It should have been an easy job. Eames had done his research and had a flawless forge in place for the idiot heiress that was their subject. She had somehow coaxed nearly ten million dollars in bonds as well as fifteen million in jewelry from an elderly and wealthy banker that wanted them returned. She had lied about her affections, and the banker had caught her in flagrante with her boyfriend, the man Eames was forging for the job. The girl didn't actually need the money or the jewelry, but had liked the idea of pulling the wool over the banker's eyes and fucking her boyfriend in the banker's bed after making fun of his lack of prowess.
To be perfectly honest, Eames didn't mind bilking the girl out of her ill gotten gains in the slightest. Arthur and Ariadne seemed the same way.
They had the location of her safety deposit box containing the bulk of the goods, and Eames was working on the location of the key when they heard a distant booming sound. It was rather like the crack of thunder, though the weather was supposed to be sunny and balmy in Acapulco. That seemed to be out of context, and therefore alarming on its own.
It made sense as soon as Eames turned to see what was causing a racket outside of the ballroom where he was chatting up the heiress.
Ariadne was crashing into wait staff, blood blooming across her chest and cascading down the front of her elegant dress. She had wanted to come into the dream with them, in case they needed to use the backup second level she had designed, but the heiress had proved to have no subconscious security at all. She trusted Eames' forge of her boyfriend entirely too much, so the precaution was unnecessary. It had allowed her to dance in the ballroom with Arthur after he got the location of the safety deposit box, blending in with the projections at this fabricated party.
Arthur was looking at her in alarm, and rushed to catch her. Arthur struggled to keep her upright, looking on in concern though the projections had only just now begun to notice something was wrong, none appeared aggressive.
Which meant that there was a wound in the real world, where Ariadne was going to bleed out.
Eames rushed back to the heiress' side and brought her a drink that was laced with dream sedatives. She fell over nearly instantly. The moment she did, he was wearing his own face and snarling. Arthur had Ariadne in his arms, trying to staunch the bleeding. "You have to finish the job," she was saying, looking up at Eames in concern. "Time is slower here..."
"Fuck the key," Eames snarled, pulling his USP Compact from his waist. "Whoever hurt you is in for a nasty surprise."
Before either of them could reply, Eames shot himself awake.
He launched himself at the figure holding the gun. In his rage, he didn't realize that he was partially shifting. His face contorted so that he had a muzzle full of sharp teeth, his fingers shortening and ending in hooked claws. His muscles moved with a rapid grace he didn't have before he had been infected with lycanthropy, and he could smell the assailant's terror the moment before his jaws snapped shut over his throat. It was the boyfriend, planning to surprise the heiress during her vacation. Not understanding what was happening, he panicked and pulled out the gun he had carried with him. He wasn't particularly bright either, and his finger had been on the trigger and not the trigger guard as he jerked the gun around the room. There were no conscious assailants, as Arthur had merely put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the heiress' door and canceled her morning wake up call from the front desk. They would have been finished with the job in another ten minutes' time and she would have been none the wiser.
It had been bad luck that the boyfriend's hand had convulsively tightened enough to pull the trigger. It was even worse luck that the bullet he shot went straight through Ariadne's shoulder.
Eames didn't pause to think of how they could possibly explain away the boyfriend's injuries or death. All he could think about was that this was the man that hurt Ariadne, and he had to die. There was nothing but the kill, of protecting his pack from the threat of death. His jaws closed over the boyfriend's throat, fangs shredding skin and muscle and tendon. The carotid artery and jugular vein was sliced cleanly through, and Eames' clawed hands cut through the poor excuse of abdominal muscle. Intestines spilled out onto the floor, steaming slightly. In shock, the boyfriend quickly bled out.
Somewhat more cognizant of the matter at hand now that the threat had been dealt with, Eames turned toward the PASIV and the others in the room. Arthur was waking, but Ariadne wasn't. He quickly applied pressure to the wound, slowing the bleeding. It wasn't as scary looking as it had been in the dream, but it was scary enough. It was bright arterial blood, and they had to get her out of the room fast.
"I'll get her to a hospital. Can you do clean up?" Arthur asked, voice sharp with worry after having finished applying more sedative to the heiress' line.
Ariadne wasn't waking. That wasn't normal. Eames could almost taste Arthur's fear as a sharp, metallic tang in the air. He nodded wordlessly, not sure how his voice would sound coming out of a half formed muzzle.
