Chapter 5: Close

"Of course he's late," chided the Point as he and Ariadne watched Eames strut towards them on the crosswalk, rolling his bag along. One could argue that Eames couldn't control the delay of his flight from Lucerne. But one could also argue that a stop at the airport bar and a nap in the airport's adjoining hotel was not a necessity. Ariadne just beamed.

Eames called from afar and held up a plastic bag, "I've come bearing gifts!"

And while Arthur was satisfied waiting for the Forger to make it to them, Ariadne was bubbling to see a team member she hadn't seen in ages (and wasn't sure she'd ever see again at the time) and she bounded the last few steps to meet him. Eames, in return of her enthusiasm, promptly lifted her feet off the ground. "If it isn't my favorite Architect. You are a sight for sore eyes."

"And you—" the Forger transferred his attention to the other man present after handing Ariadne her gift. "Are a sore on my arse."

"Eames." Arthur acknowledged with an offered hand (out of greeting or truce, it was offered just the same). Their handshake was more amiable than they liked to lead on.

"Oh my God, yes." They both swiveled to Ariadne. "I love it!" And she was slinging on a red and white soccer knit scarf, printed with the cross from the Switzerland flag, bearing the word "Suisse."

Eames grinned, "I'm glad." He slapped a matching red ball cap to Arthur's chest with little to none of the same joy, "This one's yours," and opened his arm for Ariadne to slide next to him.

They chatted and walked on to the car leaving Arthur behind, blustering, "I'm not wearing this."

xxxxxxx

It was no surprise Ariadne got along with Eames so swimmingly. She formed a bond with each of the members of the Inception team. One reason may have been that she was the only girl and while they respected the hell out of her and would not debate that she could handle herself, they each took a larger interest in her and handled her with more care, out of instinct. And that's how they got to know her as well as they had and forged friendships (pun more or less intended in Eames' case).

With Yusuf, Ariadne enjoyed intelligent conversation about brainwaves, physiology, chemical (im)balances, and food. Lots and lots about food. How to pair a complimentary wine with a gouda crusted risotto or the perfect gravy with a seared duck or even the addition of cocktail sauce to a cup of microwaved mac n cheese. Yusuf knew taste buds as well as he knew drugs. They liked to sit and pick apart each others brains over snack breaks and show each other stupid cat videos they found while lying awake in their respective rooms at night. The mutual admiration for each others expertise helped their friendship as well.

With Arthur, Ariadne was always more comfortable with less conversation. They just seemed to fit better in the grooves left by silence. When they did talk, it was quiet and level and meaningful. Their friendship rested in a pocket of serenity and the simplicity it came with is part of the reason why she trusted the man with her life. Everyone pegged him as uptight but they weren't really paying attention. Arthur was structure but Arthur was peace. When he did say something, he meant it. And when he was relaxed, the sarcasm he exuded was amusing. Plus, his taste for the refined things in life like culture and architecture and fine arts put them on the same plane of appreciation often.

Whereas her relationship with Arthur hung on poise, her relationship with Eames hung on spontaneity, belly laughs, and a plethora of mischief. Eames was the kind of man who used a sledgehammer to crack a nut and the wilder side of Ariadne thrived on it. They flirted a lot. No real desire there and both found the idea mutually repulsive but they believed it to be the most uproariously hilarious thing— to pick at each other and see how uncomfortable they could make the others in the room. On the flip side, when he needed to be serious, he was. When he needed to be helpful, he was. And the man was a diabolical genius. His many facets made him out to be a big giant thievery teddy bear and thus he got the most of Ariadne's hugs.

Ariadne's close relationship with Cobb was—close and complicated. And she'd leave it there.

"So obviously every one on the team should be included," Eames said as he wrote each of their names sans Ariadne's on the whiteboard. Arthur rented one of the small boarding rooms available for business use in the hotel. It was simple. Big white topped table, identical army of uncomfortable chairs around it, a whiteboard drilled to the wall, a projector hanging from the generic dropped ceiling tiles, a healthy fern in the corner and new carpet that gave off the scent of headaches.

"And Professor Miles," Arthur added with the clicks of locks in the background as he removed the PASIV from it's protective, rolling, utility case.

Eames nodded, "Okay. We'll get to those later." He made another column titled Family and punctuated the thought with a squeaky underline. "I want to start with some family members. Hit me with some names. All immediate. Any one close?"

