A/N: Thank you so much for your amazing response to Part I! Thank you because you read it and left wonderful reviews!
For the entire time I was typing this story, I was listening to A Forest by Bat for Lashes.
I included Annapolis, Maryland into this chapter because a friend just recently told me she's moving there. I'll miss her.
"Je suis très désolé, monsieur" means "I'm very sorry, sir."
It was the hardest thing in the world to think of a job for Robert. I hope what I opted for suits him. Also, Robert is now a more relaxed guy, that's why things turn out the way they do in this chapter.
They were sitting on a bench in Central Park, resting their vocal chords after a long time of talking, sipping on their Starbucks coffee.
"I shouldn't be telling you all this," she kept repeating, "but I feel guilty because the inception worked and it's just… It's a burden that hit me only later on. And now, you remember what happened, against all odds, so I guess I pretty much have to tell you, huh?"
He promised her he wouldn't tell anyone. She believed him – she knew he was trustworthy. Apparently, the adjective had appeared in the file on him. How about that, he had a file done by another dream team.
Inception, not extraction. Inception. That was what they did to him. It made him think of Aldous Huxley and Brave New World, but the way the people in the novel were feeding babies with ideas seemed nothing compared to what had been done to him. It was incredible and quite beyond his comprehension. He had no idea something like inception could be done to the human mind. It was supposed to be fiction, not a reality.
He was disappointed, although he could have chosen to feel a different emotion; rage, perhaps. That was a great option, a logical and sane option, considering his situation. But instead, he was disappointed. So, the change he had been feeling – it was not even real? That was simply… terrible.
Well, at least that femme fatale hadn't been real, so he didn't have to worry about her shooting him somewhere again. But the disappointment was real, very much so. His father and he never managed to reconcile. The love between them remained as broken as it had always been.
"Trust me, no one wanted to hurt you or anything… We did what we had to… to give a friend a chance to be with his family again. And at the end of the day… It's just what we do for a living. It's nothing personal. Most of the time, anyway."
Robert nodded. He understood. He actually understood. He had his views on the institution of family and he almost resented that guy, Mr. Charles, as he knew him (Ariadne did not disclose any names, of course), that he had a family to fight for and return to. Robert didn't have that sort of luxury.
And then, this disappointment. He voiced it to her, although he didn't mean to, but the bitter bile of disappointment was determined to pour itself out.
"I don't care about the company, I really don't. I never have," he confessed. "It's that the sense of freedom has been false. The sense that I'm finally my own man. There is still time for me to change my mind and not disband Fischer Morrow. But…"
He sighed and rubbed his eyes.
"A part of me wants to please my dead father and the other part just wants me to… not please him, I suppose. I know that what he made me believe…what you made me believe in the dream wasn't real. He died thinking I was a…a disappointment."
"You know," she said, looking at the tips of her shoes, "I don't think that feeling has been false. You know, the sense of freedom and the chance of you being your own man? I really do believe that the inception simply… woke it up. The way you've been feeling for the last two weeks now? It's always been there, but your way of life made you repress it."
He looked at her in wonder. She met his gaze, chuckling. "I'm not making it up," she assured him, lifting her arms as if in surrender. "Besides, shouldn't you know yourself best? I'm sure you know that what I'm saying is true."
He smirked. "In theory." He exhaled the air from his lungs loudly. "So, are you still, you know, on the team as an architect?"
She bit her lip uncertainly. She had told him so much, too much, and he could see the dilemma in her eyes. But he didn't tell her to forget his question. He was curious.
"Ye-es," she answered slowly. "I am. You know, you were my first… job and I really didn't understand it, and all that accompanied it, until after it was done. When I read the first newspaper article about the possibility of Fischer Morrow being disbanded, I almost called you myself." She wried a smile. "But I've gotten used to it. Now I… can't imagine not working in dreams anymore."
"Are you in New York on a job?"
She fought a blush. "No…Just visiting. I am from New York, I just study in Paris."
He regarded her with interest, shoving his hands inside the pockets of his hoodie. "What changed your mind, after… me?"
She removed her long, maroon tresses behind her ears, a smile quirking at the corners of her lips.
