Ariadne has always loved puzzles.
As a kid she couldn't get enough of them: sailing through children's puzzle book dot-to-dots and word searches, taking apart newspaper sections until she found the crosswords and sudoku, poring over them for hours at a time. She never gave up, and never looked at the answers. Her mother would buy her thick books of them for long car journeys and never heard a peep as Ariadne methodically worked her way through each page.
Mazes were her favourite. She would gaze at them, her mind tracing out possibilities, eyes unfocused as she took in the intricate black whorls. There . Her pencil stabbed down, following a route she almost didn't know about until she traced it. The pathway opened up before her, and for those few moments it felt like she could solve anything, overcome any obstacle. The world was just a tangle of lines, waiting for her to find the right path through it.
She wasn't always right, of course, but she started out good and got better. And she never gave up.
It was inevitable, then, that she would be fatally attracted to inception, to the puzzle of it, from the moment that Dom Cobb handed her a notepad and ordered her to design a maze. Ariadne felt the familiar frustration, the impossibility of the challenge that loomed in front of her, followed by the flash of inspiration and the triumph of a solution, seeing the thorny tangle of the puzzle give way before her.
It was also inevitable that she wouldn't be able to resist the mystery that Cobb presented; his secrets and his evasions, the way that there was so clearly something else there , driving all of this, that Ariadne couldn't get at. She barrelled into it headlong like one of her puzzles, relentlessly pursuing clues, determined to uncover the solution she knew was just out of her grasp.
It's only afterwards that she realises she might have been paying attention to the wrong puzzle.
"Arthur, I'd like you to meet our new architect."
Dom Cobb's voice echoed ahead of him as he strode into the warehouse. It was still mostly empty. A few old deck chairs and a couple of suitcases formed a rough workspace where they could brainstorm, sort through information, and go under in turns to design and perfect the dreamscape. It was incredibly makeshift, and Arthur had been counting on having the rest of the morning and possibly some of the afternoon to really get things neat and sorted the way he liked them, but Dom was back early, damn him.
The interruption had Arthur feeling slightly off-kilter, which was pretty much the way this entire job had him feeling. Arthur pushed down the mixture of aggravation and anxiety with practiced ease and turned towards Dom - and did a double-take. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting their new architect to look like, but the petite brunette wearing dark blue jeans and a scarf around her neck was a definite surprise. She was fresh-faced and obviously young, staring around the warehouse with open curiosity. Did Dom recruit her from a high school?
"Ariadne, this is Arthur; Arthur, Ariadne." Dom made the introductions, and Arthur put his hand out for Ariadne to shake.
"Hey, Arthur. Nice to meet you," Ariadne said brightly.
"Likewise," said Arthur with a slight smile. He had thought that Dom might spend a while talking their new team member through dreamsharing and dream theory before bringing her to the warehouse, making sure that she had the ideas solid in her mind before introducing her to the practical side.
That's how Arthur would have done things. Of course, he should have known better than to expect that sort of methodical approach from Dom. Dom was an extractor, all instinct and inspiration, adapting on the fly. Arthur was the planner; that was why they worked well together.
He wondered how and where Ariadne was going to fit into that.
"Arthur is our point man; he handles all of the research and logistics of our jobs," Dom said. "I've been filling Ariadne in on a bit of dreamsharing background and how teams are usually put together, but I figured that for the most part, it'd be easier just to show her."
Of course you did. Arthur refrained from rolling his eyes. He'd had a lot of practice at that with Dom. "That sounds good," he said instead. "I'll get the PASIV. Ariadne, how are you with needles?"
"Uh, I'm okay with them." Ariadne sounded slightly puzzled. Dom settled into one of the lawn chairs and motioned for her to do the same. She hesitated before following suit.
"The PASIV is the device I mentioned before, which puts dreamsharers under..."
Arthur tuned out Dom's explanatory patter as he walked over to where the silver briefcase containing the PASIV sat glinting on a small table. After a moment's debate, Arthur simply picked up the entire table, briefcase and all, and hauled it over to where Dom and Ariadne were sitting.
Ariadne was paying close attention to Dom's words, nodding in understanding, but he noticed her eyes flick over to him as he set the table down a short distance away. She gave him a small smile and raised her eyebrows as she "Mmm-hmmed" at the point that Dom was very earnestly making.
Arthur had to suppress a smirk. He already had a feeling that he was going to like Ariadne.
When Ariadne gasped awake some fifteen minutes later, her eyes flying open, Arthur felt the first stirrings of worry. He remembered his introduction to dreamsharing in the military: the surreality of those first few trips under, the instability and the sudden awakenings. Sure, the technology and the chemistry of dreaming had gotten a lot better since then, but there was nothing quite like your first time under. It was always going to be jarring to wake up and come so suddenly back to reality.
He trusted Dom to ease Ariadne in a little more gently than the army had its new recruits (not that that would take much doing), but Dom wasn't always that great at seeing things from someone else's perspective. He tended to get caught up in the moment, forgetting about little details like people's feelings.
"A face full of glass hurts like hell. When you're in it, it feels real," Dom was saying.
"It's why the military developed dreamsharing as a training program," Arthur put in. Ariadne turned wide and unsettled eyes on him, still panting for breath. "Soldiers would shoot and stab and strangle each other, and... wake up."
"How did architects become involved?" Ariadne asked. She was calmer now, her natural curiosity reasserting itself. Arthur could see her trying to put together the details, to make some sort of orderly and logical sense out of the chaos that had been presented to her. Even less than half an hour after being introduced to her, he could appreciate the way her mind worked.
"Someone had to design the dreams, right?" said Dom. "Why don't you give us another five minutes?" he asked Arthur.
Their brief history lesson was over, then. As little as Arthur liked revisiting his army days, he wanted to give Ariadne some context for what she was experiencing. But it seemed that Dom was determined to push through training and put her through her paces as quickly as he could.
Arthur hoped it wouldn't break her.
"Five minutes ?" Ariadne demanded, her voice rising. "Wh-? We were talking for, like, at least an hour."
"In the dream, your mind functions more quickly, therefore time seems to feel more slow," Dom explained.
"Five minutes in the real world gives you an hour in the dream," Arthur added, busying himself with the PASIV. He saw Ariadne absorb the information, adding another piece to the puzzle that she was building in her head.
"Why don't you see what you can get up to in five minutes?" said Dom.
Arthur watched Ariadne closely. After a moment, she nodded. Arthur raised his eyebrows at Dom: an 'Are you ready?' but also an 'Are you sure?' Dom merely looked back at him expectantly.
Arthur pushed the button as Ariadne settled back into her chair and closed her eyes, swept under by the tide of somnacin.
Ariadne sat bolt upright, gasping for breath and clutching at her chair in a way that Arthur knew all too well. She'd just had a very violent awakening. He rushed to her side, knelt down by the chair and put his hands on her arm, trying to help her ground herself. "Hey. Hey, look at me. You're okay. You're okay."
Ariadne folded one arm over her stomach, gasping and wheezing. "Why-" she spluttered. "Why wouldn't I wake up?"
"Because there was still some time on the clock, and you can't wake up within a dream unless you die." Arthur spoke calmly and reassuringly as he removed the IV line from her arm. In the next chair over, Dom surged to his feet.
"She'll need a totem," he threw over his shoulder as he strode out of the room.
Oh yeah, something had gone badly wrong, and Arthur had a few guesses as to what it might have been.
"A - totem, it's a small personal-" he began, but Ariadne wasn't listening.
"That's some subconscious you've got on you, Cobb!" she yelled to Dom's retreating figure. "She's a real charmer!"
"Ah, I see you've met Mrs. Cobb," said Arthur.
"She's his wife?"
Arthur simply nodded; that was the beginning and the end of what Ariadne needed to know about that mess. At least for now. "So, a totem: you need a small object, potentially heavy, something you can have on you all the time…" He walked her through the concept of totems, but he could tell her mind was only half on what he was saying; Ariadne ran her hand over her face, clearly still reeling from the dream.
"I- I- I don't know if you can't see what's going on, or if you just don't want to?" Ariadne asked. Arthur looked back at her; there were so many ways that he could answer that question, and none that she would like.
"Cobb has some serious problems that he's tried to bury down there." Ariadne's eyes were wide as they stared into his, imploring him to show sense and agree with her. One hand gesticulated to emphasise her point. "And I'm not about to just- open my mind to someone like that."
And with that, she was gone. Arthur busied himself by tidying away the IV line, feeling the beginnings of a headache pressing behind his temples. He had known it wouldn't work. The idea of bringing a completely green architect into any dreamsharing job, never mind inception, was insane in anyone's book. But he couldn't help the regret he felt at the betrayed way that Ariadne had looked at him, like he and Dom were in both league against her.
He didn't want her to see him in that way.
"She'll be back."
Dom's voice could have belonged to a man thirty years older than he was. He walked back into the room, his eyes wild as he stared at nothing, obviously reliving what had happened down in the dream. Arthur didn't ask about it; it had happened to him enough times that he could fill in the likely details.
"I've never seen anyone pick it up that quickly before. Reality's not going to be enough for her now, and when she comes back... " Dom stared off into the distance, imagining the possibilities. "When she comes back, you're going to have her building mazes."
Arthur didn't bother trying to challenge Dom's assumptions about what Ariadne would decide to do - or to point out that he had plenty else to be getting on with without training a brand new architect into the bargain.
If Ariadne did come back, well… He'd like to spend more time with her. Not just to try and mitigate Dom's headlong dash into dream training, but because he was keen to get to know her better. Dom's comments were high praise indeed coming from an extractor as experienced as he was, and Arthur wanted to see for himself what Ariadne could do in a dreamscape. Although she claimed not to want anything to do with Dom's particular brand of instability, she'd still adapted to it and taken it more in stride than most people would have done in her position.
It would be nice to have someone else around to help him keep Dom in check. But it didn't look like that was going to happen.
