Despite more aunts and uncles and cousins than any one child could possibly ever hope for, Arthur grows up a lonely child. His mom is not distant so much as distracted and overworked and a pat on the head would often have to suffice where a hug or a cuddle would have been preferred. Arthur, at three and five and eight wants hugs. He wants to be sat down on the couch, curled into the crook of his mother’s arm, and read to out of his favorite book.
“Not now love,” she says, ruffling his hair and then smoothing it down again and that is that.
Out of the house, strangers touch him, smile and coo at him when he is very small, their fingers tracing the smooth curve of his cheek or pulling at a single curl. As he gets older they compliment his good behavior, his serious answers to their silly questions. But still they touch him, pat him on the head or the shoulder, shake his hand and call him a little gentleman.
In elementary school all the girls chase him, giggling behind their hands and teasing him about his hair. They steal his crayons and share their cookies. But he has friends and cousins to wrestle with and play cops and robbers and even if his mom doesn’t have time to give him more than a swift hug, his aunts are always good for a cuddle.
In eighth grade Bonnie Dolman flirts with him incessantly, sits on the table behind him and runs her hands through his hair. He tilts his head, lets her hands play and tease. Later, the two of them alone up in her bedroom, he gets her shirt off and presses his face to the warm, soft weight of her breasts and learns the curves of her body. They last until the mid-winter formal. After her there is a steady line of girls, all different shapes and sizes and he loves them all, the smell of them and the feel of them, they way their hands feel against the heat of his own skin.
In tenth grade Kevin Fuller pushes him up against the wall in the art wing, his hands fluttering against Arthur's sides nervously even as he breathes wetly against Arthur's neck. At first it’s nothing but an awkward, unwanted hug and for the barest of heartbeats Arthur is ready to shove him away, punch him right in the face. But then his body registers the sensation and instead Arthur shudders, lets his own hands dip down Kevin’s sides. Arthur learns quickly that boys are just as nice as girls, that the feel of their bodies, harder in some ways but still soft, is equally pleasurable. He learns to love the rough texture of hair, the flat chest and long fingers.
High school is a jumble of people, boy, girl, girl, boy. He is never single for long and, though he likes everyone he dates, he has never loved a single one. Apart from a few, they break up on decent terms because Arthur is gracious and kind and impossible to hate for very long.
College changes none of it, though Arthur learns to be more careful, to keep things close. People still touch him, and like Pavolv’s dog, he cannot resist. It doesn’t always end up with them tumbling into to bed though, and Arthur finally learns to appreciate platonic forms of touch as well. It is nothing for him to lean his head against a friend’s leg or wind his fingers through their hair. They tease him gently, call him needy, but no one pushes him away and more than one finds him to be the perfect shoulder to cry on.
In his junior year the world goes to war and Arthur, to everyone’s surprise, enlists. The Army is more than happy to have him and as his days as an aimless college student fall behind him, the discipline and order the Army gives him fills a hollow spot inside that he’s never even known existed.
But the Army has rules and Arthur finds, to his surprise, that the Army is more important to him than the fleeting physical contact he’s relied on for so long. It takes him a year to break free from it, to stop responding overtly when someone touches him. Even the innocent brushing of a hand makes him want to reach out and grasp the person, feel the warmth and the calluses, the bitten nails and crooked pinkies, cradle that hand in his own and get to know it down to the molecules.
He doesn’t stop yearning, that strange streak of want that breaks across his skin like a wave in the sand, he just learns to ignore it better. It helps when he’s weighed down with gear, his uniform so many thick layers between him and the rest of the world. He survives two tours to the desert, deals with the friendly ribbing of his corps when they find him curled in sleep, one hand intertwined tightly with the other. He cannot explain to them the comfort it brings, that even his own skin is better than the sand and the sun and baking heat.
On his first leave, back from that gut wrenching first tour, he vanishes for the entire week and loses himself in a city he barely knows. He gluts himself on any body he can find, drinks in the feel and the smell and the taste because he knows that it will have to sustain him through endless nights of nothing. They are all imperfect and beautiful in their imperfections and Arthur feels as though he is so filled up with touch his skin can barely contain it.
The desert, that cruel beast, siphons it away far too quickly.
Things change because they always do, and slowly Arthur buries the need and the desire for touch so deep that it as though it had never existed. The Army is only the first layer, the dirty hard war the second. The PASIV is the final nail in the coffin because Arthur learns quickly that weaknesses are far more dangerous when you’re flitting through dreams than they ever were in the military.