Arthur felt his partner's eyes cut to him in askance. He'd emphasized the importance to her to never give out her personal information (even to someone they'd previously worked with) on one of their earliest training sessions. Yet, he reassured without looking, checking the vials of Somnacin. "It's alright. He needs to know to train you properly."

Ariadne peered at the back of Arthur's head. At the hands holding up a vial to the light and measuring the amount left. At the minute hand on his watch ticking sluggishly. Like it was a chore. She then looked to Eames who'd been zoned out on her backpack. A behavior that laced itself with her growing suspicion. She laid some bait. "My dad. Gerard Benoit. He's the one I was closest to." Arthur slid the PASIV onto the table and Ariadne took note of how he nodded approvingly of her first choice and yet never met her eyes to acknowledge he'd known what it meant to her. Not that Arthur was overtly sentimental but he was definitely sympathetic. She thought back to their outing in Barcelona and the downward tug in the corner of his mouth when she informed him of her broken family. The man across from her handed each of the others their drip leads without so much as a blink, "You'd best start there."

Except wouldn't that be a waste of time, thought Ariadne? Her dad's presence alone was a sufficient totem. She hadn't seen him outside of dreams for years. Arthur did tend to be redundant in his training to make sure all bases were covered (trust her, she knew) but he was not one to suggest the misuse of time if it would hold no benefit. The man at the whiteboard regarded Ariadne strangely as if he'd read her mind. And suddenly there was a knock on the door.

"We're working, thank you," Arthur called towards the door before adding, "Ignore them."

Ariadne lifted an eyebrow, "You sure we should start with my father?" she tilted her head and sifted through her backpack in a claim to find a peppermint. "A lot of emotion there..."

"Then that'll be the perfect jumping off point. Always start with the closest relationship." Answered the Forger simply, Velcro-ing the strap around his wrist.

Eames heard her criticize, "And you thought Arthur was my closest relationship?" too quickly to register the cock of a gun afterwards. The (pretty accurate) projection of the Forger that Ariadne's mind conjured up leapt forward at the same time Arthur looked up sharply, a startled British accent coming from the Point Man's mouth, "Ariadne, wait!"

xxxxxxx

Ariadne opened her eyes to the hiss and clicks of the Somnacin pumps and Arthur in the back of the room making another pot of coffee. In front of her sat a cup, half drank and lukewarm. Though she remembered it'd already been so when she'd gone under. She brushed her bishop with her thumb before settling into her reality and asking, "Can I have a fresh cup?"

Arthur turned over his shoulder in surprise. He expected it to take at least the allotted 5 minutes on the timer. Had she really cracked Eames that fast? "That was quick. You haven't even been under that long."

The Brit sputtered awake.

"You need to brush up on your Arthur impression," simpered the woman as she rose to take her requested fresh cup of joe from the aforementioned. The whiteboard displayed a similar chart as the one in the dream, detailing her relationships. The Point drew a line through his own name.

"So when you said 'closest' did you mean by literal location?" she was a relentless teaser when she was in the mood to be, he was learning.

Arthur chided, "Wow, thanks Partner."

She shrugged. "You wouldn't tag me as your closest relationship." A quick glance at Eames revealed him spiking his coffee with some Bailey's before joining Arthur at the board with a red marker of his own. She returned his wink with a smirk.

"Recently, we've spent the most time together. And technically..." the Point explained, examining the board for her next trial subject, shaking his head at Eames' suggestion, "my subconscious is probably the closest to yours at this point." Both he and Eames didn't think to take note of Ariadne's silence.

And because of that the trouble didn't come until much later.

xxxxxxx

The first time Ariadne and Eames bolted upright in simultaneous terror they didn't think anything else of it except to put the subject back into rotation and try again later. It was imperative to switch up which forged subject was invading and which of them was the dreamer to keep her subconscious on it's toes. The method that worked best was to train Ariadne against familiar faces and then work outwards to strangers. Her mind would find it easier to pinpoint the strangeness in those she knew well; To feel when she populated a dream and when she was brought into one. Slowly, and after much consecutive repetition, it would become a habit for her brain to seek out and detect activity. Everyone had an instinctual defense against foreign presences in their minds. Like Dom had said: they swarm like antibodies fighting an infection. What a militarized subconscious did was set up an alarm system of sorts and keep active guard so the dreamer had a tighter barrier of safety.

