Been watching you waltz all night.
True fact: Ariadne is out of her goddamn mind.
There are two reasons why a person might study abroad. The reasons might combine to varying degrees – say, half and half or sixty-forty or ninety-ten – but often, people gravitate toward one or the other.
You can ask someone why they left home, and it's amazing what students will come up with. Even if they never end up at university. Especially if they never do.
But whatever the answer, whatever beautiful, elaborate, wondrous and unique bullshit they come up with, it can be hard-boiled down to one (or both) of two things:
There is a place you really want to go. Or there is a place you really want to leave.
It isn't that Ariadne ever really gave a shit about architecture.
After class on a Tuesday afternoon, Miles calls to her as she's gathering her things. She enjoys his classes, finds his lectures fascinating, and is often irritated on his behalf when other students doze off or look bored. It makes her angry, because she feels that everything this man might choose to say is valuable. Feels like she can learn everything from him, feels like he's talking about something simple like spatial flow and quality of light, but is actually thinking about a much more complex entity. Beneath everything, or encompassing it. That he's speaking in a context she isn't privy to.
She hasn't figured that part out yet, and Ariadne is quite good at figuring things out.
"Sir?" She asks, standing at her bench with her colorful textbook and her careful, well-organized notes. Her handwriting, visible on a pale, still-open page, is helplessly messy despite her best efforts. Juxtaposed with the tidiness of her possessions and appearance, it seems like a glaring and inescapable inconsistency. A plot hole; a fact of life.
"Do you have class after this? I'd like a word."
"Yes, sir," she answers, because she hasn't figured out the trick of lying for convenience. In all honesty, it's something she never quite picks up. "But I can skip. I've been working ahead, and Professor Belfry usually posts her lecture notes online."
Miles does not believe in posting lecture notes. It's one of the many things Ariadne adores about him.
They have coffee in the cafeteria. It's not bad coffee. The windows are huge and looming, angled, a bit showy because this is primarily an architecture school, but heavily mathematical instead of artsy. It's another inconsistency, she's found – art and math. Architecture takes a special kind of person, structure, a cage to restrain the chaotic brilliance of a creative mind to keep everything from falling apart. The trick is to let the inspiration out by degrees, and even if you never quite perfect that masterpiece – well, at least you never ruin anything. It's a bit of a different ball game than a painting or a sculpture, ruining buildings.
"So you are working ahead in Gisele's class," Miles states, rather than asks. "And I know you've been finished with our syllabus for a few weeks."
"Well. I'm still working on the extra reading."
Ariadne doesn't fidget, exactly, but she does keep her hands wrapped around the warm body of her paper coffee cup. She's not – well, she's maybe a little bit shy. The problem is that she's direct by nature, but it's sometimes hard for her to be on the receiving end of that directness. And she doesn't – she isn't a know-it-all, or a teacher's pet. But she feels like maybe she's doing something wrong, the way Miles is looking at her: speculative, and maybe sad.
But he is a very sad person. Ariadne can see it in him all the time, in the lines of his face, in the way he sometimes looks through her, even though she does happen to be his favorite student.
"And your other classes?" He asks gently. She looks up, meets his eyes, and tries to figure out how to explain it.
I'm still looking for something, she wants to tell him. I feel like I'm getting close, but it hasn't been covered in any of the material, in any of my classes.
Wants to say, You talk about architecture like there's freedom of movement, after the fact. It's the exact opposite of my own conception. To me, swimming in chapters about structural integrity and raw materials, clawing through blueprint layouts that will literally be set in stone – I can't imagine the endeavor as anything but semi-permanent and heavy.
Instead she says, simply, "Yes."
"Usually, when a student is above her coursework," Miles tells her, sipping his coffee (heat steams up around his lined mouth, makes red his thin lips and the front of his nose), "the signs she exhibits will be disinterest, poor marks. Avoiding class."
Ariadne doesn't say anything.
"If you feel you are not being challenged," he says, "I suppose I could assign you a special project."
