A few notes..I do not own Inception (that honours belongs to Christoper Nolan, aka Supreme Genuis Overlord). I do, however, own the ticket stub to Inception.

I have the first chapter of another, more plotty (is that a word?) Inception story written, but I had to get all the fluffiness that is Arthur and Ariadne out of my system first. And this is the result. Now I can go twist my brain into strange and unusual shapes in peace. After first watching Inception again tomorrow, of course.

Please review, with your choice of avocado or pistachio on top.

- Li


i.

Waking up is her least favourite part. The sudden shock of being pulled back into the drabby greys of reality is enough to make even the sanest of people reach for a bottle of tequila, vodka if it's available. Ariadne had never been much of a drinker, but after that first dream with Cobb, she had found herself in a rather questionable establishment, downing her fears with a generous dose of alcohol. The lingering feeling of vice-like grips on her arms and blood spurting from her stomach had not helped. For the rest of the day, she was a wreck.

But she'd gone back. Whether from a need to dream or a serious lack of neurons serving the common sense lobe of her brain, she didn't know. All she knew was a burning curiosity as to what else she could do with her mind when the laws of physics became negligible. She had felt weak for going back on her resolve, especially when she'd seen the knowing look from Cobb's point man. But all that had melted away the moment she stepped into Arthur's dream and saw the entire world waiting to be discovered. She had never been able to resist a challenge, something Arthur must've known from all the manila folders stacked neatly on his desk, because he kept pushing her everyday, forcing her mind in new directions that she had not even believed possible. She'd built and built until exhaustion forced her to fall into a natural sleep, and then she'd woken up and built more bridges and tunnels and impossible staircases.

Somewhere along all the mazes and illusions, she'd started to lose herself. The days had blurred together and the friends she'd once spent every waking moment with became pale shadows in comparison to the men she shared her dreams with. The world was only real when she was digging into Cobb's memories or discussing sedatives with Yusuf or watching Eames and Arthur bicker like two playground kids. Her mind had been so utterly absorbed by the job at hand that she'd forgotten about waking up.


ii.

The hotel room is bright and sunny, a far cry from the one she'd built in Arthur's dream. The furniture is modern and simplistic, all smooth edges and well defined corners in black and white with the occasional splash of orange or blue. She's reminded of an IKEA catalogue, one of her guilty pleasures because the designs are as close as you can get to impossible without going under. A queen seized bed dominates the room. The enormous pillows and comforter beckon to her but she resists the urge to snuggle under the covers and makes her way to the tiny balcony. All of Los Angeles is spread out twenty-three stories below her. Or most of it, because there are quite a few buildings taller than her. She feels out of place here, coming from a city where no structure could be taller than the Eiffel Tower. America confuses her, and it's not just the skyscrapers. It's the people that get to her, the millions of people crowded on sidewalks, the even more people in buses and taxis, all of them desperate to go somewhere but getting nowhere. It hurts her head to look at so many unfamiliar faces; she almost feels as if she's back in someone else's subconscious. But they're just people, ordinary everyday people.

The door clicks open and she whirls around, thinking of large men with even larger guns, come to send her back to limbo. It's only room service. She frowns because she hasn't ordered anything but before she can say anything, Arthur is there, waving the woman away. He beckons her inside and she enters the room, wondering what on earth room service could've sent her.

"I thought you might be hungry," Arthur says, gesturing at the food covering the table. Of course. The man never forgot anything, never left even the tiniest loose end. He could've been a robot if not for – No, she won't think about that. Not now.

"Not really." She perches at the edge of the bed and watches him as he wanders the room checking for hidden grenades and God knows what else. Even now that the job's done he takes no chances because that's just the way he is. His meticulous attention to detail is as much a part of him as the carefully pressed three piece suits, the impossibly neat hair and the near emotionless face. She doesn't have to know him well to know these things because this is the man he wants her to know, the businessman, the co-worker, the point man. But sometimes she wonders if his mind is as tortured as Cobb's, if the only difference between the two men is that one is better at suppressing his subconscious. Because it seems to her that it's impossible to have works so long as an extractor without having a story.

"How are you feeling?" he asks, having finished inspecting their surroundings.

"Did you personally deliver dinner to Eames and Yusuf too?" she replies, ignoring his question because she's determined to find out exactly what he's doing in her room. She catches a glimpse of surprise across his features before they become impassive once more.

