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In the Garden of the Commendatore

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                                                                                                                                     Part I:

                                                                                                             THE COMMENDATORE:

                                                                                                        "Thou didst thyself invite me,
                                                                                                   For that I must requite thee,
                                                                                              Then answer me, then answer me,
                                                                                         As my guest, when shall I claim thee?”

                                                                                    — Don Giovanni, Mozart.

 

         She has to pass a crowd of protesters to get into the Convention Center.

         Burly security guards and a guardrail stand between them and the protesters, but Ariadne sees her fellow conventioneers eye them nervously as they move up the steps.

         She isn’t afraid of them, but reading their signs— “Fischer Morrow Took My House,” “Give Us Our Jobs Back,” and “Business Without Heart”— makes her uncomfortable. She averts her eyes.

         Though her pulse jumps anxiously as the usher scans her ticket, the boy barely looks at her. He runs the metal detector over her body as if he’d give anything for a more exciting job. She doesn’t blame him.

         “There you go,” he says, signaling her in.

         She hides a smile as she passes him and makes her way toward the entrance table for a program.

         Eames’s forged ticket was a bit of unexpected good luck, and she makes a mental note to thank him when she sees him. Thanks to a certain speaker, tickets were almost impossible to get this year. Ariadne’s supervisor at Wilson & Bailey was sent a special reserved ticket but he had no interest in attending. He was more concerned with the renovations the firm was hired to make to a university in New Hampshire.

         When she asked to go in his stead to the conference, he gave her an amused look and said, “I really don’t think this would be up your alley, sweetie. Do you have my latte?”

         She wanted to snarl back, "I’ve built whole cathedrals the likes of which no one’s ever seen, so get your own damn coffee."

         Of course, she didn’t, she doesn’t, and she won’t. To Harrington, she’s just another intern. She has to remember that even as he continues to confuse her with a personal secretary.

         She takes her program and merges with the crowd.

~*~

        "Why don't you just quit?" Arthur asks her.

         Looking at him, illuminated as he is by cascades of light streaming in through an entire wall made of stain glass mosaics— reds, indigos, turquoises, every color she could think of for the most opulent cathedral in non-existence— takes her breath away.

         What he is really asking is, “Why don’t you stop pretending you can still live in the real world?”

         She doesn’t have a simple answer for him.

         How to explain to someone like Arthur, who seems almost to step from dreams rather than into them, the relevance of life goals once meticulously sketched out in a young girl’s bedroom, of the expectations of parents who never left Ohio themselves but still dreamed large for their daughter? How to articulate a half-realized fear of losing herself and breaking away entirely from reality as Cobb almost did?

         As it is, she already carries her totem with her everywhere she goes, even though it’s been over two years since the Fischer job.

         “Didn’t you ever try to have a normal life?” she asks him.

         Arthur’s face is a mask, but she wasn’t really expecting an answer when she voiced the question. He’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and likely always will be.

         But he surprises her when he says, “Once.”

         For a brief moment, she thinks this is a privileged glimpse behind the curtain, and her heart beats a little faster at the thought.

         But when he doesn’t elaborate, she realizes his omission is just a flicker of obscured movement within a fog-filled mirror. There are invisible years hidden within that one word that Ariadne knows she will never, ever see or know.

         “I think you’ll find that it really only takes once.”

~*~

         Ariadne scans through the conference program with genuine interest, but she also glances up every so often to search the crowd for familiar faces.

         Contrary to what her boss thinks, the twelfth annual Green Architecture Symposium holds many attractions for her. The program lists talks on everything from “Urban Real Estate and Sustainable Housing”— in her mind’s eye, she immediately sees apartment buildings made entirely of tall, twisting trees and jungle vines— to “International Perspectives on Eco-friendly Building Renovations,” which makes her think of dream copies of Notre Dame and the Duomo stretching higher and wider and merging together into a glorious hybrid.

         She experiences a surprised thrill when she sees that one of the presentations being given is entitled, “Cities in the Imagination.” But her elation immediately fades into disappointment when she realizes the talk is about the relationship between architecture and fiction.

         Of course.

         Frustrated, Ariadne throws the program away and wanders aimlessly around the conference to kill time before the real attraction of the conference starts. She checks her watch.

         Just over an hour till show time.

         As she wanders, Ariadne more than half-expects Eames to jump out at her from some hiding place, especially after that strangely obscure note he sent, urging her to attend today. He must be here somewhere. Why else send the ticket?

         Her curiosity makes her antsy, though she suspects his interest lies somewhere near to her own, in a certain investment that they both share.

         She suffers through about half a presentation on community gardens and co-ops before finally giving up and heading over toward where she was always going to end up.

         The Pine Room was obviously designed for large conferences. Even so, it’s a packed house today.

         Despite arriving early, Ariadne still has to stand at the back with everyone else who arrived too late to get a seat. At least half the audience seems to be wielding the mighty pen of journalism over crisp white legal pads.

         She isn’t really surprised. Everything Robert Fischer does these days is fodder for analysts, journalists, business competitors, scientists, environmentalists, tabloids, curious onlookers— and Ariadne apparently.

         A lot of people think Fischer, Jr. has gone insane, that he either lost his mind after his father died or else that he’s always been insane and his father somehow managed to keep a lid on it while he was alive.

         Why else would the heir to a Fortune 500 company suddenly throw his inheritance to the wind just when the keys to the kingdom were finally in the palm?

         What kind of person cuts his ties with the multibillion-dollar oil industry and throws his lot in with the same hippie environmentalists behind so many other failed revolutions, turning gods of industry into enemies overnight?

         A visionary, she thinks.

~*~

         After only a few months of living in the city, there’s a night when Ariadne has a little too much wine and does something foolish.

         Though no stranger to crappy apartments, she really hates her latest crappy little apartment. A cockroach fell out of a cereal box into her bowl that morning and proceeded to splash around in the milk as she gagged in horror. The air conditioning’s broken again, and the city is in the middle of a blistering heat wave which just won’t end even after the sun leaves the sky.

         She has enough money spread out through three separate bank accounts that she could buy a skyscraper to live in if she so chose, but at the time, she thought herself clever for choosing the kind of living space one would expect a girl fresh out of grad school and new to the Big Apple to be able to afford.

         Now, she thinks that was the stupidest idea she ever had.

         On this particular night, she’s had one too many wine coolers, battled one too many cockroaches, and read one too many unenlightened articles decrying Fischer as a born-again hippie lunatic. She takes to her laptop with the vengeance of a drunken… Ariadne.

         The article she writes in defense of Fischer’s new business model is both idealistic to the point of being saccharine as well as poorly researched…

         … and somehow ends up being printed in the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal.

         She’s too embarrassed to tell anyone about the article and even goes so far as to buy up all the copies from the kiosk nearest her work to prevent her coworkers from reading it. She unloads them into the nearest dumpster.

         But, somehow, a copy of the magazine issue ends up being mailed to her parents back in Ohio.

         “I didn’t realize you even followed this business stuff,” her mother says over the phone. She sounds bewildered.

         A week later, she finds another copy stuffed into her mailbox. There’s a post-it note stuck to the cover that reads, “Keeping Tabs?”

         There’s a small sketch of dice at the bottom.

         Arthur.

         She wonders if Arthur realizes he's just revealed that he’s been keeping tabs on her.

~*~

         As Fischer takes the stage, a low hum of excitement passes through the audience.

         There is a reason why this year’s conference has sold out faster than any previous year.

         Rumors have been circulating throughout the business world, but this is the first time Fischer has publicly revealed the details of his magnum opus, the project that is going to put him on the map and officially separate his legacy from his father’s.

         It’s a skyscraper. An eco-friendly skyscraper.

         “Upon completion,” he tells them, “Fischer Tower will be the new division headquarters for Fischer Morrow as well as the world’s most advanced environmental architectural project to date.”

         It’s been two years since Ariadne has seen Robert Fischer in person, and this is the first time she has seen him in his element. There is a confident set to his shoulders, and his voice, steady and commanding, easily carries to where she’s standing in the back.

         Seeing him like this loosens a knot she didn’t even realize was sitting in her gut.

         Lifting his chin proudly, Fischer says, “The CIS Tower in Manchester has over seven thousand solar panels on its façade and twenty-four wind turbines on the roof that produce ten percent of the building’s total energy needs. Fischer Tower will do better.”

         He pushes a button, and an image of at least thirty enormous wind turbines settled along a digital roof flashes before them.

         Ariadne’s pulse kicks up in anticipation as Fischer’s voice gains momentum. Three-dimensional images as well as charts and graphs rotate over Fischer’s head as he directs his laser pointer over them. The aesthetic design for the tower strikes her as rather pedestrian, but the appeal of the project is really in the details.

         “The Waugh Thistleton Residential Tower in London,” he tells them, “uses helical wind turbine technology that contributes 40,000 kW hrs a year toward the building’s total energy needs. Fischer Tower will do better. Your very own Hearst Tower here in New York City is made from eighty percent recycled steel, which was commendable for its time. But I’m here to tell you that Fischer Tower can and will do better, and while also being more beautiful to look at than even the Burj al-Taqa energy tower in Dubai.”

         Ariadne takes hope from this that what she’s looking at isn’t the final design. Because there is no way this boring, however advanced, tower is going to match the beauty of the upward spiraling pink and green glass of the Burj al-Taqa Tower, so tall it seems to reach for heaven like a modern day Tower of Babel.

         “She’ll have no equal,” Fischer says, and she hears the pride in his voice.

         Despite her reservations, Ariadne has to agree. Though there are already environmentally friendly skyscrapers in the world— several in fact and all impressive in their own right— nothing on this scale has ever been done before.

         Fischer’s enthusiasm might seem overly theatrical and tragically hubristic to some, but Ariadne knows this project is his baby. He’s put everything into this, gambled his reputation, his legacy, his fortune.

         Enthralled as she is by all this, Ariadne’s concentration momentarily slips when she feels the kind of tingling sensation that comes from someone watching her. Glancing around, she expects to finally locate Eames.

         However, it’s Arthur’s gaze that she meets.

         Standing against the opposite wall, he’s too far away for her to make her way over to him or vice versa without disrupting the presentation. Ariadne settles for a little wave, and he nods back.

         “Ladies and gentlemen,” Fischer says, “Fischer Tower has the potential to lead the world in eco-friendly building. The project will be the biggest architectural challenge anyone’s ever taken on, and it will be the greatest achievement in sustainable building anyone’s ever accomplished.”

         He’s greeted with stunned silence that slowly gives way to polite applause, but it can barely be heard over the rising murmurs of the crowd. They came for a scandal, and he didn’t let them down.

         The second Fischer descends from the stage he’s enveloped by a swarm of greedy reporters. It’s like watching a piece of meat being dipped into a piranha tank.

         Ariadne can barely breathe through her excitement, and she claps louder than anyone else. The possibilities for a project on this level are endless. What he could accomplish…

         More importantly, this proves that they did the right thing when they planted the idea for Fischer to break up his inheritance. This is good. More than good.

         Her enthusiasm earns her more than a few surprised glances.

         “Biting off more than he can chew all right,” mutters the man beside her whose elbow has been poking into her ribs for the past half-hour.

         “I always thought he was a little off, but I had no idea,” his associate replies. “This will finish off what’s left of Fischer Morrow for good.”

         “Maurice Fischer must be turning in his grave.”

         You’re unimaginative fools, she thinks.

         Arthur sends her a knowing smile from across the room.

~*~

Non ti fidar, o misera (Don't trust him, oh, sad one)…

~*~

         “What are you doing here?”

         Arthur shrugs. “Working.”

         “Oh.” The old ache barely stirs after all this time. Arthur is his job and he likely always will be. Undeterred by what could either be concision or evasion, she asks, “On what?”

         She thinks he nearly smiles, but it’s impossible to tell for sure. “Would you like to see?”

         They take a cab over to the hotel.

         Arthur pays the driver the full fare before she can even reach for her purse, and she rolls her eyes. He catches her doing it, of course, and smirks.

         When they reach the lobby, he makes her wait by the door while he goes to talk to someone on the staff. She shifts anxiously on her feet, unable to suppress the near-electric thrill from being so close to the action again.

         Arthur comes striding back to her side and says, “We have to wait. Have a drink with me?”

         Waiting isn’t really what she had in mind, but Ariadne follows him to the hotel bar, where Arthur orders her an apple martini without having to ask what she’d like. The bartender looks at her over her I.D. with obvious suspicion.

         Annoyed, Ariadne drops her gaze so she won’t have to see Arthur’s amusement.

         “Are you working with Eames?” she asks, beginning to put two and two together.

         Arthur eyes her, and she instinctively knows what he’s thinking. Don’t ask questions if you aren’t willing to join the game. Same old, same old from Arthur.

         She feels the irrational urge to stamp her feet like the child the bartender obviously thinks she is. They’ve worked together before. They were a team, a damn good one by the way, and he still doesn’t trust her?

         “Arthur…”

         “It depends,” he says, which is really no answer at all.

         She wants to ask all the routine questions just so he can dodge them, as in where have you been, what have you been doing, why do you stay away for so long when you’re the only one I can show my dreamscapes to— okay, maybe she would never ask that last one because it would just prove Arthur’s point.

         But it turns out that she doesn’t get to ask any of her questions, because Arthur suddenly stands with a swiftness that makes her blink up at him in surprise. “What are you…?”

         “Stay here,” he hisses.

         Bemused, she watches Arthur dart across the room to a table against the opposite wall. What is he doing?

         Just as she is thinking he has officially lost his mind, Arthur’s reasoning comes walking into the bar.

         She has barely turned in her seat before she stops cold.

         Fischer.

         He claims a stool on the opposite side of the bar from where she’s sitting and orders a drink. He doesn’t even glance at her.

         It’s so strange to see him again in person— and at such proximity— that it takes her brain a moment to catch up with the situation. But catch up she does.

         Ariadne straightens as the dots start to connect. The dots are these: Fischer must be staying at this hotel. It can’t be a coincidence. Arthur must have known that when he asked her over here. For some reason, Arthur doesn’t want Fischer to see them together. All of which must mean…

         Fischer’s the job. Again.

         Ariadne sends a disapproving glare over her shoulder, but Arthur’s pretending to read a newspaper and not looking in her direction.

         She takes another tentative glance at Fischer and feels her heart sink. He seemed so confident during his presentation, but now Ariadne can see that his hand is shaking just slightly as he lifts his drink to his mouth. He looks exhausted.

         Suddenly angry, Ariadne pushes away from the bar and stalks off toward the ladies’ room. She doesn’t bother going inside and instead waits in the narrow hallway for Arthur to follow her. He doesn’t disappoint.

         “You can’t do this,” she says before he can even ask. “You can’t.”

         “Do what?”

         “Did some business rival of his hire you to sabotage the Fischer Tower project? Because you can’t do that. This project is important.”

         Arthur gives her a strange look. “I never knew you were such an environmentalist.”

         “I’m not. That’s not the point. It’s just—”

         “All the possibilities?” he finishes for her. She feels herself melt a little at his knowing smile.

         “Look, I know you have some… strong feelings about this,” he says, smirking at her. “I read your article, remember?”

         She glares at him.

         “But you don’t have to worry about that. We’re not trying to sabotage our own work. This is something different.”

         Ariadne wants to believe him. “Isn’t there some kind of— I don’t know— ethical conflict in working the same mark twice?”

         “You do realize our work doesn’t exactly come with a training manual, right? We don’t have an ethics committee.”

         Maybe they should.

         “Then what’s the job?” Despite her initial indignation, she can’t keep all of the eagerness out of her voice, and Arthur picks up on it easily.

         “Well, it’s not exactly ethical,” he teases.

         “Arthur,” she says warningly.

         “This isn’t the job. It’s just a test.”

         “Can I count on never getting a straight answer out of you?”

         “Just watch.”

~*~

         When Ariadne returns, she sees that a young blonde woman has joined Fischer at the bar.

         Ariadne is close, but not close enough to hear what they are saying or to appear conspicuous.

         With a sigh full of self-disgust, she settles into her role as voyeur, just as Arthur meant for her to do.

         The woman is leaning so far into his personal space that she can only be flirting with him, but Fischer’s eyes are on the television that hangs over the bar. Images of the talking heads, already bantering amongst themselves about his skyscraper, are interspaced with shots of the protesters outside the Convention Center.

         There is already an empty glass in front of him, but Fischer signals the bartender again.

         “The apple has fallen so far from the tree you can’t even see it anymore,” says a television commentator. “Maurice Fischer spent his life building a company the likes of which the corporate world had never seen before. He was a titan. Two years at the helm, and Robert Fischer has already managed to squander everything his father built.”

         Ouch. He looks resigned as he downs his new drink in one smooth gulp. The move is so cliché she would laugh if she didn’t feel so bad for him.

         “Not everyone feels the success of Fischer Morrow was something to be admired and preserved,” says the host in segue to his next guest.

         A woman wearing a “Save the Earth” t-shirt shakes her head sadly. “After everything Fischer Morrow has done to the planet, one eco-friendly tower is hardly enough to make amends.”

         “What about Fischer’s claim that the new direction for his company will be devoted to exploring alternative energy options?”

         “The world doesn’t need another skyscraper cluttering up the sky. And who’s to say we even believe Robert Fischer intends to limit his company to alternative energy? Fischer Morrow still has several side companies exploiting small villages in the—”

         The bartender tactfully changes the channel, but Fischer immediately snaps, “I was watching that.”

         Shrugging, the bartender turns the channel back.

         Sensing his disinterest, the blonde becomes more aggressive and touches his knee. Apparently too bold a move for Fischer at the moment because he moves away from her.

         Whatever he says makes the blonde’s face fall. Their eyes meet briefly over Fischer’s shoulder, but Ariadne quickly drops her gaze.

         Defeated, the woman slides off the stool and leaves him at the bar. She shrugs helplessly at Arthur as she passes him.

         Oh, Ariadne thinks. She’s part of it.

         Fischer’s eyes never leave the television screen.

         Eames couldn’t have found a prettier con if he played her himself, but Ariadne suspects that even the most beautiful woman in the world would have had trouble keeping Fischer’s attention on her tonight. She hopes for Arthur’s sake that there is a back-up plan.

         “It’s not that the project isn’t admirable.”

         Ariadne looks up in surprise at the sound of her boss’s voice coming from the television.

         “It’s just that Fischer’s vision exceeds his reach.”

         Ariadne snorts. He didn’t even bother coming to see the presentation, but he’s being interviewed about it? She feels a fresh wave of resentment for the man who still sometimes forgets her name after a year. Her name. “Annie, could you hand me the…”

         “Moron.”

         She realizes belatedly that she might have accidentally said that aloud when she notices Fischer staring at her.

         Whoops.

         “Sorry,” she says sheepishly.

         “Don’t be,” he says wearily. “It’s the best thing I’ve heard all day.”

         Moved, she hesitates and then says, “The man’s a talentless hack with no vision of his own. You shouldn’t let him get to you.”

         Fischer takes a closer look at her, and Ariadne shifts uncomfortably under his measuring gaze. He clearly doesn’t remember her, but there’s no sense pushing her luck.

         She glances guiltily over her shoulder at Arthur, but he’s still pretending as if he doesn’t notice them.

         “Who is he?” Fischer asks and Ariadne nearly jumps. But he’s gesturing to the television with his empty glass and not at Arthur.