Three days later, Dom had flown out to Mombasa to recruit Eames, and Arthur had the warehouse to himself. It was much better outfitted now, with tables and chairs and a drawing pad for them to brainstorm ideas. Sure, the furniture was mismatched and some of it makeshift, but Arthur was used to making do; what he needed was just a well-organised space and the time to get to know it properly. He felt comfortable there, surrounded by all the things he needed to do his job well.
Someone cleared their throat behind him. Arthur felt something ease in his chest, as if he'd let go of a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. He realised he'd been waiting for this for the past three days.
He turned around. "Cobb said you'd be back."
Ariadne gave him a rueful smile, looking down and to one side with obvious embarrassment at being back in the warehouse after making such a dramatic exit a few days ago. Her steps slowed as she approached him, her boots scuffing slightly against the floor.
"I tried not to come, but…"
"But there's nothing quite like it," Arthur finished for her.
"It's just…" Ariadne looked at him, and he could see her struggling to describe it, the enormity of everything that dreaming was and could be. His heart beat faster as he'd remembered how he'd felt when he'd stood alone for the first time in a city of his own making, and realised he could do anything.
Working the inception job was a jarring combination of old and new. There was Dom, of course, with whom Arthur had worked (and eaten, and slept, and hid, and fled) for the past two years. Then there was Eames, working with whom felt like falling back into an old, bad habit; familiar and indulgent, yet somehow you couldn't stop yourself from doing it. The bickering and the banter was as nostalgic as it was aggravating. Eames hadn't changed one bit, as Arthur was forcibly reminded when Eames pulled him aside one day, during a break between dreaming sessions.
"So, you and…" Eames motioned with an expressive flick of his eyebrows towards Ariadne, who was sitting on the edge of a lawn chair with her feet dangling over the side, chatting to Yusuf. She looked up at that exact moment and gave Arthur a bright smile, which he slightly, weakly returned.
Arthur turned back to meet Eames' smirking, knowing face.
"You and Ariadne, huh?"
Arthur irritably shrugged out of Eames' grasp. "It's not like that, Eames." He walked over to the open PASIV and busied himself doing absolutely nothing with the machine. Eames, irritatingly persistent as ever, followed him.
"But you want it to be, right?" he said with that forger's confidence, cocksure in his interpretation of Arthur's mind and his desires. Eames was so used to being able to make himself into whatever he wanted; he often seemed to believe he could do the same thing with other people.
"Eames, just drop it," Arthur said warningly.
"You know, I'm sure she'd be open to it," Eames mused, almost to himself. "It doesn't have to be true romance. Just a quick fling between dreamsharing colleagues."
Arthur turned towards Eames and found them virtually nose to nose. "I don't do flings , Eames, as you well know." He watched the skin tighten around Eames' grey eyes, no doubt remembering when Arthur had said the exact same words to him, years ago.
Arthur eased back fractionally, out of Eames' personal space. "And I can guarantee that I'm not what she wants."
"How can you be so sure unless you give it a try?" Eames murmured. Arthur pretended not to hear him as he walked away.
"Do you and Eames have a… history?" Ariadne asked, the next time they were in the dreamscape together. They'd taken to going under together every chance they got, practicing the layouts for the three dream levels, running through them with projections, adding in little escape hatches and details that could come in handy for this or that scenario.
But they also spent a lot of time on architecture that, if Arthur was honest, had nothing to do with the job. Playing with paradoxes and creating closed loops within closed loops. Sometimes they would set challenges for each other, Ariadne building a secret shortcut through a maze and then challenging Arthur to find it, or Arthur defying Ariadne to build a closed loop that he couldn't identify. (It had, embarrassingly, only taken three sessions before she successfully managed to trick him with a closed loop built into an incredibly intricate mirror maze).
Maybe Arthur was being irresponsible for not sticking rigidly to things that had to do with the job, but he couldn't help it. Dreaming with Ariadne was the most fun he'd had in a long time. And going under with her felt like a respite from the stress and pressure of inception, from his mind constantly churning through what might happen if they didn't pull it off.
Ariadne was under pressure, too, though he did his best to keep the worst of it off her. Occasionally they would go for walks together topside, Ariadne tugging Arthur away from reams of paperwork as his head was starting to throb. Or they’d take the scenic route to the warehouse in the morning, pointing out bits of architecture to each other and imagining what they would do with the landscape if they were in a dream.
Eames' insinuations aside, he couldn't remember the last time he'd enjoyed spending time with someone this much. It took him back to the early days of his friendship with Mal, and the ridiculous scrapes they used to get into. Ariadne was very different from Mal, but she had a spark and a stubbornness that reminded him of her. He thought that Ariadne would have liked her. They both had unique ways of looking at the world, both of them forthright and opinionated in their own way (Mal, loud and effusive; Ariadne quieter yet self-assured). It made him slightly sick to think that she only knew the shade of Mal, the dark, twisted version of her.
"A history?" Arthur repeated, quirking an eyebrow at Ariadne. They were walking through a dreamscape of Arthur's creation: a hedge maze, through which he'd challenged Ariadne to find the secret shortcut. He suspected that she'd stopped paying attention, though, and the two of them were just wandering slowly through the maze, picking pathways at random.
Ariadne blushed slightly but didn't backpedal. "You seemed like you were having a pretty intense conversation the other day. You two have worked together before, right?"
"Yeah, Eames and I go back a way," Arthur confirmed. "We were in the military together."
"You don't talk about it much," said Ariadne cautiously. "Your time in the army."
"It wasn't very pleasant," Arthur replied.
He thought about the horrors of those early, experimental days in dreamsharing. The collapsing, unstable dreamscapes, the protracted violence, the torture. He wanted to shield Ariadne from the worst of what dreamsharing could be - but here he was, bringing her deeper and deeper into that world.
Even though it was Dom who had actually recruited her, in his own way, Arthur was just as culpable.
He thought about Mal, and what happened to her – the warped, malicious shade that she had become. He knew Ariadne was curious about what had taken place between her and Dom. He had seen the curious glances she directed Dom’s way, could sense the questions she wanted to ask whenever she spoke about it. He knew her well enough by now to know that she wasn't one to let go of a puzzle until she'd solved it. Should he warn her away? Give her just enough detail to put her off the scent? Even Arthur didn't know the whole story. He'd tried to pry it out of Dom at the beginning, but quickly learned he wasn't going to get anywhere. As an extractor, Dom knew better than most how to keep his own secrets safe.
"Well, at least you had Eames there, right?" Ariadne said lightly, and Arthur started, almost having forgotten what they were talking about. "Were the two of you close?"
Arthur gave a slight chuckle, a breath of expelled air. "We were friends. And enemies, I guess. We fought as often as we got along. You can… probably tell we still do." Ariadne snorted with amusement and nodded. "We have a way of getting under each other's skin."
"Were you guys ever together?"
The directness of her question took Arthur by surprise, even though he knew Ariadne didn't like to beat about the bush. His stomach jolted, like he'd stepped and found that the ground wasn't where he'd expected it to be. But it wasn't because Ariadne was asking about him and Eames. It was the perfect opening, the ideal moment to say what he knew he should tell her about himself, and yet…
He swallowed the words back. He was getting ahead of himself, assuming too much about his relationship with Ariadne. It would be weird if he suddenly went there. And besides, the two of them had bigger things to be worrying about.
When this was all over, they would go their separate ways, and… that would be that.
"No, we were never together," he told her. "Why, does it seem like we-"
Ariadne suddenly exclaimed and ran over to the hedge that loomed to their right. "Hold on!" she said, running her hands over the thickly intertwining vines.
Arthur smirked. She'd finally noticed.
"There are flowers on this wall…" Ariadne had spotted the tiny red buds that he'd grown deliberately, peeking out from between the leaves. She ran over to the opposite wall. "But there are none on this wall! Which means... right turn…" She walked quickly down the path that led off to their right, and shouted in triumph as she discovered red flowers growing along one of the walls.
"That's it, isn't it? That's the shortcut!" Ariadne turned expectantly to Arthur, who tried and failed to keep a straight face.
"I guess you'd better follow it and find out," he said.
"Ha! I'm right." Ariadne set off at a run down the path, following the trail of red flowers at head height. "Come on, Arthur!"
Arthur grinned as he followed after her, his heart beating hard and fast in his chest.
Arthur waited until the next time that they were alone in the warehouse before he approached Dom. It was late, and the rest of the team had already gone back to their various motel rooms for the night. Yusuf had left just a few minutes earlier, tweaking and refining the sedative for their job. He didn't know where Eames and Yusuf had their accommodation; it was safer that way. Dom had a room somewhere, but Arthur suspected that he spent more nights sleeping in the warehouse than he did in his room. Arthur had rented Ariadne a room in the same motel as him, though, and had made sure that she knew where she could find him. Just in case.
"Dom. Have you got a minute?"
Dom looked up in surprise. He'd been setting up the PASIV next to one of the lawn chairs, preparing to go under. He obviously hadn't thought there was anyone else left in the warehouse.
"Oh, hey, Arthur. Uh, I'm a little busy right now. Can it wait five minutes?" Dom gestured to the PASIV.
"No, not really. I'm sure Mal will still be there in a little while, don't worry," said Arthur evenly, sitting down next to Dom.
Dom flinched and avoided Arthur's gaze. "That's not what this is," he said.
"Yes it is," Arthur contradicted him. "I've spent enough time around you, Dom. I know you've been seeing her. I haven't tried to ask you about it, and I haven't tried to make you stop. But you need to leave Ariadne out of it."
Dom gave Arthur one of his signature penetrating squints. "This is about Ariadne? Arthur, she's not going into the dream. Her involvement ends when the job begins, I promised Miles. You know that."
"And what about until then?" Arthur shot back. "I know why you've been letting me handle the bulk of Ariadne's training, and it's not because you're too busy. But she's been getting curious, and you know what she's like – she won't stop until she's uncovered what it is you're hiding."
Dom gave him a long, assessing look. "I think you know her a lot better than I do, by now," he said.
What was that supposed to mean? Arthur resisted the urge to fidget uncomfortably, because this wasn't about him and he wouldn't let Dom change the subject.
