Disclaimer: I don't own Inception but I have borrowed some lines from the movie. Main title comes from lyrics in Ellie Goulding's song: I'll Hold My Breath.

Chapter17 rating: PG; Author's Greeting rating: PG-13 (language)

Author's Greeting: Well, hello! It's been a while, hasn't it? I wish I could tell you I've been busy off gallivanting around the world and hob-nobbing with interesting people which is why I haven't updated this fic, but I can't. I live in the real world, where real life can get kind of shitty. On the upside, recent pop-cultural events and my willingness to procrastinate on the important things have spurred me to write chapter 18 of this fic, thereby allowing me to publish this chapter.

I'll let you guess what current events happening now have led to me actually completing a chapter I'd been working on for half a year; hint: Think jgl. Also, the next chapter involves sex.


Chapter 17: Some Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Holed up in the sunken van with their oxygen running low, Arthur checks a still sleeping Saito for a pulse. As he expected from the still non-responsive tourist, he doesn't find one. The growing blood-stain on his shirt doesn't leave Arthur with much hope, so he leaves him and makes his way back to Ariadne and one of the oxygen tanks she, Yusuf, and he have been sharing.

They've been submerged under water for nearly thirty minutes, just enough time for Fischer and Browning, or rather Fischer and Eames, to leave the shore before the rest of them make their appearance. After checking the tank regulators again he signals to both Ariadne and Yusuf that they should make their way up to the surface. Ariadne takes one last breath from one of the oxygen tanks before handing the mouthpiece over to him. After taking his own hit off the nearly depleted tank he gestures for Ariadne to make her way up to the surface. Before she does, she grabs at his arm to follow.

But Arthur can't leave just yet. He reaches over to check Cobb's pulse again. He and Saito were the only two who didn't wake up from the synchronized kicks; but unlike Saito, Cobb still has a pulse. Arthur shakes him, trying futilely to get a response, but it's no use. He's still too heavily sedated.

Meanwhile, Ariadne, who hasn't left for the surface yet, tugs even harder at his arm. Finally giving up, he vents his fears in a frustrated growl and swims out of the van after her.

The swim to the top is arduous for everyone. Their clothes and boots weigh them down, making it that much harder to swim up the several yards that they're under. The extra effort also reduces the air supply in their lungs faster. But eventually, after several long moments of hard swimming they finally break through the surface of the water, each inhaling big gulps of the chilled air as they keep themselves afloat. Rain continues to come down, but not as heavy as before.

As tired and miserable as they're all feeling, Arthur knows there's still a bit of swimming left and encourages them to make their way to one of the riverbanks. When they reach the rocky embankment, Fischer and Eames, as expected, are nowhere to be seen.

On weary limbs, they each make their way out of the water. Yusuf makes his way up to higher ground while Ariadne plops herself down on one of the big rocks right on the water's edge and tries to catch her breath.

"What happened?" Arthur asks as soon as he gets himself out of the river. It's the question that's been foremost on his mind ever since finding his friend still asleep.

"Cobb stayed."

Cobb stayed? Damn, there can only be one reason why he stayed.

"With Mal?"

"No. To find Saito."

Saito. Cobb went down to Limbo for Saito.

It makes sense that he would try to find him. If their client doesn't wake then Cobb doesn't go home. But staying also puts Cobb at risk of not finding his way back. And if Mal finds him…

Arthur turns to the spot in the water where he knows the van to be—where Cobb is, and voices his fear. "He'll be lost."

"No. He'll be alright." The calm and certainty in Ariadne's voice takes him by surprise. She's looking out into the water, to the spot he had been watching only a couple seconds ago. There's a quiet confidence in her expression that tells him she's not worried. It makes him turn back to the water to see if he can feel that confidence too.

"And yet another reason to never go out into the field."

Behind them, a soggy Yusuf is shaking out his wet hair and wringing out his vest. "So what do we do now? We still have another seven and a half days here."

