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The Sweetest Downfall

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After the Fischer job they’re meant to split up, go their separate ways. It’s easy for Cobb, off to reunite with his kids and revel in his newfound freedom. Ariadne has school and will be on the next flight back to Paris out of LAX. Saito is probably retreating to some shockingly indulgent penthouse to steeple his fingers and chuckle to himself over his business success, or maybe just spend a few weeks reacquainting himself with sanity and the waking world. Yusuf grabs a connecting flight to Michigan to visit family.

Arthur – well. Eames hasn’t the foggiest. Probably Arthur is off to check on some weird abandoned Texan homestead where he keeps all his buried militia artillery. It’s either that or shoe shopping on Rodeo Drive. Eames honestly couldn’t give a fuck either way.

Eames for his part is keen to return to Mombasa. He’s got a flat there, he’s got his take from Saito, he’s got nothing but time and money to burn. Eventually, he supposes, he’ll need to get back to work either thieving or forging. Whether it’ll be because he’s pissed away the Fischer job pay-out in Kenyan game dens or out of simple boredom, Eames doesn’t particularly care to speculate at this time.

“No flights until tomorrow,” Eames repeats incredulously to the ticket agent. “None? First class?”

The ticket agent shakes her head, bored, unimpressed with Eames’ willingness to part with his money for the sake of leaving the country sooner. “Not unless you want to go via Taipei and then Kuala Lumpur,” she says, which is mad and ridiculous and Eames can’t set foot in Taipei anyhow, there’s still a warrant out for him there last he heard.

“No,” he says, “Via Frankfurt tomorrow it is, then,” and slaps down his shiny new (fraudulent) credit card with a sigh. “Point me to the nearest airport hotel that doesn’t make your skin crawl when you’re done that, love.”

It only figures that Eames comes away from the check-in desk of the LAX Radisson, freshly coded key card in hand, and finds himself face to face with bloody Arthur. They’re both too exhausted from the inception to check their reactions for the first instant – Eames blinks, and Arthur scowls – but then they pull themselves to together and Arthur steps hastily to the left of Eames and towards the elevator, pulling his pristine black Samsonite luggage behind him (and god knows how Arthur keeps his suitcase looking like that the way Cobb’s been dragging his arse all over the globe the last two years.)

Eames pretends to consult his watch, huffs out an annoyed breath at what he sees, and pivots to join Arthur standing in front of the elevator bank, his own sloppy brown duffel slung over his shoulder. They maintain their cover as strangers, each staring straight ahead and ignoring the other. Eames transmutes his natural tension at the worry that someone might join them into a feigned impatience for the lift. He needs those thirty seconds of privacy with Arthur that the elevator trip will afford.

Thankfully, no one else arrives and the lift doors open in another fifteen seconds.

“Are you following me?” Arthur says, barely moving his mouth to avoid attracting notice on the surveillance cameras. He sounds menacing as fuck anyway.

“Yes,” Eames says seriously, scratching his nose to cover his own speech, “yes, I thought, what a beautiful afternoon in Los Angeles, how might I improve it? Of course, I’ll tail Arthur to the Radisson and risk blowing our walk-away just for funsies!”

“I can check out,” Arthur says, hitting the button for his floor – ninth, apparently. “Which one is you?”

Eames presses the five button for himself. “Don’t be an arsehole, it’s a massive hotel. We’ll probably not bump into one another again. I’ll take the hotel bar, you can have everything else.”

Arthur considers this, and Eames avoids smirking at the stubborn serious lift of his chin. “Fine,” he accedes with a nod, and the lift doors open on Eames’ floor. “Just – be careful.”

As he leaves the elevator, Eames grins at Arthur, safely out of the camera’s range. “Don’t worry, darling, I always use condoms if that’s what you’re asking.”

“That’s not what”—Arthur begins, aggrieved, but he’s cut off by the closing of the doors. The last Eames sees of him is the pissy look he so often reserves for Eames alone.

Eames whistles as he tromps down the carpeted hallway in search of his room.

*

He’s not sure if the bedside alarm clock is to be trusted, but according to it, Eames was off in his estimation of the time and it’s closer to evening than afternoon. It hardly matters as Eames is going to be resetting his internal clock once he lands in Nairobi, so he shuts the curtains tight and crashes down on the bed for a solid few hours of dreamless delightfully gun-free sleep. When he wakes, he showers but skips the shave and dresses again in his least wrinkled clothing before heading out the door in search of alcohol and mindless flirting at the hotel bar.

Everything’s too polished and clean and hygienic – too Westernized, in short – for Eames’ comfort, but he’s willing to subject himself to the hermetically sealed plastic environs of the Radisson’s lounge for one night given the fucking long job he’s just endured.

He gets turned around heading for the bar, though, and finds himself in a corridor leading towards the back of the hotel on the lobby level, and it’s all a little too fucking much like Arthur’s glossy dream level until the illusion is broken by the appearance of another guest at the far end of the hallway, someone fresh from the pool with a white towel slung around his shoulders and damp short swimming trunks and a nice if leanly muscled chest. Eames is working up to a good line, maybe something about how the water is, when the guy gets a little closer and Eames recognizes the selfsame grouchy expression from a few hours earlier in the lift.

