Disclaimer: If I was clever enough to come up with Inception, I would have retired by now...probably so I could spend all my time writing not-for-profit fanfiction.

A/N: Saw the movie, fell in love, had to write something, thought I might as well post it because it was getting lonely on my desktop.


Awakening

By the time her luggage appeared on the baggage terminal, Ariadne had redesigned all of LAX, trying to make the aloof building into the sort of place you wouldn't resent staying at after 15 hours in a cramped airplane. The layout around her didn't shift unfortunately—she had to be content with her imagination. There was a small frown on her face that had nothing to do with how exhausted she felt (a week in the head of a distraught businessman was even worse than 15 hours on a plane) as she checked that she had grabbed the right suitcase. Limits had never really been her thing.

A false name was printed on the tag on her bag, of course. Standard procedure Arthur had explained, the same way he explained everything, breaking down the impossible into mundane steps that even a beginner like Ariadne (a brilliant novice, but a novice nonetheless) could easily follow. Now that she had her suitcase all she had to do was remember the name of the hotel she was supposed to go to for the weekend and pretend like her life was perfectly normal.

"Let me buy you lunch."

The voice came out of nowhere, but she was too tired to do much but turn a quizzical glance in Arthur's direction. Hadn't he been the one who told her that they were to all be strangers at the airport? The plan was how she justified Cobb's retreating back despite all the risks she had run for him recently. All she had gotten was a brief nod from Yusef and a broad wink from Eames—and she was certain Eames, at least, would have said something (inappropriate) if it was allowed.

But this was Arthur. Even in the haze of exhaustion that not even her well-earned triumph could pierce through (the celebration could commence after graduation) Ariadne understood that it couldn't be against the rules of the mission if Arthur was doing it. While he seemed to enjoy breaking rules (stealing ideas, stealing kisses), he didn't let anything (not even the loss of gravity) interfere with his careful planned jobs.

A glance around informed her that they were alone for all intents and purposes. Fischer was gone, as was the rest of the team. They were just two more strangers in a crowded airport.

A businessman trying to pick-up a wide-eyed student on his trip out of town—weren't they cliché?

Realizing that she should reply before the smirk on his face grew any larger, Ariadne said, "I can afford to buy myself lunch."

Leaning just a little bit closer (why not? He was the one trying to pick her up) she whispered conspiratorially, "I'm a millionaire."

Now he was the one stepping forward. A ploy to keep himself from being overheard she knew but didn't care. World's longest flight or not, Arthur still looked perfectly pressed (she suspected he had somehow managed to smuggle an iron on board while no one was looking).

"Don't sell yourself short. You're a multimillionaire."

Her socks had a hole in them (they were the lucky ones she had worn every exam period since high school; it had seemed fitting, somehow). The rubber of her sole pressed against the exposed toe. It was hard to believe him even if she had started taking his word as truth lately. When she saw the zeroes in her bank account then (maybe) she'd accept that what they had just done was real, that she hadn't just dreamed up the whole thing.

Fingering the bishop in her pocket, she fell into step beside him. She was starving and he seemed to know where he was going. He always seemed to know.

That was part of what attracted her to the team—their self-assuredness. Even with Cobb falling apart (and his subconscious was literally screaming in her face), he still managed to radiate a mastery of his craft that made her desperate to pick his mind apart. Eames, Yusef and Saito all knew they were damn good at what they did, while Arthur was given the distinction of being professional confidence personified in Ariadne's head. It was hard not to believe she was a brilliant architect when she was around them. Not one of them would have accepted anything short of perfection.

So when they came to the small restaurant just blocks from the airport Ariadne was pleased but in no way surprised to find that while Arthur was a tad over-dressed (when wasn't he, really?) she was not. The entire place seemed made for her, simple and neat despite the deceptive chaos and complications that would distract all but the most discerning patrons. When she asked whether he had been there before or had simply researched ahead, he merely gave her that enigmatic smile and held open the door for her.

When they sat down, she tipped over her bishop. The action was done to develop good habits, not because she was confused (in reality, Arthur was just that good). Cobb had carried his totem because he didn't trust himself; the rest of the team, Ariadne quickly understood, carried them because they didn't trust other people. Like everything about the dreams, it was the details that made a world of difference.

"I bet you know what the specials here are, too."

