Who: Ariadne, Arthur, Chris, and Cobb What: The job introduced back then. Where:Some girl's head. When: November. Warnings/Rating: Maybe... PG13.
They were all supposed to meet at Amanda's home before they headed over to the hospital to do their job. It was a goddamn inopportune time for Eames to go, but they couldn't wait any longer, they needed to go in and go in now. There wasn't time to find a new forger and as much as Cobb wanted to have one with them, there simply wasn't time. Dressed comfortably in a suit, no tie, the first two buttons undone, he stepped into Amanda's bedroom one last time.
Though Ariadne had reappeared, he was still the one designing this. She didn't have the experience in a catatonic mind and the more that he had watched the movies and shows that Amanda enjoyed, the more sure he was that he needed to be the dreamer. Ariadne was good, she had talent, but experience was needed more in a situation like this.
Setting the PASIV case down on the carpeted floor, he took one more look around, letting the details, the feel of the place sink into his mind. Dreams were all about the feel and if he wanted Amanda to feel safe, he had to match the feel. Make her safe in order to bring her out of whatever dark corner she'd pinned herself up in.
Running his hands over her comforter, the pillow, he memorized the tiny details before stepping back and picking up the case again. Time to go. Taking a deep breath, he opened the bedroom door and walked downstairs to find out who else had arrived while he was upstairs.
Arthur was standing in the middle of the Kearns’ living room. He could not have been more out of place in their soft, suburban gathering space; in his dark suit with his soft features scraped raw, he looked like a razor blade on velvet. The carpet probably hadn’t ever seen Italian leather worth that much, and though he was not carrying, Arthur stood like a loaded weapon. He looked up when Cobb descended onto the main floor, dropping his arms from the defensive cross over his chest. His expression was set, but it always was. Arthur would have liked a known entity like Eames on this job, but the fact remained he had done many jobs with Cobb and the vast majority of them with people he didn’t know half so well.
The living room made him think of the half sister he refused to visit, and so his voice was slightly more on edge than it really needed to be. “We’re sure it’s safe here while we’re asleep?” They were, generally--Arthur was the one that had done all the recon, after all, but he had an itch and he wasn’t sure if it was because he was nervous or because there was actually a laser sight on the back of his head. Metaphorically. He glanced across the room.
Ariadne had arrived shortly after Arthur, slipping in while Cobb was upstairs. It hadn’t been her intention to be late, but with everything going on in Las Vegas, Charlie hadn’t been all that keen about giving up time for some stupid, fictional job. With a promise to not cross again for at least a week, Ariadne had secured the necessary time and it was a joy to see Arthur again. She greeted him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, all friendly of course, and waited for the rest of the team to arrive. Cobb came down the stairs next and although she would have greeted him with a hug and kiss as well, she thought it best to let him come to her if he wanted more of a greeting than a simple, “Hey.”
Arthur asked a question that she didn’t know the answer to, so she let Cobb handle that as she walked around the Kearns’ living room. It all felt so new and surreal, like maybe this was all just another dream? But her bishop piece assured her that it wasn’t and she was hesitant to be asking any more questions about their current situation because it seemed she’d been through it all already. Odd. Very, very odd. But no less odd than sharing dreams, she thought to herself. Regardless, she hoped to prove helpful during the job and that it might lead to further jobs.
New to the situation but used to adapting on the fly, Chris had made it to the designated location on time (though it irked him a little when he walked in the door and realized he was the last one there). He was out of place in his own way - closer to casual, but the eternal clinging feel of the military was stuck to him and the way he glanced around the living room. He was carrying, the weapon under his jacket a comfortable weight at his side.
Not that it would do much good if they were attacked while unconscious, as Arthur’s question suggested. There wasn’t much he could do about that but hope they’d get lucky.
He glanced at Ariadne, wondering if her disappearance and reappearance was going to cause a problem, but if Cobb had her here, then he wasn’t about to ask any questions. After all, if it came down to fighting something, that was the whole reason he was here. He’d make sure they got through this without any casualties or interruptions. He knew what he was doing.
Chris didn’t say anything, though; he stood just inside the living room, watching Cobb, trying to focus on the mission ahead and not the details of why, exactly, they had to be on this mission at all.
If it felt odd to not have Eames amongst them, Cobb didn't show it. This was what they had. He nodded shortly to Arthur. Was it safe here? As safe as any place was going to get, no matter how out of place all of them looked: Arthur in his suit, Chris with the military clinging to him like a second skin. Of all of them, Ariadne looked like she could have belonged here the most, but the house said old money and she read as a college student. He'd done the background on the father to make sure of it and there was nothing, nothing to indicate that this was going to be a problem.
The largest problem was the subject. There were too many options, too many ways this could go for him to feel completely at ease. Nodding to all of them, he only uttered a low sound that could have been a greeting in response to Ariadne's 'Hey'.
