Love shook my heart
Like the wind on the mountain
Rushing over the oak trees.
Though only breath, words which I command are immortal.
Cobb never even looks back at her, save for that small meeting of eyes in baggage claim. Once he’s past, his eyes are forward, towards his home, his future. She hardly notices the nod that Saito gives her, or Yusuf’s gentle goodbye.
Even though this was all part of the plan, Ariadne still feels abandoned.
Episode 1: Dionysus
Eames and Arthur find her marooned at the taxi stand. She sees the look they share; for all their bickering, they’ve worked together enough times to share some basic telepathy. Not that they’d ever admit it.
“All right, sweetheart?” Eames asks, while Arthur flags down a cab for her.
“Fine,” she says. “Tired.”
“Understandable. Quite the job for a first timer. There’s easier ways of popping one’s cherry.”
“Eames,” Arthur says, in a warning tone.
“Arthur,” he replies, mockingly. “Now, I know this is a bit off the original plan, but what say you to sharing a big, fancy hotel room and getting absolutely pissed?”
Ariadne smiles, and Arthur snorts and says, “You’re disgusting.”
“My intentions are entirely noble,” Eames protests. “It’s her first successful job, she deserves a celebration.”
Arthur glares at him, and they size each other up. Ariadne watches with a flutter of unease, considering how many people she’s seen both these men murder, projections or not.
“Sounds good to me,” she says, trying to avert bloodshed.
Eames grins and flaps his hand at Arthur’s glowering face. “Come along and chaperone if you want.”
He says it so patronizingly, she’s wearily sure Arthur is going to throw a punch. But instead, he tosses his luggage into the trunk next to Ariadne’s, then leaves it open for Eames. He gets into the front seat and directs the cabbie to the Kyoto Grande. Eames ushers Ariadne into the back, then slides in next to her. “Don’t worry about a thing,” he says. “We’ll take care of you.”***
In the hotel, Ariadne peels off her jeans and collapses onto one of the huge beds. She’s torn between exhaustion and wanting to mull over her experiences.
“Ariadne– oh, sorry.” It’s Arthur’s voice, and she’s sure he’s averting his eyes from the scandalous sight of her in her blue boy-cuts.
She is incapable of caring who sees her in her underwear at this point. “I need sleep. Gimme an hour.” She’s mumbling into the pillow, but it’s Arthur, he’ll get it.
“All right. Should I wake you for lunch?”
He’s like a butler. A ninja butler. God, she needs sleep. “Sure. An hour.”***
Before the Somnacin, Ariadne’s dreams had seemed vivid. Now that she knows what vivid really means, her natural dreams seem hazy, fog-wrapped, hollow. It’s like walking through a stage from a Greek tragedy. Eames is there, wearing a crown of grape leaves. Arthur fires bullets from a gun wreathed in flames. Something is chasing her through the labyrinthine alleyways in a city – crumbling walls, shadowy statues. She follows Cobb deeper and deeper before he disappears, and then Mal is there, holding a knife in one hand and a handful of red seeds in the other. Twin feelings of grief and panic chase her out of sleep and she–
–blinks awake. The light coming from the picture windows tells her that it’s evening; she’s slept a lot longer than an hour. She can’t hear Arthur and Eames sniping at each other. She’s not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. She rolls out of bed, pulls her jeans back on, and steps barefoot out of the room.
Eames is on the couch, watching Dora the Explorer, muted, on the massive television. “I hope you like vodka, Sleeping Beauty, because I’ve drunk all the little bottles of whiskey,” he calls.
“Is this what you usually do after a job?”
“Get drunk? Eh, sometimes. It’s nice to do it with company, though,” he adds cheerfully.
She decides to ignore the last comment. “Where’s Arthur?”
“Golden boy?” Eames replies unconcernedly. “Nodded off over his laptop hours ago. No stamina, that one. Have you ever been to Disney Land?” he asks suddenly.
Ariadne blinks at the non sequitur. “What?”
“Disney Land! I’ve never been. Would you like to go? If nothing else, it’ll reassure me that America is just as backwards, materialistic, and self-indulgent as I think.”
“I need coffee,” Ariadne says, because that’s the only thing that makes sense right now.
“No offense intended,” he calls after her. “Or are you Canadian? You strike me as being Canadian.”
She grew up in Winnipeg, in fact, but before she has time to say so, he asks, “Have you been to L.A. before?”
“No,” she says, trying to figure out the futuristic coffee maker.
“It’s a good place to lose yourself for a while, if that’s what you need to do.” There’s an invitation in his voice, impossible to ignore.
She looks at Eames, who strikes her as being capable of losing himself anywhere. He’s a forger, thief, and conman, after all. He can step into someone else’s skin like a pair of sandals.
She thinks, I want to find myself again.
“So what do you say, sweetheart? Me, you, overpriced hot dogs, the teacup ride?”
She punches a button on the coffee maker, and isn’t sure whether to be relieved or alarmed when it starts to hiss and steam. “I think I need to go back to Paris.”
There’s a pause, then the sound of footsteps, and then Eames leans against the counter next to her. His eyes are bloodshot but look sober, and if she hadn’t seen the empty bottles scattered across the couch, she would never guess he’s been drinking. “Are you sure? You’ve only just arrived, after all.”
She’s woozy, jetlagged, and a little miserable: this is the crash after the high, the morning-after meltdown. It’s more than a little tempting to stay here, in this fantastic hotel room in a glitzy city.
“I’m sure,” she says, before the idea can get too enticing. It would be fun, no doubt, but only until it wasn’t anymore, and then where would she be? “I need to go home.”
“Tomorrow,” he says. “We still owe you at least one night of celebration.”
His eyes are serious, at odds with the smirk on his lips. It’s not much of a concession, she thinks. She doubts she’d be able to get on a flight before tomorrow anyway. “Fine,” she says. “Tomorrow.”
Eames grins and slurs, “You should call Saito. Make him put you on first class on his neat little airline. Bless him, the nutter.” It’s almost frightening, how Eames can switch from drunkenness to utter sobriety and then back to drunkenness, like watching a spinning zoetrope.
“I’ll find my own way home,” she says. And then, thank god, there’s coffee. She pours herself a cup and joins Eames on the couch with it, and they make up silly dialogue in Spanish for Dora and her monkey until Arthur emerges from his room, rumpled and looking as miserable as Ariadne had felt before. Eames wordlessly hands him a beer and the menu for the hotel’s restaurant and tells him to order breakfast. Ariadne expects him to snipe something at Eames, but instead, he looks grateful. She wonders, for a second, if she’s not the only one feeling abandoned by Cobb.
The evening wears on, and the empty bottles collect on every surface; champagne, beer, tiny containers of vodka, rum, and tequila.
“Arthur,” Eames says, later on, “tell Ariadne that she shouldn’t go back to Paris tomorrow.” Despite the amount of alcohol he’s consumed, he seems no more or less drunk than he was when she woke up.
“You should go back to Paris if you want to,” Arthur says.
“Ariadne, tells Arthur he’s a prat.”
She can’t; she’s giggling too hard to speak again. Eames is hilarious, full of self-deprecation and dick jokes. Arthur, naturally, makes the perfect straight man. He and Eames bounce insults off each other with an ease that speaks of years of practice.
“What does that even mean, prat?” she asks. “Not that it matters, I’m pretty sure Arthur’s not a prat.”
“I’ve had my moments,” he admits, sipping from a glass of beer. It’s strange to see him tipsy and relaxed, but it’s a look that suits him.
“You have no idea,” Eames says. “There was this one time, in Morocco–”
“We are not sharing embarrassing stories about me,” Arthur says severely.
“Wet blanket, that’s what you are. Daddy Cobb abandons you and the last spark of good humor in you dies.” Eames, lifting his glass to drink, misses the dark glare thrown his way.
Oblivious to Arthur glowering at him, Eames turns to Ariadne. “You had a thing for Cobb as well, didn’t you? Everybody does, god knows why.”
“Shut up, I did not,” she says.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” Eames says, mock-scandalized.
“Fuck off,” Ariadne says. And she means to laugh it off, but she can feel the scowl forming on her eyebrows.
“I suppose he is quite dreamy, if you like ‘em tortured and forever brooding.”
“Shut up, Eames,” Arthur says. Any hint of humor is gone from his voice.
“Ooh, forgot I was hanging out with the Dominic Cobb fanclub, here–”
That’s when Arthur tackles Eames to the floor. They land with a grunt and a crash and begin wrestling in earnest, muscles straining and the cords standing out from their necks.
“Well, this isn’t homoerotic at all,” Eames says. Arthur has his wrists pinned to the ground, and Eames is grinning like an absolute maniac – all signs of drunkenness gone.
“You’re an ass,” Arthur yells in his face.
“Shout all you want, love,” Eames says. “I’m not the one you’re really angry at, though.”
Something flares in Arthur’s eye, something dark and filled with rage, and she sees him start to pull his fist back. Ariadne panics, grabs her still-full glass of beer, and upends it over Arthur’s head.
There’s a moment of shocked silence, Arthur blinking beer out of his eyelashes and Ariadne holding the dripping glass. Then she just loses it, starts giggling hysterically. Eames follows suit a second later. Arthur doesn’t laugh, but he does smile and lick the beer off his lips. He’s blushing as he pushes himself off Eames, wiping the beer off his face. Eames, his smirk back in place, touches his fingers to Arthur’s wet cheek, then brings the fingers to his mouth and tastes the beer on them. “A definite improvement,” he announces.
