2/upon this winding road
A/N: THANK YOU SO MUCH to everyone who commented, faved, and signed up for story alerts. I love you more than Eames loves "kicking" Arthur. Durrr Sophia talks a lot in this chapter. Sorry. Will update again soon! [P.S. Changed Sophia's age to 18. : ) Sorry for the confusion.]
That manages to throw even Eames for a loop.
"Wait—you—I'm not sure you quite understand how this whole 'subconscious security' thing works."
She blinks. "You don't break into people's minds?"
"Well, no, that we do, it's just—"
"You can't recover a memory?"
"That should be easy enough, but you—"
"You're not available for hire?"
"That's not the issue either, would you listen?" The Brit's lips are pressed thinner and thinner as his patience wears. "The general idea is that you hire us to recover information for you, which I—suppose—you're not really contradicting. But a client usually hires us to retrieve top secret information from an enemy."
"So the enemy part is different, but the information could be considered top secret anyway. It's a suppressed memory, after all."
"But that will mean you and your subconscious know exactly what is going on. It's like hiring us to rob your own bank. Your security will obviously know what's coming!"
"Sounds like a real opportunity for you to put your forgery skills to the test," Arthur says, and smirks at Eames.
"It's not forgery skills I need to accept this job, it's sheer stupidity!" But he's relaxing into the idea of a real (well-paid) challenge. "I'd have to be stupid to accept and a genius to survive. Though…it's not impossible, now that I think about it. The surviving part at least."
Arthur rolls his eyes. "Don't push it, genius, you got your compliment from me last job around."
Eames sends him a frosty glare. "Yes, fanks, you're such a flatterer."
Sophia, meanwhile, waits patiently for the bickering to end. "Does that mean you'll accept?"
"I'll consider it, at least," Eames says. Arthur nods. Yusuf shrugs.
"I'd like to know a little bit more," Ariadne says. "But I'm not really sure where to begin. Can you maybe walk us through the time surrounding the missing memory?"
"If you think it'll help," she begins, but that's as far as she gets before Arthur interrupts.
"Wait a minute." He starts toward the newspaper he'd thrown down. "Sophia Wagner. Heiress of the multibillion-dollar Wagner Steel Industry. But…" The paper crumples under his fingers as he throws down section after section, searching. Then he finds it. "'The Skeleton in the Steel Closet.' I knew I'd seen your name recently."
"How long is it going to take for that stupid story to go away?" Her voice isn't much louder than an appropriate indoor voice, but the hugeness of the warehouse swallows it and makes it echo. "My father managed to keep it quiet for six years, and suddenly every two-bit reporter thinks the world wants to know their stupid theory."
"It's no coincidence this hits just as you come into your inheritance, is it?" Arthur says slowly. "Who all knew about it?"
"Knew about what?" Eames asks.
Well, she has everyone's attention now.
"Who knew?" Arthur repeats into the stricken silence.
"The family, a few close friends, police, trusted private investigators. And the kidnapper, of course. But the 'incident' came at a bad time; my father couldn't afford to appear distracted, couldn't reveal that there was a weakness within the company. It was kept very, very quiet. They say money talks, but it also silences—if you have enough of it."
"I think you better start from the beginning," Ariadne says, when she's absorbed the unexpected information. A six-year-old memory and six-year-old kidnapping? No way is that a coincidence. "Er…have a seat?"
"Thanks." The girl flashes a self-conscious smile before perching on the edge of one of the lounge chaises. It's a strange, surreal moment for Ariadne—to comprehend that the girl who could easily blend into the sea of her peers in a French classroom is not only filthy rich, but also the victim of a kidnapping. But strange people don't have to look strange, she supposes, and gives a mental shrug.
They are short one chair, now, though Ariadne doesn't realize it until there's a sudden warmth against her side: Arthur. He smiles cheekily at her, as they sit hip to hip, and says softly, "Mind sharing?"
"No." But she gives him a look which is supposed to say she knows what he is up to. She has a very bad feeling it comes off more as, 'You can share my lawn chair anytime.' She does not have an opportunity to worry much about this, and anyway Arthur doesn't seem to mind as he shifts so her shoulder fits more easily into his shape.
Sophia begins. "I've relived that day a thousand times inside my head. But it was six years ago, you know. It's like if you say a word too many times, and it doesn't sound like a word anymore…sometimes I'm not sure if the details are real or just a figment of my imagination."
"Just tell us what you can," Arthur says. Ariadne can feel his voice thrumming through his chest, against her back.
