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Skin Deep

Chapter Text

Now, Eames got all sorts in his shop; punks wanting ironic knuckle tats, goths getting Zim or Jack Skellington on their arms, frat boys getting ill-advised tribal designs, moms asking for mid-life crisis flowers, former gang-members getting portraits of the saints and their newborn babies.

He didn't get many walk-ins in thousand dollar suits, though. Especially not at ten to midnight. Eames wasn't even normally open this late, but he'd agreed to squeeze Ariadne in tonight.

"Be with you in just a second!" he called out when the bells on the door jingle. He was crouched over Ariadne, almost finished with putting a fragment of Sappho's on her chest. Ariadne had the blissed-out look of a dedicated tattoo junkie, smiling through the pain and high on the endorphins.

"Hot damn," Ariadne whispered, barely audible under the whine of the gun. "Check it out."

Eames risked a look behind him and saw a vision in charcoal pinstripes. He turned back to his apprentice. "That's going to make me lose concentration," he said.

She smiled. "Wouldn't want that. Hello," she called. Eames risked another look backwards, and saw the guy leaning on the counter, looking at him and Ari.

"Do you mind if I watch?" he asked.

Eames shrugged, and Ariadne said, "Nah. Is this your first tattoo?"

The man looked away towards the wall and said, "Sort of."

Eames raised his eyebrows at Ariadne. "Sort of? Sounds like there's a story there."

"There's really not, trust me."

Eames shared a look with Ariadne, and said, "Yeah, I know how that goes. Usually more of an epic saga than a story." Eames started on the last letter, this one directly over Ariadne's collarbone. She winced.

The man was quiet for a moment, watching, then said, "Does it hurt?"

"On the bone, yeah," she said. "The rest of the time it just feels like a cat scratching you."

"Over and over and over," Eames said, grinning. "Some people feel it a bit more than others. God, remember that girl that was in here last week?"

"The one that wouldn't stop whining? Christ, she was annoying. Just wanted an itty-bitty kitty cat on the ankle, took about twenty minutes, but she moaned the entire time. AND she didn't tip."

"And that, good sir, is how to get into your tattoo artist's good graces. Tip well and don't whine." He finished up the last letter on Ariadne's chest and leaned back, tapping his foot on the pedal rhythmically as he looked her over. "Go take a look in the mirror, tell me what you think."

He helped her up, then peeled off his gloves and turned to the man at the counter. He took a good look at him; about Eames' height, dark-haired, serious-looking, and wearing a suit that probably cost as much as a month's rent for the shop. Rather edible, in all honesty. He didn't seem the type to stroll into a tattoo shop in the dirty fringes of the SoMa district at midnight.

"So," Eames said. "Introductions. I'm Eames, that tart admiring herself in the mirror–"


"–Is my apprentice, Ariadne." He held his hand out for the man, who, after a moment's hesitation, took it in a firm grip.

"Arthur," he said.

"Arthur," Eames repeated, rolling the vowels around in his mouth. "Pleasure. Now, much as I'd love to do this tonight, I was actually about to close up. Luckily for you, I'm free as a bird tomorrow afternoon."

"Tomorrow?" Arthur said. He was staring at the black lines that curved along Eames' neck. "I think... yeah, I can do that."

"Lovely," Eames said. "Did you have a design?"

Arthur took a slip of paper out of his vest pocket and handed it to Eames. Eames unfolded it, laying it flat on the counter.

"Fibonacci spiral, lovely. Nice and simple for a sort-of first tattoo." He winked at Arthur, who didn't quite smile back at him, and Eames realized that the bloke was profoundly nervous. If he left, Eames doubted he'd be back tomorrow.

"You know," Eames said, "this probably wouldn't take me too long. I could do this tonight if you want."

"Oh, it's no problem to come back–"

"Nah, it's fine. Do you want it this size?"

Arthur was looking slightly pale. "Uh, sure. Yeah, I guess."

"You guess?" Ariadne said, sidling back up to the counter. "You're going to have it for the rest of your life, you should probably be sure."

"Oi," Eames said. "Bugger off and go put a bandage on your chest before you ruin all my hard work."

Ariadne sighed and walked over to the far counter. Eames smiled apologetically at Arthur, and asked, "Where do you want it?"

Arthur swallowed and shrugged off his coat. "My bicep," he said.

"Nice choice. You've got nice arms, that shape will work well right there," Eames said, walking towards the office in the back of the shop. "I'm going to go get this onto a piece of transfer paper. Ariadne, will you get his paperwork filled out?"

