The characters and situations in this story belong to Christopher Nolan, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
The opinions expressed by characters in this story may or may not be those of the author.
A concept I really wanted to explore. Stunning banner by Cincoflex! (Seriously, folks, go look at my site, it's amazing.)
NOTE: I'm known for not doing 'ship character deaths. In this story, I am breaking my long-standing habit...sort of. Rest assured that there is a happy ending.
The snow swirling past was almost pretty in the headlight's feeble beam - an endless rushing confetti, silent and sparkling. Ariadne watched it blankly, unable to concentrate on anything more, her head still spinning and her ears ringing from the crush of sound.
Then Arthur groaned, and she flinched back to full consciousness with a jerk. It was cold, and everything hurt, but she ignored the pain for the moment, wrenching around in her seat. "Arthur?"
"Ugh." He shifted slightly, and she heard him gasp; the inside of the car was too dark for her to see more than a vague shape. "Ngh. Are you - " He gasped again. " - okay?"
Nothing felt irreparably damaged. "Yeah…yeah, I think so." Ariadne reached out a shaking hand and touched his shoulder. "What about you?"
She fumbled for her seatbelt latch, eventually freeing the cruelly tight restraint, and reached for the dome light. Sliding the switch produced a ghostly glow that was barely enough to make out the car's interior.
Arthur was paper-white, no mean trick for someone with his skin tone, and blood was trickling from his hairline. He stared at her, eyes huge, then lifted one hand and gently touched the corner of her mouth. "You're bleeding."
She hadn't noticed the taste of iron. Ariadne probed with her tongue, shook her head. "I think I bit myself. 'S nothing."
They had been lucky, she realized. The car had rolled at least once coming down the slope - she remembered the dizzy spin of it - but it had landed on its wheels. She found her purse, which had wedged itself beneath her seat, and retrieved a tissue. "You're bleeding too."
Arthur winced as she dabbed at his forehead. The tissue was quickly saturated, and Ariadne applied another, nervously reminding herself that even minor head wounds usually bled a lot. "What happened?" she asked. "I mean, besides the obvious? We - " She choked off the words, hearing her voice tremble and knowing that hysteria lurked underneath them.
"Black ice," he replied, fingers covering hers to take over the blotting job. "I never saw it coming."
Ariadne tried to smile and didn't quite manage it. "Well, we're still alive."
They had been leaving the scene of their latest job, Eames having gone off on his own, and Arthur had just proposed stopping in the valley for dinner when the car had slid on the narrow road. Ariadne didn't clearly remember what happened next, and she didn't think she wanted to; it had involved falling, and dreadful thuds, and both of them yelling.
"For the moment," Arthur said, one side of his mouth tilting up painfully, and this time she did manage the smile in return. "I think there's a flashlight in the glove box."
Ariadne peeled up the deflated airbag and found the light. Its stronger glow showed that, miraculously, none of the windows had shattered, though they were all cracked. Both sides of the little Audi were dented inward, and the engine was off, though one headlight still shone. She was relieved to not smell gasoline.
Arthur looked worse now that she could see him better, still deathly pale. Ariadne pointed the flashlight upwards, so that its light diffused off the ceiling, and peered at him. "You're not okay."
He grimaced. "No…I don't think I am."
Ariadne gave him the best glare she could manage given that her entire face was starting to feel bruised, but the mere fact that he wasn't even trying to deny it worried her. "And?"
He was holding very still, she noticed. "It's, um, my leg. The left one. I, uh, I think it's caught on something."
Her gaze dropped to the dark space underneath the steering wheel, and she trained the light on it, but it was difficult to see anything beyond his right knee. Ariadne handed him the light. "Here, hold this."
She squirmed around until she could squeeze herself into the footwell on her side, kneeling so that she could peer over the gearshift. Taking the light back from Arthur, she leaned forward cautiously, putting a hand on the steering column for balance and ducking her head beneath the wheel and its collapsed airbag. "No dirty jokes," she muttered, half-amused and half-embarrassed by the position.
The sound Arthur made might have been a chuckle if it were less pained, but her answering smile dropped away as the light fell on his leg. Caught…
The blood was almost black in the beam, glittering with a crimson-edged reflection, and there was a lot of it. But what riveted her attention was the spike of jagged plastic protruding from under the dashboard, and into his calf.
It had punched right through his pants leg, she saw with a distant nausea, and a thin stream of blood was running down its edge and dripping onto the floor mat.
"Not good, is it?" Arthur asked faintly, and Ariadne felt a gossamer touch on her hair. She swallowed.
"No. It's not."
She slid carefully back onto her own side, and looked up at him, turning the light upwards again. "You…you've got a piece of the car in your leg," she said. "I don't know…how deep."
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, jaw shifting. "Deep enough."
Ariadne shook herself, and reached into her purse again. "I'm going to call for an ambulance."
"No signal out here," Arthur said, but she tried anyway. He was right; her phone refused to even try to connect.
She cursed, and threw it back into her purse. Silently, Arthur tried his own, but with no better luck; he shook his head and closed it again.
Ariadne tried to remember how far they were from the ski lodge; at least thirty minutes' drive, which even at the cautious speed Arthur had employed was much too far to hike in a snowstorm. And in heeled boots.
"If I can make it up to the road," she said, thinking out loud, "I can try to flag down another car."
Arthur's expression was resigned. "There won't be any. No one else will be leaving the lodge at this time of night."
She started to protest, then stopped. It was his job to know. But…but I'm not going to just give up.
"If I can make it up to the road," she said deliberately, "I can at least set out some flares. In case someone does come by."
He drew in a breath, and then apparently thought better of arguing as well. "There should be some in the trunk. If you can get it open."
In fact, she had more trouble with the door, and finally had to resort to kicking it repeatedly, bracing awkwardly against the back of her seat. Finally it popped open, letting in a gust of frigid air, and Ariadne scrambled hastily out, flashlight in one gloved hand.
The ground was extremely rough, with brush and rocks beneath the snow; she had to hang onto the car to get around to the trunk. But it had opened easily at the press of the remote, and the well-vacuumed interior held emergency supplies in a violently orange case. Ariadne pulled out the flares and - Ah-ha - the Mylar blanket and first-aid kit, and detoured back to the door to hand the latter two in before tackling the hill.
Objectively, she knew the car hadn't come that far down the slope, and its slide had cleared away any number of obstacles. But climbing back up it in the dark and cold, with snow blowing into her eyes and nose and mouth, and bruised ribs and burned cheeks making themselves felt with each scrambling step, made Ariadne feel like Sisyphus instead.
It took her three tries, and three painful slides back down, to realize that the last stretch before the road was just too steep. She braced herself against the splintered remains of a sapling and stared up, the beam of light quivering in her shaking hand, and saw that it couldn't be done. Not without equipment, or more strength and reach than her small frame possessed.
Blankly, Ariadne made her way parallel to the slope, first forward and then back, but in front it got worse instead of better, dropping off into a cliff, and in the other direction a rock wall kept her from going further.
The tears were hot and fast, frustration and fear and pain all together, and she buried her face in her gloves and sobbed hard, muffling the sound even though there was no one to hear. But it was too cold to stay still, and her fingers and toes were already numb, so she forced herself to stop as soon as she could, mopping her face dry and feeling her cheeks sting harder as the snow hit them again.
Ariadne slithered back down towards the car, wondering if she had the energy to go down past it instead of up, and deciding that she did not. I don't know if the road curves back around down there.
And, more compelling, she didn't know if she would be able to make it back up to Arthur if she failed.
As the beam from her light touched the car, a sound reached her ears over the low wind, and she paused to listen. It came again, muffled, a low cry of pain, and it chilled her further.
The windows were fogged with condensation. Ariadne flung herself around the car's hood and clawed at the passenger door, wrenching it open. "Arthur!"
He looked up, eyes narrow in the rush of light. He had his handkerchief clenched in his teeth, and blood all over his hands.
Ariadne dropped into her seat and slammed the door closed. "What did you do?"
He spat the handkerchief out. "Pulled it out," he said, his voice high and tight with pain. Ariadne shone the light down into the footwell, and saw his tie knotted tightly just below his knee, the cloth of his trousers soaked with blood. The jagged plastic still protruded, but it was no longer embedded in his calf.
