The Projection

The trouble with mentors is that they are human. They do not always make the best examples.

When Dominic Cobb finally returned to the real world, his top no longer eternally spinning, the man was a fraction of even his former guilt-ridden self. It had taken Arthur, Eames, Yusef and Ariadne weeks of preparation, waiting for Saito's affiliates to extract Cobb's comatose body from the hospital wing that was under constant federal supervision. It had taken another few days of diving, kicking out and diving back into Limbo to find him and Saito. Saito, now so old it brought tears to Ariadne's eyes, had sobbed too as the truth dawned, at the sight of Arthur, Eames and herself all in their youth. Cobb had never found him, and Saito had had even longer to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.

When they finally found Cobb, his Limbo entirely changed, they found him a great-grandfather, having watched his children grow, live, and move away to the far corners of Limbo, returning now and then so that he could see his grandchildren. It broke his heart, realising that he had forgotten to check the spinning top. It was buried deep in the attic under false memories of being a father, a grandfather, great-grandfather. He'd never really met Saito; his subconscious merely created the projection, another shade: wishful thinking.

When Cobb woke, and watched as his totem stopped spinning, tears fell down his gaunt face, and it was one of the last times he reacted to the world, the last time he moved for himself. He did not even pick up the totem again. He'd already grown old twice. Even when Saito, overjoyed to be returned to the real world with all its real people, honoured his agreement and reunited Cobb with his children, the real faces of James and Phillipa were like ghosts to Cobb, so broken that all he could do was smile to see them, as though he was looking over old photos.

But Saito honoured his agreement. He'd promised to return Cobb to his family, and it only took one more call to install everything needed to look after Cobb in his own home, an old man in a much younger man's body once again. It would take years for Cobb to start recovering, and not until his eldest, his daughter Phillipa, was old enough to ask Grandpa Miles about the things that had changed her parents, so she could better understand the remains of her father. Cobb was lucky to be enough of himself again to be proud of her when she didn't follow the family into Architecture or dreams, as she had in Limbo. She became a vet, looking after the worms her little brother dug up instead. His darling girl became a far better totem than the top he dreaded to spin.

But this is not a story about Cobb.

Arthur loyally visited his friend for years between jobs, when he could, and had Cobb been conscious of anything in the real world he would have seen the changes in his friend. The same applied for Ariadne, when she could get time off from her studies, and then after she graduated, always coming to see him around the same time Arthur did. For a short time, they even visited together.

In the time it had taken Saito and Cobb to grow old in Limbo, in the waking world things had changed too. Change is not measured by time.

Long hours of research, diving into dreams Ariadne constructed to prepare them for Limbo, trusting each other so much; that is how Change is measured. And recklessness.

During preparations Arthur taught Ariadne everything he knew about constructed dreaming, to prepare her for the second, long dive into Limbo. Eames pitched in with comments too, some helpful and others exercises of his own blend of British wit. Yusef taught her a little about the different compounds he'd use to get them all deep enough into Limbo, this time not leaving the details out. But where opinions conflicted, Ariadne would more often than not turn to Arthur to try to clarify her own opinion.

And the kiss... Quick, give me a kiss... did not go unforgotten.

It was just a kiss. They both had no choice but to know that. That kiss could not be taken with them into Limbo. They didn't even have to talk about it.

It became a blessing that neither could dream naturally any more. At least in their sleep, their subconscious could not play out their actual thoughts, feelings, needs... desires. Ariadne started keeping a journal, jotting her every thought down to drain him from her mind. Arthur did what he always did: focused on the job. And forced himself to not construct his own dreams to sleep more satisfactorily at night.

It worked, for a while. Then, a few weeks in and a few days before their plans went into motion, she dived into another preparatory simulation with Eames, carrying out more tests. He wandered off, exploring, experimenting, and she sat down on the dusty curb, thinking...

"Quick, give me a kiss."

She turned, shocked, to find the curb had turned into the seat from the lobby, to find Arthur sitting next to her, already leaning in again, and her mind guiltily rejoiced as memory flooded her senses. This time his lips lingered for longer, but her subconscious could not - would not - let the kiss grow, and it remained as chaste as it was in the lobby where it first happened. Even her subconscious could not fill what a proper kiss from Arthur would feel like. So she screwed her eyes shut, and pulled the trigger, escaping the fastest way she knew. As she woke, choking for breath, he was there, gripping her hand, his voice telling her she was alright, a soothing hand on her cheek. Her hands immediately reached out to him, gripping his shirt, feeling his pulse under his collar, his warmth, his young face filled with concern. The totem, check the totem! She reluctantly ripped her hand away, wrenched her pawn from her pocket and flicked it over, gasping for air again as it fell over, as she realised it really was real now, that the Arthur before her was no projection. She heard Eames wake and turn to her with worry too. "Darling, what happened?"

