"The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned."
- W. Somerset.
Time was a tricky thing: hard to measure, almost never constant. Arthur always liked to think differently, however. The contrary was the heavy weight of a watch on his wrist, the silk tie around his throat, the sharp lines of suits that defined his existence in clear, tidy silhouettes. It was Arthur's subconscious counting the seconds, counting the minutes, counting, counting down. But really, there were only two kinds of time.
If Arthur had to note (always had to note, notes, detail, research) down the exact moment in which time became an after, it was seven o'clock, Saturday morning, third of December.
For a moment, he only blinked at the sunlight falling across the sheets, golden and warm on his face. It was a stripe of cream yellow, like a silk tie and Arthur curled and uncurled his fingers as if he could grasp it. He felt languid in a way that made waking feel like something new, something special. There was the memory of sweet liquor on his tongue, the shivery touch of skin on skin. Arthur allowed himself a small smile into his pillow. There was a deep sated ache inside his body as he turned over, content weighing heavily on his chest.
The bed was empty.
There was the sound of someone moving about in the kitchen, muffled by the thin walls of the apartment. Arthur pulled on a discarded pair of dress pants with sleep-numb fingers. He noticed all of Eames' clothes were gone. Rubbing his eyes to clear away the sleep, Arthur padded barefoot to the bedroom door. It had been left ajar, and he pushed it open, shivering in the cool morning air.
Eames jumped when Arthur coughed. He was at the door of the apartment already, one hand on the handle. Arthur stared.
"Where are you going?" he asked, confused.
"Back," he said, and he was smirking, "Got people to meet, things to do."
"Why didn't you wake me up?" asked Arthur, folding his arms in front of him. It looked defensive, he knew, but it made him feel a little better.
"Didn't want to make this awkward, love," said Eames, waving a hand, "I mean, shags don't usually stay for breakfast, do they now?"
Arthur could only stare, feeling a static blankness well up behind his eyes. Eames wouldn't meet his eyes, though he was still wearing that shit eating grin which made his lips tilt up at the corners. Arthur's mouth felt dry, his heart panicked at the implication of the words. It wasn't meant to go like this, there was a script, a pattern, definition, Arthur had expected something else –
Cobb always said his expectations would be the death of him.
He wanted to say, I thought we were different –
Wanted to say, but I waited so long-
But Arthur only laughed instead, the sound forcing itself out of his throat. It tasted bitter on his tongue, flavoring the whiskey he had licked from Eames' lips the night before, before they fell into bed, clutching at each other, beforebeforebefore.
"Yes, of course," said Arthur, after a moment's pause, "I just-"
He noticed Eames' shoulders tense under his jacket.
"You said you love me," said Arthur, the words tumbling out before he could stop himself. The sound of them hung, static and strange in the air. Arthur gritted his teeth and wished he could take them back.
He felt a surge of strange, vindictive pleasure when Eames couldn't meet his eyes. Jesus, he had waited so long. He should say something else.
Eames did look at him then, and something like surprise flickered across his face. It vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, to be replaced by the customary smile. Arthur held his breath and counted backwards, like the steps you took before flinging yourself back into the sky. But weightlessness had never quite felt like this – Arthur should know.
"Surely you didn't expect-"
"I expected nothing more of you, Mr. Eames," said Arthur, words clipped. He swallowed the rest down, feeling them catch like shards of glass inside his throat.
Eames raised both eyebrows.
"You're not the only one who gets a say in this."
The door slammed, and he was gone.
But Arthur does. Expect something, that is. And it's this expectation that led to a projection of Eames –terrible fashion sense and all- nearly ruining an extraction by appearing out of nowhere. One moment, Arthur and Cobb are running after the mark. The next, projection-Eames had stepped out of a side street. For the first time, Arthur hesitates with the gun. Eames just grins at him.
"Hello there," he drawls.
Cobb shoots the projection in the head and shoves Arthur down just before another bullet shatters the shop window. Glass rained down on the pavement like a thousand crystal glasses exploding.
"What the fuck?" Cobb shouts into Arthur's ear. "What the fuck?"
It's not like Arthur doesn't know what Projection Eames means. He's been knows the business well enough, knows Mal well enough to understand what was going on. His subconscious wants Eames to be there. His subconscious – which was no longer the calm, uniform, stable thing that they could rely on. It was riddled with holes like wall with bullets, memories of want and heat and murmured endearments driving Arthur absolutely insane.
He compensates from throwing himself into work, into details. He sticks to things that do not change, laws that cannot be bent – even facts remain the same in the dream world. Cobb doesn't press for details, for which Arthur is grateful. Eames haunts his sleep, and each time, Arthur fails to pull the trigger.
"Right here," says Eames, tapping his own forehead, "I"ll even stand still for you, darling."
"Arthur. Arthur what are you waiting for?"
Arthur shoots himself instead, and wakes with barely a hitch of breath.
Of course there was a before. It was like a film negative, the essentials printed in black and white, as transparent thoughts in a dream. Before was a quantifiable thing, seconds stored away in jars, the years of lucid dreaming visible only in the dark shadows beneath his own eyes. Before were standard extractions, then trying to save Mal, trying to save Cobb from Mal, trying to save James and Phillipa from an absent father, trying, trying.
