"This is fucking ridiculous," Arthur seethed, staring at Dom Cobb. "We did not go through all that hell just for you to turn around and do it all over again!"
Dom Cobb looked up from his drafting table. Phillipa and James were outside in the backyard, playing with the new dog they had recently adopted. He was still tired looking but healthy, with his hair combed, loose shirt and jeans fitting properly. Dom wasn't a man on the run anymore, legally speaking, but his mind clearly couldn't rest. His eyes danced everywhere, taking in all the details and exits, as if he expected a trap at any moment.
He had not been as unaffected by his time in dream share as he liked to think.
"You said you needed the best. Well, I was the best."
"Was." Arthur's tone was icy, and he straightened up. "You're out, Dom. You're back with your family, and you're out. I only came over to see how you were doing before I headed into the field again. It's an emergency, and I don't know how long it'll take before I can come back to visit James and Phillipa." He held up a hand when Cobb would have tried to argue his case to join Arthur again. "I won't allow you to endanger everything we worked for."
"I still dream of her, you know," Dom said softly. "I had my time with her in limbo. We grew old together. Did I tell you that? But she's still in my dreams. I think she's trying to tell me something, Arthur. I can't just ignore it."
Arthur's expression was hard, and he was every inch the former military man that he was. "I will not allow this. No one will hire you. You're done in the community. No one will give you a PASIV to use."
"Is done with it," Arthur said, voice harsh. His grip on his phone was so tight that he was surprised it didn't simply shatter. "You've corrupted his best student, and he won't forgive you for that. He did what he had to in order to get you home. But you destroyed his life, destroyed Mal's life, and Marie can't move on. So you have to. I won't let you go backward."
"It won't be," Dom insisted. His eyes shone fever bright, and it occurred to Arthur that he looked like an addict, craving his next fix.
He thought of his own needle marks, of how soothing the somnacin was for him. But Arthur also knew that if he had to stop for whatever reason, he would be able to do it. Dom clearly couldn't, and needed the rush of extraction. He couldn't create anymore, even with real world drafting, if the blank paper on his table was any indication. All he could do was destroy.
"It will," Arthur intoned. "You're home, Dom, and by God, you're going to stay here."
Arthur left without another word to Cobb and said his goodbyes to the children. He would make sure they were protected, that Dom remained the father he always should have been.
He had another architect to save.
It had been a simple enough dream that she had crafted for the job, but somehow projections caught on to the foreign nature of what was happening, and now they were searching her out. They didn't appear intent on killing her, which was odd. Instead, they had her boxed her into this nightmarish trap, hiding and surrounded.
The worst part of it was, she couldn't remember how it had come to this point. She hadn't made any mistakes, the design had been flawless, and everyone going in with her had marveled at the level of detail in the dream. One by one, they went off to do their assigned tasks, and she was left holding down the level, stationing herself in an unremarkable apartment block for safety. Maybe an hour of dream time had passed when she noticed that the projections had begun to change their behavior and appearance, moving in strange ways. As she was looking around her, taking this in with growing unease, one projection had turned and stared straight at her, and it took all she had not to recoil in horror. Its gaze was chilling, its eyes blank, and then it was lurching towards her like a zombie in a horror film.
She had shot him without even thinking, then holed up in this apartment, barricading the door and staying far away from it, just to be sure she would stay safe. If she died in the dream, the entire thing would collapse and the job would be ruined. The others had to do their part, so the least she could do was make sure that hers went off without a hitch.
She was really starting to hate herself for her work ethic.
Desperately, she couldn't help but wonder why the timer wasn't going off. Where was the musical cue? Shouldn't it have gone off yet?
Pacing the room didn't help, and she reluctantly crept back to the window. What she saw there almost made her scream, a strangled sound caught in her throat as she staggered backward in horror. A blank eyed projection was staring right at her, face pressed against the glass, hands flat against the window. Her hair whipped around her with the wind, and her balance on the ledge was precarious. But her mouth was open and the gaping maw was full of razor sharp, jagged teeth. As soon as she caught Ariadne's eye, the mouth gaped even wider in a parody of a smile, and the entire body shook as if she was laughing in triumph.
She had to wake up. Screw the job, she couldn't stay here. She had to wake up.
