Fahye (fahye_fic) wrote,
Fahye
fahye_fic

[Inception: the manor house (2/3)]



(part one)


Arthur is getting used to finding himself in the sunshine with a mask on his face, but this time he takes it off immediately. They're not here to train; or maybe they are. Ariadne was cryptic on that point.

"All right, what did you want to show us?" Eames asks.

She leads them off the street, through a blue door and up a flight of stairs. The buildings in this design aren't as detailed as the scene outside, and there's nothing memorable about the furnishings. Ariadne heads down a corridor and opens another door, and inside this room there's nothing but three plush armchairs arranged around a PASIV machine.

"What's this?" Arthur says.

"The second layer." She sits down on one of the chairs. "If you're up for it."

"Oh, I'm up for anything." Eames sticks his hands in his pockets, though, and doesn't move. "What do you mean, second layer?"

"What, you think I think you're all fun and games?" A smile wavers onto her mouth, briefly, then falls away. "You might not like this one as much."

That gets Eames into the chair and swabbing his wrist, and Arthur follows suit out of sheer curiosity. The personality designs are a nice conceit, well known to all of them now, able to be fleshed out or stacked above one another as a job requires. A defined second level to one of them has no real use. Which means something else is going on here.

"Ready?" Ariadne looks at them, nods, and sends them all down.

The light is dying; that's the first thing Arthur notices. He looks around, waiting for his eyes to adjust. There are only two stars in the sky so far, and enough dusk light left that he can move around easily without artificial lighting, which is just as well, because there isn't much. Pink neon flickers in his peripheral vision, lighting up a giant arrow which buzzes jarringly on and off and on.

"Hello?" he calls.

"Ferris wheel!" he hears, dimly. Ariadne.

The ferris wheel dominates the sky to his left, and Arthur heads towards its base through a fairground that's deserted, motionless, and eerie. The ramshackle booths and rides show only faded colours, and if the light were better he thinks he'd be able to see rust as well. Here and there the death rattles of more neon signs jump out at him.

As the ferris wheel looms closer one of the shadows wavers, splits and grows legs, and then shrinks as it comes towards him. Arthur exhales and loosens his stance, steady and wary, but it's Ariadne.

"Interesting," he says. "Where are we going?"

"Follow the arrow." She points. This one is a lurid green and seems to have more life in it than any of the others; it only flickers off every few seconds, and is quickly lit up again.

Ariadne strides just ahead of him in the direction that it indicates, and the green light slides down her profile, illuminating her expression of solemn satisfaction. This angle of her is becoming an anchor, something he associates with discovery. On instinct Arthur catches her up and takes her hand, and she sends him a quick glance. Her thumb brushes across his and she smiles.

Their destination doesn't look any different to the other sagging tents, but Arthur turns his steps towards it as soon as he sees the sign.

HALL OF MIRRORS it proclaims, and then, in smaller letters: Your most fantastic inner selves revealed!

"Eames is inside," Ariadne says unnecessarily, and pauses at the entrance.

"What is it?"

"Nothing." She doesn't move. After a pause she reaches up to push back the hood of the red sweater she's wearing, tightens her hold on Arthur's hand, and then steps into the tent.

In place of a floor there is only patchy flattened grass and wide areas of dirt. The interior seems brighter than outside, though there's no light source visible; just the mirrors that reflect, and reflect, the rays of it between them. They're taller and wider than a person and are set side-by-side in a long curve that follows the tent's wall almost all the way around, forming an incomplete circle. Eames is standing with his hands in his pockets, facing away from the entrance, but as soon as they walk in his reflections all lift one hand to wave in unison. For a split second Arthur doesn't think that Eames himself initiated the motion, but no, he must have, because the hand's out of his pocket when he turns around.

It takes a moment. They look at each other and at the mirrors, and Ariadne gives a quiet click in her throat that could be a quickly-abandoned attempt at speech, and Arthur can't relax because Eames never looks this intent unless they're working -- sometimes not even then.

Ariadne gives a go-on wave of her hand -- well? -- and Eames huffs his breath out through a sort of smile, but his eyes aren't any less sharp.

"Not in Kansas any more, then." His accent should make it absurd. He has his totem balanced on one crooked finger, and then his wrist moves and it flies, turning, into the air. He and Ariadne follow it upwards but some instinct keeps Arthur's gaze on the mirrors, and just as the chip teeters at the top of its trajectory, the reflection of Eames closest to him looks straight into Arthur's eyes and winks.

A shiver skates across Arthur's skin, and he looks around. The mirrors aren't faithful, or else there's something in the air that warps the image, because each Eames looks captured in a different mood, like those charts of basic facial expressions constructed by anthropologists: here is what humanity means, these contortions of muscle and skin. Anger fear surprise sadness joy disgust; Arthur thinks, God, how does he know which of them is him? -- and something falls into focus.

What they're standing in is the white mask, rolled out thin and sculpted anew; something in which only other people's emotions are real. Arthur wants to grab Eames and ask how, how does he do it, how is he not terrified that one day he'll try to turn back into Eames after being someone else, and realise that he no longer knows who that person is. How does he manage it without dissolving?

How do you guard yourself if you aren't yourself?

"Arthur," Eames says. "I really don't know what you're looking for in there, but I don't think it's going anywhere."

