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Four Dreams

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After they are placed on informal retainer with Pinnacle Ltd, the newest, Cayman Islands-incorporated subsidiary of Proculus Global, the team has a new warehouse built.

Nothing overly fancy – Yusuf knows that if Arthur and Eames had their 'druthers, they would have constructed an impregnable bomb shelter, or a Batcave – but they lay in a state-of-the-art laboratory for their Chemist, new PASIV equipment, an upgraded crash area, and additional security systems.

It's much less gloomy than a Batcave – high-ceilinged and filled with ambient light – and Yusuf can look out from the laboratory window at an expanse that easily accommodates his co-workers' equivalent of an open-plan-concept office. He's to be found at the lab on most given days, although he has purchased a small apartment across town in recognition of the semi-permanence of this engagement.

He spends the occasional evening at Cobb's suburban home, letting James and Philippa pepper him with questions about homework and demands for Scrabble.

Arthur is there more often than not, setting aside his jacket and his guarded smile to roughhouse with the children - Yusuf hasn't seen him laugh more unreservedly than under Cobb's roof.

On some weekends Professor and Mrs. Michel come to visit the grandchildren, bringing pain au chocolat and macarons from Pierre Herme. More often than not, Ariadne comes with them. She seems to have taken up smoking Gauloises, and shares stories about her college exploits, boys with French names, and projects which are apparently too brilliant to be scored.

They hardly see Eames outside of work – their Forger keeps to his London townhouse and his international schedule. When he is in town he goes to the Met with Arthur, to Barneys and brightly lit bars with Yusuf, and insists that Cobb makes him a home-cooked dinner, which Cobb does with flair every single time.

And now: they have all gathered here in force this month for Pinnacle's latest project, with Ariadne playing hooky from the start of her fall semester.

Their new mark poses an interesting case. He is a famously reclusive investment wizard, still fairly young, who lives and works in a fortified New England mansion that is locked down like a bank strong-house. He refuses to fly and travels with a team of security personnel at all times.

After ninety billable hours of Internet tailing and satellite observation, Arthur has finally established that the Mark indulges at the end of every financial quarter in a newfangled form of micro-chelation therapy that involves forty minutes alone naked in a detoxifying tank hooked up to equipment of a very private nature.

Saito has solved the issue by buying the chelation spa chain, and they have an appointment with the Mark the following Tuesday.

Their other issue is the shortness of the therapy session. Forty minutes means 11 hours of dreamtime. As Arthur tells it, even Cobb would have a difficulty extracting anything during such a short period. There won't be time to take this an extra level down; they have this one opportunity to make the snatch.

The team proposes to deal with this via a combination of dream-architecture and new technology of Yusuf's design. Arthur's research has determined that the Mark had spent his most formative years in a New England public school, and Ariadne's design has taken this setting into account.

On his part, Yusuf has been working on a new chemical with a particular sensitive resonance which would direct the team quickly to the place of the subject’s deepest emotional need.

He has also been trading ideas with a neurobiologist from MIT – a brilliant older woman, he needs to discuss with Cobb and Saito opening negotiations for a possible sub-contract – and she has suggested a modification of the PASIV link to increase the dreamer’s emotional connection to the subject's id.

Theoretically, this combination would allow the team to reach the subject's most unguarded need quickly, maybe even bypass his usual layers and defenses to get to the secret core of him in a minimal amount of time.

The agenda for today is a dry run of the maze built for the Pinnacle project. Cobb has planned a quick walk-through of Ariadne's new dreamscape: in and out in an hour and a half in dreamtime.

It's a first outing also for the new chemical and PASIV settings. Ariadne assures them she's ready for the others to arrive at her place of deepest emotional need, and that they won't discover anything untoward. ("Sure you haven't Daddy issues, love?" Eames asks, slyly, and she doesn't even blush.)

Yusuf deliberately administers a half-dose for this occasion and stays topside to keep watch. He's set this for the designated time and no more; there'll be no need for a kick or for their new waking song.

