Anita manages to hide her wince when Cobb starts going on about intestinal worms, but she's still quick to interject; trust Cobb to find the absolute worst example possible. “What Mr. Cobb is trying to say is – ”
She's cut off in turn when Cobb continues with, “An idea.” And he's off again with his explanation.
For the most part, Anita stays quiet as Cobb feeds Saito his security spiel, coming into the conversation only when she thinks her input is needed. She spends the rest of the time keeping her eyes on their surroundings, and especially on their mark. There's a sharpness in Saito's eyes as he listens to Cobb that she really doesn't like, and when the Japanese man leaves, she turns to her partner.
“He knows.” Above their heads, the chandeliers tremble, and she frowns. “What is going on up there?” Nash is an idiot, they both know this, but he's a decent architect, which is why they work with him.
Cobb doesn't answer, just walks out of the dining room, and Anita only just manages not to roll her eyes as she follows him onto the promenade, her heels clicking on the floor. One of the nice things about dreams – one can wear high-heeled shoes when necessary without them being uncomfortable or hard to move quickly in.
“I'm telling you, Cobb, Saito knows.”
“I can get it here,” the extractor insists. “It's in the safe – he looked right at it when I was talking about secrets.”
“He's playing with us, and I for one – ” She stops abruptly, spotting a familiar figure over Cobb's shoulder. Shit, not again. “What is she doing here?”
“I'll handle it,” Cobb says with a confidence that does not show in his eyes, but Anita doesn't waste time arguing with him about it.
“See that you do,” she says irritably. “We're here to work.”
She strides past him and can't deny her relief when the projection of Mal ignores her entirely. Anita has experienced the results of Mal's attention far too many times, and at least Cobb doesn't have to worry about Mal trying to torture him. No, that's just Anita, for whatever reason. Mal is part of Cobb's mind, which means the fact that she likes to torture Anita could have... implications. Ones that the point woman would rather not contemplate.
Every time Mal shows up, the job goes wrong. Sometimes the damage is minor enough that it can be worked around, and other times it's an unmitigated disaster. Like now, she think when she finds herself surrounded by six of Saito's security. She'd known the man was militarized and prepared accordingly, but... Six to one is never a favorable situation, and the projections make full use of their superior numbers. Anita has the satisfaction of taking down three before a hand flies out, catching her in the throat. While she's choking, trying to regain her focus from that, someone else grabs her arms, twisting them behind her back. Struggling doesn't do a thing except make the projection grip her more tightly, but she can't help it as she's dragged back into the dining room, where Cobb is facing Saito and... Mal. Goddamn it.
Mal puts a gun to Anita's head, asking Cobb to put his gun down. He puts it on the table and Saito demands that Cobb hand over the envelope he's holding, asserting that he knew all along that the two “security experts” were here to steal from him. Anita shoots Cobb a nasty look, reminding herself not to say “I told you so” once they get out of this, because that would just be childish.
“I want to know who your employer is,” Saito says coldly, and Mal cocks the gun she has against Anita's temple.
“No point threatening her in a dream,” Cobb tells Mal, and Anita winces inwardly, because this is Mal, who is terribly creative at finding the kind of in-dream threat that does work.
“That depends on what you're threatening,” Mal says, and Anita remembers the first time she'd heard that cold tone from the real Mal, about something stupid back in college, when she'd first met her one-time best friend. She tries to hold onto the memory of a stubborn graduate student as Mal keeps speaking, to distract herself from whatever is coming this time.
“Killing her would just wake her up, but pain... Pain is in the mind.” And quick as lightning Mal switches aim from Anita's temple to her knee, a gunshot rings out, and Anita can't help but scream at the blinding pain in her knee. “And judging from the décor, we're in your mind, aren't we, Anita?” Anita breathes hard, swallowing back more screams and holding back tears of pain.
She locks eyes with Cobb, and knows what the extractor is going to do a second before he lunges forward, sliding across the long, polished table and getting his gun. Anita only has a split second to prepare herself before she's staring down the muzzle of Cobb's gun –
Her eyes snap open and she's sprawled in the easy chair she'd gone to sleep in. Without hesitation she yanks the tubing from her arm, only to be confronted by Nash. “What are you doing? It's too soon!”
“I know that,” she snaps. “We have to reconnect the loop before they wake up!” It's oddly enjoyable to snap at someone, after the mess this job's become, but she doesn't have time to really indulge in that as she hurries to try and keep the dream stable before everything gets even worse.
Of course, it doesn't work, and the rest of the time on first level is one disaster after another, culminating in Cobb dumping Saito on the floor and the Japanese man realizing he's still dreaming because his carpet is made of the wrong cloth.
When she wakes up on the train, Anita is furious. “How did it go?” Todashi asks.
“Not good,” she answers, voice clipped. She starts prepping the PASIV to be put away, and when the two men wake up, the first thing she does is glare up at Nash. “Asshole! How could you get the carpet wrong?”
Nash bristles. “It wasn't my fault!” Anita rolls her eyes.
