Fahye (fahye_fic) wrote,
Fahye
fahye_fic

[Inception: the manor house (1/3)]

Title: The Manor House
Fandom: Inception
Word count: 23,636
Illustrations by: inknose
Notes: Well, this one's been a marathon. Anyone who knows me will think it should have been easy -- yeah, yeah, another control-freak character -- but this story surprised me by taking 5,000 words to work out what shape it would have, and then changing its mind a little at 12,000 and finally needing almost another 12,000 to achieve it.

I owe great thanks to apiphile, who came up with the idea of personality architecture in the first place, and littledust, beta extraordinaire, who gave this its sadly accurate alternative title: Symbolism Is Fun. Thanks also to everyone who listened to me bitch about how hard it is to write a love story from the perspective of someone who isn't aware that it is, in fact, a love story.

And of course I am eternally grateful to inknose for agreeing to lend her talents in bringing some of the dreamscapes to life, working through thick and thin and computer crises. She's an extraordinarily talented artist and I'd hire her as my Architect any day.

Enjoy!



the manor house





"Give me a year," says Dom.

"So what you mean," says Arthur, "is that you're giving me a year."

Dom's near-unfamiliar laughter sounds in his ear. "I have faith in you."

"Fuck off and make mud pies," says Arthur, and hangs up.


***


"Four minutes, twenty-two seconds."

"Bollocks."

Arthur lifts the stopwatch to show him. Eames collapses into a chair and then ruins the effect by wriggling around in it until his back is at a shocking angle to the pale cream brocade. He still doesn't look comfortable.

"You forgot the stairs behind the piano room," Ariadne tells him. "Take them next time, you'll lose at least half a minute."

"I didn't forget them." Eames rubs a hand across his forehead. "I fell over halfway down them, if you must know."

"Trick step." Yusuf, sweating smugly on the settee, managed to break three minutes on his last turn. Arthur's declared him finished for the day.

"How many steps in all?" Ariadne demands of Eames.

"Seventeen. You need to give my Conan Doyle back. And are the windows on the --" He frowns and glances around. "Lost my bearings. On your left as you leave the starting point on the top floor."

"East," she says promptly.

"East side windows. Something's off about the view."

"I'm working on a boundary loop up there, that could be messing with it." She scribbles something on her notepad. "Good."

"Try the run again," Arthur cuts in.

"Patience, Arthur. Time, if you hadn't noticed, is not exactly against us. Ariadne, is there a single comfortable chair in this room?"

Ariadne, who's leaning against the wall, grins. "I thought beanbags might look out of place."

"Actually, do you know what this whole place reminds me of?" Eames says, gesturing around the room with a whirl of his hand. "Arthur. Look at it. It's the Victorian Country Home version of expensive ties and silver suitcases and never getting anything stuck in your teeth."

Arthur's about to pointedly ignore that when Ariadne makes an annoyed sound and walks over to slap Eames on the arm, hard.

"I don't believe you," she says warmly. "Nobody was supposed to notice."

"I always notice." He winks at her. "That's my job."

"Wait," says Arthur.

Yusuf picks up an elegant brass paperweight, stares at it, and then breaks into howls of laughter.

"Wait," says Arthur again. He leans forward, elbows on knees. "This is me?"

Ariadne nods. She's blushing but otherwise doesn't look ruffled. "The whole point of this exercise is to give us intimate knowledge of a few stock designs, right, and I thought -- it'd help if I made them representative. Of us."

Arthur looks around at the high, high windows stretching nearly to the high, high ceiling; the rich unpatterned carpet; the gilt edges and the glossy reinforced wood of everything. He feels at home here. He feels as though he could dream himself into the fabric of the place and weaponise it.

"Who else have you done?" he says.

~

Arthur's hands are on either side of a lectern, and the auditorium stretches upwards in front of him. He's wearing the same clothes he went to sleep in, except that when he looks down he can see that his tie is a dreadful green.

"Speech!" Ariadne calls. She, Yusuf and Eames are slouched in the front row.

"Tough crowd," Arthur says.

She twists around in her seat; the projections in the other rows do look decidedly inattentive. Three attractive young women in headscarves are whispering together and one of them is casting him amused glances as she taps a pen against her cheek. Arthur suppresses the horrifying urge to ask them if they'd like to share the fun with the whole class.

"This isn't my design. Why do I get the teaching post?" He glances at the sheet of paper lying on the lectern. It says: Intermediate Inception 201.

"Because we respect you, O Beloved Tutor." Yusuf smirks.

Eames lifts a paper plane and sails it, with great care, at Arthur's head.

"Welcome to the University of Yusuf," Ariadne says, getting to her feet. "Wait until you see the library."

The campus isn't like any university that Arthur knows, and he wonders where the largely Paris-raised Ariadne found her building-blocks; movies of sun-drenched American college life, perhaps. Every building looks abducted from a different aesthetic, jumbled together and joined by inefficient paths and trees in fall colours. The paths are swept clear, impeccably neat, but red leaves are scattered all over the grass. Arthur can see a couple of projections lying in a huge pile of them, arms linked, staring at the clouds.

