The story of how Eames and Arthur meet is one of the great legends of the dream-sharing profession.
In it, there's a dark alley, a foreign country, a bar, a punch in the face, a loaded die, a poker chip, a three-piece suit, and a kiss. Not necessarily in that order. And not necessarily all the time.
In a warehouse in Paris, Eames tells the story to Ariadne like this:
“It was Bangkok, the rainy season,” Eames begins.
“It's always the rainy season.” Arthur's tone says exactly what he thinks of countries with too much rain, including Eames' beloved mother England.
Eames continues as if Arthur's said nothing. “I was ensconced in the back of a tiny club in the Patpong Night Market, holding the best hand of cards I've ever had.”
“With or without cheating?” Arthur asks, not looking up from the files he's reviewing.
Eames rolls his eyes. “May I continue, Arthur?”
“By all means.”
“As I was saying, I had a fantastic hand, a table of tourists and amateurs, and very large table stakes. My night was going beautifully until a woman rushed into the back room where we were playing, screaming bloody murder.”
“Is Arthur even in this story?” Ariadne asks.
“Hush, dear, of course he is. I'm getting to that.” Eames sips his scotch and sets it back on the lopsided table. “So, this woman—who, I might add was drop-dead gorgeous, a real knockout with a figure that wouldn't—”
“I get the idea,” Ariadne says, flushing slightly, and batting Eames' hands out of the air where he's making shapely hourglasses with a fond and faraway look. “Eames.”
“Yes, so the woman proceeds to scan the bar, fixes her steely gaze on me, and names me as her unborn child's father.”
“Oh, for the love of--” Arthur mutters into his coffee.
“Something you wish to add, darling?” Eames waits until Arthur shakes his head ever so slightly. “I thought not. So--”
“Wait,” Ariadne cuts in. “She was pregnant? Did you—was she actually—did you even know her?”
Dom picks that moment to wander through the warehouse towards Arthur's desk, helping himself to a hit of Eames' scotch. “She wasn't pregnant, Ariadne,” he says with the air of someone who's heard the story before. “She wasn't even really a she.”
“Thank you so much, Cobb, for spoiling that little reveal.” Eames takes his scotch back and glares at Dom. “Further contributions to the story of how Arthur and I met should not be necessary.”
Ariadne looks between the two of them, and shakes her head, trying to clear the contradictory images. “So, who was she? Or he? I'm confused.”
Eames leans forward, grinning again, and pats her on the knee. “That, Ariadne, was our dear Arthur! Oh, he'd traded his three-piece suit for a fetching sweater-set and skirt combination, but underneath that dark curly wig and plump feather pillow it was all Arthur.”
“But I don't understand--”
“Be thankful you don't,” Dom says mildly and wanders off.
“You see, Arthur had been taxed with a surveillance job that had gone a bit south, and when he entered the club and saw me—clearly, the very picture of a gentleman—he knew he had but to ask, and assistance would be forthcoming. I therefore sacrificed my winnings in order to bestow a kiss on my love's beautiful lips and escort her from the premises, for which Arthur was forever grateful.”
“That's not the word I would use,” Arthur says, but he's smiling.
Ariadne glances at Arthur who seems to be suffering from Parkinson's, given the continuous shake of his shoulders in what appears to be either apoplexy or suppressed laughter, and then back at Eames, who simply stares at her with a perfectly straight face, waiting for her response.
“You are so full of shit,” Ariadne says, laughing, and Eames merely holds up his glass in a mock-toast and adds nothing further.
Dominic Cobb's known both Arthur and Eames for years, separately and together. Contrary to popular opinion, he knew Eames well before he met Arthur. He assumes the first time he introduces them is the first time they meet. They never bother to correct him.
Dom remembers their first meeting going like this:
“Arthur, this is Eames, the forger I told you about. I think he'll be a welcome addition to the Rutherford job. Eames, my point man, Arthur.”
“Charmed, Arthur. Absolutely charmed to have the pleasure of your--” Eames says, his accent suddenly at the top of the British class system.
Arthur's back is ramrod straight, his eyes narrow. “You should be so lucky.”
Dom looks between the two of them and asks: “Do you know each other?”
“No,” they say in stereo, and that's the end of that because honestly, Dom doesn't need more children to supervise.