"No," he admits. "But a three level inception is not something most novices are expected to cope with."


iii.

He regrets the words the moment they come out. The look in her eyes tells him that she does not want to be shoved under the heading of 'most novices'. Over the past month, he's learned almost everything there is to know about her and everything he doesn't yet know off by heart is tucked away in her file. Yet he still can't get himself to believe in the enigma that is his architect. Despite knowing everything from her favourite shampoo brand to her bank account number, she's still a mystery to him and this worries him because it's his job to unravel every mystery he comes across. But from the moment she walked back into that rundown Parisian workshop and entrusted her dreams to him, he's found himself unwilling to even turn over the fragments of the puzzle, let alone piece them together.

She's turned away from him to examine her fingernails. He searches through his considerable brain for something to say that will comfort her snubbed pride but comes up with nothing. This worries him too because he always, always has something to say.

With his brain empty and his mouth frozen, he offers her the only thing he can – a flute of champagne from the room service cart. Another worry to add to the ever growing list because he never drinks in a situation like this – not that he's been in many of them – but as all the rules are being broken, one more won't hurt.


iv.

The champagne calms her nerves and she soon gets them under control enough to make another attempt at conversation.

"What's your name?" she blurts out before she can even process the words tumbling out her throat.

"My…you know my name."

Of course she does. But she's got to press forward now if she wants to save herself from total humiliation. "I mean your real name. Your full name. Arthur what?"

"Oh."

It's his turn to examine his nails. She watches the long fingers trace over themselves and wonders if he's offended. She guesses yes but her inborn curiosity has taken over all else by now and she will kill to keep him here and answer the question.

He coughs and when the words finally come she has to bend close to hear them, but that only makes their meaning all the more terrible.

"I don't know."

The words come in a rush now, like torrential rainfall and it's all she can do to keep up with the pace of his narration. This is something new for her, listening to him pour out his heart and soul into the stillness of a five star Los Angeles hotel room. She's used to all sorts of things from him: warnings not to get involved with Cobb, criticism that her mazes are too simple, her structures too tasteless, advice on Penrose staircases. This is the man who taught her how to cup the world in her hands, how to create reality from pure empty space. This is Arthur, calm, rational and impassive, but never personal. Yet she's here, listening as he tells her of years spent from one country to the next, minutes that felt like days, people who weren't really people, and each time, a different job, a different name, a different being, until all that is left of him is Arthur. Just Arthur. Nothing less and nothing more, all that his fraying memory can give him.

"Does it hurt?" The childish question slips between her lips, borne out of not curiosity this time, but the sharp sting of fear and the duller aching dread in her mind.

"Losing yourself? Not really. It takes you before you know it's there." The bitterness in his voice scares her more than the words. "Not everyone goes through it. If you have relationships that tie you down to reality, to your sense of self, people you love and trust, it becomes easier to keep track of who you are."

"Isn't that what a totem is for?" she asks.

"A totem lets you keep track of reality," he replies, fingering his own. "It doesn't prevent you from losing it."

"What about Cobb and Mal?"

Arthur frowns. It doesn't suit him, all these sudden displays of emotion. She wishes he would either let himself go completely or closet up his thoughts. This indecisive balancing act makes her feel vulnerable, unsure how to act and what to say. She worries that at any minute, he will pack up and leave her to the thoughts that she doesn't want but can't keep out. Or he could shoot her with the revolver that she knows is hidden under his suit jacket.

"Dom and Mal, they…" he trails off and shoves his hands in his pockets. She panics briefly, wondering if he's actually going to send a bullet ripping through her forehead. "They broke the rules. You don't take relationships away from reality. Dreams are strictly professional. Too many emotions in there and you won't be able to tell what's real and what's not. Dreams are reserved for the spectacular things you can't have in the real world."

"I see," she replies slowly, but it's only a half truth. She sees that the architecture of the dreamscape would certainly be impossible in the real world. This is pure logic, a solid fact grounded in the Newtonian (Galilean really) principles of mechanics. The emotions are what confuse her. She's a rational being, always has been. Feelings are most definitely not her forte; wasn't that why she'd chosen to major in architecture in the first place? Yet what bothers her about inception are the inevitable emotions that are seamlessly woven into the business. Eames had said that much – any idea that needed to be planted had to be based on a simple emotional tie: Fischer's relationship with his father.

Spectacular things you can't have in the real world.