After Saito, Ariadne had looked up a first-aid course, reasoning that the nature of their work pretty much guaranteed that someone would get hurt again sooner or later, whether awake or asleep. Seething, she grabbed the first-aid kit from where it sat on the dashboard and popped it open, sparing a blessing for the rental company's thoroughness. "Arthur, that was stupid, you could bleed to death!"
When she glanced up he was paler than ever, leaning back against the headrest with his eyes closed; his lashes looked like smudges of soot against his cheeks. "I couldn't…stand it. Felt wrong."
Ariadne growled, and pulled off her gloves before pawing through the kit. It was really intended for minor injuries, but there were a few big pads in sealed envelopes, and gauze and tape as well as antiseptic wipes and latex gloves. "You can't keep the tie on for too long."
He didn't reply, and Ariadne reached over and used the rest of her tissues to clean most of the blood off his hands. He didn't even open his eyes, his fingers lying limp in hers, but the tension in the rest of him told her he was conscious.
"Here. Hold this." She folded his left hand around the flashlight. "It's going to hurt."
Ariadne was aware on some level that she looked absolutely ridiculous, face-down with her belly on the gearshift console and her chest pressing into Arthur's good leg, but Eames wasn't there to make salacious remarks and she didn't have time to care. It was difficult enough already in the half-dark - the flashlight's angle was wrong, but it would have to do - to cut open Arthur's pants leg from the bottom and try to examine the injury.
It was still bleeding sluggishly despite the makeshift tourniquet, and Ariadne swallowed hard at the sight. The plastic had jammed into his calf muscle and torn its way upward at least two inches before coming to a stop, and while there was too much blood for her to see how deeply it had embedded itself, it had clearly been deep enough.
The shard itself wasn't the only piece poking out of the footwell, but it was the largest. Ariadne had to tilt her head awkwardly to keep it out of her hair as she wiped away at the blood, feeling Arthur flinch and trying to be gentle.
The gash needed stitches, that was obvious, but Ariadne did the best she could without even a butterfly bandage, covering it with two of the pads and taping them in place. It didn't look like enough, though, and his skin was cold to the touch, so Ariadne pulled off her scarf and tied that around his calf to add a little more pressure. Silk was absorbent, and while it wouldn't retain much heat it was better than nothing.
At some point during her ministrations Arthur's free hand had come to rest on her back, clenching the fabric of her coat in his grip and digging the heel of his hand into her upper spine. It was uncomfortable, but if it helped him bear what she was doing Ariadne wasn't going to complain. "I'm going to take off the tie," she said, and felt his hold tighten.
"Are you sure?" he said hoarsely.
She swallowed again. "No. But we have to try. You don't want to lose your leg, Arthur."
He made a small noise that she decided was agreement. Taking a deep breath, and then wincing when the gearshift dug into her sore ribs, Ariadne loosened the stained tie.
It took a few minutes before she decided that the slow-spreading stain beneath the thin silk was not getting any faster. I have no idea how long a wound this size takes to clot, but it's not like we have a lot of options. She wriggled back out, collapsing back into her seat and blowing her hair out of her face. Her cuffs were stained above the clammy disposable gloves, but she ignored them for the moment, concentrating instead on the lean figure in the other seat. "How…how do you feel?"
His mouth was tight, but his eyes opened and fixed on her. "Terrible." And there was just enough of a gleam there to make her giggle, and choke on the sob that wanted to follow it. Ariadne hastily stripped off the gloves, wadding them into a ball and tossing them recklessly behind her seat. Worrying about a biohazard seemed a little absurd at the moment.
"Thanks," Arthur added faintly. His eyes were closed again, and Ariadne wished helplessly for a can of soda or a piece of chocolate, anything to give him to counteract shock.
"I couldn't reach the road," she blurted, rubbing her hands together and then thrusting them into her coat pockets. "I guess we wait for them to find us."
"Mm." He was shivering, she noticed suddenly. Ariadne found the emergency blanket on the dashboard, a crackly silver packet, and shook it out as best she could in the limited space before tucking it around him. Arthur blinked, looking confused for a moment.
"There you go. Instant baked potato," Ariadne commented drolly, and won herself half a smile. Sighing, she retrieved the flashlight and turned it off to save the battery before doing the same for the dome light. The headlight was still on, diffusing through the foggy windshield, and she hesitated over the keys. "Should we try to run the heater?"
Arthur moved slightly, producing a rustle. "I tried. The engine won't turn over."
"Damn. Okay." Ariadne turned the key all the way, and the headlight went out as well.
The darkness wasn't absolute; after a moment she perceived a faint, sourceless glow, presumably the clouds and the snow reflecting whatever light there might be. But it was scarcely enough for her to see her hand in front of her face, and Ariadne huddled into her seat, trying to think positively. Sooner or later, someone has to come along that road.
But would they come before morning, and even in the light, would they see the spot where the car had slid off? There was no one waiting for them, Ariadne realized dismally; Arthur had e-mailed the fruits of their job from the lodge before leaving, and Eames was long gone, off to Monte Carlo or Hong Kong or wherever on his own pursuits. At that rate the first people to notice we're missing will be the rental car company.
A sudden wry hope struck her, and Ariadne turned the dome light back on, digging in her pocket for her totem and setting it on the dashboard. Unfortunately, when she tipped it over it fell exactly as she expected.
Arthur was watching, she realized when she reached for the light again, and she felt a blush heating her face as she slid the switch back. "Stupid, I know."
She leaned back, but Arthur's voice came out of the fresh darkness. "Not really," he admitted, and she could hear the humor. "I did the same thing while you were gone."
"Great. I feel better now," she joked, and slid her hands through the gaps between her coat buttons, trying to warm her fingers on her stomach.
Silence spread between them, underscored by the hiss of the wind and the tick of the snow on the glass. After a while, Arthur spoke again. "You should try going downhill."
"I already thought of that," Ariadne said, annoyed but too drained and cold to do much about it. "I don't think I could make it back here."
Another silence, and then - "There wouldn't be much point."
The cold horror was washed away by a hotter rage. "Don't say that."
His amusement was cruel, now. "It's the truth, Ariadne. You have a chance of surviving if you go; there's at least two roads between here and the valley. But you know as well as I do that I'm not going to make it."
"You…you can't be sure." He was right, that was the worst of it, but she clenched her fists and held on to hope. "Someone might find us."
"You should go," he repeated, and the amusement was gone, replaced with something rawer. "You have the chance. Take it."
The wind suddenly howled, flinging snow sharply against the car, and Ariadne set her jaw. "No," she said, biting back the childish urge to point out that he couldn't actually make her leave. "You're supposed to stay where you are in this kind of situation anyway, so you're easier to find."
Arthur growled something too low for her to make out, but said nothing more, and she half-wished he was still arguing, because the silence meant he wasn't feeling well enough to protest. She pulled her feet up onto the seat and tried to draw her head down into her collar; she was starting to shiver, the hard, full-body shudders that cramped muscles.
The Mylar blanket was exceedingly noisy when moved. "Get over here," Arthur said gruffly. "We'll survive longer if we share body heat."
It took some maneuvering, and a few grunts of pain on his part, but eventually his seat was reclined as far as it would go, and his arms were wrapped around her where she leaned against his chest. Ariadne burrowed her hands between his back and the seat, only her head and feet poking out from the blanket; fortunately, it was large enough to cover him from neck to toes, and most of her as well. The heat build-up was almost instant, and Ariadne relaxed against him, any awkwardness banished by the warmth and the spicy-musky smell of him.
Arthur gradually relaxed too as the pain ebbed slightly, sighing beneath her. "Hell of a second date," he finally murmured.
She burst into giggles, and felt his arms tighten a little. "Yeah." Their cautious courtship had only just gotten off the ground, and she swallowed against a sudden rush of sorrow at the thought of it. "And if you hadn't been such a gentleman the last time, you might have gotten past second base."
She felt his snicker more than heard it. "I'll keep it in mind."
His breath was warm on the crown of her head. Ariadne stared into the darkness, trying not to listen to the wind, and felt her eyes prickle. She wasn't frightened of dying…much…and she still stubbornly believed that they might be found in time. But the prospect of dying now was so unfair.
