The moment the freezing water swept in and around her, Ariadne clamped her eyes shut and forced herself to not gasp at the frigid temperature. She held her breath and tried to let her body simply bob in the flow of water, the seatbelt that cut across her chest the only thing stopping her from floating up and out of the van's gaping windowpanes. There was no discernible noise over the sound of the water rushing in whorls around her ears, nothing to tell her when it was safe to move. So she waited, the ache in her chest growing progressively worse as her lungs longed to bring in new air.
A hand clamped around her elbow and shook her. Ariadne pried her eyes open – not too far just in case it was Fischer – and could make out Arthur's face floating inches from hers. He held up the black mouthpiece and gave her a pointed look. Grateful, she grabbed it and shoved it into her mouth. When she depressed the button on the side a rush of air swept and she sucked it all in greedily. Arthur flashed a questioning OK sign with his hand and she responded, letting him know she'd be fine. He jerked his head just slightly, gesturing for her to head out, and he took another deep breath from the oxygen tank concealed beneath the row of seats.
As she kicked off she saw Arthur move up to the next seat, where Cobb was bobbing against the seat restraint. She wanted to explain to him, tell Arthur to leave him behind, but the most she could manage in their situation was to pat his back as she swam passed him. Through the whirl of bubbles she could see Yusuf kicking a few metres to the side, and when she glanced back over her shoulder she could make out Arthur swimming up through the wake left behind by her feet.
She broke the surface with a gasp, drawing in an overcompensating breath as she trod water for a moment to get her bearings. Yusuf was off to her right, already striking out for the rocky ledge that supported the bridge. Just as she started after him she heard the loud inhale that signalled Arthur had surfaced. Her muscles were aching at the cold, but she managed to get herself up onto the steep gravel hill that led up to the rocks.
Turning around, she dropped down onto a level rock and struggled to catch her breath. Spluttering slightly, Arthur dragged himself up onto a flat rim of rock beside her and sat down. "What happened?" he asked breathlessly.
"Cobb stayed," she answered, mind still a bit disoriented from riding the kicks up through the levels. It had been a hurricane of places and sensations, being jolted from one body and world into the next in split-second gaps. Unconsciously, her hand touched her pocket, where she could feel the familiar shape of the golden bishop, but her wet jeans were too tight to get her hand in to it just yet.
She could almost feel the frustration and disappointment rolling off Arthur's usually stoic figure, revealing that he was more concerned about his partner than he generally let people believe. "With Mal?"
"No," she countered. "To find Saito." Metres away bubbles were disrupting the centre of the water ripples, signalling the place where the trashed van was dragging the bodies of Cobb and Saito toward the bottom of the river.
Arthur let out a heavy breath and his shoulders slumped slightly. "He'll be lost."
Ariadne didn't take her gaze off the water. "No, he'll be alright." She couldn't explain how she knew it, but she did. Cobb had confronted Mal, had finally faced up to what he'd been running from for years, and she knew that he had meant it. Somehow, someway, he would find his way back to them.
Behind them Yusuf let out a loud sigh and slumped back onto the rocks, stretching out wearily. "This is why I don't go into the field," he grumbled.
"So, what now?" Ariadne asked, looking between the two more experienced Dreamers.
Arthur grimaced tightly. "Now we wait."
"Wait?" she asked in confusion.
"Until the timer runs out," Yusuf chimed in, propping himself up on his elbows so he could meet her gaze. "We won't wake up until the machine stops."
"But that's a whole week down here," Ariadne said in horror. "What are we supposed to do?"
"Lay low," Arthur said. He stood up and looked around them, his eyes focused and calculating. He was back in Point Man mode. "Find a safe place to hide out until we can get out of here."
"What about the Projections? And Fischer's security?" Ariadne asked, scrambling up to her feet and wrapping her arms around herself tightly in a vain attempt to retain what little body heat she had left. "They'll kill us and we'll wind up back down there with Cobb."
Arthur shook his head, still observing their surroundings methodically. "They're just out to protect Fischer. So long as we leave him alone and don't tamper with the Dream, they won't have much reason to bother us."
"Maybe you," Yusuf said and peeled off his jacket, wringing water from the thick fabric. "I'm the Dreamer."
"All the more reason to find a safe place to hide," Arthur pointed out, his lips twisting smugly as he arched an eyebrow. "We should start moving. Fischer's security is going to come down looking for him and we probably shouldn't be here when they do." He offered a hand down to Ariadne and she hesitated for a second, taking in his almost mischievous grin, before letting him pull her to her feet.
"Where do we go?" Yusuf asked, awkwardly pulling his rumpled jacket back on.
"You two know the city," Arthur said. "We need a place away from where Fischer will likely be. Somewhere unobtrusive where we can hide out a couple days without drawing too much attention."
