The first time he kisses her, it’s like she’s in a bad spy movie. The kind where she would run her hand down his neck and look over his shoulder at a Russian mobster and he would be pulling the gun out of her handbag so that he could spin and take him down. It’s ludicrous and silly, and the fact that she does it without thinking will mortify her later, once things have slowed down enough for her to notice. For a moment though, she understands that even in the drawn out timescape of a second level dream, some things are still over in a flash.
The pounding on his door wakes him out of a sound and dreamless sleep. He thinks he might still be on Paris time, having not been in Australia long enough to acclimate, but even sleeping on the plan does not cancel out jet lag, and Arthur is always exhausted after a job. He knows in his head that he hasn’t actually spent all that time running and fighting, but he can never manage to convince his body of the fact. The knocking repeated, insistent if not urgent, and he stumbles towards the door.
The moment he pulls back, she looks around them, hoping that whatever he planned had worked, and bought them more time. Everywhere she looks, she is met by accusing glares that slide off her to focus on the man beside her, but not before she feels the full measure of their animosity. It hasn’t worked, and when she looks at him, she realizes before she speaks that he might have already known that. She doesn’t get the chance to ask him, though. There is work to be done on this level to buy time in the next.
“Why did you think that kissing me would throw off Fischer’s subconscious?” Ariadne speaks the words before he has the door open, before his brain, still thinking two levels slower and in free fall, can catch up.
“I - ” he stutters, “I didn’t.”
“Then why?” she says, and it’s like the kick, forcing him upwards towards her one level at a time.
She doesn’t think about him the whole time they are in Eames’s dream. Well, she thinks about him, but she thinks about him while she’s running the numbers: 10 seconds, three minutes, half an hour...none of it fits around the part where he kissed her for no good reason that she can determine. She doesn’t try to make it. She’s too busy trying to make sure Cobb doesn’t kill them all with his stubborn refusal to do what needs to be done. Two of them die anyway.
Ariadne is pale, like she hasn’t slept in a week. The shadows from his room carve dark lines under her eyes that probably aren’t there in proper lighting, but he sees her almost like she is a shade, and it makes him cold. He knows better than to ask if she’s dreamt since landing in LA. Her dreams will return, for now, but it might be a while before they break through again. Eames has filled him in on how she managed in the lower level, but neither she nor Cobb will talk about Limbo yet. All he knows for sure now is that she made the kick and Cobb did not. He’s not sure he wants to know any more than that.
They spent a week in Yusuf’s dream. A week of rain soaked streets and cramped quarters in the safe house she designed for them. She had planned to spend her time reading in the garden, she’s got school, after this is all done, but the weather prevents it. Instead, she spends a week listening to the endless back and forth between Eames and Arthur. None of them say anything about how they look out the window, towards the river, whenever there’s a moment of silence. The rain comes down, but nothing else comes up, and they’re stuck here unless the plane hits serious turbulence.
“It was the first thing I thought of,” he says, just before she shifts her weight under his gaze. She’s impatient, and she has every right to be.
“The first thing you thought of.” She repeats it like it’s the dumbest thing she’s ever heard. “Projections were coming to tear you apart, and the first thing you thought of was tricking me into letting you kiss me?”
“Yes,” he says, then, “No, no not that. Not the projections. Just the kiss.”
She wakes on the plane, fumbling in her pocket for the bishop and desperate for them all to have their eyes open when she looks at them. Yusuf’s seat is empty, he’s already heading to the toilet. She can’t see Arthur, behind her, but she can feel him breathing close to her as he leans forward. She knows he’s just checking on Cobb, and she wishes she had the courage to turn and face him, and ask the question that she’s had more time to think about than he has.
“Will it get easier?” she says, and he blinks even though his eyes have become accustomed to the lights from the hallway.
“It doesn’t have to,” he replies. “Not for you, anyway.”
“Eames said I’ll never be able to stop at one job. He said that I’m too good to go back,” she says, smiling in frustration. He can’t seem to help looking at her mouth, remembering. It was a moment in the second level, but it would have been longer in real life, and suddenly, he wants the full measure of time he is owed.
“Then yes,” he says. “It gets easier if you want it to.”
At the luggage carousel, not one of them looks at her. She knew this would happen, they are all better criminals than she is, and she can’t help but wonder if this is the last time she’ll see any of them. Saito disappears, Yusuf and Eames lag behind and Cobb all but sprints once he has cleared customs. She gets in a cab, glad to see the sun again, but not glad enough to walk anywhere with her bag, and by the time she arrives at the hotel, she’s almost tired. Arthur is in the lobby when she gets there, checking in. He doesn’t say anything to her, and she hates herself for feeling hurt by that, but she overhears his room number, and wonders if she might be a better criminal than she thinks.
“I want it to,” she whispers. He has to lean forward to hear her properly, and finds his hands on her shoulders, both of them bracing the weight of the door.
She looks up at him, and he’s not sure what they’re talking about anymore, not sure if they shifted and he missed it, but trusting in her ability to shape and build, and know the ground she’s standing on better than anyone else ever could. If she will stand there, he will be the first to stand beside her. His hand moves into her hair and she sighs against his touch.
Ariadne wakes from a dreamless sleep to the red light of the alarm clock glinting off the gold bishop that lets her know that this is real. She stares at the darkness in her room, almost glad of the emptiness, but just like in a dream, thoughts rush in and crowd her on every side. She knows where he is, and she knows that if she asks him, he will tell her the truth. She does not know what that truth will be, nor if she is ready for it, but she can’t wait in this emptiness any longer, or it will swallow her as surely as Limbo tried to.
The second time he kisses her, there is a warmth, a depth of feeling he couldn’t muster before, and a slow boiling passion working its way upwards through the levels. The moment stretches, like a song played slow in a dream within a dream within a dream. He pulls her towards him, and as she shifts forward, the door presses back against him, pushing them together. He draws her into his room dark, unempty and welcoming.
The second time he kisses her, it is like a dream. This is how she knows it’s real.