Arthur grits his teeth, suppressing his annoyance at the chemist. They did have some time to wait out on this level. They wouldn't have had, however, if Yusuf didn't let Cobb tamper with the Somnacin. But arguing that point wouldn't do them any good or change the fact that they're stuck in this wet metropolis. Besides, he was as much to blame for their current predicament as anyone.

"There's not much we can do except wait it out as unobtrusively as we can."

"What does that mean?" Ariadne asks.

"It means we need to lay low and avoid being noticed by Fischer's subconscious. Don't do anything that may arouse his suspicions or alert his security. We don't change the layout of the dream, we don't do anything out of the ordinary for this scenario, and we don't bring in our own subconscious."

"So in other words, go about as if we're spending time in a rain drenched city." Yusuf doesn't look too thrilled at the prospect and Arthur doesn't blame him. Time does go by faster in dreams, but even in dream time a week is a long time to wait.

"Pretty much."

"What about Eames and Fischer?" Ariadne asks. "Does Eames have to keep up his Browning forge this whole time?"

"Maybe. Fischer's supposed to believe he's in the real world now. Unless his subconscious starts projecting Browning on its own, Eames needs to be at his disposal as Browning." Arthur rises from his seat on the rock. "We need to get out of here. Fischer's security may still be lingering nearby." He reaches down to help Ariadne up.

"Where are we going?" she asks.

"Did you build anything on the outskirts of the maze that we can use to hide out in? Something nondescript?"

Yusuf contemplates Arthur's question for a moment before nodding. "Yeah. We can go to YSF pharmaceuticals. I constructed it as a homage to my vanity, but it should do the job."

"Won't there be projections in there?"

"There shouldn't be," Arthur answers Ariadne's question. "We'll be far away from the maze center, where Fischer should be now. His subconscious will populate those areas of the maze closest to him first. He doesn't know the limits of the dream yet. The far edges of the maze should still be empty."

"It's only when a dreamer spends a long time in a dream that he can populate the entire maze, or the whole dream," Yusuf adds. "A dreamer who knows he's dreaming and knows its boundaries can do it much quicker."

"Show us the way, Yusuf." Arthur, not feeling comfortable with being exposed in the open, urges the others to get moving.

The three team members quietly trudge their way through the city-maze, forgoing transportation and avoiding interactions with the projections. Arthur keeps an eye out for any lingering hostile ones, but luckily for them Fischer's subconscious seems to be entrenched in the dream's reality.

After a couple of hours of walking in the rain, everyone is relieved to finally find the plain little building housing YSF pharmaceuticals. Picking up a large rock from a nearby landscaped flower bed, Yusuf opens it to reveal a hidden keycard.

"Hide-a-key. Very clever."

"Well, I guess I figured if I'm going to make the effort to imagine this place I might as well make sure I'd be able to get in." Yusuf grins at Ariadne as he swipes the key through a reader. The doors to the building unlock and he holds them open for Arthur and Ariadne to enter. An empty reception desk greets them, behind which are a set of elevators.

"There are only three floors," Yusuf comments as he presses the button to call the elevator. "The first and second contain offices and employee common areas while the top floor is all laboratory space."

A short ride on the elevator takes them to the second floor where Yusuf leads them to an employee lounge.

"We'll probably be most comfortable here."

"You weren't kidding about this place being nondescript," Ariadne comments, examining Yusuf's decor. The lounge, like the building, is purely functional. There are a couple of couches placed in the center of the room along with a couple of tables with chairs. Other than that, there's an open doorway at one end of the room that leads to a little kitchenette. "I have to say, as an homage to your vanity, this place is a little…lacking."

Yusuf shrugs. "I'm a facilitator, not an architect. I design chemicals, not buildings. That's what you're for. But the laboratories upstairs should be outfitted with the latest and greatest technology."

"A high tech, state of the art facility in the middle of nowhere might tip Fischer off." Arthur interjects. "We're fortunate you kept the building simple." He checks out the view from the windows and finds that they face out to the front of the building. From there he can see the comings and goings on the street below, which at the moment is completely devoid of any projections. The nearby buildings also look unoccupied, much to his relief.