She sees Arthur watching Eames, and Eames watching her, and there’s a sudden frisson of energy in the air, entirely different than the tension that filled it a few moments ago. She feels excitement mix with dread in her stomach. She might have just helped avert one disaster, but another is in the making.
“You should shower, Arthur,” she blurts out. “Or your hair is going to get sticky.”
She wonders why her brain does stupid things like this to her.
“I have a better idea,” Eames says. “Did you know that this suite comes equipped with a very large bathtub?”
Arthur and Ariadne stare at him.
“With jets,” he adds, like that seals the deal. And the funny thing is, it kind of does.***
This is probably the most ridiculous thing she’s ever done, even counting throwing herself and an energy mogul’s heir off a building in Cobb’s sub-sub-sub-subconscious. At least that was in a dream.
It’s not like she’s never shared a bath before – she hangs out with and has dated numerous artsy bohemians – but she’s never shared it with two con men with crazy unresolved sexual tension. (At least everyone’s still got their underwear on, she reasons with herself. Like that makes a huge difference.)
Despite the weirdness, she finds herself relaxing in the hot water. Eames is giving her a foot massage. Arthur still smells like beer. She’s still drunk enough to feel reckless, but has sobered up enough to know it.
“You should give her a shoulder rub, Arthur,” Eames says. “Poor girl’s as tense as a drum. Those long plane rides are absolute hell.”
Ariadne sighs when Arthur’s hands start kneading her shoulders and neck. Eames runs a knuckle down the arch of her foot, clasps her ankle. His hands are large, fingers blunt and square. Arthur’s hands are more callused, but longer, elegant, and hesitant. They brush against her collarbone and she sighs, remembering Eames’ voice in the cab: We’ll take care of you.
But after a few long minutes, something in her rebels against this casual, passive seduction. God knows why, but she’s sitting up in the water, taking her foot back from Eames and dislodging Arthur’s hands from her back. She stands, wet underwear clinging ridiculously to her, and says to Arthur, “All right. Your turn.”
A look of mild panic crosses his features, and he doesn’t move. She decides not to give him a choice. She slips in behind him and pushes him forward, water sloshing over the side of the tub. Eames gives her a look that’s halfway between appraising and appreciative from the other side of the tub. She sits up on her knees to better reach Arthur’s shoulders, which are as tense as rocks.
“You need this way more than I do,” Ariadne says, and Arthur actually blushes, the tips of his ears going red.
Everything is quiet for a while, until Arthur jerks suddenly, sending more water over the side. “Eames, I swear to god–” he warns.
“I’m not going to tickle you, Arthur. Give me your bloody foot and let me massage it.”
Arthur snorts, so Ariadne squeezes the muscles in his neck and says, “He’s good. Let him do it.” It’s half a dare, half reassurance.
Whether it’s her words, or Arthur’s stubborn sense of pride, or something else entirely, Ariadne doesn’t know. But she grins at Eames when Arthur surrenders his feet to Eames’ ministrations. If it had been hard to imagine Arthur tipsy, with a loosened collar and bare feet, she could never have been able to imagine this; Arthur relaxing by degrees, losing that pinched look in his eyes, letting out short, heavy sighs as she works a knot out of his shoulder and Eames drags fingers down the arch of his foot.
She wonders how long Arthur’s been on the run with Cobb. She only knew Cobb for a few weeks, and is feeling stung by his absence. She feels a sudden wave of affection for Arthur, and some kind of weird... affinity with him. The bond of the recently orphaned, maybe.
Ariadne wants, in a weird way, to take care of him; the same way she’d wanted Cobb to face down his demons, the same way she’d wanted Robert Fischer to evolve past his daddy issues. That had all been tied up in the job, though, the adventure of it. This is just Arthur, his tense muscles under her hands, the man who had watched her build increasingly complicated mazes and taught her to play hearts when they were stuck in Fischer’s subconscious for a tense week after the inception. She wants Arthur to relax, not in that coiled-snake way he has, but to actually let go.
Eames seems to be on her wavelength. He starts running his hands along Arthur’s calves, curling them around his knees, then inching them upwards to Arthur’s bare thighs.
“Eames–” Arthur says, and is promptly shushed by the other two. Ariadne pulls Arthur back until he’s resting against her chest, and runs her hands down his smooth, muscled arms.
“Let him do this for you,” Ariadne whispers. Arthur opens his eyes, searching her out. He’s breathing hard even though Ariadne’s sure Eames hasn’t touched his dick yet, and his eyes hold a hint of fear. She puts her hand in his, winding their fingers together. His grip is panicked, tight. If she ever doubted that Arthur has control issues, this would have convinced her.
“It’s okay, we’ve got you, you can trust him–” she whispers, carding fingers through his hair. Eames is watching them intently, moving his hands slowly through the water. Arthur jerks suddenly, shuts his eyes and makes a breathy sound.
“Is this good? Do you like this?” Eames asks. The intent way he’s looking at Arthur is possibly one of the hottest things Ariadne’s seen.
Arthur bites his lips, and, after a moment, nods his head. Ariadne squeezes his hand, then shifts so that Arthur is lying between her open thighs. He immediately grabs onto one of her knees; he doesn’t do anything to it, just holds on to it like a lifeline. Ariadne feels a brief wave of dissociation – Is she really doing this? Is this actually happening? Is this one of those moments where she should be checking her totem to make sure this is reality? – but she rides it out, comes back to the feeling of Arthur squirming in her arms and the deep rumble of Eames’ voice.
“Lift your hips up,” he says, and Arthur complies. Ariadne watches as Eames pulls Arthur’s boxers off, tossing them onto the bathroom floor with a splat that makes her grin and Arthur blush. Eames is still smiling as he lifts Arthur’s hips up again and licks at the seam of his thigh. Arthur groans, and Ariadne echoes it softly; it’s a gorgeous sight, and Eames is grinning up at both of them.
“Kiss him,” Eames says to her, hovering over Arthur’s cock, stroking it lazily. “If you like.”
Arthur’s skin is hot and flushed when she slips her tongue between his open lips. She feels a tug on her scalp, Arthur pulling the elastic band in her ponytail, and then her hair falls down around her shoulders and into the water. Arthur moans into her mouth, and Ariadne opens her eyes long enough to see Eames holding Arthur’s hips out of the water and swallowing around Arthur’s cock. The sight sends a jolt right down into her core, quivering and hot. She never thought that watching two guys together would get her off, but damn, apparently it does.
“Wow,” she says. Arthur moves their hands, still linked, to Eames’ hair, and the other man hums appreciatively. She’s torn between wanting to watch and wanting to participate. She settles for a compromise – keeping one hand on Eames’ head and the other on Arthur’s chest, rolling one of his nipples between her fingers. Eames shifts, and then there’s a hand on her crotch, moving her underwear aside, and fingers slipping gently into her. She exhales harshly, and then there’s no words for a while, just soft moans, and splashing, and Django Reinhardt playing in the other room.
Eames suddenly pulls his mouth off Arthur’s cock, breathing heavily. “Not that this isn’t lovely, but my legs are cramping, and I think this would be better if we moved it elsewhere. Bedroom?”
“Bedroom,” Araidne agrees.
“Yeah,” Arthur says, getting out of the tub. His face is silhouetted by the bathroom lights, and he puts two hands out, and helps both her and Eames up.
It’s not easy, walking through a hotel suite when there’s three people who are unwilling to take their hands or mouths off each other, even for a second, but they manage all right.
There’s a moment, later that night: she’s perched above Arthur’s face, his tongue darting into her, the rumbling timbre of his groans vibrating on her clit. Eames is behind her, riding Arthur’s cock, and his hands are on her breasts. She is very close to coming for the third time since they got into the bed, something that has never happened to her before.
Eames run a hand through her hair, leans forward and bites down on her shoulder. “My god,” he says. “Sure we can’t tempt you into a life of debauchery and crime? We obviously work well together.”
It’s a mystery how he can even form coherent sentences at this point; Ariadne certainly can’t. She leans back and kisses him instead, comes again with his smile against her lips, Arthur’s fingers digging into her thighs and his greedy eyes watching them both.***
Arthur drives her to the airport the next day. Eames wakes up long enough to give Ariadne a groggy goodbye kiss, and then rolls back over onto his stomach, asleep again by the time she leaves the bedroom.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay with us?” Arthur asks her at the ticket counter.
She is sure, even though a part of her desperately does want to. She could be part of something with the two of them, start building something. But the fact is, there’s still a life for her in Paris. She misses it, and is disturbed by how distant it seems. She thinks of her apartment, the cafe she does homework in, and it’s like thinking of her childhood home, vaguely nostalgic.
The fact is that Arthur still seems brittle, and she still feels vulnerable and raw from her experiences of the last two weeks. She’s not sure whether last night helped either of them, or just exacerbated things. When Eames seems like the sanest of the three of them, something must be off.
“I need to go home for a while,” she says. “Sort through some stuff in my head. Figure out what I’m doing.”
Arthur sighs, nods. “Stay in touch,” he says. “And let us know if you ever need anything.”