It is easier, in the end, to deny himself fully than it is to fall off the wagon and gorge himself on the brief pleasure of touch. Arthur has one last hurrah, one week of decadence in Rio, one endless kaleidoscope of bodies, and then he walks away from everything.
He read a book once, that talked about finding acceptable substitutes and he searches for that instead, looks to any number of things before finally landing on something that works for him. Instead of wrapping himself around people he wraps himself in suits, slicks his hair back and steps into the most expensive leather shoes he can find. Beautiful fabrics are a poor substitute, but they are better than nothing and he learns to love the soft caress of silk and premium cotton, the heavy weight of wool across his shoulders, the drape of a perfect cut of trouser against his legs. Suspenders and belts define his body beneath his fabric armor. His watch defines the boundary of his wrist. Beneath his undershirt, his dog tags warm to the temperature of his skin.
The Army searches for him but they have trained him too well and the Arthur that was is not the Arthur that is now.
His heart is hollow and his skin is cold, but Arthur is ruthless and efficient and he’s finally free from the craving for contact that has haunted him since he was a child.
Things go beautifully for a year or two and if he has a reputation for being a cold bastard, for driving the teams he works for towards greater heights of perfection, well no one complains once the results are in. Every rumor bares a sliver of truth and the rumors say that he is a hard man, that he has no soft edge at all, that he cannot stand to be touched.
It is another year before Arthur finally meets the one person capable of slipping past his guard. He dislikes Eames from the start, doesn’t trust that easy slouch or those sharp grey eyes. Eames is a man who’s adept at looking beneath the facades other people fashion for themselves, who relishes the challenge more than any result.
Arthur has a rare dream one night and in it he is spread out on a table before Eames, unbound but unable to move. Eames delicately cuts each bit of clothing from his body with an ivory handled knife, each piece removed with painstaking precision. Eames says nothing throughout, just makes little hums of pleasure as he works. Arthur cannot see it, but he knows that the whole of his psyche is there, scrawled upon his skin. He wakes as Eames presses the sharp blade to his sternum and whispers into his ear, ‘Let see what lies beneath.’
The Arthur of old craves Eames, this dreamer who touches casually, who is always seeking for more and is never satisfied. The Arthur of now squashes his desires relentlessly. He has no need now of strong wide hands or soft hair or broad shoulders. What use is a man who only looks at him to see his inner self in action. Arthur is a fool but still, he wants.
Arthur is not gracious, fighting these desperate yearnings, and he rips Eames up one side and down the other meeting after meeting. Eames bites back, vicious and snide in his own right and the minute Eames’ fist smacks against the right side of his face Arthur realizes that he is lost.
It’s as though the sun has finally come out and chased the rain from the sky. It’s the perfect summer strawberry, sweet and tart in his mouth. It is grit of gun powder on his lips at the end of a successful raid. It is all that and more.
Arthur punches back, because he’s not the kind of man who takes a hit without retaliation. The architect is yelling at them to watch the models and the chemist is urging them on but all Arthur can think about is the heat that Eames is radiating and the smell of his cologne.
Without thought he has Eames on the ground and they are grappling, flipping over and over on the concrete floor and even though he knows there will be painful bruises tomorrow, his body is nearly vibrating with sensation. It all hurts too much for Arthur to be truly aroused but later that night, looking at his split lip and fingering the bruises that litter his side, Arthur remembers the feel of Eames’ body pressed against his and the brush of his hair across Arthur’s cheek. With a groan Arthur fists his cock and it only takes a handful of strokes before Arthur is arching his back, spilling over his hand as his split lip cracks open, the taste of his blood hot against his tongue.
It is glorious and wrong but, surprisingly, it is enough. The rest of the job goes without a hitch and even though Arthur masturbates to his fading bruises every night, the anger that had been riding him seems to have abated. It is good, he thinks, that Eames didn’t see, couldn’t catch the desires that Arthur hides like dirty secrets beneath his suits.
Life goes on, and without Eames on a single job for another entire year, Arthur’s need for touch once more subsides. He is ruthless and efficient and by the end of that year he has made a name for himself as the best point man in the business because he does the work, gets his research right and gets everyone out alive.
But like any house of cards, all it takes is one bump for it all to come tumbling down. Arthur knows better and, even though it’s been a year, he can still remember what it was like to be touched by Eames. It doesn’t matter that it was violent and brutal, when Arthur hears that Eames will be joining them on the newest job, his heart stutters in his chest and his skin feels stretched taut across his bones.