Ariadne thinks of her pale cube of a room, small and sparse with her lumpy bed and her mini fridge and a shower the size of a coffin, the neat study area where she spends all of her time, alone, chasing something she isn't even sure is real. Promising herself: just one more chapter. Just one more book. Just one more essay collection, and then I'll understand.
She thinks about waking up early for university, about her scholarship, about coming home and sometimes skipping meals and doing coursework until late at night. Thinks about her big, empty weekends – because if she fills those, too, she won't have anything to do for the rest of the semester.
"Okay." She says, because part of her is terrified there is nothing to find. Part of her is concerned that she's dreamed this up, this missing piece, but even a dream is a better distraction than nothing. And if she excels, maybe they'll let her stay. Maybe they won't make her ever go home.
"If you like, I'll be grading papers again this Sunday," he offers.
Ariadne smiles. "I'd like that."
She's tried, a couple of times, to phrase the question. To ask Miles, "Is there something you aren't teaching us?" or "You talk about quality of light as if it's something you can change, something you can shape, instead of something dependent on the time of day or night."
It never sounds quite right. It sounds, to Ariadne, either petulant or demanding or disrespectful. And Ariadne is none of those things.
Miles doesn't assign her additional projects. But he does continue to invite her over to grade papers. Some of them are from her own classmates, but when she questions the integrity of this, he asks,
"Do you feel unqualified?"
She doesn't want to sound full of herself, but – the truth is the truth. Ariadne is not falsely modest. Even if she sometimes has unrealistic expectations. "No, sir."
"And do you feel that the academic future of your peers is at risk of potential plagiarism on your part?"
Ariadne snorts. "I'd sooner plagiarize myself, sir, after a night of hard drinking and two days without sleep."
So that's that. And now the only day Ariadne has to worry about is Saturday.
Once upon a time, this little girl named Ariadne was even littler. She had a mother and a father and a brother, and she was incredibly smart.
She would say, "A cheetah," when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
She would dress up in her lion costume, the one she wore in the jungle-themed school play, when they went to the grocery store. Her mother indulged her, and the cashier women laughed when she roared at them.
She went to audition for a few solo parts for the musicals, but never had the confidence to actually try out. At this age, the boys all had prettier voices than she did.
She talked about dragons in the sky, made out of clouds, talked about them like they were real.
What it boils down to, is: you have a creative, brilliant child who will eventually become a creative, brilliant adult.
It isn't fair to let her believe, to let her mind collect dots instead of just connecting them, and later hold every spare thought against her.
"Isn't it interesting," she said once, when she was much older, before she left, "that adopted children are probably statistically more likely to be happy?" Her point, which she tried to explain, was that the adoption process is heavily regulated and expensive. Her point was that people who adopted kids must really actually want them, and must be financially stable.
Her point was that people who just have kids on a whim probably aren't well-qualified for parenting at all, and none of this meant anything to Ariadne; it was just an observation. Because you can't tell people not to have kids. But you can choose not to give them one. She thought that it maybe wasn't fair, to the kid being born, that his or her parents didn't have to pass any sort of aptitude test.
What her mother said was, "How can you say that we're bad parents? You did not have a bad childhood! I don't know where you get this shit."
All Ariadne wanted was a conversation. All her mother wanted to do was watch TV.
There was a cute boy in her painting class. He wasn't exactly talented in the traditional sense, but he was handy and he worked hard, and his pieces were consistent. He came up with an idea or theme, something simple, and he built it.
Ariadne was talented, but she didn't always work hard. Stuff just sort of came together for her, though she had fewer final works. And she was not necessarily consistent, because she did not always finish everything. Sometimes she would have to turn a picture of one thing into something else entirely.
She asked this cute boy, one day, because he believed in god and the concept of a soul:
"Suppose medical technology advances to a degree that we can replace any part of the human body with synthetic parts. There is 100% cross-compatibility. Say that you have a leg replaced. Do you still have a soul?"
"Well, yeah," he says, without thinking about it too much. His name is Jonny. He has an incredibly sweet smile.
"So what if every part of your body is replaced except for your brain?"
This gives him pause, but eventually he replies: "Yes. As long as you have part of your brain, you still have a soul."
