Once he finally comes back to himself - once the detox is over and he's able to keep down solid food and stops shaking all the time - the worst part is how nobody will tell him what happened. An accident, Dom says, experimenting gone wrong, maybe something to do with the chemicals. Arthur doesn't remember that at all, doesn't remember going under, doesn't remember a lot of things. There are whole swathes of his memory gone like they've simply been erased. He can see someone's hands with a gum eraser, delicate fingers leaving blank spots in their plans, places where stairs and walls used to lie now empty and open. But whose hands they are he can't say.
He goes to find his notebook but it's missing, along with his keys and his laptop and everything except his totem, the red die on the bedstand in the spare room in Dom's house next to a glass of water. Arthur can remember the Cobbs moving, out of that house with too many memories, after - after something. Inception, a word that tastes strange on his tongue. After Dom was able to come home, somehow. And Arthur moved here too, a little further north, but he can't remember where or why and he's fairly sure he's going to go completely insane. There's always something important just out of reach, an edge he's scrabbling for but can't find purchase. He never does well with unknowns.
Ariadne doesn't know what happened. She knows she's been in some sort of accident, some kind of mishap with the drugs or the PASIV. It sounds wrong when she says it like that, when she uses those innocuous words that make it sound like it was nobody's fault. Something that left craters in its wake can't be dismissed so easily. Shrapnel shredding her mind, a paper snowflake left behind with scraps of memories fluttering everywhere below. Aftereffects, they tell her. Neural pathways reknitting themselves. That's why she cries sometimes, why she gets frightened at nothing and screams. They have to give it time. And patience has never been her strong point.
It takes her a few days to catalog all the changes, all the things that seem somehow off. Eames has whisked her away from... from where? Stupid that she can't remember something as simple as where she's supposed to be instead of a little-used apartment in Los Angeles. But apparently home wasn't treating her well and she needed a change of scenery. She's sleeping crowded over to one side of the bed, pillow wadded under her head and another under her arm, and she thinks of how hard her mother tried to break her of the habit of sleeping with a bevy of stuffed animals. There's a scar she doesn't remember getting, a shallow line at the base of her ring finger. Perhaps she was building something for the dream. The one that swallowed her memories whole. Eames sees her tracing over it and frowns and presses a cup of tea into her hands. She doesn't like it here; it's too sunny all the time. She's never liked Los Angeles.
they could see the storm coming. they felt the earth begin to shake beneath their bare feet. sometimes it was hard to remember how they had come here but they knew this wasn't real. ariadne did not clutch at his hand as the sand crumbled and the towers fell into the sea, but arthur caught at her waist and buried his face in her hair as the wind whipped them both with cords of salt-spray.
this isn't real, she told him, fingers digging into his arms. it's all right. they're bringing us home.
i just don't want to forget it, arthur said. he had to raise his voice over the thunder, holding tight as the ground started to fall away. i know it wasn't real but i want to remember this.
forgetting is the hard part, she said. don't let this haunt you. arthur, i -
and then the crevasse opened and they tumbled into the air.
Miles comes to visit. Arthur tries to remember why he's here, why the professor left Paris; retirement, sure, but there was something else, some other element besides moving closer to his grandchildren. Asking would betray that he didn't remember, though, so Arthur keeps his mouth shut and simply shrugs and nods when Miles asks how he's doing. Thinking too hard about the holes in his memory gives him headaches, he finds, and though it's stupid not to push past the pain and try to find whatever he's lost he's been shying away from the effort and the hurt. Apparently losing his memory has made him a coward.
"It's always difficult, when something so simple as learning a layout goes so poorly," Miles says, cleaning his glasses - when did he get those? Why doesn't Arthur remember that change? And why doesn't he know what the hell Miles is talking about? He doesn't know what architect he was working with. Not Dom; he's never building again even if his ghosts and guilt have been exorcised, Arthur knows that much. Then who was it? Were they affected too? Was she - why does he say she when he doesn't remember them - caught up in this or did she escape and run far away from his sleeping form? But it wasn't like Dom and Mal, on an expedition to Limbo. He might not know who he was with or what they were doing, but Arthur would never forget those lessons: don't fall too far, don't reach too high, don't replace mundane reality with dreams you can't have, and don't fall in love. That wasn't a danger, of course. He keeps his heart locked up. That's what he's told himself for years. So why does he keep dreaming of fitting his hand to the curve of a woman's jaw?