"It's very usable once you've learned it," Ariadne says. "I made sure the layout is dense, but illogical, so it'd be easy to lose a tail or confuse the subject's projections."

Yusuf is walking backwards in front of them, looking a lot happier than Arthur would if his personality had been represented as such a mess. Which is, he supposes, the point.

"What are they?"

Ariadne follows Yusuf's pointing hand to a row of three buildings almost entirely covered in tesselated tiles: one in black and white, one in a multitude of shades of green, and one in a spiralling pattern of purples and pinks. White smoke twists out of thin chimneys set at every corner.

"Science labs," Ariadne says. "What else?"

Yusuf's eyes linger longingly on the bizarre labs, but he keeps walking; there's a lot to see. Ariadne directs a few turns off to the right or left, and five minutes later the path under their feet widens until it's swallowed by a paved forecourt. A Cubist-looking fountain is set directly in front of them, with tiny rainbows shimmering and dancing in its spray, and behind that -- the library. They pause in stilted unison, taking it in.

"Oh, now," Eames says. "That's really something."

The building is sprawling and strange, dark stone giving way to reflective windows tucked under exaggerated eaves, and set up high are two large cupolas with stained glass on every side. It looks like the mutant offspring of a church and a castle, given a few swift coats of paint with the brush of the twenty-first century. It doesn't look like anything that Arthur's ever seen.

Ariadne gives a little hop before she leads them inside, casting quick glances from face to face like a proud parent waiting for someone to tell her that the baby has her eyes. The main reading room has yet more stained glass, set as a feature above staircases that form a jagged X on the far wall, an octagonal clock at their centre.

Eames heads for the nearest shelf and runs his hand across the spines of the books. "You haven't gone down to this level of detail, surely."

"Honestly, I don't know what'd be in them. The details are up to the subject." She looks at Yusuf.

"I highly doubt I have the words of an entire book, even in my subconscious memory," he says, and takes one from the shelf. Everyone else does the same.

Arthur opens his to a random page: lorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisci velit…

"No real content in this one." But even as he says it he isn't sure.

"This one's just photographs." Ariadne.

"I've got a poem," Eames says gleefully, and leaps away from Yusuf's grab, up onto a chair. The projections reading nearby give them the universal dirty looks directed at library noise-makers.

"We’re going to get kicked out," Ariadne mutters.

"Yes, we are going to suffer, now; the sky
Throbs like a feverish forehead; pain is real;
The groping searchlights suddenly reveal
The little natures that will make us cry,

Who never quite believed they could exist,
Not where we were. They take us by surprise
Like ugly long-forgotten memories,
And like a conscience all the guns resist.
"

Eames has a good voice for poetry; not even the projections complain into the hush that falls when he pauses. His finger skims down the page, flicks it over, and then he quirks a very small smile. "Ah."

"What, did you think I wrote it myself?" Yusuf claps his own book closed and points the spine at Eames. "Him next."

~

The noise is a shock, and Arthur has turned around to yell something into Ariadne's ear before he realises that she's not there. The girl standing next to him is even shorter than Ariadne, with a black ponytail spilling down one shoulder and a feather-edged mask in peacock colours. Her eyes sparkle up at Arthur and when she turns to melt into the crowd, her hips sway in time to the music. Arthur tries to catch the melody over the cacophany of voices, the middle-distance slosh of water against brick, but it's difficult, and definitely unfamiliar.

Someone jostles up against Arthur's side. "Well, the mask is new, but I'd know those trousers anywhere."

"Your subconscious is flirting with me."

"You could at least try to sound shocked." Eames looks around. His mask, somewhat to Arthur's surprise, is a plain theatrical white. Blank. "What do you think? I like it."

Arthur's only ever been to Venice during the winter floods, when the water in Piazza San Marco would have come up to his knees it it hadn't been for the planking set above the waterline, and his clearest memory is of following Mal from shop to shop on Murano and listening to her laugh as Dom held glass jewellery up to her ears and fastened it around her neck. He's never seen the Carnevale, and nobody around them is speaking anything but English, but the base design is obvious nevertheless.

"It's more chaotic than the others."

"That's hardly an answer."

"It was a loaded question." Arthur smiles and reaches up to feel his own mask. It feels like leather and covers his entire face. When he unties the ribbon and lifts it off he can see that it's a dark red colour, carefully moulded, the features set in a creased and perplexed expression.

"Arthur!" It's Yusuf's voice. Arthur turns around and sees the edges of the man's hair peeking out from under a tricorn hat. Yusuf has ditched his own mask already, if he was wearing one.

"Now all we need is the hostess herself," Eames says. "Well, Columbine?"

Ariadne turns around in a rustle of fabric and lowers her own half-mask, which is elaborately decorated in gold and supported by a stick. Beneath it her face is made up, her lips vivid and eyes dark.