A few minutes later, Araidne appeared at Eames' desk. She set a cup of tea down at his elbow and bent down to look at the design. "Paperwork's done. I hope I'm getting overtime for this."

"You mostly get paid in free tattoos," Eames said. "So sure."

"Why couldn't this wait until tomorrow?" she asked, yawning. The endorphin high must have been wearing off.

"If he leaves now, he won't be back. Look at him," Eames said. They both leaned back until the could see Arthur through the open door. He was staring out the window, leg bouncing, his fingers tapping a rhythm out onto the arm of his chair. "He's about halfway to running out the door."

"Weird," Ariadne whispering. "I thought he said he sort of had one already."

"I know. Probably some smudgy thing he did to himself when he was fifteen and stoned."

"Mm," Ariadne agreed, then yawned again.

"Do you wanna have a kip on the couch? I'll drive you home when this is finished."

"Mm-hmm," she said sleepily, collapsing on the beaten-up loveseat behind him. "Scream if you need me."

Eames finished the transfer and walked back into the shop. "Alright," he said. "Ditch the shirt and step right up."

Arthur stood and started unbuttoning his shirt. Eames made an effort not to look like he was enjoying the sight overmuch, as he tuned the radio to a local tejana stations. Arthur shrugged out of the button down and was left in a soft V-neck. Through the thin cloth, Eames could see the shadow of another tattoo on his shoulder, though he couldn't quite make out the design.

"Should I take this off too?" Arthur asked, tugging at the t-shirt. Eames had to repress a multitude of dirty replies and dirtier thoughts.

"Nah," he said, because hitting on first-time customers was a bit smarmy, even for him. And Arthur still looked like he might bolt. "We'll just roll up your sleeve."

Arthur's arms were slender but muscled, muscles moving liquidly beneath skin. After he finished, Eames took his arm, glancing up when Arthur tensed. "Easy, mate," he said, looking up. Eames turned his arm over, so that the pale underside of Arthur's wrist was facing up. "Question for you. Did you want the design on the inside or outside of your arm?"

Arthur blinked. "I... what do you think?"

Eames smiled, then pulled Arthur's arm out. "I love when people ask me that." He touched the soft skin of the inner bicep. "Here," he said. "It'll look gorgeous when you flex your arms. And it's a bit more hidden, which seems more your style."

"My style?" Arthur said, half-smiling. "You think?"

Eames smiled as he finished setting up. "I wouldn't dare to presume," he said. "But yeah, on first impression. You certainly don't give much away." He snapped on a pair of gloves, wiped the area down, and swabbed Arthur's arm. He considered the area of bare flesh, the shapes in it, the three-dimensional canvas he'd be working on. Then, carefully, he set the transfer.

"Take a look," Eames said, gesturing to the mirror. He watched Arthur carefully as he looked the design over, moving his arm in different directions; this was the deciding moment, after all. This was pretty much the last chance the man had to back down from it.

"It looks good," Arthur said.

"Don't sound so surprised. Lie down with your arm like this."

When Arthur was finally in position, Eames grabbed the gun and dipped the needle in the ink. "This is going to hurt, and you're going to love it," he promised. "Deep breaths, and relax."

Arthur's eyes went wide when the needle hit his skin, and he sucked in a breath. Eames didn't hesitate, just continued to go over the lines he'd set. "So," he said. "Why the Fibonacci spiral?"

"I like order," Arthur said. His voice was husky. "I like simplicity in design, and beauty that's also functional. And it's ubiquitous. It's everywhere, but most people don't realize. Even people's brain waves, the underlying rhythm conforms to the ratio."

"Mmm," Eames said, wiping away ink and a small amount of blood. "It's comforting, I suppose. To know that a certain kind of beauty can be constant."

Eames loved watching his customers' faces as he works on them, especially the first-timers; the nervousness and half-panic that gradually gave way to wincing bliss. Arthur was no exception; he was more stoic at the beginning, refusing to flinch as Eames carved into his skin, but he got to that meditative rapturous state quicker. His face was flushing prettily, his eyes dilated, by the time Eames was finished, about half an hour later.

He set the gun down on the counter and wipes down the spiral. It stood out, shiny and wet against the red, swollen skin around it. "All right," he said. "You're a marked man."

Arthur sat up and looked at his arm, flexed the muscle and winced. "Huh," he said. "Wow."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Eames replied, getting out a bandage. He taped it down, and peeled off his gloves. He stood and stretched, and let himself enjoy the sight of Arthur gingerly getting dressed again.

