Ariadne sipped her coffee, Cobb checking his watch for the thousandth time and huffing. “Relax,” she said. “You’re stressing me out…besides Arthur said they were coming, and he’s like…the most reliable person ever.”
“And yet he’s late,” Cobb quipped, checking his watch again.
Ariadne rolled her eyes with a shake of her head. “Calm down, Cobb, they have a kid now. You knew it wasn’t going to be the same as it used to. Cut them a little slack, ok? And don’t get on their case when they get here either. They’ve been out of the game for a few years now and aren’t too likely to come back if you’re a dick right off the bat.”
Cobb shot her a glare. “Thanks for the advice Ariadne. Not like I haven’t known Arthur for almost twelve years or anything or am completely devoid of any professionalism.”
She snorted. “Sure, Cobb.”
It wasn’t long before Arthur finally arrived. Ariadne thought she was hallucinating when she saw him jog across the street to them. Arthur never hurried, he never looked out of place but there he was, rushing like he was late to class. He almost looked flustered, another first for Ariadne. It suddenly felt like it had been a million years since she last saw him, but other than being flustered he looked about the same. The only thing he was missing was a vest, otherwise well dressed in a suit and fashionable shoes.
“Sorry for the lateness,” he said with a nod. Ariadne pulled him into a hug and kissed his cheek, which earned her a bemused smile. “You’re looking well,” he said, taking in her own perfectly tailored jacket and skirt. She’d come a long way from her borderline frumpy college clothes, and had picked this outfit, uncomfortable heels and all, with an overwhelming desire for her old co-worker’s approval. She was delighted when she received it.
“Where’s Eames?” Cobb asked, shaking Arthur’s hand in such a “bro” way Ariadne had to bite her tongue to keep from commenting on it. She knew Cobb had been as excited to be reunited with them as she was, and wasn’t fooled in the slightest.
“He’s on his way. We had to pick up Elsa and were already late so I ran ahead.”
Ariadne had only ever seen Elsa in pictures. Her baby photo had actually been her desktop background for a while, and then there had been a couple non-descript Christmas Cards when she was two and three. There was no denying she was Arthur’s kid in that in both pictures she’s been impeccably dressed.
“You look good,” Ariadne said to him, keeping the conversation rolling. “I almost expected you to show up in an Elmo t-shirt and sweatpants.”
Cobb laughed. “Sweatpants? I’ve never even seen him in jeans.”
Arthur had this conspiratorial little grin, complete with dimples. He scratched absently at his chin and shrugged. “Come on now, guys, work is work. All bets are off when I’m home.”
Ariadne brightened. “Really? Sweatpants? Pictures or it didn’t happen.”
“They’re actually Eames’, but he doesn’t seem to mind me borrowing them,” Arthur said with a wink. Ariadne should have been horrified that she was practically shaking with schoolgirl glee, but this was Arthur, she didn’t have to prove anything to him.
“And all the shit you gave me when I had kids,” Cobb chided fondly. “Shame you didn’t do this earlier, we could have arranged playdates.”
“You’d always told me Eames was bad news,” Arthur said with a smile. “Remember?”
Cobb shrugged. “He has,” he said. “But this guy I worked with sorted him out.”
Ariadne let them chat, her eyes wandering as she waited for Eames. She suddenly caught sight of a little girl by a news stand. Her eyes bugged out of her head as she took in the Jackie Kennedy sunglasses and Breakfast at Tiffany’s up-do complete with pearls and a tiara. Her tulle black dress very Ballerina Princess on Park Avenue, silk ribbons tied in big bows atop her shoulders. Jesus Christ, she was like a socialite’s little personal Barbie doll. Then the little girl reached up and took hold of a man’s hand, and the man turned from the news stand, tucking a newspaper under his arm.
Scratch that, Eames turned.
Eames, former con man and forger was holding mini Holly Golightly’s hand.
That was fucking Elsa!
“Christ on sale,” Ariadne murmured.
