AN: Epic finale is epic. Seventeen and a half pages in Micro Word, full of action and fluff and suspense and even a car chase. Hope you enjoy and thanks for everyone who has subscribed, favourited, and reviewed this story. You're all fantastic.
It was the earthquake that woke them. The ground shook so badly that Arthur fell off the edge of the bed and the tangle of blankets nearly dragged Ariadne down on top of him. Immediately he scrambled to his feet, picking up the handgun on his way.
"What is it?" Ariadne asked in alarm, sitting up and hugging the bedsheets to her chest protectively. "Turbulence?"
"I don't think so," Arthur said. He crossed to the window and nudged aside the curtain, peering out into the street. His stomach lurched as he caught sight of the pair of figures on the opposite walk, as well as another at the street corner. "Ari, get dressed."
"What? Why?" she asked even as she slid off the bed and began searching out her clothes.
"We've got to move," Arthur said, grabbing his jeans and jumping awkwardly into them. "We've got company."
"They found us?" Ariadne asked. "How? We haven't even been outside in days."
"They don't know we're here yet, but they're getting close," he explained, tossing her shirt across the room to her. "There's a couple of them hanging around outside and looking uneasy. Something's made the Projections suspicious." He caught his socks when she threw them and leaned against the wall to put them on. "It's after noon now. All we need is a safe place to hide out for another hour or so."
"Back to the subway tunnels then?" she asked, tying her neck scarf into place.
"That's probably our best bet," he agreed. They finished dressing hastily and then moved out into the sitting room.
"If they're outside, how do we get out?" she asked. Arthur had to commend her for staying so calm even though he could see the panic building in her eyes. "This place only has the one door."
"We should be okay to walk out," Arthur said. "They're suspicious but if they were on to us they would be breaking down the door." He readjusted the gun, tucking it into the front of his hip for easier access and then covered it with his jacket. "These are just regular Projections, not Sub-Security. We walk out, calmly as we can. Stick close to me and don't provoke them. As soon as we get away from them, we'll make a run for the subway. If anything goes wrong, you run and hide yourself. There's only a few more hours until the timer runs out."
"Then let's do this," Ariadne said determinedly. She hooked her arm through his left arm – leaving his gun hand free, just in case – and added, "Together." Arthur gave her a taut, grim smile and a kiss on the forehead, and then opened the front door.
Almost immediately there were four pairs of eyes fixed on them. There was a group of three workers hanging around the warehouse across the street, smoking beneath the shelter of the awning. There was another person down closer to the corner of the block, someone huddled and ragged who was staring at them from beneath the rim of a hood. Arthur drew Ariadne closer to his side as the factory workers leered at them.
The rain was no longer pouring as badly as the first day, but it was still steady and cold. By the time they rounded the corner two blocks down, Arthur's clothes were clinging to him uncomfortably and Ariadne's hair had turned to damp ropes of brown. Even though he didn't look back to check, he could still feel the eyes of the Projections following them as they turned onto the next street, and ahead of them there were two older people sitting on a cramped porch, also staring. He fought the instinctual urge to put his hand on his gun, not wanting to startle them into action.
Ariadne was silently leading the way toward the subway tunnels by steering him by the arm. Even though she was shivering from the cold – and probably from nerves – she was doing a great job of not letting it show. He had seen plenty of well-trained Extractors lose their heads in a tense Dream situation, but she was keeping calm and focused. Arthur slid his arm from hers and then laid it around her shoulders, drawing her closer to his side both for warmth and for comfort. She gave him a grateful smile as she rested her arm on his waist and moulded herself into him.
The closer they got to the main city, the more people they passed on the streets. People watched them from the windows of the apartment complexes, and there were people in heavy coats or beneath umbrellas who passed them on the pavement. A man with his coat hood drawn up over his head rammed his shoulder into Arthur's, and he staggered against Ariadne at the impact. She made a startled noise but he shot her a significant look and shook his head. "Don't provoke them," he reminded her. "It'll make it worse. Don't worry, we're nearly there." Truthfully they were only halfway, and as the Architect she would have known that, but she didn't argue the fact with him.
Half a block later another man collided roughly with Ariadne's side, and around the next corner a woman ran into Arthur's side and then actually paused long enough to give him a dark look. Arthur pulled Ariadne closer as they continued on, only a few blocks from the city proper. Just one more corner and two more blocks, and they would be there. He let out a grateful breath. They might actually make it.
And then they turned the corner right into a volley of gunshots.
. . . . .
Arthur's bellow in her ear was nearly drowned out by the explosion of sound as several guns fired at once. He used the arm across her back to shove her down into a crouch, his body shielding hers. No sooner had they gotten down then there was a pause in the shots and Arthur dragged her up again. Taking her by the hand, he pulled her back around the corner. They bolted down the block and into a narrow side street, and ahead of her Arthur drew his gun.