She smiles at him, then gives him a hug. She plants a kiss on his cheek and feels him smile beneath her lips. Then she turns and walks towards the line for security.
When she takes out her wallet to go through the metal detectors, she notices two white cards tucked into a pocket. She pulls them out. One reads Eames: Gentleman Thief in curving, flourished letters, with a phone number. The other is almost stark in comparison; Arthur Epstein, Creative Consultant, it reads on one side, with an obliquely-phrased list of services on the back.
She smiles, and tucks them back into her wallet.
Episode 2: Daedalus
A week after she returns to Paris, Ariadne calls Miles. He got her into all of this, for better or worse. He’s the only bridge between who she was and who she’s become.
“How’s the return to reality feeling?” he asks, pouring her a glass of Beaujolais. “I don’t want to pry, only my son-in-law will pester me for updates.”
“Liar,” she says, smiling. She hopes her tone is more affectionate than bitter. “He has not asked about me.”
Miles grins gently, pats her hand. “Oh, yes he did. In his few free moments between fixing Phillipa a snack and preventing James from eating paste.”
She does laugh then, a genuine laugh. It’s hard to imagine Dom as an actual father, changing diapers and pushing strollers, and not just an angst-ridden man with too many ghosts. Miles takes out his phone to show Ariadne the latest pictures that Dom has sent him.
Seeing Dom’s kids – beautiful, real, not just a vision of loss – takes away some of the bitter taste that’s been in her mouth since she found herself washed ashore back in reality. Miles’ conversation, seriously bad puns, and laughter – not to mention his excellent Beaujolais – take away the rest.
“Are you coming back to the university?” he asks. It’s late, and the wine has all been drunk.
Ariadne fiddles with the wine glass. She can feel the weight of her brass chess piece in her pocket. Her memories of attending lectures, sitting for exams, making presentations, they’re all so distant. She’s bored already, just thinking about it.
“There’s still a lot for you to learn, you know. Not just about architecture. Dreaming, too.”
“My teacher’s a world away,” she says, a bit maudlin, but wine has that effect on her.
She nods, feeling a bit traitorous; to Arthur, who walked with her along the Penrose steps, to Eames, who taught her how to pull objects out of the aether of dreamspace, and to Yusuf, who enthusiastically talked her ear off about the biochemical structures of dreamsharing drugs. But it was Cobb who first took her into the realm of the subconscious.
“I beg your pardon,” Miles sputters, “but who do you think taught Dom?”
Ariadne looks up. Miles is giving her a very grandfatherly look of affectionate exasperation. “Come see me on Monday,” he says. “After your classes.”***
The PASIV device that Miles keeps in the back of a cupboard is not the slick, shiny device that Arthur toted around in his silver case. It’s bulkier, nearly twice the size, and with a cracked screen that supposedly monitors its subjects’ vitals signs and EEG readings. There are scratches along the dull, metallic finish.
“It’s not quite as fancy as Arthur’s, but I assure you, it’ll do the trick,” Miles tells her.
And then they’re in a cafe in Damascus, or so Miles says, circa 1984, which is the last time he’d visited. There are rough cobbles, sandstone walls, domed mosques in the distance. People speak accented gibberish at each other. There’s a level of sharp detail in Miles’ dream, more so than was present in Cobb’s or Arthur’s.
“Do you know want to know why I got involved in dreamsharing tech?” Miles asks. “I was an artist. So were most of the people I worked with, even if they were moonlighting as tech geniuses. There were psychologists as well, and one lady that called herself a ‘shamaness’. A bunch of hippies, the lot of us.” He chuckles, and takes a sip of the bitter coffee.
“You were a hippie?”
“I had a ponytail, a bumper sticker saying ‘Wage Peace’ on my Volkswagen, and three arrests under my belt from protests.”
“No,” she says, mock-disbelief.
He points to something behind her, and Ariadne laughs as she sees a vision of Miles as a younger man. He’s barefoot, carrying a backpack and a walking stick, and his long hair is, indeed, in a pony tail. He looks like a man who hasn't quite let go of his wild youth.
“Back then, we weren’t thinking of things like corporate espionage and military applications.” He says the words with a slight downward turn of his lips, as if the words themselves are distasteful. “We were trying to... I don’t know. To figure out how to save the world, I suppose, that was the underlying idea. To dream up solutions to impossible problems. To make a bridge to a better future. It was all very woo-woo.”
Ariadne’s smile fades as Miles’ younger self is ambushed by a tiny girl, throwing herself at his legs. She has dark hair and a bright yellow sundress on, and Miles picks her up. She can’t hear the words they say to each other, but there’s obvious affection. He gives her a fig to eat, and then picks her up.
“Before Mal died,” Miles says, and Ariadne wrenches her gaze away from the pair. Miles pauses a moment, and then continues. “Before all that, she and Dom were explorers. They worked for the military, they had to, but they were both explorers at heart. Creators. Artists, like us.”
Something warm spreads in her stomach at that casual inclusion.
“Here’s what you should remember,” Miles says. “If you learn anything from me, learn this. This technology can be used for so much more than just... stealing secrets out of some CEO’s head. But you have to be careful at how far you push yourself. For god’s sake, never go so far and so deep you can’t find your way out again.”
Ariadne turns, because she can’t help it. She catches one last glimpse at the dark-haired child, clinging to the young Miles’ shoulders, before the pair turn a corner and are gone from sight.
Episode 3: Cadmus
It’s a rainy afternoon in early October when Ariadne escapes into the Louvre. She’s been a dozen times since she moved to Paris, but not since Dom Cobb walked into her life and showed her how to build impossible things. She wonders if she could rebuild parts of the museum from memory. It’ll be fun to try with Miles.
She is just leaving the Islamic exhibits – she still finds the lines and curves of Islamic art inspiring – when she spots an all-too familiar figure.
Robert Fischer is dressed down, at least from her memory of him; he’s wearing chinos, a dark blue button-down, a lambswool scarf and a navy peacoat. His hair is longer, the strands wet from the rain. He’s alone, walking unhurriedly towards the Greek and Roman wing.
It would be incredibly stupid to follow him. She knows it. That doesn’t stop her, though it does make her keep at least a dozen bodies between them at all times. Fischer slowly wends his way through the exhibits, mostly looking at the statues; Venus de Milo, the Torment of Marsyas, the Borghase Gladiator.
Ariadne has followed his story for the last few months, looking at the Wall Street Journal blog and BBC’s business section online. The inception had taken; Fischer-Morrow officially split, leaving its shareholders fighting over its remains. The whole energy industry had been turned on its nose. It had, according to the BBC, been one of the biggest shakeups in the world of business in years.
Fischer stops in front of a bronze statue of Alexander the Great, considering the image of one of the most powerful men in the history of the world. Ariadne stops as well and watches him, wondering what his life will become in the next few years, what new empires he might build. She’s happy to note that he does seem to be carrying himself a little more lightly. Something suspiciously like pride flames up in her chest.
It’s then, of course, that he turns and sees her.
His eyes glide past her at first, long enough for her to think oh shit and turn away, as if to examine a bronze Aphrodite in more detail. In her mind, she can see Arthur’s disapproving frown, and can hear Eames tsking her. Why the hell was she tailing a former mark anyway? Risky. Pointless. Kind of creepy. Shit.
She feels a prickling on the back of her neck; she’s not sure if it’s paranoia or Fischer actually looking at her. It wasn’t that long ago that she rescued him from a femme fatale and then threw him off a building, even if it was in his sub-subconscious, and she’s willing to bet Fischer’s experiencing hella deja vu right now.
She walks as unobtrusively as possible towards the exit. She feels her guts twist when she hears a pair of footsteps hurry after her, Robert frigging Fischer pushing his way through the crowds of tourists. From behind her, a familiar accent says, “Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle!” She turns a corner and ducks behind a sarcophagus.
For once, she feels grateful for her small frame. As annoying as it is to need a stepladder to get things off the top of the refrigerator, being tiny has the obvious benefit of being easy to hide. She waits until she sees Fischer jog by, then doubles back into the Archaic room. She makes her way to the museum’s rue de Rivoli exit, back out into the rainy streets of Paris. She stumbles into a cafe and orders tea with lemon in it, and tries to think about what to do.
Episode 4: Morpheus
She calls Miles. He listens to her story, sighs, and says, “You should probably call Arthur. This is out of my area of expertise, love.”
The endearment reminds her of Eames, of course, and the night in the Kyoto Grande, of course, which she has successfully not thought about in, oh, a few days. She pulls the two business cards out of her wallet. There’s an inky thumbprint on Arthur’s card that she doesn’t remember leaving, but must have, at some point in the recent past.
He doesn’t pick up. The voicemail message says that the inbox is full.
She calls Eames. The number’s been disconnected.
She thinks, for just a second, about calling Cobb. But no, just no; she’s not going to be the one to disrupt his new life.
Ariadne drops the cards on the table she’s sitting at, and puts a hand over her eyes. She is not going to cry. She is twenty-five years old, for god’s sake, and that is far too old to be weeping into her tea cup for feeling in over her head. She’s not French, damn it, and she’s not a romantic; she knows that one clusterfuck of a job and a drunk threesome does not mean... well, anything. Damn it.