"So even though the synthetic blood vessels, cells and processes are all directly interchangeable with your own, once your brain is totally replaced, you no longer have a soul?"
"Yes." He says firmly, with polite interest. But he looks bored with the conversation, so she goes back to cutting thin strips of tissue paper, wetting it, watching the colors bleed together, and listens to whatever inane bits of conversation he comes up with.
Ariadne doesn't think a person ceases to be human, once everything is replaced. She has always held that it is the vessel itself, the shape, that matters. After all, aren't our skin cells shed every day? Aren't we a completely new person every seven years or so? And if we can replace portions of the brain, doesn't our consciousness rest in the whole of it – so that if it were replaced, piece by piece, the same thoughts would just be running on a separate track?
She thinks about Mal running a train through Yusuf's dream, trailing in through the broken door of Dom's subconscious, and wonders about immortality.
She isn't sure, of course. But she doesn't pursue a relationship with Jonny.
"We were just wondering when you were going to visit," her mother says. "You didn't come home for Christmas."
"I've just been busy, mom," Ariadne says, cell phone pinched between ear and shoulder as she sits at her tidy desk in her tidy room, hands gripping the table and shaking imperceptibly. "I'm sorry." She doesn't know why she feels the need to apologize.
"I still don't know why you didn't choose a school closer to home. Surely Boston – "
They've had this conversation so many times that Ariadne just listens, lets her mother say her piece, and doodles on a scrap of paper. She's been reading a couple of books about mazes – the topic of garden labyrinths came up in Professor Erikson's Intro to Landscaping class, and with it the story about Theseus and the Minotaur (which fascinates Ariadne for obvious reasons) – so she thinks about designing a maze that can't be solved by wall-following. Thinks about making it look simple, with lots of tricks; overly complicated, but not superficially complicated.
"Are you still there?"
"Yeah, sorry," she says.
"Are you on drugs?"
"No, mom. I'm not on drugs," Ariadne says.
"Don't think I don't know about Paris, Ariadne. Someone tried to sell me cocaine in Paris."
Once, fifteen years ago, Ariadne says silently. "No one is trying to sell me cocaine, mom."
"Well I think you work too much. Nobody doubts you've earned your scholarship, but I didn't raise a showoff. Is it really necessary for me to receive a copy of every single transcript? How are you going to meet any men with all this extra credit you're doing? You obviously don't need it for your grade."
The singular difference between Ariadne and her mother is that they are two completely separate people who want different things out of life.
Fact: Ariadne hates talking to her mother. It exhausts her and makes her feel guilty. But clearly her mother's priorities are different from her own.
Ariadne wants to be loved just as much as the next person. But she'd like to love herself, just a little bit, first.
"You think I should fail Alex?" Miles asks, raising his white eyebrows as Ariadne frowns at the paper between them.
"It's not a very good essay," she says. "It's not cohesive. His thesis isn't clearly defined. I don't think he even listened to the lecture on Wright, because the best he can come up with is 'gives the houses light.'" She glances up at her instructor. "I wouldn't pass him."
"If I graded on a curve," Miles says indulgently, "you would be my only passing student."
"My grade would have to be over a hundred and forty percent." She points out.
Miles raises an eyebrow. "Except that no one else is getting anything higher than a B, my dear, and I require a C or better to pass. And you're currently at about a hundred and twenty-five percent of the grade."
Ariadne smiles awkwardly. "Oh."
They continue grading for a time, and Ariadne is scrawling an unkind comment in the margin – she is allowed, it's not as if she signs her name or talks to her classmates; plenty of professors have TAs – when Miles sets down his pen.
"There is something I wanted to discuss with you," he begins. He doesn't look nervous, but reserved; not disappointed, but... unhappy.
"Okay." She purses her lips, tries to keep her expression blank.
"I've done my best with you," he begins, and truly looks his age. "And you must believe me when I say you are an absolutely gifted young woman. But I feel as though our university has nothing more to offer you."
Heart hammering in her chest, Ariadne thinks absurd things like, I was worried about not being good enough, and now you'll kick me out for being too good? You're going to make me go home because I'm – not mediocre?
