Ariadne, after the inception, has nightmares.
Once the thrill wears off, her life refuses to settle back into a schedule she can manage. She spends her nights plodding endlessly around alternate endings like they're Arthur's Penrose staircases, dreaming up scenarios where everything goes wrong in every way possible. Sometimes, Yusuf never manages to crash the van or projections gun them all down in the snow. Other times, Fischer catches on and turns the full force of his wrath on her, yanking out her teeth or clawing out her eyes while she remembers Yusuf protesting that they're so heavily sedated that even death doesn't guarantee a return to the waking world. All she can do is scream and cry and pray for the kick.
It isn't so easy. She can't wake up because there's no kick in real life.
Instead of each dream lasting only a few minutes while she's on the PASIV, they last all night. Staying awake becomes easier than sleeping and she drags herself out of bed each morning in a state of raw-nerved exhaustion, surviving on black coffee and superhuman force of will. In classes, during study sessions, sometimes the real world shifts to dreams in front of her and she can't control it, can't keep her body from betraying her and dozing off when it simply can't sustain itself any longer.
Ariadne starts setting her alarm to go off once every hour, which helps a little but mostly just means she spends her nights too nervous to sleep at all.
Her roommates think she's insane. Once, Michelle actually comes into her room at two in the morning and turns off her phone because it's supposedly been blaring for five whole minutes. Ariadne can't even be angry at her for it the next day.
“I didn't want to wake you up,” Michelle tells her. “You were completely out.”
“I was being flayed alive,” Ariadne wants to say, but instead she forces a smile and chokes out some excuse about overworking and OCD.
The thing is, Arthur was right. She can't stay away. She craves the excitement, the challenge, the criminality that comes with wanting to work like this, but at the same time she's not sure she can handle it. It would be wiser and easier to line up normal, mundane, legal job opportunities, but it isn't as if she can sit down and talk with anyone about how she's feeling about her career options. She hasn't spoken to a single member of the team since the airport and she isn't sure what she would say if she were to contact one of them now.
The next time she wakes up before dawn with her breath coming too quickly and her body damp with sweat, she swallows her pride, treks across campus, and sits outside Miles's office sipping a cappuccino until he comes in. He's her adviser and she needs advice now more than ever. “I want to understand this more,” she says to him.
“Of course you do,” he answers, smiling like he's expected nothing else, and she hates that she waited this long before admitting that to him.
When Miles dies, Ariadne flounders.
It happens the weekend after they meet in his office: a heart attack at home, tragic but not abnormal. Ariadne dreams of more horrifying circumstances all the same.
Cobb comes with his children, with Miles's ex-wife, and Ariadne doesn't have the heart to foist her problems on him. Arthur is there at the funeral, slim and somber in a deep gray suit, and she's surprised to see Eames as well. She'd been under the impression he didn't make contact with Cobb or Arthur all that regularly. When Arthur approaches her at the reception and asks how she's been, Ariadne can't answer.
“I assumed you needed a little time to absorb everything once we finished. That or you decided it's not something you want to be doing with your life after all.” He doesn't look like he believes this for a second. “You do, don't you?”
“I...” Ariadne begins, but no other words come out because her throat is too dry and her eyes are too wet and she can feel Arthur looking at her so expectantly, waiting for her to give the reply he already knows, and she can't do it.
Fortunately, breaking down after a funeral doesn't look suspicious.
Eames must come over at some point since she hears him asking Arthur, “What have you done now?” and Arthur murmuring something in return. Then someone is pressing a handkerchief into her palm and someone else is guiding her into a chair and all Ariadne can think is that she's looking phenomenally unprofessional right now, even by illegal job market standards. That and how badly she wants to sleep.
And she must say this out loud, somehow, because Arthur is asking if she needs to lie down and it feels like it takes every ounce of her energy just to nod.
She doesn't catch which hotel it is they're staying in, but it's nicer than the one they dreamed up for Fischer and neither of them seem to see anything strange about steering her into bed. Eames perches on the edge of it next to her once she's maneuvered under the covers, still dressed save for her shoes. “Has it been like this since we last saw you?”
There's no way Cobb would let them all part ways without following up somehow. “What, nobody's been keeping tabs on me?”
“Not what I said.” There's a smile in his voice, but she doesn't open her eyes to see it.
