Title: too much like the world we're stuck in
Pairing/Rating: Arthur/Eames, soft R
Word Count: 4,375 (jfc. Fic, you were not supposed to be this long.)
Date Completed: 27 July 2010
Disclaimer: These people? Aren't mine.
Author's Notes: Title taken from Lawrence Raab's "Isn't It About Time." Written for staraflur, who held my hand this afternoon while I quibbled over characterization, and for _pinkchocolate, who jokingly mentioned wanting a story like this at the same time as I had half-started notes for one, which made me think writing this might actually be Not Too Terrible a Thing. Hope this meets your expectations, love! Also, this is my first time writing serious, in-depth fic for these characters; concrit is definitely welcomed and appreciated, but do try to be a little gentle, yeah?
Summary: The first thing Eames does when he wakes up on the shore of Limbo is squint a bit at the crumbling city skyline. [Or, the one where Arthur and Eames go to Limbo and Grow as People.]
The first thing Eames does when he wakes up on the shore of Limbo is squint a bit at the crumbling city skyline and say, “Not quite what I expected, this place.”
The first thing Arthur does is punch Eames in the mouth.
“You son of a bitch,” he says, while Eames cusses under his breath and brings a hand up to feel at his now-throbbing lip. “You stupid, idiotic son of a bitch.”
“That’s redundant,” Eames calls as Arthur walks away. Arthur says nothing, just leaves Eames standing ankle-deep in cold ocean water and looking at the hard lines of his increasingly-distant back. Eames presses his fingers to his lips again, feels them sting with sand and salt in open sores, and swears some more. “Well, shit.”
It’s not, technically, Eames’ fault.
He wasn’t the one who suggested a job requiring the heavy sedation needed to support three levels. He may not have opposed it, but none of them did, not when they were offered so much for this assignment. They’d done it before, and Arthur had triple-checked his research and found no evidence of subconscious training in the mark’s history, and they figured they were safe. And they were.
For the first two levels.
With level three, though – Eames still doesn’t remember what happened, exactly, even after all this time Down Here with nothing to do but break things down and build them up again, on every level. He just knows something got seriously mucked up, probably because Ariadne decided to base the third level’s maze on the fucking ’70s (for which Eames is blaming her newest hippie-wannabe professor and Arthur and all of disco for ever existing, mostly on principle). Which he’s guessing is how he and Arthur wound up in a pea-green Ford Pinto separate from Cobb and Ariadne’s sky-blue Beetle, bickering over directions and not noticing the pick-up speeding towards their rear end until it collided in a probably-terrific spectacle of shattering glass and accordion-folded metal and the instant, oily heat of their exploding gas tank, and, well. That was that.
There’s a reason Eames never drives American.
The first day, he lets Arthur be. Eames knows he’ll have to track him down at some point, but for now, trying to get near Arthur will only earn him another punch to the mouth, or possibly the nose or eyes, and Eames doesn’t particularly fancy any of those options becoming part of his immediate future. So he waits.
He spends his afternoon walking along the beach. He already knows it will, but he wants to see if it really does go on forever. He gets to the very edge of the city by the time the sun sets. The sand to his left is pockmarked with bits of brick and steel, scattered like dandelion seeds after someone blows too hard. He wonders if it was Cobb or Mal who blew that building apart, and why, and what they wished for when they did.
Ahead of him, the coast stretches, a gray haze of sand and water and raw neutrality. He considers walking farther to see if there are other cities built by other people, if they are just as ruined as this one, but he has never been one to abandon a resource before he’s completely exhausted it.
He spends the night at that point on the beach, surrounded by concrete chunks and rusted metal and sand, and wonders if Arthur in the city proper can see the same stars he does.
In the end, it’s Arthur who finds him, three days after Eames leaves the beach and ventures in.
“Missed me, have you?” Eames smirks as Arthur crosses the cracked street to reach him.
Arthur glares. “I don’t want to talk to you,” he says. “I don’t really want much to do with you right now at all, but if we’re going to get out of here with our minds intact –”
“Strength in numbers, I get it,” Eames finishes for him. Arthur glares again.
“Don’t do that,” he says.
“What? Interrupt you? Sorry, that was admittedly rude of me.”
“Don’t act like you know what I was going to say,” Arthur corrects.
Don’t act like you know me, Arthur means.
