Matter

"In the end, only three things matter: How much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you."

Chapter 1: In The Beginning

It certainly didn't start out this way.

To begin with, there was no passion. No desire. No lust. No connection whatsoever. To begin with, there was the prick of a needle, a smart mouthed rant, a red jacket slapped in his face and several boundaries outlined in bold.

When she came back, Cobb had him teach her mazes and that was when he witnessed her genius firsthand. And who couldn't be the least bit interested in her after that? After seeing her soak in information like a sponge? Seeing her create paradoxical structures (that took him years to perfect) with the twirl of her hand? The way that girl took to dreams was the way birds take to flight: Naturally. Instinctively. She soared through dreamscapes with ease and grace. Mal was good and Dom was brilliant but Ariadne was exceptional. Pure creation seemed like her birthright. She was intelligent, she was snarky, she was challenging. And so, inevitably, there was a non-committal peck in the lobby of a dream hotel just to see, some flirtatious glances—

Oh. And that impeccably tailored grey skirt suit.

To be honest, Arthur didn't expect anything to come from the kiss. A sense of cocky satisfaction, maybe. A conquest to throw in Eames' face the next time he was teased, definitely. It was a weightless two second kiss but nontheless, an idea was born from it and that idea grew like a resilient parasite and then smashed into him with the force of a freight train. He was hooked on this idea as sure as he was hooked up to the PASIV—that, he realized two weeks after he'd left LA, when bombarded with job offers and no more Dom to work them with. When the image of a brunette with a triangle of printed fabric and an eagerness for adventure danced around in his head, dangling a solution—a possibility for a solution, rather—from her lead-smudged fingertips.

That Architect. Ariadne

She was perfect. Exactly what Arthur needed. Who Arthur needed. Ariadne had an eye for hidden beauty, an ear for intellectual conversation, an inclination towards escapades, and a habit of chewing on her lip that admittedly fascinated (and disgusted) him. Ariadne had infinite potential. She'd been to limbo—and while it pissed him off that Dom dragged another trusting woman down a rabbit hole—it showed her grit. Her fearlessness. It showed that she'd do whatever it took; that she'd get down and dirty so to speak, to get whatever needed to be done, done. She was determined, protective and fiercely loyal—much like himself. In most ways, Arthur and Ariadne were opposites but they were matches in a thousand other ways too.

Call it a paradox.

Call it anything you want but she was perfect for the job and Arthur thrived on perfection. Imagine another year or more of Arthur's mentoring—she'd be as unstoppable as a force of nature. And with the Point Man's thunder? Caught up in the whirlwinds of dream share and crossfire and horrifically exotic backdrops, together, they'd be a hurricane.

And they said he had no imagination...

It was a toss-up, to begin with. What Arthur needed was a partner. A work partner, a permanently fixed team mate, someone in this business he could trust. And more simply, someone to keep him company. In truth, he missed Dom to a point of unbelievability. Arthur's initial introduction to dreamshare was through military experimentation. His next foray was guided by Dom. The man had been something of an older brother and close companion. Arthur had done several jobs on his own before but to know that while it was once inevitable, chances he'd meet back up and work with Dom were slim to none now. Mostly none. Definitely none. He was happy for him and his family, of course. But life still felt abnormal. Thus, the urge for someone new to join him. But not a replacement or surrogate. No, they'd be all their own. They'd be better. Mal left Arthur for Dom and Dom left Arthur for his family. Who could (who would) choose to live a life of invisibility with him? Who would trade normalcy for cities folded in half? Who held the same exorbitant passion and dedication for pure creation?

That bright-eyed girl from Paris. Ariadne…

Her and her red jacket and her sarcasm and her triangle of printed fabric and her lead-smudged fingertips. She might be the closest he'd ever come to the perfect extraction partner. She had the drive to dedicate herself to the dreamer's lifestyle. He could see her falling into the addiction of dreamshare as ardently as he had. Could see her giving up her last name, her friends, her family, her tangible existence for the work. Everyone else kept ties, kept lives, kept identities outside of people's heads but he and Ariadne could exist with no other permanence than each other and a silver briefcase. It could be them against the world and Arthur no longer had to feel that in choosing dreams, he chose loneliness. Arthur would now be the leader and mentor—in a more extensive and exclusive way than he'd been before. He would help craft her into the perfect architect, the perfect dreamer, evader, chameleon, business woman and partner. All he was unsure of, at that particular moment, was her willingness. Had it changed? Perhaps it just required a little pushing.

xxxxxx

Ariadne strolled down the sidewalk, warm cuppa joe (two creamers, one sugar) in one gloved hand and the other fisted around the chess piece in her pea coat. She hadn't dreamt via PASIV in at least six months—since she got back from Los Angeles—but because nightmares of limbo and trains and riddles plagued her natural sleep, keeping contact with her totem at all times became a security blanket. Paris had its share of cold and rainy Sundays that autumn. Ariadne oddly enjoyed the weather. She didn't mind the droplets that stuck to her hair like pearls (though if and when she caught cold, she'd curse herself for not just putting on the beanie in her other pocket). The Architect had nothing planned for the day so she took the long way back to her flat (The new one. The nicer one. Thank you Proclus Global). Her favorite was the trek along the Seine, the one that passed the Pont Neuf and its brother bridges. The cities' lights shone through the fog like fuzzy balls of warmth. The few golden and rust-colored leaves left on the trees rustled in the breeze; some of them fell with the syrupy drizzle of rain and some of them clung to their branches for dear life. Stubborn things. It felt something akin to Narnia, the lamplights and whitish-grey whimsy that hung in the air. Perhaps Ariadne liked it because it felt dream-like. Because it gave her something beautiful to see in reality again just when things started to seem too ordinary and dull to bear. It helped with her craving to sink a needle into her wrist and let Somnacin rush over her like the high tide. If she was honest, the only reason she hadn't done that yet was because she couldn't find either anywhere.