She could hear the shouts and pounding steps as their attackers chased after them. Even though she hadn't gotten a clear look, she had no doubts that they were Fischer's Sub-Security. Civilians didn't carry semi-automatics, even in Dreams.
Arthur was leading her in a weaving diagonal through the warehouse district, gradually directing them toward the city proper while making sure the Sub-Security never had a good shot at them. Ariadne struggled to keep track of where they were as the raced through the streets. "We're going too far west," she called out when she caught a glimpse of the suspension bridge in a gap between buildings. "If we go much further, we're going to hit the river!"
Although she couldn't make out exactly what he said over the rain and the pounding of her heart, she could tell that Arthur was cursing as he abruptly turned them into another narrow road leading the other direction. There was shouting from the Sub-Security as they realised they had doubled back, and Ariadne flinched as a gunshot shattered the bricks only inches from her head before they escaped into another alley.
The buildings got progressively taller and better constructed as they reached the edge of the warehouse district, and soon they were darting between business buildings instead. The problem was that the alleys started to disappear and left them with solid blocks of running before they could duck behind something for shelter. Also the Projections on the pavement were starting to step into their way, making Arthur elbow them roughly out of the way and slowing them down. Ariadne's heart was racing as she could hear the Sub-Security getting closer behind them.
Quite abruptly a large black van swerved around the corner ahead of them and Arthur skidded to a stop. The side door of the van slid open and three men with automatic rifles jumped out, and the crowd of Projections scrambled out of the way. Ariadne tugged Arthur through the door of the nearest business building just as the Sub-Security started firing.
Not even having the time to second guess what she was doing, Ariadne bolted across the empty lobby and into an available lift. She jammed her hand against a random floor number before Arthur shoved her against the wall. He took up position at the edge of the doorframe and fired off several quick shots at their pursuers until the doors glided shut. The cheerful ping! of the lift seemed at odds with the situation as they both slumped against the metallic walls and panted for breath.
"Now what?" Ariadne managed to ask as she rubbed at a stitch in her side.
"We lose our tail and then we get to the subways," Arthur said. He pulled out the clip of his gun and checked the contents before sliding it back into place. Ariadne's brow furrowed when she caught a glimpse and realised that it was completely full, despite the shots he'd just fired. Dreams...
"Oh, is that all?" she replied sarcastically. He shot her a short smile at the comment but they both tensed as the lift ground to a halt at the seventeenth floor. Arthur stepped protectively in front of her and levelled his gun as the doors swept open. They found themselves facing an empty hallway that seemed to stretch on to either end of the building, lined with identical wooden doors.
The lift dinged as the doors started to close and Arthur immediately stuck his arm in between them, stopping it from shutting. Ariadne ducked into the nearest office and grabbed a trash bin, wedging it into the lift doors until they stopped trying to close with a sad little ping. When the lift in the next shaft started grinding into motion, Arthur aimed the gun and fired two shots into each of the control panels.
"That should hold them for a few minutes," he said, turning and looking around at their surroundings. "Now we need to get out of here."
"A window?" Ariadne suggested uncertainly. "There should be fire escapes on a building this size."
Arthur darted into the closest office and peered down out of the window. "That won't do much good, there's security down on the pavement. If we climb out there they'll shoot us off the side of the building before we're halfway down."
"So we go up then," she responded. "Find a staircase that leads up to the roof and go from there."
"We don't have enough time," Arthur growled in frustration as the lifts made more pathetic whining noises in their attempt to keep working.
Ariadne stared up and down the lengthy hallway and then suddenly her heart leapt. "I have an idea," she muttered and she jogged several yards down. With a quick thought she found a handle on the wall and heaved, pulling the enormous mirror out until it spanned the length of the hallway.
"What're you doing?" Arthur asked in alarm. "Changing things will just bring them here faster."
"I'm buying us some more time," she said, racing passed him down the hall and then finding another handle just where she imagined it would be. She jerked the mirror out into the hall and then looked into the reflection in satisfaction. She could see herself and Arthur reflected a thousand times over in what appeared to be a never-ending hallway of identical doors stretching on through the opposing mirrors. With a smile, she placed her palm against her reflection and the glass shattered and disappeared.
"My God," Arthur breathed. He stood looking back and forth down the hallway that had magically extended into oblivion, his awe evident. "Where did you learn that?"
"Figured it out on my own," she replied smugly, taking his hand and starting off running down the hallway. "First time I was in a Dreamscape."
Behind her Arthur chuckled and when she glanced back at him he was grinning. "That is incredibly hot," he said with a roguish wink and she beamed in pride, her cheeks flushed.
After running passed at least a hundred doors, they finally dodged into one of the offices and shut the door behind them. "It'll take them ages to figure out which room we're in," she said as she wedged the utilitarian desk chair beneath the door handle. "While they're checking them all, we'll slip outside and climb up to the roof."
"That could actually work," Arthur said, peeking around the edge of the window frame curiously. "If we move quietly, the security on the ground shouldn't spot us. From the roof we can try to find another building to jump across to. Good thinking."