The fifth or sixth time (in a row) they woke gasping for air and grasping at hemorrhaging wounds that weren't there was about when it started to get old. At that point, Ariadne began to get frustrated. Not just with Eames and his insistent "Go again" before she had time to calm down but with herself and her evident inability to focus enough to finish this damn training. It shouldn't be this hard. The woman blazed through the majority of their list in less than 2 hours, only getting hung up here and there. But usually a second try was all it took to get her subconscious on the same page and red-light the impostor.

They'd been all over the board and back to this individual enough times she should be ready for it. He was all there was left besides a random thrown in for good measure, now.

Arthur had counted 11 times when Ariadne finally emerged from the dream completely and utterly fed up. "Oh my God!" she forced through an agitated growl and slammed her fist on the table.

"Some individuals take longer than others. Don't get discouraged." reassured her Partner from behind his laptop. As the list had begun to dwindle, he had left Eames to choose her subjects alone based on what he was observing in the dreams.

She sneered at him and his half eaten bowl of chicken parmesan. "Easy for you to say." Her and Eames were putting themselves through the mental, emotional, and (what felt like) physical ringer. Arthur was enjoying a hot lunch, kicking back, and looking up garment bags (he was in need of a new one).

Once the Forger caught his breath, he tried to calmly advise, "I told you to hone in on the details as you've done before." But it came across less as calm and more as irritated to hell.

"I'm trying," she grit. "I can't help—"

"What? Forgetting that we're dreaming when we've been doing it for what feels like days?"

Arthur lowered his screen to watch their increasingly heated argument. The Architect rolled her eyes, "It's psychological." And Eames chided, "Yes, we're in your mind, Darling. I would think so." He questioned half genuinely "Are you analyzing the surroundings, my ticks, are you trying to sense your subconscious?"

"Yes!" exclaimed the woman before digging the heels of her hands into her head. "Look, can I just have a minute?"

Eames sighed then pursed his lips, "No. Again."

Knowing there was something deeper to her frustration, Arthur stepped in for her, "You've been going a while; It can't hurt to give her a break—"

"Actually it could," snapped the Forger, "and I don't want to start from scratch. You asked me to come in and guide her through this so let me call the shots." After roughly rubbing his face, he ordered, "Again."

For once, it was the Forger who was more in tune to the task at hand and the Point who was more in tune to the feelings of a team mate. Then again, he'd always been in tune to Ariadne's feelings, from the day they met. They'd always been aware of each other in that way. It was not like Ariadne to back down. It was not her nature to step back and ask for a break from a challenge. "Eames, seriously, just a second."

Arthur closed his laptop and rounded the table to help her take out her lead. It would surely be sore from hours of having it inserted and he didn't think it wise to blow a vein in her other wrist just as the first was finally healed. He knelt by her, per usual, "Maybe you should eat, I can grab you something from the vending machine or order up—"

"Now or I shut the whole thing down."

"Eames," admonished Arthur.

"And I'll tell him."

Ariadne suddenly ignored Arthur (which he found curious), pulling her wrist from him. And with the coldest glare at Eames, she laid back down and stared at the ceiling and waited for the plunge.

It wasn't long enough for Arthur to make an online purchase and walk back to the whiteboard before it happened again. Except this time, the energy that swept into the room as they woke was that of a hurricane. Ariadne no sooner opened her eyes than she tore the needle from her arm, snatched her bag—knocking her cup of coffee over in the process—and stepped over Eames to storm towards the door. "I'm done."

Eames stood up, "You almost had it, Ariadne. We have to keep going until you finish. If you can't get through this —"

Ariadne finally acknowledged Arthur, "I can't go back in right now. If that's a problem, book me a flight home. Find someone else." The door slammed behind her before the Point could even begin to smooth it over. Arthur was fairly sure she wouldn't quit over this...but only fairly. He needed to get to the bottom of it and figure out how to help her or their partnership would crash as soon as it had lifted off the ground. Incredulously, Arthur watched Eames (disappointment all over the Forger's face) remove his lead and start packing up the PASIV. "I don't understand." Arthur remained in place, "It was running smooth. She's the fastest learner I know, how can she be falling behind ninety percent of the way through. Who is she hung up on?"

