And this is something that every clever child learns: That there are proper, better ways to be than others—like quiet instead of loud, like clean instead of dirty, like careful instead of risky.
Arthur was a clever child, and he washed his hands more than he spoke aloud. He held his tongue at insults, he humbled himself before compliments, and he existed with the people he strived so hard to duplicate. Like every clever child, he watched and heard and learned, and with every person who just wasn’t clever enough, he discovered that much more about how he could be better.
He never saw anything else in these people. If there were sparks and flares of brilliance, they were smothered by the normality they fought so hard to instate—blown out before any of the clever children could think to reach out and stoke them into flames.
After all, fire burned.
There are other thieves, but Eames is a forger. He does not debate the legality of his actions or the rewards for his head, but he wants to make that distinction very clear. Thieves take things, steal things, plunder, and violate—and they didn’t call you the morning after. Eames might have taken things, stolen things, plundered, and violated, but he always gave a little something in return.
Like lifting a statuette off of a pressure plate and leaving something more precious in its place, Eames leaves little parts of himself in the corners of minds where no one else dares to tread. He’s walked a mile in square-foot Oxfords and telephone wire sneakers and road weary sandals and the most painful fuck me pumps, and every bloody footprint left behind is a promise, a connection, a wish. Every undercover position to get closer, closer, closer is a risk and a mistake and Eames never wants a second of that time back.
After all, how else would he know that she likes peanut butter with her cocoa or that he has a dark room in his Manhattan loft’s third bathroom? How would he know that he could so easily love a man who could only love the fictions in his mind or that he could so thoroughly feel for a woman who no one else could feel for?
Then again, that’s people.
“What do you mean?” Ariadne asks, and her brow is furrowed like Cobb’s used to be, and she has grown like every clever child ever has. Overwhelmingly serious, frightfully successful, and a masterpiece requiring her own ode, and while Eames has never had to steal into her mind, he feels his connection with her just as strongly.
“People aren’t very comfortable with other people,” he replies, shrugging. Despite the buxom blondes and the sheepish brunettes, his persistent grin is still his best disguise. “Nobody really wants to imagine what it must be like to be someone else. Empathy is a bad word because so many adults have taught themselves to not do it.”
“But why?” Ariadne presses, constantly curious, but Eames knows that as much as she understands every structural beam, she will not be able to grasp this.
“Because when you were a child, you learned to be careful. Empathy is dangerous. It is giving up a little bit of what you were taught to be in order to be someone else. It is reaching out to every good and bad and ugly part of a person and not turning away. More than that, it is reflecting those parts,” Eames explains, and if Ariadne still does not understand, she at least looks satisfied.
With a wry grin, she jokes, “So, I guess you must be pretty good at commitment.”
“Naturally, darling.” He winks.
Eames’ first job as a forger was rocky, because he genuinely liked the girl and rooted for her, even when their extractor opened up the dream safe to show a million photos of her wrapped around other men. He knew how she felt about her body, how she couldn’t have a mirror in her apartment, and how she could never believe she was good enough. Her fiancé didn’t. There was a brief moment, after the job, when Eames stood outside her apartment and wondered if he could try to visit her. Pretend to be the new renter on the third floor again and offer her some tea.
Then her body came crashing down onto the Hyundai next to him, and he went back to the hotel to throw towels over his mirrors instead.
Eames’ first job with Arthur went better. Their employer was looking for forgiveness, and Eames could tell within his first five hours as their mark’s home caretaker that she had it, but he didn’t say a word because he wanted to stare at the stubborn set to Arthur’s shoulders forever. Afterward, he bought the mark coffee and promised the elderly woman that her daughter forgave her too, and if they both shed a few tears, he simply bragged about it later.
“You shouldn’t get so close,” Arthur warned. “What if she remembers?”
“Arthur, she’s a septuagenarian. I very much doubt that she’s going to call Interpol on us,” he pointed out, as professional and passive as possible. “Now, aren’t you going to kiss away my tears, darling?” Because Eames didn’t want to—couldn’t be professional and passive around Arthur.
Eames was willing to give little parts of himself away to every mark he ever walked with, but he couldn’t give any of himself to Arthur. The violent clench of his chest and fiery warmth spreading up his back warned him so.
Arthur was brilliant and clever and stubborn and beautiful. He was too clean for his own good and, outside of his job, almost embarrassingly normal. He fit too easily into the mold that he had put himself in. He was what Eames hated about people—most people—beautiful, stubborn, clever, and brilliant people. Eames should have left him alone.