She still can't sleep. She keeps having - well, they're not dreams, not really, because she can't ever do anything to change or control them. And for an experienced builder like herself that's disturbing. Maybe they're memories of the things she can't remember when she's awake. Eames keeps odd hours and never blinks at finding her up in the middle of the night, hugging a pillow and watching old movies with the sound turned off. When she does fall asleep, when her body finally gives in, she hears scraps of voices and feels the brush of hands and swirls in endless waves. That's normal, Eames tells her.
She calls Miles and asks him if this has ever happened before, if he knows anyone going through the same things. She has to borrow one of Eames's burner phones; hers is missing, but she memorizes all the important numbers anyway. "You're not alone," Miles tells her after a long pause, as if he's translating her question from French back to English in his head. She can hear the children shouting in the background; he must be visiting Cobb.
"So I'm not the only one who's had this happen? Can I - do you know anybody I could talk to about this? Does it get better?" She was never good at asking only one question at a time.
"Be patient," he tells her, and she laughs. He should know her well enough by now to know that patience is the least of her virtues. "If it comes back, it will come in its own time. You'll just have to wait. Talking with... this other person, it wouldn't help. He doesn't remember anything either."
when they grew tired of building, they sat under the stars and told each other stories. once upon a time there was a lonely boy who liked books better than anything and wanted to find a way out of the city he lived in and the life he was born to, a life of privilege and poise and facades. he dreamed of a life with meaning. he defied his father and joined the army and learned to fight and kill and survive. when a magician came to him and offered him the chance to dream without waking and fight without blood he took the chance, because why not do something that left no traces? and then the warriors of sleep were cast off and he decided he didn't need them anymore, or any of their rules. he became a thief and ran from the law and he kept his true name a secret and gave up everything he'd hoped for in favor of a suitcase and a magic box. he buried his heart in an airless chamber and threw the key into the sea. and one day he looked at himself and realized he'd built the facade he feared and he wasn't sure how to find himself anymore.
once upon a time there was a girl who was named for a doomed princess and decided she would never let anyone trick her into love. she was given mazes and learned to solve them all and later to hate the people who thought that these were fitting gifts for a girl with a cursed name. she learned to draw her own mazes and buildings and see the ruins of the past and imagine something better. she fled her home not with a prince who tempted her with honeyed lies but with the hope of a world where she could build her own fortresses to keep out the monsters and the men who would vie for her. and then a stranger came and introduced her to a world where she could build without limits. but this world came with a monster that growled in its depths. she defeated the ghost and found herself unmoored and had to forge her own path through life.
once upon a time a girl found a key in the ocean, she whispered, and she kept it with her as the boy with the false face drifted in and out of her life and she dreamed her days away. once upon a time a boy found a girl asleep and woke her with a kiss, he said, and she reached inside the walls and unlocked the chest where his heart had been kept.
once upon a time we saved each other.
The beaches here are strange to a girl who was raised on the east coast, who's used to freezing water and rocks and fringes of scrub pine and tall grasses. Here the concrete extends all the way up to the sand and palm trees sway over the streets. It's more disorienting than any dream she could think of. Everyone seems to be trying to expose the most skin possible to the sun, perfecting their tans and letting the warmth and light play over their bodies like worshippers of an ancient god. Ariadne sits under a rented umbrella with a sarong over her legs and the most high-powered sunscreen she could find and still feels her skin prickling with the start of a burn.
But she had to get out of the flat today, away from the rooms she's been haunting like a particularly substantial ghost. Away from the feeling that someone should be standing just behind her and talking quietly. Of course it hasn't worked; she can feel phantom fingers over her neck and shoulders where her hair is pulled up and piled atop her head, a presence that should be beside her on the sand. She wonders if she's haunted or crazy or starting to remember things. It could be any of them and she wouldn't know the difference, she supposes, listening to the tireless beat of the waves and the cry of the seagulls and letting the breeze dry the tears that gather at the corners of her eyes.
