If there was one thing that Ariadne Porter was comforted by, it was numbers. They didn't lie, ever, and could do amazing things if they were worked with properly. She had always enjoyed math classes, then physics and astronomy; it had never occurred to her growing up that those weren't "appropriate" topics of interest. Her father was a computer engineer and her mother was an art teacher. Constantly exposed to their fields of interest and the high school where they taught, Ariadne had thought it natural that she gravitated toward sciences. Stars were a wonderful blend of math, physics and the mythologies that she devoured in elementary school. Legends of powered people and the gods were fascinating, and her mother took her to art museums in New York City on vacation to show her classical art that had been influenced by mythology. Even her own name was a myth, one she had been overjoyed to read. Well, not the fact that Theseus left Ariadne behind on Naxos, but the part where she was a princess and was clever about trying to help those she loved. That part entranced her as a child.
She zipped through college and graduate school, and ultimately was drawn to the more esoteric aspects of astrophysics. She was one of the few that didn't immediately discount Jane Foster's work on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge; her Ph.D. advisor Stephen Miles had contacted his friend from grad school, who had turned out to be Jane Foster's postdoc advisor Erik Selvig. Introductions via e-mail were made, and the two occasionally corresponded regarding papers that Jane published and some of the research into dark matter that Ariadne found herself drawn to. She had been hoping to meet Jane in person at the AAS, but had been ill that week and couldn't attend. Jane had been bogged down with her own presentation at the conference, so they planned to meet at the next Division Meeting in the area.
But then Puente Antigua became a hotbed of interstellar activity because Jane was right, and she became a sensation in the astrophysics world. The Einstein-Rosen Bridge was real, if not necessarily stable, and other planets existed. Other beings existed and battled in New Mexico, then two years later in New York City, then a year later in London. It was fascinating and frightening at the same time. Ariadne felt a little bit of a thrill at knowing she knew someone in the very center of that activity, even if they had never met in person. Jane Foster was something of an outlier in the field, but it still felt like Ariadne knew someone famous.
It was heady stuff, which made still Ariadne grin and want to pinch herself to be sure it wasn't all a dream. But no, this was real, and she was having the time of her life.
On this particular day, Ariadne breezed into the office she shared with Yusuf after a little over a week away. He was interested in eventually teaching once he finished his postdoc, perhaps at the university, and was constantly tinkering on data in hopes of publishing papers. The two threw theories back and forth and double-checked each others' math, but for most part, had separate areas of focus. She was surprised he wasn't teaching a class at the university for the summer session, but supposed teaching would take away from his research time. Summer was good research time, with fewer undergrads hanging around underfoot and screwing up his programs at the telescope.
"No helpless grad students you have to herd like cats?" she teased, dropping her bag onto her desk. She eased out of her denim jacket; she had worn it mostly because she hated having her hands full, and thought she might need it if she went out late at night to do some observations at the telescope. Most of the time, she trawled through data that others got and posted publicly, comparing it to the observations she or the grad students obtained.
Yusuf snorted. "I don't have time. I'm actually working on a grant for Professor Miles in addition to my fellowship application," he said with a sigh.
"So glad I got the Einstein Fellowship already," Ariadne laughed. "Less paperwork for me to worry about this summer."
"But there's a student he was interested in having shadow me..." A slow smile spread across his features. "Or you could do it."
"Hey! Why do I get your rookie?" she complained, wagging her finger at him. "I'm not the one gunning for a faculty position!"
"No, but those do have better access to observatory data half the time, better cachet..." Yusuf gave her a pointed look when she groaned. "Unless you'd like to scrounge around for more grant money and spend more of your time on paperwork than you already do..."
"Fine, fine, Professor Miles is a great advisor, anyway. If he's recommending someone, then they're probably not a complete douche bag."
"You mean like Dom was?" Yusuf asked, lips quirking as he fought to hide his smile.
It didn't work, and she narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't laugh at me."
"Face it, you were snooping around in his things."
"Because I thought he was stealing my research! That shit happens all the time in academia, don't tell me it doesn't. And it turns out he was lying anyway, and was only here so he could bang Miles' daughter, and she still left him, and he took off without even a backwards glance as soon as he could."
Yusuf allowed himself a smile. "You're too idealistic for academia, Ariadne. Too busy dreaming about fairy tales."
