I do not own any aspect of Inception. ~M.
It's been four months and Ariadne still feels jetlagged. She's supposed to be one term away from graduation, but she can't seem to force her grades stop dropping, and she can't seem to force her mind to care. She sits in class, in cafes, in her dingy box of an apartment and tries to focus on the names and structures of the greatest minds in her field, but she's realizing that the unyielding parameters of reality are closing in on her, and she's not sure she'll ever be able to create anything of value within them again.
She hasn't seen anyone from the team since Arthur appeared at the door of the hotel room he had reserved for her first evening in Los Angeles. She had been a dead man walking all that afternoon—plane to terminal, to baggage claim, to taxi, to hotel so extravagant she was scared her shoes would scuff the tile. Her lips had smiled and her voice had murmured and her fingers had handed over a credit card with a fake name, while her mind beat out a mantra of what happened? What's next? What happened? What's next? What happened?
She'd barely had time to drop her duffel and tip her bishop over on the nightstand before she heard the knock on the door. Her hands had shaken as she re-pocketed the chess piece and peered through the peephole. It had surprised her, not because she hadn't expected them to check up on her, but because she hadn't seen him at all since customs. She thought she was better at knowing when she was being followed.
She'd invited Arthur in and he'd sat in the chair opposite her bed and rolled through a series of questions—was she alright? Did she want to talk through any of it? Did she have any plans now that she'd made nearly enough money to retire?
Yes she was alright, the autopilot side of her had answered. No she didn't want to talk through any of it. Yes, her plans were to book a flight back to Paris and finish her schooling.
He'd given her a small, consolatory smile that didn't crinkle the corners of his eyes as he'd reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a boarding pass with her name on it.
"It was an absolute pleasure working with you," he had said at her door, his fingers brushing over the back of her hand. "If you have any trouble readapting, please give me a call."
She's reached for her phone so many times since then. First when she got back to school and discovered that Professor Miles had resigned from his position to "Spend more time with his family," then when dreams of the inception sent her reaching for her bishop, then when the dreams wouldn't stop. She's never been one to have repeat dreams, never been one to revisit the same location or reenact the same plot, but ever since she landed back on French soil all her dreams were tainted with the shooting in the downtown streets, the kiss in the hotel, the snow on the mountain, the weight of Fischer's body hoisted on the porch edge over and over and over until she can't help but wonder if the doubt that Dom had planted in Moll's mind has somehow taken root in her own.
She's not quite sure what keeps her from calling. She's not quite sure what it is that poises her thumb over the glowing green 'Send' button and won't allow her to press down. Maybe it's the fear of weakness. After all, none of the others had looked haunted after awakening in the plane cabin. In her hotel room Arthur had appeared, at best, slightly tired and, at worst, altogether nonchalant. It had been a job. An emotional rollercoaster, perhaps, but a job nonetheless. He knew it, the others knew it, and she would be damned if she couldn't at least throw up the pretense that she knew it as well.
Maybe it's fear that Arthur will want her help hacking another mind.
Maybe it's fear that he won't.
She rubs the heels of her palms against her eye sockets and looks down at her computer screen. Her essay on the Design Methodology Movement—twenty to twenty-five pages, due tomorrow—is all of two hundred words long and she's running out of things to say. The library's too loud and her chair is too uncomfortable and the view from the window is too uninspiring to make this into anything other than a truly hellish afternoon.
And then a man sits down across the table from her.
The tables are small, square, two-chaired, and there are at least half a dozen vacant ones within thirty steps of Ariadne's seat, so she can't help but wonder what the hell he's doing at hers. He appears without books, or a bag, or any evidence that he is here for any purpose other than to multiply the agony of her essay writing. His hair is oily, his khakis are wrinkled, and his dress shirt looks faded and thin. He's got the sunken eyes and the nervous jitter of a meth addict, and she begins to wonder if she should call campus security and get him escorted out.
Somewhere in her thought process she makes the mistake of making eye contact with him, and he leans forward far enough that she can smell how long it's been since his last shower.
"Hello," he says.
She looks pointedly at her computer screen and hopes he's lucid enough to take the hint.
"You an architecture major?" he asks, twisting his head to read the spines of the book mountain she's built beside her computer.
She channels Gandhi and the Dalai Lama and her high school yoga teacher.
"Ever designed anything really crazy?"
Yes, she thinks to herself. You wouldn't even be able to wrap your mind around the things I've created.
She glances down to where her messenger bag is slouched against a foot of her chair. She's kept drawings of all of it—every dream level, every maze, every Penrose step. She keeps them with her to keep her sane, to remind her that she was the architect, the creator. She keeps them with her because they help smother the doubts that maybe she is on the wrong side of the looking glass.
When she looks up she sees that his eyes have followed hers over the edge of the table and down to her bag. She kicks it under her seat and works her foot through the shoulder strap for extra security.
He licks his lips.
Her cell phone is wedged in between the pile of books and her keyboard, but she's never bothered to add the campus security number to her contacts list. Slowly, so he doesn't startle and do something crazy, she clicks the icon for her web browser and types the university's URL into the address bar.
Something flashes in the corner of her eye, and she looks up as his body darts forward and the knife in his hand whips towards her throat.
The crack of his chair hitting the floor is closely followed by the sound of hers. Both are muffled by her scream and by the blood pounding in her ears.
She scrambles away from him, in between the maze of tables and chairs and confused looking university students who are trying to piece together the mystery of the young woman scrambling over their laps.
Her neck cranes to see why no one else is screaming and running. She can't see him anywhere. She panics in the moment before she finally spots him back by her table. He's got her bag in his hands, and as he empties the collection of her doodles, sketches, and notes onto the tabletop and pours over them, she begins to wonder just what the hell is going on.
She opens her eyes.
The sun's down and the street lights are bright and cheery on the other side of the window glass. She looks around the room to find that she's the last patron left in this corner of the library and that, impressively, no one stole her laptop while she was asleep. She reaches across the table for her water bottle to try to clear some of the fog from her tired mind as her cell phone vibrates. She realizes that's probably what woke her up in the first place.
She picks up the phone, ready to pile thanks on whoever just saved her from her accidental naptime. The hairs on the back of her neck prickle as she sees Arthur's name on the screen.
"Where are you?"
He takes a deep breath. She can almost feel the tug of it through the receiver. "I'm standing outside your apartment and you aren't here. I need you to tell me where you are."
"I'm at the university's library. What's going on?"
"The library," she hears him repeat to someone else before his voice becomes clear again. "Which floor and where?"
"Third floor, west side, where all the study tables are. Arthur, why are you at my apartment? What's happening?"
"Listen, I will explain everything when there is time for it, but for now I need you to stay exactly where you are until we come and get you, understand? We'll be there in seven minutes."
"Six," says a muffled voice that sounds like Eames'.
"Six," Arthur repeats. "Are you alone?"
"Yes?" she says, mind swimming. "I'm the only person in the room, anyway."
"Good. Stay where you are, we'll be there soon."
The line clicks dead and she feels sick and shaky. She can't get her bishop out of her pocket fast enough. She sets it on the table and tips it over and watches as it lands just the way she modified it to.
She picks it back up, begins to slide it back into her pocket, and almost loses her lunch all over her lap.
On her right arm, over the translucent skin above her wrist, sits the tiny red welt of a fresh needle prick.