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“Are you in London?” a familiar voice says, and Eames comes fully awake, glancing at the mobile he's apparently answered in his sleep. He sits up, sheets falling away from his naked chest, and looks at his phone in confusion. It sounds like Arthur.

“Eames?”

Except Arthur doesn't ever ask where he is; he always seems to know. Eames can't imagine why Arthur would wake him up to find out if he's in London.

He flips the bedside light on. The old alarm clock reads 2:23, and along with the clock's relentless ticking, Eames can hear a light wind pushing through his half-open window. At least the rain seems to have stopped.

“Yeah, I'm here. London, I mean. Arthur, what's this about?”

“I'm sorry.” The way there's a slur on the second word has Eames reaching for his totem. Maybe he's fantasized about Arthur drunk-dialling him in the middle of the night, using liquid courage to work up to finally admitting his feelings for Eames, but Eames can't really believe that's what this is. Arthur sounds ... off. Uncertain. Arthur never sounds uncertain. Even when he's spectacularly wrong, he's committed to it.

“Are you in trouble?” Eames asks.

“I think so. Sort of.” There's the slur again, a lengthening of the initial sibilants, and over the years they've known each other Eames has seen Arthur sick, drunk, and bleeding out. None of them has altered his speech patterns significantly.

“Arthur, are you drugged?” Eames puts the question carefully, slowly, to make sure Arthur knows exactly what he's asking. Arthur would never deliberately do this to himself; they work with pharmaceuticals too often to take chances with recreational substances.

“I—Eames—I feel—”

“Specificity, darling, if you please.” Eames puts the phone on speaker as he slips out of bed. Arthur doesn't sound as if he's in any immediate danger, but if someone's drugged him, trouble likely isn't far off.

“I feel ... fuzzy.”

Arthur sounds so bloody annoyed, it's all Eames can do to hold back a laugh. Truthfully, Arthur sounds fuzzy, the middle of the word coming out like “zh,” and there's something inherently charming about an Arthur that's not entirely precise and put together. Under other circumstances, Eames would record this for blackmail purposes.

“Eames, I think I need a lift.”

He has a passing moment to wonder why Arthur would need an elevator and if that's some sort of code when he hears voices in the background. Wherever Arthur's at, he's not alone, but Eames hears general crowd noises, traffic, nothing that sounds like trouble. Yet.

“Arthur, where are you? I'll come and get you, yeah?”

“London.” Eames can practically hear the eye-roll through the phone, and if Arthur's being sarcastic, he's probably mostly alright. It doesn't make Eames slow down as he grabs his clothes, but it helps settle his pulse a little.

“London's a fair size, love. I'll need a bit more than that to go on. General area? Landmarks?”

“I'm—I'm not entirely sure,” Arthur admits as Eames pulls on jeans, socks, and a worn black sweater. He grabs his trainers from under the bed and his Browning from the bedside table, checking the gun's magazine and adding an extra clip to his pile. “Wait, I'm near a corner. It's, um, it's Broadwick.”

Eames keeps his tone even, but he picks up the phone, his gun and ammo, his car keys. He also picks up his pace. “What's the cross street?”

“Shit,” Arthur says. “There's—there's no sign. Sorry.”

“It's fine, Arthur, I'll find you. You're in Soho. Not the best area at this time of night, mate, so stay sharp.”

Eames thinks if he can act normally maybe everything will be fine. Arthur's not that far away—he could be significantly further—so there's really no need for Eames to worry. Except the hazy patter of noise in the background has turned to unmistakable wolf whistles and cajoling, and Eames can't make out the words, but the implications are undeniable. Fuck. He's fairly certain that even drugged Arthur can deal with anyone who decides to get handsy, but he'd rather not test it.

“Arthur, I wouldn't recommend making new friends. You're in the heart of the sex district, and—”

“I need a shirt. Can you—”

“What?” Eames is halfway down the stairs and has to grab for the railing as he replays Arthur's request through his mind. “A shirt? Why do you need a—Arthur, are you fucking hurt?”

“No, no, I'm—it's fine. I'm just ... shirtless.” Eames can hear Arthur's confused unhappiness in every syllable, but it's clear Eames isn't going to get an explanation. He's not entirely certain Arthur even has one to give.

Eames bolts back upstairs two steps at a time, grabs the first white button-down out of his closet, then runs for the garage that houses his pride and joy. The engine of the silver Lotus Evora convertible surges to life under Eames' hands, and he barely lets the garage door lift before he peels out with a screech of tires. He's never been so grateful for zero to 60 kph in under 5 seconds.

“There's no need to be dramatic,” Arthur chastises, his voice sounding tinny and far away. “I'm perfectly—”

Eames feels a swell of anger born out of worry. He shifts to a higher gear. “Arthur, you've rung me at 2:30 in the bloody morning from Soho where you appear to be on a street corner and shirtless, possibly drugged. I've no doubt you're capable of handling yourself under normal circumstances, but drunken blokes aren't always the most understanding sort, especially when you're not actually selling what you look like you're selling.”

“Christ, Eames!” Arthur sounds appalled. “I'm not—”

“Street corner, Arthur! Shirtless. In Soho. Please tell me you're armed?”

There's a short silence where Eames is sure Arthur's checking himself for weapons. Given that he's apparently half-naked, it shouldn't take him as long as it does to check. Unfortunately, it means Eames can hear the slurred come-ons in the background that much more clearly. “Shit, no, I'm—where the fuck's my—”

“You're a pretty thing, ain't ya?” filters through the phone, and Eames pushes the car faster, opting for low-traffic areas he can cruise through with little chance of police presence. The last thing he needs is to be pulled over for speeding, with a gun in the car, particularly in the middle of a rescue mission.

Eames can hear Arthur's voice, muffled as if he's holding the phone against his chest. His shirtless chest, Eames reminds himself, and honestly, he doesn't care how Arthur got into this situation, Eames just needs to get him out of it. Immediately if not sooner.

“Arthur?”

They've all got enemies; it's a given with their work. But whoever's dropped a drugged, unarmed, shirtless Arthur in the middle of London's sex district obviously doesn't want him dead; they probably want him humiliated, or worse. There are so many ways Eames can imagine this situation becoming worse. Arthur left in a hotel room, drugged and tied up. Arthur too drugged or too injured to resist. Arthur on his knees with a gun to his head. Arthur in a filthy alley forced to—

The images are wiped from his thoughts when he nearly loses control on a too-fast corner, and his heart's pounding with adrenaline and fear. He's got to keep his head in the game. He's no use to Arthur if he's dead or upside-down in a very expensive sports car.

More voices drift through the phone, louder, although Eames can't make out any words, and he's almost certain the low measured tone is Arthur warning someone the fuck off. He knows without a doubt Arthur is more than capable of defending himself, with or without a weapon. Or a shirt.

He's seen Arthur take down guys twice his own size, and he's never been shy about mixing it up when necessary. It's one of the things Eames appreciates about him; the buttoned-up exterior is only one part of the man, and it's usually the part he shows to clients or strangers. Eames knows the real Arthur is so much more than a well-pressed suit and a focused mind. He's not nearly as uptight and reserved as Eames had thought when they'd met. Both of them have had to shift their first impressions over the years to accommodate the truth. It's not a bad thing.

Eames strains to hear what's going on where Arthur's at. “Arthur, are you there?”

Eames knows from experience that muscle memory works. Even if Arthur's feeling the effects of a sedative of some kind, his body's been trained to respond to threats. He'll do it automatically, instinctively. He'll do it before he's even registered the thought.

