Chapter 1: Hello
Fischer-Morrow's company dissolved quickly…quietly, not so much. It was the country's favorite news story for months: television, interviews, newspapers, internet polls. It even transcended past the States' borders since they had been a world power. The only news to top it, came in the form of Saito's rise to energy monopolization, a year after the successful Inception.
Cobb and his kids had settled back into a normal routine, though they clung to him. The first couple of months they would cry in the mornings when he dropped them off at school. Separation anxiety was a side effect of his extensive absence. Over time, they trusted that he wasn't going anywhere. After all, when he did, they came with him. He prided in how grown up they had become since he'd left. Philippa was a regular eight year old going on twenty-eight and quite the esteemed ballerina. Dom had had the pleasure of seeing her fifth recital and watch her prance across the stage to accept the little trophy she was awarded for the accomplishment. James who'd just gotten speaking down pat when Cobb skipped town, was spouting out phrases like a pro and starting first grade. Mrs. Miles was able to move back to Paris with Stephen and the two visited four or five times since. Most times they brought Miles' favorite student along, whom the kids adored.
Eames was living comfortably back home in London, after a six month detour in Dubai for good measure. As can be expected he gambled and picked up women on his vacation. Yusuf went back to Mombasa. His underground business constantly needed attention, especially when word got out of his involvement in the job of the millennium. Clientele picked up rapidly and demand for his sedatives from different extraction teams went through the roof. He didn't complain though. It kept him busy in the work he loved. Arthur's whereabouts since the Inception were unknown, as to be expected. There were a few jobs he'd done in between like they all had. He fell off the grid for the necessary time period, most likely in the States. And what of the Architect?
The ceremony hadn't lasted unbearably long but they had asked everyone to wait outside the venue while the parties of honor changed clothes. Miles had changed out of his robe and greeted the group first. People flooded out of the doors in waves, none of whom you'd recognize. Until a little farther below the rest were the bouncing brown curls of Ariadne. She'd turned in her robe in favor of a flowing, flowery, coral sundress and respectable wedges. However, the many cords symbolizing her rank and achievements still draped off her shoulders and her graduation cap was still clutched in her hand. Her eyes searched the crowd and first fell upon her grandmother who stood at the exit. Ariadne's face lit up with a million watts and she hugged the one woman shorter than her. "Maman!" The elder of the two's eyes were shining as she told her granddaughter just how proud she was of her in French, bestowing kiss after kiss on her cheek. Standing behind her grandmother was a tall lanky boy in a blazer and docks. His half smile was barely contained as he waited for her to notice, but notice she did. "Alex?"
"Hey graduate," he simpered, "You better thank me for missing Comic-Con to fly up here and see you. My internal clock is royally screwed up." Her younger brother picked her up and squeezed her, handing her a bouquet of pink roses from him. The Architect asked where their parents were and sure enough bounding around the corner with open arms they came. "My daughter is genius!" Her father (who was surprisingly much much taller than you'd assume) handed her another bunch of flowers. "Our daughter, Gerard." Her mother nudged her husband and gave Ariadne a squeeze.
The Cobbs waited across the park patiently for Ariadne. Or tried to. Philippa and James started fidgeting as soon as they laid their sweet little eyes on her. Their father had told them it was polite for them to wait and give her family time to congratulate her first. So as soon as her mother let go of her, James escaped Cobb's grip and ran over to her. A skipping Philippa followed. "Ari! Ari! We saw you walk across the stage!" Pleasantly surprised, the (official real-life) Architect knelt in front of the blonde, "Did you?"
"Mhm! And I clapped louder than everyone else!" He stated proudly wrapping his arms around her neck. Her parents laughed and cooed at the cute beings.
"Well thank you, James."
Just then, Philippa came bounding up, "Hey Auntie Ari! Congratulations on your S—sumo Cone Luau thing."
"Thanks!" She laughed at the girl's botched pronunciation of her honors title while Philippa squeezed her tight and kissed her on the cheek.