Sometimes, Arthur felt like he had poured so much of him into dreams, there was nothing left for him in the real world. The real world, where the die always rolled three and you had no power over anything except the few cubic centimeters inside your own head.
And then Saito happened, which lead to Eames.
Before, Arthur had never thought he would slip on the edge of reality and dreaming. It was a dangerous thing for someone in his line of work, and he prided himself on being firmly grounded. By facts, by rules, by expectations, by bullets to the head.
"Sometimes, you've got to dream a little bigger, darling," Eames had said. Then he shoved Arthur out of the way and proceeded to blow things up. He was crass, despite all the English upbringing and irritating endearments. He was lingering touches when Arthur reached for the blueprints, a smirk always at the edge of becoming a smile. Eames was denial and self restraint at Arthur's finest, and Arthur had told himself it was alright.
Eames tapped the leg of Arthur's chair, and Arthur nearly broke his neck, flailing regain balance. Eames had only laughed, not at all phased by the death-glare Arthur sent his way. Ignoring the warm flutter in his chest was easy – Arthur was good at being efficient. Efficiency meant detachment, efficiency meant reason. It was a job. They had barely days to know each other.
Arthur rolled his die along the table top, when no one was looking.
Love was to reason like dreaming to waking.
Are you willing to take a leap of faith?
Perhaps there had always been something in Arthur that hated his own silhouette. It yearned for warmth, yearned for affection in a way that made Arthur angry sometimes. It was there in the crescent shaped marks on the inside of his palms where he clenched his fists too tight.
"Careful, Arthur," Eames said, raising an eyebrow, "All that stress can't be good for you. Go colour code the profiles, there's a good lad."
"They're already done," snapped Arthur, ignoring Ariadne who was giggling in the background.
Eames had only laughed, and Arthur thought it was a con-man's laugh at the time, designed to annoy him, designed to get under his skin. He wanted to think that, and not that Eames was really quite-
Like all of Arthur's actions, it was a decision made based on possible consequences. They were running on the high of doing the impossible, it was likely Arthur was never going to see Eames again because they worked in such different circles and god knows where he will disappear off to and-
Eames had kissed back, arms coming up to press Arthur tight against him. His hands splayed on Arthur's lower back, running up his flank as he pressed open mouthed kisses along Arthur's jaw, making him gasp.
"I thought you'd never come around," he had said, chuckling, and Arthur punched him in the face before pulling him back for another kiss. The leap felt glorious. Eames tasted like sweet liquor and his cologne overwhelmed Arthur's senses. He thought, yes, and Oh god, and other such unfinished thoughts.
Arthur was a person of logic. He had faith in many things of course. For example, he had more faith in a bullet than a kick, on strategy more than improvisation, on jumping only when you know what was waiting for you at the end of that fall. Eames was like a Penrose staircase which Arthur had been trapped in for days, hours, minutes, whole lifetimes. And Eames's skin on his own was the sensation of realizing that it was all a paradox, that none of it made sense but taking the jump anyway because you wanted.
So Arthur jumped. It was just…he never expected to find what he did when he woke up.
Love isn't meant to feel like this, thought Arthur.
But then again, he has never been in love. He knew love theoretically, he built dreams based on the idea. None of it seemed very real. But Arthur was sure he had never been in love. After all, he knew his own mind better than anyone. At least, before, he did.
Surely you didn't expect…
Arthur smiled to his own reflection. It smiled back, expression rueful. Conned by the con man, used like a twenty-dollar whore. Clinically, Arthur noted that it changed nothing. If Eames walked in right now, Arthur would probably…well. It wasn't someone's fault if they didn't love you back. The only difference was the cold ache that never went away – not even when Arthur was dreaming.
With every passing day devoid of Eames, Arthur understands Mal a little more.
All in all, it would have been alright if Cobb hadn't called in Eames for another job. Chicago, this time, neon lights and grey rain on the windows. Eames turned up in a yellow taxi cab and just like that, reinserted himself in Arthur's consciousness. Seeing him was the last straw. He was too vivid, too real, too unattainable.
And Christ, Arthur had been right about the whole thing because he couldn't' help the surge of warmth that rose up inside him when Eames gave them a mock salute.
"Long time no see, love," he called across the room.
The word "love" was like a slap to the face, but Arthur thought he hid it well.
Eames had a penchant for pretty women – he was brunette this time, though his eyes were the same. They were always the same, even when he wasn't looking at Arthur anymore. They exchanged a few snide remarks, argued over schematics and Cobb didn't realise a thing. Arthur felt like the last of his sanity was withering away.
But he had enough left to count backwards, to measure out the exact dosage of sedatives they had used for the Fischer job. The mark was untrained, and Eames flattered his way into the man's office and from there on it was almost too simple. And then the projections turned rogue and there was only three minutes of dream time left to crack open the safe and Eames was bleeding knife wound (the secretary had stabbed him with a letter opener).
"Jesus, just shoot me already," he rasped, hand stained red with blood. Arthur barricaded the office door with a heavy mahogany desk.