Cobb looked over and blanched, obviously having the same train of thought. They all three stood in silence as Eames crossed the street with the little girl, her black Mary Janes clicking on the pavement. Eames was wearing a deep purple shirt with an open collar and light grey trousers, his hair parted to the side and slicked as usual. He strolled casually, his free hand in his pocket. Holly Golightly….Elsa, Ariadne had to remind herself…had the same carefree stroll as her father, her upturned chin making her look rather above it all. As they drew closer, she realized the little girl’s lips were pink and shiny with gloss, albeit well applied and un-smudged.
Ariadne’s head swung round to Arthur, her jaw appropriately gaping. “Lipgloss?” she asked with raised brows. “Do I even know you?”
He smiled, offering nothing more than a shrug to her and Cobb. Eames took his sweet time walking over to them, not even taking his hand out of his pocket to kiss Arthur on the lips in greeting. He gave Cobb a nod and a smile, and leaned down to give Ariadne a little peck on each cheek.
Eames looked her up and down in appraisal, pursing his full lips and practically purring, “You look good.”
Ariadne smiled, wanting to say something witty but unable to guarantee she’d be able to stop herself from using any expletives. If she hadn’t absolutely adored Arthur she would have been beyond jealous; with those lips and that charm, Eames was very easy to be enamored with.
Eames looked down at the little girl, drawing on her hand so that she’d walk forwards. He gestured between the two girls, looking at Ariadne when he said “This here is Elsa, hard to believe this is the first time you’ve met her.”
It was, and before this moment Ariadne had felt like she’d known Elsa to some extent. But the Elsa in her head wore jeans from the children’s department at Bergdorf Goodman Arthur had selected mixed with some gaudy shirt Eames found. She had Escher posters on her walls, her favorite movie was Labyrinth, and she could tie a perfect Windsor knot. Now though…well she was still too damn shocked to know what she thought now.
“Hello,” Elsa said, still perfectly composed and sure of herself. She raised a hand for Ariadne to shake.
“You’ve got pretty nails,” Ariadne said, taking in the deep pink shade. “Did you do them yourself?”
Elsa shook her head, pointing to Arthur. “Daddy did them this morning while I watched Sesame Street.”
Ariadne glanced over to Arthur with brows raised. “This morning, huh?” she asked, her tongue literally in her cheek.
Elsa nodded. “Poppa’s not allowed to do them anymore, he’s too messy.” She sighed and inclined her head towards Eames, in a tone that a grown woman might use in an ‘he’s utterly useless but don’t we all still love him’ sort of way. Eames reached down and took off her sunglasses with pursed lips and a wry smile. She had grey blue eyes like Eames, and dark hair like Arthur. Ariadne realized she didn’t know which of them was actually her biological father, but supposed it worked out so perfectly that it didn’t matter. Everything down to her extravagant yet polished outfit was a perfect blend of the two.
Eames was introducing Elsa to Cobb, reminding her that they had met when she was very young. Ariadne looked over and realized Arthur was looking at her, almost nervous. She realized with a little thrill he was looking for her signal of approval. She smiled softly, raising a hand and pressing it over her heart, giving it a tap. Arthur visibly relaxed, reaching out to give her a little nudge. Cobb and Eames were chatting, and when it became clear that they would continue for a while, she broke away from them and went to Arthur. Arthur lifted her into his arms with practiced ease, settling her against a hip and finally she looked like a little girl, a proper kid even if all dolled up.
“Ok, kiddo,” Ariadne said conspiratorially, hands on hips. “I want the dirt on your dads.”
Elsa finally showed a little interest and perked up. She tilted her chin and Ariadne swore she could see Arthur’s “challenge accepted,” face.
“Who lets you get away with more?”
Elsa pointed to Eames. “Poppa,” she said.
“Who’s the better cook?”
“Daddy” she said, putting her arms around Arthur’s neck. “But poppa and I make scones on the weekend.”
“Who’s better at bedtime stories?”
Elsa considered this. “Poppa, he does all the voices and faces.” She glanced at Arthur, who pouted his lower lip. “He does, daddy,” she said, patting his head.
“Who is the better playmate?” Ariadne asked, and Elsa again patted Arthur on the head.