So, it makes no sense to Eames that he should be worried about Arthur, even under the current circumstances. Arthur hadn't indicated he was injured and Eames is certain Arthur's dealt with more than his fair share of drunken come-ons; he's always managed to ward them off when it's Eames making them, after all. Of course, Eames has never been intent on forcing the matter, either. There are rules to this game they play, after all.

Eames finds himself pressing the pedal to the floor, checking his watch to gauge how much longer until he'll need to slow down so he can scout for Arthur in earnest. If Arthur's managed to stay close to Broadwick, Eames should find him easily.

Suddenly an unrecognizable voice filters through the speaker of Eames' mobile. “Oi, what's this then? Our pretty laddie's rung a friend. Hello?”

Eames glares at the phone, channelling the anger he feels into pushing the car harder. “Put Arthur back on the phone.”

“Arthur, is it?” Eames hears the predatory undertone in the play of vowels, the purr of the final “r”, and thinks, Christ, if he sounds half that lewd when he says Arthur's name, he probably owes him an apology just on principle. “And who might you be?”

“I'm the man who's going to kill you if you lay a hand on him.”

From the immediate round of laughter that greets his ears, Eames has to assume he's on speaker. Which means, Arthur, if he's conscious, is probably going to punch Eames in the face for treating him like a damsel in distress. Eames really can't bring himself to care considering Arthur's not saying anything, and he really, really ought to be. It's not like him to let Eames get away with shite like that.

“His pimp then?” The voice is rough, the accent smacks of Liverpool, and Eames grits his teeth. He turns onto Broadwick, slowing enough to make sure he doesn't miss Arthur as the car rolls down the street.

“He's not a fucking rentboy,” Eames barks out, aware even as he says it of the sex workers evaluating him from the sidewalks and doorways.

“That seems a mite redundant, don't it? Plus, your boy seems to be doing his damnedest to look the part.” The slight shift in language sets off all of Eames' alarm bells. Whoever drugged and dumped Arthur likely sent someone to deal with him. The man laughs, deep and lascivious. “God, he's definitely a pretty one. Slim. Tight. Just the right amount of pliant. He and my mates are getting acquainted.”

There's something in the background that could be a scuffle in progress.

“I will fucking kill you,” Eames promises coldly. The Lotus responds to the urgent pressure on the accelerator as he scans the sidewalks and alleyways for any sign of Arthur or a crowd of thugs. It's a stop-start process—enough people on the streets to make it slow going, and every time Eames slows, someone—male, female, doesn't matter—sidles up to his car with a sales pitch. Blow jobs, blow, any hedonistic indulgence he could want. The truth is the only thing he wants is to find Arthur.

“Bloody hell,” Eames says as his car gets blocked in by a crowd of university kids, their slow ambling pushing Eames to lean on the Lotus's horn. He hears a tinny echo of the sound through his mobile and realizes he's got to be close to Arthur's location. He throws the car into neutral and pushes himself up onto the seat, standing on the black leather to get a look over the crowd.

“Arthur! Arthur!” he yells, because subtlety's never really been his forte, and if he's this close maybe, just maybe, Arthur will give him some kind of sign. Eames ignores the cat-calls and whistles, shuts out everything and concentrates on listening for the one voice he needs to hear.

*

Arthur knows it's simply a matter of time. All he has to do is wait. Eames is on his way—Arthur heard the sound of that ridiculous car of his revving up over the phone he'd lifted from a passer-by—and Eames can always be relied upon to drive fast and reckless, even when no one's life depends on it. It would be an annoying habit if it wasn't so bloody useful in their line of work, and Arthur will never admit it, but he's always had a thing for fast cars and men who know how to handle them.

Arthur doesn't honestly think he's in danger of dying, but he could definitely be in danger of worse. Too late he recognizes he's being surrounded, a group of about a half-dozen men, and even if Arthur doesn't recognize them, they clearly know who he is. Even through the haze of whatever he's been given, Arthur knows this isn't random. He's checking his pockets for weapons when a tall, burly man with a Roman nose plucks the phone from Arthur's hand.

“You're a pretty thing, ain't ya?” the man says, loud enough Eames will have heard, before he presses the phone against his chest.

“I don't want trouble,” Arthur says, trying to buy time.

“Then you're definitely in the wrong place.” The man's accent is rougher than Eames', and his blue eyes make Arthur feel as if he's completely naked, not just shirtless. He finds himself crossing his arms over his chest before he's even thought about it. The man laughs and raises his eyebrows. “Come now, beautiful, don't hide. Gorgeous piece of arse like you?”

“I'm not selling anything. Fuck off.” Arthur tries to sound affronted, but his words are shaky and when he takes a step backwards, he bumps into someone's muscular chest. Arthur feels his arms effectively pinned behind his back, and there's absolutely no give to the hold. He pushes down the first bite of fear, reminding himself Eames will find him. Hopefully before anything awful happens.

Every single one of these guys is bigger than he is and from the way they're standing, turned outward surveying the crowd but keeping an eye on Arthur, he's pretty sure they've got some military training behind them. In a fair fight, he might have a chance; with his reflexes dulled and his mind fuzzy, he's fucked and he knows it. The guy with the nose tilts his head, some kind of signal to move Arthur away from the street, and Arthur gets a solid kick at the shins of the guy holding him, but it doesn't do much good. The man picks him up like he's a paper doll.

There's hot breath against Arthur's ear. “Squirm all you want, Arthur. It'll make it that much better.”

“Get off me,” Arthur says, twisting his body, searching for leverage of some kind. They're away from the street lamps now, the brick walls of an alley close and damp around them, but not close enough for Arthur to get a foothold. The other men are right behind, leaving the man with Arthur's phone laughing in the distance. At least that will only make Eames drive faster, Arthur knows. All he has to do is hold on. A few minutes at most.

Arthur winces as his face is shoved against the rough brick wall and he can feel a man's bulk pressed behind him. Fingers prod his bare skin, flick at his exposed nipples. He can feel breath and teeth against the line of his shoulders. The man hasn't relaxed his hold on Arthur's pinned arms at all, and someone else is right there too, hands pawing at him, popping open the button on the front of Arthur's pants. The guy standing behind him is hard and Arthur tries to angle his hips away, but the guy moves with him, and now he's whispering what a good fuck he thinks Arthur's going to be. Arthur feels the beginnings of panic flutter in his stomach. For the first time it occurs to him Eames might not make it in time and the thought of Eames finding him like this is somehow even worse than the thought of it happening at all.

“Fuck this,” Arthur spits out and with every ounce of strength he has he lifts both his feet in one smooth motion, plants them on the wall in front of him and pushes back, taking both men down with him. If they want to force anything on him, they're damn well going to have to knock him out and hold him down to do it.

The guy doesn't actually let Arthur go, but his hold shifts enough Arthur can leverage an elbow against his ribs, and from there Arthur lets instincts take over. If he thinks about what's happening, what's about to happen, he knows he's going to freeze, the drugs in his system whispering at him to give up the fight. Every muscle in his body is aching with the effort of ignoring the desire to relax, so he pulls up the only thought that will make him keep fighting. Eames. Eames is coming for him. All he has to do is hang on. For Eames.