As another trail of hot liquid ran down her throat, the fingers in her pocket buzzed. She released her bishop and felt for the incessantly vibrating device, putting it to her ear without even looking to see who it was. Miles and Penelope were supposed to call her about dinner—they wanted to 'catch up' but Ariadne knew her Professor was just eager to psychoanalyze how she was faring after the inception. She hadn't been back to class for a lack of desire and interest and didn't have the heart to tell him (though he caught on). Ariadne had been complacent. Not only had she ceased to get back into the swing of things at the University but she'd spent less and less time with her old friends. The woman was three cats, two deadbolts and a phobia of sunlight away from being a hermit. She spent most of her time doing what she was currently doing: walking around the city; trying to find something poetic while she was awake. The other percent of her time she was drawing optical illusions and binge watching every show Netflix had to offer to distract her brain. Miles had right to be worried…and she didn't fault him for it. At least he cared; Ariadne could appreciate that but she still dreaded all the questions he'd ask. Or rather, the answers she'd give (they were embarrassing.) "Hi."

"Hello, is this Ariadne?"

That was not the easy-going lilt of Professor Miles. It was—well—the voice sounded like one that sometimes weaseled its way between the Cobbs' voices in her nightmares. It was worth a shot. But there was no way in hell that was plausible unless this chilly Parisian day was, in fact, hell frozen over. They never exchanged phone numbers. In fact, after waking, they hadn't even exchanged a wave goodbye or passing glance before they parted ways for what she assumed was forever and a day.

Her caller awaited an answer. But could it be that her imagination was straining to hear a familiarity where there wasn't? Because it did that lately...it made her hear English accents and see flashes of pink floral print in the grocery. Made her hear a train amidst the thunder when it rained. Glimpse the back of a greasy blonde head or catch tired and piercing blue eyes on the metro. Imagine a man in a three piece suit sitting in a black car across the street, watching her closely. Hell, she was almost convinced the neighborhood stray was actually Yusuf's cat—as if he'd wandered all the way from Mombasa by way of boats and rivers and roads.

"Um…" it could've been someone suspiciously investigating for Fischer-Morrow, hunting down the team, starting from the weakest link (Poor Yusuf and Eames were probably dead). "Who's this?" felt like the best response at the time though it was neither of the eight explanatory and remorseful phrases she'd practiced out of paranoia.

"This is Arthur."

Her shoes made a scraping noise from her abrupt halt in the middle of the sidewalk. Her first assumption was right? How? "Arthur?" A lady in a hurry stepped around Ariadne, causing the Architect to step to the side and give her an idle glance. If that woman knew the unlikeliness of this occurrence and that it was occurring nonetheless she would've understood and returned Ariadne's look of surprise like Ariadne wanted her to. She wanted someone to acknowledge that The Point Man was calling her, for freak's sake.

The Point flowed into an explanation, "Yes. We worked together during the job for Mr. Charles? I was in charge of research—"

"Yeah, yeah." Ariadne cut him off, unintentionally rude. "I remember who you are. I'm just shocked. What—" Oh God, someone must've found out. That's why he was calling. He was handling the details. Doing damage control. Fischer must've come to his senses. The job failed. Or Browning must've connected one of them to Saito. And then all of them. Did someone give them up? Were they in danger? She'd already used a quarter of Saito's money; that would be a shitload to pay back. Did Dreamshare fugitives have a protection program? She would not look good in a blonde wig... "Is everything ok?"

"Everything regarding our previous endeavor is still on track." At this, Ariadne practically melted in relief. She almost missed his: "Are you, by any chance, still located in Paris?"

Ariadne may have been knocked off her striped socks but that didn't stunt her inner sarcasm. It'd only been six months. Of course she was still in Paris. "Yeah, still here."

"I'm in town for a couple days and have a business proposition to run by you. Would you be willing to have lunch with me at Café de la Nouvelle Mairie tomorrow?"

All of a sudden her hands were sweaty and her heart was beating a mile a minute...That chance to dream that she'd been chasing fruitlessly...creation, adventure, paradoxes… "Yes." Was that too quick? Too eager? Too high-pitched? To hell with it.

"Alright, great. I'll pick you up at eleven. Unless that isn't a good time?"

"No that's good." What else did she have to do? Netflix and melodramatic walks in the park were completely re-schedulable. Her bunny slippers and the new season of Nailed It would most certainly understand.

"The same place?"

Her head turned to watch a car mosy along the road followed by the whooshing sound of tires against wet ground. Another grouping of people milled by. She felt like silently pointing to her phone's receiver and gloating but didn't want to seem insane to strangers who had no idea an offer to invade someone's mind was possible much less going to happen at her favorite cafe tomorrow. (That was exciting too, she loved their salads). "Well I moved down the block to something nicer. I can text you the new address."