Arthur’s hair is mussed, dried messy and sticking straight up in some spots from the salt water and wind. His jaw is clenched like he is resisting saying something else, his hands like he is resisting doing something else, both somethings very desperate to come out. His suit is the pinstriped-black number he was wearing the day they washed up here, plus a small hole on the knee. Not reshaping the reality of it away must be driving him insane.
Too late, Eames thinks, and follows Arthur into whichever of the stone-and-steel skyscrapers he’s chosen for them.
The first thing Eames creates for himself is a new suit. The shirt is green striped, the jacket tan tweed, the trousers chocolate brown. Arthur rolls his eyes when he sees.
The next day, he makes the shirt blue paisley, the jacket a black blazer, the trousers denim jeans. He does a red shirt, a yellow, an orange polka-dotted, a truly garish tropical floral print that he even hates himself but struts around wearing for the inevitable grimace that will cross Arthur’s face. Arthur doesn’t disappoint.
“Shut up, you love it,” Eames tells him. “It’s a sight better than your clothes, anyway. Falling apart at the seams, they are.”
It’s true. Days of climbing through concrete mazes and over scattered stones like roadblocks have left Arthur’s suit frayed at the edges. The hole on his knee is larger now, and matched by one on his other leg, and the constant sun has started fading the black fabric to dark, unpolished gray. Eames sometimes catches Arthur running the fingers of one hand over the fabric, a look on his face like he is fighting the temptation of this place and his own compulsive cleanliness not to fix it. In his other hand, Eames knows he’s holding his die like a lifeline, something to fight for.
Eames thinks they both know it’s a losing battle.
The first thing Eames creates for Limbo is a library.
He may be indisputably the best forger in the world, here or elsewhere, but his talent for manipulating dreamspace has typically been restricted to just that: changing himself. He has never quite mastered the construction of whole spaces, not like Arthur and Ariadne have, so when he decides to try his hand at it here, where everything is held together by shaped potential, he starts small.
The building itself is unimpressive, only four stories tall and out of place in the architecturally modern ruins with its neoclassical style. But the way it forms on command, stone rising from the ground and falling from all directions of the sky and air shimmering and solidifying into clean glass panels, into rows of bright pine stacks filled with books visible through those panels, is nothing short of amazing. One second, there is nothing but an empty city block; the next, there is shifting debris, melting and reforming as Eames stares at it and projects; and the next, there is a building he suspects would still be hot to the touch from the process of creation.
“You know, darling,” he says in the general direction of Arthur behind him, “I think I finally understand why you get off on this architecture business.”
He turns, smiling, to see Arthur, who is not. The line of Arthur’s posture is stiff, shoulders held straighter and tighter than Eames has ever seen and his silhouette cutting out more against the buildings behind him than those same buildings against the open sky.
“You’re playing a dangerous game, Eames,” Arthur says, his voice as tight as his stance. “Keep going like this and you’ll lose yourself.”
The smile slips off Eames’ face. He forces it back on, but even he can tell there’s something colder about it now, harsher and biting. “I think I can trust myself to keep a handle on who I am, thanks. But I’ll be sure to take your advice into consideration.”
Eames walks away from the library, intending to head for the sea. Arthur’s hand shoots out and grabs his arm as he walks past.
“Eames,” Arthur starts, “we can’t stay here.” Eames reaches up and undoes Arthur’s grip, one finger at a time.
“Whether you like it or not, pet, we are staying here,” he says, something inside his chest thrumming at the way Arthur’s eyes widen. “At least for the foreseeable future, for however long it takes that sedative to wear out up above. Might as well make the best of it, mm?”
That night, he shapes the sand on the beach into a small house, all gleaming wood and simple lines and glass ceilings to let the moonlight in. He lies on his back in the featherbed he’s placed in the center of the bedroom and turns his poker chip over and over in his fingers, rubbing at the embossed letters and the slight dip of weight on one side. When he flips it into the air, it comes down bottoms-up, like he expected. He rubs it again as he stares at the stars, knowing that Arthur is somewhere right now tossing his die to a similar end and looking at the same sky, because Arthur is still too afraid to let himself project.
It takes them a week to find each other again. When they do, the first thing Eames notices is that Arthur looks the closest to apologetic Eames thinks he’ll ever see him. Eames feels the same way, even if he doesn’t show it, so he figures they’re starting this off equal.
“You’ve changed,” Eames says, and that’s the second thing he notices.
