"The fact I hid it . . . it doesn't mean anything."

"I know."

"You always say that."

I know.

-—-

Arthur spoke in starts. There was a warning in that, Eames felt. Arthur was always thorough, methodically moving from A to Z with such clarity an idiot could follow his instructions. But today, breathing and coughing against Eames' chest (apologizing for the latter, always, as if Eames could ever mind), it was nothing but A's: main ideas and no follow-up, no conclusion.

"When I dream, I'm completely healthy," he said.

"ALS doesn't normally have any effect on the mental functions," he said.

"And of course, dream time works differently—we could lead a whole life in a few hours," he said.

A, A, A. But never the words, never the actual concept, and when the water was cold and Arthur was done, shivering and clinging tighter (as much as he could), Eames finally just tightened his grip around Arthur and cut through to Z.

"You want to go into Limbo."

Arthur coughed. And then he couldn't, gasped, until Eames pulled him up further.

"Thanks," he whispered. "And it's just a thought."

"Good. Let's keep it that way, yeah?"

Arthur turned his head in to Eames' chest, his cheek wet with a film of soap and water. He took a breath, and another, until he sounded decent. "I could stand to talk about it a little more, actually."

"You're mental."

"Because you're so sane."

"Were you planning on telling me any of this?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

The sigh is warm across his collarbones, a slow shaky hiss. "You're the whole point of this. I just . . . wasn't sure how you'd react. Clearly I wasn't wrong."

"So, what? Did you think you'd jump me and jam an IV into my arm? Because—"

He stopped. Realized what he just said. Shit.

ShitshitshitshitshitSHIT.

"That's not what I meant."

But Arthur smiled, and Eames felt it flick across his skin. "But that's what I mean," he said. "I want it normal again. I want you to call me a, a—fuck, an unimaginative pussy, I don't know. And I want to ignore it like a normal person."

"Normal's not what I'd call you, darling."

"That's a start."

Eames laughed. It hurt his throat and he tilted his head back, ugly cracks (Arthur was going to fill those, he remembered) staring back at him. He couldn't think of an argument. Only:

"But it won't be real."

Arthur coughed. "Reality's overrated," he said, with a voice that shouldn't belong to him, and Eames couldn't say a word.

-—-

Eames runs. Trips over driftwood and falls backward, enough that he can catch sight of a smile as the Arthur walks closer. His hair's impeccable, combed back and fresh of melons and apples and herbs that probably don't exist here because Eames can't pronounce them. He's young, somewhere in the very early thirties, as his face hints of lines and wrinkles but they aren't there yet. But he's dressed almost casually, white linen shirt over slacks and suspenders loose around his waist and Eames can't be sure anymore so he asks.

"You a projection of him or his evil twin?"

There's a laugh and a hand that dangles, grabbing with long fingers even though Eames doesn't take it. And the Arthur says, "You're the one that dressed me."

Eames sits up, brushing the sand off his legs. He looks away. Locks eyes on the surf moving in and out. "I'd never dress him like that," he says. "He'd think I would though, way I always went on about it."

"Maybe you didn't want to trick yourself."

"Seems like a cheap trick to me."

"Life's full of cheap tricks, isn't it?"

"You don't get to make that joke."

There's a cough—different though. A noise just for the sake of it before he apologizes. "Sorry."

"You don't get to apologize either. It's not your fault."

It's his. Fucking bloody stupid shit for brains gormless fucking fuck fucker—

And there are arms around him and though he shakes them off and pulls them away they always come back until he can't do it anymore.

-—-

"This is really very—"

"Common," Eames finished, stopping Mack in her tracks. She bit her lip.

"Yeah," she squeaked. "How'd you know?"

He just smiled.

She eyed him, but continued, "Well, as you know, as the disease progresses, breathing becomes very difficult. Pneumonia's always a concern, due to food and . . . you know. Drink, like water, juice, whatever, getting into the lungs. If we keep him here, he should be fine."

"I see." He leaned to the side, looking past Mack to the hospital bed. "Did you hear that, Arthur? If you stay here, you'll be fine."

Arthur didn't meet his eyes. Mack's head whipped back and forth between them, eyebrows furrowing, before she settled back on Eames. " . . . I feel like . . . I interrupted something?"

