Author's Note: Inception gave me flying dreams flying dreams! I haven't had flying dreams in two years! So I watched the movie again and I'm still blown away. I'm anticipating the movie script and the soundtrack (cue inner jig). In my head, Saito isn't The Tourist, but The Person Who Bought an Entire Airline for Kicks. Anyways, about this fic's outline- I won't lie: it's scribbled and crammed into the margins of margins on the back of my old Statistics test about binomial distributions, there's still the nice, happy, smelly sticker- blueberry, if my nose is correct.

Beta: swampophelia

Summary: Post-movie. It's over. Dom Cobb didn't wake up. Ariadne prepares for the challenge to bring him back out, seeing that she is the only one who can. In Limbo, she finds the many faces of Dom Cobb and the many faces of herself. Eventual Cobb/Ariadne.

xwx.

Prologue. 0

The hanging lights in the city left small circles of yellow lights onto the cars that moved underneath. A traffic light switched from green to yellow to red. Pedestrians walked to and fro, strangers to one another.

Ariadne stood on the curb; breathing in the chilled air that reeked of smog and car exhaust and racking her brains, trying to remember… It used to rain. Remember what? She looks at her shoes- Converses. There should be a partner with her. Usually, two people go under to prevent the other from losing themselves. Going under what? A taxi cab swerved past and over a puddle, she sidestepped to avoid the oncoming splash. Losing themselves? But Yusuf said at the airport that he only has enough dosage for one individual. Who's Yusuf? What airport? And so the team had chosen her to… to… She nervously tucked in a stray hair.

How did I end up here?

She knelt down to the curb and hunted through her pockets, breathing a sigh of relief as she fished out a golden bishop. But its weight wasn't familiar. She set the bishop to the ground, aware of the strange looks she was getting from bystanders, and poked the piece. The bishop fell the wrong way. She picked it up-- this is a totem.

This is a dream.

She winced as the memories began to flood her.

"With the sedative, it should be relatively simple for you to reach Cobb." Arthur had paused, his eyes narrowed in worry, "Suicide is much harder than murder. Are you certain about this, Ariadne?"

"Don't mother hen her," Eames had drawled behind the man. Arthur scowled; the British man winked, "You can't put a person on Yusuf's drug and a person in regular sleep in the same dream. Uncle Eames would be watching you, Ariadne." He sobered up, "I hope you remember all the information in our impromptu lessons about that place, it's still quite mysterious." He brightened up, "Though Saito here is proudly one of the four in history to come out of it relatively sane." The Japanese business tycoon twitched. "Nice chap, that one." Eames murmured.

"I think I'll be ok." Ariadne had assured the group as much as herself, she heard a waver in her speech. She squeezed Cobb's limp hand.

"Don't lose yourself." Arthur had reminded her for the fifth time as he inserted the needle, "When you come back out, remember that we'll all be here for you." The PASIV hummed on in the half-lit lounge and she closed her eyes.

This is a dream.

She took a moment to admire the internationalist architecture of the area, grey and tall; it had been the first layer dream, though before, it had been raining. She scanned the roads for the tell-tale signs of train tracks and wasn't disappointed. I have to get to Limbo. But there was only one way to get there, it was fairly obvious. I could jump off a building… But Yusuf requested for this place to not have access to the upper levels of the high rises to discourage snipers. After slipping into a side street with noticeably less pedestrians, she patted herself down and found something cold and hard pressing between her jacket and her shirt. The gun was already loaded and cocked, heavy death in her hands. Sitting down on the curb, she turned it over, this way and that, biting her lip in worry.

"I would suggest a quickie to the head." Yusuf had piped up helpfully behind Cobb's comatose body. "They said that you wouldn't even feel pain if you aim for the spinal column."

She slowly raised the gun to her head, right above the ear. Her hand was trembling; I can't do this. She lowered it down and sighed, this isn't suicide- she's only doing this to save someone, it'll be a onetime deal with a gun. She'd rather jump off every ledge in her dreams than use a gun, she rather be stabbed. Mom and dad were killed by guns. There was no one else on the street, as if the projections knew to give her space. Were the projections hers? She looked into the barrel and slowly inserted it into her mouth, tasting cold metal and dirt. Won't miss… Her hands were shaking again and she distantly realized that she was crying.

She pulled the trigger.

.