"I would not have seen you there," says Yusuf.

She gestures around with her mask. "Okay, so it’s a bit obvious."

"Which makes it even more appropriate," Arthur says before he can stop himself.

"What's the matter, Arthur?" Eames looks straight at him. "Jealous that your personality isn't as colourful?"

Which is unfair, because Arthur has only been making the comparison with a tiny bitter part of his mind -- barely acknowledged -- wondering meanly if all Ariadne sees when she looks at him are prim angles and cold hallways. So it just figures, it's just his fucking luck, that Eames can stand there and make jokes that rush to the heart of his insecurity. Pinning him like an insect.

Arthur's always been a fast learner but he still has to check himself, sometimes, keep quiet and make sure the rules he's following are the right ones, and the fact that Eames understands people so effortlessly makes him furious, furious, white-hot with a surge of it like electric current from his rubber soles to the top of his head, and he channels that deliberately into the way he kneels down there on the cobbled street and rolls his die. Every muscle held with the right amount of tension. The flick of his wrist. Standing in one fluid motion instead of seven small ones.

Ariadne looks almost worried, as he brushes the dirt from his knees, but she turns away and doesn't comment. Totems are private business.

~

"Mr Eames, would you like to tell the class the difference between precision and accuracy?"

Eames looks over his shoulder, not bothering to lower the gun. "Why do I get the feeling this is a maths question?"

"Perhaps if you'd paid more attention in school…"

"Perhaps if you weren't a patronising arse," Eames says, landing on the word with relish.

Yusuf looks at Ariadne. "You know, we could leave, and come back when they've fucked it out."

Ariadne says, "What do you mean, leave?"

Arthur feels that the light arms lesson is getting the tiniest bit out of hand. "Accuracy is how close to the target you are. Precision is how consistently you hit the same spot."

"Really," Eames murmurs, his mouth curling at the side. "Fascinating," which means he already knew the answer and is screwing with Arthur to amuse himself.

"Precision without accuracy reveals a systematic flaw in your technique. Accuracy without precision means you need more practice. The targets will give us information on both."

This is a very simple dreamscape, utilitarian and confined; any attempt to leave the firing range simply walks you in again by the opposite door. Ariadne is almost succeeding in her attempt to look nonchalant and unexcited about the fact that she's holding a gun. Yusuf just looks bored. Arthur leans back in his chair, one ankle balanced on the knee of the other leg, and draws up some tables in his notebook.

"All right, let's see what you can do."

The myriad clicks and retorts of weaponry are their own language, intimate and long-remembered. Arthur taps his pen against the paper and keeps his face blank as he calls up the ache in his knees from holding positions, the stiffness in his fingers from afternoons spent training himself into speed and deft disassembly.

It's helpful to know your strengths so you can dream up your favourite arsenal instead of one that you don't know how to use, but the real object here is automaticity: when it comes to a job, you either stop the projections or you don't. You either kill your teammates with a single shot, or you don't. Arthur's had his jaw blown away by a mangled kick attempt and has no plans to repeat the experience.

"This is the best tutorial I've ever had," Ariadne says. "Now what?"

Arthur hands her a .40 Smith & Wesson. "Now this one."

An electronic system connected to the targets sends Arthur the data, which he enters into his own tables. Ariadne is a reasonable beginner, all over the place but not showing any particular bias. Arthur doesn't tell her to practice on her own time; he can tell by the look in her eyes that she's already memorising the details of the range's design. Yusuf is fine with revolvers but tends a little to the left with automatics. Eames steals Arthur's notebook and writes in his own results, with commentary.

"I apologise, Arthur, it seems I am at least three percent useless."

Arthur lets his mouth quirk. "We'll have to work on that."

"How much more of our time are you planning to waste today?"

Arthur looks at his watch. "Five minutes down here."

"Excuse me for this," Eames says, all politeness; spins on his heel, and shoots Yusuf through the head. The man's body teeters back and then crashes to the ground in the way that bodies do. Eames turns the gun around in his hand and offers it to Ariadne. "May as well get used to it."

"Eames," Arthur says sharply.

"I hesitated, my first time," Eames says, ignoring him. "It didn't ruin anything, but it might have."

She takes the gun. Checks the chamber and the safety in exactly the way that Arthur showed her. "It's a good point," she says. "Thank you."

Arthur barely has time to inhale before the barrel kisses his forehead, there's an incredible noise, and he wakes up.

~

For a while Ariadne won't even admit that she's designed an environment based on her own self, which Arthur understands; letting them in would be like giving them her diary to read. When she agrees to show them, Arthur wonders how much street-cleaning she's done, if like an Olympic host city she's anxious to show off only the best aspects of herself.

But perhaps that's an unfair thought in itself.

"Dress code?" Eames asks, settling himself in the chair.