"I'm going to check the perimeter of the building. I'll need your keycard." Despite those assurances that they're not being watched, the point man in him won't let him rest until he's checked out the rest of their surroundings.

"Do you want us to come with you?"

"No, I'll be fine. Stay here and dry off. I'll be back shortly."

Arthur takes the card Yusuf hands over and leaves quickly, missing Ariadne's concerned look.

Heading back out through the front entrance he takes quick surveillance of their surroundings, trying to remember what buildings and areas to check when he goes back inside and does the same thing from the vantage point of different windows inside the building. It's getting dark and he wants to familiarize himself with their location so he can plan an exit strategy. They're not quite out of the woods yet despite the lack of militarized projections in this level and it wouldn't hurt to be cautious.

He wanders around for a bit, trying to concentrate on a way out should they be ambushed, but in truth, planning their exit strategy is just a ruse for some time alone to think about what to do should Cobb and Saito remain down in Limbo before time is up. That's the real concern. There's just no telling when or if Cobb and Saito will wake before landing in Los Angeles, and it never occurred to any of them that they'd need a contingency plan should someone not make it out of the dream.

"Damn it! What the hell was he thinking?" Arthur runs a frustrated hand over his hair, his lack of control over Cobb's situation giving way to the anger he had to suppress earlier after finding out what Cobb had done. It was either that or let himself be overwhelmed by anxiety over his friend. His anger is much easier to confront.

This is the first time Cobb has pulled a stunt this selfish and dangerous during a job and Arthur is at a loss for what to do aside from chasing after Cobb down in Limbo—a place he himself has never been. He knows about it, of course, from Cobb and other extractors, but he's never been curious enough—or foolish, depending on one's point of view—to experience it himself. He likes to think it's one of the advantages of his pragmatic nature; he's always been too grounded to get caught up in a world that's not real. But if Cobb and Saito get lost down there, then he may have no choice.

That thought sits like a heavy stone in the pit of his stomach.

If only Cobb had told him what he was planning. But even as he thinks it, Arthur knows that learning about the sedation ahead of time was never an option. Cobb knows him well enough than to think that he would ever go along with something that put them in so much danger.

And as for Cobb, Arthur can only surmise that tampering with the dreams was an act of desperation on his part, a last Hail Mary attempt to win back his life. The very fact that he was willing to put the teams' lives in jeopardy speaks volumes about the man his friend has become. The Cobb now wandering through the depths of his own subconscious is a far cry from the man Arthur had known…when Mal was still alive.

Her death changed everything.

A sadness that sometimes accompanies Arthur's thoughts of Mal suddenly hangs over him and he releases a deep exhalation of breath. He watches it dissipate in the damp air, like the memories he's forcing himself to stop. When he finally gets a hold of himself, he feels the chill of twilight settle in his bones and begin to numb his extremities. It forces him back inside the building where he tries to re-concentrate his efforts back to the rest of his surveillance.

But the looming darkness makes it difficult and the persistence of memory is too strong. Instead, he gives up on his task and enters one of the offices. The buzz of the hallway florescent lights can be heard inside the room but he doesn't switch on the office lights. Some memories are better met in the dark.

In the relative quiet of the office, the scene before him as he stares out the window isn't of the rain outside making the streets and buildings glitter under the city lights. It's of a backyard lawn in need of a trim out in the idyllic Southern California hills. After a moment, two blonde children run out into the late afternoon sunshine armed with new toys; his senses are assaulted by the sounds and smells of dinner being prepared behind him. The house he's imagined has always given off an air of warmth and comfort; it's a home built by love and family.

But on this particular day and in this particular memory, as it always does when he thinks back to it, something strikes him as off. He remembers Cobb greeting him with a little more enthusiasm than usual, while Mal, instead of hugging him and chastising him for the amount of time that has passed since his last visit, merely smiles and accepts his kiss on her cheek.

Later, dinner would be an awkward affair. The stiltedness of the adult conversation due to the apparent aloofness of one and the carefully pent up frustrations of the other could not even be averted by the children's natural curiosity regarding their uncle's whereabouts.