"Are you sure?" Arthur turns to face the real Eames, who doesn't look anything but amused. "Have you seen these mirrors? I don't think I trust them."

"Of course not. That's what makes it fun."

"Fun."

"You are familiar with the concept?"

This is easy, grounding. In another mood Arthur might let himself feel the sting only partially meant, but today he plays along.

"I find my work is plenty fun enough."

A laugh from Ariadne. "Says the man who conned me into kissing him in the middle of a job."

"Ouch," says Eames, cheerfully. "Precision and accuracy. I stand corrected."

Ariadne looks pleased with herself, both on her own face and -- Arthur checks -- in the mirrors. But the longer he looks, the more blurred she appears, as though Arthur will need to arrange his eyes into a new position in order to call her into sharper focus. Without her edges defined she looks younger, and when Arthur gives the mirror an experimental Magic-Eye squint the red hoodie she's wearing becomes less distinct around the arms until the fabric hangs down like a cloak.

"Don't," she says, wolf-sharp.

"You brought us here," he reminds her.

"Not for me."

All right. He won't push; he owes her this, at least. "I did con you, in the hotel," he says. "Sorry."

"I didn't mind. Much." Her eyes, her eyes alone, now reflect clear and bright. "Your timing sucked, though."

He can't read her humour yet. He's learning. She doesn't help him out, however, just moves closer and touches his arm, then points towards exactly what he's been trying not to look at.

When he moves his reflection seems almost to pre-empt him, moving with a sharp grace that he can't feel in his limbs. The differences are subtle. Perhaps he's taller, perhaps his colouring more stark, and his clothes --

Ariadne says, "It's like you're wearing armour."

Arthur flicks his eyes to Eames's reflection, then Ariadne's, then back. He lifts a hand to touch his waistcoat, which is as silken as ever, with lines of black thread against the grey. Only in the mirror does it look like chainmail. But Arthur's chest goes tight with awareness of it, because expensive fabric is exactly that: a safety measure. The final tug that settles the knot of his tie in place, creating light pressure around his neck, has always been the click of a key in a lock. Pressed wool and starched cotton can act as scaffolding and keep him upright and expressionless when he's exhausted, or uncertain, or struck boneless with desire like sun glancing off glass.

"Ariadne, this place is…" Unsettling. Incredible. And familiar in a way that Arthur can't put his finger on, something about the scent of the air and the way the horizon outside was bleeding light between the silent metal structures. Something about that grace with which his reflection moves. "I would never have been able to do this," he says, which is inadequate.

Eames looks up. "That's because you lack --"

"Imagination." Arthur strokes the glass, feeling a light film of grease come away on his fingertips. He turns around and again doesn't know which of them to look at, doesn't know if he should be telling them that he understands the design. "That's all this is. There's no real centre, it's just -- tricks."

"Smoke and bloody mirrors," says Eames, who isn't smiling at all; of course he understands, he'd worked it out before they walked in. "Ariadne."

"I did warn you," she says.

"I'm not flattered."

"You're not supposed to be."

She stands there, unflinching in the dirt, and Arthur realises that the very existence of this dream level is Ariadne's way of revealing something about herself as well. He's never doubted her courage, but this is something very different to facing danger as part of a job, because what's at stake isn't as tangible. This was a risk; a gamble. She and Eames are far more alike than he'd known, and Arthur feels, for a split second, very out of place. He curls one hand up upon itself and feels the smoothness of his shirt cuff.

"Is this your opinion of me, Columbine?" Eames says finally.

"It's only the second layer," she says. "There's more to you than this. But this is still true."

"Ariadne."

"That mostly means no," she says, and bites her lip.

Eames looks straight at her and gives a smile that Arthur has never seen before. The mirrors snatch up the beautiful line of his mouth and echo it into eternity like a deck of cards fanned out by an expert hand. He steps towards her and her hands clench, flutter, at her sides, giving away her anxiety; part of Arthur thinks, we'll need to train that out of her. Eames leans down, slowly enough that Ariadne could back away, and lifts her chin with two fingers and kisses her. It's as though flexibility is passed between their mouths: she's still for a moment and then her body takes on a slow supple bend, leaning into it, giving herself up. Arthur's own mouth goes dry and wanting at the sight of it but when he looks away he can't escape their reflections.

It doesn't last longer than a few small eons of Arthur's heart beating. Eames kisses her cheek, too, before he pulls away. "Arthur's right. Nobody else could have done this."

"And nobody else would understand what it means," she says, unsteady.

"That's it. That's the truth of the profession. Dreamers will always be dreamers, and they'll befriend other dreamers, and love other dreamers, because -- well, you know how big it is. There’s no room for something like that between people. It has to…" Eames waves a hand "…envelop them both."

"Cobb and Mal --" she starts.

"It doesn't have to be like that," Arthur says.

She looks at him with challenge in her face. "So how can it be, Arthur?"

"Unfair, pet." Eames puts a hand on her arm, bends his head to whisper something further. Ariadne doesn't look away from Arthur but she softens, infinitesimally, and the light in the room gives a flicker.

A feeling crawls up Arthur's spine and cradles his skull: the same feeling he used to get when he was working with people who kept him need-to-know and never told him the whole story, the feeling he had as soon as Fischer's mental army showed up. He is aware of where his own knowledge stops. He is aware, uneasily, of the existence of a larger design.