"Ready? If you want to check anything, do it now." Pee breaks, little details, there wasn't going to be a chance for them once they were in. Turning down the hallway, Cobb headed for the study in the back of the house, knowing that when they were ready, they'd follow. It was large, had plenty of chairs, and most importantly, it also held Amanda Kearns. She'd been moved back home for this, out of the hospital where there were too many eyes. There was nothing more medicine could do for her but wait, and she had a nurse here for anything else.
As soon as he entered the room, the nurse turned the pumps and monitors on silent so the noise wouldn't bring them out of the dream. The case went on top of a small table at the base of the girl's bed and after entering the code to open it up, Cobb began to get the cords and tubing set up.
Arthur walked into the room next. He stopped about six inches inside to look at the girl in the bed. She looked dead. Arthur had a trust and a stipulation in his will that if he was comatose they were to pull the plug within six hours. In his job, it was more likely that he was stuck in some horrific dream or endless limbo, and nobody came out of those in one piece except by miracle. He’d rather be dead. He wondered if this girl, too, would prefer to be dead. He almost said something about it but then the nurse passed him on her way out and Arthur remembered there were other people in the house besides them.
He moved the rest of the way inside. He took off his jacket, absently enjoying the silk sliding off the shoulders of his close-woven shirt, and set it aside on one of the knick-knack laden chairs. He started working on his left cufflink. “I assume we just keep going until we find her, or make a positive ID on the guy?” Or until we call it quits and give up.
Ariadne hadn’t been worried about the job until she followed the others into the back room where the girl was. Where Arthur stopped, she brushed passed and walked right over to the girl, sitting down on the bed next to her and really looking at Amanda. Could this happen to them? Maybe not this time, but on a job? What would their coma look like even if it was natural? What would this coma look like in Amanda’s mind? She had a lot of questions and she wondered if the previous version of herself had asked them. She wasn’t going to ask now though. Instead, Ariadne pushed some hair back behind the girl’s ear and then got up to help Cobb set up the PASIV.
Seeing the girl on the bed only strengthened Chris’ resolve, no matter how many doubts he might have had. Seeing her reminded him that all those years ago, something terrible - something else terrible - might have happened when he disappeared and his sister set off after him. He couldn’t imagine what was in her mind, what might be waiting for them when they went in, but there was no way he’d back down now. He’d faced down godawful things before.
He could only hope that whatever was in there, he’d already seen worse.
Chris sat down on one of the chairs and watched the setup while going through any emergency or backup scenarios that might be possible (or necessary). Generally he took Murphy’s Law as a constant - never hurt to be prepared.
Cobb didn't look at the girl on the bed at all. They all had people they saw when they looked at her and Cobb knew he would see Philippa there, an older version of her with friends her own age, already able to drive and beginning to plan for college. Maybe she would have a boyfriend by the time she was Amanda's age, definitely have had her first crush -- Cobb looked at her only long enough to insert the needle into the vein at her wrist.
There hadn't been an option for him in taking this job, even before he heard about the money attached to it. "That's the plan," he said to Arthur as he handed over a fresh tube and needle. Everyone got one and he left them to find whatever comfortable place they could in the room. There was a chaise pushed up against the wall and a few recliners scattered around that were large enough (and comfortable) enough for them to use.
Unlike the last time, this particular batch of Somnacin would allow them to wake up instead of being plunged into Limbo -- not that Cobb told them that. He didn't want them to know that he fully believed at least one, if not all of them would die and they'd have to come back in. Yet, his one and only glance to Amanda, lying pale and still in the bed told him that this was the right thing to do and Dom had very few chances to ever do the right thing.
Settling down in a recliner so that the first thing he saw when he woke was not the girl, but Arthur, he put in his own IV as the nurse came back in the room. A quick nod, and she depressed the infusion trigger as he closed his eyes.
And opened them in the foyer of Amanda's childhood home. It felt lived in, warm, a place of childhood memories, but it was absolutely silent inside the house. "Upstairs first," Dom said quietly.
Arthur had gone to sleep facing the door with his back to a wall, and he stood that way now, angled slightly so the hall mirror presented him with a look at the other doors that fed into it. He let Chris take the rear and, as was the nature of his profession, he took point. He considered for a moment but in the end he didn’t take out a gun. If they ran into projections or the girl herself, he didn’t want to scare her, and that was obvious as he was dressed in a suit that more closely resembled a college professor’s than it did a fashion designer’s model. The hair was still slicked back thickly away from his face, and his expression was guarded instead of kind, but nobody asked Arthur to talk people down. He wasn’t good at it. He was good at taking heat and shooting back where required.
At Dom’s instruction Arthur moved forward, not fast or slow, just steady. The stairs creaked underfoot and he craned his head to see what was waiting for them at the top of the stair. He thought he saw a person, maybe a small person, maybe the girl, but she (if it was a she) ran off before he could pursue. The patter of feet disappeared into more creaks of the house around them, and without warning the dappled sunlight shining through the windows tamped down into the gray of late evening. Arthur looked through the unexpected gloom to either side, watching for movement. “Not good...” he muttered.