Ariadne tried not to be too pleased by the compliment, or by the intensity of his dark-eyed stare that showed even more than his words just how amazed he was by her. She promised herself that the moment they could see each other again up top, she was going to find a way to put that look back in his eyes because right now it was making her insides burn with exhilaration. He must have been thinking along the same lines because the corner of his lips quirked, bringing his dimple back into life, and he gave the shallowest of nods.
Without any further discussion, Arthur carefully slid open the window and climbed out onto the ledge. "We're going to have to scale over a few windows," he whispered in to her, crouching on the sill. "Your never-ending hallway means we can't reach the corner room where the fire escape actually connects. You a good climber?"
"I'm gonna have to be," she pointed out simply and shrugged. Arthur nodded and then stood, so all she could see were his long legs standing on the ledge. He inched sideways until he could step onto the next window over, and then Ariadne took a deep breath before clambering out after him.
The dizzying height made her cling to the brick face of the building as she waited for the vertigo to abate, rain dripping off the ledge above and rolling in freezing trails over her skin. She had never had that much of a problem with heights before, and in Paris she had loved to stand on top of tall buildings to just look out over the beautiful city, but something about falling off a skyscraper in Limbo had left her uneasy about the amount of space between her feet and the ground. Especially since the only thing keeping her from meeting the ground very painfully was her awkward grip on the windowframe and the narrow ledge of wet stone she was standing on.
"Come on, Ariadne, it'll be okay," Arthur murmured from two windows over, where he was pressed against the glass and watching her in concern. "It's just a few more yards."
Ariadne swallowed hard and slowly shifted herself over to the edge of the windowsill. She took a second to steady herself, and then gingerly pried one hand free of the brick to reach over to the frame of the next window. A few seconds later her foot followed and she straddled the four-foot stone gap between windows awkwardly, trying not to imagine the sensation of falling. Two more deep breaths, and then she managed to finally scoot the last of her body into the window frame.
"That's it, you're doing great," Arthur said. As she cautiously inched her way toward him, he moved on to the next window and then paused, waiting for her even though he was now only one window away from the safety of the metal fire escape. Ariadne crossed this gap faster than the first, and Arthur smiled reassuringly at her before he slipped to the next window, and then over the railing onto the fire escape.
Focusing only on his comforting expression and the narrow ledge she had to step onto, she carefully moved on to the next window. One more and she would be there. She smiled tautly in response to Arthur's nod, and then shuffled her feet across the ledge.
Quite abruptly her foot slid on a puddle of water that had collected in the brick beneath her. A scream tore from her throat as her foot slipped and she cling to the damp window frame by her fingertips, the coarse bricks scraping her fingers raw. "Ariadne!" Arthur yelled in panic, stretching his arms out over the railing but he couldn't reach her.
"I'm okay," she replied, pulling her feet in toward the building again and finding a safer foothold. She had to stand there for a second, catching her breath, but her recovery was cut short by the echo of voices from beneath and then the sharp crack of a gunshot.
"Ari, you've got to hurry," Arthur said and for the first time she could see that his face showed nothing but panic. A bullet hit the brick not far from her right hand and she shrieked again, struggling not to instinctively jump away from the danger. Bracing himself on the railing, Arthur reached his arms out as far as they'd go and said, "You've got to jump."
"What?" Ariadne asked in terror, looking at the ten-foot gap between them.
"Jump, Ariadne," he repeated earnestly. A brick below the ledge exploded into dust, quickly followed by the next window over shattering. "I won't let you fall, I promise. But you've got to jump!"
Ariadne met his scared gaze and then nodded. Twisting so she was facing him as best as she could on the narrow ledge, she coiled up the muscles in her legs and threw herself forward. There were five seconds that felt like an hour where she was free-flying, soaring through the air with no sensation except for the weightlessness and fear. And then she collided roughly with the iron railing and Arthur's arms curled around her securely.
"I've got you," he whispered as he grabbed her more firmly. Ariadne let out a strangled sob of relief and he held onto her as she dragged her shaking legs over the rails and onto the grating. She clung to Arthur, grateful for the safety of his arms, until there was another smattering of gunfire that rattled the fire escape. Arthur fired three quick shots over the edge – there was one startled scream from below as a man in black military uniform crumpled to the pavement – and then in a flash his hand had found hers and he charged up the stairs with her in his wake.
Ariadne couldn't breathe by the time they reached the roof thirteen floors up, and she would've stopped were it not from the persistent shouts from below and the knowledge that the men inside undoubtedly knew they were no longer in the hall of offices. She staggered off the ladder onto the gravel roof, where she promptly slumped against the low wall and tried to catch her breath. Arthur immediately started searching the area, his gun held at the ready.
"It looks like that is our only choice," he announced, getting her attention. He was pointing across to the building opposite, a multi-level parking garage that was just slightly shorter than theirs but one very long jump away.
