Eames was taking a mid-morning nap on the sofa when his mobile rang. He toyed with the idea of not answering it: he’d just finished a job, and as soon as Arthur got back from Japan, Eames intended to maintain a schedule in which mid-morning naps continued to be acceptable, at least for two or three days.
The phone stopped ringing, then immediately began ringing again, and Eames stretched an arm over the back of the sofa without looking, trying not to get distracted by the thought of how Arthur had looked on this sofa just last month, shirt rucked up against his ribs and mouth swollen. He brought the phone to his ear, not looking at the display.
“Do you know where your homosexual life partner is?”
It was Madeleine. Her voice crackled between words; she was on a poor connection, but no amount of static and buzzing could conceal the brash up-and-down of her cadences.
“Which one?” asked Eames.
“I hate to break the news to you, buddy, but it’s only been the one for a while.”
Eames supposed that was true.
“He’s in Japan, I think,” he said, and he heard her muttering to someone on her end. He sat up a little straighter, pressed the phone to his ear.
“Madeleine, what is it?”
“Look, I don’t really know. All I’m hearing is that he and Cobb were supposed to have some information to Cobol an hour and a half ago, and the Dar es Salaam office has called here twice, trying to find out if we know anything.”
“Well, as you know, Arthur and I don’t really speak that often,” he said, tightly, and he heard her sigh on the other end. He wondered how loudly she had to expel a breath in order to be heard across all the crackling.
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Be careful.”
Eames was already up, opening his laptop, trying to drag out an address book from the bottom of a drawer crammed with junk.
“Always. Thanks, Mad,” he said, just because he knew the nickname infuriated her.
“Don’t mention it,” she said dryly, and hung up.
Eames tried Arthur first. He wasn’t particularly surprised when Arthur didn’t answer. He called in a few favours and found out that Arthur and Cobb were due to be airlifted from their hotel heliport in an hour; the news made some of the vague worry he would not admit to feeling recede. They might be able to get Cobol’s information to them before then, and if not, at least they would be on the move.
Eames called British Airways and booked a flight to LAX for Thursday; he was fairly sure Arthur would head to America, particularly if it had all gone tits-up for whatever reason. He was just ending the call when the phone rang in his hand—Yuu, who had confirmed the details of the helicopter a few minutes earlier.
“Eames,” he said into the phone.
Then he was silent for a long time, as Yuu explained that the helicopter they had just spoken about had been cancelled; Proclus Global had paid the fee and said they’d take care of transport going forward. Eames thanked him and rang Madeleine again—Cobol had already sent people out, she said, but they hadn’t been the ones who had cancelled the helicopter. Yes, she thought the original job had something to do with Proclus. No, Cobol was not going to let this go, though it was mostly Cobb they wanted.
Eames managed to find out that Proclus had put Cobb and Arthur on a plane—alone, no architect or chemist—but nothing more. Proclus evidently paid its employees well enough that it was hard to make speaking worth their while, and anyway, Eames was hesitant to force his hand when he wasn’t sure what was happening yet.
When his phone rang twelve hours later, Eames had run himself through endless cycles of “Cobb and Arthur can take care of themselves,” interspersed with the memory of the two of them creeping uncertainly through alleys during the Pierson job, looking for all intents and purposes like children trying to sneak a pound from their mother’s purse. He had taken a friend out for a late lunch and had slept again only because he refused, on principle, to sit about his flat tapping his fingers against every surface they came into contact with.
His phone display read A, and when Eames picked up, he said, quietly and very measuredly,
“Where the fuck have you been?”
“I’m in Paris.”
“Brilliant, Arthur, hope you’re already enjoying a crêpe, but I asked where you’d been.”
“Eames?” asked Arthur.
It was the honest confusion in Arthur’s voice that stopped Eames in his tracks—he’d finally allowed himself to indulge the urge to stalk around the flat that he’d been repressing all evening, along with the finger-tapping, and he’d stood up the moment the phone had rung.
The silence stretched, and finally, Arthur continued,
“Saito, the man whom Cobol wanted the engineering plans from—he wants us for a job. It sounds crazy to me, but he says he can get Dom home.”