         “Oh. Um. Arnold Harrington. He’s the head architect at Wilson & Bailey.”

         “And a ‘talentless hack’?”

         She laughs despite herself. Talking to him like this when he has no idea who she is or what they’ve been through together feels surreal and gives her a strange, heady feeling. “That’s right.”

         “You know this because…?”

         Ariadne can only imagine what someone like him sees when he looks at someone like her, but she recognizes this as a flaw in his layout and doesn’t hold his arrogant tone against him. This time. “He’s my boss.”

         Fischer blinks. “Then you would know, I suppose. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one with that opinion.”

         He stares morosely into his empty glass as if it holds all the secrets of the universe, and she wishes she could tell him that he’s scaled mountains, dodged armed projections, and infiltrated a heavily guarded fortress. It might cheer him up.

         “Visionaries make people nervous,” she reasons.

         The incredulous look he gives her makes Ariadne blush. Sentimental idealism, she reminds herself, leads to foolish articles written at three in the morning that end up in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal. And she probably sounds like an idiot.

         Arthur suddenly fakes a cough.

         Ariadne can take a hint, but she feels strangely reluctant to leave just yet. Interacting with Fischer was never part of the plan, but Arthur was right about one thing. She does feel a certain investment in his success, and this will probably be the one and only conversation they ever have in the real world. The only one he’s likely to remember.

         And while she has him here…

         “Which architectural firm are you working with, if you don’t mind my asking?”

         Fischer’s face immediately clouds over, and she can almost see the iron wall come down. “I’m not interested in switching firms,” he says coldly.

         He turns back to the television, obviously dismissing her.

         “That’s not what I was asking. I’m not making a business pitch.”

         Fischer just grunts.

         Ariadne waves the bartender back over and asks him, “Do you have a pen?”

         He gives her a funny look, but he still hands her a pen from his pocket. She grabs her napkin and starts sketching rapidly. “Have you ever seen the Bahrain World Trade Center Towers?”

         Though obviously annoyed with her now, Fischer mutters, “Should I have?”

         She decides to take further liberties and slides down a few stools so that she’s sitting next to him. Ignoring his startled look, she pushes her napkin sketch toward him. “You see how the two towers are connected by the huge wind turbines?”

         He goes long enough without responding that she thinks he’s decided to ignore her. But either due to something resembling politeness or the desire to get rid of her faster, he says, “I guess…”

         “And see how the buildings are sail-shaped? Well, the sail-shapes are designed to funnel wind between them into the turbines.”

         “Look—”

         “The wind turbines and their angles make it possible for the towers to generate up to fifteen percent of their total power consumption.” She can hear herself slipping into an unconscious imitation of her professors from school, but she can’t seem to help herself.

         “You’re not here to make a pitch, huh?” But he frowns and looks closer at her sketch. “Fifteen percent?”

         Ariadne smirks. “Yup. I don’t have to tell you how much money that saves them.”

         He gives her another appraising look. “What firm did you say you work for?”

         “It doesn’t matter because I’m not here to make a pitch.” She smiles to lessen the impact of her snark. “I just really liked the ideas you presented at the conference. Except the façade design was kind of boring, that’s all. You said you wanted Fischer Tower to be the ‘most advanced architectural accomplishment to date,’ and I thought you could do better.”

         “You were at the conference?”

         “Yeah, I was.”

         Her critique delivered, she stands. Arthur’s probably chomping at the bit to give her an earful for breaking anonymity. But she doesn’t really see the harm.

         “Well, good luck, Mr. Fischer.”

         “Uh, thanks.” He seems kind of dazed by her obnoxious enthusiasm, but he still holds out his hand. “What did you say your name was?”

         “I didn’t,” she says, glancing again at Arthur. She hesitates and then gives him her hand. “Ariadne.”

         “That’s… a unique name.”

         She doesn’t think he’s trying to be rude this time, so she lets that pass, too.

         “You’re an architect?”

         She smiles.

~*~

         “Did you have fun?” Arthur asks her.

         “I’m sorry your play didn’t work,” she says, though her attention is already elsewhere.

         As they stroll down the block, Saito’s face seems to stare out at them from the front pages of newspapers cluttering up the various newsstands they pass. They’re already saying that Saito’s company is on the move to fill the power vacuum left by Fischer Morrow.

         Ariadne turns away with a shudder.

         “That’s all right,” Arthur says easily. “I’m sure we’ll figure something else out.”

~*~

         Ariadne is just putting the finishing touches on a visualization of a grand spiral staircase meant to replace an outdated elevator system at the university when her supervisor appears in front of her with a bemused expression on his face.

         “Cynthia just got off the phone with someone from Fischer Morrow.”

         Her fingers slip on the keyboard and bring up an error message over the three-dimensional model she’s been working on all morning.

         “Um, Fischer?” she stammers. “And Morrow? What did he— um— they want?”

         “Robert Fischer wanted to make an appointment.”

         “That’s…” Unexpected. “…neat?” She doesn’t know how she’s meant to respond, but Harrington was obviously expecting a bigger reaction. “When are you going to meet with him?”

         “I’m not,” he says flatly.

         Even more unexpected. “Why not?”

         “Because he doesn’t want to meet with me.”

         “But you said…”

         “He wants to meet with you.”

         Uh-oh.

~*~

         Harrington gets as far as a handshake before Fischer says, “Would you mind giving us a minute?”

         The look Harrington gives her as he leaves the room tells Ariadne her job is considerably less secure than it was yesterday.

         “I think you just cost me my internship, Mr. Fischer,” she says amiably once they’re alone.

         “It’s probably just as well,” he says, handing her a folder.

         Ariadne looks from his face to the folder and only takes it after he raises an eyebrow at her obvious hesitation. She doesn’t think he would go to all this trouble just to confront her, even if he knew what she’d done to him, but who knows?

         Upon opening the folder, she finds herself looking at an article from the… Wall Street Journal. Oh. Ariadne feels her face grow hot.

         She looks up reluctantly. “You read this?”

         Fischer wanders over to Harrington’s office window. “A copy was sent anonymously to my office,” he says, watching the street below.

         Arthur. It had to be because who else?

         Why the hell would he do that?

         “You didn’t send it?”

         “No,” she says, offended. “Why would I do that?”

         The folder holds more than just her article, but when she turns the pages, curiosity gives way to surprise and then furious indignation.

         He has everything here. Copies of her birth certificate and driver’s license, her grades from grad school and before, copies of all her recommendations and references, current and former addresses, recent photographs of her coming and leaving work— it just goes on.

         The feeling of invasion is so overwhelming that Ariadne needs to sit down. She has to reign in her fear and rage before she can get the words past her throat to speak. “You had me investigated?”

         He glances at her over his shoulder. “Everyone who works for me has a thorough background check done. It’s nothing personal.”

         “It’s completely personal,” she snaps. “I’m not your employee. You had no right to do this.”

         Getting a hold of herself, she quickly scans through the file in search of anything connecting her to the inception job. He has everything else, but apparently not that.

         Fischer finally leaves the window and turns his attention fully to her. “I’m sorry,” he says even though his tone says otherwise, “but I’ve already had two competing corporations send girls to me. Very convincing girls.”

         The implications of this settle in slowly, and Ariadne can’t hide her wince. Arthur and Eames sent a girl to him, too, though she doubts he knows about that.

         “I have to take certain precautions.” He sounds so matter of fact about it, as if she were the one being unreasonable for taking offense.

         Shaking her head, Ariadne pushes the folder across the table to him. “Well, Mr. Fischer, we’ve been in here all of a minute and you’ve already invaded my privacy, possibly violated my civil rights, I think accused me of being a prostitute, and maybe cost me my prestigious internship.”

         She holds up her hands. “Why? To offer me a job? After all this, it better be good.”

         “Well, it was good. But then I found out you’re still an intern.”

         He gives her a pointed look, but Ariadne refuses to blush. “I never said I wasn’t.”

         “Still, it changes things. You aren’t certified yet.”

         Losing patience, she says, “No, I’m not. Sorry you wasted your resources in putting this folder here together. But that doesn’t explain what you’re doing here then.”

         Fischer sets his briefcase down on the table and pops the hinges. He puts Ariadne’s dossier away. “I looked into this firm, too, and you were right. Your boss has little to recommend him.” He looks her square in the eye. “I think you could do better.”

         Her breath catches. “How?”

         “You still have almost a year left on your internship here. I think you should finish it at Fischer Morrow. Wilson & Bailey pays you in scraps. You’ll like the salary package with us.”

         Because there actually is a salary package? Starting to feel dizzy, she says, “Now who’s making a pitch?”

         He smiles wryly. “Touché. But you have to admit… it’s tempting.”

         Now that he’s essentially given her no choice?

         She sighs and absently fingers the totem in her pocket. “You have no idea how hard I had to work to get this internship. I beat out hundreds of other applicants.” To eat Harrington’s shit, she mentally adds. “Now, my supervisor thinks I went over his head to steal a big account.”

         “He barely trusts you with fetching his coffee,” he says a little too smugly. “If you join up with us, you’ll only be an intern in name. I’m told…” He draws out the word as if tasting it. “… it’s a dream job.”

         Dream job, huh? Ariadne finally gives in and pulls out her totem. Placing it on the table, she knocks it over to see how it falls. Huh. Reality then.

         “What’s that?”

         She puts it away without answering. “Mr. Fischer, interns usually have to crawl on their knees through glass to get the kind of job I already have, and none have the type you’re describing.”

         “And I’ll bet they all would have said yes by now.”

         Ignoring him, she continues, “So, I have to ask: why? Why me?”

         Fischer sighs and rubs his forehead. He looks tired all of a sudden. “All those things you wrote… did you mean them?”

         Ariadne stares at him. She had been drunk and frustrated and maybe more than a little bit guilt-ridden when she wrote that article. It never should have seen the light of day. But… “Yes. I did.”

         “Well, I need people behind this project who actually believe in it,” he says quietly. “Unfortunately, those are still in short supply. Also, I’ve seen samples of the work you did at school. You think outside the box. You were also right about the façade design. It could be better. What you said in the bar… and what you wrote in the article tell me you already have some ideas. Do you?”

         She looks away and after a long pause, she says, “Yeah.”

         “Thought so.” He places one of his business cards on the table and slides it toward her. “Think about my offer, Ariadne.”

         He sounds as if he already knows what she’ll decide. Picking up his briefcase, he walks to the door.

         “Mr. Fischer?”

         He pauses. “Yes?”

         “Next time? Just ask.”

~*~

Fin ch'han dal vino (Finally, with the wine)…

~*~

          She gets a phone call later that night from Eames.

          “Fancy a drink?”

          She meets him at some dive bar in the village. He hasn’t even bothered to dress down, his dress shirt a flamboyant yellow under a cream blazer.

          “Seen Arthur lately?” he asks, lighting himself a cigar. She wrinkles her nose at the strong smell of tobacco he exudes from his mouth.

          “You know I have,” she says. “He said he was working with you.”

          “Rather presumptuous of him.” He pushes a bottle of wine toward her. “Try this. I’ve been told charming little architects absolutely die for it.”

          “Eames…”

          “Come now. I’ve traveled a long way to get here. Oblige me.”

          Sighing, Ariadne takes the bottle from him and pours herself a glass. In a way, she’s grateful, because the organized movements give her more time before she has to ask the inevitable question. She takes a sip.

          Eames’s enigmatic smile looks almost sinister through the cloud of cigar smoke. “Well?”

          “It’s fine. I guess. Look, I know Fischer’s your mark.”

          “Arthur tell you that?”

          “He didn’t have to because I’m not an idiot,” she says, starting to feel angry again.

          “How’s Fischer doing?”

          Ariadne doesn’t justify that with a response. Eames knows better than she does how Fischer is doing. She steels herself and then asks, “Did you plant the idea in his head to offer me a job?”

          The sound startles her when Eames suddenly throws back his head and laughs. “Oh, dear, don’t look like that. It’s not what you’re thinking.”

          “So, it’s a coincidence that someone anonymously sent him a copy of my article and then he just shows up to offer me a job?”

          “Very good,” he says fondly. “You know about the article. Anything else?”

          Sensing the hint, Ariadne thinks it through again. Eames sent her the ticket, Arthur took her to Fischer’s hotel, but then the con failed because— oh. Oh, damn it.

          “The pretty con in the hotel bar.” Ariadne ducks her head and groans into her hands. “She wasn’t there for Fischer. She was there for me, right?”

          Eames claps lightly.

          “Arthur put me in his way at the hotel bar.” She shakes her head in disbelief. “You bastards. You complete bastards. I’m the mark.”

          “No, no,” he says, smiling. “Fischer is still the mark. You were just… fun.”

          Ariadne feels considerably less amused. “How did you even know I would talk to him?”

          Eames gives her an ‘oh come now’ look. “We didn’t of course. But we do know you, darling girl, and after I read your adorable treatise in his defense—”

          “Shut up,” she says, putting a finger in his face. “One more word about that and I’m dumping this whole bottle down your adorable blouse.”

          “It’s not a blouse,” he says, pouting.

          “Whatever. I presume there was actually a point to all of this. You have a reason for putting me together with Fischer, right?”

          “Maybe,” he says playfully.

          “I’m all ears.”

          “Well, it just so happens that you’ve been offered a job at Fischer’s new company, and we’re in need of a plant in that same company as well as an architect. How fortuitous for all!”

          Ariadne forgoes her glass and just chugs straight from the bottle. They’re going to need something much stronger than this if she is going to make it through this conversation.

          Slamming the bottle back down on the table, she says, “No.”

          “Ariadne…”

          “Eames, I’ve already told you and Arthur both no. I’m out of the game.”

          Just like Cobb, she thinks. She can build something real that lasts if she just tries, but she can’t do that if she is lost to dreaming.

          “And that’s working out for you, is it?” he asks, growing serious. “Everything just as you hoped?”

          She glares at him.

          “Not feeling the pull of the dreamscape? The rush of absolute power? Absolute creation?”

          Her eyes fall shut. “Stop it.”

          “Arthur mentioned your… eagerness to play with the PASIV last time he dropped in. Something about a cathedral? Is the real world still enough, Ariadne?” He pauses. “The real world job… still fulfilling?”

          She swallows. “Maybe I don’t think he deserves for it to happen to him twice.”

          He cocks his head and actually sounds curious when he asks, “Do you feel guilty for what we did then?”

          Yes. No. Sometimes? “I don’t know, Eames,” she says, frustrated, “but don’t you think I should?”

          “You’re asking the wrong person, but I think you know that. Can you honestly tell me you don’t feel a little pride at being part of the first and only successful inception job ever? On your first try?”

          God, there are days when it almost kills her not to shake everyone around her and tell them what she accomplished while they were all living their boring little lives. But you don’t get to brag about partaking in corporate espionage.

          “I can’t work for Fischer,” she says miserably.

          “Why not?”

          “Because it’s not real! You’re asking me to give up a real job for a pretend job that could get me arrested.”

          “You forget that I’ve seen you in the field. You never had a problem with the danger aspect. If you had, then you never would have come into Fischer’s mind in the first place. As I see it, this is win-win for you. You get to build a skyscraper in the real world and whatever else you want in the dreams. At the same time. How can you pass that up?”

          He’s right. Even now, she can feel the exhilarated buzz of so many possibilities at her fingertips. To be able to build dreams again... And to be part of the Fischer Tower project, which definitely counts as something real…

          Was this always a losing battle?

          She takes a deep breath. “What would I have to do?”

~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

Notte e giorno faticar (I work night and day)…

~*~

         Ariadne manages to go a full week at Fischer Morrow before anyone finds out she’s an intern. True to his word, Fischer has given her enough responsibility that no one would have known unless they asked.

         Her new job is harder than she ever could have imagined. She works her ass off all day and rarely gets to leave on time. It’s a high-pressure work environment, even more so than at Wilson & Bailey, and everything needs be done right the first time.

         Her first day and she already sees a secretary get reduced to tears and fired.

         After the door closes on the sobbing woman, an executive Ariadne loosely associates with the name Jerry groans and pulls a twenty out of his wallet. He gives it to another man, who chuckles and then winks at Ariadne in a way that suggests another bet in the making.

         Her new supervisor, Harriet Sterling, a sharp-dressed shark of a woman, clearly resents her presence and even more so after discovering she’s an intern a week into the job.

         Ariadne suspects Harriet thinks she did something untoward to get a job she is vastly unqualified for, and she’s not entirely wrong.

         But if Harriet has ever taken her concerns directly to Fischer, he must have shot her down because Ariadne still has a job the second week.

         She sees Fischer frequently throughout the day, but he’s usually speaking urgently into his cell phone as he passes through on the way to his office. Sometimes, he nods at her. Sometimes, he doesn’t.

         Ariadne has to take the subway over an hour each way between her apartment and Fischer Morrow’s temporary home, an office building in the business district.

         The money is good for an intern in that there actually is a salary, but it’s still not much to speak of. If she were cautious before, then she doesn’t dare rent a space any more luxurious than her current hole in the wall now that she’s directly under Fischer's thumb.

         She’s never been so exhausted.

         And she loves it all.

~*~

         “I want to show you something.”

         These words lead to Ariadne sitting across from Fischer in his town car as they drive across town to some mystery location. He spends most of the car ride on his cell phone while she does her best not to appear as nervous as she feels.

         The luxury seats feel strange under her. She hasn’t driven a car, let alone owned one, since she still lived with her parents, and they never had one like this.

         There’s some kind of operatic music playing softly over the speakers. She runs the back of her fingers over the tinted, bullet-proof windows until it occurs to her that he might take issue with her leaving fingerprints. She lowers her hand with a guilty glance at Fischer.

         Catching her eye, he smiles and snaps his phone shut. “How are you getting along with Harriet?”

         “Fine,” she lies. “She knows what she’s talking about.”

         “She’s the best at what she does. You couldn’t ask for a better mentor.”

         Ariadne hums her agreement even as she receives a sudden mental image of Cobb. She hasn’t heard from him since the original inception job, though she wonders about him often. Arthur has never said if he hears from him.

         “What are we listening to?” she asks, pointing at the stereo.

         “Mozart. Don Giovanni.”

         “That’s an opera?”

         Fischer tries to cover his smirk behind his hand, but she still sees and resents it. “Yes, it’s an opera.”

         “I’m not much of an opera fan,” she says wryly. “I went once, but I fell asleep halfway through.”

         “Must not have been much of an opera.”

         “Guess not,” she says with a shrug. “This one any good?”

         “Don Giovanni is said to be the finest opera ever composed,” he says primly. “Musical perfection, a ‘work without blemish,’ etcetera.” She can’t tell if he’s joking or not.

         “Wow,” she teases. “Musical perfection, huh? I guess that means it’s good. What’s it about?”

         “A lothario,” he says, wagging his eyebrows in a way that makes her smile, “who refuses to repent and ultimately gets punished for it.” He pauses. “But some people think it was really about Mozart’s father.”

         “Oh, yeah?” she says, watching him closely as his eyes seem to slide past her to somewhere else. Instinctively understanding where he’s gone, she lets Fischer go and they finish out the rest of the ride in silence.

         Stepping from the car, she finds herself looking at a row of dilapidated high-rises and a dead field set between two of them, a blank space that could have once been a building itself.

         “Can I ask now what we’re doing here?”