He looked around the room after Arthur left, carrying Ariadne to the parking lot where their car was waiting. Eames wanted to howl, to continue rending the boyfriend into unrecognizable puddles of flesh and meat. Instead, he let his body shift back into something looking completely human and began to clean up the mess left in their wake.
The heiress would have a rude awakening once the somnacin wore off, but Eames couldn't care less.
Everything in the emergency room was a whirlwind. Ariadne was taken into the trauma area to get her shoulder worked on, and Arthur was left to concoct a story to explain the wound. He couldn't explain why she was unconscious, and the frustration was getting to him. The triage nurse that took information for their records thought perhaps it was shock from the wound. Arthur knew better, but there was no way to explain that Ariadne had seen and done worse.
She was sent to the ICU as soon as she was out of surgery, and Arthur wasn't allowed to see her for hours afterward. He texted Eames as he found out news on her status, but the updates never led to replies. He could only hope that Eames wasn't doing anything stupid.
Arthur was sitting at Ariadne's bedside when he finally got a text from Eames. Delivered stolen items, got payout. Heading to you now.
It seemed very levelheaded. That alone made Arthur wonder what it had cost for him to type it.
Ariadne still wasn't awake when Eames arrived at the hospital, charming his way past the charge nurse at the end of her shift. He sat opposite Arthur, each of them carefully holding her hand and watching her breathe. Arthur saw Eames' drawn face and the way he touched Ariadne with a deference that sometimes Arthur had doubted the forger could possess. "She'll be all right."
"If there wasn't brain damage," Eames murmured softly. "She told us to do the job, Arthur. No job is worth this. I've always known that. Sometimes you have to cut and run, protect yourself. No one else will do that for you." He looked up at Arthur with a bleak expression. "No job is worth her life."
Arthur traced the lines in her palm, paying attention to the curve of her life line along the thenar eminence. He traced a branch in the line; it split off from the main curve after a break, and the branch was short. It terminated abruptly, though he didn't know enough about palmistry to know what it would mean. Ariadne had tried to explain it to him, laughing all the while. She had learned quite a bit about the occult in high school and college, though nothing about lycanthropy until Eames' change. Arthur hadn't paid attention at the time, focusing more on the shape of her mouth as she spoke and how her eyes had crinkled as she smiled. He didn't believe in palmistry, and had been fascinated by how dedicated she had been to learning what he had considered a nonsensical art.
Arthur traced more lines on her palm, trying to recall the way she had sounded that day, the way her eyes had shone in amusement. The main curve went all the way around the eminence, disappearing into another crease in her palm before joining with the other creases and lines along the side of her hand. He could remember the feel of that hand along his bare skin, the gentle press of her fingers into his muscle, the ghostly caress as she told him without words what he meant to her.
He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles gently. "She's alive, so there's still hope. We'll figure this out. She'll wake up, and everything will be back the way it was." Arthur quirked his lips at Eames. "Our regular levels of idiocy and incredulity, of course."
Eames let out a bark of laughter and laid his head down on the bed beside Ariadne after lowering the side rail. "How did I get to need her so much, Arthur? I didn't need anyone for years."
"It's amazing how sometimes someone becomes as vital as drawing breath."
Looking at Arthur in amazement, Eames gave him a smile of appreciation. "Didn't realize you had such a poetic soul."
"There's a lot of things you never realized," Arthur replied with crisp tones.
"Yeah. There's that."
Eames closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of Ariadne beneath the sterile antiseptic smells of the hospital. Ariadne breathed softly and evenly, and the machines hummed quietly all around her. None of that mattered, as long as he could still follow her scent. It was strong and vital still, so he had to believe that she would pull through.
Anything less, and he knew he would snap. He would go on a rampage, and Arthur wouldn't be able to hold him back. There wouldn't be enough draw there to keep him from giving in to the dark chaotic urges warring deep within. Arthur was order, he was chaos, and Ariadne was the balance between them.
Without her, he felt lost.
Ariadne was moved to the general medical floor when her condition stabilized after a week, but no one could explain why she simply wouldn't wake up. She remained unconscious as her vital signs grew stronger, and there didn't seem to be any brain damage or trauma to explain it.