I've only just started, she wailed internally. There's so much left to do and see - I never got to Japan, or New Zealand, or Egypt - and I'll never build in the real world -
The worst part, though, was the new-blooming chance snatched away. It was wonderfully comforting to snuggle with Arthur like this, despite the cold and his injury and everything else, but she wanted more. Had, in fact, almost from the first time they'd Dreamed together. It had taken him months to work around to admitting that he felt the same way, and she'd forced herself to be patient, because he did things in his own time and pushing would get her nowhere.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said suddenly. Ariadne blinked, distracted.
"For what? The ice wasn't your fault."
"No, for - " He hesitated, resumed. "I think the thing I regret most is that we…that we didn't have time to…see if we really…"
Her heart melted at his stumbling words. She couldn't reach his lips from that position, but Ariadne tilted her head back far enough to kiss his chin, a fleeting caress. "Me too," she said, and bit the inside of her cheek against tears as his arms tightened. Not enough time. There's not -
The realization broke over her from the top down, a wave of electricity so strong she almost felt her hair stand on end. Time.
"What is it?" Arthur asked as she stiffened.
"Time," she repeated. "Arthur, we have time." Galvanized, she levered herself carefully off him, shivering anew as the blanket fell away and the cold air assailed her.
"What are you - no," he said. "Ariadne, no."
The sudden glow as she switched on the dome light made them both squint despite its dimness. Arthur was glaring at her as she knelt on her own seat, but Ariadne didn't care. "It's the perfect solution. We can have all the time we want."
"All the time we want? At best, it's a few hours," Arthur retorted. "Dreaming won't do anything but make us a little more comfortable, for a little while. It won't really help."
Ariadne grinned at him, knowing she looked crazy and not caring. "So we'll go deeper."
His eyes widened. "You - that's insane."
"Probably. But if you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it." Ariadne tugged on her gloves, preparing to go back out into the snow to get the machine from the trunk. I hope it'll work in this temperature.
"So, what, we'll Dream ourselves a murder-suicide pact and go down to Limbo?" he asked sarcastically. "Unstructured Dreamspace? How is that an advantage?"
Ariadne blew out her breath. "You weren't there, Arthur. It's not chaos, it's - possibility. Malleable. We could do anything there, for as long as we wanted - we wouldn't even have to stay together unless we chose to." She wasn't quite sure about that last, but it seemed a reasonable assumption.
Arthur scowled. "It did a number on Dom and Mal. And you're assuming the kit even has the correct sedative."
Ariadne sighed, amused. "You stocked it, and your motto is 'be prepared'. Of course it's there." When his frown didn't abate, she sobered. "Look…I know it's nuts. But you wanted time - well, this is the way to get it. And we know the hazards. If we decide to, we can wake ourselves up."
"Without a kick?" He still looked grim, but she knew he was wavering. "Dreaming double is a very bad idea without a backup on the first level."
Ariadne shook her head. "We don't necessarily need one. Cobb didn't, remember?"
He blinked, conceding the point but not the argument. "And what if we do get rescued?" he asked softly. "If they disconnect us from the machine, we'll be stuck down there."
"Not stuck." She raised her chin. "We can choose when to leave. I've been there, Arthur, trust me."
He stared at her, and she smiled at him, a little sad. "I guess it is a big leap," she added, and patted his good knee carefully. "If you don't trust me enough, it's okay."
Arthur flushed. "I didn't say that," he said quickly. "I - I just - Ariadne, 'big' doesn't even begin to cover it."
"I know." She sat back on her heels. "And if I thought about it too long I'd be scared to death, but it's not like we have a lot of choice here. Or time. On this side, anyway."
He laughed suddenly. "True. All right…why not. If we can really choose to leave, then I'm game."
Ariadne twisted her ankle painfully getting back from the trunk; it was harder to walk even those few feet in the snow with one hand encumbered. But the outer travel box, with its thick padding, had held the heat, and the machine was still in working order when she opened its silver case.
"You're sure about this," Arthur said, half a question, as Ariadne settled it on her lap and started pulling out the leads. "If we both leave the top-level Dream it'll dissolve, you know."
Ariadne shrugged. "We left Cobb behind in Limbo the last time, remember? He took five minutes longer to wake up and we were all scared stiff. You don't have to take the same path up as down even if I did." Arthur's wrist was bony, and she had to dab at it with an alcohol wipe from the kit to find the vein beneath the skin, even with the help of the flashlight.
He didn't flinch when she slid the needles home. "It's the top bottle," he instructed quietly, and Ariadne extracted it from the case and set up their doses. Shivering anew, she inserted her own leads and climbed back onto his lap, sliding the machine onto the passenger seat. I don't know how long it'll run at this temperature…but it should be long enough.
It was a moment's work to press the big button; the resultant sipping suck of the machine was almost lost in the crackle as Arthur pulled the blanket back over them both, and then sleep rose up to drown her before she'd even registered the warmth -
It was an anonymous office somewhere, expensive but blank, as if put together for an executive who hadn't yet arrived to personalize it. Ariadne smiled and wandered over to look out the window, which showed only a rainy stretch of city street and gray buildings opposite. Typical Arthur.
He was leaning back in the desk chair, and sat up slowly, the strain in his face easing as the pain in his leg faded. "That's better."
She glanced back over her shoulder, admiring his suit and deploring her own. "Have I ever mentioned how much I hate this hairdo?"
Arthur looked suddenly uncertain. "You do?"
Ariadne prodded at the bun. "Yeah, it pulls - never mind." She came over and hopped up onto the desk, letting her feet swing. "Next step."
He looked away from her legs and reached into the desk drawer, coming out with a heavy pistol. "I'm still not comfortable with this."
Ariadne had to admit that she wasn't either. "Well - there's an alternative. When Cobb and I went down to Limbo we just did it with the machine."
"Really?" Arthur laid the gun on the blotter next to her hip, brows arching. "That didn't get mentioned."
She grimaced. "Sorry. I keep forgetting you weren't actually there. I think at that point it was mostly an act of will."
"So you think we could do it from here?"
Ariadne shrugged again. "If we try and fail, we can go the other route."
"Huh." He thought for a moment, then stood, pushing carefully to his feet and testing his balance before rounding the desk and walking to one paneled wall. He touched it, and the panel slid aside, revealing the familiar silver case.
They ended up lying on the thick carpet, since the room only held one chair and Arthur rather sheepishly admitted that he hadn't imagined anything beyond the closed office door. Ariadne let him handle the machine this time, watching him slot in the sedative and program the pump with the speed of long practice. When he stretched out beside her and took her hand, Ariadne squeezed his fingers and smiled. "Concentrate - "
The redwood forest was cool and fresh under a beautiful blue sky. The trees seemed to bend over Ariadne when she opened her eyes, and she stared up at them dreamily before realizing that she was floating on her back in a pond.
She gasped and sat up, instantly sinking herself, but it wasn't deep enough to rise any further than her chest when her backside hit the bottom. Ariadne looked down, and laughed. The feel of Limbo was unmistakable even if she'd only been there once. We made it.
She stood cautiously, but the pond's floor seemed firm; wading out took only a few strides, and then she was dripping on the bank. The pond water was remarkably clean, for which Ariadne was grateful, but it was still chilly. She thought for a moment. Well, guess I have to find out sooner or later.
It took only an effort of will, and the moisture was banished, her clothes as dry as if she'd never been wet at all. She grinned.
The ground was mossy underfoot - ecologically unlikely, she knew, but it was apparently what her subconscious wanted - and she could hear birds in the trees, though she couldn't see any. Ariadne wondered whimsically whether they were actually there, or if her mind was just supplying the song.
There were other ponds visible through the trees, and Ariadne snickered to herself, recognizing the symbolism. The anticipation that spread through her had smiling again.
Arthur was nowhere in sight, but it didn't worry her; he couldn't be far away. Ariadne picked a direction more or less at random and started walking, grateful that she hadn't woken up in Cobb's ocean again. Come to think of it, shouldn't I have?
Just a few minutes of walking brought her to a little clearing in the midst of the woods, carpeted with more moss. A cottage sat in the precise middle of it, surrounded by a low fence that was going gently rusty. The cottage was stone, and had a tile roof with a chimney, and deep-set, multipaned windows. Ariadne regarded it with pleasure. He's more of a romantic than I thought.
Placing one hand on the gate, she filled her lungs. "Arthur!"