He would have, except for the sparks. The brief glimpse whenever a man so anally devoted to his couture could rip up thousands of dollars in fashion to tie his own tourniquet. The teasing peek of inventive weaponry the point man seemed to conjure up on the fly. Eames poked at the fire that burned hot inside Arthur, and sometimes it would flare up in annoyance or dismissal or hatred. Other times, it would warm him like Arthur’s flashes of imagination or the quick appearance of his dimples. So Eames worked and waited for the blaze to come.
Then Mal died, and Eames sat on Arthur’s hotel windowsill, still all in black.
“God damn it, Eames. Get back inside,” and Arthur’s voice could wrench his heart out of his chest if he weren’t already wearing it so clearly on his sleeve, so obviously in the way that he crawled back into the room.
Eames doesn’t say anything like ‘I told you so.’ He doesn’t try to remember Mal back when Dom and Arthur had first met her, wildly intelligent and eager to rope them both into a semi-legal enterprise at best. While he can remember the way she used to smile with just a little bit of an edge, and even better the way it had softened with time and love and maternal instinct, Eames doesn’t bother to remember how she used to run her hands through Arthur’s hair like he was the precious third part to her marriage.
“Cobb needs me,” Arthur said, and Eames almost wished he didn’t know Arthur well enough to know every insecurity hiding in that statement. He almost wanted to be blind to the hurt in Arthur’s eyes.
But Mal had just died, and Eames remembered her French syllables and the way she loved Arthur with air kisses to each of his dimples. He held his arms out, and while Arthur quietly collapsed, Eames thought about Arthur’s well-shined shoes. He thought of how Arthur would work to the beat of Eames’ terrible European techno, blaring too loud from his headphones, and the painfully ingrained color coded system lying somewhere in the point man’s head. Eames knew what Arthur’s favorite breakfast food was, now that he was 28 or back when he was 11. He remembered back when Arthur got really loud when he was drunk, and Eames could feel the emptiness of no longer being part of a half of a whole. The pain of losing a lover.
When he woke up the next day, Eames also knew how Arthur kissed, how Arthur screamed, how Arthur looked like before he came. Most of all, he knew what it felt like to be part of a half of a whole, how it felt to give that part away.
The pain of losing a lover.
And this is something that every clever child learns: That there are proper, better ways to be than others—like selfish instead of generous, frightened instead of loving, isolated rather than reaching out.
Eames had been warned, and yet he had still given to Arthur. Still, it wouldn’t be so bad if he thought he had any chance of keeping part of him for himself.
Arthur had a girlfriend before the inception job. A boyfriend, a casual date, a fuck buddy, and a weekend fling too. Eames read every affair in the way Arthur held himself, how he twirled his pens and refused to look at Eames’ terrible outfits. He took his mind off of it by focusing on Robert Fischer, Jr. instead.
Robert was almost a cliché, so long-suffering and pained standing by what would soon be his father’s deathbed. Eames wouldn’t care except it was all genuine, and he felt so crushed for Robert who was not quite as clever as Arthur or Ariadne—who had never figured out how normal people wanted others to live.
He complained because he was realistic about their chances inside a heavily militarized mind. He carried on because he was a professional. He improvised because he loved Robert and Cobb and Saito and wanted them desperately to succeed. He woke up because Arthur had smiled at him and called him Mr. Eames, and he hoped with every little bit of him that he still had to himself.
“Your hotel or mine, darling?” The leer was as flamboyant as his shirt.
Except today, Arthur didn’t seem to want to play. Instead of becoming indignant or turning red or grimacing at the bad taste in his mouth, Arthur tilted his head to the side and asked, “Why do you always do that?”
“If you have to ask, Arthur, I think someone did something wrong back along the line,” he segued seamlessly, and he could see the furrows starting to form on the point man’s forehead.
“Is that what being a forger is about? Flirting with everyone? Being so detached from everyone that you can just play around with them?” Arthur looked half-furious, half-pitying, and Eames knew that one day in the future, he would be honest about this, but not today.
“What’s wrong with a little flirting?” he joked instead and counted every painful heartbeat as Arthur turned away.
He doesn’t hope because he thinks there is a chance. He hopes because there is none. Time passes so quickly after the inception job, and Arthur has had three girlfriends, two boyfriends, a lover, and countless sex friends. Not out of spite or anger or hatred, but maybe just because Arthur doesn’t know.
