Pairing: Ariadne, Arthur, Eames [Ariadne/Arthur]
Challenge/Prompt: 100_women, 043. Dreams
Word Count: 4350
Copyright: Title taken from Black and Gold by Sam Sparro.
Summary: Sooner or later, he’s going to notice that every single person in her subconscious is staring at him.
Author’s Notes: Set during the movie, or, at least, during the first half. This is the movie that made me queasy for its entire duration and then genuinely made me afraid to sleep (there were, like, panic attacks and everything) but I loved it anyway. I have no idea what I’m trying to achieve with the pairing (OT3?) in this, but hey, if the movie can be vague and handwave-y in places, then so can I ;)
This is not really
This is not really happening
– You bet your life it is.
– Tori Amos
When he makes her come, the world shatters around them into bright pieces, like a stained church window falling inwards.
He raises his head, neat hair a wreck from her fingers, mouth shimmer-shining. She wants to drag him back down, forget everything else, but the world is shaking, shaking.
Instead she gets up from the bed, leaving him behind her – silent, too silent – and crosses to the window, pulling open the drapes. She remembers to fold defensive arms over her bare breasts but there’s no one to see; Paris is tearing itself into strips, rows of buildings whirling up into the sky. The Eiffel Tower falls sideways with a creak like a door slamming shut, and she turns back around.
She can’t grope for a totem, she’s too naked, nowhere to put it.
“You’re not here and I’m not here either,” she says, voice shaky.
He still says nothing. Paris is splintering, daylight cracking into shards.
Ariadne’s eyes flick open; her own ceiling, her own bedsheets tangled around her legs. A real dream then, a real dream masquerading as a false one.
She wants to scream. She considers the logistics for a moment, then remembers it’s a tiny apartment and the walls are thin and she doesn’t need her neighbours pissed at her. She swallows, gets up, messy locks of morning hair scattering around her shoulders.
It takes about three steps for Ariadne to realise just how drastically, hopelessly wet she is. She almost swears, a handful of obscenities for how ridiculous she feels, but she swallows them down and walks towards her bathroom. Brushes her teeth. Brushes her hair. Pisses. Reminds herself that the subconscious is dangerous, always has been, always will be.
The flush lingers on her cheeks well into her first lecture of the day.
It feels like a private thing, letting someone else into her subconscious. Even someone like Arthur, clean and tidy and quiet, like he’s never had a real emotion in his life. No, that’s a lie; but still, he’s unruffled, a pond you can drop stones into and you’d never see the ripples.
Ariadne wants to drop stones, and then reminds herself that this is all screwed up enough as it is.
“Ready?” he asks, smile carefully considered.
She’s already got a world built in her mind, sleek architecture and ornamental fountains and no graffiti or cracks on the sidewalks. Lots of staircases, sparkling glass, impersonal enough. Nothing to split and reveal something darkly, hopelessly private about her that Arthur won’t comment on because he’s not that sort of boy but that he’ll know anyway, and she’ll know he’ll know, and, well, who can guess what will happen next.
“Ready,” Ariadne replies, easy, because she gave up on being nervous a long time ago. There’s no point in being nervous, not anymore.
Sooner or later, he’s going to notice that every single person in her subconscious is staring at him.
You can’t remember the beginnings of dreams, you fall into the middle of them. That’s reasonable, that’s an almost fool-proof method of telling fantasy from reality, at least in theory.
Only she can’t recall exactly how she got from being offered a job to this; designing imaginary mazes for a man being eaten alive by his own psychosis.
It gets more implausible the more Ariadne thinks about it, so she tries not to, because sometimes she finds herself drifting off in lectures and reflecting that just because she can’t twist the sky into ribbons for her own entertainment, this doesn’t make this real. Maybe totems are an extra form of insanity, maybe all these people sitting around her diligently making notes or dozing softly in the waves of their lecturer’s voice aren’t real. Maybe they’re projections. Maybe one of them will turn around and kill her, any minute, and she’ll wake up breathless.
“You look tired,” Arthur tells her, neutral but soft, a smile quirking his lips in the warehouse’s bright lighting.
“Better put me to sleep then,” she says, deflecting.
They’re in Paris, fucking Paris, city of love and all those other shitty clichés sung on the radio while Ariadne lay in her backyard and drew castles in the sky on the inside of her eyelids. Romance is in the air, baked into every last pain au chocolat, threaded cleanly through every word spoken by the Parisians around her. City of love, yeah, and some days Ariadne feels so lonely and so crazy that maybe she could die.