"Arthur," said Eames.
"Be quiet," said Arthur, aiming his gun at the door. It was shuddering as the projections attempted to batter it down. Two minutes.
"You don't need me. Cobb's done," said Eames, letting his head fall back against the wall. "Fuck, this hurts."
"Yeah," said Arthur without looking around. Then the door burst open.
It was easy to keep the PASIV device. Arthur usually took care of such things anyway. Arthur took care of everything, always.
The bottles of Yusuf's sedative were carefully stowed away in a padded case. It sat in the passenger seat of Arthur's car and Arthur thought he could hear the glass clink. Contrary to what Eames thought, it was probably Arthur's imagination.
Chopin was playing on the speakers, melody languid and sparkling as a dream in summer.
Ten Days Later.
The name on his phone read COBB. Eames flipped it open.
"Dom," he said, sipping coffee with one hand, "I didn't expect to hear from you until…" Eames did a quick mental estimation, "…April next year. Unexpected would not quite-"
"This isn't a social call," said Cobb.
Eames sighed dramatically into the phone, but before he could say something suitably witty, Cobb cut across him.
"Have you heard from Arthur?"
Eames frowned at his cup of coffee.
"No. Should I have?"
He heard Cobb swear underneath his breath, voice muffled. It made the coffee taste like cigarette ash on his tongue, and he set the cup down. It was the last time he was going to try this Americanism; he was throwing out the coffee maker and sticking to tea.
"What's wrong?" Eames demanded, even though he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He was meant to be cutting off temptation, god damn it all. That was what the Atlantic ocean was for anyway, something more than state lines or dream space to keep him away from-
"He hasn't been answering his calls. His apartment is empty."
"Fuck," said Eames, slamming a fist onto the table, "I thought Chicago was legit!"
"It was!" said Cobb, voice tense and worried. Eames could hear the emotion, barely restrained, even over the phone. Cobb had a right to be worried – this wasn't like Arthur at all. Hence the only logical conclusion would be…
Eames ran a hand through his hair, a thousand scenarios running through his mind. Arthur, tied to a chair with a gun to his head, Arthur coughing up blood, Arthur screaming as projections tore him apart, Arthur gasping, pupils blown wide as Eames suck a bruise onto his neck, and slick with sweat and come-
Eames swallowed hard, something like panicking making his heart beat faster. He stared resolutely his hands.
"Where are you?"
It took Eames three days to find Arthur – the worst on his record. It just proved how good Arthur was at his job though. He was always so thorough. To be honest, Eames wouldn't have expected anything less. But it didn't make sleeping any easier. In their line of businesses, three days could mean three weeks meant monthsyearsforever-
It took him two days to narrow down the locations (hotels, so many fucking hotels), another to trace Arthur's vanished paper trail. It took only a minute to slip pass hotel security, and barely thirty seconds to crack the password on the hotel room door. The place was neat, the décor full of smooth lines and earth tones, grays and white and black. Stepping over the steel wire stretched across the doorway, Eames took in the immaculate hotel suite.
"Arthur?" he called out.
Slowly, he stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. Eames weighed the gun in his hands as if it were his totem. Cautiously, he opened the door. It revealed an empty ensuite bathroom, all white marble and glass. Cream towels lined the wall and there were little packets of complimentary soap placed artfully along the edge of the sink. Nothing had been touched. The sink was dry, the towels unused. The feeling of unease was a clenching fist in Eames' gut.
Leaving the bathroom door open, Eames crossed the lounge in three strides and threw open the remaining door. The bedroom was in semi-darkness, blinds drawn tight across the windows. And there he was.
Arthur lay, still and unmoving on the bed.
"Oh Christ," breathed Eames, dropping his gun, "Arthur."
Arthur was fully dressed; tie loose around his collar. His face was pale in the light spilling into the room, head half turned on the pillow, mouth parted slightly. But Eames' eyes were drawn to the rolled up sleeve, where the IV was taped to Arthur's arm. His hand lay palm up on the bed covers, fingers loose and limp. The only sound was the hum of the PASIV device which sat on the bedside table.
If Eames didn't know better, he would have thought Arthur was dead.
Jerking himself into motion, Eames half ran, half stumbled to Arthur's bedside. He took Arthur's arm – the one connected to the PASIV – and pressed two fingers to the wrist. The skin was dry and soft and Eames had to stop himself from gripping too hard. Arthur did not stir. He counted the pulse and tried to match it to Arthur's breathing – too slow. Eames could barely see the rise and fall of Arthur's chest.
The timer on the PASIV was blank.
"Oh darling. What have you done to yourself?"
There hadn't really been a choice. There was never a choice when it came to Arthur.
Cobb was shouting, voice tinny over the cellphone.
"I don't know how long he's been under," said Eames, "But I'm going to wake him up."
"No. Not without knowing if he's taken sedatives-"
"He has," replied Eames shortly, "That's why I'm going under with-"
"Don't even think about it!" spat Cobb, and Eames snorted. He pushed a comfortable chair next to Arthur's bed and proceeded to uncoil a second IV line from the PASIV. Beside him, Arthur's breaths counted the seconds as one would count the leaves until autumn – rise, fall, rise, fall. Eames felt like something was slicing his insides to ribbons.
