Ariadne has always known she was special. Not everybody in the world can do magic, her Great-Aunt Hermione tells her very seriously. The wizarding community is very small, and it's important to maintain an understanding of the outside world. But she has to keep it secret.
Things used to be more insular, her father tells her. Since the Second Wizarding War there's been a relaxation, a reaction to the bigotry espoused by Voldemort and his followers, a new acceptance of the importance of Muggleborns and the world around them. Ariadne's father may be the son of a werewolf, and her mother may be a quarter Veela, but she has to understand that not everybody has magic that runs in their veins and their genes. But she has to keep that a secret as well.
Ariadne's different, though, from most wizards and witches. She's downright fascinated by Muggle culture. Her family lives near a Muggle village and as a child she's always running down the hill and playing with the other children, amazed by their games and stories - no Hopping Cauldron, but stories of women with silly names like Cinderella and Rapunzel and Goldilocks. One story involves a little girl with a red hood and the wolf that eats her up and the huntsman that saves them. Red is Ariadne's favourite colour, and her father obligingly makes her a red cloak with a hood that she wears till it's in tatters and spells can't weave together its fraying threads any longer.
And then one day Ariadne gets in trouble. Emily's big sister has been set to mind her and the other children who play in the park, and she's reading them the stories that delight all of them so much. But she doesn't like telling the stories, and she gets more and more irritated at the girls correcting her, and she finally snaps at them. Her words are sharp and meant to puncture their dreams at a single blow. Of course magic doesn't exist, she says, don't be silly. Nobody can really turn a pumpkin into a carriage or fly through the air on a broomstick or steal a voice or make a potion that puts you to sleep and looks like death.
"Of course it does," Ariadne says. She is surprised by the sound of her own voice. But Emily's sister is wrong, and she's saying that knowing that magic is real is silly. And that Ariadne will know better when she's older. And Ariadne starts to cry and tells her that when she grows up she's going to Hogwarts and learning magic like her mummy and daddy do and Emily's sister will only get boring and old and ugly and won't ever do magic. And then she runs home, through the woods and up the hill to the little house where her parents are hanging out the washing and lifting the sheets through the air with a wave of their wands.
They see her tearstained face first. Behind her they see a pack of children running after her, eyes wide and mouths wider at the sight of magic, real magic used for something as common as hanging out the washing. Her father ushers her inside and up to her room where she has to sit in the corner, and after that Ariadne isn't allowed to play down in the village anymore. She gets worse at making friends. And she never gets any better at keeping her mouth shut when grown-ups are being stupid. She grows up with her family as her friends, millions of Weasleys who only look askance when she chooses to retreat to a corner and draw pictures or read another book or just watch what's going on. There's always a lot going on, and watching it teaches a great deal about how people get along, or don't.
Going off to Hogwarts is an adventure, even as people tend to stare at her - the last name, the knowledge that she comes from veelas and werewolves. Ariadne longs to be somewhere where there is no history, where her family can simply be the people who raised her and not legendary figures in a titanic struggle between good and evil. When she is sorted into Gryffindor everyone expects great things, and she disappoints them hugely by not becoming Head Girl and choosing to find friends in other Houses rather than strictly associating with her innumerable Weasley cousins. It's the privilege of the young, she knows, but she doesn't want to be the scion of a wizarding family or the outlier in a family of heroes.
She wants more than the wizarding world can offer her, and she wants to see more of the world as a whole. And she wants to go somewhere entirely new. But these are nothing more than vague dreams and half-formed plans till her seventh year, when she and her two closest friends are all walking down by the lake after giving up on an Arithmancy study session.
"It's all a bit silly for me," Victoria says. She's a Slytherin and a Muggleborn, and it's a bit unusual still for anyone who's not a pureblood to be Sorted into that house, so she chooses to spend a lot of time with Margery and Ariadne instead of her fellow Snakes. "My parents want me to go to university. Oxford, preferably."
"A Muggle university?" Margery asks, pushing hair out of her face and tucking her blue-striped scarf more snugly into her collar. "Whatever for?"
"For a proper education," Victoria answers. "Hogwarts is wonderful for magic, obviously, but they want me to have a real degree in case I don't go straight to the Ministry. And I can't work in some shop in Diagon Alley. That would be tremendously disappointing." Even Muggles have their own purebloods.
"Tremendously," Ariadne echoes. But the idea of university catches in her mind and grows. What if she left? Left and did what she wanted to do, go somewhere her family name and history and famous relatives wouldn't matter? And Ariadne wants that very much indeed. She wants to see if she can make it in the Muggle world and rely only on her own abilities and talents and skills. She wants, in fact, to leave the country entirely. Everyone fusses and frets, but the Ministry does have a very obscure division that helps her transform her NEWTs into A-levels and provide her with all the documentation she needs to gain access to a Muggle university. She waits in a blank government office to get a Muggle passport and can't stop looking at the photograph of herself that doesn't move at all. After a year of tutoring with the Ministry, and with Victoria, to get her writing and mathematics up to snuff - Hogwarts never bothers with maths other than Arithmancy or writing outside what they do in essays - she gets on an aeroplane for the first time and leaves everything she's known behind.
She goes to university in America and learns to lose her accent, taming it into nothing more than an occasional dropped R or a particular emphasis on the wrong syllable. Often she's simply asked if she's foreign; a number of times she's asked if she's "Canadian or something," which delights her. In time she discovers a passion for building things, for drawing that doesn't require a spell, for the erasable lines and the blueprints that seem as indecipherable to the untrained eye as a page of Ancient Runes. Perhaps it's too much time with building blocks, taken to impossible heights with her father's help. Or spending too much time spent among the shifting stairs and invisible ceilings of Hogwarts. Or perhaps it's a simple reaction to the impermanence of the world around her, where spells can make and unmake the very bones in her body. Building in stone and steel has a certain appealing permanence, even though it may be illusory.
She comes back and declares she wants to continue her studies. Her mother's been trying to convince her to pick up her French roots, as her grandmother's been urging for years, and she can't resist the first time she apparates to Paris and sees the wonderful streets of graceful old buildings and the impossible Eiffel Tower beyond. Dad takes her to the Sorbonne and introduces her to a man who will change her life.
Professor Miles had a brother who was a Muggleborn wizard, it turns out, and he knew Nana Andromeda when he was quite young. He teaches her the ways of the city, chisels off some more of those rough edges and is always delighted when she brings him a package of Cauldron Cakes sent from her dad. She knows there's some deep sadness in his life, something that has to do with his daughter and a tragedy he can't speak of. The sudden gaps in sadness and the shadows over his smile are familiar enough to someone who grew up memorising the names of the beloved dead who were lost in the war.
Ariadne doesn't know that Dominic Cobb is his son-in-law when he introduces her. She just thinks it's some sort of job offer, since he knows Paris is still expensive even when you're staying in a flat that belongs to a landlord your grandmother charmed ages ago and your rent is half what it ought to be. She doesn't know that it's her precise background that makes Professor Miles so eager to introduce her, or that this is anything other than what it seems. Looking back, she thinks she should have known better, should have seen some danger approaching, but coffee grounds are not nearly as reliable as tea leaves for divining the future.
It's hard not to compare the PASIV to a Pensieve, and she almost calls it by the more familiar name a dozen times. Memories are like dreams, in a way, and the PASIV has the mysterious vials slotted into smooth curves and a dull gleam that promises knowledge and secrets hidden within. But the needles are new, and she appreciates the long cool fingers of the man in the waistcoat who introduced himself as Arthur brushing over her wrist as he hooks her up. That name makes her feel safe as much as his calm demeanor even as she lies back on the dingy lawn chair and waits to fall asleep and -
They stand on a rooftop and she draws him three mazes. They drink coffee at a street cafe she doesn't recognize. And he tells her that they're dreaming. The first thing she thinks is that it really is like a Pensieve, being dropped into the middle of someone else's world without warning. The second thing she thinks is that it's like Legilimency when it's working properly, really working and you can see inside someone's head as clearly as if you'd opened a window and peered inside. Except the third thing she thinks is that it's more than both of those, more textured somehow, more vibrant and alive with the sensation of the air moving around her and the scent of the coffee she's drinking with Cobb. And as she has these realizations one after another it's like flashbulbs going off in her head and suddenly everything is exploding around them. Is it her magic? She hasn't lost control like this ever, she thinks, and she tries to Apparate away and suddenly she's waking up in the warehouse again.