Maybe she should have been worried, but she wasn’t. Ariadne trusted Cobb and Arthur with her life and Chris, though new, seemed nice enough. She knew he wouldn’t have been invited along if it wasn’t necessary, so she offered to help him get the needle in place before taking a smaller chaise lounge and allowing herself to get pulled under. Already, it felt a little different, but maybe that was because they were only one layer deep instead of much further down like they had been inside Fischer’s mind. Where Arthur looked like a college professor, Ariadne looked like a student dressed down and looking on the younger side. Hopefully, they’d be able to use that to their advantage if necessary.
It wasn’t the first time she’d been in a dream architected by Cobb but it was the first in a while and she took a moment to admire the craftsmanship. He was brilliant at what he did, right down to the feel around the room. Ariadne was more than a little excited to see what was in store for them upstairs so she followed Arthur, letting Cobb go ahead so that she was in the back with Chris. “What’s not good?” she asked in reply to Arthur’s mutter, but then she saw the change in weather outside and shot a worried, questioning glance at Cobb. Had he lied about Mal? Was there something else that they were risking with him? Or was it Amanda? Some of the excitement faded away as she settled down and became more aware of her surroundings. Something creaked and she immediately turned her head to the wall next to them, certain the creak came from the other side of it.
The house looked as normal and quaint as any other, but Chris didn’t let his guard down just for that. He glanced around, marked the locations of doors and windows in his mind - any potential exits if things got nasty in a hurry - and followed the group as they carefully moved up the stairs. Unlike the rest he wasn’t dressed as casually as before. It wasn’t an out and out military uniform, but it was close - no kevlar but medium greens, even if there was nothing to hide in around here. And he was visibly armed, even if it was only a handgun (for now).
Probably for the best that he took the back. The sudden darkening of the world outside put him on edge, and his hand instinctively went for his weapon. He looked behind them and saw only the gloom of the shadows starting to hide every dark corner and hallway - which was both good (nothing there) and bad (yet, and now it would be hidden).
"That's not," Cobb answered very quietly as the house continued to darken and he glanced back at Ariadne. There was only the slightest of pauses, just enough for him to realize that the eyes of the dolls on the staircase landing were following them. "She's here," he confirmed just as quietly. Of course she was, she had been hooked up to the PASIV the same as they had, but he meant it more to indicate that she was here with them. Watching.
Behind the dolls, the huge window continued to darken as fog rolled in. He turned around just as quickly and followed Arthur into the hallway. "Far left at the end." That was Amanda's bedroom in the original house. Best to start there, or so he thought until they started walking down the hallway and every door bowed out towards them, snarls and growls coming from behind the wood. They pressed and rattled, like something was throwing itself at the doors from the other side, the sounds only becoming more enraged as Cobb fought to right the setting of a dream turned nightmare. "Go!" A window downstairs shattered.
Arthur really wanted to take out a gun, but it wasn’t that kind of job. He was as sure the girl was “here” as Cobb was, and when the dolls stared at him he stared back, ignoring the prickle on the back of his spine. Arthur was a realist. He had been even when he was too small to know what a realist was. He’d stacked up army men and read about battles like Guadalcanal, Waterloo, and Mons. Horror movies had scared him, but not because the monsters didn’t have faces. Arthur liked faceless enemies, they made it easier to act. No, it was the odds that Arthur didn’t like, because they didn’t make sense. Five teenagers against one crazed man? How is it that they didn’t win?
Well, now he got it. The fear crept up into his veins and made it hard to think. One crazed man was enough to set that fear going and if he didn’t think, if he wasn’t careful, he’d lose just as fast as the stupid teenagers. Arthur darted down the hallway as ordered, dodging the things trying to get out of the angry doors, and yanked open the bedroom door, standing back to catch the sight--and just in time, too, because a kitchen knife the size of a machete scythed through the air right where he’d been. He darted around, drawing because he didn’t think about it, but when he pointed the gun through the bedroom door there wasn’t anyone there, holding a knife or otherwise. He was glaring at the empty space, but he jerked his head at the others to tell them to proceed into the room. His heart was trying to jump out of his ribs.
She would’ve been more aware of things had she been the dreamer but as soon as things started to go pear shaped, she was grateful that Cobb was the architect and not her. The hallway seemed to narrow to her as the doors bowed out and the creepy sounds filled the air. Panic was right there on the surface but Ariadne fought it back, knowing that it wouldn’t help things here. She needed to be sharp for her team and Cobb needed to get this place under control. Immediately. Ariadne darted forward at his command, half startled by the window shattering which left her just behind Arthur. When they passed Cobb, she brushed her hand against his deliberately, a naive attempt to ground him and to help him get control of the dream turned nightmare.
Arthur darted ahead of her, leaving her trying to catch up. Where he dodged the kitchen knife, she didn’t quite make it out of the way. The blade sliced through the thin sleeve of her shirt, cutting into her flesh like it was warm butter and leaving behind a gash that just barely wouldn’t need stitches. It didn’t hurt until the knife was buried in the wall behind her, the stinging bringing tears to her eyes. Jesus. “Arthur!” She wanted to know what was behind that door but her progress toward him was slow as she tried to carefully avoid any further traps in the nightmare. Ariadne was so focused on getting to Arthur and avoiding any other flying objects that she didn’t even notice the tar seeping out from beneath the door just next to her until her shoes were bogged down by the hot, sticky black mess. It was so hot that it started to melt the soles of her shoes and a half second later, she started to panic in that deer-in-the-headlights kind of way.
