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A Blonde You Can Wear

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Once, Eames almost admitted how he became a Forger. It was during the aftermath of a job in Canada, and none of them wanted to risk a serious hangover before they had to drive back across the border the next day to catch their trains, flights or -- in Arthur's case -- routine dental checkups. That meant cheap beer for the night, and Eames flicking bottlecaps across the table and Mal twirling her hair around her fingers, hypnotizing Cobb with each revolution of her knuckles.

They had all been basking in the glow of a job well done, stupid with victory, feeling impossibly gifted and invincible. At some point, the conversation had wound its way around to how they all got to this point in their lives. Cobb had said something about impressing the ladies. Mal had replied he hadn't done a very good job. Arthur had laughed -- he and Eames had been on better terms back then, before the on-again-off-again not-speaking-to-you-bastard-you-never-call relations that they had gradually lapsed into -- and snagged the last bottle out of that six-pack. Then he had turned to Eames, and Eames had looked at the endearing foppishness of a tipsy Arthur and Mal's sly smile and Cobb trying to lick spilled beer off his fingers, and he had opened his mouth while thinking, maybe. Maybe.

It had been collage, Eames had ended up claiming. Some people get tattoos. Some people sleep with their best friend's significant other. Some people sleep with their significant other's best friend. Eames took too many sedatives and ended up in the chemistry labs as a prank on the bio students. After that, it had all been downhill into a life of crime and chronic naps.

But the way it had happened was this:

Eames had originally been in line for training as an Extractor -- not a Forger. Back then, he hadn't even heard of Forgers, only Extractors, the glory-boys of the industry with their guns blazing and hips swinging low, breaking ground in the latest and greatest unexplored frontier. Dream robberies were as elaborate as you could get, requiring inhuman self-control. Extraction was an art, or a science, or a fresh path into the realm of utter depravity, depending on who you were asking. Very exciting -- or so the rumors made it out to be. Very profitable.

Brilliant and reckless, Eames used a combination of emails and creative stalking to scour for anyone willing to take on an apprentice -- a tricky prospect in a field where your own pupil might become a competitor the next day. Most of the freelancers were too protective of their own tricks to be willing to share them, and PASIV cases weren't exactly available at the local convenience marts. But greed and rivalry went hand-in-hand; the right mentor-student relationship could net ludicrous payoffs, and add up quickly towards a cozy retirement. That alone was enough to encourage some people to accept junior practitioners tagging along on their heels.

Reginald Oswald was the target he settled on. A high-earning Extractor with secondary skills in taking point, Oswald was living in the States, which was less surprising than it should have been. Americans -- with their innate distrust for organized government, and patriotic obsession with self-armament -- were handling the issue of military technology by attempting to bring it directly into the corporate boardroom. Many Extractors were taking brief contract positions in North America while waiting for more lucrative, unregulated jobs overseas, the ones that could get you nicely killed regardless of if you were asleep or awake. Sometimes, an Extractor would do hand-to-mouth as an adviser, but those never lasted long. American jobs were like bread. You could eat it, it could keep you alive for a time, and then it would kill you with its lack of nutritional variety. On the other hand, without the basics, you'd give yourself a stomachache from too much rich food.

So Oswald had turned a few jobs in Germany before the heat caught up with him, leaving a bullet in his leg and his co-Extractor in a permanent coma. Oswald had promptly jumped the pond and hunkered down in New England for a few months before sending out feelers for a new partner, a potential apprentice willing to take on future work. Experience wasn't required, but Oswald hadn't completely abandoned his standards: the percentage of the take was dependent on being able to find where he lived. It had taken months of Eames wriggling through nearly all his contacts and favors before he compiled enough hints to pinpoint a location, driving up and down the Maine coast for six hours with a fancy new suit and malfunctioning GPS.

Eames finally caught the man at home just before dinner. Oswald's small cottage was wedged so far back along a dirt road that Eames had missed it twice, circling around and around in search of directional signs that didn't exist. His car nosed gingerly through weeds and deer droppings, making protesting crunches whenever the tires kicked up chunks of gravel. But a man matching Oswald's measurements was out front, scowling at a row of scrawny azaleas, and Eames gleefully ignored the damage to his car's undercarriage as he pulled into park.

The mounting anticipation was hard to control, but Eames tried his best not to appear too giddy as Oswald wheeled out his personal PASIV. The dream yanked them out of Maine and dropped Eames on a palm-tree boulevard that looked more appropriate for Miami, disorienting him momentarily while he tried to squint against the glare and imagine himself into a pair of sunglasses. He hadn't had much experience with dreamshares, but what he did have was confidence; Eames was still new enough to not really be sure about the ins and outs of how it all worked, even though he'd gone in a few times on his own to get acquainted with the basics. He'd never tested it with a partner either, so it had taken a long moment to remember that the person standing next to him was real, and not a projection he could offend without consequence.