Arthur doesn't realize he's been saying the name out loud until Roman nose shouts, “Shut him the fuck up,” and there's the blare of a car horn somewhere close by. Arthur takes a fist to the jaw, but even with the ringing in his ears and the taste of blood on his tongue, he knows he's not imagining his name being shouted in a familiar voice. He doubles his efforts then, kicking and punching at whoever's close to him, biting the fingers that try to cover his mouth, and he manages to get Eames' name out a half-dozen times or more before someone wrenches his shoulder out of its socket. The pain is enough that Arthur loses all awareness in a wash of black.

*

Eames is straining to hear over the noise of Soho in the middle of the night. He thought for a second he'd heard something, the tail end of his name, maybe. It was too faint to tell and his name's too bloody short. Eames knows, he knows Arthur's in serious trouble. The phone's gone dead beside him, the man on the other end realizing at the same time as Eames how near he must be, and Eames knows he's got to find Arthur now or risk losing him entirely. Eames has attracted a lot of attention standing on the seat of his sports car. Attention comes with an increase in ambient noise, which is doing nothing to help him listen for Arthur.

“Will you people shut the bloody fuck up!” Eames shouts, surprising himself and everyone around him, but it has the desired effect, stunning the immediate crowd into momentary silence. Through the quiet comes a desperate sounding, “Eames! Fuck, Eames!”

Eames doesn't hesitate, stepping across to the passenger seat, and leaping over the car door. He reaches into the Lotus and grabs the Browning, shoving it into the back of his trousers. He'd rather not have to shoot someone given that he's made himself all too memorable to people in the immediate vicinity, but he will if he has to. Eames pushes through the crowd in the direction of the yelling, which stops abruptly, punctuated by a pain-filled scream. Eames feels something inside him go cold, and he breaks into a run.

He knows instinctively the big fucker with the Roman nose is the guy he'd been talking to. There's a kind of grudging acknowledgement in his eyes as Eames rounds the corner at full-tilt, drawing his pistol and wishing he'd thought to bring his H&K with the suppressor. He settles for drilling the man full in the face with a hard fist.

The guy drops to his knees, blood flowing from his broken nose, and Eames leans in only long enough to deliver a threat. “If you're still here when I find him, I will kill you and I won't care who sees me do it.”

Eames chambers a round and heads directly for the alley behind him without looking back. It takes a second to adjust to the darkness, and Eames has one heart-stopping moment when he thinks he's too late. Arthur looks small and pale, his arm bent at an odd angle, propped against the wall.

Broken Roman nose turns and runs as soon as Eames turns his back, and the alley starts to clear almostas soon as Eames steps into it. The way they scatter at the first sign of trouble tells him this was probably a one-time job; there's no loyalty here either to the job, the crew, or whoever hired them. At least that bodes well for not having to hunt them down and kill them after this is done. Eames has plans for the weekend that don't include revenge killings, although that's going to depend a bit on Arthur.

Eames isn't tall—he knows that—but he's got a boxer's build and the training and muscle to back it up, which seems to be enough to discourage everyone except the one big guy standing over Arthur's slumped form. Eames can see the rise and fall of Arthur's chest in a shaft of light from the street. He lets out a breath that's absolute relief. Still alive then.

Eames raises the gun and gestures with it. “Step away from him. Don't make me ask twice.”

The guy turns enough that Eames can see he's got a black eye starting and a trickle of blood dripping from his nose; Arthur's no pushover under any circumstances.

“He your boyfriend?”

“He's a friend,” Eames answers honestly. They've danced around each other for so long, Eames sometimes forgets they've never taken it further than flirting. He trusts Arthur, and he doesn't trust a lot of people. They're friends. Good friends. They might even be more than that if they were inclined to put labels on impossible things.

“Well, I hope somebody's tapping that arse,” the guy says, leering at Arthur, and Eames has to resist the urge to put a bullet between the man's eyes. “If he'd been willing to loosen his tie a little this wouldn't have happened.”

“What's that mean?”

“Just tell your friend,” and the guy doesn't look like he believes they're anything of the sort, “to think twice before turning down his employer next time. Mr. Kendrick isn't fond of rejection.”

Eames' eyes narrow. “And you should tell your boss to go fuck himself. He must be a real catch if he has to drug his contracted help.”

The guy takes a step closer and Eames raises the Browning. “Uh-uh. Don't tempt me.”

Eames has a second to realize the man's smirking, his eyes drifting to a spot beyond Eames' shoulder, and then it's two-on-one. The Browning's knocked from his hand by a roundhouse kick that comes close to breaking his wrist, and Eames curses even as he whirls on his second attacker, one of the men who'd fled the alley. He doesn't have time to think beyond acknowledging to himself that if they all come back he's screwed. He steps up, fists clenched, and takes his first swing.

*

Arthur's had a dislocated shoulder before, so he knows that's what this is. The flare of pain and the awkward angle of his arm are familiar enough, and he can feel numbness creeping into his fingers. He thinks about trying to get to his feet, but decides against it. It's quiet for the moment and no one seems intent on groping or molesting him, so it's a vast improvement.

A hand falls lightly on his bare shoulder—the uninjured one—and without thinking he grabs the man's wrist and twists.

“Shit, Arthur! It's me. It's okay, it's just me.”

There's no resistance in the wrist Arthur's holding, and he releases it, recognizing Eames' voice as he drops down beside Arthur. Eames has a swollen lip and blood on his chin, but he's still the best thing Arthur's ever seen.

“Oh, thank fuck,” Arthur says, and gratefully passes out.

*

Eames has never been so thankful that Arthur's muscle is lean rather than bulky. It makes it far easier to lift him into a fireman's carry and get him to the car. All around them people are staring, but Eames can't be bothered about that. He can sell the car or change the plates if there are enquiries. He can always sell the flat and leave London if this brings any heat, although he's liked having a place to stay here. London's familiarity has been comforting in a way he never thought possible when he was younger. He'll have to burn a couple of aliases to get them out of the country if someone comes after them, but that's a small price to pay.

Eames honestly can't bring himself to care about those things he might lose when he sets Arthur, bare-chested and shivering, in the passenger seat and buckles him in. He drapes the white shirt he's brought over him, tucking it carefully around the injured shoulder, knowing there's no point trying to get it on him properly until he's seen to Arthur's arm and he'll need him conscious for that. Unfortunately. A dislocated shoulder's better than a broken arm, but it still hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.

The Lotus slides through the night at a slightly less frantic pace than Eames had set getting there, but he's still teasing the edges of the speed limits, taking roads less travelled, watching for possible tails. His eyes are regularly drawn to Arthur's face, exhausted, tense even in sleep. His chest is bare where the loose shirt keeps slipping down, a smattering of light hair doing nothing to suggest that Arthur is closer to thirty than twenty. He seems vulnerable like this, which isn't something Eames has ever associated with Arthur, and Eames looks away, feeling as if he's treading on some invisible line he's not certain Arthur would want him to cross.

There's a long scrape down Arthur's chest and dirt caught in the folds of torn skin. There's also a very clear bruise on the side of Arthur's neck closest to Eames, broken blood vessels purpling the surface, the slight indentation of teeth. Eames is torn between wanting to kill someone and hoping the hickey's leftover from a consensual snog. As much as the thought of Arthur with anyone pains him to think about too closely, he doesn't want to examine the other possibilities. He keeps to the image of someone's mouth on Arthur's skin, someone's teeth against his vulnerable throat, and Eames doesn't remember ever being this angry or this—he suspects the word he's looking for is “jealous”—where Arthur's concerned. He doesn't know what he wants more: to put his fist through a wall or to wrap Arthur in his arms, a gesture he's fairly certain won't be appreciated. It probably wouldn't even be tolerated. Eames doesn't think he's seen anyone hug Arthur—not since Mal, anyway, and that's been a long time now.