“Yes,” Arthur says, looking down at his suit, which is now navy-almost-black. It’s a full minute before he looks back up, face carefully blank. “Much as it pains me to admit it, you have a point. As long as we keep ourselves aware of where we actually are, there’s no reason we can’t experiment.”
Eames raises an eyebrow. “Experiment, love? I didn’t know you felt that way.”
Arthur flushes, glares. “You know what I meant, Eames.”
“Yeah,” Eames says, smiling again, “I do.”
That day, they build a whole city square, apartment high-rises and an art museum and what would be a bustling market, if they could also create people besides themselves to fill this place. Arthur calls up towering structures of glass and chrome, and Eames paves the roads and walkways with smooth cobblestones, and the entire area shines.
That night, Eames says, “So you’ve an imagination hidden in there somewhere, apparently. Good to know.”
“Fuck off,” Arthur says, but he’s still smiling, the high of creation too much for him to stop.
Before bed, Arthur rolls his die and Eames tosses his chip and they fall asleep assured.
Eames kisses Arthur (or maybe Arthur kisses Eames, or maybe they both kiss each other and meet in the middle) three days past a year after they washed up here. Eames knows this specifically because Arthur has been keeping count, rolling his die every night and chalking another tally mark on the wall before he heads into his room to sleep.
They’re lying on their backs on one of the many rooftops they’ve made. The sun is dipping past its zenith, falling through the mid-afternoon and into evening. It’s hot and bright enough that Eames is tempted to push it along faster, but Arthur tends to get pissy when he does things like that, so he doesn’t.
“You know it’s been a year now,” Eames says.
“I didn’t know you’d been keeping track,” Arthur says.
“I haven’t,” Eames says, “you have.”
Arthur nods once, slow. “We’d have had a party for that, up there.”
Eames snorts. “You really think Cobb is the type to throw a New Year’s Eve bash? Or you?”
“No,” Arthur says, “but Ariadne is. Saito probably would be. You are.”
“I am,” Eames agrees. “Love New Year’s. You get to drink yourself silly and lie to yourself and everyone you know, and it’s expected. Like weddings, only better, because you aren’t obligated to shell out for gifts.”
“Please,” Arthur says, “like you ever really pay for the gifts you give.”
Eames laughs; this is true.
After a pause, Arthur says, “I’m sorry you missed it.”
“Yeah, well,” Eames says, “it’s not too late to celebrate our own New Year’s down here. Three days belated, but still, close enough.”
“What, like champagne? Because I don’t know if we can do that,” Arthur says.
“Sure we can,” Eames says, leaving the we can do anything hanging implied. “But if you’re really going to ruin my fun, we could just do the other part.”
“The lying to ourselves? That’s easy: this year, I will do the impossible and break out of Limbo early. Also, I will lose five pounds. Your turn.”
“Well done, you,” Eames laughs again. He turns his head to look at Arthur’s profile, the half of a grin he can see stretching over Arthur’s face and lit up even more by the angle of the sun. His breath catches and he thinks, oh, and maybe it’s the power trip of this place, but he feels brave enough to say, before he can properly think it through, “That wasn’t really what I had in mind, though.”
“Oh?” Arthur rolls onto his side to face Eames, props himself up with a hand under his chin. He looks almost ridiculously relaxed, young and loose in a way Eames had never seen him before they got stuck here with a lifetime ahead of them and no responsibilities beyond their own sanity. Eames swallows, licks his lips, says,
“Yeah. I was thinking of the other New Year’s Eve tradition. The kissing one.”
Eames waits for the fuck off, Eames, but it never comes. Instead, Arthur just quirks an eyebrow. Eames quirks one back. Arthur looks at him for a few seconds, then blinks decisively and rolls onto his knees, crosses the few inches between them until he’s straddling Eames’ hips. Eames feels himself harden, feels his breath catch again in disbelief as Arthur leans in closer.
“You know,” he says, “this time last year, the idea of this would have appalled me. I mean, it’s you,” and oh, Eames should not be getting harder at the condescension dripping from Arthur’s voice. Arthur smirks and continues, “But hey, there’s no one else here.”
“Just me,” Eames says, trying to smile cheekily and probably failing because Arthur is close enough now that Eames can feel his breath against his own lips.
“Just you,” Arthur says, the second word spoken in an entirely different tone than before that Eames wants to analyze, only then Arthur leans in fully and presses their mouths together in a slow, lazy kiss that feels more fit for summertime than would-be winter.
