Paradoxes had always been Arthur's thing. As a Point Man his job was to figure people out. Make all kinds of insightful deductions just by looking at some person's face or behaviour. He could do that. In fact it came to him quite naturally. Only looking at someone's way of dressing, of talking, even walking told him a whole lot about that person. That's why he made a point out of being unreadable. Business suits didn't give too much away about their wearer. Well, except the part where they revealed their owner to have a certain inclination towards neatness and professionalism. They gave away so much less than some jeans and a faded band t-shirt would do. Casualness, low on money, certain musical preferences – much too easy, not even a challenge. In one word boring.
A paradox…well, that's something different. Its whole point is not to be figured out or if at all only under extreme difficulty. Off the top of his head he could easily name a couple of good ones: the Möbius strip, the Necker cube, the Penrose stairs, the Blivet - Arthur inwardly paused for a second, then added another name to the growing list in his head – the Ariadne Paradox. The latter one had quickly become his favourite.
Six months had passed since the Fischer job and he was stilling thinking of her. Not in a romantic sense, that was not it. What seemed to prevail was an odd feeling of fascination. He kept asking himself how it was possible that someone so young and seemingly innocent could be such a genius. How she had been able to survive the hot mess of Cobb's subconscious and come out relatively unscathed. And then there had been this kiss. The one he stole from her during the job. He still wasn't quite sure why he did it.
Back in Paris, back in the day, he was sure he had her all figured out. But maybe that had been a mistake. He didn't like mistakes. He made very few of them. But when he did they tended to be colossal enough to come back and bite him in the ass (probably universal payback or something). So he kept thinking about her, trying to figure her out, trying to figure out why he couldn't figure her out. Other people, like Eames, would have most likely called at an infatuation or an obsession. He was too old to be infatuated and too level-headed to be obsessed with anything or anyone. He was just curious, he decided. If the proverb with the cat was to be believed, that wasn't a good thing either. But it sure wouldn't kill him to hop on a plane and try to figure that one little paradox out once and for all, would it?
She was running down a set of stairs. This particular one was going to carry her out of university. She was smiling, a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. It didn't feel like running more like floating, rushing towards the future. She was extremely pleased with herself. Everything had worked out fine. Although in the beginning it hadn't looked like it. She had spent an entire month moping around after the Fischer job. It was like nothing made sense anymore. Normal life seemed dull and lifeless now in comparison to what she had experienced in those couple of weeks she had been working with Dom Cobb and his men. The parts where she had a run in with Cobb's violent subconscious were less glamorous of course. But all the creating she could do in this dream world! She could make the impossible come true. Just like that. In normal life she would have had to make all kinds of calculations, slave away countless days and nights over blueprints and then eventually over the course of months – Just imagine! Months! – her vision would finally be realized. But when she was dreaming? Things like that didn't matter.
She slowed down a little bit. Thinking of that time in her life still made her wistful. She had moved on, not because she wanted to, but because she needed to. Sleep crime? What sort of career perspective was that? In the end it was less about the creating and more about the extraction or inception of a thought. So basically it all boiled down to power and money and not creativity. What she wanted, however, was to create. Not that there was anything wrong with money. In particular not with the enormous sum transferred to her account after the Fischer job.
The sight of her friend Sophie waiting for her at the bottom of those stairs ripped her out of her reverie. It turned out that her friend's bright smile and her exceptionally good mood were infectious even from across the room. Ariadne couldn't help but smile as well. This was a day to be happy, she reminded herself. After all they had something to celebrate.
"Last time ever inside this stuffy old building! Doesn't it feel great?" Sophie was practically bouncing with enthusiasm.
"Stuffy?" Ariadne made a face, pointedly looking from left to right. Light flooded staircase, marble steps, much like the entrance of a Greek temple.
"Alright, not stuffy," Sophie shrugged already turning to push the two-winged door behind them open. "But still. You know what I mean?" she threw Ariadne a look over her shoulder. Sophie's eyes were sparkling. The smile from before was still in place, threatening to become even larger. "We've done it! Last exam. We're free!" Sophie exclaimed as she stepped in to broad daylight. A couple of students turned to look at them.
"Yay for us!" Ariadne raised her fist in the air and tried to muster enough enthusiasm to make that 'yay' sound genuine but failed miserably. She awkwardly lowered her hand.
Sophie shot her a sour look. "What?" Ariadne shrugged her shoulders. "My enthusiasm just doesn't translate that well into French. Maybe it's a cultural thing."
