It starts like this:
Arthur is five years old and fully engrossed in putting together a train set when his father walks through the front door, cutting an impressive figure in his full uniform with regalia.
His father looks down at him and says in a voice that fills the whole room, "how would you like to grow up and be just like your old man some day?"
The glint of a medal on his father's chest catches the light still streaming through the windows. Open-mouthed and gap-toothed, Arthur can do nothing more than nod eagerly, train set forgotten.
His is a childhood filled with nonfiction war novels devoured alongside engineering and physics textbooks well beyond his years. In place of the usual adolescent fancies, there is the History Channel and a dog-eared copy of All Quiet on the Western Front.
It is his mother who insists upon a traditional education, a private prep school followed by a similarly exclusive undergraduate university, and it matters not to Arthur because he has always known where his journey will end.
The day after he graduates from MIT at the wizened age of twenty years old, Arthur's mother holds him close and says, "you have a choice, if this isn't what you really want." He looks at her, confused, because this is all he's ever really wanted.
Later that day, Arthur enlists in the army.
Basic training is nothing like spending hours in the library perfecting an equation or the right turn of phrase for a term paper, or anything like dabbling in theoretical physics in his spare time. It is his face in the mud, it is every muscle in his body crying out for a reprieve, and it is watching many of his fellows reaching their breaking points and finding that perhaps they were never the men they thought they were in the first place.
When it is over, it is nothing more than a check mark on a mental list, as Arthur reminds himself what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Two days before Arthur is set to begin his first tour in Afghanistan, a man in a lab coat approaches him outside the barracks. Arthur has never seen him before and it isn't important that he knows this man's name (or so he's told), but as the man explains: scores and honors like his from MIT get you noticed and would you like to know more about a, ah, unique special forces unit? A new project in the works and Arthur just about fits the bill for the perfect man for the job. Dreamsharing, it's called, and it changes his life.
It is everything that has ever interested Arthur in his life and then some. It is creation and it is control and above all, it is something new that he can carve out his name in, entirely for himself. This is a path that has not been well-worn by his father's footsteps and there is something undeniably freeing in that knowledge.
Information on the subject is scant and varied, with many holes in the middle, and he gets to researching and filling them with an enthusiasm that Arthur hasn't felt in years.
He has just settled into a working rapport with a few of the other chosen soldiers when he is notified that he's been summoned to Garmisch to participate in a co-researching program with the British special forces.
"Look, I don't like it any better than you do, but rumor has it that the Brits have been making some startling advances in the field of dreamsharing and we would be remiss in refusing to tap into their font of knowledge, as it were," the man in the lab coat says, and Arthur never does bother to ask for his name.
"Not at all, sir, I look forward to meeting with the British liaison."
Arthur will later come to review that statement as something akin to "famous last words."
The base at Garmisch is unassuming - you wouldn't look at it and immediately take it as a US military base, not unless you knew to look for one. The design blends in with the surroundings, all with a distinctly Bavarian flavor to it, and Arthur thinks that this is the perfect place to hide a top secret operation. His fluent French is useless here and his German is barely passable, but the area has its own beauty to it that Arthur can't help but notice.
The British liaison is meant to arrive on a Monday, the same day as Arthur.
It is not until Thursday morning, by which point Arthur has some very decidedly formed opinions about his mysterious fellow researcher and his inability to keep to a time table, that the lab door is thrust open and the lilt of an English accent comes booming through.
His name is Rupert Eames and he is the single most frustrating human-being that Arthur has ever had the misfortune to meet. Recruited straight out of Oxford, Eames has the sort of effortless brilliance that breeds arrogance and carelessness. Arthur, who has always been a proponent of hard work and determination, hates him at first out of principle and later out of genuine irritation for the man. If it weren't for his fascination with this concept of forging that Eames is known for messing about with, Arthur might seriously consider stabbing the man in the eye with his ball-point pen and making it look like an accident.
"Is the stick up your arse an American requirement upon enlisting, Private Becker?"
Then again, perhaps the pen idea warranted some merit.
"Just Arthur is fine," Arthur says, choosing to ignore the rest of Eames's comment. It's the third one as such that the other man has made so far that day.
Eames, Arthur later comes to observe over the following weeks, has no true concept of what it means to be silent and to simply concentrate at the task at hand. He must be a great multi-tasker because he never falls behind in their research, and yet he always keeps up a steady stream of chatter on everything from the best way to cheat at poker to some Arsenal that he won't stop nattering on about every few days.
Three weeks into working together and Arthur has a migraine like he's never had before and so he snaps, "Could you just shut the fuck up for a second."
"Why Arthur," Eames says leaning forward to meet Arthur's irritated glare and sounding inexplicably pleased, "that's the first real thing you've said to me since the day we met."