After he pulls away, Eames just blinks up at him, at the sun outlining his shape in gold and shadow, at the way one kiss has already made his mouth look deliciously red. Arthur smirks again and says, “Happy New Year, Mr. Eames,” and then Eames gets a hand around the back of his neck and pulls him down to kiss him silent.
This is how they pass the time:
(Every night, Arthur’s die rolls like the sound)
Together, they build the city back. It’s different, an eclectic collection of styles and functions: weapons dealers mixed with museums mixed with factories mixed with cathedrals to gods they’ve never quite believed in, even Before. The streets are all spider-webbing cobblestones instead of spider-web cracks in bleached-pale asphalt, and the buildings are glass and metal and marble that gleam blindingly when the sun hits them just right. Arthur installs doorbells that ring with Shepard’s tones, haunting and futile, and Eames places mirrors everywhere and makes a game of how many different people he can project himself as before he reaches the end of the street. They replace the ruins with new structures, tear down the odd strip of houses floating like islands in the middle of the downtown district and put in fountains that shoot up water in misting, glittering arcs.
(of seconds ticking away, and Eames’ chip flips like the sound of)
Together, they fuck. Some days for a matter of minutes, exactly how long it takes Arthur to push Eames down and ride him, kisses bruising and grip of his fingers tight on Eames’ shoulder and the slam of thrusts almost enough to push them both down a few steps in those Penrose stairs he likes so much. And other days for hours, for the entire day, long enough for Eames to lick Arthur open completely, slide of kisses and shift of fingers on his skin and slow, heavy thrusts deep inside until Arthur is the definition of pliant, so perfectly moldable in those moments. It’s one of those things Eames isn’t sure they’d have ever had Before, because he’s finding that the more they build together, or fuck, or eat or drink or sleep or do anything together – the closer they build themselves together Here, the further they get from who they Were.
(nothing, of something that isn’t used anymore.)
He wonders how long he has until Arthur works that out.
“Why three?” Eames asks one afternoon. Arthur is curled next to him on the rooftop, head on Eames’ lap as they look out over their city. His die is hidden in his pocket, for once not being turned over and over in his fingers. Before, Eames wouldn’t have mentioned it, or Arthur would have pretended not to acknowledge his question, but they are too close now for any secrets.
Arthur shrugs, shoulders nudging against Eames’ thigh. “Don’t remember,” he says. “Seemed important at the time. Why a poker chip?”
Eames’ fingers still where they’re combing through Arthur’s hair. He can feel the weight of the chip in his pocket, but he no longer has the urge to pull it out and flip it through the air, just to see how it lands.
“Seemed important at the time,” he echoes. He knows how Arthur is rolling his eyes without looking, same as he knows how the chip would fall without checking. So few things are left to the imagination now.
One day, after they have been here long enough for Eames to have gone through a shirt in every shade of every color twelve times, after they have rebuilt enough of the city for it to be completely theirs, Arthur leaves. He stands in the middle of the strip of fountains at sunset, when the light catches the water arcs and turns them gold and burnt orange and deep, blood red.
“I can’t stay here,” he says. His fingers spin his die over and over, round and round. Eames wonders if the spots have worn off by now from how often Arthur’s done that. “There’s something I have to do, something I think I have to remember, and I can’t do that here.”
“There’s nothing else out there, though,” Eames points out. “There’s just you, and me, and the city, and the beach, just like always.”
“Then I’ll make something else,” Arthur says. “I’ll use that imagination you keep congratulating me on finally finding. I’ve been wanting a forest for months. I’ll make one of those.”
“You hate nature,” Eames says, “and you’ll get lost in there. People always do, in forests.”
Arthur only shrugs, nods his head shortly. The silver that’s just recently started streaking through his hair shines in the light of sunset, and Eames is struck suddenly by the fact that Arthur has aged, even if he can’t remember how old Arthur is now. He wonders how he missed this, Arthur growing older and starting the slow process of fading away.
“Well,” Eames says, “try not to lose yourself, darling.”
When Arthur smiles, small and sad, it’s something Eames can’t remember ever having seen on his face, at least not well enough to know fully what it says (which is saying something, because he knows everything Arthur’s expressions say by now, or thought he did).
“I’d tell you the same,” Arthur says, “but I think it’s a bit late for that.”