"There are more warehouses on the other edge of the city," Ariadne said.
"They can't be near where we were," Arthur said, shaking his head. "Security might still be watching that place just in case we come back."
Ariadne snorted. "This city is a circle; everything is near everything." He gave her a curious look and she elaborated, "It's built like the stairs you showed me. If you just keep following this bridge road long enough, you'll wind up right back here. The river basically does the same thing."
Arthur narrowed his eyes thoughtfully and nodded. "Did you add anything secret to the design?" he asked. "Hidden rooms or tunnels we can use to travel through the city without being seen?"
Yusuf cast a short glance at Ariadne before answering. "The metro system," he said. "We knew Fischer would never go onto a train, so the tunnel system runs under the city but has no real trains in it."
"That'll work," Arthur agreed. "It'll get us across town before Fischer's security has too much time to set up a perimeter to catch us. Let's go."
It was rough going, getting across the shallow boulders that littered the riverbank, but that was nothing compared to the trial they met when they got out from beneath the bridge's shelter. It was still pouring rain and the heavy droplets got in Ariadne's eyes as they scaled the slope back up to the roadway. Arthur had to help pull her up over the low wall onto the street, and Yusuf dragged himself up behind her, panting and muttering mutinously.
"Which way?" Arthur asked and Yusuf squinted around thoughtfully for a second before pointing. "Alright, we should split up now," he said. "Together we're going to attract more attention. Go on ahead, get yourself somewhere safe, and stay low. And whatever you do, don't change anything or the Projections will be all over you."
"Got it. Take care of yourselves," Yusuf said and he inclined his head to them both before turning and jogging up the road, his arm over his head to shield his eyes.
"You're with me," Arthur said to Ariadne. "I need someone who knows how to get around this place." Ariadne opened her mouth to argue, because she had a feeling it was so much more than just a need for directions, and he smiled, seeming to catch her questioning look. "And you're good at getting into trouble. I want to keep an eye on you so you don't get yourself killed."
Arthur shrugged his jacket off and draped it over her shoulders before she could object, and then started walking the same direction Yusuf had gone. Ariadne jogged to catch up with his long-legged strides. "What about Eames? Will he still be in danger? He's with Fischer right now."
"Fischer sees him as Browning for now," Arthur replied, half-shouting over the rain pounding on the pavement. "He won't be seen as a threat to Fischer; he'll be fine." He smirked and added, "Besides, he's a big boy. He can take care of himself."
Ariadne rolled her eyes at the constant rivalry between the Point Man and the Forger, but she saved her questions for later. Right now she was having a hard enough time keeping up with the much taller man. Her curiosity would have to wait until they were settled somewhere safer. She pulled his jacket on properly, despite the fact that the sleeves fell down well over her hands, and hurried to fall into step with him.
They had been moving for what felt like a half hour – although she couldn't be sure because her sense of time was so skewed in the Dreamscape – when they finally reached the subway entrance. Everyone else seemed to walking passed it, but Arthur walked purposefully down the stairs with Ariadne a half-step behind him. Once they hit the bottom of the stairs Arthur swiped a hand over his hair, flicking the water from his hand to the floor. "At least we're out of the rain for a bit," he commented, looking around. There were a couple people milling around the station, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to the empty tunnel. Yusuf was nowhere to be seen.
"Where do these tunnels go?" Arthur asked under his breath, taking a step closer to her. Ariadne shivered slightly at the intimacy as he hovered against her side, his chest touching her shoulder, and he lifted a hand and set it on her upper arm in a gentle touch. To anyone looking, they would appear to be a young couple stealing a brief second of closeness - nothing worth any attention.
"Almost everywhere," Ariadne answered, embarrassed to hear her voice quiver slightly. She blamed the cold. "They run in a grid under the main part of the city, with stations every couple blocks." Arthur nodded and his breath ghosted across her forehead as his eyes peering over the top of her head to check the area around the tunnel, and then he took a step back from her. Before she could catch her breath, he held out a hand toward her, grinning. This time she accepted it without hesitation, threading her fingers through his and letting him lead her across the station.
They hovered near the wall at the edge of the tunnel, standing close together and acting casual, until Arthur was sure that no one was watching them. He hopped down onto the rails and then immediately turned and helped her down after him. Taking her hand once again, he pulled her into the safety of the tunnel and out of sight from any curious Projections on the platform.
"Lead the way," he said, gesturing down the tunnel ahead of them. "You're the Mistress of the Labyrinth, after all."
Ariadne smiled at the teasing. "You know the myths then?" she asked interestedly. "About Ariadne and the Labyrinth?"
"You mean about the daughter of Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus find his way through the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur?" Arthur chuckled at her surprised look. "I'm the Point Man," he reminded her. "It's my job to know everything."
