Seventeen is a very difficult age. His grungy t-shirt is dirty, his hair is longer than it should be and he only has one pair of shoes. He doesn't really understand why graduation is so important, especially when no one is there to watch him cross the stage, but he zips up the black gown and dons the tasseled hat and exits his one room apartment.

He gets in his car, but he doesn't stick the key in the ignition. His honor cords lie in a pile on the seat next to him. He tosses the hat next to them and sits in silence for a moment. He buckles his seatbelt and grips the wheel. He doesn't want to walk across the stage, doesn't want to pretend that things are still normal, doesn't want to listen to the forty words he wrote before—he sticks the key in the ignition and turns over the engine before the thought finishes. His senses are immediately assaulted by the heavy metal he used to hate. He can't drive without the noise anymore.

He travels down the road, driving just a little too carefully, trying to not think about it. You can't live in fear, he tries to tell himself. That doesn't stop his hands from shaking as he makes the four mile drive to his high school. He wishes it was close enough to walk, knows that he would have been happier riding his bicycle, but he can imagine his mother scolding him for showing up to graduation all sweaty. He pulls into the parking lot and throws the decorations over his shoulders. The music dies as the keys enter his pocket. He rests his head against the seat and closes his eyes for a brief moment.

This should be one of the happiest days of his life.

Ten minutes later he is lining up. Twenty minutes later he is sitting in his seat, thanking god that he was third in his class so he doesn't have to give a speech. Forty minutes later he is crossing the stage.

"This school has been my home for so long. So long that I can't stand it anymore. I will reach for the moon, and even if I miss I will land among the stars. I hope to see you all there with me."

The words seem so false now. Like they belong to a person who no longer exists. He shakes the principal's hand and tries to ignore the pity in the man's eyes. They hadn't let him change the words after the accident. It was too late, they said, and tragedy shouldn't change your life goals. He returns to his seat and two hundred students and some ridiculous speeches later, his classmates are tossing their caps in the air. He removes his own, but doesn't toss it up. He walks off the field and ignores pomp and circumstance and gets in his car. He turns on the radio, but keeps the car in park.

"Raymond, watch out!"

His mothers scream and bright headlights. The earth shattering crunch as a midsize SUV carrying some drunk driver careened across the center line and into his family's car. Glass shattering, a couple pieces of it scratching into his face. The rip of his shoulder harness tearing into his skin as physics multiplied force and his world crashed in on itself.

The paramedics told him later that it was a miracle he lived. That he was lucky he wasn't crippled. Because the drunks are usually the ones who walk away whole in a head-on collision. One person saved is a miracle.

He had been mad when his father insisted on driving home that night and that argument had saved his life. There was no way they could have dodged in time.

He doesn't think that being uninjured when his entire family died instantly is much of a miracle.

He starts the car and drives away.

***

It has been two years, and there is not a mark left of his tragic last few days of high school on his physical body. Well, aside from a few scars of course, but his face healed nicely and no one would know anything had happened unless they took his shirt off. If he let someone in close enough to take that shirt off, which he never has and (hopes) never will, they would find burn marks from the defibrillators that kept him alive long enough to earn the scar that cuts across his chest. It isn't the only one: he is a patchwork of them under his long sleeve t-shirt.

He studies hard, and parties hard but he never let's anyone see the broken bits. It isn't that he thinks he doesn't deserve love. He just doesn't want to be torn apart after loving anymore. It's a perfectly natural human response to shy away from things that hurt us. Connections always hurt you in the long run, so he just stays away from them.

Knowledge is safe though. The more you know, the more you can build up a fortress and hide away inside. But knowledge is power and power needs money to fuel it and the insurance money is running out fast. College is expensive. Too expensive. He won't be able to fuel his habit much longer.

There is a quiet knock on his apartment door.

The door squeaks a little and the man winces before extending his hand. "Dominic Cobb," he says, "I used to work with your father and I heard you were starting to get into trouble." The blonde man smiles and its reassuring-if a little strained. The man can't be more than ten years older than him, although the suit and tie combo make him sure that any person passing would wonder if Cobb is his father, come him to berate him for poor marks or to deliver this month's allowance in person or maybe just to take him out to dinner.

Two out of three isn't bad.