"I need you to swear to me," Arthur said, in his I-am-the-point-man-don't-fuck-with-me voice, "that you will keep Ariadne away from Mal, and away from the job, no matter what happens. And no matter what Ariadne tries to do. I'm not having her put in danger."
Dom met his eyes steadily. "I swear, Arthur. No matter what happens."
Arthur studied his face for several moments, then sat back and nodded. "Okay," he said.
He expected Dom to finish inserting the IV into his arm and start up the machine, but instead Dom just watched him shrewdly, which made Arthur feel exposed, like he'd showed his hand somehow. He'd never before pushed back at Dom over something that wasn't strictly to do with the logistics of a job, preferring to pick his battles. But this was about a job. Mostly.
"You really care about her, don't you?" Dom asked suddenly.
Arthur felt his face heat up, and opened his mouth to deny this outright. But Dom was looking at him with this knowing little smile, and all at once he looked like the old friend Arthur remembered, before everything went wrong, and they started running for their lives and didn't stop.
"I plead the fifth," he said instead. "Goodnight, Dom," and left the warehouse with Dom's quiet laughter following after him.
The conversation with Dom didn't help Arthur when it came to falling asleep that night. He lay awake in the dark, the covers twisted around his feet where he'd kicked them in frustration. He was used to taking a while to fall asleep, as if it took some time for his body to remember that yes, sleep was a thing it could do without the aid of a PASIV. Tonight, though, he'd been lying awake for – he checked the display on his phone, which lay beside his hand – more than two hours.
Arthur flopped back against the pillow, rubbing the back of his hand over his eyes.
It had started with him reliving the time he spent with Ariadne in the dream world, hoping the pleasant memories would help him drift off to sleep, when he'd had the sudden thought that his memories of dreaming felt more lifelike and real than his memories of the waking world.
Horrified, he sat bolt upright and grabbed his totem, which lay in the inside pocket of his suit jacket over the back of the room's only chair, and rolled it hard on the nightstand. Four. Arthur slowly sat back down on his bed, his mind racing.
Was he becoming like Dom? He enjoyed going under with Ariadne, yes - looked forward to it, even, as a break from work - but he'd always had a firm grasp on what was reality and what was the dream world. He prided himself on being more grounded than any other dreamsharer he knew, never using the PASIV outside of work or as a sleep aid.
He should have known it was dangerous to start thinking of his dream time as an escape from reality. Arthur thought about Dom, spending his nights dreaming alone in the warehouse. He'd been warning Dom away from involving Ariadne in the situation with Mal, but was he, Arthur, being a worse influence by spending so much time with her below?
Two hours later, and Arthur still hadn't managed to put his mind to rest about any of it. He kept thinking about his relationship with Ariadne, something which he'd avoided examining too closely, trying not to dwell on what would happen when the job ended and Ariadne went back to her old life, as she should do.
Once or twice in their conversations about dreamsharing, Ariadne had talked as if she was thinking about working dreamsharing jobs in the future, but then caught herself abruptly. She'd also asked him what he planned to do once inception was over and Dom went back to his family. Arthur had deflected, joking that they needed to pull off inception before he could consider that. Because the truth was that he didn't actually know what he was going to do with himself. He had four different contingency plans for what might happen if incepting Fischer went awry, but he hadn't dared get his hopes up for their success.
It didn't matter, anyway. He knew how to go to ground; he'd done it a thousand times before. He'd disappear off the map for a few months, lie low and keep an ear out, make sure no-one was on their tail. Cobb would go back to the kids, the others would go their separate ways… and Ariadne would go back to her studies. She deserved to be able to have her life back after all this was over.
This was why, Arthur told himself, there was no point acting on his feelings (yes, all right, he was willing to admit he had feelings ) for Ariadne. No point trying to find out whether she might feel the same way. And there was no point screwing up the courage to tell her about his asexuality. He had no way of knowing if Ariadne even–
There was a tap at the door.
Arthur stiffened, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. Silently, he moved to pick up his totem from the nightstand, then bent to retrieve the pistol he kept hidden beneath the bed. He trained it on the door and waited, tense, in the middle of the room.
After a few moments, there came another tap at the door, and Ariadne's voice called uncertainly through the door. "Arthur?"
Ariadne. Arthur lowered the gun, feeling first relief and then worry. He tucked the gun into the back of the waistband of the boxers he wore to bed, but not underneath the hem of his T-shirt, in case he needed to draw it again quickly. Then he opened the door. "Ariadne – what's wrong? Has something happened?"
Even in the faint glow of the safety lighting from the motel corridor, Ariadne looked bad, her face pale and lined with tension.
"Yeah, no, I'm safe, don't worry. Nothing's happened. Just couldn't sleep." She attempted a smile. "Sorry to've disturbed you."
"Join the club," Arthur said, standing aside to let her in. "I haven't had much luck myself tonight."
He expected her to sit on the chair, but she crossed to the bed and sat down on the edge of it instead, leaving him to sit awkwardly on the chair. He moved to turn on the floor lamp, but Ariadne said, "No, leave it off. I think my eyes could use a rest."
She leaned back on her hands and sighed. In the grey dark of the room, Arthur couldn't make out her expression.
"What's keeping you awake? Are you having trouble dreaming?" Arthur asked, because that was his biggest fear, that the side-effects of dreamsharing had started to kick in already.
He could just see Ariadne shake her head.
"No, it's not that, it's just... Everything, y'know? Inception. I kept thinking about Fischer… how what we do is going to change his whole life. I love dreamsharing for the creation of it, but it's not just... mazes and closed loops and paradoxes. It's real people, and real lives. How can we play God like that?"
Arthur tilted his head to one side, thinking. He had become adept at divorcing himself from the human aspect of dreamsharing - pretty much from the beginning, in fact, because there really hadn't been any room for it in the military - but he didn't want Ariadne to become that way, not yet.
"It could be a good thing, doing this, for Fischer," he said eventually. "Especially because of the way we're going about it - trying to give him catharsis. He'll be able to make peace with the memory of his father. That's very positive. And if what Saito says is true, breaking Fischer-Morrow's monopoly on the energy industry will be a good thing for the whole world. We're practically superheroes," he added, trying for a lame joke to cheer Ariadne up.
It worked, sort of. Ariadne chuckled weakly. "Yeah, you're right. Maybe it'll change his life in a good way."
"I guess it's like with every decision," Arthur mused, feeling the words out as he said them. "There are always bad consequences that could happen. There's no way to know for sure. So you just have to... weigh up what you think is the best course for you, and... go from there."
"And what if we do it wrong?" Ariadne asked. He could tell that this was what had really been bothering her. "Not make the wrong choice, I mean, but do inception wrong. What happens then?"
Arthur winced. "It's hard to say; not a lot of people have attempted inception. I think Eames was on a team that tried it once, though obviously the idea didn't take. The subject probably just woke up and thought they'd had a really weird dream."
He was not, Arthur thought, the best person to go to for comfort about this sort of thing. As much as he wanted to reassure Ariadne, he couldn't outright lie to her. And he'd seen some bad things result from dreamsharing gone wrong.
"I don't want to be the one that messes it up," Ariadne admitted.
That took Arthur by surprise; he'd never once heard Ariadne second-guess herself or her abilities. "Mess it up? You? Ariadne, you're one of the best architects I've ever seen."
Probably the best, he added silently.
"But I've never worked a job before. You and Cobb, Eames and Yusuf... You all have so much experience with dreamsharing. I'm still just a newbie."
"Yusuf's never been in the field before, either," Arthur reminded her. "And we'll look out for you. Ariadne, you..."
Being in the dark made it easier to speak his heart, in a way that he had never been able to, even in the dreamscape. "You have such an incredible gift... for creating beautiful dreams. In all my experience with dreaming, I've never learned to create what you've done naturally in the space of just a few weeks. Spending time with you in the dream world has been amazing. So... don't underestimate what you can do."
There was a heavy silence after he finished speaking. Arthur licked his suddenly dry lips and wondered if he'd said too much. Should he try to lighten the mood? Even in the gloom, he could tell Ariadne was staring at him. He looked down at the floor and cleared his throat.
"Arthur…" Ariadne said.
"It's all true. I mean it," Arthur said, looking back up at her. "And it's not just me who thinks that about you."
Just like that, the moment was lost. Ariadne shifted her weight on the bed, and Arthur felt regret rise up in his throat. Somehow, he felt like he'd just made a bad call.
"Really?" said Ariadne, and the lightness in her tone felt forced.
"Yeah, Eames and Yusuf, they both think you're an awesome architect. And Cobb, well, you blew him away the first time you went into the dreamscape."
"Cobb doesn't always seem that impressed."
"He is. You wait; the next time we go under, he'll be all, "Terrific work, Ariadne." He reserves the word 'terrific' for stuff he thinks is really excellent."
Ariadne laughed, a real laugh this time. "You really know him," she said, and then yawned.
"You think you could get to sleep now?" asked Arthur.
"Yeah, I think I…" Ariadne yawned again. "I think I might."
There was a pause. Arthur felt as if he should do something to make up for ruining the moment earlier; at least, that was the excuse he made when he found himself saying, "If you don't wanna walk back up to your room, you could crash here."
"Are you sure?" asked Ariadne, but she was already gazing longingly at the pillow.
"Yeah, you have your totem on you, right?"
"Got it right here," said Ariadne with a note of pride, holding up her pawn. Arthur liked Ariadne's totem. The fact that she'd crafted it herself said almost everything he needed to know about her character, and her relentlessly hands-on approach to the things she did.
"Good. You can take the bed. I'll sleep on the floor."
"Don't be ridiculous, Arthur," said Ariadne, who was toeing off her sneakers. "There's room in here for both of us. I promise I don't bite."
Arthur sat frozen with indecision as she lay down on the bed and scooted over against the wall, leaving ample space for Arthur to lie down next to her. She slid one arm underneath the pillow and closed her eyes, breathing evening out. Arthur wondered if she'd gone to sleep already, and if he could get away with bedding down on the floor without her knowing. But then she reached over and pulled back the comforter in a clear invitation, all with her eyes still closed.