Once he snapped to alertness, he spread his hands. "Well?" he asked. "Good enough for you?"

Oswald regarded him with no indication of approval on his jowled, thick-lined face. "You're not right for this work," he answered flatly. Then, laboriously, as if the truth had to be dragged out of him by a team of horses: "You could pull it off. You'd be an adequate Extractor. More than adequate. But there's another specialty you'd be better at. It'd be a crime if I didn't point you towards that instead."

Eames dropped his arms. "I'm sorry, what?" he blurted, but Oswald had already vanished, courtesy of a self-inflicted passing bus.

It took a few minutes before Eames could follow, taking advantage of the time differential to collect his thoughts, but Oswald was already standing when he opened his eyes. "Stay here," the man ordered. "I'll call up an old partner of mine. Don't touch anything," he added shrewdly, and then vanished down the hall.

He returned when Eames was halfway through a mahogany writing desk in a downstairs study; the lower drawers had distracted him as he'd sorted through paperwork, trying to wring what insights he could into Oswald's inner nature. It wasn't too late to turn the situation around; Eames simply had to learn more about what made Oswald tick. In order to get a complete picture of the man, Eames would have to assemble it from bits on the pages -- bits he was trying to frantically memorize just as Oswald banged a hand on the doorway and startled him.

Eames jerked, slamming his elbow into the desk and stifling the resulting grunt of pain. Oswald merely snorted. "Damned Forgers are all the same. Nosy bastards. You think I haven't had one in my house before? I was going to offer you some training when Johnson gets here, but maybe I should rethink that."

"I'm sorry," Eames protested automatically, shuffling the papers back together in a collision of legalities and juicy personal details. "Look, I'll stay in a hotel," he added hastily, graciously, before Oswald could decide to ban him from the property altogether. He scrambled out the door and back into his car, gunning it in reverse down the driveway while the rocks had chunked against his car wheels. To his horror as he drove, he discovered he was reverting to one of his younger habits: chewing on the pad of his thumb, his teeth rubbing over the skin, fretting and worrying as if he could peel himself out of his own flesh like a day-old suit.

Oswald's contact was in before the week was out. The man -- who only identified himself as Johnson, no first name or possibly no last -- was his partner's equal when it came to sharp temper. Thin and sour-faced, he lurched through the front door and squinted at Eames. "And how did Reg think to convince me this time, eh?" he grumbled, already handing off his bags. "Bribe me? With a pretty face?"

"That depends," Eames responded, defaulting to glib. "Am I fancier than your normal?"

Johnson coughed out a laugh that sounded wet and gritty as lung cancer. "Hear that, Reg? Sounds like you've found one with spunk this time. Let's see if it's worth the trip."

This time, Eames kept to discretion. He listened to them haggle -- Oswald cutting down to forty percent, shared with Johnson getting fifty, so as an apprentice twice-over, Eames would only be getting ten -- and noticed the way that Oswald's voice would go down when Johnson's went up. He paid attention as they walked around each other in the small kitchen, pouring coffee and finding sugar. He watched them carefully not touch.

When it was time for the second interview, Eames was prepared.

Johnson popped open Oswald's PASIV case with an experienced flick of his knuckles, and Eames reached for the needle, running down a mental list of what he had learned in hopes of leaving a better impression this time. The dream he stepped into was different enough from both Maine and Miami that it took him a minute to get his bearings, immersed in a fresh world of rustic cobblestone streets and girls in watercress-colored skirts. Vintage European, if Europe were re-envisioned as a greeting card. Johnson was already settled in, puffing reflectively on a cigarette while a projection tried to sell him pastries from a handcart.

"Reg is right," he chuckled. "You'll be a Forger. You're born to it. Bet you know all the best tricks already, the way you are now."

Bewildered, Eames tried to interpret the strange flattery; then he realized that the other man was looking past him, speaking to something over Eames's shoulder. He twisted his head, seeing only an innocent row of stores, stretched end to end with window displays, store signs, and Eames's reflection. There he was, keeping company with a dozen boulevard mannequins: boxy shoulders, five-day stubble, tousled bangs, perfect, perfect, perfect, so perfect that he realized suddenly why Johnson was staring.

Johnson was staring because he was matching up what was showing in the windows against what was sitting in the kitchen chair. He was comparing the man he saw in the dream to the Eames outside: Eames's blonde waves of hair, Eames's slender arms, Eames's curving hips. Eames's C-cup.

Eames felt his heart slam against his ribs; he spun back towards Johnson, feeling his hard-won calm tear itself to shreds. All his preparation was useless against something as petty as bias. "What?" he snapped: childish, angry, already rankling under the ignorant mockery he was sure would come. "Because I spend my time wanting to pretend to be a boy?"

