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[personal profile] ladderax
Title: Erasure
Summary: No one really talks about it much, but forgers tend to burn out young. When Eames loses his skill, he has to examine his past, re-evaluate his identity, and figure out what to do with the rest of his life. (The fact that he's slowly falling for a former coworker complicates matters somewhat.)
Notes: Originally written for ae-match.



Arthur is the last person he wants to see reflected behind him in the mirror right now.

Eames closes his eyes, trying to buy himself a reprieve. The shapes of the blinding neon lights don't follow him into his brief private darkness; afterimages don't form in dreams.

When he opens his eyes again nothing has changed. He didn't think it would. He sees the contours of the face he was born with. He hasn't even been able to change the color of his eyes or the thickness of his facial hair. Granted, forging tiny details onto one's default form is actually harder than moulding one's dream-body into an entirely new one. But the point is that he isn't able to do anything.

"I locked the door for a reason," he says, tersely, not looking back.

"You of all people should know that locking a door only makes people want to open it more." Arthur is standing next to him now, both of their faces whitewashed by the light.

A reflection not entirely possible according to the laws of physics is nested in Arthur's dark eyes; Eames sees what looks like bodies in motion, the memory of a race against hostile projections that ended minutes ago. Light can travel strangely in dreams, its waves and particles ever-deferred, defying time and obstacles. It is one of the many small beauties of the medium, one of the things that gives Eames infinite delight.

"Something's wrong, Eames." Arthur sounds genuinely nervous beneath his veneer of stern capability. "You've been in here ten minutes longer than you were supposed to. I never pegged you as one for performance anxiety."

"I'm not anxious," Eames says, bracing himself against the counter, unable to look at his stubborn reflection for another second. "But we're going to have to change tack here."

"And do what?" Arthur demands, frustrated. "We’re counting on you to forge the dead boy. Obviously we can try the safe trick, but this guy's defenses are thick. Murtchison doesn't think his subconscious is going to fall for the old 'here’s a vault, put your secrets in it' thing, because Heintz has been in such denial for so many years that he's convinced he doesn't have any secrets. You agreed. The ghost is our best chance."

Eames shakes his head, as if that's going to erase the sound of Arthur in his ears, circling around his failure. He's always been able to figure out alternate ways of solving problems. But they usually involved his ability to look like other people.

"Eames." Arthur's tone is brisk, but Eames detects concern. For him? For Murtchison's career? For Arthur's own hide? "You can't forge, can you."

As hard as Eames tries to put an accusatory or condescending spin on the statement, there really was none. Arthur was stating a fact.

"Is it just this particular forge you can't do?"

"No. And--it's been weeks now." Eames grits his teeth together, loathing the words he's about to say. "Arthur, I think you're going to have to either find another way of getting Heintz to open up about the kidnapping. Or you're going to have to find yourself another forger."

§


There were only a handful of people in the world capable of forging well enough to fool a subject without fail. Of that handful, Eames knew of three that had already burnt out, and none of those had ever gotten their abilities back.

Before his own burnout, he had spoken to one of them, a woman named Liao. She was unable to dream anymore, she said. Her own projections would attack her, because to them she looked like an alien body, someone impersonating her rather than the real thing. She admitted that it might have been because she herself felt like an impostor who had no right to be in a dream at all.

No one knew if forger burnout was psychological or neurological or something else entirely. Liao had tried counseling and antidepressants and transcendental meditation; she had experimented with different Somnacin compounds. She had hired someone to re-teach her the art as though she were an absolute beginner, sitting in front of a mirror and attempting the brisk telekinetic brushstrokes of texture and color over her own flesh and clothing, brushstrokes that the mind eventually melded into a convincing replica of another person's mien. But it was as if the paint had dried up on her palette, or she didn't have a palette at all.

As he remembered Liao, slumped in her chair, refusing to meet his eyes, twirling a leaky blue-ink pen in her long, dry-knuckled fingers, he thought, This is what I have to look forward to, isn't it. A constant itch I can't scratch. One reality, one body for the rest of my life.

§


"Glad you could get a pinch-hitter on such short notice," Eames says, eyeing his replacement, a stocky, casually-dressed twenty-something kid from South Africa, who's currently hooked up to the PASIV taking the ghost for a spin.

Eames isn't really glad at all. He'd been hoping they couldn't find a forger, and that he could finish the job as part of the extraction team. His projections hadn't started attacking him, yet. But Arthur had suggested that he was in no state to work, and that he go home--which for Eames at this point meant anywhere he could sleep and sulk undisturbed for long periods of time. And the worst part was that he knew Arthur was right.

"Yeah," Arthur shifts his weight slightly. His eyes dart to the side. He looks uncomfortable. "He's not nearly as good as you. As you were. I mean--I'm sorry." Eames can count on one hand the times he's seen Arthur this rattled. "From what I hear, he's kind of hit or miss."

"Well, maybe he'll make up for in stamina what he lacks in short, glorious bursts, eh?" Eames tries to laugh. "I feel like I should be quoting one of the Romantic poets here. Ah, here we go. 'O gentle child, beautiful as thou wert, why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men too soon? That's Shelley, by the way, in case your provincial education was sadly lacking in iambic pentameter."