For a moment only silence answered her, and then the heavy wooden door creaked open. Arthur stood in the doorway, blinking, wary, and she grinned and waved. "Come on out!"
He looked around, eyes widening. "This is Limbo?"
"Our version, yeah." Ariadne shrugged.
Arthur stepped onto the little path that led to the gate, shutting the door carefully behind him, and walked towards her as if he wasn't quite sure of his footing. "From what you and Dom said, I was expecting skyscrapers."
"I kind of was too," Ariadne admitted. "By the way, I thought you said you didn't do exteriors."
Arthur looked back at the cottage, and she noted that bewilderment was an unexpectedly cute look on him. "I don't." He turned to her. "Are you sure it's not yours?"
"I would have thatched it, if I'd even thought of a cottage." She stepped back as he reached for the gate latch. "Which I wouldn't have. Nice job, though, I really like the windows."
He shook his head and came through the gate, closing that as well and looking down at her. "Okay, you were right." A small smile flickered over his mouth. "So what do we do now?"
"Explore!" Ariadne stretched her arms over her head, delight spilling over, and spun, not caring that she looked silly or even about his admission. "This is Limbo. Let's find out what we can do!"
Arthur laughed, and the sound was unexpectedly free. He reached over and took her hand, their fingers lacing together in a perfect fit despite the size difference. "Lead on, architect."
There was no path through the forest, but the trees were far apart and there was little other vegetation besides the moss. Ariadne decided they might as well keep going in the same direction, and led Arthur along, further from her ponds and his cottage. The forest was more complete than was usual in a Dream; there was scent as well as texture, and she spotted the flitting shadows that told her there were actual birds as well as their song.
"How's your leg?" she asked as they walked.
Arthur kicked the left one out a bit further in his stride, brows going up. "Fine so far." He was wearing heavy slacks, unmarred by any tears, and a flannel shirt under his leather jacket. Ariadne had her usual work ensemble of jeans, top, sweater, and scarf, and the temperature was just cool enough to make it all comfortable. She fingered the fringe of the scarf and considered changing the color, just to do it, but then decided not to…yet.
There's time. That was the whole point, after all.
They had not walked far before the wild scent of cypress began to mix with a saltier tang, and the breeze in the treetops grew stronger. Ariadne knew that in the real world redwoods didn't do well on the shore, but here it didn't matter; the trees thinned out, and the shush-and-roar of waves drowned out the breeze. Blue sky spread overhead, and then they were looking down on a rocky little beach, with the ocean glittering and gleaming beyond.
She had to stop and admire it. Whether she'd created it, or it was a Jungian expression of Limbo itself, she didn't know; but as an ocean, it was stellar.
Next to her, Arthur whistled softly. "Is that what you were talking about?"
He was looking down the coast to their right. Ariadne peered around him, and felt the shock of recognition, sharp and a little alarming. Not quite a mile away, the skyscrapers began, impossibly high, marching away into the distance in perfectly straight rows that stretched beyond the limits of their vision. The near ones were crumbling, much as she remembered, as if it were the presence of the water that did them in.
"Yeah. That's Cobb's. And Mal's." She blew out a breath, surprised at how much the sight disturbed her. Well, you did die there.
Arthur nodded. "Now that's more like what I expected."
"So I like forests. Sue me," Ariadne muttered, a little nettled.
Arthur flashed her a quick smile. "I didn't say I didn't like it. That - " He jerked a thumb at the city. "It looks like Mal, all right. Also it's creepy."
Ariadne instantly wondered if that meant he had also thought Mal creepy, but forbore to ask. "Creepy or not, we should probably take a look."
The city was less forbidding up close, but also much more desolate. The buildings at the shoreline were decrepit, eaten away by the waves into which they occasionally collapsed, but the decay seemed to advance further into the city than Ariadne remembered. As before, there was no sign of organic life, and even the trash on the streets seemed to be all debris from the rotting buildings.
Despite the changes, she had no trouble finding her way from the shore to the surreal row of what Cobb had named memories. Here, too, the houses were in worse shape, one actually a ruin with the roof half gone.
Ariadne led Arthur to the building where she and Cobb had found Mal, but there was only a heap of rubble left, contained neatly - and slightly disturbingly - in the building's original footprint.
"One of them must have destroyed it," Ariadne said softly. "It got kind of…chaotic here for a while."
"I can imagine," he replied, equally softly. "Or rather, I can't, and I think I'm glad." His hand tightened on hers. "Let's get out of here."
Arthur's pace stretched her legs on the way back, but Ariadne preferred it. The utter emptiness of the city was chilling; it was a memorial to someone who was gone, and still bore the taint of Dom's grief and guilt.
They went back the way they'd come, stopping finally on the little beach. Arthur let her go, dropping into a crouch and prodding at a shell embedded in the sand next to a rock. "Does time even pass here?"
Ariadne glanced at the sky, but the sun seemed to be more or less in the same position it had been when they'd arrived. "I think it does if we want it to."
He stood, dusting off his hands. "I don't know about you, Ariadne, but whether night comes or not I don't really want to be anywhere near that."
She shivered. The feel of the city was oppressive, and she was starting to think that going there might have been a mistake. "We can keep going up the coast, or back into the forest."
Arthur grimaced. "You're the expert."
No, I'm not, she wanted to say. I've only been here once, and it wasn't like I did much besides follow Cobb around -
But she'd gotten them into this; it was her responsibility, at least until Arthur learned to Dream as freely as she did. So she drew on the lessons Dom had taught her early on, about control, and confidence, and belief. No matter how far we go, the city will be here, at the other end of the road.
So - forget the road.
Ariadne raised her arms, turning her palms towards the sun where it shone down on the ocean, and felt the joy surging upward again. Closing her eyes, she willed.
"Whoa!" Arthur's exclamation made her laugh, and she opened her eyes again. Bobbing on the waves, beyond the line of breakers, was a sailboat, just big enough to have a small cabin. White-winged sails hung slack, ruffling with the breeze, and it looked almost a live thing, ready to depart and impatient for them to join it.
"Okay, I'm impressed," Arthur said, the amusement back full-force. "I take it you know how to sail?"
"Nope," Ariadne said, setting off down towards the breakers and grinning at the expected sputter.
"Did you dream up a couple of sailors too then?" he demanded, stalking after her.
Ariadne shook her head, concentrating on the pile of boulders that defined one edge of the beach. Slowly, they began to tumble over each other, rattling into the water and forming a rough quay out to the boat. "I don't think coming up with projections is a good idea just yet."
Arthur halted next to her, crossing his arms and watching the rocks settle into place. "I suppose we can't exactly drown here, but I'm not sure winging it is such a good idea either," he said dryly.
"I'm not." Ariadne scrambled up onto the nearest boulder and began to make her way towards the boat, jumping from one rock to the next and trying not to slip. Arthur caught up to her and took her hand again, steadying her as she went, and she let him, both annoyed and touched by the gesture. "I created it. Therefore, I can steer it."
She leapt down onto the deck, feeling the boat sink a little beneath her weight and then rise again, and looked up to where he loomed over her, tall and shadowy against the bright sky. She could just make out his frown, the forbidding one he used when he thought someone was being especially pigheaded.
And then, while she tried to marshall another argument, it vanished, and his mouth curved up. "Permission to come aboard?"
Ariadne almost stumbled backing out of the way. Arthur jumped down, easily balancing against the resultant dip, and straightened. "Let me do it."
She cocked her head. "You want to sail her?"
He raised a brow. "If you say I can, then I can, right?"
Ariadne smiled slowly. You're starting to get the hang of it. "If you say you can, then you can," she corrected. "This is our Limbo, Arthur, not just mine."
"Point." Arthur inclined his head, then turned to study the sails and the wheel. Ariadne waited, watching him, willing him to confidence.
"Does this thing have an anchor?" he asked absently, and at her affirmative he glanced back. "Go ahead."
Ariadne raised the little anchor, hearing the snap of cloth and rigging overhead. And within moments the boat was moving, slowly at first, skimming out away from the shore and the forest and the city.
Arthur laughed, the sound a bit incredulous. "Which way?"
She had no idea, but it didn't really matter. Ariadne stepped up behind him and put her hands on his shoulders, turning him slightly. "Thataway."
Arthur nodded, and guided the boat out into the open water.