It’s not for lack of company; there’s Arthur, careful words, careful smile, even more careful cut to his suit, the angle of his tie. There’s Cobb, losing his mind one dream at a time, but covering well enough and always up for avoiding a conversation. There’s Eames, who smiles too much, his eyes sharp, promising things that she can’t tell if she’ll like or not, hiding something raw and glittering behind humour and cigarettes. There’s Yusuf, who seems to be the only person not half-crazy by now, always ready with a smile and a shrug, an eyeroll that says all these people are mad but I’m here anyway, what the hell. Saito’s different, he’s bankrolling the operation, and Ariadne doesn’t know what to say to him.
She’s surrounded by people, in their warehouse, in the college, in the streets. Surrounded by people but so separate from them it’s like an ache, razored through her entire being.
“Fuck Paris,” she mumbles into her pillow one night, in lieu of tears.
Ariadne falls asleep on the métro line seven, somewhere between Poissonnière and Cadet, head dropping sideways to press against the window. The sounds of commuters, the doors swish-hissing open and shut, the screaming of the tracks beneath her fade out, slipping from consciousness even as she claws desperately to keep her eyes open.
She doesn’t have any of the shallow, noisy dreams she used to have when drifting off on the métro on the way home, fractured and complex, because she’s already losing the peripherals of dreaming. Ariadne still has the deep, tangled dreams of REM sleep, but she’s starting to wonder how long they’ll last.
When she opens her eyes, he is sitting opposite her, hair and suit sharp and tidy. His smile has an edge to it, it reminds her of Eames, just a little, and she wonders if and when he stole it.
“You shouldn’t fall asleep in public,” he warns her, “it’s dangerous. You don’t know who could be watching.”
She wants to ask did you follow me? but she’s rather afraid of the answer. He smiles, just a little wider, and leans forward to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, touch careful, light, and enough to make her shiver. She breathes, shaky, and looks out of the window. They’ve reached Pont Neuf, but the station doesn’t look right, not the way she thinks it ought to. She reaches for her totem, and it’s gone. He raises an eyebrow at her, but she knows the truth now.
When Ariadne wakes up, she’s reached the terminus at Mairie d’Ivry. Her head is thumping and Arthur is nowhere in sight. She grits her teeth and stiffly gets up to catch a train back the other way, cursing just how thin the line between real and not real has gotten.
It’s late, and Ariadne is waiting for Arthur’s opinion on part of the hotel maze so there isn’t a lot for her to do tonight. She’s half-sketching something for class, sipping at a black coffee and deliberately not wondering about where it is that Arthur disappears off to when he’s not at the warehouse, or just how much of Cobb’s shaky hands and wide eyes is waving, not drowning, and how much is the other way around. She should never have gotten involved with these people and she is also horribly aware that it doesn’t matter, that she can’t walk away now. That even if she did, even if she left tonight and somehow managed to disappear entirely, something inside her has cracked and splintered and the things that have trickled out through the gaps can’t ever be replaced again.
Eames isn’t supposed to be smoking in the warehouse, Arthur usually glares in an eloquent fashion, but Arthur isn’t here right now, after all, and Ariadne doesn’t feel in any position to pass judgement on anything.
“Designing pretty buildings for the sky?” he asks. His voice slides but it’s not quite disdain, not this late, not without an audience.
Ariadne curls her pencil across the paper. “Not for the sky,” she responds softly, “for a grade.”
Eames says nothing and, after a moment, she looks up at him. He’s looking thoughtful, lips twisted.
“You’re sticking with college, then?” he asks when she frowns at him.
Ariadne shrugs. “Of course.” She swallows, and the words stick to her tongue, but: “I’m not going to do this forever.”
Eames laughs, and it’s not like his normal laughter, there’s no tease there, no hint that he’s in on a joke that the rest of them wouldn’t get even if it were explained to them; this one is bitter around the edges.
“What?” she demands, sharper than she meant to.
He shrugs. “It’s just, I said that once too.”
And then he walks away, leaving nothing but the final vestiges of smoke.
She builds worlds that feel reassuring, not quite home (don’t base it on reality, don’t base it on reality, don’t base it on reality) but near enough that it feels softly familiar. Somewhere you’ve been before, or might have been, or thought about going to.
