The cathedral towers over her, casting a dim shadow across her and at least a hundred and twenty other people, coloring them a shade darker than they were before. She lets it build itself before her very eyes, layers upon layers formulating as she watches. She can feel it assembling in her mind, now, after so much practice. The cogs twist and rotate, and she senses rather than sees the different layers of the building, each individual floor, and tweaks them this way and that to conform to her choosing. Part of her fears she has become like Cobb—trapped in the dream world, its texture fabricated with the same bliss and addiction that comes with cocaine. No restrictions. No rules. It isn't like math class or physics class, where she has to memorize theories and abide by them in presentations or projects. No. This… this is her world. Her rules. Total intoxicating freedom.
Even as she flexes her fingers slowly, in and out of her small palms, she can feel the dream breathing. Sometimes she feels more alive here than she does in the real world. Here, she appreciates everything, because, in a sense, she is everything; every brick in every building in every neighborhood in every city she creates has a piece of her in it. And as a result she knows everything. She understands, as opposed to real life, where things keep changing and throwing her back into darkness. Knowing her world comforts her, somewhat. Now she sees why Cobb was so attracted to his dream: He knew everything, and the security was soothing.
But Cobb was farther in than she is, and he was there for different reasons—Mal's delirious expression rages through Ariadne's mind again and she shivers imperceptibly, but the Projections feel it: Several of them (many dressed as tourists, observing the massive cathedral with old Polaroid cameras strapped about their necks) stumble as they walk by and turn to face her, their expression shocked and terrified. She wrings her hands for a moment before they go back to normal, strutting about the Old English city as though they had lived there their entire lives.
Walking to the cathedral slowly, Ariadne lets it fill her senses. The smell of the age old stone, the sound of tour groups being led about by tall blonde women with perfectly mimicked accents, the look and feel of the preserved stone walls and sculptures that surround the building's exterior. When she opens the large front door, however, she is no longer inside the cathedral at all: Instead, she finds herself in a small room, rather like that of a hotel lobby. Plush couches decorate the corners, with quaint rugs and scenery pictures. A man pushes a luggage cart past her. All illusions created by the brilliance of the human mind.
A silver elevator shines directly across from her. When she approaches it opens automatically, as if expecting her. As the doors slide shut she wonders vaguely if she envisions the elevator as her means of transport between layers because she saw Cobb's elevator in his dream. She figures that this is what is actually happening. But this is her dream, not Cobb's, no matter how similar they may be, and even though she's technically supposed to be practicing for the Inception right now, no one needs to know that she's actually just experimenting.
As she steps into the elevator, she realizes there is only one single square button waiting for her to press. It says TOP. That's odd. A flaw. A flaw in her design that was supposedly free of any rules but her own; a flaw in her dream. After a moment of hesitation, she presses it firmly, and the elevator shoots upward with a rattle.
The door opens slowly into a pure white room; for a split second, she thinks she has returned to Cobb's horrific honeymoon suit, and fear crawls through her—but as she makes her way into the room, she realizes sharp differences that put her emotions at ease. For one, the place is perfectly intact, not a hair out of place. Every pale white surface is smooth and seamless. The couch cushions are all perfectly plumped, the bedding on the queen is plush and untouched. No dust peppers the polished dark wood countertops. Everything is in perfect condition.
There's just one thing that puzzles her.
She doesn't remember this room. Which can only mean one thing.
This isn't her dream.
That, or someone is meddling with it. She loops around the couch and takes a seat, coming to a still, slow stop to just think about it. How did she get here? Cobb's favorite question, and one of the most difficult to answer in the dream state. Was she alone? Was there someone—the Dreamer, perhaps, or someone just along to observe—with her? And if so… where are they now?
She leans back into the cushions, allowing her mind to process the information as the black tile ceiling disappears beneath her lids. She envisions all the way back to walking toward the cathedral, but before that… nothing. She recalls exactly what the cathedral should look like, both inside and out, just the way she sketched it out moments before going under. There were supposed to be other floors—memories—that should have preceded the top floor. Where did they vanish to? Did they vanish at all, or were they being masked by her visitor? Was this room a figment of her subconscious, formed without her conscious mind's knowledge and authority, or is it someone else?