"Do you like my outfit?" She pointed to a triangle of fabric hanging from her neck, "I'm wearing the scarf you gave me for Christmas!"
She handed James the 'funny shaped hat' he'd been asking about and let him try it on as she answered, "Yeah Pip, looking good. I wish I would've worn mine so we could've matched."
Behind the kids, Cobb and Miles strolled up. Naturally, Cobb handed her a bouquet of flowers from the three of them and Miles offered another bear hug and small bouquet of his own. Ariadne introduced everyone to her Professor and good friend and though there was no introduction needed, the children wanted to be officially presented to her family. After introductions, Cobb offered for the team to take her out for a celebratory dinner the next day to give her the rest of the day with her undoubtedly proud family.
It was a beautifully rich sunset the evening the team met up at a restaurant out of city near Versailles. The place they picked for dinner was a favorite of the richer locals and was one of the few eateries that had private dining rooms upon request. It was no surprise that as Ariadne arrived—strolling behind the host—the kids immediately started to fuss over who got to sit by her. First, she hugged Miles, then Dom, then finally smiled down at the jumping beans that showered her with pictures they'd drawn on postcards they bought her. They didn't realize that Ariadne didn't need souvenir pictures from where she lived but the sentiment was there and their cute scribbles were too so she was grateful. "Can I sit by you, Ari?"
"Sure," Ariadne grinned and stuffed her "presents" into her bag, "Will you take my purse and pick us out a spot?"
The blonde girl nodded enthusiastically and proudly put Ariadne's bag over her shoulder. She strutted around the table looking for the perfect seat. "Hey!" whined the blonde boy, "What about me?"
The Architect pointed, "I have two sides don't I?"
Miles interjected, "James, let Philippa and someone else sit next to Ariadne."
"No!" He clung to her leg.
"You can sit next to Uncle Arthur." Cobb compromised with him.
Ariadne face twisted into confusion, "Uncle Arthur?" Was it the same Arthur she was thinking of? Bored-face, killjoy Arthur? The sharp dressed man with the dull sense of humor? James squealed with excitement and satisfactorily went to sit across from his sister to wait. Ariadne, on the other hand, turned to come face to chest with a pressed black suit, pinstripe collared dress shirt and green tie. She slid her eyes up and found herself staring at the Point Man, "Hi…?"
"Good evening." He offered a nod. Yes, it was definitely the one she had in mind. Bored-faced and killer of joys. Add 18th century English speaking to the list. And rat-pack wannabe.
Ariadne's eyes cut to the side to find where Pip had hung her purse over a chair. Maybe she should fish out her totem and tip it right quick. There was no way he'd come on his own. Did Eames trick him? Or did someone talk him into it and drag him over? "What are you doing here?"
"Commemorating your job well done?" Arthur squinted his beady brown eyes and explained it with the least condescension he could. Because, well, this was her graduation dinner from the team, so his appearance was obvious. "I apologize, though. I attended the ceremony but had to step away before I could speak with you afterwards."
What? He'd been to the ceremony? But she hadn't seen him. Not a glimpse. Hadn't felt his pompous, all knowing presence. Or the tall, dark and handsome presence she didn't want to admit got her flustered sometimes. (That part of him belonged to an alter ego, she was pretty sure.) Had he been sitting with Cobb? How did he even know she was graduating? Then again, he was Arthur. "You were there?" She didn't even try to hide the shock and disbelief in her tone.
One of his eyebrows rose, "Yes. Why does that fact surprise you?" He knew exactly why.
