Three is for Reality.

Summary: Arthur/Eames. Limbo overwhelms even the most prepared mind. A post-Limbo story. One shot.

Disclaimer: Nolan's, not mine.

Originally posted at LiveJournal: 10 December, 2010

xxx

Some days Arthur remembers.

it's almost, but not quite the same, something different; off

Those are the better days, Eames thinks.

xxx

Some days Arthur can only remember little bits and pieces.

there's normally confusion and it fucking hurts—

Those days are tough, but workable.

xxx

Then there are days where he knows nothing at all.

sometimes not even his own name, his own reality

It breaks Eames' heart every time.

xxx

Today is all right. Arthur remembers his childhood, his life in the marines, then his life in the army, some of his life on the run, far less of his life as a point man—pretty much every fucking detail but Eames himself. That is okay though. Not perfect, but better than nothing at all.

He had dealt with nothing and he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt to cherish Arthur with life in his eyes and the ability to talk. It doesn't make things hurt less. It's just a little easier to deal with it knowing it.

"E-Eames, right?"

Eames doesn't turn immediately at Arthur's thin voice, his fingers compulsively turns and twists his poker chip as he feels for the crack in the plastic. It is reality and Eames hates it, loathes it, rages against it and it makes him want to hurt someone. Yet he would not let go of it for the world.

"Yes, darling?" he finally says, hating how Arthur flinches back at the pet name, how his eyes flood with distrust. He deftly slips the chip into his pocket and walks to where Arthur sits, hands resting on the keyboard of his laptop. The bones stretch at the skin, which are too pale to be healthy. Then again, Arthur had not been healthy for a long, long time.

"I-I don't—" Arthur pauses, catches the stutter in his voice. Eames can only watch on as he tries—and the man tries so very hard—to form words concisely. It won't work. Eames knows that, though Arthur doesn't. Limbo robbed him of many things.

Limbo robbed both of them.

It's admirable, how Arthur soldiers on and the persistence echoes an earlier him, a version before he fell into the recesses of his mind. Eames wants to reach out and wipe away the crease of confusion Arthur wears when he realises the stutter isn't going, except he catches himself and looks away.

When Arthur remembers him—those rare, rare days—Eames could touch freely. When Arthur didn't remember, or when he didn't remember enough, he was particularly trigger happy. And when his gun was gone, which was the default these days, his right hook was as strong as ever.

"I-I don't know h-how to use this p-program," he is saying, and Eames finds himself fixated on the way Arthur's wringing his hands. It's slight, not desperate, worried fidgeting, but enough to again highlight how different Arthur is.

Tiredly, but not unkindly, Eames says, "Well, pet, let me just have a look at that then, eh?"

He sits next to Arthur, purposely leaves a distinct gap between them and hates himself for having to. For a moment, his eyes dart to the only colour on the glass coffee table—a red die with the top face showing the number three.

Three for reality, Eames knows. Three for how many sugars Arthur liked in his coffee and how many spoons of honey in his tea. Three for how many kisses he had got in the morning and how many at night. Three is how many levels down Arthur was before he was swarmed by projections—why wasn't Eames there to stop that, no he had to be halfway around the bloody world—and fell into Limbo.

As soon as Eames turns the laptop so that the screen faces him, he recognises the program. Of course he recognises it. Arthur had taught Eames how to use it so that he could easily file down notes about targets and how to mimic them.

He remembers how he used to pester Arthur into teaching him keyboard shortcuts and general little roundabout ways to make technology work for him. Arthur, surprisingly enough, though it really shouldn't have been so surprising, was a good and patient teacher.

Eames clears his throat and tries to think about anything other than the tightness in his chest and begins to show Arthur the basics of the software. He tries not to think about how he would probably have to reteach this again, another time, another day, to essentially another Arthur.

There are a lot of things Eames tries not to think about.

xxx

Ariadne, strangely enough, is the first to confront Eames. He would've put his money on Cobb, but then again, he'd always been a lousy gambler when it was anything but cards. Even with that he usually cheats.

She asks for a private word at the end of the day—she always was discreet—and her bluntness is oddly refreshing in a disorientating way. Everyone else had been vague about the subject or tiptoeing around it once the initial discussion about Arthur's mental state had been closed.