"Arthur, come on. Don't tell me you're going to try and fall asleep sitting up on that chair."
"No, but I can-"
Arthur’s face reddened as he reluctantly got to his feet and made his way over to the bed. Ariadne patted the space next to her, and he slowly eased himself down onto the bed, stowing his totem under the pillow. Ariadne made a pleased noise and threw the other half of the comforter over him, then wriggled slightly as she made herself comfortable in the bed.
It wasn't the sexual connotations of sharing a bed that made him feel uncomfortable, thought Arthur, because it didn't have those connotations for him. But it was still incredibly intimate to be lying a handspan away from Ariadne and listening to her soft breaths, wondering what she could be dreaming about.
Arthur lay still, his mind going over and over the same fears, the same doubts, and it was a long time before he finally drifted off to sleep.
"...No dental, nothing."
"Wasn't he supposed to have a knee operation?"
Dom and Eames' frustrated conversation echoed down from the top of the stairs in the empty hotel foyer. The team – bar Yusuf, who was topside monitoring the effects of the sedative – was testing the finished build for the hotel level and discussing the conundrum of when and how to put Fischer under. Arthur and Ariadne halted their murmured discussion of the maze ins and outs to listen in.
"Nothing. Nothing that they'll put him under, anyway, and we need… we need at least a good ten hours," Eames said.
"Sydney to Los Angeles," stated Saito, who was leaning on the stair rail looking out over the elegant décor. The group's attention focused on Saito, Dom twisting round to look at him. Saito tended mostly to listen during discussions about dream logistics, but when he spoke up, it was always precisely thought-out and worthwhile. Though he didn't entirely trust Saito (and indeed, Saito didn't expect trust), Arthur had a lot of respect for him.
"One of the longest flights in the world. He makes it every two weeks."
"He must be flying private, then," Dom pointed out.
"Not if there were unexpected maintenance with his plane."
"It'd have to be a 747," interjected Arthur. He'd thought about this a while ago, because he knew that Fischer made the trip with unerring regularity, and yes, the duration was perfect. But he didn't see how Saito was going to overcome the practical wall that he'd run into.
"Why's that?" asked Dom.
"In a 747, the pilot's up top, and the first class cabin's in the nose," Arthur elaborated, climbing up the steps to be on a level with the others. "So no-one would walk through. But you'd have to buy out the entire cabin - and the first-class flight attendant."
"I bought the airline," said Saito simply. A startled silence followed in the wake of his pronouncement.
Saito looked around at the dumbstruck team, and said almost abashedly, "It… seemed neater."
Arthur accessed his mental notes, and underlined "DO NOT CROSS SAITO" in bold several times.
Dom just smiled like he'd expected nothing less, and nodded. "It looks like we have our ten hours."
He ran down the steps, and paused as if he'd remembered something. "Ariadne – terrific work, by the way."
Arthur slanted her an "I-told-you-so," look with a little smile. Ariadne raised an eyebrow at him, but couldn't hide how pleased she was.
Looking back, Arthur could pinpoint the exact moment where things started sliding out of control. Well, in reality there were several moments, but the first began with Cobb ordering, "Get us another seat on the plane."
Saito raised his eyebrows, but nodded and went to make a call on his phone. Dom tried to avoid Arthur's gaze as he walked past him, but Arthur gave chase.
"Another seat on the plane? For who? For Ariadne? Dom, you gave me your word, you swore-"
"Circumstances change, Arthur," Dom bit out, still not looking at him. "We're going to need an architect down there."
"For what, Dom?! To fuck around with the dreamscape so that Fischer notices us? Oh yeah, that's a great plan." Arthur was so angry that he couldn't see straight. He normally prided himself on being level-headed and focused no matter what went down, and god knows Dom had fucked up in a myriad of creative ways before now, but this- Dom swore to Arthur that Ariadne wouldn't be involved-
"It's just a precaution. We'll keep her out of harm's way as much as possible," Dom said dismissively. "Fischer's not militarised; she won't see any combat-"
Incensed, Arthur grabbed Dom by the shoulder and pulled him around to face him. "You looked me in the eye, and you swore that no matter what happened, Ariadne would not go into the dream. And suddenly, something happens that means her presence on the job is indispensable. What did she find out, huh? What have you told her?"
"Mr. Cobb?" Saito called from the next room.
"I'll be right there," Dom called back. He looked back at Arthur, but his gaze was still focused somewhere around Arthur's ear, not looking into his eyes. "I'm sorry, Arthur. But we need her. And I'm leading this job, so what I say goes."
With that he walked away to talk to Saito. Arthur stared after him and thought, I was a fool for ever, ever trusting you.
Gunshots and broken glass exploded all around them, and Arthur spun the wheel, foot flat on the accelerator, trying to give Eames as clear a shot as possible. He was calm, but his jaw was clenched so hard it hurt and he'd forced down the part of his mind that was reeling, desperately trying to work out how Fischer had been militarised, this wasn't in the research-
He wheeled the car around in a U-turn and they were off, skidding down the wet rain-streaked streets to safety. "Are you all right?" he yelled to Eames.
Eames was silent for a heart-stopping moment, but then he called back, "Yeah, I'm all- I'm okay. I'm okay. Fischer's okay, 'nless he gets car-sick."
Saito's hand was pressed against the cloth of his shirt, and slowly, his fingers came away bloody.
Once they'd made it safely to the warehouse, Arthur and Dom laid Saito out on the ground, trying to stem the blood flow, to work out how badly injured he was. "Where were you? What happened to you?" he asked Dom.
"We were blocked by a freight train," Dom replied.
A freight train?! That wasn't in the level designs. "Why would you put a freight train in the middle of a downtown anything?" Arthur demanded of Ariadne.
"Wh- I didn't!" Ariadne protested.
And Arthur was so slow on the uptake, didn't realise until much later what that had to mean, because If Dom could bring projections with him into a dream, could bring Mal, then why not other things?
Of course, at the time he was trying to calm Dom. Dom who was bellowing at him, "This was YOUR responsibility! You were meant to check Fischer's background thoroughly; we were NOT prepared for this type of violence!"
Things were spiralling rapidly out of control, and still Arthur kept calm, even though there was a voice screaming at the back of his head that it was his fault Ariadne was in the middle of this situation. You never knew what could go wrong in a dream, which was exactly why he hadn't wanted her going under with them, but if he'd known about the militarisation then he never would have let Dom do this-
And then. Eames tried to put Saito out of his misery with a bullet to the head, and Dom slammed him against the side of the car, and the awful truth crystallised in front of them.
"It won't wake him up."
"When we die in a dream, we wake up ." This was Eames, repeating the most basic rule that all dreamsharers knew, as if he was the only sane one in a warehouse full of mad people. Arthur knew the feeling.
"Not from this," replied Yusuf. "We're too heavily sedated to wake up that way."
"Right, so what happens when we die?"
"We drop into Limbo."
"Are you serious?"
"Limbo?!" Ariadne repeated with horror, and oh, my god, she didn't know about Limbo, he'd never even told her about Limbo, because he hadn't wanted to expose her to that, to the worst that could happen, she was never supposed to be in this type of danger-
But as much as Arthur blamed himself (and oh, did he blame himself), he also knew full well who else was to blame. And after years of letting Dom off lightly for the shit that he pulled in the dreamscape, after years of getting shot in the kneecaps and wounded and killed by the shade of one of his best friends arisen from Dom's subconscious, he wasn't about to let this go.
He cornered Dom as Yusuf and Ariadne tended to Saito, who'd been settled on a table behind them.
"So you knew about these risks, and you didn't tell us," he said flatly.
"There were never meant to be any risks; I didn't know we'd be dealing with a load of gunfire ," Dom replied. But for once Arthur recognised the tactic for what it was - Dom trying to turn the blame back to him again, anything to take the focus off what he'd done. And what he'd done was something that Arthur could never forgive.
"You had no right," said Arthur, low and dangerous.
"It was the only way to go three layers deep," said Dom, with a slight shrug. Abruptly too angry to keep dealing with Dom's bullshit, Arthur rounded on Yusuf.
"And you. You knew about this, and went along with it."
"I trusted him!"
Yeah, hadn't they all. "You trusted him- what, when he promised you half his share?"
"No." There was a pause. "His whole share." Yusuf looked past Arthur at Dom, as if to check whether Dom was still planning to hold up his end of the bargain. As if it fucking mattered when they'd be lucky to make it out of this with their sanity intact. "Besides, he said he'd done it before."
"Oh, he'd done it before. What, with Mal?" Arthur's anger was boiling to the surface in a way he never let it do on a job, but fuck it. They had a week down here. A few minutes wasn't going to make any difference and Arthur was sick of letting Dom get away with this shit because the job took precedence. "Because that worked so good?!"
"That has nothing to do with it. I did what I had to do to get back to my children."
And that was the crux of it. Arthur had always trusted Dom; you couldn't go through everything they'd been through together without trusting the other person to have your back. But he'd come to realise that when it came to Mal and the kids, there was nothing Dom wouldn't do, and no-one he wouldn't sacrifice, to protect them.
Once upon a time, Arthur had admired that. Now, it terrified him.
"So you led us into a war zone with no way out?" Eames summarised.
"There is a way out, all right? We continue on with the job, and we do it as fast as possible, and we get out using the kick. Just like before."
"Forget it," Eames said flatly. "We go any deeper, we just raise the stakes. I am sitting this one out on this level, boys."
"Fischer's security is surrounding this place as we speak. Ten hours of flight time is a week at this level. That means each and every one of us will be killed. That I can guarantee you," said Dom. Arthur hated him for sounding so unrepentant, even as he appreciated that staying calm and restating their purpose was the only way to keep the team from falling apart completely. Normally, that was Arthur's job.
"We have no other choice but to continue on and do it as fast as possible," he concluded. "Downwards is the only way forwards. Get ready."
He turned to Arthur, and tossed him a black ski mask to pull over his head. "You. C'mon. Let's go shake him up."