The wind picked up, and soon they were all but flying over the water, spray dampening their skin but not the experience. The sun flashed brilliantly on the waves, but somehow they didn't need to squint. Ariadne hung onto the seat beneath her and wondered whether it was the boat that was changing, or Arthur. Maybe both…
It was something she knew they would have to keep in mind, but at the moment the experience seemed more important, the wind and sun and sea, the white sails belling overhead and Arthur standing straight at the wheel. The odd joyous excitement she'd felt ever since the pond was growing, a sense of utter possibility; somewhere above, she knew, their bodies would soon be chilling slowly down towards death, but here there was time and potential in abundance, waiting to be used.
They'll find us, and we'll be fine, or they won't, she told herself firmly. The regret was still there, but she put it away for the moment. The whole point of Limbo was to make up for what they might otherwise miss.
The sun still had not moved, so it was hard to tell the passage of time. When Ariadne glanced down at her watch, the face bore no hands.
She removed it quietly and started to slip it overboard, then changed her mind. Geez, you just got here and you're already littering the landscape -
It took only a small thought to make it disappear.
Even the tallest skyscrapers of the abandoned city had long since faded behind when Arthur glanced back at her. "How much further?"
Good question. Ariadne had chosen the sea on impulse and the vague conviction that there was another shore out there; now she focused her concentration, and saw it. "There," she called, and pointed.
The coast was just a smudge on the horizon, but it grew quickly, and soon a small island separated itself from the land ahead of them.
It was hardly more than a rocky outcrop, but the lighthouse atop it, striped red and white like a barber pole, was wonderfully cheerful. If the light was on, it didn't show in the sunshine, but Ariadne thought it gave the coastline a welcoming feel. Since she hadn't consciously put it there, and she doubted Arthur had, she chose to take it as a reassuring sign. They skimmed past it, carefully avoiding the foaming surf that told of underwater hazards, and made for the larger shore.
Most of the coastline was low cliffs, but a little ways beyond the lighthouse was a beach not unlike the one they'd left behind. Arthur eyed it, then looked back at her. "How about a quay?"
Ariadne was tempted to tell him to try it himself, but - Don't stress him out, we just got here.
She didn't even have to close her eyes this time. The quay was just there, weathered but sturdy, extending out from the beach a good thirty yards. It had water weed on the pilings, Ariadne knew, even though she couldn't see it from that distance, and it would creak gently underfoot and smell of sun-heated wood.
Arthur made a noise halfway to a chuckle. "That's going to take some getting used to," he commented, and brought the boat up alongside it neatly, shaking his head - presumably at his own unknown skill, Ariadne assumed.
They dropped the sails and the anchor; Ariadne tied the line to one of the quay's cleats, and they climbed up out of their vessel and onto the quay, which Ariadne noted with satisfaction smelled exactly the way it should. The beach in front of them sloped upwards into a little sea-grassy hill, blocking their view of what lay beyond, though the cliffs on either side were trimmed with grass waving over the edges. There was so much possibility that it made Ariadne a little dizzy to contemplate it.
Arthur looked down at her, raising one finger to touch her nose gently. "Why aren't you sunburned?"
She grinned up at him, feeling a distinct thrill at the brush of his skin against hers. "Probably the same reason we don't need sunglasses."
He wrinkled his own nose, then shrugged and took her hand again. "Let's go see what's out there."
Climbing the little hill didn't take long, though it filled their shoes with sand. There was apparently a downward slope on the other side, because nothing besides the sky was visible until they reached the crest; and at the first sight Ariadne burst out laughing.
Arthur shook his head, his grin wry. "Is this my fault, or yours?"
Below them lay a huge sweep of valley, a geological and ecological impossibility stretching out into a misty distance. It was a patchwork of green, an English countryside improbably dropped below sea level, flat lengths and gentle swells of hill gridmarked by lines that might be roads or stone walls. They were too high to spot any buildings, if ther e were any to be seen, but a narrow worn track led down from their height, switchbacking the steep slope to descend into the valley.
Ariadne caught her breath. "I have no idea. Are you an Anglophile?"
"Not noticeably." He gestured with his free hand, not letting go of her hand. "Shall we?"
It took them about half an hour to scramble down into the warmer air of the countryside. It was interesting to not get too out of breath, Ariadne noticed, or to bruise when she tripped and fell to her knees; the skin she landed on stung briefly, but the sensation melted to heat and then was gone. There were, in fact, roads; narrow lanes of macadam in between hedges that looked like they predated the last century. They wandered along, listening to the birds singing furiously in the tangles on either side and occasionally finding gaps that led into the fields, but encountering no cars or people or even anything larger than a vole.
It was a little warmer than it had been in the redwood forest, but not enough to be unpleasant, and Ariadne realized as they walked that she was not growing tired. But her throat was getting dry, and suddenly water seemed very appealing. "Hey, how about we go in there?" She pointed ahead at another break in the hedge.
"Sure. Why?" Arthur asked, veering towards it.
"Because there's going to be a spring there," Ariadne said firmly, though the firmness was directed at Limbo rather than Arthur. "And I'm thirsty."
He blinked. "Yeah, me too," he said, as if it were a new thought.
There was a little apple orchard beyond the gap, with ripe fruit on the trees even though it felt more like a gentle summer than autumn. At the far end of the orchard was a streamlet bubbling up from a stone-lined depression, fringed with forget-me-nots. Ariadne knelt down beside it, reached down a hand, and then thought better of it and concentrated again. The mug that appeared in her hand was straight from her kitchen cupboard and read Architects do it with models, and we finish on top.
Behind her, Arthur snickered. "It was a present," Ariadne said with dignity, and dipped up some of the water before handing it up to Arthur.
He took the mug and regarded it dubiously. She gave him an inquiring look. "What?"
"Just thinking about parasites," he sighed, and drank, brows going up behind the mug.
"Only if you want them," Ariadne pointed out. "How is it?"
"Actually, it's delicious." He gave her the mug back, sounding surprised.
Ariadne scooped up more, and, tasting it, found he was right. It was cold and sweet and fresh and just slightly earthy. Basically the epitome of water, she thought slowly. The Platonic ideal.
Well, why not?
They drank until they were satisfied, and Ariadne made the mug vanish again. Arthur shook his head and gave her a hand up. "I'd like to note that we've been here for hours but I have not yet needed to piss."
Ariadne rolled her eyes. "I'm guessing here, but I think that's another thing that's…voluntary."
"Surreal," he muttered, and plucked an apple. "Here."
The apples were the same as the water - perfectly crisp, perfectly tart-sweet, perfectly unbruised, though Ariadne noted they had the bloom and scale one might expect from a country orchard. It was a bit of a relief, really, that they weren't supermarket-polished, she thought, and munched peacefully.
Three apples later - Arthur had two - they piled the cores neatly for whatever wildlife might want to make use of them, and headed back towards the road. Just before they reached the gap, Arthur put a hand on her shoulder. "Hold on."
"What is it?" His expression was half concentration, half a sort of wild humor she'd never seen before.
"We're moving too slowly." Arthur closed his eyes, fingers gripping her shoulder more tightly. "If we're going to see what's out there we should…"
He trailed off, and Ariadne waited, curious, breathless. Is he -
Arthur opened his eyes again and bit his lip, then stepped forward through the gap. And halted, so that Ariadne had to shove him gently to get past. "What - oh, nice!"
She knew very little about motorcycles aside from the fact that they had two wheels, so she couldn't tell if the machine waiting in the road was modern or antique, but it gleamed. As did Arthur's sudden grin. "Really?"
"Oh yeah," she breathed. It wasn't one of the massive bikes she'd seen cruising on the American highway, but it wasn't a zippy little racer either; it fell, elegantly, somewhere in between, and the best part - in her opinion - was the sidecar. Not that I'd mind wrapping my arms around, him, but - "Did you put this in so I could see?" she asked, running a hand along its polished rim.
"Partly," Arthur said, opening the small box behind the seat and extracting a pair of riding gloves. "Partly so you wouldn't ask to drive."
Ariadne rolled her eyes again, but couldn't stifle the snicker. "Too big for me," she pointed out, and climbed nimbly into the sidecar.
"Here?" Arthur asked, gesturing at the world around them before tugging on the gloves.