"Your father never struck me as the type to have a lot of insurance," Cobb says over the top of his scotch, "You having any trouble paying for school?" The conversation is just a little too personal, considering that Arthur had never met the man before, but the man has taken him out to something that isn't top ramen or cafeteria food and didn't even look twice when he pulled out a fake ID to order the beer that sits in front of him. He nods, wondering how much this guy actually knows and how much of this conversation is just a formality. Arthur is beginning to realize that two years of studying every night has turned him into a crap conversationalist. He remembered enjoying talking before: liked to argue what he thought regardless of the fact that everyone thought he was a little boy and that his opinions weren't exactly well formed.

"Well, I have a job for you, if you are interested. It's what your father used to do when he worked for me." This particular turn surprises Arthur, who was never told exactly what his father did for a living. He wasn't sure even his mother knew. He had always chocked it up to his father being a particularly private person, had never thought it strange. Why had he never thought it strange that his father wouldn't answer his questions about the business trips? He has a feeling that this is not a field for the faint hearted. He has this feeling in his gut, that this job offer will come with some serious strings attached.

On the other hand, he knows there is no other option for him. His father always told him that he was too goddamn curious for his own good.

"I'm interested."

"Then how did you get here?"

For a second, Arthur thinks that the man sitting across from him is off his rocker. And then he thinks about it. He doesn't even remember ordering the meal he is eating. Cobb smiles. And then the world turns upside-down. The fork in his hand starts to shrink and the plate of food and the table it rests on vanish without a trace until it is just the two men in their chairs. Sprigs of trees erupt from the pressed oak laminate and grow faster than imaginable: roots spring from the earth to twin around their legs, binding them in place as branches reach down to scratch their faces and constrict their chests until they can't breathe. Arthur fights the boa constrictor branch that crushes his ribs until finally, his eyes close in final defeat.

And then open.

To a hotel suite where there is no tree to kill him.

But then why does his chest ache like it does? And why is he still having trouble forcing air into his lungs? He can feel tears spring to his eyes at the remembered pain that has never really been inflicted.

"Shhh, you're all right." The French woman is leaning over him, smiling. Her hands, hesitant, at last reach down to swipe the tears from his eyes. They hover there uncertainly, wanting to do more but unsure what exactly they were needed for.

***

"He needed to know exactly what he was getting in to, Mal."

"You didn't need to be cruel, Dom! Whatever you did in there-you have to remember that he is still a boy."

It's later. After the dream, the nightmare. Arthur is pretending to sleep in the next room, but he listens to the conversation between the two lovers. He remembers the cool touch of Mal's engagement ring on his cheek from when she wiped away the tears. He couldn't run away from this, what they were offering, so he had fled to the adjoining bedroom. He had showered and changed back into his clothes and then laid down in the bed.

"You need to remember who his father was."

"His father was the best, Dom. But I don't like this. You know how he felt about his son following in his footsteps."

"Well, he's dead now, so he no longer gets a vote. We've been without a point man for too long, and Arthur is perfect. Ray trained him to be perfect. You can't deny that."

Arthur cannot bear to listen anymore. He lifts himself from the bed and enters the front room. He wants in.

***

He and Dom are at the firing range, or rather, a firing range, because the details change every time. Arthur's skill doesn't. The bullets find their targets without fail, no matter how many times he squeezes the trigger.

"If he didn't want me in this line of work than why did he train me to be such a good shot? Why did he make me perfect?"

It's the first time he has ever asked this question, though it has been in the back of his thoughts for months. Cobb thinks about it for a moment: he knows his answer will mean everything.

"He was terrified you would wind up losing track of reality. He was going to wait until you had spent more time outside this world."

Arthur doesn't say anything, just picks up his gun again. He fires ten rounds into the constantly shifting target. He doesn't miss. When he lays down his gun again, Cobb starts again.

"Arthur, this world is addicting, and don't you ever forget that. You can get so lost that you will never wake up. And if you do manage to wake up again after being lost, things won't be the same." From his tone, Arthur knows that his boss is thinking about Mal. Cobb still hasn't told him what happened when they went deep. But he can feel the tension in their house when he stops in for dinner. Can feel it when Mal pats his cheek, looking at the children like they aren't hers. He knows that whatever is happening in that house will come to a head quickly.

***

"Raymond always did look good in a suit," Mal says as she tightens the tie around Arthur's neck, "Like father like son. Although, I miss the boy who ran around in ripped jeans and hideous t-shirts sometimes." She looks at the tie like it is a traitor, like it is proof that something is wrong with her reality.

