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When Arthur comes back from his morning’s errands he’s got an armload of lunch salads for everyone, and he immediately starts rattling on about the freshness and variety of lettuce at the Pret down the road even as he parcels the meals out — napkins and plastic forks all round, then a salad to each member of the team according to the preferences Arthur has memorized: some sort of superfood medley for Ariadne, smelly tuna for Yusuf, chicken caesar for Eames, something orange-paste-like for Arthur himself.

It’s obvious that Arthur doesn’t want to talk about his terrible haircut. After all, he’s never before shown the slightest interest in:

1) lettuce varieties;

2) salad toppings; or

3) why pumpkin seeds are suddenly everywhere.

Eames pries his salad open and stabs at his chicken, watching Arthur settle down in his own chair, legs akimbo — as much as those dreadfully restrictive trousers allow — and mouth still nattering on about brownies and Innocent smoothies.

“Ha,” says Ariadne, the moment Arthur has to pause in order to put food in his mouth. “Look at your head!”

Arthur chews and glowers very effectively, which is something Eames actually knew about him already.

Yusuf, ever the diplomat, hides most of his grin as he speaks. “Very military, it’s just the thing for playing a security guard during the job.”

“Yeah, but,” says Ariade, “look at his head.”

“Shut up,” says Arthur. “Shut up, it’s for the — job.”

“So that’s why you keep it long normally, huh,” says Ariadne, raking through her salad, trying to eat around the pumpkin seeds maybe. “Because of how your head is.”

“Shut,” Arthur says, “up.”

“And how your ears are,” she says. “Oh my god, they go so red when you’re angry.”

Arthur lets his fork fall into his salad dish with a plastic-on-plastic rattle which is probably meant to be threatening. He glares at Ariadne, red ears and funny-shaped head and terrible haircut notwithstanding. “Don’t you have the second level to work on?” he says.

Ariadne laughs full-out now, and glances over at Eames as she does. Clearly she expects him to join in the teasing.

“Ariadne,” says Eames, smiling very gently, “eat your lunch and get the fuck back to work, please.”

“Ugh,” she says, “like you weren’t all thinking it.”

Arthur smiles into his orange pastey salad like it’s the one that’s just defended his honour.

Eames sighs and resumes eating his own salad. It’s not funny, whatever Ariadne says; Eames is actively mourning the loss of those sweet dark kiss curls at the nape of Arthur’s slender neck. It’s a terrible haircut. It’s depressing.

***

A couple of hours later, and Eames is running them through the logistics of the heist again. He’s still a little unused to his duties as extractor. Arthur points out some small thing — the time it’ll take the mark to get from one side of Trafalgar to the other at the appointed hour — and Eames says, “Right, yes, thank you, Arthur,” in a sincere tone because — it’s really a good catch, that one.

And Arthur: Arthur shuffles his feet.

Eames would take it for Arthur’s usual fidgety nature except for how his ears go red like a traffic light, crimson and almost effulgent in the late afternoon light slanting over the workshop, obvious without Arthur’s usual sleek dark hair drawing attention away from them.

Arthur’s pleased with Eames’ faint praise.

“Okay, so,” says Yusuf, a little uncomfortably, “we add five minutes to that timeline, which”— and Eames abruptly realizes he’s been stood at the front of the semi-circle for a dozen seconds or more, twiddling his marker and staring intensely at Arthur’s red ears. Trying to decide if they were more like miniature pinkish wings or little perfectly shaped periwinkle shells, shells like Eames used to pluck from the sand in Brighton as a lad, and — fuck, he’s at it again.

“Five minutes,” blurts Eames, turning back to the easel, the pad of paper. “That makes it nearly three o’clock before he reaches Regent Street, hm?”

***

They’re not wings or seashells, Eames thinks, looking over to catch Arthur standing in front of the coffee machine, waiting impatiently for a refill. They’re — ears, just ears.

(Like the velvety pink round ears of the trembling mouse in that Burns poem, fine and shot through with a tracery of veins like lovely spiderwebs, limned in the light to show up the faint white fur of them, like they’re here to remind Eames that for all Arthur’s perfect creases and lines, Arthur’s a creature like any of them, Arthur’s just a strange and particularly lovely animal who would be warm to the touch, warm to the lips.)

They’re just ears. Eames has gone completely mental. It’s a terrible, depressing, distracting haircut.

***

Ariadne finishes the second level by four o’clock, showing off, and lures Yusuf to the corner pub by promising to buy his first pint.

“Don’t let him work all night,” she says sternly on their way out the door. Eames looks up, expecting to see her addressing him, for Ariadne to be tipping her head in Arthur’s direction — but instead she’s talking to Arthur and nodding at Eames. “If you’re not down at the pub by six, I’m going to start in on your haircut again tomorrow.”

“Oh, go on, it’s not that bad,” says Yusuf, half-hearted.

Arthur huffs a sigh and scrolls down his spreadsheet with a vicious flick of fingers to trackpad. “Please,” he says. “Have you seen how my head is?”

“The point man has a point,” says Ariadne. “Six o’clock, Arthur. You and Eames. Beer.”

“Right,” says Arthur, sounding as depressed as his haircut.

“I’m not a workaholic,” Eames says, when Ariadne and Yusuf are gone. “I’m thorough.”

“You’re a workaholic,” says Arthur, defeated, “and I have a weird head.”

***

“It’s ten to six,” says Arthur, standing over Eames’ desk, holding out Eames’ coat. “Come on.”

