A/N: First off, sorry for the terrible title/summary! This is the first (and likely only) Inception fanfic I've attempted – I usually just read, never write. But I felt compelled to start this after watching the film twice, desperate to figure out what could possibly happen afterwards and smitten with the idea of Arthur/Ariadne. :D Aren't they just the best?
Anyway – I hope it lives up to (admittedly not high, from the summary!) expectations and you enjoy reading. If you do, drop me a line to let me know! Any constructive criticism/observations of oversights are more than welcome also.
The first thing he noticed was the sheer amount of water surrounding him. It took all the willpower he had not to take a deep breath, to gasp in the air he so desperately needed. He blinked in a futile attempt to clear his vision as he squinted at the shapes around him. From memory he could place where everyone had been sitting: Yusuf in the driver's seat; Saito in the front passenger's seat; Ariadne to his left, and then Cobb; behind him, Fischer and Eames. He dragged himself around to find the back two seats already empty. Movement to his left told him Ariadne was awake too. He turned to look at her as she gripped his arm with her flailing right hand. Without pausing to think, he reached under his seat to pull out the oxygen tank he had stowed for this precise moment and handed the mouthpiece to Ariadne, before flicking the switch. He could feel his own lungs burning, crying out for a share of the oxygen, but waited until she relaxed her vice-like hold on his arm and gave the inhaler back. Nodding in response to her mute question, he gave her the universal 'O.K.' sign with his hand and took a gulp of much-needed air as she began to swim. Through the murky water he could just about make out another figure escaping the sinking van. Yusuf. It had to be.
Taking one last mouthful of oxygen, he glanced around to make sure that everyone else was out.
His heart began to pound when he spotted the dark figure of a man half-floating in the front seat. Saito. So he hadn't made it out of the third layer. Arthur had doubted he would, with the amount of blood he had lost in the first dream.
It was then he realised he had not seen Cobb move. He felt his heart sink as he looked at his colleague's motionless body. He grabbed one of his shoulders and shook, knowing it would not work but possessed by the need to do it anyway. His muffled cry died in his throat as he felt the tearing in his chest again, forcing him out of the van at last.
Arthur swam as hard as he could towards the dim light above him, kicking his leaden legs against the pain that was shooting through every limb in his body. He could make it. He had to make it ...
He gasped as the cool air hit his face and wasted no time in scanning the rocky shore around him. It was hard to see with water dripping into his eyes, but he could just about make out two figures hunched together to the right of his vision. Must be Fischer and Eames. So the two figures sitting separately to the left must be Yusuf and Ariadne. Yusuf was already leaning against a large rock and ringing his jacket out. Ariadne had just reached a more secluded spot of her own, away from the others, and was clambering up the slippery rocks. Arthur hesitated for a moment before deciding on his destination and setting off towards the shore.
Ariadne was already hunched against a small boulder by the time he reached her, her arms wrapped around her knees as she huddled them to her chest. Arthur scrambled up the rocks to reach her, ignoring the biting wind that hit him as soon as he left the water.
'What happened?' he asked as he sat down next to her.
'Cobb stayed,' Ariadne replied without looking at him.
'No, to get Saito.'
'He might get lost.'
It pained him to admit it, but there was no escaping the harsh possibility that he could well have seen his partner for the last time. Awake, at least.
'He'll be fine.'
Arthur frowned as he looked at her. Here was this girl, someone he had known all of two months, telling him with such utter confidence something his logical, experienced mind found hard to believe. After all, had he not been doing this job for years? Much longer than her. Usually, there was no room for doubt. It was his job to work out all the variables, to make sure nothing could go wrong. But then, they had never dared attempt an Inception before. This time, the rules were different, the stakes much higher.
'You can't be sure of that,' he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Despite the crash of the water on the rocks below them and the whistle of the wind in their ears, she still heard him.
'I was there,' she said simply.
She met his gaze this time, and her eyes were shining with such conviction that he almost believed it could be true.
It was only a few moments later that her words registered somewhere deep in his mind and made him grasp her arm as she stood up.
'You were with him? In Limbo?'
She didn't reply. There was no need to. He could tell just by looking at her what the answer would be.
'Jesus,' he muttered. 'You could've ... ' He trailed off, shaking his head. 'We never should have agreed to do this job. I told him it wouldn't work.'
'But it did,' Ariadne said. 'We just need to get back, and – '
'Just?' Arthur interrupted, still gripping her wrist. 'And what about the others? We might – might – have pulled off the Inception, but not the job. If anyone gets left behind, that's it. Job failed. And it's - ' He took a deep breath, letting his arms drop to his side, ' – it's my fault. Yes, it is,' he insisted as Ariadne opened her mouth. 'I should have known about Fischer's training. We would have been prepared. Or better still, not have done the damn thing at all.'