The darkness crept in and Chris’ grip on his handgun was more than slight by the time they moved onto the second floor fully. He was so on edge, so ready for something to happen, that when it did he almost reacted too fast - the gun was out and pointed at the nearest straining door, and it was only years of experience that kept him from putting a few holes in it.
Claustrophobic spaces, the sound of something like a monster coming from every direction, darkness making every window bend and creak - the fear was there, and he felt it pulling at his nerves and bones, but he shoved it to the side because there wasn’t any time for it. Not now, when shit was just starting to hit the fan. He saw Arthur open the door and move back just in time to avoid a sudden knife, saw Ariadne not get quite so lucky. Nobody came out after it and he didn’t hear gunshots when Arthur moved inside. But the heat of the pitch - that was so out of place it drew his attention even as he moved down the hall waiting for anything to move. Why was that there? And Ariadne was standing in it -
And about to lose it, he guessed by the look on her face. They needed to get into that room, and she needed to get out of that stuff, so Chris looped an arm around her waist and lifted her straight out of it, because whatever safety methods came with pulling people out of hot tar, he assumed do it fast was critical. He put her down just inside the room, swept the hall one last time to make sure nothing else was breaking out of those doors to come after them, and once they were all in, stepped in and shut the door behind them.
He glanced at Cobb and didn’t let go of his gun for an instant.
Cobb followed them in and shut the door, just as one of the doors further down the hall splintered with the force of whatever was behind it. As soon as it clicked shut though, locking them in, silence reigned except for their own harsh breathing and the steady drum of his heartbeat in his ears. As much as he would have liked to say that he wasn't expecting this, he had been.
"Anything left of your shoes needs to go," he ordered. Bending the world back would make him a larger target for her projections, but -- they were already targets. The rules were different in minds such as Amanda's and he knew that coming in. 'Remember why you're doing this.' If it had been his daughter here, his Philippa, he would not have done any differently. Placing his hands on the thick frame of the door, trusting that they would do as they needed to, he closed his eyes and forced the house back the way it should be. The black tar leaking out from under the door receded, but the fog outside was still plenty visible. A brief sliver of thought was given to putting a new box of shoes in the closet for Ariadne, a generic pair of sneakers that would replace the ones she was currently wearing.
His eyes flew open as something banged on the other side of the door, inches from his face, and his fingers gripped the frame tighter in reflex. "Where is she?" He whispered to the door, to the projection on the other side that could surely not hear him. That didn't stop the thing from throwing its body against the door, or that's what Cobb guessed as the door rattled and bowed inwards. "Anyone want to guess what's on the other side?" He asked as he stepped back, reaching into his jacket for the gun he hadn't wanted to use.
Arthur was still holding a gun and standing at the center of the room, his assurance to himself that he shouldn’t scare the comatose girl long gone. He was still going first and making himself a target, because Cobb was the dreamer and he was the one that was supposed to be protected from the insanity that was the subject, that girl in the bed. He glanced at Ariadne, frowning at her arm and her shoeless feet, but there wasn’t time to do much about it except frown and wonder if they should push her farther back. He had seen what Chris had done and his confidence in this alien team member went up a solid notch. Instead of saying any of this aloud, he transferred his gaze at Cobb. “She’s not going to like that,” he said, of the architectural changes.
The room around them flexed and warped with a sound like a cookie sheet being wobbled in the air. The pounding on the door stopped, and a strange scurrying began; the patter of many insect legs and the high-pitched whine of their hungry little bodies. Scarab beetles, inexplicably starving for flesh and not dung, came flooding under the bedroom door. Arthur was staring at a closet that kept trying to manifest as a school gym. He smelled cheap sugar perfume, the kind teenage girls wear, and he smelled gymnasium wood and old sweat. “Cobb. Maybe you should let this one change. You think the bastard picked her up from school?” As if a bunch of insane desert insects weren’t about to chew them all to bone and gristle.
Chris came to her rescue, lifting her up and out of the tar. Her shoes, melted off as they were, fell into the bubbling tar and Chris didn’t put her down until they were inside the bedroom. The carpet felt nice beneath her feet thankfully, and shortly thereafter, Cobb provided a new pair of shoes. She hastily put them on, tying them tightly so that there wouldn’t be a problem later on. “Thanks,” she said quietly, both to Chris and to Cobb. She was grateful for both of their help but the priority was the job at hand. She stood just as the insect noises started, immediately moving away from the bedroom door and closer to Arthur. “I think we should give it a shot,” she said, offering her unsolicited opinion. Anything was better than flesh eating scarab beetles.