Something of her panic must show on her face, because Miles rests a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You've done nothing wrong," he reassures her. "I only hesitate because – " he pauses, mid-sentence, which is unusual for him. He continues on a new tack, which is even more unusual.
"There is someone I would like you to meet, if you're interested. He's been working in the field. There are – " again, a strange and misplaced pause, atypical and fascinating, " – developments too recent to have made it into our curriculum."
It isn't that Ariadne ever really gave a shit about architecture. It was something she was good at; it was her ticket away from home.
But world-building? This is something she can get behind.
The first time she meets Dom Cobb, he is strange and intense and tall, forthright like he doesn't have a lot of time, but thorough. He is frustrating and impossible and she loves his ridiculous directives, arbitrary and demanding, loves the challenge he sets.
He tells her to draw a maze in two minutes, and he actually fucking times it. Pulls out his goddamn watch.
Her first thought: Who the hell do you think you are?
Her second thought: Where have you been all my life?
Because Ariadne, once again, is out of her goddamn mind – true fact – she follows this stranger to a warehouse with nothing but the word of another almost-stranger. She trusts and respects Professor Miles; but she doesn't really know him, at the end of the day.
Except maybe, by that logic, she doesn't know anyone. It makes her sad, until she realizes what you have to give up. To know someone.
So she follows him into a warehouse where he pulls out some drugs and a strange little machine, because she's some dumb tourist and not a brilliant college undergrad with guaranteed job placement and her whole stupid future ahead of her.
Then she meets a somber young man with brown hair and eyes, tall (but not as tall as Cobb), who dresses nice and guides her to a reclining chair and taps the inside her elbow like he does this everyday.
"My name is Arthur," he says, woefully competent. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Do you have any questions before we begin?" He even smiles, though it seems scripted.
"Have you done this before?" She asks, and afterwards she isn't sure why. Arthur and Cobb glance at each other over her head, and then Arthur looks back at her with a somewhat softer expression. His smile is less rehearsed.
"Many times," he reassures her, and he doesn't pat her on the shoulder. But he meets her eyes, and Ariadne realizes he's handsome. And younger than she thought.
She doesn't have time to register that first prick of the needle, she's out so fast.
Over the next few weeks, Ariadne spends a lot of time wondering if Cobb is fucking the projection of his dead wife. She can't get it out of her head, is sometimes actively looking for signs of it – but then she obsesses over her own subconscious, and what people might find if they were to rummage around even a little, so she stops.
She kind of wants to ask Arthur, but last time she'd mentioned Mal, the stutter-stop of his generally frank speech had made her feel terrifically awful. She chooses not to pursue any further conversation along this vein.
Not that he talks to her much. He's so wrapped up in research and trying to poke holes in Eames' plans that he only ever really notices Ariadne when she has a question or doesn't understand something. Which has become less and less, especially since she's gotten to the third level and has started teaching it to Eames. She more or less knows the ropes by now.
"Cobb really has something in you," the forger is saying with his charming accent, taking in the landscape. They're trudging around in the snow Ariadne's dreamed up, and for all his dry sarcasm and sharp observations, he seems – quieter, here, surrounded by the blinding whiteness. Muted, almost melancholy.
"Thank you," she says. Then, hesitant, she moves just a bit closer and touches his hand to get his attention. He looks down at her, eyebrows raised. "Do you think it – needs more?"
Eames looks away, tilts his head back, his eyes going out of focus. Like he's remembering. She knows Eames is extremely visual, that he's incredibly detail-oriented, but it fascinates and truly impresses her that he should be able to recall her maze from memory – before he's even built it. She's only just shown him the layout, after all.
"We'll have plenty of time down here," he says, blinking up at the snow. His cheeks are red beneath the thick, plaid parka he's wrapped around his face. "But I think I'd feel better if we had an alternate route."
Together, they pick apart a decent place for a shortcut. It works out, maybe even makes the dynamics a bit simpler. It's not bad. This whole thing is doable, as long as Cobb doesn't get everyone killed before they finish with Fischer.
