They meet in a dream. It's under an umbrella with holes that let the rain in anyway and the objective is to make the dream seem real. The first is broader than the second and the second more severe, but the first is older and the second keeps pushing at his own expression like the tip of the tongue to the back of the teeth, nothing to say or everything to say. Their names are not important yet.
"Lovely," the first says, and when they look down, the ground isn't there anymore.
"We're supposed to be In Space," the second man says and on closer inspection this man is still part boy and maybe the boy will never leave him. It's too soon to tell and the first man isn't too invested yet, has seen more things, been shot through more coordinates where a bullet could mean the opposite of waking up. Not to be mistaken for having time - because they might not, though down here they always do, compounded, imagined, dripping off of them when they wake - but more for using it how he wants, someday he'll ask the second man what he wants and the second man, the second man who will then be Arthur - Arthur of the perfected aim and the almost-Bachelor's in computer science and the inexplicable taste for winter - will show the first signs of trouble. He'll say he doesn't know. But right now all he says is, "It's supposed to be space," for the fiftieth time, brow furrowed into near permanence and bow lips pressed criminally thin.
"It's supposed to be a dream of space," the first man corrects in a comfortable drawl, contradicted by the sharpness of his eyes that seem more opaque in the earth light of the subconscious.
The second man stares at him, held upside-down by his wont and gravity's absence.
They meet in a train station. It's raining here too, but the holes are in Arthur's shoes and Eames' posture, blasphemies of togetherness, both of them - not together, not yet. Arthur looks twenty and Eames does not. Eames looks inscrutably magnetic and Arthur does not. They stand, not sit, thumbing through the minutes without so much as a shift of weight from one foot to the other. They meet in a train station and Arthur walks away with Eames' umbrella after Eames gets into a taxi instead.
"Where you going today?" he asks.
"Home," he says.
"Oh," he says.
Eames tells him to keep the umbrella.
They meet three years later, older on the inside and the outside and the in-between space that isn't a side at all. The first man is Eames of the gold bowtie cufflinks and gambling addiction and face-changing monopoly. The second man is Arthur of the plan-sinking, suit-wearing vernacular whose French is his only proof of care for pronunciation anymore. Almost, they meet in the hotel, almost, but there are reasons shaped like people they held in common still standing between them - the dead and the living - so they meet three years later and they do it in a warehouse. A handshake? A smile? One out of two but Arthur doesn't really want either and Eames breathes inquiry with something as simple as sitting down, his posture abominable and right in the corner of Arthur's right eye.
"Stop that," he says and Eames says of course.
He doesn't stop.
It's a risk but everything is a risk lately so that's not the trouble. The trouble is that Arthur doesn't know what he wants. No. The trouble is that Dominick Cobb needs to go home. No. The trouble is that Mal died, Mal died and left herself still dragging around in shadows, in pieces, everywhere you close your eyes or open your heart. No. Yes. All yes. The trouble is inception. The trouble is Eames. The trouble is love.
What to do with it. And why aren't they allowed to? Who's stopping them?
Three years ago Arthur left, and it was too late to go back to being first man and second man. They were Arthur and Eames, Eames who invited Arthur to Cairo, to Belize, Eames who invited Arthur to Florence and an island that didn't even have a proper name much less an airport to fly into, Eames who finally asked Arthur to Paris, Arthur who said yes when Eames only expected no and they went and it was...
That summer stretched on like a life of its own.
Arthur keeps it in his ribcage because he's afraid of losing it, can feel it rattle against his skeleton when he's dangerously close to sad. Over the years he's done a good job of muffling it with the cotton of keeping busy, the escape of work and Dom's well being and the pure avoidance of doing something really maudlin and masochistic like writing letters to a woman who's been dead - slaughtered on the concrete, a ledge or a window did it; she did it, he knows. He really does. Arthur reaches through his mouth to get that summer in Paris to leave him alone, to stop reminding him of mornings made of liquid gold and fresh bread and hands that tangled up with each other, the simplest lock and key. He's good at it, good at looking away and saying stop to himself and having it happen, having memory recede to the topmost shelf, having it stop moving so much. Moving him.
But Eames sits next to him in most of the meetings and he can't make it stay still anymore.
They meet as children and they're not first and second but they're not Arthur and Eames either.
It is the happiest they can be and neither of them remember it later because it's none of it real. It's just a story, like all of them, like everything, and maybe one of them is true.
Maybe half of one.
They meet as children and he shoves him into a locker only to climb in after. They don't come out. They're not even there anymore.
They fall in love (maybe). That's after the friendship and after dreaming together for what amounts to years in dream time. They fall in love and it takes, deep.
But it's not enough.
They meet and they fall apart.
Their hands no longer falling together.
Eames is a soul that Arthur still covets and Arthur is a heart that Eames still possesses even if he doesn't know it. Once beneath the earth light they talked about happiness and once above the world they dove into each other over and over, a crash of skin and teeth and bones that never really left them entirely. Once they stood under a hole-ridden umbrella. Once they were children, though not together. Once they were in a train station saying goodbye.
Twice they've been to Paris.
Once, they owned a goldfish.
Glass everywhere or crystal, glass crystal, a city that climbs the air and makes a home of chaos - a long dream Arthur wakes from and, for the longest time, he can't move.
The phone rings.
And they meet.
That's the long and the short of it. And maybe it happens like this (like that) after all: darling, hello, I won't go without you because despite my best efforts everywhere without you is nowhere at all, I was afraid, and I'm sorry.
But the frequency's been all wrong until now, the phone ringing, a loaded die clicking its faces against the wall and the floor and the pale of a knuckle. I'm sorry.
They meet in an airport. It's not the first time. It may be the last. Who knows. Not Eames, not Arthur - not Eames who wondered if Arthur would show up at all, not Arthur who wondered what he was doing, stepping through security, hurrying to the gate only to have it changed on him halfway there, which is how they do it - how they meet, that is, again (and again) in reality, in a dream, in between.
It's not courage. It's too late for courage. But it's older than desperation and they're both too proud for settling. This thing may not have a name, though it ought to, something so alive that it's a threat and a promise, light pinning itself along the notches of a spine that arches only under a specific hand, dreams and nightmares and a car crash suddenness on loop. And it's like waking up three hours ago - not able to move - except he is moving, he's moving through more than just people and airport cacophony; they both are. They brush past businessmen and mothers and children and personnel and barely articulate intercom verbiage. They walk through the mutual scar of being apart.
When they're close enough to touch Arthur opens his mouth to say something, then thinks better of it, does something else with his mouth instead, feels Eames slip familiar arms around him, hands curving at either hipbone with old possessiveness, feels their knees jab at each other because something in everything they do will still be a fight for a while yet. But they are in an airport. They are in an airport ready to board the same flight to Arthur has already forgotten where. They are in an airport ready to go somewhere.
They meet, and almost five years later that's enough. They meet.
Everything else is history.