There’s no one else in sight, and no cameras in this hallway either, so Eames lets himself gape for a good thirty seconds. Arthur, half-naked and spangled with small water droplets, hairy knees and long feet and perfect pert nipples, but most amazingly – Arthur with his dark hair all loose and curling and damp around his forehead, his ears. Eames once had occasion to see Arthur this unclothed, during a quick change-over during a job in Bulgaria, a vivid flash of Arthur’s slender body in boxers and nothing else before Arthur was tugging at a pair of charcoal trousers, a white jersey undershirt – but the hair is new.

The hair. The hair has always, always been impeccable, immaculate, groomed perfection. Eames had long since thought of Arthur’s hair as permanently gelled into obedience. He’d had no earthly idea how – how wanton it could be, curving and wet at the tips and softening Arthur’s whole face, taking easily ten years off Arthur’s usually ambiguously adult appearance.

All at once, with a gut-clench of something like laughter mixed with lust, Eames understands why Arthur is so severe with his hair and clothes; in his present state he could pass for sixteen if he liked. It’s delightful and shocking, and made all the more delightful by Arthur’s frown.

“You said you’d stick to the bar,” Arthur says, pushing his fringe back, drawing Eames’ attention to the loveliness of his long fingers carded through dark lazy curls.

“I got turned around,” Eames answers, knowing he’s smiling but unable to stop. It’s all he can do to keep from reaching out to have a feel for himself. Arthur’s hair is far longer than he’d imagined.

“Well, turn yourself back the other way,” Arthur orders, not amused.

“I will do,” says Eames agreeably, and lets Arthur get a few steps ahead of him before pivoting back and trailing behind him, luxuriating in the view presented: not only Arthur’s shapely back parts, but the divot of his spine, the splay of his shoulders, and best of all, the spill of his wild dark mop of hair and the way it tapers abruptly into obedience at the nape of his neck where it’s been trimmed short and neat.

They gain the lobby and Eames is forced to peel away towards the bar while Arthur heads for the lifts. Now in full view of a dozen other guests and staff, Eames can’t spare a glance towards Arthur and has to make do with the images stored up in his brain.

Eames spends the first ten minutes nursing his scotch and wondering idly where on his body Arthur had managed to secret his room key. In his devastating masses of gorgeous dark hair, most probably, Eames decides, and then he refocuses on flirting with the repressed looking businessman who’s been shooting him sidelong glances since he sat down.

(The businessman’s hair, though very stiffly styled, utterly fails to live up to Eames’ hopes. After they’ve fucked and showered together, Eames can see that the bloke’s hair is actually just coarse and straight as a pin. It’s disappointing as hell, truth be told.)

Eames doesn’t see Arthur again, not that night as he slips back out of the businessman’s ninth floor suite, and not the next morning when he checks out in the lobby. Eames doesn’t see Arthur again for nearly two months, in fact.

*

It turns out to be boredom and not financial ruin that drives Eames back to work, which is a pleasant surprise. It’s been some time since Eames went into a job as a lark instead of as a means to an end (the end being wads of cash) and so he takes a chance in meeting with a relatively new extractor, someone by the name of Paolo who works out of Europe most of the time.

“I hear you can do a woman,” Paolo says over coffee in a grungy Mombasa restaurant.

Eames leans back in his chair and blows out a stream of cigarette smoke. “I have been known to do a woman or two,” he acknowledges, rolling with Paolo’s unintended double entendre, “but men are something of a speciality of mine.”

Paolo’s smirk is only a little impatient. He slides a folder across the table, crisp and manila bright and practically a whooping alarm signaling his novice status in conducting criminal affairs. Because Eames knows the patrons – locals, mostly uninterested in what the mad Brit does in their midst – he lifts the folder open and sees a photo of the woman he’s presumably meant to forge and a post-it note with a proposed fee in Euros.

“Double it,” Eames says, “and we’ll talk.”

Paolo scowls. “It’s the standard rate, I’m told.”

“Standard for an extractor who’s bloody good at what they do,” Eames tells him, tapping the ash off the tip of his cigarette. “You’re an unknown quantity.”

Paolo bristles but doesn’t give ground. “I’m told you know my point man,” he says, “if that’s reference enough.”

Eames feigns a slight yawn, letting his attention drift, carefully not betraying the weird lurch his heart just gave. It’s exactly like riding a kick up through two levels.

“Arthur,” says Paolo, whispering conspicuously.

“Eurgh,” says Eames, squinting, bored. “Is he still in the business?”

Paolo goes shifty, obviously worried that Eames knows something he doesn’t. “He’s the best point there is,” he says, assuring himself more than Eames.

“He’s experienced, anyway,” Eames concedes, and stubs out his fag. “Right. How about one and a half times that paltry figure? I’ll give you a discount for having such impeccable taste in your forgers.”

*

The job is in Johannesburg. Eames likes Jo’burg, likes its bustle and noise, the packed communal minibus taxis with the passengers shouting out the windows at passers-by, the street corner vendors and the men you pay to watch your car while you’re in a shop or restaurant. Eames likes the way you can roll through red lights after a certain hour and he likes the oily diesel smell of the streets. He likes the radiating heat of Jo’burg in January, the sweaty faces of city workers in suits and the barefoot children lagging behind their mothers, the women balancing anything and everything on their heads.

Arthur does not like Jo’burg. He’s curt and overdressed for the time of year and when he first sees Eames entering the old Afrikaner community hall where they’ve made their base, he only presses his lips together and bows his head back to his work. He’s taking longhand notes in one of his insufferable little Moleskine black books. His hair is very neat in spite of the high temperature.