He takes Phillipa and James to the beach one day, knowing Dom still can't bear the sight of the waves pounding against the sand. Arthur doesn't mind going; as he tells Dom, he still can't remember what happened while he was under. If the beach jogs his memory, so much the better. Dom gives him that measured stare with a furrowed brow but shrugs and makes sure the kids have enough sunscreen and sends them on their way with money for ice cream. There are rocks jutting out into the water and cradling the beach. Too many people, too much noise filling the air and making it hard to breathe for a moment. Arthur draws his legs up and folds his arms across his knees and watches Phillipa build something that could charitably be called a sandcastle, under James's direction.
He keeps having visions of a girl. A woman, he should say. A face like a pearl in his cupped hands, a voice low and soft. She must be someone he knew before, someone important, but every time he tries to chase down the strings to where it fits in he can feel the starbursts of pain through his neurons. So he pushes aside the memory-dream-image of this lovely face and slim shoulders and asks the kids if they want to go play in the waves.
when they grew tired of building on land they went into the waves again. what happened if you sank to the bottom of limbo, she asked; would you wake up? underwater, the liquid slipped around them like cool air thickened, gentle resistance around their limbs. her hair floated like seaweed and her clothes billowed strangely, belling out like jellyfish. he curled his fingers around her slender ankle and pulled her down and she slid over and past him and into the waves. a castle rose out of the ocean floor, coral branching into towers and turrets. he asked if she wanted to be a mermaid and she smiled at him with teeth pearly in the dark.
they explored underwater caves and created schools of brilliantly colored fish and transparent cephalopods and never once needed air. when their limbs grew heavy they floated up and let the waves bring them in, and they lay on the sand like seals and basked in the sun. her fingers tangled with his as they listened to the waves beat away at the sand in a fight that would never end.
He calls Eames, using the landline in the study and shutting the door to avoid any questions about why he's reaching out. Asks if Eames has any clue what happened, because Dom won't tell him anything and Eames dislikes the man enough to tell Arthur the truth just to piss Dom off. "Only a little, I'm afraid. I wasn't actually present. And as you know well enough, I haven't been to see you since." Eames must be able to hear his frown over the phone, because he adds, "It's not for lack of desire, I'm just a bit tied up with things here."
In the background Arthur hears a voice, feminine and piping like a songbird, and asks "Who's that?" Because if Eames is at home and there's a woman there, it means... something. He wouldn't bring one of his random lays back to his flat, it would be an unthinkable admission of trust, so this must mean something, which means Eames might be compromised and Arthur cannot take another space of uncertainty in his life right now. Never mind that the voice sounds familiar, like someone he should know, but he doesn't and it's killing him that he can't place it.
"Just a friend," Eames says, which is maybe the worst effort at lying Arthur has ever heard from him and that includes the time in Bangkok, and he can feel himself getting unaccountably angry. There's the voice again, speaking too quickly and too far away and Eames muffling the receiver, and why won't Eames tell him even if it's just that he's broken all of his rules for a quick fuck, and Arthur's getting another one of those headaches and he snaps out "I have to go" and hangs up and pushes his fingers through his hair like he's going to tear his scalp right off.
She can hear a voice in the back of her head, an accent more American than Eames's, but not as gravelly as Cobb's over the phone. But it's too close to a particular tone that she'll hear on the edge of waking, an echo of a memory that she's afraid to think about too hard lest it evaporate and leave her with nothing. It's not someone she can name immediately and when she has as few friends as she does that's unnerving. Someone so important shouldn't be forgotten, surely? She's cast off so many people and things from her past that losing anything more is a blow to the foundations of the life she's built for herself.
Ariadne thinks she hears the voice over the phone as Eames speaks, tinny from the cell phone's miniature speaker. It hits some part of her she wasn't sure existed, soothing an ache she's grown accustomed to carrying. "You know, you can leave if you need to, I'll be fine on my own," she says idly, when he tells whoever it is that he can't leave. But really she's listening for that voice, trying to decide whether she'd be able to get the phone out of his hands. Probably not; he's defter than she is, good at sleight of hand and pickpocketing, and he can get past her reach easily.