"More or less, Doctor."

"Could we have a minute?" Arthur whispered from the bed, and Mack jumped.

"What? No!"

"No, Doctor," Eames jumped in, standing up and taking her by the arm, "I think that's a splendid idea."

"Mr. Eames, I really, really think if anything, we're the ones that need to talk alone."

"No, not really."

"Yes. Because while the infection is manageable, this does set up a whole run of new—"

No.

He shoved her out the door, locking it, and shut his eyes. The door shook, beat down by her fists . . . and then stopped.

He let out a breath and looked at Arthur. Arthur on the bed, looking at him now with half-lidded eyes. Arthur with tubes and IVs creeping in and out of him. Like a car engine, he thought. Running on something other than himself.

"You okay?" he asked, and Eames shook it off.

"Fine, love."

Eames pushed himself off the door and climbed onto the bed, inching closer till their knees bumped together through the blanket. Arthur stared though, disbelief written clear on his brow."Is this your idea of a guilt trip?"

"More or less, maybe."

The electronic beat of Arthur's heart pounded in his head (it always did—it was what he remembered most strongly about these rooms), aside from the sting of antiseptic. He tried to ignore it, and asked with a shaky breath, "You're sure about this?"

"Can always change my mind if I'm not."

But will you then? he thought, the beat pounding on.

"We'll come back," Arthur said. "To the hospital. Tomorrow, if you want. Just one night."

Just one life.

". . . Do you want me to do it?"

Eames shook his head. "No. It's actually worse that way, believe it or not."

And Arthur laughed. He actually could laugh and the weight seemed to grow, forcing down Eames' hand. "Really?" he asked.

Eames swallowed—just a motion, buying time. "Yeah."

And he raised the gun, put it between his eyes, and shot.

-—-

In what he pretends are dreams, Eames runs.

In what he pretends is reality, he stays. An Arthur who's not Arthur kisses him senseless. Takes the punches as they come to seed bruises all over pale, young skin. Hugs back tighter when arms reach out needing to grip something, anything.

Listens, as Eames rambles on with "I'm sorry. Fuck you. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, you fucking bastard, I did this. I let you do this. Fuck."

And Arthur doesn't argue because it's true, every word.

-—-

Eames woke to sunlight and the feel of surf licking at his feet, and the first thing they did was fuck.

That wasn't the original goal. Limbo was nothing but sand and water, like two different worlds smashed together. Without Cobb's handiwork, they'd have to build themselves and Eames spent months designing to Arthur's impeccable standards ("Urban, all urban." "Turning into a metropolis by the beach, there, Arthur." "I like cities and I like the beach." and "No guns." "Why?" "No weapons. I'm sick of it." and "The sun doesn't set." "Why" "Because nothing sets. Nothing ends."). They'd agreed that creation came first, even lying in those cots, surrounded by Yusuf's dreamers. Creation came first.

And then Eames woke and Arthur launched himself on to Eames and didn't let go, legs wrapped right around him. They crashed into the water and fucked for . . . hours or milliseconds (Eames was never any good at math and couldn't say which one he should count so he didn't try for specifics).

The next thing they did was run. No space in between; Arthur just sprung out and up and down the shoreline, and all Eames could do was catch up.

"I'll never understand you and your marathons," Eames said. "Why run so much?"

"I can."

And that was all.

-—-

The sun doesn't set but Eames decides it's night when he disentangles himself from the vines of skinny limbs trapping him. He's only just waking up (well, 'waking', he calls it, but it isn't, not really) but he 'slept' when he called it day so it has to be. He sits, naked but warm. Doesn't remember taking off his clothes but doesn't really remember making use of it either so he doesn't let it bother him.

"You okay?" Arthur (the Arthur, an Arthur, who-the-fuck-cares-it's-Arthur-now) mumbles into his shoulder, hugging from the back.

Eames nods. Realizes Arthur can't see it and says, "Yeah."

Arthur stands. Just as naked. All there, every scar and bruise and the little birthmark splotchy over his right hip but Eames doesn't look away. "You want to go for a run," he says. Knows.

He reaches out a hand and Eames takes it. He stands, grabs a pair of pants.

"Yeah."

I need to go.

-—-

"What if something happens? You know, in real life."