Ariadne was about to ask him what he meant by that, but followed his line of sight. There was a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology right next to a book on the Corona Borealis and her notepads full of complicated formulae in her messy scrawl. She glowered at him. "You're not funny. You think you are," she added loftily, turning to her desk in a huff, "but you're not."
"I love you, too," he snickered, turning back to his desk. "And thanks. Your shadow should be here tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow! When were you going to tell me about this?"
"You weren't here all week!"
"There was a conference regarding the London phenomena and the ridiculously weird things that were happening there. Someone noticed odd gamma readings off and on around the world in recent months that almost seemed to mirror it..."
"Gamma readings," Yusuf intoned, eyebrows raised. "To be able to detect that at ground level is impossible. That's something for orbital observatories."
"Exactly. So of course I had to go."
"And you weren't answering your phone."
"I forgot my charger, so my phone died days ago."
Yusuf sighed and shook his head. "Arthur will be here tomorrow morning at nine. Think you can remember that?"
Ariadne rolled her eyes and then tossed a pencil toward his desk. "Smartass."
He laughed and then went back to his work as she settled in for the day.
"What are you studying?" Ariadne asked to be polite.
His lips quirked in amusement. "I was doing theoretical physics involving quantum mechanics and subatomic particles. But there was a lot of flak from professors thinking that I'm chasing a pipe dream. Or smoking a pipe."
Ariadne managed to smother a laugh, especially with Professor Miles' grave expression. "That's really too bad. There's a lot of research into the topic. It's not all fringe science, especially with the new data being generated about other dimensions."
"Exactly what I thought, but UNM staff didn't think so."
"Their loss is our gain," Professor Miles replied smoothly. "I think you two will get along great. Ariadne is one of the best students I've had the pleasure to teach who's also gone into dark matter research. I think that could be a great avenue for your research," he added before leaving.
"I suppose you know all about Dr. Foster's research and the papers she just presented at the symposium in Frankfort," Ariadne said to Arthur, indicating he should sit down beside her desk in the cramped office. It was a tight fit for two people, and would be even more cramped for three of them sharing the space. "I managed to wrangle time off and nearly max out a credit card to attend. It was wonderful."
"I knew she was doing research on the topic," Arthur said with a nod. "Fascinating stuff."
"I've actually been in correspondence with her since her work in Puente Antigua," Ariadne said proudly, grinning at him.
Arthur returned her smile. "That's really impressive. Another point in the observatory's favor."
"Our areas of research are very different, though." Jane Foster was working on interdimensional communications and travel, and had been very vocal about her theory that magic was simply the manipulation of quantum mechanics. "Magic and science are intertwined. We just can't explain the science of magic yet," she had said in an interview. Thor had been nearby, but had refused to answer any questions regarding the work that the Avengers were doing. Jane also refused to answer any questions regarding the rumors that Hydra had magic users on retainer. Though if she was researching the quantum mechanics of magic, didn't that answer the question?
Ariadne wasn't about to go into all that and sound like a besotted fangirl, though, so she merely pulled up a chair near her desk and sat down across from him. "So. What exactly are you looking for at the observatory? Or is it through UA?"
"Well, the particle physics really doesn't have much to do with astronomy, but I kind of fell into it after the incident at Puente Antigua."
She laughed kindly, nodding. "You and everyone else that signed up to astrophysics programs across the southwest. Don't worry, you're in good company, at least."
"Why don't you tell me a little about this dark matter project of yours?" Arthur asked, leaning forward just enough that Ariadne could tell he was genuinely interested.
He smiled as she spoke, gesturing with her hands as she described her view of the universe, how dark matter made up its composition, the sheer joy she had in juggling numbers and trying to make the constants and formulae match the observable universe. It didn't, which was part of the struggle with the theories and the experiments she helped design, but that was part of the fun for her, too.
"You like all that stuff?" Yusuf called from his desk, not even looking up from the complicated stacks of grant application paperwork in front of him. "Good. You can double check her work and proofread her papers. All this crap will make me go blind."
Arthur laughed good naturedly. "It might give me a little insight into the field, at least. I wouldn't mind getting a look at your work. I'm glad you like it. The previous people I worked with weren't nearly so enthusiastic about it."