The other four jack in on their new contoured body beds, and the carefully titrated chemical mix beds them down. The plastic tubes of the PASIV link them as they sink under, one after another.

Of course, thinks Yusuf, the PASIV’s not the only thing that links them. There's the past they all share, the adventure that brought them together and holds them still. The thrill of the chase that they all yearn after, and the fear of oblivion's sandy shores.

*

And Cobb dreams...

...He sinks down into a blasting cacophony of noise, furious jangling rock music and a frenetic back beat. Smash cuts of blue and electric yellow, cobblestones and shuttered tenement buildings, Big Ben with a clockwork orange face, gutters and gangsters with guitars and crooked producers of garage bands.

Cobb fights to get a foothold as London's underbelly threatens to swallow him up.

He rises to wet streets at night. Old-fashioned lamplight wars with modern neon. Around him the quiet tree-lined square and mews are timeless: London in the 2000s looks indistinguishable from its 1900s self.

Cobb knows this isn't Ariadne's head. It isn't likely that the PASIV connections were improperly switched - it must be the new chemical or setting, or both. He's going to have to review this with Yusuf when they surface.

From the rainy London setting, he figures he's inside Eames' dream. Not the first time he's been in here, pretty sure it won't be the last. No way of telling if it's a singular screw-up, or if the others are here. He's wondering if he should let the scenario play out, or if he should be looking to dream up some early kick, because he remembers Eames' defenses are particularly unpleasant – the last time he'd been in Eames' head he'd nearly been torn apart by the cavalrymen of the Imperial Raj.

There’s no colonial unpleasantness in sight today. A classic black-top taxicab drives by on squealing tires – not the 1900s, then. Cobb sees the quick movement of the cab driver's head, checking him out in the rearview mirror, and tries the nearest doorway.

It’s odd, this door opens but it doesn’t go anywhere, nor does the next one. A couple of women stroll past him, one of them carrying a clipboard that looks a little out of place. A guy in a cap is hosing down the end of the street.

Cobb starts to walk in that direction, past lights that are a little too white for normal street lighting, when he walks past a doorway that looks like it leads somewhere.

The old-fashioned pub is called Lady Luck, chrome and glass bottles and London's chronic fog of gin and cigarette smoke. It's noisy with East End patrons and classic stereotypes of common and uncommon criminals of every stripe. Cobb doesn't expect Eames' subconscious to be this low rent, but sure enough, there he is, shorn head shining under the dingy lights.

Beside him are: a big, bearded bruiser and a black guy who's surveying the field of play. Modern-day London thugs, neither uncharismatic nor unambitious, but definitively medium-to-small time.

Eames is uncharacteristically quiet, he’s staring at the bearded guy like there's a lamp shining from his forehead. Cobb reads people, it’s what he does, and he's known Eames for a long time: he knows how Eames feels about his mother and his swanky public school, even knows his first name. Cobb's seen him wisecracking and delightedly-killing and bleeding out, but Cobb has never seen him this transparent.

Cobb figures we're all transparent in our dreams, or maybe this is the secret part of Eames that wants to be in love.

The bearded fellow is talking about some deal with Russians and a painting and seven million euros.

"So, we all doin' this then?" The Irish accent sounds fake to Cobb.

"Not like we’d’a anything else to do. Plus, we need to make it before we lose the services of our Bob 'ere," the black guy says, pure East London.

"You know I'm in," Eames responds in a broad accent which has no trace of his ancestry – he’s clearly not Eames here then, not this part of him anyway. He smiles almost shyly, showing the flash of crooked front tooth. It's a single flaw that makes his otherwise-perfect features suddenly irresistible; Cobb doesn’t know why he’d never noticed that before.

They're there for five minutes max before the blond guys with AK-47s and a tire iron bust in and start whaling on the pub. Cobb thinks they're some sort of Eastern European or Russian – Arthur would know exactly which nationality from the cut of their faux-fur and their boots. Fake-Irish panicks, East-London looks bored, Eames/Bob only has eyes for one man.

