Arthur was a quiet child who lived his life surrounded by adults, a by-product of being raised by an aunt that was ten years older than the families of his peers. It made him prone to speak solemnly, and he was slow to laugh simply because he spent too much time carefully picking things apart.
He became a drafter. His father left him tools, a t-square with a tiny notch that wobbled his lines if he didn’t concentrate, pads of green graph paper, all neatly packed in a wooden box that lived underneath the drafting table. The table was the only thing he’d been able to take with him from his old house, his aunt’s two-bedroom too small for his oversized dresser, bed, and bookshelves.
He liked working with his hands, and he liked working by himself.
Cobb is his teaching assistant, and the first person to not write the same criticism on his work – this design is excellent, but lacks depth. The concept of building a home is too abstract for Arthur to speculate about on a piece of paper.
Instead, Cobb looks thoughtfully at his designs and helps him streamline them, slicing them down to bare bones of buildings. He shows Arthur how to invoke an idea, and though “home” is a concept that seems perpetually out of reach, Arthur is getting better at “regal” or “waiting.”
When he meets Mal, he understands a little better what it might be like to be anchored someplace. The three of them dream together, and Mal encourages Arthur to build better, build bigger. Arthur does meticulous research for foreign locations – not to copy, but to make sure that this palace evokes the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan, or that this village is solidly Cameroon.
Mal is more imaginative, and her dreamscapes feel literary. This field is France in the war. This café is Tangiers with the Beats. This is where she shows Cobb she loves him, with flower petals and a rushing creek. And this is how she shows Arthur he is welcome, with buildings all falling together in a neat and angled skyline.
When Mal dies, he knows how Cobb is uprooted, because Arthur feels like the tide could sweep him away at any moment. He doesn't share this with Cobb; instead, Arthur holds his hand while he weeps at the funeral. Later, in a dream Cobb insists on, he brings him to the side of the road in Texas in April, bluebonnets spread around them, but the sky gray. He is trying to tell him, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Cobb keeps crying.
Cobb was there the first time he killed a man in the real world, behind him as Arthur stood, off-balance from the kick that still reverberated up his forearm, his ulna vibrating. Cobb touched his shoulder, gently.
“He…he won’t be the first, will he? Not now?” Now with Mal a ghost, he meant, not now that she was a ghost who would chase them across the globe.
Cobb sighed and nodded, knowingly, but Arthur was cautious. A collector of information. He knew then he’d never see Cobb shoot if Arthur could do it instead. Arthur was happy to keep the father of James & Phillipa, the world’s most precious children, from becoming a murderer. But.
Destroying felt so much more real than creation ever had – Arthur only builds ephemera, simulacra of places that could exist but don’t. His creations die meaningless deaths, though, and that part feels the same, settled dully behind his sternum.
In the dreamscape, Ariadne sits on a La Chaise, an Eames chair. The joke isn’t lost on her, of course, though she realizes that Eames has probably never visited the inside of Arthur’s mind. Not quite like this. The building is full of right angles, cherry wood and wide windows. Arthur’s architecture is clean and modernist and empty, devoid of projections. It makes it feel eerie, and she shivers. Arthur is silhouetted against glass, standing on a raised area of the room that leads outside, and the landscape behind him looks hyper-real – grass so green it seems fake, trees so tall and dark they look as though they’ve been cut out of paper.
“This is where you go?”
Arthur turns and gives her an appraising look.
“Is this what you do to all your co-workers?”
Ariadne doesn’t break their gaze, looking at his face with no shame at all. “If I think they’re hiding something, sure.”
He walks over, taking the steps to the sitting area slowly, and he sits in a matching chair, hunching over and resting his elbows on his knees. “Well, this is me. If you go to the bedroom you’ll find a closet full of three piece suits and maybe a gun.”
Ariadne laughs, and Arthur smiles.
“You can say it, you know,” he says.
“It’s empty. Soulless. I’m used to it.” Arthur shrugs, pushing up off his knees to lean back. “It’s 1970s modern with none of the politicking.”
Ariadne’s eyes dart away from his face. “I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort.”
His small smile remains. “That’s because you’re polite.”
“Why are you hooked up anyway?” she says, changing the subject abruptly.
Ariadne scoffs and feels more at ease here than she ever has with Arthur in the real world. “You’re always working.”
Arthur shrugs again. “Trying to see if I can stay under the full ten hours with Yusuf’s new sedative. He’ll be surprised to find you under when he comes in to check on me.”
Ariadne is looking outside. “Have you done the yard?”
He nods, and stands, rolling his arm out dramatically to help her up from the chair. Together, her arm clutching his, he takes her through the window outside. He doesn’t bother opening it, simply turning the glass into liquid for the split second it takes them to move through it. Ariadne giggles.
The sky is pale, but solidly, distinctively blue, and there are no clouds. The sun is yellower that Ariadne remembers.
“The trickiest part is the Koi pond,” Arthur says, dropping his arm and hers with it.
She almost doesn’t see it, because there are no gaudy waterfalls or decorative rocks, just a flat blue pool. The fish are large, and wriggle past each other under the hot, alien sun.
“I’ve never done living things before,” is all she can say. She can count their scales, see the whiskers whip in the currents. They are perfect, and she drops to a crouch in the greenest grass in the world to see them.
“The details are hard to get right, but it gets easier with time.”
“Has…does Cobb know?”
Arthur shrugs and looks at the sky as a hawk flies past. “Cobb doesn’t come here anymore.”