"And Arthur Runs"
"Take this kiss upon the brow
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow—"
In his dreams, Arthur runs.
He can make anything he wants, and he has: museums with levels reaching to the sky, libraries with halls that never end. He's made conservatories, opera houses, even the hanging gardens of Babylon. He doesn't see them anymore though. Instead, he dreams of a road, thin and dusty, winding through red desert plains. It goes nowhere—or, he never reaches the end—but he doesn't create one. He doesn't need a destination.
It's about the run.
The lobby was empty but the receptionist still opened the window to call Arthur's pseudonym. "George Smith?" He looked right at Arthur but said nothing more. Just waited, twirling a pencil in his hand, until Arthur stood.
Rising too fast, he wobbled, but after he steadied he said, "That's me."
The pencil stopped. It spun left to indicate the far door. "Dr. Mack's ready for you now," said the receptionist. "Room 217."
Arthur nodded. He followed the pencil, opening the door to the familiar narrow hall. Nurses on their way home for the night slipped by him as they gathered purses and goodbyes, not paying him any mind other than a quick smile of recognition. They're used to him and his kind stopping in after hours, though Arthur doubted they knew why.
He reached 217 and opened the door. Mack was already waiting. She turned her chair, white frame beat-up and scuffed on the legs, toward him and smiled, more warmly than the nurses had.
"Hello, Arthur," she said. "Please, sit down."
In his dreams, Arthur runs.
There are no projections. He is alone, though sometimes he hears birds. He doesn't consciously know the songs—that was his mother's love, drilled into him in the hopes of a connection—but he likes the notes all the same, flute highs punctuated by drum lows, bursting randomly but constantly beautiful. They quicken his step, nudging at him, and he keeps the tune in his ear even when they're gone.
But he is still alone.
Sometimes he thinks of Eames, but never long enough to call a projection. It is important, to be alone. There is peace. There is quiet, save for the birds. There is focus. He is here to run, and nothing else.
And he needs a reason to stop dreaming.
Arthur shut the door. There were two chairs—both were vinyl and stiff-looking so he chose one quickly and sat on the edge, slouching forward to rest his elbows on his knees. Mack moved her chair to face him, though the wheels didn't move as smoothly as they should and her dark hair swayed with the force. When she settled, she blushed; raised her clogs to sit on the legs (that's where the scuffs come from, he thought), and said, "I hate this chair. It never moves when I want it to."
"That is a problem," he agreed, and she laughed.
"You're patronizing me," she said.
"Only a little."
"Well," she said, "at least you're honest. Cobb always did say you were. I know I could buy another chair but I keep holding out hope I'll walk in and this one will be gone."
"I will get right on it."
"Aw, thanks." She drew out the 'aw', unbelieving, then suddenly stopped. Like a clockwork toy wound down, her smile faded and her head bent. "So," she said.
"So," he repeated. "You have the results?"
She nodded, looking up again. "Yes. I do."
Her feet shifted on the chair legs, sliding slowly (scuff). "When we started the exams," she said, words slow and careful, "I told you it could be anything. I want to assure you that at the time, I meant what I said."
"I mean it," she said. Her eyes met his (they're as gray as Eames', he thought—had thought for these last few visits) and she continued, "I know thieves. Cobb alone is a prime example. At the time, there really was nothing I could say. Muscle weakness in itself is not indicative of anything."
"But," he said. There is always a 'but'.
"But," she repeated, "there is a very probably diagnosis given your symptoms. We . . . we talked about the possibility, before. And though there are no tests currently capable of confirming it, I see nothing in your blood work or any of your other tests to indicate there could be another factor at play. You are, of course, welcome to get a second opinion. I can't say I know any other doctors in the area who could take you, but I'm sure if you asked Cobb—"
"—What do I have?"
He already knew. He could guess, now, from the slow bedside build up. Arthur's job was one of research, Arthur himself was a man of research; of course he knew. When he heard it though, it would be real, he decided. It'd be more than a search result on a webpage.
Somehow, he preferred that.
She said, "It is in my strong medical opinion, Arthur, that you are suffering from—"
In his dreams, Arthur runs.