"Where are you?" demanded Cobb, and Eames had never heard the man sound quite so…undone. "Give me the address."
"So you can stop me? Not likely," said Eames. He shrugged off his jacket, dropping it on the floor. Then he sat down in the arm chair, rolling back one sleeve.
"I'm going to hang up now."
"Eames, listen to me-"
"I expect you'll find me soon enough anyway," said Eames, pulling off the cap to the IV with his teeth.
He snapped the phone shut, placing it into his jacket pocket. He picked up the glass of amber liquid he had prepared ten minutes before and downed it in one. Then he leant across the bed and brushed a chaste kiss over Arthur's brow. The hotel room wavered.
"I'm coming. Hold on, pet."
Eames slid the needle neatly into his vein.
For a moment, Eames thought he had done something wrong. The hotel room looked exactly the same as a moment ago, dim from the heavy drapes across the window. Arthur was still lying on the bed, still as death, and the PASIV hummed and wheezed on the table. The only thing that had changed was the fact that Eames was no longer attached to the IV.
He fumbled for his totem, flipping it once, twice, three times between his fingers.
"A dream," said Eames to the silent room, "Arthur you tricky bugger."
Unraveling the IV line, Eames put himself under once more.
He is in another hotel room, but this time, Eames recognizes it as the one Arthur dreamt up on the Fischer job. The walls are a different shade of maroon, there is a large painting of sailing boats by the door. However, the most important difference was the empty bed. And the lack of gravity.
"Dammit," said Eames, glancing around. The PASIV was gone as well. Now, how to get out of here?
Eames gave an experimental push with his feet and ending up cracking his head on the ceiling plaster. Cursing, he slowly maneuvered his way via the walls, gripping the door frame to propel himself out of the bedroom. It was one of the strangest things. Crossing the room, Eames managed to stop himself just in time to prevent a broken nose. He had to hang almost upside down to get the door open, one hand on the doorknob and the other on his totem. The door opened without a sound and Eames peered out.
The corridor looked exactly as he remembered, lit by tasteful gallery lights. Eames made swimming motions through the air, kicking off the walls in order to get back to the ground. He discarded the tie around his neck, which was floating in front of his face. It hung in mid air, half uncurled, and Eames glared at it.
Now, if he was Arthur, where would he go?
Eames looked down the corridor, at the rows of identical looking doors and electronic swipes. The numbers counted up, 129, 130, 131, 132. Sighing, Eames tried the first door across from his room. He twisted the brass doorknob. It was locked.
"Great," said Eames, eyeing all the doors.
The lack of gravity was beginning to mess with his head. It wasn't making him dizzy or nauseas, per se, but there was something disconcerting about not being able to walk normally. Even Eames' colourful history in lucid dreaming, it was still hard to adapt to Arthur's zero-gravity hotel. That and the fact that he had broken into every single room on two floors and Arthur was still nowhere to be found.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" shouted Eames in frustration, slamming a fist into the wall. The motion sent him backwards and he had to hastily grab onto a chandelier to stop himself falling out the window. Perhaps Arthur wasn't even in the bloody hotel.
Eames rubbed a hand over his face, trying to calm down, trying to think.
"Where are you, where are you?" he muttered underneath his breath, making his way out of yet another hotel room back into the corridor. At least there weren't any projections trying to disembowel him, which was always a-
He looked up and down the corridor. In the two hours (three?) he had been here, Eames had not seen another person. No waiters, no room service, no wary subconscious walking around. Surely Arthur's subconscious would have noticed an intruder by now. Eames had no doubt that Arthur's subconscious were all armed and dangerous. They would be tearing him apart.
Come to think of it, how had Arthur kept the first layer of the dream so stable when he was asleep?
There was something wrong.
Eames stared at the door in front of him, the polished oak and the brass numbers by the handle.
Eames frowned, and then turned to look at the room he just came out of. Hadn't he been in his corridor before? Even as the idea came into his head, the hotel seemed to shift out of focus. It was like watching two projections of the same setting, except one was slightly to the left. The pattern on the embossed wall paper blurred, and Eames felt like there was something tugging at him, pulling. Then his vision snapped back into focus and he saw it – the odd sheen of light on the door in the middle of the corridor.
There was a mirror.
Without hesitation, Eames kicked open the door behind him, propelling himself through the room.
Arthur was suspended in mid air, throat bared in the soft chandelier light. He was still dressed immaculately, tie floating slightly off his chest. Beside his head, the PASIV hung as if in water. One of Arthur's hands were thrown out, palm up and Eames could see the IV trailing from his sleeve.
Eames couldn't breathe.
Carefully, carefully, he managed to make his way to where Arthur was. He had to keep one palm to the ceiling so he didn't knock into the PASIV because god knew what would happen if he tried waking Arthur up on this level.
"Do you have to make everything so difficult?" he asked, unwinding another IV. He uncapped the needle with practiced ease. Arthur's face was expressionless in sleep, bruises staining his eyelids. Eames took a deep breath, then let go of the ceiling, pushing with his fingers until he was mostly horizontal.