Clever children try so hard not to look too closely into other people, because as heartwarming as it is to see someone open themselves up to others, it is also frightfully painful. On one hand, it speaks of greater courage, and on the other hand, it is just too terrifying to imagine what always seems to inevitably come next.
So Arthur doesn’t notice as Eames follows him around the world, from job to job, from team to team. Eames wears uglier clothes, stops ironing his pants, adopts an even raunchier British accent, and Arthur just goes along his way. Sometimes, there will be a glance out of the corner of an eye, but Eames will blink and miss it. He can read every hint of attraction in the way Arthur stifles his smile, but he can also read confusion and fear in every time Arthur averts his eyes.
Eames slowly stops hoping, and it comes through in how he no longer addresses Arthur by pet names. He starts ironing his pants again, even if he does keep the one orange-brown monstrosity of a polo as his last shred of hope. He will still listen to Arthur and hold him when jobs go wrong or joke inappropriately to cheer him up, but that is because he is too in tune with Arthur to stop.
One day, he will. Eames will give up and move on and be better without all of this pining.
That day is not today, or the next day, or the next day. He will give up eventually, and he hopes he isn’t totally crushed by the time it comes.
“Is that what being a forger is about? Falling a little in love with everyone?” Arthur asks, and it is seven years past the inception job.
“That’s part of it,” Eames agrees, because it is the future now, and he is so terribly tired.
“What’s the other part?” Arthur demands, but Eames thinks he already knows, because he looks a little scared.
“It is wanting to be in love with them,” Eames replies. “It is giving yourself away and accepting them wholeheartedly. It is getting to know them better than you’ve ever known yourself.”
There is a long, quiet pause. “You’ve changed since I first met you,” Arthur says, and then thinks better of it and falls silent.
“It was so easy getting to know you,” Eames says after a long pause. “I almost got lost pretending to be the person you thought I was.”
After all, Eames is not really that stupid or loud or fashion impaired. He is not really that insensitive or flirtatious or sexually addicted. Eames does tend to love people, but he has only ever fallen in love with one person.
“You shouldn’t get so close,” Arthur echoes himself. “Isn’t it dangerous? Cobb and Mal—”
“Were very happy together,” Eames interrupts, and they both go quiet with the truth of that statement. “I know you very well, Arthur. I can give you anything you want, and I would, and I have, but I’m tired—and being this honest is much more dangerous than anything else I have ever done.”
Eames watches Arthur’s face and thinks back to Mr. Eames and how hard he had hoped. He thinks about clever children worrying too much about how they would grow up. He almost wishes he had never met Arthur, but he knows he would never trade in a second.
Arthur is too normal and too careful to say yes. He has been through too much trauma and heartbreak.
“You’re right,” he says.
Then again, he has also been through inception and a kick in zero gravity. Arthur still gives off sparks, and Eames still pokes them with his flirts and shirts and unfailing devotion.
“It’ll… take some time. This is just a chance.” Arthur warns, because he is still very careful.
Eames’ heart clenches and a familiar fire burns up his back. “I think that’ll be fine, darling,” he rasps, almost speechless at Arthur’s brilliance that tries to escape in flares.
“Oh, and Eames?” Arthur whispers, when they are finally sitting inside Eames’ flat with the TV’s volume on low and Arthur blissfully barefoot. “No jobs for a while. I don’t want you hiding behind your forgeries anymore.”
There are worlds to that statement, populated by the many disguises Eames has worn and tossed away and ruled by the marks he has loved and absorbed into himself. Eames knows Arthur well enough to read the glint in his eyes, and that Arthur does not quite grasp the whole truth of it yet, but unlike Ariadne, he will one day.
Two years later, Arthur will trick their mark into putting all of his secrets into a jukebox with just the slightest bit of subliminal messaging. Eames will grin from ear to ear, impressed and in love. All of the projections in Eames’ subconscious look like the previous marks he has worked on and the forgeries he has become, signs of his constant devotion and still existent connection to those he has come across.
However, they all seem to like suits and perfectly coiffed hair, and even in his best disguise, Arthur can still recognize him in the crowd.
They will come together and dance to the sound of corporate espionage in jazz, and they will both be glad that a little bit of Arthur’s thrill-seeking let him make this decision.
And this is a lesson that clever, reckless children learn: That there is more to other people if you wait and charm and try.