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1.

Eames' hand settles heavy on the back of his neck. Arthur exhales, long and slow, closing his eyes.

"It's late." Eames' voice is soft, possibly out of deference to the time. He doesn't rub, his fingers a still pressure where they could dig ruthlessly.

He doesn't tell Arthur to come to bed, which is just as well. Their schedule is hectic as fuck and their extractor left a few tiny but crucial details to the last moment. The grab is tomorrow; unless Arthur finishes this soon, their collective asses are grass.

But he doesn't move away either, and after a moment Arthur opens his eyes. "Don't you have somewhere else to be?" he asks, and regrets it immediately. It sounds like he wants Eames to leave.

"I'm doing what I can to contribute to the success of the mission," Eames says, and his fingers dig subtly, slightly deeper.

Something transmutes inside Arthur, the numb irritation of his fatigue and the sheer stupidity of their extractor's plans fading into a clarify of thought, an immediacy of action. He blinks, refocusing on the document open in front of him.

"Thanks," Arthur says, typing furiously. Eames stays there with him until the work is finished.

2.

"Going casual, are we?" Eames says, hooking his fingers in the collar of Arthur's t-shirt.

Arthur shrugs. "Gotta blend in." He constantly has to resist the urge to pull his pants up. It doesn't just look ridiculous, it's outright uncomfortable. He misses the fit of a suit around him, a tie snug around his neck.

Eames looks him over with a critical eye. Arthur stands up a little straighter under the scrutiny, tipping his head into Eames' hands when he reaches up to ruffle Arthur's hair a little more.

"You could use a bit of gel, actually," Eames says thoughtfully. "Go for the tousled, wet look."

Sticky hair in his face - ugh. Arthur grimaces and shakes his head. Eames is still looking at him. It makes Arthur's skin prickle, not in a bad way.

"Something missing, though." Eames frowns for a moment, then raises a finger. "Ah-ha!"

"Have I mentioned you are ridiculous," Arthur says faintly as Eames retreats to go through his belongings.

"Often and recently, yes." Eames drapes something around Arthur's neck and turns him bodily to face the mirror. "How's this?"

Arthur fingers the shark's tooth, hanging from a leather thong. "Now I look ridiculous," he says, play-mournful.

"Blending in, remember," Eames says. "Never saw a teen fashion that wasn't. But do stop fidgeting, darling, it draws attention." He pulls on it sharply, without warning. Not hard enough to keep Arthur from breathing, except that Arthur freezes all over at the pressure, at Eames' insistent hand, holding him.

"Tie it like that," Arthur says, amazed that his voice even comes out right.

He's waiting for Eames to raise an objection, but there's nothing except his clever hands knotting the thong tight, stirring the short hair at Arthur's hairline. "You need to look comfortable," Eames whispers in his ear, "not like you're pining for designer outfits."

Arthur's mouth curves up. He turns around, kisses the tip of Eames' ear. "Where did you even get this thing?"

"Vendor on the beach," Eames replies. "Saw it and it just screamed Arthur."

Arthur punches him in the shoulder for that, but not hard.

3.

Even when he has come still drying on his stomach, even with post-coital lassitude softening his movements, Eames with a pen in his hand is a sight to promote caution.

Honestly, though, Arthur's too comfortable to be properly careful. "What are you doing with that thing?" he asks, head pillowed on Eames' shoulder.

"Just playing around," Eames says easily. He trails the capped tip over Arthur's collarbone. Arthur shivers and bats it away, oversensitive.

Eames hums and shoves at Arthur until he turns to lie on his stomach, slightly grumbling. Then he kisses his shoulder.

The first touch of the felt tip to his skin makes Arthur stiffen slightly. "If you give me skin cancer I'll kill you."

Eames tsks. "Of course this has been dermatologically tested, Arthur, what do you take me for?"

Arthur could answer that, but the pen brushes across his skin, hypnotic. He settles for a vague grunt.

He can't make out what Eames is putting on him, but that's okay. Arthur doesn't trust Eames' taste, exactly - Eames has an astonishing knack for finding things that look good on him that Arthur could have sworn wouldn't suit anyone. (Or maybe he's biased. That's a possibility.)

But Eames does know Arthur's taste, and Arthur can literally trust Eames with his back.