She takes a deep breath, in through her nose and out through her mouth, thinking through the layers that make up her personal dream, flitting through the memories that should have been present as buttons in the elevator: The first floor would be her father speaking, his deep sandpaper voice filling her ears as he teaches her how to fix the leg of her favorite chair that always broke—the inspiration for her fascination with construction. And the second level—that would be the car crash seventeen later that killed him—
"That's not a happy thought you'd want to dream about."
Ariadne opens her eyes.
A television she had not noticed before sits on the table, and upon it is a horrific vision: A car has toppled on its side and flames burst from the engine and quickly rocket up the side. Ariadne can see her mother beside her, diving into the inferno, and her own arm reaching out to yank her back—the woman bellows names, half sobbing, half screaming—helplessness engulfs Ariadne, weighing on her chest like an anvil—she can only scramble for her cell phone to call the authorities, and she's moving much too slow, holding up the progress of saving her father—an arm lolls out of the window, drawing her eyes like a light—his flesh blisters and explodes right before her eyes—blood splatters the shattered glass as the gas tank ruptures—
"You shouldn't dwell on your memories while in a dream," says Arthur, his voice light as he politely averts his eyes. "It's the easiest way to find out the things you might want to keep hidden. I thought Cobb told you that."
"He—he did," she gasps, ripping her eyes from the scene to gaze upon Arthur, stretched elegantly upon the couch beside her. The way he's looking at her, it's like he can see right through her, and she suddenly wishes she had kept that memory to herself. When she turns back to the television, the scene has vanished and the screen is blank, but her heart still races quickly in her chest. Tears spring into her eyes; she wipes them away clumsily. She hasn't seen the death that vividly in a long time.
"You'll want to be careful, about that," continues Arthur. "If you are the Dreamer and you let your emotions and memories get the better of you on a future job—worse, during the Inception—you could potentially jeopardize the whole operation."
"I'm not going to jeopardize anything, don't worry."
She tries to manage a fierce expression, but after reliving her father's death, it's impossible. Instead she sinks back into the couch, eyeing Arthur with a scrutiny laden with an emotion even she can't name. Awe, she supposes, would be the right term: She's always respected him, but as he rests there, not quite sitting and not quite laying, draped over the arm of the couch in his usual suit and tie, his gaze fixed unblinkingly on her own, he evokes a twisted sort of childlike wonder within her. He is a Rubik's cube in the palm of her hand: He appears systematic and decorous, within lines drawn so neatly and so clearly that they blend seamlessly into the accepted image of perfection, but the longer she stares the more it dawns on her that he is a challenge. Now all that's left to be determined is if he's a challenge created by her subconscious or if he has entered her dream without her knowing and altered it.
"Did you make this?" she asks, after a long while.
"This? This is your dream. You made it. And very well." A gracious smile curves his mouth. "The design is miraculously accurate for having hardly planned it out before hand."
"You saw my notes?" she asks. Somehow, she feels she should be astonished and hurt, but those particular sensations neglect to make a presence. Flattery bubbles inside her.
"Your sketches," he replies easily. "They were rough. But good. Cobb was right. You are remarkable." Another flattering smile curls the corner of his supple lips. She watches it thoughtfully, observing his lack of ardency with avid curiosity.
"Thank you," she says, simultaneously shifting surreptitiously closer to him, tapering her eyes to study him better. How could he have read her notes if he was part of her dream? But could her own mind be tricking her into believing he is real when he's actually just another body generated by the subconscious?
"You're losing focus," he comments without taking his lucid eyes off of her. They are like pools of black coffee, a slight brownish hue glinting preternaturally at the edge of the iris. He smirks, as though the situation amuses him greatly. "You're forgetting to uphold the dream's design. You won't want to do that either, in the future; that opens all sorts of loopholes."
She ignores this.
"If I created this dream, who's to say I didn't create you, too?" she asks, tilting her head to the right slightly, as though the angle will give her better insight. "If I could find out if you were a Projection or not, I could find out how much of my dream you're warping right now."
Arthur's chuckle is spine-chilling.
"And how do you plan to test that?"
The answer springs readily to her lips.
"I'll think about making you do something."
