Written for inception-kink at LiveJournal; it's a response to your classic "5 times 1 time" prompts. Five times Arthur answered Ariadne's question truthfully, and one time he didn't.

It's up to you guys to decide which one he's lying in. ;)

Enjoy!

Inception © Good Ol' Chris Nolan. As in not me.

They're both swinging in the spiderwebs of Ariadne's subconscious, and his voice fleets by in monologues of paradoxes and projections and staircases that never end. She's surprised that she manages to pay attention as she watches his sharp black eyes paint pictures she can't quite decipher.

He's been talking about Mal, about how she's dead and about how Cobb is haunted by an angry imprint of her. As she hears this story, she can't help but ask: "what was she like in real life?"

Arthur watches her, his expression unchanging, and she feels as though she's being observed by a wary doberman. When he speaks, she is surprised by the soft tone his voice has suddenly adopted, and it takes her a moment to process what he says.

"She was lovely."

"Did you ever love her?"

Ariadne knows it's forward of her, and she can tell it's entirely the wrong question to ever ask by the way that Arthur's scanning eyes freeze over the papers splayed in front of him. She bites her lip involuntarily and shrinks back a little, wanting to hit herself, or possibly shoot herself, or maybe even jump off a cliff if any of them could be adequate punishment for her audacity.

She even further disgusts herself when she hears her voice say, "Mal, I mean."

Arthur's hand was holding a pencil a minute ago, but now it rises and swipes and the pencil tumbles out, rolling off the edge of the table with a clatter. He pushes his knuckles into the surface of his workspace and his lips tighten and he lets out a heavy exhale.

"I-I'm sorry," Ariadne mutters hurriedly, smashing a palm to her forehead. "Oh, Jesus, just forget I said—"

"No," Arthur replies frankly, raising his eyes and face until they're level with hers. She's not used to looking straight at him, more up at him. "I didn't."

"Right." She tries to clear her throat but no sound comes out. "Oh. Oh, God, I'm sorry; I—"

"Don't be," he says curtly, his eyes flicking back down to the papers. "Curiosity is a naturally occurring anomaly."

Ariadne can't decide whether or not she likes him talking to her as though she's a particularly interesting project at an eighth-grade science fair.

She's sitting in the warehouse in the reclining wire chair during a particularly uneventful lunch break with a thick brown copy of iWuthering Heights/i opened in her lap, taking care not to spill any of her microwaved French onion soup on its pages. She's had this one since she was about fifteen, but of course she didn't read it until she was eighteen. She still never gets tired of it, though.

She hears some rustling in the next room over and peers over page 247, spotting Arthur flitting about in the doorway, his gold-vested back to her. She tries to crane her neck over to see what he's up to, but her view is completely blocked. She wonders if it's on purpose.

"What're you doing in there?" she calls, frowning, one swishy sip of soup gathered in her left cheek.

"Just rearranging," he answers. "Eames made a bit of a mess of my papers. Just another of his many talents."

"Oh." She doesn't buy it, and her voice gives it away completely. She hears a good-natured sigh slip out from Arthur's front and he turns to face her, one fist pushing into his hip, a sarcastic smirk twisted across his face.

"Is that a good enough explanation for you, Nancy Drew? Or do you want to come in here and dust for fingerprints?"

She flushes and hides behind her book again, deciding not to dignify that with a response.

She swears she hears a chuckle come from Arthur, but then she remembers what Eames says about Arthur being physically incapable of producing laughter and convinces herself that she's hearing things.

Arthur and Eames have been at each other's throats all day. Since the moment the two of them strode (or, in Eames' case, sauntered) into the Paris warehouse, they've been dueling with banter rapiers, and not for the first time, Eames seems to be on the winning side. Ariadne has to endeavor to stifle her giggles when they toss biting badinage between each other like pieces of rotting meat. At some point in the afternoon, Cobb got so tired of their barbs that he had to step outside for a few minutes; Yusuf wasn't helping matters much, either, sitting in a chair and recording the dialogues with the enthusiasm of a fresh college student.