But no gun would form in her hand. No knife, no garrote, no way to harm herself. She was trapped in the apartment, with no way to get out. She couldn't even move the barricade from in front of the door, and she wasn't going to chance the odd projection getting to her.
She was trapped.
"It was a normal job. Extracting bank account numbers. It shouldn't have been a big deal. She agreed to anchor the level when our usual one backed out last minute."
"And why did your anchor back out?"
"Didn't say, and we didn't ask. There wasn't enough time to."
Arthur covered his face with a hand and took a breath. He tried to tell himself that it wasn't Sekelsky's fault that everything had gone so badly. The rest of the team had been fine, but Ariadne hadn't woken up when she should have. They at least got her out of there and to a safe location before putting the word out that they needed help. It had been six years since the Fischer job, but as soon as Arthur had heard her name, he had to come. They had corresponded, texting and calling at times, but Arthur had hoped that Ariadne wouldn't fall into dream share as Dom had. She deserved better, and she had never discussed her work with him.
"I need details of the somnacin used, the sedatives, whatever else might have been in the PASIV as well as the subject. I might know someone able to help figure out whatever did this to her."
"I promise you, Arthur," Sekelsky said, "we weren't going to screw her over. The design was flawless. She wasn't even supposed to be there."
"And your usual anchor?"
"Gabriel Bredov," Sekelsky replied. "Worked with us a bunch of times, never did anything to hurt any one of us. Usually a solid bloke."
"Then I'll check him out, too."
"You think he did something?" Sekelsky asked anxiously.
"I don't know what to think," Arthur said tightly. "But I'm going to get to the bottom of this and fix it."
"Of course," Arthur had said. "I trust you. Your work is stellar."
He had been able to hear Yusuf preen over the phone line, and they began to make arrangements to smuggle Ariadne to Mombasa. Arthur knew people that owed him favors to get past airport security and customs; he didn't think twice about calling them in now, even though he had been banking on them for years. Yusuf sent a woman he trusted to be an attendant to spoon broth down Ariadne's throat to keep her from getting too dehydrated. Arthur sat beside Ariadne on the plane the entire time, holding her hand and barely eating himself. When the attendant had to visit the restroom or make up another batch of broth, Arthur spooned the fluids himself.
Right after the Fischer job, he had thought he was protecting her. He thought she would be better off without dream share, that she could have an ordinary life. She shouldn't live on the run, with only uncertainty for the future.
It should have been for the best. He had certainly been thorough in his assessments before doing the job, and he didn't know why it didn't work out according to his plan. Pain knifed through him, and he wished he hadn't been so stubborn about not seeing her. His dreams hadn't nearly been enough for him over the past six years. He had missed her fiercely, and she obviously hadn't been better off without him.
Ariadne deserved more than what he could possibly give her, and she should have flourished without his constant presence in her life.
Just hang on, Ariadne, he thought, looking at her. I promise you, I'll fix it somehow. I'll make sure you wake up, one way or another.
For some reason, she thought of Dom Cobb and how he tried to tell her that projections never meant anything. Yet his shade had obviously been a harbinger of his guilt, of the love that had twisted and soured.
Ariadne felt a twinge in her gut. Unfinished business and anxiety always did that to her, and the only unfinished business she could think of was Arthur. Oh, they talked a lot and shared stories about work, but she had caught on quickly that he disapproved of her remaining in dream share to craft levels. He wanted her in the real world, working for a real architectural firm, having a life she could never lead if she was on the run with criminals.
As much as he was a criminal, Ariadne couldn't hate him or shy away from him. Maybe it was simply a fascination with the unknown, but she loved talking with him. The sound of his voice soothed her when she felt stressed, and all she had to do now to calm herself was picture his confident smile from the airport after the Fischer job, the way his suits had fit his body so well, the way they had kissed during the job itself.
Maybe she was being an idealistic twit, but she had hoped that they could go further than that once Fischer had been incepted. During the week hiding out on the first level of the dream, the two of them had been inseparable, and had even slept in the same bed. Only sleeping, to her everlasting disappointment, because he had resolutely refused to sleep with her for the first time when it wasn't real. She had accepted that line of reasoning, and had thought that he would track her down after they parted according to plan.