"Patience, Mr Eames," Ariadne says, and Arthur only realises that she's mimicking him when Eames laughs. "I'm sure I can provide you with something suitable," she adds, and reaches out to press the button.

Ariadne must be missing the summer, because there's barely any cloud cover, and the sun beats down in heavy-palmed rhythms on the garden. Arthur goes to shrug off his jacket before he realises that he isn't wearing one. His sleeves are rolled up as though ironed into place, his top two buttons undone, and his pants are very light wool.

"You couldn't dream me a pair of jeans?"

Ariadne raises herself on one elbow and slides her sunglasses down her nose, Lolita-like. "Do you own any jeans?"

He has to think about it for long enough that she smiles, pushes the glasses back up, and leaps to her feet. This is the first time he's seen her arms entirely bare, he realises. She's wearing a red singlet top and khaki shorts that brush the top of her knees, comfortable, almost wild, with her hair loose and bare feet buried in a fitful crop of buttery dandelions amidst the grass.

"Not a city?"

"You don't know everything about me," she says, but she doesn't look offended. "Come on. The gazebo's not far from here."

Arthur catalogues as they walk, locking down the aesthetic of the place; sure, it's not a city, but it's also too landscaped to be pastoral. In the dense shade of a pergola they're overtaken by a couple of projections on bicycles, who have disappeared by the time they emerge blinking at the base of a small hill. The gazebo on top has a three-tiered roof and stands out, shocking bone white, against the grass and trees. Yusuf is leaning against the railing; he lifts a hand when he sees them and jogs down the hill.

Ariadne looks around. "I thought Eames would be here."

"How big is this place?" Arthur asks.

Her mouth thins in concentration. "Pretty big. Let's try the parterre." The French r catches easily on the back of her tongue.

Arthur scratches uselessly at the back of his neck, aware of an itch there that's got nothing to do with his body. It doesn't feel like danger, quite, and they're not attracting any hostility, but it's a steady sensation. He kicks his alertness up a notch.

Eames is kicking up gravel in the parterre, mingling with projections, tracing out the loose knot of the path between the low hedges and stone-edged gardens. As they're approaching he shifts into a good replica of one of the nearby projections, a girl with long legs and cornrows carrying on a conversation in exuberant sign language. For a few seconds his hands echo her gestures with growing confidence, and then he's Eames again, conjuring a smile for Ariadne as she abandons the path and tramps through a flowerbed packed with tulips to greet him.

"I was about to start looking for the croquet lawn," Eames says.

"I'll make you one," she says, probably not joking. "But I had something else in mind for now."

Eames crushes a few more plants on his way back over, and sweeps a look down Arthur's body that's too quick and too blatant for Arthur to bother calling him on it. For some reason his gaze gets stuck on Arthur's feet, bare like everyone else's.

"Lost your shoes?"

"My face is up here," Arthur says dryly.

Eames grins. "I suppose it's a start," he says, and dodges the kick Arthur aims at his ankle.

The air hums warm and holiday-fresh around them, and the grass is never prickly, the stones never uncomfortably hot against the soles of their feet. They pass: a sculpture garden of half-ruined marble surrounded by spotless yellow roses. A Chinese moon gate set into a decorative wall, through which they glimpse the restless tendrils of a willow. A bosquet -- Ariadne gives them the French again, and Arthur blinks hard against the way the rows of citrus trees line themselves up obligingly in his line of sight no matter what angle he views them from. A collection of birdbaths made of twisting greening bronze. A grove of enormous trees bridged by walkways high above their heads, joining treehouses wedged into the generous spread of branches thicker than Ariadne herself. Arthur trails his hand against the bark and follows with his eyes the way the walkways slant up and up and up in defiance of paradox. He honestly doesn't have the language for this design; it feels technical, and yet disorganised. It feels as though if everyone went silent he'd hear the muffled papery swish of pages turning beneath his feet.

"Where's the maze?" he asks. "It'd be difficult to lose a tail here, everything's so spread out."

She shakes her head. "This one isn't for jobs. It's -- an ongoing experiment."

"Aren't we all," Yusuf says.

"Deeply profound, thank you," drawls Eames.

Yusuf shrugs and links his hands behind his neck as they walk. "That's how this place is -- you don't feel it? It's evolving in the places we cannot see."

"Right," Ariadne says. "Change is important here, it's -- it's the genius loci, you know? The spirit of a place," she explains, at Arthur's look. "One of my lecturers wouldn't shut up about it, he was all Neo-Rationalism this and Alexander Pope that, but it's a good idea. It's all about having the things you build be in keeping with their natural context. It translates well, if we're talking dreams."

"Avoids anomalies," Eames says, and she nods.

Change. That's the itch. The dream isn't constant and Arthur is tingling with the flux. He looks back the way they came and can't see the treehouses any more, even though he knows they were walking downhill and didn't turn any sharp corners. Maybe you could lose someone here after all, but you'd have to do it by losing yourself first.