"Sweetheart, could you give us a minute?" Eames asks, covering the phone, but when he lifts it back to his ear he frowns. Ariadne watches and wonders how long he's going to keep her here without any answers.
it was lonely down there sometimes, with only the two of them to talk to. by now they could communicate without talking but spoke anyway, just to keep from going mad in the silence. any noise like birdsong was something they had to make, music they would have to remember for themselves.
there was only one time he saw her angry. the voice called out just once from beyond the wood of golden trees they'd sculpted, a familiar accent and rising and falling intonation, and she turned on him with a chill in her eyes that struck him like a blow. no, she said, we're not bringing them here. they're not real and they won't be real till we get out of here. it's just us trapped in our heads. we're not making the same mistakes. she asked if he remembered the children showing up and he reminded her about mal shooting him in the knee. he'd known her before, he said. it hurt to see his friend hollowed out and turned into a sickening marionette.
then we're not going to do the same thing, she said. we know better. it's better to be lonely than to bring them here and make them into something they're not, no matter how much we miss them.
Ariadne isn't used to looking at herself this much. But Eames has two mirrors here in what usually serves as his office, where she's camped out on the couch for the indefinite future, and she keeps catching glimpses of herself in the silvered glass when she's glancing up from her book or her sketch pad. And she keeps thinking something looks wrong, when she sees herself sidelong or when she's brushing her hair in the mornings. Like someone else should be looking at her instead of the dull reflection of these impersonal mirrors. She's living out of a suitcase and can't seem to find anything she wants to wear, and borrows shirts from Eames that drown her in fabric but make her feel somehow safe.
When she goes shopping she can't find anything to suit her, trailing her fingers over denim and linen and silky blouses in thrift stores, picking up scarves and discarding them. She tries on dresses - Ariadne never wears dresses, she decided years ago that they made her look too childish - and ends up buying a skirt in white that brushes against her legs when she walks like a dancer, making her look more graceful than she ever has been. When she puts it on and piles her hair atop her head she feels like she's stepping into somebody else's skin.
Maybe he's just tired of pulling on his hair, letting the sting of the tug at the roots carry him past the headaches of trying to remember. Tired, too, of having it fall in his face when he's running after the kids, since he hasn't bothered to replace his gel and Dom didn't think to pack it. Arthur wonders briefly if he stopped using it and he just doesn't remember and that's why it didn't come along. One more thing to add to the list of whatever's changed that he can't think of doing.
He goes to a barber - the last one in the city, an old man clinging to tradition and service in a world that cares increasingly little about either - and has him clip it all off, close to the skull. The nervous habit is broken by force. Every time he brushes his palm over the fuzz of hair the bristles prickle his skin and send a tingle down his spine, like he's being touched in ways he's almost forgotten about. It's strange, but so many things about his life feel wrong since his mind became unmoored.
it wasn't forging, exactly, what they did. but they were dreaming and they could change anything they liked. at first he kept himself the same, imagination not extending to anything beyond replicating what he looked like every day, but soon he grew tired of keeping up appearances and left off the ties and waistcoats. his hair sprung free from where he kept it slicked down, curls flying in the breeze and delighting her when she would tug on them and twist them round her fingers.
she gave up on her usual trousers and boots and went barefoot, the ground soft under her feet. she started wearing dresses that would float around her in the air, twirling like the child she hadn't allowed herself to be. her hair grew longer, tangling in the wind that always seemed to dance around them, and he spent patient hours combing it out like he did in their apartment, running his fingers through the silky coils and putting in tiny braids while she built castles and cathedrals he couldn't even begin to imagine. when she climbed into his lap and kissed him it formed a curtain around them, blocking out even the little bubble of the world they shared together and leaving the two of them utterly alone. it felt safe like this, he thought, drawing her down to him.