Eames did not say anything. He was looking at himself in his bedroom mirror, at his face with the shadows under the eyes, at the sleep crusted in his eyelashes and at his rumpled shirt.
The reflection in the mirror looked pale and unsure, and Eames was honest enough to admit that he didn’t know whether the strain in his face had more to do with the hours of concern gnawing at the pit of his stomach or with the realisation that he had somehow put himself in a situation where hours of concern were something that happened to him.
“Eames?” Arthur asked again, and Eames scrubbed a hand against his face and spoke quickly into the phone.
“Yeah. I’m here. Look, I’m glad you’re okay, but it’s been a long day. I’ll call you tomorrow, all right?”
“Uh… sure,” said Arthur. Then, “Listen, Eames, is something wrong?”
“Nothing at all, pet. Speak to you soon.”
Eames ended the call, then scrolled down until he came to the number for British Airways again. He stared at himself in the mirror, at the pallor that was not receding, and cancelled his flight to LAX. Then he thought about where it would be impossible for Arthur to follow, and booked a flight to Mombasa.
1. Pierson job, Cardiff (B.B.)
A.P.W., T.B.E., Havannah Street
(Arthur had not expected it to be like this. He had not expected to feel ablaze with it, to want the friction of Eames’ skin on his the way he had wanted successes in the past, with the knowledge that he would do whatever was necessary to obtain them.
He had not thought Eames’ face would look like that, mouth red and wet and eyes unfocused, wrecked. He had not thought Eames’ hand would span one side of his waist, that Eames would shudder out one long, helpless breath when Arthur let Eames inside.
He had thought he was giving something. But as they lay in bed he felt ravenous, desperate to take.)
4. Liszt Job (T.B.E.), Bern
T.B.E., A.P.W., Bellevue Palace
(Arthur kept the pocket watch in a drawer at home. But sometimes, on a job, he would hear the chink of a chain against a button and look down to realise he had dreamed it on.
He wondered why he remembered so much sex. He remembered Eames’ tongue, playful, then gentle at the corners of Arthur’s mouth. He remembered the hard rasp of Eames’ stubble against his neck. Eames’ fingers, and the wet pant of his breaths. He remembered the slippery grasp of Eames’ hand on his cock as they showered together, and the solid weight of Eames against his back, as they woke.
He supposed it had something to do with what sex allowed him to do: open his eyes to what was happening, drink Eames in, greedily and without concerns, without the inevitable questions that came from walking alongside him in the street.)
9. Willoughby Bay, Norfolk, VA (A.B.)
T.B.E, A.P.W., 4 days
(“My father is a thief. Family business, you see.”
“My mother is an editor for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.”
“My mother restores Regency furniture.”
“My father left when I was four years old.”
“Went to buy cigarettes and never came back, did he?”
“That’s right. My mother is a diner waitress. I only got out because I got a full ride to CalTech.”
Eames raised his eyebrows, looking at Arthur carefully, then laughed.
“My mother is a professional ikebana instructor.”
“My father coordinates all charitable donations for the San Diego Zoo.”
“My father died when I was a teenager. I was raised by a kindly grandfather.”
“My mother is a professor of Russian Futurist literature.”
“My mother is a woman of leisure. She does absolutely nothing.”
“My father is a cattle rancher in Monta—”
“Pardon—your mother teaches ... Russian Futurism?”
Eames was speeding down Tidewater Drive, gunning the engine of the crappy rental car as if it would actually make a difference, looking at something else and fiddling with the radio. And yet, somehow, he had known that that was the one.)
23. Tilman job, New York (A.B.)
A.P.W., T.B.E., 2 days (Chemist: O.L.)
(“True romance—not that I’m saying the idea makes any sense, Arthur, darling—is about compromise. Not about going through the motions, about doing what everyone already expected you to do, but about making space for someone, about fitting around them, about finding some way to bend so that they can come into the space where you used to be.”
Was Eames talking about Arthur’s awkwardness, about the rigidity he hadn’t been able to shake throughout the entire job, until Eames had forcibly shaken him free of it, trapping him against a desk?
“It’s not about forgetting who you are, but about letting someone change you. Now, Karen Tilman’s dramatics from a stick in the mud like you … that might mean something.”)