But it's one thing to defy science and quite another to forge relationships. It's this thought that haunts her and makes her crave Arthur's company – the guilt that she's helped to delude a man into building a life based on a relationship that's shadowy at best. She's lied and torn apart an inheritance and all for what? A fuller wallet and the chance to play God. Of course, there was Cobb too, but if she's honest with herself, she wasn't thinking of him when she went back to the warehouse.


v.

When he sees the tear that escapes the long fringe of her eyelashes, he's filled with the urge to shoot himself and wake up from the nightmare. Wrestling with the sudden onslaught of suicidal mania, he wonders if he ought to do something, anything, to dam the steady trickle of salty drops pooling into her lap. He wonders too, briefly, when his thought process became so emotional, so irrational, so flowery. But it doesn't matter because suddenly he can feel the weight of her head on his shoulder and he doesn't know how he got where he is, but it doesn't matter because the gradual dampening of his spotless Armani suit is the most blissful sensation he's ever had.

They sit like this for several minutes as Ariadne's tears die away. He knows that he should do something to comfort her, maybe put his arms around her tiny frame, but he's worried that even the smallest fraction of movement will shatter the perfect balance he's stumbled upon through pure luck. Instead, he freezes and waits, praying that that the moment will never end.

When she lifts her head and looks at him, he's sure that his pounding heart is causing a major earthquake in Bremen.

"I'm sorry, she murmurs, warm breath blossoming across his neck. Yes, Bremen's definitely tumbling to the ground, and he suspects that Hannover's going the same way. Maybe even Hamburg.

Somehow or other, his heart manages not to leap right out of his vest when he opens his mouth.

"I know. It's not your fault. After my first job, I – "

He chokes on the words as she moves her head and he catches a whiff of her hair. The scent of honeydew throws him off completely and he's forced to sink into her mahogany curls, all the while berating himself for his atrocious lack of professionalism. But that's what got him here in the first place – his willingness to meticulously strip away every last inch of his business persona for her so that she can feel the four-chambered muscle under his a hundred percent pure cotton shirt and know that every atrium, every ventricle, every valve belongs to her. She'd had him from that first dream, when he'd felt the overflow of her lightning paced thoughts and become desperate to know more, to find the core of her thought stream. He'd planned it all, every dream, every glance, every excuse to watch her, talk to her, kiss her. The truth is that he long ago abandoned his own dream realities so that he could lose himself in hers. And now he has to wait, because he's too much of a gentleman to intrude without her permission.

He receives his answer almost immediately when she closes the gap between their hands on the sheets. Her fingers are small and calloused from constantly gripping a utility knife – the definition of perfection, but still nowhere near the gentle nudge of her nose against his collar.

"There's no way you're real," she mumbles into his jacket. "I'm dreaming. I have to be." Her hand brushes against his leg as she digs into her pocket for her bishop. She takes the totem and places it on the bed between them. Then she taps it with her finger.

The look on her face as the bishop spins in a graceful arc before falling left rips his heart into shreds, but it's nothing compared to the pain in his chest as she flies off the balcony.


vi.

Waking up is her least favourite part. The shock pulls her back into a reality where Arthur is lying beside her on a dilapidated lawn chair in a corner of an unused warehouse. She tears the tube from her arm at the same time he jerks awake. The timer on the case flashes a bright red five minutes.

"Ariadne, wait –" He catches hold of her wrist and she can't get free because he's ten times as strong as she is. But that doesn't mean she can't give him a piece of her mind all the same, which she does. The kick is not as effective as she had hoped, thanks to her diminutive size. Nonetheless, he flinches visibly and the sight gives her a deep, rather sadistic sense of satisfaction that she didn't even know she was capable of.

He always brings out the worst in her.

"Ariadne, please, just listen – "

"To what?" It's nearly a shout and reverberates endlessly off the walls of the empty warehouse. She hates that he can get under her skin, that he can make her raise her voice where not even Cobb's projections of Mal could. "What are you going to do, make up more lies for me to dream?"

"It wasn't a dream," he tells her, and she wants to slap him, hurt him as much as he's hurt her, for being so damn calm. "We can still have it all."

"Dreams are reserved for the spectacular," she quotes and is surprised by how matter-of-fact she sounds now. "Things you can't have in the real world."

Pain flits across his face and settles in his dark eyes. "I didn't mean it that way."

