and there's just this one kid. That you don't really know. And it's almost like if you took your finger and covered them up to the eyes, like they were hiding behind something, you could just maybe picture them in your head, just for a second. That was me."

She laughs, and it's infectious, his lips opening up before he even knows what to do with himself. "And who are you now?" she asks.

And he smiles wider.

"I'm a forger," he says. "I'm anyone I want to be."

-—-
—and . . . and . . .—

5'10", 140, brown eyes, black hair—
-—-

"Arthur!"

Arthur's eyes snapped open, but in the dark he still couldn't see.

Where am I?

Dreaming.

He was dreaming—no, had been. He was lying down now, and as his eyes adjusted he could see the ceiling fan rotating above his head, pushing the hot air around, ruining his suit. Or . . .

Or not.

How could he tell? He had a way. Totem. Chinese finger trap—no, the fake pocket watch, with the mirror inside. Eames had touched the trap, years ago. It was ruined. But where was the—

Eames turned his palm up and dropped the watch. His watch, light and open, tiny mirror cracked but inside. "You all right?"

". . . You're always ruining my totems."

"Sorry? Get another one after this. I asked if you were all right."

He closed his eyes. Closed the watch. Let out a breath, long and slow. "I fucked up."

"Only almost."

"I couldn't let go. I kept trying to anchor myself but—"

"—But I shot you. Consider it a win for the both of us, darling."

He let the endearment pass; let Eames take his hand, brushing a calloused thumb against the top.

Let himself admit: "I can't do this anymore."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you, love. Though, I can think of a few other things a stick-in-the-mud can do."

And he could hear the grin, he swore he could, wide as an orange slice.

And he let himself admit, he really didn't mind.

-—-

Arthur is an excellent point man.

Put modesty aside, now, because really and truly?

He is the best.

-—-

Title comes from W.B. Yeats' "The Two Trees", specifically: "Beloved, gaze in thine own heart. Gaze no more in the bitter glass."

Many thanks, as always, to my beta and friend, Audley, but with an added hint of worship for this one; for helping me to—to (badly) paraphrase what she so wonderfully put—"hang the frame artistically askew, and not just make it an OCD sufferer's hell".

Inception does not, nor will it ever, belong to me. Just playing with my action figures, here.