"It's addictive. The excitement, the adrenaline rush… I know extraction and inception are not strictly speaking legal, as my boss would say, but… Well, I love my job. My creativity has no limitations in dreams and, being an architect, I see myself as an artist. I love the boundless possibilities of creating my kind of art in dreams. You know, I can even defy the laws of physics, although it's not always advisable to do that in dreams. That world is fragile."
Then, she looked at him directly, surprising him with the honesty of her gaze. He had never seen such honest eyes in his entire life.
"Why are you not angry because of what we did to you?" she asked him directly. "Why are you just…talking to me, being simply curious and nice? If I were you…" She chuckled. "Well, let's just say I wouldn't be acting so noble."
At that, he had to laugh out loud. Noble. No one had ever called him that. "I know, I've been asking myself the same questions, but… Two weeks ago, I would have sued your sorry asses," he spoke frankly and Ariadne raised her eyebrows. "But now I just don't…feel like it."
"That's a rich one!" she exclaimed and laughed with him. "I guess I have to say, lucky us!"
Suddenly, she grew very serious. "Robert," she said, as they were on a first-name basis, "no one should know about this conversation. Officially, we never met. Do you understand? I'm asking you nicely, not threatening you, in case you misunderstood. Just…The team would have my guts for this," she added and shrugged her shoulders, smiling shyly.
"I thought it said in my file that I was trustworthy and that I kept my promises," he commented and arched an eyebrow at her.
She nodded, a flash of guilt passing her eyes, but she understood that his answer was an act of compliance.
"Well… You definitely are something, Robert Fischer. So, how will you decide?"
"Do you read newspapers?" he asked.
She nodded, confused.
"Well, then, Ariadne, you'll get your answer to this question there. They always know first."
"Fair enough," she responded and stood up. "I have to go now. Thanks for the coffee," she said and offered him her hand.
He stood up as well and shook it, prolonging the touch, keeping his eyes on hers. He was half tempted to kiss her, but he thought that it would have been too strange after all she had told him. Technically, he was the victim of an assault on his mind and even if no one else knew about this, he believed he owed it to himself to act like a proper victim for a while longer and not get involved with one of the people who visited his head when he wasn't looking, so to say.
Finally, he released her hand. "So, is there a chance I'll see you again?" he asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders. "We might meet on the streets of some lovely city like New York or Paris. You never know."
And then, she was gone.
Once upon a time, Robert Fischer rebelled.
He graduated from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, much to his father's disapproval. Maurice Fischer thought that pubescence left the male brain later than the female's, so he indulged his son by allowing him to study at that college. Had Maurice Fischer known that his son chose that college not only to defy his father, but to be closer to the girl that interested him then, Fischer Sr. might not have been so indulgent.
After St. John's College, Maurice Fischer demanded that his son study Economics at Princeton University. Princeton was a must: it was a tradition of the Fischer men to go to Princeton. He flew into a fit of rage when he learned that his son applied for Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affair. A Fischer in public relations! It was unthinkable. So, Fischer Sr. declined the payment of tuition for his son, unless Fischer Jr. changed his mind and did as his father had ordained. In the end, Fischer Jr. used his mother's inheritance and did not speak to his father for four years. But then, the need for approval returned and from the day Robert returned back to Los Angeles, he always followed his father's rules, skipping between L.A. and Sydney whenever the old man wanted him to. He became a true Fischer, Uncle Peter assured him. But nothing he did seemed to please his father and while he was trying so hard to do things right and hear one single word of approval pass those old lips, Robert lost himself.
On the day he died in his dreams, he began to live and a year later, it felt incredibly and overwhelmingly wonderful to be sitting in a chair of his very own office in his very own firm in New York. He called it simply Fischer Communications and it was a public relations firm, exactly what his father would have hated. But Robert was no longer pestered by guilt and the feeling that he was just not good enough. He was doing what he loved doing and he was very good at it. The firm was successful and expanding, and he stayed rich, but this time the money was all his. His life was his own.
He still didn't know what was wrong with him, since he accepted the disbanding of his father's company so easily and without feeling the need to sue people. He could imagine his father screaming in his grave, demanding justice and calling his son an incompetent idiot. The latter had happened on many occasions. But, as Robert liked to say these days, he just didn't care. Maybe he was crazy, but he was happy, at least.