They go under again. And it's like magic, but not in the way Cobb thinks she means; it's like focusing intent and will through the wand (cherry and unicorn hair, eight and one-quarter inches) and making things happen. She reaches out with that same invisible sense at the back of her mind and sees the streets of Paris fold themselves over and wants to shout for joy. They walk up a wall without Sticking Charms on their feet and she makes a bridge pop up in front of them and wants to play here forever. It's been too, too long since she could use magic anywhere other than her own flat, even if Cobb has no idea what she's doing. But then they're caught in the middle of a crowd and she can feel that they're ready to tear her apart and a woman with cold dead eyes is striding towards her and there's a sharp cold shock in her belly and -
She gasps awake and Arthur is there, cool fingers on her arm and calm words trying to soothe her, but she'll have none of it. The memories in a Pensieve don't attack you. The mind doesn't turn against the intruder in Occlumency like that. What sort of man is Cobb with such violence lurking inside his head?
That night she Floos her cousin Rupert, always her favourite, her partner in crime since they were small and the adults looked for one dark and one bright head of hair whenever trouble started.
"It's strange," she says, trying to explain the PASIV - less difficult than it should be given that he's a trained Legilimens, far better than she ever was. "I was scared."
"Some Gryffindor you are," he says, not unkindly. "If it scares you that's all the more reason to go back, isn't it?"
The next day she comes back and finds Arthur alone in the warehouse, and it's like she swallowed a Fizzing Whizbee the wrong way when he turns to look at her with a faint smile and his sleeves rolled up. But there's no time for that. He's businesslike and kind as he slides the needle into her wrist, then settles on his own lawn chair and sets the PASIV, and -
She stands at the top of the Penrose steps with Arthur and feels a familiar exhilaration in her chest, like her diaphragm's dropped out - like the first time she got on a proper broom and went soaring as high as the house. Her mother clapped and laughed; her father watched, worry lines creasing his forehead. Ariadne's sure that if she stepped off the stairs she'd float down, but that might be too much for Arthur. Instead they walk along and she asks a question about Cobb, and the lines on Arthur's forehead look far too familiar. She wants to smooth them out with her fingertips and apologise. Instead they keep walking and she steps into a fountain, his eyes amused when the water obligingly holds her up. This is nothing, she wants to tell him, he should see what she can do when she has her wand and can create a dancing trail of bubbles that follow her whim, but the timer runs out and -
"Nice," he tells her, already sitting up. "But we don't have much use for tricks like that. We want the dream to be convincing." If that's true, she doesn't say, then they really don't want her on this job. Her dreams are filled with things he would think impossible.
Cobb returns from Mombasa with two men in tow. Yusuf and his endless bottles remind her of Potions class, but his warmth and good humour make her think of her Uncle Hugo and his kindness and affinity for solving esoteric problems. She takes to Eames instantly; he reminds her of a few of her uncles and he knows how to make a proper cup of tea. He asks where she was trained to have such a discerning palate and she just says "England, of course," and he raises one eyebrow a tiny calibrated amount and lets it go. It's not as if he would offer a reciprocal tidbit of information about his past if she told him where she grew up.
Nobody finds it odd that she draws everything out by hand, not using AutoCAD or any of the computer programs so common these days. Wizards don't have much luck with electronics. But as Arthur points out, jotting notes down in another one of those slim notebooks, nothing digital is ever truly gone. They can burn her blueprints and destroy her models if they need to erase the evidence. Ariadne thinks about transfiguring his notebook into a crow and watching it fly away on paper wings. Eames writes out their plans and discourses as if he were a professor, tips Arthur's chair to make her smile and explains Forgery to her. If she didn't know better she'd think he was a born Slytherin.
She works diligently through the nights to design three separate worlds that all reflect each other. The first two have to feel familiar, easing him into the dreaming; the third needs to go directly to metaphor, providing the safe place to plant the idea and the surroundings that will make Fischer think it's flowering naturally. They'll get the idea past his mind's defences by disguising it, like slipping a Kneazle with a transfigured tail into a pack of housecats. All her training goes into creating the levels, urban architecture for Yusuf and the most quietly luxurious details for Arthur and the dizzying scale of nature for Eames. But the tricks and traps come from another place within her, the mazes of her namesake spilling forth onto the grimy streets and the moving staircases of her schooling hidden in the hotel's corners and the vast glowering mountains of the Scottish highlands rearing above the castle that find a new home in the swirling snow. When she makes her totem, a chess piece seems only natural. Everyone who's related to a Weasley knows how to play. And Ariadne chooses her favorite piece - not the knight of her great-uncle's stories or the rook or even a pawn, which would be a little too neatly symbolic, but the bishop. It only moves in diagonals, never straight back and forth. Hollowing it out by hand feels like she's making some sort of decision about who she wants to be. But in the end she's really just making another tool for the job in front of her.
And even as she burrows into her models and listens to the plan's formation, she also keeps an eye on the rest of the team. As one who's spent so long hiding secrets Ariadne knows what that looks like on another person. Cobb's not holding it together well and the lines of desperation are starting to show. Normally she might use Legilimency to find out what's worrying him other than the delicate nature of the job, but when she finds him hooked up to a PASIV it seems even easier to sit down and slide the needle into her wrist.
Of course, what she finds there is worse than she could have expected, and it puts them all at risk. Her insatiable curiosity has, for once, served as a warning bell rather than a direct line to trouble, and she's old enough now that she won't be cowed like a first year before a prefect. And she tells Cobb the only thing she can think to do, not sure whether it's reassurance or threat: if he doesn't let her come along on the job, then he has to tell Arthur. There's the unspoken implication that she'll tell the point man if Cobb doesn't, even though it would mean betraying his trust, even though it would probably betray Arthur's newfound admiration for her as well. She's gotten too used to seeing the flicker that means a smile and doesn't want to see his face tighten into anger. But if it means saving them from the monster that lives in Cobb's head, she'll do it and walk away. The worst that can happen is that they'll fire her; the designs are already done.
And then it turns out that the actual worst that can happen is all of them falling into limbo and losing their minds. Not just the multibillionare energy magnate, but the entire team she's started to think of as friends. But there was no way for her to predict that Cobb would change from murderous projections to an entire freight train. No way for the least experienced member of the team to know how a militarized subconscious behaved. No way for them to prepare for this.
Ariadne never dreams herself with a wand, and healing magic is not her strength, but when Saito is spread out on the table she attempts to use some wandless magic to slow the bleeding. It doesn't work and nobody else notices; Arthur and Eames are too busy berating Cobb, snapping at Yusuf and then turning on each other in a storm of recriminations and anger. Fear makes them all frantic. But she has to know why, and as the men spiral off from each other she pulls Cobb aside and asks him why, what's going on, what they can expect, why he knows so much about Limbo. She's never been afraid to ask questions before. Now, for the first time, she isn't sure she wants to hear the answers.
