Arthur fell in love slowly over the course of a complex research project lead by the inimitable Dom Cobb. Mal was intelligent and creative and so lovely she took his breath away. She taught him the basics of dream-sharing and kept with it until their test results blew the rest of the project's out of the water.
"We should get married," he told her, slightly drunk on celebratory beer. "We would be amazing."
"Oh," said Mal, and carefully placed her glass on the table. "Oh Arthur," she said, taking his hand and patting it gently. "You're too perfect. People don't want that, you know? They don't like feeling inferior."
Mal shook her head quickly. "No, that was cruel." She looked into her glass. "It's not you, Arthur, you're lovely. But the truth is I'm... Dom and I..."
One of Arthur's flaws was that he was sometimes a little slow at reading people, but even he couldn't be faulted for missing that one. They had been so careful.
"I know it's inappropriate," she said, when Arthur furiously asked her what she was thinking. "We can't get married while we're in the military, but we will, one day. Arthur, you have to promise me you won't tell anybody."
And because she looked so earnest, he promised, and he could only assume that she never told Dom of that drunken proposal, because eventually Dom asked him to best man at the wedding.
It had been a long time since that night, so Arthur said yes.
Eames was not the first forger Arthur had ever worked with, but he was the first that could slip effortlessly from form to form on little more than a prompt. And he flirted constantly, whether he was in the form of a hulking bodybuilder or a perky little cheerleader or a freckle-faced nerd peering at him over the top of glass-bottle lenses.
"Which one is it?" asked Eames, perching on the desk next to Arthur's left arm and smirking when Arthur's removed his headphones and asked him to repeat himself.
"I don't understand."
Eames sighed in frustration. "Which one of them do you have the crush on? Dom or Mal?"
Arthur, who had concluded that Eames wanted him to choose which of the number of forgeries Eames had paraded before them that day Arthur preferred, broke out into a startled yelp. "I beg your pardon?"
"Mal or Dom? You clearly have a crush on one of them. I'm a genius when it comes to reading people."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," said Arthur, firmly and, by this stage, completely truthfully.
"Mal, then," said Eames, tutting to himself. "If it were Dom you might have grown angry with me, or maybe seen me as a shoulder to cry on. But Mal? No one likes to be accused of coveting his best friend's wife. Thus, denial."
As Arthur stared at him in shock and no small amount of betrayal, Eames leaped down off the desk and stalked to the door, muttering to himself as he left. "How interminably boring."
They needed a chemist for a job and they got a young man who went by the name of LaFayette, who was beautiful and a genius in just the right way to push all Arthur's buttons.
Of course, once the job was over and Arthur tried to pursue the relationship, LaFayette pushed him away in confusion and said, "It was just a bit of fun, sorry if you took it the wrong way. I don't date guys."
Arthur may have yelled at him a little. It wasn't his finest moment.
4. Mal, after Limbo
"Whose projection are you, Arthur?" asked Mal, holding him at arm's length and looking him up and down, something sad and broken in her eyes.
Arthur shook his head. "I'm not a projection, Mal. I'm real. This is real life."
"Dom's, then." Disappointment and a touch of anger flickered in her eyes. "Why won't you just believe me?"
"Mal," Arthur tried again. "Mal, please," but she was walking away like she hadn't heard him.
Like he wasn't even real.
Arthur always falls for the prodigies, the geniuses, the truly unique thinkers of the world, and Ariadne is no exception.
Once they landed in L.A. they spent an entire month trying out every different type of date California had to offer. High-class Italian restaurants, walks in the rain, Disney, tiny Chinese restaurant holes in the wall, ice cream on boardwalks beneath radiant sunsets, dashes through running fountains in soggy socks, movies and theatre and anything else they could think of.
It was almost perfect.
Ariadne, however, was not quite on board with the life of leisure. "This has been amazing," she said. "But I've left too much unfinished. I have to go back."
"It'll be boring," Arthur told her.
"This is boring."
Some of what he was feeling must have shown on his face, because she gently poked him and continued, "I don't mean you're boring. But I miss the challenge."
Arthur understood, just a little, so he let her go.
Arthur opens his door to find Eames preparing to knock a second time, Ariadne hanging back a few steps looking worried.
"You know you're supposed to wait outside so you can be buzzed in," he tells them civilly.
"That would ruin the surprise, love," says Eames. "Can we come in?"
"By all means," says Arthur, because he wasn't doing anything interesting anyway.
"I did this job the other day," says Eames, all stretched out on the sofa and looking for all the world like a smug, well-fed cat. "We had to get a chemist and Yusuf was busy so we hired this guy who calls himself LaFayette."
Arthur raises his eyebrows. "Go on."
"The guy they had playing point was rubbish so I suggested they hire you, at which point LaFayette says that it would be awkward given you hadn't parted on the best of terms, and it turned out he meant because you'd dated."
"Not exactly," Arthur demurs. He can't help feeling a little smug at having stumped the self-proclaimed genius of Eames so thoroughly.
Eames leans forward. "And I was surprised because I thought you were straight. So I started thinking, and then I was remembering you when we first met, all young and reserved and awkward and how I'd thought you were returning my advances at first. And then I thought about how maybe you'd realised you liked blokes but hadn't actually got around to dating one yet, and then there was this handsome rake," Eames winks, "and you were trying so hard to be professional in front of these two people you really admire and hiding it and then he goes and makes assumptions and shoots it all to hell. Is that about right?"
Arthur swallows, his smugness evaporated. "Uh. That seems about the sum of it, yes."
"Then, Arthur darling, will you please accept my most sincere apologies for being a complete and utter idiot?"
Arthur sighs, but Eames appears to be completely earnest and not about to let Arthur get away with ignoring him. "All right. I accept your apology, Eames."
Eames leans back on the chair, but he doesn't take his eyes off Arthur.
Ariadne clears her throat. "And I'm here because you didn't follow me to Paris and I wanted you to." She looks embarrassed but also stubborn as hell. "But after talking to Eames I think I'm starting to get why. You're not boring, Arthur, yeesh."
"I'm sorry," says Arthur helplessly.
"And originally I just went to Ariadne because I wanted to fix the completely and utter fuckup you two made of your relationship because I, of all people, gave you a complex."
"Don't flatter yourself," Arthur tells him, because Arthur is not that simple.
Eames ignores him. "But then I had a better idea."
They both look at him expectantly, and surely they cannot be expecting him to choose.
"Come back to Paris with us," says Ariadne. "Both of us."
Oh, thinks Arthur.
"Come on, darling, do you really have to think about this?"
And because Arthur never does anything on impulse if he can possibly avoid it, he makes them stay with him for a week before he lets them know his decision.
Paris is lovely in the spring.