That is nothing that I want, he tells himself every day as he wraps himself more tightly in his suits and finely knit sweaters. Even more, it is nothing that he needs. He tries to run it out and when that fails he gets stupidly, blindingly drunk. It is all for nothing though, because the moment that Eames steps through the door, Arthur is yearning.
Eames looks more or less the same, his hair is longer and he’s let his beard grow out but those are insignificant changes. It is the ruthless intelligence of the eyes that catch Arthur’s, the visual sizing up, which ignites his fear. He had forgotten, had allowed himself to forget, that Eames is dangerous. That Eames will take him apart given half a chance and something to work with..
It makes him nearly feral and he feels like he is being torn in two. Eames starts throwing around words like ‘repressed’ and ‘no imagination’ in his vicinity and Arthur responds in kind. This time around they fight with words, voices controlled despite the vitriol they are spewing. It is ridiculous. It is so beyond professional that Arthur spends the nights curled in shame, promising himself that he will grow the fuck up tomorrow. And then he will see Eames, leaning over Gina, hand resting casually on her shoulder as they go over schematics and the rage will boil up again.
The problem is this: Eames touches everyone but Arthur. And that is good, that is perfect, except that it is driving Arthur crazy. Arthur has longed for physical contact his entire life and, even though he has cut himself off entirely, it is a need that is rooted so deeply he cannot begin to fathom it all.
The job cannot end too soon and though they have to flee the city via boat in the middle of the night, it is over and Arthur can breath again.
(He does not care to think about the new images he has in his mind, the pictures he pulls out when he can’t resist any longer. Snapshots of lips and forearms; the cant of Eames’ hip against the desk; Eames bare feet against the worn wood floor.)
The next two times they work together the jobs are difficult and tricky and though they should both be focused one hundred percent on the tasks before them, the sniping continues. It has become the only way they communicate, a bitter script they follow. They are gaining a reputation in dream share - ‘be prepared for fireworks if you hire Arthur and Eames,’ the architects say. ‘Drug ‘em if you have to,’ the chemists say.
The tighter that Arthur pulls his control, goes out of his way to be within four feet of Eames, the harder Eames pushes. Arthur knows that Eames is looking for chinks in his armor. Every reaction is catalogued and coded and while Arthur can appreciate that Eames is trying to unravel him so methodically, he knows enough to know that this crazy inward spiral will have to end eventually. Arthur’s self control can only be wound so tight and it feels as though it is close to breaking point.
Things come to a head on a job three years to the day after they first met. Arthur has been working with the Cobbs more and more, has found a comfortable place in the team with Dom and Mal. There is a lot of respect there, an understanding for order spliced with the need to push things further. Arthur knows they push the envelope too much at times but dream share is brutal and stagnation can mean death in a far too literal way.
They bring Eames in at the last minute, because the mark has issues that only his dead friend could reasonably access. If Cobb knows or cares about the rumors surrounding the two of them he makes no indication. Like a dotty professor his head is buried in the dream world, building sweeping amusement parks and zoos and ice cream trucks.
They tiptoe around one another for days, a mutual attempt towards good behavior. It has never worked before and there is no reasonable expectation that it will work this time, but they try, if only for Mal and Dom’s sake.
It happens like this.
They are holed up in an old hotel, spread through the upstairs in what must have once been a grand and ornate ballroom. The place is a fading old lady now, and Arthur has spent an afternoon marking out the spots on the floor that they should avoid. Eyes gritty from lack of sleep, and existing on coffee, cigarettes and cheap carry out from the cart down the road, he stumbles and nearly crashes through the floor.
And Eames touches him. Wraps that big, warm hand of his around Arthur’s upper arm and tugs him away from the soft wood and a drop that would leave him with a broken leg if not a broken head.
“Whoa there,” Eames says, like Arthur’s a horse, like he needs guiding.
“Don’t touch me,” Arthur hisses before he can even think, wrenching his arm away from Eames. But Eames doesn’t let go, just tightens his fingers and the heat of them are a hot pressure against his skin.
Eames, for his part, is looking at Arthur strangely, which is not that unusual, but he isn’t saying anything at all. Just looking. And then he reaches out with his other hand and touches Arthur’s neck, at exactly the point where his shirt collar and skin meet. Where Arthur’s pulse stutters and betrays him. Arthur’s grip on Eames’ other hand slackens as a shiver skitters up his spine.