Ariadne presses her face into a pillow. “Yeah, it has, pretty much.”
He actually pats her hand then, but coming from him it doesn't seem patronizing. “Going back to your old life isn't easy. I'm not even going to swear it's possible. If you'd rather cut all contact and try, that's completely within your rights.”
“What would be the point of that? I can't exactly tell any of this to a therapist.”
“Just remember that in this business you can't trust just anyone.”
“I've noticed.” She glances across the room to where Arthur is busy with his phone. “Some people take advantage of you and try to kiss you in dreams.”
Eames snorts. “Did you really? You're horrible.”
Arthur looks up. “I don't think you're making her feel any better.” He slides out of his jacket and crosses to the closet, lifting Eames's from the back of an armchair on the way. Ariadne hasn't determined just whose room she's in, but the bed is amazing and that's the truly important thing.
“Look,” Arthur continues, “part of why Cobb was able to delve as far as he did was Mal. It helps when you're that close with someone who understands dreaming as much as you do. If they'd been researching independently of each other, I don't think they would have gone anywhere near as far as they did together.”
Considering what happened to them, Ariadne doesn't know how she's meant to take this. “Is that supposed to be reassuring?”
He looks nonplussed. “I was just trying to give an example.”
“You're crap at this,” Eames tells him. “Ariadne, go to sleep. If you wake up, we'll be here.”
This time, when she dreams, it's about the PASIV being destroyed while she's still under.
They've slept together on floors, on chairs, on half-formed streets, anywhere the dream-constructing process demanded. Waking with a jolt to find herself in an actual bed with Arthur's hand on her shoulder is more surprising than anything.
She isn't used to being asked. She isn't used to being able to tell the truth. “I couldn't get out of a dream.”
Arthur hums vaguely. He has on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and looks like a completely different person. “Mine are mostly about losing my totem.”
Ariadne lets that sink in. “You still...you mean it never stops?”
At the table by the window, Eames laughs. “Ariadne, you're very special, but in this case you're nothing but normal.”
“When you're a soldier,” says Arthur, “you have these things drilled into you. That helps a little.”
Something freezes in Ariadne's chest and refuses to crack. Maybe taking on the inception job wasn't the best decision, in the long run. She shoves back the blankets and swings her legs over the side of the bed. “Listen, it's still early. I should go.”
“If two hours of sleep is enough for you.” Arthur is looking at her the way he did at the reception, like he already knows the answer to what he's asking. “Do you think you can make it through the night?”
“Come back when you're tired and we'll work something out.”
It's the middle of the night when she packs a few things and finds herself outside the hotel room again. Eames greets her with a, “No luck?” and Ariadne doesn't even need to answer before he's pulling open the door. “Figured as much. There's nothing to be ashamed of, you know. Arthur used to need one of those sound machines to help him sleep, back when he was still young and fit. Whale song, babbling brook, the whole bit.”
For the first time, she notices that Arthur's still there, half-hidden under the comforter. Without opening his eyes, he points to the other side of the bed. “Lie down. Sleep. I don't care if you kick, snore, drool, talk to yourself, or need to wake someone up every fifteen minutes. Also, sound machines might not be sophisticated, but they work.” His voice is sleep-roughened, but he still manages to sound about twelve.
The bed is as huge and soft as before. She's realized that it's the only one in the room, but by now she's already half asleep and nothing strikes her as odd anymore. “Thanks.”
She spends the night between them and even that doesn't seem strange. Her roommates would love to hear about this, but Ariadne has no intention of telling them.
And she can understand this, to an extent. Sometimes having someone to sleep with, literally sleep with, helps things feel easier. Cobb was the only team member who would go under alone and Cobb, of course, had more issues than the rest of them combined. Ariadne has what-ifs seething through her subconscious and her totem in the pocket of her pajama pants; when she wakes up shaking and clutching it, Eames smooths back her hair and reassures her she'll be fine and Arthur's arms are strong around her and the two of them don't let up until she's ready to sleep again.
They tell her things she didn't know she needed to hear: she was never a soldier like them, her expensive education never trained her for anything like this, she isn't weak for wanting to find rationality now that everything she's known has been twisted around.
She thinks maybe they kiss over her head. If it's a dream, it's a refreshingly pleasant one.