"You'll never guess it..."

"I bet I could..." If it wasn't her father and it wasn't Miles, it had to be: "Cobb?"

Eames let out a hefty breath, "He's rooted deep. She knows who she's looking for, why we're there, she knows she's dreaming, and then as soon as I forge him—It's like her brain triggers something. We always go back to the same place. The same damn thing plays on the tv. The same conversation happens and she forgets." Tossing his coffee cup in the trash, he grimaced, "They weren't...like...? He was still obsessed with Mal and she's-"

"Too smart for that," Arthur pondered, arms folded across his chest.

Him delivered 12:43pm: Hey, can you let me in for a minute? Just want to talk.
Her delivered 12:44pm: Not in my room.
Him delivered 12:44pm: Back in Paris already? Didn't even give me time to grovel :/
Her delivered 12:45pm: Coffee place in the lobby.

She was at a table in the corner, tearing bits off of a blueberry muffin as if they were the parts of her brain fighting her progress. When he approached, she asked "Have my ticket?" The sarcasm was only there to hide the quiet anger she was harboring towards herself.

Instead of replying to her remark, he sat, "Will you go back in if I'm the one who goes with you?"

Ariadne didn't look at him but made a face, "I'm not sure how that'll change anything."

"I know Dom better."

The newest bit of muffin was smashed and discarded, "Eames told you..."

Athur's lips pursed, "He didn't have to. The calls, how often you mention him, the way you talk about him..." The Architect looked anywhere but his eyes. So here, in an effort to get Ariadne to refocus, he slid her muffin away and leaned forward on the table. "I can figure out how to get you past this." He grimaced, "I need you to get past this. We can't have Cobb looming over our partnership..."

"I agree," nodded Ariadne, "but I obviously can't help it. What do you suggest?"

"Okay. I'm going to ask you some questions.I don't mean to pry and you don't have to elaborate but you need to be completely honest." At her gesture of compliance, "First...how close have you and Dom gotten, exactly?"

There were a couple of false starts in Ariadne's answer. In no way was it because she was hesitant or embarrassed about her relationship with Cobb. Not really...The fact that he was the reason her brain was hung up...yes. But the nature of their relationship, no. Still, she was at a loss in how to answer. She settled on "Very?"

"Yeah..." Arthur sighed. He'd been curious about the co-dependent type relationship between his new partner and his old one but in the face of learning the truth, he wasn't sure he actually wanted to find out. "In what way, I mean."

The uncomfortable tension in Arthur's shoulders and reluctance in his gaze let Ariadne on to what he was trying to ask (without really asking). She tilted her head, "I'm not in love with him, if that's what you're asking."

The tension didn't go away. In fact, the awkward flex of his jaw muscle and the expression of fixing to dive into shark infested waters was her clue that while diverting from the previous question, he was headed down a similar (but worse) vein of thought. "And we haven't ever slept together." Her eyes shut on instinct, her face twisting, "The thought it actually pretty gross. Thanks for that..."

"Then what is this?" He motioned in her general direction, "How do you feel about him? And don't say 'it's complicated'."

"I don't know..." the woman dug her two index and middle fingers into her temples. "It's platonic...but we're more than just friends. And sure, he reminds me of my dad in a way with the Mal stuff but I don't see him as a father figure. Or a brother figure or an uncle...That's weird. We're just—I can't explain it." she shrugged, almost helplessly. "I feel protective, attached—I don't know, Arthur. It's just..." She threw a hand in the air, "it's me and Dom."

The Point Man wanted so badly to ask what had happened between the two. Why after years of friendship with the Point, Cobb latched onto Ariadne—a stranger— and trusted her with the skeletons in his closet. He wanted to know what the woman must've seen and experienced in the basment of Dom's mind that would've seared him into her head. What the two of them endured in limbo to bond them so tightly. But now was not the time. And frankly, there might never be a time for that private information to be shared with a third party.

"Look instead of running from those feelings when he's forged in the dream, focus on them." Advised Arthur, "Feel them. All of them except protection. Let that go. You don't need to be protective of him." Without realizing it, he rolled his eyes, "You should've never have had to be protective of him," but he soldiered on, "and that is what's keeping your mind from seeing him as a potential threat."

xxxxxx

Los Angeles.