"You're kidding!" Ariadne gasped, stumbling upright and crossing to him for a better look. "I can't jump that far!"
"Of course you can," Arthur countered. "It's still a Dream." There were thundering footsteps from behind the door that led to the roof and Arthur hastily locked it, barring the handle with a piece of metal piping and dragging a heavy crate in front of it. "Ari, go!" he shouted, bracing his shoulder against the crate. "I'm right behind you. Just remember, it's a Dream."
Ariadne kissed him fiercely and when they broke apart she could see the same passion and uncertainty in his eyes that she felt. Somehow it made her feel better. There was a loud crash as the Sub-Security barrelled into the closed door and Arthur dug his heels into the loose ground as they hammered on the door. "I'll see you on the other side," he said with the faintest smile, and she nodded in agreement. Then she turned and took off running.
She wiped everything else from her mind and focused on the edge of the roof that was getting closer at an alarming rate. The ground crunched beneath her feet and she kept her eyes on the low concrete wall that was her first hurdle. She stepped onto it without breaking stride and then, with one fleeting prayer, she flung her body into the open air.
It was much like the last time, only infinitely worse. The alleyway below felt miles away and the rain spattered her face, blinding her. There was one agonisingly long minute in which she thought she must be plummeting to her death, and then her foot clipped the rail of the opposite roof and she rolled to an ungraceful stop against an SUV. Every inch of her ached like she'd been beaten, she thought she might have wrenched her shoulder, and there was surely a sizeable lump on her forehead where it had struck the wheel well, but she was alive.
"I made it!" she called back across the gap. No sooner had she spoken then an explosion of bullets tore through the door and the crate, and Arthur lunged awkwardly to the side with a choked scream to avoid it. "Arthur!" she screamed when he didn't immediately get back up.
There was another round of bullets eating their way through the barricade by the time that Arthur clumsily stood. She saw him brace himself for a split second before he began running toward her. He had just reached the edge when the door broke apart and the Sub-Security started forcing their way out onto the roof. Ariadne watched in horror as his feet hit the roof just as the Sub-Security opened fire. He rolled to soften the impact and get out of the way, but Ariadne wasn't quite so fast in ducking behind the SUV. A stray bullet seared across her arm, and she let out a cry as it simultaneously tore and burned through her skin.
"Keep moving!" Arthur bellowed hoarsely from where he was heaped on the ground. They both got up and took off again, ducking behind vehicles whenever the Sub-Security reloaded and fired. They reached the area where the ramp led down to the next floor and Arthur bolted over to the car where Ariadne was huddled.
"Are you okay?" he asked breathlessly.
She cowered when the bullets shattered the windows of the car they were behind, raining glass down onto them. "Fine," she answered. She hurt like hell, but for their situation she figured she was doing pretty well. Arthur, on the other hand, seemed to be favouring one side and his breathing was ragged. "Are you?"
"Fine. Come on," he said and he reached up through the broken window to open the passenger side door. He crawled up and across to the other side, settling into the driver's seat and leaning down to fiddle with the wires beneath the panel. She was a little perturbed by his evasion, but now didn't seem like a good time for an argument. Instead she climbed into the passenger seat, pressing herself back into the seat as the engine roared into life.
Arthur was grinning slightly as he threw the car into reverse and slammed on the accelerator. The tires squealed on the slick concrete as they pinwheeled backwards and Ariadne ducked her head when bullets cracked through the front and rear windows. The transmission groaned as he flipped it into drive and they peeled down the ramp and into the next level of cars. "We still need to get to the subway," he said, stomping on the brakes to avoid sliding into a parked car. "There's no way we can keep driving around long enough to avoid them, we learned that last time."
"You mean when Saito got shot?" she said tensely. They had gone down four more levels of the garage and they were getting progressively closer to the bottom. She wasn't sure she wanted to know what was waiting for them at the bottom.
"You're going to be okay," Arthur said, shooting her a significant look. "I'm going to get you out of here, I promise."
"Just focus on the road," she responded, trying to mask her fear and trying to not think about what would happen if they didn't make it out. She supposed if there was anyone she wanted to be trapped in Limbo with, it would be Arthur. Still, she'd prefer Reality if she had any say in the matter.
They glided down the ramp to the main level and Ariadne's heart fell into her stomach when she saw the exit. Three large black SUVs were blocking the opening, and a line of Sub-Security were standing in front of their cars with their guns held at the ready. Arthur cursed darkly. "Get down!" he said and then floored the accelerator, sticking his gun out of the side window and shooting as he steered them directly toward the line of cars. Ariadne's eyes widened as she realised what he was doing and she hastily bent over, shielding her head with her arms.
Bullets fired through the windscreen, adding more holes to the ones already there, until it finally gave in beneath the pressure and exploded inward. She closed her eyes and waited, praying that Arthur would be all right, and braced herself. The entire world jerked roughly and she was thrown into the dashboard, the sound of metal on metal deafening her. The engine made a sickening noise as it tried to plough through the barricade and Ariadne thought that this time it must really be the end for them.
