No caress, no mere sexual act, could be as intimate as sharing a dream. As existing completely within someone else, someone laid out bare before you, no matter how good they might be at building mazes to protect themselves. Before Ariadne, Arthur had forgotten this—he’d been in the business for almost ten years, after all, a business peopled by rough-edged cowboy types prone to dreaming of poker games and porn-beautiful women.
“My projections seem polite enough,” she had said the first time he entered her mind. And she was right, but that wasn’t the half of it: He had seen projections quick to anger and eager to kill. He had seen projections all but oblivious to anything outside of themselves. Up until her, though, he’d never seen a projection read a book. Or busk in the subway, singing dreamy French ballads that somehow managed to echo ghostly through the entire dream. He had certainly never seen cotton-candy vendors in anyone else’s dreams, or projections that set up easels on street corners, where they would spend the whole of their existence painting impressionistic marvels of gleaming cityscapes. Her projections could be incited to kill, just like anyone else’s. But they were almost apologetic about it, cringing and looking regretful even as they came at you with a knife, with a gun, with a cudgel.
They had been all but partners on the Fischer job, Arthur and Ariadne. While Cobb was busy globetrotting in search of the perfect team, they had built and destroyed worlds together at will. Arthur had taught Ariadne everything he knew—a task swiftly accomplished with a student as bright as she was.
After the Fischer job, they stood side by side at the LAX taxi stand. “I guess this is it,” she had said.
Arthur was used to saying goodbye, used to seeing coworkers come and go in a blur of bad manners and even worse morals. He was well aware that extraction didn’t lend itself to close ties of any sort; it was an industry of transients, of haunted men or men with something to prove to the world.
But before that moment, he had never once considered what it would be to say goodbye to Ariadne.
“I guess you’re right,” he answered carefully, quietly. They shouldn’t even have acknowledged each other, with Robert Fischer just feet away, climbing into the back of a long black limousine. But Arthur indulged himself with a final glance at her, taking in her waves of dark hair, her glowing skin, the graceful curve of her neck where it disappeared beneath her ever-present scarf.
When at last an empty taxi had pulled up, he deferred to her with a nod. “Go ahead, I’ll wait for the next one.”
Before her, Arthur’s real, sleeping dreams had been anemic remnants, hollow empty things and almost gone forever. But being with her brought them back to life—suddenly the skies in his mind were robin’s egg blue, the sun warm on his skin, the smell of the sea everywhere.
He had spent fewer than two months with Ariadne in Paris, but they had been together almost every waking moment, talking, plotting, planning. It represented a tiny fraction of his life, but somehow it seemed to color everything after. New York was big and empty without her 2 am phone calls, her morning coffee runs, her favorite Beach House playlist on repeat in the background. He was at odd ends in the apartment he kept there for downtime, lost in sleek, shiny chrome and glass walls overlooking midsummer central park.
Cobb was out of the business for good, Arthur was sure. His priorities had been rearranged the moment the immigrations officer handed back his much-stamped passport, the story of his life rewritten in a heartbeat. He may have landed in LAX Dom Cobb, dream extractor, but he left it Dom Cobb, father.
Two weeks later, Arthur snapped up the first job offer he received.
“It’s a straightforward project, really.” Only Miles would say such a thing about building the anti-limbo, a self-sustaining, organized dream world accessible to everyone, anywhere, any time.
The transatlantic line was scratchy, but Arthur had heard all he needed to. Work, all-consuming, obsessive work, was just what he needed to clear his mind. “When do you need me?”
“We’ll be working at the villa as soon as the semester ends; I imagine we’ll be occupied throughout the summer.”
Most nights, Arthur dreamed of her, the heat of her body, the smell of her hair. How she might kiss him, careful and tender, eyes closed tight.
Just outside Toulon in the south of France, Mal’s childhood home felt like something out of a fairy tale. Pulling up for the first time in his rented car, Arthur half expected to be greeted at the door by a wicked witch—or maybe the ghost of Mal herself. But instead, it was her. Ariadne.
“Hey.” The shy smile, the nervous tick of pushing her hair behind one ear, the way she met his eyes only obliquely. Arthur found himself cataloging her hungrily, noticing how tan she was and how close she felt, after weeks of dreaming of her.
“So we ruined the real world for you forever, did we?” He wished he had spoken sooner, that the lightness of his words had not been betrayed by his heavy tone.