         He crooks a finger at her, and she follows him into the field. Dry twigs scratch at her legs, and she has to step over cans and broken bottles in order to keep up.

         “What do you think?” he asks, spreading his arms out. “Can you see your design here?”

         He can’t be serious. Ariadne glances around the field again as if it will magically transform into something other than what it is. “Here?”

         “The buildings were condemned ages ago, and we’re going to level all this. There’s nothing here now, but picture this place when the tower’s finished. Picture all the people coming and going. Other businesses will follow. This whole area will develop and create jobs.”

         Jobs. Is he thinking of the protesters at the conference?

         “Come on, Ariadne,” he urges at her skeptical look. “Use your imagination. Can’t you see it?”

         The eagerness in his eyes and the conviction in his voice spark something in her, and she does start to see. The high-rises stretch and bend, transforming into mirrored glass and recycled steel. The breeze turns into power generated by the wind turbines. She sees restaurants and bookstores and people buying bagels and hotdogs from vendors. She sees the future.

         “It’ll be a challenge,” she says, beginning to grin.

         FIscher’s answering grin grows wider. “Yes, it will.”

         Something electric passes between them then, and she feels the hairs on her arms rise. The exchange burns, alive and hungry, as the pulse recognizes a twin.

         Ambition.

~*~

         Arthur shows up on a Tuesday.

         Ariadne is walking from the subway to work when he falls into step beside her. “Go into the coffee shop on your right up here,” he murmurs without actually looking at her.

         She sidesteps into the café and gets in line with the other customers. When Arthur comes up behind her, she feels the brush of his coat against her back. She orders a bagel and latte, while he gets straight black coffee, and then he follows her to a small table in the back.

         For several seconds, they only stare at each other.

         “I didn’t think you liked coffee,” he says finally. “I never saw you drink it at the warehouse.”

         She didn’t need it before. “You set me up,” she says to him without preamble.

         Arthur leans back in his chair and takes a careful sip of his coffee. She wishes he would at least pretend to be surprised at her accusation. “I prefer to think of it as having done you a favor.”

         “Dangling me like bait in front of Fischer was a favor?”

         Arthur at least has the decency to look contrite. “It wasn’t like that.”

         “That’s how it seemed to me.”

         “Ariadne, that job wasn’t you. I’ve been there, okay? After what you’ve done in dreams… There’s nothing quite like it, remember?”

         She drops her gaze to the swirling patterns her straw leaves in the latte. “You’re just like Eames. And Cobb. Using the promises of dreams to manipulate me into doing what you want me to do.”

         “That isn’t fair.”

         “No, but it’s true.”

         “I do think I did you a favor. Because,” he says quickly before she can interrupt him, “you get the best of both worlds without having to choose. For now, at least. You could have said no.”

         He’s right, of course. She could have said no. But it would have taken a better person than her, and she thinks Arthur knows as much.

         She watches the people walking by the café, so brisk and sure in their destinations, and wonders how comfortable they each are in their lives, what they would do if they were her. But it’s pointless speculation because they aren’t her.

         Arthur doesn’t watch the crowd. The people might as well be projections for all the attention he pays them. He’s watching her, though, no doubt waiting for her to come around to the inevitable.

         “Well, I’m at the company,” she says quietly. “You got what you wanted. So, now what?”

         “Are you ready for the next part?”

         “Yeah.”

~*~

Entrar io vidi, in un mantello avvolto, un uom che al primo istante avea preso per voi. Ma riconobbi poi che un inganno era il mio

(I saw a man enter, wrapped in a cloak. At first I mistook him for you, but then I realized that I was mistaken)…

~*~

         “What’s the job?”

         “There’s a plant.”

         “I thought I was the plant.”

         Arthur’s eyes are laughing at her. “There’s another plant.”

~*~

         “Fischer’s mother died when he was a boy, yes?”

         Eames’s question causes Ariadne and Arthur to look up from the maze they’re building in surprise. Yusuf continues to study her music collection.

         Her apartment feels almost comically small with the three men and their clashing energies taking up so much space, and she now understands why Cobb chose to go with a warehouse.

         “Eleven, wasn’t it?” Arthur says.

         “What are we listening to?” Yusuf asks suddenly.

         Over the speakers, a man accuses a woman of being unfaithful. She denies it, but he doesn’t believe her…

         Ma se colpa io non ho, ma se da lui ingannata rimasi; e poi, che temi?

         … probably because she doesn’t believe herself.

         “Don Giovanni,” she says as she glues an elaborate tree made of pipe cleaners to the model. “Why?”

         “Seems a bit dramatic for you,” he says, smiling so she knows he’s just teasing.

         “Shut up.”

         “Do pay attention, please, children,” Eames says. “Arthur, your report said that his mother was a petite brunette, didn’t it? A living saint who devoted all her time to bettering the world? Feeding orphans, rescuing kittens— that kind of thing?”

         Ariadne starts to get a bad feeling. Where is he going with this?

         “She did some charity work,” Arthur says cautiously. “But what—?”

         “And the girls Varis Energy and Miyamoto Ltd. sent over were probably something to the tune of glamorous blondes as well, yes?”

         “What’s your point, Eames?”

         He rubs his hands together excitedly. He’s clearly on a roll with something. “We all know Fischer has some serious daddy issues. I think we’re all intimately acquainted with those. Well, who’s to say that he doesn’t have mummy issues as well?”

         Ariadne definitely doesn’t like where this is going.

         “For a boy so young to lose his mother, especially a mother like that, it’s going to leave a mark. A hole. The kind he’s always going to be looking— and failing— to fill. Because what woman could ever live up to the paragon of femininity his mother’s become in his mind? The man wants the whore, but the boy within wants the mother.”

         “This is getting a little too Freudian for me,” Arthur says uneasily.

         Eames laughs. “Yes, yes, poor Arthur. But your research shows a string of failed relationships with women most men would give their left leg to touch. Two disastrous engagements within the short span of three years show us a man desperate to find love but unable to make it work. You know I’m right.”

         Scratching his chin, Yusuf looks thoughtful. “Are you talking about impersonating his mother in a dream? Like you did with Browning?”

         “No, no,” Eames says, making a face. “Fischer wouldn’t allow that. He’d know instantly that he was dreaming. There would be snot and tears, embarrassment for all involved, and absolutely nothing would get accomplished. It would be a disaster.”

         “Then… what?”

         “We don’t need his mother to tap into his mummy issues. There are… other ways.”

         Arthur looks as if he’s starting to understand where Eames is taking them. “You can’t be suggesting that we—?”

         “You know exactly what I’m suggesting, Arthur dear.”

         “Well, I don’t,” Ariadne says. “I thought the goal was to find out who Fischer’s got on the inside at Varis Energy. Why are you talking about Freud?”

         Arthur and Eames share a look that makes her feel distinctly wary. She looks to Yusuf, but he shrugs, clearly just as lost.

         “That is not what we discussed,” Arthur says angrily.

         Eames shrugs. “I’m just saying that the boy has a notable weak spot. One we can use.”

         “I thought you already tried sending a girl in,” Yusuf reminds them. “It didn’t work.”

         “Yes, but maybe we weren’t sending in the right kind of girl.”

         None of them are looking at her, and Ariadne’s unease spikes. Are they talking about…?

         “She’s already in the company—”

         “Yes, but do you really think that’s going to be—”

         The wooden legs of the chair shriek as she abruptly shoves back and stands. “Fuck you, Eames. I am not a prostitute. You can’t just whore me out because you picked the wrong con to snag him. Getting Fischer’s attention was part of your job, not mine.”

         Eames is unfazed by her anger. “Yes, love, but you managed to grab it just the same.”

         She turns on Arthur. “Is this why you wanted me at Fischer Morrow? So I could get into Fischer’s pants and then he would spill all his dirty secrets to me?”

         The very idea makes her feel sick. And devalued. She’s an architect, not a whore. Fischer, unwitting mark that he is, instinctively recognized her as some kind of bait, and she didn’t even know it herself… Fuck.

         “Absolutely not,” he says, glaring at Eames.

         One of these days, she’s going to have to stop taking him at his word. Damn it, she should have made them tell her everything at the outset. Why didn’t she?

         This never would have happened if Cobb were here.

         “Is the plan or is it not to find the plant at Varis?”

         “That’s a good question,” Yusuf mutters under his breath.

         “It is,” Eames reassures her. “But sometimes the clients like what we do for them enough that they want to take a second bite at the apple. It can be useful to—”

         “No,” she snaps. “If that’s the plan, then I’m out.”

         “Ariadne—”

         “No.”

         Eames sighs and holds up his hands in surrender. “All right, all right. It was just one option. We can do it another way. I just thought—”

         “No.”

~*~


Ma se colpa io non ho, ma se da lui ingannata rimasi; e poi, che temi?

(But if I am not to blame, if I have been tricked by him; and then, what do you fear?)

~*~

         From close observation, Ariadne quickly learns that Fischer is typically the last one to leave the office at night unless he’s out of town on business.

         Considering her work load, it’s barely a ruse to make sure she is the only one left with him tonight after everyone else has finally gone home.

         “I never said the job would be easy,” he teases as he passes by her desk on the way to his office.

         “No, you didn’t,” she says softly.

         Ariadne waits about ten minutes after he’s disappeared into his office before she goes to check. She finds him slumped over in his desk chair.

         Fischer drinks a total of three Venti-sized coffees throughout the day, and it was almost pathetically easy to wait for him to step out so she could drop a dose of a Somnacin into his final cup of the day.

         She pulls out her cell phone and dials the number Arthur gave her.

~*~

         Eames gives her a wicked smile. “Want to learn something new?”

~*~

         “He has to trust you,” Eames tells her.

         They ambush Fischer inside a bank.

         Ariadne has no idea where Fischer actually keeps his money, but he’s filled out her bank dreamscape with lush chairs, expensive-looking mahogany desks, and bank tellers dressed fashionably enough to put Arthur to shame.

         There is a Japanese painting hanging over the lobby entrance that she recognizes from Fischer’s office. Strange, abstract art pieces decorate the walls, some of it interesting enough that she makes a mental note to borrow the images for future designs.

         Someday, she realizes, she would like to talk to Fischer about these pieces, to hear his opinions on art. It would probably be an interesting discussion.

         The one thing that gives her pause is a strange, neoclassical statue. A man dressed as an ancient Roman towers over them all. Odd and gauche, the statue doesn’t match the sleek, modern design scheme of the rest of the bank and in fact stands out like a sore thumb despite being shoved over to the side of the lobby like something discarded.

         Looking at the statue unnerves her for some reason, and so she doesn’t. Instead, she stares at the floor like everyone else, her hands pressed against her head. Her hair hangs over her face so that he won’t notice her as they rush him passed.

         Arthur and Eames are wearing ski masks as they drag Fischer and Yusuf (disguised as another teller) to the kind of enormous bank vault she’s only ever seen in movies— until now.

         Ariadne scrambles after them.

         “Open it!” Eames demands.

         Yusuf pretends to be shaking with fear as he puts in some phony combination that triggers the giant chrome door to swing back. Countless stacks of crisp, green bills line the walls. There’s so much green it burns the eyes. “Just don’t hurt me!”

         “Shut up!” Eames screams and even Ariadne, waiting behind a plastic frond for her cue, flinches at the sound. Eames changes faces as easily as he changes ties.

         Even in the midst of a hostage crisis, Fischer is frustratingly serene in the face of danger. “Look,” he says reasonably, “there’s no need for any of this. I can just—”

         The wall clunks next to her head as Arthur shoves him up against the wall and puts his gun in Fischer’s face. “What was that? You have something to say?”

         “All right, all right,” he says, and she imagines him holding up his hands in conciliation.

         Eames does Arthur one better. “You!” he snaps at Yusuf. “Come here.”

         There’s a scuffling sound. “Please…”

         “Sorry, mate, but we seem to be done with you.”

         Fischer cries out in alarm in tandem with the sound of a gun blast. Ariadne flinches at the sound, and she can’t help but peak around the side of the door.

         She instantly wishes she hadn’t.

         Yusuf’s body lies unnaturally still on the floor, and Fischer’s face is coated in blood. He looks petrified.

         “Get the money,” Eames tells Arthur, who starts moving around the vault and shoving the green bills into his sack.

         “You… you can have it all,” Fischer stammers. He’s trying to wipe the blood off of his face with his sleeve, but he’s really just smearing it around. “There’s… no need for… further violence.”

         Eames lands a sharp jab into Fischer’s stomach which sends him down to his knees as he crumbles in imagined pain. That wasn’t necessary, she thinks. He’s getting carried away.

         Eames crouches down next to Fischer and grabs a painful-looking fistful of hair. “There’s still a need so long as I say there’s a need, Mr. Fischer.”

         Ariadne rolls her eyes.

         “Yes, I’m sorry,” Fischer gasps, his composure a mere memory. “You’re right. Whatever you say…”

         Eames doesn’t seem able to help himself, and so he hams it up further by dropping his voice into a menacing growl. “I think I’m getting tired of you. I’m tired of your face, and I don’t think your presence is further required here either.”

         Just get to it, Ariadne mentally urges.

         “Do you believe in God, Mr. Fischer?”

         Oh, for the love of… Fed up, Ariadne finally abandons her hiding spot and lifts the heavy horse statuette she nabbed from the lobby over her head.

         Fischer’s eyes widen when he sees her, and for a second as their eyes meet, she thinks he’s going to tell her to run. But then she brings the statuette down on Eames’s head— hard.

         Real or feigned, he goes down as if someone’s cut his strings. One down.

         Arthur acts as if he’s going for his gun and then pretends to get it stuck in his belt so as to give her enough time to get Eames’s fallen gun.

         She knows she can’t afford to hesitate, but Arthur must see hesitation in her expression because something unnamable passes between them just before she shoots him between the eyes.

         He goes down, too.

         She has to get used to this, she knows.

         Her legs are only barely trembling when she turns to Fischer. “Are you all right?”

         He doesn’t answer— possibly because he’s having a bit of a hard time, what with the murders and the dead bodies around him and all. Ariadne holds out a hand to help him up off the floor, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

         Staring up at her with wide, glazed eyes, he says, “You… saved me.”

         Bingo.

         “I’m glad I got here in time.” She pulls a convenient handkerchief from her pocket and gently wipes some of the blood from his cheek. “They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

         Her breath catches when he suddenly grabs her wrist.

         “Ariadne?” he asks, sounding unsure.

         “How do I get him to trust me?” she asks.

         “Whether he knows it or not, he’s going to want to trust you,” Eames tells her. “If he doesn’t already. Just give him the opportunity, and he’ll do the rest.”

         Out of the corner of her eye, she spots one of those small homemade windmills sitting innocuously amongst the money. She frowns.

         “Yes, I’m here,” she tells him, “and you’re all right.” She rubs the handkerchief across his face again, making sure that the part coated in Somnacin has contact with the skin. “Everything’s going to be all right.”

         Fischer nods, accepting this. “Thank you.”

         Yeah, she’s probably going to hell.

~*~

         “On the second layer down, you’re going to be on your own.”

~*~

         Ariadne wakes up in a poorly lit board room.

         Projections sit around a long table discussing business things that go completely over her head and might as well be gibberish. Shades have been drawn down over the floor-length windows that line the opposite wall so that shadows stretch across the room and obscure most of their faces.

         Still, she easily picks out Maurice Fischer at the head of the table.

         Now, where is Fischer, Jr.?

         A single strip of light flashes across her eyes.

         Wincing, she glances around for the source and finds a small boy standing in the far corner of the room.

         Ah. There he is.

         He’s pulled back the edge of one of the shades so as to peak to the outside world. The sunshine reflects off the window pane, casting prisms of light across the room like shooting stars. The board members don’t pay him any mind.

         Careful not to disturb the board members, she tiptoes across the room to join young Fischer-- Robert-- at the window. He barely glances at her as she crouches down beside him.

         “What are you looking at?” she whispers.

         “Nothing.”

         She pulls the shade further back, revealing that the building they are in overlooks a verdant park full of trees and children running around cherry-red playground equipment. Ariadne was sure to include high slides and complex climbing structures, the likes of which she herself wouldn’t have been able to resist as a kid.

         “It looks like fun.”

         He shrugs noncommittally.

         “Would you like to go down there?”

         “I’m not supposed to.” His mournful expression brings a wistful smile to her face. Even if it is just a dream, a boring board meeting is no place for a little kid. He looks so ridiculous in his little suit, like a miniature grown-up or one of those creepy dolls people keep inside glass cabinets.

         Without really thinking about it, she reaches out and musses up his slicked hair.

         “Hey!” he cries, fending her off. “You’re not supposed to touch me!” His indignation is adorable and, well, ridiculous.

         A few of the projections glance over at them. Ariadne shudders at the disturbing sensation of having eyes from obscured faces on her. But Robert isn’t upset so much as just indignant, and so the projections turn back to their meeting.

         “Sorry, but the kids aren’t going to know what to do with you down there if you go looking like this.”

         He looks at her with wide eyes. “But I can’t…”

         “Yes, you can,” she says, smiling. “If you help me, I can get you permission.”

         “You can get permission?” he asks skeptically.

         “Yes, but only if you help me out. Will you do that for me, Robert?”

         Ariadne can tell he doesn’t believe her, but she’s counting on the tantalizing pull of the park to override his suspicions. She might not have had any siblings growing up, but she babysat enough to know how to handle manipulating a child. Thankfully, children’s desires are fairly straight forward.

         “What do I have to do?” he asks.

         She points at the board members and says, “Can you tell me the names of the people sitting around the table?”

         He frowns. “I guess.”

         She points to the shadow sitting next to Robert’s father. “Who’s that?”

         “Uncle Peter.”

         She pauses, startled, and then asks, “What about that one?”

         “Mr. Jeters.”

         “And that one?”

         “Ms. Clint.”

         They go around the table, skipping a projection Ariadne recognizes as Harriet as well as Nazrahi, Robert’s vice-chairman, and Emilia Sanchez, Browning’s replacement. It’s a good mix of current and supposedly past business associates of Fischer Morrow.

         Robert stops as they come to the last projection. There’s a card sitting in front of him that reads, “Guest.”

         “Who’s he?” she asks, watching Robert carefully. “I don’t think he works here.”

         Robert squints at the projection as if confused. “I don’t think I know him.”

         “Yes, you do. You know everyone. He’s the spy in the other company that finds out their secrets and brings them back here.”

         “Oh.”

         “Yeah. What’s his name?”

         Robert’s eyes go glassy as he stares at the obscured projection. “I… don’t know.”

         She has to hide her disappointment. “Can you at least tell me what he looks like?”

         “He has… red hair?”

         Even as he speaks, the projection develops red hair, though the rest of his face remains hidden in shadow.

         Eagerness starts to creep into her voice. “What else, Robert?”

         “He’s big.”

         The projection instantly becomes bulky. When he leans forward and rests his strong forearms on the table, she can see that he’s wearing a wedding ring.

         Almost there.

         “What about his face?”

         Robert thinks about it for a moment. “Ugly. Big nose. Blue eyes.”

         It’s not a perfect picture, but it’s enough. Ariadne can see enough of the face that she’d know him in the real world. Objective accomplished.

         “Thank you, Robert,” she says warmly.

         Time for his reward.

         Ariadne waits until the projections wrap up their imaginary meeting and start filing out of the room, and then she says, “Come on. Let’s go to the park.”