"No need."

She hiccuped a laugh. Of course there was no need. A click of a button and Arthur would magically know. That's how things worked. One of the first few days of work on the inception, he spouted off personal data about her. Full name, parents' names, sibling's names, schools, parking tickets; She can't remember how it came it up—his response eclipsed the question—but before she learned that his job entailed more than pressing buttons on the PASIV, sticking a needle in her wrist for her like a personal dream-butler, and being an asshole to Eames, she thought he knew those things because Miles had been a little too generous with her information for the "referral" not that Arthur was creepy good at hacking into databases. He assured her his research had only been surface deep—things that could easily be found on google— but she was pretty sure she glimpsed her social security number in the dossier he had on her.

"See you tomorrow then?"

Ariadne did a quick jig and the straightened, nodded, "Yeah. See you tomorrow."

"Excellent." Arthur hung up and dropped the phone into the cup holder of his car. Out his tinted windows, across the street, Ariadne re-pocketed her device and continued walking. A sip of her coffee and a pep in her step. The willingness was most definitely still there.

xxxxxx
The Architect had finally broken down and used some of her dream-share wealth to purchase a bigger flat in a nicer arrondisement. While still apartments, the flats resembled little town homes. Hers was on the bottom floor and curly iron welded railing lined the stairs to the upper flat, to the side of the building. Hers was on the second segment to the left with white siding and blue shutters and door. In all honesty, it looked too tame and quaint for Ariadne's nature. Deciding to leave his briefcase in the car, Arthur walked up her minuscule porch, arms hanging at his sides and knocked firmly.

The door swung open and the Point Man was hit with a burst of warm air from her heater. Instead of the typical hello , she remarked, "I don't remember being this much shorter than you."

Most of the amusement was in the glint of his eyes, "It's nice to see you again, Ariadne." Ever the diplomat, his hand lifted up to offer a handshake.

"It feels like it's been forever. Come in, I just have to grab my jacket and shoes." She left the door wide open to him and traipsed across the living area to disappear into a hallway. "There's some coffee in the pot and a mug out if you want any!" called the girl.

Arthur surveyed her new living space. It seemed cleaner, more picked up and tidy. (Not excessively. Marginally, maybe). But that could've been because of the large area. He dropped her off once or twice at her old flat during their first job and had an opportunity to look in. In her old flat, everything was crammed so it looked more cluttered. There was a half full bowl of soggy cereal on her breakfast table, the tv guide and some opened dvds on the coffee table. Mail on the counter. Some shoes in the middle of the living room and a couple sweaters over chairs here and there. But other than that…Arthur could see the floor. In afterthought, he hoped he hadn't trudged in dirt on her lightly colored rug. Ariadne emerged.

"So how are you? How have you been?" he said as he eyed the suitcase she lugged behind her.

"Good," nodded Ariadne. "Should we go ahead and put this in the car now or pretend like I might say no?" With a flourish she set it in a spot by the entrance and pushed the handle down. Arthur fought to suppress any expression of victory; he projected her response to be something like that. Or hoped it would be.

"We won't be leaving for a week or so if you agree. You don't know what exactly I'm offering."

"I have an idea..." she tilted her head playfully, "But if you want to be systematic, I'll play along." The Architect commented while grabbing her worn messenger bag from the hook by her keys and then opening the door and trotting down the steps.

She requested a table for two in enthusiastic french and then picked a spot without waiting for the host. As a regular patron of the cafe, she received many a smile and greeting from the waiters as she passed. A wave of vanilla washed over him when she pulled the bag off her body and slung it over the chair. And a wave of something else seized him when their waiter guessed her drink of choice and she grinned. Nostalgia. He'd forgotten how fond of the small architect he was.

They were there for business but he felt it more appropriate to ease into his proposition. Thus he started with complimenting her new living space, "Your new apartment is very nice."

She shrugged with a thin cloud of pride hovering above her head, "Thanks to Saito. I didn't really need a whole lot more room just for me but..."

"It's nice to be able to spread out," he offered.

Ariadne nodded, "That's what Dom said. He talked me into it." Arthur's thumb twitched, his hand casually closed around his wrapped silverware. "And I have to admit, I do like having an actual living room. And not having people crammed onto my bed and sitting on my kitchen counters when they come over to hang out."

All Arthur gathered from her response was the mention of Dom. And the specific detail of her reference to him as Dom and not as Cobb like she had for the entirety of the inception. He jumped straight to that topic, intrigued, "You still correspond with Cobb?" Arthur had an inkling that Ariadne harbored some twisted infatuation for his long time friend. They spent a lot of late nights together at the warehouse. Had a lot of hushed conversations with heads bent together. Wherever Dom was, Ariadne was somehow always right behind or beside even after her training had been transferred over to Arthur's lead. Now, Ariadne had said so herself (and reemed Arthur out about it, their first meeting) that she could plainly see Cobb had serious issues so he knew a lot of it was that she was intrigued by him. She was curious. She saw him as a challenge.

There were factors apart from all that, though, that had nothing to do with Cobb's mental state or her self-nominated job to help fix it. She was always touching him—her hands on his elbow, his shoulders, sometimes placed over his hand. Sometimes Arthur recalled the look she gave the man when his eyes finally opened...and while she and Arthur didn't acknowledge the other at the airport, she and Dom noticeably shared a few smiles. On top of all this, they apparently kept in touch. Granted, they had Miles as a common factor. "Oh yeah, of course. We talk all the time. We've actually gotten pretty close."