He let himself gaze at Arthur's sleeping features for a moment longer. Then Eames slid the needle into his arm.
It felt like Arthur was leading Eames down the rabbit hole. It was obvious that he didn't want to be woken up – the illusions, the paradoxical architecture. The zero gravity to prevent kicks. Eames didn't let himself dwell on why, only focused on the objective.
Wake Arthur Up.
But that was going to be a problem considering Arthur seemed to have built an entire city on this level. On first glance, the city looked like Paris. There was plaster on the buildings, the cobble-lined streets full of pastel coloured shops selling bread and cheese and bottled jam. But the closer Eames looked, the stranger the city got. He swore he could see Tokyo in the skyline, could see Japanese letters in the neon shop signs that were just out of view. There was Washington in the sweeping lines of brick, then a vast stretch of green looming up in the middle of nowhere. Central park? At least there was gravity on this level.
Eames broke into a run.
The streets made no sense. It was like Arthur had taken the map of the real world and shredded it, gluing everything back like someone forcing a puzzle to fit. There were projections now, women and men walking through the streets as if they all had a destination in mind. Cars stalled at the crossroads and children gave Eames a wide berth. Every single traffic light was red.
The world was a crush of realities and Eames didn't know where to start.
Arthur was using his projections to hide himself.
"Look," said Eames, coming to a stop in the middle of the busy intersection. He took a deep breath, and decided to try the shortest method in the book. It should work. Hopefully. "Just tell me where he is, god dammit!"
All the projections paused. Then, unnervingly, they all turned to look at him.
"Oh dear," said Eames, before legging it.
Eames was a genius. He was a freaking genius. At least, that was what he told himself as he sprinted down an alleyway. Behind him, Arthur's projections gave chase. They didn't scream or shout in blood lust – instead, Eames thought he could hear the sound of a hundred Italian loafers hitting the pavement.
Arthur might not want to wake up, but his subconscious was another matter altogether.
It was a tricky thing, baiting someone's subconscious. But Eames wasn't the best forger in the business for nothing – he went through every single persona he could think of. He let his image flicker in and out, in and out as he let the projections chase him towards Arthur. None of it stopped him from being out of breath though.
Then he spotted it – the large, nondescript building and its fake doors which led into the warehouse. Cobb's warehouse. Eames made a mad dash for it, throwing himself against the metal door.
"Come on, come on," he said, pulling out a replica of the key Cobb had given him for the Fischer job. Then he was through the door and slamming it closed on the furious projections. Eames ran to the center of the room, then dragged back a metal table to bar against the door.
"Shut the hell up," he yelled through the door, "This is for your own good!"
Something made an ominous thump.
Eames turned back to face the room.
It was as if everyone had simply stepped out for lunch. Ariadne's paper cities were still on the table, laptops open, their screens blinking. The deck chairs were still set out in a semi circle and Eames could see a bottle of half-finished coke on the table. He made his way slowly across the cavernous room.
"Arthur? Are you here, pet?"
There was no reply.
Eames made his way around the table, around the heavy black folders full of profiles and printed research, around-
Arthur was sprawled on the ground, his head pillowed in a pool of blood.
Eames was unaware of moving, but the next moment he was on his knees beside Arthur's lifeless form. His eyes were still open, glassy and unseeing and Eames turned away just in time as he threw up. He had seen corpses before, of course he had, had shot more people than he could count. But seeing Arthur made the world spin.
Eames reached for his totem, pulling it out of his pocket with shaking fingers. He missed it the first time he threw it up and the poker chip fell with a clatter onto the ground. Then he threw it again. And again.
"It's a dream. I'm dreaming," he said into the silence, "It's a dream."
Across the room, Arthur's projections crashed through the door. Eames didn't even look around.
There was a gun on the ground, near Arthur's hand. Eames picked it up. It felt sleek and heavy in his palm, the metal sliding through his fingers. The safety was already off. Eames reached for Arthur's hand, gripping it tightly in his own. He closed his eyes and pressed the barrel of the gun to his own head.
"I'm coming after you," said Eames, before pulling the trigger.
Eames always thought that Limbo was meant to be a place of nothingness. Some described it as the origin of dreams – others thought it was where dreams went to die. Either way, It was meant to be horrific in its emptiness. Eames didn't know what he had been expecting – but this…
Figured that even in Limbo, Arthur's mind was as sharp as a photograph.
Eames seemed to be standing in the middle of a museum.
The ceiling arched impossibly high, and he could just make out the patterned frescoes that matched the complicated arrangement of tiles beneath his feet. Escher, it looked like. Escher gone mad. Eames turned in a circle, the air cool in his lungs. Arthur was nowhere to be seen.
Eames whistled. The sound spiraled off towards the ceiling, echoing. The room he was in didn't seem to have a boundary – everything was brightly lit though there was no visible light source. The physical space of the room just kept on going, the geometric floor tiles stretching into the distance until Eames' eyes couldn't focus. He wondered if there were any walls at all, or Arthur's museum was infinite.
How long had he been down here?