Arthur cocks his head. "Who Mourns for Adonais, right?"

"Impressive, Arthur." Eames beams at him despite himself.

"You’re not actually dying, Eames. Just because you've lost your ability to forge--"

"Easy for you to say," Eames snaps. Arthur looks down at his black dress shoes, contrite. "What if you couldn't do your job anymore? Couldn't--shoot guns, or read, or--spy on people, or whatever the hell it is you actually do? Your job is everything to you, Arthur. It's who you are."

Arthur's eyes are stony and dark--he's good at looking somehow both wounded and invulnerable at the same time. "Maybe that's not how I'd planned it." He pauses, perhaps realizing the irony of what he's about to say. "Well, I have to get back to work."

Eames wants to say something, but he grips the strap of his duffel bag and turns to leave.

"Eames--" Arthur calls, but Eames doesn't much feel like looking back.

§


Eames lives in cities because he doesn't know how not to live in cities. It's easy to blend in; cops usually have their hands full, or are easy to pay off; you can get anything, from a silencer to a sandwich, at any time of day; and there's always noise, a sensation of activity. He had never tried a life where he was unable to lose himself in others.

When he was four, he asked his mother what a soul was.

"Well, Nicky my love," she'd said, poring over a book of carpet samples, "I think a soul is what makes a person who they are. The special things about them that make them unlike anyone else. The things that don't change."

Eames--who had not been Eames back then, in name or substance--had been haunted by this idea of the soul ever since.

He didn't think he could answer the questions "what are you like" or "what do you love." He found people he wanted to be, spoke like they spoke, loved what they loved. When he was five he decided that he didn't want to be called Nicholas anymore. One week he wanted to be Antony. The next week he wanted to be Matilda.

His parents had taken him to a man with an office that had leatherbound books to the ceiling and plastic blocks and ragdolls strewn over the tables. From eavesdropping on his parents, he’d learned the man had said that pretend play was normal for the boy's developmental stage, but that it was worth keeping an eye on it to see if it lasted too long or interfered with his life. From then on he kept his names to himself.

He avoided mirrors, because they drew him back to his solitary body, stubborn and unbendable as the barnacled iron hull of a defunct ship. They called him lovely--girls and boys both, tracing over his satiny pink lips, his flushed nail beds, the lines like chisel marks in his runner's thighs. Lovely was never the point.

He supposes he should be grateful he had ten years of being anyone he wanted to be. Even being people he didn't want to be was better than being alone with that pebble in his shoe called Nicholas. Something neither poisonous nor sharp--just a dull annoyance, but one that didn't belong.

§


When he gets to Denmark the first thing he does is hire one of his contacts to falsify a death certificate for Michael Eames and plant it in the General Register Office. The death of a man who was born out of nothing, he thinks, who was born aged 22 in 2000, a composite of dozens of people--some real, some fictional--whose habits and personalities he'd been comfortable swinging between for years. He takes the death harder than he even thought he would. Michael Eames had become something more than the sum of his parts; he was nearly a person.

Michael Eames, occupation unknown, died in Bloemfontein, South Africa of two gunshot wounds to the head, leaving behind no next of kin.

Now, the man who can't help thinking of himself as Eames is living, for once, not in a city, but in the Danish countryside. He is woken by the sound of tractors in the morning, and then he goes back to sleep, usually sleeping in until two or three in the afternoon. The first thing he often thinks of in the morning is Liao, restless, prematurely lined and shrunken, her every breath followed by a sigh.

He tries not to think of the people he knew from dreamsharing, ever, and it isn’t too hard. Eames has always been good at letting go of people he doesn’t need. And he needed those associates and rivals and information-carriers, not only because of what they could do for him, but because they reminded him that he was Eames. Most he hadn’t cared about at all, at any point. He’d considered Cobb and Yusuf and Murtchison friends, more or less; they’d engaged him in the kind of banter that’s expected to occur between slippery, quick-witted criminals, but he had no idea how they’d deal with him now, now that he paused before every sentence as if waiting desperately for someone to tell him what to say. Ariadne he might’ve liked to know better, but it was too late now.

And that left only Arthur. Who had never actually treated him like a dashing scoundrel or a half-tamed asset who had to be warily indulged.

It had been hard to figure out exactly how Arthur saw him. Eames had detected some curiosity mixed with his professional rigor and skepticism, and it seemed to be real curiosity, not the showy superficial kind that was just part of the script when interacting with slippery men. But as soon as Arthur let it show, he’d turn into Strictly Business Arthur again. More than he ever seemed to with anyone else.

It doesn’t feel so important to solve that mystery anymore. He encourages the idea of Arthur to skitter off into dust like a well-primped tumbleweed.

Eames sits up in his study until late at night, reading old paperbacks under amber light. He avoids anything about crime or spies or soldiers. He hacks a few savings accounts, transfers some funds. He wonders to what end. He goes to sleep at four in the morning, always aware of the breadth of his hips and the weight of his body as it unsettles the mattress. He drifts off into a sleep like a computer's screen saver, empty, a placeholder not worth noticing.