Chasing Dominic

One. 1

The hospital room was white, walls, door, floor, ceiling, furniture, bed, save for the curtains, which had a psychedelic seventies flower wallpaper pattern. There weren't any needles in her arms, she should be thankful though she wasn't sure why. How did I get here? She was still in her clothes; the nurses hadn't dressed her in the hospital gowns with the humiliating open flap in the back. Her eyes were stinging and irritated and her tongue was too thick, she felt sick, like she had swallowed too much seawater and sand.

Her hand involuntarily slipped into her front pocket: a golden bishop with a balanced weight. She rubbed her eyes.

Arthur had nominated her to save Cobb, logically noting that, "You know the most about him. He always kept his secrets close to himself but you managed to worm your way into his heart. You're our best choice."

Worm my way into his heart? More like I intruded into his privacy. "…What happens if I fail to bring him back?" Ariadne had asked in a hushed whisper.

The entire VIP lounge, which Saito had bought for half an hour with an untold amount of money, was silent. Yusuf had hesitantly offered, "Under my lab in Mombasa is a chamber for those who believe or want to believe that their dreams are reality."

"That's it?"

"Family members pay for a caretaker or take them to a hospital with the PASIV. Those in Limbo stay indefinitely, living several lifetimes till in the real world, their body gives up. They die in their dreams. Only a handful can claw their way back, but as Eames said, they're usually… different." The chemist had flashed a painful smile.

How many years have passed in Limbo since Cobb arrived? What has changed? Ariadne pulled the white sheets over her soaked body and shivered. The cold reached to the marrow of her bones, that couldn't be healthy. Who took me in? She felt dizzy enough to puke up a hoard of crabs and sea shells. She imagined an octopus squishing itself among her innards.

The door opened. A nurse with black curls and in the standard white uniform with a clipboard entered and gave her a critical glance, "Oh good, you're awake."

"What happened?" Ariadne managed to croak out.

"You're suffering from dehydration though strangely enough, water in your lungs. It's a mystery; you have the doctors scratching their heads. Still, we took care of that, and you had a head wound which we already bandaged. Some scratches and bruises, nothing major. We didn't have time to change you into dry clothes, but they are there in the dresser by your side. You were found washed up on the beach – care to explain why?"

Ariadne looked to her left and surely enough; there was a set of dry clothes, a towel, and a glass of water. Where they there before? I don't think so, the desk was clear. When the nurse didn't get an answer, she tsked, pursed her red lips, and made a note scritch scratch. "Will you tell us your name?"

She shifted nervously under her sheets, "I'm, uh," she sneezed, struggling to bring the prerogative of her mission to the forefront of her mind under the hawk-eyed gaze of the nurse, "is… err, Dominic Cobb?"

"…A family member?" The woman arched a perfect eyebrow with no hint of sass but all around condescension. Ariadne squirmed again and laughed nervously. "Well," the nurse sighed through her nostrils and kneaded the skin between her eyes, "It's a start. I'll look through the directories. The doctor said that you should stay here, for another couple of days for a full recovery. Ring if you need anything." The projection left, heels clicking imposingly on the tile floor.

The door closed. That wasn't standard hospital procedure. That wasn't standard projection behavior. Ariadne pushed herself up and groaned as sore muscles made itself known; apparently she suffered a beating on the waves and rocks. I don't think the projection was mine, but she didn't look suspicious at all. Gritting her teeth, she swung a leg over the bed, took the glass of water and chugged the whole thing- an oasis in the Sahara. The gun was gone. She gingerly began to peel off her damp clothes, layer by layer, dried herself, and then shrugged on the undershirt, the loose green t-shirt and jeans. She pulled the curtains back and stared outside, blocks of buildings, perfect rectangles, loomed in the horizon like a never-ending army. What did she expect- a blimp slowly appearing from the right, flashing the sign 'Welcome Back to Limbo?'

"Cobb is stuck there; it means that he's already accepted that world as reality. That means that his totem is either lost to him, meaning that someone else had taken it, or he completely forgot about it – which is possible since one can't think properly in dreams the longer one stays down." Arthur had mentioned, "There is a grounding theory on how to pull out victims from Limbo – flimsy at best and never truly proven but it was the most reasonable from the pile. It's called Introspection. Introspection says that Cobb needs to understand himself wholly and completely, accept his mistakes and faults, and have the desire to return to reality." It was a well-known fact that the infamous extractor had issues that rivaled the neurosis of the majority in the world, including those of asylum patients, but Ariadne was sure that he had acknowledged them all. Maybe he was suffering from residual effects… or something. She regretted not taking the offered summer Psychology 101 seminar in Paris.