"I have an idea," Arthur told Eames one night. She had been in the general medical ward for two days at that point, and Eames seemed haggard and brittle around the edges. The full moon was coming, though that wasn't the cause of his edgy behavior. Eames didn't respond right away. Arthur thought that perhaps he was beyond caring, that he had lost sight of anything but his own misery. "Eames," he said sharply. "I think she's in limbo."
That caught his attention. "What?"
"It's the only explanation that makes sense. If she didn't follow us up and out of the dreams, she has to be still stuck there."
"Then we have to get her out."
Arthur lifted the familiar silver case and put it on the dresser next the bed. "That's the idea."
Eames pulled Arthur in for a kiss. "Thank you."
"At least one of us is still capable of thinking," Arthur snarked in reply, shaking his head. "Let's go get her back."
The beach was still and quiet, waves gently lapping at the warm sand. There was some vegetation on a sand dune behind her, but she wasn't looking at it. She was watching the incoming white-capped swell, breeze fluttering through her hair. It was short and somewhat frizzy from the seawater, the lower edges of her dark hair not even touching the collar of the long sleeved white see-through shirt she was wearing over the white string bikini she wore. She was waiting, though she had forgotten who or what she was waiting for.
Her thoughts were an empty tangle, but this was the only thing she remembered. She was waiting, and she would be found. In the meantime, the sea was calming. The sea was fascinating.
Somewhere over the dune, her sand castles spiraled up against the sky in dizzying, gravity-defying heights.
Ariadne didn't share a room at the hospital, so Arthur snuck in the PASIV after consultation with Yusuf online about what the dosing for Ariadne should be. He didn't dare mess about with the sedatives in the case when there were other medications in her IV lines. He had copied the labels on all of the IV drips and the settings on the pump, then e-mailed them to Yusuf. They had chatted the night before, and Yusuf had carefully described how to dose the somnacin for Ariadne correctly. Eames had been too upset to make sense of it, pacing back and forth all night with his eyes on the PASIV case. He snarled and growled at times, eyes too blue and teeth too sharp. Arthur didn't think that Eames was even aware of it, and didn't bring up the ability to partial shift. It might be worthwhile to find other lycanthropes, though he didn't know how to go about looking for others. After all, they hadn't known one of their former employers was a lycanthrope until he had tried to kill them all.
The night they planned to go in, Eames entered the hospital, shut the door behind him and shoved a heavy recliner in front of the door. Anyone pushing it open would force the recliner to scrape against the floor. It wasn't really a deterrent, but it should change the acoustics in the dream enough for one of the men to wake and deal with whoever was entering the room. Or better yet, given he really didn't want to lie down on the floor, Eames could sit in the chair. Tipping him out of it to get into the room would be more than adequate for a kick.
Limbo was a daunting concept, but Eames would face down anything for Ariadne. Arthur set the dosage according to Yusuf's directions and then looked at Eames. "Comfortable?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at Eames. He was sprawled in the recliner, grim expression in his too-blue eyes.
"As much as I'll ever be with this idea. Shall we?"
Arthur slid the line into Eames' wrist and then into his own. "Let's find her."
Then he hit the button and they began to dream.
Somewhere close to where Arthur and Eames materialized was a maze of cityscape proportions, buildings full of paradoxical architecture that blotted out the midday sun. They entered the maze, hoping to find Ariadne at its center, but all they found was evidence of several lifetimes lived in that city. There were drawings of the two of them, of children and projections and diaries outlining years that Ariadne had spent with her projections of Arthur and Eames. Arthur frowned, reading an early entry from one of her diaries.
I know this isn't real. This is only in my mind, only a world the way I'd like it to be, fragments of the men I love. I know these children aren't real, they're too perfect and precious. But this is all I have, and I refuse to simply wait like some forgotten princess in an old movie. I refuse to be the damn damsel in distress that can't do anything on her own. This is my world, its contents mine. If this is all I have, it's going to be what I make of it. It's pure creation here, and I will create a life I can live with until I find a way out.
Arthur closed the diary and slipped it inside his jacket pocket. Just holding words she had written made him feel better.
Eames retained some of his feral features as he looked over the drawings. "Children," he murmured, touching the photographs on the walls. Two girls and three boys, all looking like a combination of the three of them. It was too uncomfortably perfect, and he could see the march of time inexorably on the walls of the house. The five children each married and had children of their own, and Eames sighed at the appearance of his aged self. "I look like my goddamned father," he growled, removing his hand from the photographs on the wall. It had always been a troubled relationship, and it certainly wouldn't be any better now that he was a werewolf. If anything, he might be even more inclined toward violence.
