Ariadne Morgan knows that in her business, looks aren't technically important, but people will judge you on them anyway. She is small and she looks about sixteen, and because of that she's learned to be aggressive, confident, and to never let herself be intimidated. Which is why she looks up as Mallorie Cobb enters her office, her eyes cool and her face composed. “Ms. Cobb,” she says evenly, leaning back in her chair. “I hear you're looking for an architect.”
“I am. They tell me you're one of the best.”
Well, being that's gotten easier since your husband was incapacitated, Ariadne thinks but doesn't say. It's true, after all. She is good anyway, but it's a lot easier to build a reputation when the man by whom everyone is measured and found lacking is no longer in the picture. “Sit down, please, and tell me what it is you need.”
Mallorie sits down and gives Ariadne a measuring look. Ariadne returns it in kind, wondering what has brought the world's best known extractor to her door. She's notorious for not working with anyone but her husband; in the nine months since something – no one seems to know quite what – happened to Dominic Cobb, his wife hasn't taken a single job. So what is she doing here?
“I need an architect.” Abruptness sounds wrong in that flowing French voice, somehow.
Ariadne raises an eyebrow. “Well, I guessed that much, Ms. Cobb – ”
“Mal. I can't see why you'd be here if you didn't need an architect, but you don't work with strangers, so forgive me for being surprised. One-level or two-level extraction?”
“Don't tell me you want to try inception. It's not possible.” Ariadne knows this because she tried it. There was a chemist named Lanie, two years ago, who was certain that she'd found the compound that would allow inception. Ariadne had been the architect, their extractor had been a woman named Bianca, and they'd had the point man/forger team of Arthur and Eames, who were best known for the jobs they'd pulled with the Cobbs. Which, now she thinks of it, might be why Mal is here, on their recommendation.
Mal's lips twist in what might be a wry smile, were it not so horribly bitter. “No, I'm not looking for inception. I am trying to free a dreamer from his own mind.”
“Your husband.” That makes a terrible kind of sense.
“Yes. Dominic and I went much too deep in the dreams, all the way down to Limbo. We constructed our own world down there, for half a century until we knew we had to escape. But when we reached the top level of the dream, Dom thought we were already awake. I did everything I could think of to make him come with me when I woke myself up, but he wouldn't come. Now he's on the run in his own dreamscape, and I need to wake him up.”
“Have you tried just going back down with him?”
“Yes. I'm not able to reach him. He's created a violent projection of me fueled by guilt – he thinks that by forcing me out of Limbo, he drove me to commit suicide – and she prevents me from coming too close. Others I trust have also tried, and met the same fate. Clearly, I need to try something else.”
Ariadne toys with a pencil on her desk absently as she turns this over in her mind. She still can't see why Mal needs an architect. “What exactly are you planning?”
“I'm not entirely sure yet,” Mal admits. “What I do know is that the team I put together will need to become Dom's team after they're put under with him. I am thinking that the best idea would be to send him on a job, and hopefully trick him into waking himself up at some point during that job.”
“And so you need an architect to build new levels for the dream, since if Dom builds them himself, whether directly or through a projection-architect, it won't be set up for the real mission.”
“Exactly. I know your usual asking price, and I can double it.”
“I appreciate that, but it won't be necessary.” It's not that she can't use the extra money, but Ariadne makes it a policy to not take too much advantage of desperation. Besides, the challenge of something like this makes it worth it. She twirls her pencil. “Do you have a chemist?”
“Hmm. Let me recommend someone to you. His name is Yusuf, he runs a place in Alexandria that you may have heard of. He and I have known each other a long time.”
“So you'll do it?” Mal wants to know.
~ ~ ~
There was never a question that she would call Arthur and Eames. They are family, in every way, after all. Mal smiles tiredly when she opens the front door to see them, James and Philippa just as happy and rather more exuberant in their greetings. But the children are soon shooed back to their rooms, and the three adults are alone in the living room. Arthur puts an arm around Mal's shoulders while Eames sits on her other side, a comforting presence even without touching her.
“How are they? And how are you?” Arthur asks quietly. Mal sighs, leaning forward and rubbing her face with one hand.
“They miss their father, obviously, but... They are young, they... They've gotten used to him not being here, to visiting him once a week and seeing him sleep. Nine months is a lifetime to them.” And to her, but in a different, horrible way.