He hadn't. Weeks later, she managed to track him down via Eames of all people, and he had sounded surprised to hear from her. There was no explanation as to why he hadn't called, why he severed ties without a word. He hadn't even apologized, and she had given up on asking him about it. When she brought it up with Yusuf, the chemist had thought perhaps Arthur felt guilty. "He's the sort that doesn't like to take advantage. For all that this is illegal work, he tries to be very proper, you realize. And romances born of trauma so rarely make it."
Arthur refused to discuss anything but trivia, but Ariadne found herself constructing a picture of who he was outside of the job. He felt so much, obviously, but also felt the need to hide it, to be the consummate professional. The methodical side of him that allowed him to take point also meant he didn't want the appearance of vulnerability. She'd heard that military men often equated emotions with weakness, so of course he wouldn't want her to know he felt something for her. Maybe it was to keep her safe from enemies he didn't tell her about. Maybe—
Maybe she was just being a romantic fool. But it was better to have this dream of him than to feel alone, wasn't it? She liked the fantasy of Arthur, a kind smile and crinkling eyes, the kisses they shared in the dream. Ariadne could remember that as she fingered herself until she came, pretending his hands were on her breasts, stomach or clit. Maybe it left her feeling a little hollow afterward, curled up on her side and still alone in her bed. Arthur didn't know how she felt, and she was going to honor his wishes, even if she didn't agree with them.
She must have fallen asleep on the couch. The rain had certainly been lulling enough, though it seemed to have stopped now. The voice calling her name sounded like Arthur, but was probably just because she had been thinking of him.
"Ariadne, please tell me you're in there. Please tell me you're okay."
That had to have been her projection. Still, at least her projection of him could keep her company in this level she was trapped in.
Staggering to her feet, she pushed the barricade away from the door. "Arthur?" She paused with her hand on the handle, not sure if this was a projection.
As if he could sense her hesitation, Arthur called out "Yes, it's me. Please, open the door."
In the thin light of the hallway, he stood tall and slim, a little more weathered than she had last seen him, in jeans and a black leather jacket. A half smile crossed his face as caught sight of her.
"Ariadne," he said with a sigh of relief. "I've been looking for you. Those projections out there are really unnerving. I had to take out at least two dozen to get up here."
Of course, they wouldn't have presented him with a problem. She knew he had a shoulder rig beneath his jacket with a Glock 19, and she knew from their talks that he tended to have unlimited ammo in dreams. She hadn't quite mastered that trick yet, but generally didn't need to the way he did. Damn, why was she thinking about his gun at a time like this?
"How did you find me?"
"They kept you here." He frowned. "Any idea why?"
"I was just trying to hold down the level for the job..."
Arthur's hands came to rest on her shoulders. "Ariadne," he began gently. "The job ended four days ago. They couldn't wake you up. You've been trapped inside the dream."
"Impossible. I didn't fall to limbo." She shook off his hands and backed away slowly. He might have looked and sounded like Arthur, but she had been thinking about him. She had wanted him to come after her, had wanted to see him again. Of course she had dreamed him up. Of course she made this happen.
He looked at her in concern. "Ariadne?"
"You're a projection," she said, frowning at him. "Just because I wanted to see you—"
"I'm really here," he told her, striding forward. Dammit, she should have locked the door. He might not have looked like those creepy zombie projections, but now her own desires were being twisted and used against her, and that was even worse.
"Stay back," she said, lifting an arm. Her voice was tremulous, betraying her fear, but she couldn't help it. She wanted Arthur, desperately, wholly, and completely. Of course her mind created a version of him that would care enough to rescue her. It was all she could do now to keep from sobbing at her own stupidity.
"You need to wake up," Arthur told her, freezing in place. "Whatever impurities were in that strain of somnacin must be interacting badly with you. Yusuf can't quite figure it out, but he thought it was safe enough for me to come into the dream with you."
Ariadne crept closer and then hesitantly reached out for him. "Yusuf?"
"He said you might be confused because there were impurities," Arthur said, hand closing over hers. It was warm, and felt just like what she remembered from the first level of the Fischer job. Not that it meant anything if he was her projection, but she wanted to believe he was real. She wanted so badly to believe that he would come for her, that he cared.
"Meaning what?" she asked suspiciously.
"He said that I should tell you 'stardust,' and that you'd know what it meant, and that I was real." Arthur looked at her expectantly. "What does that even mean? He wouldn't tell me."