"Well, I am graduating from college Mal. Can't show up to receive a degree in Converse, now can I?" She smiles, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes.

"No, I guess you can't..."

He gets in his car, and drives to his ceremony. The honor cords are all tangled on the passenger seat.

This one is much longer than the last, though they don't read whatever you wrote beforehand with no idea what tragedies were still in front of you. When he crosses the stage, Dom applauds and wolf-whistles loudly and Phillipa squeals with delight in her pretty yellow dress and baby James looks ready to cry at all the noise and even Mal has a smile that almost fills her face. For a moment, he lets himself imagine that they are his parents, but it doesn't do to dwell in dreams.

The man who shakes his hand doesn't look at him with pity.

He quite likes the way the suit feels under his cap and gown.

***

"Mal is dead, Arthur. She did it. After all the threats, she finally did it."

He can hear the shock in Dom's voice. For a moment, the news settles in. And then he realizes that the closest thing he has had to a mother in five years no longer exists. He closes his eyes, and feels as though he is in the car again. Out of control as the world shatters and warps around him. And then autopilot kicks in and he is back to details.

"Where are you, Dom? I'll come and get you."

"Prague."

Silence. An unasked question hangs in the air. Cobb answers it without prompting.

"They think I did it."

***

They run for years. Or what feels like years. It is definitely more than one. Arthur picks up the slack, because the team that worked so well together no longer exists. Dom won't build, Mal can't extract, and Arthur cleans up the messes that result until even his bones feel tired. At some point, Arthur stops dreaming: a side effect Dom never mentioned. He continues to wear the suits, though. If the world insists on coming apart at the seams, the least he can do is control one portion of it.

They celebrate Arthur's twenty-third birthday with some chocolate mousse cake and a bottle of champagne. In a dream of course, because they are in the middle of a job and can only spare an hour.

They part ways intermittently over the next two years, but never for long. Arthur can never say no to Cobb.

Which brings him to the Cobol job. It is one of the few that has him wondering whether or not if he is going to make it to his next birthday. He prefers the anonymous clients who can't move against them when they fail—not these trumped up mafia hit men who claim to be engineers. After the threats they give when they come out of the chief engineer, he begins to think that Cobb really does have a death wish after all.

Cobb may be the best, but even the best meet their match.

***

They sit in silence on the plane.

After Saito.

After inception lands in their laps and Cobb grabs onto it like a drowning man.

After he says it can be done.

Arthur makes a promise to himself that if he survives this next job, he will never work for Cobb again.

But just like that first day, when the tree ripped the very breath from his lungs, he knows that he can't turn his back on it.

***

When Ariadne cries out, he is there, waiting for it. She doesn't cry like he did, but the shock—the fear—is evident in the way she gasps for air. To this day, he doesn't understand why Cobb feels the need to make the first dream so violent. They have a moment before Cobb joins them, and he makes full use of it. Her hand grips his violently tight. He only has to look in her eyes to see that history is about to repeat itself. Whatever happened in there, it isn't going to stop her from going in again.

He almost feels sorry for her.

She doesn't know any of the consequences.

At the same time, he is glad she will be able to experience this.

"Does it always hurt like that?" she asks finally, her brown eyes full of turmoil.

"Every time."

"It's worth the pain, isn't it?"

"That, you'll have to decide for yourself."

Then Cobb wakes up and takes her back in.

Arthur can't help but look at her; the architect who was strong enough to leave.

Strong enough to come back.

He likes that she storms off after the pain. It makes him feel like less of a child for the way he reacted the first time. He likes that she comes back meek, as if she is ready to beg if it means that she can dream again. He loves it when she calls it pure creation. Because even though that is what it boils down to, it means her motives are just as impure as his were.

Deep down, she wants to play God too.

He has coffee ready for her the next day, when she begins to design in the real world, exactly how she likes it.

"How did you know I take it black with two sugars," she asks, wary of him. He notes how, despite the sensitivity in her voice, she doesn't sound like she will dislike any answer he gives. He wonders if he was that easily manipulated after he got a taste of dreaming.

"My job is in the details, and that happens to be one of the few I picked up. Can't just let anyone in on something like this without a little research: it would be unprofessional."