"Up here." The sun is behind them; Ariadne slips off her sunglasses and points to where the grass drops off sharply, a near horizon marred only by one place where the sky spills down and gathers shimmering in a frame of grey stone.

Arthur looks again.

The illusion is breathtaking, the pool poised so perfectly and the sky such a throbbing blue that the transition is seamless. As they near the edge of it a breeze rises, just enough to set the water trembling; just enough to prove the point.

"Swim?" Ariadne suggests into the silence.

"Oh, fuck me, yes," Eames says, and stops staring at the pool as though it's a long-lost lover for just long enough to pull his shirt off. He doesn't bother with the shorts, just drops his shirt in a puddle and leaps into the water.

Arthur looks away, at Ariadne, who's pulling her hair back with both hands and twisting elastic around the mass of it with economical movements. She pauses with her hands up behind her head and catches Arthur's gaze, flashing a sun-heated smile, and Arthur has a sudden mental image, from nowhere -- incepted, he thinks, insanely -- of that hair bridging the gap between her face and his own, of her body tucked in neatly against his, her legs straddling him, and Arthur's hands flat against bare skin with the gorgeous ripple of her shoulderblades moving beneath.

He holds it, blinded, for the time it takes to breathe in, and then he pushes the desire out along with the breath. The rolled-up sleeves of his shirt are snug against the inside of his elbows. He takes one step backwards from the edge of the pool as Yusuf dives in, just one step, feeling out the shift in his centre of gravity from toes to arch to heel, and then he's in control again.

Ariadne slides rather than leaps, and sighs with pleasure once she's sunk in the water up to her chin. "Coming in?"

"I will." He can almost taste the coolness of it, the relief from the heat, but he's in no hurry.

"Last chance," she says.

He raises his eyebrows. "Chance for --"

The hidden fountain gives no more than a low hiss of warning before a deluge of water-spray erupts and soaks Arthur entirely. He splutters, clears his vision, and moves out of its line of spray to be greeted by three faces shining with schadenfreude.

"You might as well," says Eames in his most insufferably reasonable voice.

Arthur closes his eyes; feels the sun on the back of his neck, the wet concrete beneath his feet, and then leaps forward in a dive that sends him gliding just below the surface. It'd be smoother if he weren't fully dressed, but it's still a good dive, bringing him up almost at the infinity edge. For a long moment all he can see is sky.

"Showoff," Ariadne says, and splashes him. He can see her red top gone the colour of old blood beneath the water, clinging to her breasts.

"A good idea, this pool," Yusuf says. "I like it more than that ditch I almost broke my ankle in -- what was that?"

"Oh, the ha-ha."

Yusuf snickers. "The what?"

"Ha-ha," Ariadne repeats, her face primly serious, and that's when the infusion runs out.

Waking through laughter into a dry unlaughing body is disconcerting, but then Yusuf says, "Ha-ha," in his deepest and most refined tone, and that sets them all off again. Even Arthur has to steady himself on the side of his chair.

"I hardly want to ask," says a familiar voice.

Eames is standing before Arthur's turned around, and shaking Saito's hand three seconds later. His voice is still warm with amusement. "We've missed your face around here, Mr Saito."

"I cannot say I missed your face, Mr Eames, when you have so many for me to choose from."

Eames grins and claps his free hand around Saito's elbow. "One or two of them would be delighted if you stayed around for a while."

"Not long. The energy market in the wake of Fischer's actions is proving to be -- exciting." Saito looks around. "I admit, I thought you would have moved your base of operations."

"I've never liked the French," Yusuf sighs. "They are so difficult to bribe."

Eames smiles. "Nobody forced you to ship your entire laboratory to Paris, Yusuf."

"Please." He lifts his hands. "Someone has to keep an eye on you, Eames. And who else in the world is going to be playing at inception?"

Even Arthur now has an apartment in Paris, which he hasn't bothered to decorate. He too would have preferred somewhere else, really, but they could be based in Antarctica for all the difference their external workspace makes right now. Ariadne has a few classes to complete before graduation and Arthur suspects that Dom had a hand in convincing her to finish her degree; Arthur has trusted Dominic Cobb with his personal safety countless times, but the man's complex about normal lives can be tedious on occasion. None of the truly important events of Arthur's life have occurred while he was awake.

Nevertheless: Paris. At least the food is good.

"So, my friends," Saito says. "Why the hilarity?"

Every eye in the room turns in Ariadne's direction.

"Ariadne," Yusuf says. "Tell me you did."

She leans back in her chair, looking thoughtful, lapping it up. When the smile appears it's sudden and transforms her.

"I might have something tucked away," she says.

~

They're in an elevator. Arthur glances around, noting escape options out of habit, and then watches the light moving from number to number. He has to double-take at how many of them there are: three basements, fifty-seven floors. The only illuminated button on the side of the lift is the 4, and they're currently at seventeen. Sixteen. Fifteen.

"Ten quid says casino hotel," says Eames. He's even more atrociously dressed than usual, so much so that Arthur wonders briefly if he's a projection.