Quick, give me a kiss... She stopped gasping and ran, desperate for control. She came back later, when it was dark, to find the warehouse empty save Eames, who waved her apologies for 'freaking out' with an offer of a cup of tea.

"Or better, some scotch." The Englishman enthused. "I'm sure Arthur has a stash somewhere, keep meaning to pick up some of my own, the Scots do it far better than the Yanks, personally." Ariadne frowned at first, thinking Arthur didn't seem the type to store alcohol at work in his so-tidy work space, and was surprised when, after Eames had picked the lock, he produced a half-full bottle of black label Johnny Walker. "Ah, not bad, why thank you Arthur, don't mind if I do."

After a couple of shots and over a slow one, Eames finally succeeded in his mission: Ariadne started talking.

"It's lonely, this job, isn't it?" She asked more than stated.

"Why do you say that, love?" Eames asked, already fairly certain he knew why.

Ariadne struggled over her next words. "Just... Cobb's the only one of us who's ever brought his significant other into the dream. He was married, has two kids... the rest of you..." She trailed off, uncertain how to word what she was trying to say, already certain that Eames knew what she meant anyway.

"It suits us, dear." Eames told her, the smirk not quite so content. "Whilst playing the devoted husband-father role may suit old Dom, for the rest of us it doesn't quite do the trick. Yusef's married, I think, though not married the same way Cobb was married to Mal, and still is, I suppose. I met Mal, you know, when she was alive," Eames reminisced. "Hmmm. Met her after she was alive too a couple of times." He looked dead straight at the young woman sitting before him. "It doesn't do well to become so totally part of someone else. Not in this job."

Ariadne thought deeply in the silence that hung after that. It was a depressing set of thoughts, lonely thoughts. "Does everyone who try become like Cobb? Unable to keep them out, I mean."

Eames studied her for a moment. Was it so wise to tell her the truth? "No." He shook his head after a moment for emphasis. "No, Cobb and Mal are a special case. His grief mangled how his subconscious treats Mal, and so she in turn mangles his dreams. But it's risky. What happens if things end badly, and you bring your bitterness into the dream? Even an unresolved argument can mess up a job. It's dangerous."

Ariadne blinked away forming tears and raised her glass to drain her drink. As the whisky hit the back of her throat, she heard her last hope: "... But not impossible."

She came back the next day and carried on working hard, preparing for what lay in front of them. She had stayed long into the night after Eames left her to her thoughts and the rest of the whisky, and when she finally woke to hear the scrapping of the warehouse doors at first light, she'd come to terms with it all. She wasn't willing to give the world of dreams up, to give up pure creation, after having found it so recently, after finding it so extraordinary. She was young: she could wait. Arthur was just a guy, it was just a kiss. She'd been kissed before, she'd met other guys before. It would be fine.

And it was. Arthur didn't question what happened in the dream, though he did question how she'd gotten into his desk when he found the empty bottle, and worked hard with her, aware of the stronger boundaries that had been raised between them, professional boundaries. The recklessness could wait.

Then the call came. Saito's affiliates, anxious to regain their prized agent, had extracted both Cobb and Saito from the hospital. They made a deal: Cobb for Saito. The team were happy to agree to help their Tourist. It took a day of dives, careful kicks, and thus what felt like weeks searching for their employer and valued friend, until finally they were held at gunpoint on familiar shores and dragged before an aging man in a Japanese stronghold, who stared at their weapons, an ordinary red die, a chess piece that never toppled, and a British sovereign coin that couldn't stand on its edge.

Success. After watching Saito take a miniature fan from his pocket and flick it open, the last slide locked from opening, Ariadne flung her arms round Arthur's waist, forgetting herself, hugging him tight with relief, full of hope that they'd have the same success with Cobb.

It took longer to find Cobb, and whilst it had been her reassuring him on the shores of Fischer's dream, it was now Arthur who reassured Ariadne that they'd find their friend. Cobb's Limbo was built entirely from memory, and looked exactly like Earth. They met James Cobb, aged and married, in what looked like Boston before they found Dominic Cobb. He was a projection, and killed Eames and Ariadne before they could escape, and Arthur had the horrible choice of either shooting his friend's son or himself before James did with a twelve-bore shotgun. He chose the latter, feeling the former too disrespectful, and the first words he said as he woke were 'I think Boston is a write off," and finally let out the breath he'd been holding as Ariadne's fingers slipped through his and held on.