Ariadne throws a few euros on the table and stomps out the door. She bums a cigarette from a man outside the cafe and starts walking, because walking helps her think. Calling Cobb is out of the question. Miles can’t help her. Even if Eames or Arthur could, she has no way of getting in contact with them. And that leaves her --
Ariadne grabs her wallet again, and flips through her collection of business cards until she finds one embossed with the name Yusuf Umarzai on it, above a complicated-looking chemical structure.***
'"Hello?" The voice is tinny, from distance and the poor connection.
“Is... is this Yusuf?” Ariadne asks, already thinking about how fucked she might be if it’s not.
“May I ask who is calling?”
“It’s Ariadne. From Paris, the job with the, uh-”
“Ariadne!” he bellows into the phone. “Of course! How are you?”
How to answer that question? “I’m all right. Sort of.”
“Sort of?” Yusuf asks. "’Sort of’ is not a very good answer."
“I may have just... screwed up."
Yusuf, bless the man, just exhales slowly and says, “Would you like to tell me about it?”
“Oh my god,” Ariadne says, dropping her face into her hands. “You have no idea how good it is to hear your voice.”
Yusuf laughs, rich and warm, but his voice is serious when he asks, “Are you in trouble?”
“I have no idea,” she responds honestly, and then tells him about what happened at the Louvre.
Yusuf is silent when she’s done, though the phone line is alive with crackling and echoes. “It sounds like he definitely recognized you,” he says finally. “If he was trying to chase you down.”
“Should I be worried? I mean, what can he do, really, even if he did recognize me?”
“His net worth is greater than the GDP of many countries,” Yusuf reminds her. “There’s not much he couldn’t do. Hiring a personal investigator would be the least of it.”
“So, I should be worried.”
“We should be cautious,” he says. His use of the word “we” makes Ariadne feel more reassured than it probably should. “He had a militarized subconscious, so he is aware of the possibility that someone could use dream-invasion techniques on him.”
“And if he suspects someone actually performed an inception on him...” Ariadne says, then trails off while thinking of the many horrible consequences of incurring the wrath of the extremely rich and mildly neurotic.
“You should probably leave Paris, at least. I’ll ask Arthur to find you a flight here.”
She’s too busy processing the first sentence – she has an apartment here in Paris, school, extracurricular dream-lessons with Miles, a life, none of which she really wants to abandon – to take in the second. Then, “Wait, Arthur? Arthur Arthur?”
“Um, yes? The only one we have in common, I would think.”
“You can get in touch with him?”
“He’s based in Mombasa now,” Yusuf explains. “He and Eames have been working together. They’ve become... well, for lack of a better word, they’re partners.”
Ariadne has no idea what to do with that information, so she files it away for inspection later. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I tried calling him first. His voicemail–”
“Oh, his phone broke a week ago. A rather hilarious incident with a camel, from what I heard. Email is the best way to get in touch with him anyway.”
Ariadne pulls out Arthur’s business card. He did indeed leave an email address on it, handwritten on the thick card stock. She suddenly feels like a bit of an ass.
“But don’t worry about it,” Yusuf is saying. “I’ll get the message to him, and have him get everything together. It’s what he’s good at, after all. And it’s his ass on the line as much as ours if Fischer finds out we performed inception on him.”
She’s silent a moment, processing the last part of what Yusuf said to her, feeling a sickening wave of guilt roll through her gut.
“That probably did not come out the way I meant it to,” Yusuf says after a second, tone penitent.
“It’s fine,” she says faintly. “It’s true.”
“What I meant to say is that we will not abandon you. And not to worry. And... other comforting things like that.”
Ariadne laughs, a little brokenly. “Thanks for trying, Yusuf.”
“Apologies. But I will get a message to Arthur, and he’ll get in touch with you very soon.”
“Thank you, Yusuf.”
He chats with her for a bit longer, asking about her studies and life in Paris, before telling her that she should start packing. She sighs, thanks him again, and then hangs up.
Two hours later, her phone beeps. There’s an incoming message from an unknown number.
Check your email, it says.
She does. There’s an email from Kenya Airways, confirming her flight to Mombasa, departing Charles de Gaulle in 36 hours. First class.
thanks, she texts back.
See you soon, is the reply, a minute later.***
Walking away from her apartment – and school, and entire life in Paris, at least temporarily – is surprisingly easy. Walking away from Miles, in Charles de Gaulle airport, is less so. They have spent most of the last three months together; aside from his lectures, they spend two afternoons a week with the PASIV, building and experimenting and dreaming together.
“Remember...” he says, but trails off, looking troubled. “Well. Remember what I taught you.”
“I remember everything you taught me,” Ariadne tells him. “At least the important bits.”
“There’s my girl,” he says. He gives her a hug, enveloping her in the scent of chalk dust and coffee.
Waiting in line to go through security, she thinks, I won’t look back, but then remembers how she felt when Dom had walked away into his new life without a backwards glance. She turns and waves at Miles, and in a fit of whimsy, blows him a kiss. Goodbyes have become more important to her, these last few months.***
It’s after midnight when she arrives in Mombasa, and the brief spurt of optimism she felt when leaving Paris has been burned out of her. To be honest, she hates flying. Always has.
But Yusuf is there at the gate, waiting for her, and he allows Ariadne to give him a not-so brief hug.
“Nice to see you again,” he says, smiling. His hand is on her back, the wide expanse of it a comforting weight.
“Ditto,” she says into his chest, because it’s been a long couple of days, and anything more than that might send her into hysterics.
He laughs, takes her bag, and leads her out into the dark, humid night. There’s a taxi with reggae booming out of its radio, narrow streets that are sparsely lit, and finally, Yusuf’s shop. Ariadne struggles up the narrow stairs and falls gratefully into the low bed in Yusuf’s spare room. Before she shuts her eyes, she thinks over her journey; she wants to remember the exact steps she took to get here, just in case she wakes up thinking this is actually a dream. It’s a ridiculous thought, and she falls asleep thinking that lack of sleep makes her paranoid.
Sweat is already pooling in the small of her back when Ariadne wakes up, late the next morning. Her hair is sticking to her neck, and she fantasizes not-so-briefly about cutting all her hair off.
She gets dressed in the lightest clothes she has, a threadbare t-shirt and some loose shorts, and heads downstairs to Yusuf’s lab.
“Give me one minute,” Yusuf says. He’s holding a pipette in one hand, his lab goggles accentuating his round cheeks. He adds a counted number of drops to the beaker in front of him, and then waits.
“Bollocks,” he mutters, tearing off the goggles.
“What happened?” Ariadne asked.
“It’s what didn’t happen,” he says, peeling off his gloves. And then he starts spouting chemistry words at her, which she doesn’t follow at all. He looks up, mid-rant, and laughs at what she supposes is her slack-jawed expression. “Never mind. Let’s get you some breakfast.”
Ariadne’s really not ready to face the utter fucking chaos that is Mombasa; it’s noisy, hot, humid, and packed with people, cars, and animals. She’s getting a lot of stares, mostly from kids and men, and quite a few greetings shouted at her. She’s exhausted by the time Yusuf steers her into a cafe on a side street, thankfully shielded from some of the noise. She collapses on a cheap, plastic stool, fans herself while Yusuf orders. The waiter brings them tea that is hot and milky and sweet, and Yusuf tells her a little of what he’s been up to in the past few months. He talks a bit about Arthur and Eames; tells her they’re working together on a job in Nairobi this week and will be back on Friday, and then, “They can tell you about what’s going on better than I can,” he adds. She wonders at his eagerness to change the subject, but decides not to push.
“Have you kept in contact with Cobb?” he asks, after the food arrives.
“Not really,” Ariadne admits. “I see his father-in-law regularly, though. Miles was the one that recommended me to Dom.”
“He knows about dreamsharing?”
“He helped pioneer it in the early 80’s.”
Yusuf raises his eyebrows, impressed. “Has he been teaching you?”
“Yeah,” Ariadne says, dipping some ugali into an unknown sauce and eating it gingerly with her hands. “He picked up where Dom left off. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
“It seemed to me that you knew plenty on the Fischer job.”
Ariadne grins, confident of this at least: “I knew enough to wing it. I’ve gotten better.”
He grins, and raises his glass of sweet tea. “To evolving past winging it.”
She laughs and touches her glass to his.***
“Are you sure you want to be my lab rat?” Yusuf says, pulling the line out of his PASIV. They’re upstairs, in his spare bedroom, because the close, humid darkness of the dreamer’s den was too claustrophobic for Ariadne.
“I’m sure,” she says, lying back on the spare bed. She’s eager for a brief respite from the noisy chaos of the city.
“The timer is for one minute. You should experience about thirty minutes of dreaming with this new serum. And tell me what the sensory stimulations are like for you; I’ve been working on trying to increase olfactory awareness in dreamstates.”
Yusuf explained it in more depth earlier, talked about the variants of the chemical structure of this new compound and its interactions with certain areas of the brain; Ariadne understood about a fifth of what he’d said. But his enthusiasm was, as always, infectious.
“Ready?” he asks.
Ariadne nods and shuts her eyes.***
She can smell the sea. Ariadne opens her eyes, just in time to get sprayed by briny ocean water. She looks around her – up and down the beach, which is abandoned and empty. She puts her hand in her pocket, feels the weight of her totem against her palm. It’s heavier than it should be, too warm against her skin.