The pounding on the door meant Chris’ entire attention - once he was sure Ariadne wasn’t hurt any further than the cut on her arm, that the tar hadn’t gotten very far at all - was fixed on it. He kept his gun leveled at what he guessed was about head height, away from Cobb but still steady; whatever broke through was going to take at least three shots to the skull before it had a chance to get to any of them -
Or that was the plan until it stopped and something else came in under the door instead. A swarm of beetles - not much a handgun could do here. He instinctively backed up to try and avoid them. He’d have been thinking of pulling out a flamethrower if it hadn’t been for the mass collateral damage that would cause.
When Arthur spoke, he glanced over and saw the warping in the closet. He’d almost put money on it being a trap, but between that unknown and the absolute fact of being eaten by bugs, the choice was pretty clear.
“I say we go for it,” Chris said, trying to keep his distance without putting anyone else any closer to the beetles than he was. “I don’t think these are going to stop.” Ever. He inched closer to the closet door and gave a cursory look at the warping world beyond. No immediate threat, but there was a cold breeze coming through.
"She doesn't like it already," Cobb pointed out. If this was the kind of welcome that friends enjoyed, he really didn't want to see what she was going to do to if she didn't like them. He gave a glance to the closet door, then back to the scarabs. Sometimes you had to admit when there was a chance that something else was going to work better. If they stayed in here, she was going to throw everything she could at them and there would be nothing but pain for them all. He gave a sharp nod and headed for the closet door that entered into a gymnasium, falling in behind Arthur as was customary.
Arthur stepped through the door and the gymnasium formed itself around them: high ceilings, big halogen lights, the smell of rubber dodgeballs and the squeak of sneakers. It was full of kids. Two girls sitting in the mostly empty stands, a group of boys with a basketball, a few coaches in nylon athletic shirts standing under the scoreboard. There was sudden silence when the four of them stepped over the foul line; a dropped basketball bounced several times, each bounce progressively less as the echoes reverberated all around them. Every face turned silently to stare, the way the dolls had in the house. Arthur could feel something coming, probably yet another movie screen horror. Outside the gym doors, he wondered if there would be a street, and on the street a van, and maybe in the van a girl. Or maybe she was one of these people... or all of them. Arthur rolled his molars together at the back of his mouth and stood still, glancing around. Every single person in the building took one, solid step forward, contracting in their direction. Arthur coughed, as if embarrassed. “I think we better run.”
Ariadne hustled behind Arthur and Cobb, into the gym. It was a throwback to her own high school days, one that sent a shiver down her spine, but she was just grateful it wasn’t someone seriously terrifying, like Freddy Kreuger or that weird pale kid from The Grudge. Of course, as soon as she thought it, she berated herself for thinking about it. There wasn’t a chance in hell she wanted them showing up, but then she heard meowing from above them, in the darkest corner, and a chill went down her spine. “I’m all for running,” she muttered, glancing at the others to see if they were in agreement. The faster they got out of there, the faster the job would be done. Amanda’s projections were keenly aware of them, focused so intently that Ariadne was certain this wasn’t going to end well. At all. “Count of three?”
Chris was the last through the closet door, still keeping aim at whatever was trying to break into the bedroom and tear them all apart, and he swung around with his gun still ready to fire as soon as he felt gymnasium linoleum under his feet. The pounding was gone but in its place was silence - like a vacuum, pulling every whisper and echo into the empty air. And it was freezing in here, unlike most of the gyms he’d been in.
Underfoot he could feel a distant thundering. Around him, it felt like something was coming - that foreboding feeling, like if they waited too long the walls were going to explode inward and the whole world would drag them out into the recesses of a nightmare-wracked mind. The staring people didn’t help matters any.
“I’ll keep them off,” Chris said quietly, raising his gun again and leveling it at one of the people - figments - nightmares? Whatever they were - that was getting a little too close. Instinct told him the second the group started running, so would they; the second they proved they were dangerous he’d start shooting. The faster they got out of this place, the better. The rumble under his feet was getting closer.
"Count of one," Cobb amended, watching as the people grew closer. He trusted that Chris would do exactly as he said he would and Cobb trusted very few people. He trusted things about them, like that Arthur would be the proverbial Devil's Advocate, reminding him of what was strictly possible, of where the holes in any plan were. And right now he trusted in Arthur's interpretation as the ground rumbled, that low rolling sound that was nothing short of ominous. "One!" He said as he grabbed Ariadne's arm and headed for the gym doors that he'd noticed. It was still bright outside -- or it looked to be through the frosted windows.
Sprinting forward, Arthur hit the first basketball player on the side of the head with the butt of his gun and shook off the second one as he was yanked sideways toward the abruptly growing crowd of high school projections. Cold menace fluctuated with the strange earthshaking sound, and Arthur was trying to keep his irritation that none of them had been able to communicate with the girl in check. If Eames had been there, the bastard would have slunk in like a snake and talked Eve out of the tree, if he so chose. But he wasn’t there, and now they were fighting horror monsters for no real reason except to get from point A to point B. “Don’t let her change the scene again!” He shouted at Cobb, kicking away more grasping hands and hitting the gym door sideways with his shoulder. It flew open and Arthur poured out.