Eames ignores Arthur and makes for the PASIV. He’s just spent a week undercover studying his target, the young woman he’s meant to forge, and he’s eager to get to work on her before any details slip away. Unlike Arthur, Eames isn’t one for taking notes.

*

The extraction should be a cake walk: one level, a few hours, and Eames doing the bulk of the heavy lifting by forging the subject’s mistress and keeping him distracted in a sleazy hotel room while Paolo, Arthur, and a South African architect named Rosa work their way towards a safe containing the subject’s darkest secrets, including – with any luck – the business plan for a new mobile payment system about to be launched by a major African bank.

“It’s big business,” Arthur tells them in the briefing, “we’re talking millions and millions of Africans who have no access to bank accounts or computers but all of whom carry mobile phones. Our client is interested in consolidating his market share with his current service offering and he wants to know what our friend Van der Merwe here is up to with AfricBank’s newest plans for mobile payment.”

Eames raises his hand, causing Arthur to sigh. “Are we certain his subconscious isn’t militarized?” he asks, a little pointedly.

Arthur isn’t one to blush but his jaw flickers with something like ruefulness. “Yes,” he says, voice low and even, “Van der Merwe is a mid-level executive at the bank, nowhere near important enough to merit sub security.” Today’s a scorcher, plus thirty or more, and the community hall has no air conditioning and few windows. Arthur’s stripped down to his shirtsleeves – no waistcoat – but still looks miserable and sweaty.

Eames raises his hand again. Arthur sighs, again. “And you’ve verified this information?” Eames checks. “Because the negligee that I’ve picked out for this mistress doesn’t leave me much in the way of the ability to conceal weapons about my person.”

Over Arthur’s right ear, perspiration and exasperation suddenly combine to spring a lock of hair free. It pops out and down, a wonderful depiction of how Eames is driving Arthur mad with this interrogation, questioning his work in front of new people. “I’m very certain,” Arthur says, and leaves it at that.

“I suppose,” Eames interrupts as Arthur goes to resume the briefing, “I’ll just have to rely on you to come to my rescue as needed.”

Arthur slicks the errant lock of hair back into place. “I think you can manage, Mr. Eames,” he says. “Dream a small arms locker into the space under the motel bed if it reassures you. You won’t need it.”

“Maybe a rocket launcher,” Eames says thoughtfully.

“Just don’t blow us up before we get to the safe,” Rosa interjects, clearly losing patience with this sidebar. “Arthur, do go on.”

*

“Right,” Arthur says, rounding on Eames the minute both Paolo and Rosa have left for the day, “what the fuck is this about, Eames?”

Eames licks his lips and admires Arthur, the taut lines of him, menacing and agile.

“The Fischer job was a clusterfuck,” Arthur continues, voice low and clipped, “but I fucking well got all of us off that level, I did my goddamn job, Eames. I missed the sub security but I did my goddamn job and you’re alive and sane to tell the tale.”

Eames should be thinking of some way to smooth Arthur’s feathers, he knows. Normally this is when Cobb would come between them, walk Arthur away and give Eames a warning look, but Cobb’s flown the coop and Arthur’s his own man now and Eames can’t bloody stop thinking about – about how it would be, to –

“Do we have a problem?” Arthur asks, up in Eames’ face now, earnest and scary as hell.

“No problem,” Eames says, and forces a shit-eating grin. “Terribly sorry, won’t happen again, darling.” He can’t help flickering his glance over to Arthur’s right ear. The earlier escaping lock of hair has recruited some of its neighbours and conspired to spill down and curve around the soft-looking shell of Arthur’s ear. Eames wants very badly to push his fingers into those dark strands, use his nails to tease Arthur’s hair loose over his forehead.

Arthur is many things, Eames thinks. Arthur is logical to a fault, meticulous and patient and thoughtful and terrifyingly good with small arms and hand-to-hand combat. What Arthur is not, Eames decides in the long seconds that follow, is any good at all at knowing when someone wants to fuck him senseless. Arthur blinks at Eames, nods once in satisfaction, and backs off, all the while clearly thinking that this was some sort of idiotic pissing contest on Eames’ part, and nothing whatsoever to do with that immoderately beautiful tangle of waves clustered around Arthur’s ear, and how badly Eames wants to muss Arthur up like that all over.

*

The target is due for day surgery the next day, an uncomplicated hernia repair. With the help of a little financial consideration (one more thing to love about Jo’burg, Eames thinks, is the ease with which bribes are offered and accepted) they will have ample time in which to perform their work: fifteen minutes in the real world, or three hours below.

They arrive separately as planned, through different entrances and at slightly staggered times. Eames has already handed out the ID badges he crafted a few days earlier, and everyone will costume themselves accordingly in pilfered green OR scrubs stamped with the hospital logo. As none but Rosa speaks Afrikaans, Eames thought it safest to restrict himself, Arthur, and Paolo to lowly orderlies and leave Rosa the more important position of playing a surgical attending, able to rescue them in case any higher-up starts barking incomprehensible questions or commands at them.

Eames is the last to arrive at the pre-op ward, Rosa waiting impatiently outside the door of Van der Merwe’s room. “Hurry,” she urges him, “the nurse is standing by.”