As Cobb tells her his history with Mal she stares at him, fighting a rising tide of horror and bile that threatens to rise up in her throat. This is worse than she'd expected and she wonders how she can trust anything he's saying, how she can think Arthur didn't know and tell them already. But there's no time, no time as Cobb and Arthur play kidnappers and Eames puts on his forgery - less smooth than a Metamorphmagus, simply snapping from one to the other like a bad cut in a film - while Yusuf prepares the van and the chemicals. Adding blind alleys and new diversions to the level that will fool the projections would be attractive, but Yusuf would have to memorize them, and there's no time for that either. What they thought would be leisurely has taken on a desperate urgency as gunfire echoes through the steel skin of the warehouse. Ariadne helps Saito strap into the van, muttering more charms, and the businessman opens his eyes and catches her gaze. For a moment she thinks he knows, but before she has more than a moment of cold panic the others are piling into the van and Yusuf is driving them straight towards the next level and -
Something about the sedative sets her nerves on edge, and it isn't till she's sitting beside Arthur on a leather couch in his level that she realizes what it is. She can't feel her magic. Whatever is keeping them locked inside their own heads is also cutting her off from that tingle she can always sense at the edge of her perception. Arthur notices, of course. He chalks it all up to the job, of course, the way it's already started to go wrong and they're desperately trying to save it before it all goes tits up. His eyes slide over her in an appraising gaze and she wants badly to snap at him. He's the one who dreamed her into this ridiculous outfit. She'd be much more at home in a nice pair of trousers, her hair pulled back a little less severely so her temples didn't ache. Instead she asks him how the Mr. Charles gambit works, and even though she's been around Cobb's projections she's still nervous about the train and scans the passersby for a slim figure with wild dark curls and empty eyes.
"Quick, give me a kiss." She's so surprised that her lean forward to look at him lets him capture her lips with his own, a press that's warm and dry and curiously numb. Perhaps it's the dream. When he pulls away and tells her with a hint of a smirk that it was worth a shot, she can't stop the smile that starts to spread. And for a moment she thinks to herself that they will have to talk about this after - and then she remembers where they are and what they've come to do, even if she can't keep from staring at his mouth when he's explaining about explosives, even if he glances at her legs when she settles into the chair, and she settles herself down and makes sure the needle is secure and glances at Fischer and -
things get worse than she ever could have expected. They miss the kick, Saito is dying, Fischer is shot by Mal. The bald facts reverberate through her head in an endless litany, a chant that won't resolve into a spell. And just like that, the flash of inspiration she needs: it's not over. They can keep going. What do they have to lose? Everything. But she won't let that stop them. They can save Fischer, save Saito, finish the job. It has to work. It's going to work, she repeats to herself, lying down on the concrete floor, and -
They fall into Limbo and she comes back to herself gasping in the waves. The ruined towers ahead are like nothing she'd imagined. The world is crumbling around them and she wonders how you could ever fool yourself into staying here, how you could believe that a world of such decay was reality. Ariadne sees the buildings stretching on past the horizon, perspective pushed to its limits and making her eyes hurt, and for a moment she wants to apparate. Her fingers twitch at her side, longing for her wand. But there's no use for it now, not this far down inside another man's subconscious. They pass the houses, the shrines to the past that Cobb and his wife created, relics of another life, and Ariadne knows what she'll have to do as if she weren't such a hopeless failure at Divination. It's not her magical training that tells her: it's the myths she grew up reading, the course on Greek tragedy, the understanding that they will be confronting the monster at the heart of the labyrinth and that Cobb must be the one to do it.
The shade of Mal down here seems wilder, more elemental, losing her edges and blurring into a figure that's less of a memory and more a ghost of Cobb's guilt. And he's realizing it, he's reaching catharsis, and then Ariadne is finding Fischer out on the porch and firing a gun and falling and -
falling and -
rising and -
crashing into the surface of the water, holding her breath till Fischer and Eames are gone, taking breaths off the respirator and watching everyone's hair move like the mermaids in the lake. From here they simply have to wait for the timer to run out, not long now, and she sits close to Arthur and wonders why their breath isn't steaming. It's over, she tells herself, and watches the water for a ripple on the surface, and -
there's a cramp in her neck. Her body feels shaken and stiff as if her muscles can't decide whether she's been sleeping too long or running a race. Cobb blinks and sits up and Ariadne feels everything loosen, relief suffusing her body. Behind her she hears Arthur shift and she wonders for a moment - but that can wait. All of it can wait. They succeeded, they all came back, and they have the rest of their lives to figure everything out.
Ariadne takes a connecting flight from Los Angeles to Boston and spends a few day as a tourist in Salem, visiting the college friends she missed and meeting some friendly American witches and wizards. Her last name earns a few curious glances – there aren't that many Lupins, even now – but nothing like it might be at home. She avoids the museum and spends days wandering around Boston and buys terrible souvenirs for her cousins and doesn't sleep at night.
And then she goes back to Paris. In spite of her parents saying it's been entirely too long since they saw her, she isn't ready to share this with them just yet. Her apartment is tiny and musty and there's a stack of post from home and a blinking message light on her answering machine.
Ariadne. Just wanted to make sure you made it through safely. I know Eames ran into some trouble in New York. There's a long pause and she cocks her head as she hangs up her coat. Next time I'm in Paris, we... maybe I'll look you up. If it was anyone else she would think he was about to ask her out. Maybe this is how Arthur does it. She spends the weekend cleaning and letting her friends know she's back but is still recovering from her work placement and trying to return to some sort of normal sleep pattern. She is unsuccessful. But at least her dreams are featuring fewer crashing waves and hollow-eyed women and falling vans. Every night she doesn't dream is a small gift.
A month later Paris is sweltering under the weight of midsummer and Ariadne is taking an extra summer seminar on perceptual design that's making her have entirely too many odd dreams and draw impossible structures in the margins of her notes. She's on her way down the steps of the college when she senses the weight of eyes on her back and turns. And there's Arthur, looking impeccably crisp in light trousers and a short-sleeved shirt, his mouth quirking into a smile as he sees that she's spotted him.
"Do you always lurk behind columns like that?" she asks, stepping back onto the bottom stair and smiling up at him. He walks down to meet her, hands in his pockets.
"I was meeting with Miles and he said I might catch you if I hung around," he replied. "That was just a convenient piece of shade."
"A creepy piece of shade," she answers, and has the distinct pleasure of making him laugh. His eyes crinkle at the corners, and his hair is shorter than it used to be, swept to the side instead of being slicked back against his skull. It makes him look much younger. "I thought you were going to look me up," she adds.
"I've been busy," he says, shrugging one shoulder. "Paris isn't my usual center of operations." Ariadne contemplates precisely what that could mean and decides to stop beating around the bush.
"Do you want to get a drink? We can at least sit down. There might even be ice."
He grins. "I would like nothing more than that, Ariadne."
An hour later, they're ensconced at a table in the back of a bar she's been to a couple of times, where she knows the bartender can make a decent gin and tonic. She tells him about visiting Boston, a city he apparently loathes for its inability to be New York or Chicago, and about her summer course and her latest designs for real buildings. It sounds childish and dull to her ears, and she's fairly sure he's bored. Or maybe he's just preoccupied. Arthur shakes the condensation from his beer off his fingers and looks at her with that gaze that means he's trying to work something out.
"What are you thinking?" she asks, realizing he hasn't heard the last two sentences she said.
"That I shouldn't have just walked away from you in L.A.," he says. It's one of the few unguarded things she thinks he's ever said to her. She leans across the tiny table and kisses him, his lips damp against hers and tasting like beer and much, much more vivid than their last kiss. Arthur looks entirely unsettled when she pulls away. That's an expression which is unfamiliar on him. She decides that it's more than a bit adorable.
"Nobody's looking at us this time," she says, feeling the smile start on her lips. He looks past her and smirks.
"That's not entirely true. But they seem a lot more appreciative of it this time."
To hell with it, Ariadne decides, and tosses back the rest of her drink. "Let's go back to my place." His eyebrows go up a fraction and she rolls her eyes. "I used some of my ill-gotten gains to get an air conditioner. It's cooler than this, at least."
Nothing more happens on that first date, if it is a date, than a little more kissing and a very long dinner and an impromptu competition to see who can draw the most complicated imaginary structure. But he tells her at the end of the evening that he'd like to see her again and she answers him with a kiss. Even though Paris isn't one of his usual haunts, he keeps popping into her life far more often than the occasional visit to Miles should warrant. At some point Ariadne realises they're in a relationship or something like one. It isn't like any flirtation she's had. She can't predict when he's going to show up, whether he'll be wearing bruises and carrying memories he can't talk about or if he'll bring a brightly woven scarf and packets of candy with foreign languages on the wrapper. But he keeps coming back to her in his own irregular orbit. Eventually she gives him his own key so he can stop picking the locks.