         Robert looks reluctant. “You still have to ask my father.”

         “I already did. He said you could come if you helped me, and you did.”

         He doesn’t move.

         “Well, if you really don’t want to…” Ariadne stands and walks over to the door. “I suppose I’ll just go by myself. Too bad.”

         She purposely doesn’t look back as she opens the door.

         “No, wait!”

         Covering a grin with her hand, she glances back over her shoulder. “Yes?”

         Gnawing on his lower lip, he comes up to her side and looks up at her with too-blue eyes. “My father really said I could?”

         “That’s right.” She holds out her hand. “Come on, Robert. It’s boring up here and fun down there. And I’ll be with you.”

         Smiling hopefully, he takes her hand. “Okay.”

         On their way through the park, they pass popcorn and cotton candy vendors whose products fly around their stands like butterflies. A clown stands juggling fluorescent bulbs beside a fountain Ariadne borrowed from a real park she once visited. Except now the fountain pours bubblegum soda from trumpets wielded by cherubim. Bubbles float through the air without ever falling.

         It is almost too much sensory experience for Robert, who takes it all in with wide eyes and a slack jaw. He even forgets to walk once they reach the enormous hollowed-out tree that has children scampering in and out and up and down wooden staircases.

         But once they reach the playground, he hesitates at her side.

         “Go on,” she urges. “Oh, wait!” She helps him out of his blazer, removes his little tie, and gives his hair another mussing. “There you go. Now, go have fun.”

         He gives her a strange, unreadable look that makes her wonder why he’s so nervous about spending time at a fantasy playground; but then he shuffles off in the direction of a bronzed slide that curls up as high as the surrounding trees.

         Ariadne takes a seat on a platinum bench and glances around at her realized design. Damn, she’s good. Who wouldn’t want to play here? If this doesn’t create a positive association in Robert’s mind, then she doesn’t know what will.

         A child wearing a red coat and pulling the string of a kite suddenly runs passed.

         Glancing upward, Ariadne blinks in surprise when she realizes the paper skyscraper kite is modeled after her latest façade design for Fischer Tower. The idea is still in its first draft. She didn’t know he’d even seen it yet.

         The passage of only a few minutes brings Robert, looking small and sheepish, before her again.

         “What’s wrong?”

         He doesn’t answer immediately.

         “Robert?”

         He scuffs his shoe against the concrete and doesn’t meet her eyes when he says, “They won’t let me play with them.”

         Ariadne glances over at the children on the playground and sees several hostile stares being directed their way. Her first and second thoughts are that the projections have caught on to her and that they’re in trouble.

         But the children don’t come for them.

         After the initial glares, they just keep running around, minding their own business. The adult projections aren’t looking at them at all. None of the projections are looking at her. No, but the kids did seem to be looking at…

         She looks down at Robert in dismay. His own subconscious doesn’t want to play with him?

         “Robert…”

         “I don’t care,” he says, lifting his chin proudly. “They’re stupid anyway.”

         He does. Of course he does.

         She doesn’t really know what to say, but she’s saved by the interruption of a little girl who comes barreling up to them. She has brown pigtails and wears combat boots and a pink neckerchief.

         “Hello!” she chirps.

         They both stare at her in surprise, but Ariadne experiences a jolt of recognition once she gets a better look at the girl. How…?

         “Do you like dinosaurs?” the girl asks Robert.

         “Um… yes?”

         “Me, too!” she says with a bright grin. “You want to see something cool?”

         Robert looks to her for permission, but Ariadne’s still gaping at the girl. She remembers wearing those boots every day, refusing to ever leave them behind until her mother finally threw them away out of disgust. Did she bring her younger self into the dream?

         “It’s really cool.”

         “Can I?” Robert asks eagerly, tugging at the edge of her coat.

         “I don’t know…” Should she let Robert play with a projection of her younger self? Was that a good idea?

         Younger Ariadne looks straight at her and says in a strangely adult voice, “He’ll like it. I promise. It’s good for children to enjoy themselves. Isn’t it, darling?”

         No. No way.

         “Please?” Robert begs.

         “Okay,” she whispers.

         The girl winks at her and then they’re scampering off.

         No. This feels weird. Wrong. She starts to go after them, but her feet suddenly turn to stone as she sees them disappear behind a large... neoclassical statue. A statue of a man dressed as a Roman…

         The hair on her arms stands on end.

         It followed them down here.

         She wants to wake up. She wants to wake up now.

         She nearly screams when someone roughly grabs her arm and yanks her back against a solid chest. Icy fear plunges its fingers down her back even as his hot breath scalds her ear.

         “What do you think you’re doing?” he snarls.

         She screams.

~*~

         “Why did you do that?” she demands as soon as the I.V. comes out of her arm.

         Eames sits up on the floor and stretches lazily. “Arthur’s research said wee Robert had trouble relating to other children, and this needed to be a positive experience.”

         “No one told me that,” she says angrily. “I thought the park was just the reward. You knew I was building a dream for him, and you didn’t think that was the kind of thing I should know?”

         Eames hops over Robert-- Fischer-- who still haplessly slumbers on, and straightens his cuffs without looking at her. “Well, now you know, don’t you?”

         Ariadne realizes she’s shaking all over. She slowly drops down into Fischer’s desk chair to avoid an embarrassing fall.

         She needs to tell them about the statue and about how Maurice Fischer, miraculously, furiously alive, just accosted her in the dream in defense of his son. He was so angry, and he shouted at her even though she was too frightened to understand half of what he said.

         “Arthur said I was going in alone,” she says instead, her voice shaky. “I thought I killed you in the bank vault.”

         He chuckles. “You’re going to have to hit me harder than that.”

         “Certainly killed me,” Yusuf mutters as he tugs Fischer into a sitting position. “I think you were having way too much fun down there, Mr. Eames.”

         “Did any of the projections in the board room look familiar?” Arthur interrupts. He’s already packing up the PASIV equipment in preparation for a hasty getaway.

         “Yeah,” she says distractedly. “A couple people I work with. Oh, and Peter Browning. He was there.”

         Arthur nods, unsurprised.

         “But Eames—”

         “Did Fischer describe the plant?”

         “Yeah, he’s a big man with red hair and blue eyes. He’s married because there was a wedding ring. Somewhere around fifty-years-old,” she says, still eyeing Eames. “I’m pretty sure that’s your guy. But Eames—”

         “Would you know him if you saw him again in person?”

         “Yes, Arthur!” she snaps.

         Eames tries to walk past her, but she jumps up on jelly legs and grabs his sleeve. “Why did you use me as your disguise?”

         There’s no way he could have just guessed about what she used to look like. His mirage was perfect, from the butterfly-bow hair ties her mother used to make her wear to the combat boots she insisted on in exchange. He must have gotten hold of a picture somehow. This was planned.

         “Why?” she repeats.

         He sighs. “Just a precaution. Insurance, if you will.”

         “Damn it, Eames. I told you no.”

         For a moment, he almost looks pitying, but then it’s gone like the flicker of light off of glass.

         “I know.”

~*~

         After they’re gone, Ariadne gently shakes Fischer awake.

         He blinks blurry eyes at her. “Ariadne? Did you just…?” He can’t finish the thought because the specifics of the dream should already be fading away.

         She takes a deep breath and then swallows down the ugly feelings still swimming around in her head about this job. “You fell asleep at your desk.”

         “I did?”

         “It’s probably time to call it a day, huh?”

         He glances at his watch. “It’s two in the morning. What are you still doing here?”

         She’s getting used to lying to him by now. “The same as you. I got caught up in work and didn’t notice the time. I wanted to check in before I left.”

         He’s a little unsteady as he rises to his feet, which might be a side effect of the Somnacin. She doesn’t know. He stumbles and Ariadne instinctively reaches out to catch him. “Whoa there.”

         But it’s just a momentary fumble, and he’s already regained his balance. “I’m fine,” he says. “Just a cramp.” He cracks his neck with a wince.

         He probably shouldn’t sleep on the floor then. “Oh. Good.”

         Fischer is staring at her, and Ariadne suddenly realizes that she’s still holding on to him. She moves away with an awkward laugh. “Sorry.”

         Fischer is still giving her a funny look, but he lets her faux pas pass without comment. “How were you planning on getting home at this hour?”

         “Same as always,” she says with a shrug. “I take the subway.”

         He makes a face. “At this hour? No, let me call you a cab.”

         “That would be a really expensive cab ride. I live all the way across town.”

         Fischer frowns as if the cost of the cab never occurred to him. “I know where you live,” he says, sounding perplexed. But he stops dialing.

         He either doesn’t realize or else doesn’t care about his own faux pas in mentioning the thick dossier he has on her. Annoyed, Ariadne says, perhaps a bit rudely, “I don’t need a cab. I’ll be fine. I leave late all the time.” He knows she leaves late all the time, but maybe it has never occurred to him before now to wonder how she gets home.

         “Ariadne,” he says sternly, “you’re not riding the subway at two in the morning.”

         “Well, unless the company has secret cots, showers, and changes of clothes in my size—”

         “I’ll have my driver take you home, and I’ll take the cab.”

         How can he possibly have a driver on hand at this time of the morning? Do drivers not have a union? “No, really, I can’t let you do that—”

         “Already done,” he says, snapping his phone shut.

         Fischer smirks at her. Actually smirks. Despite her frustration, Ariadne almost smiles. She throws up her hands in surrender.

         “All right, Mr. Fischer. It looks like you win.”

         “I usually do.” He pauses. “And it’s Robert.”

         She does smile this time. “I’ll just bet, Robert.”

~*~

         Ariadne drives Yusuf to the airport.

         At the gate, he gives her a warm smile, and they hug goodbye.

         His part in this is done. Arthur told her that even if they need to go back in, they won’t need his stronger compounds for a single-level extraction. Regular old Somnacin will do, and Arthur knows his way around a PASIV blind, deaf, and dumb.

         Time for Yusuf to go home to the family.

         For some reason, she finds herself clutching him a bit too hard. He notices.

         “Are you going to be all right?” he asks, clearly concerned but still aiming for jovial. “With those maniacs, I mean? And Fischer?”

         She laughs. “Yeah, I think so.”

         He gives her a final gentle squeeze and then lets her go. “Be safe, Ariadne.”

         Watching him walk away seems like a strange time to be reminded of Cobb.

 

 

Chapter Text

~*~

         While absently chewing on her pencil, Ariadne watches Robert pace back and forth on the other side of his office door. He's snarling into his phone.

         Several times already, she's caught him looking at her.

         Once, she smiled back to let him know he was caught, but he didn’t behave in the abashed way he was supposed to. He frowned instead, as if he were trying to hear something from far away.

         Or as if he were trying to remember something.

         It’s only out of self-preservation that she watches him, too, which places them in a strange game of visual cat-and-mouse. The whole thing makes her heart pound anxiously in her chest, but Ariadne has a job to do.

         Robert might not understand why they are doing this to each other, but she’s searching for evidence of adverse effects from the extraction.

         When he fell into natural sleep afterward, did he have natural dreams? Were they plagued with half-formed fears and pleasures? Did he wake up with the taste of bubblegum soda on his tongue or vague recollections of a little girl with a pink neckerchief?

         What would it mean? For him? For her?

         Sensing her gaze on him again, Robert turns his head and their eyes meet. Cheeks burning, Ariadne drops her eyes back to her computer screen. Their catch and release of gazes has long gone past subtle and moved daringly close to obscene. Someone is going to notice eventually.

         She waits a few seconds before looking at him again. He’s back to pacing.

         Ariadne has tried not to allow herself to think too often on what she saw in Robert’s head because that way lies madness. But it’s hard to look at him now and not subconsciously seek out remnants of that little kid and his ridiculous suit, to try to fit the pieces from then into the puzzle existing now. She feels almost forced into reevaluating him.

         It’s not that she doesn’t like him. But Robert is borderline icy to everyone even on a good day, sad inner child or not. He’s arrogant enough to walk right into Wilson & Bailey and to steal their intern right out from under them.

         Also, she figures someone who is so fastidiously put together, never with a hair out of place, and who wears such extravagant suits day in and day out has to be terribly vain.

         His life has been so different from hers that he’s practically alien, and she has no idea how to relate to someone who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

         Ariadne has never had anything she didn’t work her ass off to get.

         But now she sees a man who has also become isolated, who was maybe always isolated from the people around him.

         She finds herself wondering if he has ever had a real friend or even a colleague on his same level and wavelength. She’s only ever seen him on the phone for business and never for a personal call. He’s snapping orders now at someone on the other end of his call, and in his temper he has never looked further from that little boy than he does now.

         This is Robert the sleek, corporate shark.

         How messed up do you have to be for your own subconscious to snub you?

         “Ariadne, will you hand me that blueprint? Ariadne? Hey!”

         Snapping out of her trance, she transfers her gaze from Robert to Harriet, who is suddenly standing over her. “What did you say?”

         Harriet snorts and reaches across Ariadne to get the blueprint herself. “Don’t you even think about it, little girl.”

         How long before people stop thinking of her as a child? “What are you talking about?”

         “You know what.”

         No, they haven’t been subtle. At all. Nonetheless, she aims for denial. “I wasn’t—”

         Harriet doesn’t let her finish before interrupting her. “Over the years, I’ve built three different towers on three different continents for Fischer Morrow.” She holds up three fingers as if Ariadne could confuse what three means.

         “Yeah, you’ve mentioned—”

         “— and there’s always at least one of you little chippies who thinks she’s going to be the next Mrs. Fischer. Every damn time. And it’s pathetic to watch, let me tell you.”

         Ariadne chokes on a cough.

         Harriet’s hard expression becomes solemn. “But you, Ariadne, have too much going for you to throw it all away for a roll in the sack with the boss. It’s not worth it. Trust me.”

         For some reason, she feels surprised that Harriet would misinterpret what is occurring between her and Robert as romantic. She takes a second to compose herself and then asks, “What’s a chippie?”

         “Don’t be cute.”

         “You know, Harriet,” she says, forcing a grin, “I really had no idea you held me in such high esteem.”

         Harriet rolls her eyes. “Don’t let it go to your head.” She stands and stretches with the stiffness of too many hours spent at a desk. “I’m going to lunch. I suggest you do the same because I’m going to want to power through these arches when I get back.”

         Ariadne waves at her retreating back, but her attention has already shifted back to Robert. Does the man never eat?

         She knocks on the door frame to announce her presence. “Hey.”

         Robert barely glances up from the paperwork he’s been buried in all morning. “Ariadne,” he acknowledges.

         “Everyone’s already gone to lunch.”

         “Uh-huh,” he says distractedly. “You can take your lunch now, too, if you want.”

         She hesitates and then says, “You don’t eat?”

         He looks up and raises his eyebrows when he realizes she’s holding out two sandwiches toward him. “What’s that?”

         Ariadne steps further into the room and holds up her offering. “Pastrami on rye and, um, egg salad. I think. Until someone takes a bite, it’s still up for debate. I got these from a shifty-looking vendor, so…”

         Robert looks less than impressed with her efforts. “One of those is for me?”

         “Yeah. I mean, you can have the pastrami on rye since we actually know that’s what it is. Unless you don’t like pastrami?”

         “Ariadne?”

         “Yes?”

         “Why did you buy me a sandwich?”

         He isn’t exactly making this easy for her. She forges ahead nonetheless. “You’re so busy. I never see you eat.” She waves the sandwiches tantalizingly. “You know you want one.”

         There is an agonizingly long moment where the tension that has grown taut between them throughout the past few days threatens to snap, and she feels fairly certain he’s going to tell her where exactly she can stick these sandwiches.

         But in the end, Robert just sighs and gives in. Reluctantly. “All right. I suppose.”

         Good enough, she thinks and sets the sandwiches on his desk.

         She ducks her head so he won’t see her smile when he takes the ambiguous choice. She knows a potentially horrible sandwich doesn’t make up for multiple attacks on his subconscious, but it makes her feel better to at least offer.

         They sit across from each other, and it’s mostly silent as they munch on really bad sandwiches until Robert suddenly says, “Ariadne?”

         “Yes?”

         “I don’t think this is egg salad.”

~*~


Poco dura de'matti la festa, Ma per me cominciato non ha

(A fool’s holiday is very short, but for me it has not yet begun)…

~*~

         A week goes by without anyone contacting her. And then another week passes.

         After a particularly harrowing day at work, she sends a text message to the phone number Arthur gave her.

         Is it finished? Are we done?

         She slides her coat off her shoulders, which are stiff with pain, and throws it over an armchair. Her overpriced heels go flying across the room as she slumps down onto her beaten up old couch.

         She wants nothing more in the world than to sink into a warm bath full of bubbles and soothing balms, but it would take more effort than she is capable of exerting at the moment to move from the couch.

         Peter Browning visited the office.

~*~

         “You barely look old enough to drive. What does he have you doing?”

         Ariadne feels herself begin to shrink under the weight of Browning’s gaze even though she knows he doesn’t, can’t, know her. “Um…”

         Luckily, Robert saves her with a timely entrance. “Uncle Peter?”

         “So, he lives after all,” Browning deadpans. “I was beginning to wonder after you stopped returning my calls and emails.”

         “I’ve been busy,” he says, not quite meeting Browning’s eyes. “What are you doing here, Uncle Peter?”

         “Yes, I see you’ve been busy,” he says, ignoring the question. “Quite the digs you’ve got here.”

         The slur in his words is barely distinguishable, as is the slight sway to Browning’s step. The casual observer probably wouldn’t pick up on the signs, but Ariadne had an uncle who was a high-functioning alcoholic, and she does know the signs.

         Browning is drunk.

         He looks around their offices with an unmistakable sneer on his face. “Christ, it’s been decades since I’ve been in an office this small.”

         Robert’s cheeks flush pink, and Ariadne can tell from the resolute way he doesn’t look at her that he is embarrassed this is happening in front of her. Thankfully, they’re the only two people still here working through lunch. Again.

         “Let’s go into my office.” He tries to take Browning’s arm, but the man doesn’t follow his subtle cue.

         “Thank God you actually have an office,” he says, chuckling at his own joke. “I was worried for a moment there.”

         “Of course I have an office,” Robert mutters. He instantly looks twenty years younger and on the verge of a very real pout.

“This place is only temporary.”

         She says it before she can stop herself and, of course, she immediately regrets it when they both turn to look at her.

         “Did you just say something?” Browning asks, confirming her suspicion that he’d forgotten her. “Robert, did she just say something? Who is this? What is she even doing here? Are you hiring children at this place?”

         Ariadne feels her back straighten with indignation. Robert quickly interjects, “She’s an architect, Uncle Peter. Now, let’s go into my—”

         “I’ll just bet she’s an architect,” he grumbles.

         The look he gives her makes Ariadne wish she could disappear into the wall. “I tell you, Maurice wouldn’t have let this one through the front door. Not after that last time—”

         “Uncle Peter!” Robert’s voice snaps like the crack of a whip in their otherwise silent office. Browning merely snorts, but Ariadne looks at him in surprise, which seems to make Robert remember himself.

         He takes a breath and then says in a much calmer voice, “Please, come into my office.”

         “Yeah, yeah,” Browning mutters, but he obediently follows his godson into his office. Robert tactfully closes the door behind them.

         Ariadne releases a breath she didn’t even realize she was holding. Her relief is short-lived. It takes only minutes before the sound of raised voices comes through the door.