Ariadne smiled a little self-consciously. "It's... pure creation, really. The origin of the universe, how it expanded, how matter formed and the way the heavens were shaped..." Her smile took on a dreamier cast. "There's nothing else like it."
"Keep that up," Arthur murmured, lips curling into a soft smile, "and you just might make an astrophysicist out of this theoretical physicist yet."
Delighted, Ariadne booted up her computer to start printing out drafts of her data.
Arthur gave her a soft smile, shaking his head. "And yet you love this life."
"Of course I do. Have you really looked at the stars? Not just through the data sets or telescopes at observatories, but I mean laying out under the stars, really seeing them for the mysteries that they can be? The magic of it?"
He took in her expression, the way her eyes lit up at the thought of sitting out under the starry sky. Impulsively, he reached out to grasp her hand. "I'd love to go see the stars with you. Anytime, anywhere."
She flushed then, a light pink stain across her pale cheeks. "Oh. You probably think that's some lousy pick up line..."
"It's not lousy. I thought that it was a perfectly good pick up line."
"Oh," she murmured, lips parting in surprise. "You did?"
"Want me to pick you up?"
"Yes," she breathed, leaning forward slightly, closer to him.
"I'll get you at seven. We can have dinner, then go see the stars. My treat." He grinned at her, tugging her a little closer. "I'm not the starving grad student."
"Neither am I. Independent research for my postdoc."
"Even worse, as far as funding goes," Arthur commented, lips hovering close to hers.
Flustered, Ariadne pulled away and shrugged. "I've got three years on my Einstein Fellowship, and then I have to worry about a real job." She grinned and took a bite of her sandwich. "How about you, then? If you're not going to attend UA..."
"Independent funds," he replied easily, smiling. She thought she could see disappointment in his eyes. "So I can worry more about doing what I love and not how to make ends meet."
"I like doing what I love." She flushed when she realized what she said, then pulled away from him, flustered. "Um... This is... I mean, you haven't even been here that long, but—"
"I feel like I've known you for years," Arthur murmured. "Don't you feel the same way?"
"At least a lifetime or two," Ariadne replied softly. "Like we could grow old together and know everything there is to know, but still find new things to learn."
"Exactly," Arthur said, lips curling into a sensual smile. "Shouldn't we just run with it? Don't worry about how long you've known me. Sometimes you just know if you can trust someone, if you get along... I know that I want you to do more than just play tour guide. I want to know you, if we'll still feel this way years from now, if you taste the way I dream you will..."
She looked at him, shocked, her mouth falling open. It wasn't a horrified kind of shock, more like she hadn't expected this kind of response from him. Arthur leaned in, seizing the opportunity to kiss her, a light and gentle touch against her lips, so fast she barely had time to respond. He could feel the beginning of a response, but this wasn't the right place for what he wanted to happen.
Ariadne looked around, self-consciously. Another student working on the campus lawn was staring at them, making her feel uncomfortable. "There. He's looking at us. Oh, God. I'm your mentor, Arthur. I'm going to get called out for abusing my authority! This was a mistake."
Arthur sighed and got up. "It was worth a shot." He smiled ruefully at her incredulous look. "I was hoping you might feel something for me, too."
"Oh." There was a sharp burst of anxious laughter from her, her lips quivering in uncertainty. "Oh. Um. Oh."
"Shocked?" Arthur asked, voice gentle. "I'm not sure if I should feel flattered or insulted."
"Flattered," Ariadne replied. It appeared to be an impulsive response, because her cheeks flamed again, and she gathered her lunch back into her bag abruptly. "I should go. I don't... This is... I should go," she repeated, voice wavering.
"I'll see you at seven. Your place. We'll talk research, Ariadne. It'll be okay, I promise," he replied, voice gentle and reassuring. That seemed to lessen her unease, her tense posture loosening a bit. "You're okay. I've got you. I promise." While it objectively made no sense, that made her smile and nod, then head back into the building for her office.
Once she was out of sigh, Arthur rose slowly, brushing off any broken bits of grass from his jeans. He casually strolled over to the staring man across the quad. "I have it handled," he said without preamble, sitting down on the bench.
The man's features shifted into that of a tall, burly blond with blue eyes, a square jaw and tattoos barely visible at the edge of his collar and sleeves. "Do you? Did you even have to use your persuasion on her?"
He refused to rise to the man's bait. "Not really. She's intrigued with me, of course."