She takes a deep breath, smells salt and sand and rock and just a hint of dead fish; Yusuf will be pleased.
“Right,” Ariadne breathes out. It feels weird to be in a dream that hasn’t been constructed beforehand; to be by herself, without Miles there.
Ariadne hears a rustling noise behind her. She turns and looks, but the forest behind her is dark and impenetrable. A leaf falls delicately from one of the branches, twirls to the ground. Another wave crashes, closer to her this time. Ariadne takes a step forward, closer to the forest.
Something is in there. She sees eyes. A glint of light off silver metal.
Visceral fear envelops her, turns her blood to icewater. Ariadne turns and runs into the waves, ignoring the cold shock of water against her skin. She looks back, looks back because she can’t not know what she’s running from. It’s Mal walking out of the forest; pale-skinned, dark-haired, angry, and leveling a shiny silver gun in Ariadne’s direction.
Ariadne takes a deep, desperate breath and dives down.
She keeps swimming, going further down, deeper.
Deeper. Down into where it’s dark, where the sunlight can’t penetrate the water.
Deeper still. Her lungs are burning and her head feels like it’s being crushed.
Then she breaks through to the other side, surfaces in a different place, and sucks a searing breath into her chest. She swims for a nearby pier, hauling herself up out of the water and collapsing on the wooden planks, gasping and looking up at the orange half-moon in the sky. When she gets her breath back, Ariadne sits up and squeezes the water out of her hair, then thinks screw this. She has a pair of scissors in her pocket, and she uses them to cut off most of her hair. She throws the hair into the water, then walks towards solid ground. She feels much lighter. The pier becomes a path becomes a field becomes a road. She has an idea of what she’ll find at the end of it, and she’s not wrong; she recognizes the the cobblestones under her feet, the grey building looming up ahead of her.
Dom Cobb is standing in front of the red doors of the Palais des Études. Ariadne feels mildly embarrassed to meet him here, with her newly chopped-off hair and still dripping wet, but then remembers that not only is this a dream, but that he’s not actually dreaming with her.
“Why did you go back to Paris?” he asks. (She asks herself.)
“I wanted to find myself,” she answers.
“How does someone find themself?”
“I’m... not sure,” Ariadne says. She doubts she ever accomplished that goal anyway.
Dom huffs an impatient laugh. “How does one find anything?”
“By looking.” she answers.
“So start looking,” he says, opening the door. She walks in, and doesn’t bother looking back.
The maze is long. The walls are moving. Or rather, she is moving the walls, changing them; from the dusty stone of Mombasa to the rough concrete of New York to the gray bricks of Paris. But it doesn’t help her get any further, just makes it more complicated, more labyrinthine. She goes down, deeper, further into the maze. She feels a pressure building behind her temples, similar to what she felt when she was underwater. Her steps are slowing, the lights around her growing dim and hazy.
“Have you forgotten what my father taught you?” the voice is low, accented. Ariadne feels a sinking feeling in her gut. She turns around, and sees Mal standing behind her.
“Never go so far or deep that you can’t find your way out,” Mal reminds her. She’s about a dozen feet away, leaning against the wall. Ariadne stands a little straighter, and realizes that whatever fog she’s been moving through – or carrying with her – has lifted. She can see and think with more clarity.
“I’m lost,” Ariadne says. “Shit. I got so involved with remaking the maze, I forgot...”
“How long have you been down here?” Mal asks.
Ariadne thinks. She’s not sure. “Longer than half an hour,” she says, because it’s the only thing she’s sure of. “How is that possible? Did Yusuf’s formula screw up?”
“You screwed up,” Mal says. “You went too deep.”
“I didn’t go any deeper than the first level,” Ariadne argues.
“You dove in,” Mal reminds her. “And kept swimming down until you broke through the surface. Now you’re in the labyrinth, going further out and further in.”
Ariadne thinks for a second. “This is some weird Jungian shit, isn’t it? Miles was always trying to get me to read Jung.”
Mal smiles. “Dom had his elevator, remember? You had the sea. In dreams, metaphors are a means to an end. You found the backdoor.”
“How far down am I?” Ariadne asks.
“Far enough,” Mal answers. She stands, and Ariadne takes a step back. She feels small, clumsy and ugly in the face of Mal’s otherworldly grace. More than that, she feels vulnerable; a kitten facing down a leopard.
“Who am I,” Mal asks, “in this story you’re telling yourself?” The hem of her dress sways against her knees as she walks forward. “Hera, the vengeful wife? Persephone, trapped in the underworld? Am I the monster at the heart of the maze?”
“I don’t know,” Ariadne says.
“You don’t know your own heart?”
“Not yet,” she whispers.
Mal smiles. It’s a strange smile, chilling and kind and sad all at once. “We never do, until it’s too late.”
“Are you going to kill me?” Ariadne asks. She still vividly remembers their first meeting in Dom’s subconscious, bleeding out from a stomach wound in the street while Mal stood above her, eyes burning.
“Dying would be one way to wake up,” Mal allows. “I could kill you if you’d like.”
“I’d rather find my own way out,” Ariadne says. “If I get a choice, I mean.”
Mal smiles. “You do,” she says. “Can I make a suggestion?”
Ariadne nods, and Mal bends gracefully to the floor and picks something up off the ground. It’s a red string, hidden among the litter and road dirt. Mal shakes it off, then walks over, holding it out for Ariadne. Ariadne takes it from her; the string leads down the street and around the corner.
Mal stoops down and brushes a kiss against Ariadne’s cheek. “Take the shortcut back,” she says.
Ariadne can smell the delicate top notes of her perfume. Then she shuts her eyes, and pulls hard on the string. She feels the tug somewhere inside herself, and follows it up–***
– Into consciousness. Yusuf is hovering over her, checking her pulse and blood pressure. “Pleasant dreams?” he asks.
She sits up and looks around. The sun hasn’t moved. Yusuf’s cat is still washing itself in the corner. The streets are still noisy with cars and pedestrian traffic. Nothing has changed.
“Are you okay?” Yusuf asks.
Ariadne digs her hand into her pocket and touches her totem, the metal smooth and cold and right under her fingertips. “Not sure,” she says. “But I think that... yes.”
“Yes?” Yusuf asks.
She looks at him, the concern writ large in his eyes. She touches his hand, which is nearly twice the size of her own. “Yeah. That was... wow. Something else.”
“Okay,” he says, squeezing her hand. “I’m guessing it needs a bit more tweaking.”
“Maybe,” she replies. “But the olfactory thing definitely worked.”
Yusuf laughs, and she laughs with him, because what else can she do? In the corner, the cat yawns and stretches, then jumps on the window sill. Its tail moves back and forth, like the pendulum on an old clock, as it watches the movements of the hectic streets.
Episode 5: Apollo
“You cut your hair?” is the first thing Eames says to her, after kissing her (somewhat more than cordially) on the cheek. “Darling, I’m not a man who’s easily surprised, but you have shocked me. Shocked me.”
Ariadne runs a hand over her newly-shorn hair, still self-conscious about it. “It was an impulse,” she says, because the truth is harder to explain. I think I incepted myself would sound strange, even to someone who’d know what she’s talking about.
“Oh, don’t mind me. It suits you.” Eames sits back down at the cafe table. “Arthur would certainly say so, and he’s the fashion queen, so there you go.”
Ariadne sits as well. “Is he–”
“He’ll be along soon. He apologizes, by the way, for being late and whatnot. He had some loose ends that needed to be wrapped up before he could come.”
“Loose ends?” she asks.
He smiles. “We might have a job.”
“A job?” she says.
“Is there an echo in here?” he says, and Ariadne ducks her head and fights down a blush. “Yes, Ariadne, a job.”
“What kind of–”
“Wait until Arthur’s here, he can tell you more about it. Can I get you a drink?”
“Sure,” she says, and Eames signals a waiter over. They order, and after the waiter leaves, she prompts, “So, you and Arthur.”
Eames looks entirely too innocent. “Arthur and I what?”
“You... work together now?”
Eames takes a sip of water and says, “It’s one of the things we do together, yes.”
There’s a flash of memory: Arthur squirming in her arms, holding one of her hands in a death grip, Eames with his hands around Arthur’s hips and his mouth on Arthur’s cock, the bathwater around them going lukewarm.
“You’re blushing,” Eames says. He’s smirking, like he knows exactly what she was just thinking of. “It’s quite becoming.”
“Oh shut up,” Ariadne says, smiling. “All right, how did that happen?”
“Well you were there, as I recall–”
She’s definitely blushing now. “The working together thing. And I was only there for the one night.”
“Yes, more’s the pity. You really should have stayed in L.A. longer. As for working together...” Eames leans back in his chair, rubs a hand against his jaw before speaking again. “Did he tell you what happened on the second level, when it was just him? During the Fischer job, I mean, in the hotel after the rest of us went under.”
Ariadne thinks back. During the days they’d been sequestered in the first layer of Robert Fischer’s subconscious, they all had mostly played cards and endless rounds of Cliff, Screw, or Marry. They hadn’t talked much. “He mentioned something about, what, there being no gravity for a while.”