Ariadne's starting to feel like the walls of the flat are pressing in on her, and she can't take it anymore. Eames's unusually sweet solicitude has worn off and he's treating her like normal instead of some creature barely tamed, but he still won't discuss the subject of her going home. The guest room is less of a refuge and more of a prison, albeit one without locks. So she heads out and down to the street, such that it is, and walks as far as she can in the hot sun. Her head keeps turning after men wearing waistcoats, with slicked-back hair, with a certain tilt of their chin and sharp-angled jaw, like photocopies of someone she doesn't even remember missing. It's not as if she doesn't have a type, but everyone seems a little too flashy and forward here. No gentlemen in this city, she thinks, and then wonders when she ever cared about gentlemen.
She finds a farmers' market and wanders the aisles, going from stall to stall and looking at fruits and vegetables and ultimately not buying anything until she finds a florist with buckets and buckets of flowers bending in the sunlight. Eames looks askance when she comes back with a pot of yellow tulips and puts them in the middle of his coffee table. "The place needed brightening up," she says, and ignores the way he frowns. The next time it's stargazer lilies, and after that a brilliant orchid in hues of supersaturated pink. Ariadne has never considered herself a gardener but she can't resist the flowers and their colors and the ephemeral petals dropping to the floor below. And having the flowers gives her something to look at, something to focus on instead of the mirrors or Eames's sober looks or the pieces of the pale stranger she keeps seeing in those men she walks past every day.
Arthur's fingers are itching with the need to do something, to hold something other than air (to hold someone's hand) so he pulls on an old pair of jeans and goes out to the backyard. Mal used to keep flowers in the garden, roses and wildflowers, but those were left behind with the old house. Here the previous owners didn't seem to care what was there, letting some attempts at hostas grow lank and flat. He pulls them out and piles them in a heap next to the compost bin, and drives to the garden store with muddy knees. He buys seeds: violets and forget-me-nots and pansies. He isn't even sure whether they'll grow here, but he buys them anyway. Somewhere in the back of his mind is a girlish voice barely in tune singing about dizzy daffodils and strings of violets and he's not sure whether he's made that up as well.
Phillipa and James join him, the girl careful of her clothes even in the dirt, the boy quickly smearing mud up his arms and over his face. They dig holes and he shows them how to drop in the seeds carefully and pat the earth over them.
"Will you be here when they grow?" Phillipa asks, watching him. She's quieter than she used to be, he thinks, and she'd been doing so much better since Dom came home - so why is she so silent now? Or is it just around him? Arthur shakes his head.
"I'm not sure, Phil."
"You can come back, though. You live so close." She looks up at him, then frowns. "I wasn't supposed to say that." And then she runs into the house, ponytail flying, and he wonders what she means. He wonders if he'll still be here when the flowers bloom, if they bloom at all. If he had a garden at his house, and if the woman he's been seeing in his dreams worked alongside him.
outside their house they grew an impossible garden, flowers that never existed and never would, colors changing under his fingers, under her feet. the victorians used a language of flowers, he told her, and she imagined blossoms spilling forth from their lips like the girl in the fairytale with diamonds and pearls. he didn't remember much beyond roses meaning love, different types depending on the color, and she coaxed forth fountains of roses in every color of the rainbow and picked her own meanings. purple meant the cold love of arranged marriage, pink meant first attraction, blue meant the calm and tranquil love of fifty years married. as she walked daisies rose in her footsteps.
he wove her a crown of feathery crystal vines and blossoms and she twined pink columbines around his shoulders. when she stretched out on the grass furred silver, he placed pansies on her eyes and kissed her till they fell away. the circlet of flowers fell and was crushed beneath them; it released a scent of cinnamon and longing. her skin was petal-soft as they made love among the roses, heady and sweet, thorns pricking them onwards. she traced mazes in the paths between the drops of blood on his back as lilies rose to drink in the sun.
Ariadne hasn't been designing. Of course she's been drawing while she's been here; she could no more stop drawing than she could stop breathing. But she hasn't drawn mazes and she hasn't drawn buildings and she hasn't drawn anything that wasn't directly in front of her. Still lifes, studies of people sitting near her in coffee shops, nothing elaborate. Finally, though, she flips open her sketchbook on a smoggy morning and starts to draw a house. Maybe she'll imagine something to live in besides a spare room and a borrowed bed.