"Just as much as you are with her," the blond replied coolly. "Don't even deny it. You don't kiss your marks, Arthur."
"But you do, Eames."
The blond smiled, though it wasn't necessarily a reassuring one. "If the job calls for it. You've been on this one for a few weeks now. Come on, man. Jiaying gave us our orders. Does she know anything or not?"
"I have access to her public data and the work she's doing at the office. She goes out stargazing and collects other data on her own. I need to access that, still."
Eames shot him a level gaze. "Or access other things?"
"I know what my job is, Eames."
"There are other missions," Eames said after a moment. "Other places, other people we've had to be. You've gotten secrets out of locked safes thousands of times. You've been the perfect point man on the job, extracting what we need to keep Afterlife safe and hidden away from the rest of humanity. I've never seen you lose sight of what's important until now."
"I haven't lost sight of a damn thing."
"We need to keep our people safe. Humans would hunt us down and kill us if they knew we existed, if any of us in Afterlife had abilities. We frighten them, Arthur. You know the history as well as I do."
Arthur kept his jaw clenched tightly for a moment. "What are you referring to? You could be a little more specific."
"You don't know that."
"Your condescension, as always, is much appreciated, Arthur, thank you."
He didn't respond to the thinly veiled irritation in Eames' voice; they tended to needle each other every time they worked together. Jiaying, the leader of their people, thought that they balanced each other out. Arthur tended to be more analytical in his approach to jobs, preferring to gather as much information as he could before diving in. He rarely if ever used his gifts, feeling that the use of his emotional manipulation and telepathic abilities was cheating. Eames liked to blend in, using his shapeshifting ability to hide himself in plain sight. He was excellent at forging documents and hacking databases, giving a background to whatever persona Arthur preferred to use for a job at hand.
Their people either had powers of some kind or were waiting to have their potential unlocked. It was a process that individuals trained for and meditated on; they were only given access to the crystal chambers when ready. Jiaying or her second in command Gordon usually determined when that would be. She didn't explain why only certain people in the human populace could survive such treatment, and no one questioned her leadership. She had singlehandedly saved the majority of the elders and founded Afterlife, their home in the Himalayas. It was safe, well guarded, and a place where they could learn about their gifts, practice and hone their talents without fear of persecution.
Jiaying, her face heavily scarred from the experimentation and torture that humans had put her through, understood the need for safety. She got to know most trainees prior to their approved trial in the terrigen crystal chambers. Arthur expressed his desire to better serve the people of Afterlife, to know its full history, to know about their people, to have a purpose in life. Over the past few years, she had put his skills to good use, helping to locate more potentials and keeping them safe from those who would try to experiment on them.
He never got the full story, and he doubted any of the exploration teams did. But Arthur was clever and knew how to connect dots very well. There were specific artifacts that Jiaying wanted, as well as any data on those artifacts. She also wanted any data on specific interplanetary or interdimensional communications, particularly anything that referenced the Kree. Based on information gleaned from discussions with other recon teams, the artifacts were likely Kree in origin. So she was looking for ways to find those artifacts, or ways to use them.
No one asked Arthur, but he suspected that the ascension ceremony to unlock their genetic potential might have simply been unlocking Kree genes.
It was several minutes of silence before Arthur turned to Eames. "I like her, Eames," he said softly. "I'd bring her back with me if I could. I don't think I can terminate her if she poses a threat to Afterlife."
Eames sighed. "That's why I'm here, Arthur. If you can't, I will."
Still, it was wonderful to have someone she could talk to about astronomy and mythology, not just the ways that particle physics and astrophysics could be similar. Arthur never got terribly demonstrative while on campus, and a touch of his hand on her arm was as showy as it got. Perhaps he was trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety; if so, she really appreciated that kind of foresight and thoughtfulness. The field of astrophysics was actually quite small when it came down to it, and everyone at the prestigious observatories knew each other. One small rumor could destroy entire careers.
But when Arthur grinned at her, bright and pleased from just spending time with her going through her raw data, it was hard to remember to pull away. A few times, when Yusuf was in the bathroom, she whispered "Quick, give me a kiss!" and stole a peck on the lips before moving back to her side of the desk. If Yusuf guessed at the progression in their relationship, he at least stayed thankfully silent.
