Arthur strode down the Parisian street with a steady, unbroken gait. He had one bag slung across his right shoulder, and a silver briefcase in his left hand. There was a Beretta strapped across his chest, hidden under the gray over-piece of his suit.
At the third apartment complex from the main street, he slipped inside after another resident; the complex was mostly inhabited by college students, and Ariadne lived on the fourth floor, sixth room down. She had never told him this; he had discovered it on his own, about a month ago, after the heat had died down from their first Inception.
When Ariadne answered the door, the look on her face was almost indescribable. Arthur, who was not prone to facial expression, could only describe it as a confusing mix of amazement, relief, and apprehension. A red flush came into her cheeks as he entered, and he felt that odd, tight feeling in his chest.
"Cobb's flight to London will arrive tonight. We'll need to meet him at Heathrow," Arthur had never been to Ariadne's apartment before - had no way of knowing where she kept the tarnished maroon suitcase she used on her travels - but he strode straight to the closet and pulled it from the top shelf. Ariadne felt dimly aware that his expertise in locating the suitcase was most likely due to the sharp, subtle intelligence of his nature.
"Pack only what you need," he said simply, and placed the suitcase on the bed. Ariadne felt herself obeying instinctively - these people moved fast in this line of business.
"So - we have a job?" Ariadne had a hard time concealing the eagerness in her voice. She'd been out of contact with the rest of the team for several months; after Fischer dissolved the company, Saito could not resist subtle bragging of his own involvement. This led to the suspicion that something underhanded had been achieved; extractors and other dream-agents came under fire, and aside from Cobb - who had all his charges dropped - the team was forced underground to avoid revealing their own involvement. Ariadne, less at risk than the others, resumed her schooling with a more unenthusiastic attitude. The professors commented that her designs had never been more radical; her art had improved exponentially; her concepts pushed boundaries and questioned artistic laws. She had never been better at creating, and never more frustrated at her inability to do it. She craved shared dreaming. She packed quickly and almost without seeing what she threw into the suitcase.
"Cobb contacted me a few days ago and told me to meet him in London," was Arthur's reply. Since removing Ariadne's suitcase, he had not stirred from his position in the room. He seemed to be examining the raw, untidy mess that was the artist's workspace - the clothes thrown half-hazardly throughout the room, hanging on the backs of chairs and bedposts; the empty take-out boxes and cut-up magazines lying on her desks, strewn with dulled charcoal pencils and gum erasers; and every inch of wall space, coated with M.C. Escher hangings, photographs of famous building, the Taj Mahal, Habitat 67 at Montreal - and sketches obviously aimed at the dreamspace, mazes and complicated constructions of buildings, cities, gardens - even caverns and underwater systems.
"Sorry about the mess," Ariadne was aware of what a contradiction Arthur made in the middle of her war-torn room. His pressed gray suit, polished oxfords, slicked black hair - he looked like a company statue in the midst of a Picasso painting.
"Wouldn't kill you to leave room to walk," Arthur said, with only the slightest eyebrow raise and hint of a smile. Just before they left, he took note to take a few of her sketches from the wall and tuck them neatly into his briefcase. Ariadne noticed, and found she didn't want to stop him.
They arrived in London by helicopter. The drone of the aircraft was so loud it made conversation almost impossible without screaming your lungs out; in effect, Ariadne was unable to ask Arthur any questions about the job. During the few hours of air-time, however, Arthur took the opportunity to examine a few of the sketches he had taken from her apartment. His expression never seemed to alter as he studied them, but Ariadne liked to imagine a glitter of delight often entered his eye.
They landed in the parking lot of a warehouse adjacent, somewhat, to London Heathrow Airport. Ariadne was under the impression they would be waiting for Cobb in the terminal, but Arthur led her instead towards the warehouse.
"So - it's just you and me?" she asked hesitantly. Arthur, who was pulling up the warehouse door, raised his eyebrow suggestively at her question. Ariadne felt herself flush. "I mean, you said..."
"Eames and Cobb will be here within the hour. Yusuf arrives tomorrow. You're here to help me set up," Arthur's face remained expressionless, as it almost always was; but there was that glimmer in his eyes that Ariadne had come to know as a smile.
"So... how is Cobb doing?" the question had been on Ariadne's mind ever since Inception. She liked to believe that Cobb had let go of Mal, but she had been such a strong presence in his mind, she doubted his ability to release her.
The warehouse was dank and musty, and filled with half-molded furniture. She began by pushing back the unusable chairs against the wall to clear a space, and felt Arthur's eyes on her.
"We haven't talked much. I haven't been stateside for awhile. Too risky," he answered in a relaxed, but still unaffected tone. Ariadne, however, imagined she caught a hint of worry.
"Why is it too risky?" she felt herself impelled to ask. They continued to clear floor space; a trailer outside held a number of lawn chairs and desks that they would be using during their shared dreaming, and would move inside later on.