Eames nods. “Yusuf jumped the gun on the first kick. That’s why we all missed it. So the van was in free-fall, and there was no bloody gravity in the second level. Arthur managed to shove all of us in an elevator and engineer a kick with the explosives he’d packed. All that while fighting off a metric fuckton of angry, armed projections.”
“Wow,” Ariadne says. He definitely hadn’t mentioned that.
“Right.” Eames shakes his head, takes another sip of his tea. “Cobb told me that he was the best. Honestly, I didn’t believe it. But when he told me that – and he was so casual about it, too. Like, having the most basic law of physics fall away from you was, really, no big deal.”
“I think I understand,” Ariadne says.
“The two of us are at the top of the game, it made sense to work together.”
“Okay,” Ariadne says, and waits. Eames doesn’t disappoint her.
“He’s also a fantastic lay. Don’t tell him I told you that,” he adds, levering a finger in her direction.
Ariadne laughs, “Well, I kinda already knew that part.”
Eames smirks at her. “Enough about the golden boy, though. Tell me what happened in Paris. Start from when you got back from L.A. Let’s do this whole catching-up thing properly, hmm?”
She haltingly tells Eames about the past three months in Paris, skipping over the academics and dwelling mostly on her adventures with Miles and his ancient PASIV. She is in the process of telling Eames what happened with Fischer when she feels a presence at the back of her chair.
“Nice to see you again, Ariadne,” Arthur says.
She jumps up and gives him a slightly awkward hug. His hair is shorter, the fabric of his suits is lighter and more suited to the climate, and he’s not wearing a waistcoat. He’s got that slightly amused look she remembers from before the job went down; when it was just them in the warehouse, or in an innocuous practice dream.
“You look good,” she says.
“So do you. I like the hair,” he replies, touching one of the strands briefly.
Eames is watching both of them with an eyebrow raised. “I told you he would.”
“Ignore him,” Arthur says, pulling out her chair for her..
“Ariadne was just catching me up on her unfortunate meeting with Mr. Fischer,” Eames informs him.
“It’s a good thing we got you out of Paris when we did," Arthur says when they’re both seated. “A contact of mine said that Fischer’s been sniffing around, trying to find out who you were.”
She feels a chill, goosebumps creeping across the flesh of her back. “He was?”
“Yeah. We’re lucky you paid the entrance fees to the museum in cash, or he would have gotten your name by now. I’ve got a few people keeping tabs on it, they’ll let me know if he actually finds anything on you.”
“Oh,” she says, and takes a long drink of her wine. The thought of being the object of someone’s investigation is deeply unsettling. “Thanks,” she adds.
“It’s nothing,” Arthur says. “But you might want to stay out of Paris for a while.”
They’re both watching her closely; to see if she falls apart, presumably. Four months ago, she might have. After all, she has just been forced to walk away from her entire life. Now, she just takes a sip of her water and thinks of possible next moves.
“My grandfather lives in Florida,” she says eventually. “He’d put up with me for a little while. Or my brother, I guess–”
“Far be it from us,” Eames interrupts, “to deny you the chance to see your family.”
“But we are looking for an architect for our next job,” Arthur says.
She glances back and forth between the two of them.
“Seriously?” she asks.
Eames and Arthur share a conspiratorial grin. “Have you ever been to Kuala Lumpur?” Eames asks.
“You’re going to love the Petronas Towers,” Arthur says.***
There is so much of the world she hasn’t seen. This isn’t the first time Ariadne has thought this; it’s a recurrent revelation, reminding her again and again how small she is, and by contrast, how vast the rest of the world is.
Kuala Lumpur is a study in contrasts; skyscrapers and Chinese temples, lofty museums and crowded markets, the call of muzzeins and the Bollywood songs that drift out of music shops. And the Petronas Towers; some of the tallest buildings in the world, but their look is nothing like anything you’d find in Europe or America.
She thinks she might be in love with the city, just a little. She, Arthur, and Eames have set up shop in a former restaurant, near Petaling Street, where they blend in with the numerous tourists. There’s a market of cheap brandname knockoffs around the corner, a hundred foodstalls within walking distance, and a place to get ridiculously sweet iced coffee two doors down. This last is a good thing; maybe it’s just leftover jetlag, but all three of them have utterly fucked-up sleep schedules. Ariadne woke up at four this morning, after four hours of sleep, and she’s not sure that either Arthur or Eames slept at all.
“Thanks,” Arthur tells her when she comes back to the restaurant, a tray of coffees in hand.
Arthur nods at a corner of the former dining room. Eames has pushed together a number of old, moldering chairs to form a rough, padded bench, and is passed out on it, snoring softly.
“He fell asleep with his shoes on,” Ariadne says. “We should draw a dick on his head.”
It’s the kind of thought that only comes to her when she’s punch-drunk with sleeplessness, but it makes Arthur crack up, nearly snort his coffee out onto his notes.
They talk about the mark for a while, their plans: this job is straight-up corporate espionage of the most mundane sort. Ariadne still doesn’t fully understand what they’re stealing, only that it has to do with something to do with IT stuff and money, but since Eames is the one actually extracting the information, she doesn’t mind her ignorance. The danger comes from the fact that the mark almost certainly has a militarized subconscious. She’s building intricate mazes into the layouts of a museum and the mark’s apartment building, and filling both of them with dead ends, false walls, and booby traps. It’s been ridiculously fun, so far.
“Arthur,” Ariadne says, when the conversation falls into a lull. The sun is just starting to hit the high windows of the empty dining room. Eames is still snoring in the other room.
He looks at her, eyebrows raised.
“Can you teach me to fight?”
He leans back in his chair, looks at her in a way that makes it feel like he’s sizing her up. “You want to learn how to fight?”
“If these projections are going to be all... you know. Violent. Then yeah, I do.”
Arthur studies her for a moment. “Easier solution would be to not go under with us–”
“Forget it,” Ariadne says. They’ve already talked about this. Compared to the labyrinths she’s building now, the one she built for the Fischer job were kiddie mazes. It’s all well and fine for Arthur and Eames to say they know the mazes, but they won’t. Not like she will.
“Okay,” he says, getting up. “Here’s the thing. It takes years to learn how to really fight. And you’ve got your size and your weight working against you.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t take care of myself,” Ariadne says, standing as well. She grew up with a younger brother, after all, who was a foot taller and nearly a hundred pounds heavier, and she still managed to make him cry a few times.
“Not at all. But in a fair fight with most guys, you’ll probably be overpowered.”
She crosses her arms, and tries not to feel defeated already. “So, what do I do then?”
“Two things. The first is to not fight fair,” Arthur says, grinning. Then he knocks the back of one of her knees, not hard but enough to unbalance her. It makes it easy for Arthur to trip her, and she falls hard into her seat. It takes her a second of blinking and trying to catch her breath before she notices Arthur is now holding a gun. She didn’t even see him pull it out.
“The second thing; always outgun your opponent.”
She looks at the gun, cradled loosely in Arthur’s left hand. “The only time I ever shot a gun,” Ariadne says, “was on the Fischer job.”
Arthur cocks his head. “When was that?”
“Four levels down with Cobb. I shot Mal.” This is the first time she’s ever admitted to this.
Arthur raises his eyebrows. She thinks he’s impressed. “I’m sure Dom was less than pleased. Did you shoot to kill?” he asks.
“I tried to. My aim was off.”
He smiles thinly. “We can work on that.”***
The lessons in violence are fun and painful by turns. Arthur tends to use Eames as a sparring partner when demonstrating a move; Eames cracks suggestive jokes while putting Arthur in various headlocks, Arthur calls Eames an asshole and then easily maneuvers out of the holds. The two of them teach her about all the vulnerable spots on a human body, and make her practice a host of dirty defense maneuvers.
Later in the week, Arthur takes her to a farm an hour outside the city to practice shooting. He pays off a toothless old man, then escorts her to a field that overlooks a brown, muddy river. He sets down the duffel bag he carried out from the car on the grass, and opens it. He pulls out a small handgun and passes it to her.
“That’s a Walther 22. Small enough to fire easy, big enough to do some damage.” He shows her the safety and demonstrates how to hold it, positions her body into a good firing stance, and then explains how to sight down the barrel.
“Exhale, and squeeze the trigger. Slowly–” He’s interrupted by the noise of the shot.
“Whoa,” Ariadne says. She wrinkles her nose at the acrid smell in the air. Shooting a gun in reality is very obviously different than shooting a gun in a dream.
“Again,” Arthur says.
She shoots her way through an entire clip before Arthur hands her a slightly larger gun. “Glock, nine millimeter,” he says. “Favored by thugs and drug dealers all over the world.”
The Glock has a harder kick that knocks her off balance the first time she shoots it. Arthur corrects her stance, kicking her feet farther apart, straightening her arms. Then she takes a deep breath, sights down the barrel, exhales. Shoots.
“Again,” Arthur says, and she shoots her way through the clip. Arthur shows her how to eject the magazine and reload it.
“Again,” he says. Her arms are starting to hurt, but she knows better than to complain. She shoots her way through another clip. Then he tells her to turn the safety on, and sets up a bunch of mangoes on a nearby fence, about twenty feet away.
“Mangoes?” she asks, massaging one aching shoulder. “They’re pretty small.”
“This is target practice. And they smell better than durian fruit.” He stands beside her. “All right, go ahead.”
The first mango explodes in a messy shower of golden fruit. It surprises them both.