After the first dinner at her apartment went well, Arthur took her to a few restaurants in town for dinners. They sometimes went to movies, took walks in parks, or sat at a café for hours swapping stories about past professors or grad students. He told her stories about his roommate, who liked to antagonize him, and sighed dramatically as he told her about Eames' condescending remarks. She enjoyed having someone to talk with and laugh at her lame jokes.
Some part of her still worried. Arthur seemed almost too good to be true at times, and she often felt as though she was waiting for something horrible to happen. He never said anything mean to her, was respectful of her wishes, paid for dates, didn't make stupid jokes at her expense, didn't denigrate the differences in their points of view. When they finally moved past kisses and frenzied groping, Arthur was amazingly attentive to her needs. Ariadne felt boneless and limp in bed afterward, content and cradled in his arms, his heartbeat steady. The quiet strength in him was drawing her in despite her concerns, and she easily found herself daydreaming of a future with him in it, a house in Tucson with a wide porch for a swing, a yard for a play set that their two children could play on.
It was silly to dream so far ahead, and she certainly never told him about that. Ariadne knew that her postdoc work might take her to a different observatory, and he might want to stay in Tucson if he got work at Steward or with UA. He didn't talk about his possible applications for the fall, didn't talk about much regarding the future. His plans were vague if she asked, and he often diverted her attention elsewhere.
By the end of August, Ariadne's worry got the better of her. She met with Yusuf in their office while Arthur was making a coffee run to another office suite. The closest working coffeemaker was down the hall and up one flight of stairs, so she had a good fifteen minutes of quiet time; she refused to think of how she and Arthur would spend those fifteen minutes when Yusuf made those runs over the summer. "Hey, I need some advice."
"Regarding your boyfriend, you mean?" he asked, expression one of kind concern.
Her gut twisted. "Shit. People are talking already?"
"No, no!" Yusuf said, waving his hands in a negating fashion. "But I work in the same office you do, so I can see it happening, even if it's not obvious to anyone else."
Covering her face with her hands, Ariadne gave a soft moan. "Shit, shit, shit. My career, Yusuf. I can't lose everything I ever worked for, no matter how much I like him."
Yusuf sat down beside her at her desk and put an arm around her shoulders. "Just stay calm, Ariadne. He hasn't put in an application for the department, as far as I could see." When she jerked her head up to look at him in surprise, Yusuf grimaced. "Remember, I'm doing Professor Miles' grant paperwork. I'm in his office all the time. And we talk, so I know which students he's considering for the fall."
Ariadne blanched. "Oh, God. Were you talking about me? He's still my advisor..."
Demeanor still calm and collected, Yusuf gave her a direct look. "You know his wife was his undergrad mentee when he was a grad student, right? She wound up switching out to a different field, but she started out in his office, too."
Some of the tension bled out of her, and Ariadne let out a slow breath. "So he won't think too badly of me, or assume I'm taking advantage of the situation."
"And if anything starts, you know we'd stomp on that quickly. You give everything of yourself into your work. As much as I've teased you for having your head in the clouds with all your readings, I know you pull hours just as long as mine. You're up at the scopes getting new readings, you head out there for fun, and you've never balked at work. If you decide to teach or just stick to research, you're going to be amazing. Why else would you get your fellowship, Ariadne? They don't hand those out to just anybody."
She shot him a grateful smile and gave him a tight hug. "And you'll get the Sagan Fellowship, I know you will."
"From your lips to the committee's ears," Yusuf said with a smile, pulling back a little. "Feeling better, Ariadne?"
Nodding, she forced a smile to her lips. "Yeah. Still worried a little about everyone on campus, with the fall semester starting soon..."
"But if he goes back to physics and doesn't stay with astrophysics, there's nothing to gossip about, really. It would be like me dating Serena in Anthro again."
"You should, by the way. Staying inside and not going out at all isn't healthy."
"I don't think I'm cut out for field work," Yusuf replied with a shrug. "I'm perfectly happy with theoretical astrophysics and calibrating programs."
"No romance in your soul," Ariadne huffed playfully. "So you definitely need to see Serena again."
"She likes field work," Yusuf replied reasonably, shaking his head. "I'm a desk jockey and quite happy to be. If I find another theoretical researcher, maybe..."
"That blonde in the physics department. The one working with mirrors..."
Yusuf laughed and shook his head. "She already shot me down."