Arthur's smile freezes. "Projections are visions of the subconscious; they're emotion-driven. You can't control them with your mind, because the portion of the mind conscious enough to control isn't emotional enough to be in tune with the subconscious."
"Always the smart one, aren't you Arthur?" she says lightly, and this time when she moves closer to him, she makes no effort to disguise it: In one sweeping motion she's directly next to him, her jeans just barely brushing with the fabric of his slacks. Up close, Arthur is twice as handsome. He has more amber in his eyes than she thought. "I can't make you to do something with my mind, but if I warp my emotions to desire a specific outcome from the situation by producing an emotional incentive…"
It doesn't matter that she hasn't finished her sentence; Arthur grasps the concept immediately.
"Very nice," he amends. His compliment is two inches away from her smile.
"Now comes the test," she breathes, her eyes darting all over his face. "If you do what I want, you're a Projection. If you don't, you're real, and you've just been fabricating this whole situation." A pause, for effect. "That all sound about right to you?"
His lips barely move as he speaks, the two word a smooth whisper. "Sounds marvelous."
Ariadne blinks several times, throwing her gaze rapturously into those dark coffee eyes that are Arthur's. She tries to feel him without touching him, know him without learning him, to be a part of him while still remaining just inches away. She imagines being intertwined, so close that the only space left is their clothing. Emotions bubble up inside her, a volcano of dormant affection for this man that she never bothered to access—but here, now, she urges herself to love him. For once, she allows herself to be swept up in his enthralling charm, his captivating wit, and the alluring, magnetic way he simply exists, elegant and sophisticated, instead of sitting back and studying him—she wills herself to want that which she has never dared to want before—
And as she's right in the middle of drowning herself in these thoughts, Arthur leans forward and places his mouth on hers.
At once, Ariadne knows that the battle is over: He fulfilled her emotional desire for him to kiss her. It's her dream and Arthur is just a Projection conjured by her subconscious. She won.
Victory doesn't taste as sweet as she expects.
They pull apart, now closer than ever: Without quite realizing how she got there, Ariadne realizes that Projection-Arthur has an arm around her waist and one hand curving behind the base of her neck, while she's pressed firmly against his chest, her fingers linked at the back of his head. They stare at each other for a few moments, Projection-Arthur's eyes traveling across Ariadne's face, drinking in her features. Another smile, effortlessly handsome, pulls at the corner of his lips, and Ariadne finds herself staring into it blankly, simply admiring the gentle way in which he now looks at her.
With his thumb, he brushes a loose lock of her chocolate hair from her cheek, and traces her jaw line all the way down to her lips. She sucks in her breath as he runs his finger across them lightly, as if fascinated by all the little things that make her. He allows his eyes to explore her face again as she resumes breathing, detecting the small, delightfully minty scent surrounding him; she's not quite sure how she missed that the first time around, but, breathing deeply, she finds herself thinking that she really must look for it in real life.
He kisses her once more, this time softer and slower. When they release, his eyes search her again. It's like they can't get enough of her.
"So that proves it," she whispers, tearing her eyes from him at last and ducking her head into the crook of his neck, resting herself against Projection-Arthur's chest and closing her eyes. She can hear his heart beating rhythmically. Odd, how realistic this Projection is; she's never actually interacted with one before (other than then the murderous Mal), but she never suspected they'd be quite so realistic. "You followed my emotional desire. That means that this is a dream, and you're not real."
Arthur chuckles into her hair, kissing the top of her head lightly.
"Of course this is a dream, love. But that doesn't mean it's not real."
When she opens her eyes, Arthur is gone, and she's pressed up against the pure white couch alone. The indentations of where he sat still remain, and she eyes them as water bursts through the windows and doors.
Spluttering and spitting, Ariadne is jerked out of the dream state and thrown into reality.
"Welcome back," a voice drawls from behind her. Wiping water droplets from her eyelashes, she turns in the bathtub just in time to see the corner of Arthur's mouth curve up in one of his handsome smiles as he massages his wrist and bends over his research. Beside her rests an empty lawn chair, an injection piston swinging off the arm.
A/N: This was… well, I'm not quite sure what this is to be perfectly honest, but I just got home from Inception and was buzzing with muse, so I'm just going to leave it here and let you guys review.
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