That was thought provoking...but not too much of a threat to his plan (he was afraid if Dom was too close to her, he'd take Miles' stand and be against her furthering a dream career. And if she held Dom in too high of a regard, she'd be more inclined to see it his way than Arthur's). He paced himself and waited until they ordered their meals before delving in, watching the waiter as he went, careful to make sure he was out of hearing distance. The man didn't have to go far, the patrons surrounding the Point and Architect were engaged in their conversations loudly enough to drown him out. When he was satisfied, he turned to find her expectantly staring at him. "Before we begin, how would you feel about getting back into…" he tilted his head in lieu of saying the word they both understood was meant to be there.

"As evident by my already packed suitcase...I'd be lying if I said I was completely disinterested. I've really missed it," confessed the woman, moving her silverware to the side and fanning her napkin out over her lap. "Why?" She smirked, "Do you have a job for me?" Her question was more a reminder than a real inquiry.

"I have, potentially, several," that arrested her attention. Here was the grand proposal...If she wasn't willing, he was back to square one. "I've worked with Cobb so long that with him retiring, I feel off balance. I'm looking for an exclusive business partner. With Dom and I, I found that marketing and working as a team ultimately got us more jobs and an elevated pay for the double expertise."

Ariadne nodded in understanding. She intently waited for him to get to the point of his explanation or the punchline of his joke or heaven's sake get back to telling her more about all those jobs she was dying to work on. But he stopped talking. He was just staring at her as if she'd have something to add. Was he looking for advice? She was a novice; what would she know about finding him a business par— she blinked and leaned back in her chair. "Wait. Me?"

Of course, you. Hopefully, you, thought the Point Man. They were briefly interrupted when the waiter dropped by to refill her lemonade and drop off both of their salads. Caesar for her, house with dressing on the side for him. Whereas Arthur thanked the man for his service, Ariadne was staring confusedly at her croutons. Still trying to wrap her brain around the fact that Arthur freakin Point Man (she adopted his job description as his last name) was proposing she be the Robin to his Batman. "You have incredible potential. Architects are key features of a team," Arthur went on, drizzling dressing over his greens, "A Point and Architect package would appeal to a large array of clients."

"Not that I'm not beyond honored but…" she leaned slightly forward with her hands against the edge of the table, "Why me? I'm so green." It was a staggeringly tempting opportunity but she was under the impression that Arthur and Dom had a giant network of people they worked with. "Why not ask a seasoned pro?" Why not Eames (besides the fact that Arthur would kill him)? Why not Yusuf? Why not...well she didn't know anyone else to suggest but she was sure he did.

"You may be green but you're already one of the best Architects dreamshare has. You have the talent and ingenuity, an instinct for the dreams. With more guidance and training in the field, I really believe you would be the best." Ariadne wasn't sure if she imagined the color of his eyes darkening over the rim of his glass or not, "I can get you there." Compliments? And a promise? All rolled into the same breath? He was seriously pitching this to her.

"So basically...you're investing in me...You want in on my career at the ground floor," squinted the woman. She understood enough of what was going on now to pick up her fork and mix her salad around. "And you want to train me..."

"Yes." Arthur thought it was going pretty well. That is, up until she raised her eyebrow and said sarcastically (a little bit offended too?) "Like I'm a thoroughbred." Arthur winced. Ariadne kept chiding, "You want me to be an intern. Pick up your coffee...build you mazes when its convenient."

Arthur recanted. Sat his fork down. "Not at all. Look, Ariadne, I believe in you. I'm very impressed by you. I want to help you hone your skills and adapt to the world of dreamshare so that we can work as equals. I want you to be able to do everything. Extract, forge, hack. I want us to be formidable together. To eventually be all the team any client needs and profit from that. And if it makes you feel any better, I'll probably be picking up your coffee most of the time."

Ariadne wasn't going to lie (to herself at least), it sounded like a sweet deal. First off, pure creation. Second, working with someone she got along with and admired a great deal. Third, learning everything about Dreamshare, being trained to be a kick-ass extractor, and traveling the world...Surely, there was some kind of catch. The stab of one of her garlic croutons was way less non-comittal than her tone, "But I'm not exactly sure what all I'm getting myself into. Partners? I'm guessing it's an ongoing thing?" Guessing as in hoping, she momentarily mused.

"Yes." The fingers of his left hand arched and then spread on the table top like he was playing piano, "You're not just saying yes to a couple jobs," and they tapped emphatically on his last word, "You're saying yes to a career." Inwardly, the man cringed as he watched her drag a bit of tomato through her dressing and stop to peer at it, troubled.

"And abandoning the one I've worked my entire adult life to pursue." The world of the subconscious was amazing and encompassing but what the hell was slaving for five long, hard years in university for if she was going to throw it away to spend life asleep? Then a second later, one brow quirked up because—She loved sleeping. And...multi-million dollar paychecks, Ariadne, hello.