"Lame!" Sophie nudged her in the rips with her elbow. It was hard to not be overwhelmed by her good mood, but Ariadne remained steadfast except for the occasional smile her and there. "This here? This is just you being all gloom and doom again. Don't need an interpreter for that. I already know you far too well, chérie," she pinched her in the cheek. "I can see it in your face." She paused, shooting her a worried look. "You're still coming tonight though? Don't you dare to bail out on us again, Missy," Sophie admonishingly waved her finger in front of Ariadne's face who finally couldn't resist no longer and allowed herself one tiny little smile.
"Wouldn't dare to," she reassured her friend.
"Good!" Sophie shot her a meaningful glance.
The mirror behind the bar was quite cleverly positioned. If this was a dream and he had to create a bar, it would have had a mirror like that in it. Loud music, posh interior, all sparkly surfaces and laughing, drinking people. Arthur took a sip from his water glass as he was watching Ariadne through the mirror. He could see her smiling, talking to the other girls that surrounded her. What she was saying he couldn't make out at all, just that she seemed to be happy and at peace with herself, carefree even, which in turn made him mentally debate whether he should really go over there and talk to her.
He set the glass down, careful to put it exactly in the same spot as before, right on top of the watermark it had left on the bar's surface. Out of the corner he could see her moving. She was probably going to the restroom. So it was now or never.
He picked up his glass, casually got up and made his way through the crowd. Perfect interception course. Just before she could disappear into the ladies he bumped into her as if by accident.
"I'm sorry. I'm not usually that clumsily," he apologized his eyes fixed intently on her face. She was still not looking at him, rather at her left trouser leg that had been sprayed with water. He was wondering how long it would take for her to realize that one of her former team mates was standing right in front of her. Would she be surprised to see him? Pleased? Angry? He was about to find out.
Her eyes turned away from the stain on her trouser to his face. She paled. "Arthur?"
"Yes, Ariadne?" A tiny smirk made the corners of his mouth quirk up.
"Is it really you?" She frowned and shot him a funny look. Out of all the places in the world she certainly wouldn't have imagined bumping into him here. He noticed her left hand reaching in the pocket of her jeans – probably for her totem. "This isn't a dream, right?"
"No," he answered simply. He wisely swallowed down the second half of that statement that was already lying on the tip of his tongue (Do I regularly feature in your dreams?).
A long pause set in, which was conveniently filled by the background noise of the bar. He certainly hadn't expected their first meeting to go like this. He had been prepared for hugs and maybe a slap in the face, should the worst case scenario have come to pass, but this was certainly anticlimactic.
"Are you being followed or something?" she finally said.
He raised an eyebrow. Clever girl. "No, that's rather unlikely. Unlikely but not impossible."
"Unlikely is good enough for me." Without any further warning she hugged him. It turned out that he was completely unprepared for the feelings that simple hug would evoke in him. He felt the need to lay his arms around her as well. It was good to see her. Up until now he hadn't realized how much he had missed her. It was the strangest thing really.
The hug ended as quickly as it had begun, maybe even a bit too soon for his taste. After a couple of seconds she let go of him only to punch him in the arm.
"Ouch!" He certainly hadn't seen this one coming. "Whatever was that for?" he asked her while he was rubbing the spot she had hit with her fist accusingly. So much for being smooth and acting like a professional.
"For spilling your drink on my new jeans," she glared at him. "Does it hurt?" she added in an afterthought apparently already regretting her impulsiveness from before.
"No, I'm fine. You hit like a girl," he reassured her.
"I am a girl."
"A particularly violent one apparently."
In spite of a retort she just smiled at him. It was a genuine smile, not the teasing or malicious kind. The fact that they were really standing here together had finally hit home. "It's good to see you."
"Good to see you, too," he said after a moment of hesitation.
"So are you here on business or is this a personal visit?"
"A bit of both, actually."
"That's my job," he just shrugged his shoulders at her.
She tabbed her index finger against her left temple. "I remember." She threw a gaze over her shoulder, over to the table where her friends were sitting and watching their conversation avidly. "God, I hate it when they do that," she turned back to him and rolled her eyes.
"Do what?" he asked innocently, knowing all too well what she meant. Apparently, judging by the look she shot him, she was onto him.
"Don't play dense. Trying to set me up with a guy."
"Oh, that. Well, then I guess this will just add fuel to the fire, right?" he smiled and reached inside the inner pocket of his jacket and produced a slip of paper. He held it out to her between his index and his middle finger. The gesture was quite elegant but also somewhat studied.
"It most certainly will. Your phone number here in Paris?" she asked as she took the slip of paper from his hand.
She briefly looked at the slip of paper in her hand then put it in her pocket. "Breakfast tomorrow then?"
"Rue Crespin du Gast 5. Call me about the time."
They shared one last smile before both went there separate ways.
