The characters and situations in this story belong to Christopher Nolan, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
The opinions expressed by characters in this story may or may not be those of the author.
Just a quick little Halloween story - Cincoflex and I were juggling bunnies and this one caught my imagination. Probably pretty obvious, but I don't care. *grin* Many thanks to the friend who gave me information on the medical condition described herein! And to Cincoflex for swift betaing.
She always wore a scarf.
It was a detail he only gradually became aware of; not that she wore them often, but that she was never without one. They might vary from day to day - she seemed to have a large collection - but even in the most breathless heat a Paris été had to offer, her throat was always covered.
It made him curious, of course. And curiosity was Arthur's best trait; it was what made him so good at his job.
So he researched the matter, using all the channels he could access. Medical records - nothing, though everything prior to her fifth birthday had apparently been lost in a hospital fire. Religion - she had been baptized Episcopalian, and nowhere could he find mention in that faith's canon that a woman should cover her neck. Friends and relations - her family was out of his present reach, at least for such an inquiry, but her friends and fellow students, adroitly questioned, could give no explanation.
Ariadne wore a scarf. Every day. End of story.
Except it wasn't, it couldn't be. Arthur knew habit, knew when it hardened into reflex or thickened into compulsion; he'd studied it in a hundred targets, teasing out patterns and meanings and calculating probabilities. He knew that habit slipped, sometimes, or suddenly grew intolerable. Compulsion required rigidity. Ariadne's scarves, softly knotted or neatly pinned, worn low one day and high the next, varied too much to be rigid.
Therefore only one answer remained. Necessity.
It drove him a little crazy, trying to figure it out. He had finally concluded that it had to be some kind of scarring when he overheard Eames ask the very question that had been nagging at him.
"Ariadne, luv, I have counted forty-seven variations in those bits of silk you wear around your lovely neck, and I have yet to see you repeat one. Why the hell don't you ever just wear a necklace?"
Ariadne, passing by with a stack of books in her arms, cast a cool glance at the forger balancing his chair on its two back legs. "Family secret."
And that was all she said, sailing on and leaving Eames - and Arthur - to look after her thoughtfully. Not all of Eames' teasing could get her to say more.
Strangely enough, that satisfied Arthur, at least enough for him to cease picking at the mystery. Tradition, injunction, genetic condition - it didn't matter so much. The curiosity remained, but he could wait for developments.
Developments came, but not in quite the direction he anticipated. Stalked by projections in a working Dream, Ariadne kissed him, and it was no simple press of lips either. The resultant surge of lust led to more interesting changes, and other feelings as well, distracting ones. The first time they came together Ariadne laid one solemn finger on his lips and told him that he was not to remove it, and Arthur was too enchanted by the rest of her to argue.
In the rush and hush of their life together - partners in love and crime - the scarf and all its silent significance was eclipsed by other matters. It became one of the things they didn't discuss. He didn't ask about it, and she didn't bring up the tattoo just above his tailbone; he never undid the knot, and she never touched that small patch of ink-stained skin. Every so often he would pull down the edge of the silk to place a kiss on that soft skin, and she would tilt her head and purr at him, but that was all. And the delicate trace of her fingers along the curve of his buttocks was never enough to bring back the memory behind the mark.
It was a good life, all told. They managed to avoid Cobb's tragedy, staying out of Limbo, and grew rich plucking a harvest of secrets from brains young and old. There were no children; it was no life for the innocent, and neither of them felt suited to be parents as it was; Ariadne was too busy, and Arthur admitted in the privacy of his own thoughts, at least, that he was too selfish. Her time and attention were his, outside of work, and he didn't want to share.
Age crept up on them. Arthur was never sure whether the Dream drugs extended life or shortened it; sometimes it felt as though they'd spent a couple of extra lifetimes in illusory worlds, daring the fantastic beyond any mundane imagining. Time seemed folded, whole swathes of days accordioned into mere hours, some spent in pleasure but most spent in the work they both found so absorbing. He had few regrets, and if sometimes he still wondered why she wore a scarf every day, he was content to let the question lie.
The shock came so suddenly, so absurdly. They had been crossing a street in Lisbon, Arthur letting go Ariadne's hand to answer the cellphone ringing in his pocket, and she had been just two steps ahead of them when the taxi had made its turn. The strike seemed light, knocking her only a few feet ahead, but when he dropped the phone and jarred to his knees beside her Arthur saw that it had been hard enough.