Eames slips into the room and tries to look unimportant, shrugging his shoulders against the cotton of the slightly too small scrub top. The nurse they’ve bribed is talking quietly with Van der Merwe, presumably about to administer the sedative they’d provided her. Paolo is fiddling with the sink on the far side of the room. Rosa is making notes on an aluminium clipboard. Arthur is –

Arthur is dressed up as an orderly, of course, and has – only sensibly – elected to forgo his usual severe hairstyle. It’s the Radisson LAX all over again, only this time Arthur’s hair is dry and coaxed into some pretense of a messy style. Arthur is lounging up against the window, playing the part of a lazy employee awaiting orders, keeping his face casually averted away from Van der Merwe’s as a precaution.

Eames’ throat goes dry, looking at Arthur. Arthur is shockingly lovely like this, slumping in shapeless ugly cotton scrubs, face framed with a wavy halo. He shifts, getting one sneakered – sneakered – sole up against the wall, his shoulders rolling down and forward.

Usually seeing Arthur so casual invokes in Eames a reflexive need to shake him up, to have the amusement of watching him snap back into his formal stiff posture. It’s why Eames does things like kick Arthur’s chair leg or shoot elastic bands at his head from across the room. Juvenile, of course, but satisfying nonetheless.

What strikes Eames in this moment, though, is not the desire to startle Arthur into his customary rigidity, but the urge to see how far he can get Arthur to unwind. Eames bites his lower lip, seriously considering the question, and then Arthur looks up at him, maybe sensing Eames’ stare. There’s a bare second of eye contact between them, too brief an interval for anything but Arthur’s surprise and Eames’ smirk, and then —

“He’s out,” says the nurse suddenly, nodding at Van der Merwe, who has indeed nodded off rather abruptly. “You have twenty minutes before we take him to the OR.”

Arthur breaks away from the wall, losing his insouciance in the space of a second, pulling the PASIV case out from under the bed. The rest of the team shifts into action just as quickly, and the nurse moves to keep guard at the door. Eames swallows hard and forces his mind to focus on the job, because in a minute or so he’s going to be –

*

– waiting on the polyester coverlet in a tiny cheap motel room, squirming and wishing Rosa wasn’t quite so meticulous with details like the scratchiness of the fabric. Eames can only be grateful that dreams don’t smell of anything at all, because the room looks like it would have a serious funk to it, going by the wobbly yellow water stain on the ceiling, the grimy ashtray on the bureau.

Van der Merwe comes out of the loo in nothing but white cotton pants. He’s got a hairy paunch and one ear bigger than the other. It’s not all glamour, Eames’ line of work.

“Hello, my lovely,” Van der Merwe leers, and Eames brings his creamy-white thighs together modestly; he never had occasion, naturally, to observe the more intimate goings on between Van der Merwe and his British mistress Sophie, but he knows enough about sexy dreams to be certain that playing hard to get is common in many dreamy assignations. It’s far less risky, too. Nothing draws a lover’s suspicion faster than the wrong reactions, the wrong sensitivities, the wrong positions.

“Let’s play a game,” Eames-as-Sophie suggests coyly.

*

It’s over before Eames has to do much more than slip the straps of his/her rose-coloured negligee down suggestively. Van der Merwe is just reaching for Eames when the kick comes; Eames bolts out of the plastic hospital chair, the motion nearly yanking the PASIV line out of his arm.

Arthur is there, abruptly, pressing down on Eames’ forearm and coaxing the needle free in a short gentle motion. “Good work, Mr. Eames,” he says with all professional decorum, the tone and words jarringly at odds with Arthur’s apparel and appearance.

“We got it?” Eames asks, reaching into his pants pocket for his poker chip, feeling its weight and the cool bit at the centre where it’s weighted with nickel.

“Got it,” says Paolo smugly. “Right, your money will be wired to you within twelve hours. Good work, everyone.”

Arthur is still busy wrapping up the PASIV leads, so Eames says it for him. “We have to stagger our departures yet,” he points out, more gently than he usually would, because Paolo did all right for a newbie, and Eames is getting his payday.

“Oh,” Paolo says, “right, of course,” and they work out who’s going out of the room first and what exits they’re taking, who’s responsible to hit up the community hall and clear it of any evidence they were ever there. It’s routine, a little dull, but there’s still the glow of a job finished cleanly.

Eames mostly manages to avoid staring at Arthur, knowing all too well that this might well be his last chance to see Arthur in dishabille, so to speak. Next time they meet, Arthur will be buttoned up and slicked down again, and Eames doesn’t know how he’ll bear it. Eames isn’t even sure if he can bear it.

*

Eames stays one more night in Johannesburg. The job was low profile enough that he’s not worried about anyone looking for them right away, and besides, Eames could use a little distraction.

It only figures that he bumps into Arthur in the hotel lobby as Eames is on his way to gamble away his whole take on the job. Eames blinks with surprise, because Arthur is meant to be flying over Africa en route to Heathrow by now. Arthur is not meant to be sitting on the incredibly tacky naugahyde hotel lobby couch, reading the Mail & Guardian, legs crossed at the knee, back in his customary suit and tie and shellacked hair. “Hi,” Arthur says, folding the paper and uncrossing his legs.

“This is a very poorly executed walk-away,” Eames tells him, frowning, because Arthur is logical to a fault, meticulous and patient and thoughtful and terrifyingly good with small arms and hand-to-hand combat, and also not very good at knowing when someone wants to bend him over the nearest naugahyde couch and rumple his hair into unrecognisability. And yet – here he is.

“No one is looking for us,” Arthur says, “and this shitty hotel has no surveillance anyway.” He sets the paper down and carefully shoots his cuffs, making minute adjustments to his cufflinks. “Where are you headed?”