She got off the Metropolitan and walked towards Rue Crespin du Gast. She had had to study the city map the night before to know where she was going. She had not been often to this part of town. Being a student hadn't actually worked wonders for her social life…
When she passed two cafés on her way to Rue Crespin du Gast, she was slowly starting to doubt Arthur's organizational talent. If he hadn't somehow lost his touch over the last six months, he was apparently up to something else. When she rounded the next corner, his motives suddenly became crystal clear to her.
The house as such wasn't very eye-catching but there was a plaque above the door that said "Edith Piaf". For a second or two she just stood there glued to the place where she stood, looking at the building with disbelieving eyes and a smile on her face. Then, after a while, she finally walked closer to read the plaque above the door. Almost without her noticing she had started humming "Je ne regrette rien" under her breath.
"Do you really regret nothing?" Arthur's voice in her ear brought her back to reality. She looked up to see him standing next to her casually. He was wearing his usual three piece suit which never failed to make her feel somewhat underdressed. She momentarily tugged at her red scarf self-consciously.
"Relax. You look fine."
After a moment of deliberation she finally chose answered his question from before. "Not nothing. Some experiences are best not made. But maybe the good comes with the bad. Maybe everything has its price."
"A pretty deep conversation on an empty stomach."
"You think?" she smiled. "Do deep conversations get any more pleasant on a full stomach?"
"No, I suppose people are just less irritable once their stomachs are full."
"Ah, that's what I suspected," she grinned up at him. "So breakfast? Where to? Lead the way!" She looked at him expectantly.
Five minutes later they were sitting inside a café and Ariadne was nibbling on her second croissant. He watched her interestedly as she broke off another small piece of her pastry and put it in her mouth. She suddenly froze in mid-movement. She had noticed him looking. A faint blush was spreading on her cheeks, he quickly looked away.
"Don't stare at me while I'm eating," she chastised him.
"Sorry, bad habit. Comes with the job…," he apologized and took a sip of his café au lait.
"It's not that I'm not glad to see you, Arthur. But why are you here?" Her question came so sudden, so out of the blue that he very nearly would have spit out his coffee. He put the cup down slowly, mainly to win some time in order to pre-formulate a sensible response in his head.
"You know what my job is, right?" The tone of his voice sent shivers down her spine. There was an intensity to it he rarely displayed. On the job he was composed at all times, but now there was something in his voice, an emotion she couldn't quite identify.
"Basically reading other people? Organizing things?" By now she had stopped eating. For some reason it just didn't seem appropriate in a situation like that.
"Yes. Usually reading other people comes to me quite easily, but for some reason you seem to remain immune to my skills."
The seriousness of their conversation seemed to dissolve somewhat thanks to Ariadne's laughter that followed his statement. "You can't figure me out?" She let out another laugh. "Arthur, I'm really not that much of a mystery."
She didn't understand what he was trying to tell her or else she wouldn't have laughed, not like this. But Arthur wasn't the kind of man that was discouraged by small set- backs.
"Really. There's nothing special or mysterious about me. I'm just an American girl who's studying architecture in Paris."
At that he laughed. "Just a girl. I see."
"What's so funny about that?" He could tell she was getting irritated with him the way her mouth was set in a tight line.
He moved closer to the table and lowered his voice. "If you were just a girl, Ariadne, I would have been able to figure you out right when we first met, which I didn't by the way. Usually I'm never wrong about that kind of stuff, but with you…" He shook his head regretfully. "Boy was I wrong."
"What did you think of me back then?" She was intrigued by what he told her. He could tell by the way her eyes were fixed on him intently.
"When I first met you I thought in fact that you were just a girl, too fragile for the job. Big mistake. To go to Limbo and back, to drag Cobb and Saito out of there? That requires quite some strength."
"And that confuses you?"
"And that the only reason why you're here? To satisfy your professional curiosity?"
"No, not quite."
She could tell that he wasn't going to say anything more for now. Not if she didn't do anything about it herself. "So the kiss during the Fischer job…," she paused to look at him, searching for some kind of reaction on his face. There was just the hint of a smile and maybe she did imagine it, but his eyes seemed to have softened a bit, so she continued, "that wasn't incidental or anything? You knew it wasn't going to distract those projections from you."
"What do you think?" he cocked his head looking at her. By now there was really a smile on his face. It wasn't calculated. Maybe it was the first real smile she had seen on him.
"You really want to know? I have to warn you. I'm not really subtle, you know."
"Go on, by all means."
"I think you really do like me, but you're too screwed up to come out in the open with it and tell me straight to my head."
She was bracing herself for his reaction. That one she couldn't have fathomed, though. Arthur laughed. "You were not kidding about not being too subtle. But you are however right about most things. Fortunately I'm not quite that screwed up," he sobered completely when he said the next words, "I do really like you."