He finds himself laying a warm hand on Arthur's thigh just to assure himself he's there, he's safe, and Eames realizes, not for the first time, how much Arthur's health and well-being matters to him. He's always been pleasantly in lust with the man (and probably always will be), but somewhere over the years, it's become something deeper. More than friendship, perhaps a shade less than love, but sure and abiding, based in trust and mutual understanding. They push each other's buttons because they get each other, they know what's infuriating, what's a tease, what matters, what doesn't; it's their way of saying “I know you. I know who you are.” In their business, being known by someone is a dangerous thing.

Eames bites his lip and stares into the night as he drives, listening to Arthur's pained moans in the passenger seat beside him. He pats his leg gently and whispers, “it's okay, Arthur, you're safe,” surprised when Arthur appears to settle slightly, turning towards the sound of Eames' voice.

So Eames keeps talking all the way to his flat, a quiet steady murmur that starts out as banal reassurance and shifts into something closer to a confession. Eames can't explain it, can't fathom why now after all these years of simmering at a low boil, his feelings have decided to punch through to the surface. He's always thought Arthur attractive, always admired the man's style and sharpness, his competency with a gun and in the field. And it's not even a secret that he cares about Arthur, just as he's certain Arthur cares about him. To a point. They work together frequently. They've walked in each other's dreams. They rely on one another for protection while asleep, for back-up against hostile projections, for honest information in a business that thrives on deception. They trust each other as much as it's possible to trust anyone in dream-sharing. Eames wasn't lying when he said they were friends, but he's starting to realize there's so much more to the way he thinks about Arthur than that.

It's complicated and intense. Eames has always looked at them as two sides of the same coin. Push, pull. Positive, negative. Half-full, half-empty. Heads, tails. Opposite in so many ways, but necessary to one another. Where their differences used to cause outright friction, these days they tend to complement each other's styles more often than not. They fit. Eames considers that perhaps the years of hitting against one another have polished their sharpness to something smoother, more refined.

It occurs to him that the longest and most important relationship of his adult life is with Arthur, and he's not even getting laid.

Bugger.

*

“—it's okay, you're okay, thank God you're okay, you stupid—no, it's not your fault, Arthur, fuck, I know that, but do you have any idea what it's like to get that kind of call in the middle of the night? Okay, yeah, I've rung you while pissed and stupid, I know that, but that's always been my own fault, not because someone's drugged me and dumped me shirtless in fucking Soho, and Christ, when I heard—when I—Jesus, Arthur, you could've, you could've been ... and someone's obviously already—no, I don't know that, maybe that was last night, maybe you picked up a friend, yeah, bit of a snog, tension relief, all that, it happens, maybe nothing happened, but God, it could've. Arthur, it could've, and what if I'd been too late, what if I hadn't answered or hadn't been in London, what if they'd—I wanted to kill someone, you know. Wanted to wrap my arms around someone's throat and crush the breath out of them for hurting you, love, but more than that I wanted you away from there, safe, not in an alley in fucking Soho! You don't know, you don't have any idea how much I—I mean, I've always ... you know that, darling, you must know that, but we've never really—I don't know, Arthur, you scared the bloody shit out of me tonight, seeing you like that, and—fuck, I don't know what we're doing anymore, Arthur, I've always wanted you, surely you know that, but I have no idea how you, if you—Arthur, Arthur, are you awake, can you—”

*

At first Arthur can't make sense of the roaring in his head. It's like the steady throb of a train down the tracks, or the slow rise of a musical kick that starts as a distant niggle in the back of the brain and moves insistently into fuller awareness. The sound is familiar, soothing, and Arthur concentrates on it to dull the rush of pain he feels in his right shoulder and arm.

He's used to feeling out a situation, testing his awareness before he comes awake. It's prudent when you spend a certain amount of your working life asleep. He's fairly certain he's in a vehicle, but the low purr of the engine and the smooth ride doesn't fit with the pain and disorientation he's feeling. Kidnappings tend to include grungy backseats or the floor of vans that have no shock absorbers, and he'd had that earlier, he's almost certain. This is something different.

There's a cool breeze blowing over him, goosebumps dotting his bare skin, and it helps clear some of the fog in his mind. The seat feels like leather, warm and butter soft. The roaring seems to be made up of words, tumbling over one another in a quiet rush, but he's too out of it to catch more than his name and a general sense that he's somewhere safe. With someone safe.

He shifts slightly towards the voice and the warm weight of a hand on his thigh—familiar, safe—momentarily panicked by the rough pull of a strap against his chest until he realizes it's a seat belt. Someone cared enough to strap him in, and the voice is still there, soft, rounded vowels and there's worry and frustration and fear underscoring the flow of words, all of it on his behalf, and Arthur lets himself drift because trust is a rare thing and he's in hands he trusts.

He lets the voice carry him back into painless unconsciousness, knowing the only thing that matters: Eames has him.

The words flow over him, but they all mean the same thing now: Eames. Eames. Eames.

*

They're safely tucked into the main level garage below Eames' flat before he feels at ease. He squeezes Arthur's leg gently and says his name, then again a little louder. Sinfully long eyelashes flutter against Arthur's pale skin before Eames is looking into familiar brown eyes.

“There you are, darling,” he says lightly, more relieved than he'd like to admit. Arthur's pupils are wide, drugs obviously still in his system, but he manages to give Eames a small smile.

“Your ridiculous car,” Arthur manages, and it makes Eames' heart lift a little. He can always count on Arthur to cut to the heart of the matter and avoid sentimentality.

“My ridiculous car just saved your life, you ungrateful sod.” Eames doesn't even try to sound annoyed. He works his way around to Arthur's side of the car, opens the door, and gently works the seat belt off him.

Arthur reaches forward and pats the dash as if it's a puppy. “Good car.”

Eames hides his grin as he checks Arthur for any other injuries. Scrapes and bruises mostly—Eames is doing his best to ignore the mouth-shaped mark on his neck—an obvious puncture on his arm where they likely drugged him, and the shoulder. Arthur squirms a little at Eames' touch, but allows the inspection without comment.

“It wasn't just the car, you know. I was there too,” Eames points out, gently evaluating Arthur's shoulder.

“Good Eames,” Arthur murmurs and pats him on the head too, startling a laugh out of Eames. Arthur looks up at him with his dark eyes and says, altogether too sincerely, “Thank you.”

“Don't thank me yet,” Eames says helping Arthur out of the car. “You've dislocated the shoulder before?”

Arthur nods, and it's clear he knows what's coming. Eames can already feel him tensing in anticipation.

“On three then. One—” With a calculated thrust, Eames pops Arthur's shoulder back into place, ignoring Arthur's yelp of pain, the way his face has gone ghost-white. Eames catches him around the waist as his knees give out, the dead weight indicating Arthur's passed out again. “And Bob's your uncle.”

Eames eases Arthur onto his shoulder, arms dangling loose down Eames' back. The white shirt he'd grabbed for Arthur to wear is abandoned on the floor like a flag of surrender. Eames will find him something else in the morning.

He takes the stairs at an even pace, careful not to jostle Arthur too much. He drops his Browning off inside the door, and goes straight to the bedroom without turning on a light, laying Arthur down where Eames had been sleeping an hour ago. Arthur's going to need to sleep off the drugs, whatever they gave him, Rohypnol or some other sedative probably. Eames wonders if he should check with Yusuf; drug interactions with Somnacin have been known to have long-lasting and peculiar effects, but before he can reach for the phone, there are fingers wrapped around his wrist.