Eames doodles for a while on the general area of Arthur's lower back, then he pauses and changes position. The pen doesn't touch him, but the warmth of Eames' hand radiates down on Arthur's nape.

"Well?" Arthur says, and Eames draws one small line just below Arthur's hairline.

Eames moves more carefully now. Each tiny movement of the pen makes Arthur clench his fists in the sheet, breathing shallowly because he doesn't want to spoil Eames' work by moving.

The design here is simple enough that Arthur knows what it is without looking. Two lines, circling the back of his neck, two fingers' width apart. Eames fills the area between them with crosshatches, then urges Arthur to turn over again.

Arthur smiles when he does. Eames is just blocking the light, which glows around him, catching in his messy hair and the fine sheen of sweat on his skin. His eyes are intent, his thick fingers holding the pen so deftly.

"Are you going to finish it?" Arthur says, licking his lips. Eames bends to kiss him, sits back up with a slight smile on his face.

He keeps one hand on Arthur's forehead while he draws across Arthur's throat. Arthur would object to this - he can keep still by himself, thanks - but Eames' hand moves in short petting motions and it's too nice to push away.

"Okay, let me up," Arthur says when Eames re-caps the pen. Eames helps him sit but pushes him to stay on the bed, scrambling for something in his bag.

"What are you, Mary Poppins?" Arthur doesn't bother keeping the amusement out of his voice when Eames presents him with a small hand-mirror.

"Tool of the trade," Eames says, arch. "Well? What do you think?"

Arthur surveys the black lines, stark against his skin. It's a very appealing look but there's no substance to it; he finds his hand drawn to his throat, to have something working against his skin, solid and real.

Eames' hand settles there, instead. It covers the black, so that the mirror shows only skin against skin. Arthur breathes out, his heart jumping once, then settling.

"Is that so." Eames' voice is quiet, contemplative. Not really a question.

"Or something." Arthur doesn't want to debate this, not now. "Can we go to sleep already?"

Eames kisses him and goes to clean up. But his hand settles against Arthur's throat when they curl up to sleep, cupped like he's holding something precious.

~~

The goddamn ink doesn't wash off. Arthur's tie and his starched shirt-collar hide the evidence, but it leaves him on edge just knowing, because how the fuck is he going to explain it? Oh yeah, Eames drew a pretend-collar on me last night. I did mention I was fucking him, right?

It's none of anyone's fucking business, anyway.

Going under to test the level design is a relief, because at least no one is there to look. Arthur lets out a breath and feels marginally lighter, more right in his skin in a way he doesn't want to look into.

He's halfway to their planned hiding place when he realizes why. He raises a hand to his neck, touching the band of black leather that settled there. He knows it's black. Nothing else would be right.

Gingerly, Arthur feels the back of it. There's a single link there (silver, it has to be), and there is nothing tied to it. Except that Arthur passes a careful finger in the air directly behind it and feels a faint thrumming, like a plucked guitar string.

He's not really surprised when Eames materializes in front of him.

"Get your own dream," Arthur says.

Eames smirks at him. "But yours is ever so much nicer. Besides, I was summoned."

It's probably a projection. Arthur kisses him anyway. Why the hell not?

Eames' hands link behind his back, pulling Arthur even closer. Arthur pries himself away with regret. "Working now," he says, when Eames isn't letting go.

"Oh, fine." Eames exaggerates a pout. He also waves his hand in the air behind Arthur's back. Arthur feels himself bound, snagged by an invisible tie.

It's all right, though. He lets Arthur work in peace after that, and anyway, Arthur has known he was good and caught for a long time now.

~~

Arthur's long over mourning things he only had in dreams. Really, he is. He doesn't know why he keeps thinking about that invisible leash.

Worse, whenever he moves his neck it feels wrong. Like there's something off in his range of movement, in the lack of weight on his skin.

Eames notices. Of course he does. But he doesn't say anything, which Arthur appreciates.

Not until they're in private, and then he grips Arthur's shoulders and noses the back of his head. "What is it?"

"I don't know," Arthur says, frustrated because he does know, he just can't figure out how to say it. The ink lines are still sharp against his skin, visible where Eames undid the top buttons of his shirt. He pushes back against Eames, angling unsubtly until Eames' mouth is hot against the juncture of his shoulder and neck.