He had never forgotten his conversation with Ariadne. She captured his attention and he could hardly say why. Perhaps it was her honesty, the warmth inside her, or even the way she had sipped her coffee from her cup in a dainty, yet casual manner. She was the sort of person to whom things mattered. He often wondered where she was and what she was doing. He was sure she was having fun erecting her masterpieces in someone else's dreams. Could she be labeled as a criminal? He didn't mind. He felt, after all this time, that he would probably have used his fists had he met any other member of her team, after all; not because they could have hurt his finances, but because they bruised his pride. After a while, the anger he should have felt from the start did surface and he felt it, intensely, even while he was erecting his own masterpiece and feeling happy about it, as well as fulfilled. But never anger for Aridane. He was very partial to her.
He liked her.
She had started to invade his mind so often, without being anywhere near him, that he felt he had to find her somehow and talk to her again. He didn't know what he wanted from her; perhaps nothing; he just wanted to see her again. He had been in love before, but this felt different. Definitely not an infatuation of any kind. He was not in love with her and yet all those previous occasions when he was in love with someone felt superficial compared to what was drawing him to her. He didn't feel like himself at all. It was just not like Robert Fischer to give himself to someone entirely. He had learnt to stay wary of emotions and not give in to them too freely. He feared that he might have done that with her if she had stayed in his life.
But then again, perhaps he felt that way because she was nowhere near him and the idea of touching the forbidden fruit was always more exciting than the actual moment of holding it in your hands. Then, it simply lost its charm.
And yet, he allowed himself to take a week off and was, at the very moment, acting the part of a tourist in Paris, the city she had mentioned before they parted, climbing the stairs of the Rue Foyatier leading to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. He chose Montmartre because he didn't want to go all extravagant with five-star hotels just because he could and he figured that she might have liked that, which was insane and sickeningly corny of him, but he settled in Montmartre nevertheless. The chances that he would never see her, ever again, were high, but Paris in autumn seemed hopeful and he wanted to enjoy himself in the false promises he had created.
It was two in the morning and he was trying to feel less jet-lagged. He had travelled a lot in his life, but he was always jet-lagged after a long flight. In New York, it would have been nine in the evening and that was just too soon for him to go to bed. Besides, he had gotten used to walking around. One could see surprisingly many things when on foot.
He made his way up the stairs lazily, counting them to keep his mind occupied. Suddenly, he heard a barking sound behind him and turned around, pausing. He saw a Jack Russell terrier pawing its way up the stairs enthusiastically and a young woman running after it, the leash in her hands, crying "Jimbo!" after the dog. Robert smiled to himself and when the dog reached him and began to sniff around his legs, he bent down and scratched him behind the ears. He owned a Jack Russell terrier when he was a kid, but the dog died a year after his mother passed away, so he hadn't owned a dog since, feeling resentful that everyone he loved left him so easily.
"Jimbo!" the woman said with a scolding sound. "Oh, je suis très désolé, monsieur."
He straightened to look at her and assure her that it was fine, but felt embarrassed because his French was extremely bad and he couldn't remember how one said, "Oh, that's alright" in the language. But he didn't have to.
The coincidence was too great to be true, yet it was, entirely and absolutely true. The woman was, without a shade of doubt, real and she was Ariadne.
"Robert," she breathed, her jaw dropping ever so slightly, the excitement of recognition dancing in her brown orbs.
His heart was thumping in his chest vigorously and before he knew it, his lips were curling into a grin. She was there, standing right in front of him, at two in the morning, in Paris. They managed to meet again and Robert thanked his instincts for leading him to that city, after all. He found that he could become a believer in stars on this night, as their meeting must have been a consequence of some perfect alignment of stars.
"Ariadne," he replied calmly, although he felt quite the opposite. He felt unbelievably excited to be so close to her again. "You have a nice dog," he commented, knowing how lame his words sounded, his first words to her after a year, but he was too surprised, in the best possible way, to pronounce more meaningful thoughts.
For some reason, she blushed and pushed her loose hair behind her ears, a gesture of hers he had seen during their first encounter. She looked lovely when she did that.