Arthur's lips pursed, "They're technically in the same vein." Which was true. Her education in that field, her studies and efforts put into it, all were definitely going to be benefited from. Most people could learn to forge, point and extract...but architecture was a specific skill that needed real world knowledge and application to believably transfer designs from paper to dream. Not just anyone could hop into dream architecture, they needed to be a real one first. So in that way, her schooling wouldn't be for naught. He paused. Bided his time by sipping his beverage. The next stipulations would be even harder for a regular member of society to swallow. "You'd also eventually have to go off the grid. Cut off family and friends and live a life of invisibility like myself."

Here, her reaction made him twice as antsy as before. (Though unless one were in Arthur's head they wouldn't be able to detect it from another twitch of his thumb.) Ariadne wholly abandoned her eating utensil and sat back. Sighed with eyes wide and unsure. She already had spotty contact with her mom and stepdad, so there was no love lost there on her part. But her grandparents, her cousins, her friends in Paris (even though she'd been stand-offish as of late, she still cared for them) and back home? Would that include the Miles' and Cobbs? Would she have to live the rest of her life as someone other than Ariadne Benoit? She stayed staring at her half-used, lip gloss stained napkin for a long minute before wincing, "I don't know if I'm ready to be a ghost."

"Of course not." To sustain the appearance that he was less invested in her answer than he actually was, he shrugged and dabbed his mouth. "It wouldn't be cold turkey. It would be gradual, over a period of a few years. That's something you'd work up to." When her face didn't show that his statement helped her misgivings, he decided he could compromise. As long as he could get her started, get her to re-involve herself with dreaming, he was pretty self-confident that her love for the work would do the rest. "We can always do a trial period, see how it goes for a certain number of jobs and if you want to back out after that—"

Smartly, she turned her head and inquired, "What if I'm too far in to safely back out?"

"Unlikely but we'd figure it out." Arthur resumed his meal. "You'd have to have at least a decade's worth of prices on your head to be a lost cause in that regard. I wouldn't lose sleep over that."

It seemed like a hefty twenty minutes passed with a silence blanketed over their table. On the outside, Arthur seemed as cool and collected as normal. Ariadne peeked up from her plate at him (with her eyes, not her head), numerous times while she poked at her lettuce and veggies. Compared the racing in her mind to what must've been peace in his; He ate leisurely, his movements relaxed but no less precise. The few times he aimlessly met her gaze, there was no expectancy. No anticipation. The clanking of their silverware being the only sound to emit from their area obviously didn't bother him in the least. Neither did the desertion of her half-eaten lunch, nor her intense pondering with chin in hand and laser-like downward stare. Meanwhile flashes of thought, contradiction, pros and cons sped through her head like a movie on triple fast forward.

What Ariadne wasn't aware of...was that Arthur was on the edge of his seat. She was taking longer than he predicted to make up her mind and that coupled with her clear apprehension was making his stomach feel leaden. Still, he forced his sustenance down at a normal pace for appearances.

"Ok. I think I'm gonna do it," she blurted at last.

Instead of shooting his head up in triumph and excitement like he felt compelled to do, he moved his head back and forth. The word 'think' and the way her voice pitched didn't sound like she was positive about the decision. So he kept his eyes firmly on his plate, "Take a few days to decide. A week or two if you need it."

She half-laughed, "In a week or two I might talk myself back out of it."

"Good." He flagged down the waiter to signal for the check.

"Um..." she leaned forward, "Weren't you wanting me to accept this?"

Arthur nodded once, "I would like you to, yes. But I want you to be absolutely sure. You need to want this. Be willing to dive in. No second thoughts. If there's a possibility you'll fold and back out on me, I'd rather it be before we start than two weeks or even two months after we do." The waiter barely sat the check down before Arthur whipped out a large dollar bill and instructed him to keep the change. Then another idea popped into his head. What made Ariadne come back the first time? "Do you have five more minutes?"
xxxxxxx

The legs of her coffee table stuttered as Arthur shoved it backward to make room. Ariadne was sat cross-legged on her grey sofa, hovering over a sketchpad, the bottom of her hand turning silvery with pencil lead. She was hardly out of practice. Ariadne hadn't stopped doodling mazes since LA. She scrawled labyrinths all over napkins and wrappers, drew them in the dirt with sticks. Drew them with her fingers in the fog on car windows. She finished just as the familiar beep of the PASIV's timer sounded and she found that the noise made her skin itch for the needle.

As per usual, Arthur fastened the velcro band around her wrist before his own, taking but a second to look at the maze she displayed and nodding his approval. "Let's just see how much you can handle."

She shot him a look that said she was more than ready for the challenge.

There was a hiss and then whiteness and then she was standing in the middle of an abandoned city street. The sky was a matte concrete color and created a shade (or tint) over the landscape. No clouds, no sun. Just like the world had a ceiling and it'd been painted. None of the streetlights worked; only blinked yellow. All the buildings rose up and curved inwards towards the street like tsunamis that'd been frozen where the waves started to break. Storefronts were closed, doors locked. Stray papers and garbage blew through the street like tumbleweeds. It was eerie.

The Architect felt something cold and solid pressed into her hand. She looked down first to find a handgun and then up at who gifted it—Arthur. "I want you to find the safe, handle the projections and extract from me on your own."

"That's asking a lot, isn't it?" started Ariadne. The job of the extractor had been previously explained to her both by Dom and Arthur. She was informed of the basics but since that was Cobb's job they didn't spend hardly enough time on the subject for her to perform one, much less on her own and on the spot. "I'll just be groping around like a blind man."