And she tries very, very hard not to lie to him. There's enough of her history that she can dell him without fear of contradicting herself; her family, her parents, how she grew up in England and went to boarding school and then to college in the States. He grins when she uses her real accent and pulls her close to kiss the line of her neck. "That's a neat trick," he tells her. "You could give Eames a run for his money." She punches him in the ribs and he just laughs and talks about his own prep-school misadventures and going through basic training as the skinniest recruit in his group. After the fifth time she has to explain that a story she's telling is about yet another cousin Ariadne explains that her family is truly enormous and hard to keep track of. Arthur nods; his own family is a subject they don't discuss often. She's gathered enough to know that they were not nearly as loving or as large as the Weasleys and their family tree that's more like a bramble.
He happens to be there one afternoon when Grand-mère Fleur arrives; Ariadne's been so wrapped up in the first flush of what she hesitates to call new love that she'd forgotten it was the third Saturday of the month, when they had a standing date for lunch.
"Ariadne, ma petite," she trills, silvery hair swept back in a flawless chignon from her beaming face, ready to dote once more on her eldest grandchild. Ariadne drops her book and thanks her lucky stars and Merlin's holey socks that Arthur is in the bathroom and leaps over to her grandmother for a hug.
"Grand-mère, Arthur is here. The Muggle. I told you about him," she whispers fiercely, and feels the point of her grandmother's chin dig into her shoulder in a nod. That's enough assurance for her, and she pulls away and mentally thanks her landlord for never fixing that squeaky floorboard as Arthur comes down the tiny hallway. She turns in time to see his face shift from surprise through stupefaction and into wariness. Of course, Fleur is still arresting even as she ages, with a beauty so striking that other women wish for twenty years and wrinkles around the eyes, and Ariadne feels that familiar pang of knowing how drab and homely she looks by comparison. The veela blood was watered down too far by the time it got to her.
"Arthur. This is my grandmother, Fleur. Grand-mère, this is Arthur, I met him on the job I told you about last time." His shoulders relax - apparently he's so wary that seeing his girlfriend hugging a woman isn't enough to confirm her safety - and he nods.
"I didn't hear you come in. It's a pleasure to meet you, madame." He strides over and extends a hand and Fleur takes it delicately, giving him a smile that Ariadne knows is meant to be charming but non-threatening.
"The pleasure is mine, I am sure, if you are courting my granddaughter. And call me Fleur, I am not so old as all that." He bends over her hand and drops a kiss on the knuckles, and Ariadne knows that whatever happens from here she will always have her grandmother on her side.
But even though Grand-mère Fleur knows, and gives her that sly smile every time Arthur comes up in conversation, her life doesn't change all that much, really. Ariadne rarely goes on jobs; she designs levels sometimes, but mostly she's finishing school and determined to pass for normal, which means passing for Muggle, which means not throwing herself so deeply into dreaming that she forgets her life. Arthur passes through Paris more often than he must have done, leaving more of himself there with each visit. When she finally uses some of Saito's payment from the Fischer job to buy a bigger flat, he helps her move, berating the movers and helping her carry boxes full of sketchbooks up the narrow stairs to the high-ceilinged living room with its miniature balcony and lovely view. Somehow, without ever discussing it, her home becomes his basis of operations, the place he returns to when he's not in Vancouver or Mumbai or Helsinki or Shanghai. The closet becomes home to suit jackets and trousers and Oxford shirts and a fancy hanger for ties that's as colourful as her own drawer full of scarves.
It's not what she thinks of as a conventional relationship; it's not finding her soulmate on the train to Hogwarts and marrying them straight out of school. It's not knowing whether he'll be there two weeks from today. But he always comes back to her, he sends her postcards with foreign postmarks and no signature but "love." And that's enough to carry her through till the next time he walks through the front door.
history of magic
It's a perfectly ordinary evening. Arthur's got a book in his hands and Ariadne's feet in his lap while she draws, the fireplace crackling merrily away, when there's a puff of green smoke and Uncle Fred stumbles through. "Ariadne, you've got to - oh, bloody hell," he says, looking chagrined. Arthur's already on his feet, a gun - where the hell did he get it? Had he taped it under the end table? - in his hands and pointed at Fred, and Ariadne feels real fear sparking in her fingers.
"For God's sake, Arthur, don't shoot him," she says, voice high and brittle. "Uncle Fred, what the hell are you doing?"
"Who are you and how did you get in here?" Arthur bites out, forearms tense and the gun never wavering, aimed precisely at Fred's throat.
"I'm Fred Weasley and I Flooed in like a normal person, you absolute madman. Who are you and how did you get in here?" Fred recovers quickly, even if he's a bit green under his freckles. "Ariadne, why is there a nutter in your living room?"
"He's my boyfriend and he lives here," she says. "Arthur, he's my uncle, will you please put the gun down? I promise he's not going to do anything. Uncle Fred, you know you're not supposed to Floo here. What the hell is going on?"
"It's an emergency, Ree." The pet name only her family uses, that makes Arthur's eyebrows climb into his hairline. "Something's wrong with Uncle Ron and Rupert said we should get you, but he was busy so I thought I'd come fetch you myself." Fred brushes soot off his shoulder and looks at her expectantly, as though Arthur is still not holding a very large handgun. "Are you coming or not?"
Her hands are in her hair, she realizes, and both men are now staring at her, and Ariadne fights down a hysterical urge to laugh or scream. This is not how she'd wanted to do this. "Not right now. I'll come later, okay?"
"Ah. Domestic troubles." Fred winks and Ariadne nearly leaps across the room to throttle him, but she refrains in case Arthur really does start shooting. "Come as soon as you can, Ree." He draws a pouch out of his pocket and throws it into the fire, which flares green as he shouts "The Burrow!" and steps back into the flames.
Ariadne opens a window to let the smoke out of the room and heads to the bedroom. She can hear Arthur trailing after her as she pulls a duffel bag out of the closet and starts throwing clothes in. Sure, she could Floo back every morning, but that would be inefficient.
"Are we dreaming?" She turns and the tears she's holding at bay threaten to overflow. Arthur looks more lost than she's ever seen him. His right hand twitches as if longing for the gun, the reflex reaction of putting the barrel to his temple and pulling the trigger to kick up to reality. And Ariadne knows this is going to be hard but there's no alternative, even if he wants to never speak to her again, even if she loses someone she loves more than she'd let herself know.
"No. We're not." He stoops and rolls his die, then again, and a third and fourth time, shaking his head.
"Are you sure?" There's a note of panic in his voice that wasn't there a moment ago. She starts towards him and he flinches. Perhaps her heart is breaking.
"I'm a witch, Arthur." It feels like a bird's just flown out of her mouth; he seems just as startled as if it had.
"A witch. You can't possibly expect me to believe --"
"You steal secrets from people's dreams. How is that any less believable?" A thin straight line replaces his mouth. She pulls out her totem and sets it on the bedside table, letting it tip over and thunk solidly against the wood before it rolls and drops to the floor. And then she reaches into the drawer (he respects her privacy, he would never look in there for anything, he keeps his condoms in the other table's drawer with his other gun) and takes out her wand. The carved meander patterns around the base feel just as right in her hand as they did the day she plucked it out of a box at Ollivander's. Arthur's face is unreadable and that scares her as much as Uncle Fred's news.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he says finally. It's not a denial, she's thankful for that.
"Because I was afraid this would happen," she says frankly, letting all her worry show on her face. "Because there aren't very many wizards and we're supposed to keep it a secret from the outside world. And - after I learned what Dom did, I couldn't - I didn't want to risk you thinking this world wasn't real." Didn't want Arthur, her calm unflappable rock, to turn into nothing more than a shade. Both of his hands come up and dig into his hair, fingers gripping his skull as she waits for him to say something. She wants to leave, wants to fly back to her family as quickly as she can because they need her, but she can't leave till he says something.
"This is insane," he says finally, but without that note of flat finality she knows is the end of a conversation.
"But?" she supplies. The carvings on her wand's base are beginning to dig into her palm, though she is careful not to point the wand at him.