Ariadne was very much okay with the revised count, keeping close to Cobb as they ran across the gym. It was becoming more and more obvious that she was just getting in the way of things, another person Cobb had to keep track of. Maybe it would have gone better if she hadn’t come. They’d never know, unfortunately, and the goal just then was to get the answers they needed. Arthur hit the front doors ahead of them so she didn’t lose a step as she and Cobb crossed the threshold. The sun was bright, making her blink for a moment to adjust. The doors had opened out into a parking lot filled with the exact same car, right down to the license plate number. “Ten bucks says that’s the guys car,” she said softly, looking up at Cobb. But where was Amanda, and the man who kidnapped her?
Once the rest of the group took off, Chris followed suit after a moment’s pause. Give them time to gain ground and the projections to focus on them so they wouldn’t see his aim. He picked off two or three that got too close to Cobb and Ariadne, the first basketball player that didn’t take Arthur’s gun to the skull as enough incentive to stay down, one that grazed his own leg … in a dream these things moved faster than they could in real life and for however fast he could shoot, there were starting to be too many. Suddenly that moment of pause was something he regretted.
But he managed to make it to the door after them in one piece, slamming an elbow back into one tenacious grip with a noise like crushing a handful of leaves. He glanced into the gymnasium and saw the far wall shaking behind the rushing crowd. Something was on the verge of coming through, whipping a cold wind past his face - he didn’t wait to see what it was. He slammed the doors shut as hard as he could and leaned his back against them to keep anything from forcing its way through. The gleaming sunlight off the lot of parked cars was almost blinding, but one blinked and moved. Wheels squealed against the pavement as one tried to race away.
“Over there!” Chris snarled, bracing himself with his heels hard against the concrete as the door buckled behind him.
Cobb wasn't going to let Amanda change this scene, not again. Attention caught by Chris' shout, his glance followed the object in motion. No matter what was seen in the movies, shooting at a moving car while trying to hit something like the tires were damned hard, even in a dream. But changing the physics of a place, adding small details, like the spike strip that appeared on the road directly in front of the car was completely plausible. The tires blew out with a squeal of air, sparks shooting off the contact of tire rims and asphalt as the man tried to continue driving the vehicle. No such luck.
Cobb was already running across the parking lot towards the car when the tires popped, gun out. At the very least, if they could get a look at the man that had taken Amanda, they'd be that much closer to finding him. As he ran up alongside of it, gun drawn, as he changed the dynamics of the door they'd left behind. Dream doors could be deceiving, opening up anywhere, but this one was going to open up to the back of the gym instead of the outdoors. It would buy them a few minutes, just long enough to find out where Amanda was as long as that rumbling wasn't a new monster coming after them. Gun ready, Cobb reached for the driver's side car door. It wasn't an order to put his hands up or to not move, but the demand to know where she was that Cobb barked out as he yanked the door open.
Arthur moved after the van too, leaving Chris and Ariadne behind in an implicit demonstration of trust in the former as he pursued Cobb on the passenger side of the van, flanking the thing inside. It was still a projection, but it was like the eye of the tornado, and everything dark about the dreamscape circled around it. The monster behind the wheel kept changing, a twisted Proteus of horror blades, saws, blood, limbs, wet hair and death. Arthur glanced through the windshield at Cobb and decided, out of a bizarre perversity, to treat the thing like any other projection, like a human. He took a second gun out of a holster under his right arm (since his right hand already had a 9 mm in it). He broke the passenger side window with the butt of the gun--these cheap vans from fifty years ago didn’t have the right kind of glass to fend off something as pissed as Arthur--and aimed low. The comparatively meek little .22 made the thing roar and then it started babbling. Some of it was horror roaring, but some of it was speech, too. Arthur was thinking about shooting it again anyway.
Ariadne knew she’d be of no use to them now, while they were interrogating whatever it was that had taken the driver’s seat. She stayed behind, trusting that Chris would keep her safe and the projections at bay. The parking lot was thankfully empty of projections, but the ones in the gymnasium were troubling. She kept nervously glancing at the door they’d come out of, waiting for the projections to burst out at any moment. Glass broke and she turned back to the car, just in time to watch Arthur extend a gun through the window. She instinctively turned away, towards the gym doors, and saw them start to rattle. “Guys! You might want to hurry up!” This had been such a bad idea.
Behind Chris, it wasn’t just the doors that were rattling. It was the entire wall now. He might have been able to hold the doors shut, but there were limits. He looked at Ariadne, then back at the van. Kidnappings like that - they threw whoever it was in the back, didn’t they? No handles on the inside to escape with. Just claw at the door and hope it pops open …
“When they find her,” he said to Ariadne, bracing himself and willing his handgun into something with a little more firepower, “she’s not going to be doing good. You’d be a better sight for her than a group of armed guys. I’ll keep whatever comes through here for as long as I can.”
