A/N: I saw Inception twice in two days. Lame, I know–but I'm in love.
Ariadne's dreams were no longer an escape.
They began flat, basic. As white and stiff as pasteboard. Some odd sort of security lay on the blank surface. She knew the feel and smell of white paper from her classes, the feel of the grain beneath tentative fingers, the quiet plea to be filled with charcoal.
And then they evolved. It always began rather slowly. A spire began here, curling quietly into existence. Windowpanes slid into view and gleamed, reflecting the streets that pooled onto the ground.
It was like a sketch drawn by a thousand hands in perfect synchronicity. No beginning and no end, and yet a rapid and cohesive rhythm to it.
Cobb had told her never to draw from a memory, and yet it all seemed frighteningly familiar to her. Where had she seen the streetlamp on the corner of that street? What had brought to mind the particular detail of the bricks of that wall?
And where were her projections? Where were those faces darting in and out of the corners of her eyes, never quite normal, and yet never outwardly abnormal?
Something was wrong. The air was too still. There was no smoke coming from the chimneys. The birdsong sounded piped-in and artificial, like a chorus of mechanical bluejays.
Mal came in. A sad specter in a silver gown, hem fluttering behind her in some phantom wind. She was beautiful–breathtakingly, heartstoppingly. She was also crying, but this was to be expected.
Mal was always crying. The sclera of her unsettling eyes was shot through with lacy pink veins. Gleaming tears wove trails down the soft skin of her cheeks. Her lips opened and closed, a wet click following their motion. She seemed to be wanting to say something, but she never spoke. Ariadne didn't know whether or not it was because Mal didn't want to, or because her own subconscious wouldn't allow the woman to talk.
Naturally, Mal the wraith caught up with Ariadne. This was because she never felt the need to run away in her dream. She knew what would happen. This dream repeated endlessly, a sickening rhythm to add to her listless life. Each day, she and the rest of the team stepped uneasily around the messy hole Cobb had left. Each night, the dream clawed its way behind her eyelids.
When Mal reached her, she turned to face her. Mal's smile was terrible and rapturous. She put a hand to Ariadne's cheek, and then let her hand slide to the base of the girl's skull, beneath her thick hair. The other hand rested softly, almost delicately on her throat.
With an ease that defied her slim frame, Mal snapped Ariadne's neck. The movement was always quick and fluid, like something a ballerina would partake in. Ariadne's feet skittered about the quicksilver streets of her dream as she felt bone needles tear through her skin. The space around her nose hurt, and she wondered if there were jagged slivers of bone prodding her there too, and behind her eyes.
No, she told herself as she began to fade. That's impossible. Your neck is snapped. You shouldn't feel anything around your nose.
Oh, well. It was a dream, so who was Ariadne to argue. As she tumbled to her knees on the slick pavement, she got one last, foggy look at Mal. The folds of her silk dress whipped around her body almost ferociously, as though the garment itself wanted to harm its wearer. Mal's sad eyes were blank and glazed as they watched the girl die beneath them. Still teary and bloodshot, Ariadne noted wryly. There was no villainous smile, no triumphant gleam to them.
The rough asphalt felt suddenly smooth as marble beneath the palms of the architect's hands. She pressed her forehead to the cool ground and gave in to death.
"Ariadne." Someone murmured her name. She opened her eyes slowly and watched as everything swam into focus.
Eames knelt beside the chair she had been sleeping in. Arthur stood by one of the enormous windows. The rising sun haloed his dark, slim figure in dazzling gold.
Eames' eyes were dark with concern. "Are you alright, darling?"
"Bad dream," she managed, forcing a shaky laugh. She tried to smile as she pulled the IV out of her wrist.
Eames checked the timer. "You had twelve minutes left. What happened?"
"I died," Ariadne replied, trying to keep her tone light. She avoided the forger's eyes as she shrugged her coat back on and smoothed her hair down. She brushed past him as she left the room. Eames watched her go with a raised eyebrow. Arthur turned slightly.
"Something the matter?"
"Naw. Everything's peachy in Dreamland," Eames snorted.
The corner of Arthur's mouth twitched at the sarcasm. It was nice to see someone beginning to act normally after the Fischer job, even if it was Eames. He left the window and went through the doorway.
Ariadne watched Cobb sleep, his chest rising and falling in slow, even swells. Several tubes snaked from his arms: one to keep a steady stream of nutrients in his body, one to keep him hydrated, and one to keep him asleep. With a mind completely submerged in Limbo, the team had no idea how dangerous it might have been to wake him up.
"Hey," she murmured, pulling up a chair next to him. She flipped it and sat on it backwards, straddling it as she watched Cobb's eyes jump beneath their lids. "Um, I don't really know what to say. I feel like I'm talking to a coma patient." She paused. "I know you're not exactly in a coma, but I hope you can hear me."
Reaching out, she took one of his hands and squeezed it, more for her own comfort than for his. His skin was waxy and without temperature. "I've been dreaming about Mal a lot lately. I don't know why. She shouldn't be in my dream, though, because even if she was a projection, she wouldn't be able to hurt me."