Her first effort is squat and cartoonish, something like a saltbox but with the proportions all off, and she tears out the page and tosses it away. She finds a ruler in the jumble on Eames's desk and goes back and starts over. An apartment building, she thinks, something with history, and the lines seem to flow forth from the pencil like she's barely directing them. And soon she's looking down at the face of a building that looks too familiar, too much like something she should know, and she brushes her fingers over the door she's drawn with an ornate knocker and watches the graphite come up on her fingers in the color of a man's suit.
This won't do, she thinks, and goes back to the desk and starts rummaging. She knows there's a good fountain pen here but the nib is worn out, so she starts pulling out the drawers and rummaging through them and looking for all the small boxes she can find that look to be the right size. But the unmarked one she pops open isn't pen nibs or paper clips. There's a ring. This isn't a velvet box with a proposal waiting, this is something that's been hidden; a silvery-smooth circle with tiny diamond chips that send rainbows dancing across the desk as she turns it. A ring of keys is in there too, and Ariadne knows these are hers, knows the goofy souvenir bottle opener and the three keys and the old-fashioned skeleton key that somebody gave her and she knows she should know who that was, the name is pressing at the tip of her tongue and she can't take this anymore.
She calls Eames. "Why did you hide my ring?" she asks when he picks up, knowing as she says it that it's true. That something caught the edge of the ring and sliced into her hand to give her that scar. That he's been hiding her keys to keep her from going - going back to the place she drew, the home she knows is out there.
There's a long pause. "Because you didn't remember. Better not to provoke questions you couldn't answer," he says finally, and the words sound practiced and she's suddenly furious.
"You thought it was better to hide it all instead of trying to help me?" Her voice sounds strange in her ears. "You thought it would help to not mention him at all?"
"Do you remember him, then?" Eames asks, his voice measured like he's not sure whether to believe her, whether she actually remembers anything at all.
"I remember he loved me. And." She stops, picking up the ring and looking through it like she'll see his face, then touching it to her lips, and the metal is cool on her mouth like his kisses, like the sound of his voice calming in her mind, like the feel of his fingers against her wrist the first time she went dreaming, like -- "Arthur. I remember him, I remember we had a life together and I'm not letting you keep me from that, I'm not."
She slips the ring on and takes the keys and she's gone.
Arthur will never know this new house like the first one, the one that was Mal and Dom's little castle. But he's been here enough to recognize everything, to find his way around blindfolded in the dark. He remembers being teased about that, about how he must practice it, but not the voice or the face it comes from. The headaches are getting better but he still feels the connections slip out of his grasp and through his fingers, slippery and quicksilver and impossible to hold. In the living room there are pictures missing, a gap on the table where the frames cluster and a pale rectangle on the wall where one has gone. He skims his fingertips through the dust on the table and wonders what's missing, what Dom is hiding from him. It shouldn't have taken him this long to investigate and find out but he hasn't had the courage to pick at those scabs, to start cataloguing information and working it out. Hasn't wanted to go under and find that he's got his very own shade waiting to follow him through every build and every job.
Dom comes home from the university late and has that look on his face he used to get right before he would unholster his gun and fire it through a projection's face. Arthur waits till the kids are settled with their snacks and heads to the study and opens the closed door, listening to Dom half-shout down the phone. "No, I don't know," he hisses, turning at the noise of the door. "He's here. I'll wait."
"You know how I hate being talked about," Arthur says, barely making the attempt to joke. This whole time has been an exercise in seeing how long he could go without losing his cool, without feeling like he was going to fall right down one of those holes in his memory. "Who was that?"
"Miles." Dom swivels the chair around to face him, then covers his face with his hands and rubs his eyes for a moment. "Look, you - I'll tell you as soon as Miles gets here, all right?"
Arthur watches him, hands clenching into fists, and thinks about all the many ways he knows to cause pain. But the children are in the other room, and Dom is his friend, and he's not going to do anything. Slowly he uncurls his fists and breathes out and nods, and leaves the room.