"Can you handle Arthur?" Her eyes are piercing and narrowed in speculation. She's very imposing for such a small girl, he thinks offhandedly. Eames didn't know what she is looking for, but she didn't have to look hard to see the purple bruise-like bags under his eyes and the haggard wrinkles forming.

Perhaps he's not too well off and the concern and worry in her voice is well meaning, but Eames instead chooses to bristle at the question and snap, "Of course I can handle him."

It does nothing to deter her and she replies, "Limbo was anything but kind to his mind."

"We'll get by," Eames hedges, shifting the briefcase in his hands, trying to leave the discussion behind him. He does not need this right now. He needs a beer or something highly toxic that can make him forget.

Not forget like Arthur did. Just lose enough to get by.

"How do you know?" Ariadne is nothing if not persistent and inquisitive, something Arthur had once found endearing about her. Now Eames wouldn't have been sure that he still knew her name and face, let alone her personality.

"Darling, you barely knew us at the close," he tells her condescendingly, lashing out because that's all he really can do without breaking down, and he really can't afford to break down. It's hard enough to hold himself together, let alone fix himself up. He turns on his heel, heading for the door.

"I know enough to be worried," she says honestly, and Eames stops and has to remind himself how young she is; to the world, to life, to dream sharing and all its complexities.

Gentling his tone, he asks, "Do you know what it is to love someone?" Those words seem to register with Ariadne and he sees from the corner of his eye how she stiffens suddenly.

Eames nods without turning around and says, "I can't abandon him."

Without another word Ariadne leaves and Eames is left alone with his thoughts.

xxx

"I am sorry; I-I am so, so s-sor—"

"Shut up," Eames hisses, too torn between relief and gratitude to give a flying fuck about apologies. Arthur—the one with the memories of everything—is in his arms, warm to the touch and very real, the crack in the poker chip welcomed because it proved this was reality.

They were touching frantically, desperately, like they were the last two people in the world and the universe was collapsing. To them, it might as well have been.

Their kisses are desperate, sloppy; nothing like the languid teasing they'd once indulged in, thinking they'd have forever and a day to play around. Arthur's touch is strong, but Eames still holds tighter; both acts like the other would disappear into a wisp of smoke.

"I shouldn't h-have taken the j-job, it was—" Arthur tries to apologise again, but Eames is sucking at the base of his throat and it's distracting and sharp and kind of burns in that sluggish way that makes the former point man buck up and groan shamelessly.

"No, you shouldn't have," Eames says in a voice muffled by Arthur's neck. It's raw and hoarse and so close to bloody breaking. Arthur rolls his hips forward—once, twice, thrice—and Eames' spine arches like a cat and he growls like a predator, eyes watering but undeniably fierce.

There's no sound in the room bar their gasps and moans and grunts; all else is eerily quiet in that way that makes Eames wonder if it's all a dream. Except the poker chip says otherwise and Arthur's free hand is busy rolling his dice on the bedside table, seeing threes every time.

Eames twists them around and laughs at how ridiculous it all was, the sharp bark of mirth swallowed as he's pulled into another kiss; though really, the word 'kiss' implies something more innocent and less filthy or obscene than what Arthur's tongue is doing—

Every light in the room is on, almost burningly bright, but neither one wants to miss a single thing because of the dark. Nails scrape down black ink on white skin and Eames hisses lowly at the sensation. His pupils are blown wide open and Arthur can see himself reflected in them.

"I researched e-everything, but—" Arthur keeps trying to explain, but he has explained a thousand times before. Eames thrusts in deeper and whatever else needs to be said is lost, Arthur curling in on himself, his hands scrabbling at Eames' arms, trying to keep grounded.

Eames tastes salty sweat and stills for a moment, panting heavily. Arthur is breathing with as much difficultly and whines desperately when moment stops. For that moment, Eames wants time to stop, to stutter and just let them stay like that forever. It's an attractive dream, but a pipe dream at best. Eames starts moving again when Arthur begins to growl dirty things like a promise in his ear; words Arthur had surely picked up from the marines because no army brat could swear like that.

Then the apologies choke their way out again and Eames has to physically close his hand over Arthur's to get him to shut up. They were getting too close to the end to really stop and everything was getting more desperate and faster as if there was something chasing them and time was speeding up.