As soon as there was some distance, Chris left the doors and turned, aiming and ready to fire on the first thing that showed its face. The doors were probably going to get blasted clear out of the wall; if every horror movie she’d ever seen was piling up there, what came out was either going to be a wall of monsters or one giant thing made up of all of them. He wasn’t sure which one he’d prefer. The bricks of the wall were alternately cracking and melting, and he could hear a high-pitched whining on the edge of the rumbling.
If Cobb had heard Chris, he would have agreed with the other man. Better that Amanda see Ariadne first than the three of them. If Eames had been here, he could have been one of her best friends, that might have helped more, but Eames wasn't and Ariadne was. At the very least, she was a friendly female face. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the wall begin to crack and melt and knew that they'd figured it out. If the door didn't work, they would simply come through the wall. No more time. Cobb aimed low, the barrel of his gun edged up against the thing's knee and blew it's kneecap off in a spray of shockingly red blood. "Where is she!" He demanded as the thing let out another horror movie scream, loud and high enough that Cobb wanted to cover his ears. She had to be close, likely in the back of the car, but she could have been in any of them. "We're taking her home, and unless you want this to hurt a lot more, you're going to tell us now."
Ariadne nodded, but it took her a second to move, worried about what was behind the door and headed for Chris. “Be careful,” she murmured, voice no louder than a whisper, before she ran over to the van. Cobb was shouting, something was screaming, but she ignored all of it. She glanced at Arthur, if only to make sure one of them knew she was about to open the back of the van, and reached for the handle. It popped open easily, which didn’t surprise her. The girl was scared and she wanted to be rescued. She wouldn’t lock the door. “Amanda?” she asked quietly to the girl in question, who was folded over herself, arms wrapped around her legs. She looked up then, and Ariadne smile. “It’s okay, Amanda. You’re safe now. We’re here to help you,” Ariadne promised, voice soft and gentle. Amanda looked like she didn’t understand, but when Ariadne held her hand out, she tentatively reached for it. “That’s it, come on,” she encouraged softly, and soon enough Amanda was out of the van and wrapped in a blanket Ariadne thought up.
Backing up a few more steps once Ariadne was further away, Chris kept his aim at the doors - or the spot just above the doors, where it looked like the wall was starting to buckle out - leveled and calm. At this point, he probably wasn’t going to do much damage to whatever came out. He’d heard the gunshots behind him but a cursory look told him they’d been aimed inside the van, not at Cobb or Arthur. A second risked glance and he saw the back of the van open without any screaming coming from it. Had to be promising.
But then there was a sound like sheet metal ripping and the doors, with a sizable portion of the wall around them, came off and smashed into the ground. The cold and the godawful stench of whatever was in there hit him and almost knocked him back. It looked like - what the hell did it look like? Massive and black and riddled with blood and bones and faces, like every movie she’d ever seen had balled itself up into a single form. It was slower than he imagined it would be by the fact that it was bottlenecked at the flimsy opening in the wall, but he backed up anyway. Let off a few shots to see if that even bothered it. There was a multi-voiced scream at the pain; it lashed out with something like an arm and hit him hard enough to break his ribs, which hurt but didn’t really matter once he hit the lot of parked cars and went through a few of them.
There were a few seconds of stunned, fading agony before he woke up with a start.
Arthur looked over his shoulder in time to see Chris shoot through the air and smash through a few tons of metal. He watched the dark nightmare thing as it slithered, lumbered, and darted over green grass and more cars. Arthur took careful aim and shot it several times in the center of mass, but it made about as much difference as throwing bits of popcorn at it. “Hurry up, Cobb,” Arthur said, in a voice that was mostly annoyance instead of fear. They’d gone through this so many times that Arthur could force his mind away from the fear in almost any situation, including one where a black nightmare was coming straight for his face. He moved off to one side and sprinted towards the football field to draw it off and buy Cobb a little more time, but it caught him about thirty seconds later. Arthur opened his eyes in the girl’s room a few seconds later. He caught Chris’ eye to see how the man was taking it and then he gave himself a little shake, trying to push away yet another inventive death. Good thing he didn’t have dreams anymore. He had no desire to see that thing again.
"Go, Ariadne!" Cobb called to the back of the van as he stepped back. The subconscious couldn't be reasoned with, it was instinct, impulse, flight or fight reduced down to the bare skeletons of thought. Ordering it was something of a feat, controlling it more so, which was why Limbo was so dangerous to people like them. One eye on the nightmare thing lumbering towards them, Cobb held his gun up to the shifting nightmare man in the front seat. "Wallet. Now." It snarled at him, face shifting as a long, serpentine tongue flicked out to nearly touch the wheel.
If they ever did this again, Cobb was making damn sure the person wasn't a horror fan. He put another bullet in the things thigh, earning a squeal, a hiss, and a mash of something that could have been English put through a shredder and warped by a sound mixer. Glaring, it threw a wallet at him and Cobb caught it, mid-air, flipping it open with his thumb to look at the drivers license inside. Finally, a glimpse of the real man, the address was blank, but there he was. Sandy blond hair, brown eyes, a dimple in his chin. He wasn't smiling in the picture, but he could have been any man, anywhere, he could have been a neighbor or a valet somewhere or even a businessman, but what he truly was was a shifting monster on the driver's side seat. The other one grew closer, lumbering, slithering, then fast high steps that sounded like heels on marble.