"I'm dog-sitting, actually, but, uhm, yeah, Jimbo's a…a nice dog, I guess. Just… Unstable when off the leash."
She wried a smile. She put the dog back on the leash with trembling hands and looked up reluctantly, meeting his eyes shyly.
"What… what are you doing in Paris?" she asked him.
He shrugged his shoulders, then decided that perhaps, it was for the best to just be honest with her. "Actually… I have been kind of looking for you. Kind of… hoping I'd run into you."
Her eyes widened in surprise ever so slightly. "Me?"
She blushed again, this time the corners of her lips quivering with a suppressed smile. "That's uhm, unexpected." She cleared her throat. "So, congratulations on your new company," she continued, changing the subject. "I hear it's very successful. I read about it in a newspaper."
He chuckled. "Thanks. And you? Are you here on a job?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm having a few days off. I graduated six months ago," she added as an after-thought, biting her lip as if she'd said something that she shouldn't have.
"Congratulations," he replied and offered her his hand.
She eyed it warily, but slid her own palm against his and shook his hand. She wasn't looking him in the eyes; her gaze was focused on their entwined hands. He felt her shutting down, building a wall between them and he was nervously trying to think of words that would make her stay and not panic away from him. Instead, she kept her hand in his and asked him, without looking up, whether he would mind if she invited him for a cup of coffee.
"There's a sort of diner nearby," she rambled on, "that's open 24/7 and I thought, since you're here and we happened to meet…"
He had to laugh at her nervous expression. "I'd love that, actually." He felt strangely nervous too, as if that very moment was the most defining moment of his life, for some peculiar and inexplicable reason.
She started walking down the stairs, hiding her face behind the curtain of her hair, and he followed her promptly. Suddenly, he felt the need to stop her. She seemed so tense and he didn't like that very much. It was not exactly how he had imagined their second meeting, not that it mattered what he had imagined, anyway. He reached out and grabbed her by the elbow gently and she reacted immediately by growing stiff and halting her steps. She looked at him uncertainly.
"Do you really want us to have coffee together?" he asked directly.
She nodded, then looked up the stairs.
He sighed. "But you shouldn't and you're nervous about your team mates finding out."
She smiled a little. "Kind of. I don't know. It seems…unethical. You were a mark, remember?"
He nodded. "I thought we were over that." Then, he shrugged. "Well, I'm not mad at you, Ariadne. I'm mad at them, true, but not at you."
She looked at him in honest surprise. "So, you told me last year that you weren't angry at all, but you are now, which is totally natural and expected…yet not with me? Why?"
Was she really going to make him say it? No, she couldn't know, but she was still making him say it. If he confessed to her what he felt, it would have been the most honest thing he had ever said to a person and he felt vulnerable, a feeling he most certainly didn't enjoy. But her eyes had an effect on him. There was something about them, about her, and it was hard for him to resist it. She made him feel warm inside.
"I like you, Ariadne," he stated and was surprised at how easy it was to say what he truly meant. Once it was done, he felt lighter, but anxious at the same time because he just realized, for the first time, that he wanted her to like him back.
"You like me?" she echoed, pressing one hand against her cheek, the other one clutching at the leash. "This is…too weird," she continued.
Now he felt self-conscious and he stared at her in wonder. She had a point, though, but it did not feel nice inside.
"Well, what about it?" he countered, perhaps a bit resentfully. "So I want to get to know you. So you extract ideas from minds and incept them and God knows what else, but I still want to get to know you. And if the only thing you're afraid of is your team, then I don't see a problem. I don't want to see them, just you." He sighed. "Unless… You want me out of your life," he tried to say as calmly as he could, "in which case I'll walk away and not bother you anymore. But really, what's wrong with us… being sort of… friends?"
Her reaction startled him. She burst into laughter, covering her mouth with her hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "Let's just… let's just head for that diner, alright?"
He perked up his eyebrows. "So, this means…"
A delightfully crimson hue veiled her cheeks and he was tempted to touch them, but he refrained from it.
"Well, I shouldn't have coffee with you, but I want to. That's what it means. I guess my friends from the team will just…well, have to live with it. Although our friendship is an unnatural one…and I'll have to go through hearing some heavy sermons." She chuckled when she said that.