She suddenly became aware of just how much silence they had indulged in (exhaustion was a conversation-killer). Arthur seemed to realize it too because instead of his standard concise explanation, she got a few sentences out of him.

It was almost like the few other vaguely awkward first dates she had been on even if the man in the suit was nothing like the nervous boys who usually took her out (and she was mostly sure it wasn't a date). They kept to small talk, about the restaurant and the weather, to keep their cover and to give themselves time to recover. The waiter gave them a knowing smile, which they pretended not to notice. Ariadne spent far too long staring at the menu worried about the price and what each dish would say about her. And then the waiter left, she noticed their table was secluded, and they moved swiftly from first date awkwardness to fifth date (at least) familiarity. The chit chat became actually conversation and the responses contained actually information.

Mostly.

Considering she was a genius, Ariadne was ashamed to admit that it took her until desert to realize that while she now knew a whole lot more about Cobb and Eames (would she be able to look the forger in the eye without laughing ever again? Probably not) and Arthur now knew a little too much about her (everything from the name of her first cat to all the notebooks she had gone through as a child trying to design the perfect dollhouse) she still knew next to nothing about him. It made her feel childish, spilling her secrets to a man who guarded his so carefully. Perhaps he liked playing the enigma too well. Or maybe (she had just helped do the impossible and she was feeling generous) Arthur just wasn't any good at sharing.

She knew he liked suits and order, but anyone who spent twenty seconds in his company could have figured that out. His taste in art she had deduced weeks before he admitted it aloud. While knowing his favorite food and just how many countries he had been to was probably more than most people got, it wasn't enough for the always curious architect. At least he finally confirmed he was American born and raised; it wasn't just another illusion.

He was possibly ex-military—she wasn't quite sure about that. His comment was vague enough that he could have been a military brat instead, or maybe he just liked war movies. Or maybe she was just projecting.

She didn't think she was. Someone somewhere had to have spent billions of dollars making Arthur what he was, perfect reflexes and infinite calm. People didn't use weapons as easily as they breathed or just stand there tranquilly as their partner/mentor/friend screamed in their face without a lot of practice. Suspension of disbelief was something she was good at now, but despite all the strange new facts Ariadne had been willing to accept, Arthur's behavior being natural was not one of them.

It wasn't that she minded that he sometimes seemed to be impersonating a robot—she could spot the glimmer of amusement in his eyes, the tug on the corner of his mouth even without trying. But the knowledge of how he became what he was didn't seem to be forthcoming and that just left Ariadne with questions she couldn't answer (she didn't think she would be able to sneak into his memories).

She hated being left unsatisfied.

At least when she told him about her first attempt at building a model of one of her designs, she got to hear him laugh. For a rarely heard sound, it was strong and sure (she would have expected nothing less). She thought he should laugh more often; there were dimples when he smiled that proved once and for all that he was just as flesh and blood as she was.

Over coffee, she explained that she was going to need caffeine pumped intravenously in order to catch up and graduate with all the honors she deserved. Secretly, she was hoping he would provide a neat solution to the problem, but her disappointment was short-lived, distracted by his next question.

"And what do you plan to do after graduation?"

It wasn't just wistful thinking that had her convinced that his question was pointed—if his gaze had been that intense during lunch she would have burned away long ago.

"I don't know." That's what she usually said, trying to keep her options opened because she only wanted the best, she just wasn't sure what that was. But now there was nothing vague about her desires.

Ariadne wanted to create. Forever, if possible.

"You know what I want to do," she said, trying to match his poise.

She was rewarded for her boldness by a rare smile (value increased when scarcity was high, so it was no wonder she valued it so highly). When he smiled, Arthur could have been the boy next door, all open charm and dazzling pearly whites. Appearances were deceiving; no wonder he worked so hard at his.

"I suppose the question then becomes whether you can live your dream or not."

That was certainly the question. The opportunity was at hand, if the way he lingered over the word dream was any indication.

"Arthur," she began, crossing her arms on the table and leaning forward until she was half-hovering over the table in her eagerness, "Is this a date or a job interview?"

The smirk was back and it set her heart thundering because she was sure there wasn't any way she wouldn't like what he had to say next. Her heart went double time when he replied:

"Why can't it be both?"

"A little greedy there, aren't you?" Any minute now she would look away, breaking the strange hold they seemed to have over each other. Soon.