He's sitting in the living room when Miles arrives, the room dappled with afternoon light through the trees outside. This place is peaceful and new and quiet and Arthur hates it more than a little.
"I am sorry," Miles says without preamble, lowering himself carefully into the armchair opposite Arthur.
"Why?" Arthur asks, knowing there is no answer that will satisfy him, that will answer the questions he has. He can almost hear the woman's voice again, reminding him that he can't kill her mentor, and he really must be going insane.
"Because we kept the truth from you. We thought it would be easier that way, for both of you. But clearly that hasn't worked and we've kept you in the dark for no reason."
"Not no reason," Dom says from the doorway. He's got something in his hand, and as he comes in the light catches the glass in the frame he's holding and makes Arthur squint. Then the image resolves into a pair of faces as Dom passes him the frame - no, it's three, Arthur and Phillipa and a laughing young woman, all of them hunched over a pink birthday cake.
"She's real?" Arthur asks, cradling the frame in his hands. He knows that face, has spent hours watching it in repose and concentration and joy and sorrow and glee and he cannot believe he let this slip away from him.
"Real," Dom confirms.
"Ariadne," Miles says, wistful. "My most gifted student." He pauses to clear his throat.
"There was a job in L.A., and the two of you went under for a final prep and..." Dom trails off. "Ariadne had a bad reaction to the sedative and Eames took her to a chemist he knew. When you weren't reacting, we figured we'd bring you back here to recover and he'd bring her home when she was better."
"But what to do when neither of you knew where home was?" Miles asks, as if it's a logic puzzle instead of his life.
"You could have told me," Arthur says. "Instead of letting me think I was losing my fucking mind."
"Even with the neural instability and the memory loss? The risk to your brain while it was still healing, recovering from significant damage? We could have," Miles agrees. "But would you have believed us?"
And he wouldn't have. Arthur knows this. He'd have thought they were gaslighting him, that he was still dreaming, that he'd been hijacked and some rival group was trying to incept him in an increasingly elaborate plot. He might have suffered even worse attacks trying to force the memories to return, burned out what was left of his mind, decided it was all a dream and tried to wake himself up the same way Mal did. But he's awake and he remembers now, Ariadne, the name rich on his tongue and the way she'd smile when he murmured it and how she hated nicknames and loved when he'd roll his Rs for no reason. He looks down at the frame again - the one from the wall, Phil's last birthday, when Ariadne wore a fairy crown like all the little girls and told Arthur he was too serious to be a dragon but he could be a knight - and lets out a breath.
"Why are you telling me this now?" He could ask where she is or how she is but he's afraid this answer will preempt the others with news that destroys whatever small measure of peace he's found in remembering her.
"She's coming here," Dom says, and hastily adds "Not here here, San Francisco. Where you two live." He looks up as Arthur stands. "Do you need the address?"
Arthur just looks at him and walks out the door. He can make it there before dark. He just hopes he's there in time to catch her, to confirm that this is real and he didn't dream her and they have a home for them to go back to.
they tried to wake each other up and it didn't work and that was when the fear set in. they didn't need to build a shelter, but they did anyway. something to call home, something to keep them busy while they waited. soon they would begin a city, but first they started a house.
never recreate from memory: the cardinal rule. the house he built was like a child's drawing, sloping to one side, a vestigial chimney poking out of the roof. he looked at her sidelong and added red shutters, a blue front door, happy yellow curtains. she pulled him inside and added a squashy purple couch, a round orange table, a giant pink marshmallow of a bed, and she pulled him down into the candy-scented sheets and wrapped them up till he finally smiled. it was like a doll's house, she thought; perfect, since he'd called her dollface in rare moments when he relaxed enough for endearments. she tried not to feel guilty for loving the idea of a little time with just him, no intrusions from the outside world. but if they were going to survive this they might as well enjoy each other's company while they waited.
Driving all the way to San Francisco in a single day was not the best idea she's ever had, and once she gets into the city and it starts raining she doesn't want to slow down. The car feels a little reckless on the wet streets, the lights smearing into blurs with the rain. Ariadne hates the rain in the city; most things don't remind her of the first job anymore but the smell of wet pavement and oil always makes her feel like shots are going to ring out and a freight train will barrel impossibly down the middle of the road. But it peters out soon the way it always does, and the sun breaks through patches of cloud as she reaches their neighborhood.