§


He is rifling through the collected poems of G.K. Chesterton when he hears a crack in the bushes. Instinctively he reaches for the pistol he keeps under a seat cushion; gripping it, he creeps toward the door.

"You can put the gun down, Eames," says Arthur, standing in a long wool coat, visible breath unspooling from his cold-reddened mouth. "It's freezing. You think I could come in?"

Eames invites him in. "You could have let me know you were coming."

Arthur flops down onto a chair in the kitchen. "All I had was the address."

"You could have sent a letter."

Arthur looks at him crossly, rubbing his hands together. "I did."

"I suppose I should offer you tea or whiskey or something," Eames sighs, fumbling through the bottles in the cabinet. Arthur, peeling off his gloves, jumps slightly at the sound of glass clinking against glass.

"I'd say tea, but I don't think it's quite numbing enough," Arthur shivers. "Whiskey will do."

"You look plenty numb already," Eames says, and searches for the right whiskey. Something smooth, he thinks, not too peaty. He reaches for a bottle of Balvenie Doublewood, pours it into two crystal glasses.

"Numb in all the wrong places." Arthur reaches for the glass and downs it; Eames watches his Adam's apple bob. "Mmm. I'm glad I took it upon myself to develop a taste for stuff like that. That was lovely." He smiles at Eames for the first time that night. Eames smiles back at him, smiling for the first time in he can't remember how long.

"Why are you here, Arthur?" What a dull question, he thinks.

"Well," Arthur looks around, resting his elbows on his knees and fixing Eames with an expression of interest, "I thought I'd come by to see you. Make sure you were alright."

"Make sure I hadn't offed myself or gone on a killing spree, you mean," Eames takes a full-mouth sip of his whiskey, cradling it for a moment, letting it delicately singe the back of his throat. He never thinks about how he's going to phrase things anymore. Words just slip out.

"Not like that." Arthur still can't stop shivering; he looks pale and tired and uneasy, and although Eames knows it's just a reflex and he isn't actually cold anymore, he thinks about taking Arthur's hands and rubbing warmth back into them, then taking his coat from his shoulders and rubbing his arms until his teeth weren't chattering and he could relax in his chair. But part of him, an ornery and bitter shard, wishes Arthur weren't here at all, is hoping his out-of-place-ness in this kitchen chair means that his visit will be brief and that he'll leave as soon as he assesses Eames' situation to his satisfaction.

"So seeing as you're still alive, the Heintz job went passably," Eames says. "Cheers to that."

Arthur nods. "The kid was fine. But he lacked your artistry."

"Well, seeing as I lack my artistry these days--Let's not talk about that, shall we?"

"You know, you don't have to leave the business entirely," Arthur suggests at one point. "You can still work on the ground. We always need capable people to follow up on the information we learn in the dreams, and you're still the best thief I know."

"Yeah--I don't think that's really a possibility." He pours himself another glass of whiskey and gulps it down. The idea of continuing to work around people who can still dream is unappealing. "Eames is dead, Arthur. Remember? Didn't Rivera send you a copy of my death certificate?"

Conversation is awkward. Arthur doesn't seem to have much to say. He fidgets and shrugs a lot, and looks bored, and Eames thinks, maybe it's better that they were never really friends.

"I can take a hint," Arthur says. "I'll leave in the morning." Eames curses himself for not setting up the guest bedroom; it's home only to dust and a colony of harvestmen over the doorframe. He offers Arthur his bed, swears he sleeps in his chair most of the time anyway. Arthur won't accept it. He thanks Eames for his hospitality, pulls his gloves back on and is halfway out the door faster than a cat who doesn't want to be picked up.

Before he leaves, he pauses in the door.

"Oh, and check your fucking mailbox, will you?"

§


Eames knocks a mound of frozen snow off of the mailbox and pulls out a few catalogs addressed to Resident, a letter from the post office, and a plainly-wrapped package with his new legal name on it.

It contains a paperback edition of The Complete Poems of John Keats. He flips through it and a piece of white paper falls onto the snow. A note in Arthur's surprisingly messy handwriting: Found this cheap. Can't appreciate it with my provincial education. Thought you'd get more out of it. -A.

The note is scribbled on the back of a bowling score sheet, filled in with names and numbers. Three numbers to each box. He wonders if it's just what Arthur had handy, but he knows Arthur too well to think that he just happened to send him a message written on the back of a page with a bunch of numbers on it. The names he recognizes as various aliases of Arthur's through the years. The numbers, though, he isn't so sure about.

When he gets inside he sits in the kitchen, pours himself a scotch, and opens the book to a random page. Then it hits him.

The numbers on the score sheet correspond to page and line numbers in the book.

An old trick, Eames thinks, but it's rather endearing coming from Arthur, whose sense of whimsy always struck at unexpected times. He hesitates to begin searching for the words. Terrified, unreasonably, that it's going to be a confession of love or lust. Or something else mawkish, something telling him not to give up on himself or that he's left an unfillable hole in the dreamsharing underground.