31. Paris (A.B.)
T.B.E., A.P.W., Phone Call
“Are you crazy? That’s Cobol’s backyard.”
“It’s not me they want.”
“I know that, but—”
(But what?) Arthur didn’t even know how to begin finishing his own sentence.)
“Darling, when a job calls, a job calls.”
“What job is this again?”)
32. Paris (A.B.)
A.P.W., D.C., Paris Warehouse
(“Look, it’s not my business, and even if it were, I can’t say I’m particularly interested, but is everything okay between you and Eames?”
“I didn’t think anything of it after the Tilman job, even though you didn’t sound like yourself most of the time we were prepping, but when I went to get him in Mombasa, he asked me if I was still working with you. What, you haven’t seen him since Tilman?”
“Aren’t you two… ”
Arthur tried to keep his face from showing how little he wanted to talk about it; he could feel the muscles pulling into a frown, almost against his will.
“Okay. Are you two going to be able to work together? That’s the only thing I need to know.”
“Yeah. I see. Like I said, not my business. And I suppose I don’t really have room to talk. Sorry I asked.”)
33. Fischer job, Paris (A.B.)
A.P.W., T.B.E., Montmartre
(Eames’ skin was pale against the sheets. Two weeks in Kenya had tanned him golden-brown, but two weeks inside warehouses and offices had returned his back to one smooth, fair expanse.
His face was turned into the pillow, away from Arthur. He woke by degrees, smiling at Arthur with an unguarded, soft curve to his mouth. Then his eyes focused, slowly, and something in his face shuttered, almost imperceptibly. Almost.
“What are we doing?” asked Arthur, unable to keep quiet any longer. He’d been watching Eames sleep for what felt like decades.
Eames’ eyes locked on his. Then he raised an eyebrow, and said,
“What do you think we’re doing?”
And Arthur turned his eyes away, because he certainly had no answer to that (and if he couldn’t say, why should Eames be the one to have to do the work?), but his stomach twisted with frustration.
A little specificity. Was that too much to ask?)
34. Fischer job, Paris (A.B.)
A.P.W., K.S., Paris Warehouse
“I have a concern, one that I do not yet want to share with Mr. Cobb.”
Arthur tensed, and Saito raised a placating hand, smiling before continuing, softly and a little amused.
“No, no, no, nothing serious. I simply wondered if you might be able to shed some light on a particular doubt of mine.”
“I can try,” said Arthur, crossing his arms and giving Saito his full attention.
“On the evening after you and Mr. Cobb finished your work, in a manner of speaking, for Cobol Engineering, when I made you the offer of this job.”
“Yes?” asked Arthur.
“After I left you with my pilot, someone made quite extensive enquiries within my company, hoping to ascertain where you and Mr. Cobb had gone. At the time I assumed it was Cobol Engineering, of course, but recently I have discovered that this was not the case. I am concerned, Arthur—is there another party to consider, as we go forward with the Fischer pursuit? As you know, failure is not really an option for Mr. Cobb.”
Saito was looking at him with something that looked almost like amusement.
His mind was turning frantically (“Delighted, hope you’re having a crêpe, but where the fuck have you been?”) but he kept his face impassive.
“I shouldn’t think there’s any reason to be concerned, Mr. Saito. But you can leave it with me. I’ll report back.”)
35. Fischer job, Sydney, QF42 (A.B.)
How in the hell had this happened? Arthur’s mind raced desperately to the very beginning (B.B., The effects of these lapses of focus on Arthur’s work were not obvious, nor would they ever be), then to the worst possible conclusion (A.B., In limbo, lost only to come out, if at all, to nothing; to destruction, if Mal was anything to go by).
He shouted at Cobb only because he had no idea how to shout at himself without looking less reliable than he already did. Then Eames was there, pushing between the two of them, so Arthur shouted at Yusuf, at anyone who would listen.
The next clear moment was Eames at his ear (“Musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling”), and then they were racing through the streets, Arthur glancing desperately around him and trying to commit faces and identities and facts to memory, giving himself something to cling to in case he needed a way out from something deeper.