“You're the architect!”
“I didn't know he was gonna rub his damn cheek on it!”
“That's enough,” Cobb cuts in. Unabashed, Anita turns her fury on him instead.
“And you. What the hell was all that?”
“I had it under control.”
“I'd hate to see out of control,” she says with biting sarcasm.
“There's no time for this,” Cobb says brusquely. “I'm getting off at Kyoto.”
She frowns at him. “He's not going to search every compartment.”
“Yeah, but I hate trains. Every man for himself.”
Cobb tosses some rolled-up bills to Todashi and walks out, Nash behind him. Anita finishes securing the PASIV, nods to Todashi, and leaves, ducking into an empty compartment half a corridor down. Alone at last, she slumps down on one of the seats, taking deep breaths and fumbling for her totem. It's the right weight, and when the train comes to a halt at the next stop – Kyoto, probably – she rolls it quickly across the floor. Five, reality.
That doesn't make the phantom pain in her knee go away.
~ ~ ~
Damn Cobb. Damn him and his habit of making crazy promises. Anita is fully aware that inception is possible, but it's also uncontrollable. She was there when Mal and Dom (he'd been Dom then, in the days when he was married to her best friend) came back from Limbo, was there the night when a drunken Cobb confessed that her death was his fault, that he was the one who made her believe reality wasn't real.
She's pretty sure Cobb doesn't remember a thing about that night. Still, damn him for being an idiot, and damn Saito for knowing exactly what to use to get Cobb eating out of the palm of his hand. Anita knows this isn't going to end well, the only question being just how fucking badly it's going to go. Considering how their most recent job ended... Her money's on it going very badly. Damn it.
She crosses one last Paris street – and that's another thing, Cobb is bringing one of his father-in-law's students into this, what the hell – and pulls a piece of paper from her packet. Yeah, this is the place. With the key given to her just this morning, Anita unlocks the door to the old warehouse, pushing the door up and going inside. It's not that much worse for wear, really, though she's been told it hasn't been used regularly in nearly a decade. That begs the question of why it's still standing, but that's not important.
She starts setting up, dragging lawn chairs together in a semi-circle, unpacking the PASIV out onto a table. She carefully straightens out the IV lines and takes one of the compound bottles out, fitting it into its slot in the PASIV. Cobb should be back with their new recruit anytime now, and he's probably going to drop the poor kid right into the dream.
When Cobb does get back, sure enough, there's a young woman with him. She's tiny, in a red jacket and a white scarf, but unlike a lot of small women Anita's known, there's no hint of shyness as she holds out her hand and introduces herself as Ariadne. Anita shakes her hand, giving her an assessing look. Ariadne just stares right back, and the corners of Anita's mouth quirk up in a tiny grin.
Cobb must have turned his full persuasion skills on Ariadne before they got to the warehouse, because she lets Anita hook her up to the PASIV with only the slightest hint of trepidation in her eyes. “Not a fan of needles,” she says with a wry smile.
“You get used to it,” Anita says lightly, and then she presses the button.
For the next five minutes she sits there, waiting for the two dreamers to wake up. Being the lookout is always the least interesting job associated with dreamshare, even though it's the shortest job. It's not so bad when it's a trial run, but on a job, when even five minutes feels like forever and you're the only one with no idea of what's going on down there.
Ariadne wakes up with eyes wide in a pale face, and Anita sympathizes. The first dream never ends well.
Cobb says, “Because it's never just a dream, is it? And a faceful of glass hurts like hell. When you're in it, it feels real.”
Clearly, he's answering something Ariadne asked in the dreamscape. But Anita quickly chimes in. “That's why the military invented dreamsharing. It was a training program. It allowed soldiers to shoot and stab and strangle each other and then... wake up.” She doesn't mention that the CIA had gotten in on the act, sending their agents in, or that she'd been one of those agents. There's no need to.
Ariadne frowns. “How did architects become involved?” she asks, voice still a bit breathy.
“Well, someone had to design the dream, right?” Cobb explains. He asks Anita to give them another five minutes, and then the two of them have to explain to Ariadne about dream-time dilation. Anita presses the button on the PASIV yet again and watches them fall asleep.
This time Ariadne wakes up gasping for breath, and Anita recognizes the signs of someone who's just experienced their first violent dream death. She walks over quickly, reaching out to steady the younger woman. “Hey, hey, hey, look at me. You're OK.”
Ariadne's hand touches her side, and Anita guesses that's where she was wounded. “Why... Why wouldn't I wake up?” the architect chokes out.
“Because there was still time left on the clock,” Anita explains while she unhooks Ariadne's IV. “And you can't wake up from within a dream unless you die.”
Cobb wakes up and stands, saying as he walks by, “She'll need a totem.”
“A what?” Ariadne snaps.
“A totem,” Anita starts to explain but she's cut off as Ariadne yells after Cobb about his subconscious. From what she says, Anita knows what's happened. Again.
“Ah, I see you've met Mrs. Cobb.”