Eames looks up, blinking, and checks his wrist, but of course Arthur’s right. It’s nearly gone six o’clock. “Fuck,” he says, “go on without me, I just want to review this bit of the dossier again.”

“Nope,” says Arthur, “pub. Beer.” He flicks Eames’ folder closed. “Let’s go.”

Eames is about to object further when three things happen in rather quick succession: there’s a tremendous wall-rattling clap of thunder; all the lights go out in the workshop; and the skies open up. Abruptly Eames can hardly hear anything above the musical cacophony of raindrops rebounding off the high vaulted corrugated metal roof above, the growling after-echoes of the thunder. “Can’t walk to the pub in this,” Eames says, raising his voice to be heard.

“Can’t do more work in the dark,” Arthur rejoins, features gone smudgy in the scant gloomy natural light.

Eames can’t argue with something so blatantly obvious. He stands up and takes his coat from Arthur, drops it onto his desk behind him, and says, “I like how your head is.”

Arthur makes an impatient breathy sound, like a token sarcastic laugh.

“And — and I like how your ears sit, on your head,” Eames says, because it feels a bit like a confessional in here, in the dark and the rain, just the two of them. “Like the side mirrors on a red Mini Cooper.”

“It’s one thing I’ve never missed about the army,” says Arthur, not actually telling Eames to shut up. “I mean, you think this is bad, you should see what I look like when I shave my head, I’m like”—

“Like the handles on a Royal Doulton bunny mug,” says Eames. “Like little beetle wings clapping, or cunning pocket flaps, or”—

“Wow, seriously?” says Arthur, and takes Eames by the face, and kisses him.

Eames freezes and gasps awkwardly and forgets to grab Arthur and hold him close. When Arthur lets him go again, Eames can only say, “But I do like the little locks that curl behind your ears when it’s longer, like something off a Renaissance marble statue.”

“I used to think you were smooth,” says Arthur. “As recently as this morning.”

“Mm,” says Eames, “give me a moment, I can get it back,” and he puts his hands to Arthur’s hips and turns him so he’s up against Eames’ desk, pinned, and then Eames presses Arthur, presses up against Arthur, and curves his fingers around Arthur’s jaw just so, tips his head to the side.

“Okay,” says Arthur, “making progress,” breathless now.

Eames nuzzles around Arthur’s neck for a moment before he gives in to temptation and shifts his attention upwards. Arthur’s earlobe is very soft, and narrow, and warm and faintly furred. Eames traces its shape with closed lips, follows the curve of Arthur’s ear upwards, cartilage and delicate skin, the shape of it turned over on itself all up its length like the lip of a piecrust, crenelated and lush and perfectly formed.

“You’re breathing kind of hard, there,” says Arthur, “are you, oh, okay, huh. Eames. How did you get a hand inside my boxers without — wait, when did you undo my belt?”

Eames laughs very gently against Arthur’s hot silken ear and works his hand around Arthur’s hot silken cock, lower down. “I’m very smooth, I’m told,” he says, not above a breath of a whisper because he’s right next to Arthur, could hardly be closer with this many clothes still on. “Can I bite you a little?”

“That’s so weird,” Arthur says, all shaky exhale, but he tips his head up into Eames’ next kiss, all invitation.

Eames opens his mouth and pinches the tip of Arthur’s ear between his incisors, not hard, just — holding. Enjoying the heat of Arthur, how this thin tender skin feels moving under Eames’ nibbles, elastic and hot and sweet. Arthur’s cock twitches, goes slick at the tip. Arthur pants, shallow, and tries another laugh but doesn’t quite manage it.

“You can,” he says, “if you want to, do that harder.”

Eames wants to do it harder, and he does, firmer nips that leave their mark as he goes, depressions echoing the crooked semi-arc of Eames’ teeth. They fade when Eames licks at them in apology. Arthur digs fingers into Eames’ shoulders and rolls his hips up, a bit urgent now.

Back to Arthur’s earlobe, which feels faintly obscene somehow, erotic after the matter-of-fact rigidity of Arthur’s upper ear, soft and boneless under Eames’ tongue and utterly unlike Arthur’s hard length in Eames’ hand. Eames flicks Arthur’s earlobe with the tip of his tongue a few times, flutters against it, before he realizes what he’s even doing.

“S’not a clit, Eames,” says Arthur, for all he’s moved a hand over and fisted it in Eames’ own hair, holding him in place. “Though I’m sure that move works wonders on clits, it — ah — it’s not my area of expertise, I’m not really clear on how those things operate.”

Eames pulls back and says, “There are other ways of eating you out, darling,” and when he moves back in he dips the tip of his tongue in a swirl around the inner curl of Arthur’s ear, like he might circle other bits of Arthur before plunging in deeper.

Arthur doesn’t miss the suggestion, going by the way he groans low, and fucks Eames’ fist sudden and frantic, and comes over Eames’ wrist and palm. Eames backs off again, giving Arthur a little room to breathe, works him gently now as he shivers through aftershocks and the thunder grumbles faintly overhead.

“Did you seriously hit on me by comparing me to pottery,” Arthur says, eyes half-closed, mouth slanting into a smile.

“Not nearly as shameless as you,” Eames says, affronted, “going out and getting a shameful haircut that shows off your ears like that, like a brazen — sashaying around me with your — ears.”

“I hate my ears,” says Arthur, but he doesn’t mean it anymore, not with his fingers scraping fond and brief over the back of Eames’ head, his thumb touching the corner of Eames’ mouth. “My sister called me Dumbo.”

“I love that movie,” says Eames, “that’s my favourite movie.”