“Huh,” Arthur says. “Keep going.”
The second and third mangoes explode, and the fourth falls off the fence after she clips the side.
“Your aim is impressive,” Arthur says.
“Weird,” Ariadne says. She’s never been naturally good at anything besides art, dream architecture, and making crêpes. To find out that she can also add target shooting to this list of talents is a surprise.
“All right,” Arthur says. “We’re moving on to rifles.”***
A week later, they’re in Arthur’s subconscious, in a Montmartre that Ariadne constructed. She can’t help missing Paris, and realizes that the best thing to do might be to stop denying it.
“Okay,” she says, after taking a moment to gaze down the familiar streets. “So what are we doing down here?”
“Training,” he says. Then he takes a grenade from his pocket, yanks out the pin, and throws it down the street. It hits the ground, rolls for a few feet, and then explodes in a burst of fire and sound that nearly knocks Ariadne flat.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Ariadne screams.
“You need to practice shooting people instead of fruit,” he says calmly.
There are Parisians tearing down the street towards them. They’re carrying knives, pool cues, and rocks in their hands. Some of them have guns, and that’s when she remembers these are Arthur’s projections, and they’re probably going to tear her to pieces. “Shit,” Ariadne swears. “Oh shit, oh shit-”
“Hey,” Arthur says. When she turns to him, Arthur is holding out two guns. “You have two choices. Panic, or act.”
“You fucking bastard,” she says, and takes the guns. She sights down the trigger, then thinks better of it. She shoves both of the guns in the pocket of her coat, and takes off down the street. Arthur follows her.
“What are you doing?” he shouts.
“Picking a better place to fight from than the middle of the fucking boulevard,” she shouts back.
“Smart,” Arthur says. Ariadne is sorely tempted to shoot him for it. They round a corner, duck behind a patisserie and into an alley. There’s a wall behind them now, which means that the angry mob can only come from one direction. The narrowness of the alley means they can’t come at her en masse, like happened in Cobb’s dream.
“Not bad,” Arthur says. “I’m impressed.”
“Shut up,” Ariadne shouts. “Jesus, you could have given me some warning, you bastard.”
“I wanted to see how you’d do improvising.”
“I hate you, you piece of shit,” she swears at him.
He’s smiling. The temptation to shoot him is almost overpowering. But the first projection has spotted them, and is making his way down the alley towards them, carrying a long butcher’s knife.
Ariadne shoots him in the chest, and the force of the bullet knocks him back into the wall. Blood sprays out onto the bricks, pours from the man’s gaping wound onto the pavement. Ariadne wants to vomit at the sight of him, writhing in pain on the ground. This is different from shooting mangoes in a field. This is horrifying.
“Don’t lose focus,” Arthur says. “More of them are coming.”
“I hate you,” she says again, because focusing on that keeps her panic and nausea at bay. She sights down the barrel at the next projection, and the next after that, shoots and shoots again, keeps shooting until there’s a small pile of bodies at the entrance of the alley, and thick pools of blood collecting on the ground. She shoots until she’s out of bullets, until she’s choking on the pervasive smell of cordite in the air.
“You need to reload,” Arthur says.
“No.” She drops the guns on the ground. Time to improvise.
“But we’re trapped,” he says.
“No, we’re not,” Ariadne says. Then she pushes at the skin of the dream, just a little. When she turns around, there’s a door in the brick wall behind them. It’s not a sudden change; Ariadne has made it so it has been there the entire time. It’s one of Miles’ tricks, a way of changing a layout without, in a way, changing it. It’s a paradox, sort of.
“The hell? Did you just–”
Ariadne doesn’t answer him, just throws open the door and stomps down the stairs. It leads to the Catacombs; Ariadne is neither claustrophobic nor squeamish about dead people, so it makes sense to come here. And it’s a maze, which is definitely familiar territory. She feels safe here.
“Nice,” Arthur says appreciatively, looking at the bones decorating the walls.
Ariadne collapses on a bench by one of the curved walls. Her arms hurt, her hands are practically numb from shooting, and she can’t stop shaking.
Arthur squats down in front of her, looking up into her eyes.
“I’m okay,” she says. Then she adds, even though it’s a lie: “But I still hate you.”
“I can live with that,” he says. “Because now we both know the least of what you’re capable of.”
She takes a long, steadying breath, listening to the dripping sounds of a far-off water pipe echoing down the tunnels.
“You’ve killed a lot of people, haven’t you,” she asks.
“A lot of projections,” Arthur corrects. “It’s not the same.”
“I know that,” she agrees. “What about real people? Up in the real world?”
Arthur doesn’t look away when he says, “A few.”
She can’t help it, she shudders. She knows that she hasn’t killed anything but images that Arthur’s subconscious has projected onto a mock-up of Montmartre, but it still feels disgusting. Like her hands are coated in a film of blood, sticky and damp. She knows that her hands are coated with nothing but sweat, but it’s still disconcerting.
“It’s probably easy for you by now.” she says blankly. “Killing people.”
Arthur hesitates, and then answers, “Easier in some ways, harder in others. That’s one of the worst things about it, actually.”
His voice is so honest, stripped down and bare, that Ariadne instinctively reaches for him, taking one of hands in both of her own.
“I’m sorry. And I was lying before, I don’t hate you.”
“I know that,” he says, half-smiling. “And you don’t have to pity me.”
“I don’t–” she protests.
“I don’t have the kind of internalized chaos that forgers and extractors do. And I don’t have the creative spark to be an architect. This is what I do, it’s who I am. All I ever knew how to be was just myself. Just Arthur.”
Ariadne smiles crookedly. “I never knew how to be anything but Ariadne. Good thing we’re both good at what we do.”
Arthur grins, that ridiculous grin that shows off his ridiculous dimples; an incongruously youthful expression for a man who carries himself with the gravity of a loaded gun. “The three of us,” he says, “we could be really good together.”
She’s not sure if he’s talking about working together or... something else. She asks, “Is this your really roundabout way of asking me to stick around with you two?”
Arthur snorts. “It wasn’t that roundabout. Give me a little credit.”
“You don’t want to wait until after the job? See if I perform to your standards?” she asks, because if she knows anything about Arthur, it’s that he hates committing to anything without knowing the full implications of it. She’s still shocked that she and Eames actually managed to get him into bed, that night at the Kyoto Grande, when none of them knew what might come out of it.
“You’ve proved yourself to me,” he says. “To both of us.”
She thinks about it for a moment while running her thumb across his scarred knuckles; thinks about the way she feels with Eames and Arthur, the way they all bounce ideas and insults off each other, how they push each other to be better, to be the best. She thinks about the night in the Kyoto Grande. She thinks about Paris and Miles and how a few minutes ago, she was really tempted to shoot out Arthur’s knee caps.
“Let’s see how the job goes” she says eventually. “Then I’ll give you an answer. Both of you.”
Episode 6: Ariadne
The job does not go as expected. It’s not quite as fucked up as the Fischer job, but it hasn’t been a walk in the park, either. Not unless walking in the park involves everyone trying to kill you. Maybe there’s some parks like that, in Somalia or something, but they’re not ones that Ariadne goes to.
“Is it always like this?” she asks Arthur. They’re crouching behind a marble pillar in the museum that she designed for the first level. She has to shout to be heard over the gunfire.
“Like what?” he says. He’s bleeding, from his lip and from his side, and is wearing a pained scowl. She figures they have a few minutes to live, maximum, if he looks that annoyed.
“Utter fucking chaos!”
“Oh,” he says. “Well. Sometimes.”
That’s hardly an answer, and it’s certainly not a reassuring one.
“Fuck this!” she shouts, because she’s sick of shooting and being shot at, and she is utterly uninterested in waiting to see what the mark’s subconscious is going to throw at them next. She shuts her eyes, and moves the world.
Give me a big enough lever and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I can move the world. Miles told her that once, during the course of one of their shared dreams. Or so said Archimedes. The very same can happen in dreams; only the lever and fulcrum are in your mind. And the only thing you’re really moving is yourself.
What about the other dreamers? she had asked.
To hell with them, they can bloody well deal with it, he’d answered, laughing.
“What the fuck?” Arthur says from a few feet away. Ariadne opens her eyes. They’re still in the museum, sort of. Only now, the pillar that they’re crouching behind is at the center of a maze of walls, which display all of Ariadne’s favorite paintings.
“What the hell just happened?” He looks at her. “Did you... ?”
“I improvised,” Ariadne says. She is silently impressed with herself. She practiced this maneuver with Miles a couple times, but never on this scale.
“You improvised?!” Arthur hisses.
She thinks of Eames suddenly, saying Is there an echo in here? That would be exactly the wrong thing to say to Arthur right now. “Yes, Arthur,” she says instead. “I improvised. I was sick of being shot at.”
Arthur takes a deep breath, opens his mouth to say something irritating and logical probably.
“It worked, didn’t it?” she says, cutting him off. “Look! No more projections!”
Arthur looks around. There are no more projections visible, though their shouts and occasional gunshots are still audible. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “There are reasons we don’t do things like this,” he says. “It riles up projections–”
“Because they were so calm before,” she snipes.
“It can clue the mark in that he’s dreaming–”
“He’s already in the second level with Eames–”
“It can make the dream unstable.”