“Daddy is really silly, he lets me put his hair in pigtails and plays Barbies with me. But Poppa plays monster with me and likes to be the check in lady when we play doctor.”
“Who picked out that dress?” Ariadne asked with a quirked brow.
Elsa twirled her finger in the air and flamboyantly pointed to herself. “And my shoes too. Poppa picked out my crown,” she touched her tiara. “Cause I’m a princess.”
“My mind is blown,” Ariadne said more to herself than to Elsa. “Are you in kindergarten?”
“Did your daddies cry when they dropped you off?” she asked.
Elsa smiled, revealing a missing tooth. She pointed to Eames, biting her lip and scrunching her nose.
“Your Poppa’s a big baby,” Ariadne said with a toothy grin, tossing a look at Eames, who was still talking and none the wiser.
“A big baby,” Elsa echoed, looking over at her dad with a giggle.
Ariadne looked over at Arthur. “Tell the truth, did you cry?” she asked him, trailing a finger tip down her cheek. Arthur tried to hold back a telling smile and failed. “In the privacy of my own home,” he said adamantly. “Not outside the school in front of the crossing guard like some people.” He shot a look over at Eames fondly and shifted his old on Elsa. Eames looked over and caught his eye, and Ariadne saw Arthur’s whole face light up.
Beaming. Arthur was positively beaming.
Eames and Cobb joined them, Elsa’s sunglasses perched atop Eames’ head. Ariadne plucked them off, putting them on. “I’m stealing these,” she said playfully. “I covet that necklace too. I’m expecting an amazing Christmas present this year, boys.”
“I think you’re making enough to buy a pair for yourself, these days,” Cobb said, his hands in his pockets.
“Free is always better,” she countered, handing the sunglasses back to Elsa. “So am I going to see you guys at the office any time soon?” She looked over at Eames, who was currently rolling up his sleeves. He looked over at Arthur, poker face in place. “We’re available for consultation and assistance, more if the job is a ‘corporate’ one,” Eames said. Travel is a bit of an issue, but Cobb here assures me that we can work around that.”
Cobb nodded, his arms folded over his chest.
“I mean it, Cobb,” Arthur said. “Above board, all of it. No surprises.”
“Don’t worry, Arthur,” Cobb said. “I learned my lesson last time. Ariadne and I have been moving towards more legitimate work. It’s easier to find now that Dreamshare is out of the hands of the military. I’m happy to stay in one place with my kids too, Ariadne has been doing further research in dream structure…I wouldn’t be coming to you if things weren’t different, Arthur, you were quite clear about that when you left.”
Cobb had a hand on Arthur’s shoulder now. He had a way of migrating towards the person he was talking to, a move she’d seen him make on many a mark, and if she couldn’t personally verify everything he’d said herself, she probably wouldn’t have believed him. “Cobb’s right,” she piped up. “It’s been so much easier lately, so nice to not have to worry about lying low. I’m working with my old professor in shared dreaming theory and how it impacts dream architecture. There’s no way I’d be able to do this if we were still running from Cobol. Saito stuck to his word and really helped up lose some enemies…it’s better now.”
Eames sighed through his nose, his brows furrowed as he met Arthur’s eyes. “What do you think, darling?”
Arthur’s lips were a firm line, his arm tightening around Elsa. Her fingers idly toyed with his collar, oblivious to their conversation. Eames walked over to him and wrapped an arm about his waist, his lips pressing into the hair above Arthur’s ear. He muttered something into Arthur’s ear, and the other man nodded, his eyelids dropped to half mast. Eames murmured something else, rubbing Arthur’s lower back gently. Arthur kissed Elsa’s cheek, and she in turn began playing with a loose strand of his hair.
“A trial basis,” Arthur said. “No promises.”
Ariadne grinned, immediately looking to Cobb. She was surprised at how relieved he looked, his shoulders relaxing and his smile at last broad and genuine.
“Fantastic,” Cobb said. “To get our working relationship restarted, can we take you out to dinner?”
“Sounds good,” Eames mused, glancing to Elsa. “But the place has to have chicken strips.”