A part of him wondered whether recklessness would envelop them if they were successful in finding Cobb, if he'd find out what a real kiss from Ariadne felt like in the real world. He didn't get to find out; when they brought Dom back to reality, it didn't come with the felicity he'd hoped for. The man they extracted from Limbo was not the Dominic Cobb Arthur had worked with, learned from, believed in. Arthur couldn't help but wonder if maybe they should have just left him in Limbo, believing that he had been returned to his family, that he'd really grown old this time, an old man waiting to die with his family around him without regret. The night of celebration that they all had been looking forward to seemed empty. Instead Eames left to find a bar, Yusef started preparing to go home, back to his world-escaping clients, to try to return to a life where he didn't need to test the real limits and consequences of dreaming. Ariadne stayed with Dom as Saito made phone calls to very important people. And Arthur restocked the bottle of Johnny Walker. After far too much, he was woken by the weight of a blanket over his back, and tiny fingers running through his hair, and even as Ariadne apologised, embarrassed, for waking him he was winding his arms round her middle, pulling her onto his lap, burying his head into the crook of her shoulder, rocking them gently as they mourned the loss of their friend. He never did find out what Ariadne's real kiss felt like that night.

He did however get the pleasure of Eames waking him up a few hours later with the biggest grin on the forger's face, as he realised that he was lying on the stretch-chairs with Ariadne sound asleep still in his arms, their legs twisted together, fully dressed, blanket tucked in around them. After he'd scowled at Eames to get the Brit to go away again, he gazed down at the tiny Architect tucked in so close to him. And made a decision.

Ariadne woke that morning to the ghost of someone's lips pressing gently against hers, but by the time she opened her eyes, there was no one there. It took three times of toppling the pawn to reassure herself she was really awake now.

Weeks passed. The team stayed at Cobb's side, waiting. Yusef eventually had to give up waiting for Cobb to respond to the world, and left with his apologies: he had to return to his own business that he had neglected for too long now. Cobb's share of the money had already cleared in his bank account, and wired straight back. His own share was generous enough, and it felt like poor taste to take the money of a casualty of their mission. The others let him go with good grace and gratitude: Yusef had done a fantastic job for them, on Fischer's inception, and after when no one was paying him to do so. Ariadne hugged him and wished him well, Eames gave him a bruising slap on the back, and Arthur shook his hand as gentlemen.

"You'll see him again," Arthur told her. "He's the best. In this business you only work with the best." A beat. "Except for Eames."

Ariadne chuckled, studied him carefully as his words sunk in. Was he saying what she thought he was saying?

"If a job came up,' Arthur began carefully, "would you be interested?"

Her smile was answer enough. She'd be back. Of course she'd be back.

She eventually returned to Paris to continue her studies through the day, and after lectures she visited the warehouse, where Arthur did what he was sure Cobb would have done; taught her everything she would ever need to know about constructed dreaming, and then some.

Eames, on request, taught her a little of forgery when he 'happened' to be in town, of carefully studying a person in the real world. "You don't need to know everything about a person in order to impersonate them, depending on their relationship to the mark, but you do need to know a fair bit, and be able to figure out the rest from what you know. How they move, how they speak, how they present themselves to others. Little things are helpful. What kind of clothes they like to wear, minor irritants, how they take their tea. Browning for instance didn't drink tea, took his coffee black with no sugar."

Arthur, having already taught her all he knew to prepare her for the prolonged search in Limbo, picked at her growing body of knowledge to find the holes in order to help her fill them in. She already knew so much about architecture from her studies, intuition and deduction. He'd pull her into dreams to practice creating, hoping his subconscious would give them time for her to really test the boundaries of dreams, her own boundaries. Folding Paris over on itself as she had her first day proved to be the tip of the iceberg. To his surprise, it would take much longer than he expected for his subconscious to turn hostile.

In the real world both Eames and Arthur taught her basic weaponry, a little melee combat, all the survival techniques they knew and relied on. She found out how it was that they knew it all themselves, were natural soldiers in the dream world: Eames was former British SAS, Arthur briefly in the US Marines, before tampering and experimenting with dreams got both into trouble, and a far more intriguing profession. Dealing with handguns in the real world unnerved her, as did practising with them on projections. Eames held on to his patience, finding her ill-ease a little naive, but Arthur was easier on her: it was a precaution, he told her, in case she ever found herself in a position where she had to escape violent projections, or buy time for missions, or simply to keep up appearances within the dream. At least if she knew the basics of how to defend herself, she'd be able to hold her own and take care of herself when dreaming. When no one else would be able to cover for her and keep her dreaming.

One thing she did enjoy was driving getaway cars though. In that regard she was a typical adrenaline junkie, even after she accidently crashed and woke up early.