The irony of clinging to a dream in order to escape from another dream was not lost on him. Then Yusuf was asking if they were ready, and Arthur’s brain, which always flashed through a thousand things as he fell into dreams
(he had heard others say it was a kind of blankness, a fading, a snap of the fingers that woke you into another reality, but for him it had always been akin to what people described before death: not his life, but his every recent thought, flashing before his eyes),
was twisting his timeline
(“A little bigger, darling,”; should there be some form of connective tissue between 35 and 23 (cf “dramatics from a stick in the mud like…”/“dream a little bigger”)? Arthur had always hesitated to arrange things in any way but linearly, and yet perhaps),
was comparing, was weighing, was seeing imbalance
(he could feel the van swerving, and everything else was unstable, too).
1 (B.B.), 2 (B.B.), 3 (B.B.) B.B. Arthur had thought he was giving away only a small thing, only for a little while, doing the logical thing, retreating in order to advance, but what did he think they’d been doing (cf 33), doing all this time, how could he tell himself he’d been playing a strategic game when his chest felt like something caught in a vice (10, 17, 23; 28 →), when he could see that what he had thought would be finite, contained, logical, was everything but: one long sinuous curve of change, of endless uncertainties, and how had he not seen it before, lined up like that, a pattern rather than a moment, a foundation stone rather than a façade, building a life rather than negotiating a ceasefire, A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B.?
Dreamt himself into Browning, into the blonde. Into a wide expanse of snow, out of an air duct—or was it the other way around?—then up, up, and out.
It had been satisfying, having a legitimate reason to be angry. At Arthur, for cocking up; at Yusuf, for selling the rest of them out; at Cobb, for bargaining with them like chips; at Saito, for not heeding Eames’ advice and then getting himself shot. At Ariadne, for whatever she knew about Cobb that she wasn’t saying.
At Fischer, for greeting them with something they did not expect.
The romantic parallel of it wasn’t lost on Eames (he specialised in romantic parallels, after all): the unexpected nature of what they had found, the inability to extricate oneself, once there, the sense of being absolutely, utterly, without a doubt under-prepared for the entirety of the situation.
As the knowledge that they might not make it out wound its way into each of them, knotting and weaving itself in where it found the snagging posts of their unique vulnerabilities, Eames looked at Arthur’s face, trying to catalogue the changes of the last month. They’d spent the entire job needling at each other—a familiar practice—but their knowledge of each other made them both sharper, crueller, and Eames’ resentment, his own sense that he had lost some crucial grounding, had made him harder still.
He had tried to remember what it had been like pushing into Arthur’s space before Arthur had accommodated him there, what it was that he had intended to begin, then—something about staircases and doors, he thought—but all that he could seem to grasp at were his dread and his survival instinct, two familiar tatters of bright fabric fluttering in his mind when the rest of his faculties weren’t making themselves readily visible.
He came out of the dreams with his heart pounding, beating madly against his ribcage, the same way he had fallen asleep that last time, with his neck against the hotel carpet and words trapped behind his lips. He had felt it then, too, the relentless thud thud thud thud of his heart as he looked at Arthur’s face; he had been so focused on it that it had been a surprise to open his eyes in the next dream and find only a defibrillator, rather than an entire cardiac ward in full and hectic swing.
It was much more disconcerting than the usual job, waking to the white noise of the plane’s engines and the smoothness of the flight. They only had a few minutes to reel everything back into the case before Fischer woke up, but they worked efficiently and crisply: Yusuf’s sedatives left no evidence of their presence beyond the dream. Eames thought back to that first time, when it had taken the shape of Arthur’s hipbones in his hands to bring him fully awake.
Eames tried to catch Arthur’s eye, but Arthur’s attention was fully on Cobb, and it was hard to focus on anything else, after that reminder. Hard not to be happy for the poor sod, who must have had both hands on his totem the whole way home.
He made time by the baggage carrousel, and when Arthur walked past he brushed a hand against the small of his back. Arthur nodded but didn’t turn, and a few minutes later they were in a taxi, headed for the Mondrian.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said, eyes fixed firmly on the motorway.
Eames looked out the other window, not entirely sure what Arthur was apologising for—Fischer? The heavy silence stretching between them?—and said,
“I wouldn’t worry,” when what he should have said, perhaps, was Me too.