"But...." He lets out a heavy sigh and she can almost see the fight go out of him. The bed dips as he sits down, hunching forwards. "But I can't reconcile it. I haven't undergone any sudden trauma. You don't - I thought you didn't lie to me." His voice is bitter. Ariadne had thought she couldn't feel worse.
"I tried not to. I just... omitted some details." She sits on the end of the bed, one leg curled up underneath her, the wand resting loosely on her lap. "I'm still an only child. My parents are Victoire and Ted, and they're English, but I went to college in America and then came to Paris. I have a million cousins. You've met my grandmother."
"Is she a witch too?" he asks. Arthur's voice cracks mid-sentence.
"Yes." For now she's going to skip the part where she's also not entirely human. His head swivels and he gives her another unreadable look; she bites her lip and hopes she doesn't draw blood. “Miles knows her, he had a brother who was a wizard. And my uncle Fred that just showed up, he's a wizard too. We use this stuff, Floo Powder, to travel through fireplaces.” Arthur snorts. That, at least, is reassuringly normal from him. "There's a lot more, Arthur, a whole world hiding from everyday society, and I would really love to explain it to you, but I need you to trust me."
That appears to be precisely the worst thing she could have said, because Arthur is up off the bed again, and heading for the door. She stands and watches him pull on his coat, and he catches her eye and looks at her evenly, face set and cold as stone. "How am I supposed to trust you when I've just found out you've been lying to me since I met you?"
He leaves when she has no answer. He'll come back eventually, she knows, all his things are here and a good number of them he wouldn't want to replace. She tells herself this as she packs with her eyes burning because it's easier to think horrible unkind thoughts that do him no justice. Preparing for the absolute worst-case scenario is something Arthur taught her.But she won't be here to see him when he gets back; she'll have apparated away with a suitcase of clothes and her wand clutched in one hand, a note with an apology and instructions to talk to Miles and an address and a hand-drawn map left on the table for him to find when he gets back. She'd leave a telephone number but her mobile won't work, so she doesn't bother. He can find her if he wants to. With one last look around the flat Ariadne closes her eyes and turns on the spot and vanishes.
There will always be Weasleys at the Burrow. Usually it's just Uncle Fred and Aunt Moira and their children, with Great-Aunt Hermione and Great-Uncle Ron living in a little cottage out the back. Even so, the space definitely feels bigger on the inside than it should be. Sometimes doors lead to different rooms depending on which way you turn the handle. And right now it is a blast of noise and the scent of overheating wool and cooking bacon and entirely too many heads of red hair. Despite Uncle Fred's insistence that she was needed immediately, Ariadne isn't allowed near Great-uncle Ron or the truth of whatever is going on. Gradually she pieces things together and finds out that he's been cursed, that it was some sort of disguised gift from a splinter cell of former Death Eaters that didn't trigger his renowned Auror instincts, that he's in bed and unresponsive and nobody's been able to reach him yet, that Great-aunt Hermione won't let anyone even mention taking him to St. Mungo's because those healers are useless. This takes a few days for her to work out, but much of her time is spent as a spare adult, shepherding children around and making sure everybody is fed and goes to bed at a decent hour and remembers to brush their teeth and leaves the dog alone. It's hard to find a moment to think, let alone put together complex thoughts, when one is making seventeen sandwiches at the same time.
A soft pinging in the front hall signals that someone has tripped the proximity charm on the property, and one of the children comes running pell-mell into the house. "MUM! Muuuum, there's a strange man walking down the lane!" Mildred looks over to Ariadne as she juggles the twin infants, imploringly. Ariadne stands and takes Perdita by the hand and heads back outside. A herd of children presses against the fence to watch the intruder, and there in the lane is Arthur. Dark circles under his eyes make him look haggard and dour, but he's wearing the grey overcoat he knows is her favourite and his face is – he looks exceedingly relieved to see her.
"Is there a spell on the gate or something?" he asks, not moving to let himself in.
"There's lots of spells on the gate," pipes up Perdita. "Who're you?"
"I'm Arthur," he says easily, glancing down to look at the little girl. "Is this your aunt Ariadne?"
"Yeeeah," Perdita replies. "Ariadne, who's Mr. Arthur?"
Ariadne pulls her hand free and pushes the gate open. "He's my boyfriend." Arthur grins, his dimples appearing out of nowhere, and steps forward to stand right in front of Ariadne. When he tilts her chin up she can feel her face heating like he's looking at her again for the first time, like he's about to take her hand and go for a flying leap off the top of a skyscraper.
"I am?" he asks quietly.
"Well, you came all this way," she says, and lets out a muffled shriek when he wraps her in a hug that lifts her off the ground entirely. "I hate when you do that."
"Overcome with emotion," he says into her shoulder, then kisses under her ear. Then he sets her down again, but only so he can pull back to kiss her extremely thoroughly. Distantly she can hear the giggling screeches of children who still think kissing anybody is yucky, but for the moment Ariadne doesn't care. Her hands are twisting the lapels of his coat completely out of order. Finally he pulls back, smoothing her hair away from her face and smiling down at her, then glancing past her to the cousins she knows are watching. With shrieks and laughter they scatter and someone begins chanting in a singsong that "Ree has a boyfriend," and Arthur chuckles.
"You weren't kidding about the large family," he says, as she presses her cheek against his shirt.
"You have no idea," she tells him. "Do you want to go for a walk before we have to meet everyone?" He agrees and they walk through the fields till they get to the edge of the woods, and Ariadne leads him to her favorite tree, one with low-spreading branches that are perfect to sit on. Once they're settled next to each other, Arthur looking oddly at ease, she asks the question that's been sitting on the tip of her tongue since they kissed.
"What are you doing here?"
"I spent the first day feeling crazy and sorry for myself. And then I went to talk to Miles like you said. Don't look so smug." She kicks him gently in the ankle and he smirks. "I almost wasn't convinced by him either. And then I talked to Eames."
"You told Eames?" That had never occurred to her and she finds it somewhat horrific.
"No. I made it as far as London and he found out I was in town, and he dragged me out for drinks and I told him you'd told me something I couldn't believe. First he said he'd always suspected you were a lesbian, and then I punched him --" Ariadne kicks him again – "and then he goes 'Oh, so she finally told you about her little witchy problem, then.' Turns out he's a.... a squid?"
"A Squib?" Ariadne stares.
"Right, right. So he's... raised by wizards but doesn't have any magic. Ran away from home and learned about fourteen different trades, which is what makes him such a good thief. He recognized you but said you were a little too young to know who he was, especially with the fake name."
Ariadne resolves to punch Eames the next time she sees him. "Okay, so why did he make you believe what I told you?"
Arthur raises his eyebrows at her again. "Because I knew you'd never have trusted him with it instead of me. And you wouldn't team up with him to con me. And it was entirely too improbable for him to make up out of whole cloth and coincidentally match up exactly with your explanation. Which meant he knew who you were, and what you were." His fingers twitch and flutter as he reaches over in small increments to take her hand. "And my totem kept checking out right, to the point that it was astronomically improbable that this was a dream."
She shakes her head and wraps his hand inside both of hers. "I am sorry," she says quietly, looking at the long fingers trapped within her own delicate hands. "I knew I'd have to tell you sometime, but I kept hoping that... I don't know, there'd be a way to tell you where you'd believe me." He gently tugs his hand free and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear.
"I believe you," he says quietly. His fingers are cool against her cheek. She turns to look at him and finds herself being kissed and knows that somehow this is all going to work out. "Now come on. Let's go meet everyone before I lose my nerve." Arthur hops down from the tree and holds his arms up, and she slides down into them and against him with a grin.
"You? Lose your nerve? You're scared?" She can see the telltale crinkling at the corners of his eyes that belies the straight, sober line of his mouth.
"Armies of projections are one thing. My girlfriend's extremely large and incredibly close family that does magic? I have no experience with that."
Ariadne turns her snicker into a smile and leans up to kiss him again. "I'll protect you, don't worry." They walk back to the house hand in hand, and he breaks the silence to ask what happened to her uncle.