She looked at him in confusion, because of course her projection would know whatever she did, right? But she thought about what the real Yusuf would mean, and when it clicked, she started laughing. "Oh! Oh, yes, of course."
"Of course what?" Arthur asked, irritated.
Not answering, she tugged on his hand and pulled him in close. He stepped forward, a frown still on his face, and Ariadne tugged again until he bent down. She kissed him on the mouth, harder than the first exploratory peck he had given her on the Fischer job. It was more like the last one they'd had on the first level, the kind of kiss with promises of more, with desire and need beneath it, the kind of kiss he should have been able to give her in real life.
Arthur responded to the kiss once his surprise wore off, and he wrapped his arms around her. "I shouldn't have let you go," he said against her mouth.
It was everything she wanted to hear, and it felt like the truth.
Mouths still entangled in a kiss, she didn't even flinch when he brought his Glock up to her temple and pulled the trigger.
She was in his sleepers' den in Mombasa. She'd never seen it before, so this had to be real. Her left hand flopped onto her stomach, and she shifted around until she could feel the press of the bishop in her pocket. As soon as she was able, she would tilt it to test that she wasn't in someone else's dream. Just in case.
"Alhamdulillah," he murmured, coming closer and catching her free hand in his. "I was afraid that counteracting the impurities still wouldn't be much help."
"What?" she asked, her voice gravelly and rough.
"The idiot supplier that your extractor used is known to take shortcuts when he makes his somnacin, the cheap bastard."
"Is that why the anchor cut and run?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Yusuf said darkly, pulling her to a seated position. The room spun dangerously, but he was a comforting weight to lean against, and he rubbed her shoulder in a comforting way. "I think you had an allergic reaction to one of the components. Adding in a little prednisone and antihistamines seems to have allowed my version of the compound to resonate."
"I'm just going to agree and pretend that made any kind of sense to me."
Yusuf laughed, a deep rumble that felt soothing as she leaned against him with her eyes closed. "I think perhaps our prior talks were on point, you know," he murmured as Ariadne heard Arthur begin to stir. "That's why I picked the movie as the code word to let you know that Arthur was real." He laughed at Arthur's frown of confusion. "Perhaps you both needed a long journey before he realized that what he needed was right there all along."
Ariadne couldn't help but laugh, even though it made her nauseous. "Better late than never?"
"Sometimes that's the way of it," Yusuf agreed. "But even those that dream too long wake up eventually. Don't you agree, Arthur?"
She opened her eyes and saw Arthur looking at her with an intensity that took her breath away. It was want and need and a desperation, maybe because nearly losing her made him realize there was no point in pushing her away. Hopefully.
He smiled at her, relieved and a little weary. "Don't ever scare me like that again, Ariadne," he said, pushing himself up to a seated position. "I have too many other worries." At her hurt frown, he shook his head. "No, no, I mean Dom. Trying to get back into dream share again."
"My thought exactly."
Yusuf helped prop Ariadne up into a better seated position. "I'll check on my dreamers, and let you two talk." He grinned at them both, and surreptitiously gave Ariadne a thumbs up behind Arthur's back as he scooted over to her cot.
Grinning back at him, she nodded. It sent the world spinning again, so she slumped onto Arthur as soon as he sat down. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and took her hands in his free one. "I'm glad I found you in there," Arthur murmured, looking down at their clasped hands. "I don't ever want to think of you being lost in a dream."
"I'm up now," Ariadne told him firmly. She pulled one hand free so that she could pull his head down for a kiss, their first kiss in reality ever. As lightheaded and dizzy as she felt, she grinned at him like a loon. "That was about damn time."
Arthur sighed and stroked her cheek. "There's so much more for you..." he began.
"I have everything I want, and I'm doing exactly the kinds of jobs that I like to do. Both real world and in dream share. So why don't you tell me what I've missed?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, brows furrowed in confusion.
She thumped his leg with their joined hands. "This is the first time I've seen you in six years, and that's all your doing. So tell me what you've been up to. All the details this time, not just the fun ones you told me over the phone."
Though Arthur heaved a put upon sigh, she looked up in time to see the delighted amusement in his gaze. He'd missed her, she could tell.
Good. She'd missed him, too. And this time, no matter what he thought, she wasn't going to let him walk away without a fight.