They needed a Saito of their own: some force to sweep into their lives and extend an alternative, offering a way to achieve the impossible. They needed something to give way: between them or within them, Eames could not say, but neither of them had the skill to pry it loose.
He thought of how diligently he had clung, in the last few weeks, to some idea of who he might be, what he might do, of how he might relate to Arthur, of what he might want, and, for the first time in a life of forgery, he felt like a fraud. Arthur’s own caution, his reticence, had made Eames feel like a gymnast, endlessly flexible and adaptable. In actuality the two of them had been equally set in their ways, and Arthur had just happened to know it better.
Upon realising this, Eames had tried to buck his limitations one more time: to present the right image to Cobb (Who had said, “He’s good at what he does” as if he were arbitrating between squabbling children) and to the rest of the team (to find only Ariadne’s curious, “How long have you and Arthur…?” and the sharp edges of Yusuf’s smile, and Saito’s clipped, “Let me be clear that one free attempt at infiltration into my business is all you get, Mr. Eames.”).
Had he not told himself, a thousand times, that one could not be what one was not?
They didn’t make it to the bed. They grasped at each other against the door, and they slid their clothes off with their skin already against the carpet, and Eames’ knee cracked hard into a bedpost. He barely noticed, too busy sucking kisses into Arthur’s neck. Afterward they lay on the floor, kissing and kissing; then the touch of Arthur’s long fingers alone had been enough for Eames to want everything again.
They fucked desperately, like their lives depended on it. And who knew? When this was the only space in which they seemed to surrender to each other, and when they both so desperately needed to yield, perhaps their lives did.
It took precisely three days for Saito to call with a new job.
They were sitting amidst the wreckage of the bed, with the sheets tangled around Arthur’s feet. Eames was picking meticulously through what was left of the last room service order, holding pieces of fruit up for Arthur’s inspection.
“I find myself in need of your services once again, gentlemen,” Saito said when Eames answered the phone. There was no preamble, and he used the plural of gentlemen decisively, as if to discourage either of them from trying to weasel away from it.
He explained what he wanted: extraction, a little intimidation, nothing serious. He made it all sound as if it were the only reasonable course of action. Mr. Cobb would not be joining them, but he had absolute faith in the rest of the team. They would assemble in Belize City on Friday.
The entire conversation took no longer than two minutes, and Eames put the phone back on the cradle gingerly, somewhat taken aback.
“If Saito ruled the world, I would be very intimidated,” said Arthur, scratching absent-mindedly at the dip of his left hip.
“I am somewhat inclined to believe that he already rules the world, and is constantly amused to find that we do not know it,” said Eames.
Arthur had to make it home before flying to Belize; Eames could do with picking up a few things that he kept at a friend’s house in Napa.
They showered. They struggled with the gears and levers of the shower stall for the thirteenth time, and if they didn’t laugh at each other, it was only because neither of them had yet acquired the level of proficiency that would justify mockery of the other.
They started to dress, but changed their minds halfway through. Eames ran his hands up Arthur’s ribcage with an odd sort of gentleness, and Arthur breathed quietly into Eames’ ear, as if not to drown out the sound of skin sliding on skin.
The sun was blazing through the window, and through the small gap between the balcony doors, Los Angeles was blaring.
Eames ran his thumbs over Arthur’s collarbones as Arthur buttoned his waistcoat, and before Arthur stepped back to reach for his cufflinks, he drew Eames in for a soft, lingering kiss.
There was a strange fragility to the moment, a tangible sense of how easily it would shatter. And then it did, when Arthur said,
“I guess I better go,” because there was no logical reason not to.
Eames put a hand to his chest, said,
“Darling, whatever shall I do without you?” But the joke of the sentimentality was on him.
As soon as Arthur was gone, Eames picked up the phone and called his mother, who was the most sensible person he knew, and then his cousin Frederick, who was the most boring.
As soon as Arthur rounded the corner outside the hotel, he dug his phone out of his pocket.
“Ariadne,” he said. “About this job.”
“I want this man to wake from one dream into another, aware that he has been sleeping,” Saito began.
“Mr. Charles?” asked Ariadne, her voice sounding a mixture of sceptical and eager.