"You're a great guy, Yusuf. The right someone for you is out there." She gave him a warm, friendly smile. "As for my someone, thank you."
"You know, a real thank you is running through the code in the program I need..." Yusuf began in a wheedling tone.
Ariadne laughed and nodded. "Fine, fine. As soon as I get caffeinated, I'll attack your computer and make it behave."
Both she and Arthur were in hiking boots, jeans, shirts and jackets. She had her telescope, blankets, notebooks and a digital camera in the trunk of her car. He made some small talk on the drive up, and snuck glances in her direction when he thought she wasn't looking. It was such a cute and endearing thing to do, not something she was used to.
Ariadne laid out blankets over the grass and stretched out on top of them. Though her telescope was in the trunk, she just wanted to laze about and look up with the naked eye. Night had fallen, and she easily found her favorite constellation up in the heavens. Every time she looked up at the sky, she felt magnificent awe and wonder at the enormity of all creation.
"Why is this your favorite spot?" Arthur asked, stretching out beside her.
"I think this has the best view of the Corona Borealis. It's my favorite constellation."
In mythology, the Corona Borealis was the crown Dionysus gave to Ariadne, and he later placed it in the heavens to commemorate their wedding. Ariadne had located various myths associated with the constellation, but she of course preferred the one associated with her own name. The constellation itself was one that she liked to come back to and look at in the night sky; there were plenty of twin stars, extrasolar planetary systems, and deep sky objects within the constellation to study. Even amateur astronomers could see objects of reasonable brightness within the constellation, and it was best observed in the Northern Hemisphere in July.
Ariadne felt like she was rambling, going from mythological references to astronomical, but Arthur followed the conversation easily. He eventually got up to get one of the drinks from the car, and Ariadne sat up when he offered her one.
"I can tell you love it," he said softly. "This is your life. This makes you happy."
"It's amazing," she said, staring up at the sky, a half smile on her face.
"Yes, it is," Arthur replied. But he was looking at her, not the sky.
Looking away from the stars, her smile had a somewhat awkward cast to it. "Arthur..."
"I like you, Ariadne," he said quietly. "I know you don't like actually saying anything, so it's easier to deny it if nasty rumors start. But— We can be honest now. No one from the university is around. No one else is around for miles."
Nodding, Ariadne admitted that was the case. "I like you, too, Arthur. A lot." She reached out to grasp his hand tightly. "More than I probably should, given our positions at UA."
He grinned at her then, lips stretched wide, eyes crinkling in the corners, a dimple forming in each cheek. Ariadne was fascinated by it, and nearly reached out to touch his face. That would probably be creepy, though, so she merely scooted closer as he told her "That's not going to be a problem. Don't worry about that."
"You're not going to transfer to UA, then? Or at least, not the astrophysics department. It wouldn't be awkward if we were in different grad programs."
Arthur's smile slid right off his face. "Ariadne—"
"What? What is it?"
"I suppose I have a story to tell you," he said softly. "I'm guessing at a fair bit of it, but I think I read between the lines very well. I gather information. It's one of the things that I do best, and I have an eidetic memory."
Ariadne sat very still as he spoke.
An alien race called the Kree had begun experiments on humans thousands of years before. It was known at this time that Asgard was a real place, and that Norse mythology was based on early contact between the two realms. The Kree were a completely separate people, looking to enhance the human genetic code. The reason was never really explained by the Kree that stayed behind, but they abandoned their experiment after presenting their findings to the Supreme Intelligence. The Intelligence ordered the murder of their scientists and all experimental worlds "cleansed." There were a handful of scientists on Earth that refused to do so, and somehow the planet was missed in the massive cleansing.
The experiments eventually filtered back into the general populace when the Kree died, their altered genes mixing with the "normal" humans. The hidden genes within the human populace could be triggered by Terrigen crystals, which could shatter and react with water vapor to create a mist; upon contact with people, it reacted with their DNA. Ordinary humans would be killed, their entire bodies carbonized. Those humans descended from the Kree experiments would be transformed, their unpredictable potential abilities unlocked via Terrigenesis.
"Why are you telling me this?" Ariadne asked, voice warbling. She knew, though. She could tell as he spoke exactly why he was telling her this.
"Because I'm one of the descendants. I'm more than human."