Arthur stared at him balefully, wanting to hit back at him, to make some sort of a 'fuck you' statement that would show just how deeply Dom had hurt him. But he was a fucking professional and right now all of their lives depended on keeping this together. So Arthur held it together, and he went after Dom, like always.
He didn't look at Ariadne as he walked past.
In spite of everything, Arthur felt his mood settling as they prepared, inside the van, to go another level deeper. He was an expert at disassociating himself from his emotions when he needed to in order to get the job done. But it was more than that. Arthur was in his element in the dreamscape. He could bend reality to his will, do things that would never have been possible up above. It was the reason why he'd always been so careful to keep himself grounded in the real world, because he sensed just how easily he could get carried away if he didn't.
He knew it was the same for Ariadne, which was why he'd always been drawn to her, and to spending time with her down below – and why he was so afraid of her becoming more heavily involved with dreamsharing.
(He knew Ariadne could handle herself. But still).
Down on the second level, he and Ariadne sat side by side, looking out over the hotel foyer in which they'd stood with the team just a few days earlier, discussing how to get themselves ten hours to perform inception. Back when they thought they'd have all the time in the dream to make this happen.
"Who, or what, is Mr. Charles?" asked Ariadne.
"It's a gambit designed to turn Fischer against his own subconscious," replied Arthur, eyeing Eames as he sashayed across the lobby wearing the curvy figure of an attractive blonde woman.
"And why don't you approve?"
"Because it involves telling the mark that he's dreaming, which involves attracting a lot of attention to us."
Ariadne laughed, just a little. "Didn't Cobb say never to do that?"
Arthur smiled sardonically. "Mmm. So now you've noticed how much time Cobb spends doing things he says never to do."
There was a distant rumbling, and the ground beneath them began to tremble. Outside the windows, the world turned white, and the air was thick with flying raindrops, like shards of ice.
"What's happening?" asked Ariadne, panicked.
"Cobb's drawing Fischer's attention to the strangeness of the dream, which is making his subconscious look for the dreamer," Arthur said tensely. "For me."
His mind was calculating, running through possible scenarios, trying to think of a way for them to get out of this unscathed. One idea occurred to him, a possible distraction tactic - something that he would never dare to do topside. But Arthur was different in a dream, and always had been.
"Quick, give me a kiss."
He leaned in and pressed his lips against Ariadne's. He could tell that she was startled, but after a fraction of a second, she kissed him back. Arthur found himself wondering if it was normal for a person's lips to be so soft, or if it was the dream, enhancing the sensation.
It only lasted a moment before Arthur pulled away, trying to make it seem calculated and not like he was just inexperienced. His heart was pounding so hard it was almost painful. Kissing Ariadne felt like the most risky, and the most exhilarating, thing that he'd ever done in a dream.
Ariadne was looking around nervously, oblivious to Arthur's attempts to bring his heart rate back under control. "They're still looking at us," she said.
"Yeah, it was worth a shot," said Arthur, a little hoarsely. "We should probably get out of here."
After they wake up, the warm confines of the plane feeling strangely unreal after the lashing, icy rain of the first level, Ariadne sits back in her seat, thinking.
Not about Fischer, not about Cobb and Mal and their tragic love story, but about Arthur, kissing her in the dream.
She knows they did it; in spite of everything that went wrong, they completed inception and made it out of the dream unscathed - Cobb and Saito too. But the whole time, Ariadne feels like she's holding her breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
She watches Cobb pass through immigration in Los Angeles, and breathes a sigh of relief as they stamp his passport. But the knot in her chest still doesn't ease. At the baggage claim, she sees Arthur lifting his suitcase onto a trolley, and opens her mouth to say something to him – but at the last minute, remembers that they're pretending not to know each other.
Still, she follows him at a discreet distance as they pass through Customs and then out into Arrivals, where they both watch Miles greet Cobb with a handshake and a warm, "Welcome."
There's a flush of pleasure for Cobb, but Ariadne feels disconnected from it all, like she's watching a reunion in a TV drama instead of real life.
She's less invested than she thought she would be after spending weeks chasing after the answer to Cobb's mystery. It feels like an ending, and she doubts that she'll see Cobb again after today.
Ariadne keeps an eye on Arthur as he moves through Arrivals, not stopping to greet anyone in the crowd. He heads for the taxi pick up, and she figures it's okay for her to be going there too. She feels self-conscious as she trails her little wheeled suitcase towards the exit, thinking that any minute Arthur is going to look around and notice her obviously following him - but he doesn't look back once.
She kind of wishes he would.
Outside, there's a line for the taxis, and Ariadne is separated from Arthur by an old couple with a trolley. She doesn't want to blow their cover, but it's now or never, and she can't just leave , not after everything they did; not after everything they went through.
"Arthur," she says, maneuvering around the old couple with an apologetic smile. "Wait."
Arthur turns a coolly inquisitive gaze on her, and Ariadne is taken aback by how distant he’s acting. She reminds herself that it's just part of the act, then wonders whether that's really true.
"Where are you going?" she asks him, straight up.
Arthur pauses, seeming to consider something. "It's better if you don't know that," he finally replies, so low she has to strain to catch the words.
"Oh. I- I was going to ask if you want to share a cab?" Ariadne smiles at him uncertainly, her head tilted to one side (a nervous mannerism. She thought she grew out of that in high school). "I don't have anywhere pressing to be."
But Arthur is already shaking his head no. "It's too dangerous," he murmurs. "We all need to lay low; there could still be some unsavoury sorts out there looking for me, or Cobb. You shouldn't even be talking to me right now."
Ariadne stares at him in mute frustration, an I know that butting up against her lips. She's not an idiot. But she decided that talking to him was well worth the risk.
They're at the front of the line now, and Arthur steps forward to catch the eye of the nearest cab driver. It's clear he doesn't expect Ariadne to follow.
"So that's it, then?" Ariadne bursts out, completely throwing caution to the wind. People are looking at them, but she doesn't care. "After we… After everything?"
Arthur's mouth tightens, but then he turns away to load his suitcase into the trunk of the cab. "Go back to your life, Ariadne," he says, and closes it. "You deserve to have that chance."
He opens the back of the cab and slides in. The cab pulls away, and Ariadne stares after it until the old woman taps her on the shoulder to ask if she's taking the next cab. Ariadne shakes her head.
"You take it," she says, turning around and wheeling her suitcase in the opposite direction. She has another plane to catch, apparently.
Ariadne goes back to Paris. Back to school. Back to her life.
But it doesn't really feel like her own anymore. She slides back into the routine of classes – none of her teachers asks any questions (she suspects Cobb had Miles provide some excuse) – but she struggles to remember basic things, like the times of her lectures or the way to the Lescot building.
One afternoon, she spends twenty minutes walking in loops around campus before she realises that she was subconsciously trying to find the way out of the maze. She is constantly surprised that staircases lead to places instead of continuing on, paradoxically, before coming to an abrupt end in midair.
She sits in lectures with a distinct feeling of unreality, and remembers how she used to bend cities with her mind. Brushing her teeth in front of the mirror, she touches her fingers to the surface and imagines it shattering, allowing her to reach through to the other side.
In her assignments, she has to remind herself that gravity and the rules of physics apply. Secretly, she draws blueprints for impossible buildings.
She is afraid of going to sleep, that first night in her little rented attic room. She hasn't slept since the inception job (which already feels like a lifetime ago), staying awake throughout the entire ten-hour flight back to Paris, turning her totem over and over in her hand.
She is afraid of what her mind might choose to replay: sitting in a car with Cobb frozen at the wheel as a freight train barrels towards them? A hail of bullets, glass shattering, Saito bleeding out underneath her hands? Or maybe just falling, endlessly, with no Kick, no waking up, just plummeting forever and never reaching the bottom?
(She thinks that would be much more terrifying than what Limbo turned out to be).
Instead, she dreams of… nothing.
Nothing the first night, nothing the second night, nothing the third night. After a week of not dreaming, Ariadne wants to take it all back. She'll take the nightmares, take anything that isn't this endless blankness in her mind. At least nightmares would be proof that what she went through really happened.
She wonders if this is one of the side-effects of dreamsharing that Arthur was afraid of. She wonders if she should see a doctor – but what could she possibly say?
Only a dreamsharer would understand her problem. But Ariadne has been cut off from that world.
The money from the Fischer job lands in her account.
Ariadne stares at the figures in disbelief when she checks her balance online, caught between shock and the desire to laugh hysterically. She knew there was money in the inception job, vaguely remembers Cobb saying something about never worrying about student debt again when he pitched the job to her. She'd thought he was exaggerating.
But this... Well, it wasn't like she didn't know Saito was rich. She thinks of him standing in the hotel lobby and saying, "I bought the airline," with his precise pronunciation, and all of a sudden she's on the verge of tears.
It was only a few weeks ago, but already she feels like those memories are from another life.
Or a dream, she thinks bitterly, because technically it's true. She breathes in and out, shakily, and thinks how much she would give just to hear Saito's voice one more time. Or Yusuf's, or Eames', or Cobb's.
Ariadne grits her teeth, blinking hard, and instead goes to find a friend with a slightly illegal way with computers to see if he can trace the transaction.
Dmitri, her hacker friend, doesn't blink at her request when she puts it to him over espressos at a little street café. She had a class this morning, but she can't even muster any remorse about skipping it. For the first time she feels like she's doing something productive and not just endlessly treading water, waiting for the next thing to happen to her.
"I can't promise anything, but I'll see what I can do," he says, grinning at her and flashing a dimple in one cheek. Dmitri has curly hair and dark eyes and olive skin and definitely doesn't put her in mind of anyone she misses, at all.
"Thanks, Dmitri." Ariadne smiles at him slightly, turning her empty cup around in its saucer. "How long do you think it might take?"
"I'll sit down with it for a few hours this evening and see where I get to," says Dmitri, getting to his feet in a flurry of gangly limbs and winking at her. "It's more interesting than coursework, anyway."