"Good point." The seat fit her perfectly, and Ariadne settled herself comfortably, delighting in the fact that helmets wouldn't be necessary. "Don't worry, I won't steal your toy."
Arthur snorted, and straddled the machine, firing the engine with smooth skill. Ariadne forbore to ask whether he knew how to drive one in real life; it seemed like the sort of thing he might have picked up, but it didn't really matter.
And then they were off with a roar, rolling forward down the road, moving faster and faster around the gentle bends. Ariadne tucked her scarf ends into her sweater and let the wind take her hair, and smiled to hear Arthur's laugh of joy. There. You get it now.
They kept going.
It was very strange, Ariadne thought, to travel on and on without a destination or even the pressure of time. The hedge-bound road widened into more open farmland and then climbed into green-bronze hills, shifting from England to Northern California, and she wondered just how much their subconsciousnesses were at work. Certainly she wasn't deliberately trying to influence the landscape…at the moment.
But it's interesting that we haven't seen any buildings since we left the city. Besides the lighthouse, at least, but Ariadne was inclined to consider that more of a symbol.
Eventually, though, the sun sank towards the horizon. Ariadne was pretty sure that the "day" had lasted for many more hours than normal, but it was impossible to tell.
What's accurate, anyway? Time doesn't have much meaning down here. It's not like we really want to know how much actual time is passing.
The endless rush of the wind should have chilled her as they traveled, but it was only just the other side of pleasant. Ariadne wandered if Limbo would let them keep driving on forever, obligingly unrolling landscapes beyond the horizon, endless variations on a theme, but the concept of "forever" made her uncomfortable.
But as the light grew more golden and a placid sea lapped into view on their left, Arthur slowed the bike, stopping it on the crest of one hill and sitting back to gaze outward for a long moment before turning to her. "I'm hungry."
His words made Ariadne aware of the rumble in her own stomach, though in the next second she was wondering if his suggestion had done it. Deliberately she pushed the question aside, for consideration another time. "So am I."
Arthur began tugging off his gloves, that small smile curling. "Your turn."
"We're taking turns?" Ariadne asked wryly, but closed her eyes and focused her attention, then opened them again. "All right, come on."
She scrambled out of the sidecar and led the way across the road; the hill they were atop dipped slightly, and the next slope was sand and beach weed instead of drying grass. Below them, well back from the high-tide line, sat a prosaic white-and-red-checked picnic blanket, with the classic lidded basket waiting for them in its exact center.
Beside her, Arthur snorted, and Ariadne elbowed him. "Wait until you see what's in it."
The nice thing about Limbo, Ariadne decided as they settled on the blanket, was that sand stayed off the cloth and the cloth didn't wrinkle unpleasantly. She opened the basket with a flourish, reached inside, and handed Arthur the little covered dish she knew was in there. He removed the cover, and she could almost feel his condescension melt away - and his mouth start watering.
"You were saying?" Ariadne asked demurely, and lifted out crackers to go with the pâté.
"I take it back." His voice was fervent and amused, and she grinned at him and reached deeper to find the macaroni and cheese that was her own comfort food.
It was a strange meal, but a pleasant one. They sat peacefully together and ate, drinking champagne from a bottle that wouldn't have fit into the basket in the real world and getting no more than pleasantly buzzed no matter how much of it they consumed. The sun gradually set, looking much larger than it should, and the stars came out above in unfamiliar patterns, burning big and bright.
Without discussing it, they had decided to remain where they were for the night. Ariadne made the basket disappear, and Arthur conjured up a nest of cushions fit for a sultan, clearing a sort of depression in the sand so they wouldn't slide away. "Are you sure you don't want a roof of some kind?" Ariadne offered as he tossed the last one in. "I could whip you up a house, no problem."
Arthur shook his head. "It's fine." He squinted at the sky, expression ironic. "Doesn't look like rain."
She snickered, and thought herself a toothbrush and paste, more out of a need to feel clean than because she feared tooth decay. Ariadne went a dune over to brush her teeth, because it felt weird to do it directly in front of Arthur, and when she came back he was reclining in the cushions. Without a word, he held out an arm; without a word, she lay down and let him pull her against his side.
It wasn't exactly sleep as Ariadne knew sleep. She drifted in and out of a doze, never dreaming as she would in reality; beside her, Arthur did the same, eyes closing and opening to gaze up at the stars or out at the calm ocean. It was rest, delicious and quiet, and a small part of her was tempted to let it go on and on, the closeness and the peace of it.
But the rest of her was more eager to explore, to run, to play. And so the sun rose.
Arthur was asleep, or a close approximation, so Ariadne eased away from him and headed down to the water, which was washing quietly up onto the shore in ripples tinted rose by the dawn.
It was warm, Ariadne decided, and looked down at her slightly crumpled clothing. She wasn't quite confident enough to change them on her, so she glanced back over her shoulder.
Arthur hadn't moved. Ariadne slipped behind the nearest low dune and found the little wooden shower booth she'd put in place, and the simple red tank suit hung over its door.
The water was warm, a delicious caress against her illusory skin. Ariadne swam out past the gentle breakers and lolled in the waves, feeling water-borne sand brush past her legs and keeping the ocean's emptiness firmly in mind - the last thing they needed was a monster surfacing from her subconscious.
When she next looked towards shore, Arthur was standing in the wet sand watching her. Ariadne waved. "Come on in!"
Arthur propped his hands on his hips, and Ariadne sighed and ducked under, swimming out a bit further. But when she looked back again, he had stripped down to his boxers and was wading into the surf. He dove into the oncoming waves, and when he didn't resurface Ariadne knew exactly what he had in mind.
Snickering, she somersaulted under again, to grin at the figure arrowing through the water at her, no doubt planning on grabbing her ankle. His pout when she waved again was comical.
They swam companionably for a while, body-surfing in on the gentle waves and stroking back out again, growing pleasantly tired but no more than that. Ariadne wondered briefly if she could actually breathe under the water, and filed the notion to try later.
"I'll handle breakfast if you dream up a shower," Arthur said at last, as they trod water beyond the breakers, sunrise grown into a beautiful day and the light glittering on the waves.
"Deal." Ariadne swam hard for the shore, goading him into a race she knew she couldn't win, and they washed up in a tumble of laughter and sand.
Arthur climbed to his feet first and reached down a hand to help her up, and suddenly they were close, breathing each other's air, all her skin sensitized to his mere inches away. Ariadne held very still, the desire to close that gap warring with the knowledge that pushing Arthur was a bad idea -
She looked up, expecting to see his distancing expression, but instead his eyes were wide, warmth tempered with uncertainty. For the space of two heartbeats he held her gaze, then let out a breath. "Time," he muttered.
Ariadne started to agree, but the words died as he bent, lips grazing the sensitive spot just past the corner of her mouth. The sensation was amazingly tantalizing, a fragile promise, and she felt her eyelids sliding shut, her sandy fingers tightening on his.
The moment seemed to hover, timelessness stretching out, and then it was over, both of them stepping back without quite willing it. Ariadne looked up at Arthur. "Shower," she repeated, her voice constricted, and he nodded jerkily and let her hand go.
Well. My Dream-hormones seem to be working just fine, Ariadne thought as she trudged around the dune, half dazed and half amused.
Half an hour later they were both clean and dry. With a strong sense of smugness, Ariadne recreated her favorite lotion, which had been discontinued two years prior in reality, and made sure her illusory skin wasn't going to dry out, while Arthur insisted on creating a fire and a pan to cook sausages, eggs, and something he called pan bread. Ariadne added strawberries with a thought, and it all tasted amazing. "One could spend years just eating," she said, popping the last fruit into her mouth as Arthur made the pan vanish.
"Later," he said dryly, quelling the fire by pointing at it and giving her a hand up. "There's more to see first."
When they went back over the hill, the bike was gone, replaced by a sleek, handsome little convertible with its top invitingly down. Ariadne said nothing, merely settling into the passenger seat while Arthur climbed long-leggedly over the closed driver's-side door.
And they were off.
Land and sea, hills and valleys, mountain roads lined with pines leading to miles-wide fields of grain; stretches of desert and depths of forest, it was all there for the seeing. Animals started to appear, first birds darting overhead and then the occasional glimpse of deer or elk; once a fox laughed at them from the side of the road, and on the coastal stretches Ariadne saw dolphins leaping in the distance. But while the roads were well-maintained and some of the land cultivated, there was no other sign of humanity.