"Hello?" called Eames. His voice bounced off the walls, and was swallowed by the very air.
He examined a marble statue on a stand. It was a woman, featureless and flawless. Eames ran a finger over her hair, each strand carved from the stone. He moved on. There were seemingly endless trinkets on display. An old gramophone, several crystal figurines. There was even an old tea set, the saucers chipped and the blue-flower pattern faded. Eames walked past three grand pianos, polished and black, as well as a huge grandfather clock which was still ticking. There was an wardrobe full of dark suits , and Eames pulled one out.
"Oh darling," he breathed, unbuttoning the jacket. The shirt beneath was stained red with blood, a hole ripped in the center. Eames stared at it, knuckles going white. Bullet to the heart. This was the suit Arthur had been wearing during one of their forging practices with the team. It was Cobb who shot him. Taking a shuddering breath, Eames placed the suit and the blood-stained shirt back in the wardrobe.
"Arthur!" he called. The emptiness of the museum echoed back at him, ArthurArthurArthur…Eames felt panic clawing at his throat. There were no limits to Limbo, not as far as he knew. Arthur may not even be here.
Eames began running, past a miniature city made out of paper cranes, a pair of leather shoes sitting next to a reclined lawn chair, past a fountain glittering with gold coins. And yet with every step, it was like no distance had been gained. The tiles gave the illusion that one was walking down spiraling staircases, dizzying and endless. Eames accidentally knocked over a porcelain vase, and before Eames could turn around, the vase went crashing to the floor.
The silence that followed was deafening.
"That was my mother's, you know."
Eames spun around.
There, sitting on the edge of the stone fountain, was Arthur.
The wave of relief that swept through him nearly knocked Eames off his feet. He could only stare for a moment, drinking in the sight of Arthur, looking not a day older than yesterday and beautifully alive. Alive and smiling in a way Eames had never seen him smile before. It was an open smile, without hesitation or wariness. It was the smile that Arthur almost gave him, the night when Eames had been a little too drunk to say no. It made his eyes crinkle and dimples appear at the corner of his mouth, despite the shattered porcelain by Eames' shoes.
It was a little too much for Eames to cope with, which probably explained what he said next.
"You just had to make this bloody difficult, didn't you?"
Arthur tilted his head to one side, still smiling.
"What's difficult?" he asked, tone indulgent.
Eames waved an arm up and down, trying to encompass the multi-layered dream, the puzzles within cities, the tricks, the safeguards against waking up.
"Finding you," he said at last.
Arthur was still smiling.
"Same thing goes for you," he said, standing up. He smoothed a crease in his trousers before coming over. His shoes crunched on the piece of vase.
"I'm here to wake you up," said Eames, throat suddenly dry. Arthur was still looking at him with that fond, tender expression that was starting to make Eames feel uneasy. At the same time, he thought he could stand here forever, just looking. Arthur, close enough to touch.
"I'm sure you are," said Arthur, voice barely above a whisper. Then he looped arm through Eames' own and began leading them away from the broken vase. Eames went, all his senses narrowed down to where Arthur's fingers were curled around his elbow. He could barely breathe.
"I'm not sure how you could have gotten here," Arthur was saying, "I don't think it's happened before. But I've been here for so long, maybe it's all begun bleeding together."
Eames couldn't take his eyes away from Arthur's face.
"How long have you been here?"
Arthur shrugged. They walked past a large mahogany bookcase, and Eames caught the scent of old paper and coffee.
"I've written it down somewhere, I think," he said, gesturing at the books, "I've died more times than I can count. But that's alright."
There was something very wrong.
"Don't you-" Eames' voice broke on the second word, "Don't you want to wake up?"
Arthur paused, turning to look at him.
"You always asked that question," he said, and there was no mistakening the fondness in his voice, "And I always say no. Don't worry."
Eames refused to move when Arthur made to keep walking.
"No. Arthur, you have to wake up. I'm here to wake you up," Eames tugged his arm free reluctantly, and gestured at the museum around them, "This isn't real."
Arthur laughed. The sound sent shivers up Eames' spine.
"I know that, you idiot," he said, "Come on. Let's get you home."
Arthur began walking again, and Eames forced his legs to move in order to catch up. Arthur had led them to a particular stretch of wall (where had the wall come from?) lined with magnificent paintings. Each one was framed by elaborate gold and bronze, the paintings themselves so vast they disappeared into the ceiling. They were so vivid that, the longer Eames looked, the sharper they became until he swore he could hear the waves crashing against the canvas.
"Dublin," said Arthur, glancing at the painting. There were small white boats in the distance, and they were moving. "Remember?"
Eames shook his head.
"Oh. I suppose you're from earlier than that then. Come on," and Arthur tugged at his sleeve like a child, leading them further down.
Eames began recognizing some of the scenes. There was one of Paris, the Eiffel Tower looming in the background. He and Arthur had taken a day to wander about Paris, a million years ago (more than a million, too long-) and everything was coloured lights and cigarette smoke. It tasted like sweet wine on Eames' tongue, the memory of it sharp and bitter. In the forefront of the painting there was sleek car and the silhouette of a figure against the sunset. Eames frowned as the figure turned, leaning back against the car. It took a second longer for it to click.
