Cobb slowly opened his eyes, then blinked, disoriented, as the dim yet grand library wavered into a blindingly bright desert before steadying back into the library. And that was wrong because Ariadne had designed 14 different versions of the three levels of dreams they were using and, despite having only seen them after entering the dreaming, he knew none of them were deserts.
A throat quietly clearing caused him to jerk in his chair and he realized that, not only was the mark sitting calmly across from him, one pointy stiletto-clad foot swinging lazily, but he was handcuffed to the chair. The room wavered to the scorching desert and back again and the mark released a quiet, put-upon sigh.
“If you don’t stop that, I won’t be able to hold your dreamscape and she’ll kill you,” she said pleasantly enough. “I just want to talk to you.”
He was about to ask who would kill him when the room wavered, she wavered, and he was in the desert with a woman that was ancient and ageless and raging. He drew a breath to yell when her handcrafted knife arced in the air and started to come down on his hammering heart when he was back in the library, cheek stinging, his tiny blonde mark/captor/savior standing over him, hands curled into loose fists.
“She will kill you,” she said, scowling, pretty mouth puckering into a pout.
Cobb felt a moment of panic because she had him tied to a chair, dreams weren’t supposed to behave this way, and she knew who that…person was. “Why?” Not the most debonair way to ask but he was mildly discombobulated, so sue him.
The mark/cap…Summers, Buffy Summers. Summers rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, please. Like you’ve never wandered into someone’s dreams and found that they had defenses in place.”
Cobb’s jaw dropped, then snapped shut. “Commando teams! Rioters! Not…”
“African women dressed in rags and mud paint?” she asked wryly before shrugging. “She’s kind of…a natural defense system. I didn’t exactly get to choose what she was wearing.”
Cobb’s eyes tried to pop from his head, the world wavered and he quickly focused on her face as she swiftly lifted her fist again. “People don’t have those kind of natural defenses. Not in dreams.”
It came out a little condescending and she gave him this look that made the short hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.
“They really didn’t prepare you at all, did they?” she asked, idly resuming her seat, hand smoothing out the puckers in the cloth at her thigh. He pulled his eyes back to her face to find her smirking just a little, danger shining through her amusement when he looked at her eyes. “These clients of yours.”
Dread twisted its way through his belly and he swallowed, tugging lightly on the handcuffs. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She snorted daintily, glancing around the large room they were in. Despite her youth and expensive attire, she looked thoroughly at home amongst the stacks. “And I doubt they wanted you to retrieve anything because I don’t know anything that you couldn’t have gotten from an easier target.” She finally looked at him and she no longer seemed so terribly young. There was weight, age, wisdom to her gaze that a woman in her late twenties just wouldn’t have. For a second, it was like looking into Mal’s eyes after they’d come back. Like seeing someone that had lived more than one lifetime trapped in a young person’s body. “So if you’re not extracting something, that means you’re…incepting? Is that the right term? You’re trying to plant an idea. Inception.”
He swallowed roughly and managed, “Inception isn’t possible. Can’t be done.”
Summers smiled, looking away from him briefly as though to hide her mirth. “Sir, I’ve seen the impossible done too many times to believe that anything is really impossible. And you wouldn’t have had to go this deep for a simple extraction. So. Since I’m pretty sure I know the who, the question becomes what do they want you to plant? And what are they holding over you to get you to do what they want?”
The room shimmied, one edge disappearing into the ocean and a little girl’s laugh drifted to them over the crashing of the surf. She closed her eyes as though pained and Dom panicked, jerking on his restraints. She couldn’t know. He couldn’t fail. He’d already messed up so many things. He couldn’t fail at this.
“Your daughter,” she said quietly and opened sad eyes. “They took your daughter.”
“They can cure her,” he burst out, straining forward in his chair. “They’ll cure her and they’ll give her back if I just do this one thing.”
Her sad hazel eyes were full of understanding but she shook her head. “The Council never gives back girls when they take them. And I’m betting they don’t have a real cure.”
“I saw it work,” he said, voice rising. She spoke about the Council like she knew them personally, like they were old acquaintances when they’d only recently become his boogey men.
“There’s a treatment,” she said as she studied his face. “It stops the dreams, makes the girls more normal, weaker. But it doesn’t last. They build up an immunity. And until that happens, they’re just powerless. What draws the darkness to them is still there, they just don’t have anything to fight it with.”
“I saw it work,” he whispered, desolate, collapsing back into his chair.
She nodded. “So have I. And I’ve seen what happens when it stops working and when it doesn’t stop in time. Neither are peaceful options. Your daughter has gifts. Speed, strength, senses you can’t imagine. And dreams.”
“How do you know all that?” Cobb demanded, feeling the steel seep back into his spine. If the bastards had been lying, if there was no cure, then this woman was his best shot at helping his daughter.
“Because I was that girl. I’ve been that girl since I was fifteen,” she said softly, shrugging, with her too old eyes and a twisted smile. “Tell me what they want. Tell me and I’ll get your daughter back for you. I’ll train her to the best of my abilities to survive.”
Cobb swept his gaze over her face before taking a leap of faith. “They want you to retire. For real retire.”
She studied him just as intently before laughing suddenly, turning her face away. The laughter cracked down the middle and she stopped as abruptly as she’d begun. “Do you know how girls like me, like your daughter, retire for real?” She looked at him, eyes hard as diamonds, and he silently shook his head. He was beginning to think he’d rather just let her inner warrior kill him than be trapped in a room with her. She was both fragile and frightening. “We die.”
He blinked. He had to have heard her wrong. But she just kept looking at him with hard, jaded eyes and sorrow swept through him. He’d have accidentally killed her, like he had Mal. Ideas that seemed so innocent could warp and become something terrible.
“I…,” he shook his head, at a loss for words.
“I know,” she nodded, standing. “You didn’t know. You couldn’t know. Now. What’s your name?”
“Dominick Cobb,” he said, unwilling to lie. He could have killed her.
She nodded, pulled a stake from behind her back, and stabbed him.
He woke up in the plush recliner beside the bed she was stretched out on, his team shouting, startled. Buffy Summers jackknifed upwards, eyes flying open, and yanking the needle from her arm. She smacked Yusuf away from her, pulling a dagger as long as her arm from somewhere on her person and yanking Cobb in front of her, pulling him until they were where she wanted them to be.
“I’ll find your daughter. I’ll bring her back to you,” she whispered into his neck even as her blade bit into skin.
Then she twisted and flung herself at the window, shattering glass and plummeting two stories to the ground. It was Dom’s nightmare, only this time it wasn’t Mal splattered on the ground. It was Buffy Summers landing lightly and sprinting away into the night.
“What the buggering hell was that?” Eames demanded just a bit shrilly.
“Buffy Summers,” Cobb said because he couldn’t figure out any other way to describe hope personified.