Yusuf makes a scornful sound. "Offices."

The only building Arthur can associate with Saito is that which Nash designed and he himself dreamed: the lush alcoves and dense wood, the platform upon the lake, the light reflecting in Mal’s curls. Not nearly enough of a maze, in the end. He gives his right foot an absent shake as if to banish a cramp.

"Ariadne, my sweet, would you build me a casino?"

"Sure," she says, her eyes on the numbers. Nine. Eight. Seven. "It’s better to cheat a figment of the imagination -- less chance of going to jail."

"And yet somehow less satisfying," Eames says, and the elevator gives a low sound, more like a meeb than a ping, as gravity makes itself briefly known under their feet. Four.

The doors open to a wash of white-blue that takes a little while to arrange itself into shapes, but when it does, Arthur doesn't know where to look first.

"Oh, sweet lord," says Yusuf. "It's techno-Hogwarts."

Ariadne’s laugh bursts out of her like water. She's the first one to exit the elevator, stepping out onto the wide platform that runs all the way around the interior of the lofty atrium; the reason why they're on the fourth floor instead of the first, Arthur assumes. When he joins Ariadne at the railing he settles in to stare at the enormous tubes of glass that run up and down the wall opposite them, the floors and floors and asymmetric floors of rooms with frosted glass swirls adorning their interior walls, the square shallow impluvium on the bottom floor that captures the pale angles jutting out above it.

"Fountains and pools," he says. "You do have a thing for water features."

Ariande looks fondly down at their tiny reflections in the impluvium, which is larger than Arthur's living room.

"More space," she says, without elaboration.

A shadow passes across their images as one of the rigid moving staircases that criss-cross the atrium makes a silent arc above their heads, dotted with chattering people wearing what can only be haute couture, from what Arthur can see of their hats when he looks up.

Yusuf has his eyes on the staircases as well. "Which floors to get on?" he asks.

Ariadne's gaze blurs as she checks her inner blueprint. "The bases are at multiples of six, beginning at twelve. The number of floors they span changes periodically. Their timetable can be altered as we need it, of course, and the same goes for the elevators."

As if on cue a silver elevator slides down one of the transparent tubes and halts at the ground floor. To Arthur who spends so much of his life with his bloodstream connected to the world outside his skin it looks like nothing so much as the plunger of a giant syringe, delivering an invisible dose.

"I would like to see the view from higher up." Saito is looking around with that magnificently proprietary air that he assumes with all of them, as though mentally he's filed them away in a cabinet marked assets. Somehow this doesn't interfere with the impression that he genuinely likes them as people. "Thirty-six, I think."

"It could be a hotel," Eames says, when they're back in the elevator. He reaches out and taps his fist against the 36 button. "I'd stay here."

"It could be offices," Ariadne says. "It's flexible."

"How do you create them?" Saito asks.

Arthur remembers asking Dom that question once. Dom had been putting away Phillipa's building blocks, and paused with a solid green archway in one hand, and Arthur had just -- wondered, from nowhere. How it feels to have these elaborate labyrinths within yourself somewhere and to tweak them into being. But he's pretty sure Saito's question was more precise than that.

"The personality architecture?" Ariadne checks, and Saito nods. She starts to shrug and then thinks better of it; Arthur likes that, likes that she's never pretended weakness in those areas where she knows herself to be strong. This isn't the industry for false modesty. "No tricks, really. I like to think about people. But I'm better with buildings, so -- if the person was a building, or an environment, how would they work? What would be important?"

"Genius loci," Arthur says, and the look she gives him is a gift, blazing and soft.

"Yes."

"Have you constructed one for Mr Cobb?" Saito asks.

Something that's too harsh to be fear, but looks a lot like it, flits over Ariadne's face.

"No." Her voice rings with finality. "No."

"They are remarkable," Saito says, tact gliding under his voice. He glances at Ariadne. "But this particular building may be not be useful in its current avant-garde state, I fear."

"Perhaps not today. Or tomorrow." She shrugs and deliberately catches Eames's eye. "But there's nothing wrong with dreaming big."

~

"I am not a field agent," Yusuf insists. "I am not here to drive your vans and be shot at again, Arthur. I am here as a chemist."

Yusuf is a difficult man to shift, once his mind is made up, and his reasons are usually sound. Nevertheless --

"I'd like everyone to be involved."

"For what purpose?" Yusuf puts down his pipette and gives Arthur a hard look. "Neatness?"

Arthur blinks. Then nods, ruefully, because he's never been that proud.

"Three chairs, then. And we won't need the programmed manipulator if you're still awake."

Yusuf's grin is almost beatific in its anticipation. "You can trust me completely."

"I might have," Arthur says, "until you said that."