Ariadne tells the story of Arthur and Eames to Yusuf. She's very, very drunk on fruity cocktails at the time, but he likes her, so he indulges her terrible story-telling skills.
“I really don't know how he got Arthur pregnant,” Ariadne says. “It's possible I missed something.”
Yusuf pats her hand and pushes a glass of water over to her. “I'm sure it's not that important,” he says fondly.
Yusuf has known Eames for a relatively short period of time. He finds it hard to pin the man down. At times he seems a free-spirit: reckless, imaginative, interested in getting the most out of life with the least amount of effort. Other times, he's elusive, secretive, haunted. Yusuf doesn't know which man is the real Eames. He's not sure that anyone does.
He's heard the ridiculous story of Arthur in drag, the bar in Bangkok, the noble Eames to the rescue.
He's also heard it like this:
The bar in Bangkok is a haven for sex and drug-trafficking. Eames gambles away his army wages there, spends his money on cheap booze, shitty cigarettes, poker and sex. He flips a single poker chip back and forth across his knuckles.
When he steps out for a fag, there's a scuffle in progress in the alley. He waits for his eyes to adjust, to see if there's a reason to step in, or a better reason to walk away. Two men are holding a third man while they beat him. Eames hears the clink of dog tags, their flash of silver at the victim's neck, and he stubs out his cigarette. He grabs one of the attackers from behind. He keeps pressure on the man's neck for four or five seconds, enough to cut off the flow of oxygen until he passes out. He watches the victim rally.
The soldier's tall but slim. His bare arms catch the moonlight with every swing. He has no problem taking out the other man now that the odds are even. When the second attacker is down and bloody, the soldier glares at Eames.
“I didn't need the help.” The voice is American.
“You bloody well did,” Eames says, lighting a new cigarette and putting it to his lips. He breathes in, smoke and tar, lets the familiar taste calm him. The American reaches out and takes the cigarette from Eames' lips, slips it between his own and inhales. Eames sees the flare of red from the lit end; the American leans against the wall, then passes the cigarette back.
“Thanks,” the American says.
“For the fag?”
“Christ, that's disconcerting.” The guy scrubs a hand through his dark hair. Eames had forgotten how uptight Americans could be. “Yeah, for the ... cigarette. And the help.”
Eames nudges one of the unconscious men with his toe. “Anything to be done with these two?”
“Let the locals deal with them.”
Eames passes the cigarette back to his companion. “I'm Eames.”
Yusuf no longer remembers which of them told him the story. He supposes it probably doesn't matter. It should be the same story, after all.
If Arthur is sober, he tells the story like this:
“We met at a bar. I was trying to enjoy a drink in peace. An obnoxiously loud English guy was cheating at poker. Badly. In what is apparently de rigeur for Eames, he got caught, a fight broke out, and somehow I ended up having to save his ass.”
“I'm telling the story, Eames, and in my story you're an ass.”
“You mean I have--”
“I stand by what I said.”
If Mal were alive, she would say she had known the two men were meant for each other, just as Arthur and Eames surely knew it too. It's been that way since their first meeting
Mal was French, opinionated, and a romantic at heart. She wanted the entire world to be in love.
If she were alive, she would see what could only be described as love: in the ways they look at one another; in the ways they try not to look. She would scold them for being silly men, afraid of both the wanting and the having, of reaching out and finding only empty dreams. She would lock them in a room together until they killed one another or made love. She would be certain of the result.
But Mal died because she loved someone too much. Enough to believe that drastic measures were necessary, were preferable to a life lived by halves. Arthur and Eames both know this. It's made them cautious.
If Mal were alive, she would say Arthur and Eames were destined to dream together for the rest of their lives.
But Mal isn't alive.
If Arthur is not entirely sober, he tells the story like this:
“Eames is wrong—so very wrong—about the sweater-set. It was a perfectly lovely dress, which was ruined, ruined, by the way, running through filthy back alleys in the stupid Night Market.”
“It wasn't my fault the pillow fell out in the middle of the bar. It was only supposed to be a distraction, enough time to palm the chips and—Christ, are we out of peanuts? Really?”
“It's not a very good story,” Arthur always says, “even if it's mostly true.”
He neglects to add that while true, it's still not the story of how he and Eames first met.