"Is that – that's me!" he exclaimed. Arthur was already four paintings down. He half turned, hands in pockets.
"Of course it's you. Who else would it be?"
Eames gaped at him.
Arthur sighed, walked back and took hold of Eames' hand to lead him away from the painting.
"It's obvious you don't belong in that one, I suppose."
"What?" said Eames.
"What's the last thing that you remember?" asked Arthur, gently.
There's a train, moving across sparse landscape. The painting seemed to move with it, like a film, following the train until it disappeared behind the curve of a hill. The sky was dotted with clouds that bled into the next painting – a café this time, wicker chairs surrounded by silverware and the sound of cups and saucers.
"The warehouse," Eames managed, "The warehouse we used for the Fischer job."
"Oh," said Arthur, "I should have known. We're nearly there." He paused, studying Eames carefully for the first time.
"I didn't think you were wearing this particular monstrosity that day, were you?" he asked. Eames couldn't think – Arthur's fingers were playing idly with the cuff of his sleeve, warm and fleeting.
"Probably not," he said, and Arthur's smile widened to show teeth. They passed several more paintings (Eames could see them stretching into the distance, as infinite as the museum itself, a thousand, a million paintings.) before they came to a stop.
Eames had just enough time to say, "Hey, isn't this-"
Before Arthur pushed him head first into the canvas.
They were standing in the warehouse. Well, Arthur was standing – Eames had fallen on his face. He got up, rubbing his elbow. At least there didn't seem to be any sounds of Arthur's angry subconscious trying to break through the door here. Which also ruled out the possibility that Arthur had brought up a level and out of Limbo…but Eames was working on that.
"Some warning would have been nice, pet," he said, reflexively.
Then Ariadne poked her head around a huge paper skyscraper.
"There you are," she said, "We're going out to get lunch soon. Want anything?"
"Sushi would be nice," said Arthur, settling down into a vacant chair. Eames only gaped as Ariadne stuck a pencil behind her ear, grabbed her scarf and made her way towards the door.
"I'm hurt," said Eames, "What about my lunch?"
Only…Eames hadn't opened his mouth. It was-
Arthur leapt from his chair.
"What the hell?" he exclaimed.
Eames – or Arthur's projection of Eames or whatever it was smirked back.
"You look awfully familiar," said Projection Eames, "Taken a wrong turn?"
Arthur was looking from Projection Eames to Eames then back again, eyes wide with the beginning of panic. Something rumbled deep within the earth.
"Arthur…" said Eames, taking a step towards him, "What-"
"You can't exist," Arthur was saying, and Eames could see the rapid rise and fall of his chest, "One of you can't- there can't be two projections of the same person in the same space. It's – oh god. Oh god-"
And then Arthur was running towards the empty stretch of wall at the end of the warehouse. Then he vanished. Eames swore loudly before tearing after him, throwing himself face first into the rough brick…and falling back out into the vast space of the museum.
He got to his feet, just in time to see Arthur stumbling out of another painting – this one a softly lit living room, complete with a Christmas tree. Arthur took one look at him and dove into the next painting. Eames followed.
This was L.A – Eames' ears were immediately assaulted by the sound of a thousand cars and discordant horns. They were on a high balcony, overlooking the city. There came a huge crash from inside the apartment and Eames darted through the door just in time to see Arthur push past him in a blur of black. Before Eames could shout No! Arthur had flung himself off the balcony…and vanished.
Sitting in the kitchen was another projection of Eames.
The real Eames (was he real?) took a deep breath, and vaulted over the balcony.
He landed on his feet this time, shoes hardly making a sound on the tiled floor of the museum. Eames didn't even bother with words, just tackled Arthur to the ground before he could escape into another painting.
"Who are you?" Arthur was screaming, "You're not supposed to be here. Where-"
But Arthur wasn't listening.
"It's never happened before, it's never happened before, you're not supposed to be here-"
"What's never happened?" shouted Eames, gripping Arthur by the shoulders, "Tell me!"
Arthur kicked him viciously in the groin.
"Fuck!" swore Eames, rolling off Arthur in agony. Arthur scrambled to his feet and ran. Instead of turning into one of the paintings however, he kept running until suddenly there was a wall in front of him, something curtained in deep, rich velvet. Eames got to his feet, wincing, just as Arthur ripped open the velvet curtains. It was another painting, smaller than the rest and – was that Arthur's apartment?
A moment later, Arthur was gone.
"Oh shit. Shit." Said Eames, shoes sliding on the pattered tiles. He gripped the edge of the gold frame for a moment, before pitching himself forwards.
"-really?" the projection of Eames was saying, "What did you expect then?"
And Arthur was just standing there, hands limp by his sides, eyes wet.
"Oh darling," said the projection, "I like my freedom. I'm not about to be shackled down to a life of tedious routine."
"I know," Arthur whispered, "I know. I'm sorry-"
And that was when Eames hooked an arm around his throat and forcibly dragged him back out of the room.
"What the fuck was that?" shouted Eames, still holding Arthur, arms twisted up behind him so he couldn't run, "What the hell Arthur? That was not what I said- what I- Jesus Christ!"