A long time goes by. Finally he gets up the will to locate the first page number. 108. The second number is the line number: 39. And the third...probably refers to the word order. 7th word in line 39, on page 108. Will.

The next word, the fourth word on line 260, page 114, is BE. WILL BE.

Eames works quickly, and eventually he has the message in its entirety. He's also noticed that there are pencil marks next to some of the numbers, meant to indicate a full stop.

WILL BE IN LARGE INDIAN CITY ON ARABIAN SEA FROM MAY TO JUNE. NOT DREAMING. COME. COULD BE GOOD COMPANY. AND IT NEEDS YOUR MIND.

He feels ridiculous that the thought of Arthur confessing his love for him had ever even crossed his mind, though he wonders how he'd have reacted if the message had said FUCK ME or anything to that effect. He might have given that a try.

As it is, the message is a little ambiguous, but Eames takes it to mean that there's a job in Mumbai, that it isn't related to dreamshare, and that Arthur wants to work with him.

He hooks up an old white corded phone to his landline, rarely used, and dials the number of the best hotel in Copenhagen. His mind is chomping at the bit to push words through his mouth: Arthur, I am not working this job. I am not working any job.

§


When he finally reaches Arthur's hotel room that night--or the hotel room of Timothy Davis, rather--he thanks him kindly for the book, then says, "Tim, I am sorry, but I am not editing your grant for you." (Editing your grant was the code they sometimes used for doing a job.)

No noise comes from Arthur's end of the line for a few seconds, and Eames starts to think he's hung up. Then Arthur calmly says, "Well, I tried."

"I'm sorry you came to Denmark for me," Eames apologizes.

"I never thought you were the beard-growing type," says Arthur, after an awkward pause.

"It's not that I'm growing a beard," Eames says. "It's more that I'm not not trying to grow one."

Arthur sighs. "I hate talking on the phone."

"Fine. Goodbye."

"That's not what I mean," Arthur rushes to correct him. "I'd rather be talking to you in person."

"You weren't so good at that tonight either."

Eames can almost feel Arthur glaring at him through the phone.

"Goodbye, Eames."

§


The next week Eames comes home to a thin envelope. The single unsigned piece of paper inside reads:

I'm not good at making conversation because I'm not good at talking about myself. I can't pull topics of conversation out of thin air. So give me something to talk about that doesn't depend on either one of us talking about our likes or dislikes or personal experiences.

Eames has no idea how to respond to that. Wonders if he even should respond. Finally he just throws his figurative hands up and sends him a bag of Danish salty licorice.

Arthur writes (sending just a single Post-it):

This shit is disgusting.

Eames remembers how he used to enjoy trying to get a rise out of Arthur. The thought of Arthur turning pink and glowering at him still makes him smile, and Arthur's self-serious little notes start to look like fishing lures.

Eames replies:

That sounds like a personal judgment to me. You're not talking about the objective properties of the licorice, but how it was filtered through your (rather pedestrian) set of taste preferences. Try again?

Arthur's response:

Fuck off.

Eames takes this as an invitation to send him a flannel.

Arthur writes:

Thanks for the washcloth. It's very soft and very white. Hope that you took the time to buy me a new one and that it's not just one of your old ones. Will be very insulted otherwise.

Eames is pleasantly surprised by the return of Arthur's sense of whimsy. He writes:

Strike two. (Yes, I am familiar with the rules of American baseball.) Another personal opinion. Talking about yourself isn't so hard now, is it? Or were you just being difficult, trying to make me jump through hoops, like some sort of sweater-vested Sphinx?

Arthur replies:

Come to Mumbai.

Eames:

Not unless you tell me, who was the first person other than yourself that you wanted to be?

Arthur:

I'll tell you if you come.

§


Eames is more surprised than anyone when he ends up in Mumbai.

§


Eames is to meet Arthur in the lobby of the Grand Central Hotel. As he walks slowly through the front doors and across the lacquered brown-and-blond wood floor, casually alert, looking like a holder of forbidden knowledge so plentiful he takes most of it for granted, he is aware that he is a parody of a parody: he's playing the old Eames, who was himself playing so many people. He's wearing one of his old linen shirts, rolled up to the elbows; pleated trousers with ample breathing room for the sweltering climate.

For a moment he doesn't see Arthur, and worries that something's gone wrong; miscommunication, or worse. Then he's being tapped on the shoulder, and he turns around and there is Arthur, in a crisp white shirt and gray pants, a small, private smile on his face. Eames has never been much for hugging, and he suspects Arthur isn't either, but he secretly envies that version of himself in another dimension who is right now wrapping his arms around Arthur's slim shoulders, pressing him close like a brother.

Maybe not quite like a brother.

When they get to Arthur’s hotel room, Arthur briefs him on the job. There’s an American expat, a chemist, who’s working on a drug that–rumor has it–can boost intelligence by at least fifty IQ points.

“So we’re stealing the formula?” Eames asks, sitting on the bed, rolling down his shirt sleeve for no particular reason and wondering if Arthur notices any difference in his mannerisms.

“No,” Arthur smiles cryptically. “We’re destroying it.”