Looking at her boys, as she always liked to call them, Mal is reminded of Dom's projections of them, how those shadows helped her be sure she wasn't in reality. Even James and Philippa were convincing, because Dom knows their children so well. Deep down she knew they weren't quite right, but Dom's conviction that they were, when the wrongness was so subtle, almost convinced her.
But Arthur and Eames. They were just wrong. Arthur never fully relaxed with his hair always slicked back even when you got him out of his suits, Eames cracking endless and ridiculous jokes when he was there at all. Which had been her final clue, really. Because Arthur and Eames still are what Dom and Mal were, in some ways, only Dom's never approved of that and so of course his Arthur would have seen “sense”. Mal thinks that Dom has always taken his responsibilities as the older brother far too seriously.
Arthur and Eames are not wrapped in each other the way she and Dom were, which Mal can admit now is probably for the best in the long run. But they are together, and she thinks of them as two halves of a whole, albeit two halves that can drift apart. They always return, and though she's never told them, in the end they were her totem because of that.
“So, what are we thinking?” Arthur asks, his mind, as always, on the practicalities.
“Dom won't believe he's dreaming, and I can't reach him because his projection of me won't allow it. Even if I did, he would think I was her. What I am thinking is that the two of you replace your projections with yourselves, and bring in an architect and chemist as the rest of your “team” and perform a job designed to trick Dom into waking himself up.”
“Complicated,” Eames comments. “Why don't we just give him the kick?”
“Because of her. Dom's projection of me. She knows, somehow, and is always the first on the scene when someone goes into Dom's mind. We can't get close to him that way,” Mal explains. “I've tried the external kick, and it doesn't work.”
Arthur nods, eyes narrowed. “We'll need another extractor though, possibly two.”
“What?” Mal says. “Why?”
Arthur starts to answer, but a smirking Eames cuts him off. “A fake client and mark. Actually, I may know just the pair. There's this point man, Fischer – ”
“The one who contacted you about learning to forge?” Arthur breaks in.
“Yes, that one. He works with a good extractor by the name of Saito. We have one of them play client – and tourist, that way they can come along and be useful – while the other one plays mark.”
“Probably Saito as tourist and Fischer as mark,” Arthur says, his voice distant as he thinks. “Because we're better off having an extractor not tied down by playing a mark, if we're only going to have one.”
Mal nods. “I've already contacted an architect – Ariadne Morgan? You two worked with her on that inception job that failed, didn't you?”
“Oh, yes, Ariadne,” Eames says, nodding. “Brilliant girl. It wasn't her fault the mark cottoned on to what we were doing.”
“When is she getting here?” Arthur asks.
“She offered to recruit a chemist for me, a man she knows by the name of Yusuf. I think I've heard the name once or twice, he's supposed to be good but he never does fieldwork so no one really knows what to make of him.”
“I met him once,” Arthur says. “The extractor I was hired to work for sent me to pick up the compounds he'd ordered.” He rolls his eyes. “I wasn't too thrilled about being errand boy, as I'm sure you can guess. He was a typical academic, mostly, more concerned with his research than anything else. The compounds he gave us were good though; might have been the sharpest dreams I've ever had.”
Mal nods, nibbling on her lower lip. “Well, with any luck, Ariadne will bring him along and we'll have both an architect and chemist. Eames, you can call that other team, Fischer and Saito, yes?”
Eames nods. “It shouldn't be a problem.”
“And I'll contact Ariadne,” Arthur says. “Fill her in on the basic strategy so she knows what she's walking into.
Mal smiles at them both, for the first time feeling as though there's actually some hope in this mess.
~ ~ ~
Ariadne walks into Yusuf's Alexandria lab without hesitation. He won't mind and she knows that. Which is why, when he's not in the main areas, she pokes her head into the office office and waves at him. Yusuf peers at her over the frames of his glasses and grins widely. "Ariadne! What are you doing here?"
"I was wondering if you might be up for leaving the clinic for a bit, taking on some fieldwork with me."
"Now, now, you know I rarely go into the field." He sets aside his glasses and rests his chin on one hand, amusement glinting in his black-brown eyes. "And since you do know that, I can only assume that this is a special job. So. What are you trying to do?"