His worlds are cold, clean, beautiful but untouchable. There’s something remote about them, something unnerving, like there are hidden secrets behind the neutral wallpaper, if only you could strip it back and look.
She kind of wishes that architects could really fuck with each other’s dreams; she wants to bring the top three floors of this damn clinical building crashing down just to get some kind of reaction.
The Gare du Nord is full of people and light and noise, chiming announcements in French every few minutes. Ariadne leans against the barrier of one of the walkways, looking down at the sea of humanity, Arthur on one side of her and Eames on the other. Eames is picking at a croissant and making occasional disparaging remarks about passersby, casually dropping flakes of pastry downwards as he gestures, while Arthur shifts uncomfortably and mumbles things about security. They’re waiting for Cobb, who had some crazed idea and rushed off on a train earlier this morning; something to do with his dad, apparently. Possibly.
Ariadne watches people piling onto the Eurostar, a small child lugging along a Mickey Mouse toy about as big as it is, and smiles slightly.
“Do you ever think about going home?” Ariadne asks Eames as an announcement drifts past, informing them that the Eurostar to London St Pancras is leaving soon.
He shrugs, non-committal, light. “There’s no money in it.”
Arthur laughs softly on Ariadne’s other side; she can’t tell if it’s derision or a private joke.
“There’s more to life than money,” she points out.
Eames arches an eyebrow at her, amusement flickering at his mouth. “Money is a wonderful thing, darling. You can’t dream it up but you can dream it away.”
Arthur scoffs but Ariadne smiles in spite of herself, trying to ignore the fact this doesn’t feel like the first time Arthur and Eames have had this conversation.
The eighth time Ariadne wakes startled from a dream that’s a blur of skin that definitely (definitely) never happened, alone in her own bed with her own breath too hard on her lips, she decides that something has to be done, it cannot continue like this. It’s not fair. She needs something she can’t name, and not being able to name it is winding her up more and more, clenching around her spine.
A guy in her Tuesday afternoon lecture asks her out to a shitty little gig at a Montmartre club that night, and she doesn’t hesitate at all before saying yes. She slides her totem into the pocket of a pair of too-tight jeans and decides that she’s given enough to this operation, given enough that she can have a night to herself. A night to try and reclaim those threads of her life she’s already let slip, because there’s got to be more than living through your subconscious and hoping for the best, there’s got to be.
Ariadne used to be much more shy, coy and awkward, but being Cobb’s Voice Of Reason has slipped steel through her, steel she didn’t know she could have, and so she moves for what she wants, a slide of skin and teeth and breath, totem solid against her hip reminding her that this is real, this is real, this is real.
There’s a banging on her door the next morning. She rubs her thumb over her totem for a moment, lying on her nightstand, and then pushes herself upright, shrugging into the first clothes she finds and going to answer it.
Arthur’s bland expression doesn’t flicker, and he’s holding two cups of coffee.
“Cobb needs to talk to us,” he says, and she can’t read him, not in the slightest. It would be obvious what she did last night, Ariadne thinks, obvious even without the wreck of her hair or the random guy wrapped in a bedsheet poking his head around her bedroom door and asking where her bathroom is.
She wonders if it’s too much to hope for a reaction, though that wasn’t the initial point of this, she’s sure of it (she hopes it wasn’t).
“Right,” Ariadne says, soft, tucking unruly hair behind her ear, and reaches for one of the coffee cups. “I’ll meet you there.”
She’s waiting for something, though she wishes she wasn’t, and she closes the door in his – still infuriatingly expressionless – face.
It’s sometimes hard to remember that just because Ariadne is new to this world and this people, they’re not in the same position.
She’s leaving the warehouse one night when she finds that Eames and Arthur are both connected, lying in a half-dark space, no sound but the softness of their breathing. Arthur isn’t wearing headphones, there’s no sign of an alarm to get either of them out, and for a moment Ariadne considers joining them, to find out what it is they’re training for, but there’s something about this secrecy that makes her hesitate. She stands in an agony of indecision and watches them sleep instead, faces streaked with light from a lamp set between them.
Ariadne doesn’t know exactly how long it’s been when Arthur startles upright, breath catching ragged in his chest, ripping wires from his arm as curses skin between his teeth. Ariadne is about to ask but she doesn’t have to because Eames surfaces a minute later, much more collected as he wakes.
“You fucking killed me!” Arthur snarls, and she’s never seen him angry like this, never. There’s something wild and desperate and vicious about the pieces of his expression not hidden in shadow.