"Well, it was worth a shot."

Despite all her attempts at seeming confident and self-possessed, Ariadne felt her cheeks turn pink at the sudden recollection of a half-forgotten dream. Arthur was too smooth for his (and her) own good.

The waiter broke the spell he had cast over her with his matter-of-fact tone and warm eyes. She didn't dare look up, afraid it would happen again, knowing she couldn't be the easily seduced student if she wanted to get all that she needed from him.

Once the bill had been settled (he paid) she had to ask: "Do you take all your business partners out like this?"

"Eames still hasn't forgiven me for not enjoying our dinner as much as he did."

Laughing, she dared look up again. The atmosphere was more relaxed than before, the tension destroyed. Ariadne sat at the table quite comfortably as Arthur propositioned her in a way that was infinitely better than any steamy encounter could ever be (even if she was still curious to find out if his obsession with details translated to all aspects of his life).

"We should continue working together. I like working with the best and you could be a better architect than even Cobb was."

"Better than Cobb? You'll have to do better than empty flattery."

"Not a better partner," he corrected gently. She tried not to feel offended. Architecture was what she lived for, not stealing (however brilliantly it was done). Still, for someone who had been at the top of her class since first grade, it was hard to hear she was second best. "But maybe you'll prove me wrong."

Arrogance made her think she could. Common sense told her she didn't want to—she wasn't Cobb. She had no desire to navigate the human mind, not when she could create worlds with a single thought.

"Building comes first."

He nodded; it was what he had expected, after all.

"You'll definitely need a partner then, not to mention contacts. And protection," he added reluctantly, seemingly wary of offending her, though she wasn't hurt at hearing that truth, "Until you've learned to defend yourself more thoroughly against the projections. And anyone you may upset in this world."

"Seems like you'd be doing a lot for me."

As much as she liked having him as a teacher, she didn't want to graduate only to find herself stuck as a perpetual student.

"I'm one of the best at what I do." He wasn't bragging. Despite the taunts the came from Eames and the encouragement that came from Yusef, Arthur had glossed over the difficulties of creating a kick in zero gravity. The job was done; the details no longer mattered. For him to state his worth so openly meant he thought it was an indisputable fact. "Clients don't always want to pay for the best," he admitted. "But they have to pay for an architect and a good one, at that. You'd never have a shortage of offers."

"And if we were a packaged deal, neither would you."

She had expected Arthur to find a new partner if Cobb managed to get out even if she hadn't dared hope it would be her. While she didn't doubt him capable of being on his own, spending time researching a new team meticulously took time away from the real mission. Whereas Eames (and Yusef, in a different way) seemed like a lone wolf, ready to work together only until he felt like being on his own again, Arthur struck her a pack animal. He had stuck by Cobb when few would have—familiarity was important to him. Not to mention loyalty. And, of course, you couldn't take point if you worked alone.

"Jobs only come if you know how to get them," he reminded her.

"I could find some," she said, trying to appear just a little less dependent.

"Through who?"

"Professor Miles got me one job; he might be able to get me another."

If his disposition had been different, Arthur might have snorted. As it was he just looked at her in disbelief.

"His type of jobs would be few and far between. Not to mention...your talent would be wasted on legitimate jobs."

Despite all that she had done in the past few weeks (and the last few hours) Ariadne couldn't help but cringe at Arthur's disdain for lawful work.

For all Cobb's attempts to convince her otherwise she had never forgotten her first impression of him—he was a man with a twisted, dangerous mind. It had colored her impression of all the others, but she didn't think that was unfair. Violence and destruction followed them everywhere. Eames had fought a small war in Fischer's subconscious for a whole lot of money, but mostly for the hell of it. For all of Saito's respectability he had insisted on being on the front lines—hell, he had started everything, knowing very well what it all meant. Saito was a billionaire—and a thug. Eames was a thug. Cobb was a thug. Arthur, she understood finally, was a thug in a designer suit.

Penchant for violence or not, he was still too observant.

"There are quasi-legal jobs we could take. Medical experiments that would look the other way at where we learned to do what they needed us to do, for example, or smaller jobs that only hurt the people who bring it on themselves."

"You'd do that?"

"It's too dangerous to have you do jobs you're uncomfortable with. You're subconscious might try and sabotage us." Like Cobb's, but he was careful not to say it. "My job remains essentially the same no matter what—draw off the subconscious long enough to keep the architect alive long enough for one of us to extract what we need."