“Does it look like it’s about to break apart to you?”
Holding a hand over the bleeding wound in his gut, he stands. “Okay. Fine. Can you get us through the maze and back to Eames then?”
“Um,” she says. “There is no way through the maze. It’s... well, at this point, it’s pretty much a fancy Möbius strip.”
Arthur blinks. She’s never seen someone manage to make blinking look like an angry gesture. “We’re in the center of an impossible maze?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she answers.
“There’s no way to get through it.”
“So, there’s not.”
“It’s... complicated. I could draw you a diagram, if you–”
“Stop,” Arthur says, holding up a hand. “Seriously, I’m going to shoot you if you don’t stop.”
I could make it so the bullet hits you in the ass instead, Ariadne thinks, but decides not to say so. She might be overestimating her ability to screw around with dream-physics.
Arthur looks down the hallway of the maze, muttering softly, “How the hell do we get through an impossible maze?”
He’s not actually talking to her – that’s apparent from the look of concentration on his face, the way he’s looking through the walls like they’re not really there. She answers him anyway: “We take the shortcut.”
He turns and looks at her. “The shortcut?”
“Is there an echo in here?” she asks, because she can’t help it. Arthur rolls his eyes, then suddenly staggers. Ariadne looks at him in surprise, then at the floor, where there’s a collection of blood droplets by his shoe. “Take off your jacket.”
“I’m fine. Can we just–”
“Take if off, Arthur.”
Carefully, he pulls the suit jacket off his shoulders and lets it drop to the floor.
“Jesus,” Ariadne says, because the starched cotton of his shirt is soaked through with blood.
“I know you’re not going to believe me,” Arthur says, “but it isn’t as bad as it looks.”
“That’s good,” she says faintly. “Because it looks really fucking bad.”
“Trust me, I’ve had worse.” But his face is pale as he says it, his smile wan and unconvincing. “What were you saying about a shortcut?”
Shortcut. Right. Focus. Ariadne goes to a nearby painting – Danae by Klimt – reaches behind the frame, and pulls out a red string.
Arthur follows the length of string with his eyes, looking at where it leads around the corner and off into the maze. “That’s... very mythic of you.”
“It does the trick,” Ariadne replies. She holds out her hand, and Arthur takes it. “Ready?” she asks.
His hand is cold in hers, his palms clammy. “Yeah.”
She wraps the string around her hand and pulls it sharply.***
And they’re standing in the lamplit courtyard where they left Eames with the mark. Arthur’s face is slightly green, and he leans over for a moment, breathing deeply through his nose. Ariadne touches the small of his back, ignoring the tacky spots of blood beneath her fingers.
“I’m fine,” Arthur says, his voice hoarse. “But I think I prefer walking.”
“We should be safe here,” she says. She’s isolated this room in its own loop, sealing up all the exits and turning it into a sort of satellite dreamscape. She and Arthur can’t get out, but nothing can get in, either.
Ariadne maneuvers him onto a bench beside the statue of a crouching Aphrodite. Eames is sitting in another bench nearby, breathing slowly, his eyelids twitching. The mark is stretched out on the marble floor beside him.
Ariadne unbuttons Arthur’s shirt, moving it so she can see the wound in his side. It’s nasty, a jagged tear in the smooth flesh of his stomach, slowly seeping out blood. Looking at it makes her feel ill. “What should I do?” she asks.
“I’ll be fine,” Arthur says again. “This is just a dream, anyway.”
It’s never just a dream, though. The pain in his face is entirely too real. “Should I...?” she asks, touching the .45 Arthur has in a shoulder holster.
“It’s too early,” Arthur says. Ariadne looks; there’s still another half hour left on the timer of the PASIV on the floor. “We should wait for Eames.”
“Damn it,” Ariadne says. She stands and paces angrily around the room, unable to stand looking at the pain in Arthur’s face. She hates not being able to help him. She hates, more than anything, feeling useless. She hates sitting and waiting. She and Arthur are very alike that way.
“I never thanked you, did I?” Arthur says suddenly.
Ariadne turns back to him, kneels in front of him so he doesn’t have to talk too loudly. “Thank me for what?”
“For the night in the Kyoto Grande. It was...” he trails off, thinking. “It was the thing I didn’t know I needed.”
Ariadne touches his hand. “Is this a dying confession? Because you’re not actually dying, remember?”
“Just dreaming I am, I know. Still, I thought you should know.”
She doesn’t know how to answer that. “Well, thank Eames, then. It was his idea to get a hotel room and get drunk.”
“And to get us into the bathtub. I have thanked him. Trust me, he never lets me forget, the bastard.” Arthur says the last word with an inordinate amount of fondness. “I don’t think any of it would have happened without you, though.”
Ariadne smiles at him. Arthur half-grins back, then grimaces in pain. He squeezes her hand reflexively.
Arthur makes a noise, a soft grunt of acknowledgement. She can see that his jaw is clenched.
“Do you still talk to Cobb?” she asks.
“Not often,” Arthur says. “He’s got his kids back now, and he’s trying to stay far away from anything that might take him away from them again.”
It’s sad that Arthur is included in that category, but she can see why it’s so. Something in him comes to vibrant life during these jobs. “Do you miss him?” she asks.
This isn’t something she would normally ask Arthur, ever. Whatever thing he had going with Cobb, whatever weird codependent relationship they had, always struck her as a forbidden topic. She hasn’t forgotten how Arthur almost broke Eames’ nose that night in L.A., after some not-so-gentle teasing. But Arthur’s dying in increments in front of her, even if it’s only a dream; for some reason, it seems more acceptable to pry.
“Sometimes,” Arthur tells her. “But mostly, I’m getting on with my life.” He squeezes her hand and asks, “Do you?”
“Not really,” she says. “It’s kind of like... getting over any infatuation. It just faded away while I was busy doing other things.”
Arthur hums in agreement. They stay there for a while, Arthur grimacing and squeezing her hand whenever the pain gets too bad. When there’s eight minutes left on the PASIV, Arthur coughs and says, “Something’s wrong. It shouldn’t have taken him this long.”
“What do we do?” Ariadne says.
“One of us should go under,” he replies.
“You have to go under,” she corrects. “I’m the dreamer on this level.”
Arthur nods. “I don’t want to leave you alone, but–”
“I’ll be fine,” she says.
“I believe you,” Arthur answers, smiling at her. He rolls up his sleeve, and Ariadne pulls out a third IV from the PASIV. As he’s wrapping it around his wrist, he says, “If I’m not awake in five minutes–”
“I know what to do,” she says, and presses the button. Arthur’s eyelids flutter and then close.
It’s quiet now, just the soft sounds of breathing that echo in the large room. Ariadne looks around the room at the collection of statues. Unthinkingly, she had put the statue of Winged Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre in a place dominating the courtyard. She sits underneath it now, leaning against its pedestal, looking up at the wings spread out above her and the stars beyond that. She takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly.
She wasn’t lying when she said she didn’t miss Cobb. She’s not sure she ever really knew him enough to miss. They only spent two weeks in real time together, plus a few days down in the dream. She thinks now that she missed what he brought to her; a change in direction, the sweeping possibilities of new life. And then when he was gone, she missed the simplicity of her life before.
God, four months fraught with existential brooding, and she realizes the truth in a dream. Miles would be both proud and amused.
She’s not sure how he’ll take the news that she’s going to team up with Arthur and Eames, but at least he’ll laugh at that.
With three minutes left on the PASIV, Arthur coughs and opens his eyes. A few seconds later, Eames does the same.
“Are we good?” she asks, standing up.
“We’re good,” Eames says. He looks over at Arthur, who’s still hunched over on his bench. “Good god, you are a mess.”
“Thanks for that, Eames, I hadn’t noticed,” Arthur replies weakly. “I’m ready to wake up now, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” he says, pulling out his .38. He crouches in front of Arthur and kisses him briefly. “Thanks for that down there, by the way,” he says softly.
“You can thank me later,” Arthur says.
“I intend to.”
Ariadne looks away as Eames brings the gun up, and jumps a little at the shot. “What was that about?” she asks when the echoes die down.
“Oh, Arthur saved my ass, and this job,” Eames says, and sighs. “He’ll be insufferable about it when we wake up.”
“There are worse things than Arthur in a good mood,” Ariadne points out.
“Very true,” Eames agrees. “He told me what you did up here, by the way. With the red thread. Neat trick.”
“Thanks,” Ariadne says. “It comes in handy.”
“You’ll have to show me sometime,” Eames says, then adds. “Maybe when you join us in Bangkok?”
They had talked about meeting again after the job was over. Ariadne had been evasive about agreeing, unsure if she really wanted to stay with Eames and Arthur, unsure of what the implications of that could be. Any question about what being with the two of them could entail is made clear in the look that Eames gives her; dark, gentle, promising.
Ariadne smiles. “I will.”
“Oh good,” he says, grinning toothily. He holds the gun up to his temple and says, “See you topside then.”
There’s a bang, and then a thump as the gun hits the ground. When she opens her eyes, Eames is gone. With two minutes left on the PASIV timer, she turns and makes her way back to the statue of Winged Victory.
“Onwards and upwards,” she says to the statue, then raises her eyes to the sky.
The last things she sees before she wakes are the stars, clear and bright, shining all around her.