'It's not your fault,' Ariadne said, taking a step towards him. 'Even if Saito hadn't been shot, Mal still would have shown up and killed Fischer and we still would have gone down into Limbo to get him back.'
'And Cobb could have come back with you instead of staying to save Saito. Whichever way you look at it, I'm the one to blame.'
'Cobb and Yusuf should have told us about the effects of the sedative,' Ariadne persisted.
Arthur nodded but said nothing. So many variables, so many chances to make a mistake. Was it really any wonder it had gone so wrong? But he was the best Point Man in the business. It was his job to make sure things didn't. Usually, he did it to perfection. But lately ...
'So how do we get back?' Ariadne asked, punctuating his spiralling thoughts. 'I mean, we don't have a kick to get out of here, do we?'
'No. We just have to wait it out, I'm afraid.'
'But with Yusuf's sedative we'll be down here for a whole week, and Fischer's defences are still after us. We'll all end up in Limbo with Cobb and Saito at this rate.'
Arthur shook his head and glanced up at the bridge they had been on only minutes before. 'I don't think so. Look up there. Do you see any men? I think Fischer believes this is his reality now. He thinks he's already woken up from the dream and feels safe.'
Ariadne sat in silence, apparently contemplating Arthur's words. It was the only logical explanation. He knew they couldn't kill themselves as per usual – then they would end up joining their companions in Limbo. Their only choice was to sit and wait until the time ran out on the clock. If only they hadn't needed such a strong sedative for the job to work ...
'Okay. So ... what do we do now then?' Ariadne asked, a hint of resignation creeping into her voice. 'We can't sit on these rocks for a whole week. I'm already going numb.'
Arthur smiled. 'My thoughts exactly.' He looked over toward the sprawling city in the distance, then checked his watch. 'How about we go and find somewhere to rest up?'
He made to walk off, but paused when he realised that Ariadne wasn't following.
'How are we going to do that?' she asked in reply to his questioning look. 'We don't have any money.'
'Ariadne, how many dreams have you been in now? You think something as simple as that is going to hinder us?' He watched a faint blush colour her cheeks as he spoke, and couldn't help but feel slightly guilty at embarrassing her. 'Come on,' he continued, holding out his hand to her. 'Let's go find Yusuf. We're going to need him.'
They didn't have to look far. The Chemist was already waiting for them at the top of the rocky incline, rubbing his arms in an effort to warm himself.
'If I weren't so worried that Fischer's men would come after us again I'd make the bloody sun come out,' he groaned as they approached him.
'It's only for a week,' Arthur consoled him. 'Let's just be grateful we're here at all.'
The others nodded at the implication, and Arthur saw Ariadne's glance at the water out the corner of his eye. Their situation could be worse – much worse.
'What about Eames?' Yusuf asked. 'Is he still with Fischer?'
'I suppose so. If Fischer thinks this is now reality as I believe, he'll be trying to get back to what he thinks he should be doing – namely, accompanying his father at the hospital. Eames will have to figure out some excuse to get away from him and link up with us later. For now we'll have to lie low. There are only so many places to go in this layer, and we don't want to risk running into Fischer and alerting him to the fact that he's still dreaming.'
The others nodded again, apparently content to follow Arthur's lead. He felt odd being the one they all turned to now, having to make the crucial decisions without Cobb's input. He was used to being the right-hand man, not a leader. Get over it, he chastised himself. The others are looking to you, whether you like it or not. He was the Point Man, he was used to planning every aspect of the job, but he could also improvise when necessary. He had proven that in the second layer. But this – this was different. Why hadn't they gone over what to do once back in the first layer? He had assumed Cobb had a plan for that, but had never bothered to ask. Now he wished more than anything that he had.
'Come on, the longer we stand around in the open the more likely we are to be exposed. Let's just try to book into a hotel here and wait it out. You did put a hotel in, right?'
Ariadne nodded, apparently still unable to speak.
'There's two,' Yusuf offered, evidently noticing Ariadne's unwillingness to talk too. 'A fancy one that Fischer is likely to book into and a cheaper one on the borders of the maze. 'I took note of them when we were going over the models back in the warehouse, just in case. I also told Eames about it before we went under.'
'Good. We'll head there and meet up with him,' Arthur said with a sidelong look at Ariadne. Was she even listening to their conversation? 'Ariadne? Are you okay?'
She looked up at him, her face even paler than before, if that was possible. 'Yeah, I'm ... fine. Just tired, I guess.'
'Well, you'll have plenty of time to sleep over the next week or so,' Arthur replied, before realising the absurdity of what he had just said. 'You know what I mean.'
Ariadne nodded again, the ghost of a smile passing over her lips. At least she appreciated the effort. It was more than Arthur usually offered. Apparently Yusuf noted the change too, for he gave a small cough and looked away.
'Er, shall we?' the Chemist said, looking towards the bridge.
Without another word, the trio set off for their next destination, each one bracing themselves for the long wait ahead.