So involved was she in her one-sided conversation that she did not hear Arthur come in behind her. She didn't notice him until his hand was on her shoulder, which made her nearly jump out of her skin. He watched her with his dark, quiet eyes as she calmed down. Perhaps he was amused, perhaps he was bored.
"You scared me."
"Not my intention." He glanced towards Cobb.
Ariadne took the opportunity to sneak a look at him. She wished she could burn that face onto her retinas, a luminous tattoo. His smooth skin, his high cheekbones, the way his eyes tilted very slightly upward. His lips.
Thinking about his mouth brings back a memory hazy enough to have been a dream itself. A buzzing hotel lobby, modern and spacious with glowing white lightstrips along the walls. Sleek marble and granite. Sharp angles.
"They're all looking at me," she remarked, fidgeting uncomfortably in the stiff business suit Eames insisted she wear to look the part. Arthur's head turned, and the barest hint of a smile tugged at his lips.
"Quick, gimme a kiss."
She hesitated for a moment, remembering what Cobb had told her about projections being like white blood cells attacking a virus. Perhaps with Arthur, the white blood cells would pass over her.
Leaning forward, her mouth brushed his. His lips parted ever so slightly, and Ariadne found hers doing the same. He watched her through eyes so hooded they might as well have been closed, and she felt a warm blush creep over her cheeks.
When they pulled away seconds later, Ariadne scanned the projections. No different.
"They're still staring," she noted, bemused.
Arthur glanced away placidly. "It was worth a try."
Ariadne's figurative lightbulb clicked on. That sly dog. Giddy and embarrassed, she stared hard at her high heeled feet. The kiss, brief and unfulfilling as it had been, had filled her with pulsing heat and left her shivering happily.
When he looked back at her, she turned hastily away, swallowing.
"I heard what you said to Cobb," he informed her. "About Mal. You should have told me."
"I didn't think it was a big deal."
"Not a big deal?" Ariadne recoiled at the quiet anger in his voice. The hand was back on her shoulder, this time pulling her around to face him. "Ariadne, the last time Mal appeared in someone else's dream, she put a bullet in Fischer. We have no choice but to assume that she's dangerous."
"I'm sorry," she sighed, knowing she sounded bratty and defensive.
His features softened a fraction, and she relaxed. "It's alright. Just...please do tell me next time. You can trust me, Ariadne."
Their eyes locked for a moment. A bashful schoolgirl smile found its way onto her mouth, no matter how she tried to suppress it. "I know I can."
"Good." Arthur turned around and headed for the door. When he reached the doorframe, he leaned against it and looked back at her. "Speaking of Fischer, we received a call from him a couple of hours ago. It was a job offer. Standard extraction. We leave for the Fischer headquarters in two days."
And with that he turned and left. Ariadne sighed. Typical Arthur, expecting everyone to keep up with the rapid rhythm he and Cobb had operated so comfortably at.
It must be terrible, she reflected, her eyes once again on the dormant man, to lose someone you've been working next to for so long.
"Good night, Cobb," she murmured, standing up and returning the chair to its position. As she was buttoning up her coat, her hand brushed against something cold and slender in her pocket, and she carefully slipped her hand into the fold of fabric, pulling out a golden bishop.
Her heartbeat felt as though it had tripled, like she had been running. Biting down on her lip to keep from hyperventilating, Ariadne placed the bishop on the table and flicked it. She followed its trajectory as it wobbled, tipped and fell.
I'm becoming paranoid, she thought as she stuffed her totem back into her pocket. Just like Cobb.
Two days later, a white van came to collect Ariadne at her dorm room. She was ready at the door with a packed suitcase. Inside the van, Arthur, Eames and Yusuf were waiting. The van took them to a field in the outskirts of Paris, where they boarded a helicopter. They flew to Los Angeles, a dreadfully long flight Ariadne spent sleeping.
Mal did not show up in any of her dreams. For that she was thankful.
The helicopter took them to a private airport, where they got into another white van.
The van slid into a large, nearly empty parking lot. Above them loomed a statuesque skyscraper, made of the smoothest gray marble. Ariadne jiggled her foot nervously as Arthur and Yusuf spoke in whispers from the front seat. She was seated beside Eames, who leaned his head against one of the van's tinted windows with a bored expression. She wasn't sure what they were going to do; Arthur had been sparing with details, as he usually was.
"We're here," Arthur announced. "Get out and follow me."
The team obeyed soundlessly. Ariadne felt babyish standing next to them–three intimidating-looking men in dark clothing–while she wore her stupid flowery skirt and white scarf. They strode up to the security booth at the end of the lot, where a burly guard stopped them.
"Please state your business."
Arthur flashed a smile. Ariadne couldn't help but notice the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes. "My name is Carl Baldwin. We've got an appointment with Mr. Fischer. We were scheduled for eleven o'clock."
The guard hit a buzzer.
"Yes?" Fischer's voice was easily recognizable, even with the static.
"Do you have an appointment at eleven? Man by the name of Carl?"
"Yes, I do."
"Alright, sir. Sorry to bother you." The guard took his finger off the button. "Proceed, Mr. Baldwin."