~

Arthur declares that they've been spending too much time asleep and the two-week holiday is mandatory. Saito has worked some kind of magic with his airline whereby any of them can show up at any bookings desk in any airport and get a free ticket on any flight, so most of them leave the country with the intention of expelling Parisian air from their lungs. Arthur doesn't ask any questions, but because it's his job to know these things he knows that Yusuf flies home to see his family, Ariadne spends a week shut in her room finishing her assignments and a week sketching churches in Sicily, and Eames goes to Singapore where he happily gambles away half of his money.

Arthur himself flies first class to America and visits Dom. He spends the first day listmaking, noting the little changes in his friend that indicate -- not complete happiness, but less unhappiness than before. Since Mal's death the two of them have held their grief between them like the lingering pressure of a coffin's edge against the shoulder. Most of the weight fell to Dom, of course. But Arthur's always been aware of his own share in the burden; of the loss, connecting them; one person pulls away and the other feels it.

He does look better, Arthur thinks. Lighter. His face will never unlearn the lines that her death etched in it, but it could be gaining some new ones around the mouth; Arthur keeps an eye out for them when Dom laughs. Which he does, frequently -- at James running headlong into Arthur's legs with a joyous shout, at a shared memory, at Arthur's description of the spray-fountain in Ariadne's garden.

He's nodding, too. "Saito told me a bit about those designs."

Arthur is primarily surprised that this doesn't surprise him. "Don't tell me: he already has five jobs lined up for us."

"He has plans," Dom admits. "But he likes the fact that you've decided to put things on hold for a year."

"That reminds me --"

"Heather? I found her -- Argentina, this time. But she's finishing that job at the end of this week, and she's happy to help out."

"For a price," Arthur guesses.

"For nostalgia." Dom smiles. "And a price. I gave Saito her details."

"I'm starting to feel like a kept man."

"He considers us --" Dom's no forger, but he has a good eye, and he draws himself up in a passing imitation of Saito's most earnest and opaque manner. "A promising investment. "

"And Heather's the best."

"Mm." Dom looks down at his coffee for a while. "That particular training. Do you think it's necessary?"

"Necessary? Maybe not. Valuable? Yes. I don't like surprises. And I know you don't like your people to be easily surprised."

"Arthur. If it's about Fischer --"

"Don't," Arthur says more curtly than he'd intended. A bruise there, still, and he presses down on it quite often enough himself; he doesn't need Dom to lend a hand.

"All this training," Dom says eventually. "I'm going to be out of shape."

Arthur laughs, mostly out of gratitude. "Sure."

They've known each other for long enough that they don't need to make conversation just for the hell of it. The clock on the kitchen wall ticks away into their safe silence; Dom glances at at and Arthur wonders if he's counting down the year or if he misses the work, the satisfaction of it, the tight thrill of manipulation. He mustn't have dreamt in months. Arthur can't even imagine how it must feel to spend that long in a reality over which your mind has no control at all.

~

"You weren't the one who trained Fischer, were you?" Ariadne asks. "Because that could be, you know. Awkward."

"Robert Fischer? No, no. I haven't been to Australia in years. Last time I was there, though --" and Heather launches into a story about a scuba enthusiast whose extraction took place in a dreamscape like a coral reef. Arthur's heard this one before, and it's been embellished in the interim. Yusuf has forgotten about unpackaging his tourniquets and Ariadne is glued wide-eyed to the woman's side.

"Where'd you find this one?" asks Eames from beside him.

"She worked some jobs with me and Cobb, a long time ago. Good extractor. But she's better at what she does now."

"Aren't we on opposite sides, then?"

"I'm not a great believer in sides, Mr Eames," Heather says. She's keeping track of their conversation as well; Arthur had forgotten that she does that. "I believe in people paying me to give them a fair chance."

"A philosopher after my own heart," Eames says, planting himself in a chair. "Shall we get started?"

Heather moves to stand next to Arthur, and in her implausible heels she's just as tall as he is. Her red hair's much shorter these days, cropped pixie-like in a way that shows off her freckles.

"Is that what you're here for, then?" Ariadne says. "To teach us how to defend our minds against -- people like us?"

"Not today. Arthur?"

"The aims of this session are twofold," Arthur lies. "To try out one of the stock designs on a subject who's unfamiliar with it, and to learn just how well-militarised a subconscious can be."

"If you can get past me, you can get past anyone."

Eames taps two fingers against his lips, thoughtful. "Can we? Get past you."

"No," she says sweetly. "Cobb thinks -- Arthur, maybe."

"I've improved," Arthur says.

"Not that much, my dear." She's probably right.

"The manor?" Ariadne asks. "It's the most self-contained, and the one we've done the most training in already."

They do use the manor. Heather's subconscious tweaks the décor and the whole thing ends up looking like the scrupulously upkept private haven of an eccentric art collector. Most of the projections seem to be engaged in filming some sort of period drama, which Arthur learns by wandering into a room full of lighting equipment and bored girls in large dresses. One of them, clicking her lighter a safe distance from the lace around her neck, gives him a look that could become suspicious given half a chance.