She let her eyes fall shut as a shiver wracked her body. "So why are you here? I'm human. I look at the stars and try to figure out dark matter. That's not something that would make or break a society of powered aliens."
Arthur flinched at her words. "It could, depending on the data you found. If it can locate the planet the Kree are from, or help us track down other Kree artifacts."
"You're forgetting something, Arthur. I'm in an office crunching numbers. Or out here looking up at the stars. I don't do antiques." She tried to roll to her feet, but Arthur pulled her back down to the blanket. "Let me go."
"You're in danger," Arthur said. It wasn't rushed, wasn't desperate, just a matter of fact tone that implied it was absolute truth. "Not from me," he clarified when she went still. "I was here to assess the data you had. I don't see you as a threat. But the place where I come from, the people I report to... You study gamma radiation. You study radiation and you're looking for the origins of the universe. These questions could easily track some of us, could easily lead the Kree here. You're potentially very dangerous. My leaders would eliminate that danger if they could."
"Oh my god," she murmured, sinking back to the blanket. "This has got to be a joke. A prank or something," she breathed.
"It isn't," Arthur insisted.
"I'm not hugely important in the field, not like Dr. Foster is..."
"Yes, but she has protection from the Avengers. You don't. You take observations in the sky and the computations and all of that. I know what you're studying, and it's not what the others fear. But the Kree are out there, and the elders have passed down stories about the early destruction on other worlds. We're supposed to be dead. So if your data can find the Kree home world? If it draws their attention here?"
Ariadne shivered at the intense look in his eyes. "What about the others doing this kind of work, then? Are they—" She stopped abruptly at his solemn nod. "The hell, Arthur?!"
"They'll stop at nothing to keep our people safe, Ariadne. And I... I know it hasn't been very long, but I don't want to see that happen to you. I like what I've gotten to know and I want to learn more about you." He paused, looking uncertain, then looked directly into her eyes. "I love you, Ariadne. I haven't said anything because you worried about your career, about anything going wrong. But I love you."
Wrapping her arms around herself, Ariadne couldn't process that. Her mind simply stuttered to a stop, and she turned her face away from him. In doing so, she saw a car detaching itself from the observatory to head in their direction. "Were you sent alone?"
"No," Arthur began, then cut himself off when he saw what Ariadne was looking at. "Dammit, Eames," he muttered.
Eames? His asshole roommate? Of course. "So now what?" she asked, shivers wracking through her despite her jacket.
"I'll have to try to hide you. Find a safe place, maybe some contacts not associated with the rest of them—"
"But then I wouldn't see the stars, would I?" she asked quietly, still watching the car approach. "I wouldn't see the end of my work, the answer as to what dark matter is. How could I hide, when so much is left undone?"
"How can I not try?" Arthur asked, pulling her to her feet. "How do you expect me to stand aside while they hunt you down?"
"If you tell them—"
"I can't guarantee they're going to be reasonable, Ariadne."
"None of this sounds reasonable," she spat, looking at him in fury.
"If we don't protect ourselves, we're talking about genocide. I don't think you can accept that."
Ariadne looked up at the stars, found the Corona Borealis. She closed her eyes and tried to think of what her mythic namesake would do. That Ariadne had woven thread long enough to go through the labyrinth to save her lover. That Ariadne gave up her country and birthright. She was abandoned, but that was because Theseus was a selfish ass. Even after that, Ariadne was able to make the best of it, was able to find a new place for herself. She married, became a goddess, her crown immortalized in the heavens for all eternity.
Why couldn't this be a story?
She stood once the car came to a stop in front of them. Arthur had fallen silent after pleading with her to run hadn't worked. If his compatriot was going to kill her, she would meet it head on in a place she loved. She wouldn't run, head down and proverbial tail between her legs. She was interested in knowledge, and she would be a fighter. She wouldn't cower and hide; she would be as much like her namesake as she could.
The tall blonde man had to be Eames. His expression when he looked at Arthur was one of pity, and there was no feeling whatsoever when he looked at her. "I don't envy you your role in the missions we take," he said after a moment, addressing Arthur. "It isn't your way to become someone else, to be what others expect to see, say what needs to be said and then escape undetected. You are exactly who you are."
"So you're the one that will kill me?" Ariadne asked, glad her voice didn't waver as she looked over at Eames.
Now his expression fell a little bit. "I really am sorry, if that helps."