Arthur gave Ariadne a look, as though he was hesitant to answer her question. Something pulled inside Ariadne whenever his eyes were on her; the steady, piercing gaze he had seemed to look through her, into her, like he was reading and evaluating her soul. The feeling of his eyes - those intelligent, studying eyes - it always made her feel... naked.
"...I suppose I can tell you, since I don't work for the states anymore," he seemed to to decide out loud. "Before I became part of Cobb's team, I was involved in high-security intelligence work for the United States military."
"What does that mean?" Ariadne asked, even though she was unsure if Arthur would be allowed to answer. Arthur, however, didn't seem to mind much; they walked together from the warehouse to the trailer, and began to pull lawn chairs from the back.
"It means I hacked and stole information from the military systems of other governments," he said, so evenly that Ariadne did a double take. "I was trained to acquire information through any means necessary, and I excelled at it. I was also involved, for some time, in training military units through the dream space, and helping government officials to militarize their subconscious."
"Well..." Ariadne didn't know what to say. The gravity of what he'd said seemed to weigh on her in a strangely appealing and terrifying way. The idea that Arthur had actually worked in theft for the government - had trained in the military - had done secret and unimaginable things for those invisible superpowers that ran the world - it sent a shiver down her spine, and she found herself in incredible awe of the Point Man.
"So, why is it risky for you to be in America?" she asked, dragging a lawn chair inside.
"After I became part of Cobb's team, I renounced work with the government. They typically don't like it when you do that," Arthur said it with a very subtle smile. "I can still go stateside, but only when I'm on good terms with the authorities. After Inception, which involved Fischer - an American company - I was on unstable footing."
Ariadne found herself drawn to everything Arthur said. The Point Man rarely spoke unless there was a need to speak; his comments were blunt and to the point; his questions were direct; his answers were absolute. Hearing him talk so clearly and simply about what Ariadne perceived as a radical life almost numbed her with intrigue. They were nearly done setting up the workshop when they reached this point in conversation; Adriane felt herself flush as an infinite number of questions flooded her head. Instead, she decided the tactful thing to do would be to cease her interrogation.
"So, now what?" Ariadne asked, examining the set up. Arthur had placed the silver briefcase on the table in the midst of the lounge chairs, and sent Ariadne another subtle, witty expression.
"We've got about twenty minute before Cobb's flight arrives. How about testing out a few of your new designs?"
"So I recreated the top level to actually coincide with the bottom - that way they can't escape from the roof..."
Arthur leaned over the edge of the rooftop only to see a checkered red floor - the base of the hotel lobby. How it reconnected with this level, when he was sure he had traversed eight flights of stairs upwards, bewildered and impressed him.
"You're designs continue to amaze me, Ariadne," he said simply. "This would be excellent in use with a corrupted government official. Maybe someone hiding a secret affair or transaction."
"You're always thinking about work aren't you?" Adriane found herself smiling. Arthur stepped boldly out onto the checkered floor, tested its strength by jumping subtly up and down, and then stepped back onto the rooftop with an unreadable expression.
"Not always," he said. His expression was still unreadable, but something in the soft, deep way he said it made Adriane feel a glow. The sky of her dreamscape turned slowly to a warm orange.
Ariadne noticed the change; if Arthur did, he didn't let on that he noticed - but the projections traversing the floors below - Arthur's projections - seemed to stir a little bit like a beehive.
"Arthur, I've been wondering something," Ariadne said slowly, struck by the recurring idea now that she was altering his dream-reality. Arthur said nothing in response, but waited patiently for her to continue. There was a comfort and acceptance in his silence that made it feel soothing within the dream. "Mal was one of Cobb's projections, and he was unable to... control it. Do you think any of our projections could ever be brought in like that? I mean - how do we stop our own projections from coming into the dreamspace?"
Arthur seemed to seriously consider Ariadne's words. He looked at her for a long while. Ariadne felt it in the dream like a lingering sense of suspense and excitement.
"Cobb's projection of Mal was much stronger than any of our projections. There was much more emotional connection behind his concept of Mal. The more emotionally attached the subconscious is to something, the more powerful it is, and the more difficult it is to keep out of dream-sharing," was his answer.
"...I supposed you haven't had trouble with that," Ariadne said, before she could stop herself. Part of her mind told her the comment was rude - and part of her wanted to say it anyway, just to gauge, if she could, whether Arthur really did have any emotional responses.
"I keep my emotions in check as much as possible, in order to avoid complicating the job. That doesn't mean I don't have them," he didn't seem offended when he said it. Ariadne took a concentrated look at him; he was poised on the edge of her maze, gazing back at her with a smile lingering in the corner of his mouth. But they were in a dream, and it wasn't so much that she saw him smile; she felt him smile, like a warm breeze, like a relaxed, easy feeling. She was dimly aware of the idea that he was smiling at her.
"How have you been the last few months?" Arthur's question came out unexpectedly, and interrupted her feeling with a rushed sense of excitement.
"...My professors love me," she admitted. "They say they've never seen designs like mine. Like my imagination is infinite."