When you die in a dream, you wake up, Ariadne tells herself. It's a small consolation.
"I'm – " she starts, only to realize she has nothing to say.
Eames glances at her, surprised. Then his expression softens and he rests a big hand on her shoulder. Everything about Eames is big: his arms, the breadth of his shoulders, his personality.
"You'll be fine, love," he assures her. "Welcome to the posh life of white-collar crime."
He's not tall like Cobb (though he's certainly taller than her), but he's solid. Even if he drifts off from time to time, he's never transient – you can always be sure he'll come back. Solid, reliable, dependable Eames.
She wishes she were certain about Cobb. And all she ever gets from Arthur is white noise, a lockbox. She can never tell what's going on in his head, but she's sure he's, at the very least, a kind person. Eames will broadcast.
But then she realizes – about the time Eames pulls a gun on her – that it's all an act, that it's just Eames going out of his way to make her feel comfortable. That she really has no idea about him, either.
She's alone in this group of people she has just met, utterly, no matter how they try to include her.
"Sorry, dear," he says, soft and regretful, because his projections have finally had it with all the messing around she's been doing. Today there are some abominable snowmen, like from that old 90s DOS game – Skifree. They are terrifying. They are here to gobble her up.
The bullet connects neatly between her eyes, and there is no pain.
When they get to the States, she calls her mother from a payphone and tells her she'll be in town later tonight. Her cell, naturally, works beautifully in France, but less so in Los Angeles.
"You couldn't bother to let us know you were coming?" Her mother sighs, exasperated. "You need to think about others once in awhile, Ari."
Ariadne thinks, I wish I hadn't fucking called you. I wish I'd just gone back home to Paris.
"I wanted to surprise you," she says instead. "I'm in LA right now on layover."
"What time are you getting in, then? I suppose you'll want someone to come get you?"
"I'll rent a car," she starts, but her mom cuts her off sharply.
"With what money?"
"I've been doing some freelance work." She thinks about all the zeros in her brand-new bank account Arthur had help her set up. "I can afford it."
Her mother doesn't sound placated, but she relents. "It'll be good to see you, honey. We've missed you. Make sure you lock the door when you come in, and try not to wake up the whole house. I'll see you in the morning." Like she's twelve, like she can't remember to lock a fucking door or walk like a normal human. Like she's not a normal human.
It's not that you never grow up. It's that, when you have, your parents ignore all sign of it.
Ariadne hangs up the phone and wanders over the luggage carousel, her mind full with the hazy images of Cobb's recent catharsis. She's said her awkward goodbye to him; he'd hardly seen her, had looked through her, had rushed off with hardly a handshake for Saito in his haste to get to his kids.
Arthur and Eames are talking, several feet apart. Eames looks – a bit closed off, shut down. He has his hands on his hips, he isn't looking at Arthur, and he's saying, "It all worked out for the best. Let it be."
Arthur shakes his head once. "I never thought you'd – ," he starts. Stops. Tries again, "I thought I'd follow him anywhere. Eames." He looks miserable, and angry, and – interrupted.
"I know, Arthur. Now run along." Eames claps his shoulder, nods his head, and Arthur raises his hand like he's going to make some kind of gesture in return. But Eames has already turned away, and doesn't see.
Arthur lets his hand fall.
"This is our happy ending, right?" Eames calls over his shoulder, but by that time Arthur's got his face boarded up tight again. Ariadne remembers being kissed, matter-of-factly, by that closed-off expression.
"Ariadne," Arthur says, nodding to her. He's standing with his sleek black carry-on, in his pressed suit, and Ariadne feels a bit like a bum, incongruous beside him with her battered duffel bag.
"Hi," she says, squinting in the sunlight. It's spilling in from the East windows. She stifles a yawn. "I hate that we left this afternoon and we've arrived this morning. I am exhausted from twelve hours of plane-sleep, and I am unapologetic about this."
He invites her to dinner, except it's really brunch. And it's bar-food, which, okay. Airport bar food.