And then the roar of the engine picked up and she let out a breath of relief. "Are you okay?" Arthur asked.
"Fine," she said, sitting up with a groan and clutching her bruised shoulder. She looked over at Arthur and grimaced. There were two deep cuts on his face and another on his hand from the shattered glass. He looked paler and his jaw was locked, but as far as she could tell he was all right. "How did we make it out?"
Arthur chuckled dryly. "This isn't my first car chase," he said simply. She looked out the empty windscreen and grimaced at the mangled front of the car, where the hood had bent and crushed inward. There was something like that looked suspiciously like blood smeared up the passenger side. "Do you know where the next closest subway entrance is?"
"I have no idea," she said apologetically. "We were running around so much I've gotten a bit turned around. Sorry."
"Don't worry about – shit!" He swerved hard to the side to avoid a Sub-Security car that came blazing through the intersection ahead of them. "It's okay," he said once they had straightened out again. "We'll find one."
It was undoubtedly the single most terrifying car ride that Ariadne had been on, including the one where she and Cobb had been hit by the train in the middle of the road. Their battered car weaved in and out of traffic, taking sharp turns to avoid Sub-Security blockades while bullets clanged loudly off the chassis.
Ariadne stiffened, frowning. "Did you hear-?" She didn't get to finish her sentence because Arthur abruptly swung the car around a corner and she fell against the door, knocking the breath out of her.
"What?" he asked once they had steadied.
"There!" Ariadne shouted, leaning forward to point through the empty windscreen in her excitement. There was a subway entrance just a few metres ahead and the Sub-Security vans were just far enough behind that they had a chance of getting in without getting shot.
Arthur cut across two lanes of traffic and then pulled their car up right in front of the entrance, making Projections scatter to avoid being run down. Without hesitation, Ariadne kicked open her bent-in door and jumped out, and a second later Arthur had joined her. "You lead, I'll cover you," he said and she nodded once before jogging down the steps into the station.
She had hardly gotten off the stairs before a Projection grabbed her by the elbow roughly. A split second later the Projection crumpled with a scarlet hole in his neck. She stared at her blood-stained hand in shock until Arthur nudged her from behind. "Keep moving," he murmured and she stumbled a few steps before getting moving again. Ariadne tried not to pay attention as any Projection that got within feet of her was shot, the echoes of the bullets blocking out everything except the frantic beating of her heart.
They were both spattered in gore by the time they reached the edge of the platform, and she jumped down onto the tracks on shaking legs. Arthur picked off the last few nearby Projections until the Sub-Security reached the bottom of the stairs with a clamour. He jumped down beside her and she grabbed his arm, dragging him behind her as she raced into the tunnels.
They ran with no regard to their destination, just trying to put as much distance between themselves and their pursuers as possible. They had run through over a mile of winding tunnels before a faint, lilting sound reached Ariadne's ears, just audible beneath the echoing footsteps and garbled shouts, like she was hearing it somewhere in the back of her mind instead of in the air around her.
"Arthur, can you-?" she panted.
"I hear it," he responded and she caught the faint grin that flashed over his lips. "The musical countdown."
Her heart soared at the confirmation and she finally allowed herself to hope. They were so close. They might actually make it. "I heard it before," she said eagerly. "In the car."
"Less than twenty minutes," he said. Someone rounded the corner behind them and let off a shot, and the bullet embedded itself in the concrete above Ariadne's head. Arthur took her elbow and jerked her into a side tunnel. Twisting around the corner, he fired and there was a sickening thump. "Need a hiding place," he said, wheezing slightly. "Room with no way in. Make it."
"You said I can't change things," she pointed out. "It upsets them more."
"Little late for that," he snapped. "Can't keep running. Just close us off so they can't get to us."
"I can-" Her argument broke off as Arthur coughed mightily and blood speckled his lips. She started picking up on little things – his laboured breathing, his hunched posture, his fragmented sentences – and realised that they had to do with so much more than just the exertion. He wasn't saying that they couldn't keep running, he was saying that he couldn't. Whatever injuries he had been diligently avoiding were catching up with him.
While Arthur fended off their followers, she looked around until she found a dead-end tunnel a few metres ahead. She pulled Arthur along with her into it, and then turned her focus to the concrete. The walls slowly slid closer to each other, like a giant was pinching them together, until they met and the concrete melded shut. They were safely closeted away in a small, square-shaped chamber of solid concrete. Seconds later came the muffled hammering of the Sub-Security as they tried to find a way in.
Now that they were relatively safe, Ariadne turned back to Arthur. He was leaning against the back wall, clutching his torso. He looked even paler than before, and a sweat had beaded on his skin, making the blood drip in lines down his angled features. As she watched he gritted his teeth and slid down to sit on the floor, his locked jaw a weak attempt at hiding his pain.