In between the pitch black middle of night and that dark-blue, melancholy, arrival of early morning.

The Architect was sluggishly pulled from sleep by the rustle of a blanket being draped over her. It was Dom, now settled into his armchair with a beer. The tv was playing an informercial; yellow song titles gliding across the screen to the sound of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons—that song that stopped Ariadne at the diner—and a deep voice repeating the low, low price of $19.99.

"I didn't mean to wake you," the blonde apologized.

Ariadne pulled herself halfway up on the sofa and shook her head, "Nah, I have trouble sleeping for very long anyways." Dom knew why but she still clarified, "Limbo and Mal and Fischer and everything. Sometimes I dream we're still trapped down there. That we're still idling in Fischer's mind on a plane somewhere."

"I'm sorry," he apologized again, after a swig from his bottle. "The feeling will fade eventually. The dreams too."

"Being here with you helps," the Architect smiled sleepily. "Seeing you happy. Hearing peace in your voice." Her legs crossed and she hugged a throw pillow to her chest contentedly, "Reminds me we pulled it off. That we did wake up." Ariadne let that feeling of relief sink into her as she observed him. Hair clean and tousled from a good night's sleep. Worry lines gone. She chuckled to herself, "Like some kind of totem."

Then it clicked. Totem. Ariadne snuggled down and felt in the crease of the couch for her chess piece.
She was indeed dreaming. And now, instead of appreciating the ease in Dom's posture, she honed in on the beer bottle cap. No indention from a bottle opener. And Dom was wearing socks. He never wore socks when at home, he didn't feel completely relaxed that way.

But who did was— "Arthur." She folded her arms across her chest, smirking.

Dom let out a big breath and stood grinning, "I'm so proud I could shoot you." His visage faded and grew into the Point, "but we better leave that for your sub-security so we can finish this mess."

When they woke with success, Eames was so ecstatic, he kissed both of their foreheads.

With varying response.

xxxxxx

As reward and at request, Arthur hunted down the biggest, juiciest, closest-thing-to-a-cheeseburger he could find for Ariadne in Lisbon and delivered it to her room. "Good job."

"Yeah. Thanks to you," she offered him a smile after sniffing the contents of the takeout bag.

"See you in the morning. I want to start vetting Eames' upcoming job so we know what to expect when we get to Tel Aviv."

She nodded as he stepped away. Arthur was already nearing his door when she called out in afterthought, "We'll get there, you know."

"Tel Aviv?" the Point looked at her curiously.

"Close."

Arthur strolled back to her door, eyes squinted in confusion. "Close?"

Ariadne had seen his face earlier, whether Arthur knew he was even making one or not. She was describing the strange and unusual intimacy between her and Dom and recognized something akin to jealousy on her partner's face (though Arthur would go down insisting he was jealous of neither Dom or Ariadne). They were friends at this point, yes, but a tight knit bond like Arthur and Dom had—and honestly, similar to what Ariadne and Dom had—is what Arthur and Ariadne needed to develop for a flourishing partnership and what the both of them had in mind to eventually acquire. In part and not coming from a place of trauma but, still. "Yeah. And not because I pried through the darkest memories in your brain and you dragged me to limbo or some other weird shit. Like a real, healthy, partner-y close."

Arthur smiled a small smile, now understanding what she was referring to. He hoped the same. "We'll be a good team." And they high-fived. Because Ariadne made him.

"Are you still having those nightmares about limbo?" He recalled what she mentioned to fake Cobb down in the dream earlier. He wished she'd mentioned that struggle to him sooner; that was something they could've worked through together during her first round of training. Might've been another reason for her late-sleeping back then...and her need to have Dom's number saved into her burner.

"Sometimes," shrugged the woman, "but it's not as bad as it was." That was a lie. Those types of dreams were always bad but sometimes you just weren't mortified to the point they couldn't fade. He knew from experience.

"Well, if you ever need to talk or just need company to fall back asleep, come wake me up."

Ariadne looked at him like he was kidding, "As if." He didn't like being woken up at ungodly hours of the night, she knew because she was constantly waking him up for this and that. Design modifications, mark questions. He was usually grumpy and short with her though she was positive he tried hard not to be.

"No, I'm serious. I know what it's like. I won't mind."