It was just as well, Ariadne thought. Given the size of the Dreaming community, the odds that someone else was in Limbo at the same time were low but within the realm of possibility, but Ariadne wasn't sure she wanted to encounter anyone else. Most of us are criminals. Bet we're likely to be defensive too.
Days stretched out into weeks as they explored, and Ariadne quickly stopped counting, because it really didn't matter. It only rained or snowed when they wanted it to; the land never seemed to suffer from lack of water.
They spent most nights the same way they had the first, sleeping under the sky, snuggling together in a comfortable huddle somehow devoid of the pleasurable tension nearness usually produced. And it was always the same, the dreamless drowse and the serene waking, cycling slowly through the darkened hours until the sun came again; a measure of peace that was dictated more, Ariadne guessed, by habit than by biology. But since she loved it and Arthur seemed to feel the same, they kept on.
"The stars are never the same twice," Arthur said one night as they lay together, this time in a nest of grass and silk in a mountain meadow. "Did you notice?"
Ariadne let her head lean against his shoulder, blinking sleepily up at the sparkling points above. "Nope. But I'm incapable of finding so much as the North Star."
His soft chuckle was a vibration against her side. "It's a good thing we're not trying to navigate by them."
"Silly." She poked him gently. "You want something here, you just concentrate. You know that."
He poked her back, and suddenly they were laughing, wrestling and tickling and rolling around like puppies, the grass crushing beneath them and sending up a smell of hay and flowers. Ariadne knew she didn't have a hope of pinning Arthur, even in Limbo, but she gave it a good try anyway - until he pinned her instead, lacing his fingers with hers and pressing her hands gently to the ground on either side of her head.
It was a classic move, almost cliché, Ariadne thought, but she didn't care at all because Arthur's eyes had gone wide again, and then he was kissing her properly, a slow sweet slide of lips that was as achingly beautiful as the world around them.
He was just as good as she'd suspected, was Ariadne's hazy thought before kissing him became all she could concentrate on.
They took their time; they had nothing but time. Ariadne had researched Dream-sex, of course, insatiably curious but unwilling to ask any of her very male colleagues about it, but there wasn't a lot of information and most of it was contradictory. But it didn't seem to match any of the sketchy accounts; it was as slow as their kisses and as sweet, just the slightest bit awkward but amazingly comfortable.
And very, very hot. But Ariadne attributed that to her choice of partner, whose hotness was inherent, and his skill well-earned. He seemed equally delighted with her, and she took full advantage.
Sex added an extra dimension to their new world, and Ariadne suspected that two less restless people could have spent the entire time simply traveling and making love. But she knew Arthur, and she knew herself. Wonderful as it all was, it wasn't going to be enough forever.
So when they reached an area that reminded her of a storybook, rolling green hills and ancient, tangled forest, Ariadne put a hand on Arthur's arm. "Let's stop here."
He obliged, braking to a halt and shutting off the engine in the middle of the road. "Are you hungry?"
"Nope." She grinned at him and climbed out of the convertible. "I want to play."
It wasn't hard; she'd been designing since before she knew what architecture even meant. Ariadne closed her eyes, called up her image and her will, and…created.
She could hear Arthur's intake of breath behind her, and grinned before opening her eyes. "Not bad, huh?"
On the hill above them was a fairy-tale castle, all glittering golden stone and impossible towers, bright with flags and pennons. As they watched, the drawbridge creaked down, beckoning them inside.
Arthur put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "Not bad at all," he said, but his deadpan expression was marred by the way the corner of his mouth tugged up.
Ariadne laughed, and they climbed the hill to explore.
They ended up in the topmost tower, looking out the window at the countryside spread out below. "It's amazing, but I get the feeling that you have something more in mind," Arthur said lazily, leaning on the wide windowsill.
"Of course I do." Ariadne let her inner vision take shape on the other side of the forest, and within moments it lifted into view - a huge mechanical dragon, beating metal wings and puffing real smoke. As they watched, it soared heavily over the trees, clearly homing in on the castle.
Arthur straightened, suddenly alert. "I never thought of myself as a dragon slayer," he began, but Ariadne laughed.
"You're such a traditionalist, Arthur." She hefted the sword that hadn't been there a second ago and headed for the stairs. "You can cheer me on."
She heard him mutter something about "hammerspace" as she descended the stairs, but she didn't stop.
Her charger and lance were waiting in the castle's courtyard, and Ariadne prudently didn't dream up armor until she was already atop the big horse. It was the first time either of them had created a living creature deliberately, and she was a little nervous, but it seemed perfectly normal, shifting under her and snorting eagerly.
The sharp whistle from above made her look up, and a white handkerchief fluttered slowly down from the tower, zigzagging conveniently into her grasp. The A.C. embroidered on the corner made her snicker, and Ariadne tied it carefully around her upper arm before gesturing the drawbridge down.
The fight was real enough; both Ariadne and her charger were a little singed by the time she'd hacked the dragon into component parts. But she'd meant it to be a challenge. Utopia was all very well, but she didn't want either of them to get bored.
Arthur was waiting in the courtyard when they returned, and barely let her swing out of the saddle before kissing her angrily. Ariadne managed to get loose after a moment. "What?"
"Don't put yourself at risk like that again," Arthur snapped, fingers digging into her armor hard enough to bruise them if not her. "Do you think I want to be left alone down here?"
"I'd just come right back." Ariadne lifted an oil-streaked gauntlet to touch his cheek. "Anyway, I could have disassembled him with one word."
"Not if he broke your neck before you got it out." But his fury was ebbing, and Ariadne realized that beneath it was a very real fear.
She blew out a breath. "Arthur, I understand what you're saying. I do. But if we limit ourselves, if we don't allow some risk, we'll go mad. Or at least I will," she added wryly, making him grimace.
He released her slowly. "All right. But…explain first next time, eh?"
"You bet." She kissed him quickly, then started peeling off the armor. Arthur helped her, and seemed inclined to keep going, but she wriggled away with a grin. "I have to see to Sir Boss here first."
"Just vanish him," Arthur suggested, one brow climbing, but Ariadne huffed.
"Certainly not." She made the charger's trappings vanish, which disturbed the horse not at all, then conjured an apple to feed him and led him through a side gate in the wall to a very nice paddock. He walked amiably out into it and immediately started grazing.
Ariadne considered the paddock and the horse, then conjured up a few pretty mares and removed the paddock's fence before returning to Arthur. "I need a bath," she said, grinning up at him, and finally he smiled back and took her arm.
"Did you put anything sybaritic in this impressive pile of stone?"
"I know how much you like swimming," she told him, and enjoyed his laugh.
It was adventures of all sorts, after that; they spent ages rescuing each other, taking it in turns, and having fun coming up with more imaginative perils each time. They reenacted scenes from their favorite movies - Ariadne already knew Arthur liked noir, but his taste in anime was a surprise - and a few books as well, though she drew the line at recreating all of Pride and Prejudice and he settled for a highlight of the best bits instead.
They learned to both create and fly a dirigible, though Arthur refused to venture as far as a biplane; they went back to the coast and sailed up it in a beautiful red-sailed yacht, though they didn't venture out of sight of land; they built, with Ariadne designing the buildings and Arthur furnishing them. Every so often he would recreate the cottage in which he'd first arrived; when she saw it Ariadne knew he needed some time alone, and gave it to him without a murmur. Being on her own was fun too, though eventually it got lonely.
Sometimes they just explored, and Limbo obligingly gave them an infinity to wander through, presenting them with new delights around every bend and over every hill. Arthur re-invented the phonograph and stocked it with music from memory, and Ariadne created a three-dimensional chess set that looked like it belonged in the Millennium Falcon, except less battered. Arthur taught Ariadne to swing dance, and she taught him to waltz; he taught her the finest points of hand-to-hand combat, and she taught him to fly, though he was never truly comfortable with it.
They both completely lost track of how long they had been in Limbo, and deliberately did not care.
He really didn't know what to expect when he got there, but an expanse of rubble as far as the eye could see wasn't quite it. Dom stood knee-deep in the surf, ignoring his soaked state, and stared bemusedly at the ruin of all he'd built with his late wife.