"I wouldn't doubt it," Arthur said quietly. Adriane felt comforted at his gentle recognition of her talent.
"Yeah, well... it's nothing like this. I've been..." she looked for the right word. "...I've been craving this. This kind of creation."
As she spoke, the rooftop of the building slowly melted down. Grass sprang upwards. A tree grew in twisting, golden haste from the half-crumbled concrete and foliage; lights appeared in his branches, tiny lights from a hundred fragile paper lanterns. It left a misty, blue glow beneath the orange sky; projections paused to stare at the great, golden-barked tree, to stare momentarily at Ariadne.
"...It may sound strange," Arthur said from beside Ariadne, who found him standing quite close to her shoulder. "But I've been missing it too. The dreamspace isn't the same without you in it. Creating it."
Ariadne realized then, with silent satisfaction, why Arthur had taken the sketches from her wall. Why he'd decided to go into a shared dream with her twenty minutes before Cobb arrived. She realized he missed her creations.
The team was fully assembled the next day, with the exception of Saito, who - although he had once again hired the team to his needs - was kept away on important company business, and relied on Cobb to relay specifics.
"So, what's the job?" Arthur leaned back in his chair, his notebook open and ready on his lap. Ariadne had to let a slight smile escape her; the Point Man was already prepared to take notes, on something as indescribable as Extraction. Cobb took in a deep breath.
"Saito, as I'm sure you're all aware, has been less than discrete about Inception. A few weeks after Fischer dissolved the company, he bragged to one of his higher officials that he had saved the world from Fischer's total energy dominance. This led to investigations which left us all at risk -"
"Excuse me for the interruption, but I think we're all very aware of that situation," Eames added in, spinning idly in his chair. "I got a bullet in the leg in Cairo because of our little Japanese darling. Can we get to the part where we steal things?"
"Patience is a virtue, Eames. Listen and you might learn something important," Arthur responded with some tension in his voice. Adriane felt herself smile.
"Very sorry Arthur, didn't know I was interrupting your story-time. It's just, I'm having a hard time understanding why we're working for the man who put our heads on the chopping blocks a few months ago," Eames took out his totem - the blue and red-streaked poker chip he carried with him - and began flipping it between his fingers. Arthur shook his head and turned back to his notebook.
"We work for him because he can pay, and because if he we don't accept the job, he will fully expose us and what we did with Fischer," Cobb answered with a sigh. "Is that enough of a good reason?"
"Got us by the balls, then, has he? Very well. Carry on."
"Right. In any case, it seems someone is trying to destroy Saito's company in response to his involvement. Saito is willing to pay handsomely if we find out who it is."
"Will he be coming along again?" Yusuf chimed in at this point. "I wouldn't imagine he'd want to, what with falling into limbo last time."
"He hasn't expressed a desire as of yet," Cobb replied. At this point, Arthur seemed to liven up.
"I'm sorry - Saito wants us to find out who's dismantling his company?" Arthur leaned forward. "Isn't that more private detective work? How are we involved?"
"Because whoever is dismantling the company isn't doing it in reality," Cobb replied stiffly. "They are entering the dreams of Saito and his employees, and destroying their subconscious."
"Destroying their subconscious?" Adriane felt a tug of fear pull inside her at the idea. She felt everyone's eyes turn on her. "I thought the subconscious destroyed the dreamer. How can you destroy someone's subconscious without their projections turning on you?"
"That's what Saito's paying us to find out," Cobb replied. "Word on the street is, the concept is known as Eradication. The men who've had their subconscious destroyed are currently brain damaged and unable to give us information - at least not consciously. In order to do this job, Arthur - you'll have to research Saito's enemies and find any possible motives for destroying his company. Eames and I are flying to Tokyo in the morning to share dreams with the victims of the Eradicator. They can't tell us anything in reality, but perhaps there's still something leftover in their minds that will provide a clue."
"You'll need to have very light sedation if you're going into a broken mind," Yusuf noted in a warning. "A subconscious with possible brain damage is highly unstable and inconsistent. Projections can attack without warning, even if you haven't done anything to draw attention."
"Well then, Yusuf, come along and keep a check on us," Eames grinned. "If we get killed every five minutes inside the man's head, we'll need you around to keep putting us under."
"What about me?" Ariadne asked. She always felt like new blood in a group of old warriors; always overlooked, until the odd moment Cobb complimented her designs, or when... Arthur stole a kiss.
"You'll stay with Arthur," Cobb nodded to Ariadne with a maternal air. "I don't want you coming near places where men have had their subconscious destroyed. If the man doing this discovers us, he can come after us. You need to stay and train with Arthur to militarize your own subconscious and develop dream defenses."
"Well, how very sweet," Eames grinned again. "The stiff and the flower get to go on holiday while we do all the work, is it?"
"Jealousy is unbecoming of you, Eames," Arthur teased, and his tone and expression seemed mildly proud - as though he had enjoyed some small victory over Eames.