"Arthur!" she said in a panic, and she dropped to her knees beside him. She moved his arm out of the way and peeled away the black jacket that she could now feel was stained with blood that had camouflaged in the dark fabric. Much of the lower half of his shirt was a dark crimson, spreading downward from a quarter inch hole in his upper abdomen. "My God," she breathed in horror.
"I'll be fine," he mumbled. "It went straight through. Just need to stop the bleeding now and I'm okay."
"When did this happen?" she asked, helping him shed his jacket. As he leaned forward she could see the small hole on his back that was undoubtedly the other end of the bullet wound.
Arthur's face was slightly closed off and she thought for a minute that he was going to refuse to answer, before he finally said, "The roof."
"Why didn't you say anything?" she asked, torn between anger and fear.
"Least of our problems," he muttered.
"You're lucky you haven't bled to death already," she growled. She had folded his jacket into a small bundle and she had him lie back onto it so it could staunch the bleeding from his back. He grimaced as he laid down and she cradled his head on her folded legs for support.
"You bleed slower in Dreams," he said nonchalantly as she stripped off her own drenched jacket. "Brain can't make sense of time." Ignoring his attempt to be reasonable, she balled it up and pressed it to the other side of the wound, eliciting a groan from him.
"You're stupid, you know," she said. "You still should've said something sooner."
"What good would it have done?" he replied, his fists clenching at his sides. "We couldn't have stopped or they'd have killed us both. We had to keep moving."
She knew that he had a point, but she wasn't through being mad at him. "We could've done something," she argued, feeling childish even as it came from her mouth. Arthur winced and she realised that in her frustration with him she had been gradually pushing down harder on his stomach. She lightened the pressure a little and added softly, "I didn't come all this way just to lose you now."
Arthur's expression softened and he set his hands on top of hers. "Neither did I," he said firmly. There was a loud thud from the wall – the Sub-Security was trying to break through. "Just a couple more minutes," he added resolutely. She heard the rasp in his breathing and prayed he had that long.
"Where are you going to go when we're done?" she asked, mostly just to keep him awake and aware since his eyes had started drifting. Even if this was a Dream, she didn't think falling asleep after that much blood loss would be good for him.
"Somewhere it isn't raining," he said with a feeble chuckle. "South America, I think. Brazil, or Peru maybe. Somewhere it's easy to get lost in a crowd." He paused for a minute as if thinking it over, and then nodded slightly. "What about you?"
"I haven't really thought about it yet," she admitted. "I've mostly just been focused on the job. I suppose I'll stay in L.A. for a week or two, see some of the sites. I've never actually been before. And then I guess I'll fly back to Paris and try to get caught back up in school. Hopefully I can scrape up at least a passing grade so I don't lose my scholarship."
"You'll have enough money you won't need one after this," he said idly.
"Yeah but how do I explain to people that I'm suddenly financially set for the next twenty years?" she replied. Arthur conceded with a thoughtful nod, while she was more disturbed that his normally sharp mind was muddled enough to miss something that obvious. "Will you come see me when you can?"
Arthur stroked her hand affectionately. "Soon as it's safe," he promised.
They lapsed into quiet for a moment, apart from the steady thunks of the Sub-Security attempting to get in and the haunting, distant strains of the countdown music. Arthur's breathing was ragged and when his eyes slowly began to close she shook him slightly. "No sleeping," she said.
"Right," he said, blinking deliberately and then turning his gaze up to her face. "Sorry, someone kept me up late. Busy night."
Ariadne laughed. "Sorry, I won't do that anymore," she teased.
"I'll learn to live without sleep," he said with a vague shrug, his lips curled at one corner. "I usually nap at work anyway."
She smiled and gently swiped her thumb along his cheek, wiping away some of the blood that had stained his skin. "I'm glad we got this time together, even under the circumstances."
"So am I," he said and he once again fixed her in that staggering stare. "I'll find a wa-" He froze, and his eyes widened. "The music's getting louder. This is it."
A flash of irrational panic exploded inside of her, and Ariadne held onto his hand tighter. The music didn't seem any louder to her, which meant that he was waking up and she wasn't. Not yet. "I'm not ready to leave you," she said.
Arthur sat up with a loud groan, and then turned on his knees to face her. "I'll find a way to make it work," he said fervently, cupping her face in his blood-stained hands. "Okay?" When she nodded he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers. She returned it enthusiastically, knowing that this might be the last time in a long time that she would get to experience this feeling. "I won't le-"
A sharp noise overrode him and a large crack appeared in the wall.
Arthur stared at it in terror. "No," he breathed frantically. And then she blinked and he was gone, the only sign of his presence left in the scarlet stains on the floor at Ariadne's feet.
. . . . .
Arthur's eyes snapped open and he immediately sat up. He looked around the cabin of the aeroplane and saw that apart from the stewardess, he was the only person awake. Tucking his hand into his pocket, he grabbed the red die and rolled it on the fold-down tray. Four. Reality. He tugged the line out of his wrist and stood up, stumbling slightly. After spending ten hours in one position, his legs weren't ready to move.