“Unfortunately,” She rolled her eyes. “But from here on out, it’s only legitimate work. No more Raiders of the Lost Subconscious.”
“That’s what you say now. By the time Miles is done with us, you’ll be daydreaming of the good old days of militarized projections and the constant threat of bloody death. It’s less painful than death by overwork, I’d imagine.” She led him into the house, all polished wood and beautiful objects. They fell into step, his movements matched exactly, breathtakingly, by hers.
That night, he dreamed of her smooth skin against his body, her arms tight around him, her breath fast on his neck as he moved inside her.
The first dream they shared on the project was a spring day in a city like Paris, if Paris had been built of sunshine rather than stone. Everywhere there was light and laughter, confections of golden brick passing for buildings, intricate lacework passing for roads.
When a projection smiled at him, he was surprised. Even Ariadne’s dreamworld mind usually keep to itself, avoiding outsiders in favor of its own pursuits. But in this dream he felt like a returning hero, a prodigal son, a long-lost love returned again—the projections went out of their way not to harm him, but to touch his shoulder, to meet his eyes, to take his hands in theirs and bow their heads to him.
“I really don’t know what’s going on here.” The blush that crept across Ariadne’s cheeks looked almost painful, it burned so bright. “It’s like…maybe they’re happy to see you,” she finished lamely.
They walked through the streets so close together that their shoulders brushed, their hands collided; they two were almost become one. Like this they rounded a corner onto a quiet side street, deserted except for two projections: A dark-haired woman and a lanky, suited man who were far too busy to notice the newcomers. The projections were entwined, his hands on her hips, her mouth relentlessly claiming his as he pressed desperately against her. Between kisses the man spoke, his words hushed and broken. “Love you,” the projection whispered in a familiar voice, raising tingling goose bumps along Arthur’s arms. “Being without you was like being dead.”
Waking up was awkward enough without Miles’ puzzled glances. Ariadne was clearly hoping to be swallowed up by the floor, and Arthur had to pull his jacket onto his lap to keep from embarrassing himself.
Hours later, Miles was still grilling then over dinner. “There was no interference, none whatsoever?” The table was beautifully set with crystal and delicate, flowered china Arthur suspected had been in the family for generations. Everything looked delicious, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat a single bite.
“None.” Ariadne’s reply was clipped and tight, just like everything else she had said that afternoon. She and Arthur had spent hours working together on the cityscape model, barely speaking. But still he had known what she was thinking, had seen it in the way her eyebrows were drawn together, the way her hand shook when she handed him a gluestick.
“And did this happen to you before, on the Fischer job?” Of course Miles was surprised—making it out of a dream completely unobserved, unharassed, was all but unheard of.
Although Miles was clearly speaking to Ariadne, the day’s dreamer, Arthur couldn’t bear the way she fidgeted under his gaze. “It was never just the two of us then,” he answered for her. “After I got her up to speed, other people were always involved.”
Miles’ raised eyebrows were his only reply.
Later, Ariadne found him in his bedroom, still wet from a long, cold shower.
She stood in the doorway, obviously steeling herself. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes were closed, as if she didn’t want to see Arthur’s reaction to her words. She continued, all in one breathless sentence: “It was unprofessional and stupid and I hope that it won’t mess things up; we work together too well to let what happened get in the way.”
It was all he could do to stay where he was, to keep himself from sweeping her into his arms and drawing her back onto the bed. But he did. Because now that he had been inside her, knew what she really felt, he wanted to show her what the shared dream had meant to him, not tell her.
In his dream, they were old together, and every time he looked at her electricity thrilled through him, just as it had when she met him at the villa door.
The next day he was the subject and the architect both. It was the narrowest landscape he had ever created, made up of exactly one room. In the one room there was a cool breeze through open windows, a luxuriant bed piled with fluffy pillows and silken blankets, and two projections.
“Say you love me,” the female projection begged, as the male projection hovered over her. Their skin was stained golden by sunshine, and they looked like they belonged together, puzzle pieces at last almost united.
Arthur felt rather than heard Ariadne take a deep breath as she watched the two projections—clearly and distinctly Arthur, and clearly and distinctly Ariadne—begin to move together.
“You know I do,” the other Arthur answered helplessly, urgently. “You know it.”
That night he dreamed she was in his arms. And when he woke, she was.