Arthur, though he was no extractor like Cobb had been, taught her a little of how to protect her mind the way Fischer's had been taught, using his own crafty techniques. He taught her how to use her own mazes to make it even more difficult for other extractors to extract her secrets, to send them into labyrinths they could not escape, to use her subconscious to thoroughly muddle them. He gave her a test, to find out what number his die was loaded to. After an hour of dreaming she woke completely annoyed at her failure: she'd been running through penrose mazes the entire time inside the vault, running because the projections were armed. He didn't actually tell her that he'd been watching the projections. They were ready, but they let her pass by unharmed, evidently feeling unthreatened. As for militarising her own projections like his and Fischer's, she never really got the trick of it. Arthur said she was too gentle, that to militarise her subconscious would involve changing the core of herself. Then he laughed; she was too curious too. When he'd done the same test on her, trying to extract her secrets to see how well she'd learnt everything, her projections had just asked more questions, never giving any information away because of their own search for knowledge. Effective, he told her; he hadn't gotten anything out of her either. Also to his amusement was the fact that as he gave up interrogating her projections, they always waved goodbye. She was too nice.

A job came up from Saito, as a favour to a friend. The friend, who went un-named, believed that a junior engineer was selling company designs to a rival firm. A fairly basic assignment: confirmation. Arthur didn't even need to voice the question, Ariadne pretty much instructed him to include her. He had no complaints: there wasn't an architect out there like her. They assembled in London, and began researching. Ariadne got a job as a babysitter for the engineer's children, posing as an exchange student at UCL, and found that the man didn't, as a rule, bring his work home, and by all appearances seemed very happy living his comfortable family life. Arthur dug into the man's past, finding nothing suspicious, save his attendance at some student protests over the closing of his university's nobel prize winning Chemistry department. He appeared to have no contact with the strange world of extraction before, and by all accounts at work was a well-liked and trusted engineer, bright and reliable. He was also, intriguingly, a devout Catholic, and regularly attended Mass and Confession at the St Thomas More church around the corner from his house. So, delighted to have an excuse to visit his homeland, Eames arrived and quickly started attending Mass too, noting every detail of the priest there.

The extraction itself proved easy enough to pull off. The engineer always started work obscenely early, catching the first bus of the morning. Handily, at one point on the journey the commuter bus was normally empty save the engineer. That morning he found that the bus driver had been replaced with someone else, a man of Middle Eastern persuasion, and there were three other passengers: a rambling drunk in the corner, and a young man in a leather jacket cradling his girlfriend as she slept against his shoulder, her face obscured by her hoodie. Suddenly the drunk was in his face, asking for a drink of water - which he gave from his bottle - swigged a good gulp, belched loudly, disturbing the young man a little, and thrust the bottle back, insisting he drink some too, some drunken logic about sharing. The engineer took a sip to appease him, and then a deeper gulp, coughing awkwardly when it didn't do the trick.

He was asleep within minutes, and didn't even notice as the bus paused in an alleyway quickly, the lights switched off. Yusef jumped out of the driver's seat and started setting up.

"Nice burp, Eames," Arthur commented as he pulled his arm away from Ariadne's shoulder and started pulling IVs out.

"I try, darling, I try." The drunk retorted charmingly, the slur gone in an instant.

Seconds later under Yusef's careful watch, the three found themselves in the church, Ariadne's designs flawless. Eames snuck round the back as Arthur and Ariadne - her features changed enough to avoid recognition as the engineer's babysitter through Eames' tutoring - took their places amongst the congregation, noting their mark sitting with his wife two rows ahead, and they carefully kept straight faces as Eames preached to them. Then Ariadne began to notice the lingering feeling in the back of her neck, the rest of the congregation confusedly looking around them, and she looked up to see Arthur watching them too, frowning. She knew that frown: he was trying to figure something out. Finally he whispered to her to follow him, took her hand, and left as Eames began to line up his confessors, steering the engineer to the front. She found herself outside in the bright sunlight, in an empty cemetary Evidently the engineer's subconscious thought it disrespectful to populate a graveyard.

"What's wrong, Arthur?"

He took an uncomfortable breath. "I think I slipped up again, missed something."

Minutes later, Eames started showing people out, clearly looking a bit uncomfortable in this pious persona, and quickly made his way over to them. "Nothing. The man's conscience is clearer than piss." He turned to Arthur after that lovely description. "Did you notice it?"

"Notice what?" Ariadne asked as Arthur nodded gravely.

"The mark's subconscious is restless, agitated, but confused." Arthur explained. "It's been rattled before, recently."

"Which means..." Ariadne began, her reasoning racing ahead.

"He's had extractors in before us." Eames finished. "Regularly too. But he's probably almost entirely unaware of it, so his subconscious isn't really sure what's wrong, only that something is wrong."