Cobb amends his earlier thought: this is clearly the part of Eames that likes guns and bad Cold War movies. Come to think of it, this entire set-up reminds him of a movie set, and this shy, blinking, open man isn't Eames but Eames' dream of some actor that's wearing his face.

The Russian goons aren't here for Cobb. Cobb slips out of the side door when they open fire. Glass and shrapnel follow him – there's an instant of roaring white –

– and then there's movement and a sound system. A black Range Rover, Cobb's hands on the wheel.

Eames is sitting by his side. This time, that transparent blue gaze is trained on him.

Cobb hears himself blathering on about how his best mate might be locked up in an 8-by-10 tomorrow night, but tonight they've got a date with the hottest escort girls ever to have escorted.

"I don't want the strippers, I want you," Bob tells him, Eames tells him, and Cobb watches his foot slam down on the car brake.

He climbs out, shaky, and indulges in some yelling.

Uncharacteristically for Cobb, he has no idea why this is happening. This is the first time anyone’s dream has assigned a role to him, like he’s been conscripted to a character (as Eames’ love interest) and given lines to spout and stage directions to follow. He's wearing his own face – he wouldn't be wearing a forge in Eames' dream, he's a shitty forger anyway, and still this analogue of Eames called Bob has told him he wants him.

When he climbs back in the car, Bob can’t meet his eyes. Head in his hands, Eames’ analogue looks like he’s wrecked their friendship and has made the biggest mistake of his life.

Cobb feels the stab of regret over his own violent reaction to Eames’ confession. “I’m sorry,” he says gently; he thinks this is him speaking, rather than the lines of the script Eames’ subconscious is feeding him.

Are this Bob’s lines scripted, too? Is this the part of Eames that wants to be a forge of every man, a consummate actor, and if so, who is the real man underneath the flawless forges? What might he need – to prove, to achieve, to love?

Whomever he is, he’s wearing this open, vulnerable, insecure self tonight, in this place of Eames’ greatest need.

“Really, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve yelled like that,” Cobb says, and reaches over to take Eames’ hand.

Bob’s looking at him now, as if nothing else exists in the world. The need, Eames' need, is speaking to some part of him he thought forever buried under castles of sand, under a railroad at sunset.

Cobb’s thumb brushes across Eames’ wrist. There's a kicky salsa beat drumming itself in time with Eames' pulse, finding its way under Cobb’s skin.

Cobb hears himself say, "What is it exactly that you would like to do to me then?" and watches Eames smile like daybreak.

 

And Eames dreams...

Eames is drifting and invisible through the stifling streets of Middle America. He slips past limited sets, shoestring equipment that telegraphs indie budget movie rather than blockbuster.

Someone’s big dreams of being a star are being shoehorned into something more realistic and low budget. Nice: Eames gets a kick out of modesty.

Also he knows he doesn’t do this himself so it’s completely not him. He wonders who. The plan was to fetch up with Ariadne, but if there’s one thing he’s certain of about that girl, it’s that she doesn’t have this miserable small town living inside her, at least not one level down.

He walks past a sign that reads Hutchinson, Kansas. Tumbleweed rolls past aimlessly like a caricature of seedy desperation.

There's a soundtrack coming loud and clear over the set speakers, and a young, jaded voice-over.

"The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. Five hours, lost, gone without a trace..."

And then, another overlapping voice: "The summer I was eight years old, I came for the first time."

Fuck, it's some coming of age movie. Some low-budget coming-of-age movie, apparently involving the under-aged and coming and an unholy combination of the two. Needless to say, Eames doesn't have high hopes for this production. He needs to figure a way out before he bores himself to death.

He walks around a dingy corner and there are three skinny teenagers, two boys and a girl, in shapeless baggy pants and trainers and jumpers with fraying seams. Eames isn't a snotty bitch, far from it, but he can't hold back the smallest wince. Whosoever amongst his team that this scene belongs to is hiding a secret American grunge aethestic.