Somehow it took a month (Arthur's estimate, not Eames'—seconds, he thought, really) to ask, not that Arthur settled down long enough to do it. He'd never been an architect but something about creation had sunk deep into the skin and refused to let go, making buildings and cities and countries—whole places they'd never even probably see, "because he could". Eames had to settle for running after him, which wasn't a problem. Arthur ran and Eames ran after him: you could trace the pattern through their entire life, if you wanted, down to the first time they met, caught up in a turf war over some poor bird's dirtiest deeds.

Does make conversation difficult though, when you never stop.

Arthur curled over the fence, looking down at the canyon, and Eames pulled him back up by the collar. "Did you hear me?" he asked.

"You're wrinkling my shirt."

"You're wrinkling my good humor; we'll call it even."

Arthur's eyes rolled with the joke, but as he popped up on the fence he pulled Eames in closer, inviting him to sit. "Well, what do you want me to say?" he asked, as Eames climbed on. "If something happens, we'll find out. Why are you even thinking about this?"

Because I can't not. Because for some reason, you haven't yet, not once.

"Just a question," he said, gripping Arthur's hand tight. "Sorry I asked."

And that was all.

-—-

The surf licks at his feet and Eames runs, counting the rocks as he collects them in his pockets: 1 . . . 2 . . . 3, 4, 5, 6.

"We're never going to get anywhere if you keep stopping for rocks."

7 . . . 8.

"We're never getting anywhere period, Arthur. Shoreline just keeps going."

"I thought we could go to Paris."

9, 10, 11 . . .

"I hate Paris."

"Someplace else then."

. . . 12 . . .

"I need to do this right now."

"What, run?"

"That too."

He drops the rocks in his pockets. 13.

-—-

"You like it?"

Arthur stood at the bottom of the steps—what Eames decided was the bottom. It was below him for now so it might as well be, but he felt oddly sure he'd have to move up to get to him. Sure enough, the choice is right, and he slid in next to Arthur with a laugh. Five years (Arthur's estimate—a half hour, maybe?) and Arthur's favorite part was still the paradox. Staircases that went everywhere and nowhere, loops that ran in a straight line.

"You and Escher want to get a room?" he asked, bringing Arthur in close. "Because I can certainly wait."

"It's not nearly as good."

Eames smirked. "So modest, Arthur. Where's that point man confidence?"

They kissed. And kissed. And Eames had just moved his hand to his zipper when Arthur pulled back and wiped his mouth dry.

"Can I do something first?"

". . . You're killing me here, Arthur."

"It'll just take a second." His hands slid down Eames' skin and moved to his own chest, delving underneath the jacket. After a moment of fumbling, he pulled out the die. With a laugh, Eames dove in again, biting at his ear.

"I can tell you if you're dreaming, darling."

"That's not the point." And he chucked it under the railing, into the gap in the staircase.

Eames listened for the clink—some sort of sound it hit ground, at least. He could look for it later, he didn't need a hint where, he just needed it to be someplace.

He wasn't surprised when it didn't; that it wasn't.

He swallowed—just a motion, buying time. "What'd you do that for?"

"I can."

And that was all.

-—-

The surf licks at his feet and Eames runs, counting the rocks as he collects: 22, 24, 25 and 26.

He clears his throat. "Can I ask you something? Something only he'd know?"

"I guess. If you want. Would it really help?"

27, 28, 29.

"Did it bother him? When he remembered. That I couldn't forget."

The pause is long, so long, and Eames' air runs short in his lungs. It's a dream, there isn't any air, but no matter how he tells himself this, the feeling doesn't go away, not until Arthur answers:

"He never really remembered for long enough, I think."

30.

-—-

"Dye or no dye?"

"No dye. You look distinguished."

"You're just hoping I go bald. Like what's-his-name."

"Patrick Stewart, darling. He played Picard."

Eames watched for a reaction from his perch on the counter but it didn't come; Arthur's attention was for the mirror alone, as his fingers combed out the white patch and judged it in the light. It was understandable—it was fifteen years ago (Arthur's estimate—two hours, at the very most). He didn't have to remember.

But he should.

"I think I'm dying it."

"I never realized you were so vain, Arthur."

"It's just annoying. If it were gray all over, it wouldn't bother me."