"Didn't mean it? Dreams are strictly professional, Arthur, that's what you said. You don't take relationships away from reality. So when you feel up to it, maybe you can tell me the professional goal behind that dream. Because I sure as hell can't find one."

"There was no goal," he replies. "I lied. I was just trying to explain why Dom and Mal didn't work out. Is it honestly that hard to believe that I can care about you?"

"Yes," she whispers, although it's far from the truth. The truth is that it's impossibly easy to accept that he cares, because it's what she desperately wants to believe.

His face falls flats and he immediately releases his hold on her writs. She takes the chance to leave, not because she wants to, but because it's the only way to maintain a scrap of her dignity.


vii.

The unrelenting drizzle outside matches her mood perfectly, but the cold seeping through her sweater doesn't help. She thinks irrevocably of Arthur's warm suit jacket and the sharp peppermint smell of his skin. And she thinks that, after all, she prefers the reality of damp hair and exhaust fumes to his perfection.

Her dormitory feels cramped after the spacious hotel room. She keeps having to remind herself that it was all a dream, not the truth, no matter how real it might have felt. She rejoices in the fact that her roommates are the Friday night partying type. It means no prying questions or even worse, soft sounds of sympathy, as she buries herself between the spiral-bound covers of her sketch pad, inking in page after page of breathtaking structures that only need a decent contractor backed by a solid budget to become reality. If there's one thing she's learned over the months, it's that dreams are easy to escape when the mind is occupied with calculating the net force acting on a flying buttress during hurricane season.

Unfortunately, Arthur is all too real to ignore and she soon finds that her gothic cathedrals are becoming more and more abstract, the lines ridiculously clean and efficient. It looks more like a boutique for one of his pristine suits than a future Notre Dame. She grits her teeth and flips to a fresh page. A dome: she'll start with that. A perfectly round dome with just a hint of a steeple at the top and golden leaves curling down it flanks. But her hand shakes so badly that curves come out as sharp, uncompromising lines, blurred together by her watery vision.

She counts the drops as they splash onto the thick, creamy paper and smudge together the cathedrals and the skyscrapers into a contorted Rorschach ink blot. A drop for Mal, dead and buried in dreams as well as reality, another for Cobb, still torn between the two. Three for each of his children, forced to live without a father for so long. Two for Fischer, living a lie because of her, although for all she knows, he's happier in denial. The rest are for the cathedrals and the skyscrapers, the ones that will crumble with her heart into dust and sepia tinted memories without ever seeing the light of day.

When the morning light breaks through the bank of rain clouds, she's back at the empty warehouse, bent over a new model. This one has no yawning arches or towering lightning rods. There are only walls and stairs, metres of them spread over the cold cement floor.

The night has made her wiser. In life there are only false leads and dead ends. Art and practicality cannot coexist, so both must go.


viii.

He's surprised to find her already working when he arrives at the warehouse, early as always. The elaborate labyrinth covering the floor tells him that she didn't sleep any more last night than he did. She doesn't look up when he enters, whether because of the headphones clamped over her ears or some ulterior motive, he doesn't know. He walks carefully around the maze and leaves the cup of hot chocolate on her desk. Dark with extra whipped cream and a cinnamon stick. It's a peace offering of sorts, because he knows she'll only ignore him if he tries to talk to her. The fact that she's come back to the place at all comforts him and gives him just the slightest spark of hope.

He drops his briefcase on his desk and flicks his eyes over the computer screen, checking for emails, updates, anything pertaining to their current job. Nothing. He sits down with a sigh and wonders what he ought to do with himself. This is normally not a problem for him; the point man will always find something that needs to be seen to. But he's not the same Arthur that he was before the Fisher job. With Dom gone and Ariadne worming her way into his every thought, his life is a pendulum caught between two realities, neither of which he fancies. He can stay exactly as he is now, the world's best point man (it's not Eames' cockiness rubbing off on him, he tells himself, just an established fact), but there will always be that what if. What if he'd followed the ever growing misgivings in his heart? But if he did follow them, he would never be able to dream or create again, never be able to experience the exhilaration of stealing another man's secrets. That much he's learned from watching Cobb fall into depression. Still, there would be Ariadne…but he can't decide the two.

There's a sharp crash followed by a string of expletives behind him. He turns to see Ariadne hunched over her forearm, from which a profuse amount of blood flows, staining the matte white labyrinth a deep scarlet. And of course, the first thought that floats across his paralysed brain is whether or not the Tide-to-Go in his breast pocket will work with blood on linoleum.