"It's okay," he gasps out as Arthur nips at his ear, feels the nails scraping his chest and arms and is utterly, utterly overwhelmed. It's so much at once, pleasure and pain and relief and agony and fear; yes, there was fear, a lot of fear about what the morning would bring and whether he could live another day where Arthur doesn't know—and he almost thinks it's too much.

"It isn't okay," Arthur is saying, chanting almost. "It c-can't be okay."

Arthur knows he will forget and Eames knows that, too. They can't even pretend otherwise because Eames had to pretend every other day to an Arthur that couldn't remember. So they bask in a reality they both want but can have all the time, and try not to break the fuck down.

It's all they can do, really.

xxx

It's not so surprising that Cobb finally comes to talk to Eames. After all, he'd known Arthur longest of them all—bar Eames himself, of course. There is also the fact he'd known the aftershocks of Limbo first hand, the insane lengths Mal had went to in an attempt to free herself.

So far it's nothing Eames hasn't figured out himself—how Arthur would occasionally need restraining; how he sometimes would be unresponsive; how sometimes you would go insane from trying to help—but there is something he picks up in Dom's tone. Eames is one of the best forgers around. He knows how to properly mimic the inflection of tone and emotion. Dom isn't just instructing, isn't just being protective, but he is trusting. Utterly trusting Eames to do the right thing by Arthur and look after him.

"Mate," Eames says finally, cutting whatever Cobb was saying short. He puts a hand on Dom's shoulder and ducks his head a little so they're looking eye-to-eye. He can feel his lips tug up into the faintest of smiles. "I've got it. Arthur's in safe hands."

"I was never worried about how Arthur would be treated," Dom smiles wistfully. "I'm worried about how you'd deal with Arthur treating you."

Cobb turns sharply on his heel and leaves; Eames in his wake stands speechless and strangely touched. He doesn't move from his desk for a long moment, and only then it is because there was work to be done.

xxx

Blank, dead eyes stares up at him from the lounge and Eames chokes back whatever he was going to say. His expression of shock falls quickly to an impassive expression. Eames can mimic anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is little effort to cover his emotions; though he has to clear his throat a few times before he can speak.

"Arthur?"

When the man doesn't respond, Eames gets down on eye level and slowly waves a hand in front of Arthur's face. Nothing happens; not a blink, not a twitch. Carefully, slowly, Eames leans forward and presses his lips to Arthur's—once, twice, thrice—and still no reaction. It had worked sometimes in the past; sometimes Arthur would wake remembering, or he'd wake without the memories and punch Eames in the face. Either response would have been welcomed.

Neither reaction comes. The eyes are as unseeing as they were before, pupils blown wide and set without twitching in the electric lighting. Eames knows it's going to turn out to be one of the shittier days depending how violent Arthur gets and how much English he can understand.

There is a memorable occasion where Arthur only screamed obscenities in fluent German while Eames tried to explain who he was and where Arthur was. Unfortunately, Eames' grasp of German had always been elementary at best. Eames got a new scar that evening across his collarbone and Arthur had to be sedated for two days.

At least Arthur knew then who he was, even if he didn't know Eames or English. Right now, his eyes are dead in a way Eames had grown used to, but still hates with a passion. It is always shocking how flat they look: glassy, glazed and uncaring. It's not the cold stare Arthur gives before he pulls the trigger on a mark—no, that face is hypnotic—but it's just unseeing.

Eames wants to put his head into his hands and scream until his throat is raw and bloodied; he wants to drink until he can't see straight; he wants to go shoot until his arms are sore from the kickbacks and his ears deaf from the gunshots. Eames just wants to run somewhere where he doesn't need to think about this, let alone deal with it. It's all too much sometimes.

Instead, he uses two fingers to push Arthur's chin up, trying to get him to meet his gaze. Instead, he brushes back some of Arthur's stray hair and smiles gently.

"It'll be all right, pet. It'll be fine."

Instead of running, he stands by Arthur, as ridiculous as it is.

xxx

It has been a few weeks since the fucked up extraction before Yusuf approaches Eames about Arthur. It's actually kind of nice how Yusuf inquires about Eames before Arthur, which makes sense because Yusuf had known the former long before the latter, and preferences stick like that.