Eames also likes to think of himself as difficult to shift. But Arthur has known him for a long time, and knows he has other qualities which exist in direct conflict with this, one of which is his terrible inability to sit still while interesting things might be happening nearby. The trick is in letting this curiosity saturate him without ever acknowledging that this is, in fact, what you are doing. In this case that would require disclosing more details than Arthur's willing to give upfront, though, so Eames digs in his heels with a fair amount of success.

"Why do I have the feeling this is you showing off?" he says.

"It's just training," Arthur says for the third time.

"Guns, fine. Letting you kick the proverbial out of me in the name of training, no. I prefer manipulating events from a safe distance, if it's all the same to you."

"Set up all three, please, Yusuf," Arthur says and walks over to stand in front of Eames. He uses two fingers to push the man in the chest, gently. "Not to be crude, but -- suck it up, Mr Eames."

Eames looks at him neutrally and then licks his lips; a taunt. He waits until Arthur's gaze has flicked down -- back up -- before he says, "Oh, well, darling, when you put it so nicely."

"Is that a yes?" Arthur presses.

Eames waves a hand in one of his indefinably British gestures, and picks up an IV kit as he goes to settle himself in the nearest chair.

"I like the new chairs," Ariadne says. She's giving the ceiling a fearless look. "Comfortable."

"No questions?"

The look transfers itself to Arthur. "Would you answer them?"

"Touché," says Eames, approving.

Hand-to-hand combat isn't Arthur's favourite either, but that's no reason not to become superb at it. The dojo he dreams them into is a small one, the walls close on either side, but Arthur can count on one hand the number of fights he's had in spacious well-lit areas with floors that grip your feet and cushion your falls.

"I really hope this is where you tell me Yusuf is going to download kung-fu into my brain," Ariadne says.

"The military hasn't worked that one out yet," Arthur says. He doesn't need to look to know that Eames is smiling at how much of that joke wasn't a joke.

"So…?"

"Watch, for now."

Her eyes dart from him to Eames. "Is that going to help?"

"We'll see," Arthur says, and she steps back.

"Right then," Eames says, and smashes his elbow into the side of Arthur's face.

Arthur doesn't fall but his head strobes with a pain that's almost audible, and he forces his eyes to stay open so that when Eames follows it up with a brutal stamp in the direction of his instep, the movement makes a dark blur against the fizz of his vision, and he pivots on the opposite foot to avoid it.

"Hm," says Eames, who talks when he fights.

Nothing from Arthur, who doesn't; Arthur whose visual field clears stepwise until he can see Ariadne lower herself to sit on the floor in his periphery. He doesn't move his focus from Eames to catch her expression.

He has to blink hard against the drift of his perspective to make sure that it isn't an illusion brought on by expectation, but no: all of the horizontals and verticals are becoming diagonals. Gravity seizes him by the elbow and suggests that he fall, and Arthur digs the sides of his feet into the carpet and refuses.

Eames says, "What the everloving hell --" and Arthur grins, barely stops himself from laughing, as he launches himself forward and lands his own hard blow on the side of Eames's head, making sure the force is in the same direction as the shift.

"Whoa!" Ariadne, sitting, isn't suffering too much; Arthur swiftly dreams her some metal loops embedded in the wall, and she grabs hold.

The dojo levels out on an odd angle, Arthur sliding towards the wall to his right at the same speed as Eames, who curses and rights himself and then falls over again. When he locks his eyes onto Arthur he looks furious, then jubilant, then breathless, then laughs and shoots out a foot to halt himself before he slams into a corner.

"We wouldn't want you to get bored, Mr Eames," Arthur says, coming to a halt within striking distance just as gravity changes its mind. Yusuf must be tilting the chairs at a terrific rate for the shifts to be happening this fast in dreamtime; Arthur will probably wake up with his neck a solid block of sore muscle.

Both of them pitch over, Arthur backwards, Eames only just keeping his feet as he stumbles forward. Arthur manages a move that sets a tendon in his left forearm screaming with sudden extension, winces as his palm scrapes across the floor, but he's on top of it. He's ready.

"You've played this game before," Eames says. "I rather think that counts as cheating." And as Arthur musters both his breath and a scathing look he grabs hold of one of Arthur's hands and then the other, crushing them and forcing him to bend, pulling him up close and holding him in place even as all the lines of the room accelerate in their rotation.

Something wild burns through Arthur and he directs it into the vector of his leg, the force applied, the perfect angle. Eames grunts through his teeth and falls, knee buckling beneath him. Arthur's knees are bending too, but deliberately, his weight seeking a solid centre. As soon as he finds it he kicks again, but Eames is recovering fast: he lets Arthur's foot glance off his shoulder and then moves into the tilt.

The ground is a sickening sidelong treadmill under Arthur's feet. Eames moves in a circus-tumble that looks awkward as hell but the momentum brings him up inside Arthur's reach, still low, tackling Arthur at the waist and forcing his feet out from under him. When Arthur hits the -- floor? yes, floor -- most of his air leaves him in an ugly gasp that sears his throat.

"Yeah!" Ariadne, limpeted to her handhold, yells out a cheer. "Go Eames!"