"Not really, no."
"There are some of us that enjoy this bit. I never did." He reached into the car and took out a wooden box that was latched shut.
Arthur got to his feet, but his eyes were on Ariadne. "Please run," he said softly, anguish in his tone. "You deserve better than this."
"Yes, I do," she replied simply, refusing to show fear. What would it feel like? Would her body slowly turn to stone? Was the Terragen crystal's effect more like Medusa in myth?
Eames slowly opened the box and unwrapped the crystal wrapped in silk inside it. He picked it up gingerly between two fingers, then tossed it to the ground at Ariadne's feet.
The crystal broke, then started to react with the water vapor in the air, creating a small cloud of bluish mist around her. Ariadne coughed as it got into her lungs, as the mist seemed to coat her entire body in microscopic fragments. She waved her hands about, trying to clear the debris from out of her lungs. There were sharp pains there – Is this how it starts? she thought – but it didn't feel like her flesh turning to stone.
And then the pain intensified. It drove her to her knees, coughing and sputtering, arms wrapping around herself, feeling as though her body was being turned inside out. She looked up, tears streaming from her eyes, and could see Eames restraining Arthur, keeping him from rushing to her side. He was shouting, anguish in his expression, and even Eames seemed disturbed by the mist coalescing around her body.
Ariadne shut her eyes and tried to breathe through her pain, tried to focus on the feeling of Arthur's skin on hers, the way his eyes had softened when he smiled at her, the joy he had taken when he saw hers. She thought of the stars overhead, the way the numbers worked, the way everything seemed to follow along with a natural plan.
She felt gritty, as if the mist had solidified. When she tried to open her eyes, she couldn't. Trying to take a deep breath was impossible. Her chest was constricted, tight bands covering her. Panic set in, sharp and just as painful as the streaks of agony that the mist had pushed into her flesh. She tried to open her mouth to scream, tried to move, to breathe, to feel, to sense something, anything, but all there was around her was silence.
If this was death, then death sucked.
Just when she thought she was going to scream, the grit on her skin began to crumble. It flaked off of her skin in patches, enough to let air in. She sucked in a deep breath, could hear the crickets in the distance and feel the coolness of the air. There was a background hum, like the beating of her heart and theirs, of movement in the grass and the tours at the observatory.
It was life, intense and everywhere, and she could hear it. Once the grit flaked off of her skin completely, she pushed herself up to her feet unsteadily.
"Oh my god, I can see the stars."
Arthur had fallen to his knees, sobbing, and Eames had looked away, uncomfortable. Both stared at her now, open mouthed.
She had been able to see the stars before, of course, but suddenly Ariadne could see them with a clarity she never had before. There were the main stars in the Corona Borealis, of course, but she could nearly make out the twin stars within the crown, the gaseous clouds between Earth and those heavenly bodies. She could see the other celestial phenomena that only telescopes could pick up, could see the faint variation in light.
Her whole body shook, and Ariadne staggered forward, toward Arthur. "I can see everything. I hear..." His breath was a loud rasping sound, but he looked like he was barely breathing. "Oh my god, I can see and hear and feel everything. Everything..."
The world around her looked as if it was lit up as bright as day. If faint starlight could do this, what would the noonday sun do to her senses? How could she function in her office in the middle of Arizona, where the warmth and sunlight had been overwhelming in summer?
Ariadne shuddered when Arthur wrapped his arms around her. The rasp of barely-there stubble was almost painful, and the awareness of her clothing on her skin was awful. It felt like sandpaper, the seams like chains pressing into her skin, and dear God, did she feel her hair growing all over her body?
"Let me take you to Afterlife," Arthur whispered, and even that sounded impossibly loud. "We'll find a way." He must have seen her flinch, because suddenly he was inside her head with images of Afterlife and the people there, the calm serenity and constant strive toward knowledge and perfection. She could see Jiaying's scarred face in front of her, the kind words she'd had for Arthur when he was transformed.
It should have been frightening. It should have been terrifying.
But then she opened her eyes and looked up into infinity, where the corona sparkled and glittered like jewels on black velvet. What wonders would she see? What theories could she spin, what knowledge could she gain with this gift?
Ariadne smiled gently, and she could hear Arthur's thunderous heartbeat slow down as his anxiety lessened. "Yes. I'm ready."