As the day winds down, Eames steps outside to smoke his pipe, and Ariadne swears she sees him swat Arthur's particularly trim rear end and snicker as he departs. Her cheeks redden in something between glee and surprise as she cautiously approaches Arthur, who is standing with his arms folded in front of the window, staring at the parking lot outside with an uncharacteristically dour expression even for him.

"How come you and Eames don't get along?" she ventures, tilting her tiny frame his way, her ash brown braid dangling down perpendicular to her slight shoulders.

Arthur doesn't answer nor blink for a minute, and Ariadne is just starting to think that maybe he didn't hear her when he suddenly begins to laugh, the heartiest and truest laugh she's ever heard. His eyes twinkle as he grins down at her, and she can't help but smile back at him, though it's more of a questioning smile, which he seems to recognize.

He turns back to gaze out the window again, still smiling.

"You have no idea how well we do," he says, his voice taut with amusement, and Ariadne can't help but let out a little gasp, remembering Eames' greasy paws popping onto Arthur's posterior. This only seems to entertain Arthur further.

"Oh, Ariadne, don't fuss. It's complicated. We just like insulting each other. It keeps the mood a little lighter, you know? I mean, everybody needs a break every now and then. That's the one thing you can rely on in reality—"

"Oh, you mean me?" Arthur and Ariadne simultaneously whip around to see Eames strolling back in, pipe in hand, smarmy grin on cheeks. "Absolutely right, darling. I'll always be here to get your panties in a knot."

"Consistency, Mr. Eames," Arthur says fondly, and Eames claps him on the back. The grin fades and Ariadne wonders if she'll ever get to see it again, and she's maybe a little jealous, because she has only observed Eames being able to elicit such a response from the staunch Point Man. She wonders if she ever could.

She awakens with a painful jolt one night, alone in her drafty Parisian flat, yanked up from her pillow by the hook and line of a terror she can't recognize. As she sits in her bed, curling in on herself and breathing heavily, she feels herself reach over and grab the phone off the cradle, dialing numbers by instinct, not entirely sure who she'll hear on the other line.

One ring, then a sleepy mumble.

"Hello?"

"I." She swallows. Already the sound of his voice has slowed her heartbeat. "I had a nightmare."

A slow, indistinct grumble and the sound of fingers scratching a scalp.

"That's all well and good, but how is that any of my concern?"

"I thought maybe we," she sighs, feeling more stupid ever moment, "could… talk."

Any other man would have said something like, "at this hour?" or "talk about what?" or "the hell we could; go back to bed." But Arthur surprises her once more.

"All right," he says.

She imagines him in that instant, lying spread-eagled in a rumpled bed with a white t-shirt and plaid drawstring pajama pants and mussed hair, and lets out a contented sigh. Eames claims he sleeps in monogrammed silk pajamas with a hairnet and cucumbers on his eyes, but she doesn't believe him.

"Have you ever had to create nightmares?" she asks.

"A couple of times," he replies honestly, his tone heavy and still a bit detached, part of it lingering in the dreamworld. "The Architects we hired weren't huge fans of them, and to be honest, neither of them worked very well, because Cobb's Little Helper would always show up in some dark corner and stab me or something—"

"Were you scared?" she whispers. He doesn't answer. "Arthur," she tries again, "have you ever had nightmares?"

She doesn't expect him to tell her. He isn't the type. She expects him to tell her she's being very silly and to recommend that she drink a glass of warm milk.

"A few. One in particular. Recurring."

She shifts in her bed as though listening to an exciting story.

She hears a staticky sigh on the other end.

"I'll be walking along a pathway somewhere. I'll smell like hell, and I'll be tired. Sore, sick. Limping a little. It'll be getting cold out, and the sun'll be rising somewhere, turning the sky all blue. I take a right turn off the pathway and there's a tunnel, with a creek running through it. The tunnel's dark; I can't see more than a couple of feet inside it. And she… and there'll be a girl. Lying there, in the water. She has… long blonde hair. And a bunch of these blue bracelets on one hand. She's cold. I know I want to see her face, to wrap her up in my arms, but… I just crouch down there, and stare at her, thinking maybe she'll get up, maybe she'll tell me it's just some sick joke. But she doesn't. She just lies there and I do nothing. I watch her and feel sick and eventually I wake up. I mean. Eventually."