"Distinguished," Arthur commented mildly. "To be honest, I never thought you'd make it to that age."
"I suppose I figured we'd all be dead first. Or otherwise driven out of the business. There's a reason why dream share isn't a game for old men."
"They lack imagination, darling," Eames drawled. "Unlike our girl, here. Even unconscious and in limbo she manages to create an entire universe and still hold us in the palm of her hand."
"Speak for yourself," Arthur scoffed, though there was a faint amused glint in his eye.
The heart of the maze was empty, and Arthur was out of ideas. "Off the beaten track," Eames suggested, pointing to the blurry horizon visible from one of the windows. "She never conformed to expectation, after all. Why should her limbo?"
It made sense, so they left the maze and walked as far as they could away from the impossible city. The edges of the landscape blurred and shifted, becoming unformed matter and vaguely colored blobs. Still going forward, the blobs ultimately resolved into sand dunes. Tough bits of grass jutted out of the dunes here and there, the blue sky overhead warm and inviting. "Looks like the Bahamas," Arthur commented.
"Not precisely," Eames murmured, looking out over the endless expanse of sand. "I somehow doubt that the sand in the Bahamas resembles bleached bones." He pointed at the shape of the dunes, which looked more like exposed skulls. "Something happened down here. Maybe it coincided with the move from the ICU?"
"She would have known she was being moved," Arthur agreed. There was a sinking sensation in his gut, one he knew that Eames shared. They picked up the pace, moving in concert.
The vegetation became more regular and less spotty over time, and soon enough it seemed to be quite dense. Over one particularly high dune they could see the ocean. It moved in soft, soothing waves. "What is it about the sea?" Eames asked with a frown. "She described the one visit she had in limbo, but that seemed to be more Cobb's thing than hers."
"Didn't we joke that we should head to the beach for a vacation after this job?" Arthur asked, eyebrow arched.
"I can't remember now," Eames murmured with a sigh. He started picking his way down the side of the dune, slipping in several places.
"Not to mention, she might think she's supposed to have a beach of some kind in limbo." Arthur followed the path Eames set, though he went down the slope a little more carefully. Eames' reflexes might have been faster, but he was still getting scratched up and bruised in his descent. Arthur didn't care to follow in his example.
There was a distant figure along the beach, facing the water. Eames wound up shifting into wolf form and breaking out into a full on run to get to her. Arthur was a runner by nature and easily took off running across the smooth sand to join them. Eames reached her first, of course, though she looked at the wolf with a blank expression. She didn't recognize him in that form but didn't seem overly perturbed when he shifted into a human either. Being a dream, he suddenly reacquired his clothes as he shifted form. "Ariadne," Eames began in a pained voice, reaching for her.
"Oh." Her voice carried no inflection whatsoever. "Is that my name?"
Arthur caught up with them at that point, nearly crashing into the dumbstruck Eames. "Ariadne."
"I suppose that is my name," she replied, no recognition for Arthur either. She turned back toward the water, eyes distant as she contemplated the waves. The sea breeze tousled her short hair, which hung in damp waves around her face. "Something doesn't feel right."
"What does, then?" Arthur asked. Eames' hand hovered close to her arm, but there as a gap between them, as if he was afraid to touch her.
"I don't know. I'll know it when I hear it."
Eames made an inarticulate sound and finally grasped her arm. She startled and stared at him with wide eyes. "Darling, your name is Ariadne. I'm Eames, that's Arthur. There was a job..."
"I know those names," Ariadne murmured, looking between the two of them. "Those are familiar." She turned her sharp gaze on them both, weighing them as she used to weigh her sketches and models. It was odd to fall under that assessing gaze, to feel as though they were wanting in some way. "Don't tell me you screwed up the job," she said, looking at Eames. There wasn't any particular warmth in that expression, and it was impossible to tell how much she remembered of them.
"What do you remember?" Arthur asked, the diary suddenly feeling heavy in his pocket.
"What do you remember of us?" Eames asked.
"I don't," Ariadne told them. "I'm waiting."
"For what?" Eames asked, a thread of anguish in his tone.
For the barest of moments, there was uncertainty in Ariadne's features. Then they smoothed out again, and the doubt in her eyes was replaced by the smooth and impersonal gaze she had been giving them. "It doesn't matter."