He can. He doesn't stumble. He doesn't hurt. When he nearly catapults himself down a staircase—security only a few steps behind—his arms swing free at his sides. He doesn't need to clench the railing, to hold himself up with his arms in case his legs don't obey. He doesn't need to wonder how much time he has until he can't even do that.
Sometimes he runs only because he can. Eames laughs it off and they race, leaving Cobb shouting after them, and Arthur knows he's wondering where his stoic point man has gone. Lately, either Arthur's tripping over his own feet, or he's running like every moment's a marathon. But where Cobb is concerned, Eames smirks and takes all the credit for it, when Arthur sits in his corner at the warehouse and breaks out suddenly into a grin. "Always knew I'd rub off on you, Arthur," he says. "Only took, what? Five years?"
Actually, Arthur thinks, it's a pseudobulbar affect, and it's still only four if you're counting from the first date, but Eames turns his chair around and kisses him and Arthur allows himself to get lost in a happier dream.
Mack explained, but Arthur didn't hear. He could do it for himself, in simpler, more precise language—no gloves and no cushion. His motor neurons would degenerate; his muscles would weaken, till finally they could do nothing at all. He'd no longer be able to move, or swallow, or properly breathe.
He would be able to think; pity he'd already lost the ability to dream, then.
At some point (he couldn't say when), she finished and he asked "So how long?" His mind provided the answer again though: Two to five years. That was the average.
Or I could end up like Hawking, he thought, trapped in my own skin. Like a man lost in limbo. Instantly his legs crossed, as if to prove they still worked. No, that wasn't an option. Two to five years, then.
But the doctor shook her head.
"If you want to talk about that," she said, "we can. But it's not necessarily a death sentence. We use these words like 'fatal' and 'terminal' but they're not right. Yes, it is technically incurable; but if you die thirty, forty years from now—"
"—then what's really different? There's even a treatment now. Rilutek has been shown to be very effective—"
"—And how much is that going to cost?" he interrupted. It was a calm, simple question—at least he thought so. But she flinched like he'd bitten her.
"It's . . . toward the pricier end. I've always been under the impression though that people in your line of work do rather well for themselves, but if that's a problem—"
He shook his head. "No, that's—that's not what I meant." I don't know what I mean. He swallowed, a lump rising in his throat. "How long," he asked again, "precisely?" though he didn't know why. He knew the answer, but it seemed the thing to say.
For some reason, she nodded. She said, low like an owl, "Okay. Well, there is no precise answer. The general life expectancy rate is—"
Two to five years.
"—but as the disease progresses, I'll do what I can—"
Or I could end up like Hawking, trapped in my own skin.
"—though moving out of the US is another option. Get citizenship under . . . well, under a fake name elsewhere. Someplace with free healthcare. Your partner, you said—"
She stared and he coughed, clearing his throat to buy time. "No," he said again, voice rough, "that's . . . that's not an option."
She blinked, processing, then: lowered her feet, using them to push her closer. "Arthur," she said.
"Have you told anyone about this?"
Through his dreams, Arthur runs.
He takes fewer jobs—says he's working on a personal project. Cobb and Ariadne raise eyebrows and Eames snoops through his papers but no one asks. He won't tell, but it can't be that important. They'll find out eventually, they think.
PASIV becomes like a second brain—or a second body. He used to know. Now he doesn't ask; he plugs in, shuts off, and runs until night comes, till Eames shuffles through the door with a whistle and a dozen stories. Then he lies in bed, an arm around him and a snore beside him, and waits for morning to come again.
He knows there is guilt when Eames begins to appear. Arthur never sees him arrive or leave; he just runs and runs and then suddenly, Eames does too. He matches Arthur, step for step, saying,"Come on, a little faster now. I do love a good race."
And Arthur knows there is guilt, because he lets him stay.
Mack didn't wait for an answer.
"Arthur," she said, "I can't express enough how important it is you do. You can't be alone in this."
"Then what are you for?"