Ariadne takes the chair across from Yusuf's desk and leans forward, resting her arms on her thighs. "I know you've heard of Dominic and Mallorie Cobb. I found out why they've dropped out of the business. Dominic's trapped in the dreamscape, he thinks he's awake. Apparently they went too deep and he misjudged the levels. Mallorie - Mal - came to see me in Portland. She's tried waking him up, but she can't get through his security."
"She's his wife."
"It's complicated. But the basic reason is that he's got a particularly nasty projection that's very effective, and he thinks she's dead. She killed herself on the last dream level, so..."
"Exactly. So the plan now is, since he thinks he's awake and is taking on jobs - "
"Wait. Is he dropping down levels on those jobs? Actually going deeper into his own dream?"
"Arthur - the point man - says so. Apparently he's gotten the closest to Cobb, by pretending to be a projection of himself. I spoke to him on the phone before I came here, mostly to get more details of the plan we're running with."
"When in doubt, talk to the point man."
"Advice to live by,” Ariadne agrees. “Anyway, so the plan is that we're going to pretend to be his team for an intricate job - inception, probably - and try to trick him into waking himself up. Hard to say if it'll work, but they've tried everything else. The thing is, he's paranoid, and he has great security. The only saving grace is that his hostile projection won't be on the top level; his belief that he's awake must keep her away there. But we need a compound - "
"That will calm his suspicions and make it safer for your team to stay in his mind for extended periods."
"The team may end up including you."
"There's a forger, but Arthur tells me Cobb would expect to hire said forger for this job, and we can't let a projection version anywhere near this. Also, long-term forgeries are a bitch to keep up, or so I hear. For a job as complex as this fake one will have to seem, they'll want a chemist on hand. So, if you're up for it, you'll be going under with us. Come on, Yusuf, it's been years." She flashes him a wicked grin. "You've probably lost your nerve for it," she teases him, eyes glinting with humor.
"Ha, bloody ha. I'll have you know that I have not, in fact, 'lost my nerve'. I simply find dreaming more interesting from the outside than the inside. That is not a crime. However, this does seem like quite the interesting case, and if I have to go into the dreamscape to be a part of it, so be it."
Ariadne smiles triumphantly. "I knew you'd say yes."
"You really do have a cocky streak, don't you?"
"And you love me for it."
"Sometimes I wonder."
~ ~ ~
"All right, fine. Where exactly are we working out of?" Robert goes fishing for a notepad and pen, quickly scribbling things down. Saito looks around his computer screen, peering at Robert over the top of his reading glasses, but Robert ignores his lover in favor of paying close attention to the voice on the other end of the phone line so that he doesn't mess anything up.
"Right. When do you need us there?"
"I guess I'd better find some tickets then." Robert hangs up the phone and rubs his eyes. Saito closes his laptop and frowns at him.
"What was that about, Robert?" he asks. "Have you gotten us another job?"
"You did say you were bored," Robert teases with a grin. "This one's interesting, actually; it's not an extraction. That was Eames, the forger I've been working with. Apparently he and his partner Arthur are working for Mallorie Cobb; she's trying to wake up her husband."
Saito's eyes narrow. "So that's why Dominic Cobb vanished," he murmurs, voice thoughtful. "He got lost in the dream."
"Apparently. So, Mrs. Cobb's tried all the normal methods. External kicks don't work and something about his security's keeping her from getting close enough for an internal one. Their new plan is to set up a job within the dream and hopefully trick Cobb - who thinks he's awake - to wake himself up. According to Eames, they want you to play a client/tourist, and I'm going to be the fake mark. It should be interesting." Robert's already on his laptop, trying to get two tickets from Kyoto to Los Angeles.
"An elaborate con," Saito muses, setting his own laptop aside and leaning back in his chair, steepling his fingers. "And of course, a challenge."
"I knew you'd like it."
"I have not said that."
"What, are you playing coy now, Kiyoshi?" Robert asks with a laugh.
"Perhaps. I assume we're leaving soon?"
Robert rolls his eyes. "As soon as I can get tickets, yeah. Seriously, though, do you have a problem with this?"
Saito gives him a sharp look. "If I really didn't want the job, you'd know it, Robert. Actually, I think it sounds intriguing."
"One of these days you're going to get sick of fucking with me."
"That will be a sad day indeed," Saito observes, an amused smile on his face. Robert just rolls his eyes.