After that, the vitriol in their interactions lessens and is replaced by a familiar banter. If Arthur were hard-pressed to put a finger on it, he would say that their relationship has grown into something like friendship.
During one of Eames's more eloquent rambles on the nature of dream levels, if Arthur spends more time fascinated by Eames's lips than by the words coming out of his mouth, than that is no one's business but his own.
Except later on that very day, Arthur catches Eames gazing at him with a soft, thoughtful look in his eyes.
The fifth time it happens, Arthur can no longer dismiss it as a mere coincidence.
Vaguely, Arthur realizes that he's meant to be having some sort of crisis over this. He's no blushing virgin, an undergraduate education surrounded by strong-minded girls who had wanted to show the young kid a good time had seen to that, but he's never been so drawn to any one person before.
Then again, Eames harbors a professed fondness for Graham Greene novels, his German is as perfect as Arthur's is horrendous, and he can match Arthur's sharp tongue like no one ever has before. Perhaps it's not so strange, then, that Arthur frequently wants to say fuck it to the research and bend the other man over their shared desk.
Arthur inserts the IV into Eames's wrist and his touch always lingers, just as Eames's hand will often settle on Arthur's shoulders unbidden while bent over the same architectural textbook.
Lots of little moments that cannot amount to anything at all.
Sergeant Jack Thrace.
This is a name that Arthur will never forget. His (their) first mark, long before he had to start calling them marks. For the preparation leading up to it, Arthur thinks of nothing more than the excitement of finally having a practical test run, of putting all of their accumulated theories to good use. It all seems simple enough. Thrace is the solitary survivor of an operation gone wrong and the army suspects Thrace of withholding details as to what actually happened. Arthur designs the dream, Eames extracts the information and then Thrace is sent home, never the wiser.
Simple. Cut and dry.
The reality is that Thrace's mind is tortured by his experiences, reliving and rehashing them over and over, and the landscape of his dream smacks the two of them right dab in the middle of the information that they were seeking. There is blood everywhere and screaming and everything that a would-be solider always tells himself that he's prepared for but never ever is, and when Arthur slips the IV from his wrist afterwards, he lunges for the trash can to vomit and only half makes it.
Eames offers Arthur a sip of whisky from a flask that Arthur has ribbed at him for having in the past, and Arthur accepts it weakly as Eames tells him of "a pub I know just off base in town, because I don't know about you, but I would like to be falling on my arse pissed right about now."
The pub becomes a habit.
Saturday nights are always spent together at that same bar, like clockwork. They will sit next to each other on high barstools, knees pressed together, and Eames will pick apart the cardboard coasters that sit in stacks on the bar. Arthur will tell Eames that this habit annoys him but it doesn't, he finds it reassuring, a constant reminder that there is a status quo that must be adhered to.
Sooner or later, something has to give. Something always does, in situations like this, and Arthur has known for months now that this game that they're playing, this routine that they've settled into, is precarious at best.
Dangerous at the worst.
He wakes up flush with the exhilaration of success because it had worked, it had really fucking worked (paradoxes, his mind reminds him gleefully, paradoxes) and that adrenaline brings with it a tinge of recklessness, and so when Eames reaches over and presses a kiss to Arthur's lips, Arthur lets him. Not only lets him - he leans into it, feels the scratch of Eames's stubble against his cheek and it doesn't bother him the way he had always thought it might, and nothing has ever felt quite this good.
Their superior officer picked one hell of a day to drop in for a routine check in.
Snow crunches under his boot heel as Arthur shoulders his backpack and sets off into town. That's the convenient thing about top secret research projects that no one's supposed to know about - the army can dispense with the formalities and shove things under the carpet in a matter of hours.
Out on his ass with a dishonorable discharge and a promise that if he breathes a word of what he was working on in that lab, he'll be dead inside of a day.
Arthur feels a surge of uncontrollable anger, not towards the army, but towards Eames because it was never going to be his job on the fucking line, never going to be his whole life that could get torn to pieces. It was always going to be Arthur's and they both knew it -
(years from now, at a taxi stand outside of LAX, Arthur will catch sight of Eames's profile with that very same stubble and he will remember the desperate wanting of those months, how it must have grated on Eames just as much as it had grated on Arthur, and he will finally, finally let go)
- and for the first time in years, Arthur has no idea what to do.
It isn't until later at the usual bar, at the bottom of his fifth glass of Scotch, that Arthur remembers a man who had come to see them one day. An independent academic who had pressed his card into Arthur's hand with a whispered "in case you get tired of following orders."
Arthur's frayed and whiskey-sodden brain catches onto the man's name and the tension in his shoulders eases slightly.
+ Sergeant Jack Thrace is the harbinger of death.
+ If this fic had a soundtrack, it would be something like this.