Eames heads toward the trio. It's not usually the idea, to directly approach the projections, but Eames has never made a career of conservative behaviour; besides, he wants to know whose head he's fetched up inside.

As he approaches, one of the boys peels off and runs off towards a stationary car on the far side of the park. The other two stare after him as he goes, completely ignoring the well-dressed stranger.

The wisp of a girl says, "Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormack has a bottomless black hole."

The curly-haired boy said, dreamily, "I adore him, I can’t help it, he’s like a god."

Eames frowns and stares after the other boy as well. It's a trick of perspective he does; he flips the scene and the boy's running towards him, past him, long lank hair and a cocksure smile.

Fuck him running, it’s Arthur.

A younger, teenage Arthur, to be sure, narrow face still soft around the edges, but it's the young man himself: the planes and angles of his body, the geometry of grace that’s older than this body, this boy.

Eames is kind of gobsmacked. He can't believe this lives inside careful, controlled Arthur and his tailored suits; this wild, windblown, sexual boy, rangy and insouciant and strutting confidently up to a man twice his age.

Eames is fascinated, can't look away. He puts out his talent and slides easily into a forge of the director of this movie, and pulls the narrative towards him, heedless of the attention this will invariably draw from the projections.

He rewinds and examines the scenes with younger Arthur for ways into the man's head - what had happened to the child in a rain of froot loops and illicit touches that made him into a reckless teenage hustler, entirely blind to what he'd become, flinging himself into the arms of strangers as a means of embracing his pain.

"Desire sledge-hammered me," says the youngster's voice in Eames' head, and Eames knows now how that felt: feels it now, and it's a blow that makes his own knees buckle.

He sees the boy called Neil as a palimpsest over the adult Arthur - how Arthur has never shown more than an eyelid's flicker of desire, or moved in this loping, hip-swaying, provocative way. How Eames has never seen the bare, vulnerable flesh under the sharp grey tweed. But now Eames sees those things are there inside Arthur, just below the mysterious surface of this skin.

In his director’s forge, Eames fast-forwards through the rest of the dailies of the film and finally catches up with the scenes of Neil (Arthur) in a seedy motel room in New York City. One of his clients has just fucked him over and beaten him into a pulp.

Eames sees dark red, like the colour staining the bedsheets. The movie set falls away around him, and suddenly everything’s painfully real: the peeling wallpaper, the sad shag carpeting, the smell of sex and suffering. The lad crying in the shower.

He kicks the john's head in and throws him half-dead out of the room. It's the kind of move that’s bound to bring projections barrelling out of the woodwork, but although Eames has dropped his forge in his fury the projections don’t come.

Why it is that Arthur's starring in this grim fucking movie, Eames has no idea. No idea that some part of Arthur used to be this damaged, this unknowing. This irresistible.

He knows it now, though, and it makes him get into the shower in his Tom Ford and hold the naked, shivering lad to his heart.

Neil's voiceover says: "I wanted to tell him how sorry I was, that everything would be all right. I wished there was some way for us to go back, to undo the past, but there wasn’t. So I stayed there and tried to tell him telepathically how sorry I was, for all the fucked up suffering in the world. I wished we could leave this world behind, and rise like two angels in the night, and disappear."

Eames listens to this. "I've got you, darling," he says, at last. "I know you now. You want to disappear? We can, together."

 

...And Arthur dreams...

As always, Arthur is where he’s supposed to be: in the main hallway of Ariadne’s New England high school complex with its multiple floors and the bespoke Lancaster maze at its center.

He knows, beyond doubt, that this is her dream. He’s come to recognize her handiwork very well over the last months, the careful stitching and design, the stately wall paneling and oil paintings in muted color and detail, the stairs that veer upwards in a precise acute angle and then away around the first floor balustrade.

At the same time, Arthur doesn’t recall Ariadne’s plans for the school complex including a reinforced basement laboratory.