“That wasn't three,” Arthur says, annoyance overriding the pain in his voice. He sounds exhausted, but Eames can see him shift his shoulder minutely. It's going to be sore, but it could've been significantly worse.

“I appreciate the tactical advantage of the element of surprise.” Eames seats himself on the edge of the bed and gives himself permission to look. Arthur. In one piece. In his bed.

“Stop imagining me naked in your bed,” Arthur murmurs, but he doesn't let go of Eames' wrist.

“You're only a pair of trousers away from me not having to imagine at all, darling,” Eames reminds him. “You'll probably sleep better if you take them off.”

“They roofied me. I'm going to sleep regardless.”

“So you may as well be comfortable.” Eames reaches for the button on Arthur's trousers, slips it open between his thumb and forefinger, giving Arthur time to protest. “I promise I'll be a perfect gentleman.”

A snort from Arthur, but he lets Eames ease the trousers down his narrow hips, leaving him with blue cotton boxers. Eames realizes for the first time that Arthur's without socks or shoes.

“You told me you needed a shirt, but didn't think to mention you were barefoot?”

Arthur attempts a shrug, then aborts the gesture with a grimace of pain. “Your shoes won't fit me. Your shirts will.”

“Arthur, have you been at my closet again? I always knew you harbored a secret love of bright colors and bold designs.”

“Yet you brought me a white shirt.”

“I was in a hurry.”

“Under the circumstances, you could've put me in paisley and I wouldn't have cared.”

“I'll remember that, pet.” Eames tugs the blankets up, covering Arthur. “Although, much as I'd like to play dress-up with you, I can do without a repeat performance.”

“Me too,” Arthur says honestly.

There's silence between them for a few minutes, Eames sitting on the edge of the bed watching Arthur's chest rise and fall beneath the blanket. Arthur's fingers don't slip from Eames' wrist, though, and as he moves to carefully extricate himself, Arthur's grip tightens.

“Don't go.”

Eames looks at him fondly. “I'll be right outside. The sofa and I have the occasional fling; it's not a problem.”

“It's your bed, Eames.”

“Yes, and therefore it's used to my absence.”

“Is it also used to strangers spending the night?” Arthur sounds petulant, and Eames wishes Arthur weren't making this harder than it needs to be. Of course he wants to stay, but it's better for both of them if he doesn't.

“You're hardly a stranger, Arthur.”

“Eames.”

He sighs. He'll chalk up Arthur's sudden interest in his love life to the drugs in his system. “No, pet, just me. And now you.” Eames brushes a stray twist of hair off Arthur's forehead. “You need to rest. We'll debrief when neither of us is drugged or exhausted.”

“Ah, sometime in the distant future then.”

“Sleep, Arthur.” Eames gets up to leave again, but Arthur's stubbornly clinging to his wrist.

“Don't be stupid,” Arthur says. “Just stay.” He squeezes Eames' wrist firmly. “Eames, I want you to stay. Please.”

Eames swallows the rest of his protests. They're both exhausted, and it's not as if they've never shared a bed. Dream-sharing hasn't always been a luxury business and there'd been a time when it was more likely they'd be working out of a Best Western than the Hyatt-Regency. They'd learned to make do. They'd learned to work around each other's habits and quirks, and neither of them slept with a weapon under the pillow if they had to share. Not since Helsinki.

Arthur reluctantly releases his hold on Eames' wrist so Eames can strip down to boxers and slip beneath the covers. He turns on his right side facing Arthur. He can just make out his profile in the darkness; the shoulder will probably have him sleeping on his back or left side for some time.

“Okay then?” he asks, voice quiet.

“Better now,” comes the equally quiet response.

Eames doesn't know how long they lie there, not sleeping, listening to one another breathe, grateful for the luxury. Without thinking, Eames stretches a hand out, his fingers brushing the skin of Arthur's arm. A moment later, Arthur's hand settles over his, lacing their fingers together in a loose hold. Neither of them says a word. Neither of them lets go until long after they've fallen asleep.

*

Arthur comes awake slowly. For the third time in two days, he isn't sure where he is when he wakes up. It's a habit he's ready to break.

Then he sees the swirl of black ink on the back of Eames' shoulders where the covers have drifted down, and he lets himself relax. He's in London. Eames' flat. Normally he wouldn't put much faith in other people's security, but it's Eames. He knows they're safe—if they weren't, Eames would've insisted on moving them somewhere else. He would've sat up all night cleaning his guns, forging their passports, doing whatever needed to be done. The fact that Eames is asleep beside him is enough to settle his nerves. He's trying to ignore what it's doing to the rest of him.

Arthur closes his eyes even though he doesn't expect to sleep again. The pillow's firm and smells faintly of Eames' aftershave. It's comforting in a way Arthur didn't expect. He's known Eames for years, of course, but they've kept things strictly professional. Well, Arthur's kept things professional. Eames has flirted and ogled and made an art form out of innuendo and the double entendre, but he's never pushed for more than Arthur was willing to give, which was professional courtesy in the early days, something akin to friendship in more recent years.

Alliances are uncommon enough in their business, and friendships are almost unheard of, but somehow over a decade, they've made it work for them. Yet since the Fischer job, since inception and Cobb's retirement, Arthur's found himself at loose ends. At first he'd thought it was simply the fall-out from achieving the impossible; other jobs couldn't measure up anymore. But it wasn't that. He enjoys the work as much as he always did, delighting in the careful planning, the way information falls into discernible patterns, the moment of discovery when the piece that seemingly doesn't fit finally makes sense.

Maybe it was turning thirty, but Arthur feels more circumspect these days, more aware of how life throws you curves when you least expect them. He thinks maybe he wants something more, something for himself. Someone to make a home and a life with. Someone who knows him and likes him anyway. Someone he can trust. There's really only one person on that very short list and he's currently snoring quietly into the pillow beside Arthur.

Arthur realizes he's been standing in his own way for so long, he's not sure if the offer's still on the table. He's not entirely sure if he even knows what the offer is anymore, but he wants to find out. He doesn't want to live with regrets and he's tired of trying to make everything work on his own. He's always had a problem admitting he needs people, but Eames has managed to be there for him without making him feel weak.

Arthur catalogues the swirls of ink, the almost invisible moles that peek through the skin spaces. He imagines tracing the lines with his tongue—not an entirely new thought, if he's honest. None of what he feels for Eames is new; only the desire to act on those feelings instead of ignoring them is in any way a change, and Arthur isn't entirely sure that's true either. Maybe they've simply had a long, ridiculously chaste courtship. Maybe all this time they've been working towards this moment, when they're both ready to accept what they are to one another. Arthur's imagined them together at different points in their lives. It's always felt like it would end horribly, and Arthur couldn't take the chance, couldn't risk their friendship for something with no guarantees. Now he can't imagine it ending at all.

He slowly shifts from his back onto his left side, rolling close enough he can feel the heat of Eames' skin. His shoulder is aching, but it would've been worse if Eames hadn't popped it back into place. There are other tender spots and his limbs feel sluggish, remnants of whatever they'd given him chasing through his system. The last day or so is coming back to him in bits and pieces, enough that he's got a fair idea what happened. Even then, he knows he's lucky. It could have been so much worse. Yet, he knows if it had been, if the worst thing imaginable had come to pass, Eames would still be at his side. Would still want him. Would never look at him differently.