Arthur had not received an invitation from her. The only reason he'd known about her graduation was through his own research, checking up on her. He found her name in the database and a digital copy of the general invitation. It being such a big deal for her to graduate with her degree and being an important day for her, he thought it amiable to be there. Especially since he considered himself somewhat of a mentor to her in dreamshare. He wouldn't have to make himself known. He would merely show up, watch her walk, smile to himself and travel back to the States. So imagine his surprise when he showed up in the arena and saw Cobb and his family sitting proudly in the audience. Cobb and his spidey senses (he was still paranoid) had felt eyes on his family and spotted Arthur right away then called him over to sit with them. Entirely flabbergasted he came, Cobb asked if Arthur had heard if Eames had landed yet and what he thought of the invitation, briefly laughing and sharing that he'd had to make a copy of her picture because the kids had fought over who could keep it. Said they insisted her invite be on the fridge. James kept her picture on his bedside table by the drawing pad she got him and Philippa kept it in her Hello Kitty wallet to take wherever she went to brag about her Auntie Ari. As if hearing them, Philippa agreed and pulled out the picture excitedly, "See? She looks so pretty in this picture…what did you do with your picture, Uncle Arthur?" To which he replied, "I didn't get one." Philippa aww'ed and offered for her father to make a copy of it. While Cobb (feeling awkward then) asked if he was sure…because she had sent one to Yusuf (he couldn't make it but sent his regards and a lovely card) and Eames (who apparently was on a flight over to see it)…maybe his got lost in the mail…
Or not. Arthur reminded him: Ariadne and the Point weren't on close terms. Of course she wouldn't invite him, he didn't mean much to her- Her voice brought him back from the earlier events of the day, "Well, not that you're not welcome but I just—I didn't invite you."
"Oh I know." His humorless laugh bubbled forth before his stony façade reclaimed his features, "May I ask why I was the only member of The Team that didn't receive an invitation?"
She brought her hand to the back of her neck and started to rub it, "I actually had an invitation for you but I—" She fidgeted with the umpire waistline of her dress and stuttered out her answer. Ariadne felt put on the spot but knew she deserved to be there, "chickened out at the last second because honestly, I was sure you wouldn't come. I thought you'd probably throw it away." The woman shrugged with a false sense of indifference, "It would've been a waste of tree."
A reaction to her answer didn't show in Arthur's body language or facial expression. And good luck to the person who tried to find a fluctuation in his tone when he asked, "What would give you that idea?" Inside, however, (though he expected nothing different from her in her reply) he was offended she'd think he would ignore her or throw it away. Surely, she didn't remember him as being rude or cold to her during Inception…right?
"You?" Ariadne had already accepted the matter and the nervousness left her when she went back to stating her brutally honest thoughts, "I know you don't like keeping ties with people. An invitation felt personal and you tend to avoid things like that."
"My friendship with Cobb has lasted nearly nine years." He stated it as a fact in the encyclopedia. Whether it was meant to be defensive or not, she couldn't tell. Ariadne couldn't ever tell anything around him.
"Cobb's special, obviously." On cue, she met the Extractor's eyes and he attempted to smile and wave while telling James to put up his silverware and reminding Philippa to sit on her bottom and wait to take out her drawing pad after they ordered.
(And yet, Arthur was here. Celebrating the Architect's graduation, a thing he would never normally do. So wasn't she obviously a bit special as well? He wouldn't make that point.)
When Ariadne turned back to Arthur he was holding out a small-ish blue envelope with her name clearly and cursively dancing across it. Even his handwriting looked strict…the strokes didn't flow, they cut like numbers. "Here," said he, as flat as the table behind them or the wood on the floor.
Ariadne sarcastically thought to herself how sweet it was that he was shoving a card in her face with a visage and tone like someone had just died. He did find a way to be pessimistic about everything. He probably saw her momentous day of graduation and liberty as the death of her education. An eternal goodbye to her Universite. Arthur was wearing black, wasn't he? She bit back her snort. "A card too?" The Architect's eyebrows raised; she feigned excitement and he could tell she was mocking him. Not that she didn't appreciate him showing up or thought the card was beneath her. In fact, on the inside she was pretty ecstatic that he'd materialized at her celebratory dinner. What she didn't appreciate was his uncaring and aloof way of going about it. It was almost as if he showed up just because he hadn't received an invitation and wanted to prove a point that he could find out anyway. Ariadne didn't appreciate that the card was just a formality; Arthur was too proper and too much of a gentleman to show up without anything to give. "You've outdone yourself, Arth—"
Two giant, rough hands covered her eyes and the stench of Old Spice (in excess) filled her senses, "Guess who?" The British accent was undeniable too. It was kind of cheating to 'guess'.
