So, new fandom. I have no idea why I decided to write this, except that I adore these two. Anyway, this definitely doesn't follow a concrete plotline, so if you happen to notice my hastily-plugged plotholes, just... be nice and pretend you don't see them? Haha, I realize I made Ariadne seem way too young, but... eh.

They ease her into it, slowly, silently, subtly.

First it's the money. They bring it up hesitantly, tell her with just the right amount of remorse that they can't afford her schooling anymore. Didn't she lend them what money she had, she asks them, but the only answer she gets out of them is that it was all spent on the medicine. So she looks into loans, delving for information, clutching at straws with her graphite-smudged fingers.

And when she's so stressed out that she just wants to tug at her hair and cry, she remembers that Arthur was always better at this. Because that was his job, his specialty.

(He was always ready with a plan in his hands and a spare in his pocket, information information information.)

But this isn't his problem, and she hasn't seen him—seen any of the old crew, the Dream Team—for ages (months here, years in dreams, centuries in Limbo).

Dark circles form above her cheekbones because she can't let her grades slips, must be the best, but it takes its toll on her, and when her grandmother falls even sicker, she puts up only a minimal fight before catching the first plane home.

(And oh, she's sitting coach class because it would be wasteful to spend money on a first class seat when either way she's getting where she needs to be.)

(But it's not where she wants to be.)

The school sees no point in giving her the loan money if she's not there, and she agrees, though it pains her deep inside, though it aches through every fiber of her body; so she brings home her sketchpads and pencils and accepts that she's here to stay. Paris is so far away—that abandoned warehouse where they gathered together and lived and dreamed—but it was hardly their headquarters anyway.

Just one job, right? And she got her adventure, and she got her money, and now it's over and the world is too—too possible, and she misses it all.

At first, Professor Miles tries to keep her caught up. He's her last link to Cobb—to them—and she's loath to give that contact up. He wants to keep a watch on her, fears that her eyes will become his daughter's, unable to tell dreams from reality, fears it so much that he's willing to teach her in his spare time, charges her next to nothing. But her grandmother's ailing health and petulant demands take up more and more of her time, and eventually she has to tell him that she's grateful for everything but things are getting rough and she doesn't have that much time anymore.

Her projects are tucked away in the corners of her closet, but her sketchpad still sits open, waiting to be filled with houses and cities and towns.

(After all, you can take the architect out of her world, but you can't take the world out of its architect.)

"I want you to be a good girl and think about real life now," her grandmother tells her one day, and she freezes; thinks, she knows.

But her dreams are her own, rare and precious and jealously guarded drawings and safes and kisses, so how can her grandmother know?

She breathes a sigh of relief when the old lady goes on to offer knitting lessons.

Her pencil flies over the paper as she stares unseeingly at—through—the small town, tracing skyscrapers and streets that form endless loops.

"Don't be ridiculous," her grandfather says when he catches sight of her impossible cities, those towering edifices and physically-challenged shapes that are her specialty. "Who'd want to live in a city with no end?"

"Maybe you should stick to reality," her mother murmurs, throwing anxious glances at the old woman propped up in front of the fireplace. "It's not like you'll ever build those imaginary buildings anyway."

(And maybe her mother wanted to be a dancer, once, wanted to sway like a willow in the breeze; but those dreams were strangled by vines named duty and proper, until they shriveled and cracked and were chopped up for firewood.)

But the thing is, she could build those buildings once upon a time, when her world was newfound, when it was made up of mirror-hallways and upside-down city blocks, when dreaming didn't require the cover of night (when the shadow of her grandmother's foot didn't loom over her dreams, poised to crush them at a moment's notice).

She could do it when everything was "worth a shot", worth living through the gunfire and the trains and the beaches, so many beaches and shades of memories and cages.

"Maybe you should stop dreaming and learn to cook," her grandmother suggests. "Every good wife knows how to cook. The perfect wife knows how to cook well. And practice makes perfect."

As she takes the knife to slice the carrots—"Lengthwise, girl, we're not trying to mutilate them!"—she contemplates cutting off her fingers.

A cripple would never be the perfect wife, but I'll learn how to hold a pencil with my toes. I'll draw with my elbows if I need to, spread the ink with the tip of my nose.

And then: Who knows? Maybe this is all a dream (a nightmare), and all I need to wake up is a big enough kick.

But she's not Mal, she's not Cobb, and the thud of her bishop against the counter grounds her and slices through the web of lies she's begun to weave around herself.

"Stop fiddling around with that pointless chess piece!" her grandmother snaps one evening, but the clack that it makes against the floor as it topples over again and again is the most important sound in the world to her, and she can't stop. She's addicted—addicted to reality, and how ironic is that?

But her laugh is a scratchy, hoarse sound, and it scares her, so she closes her mouth and doesn't do it again.