He senses when Eames wakes, the shift in the mattress as he turns over to face Arthur, bodies mirrored on their sides. Arthur doesn't bother opening his eyes.

“How long have you been awake?” Eames asks without preamble, and Arthur knows better than to lie.

“Long enough.”

“Shoulder?”

Arthur moves it stiffly. “Sore. But it would've been worse if you hadn't.”

“Still ...” Eames voice trails off, and Arthur feels the touch of fingers against his shoulder, the same fingers that forced his bones back into place last night. “I'm not fond of hurting you.”

Arthur smiles at that, eyes closed. “I'll strike the sadomasochistic role-play from the list then, shall I?”

Eames laughs, but it sounds hollow, and Arthur takes a breath and forces himself to open his eyes. Eames' blue-grey gaze meets his across the pillows. There's a line of worry between Eames' brows, and a frown tugging at his lips. Eames' fingers drift from Arthur's shoulder along the line of his collarbone, and up the curve of his neck. He winces when Eames hits a tender spot Arthur didn't know was there. He reaches up with his own fingers, feels the sensitive skin and closes his eyes. He remembers what this is. He takes a breath and lets it out. Eames' fingers press against his lips.

“You don't have to tell me.”

“I know.”

“I honestly couldn't decide what would bother me more.”

Arthur looks at him sharply as Eames looks away, embarrassed. Then he gets what Eames is saying. “Oh. You mean whether it happened while I was drugged or if it was someone I wanted.”

Eames bites his lip—one of his only tells when he's uncomfortable—and Arthur considers what Eames is letting him see. Vulnerability. A hint of jealousy.

“Hey,” Arthur says, and in spite of the strain, he lifts his hand to turn Eames' face towards him. “It was the client.”

“Kendrick.”

Arthur isn't surprised Eames has the name already. “I was in London to do preliminary research for him. He wanted an extraction on his business partner. The usual corporate mistrust scenario.”

“You could've called me.”

“I did.”

“Before things went to hell, I mean.”

Eames looks wounded and Arthur hates that he's the reason for it. He wants to explain and have it make sense. “I—I wanted it to be a surprise.”

Eames just stares at him, caught between a laugh and something meaner. “It was certainly that,” is all he says.

“Eames.”

“You could've stayed here. With me.” He knows Eames is angry because he thinks if Arthur had stayed with him none of this would've happened. It's possible he's right, but it doesn't change the facts.

“I didn't want to impose.” It's the truth, and yet so far from it at the same time. He wasn't entirely certain what had pulled him to England and to Eames at this moment, and he hadn't entirely made up his mind what to do about it. How could he explain it to Eames when he didn't really know himself? The two of them had always been more complicated than a three-level dream. “We've never—how many times have you come to L.A. or New York and not stayed with me?” Arthur can tell Eames is on the edge of trying to say that's different. He barrels over him. “We've always given each other space, Eames. Maybe too much.”

The weight of that settles between them, and Eames seems consoled in some way. “So, you arrived in London ...”

Arthur picks up the story again. “The client insisted on a face-to-face. I was barely off the plane when he was requesting I meet him.”

“That didn't set off alarm bells?”

“Of course it did!” Arthur says angrily. “I took precautions. I picked the location. I set the time and terms. I did my fucking job!”

“Okay, okay.” Eames' hand is rubbing a soothing line down Arthur's arm. He feels taut, like a string about to snap. Arthur doesn't know if what happened was his fault. He doesn't know if he could have prevented it. Not knowing bothers him more than he cares to admit to himself or anyone else.

“I know you're careful, Arthur. I know. I'm sorry.”

Arthur closes his eyes, lets a nod fill in for what will only come out wrong if he tries to explain. He keeps going. “Jerome Kendrick. Forty-five. Never married. Co-owner of a software company he runs with a childhood friend.”

“And by friend, he meant lover, right?” Arthur hears Eames' sigh. “Fuck. Nobody trusts anybody anymore.”

“We do,” Arthur says before he can stop himself. He opens his eyes to catch Eames looking. “We trust each other.”

“Yeah, we do.”

Arthur figures the fact he's in bed with the man should demonstrate that, but sometimes it needs to be said. “I trust you, Eames.”

“I know.” It's clear Eames does, and that it's entirely mutual. Arthur's never doubted that.

“So, anyway, he kept dropping hints that his partner might be keeping secrets—”

“His male partner, I assume?” Eames interrupts. He can obviously see where this is going. Arthur isn't sure whether to be grateful for Eames' quick mind or wary. He's probably already drawn conclusions about what happened. He's likely not wrong.

“Yes. I outlined what the process is, what steps an extractor could take to verify both corporate and personal concerns. He—” Arthur stops, embarrassed.

Eames props himself up on one elbow. “Let me guess. He spun you a love story, a fervent desire to assure himself his love was true. He confided in you, confessed his love for his partner, swore he was the most faithful of men, and that all he wanted was a lover who was equally true.”

Arthur's cheeks feel warm. “You forgot the part where he was a little drunk, kissed me, and then apologized because he'd never think of doing such a thing if he weren't so concerned about his cheating partner.”

“Arthur.”

“I know better, but I wanted to believe him. How fucked up is that?”

“Anyone would have been fooled.”

“You wouldn't.”

Eames shrugs. “I've spent a lifetime lying and pretending to be things I'm not. After a while, you can't help but see deceit wherever you look. I wouldn't necessarily have seen the lie; I simply would've assumed there was one. It's not the same thing.”

“It was an amateur mistake.”

“He knew what he was doing from the beginning. He probably had you researched. It was a set-up, premeditated. There's nothing you could've done differently.”

Arthur knows it's true, but it doesn't help. Maybe he's not as good at reading people as Eames is, but it's part of his job and he does it well. Except when he doesn't.

“How did he find you in the first place?”

Arthur returns to the conversation at hand. “He was on the periphery of a previous job, a close friend of a former client. He was around, but not involved, so when he contacted me it wasn't really a surprise. I—I didn't anticipate a threat. There was nothing to indicate—”

“Stop blaming yourself,” Eames says bluntly. “Predators look like ordinary blokes right up until they attack. Even you and I seem harmless enough at first glance.”

Arthur grins at that. It's true, of course, and they're about as far from harmless as you can get. Arthur's forced to concede the point.

“We met at a bar near his office, went over the preliminaries. Everything seemed in order.”

“He bought you a drink.”

“He seemed sincere.”

“They always do,” Eames agrees, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

The next part is the hardest, and Arthur wants to get it out of the way. No matter what he says, Eames will know what he isn't saying. It's there in the expectant look in his eyes, the tightness in his jaw.

“It wasn't in the first drink,” Arthur admits, and Eames knows he doesn't ever have more than one drink with clients.

“I see.”

“No, you don't.” Arthur winces at the stiffness, but he reaches out to grasp Eames' arm anyway. “He invited me to his room and I turned him down.”

“But you considered it.” Eames voice is flat. Careful. There's an accusation in it, and Arthur feels a surge of anger because no matter how they've danced around their feelings, neither of them has made a move. Eames is as much to blame for that as he is. Neither of them has a right to be jealous. He doesn't owe Eames anything.

“Yes, I fucking considered it, Eames. For about a second. I'm not dead. He was reasonably attractive, seemed sane enough, and he obviously wanted me.”

“High standards, love.”