Eames waggles his fingers, extemporising. “Thought I’d indulge in a little recreational pick-pocketing, keep the skills honed.”

“Good city for it,” Arthur says seriously, “everyone’s paranoid as hell around here.”

Eames blinks at Arthur again. He’s probably meant to ask what Arthur’s doing here. At least, that’s what he would be meant to do if Arthur were remotely the type of person who played games. Arthur is most definitely not the type of person who plays games. “Well,” Eames says, not knowing what else to do, “places to be, wallets to lift.”

Arthur stands up and buttons his jacket, making ready to leave himself. “This hotel has a pool, doesn’t it?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Eames tells him in all seriousness, “you’ll probably pick up genital warts or anal fungus.” He hasn’t the foggiest idea of what Arthur’s after, but he’s willing to go along with it for now.

Arthur levels a searching look at Eames. “I didn’t think it was the pool thing,” he says, “but it was worth checking.” He hesitates. “Is it a medical fetish?”

Eames stuffs his hand in his pocket again, reassuring himself with the poker chip’s shape and weight; he reminds himself of the chain of events from waking in the hospital until arriving at this moment. He’s awake. He’s most definitely awake. He is also taking too long to answer the question Arthur’s posed. Eames clears his throat and glances away. “No,” he says abruptly, “no, that’s – it’s.”

“It’s the hair, then,” Arthur says, satisfied. “I thought so.” He dips his hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and comes back with his totem, jouncing it in the cup of his palm. “All right,” he says, “I guess it’s just a question of whether we can still work together.” The far right corner of his mouth twitches and Arthur looks up to meet Eames’ eyes. “You’re too good a forger and I’m too good a point man for our collaboration to end here. Either you assure me that we can walk away from this or else we need to try and fuck it out of your system once and for all.”

While Eames does his level best to cope with this dazzling dizzying ultimatum, Arthur tucks his die back into his suit pocket. Eames suddenly grasps that Arthur isn’t at all unobservant or unimaginative, of course he isn’t. He couldn’t be the best point man in the business if he were, after all. Arthur’s defining characteristic is, rather, his caution. He doesn’t act on anything until he’s certain he’s gleaned enough information for a well-informed decision. Arthur’s been sitting back and collecting evidence of Eames’ newfound infatuation and he’s only now decided that it’s a sure thing. That Eames is a sure thing, actually.

“I take your silence as a vote for the latter option,” Arthur continues casually, unsurprised. “Shall we?” he suggests, inclining his head coolly in the direction of the lifts.

Eames draws breath, determined to come up with something, anything, to say, something that will assure Arthur that it’s not a problem and Eames certainly will do no such thing and Arthur must think pretty highly of himself anyway if he thinks having it off once with Eames is going to magically sate Eames’ only natural animal lust for unexpectedly pretty point men with softly curling hair. “Worth a try,” Eames says instead, and leads the way.

*

“I’ll use your shower to get the product out of my hair,” Arthur says once they get in the door of Eames’ room, “since apparently the pool is rife with anal fungus.” The ride up in the lift had been surprisingly polite and formal, no one pushing anyone up against anything, Eames doing his best not to fidget with his clothes, his hair, Arthur with hands folded together below his waist, calmly watching the floor numbers light up in turn. It’s all very civilised.

“Wait,” says Eames, Arthur already pushing his way into the bath, “wait, don’t.”

Arthur pauses and looks at Eames, confused but patient.

“I can manage,” Eames says. “We don’t need to”—and he waves in the direction of the shower. “I mean, clearly you’d rather not, and whatever you think of me and my standards of behaviour I truly don’t get off on sex with people who think they’re doing me a favour, so. I’ll manage. You can go.”

Arthur wiggles his tie loose, maintaining the same curious but sober expression. “Eames,” he says, “it’s mutual.”

“It’s not fucking mutual,” Eames returns, not willing to be lied to. “I’m the one who’s all hot and bothered suddenly, you’re the same as ever.”

Arthur’s tie is dangling in a wide loop now, and he flicks open the top button of his shirt. “Yeah,” he says, “same as ever. Exactly.”

Eames gapes.

“Come on,” says Arthur, “you had to have known.”

Eames gapes some more.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Arthur says impatiently, and shrugs out of his jacket, unbuttons his shirt. “You call yourself a forger. What the hell is wrong with your keen powers of perception that you’ve never noticed I’m attracted to you?” The shirt’s undone now and Arthur is yanking it free, pulling its tails out of his perfectly tailored trousers. “Give me a minute, I’ll at least get my hair wet and loose since that’s the thing that turns your crank or whatever.” He drops the shirt and strips his white cotton vest over his head, the motion displacing his hair a little.

“All along?” Eames asks, just now managing to grasp at what Arthur’s saying, how different Arthur is from how Eames has always viewed him. “Arthur, all along?”

“Yes,” Arthur says shortly, bending over to untie his shoes, unbuckling his belt, opening his trousers. “All along.” He gets his hands on the waistband of trousers and pants, clearly about to strip out of them as well.

Eames hastily closes the foot or so of distance between them, closes one hand around the soft skin of Arthur’s side, and presses their mouths together, a little off-centre in his panic. Arthur startles for an instant and then exhales hard, his hands coming up to frame Eames’ face, hold him steady so Arthur can gently work his mouth open, kiss his way deeper into Eames. Eames digs his fingers into Arthur’s side, feeling the contained energy there, the want that Arthur has obviously contained amazingly well in the years they’ve known each other.