"Get out," said Arthur through gritted teeth, "Get out of my head."
"You sure made it hard for me to get down here," said Eames, throat raw from trying to hold back tears, "All those mazes. Why did you do this? Why the fuck are you down here?"
"Get out!" repeated Arthur, trying to wrench his arms free. Eames held on, gripping so tight Arthur's wrists were sure to be bruised later. If this was real. If any of this was real.
"No. Not until I wake you up."
"And how are you going to do that?" spat Arthur, "If you kill me, I just return to limbo. What do you think these are?" he jerked his chin towards the paintings that lined the walls, "I've lived so many lives I can't keep track of them all. I've- I've-"
Arthur felt real beneath his hands. Eames could feel his hands shaking.
"Have you gone mad?" he said at long last, "Have you gone insane?"
Arthur laughed, but this time, it was dry and choked. It sounded like he was dying.
"Probably," he said.
Eames let go. Arthur turned around slowly, cradling his wrist in one hand.
"How can you do this? You of all people."
Arthur smiled at him, and the smile was sad and full of regret. It was scary how fast the anger dissipated.
"To get what I want," said Arthur, simply, "The same reason why everyone dreams."
"No," said Eames, feeling like his heart was being torn out of his chest, "No, Arthur."
Arthur straightened his tie, his jacket, his sleeves. They were practiced motions, habits.
"Having this is better than nothing, Mr. Eames," said Arthur, answering Eames' unspoken question, "And I am nothing but pragmatic. I still have an eternity left before my body up there-" Arthur points towards the ceiling, a half smile at the edge of his lips. "-Dies."
He walked slowly to the nearest painting, running a finger over the gilded frame.
"You've got to wake up," said Eames, because there was nothing else to say, "Please, Arthur. Or you'll lose your mind. Mal-"
Arthur didn't even turn around.
"I haven't lost my mind to Limbo, Mr. Eames."
"This isn't real-" said Eames, catching Arthur by the sleeve.
"But I don't care!" Arthur said, whipping around, "Can't you see? I don't care."
And then they were inside a different room, and Eames was standing ankle deep in a thousand red die. Arthur's totem. And Arthur was laughing, the sound hysterical and broken.
"Do you know how long I've been here? Do you? I really don't give a fuck about real anymore."
The dice tumbled through Eames' fingers like water. When he looked up, Arthur was gone.
He found Arthur in a park, curled up on the grass next to his own projection of Eames. It was a summer afternoon, the trees heavy with leaves and the water sparkling with noon sunshine. In the distance, Eames could hear the sound of traffic, muffled by leaves and grass and children on swings. Eames – the Eames with his arm around Arthur's waist and nose buried in Arthur's hair – was murmuring something into the quiet.
This is what Arthur's world looks like, Eames thought.
Then he shot his projection through the head.
Around them, the dream shattered into a thousand pieces.
He could hear Arthur running. The white walls of the maze blurring into grey shadows as Arthur's dreams began disintegrating – Eames could hear them, the sound tearing and over layered like a thousand voices speaking at the same time, their words lost into the chaos. And then he saw Arthur, tearing down the spiral staircase that went downdowndowndown-
"Arthur," Eames' voice was hoarse from shouting, "Arthur WAKE UP."
And then they were tumbling into a dark warehouse, the floor dusty with disuse and Eames could just make out the silhouette of cars lined up against the wall. Arthur was pulling frantically at the chain next to the door, and it was cracking open with a metallic clunk clunk clunk
Eames grabbed him around the waist his momentum sent them both crashing to the ground.
"Let me go," Arthur was screaming, hands scratching at Eames' face in desperation, "I don't want to wake I- why can't you leave me? leave me, leave me! I hate- you bastard. "
Eames shook him by the shoulders violently, but Arthur only pulled a hand free and punched him hard across the face. Eames caught Arthur's wrist as he pulled back for another hit and wrenched it up behind his back, pulling their bodies flush against one another. Arthur was shaking so hard, the dream around them was flickering in and out – the warehouse, a hotel, Paris, another hotel-
"Wake up, god damn you," said Eames, pressing his forehead against Arthur's. He reached for the gun at his heel, knowing it would be there.
"No," said Arthur.
He was crying, the tears staining his collar. His eyes were unfocused, staring through Eames as if he wasn't there. At some point, Arthur stopped struggling.
"No," he said again, breath ghosting over Eames' lips.
"You're not the only one who gets a say in this," said Eames, before pressing the gun to Arthur's temple.
Arthur didn't even flinch.
"Wake up, pet," said Eames, his voice the only sound, "I love you. Wake up."
The flicked off the safety. Arthur's eyes slid closed.
"You're going to wake up And then-"
For a moment, he only blinked at the sunlight falling across the sheets, golden and warm on his face. It was a stripe of cream yellow, like a silk tie and Arthur curled and uncurled his fingers as if he could grasp it. He felt languid in a way that made waking feel like something new, something special. There was the memory of sweet liquor on his tongue, the shivery touch of skin on skin.
Arthur allowed himself a small smile into his pillow.