"Has anyone seen Johnson? If he's forgotten again…" Arthur tugs his cell out of his pocket, speed-dials a random number, and slams it next to his ear. "Christ," he snarls, and doesn't look to see if anyone's buying it before he stalks out of the room, pulse steady, feet light. This is his job. This is what he does.

Nevertheless, he's a bit thrown when someone answers the phone.

"Colin Firth speaking," says a familiar voice.

"Eames. Hold on." Arthur makes two lefts and finds the room he was looking for, barely more than a storage space. He lets himself in, closes the door, and leans against it. "Where are you?"

"The kitchens. Which are now craft services. I'm setting out sandwiches."

"Have you seen anyone else?"

"Yusuf started in the cellars, and now he's in raptures about our host's taste in Australian whites. He's going to try the second-floor bedrooms."

"Where do you think --"

"You know her better than I do."

Arthur leaves a beat of silence. This is easier over the phone. "Not necessarily," he says.

"Was that a compliment?"

"Keep calm, Mr Eames."

"This is a film set," Eames says. "I haven't seen an army yet. We've got some time to explore."

A group of people hurry past Arthur's door, too quickly for him to make out what they're saying.

"So, sandwiches," he says.

"Sod off," Eames says comfortably, and hangs up on him.

Arthur keeps his back against the door and counts to two hundred. Somewhere around ninety he has to force himself to slow down. Time, time, time to explore. He hadn't planned on hiding, but he's the one building this dream, and Heather pointed out earlier that no purpose would be served if he went and got himself shot before the others could learn anything.

Finally he slips out, following a route meticulously planned between one-hundred-and-four and one-hundred-and-eighty-nine. There are certain rooms that Ariadne has added to the first draft of the manor, planned to be enticingly private, small havens of security. She and Arthur had Dom on the speakerphone for two hours, arguing the speed and ease benefits of overdesigned locations for secrets against the greater stability of the dream when the subject's subconscious is allowed a stronger creative input. It's worth a try, at least.

He's looked in one of these rooms on the top floor -- no good -- and has just left the piano room, where a sober-faced child in a sailor suit is painstakingly picking out a tune that Arthur doesn't recognise, when his phone rings again.

"Arthur," Eames says, and he doesn't sound all that different but there's something there, a tension, a lack of levity, that tells Arthur everything he needs to know.

"Any luck?"

"Found the army." A hiss that could be his breath. "But never mind, if they haven't found you. This whole setup," he goes on. "It's not hiding, per se, but it's distracting. We're being diverted in our own labyrinth."

Arthur presses his fingers into his forehead and thinks. "Hiding in plain sight, that sort of thing?" It's happened; not everyone's mind turns to a safe or a vault as the predominant metaphor. And it stinks of studied professionalism.

"Perhaps," Eames says. "Is she a forger, Heather?"

"Not that I've seen. But it's possible. Why?"

"Nothing. Film crew," he says, and continues before Arthur can protest that that's hardly an explanation. "As projections go, they're very -- slick. Purposed. Not quite part of the scenery, you see where I'm going with this? If anything's hidden, it'll be right in the hub of -- I'm going to have to call you back."

Distant noise, just a quick soundbite of it, and then the beep.

Purposed. Arthur wonders if he's caught on. But he doesn't have time to wonder long, because the girl with the ruffled lace neckline is walking straight towards him holding a vicious-looking policeman's baton. Something glitters at him from within the lace.

"I don't think you're supposed to be here, young man," she says in a perfect BBC accent, which Arthur recognises from one night in Osaka when Eames drank half a dozen Manhattans and talked his way down the entire fucking UK from Inverness to Exeter.

"The aims of this session," Arthur mutters to himself, "are threefold."

Might as well get it over with.

It takes all the willpower he has to stand still while his instincts grab at his muscles and scream at him to dodge, to disable, to run. The projection looks bored as she swings the baton in an arc and smashes something important near Arthur's elbow, which erupts into agony and heat. He snatches at her throat with his functioning hand, tears loose the necklace, bankhands her across the face with enough force that she stumbles, and then he runs.

Pain is real, Arthur thinks, and qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, and he wishes that he'd known sooner just how well Yusuf understands what it is they do every day.

The Latin gets stuck in his head, and it's as good a distraction mechanism as any. He recites it under his breath as he dashes down the polished stairs -- remembering the trick step just in time to avoid it -- each footfall sending more pain down his arm, and the words trip and tangle in his mouth until it's just lorem ipsum lorem ipsum over and over like a charm.

Like the tilted chairs, this is about strengthening their grasp on the rules of dreaming; it doesn't matter if Heather's chosen secret is never found. All that matters is that they feel this, the drawn-out wail of the lizard brain trying to convince them to curl up into a ball and rock the pain away, and that they learn their own incredible capacity to ignore it.

He leaps from the seventeenth step and past a couple of men wearing audio headsets; they turn and start to follow him, but Arthur knows his manor's blueprint backwards. These are his walls, his shadowed corners. This is his freestanding wooden closet with the false back.

("Wardrobe," Eames said, when Ariadne showed them the secret passage -- plaintive, playing at hurt -- "Wardrobe, haven't you people read your C.S. Lewis?")