He takes the elevator down for a closer look, and discovers the lab is made of steel, and features helmeted fifty-foot high robots that shoot spikes and bullets out of their hands. The sign says DANGER ROOM, and, well. Arthur has never needed a second warning.

He's breathing hard when he steps back into the elevator and takes the car back up. Engraved into the elevator control panel is a discreet device that reads, SCHOOL FOR THE GIFTED. Arthur could be wrong, but he doesn't think that's part of Ariadne's project blueprint.

Well, he seems to have entered the wrong level of Ariadne's dream, which would explain why the others aren't here, nor the lady herself. Not like this is an unusual occurrence, though it's not like Ariadne to be this distracted. Or perhaps Arthur himself...

...Abruptly the front door comes apart; Arthur's quick reflexes allow him to twist and duck around the flying bricks and mortar.

"Incoming!" someone yells, and something extremely large lands with what seems to be several kilonewtons of force in the middle of the polished hallway, a human juggernaut. Very quickly the hall is filled with projections dressed in leather and spandex: approximately thirty kids of all shapes and sizes, with fur on their faces and extra limbs and one with a shiny metal skin, and a third of them attack the juggernaut and the remainder attack each other.

"Watch out, Shadowcat," the metal man shouts, and amid the human tangle and chaos Ariadne finally appears.

"I've got this," she hollers back; she tackles a boy twice her size and sporting twice the number of arms she has, and flings him over her head in a skillful classic aikido move which Arthur would never have figured she knew how to execute.

Ariadne lands lightly on her feet, her face becomingly flushed. She's wearing a tight yellow and black outfit that leaves very little to the imagination, and Arthur, who usually doesn't have much of an imagination for this, finds his mind is filled with a heat rash of inappropriate images.

Arthur is wondering if he needs to dream up some weaponry to deal with the spandex projections. Dream-Ariadne seems to be doing a good job of protecting him, though, so good he wonders whether ...

"... And cut," a different voice says, and bright lights come on, illuminating the scene. There's a pause and a couple of guys and women in khaki overalls rush onset to fuss over the youngsters with makeup puffs and combs and water. The boy Ariadne threw gets to his feet; one of his extra arms is hanging off his body and Arthur can see it's a prosthetic.

This is a movie set, filled with actors. Arthur has never imagined Ariadne for the self-obsessed celebrity type, but it seems that in this place of deepest need she's an actress on a science-fiction show about kids with powers and fake arms.

"Take a break, Ellen," a guy with glasses says, and spandex-Ariadne stretches and steps over the plaster bricks of the set.

Arthur belatedly decides he should make himself scarce, but she spots him hanging beside the banister and smiles bright as day. "Hey, Joe! You didn't say you were coming to visit?"

Arthur has a split second of indecision. Plus: her actress subconscious recognizes him. Minus: it seems she thinks he's a Joe. However, her dream is running a powerful script – Joe's script – and has handed him some lines.

"Trying to break outta third rate TV and into indie movies," he shrugs (and Arthur winces; the script she has given him doesn't seem to be very flattering).

"Oh boy, modest as always!" Actress-Ariadne (Arthur remembers she’s called Ellen) sounds so young and excitable, but Arthur can see the competence and intellect underneath. Hardly an airhead – also, there's that Ariadne enthusiasm, which Arthur discovers he rather enjoys.

"Walk with me," she says, and loops her hand through his arm. Her shapely breast brushes against his elbow, which is how Arthur discovers he rather likes this more physical, enthusiastic side of Ariadne's subconscious.

Ariadne-Ellen waves to her projection co-workers, fellow actors in spandex, lighting grips and sound stage crew, a couple of harried-looking executives. There's a big guy sitting in a folding chair with a star on it, reading from a file - Arthur takes a moment to recognize Hugh Jackman with mutton-chop facial hair and suppresses a groan: he will never understand why it is that all the girls always go for the strong beefcake type.

Projection-Hugh glares across the set, and Arthur wonders if he's going to have to take preventative measures. Ariadne defuses the situation by smiling reassuringly at Hugh, who settles back into his chair.