Eames kisses him there lightly, the tease, until Arthur grits out, "Come on, bite."

Hot lips settle against his skin, maddeningly light. Then teeth, a brief, bright counterpoint. “Harder, you bastard,” Arthur says, because Eames knows Arthur wants harder. He always does.

But instead of clamping down, Eames sucks. Gentle, too gentle, yet relentless. It’s a different sort of ache; Arthur would push into a bite but his body wants to lean away from this deceptively soft touch. He thrashes in Eames’ grip, relaxing only when it tightens around him. Eames won’t let go unless Arthur asks with words.

“There,” Eames says after a short eternity. Arthur opens his eyes (though he doesn’t recall closing them) and lets Eames steer him until they’re in the bathroom, facing the mirror.

The ink is black but the mark on Arthur’s skin is a dark red, just below the line. Arthur touches it, wincing and smiling. He cants his head just to feel the sting. “Yeah,” he says, breath rushing out.

Eames traces a line around his neck. “Shall I make some more to keep it company?”

“Yes,” Arthur says. “Please, yes,” and he keeps repeating those two words until the collar in ink has been shadowed by a circle of bruised skin.

4.

Arthur should have seen this coming. Eames isn’t stupid or unobservant, and even if Arthur has difficulties articulating what he wants, sometimes, he hasn’t exactly been subtle about this. But he still feels dumb with shock, holding the strip of leather in his hands.

“All right?” Eames says. Arthur blinks, looking up at him. Eames is actually nervous, and the sheer incongruity of that snaps Arthur back into reality.

“It’s perfect,” he says, because that’s the astounding part. Black, two fingers’ width, a silver buckle and a single silver link in the back. Eames is talented but he’s not actually a mind reader.

Unless. “So you weren’t a projection in that dream.” Arthur would be upset that Eames gave no hint of it later, but he’s too busy running his fingers against the butter-smooth inside of the collar.

Eames reaches out, and Arthur hands him back the collar. He puts a soft hand on Arthur’s neck. “May I?”

Arthur stands up. “Wait.” He doesn’t normally believe in ceremony, but some things are important.

He takes off his tie first, coiling it neatly and putting it on the dresser. Then he unbuttons his shirt, unrushed. Eames makes an abortive movement for him, and Arthur will let Eames help if he insists, but he’d rather do this himself. Eames seems to sense this. His hand drops but his eyes stay on Arthur, his gaze hungry and deep.

Arthur puts everything away, tidy, and stands naked in front of Eames. Despite the room’s warmth, he shivers slightly.

Eames’ hands cup around Arthur’s shoulders, their lips brushing. “I mean this, in case that wasn’t clear.” His voice sends another shiver through Arthur, serious like he never expects Eames to be.

He doesn’t ask Eames what he means. It’s pretty damned obvious. But it’s a relief, too; without thinking, Arthur’s palms curve around Eames’ waist. His knees buckle, and though Eames puts only the barest pressure on him it’s enough to get Arthur kneeling, still holding onto him.

Eames takes one of Arthur’s hands and kisses it. “May I?” he asks again.

Arthur nuzzles his thigh, the soft fabric a comfort against his cheek. “Yeah. Yes.”

The leather is cool and smooth, settling against his skin like a kiss. Eames fastens it
and it takes Arthur’s breath away, how close it is, how it fits exactly. He wants to ask Eames if he measured his neck in his sleep but he can’t stand to break the moment.

Eames hooks a finger in the link at the back, gentle. “Did you want to be tied?”

“No. Not now.”

He lets Eames pull him back up - considers complaining for a moment (he was already on his knees, Eames’ crotch right there in front of him, tempting), but he can’t muster the concentration. Eames lays him on the bed, his touch almost reverent.

“Good,” he says, his mouth at Arthur’s temple. “I’m something of a traditionalist.”

Normally Arthur rushes Eames through the prep, but okay, Eames has a point about tradition. His fingers move slowly inside Arthur, slick and warm, and his mouth never leaves the area of Arthur’s chin, his jaw, his throat.