As long as he got to indulge in terrifying violence, he would be content. Who was she to judge? Wasn't she essentially the same?

"Thank you." Was the chivalry just lip service? Or was she that valuable that he didn't dare risk alienating her just yet? She didn't know. It didn't matter. "But you don't have to do that. As long as we don't really kill anyone I... I'd be fine with whatever you wanted to do."

Legal or not. She wanted the challenge, not the money. If corporate espionage was harder than medical trials, Ariadne didn't even consider it a choice.

"Ariadne..."

His voice reminded her of a father confessor, gently chiding her into spilling her secrets because showing him her soul would feel so damn good. There was a promise, too, when he said her name like that—he would fix everything, if he could. Too bad he couldn't. As much as she hated being the repentant child (especially in front of him, with his damn certainty) she couldn't help it.

Fiddling with her empty coffee cup, she admitted: "I shot Mal."

And killed Fischer, but he didn't count. She could justify pushing him off of a building—she was just saving him from Limbo. When she pushed him to his death all she was thinking about was helping him.

What she had done to Mal haunted her more than killing Fischer, even if he was a human being and Mal (as even Cobb had finally admitted) was just a shade.

The real Mal (the lovely Mal that Ariadne had never known except in Arthur's unexpectedly reverent tone and Cobb's terrifying devotion) was long dead. The woman in Fischer's subconscious was not Mal, was not real expect for how she felt to Cobb. And her death was not real except to Cobb, who had finally let her go—and Ariadne, who had shot her.

Real or not, Ariadne had put a bullet in Mal's body because she had to save Cobb, because she was terrified of being stuck in limbo by herself, because...because she really hated that bitch.

It was terrifyingly easy to shoot someone.

Just like the power of her own mind that was not a fact Ariadne could ever unlearn.

"Maybe you will be a better partner than Cobb was," Arthur said, just as quietly. "You cover for him remarkably well."

His expression was unreadable and Ariadne was left with no idea how much he knew or how much he had guessed. Eames had told everyone what Mal had almost cost them. Had Arthur realized how bad Cobb (and Ariadne) had let it get? Did he blame himself for not seeing what all the signs meant beforehand? She hoped not. She couldn't work with another man with an armed guilt complex.

And she had to keep working with Arthur. Eames and Yusef wouldn't take her on, Saito was out of her league and Cobb was out entirely. By process of elimination Arthur had become the sole gatekeeper to the brilliant new world that Ariadne was certain she had to inhabit.

"Thank you, I think. Anyway, I just wanted you to know I can handle the projections. No matter how dangerous."

That wasn't all she wanted him to know, but he seemed to understand. She needed one more lesson: how did she live with the knowledge of how easy it was to destroy?

"I'm sorry you had to be the one to take down Mal," was all he said. For once he looked unsure—she had more experience than him in this one field, at comforting people. It was nothing, really, but Ariadne found it surprisingly reassuring nonetheless. "It's just the way it is in the dreams. Creation goes hand in hand with destruction."

In order to keep creating, Ariadne was willing to destroy whatever was necessary. That was another truth she could not unlearn.

She used to think she was a good person—not a great human being, but a decent one. She was brilliant, but she never rubbed it in anyone's face. She didn't steal, she paid her rent on time, she even voted despite living in a foreign country. There was nothing exemplary about her moral character, but she was still a decent person.

It was going to take more time to adjust to her new perception of self (a mostly decent thief still made her a crook) than it had to adjust to the shared-dream technology.

But the dreams would help. Playing god in her own dream landscape would make her more comfortable playing god in the minds of others. She would learn to be comfortable looking into the dark recesses on the mind and with pulling the trigger at whoever got in her way. The dreams would make her glorious—and a little less decent.

Nothing was free. There was a price for creation and Ariadne now had no choice but to pay it because she wasn't ever going to give it up.

"I take it we would go fifty-fifty," she said abruptly. Was Arthur's attention to detail just his way of not dwelling on what he has lost?

With some annoyance she remembered she didn't know enough about him to discover if he had lost anything. If they were going to be partners, he needed to work on sharing.

"Yes."

That was too easy.

"Architect's usually get more?"