Arthur shrugged, "You know the gist. You're imaginative," his eyebrows jumped, "Improvise." He could tell she was stewing. Ariadne was not the kind of woman to back down from a challenge no matter how skeptical she was of it. And she was trying her hardest not to look skeptical. Or nervous. The Point lifted her hand and flicked the safety off of her gun, "This isn't about performing a perfect extraction. I don't expect that of you yet, we haven't trained you in that part of the field. I just want to hit you with the worst and see if you're still up for it."

Rolling her eyes at him, her head lolled to aimlessly survey the road ahead. "You realize you're talking to the girl whose first job was an inception, right? With Cobb. And a trip to limbo." An arrogant grin spread across her face as she turned back to him, "I'd like to see your worst."

But he wasn't there.

"Arthur?" He'd vanished. No sound of footsteps echoing in the wind. No glimpse of his suit jacket as he turned the corner to hide from her. Nothing. Ariadne took a deep breath and determined where she was in her maze by looking at the roads veering off from where she stood, how they were shaped, and how that translated to the legs she designed to twirl from the middle. She was in the middle of the maze and had to work her way outward. That must be where Arthur's safe was. As she followed the closest leg around a curve and then a sharp corner, the tops of the buildings moved and arched her direction whichever direction she turned. And the further along she confidently went the more sinister the dream became. Ariadne deduced she was halfway to the mark when shadows started to snake out from the gutters and follow her. She raised her gun—it probably wouldn't do anything to shoot a shadow on the ground but it made her feel safer to trek with it cocked and ready to go.

She made it to the safe: A cylindrical bank leaning like the tower of Pisa. In contrast to the trip so far, there were actually projections inside. Hundreds of them patrolling in groups like factions of an army. It wouldn't do to breeze through the front door. So she made a large circle around the base of the bank, scouring for a shortcut. In the back there was a hatch that revealed a tube with a ladder all the way to the tip. So after tucking the gun in the back of her waistband, Ariadne set to work hauling herself up twenty stories.

Exhausted once she'd made it, she didn't think to check for a laser-trip before throwing herself into the upper room. The high pitched shriek of the alarm pierced through the air and out the panoramic windows Ariadne could see bursts of fire. Boom. Boom. Boom. One explosion after another near the horizon in a circle all the way around, leveling skyscrapers in their wake. And from those ruins sprung thousands of projections letting out villainous cries of war. "Shit." Sprinting to the center, she guessed the combination and shoved the papers into her waistband before reading them. The longer she stayed up here, the greater the chance she'd be trapped. Back to the tube, Ariadne stretched her legs on either side and slid down it with her feet. The friction nearly burned all the rubber off the soles of her sneakers. As she struggled to kick the hatch open, projections scrambled in the top of the tube. Once she was out they were closing in from everywhere and firing rounds at her as she ran. She shouldn't have changed the scape but she needed cover—so she started erecting walls and stretching cars like rubber to catch the bullets instead of her back. Rushed bricks in through alleyways like water and created dams to obstruct the path behind her. One bullet soared through an opening and tore through her stomach before she could dive through a window into an empty apartment building.

Grunting and groaning, she stumbled to the staircase and crouched with back against the wall and knees up to scan through Arthur's papers. A lot of it was blacked out in permanent marker and she couldn't make sense of the secret she was trying to steal. A couple of buzz words like 'dad' and 'war hero' stood out but as fast as she was trying to read, nothing came together to form complete thoughts. Accompanied by a blast of warm air, the door was kicked open. She scrabbled for her gun and shot two projections down, thankful they were close enough she could scarcely miss. Ariadne couldn't stay in the stairwell; not with the crowd so close that their screams were one continuous roar. With a flick of her wrist a cement wall poured in and blocked the entrance to the stairs while she pulled herself up. But it didn't last for long. It was blown through and another man slid into the doorway and shot at her, clipping her shoulder. The woman tried to simultaneously clamber up the stairs and shoot over her shoulder at her pursuer but he multiplied and there was two then three then four. One of them lunged up and grabbed her ankle out from under her, making her head collide with a stair.

All she could see was stars as she held her head and toppled down the stairs, straining to flex her fingers and flatten the edges of each stair to make a slide. Bullets hit her left and right, ruining her attempt. When she landed at the bottom, she only had time to gape at the bottom of one of their shoes before it bashed her face in and she woke up.

Ariadne couldn't deny the insurmountable pain as she rocked back and forth, ignoring Arthur's muffled (sounding) inquiries. But she also couldn't deny the surge of adrenaline and excitement that she'd nearly forgotten. It was explosive. She was breathing heavily, shakily ripping off her cuff. The power of pure creation and thrill of cheating death raced through her body; pumped her heart thrice as hard.

Despite having planned for the dream to be brutal and true to the nature of many botched jobs, Arthur was worried he'd pushed too far in making his point. He felt her cheek (as her face was beet red), then quickly checked her pulse. It was fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird. "Look at me." He wasn't sure of what exactly happened but was afraid the dream wasn't fading and she was going into shock. Her head dropped into her hands as she fought to slow her breath. Holding it, then gasping. Then holding. Then gasping.

He pulled at her wrists, "Are you alright? Ariadne, look at me."