"His projections suspect you as they should," Arthur told her, "but they don't know what to make of you, though it wouldn't have taken them much longer to recognise you as a foreign element and expunge you. It's not the first time they've seen foreign elements."

They watched as the congregation slowly left the church grounds, watched as the mark started heading home with his wife, the rest glaring at Ariadne, all coming close to realising that she was the dreamer...

Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien

"He's not selling information," Ariadne concluded, "it's being stolen from him."

Arthur smiled at her proudly. "Exactly."

"Hmmm." Eames contributed. Then perked up. "Oh well, as long as we still get paid."

They were, and the engineer never consciously suspected a thing. He woke on the bus, thinking he'd just nodded off for a few minutes, the drunk snoring loudly at the back, the couple seemingly even closer, the boy's face obscuring the girl's as they seemed to just hold each other, sharing each other's air. The engineer smiled. He remembered the days when he was like that with his wife, before they had to PG everything for the kids.

Finally, the team got their night of celebration. Eames dragged them to the dodgiest, seediest underground pub in London, a place where "you were never seen, and you saw no one." When it was finally Eames' round again he bought only two drinks; one for Yusef and one for himself, to quietly toast to the other half of the team who were clearly too busy to drink.

Something had to give. It was like a dream: neither would remember what they said, or how it happened. One moment they were talking, and the next they were making out like teenagers in the corner, their totems lying on the table to prove it was real. That particular period of time they would remember in snippets: leaving the bar early hand in hand, hands wandering in the taxi to Arthur's hotel on the Thames, kissing in the elevator unable to wait, and then closing the door to his suite behind them.

After that, they remembered everything. It would only be in the morning that they'd remember how it all started. With five words, from Ariadne's mouth this time.

Quick, give me a kiss...

In the morning they had the dreaded 'Talk'. They came clean about all the times they'd told themselves they couldn't do this, all the decisions to not get that close. How they were reluctant to return to those decisions. How maybe it was too late to return to those decisions.

How they were glad that they couldn't stick to those decisions.

How they were both going to hear about it from Eames when they finally caught up with him.

More jobs came along. Arthur created a base for himself in Paris while Ariadne studied between their assignments. If they worked with Eames they patiently let the British forger get his teasing out of his system, shy together but undeniably together. On occasion Arthur was invited to join other teams, his reputation as a brilliant Point Man far preceding him, and if his team ever needed an architect he always recommended Ariadne, always concealing the nature of their relationship to the outsiders as best they could. Some of the other extractors she liked, and would willingly work for again. Others were less impressive. Others still she hoped she never saw again in any capacity, disliking their attitude to the job. They were reckless without the intelligence to back it up, thus relying on Arthur's steadfastness, or were insensitive, with no respect for their marks or even their fellow team members. She rarely dreamt with the new ones, though she itched to explore her own creations with them as they did their jobs, itched to be there at Arthur's side. Then afterwards they seemingly went their separate ways, both heading back to Paris, visiting Cobb along the way. She hoped that Cobb was happy for them, somewhere in his mind where he had retreated to. She hoped that he would have approved. She hoped that he hoped they would not become like him and Mal.

She wished she could ask him how to avoid becoming like Mal.

They were careful. Constructed dreaming was a job, for extraction. They never used it for leisure, or pleasure, as much as Ariadne itched for her chance at pure creation. On occasion she still dreamed, strange normal dreams that were half lucid, amused at her own self-awareness in them when they were amusing dreams, nervous when they were regular nightmares. She didn't know if Arthur dreamed at her side, as relieved as she was to find that hooking up to dream like an addict was just what the likes of Cobb did. The lucidity of the dreams that they created, Arthur told her, fascinated him, but he didn't crave them the way Cobb did. There was nothing in his subconscious that he did not have in the real world. The real world might not have been enough for him to make a career in it, but it was enough to live in. He didn't have to religiously roll his die to check he was awake after every dream, though he did it for certainty, for tracking, to not assume. He would never become Mal, Ariadne knew, unable to tell the difference between life in Dreams and life in Reality. Besides, he told her with a smile, what he wanted most was here with him in the waking world. What did he need dreams for?

She smacked him then for being so cheesy, but he just laughed and pulled her in close.

Then he went away on a job with Eames, the architect already decided, and came home early pale and withdrawn, worried to the point where he could not tell her what happened, only hold her tight all night as she slept, as he blinked, sleep eluding him. Sleep caught up with him when he started listening to her heartbeat, focusing on her warmth, on the softness of her skin. She was real. She was here. She was unarmed.

The inevitable had happened. She appeared as a projection - his projection - and attacked the dreamer. Eames had been so shocked all he could do was laugh in bursts for a full hour, commenting on how their little Architect packed more punch than he thought. The forger finally shut up when he saw how distressed his colleague was, Arthur's usually calm and focused demeanor visibly shattering at the seams. There really wasn't anything funny about it. Eames wasn't surprised when Arthur packed up that night and got on the first flight to Paris.