Mr. Saito does not do business with people he doesn't know, so he makes it a practice to know as much as possible about the people he must rely on.
This is what Saito knows:
The original dream-sharing technology was designed by the military for combat-training applications. Each country likes to claim the development was theirs, but the classified patent document shows it was a joint project funded by several allied countries, including Britain and the United States. The original training facilities are located in Nevada.
Saito's interest is in two of the initial participants:
Arthur (last name redacted) is a nineteen year old American with a high IQ and an ability to learn things quickly and efficiently. He's precise, disciplined, detail-oriented, and ruthless. He's also proven to be extremely loyal. He has distanced himself from his family since enlisting in the military.
(First name redacted) Eames is a twenty-three year old British soldier with a high IQ and a strong sense of self. He's adaptable, creative, and resourceful. He has exceptional people skills, inspiring both loyalty and trust. He is charismatic and confident, but rarely allows anyone close to him. He is estranged from his family.
They make excellent test subjects.
Saito knows that Arthur and Eames were soldiers in the first dream-sharing trials. He also knows that subjects were not made aware of the multinational nature of the program until such information was discovered by accident from within the program itself.
Saito knows only the circumstances, not the details. He has the information he requires. It is not his story to tell.
The official story is still classified. Arthur and Eames have never cared much for official versions anyway.
The truth is this:
Arthur pushes his way towards the bar. He's died six times that day, in increasingly horrifying ways, and he doesn't trust himself to stay on base and drink in his room. He reasons that paying for the drinks will limit his consumption, and even though he wants to take the edge off, he wants to stay lucid. He needs to figure out what exactly he's gotten himself into and he needs to be in control to do that. He rubs absently at the needle mark on his arm as he waits for the bartender's attention.
“Whatever you've got on tap. In a glass,” Arthur says over the din of locals and military personnel. He slaps some bills on the counter and tries to look older than nineteen. Technically, he's not even supposed to be off-base since it's a classified project, but he'd needed to get away. Clear his head. Avoiding base security is nowhere near as difficult as it should be.
“I don't think so, son,” the bartender says, taking a good look at Arthur's face. The stupid military cut makes him look even younger. “I can read your tags from here, soldier. You're not twenty-one. Sorry.”
Of course the nearest bar has to have a conscientious law-abiding bartender. Arthur's never hated his life more. All he wants is something to dull the edges of his combat-training. No virtual reality system should be that realistic, Arthur thinks. It's a little frightening. Sometimes it feels like a dream; other times, he's certain it could only be considered a nightmare.
“Oh, for fuck's sake, Marty, give the kid a beer.” The accent is British, and appears to be coming from a blond guy with his back to Arthur. He's in jeans and a tight-fitting t-shirt. There's a hint of a tattoo spilling from under his right sleeve. “If he's old enough to fight for the bleedin' country, he's old enough to have a drink.”
“You're lucky I let you in here, Eames,” Marty says. “You're not even supposed to be off the goddamn base.”
“Yeah, but I'm a good customer. Give him his beer.”
Marty shakes his head, but seems to relent, and pours a glass for Arthur, gathering the soggy bills up off the bar. Arthur leans in towards the Brit who'd spoken up, Eames apparently, and says, “Thanks. I—just thanks.”
The face that swivels towards him is young and brash, blue eyes and a quick smile. Arthur knows that face—but he also knows with alarming certainty that he's never met this guy before. There's startled recognition on the other man's face, and suddenly he's sliding off his stool and grabbing Arthur by the shoulders.
“Who are you?” Eames asks, intent, studying Arthur's face from inches away. Arthur's too busy trying not to panic, trying to push down the overwhelming desire to shove the guy and run, when the blond takes a step back and bolts. Without a thought, Arthur follows him, weaving through the crowd and out the bar's back door. The guy's trying to light a cigarette without much success.
“Here, let me,” Arthur says, taking the lighter from Eames' hands. In the glow of the flame, he can see Eames' face, pale and tired, maybe a little bit frightened. Probably not that different from his own. It instantly makes Arthur feel better. “You're shaking.”
“Piss off, mate,” the guy says. “I'm not even sure you're real.”