"You know what I mean." She paused. She raised her hand, but whatever purpose drove the act, she doubted it and pulled it back, crossing her arms. "You can't hide it, Arthur," she whispered, "not for long. The disease will progress and one day when you fall asleep and can't get up in the morning on your own—"
"—if that happens, I'll take care of it."
In his dreams, Arthur runs with Eames.
There are others he sees on the path now too. Family members he hasn't seen in years. Cobb. Ariadne. Yusuf and Saito. Even James and Phillipa and Mal, always hand in hand. But Arthur only runs with Eames, as they talk, about things like:
"You know, you still could dream a little bigger, darling. Or at least a little nicer."
"I like it."
"Bland, uniform desert as far as the eye can see? You would, love."
"You know, pet, I can think of a few other things you do with legs than running."
"I'm not having sex with you."
"But why? Real me is in Buenos Aires! Do you think he's not shagging a projection of you right now?"
"The real Eames does occasionally call me Arthur, you know."
"Well, maybe he shouldn't; you clearly like our names more than you'd care to admit, darling."
But awake or sleep, real Eames or fake, they don't talk about why they're there and Arthur knows there is guilt because he lets him stay.
Because at least this way, one Eames knows.
"When," Arthur corrected. "When that happens."
"If you think you're going to trick me—"
"What? You'll tell him?"
"No, but I'll tell Cobb."
Silence. Eames' eyes—Mack's eyes, gray as an overcast sky but hers, he reminded himself—stared into him, all shyness gone.
"I am not," she said, each piece separate for emphasis, "your doctor. I am a doctor, but I am under no legal obligations to you. You don't need to tell him now. You don't need to tell him tomorrow. But if I suspect even for a second that you don't plan to tell him ever, I will tell Cobb, and there is nothing preventing that."
He looked away. Swallowed, though the lump in his throat didn't budge. His mind, always so clear, failed him for words, and it took moments for him to reply at all. Even though all he could say was:
His voice cracked and he cringed at the sound, so weak and small. Like something already dead: a ghost, or . . .
Mack's tone was pleading:
In his dreams, Arthur runs with Eames and they talk mainly about:
"You know something I've always wondered, love?"
"As in, projection you. Who's part of my sub-conscious and knows everything I know. Oh, and was born four months ago."
"As grumpy as ever, I see. A projection can wonder, can't he? And who knows, maybe real me's wondering too. Ever think of that?"
"What do you mean, why you?"
"Well, that's what I always come round to. I am a right handsome bastard, after all. But seriously speaking, why do you put up with me?"
". . . Because I love you."
"Aw, charming; I love you too. But again, the question of why?"
"It's a fucking stupid question! Because I do!"
"But there must be a reason. You don't trust me—"
"—I trust you!"
"I must say, Arthur? Lies don't become you."
And though the words change it always ends the same way, with a punch to the jaw as Eames disappears into the crowds now stampeding around him. He doesn't come back, even when Arthur stops running. The stampede moves past him but Eames is nowhere to be found, vanished like a shade.
Arthur doesn't run, and he is alone, and he knows there is guilt because even he, even now, isn't that blind.
Arthur didn't answer.
"Arthur," Mack said, "It's like I said. You don't need to tell him today or tomorrow, but you need to tell him. He would want to know, don't you think? From you, not . . . He's not going to want a phone call from some woman he's never met to tell him something he should have known ages ago, do you understand?"
"So you're going to tell him?"
He nodded again.
And he nodded again. It was easy to nod. A nod could mean anything, and I'm not sure what I mean.
It didn't seem enough for Mack—her feet moved to the legs again, sole squeaking as it scuffed—but she moved on anyway. "Should I write you up a prescription, or. . . hey—"
He flinched, a sudden warmth on his knee: Mack's hand, tiny but firm. He looked up, and she smiled.
"I'm here too, though. You and me? We're going to know each other for a very long time."
He only nodded.
In his dreams, Arthur runs.
He feels like he should be tired, when he finally wakes. His legs ache, and they're heavy. His breathing is slow. Running all day would be the same, wouldn't it? The only thing that's strange at all is—
Arthur blinks as the lights flicker on. His eyes adjusting, he turns and sees Eames, winking a gray eye. "And how are we?" he asks.