"EAMES!" She pulled his hands off her eyes, turned with lightheartedness and comfortably dove into his all-encompassing, teddy bear-like embrace. The Forger lifted her off her tip toes and choked her with enthusiasm, "I'm so sorry I couldn't make it to your graduation, Peanut. My flight was delayed! I envisioned every bit of it."
"Oh, it's fine." She waved off as he put her down. "I still did the twirl for you before I stepped off the stage though." Arthur remembered that. After she'd accepted the diploma, shook hands with the dean and others, before she descended down the stairs on the other side she'd thrown in a twirl. "You owe me fifty bucks."
"I'm pitching in to buy your dinner, aren't I?"
"Have you missed me?" Eames effortlessly asked the question. The Parisian rolled her eyes and rested her hand on her heart melodramatically, "With every cell in my body…obviously…"
Eames pointed to his cheek demandingly, "Then where's my kiss?" Ariadne obliged and bestowed a loud kiss on his stubbly cheek. Arthur stood there bunglingly and watched the exchange. He found interest in the artwork on the walls by the table to forget the warm interaction she offered the Forger and how it could've but never would be the way she greeted Arthur. To entertain the idea of it was inappropriate. Eames on the other hand skillfully revealed a bouquet of sunflowers from behind his back, "These are for you. Best in the shop I assure you." Eames threw in a wink, "Now where are you sitting? I claim your side."
"Oh, where the red purse is." He looked and made his way over there, taking the flowers back and promising to put them over there for her. Arthur watched the Forger with disdain. The British man was always so conceited; he believed he was God's gift to women. Of course he needed the undivided attention of the only woman in the party. Next he'd be sweet talking Philippa… "Well isn't this a beauteous young lass? Dominic Cobb, why didn't you tell me you had a princess in our company tonight?"
With the Graduate's attention back on Arthur, her mouth formed a close lipped smile and started to rip open the envelope. (Expecting that's the reason he'd waited out her greeting with the bane of his existence). Arthur, however, clasped the unopened side to stop her. "Read it later." He was feeling outdone by Eames and he hated that feeling. In hindsight, he reprimanded himself furiously. Flowers after her big day would've been most appropriate. Traditional. It was basic protocol for graduation, damn it. Nothing more than a nice thought. She wouldn't have read anything into it…not with all the other gifts and arrangements presented to her. Arthur didn't even include a check or gift card in the envelope. Why had he overthought this? Arthur didn't portray a gentlemanly friend who'd thought about her. Instead, he looked like the cheap asshole who'd sprung for a card in convenience just so he would have something, anything, to proffer.
For what must have been the millionth time since he'd shown up, the snarky Architect lifted her brows at him. This time in amusement, though. Why would he care if she read it now? It was probably no more than one sentence with as little meaning as humanly possible and a scrawled 'A' at the bottom for a signature.
The only seat unoccupied once Arthur returned from the bathroom was across from Eames in between Cobb and James. When he sat, was the first time the Brit had even noticed his presence. Why, lord, why couldn't the Point Man have remained invisible to Eames the entire night? "Arthur…?" His eyes narrowed and looked to Cobb in askance. "What are you doing here? This is a friends' get-together. You don't have friends."
"Mr. Eames…" Miles scolded.
The former unfolded his napkin and placed it in his lap, "What? I can't be the only one shocked he showed up. Aren't you, darling?" his elbow poked the Architect.
She felt the awkward tension hanging in the air and avoided eyes by opening the menu and scanning, "A little." She did look at Arthur though, "I mean you're the only one I haven't seen all year…Which makes sense," She defended for him, "It is you." Shrugging, the woman smoothed everything over by asking, "What have you been up to since Inception?"