“Wait,” Arthur says, pulling back, “shouldn’t I,” and he lets go of Eames long enough to push at his hair, separating the gelled strands and coaxing them into a startled-looking cowlick. It should look ridiculous. It doesn’t.

“No,” Eames says, stroking the hair back down, “no, it doesn’t matter at all.”

Arthur’s mouth twitches. “I thought it was the hair thing.” It’s hard to tell if he’s amused or irritated.

“It was,” Eames says, “but I’m starting to think it’s a more generalised – it’s a you thing.” He drifts his hand back down to Arthur’s face, strokes his thumb over Arthur’s mouth. “I’ve been going about this entirely the wrong way,” he says, wonderingly. “Haven’t I?”

Arthur’s mouth gives up twitching and curves wide, popping dimples into Arthur’s cheeks. “All you had to do was ask,” he says, a little sheepishly.

Eames leans in again to kiss Arthur, this time with a hand gliding down Arthur’s belly and into his open trousers, under the elastic of his pants. Arthur makes a pleased sound – who knew Arthur had pleased sounds? – and his hips jolt into Eames’ first touch, his cock filling hot and slowly going hard as Eames tugs at it and kisses Arthur’s soft yielding mouth. Eames quickly runs out of room to maneuver as Arthur’s cock hardens all the way, so he pulls his hand free and hooks Arthur’s pants down, gives his pants and trousers a swift tug. Arthur steps out of them when they pool to the floor.

“Shit,” Eames breathes, stepping back enough to get the full view: Arthur stripped to to his skin, neat and slender and converging to a very inviting point of interest at hip-level, where his cock is straining for attention. Arthur’s hair might be behaving itself impeccably at the moment but it’s the furthest thing from Eames’ mind, faced as he is with Arthur’s willing gorgeous body. “I should maybe,” Eames says, making some move towards his own clothing.

“No,” Arthur says, reaching for him, “no, like this. Please.” Deep and formal tone of voice, the same voice that requests to borrow a pencil or verbally sketches a maze, and it hits Eames square in the gut to hear it now in this context and to think of Arthur wanting this the whole time he’d been professional and staid and asking to use Eames’ office supplies.

“Okay,” Eames says, breathless, reaching for Arthur, “of course, yes, anything,” and he has Arthur in hand again, and Arthur gasps and his head falls forward and his brow goes tense with want. It’s not even a conscious decision; one second Eames is standing, stroking Arthur’s cock, and the next he’s on his knees, licking at the head, listening to Arthur’s small desperate sounds.

Arthur wants, Eames thinks again, the fact still madly arousing, driving him to skip the teasing and open wide, sink himself down over Arthur’s cock and suck hard. Arthur’s trying to speak but the words are half-formed, pieces of curses and encouragement and nonsense. His hand musses up Eames’ own hair, crawling over Eames’ scalp with hunger and pleasure. Eames sucks and bobs his head and it’s good, it’s too good, it’s got Eames hard and straining against his trousers’ fly, the constriction giving him pressure against his cock but not enough and not in the right way.

“Stop, wait,” Arthur says, “I want you to fuck me, come on.” He tugs up on the collar of Eames’ shirt, urging Eames to his feet, and when he sees the strained state of Eames’ pants his mouth slants wide into another grin. “Unless you don’t want to,” he adds wickedly.

“Well, I obviously find it filthy and debasing even to think of such a thing,” Eames says casually, “but for your sake I’ll lower mys—“ but he doesn’t get any further because Arthur’s kissing him again and walking them both back towards Eames’ bed. “Pushy,” says Eames, between kisses, “aren’t you?”

“Shut up,” says Arthur, smiling, and shoves hard on Eames’ shoulders so Eames falls backwards onto the bed, barely landed there before Arthur is crawling up his body and wrenching at the tails of Eames’ shirt, his fly, his collar. It’s difficult to read Arthur’s body language, familiar as Eames is with him, because it’s nothing Eames has ever seen from Arthur before – but Eames is fairly sure that Arthur is somewhere between playful and desperate, maybe with a slight emphasis on the latter.

Every time Eames makes to help Arthur with his shirt buttons or zip, Arthur bats Eames’ hand out of the way. Eames has to settle for feeling Arthur up instead, soft taut heated skin that seems to go on forever, the lovely loose joints of Arthur, the places where he’s knitted together under pliant muscle, the firm-knotted hairy calves that frame Eames’ hips. It’s not exactly a hardship, Eames reflects, and moves on to cup Arthur’s arse in his hands.

“Yeah,” Arthur says roughly in reponse, and well – Eames hadn’t been going there, not yet, honestly, but with that kind of encouragement it’s no effort at all to change his mind and slide his index finger over and then down into the cleft of Arthur’s arse while Arthur goes still on all fours over Eames, mouth falling open with lovely anticipation. Eames drags his fingertip down, raising a shudder from Arthur, and then presses in just a little bit to see what Arthur does.

What Arthur does is kneel up abruptly, brushing Eames’ hand away, and look delightfully flushed and breathless. “We need lube,” he says, wide-eyed, like it just now occurred to him.

“In my duffel,” says Eames, “I think in the front pocket of the brown trousers.”

“Eames,” says Arthur, “I’m not digging through your clothes,” exactly as though he’s not kneeling naked over Eames’ still-clothed body, cock bobbing and shiny wet at the tip. Arthur says it like he might say, I have some standards, you know.