Slipping up to the next seat, he checked on Ariadne. His last image from the Dreamscape had been the Sub-Security finally starting to break through the wall. She was trapped in that room, with no escape and the enemy getting closer. As much as he wanted to do something to help her, he knew that there was nothing left to be done. The only chance she had was that she woke up before they got to her.
"Help me get them all disconnected," he said to the stewardess. Once she'd nodded, he turned and gently removed the needle from Ariadne's wrist, rubbing his thumb over the faint indentation left behind. "Be safe," he whispered anxiously and tucked a strand of her loose hair behind her ear.
As much as he wanted to wait with her until she woke, to know that she was safe, he had other priorities. It wouldn't do any good to have Fischer wake up and see the equipment, and let their mission be blown after so much effort. With one last tender touch to her hand, he stood and walked forward to Saito, removing the line from him as well.
Eames was the next person to wake up, and he stretched languidly. "What happened down there?" Arthur asked. "The Sub-Security came after us."
"My Forging slipped," Eames said, scrubbing his face tiredly. "I've never had to hold it so long. I got to slip away from Fischer a few times and pull myself back together, but he caught me when I was taking a break."
"The mission's blown?" Arthur asked curtly.
"I don't think so," Eames said. "He barely saw me, but it was enough to put the Subs on alert. I was able to come back a couple hours later as Browning and he let me back in, so I think he won't suspect anything."
"I hope not," Arthur said. "If we did all this just to lose it at the end..."
"Yeah," Eames agreed, and Arthur was fairly certain that it was the first time they had ever agreed on anything. "Fischer got to the end though. I think it'll stick. The others awake?"
"Still under," Arthur explained, working at coiling up the leads and tucking them inside of the case. "Not sure if Cobb and Saito are coming back. Ariadne said they were both in Limbo."
"She made it back up though, right?" Eames asked concernedly.
At that moment Ariadne sat up with a panicked gasp, and Arthur spun around and hurried to her side. "Hey, you're okay," he said. "You're back."
"They almost got in," she muttered distractedly. She eyed him up and down, her gaze lingering on his stomach where the bullet hole had been, and then her breathing slowly steadied. "Is everyone okay?"
"Eames is up, Yusuf should be any minute now," he said. "It's over. Just act natural now, don't let Fischer suspect anything."
Ariadne nodded, not commenting on his lack of mentioning Cobb and Saito, and then despite her wild eyes she reached into her bag and pulled out a book. Arthur squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and then turned around just as Yusuf blinked awake, pulling the headphones down off his ears. "Let's wrap this up," Arthur said, handing the locked case to the stewardess.
There were a few minutes of scrambling as everyone rearranged themselves into casual positions – and Yusuf escaped into the restroom to finally relieve himself. Arthur caught Ariadne's eyes to exchange one last significant look, which she returned with a smile, and then sank into his seat. He leaned back into the seat and peered out of the window, letting his mind wander.
He couldn't stop himself from brushing a hand over his stomach, in the act of smoothing out his sleep-wrinkled shirt. In the Dreamscape, he had been so close to death. It was far from the first time that he had died in a Dream, and he had felt it coming. Even then, on the brink of Limbo, his only concern had been for Ariadne's safety. From the moment the bullet had pierced his side on the roof of the business building, he had pushed his pain to the back of his mind to make sure that she had gotten to a safe place. If she hadn't made it back from the Dream...
Shifting uncomfortably, he turned his mind away from that thought. She was alive and safe, and if he had his way she'd never be setting foot into a Dreamscape again. He would keep an eye on her from now on, making sure that no one ever tried to hurt her. He would keep her safe.
Except for during the next three months, when they weren't allowed to be together in case Fischer became suspicious and had them followed. He had told her that it was for the best – and it really was, as experience had taught them plenty of times – but that didn't mean he was comfortable with the idea of leaving her to fend for herself for the next few months. Not now, not after something so dangerous. He had gotten used to being there to protect her, and he was loathe to give that up. Not to mention that he simply enjoyed being around her and after finally getting her, he didn't want to say goodbye yet.
A shuffle of movement to his right caught his attention, and he glanced across the aisle. Cobb's eyes were open, disoriented but most surely awake. When their eyes locked, a small grin crept across Arthur's lips and he swallowed back a chuckle. He couldn't believe the daft idiot had survived. A wave of contented relief settled in his stomach; everyone had made it out alive and Fischer seemed to be brooding but calm. They had pulled it off.
The stewardess walked in front of him, distracting him, and he turned his focus back to the window. It was over.
. . . . .
Ariadne was one of the last ones off the plane. She had pretended to be caught up in her book while the others were gathering up their things, while in actuality she was trying to sort out her thoughts. Waking up from the Dreamscape had always been a slightly jarring experience, but never so much as this time. Her brain still felt like it was strung across two different worlds, between the girl who was lounging in her plane seat and the girl who had spent a week running for her life. There was one thing that both sides of her were agreed on though: she wanted nothing more than to curl up in the protection of Arthur's arms. That seemed like the only place she could make sense of anything at the moment.