"Convert him to Buddhism," Eames had drawled, "That might help a tad." Arthur had elbowed him.

She fiddled with her bishop and stared out the window, the sunlight was an off white, taupe shade when it entered her small room through those distasteful curtains. They say that taupe is soothing. She took a deep breath and rolled her chess piece from finger to finger, she swung her legs back and forth, knocking her heels on the frame.

The projections didn't recognize her as a foreign body. Assuming that Cobb's projections are no longer connected to him, since that is the closest assumption to anything that doesn't add up in the dream realm, the key to get out of Limbo was to have all of one's projections reintegrated into one's consciousness, at least temporarily. Mal had Inception performed on her but the result wasn't exactly what one would call satisfactory. Mal is one thing I wouldn't need to worry about. Cobb needed to retrieve his totem and want to go back to the real world. It'll be hard- but at least his projections are so detached from him that they wouldn't be able to share Cobb's mind so they wouldn't know that she, a foreign presence, is there among them. The projections wouldn't know her till Cobb finds his totem.

And when the totem is found, oh boy, we'll have to move quickly. She glanced around and then did a double-take, the curtains were green, the exact shade of her shirt, probably the same material too. Somehow, this didn't surprise her. Time stretched infinitely in Limbo, she waited without moving and gauged the shadows in her room, which had a tendency to speed up and slow at inopportune moments. What if, after everything, Cobb doesn't want to go home? What if he prefers his dreams? Ariadne nervously fidgeted but forced herself to still, she wanted to do something, like draw and sketch, to create. What if-

The door opened again. Alarmed, Ariadne glanced back at the window- sundown, that was fast, and back at the new occupant. The man had his hair slicked back, he probably shaved some days back, and he wore a pristine white shirt and trousers. He hasn't aged at all, his very form hinting of power behind his appearance. Ariadne swallowed and cleared her throat: What do I say? What do I say? What do I say? What do I- "Hey, Cobb," she greeted like an old friend.

Walking in and closing the door behind him, still standing, Dom Cobb stared at her, assessing her from her bandaged head down to her bare feet, "Have we met before?" He asked slowly. Though his face was stoic, his eyes glinted with unreadable emotion that immediately placed her on edge. She struggled to identify the emotion in his eyes and failed.

"Do I look familiar to you?" She asked cautiously, hiding behind her hair and bandages. The atmosphere had immediately morphed into the Twilight Zone meets surrealist air, reminiscent of Salvador Dali or Max Ernst. She wasn't walking on eggshells; she was walking on clouds and trusting them to hold her above the ground.

This world slowed down to a snail's pace, both of them suddenly very careful to choose the right words. One false step and you might set off the pipe bomb. "It's been so long ago, if I can recall you from a half-forgotten dream." With his voice half present and half absent, Cobb slowly walked over and sat on her bed at the corner farthest away. Though her eyes moved to follow him, her head didn't. The bed shifted to accommodate his weight; he was beyond her blind spot. It didn't matter- she was too scared to look at him. Why is he sitting down? What is he thinking? A full minute passed before the silence was alleviated. "She was vibrant and smart with so much untapped potential. That person saved me. But I don't remember anything else."

"I understand," She sympathized, words emerging out of her naturally, "As more time passed it's easier to forget, especially the memories you want to be done with."

"She said, 'Don't lose yourself.'" Ariadne stared back to the window ledge and imagined it dripping paint, its purity dissolving away and revealing greys and blacks. "It's been years since I had that dream." The window ledge began to condense, the white moisture slowly getting thicker. Her heart broke at his non-answer. He lost himself. What am I doing? What can I do? He lost himself. He's in Limbo and he lost himself. "It was sometime after Mal died but it's been too long…" He trailed off. Ariadne watched the sun sink into the army of skyscrapers feeling pensive and nervous. She was too scared to look back, too scared to see this man, much the same yet so different. She could hear him breathe, she could hear herself breathe.

Cobb didn't move; he seemed to be waiting for a response. Maybe… perhaps…

"My name's Ariadne."

The bed creaked. It was too silent, dead air, dead light, dead room, nothing moved. She rolled the bishop and traced the edges, the weight wasn't right. The bed creaked again, shifting its weight, to all four sides. She heard Cobb stand, his joints cracking; she could feel his eyes on the back of her neck, prickly and hard. Then Cobb walked away with slow, controlled footsteps. The door opened and closed.

She let out a breath that she didn't realize that she was holding.

That went well.

She swallowed and touched her head; the bandaged part was painful only if she applied pressure. She watched the sun disappear and the night turn blue and purple. That was the weirdest conversation she has ever had. Night was upon Limbo.