"Great-uncle," she corrects him. "Well, first, you have to understand that curses are real. Not just in the 'pox on both your houses' sense, they can be much more immediate and direct. Someone put a curse on a chess set, Uncle Ron is a bit obsessive about the game, and he opened it and made contact before anyone thought to check it over. And he's trapped in this coma - well, it's not really a coma, he's just unwakeable, and --" Ariadne stops in her tracks. "Arthur. I'm an idiot. Did you bring the PASIV?"
His steps had carried him slightly ahead of her and he has to look over his shoulder. "No, but I can probably get one in a day or two. Why didn't you call me sooner?"
"Because I'm at home, and everything is magical and I didn't even stop to think about scientific alternatives because everyone's so insistent that magic is better, oh, Merlin, we could've already gone in!" Her hands are in her hair and she can feel the frustration rising up to choke her.
Arthur looks at her as if she's grown another head. "Did you just say Merlin?"
"Shut up. No, you have to go get a PASIV as soon as you can." And then Ariadne gets an idea, and it is terrible but she can't resist. It would be so much faster. "Arthur, do you know if Eames has a PASIV at his flat?"
"Oh, no. No, you don't. I don't want to owe him any favors." His brows are drawn together in a straight narrow line.
"Good, because I'm the one who's going to owe him. Where does he live?" Arthur names a street that she knows, and Ariadne doesn't even stop to think; she grasps his wrist and tells him to hang on tight and apparates. They pop out of the space between places and Arthur immediately falls to his knees, retching.
"What the fuck was that?" he manages after a minute, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Ariadne would feel more sympathetic if she wasn't so impatient.
"Apparating. Like teleportation, sort of." She puts her hand between his shoulder blades and imagines she can feel his heart beating hard and fast. Gradually he straightens up, hands clenched into fists at his sides as he keeps breathing slow and even.
"Please tell me we're never doing that again."
"How are we going to get back? Never mind, we have to go find Eames. You said you knew where he lived." Ariadne loops her arm around Arthur's back and pulls him towards the street, and he glances around just once to get his bearings and heads to the left. It's a nicer neighborhood than she would have expected; Eames has a way of defying all her expectations. It takes a bit for them to navigate the stairs up to the door, and Ariadne's almost about to Alohomora the door when Arthur reaches past her for the buzzer. He presses it several times in a pattern.
"Is that code? Do you have a code for ringing Eames's doorbell?" Her only answer is the harsh buzz and the sound of the lock clicking open, and they sidle inside the front door. Belatedly it occurs to her just how much Eames must trust Arthur to let him know about this place; it feels like a home, not just a bolthole. They make it up the stairs, her urgency slowed by Arthur's still shaky legs, and Arthur steers them to a door at the end of the hall and raps in the same pattern. The door opens. Ariadne has to pause and let her mind rearrange itself; nothing in the mental file of all the traits she has marked as Eames allows for baggy sweatpants and a rugby jersey. He is, improbably enough, holding a large mug with Tigger on it.
"Ariadne, my dove!" he proclaims, no more than a flicker of surprise crossing his face. "What have you been dragging our Arthur into, hmm?" He ushers them in and bolts the door behind them.
"Magic is terrible," Arthur grates out, beelining for the couch. Ariadne gets him settled, laying a hand on his forehead. He seems to be taking this awfully badly. Or perhaps he's just overwhelmed from everything else he's seen and done in the past week.
"Ah, so you told her? Tea all round, then. Ariadne, I hope you don't mind my not telling you, but there didn't seem to be any point. Will you give me a hand with the cups?" Eames disappears through a doorway, not waiting for Ariadne to follow him.
"Stop being such a baby," she tells Arthur, kissing his forehead before heading after Eames into a surprisingly full and messy kitchen.
"I do hope you realise what you've let yourself in for, Miss Lupin," he says, distributing teabags into mugs and flicking the switch on the kettle. Ariadne flinches at the use of her last name.
"What, are you going to hold this over my head? Taunt me on jobs with what I really am?"
Eames has the grace to look affronted. "Of course not, pet. I meant with Arthur. Some Muggles handle the magical world better than others, but he doesn't strike me as the type to assimilate easily. Sooner or later you're going to have to make a choice." She looks at him dubiously but settles for a shrug.
"So who's your family?" she asked, utterly failing at nonchalance. He smirks and taps his nose.
"If I told you, they'd find you and Obliviate any memory you have in which I might appear. Which at this point would leave you with a rather spotty recollection of some pivotal events, yes?" She sighs and nods assent, privately deciding that she'll do some research of her own later. "Let us simply say that they were very Pureblooded and very rich and very willing to pack me off to boarding school at a tender age, and that they didn't give two figs when I ran away." There's an undercurrent of hurt there, and she reaches over to cover his hand on the counter. His answering smile is softer than she's used to. "It's all right, sweetheart. It's been a long time since I had anything to do with them, or with most of the wizarding world. Until I walked into that warehouse and met you."
"And you knew who I was?" she asks, still unsure about this. The kettle whistles.
"One hears about these things," he says, pouring the boiling water into the mugs. "Your surname is Lupin, that's rather uncommon. So are the calluses on your wand hand, and the way you sometimes stop mid-sentence as if you're going to use one word but then choose another. It wouldn't do to explain to us why you've just yelled 'Merlin's pants,' would it?"
"Was it that obvious?"
"Only to someone who knows what they're looking for." Eames chucks her under the chin and hands her the two fresh mugs of tea, then lifts his own and heads back to the living room. "Now, down to business. I take it you didn't come here just to provide me with an afternoon's amusement in the form of Arthur attempting to keep his lunch down." Arthur responds with an upraised middle finger on the hand that isn't covering his eyes. Ariadne bumps his outstretched hand with his mug of tea and sits down next to his knees on the edge of the couch when he takes the tea and struggles into sitting up.
"My great-uncle's in a cursed sleep and I want to try extraction to wake him up," she says, looking at Eames over her mug.
He raises an eyebrow. "Your great-uncle? The extremely famous one or the slightly less famous one?"
"Does it matter?" She sips her tea. "I need to borrow a PASIV. Arthur said you had one."
"I might." He smirks.
"Eames, just give it to her," Arthur snaps, his voice tight and tired. "Don't play games."
"What's it worth to you, pet?" Eames asks, and Ariadne isn't sure which of them he's addressing, but she answers anyway.
"A crate of Firewhiskey?" And that was apparently the exact right thing to say, because Eames' eyes light up and he gives her what she thinks must be the first unfettered grin of delight she's ever seen from him.
defence against the dark arts
Arthur insists that he doesn't want to subject the PASIV and its delicate mechanisms to the stresses of apparating; Ariadne privately thinks that it can't possibly be worse than rattling around a train for several hours, but he's still looking rather peaked, so she doesn't press. Eames says he'll make sure Arthur gets back and Ariadne gives him a kiss on the cheek, ignoring how surprised and pleased he looks and kissing Arthur goodbye before Apparating home.
"Where's your boyfriend?" her father asks as soon as she's walked in the door. Ariadne can feel herself blushing to the roots of her hair. He's sitting and playing a game of chess with Uncle Hugo, and appears to be losing. Dad was never that good at it; she was able to beat him by the time she was ten.
"Stop that," her mother says, coming to meet Ariadne and take her coat. It looks out of place hung up with all the cloaks by the door. "Really, Ariadne, we would have liked to at least see the boy before he ran off again."
"He'll be back tomorrow, Mum," Ariadne says, exhausted suddenly. "We have an idea for how to help Uncle Ron." Hugo's head swivels and he gives her a keen look through his spectacles. "But you'll have to trust us," she continues. "It's Muggle technology."
"I don't know," Dad says, voice heavy with doubt. Uncle Hugo is still staring at her, and finally he nods.
"You'll have to talk it over with my mother, of course, but there's no reason you shouldn't at least try. It's not as though we've found a way to wake him up with magic, is it?" He casually moves his bishop and puts her father in check, then gets up and comes to stand in front of her, hands heavy on her shoulders. "But you're going to have to tell us all about it."