As soon as it reached him, he knew the dream would crumble. Arthur was out, Chris was nowhere to be found but he could only hope that he'd gotten out already. That only left the girls and Cobb checked again to make sure they were gone.
Ariadne was so focused on making sure that Amanda saw her as a friend, someone to help, that she didn’t see Chris get hurled at a bunch of cars. The girls were looking at each other, Ariadne trying to get her to focus just on her instead of the nightmare all around them, but Amanda was quietly freaking out. Her heart was racing, her eyes darting, and when Cobb shot the driver again, Amanda screamed. She turned her face up to the sky and let out the most horrifying, blood curling scream Ariadne had ever heard. Instinctively, she tried to cover her ears and look for the others, but the projected nightmares were coming closer and it swiped at both of them, dragging it’s knife-like nails across Ariadne’s stomach. Her hands moved to her stomach, but it was too late. The monster had all but ripped her stomach out. She had minutes. Seconds. “COBB!” She was gone a moment later, waking up in the living room with a sucking breath. “Fuck, I hate that,” Ariadne muttered.
His answer was given with that scream. There was the tiniest of flinches as Ariadne went down, leaving only he and Amanda and the thing in the front seat. There were too many projections coming of all shapes and sizes, things that Cobb had never seen, never dreamed of, and one choice left to make. He unloaded his entire clip into the driver, the gunshots painfully loud inside the van, but then there was no more time to think about it. There was only the spearlike tail of the monster that had taken both Arthur and Chris driving through his chest, the gun falling from his grip as he woke. Gasping, one hand flew to his chest, the other automatically reaching into his pocket as he stumbled out of his chair, half falling onto the rug covering the floor. Something solid and flat, that was all he needed, just a little piece of floor, a little piece of a stand, something, anything, and he found it behind the chair he recently vacated. The top went down, fingers twisting one end to send it spinning, but it wasn't until it fell over that he finally breathed in deep and checked for the others.
Arthur’s fingers revealed a hint of cherry red that vanished out of sight, the die returning to wherever it hid when Arthur wasn’t using it to verify reality. The dark eyes, so calm and grim, looked past Cobb as Arthur slowly gained his feet and redistributed his weight. He brushed off his clothing as if he’d just been somewhere exceptionally filthy, and he reached down a hand to help Ariadne up. Arthur gave the girl in the bed a long, long look. Her wan face was smooth and unmoving. Her eyelids weren’t even twitching. She was just lying there, stuck in her own little permanent nightmare. The artificial lung hissed. “And that,” Arthur said into the bleak disappointment, “is why I have a right-to-die clause.”
Ariadne hadn’t been through many dreams where she questioned reality afterwards, so she only reached for her bishop piece out of a sense of necessity. She saw Cobb fall off his chair and reach for his top, a flicker of sadness passing across her face at the sight. It was so unfortunate that he had that kind of crisis of reality, but she also understood why he needed his totem more than the others might. It was a sad situation. Arthur came over to help her up and she gave him a small smile in thanks. “I’m beginning to think I’ve got a sign on me that says ‘Go for the stomach’ on it,” she muttered, trying to make a bit of a joke about it. She followed Arthur’s gaze to the girl on the bed and sighed. “Did we at least get the guy?” It didn’t look like Amanda was even close to waking up, but maybe she would. Hopefully.
It was instinct that made Chris reach for his gun as soon as he realized no, he didn’t have half a parking lot’s worth of shrapnel in him, but he didn’t draw. He just wanted to make sure it was there, to ground him - even if he didn’t have a totem, or even really know the purpose of one, this was almost the same thing. He glanced at Arthur when the other man woke up, and at Ariadne and Cobb in turn, but his eyes fell on the comatose girl on the bed last and stayed there as she didn’t wake up. Part of him was disappointed - almost irrationally so - but the rest of him knew it couldn’t have been that easy
“We’ve got his plate number,” Chris said, wincing at the ache in his ribs as he stood up, “and even if that’s not enough, it’s a start.” For someone else. The cops, or whoever was running this investigation.
"I know what he looks like," Cobb said, his gaze finally lingering on the girl—Amanda. None of them were any worse for their time in the dream, not physically at least, but she was still in there and maybe shooting the man-thing in the driver's seat would keep it from coming back to torment her. A hand scrubbed through his hair before he finally met Arthur's, then Ariadne's and Chris' eyes. If they couldn't get her, at least they could get the guy that did this. "I'll talk to her father." He didn't really want to go talk to the police, too many years living outside of what was strictly legal, but he was the one to see the guy's picture. "You remember that license plate, Chris?" Dom didn't want to think about how they'd failed, didn't want to stay and talk about the girl on the bed, didn't want to debrief. He wanted to go on, get out of this little room with the monitors and the equipment keeping her alive, talk to her father and the police and leave, go back to the warehouse in France and let the failure weigh on him there.