§


The inventors of the PASIV, Eames learns, have invented a device that enables targeted forgetting. They call it the Waters of Lethe. It's similar to shared dreaming, except that those doing the erasing don't have to physically go into the subject's mind, risking the usual subconscious backlash. The new device shows the contents of the mind on what's essentially a computer screen. If the operators want to get into the deeper-buried levels of long-term memory, they scan in the desired words or images, and the program will locate all near-matches and eliminate them if the operator waves his or her magnetic stylus over the screen.

The tricky part is when someone's trying to erase feelings or associations. You can't search for those--not yet.

The erasure goes off without a hitch. After a week and a half staking out his usual routes, they kidnap Dr. Erickson, drug him, take him to a hotel room, and plumb his mind. Meanwhile, their associates are gently ransacking Erickson's home and lab, destroying all traces of the compound. And hopefully not stealing any for themselves.

Eames mostly watches while Arthur does the work.

Arthur shows him the surface level of Erickson's mind, the bright turmoil of thoughts and memories like a planet's stratosphere. Erickson has been thinking about sex a lot. There's a young man, a doctor, he's never touched, but there are layers and layers of explicit fantasies, a first kiss with dozens of permutations, a slow slide down his body at various speeds and pressures. Eames is no prude, but he feels a bit uncomfortable looking at these images with Arthur.

Arthur, meanwhile, is the consummate professional, showing no sign that the fantasies affect him at all. He's ready to begin the search for the compound's ingredients. He scans words, the shapes of molecular compounds. One of Eames' tasks is to keep an eye on Arthur's laptop, waiting for images from the lab to come through as encrypted files, then de-encrypting them and transferring them to the scan drive on the memory device.

"Arthur," Eames asks, concerned, "what if he remembers how to make it by the smell?"

Arthur shrugs. "The goal is to make Erickson forget that the compound ever even existed."

"But a smell can remind someone. And you can't search for smells, can you? But I wonder--" he muses, “if you can’t give someone the smell of whatever you’re searching for while they’re under. See if their brain recognizes it, and if all the memories triggered by that scent come to the forefront. Cut out the middle man, you know?”

Arthur grins. “This is why I said I needed your mind. I’ll see if Kothari can’t bring a sample of the compound to us. In the meantime, here." Arthur hands Eames the magnetic stylus. "You try erasing one."

§


After Erickson’s been returned safely to his flat, the memory of the kidnapping erased, Arthur and Eames sit on the hotel balcony, sipping the 25-year-old Laphroaig Arthur received from a client as a gift.

"So, what do you think?" Arthur asks him cautiously.

"The whiskey?"

"No, the work." Arthur's softly hooded eyes have a tendency to mask the intensity of his gaze, but Eames knows that he's looking at him hard.

"It's alright." Eames swishes the whiskey in the glass.

"You think you could do it more regularly?" Arthur sets his empty glass down with a clink on the marble table.

"Honestly, Arthur, after the initial thrill wears off it's kind of like doing Photoshop." There's a spark of hurt in Arthur's eyes. "No offense. But it's not like dreamshare at all."

"I can't argue with that." Arthur turns in his chair so that he's sitting sideways, and he looks over the railing of the balcony. His posture says he'd rather be somewhere else, that he regrets asking Eames to do this with him.

"What's wrong?"

Arthur looks over his shoulder at Eames. "We'll both regret it if I tell you."

§


Eames leaves Mumbai in the morning. He considers slipping a note under Arthur's door, but decides against it. Before he walks away he presses his ear to the door. All he hears is the sound of the usual hotel electricity vibrating through wood. There are no human sounds of any sort, no rustling, no creaking. He placates himself with the thought that Arthur might have left even before he did.

§


When he returns to Denmark there are no more letters from Arthur.

Summer comes.

He shaves his beard.

He thinks about Arthur's targeted forgetting device. Not about performing memory excisions on people, but about being the one to go under. He thinks he could live with forgetting that there was a time when he could create cities that felt more real than those made of stone and smog and cement, places where light and gravity followed a fickle, alien logic, where he could build a body around any name. He wants to forget about the German actress he saw in a forgettable film when he was eighteen, the woman with long blonde hair and a clever smile that he'd ached for so badly, not to make love to, but to be.

There were men, too, that Eames had wanted to be. Actors. Former lovers. His Air Force flight instructor, bald, dark-eyed, all long, hyper-ready muscle and tendon. He never wanted their bodies permanently, and when he could forge he took delight in changing them, combining them. He’d take the body of a shy ginger-haired nurse he’d met in Geneva, infuse it with the mannerisms and speech patterns of a paranoid and brutal mercenary he’d fucked in an alley in Phnom Penh. He would invent a face he’d never seen and wonder if it actually belonged to anyone.

And it wasn't just about the feel of the bodies, and the joy of recognition, and the sex. It was the pleasure of being good at something. Being the best. Knowing that people were turning to watch him in awe when he sat down at a mirror and wove a new skin around himself, so quickly the process was almost invisible to the unskilled eye.

He might be good at other things, he thinks, but they'll never add up to such a perfect, self-animated whole.

He's afraid that, if he can't forget about dreaming, his whole life will feel like walking on a planet with three times the gravity of Earth.