Ariadne notices that she's been holding her breath. Quietly and subtly, she lets it out.

"To be honest," he pauses, his clipped tones softening, "I hadn't had it for years until tonight. I'd been awake for about an hour before you called me. But it was different this time."

"Oh?" Ariadne squeaks, genuinely intrigued. She has forgotten all about her nightmare by now.

Arthur clears his throat. "I'll… I walked down and saw the tunnel. But instead of the blonde girl there was someone different. Someone with brown hair in the water and… and a red sweater. And when I saw that red sweater I swear to God, I…" He swallows. "I didn't feel sick. I felt scared. I stood there and I've… I've never been so damn scared."

Ariadne's eyes dart to her favourite scarlet sweater draped over the back of her swivel chair.

"Well," she manages to choke out, "it's okay now. Nothing to be afraid of. Nightmare's over, right?"

A pause. Then: "Right. Of course. Well, good night, Ariadne. Sleep fitly."

"Thanks, Arthur." She hears a dial tone on the other end. "Sweet dreams."

It's raining in the dream they've invaded, a constant pounding rain that thins his blood in wandering swirls on the concrete.

She falls to her knees at his side, her hair sticking to her face and tumbling hither and yon in dampened strings. She has never cried as hard as she is crying now, and she is such an idiot – she remembers that urge to hit herself, the one that seems to pop up whenever she tries to have a conversation with him.

"Oh, God," she croaks, scooping him up in her arms, scrambling desperately at him, not caring that the small round hole just beside his heart is spurting blood all over her best blouse. He coughs and heaves in her grasp, and little clumps of his hair have drifted from the trimly gelled majority, tickling the edges of his sinking eyelids. Cobb, Eames, and Yusuf are shouting as they battle the swarm of agile projections that are closing in on them.

She doesn't care that the mission has failed. She doesn't care that now that Cobol Engineering is on their tails again, she will never be able to graduate college; she doesn't care that she's now got a death warrant on her head. All that dashes through her mind is that he has been hit, and he's been hit somewhere bad, somewhere that can't be fixed.

"Arthur!" she screams, sounding like an incredible ninny as she clutches him, pressing him close to her. "Arthur, you big stuffy dolt, don't give up that easily! Arthur!"

A huge, labored breath ripples through his chest and bumps against her body. She pulls back and looks down at him in utter distress, pushing his hair back out of his eyes. The quiet black irises are hardly visible between his scattered eyelashes, but she can still see them, and it's enough for now.

"Arthur," she murmurs, pressing her palm to his cheek, not even noticing her tears dropping onto his face among the raindrops.

A pair of small coughs burst from his lips and her grip involuntarily tightens on him, which seems to give him a feeling of contentment, because he nods slowly, a smile moving along his face. She is so unused to seeing his stony expression thaw.

"Arthur, I—" No. She swallows that sentence. It will not resurface. "You… you'll be all right, won't you?"

It's a silly, childish question, and she's already ninety percent sure of the answer, but she asks it anyway. He jerks his head in what she assumes is supposed to be a nod and murmurs: "sure, sure. Of course."

She scrabbles to find his hand and takes it in hers, holding it tightly beside her face.

"Come on, darling," he whispers with a crooked smile. "Would I ever lie to you?"

Ariadne shakes her head.

"You didn't have to do that," she blurts out. "You didn't have to… jump in the way – I can handle myself, I really—"

"Hey." She doesn't need to guide his touch to her any longer. "You were worth the shot. You're always worth a shot. Be it in the back or the… or the dark or—"

"Shh." To him, it is the sound of the ocean wandering across the horizon. "We'll be out of here soon, and then you can…"

"Yeah, I know," he interrupts. "It's all… just a dream."