Ariadne tears into her waffle fries with the fury of a thousand starving warlords. Arthur picks neatly at his salad, beside her, while she thinks about ordering a screwdriver. It's hardly eleven, but she feels like they should do something – celebratory. And anyway, it's definitely an acceptable drinking time in Sydney.
Except probably not, because in Sydney, it's tomorrow.
"So Yusuf and Eames are already on their way back to Mombasa?" Ariadne asks around a nice, sober glass of water.
"Yeah," Arthur says. He talks with his mouth full. Ariadne is fascinated. "I think he's – I think he might be moving to Paris, though. He mentioned it."
"Great," Ariadne says warmly, and he glances at her, expression unreadable. "I just mean – I'm still studying, so. It'll be nice to have a friend in the area."
Arthur chews his lettuce. It's coated in some kind of tangy vinaigrette that Ariadne can smell distinctly. Somewhere in the recesses of his well-defined jaw is the hard crunch of a carrot.
After a minute or two she tries, "How long are you in town for?"
"I haven't decided. With Cobb home, I don't think – " He furrows his eyebrows at his plate, then glances over at her. "I've worked with him for a long time. And since Mal died, I haven't run point for anyone else."
"Oh," Ariadne murmurs, and tries to frame her next question. 'Do you have a day job,' doesn't really seem acceptable. "Do you have work outside of dreamshare?" She finally hazards.
"Here and there," he answers, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin. He sort of misses a spot. "What about you?" he asks. "Are you flying back to Paris?"
"Connecticut," she says. "Since I'm here, I thought I'd visit my parents."
"You don't sound too enthusiastic about it." Arthur orders coffee and the bartender brings Ariadne a mug, too.
She glances over at him, and is a bit startled to find him looking at her face. "Well - well no. But parents, guilt trips. Et cetera."
"Right," Arthur says, pulling his eyes away. His expression changes from polite interest to something wooden, detached.
Ariadne reaches over and dips a waffle fry into his salad dressing.
He watches her hand, but he's sort of staring vacantly the way Cobb was, earlier: through her. Like she doesn't even register.
Then his face clears and he leans back, and then the check comes and he catches it up before Ariadne can make a grab for it.
"I'll take care of it," he says, giving her a tight smile that nevertheless reaches his eyes. "Welcome to the team."
While he waits to sign the receipt, Ariadne tries to figure out what she's going to do for the next four hours.
"I'll leave the tip," she says
"Fine," Arthur acquiesces, and puts his wallet away. He wipes his mouth again and stands up. Ariadne leave six dollars on the table.
"So have you been to LA before?" He asks, eyes scanning the crowd. Ariadne isn't sure what he's looking for.
"Just the airport," she says, shouldering her duffel.
Arthur glances down at her, head tilted like he's rolling something over in his head, considering it from all angles before tucking it away.
With a hot jolt, she recognizes it from the second dream level, Arthur's upscale corporate hotel. Before he kissed her.
"Your flight to Hartford leaves at three?"
"Right," Ariadne confirms, still wrestling with this unexpected surge of feeling. She hadn't felt it at all on the job, had simply dealt with the team – Arthur included – on their own terms. Cobb was pushy and maybe crazy, so she pushed back and made some arguably irrational decisions of her own. Yusuf was funny and a bit shy and just this side of unscrupulous, and Ariadne told him terrible knock-knock jokes until Arthur barked at them to get back to work.
Eames wasn't around very much, but when he was, he was charming and intelligent and well-read, and they talked about Lord Byron a little bit. They never finished the conversation, and Ariadne will periodically wish very strongly that they had.
Arthur, cool and practical, worked with her in tandem and filled in her knowledge base as needed. They didn't have any conversations outside the realms of the job, and Ariadne is the kind of person who has no ulterior motives. So she is always surprised to stumble across anyone else's.
"You're not going to get in until eleven, Eastern time. And that's if there aren't any delays, which is unlikely."
"It's true," Ariadne says. "You think I should stay in LA today?"
"I think," Arthur says, "you should leave tomorrow morning instead of this afternoon."
Says, "They've got some great museums around here."
Says, "I haven't been to any of them for several years."
Ariadne texts her mother:
flight cancelled. see you tomorrow/dinner.