"I know you turned down Saito's offer—"

"A team of psychiatrists is not going to help Arthur," Eames retorts sharply.

"Yes," Yusuf says calmly with a sad quirk to his lips. "I doubt they could help."

Normally, it is cheer and warm humour around Yusuf. The man had always been good for a laugh, and Eames had joined the chemist on many an expedition for the 'perfect alcoholic formula', which really didn't involve much studying and had a little too much drinking. Now though, Eames is tired, and he really doesn't want to beat around the bush.

"What do you want?"

"Nothing at all," Yusuf says, and Eames knows he means it. "I just sometimes wonder whether you're in over your head or not."

"I wonder the same thing," Eames admits before drinking the last of his god-awful coffee, throwing the foam cup into a bin full of papers about his newest target to become for a dream. It's really strange how much effort they need to put in to what equates to essentially an hour of sleeping.

Still, some nights Eames lies awake wondering whether an extra hour of study would've saved Arthur from Limbo. What really kills him is that with Arthur's skills, it might have. Then again, thinking of what might have been but never will be is really tiring and it always leaves him feel drained, emotionally and mentally.

"Sometimes," Eames continues saying, rubbing the dregs of sleep from his eyes, "I think I'm really helpless. I don't think he can come back."

"It is good to see that you know your limits."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Cobb, well, from what I hear, he always thought he could save Mal. He let his guard down and she died. You?" Yusuf shakes his head almost pityingly. "You will be ever vigilant knowing Arthur could sway from one state to the other."

Eames sinks into his leather chair and rests his head in his hands. He can smell coffee and day-old sweat on his palms. He must emit an air of one who is too damned tired for this shit because Yusuf's receding footsteps fills the silence, along with his parting words;

"And who knows? Perhaps your patience will pay off with time and he might stabilise."

Yusuf's quiet attempt at comfort—whilst probably the most well-meaning one of the lot—is actually, ironically enough, the worst of them all. It gives Eames hope where none should be.

xxx

Arthur doesn't remember him. He doesn't remember dream sharing; he doesn't remember the army or the marines. While Eames is explaining everything, he listens with an acute expression of concentration. In fact, he is so quiet for so long, Eames begins to worry that Arthur has reverted to his comatose state. Then,

"Why?"

The question is asked by Arthur so plaintively and so simply that Eames isn't quite sure what he was asking. When Eames asks for some clarification, "Some specificity would be nice, darling," with a sad quirk of the lips, Arthur narrows his eyes and leans forward.

"Why are you d-doing all of this?" Arthur questions angrily. "I m-mean—and damn this s-stutter, too—but you don't n-need to do anything for me. Seriously, put me in a nursing h-home or something. You're clearly s-suffering. Eames—"

"Oh, Arthur, did you even listen?" Eames sighs softly, a faint smile curling his lips. He's certainly touched by the concern Arthur is showing, but shakes his head in what's being suggested. "I would never do that to you."

"From the sounds of it, I w-wouldn't like what you're doing to y-yourself right now."

"Well, pet. You should know that even when you knew every little thing about my heart and soul," —and once upon a time Arthur knew everything there was to know about Eames— "you still couldn't stop me from taking the craziest jobs. I took those for the thrill. What makes you think I'll turn my back on someone I love?"

Arthur rolls his dice a few times, and finally mumbles to himself, "Three for reality."

"Yes, it's real." Eames is flicking his poker chip across his knuckles casually, the jagged cut in the red plastic easy to see. "All of is real."

xxx

Arthur isn't suicidal. But Eames has seen him shoot himself in the head many times to escape a dream. So he isn't suicidal, but neither was Mal. They both wanted escape.

During the days Arthur remembers Mal, it's easier to convince him that this was reality, to make him roll his dice and accept his new life. When he didn't remember, it was harder.

That's why Eames has tranquilisers.

xxx

Press play, darling, reads a small Post-It note in neat handwriting attached to a black cassette player. The cassette player is on his bedside table in the place of his deck of cards and bottle of brandy.

Eames rubs his eyes, confused, but recognises Arthur's concise scrawl and instinctively hits the button. There's a clicking sound and some dry whirring before he hears the sound of someone clearing their throat.