Arthur kicks, more blindly than he'd like, and makes contact with something firm. Two seconds later something firm makes contact with him, and his entire arm goes transiently dead. Instinct takes over from there, granting him blunt contact again and again, interrupted by the occasional bout of dizziness as gravity seizes him up and rewrites his proprioception. The constant adjustment means that it's unexpectedly exhausting, without the adrenalin that got him through the fights in the hotel, and Arthur is glad when he manages to force them to a standstill.

"Nicely -- played," Eames gets out. He's wedged between the wall and the floor with Arthur's knee on his sternum and his breath coming in surges. One hand flops to rest on Arthur's calf, a touch that's startlingly careless after the last few minutes of targeted contact, and he breathes his heart rate down with his lips parted and his eyes fixed on Arthur's face. The room constricts. Arthur doesn't look away.

It's nothing important. It's a fingernail under the edge of a scab, a mild exploration, as though to prove to themselves that the possibility is there. If Arthur wanted to summarise the difference between himself and Eames he could say -- among many other things -- that Eames is the sort of person who repeatedly uncovers his own wounds for the sheer satisfaction of peeling the scab away.

Arthur knows that things heal faster when they're covered up. He also knows that you might as well move quickly enough to avoid being wounded in the first place.

He knocks his knuckles softly against Eames's jaw, a warning, and then lifts himself off. "You're in," he calls, and struggles up the shallow incline to where Ariadne is still clinging, her hair everywhere and an impatient enthusiasm on her face.

"What, no tips?" she says.

"Don't let him hit you," Arthur suggests, and prises her left hand off the metal. She uses it to pinch the webbing of his thumb, hard, and then drops away from that wall and slides ungracefully down until she's wedged in the currently-lowest point next to Eames.

Eames tosses Arthur a we-might-have-a-talk-about-this-later kind of look, which Arthur ignores. He trusts Eames to do this right.

Ariadne says, "I'm just going to work on the assumption that I won't hurt you much no matter how hard I try."

"That's probably true," Eames agrees, and grabs hold of her leg behind the knee, then pulls hard enough that she topples over and comes down hard on a bent arm.

"Fuck you," she says, and kicks back.

Arthur loops an arm through the metal and waits out his own latest bout of queasiness, watching. He sees that both of them cope better with the tilts with every one that happens. He sees that Eames is holding back a lot, but not enough that Ariadne complains; she's obviously not stupid enough to think that he's giving her everything. He sees that Ariadne fights with no skill at all but the kind of raw, wriggling gut instinct that Arthur's only ever seen in women, the fear that becomes determination becomes limbs twisting like oiled wire and bursts of incredible strength.

He'll teach her to fight properly, but today isn't about that. Today is about the hazards that only dreamers would ever face, because if there's one thing that Arthur wishes someone had told him a long time ago, it's how easy it is to forget, when you're stressed, that the rules are different down here. Totems can't help you unless you think to use them, and they certainly can't tell your inner ear that floors are meant to be horizontal things. Even in your mind you are at the mercy of your body.

Arthur tries not to forget things. But he does. He forgets that Eames knows parts of him too well, certain paths of his personality, the ways in which he attacks problems.

So Eames dodges Ariadne's punch just slowly enough that she can see where she went wrong, and he says, "Of course, dreams can throw up things that surprise you."

Ariadne's a silent one too; or perhaps she's saving her breath. She gives him a sharp look and doesn't drop her guard waiting for elaboration, smart girl -- Eames smiles fondly and directs a vicious kick at her shin. She swears and tries to struggle away, but he's got weight and experience on his side and he pins her fast.

Eames goes on, "There's more to this than just trying to get the other person to hurt enough that they stop hurting you. What's the best way to stop a man in his tracks, in your experience?"

Ariadne ducks her head and looks at his crotch. Eloquently.

"Exactly," Eames says. "Men have sensitive areas. But this isn't the real world, pet, and sometimes you might be fighting someone who has the option of removing the weak spot."

"Removing?" Ariadne pants, sounding like she might laugh.

"In a manner of speaking," says Ariadne's voice out of Eames's mouth, which is the only warning they get. Even as it happens the room is tilting back to a normal angle and the two of them are rolling rolling rolling like cups set over a token and moved too fast for the eye to follow, until they come to an awkward halt side by side, hair tangled, catching their breath. A flipped coin would have just as much luck as Arthur in identifying the real girl over the forgery.

"This is so weird," one of them says. Pauses. "Pervert."

"Come on, sweetheart, where's your sense of adventure?" the other one says, and drops a loud, wet kiss on the real Ariadne's neck. Arthur bites his tongue, hard.

Ariadne knees herself in the stomach, scrambles away, and sits back on her heels with a huff. "So weird," she says, but she looks obliquely pleased.

The Ariadne that's Eames lies back on the mat and closes her eyes, giggling deep in her slim girl’s throat.

~





(part two)
Tags: inception
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