It was only after Mal put the children to bed that Cobb confessed his and Mal's foray into Limbo.

"Do you know what a point man who fails to maintain his vigilance is called?"

The teasing voice is as soft and familiar as the hint of lavender that fills the air.

A quiet curse leaves his lips as he closes his eyes; all but one of the images from his past disappears.

"Ineffective." He hears his projection slip into the office, drawing closer. "But I suspect troubled thoughts weigh heavy in your mind." She's by his side now, but he doesn't turn towards her. "It's part of the reason why you aren't focusing."

She's right. Focus. Controlling the dream—suppressing one's subconscious—is all about focus.

With eyes still closed, he clutches his fists in his pockets. One hand grips his totem.

"But I think we can let this lapse slide since your laxity is obviously due to you missing me terribly."

Her teasing words break through whatever concentration he had managed and his eyes snap open.

Mal gifts him with the sweetest of smiles and suddenly he's unprepared for the wealth of emotions that her presence elicits.

Standing next to him isn't a cold, ruthless projection wreaking havoc in Dom's wake, or even the reserved and distant woman from their last real-life encounter, but a younger, much happier Mal from Arthur's past. She's the same woman who smoked cigarettes, wore her hair long, and built paradoxes with him. She's the old friend who teased him about his serious nature and who spent countless hours teaching him to manipulate and disguise boundaries. This is the Mal who comforted him when he took his first dream bullet in the head.

"You don't have to say it. I know you, Arthur."

He swallows, conflicted between temptation and reason.

She did know him. At least, this Mal did. He doesn't need to worry she'll shoot him in his kneecap. His Mal won't turn into something strange and twisted. She comes from the place inside him where Mal was Mal, his friend and confidante.

"You're worried." She reaches up to soothe the frown wrinkling his forehead. "You know you can tell me anything."

It's both stupid and selfish to have her here and he's aware that he's deliberating disobeying his own warning to not bring his subconscious into the dream.

"Come, talk to me."

But when he looks at her—at his Mal—he can't seem to find his self-control. It's almost comforting to see her again and to hear her voice. He wonders if this is how Cobb feels every time she appears in a dream.

"You know you want to. What's stopping you?"

Shaking his head, he tells himself that he doesn't want to know what it feels like or get used to seeing Mal in his dreams. He needs to suppress her and make her disappear. As an experienced dreamer he knows how to do it.

"What's bothering you?" The look of concern in her eyes appears genuine.

"I'm afraid."

Temptation prevails. This situation—this dream—has been far from routine. Rules have already been broken. What's one more?

"Dom's down in Limbo. He's probably lost and I'm not sure…I'm not sure if he'll come back. I'm not sure I can bring him back." The words he had been afraid to voice out loud spill out in a rush. Once spoken they become real and he doesn't like the way they make him feel so helpless.

"What makes you think he won't come back?"

He looks at her then, this Mal from a different time. "The odds are against him."

"How are they against him?"

Because Limbo, that raw, infinite subconscious, is a state of mind with the capability to change you and who you are. Dom once told him this after he and Mal spent time there in an experiment.

And he appeared to be right. Hadn't Arthur seen the proof? Wasn't Mal out of sorts after their experiment? Isn't this Dom different from who he once was?

"He has you to watch his back, doesn't he? He trusts you, Arthur." Mal continues, taking his hand in both of hers. "I trust you."

Arthur looks at her then, this Mal who doesn't know what Dom's capable of anymore. His Mal is from a simpler time. This Mal never experienced Limbo with her husband.

"And don't you have a whole team of extractors working with you? You're not alone."

She's right, he isn't alone. If worst came to worst, he had Eames, Yusuf, and Ariadne to help him.

He frowns. Somehow, that thought is not as reassuring as it should be.

As usual, Mal sees right through him.

"Eames may annoy you to no end, but you know he's good at what he does. He's also a very good extractor. Between the two of you, I believe you can come up with a solution if the 'odds' don't turn in Dom's favor."