“Right,” Eames says, and rolls over without warning, knocking Arthur off his balance and making him grunt and laugh with surprise. The lube is where he thought it was, thank fuck, and here’s a strip of condoms. Eames straightens up from where he was bent over the duffel, holding the bottle and condoms triumphantly aloft, but the gesture loses some of its magnificence when he finds Arthur folded over on his belly, arse-up and head down, knees spread wantonly apart, back flickering ever so slightly with tension. “Fuck,” Eames says thickly, and nearly drops the bottle.

“Come on,” Arthur says, but he’s smiling at Eames. “Leave your shirt and pants on, just get your dick out.”

Eames knees onto the bed and complies, unzipping all the way and working his pants and trousers down enough to free himself. Eames is too hot, sweating already in the confines of his clothes and the underpowered air conditioning of the hotel, but Arthur shifts back into the friction of Eames’ thighs brushing his bare ones, and Eames gets the appeal instantly. He gets a little distracted then, pushing his hips up against Arthur’s arse, fitting his cock into the cleft and grinding against it just to see Arthur gasp and push back into him in answer, and then Eames leans over Arthur, shirt to Arthur’s skin, and there are delicious unexpected patches of skin-to-skin contact between them where Eames’ shirt has come unbuttoned.

“Okay, okay,” Eames says, forcing himself up and away, because he’s getting a little too worked up just from rubbing himself against Arthur and at this rate they’re not going to need the condom and lube at all. Safely back on his heels, Eames gets some lube on his fingers and warms it a little against the pad of his thumb before unceremoniously pushing one finger into Arthur.

Arthur goes very still. His head drops down to hang loosely from his shoulders.

“Yeah?” Eames asks.

“Fuck,” Arthur says, “you have big fingers, you know that?”

“Save the size flattery for another minute or two,” Eames jests in answer, pulling back and easing a second finger in.

“S’not flattery,” Arthur says, abruptly sounding a little drunk. “Ah, there.”

Eames twists his fingers against the spot and gets his free hand under Arthur to palm his cock, a little clumsily, not so much to get Arthur worked up as to feel how this turns him on. Arthur is blood-hot inside and out, it seems.

“Enough,” Arthur says, “come on, I need your cock.”

Eames considers teasing a little longer during the second he bows his head and presses a kiss to Arthur’s lower back, but he’s not sure he has it in him to draw this out any more, and besides – teasing Arthur seems far less entertaining suddenly when the alternative involves fucking into him instead.

“Fuck, my fingers are all,” Eames says a moment later, struggling with the foil and his slippery right hand, and Arthur huffs a laugh before flipping onto his back and sitting up to lend assistance with his sure neat fingers. Arthur even graciously rolls the condom on, and it’s nothing Eames has ever thought of as sexy before, but the way Arthur does it – the way Arthur does everything really, sure and precise and steady – is unexpectedly arousing.

Then Arthur is back on his elbows and knees, and Eames hastens to slick his cock up. The first press is all jangling nerves at war with the need for some control, and it’s difficult to think at all with Arthur’s hot tight arse clenched around him, even more difficult as Arthur gasps and shudders and clenches at the sheets. Eames stops halfway in to blink the sweat out of his eyes, and then he impulsively yanks his shirt open to relieve some of the overheating that’s conquering his ability to think.

“Don’t stop,” Arthur says, “why are you—“

Eames isn’t sure what propels his hips forward in a hard thrust, if it’s an uncoordinated response to Arthur’s plea or maybe a subconsciously mediated attempt at shutting him up or perhaps only instinct, nothing more. Whatever it is, he’s suddenly balls deep in Arthur, and Arthur is crying out, and Eames doesn’t know whether to apologise or just keep going because Arthur is clearly past the point of words now, open-mouthed and panting and shivering.

Eames compromises, leaning forward again, pressing his belly and chest flush against Arthur’s sweat-damp back, kissing the nape of Arthur’s neck, the neat point of hair like an arrow directing Eames to their point of connection. Arthur frees one hand and paws at Eames’ cheek with fumbling fingers, entreating. Eames answers by pulling back a little and rocking in again. Arthur groans.

From this angle Eames can’t fuck too hard or deep, but he can get an arm around Arthur’s chest, hold Arthur steady while he shifts in sweet slow waves and kisses the back of Arthur’s ear, lips brushing against sweat-slackened locks of hair. It’s nothing like the pushy almost hateful sex Eames had once idly imagined between them. Arthur is strong and lean and joyous, but he’s lush and receptive and sweet too. Eames kisses Arthur’s temple and fucks Arthur’s arse and marvels at how wrong he’d been all this time.

Eventually it’s not enough, this slow rocking together, and Eames has to settle back onto his heels again, get Arthur’s hips in his hands, and start fucking him in earnest. Arthur meets him there, resettling his weight and angling his hips until Eames is stroking into exactly the right place, judging by Arthur’s satisfied sounds.

Mostly when Eames is fucking someone, there’s not a whole lot of thinking happening, it’s all instinct and pleasure and drive comingled with the desire to make his partner come as hard as possible. But once in a long while, Eames finds himself able for some reason to take it all in, all the details of sex that are usually subsumed in lust and urgency. This moment, fucking Arthur hard and steady from behind, is just such a time. Eames is desperately aware, suddenly, of the sounds in the room, the hard needful slap of his thighs against Arthur’s, the rough counterpoint of their breathing and grunting, the too-lovely sprawl of Arthur’s long limbs under Eames, the dark mussed spill of Arthur’s damp hair on the pillow. It’s Arthur, Eames thinks wildly, it’s Arthur here with him, Arthur shaking to pieces under him. And for some reason, that simple fact is the thing that knocks Eames back into the moment, desperate now to come.