Arthur's briefcase bumped her knee as he walked passed, and he paused just long enough to glance at her and mutter, "Sorry, ma'am," before continuing on his way. She fought down the pang of disappointment – reminding herself that they couldn't give any recognition of each other – and busied herself with shoving her things back into her backpack. Saito paused and gestured for her to step out in front of him, and she murmured a quick thanks before slipping out of the plane and into the terminal.
Her mind wasn't focused as she stood in the queue at immigrations, one hand in her pocket clutched around her totem. She had checked it twice on the plane before Fischer had woken, and since then she hadn't taken her hand off of it for longer than a few seconds at a time. Without Arthur at her side, it felt like the only way to be sure she was in Reality. She acted calm and pleasant to the Immigrations officer, and had enough awareness to smile at Cobb when he was let through the gate, and then she went back to her thoughts as she walked on to baggage claims.
Standing around and waiting for the luggage to appear was making her anxious. She had gotten so used to constantly being on the move, to constantly looking over her shoulder, that just standing there was putting her on edge. Gratefully, her suitcase – a battered, violet one that she'd gotten from her parents when she'd first moved to Paris – was one of the first ones on the conveyor belt and she picked it up and headed for the exit.
The first thing she needed to do was get a hotel room. She hadn't thought of getting a place before they had left, and she realised that it probably meant winding up in a dingy little motel, not that she was too concerned about it. She intended to spend as little time in it as possible anyway, especially after spending most of the last week – Dream week – cooped up inside of one. No, she was going to wander the city and do some sketching and keep herself distracted so she wouldn't have to think about what had happened. About the man that she had spent her week with that she wouldn't see again until months later.
The crowded airport was making her jumpy so she walked outside, toting her luggage behind her, onto one of the pavements for pick-ups. It felt good to be outside, even in the thick city air, and she leaned against a pillar to catch her breath. She watched people getting in and out of cabs and shuttles, and fought the urge to flinch every time one of them glanced at her. She had to remind herself that these weren't Projections. Maybe she would be better off spending a few days alone to get herself re-adjusted to Reality.
Either way she needed to get to a hotel. Straightening up, she checked her pocket for her wallet and then pushed off the pillar. She grabbed her suitcase and started for the line of cabs. She had only gotten a few steps when someone collided with her shoulder. "Watch it-!" she blurted in alarm as she staggered sideways, nearly falling over her luggage and only managing to stay on her feet by the hand that closed around her upper arm.
"I'm sorry, are you all right?"
Her heart leapt and the moment she was steady on her feet, she turned to face the speaker. Arthur was staring back at her wearing an expression of casual concern. "Yeah, I'm okay," she said, forcing her voice into a more neutral tone.
"I'm sorry, that'll teach me to check my phone while I'm walking," he said with a chuckle. Then he paused and feigned confusion for a second, before continuing, "You're the girl from the plane, right? You were in the seat in front of me, you were reading that architecture book."
"Yeah," she said, wondering where he was going with this but more than willing to play along if it gave them a little more time together.
"Are you studying architecture here in the city?" he asked curiously.
"No, I actually study in Paris," she said, allowing a bit of smugness to slip into her tone at the admission. "I'm just here to see the sites for a class project. I've never actually been to L.A. before."
"Really?" Arthur asked, his eyebrows arching. "Well you've chosen a good place, there are some amazing buildings around here. I should know; I spend about half the year here on business. Anyway, I should probably let you get back to what you were doing. Sorry again for running you over."
Ariadne felt her heart drop into her stomach and she fought back her disappointment. "Right, well, bye."
Arthur tipped his head in farewell and started walking away. He stopped halfway to the cabs and abruptly turned back to her. "This is going to sound completely insane, and I would understand if you said no, but would you like to go out for a coffee sometime?"
"Well I'm only going to be in town for a week or so," she said, but a hopeful smile had stolen over her lips.
"Then I suppose we should hurry," he replied and the dimple appeared in his cheek. "What are you doing now?"
"Nothing in particular," she responded playfully. "I was just going to go find a hotel room."
Arthur smiled. "There's a couple really great cafes here at the airport, if you want," he said. "And then maybe I could show you around the city. There are some great buildings down near where I work, and I can direct you to some good hotels."
Ariadne pretended to think about it, and then she smiled and nodded. "That sounds great."
"Great," he echoed. She fell into step beside him as they walked down the terminal. "My name's Arthur, by the way," he added, offering a hand to her. "Arthur Pembroke."
She slipped her hand into his. "Ariadne Bishop," she supplied.
Arthur's grin was genuine as he squeezed her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ariadne."
"You too," she responded, and on the inside she was jumping for joy, looking forward to spending some time with this exciting stranger that she was in love with.
And where things would go from there, well, only the next week could say.