They'd been together for just over a year. They'd celebrated their anniversary in the midst of preparing for a job, sneaking off to use the dreaming apparatus, and lounged on an unpopulated beach that did not exist anywhere in the world. For once he hadn't slicked his hair back for her, and she didn't wear a scarf to hide behind. His hair was almost as light as hers without the gel, and her skin was freckled over her chest.

They talked in the morning again. They talked for days. They fought and argued, and she cried as she saw a glimpse of the inevitable. He was frightened. She knew, somewhere in her mind, that he was frightened of seeing his subconscious warp her into something she was not, something he could not control. But she also knew that he was frightened of never being able to do his job effectively again, always worrying that she was going to pop up and act like any other projection. She wasn't Mal, he knew that, he knew she would never be like Mal to him. But he wanted her to always be her, Ariadne, not a projection that resembled her but wasn't really her. This was what they had feared from the very beginning. How long would it be before he started doing the same in her dreams, appearing as nothing more than a projection? She cried again, remembering the time so long ago when he had appeared as a memory, when she'd prepared for Limbo with Eames. Quick, give me a kiss. She remembered half glimpses of him amongst the crowd before waking, worrying that he would turn against her before she was out. She remembered all their old decisions, all the reasons why they made those decisions. She remembered her youth, that she was so close to graduating, that she had been willing to give up her crush for the world of extraction and inception.

She realised she wasn't willing to give that up, and that he wasn't either.

A few days later he'd packed his things, and they said goodbye at the airport. Quick, give me one last kiss.

Time passed. Ariadne stopped dreaming naturally altogether. She slowly moved on. She made plans to build cities and islands, and graduated amongst the top of her class. Eames approached her for a job, and upon diving didn't find him, didn't find anything of him. Time had passed.

Arthur disappeared off the face of the earth for a bit, or so it seemed. Actually, he went and visited Cobb a few times, and Saito, even working for Saito a couple of times, in the waking world. He tried dreaming a couple of times, and every time she was there. But he always pulled the trigger before she could say anything, do anything, escaping. Time passed. News leaked through to him of her success, of how Eames' praise put her on the market in her own right, of how extraordinary people thought she was. Sometimes it would make him smile with pride. Sometimes it would just remind him of what he'd lost.

Eames approached him out of the blue at Cobb's home, immediately commenting on how far his hairline had receded (not that far). Eames had been offered a job, and was wondering if Arthur wanted to return to the fray. He declined. A week later he called Eames, and flew out to Hong Kong the next day. Eames was hazy on the details, saying it was a variation of an inception job. A very wealthy and ridiculous client wanted a piece of information planted in his wife's head about her lover, or some such nonsense. At Arthur's raised eyebrow Eames pointed out one important detail: 'very wealthy', and Arthur let it slide. Eames showed him the layout of the dream the Architect had already designed for them, suspicious in itself, and they wandered around exploring to their hearts' content.

Then the projections started arriving. Started fighting. Eames was a big guy, he could hold his own, specially with Arthur by his side. But with a gun out of reach and no tall heights, they had no choice but to fight and wait for the dream to inevitably end.

He froze when she appeared. Ariadne. Time became even more relative. For a moment she just stared right back, her old inquisitive expression on her pretty, young face. She grabbed the only gun that was on the floor at her feet -

And shot the projections.

"Run!" She screamed at them, and carried on shooting behind them.

Arthur remained frozen, the projections that had held him back dead at his feet. Then...

"Do as the lady says, Arthur," Eames said through a bleeding nose, dragging himself to his feet and pulling Arthur along. She was still shooting them, holding them off as they ran.

Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien

Arthur woke from that dream with the same shock that Ariadne had so long ago after being stabbed by Mal on the bridge she recreated, all composure forgotten. When Eames appeared at his side Arthur took one look at his face, knew - just knew - that Eames had seen this coming, and broke his nose for real. The anger pulled him together, pulled everything together. As Eames complained pompously about bad manners, Arthur paid no attention, ripping the IV out of his wrist. All he could see was what he had lost. Ariadne, his beautiful Ariadne. And the projection of her as her, doing exactly what she would have done had she been really her; defending him.

"What did you bring me out here for, Eames?" He said tonelessly. It was obviously not to teach a cheating wife a lesson for an enormous paycheck.

Eames picked himself off the floor and glared at Arthur for a moment. Then he marched over, grabbed Arthur's shoulders and shook him. "To make you see that you are not Dominic Cobb." He let go of Arthur's shoulders, and Arthur felt something slide into a pocket. "Stop wasting your time, Arthur. This isn't a dream. You don't wake up from this one, finding that you're still young."