Seconds later, her hands slid up to run through her hair before she finally looked at him. The Architect looked exhausted. Like she'd nearly drowned in a rip-tide and was saved by the skin of her teeth. Her eyes met him wildly. Everything in them overwhelmed. She shook her head as her mouth fell open. Arthur rocked back from his knees, disappointed in himself. He'd blown it. Before they'd ever had a chance, he'd traumatized her and scared her off. Then again, if she couldn't handle that, she couldn't handle a life in mind crime. She wasn't as perfect for this as he thought she was. He'd really kicked himself in the ass with this one. He'd wanted it to be her. He thought his choice would pull through. And now the search had to start all over again. Tense and angry, he wound the tubing up, "I'm sorry."

"I'm in."

What? His head shot up to find her and her self-satisfied smirk.

"There's nothing quite like it," quoted Ariadne before she added,"That was such a rush. I can't imagine myself not saying yes." She leaned forward on her knees and smiled at him roguishly, "Quite frankly, I have to be your partner. I have to dream. It's no longer negotiable."

His eyes were the only thing that smiled back but they shone bright (and subtly triumphant). That was the Ariadne he picked out. And something bloody and beautiful was about to begin.

xxxxxxx

The terminal smelled like new carpet and was a dingy sort of clean rather than a sterile sort. Ariadne halfway expected Arthur to bathe one of the chairs with an alcohol wipe before claiming it but he took a seat and propped his ankle on his knee without any of the fuss she expected. Her imagination must have painted a more exaggerated caricature of him than she realized after the Fischer job. She thought she would've committed him to memory better, as closely as she studied him during Inception—which was as closely as she studied her courses on integrative and collaborative design strategies. Then again, half their time together had been in their heads and after six months, remembering his exact likeness was like trying to remember a dream after waking up. A lot of details were fudged. A lot of what she felt were memories were blurry—like a quick kiss in a lobby lined with windows.

The Point Man pushed his sleeve back to check his watch, then crossed his arms and turned full attention to one of the tv's hanging from the ceiling. The news was on. Compelling to him but just a bunch of people yelling to her. She took the opportunity to regard him, wondering what the future held for the two of them. How close would they get? As close as Arthur and Dom? Closer? Would they be best friends? Would they come out of this in a couple years feeling like brother and sister? Would she get used to him? Get to know him? Learn his favorite foods, see him in plaid pj pants? Maybe one day she'd look at him and be completely uninterested in analyzing him anymore. (Because she'd know him so well, she wouldn't have to). She wondered if she'd ever be able to know what he was thinking; what he thought of her, at least. Right now she felt little more than one of his business investments. A venture in the dreamshare stock market. She had to keep reminding herself that that was actually quite flattering. Of the millions of people Arthur could've chosen to deal with on a daily basis—because let's face it, Arthur found most humans unbearably agitating—he found her the most tolerable.

It startled her more than him when his phone buzzed to life in his pocket. It was evidently business, because after he saw the screen he looked at her pointedly and stood to answer it. He smoothly crossed the waiting area to stare out the gate's windows as he talked, mostly to acquire more quiet. Ariadne, gathered their trash from lunch and crossed the opposite direction to dispose of it; then when she returned to her seat, she pulled her legs up and rested her head on the hard plastic. It'd been an eventful morning. Arthur picked her up at her flat no later than four fifteen am which meant she had to be up by at least three fifteen (even though she rolled over and laid around until three forty-five). In her tiredness, she walked out and left her passport on the coffee table—no way she was getting in or out of the country without that. They were already at the airport when they had to circle back and grab it, then tensely had to stand and wait in the security line. They were the last to board their first flight but at least they made it. The only downfall was the rich family who'd paid their way into business class and sat behind them with not only a rowdy six year old but a baby who was constantly hungry or wet or too tired to do anything but wail. The plane was off-schedule and landed late, therefore, they missed their connecting flight and had to be re-assigned to another... so they'd been in Miami for around three hours. "Ok, the client confirmed the meeting for Wednesday at 2pm."

She hadn't even realized she dozed off. The woman's eyes flew open to see Arthur's form was absent from the spot by the window she'd been staring at. He'd materialized beside her; she felt him standing there, his hand resting on the back of her chair. "I hope that's not too early in the morning for you." She glared outside the window, where the jet bridge could be seen unfolding like an accordion and attaching to the plane. Finally. "Ha. Ha."

He continued on in all seriousness, "I can't do any preliminary research on a mark we haven't been given yet so that gives us four days head start for your training." The man pulled his boarding pass from inside his jacket pocket and reached over her to grab his carry-on satchel. Even movements as ordinary and mundane as those, he carried out with agility and precision. The Architect wondered if that'd rub off on her. It'd be rad to brush her teeth and look like she was 007 too. Or say, pull a boarding pass out of her front pocket that wasn't folded (and wrinkled). She ironed it out using the arm of the chair, "Nice. What are we starting with first? What the hell an extractor actually does? Because judging from the shit-storm of that trial dream a few days ago, there doesn't seem to be a lot of technique involved," before snapping her backpack from her feet and standing as well.