Eames doesn’t react. “My subconscious fucking killed you,” he corrects mildly, “at least get that right.”
Arthur shifts to look at him, and Ariadne can’t see Arthur’s expression anymore, can’t see whatever it is in his face that makes Eames’ eyes narrow and his mouth thin, that easy veneer of humour slipping. He gets up abruptly and walks out, brushing past Ariadne without looking at her. Ariadne glances at Arthur, fingers clenched in his lap, and then follows Eames.
“Why does he annoy you so much?” spills from her mouth before she can think it through.
“Because he never used to be this boring,” Eames snaps back, and leaves her in his wake.
Paris was supposed to be a new start and there’s no doubt that this is a new start, this wasn’t quite what Ariadne had in mind.
She lies to her mom on the phone and does her best to keep up with her work, because whatever anyone else says this is one job, just one job, because she’s seen how this lifestyle can wrench a person apart and she has no intention of letting that happen to her.
Ariadne tells herself, over and over, that she won’t miss any of them when she leaves. She hopes that she might eventually believe it.
She hesitates in the doorway, fingers rising to cover her mouth, staring at Cobb, quietly dreaming alone and trapped in his own brightly coloured nightmares. He doesn’t move as she watches and it takes a long time for her to notice that he’s breathing.
One day he isn’t going to get back out again and she honestly doesn’t know how she feels about that.
Ariadne turns around and finds Arthur is watching her watch Cobb, expression flat and eyes dark. She catches her tongue between her teeth, pressing her lips tight together, and wonders just how much he knows. How much he’s even noticed.
...but that’s a whole other line of thought, because what does that say about Arthur, exactly? If he hasn’t noticed just how fucked up Cobb is, then just how fucked up is Arthur himself? And if he has noticed and is just sitting back and watching Cobb unravel...
“Say something,” Ariadne saps, lower and harder than she means to.
Arthur raises an eyebrow. “It’s late.”
“Say something else.”
Arthur watches Cobb for a moment, lost in the cracked shreds of a marriage that’s been over for God knows how long.
“There’s nothing you can do,” he says at last.
“Did you even try?” she demands, too loud, more confrontational than she intended.
Arthur looks angry for a moment, startlingly so, but the look softens. “Yeah,” he says, the word spilling out on a laugh that’s rueful and ripped and tired, “yeah, more than you’ll ever believe.”
Ariadne wants to reply but she can’t find the words, unsure if he’s gotten the wrong impression or the right one, and which would really be worse.
“Did you ever meet Mal?” she asks Eames quietly in the morning, watching a now-awake Cobb planning something with Arthur. There’s a reluctant half-smile tugging at the corner of Arthur’s mouth, something fond and familiar in it.
“Mal? Before my time, love,” Eames replies. “Although she has shot me in the head a couple of times, pushed me off a building, hit me with a hammer and there was this one wonderful time with a garrotte wire...” He turns his gaze to Cobb. “I try not to take it too personally.”
Ariadne laughs because she’s supposed to, but wonders inside herself if this is all they’re destined to be. She recalls Arthur’s soft she was lovely and maybe that’s it, maybe all they’ll be in the end are demons in each other’s memories, nails and knives and effortless destruction.
“You’ll survive,” Eames shrugs, misinterpreting – deliberately? – her lack of response. “We always do.”
“You don’t try to fix anything?” Ariadne asks, aware even as she says it that it’s a stupid question.
Eames shrugs. “Can’t kill a woman who’s already dead. And there’s no money in it.” Ariadne finds herself wanting to snap if that’s all he cares about; he must read it on her face, because he adds: “come on, you spend your days building bricks on the insides of your eyelids. Materialism is really the only answer.”
He has a point, although something in his voice is rehearsed. When she glances at him, his gaze is has slipped from Cobb to Arthur.
“Why are you doing this?” she finds herself asking Yusuf, trapped in the tired skin of the night trying to fix a flaw in the hotel maze.
Yusuf is probably the only person here who isn’t completely crazy, and Ariadne includes herself in that assessment. He gives her hope that you can live in this distorted world where reality only takes up the tiniest part of your actual life and not be eaten alive by it all.
He flashes her a grin, bright under the white electric lighting, and some part of her feels like she might have been unintentionally impertinent, prying somewhere she has no right to look. Yusuf reaches past her, picking up a pencil and scoring a line through part of her design; it needs reworking but she’s so tired the corridors are blending together, a maze even she can’t get her head around.