Then he slapped his shoulder hard for emphasis, and walked away, searching for something for his nose, leaving Arthur to his thoughts. And to the plane ticket to Paris, smuggled into his pocket.

When Eames came back, hankerchief to his nose, Arthur was already gone.

The flight from Hong Kong direct to Paris is a long flight. Long enough to think. Long enough to realise. Long enough to decide.

Long enough to build hope.

He checked all their old haunts, not expecting to find anything. Their appartment had been sold, the warehouse stood empty and vacant without even a single scrap of paper. It didn't surprise or disappoint him; Ariadne was smart, and staying in places that would remind her of him wasn't smart. That's why he hadn't returned to Paris himself, even for a job.

He finally found her exactly where he expected to find her. He was the best Point Man in the business after all, it was his job to research. He found her sitting at someone else's desk, the blackboard behind her covered with paradoxical architecture.

"I take it you didn't like Miles' office either." He said, calling down from the back of the lecture theatre. Her hand froze over her notes, and she looked up slowly.

"No space to think in that broom cupboard." She echoed, remembering her former lecturer's words when he handed over the keys to his office upon his retirement. She wasn't a full lecturer, the university was still going over candidates to fill Miles' shoes, but as Miles' favourite and most accomplished protege, they readily accepted her as a temporary associate tutor. The university in Paris had been hers, separate from the world of dreaming. It had made sense to her to choose it as a safe environment for her mind in the waking world. A safe place to move on.

Silence fell as the two studied each other, hands clenched over their totems. He looked tired, she thought, not as carefully contained as he used to be. Working even harder than normal, she thought. She looked older, the flowery blouses now crisp shirts, jeans now well-cut pants, hair spun with a chopstick, strands falling across her face anyway.

She was still Ariadne. And he was still Arthur. Some things don't change so much.

"Eames sent you, didn't he?" Ariadne said, her voice low, wincing as her voice carried clearly all the way to the back anyway. There was no defeating the clever architecture of the room that heard every whisper.

Arthur thought for a moment, and nodded. Yes, he guessed Eames had sent him.

Ariadne started fidgetting uncomfortably. "He told you, then, about..." She trailed off at Arthur's twitch of his head. She knew that move. It meant he didn't know what she was talking about. "Oh." She frowned. "Why are you here, then?"

The corner of his mouth twitched up. Still inquisitive, even when nervous.

"To see you." He started making his way down to her desk, stood before it as though he were one of her students, one hand in his pocket as usual, the tables turned.

She looked at him in disbelief. "I thought we agreed not to -" Not to see each other. Ever.

"Something changed."

The colour in her face slowly drained away, and she stared at nothing on her desk. And then she nodded.

"You were there."

Arthur blinked. His mind was racing ahead, and before him lay the reason why Eames had been so adamant about sending him back to Paris, back to Ariadne.

She peered up at him guiltily from her chair. "You've always looked after me," she said quietly. "Ever since Day 1, when Mal stabbed me." She smiled sheepishly at the desk. "I guess... I guess I always knew that, that you'd look after me. No matter what." Her smile vanished. "You popped up in dreams, whenever the projections started getting hostile. I've never... I didn't think that was possible."

Arthur stared at her, trying not to laugh ridiculously. He could feel it bubble up in him, a strange mix of amazement, joy, relief.

"Eames saw it," Arthur said, knowing he was right, picturing the scenario. Damn interfering son of a... bless him.

Ariadne nodded uncomfortably, ashamed of this bizarre weakness. "He said he'd never seen that before, a projection of a real person that acted exactly like that person, rather than a projection against foreign elements. And it was so like you, you even bantered with Eames." They both shared a smile at the image of Arthur coming to Eames' rescue, the two winding each other up as usual. "He didn't like it much when he realised that you'd just saved his ass."

Arthur smirked. He bet Eames didn't.

"I missed you..." Ariadne said, her voice so quiet this time that the hall didn't catch it, so quiet Arthur barely heard her. But he did, he heard her.

"I missed you too."

A tear dribbled down Ariadne's face as she nodded. It didn't really need to be said. Of course she had missed him, and he her. They had loved each other, and known. But the fear... the fear that it would interfer with their lives in dreams, if that put them in danger from themselves... it was too hard to give up what was most fundamental to them. She was an Architect, and he a Point Man. Those roles did define them. They'd talked about it long and hard. If they gave up their jobs, even for each other, they'd regret it forever. It would set them apart, each blaming the other for losing what was one of the most fascinating elements of their lives. And they loved each other. He would not let a projection of himself sabotage or harm her or put her in danger, and she wouldn't let a projection of herself do the same to him.