There are footsteps in the dust ahead of him as he works his way through the tight space. Men's shoes, by the size. He emerges in another of those storage spaces, tries to remove his jacket, almost passes out at the pain this elicits. A tiny high window casts a slender ray of light -- with unnecessary drama, Arthur thinks -- down upon his hand, illuminating what lies within. Dust motes dance jerkily above the silver key that dangles on the end of the chain.

Right in the hub, Eames said.

Arthur arranges his face and goes to crash a film set again.

He has to dodge two more pairs of men with black clothes and headsets, who are looking less and less like sound engineers and more and more like special ops soldiers, but he tracks the noise on the ground floor to the largest room and leans in the doorway, idle, cradling his arm, in nobody's line of sight. Two of the actor-projections repeat the same exchange of flowery compliments over and over in front of the camera.

The furniture is still that elegant scrolled wood, and Arthur can see only two keyholes in the whole room: the two drawers set into the escritoire at which the woman is sitting. He probably has just one chance at this, his head is ringing, rightleftrighleftrightleft? and finally he pulls his totem from his pocket.

"Evens right, odds left," he says under his breath; lets it fall silently onto the carpet beneath his feet; glances down. By now the pain is so bad he's sucking in air in rough bursts despite his best efforts, and an awful numbness has begun to congeal in his fingers.

Four.

"Excuse me," he says, loud, bored as can be. He strides straight across the floor where everyone can see him, gives the projection a polite smile as he comes to a halt beside her, and fits the key into the lock of the drawer on the right.

The click of the gun's safety is almost lost in the twin beats thudding in his chest and his broken arm -- almost. Arthur goes still, and releases his grip on the key.

"I'd raise my hands," he says. "But I'd rather not."

"Understandable."

He turns slowly and meets Heather's bright smile, coming at him down the unwavering barrel of the gun. She's wearing a baseball cap adorned by the word DIRECTOR.

"You have improved," she says. "Your team, too -- very good. I can see why you're pushing them."

"How did they do?"

"Debriefing up top," she says, and pulls the trigger. Arthur's nose is itching like fury when he wakes up.

"In the face?" Yusuf says, sympathetic. "Me too. She barely blinked."

"Why didn't they just kill us to begin with?" Ariadne's cheeks are pale, her hands clasped tightly between her knees. "If her subconscious wanted us out of the dream, the projections could have killed us. Easily," she adds, not sounding happy about it.

Arthur hasn't been looking forward to this discussion. "Because Heather's subconscious is trained to the point where she has a certain amount of control over what her projections do. Because the point wasn't to kill you."

"Ah," says Eames, and closes his eyes. In the same moment Heather opens hers with a sharp inhalation.

"What," says Ariadne in a thin voice.

Arthur says, because it's been dormant on his tongue, "Pain is real. Even when it's in your head. And even when we're only a single level down, we may not always have the luxury of kicking out, if the job's unfinished."

"Did you know?" she demands of Eames.

"Me? No, pet. Surprised me just as much as it did you, I assure you." He's not looking at Arthur. He doesn't sound angry. Arthur remembers the furious, efficient way Eames readied the gun to shoot Saito out of his pain, and indulges in a moment of wanting -- very badly and very irrationally -- to shake him.

"I wouldn't have known you were surprised," says Heather, sitting up. Arthur turns to her.

"Who was first out?" he asks.

"The architect," Heather says easily, and Arthur almost wants to hug her for the respect in that. For not saying: the girl.

"I'm sorry," Ariadne bursts out. "I didn't mean to, I shouldn't have, but I just -- they just -- kept going, and --"

Arthur cuts in: "Kept going?"

"Hardly shabby of her," Heather says, meeting his gaze. The fact that Heather has a medical background, that she fell into this by putting electrodes on people's scalps and reducing their inner lives to jagged lines on a long strip of paper, is sometimes apparent. And sometimes chilling. Not that any of them can afford to develop their consciences too highly, with the work they do, but there's professionalism and professionalism: there's Heather's eyes unwavering in the face of Ariadne's guilt, and there's Eames with his complex honour and his way of helping people hurtle smoothly between the poles of their own psychology.

And there's Arthur, who has never used mirrors for anything more perilous than checking his armour. Never scrutinised too closely anything that lies above the knot at his throat, or beneath the fragile protection of his ribcage.

"I'd heard there were some people who could do that, use their projections like tools," Eames says. "Hadn't run into any myself, though."

"It's a house of cards," Heather says. "Poke it too hard and it collapses. And it's exhausting, if you're doing it right."

"Could we learn it?" asks Ariadne.

Heather shrugs. "Perhaps. Start with hypnosis, if you can -- it helps to be easily suggestible, even though you'd assume the opposite. That plus militarisation and a lot of dull repetition has worked for me, though honestly, it isn't good for much unless you're guarding state secrets."

"Or scaring the living daylights out of hardworking dreamers," Eames says.

Heather glances at Arthur, who's prepared to accept full blame despite the fact that she said yes to the idea immediately; he suspected she would, which is why he asked Dom to find her.

He walks with her to the Métro entrance when the debriefing is done.

"They'll know what to expect tomorrow," he says.

"You don't need to rationalise to me, Arthur," she says to the coolness of the afternoon sky. If Arthur looks straight ahead all he hears is the click of her shoes on the Parisian street and she could be someone else. For a bittersweet moment she could be Mal, buying him chestnuts and talking him down from anger.