“Oh, fuck off.” Arthur starts to roll out of bed, but the pain in his shoulder stops him on his back. He feels like a turtle. He's not actually sure he can get up without help, and Eames isn't likely to be feeling charitable at the moment. Arthur stares at the ceiling. “The thing is—the important thing is I didn't want him. I came to London to see you, and I was nervous—”

Eames laughs. “You, nervous? What the hell for?”

If Arthur could make a fist, he thinks he'd hit him. “Because I came here for you, you idiot, although right now I'm not sure why I ever thought this would work.”

“With lines like that I can certainly see why—”

“Eames, don't. Just ... don't.” Arthur feels worn down. They're always exponentially harder on one another than on anyone else. They've managed to have all the relationship tangles without the fringe benefits. It figures. Some days Arthur hates his fucked-up life.

“The next thing I knew I was waking up in a hotel room, half-dressed, with the client attached to my neck like a lamprey eel.” Arthur closes his eyes, feels the ghost of unfamiliar hands and lips on his skin, the edge of teeth coaxing blood to the surface. “He was doing his best to convince me I wanted to be there, but I didn't. I know what a sedative feels like. The only reason I woke up enough to protest before things went too far is that Somnacin doesn't play well with other drugs.”

Eames shifts then, hip nudging Arthur's side, and it takes him a minute to realize Eames is leaning over his chest to slide his hands under Arthur's shoulders, gently settling him back on his side. Eames lies down beside him, closer than before. His one hand stays on Arthur's arm, a patch of heat. Arthur wants so much to tip his head forward, lean into the curve of Eames' neck and shoulder, but there's still too much between them. Things that need to be said.

“How'd you end up in Soho?”

“Kendrick didn't appreciate me saying no.” Eames waits for him to clarify. “Apparently nothing says 'I'm not interested' like a fractured collarbone, a broken nose, and a knee to the groin.”

“I suppose I should be grateful I've had nothing more than an elegant brush-off.” Eames' smile is off-balance, voice tinged with regret. They've no one to blame but themselves for this long stand-off. They both know it.

“I never said I wasn't interested.”

“You never said you were.”

“Neither did you.” This has always been the crux of their problem.

Eames sighs. "Arthur, I know you're neither blind nor stupid--"

"You flirt with everyone. I didn't want--" He stops. "I didn't know what I wanted. What either of us wanted. And I couldn't risk being wrong."

Arthur looks at a spot on the wall past Eames' shoulder. There's a painting hung in a simple black frame. A watercolour Eames had picked up in Montmartre on a rare afternoon when there was nothing pressing. Arthur remembers walking among the artists' stalls with Eames, sharing a baguette and a bottle of San Pelligrino, nowhere particular they needed to be. Arthur remembers the painting. It's sky and river on a storm-filled day, something angry and beautiful, the subtle play of soft edges amidst the strong lines, dark swirls threatening to overwhelm the eye. He'd commented on it then, said something sufficiently pretentious and Eames had bought it on a lark, ostensibly to annoy him, but Arthur had been secretly pleased. He'd considered stealing it before he left Paris that time. He's surprised Eames kept it.

“It reminded me of you, you know. Your tattoos,” he says, forgetting to provide context. Eames seems to know what he's talking about anyway. “Everything about you really.”

“I know.” It's gentle and unassuming. It's simply a fact.

“Beautiful and dangerous. Complicated.” Arthur lets his eyes drift back to Eames' face. “I wanted to take it home that day. I wanted to—fuck, I wanted—”

“It's been waiting for you, love. It's always been here just waiting for you.” Neither of them believes they're talking about the painting, and Arthur tiptoes his fingers up the broad slope of Eames' bicep to trace the black ink there. The skin is warm and soft.

“Finish the story, Arthur.”

“Kendrick's a coward.”

“Cowards can still be dangerous.”

“Clearly. He didn't appreciate my objections, but I guess he didn't want to risk further damage, so someone gave me another dose, stuck me in a van, and dumped me out in Soho.”

“And the welcoming committee?”

“I'm not sure, but I'd bet he was initially scared enough just to want to get rid of me and hope I wouldn't remember. Maybe I'd chalk it up to a random encounter in Soho. A mugging maybe.”

“But on second thought, he figured you deserved to be taught a lesson in humility?”

“Speculation, but it fits.” Arthur realizes he's been making continuous loops around Eames' tattoos. He doesn't seem to mind, though, and Arthur has no desire to stop.

“He's a dead man.” Eames' tone is light, but there's a hard look in his eyes. Arthur sighs and lets his fingers brush the stubble on Eames' jaw, the fine structure of his cheeks.

“He's not worth it.”

“He marked you.” There's a press of fingers against the bruise on Arthur's neck and he makes a face at the slight soreness. “He fucking marked you, Arthur.”

“So do something about it.” Arthur's eyes are steady as he catches Eames'.

“He had no right.” Eames is blatantly ignoring the invitation, and Arthur wonders if he even realizes that's what he's doing.

“No, he didn't,” Arthur agrees, carefully shifting his body closer to Eames, tilting his neck so the bruise is obvious. Unavoidable. “But you do.”

“Do I?”

“Yes. I'm giving it to you.”

Eames looks at him suspiciously, as if he's waiting for the punchline. It tells Arthur they've been playing this game for too long. The stakes are too high and they're both afraid of losing. He's tired of it.

“Why now?” Eames asks.

“Why not?” Arthur makes an effort not to sound flippant. “Don't you think it's time?”

“I kind of assumed we'd missed our window of opportunity, darling.” There's an edge to his voice. A warning. Eames doesn't like to be played any more than Arthur does. Arthur doesn't know how to show him that's not what this is.

“I came to London to see you,” Arthur reminds him.

“You came for a job.”

“The job was secondary. I already had the ticket. One-way.” Eames raises an eyebrow, but doesn't pursue it. “I can prove it if you like,” Arthur offers. “I have receipts.”

“Of course you do.” There's exasperation and affection and something cautious in the tone, but Arthur takes it as a victory. He feels Eames' touch against his neck and Arthur stretches, gives him access.

The first brush of lips over the bruise is barely noticeable. Arthur can feel a shiver rolling across his flesh, goosebumps pushing to the surface.

“I told you I don't like hurting you,” Eames says, laying his lips lightly on the darkened skin.

“You're not.” Arthur's arm is aching, but he bends it slowly, reaches a hand up to cup the back of Eames' head. “You're making it better.”

“Arthur—”

“I don't want to look in the mirror and see him on my skin. He doesn't have that right.”

“You can't simply over-write what happened.” Another gentle kiss and Arthur's breath hitches, comes out in a rush.

“That's not what this is.” Arthur tugs at the hair on the back of Eames' head, enough to bring them face-to-face. “This isn't new, Eames. Us. Not really.”

“I suppose you're right.” Eames doesn't close his eyes as he leans in and catches Arthur's mouth with his own. It's too quick, leaving Arthur chasing after Eames' lips, but then Eames is there again, a warm wet mouth, careful and sweet. Arthur lets Eames set the pace, lets him take the time to see Arthur isn't pushing him away, isn't putting up walls or miles between them. Arthur's wanted this for a long time; he just didn't know how to let himself have it without it feeling like defeat. The two of them have always had a hard time admitting what they want. It feels too much like giving up control. Forfeiting the game. Neither of them likes to lose.