By the time Eames is inside him, Arthur’s shaking apart. He crosses his legs behind Eames’ back, arching up to hold him closer. Eames’ wet hand is around Arthur’s cock, pulling slowly, but Arthur’s focus is on his other hand, clenched in his, their fingers entwined.

“You can come if you want to,” Arthur says, mouthing against Eames’ cheek. “Go on. I want to feel you.”

Eames shakes his head. “I can wait.” A bead of sweat rolls down his face. Arthur licks it when it comes into range. “As long as you want, darling. Take your time.”

“A job worth doing,” Arthur murmurs, but then Eames changes angle and Arthur can’t talk anymore.

Eames can, though. In between sucking bruises on Arthur’s clavicle he calls Arthur gorgeous, amazing, his, and Arthur comes in his fist because he can’t do anything else. Eames comes two thrusts later, but he keeps moving in Arthur until he softens and slips out.

A long time passes before they can disentangle enough to clean up. Arthur’s exhausted, mentally and physically, but he can’t stop petting Eames and his eyes won’t shut.

Eames’ hands are on his neck again, gentle. “You should take the collar off,” he says, “or you’ll have an enormous bruise when you wake up.”

“Yeah.” Arthur stares up. Swallows. He lies limp as Eames removes the collar, so careful.

Eames sighs. “Well, all right. Out with it, whatever it is.”

Arthur can’t answer, his throat gone tight. He rolls over and crushes Eames in a hug, sinking his teeth into Eames’ shoulder to hold on harder.

“I can’t do this again,” he says, shutting his eyes tight, pressing them into Eames’ chest.

Eames goes very still. “Of course you don’t have to put it on if you don’t want to.” His fingers are whisper-delicate against Arthur’s nape. Wistful, and it makes Arthur ache inside.

“Not put it on,” he says, for clarity’s sake. “Take it off. I don’t think I could do that again.”

Eames isn’t moving, but it’s a different sort of stillness. It feels like expectation. “It’s your neck,” he says.

Eames,” Arthur says, and means, Don’t make me say it. He knows he can’t, Eames knows he can’t, but stating it would feel like pulling away and Arthur hates the thought.

They lie together, Eames’ fingers brushing where the collar was. “There could be a way,” Eames says. “But it’s a bit more permanent than this.”

“Permanent?” Arthur says, and the word feels thick and slow in his mouth. “Good.”

5.

The artist is an old friend of Eames. "She does tattoos as well," he says, lifting his shirt. "Did these masks, see?"

Arthur traces them with a finger. No scarring or any ill effects obvious to Arthur; but Arthur’s judgement doesn’t really matter here. He picked the man to pick the place, and he trusts Eames’ opinion.

Still, he’s relieved on arrival, when the place turns out to be a small, discreet studio with a handpainted sign and Magritte prints on the wall.

Eames looks at him and grins. “Did you seriously think I’d drag you to some rat-infested hack’s lair?”

“Shut up,” Arthur says without much heat. “You might’ve if you thought it was good for me.”

Eames snorts and introduces him to the artist. “Devka,” she says, and her handshake is firm and brief. "Here, I have the consent forms ready for you to sign."

The payment's already been taken care of, from one of the accounts they hold in common. After that, there's nothing to do but enter the room where the work is done. It's white and spotless and smells faintly of antiseptics, and Arthur relaxes a fraction.

Eames' hand is heavy and warm on his shoulder. "Still time to change your mind," he says, too soft for Devka to hear.

Arthur snorts. "Same goes for you," he says, not bothering to lower his voice, eyes steady on Eames', who chuckles.

"Serves me right, I suppose." He brushes his thumb against the back of Arthur's neck, gripping Arthur when he's about to sit down. "One moment, hang on - " Eames kisses Arthur's neck, slow and wet and thorough. "All right, you can start."

"Thanks for giving me something to clean," Devka grumbles, but she's smiling. "Okay, now sit the fuck down already."

Arthur straddles the chair. Eames comes to sit on the opposite side, sliding his hand unsubtly into Arthur's. He raises an eyebrow at Eames. "I don't think I need handholding."

"Indulge me," Eames says, so Arthur huffs something like Fine and bows his head to let Devka get a good look at him.

Arthur's done some research about nape piercings before he decided on this: that goes without saying. He knows the process, the risks and the basics of care. Everything there is to learn on the subject, Arthur has researched.

