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Even When the Lights Go Out

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"Here," Ariadne says, grabbing Arthur's sleeve and pushing him up against the wall of the warehouse.

"What—" he stammers, half his mouth quirking into a wary smile because first of all, hot, second, sudden and confusing, and third, they're supposed to be bringing the van around to the front right now to pick up the others and drive them to the job site, that's why they're back here in the loading area on their own. Ariadne doesn't look up, just loosens his tie and starts unbuttoning his shirt from the neck.

"I've been thinking," she says, "about totems. It's a great idea, but what happens if you lose yours? If someone takes it away? What if, for example, there's a cavity search?"

Arthur frowns. "Where are you keeping your—?" Seriously, cavity search? And she can't know that he has airport security fantasies, that's ridiculous, and if she doesn't he's certainly not going to tell her. Not that he has time to, fortunately, because she talks right over him.

"Then I was looking at Eames' tattoos—"


"—and thinking about that as a means of keeping the totem with you, on your person at all times. But that's no good either, is it? It's too permanent. There's too much opportunity for other people to learn it, plus you kind of need to be able to see it. Anyway, I kept mulling it over, and then this morning I had a brilliant idea."

She wrestles open one more button, stopping at the hem of his waistcoat, and tugs his shirt open to the left. She hooks two fingers into the strap of his undershirt and stretches it the other direction, away from his armpit. She does glance up now, and there's this mischievous twitch at the corner of her mouth, though her tone and expression are otherwise level and open and enviably business-like. Then she licks her lips and bites his pectoral muscle. Hard.

If Arthur wasn't turned on before, he is now. His right hand comes up to clutch her hair, the base of her skull, not to pull her away but just to hold on to her, while his left fist clenches and releases at his side. She eases off to suck on the same spot, pulling the blood to the surface. He gasps as she nips again, her teeth so sharp he's sure she'll break the skin but when she pulls back there's no cut, just a mottled purple splotch. The skin around it is red and wet. So is Ariadne's mouth. He can't not kiss her.

"I'm sorry," he says when they break apart, and he mostly is. "I should have asked."

"It's okay," she says, with a wry shrug. "So should I."

He presses a kiss to her forehead, smooths her hair where he mussed it. She smiles and steps back. Arthur automatically begins putting his suit back in order, then looks puzzled. "Wait, what does this have to do with totems?"

"Well, I'm not sure how it'll work over longer periods, given the dilation effect of dream-time, but the idea is that it's a unique marker that can't be detached from the body. Only you and I know what it looks like, only you know what it feels like, and that sensation will help keep you grounded in your actual, physical body. Plus it's unstable, so even if someone else were to see it, it would be too complicated for a forger or a projection to copy effectively."

Arthur prods at the fresh bruise through layers of fabric, familiarizing himself with its sweet ache. "That's pretty clever, I think."

"It's an experiment." She upends a dusty plastic crate and rests her foot on it, leg turned out like a rum-selling pirate. "Now you do me."

"Beg pardon?" Arthur blinks. Ariadne hikes up her skirt and points to a spot on her inner thigh. Hesitantly, he walks closer and lowers himself to his knees in front of her.

She's wearing tall leather boots and argyle socks that come up over her knees. He runs a palm over her calf, up her leg to the bare skin. With her skirt hiked up and his face between her thighs he's certain he can smell her salt. He wants badly to bury his face into it, but he does as he's told, brushing his lips softly against her skin before sinking his teeth in. He wonders, as he sucks and gnaws her flesh, if she finds this even remotely erotic, until her hand comes to grip his shoulder and she makes this beautiful whimpering moan.

He sits back reluctantly, trying to meet her eyes as she lowers her leg and straightens out her skirt. "I feel like we should maybe talk about this," is all he can manage to say.

"Later," Ariadne says, helping him to his feet. "They're going to wonder where we went."

She starts striding towards the door and Arthur follows her, staggering a bit as he adjusts his trousers and brushes the gravel off his knees.

In the passenger seat of the van, Arthur looks out the window, smiling to himself as he kneads his chest, feeling special. Until the red light when he glances over to see Yusuf take his hand off the wheel to poke at a hickey below his collarbone. Frowning, he searches the rearview mirror, trying again to catch Ariadne's eye, but she's concentrating on her sketchbook. Instead he sees Cobb rubbing idly at a spot on his forearm, just below the elbow, and Eames, eyes closed, digging fingers into his belly above his belt.

Arthur feels a flash of anger, betrayal and envy, but it quenches when he twists around in his seat to stare at Ariadne and she lifts her face to stare back. Yes, her level gaze proclaims, she marked them too. But Arthur suspects, returning her clandestine smirk, that he's the only one who got to mark her back. Even if that's not the case, even if beneath her clothes she's covered in the impressions of their teeth, she's happy. He feels happy for her, happy that she's happy here, and proud that she's comfortable enough to go after what she wants. Her designs are subtle and devious, but that's an advantage in an architect and she is the brightest architect, and among the brightest people, he has ever met. It would be wrong to want to keep that light to himself.