The next day is highly educational. Arthur turns up at the front gate around midmorning, looking far better rested than the last time she'd seen him. The dull gleam of the PASIV case is entirely incongruous against the muddy garden. This time her kiss is much briefer, and she holds his hand as she leads him inside the house. Arthur appears to be memorising everyone's name as they're introduced; she can see him turning the same focus he puts on plans or on target practice on her family members, and frankly it's a little unsettling. There are jokes about just what a consultant does, and several of the uncles try to ask what being a Muggle is like as Ariadne waves them off, and Arthur still looks cool and calm through it all. But he does sneak his hand back to squeeze hers extra-tight when there's a break in the introductions.
"You really, really weren't kidding about your family," he murmurs. All she can do is laugh and kiss his cheek. A chorus of voices coo over them, and Ariadne is pretty sure she hears a pair of aunts start discussing wedding plans. And that makes her stomach flip over, so she hurries him over to the next batch of relatives.
It seems like hours later when they finally escape through the kitchen door and head to the little cottage behind the rambling ramshackle house. For a few moments there is blessed quiet. Ariadne's hand steals back into Arthur's palm and their fingers intertwine and a thousand different sentences crowd her mouth. But she settles for saying, "I'm glad you're here." He glances at her and smiles, and that's answer enough for now.
She knocks on the door and it swings open, and Ariadne leads Arthur through the parlor and into the bedroom. Ron lies on the bed, deathly still, and Hermione is seated in the armchair at the foot of the bed. Her eyes are piercing as ever, and it's clear where Hugo got his uncanny gaze from.
"Ariadne," she says, voice scratchy with disuse. "You think you may have a solution?" Ariadne swallows and nods, unaccountably nervous in front of her great-aunt, who seems to have metamorphosed into a crone from the old tales in her worry and grief. "And it's Muggle, is it? I never thought of it, but perhaps there's something to it. And after all, wizards ignore a great deal of Muggle thoughts. Like dentistry." She gives Arthur a look and frowns, then nods, as if she's decided something without telling them. "I suppose it's that in your hand there, young man?"
"Yes." Arthur hefts the PASIV, then sets it down on the chest that sits tucked against the footboard, opening it and pointing out the various parts, the pumps and the timer and the retractable IV lines, taking out the bottle of somnacin and giving her the chemical structure, and Hermione listens keenly and even has questions for him. Of course she does, Ariadne thinks, perching on the corner of the bed and listening to them talk. Ron's face is utterly still, no hint of what might be going on inside his head showing in flickers of expression.
"And how do you propose to wake him up?" Hermione asks, peering over her spectacles. The popular theory among the younger relatives is that she got those slim rectangles specifically for the purpose of looking over them to give her words greater force.
"There are a few ways we can do it," Arthur says, ticking them off on his fingers. "Dying in a dream usually means you wake up. Falling works too - have you ever dreamed that you're falling and woken up that way? We can try a physical kick, but you've probably tried that already."
"We've tried most things," Hermione replies. "But not kicking him."
"Dropping him," Arthur says with an incongruous smile. "It's just slang, in the business."
"You make a living out of invading other people's minds?" Hermione says sharply. "I'm not sure I approve of that.
Ariadne feels approximately twelve years old. "Can we have that discussion later? Look, just let us try. At least we'll be able to find out more about what's keeping him asleep." She decides that now is not the time to tell Aunt Hermione about Limbo. Ron is sedated, obviously, but it's magical, and she and Arthur won't be using anything more than regular somnacin, so it should be fine, shouldn't it? Surely Arthur has considered this. She bites her lip and waits for an answer.
"You may try." Hermione sits back in her chair. "I'll stay and watch, shall I?"
"It's always good to have someone keeping an eye on the dreamers," Arthur says easily, reaching back to put a hand over Ariadne's on the bed. "Ariadne, do you want to drop now or do you want to wait?"
"Let's do it. We'll come out if we need to come up with a plan." And Arthur and Hermione both give her a look that she recognizes with all its implications of her recklessness and foolishness, and Ariadne would almost laugh if it weren't so loaded with warning. "It'll be fine." Because she's managed so far, she's been to Limbo and back. Everything will be fine.
The bed is wide enough that there's room for all of them, Ariadne and Arthur arranged on either side of Ron's too-still body with their heads at the foot of the bed and the PASIV between them. Hermione frowns when Arthur inserts the needle into Ron's wrist, and frowns harder when Ariadne hooks herself up with familiarity. But she doesn't say anything except to wish them good luck as Arthur reaches over and hits the plunger and -
They are standing inside a cavernous hall, a fountain ahead of them crowned with a massively ugly statue. The statue shows a witch and wizard atop a platform of crawling, writhing figures.
"It's the Ministry," she says. "The Ministry of Magic. From the Second Wizarding War, back when things were... it was ugly." The air is heavy with a scent that makes her teeth hurt, a coppery tang lurking below. Torches on the wall flicker, the flames guttering in a dank gust of wind from the doors behind the statue. Ariadne takes Arthur's hand. He's looking around with keen eyes.
"Which way?" he asks. Down here he looks frighteningly vulnerable to her eyes that know a wizard's thoughts, his usual armor of fine clothes and competence useless against jinxes and curses. But it's only a dream, she reminds herself, they do this all the time. She pauses and listens and reaches out, and there's an insistent tug behind her breastbone like a summoning spell. Her hand raises and points to the elevator on the right, and they go in and head down. It's too quiet, only the clank and groan of the elevator echoing in the silence, but when they stop on the third floor a flock of interoffice memos flies in. Arthur's expression is marooned somewhere between his point man face, the mask that means he's getting down to business, and childish delight.
"What are they?" he asks, eyes alight.
"Memos," she says. "Wizards don't use email." He's about to reply when the fluttering papers fold themselves like origami into birds and start pecking at their faces. It only takes a moment for Ariadne to make them burst into flame, ashes floating softly onto their shoulders. She reaches up and wipes away a bead of blood from Arthur's cheekbone. "You all right?"
"Fine," he says shortly. The excitement is gone. "Where are we going?"
"I'm not sure," she answers, jabbing the stop button and wrenching the door open. "But we need to move." It's that same tug in her chest, a thread pulling her onwards. She might not be the dreamer but she knows where they need to go. Without another word she takes his hand and jumps and knows he will follow.
They land in water. Cold and stagnant and oddly slippery, as they flounder towards the curving wall of the tunnel they've fallen into. The collision of manmade and natural features should be recognizable, and Ariadne is almost sure she knows this place, but she doesn't dare to name it yet. Arthur hoists himself up into a branching tunnel that seems more dry and offers her a hand. After she twists her wet hair out of her way, Ariadne lights the tip of her wand and takes the lead. This must be infuriating Arthur, having no idea where to go, but she trusts he's watching her back. They trudge along, puddles of water splashing under their feet, until a door bars their way and she knows where they are.
Arthur frowns. "Not good?" His fingers stretch towards the snakes carved on the door. The damp air gathers on their stone scales and making them seem to ripple in the dim light.
"Do you speak Parseltongue?" she snaps. Which is ridiculous; this isn't his fault. "Sorry. Snake language. That's how we get past here, but I don't speak it, I don't..."
"Snakes? What, like --" And he lets out a series of hissing noises. Ariadne's about to tell him that silly imitations won't work when the largest snake slides round the edge of the door and the rest slither backwards. The door opens under its own power, its silence more foreboding than any creak would be.
"That... really should not have worked," Ariadne says under her breath. But it's a dream, so why shouldn't it work when Arthur expected it to? He slips in through the gap before she can precede him, and there's a strange rattling noise and then a slam of something that sounds like roughly seven thousand wands breaking at once. Under the noise she can hear Arthur cursing and calling her name, and she dives into the room after him.
The Chamber is larger than she'd expected, sickly green lights reflecting off water at the sides of a broad avenue of stone stretching up to a statue of a huge bearded head. Ariadne has no more than a moment to see this before something very large and very fast is coming towards her, and she shouts a hex and dives to her left.