         “Oh, this is what embarrasses you? Not the fact that you’ve completely destroyed—”

         “I was twenty-years-old, Uncle Peter!”

         “Yes, and she’s still on the payroll!”

         “What are you even doing here?”

         “I wanted to see what you destroyed your father’s legacy for!”

         She doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but she still jumps guiltily when Robert pokes his head back out from behind the door.

         “Ariadne, you can take your lunch now.”

         It’s not an offer so much as an order.

         She goes, but she brings him back another sandwich. This time, it’s a Reuben. A grilled corned beef offering smothered in cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing.

         Browning’s gone by the time she wanders back into Robert’s office, and he’s standing by the window again in what she has now come to recognize as his melancholy pose.

         “You forgot to eat again,” she says, holding out the Reuben.

         Robert sighs and takes her offering without any of the previous fuss. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

         “That’s all right.”

         There’s a pregnant pause, wherein neither of them speaks or makes a move to sit down. Ariadne breaks it by saying, “But I do have an important question for you.”

         His eyebrows go up in surprise. “And what’s that?” He voice is as aloof as always, but she detects a tremor in the undercurrent.

         Ariadne holds up the sandwich to her eye for a mock inspection. “Do you think this is real meat in these sandwiches? Or do you think it’s more like mystery meat? It’s kind of gross, but I can never tell the difference.”

         Robert blinks once. Twice. And then he smiles. Kind of.

         “I think I need to introduce you to food that doesn’t come from random strangers you find on the street.”

         “Fair enough.”

~*~

         She never receives a response to her text, but maybe that’s answer enough.

         If they really are finished, then maybe she can start breathing easy again. Maybe her job at Fischer Morrow will start to feel real and not temporary.

         Ariadne pours herself a glass of wine in some sad parody of a celebration and turns up the volume on her music player. Settling back on her couch, she closes her eyes and lets the impassioned arias of Don Giovanni wash over her.

         She only makes it about as far as what she thinks is an angry mob chasing down Don Giovanni for something or other before she turns it off with a sigh. Maybe something a bit more cheerful this time? Something in English even. Sorry, Robert.

         She imagines Yusuf laughing at her from miles and miles away.

~*~

         There are reporters waiting for them at the restaurant.

         “Someone on the staff must have tipped them off that we were coming,” Harriet says, leaning over Ariadne for a better look at the crowd.

         Neil, Robert’s personal assistant, already has his phone out. “Do you want me to reschedule the meeting? Or we can see if the contractor’s willing to meet us at another restaurant?”

         Robert curses under his breath.

         “We already rescheduled with them twice,” Neil cautions.

         “They’ll reschedule again,” Harriet says reasonably. “They need our business more than we need theirs.”

         “We’re not rescheduling,” Robert snaps. To his credit, he doesn’t seem frazzled so much as resigned. He smirks at her. “Besides, I promised to introduce you to real food.”

         Harriet raises an eyebrow at this, and Ariadne quickly asks, “Why are there reporters?”

         Harriet and Neil both look at Robert, who sighs. “I dismantled another subsidiary company today.”

         Oh. Well. She’s only half-joking when she says, “And all before lunch?”

         Robert looks like he might smile. Maybe. Really, it’s hard to tell with him.

         “What do you want to do?” Neil asks him.

         He looks at Ariadne. “Will you be all right with going through the reporters?”

         Surprised, she nods. “Don’t worry about me.”

         Robert nods and puts his shades on, instantly becoming all sharp angles and cold, untouchable authority. “All right, then. Everyone walk straight into the restaurant. Don’t say anything to the reporters. Try not to make eye contact. If they talk to you, then just ignore them.”

         Easier said than done, she discovers.

         “Mr. Fischer, what do you have to say to all the accusations of mental incompetence?”

         “Are you aware that there are already six lawsuits being filed as of this morning?”

         Despite her brave words, all the shouting, so loud and directly in her ears, and all the faces pressed in close to her quickly send her into a vertigo spin. She sways dangerously on her feet, and she isn’t sure if the cause is the vertigo or the pushing crowd.

         “Hey! Hey, you! What’s your name? Hey!”

         A reporter gets too aggressive and actually grabs her arm. Ariadne doesn’t have time to feel alarmed before Robert’s there, shoving him back. “Don’t touch her.”

         She feels his hand on her back, firm as he ushers her through the crowd. She becomes grateful for the physical support after a flash goes off in her face and all she can see are stars.

         “That was horrible,” she says once they’re safely ensconced inside the hotel.

         Robert sighs. “You don’t say.”

         The contractor smiles, shakes Robert’s hand, and only speaks of the superficial beyond the shop talk like the professional he is. But there is a nervous energy to his movements that suggests the unexpected press hoard has shaken him. Ariadne can sympathize.

         They have barely ordered appetizers before Robert’s already frowning down at his phone. He stands suddenly. “I’ll be right back. Feel free to order some champagne. On me.”

         Neil grins at her. “I love it when he says that.”

         Ariadne doesn’t mean to follow him. She really only intends to go to the ladies’ room. But on her way she spots Robert standing at the hotel bar and pauses.

         If Robert were anyone else, then his sneaking away from a work meeting to catch a few minutes of a sports game wouldn’t feel so out of the ordinary. But Ariadne knows from Robert’s dossier that the only sports he cares about are the ones he himself plays. He’s an accomplished polo player and equestrian, and that’s where his athletic interest ends.

         There has never been any indication from either Arthur or Robert that he has any affection for baseball, which happens to be what is on the television right now.

         All of these facts from the Robert Fischer Almanac flash through her mind as if she were pulling them off a computer, and so she hesitates. She almost goes to join him, but the appearance of another man at the bar freezes her feet in their tracks.

         He has a bulky physique.

         And red hair.

~*~

         Arthur’s voice sounds small and far away, compromised by the blur by static.

         “It’s not enough,” he tells her. “They want a name.”

~*~

         There is nowhere where she can hide, no pillar to duck behind so she can observe them, and so she slowly backs out of the room. Luckily, neither of them turns around, and so she makes it out of the bar without being detected.

         Standing foolishly in the center of the hall, looking for all the world like a lost child, she considers going to the bathroom as she initially planned. She really just wanted to check her make-up. Afterward, she can just rejoin everyone at the table, and they can carry on with their lunch meeting.

         Ariadne could forget she ever saw that red-headed man.

         She could.

         She can’t, she realizes.

         She can’t because if she can get that guy’s name right now, today, then they won’t have to go back into Robert’s dreams.

         It has never occurred to her to ask what exactly it is that Robert’s getting on the sly from Varis Energy— because she doesn’t care. They were hired to get the plant’s name and just his name. She gets that, and the job’s finished. Everybody goes home, no (more) harm done.

         With a sigh, she ducks around the corner and waits.

         She doesn’t have to wait long.

         Whatever business he has with Robert concludes quickly, and the red-headed man leaves the bar and heads down the hall opposite from where Ariadne’s hiding from view around the corner.

         She has to pass the entrance to the bar again and risk being seen or even running directly into Robert, but she’ll lose him if she doesn’t act quickly. She moves.

         The man isn’t dallying. Walking at a brisk pace that barely passes for casual, he bypasses the elevators and ducks around a corner.

         Keeping her distance, she follows. Well, she tries, but he doesn’t make it easy for her. He doesn’t have much of a head start on her, but somehow every time she turns a corner, he’s already just disappearing around another. It starts to feel like she is chasing a ghost.

         He breaks into a run.

         Shocked, Ariadne drops cover and runs after him.

         A woman comes out of her room just as she is taking a corner, and she screams when Ariadne barrels into her. Tangled, they fall to the floor. Cursing, Ariadne shoves her down and crawls over her, ignoring her protests. There isn’t time for politeness because she can’t afford to lose him.

         But she has.

         He has somehow led her in a complete circle, and she finds herself spilled out into the lobby near the hotel bar. Gasping for breath, she looks around for her target. There are people milling about, but none of them are bulky redheads. He’s just… gone.

         How? He didn’t have much of head-start on her, and who the fuck designed this place with so many labyrinthine twists and turns? Shit, shit, shit.

         No, labyrinthine or not, there’s no way he could have escaped her in this place. No way unless…

         Ariadne’s suddenly so terrified that she drops immediately to her knees right there on the floor so that she’ll have a flat surface at hand. The totem comes out of her pocket, falls, and…

         … lands hard on its right side. Not a dream. Which means she’s just royally screwed up in reality.

         Damn it.

~*~

         Robert looks surprised when she sets the pamphlet on his desk.

         “They’re going to be performing it at the Met the weekend after next. I thought of you,” she adds when he doesn’t respond right away. “Because… you like opera?”

         “Uh, I do.” He glances over the advertisement for Madame Butterfly she picked up for him and then gives her a polite smile. “Thank you.”

         He still seems fairly befuddled by her, but that is starting to feel like a commonplace. If it’s not a sandwich, then it’s an ad for an opera he probably doesn’t like. Maybe next time she’ll get really creative and put something obscure and without a referent on his desk, like a rubix cube. Or, if she happens to be feeling particularly sadomasochistic, perhaps an origami unicorn. Would he get that reference? Does Robert even watch movies like a normal person?

         “I brought you a coffee, too.” She offers him his third Venti of the day, made just as he likes it. Straight black, no frills, and probably exactly how his father once took his.

         He seems more bemused than appreciative. “You know, I do have a secretary to get me coffee.” And food, he doesn’t add.

         “She already left,” she answers smoothly, though she can feel her cheeks reddening, “and I was getting coffee for myself anyway.” She pauses. “You don’t want it?”

         Robert holds her gaze for a long moment, and she feels something tighten in her chest until good breeding finally kicks in and he reaches out to take the coffee from her.

         “Thank you.”

         She forces a smile.

         He sets the coffee down on his desk without drinking, and she feels the smile wither away on her face. There is no reason for her to still be standing here, but she doesn’t leave. When the silence threatens to become awkward, she blurts out, “I listened to Don Giovanni.”

         “I thought you didn’t like opera,” he says, raising an eyebrow at her.

         “I still don’t really think it’s for me,” she admits with a shrug. “But you can’t call something ‘musical perfection’ and expect me to just take your word for it.”

         His mouth quirks. “Well, what did you think?”

         “It was… okay.” She smiles genuinely at his dismayed expression and amends her criticism with, “The songs were pretty.”

         “Pretty?” he says, as if she’d just described the Statue of David or the Sistine Chapel as eh.

         “I guess I didn’t really get what I was supposed to take from it.”

         She thinks she understands what Robert feels, though, when he listens to sad songs sung by a daughter mourning her dead father; a dead father who comes back in the guise of a supernatural statue to take revenge on his unrepentant murderer.

         It took her several attempts to finally get to the end of the opera, but the revelation of the statue filled her veins with ice water. Her heart had been dragged unwillingly to match the rising storm of pulsing brass, guttural baritones, and weeping wind instruments that accompany Don Giovanni down to hell.

         At the crash of the crescendo, she'd felt Maurice Fischer’s fingers digging into her arm again as if he were standing right behind her.

         Once over, she put Don Giovanni at the back of a desk drawer with the mind to never listen to it again. Talking about it now makes the hair on her arms rise, but she’s, well, stalling.

         “The case said it was supposed to be a tragedy,” she says, “but Don Giovanni was horrible. He spent the whole opera trying to rape everyone in sight and then he threw his only friend to the angry mob to save himself. I didn’t exactly feel bad for him when he got dragged down to hell at the end by the statue.”

         Something about his expression makes her ask, “Do you?”

         Robert turns the pamphlet over in his hands as he seems to mull over his response. “I think it’s tragic he doesn’t repent before the end,” he says quietly, “even after Elvira, a woman he treated horribly, offers him salvation and forgiveness for everything he did to her. In the end, it didn't matter how much she loved him because he just didn't care.”

         Sensing her misstep, Ariadne regrets bringing up the subject at all, especially when she sees the melancholia slip back into his eyes.

         She glances at the picture he keeps on his desk of a little boy blowing windmills with his father. Her mind drifts back the darkened board room where all the faces were obscured except for one.

         During the inception job, Eames said they were repairing Robert’s relationship with his father, but now she thinks that might have just been a line meant to assuage her. If her observations (and manipulations) of Robert are anything to go by, then maybe reconciliation with the dead isn’t that simple.

         “I’ll bring you a copy of that blueprint you wanted,” she says, shifting them back to a safer topic.

         She puts her hand on the doorknob but otherwise makes no move to leave.

         “Thank you,” Robert says absently. He finally takes a sip of his coffee under the unnoticed intensity of her stare, and then it’s done and Ariadne sighs sadly.

         The coffee slips from his fingers and splatters on the floor with a soft pop as the plastic lid becomes dislodged from the cup. Lukewarm coffee half-seeps, half-settles atop the water-resistant commercial carpeting.

         Robert slumps forward in his chair, but Ariadne is there to catch him before he can hit his head on the edge of the desk. She gently settles him back into a more secure and, hopefully, comfortable sitting position.

         “I’m so sorry, Robert,” she tells him, but an apology from her doesn’t really mean anything at this point.

         She takes out her phone.

~*~


Mi par ch'oggi il demonio si diverta d'opporsi a miei piacevoli progressi; vanno mal tutti quanti

(It seems the devil must be amusing himself at my expense today; everything is going badly)…

~*~

         Cobb said never to use memories when building a dream.

         But Cobb broke all his own rules, so Ariadne doesn’t see why she should be expected to follow them.

         Tapping her wrist, Arthur nods at her and then—

         — she is somewhere else.

         There is a tray in her hands, heavy with dirty, enameled dishes, and when she lowers it she sees light streaming in through huge bay windows that line the far side of the ballroom.

         Somehow, the city view she expected has been replaced with an ocean whose waves of cerulean sea foam come right up to the edge of the windows in silent collisions that should have shaken the walls.

         This isn’t part of her design.

         That’s not right, she thinks, but no one else seems to notice as they chatter quietly over pristine tablecloths and soft jazz. Questioning the logistics of dreams is pointless anyway.

         Through a reflection that reveals a black and white waitress ensemble and thick bangs she doesn’t sport in real life, she sees it— a monolithic statue, ten times its previous size, that rises out of the sea like a raging Poseidon.

         The austere features of a Maurice Fischer carved from fear and marble are clear to her now.

         Trepidation propels her backwards, away from a stone gaze separated from her only by fragile glass. Her back abruptly collides with something solid. “Ah!”

         Her tray falls from her hands. Ariadne cringes at the resulting cacophony of several dishes breaking at once. She stares at the mess, unsure of what she’s supposed to do.

         A hand brushes her shoulder just as a low voice says, “Not very subtle.”

         She whirls around, and her mouth falls open in shock. The face she sees every morning in the mirror smirks back at her.

         “Better get those dishes,” Not-Ariadne says. “He’s looking over here.”

         “I don’t…”

         “Ariadne, get down or Fischer’s going to see you.”

         She immediately drops to her knees beside the mess. She knows where Robert’s table is because she put him there, and she angles her back to him.

         The light bulb finally goes off over her head, and she glares up through her bangs at… well, herself. “Eames, what are you doing?”

         “Your target is in the bar,” he says in her voice, already moving away.

         Ariadne has to resist the impulse to grab his— her?— ankle. “Get back here,” she hisses. He ignores her.

         She doesn’t know what he’s up to, but something tells her that she’s not going to like it. Unfortunately, the only way to stop him at this point would be to sacrifice both their covers in order to body-check him right here and now.

         Though tempting, she stays where she is and tries to subtly watch Eames’s progress across the room. For some reason, he has her wearing a form-fitting pencil skirt that’s about two inches short of work appropriate.

         In counting the number of buttons that should be done up on her blouse to avoid embarrassing herself— well, him— Ariadne can’t help but notice that Eames has embellished her in some key areas.

         Bastard, she thinks indignantly.

         Not-Ariadne joins Robert at his table with an apologetic smile. Robert says something, and Not-Ariadne laughs a little too loud.

         She feels the bottom of her stomach fall out. This isn’t how it is supposed to go.

         Somewhere beyond her fury and humiliation, she remembers that she has a mission to carry out.

         Rising reluctantly to her feet, she leaves the broken dishes on the floor and heads for the hotel bar.

         The projection is waiting for her just where Eames said he would be. Summoning up her game face, Ariadne touches his arm. “Excuse me, sir, but I need you to come with me.”

         He frowns down at her, but she sees a flicker of panic flare in his eyes. It becomes more than a flicker when she flashes a hint of the Glock 17 hidden in her apron pocket. “Sir?”

         He follows her to the designated hotel room where Arthur is waiting for them. They tie him to a chair and gag him while he watches them with terrified eyes. She ignores him in favor of glaring over his head at Arthur.

         “I wondered why you and Eames were working together again,” she says grimly, “and why we specifically needed a forger. I guess I know now.”

         He sighs. “Ariadne…”

         “Unless the next words out of your mouth are going to be ‘No, Ariadne, Eames’s role in this job is not specifically to impersonate you,’ then I don’t want to hear it, Arthur.”

         This whole time, she really was the mark. “Why?”

         He looks at her, and she can almost see the pros and cons weighing themselves in his head over whether he should tell her the truth.

         Whichever scale rises, he tells her, “Eames is here to keep you safe.”

         “I’m not in danger, Arthur!”

         “Your thinking that is exactly why Eames is here.” He probably doesn’t mean to sound so patronizing, but he still really, really does.

         Ariadne resists the urge to punch Arthur right in the nose, but Eames chooses an inopportune time to enter the room wearing her face.

         “He’s on his wa— gah!”

         As soon as he shuts the door, she’s there, shoving him back. “Asshole!”

         “Wait now,” he says, holding up his— her— hands. “What’s this about?”

         “Stop it,” she says angrily. “Stop looking like me right now.”

         He exchanges a look over her head with Arthur, who returns it wearily. And then it’s Eames again looking down at her with a chagrin expression.

         “Why? Why are you doing this?”

         “I told you. Insurance.”

         “How does that stupid skirt and flirting with my boss gain us insurance?” She can hear her voice going shrill, but she doesn’t care. “And why is he coming to meet you in a hotel room? No, you know what? I don’t want to know!”

         “Ariadne, it’s only a dream,” he says softly.

         That might have worked before she knew inception was possible, but she knows now that the simplest, smallest suggestion can radically change everything.

         “You can’t do things like this,” she says, and it’s pathetically close to begging. “You can’t because you’re going to confuse him.”

         Confuse us, she thinks. She and Robert are in a good place of sort-of-but-not-really friends, and she likes it that way. They’re building something together that could revolutionize architecture as the world knows it, and Eames could ruin everything by planting… ideas in Robert’s head. Ideas that have no business being there.

         Eames grips her shoulders, gives her a gentle shake, and says earnestly, “Ariadne, my love, that is the point.”

         She gapes at him. “What?”

         “Do you know why you’ve been able to get this far? It’s because Fischer trusts you. A couple of background checks is nothing to a man like that. He likes you, and that’s a good thing. You’re passed his guard, but if the situation turns on us then that will become a very dangerous place to be. This isn’t a game we’re playing. Forget prison, we’re talking about life and death stakes involving a man who was a hair’s breath away from becoming a world power unto himself.”

         The projection starts to make gurgling noises around his gag. They ignore him.

         “I know…”

         “Good. Now, think about all the power and all the resources that man has at his fingertips at any given moment, and then imagine how he would feel once he found out about you.”