He slides one hand under Arthur’s hip and gets a hold of his cock, the brush of Eames’ fingers finding the slick place on Arthur’s belly where his cockhead has been leaking steadily this whole time. “Won’t be long,” Arthur warns him as Eames starts to work his cock, and for an instant Eames thinks Arthur sounded far too coherent for a moment there, but then Arthur’s muttering onwards as though unaware of himself, “not long, fuck, yeah, not long, not long.” Eames redoubles his efforts, hungrily watching the point of their collision, Eames’ cock sinking into Arthur faster and harder, and then Arthur’s cock is pulsing and Arthur is shoving back into Eames with a long cry, and it’s all Eames can do to hold on while Arthur comes hard.

“Can I?” Eames asks when Arthur finally goes lax under him. “Can I, are you okay if I,” but Arthur is crawling forward a little and Eames is slipping out of him. Eames hastily snags the rim of the condom to save it going along with Arthur, then keeps his grip firm around the base of his cock because he’s too fucking close to coming, even with Arthur moving away from him. Eames settles back a little, unsteady, and Arthur turns over to reveal a huge stupid grin and come painted up his belly and chest. He looks thoroughly fucked out. Eames would be proud if he weren’t so very desperate.

“Come on, then,” Arthur says, and hitches one leg up until his knee is flat to his chest, and okay, Eames knows intellectually that Arthur is careful not to bulk up because he values his limberness and agility, but it’s something else entirely to watch as Arthur pulls a move that Eames himself probably hasn’t managed in ten years. “Come on,” Arthur says again, laughing at Eames’ expression. “Come on, I want to see you when you come.”

Eames doesn’t have to be asked twice – well, not four times anyway, and he wastes no time now settling his hips forward and pressing into Arthur, still slick and open and an easy long glide. Arthur draws up his other knee now, hooks it over Eames’ shoulder easily, and now Eames can fuck Arthur and brace himself on the mattress and kiss Arthur’s mouth all at once, Arthur folded up like wonderfully filthy origami to accommodate it all. “Harder,” Arthur says. His voice is a little hoarse. His hair is messy and tangled and still stuck in points where the product is stubbornly still doing its job.

Eames fucks harder, and Arthur writhes around it, dreamy and relaxed and not looking at all strained to have his knees next to his ears. “Fuck,” Eames says, and bottoms out deep, straining, before his orgasm blooms hotly in waves from the base of his spine and out to where his fingertips are biting into the mattress. Arthur kisses his mouth, his chin, and eases him down.

*

“I thought it wasn’t about the hair,” Arthur says later, freshly showered and spilled over the bed, his head resting on Eames’ thigh as Eames reclines against the bed’s headboard, still mostly clothed in pants and his open shirt.

Eames pulls his hand back, only now noticing that he’s been toying with Arthur’s hair, petting it and teasing the wet locks apart idly as he drifts in cheerful post coital relaxation. “It’s not only about the hair,” he amends, smiling. “It’s about lots of other parts of you, too.”

“Classy,” says Arthur, but he doesn’t move. “Well, it’s just as well you like other parts of me. I’ve been thinking of going back to a shorter cut.”

Eames’ hand, which has gone right back to Arthur’s hair, freezes. It maybe pulls ever so slightly. “You wouldn’t,” Eames says, horrified. “Your lovely long shiny soft hair?”

He can feel rather than see Arthur pulling a frown. “I – I have never felt jealous of my own hair before,” he says slowly, thinking it through. He sits up, dislodging Eames’ hand, and directs the frown his way for a few seconds. He looks like he’s about to say something, maybe something like, if you had to choose between me and my hair, but then Eames can see his gaze abruptly redirected to Eames’ collarbone, visible now in the gap of his unbuttoned shirt. “You have a lot of tattoos,” Arthur says instead, the frown smoothing into surprise.

“Yeah,” Eames says, shrugging out of the shirt, twisting around to show off his ink. “I’ve got a few, yeah.”

“I knew you had some,” Arthur says, “just not – huh.” He reaches out a hand and strokes over the tattoo at Eames’ waist. “Lean forward.”

Eames leans forward and Arthur crawls around behind him for a look at his back.

“Huh,” Arthur says again, and comes back around to look at Eames’ front again. “Huh.”

“What?” Eames says, unable to take the suspense a moment longer. Arthur’s face is neutral, unreadable.

Arthur skims his fingers over Eames’ biceps, tracing the words. “I just didn’t know,” he says vaguely. “Huh.” It’s ever so slight, but Eames notices it: the minute shift of Arthur’s cock, like it would be making an effort to get hard again if it could.

“Oh, really?” says Eames, getting it now, catching the slight dilation of Arthur’s pupils, the faint flush at the tips of his ears, all the small nearly invisible signs that point to the true source of Arthur’s interest. “How very shallow of you.” He reaches out, smiling slowly, and pulls at a stray lock hanging in front of Arthur’s ear, tucking it back and then lingering over it, the slippery soft feel of the strands under his fingertips.

Arthur’s answering smile is dazzling, unexpected, lovely, wanton, sweet.