Her supplies start to disappear, slowly at first, more quickly when she does something to warrant her grandmother's disapproval—when she nicks herself with an X-Acto blade and curses, when she puts too much sugar in her coffee because she likes it better that way, when her nightmares cause her to wake up screaming. Her T-square is nowhere to be found, her paper runs out, her charcoal wears down to stubs that break into tiny pieces when she pinches them between desperate fingers.

"We're not going to spend money on pointless frivolities when your grandmother is sick," her mother chides her when she asks. She's not allowed to get a job ("If you need something to do, help your grandmother around the house!"), so she has nothing to call her own but her impossible cities and her memories of crumbling seashores.

(She thinks she sees a sympathetic gleam in her father's eyes, and when she finds a new package of pencils on her desk she's proven correct—she finally believes that they're real after her totem hits the table for the tenth time and her grandmother glares at her—but pencils are not charcoal, and without a ruler all she can draw are lopsided buildings and curved, asymmetrical labyrinths.

She doesn't want to be Ariadne, solving labyrinths with a ball of string and a cheating liar at her side—she wants to be Daedalus, maker and master of mazes. (Though maybe Cobb would be better at that; he has the sad eyes for it, and Mal makes a good Icarus.)

So she settles reluctantly into the life her grandmother has chosen for her, learns to dance and cook and set the table, to take care of finances and children—

And in her sketchbooks grow worlds made of labyrinths, mazes that take hours to solve, cubes that would never exist in reality—the stuff of dreams.

(And at night, when the house is silent and impassive, when no one is awake to judge her, the metal bishop goes clank, clank for hours at a time. And the soft, muffled sobs dare go no further than her own ears, and the teardrops on the sheets are always dry come morning.)

He has a knack for impressive timing.

Her mazes have just begun to fade into frantic, incoherent lines, her dreams just circles and circles and string, when he appears on her doorstep.

"It's a young man for you," her grandmother tells her slyly as her mother opens the door. "Fall in love; that'll put a stop to all your nonsense. But for God's sakes, don't let him go. Who knows when you'll find another one, eh?"

The old lady's voice is not as quiet as she thinks it is, and Arthur is frowning as he steps into the house.

"Ariadne," he breathes when he sees her, standing pale and trembling in the middle of the room, blinking at him like he's a half-remembered dream.

She whispers his name, fingers scrabbling for the bishop in her pocket, drops it onto the wood floor without even bothering to set it upright first.

Her grandmother scoffs, but Arthur smiles reassuringly and lets her watch the chess piece hit the floor before stepping forward.

"Miles mentioned that you'd left a while ago," he says quietly, one hand in his pocket, possibly fisted around a red die. And oh, here is someone else who knows that there is a world besides reality, that it is easy to mix the two up, and she wants to weep from the relief. "He said you'd stopped responding to his messages."

"She's been busy," her grandmother sniffs, sounding haughty and healthier than ever. "I'm still waiting for an introduction, Ariadne. I haven't got all day."

"This is Arthur—" she begins, and then realizes that she doesn't know his last name. "He—"

"We met some time ago," he cuts in smoothly, "through Professor Miles, at the school." His wording allows the possibility that he's a fellow student, but she can see that neither her mother nor her grandmother would ever believe such a thing.

Her grandmother makes a sound of contempt. "Well, at least your ridiculous school was good for something, girl."

Ariadne shrinks into herself, gripping her totem tight with bloodless fingers. She's been hearing similar remarks for weeks now, but that doesn't mean they don't still hurt whenever she hears them. And with Arthur listening—she can't help feeling ashamed.

A large, warm hand, wrapping itself around her wrist and soothingly stroking the taut tendons there, breaks her out of her trance. "None of that now," he says mildly, but his eyes flicker in her grandmother's direction and his expression darkens minutely.

Ariadne stares up at his face, still motionless. "I—" can't believe you're actually here.

"Come take a walk with me," he tells her gently, nudging her elbow until she follows him to the front door. Normally, he would wait politely for her to move, but he will not let her stay a minute longer in the same room as the poisonous woman she calls a grandmother. She stands in a state of shock as he rearranges her scarf, tucks her coat around her body.

"Be back in time for dinner," that woman calls cheerfully, oblivious to his black mood, as he picks something up off the floor, where he set it down to help Ariadne dress. She didn't notice him carrying it before, but it's hard to miss the gleaming metallic case in his right hand, the other still holding her close to him.

Now, as they step out into the bright sunlight and he shuts the door firmly behind them, she notices it—oh, yes.

"Is that—" and try as she might, she can't keep the hope out of her voice.

There is no need for her to worry. He smiles, his eyes glowing warmly. "Yes," he says, and his voice is calming, confident as always. "Miles said something about you not being able to draw a lot, so I thought I'd—You're rather easy to track, you know. I'll have to teach you to hide your tracks better."

Grinning at his sudden non sequitur, she can't suppress the thrill that runs down her spine at those words, because they imply his continued presence in her life for a while—long enough to teach her, at least.

(If I'm a really bad student, will he stay forever? she wonders to herself.)