He finally gets his head screwed on the right way around and rips the First Aid kit off the wall. She's reluctant to let him close so he drops the courtesy act and simply grabs her bloody arm. The cut is deep but clean; he thanks whatever fates he still believes in that she was using a sculpting scalpel and not, say, the heavy duty utility knife sitting beside it, which he's pretty sure Yusuf has used to cut open packages of toxic chemicals.

Kneeling on the floor with gauze and blood everywhere, he realizes that they've come to a silent understanding. She isn't pushing him away or kicking him like last night, but she's not inviting his presence either. He's just there, as much a part of the surroundings as the plastic patio furniture scattered everywhere. And while he's certainly glad, he isn't satisfied with mere tolerance, not now that he knows the scent of her breath and the curves of her fingertips. For the first time in months, he's suddenly absolutely positive about what he wants and he knows go to get it. He almost kisses her then and there, but old habits and survival instincts hold him back. He settles on giving her a tentative smile instead, which she doesn't exactly return. But the tiny twitch of her lips is enough to put his mind into overdrive.


ix.

It's nearly sunset when Eames heads home, leaving her alone with Arthur again. She usually tries to avoid this. Even though it's been a month and she can look him straight in the eye now, she prefers not to test her steadily weakening resolve. It doesn't' help at all that he's going out of his way to be sweet and caring. The smiles and brushes of skin are so uncharacteristically Arthur that she constantly has to check the bishop in her pocket, just to make sure. She can't even ask him to stop because that would be admitting that she's noticed.

She suspects that he doesn't really have any work to do, that he's only here because she is. Sure enough, when she switches off her desk lamp and reaches for her bag, he does the same and casually follows her out the door.

"Why are you tailing me?" she finally asks after several minutes of aimlessly wandering down side streets.

"I'm not."

She raises a perfectly arched eyebrow, a trait she's acquired from their forger.

"Well, alright, I am. I want to show you something. A building of sorts. I was wondering if you could incorporate it into the next dream."

"I thought you weren't supposed to build anything real," she points out.

"No, but you can draw from bits and pieces. I think you'll like it."

He has her hooked. She's curious now, wondering what kind of structure could match the complex designs of her dreams. When he hails a cab and gives the driver an address in the suburbs, she doesn't protest, too busy creating images of his phantom building in her mind.

The car pulls up forty-five minutes of awkward silences later in front of a grove of evergreens. She skips ahead while he pays the driver, eagerness overtaking her body. Arthur knows her well, whatever his other (considerable) faults. She knows that if he thinks she'll like it, then she'll fall head over heels in love with it. And it's been a long time since anything grounded firmly in reality has drawn anything but regrets and unattainable dreams from her.

The trees open suddenly into a fresh green lea and the sight makes her stop and catch her breath. There in front of her is the building she's always wanted to design but thought impossible, even outside the confines of physics. The soft curves flow smoothly into razorblade edges that become curves again, all folded together so she can't tell where one starts and the other ends. The curling archways don't feel out of place amongst all the steel and polished granite and the glass cherubs are more angelic than any stone one she's ever seen. There are no gold leaves or domes but the strands of ivy weaving their way along the crystal clear walls are a thousand times more exquisite. This is her dream come to life: art and science fused into a perfect blend of the classic and abstract. She doesn't need her totem to tell her that this is real; nothing in a dream could be quite as spectacular.

When she feels warm arms and peppermint wrap around her, she lets him pull her in. Apologies and explanations aren't necessary. The scars will always be there like the gash running across her arm, something to laugh over when she's old and grey.

You're waiting for a train. A train that will take you somewhere far away.

But she doesn't' need to be taken anywhere. She's right where she belongs. The pendulum is at rest now and no one needs to choose anything because they can have both.

"We won't be like Dom and Mal," he whispers, his breath tickling her ear. "We'll make something new, something different. I promise."

She's not at all worried that he'll keep his promise. Quite apart from Arthurs' zealous enthusiasm for seeing out all his plans, she's seen the the truth. And the truth tells her that they could never become like Cobb and Mal, not even if they tried.

They are not two halves of a whole, made for each other. They are opposites on a collision course, pushing and pulling until both are bent beyond recognition. A square peg and a round hole, impossible to conceive and even harder to try, but once together, nothing can pull them back apart.