The crumbling remains had once been buildings, that was clear enough, but most were worn down to just a story or two above pavement level, though in the very far distance a smudge of color hinted that perhaps not all of them were so decayed. Dom was slightly disconcerted to realize that he wasn't more upset at the ruins.
But then, all the pleasure he'd taken in their creations had vanished on his second trip to Limbo.
He slogged ashore, skirting the tumbled blocks of concrete that the ocean was wearing away, and wondered where to start. Certainly the desolation in front of him showed no signs of human habitation, and while Arthur had never had any gift for architecture, he couldn't see Ariadne refraining from leaving her mark on the landscape.
But with all of Limbo to search -
It had taken him subjective ages to find Saito. Even now he wasn't sure how much time he'd spent, but then when one went this deep perceived time became elastic anyway.
Which is why you still have a chance.
Eames had told him bluntly that he was a fool, but he'd set up the session anyway, and it reassured Dom to know that the man was waiting topside to bring Dom out when his hour was up. Down here, an hour was plenty of time.
Sighing, Dom closed his eyes and stretched out his senses, trying blindly to feel for any trace. He had no idea if it would work, but dealing with Ariadne's incessant questions had taught him to think a bit more outside the box.
And, much to his surprise, he felt a faint tang that reminded him irresistibly of Arthur.
It was up the coast a bit, on a little rocky beach - a weathered post jammed into the sand, with an old-fashioned sign on top, carved in the shape of a pointing hand. Dom chuckled when he saw it, because it was just Arthur's insouciance, and then frowned, because it pointed straight out to sea.
I guess I need a boat, then.
He conjured up a sleek speedboat, took note of the heading on its expensive compass, and headed out into the sunny day.
Finding another land didn't surprise him; not having to search for his quarry did. Ariadne was beachcombing along the tide line, hair flying and feet bare and sandy, and she waved when Dom moored his boat next to a small sailboat at the quay. He jumped out and walked down to the shore, and it wasn't until the figure moved that he saw Arthur sitting on a rock, shirt sleeves and trouser cuffs both rolled up. "Hey, Dom," his old friend said.
Dom stopped a few feet away from the boulder, gaping despite Arthur's lifted brow. Ariadne came up, hands full of shells that she promptly dumped next to Arthur, and gave Dom a hearty hug. "Hi! I wondered if it was going to be you."
Dom returned the hug, but his eyes kept straying back to the serene man on the rock. "Ariadne, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you, but - you know how dangerous that is!"
She looked up at him, a mature woman in her mid-fifties, perhaps, hair gray-streaked and face softened with tiny lines. "What's dangerous?"
Dom gestured at Arthur, who rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands, a small smile turning up the corners of his mouth. He looked no older than the last time Dom had seen him, six months before. "Creating a projection. I don't care how lonely it gets down here, that's a short route to - "
Ariadne rolled her eyes, brushing a strand of hair out of her face. "He's not a projection."
Dom took a deep breath and laid his hands on her shoulders, deciding that there was no gentle way to give her this news. "Ariadne, he's not. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but Arthur is dead. He died of blood loss before they pulled you out of the car."
"I know," Arthur said matter-of-factly. "It was really the most frightening thing that's happened down here."
"What?" Dom stared at him, baffled.
Ariadne patted Dom's forearms and ducked out from under them. "Arthur's body is dead, we figured that out. He, however, is still here. Presumably in my mind," she added, and produced three bottles of beer before handing them around.
Dom took his automatically. "I know you think he is, but - "
"He's not a projection," Ariadne repeated patiently, leaning against Arthur's boulder. "Maybe you'd better explain, love."
Arthur took a swallow of beer and grinned at Dom. "Close your mouth," he suggested. "There aren't any bugs here, but I'm not in love with your tonsils."
Dom snapped his mouth shut and glared. It certainly sounded like Arthur, but projections always seemed real, that was the point -
"Ariadne was with me at the time," Arthur began. "You know what it's like down here, no sickness, and injuries can be healed instantly. But I started feeling bad - cold, and shaky, and then my leg started to hurt."
He sobered, and Dom knew he was remembering Saito, how the man's injury had crept down through the Dreams.
"We knew what was happening," Ariadne said. "I was terrified - I just wrapped my arms around him and hung on as tight as I could."
Arthur nodded, and Dom noticed that the two of them had linked hands. "It kept getting worse, and I felt things starting to fade - and then they snapped back into place, and I was just like I'd been before."
"Really like." Ariadne's grin went sly, and she nudged Arthur with her bottle. "He lost every gray hair, and now I look like I'm robbing the cradle."
Arthur's snort was eloquent. Dom took a sip of beer, trying to steady his thoughts. Was it even possible? Dreaming did make a man take a closer look at spirituality and metaphysics, but the idea that somehow Arthur's mind - soul, even - had shifted to Ariadne's brain was boggling, to say the least.
But if she'd been touching him the whole time -
"Even assuming that this isn't Limbo-induced madness," Dom said carefully, "it still presents a problem."
"I didn't think you'd come down just to say hello." Ariadne's smile was gone.
"Yes. Ariadne, you're in the hospital. You're not on the machine any longer - well, except for right now, obviously - but they can't wake you up." Dom rubbed his fingers through the bottle's condensation, feeling the sea breeze snatch it from his skin almost instantly. "The doctors can't explain your coma, but your body…it's deteriorating. Shock, maybe - you had pretty bad hypothermia by the time they found you, and the Dream drugs didn't help."
Ariadne watched him, leaning closer to Arthur, who disengaged their hands and put his arm around her shoulders instead. "So what you're saying is, if I don't wake up, I'm going to die?"
"Pretty much." Dom cleared his throat and took another sip, daring to look Arthur full in the eyes. There was really no way to tell if it was his old friend; any secret Arthur could offer as proof could easily be taken from Dom's own unconscious. But he had to wonder if it mattered.
Ariadne thinks it's Arthur, and down here…will is king.
And he found himself wishing heartily that it was, because he missed Arthur badly, and he'd had to bury his friend topside just a few days ago.
Arthur gave him half a smile, the old, wry, scolding look, and turned to Ariadne, lifting a hand to her cheek. "It's your decision, love."
She looked at him a long time, and Dom had the feeling that they were communicating on a level he couldn't touch. The pulse of envy was muted, but there; he'd had that, once.
Ariadne sighed, but the sound wasn't sad. She kissed Arthur's palm and turned to Dom. "I really appreciate you coming to find us - me, I suppose. I know it can't have been easy." She swallowed. "But I'm staying."
Dom shot her a dry look. "You do realize I could just pull out a gun and make the whole thing moot."
"If you were going to do that, you wouldn't have mentioned it first," Arthur pointed out, smirking a little.
Dom sighed in turn. "Touché." He held up his bottle, and they clinked theirs against it. "Here's to Limbo, then. The madness and the Dream."
They both grinned at him, and his heart twisted with love and memory.
When he opened his eyes, it was a shock to trade the fresh ocean air for the antiseptic stillness of the hospital. Collecting his wits quickly - he hadn't lost the habit - Dom sat up straight and removed his leads.
On the other side of Ariadne's bed, Eames raised his brows in inquiry and began breaking down the machine. "Well?"
Dom tossed him the leads and looked down at the still figure in the bed - shockingly young compared to the woman he'd just left, and shockingly still - and blew out his breath. "She said no."
Eames grimaced, and it was half resignation and half grief. "Mental as Saito, then?"
Dom opened his mouth, then reconsidered. Trying to explain Arthur to Eames just wasn't going to be possible, at least convincingly, and he didn't want to deal with the man's disbelief. "No. She just…likes it better there."
"Huh." Eames finished reeling in the lines and closed the case, then looked down at Ariadne. "Well, luv, we'll miss you," he said softly, and Dom averted his eyes from Eames' unguarded face.
"Meet you outside," Eames said in a normal tone, and Dom nodded. The forger lifted the case and strode out, closing the door behind him.
Dom regarded Ariadne for a long moment himself, remembering the little time he'd spent with them enjoying a sunset and another beer, Ariadne's kiss on his cheek, Arthur's farewell hug. Then he bent and returned the salute, brushing the limp hair from Ariadne's forehead and pressing his lips to the cool skin. "Take care of each other," he whispered.
There was no answer as he turned to go, but he knew they would.