These days, they're past caring whether the marks they leave are visible: it's not important if Arthur's collar covers the crescent of a bite-mark, or Eames' wrist is braceleted with bruises. (Yesterday morning Arthur glanced over at Eames in the shower -- always worth looking at, always -- and thought, hey, did I really scratch that hard? (And, okay, maybe it's time for a manicure.) Last night, Eames came back to himself with that salt-metal tang in his mouth, and tongued his own lip, exploratory, 'til he realised it wasn't him that was bleeding.)
It doesn't matter if someone sees where one or the other's bitten, scratched, pressed. Sometimes, indeed, these serve as warning signs: mine, claimed, not to be touched. But the marks that matter are invisible to others. They're inked in pain (and sometimes painful pleasure); they're inked in dreams; not all of them are inked on skin.
In the waking world, Eames' bright shirts and raw silk jackets conceal a catalogue of deliberate remembrances. There are names, numbers, hieroglyphs: there are images and abstract whorls. Eames' skin, thought Arthur when he first uncovered all that ink, is a map. Arthur could spend a lifetime exploring it. He feels no need to add himself as landmark, waypoint, destination.
In the waking world, Arthur's skin is pale, and marked in ways he hasn't chosen. In their line of work, scars are inescapable. Eames cherishes each one, and the story that goes with it; the scattered pitting on Arthur's lower back ("Shrapnel, from when I was in Germany"), the parallel slashes that stripe his thigh ("The Murakami job: who even uses ninja claw gloves?"), the neat pockmark just above his left nipple (".22, some asshole Brit who thought he'd -- okay, next time you'll use something more serious. Jerk.").
They go down into dreams together, marked only with what's in their minds.
There's a black timber shack on a desolate seashore, thick with wood-smoke from the stove, where Arthur plies Eames with the rough local whisky (which just happens to taste a lot like Laphroaig) while he scrubs away somebody else's initials with salt and water and gauze. When he's done, there'll be a mess of bleeding flesh to mark the place.
There'll be more than one visit to that barren coast, where the waves break grey on a white beach of shell and bone, where the sun never shines and the light never changes. Time and again Eames will strip off his shirt, lay himself down, inhale sharp and sudden at the first rasp of salt-soaked cloth against half-healed flesh and the tatters of old ink. Time and again Arthur will rinse away the blood with whisky and then run his hand, slow and firm, down the line of Eames' spine, soothing. And eventually, there'll be nothing there at all, and Arthur will taste the new flesh slowly, gently, tongue teasing at the scabs, kissing immaculate skin.
When they wake up, Eames' ink will blare out, clear and black, not faded like the feeling that inspired it. But he and Arthur will know that it's undone, unmade; and when they're apart Eames will rest his palm against the breast of his jacket, certain that the skin beneath's unscathed.
They'll dream a different dream together, in a high-ceilinged room with turquoise paint peeling from the walls, nag champa smouldering in rust-dappled incensories, the rustle of net at the open window, the distant sound of a gramophone playing Django Reinhardt. Arthur will be sipping mint julep from a tall, frosted glass, seemingly oblivious to the slow movement of the needle across his clavicles. Eames' hands will be kind and clinical, each pinprick of colour precisely where it should be, each spasm of muscle soothed away before the next incision. It will take hours to complete the phrase. Arthur will grumble insincerely about Eames' insistence on Virgil. Eames will light another clove cigarette and dip the needle into the glass of vodka that's gradually becoming the same deep blue as the sky outside the window. "In dreams," he'll say, and drop a kiss on the clean, sweat-sheened curve of Arthur's collarbone.
Arthur will chuckle, and mock Eames for his sentimentality: but he'll lie still as Eames (with frowning attention to a much-folded scrap of paper) pricks out each letter, inking it in blood-limned indigo against Arthur's skin. And later, once it's done, he'll read it through ("qui amant ipsi sibi somnia fingunt") and Arthur will reach up and take Eames' hand, kiss his fingers, murmur the Latin back to his love.
If Eames turns from the window, to see Arthur with his back to the mirror, craning over his own shoulder to check Eames' spelling -- if Eames growls, pretending injury, and wrestles Arthur down to the damp sheets of the rumpled bed -- if Arthur hisses at the flare of silk against his stinging skin, 'til Eames rolls him over and kisses it, comprehensively, better -- that's neither here nor there.
When they wake up, Arthur's shoulders will be blank and bare to every eye. But he and Eames will know what's lettered there, and when they're apart Arthur will roll his shoulders just to feel the phantom burn of ink beneath his skin, to know he's marked.