When she gets to the street - their street - it's familiar and not and it makes her skin itch, the way she already knows how to swing into a spot that's not quite legal and how the shallow curves of the stairs feel under her feet, worn from so many people before her because she had wanted a building with some history, and he'd - he had said they could have anything they wanted because they were picking a place together. She knows the tiny hexagonal tiles on the floor and the way the banister feels under her hand and the way the light fixture on the second floor is a new glass globe instead of a fluted shell. This many steps to the end of the hall and jiggling the key in the lock a little to the left before twisting it all the way to the right.
The place feels right, feels instantly familiar, and she's hit with a wave of memory that's more sensation than clean cinematic flashbacks - the armchair that doesn't quite fit both of them, the floorboard that creaks in front of the bedroom door, the scent of browned butter and herbs as they cook dinner together, the way light slants in through the big bay window over the drafting table that was a Christmas present from her parents. The photographs on the wall that took her ages of rearranging layouts on the floor to assign places, the print of a Lucian Freud that was a compromise after hours of arguing over post-war British painters and refusing to have a series of endless screaming mouths in the hallway. Splashing together in the clawfoot tub surrounded by bubbles that smelled of orange and elemi.
She's overwhelmed by echoes, and only realizes she's sat down on the couch when there's a step and a knock on the open door and a head peering through. How long has she been sitting here alone with the door wide open, careless and unaware?
"Your hair," she says, staring. "You cut your hair. Why would you cut your hair?" But he doesn't look like he's heard a word she's said, stumbling forward with none of the grace that always seemed as much a part of him as his glare or his silent laugh, till he's kneeling in front of her and has his hands on the cushions on either side of her. Then she pulls him close and he makes a noise that might be a sob, but it's muffled in her shirt as he wraps his arms around her and she leans forward to curl around him and it's right, everything is all right again, finally. "You're real," he says into her stomach, "you're real, you're real, I didn't dream it all, you're here, it's all here," and she runs her fingers over his close-cropped hair and holds him close and tells him she's real and she remembers him and says she loves him and Arthur, her strong, stoic lover, the point man who never cracks, has tears in his eyes when he lifts his face and she kisses him. They're learning each other all over again, as he clambers up beside her and tries not to let his lips leave hers for more than a moment, as she works her hands under the hem of his shirt just to feel his skin under her fingers, the memories and the present moment mingling till they can't tell laughter from sobs.
"You're wearing the ring," he says later, when they've shifted around to lie entwined on the couch, watching her twist the band around her finger. Ariadne looks up, nearly bashing his nose with her skull, but he just kisses her forehead instead. It seems impossible that he could have ever forgotten this, the feel of her in his arms and her weight against his chest and the clean scent of her shampoo.
"I found it. Eames had it in a desk drawer... but I knew it was mine. It just seemed right." The jewels glitter as she twists the band again, embedded in the ring so they won't catch on paper or pasteboard, and he remembers going to the jeweler's and feeling alight with a secret happiness that he was sure everyone could see. Arthur snugs his arm a little tighter around her, and she tucks her head under his chin like she's done it a million times before. Her hand rests on his chest and the diamonds catch the light and send it sparkling as the sun sets outside the window of their home.
they were dreaming and something went wrong. the chemicals, the pasiv, something was wrong. they weren't trying to find limbo like cobb and mal but it didn't matter why, all that mattered was that they fell. they washed up on the shore and stumbled out of the waves, clutching one another and gasping for air.
we're going to remember, she told him. we'll remember that we're in limbo, that this isn't real. we'll remind each other. and we won't build anything from memory.
do you think that's going to help? he asked. he looked out at the howling beach; she had told him it was there when she came down here with cobb, came down to rescue fischer and saito and dom from his demons.
we'll make sure we can't forget. make it so strange that we know it can't be real.
the sun rose into the featureless sky and the sand glittered like diamonds.