Ariadne led him through the tunnels, trying to keep track of where in the city they were as they walked. She steered them further into the city, as far away from Fischer's office building as she could manage, just in case, and then right before the next station they reached she stopped. "We're not going to get any further from Fischer without going back to the warehouse district."
"Right, we go up to the street from here," Arthur said, staying close to the wall so the Projections wouldn't see them before they climbed up. "We'll head into the first place we can find where we won't attract attention. A bar or a hotel. Got it?" When Ariadne nodded he crept over to the station platform and then threaded his fingers together, signalling that he was going to lift her up. She wedged her foot into his grip and he shoved, pushing her up so she could crawl onto the platform.
By the time she'd straightened up and turned around, he had jumped and was hauling himself after her. He stood up and dusted off his pants before looking around. Two of the Projections on the platform were watching them apprehensively, one of them staring over the top of his newspaper with narrowed eyes. Ariadne instinctively stepped closer to him, wrapping her hand around his upper arm securely. If they were going to have to make a run for it, she didn't want to get separated.
Arthur forced on a jovial smirk and started walking, tugging her along with him, and he strode resolutely across the platform to the stairs. Ariadne groaned as the rain hit them, chilling her already frozen body before they'd even gotten to the top of the steps. They paused on the sidewalk while Arthur hastily took in the buildings on their street, and then he pulled her along with him as he jogged into a large boutique.
"Thought we could use a change of clothes," he whispered at her inquiring look as they slipped inside the warm building. "I don't know about you but I'm not keen on freezing."
Ariadne snorted. "Not after the avalanche down in the third level," she chimed in and was rewarded with a small smirk.
"Go get yourself something dry and meet me over there by the registers," he directed and then walked off to the men's department. Ariadne span around until she found the women's clothes and headed immediately for it. It wasn't difficult to find something; she had a fairly distinctive style that she enjoyed. She carted the new pair of jeans and blouse to where Arthur was already waiting by the cashier.
"Damn airline lost all our luggage," he was saying to the cashier as she walked up. "And then we get here and it's pouring rain. Told her we should've gone to Cancun instead."
"And if we'd gone to Mexico you'd have just complained about getting sand in your shoes," Ariadne chipped in as she set the clothes on the counter, instantly picking up on the character he was playing. She didn't miss the small smile that flashed over his face at her comment.
He pulled a credit card from his wallet and paid for their clothes, and then looked up at the cashier as he bagged up their clothes. "Where's the nearest hotel?" he asked. "I want out of this rain."
"There's a Marriott just across the street, about two buildings north," the cashier answered as he handed the sack of clothes across the counter to Ariadne. Arthur thanked him and then let Ariadne take his arm as they headed for the door. He paused beneath the awning in front of the building and then pulled his jacket off of her, holding it over their heads for protection.
"Ready to make a run for it?" he asked, gesturing at the Marriott hotel catty-corner from where they stood. Ariadne held the shopping bag close to her chest, stepped closer to him beneath the shelter of his jacket, and then nodded. Arthur took off running, weaving through the cars on the road, and Ariadne clung to his side to keep up with him until they finally reached the hotel.
She hovered anxiously in the background, watching the Projections in the lobby suspiciously in case any of them started to take particular notice of them. Although none of them seemed to paying any special notice of them beyond what would traditionally be granted to a pair of dripping wet people in the lobby of a nice hotel, she couldn't bring herself to relax until Arthur was shutting them inside of a posh but compact seventh-floor suite.
"We'll be all right here, for a couple days at least," Arthur said as he surveyed the room mechanically, his dark eyes narrowed to pick up on any hidden detail or nuance that might betray trouble. "You should get changed before you get sick," he added when his eyes landed on her shivering figure.
"Can you even get sick in a dream?" Ariadne asked, her head cocking to the side questioningly.
Arthur's lips quirked as he took the bag from her hand and withdrew the clothes he'd bought for himself. "Do you really want to find out?" he asked in return, one eyebrow curving upwards challengingly.
For a minute Ariadne thought about pursuing that line of thought, just to rise to the challenge he was obviously implying, but then she thought better of it. Competitive side or not, she wasn't looking forward to spending a week in this place, bedridden with pneumonia. So she took the bag and slipped into the adjoining bathroom – which was almost as large as the main room of her flat in reality – and went through the laborious task of stripping off her soaked clothes. After pulling on a pair of dry skinny jeans and a camisole-cardigan combo, (lamenting that she hadn't had an opportunity to get her hands on some dry underclothes) she was about to deposit the bag in the trash when she noticed something else folded on the bottom of the sack. Curious, she picked it up and found herself holding a silk scarf; navy blue and decorated with golden roses on the border. She hadn't grabbed it herself, so there was only one way it could've gotten into the bag. Smiling, she tied it around her neck.