“No,” said Saito. “Something more akin to what I saw Mr. Cobb and Arthur do once, in a dream.”
“You want to intimidate him,” Arthur said.
“Yes,” said Saito. “But I want this intimidation to come as a very unpleasant surprise. I wish for this man to slowly wake from a dream, the most pleasant dream he has ever had. I want for him to realise he is dreaming, to know this as he is waking because the perfection he will experience in the dream cannot exist in this world. And when he is waking from this softer-edged reality, relaxed and off his guard, still clinging to the last of the wonder, that is when I wish for us to strike. A dream within a dream.”
Eames did not think that a lack of respect for Saito was something that any of them had ever suffered from. But as he watched Saito steeple his fingers, turn to Ariadne and Yusuf with a smile, and ask, “Can it be done?” he rapidly revised his reassessment of precisely how dangerous Saito could be, if one were facing off with him rather than standing at his back.
“Yeah, it can be done,” Ariadne said. “You want us to build a world so fantastic that a man won’t believe he’s in it. It can definitely be done.”
Her scepticism had entirely faded, leaving only excitement.
“I could customise the compound,” said Yusuf, “to leave a feeling of slight weightlessness, to slow the firing of the synapses infinitesimally, to give the impression of a minor sense of blurriness at the edge of the senses, within the dream.”
“Good,” said Saito. “Good.”
He turned to Arthur.
“I wish to recreate this man’s bedroom entirely in the second dream. To have the sort of accuracy that would mean he would not be able to tell it apart from the waking reality. For any reason.”
“Mr. Eames, I wish for you to be available to assist Mr. Yoon, if necessary, in the realisation that the second-level dream is, in fact, a dream, though I hope that your participation will not be needed. Ariadne, I think it would be helpful for you to also be present. I will wait for Mr. Yoon on the first level, and I had thought Arthur could accompany me. As my … henchman.”
He shaped his mouth around the word with self-deprecating pleasure, and Eames fought a grin.
“Yusuf,” Saito finished magnanimously, “you may participate if you wish.”
“A dream so good you literally cannot believe you are awake? Yes, Mr. Saito. I would like to participate.”
“It is settled then,” said Saito. “Please, make yourselves at home.”
Saito had brought them to a large house near the barrier reefs, not far from where the mark’s own house was nestled in the mangrove forests. The idea was to make the setting of the deeper dream similar to the landscapes that surrounded the house, so that Yoon could be “surprised by his own delight”, as Saito had put it, as the familiar landscapes became more dream-like.
As the week progressed, Ariadne and Yusuf seemed to become increasingly enamoured of Saito’s whimsy, but Eames did not think he was imagining the way Arthur had begun to give the man a wider berth, not unlike Eames’ own carefully calculated distance. As brilliant as Saito was—and there was no denying that he was; Eames felt delighted to have come into his acquaintance—it did not do to stray too close to a dangerous predator.
Arthur (or Saito via Arthur, perhaps) provided him with files and video of Yoon’s companions: past and present, legitimate and not. There was extensive information on Yoon’s wife, who had passed years before and whom Yoon had loved deeply by all accounts, but Eames rather thought even Saito hoped they would not have to resort to that level of cruelty in order to reveal to Yoon that he was dreaming.
Since Eames’ job would primarily consist of being on standby for looking alluring, he spent some time perfecting his reflections with Yusuf’s help, some time harassing Arthur and Ariadne and looking over the general dream schematics, and the rest lounging in the lawn that looked out onto the mangrove canals.
The place was already dream-like: riotous with flowers and with every shade of green you could imagine, and some you could not. Brightly coloured birds called to each other from the trees that grew further away from the lagoon, and Eames perched outside for long hours, a hat drawn over the top half of his face.
Arthur and Ariadne worked incessantly, and Eames made as much trouble for them as possible. There was something about this place—about the sticky heat of the air, and the brightly patterned tiles that seemed to cover every surface of the house—that made it easy to approach Arthur in the same carefree way that he once had, many dreams ago. He could crowd Arthur over his blueprints and plans here, and Arthur would only turn laughing eyes on him over a shoulder, or drive an elbow into his ribs if he got too close. His skin was tanning in the bright sunlight, and when he smiled his eyes crinkled visibly at the corners.