And he still stiffens at the next touch, even though it's just Devka wiping the back of his neck with antiseptic. If his tension is visible, Devka doesn't comment on it, but Eames rubs a thumb over Arthur's wrist, slow and hypnotic. Arthur's breathing syncs up with the movements, only semi-voluntarily; it's an easy rhythm to fall into.

Devka's pinching the skin of his neck. Arthur keeps his eyes closed and his breathing even, turning his hand to grasp Eames'.

For one moment, Arthur wishes it could be Eames drawing the marks on him, deciding where the piercing goes. No use in that: this is work for a professional, and Eames has chosen the most suitable one. Arthur reminds himself he believes in delegation, and relaxes another increment.

She keeps talking, and Arthur can't tell if it's making things better or worse. "You work with weapons, right?"

Arthur hums something non-committal enough; something nobody could arrest him for.

"Okay, so imagine you're aiming. Really feel it in your body, but don't move. Get what I'm saying?"

"Entirely the wrong tactic," Eames says.

Devka shushes him. "Arthur? Think you're aiming at a target. Standing straight..." She laughs, low and throaty. "Okay, this is a good start. Keep breathing like that. In, out. In, hold... and out. Yeah, that's right."

Arthur's about to ask her what the fuck this is supposed to accomplish, but on his next inhale she says, "Okay, brace yourself," and the point of the piercing needle pricks his skin. His breath catches for a moment before he lets it out.

Slow. Careful. Measured. The needle goes through his skin - no, it goes under, a tunnel between his skin and flesh. It hurts, but much less than he expected, like the pain is somehow too distant to matter. His hand clutches Eames' spasmodically, once, then goes limp, still exhaling.

The needle comes out of the other side, a lesser hurt. He’s bleeding a little: can feel it dripping down his neck, a distraction. Arthur breathes shallowly as Devka replaces the needle with a barbell, the movement odd under his skin. Arthur’s worked with needles often enough, but it’s something else entirely to have them going through, staying. He has to resist the urge to shake his head, as if that might make the intrusion go away.

He feels Devka screwing the little discs into place. He feels a heartbeat in his palms, and wonders if it's his or Eames', and if it matters.

She wipes the small trickle of blood drying on his skin and says, "There, done," in a cheerful voice. She retreats and hands Arthur a small mirror, holding a larger one up behind him. “Like it?”

It takes conscious effort not to reach for the piercing. Eames’ hands tighten on his, and Arthur raises an eyebrow at him.

When it’s all said and done, it’s barely noticeable, the two titanium discs flat against his skin. Ball beads would have made the piercing easier to clean, but Arthur likes how snug they are, close and elegant.

“It’s good,” Arthur says. Talking is unaccountably difficult. He has to make an effort not to slur.

"You're meant to get up now," Eames says, when Arthur takes a little longer than usual to figure out what he's supposed to do next.

Devka smiles. "You can rest here for a while if you need." She shows them back to the reception area and gets Arthur a glass of water he downs gratefully. Eames tips her and sits back down with his arm around Arthur.

Eames is strangely quiet. Arthur should probably ask him, but words are too difficult right now. He leans his forehead against Eames' shoulder, instead, and breathes him in.

The metal barbell is so present, a small, localized heat source under his skin. Invisible except for the discs, small and easily hidden, but there's no way Arthur can forget it's there. It's done.

Arthur exhales, soft and slow. He raises his eyes to meet Eames', which are suspiciously bright. Eames trails two fingers down Arthur's cheek, over his jaw, stopping short of his neck.

"You can't wear the collar now." Eames' voice is very nearly wistful. "Unless I made a hole in the back to - "

"No." It comes out a lot sharper than Arthur means it to be, but that collar is his. Eames is not taking it away or putting holes in it.

"Well, then," Eames allows, "I suppose I could make you a new one. Or there's always dreamspace."

That's true enough. But it's not important anymore, unnecessary. Arthur has a constant reminder under his skin, now, a small weight to ground him and call him home.

"This is enough," Arthur says.

Eames puts his hands on the sides of Arthur's throat, not touching the piercing but breathtakingly close, and with the most careful pressure, pulls Arthur in for a kiss.