They started walking again and she looked at him seriously. "If we want to do this…this friendship thing…It won't be easy."
He nodded a silent agreement. She kept on talking. "I mean, first I'll have to convince my friends on the team that you won't give us away and that you have no ulterior motives in wanting to get to know me, because that is true, right?" He nodded again. "And then, I'll have to get over the fact that you know what I do for a living and I don't feel entirely comfortable about this because I am still not entirely sure that you are. And – "
"How about," he interrupted her, pausing, and she jerked to a stop by his side, "we just go with the flow."
She shook her head. "You can't say that. We can't just go with the flow here, Robert. Officially, the team doesn't exist in your knowledge, but can you still be okay with the fact that I will remain its member?"
She seemed nervous and she blabbered. Yes, she was definitely nervous, Robert mused, and it made him smile.
"What?" she asked worriedly.
"It'll work," he responded. "It will." Repeating his assurance, he took her hand and started walking, making their fingers entwine.
She followed him in a daze, her hand a dead weight in his at first and then, her fingers became alive and settled against his palm comfortably.
"Do friends hold hands?" she asked after a while, the only sound having been that of Jimbo sniffing around.
He looked at her gently. "Not really."
He stopped again. At this rate, they were not going to make it to that diner by dawn. She blushed, but tried to look composed. He realized that she looked absolutely sweet like that.
"I just came to a conclusion," he stated.
He was nervous, as if he'd never asked a girl out in his life. She made him feel vulnerable and as much as he hated his vulnerability, he liked that she was causing it this time; or at least, he was beginning to like it.
"That I might want to try something more than…friendship with you and that this diner you're taking me to could be the place of our first…date."
Her eyes widened. "You're shitting me…" she whispered.
He bit his lip. "No, I'm not. But I do feel a connection between us. Don't you?" he asked almost hopefully, but endeavored to stay calm, as if his heart wouldn't break if she said no.
She sighed. "What if it's a misplaced connection? What if it's guilt on my part and some sort of…I don't know…Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing on yours?"
At that, he had to laugh aloud and hard. "Now you're shitting me!" he said, laughing all the while.
"I'm glad I'm so amusing," she replied, half smiling, half resentful.
"I'm sorry," he replied and forced himself to stop laughing.
He hadn't laughed so hard in years. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he laughed, sincerely, without pressure. She was a wonder, she truly was.
"Well, okay, then. There's a way we can solve this issue," he suggested with a neutral tone.
She arched her eyebrows in curiosity and he bowed his head to kiss her, pressing his lips gently against hers. She stiffened and he felt her need to move away, but as he was about to break their kiss reluctantly, although his lips felt just fine settled on top of the softness of her own, she returned the kiss, released the leash and embraced his neck with her arms. Jimbo jumped around, chasing after fallen leaves and barking at a stray cat at one point, but Robert and Ariadne remained oblivious to his activities until finally, they felt the need to breathe and look into each other's eyes.
Ariadne removed her hands from his shoulders where they had settled during the long, deep kiss and crossed them awkwardly across her chest, fighting yet another blush, but remaining composed. Robert waited for the world around him to fall back into focus. He was in a daze and it felt so extraordinarily good. When they kissed, he felt like a small part of her, and she was a small part of him. There was a connection between them and it was healthy and most welcome.
He cleared his throat and asked, "So?"
"So, did you feel guilty, like you don't want to be doing this, but you are just to make me feel better?"
She cleared her throat as well. "No," she admitted. "It was nice. Very nice."
He smiled. "Good. Same here. I don't feel like a part of me died because I kissed you, so I guess I see you in a healthy way. No syndromes."
She laughed this time. "I can't believe this, but yes, you have me convinced."
"So," he said, brushing her slightly tousled hair behind her ears for her, "we're going on a date?"
"Hm, sure, yes. Uhm, yes, we are." She nodded and smiled, then bit her lip. "And we can just…go with the flow, like you said. But it's still weird, you know," she said as their fingers entwined again.
She whistled and Jimbo rushed to her side.
"Do we care?" he asked her, their eyes meeting.
She shook her head and smiled. "No. Stranger things have happened anyway."
He chuckled. "And honestly, how many people can say they're with someone they met in their dreams?"
This night was their beginning.