"I would like to cover that, yes, but we should start on the basics. Things you need to have a grasp on before we get too heavy into a schedule of jobs. First and foremost, PASIV procedures." He said in a low tone, standing aside to let another passenger pass (and casually giving them the evil eye because clearly he and Ariadne had begun to make their way to the line first). He planned the best course of action to himself, but out loud. "Self defense, both practical and psychological. But if we can't get to that before our client meeting it'll be fine. This first job together is meant to be more of a training experience anyway. We can work on defense mechanisms during preparations. We'll inevitably do some projection evasion in the dreams but you should have real-world training and application even before that. So we'll do firearm practice, sparring and gloss over some parkour. We'll play it by ear but I'm hoping we can cover that much ground before the next job." They filed into the line for first class passengers, patiently waiting against a backdrop of low conversations and the beeps of the scanner. Ariadne naturally fell into line in front of him and thus slightly turned over her shoulder, "Sounds like an awful lot of basics to cover in two weeks."

Arthur shrugged as Ariadne stepped up to the kiosk and forked over her ticket, "Two weeks and four days." She turned backwards after she was waved through just in time to see Arthur playfully smirk, "I have faith in you," and be waved through as well.
xxxxxxx

Once comfortable in their seats, they were relieved to find that no children were flying first class this time and they might actually get some sleep. Arthur opted to put his carryon in the overhead while Ariadne chose to kick her backpack under the seat in front of her and rip open the complimentary blanket and pillow set. After buckling and swaddling herself in anticipation for sweet, sweet, rest—after she folded the pillow between the window and her ear but before she shut her eyes— Ariadne met Arthur's amused gaze. "Oh come on, like you're not exhausted too."

"I'm a bit drowsy. But considering the time difference, if you sleep now, you'll stay awake all night once we get to South America."

"So? Four days until the meeting...I can sleep in the next day."

He hiccupped a chuckle but was half serious in saying, "I can see we're also going to have to correct your sleeping habits."

Ariadne pursed her lips, "I'm thinking they're going to be shot anyway. Constantly changing time zones, constant injection of sleepy-time drugs...if anything I think we're just going to screw them up more." Arthur partly conceded, tilting his head; to which she insistently stated, "So I've decided I get a nap."

With that, she whipped out her cell phone to put it back on airplane mode (and close out her bubble-popping arcade game) but it was exploding with text after text and notifications of missed calls. Her head rocked back into her headrest with dread. Arthur couldn't help but curiously peek over her shoulder, "Stephen?"

"Yep," her smile was forced and more of a facetious sneer than it was cheery. "Bet you anything Dom told him what I'm up to." Closing out one virtual conversation to check on the next showed that sure enough, Dom had sent his own plethora of texts:

Hey call me.

Ariadne, I need to talk to you before you get on that plane.

I think you're making a mistake.

You realize I'm going to have to tell Miles. I don't want him to have to get involved.

There was that mention of Dom again. Arthur grimaced in sympathy and reasoned, "To be fair, he was going to find out eventually." When she shot him a pettish look, he added, "You live in the same city and you're not there; don't know when you'll be back. I'm actually surprised he didn't already know. That you didn't consult in him about my offer." Yes, she accepted after the dream but she had until their plane left the ground to change her mind.

The woman complained, "That's what Dom was for. But he wasn't keen on the idea either, so I'm not surprised he snitched. I was just planning to have a couple days to come up with a gentler way to break it to Professor."

Ariadne spoke with Dom about Arthur's proposition? And Dom was against her getting involved? A bit hypocritical of him, Arthur thought, but not entirely unexpected. "Well, you've got roughly nine hours..."

xxxxxx

Ariadne's phone continued to buzz as they stood at the luggage carousel watching the colors go round. Arthur found his bags quickly, having tagged them and adding a distinguishable lock. Ariadne's was one of many medium sized black ones though the red ribbon tied at the handle should've set it apart. The Point exercised much more patience than the Architect in waiting for it to appear on the belt. It did eventually though, and they were off. It was as Arthur was in line, checking in with the rental car company that Ariadne chose to step away, "I'm gonna go ahead and call Miles, I'll meet you outside."

"Alright," he nodded. Removing a packet of info from his jacket pocket and stepping up to the desk. "Good luck."

She rolled her suitcase outside and parked herself by one of the pillars. Her index finger pressed to her eardrum to hear the trills of the call going through. At the click, she closed her eyes and blurted. "Hey."

"Oh goodness..." muttered a woman's tired voice. "Stephen..." the voice called out, "Yes, it's her," and answered to a subtle rumble. Ariadne sucked in a breath during the static pause, bracing herself.

"Sacre bleu, Ariadne! I've been calling and calling...Mon dieu, girl! Where on earth have you been?"

Picking at the plastic on her suitcase handle she lightly answered, "On a plane? I just landed in Brazil." She thought perhaps her pleasantness would put Miles at ease. Perhaps she could make it sound like a nonchalant vacation? A much-needed sabbatical? He'd understand that.

But the wise man on the phone saw through her airy tone. The wise man cut to the chase with solemnity. "With Arthur?"

Ariadne's line of sight cut across to the automatic doors and the suited man she could see at the counter through them. "With Arthur."

xxxxxxx
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Hello! I am finally back and it feels so wonderful! I went through a period of writer's block and it got to the point where writing almost started feeling like a chore and it was unnecessarily stressing me out. So I took a break and the little author bug bit me once more. I'm feeling refreshed and so excited to share a new adventure! The story banner, elaboration section, and changes to info for upcoming stories will be added to profile before the next update. Thanks for taking time to read this first chapter, please review! I'd like to see who all is still out there and reading from previous works I've done and any newcomers to our fiction fandom!