“She's his wife ?”
“Yeah. So, a totem. You need a small object, potentially heavy, something you can have on you all the time and no one else knows.”
“Like a coin?”
“No, it needs to be more unique than that.” Anita slides her hand into her pocket, pulling out her own totem and holding it up. “Like this is a loaded die.” Ariadne reaches for it and Anita shakes her head. “No, I can't let you touch it. That would defeat the purpose. You see, only I know the balance and weight of this particular loaded die. That way, when you look at your totem, you know without a doubt that you're not in someone else's dream.”
For a second Ariadne is silent, but the look in her eyes suggests that whatever she has to say is not going to be pleasant, and it's not. “I don't know if you can't see what's going on or if you just don't want to, but Cobb has some serious problems that he's tried to bury down there, and I'm not about to just open my mind to someone like that.” She pushes herself up and storms off, her sweater sleeve hitting Anita's shoulder as she goes by.
Anita stands up, watching Ariadne stalk off, and can't help the wry smile that curves her lips. Ariadne has a point, Cobb's certainly got issues. Of course Anita sees it, it's not a matter of being blind to it. It's that Mal was her best friend once, that Philippa and James are her honorary niece and nephew and someone has to make sure their father doesn't go completely off the rails.
Cobb comes back in and seems unaffected by Ariadne's departure. “She'll be back. I've never seen anyone pick it up that quickly before. Reality's not gonna be enough for her now and when she comes back, you're going to have her building mazes.”
I am? What the hell, Cobb? “Where are you going to be?” she asks, giving him a sharp look.
“I've gotta go visit Eames.”
Somehow, she's not surprised. That doesn't mean she agrees. “Eames? No, he's in Mombasa, that's Cobol's backyard.”
“It's a necessary risk.”
“There are plenty of good thieves,” Anita tries again.
“We don't just need a thief. We need a forger.” Cobb leaves without another word, and Anita sits on the edge of the desk with a sigh. Cobb's right of course, they do need a forger for a job this delicate, and Eames is the best. If anyone would know that, it's Anita. But she and Eames, well... They were partners once, when she was CIA and he was MI6, but they were never just partners. They were never really anything more, just...
Complicated. It's the only word that works. And working with him always makes things complicated, makes things difficult. But it's not the first time, and really Anita doesn't mind having him around.
At least she'll have a worthy partner in verbal sparring matches again.
~ ~ ~
Ariadne doesn't really think beyond getting away from the warehouse, from Cobb who is clearly half-insane and Anita who is either blind, in denial, or else sticks around despite everything. Which is even crazier in its way. She has no idea what she's supposed to make of these people, or of this job. The thought of the pure creation in dreams is seductive, yes, but...
It's illegal. And then there's that woman. “Mrs. Cobb,” Arthur had said. “Mal,” Cobb had screamed right before Ariadne found herself with a knife in her stomach and then was waking up in the warehouse. Ariadne did not ever want to be killed in a dream again. At least it wasn't real death, but that really didn't make it less terrifying in the moment. Maybe it gets easier, but she doubts it.
Still, she can't stop thinking about folding Paris. About creating staircases and shattering mirrored glass with a touch to form the bridge she crosses every day to get to classes. It can't be thaty bad or Professor Miles wouldn't have let her go off with Cobb, right?
OK, Ariadne's not stupid. She's seen Cobb before, in that photo on Professor Miles' desk. And the woman too, in the same picture. The two of them, a little blonde girl who couldn't be older than two, and the woman – Mal – holding a baby wrapped in a pale blue blanket. Ariadne thinks that Miles might be prepared to do more to help Cobb than he would anyone else. But she still can't think he'd put her in a situation that's really going to be trouble. He wouldn't. Would he?
It occurs to her that maybe she doesn't know Miles that well either.
Ariadne gets through three days. Three days of normalcy, of going to class, doing homework, hanging around, and sleeping. And dreaming. Ariadne has always dreamed very vividly, always enjoyed her dreams. But now, not only is she very aware that she's dreaming, her dreams are stale. They're washed out like an old shirt, the dye fading from the cloth. And it's horrible.
She ignores it, tries to work on her designs. But they feel so static, these practical, sturdy buildings that won't bend to her will with nothing but a thought. They feel like nothing at all, like child's play. And she throws her sketchbook at the wall, where hours later her pillow joins it, her blankets crumpled at the foot of her bed.
She goes out on the fire escape and lets the cool Parisian wind blow across her face. It's a full moon tonight, the only thing she can see in the sky since the city lights blot out the stars. Looking up, she misses the thousands of stars she used to be able to see, the stars that she knows are there. And she knows. She knows that tomorrow she'll go back to the warehouse, because in dreams maybe she can see the stars again. And even if she can't, she can create. She can be the goddess of the myth, rather than the girl who guides a demi-god and is abandoned by him, only to be wed to a god against her will.
Yes, Ariadne knows where her name comes from. And some part of her has always sought the magic of myths in her life. This is the first time she just might be able to find it.