The babble and shouts around them, the far-off siren and the press of bodies were unnoticeable. All that mattered was the woman lying so small and broken on the ancient street, blood pooling around her. Arthur felt the chill creeping through the hand he held, and no matter how he squeezed he could give it no warmth.
Her eyes were dimming, though her bloody lips curved in the demure smile he adored. "You can't," he ordered, knowing the words to be futile but saying them anyway. "You can't."
"I love you," she told him, her voice a fading thread. "Do one last thing for me."
He couldn't seem to think. "Anything." The word was gravel in his throat, ashes on his tongue.
"Take..." Her other hand moved feebly. "Take it off."
His only thought was that the web of silk was hindering her breath. Arthur reached for the knot, undid it with a quick yank.
Her head fell off.
He jerks awake, sitting up abruptly, the sun a slash across his watering eyes. Arthur blinks rapidly, trying to figure out what is real, and sees only the workshop spread out around him. Reaching for the tubes in his wrist, he tears them out with controlled violence, ignoring the sting.
The world comes back in a rush. Yusuf's new blend, designed to extend Dreaming time without having to layer dreams, and for some idiotic reason he'd volunteered to try it. Apparently, it worked a little too well. How long was I out? Felt like a lifetime…
The Dream jangles inside his head, uneasy as a stomachache. It is always a bit of a struggle to reconcile them with reality; natural dreams fade quickly, but the point of extraction is to remember, and the drugs kept their work clearer, longer.
Arthur presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to grab control. The anguish is all too real; the absurdity of that last scene had not muted its horror, any more than in any other nightmare.
Unsteadily he reaches into his pocket, fumbling for his totem, but when he brings it out it slips from his shaking fingers and tumbles across the floor, nearly hitting the shoe that appears in his peripheral vision.
Ariadne bends automatically, then snatches back her fingers before they touch the die. She straightens, pushing her hands into her pockets, and hesitates before nudging the die carefully in his direction with the toe of her shoe. "Hey, are you okay?"
Arthur stares up at her. The sight of her, utterly normal and clearly alive, should reassure him, but it feels as though the two perceptions are at war, life and death battling it out in his head. There's no use in asking himself why she matters so much; she just does, and has for months now, even if all he has are a few shy glances and an illusive kiss.
Ariadne frowns, and pulls a hand free to press the palm against his forehead. "I don't know about this stuff, Arthur, you don't look good." Tender and impersonal at the same time, her touch moves to his cheek. "You're all clammy."
He's on his feet without moving his gaze from her face, and though her hand falls she doesn't step back out of range. As if he is dreaming and aware of it, Arthur reaches out; her scarf is not silk today but lace, and the slide holding it in place slips easily free under his fingers. Her face is doubtful, puzzled, but she makes no move to stop him when he lifts the scarf away.
The Dream shreds and fades. Her throat is perfectly normal, pale and smooth-skinned. "Why - "
His voice cracks, and Arthur swallows and tries again. "Why do you wear a scarf all the time?"
He half-expects her to tell him it's none of his business, but instead her face closes. Ariadne brushes the hair away from the right side of her neck, and he sees it then, a purple mark spilling out from beneath her ear. Naevus flammeus, a port-wine stain, vivid against the whiteness of her skin.
"I got tired of the questions," she says flatly, and lets the hair fall.
There's a tremor beneath the words, and he knows there's more weight behind her choice than questions. The scarf begins to slide from his grip as she pulls, and he tightens his fist on the cloth. Don't hide it, he wants to say, though he has no right to choose and no knowledge of the pain it may have brought.
He doesn't say it. Instead he lets his other hand gather up her hair, moving slowly so as not to frighten her, and her eyes are huge as he bends, her breath is rapid as he touches the darkened skin ever so lightly with his lips.
Ariadne is trembling. The mark is warm and slightly raised beneath his kiss, and he lifts his head, fearing the skin too sensitive.
"Arthur…" She is gripping his vest placket now, fingers burrowing between the buttons, a warm invasion. And the hot flare in her eyes is, he realizes, what he has been waiting for.
There is no Dream. Just the sweet, sharp reality of taste and touch, of his hands sliding up her spine and her muffled yes against his mouth.
The scarf drifts down unnoticed, settling gently over the die. The sun shines on.