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Hold You Down By Candlelight

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It wasn't hate or love or any strong emotion like that which brought Ariadne and Arthur together after the Fischer job. She wanted to do more in dream share, and Arthur found a brilliant architect capable of bringing even the most fantastic or vague descriptions of places to life. A celebratory drink in LA turned into a quick fuck in a back room; later, Arthur was stunned to realize it was the first time he'd had sex in four years. Ariadne had been fairly pleased by it, even if Arthur hadn't had any finesse at all in the encounter. That led him to invite her to his hotel room, where he showed her exactly what his attention to detail could do.

From there, it was easy enough to continue in that manner as Ariadne got more involved in dream share after graduation. She was only there for the design work, and generally didn't go to the actual extraction locations. It was a thrill for her to go globetrotting and design incredible worlds for the dreamers, seeing her work in a PASIV as she taught Arthur or other extractors what to expect. As she adjusted maps and landscapes, Arthur would put a hotel business card on her desk, a time and room number on the back. Sometimes she would slip a card into his Moleskine or beneath one of his pens so he would notice.

Expediency, he would have said if she asked why he was doing this. She was there, they had a good working relationship, she was smart and funny and caring, she was beautiful and talented and flexible as hell. Arthur wasn't sure why she went along with the arrangement and hadn't demanded more from him. Not tied down to a design firm, she kept whatever hours she wanted to keep. She didn't have to operate so clandestinely, though it was certainly a prudent move on her part. Not having any clear or obvious ties meant that she couldn't be blackmailed or coerced into jobs or giving up part of her income. Ariadne was clever enough to avoid being a pawn in someone else's game, too.

But the game between them seemed to evolve, even without explicitly setting out the rules. They were never in the same hotel twice. They didn't speak about what happened between them. There could be drinks or music or dinner, but it was always about the sex and always intense. Arthur couldn't recall the sex in past relationships as toe-curlingly good as this was, and the added spice of sneaking about was fun.

They had never discussed it previously, but when Arthur was attacked at the completion of a job, he couldn't think of where else to go. Losing his tail was easy, but he was exhausted, bleeding and possibly had a concussion. It wouldn't be safe alone, and he trusted Ariadne. She would keep him safe and make sure he woke when he should.

Stumbling through her apartment, Ariadne had nothing nasty to say. She quietly gave him ice packs and had him stay on her couch while she went out for rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, bandages, needles and thread. She stitched up the hole in his shirt after cleaning off his wounds, periodically elbowing him in his sore ribs to wake him up when he started dozing off. There was jazz in the background and some kind of talk show on the television, but Arthur was too dazed to really follow along. Ariadne's fingers were soft as butterflies on his skin, her lips gentle when she kissed his cheek before going to bed herself once Arthur seemed out of the danger zone.

By the time they both woke in the afternoon, Ariadne was just as tender and dismissive of Arthur's concerns. "You needed a place to stay that was safe," she said, pushing food at him with an expression that dared him to refuse it. "Can't get much safer than staying with me."

He wanted to deny that; security in her building was actually terrible, she didn't know how to spot tails, her hand to hand skills were mediocre at best and she certainly didn't know how to handle firearms in more than a casual manner. But he understood the spirit of what she said: she would never hurt him deliberately, and she would do whatever she could to help protect him. He didn't have to be on his guard because of her.

"Thank you," he said simply, picking up a fork to tuck in.

After that came more hotel rooms, more times when they would meet during jobs or between jobs. As a joke, Ariadne arrived once with the Kama Sutra as a phone app; just to be thorough, Arthur went through it and marked all the positions they had tried already, as well as the more interesting ones he would want to try. Surprised, Ariadne picked one at random for that day, as well as for the next few hotel visits.

This continued over the next few months, with occasional bang ups that Ariadne cared for in between the hotel visits. Arthur occasionally felt lost when not working, and swung by her apartment anyway. They would talk about philosophy or art or architecture, the jobs Arthur was looking into getting, what Paris would be like that season. Neither mentioned emotions, why he would feel the need for a connection with someone aside from work. Arthur preferred to avoid thinking about his own motivations, so it was just as well that Ariadne didn't seem to be as interested in getting answers out of him the way she had with Cobb.

But eventually, it began to grate on him. Didn't she want more? Didn't she have concerns about this line of work? Didn't she care about her safety?

Arthur snapped when Ariadne asked why he was so tense. It devolved into questioning his manner, or if someone had implanted new memories or motivations for him. "You never ask about this," she snarled. "This isn't you."

"How would you even know? You don't know me! You've never tried to get to know me!"

"The hell? You come over here with your existential angst and your need for a fuck buddy. I take care of you when you've been beat up or attacked. Not once did I ever pressure you for more than you were willing to give, and now you're raking me over the coals for it? What is this really about, Arthur? It's not even about me."

"Almost three years of this, of fucking and hiding to try to protect you—"

"I can protect myself!"

"—and making sure that none of the assholes out there come near you. What do you think they'd do once they know where you live? That the security here is shit? That you have no other aliases to hide behind? That you can't shoot worth shit? You have no skills to protect yourself—"

Furious, Ariadne rushed forward and gave him a hard shove to the chest. Arthur raised his arm up defensively, but paused when he saw her kitchen knife in her hand. Oh. That's right. She had been about to make dinner.