         She tries to interrupt him, but he says, “No, I want you to really think about what he would do if he knew what you’d done to him. What would you do in his shoes?”

         There’s an invisible grip on her throat, and she can’t answer. But the kind of man Eames is describing… that’s not Robert. That could never be Robert. Robert likes Reuben’s and opera and horseback riding and green architecture. He gets a twinkle in his eye when he’s talking about things he cares about. He would never order a hit on her. The very idea of him as a mustache-twirling villain is ludicrous.

         So, why can’t she say that? Why are the words caught on the roof of her mouth like sticky peanut butter?

         He lightly touches her face, and she bites her lip against the emotions the gesture bubbles up to the surface. He’s speaking in that soft, cajoling way that adults use to talk to children when they’re being unreasonable.

         “We need him to care about you because, if he does, then there’s a chance that when… if things go bad, they won’t go so bad for you. Do you understand?”

         She does. God help her, she does.

         Arthur clears his throat and says, “He’ll be here any second. Are you ready?” He isn’t asking Eames.

         “Yeah.”

         Arthur’s arm goes around her throat. He presses the Glock against her temple just as Robert enters the room.

~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

       “Mr. Fischer, you need to tell us the name of this fine gentleman here, or we’re going to blow your friend’s brains out all over this nice wallpaper.”

       Robert looks between Ariadne and the as yet unnamed projection without breaking his poker face. Eames has him in one of the leftover chairs and sat facing his own projection. Arthur still has his arm around her throat.

       “I have no idea.”

       Arthur’s arm tightens, and she squeaks in feigned alarm. Robert’s face barely changes, but she thinks she detects a faint twitch at the sound. The projection starts to sob.

       “There’s no point in hurting her. I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

       “No,” Eames says, “but you can drop the act before someone gets hurt.”

       “Scream,” Arthur whispers into her ear. He grabs and pulls a handful of her hair. It does hurt a little, but she screams as if he’s pulled a patch out of her head.

       Arthur feigns the movement of knocking her down. Ariadne goes to her knees. The movement comes off sloppy due to Arthur trying to avoid actually hurting her, but Robert falls for it anyway.

       “Stop it!” he yells.

       “Happily,” Eames chirps. He leans casually against the wall as if he could do this all day. “Just tell us the man’s name, we’ll stop, and you can both go home.”

       “Robert, please,” she whimpers. Part of her wishes he would tell them all to go to hell, but another louder part just wants this all to be over. Just give them a name, Robert, she urges, and we can wake up.

       The projection frantically shakes his head, but Robert is staring into her eyes as if he can hear her thoughts. Discomfited, she drops her gaze.

       “All right,” he murmurs.

       She looks back up in surprise. Arthur’s hand tightens on her shoulder.

       Eames’s voice becomes supple, like the deceptive softness of shadows, as he says, “Very good, Mr. Fischer. His name— that’s all we need. Give us a name, and you can go. Both of you.”

       Robert looks pained as he trains his gaze on her and purposely avoids looking at the struggling projection. It's okay, she wants to tell him. He's not real. Except, somewhere, he is. She tries to give him a reassuring smile, but it has the opposite effect of what she intends. He pales.

       “Mr. Fischer,” Arthur says warningly. The Glock digs deeper into her temple.

       “Gerald Holden.”

       Ariadne’s breath releases in a soft woosh.

       But it’s too soon to celebrate.

       It all happens too fast.

       The door bursts open, and the projections are there.

       Time and space shrink into a storm of bullets. Holes pepper the walls. Someone’s screaming. A vase explodes near her face. Ariadne flattens to the floor and covers her head.

       Eames flips one of the twin beds up to use as a shield, and he’s firing back at them. But the room isn’t very big, and they’re all too close to each other. If she were to lift her head even a little, she’d lose it.

       Robert’s shouting something. The static is buzzing so loud in her ears that it takes her several seconds to realize that the shooting has stopped. Arthur’s there, tugging on her arm, trying to get her behind the bed frame, but she can’t move because there’s a gun in her face.

       The gun blast explodes in her ear. She chokes on a real scream.

       But she doesn’t die. Or wake up.

       Arthur’s hands fall away from her, and she hears him slump to the floor. She hears this happen, but doesn’t look because she can’t turn away from the image of Robert pointing a gun over her shoulder at Arthur’s still form.

       All three of the projection bodyguards charge the mattress barricade and take out Eames in a hail of bullets.

       Ariadne finds herself left crouching in the center of a room that is now filled with beloved corpses. Even Gerald Holden is dead, a pathetic casualty and still strapped to his chair. God.

       “Are you all right?” Robert asks her. He starts to crouch down beside her, but he stills when one of the bodyguards points his gun at her. “What are you doing? She’s with me.”

       The gun doesn’t waver. “Step back, Sir.”

       “What? No! Didn’t you hear me? She’s with me!”

       “Step back!” the projection roars.

       “Don’t—”

       Ariadne squeezes her eyes shut. When the gun goes off, it’s Robert who cries out. Clutching his arm, he falls to his knees.

       She belatedly realizes he must have thrown himself in front of her. Why...? The projection raises his aim again. Another gunshot comes from behind and takes him out.

       There is only a split second window of time. Ariadne grabs Robert’s fallen gun and takes out the remaining bodyguards in two swift movements. It’s kind of funny. In real life, she can’t shoot to save her life, but in the dream, she’s Annie Oakley.

       Once they’re down, she sees her savior from the first bodyguard.

       Eames.

       Struggling to bend up at the waist, he drops his gun once he sees she’s all right and slumps back to the floor with a groan. “Hey,” he calls.

       Robert is curled into a fetal position and clutching his arm. Imagined pain seems to have his full attention. With an uncertain glance at him, she crawls past Arthur’s body— don’t look, don’t look— and over to Eames. He looks so much worse close up. His shirt is a red bloody mess, and his face has gone clammy and blanched.

       “You don’t look so good,” she says, attempting levity even though looking at his bloody chest makes her want to throw up.

       “He can’t die here,” Eames gasps, and for a terrifying second, she thinks he’s going to tell her Robert will fall into limbo. “If he kicks before the timer runs out, there won’t be time… there won’t be time to…”

       “Escape,” she finishes for him as understanding comes to her.

       Arthur already has a head start on them, but it won’t do him any good if Robert dies before Eames and Ariadne can escape the dream. Robert could wake to find himself connected to the PASIV and surrounded by sleeping strangers. There won’t be a graceful way out of that, not even for someone as quick on their feet as Arthur.

       She is loathed to do it, but she pulls Eames’s H&K pistol from his loose grip and gently rests it against his temple. “Should I? And then… myself?”

       “No, you’re the dreamer.” He tries to grin at her, but the result is grotesque since his teeth are stained red from blood. “You go, and this whole place crumbles. And I’ll go the natural way any second now I suspect.”

       He coughs. It’s a horrible, wet sound, but this is just a dream, just a dream, damn it!

       “Just… just keep him alive as long as you can to stall and give us more time.”

       There’s shouting coming from down the hall.

       “Go.”

       Ariadne’s up and tugging Robert to his feet. He cries out in pain, and she winces.

       The wound is in his shoulder. She asks if he can walk through the pain, and he nods. She doesn’t really believe him since he’s wobbling unnaturally, but they have to get out of here. The shouting voices are getting closer.

       “I know it hurts,” she says, “but you need to put your good arm around my shoulders and try to act casual, okay?”

       She doesn’t look back at Eames as they leave the room.

       There are more projections down the hall. She quickly angles Robert in the opposite direction. Their stares feel like hot pokers on her back.

       “Stay cool,” she whispers as much to herself as to him. “We can do this.” She puts her arms around his waist and hopes to God that they look like a normal couple leaving their hotel suite. Or at least an inebriated couple that can’t quite manage walking straight.

       “What the hell is going on?” he hisses back.

       “They’re bad guys,” is her vague answer.

       “That’s not what you were wearing before.”

       Of all the things to notice now. “Look, there isn’t time to explain, okay? We have to get out of here.”

       Just a few more steps and they’ll be out of the hallway and the sight of the projections. They can’t be paying them much mind since they haven’t started firing yet. That’s good. Her heart’s pounding like it wants to escape her chest, but it’s good. Almost there.

       They turn the corner. Ariadne holds her breath. She doesn’t hear them in pursuit. Victory.

       They move faster. She has no idea where to go or what to do, so she just guides him back toward the ballroom. The dream has a whole cityscape designed, which means lots of places to hide, but going outside also means braving a sea of projections on the street.

       She is busy trying to figure out how much time Arthur and Eames will need up above, when Robert says, “I don’t understand. Why did he want to shoot you? It doesn’t make any sense…”

       She doesn’t have the focus to spare to make up some bullshit about why his fake bodyguard would turn on him. “I don’t know, Robert,” she mutters. “Just keep moving.”

       They’ve escaped her labyrinth hallways— only slightly more complex than the real thing— and the impossible brightness of the ballroom lies just ahead.

       But he stops.

       Robert’s feet grind to a halt, and because she is pulled tight against his frame and wrapped around him, his abrupt stop jerks her back and almost pulls both of them off their balance.

       Before she can ask, she sees the reason.

       Robert’s gaze is transfixed by the view from the bay window, on a statue that somehow looks twice as large and imposing as it did before. No longer serene, the sea is churning angry tides that crash up against his marble legs and look so real she can smell the ocean spray.

       All the color has gone out of Robert’s face. “That’s… my father.”

       Seeming to forget the pain of the bullet in his shoulder, he straightens, his face gone slack with awe. He pulls away from her and edges closer to the window. “I don’t understand,” he whispers.

       “Robert,” she says miserably. They don’t have time for this.

       With obvious reluctance, he turns away from his towering father and blinks bleary eyes at her, as if seeing her for the first time. “This… can’t be real.”

       The pictures on the wall begin to shake.

       “Am I dreaming?”

       At once, the chatter from the ballroom falls silent and at least forty heads turn in their direction. She can almost hear the buzzing from the collective hive mind as it narrows in on them.

       Time’s up.

       Ariadne does the only thing she can do: she slaps him. Hard.

       “Did that hurt?” she demands.

       He stares at her incredulously and touches his pink cheek. To her relief, the awe in his eyes has been replaced with indignation. “Yes, damn it!”

       “Then you can’t be dreaming, can you?” she says, and the lies just keep coming. “The pain is making you hallucinate.”

       When his expression still registers skepticism, she adds (a bit desperately), “That is not your father." It wasn't so long ago that she had to make a similar assurance for Cobb. "It’s just a statue, okay? Okay, Robert?”

       A sudden wave crashes against the window, hard enough to shake the glass, and Ariadne leaps back with a surprised cry.

       Nonplussed, Robert looks at her curiously, but she’s staring passed him at the source of the aggressive wave.

       When the second arm cracks and falls, the huge chunk of marble drops into the sea, and the resulting splash sends another wave at them that bursts against the window. The statue is coming apart at the seams, much like this dream.

       Ariadne's lost count of how long it has been so far in relation to the real world, but decides she doesn’t care. She wants out of this dream yesterday.

       Not bothering to wait for his agreement, she grabs his arm and tugs him forward. He cries out in remembered pain, and she takes that for a good sign. “Come on.”

       He’s confused, but he follows her.

       When they manage to get outside the hotel and onto the sidewalk without any projections coming after them, she makes the mistake of thinking they’ve done it, that they have made it out of harm’s way.

       They haven’t.

       She can hear the sound of massive marble cracking far off in the distance. She ignores it, her focus completely on Robert and keeping him moving. All they have to do is survive a little longer.

       But Robert has already begun to doubt the validity of the world around them, and she knows they have gone as far as they can— too soon, too soon— when the tall buildings lining the street give a great, shuddering groan.

       Everything goes quiet and still as the dream seems to be holding its breath. Then, the earth shakes.

       “Shit,” Robert gasps.

       A tremor travels beneath their feet and sends Ariadne carting sideways. She has to grab onto a convenient trashcan to keep from falling over.

       The shaking moves from the ground up so that the cars along the street begin to rattle, and she sees window dressings fall over in their displays.

       Ariadne tugs Robert away from a lamppost with a merry lantern swaying dangerously above their heads.

       Clutching his shoulder, Robert grimaces. “We should keep moving,” he says because he doesn’t understand yet that it is pointless.

       Ariadne doesn’t move because she does. The world is disintegrating around them, and this is only the harbinger of worse things to come.

       Even as she thinks it, that something worse arrives.

       A stream of ice-cold water suddenly splashes onto her head.

       Crying out, she jerks forward, unintentionally bumping into Robert to escape the stream, forcing him to catch her with a pained grunt.

       When she glances up at him, the apology dies on her tongue.

       His mouth has fallen agape as he stares over her head at something across the street. It is not with a little trepidation that she turns to see what he is looking at.

       The scent of salt in the air turns out not to be just her imagination.

       From every window, on every floor, in every building along the street, water pours from the sills. As if every single tenant has simultaneously left the faucets running so that their buildings are overflowing.

       “What the hell?” Robert murmurs. He seems more transfixed by what he sees than afraid.

       Turning, she sees that all the windows in all the buildings on either side of them are the same. Water gushes through the windows and over the ledges, flooding the sidewalks and the streets. One of the window displays fills up like a fish tank until the glass finally shatters from the rising pressure and more water floods into the street.

       Because this is a dream, it takes little over a minute before they are standing ankle-deep in freezing water.

       Eames and Arthur are never going to work with her again, she realizes. Why should they? No one wants an architect who keeps losing control of her own designs. Poor Cobb. Poor her.

       As if summoned by her thoughts, the invisible hand of her coworkers appears in the dream.

       She hears the kick before she sees it.

~*~

Non sperar, se non m'uccidi (I won’t let you go, unless you kill me)…

~*~

       Ariadne knows a lot about dying.

       Two years younger and with two years worth of excess naivety, she leaves the warehouse in Paris that first time, after dying twice in the course of what amounts to ten minutes in the real world.

       Head full of mirror-born bridges, upside-down skylines, and shanks tearing into her abdomen, she wanders around the city for hours until the shaky feeling finally starts to wear off.

       Cobb and Arthur might not be affected by simulated murder, maybe because they have done it so many times before, but Ariadne isn’t accustomed to dying.

       Deciding to go back takes a bafflingly short amount of time. But before she actually follows the bread crumbs back to the warehouse, Ariadne adds some tools to her toolbox. She researches different methods of dying.

       Understandably, it has to be simple and quick.

       Hanging herself turns out to be tricky because she would only die right away if the angle were just right so that she’d snap her neck immediately on the drop. But hanging could also result in a slow, painful strangulation if the slightest calculation were off. Too risky.

       Suicide by subway comes with a surprisingly high— apparently sixty-seven percent— survival rate due to several factors impervious to calculation, while jumping in front of a train has only a ten percent survival rate.

       Thankfully for Cobb and Mal, they didn’t fall into that ten percent.

       Trains seem like a good bet, but after the inception job, Ariadne knows she will never include trains in any of her designs. Ever.

       Cobb and Arthur’s preferred method of suicide seems to be a quick shot to the head, but even that comes with risks, she discovers. People get shot all the time at point blank range in the face and still survive— usually due to sheer dumb luck.

       She doesn’t comprehend the finer details of the thing but understands enough to know that it all comes down to missile velocity, the energy of the projectile, and tissue interaction. If the shot doesn’t kill her immediately, if she doesn’t get hit in just the right spot, then she could be forced to wait out the rest of the dream with severe brain damage, hemorrhages, disfigurement, and bone fragments embedded in her brain.

       It’s not a pretty picture.

       Oh, but drowning.

       Without oxygen, the brain takes an average of six minutes to die. Maybe three minutes till you lose consciousness and then permanent brain damage sets in. Three minutes means one-hundred and eighty seconds of conscious drowning. One-hundred and eighty torturous, endless seconds might as well be a hundred and eighty years to a drowning person as you struggled (and failed) not to breathe.

       Drowning is supposed to be one of the most horrible, painful ways to go.

       Ariadne herself now has experience with dying due to flying projectiles and from being gutted like a fish by a peeved projection. She can’t exactly recommend either as preferred methods of death.

       But they are both still preferred to drowning.

~*~

       When the tsunami-sized wave crests over a skyscraper, consuming the steel behemoth in one hungry gulp, understanding comes to her in a flash.

       It’s the kick.

       But it is the last kick she would ever want to impose on Robert. Or herself.

       With his back turned to their imminent deaths, Robert hasn’t noticed the wave yet because he’s so fascinated by the water pouring from the windows. He holds out his hand beneath one of the streams with child-like wonderment.

       It only takes the span of a second for the thunderous roar of the ocean’s arm as it punches down to earth to reach him.

       Ariadne reaches up and catches his face in her hands before he can turn to look. Pressed in so close, his impossibly blue eyes fill her vision, and she forces herself to see only him and nothing else.

       Robert mouths her name, but whatever else he says is lost to the bellow of the wave and its pitiless destruction.

       She doesn’t have to look to know half their dream is already gone.

       It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real!

       Ariadne is gripping his face so hard it must be hurting him, but she’s so afraid her knees are shaking. She is also very sorry for what they are both about to experience.

       Robert’s hands come up to her arms. She expects him to pull her hands away from his face, but he just rests them there on her wrists.

       Both their gestures are too intimate, a poor fit for them, but they are about to die, and Robert is giving her a smile she’s never seen him wear before— for once more smile than smirk— and full of something undefinable as he gazes down at her. The effect of it all changes his entire face by softening his sharp lines.

       The sight of it frightens her more than even the wave.

       Projections are screaming as they get sucked down in the rapids’ wake. Less than a second until she and Robert join them, and her mind’s eye already sees him tossing and spinning through darkness as he slowly suffocates.

       Because of her.

       She bites her lip against the stinging in her eyes. Never again.

       The soft pant of his breath falls against her mouth, and their breathing mingles as they exhale together into the short space between them. For one brief, precious moment, all other sounds fade away, and he really is the only other thing in the world.

       “Don’t look,” she whispers even though he can’t hear her.

       Later, she will have to blame the blurred logic of the dream and her own desperation in the moment for what she does next.

       She closes the distance and kisses him.

       The wave hits.

~*~

       Ariadne wakes, gasping and flailing. She’s screaming, but no sound seems to leave her lips.

       A hand snaps out of the ether and catches her thrashing arm.

       Brown eyes meet blue, and they breathe together. In, out.

       Robert opens his mouth to say something, maybe her name, and Arthur brings the bronze horse paperweight down on his head.

       His grip falls from her arm, and Robert’s eyes slide closed again.

       Ariadne stares at him for several more seconds as the fog slowly clears and her heart rate returns to normal. As the reality of the dream and the reality of here and now coalesce together, she realizes they survived the kick.

       And Arthur probably just killed Robert with a paperweight.

       There is nothing wrong with her throat, not really, but she still feels the ghost pain of strained muscles as she rasps, “What the hell did you do?”

       Arthur holds out a hand to help her up. “Taking care of a problem.”

       She bats his hand away and laboriously struggles to her feet. “This isn’t a dream, Arthur. You can’t just bash his brains in and walk away!”

       Arthur and Eames share another ambiguous glance, and Ariadne does not want to know.

       “We couldn’t have him waking up with us here,” Eames reminds her. “As soon as things went bad, this was the only option.”