Ari then looks back up at Arthur, her eyes warm and confiding. "Don't worry, Joe," she whispers. "I've always liked your type."

Arthur frowns; Ariadne's subconscious seems particularly attuned to his thoughts about her. Belatedly, he forms a suspicion as to why that is, that's related to her thoughts about him.

Arthur's career is predicated on discovering the most intimate thoughts and desires and life details about other human beings. He's not so facile with his own thoughts and desires. He's not accustomed to possibly reciprocating the feelings of someone else, either, so much so he wonders if this is what he's doing now.

There's a first time for everything, he supposes, and with this thought he comes to an abrupt halt in front of acclaimed British actor Patrick Stewart.

Arthur blinks - he wouldn't admit this to many, but he is quite an admirer of Mr. Stewart's stage career, and he's more impressed by this man's appearance in Ariadne's movie setting than Hugh's beefcake cameo. Ariadne's Stewart is wearing a black Savile Row suit and a pale pink tie, and is sitting in a stainless-steel wheelchair.

"Hello, Joe," Stewart says. Arthur is fascinated by how Ariadne's projections all seem to recognize his actor-self. "Good of you to stop by." His handshake is firm and paternal. "Are you familiar with the School?"

"Can't say I am," Arthur says cautiously, and Stewart smiles.

"Ellen would like you to get to know it," he says. A large steel contraption appears in his hands, the bland walls of the movie stage fall away and they're on a long platform in a cavernous metal room.

Arthur has to blink; the speed of the change of setting unsettles him. Without transition, Stewart has set the steel contraption over Arthur's head, and it's like a window opens up in Arthur's mind.

This device is like a PASIV in reverse. Two windows open and multiply rapidly in square: four, sixteen, two fifty six -- so many entry points into different freeze frames, all of them different people, and yet all different parts of Ariadne: student, superhero, teen mother, each with different motivations and desires. It's a lot for Arthur to take in at once, and he struggles to sort through the overload, to identify the common thread of Ariadne's emotional need that runs through everything.

"Relax," Ellen says, and takes his hand.

 

And Ariadne dreams...

It's cold, wet and cold, so cold she hardly feels the wet. The cold is a crushing weight, a dead weight; she can't move or even breathe and has barely the presence of mind left to wonder where she is...

...And then she's slowly rising, up and up, gradually working loose from the weight and from her body. She sees the night sky above her, can see pinpricks of starlight through her cloudy, formless self.

When she looks down she sees her own limp figure, pinned like a bone-colored starfish to a small frame, adrift and floating in the open sea.

Submerged the water beside her is Dominic Cobb.

His drowned face is the pure blue-white of icebergs. Permafrost lines his lips and eyelashes.

Ariadne is brought crashing to herself, down down down, gasping and awake and thrashing so violently it nearly tips the frame over.

The cold seizes her again but she doesn't feel it: Oh shit, Cobb, oh, shit!

She reaches out, almost unbalancing, the frosty waters splashing over her, but Cobb's body has already pulled free of the platform and is sinking out of reach, out of sight, into the black depths of the sea at night.

"Cobb!" Ari screams, the cold taking her breath away.

Projections rise out of the ocean, rotten corpses half-eaten by sea creatures and other monsters. They pause, taking her measure, and they attack.

Ariadne sees a flash of her heritage – Andromeda chained to the rocks, a sacrifice for the Kraken – and she rises and takes to her heels.

The seas become solid under her feet; the dream-stuff is malleable to her will. This isn't her dream, she's somewhere else, merde and hellfire, something's screwed up badly. Getting lost and eaten by sea-zombies was totally not part of the original design.

Shaking from cold and pure adrenaline, she dodges rocks and icebergs and skates across the solid sea and wonders where the hell she is.

The undead projections keep up the chase for a time, but they seem to be baffled by her walking-on-water trick. Eventually they vanish with wails of regret, and she steps onto a sandy shore under the stars.

Non, je ne regrette rien, someone sings, and a very young girl's voice says in her ear:

“When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars; and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”

Cobb steps out of the shadows as if on cue, young and golden; his eyes hot like the sun, as if they would never know age or sorrow.

"Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I never saw true beauty till this night," he says, and takes her in his arms.

Ah, goddamn it all to hell, this is Cobb's dream.

And if it is, then there's the chance, there's always the chance...

..."Cheri," says Mal. She's beautiful, hollow-eyed, fortuitously not cadaverous – Ariadne really doesn't want to deal with a dead-wife-centric reprise of the zombie apocalypse. Her loose gown trails in the dream-sand of this realm. "You know I regret nothing that we made together, or apart."

Cobb lets go of Ariadne and takes an uncertain step towards his dream-wife, dead two years and mourned and never forgotten.

"Forgive me," he says. There is disregarded wetness on his cheekbones. Ariadne is fascinated despite herself: she has never yet seen him weep.

Mal shrugs, shrugs away her Gallic shoulders, her brunette curls. Turns into someone else.

"Never," says the statuesque blonde, blue-eyed woman that stands in her place. "Damn you, Frank, I was ready to follow you to Paris. I would have followed you to the ends of the earth, and now you've killed me."

What new madness is this? Ariadne officially can’t keep track of all the shades in Cobb's screwed-up subconscious. She’d thought he’d put Mal to rest, finally; is horrified to find more doomed women, more regret, in the place of his deepest need.

Cobb takes another step toward the blonde woman. "Mal. April. Dolores. Don't do this; think of the children."

"I am thinking of them," says the woman (and she’s still blonde but now different). "This way they will be free, and so can I. You can't stop me; any of me. You never could."

She raises her hands, which are covered in blood. There's blood on the gown, between her legs, and Cobb makes an anguished sound, sharp as a gunshot.

Ariadne feels sick to her stomach. She forces herself to watch as Cobb falls to his knees on the sand, cradles the woman in his arms and cries. She doesn't understand this, who this woman is – who these women are - or why such horrible things live inside Cobb.

The young girl is back. She puts her mouth close to Ari's ear.

"Shall I not, then, be stifled in the vault,
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,
and there die strangled ere my beloved comes?
Or, if I live, is it not very like, the horrible conceit of death and night,
Together with the terror of the place,--
As in a vault, an ancient receptacle,
Where, for these many hundred years, the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are packed:
Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth,
Lies festering in his shroud; where, as they say,
At some hours in the night spirits resort;--
Alack, alack, is it not like that I,
So early waking, what with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad:--
O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,
Environed with all these hideous fears?"

Ariadne's seen and heard enough to know this girl is similarly doomed. She can't be more than fourteen.

“I come,” Juliet tells Ariadne. “This do I drink to thee.”

*

Saito walks into the warehouse while they're down to the last three minutes of the dry run. His square-toed patent-leather shoes announce his distinct authority against the concrete floor.

Saito nods courteously to Yusuf. "How is my project team doing?"

"So far so good," Yusuf says, non-committal. "Two more minutes."

"Music?" Saito enquires. He leans closely over Cobb, almost as if he might brush the blond-streaked hair away from their extractor's forehead.

They've dispensed with the Piaf; these days Cobb rouses himself and his team with the Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun". Yusuf shakes his head. "Timer. Just need to count them down. One and a half minutes to go."

Saito nods. Cobb frowns in his dream; on his left side Ariadne flings out her tethered arm and mutters something unintelligible.

Yusuf is nothing if not precise with timing. Exactly one and a half minutes later, the team pull themselves awake: Cobb like a coiled spring, Eames smooth and graceful, Arthur uncharacteristically stiff. Ariadne surfaces roughly, slapping the needle out of her, scrambling to sit upright, and Arthur puts out a hand to help her.

"There was a problem," says Cobb, crisply, and Saito and Yusuf frown at each other. "The new configuration's too sensitive."

Yusuf shakes his head: this is not good news. "I didn't see anything untoward. What was the problem?"

"The chemical overrode the main PASIV connection to Ariadne's dream. I ended up in Eames' head instead."

Yusuf notes the flicker in Cobb's eyes, how he carefully avoids looking directly at Eames, even when he starts talking to him: "How about you, where did you end up?"

Eames says, without hesitation, "With Arthur."

Arthur glances sharply at Eames, who, surprisingly, doesn't smirk or wink or do anything Eamesian. "Really," he says.

The look they exchange is unguarded and interesting, as interesting as the fact that Arthur has aligned himself against Ariadne's side.

Had Arthur been in Ariadne's dream, then? She looks wrecked, uneasy, almost angry; she doesn't say where she'd been, and Yusuf cannot guess.

"Well, clearly we need to recalibrate the strength of the PASIV main connection," says Yusuf. He's making notes on his yellow pad.

Then he asks, tentatively, "So how did the other aspect work?" He wants to know, had they been pulled to the dreamer's place of needs, even if it seems to have been a different place within each different member of the team.

Cobb's eyes flicker in Eames' direction for a second before they reach back to Yusuf. There's a quality there that goes beyond Cobb's usual focused gaze. "I think it may have worked, though not the way we expected," he says. "I found... a certain openness, with Eames, that I thought was relevant to the project."

Eames says, abruptly, "Disappearing." Which Yusuf doesn't understand, and Eames doesn't explain. Arthur doesn't look at him, but Yusuf sees a twitch in Arthur's narrow face – it seems one person understands this, at least.

Arthur says, "For me...well. I saw what Ariadne planned for us to, I think. I saw a desire to play an ensemble role – to fit in, to be understood."

Ariadne finally looks up from her knees. "I saw regret. Doom. A fear of intimacy." Though her words are provocative she doesn't sound angry. Arthur glances down at her, perturbed, but she's not looking at him, and Yusuf finally realizes: she is referring to Cobb.

Saito folds his arms. "It seems we need to try this again," he says calmly. "With a different mix, and a different configuration. Perhaps we should try someone else's dream?"

"No," says Cobb; he's staring at Ariadne now, as he should be. His eyes are unreadable.

Arthur agrees, "It's best we stay with Ariadne. I was there, the maze looks good, and she'd prepared a benign environment." Which is more than the others did, Yusuf supposes.

Of course, Yusuf has yet to discover how it was that each of them seemed to have been drawn into a different person’s dream. He makes another note. The easiest explanation is that the chemical has an unexpected bilateral effect, and that a particular need of the one drew them to the dream of that specific other.

He poses this question and answer, and Saito nods: this seems plausible.

Yusuf says, "Assuming that's right, I’ll try to reconfigure the chemical and the PASIV connection to damp out the need of the dreamer and focus on the need of the mark. Give me two days, maybe three."

"We don't have much time," Cobb says, but it's without force; he's looking at Eames now, as if he's trying to figure out what it is inside himself that had drawn him to this...openness he had seen in Eames.

Whatever it is, it seems to be making Cobb smile, a little unwillingly.

Eames is smiling too, thoughtfully, as if considering his own pull towards what he said he'd found inside Arthur: towards disappearing.

Arthur and Ariadne exchange tentative glances. He’d said he had been pulled towards the need to conform, and she towards doom. Grim things, and yet...

...Yusuf says, frowning, "Actually, for people who didn't end up where they were supposed to, you aren't looking too unhappy."

Eames hasn’t taken his eyes off Arthur. "Not to worry. I think we did end up where we were supposed to, at some level."

Ariadne says softly, "I think so too," and Arthur takes her hand.

It appears the dry run was a success, Yusuf surmises, if not in the ways they'd imagined it would be. But nobody seems to want to share more for now, and as such those would seem to be stories for another day.

Cobb gets to his feet. "Back to work," he says.

Yusuf notes he has a spring in his step, as if he'd spent the last ten minutes dancing the salsa in someone's arms.