Arthur swallowed, "A few jobs…mostly laying low." After a sip of his water (how bland must a person be?), he put an end to the conversation before it started by unfolding his menu in front of his face.
Ariadne smirked at Cobb and joked, "Of course, he'd answer vaguely, right?" Cobb forced a laugh.
Dinner was enjoyable. Ariadne constantly giggled and blushed at the onslaught of praise. Miles was undoubtedly a proud Professor: speaking of her as his protégé, how he knew she had it in her, how he couldn't wait to see the great things she was yet to accomplish, how he was her biggest fan. Ariadne dutifully played Tic Tac Toe with Philippa and answered Eames' nosy questions. And once they all felt full and satisfied, Miles bid her a goodbye and took the yawning kids back to the hotel while Eames ordered a round of drinks. From there she was teased with the prospect of a new job.
It was the perfect ending to the perfect day. She got a license to build in reality and the opportunity to once again build in the dream. After tipping her totem repeatedly, Ariadne took a shower, slipped into her polka dot pajama pants and Universite t-shirt (now it was just a memory of another closed chapter in her life) and then put a pot of Camomille tea on the stove. As she waited for the kettle to boil, she clipped the stems off of her flowers (the millions) and set them in vases on her bookshelf. Well, two were in vases. As a college student she hadn't owned much. In fact, she didn't even own those…her roommate Elise loved plants and left a few vases behind when she moved to Barcelona last semester. The last bouquet (Eames' sunflowers) were cut real short and propped up in the tallest glass she could find. The tv was turned on to some old reruns of a French sitcom, when the kettle's whistle blew. Ariadne poured the beverage into her bright red mug (she had every color of the rainbow now. They had been the first thing she bought after the money from Inception had been wired to her account. Before the job, she had only been able to afford one and the handle on it had broken. Since her love and/or addiction to coffee and tea could not be extinguished, she had stubbornly kept using the mug and it's stub of an arm. Needless to say, once she had the money, she promptly found a rainbow set of mugs and cherished them more than a normal person would appreciate.) and added some sugar. It was warm and cozy to snuggle into her sofa, wrap her heavy blanket around her and sip. On one of the commercials, Ariadne's eyes slid to her red sling and remembered the blue envelope that waited inside. Curious as to which generic phrase Arthur had chosen… (Congratulations, Ariadne or You've got a bright future ahead.) perhaps Arthur opted to leave nothing but the printed words and the one letter that signified his name. Pigs would fly the day she could wheedle the second initial out of him. So, the Architect was largely taken aback when she found not one string of cliché words but a small paragraph in Arthur's careful handwriting. Careful. Yes, it wasn't so clear cut and shapeless…it was just careful. Precise. He'd taken his time. Ariadne took another sip of her tea and set it down to focus her attention on the note:
To Ariadne, on your Graduation Day.
Sincere congratulations. Your hard work and dedication have most certainly paid off; I pity the people who've ever doubted your abilities. The world as well as this team is lucky that you've decided to share your talents with it and I look forward to seeing what many more accomplishments you achieve, hopefully with the honor of it being firsthand. You must be extremely proud of yourself. I admit that I am.
If Ariadne didn't know any better, she would say that she'd detected a warmth, however subtle, in his card that had not been present at dinner…which might've been her fault; she never sent an invitation and he felt slighted. (Did Arthur feel? That theory wasn't very strong.) She would've been upset too. (Then again she was a humanoid therefore different.) The Arthur that signed the card seemed a little more like the Arthur who'd comforted her after her first stabbing with Mal. The Arthur who tricked a kiss out of her in the second level and was a continuous reassurance for a week in the first. The Arthur that didn't piss her off…the Arthur that she secretly had a little…interest in. The girl read the card over again and then propped it on her coffee table, exchanging it for her mug.
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