       “He could be really hurt,” she insists. Robert isn’t bleeding or anything, but there is already a brutal-looking bruise forming on his forehead. She checks his pulse just to be sure.

       “We could be really hurt.”

       “Well?” Arthur asks her, starting to look a little worried.

       She glares at him, says grudgingly, “He’s alive, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t caused permanent damage!”

       Arthur reaches out to touch her arm, but his hand feels cold and she jerks away at the memory of frozen water filling her throat and lungs and the world going dark.

       His hand falls back to his side.

       Eames looks between them and sighs. Irreverent as always, he waves the tension in the room away as if it were a cloud of undesired perfume. “Well, that didn’t exactly go smoothly, but I’m happy to say mission accomplished, nonetheless. Our employers will be happy.”

       She doesn’t immediately understand what he’s talking about, because the fact that Robert gave up the name of his plant at Varis Energy is the last thing on her mind at the moment.

       Robert is so still. Guilt makes her tone sharper than she intends. “Congrats.”

       “That means we’re done,” Arthur adds quietly.

       He’s right. The job is finished.

       Before they go, Eames lightly touches her head and says in an unintentional imitation of Cobb, “You did a good job, Ariadne.”

       She gives them ten torturous minutes, and then she calls 911.

 

~*~

Ah taci, ingiusto core (Ah, be quiet unjust heart)…

~*~

       Robert only has a mild concussion.

       Ariadne accompanies him to the hospital and has to explain to both Robert as well as the doctors how he must have fallen and hit his head on his own desk. The doctors tell him he has post-traumatic amnesia since he can’t remember the events leading up to the fall. Confusion is typical.

       She only leaves him for the time it takes to be disappointed in her hopes for a cup of coffee from a still-open cafeteria— they closed hours ago— but he’s gone by the time she returns to his room.

       Like a fool, she stands in the center of his room and performs a full circle as if she’ll be able to locate him this way.

       She has just come around to face the door again when a flustered nurse rushes into the room and tells her Robert refused to stay for observation or listen to the doctor’s advice.

       “People with concussions need to be watched,” the nurse whines at her, as if Ariadne were the one in need of convincing.

       Her frustration, coupled with worry and guilt, compels her into a cab before she can think too hard about it.

       Robert’s penthouse lies at the top of a luxurious art deco building on the Upper East Side. The building, ominous in its height at this late hour, has a doorman who glares suspiciously at her through sleep-deprived eyes as he calls up to Robert’s apartment for the okay to let her go up.

       Standing under harsh angles that spread and intersect in a rhythmic design that reminds her of a spiderweb, Ariadne can’t help but think Robert lives in a geometric prison.

       The doorman gets the okay and up she goes, floor after floor.

       He has left the door open for her, and a familiar-sounding mournful melody carries down the hall to greet her. If this weren’t enough to concern her, then what she actually sees when she peeks her head through the door does the trick.

       “Ariadne,” he announces. “I had the strangest dream.”

       She doesn’t know what disturbs her more— the fact that Robert’s brandishing a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels at her or the fact that he’s wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants like… well, like a normal person.

       Eying him cautiously, she comes further into the room and sets her purse down on a high-backed chair. She glances around with a frown.

       Robert’s apartment, anchored by dark furniture and sharp-lined tables and cabinets, is a study in unwelcoming interior design, garnished as it is with expensive-looking vases and sculptures and the overall impression of old money. Melancholy eyes stare out at her from two baroque portrait paintings and contribute to what can only be called a very depressing living space.

       Fearing that any wrong move could result in breaking something or being sliced by a sharp edge, Ariadne cautiously navigates around his possessions to where he stands.

       “I said I had the strangest dream,” he repeats when she doesn’t ask him to elaborate.

       “I heard you,” she mutters. “I was just busy wondering how you arrived at the conclusion that drinking while concussed was a good idea.”

       Robert makes a dismissive gesture at her. Ariadne takes the opportunity to grab the bottle out of his loose grip. “What were you thinking?”

       “Why do you think you can talk to me that way?” he asks sullenly, slouching down onto a leather couch.

       She would take him more seriously if he weren’t pouting like a child. “You have a concussion.”

       “And the whole world is going to know that I tripped and knocked myself out on my own desk,” he says angrily. “Thanks to you.”

       She turns an incredulous gaze on him. “I was supposed to let you lie there, unconscious and concussed? Really?”

       “Those nurses aren’t going to keep their mouths shut about this. My critics are going to get an early Christmas present this year.” He shakes his head in disgust. “Father would be furious. He’d murder me, and he’d be right to do it.”

       It is probably her overwhelming disgust at such a flagrant display of self-pity that makes her snap at him as she does. “Is that why you’re listening to this?” She’s no expert on classical music, but even she recognizes Mozart’s unfinished requiem (also known as the saddest music in the world). Between the sad music and the sad décor, it’s a miracle he hasn’t jumped off the roof yet.

       She angrily stomps over to his music system and fiddles around in search of the off button. “Damn it, Robert, let the Mozart thing go! That opera probably isn’t even about Mozart’s father! You’re just projecting!”

       His mouth falls open and closed, and Ariadne feels her face grow hot. Awkward choice of words. “This isn’t Don Giovanni,” he says finally.

       “I know that, but I think you’re missing my point.” She finds the off button, and the room falls silent.

       Robert shakes his head. He doesn’t seem angry so much as confused. “You act like you’re… Who do you think you are?”

       She eyes him warily. “I’m someone who doesn’t like the idea of you leaving a hospital against doctor’s orders and not even pretending to take care of yourself.”

       “Why do you care?”

       He sounds so suspicious that Ariadne softens immediately. “Do I need a reason?” she asks, coming nearer. “Can’t I just be concerned?”

       “Everyone has an angle,” he says bitterly.

       She wishes that weren’t true. She hesitates and then asks, “Do you really believe I have an angle?”

       Robert stares up at her, and his eyes, though bright, are sharper than the whiskey should have allowed. His silence costs Ariadne her nerve, and she turns away from him. “I’m going to get you some water—”

       He catches her arm. “Ask me what my dream was about.”

       She swallows nervously. “What was it about?”

       His pause runs so long she doesn’t think he is going to tell her after all, but then he says, “I was drowning.”

       She lets out a breath…

       “You were there.”

       … and promptly sucks it back in.

       His fingers are digging into her arm. She can’t look away from him even though her instinct tells her she should be running for the door. “You’re always there.”

       “I… am?” she says, her throat turned to dust.

       “Yes.”

       Robert uses his hold on her to pull himself to his feet, and then he’s hovering over her. They’re standing close enough to share breath, and Ariadne suddenly smells sea air again. The quiet of the room lingers around them like something fragile and sacred. Her heart starts to pound.

       Robert gently touches her hair, her face. “Always there,” he murmurs. “You’re here, you’re at work, you’re everywhere. I’ve never… I talk to you all the time in my head… I can’t help it.”

       It’s such an intimate confession— and coming from a man who sounds lost rather than fervent— that she doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s too much. He’s giving her something here, something that doesn’t belong to her, because he’s drunk and confused, and she doesn’t want it.

       She only wanted to build with him.

       “Why can’t I get you out of my head?” he asks plaintively, as if she holds all the answers. The cruel irony is that she does.

       Because I’ve made you mine, she thinks sadly.

       “Sometimes," he whispers, "in the dreams, you save me.”

       She sees the kiss coming and recognizes her last opportunity to avoid this. Frozen and feeling more than a little lost herself, she doesn’t.

       When Robert’s lips touch hers, she can suddenly hear the wave again and feel the earth moving beneath her feet. She tastes the ocean on his tongue.

       The desperate way Robert grips her face and kisses her confirms all her fears about this mission. She worried about the consequences of spending so much time in Robert’s mind, and here they are.

       Robert’s fingers cut into her cheeks, her neck. He’s touching her as if he’s trying to make sure she is real. Ariadne feels so dizzy and that’s really the only reason she grips his shirt, which is warm from his flushed skin. He’s warm everywhere, and what surprises her most is the heat that rises up in her to meet him where he touches, as if summoned by him.

       She suddenly realizes he’s murmuring something between frantic kisses, something that sounds suspiciously like, “Save me, Ariadne.”

       She hasn’t kissed him back, not really, but this has her shoving him away, halting her passive non-resistance.

       Not looking at him, she ducks around Robert, standing so still and quiet now, and takes the bottle of Jack Daniels into the kitchen. The bottle makes a clinking noise when she drops it into the sink.

       Gripping the counter with clenched fingers, Ariadne stares hard at the tile, at anything so she won’t have to think about the colossal mistake she’s just made. But it’s pointless because her self-loathing won’t let her off that easy. Not this time.

       After everything she has already done to him, she could still do this? She hadn’t sunk low enough? Robert is a man who exists outside of dreams and with real, human feelings. Feelings that she suspects aren’t even entirely his own anymore.

       The reminder makes her feel sick enough that she could throw up all over his expensive carpet.

       “Ariadne?”

       She doesn’t turn around when she says, “I’m sorry.” She can’t look at him, even though her body is still singing from the touch and taste of him.

       Taste? God, she can taste the Jack Daniels in her mouth. How did she ever mistake that for the ocean? Stupid, stupid girl.

       “Why?” he asks warily.

       Hopefully, he will never know all the reasons. “Because that was a mistake. It… it shouldn’t have happened, and it can’t ever happen again. Ever.”

       She finally braves a glance at him and sees that Robert looks stricken. He goes to say something. She cuts him off. “It shouldn’t have happened,” she repeats for emphasis.

       His face hardens.

       The only thing she wants right now is to leave, but Robert is blocking her way. She edges around him, careful not to touch any part of him. “I’m… I’m going now. Okay?”

       He doesn’t say anything.

       Ariadne grabs her purse and runs.

~*~

turn thee, ere heav'n hath doom'd thee (there's time yet for repentance)…

~*~

       The next day at work, Robert pretends to lean over her shoulder so as to look at her computer screen. He whispers so only she can hear, “Ariadne, please—”

       “No,” she says immediately.

       He straightens and glares down at her.

       “Here are the blueprints you wanted, Mr. Fischer,” she says in a louder voice.

       Robert snatches them from her, and Ariadne hopes whoever happens to be watching will mistake his animosity for one of his typical moods.

       “Thank you,” he says in a clipped tone.

       And that’s that.

       The next day, Robert doesn’t look her in the eye. Actually, he doesn’t acknowledge her at all. He comes in late, strides passed her, barking into his phone, and then closes himself up in his office. Every so often, they can hear him talking agitatedly to people on the phone. When he wants to talk about the building plans, he calls Harriet in.

       Overnight, Ariadne becomes invisible.

       “He’s in a mood,” Harriet mutters after coming out of his office. The few people who go in there come out looking vaguely traumatized. Not Harriet though.

       She gives Ariadne a shrewd look. “Then again, so are you. Everything all right?”

       “I’m fine,” Ariadne says in a purposely light tone. For a touch of realism, she adds, “Just tired maybe.”

       “Better get used to that,” Harriet says, completely devoid of sympathy. “It never gets any easier.”

       “So I’ve been told,” she mutters, glancing up again at Robert’s door as his office secretary comes out. She looks near tears.

       Ariadne knows it is cowardly to think better you than me, but she’s never claimed to be a good person.

       She dreaded coming in to work after… after the incident and had no idea what she was going to say to him. Now that he has taken the choice out of her hands, it’s hard not to be grateful. Until they can get back to where they were before, she’s fine with playing Invisible Girl.

       Nonetheless, she also doesn’t fool herself into thinking this mutual avoidance can last. She knows they will have to face each other eventually and talk this out like adults because this awkward tension can’t go on forever.

       Or so she thinks. It turns out that she vastly underestimates Robert’s penchant for passive-aggressive behavior.

       For almost a week, he only speaks to her when absolutely necessary and, more often than not, he goes through Harriet instead. It shouldn’t be strange for him to take his ideas to Harriet. She is Ariadne’s superior and technically head of this project.

       But a childish voice whispers in her ear that this is her skyscraper. Robert should be coming to her with any changes or alterations he wants to make. This was part of their deal: intern only in name.

       The funny thing— which is not really funny at all— she discovers after a full week of this treatment turns out to be that she actually kind of… She wouldn’t say misses him because that would be ridiculous and an exaggeration. They aren’t friends, and despite a single near miss, they aren’t anything more than that either. No, misses isn’t the right word.

       But she has gotten used to certain things, like talking to him every day, occasionally sharing lunch and awkward small talk, and (most importantly) building a dream with him. Ariadne’s enthusiasm for this project is entirely her own, but without that ambitious livewire sparking between them, coming in to work every day is considerably less exciting. His enthusiasm feeds hers, and she likes to think that goes both ways.

       When Robert suddenly leaves for a week-long business trip back to Australia, it is both relieving and frustrating because his absence means putting off reconciliation for even longer.

       The first day of his trip, Harriet looks surprised to see her coming in to work. “What are you doing here?”

       “I… work here?”

       “I thought Robert was taking you to Australia.”

       Ariadne stares at her in confusion. “Why would he do that?”

       Harriet shrugs. “He mentioned ages ago that he was thinking of taking you with him. Something about introducing you to members of the Australian branch and giving you a feel for another office.”

       “He… never mentioned it.”

       “Oh. Then he must have changed his mind.”

       “I guess he did.”

       It means nothing to Harriet either way, but Ariadne feels as if she’s been punched in the gut. Robert was going to take her to Australia, but he didn’t.

       It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why he changed his mind.

       Then, Ariadne starts to get angry. Personal awkwardness aside, going with him could have been a great opportunity to make business contacts and gain experience. Leaving her behind was petty and beneath him and in doing so, he took this beyond the personal and into the professional.

       Make that very angry.

       The facts are these: Robert kissed her. He kissed her. He should be the one to feel embarrassed, and he shouldn’t be punishing her. There are laws against sexual harassment in the work place for a reason.

       Her anger builds and builds throughout the course of the week until Robert finally comes back. He has barely settled back into his office when she barges in on him.

       “How was your trip?”

       He looks up in surprise at her sudden appearance. “It was fine,” he says after an uncomfortable pause. “Productive.”

       “Why didn’t you take me?” she demands.

       Robert barely pauses in unpacking his briefcase, but she sees the tension in his movements even if he isn’t looking at her. “I never said I was taking you.”

       “You told Harriet you were,” she says even though that isn’t specifically true.

       “Harriet spoke out of turn,” he says icily.

       “Why didn’t you take me?” she repeats because she wants to hear him actually say it.

       Robert’s hands still over his papers, and he rests them gently on his desk. He lifts his eyes slowly to hers, and his voice is deceptively soft.

       “Because I didn’t need you.”

~*~

       For once, she doesn’t stay late.

       There are about a thousand things she could be working on, but the idea of staying in an empty, too-quiet building while Robert hides from her inside his office sounds less than appealing.

       The car is waiting for her outside.

       She doesn’t notice at first, even starts to walk passed it, but she comes to a quick stop when Peter Browning pokes his head out of the window.

       “Hello, Ariadne.”

       He doesn’t bother to ask if she remembers him or not, and it’s maybe this that puts her immediately on edge even more so than the fact that he seems to already know her name.

       Still, her tone is amiable when she says, “Hello, Mr. Browning. Something I can help you with?”

       Then, he says the words she has been dreading hearing for months.

       “You and I need to talk.”

~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

Madamina, il catalogo è questo (My little lady, this is the catalogue)…

~*~

       She can’t help the nervous glance she sends in both directions of the street, as if help will suddenly materialize from behind a lamp post or garbage can. Really, what good is Arthur’s stalking if he isn’t here for the important parts?

       “I’m sorry, Mr. Browning, but I was just on my way home,” she says, stepping away from the car. Just putting some distance between herself and the vehicle makes her feel better.

       Browning smiles and opens the car door. “Allow me to give you a ride.”

       “No,” she says too quickly. Her heart’s pounding so hard it feels as if the thing is about to jump up her throat. Taking another step back, she surprises herself when her voice remains steady and calm. “Thank you, though. I’m all right. Goodnight, Mr.—”

       Her mouth snaps closed when Browning holds up a picture easily made out even from the dim light of the car. Throughout the course of an infinite moment, the world slips off its axis and then rights itself again.

       Ariadne gets in the car.

       Browning knocks on the glass partition, and the driver takes off even though he hasn’t asked for directions to her apartment. When Browning hands her a familiar-looking folder, she guesses— likely correctly— that he doesn’t need to ask.

       The dossier isn’t as thorough as the one Robert first showed her; in fact, the pictures and notes all seem to be from the past few months. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more elsewhere though.

       “What’s the young man’s name?” he asks, holding up the picture that got her into the car. “The investigator couldn’t figure that one out.”

       The picture is from a week ago. Arthur took her out to lunch for a debriefing, to tell her that as a result of their work in Robert’s brain Gerald Holden’s entire existence had subsequently been erased from the world. The client was very pleased with their work. Holden’s widow? Not so much.

       Ariadne already has a new account under her name in the unfailingly unscrupulous Cayman Islands, courtesy of Arthur, who handled everything.

       Arthur wore a gorgeous lavender shirt under a black pinstripe blazer that day. He took her to the Palace Hotel for their meal. A group of waitresses gathered together at the edge of the room to giggle and ogle him. He held out her chair for her. She strangely doesn’t remember this happening, but the picture shows that he put his hand on her back as they were leaving.

       “Why did you do this?” she asks, glancing through seemingly mundane photos of her leaving her apartment and reading on the subway.

       She experiences an unpleasant shock when she sees a picture of her and Arthur sitting together at the coffee shop. So long ago?

       “I didn’t. Robert did.”

       Her eyes snap up from the dossier. “What did you say?”

       “We had a man at the old company who we went to for… well, let’s call it ‘extracurricular security,’” he says, grinning. “Robert was sloppy to use him again, but I guess he doesn’t know that he reports first to me. This is an exact copy of the dossier he gave to Robert when he got off the plane from Sydney this morning.”

       Her hands are shaking, so she lowers the folder down to her lap. “Why did he do this?”

       She can’t ask what she really wants to know: does Robert know? About her? About the extractions? Or the inception? Are they in trouble?

       “Robert is a complicated man, but I’m sure you already know that,” he says, which is the same as no answer at all.

       Struggling to control her breathing without revealing her panic, Ariadne asks, “What do you want from me, Mr. Browning?”

       “You aren’t going to defend him this time?”

       He looks so smug she wants to hit him.

       “What. Do. You. Want?”

       He takes a thick envelope out of his breast pocket and hands it to her.

       She half-expects to find more pictures, this time maybe of Cobb or Eames or Yusuf, but it’s not. It’s money. Lots and lots of money.

       “What is this?”

       “You’re a smart girl, Ariadne. What does it look like?”

       It looks like a bribe. “What’s it for?”

       “I want you to quit your job at Fischer Morrow.”

       She looks up in surprise.

       “After that, I want you to get on a plane and disappear. It doesn’t matter where you go as long as you go somewhere else. You’re never to see or make contact again with Robert.”

       Feeling as if she has just entered the twilight zone, Ariadne stares at Browning, stares down at the money, and looks at Browning again as if one or the other will start to make sense. “What the hell does this mean?”

       “You heard me.” Browning, cool as a cucumber, could be talking about the stock market or the weather or anything other than calmly bribing her into leaving the country.