“Jesus, Eames, let me go,” Arthur knows that his voice is hardly steady, but it is late and he is swiftly losing the battle with his own body.
“Huh,” is all that Eames says, and then he drags his fingers up Arthur’s neck and curls them around until they are buried in the hair at his nape.
And it is so, so stupid, but all of those years of hard work, of denying himself something so thoroughly, it all ends as simply as that. Because he cannot deal with Eames’ hand wrapped around the back of his neck. He can’t deal with that calloused palm or the heat of his fingers, the scratch of his nails against the sensitive skin at the base of his skull. Arthur bows his head and presses his hands against Eames’ chest, feels the thud of his heart through his fingertips.
“Oh, darling,” Eames says and lets go of Arthur’s arm, takes hold of his side instead.
Eames is giving him space, but only just. And Arthur could break his hold, could step away and brush it off and ok, Eames would know Arthur’s secret, but that would be all. Instead he steps closer.
“Don’t play games with me, Mr. Eames,” he says, whispers, into the heated space between them. Eames’ fingers flex against his side and for all that Eames is cast in the role of hedonist, Arthur recognizes restraint when he sees it. Underneath it all, Eames is a gentleman. The choice resides with Arthur now.
It is nothing to step closer, to press his chest against Eames’ chest and slide his hands across those wide shoulders. For a brief moment, he lets himself drown in simple, physical touch, lets it soak in and warm him. It is hardly any more effort to close the last bit of space between them and press his mouth against Eames’ warm, soft mouth.
They kiss, gently, testing one another out. When Arthur flicks his tongue against the seam of Eames’ lip, the shudder he gets is gratifying.
“If this is some game, I will destroy you,” Arthur says into Eames mouth, the words pressed tight between them.
“I don’t doubt it,” Eames says. “I would never,” he says. It sounds like a promise.
Still kissing Eames, Arthur tugs him towards the old elevator and they tumble inside of it, both a little breathless. Eames is carding his fingers through Arthur’s hair, tugging it out of its severe style. He is touching Arthur like Arthur is something precious. Arthur has been touched in so many ways, has touched others in so many ways as well, but no one has touched him quite like this.
“I never thought,” Eames’ voice is a rough whisper in his ear, “You were so cold, love. How did you hide this heat?”
Arthur almost laughs, because he’s never put any stock in romantic notions, but Eames is looking at him perplexed and there is a rawness in his eyes that frightens Arthur.
So Arthur shrugs and presses himself back into Eames’ space because there is no time for that story now. Later, maybe, if Eames stays. For now it is enough to touch, to let his hands wander and to hear the gratifying catch in Eames’ breathing.
Eames finally lets his hands wander as well and it’s not long before Arthur has his back up against the mirrored walls of the elevator, his trousers halfway down his thighs as Eames touches him, strokes him at a maddeningly slow pace. Arthur retaliates in kind, fascinated by the head of Eames’ cock as it crests the loose circle of his fist.
The visual, the sounds that Eames makes, half choked in the back of his throat and the faint sheen of sweat at his throat, combined with the feeling of Eames’ hand, tumbles him over the edge far too fast.
He leans forward, floating, and licks the hollow between Eames’ collarbones, tastes his sweat and feels the shudder that ripples through him as he spills, warm, across Arthur’s fingers.
Arthur is still half in a haze when Dom calls out, “Arthur.” There is the rattle of a chair and they have maybe half a minute before Dom starts looking in earnest.
Fumbling, they clean up as best they can with Arthur’s handkerchief. Arthur can feel the mask sliding back in place, and he is glad for it, for the distance it gives him. They don’t speak, and Arthur is wondering if any of it was real.
He’s smoothing his hair back when Eames takes hold of his elbow and presses his mouth to Arthur’s ear. “Later?” He asks, and there is something in his voice that Arthur has never heard before. He thinks that Eames’ hand shakes on his arm.
Arthur nods, quick and jerky. “Later,” he agrees, and then he walks out of the elevator, catches Dom on the floor below and that’s that; Arthur falls fully back into himself. But for the rest of the day there is that thought in the back of his head, that Eames craves Arthur’s touch as much as Arthur desires his. And he thinks that maybe, for this, he can stop fighting against himself. That Eames’ touch will be enough to sate that bone deep need. That there’s enough want between them to take them as far and as deep as they could ever want to go. And maybe, that’s enough.