"Are you okay?" Arthur shouts. Ariadne could kiss him out of joy that he's not dead, that he's still in the dream with her, but she's a little busy with trying to figure out just what is attacking them. The monster is distracted by Arthur's shout and begins to shift with a dry hideous scrape against the stone. It's a massive skeleton of a snake - the basilisk, it must be, instead of simply lying dead it's been reanimated by the curse or Ron's subconscious. Another bolt of light flies from her wand to hit the spine and it twists towards her.
"The teeth are poisonous, don't let it bite you!" she shouts, weaving between the carved snakes' heads that rear up on either side of the stone pathway.
"Wasn't planning on it!" she hears him call, then a muttered curse. Ariadne has no idea how to fight a creature with no flesh to swell or sting, no nerves to feel pain. As she turns to make sure Arthur hasn't gotten himself cornered she sees him step out from behind one of the sculptures with a massive piece of weaponry on his shoulder. He fires directly into the skull's face.
Bones and flaming ash spray everywhere and Ariadne does the most reasonable thing she can think of, which is diving into the water again. Everything splashes harmlessly around her. When the water settles she surfaces and Arthur is there to help her out, lifting her like she weighs nothing. He's covered in fragments of bone and smeared with soot.
"Did you pick that trick up from Eames?" she asks. Arthur shrugs, his grin barely suppressed. Ariadne rolls her eyes and casts drying charms and banishes the bone chips from Arthur's clothes. Behind her, there is a great rumble of stone; when she turns around the mouth of the statue has opened. Of course Arthur heads for the opening. She wants badly to tell him he's being foolish and that there's another way, but that same tug is pulling her in the same direction, and she hurries after him.
They emerge in a circular room with doors all the way around. Behind them a door closes; when she turns it looks like all the others, and the walls begin to spin. Or the floor spins. It's hard to tell, the gravity seems off.
"Which way?" Arthur asks. Ariadne wants to laugh but she fears it would come out slightly hysterical. Or that she wouldn't be able to stop.
"Pick one. Roll your die." His brows quirk. But he pulls the totem out, stoops and rolls, then pockets it again. The spinning slows and stops, and she watches him count and stride confidently to a door.
"After you," he says. He opens it and backs away, letting her take the lead. Something huge and white and wobbling comes flying through the air and she hits it with a banishment jinx and it splits apart, gobbets of spongy matter plopping to the floor. "You think that was it?" Arthur asks, his voice remarkably steady.
"You think it would be that easy?" she answers. But she doesn't feel anything tugging her onwards, so she tries the next door. This time it's a flying brain with long trails of nerves, and they brush her arm and her hand goes dead before Arthur pulls out his gun and shoots it. It is possibly the most disgusting moment of her entire life, including the time she was sprayed with bubotuber pus in fourth year. The door on the other side of the first one is dark, but she can hear shimmering voices echoing through and wants so badly to go find them that she knows it must be a trap.
Arthur opens all the doors and nothing feels right, nothing pulling her onwards, and Ariadne closes her eyes and presses her lips together. They can't be stuck here, this can't be a dead end, but she can't find the way out. For a moment she despairs.
Then there are hands on her shoulders, warm and heavy even in the dream and through her jacket, and they squeeze gently, thumbs pressing in above her shoulder blades. He doesn't say a word. But when she opens her eyes instead of the smooth round floor there are shallow steps into the darkness below, and they run down, Ariadne light on her feet, Arthur hitting each step with the flat of his sole right behind. This is a dream, a wizard's dream, and she has magic and architecture at her disposal, and they will find Ron and free him and everything will be all right.
All of that flies out of her head when they reach the bottom of the stairs. A giant chessboard stretches out ahead of them. Behind them the stairs slowly groan and Arthur's muttered curse tells her that there's no way back. And there at the back is a flash of ginger hair.
"Uncle Ron?" she calls, stepping forward. A hand on her forearm stops her - and it's not Arthur's. Great-Uncle Ron is standing there beside her, looking not quite as old as she remembers him.
"He's winning," he tells her, the warmth she's used to gone and replaced by quiet hopelessness. Ariadne looks across the board again and realizes who's waiting for them, who's controlling the black pieces. A face she recognises from family photographs, small and grinning with cold hard eyes. "We play to a draw. Every time. He knows every move. Of course he does. Bit sad, isn't it?"
"Then we'll join you," she says. Arthur draws in a breath behind her but says nothing. Ron simply nods as if he's been expecting this and waves at the board. A knight, a rook and a bishop pick themselves up and walk slowly off. Ariadne finds herself being pulled to the side, Arthur staring down into her eyes.
"Are you sure about this?" he asks.
"We have to win this," she says, sure as she says it as she is of her own name. "We'll be all right."
Her confidence is shaken as the game begins, the specter of Ron's child self gleefully sending pawns ahead to their shattering ends. Arthur jumps the first time a pawn is thrown off the board, cracking brutally against the wall. But when Ron sends him forward to capture his first piece, the younger man barely misses a beat before drawing his handgun and firing. The pawn rolls away and off to join its fallen mates.
"This is creepy," he remarks. The shade-child laughs.
"Only when you lose! And you will!"
"Are you sure I can't just shoot him?" Arthur asks, looking over his shoulder at Ariadne. She glares.
"Would you two hold off on the lovers' spat till we're done here?" Ron interjects. He sounds more like himself and she blushes. "Ariadne, to D3 if you would. There's a good girl."
The game drags onward, and Ariadne feels nothing but a sick sense of inevitability when Ron turns to Arthur and motions forward. Of course there are sacrifices; of course someone would have to go. She might be next. Ariadne closes her eyes but can't stop her ears to block out the sickening crunch of his landing. It's only when she hears her name that she opens them again. And she can see what's going to happen and how the shade will extricate himself from check and defeat Ron once again. Which is unacceptable after she's come so far and so close. Ariadne turns and looks over the board, then looks back at the black pieces, and suddenly she sees an alternative, a shortcut, a different move. "Queen's knight to C7," she shouts. Ron lets out a wordless cry and echoes her, and from there the conclusion is inevitable.
"Check," Ron says quietly. The shade-child turns and turns atop his perch, seeing no way out, then screams and sweeps his hand to scatter the rest of the pieces with a shockwave that has Ariadne covering her face. When she looks up he's gone, leaving her and Ron standing alone as the walls begin to buckle.
"What's happening?" he asks. "Where did he go? What do we do now?"
"We have to wake up," she says, but the noise is drowned out as the room begins to collapse, and the tiles beneath her feet start to crumble and they are falling and falling and -
Arthur's face swims into view. His features blur as he leans in to kiss her forehead. Ariadne's eyes feel wet, but she isn't sure why. She can hear a woman's voice nearby; Hermione, berating Ron in a gentle voice for being so stupid as to get himself cursed.
"Ariadne?" She sits up, Arthur's arm under her shoulders, and finds herself facing her great-uncle. Now he looks like he's supposed to, white hair with only a few threads of red woven through, his creased face confused and bleary. "Was that you? Was that real?"
"It was a dream," she says.
"That doesn't mean it didn't happen," he replies. She leans forward and takes his hand.
They eat dinner with the other grown-ups, Ron propped up by a battalion of pillows and Arthur crowded close to Ariadne, all of them answering a ceaseless chorus of questions about what they saw and what Ron was doing and what shared dreaming means. There are many congratulations. Her dad takes Arthur off for a talk after everyone's scattered with their cups of tea; when they come back Arthur looks neither frightened nor shaken but simply calm. He joins her in the tiny closet of a room that they've secured for themselves, a cousin having offered to clear off and let the lovebirds have their peace. Not the terms Ariadne would have used, but she is glad to have a space where they can rest and she can drift off to sleep with his arms wrapped around her.
The next morning after breakfast she asks him if he wants to go outside. Arthur stands beside her in the garden, hands in his pockets and his profile straight and pure beside her. "All right," he says, like the first time he went under with her, after he showed her the Penrose stairs and told her that her subconscious would turn ugly. It never did. "Let's see what you can really do."
Ariadne raises her wand and smiles.