"Let's see." She takes a deep breath and folds her hands, crosses her legs. It strikes Ariadne suddenly that this is not to look proper so much as it is to keep herself from shaking. "I was twelve at the time. I'd just cut my hair as short as it could go, and my mother was furious with me. She loved my hair long. She'd always braid and unbraid it while she told me about her day."
Eames' quiet cough is spectacularly eloquent: As much as I adore hearing about your hair…
"Sorry." She still looks annoyed. "The important thing is that it was the cause of our fight. It started off small enough and I thought I could wait it out, let her calm down, but she kept yelling and yelling at me, saying these terrible things, and finally I couldn't take it any more. I ran out of the house, down the street, not even thinking where I was going. I just sat down on a street corner and cried and cried and cried. I was so mad. I kept swearing to myself that I wouldn't go back to that house anymore. I swore it in blood."
"It was something I'd learned from a childhood friend—Ian. I mean," she laughed a little, seeing their faces, "it wasn't a puddle of blood or anything. I didn't write a novel with it. I just pricked my finger and swore that from then on, I'd be true, um, to…"
"To myself." She put a hand to her face. "Geez, that sounds really cheesy. I was twelve, you know. And all worked up. That moment, the moment when I saw blood on my finger, that moment is very clear in my mind. I could tell you what color shirts the people nearby were wearing, or exactly where the trash can was. The weather—it was sunny, but there were passing clouds—or what the traffic was like. After that, I'm not as sure."
"Whatever you can remember," Arthur repeats.
When she continues, her words are slower, more careful. "I remember pulling out my phone," she says. "I'd been texting Ian all morning, till my hands were shaking so bad, I could barely type. I pulled out my phone and wrote something like, 'I'm on the corner of 53rd and Main. Come save me.'" She put a hand to her forehead, squeezed her eyes shut so tightly Ariadne was worried they'd pop.
"I…I think I got a reply…I opened my phone again…and a car stopped near me, I remember that. A company car. I think someone called my name. There's…bits and pieces more…there were marks on my wrist when they found me, from where I'd been drugged, and I remember the needle going in. The kidnapper didn't know what they were doing, so it hurt a lot. There was a broken chair…I was tied to something…and…they kept touching my hair." She shuddered. "That's it. I can't even remember the bastard's face. And I have no idea what they did to me."
Arthur's quiet sigh ruffles Ariadne's hair and tickles her scalp. Her other side tingles with emptiness, half-dreading and half-hoping that his arm will come to rest around her waist or shoulders. Instead, he stands up.
"You understand that we'll need police reports, statements from family, background checks?"
"And that our methods may not be, oh, say…legal?" Eames asks.
She smiles. "I've done my research. I know what I'm getting into here."
"Then let's put it all on the table." Eames leans forward and his casual smirk belies the cold intelligence in his eyes. Arthur frowns at him, but doesn't say what's clearly on his face: And when did you become the Master Negotiator? "You would like us to recover the six-year-old memory of the truth about your kidnapping, correct?"
"I assume this is partly to resolve the scandal the media is trying to stir up and partly for your own closure."
"Have you tried a professional therapist?" Arthur breaks in. "Not that I want to lose this job, but they are cheaper. And their methods are less invasive."
"I've tried, tried, and tried again. After staring at ink blobs for a certain number of hours, they sort of lose their effectiveness, you know?"
"Look, I've heard you're the best. Well, not you specifically, I suppose, but…within the corporate circle I've made a few friends who have highly praised Mister Cobb and company. If I can't have Cobb, I'll put my trust in company. This memory is more important to me than anything right now. And I have the money to reward you for retrieving it." She forces a game face. "Name your price."
Eames doesn't give the others so much as a chance to exchange meaningful glances. "Two million," he says, at the same moment as Yusuf shouts "Ten million!" (and is ignored).
"Each." His smile, which might be described as gentlemanly in other circumstances, is nothing short of dastardly under his six o'clock shadow.
Sophia doesn't even blink. "Done. Who do I shake hands with?"
Ariadne senses the threat of a bloodbath as Arthur and Eames lock eyes, so she leaps to her feet. "Me." As they clasp hands, the architect looks her client and target firmly in the eye, trying to read her. Wondering what ugly demons they'll encounter inside her head. How many trains they'll have to dodge on ordinary streets. How many avalanches. How many malicious dead wives.
On the dead wives front, at least, she's pretty sure they're safe.