§


"Tim," he pleads after the beep, "pick up the phone. Please." He hangs up for the twentieth time.

"Tim, this is Jack. I'm calling you not as an associate, but as a client. I need your help."

Arthur calls him back after that.

"What do you want," he asks flatly.

"What do you think," Eames replies. "I want to forget."

After that there's only silence on the other line. The dial tone drones.

§


He gets in touch with Cobb, who tells him that Arthur's based out of Boston now. Cobb gives him an address, and doesn't mention anything about forging or dreaming in general, for which Eames is grateful. It's as if they'd never known each other.

When he gets to Boston, he quickly finds out that the address Cobb gave is for Arthur's office and not his apartment. Fair enough, Eames thinks.

Then an unwelcome thought hits him. He isn't sure how closely Cobb and Arthur have been in touch over the past year, but it's possible that Cobb didn't give him Arthur's home address because Arthur has a lover, or even a spouse. His chest tightens, and he feels like some creature is scrabbling to burst out of his stomach.

Arthur still won't pick up any of his phone calls. If he patches them through from another number, Arthur hears his voice, then hangs up.

At eight o'clock the next morning, Eames takes a taxi to Arthur's office and waits in the hall. It's a run-down building with puce tile hallways and oatmeal-colored carpets that doesn't seem to have been refurbished since the 70s.

He's both relieved and terrified when Arthur comes down the hall.

On seeing him, Arthur turns in the other direction, but Eames calls out to him. "Please. I need to talk to you. You need to talk to me."

Arthur stalks up to him. He's taut, furious. "So. You leave me in Mumbai--"

"I thought the job was over."

"The job was over." Arthur narrows his eyes. "And we'd barely even gotten a chance to talk about it. I at least would have appreciated knowing that you were leaving, so that I didn't have to spend all morning thinking about where I was going to take you, and then have to find out from the fucking concierge that you'd checked out without a word."

"I'm sorry," Eames pleads. He really, really is sorry.

"And then the next thing I hear from you is that you want my services to erase the memory of half your life. You're a strong man, Eames," he says caustically. "I'm so glad we've become friends."

"I'm not good at being friends with people," Eames says, knowing how pathetic he sounds.

"Neither am I, but I've tried, at least." Arthur straightens his back and grips the handle of his briefcase. "I'm not having this conversation out here. Come inside."

Arthur's office is small and spare. There are papers piled high on the desk and a few prints on the walls: Eames recognizes Goya, Lucian Freud, Egon Schiele.

"You don't understand what it's like, Arthur," Eames starts. "Not being able to dream anymore? That was what I was good at. And I loved it. It was like a pianist being told they’ll never play again."

"In case you haven't noticed, I haven't dreamed in a year either," Arthur says. "I'm not going to lie and say that I gave it up for you--there were a lot of reasons. But I was glad, because I was stupid enough to think that maybe we could work together again. We worked well together. We've fucking saved each other's lives. We understood each other, and were comfortable enough to challenge each other. And I was actually starting to hope that we could be friends."

Arthur takes a deep breath to calm himself and shakes his head, looking at everything but Eames. "But I will gladly erase those years from your mind, if that's what you want, Eames. You won't remember anything past the age of 22. But be warned." His voice is shaky, painfully grave. "If I do that for you, then you don't know me. I am nothing to you. And you are nothing to me." He swallows and runs his hand through his hair. "That's probably not too big of a sacrifice for you, of course. You always could take me or leave me, couldn't you?"

With that, Eames can't help himself. He rushes to Arthur's side, pulls him into his arms. Arthur is motionless. Eames cradles his head, whispers Shhh, and it's alright and I am so sorry.

§


"I've been awful," Eames closes his eyes. "What sort of person treats his friend--his best friend--"

"I don't think I ever really understood what you were going through," says Arthur, moving to sit near Eames--about a cushion’s breadth apart--on Arthur's couch, in his apartment. "It was a lot more than a job to you, wasn't it? More than an art, even."

"It was--I got some contentment from it, yeah," he admits, and it's an understatement.

Arthur reaches out and touches Eames' arm. And Eames is walloped with a wave of electric uncertainty. It's never happened before when Arthur touched him. And he looks at Arthur, at Arthur's face and eyes and body and hands, and Arthur is not just stylish or well-groomed or boyishly attractive or any of the other things Eames had considered him before.

He's beautiful.

"I'm going to go ahead and mess everything up now," he says demurely, though something in Arthur's intent, curious expression tells him that that may not be quite what ends up happening.

He inches close to Arthur, and gazes at him, and Eames can't quite explain why of all the places he could choose to touch him, he strokes Arthur's earlobe with his thumb. But Arthur's lips quirk into a pleased smile.

“I wasn’t sure if I really wanted this or if it was just a fantasy,” Arthur says, cheeks flushed. “But now I know. I really want it.”

Their mouths meet in a slow kiss. He's so hungry for Arthur's glossy mouth; he pushes his tongue deeper and deeper into it each time, trying to get more of those throaty, uncontrolled sounds out of him.