"You're not the kind to wait for just anyone. You wouldn't wait for just anything," Eames told her, his hand tightening on her arm. She gave him a pointed stare, but he refused to let go or let his grip slacken. He could feel the desperation rise deep inside of his chest, and for a fleeting moment he almost thought that they wouldn't be able to get her back. She would lie in a hospital bed, forever unconscious and lost within the confines of her own mind. "You told us to go and get the job done," he said, leaning in close. "No job is worth this, Ariadne."
"So you finished it, then," she said, voice still devoid of emotion.
"Ariadne, we need you. We work in dreams, yes, but that's not what's important. We live in the real world, and none of this is worth losing that." Eames stared at her intently, willing her to believe him. "We had something important, the three of us. Maybe I should have defined it, I don't know. I do know that I need you. We need you. You are the only thing that stays true when everything else falls apart. You're the foundation of everything."
"Did you find a way out?" Arthur asked as Ariadne opened her mouth to speak. "You're a creator, Ariadne. You built all of this." There was the fragment of doubt in her eyes again, and Arthur pressed his advantage. He took hold of her other arm, aware that she was pinned between the two men. "This is your world, Ariadne. This is your mind. We're here to bring you back out with us."
Eames surged forward and kissed her on the mouth, despair and fury in his lips. Ariadne pulled back, startled, and he reached out with his other hand to pull her back into his kiss. "I won't let you go, I won't. Not when things work now, not when we need you. I need you. I won't leave you here, even if it means I drag you back to reality kicking and screaming. Even if I have to give up dream share to have you back. I will do whatever it takes, Ariadne. I promise you."
His thoughts were a chaotic swirl, every fragmented emotion evident on his face. Arthur's were more inscrutable, and he let his hand fall down to hers. He twined his fingers and curled them so that he could lightly scratch at her palm with his nails. He traced her love line; he had looked into palmistry in the past few days as a distraction and a way to connect with her. Arthur hoped it was enough to trigger memories of their touch. "You need to wake up," he said simply. The intensity was in his gaze, not in his voice. It was as mild as ever, deceptively so, and anyone that didn't know him well would have missed the quiet pain and loss in his eyes. "We need you, Ariadne."
The uncertainty in her gaze was back. "You never said this before," she said suddenly, looking at him. "I don't know how I know this, but you've never actually said this before."
"No," Eames agreed in a soft tone of voice. "Other things were happening, and then there was work, and it was easy to simply not say it. But that doesn't make it any less true, Ariadne."
Ariadne looked from Eames to Arthur with a troubled expression. "You've said something like that before." She looked back at Eames with that same troubled expression. "You always seem to be able to say the things that he can't."
"You know us," Eames said, pulling one of her hands to press it against his chest. Her hand rested there gently, just as she always used to do. His heart ached, and he had to resist the urge to pull her into his arms and bully her memory into submission. "I would do anything in the world to keep you safe by our side."
"I was waiting for a way out," Ariadne said abruptly, looking from the two men to the calm ocean. "I remember that now. I couldn't find a way out on my own, and I looked for years. So I built a life here. It was a good life and it was mine."
"It wasn't real," Eames murmured, closing his other hand around hers on his chest. "That wasn't really us that you were with. It wasn't really our children or grandchildren. We didn't grow old together yet." He paused, a painful lump in his throat as he remembered the pictures on the wall of her home in the center of the maze. "Is that what you want, Ariadne? A home? A family?"
Ariadne looked from the ocean to Eames' despairing expression. "I wanted what I had, but I couldn't get it here. I remember that much."
"Then come with us," Arthur said, sliding a hand down her back. His hand rested at the small of her back comfortably, and he leaned in to press a kiss to her temple. "Come back to the real world. It's all waiting for you."
It suddenly occurred to Eames that he hadn't planned a kick, and he looked at Arthur in concern. "How will we go back?"
Arthur looked at Ariadne. "You know the way, Ariadne. This is your world, after all. It wasn't that you were waiting for us to save you, it was that you forgot we had a life together in the waking world."
"Whatever you want, I'll do. As long as we're together."
"Then that's how we do it," Ariadne murmured, looking between the two of them. "I almost remember something, but I can't, really. I know that I trust you both. I know whatever happened, I trust you both with my life."
"Then let's go back," Arthur told her. "On your count."
Arm in arm in arm, the three of them walked into the water and woke up.