“I’ll say the money,” he tells her peaceably after a moment, frowning down at the diagram.
“That’s not the only reason.” Ariadne says it with certainty, and then wonders when the hell she decided to try and appoint herself as the group therapist. She’s doing a shitty job and anyway, it’s not like she’s in any way qualified to talk about stability.
“It’s a reason.” His voice is friendly but she knows the conversation is over, and she doesn’t push.
Saito’s subconscious turns nasty on a variation of a practice run, leaving trails of slick red through the snow, and those of them that aren’t picked off by faceless soldiers are left to face Mal, armed with a rifle and an expression that’s strangely curious, just a little lost.
Ariadne hyperventilates a little when she wakes up but says nothing, digging fingernails into her knees until her heart slows down a little. The others are varying shades of unconcerned; they’ve done this before, too many times before, and Ariadne wonders if death even has any meaning left for them.
She digs her totem so hard into her thumb it cuts through the skin.
It doesn’t help; Arthur finds her later, bent over her desk, hands spread flat while coarse, desperate breaths tear out of her. His hands are strong when they curl over her shoulders, turning her around, and if Arthur’s the only thing holding her upright right now, well, ok then.
“What if,” she begins, and her voice splits, “how... how do we know that we’re not just manifestations of Cobb’s subconscious? How do we know that we were ever real to begin with?”
Arthur’s face gets hard and a little worried, but there’s resolve there. He shakes her. “Don’t,” he murmurs, low and hard and certain, “don’t think like that, because if you do, you won’t get out of here alive. You won’t get out of anywhere alive.”
“You’ve thought about it,” Ariadne gasps, a little calmer now she realises she’s not alone in her suspicions, “you’ve thought about it, haven’t you?”
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Arthur replies, which isn’t an answer, “and really, consider just what that means if it is true, and then decide if you ever want to think about it again.”
He holds her until she stops feeling sick; after all, whatever happens, there’s nothing they can do either way.
“I don’t know,” Ariadne tells her bathroom mirror night after night after night, in response to the myriad of questions that plague her, that don’t and can’t leave her alone, “I don’t know.”
“It gets easier,” he tells her.
“I don’t want it to get easier,” she snaps back, angrier than she really wants to be, unsure where this fury really came from.
They’re practicing the hotel maze; the place is filled with his subconscious, docile and quiet though the bar staff keep dropping glasses for no logical reason, and when she eavesdrops on people, most of them seem to have stammers. She’s giving up on trying to make sense of any of this.
“It’s a bit too late to keep fighting this,” he points out, and she hates that bluntness, hates his calm and correct assessment of any given situation. He might have sat back and let himself be dragged down, but she’s damned if she’s giving in that easy.
“Stop it,” she snarls at him, and she still doesn’t know why she’s so angry. She doesn’t even fucking know how they got here, and that’s scary. She reaches for her totem but he grabs her wrist before she can touch the chess piece, and she remembers that smile on his face when he showed her his own totem, wonders where that smile is now.
“Ariadne.” His voice is low and hard, forceful, and she can taste the remnants of her name on his mouth a moment later, although there’s no explanation, no beginning, no middle, no end. It’s a dream and she knows it and Edith Piaf cements it a moment later, the wails of rien de rien making the room shake for a moment.
She opens her eyes in her own bed, breathing too hard, shiver-shaking and alone. Just another dream, she thinks, like a dozen others before, of course, of course, of course. She thinks about getting up, but rolls back over and goes back to sleep.
Ariadne wakes up and the recollections of dreams are too fierce in her own mind. She woke up in the middle of the night, she remembers, and then frowns, because the sheets appear to have changed colour since three a.m.
Her arms are bare, clean, but the left one is slightly sticky near the wrist, the tiniest of bruises rising purple, like a piece of tape was pressed down and then ripped off a little too hard.
“This is why I’m the architect,” she informs the sheets, unsure if she wants to scream or to cry.
They don’t talk about it; there are only a couple of days before this whole thing blows anyway, and Ariadne tells herself that she’ll walk away with her money and build things out of bricks, real bricks with real weight.
“Good fucking luck with that,” Eames informs her on a cigarette break, and if Ariadne silently agrees with him? Well, she doesn’t say it aloud.
Arthur’s eyes flicker to her, shadowed and curious, and curls the fingers of her left hand into her palm.