Arthur.

"Eames," Arthur's slightly static, recorded voice says calmly, "if you are listening to this, then something utterly shit must have happened."

That is enough to make Eames jump out of bed and run to Arthur's room. His mind is already skipping to thoughts of what might have happened—running away, kidnapping, suicide—but upon opening the door, Eames sees Arthur is fine, sleeping heavily all sprawled out on the covers of his bed.

For a moment, he rests his shoulder against the frame of the doorway and watches the rise and fall of Arthur's chest. Eames is utterly relieved Arthur was fine, he can see the man is okay, but it takes a few moments before his heart stops racing.

In sleep, Arthur looks utterly content, face relaxed of all the hard lines he's picked up over the years. Eames lingers a moment more but does not succumb to the urge of entering the room. Quietly, he closes the door and walks back to his room.

He suddenly remembers that the tape recording is still playing and he hears a snatch of it: "—well, there couldn't have been anyone else, no one really compares—"

Eames stops the cassette, rewinds it and starts it again, feeling strangely detached and oddly anticipatory. As the tape hisses and clicks, Eames takes a small pause to smile and think, Arthur, why the bloody hell couldn't you use a computer for this?

"Eames. If you're listening to this then something utterly shit must have happened. You should know, since we started, well, being us," Eames can picture Arthur trying to gesture what their relationship was with his hands, "I started recording this before every job we've had. In case. I hate feeling unprepared."

His hands are shaking as he realises what the tape is but doesn't press pause. In fact, he's pretty sure he's holding his breath in anticipation.

"So, there are a lot of issues that might have happened. I could be dead. I could be mentally incapacitated. I could be gone and you have no idea where I am. If that last one's the case, look towards Italy. I've done some bad things there and people are still pissed. Since I can't predict the future, I just want to cover all the loose ends."

Eames is smiling and he wants to ask, 'What the bloody hell did you get up to in Italy?' but Arthur—this Arthur, his Arthur—may as very well be on the other side of the planet for all he could talk to him.

The recording pauses for a few breaths and Eames knows Arthur is thinking deeply. His voice is calm when he continues,

"This might not be comforting, but I want to get this out of the way. You are listed in my will. You'll get my not inconsiderable inheritance plus all the money I've earned over the years. Wait, actually some money will go to Cobb for his kids. I owe Mal that; the rest is completely yours though."

"I don't need the money," Eames says, shaking his head sadly, looking at the black cassette player as if it were Arthur.

"I know you might think you don't need the money," Arthur predicts correctly, making Eames bark a short laugh, "but I want you to have it. It'll bring me peace of mind."

"Darling, you are a morbid fuck, aren't you?" Eames murmurs endearingly.

"If I'm dead—and this is hard to say but—I want you to move on. It'd be a crime depriving the world of you, Eames."

And then Arthur laughs and Eames is helpless but to join in, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. He's so tired and his heart aches constantly, but the mere idea of leaving Arthur for something else hints at something that will rip out his insides.

"There are so many things I want to say to you, Eames; too much to put on a tape to hide in the apartment, I think. It's strange because I never want to talk about me, but when I'm with you—well, there couldn't have been anyone else, no one really compares—it makes me want to talk, as fucking sappy as that shit is."

There are some shuffling noises and a heavy sighing sound. "Eames, know that I love you. I will always fucking love you." Eames grins when Arthur says after a pause, "Please don't do something creepy and make that sound bit your ring tone, okay?"

Now Arthur's chuckling and Eames is grinning wildly and feeling oddly comforted, despite everything. He pauses the tape—there's more, of course there'd be more—but he just wants to bask in the moment of hearing Arthur again. Maybe that's why Arthur made a tape; so Eames could hear him anytime he wanted to.

In his hands the box is so small. He wonders briefly how many times Arthur had repeated his farewell message; they had done countless jobs since getting together.

Arthur was the point man for a reason – he looked out for every possibility. Eames absentmindedly peels off the Post-It note and flips it around.

It says: I really do love you; even though I can't always remember it.

xxx

A/N: So... Sorry for posting this angst!dump. It's awful, I know. I wanted a happier ending but none of the ones I thought up came out right. *Headdesk*.

Can I have some comments?