Eames is loitering -- no other word for it -- outside the building when Arthur returns. When Arthur's almost reached him, he flicks his cigarette aside and watches it smoulder.

Arthur sighs, waiting for the fight. "Tell me."

"I do appreciate it," Eames says.

"What?"

The corner of his mouth lifts. He looks tired. "The effort to keep me from boredom."

He could have said almost anything. He could have mentioned Ariadne. He could have said, That wasn't very nice of you, love, in that soft tone that would have meant, That was a bastard thing to do, and he would have been right and Arthur would have had to carefully not let it bother him.

Gratitude sweeps over Arthur like newly unclouded sunshine. He feels it as intensely as he feels just as tired as Eames looks, but he can't muster the energy to go about showing either of these emotions now that the mask of competency is in place. Too many ribbons to untie.

"I do my best," he says, meaning, Thank you, and if anyone can translate that then it's Eames, and right now that fact isn't as infuriating as usual.

"What's the fuss?" Eames calls, when they're back inside.

Yusuf beams and lifts a scrap of paper.

"Heather?" Eames nods and prods him in the shoulder with a pen as he sits down. "Good man."

"Indeed." Yusuf gives the phone number -- or email, or whatever it is -- a besotted glance before putting it away in his wallet.

"Ariadne," Eames sings.

She tugs a banknote from her back pocket and slaps it into his open palm with a sigh. "No more betting with you," she says. "Ever."

Her hand is still in his. Eames squeezes the money between their palms. "I'm deeply hurt. Deeply."

Ariadne stays where she is, leaning against the side of Eames's chair, her elbow balanced on his shoulder. Ever since the twilight carnival they've had an extra thread between them, undefinable, but made up of closed distances. See: it's not that Arthur can't read people at all. It's that Eames can read things that aren't there, except of course they always are. Yusuf and Heather -- it wasn't relevant, so Arthur wasn't looking.

"Arthur," Eames says. "If that face of deep thought means you're going to introduce a workplace rule against gambling, I must warn you, I will incite a mutiny."

Arthur looks up from their joined hands. "You've some experience in that area, I recall."

"The Bermuda job." Nostalgia tinges his smile. "Cobb did a wonderful job with that ship."

"A ship?" Ariadne's mouth is open. "I want to build a ship."

"Get him to show you when he comes back."

"A whole navy," she murmurs, leaning further against Eames. He reaches up to tug on her hair, but her mind is many dimensions of creation away, and she doesn't notice.

"This isn't the military," Eames says, and his eyes on Arthur are a warning.

~

"You realise you're singing, right?" Ariadne says.

Arthur closes his mouth and hears the cessation of sound, though he hadn't been aware of it in the first place. "What was it?"

"Christmas carols," she says, and if he lets his throat relax back into the memory of a tune, he finds it again. For someone who's not at all religious, Arthur has a fondness for the most obnoxiously pious carols; the melodies are like old friends. He simply can't stand any song that features Santa as the main theme.

"And fields and floods, rocks hills and plains," Ariadne demonstrates, in a voice that's sweet but only just on key.

"No wonder." Arthur gestures around them. The garden isn't as sunny this time, and the shadows cast by the huge trees are richly deep and cool, but the grass still stretches invitingly into the distance, and his head is full of the dark smell of soil.

"Repeat the sounding joy," Ariadne continues. "Repeat the sounding joyyyy come on Arthur --"

He joins her: "Repeat, repeat the sounding joy."

"How on earth did you get him to sing?" Eames yells down.

The rope ladder tumbles rudely into view. Ariadne straightens it out and tests the bottom rung with her weight, absurdly, as though she might have dreamed them something flimsy. When satisfied she begins to climb; her calves are a brief flash of white before Arthur's eyes.

Once again the atmosphere is that of a summer vacation, childish and beguilingly lazy, with time a pleasant irrelevance. For a long while now Arthur's vacations have been much-needed solitary affairs, in large hotel rooms or other private spaces, with room service and uninterrupted sleep and rambling walks in wonderful isolation. Buying gifts for his nieces. Gently loosening the knots of himself from where the work's challenges have, by necessity, tightened them.

But this isn't a holiday and isn't training. As far as he can tell, this is Eames exacting a weird kind of revenge for the parts of the carnival he found least flattering.

"Arthur!" The ladder gives a twitch and he looks up. From here they are barely recognisable as themselves, just two heads with dabs of colour for hair, like background characters in a painting. He grabs hold of the ladder and hoists himself up.

It's not an easy climb: the flushness of both rungs and rope against the rough bark means his fingers and toes are smarting before he's halfway up. When he lifts himself ungraciously onto the floor of the treehouse he's feeling, strangely, much better about accompanying these two on whatever form of recreational psychotherapy this is. Scraped hands and aching muscles are things he already associates with dreams, and the vacation sense is receding.

"Not here?" No PASIV in sight.

"I thought we'd take a walk." Eames nods towards the far wall, which opens out onto a walkway edged with more rope.

From this height a lot of the garden should be visible, but they're deep amongst the enormous trees and Arthur can only catch short glimpses of the open lawns, the occasional flash of sunlight off bronze. The air is cool and soaks him with calm.

"You were one of those kids who read too much, weren't you?" Ariadne says.