Two. 2

The bath had done wonders to her sore limbs. But that was hours past. She spent the entire night awake, fatigue never setting in her body since one doesn't normally sleep in a dream and she'd rather not take the chance in a place of pure subconscious. She picked at the fraying edges of her bed sheets and then she counted the tiles on the ceiling. She then made a small cave from her blankets and pillows, making small indentations for imaginary secret passages and walkways, exactly how she would've done if she was seven. Then she destroyed the structure and flung herself back to her bed, yelping as pain shot through her entire body, throbbing but manageable.

This is a dream.

There was no way to keep track of time. In the middle of the night, in the bottom drawer, she found a pen and an empty notebook, and she began to draw.

Three. 3

The door opened and closed – a nurse brought in breakfast. Then a woman in a white lab coat came and asked her how she was feeling and if she had headaches, dizziness, or nausea. The seeming doctor peeled back the bandage on her head and examined her before nodding contently.

The door opened and closed – a nurse brought in lunch.

The door opened and closed. Ariadne did not look up as she waved the nurse to the dresser, still hatching and cross-hatching over the blank sides of the steps; maybe she should add a Victorian trim to get rid of the monotony and maybe as a distraction.

"That's a very interesting sketch you have there." She jolted at the sudden baritone voice on her right.

"Multiple Penrose staircases?" With a hand spread over her heart, mentally stomping her rapid heartbeats to submission, she peered over her shoulder and saw a pair of amused eyes. "I don't think I properly introduced myself yesterday. My name is Dominic Cobb, but I usually go by Dom." He held out a hand.

She shook it, making sure to firmly grip and shook twice. "Pleasure," she said and meaning it. She honestly didn't expect him to come back and she had prepared to hunt through Limbo for him.

"Are you an Architect?"

She nodded.

"May I?" He made a motion with his arms, she handed over her notebook: half filled with doodles. She admitted that she wanted to gauge his reaction, see if she could trigger another 'forbidden' memory, but he kept speaking with his head down. At least it meant that he was piqued. "I used to work as an Architect too. I was partners with my wife, she was a gifted Extractor, could get anything she wanted."

"Are you still?"

"No. Since my previous line of work, well, it was not strictly legal. Compounded with the fact that I have two kids that I can finally take care of…" He leveled another unreadable look at her, she smiled vaguely back. "I work in the Hospital's Dream Therapy department these days, sometimes assisting the police on my off hours." He threw her a rueful grin, "I'll find a better job as soon as the government can learn to forgive and forget my past actions." He flipped through the notebook with an expert hand, his eyebrows rising into his hairline as he gave a whistle, "You have an innate talent with mazes, 2-D and 3-D."

"Only when I get bored." She replied as she stared at his back; he was wearing a light blue shirt this time. She found that she couldn't imagine him in a casual t-shirt. She couldn't imagine him in a casual anything. Cobb turned toward her and she quickly averted her gaze, pretending to be fascinated with the hospital painting of a vase of flowers.

"Then you must've been bored for a long time." He gazed at her like she was the most interesting specimen in the world. "These are very creative." Don't look at his eyes too long, Ariadne; you know you can't look at his eyes for too long. She swallowed. There are many people in this world, most she never met, and most she will never meet. Few gave her the notion to be intimidated, but this man? Dom Cobb? He could be absolutely intense.

"I only learn from the best." She responded guardedly, watching for every tick on his face in which there were none. You are responsible for tipping my world upside down, you still are. She ventured into uncertain, shark-infested waters, "You said, 'it's only when we wake up that we realize how things are actually strange.'" To have a sense of reality as skewed as this, it… it takes a lot of self-convincing.

Cobb's laughter was shaky at best. "I gave you your first lesson didn't I?"

His laughter, bubbling to the surface in hideous greenness, wasn't real. At the forefront were memories; at the back was the Truth that needed to be accepted. She's walking blindly into this, hands out, fingers touching everything rough and smooth, hot and cold. There were trigger words and images that can bring the Extractor back but it takes time – so much time. They both have all the time in the world and then some.

The brain is the biggest enigma in the universe. Time stretches to infinity in the pure subconscious, years past and then… you wake up and Arthur is there, telling you that you were only under for three seconds and those three seconds was the time it took you to pluck up the courage to blow your own brains out in the first level.