Arthur knows this to be true, but their situation with Fischer may not allow them the opportunity to figure out how to get Dom out of Limbo. As for Yusuf, he's not sure that he can rely on the chemist to be of any help. His hand in Dom's deception still rings soundly given that they're still in this mess.

That leaves Ariadne.

"Who is she?"


Mal laughs, a hollow sound. "Why did Dom chose her?"

The question throws him off for a moment. "Because she's a talented architect. Your father recommended her."

From outside the office he hears someone call out his name.

"I'm sure she is. Papa has a way of attracting the brightest. But is that the only reason?" Mal starts to edge away from him, moving closer to a darkened corner. "Don't worry so much, Arthur." She is in shadows now and he can barely make out her face. "He'll be alright."

He'll be alright. He's heard that once before.

"How do you know that?"

He hears his name called again, louder and closer this time.

"I'm not the one you should be asking." She's slipping further into the corner, barely visible.

"Wait!" He takes quick steps to reach the corner and extends his hand to find hers. "I have missed you."

He can hear her smile. "I know, but I have to go now."

He nods even though he knows she can't see him.

On a deep breath he shuts his eyes and exhales a calming breath. His mind is focused as Ariadne appears in the doorway of the office.


He opens his eyes in continued darkness.

"Arthur, what's going on? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." He turns to see her in the halo of light filtering in from the hallway and makes his way to the light switch. He flips it on to bathe them both in the soft glow of the office's lamplight.

She's dried off now from their earlier trek in the rain and she's removed her jacket. With the light on he watches her examine the room before facing him. Doubt shows on her face as she searches his.

"Why were you standing here in the dark? I thought…I thought I heard voices."

It occurs to him that he can deny it—lie to her, tell her she is mistaken—but he doesn't.

"I was talking to Mal."

She's taken aback. "Mal? But I thought—"

"My Mal."

"Oh." She avoids his eyes by focusing on the collar of his shirt. "Your Mal." After a few moments she finally looks up and coolly replies, "You broke the rules."

"I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done it."

She nods, and then asks, "Why did you?"

"Because I missed her."

She doesn't say anything but her eyes give her away just as they did the last time they had spoken of Mal. He knows she's wondering if what he'd told her before about their platonic relationship is true.

"She was my friend," he tells her. "I made a promise to her that I'd always look out for Cobb. I'm…having doubts about whether I've lived up to that promise and I guess I thought that maybe, if I saw her—talked to her," he shrugs, "she'd tell me not to worry. Ease my guilt, as it were."

"And did that work?" she asks, skeptical over his logic, as she should be.

"Not in the way I thought it would."

Ariadne waits expectantly.

"She did tell me not to worry. But I was wrong. Hearing it from her didn't help, but she helped me to understand why. What I really need is to hear it from you."

"From me?"

"Yes. Mal wasn't the right person to talk to. She can't tell me what happened down below with Cobb. She can't assuage my fears regarding him making it back safe and sound. Only you can do that."

"You're still concerned that Cobb won't make it out, then?"

He nods. "You told me that he'll be alright. I need you to tell me how you know that. I need to know how you can you be so sure."

"Because he told me he would."

He's about to argue that that isn't a good enough reason, that Cobb's word can't be trusted anymore, but her sigh along with her hand reaching out to his arm, trying to offer comfort, stops him.

"I know what you're thinking. But he can be trusted. This time."

Ariadne holds his gaze before she tries to explain and make him understand. She launches into what happened in the third layer dream: the hurriedness of their attempts down in the hospital fortress, how they missed the first kick and needed a shortcut through the maze, how she was forced to explain the dream's layout to everyone including Cobb, how Mal soon showed up, and how she tried to convince Cobb his projection Mal wasn't real. But Cobb wouldn't believe her until it was too late. Mal ends up shooting Fischer.

"To come that far..." she looks up at him, her eyes pleading for him to understand, "…to be that close. We couldn't leave things as they were. I…I convinced him we had to go down and find Fischer."

"You wanted to go down into Limbo?" he asks, his frown deepening.

"It was the only way. I knew we could do it."

When he opens his mouth to argue, she quickly adds, "I wasn't afraid."