"No," his future tutor replied, his gaze steady as a rock. "Because you spend so much time pretending to be a girl."

First things first: they left the country.

Santiago wasn't half-bad this time of year, so that was where Oswald booked first. Johnson got the case through customs with a few strategically-crafted forms, introducing himself as one Dr. Harold Brauer with two convenient assistants. Eames accepted his false papers with some interest; he had plenty of time to study them on the trip down. When it came to classical definitions of the term, forgery itself had always attracted Eames. Even as a child, he'd been fascinated by how handwriting was supposed to convey personality, and how your legal identity could be switched around by a few accidental letters. Forgery of the pen was all about surface changes: ones that people would describe as lies and deception, but which could also be tools to carefully take advantage of what society preferred to see. Changing flesh in a dream was exactly the same. People thought that forgery was all about lying. They didn't realize that sometimes, it was the only way to tell the truth.

Eames knew the drill. He could recite it inside and out: how being a boy and liking boys meant, in some people's eyes, that you wanted to be a girl, so why not stay in a girl's body? It didn't matter that Eames liked girls too, and that he didn't care what his partner was shaped like so long as they were interesting, even though that meant -- in some people's eyes -- that Eames shouldn't care what body he was in either. If you didn't let someone else's genitals sway your opinions, how could you care about your own?

But it mattered. It did.

Years of arguments had educated Eames in the ugly parts of people, in willing ignorance and hasty judgements and restrictions based upon surface features. That worked to his advantage as a Forger. It should have made him a paramount Extractor, a con-man for the ages, except that he couldn't deny what Johnson said: Eames knew how to act. More importantly, he knew how to pretend be something else. He wasn't fixed in his own self-perceptions, and that was a key component to a Forger, because otherwise you would simply keep turning back into yourself at precisely the wrong moment. Starting off with a mismatched body wasn't necessary to be a Forger -- but being flexible, that part was key.

The fact that Eames wanted to alter things about himself was a statistic that detractors loved to correlate with crime -- which was why he never mentioned his professional skills to his doctors, who were very discreet to begin with. He didn't hate his body, really; that wasn't why he was adjusting it. He didn't even mind wearing it on occasion, dressing up in heels and lipstick, exhaling breathily and letting his fingers wander over the silverware. It simply wasn't comfortable. Even the best-made party dress tended to itch if you wore it for too long, and Eames had been wanting a zipper for a very long while.

Eames did wonder about it sometimes. Why not stay in a girl's body? It'd be easier to pick up male dates without being afraid of getting ganged up on in an alleyway. It'd make some parts of sex less complicated, and that wouldn't even be counting the headache of surgery. But then he'd be picking up men who would want a woman, who would want Eames to wear a face all the time instead of at whim. He'd be hiding forever in his own skin.

And there was one thing that he reminded himself of whenever his studies in dreamcraft became too frustrating, and Johnson had him turning into different European monarchs on command. It was the moment that he knew that Johnson was worth his weight as an instructor, and that the ten-percent share in profits was forgivable: because Eames wasn't a lie, and Johnson had known it on sight.

It took multiple surgeries and some training before the Eames outside matched the inside. Fitting himself to his own bones felt odd, but each day was another step closer to improvement. His shoulders wouldn't ever be as broad as he'd like them to be, but doing weights helped bulk him up, and the muscles felt as if they were more suited to the way he wanted to move. Fresh identity cards were a dime a dozen, and even cheaper if you could make them yourself -- which Johnson was happy to demonstrate. Eames snapped his first one against his hand, still warm from lamination, and grinned at the plastic thwack.

His studies didn't stop while he was adjusting, either. Johnson kept him working around the clock whenever Eames wasn't too nauseous from various chemicals, PASIV-related or otherwise. For half a summer one year, Eames didn't see sunlight except through a window. Every day, he was indoors, awake only in spurts. His metabolism started to drag, energy levels barely alert by mid-morning despite his careful monitoring of sugar and caffeine. One of his doctors claimed it was depression, hinting at psychological issues. The other recommended getting more sunlight or vitamin D supplements. Eames made sure to leave the first one's business card in the middle of a downtown strip club, and went back to the second for the rest of his treatments.

Later that year, Johnson and Oswald brought him into the field. As Eames slid into Australia with his new passport, he kept thinking that someone would catch him. Someone would say something about a man who was standing wrong, or gesturing wrong, or breathing wrong; some authority would want to check his credentials a little more closely, and then it would be all over. But the officials at the airport simply waved him along in the line. Eames collected his stamp, nodded his thanks, and then walked across borders and left everything else about his history behind.