"I—I draw labyrinths when I have the time," she says shyly. "But I can't draw buildings without a ruler, and the medicine costs a lot, so we don't have much to spend on stuff like that…"

"What about the money from the Fischer job?" he interrupts, eyes flashing dangerously.

She looks down, studying her shoes. "When Grandmother got sick, she didn't have enough money for her medicine. Mom and Dad were really panicking, so I—I lent what I had to her. She hasn't been able to pay me back, but… well, she's my family," she says quietly. "Mom and Dad were so relieved that they haven't stopped to wonder where the money came from yet. I kept a little just in case, but it wasn't nearly enough to cover the cost of my school. But I did my best to make it last until Grandmother got really sick and I was needed back here; it's pretty much gone now."

Staring at the ground like she is, she misses the sour twist of his lips—in all his years as a point man, for all the research he's ever done for his various covers and investigations, he's never come across medicine that costs roughly the same amount as a small private jet—at least, not for a sickness with as few symptoms as Ariadne's grandmother displays.

His hand clenches around hers, and he makes a low sound in the back of his throat. It sounds like a cross between a growl and a choked sob.

"There's another job," he says finally, once his vocal chords are back under control. "Our last architect—"

Her head whips around and she shoots him a look, hurt even though she knew the Fischer job was a one-time deal, that she shouldn't have assumed anything or expected anything beyond that—god, she's pathetic, what did she expect, tea parties and sleepovers? Of course they've moved on—

"I thought we were giving you a little space," he admits, letting his head drop guiltily. "I went back to find you after our new architect didn't come close to being able to do what you did, but by then you'd left. It didn't occur to me that you might need us."

She starts to protest, "I don't—" but she really does, and they both know it.

He keeps his hand on the small of her back, carefully guides her to a nearby apartment, up the elevator (she giggles nervously), and into an empty room.

Her breath catches as he unlocks the PASIV device.

"I—I don't know if I'm still as good as I was," she warns him, looking at the achingly familiar machine both eagerly and dubiously.

"We've got time," he assures her, withdrawing an IV and reaching out to take her arm. "Just do your best, and we'll go from there."

"Okay." Her eyes flutter shut.

They're standing in a sunny street, and an impossible structure is rising from the ground in front of them. Tears sparkle in the corners of her eyes, and she can hear her heart hum, can feel her blood singing in her veins.

She's home—not the dream; she knows very well that would be dangerous. No, the sense of coming home surges through her when Arthur steps up behind her and slips his hand into hers, holding tight. It's when his lips quirk upwards into a soft smile, when she feels his eyes caressing her face and memorizing every feature as they would a dreamscape.

"You haven't lost your touch," he tells her as they watch the monstrosity (an elegant monstrosity, to be fair) piece itself together.

"No," she smiles. "I guess not."

She finds that she hasn't forgotten too much—and what she doesn't remember, she picks up very quickly. (She gets the feeling that it won't take more than a few minutes with a horde of hostile projections to relearn dodge, run, duck, but not today.) The projections begin to notice the intruders before she's done playing and experimenting, and she pouts, so Arthur leans in and steals a kiss, smiling cheekily.

"You don't really think that's going to work," she says, exasperated.

"No," he replies, still grinning like a loon.

Her cheeks flush, and she looks away hastily. "So—so what now? When is the job?"

"Not for a while. For now, you're going to take me back to your house," he whispers in her ear, and she shivers at the feel of his breath blowing across her skin. "Since I have no doubt that you'll insist on staying the night and saying your goodbyes, we're going to eat dinner with your family, and it's going to be awkward and I'm going to be interrogated."

"And when my grandmother asks you about your intentions towards me?" she teases, feeling only slightly bitter toward the commanding older woman.

"Then," he wraps his arms around her petite shoulders, resting his chin on her hair, "I'll tell them that I'm stealing you away to England in the morning—Eames, the coward, didn't think he could handle the whole family business and decided to visit a friend while I picked you up; we have to go get him—and they'll see you when class lets out, in a couple of months." At her blank stare, he elaborates, "This job will pay well—not as much as the Fischer job, but a decent amount—" and she understands that a decent amount in Arthur-speak translates to way more than I'll know what to do with in Ariadne-speak. "There's no way monetary problems are going to keep you out of Miles' classroom. And," he adds sternly, "I'm going to make sure you see to your own needs before even thinking about anything else."

"Anything else" being, of course, the demands of her grandmother, fabricated or otherwise.

She stares at him for a moment longer, and then she bursts into delighted laughter. "It's not going to go over well," she warns him as the dream begins to crumble, "but oh, I really can't wait."

"I have a plan," he says as they disappear.

"Don't you always," she agrees fondly, sitting up as he leans over to remove the IV from her arm.

He speaks as he rubs the delicate skin of her inner arm. "You're our architect. You'll have your classes, your teammates, and plenty of rulers. You'll be fine." And his voice is so sure, so positive that everything will be as it should, that she can't help but believe him.

As she tilts her face up to catch his lips with hers, she dares to dream again.


So... tell me what you think?