Then when she realised that his projection wouldn't sabotage her, that he'd defend her from harm, that he would not put her in danger, she'd been so confused. Arthur had been so wrong for once. The moment she realised it she was almost euphoric with joy: everything was fine, they could be together again! And then she realised that it wasn't that simple, that she had no idea if the same applied to him, and the joy died as quickly as it was born. She had no idea if she was a safe projection to him. And to ask him would be cruel. What if he was still trying to forget just as she was, and all she did was make it worse for him? She couldn't bear the thought of her real self sabotaging him.

So she decided to keep quiet, and wait. Again.

She didn't think she'd have to tell Eames to keep quiet too. She thought they understood each other, having worked together so many times, that he respected her enough to keep her secrets.

Thinking about it now, she saw how ludicrous that thought was. This was Eames after all. He was a forger who worked for extractors. There were no secrets in constructed dreams, secrets were there to be stolen and used. Why would that be any different in the real world?

"Why are you here, Arthur?" She asked again. She sounded so tired, so worn out. It had only been a couple of months of waiting, but she was weary of it. And she was frightened. Frightened of him breaking her heart again without being able to stop it.

He walked round her desk to stand at her side, and told her about what happened in Hong Kong. Smiled reassuringly as tears dribbled down her cheeks, and wiped them away with his thumb. Remembered to breathe when she held his tear-stained hand in hers. And told her what Eames had said to him.

They had another decision to make. To try again...

Or become an old man and an old woman, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.

One of Dominic Cobb's first memories of returning his consciousness to the world was so strange to him he thought he was dreaming. It was an early memory. Phillipa was in his arms, fast asleep, her favourite book in her hands having read to him for a few hours. She kept grinning in her sleep; obviously her dreams were quite amusing.


Cobb frowned, turned his head slowly.


He knew those faces. Variations of them, anyway.

"Robert? Alfred?"

The woman screwed her nose up and shook her head. The man in whose lap she sat chuckled, pressed a kiss to the woman's ear, ran his fingers through her hair, the gold band on his finger glinting.


The woman - so familiar to Cobb - shook her head after a moment. "No, doesn't fit."

The man - Cobb knew that face, he was sure of it - nodded calmly, smiling patiently. "Leonard?" He laughed as the woman smirked, trying not to laugh at the suggestion. "Well, what do you think?"

"I don't know." The woman said, shifting slightly in the man's arms. She looked so young still, Cobb thought. Soft brown hair curling in waves around her face, an angelic face maturing, becoming more earthy. A scarf tied round her neck loosely, falling over her chest, failing to conceal her growing belly, and a matching ring on her hand. "Something mythological?"

The man groaned teasingly. His turn to say no. His dark hair should have been slicked back, Cobb thought, not short and left to be. Chiselled features should have had less wrinkles. "Like Hercules? Achilles? Theseus, maybe?"

The woman, who had been chuckling at the Greek heroes' names, pulled a face at the last. "Hmm, no, Theseus was an idiot."

The man grinned for a moment, and then grew more sober, more sensitive. "Forgot you on some beach somewhere, didn't he?" He kissed the woman in his arms again. "Very idiotic."

The woman - Ariadne? - smiled, her eyes casting back into memory, and she tightened the man's arms around her, as though to ward herself off from some of those memories. Then she suddenly smirked. "We could name him after you," She was already giggling as the man's eyebrows went up. "Wart."

The man - Arthur... his friend, Arthur - narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips tightly as she carried on giggling. "I knew it was a bad idea to let you watch the Disney channel with James."

Cobb looked over at his bedside table, and smiled faintly, though he didn't really know why at that point.

The top wasn't spinning.

Hope those reading will enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. This is the only one shot I've ever written, thus using an entirely different style of writing to that which I usually employ, I hope that it's worked out alright. Seen a lot of songfics going around lately, which is kinda funny, considering that the ONLY thing I listened as I wrote and edited was the soundtrack of the movie. Reading this back, whenever that happens, will always remind me of Track 12: Time. In fact, if you time your reading perfectly, you'll see exactly why if you've seen the movie and couldn't get the ending out of your mind.

I wrote this as an attempt to do justice to the frisson that's clearly written into the film between Arthur and Ariadne, and an attempt to do justice to the concepts introduced in the film. The idea of Mal as a powerful destructive projection of grief intrigued me, intrigued me to the point where I wondered whether her opposite could be true, whether if you loved someone without poison, could that project itself too?

Thank you to all those who liked this, whether you review, favourite, print, or simply smile for a moment before searching for your next favourite Inception fanfiction. I've been trying to read everything out there, so I can recommend a few. Thanks again, and I hope that this finds you all well,

Guard of the Heradi