As they relaxed in the few days available before the job, Eames took the time to examine the results of all his hard work. He shucked off his clothes and turned the full-length hotel mirror towards him, regarding himself in the sunlight coming through the windows, studying himself with the unrelenting scrutiny that he might use to analyze a mark. He touched dark lines of scars that were starting to become silvery with age. His fingers made pale arches over the nubs of his hipbones. His stomach was flatter, though it was still soft in places; his shoulders were bony over the tops. He was wearing his own honesty now, giving it away to anyone who looked at him. Here was the stark, brazen truth of himself on display for the entire world -- and the irony was that to some people, it would be the real lie.

The humor of it made him smile, and then frown, and then he pulled on his three-piece-suit and went downstairs to dinner.

Later that year, after Eames finished a particularly grueling practice run which involved three different complex Forgeries in less than an hour, he found himself lingering in the dream. Johnson kicked out early, but Eames hung around, flipping idly through his mental portfolio. He reviewed the faces he had collected on tap, trying them on in the reflection of a bistro window. He cycled through his defaults, experimenting with how quickly he could throw them on and off: older men, younger men, and one particularly spirited Irish grandmother with a squint.

After a moment, he hesitated, and then added one more to the lineup. The blonde he chose had a pouting mouth and flouncing waves of hair. She was pretty; she would turn some heads. She could throw an extra sway in her step, balance on heels that were three inches tall and make it look as if she was still walking on air. She could lure a target in before they even realized they were charmed. Eames pulled her on carefully, testing the weight of her limbs. She would be good to bring out, on occasion. There were things he liked about her. She wasn't a bad fit.

She would work out just fine.

Oswald turned him loose eventually; they'd spent enough years on the field to amass a small fortune in the bank, though Eames's share was far more modest. Johnson nodded farewell with gruff respect. Eames celebrated by touring both North and South America in succession, reveling in the different ways that the crowds parted around him, the different ways that people ran their eyes over his body and made appropriate assumptions. He spent a week in Brazil just visiting various clothing shops, letting tailors stitch custom suits that would flatter his new build. If any of them noticed anything amiss with their clever measuring tapes, they never said a word.

But it was back to work soon enough, and Eames had to pay the bills somehow. He cruised his way across the belly of the globe, keeping to warm climates where no one asked too many questions, and he could blend in with the crowds as easily as in a dream. On his own, it was simpler to stick to traditional forgeries, fiddling with casino chips and other people's credit slips. He knew to feed his contacts generously, though not enough to encourage intimacy; the last thing he wanted was to find himself working a complicated job with someone who might pry a little too deeply, and who would reveal their prejudices like a leaking orange might show the rot beneath a pristine skin. There were more than a few jobs that he rejected out of hand. Being picky was better than being vexed.

Eventually, one opening showed up in Brazil. The offer was from some two-person team that needed a third to grease the way, where the passwords to a security network would be easier to pry out of someone's head than to try to hack through digitally. It was a standard hide-and-seek interview between strangers, where the Forger got twenty-four hours in advance to dig up what little information they could to provide the setting, and the recruiter got to see how well Eames blended in with the projections. As job interviews went, Eames had experienced worse.

His estimation changed within ten minutes of entering the dream. Eames didn't know enough about the mark he was trying to impress, so all he had to go on were guesses, intuitions of his own, based around rough assumptions from height, weight, and ethnicity. He defaulted to the blandest of appearances. The recruiter was fooled -- kept getting fooled for the first few seconds, but inevitably honed right in. He was fast, intuitive to catch up; the little prick was able to chase Eames, even unconsciously, which hinted at a far higher level of skill than Eames usually worked with. All the projections noticed Eames, making him feel like he was on the spot, even while doing nothing more suspicious than purchasing a newspaper.

Desperate enough to try anything, Eames went through face after face, until he realized he had pulled out the very first one he ever wore, the one that had graced ten driver's licenses and four passports before he'd managed to successfully change it. This one, he pulled on so tightly that he thought he would melt into it permanently. But it sat well, it sat strong, and he forced himself to relax into its features. The blonde sat demurely with the crowd, not looking around, jabbering away with the other woman sharing her table -- until the recruiter walked straight up to her and rested a gun gently against her head.

"It was good," the recruiter said contemplatively afterwards in the hotel bar, sipping his water. The woman with him played with a wedge of lime. "But the blonde at the end -- that one was the giveaway."

Unable to suppress more than a little resentment for having to sweat, Eames turned his napkin around and didn't touch his own drink. "Because it was the only one too attractive to be real, I suppose?"

The recruiter laughed, sounding sincerely friendly. "No," he said, but what came after was the surprise. "It was the only one that didn't look like it fit you. All the others -- they looked natural. But that one, there was something off. It wasn't you. Not completely."

Eames blinked.

"The name's Dom Cobb," the recruiter continued, extending a hand in offer of a shake. "This lovely lady with me is Mal. We'd like to have you along, if you're willing. What's your name?"

Eames reached out, touching warm skin across the table. "Eames," he answered, savoring the truth. "Call me Eames."