"You're better than a clean slate," he murmurs, thumb rubbing the back of Arthur's neck, fingers combing through his hair.

He hopes he can sustain that feeling.

§


Arthur’s bed smells like Arthur: like some combination of his skin and hair and clothes, soft and cool and tastefully layered.

They come out of their clothes inch by inch, coaxing buttons out of holes and sliding up undershirts, taking long pauses for kisses, for teasing patches of just-bared skin with lips or fingers.

“If we keep doing this, though,” Eames says, pulling Arthur’s hand away from his hip and stroking his wrist for a moment to pause him, “you have to know that I can’t--just do one kind of thing.”

Arthur nuzzles Eames’ throat. “What do you mean? Of course not.”

“What I mean is,” he clears his throat, “sometimes I’m going to want to spread your arse open and eat you out and then fuck you hard. And sometimes I’m going to want you to fuck me. And sometimes I’m going to want you to finger me and suck my tits and call me your pretty girl. And--you understand?”

“I didn’t think you’d be content playing just one role.” Arthur kisses his cheek. “I can be versatile too, you know.”

He can’t quite believe that he’s naked in bed with Arthur, watching Arthur’s thigh muscles flex as Arthur straddles his hips and scrapes his fingernails lightly down his side. As of last year, he hadn’t thought it would be possible that he would even want to sleep with Arthur, much less crave his skin and his voice and his mouth this badly. He cups Arthur’s arse in his hands, urges Arthur’s hips closer to his mouth.

He kisses Arthur’s cock, lean and cut, sucking the precum from the tip before taking Arthur onto his tongue, wrapping his lips around the shaft, feeling it get harder and harder every time his mouth glides back up toward the base.

Arthur throws his head back and shakes through a long moan. Rides his mouth. Eames savors the weight of Arthur’s body pinning his head down.

Arthur comes in his mouth. Slides his hips back down Eames’ body and comes to lie on top of him, tongue tickling the sensitive skin under Eames’ earlobe.

“So who are we going to be tonight?” Arthur asks. “You can be anyone you want. And not just in bed, you know?”

He has no idea who he wants to be. Having Arthur call his attention to it reminds him that he hasn’t thought about it in days, and now the void, that lack of essence, of soul, stands unclothed and staring. There is nothing he wants because he himself wants it. There is no what he’s like.

Well. He wants Arthur, but he’s afraid that someday he might become someone who doesn’t.

“I don’t know.”

“Hey. Are you alright?” Arthur props himself up to look in Eames’ eyes. Eames thinks, lovely eyes, soft skin, strong arms, sharp as a shark’s tooth, mean little bastard when he wants to be, gentle when he wants to be, too. I’d have to be out of my mind not to want this.

Eames is painfully hard, but he tells Arthur about the soul.

§


Arthur fucks him. He’s slow, gentle, holding Eames’ thighs open, a relaxing stretch, and leaning down to kiss him.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispers, moving one hand to wrap around Eames’ cock, tugging it, each pull releasing a stronger swell of pleasure through his core. Arthur is so good at this: agile, attentive, listening and reading Eames’ face, letting Eames lead with his hips to show him where to angle his cock inside him.

“I don’t need roleplaying,” Eames says, shuddering on the edge of climax. “I’m fine with just fucking right now.”

There’s a sad look in Arthur’s eyes. “You think I’m roleplaying?”

§


It’s 3 am when they sit at Arthur’s kitchen table and eat Chinese takeout, from a place Arthur likes for nostalgia’s sake; he says he used to eat there every other night when he was in college.

“You promised me if I came to Mumbai that you would tell me who you wanted to be,” Eames prods, around a mouthful of shrimp toast. “But you never did.”

“I didn’t, did I.” There’s peanut sauce on Arthur’s chin, and Eames reaches across the table to brush it off. “Well. This is silly, but when I was a kid I really wanted to be Spock, from Star Trek.”

Eames smiles. “I can see that.”

“And then I wanted to be Clint Eastwood. And you know, sometimes--” he looks a bit sheepish-- “I thought about what it would be like to be you.”

“A forger, you mean?” Eames is surprised to find that he can say the word without rancor.

“Partly. But--how you didn’t seem to be beholden to anyone, and--you were so funny, and clever, and sure of yourself. And you always had the best ideas. And, yeah, you’re pretty decent looking too.” He wipes his mouth with a napkin. “You know, you say you don’t think you have a soul--I don’t know if anyone does, really. I don't know if I believe in that stuff about about a core that doesn't change. And I don’t care if you’re pretending to be someone else. Maybe I like the people you pretend to be.”

Arthur reaches across the table, brushing Eames’ fingertips with his own. “I don’t care if you change. I don’t care if you tell me a few lies here and there, even. I’ve been pretending to be someone else for years.”

“Well, everyone pretends to some degree--”

Arthur draws a slow breath. “My name’s not really Arthur. I never actually went to college, and I’m not the son of the head of a neurology department at a hospital. I'm not even from Providence. I was born in Montgomery, Alabama. My parents are ministers at a small revivalist church.”

Eames’ fork clatters to the table.

“My goodness, dear boy. You’re good. Wonderful, in fact.”