During the days the air was hot and stagnant, but in the evenings a sea breeze would flutter through the curtains, and Eames would watch Arthur reading Austen and Pound by lamplight, and Arthur would look back at him as if he knew a secret, as if their history and intimacy were a bridge, and not a gulf, between them. Sometimes Eames would be unable to help himself, and he would beckon Arthur from the chair and kiss him until his lips were swollen and red.
The day of the job Eames was first into Yoon’s house. Saito’s security had dealt with most of the staff, but it was Eames who had to charm the housekeeper into conversation while the others crept in the back door. By the time he made it upstairs everything was ready, and Eames’ only job was to allow Arthur to slide the needle under his skin, once and then again.
He was prepared for the feel of the yacht’s smooth wooden deck beneath his bare feet, but not for the quality of the light: a crimson and Persian pink sunset behind them, which turned the water violet and the trees golden.
“Nice work on the light,” he said to Ariadne, who was leaning back on the railings of the large boat. Her arms were pale and half-covered by the enormous brim of her hat, and the wind fluttered her hair against the red curve of her lips.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, waving at Yusuf, who was sprawled on a chair with a drink in his hand, watching Yoon discreetly.
What made the illusion so brilliant was that it was very hard to pinpoint what was dreamlike about it, and yet everything was. Light crept gently from corners where shadow should have fallen, and every sound had a crystalline quality to it. The boat bobbed too slowly for the movement to be natural, and the susurration from the mangroves was literal: someone was whispering in a soothing, steady voice. It was impossible to discern the words, but the dreamer instantly knew that the verses were familiar.
Yoon took it all in with a surprised, wondering expression, and when he turned to where Eames and Ariadne were standing, he saw Ariadne talking to a slight woman who looked just like Yoon’s best friend from childhood might have looked in adulthood, if she had not moved away from Seoul. If they had kept in touch.
Eames lifted a hand to point something out to Ariadne, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a tall boy running past, accompanied by three other children and a yapping dog.
“Hurry up, Anne,” called a girl with short hair, but as Eames did a double-take to look again, the children disappeared around the corner of the deck, into a space where there should only have been water.
The projections around them had begun to walk around dazedly, as if slightly intoxicated. Eames did not think it could be much longer, but as soon as he thought this, he turned to Ariadne, suddenly unsure, and asked,
“How long have we been here?”
“A few hours, I should have thought,” she said. “The compound, the dream—they’re designed to make time feel dream-like, too.”
A few more minutes (Eames thought it was minutes, at least) passed, and he said,
“How will you push him over? Did you and Arthur decide?”
The original plan had been to have a city rise by the banks of a river, a place too fantastical to believe.
“Ah,” Ariadne said. “You will see in just… a minute.”
As she said it, the mangrove-lined canal broadened in front of them, turned to a much wider waterway. The light shifted and became the muted glow of twilight. The canal beneath them turned indigo; up ahead, Eames could see brighter lights suspended above the water.
“Is that…?” he asked, and Ariadne turned to him, smiling,
They were bridges in the sense that they spanned from one side of the water to another—though both the light and the structures bent at a distance; it was impossible to tell how wide the riverbed was—but that was the only resemblance they bore to the dozens of structures Eames had crossed in a lifetime of consciousness.
As he watched, one section of the bridge in front of them swung down towards the yacht like a pendulum, avoiding it by a hairsbreadth. As it swung upwards the entire arch of the bridge swung open, not only towards the banks of the river but also perpendicularly, like a gigantic, metallic group of petals.
The yacht kept moving forward, navigating by the time of the steady tick tick tick of whatever mechanism made the bridge function.
Yoon watched, wide-eyed, as they approached the next crossing: a series of interlocked rectangles, shifting away from each other at different angles. The light shone against each of them in a different colour, so that it was hard to see what metal they were made from. Some even looked like stone: black speckled granite that had the translucence of onyx.
They themselves like hour marks on the face of a clock, leaving a gap in the centre, and an instant before the yacht collided with the bottom half of the latticework, it sank into the river, allowing them to pass through the gap in the middle.
“Last one,” said Ariadne, and Eames could hear the gears whirring, though it had not yet come into view.