"Maybe I don't have army training, but I'm a petite woman that's lived alone since I was eighteen. Do not fucking tell me I can't protect myself."

"Ariadne—"

"Get out of my apartment," she seethed.

Relationships in dream share had been ended for lesser insults than what he had just leveled at her. Contrite, Arthur nodded. There was no way she would listen to an apology from him now, and he wasn't even sure what the hell had just happened. For a change, he couldn't even recall everything that was said until the last few fateful statements.

In short, he was a self righteous asshole.

Taking off from Paris, he landed in Istanbul. Though he really should have known better, he accepted a job in Marrakesh to pull distribution schedules out of a drug lord's mind. Of course he had subconscious security. Of course. And then there was the real world security. For every one that he outran, shot at or hamstrung, there were at least two or three others. Getting out of the city without being killed took more cunning and favors than he cared to pull, and he hadn't gotten all of the information. But the employer was willing to settle for a partial list, given the inherent danger of this particular job, and paid for the list Arthur was able to provide. If he had shared the job with an extractor and a reliable anchor to watch over them for trouble, they could have gotten the full list. Instead, he had gone in alone, using a map not tailored to the subject, and his anchor had been a disgruntled employee. Of course everything had gone south so fast; he was usually better prepared than this. There was only one reason why he was caught out so badly, why he wasn't up to his usual level.

Ariadne. All he could think about was the hurt expression on her face, the fury in her eyes. He had ruined everything over nothing at all.

But not knowing where else to go, he dragged his beaten body back to her apartment. She could throw him out. She could simply ignore the doorbell. She could do anything at all.

When she saw how battered his face was, how worn his stance and slumped his shoulders were, what she did was invite him inside. She had painkillers, heat packs for his sore muscles, and soup. She sat on the opposite side of him on the couch, not looking at the defeated way he sat there staring at the floor.

"I was an ass the last time I was here."

"Yes, you were."

"You could throw me to the wolves."

"Yes, I could. I actually know a few. Do I need to call them?"

Arthur looked up at her, expression bleak. "Why'd you let me in?"

"For someone who's supposed to be so clever, you're actually quite stupid."

The breath left him in a rush. "Ariadne..."

"Maybe you should call me when you figure it out."

He panicked when she stood up, expression dismissive. "I love you," he blurted. "But this isn't what you need. This job is going to kill me one day, and I can't drag you down with me."

She turned to face him, the dismissive mask fading. "Don't you think that's my decision to make?" She crossed her arms and stared him down. "I figured out really quickly what I was getting into with the Fischer job. I understood what Cobb meant by 'not strictly legal.' And I knew that the jobs I took afterward were minimal risk in comparison. I'm not stupid, Arthur. I knew what I was getting into. And without your help, I did create a backup identity if I ever had to leave quickly."

"What? You did?"

Ariadne rolled her eyes. "I watch enough spy movies to get the gist of what I would need to do if someone trailed me home. So I have a go bag and an alternate identity and a place to go."

Arthur's shoulders slumped a fraction. "You shouldn't have to, though."

"I chose to stay in this business, Arthur. I do what I have to do because I love what designing dreams can be. I love knowing that entire cities can become real, if only for a moment, then I can wipe the slate clean and do it all again."

"Ariadne. The danger involved in this... I can't put you through this."

"It's my choice, Arthur. And I know what I've gotten myself into. If there are consequences to them, there are consequences. I'm willing to pay them," she added, moving to sit beside him on her couch. After a moment, she dropped her hand over his and looked up at his dubious expression. "I am," she insisted.

"If something happens to you, I don't know what I'd do. It's... It wasn't supposed to be about that, and was just us having fun together. All I've seen is how destructive relationships can be, how damaging. I would never do that to you. I can't let it happen that way."

She leaned in and touched her head to his for a moment before shifting to kiss his cheek. "I've seen enough by now to know that can be true. And enough to know that it doesn't have to be. Love can heal. It can make you stronger. I believe that we could make it. If we wanted to." There was the sense that Ariadne was choosing her words carefully, that this was something she had considered often. It had none of the impulsive and carefree feeling to it that generally characterized their clandestine meetings.

This mattered to her, too. She didn't want to lose him, either.

"What you said before," he began slowly. "Not asking for more than I was willing to give."

"We're made up of everything that came before. You saw Cobb and Mal fall apart while they worked together in dream share. I don't know of any couples that made it. I'm sure you would have told me if there were."

"I don't know of any," Arthur admitted.

"Unless you want to give it a shot and be the story people point to as an example."

Arthur grinned so wide, it cracked open the scabs on his lips. "I'd like that," he murmured.

Ariadne gave him an answering smile, and looped an arm around his shoulders. "Good. You get some rest. I'll have breakfast ready, and first thing in the morning we're going to start over. No more stick up your ass. I chose this, and I chose you."

He kept the smile on his face, uncaring of his bleeding lip. "I'm glad you did."

She kissed his forehead and got up. "And most of the time, so am I. Get some sleep. It'll all look better in the morning, in sunlight."

Content, Arthur let himself drift off to sleep. She was right; there was still plenty of time to figure things out.

The End