Dmitri doesn't get back in touch for another two days; time that Ariadne spends stewing in anticipation and trying fruitlessly to distract herself. She comes close to calling him several times, before telling herself she's being ridiculous. It's only been a day. A day and a half. Nearly two days.
When her phone finally rings, it's the middle of the night. She almost misses it, dozing lightly across her blueprint-covered desk. As soon as she comes to and sees the name, she snatches it up. "Hello?"
"Hey, sorry it took me so long to get back in touch," Dmitri says, sounding worn. "This one's been a tough nut." Ariadne waits, clutching the phone hard and fighting down the hope that keeps rising in her chest.
"I didn't manage to get a lock on whoever sent you that payment," says Dmitri, and Ariadne closes her eyes, hating herself for having dared to hope. "As far as I can tell, it came from some kind of Swiss bank account – funnelled through a few other, probably dummy accounts en route – and that account is registered to a Mr. Andrew Smith. Pretty generic name, could well be an alias. I had a go at locating an address or contact details, but all the paperwork just seems to… loop back on itself."
Ariadne has a flash of Arthur in the dreamscape, standing next to her at the top of the Penrose staircase and revealing how it loomed in midair above the ordinary-looking office space. "See? Paradox."
"I'm sorry I couldn't manage more," Dmitri is saying into Ariadne's silence. "I was never much of a one for tracing people, but maybe someone with more skills could-"
"No, it's fine, don't worry about it," Ariadne interrupts him. "Really, I appreciate how much time you spent on this for me. Do you think you could write down or print out whatever details you could get a hold of, and give them to me?"
"Sure, if you want," Dmitri says a little doubtfully. "I'm not sure how much good they'll do you. Whoever sent you that payment is pretty adept at hiding their tracks."
There is a pause in which Ariadne can sense him getting ready to ask questions, and she searches for a lie that won't sound like she's up to her neck in something really suspect. But instead he says, "I'm going out tomorrow night to Folies with a group of friends. I… don't s'pose you'd like to come?"
Aux Folies is a cheap bar in Paris' Belleville neighbourhood, popular with the student crowd. Ariadne opens her mouth to decline. She is so tired and wrung out all the time that socialising honestly feels like too much effort, but then she reconsiders. It's not healthy to keep dwelling on inception like this, and it hasn't gotten her anywhere either. Maybe a night to take her mind off everything would be the best thing for her.
"Sure, okay," she says. "What time?"
Twenty-four hours later, Ariadne finds herself outside the bar, bent over with one hand on the wall for support. She retches again and takes deep breaths, trying her best not to throw up. She really wants a drink of water, but isn't even sure she'd be able to keep that down.
Stupid, stupid, stupid , she thinks, because in spite of how drunk she is, she's still completely coherent inside her head. She just isn't sure if she can manage the coordination to say the words out loud.
She tries it. "Stupid," she mumbles, and crouches down with her back to the wall, leaning her head back against it. She's not the only one outside by any means. Students gather in clumps, talking and smoking, some staggering out of the bar even worse for wear than she currently is. One guy is being half-carried by two of his friends towards a cab.
They all seem insubstantial somehow, like projections filling in the scenery, going through the motions of what would be expected of them. She wonders if they really are real. She fumbles in her pocket for her totem, then remembers that she left it behind in a locked drawer in her room, trying to put dreamsharing out of her head once and for all. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She'd had every intention of taking it easy that evening, starting off with a beer and declining several offers of additional drinks. But as the night wore on, she'd resisted the urge to call it quits and go home, even though she was bored of making small talk, giving answers to mundane questions about her life that felt like lies because the answers came from a time before she discovered dreamsharing. She'd been looking for a distraction, and Dmitri's friend Milo had bought a round of shots for everyone without even being asked. She’d thought fuck it and downed one, and then another, and now here she was.
"Hey," says a voice from above her, and she looks up to see Dmitri holding out a bottle of water. "You look like you could use this."
"Thanks," says Ariadne gratefully, taking a cautious sip. The water seems to stay down, so she drinks a little more. She's begun to sober up since coming outside, and now she mostly just feels sick, regretful and humiliated.
"Are you okay?" Dmitri asks her. "You've been quiet all evening, and it just seems like… Well, you seem like something's eating at you. Is it to do with whoever sent that payment?"
"Kind of," Ariadne admits, struggling to her feet. Her head spins and she clings to the wall behind her for support. She's still drunk enough that she isn't really thinking too hard about what she's saying, and it takes her several minutes before she realises how that must have sounded to Dmitri.
"It's nothing bad! Well, no, I mean. It's nothing illegal." Dmitri doesn't know the details of the amount that was sent to her, otherwise he'd be convinced it was something very illegal indeed. (And, technically, he would be right).
"Okay," says Dmitri uncertainly. Ariadne huffs out a sigh and looks up at the sky again. There aren't any stars visible.
"I guess I'm starting to realise that... I might not be on the path I wanted from life, after all," she says finally, quietly. "Maybe what I actually want is something completely different."
"Have you changed your mind about being an architect?" Dmitri asks, sounding surprised. "You were always so passionate about architecture."
"I was. I still am," says Ariadne. Just not the kind that you can build while you're awake. "Don't worry about it. I'll figure it out."
"You know you can always call me," says Dmitri, smiling but still looking concerned. "And not just to trace mysterious bank payments."
Ariadne gives him a smile back, a real one. "I know," she says. "Thanks for that. And for all the info you gave me." She motions towards her denim vest, where the sheaves of paper containing 'Andrew Smith''s contact details are tucked away in an inside pocket.
"I think I'm gonna get a cab back to my room."
The next day, Ariadne soldiers through a vicious hangover with the aid of strong black coffee and a breakfast containing a probably inadvisable amount of fried food. She is a woman on a mission.
Dmitri thought that the details he'd managed to dig up on 'Andrew Smith' wouldn't be much good to her, but she has something important which he didn't have when looking at the documents: context. She spreads out the addresses, bank details, statements and lease agreements out on her desk and starts to build a paper trail.
She knows that Arthur left LAX in a taxi on the day they completed the inception job. He could have been going to a hideaway he owned, a place to lay low, but she didn't think it was likely that he'd stayed in the States after he and Cobb had spent so long avoiding setting foot on US soil. Still, she prints out a map of the LA area and thinks about routes he could have taken out of the city.
She can't say exactly why she's so convinced that 'Andrew Smith' is really Arthur. It could have been anyone on the team handling the payment - Cobb for example, or Saito himself. But she just has a feeling that Arthur, as the point man, would be the one to send the money through.
Andrew Smith has paid rent on just one property in the US, in San Diego. A driveable distance from LAX - and the address is right near San Diego airport. Ariadne draws a star on the map and leafs through the printouts of Andrew Smith's bank transactions, scouring them for transactions dated the day of their arrival in LA. Or would Arthur have had his escape route planned in advance? He probably had multiple exit plans for the whole team, in case inception went horribly wrong (the way it nearly did).
Ariadne pores over the bank statements, looking for anything that could be an airline ticket transaction. As she works, she thinks about Arthur pushing her away that day at the airport. She's been going over and over all their interactions in her mind, trying to figure out what went wrong.
Was it all in her imagination? Though they'd never talked about it outright, Ariadne had been sure that Arthur was feeling the same thing she was. They'd shared so much in the dream world that Ariadne had never shared with another person before; talking about their hopes, their passions, reliving childhood memories.
She doesn't know much about Arthur's family, but she knows that he wanted to be an engineer since he was ten years old, that he dual majored in Mathematics and Engineering at college. She knows that he was an engineering contractor for the US military when he got tapped for the dreamsharing programme, and that the first time he built a city in someone's mind was the most alive he'd ever felt. She knows that was where he met Mal, a researcher at the base who was already making a name for herself as one of the most naturally talented dreamers the military had ever seen. A pioneer, and a brilliant mind. That they used to sneak out of the base together and go exploring, a respite from the harrowing exercises that the military put its recruits through.
She'd told Arthur about why she studies architecture, her love of puzzles, why Paris is her favourite city in the world. She'd spoken more than once about how much dreamsharing has opened her eyes, about how it's changed her perspective on the world, on what's possible. She was sure that he understood. Thought he knew that she wanted to stay in dreamsharing after it was all over. Ariadne knows that there's more to dreamsharing than what she's experienced, but that doesn't scare her. It excites her more than she can put into words.
There might be dangers involved, but Ariadne has survived the worst that dreamsharing had to throw at her and then some. She went to Limbo and back. She had thought that, of all people, Arthur respected her abilities and her right to make her own choices.
"Go back to your life, Ariadne. You deserve to have that chance."
Ariadne crumples the side of a page in her fist in frustration, and smooths it back out again. She works late in a pool of lamplight, the rest of the room growing dark around her as she strains her eyes to make out the black print on the pages.
She can feel a missing piece to the puzzle that is Arthur, and Ariadne has never been one to leave well enough alone.
When Ariadne finally manages to track Arthur down three days later, he's in France.
Not Paris, because that would have to either have been deliberate on Arthur's part or the universe playing a ridiculous practical joke on her. But he’s in Rang-du-Fliers, a little coastal commune not too far from Calais. She can't imagine what dreamsharing business he would have there. Maybe he's taking a break?
After days of wondering where in the world she will find Arthur and wondering if it's worth blowing the money on a plane ticket just for the sake of seeing him face-to-face ( would it make her seem serious, or just desperate? ), Ariadne is almost thrown by how easy it is. She arrives at Gare du Nord in time to catch the 9:22 train direct to Rang-du-Fliers, a two and a half hour journey. As she walks past a newsstand, the front page of a newspaper catches her eye. Not because of the headline - which is something about the air traffic controllers' strike - but because it has Robert Fischer's face in the bottom right corner.
"Un empire dispersé" - "An empire dispersed". Ariadne stops in her tracks, her heart in her mouth. With a shaking hand she reaches out to pick up the paper and flips frantically to the business section.