Arthur looks down, ashamed. “I’m not proud of it.”

“You should be.”

Arthur glares at him. “I love my parents. They love me, still, somehow. They even stopped preaching about hellfire for homosexuals when I told them I was gay. And now they have to live with knowing that I’m so ashamed of them and of where I’m from that I essentially had to kill myself off...So really, I’m not much of anything underneath either. Just a lot of guilt, mostly.”

“Come here,” Eames beckons. Arthur hesitates. “If I have to drag you into my lap, I will.”

Arthur sits on his knee, eyes still burning with anxiety and shame.

“Honestly, I was sort of jealous of you,” Arthur continues. “I assumed you were born lucky anyway, and then on top of that you could change your voice and your posture and mannerisms and accent at will, whether or not you were forging, and you didn’t even need to do that to impress people. And it took me years, just to get rid of my accent. So I sort of--liked you better when you couldn’t forge anymore. I always liked you, but I finally felt like I could actually be your friend.”

“Ouch, love,” Eames breathes in through his teeth.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says. “I understand now.”

“So that’s why you were so nice to me.”

“God, I’m sorry.” Arthur presses his palms to his eyes.

Eames suppresses a hot jet of anger. But he doesn’t know if he could be friends with Eames the forger as he is now, either. He runs a comforting hand down Arthur’s spine, feels Arthur’s heartbeat thudding beneath it.

“Sweetheart,” he whispers, “Arthur, I think we’ve both been sorry enough for one night.”

§

§


The demand for the Waters of Lethe is booming.

Arthur has to contract his work out more and more, and he has the luxury now of only taking the most interesting cases.

Eames joins him sometimes. He’s surprised to find how much he enjoys the work. It isn’t only about spot-treating people’s minds like laundry stains; some of the most fascinating encounters have come from talking with people before and after. He finds he enjoys talking people out of ill-advised uses of the forgetting machine. Once he manages to convince a couple not to erase the memory of their dead daughter. Another time he meets a girl who lost her ability to paint after a car accident. The mind is flexible, he tells her. That talent might come back, or it might not. You may one day wake up with a completely new ability. And besides, you might need something else from all those years.

And he is always fascinated by seeing people afterwards. They are entirely different people. The changes are subtle, subtle enough that a casual friend or an acquaintance or a particularly unobservant lover would miss them. But they’re there. They speak differently, dress differently, react differently to curiosities or confusions. And often they look deep in thought, as though they’re on the verge of remembering something terribly important. But it doesn’t seem to bother them. Arthur follows up diligently, (the clients who requested the Waters, of course, not those who had them forcibly fed to them) and with a few exceptions, it’s the same refrain. They are happier.



It’s an unseasonably warm day in November, and Eames has just conducted his first solo erasure. Arthur is at home on a phone consultation with a mysterious client.

On his way to the T he walks by a shaded park. Half the neighborhood seems to be out walking their dogs. He passes by a lanky, androgynous boy with an asymmetrical black fringe sitting on a park bench, crossing and uncrossing his legs while looking at some sort of engineeering schematics. He wonders what music he listens to, where he goes on vacation; thinks of what it would have been like to forge him. If he’d gotten the procedure done, he could have been free from these desires. And Arthur’s rejection would mean nothing to him, because Arthur himself would be erased too.

But he’s happier with who he’s pretending to be today anyway. So happy that on the way home he has to duck inside a public restroom, yank open the fly of his Hermès suit pants and get himself off, just thinking of how glorious it feels to be that person.

He gives a nod and a droll, tiny smile as he passes the girl who lives underneath them, who is struggling get the mail and to restrain her wheat-colored terrier at the same time. He walks up the stairs, adjusting his tie and patting down his hair before he turns the key in the lock.

His lover is sitting at the kitchen table, wearing one of Eames’ smaller shirts, looking over a pile of notes. When he sees Eames come in the door he turns, seductively, tapping a pen against his lower lip.

“Arthur, love,” Arthur says to him, “you won’t believe the fun I got into this afternoon.”

(Arthur’s English accent is truly horrible. Eames might have to kindly but firmly suggest that he give up on impersonating that part of him at least.)

“What was that, Eames?” Eames’ American accent is much better. He strides over to Arthur, with Arthur’s brisk, determined gait, and perches himself on Arthur’s lap, plucking the file from his fingers and slapping it on the table with the others.

“I wanked while I was on the phone with a client,” Arthur teases, a devilish glint in his eyes. He toys with the tail of Eames’ tie. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you at work, in this tie. So I had to have one off. Off the wrist,” he corrects himself. He leans in to whisper in Eames’ ear. “I even fingered myself a bit.” Eames’ eyes widen at that, and his cock perks up. “Yeah. I thought you’d like to hear that, darling.”

“If you jeopardized this account...” Eames shakes his head. “Did you really do that?”

Arthur bursts into laughter. “No, but I did think about it. Can you blame me?”

Eames shakes his head. “I can’t.” He presses a warm kiss to Arthur’s forehead. “Against my better judgment, I can’t blame you for anything, Mr. Eames.”

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la pellegrina

May 2012

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