"What makes you say that?"

She pauses, setting the walkway rocking beneath them, and points into the distance. Through a gap in the thick branches a well-trimmed lawn skewered with croquet hoops can be seen. Projections bustle to and fro; their voices can't be heard, but red and black skirts dominate the chaos, and the mallets are suspiciously pink and unwieldy. Arthur squints, trying to keep his eye on one of the balls, waiting for it to uncurl and scurry away in prickly defiance of physics.

"If you build a child's paradise, don't be surprised when someone's childhood leaks in," Eames says. "Genius loci."

"You are abusing my education," Ariadne mutters, and keeps moving.

On the rough wood floor of the treehouse they reach, three mattresses are laid out around the PASIV device; Arthur touches the nearest one dubiously, but it's neither damp nor dirty, despite appearances.

"Pillows too," he says. "A nice touch, thank you."

"Anything to preserve your posture," Ariadne says.

Remembering the fairground, Arthur goes to sleep tense, ready for anything, but it can be difficult to perpetuate mental states across the transition. There are always those initial few moments of disorientation in which you are exactly what the dream is telling you to be.

So Arthur's first thought is something like: that's a nice shade of green.

The hedges are his height and then half as high again, and when he stretches out his arms his fingers barely brush the trimmed leaves on either side. It's impeccably neat, all severe right angles, and it really is a nice shade of green: the same deep colour as the foliage around the treehouses, lit with emerald undertones. Eames has obligingly carried over the shoeless theme from the garden, and the dirt underfoot is packed firm.

"At the risk of sounding obvious," Eames calls from somewhere invisible, "I suggest we convene in the centre."

Arthur swallows a sigh, plucks a twig and lays it down in the dirt where he's standing, and sets off down one of the two identical paths available to him.

"Easy!" Ariadne shouts, before long. "Red door, right?"

"Wait a tick," Eames shouts back. "We'll be right with you."

"Speak for yourself," says Arthur, who has run into a dead end.

"You really can't build a decent maze."

"Not what I'm paid for," says Eames's voice, now closer to where Ariadne's is coming from. Without much confidence, Arthur turns his steps in that direction.

"Arthur, it's a piece of cake," Ariadne calls.

Arthur smiles to the empty air. "You've never seen me in an environment I don't already know."

"No way," she says, sounding delighted. "You can't do mazes?"

"Not unseen. Not unless they have underlying rules --"

"-- and that kind doesn’t work, the subconscious figures them out, I know."

Arthur arrives two days early for most jobs in new cities, preferably three, and soaks up streetmaps until he can be certain he won't be late to anything.

"Are you worse than a projection?" Ariadne adds.

"That'd depend on who was projecting," Arthur says, and runs into another dead end. "Eames, are you moving these hedges?"

"Not even a little."

Three minutes later he rounds a corner that looks like every other corner, but this one reveals Ariadne, already sketching part of the maze in the dirt with her toes, and Eames, leaning against a red door set into the central ring of hedges.

"Can we help you with anything?" Eames smiles politely. "Ball of string, perhaps?"

Arthur gives him the finger, then wishes he hadn't. Juvenile. Though he also had the urge to poke out his tongue, and at least he resisted that one.

"Now we're all here…" Ariadne reaches for the handle of the door. Eames pushes himself off it.

"Any wagers?" Eames asks. "Yes? No?" He sounds facetious, but it's an interesting question. If Arthur were describing a second layer of Ariadne's personality, what would he place at the centre?

Ariadne dances her hand thoughtfully on the brass knob of the door handle. "No wager," she says, smiling. "I don't trust you not to change it."

"O ye of little faith." Eames closes one hand around hers and the knob both, and twists, and they push the door open and walk through.

Arthur did a job once for a man whose wealth had been acquired rapidly, and whose meteoric rise into the ranks of the world's billionaires had left him breathless, twitchy, and paranoid. He invited Arthur to sit down in a leather chair that was so soft it took a fair effort to get out of it -- Arthur, twitchy in his own ways, perched awkwardly on the edge and dug his toes into the opulent carpet -- and sat back behind his ridiculous desk and rearranged his platinum-trimmed pens made by Giorgio Armani. In the middle of the desk was one of those petite Zen gardens, filled with fine white sand and small tools and a bonsai tree with such exquisitely arching branches that Arthur was tempted to steal the thing and carry it out of the saturated, over-luxurious picture that was the rest of the office.

If that businessman had poured some of his money into the fad of supersizing, Arthur thinks now, the finished product might have looked something like this: not like the traditional gardens from which that executive toy was derived, but like a comically large reproduction of the toy itself.

The centre of the maze is a square spread corner to corner with that pale tropical-island sand, smooth and spotless, as though a tide has only just receded and left nothing for beachcombers to discover beyond a few grey boulders and a pile of sandcastle-building equipment left behind by careless oversized children. Arthur feels the twin urges to sit down in the sand and close his eyes, and to turn cartwheels across the pristine expanse of it.

Ariadne has walked over to the pile of tools, and now nudges with her foot a black rake. "All right," she says. "What is it meant to be?"

"I don't know," Eames says. "Which shouldn't surprise you, because you don't know -- you don't know what shape you want to take. It could be almost anything." He bends, picks up the rake, and presses it into her hand. It takes her longer than it should to grip it. "It could be nothing, as yet. It takes all that effort to reach the centre and what's waiting for us could be nothing at all."