They went into the building, cutting through an oak-paneled foyer lit by post-war style gaslamps.
"It's so nice in here," Ariadne noted, her voice echoing through the lobby. "You don't see corporate buildings like these too often."
"Spoken like a true architect," someone said behind her. The team turned around.
Robert Fischer leaned against the deserted reception desk. Ariadne looked into his steely blue eyes and felt a twinge. The last time she had seen him was when she had hurled his body off of Mal's porch, deep inside the twisted womb of Limbo. He acknowledged her with a brief nod.
"If you'll follow me, we can get down to business."
Arthur smirked. He was never happy taking orders, even from Cobb.
They were led into an old-fashioned elevator by Fischer, one that closed with an iron grate. He hit the button for the tallest floor: 47. As the elevator mechanism clicked and whirred, he turned to Yusuf.
"Do you have it?" he murmured.
"Of course." Yusuf patted his trouser pocket.
"Does he have what?" Ariadne wanted to know. Fischer put a finger to his lips and shushed her playfully. She blushed and looked down at the carpeted floor.
When the lift stopped, Fischer pulled the grate aside and took them to what had formerly been his father's office. He motioned for them to sit in comfortable-looking leather armchairs, and then went and leaned against the desk.
"I'm glad you could make it," he began. "I've managed to empty the building for the day, but in any case, we must be discreet." Opening one of his desk drawers, he pulled out a manilla envelope and tossed it to Arthur. "These were taken the day I landed in Los Angeles with my father's remains."
Arthur opened the envelope and examined the photos. They were black and white 8x11's, printed out on glossy photo paper. There were shots of Fischer leaving the airport, getting into a Lincoln towncar, stopping at the spacious Fischer estate. What was most disturbing was the fact that the photographer had marked a scarlet crosshair in every photo, circling Fischer's head.
"We checked the airport security cameras. No one was seen with a camera anywhere near me," Fischer said as the rest of the group went over the pictures.
"So someone did it with a telescopic photo lens," Arthur replied.
"Yes. However, the only other building in the area is the airport parking garage, and security tapes showed no one with a camera there either."
"So what does this mean?" Eames interjected.
"It means that someone must have had a hidden camera device," Arthur explained, his eyes still on the photographs. He looked up a moment later. "These crosshairs are obviously a taunt. A threat of some kind."
"And that's not all." Fischer picked up another envelope, a smaller white one. He pulled a folded slip of paper from it and opened it up. "I received this a day later."
"What does it say?" Ariadne asked.
"It says," Fischer answered, his voice gone suddenly softer. " 'You won't wake up this time.' "
The room was silent for a moment. Then Fischer, seemingly snapping out of it, pushed away from the desk.
"Um...anyway, we ran samples of every employee in the building's handwriting. And we found a perfect match. Browning's."
Ariadne's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, my God. Why would he want to do that?"
"I don't know. That's why I called you in here." Fischer carried a tray with decanters over to the desk and took a glass, fixing himself a whiskey on the rocks as he spoke. "I'm somewhat convinced that someone's been messing with Browning's mind."
"You mean someone's performed Inception on him," Eames replied.
"Yes." Fischer took a deep drink. "I believe that someone has implanted in his mind the desire to overthrow Fischer Corporation. And that could mean innocent people getting hurt."
"So you want us to get inside his head and figure out who planted this idea," Arthur murmured. He knit his fingers together in thought. Ariadne tried to stop herself from staring at his hands, remembering all the little brushes and touches.
"Exactly. I'm sorry to say it doesn't end there, though," Fischer sighed, taking another gulp. "Fischer Corp is holding a massive conference. And if someone is going to make an attempt on my or anyone else's life, they will have ample opportunity to do so. So I am asking you to do some sleuthing. Figure out who is manipulating Browning, and stop them." He paused and looked directly at Arthur. "If you accept the job, I'm prepared to pay a hefty sum."
Everyone turned to Arthur. He tilted his chin down and smiled coldly. "We accept."
"Wonderful." Fischer finished his drink. "Please get to work immediately."
"So let me get this straight." Ariadne pressed her palm against the fogged-up hotel window. Fischer Corp had financed hotel rooms for them, cold, modern rooms with sleek furnishings. Ariadne thought they suited Arthur's personality well, because she knew he had a penchant for bare spaces. More room to think. "We're supposed to find the person who performed Inception on Browning."
"Right," Arthur replied, not looking up. He was busy on a laptop, scanning through the security tapes at Fischer Corp.
"The safe," Eames cut in. "If someone has performed Inception, they'll have broken into the safe. It's our job to find what they put in there. From there, we can find whoever did it, and go inside their mind to find out whatever motives they might have had."
"Oh. Great. Sounds easy enough," she mumbled. Eames laughed. "So what do you want me for?"
Arthur closed the laptop and leaned back in the hotel armchair, sleek as a jungle cat in his black suit. "When we find the culprit, we'll need to lead them into a dream. Somewhere familiar, to establish a false sense of security. Designing that dream world is your job."
"Just another day in the life..." Ariadne sighed. She rested her forehead against the window and basked in the glow of the LA sunset.