       Ariadne has to give herself a mental shake in an attempt to dispel the madness of this encounter.

       “Why do you want me to stay away from him?” she asks, genuinely curious. The only explanation for this is that he knows about the extractions or even the inception, but that wouldn’t explain why he’s handing her an envelope full of cash. “Why do you care? I’m just his employee.”

       Browning sighs and takes back the dossier. Taking a pair of reading glasses from his coat pocket, he flips to a certain page and reads, “Subject stays late, past typical working hours, several nights a week alone in the office building with Robert Fischer. Subject frequently receives rides home after work hours in a car licensed to Robert Fischer.”

       His eyes flick up to hers, and Ariadne starts to get an idea of where he is going with this. She feels her skin start to crawl at his self-satisfied amusement as he reads, “November 2, Subject leaves Robert Fischer’s penthouse at three in the morning looking disheveled.”

       He takes off his glasses and gives her a pointed look. “Just his employee?”

       Ariadne would feel a hell of a lot more embarrassed if his insinuations were true. But as it were, she just feels confused. And annoyed.

       “Why would he need to hire someone to tell him what he already knows?”

       “I expect he was curious to know who else you were spending your time with. Probably about the young man in the photos. What did you say his name was?”

       Ignoring Browning’s insinuation— again— Ariadne tries to rationally think through her escalating unease about what she could have done to spike Robert’s suspicions of her. The picture of her and Arthur at the coffee shop predates their first extraction job on him. She has a hard time believing that he would let her stay on at the company for so long afterward and even fail to prevent another extraction job on his mind afterward if he knew.

       So, why would he have her followed?

       There are no answers, no matter how furiously she thinks about the problem.

       Frustrated, she says, “How is any of this your business, Mr. Browning? Why do you care who he spends his time with?”

       “Why?” For the first time, she sees genuine anger boiling beneath his calm façade. “It’s my business,” he spats at her, “because that boy has been like a son to me for over thirty years, and that makes it my business to protect him when little tramps like you come sniffing around his money. You’re hardly the first I’ve had this conversation with, little girl. Not by a long shot. His father hoped he would eventually wise up but it looks like Robert’s always going to be a sucker for a pair of convincing Bambi eyes.”

       His lip curls. “At least he had the forethought this time to hire an investigator before it got too serious. That’s progress, I suppose.”

       Ariadne can only shake her head in amazement, seeing as how she has no idea what to say or even how to process what Peter Browning is saying to her. It’s ridiculous. He’s ridiculous.

       Unless…

       No. Browning doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Robert was drunk that night— and concussed— and it doesn’t have to mean anything more than that. It doesn’t.

       But she still has a very serious problem on her hands. She has to tell Arthur.

       “Let me out of this car,” she snaps. “Now.”

       “Have it your way,” he says, tapping the glass partition again.

       As soon as the car comes to a stop, she pops open the door. But Browning immediately catches her arm.

       “Think about my offer. There’s ten-thousand dollars in this envelope, and there will be another ten-thousand waiting for you in an account after you follow through.”

       Another account. The idea of being independently wealthy has never seemed less appealing.

       Tossing the envelope back at him, she jerks out of his grip. She is already several feet down the sidewalk when Browning’s voice makes her stop again. “Ariadne!”

       She turns and sees that he’s leaning casually against the side of the car.

       “You should think really hard about my offer. Or else Robert might start to wonder why exactly you were on the same flight as he was from Sydney to Los Angeles that day.”

~*~

       She knows the first thing she should do is call Arthur or Eames, but Ariadne’s feet start heading back toward Fischer Morrow before she can talk herself out of it.

       She starts to run.

       Hugo, the night security guard, lets her back into the building, and she heads straight for Robert’s office.

       The lights are still on, but he’s not there when she barges into his office.

       Ariadne doesn’t waste any time in ransacking the place. She searches the papers on his desk and then she tugs open all the drawers. Robert’s briefcase is on the floor by his chair, so she puts it on the desk and pops the hinges.

       And there it is.

       Sinking down into the desk chair, Ariadne allows the folder to fall open on her lap.

       Browning was right. The dossiers are identical.

       She takes a thick, shuddering breath and, with shaking hands, studies the photographs with more focus than she allowed herself in the car with Browning. Most of the photos are perplexing in their capture of the mundane, but her heart does a flip-flop when she sees one she didn’t notice in Browning’s car.

       Yusuf. Yusuf hugging her goodbye at the airport.

       If this means what she thinks it means, then—

       “What are you doing?”

       Robert’s voice makes her jump. Looking up, she sees him frowning at her from the doorway.

       She holds up the dossier. “What is this?”

       He looks from her to the folder with an unreadable expression on his face. “Where did you get that?”

       “Your uncle ratted you out,” she says flatly, seeing no reason to lie.

       “Uncle Peter?” Robert sighs, not looking nearly as embarrassed or even as particularly surprised by this confrontation as he should. “He told you?”

       “Yup,” she snaps. “You should find a new investigator. The old one’s crooked.”

       He nods as if her suggestion was serious and gives her a measuring look. “You’re angry.”

       Angry? Definitely, but it’s more complicated than that when she feels as if she’s fallen into something heavy and sticky, and it’s hard to tell if she feels more angry, afraid, or… relieved.

       “Why did you do this?” she asks. If the jig is up, then she wants to hear it from him rather than look for truth in Peter Browning’s sly insinuations.

       “I told you,” he says after a beat. “Everyone who works for me—”

       “Has a background check?” she interrupts. “This isn’t a background check. This is surveillance. You’ve been having me followed and photographed and gave fuck all about my privacy.”

       Robert winces at that, but Ariadne doesn’t care. She can feel her dream job and her skyscraper slipping away from her, piece by piece, and all because she wasn’t careful enough. Deference to her boss seems pointless now that he knows he’s also her mark.

       Ariadne feels dizzy enough from all her churning emotions to recklessly ask, “Did you find anything interesting?” She tosses the dossier across his desk towards him, and some of the pictures slide out.

       Say it, Robert. Just say it. Browning might not have understood how all the pieces fit together, but surely Robert…

       Coming up to the desk, he shuffles the pictures around until he finds the one he’s looking for. His hand pauses over the picture of Yusuf— her fingers clench around the armrests—but he holds up a picture of Arthur instead.

       “It was strange that my guy couldn’t find out anything about this man. No name, no address, no employment. Nothing.”

       With a resigned sigh, she slouches back in his chair and lets her gaze fall to her lap. Robert knows. Damn it, they’re going to jail, aren’t they?

       Part of her wanted this, she realizes. She wanted Robert to figure it out so she wouldn’t have to do this anymore, so she wouldn’t have to keep feeling… responsible for him. And he could be free of the unnatural hold she has over him.

       But that doesn’t mean she wants to go to jail for mind crime.

       She eyes the bronze horse statuette and wonders if it’s worth it to risk Robert’s life with a second concussion.

       Robert awkwardly clears his throat, and she looks back up. “So, who is he?”

       “What?” Is he playing with her?

       He gives her an annoyed look that suggests she hasn’t been listening. “I said the investigator couldn’t find anything on him. You never mentioned a boyfriend, but you seem… friendly.”

       She stares at him, and Robert rushes forward with, “I was concerned, all right? How much do you really know about this guy? Don’t you think it’s strange that there’s no record of him anywhere?”

       It’s his unhappy tone that gives him away, and finally, Ariadne understands.

       Robert doesn’t know. He’s just as ignorant of the crimes they’ve done to him as he ever was. She feels her heart sink because this is so much worse than she thought.

       He’s jealous.

       That was not supposed to happen.

       “It’s none of your business who he is,” she says, angry and afraid. “None of this is any of your business. If you wanted to know something about me, then you should have just asked.”

       Scowling, Robert looks away from her.

       She stands and moves around the desk. “Was there something you wanted to know in particular, Robert?”

       Ariadne thinks now that if he were to ask her for the truth, she would tell him. Everything.

       Robert searches her eyes for something only he understands (if he understands). Holding his gaze becomes harder by the second as she feels exposed and bare— but she holds it anyway. She owes him that much.

       “Is he important?” he asks finally.

       Not “Is he your boyfriend?” or “Do you love him?” but what sounds suspiciously along the lines of "Will he be a problem?”

       Ariadne feels a deep well of sadness spring up in her chest.

       “No,” she lies.

~*~


Là ci darem la mano (There we will entwine our hands)…

~*~

       “I don’t understand,” Eames tells her over the phone. “The job is finished. You can breathe easy now and focus on building your skyscraper.”

       “No,” she slurs despite the fierce concentration she is putting into not slurring. The vodka bottle clinks against her foot as she tosses her legs over the side of the bed. “You don’t— you aren’t listening to me, Eames. I…”

       “Did something happen? Is he trying to take advantage of you? Is that what this is about?”

       She hesitates. “No, but—”

       “Because I can take care of that! Just say the word and I’ll send someone over to… take the edge off his frustration.”

       The thought makes her feel sick in a way that has nothing to do with inebriation. “The hell? No.”

       “Are you sure? Because—”

       Ariadne slams her fist against the mattress in frustration. “No! Just leave—” She stops cold, realizing where she was about to go, but it’s too late.

       “—him alone?” Eames finishes quietly.

       And there is nowhere to go from there. Ariadne’s head falls into her hands, and she giggles helplessly between her fingers. The phone crunches painfully between her shoulder and her neck, but she doesn’t care.

       Once upon a time, she wanted to be an architect— a real architect— more than anything. She had an objective, and she pursued it with a terrifyingly single-minded focus. Nothing could or would get between her and that objective. How else was a girl from a little podunk town in Ohio going to sit amongst the greats in Paris? She was unstoppable. Now, look at her…

       “Does he know?”

       The question sounds innocent enough, but she hears the anxiety laced underneath.

       “No. But I think… I think all the time I— we— spent in his head did something to him and I…”

       “Ariadne,” he says, still in that gentle tone, “you sound as if you’re cracking.”

       She chokes on a wet laugh. “Do I?”

       Eames’s voice instantly becomes cajoling, as if talking her off a ledge is just another aspect of his job. “Now, you can’t do that, my darling. You aren’t thinking of telling him, are you? Ariadne?”

       She doesn’t answer.

       “Ariadne?” He keeps saying her name as if it will bring her back to her senses. “Let me help you. Shall I send Arthur over to talk to you?”

       Seeing Arthur right now is about the last thing she wants to do, and she tells Eames as much.

       “Then what? Tell me how I can make this better for you.”

       Ariadne drops the phone when she hears someone knocking on her apartment door.

       “Are you still there? Hello?” she hears from the fallen phone.

       She picks the phone back up and says, “I’m here, Eames, but I’m going to go now. Don’t tell Arthur anything. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

       “But—”

       She hangs up.

       There’s another knock.

       Ariadne carefully shifts the empty vodka bottle under her bed and then moves so that she’s pressed against the cool wood of the door. The solid press of it reminds her that this is real. When he knocks again, she feels the reverberations through the door flush against her body.

       She shouldn’t open the door, not when she already knows who will be standing there on the other side. How she knows, who can say? Maybe this is a dream.

       Robert’s hand is up in preparation for another knock when she suddenly opens the door. He blinks at her in surprise and then lets his hand fall. “Hello.”

       He looks so out of place standing in her hallway, like a Ming vase in a dollar mart. “Hello.”

       She should ask him what he is doing here, but the question feels superfluous when she already knows the answer.

       Does he?

       “I’m sorry,” he says softly. “I shouldn’t have hired that investigator. It was… inappropriate.”

       Her smile is equal parts amusement and bitterness. If there were ever a word to sum up their relationship en masse, then… well, inappropriate works for her.

       Looking at him now, Ariadne realizes she has lost all sense of where right and wrong lie at this point. Would her transgression be any less if she sent him away to avoid further damage? Or would cutting him loose be the same as pretending she doesn’t owe him anything?

       She wonders if he feels a sort of sordid thrill from being here on the wrong side of town, from being inappropriate with his too-young employee, and if this should bother her at all.

       He asked her to save him. But who is going to save her?

       Robert’s eyes widen when she reaches out to touch his tie. “You’re not going to do it again, right?”

       “No,” he says, sounding a bit breathless.

       Ariadne sighs. “All right then.”

       She takes his hand and leads him inside.

~*~


Da' miei tormenti impara. A creder a quel cor, e nasca il tuo timor dal mio periglio

(Learn from my suffering. Trust what I say, and let my own misfortune make you afraid)…

~*~

       Arthur shows up in the morning.

       Robert doesn’t stir at his knock, and so she leaves him in her bed, taking only one of the blankets from where it has been kicked onto the floor.

       They end up sitting on the roof of her apartment building. Wrapped in her blanket, she watches all the early morning people scuttling this way and that beneath an orange and pink sunrise.

       “He isn’t going to sleep forever,” she says when Arthur stays silent for too long. He didn’t seem particularly surprised or angry when she told him what happened, which just makes her confusion all the worse.

       “Take Browning’s money.”

       Of all the things for him to say, that was the last she expected. As she is thinking that she must have heard him wrong, Arthur says it again. “Take the money, Ariadne.”

       “Why?” she asks. Her voice sounds strained even to her. “Why would you tell me to do that?”

       “Because if you run now, then Fischer is going to follow you.”

       Ariadne sucks in a shallow breath.

       “At least, he’ll try. But if you take Browning’s money, then it might put Fischer off the trail. If you’re lucky, then it will be easy, and he’ll give up once he figures out you were paid off to disappear. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened to him.”

       Ariadne winces.

       “If that doesn’t do the trick, then you can try sending the money in one direction while you go off in another. That would at least buy you some time.”

       “You think he’ll find out about what we did to him?” she says, trying to follow his line of logic. She wishes he didn’t sound so clinical in his suggestions, but she also recognizes that cleaning up other people’s messes is part of what he does. She hates feeling like a problem he needs to deal with.

       “That’s always a risk,” he says with a nonchalant shrug.

       “And you think he’ll want revenge badly enough to hunt me down?”

       Arthur finally takes his eyes off of the admittedly beautiful sunrise and looks at her. “Does Fischer strike you as the vengeance type?”

       Ariadne assumes the question to be genuine and unloaded, so she considers her answer carefully. And, ultimately, no. She doesn’t see Robert as the mustache-twirling villain. She can picture him angry and betrayed, but not enough to sick assassins on her.

       “If he won’t want revenge,” she says slowly, “then why would he want to track me down?”

       She would give anything to be able to decipher the look he gives her. “Because I think he’ll want to find you badly enough to try.”

       Ariadne suddenly finds it difficult to breath. She drops her gaze to the safe criss-cross pattern of her blanket. “You don’t know that.”

       “Call it an educated guess.”

       Ariadne doesn’t want to think about all the implications of that in regards to herself and Robert as well as Arthur and she won’t because this is already complicated enough.

       He sighs at her confused frown and moves them forward. “Whatever his motive is, a man in Fischer’s position can afford— literally— to maintain an active pursuit for a long time without putting in much effort himself. That’s… dangerous.”

       “Did you know it was going to happen like this?”

       Her sense of betrayal hangs in the balance, waiting for a word from him to tip it over. Has she ever really had a handle on this job? She doesn’t think so. If Arthur purposely put her in both physical as well as emotional jeopardy then… She doesn’t know what.

       Arthur surprises her by putting two fingers under her chin and bringing her face back up to his. “No, Ariadne. No. But some things… can’t be predicted.”

       She still wants to believe in him. “What kind of things?”

       He gives her another warning look that tells her she is getting too close to the things she doesn’t want to think about, and she bites her tongue.

       They sit without speaking for a long time as the city comes to life below them. Robert will be awake soon, and he will probably want his coffee and the New York Times and most definitely won’t want to meet Arthur.

       Downstairs, awkward morning-after tension awaits her. Ariadne will offer to make breakfast, and he will remind her that he doesn’t eat breakfast but can he use her shower? Maybe he’ll leave right away or maybe they will share a silent cab ride to work, where Robert will retreat into his office. Ariadne will take an extra-long lunch and then pretend she isn’t feeling well and leave early.

       And those are her good scenarios.

       “There’s another job,” Arthur says suddenly. “It’s in Tokyo. We’re in need of an architect.”

       Ariadne smiles sadly. “So, I run? Is that what you always do, Arthur?”

       She thinks he looks sad, too, in this moment, but she’ll never really know whether that is just what she wants to see. Arthur tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and leans in so his lips brush the shell of her ear.

       Her eyes fall shut as he whispers, “Sometimes, it’s all you can do.”

~*~


L'ultima prova dell'amor mio (The final proof of my love)…

~*~

       Ariadne calls Cobb.

       She hasn’t spoken to him since the inception job, but she has always known how to get in contact with him if she needed to. She had naively hoped he would be the one to make the initial move, but first months and then years of silence dispelled her of the notion.

       Once they get past the awkward pleasantries, she says, “I need a favor.”

       He owes her.

~*~

       “I want to show you something.”

       Ariadne takes Robert’s hand and leads him over to the field between the dilapidated high-rises. Together, they watch as steel and glass churn up from the previously barren earth. Up and up it goes as the materials bend and shape into a familiar façade.

       A diagonal grid climbs up the sides, forming an intricate pattern of solar panels and glass that will pull in natural light better than a façade made from pure steel ever could. Transparent glass passageways placed at terrifying heights reflect back images of the gorgeous sunset that hangs over them. The wind turbines, huge and impossibly beautiful, sprout from the roof like new plants rising from the earth.

       Born of both their imaginations, Fischer Tower represents both Ariadne’s desire for occasionally bizarre innovation as well as Robert’s sleek, elegant lines. She could have made the skyscraper look like anything here, with physics-defying dream architecture, but she wants Robert to see what their dream child will look like someday.

       She wanted to see it.

       When Robert wipes away a tear from her cheek, Ariadne realizes she is crying. Catching his hand, she says, “Promise me you won’t let Harriet change anything. It’s already perfect, Robert. And don’t let the contractor convince you that this can’t be done. It can. All of it, I promise.”

       “I don’t understand,” he says, but his fingers entwine with hers in a way she chooses to interpret as a promise.

       “You will.”

       Standing in the shadow of their creation, Ariadne pulls Robert down into a kiss that holds no promises because she can’t afford to make any more.

       When he pulls back, there is something wet and warm in his eyes that she has never seen there before. “Ariadne, I—”

       She cuts him off with another kiss because she doesn’t want to hear impossible things.

       Ariadne isn’t in love with him and for a thousand different reasons, but what terrifies her is that she might want to be and that maybe he wants her to be. She really couldn’t feel worse about that.

       But this is just a dream.

       She kisses him for as long as she can and releases him when she hears footsteps approaching.

       Cobb gives her a sad smile, which she returns with effort. He waits patiently, several feet away, giving them their space.

       Robert’s grip tightens on her shoulder as he stares at Cobb. “Who is he?”

       Ariadne takes a final, hungry look at her skyscraper. She breathes in all her fears and hurts and disappointments— and lets them go.

       “Robert, this is Mr. Charles,” she says, drawing him over to Cobb. “He’s… a friend.”

       “What is he doing here?”

       “He’s here to help you so that this never happens to you ever again.”

       As a parting gift, hers is perhaps dubious, but it’s the best she can do.

~*~

       A few hours later, Arthur and Ariadne hop a red-eye to Tokyo.

       Before they go, she leaves her resignation letter on Robert’s desk.

 

 

Finis.