She walked out into the main room to find Arthur standing near the window, rolling up the sleeves of the pinstriped dress shirt he had just put on. It was tucked into a pair of perfectly pressed jeans and the top two buttons were still undone. "Nice view," he commented, pointing at the window before moving his attention to rolling up the left sleeve. "You build a nice city."
"It would've been nicer if we could actually go out and explore it," she replied, not sure how to take the compliment. The Point Man wasn't one for handing out compliments willy-nilly, and the fact that he'd given her one threw her off her guard.
Arthur grinned, his fingers flicking from the sleeve bunched at his elbow to the buttons at his sternum. "Next time we won't let Yusuf near the champagne," he joked playfully. He gathered his wet clothes - apart from his socks and shoes, which were resting on the floor heating vent - and carried them into the bathroom, and then came back out and took a seat on the luxurious settee.
Ariadne hesitated for a minute before joining him on the sofa, almost sighing as she sank into the cloud-soft cushions. "So, a week, right?"
"Close to," Arthur responded. "Ten hours flight time is two hundred in Dream Time. That comes out to just a bit over eight days. We've been here for–" he glanced at his watch, "– almost seven hours now."
"That's all?" Ariadne asked in alarm.
"Feels longer when you've been jumping through levels, doesn't it?" he said.
"But that means we've still got eight full days left," she protested. "What are we supposed to do down here for eight days?"
Arthur's smile was equal parts charming and mischievous as he glanced sideways at her. "Well first off, how about we enjoy a world with excellent room service and no credit scores," he suggested, pulling out his wallet again. "And then we'll take things from there." She returned his smile as he leaned over and grabbed the phone on the end table.
That night she ate like a queen. They ate their way through several dishes of food that Ariadne would never have been able to afford in the real world. Sure, she had lived in Paris for years but she was also a grad student and barely making ends meet, even with her scholarships. In reality she ate cheap, easily assembled meals in between homework and study groups. Tonight, she and Arthur were splitting pâté and caviare, washing it all down with the sweetest red wine she'd ever tasted.
"You eat like this a lot, don't you?" Ariadne asked, looking across at Arthur as he spread the pâté with a practised hand.
"Not as much as I'd like," he answered. "I spend a lot more time hiding out and eating at cheap diners than I'd willingly admit to. Side-effect of the job," he added at her inquisitive look. "But when I can, I liked to indulge a little. Eating is something I've got to do anyway, so I may as well enjoy it, right?"
Ariadne finished eating in silence, pondering what he'd told her. She was starting to realise that, even with as friendly as they'd gotten since starting on the job together, there still wasn't much that she knew about Arthur. Eight days... She smiled into her wine glass. They had eight more days down here and she was determined that by the end of it she would've figured out this strange man.
"We should get some rest," Arthur said when she'd polished off the rest of her glass.
"Can we do that?" she asked apprehensively. "Can we sleep in a dream? It won't drop us a level, will it?"
"You don't actually sleep," he explained to her, carrying the service tray over and setting it outside of the suite's door. He locked the door securely behind him before coming back over to her. "It's more of – you know that strange halfway point, when you're starting to fall asleep but you're still aware of the world around you?" Ariadne nodded in understanding. "It's like that. You don't really sleep, but it will help the time pass a little faster. Also it's easier on your mind. We have biological habits; eating, moving, sleeping. Resting for a couple hours, even if it's not real, will help keep your mind on track. It'll make it easier to readjust up top."
She nodded, drinking in the information and trying to process. She still wasn't quite sure she understood it all, but she got the basic concept. She stood and walked into the bedroom, pausing in surprise just inside of the door. The room was enormous and lavishly beautiful, everything perfectly coordinated all the way down to the all-too-inviting king size mattress in the middle of the room. "Get some rest," Arthur said from the doorway. "I'll be on the sofa if you need me." She was sure he didn't mean for her to notice, but she caught his hand drifting to the back of his belt, where the utilitarian handgun was hidden.
"Goodnight," she chimed in as he turned to walk out of the room.
Arthur stopped and looked back, a soft smile on his lips. "Goodnight, Ariadne," he responded, and then carefully pulled the door closed behind him. He didn't shut it all the way, leaving it the slightest fraction open so that a beam of light shot across the bedroom. Not sure whether to be grateful or annoyed at the obvious sign of protectiveness, she smiled and crossed to the plush bed.
Stripping down to the camisole and her underwear, she climbed beneath the covers – some of the softest silk she'd ever felt in her life – and lay staring up at the dart of light that was shining across the ceiling. Her mind was reeling at the idea of spending an entire week trapped inside of this dream world, but if the rest of it went the way this evening had, maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
As she heard shuffling noises from the next room she thought, at the least, she wasn't here alone. She had Arthur.