The bridges were perfect in both form and function: the sort of thing that would have required meticulous attention to detail but immense imagination, and could not have functioned if either were lacking. They worked with the precision of finely tuned engines—no, of clock mechanisms—and Eames laughed to himself, because it took tremendous skill to be so creative and ingenious and yet so horrendously literal at the same time.
They came around a bend in the river that had not been there an instant before and came flush with a large cog churning the water like a mill, slotting into another, larger wheel that came out of the water as they watched. It was difficult to tell if its surface was mirrored or transparent. It reflected the last of the violet-grey light behind them, but as Eames watched, the light ahead shifted, and began to suggest a pale, soft-hued dawn.
It looked precisely like the sort of thing that couldn’t be, and yet was.
Yoon gasped in delight. Eames watched carefully as the mechanism kept turning, churning the water into an arch overhead. The boat came under the gentle curve of it just as the wheels sank away into the mangroves and the water, their mechanical ticking fading into a series of soft sounds that might have been laughter, or a bullfrog, or a bird.
Eames could feel the pull of wakefulness, and the colour was fading from the edges of the riverbanks even as he watched.
“Very nicely done,” he said to Ariadne, just before they both went under and out, hoping she would say—
“The bridges?” She smiled. “Oh. Thank you, but they were Arthur’s.”
Arthur let Saito take his time with Yoon, “roughing him up” (Saito’s gleeful phrasing), looming menacingly over him with the look of a 1940s movie mobster dressed in very fine clothes.
Arthur wasn’t sure what was up with this guy—something personal between him and Saito, that much was clear—but the recent revelations of Saito’s abilities to serve revenge cold had him leaving Saito to it, watching as Yoon cowered and quickly yielded the name of a series of future acquisitions.
They left Yoon sleeping in his bed. They had plenty of time left in the window that Saito’s security had given them to work in, so they picked up their equipment and drove back to Saito’s house slowly in two open-topped jeeps.
Arthur didn’t look at Eames. One didn’t kick the weight of a lifetime of sensible and rational action off with any degree of comfort, and this felt something like letting a toddler take a crayon to every flawless timeline he had ever worked to put together. The knowledge that he was the toddler in this scenario only made everything worse.
There was a hot, pleased flush in Arthur’s chest, however, that he would not have given up for all the linearity in the world.
When they arrived at the house and emerged from the jeeps he caught a quick glimpse of Eames’ half-smile, of the sunlight shifting in his eyes, but then Eames was disappearing through the front door. By the time Arthur followed, Eames was nowhere to be found.
There was a note, though:
I am told that the average individual, after some length of time, appreciates this kind of gesture more than a second trip to Myanmar.
My cousin the accountant claims all adults want stability; my mother posits that explicitly making space in one’s life is what matters.
In your case, I thought it best to listen to Frederick—and here, a hastily scrawled addition in blue pen, inserted by a circumflex above the second e in Frederick—(THOUGH PERHAPS NOT AFTER ALL)—and then the last of the carefully penned note—but it was a relief to discover my mother agreed; she and I are more of a kind.
I am at the London flat.
At the bottom of the envelope, there was a key.
The apartment looked as if someone had tidied it. The coffee table was clear except for a book and some letters. The tableau might have been more convincing, Arthur thought, if the postmark on the top letter hadn’t been months old.
There was a shuffling from the direction of the bedroom, and Arthur looked up as Eames emerged. His hair was tousled, and if Arthur had not known better he might have said Eames looked sheepish, unsure.
“Hello, darling,” Arthur said quietly. The words felt funny in his mouth.
“Hello,” said Eames, making a visible effort to bite off the rest of whatever it was he wanted to say.
The both sounded like idiots.
Arthur took off his coat, already distracted by the sight of the dip between Eames’ collarbones and by the faint mark of a pillow crease on his cheek.
Eames smiled, mocking but fond, as he watched Arthur carefully place his coat over the back of a chair.
Arthur carefully unclipped his pocket watch, and smiled back.
Ho-hum. So, yes. Would not have been possible without time, or without dreaming a little bigger, darling, or without comment-reply boxes.
Can tentatively declare myself returned; expect In Possession of a Fortune updates soon.
And thank you all for being awesome.