But it shouldn't be gray at all, now, should it? It should be dark and curled when wet as it was now from the shower; it should frame a face hinting at lines and wrinkles but still free of them for now.

He pulled Arthur in, ignoring the rolling eyes, and ran his fingers through it, rubbing the white between his thumb and forefinger. "I'm the one that's going to look at it, you know."

"And I have to look at you. Tell me how that's fair."

Tell me why you're young, and I'm old, Eames heard in his head, but as always, that was all Arthur said. He wasn't sure why; Arthur never minced words. Did he think this was just how it worked? That he'd age away and Eames would remain?

It's how it is so far, isn't it? Whoever thought it'd be you who couldn't let go?

"How did we get here, Arthur?"

Arthur's nose scrunched up, wrinkles deepening around his eyes. "You're kidding me, right?"

And that was all.

-—-

The surf licks at his feet and Eames runs, counting the rocks as he collects them in his pockets: 52, 53, 54 and 55.

"How can you still run?" Arthur asks.

"Not very well at all, actually."

And he stops. 56, 57, 58. His legs ache and his pants sag, the belt doing little to support. The birds are silent though, and that's his cue, more than anything: the silence that stabs at his ears as the sun stabs at his eyes, jumping up from the water's surface.

Arthur tries to calm. "You don't have to do this."

"I know."

"He left this for you. It was always for you."

"I know."

"So you don't have to do this."

"I know."

But I can, he thinks. Now, right now.

Maybe not ever again.

And Eames runs.

-—-

"How did I get here?"

Eames turned back. Arthur stood steps behind him, looking around the staircase like he couldn't recognize it somehow, not after twenty years (Arthur's estimate—two hours, a little over maybe) of running it. His hands moved up and down the railing, clenching the wood in certain spots, testing, while his other hand combed through his pockets.

Eames laughed. "We ran here."

Arthur shook his head, light shining off the white patches. "No, that's—that's not what I meant."

"Then what'd you mean?"

He pulled off his jacket; turned out the pockets, and flung it aside. His hands jumped to his hair, rifling through it with stiff fingers. "I don't know what I mean."

And then he was gone.

As a dreamer, Eames always wondered.

He should have known the pattern would hold.

If you died in a dream, you woke up.

And then he was gone.

If you died in limbo, you woke up.

And then he was gone.

If you died in the real world, you woke up.

And then—

You're gone.

He should have known the pattern would hold. That, if only for a moment, you'd wake up. Like your brain uncrossed all the wires before it shut down. Put the toys away before dinner. Cleaned out the apartment before the move.

But I'm still here, he thought.

I'm still here.

As a dreamer, Eames always wondered.

(He should have known the pattern would hold.)

He ran.

Eventually. No one was there to estimate, how long before and for how long he did it. Till wooden steps became paved ground. Till paved ground became harsh sand and cold surf, licking at his feet. Till wood drifted into shore and he thought, A pyre.

I'll make a pyre.

Because he could. And that was all.

-—-

His pockets bulge and bang against his legs, leaving bruises he won't see later, but still he runs. Sand sinks between his toes and shells cut the soles of his feet, and Eames runs. The water rises, pouring into ears and nose and mouth, and Eames runs. His throat burns, pushing to breath and aching to not, and the water pours in.

He hears his heartbeat, pounding in his head, and he thinks for a second that maybe he's wrong.

And he wakes, IV still clinging to his arm and a beat of an electronic heart still pounding in his head. Bodies of dreamers surround him. They breathe, in and out and in a slow, steady rhythm his gasps break as his lungs steal air in gulps. Yusuf's door is shut, windows dark. Night. It's night. Must be (finally). Yusuf's home with his wife, and Eames is . . .

He turns. Pulls out the IV. Sits up, and swings his legs around.

The cot's empty next to him. He's alone.

And Eames runs.

-—-

"And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand-

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep- while I weep!

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?"

-—-

As always, collossal thanks to Audley, who had to put up with this before it was even readable, really. Her insight and unbiased eye helps more than I think she even knows.

Also, thanks to a user on LJ, who had an amazing prompt that I hope I did justice.

And, thanks to everyone who reviewed!

Inception, as always, does not belong to me.

Nor does the poem, which remains Edgar Allen Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream".