“You’re not real,” Ariadne says, panicking. “You’re not real, you’re not real, you’re not--”
“Of course I am not real,” Mal says scornfully. She’s wearing the brown trenchcoat she had on the first time she met (killed) Ariadne. “I have been dead for two years, and also, you are dreaming.” She peers at Ariadne with a dubious look that Ariadne knows she’s seen on Miles’ face during classes. “You do know you’re dreaming, don’t you?”
“Of course I know I’m dreaming,” Ariadne snaps. If nothing else, Mal’s presence confirms it. “What I don’t know is what the hell you’re doing here.”
Mal gives her an exquisitely Gallic shrug. “This is your dream, not mine. If I’m here, it’s because you put me here. That’s the problem with dreaming alone - you have no one to blame but your own subconscious.”
The next week, Ariadne is testing out a level for a job; their mark is believed to have acquired a significant amount of artwork stolen by the Nazis in World War II, and so Ariadne’s created a museum - the Hermitage crossed with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a bit of the Louvre thrown in for good measure. With any luck, the mark’s subconscious will populate the halls with the stolen art.
Ariadne’s subconscious is filling the exhibits with the Venus of Willendorf and half-remembered Matisses; she sees Whistler’s Mother and Madame X keeping company beside one another and a whole gallery of identical Warhols and Rothkos. At the entrance to one of the galleries (one of the mazes) is a tall Greco-Roman marble statue of some man, muscular, nude. She finds Mal there, admiring his ass.
“Seriously?” she asks Mal. “Aren’t you married?”
“Not anymore,” Mal says. “Not technically. He will always be my husband, but I may not always be his wife.” She smiles at Ariadne (a smile unlike Ariadne ever saw, but one that resembles a picture that Miles keeps on his desk). “Besides - naked statues are there for the looking. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Ariadne walks around to join Mal and take advantage of the view. “Yeah,” she admits. “You might be right about that.”
It is raining outside, slowly, steadily, and Ariadne would find it soothing, would let it lull her to sleep if she were even the least bit tired. But though it’s dark and silent outside, it’s a six hour time difference from Paris to Perth - so while the alarm clock’s red numbers read 3:17, 3:18, 3:19, Ariadne’s internal clock insists that it can’t possibly be later than 9:30.
Basically, she’s jet lagged as hell.
With a sigh, Ariadne slips on a pair of jeans under the oversized t-shirt that she uses as a nightshirt, tiptoeing out of her room and down to the basement of the safehouse. She should have put socks on, she thinks. The floor is cold.
She sets up the PASIV for 15 minutes and settles down on the ratty old sofa, taking care to avoid the spring poking up out of one cushion. She inserts the cannula and--
--she is on a beach, not a limbo-like beach, but a beach with a wide white expanse of sand, and the water clean and clear and ice-blue (ice, yes, appropriate; she knows the water is frigid even though the sun beats down on her shoulders). Ariadne dreams herself into shorts and a tanktop, dreams herself a bottle of water even though this is a dream, because it’s important to stay hydrated.
Ariadne walks for the sake of walking, relishing the feel of sand between her toes. A seagull circles overhead; if she squints, she thinks she can see dolphins swimming around in the distance.
Ariadne walks; she doesn’t know for how long. The heat bleeds the moments together. On the horizon, she sees a blur appear, a blur which grows larger and clearer as she approaches it. Eventually it resolves into a yellow beach umbrella, with Mal beneath it, building a sandcastle. She’s wearing a sundress - the same sundress from Cobb’s memories, Ariadne realizes, and she looks around nervously for the children.
“They aren’t here,” Mal says. “Will you join me? Building a sandcastle by yourself is a lonely activity.”
Ariadne squats in the sand next to her, shaping sand into bricks, into building blocks. Before long, the sandcastle has transformed into a scale replica of Cinderella’s castle, spires and all. “That is the nice thing about building in dreams,” Mal says. “You have no need to worry about the laws of physics.” She smiles dreamily. “Once, Dominic and I, we rebuilt La Sagrada Familia. It was beautiful.”
Ariadne searches her mind frantically, tries to remember if Cobb told her this, or Miles, or if she saw the ruins of the cathedral when she was in limbo, or if she’s making this up entirely, or...
“You think too much,” Mal says, as a wave, impossibly large, impossibly long, rushes over them and dissolves her into--
--the basement. Her feet are cold. Arthur is sitting across from her, and Ariadne is reasonably certain that he wasn’t there when she went under. “You shouldn’t dream by yourself,” he says.
“It was only fifteen minutes,” she protests. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“And you really shouldn’t use the PASIV as a sleep aid,” he sighs. He helps her remove the cannula, wiping it down with disinfectant before packing the PASIV back up. “Next time, wake me up before you come down here. I won’t go under if you don’t want me to, but at least I can watch and make sure nothing goes wrong.”
“Okay,” Ariadne says, a little surprised. “Hey, uh,” she adds as they walk back upstairs. “You remember how Mal kept popping up in Cobb’s dreams? Does that kind of thing happen to a lot of people?”
Arthur glances back over his shoulder at her. “The thing about Mal,” he says, “was that she didn’t just show up in Cobb’s dreams. He brought her with him into other people’s dreams.”
“So that’s not normal, for projections,” she says, a little relieved.
Arthur stops by the basement door, waiting for her to reach the top of the stairs before continuing into the kitchen. “There’s a difference between a shade and a persistent projection,” he tells her, finding the tea kettle and going to the sink to fill it. “A lot of people have persistent projections. Tea?” Ariadne shakes her head and he continues: “Projections only show up when the dream is in your subconscious - when you’re dreaming alone or you’re the subject. A persistent projection shows up when you’re the dreamer, too. That doesn’t always happen, but it’s been known to. And depending on the projection, it can come in handy on a job - almost like an extra team member.” Arthur looks at her, then, and seems to anticipate her next question. “Shades start out as persistent projections, but shades are malevolent from the start. There’s never been the case of a benign projection developing into a shade, not that I know of. So unless your projection’s got a habit of shooting you in the kneecaps, you should be all right.”
“I never said--” Ariadne starts, cutting herself off at the sight of Arthur’s raised eyebrow. “Yeah, okay, fine. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” he says, as the tea kettle starts to whistle. “Go get some rest.”
The second level of this job ends up being some kind of awards gala - nothing specific, just a blur of bright lights and red carpet. Somewhere backstage, inside one of countless envelopes, is the information they’re looking for.
Ariadne is the dreamer, tasked mostly with hiding from projections and keeping out of the way. She’s dreamed herself into a tuxedo and boots, because running around in an evening dress and spike heels sounds like the quickest way to get herself caught. Menswear-inspired looks are in, anyway, or at least she thinks they are. Arthur probably knows for sure; she’ll ask him later.
The mark isn’t militarized, but even civilian projections turn mean when someone starts messing around in the dream. Ariadne knows the minute that their extractor starts tearing into envelopes, because every head in the theater turns towards her seat in the back of the room.
The interior of the theater is a maze, her maze, she could navigate it with her eyes closed if she had to. All she needs to do is evade the projections until it’s time for the kick.
She doesn’t know how long that is. Too long, probably.
Ariadne rounds the corner of the theater lobby, ducking behind a concessions stand to catch her breath. She has about five seconds before the first projection reaches her, if she timed it right. On the count of four, she sprints toward the fire stairs - or she’s about to, because there’s a tuxedo-clad projection right in front of her when she emerges. She yelps in surprise, then again, louder, when red begins to blossom on the white of his shirt. She thinks it must be Arthur, but she turns, she sees Mal standing behind her, dressed in a shimmering blue evening gown and looking absolutely unruffled. “Go,” says Mal, aiming her gun at the approaching projections, and so Ariadne goes.
She’s made it to the roof (and there’s another maze up there, in addition to the stair-mazes, because better safe than sorry), but the mass of projections is right behind her. Ariadne almost spares a moment to worry about Mal, but in the end she doesn’t, because Mal’s not real, and Mal’s dead, and also, it’s a dream.
The nearest projection grabs her and she trips, falls, and as she hits the ground she hears the rumble of Toccata and Fugue - it’s the kick, thank god, and her last thought before she wakes is that she’s really, really glad she didn’t have to get trampled to death by rampaging projections.
That’s the only time Ariadne ever sees Mal during a job. It’s hardly surprising, of course, given that Ariadne’s so rarely the dreamer. Mostly she sees Mal when she’s testing out a new layout or design, and never sees her when she’s teaching someone else the level. It’s just as well. She’s honestly not sure how she’d explain it to anybody - “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a projection of Cobb’s dead wife, you know, the one who went crazy and killed herself? And then proceeded to completely wreck all of Cobb’s dreams even though she was already dead? Yeah, she’s pretty nice actually, we built a sandcastle once.”
No, that’s probably a conversation best avoided.
The next job after Perth, Ariadne’s designing a cathedral with a labyrinth of catacombs underneath. It’s not any one architectural style - she built it out of Chartres and St. Basil’s, out of Notre Dame and St. Peter’s Basilica and Westminster Abbey. It’s beautiful and timeless and no one’s ever going to see the exterior of it if they do their job right, but she’s made sure that it’s perfect, inside and out.
She’s in the catacombs, this time - it’s a difficult task, making sure they’re sufficiently creepy but well-lit, but not too well-lit or they’d arouse suspicion. She rounds a corner of the maze and shrieks loud enough to startle the mice she didn’t even know she was projecting, because there’s Mal, in her wedding dress, looking positively sepulchral. “Hello, Ariadne,” Mal says.
“I am honestly,” Ariadne says, hand over her heart, trying to catch her breath, “honest-to-God not sure how I didn’t kick myself out of this dream because of the heart attack that I just had. Why are you lurking?” She doesn’t ask Why are you here,, not anymore.
“I wanted to explore,” says Mal. “Am I not allowed?”
“I’m exploring,” Ariadne complains. “Why couldn’t you explore with me, instead of jumping out at me like a ghost?”
Mal arches one perfect eyebrow. “Are those the rules of your dreamscape?”
“If it’ll keep you from scaring the shit out of me, then yeah, sure. Those are the rules.”
“Oh, ma petite,” Mal smiles, but she’s not looking at Ariadne; her gaze is turned down the darkened hallway and at the bones fixed within the walls. “You should know by now. I do not follow the rules.”
It’s been almost a year since they achieved inception, and Cobb is holding a reunion barbecue at his house in California. Ariadne deletes the Evite immediately.
Arthur tell Cobb he’s not allowed to put my email address online like that, she texts. Also, wtf. Think a phone call would have sufficed.
Arthur texts her back: Where else do you expect him to use your email address other than online? followed shortly by, The Evite may have been ill-advised. Cobb’s never been clear on the concept of internet security.
MAKE HIM CLEAR, Ariadne sends, and gets back to work. She’s on a job in Virginia, of all places, a location which became less bewildering once she realized the sheer number of politicians who made their homes there. George, who’s on point, suspects but can’t prove that the mark has been militarized, so the extractor - Nancy - has instructed Ariadne to take extra precautions with her mazes.
The first level’s a rose garden. She’s designed the hedges to snare projections in their thorns and trained the bushes to grow up and out in an instant if a projection tries to leap them. It’s tricky - not so much for her, as it’s her design, but not all dreamers can mentally multitask the way Ariadne can. She thinks that George will be okay, and if not, maybe their chemist Bess can alter the compound a little to make it easier. (Or Ariadne could change the layout, but that’s always her least favorite option.)
This time she finds Mal waiting for her in the center of the maze, sitting on a bench and calmly stroking a topiary as if it were a pet. “It’s about time you got here. You should go to California.”
“I’d really rather not, to be honest,” Ariadne tells her. “I mean, I’m fine with being part of this whole criminal underworld thing, but a reunion just seems unnecessarily sentimental.”
“I want to see my children again,” Mal says. “I can’t do that without you.”
“Mal,” Ariadne says gently, crouching next to the topiary. “You’re not real.”
“Since when has that mattered, in dreams?” Mal asks her. “I may not be real, but I still have memories. You saw my children when you were in Dominic’s memories, and so I have seen my children, I remember how they were when they were young. I love them. I miss them. Please,” she says. “Go to California. See my children in reality. Let me see how they have grown.”
The ground begins to crumble beneath them, then, the dream falling away as Ariadne wakes, and she is glad, so glad, to open her eyes and not be in that stupid garden anymore. “Everything all right?” Bess asks her.
“Yeah,” she says. “Hey, how do you think George will feel about living topiaries?”
Later, Ariadne finds Evite in her trash folder, jots down the date and time, and emails Cobb: I’ll be there.
Sometimes, Ariadne doesn’t know how much of what Mal says and what Mal does is what Ariadne wants her to do or what she thinks Mal would be doing if she were still alive.
On a table in Cobb’s house, there is a framed picture from his wedding, and beneath it a line of calligraphy - And then I see: it is my mind that will fashion and set the last pieces in place.
“It’s from a Rilke poem,” Cobb says when Ariadne asks him, a brief moment while the kids are distracted and no one else is around - sleeping or out buying more wine or taking a business call. “One of Mal’s favorites.” His lips twist, briefly, into something that might be called a smile. “‘What’s Rome?’” he quotes. “‘It crumbled. What is the world? We are destroying it. Yet sometimes in dreams I take in your whole expanse.’”
He has a faraway look in his eyes, and she can see his fingers reaching for the totem he no longer carries.
Ariadne excuses herself as quickly as possible.
Phillipa is six now, almost seven; James is four. They are playing on the swingset Cobb built for them in the backyard. She freezes the image in her mind along with a dozen others - the wind tangling Phillipa’s hair and the Superman Band-Aid on James’s skinned knee.
She shows Mal a week later, James with chocolate ice cream all over his face and Phillipa bedecked in Pretty Pretty Princess jewelry. Cobb, in a rare moment with no worry lines creasing his face.
“Thank you,” says Mal, watching her children play in the memory garden Ariadne has created. “It is good to know that they’re happy.”
They watch, together, and just before the dream ends, Mal leaves her to go and play with them.
Ariadne never sees her again.