Cobb reached out his hand. His fingers were hot on her skin, her right cheek, mindful of her bandages; she unconsciously leaned into the touch before she realized what she had done. For one second, she felt comforted, and then the hand withdrew. "You want me to remember." He murmured, peering askance at his palm, clenching and unclenching as if it was an alien part of him, "But it's been so long." Should this be called progress? "I… I need to go. Miles and the kids are waiting for me." She wondered if she caused Cobb some sleepless nights, bothered by an issue lurking in the deepest crevices of his mind, unable to unearth them.

HE still held her half-finished notebook. "You can keep that, if you want." Ariadne suggested. She shrugged, "I'll just ask the nurse for another one." Inwardly, she couldn't understand why he would want it.

As she said that, he flipped through it with a nostalgic smile on his face, "Thank you." He snapped the book shut and stood up. His smile was wider and warmer than the one he wore when he first entered. When his hand touched the doorknob, she couldn't help but blurt out.

"Will you come back?"

He turned around, surprised at the question, before his eyes took on a mischievous glint, "You did name me as a family relative, didn't you? The doctor said that he can release you tomorrow. Apparently, you heal very quickly. So, yes, I'll be here to pick you up. Ok?" She nodded.

"Sure. Bye." He threw back another half-hearted grin before exiting.

The door closed. She reached for her totem: the weight was balanced. She exhaled, rolled up her pant leg and began massaging her calf muscles and moving her ankle around in circles. Outside, a train rumbled uncomfortably close to the hospital. Someone knocked on the door, crisp and short raps.

"Come in."

A new nurse, tall, auburn hair, brown eyes, walked in with a tray of food and a brand new notebook. "Here's your dinner." She waved the notebook in the air with an amused smile, "the man downstairs asked that you be supplied with this." She casually tossed it over, Ariadne easily caught it. It looked like it had just come out of its wrappings. "He's a dear. Is he your husband?"

Caught off kilter, Ariadne stuttered, "Huh? Oh, umm no. No. Just… just a family member."

The nurse smiled, placed a finger on her lips, and winked, "Really? Well, he's quite a looker." The woman set down the tray and walked out. "Sleep tight, tomorrow is going to be a big day for you."

Ariadne stared at the back of the projection with disbelief and awe before she fell into a fit of helpless giggles. The strangeness of her adventures finally caught up to her. She fluffed up her pillow and prepared for another sleepless night.

Four. 4

She fingered the bandages wrapped tightly around her head, no pain. Things really don't make sense in Limbo and it's a bit disturbing to see how fast she has come to accept the eccentricities with a resigned sigh.

For the past few hours, she's gotten stir-crazy, wanting to see something new beyond these walls and the green curtains. If there ever was a perfect time to go crazy, it would be at the witching hour. Between two rates of time and two worlds, she knew that there had to be a paradigm shift, neon colored and stampeding forward with the force of an earthquake. Except in Limbo, it was too slow to notice. She drew mazes with a near religious fervor; she drew mazes from the Inception; she drew mazes with no end and wondered if she's in one of them. The hospital light was bright and hot enough that she could forgo her blankets. She drew the curtains shut and didn't pay it any mind till the first rays of sunlight hit the top of the window.

By midday, she was laying sprawled on top of her covers, feeling too hot under her stomach, her hair sticking to her skin like iron fillings to a magnet. She shoved her face into her pillow, her feet against the headboard, and tapping out a four-four rhythm. She couldn't draw enough strength to draw up the curtains. She turned to face the door and willed the door to open. Company would be much obliged.

Four minutes later, the door did open. Cobb was dressed in a full suit ensemble, Arthur's long-time influence, surely. He glanced at her, "Are you bored?" his voice lilted with amusement. Behind him were a nurse and a doctor, quickly taking charge.

"A little." She pushed herself up into a sitting position and allowed the white dressed duo to examine her, to peel off the bandages, to take her temperature, to ask her more questions, before finally declaring her fit for release.

The doctor conversed with Cobb for some last words; Cobb nodded and they shook hands. The doctor exited the room.

"What did she say?" Ariadne asked as she gathered her old, salted clothing and slipped into her shoes.

"No strenuous exercise, enough rest, nutrition and liquids." Cobb ticked off, surveying her room as if this was the first time he gotten a good look at it. "No medication needed." He stretched out his arms and popped his shoulders, "Right, let's go." He took her clothes, despite her protests, "I can handle this. Come on, it's nearly lunchtime. I know this quaint, charming café that I'm sure you'll love. They serve the best espresso and lattes." He took her hand, ignored her surprised squeak, and guided her out of the hospital.