He was expecting her to tell him something impressive, something akin to his own adventure with the elevator, but he never imagined that Ariadne would voluntarily go down into Limbo. He didn't think she could be that foolish. He didn't know she had that kind of courage.

He's both jealous and humbled by her.

"What was it like?" he asks, quietly.

"It was incredible." She shakes her head with the memory of it. "Surreal. Did you know he and Mal were down there for nearly fifty years?"

"Yeah," he nods. "He told me a little bit about it."

Wonder and excitement passes over her eyes as she tells him more. "We literally washed up on a shore, the shore of Cobb's subconscious. There were buildings everywhere, some right at the water's edge. They were groaning and creaking, falling apart and collapsing into the sea foam. We walked away from them, towards more buildings. These were still and quiet. Too quiet. All around us you could feel how empty they were. It felt like a weird kind of metropolitan ghost town." Her eyes clear of the memories and she looks back to him. "That's how he and Mal spent their time in Limbo. They built. Until they got tired of it, then they started to build from memory, places from their past. We found Mal in a replica of their home up in a skyscraper. She had Fischer."

"Mal was there?" he asks, doubtful, not because she was there, but because her presence essentially nullifies Ariadne's assertion that Cobb isn't going to stay in Limbo.

"She was," Ariadne confirms. "She's not anymore, though."

"What do you mean?"

"I...I shot her."

"You shot Mal?"

"I had to. She stabbed Cobb."

"What? Why?" The Mal he had encountered before in dreams, Cobb's projection of her, could be malicious he knows, but she's never physically lashed out at Cobb.

"She was angry with him…and so she…she stabbed him." Ariadne looks up at him, like there's more she wants to say. "She wanted him to stay. But he wouldn't."

"And so you shot her."

She nods and hurriedly continues. "Time was running out. With her out of the way I gave Fischer a kick and was about to jump myself when Cobb told me he'd stay behind and look for Saito. I believe that he will. He'll find him and they'll come back."

Arthur nods absently when she finishes and moves to the desk to sit himself on it. He was expecting to hear something incredible, but now that he has he's not quite sure how he feels about it all.

Ariadne in Limbo. Mal stabbing Cobb. Ariadne shooting Mal. Cobb staying behind to find Saito. He almost can't believe any of it. But if all of it is true, then one of his biggest fears would be eliminated. He would no longer have to worry about Cobb being lured in by Mal and getting lost in his subconscious—never returning to reality. That would be a great load off his conscience.

But he does have other fears. Fears regarding Limbo's capabilities. How will this trip affect Cobb? Hadn't it changed him once before? And what about Saito? And Ariadne?

With worry mounting again, Arthur turns to her, studies her intently, and tries to decipher if she's in anyway different or changed.

"Arthur? You believe me, don't you? About Cobb. Or do you believe he's still at risk of not getting out of Limbo?"

He probably won't be able to detect any change until after they wake up, and even then the effect may not be immediate. But if she is affected, will she turn out like Mal? Will Ariadne become just as aloof and distant as Mal was? Or will she change in other ways? And how will that affect them?


He looks up to see Ariadne frowning.

He's getting ahead of himself. There's no evidence to suggest Ariadne will change because of the experience. It wasn't her subconscious that she had fallen into, after all. And she couldn't have been down in Cobb's for very long—a few minutes, an hour, maybe. In such short a time, whatever she experienced while she was there couldn't make a long-lasting impact on her, could it? If Ariadne was able to get herself and Cobb past Mal's hold, then doesn't that make her immune to whatever psychological effects Limbo threatens?

Cobb, he can't so sure about. Only time may tell if this second trip had any effect. But Ariadne is another matter entirely. He's not sure he can see her changing in any way from her trip into Limbo. She was able to find her way out of there. She wasn't—and isn't—susceptible to losing sight of what is real and what isn't.


No, Ariadne is safe, she has to be. She's resilient. Hadn't she already proven that after facing Mal's cruelty when they first met?