The lie comes easily: "Good. Must have fallen asleep or something."
"Oh, really?" Eames asks, sitting on the bed. He rolls onto his side, watching, face lifeless without a smile. Arthur almost asks but Eames kisses him before he can, lips chapped and glorious, and he forgets.
Until Eames says, "That's what happens when you run all day though."
Arthur drove to the clinic, and he had to drive home.
He couldn't leave the car behind, his rational mind told him. His and Eames' apartment lay on the opposite of town. He drove here, and now he had to drive home, his rational mind told him as he moved into first.
I'm not going to be able to drive shift, anymore, he thought.
I'm not going to be able to drive a car anymore.
He parked, not three feet from where he started, and sat. He gripped the stick, leather warm against his palm, and sat in the dark the few dying, flickering halogen lamps did little to break. He drove here, and now he had to drive home. He had to drive home to Eames and probably Cobb and Ariadne because it was Friday and they liked to come round on Fridays and he had to watch terrible movies and hear about James and Phillipa and hear once again how Eames loved those kids to death but he would shoot himself in the foot, right in the very foot, in reality, if Arthur so much as dreamed of adopting some little wankers—
But I'm not going to be able to do that either.
He fell forward, resting his head on the wheel. He drove here, and now he had to drive home.
But all he wanted to do was run, while he still could.
In his dreams, Arthur runs, and he feels like he should be tired when he finally wakes. But it isn't until now that he actually is, when grey eyes look down at him the same way they look at him in dreams, the burn of contact still fresh against his knuckles and an icy panic shooting through his stomach. Eames knows; both Eames know, and Arthur knows there is guilt because he can't breathe right. Can't think, his mind a chorus: Eames knows, Eames knows, Eames knows.
It's all he can say, his voice a shade's: "You know."
Eames sighs. His eyes move to Arthur's hair as he reaches out a hand, tugging at the mussed up strands poking out from the pillow. "You say that like you were hiding it well, love."
"I locked the door. Wait—" Arthur moves to rise but Eames holds him down "—I locked the door."
". . . You do remember that part where I'm a thief, Arthur?"
" . . . Fair enough."
Eames smirks, but continues the story. "Came home early one day; tried to open the door, but it was locked. I picked my way in, saw you hooked up. Couldn't help but be curious, so I moved in. There was already a projection of me running around though so the first few times I slipped into a Cobb I've been working on. It got me close enough to listen, though it wasn't really helpful. Then I poked around, spoke to a few people, and got in contact with your Kristen Mack."
"She told you." No accusations—Arthur's too tired for them. Just fact.
"You know me, Arthur. I can be damn near irresistible if I want to be—and even if I don't. It's not her fault. Anyway, from then on, I was me."
". . . You were you," Arthur repeats, but Eames doesn't mock. He nods.
"When I could be," he says. When timing allowed. Couldn't exactly pop in for a chat when my projection was already with you, could I?"
Arthur gulps—or tries. His throat doesn't react as quickly as it should and he ends up coughing, Eames resting a hand on his chest. "You . . ." he says eventually, between breaths. "I . . . punched you."
"Very well, I might add. Never realized you had such a good right hook, actually."
Eames shrugs. He says, "It only hurt for a bit—"
"No," Arthur says, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. I didn't—I didn't mean . . ."
I don't know what I mean.
But Eames just kisses him again, till Arthur's eyes shut and he raises trembling hands to feel his face, the stubble rough against his fingers. When they fall back down on the bed, spent, Eames breaks it off, touching his forehead to his.
He says, "Don't worry about it," from far away, as Arthur's breathing slows. "Because you and me, darling? We're going to know each other for a very long time."
And Arthur runs.
"You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream.
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream."
The poem is "A Dream Within a Dream" by Edgar Allen Poe.
Inception, meanwhile, belongs to Nolan, Warner Brothers, and not me. Alas, what can you do?
Major thanks to my dear friend, Audley, for a rush beta on this. Any errors are mine, not hers.