The guy's clutching something in his hand, rolling it back and forth, and Arthur understands that impulse all too well. He's got his fingers in his pocket, rubbing the rough edge of a poker chip he'd picked up his first day in Nevada. He'd been reminded that he was too young for casinos too, but he'd palmed the chip regardless. It was comforting to touch when he couldn't tell what was reality and what was a dream. In the dream, its edges were always smooth.
“I'm real. Trust me,” Arthur says, laying a hand on Eames' arm. “I'm Arthur. I'm real.”
“Well, Arthur, if you're so bloody real, why am I certain I've only seen you in my dreams?”
They stare at each other for a moment, not looking away, and then Arthur's lip starts to quiver with laughter. Eames isn't far behind. They're both laughing now, and it's freeing, tension draining away as the laughter subsides.
“Christ,” Eames says, around his cigarette. “That sounded like the worst chat-up line ever.”
“It really kind of did,” Arthur agrees. “Doesn't make it less true, though.” He catches Eames' eyes. He's about to break every rule he's ever been taught about confidentiality and classifed material. “They told us we were a group of six. All Americans. Enhanced virtual reality combat-training.”
Eames shakes his head. “There are six of us, too. From all over Britain. They told us it was dream-sharing. To get us accustomed to combat.”
Arthur reaches for Eames' cigarette and takes a drag. “I knew it felt more like a dream than VR. It's too damn realistic and they're passing it off as if it's a multi-player role-playing game.” Arthur breathes out a ring of smoke. “I died six times today.”
“On that stupid beach?”
Arthur nods. “I hate that beach. And the mountain. And the jungle.”
Eames snorts. “You can tell somebody in charge spent too much time in Vietnam. I'm tired of getting my throat slit by people jumping out of trees.” He rubs at his neck absently. Arthur catches himself doing the same motion. He stuffs his hand back down into his pocket. Rough edges.
“So, what do we do about it?” Arthur asks. “We signed on for it, right? I guess I'd rather get killed in a dream than some foreign desert until I figure out what I'm doing.”
“But they're playing us off against one another, Arthur. Your team assaulted the beach today, right?”
“My team was protecting the beach.” Eames drops the almost-gone cigarette at his feet and rubs it into the ground. “I'm pretty sure I killed you today.”
Arthur closes his eyes, remembers faces that aren't quite clear firing across an open stretch of sand. Commands shouted in English. Accented. The ripping sound of machine gun fire. His chest breaking open.
“It's all training, right?” Arthur murmurs, but he takes the piece of wall next to Eames and lets out a breath. “We'd be fighting against one another in mock-combat situations anyway.”
“Yeah, but we'd know that's what they are. These feel ... too real.” Eames sighs. “They're fucking with our heads, Arthur, and I don't like it.”
“So what can we do?” Arthur asks again. He's tired, disillusioned, and he never did get his beer.
“Manipulate the system,” Eames says confidently. “Most of the time, I can tell it's not real now.” He pulls a square red die from his pocket. “Loaded die. Always hits six in reality. In the dream, it's not consistent.”
Arthur smiles and pulls his poker chip out. “Rough edges. No rough edges in the dream.”
“We're bloody brilliant,” Eames says brightly, running his finger around the edge of Arthur's poker chip. He hands Arthur the die. “I'll take yours, and you take mine. Next time I see you in a dream, we'll check. You show me the die and I'll know you're real, not just a projection. I'll show you this.” Eames holds up the poker chip.
“Okay,” Arthur says, relieved to have something to focus on, and someone who seems to understand. Impulsively, he leans in and brushes his lips across Eames' mouth. It's fleeting, but Eames doesn't move away. If anything, he moves into the kiss.
“What's that for?” he asks.
“Must be the delayed effect of your pick-up line,” Arthur offers.
Eames laughs, then his face grows more serious. “I'll find you. On the base. In the dreams. I'll find you.”
“And we'll figure out what's really going on,” Arthur promises, palming the red die, watching Eames do the same with Arthur's familiar poker chip. The weight of the die in his pocket is oddly reassuring, maybe even more so because it belongs to someone else. He's not alone in this anymore.
“And we'll bring the whole damn thing down around their heads if they don't give us answers.” Eames sounds determined, and Arthur has to stop himself from kissing him again. There'll be time enough for that later, he thinks. This is only the beginning of their story.