Ariadne's everyday, conversational French is good, but the business section of a broadsheet paper strains her vocabulary a bit. In the first line, she makes out: "In a shocking development, héritier (she guesses that must be heir) to the Fischer-Morrow empire Robert Fischer last night announced a deal with long-standing rival Proclus Global ... a move that would break up the company's monopoly over the global energy industry."
An announcement comes over the PA system, and Ariadne throws the paper down. She’s about to miss her train.
One sprint to the platform later, Ariadne is safely seated on the train and pulls out her phone. She quickly finds a New York Times article covering the revelation and reads it eagerly. The article gives details of the deal Fischer-Morrow has struck with Proclus Global, as well as listing a number of subsidiary companies that Fischer is selling off. Clearly this has been in the works for some time – maybe since Fischer touched down in LA – and the ink has only just dried on the paperwork.
Ariadne skims over paragraphs of speculation about what this means for global energy investments to get to the bit that interests her right at the end – a statement from Robert Fischer as to why he is breaking up his father's empire.
"My father left behind a powerful legacy in Fischer-Morrow, and I have every intention of honouring that legacy," said Robert Fischer, speaking at a press conference in New York yesterday evening. "But I am my own man, and I believe this is what my father would have wanted for me – not to try to be him, but to build something for myself."
Ariadne sits back in her seat, elation coursing through her. It worked . After everything that went wrong, the improvisations, the ridiculously compressed timeline they had to operate within – they still managed to achieve the impossible. Here's the proof. Fischer's line to the media couldn't have been more perfect if they'd scripted it for him.
She wonders if that was why Saito's payment came through when it did; if he'd signed some deal or had some intel that told him inception had worked. She hadn't even considered it back then, but clearly the timing was no accident.
Ariadne thinks about Arthur as the French countryside whips past the train window. He must have heard the news by now. She wonders how he found out, how he felt. A few weeks ago, she thinks that she would have known the answer to that, but now she's less sure of everything when it comes to Arthur. The inception job was so intense, and with all the time they spent dreaming together, it had begun to feel like she knew him intimately. But was that all in her head?
There's only one way to find out. A mixture of excitement and nerves and fear sits in her throat, knotting it. Up until now, she's felt sure of what she was doing, but the closer she gets to seeing Arthur again, the more she second-guesses herself. What if the cold Arthur she remembers from the airport is who he really is, outside of the job? Maybe she only knew one side of him.
There's a tiny part of her that almost hopes she'll get to Rang-du-Fliers and Arthur will have left, or that he was never there to begin with, that her intel and all the research that she and Dmitri did was wrong. Almost. Because when Ariadne imagines it, crushing disappointment and hopelessness sweeps over her, and she knows that a difficult confrontation will be infinitely preferable to finding herself back at square one, with the loneliness and isolation of the past few weeks stretching out ahead of her with no end in sight.
After getting off the train at Rang-du-Fliers, Ariadne wanders around a little aimlessly. The weather is warm for the north of France, and she considers taking her jacket off, though she's only wearing a strappy sundress underneath. Inside her jacket is a piece of paper containing the address of the hotel where Arthur, according to her intel, is currently staying as Andrew Smith. She also has a number that go through to his latest burner phone, but Ariadne doesn't plan to use that except as a last resort. This isn't the kind of conversation she wants to have over the phone.
She kills some time by wandering in and out of shops, peering at the items on the shelves and half-considering buying a coffee from a café, but she can't focus properly. There's a tension within her that feels as though a string is tied around her heart, suspending it. After so many weeks of longing to see Arthur, to confront him, to force him out of hiding and into a direct conversation, Ariadne is afraid. More afraid perhaps than when she dove into Limbo; more afraid than when Mal shot Fischer in the chest.
The worst thing, she decides, is being given time to second-guess herself; to deliberate over her actions. Ariadne is best when she thinks on her feet, when she confronts a situation head-on.
She tries to think of it like another one of her puzzles, but she can't decide which path to take through this maze. Should she hang around near the hotel and try to catch Arthur coming back to or leaving his room? Should she send him a cryptic text message asking him to come to a specific location? No, he'd think for sure that someone was after him, and then he'd be in the wind.
Then Ariadne sees Arthur at the other end of the street, and she's running towards him before her brain has finished processing who it is.
Arthur disappears into a quaint little bistro restaurant, and Ariadne forces herself to slow down, to take a breath before she goes charging in there after him. She looks at her reflection in the window and combs her fingers through her windswept, flyaway hair. A waiter gives her an amused look as she walks in, and she guesses that he saw her through the glass. Oh well.
"Table for… one?" the waiter asks her politely.
"Uh, I'm… I'm meeting a friend," Ariadne replies, discreetly scanning the room for Arthur. No sign of him, but there are some stairs leading down to her left. "Is there a downstairs area?"
"Yes," the waiter replies. "If you'll follow-" He makes to lead her downstairs, but Ariadne stops him.
"It's fine, I'll- find him. It's a surprise," she adds, lowering her voice conspiratorially.
"Oh! Of course," the waiter replies, and winks.
Ariadne walks down the stairs, slowly, trying to make as little noise as she can. She feels a bit ridiculous creeping around a public restaurant, but she wants to have the upper hand in this encounter, which includes choosing when Arthur notices her.
This would be so much easier to do in a dream, she thinks ruefully.
She spots Arthur, sitting at a table with his back to her. There's a mirror hung on the wall opposite, and she can see that it's definitely him, but he hasn't looked up and seen her yet, busy perusing the wine list. Quickly, she descends the rest of the stairs, makes her way over to Arthur's table, and drops into the seat across from him.
Arthur's head instantly comes up, his hand automatically going to the inside of his suit jacket - then he freezes, and recognises her.
"Hey, Arthur," says Ariadne, casually.
Pole-axed is probably the best word to describe the look on Arthur's face. Ariadne would laugh if she were relaxed enough to, if her heart weren't hammering fit to burst. She puts her hands in her lap, and with her thumb, traces the outline of her totem in her jacket pocket. (It hasn't left her possession since that night at the bar. She isn't about to take any chances with reality again).
"Ariadne," says Arthur, and oh, god. His voice. Ariadne closes her eyes briefly, her hand gripping her totem through her jacket. All at once the memories of inception are crowding into her mind, overlapping with each other, and Arthur is at the centre of them all. Arthur's voice, telling her about totems, explaining closed loops, reassuring her through her fears that night in his motel room.
It feels like it was yesterday that they parted ways at the airport. But thinking about the airport and Arthur brushing her off stiffens Ariadne's resolve. She didn't spend days tracking him down just to say hello.
"Long time no see," she says, coolly, and she thinks she sees Arthur wince. Good. (Is his face more open now, or is she better at reading him than she remembered? She thinks it might be a bit of both). "Were you expecting someone else? I hope I'm not gatecrashing."
"No, you're not," says Arthur. "I definitely wasn't expecting… anyone to be joining me here."
Ariadne can't resist a very small victory smirk. "Great! Pass the wine list?" she says, overly chipper. "I'm in the mood for a good French red."
A waitress comes to their table, and Ariadne orders a glass of Pinot Noir. Arthur orders the house white. Afterwards, Ariadne busies herself with looking at the food menu, pretending she can't feel Arthur's gaze boring into the top of her head. Her thoughts have scattered into white noise, and she's not thinking about anything that she's doing, just acting. She's also determined not to break the silence; if Arthur wants that, he's going to have to be the one to do it.
The wine arrives, and Ariadne murmurs her thanks in French without looking up.
"Are you ready to order?" the waitress asks.
After a pause, Arthur replies, "Another couple of minutes, please."
"Did you talk to Cobb?" Arthur asks suddenly, and Ariadne looks up in surprise. Of all the things she thought he might open with, that was not one of them.
"Did I talk to Cobb… when?" she asks.
"To find me. I assumed you asked Cobb about where I was."
Ariadne snorts. "No, I didn't ask Cobb." She doesn't add that it would have been like cheating, like flipping to the answers page at the back of the book. "I didn't talk to any of the team. I tracked you down myself."
Arthur's eyebrows shoot up. He's visibly impressed, and in spite of everything, Ariadne can't help the glow of warmth in her chest at knowing she's managed to impress him.
"Really? That's… wow. I feel as if I should have hidden my tracks a bit better, but maybe you're just that good."
Ariadne studies him in slight disbelief. Is he really flirting with her, now? But he's smiling, and for the moment, it seems like a genuine compliment. "I had some help. A friend who's good at internet sleuthing," she admits.
The smile disappears quickly from Arthur's face. "Ariadne, that was dangerous," he bites out. "How much did you tell them? How much do they know about me?"
"Nothing, Arthur, okay, just some bank statements and addresses. He thought they would be useless to me. I was the only one who could have tracked them to you," says Ariadne, although even as she says it she feels slightly numb, wondering if she's made a horrible mistake, made Arthur vulnerable by doing what she did.
But why would Dmitri have any interest in the information, anyway? He never asked any questions about it. He had the skills to dig up information on any random person and use it for his own gain, if he wanted to, so what would make Arthur any different? "And maybe I wouldn't have had to, okay, if you'd just left me with a way to contact you!"
"That wasn't the point," says Arthur tersely. "The point was for you to be able to go back to your life without any strings attached."
"Oh, and when was the conversation where anyone asked me what I wanted to do after the inception job?" demands Ariadne. "When did I say that I wanted to go back to my old life, Arthur? When did you ask me what I wanted to do?"
Arthur avoids her gaze, now pretending to study the menu himself. "It was better this way," he says, almost inaudibly.
"Better? Oh, was it better for me to be left on my own to pick up the pieces with no contact from anyone who understood what I was going through?" Ariadne almost spits the words, controlling the volume of her voice through sheer force of will. Even so, she can see a few of the other patrons giving them uneasy looks. "Or was it just easier for you?"
Arthur looks up at her, and she can read the upset in his eyes more clearly than any emotion she's seen from him before. "No, Ariadne, it wasn't easy for me to leave you behind. Not at all. But I wasn't going to be the one responsible for- for dragging you down with me. What Cobb did was already bad en-"
"What Cobb "did" ?" Ariadne repeats. "No, you listen to me, Arthur- there was nothing during that job that I did not do of my own free will. Including following Fischer into Limbo."