They kiss for what feels like an age. It's brand-new and yet familiar, and Arthur knows Eames feels it too. They've known each other a long time: the feel, the weight, the scent of one another. Eames can always find Arthur in crowd, even in the business district at the busiest time of the day. He's drawn to the rhythm of his walk, the particular curl of his hair. He tried to explain it to Arthur once, but couldn't, and it doesn't matter anyway because Arthur can do the same thing no matter who Eames is wearing in a dream. They recognize something in each other. They fit.

Arthur's not even aware of when they pressed together, legs tangled, skin warm and flushed, but he doesn't want to be anywhere else. He wants this. He's willing to take the first step if this is the result.

He registers the moment when Eames nuzzles his neck, and Arthur tilts his head obediently, opens himself to Eames' exploration. It's gentle, a reverent touch of Eames' plush mouth, followed by the soothing sweep of tongue. Arthur gasps at the barest scrape of teeth, the gentle sucking at his skin, and Arthur feels Kendrick's touches being drawn out of his system like a poison, replaced with something heated and honest.

Eames sucks harder, all heat and moist breath on Arthur's skin, and he can't help the moan that escapes. It only makes Eames clamp down harder, worry the skin between his lips, and it's a heady rush of pleasure, no pain at all. Arthur wants Eames to claim him like this, leave his mark for everyone to see. Arthur imagines the shape of Eames' mouth like a tattoo on his skin and he realizes even though the marks aren't visible, Eames claimed him ages ago. They've each left parts of themselves in the other's care. Arthur's want is hanging on Eames' bedroom wall. Arthur wonders if Eames knows Arthur's kept every postcard, every note, every scrap of paper Eames has ever given him, hoarded his words for the months when there was no contact, when it was too dangerous to know one another.

“Arthur,” Eames murmurs, pulling away to survey the newly-formed bruises. Arthur runs his fingers over the surface, feels the heat of blood rising to the surface, the slight tenderness beneath the pads of his fingers. He can't remember the point of origin—Kendrick's bruise—obliterated beneath Eames' careful attentions.

Arthur's never felt so fucking claimed before, and God, he wants it, wants to belong to someone, wants to allow Eames liberties he's never given anyone.

“Whatever you want, darling,” Eames is whispering, voice wrecked, lips red and swollen, planting kisses across the plains of Arthur's face, the pale expanse of his chest, tongue swirling in the faint trail of hair. “Can I?”

“Fuck,” Arthur says, and it's as good as a yes, or at least Eames takes it that way and Arthur's boxers disappear, cock jutting out hard and flushed in the cool air before Eames takes him in his mouth and Arthur nearly dislocates his shoulder again when Eames swallows around him.

There's a soothing hand stroking his belly and Arthur hears, “lie back, love. Don't do yourself an injury,” and Eames slows right down, laps his way up Arthur's cock and teases the head with the swirl of his tongue until Arthur's breathless and wrung-out, orgasm chasing his fears away, and Eames ruts against his leg, uses Arthur shamelessly and comes all over him, and Arthur's never been so happy to be an absolute mess. He sucks his own marks into the skin of Eames' neck and grins at him unabashedly.

Eames's fingers touch the darkening marks like a totem before leaning in to kiss Arthur on the mouth. “So, we're even then? Both laid claim to?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure I can't kill Kendrick?”

Arthur smooths the frown lines on Eames' forehead. “If it mattered that much, I'd kill him myself. As it is, I don't think he'll be likely to try that trick again with anyone else.”

“Willing partners are such a trial.”

Arthur shrugs, his shoulder starting to ache in earnest. He needs a shower and a bottle of Ibuprofin. “It's better that it was me rather than some other poor schmuck. At least I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah, clearly, you being drugged and assaulted is a lucky break.” Eames bites his ear to show exactly what he thinks of Arthur's assessment, but he helps him stand up and supports him on the way to the shower. “I—fuck, Arthur—it could've been—”

“It wasn't.” The water starts to heat, steam filling the tiny bathroom. Arthur catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

“Holy shit,” he says, flicking on the vanity light and turning his neck toward the mirror. There's a fucking bouquet of bruises smattering his skin, and okay, he'd wanted Eames to obliterate any trace of Kendrick, but this seems excessive. He wonders why he didn't notice when Eames was doing it. All he remembers is warm, wet pressure, tongue and lips and words against his skin. Fuck. And yet, he can't ignore the tiny shiver of something that sneaks up his spine.

Eames is standing behind him, grinning, all too aware of what the image of those marks is doing to Arthur. “Too much?” he asks, cocky, and it's only then Arthur realizes the bruises form a pattern. A capital “E.” He should really know better than to give Eames an inch.

Instead, Arthur meets his gaze in the mirror and smiles back. “It's fine. I'm sure people are aware that leech attacks are on the rise.”

“Leech attacks! You wanker.” Eames makes a loud sucking noise against Arthur's shoulder, and when he lets go, his eyes are serious. “It looks worse than I—”

“I wasn't actually objecting, Eames.”

“Yeah?”

“I'm not saying you should suck your initials into my neck all the time, mind you, but—” Arthur licks his lips, pressing back into Eames' muscled chest. He can feel his cheeks heating and hopes Eames will think it's the steam. “—I like seeing you on my skin. Maybe just a little less obvious next time.”

“Like you were, pet?” Eames turns his head so Arthur can see the four purple bruises on Eames' neck. In the mirror, Arthur supposes they look a little bit like a capital “A.” So maybe they're both a little possessive.

“Are you saying you mind?”

“Not at all. Now get in the shower before the hot water runs out,” Eames says, giving Arthur a hand for balance. “The old boiler's not what it used to be.”

Arthur smirks and aims a pointed look at Eames' crotch. “We'll have to work on that.”

“Oh, ha, bloody, ha-ha, Arthur.” Eames steps in behind him and crowds Arthur back against the cool tiles, mindful of his arm. “Remind me why I put up with your nonsense?”

Arthur steals a kiss and smiles boldly. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

He sees the moment when Eames gets it, really truly gets it, and Arthur's not hiding anymore. They've spent too many years trying to ignore something that's obviously not going away no matter how hard they try to convince themselves it will never work between them.

Eames stares at him, a flush creeping up his cheeks to the tips of his ears. He dips his head to press a kiss against Arthur's neck, his arms snaking around Arthur's waist. “Jesus, Arthur, you don't do things by halves, do you? Give me a minute to catch up, love.”

“You put up with me for the same reasons I put up with you,” Arthur says, refusing to be diverted.

“You sound bloody certain about that.”

“I am.” Arthur doesn't look away, even as he plants a kiss on Eames' lips. “I bought a one-way ticket to London, Eames, with no hotel reservation. When things went wrong, you were the one person I thought to call, and it had very little to do with you being in London. I let you suck a ridiculous letter 'E' into my neck, and now I'm naked with you in what's quickly becoming a cold shower. I'm sure, Eames. Trust me, I'm as sure as I can be considering who we are.”

Eames' face shifts from slightly stunned to stupidly happy. At least Arthur thinks that's what happens. He's too busy being kissed within an inch of his life against the shower wall to make an accurate assessment, but he honestly can't say he minds. Even when Eames stops to ask, “Where the fuck's your luggage then?” Even when the water runs cold and they're forced to go back to bed to avoid freezing.

Eames kisses Arthur until he's warm again. “I love you too, you know,” Eames says, voice hushed and sincere. There's something like wonder on his face and in the protective curl of his arms around Arthur's back.

“Yeah, I know,” Arthur says and lets himself drift, secure in the knowledge he's safe. He's in hands he trusts. For the first time in a long time, he's absolutely certain he's where he belongs.

 

THE END