"Oh," she just said. It was not hard to see that she was surprised by his frankness. In all honesty he was a little surprised by it himself. Almost instinctively his hand reached inside his jacket pocket to close around his dice. He could see her reaching for her totem as well. Their eyes met again.
"So as far as 'ohs' go, was that a good one or a bad one?" he bravely asked after awhile. He wasn't sure how to proceed from this point of their conversation on. This was uncharted territory to him.
"A good one," Ariadne hurried to answer. "Definitely a good one." Her words were accompanied by a vigorous nod. She was blushing, deeply.
"Good," he couldn't help but smile.
She smiled back at him.
The moment they shared was briskly interrupted by the clearing of a throat and a cough. Talk about bad timing. Apparently the waiter had chosen this precise moment to check up on them.
"I hope everything is to your liking, Mademoiselle, Monsieur," he asked with a heavy French accent on his English.
"Yes, thank you," Ariadne answered in perfect French. She had made the experience that waiters around here tended to be tenfold more polite once addressed in their native language. "Could you please bring us the check?"
"Of course," the waiter replied in French and graced them with a small smile before he left.
There was momentarily an awkward silence between them, but it didn't have the chance to last for long.
"So that place over the street, is it open to the public?" Ariadne asked innocently.
"You mean Musée Edith Piaf? You have to make an appointment before you can enter."
"Which you doubtlessly have made." Her smile was back.
"Of course, I have. What do you take me for?"
The wooden tiles were creaking under their feet. The way the flat was decorated, the deep red of the walls and the heavy carpets on the floor, took you back to a long gone. The little flat was littered with memorabilia of Edith Piaf, they curiously gazed at under the watchful eye of the museum patron. In the background "La vie en rose" was playing.
Ariadne smiled as she regarded the oversized teddy bear, a gift given to the singer by her husband, sitting on a chair with a quite forlorn expression on its face. She stepped next to Arthur who was looking at some photographs and paintings of Edith Piaf hanging on the wall opposite of her.
"What's that?" she whispered to him indicating a cut out of Edith Piaf that was also hanging on the wall. "That can't be life size," she frowned.
"It is," he answered with a smile. "It says right here that she was only 4 ft 8 tall. By the way, why are you whispering?"
"It just seemed appropriate," she shrugged her shoulders.
"Okay, if you say so," there was a mischievous glint in his eyes she had never seen before.
"What are you up to?"
"Nothing much. Would you just…," he grabbed her shoulder and gently positioned her in front of the cut out. She complied in bewilderment. "There, just as I suspected."
"What? What is it?" Ariadne enquired impatiently.
"How tall are you?"
Without further ado she smacked him on the arm, careful to hit the same spot again as last evening. "5ft 1 if you must know."
"Well, at least you've got a few inches on Edith Piaf."
Later out on the street again, walking next to each other, she suddenly would suddenly ask him about 'Je ne regrette rien'. "Who picked it?" she wanted to know.
"Mal did. It sort of stuck."
"Yeah, it is."
"But probably not to Dom. Not after what happened."
"No, probably not."
"If you would have to pick a song, what would it be?" she asked, partly to lighten the mood and also because she was really interested in his answer. The way her brown eyes looked expectantly at him it was hard to deny her anything.
"Anything I would pick wouldn't be appropriate."
"You wouldn't like waking to The Smiths."
"Who says I wouldn't."
"You know you really should say those things. If I were a lesser guy this would be a great opening for a double entendre." He momentarily closed his eyes trying hard to suppress any thoughts that had to do anything with Ariadne waking up in bed next to him. She turned out not to be less than helpful on that account.
"Oh, go ahead if you must. I really wouldn't mind." Her smile was sweet and innocent, but her eyes were anything but.
He let out a frustrated groan.
She just laughed. "What's your favourite song of theirs?"
"Boy with a thorn in his side," he said without hesitation.
"Yeah," he smiled. She couldn't help but love this smile of his. The real one, not the fake professional one. The one that reached his eyes and made her feel like she could tell him anything. Anything in the world.
"I think I might quite like you, too," she finally said after a moment of contemplation.
"Why? Cos I like the Smiths?" he stopped walking and looked at her.
"No, because I like being with you."
"It feels like I can be myself around you. I don't have to hold back anything. There are no secrets. It's really nice, you know?"
"I know that feeling." He stepped closer, not because he actually thought something along the lines of 'I have to get closer to her', but because for some reason his feet commanded him to do so. Perhaps they were even acting out of their own volition. Magnetism between two people? How trite! But then again it was just happening to him and who was he to deny it. He just let it happen for once.
"Is this the part where you say 'Kiss me, quick.'?"
"Do you want it to be quick?" By now he didn't have to say those words out loud anymore. They were so close now, a whisper was enough.
"No, not at all."