The colour drains from Arthur's face. "You went to Limbo ?" he hisses.
Okay, so apparently there are some details of the job Arthur still doesn't know about. Well, maybe if he hadn't completely cut her off, they would have been able to talk about it properly.
"Yeah, I did, and that was a decision that I made all on my own. Just like I made the decision to take the job on my own. Okay, Arthur?" Ariadne holds his gaze, determined to make sure he understands this. "Nobody "did" anything to me. They were choices that I made, and I don't regret them. I thought you respected me enough to understand that."
Arthur looks stricken. "Of course I respect you, Ariadne," he says. "It's just that dreamsharing is-" He cuts himself off, seeming to think better of what he was about to say, which is good, because she has a feeling that the next word was going to be 'dangerous', and if he'd said that she might have actually shaken him. Arthur runs a hand over his face.
"I'm sorry," he says instead. "I never meant to act like I didn't respect your judgement and the choices you made. I wanted to make sure you had a clean way back out of dreamsharing. I didn't want you caught up in any entanglements because of us. But it was… stupid of me to do what I did."
Arthur looks down at the menu again, turning over the pages but clearly not reading them. Ariadne waits, because she has a feeling that he's about to say something else.
"It was cowardly of me," he says, finally.
He looks back up at her, visibly steeling himself to say his next words, and Ariadne stares back at him, her mouth dry, waiting breathlessly.
"I left- rather than admit that I might have feelings for you. And find out whether you felt the same way."
Even though a part of her knew what was coming, the words still take her by surprise; Ariadne supposes she wasn't expecting to hear him say it so directly. She's momentarily struck dumb, searching for the right reply, and aware that with every second that passes Arthur must be feeling more dread, sure that a rejection is coming.
Say something, you idiot! Say anything!
"Sure," Ariadne blurts out, at the exact same moment that the waitress asks them,
"Are you ready to order now?"
"Oh, um, uh." Ariadne fumbles with the menu, her face bright red.
'Sure?' she berates herself as she gazes unseeing down at the lists of appetizers and mains. That's what you came up with? 'Sure?' I take it back, 'Say anything' was not a good idea.
"Do you have any particular dishes you can recommend?" Arthur asks the waitress smoothly. The waitress begins listing off the chef's specials, and Ariadne tries desperately to pay attention over her mental despair.
"The lamb," she says as the waitress mentions a roast lamb dish. The waitress looks at her in slight surprise. "Um, I'd like the roast lamb, please," she clarifies. "And the soup of the day to start."
"The same for me," says Arthur, closing his menu and handing it to the waitress. Ariadne follows suit, still blushing.
An awkward silence follows after the waitress leaves the table. Without the menu to look at, Ariadne resorts to fidgeting with her totem in her pocket. Once again, she waits for Arthur to break the silence, but with much less self-assurance than before.
"So…" he says, and Ariadne looks up to see Arthur dimpling at her adorably. Damn it, Arthur, don't do that. My heart can't take it. "Was that a 'yes', just now?"
"It was a 'sure', actually, but same thing," says Ariadne dryly, and Arthur laughs. Ariadne watches the skin around his eyes crinkle and thinks that he looks better than when she last saw him. Tense confrontations aside, it's clear that a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. She smiles at him, finally taking a sip from her wine glass.
"I wasn't just angry because you left without asking me what I wanted to do," she says. "Although if you'd asked… then at least it would have given me a chance to tell you. I was angry at you because you didn't give me the chance to tell you how I felt. And I thought that maybe, it meant you didn't… That you didn't feel the same. About me."
"I definitely do," says Arthur, warm fondness in every syllable, and Ariadne blushes again, smiling stupidly at him. Of all the ways that she thought - or feared - that this conversation would go, this is pretty damn close to the best-case scenario.
Then Arthur sobers again. "But there's… something you should know, first," he says, and Ariadne frowns at him. He looks even more tense now than he did when they were arguing earlier, and her stomach drops. What could he possibly be about to say?
She has an abrupt vision of Cobb, in Limbo, telling her, "There's something you should know about me. About inception." Surely, whatever Arthur has to say can't possibly be on the same level as that.
"Okay, shoot," she says, trying to sound light and unconcerned.
"I'm asexual," Arthur tells her, and Ariadne's mouth opens a little in surprise. No, that's definitely not on the same level as Cobb's thing.
"I wanted to be upfront about it from the start, because I've found that it helps to head off… misunderstandings," he continues, still determinedly holding her gaze, but fidgeting with his wine glass with one hand.
"Okay," says Ariadne. She's racking her brains for everything she knows about asexuality, which she has to admit is worryingly little. She's familiar with the word, but beyond that... "Meaning that you don't want sex at all? Or is it other stuff as well?" As she says it, she remembers Arthur kissing her in the dreamscape. Had that been an experiment, or was it different because it was a dream?
Arthur appears to be following her train of thought. "I like kissing, and uh, some touching, but there are limits to what I'm comfortable with," he says, now blushing slightly himself. "Asexuality is a spectrum, and it shows up differently on everyone, so the way I experience it isn't going to be the same as the way it is for someone else. Plus I haven't been in a lot of long-term relationships, so some of it is uncharted territory for me, too."
"That makes sense," says Ariadne, nodding slowly. She wants to let Arthur know that it doesn't change the way she feels about him, but given that she doesn't yet have a proper grasp of asexuality and how it works, can she say that categorically? They're not even in a relationship yet, and although it definitely seems like something that's on the table, Ariadne has no idea how this might affect things further down the line. She doesn't want to mess it up by making assumptions, or forging ahead without talking about and considering things properly.
But she wants to reassure Arthur, who is watching her apprehensively for her response, that she isn't put off either. As much as she probes her feelings towards Arthur, they're exactly the same as they were before he told her. Ariadne was never thinking specifically about sex when she thought about wanting to be with Arthur. She just wanted whatever she could have with him.
Maybe just saying that is as good a place to start as any.
"I admit that I don't know a lot about asexuality," she begins, sheepishly, "and I've definitely never been in a relationship with an asexual person before. But that doesn't mean that I don't want to try." Arthur smiles at that, which she's encouraged by. "I'm trying not to go all gung-ho and say 'Yeah! We can do this!' because I know I need to think about it properly and not make any dumb assumptions."
Arthur bursts out laughing, which is exactly what she was going for, and the tension in the air that had built again since Arthur's disclosure finally begins to ease.
"I'm fine with gung-ho. I like your gung-ho," says Arthur, which makes Ariadne grin and blush.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is, I still feel the same way about you and… us," Ariadne goes on, feeling the loaded potential of the word 'us' as she says it. "When we spent time together, in the dream world and topside… When I first realised I had feelings for you, it wasn't... " She lowers her voice slightly, even though it's hardly the most racy thing that could ever have been said in a French restaurant. "It wasn't about sex. I was never thinking about that. I just wanted to be with you. Everything else is… a bonus."
"You're sure?" says Arthur, but he's already dimpling at her, his smile wider and more genuine than she's ever seen it.
"If you'll have me," Ariadne replies, slightly teasing. "Like I said, I don't want to rush ahead blindly? And you need to tell me if I say or do something that's stupid, or inconsiderate, or makes you uncomfortable." She goes redder and looks down at the table, but Arthur twining his fingers with hers makes her look up again.
"I will, but the same goes for you too," says Arthur. "The onus isn't all on you to make this work, so don't think that. I'm just as capable of fucking up." He makes an awkward face, and tilts his head to indicate the restaurant. Ariadne knows he's referring to everything that came before this, and the fact that she literally had to track him down and corner him in order for them to have this conversation. She smiles and squeezes his fingers to let him know it's okay.
Their soup arrives just then, and Ariadne lets Arthur steer the conversation onto lighter topics. She unwinds out of her jacket as he tells her about some of his more entertaining mishaps in dreamsharing, most of which involve either Mal or Eames. One involves them both, and Ariadne is choking with laughter on her wine by the end of it. She drinks in the stories of Mal as she used to be, and lets the memory of her as a sad, twisted, broken projection fade away. That Mal was only ever a figment of Dom Cobb's imagination. She loves the Mal that Arthur remembers - vivacious and funny and full of life. She thinks about Cobb for the first time in a while, imagining him back with his kids, rediscovering the good memories of his wife through them.
It isn't until after they've both finished their meals, and the coffees they decided to order instead of dessert, that Arthur licks his lips and says,
"So," Ariadne agrees, her heart suddenly beating faster.
"I have an important question for you," Arthur says, "and I need you not to answer it impulsively. Take your time. Think about it. And then give me your honest reply."
"Okay," Ariadne says, preparing for what she's sure is coming next. She mentally instructs herself not to give a knee-jerk response, even though she's so sure of what her answer will be.
"Do you want to go Dutch, or shall I get the bill?"
Ariadne, taking a sip of her wine in an attempt to be extremely cool, nearly chokes on it. She carefully sets it down and uses her napkin to swat at Arthur, whose eyes are dancing with mirth, dimples deep in both cheeks.
"You troll, Arthur! That's not what you were going to ask!" Arthur laughs outright as Ariadne folds up her napkin and wipes her mouth of the wine smile she's no doubt got going on.
"After leaving me high and dry for nearly a month, you can get the bill this one time," she says, mock sternly. "Now, ask me the real question."
"Ariadne, do you want to come back to dreamsharing with me?"
"Yes. Of course."
Once again Arthur reaches for her hand across the table, and Ariadne gently threads her fingers through his, smiling all the while. She sees herself, bending a city in on itself so that it's mirrored in the sky, with Arthur by her side. She sees them both, building dreamscapes that no-one has ever imagined. She sees their future together, vast and full of possibilities.
"Tell me that you have a job already," she says.
"Funny you should say that," says Arthur, and he bends down to retrieve a file from the slim black laptop bag that rests next to his seat. He puts it on the table, and pushes it over to her. "I think you'll like this one. It's a bit of a puzzle."
- Fin -