And it isn't just her resiliency that leads him to believe Ariadne unsusceptible. There are also those qualities she possesses that make her invaluable to the team: her intelligence and curiosity, her talent and skill as an architect, her quick understanding of the many aspects of shared dreaming, and her intuitive instincts in regards to Cobb's issues.

Add to all that the fact that she was the only one prepared to deal with Cobb. After weeks of preparation they had all come into this job ready to perform inception. But she was the one who went down into Limbo when it was the only option to save them. She was the one to get rid of Mal.

Had Cobb known all along that she'd be able to help him? Had he known how much he'd need her? How much they'd need her?

"Arthur? You're worrying me."

Ariadne's the reason why Cobb is going to find Saito and why they'll both make it back. She's the reason why he doesn't have to worry about falling into Limbo himself.

A hand touches his and Arthur looks up to find Ariadne has made her way over and is standing right in front of him. Her anxiety deepens her frown.

"What is it? What are you thinking about?"

"I'm thinking…that Eames was right."

"Right about what?"

"About you being exceptional." Getting up off the desk he turns his hand over to take a hold of her concerned one. It hits him fully, everything she's accomplished. "I'm sorry it took me a while to realize it. After hearing what you did, I believe you that Cobb will come back, that he'll find Saito." She looks relieved to hear it. "And I also think he wouldn't be able to accomplish any of that without you. If you hadn't done what you did, I don't think Cobb makes it out. He would have stayed to be with Mal, I'm certain of it. One of us may have been able to find Saito, but Cobb would have been a different story."

He watches Ariadne shrug off his admiration, but her eyes brighten. "I just did what had to be done."

"No, you did more than that. I hate to say this, but I'm not sure I could have shot Mal—at least, not without hesitating. My first instincts are never to get rid of her. But you did it, and you got Cobb past her and have allowed him to go out and find Saito. No one else has done as much. I haven't. I couldn't."

It costs him a little of his pride to admit that where Mal was concerned, and more to the point Cobb, he didn't have the fortitude to do what was right, what was needed. But he doesn't want to examine the root of his deficiency or Cobb's personal demons. Not now, anyway. He'd rather preoccupy his thoughts with how lucky they are to have Ariadne here with them on the team. If they do make it out of all this relatively unscathed, and he believes more and more that it's possible, it will be in large part because of what she did.

"Your relationship with Cobb and with Mal, I think, was, or is, too close and personal. You have a lot of history with them. If I knew either one of them half as well as you do, I probably would have hesitated before shooting. But luckily for me…" she smiles wryly, "…my first impression of Mrs. Cobb didn't exactly endear her to me. I had no qualms about pulling that trigger."

"Maybe that's it, maybe it isn't. But whatever the reason, you were aware enough to know what needed to be done, more so than any of the rest of us. That sets you apart. That's why you're exceptional." He stops to think about something before continuing. "You know, Mal asked me why Cobb chose you to help him and I told her it was because you're a talented architect. But it's more than that. You're more than that."

"If you don't stop inflating my ego I think it'll threaten to crush us," she teases. "I didn't do anything extraordinary," she insists, before changing the subject. "So your Mal was curious about me? I'm actually really curious about her. I'd like to meet a version of her that isn't going to look at me like she wants to rip my eyes out. Do you think you could bring her back so that we can both satisfy our curiosity?"

She looks expectant, hoping that he'll oblige her.

But he doesn't. As much as he's loved and admired Mal, the woman before him has all his attention and focus.

"I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Why not?" She frowns, disappointed. "It doesn't have to be for long. I want to meet her."

Ignoring her pout, he releases her hand and steps close, bringing both of his hands up to cup her face. Ariadne's breath hitches as he leans his head down close to hers.

"Because I've already broken that rule once. And if I'm going to break any rule more than once while we're down here, it's going to be this one." His lips capture hers in a soft kiss.

"Oh," she smiles after he releases her. "I guess if you're going to break a rule repeatedly…" she pulls his head back down toward her and smiles against his mouth, "…it might as well be this one."

Author's Note: If anyone is interested, I've also updated my profile page to include some of the things I'm currently off-and-on working on.