Ariadne looks at him. "You don't believe that," she says.

"Mm, what was it you said? Mostly no."

Arthur itches, superfluous, sand between his toes. He thinks he understands. It's perhaps no crueller than the mirrors. "The potential's there," he says; gestures to the rake. "The theme is still change, isn't it?"

Ariadne moves suddenly, walking to the centre of the square and then dragging the rake in an angry swirl behind her as she treads in expanding circles, a many-toothed spiral taking shape in the sand. When the rake finally strikes one of the boulders she stops and walks the perimeter, leaning out over the spiral and making quick jabs with the wrong end of the rake, closing off clear spaces between the lines and opening others. It's recognisable, just, as a circular maze.

She turns on Eames when she's done, her eyes unfriendly. "A child's paradise," she says. "Point taken. But you know what, fuck you, what do you expect from me? I'm a student. I'd never been employed apart from shitty minimum-wage things before Prof Miles handed me over to Cobb. I don't have any exciting stories about past jobs. I don't have a mysterious past. I've never lived in Mumbasa. I've never hated anything, or suffered anything, not really. I've never -- been a lover." Her voice, bitter and too high, falters for only a moment. "I don't even know how I would make it fit. In my life."

Arthur thinks about anonymous cities rising at her command and the uncomfortable way she wore the grey suit. Her lips barely moving underneath his, and the way she moved against Eames like an awakening. Children's toys made to fit her barely adult hands.

She sighs and sinks down into herself. "I want to build," she says. "I know I can, I know I'm good, but I'm afraid I haven't got much to build with. Not yet."

"You are good," Arthur tells her. "You're an amazing architect, Ariadne, and everything else -- that'll come. You've got years."

"More than years." She looks at him then away, back at the pattern she's made. "Old souls. Not just Cobb, but all of you. You've lived through so much more than your bodies have."

"True, but I wouldn't wish the shape of my life on you," Eames says. "You'll build something better."

"I did want to thank you both," she says to the spiral in the sand. Arthur looks at Eames, who gives a subtle shrug. They wait and Ariadne looks up; if her anger's still there, it's well masked. "For never telling me that I'm too young to do this job. For never even suggesting it."

"Wouldn't have dreamed of it," Eames says, warmly, and Ariadne gives a tiny snort of laughter; it takes Arthur a second longer to catch the pun, distracted as he is by this insecurity that he never suspected her of harbouring. But he remembers being new to the world of dreaming, and suffocating in wonder, and hiding it.

"Absolutely not," he says. "I couldn't have asked for a better architect."

Ariadne throws the rake to the ground and smiles at him, hiding nothing, and Arthur wants her fiercely, all of her, her straight-faced brilliance and her clear-eyed nerve. It fills him up like hot water. He thinks for no real reason about the elevators and the dazzling glass of Saito's tower.

She's close enough that he doesn't have to move his feet, just reach out; the fine skin of her temple is right there but he denies himself simply for the tight pleasure of it, holds his fingertips so close that he can feel the heat coming from her body. He brushes back her hair, instead, and Ariadne tilts her head as he follows one thick strand of it down the side of her face, letting it glide between his fingers, finally winding the end of it around one. He's always loved women's hair, the fall of it, the minute roughness of it like good-quality silk.

"For future reference," Ariadne says solemnly, "this is good timing."

She puts one hand against his cheek and rises to open her mouth against his as if thirsty for something, warm and lovely, and Arthur closes his eyes and forces his brain to a standstill.

That can't last, obviously.

He was hoping that this would be uncomplicated, symbolic; this deep in anyone's dreams, everything can be a symbol one way or another. But when she lowers herself back onto the flats of her feet and the kiss breaks, they gaze at each other for a period of time that Arthur recognises as dangerous.

Ariadne's throat moves as she swallows.

"It's fucking alarming the way you look at people sometimes," she says. "Like you're taking them apart."

It takes all the effort he has for a few seconds just to remain standing where he is, not pulling away; giving her that. He nails his feet to the dirt and smiles at her.

He says, "And yet I can't do mazes."

"No." Her smile is the one that releases them, like the unclasping of a latch. "No, you're terrible, how have you lasted so long?"

"By always knowing the blueprint before I go in."

"When it comes to exciting stories, Ariadne, you've got at least one," Eames says. "I'd say that being the architect for the first successful inception team in the industry's history would get you a few rounds of drinks in most bars."

"Most bars you know," she teases, but she's alight again and Eames is as well, just like those weird mirrors, tossing it back and forth between them.

In the dream industry there's an unspoken agreement that professionals ignore the intimacy of being inside another person's head, but what these two are doing, what they are dragging Arthur into, is something else entirely. Arthur uses his left foot to kick up a small amount of sand, leaving a dimpled half-moon mark, thinking with a rush of vertigo -- what the hell am I doing? He's never been one for games, and this is starting to feel like one, played for troublingly obscure stakes. He's never been one for unnecessary risks.

But holding him in place is the echo of Ariadne's lips, like the echo of Eames's smile that lingered in the mirrors; like a promise encoded and passed along.

~





(part three)
Tags: inception
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