The next morning, his own unsweetened black tea is sitting neatly in the center of his desk, steam rising gently from the glass mug. The architect smiles broadly at him from her workstation, where boards have already begun to turn into skyscrapers, before turning back to the first level. He raises his glass to her and tries to remind himself that she is only nineteen. Getting distracted like that, with someone who deals in dreams, is dangerous.

Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—the body doesn't always listen to what the mind tells it.

He is a little bit worried as she presses him up against the elevator wall on the way up to his hotel suite, her hands snaking around his neck. Even before he had been in the accident, he hadn't exactly been experienced. He hopes that he can make up for it with her.

After, when their clothes are mingling on the floor and her hands trace his scars, he thinks about what he is going to tell Cobb.

"How did you get this one?" she asks, her quiet voice full of concern. He feels her tiny hand run along the ridge that runs from his left shoulder to his right ribs.

"Car accident."

Her hand runs across the scars where the paramedics shocked him back to life. She no doubt imagines how the paddles kick started his dying heart. Slowly, he drifts off to sleep, her fingers making concentric circles across his chest, her perfume overwhelming his senses.

When he wakes, she is in one of his shirts, making coffee and tea and humming softly to herself. He can't help but notice how incredibly lovely she is.

Cobb is going to kill him.

"It isn't like I can stop you, Arthur." Just be careful. The warning hangs in the air between them, and he nods as though he has heard it.

Ariadne is anxious as she boards the plane to Sydney. He wishes he could comfort her, ask her why she can't seem to look Cobb, or him for that matter, in the eye. He wonders about the change in plans, but it is too late. For the next two days, they are strangers.

He "meets" her in the airport bar after he has collected his baggage.

After a week of hide and seek where they do much more hiding than seeking.

After inception.

They make a big show of hitting it off before they slip off to his hotel room, where she tells him that Cobb's problems were much bigger than he ever let on. Where she tells him that she didn't want to distract him when their safety was in his hands—hands that were more capable without the knowledge of Mal in her prison of memories. How she hated lying to him about it. She is almost in tears as she tells him, which frightens him more than he can say. Ariadne hasn't ever cried.

He wipes away the tears, gently. The way Mal did when he woke up from his first dream so long ago. She buries her head in the crook of his neck and they sit in silence for a while, his shirt slowly filling with her tears. She falls asleep in his arms, and he falls asleep in hers.

She goes back to school and he stays in Paris. He doesn't take on any more jobs, though he knows that any job will be easy after Fischer.

One night she tells him what happened to her in the basement level of Cobb's mind. Tells him that she knows what it is like to be a lover, a half of a whole. Tells him that he is her everything.

And he is terrified.

More terrified than when she cried in his arms.

More terrified than when he took her to his hotel room the first time.

More terrified than when the car crossed the center line and destroyed everything.

Because people who love him always seem to be taken away from him.

And he can't bear to think of her hurt.

The next morning he gets on a plane, telling her that he has a job. She wants to come, but he manages to convince her that studying for finals is more important than lining the coffers.

And then he drops off the map.

He checks in on her often, and she is never far from his thoughts, but he never makes direct contact. He buries himself in his work, and lives empty. His heart is empty. Or rather, it is missing the other half of itself. Because he had the exact same conversation with Mal, years ago when he still thought he knew everything. Before she went deep and became lost.

He too knows what it is like to be half of a whole.

He meets her in dreams, but she is never right. He can't recreate her.

She is waiting for him to come back, because there really is no point in looking for something else. She lets herself into her apartment day in and day out, working to finish her degree. She can feel it when he has been through, checking up on her. She doubts that he leaves the clues consciously, but she notices when he leaves her sketchbook open to the wrong page or something small like that. She is tempted to leave a letter laying out for him sometimes, but she always chickens out at the last second. She never even puts pen to paper.

She doesn't change the locks.

Two years together after the job. One month apart.

Two months apart.

Two and a half months apart.

And then one night, he can't bare it anymore.

She opens the door to her apartment to see him asleep on her sofa. Her heart breaks a little when she sees him curled up like a child. His jacket has been discarded on the dining table and his shoes are neatly displayed next to him. She sits down, strokes his cheek. His head turns so that it is cupped in her hand. His eyes open slowly.

"I don't think I deserve it: being whole. And I am terrified that someday God will realize his mistake and take you away. And I couldn't…" he trails off. He can't even think it.

"I love you, too," she smiles.

"Can I stay?"

She lowers her lips to his.