"Yes, but they usually have more experience defending themselves. Not to mention they tend to get their own clients. We can renegotiate eventually, but for now I'm being more than fair."

So she really was that valuable.

"You won't lose me," she promised. She liked familiarity too.

"You could decide this isn't the career for you or you could find an extractor who suits your working habits better. You could find yourself unable to build. Not to mention there are a number of dangers in this line of work that you may not survive. What we do is dangerous, Ariadne. There can't be any promises."

"Thank you," she said, surprising them both.

"For what?"

"I might wish you'd tell me more, but you always seem to be honest."

"What more do you want to know?"

It was such a loaded question she was shocked the conscientious researcher had asked it.

What did she want to know?

What didn't she want to know?

She wanted to know how high she could build a tower before she broke through the atmosphere. She wanted to know how many bridges across the Atlantic Ocean she could fit along the coasts of four continents. She wanted to know what the Pyramids looked like upside down. She wanted to know how many of Escher's other works she could actualize. She wanted to know if she could play at being god and then be happy on earth. She thought she could, but she was unsure—the uncertainty bothered her most of all, so she needed to find out.

In the back of her mind, she also wanted to find out how long it took to undress a man in a three-piece suit (for scientific reasons, of course, just so she could say she knew that too).

"What are you going to do now?"

It seemed that Arthur was part of her reality now, so she had time to open him up. She would start by asking him easy questions.

"I'm going to walk you to your hotel, then take a taxi to mine. I'll change," she couldn't help smiling at his vanity, "Then I'll hunt down an old...friend of mine and see if there's something for me here. If not, LAX has a lot of flights and I'll see what I can find."

He'd build his own world.

"Meanwhile, I'll be trying to not fail school."

"I'll contact you after graduation."

"If something comes up that you need me for before then..."

Her eagerness embarrassed her. There wasn't any need to make herself sound desperate, even if she was.

"I'll see you soon enough, but you'll be more valuable if there aren't any holes in your education. Besides, you can use the time to prepare."

He was giving her time to make peace with the cost of it, with all the little bits of her integrity that she was going to have to give up. She didn't even consider he might be hoping she'd change her mind—Arthur would know better.

While he was gone living a life she now craved, she would be trying to convince herself that words like decency and right didn't mean what she always thought they did. In the world of her own mind she would redraw the definition of each so that she now stood where she had to be in order to live with herself. Her thought process would defy all known ethics and logic, but Arthur had taught her a lot about paradoxes and perspectives. She would find a way to adapt. Just the thought of a chance of creating convinced her she would succeed.

Too quickly, she knew.

"I guess I'm stuck practicing the old-fashioned way," she complained lightly.

"You'll be doing more than practicing soon enough. Just graduate or Professor Miles will have my head."

There was affection but also some real fear in his voice and Ariadne had an unexpected wave of affection for the old man who made criminals reconsider and the young man who tried to do right by her in the small ways he could.

When he offered her a hand as he stood to leave, she took it, letting him steady her (the flight was long and her feet hurt). For all his smoothness, Arthur had rough hands. She suspected whatever training he had was responsible, but that didn't stop her from enjoying the feel of them. She didn't let go and he made no move to drop her hand, either. It was a small complication, but nothing compared to the other dangers they could face so they didn't shy away.

"I'm really going to get to do...everything," she said, not to him but to herself, as they stood in the sunlight outside of the restaurant. She was a little afraid she would just fly away if she let go of him, buoyed up by her happiness (she was going to be an architect—she was going to be the best damn architect the world had ever seen). "It feels too good to be real. This isn't a dream, is it?"

An elegant eyebrow rose on his face. If his life of crime didn't work out, Ariadne thought, Arthur should pick up an English accent and become a butler.

"Are you really asking me that?"

"Of course not. I just..." The smile on her face made it difficult to articulate the joy bubbling up inside her, the success of the inception job finally hitting her along with all her hopes for the future. "You know?"

Arthur did. It was why she still hadn't released his hand even though she might be ruining the best thing that had ever happened to her before it even began. Thug or not, businessman or not, point man forever, Arthur understood what she meant. Whether you could tell up from down, nothing mattered except doing that one thing you could do better than anyone else in the world.

His fingers squeezed hers gently and the already beloved smile graced his face. Yes, Arthur understood. It was why he leaned closer and—right before his lips touched hers—whispered:

"Then here's to never waking up."