In the morning, Arthur leaves, and it is just Eames and the beach and the city they built, and something feels wrong about it. Two days later, a forest springs up dark and thick and foreign, and then it is Eames and the beach and the city they built and the forest Arthur built and Arthur hidden somewhere inside it, and that is even worse.
While Arthur is away, Eames sleeps in the rooms of his past. He spends a week in his childhood home, another in the university student-housing flat he kept for all four years of getting his degree, still three more in the townhouse in Notting Hill he went back to between jobs. They are all decorated with his furniture, his art, his paint colors.
They are all too empty.
Eventually, he leaves the city for the beach. The small house he built so many years ago is now dusty with disuse. Arthur never liked the beach, and Eames was fine either way, so the house was abandoned for the city. He spends a day cleaning it, repairing where the wood has warped and faded from the salt and sand. It still feels empty, but this is a place Arthur never came, so it feels less so for that.
He falls asleep in a bed that feels too soft, that he knows is too empty. Like always, he doesn’t dream.
They are both old men by the time Arthur comes back. He walks towards the house on the beach at a slow pace, moving like he has all the time in the world, and like he has aged so much that he is finally starting to run out of time. His hair is entirely gray by now, but so is Eames’, so Eames can’t exactly tease him about that.
“Missed me, have you, darling?” Eames asks when Arthur stops in front of the porch. It feels like something he’s said before, long ago and gone fuzzy with time.
Arthur’s smile is the same as the last time Eames saw him, small and sad. It brings out small wrinkles around the corners of his mouth. “Surprisingly, yes,” he says. “Insufferable as you can be most of the time, I have.”
Eames smirks like he hasn’t since Arthur left. “Why’d it take you so long to come back, then?”
“I told you,” Arthur says, voice softly defensive at the implicit accusation Eames isn’t sure he originally intended to convey. “I had something to find.”
“And did you?”
Arthur nods. “Yes,” he says, “I think so.” He holds up something circular in his right hand, poised between his thumb and forefinger. “Catch.”
The thing flicks through the air, and Eames catches it with little difficulty. It sits in his closed fist with a weight that feels familiar, and when he opens his hand to look at it, the colors and embossed text, faded as they are, feel familiar, too. He traces his fingers over the letters in the center and remembers the last time he did this, so many years ago now, just before he threw it off of the tallest building Arthur ever made and shaped up a wind to carry it out, not necessarily wanting to forget it but just needing it away.
When he looks up, Arthur is watching him. He still has that small smile curling on his lips, and his eyes look just as sad, and really, he looks tired. Eames knows the feeling.
“Where did you find this?” Eames asks.
Arthur shakes his head and doesn’t answer, says instead, “Do you remember what that is, Eames?”
He doesn’t, not entirely, but some part of him knows this chip. It feels too familiar not to be something he kept close for many years, important for reasons that are hazy in the far edges of his mind.
“Yes,” Eames says. “You searched in the forest all those years for this thing?”
Arthur’s smile widens a bit, becomes the tiniest amount happy. “Seemed important at the time.”
Later, they fall asleep curled together again, just like they used to before Arthur left. Eames’ chip is heavy in his hand and Arthur is heavy where he rests his head on Eames’ chest, loops his arm across Eames’ abdomen and tangles their legs together like he is afraid Eames will leave if Arthur doesn’t keep him there, or possibly get left behind.
That night, Eames dreams. He is sitting in a chair in a warehouse, his body young again and full of the curious sensation of resting still too long, of having more energy to burn than he knows what to do with. A young girl smiles at him too widely to be anything but an attempt to hide her worry.
“Welcome back,” she says. Her smile slips a bit when Eames only blinks at her.
To his left, Arthur is sitting up in the same sort of chair, stretching his back like he always does when he first wakes. “Hey,” he says, to the girl and then to Eames. His grin is the happiest Eames has ever seen it, a wide arc of teeth that seems to split his face in two, it’s so big.
The air smells like motor oil and musty water instead of salt, and there is no sand between Eames’ toes, and he can’t hear the waves washing the coast clean, and Arthur is young, so young, and part of Eames’ mind thinks, This is wrong, at the same time as another part thinks, This is right. He reaches into his trouser pocket for the chip he can feel resting there, pulls it out and flicks it up into the air reflexively.
For the first time since he can remember, he is unsure which side to expect (which side he wants) it to land on.