"Here's a sheet on how to take care of it. Don't take the bandage off for at least 24 hours, and do not – and that's a not in big-assed capital, bolded letters – pick at the scab." He pulled out one of his business cards as well. "And here's my card," he said. "In case you ever feel like giving into an impulse again."

Arthur thanked him, handed over five twenties, and walked out the door. Eames watched him go, because really, he may have been a professional, but Arthur had a fantastic ass, and Eames was only human.

"He'll be back," came a voice from behind him.

"Have you been spying, Ariadne?" Eames said, cleaning up.

"Bet you anything," she said, emerging from the back room.

"Nah," Eames said. "One-off. You learn to tell the difference."

"Twenty bucks says he'll be back," she insisted, helping him put away the supplies.

He laughed, but six months later, she forced him to pay up when Arthur walked back in the door again.

Chapter Text

It was a cool day in June when the door jingled. Eames was in the back room, doing the books for the shop – the worst part of the job, easily, but one he didn't trust to anyone else. "Be there in a second," he shouted. It wasn't good to keep a customer waiting, but if he didn't finish this column he'd completely lose track of his figures.

He emerged a few moments later, and his internal grumbling derailed when he saw a familiar figure standing by the counter.

"Mr Eames," Arthur said. "Not sure if you remember, but I came in a while ago–"

"Fibonacci spiral, wasn't it? Few months back?"

Arthur smiled. "Impressive."

"I remember all of my customers," Eames said. It was a lie, and by the expression on Arthur's face, a fairly obvious one. "At least the well-dressed ones that come in at midnight and tip well. Pleasure to see you again ...?"


"Arthur, right." Eames, of course, hadn't forgotten his name, but one couldn't give away too much. "How's the spiral, then? Heal all right?"

"It's good, yeah."

"Still like it, I assume?"

Arthur nodded. "I do," he said simply.

"Well then. Are you here to give into another impulse, in that case?"

Arthur grinned then; it made him look ridiculously young, even with the lines set around his eyes. "Something like that."

"Well, don't keep us in suspense, darling." The endearment rolled off his tongue far too easily, and it caught them both by surprise. Eames recovered first. "What did you have in mind?"

Arthur pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Eames. It contained a line of text, done in an bold serif font: un coup de dés / jamais / n'abolira / le hasard.

"A something of the something never will abolish the something," Eames read. It had been a long time since he'd failed French class.

"A throw of the dice will never abolish chance," Arthur corrected. "It's the title of a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Do you know it?"

Eames shrugged. French poetry had never really been his thing. "Not really."

"It's interesting, visually. The placement of the words, the negative spaces on the page. You'd probably appreciate it, as an artist."

Eames suppressed a grin at the faint praise - his customers sometimes forgot that he was, in fact, an actual artist, and not just a sadist - and gestured to the slashes between some of the words. "Are you going to separate the phrases here?"

"I wanted to, yeah. That's how it is in the poem."

"Nice," Eames said, already visualizing placement. "Where do you want it?"

Arthur lifted one arm and patted his left side. Eames bit the side of his cheek.

"That's going to look very good," he said. "It's also going to hurt like hell, but it'll be worth every fucking wince."

Arthur was shirtless when Eames emerged from the backroom, where he'd set the words on transfer paper. He had to blink a few times and remind himself that he was a professional, for fuck's sake, and that he got to stare at people's naked flesh for a living. One man and his six pack, gorgeous as it might have been, should not give him pause.

He walked back out into the shop and kicked a stool into the middle of the floor, then pulled out a metal rig from the corner. "Sit down and rest your arm on this."

As he did, Eames saw the tattoo he'd glimpsed under the Arthur's shirt, months before. A skull, in profile, two crossed twigs of some kind of plant, and the word "FIDÉLITÉ". The skull in particular was faded, a bit scarred, and tinted blue. Prison ink, Eames bet. Or done by hand with some sewing needles and a bottle of India ink, anyway. He had a few prick-n-pokes himself, mostly in places that customers couldn't see them. It didn't do to advertise DIY methods when you were supposedly a professional.

"Is that the 'sort-of' first tattoo you mentioned?" Eames said, touching Arthur's shoulder. Arthur stiffened.

"Yeah," he said, voice gruff and guarded.

"All right, then," Eames said, leaving off. He could recognize the "GO NO FURTHER" sign in Arthur's tone. "How did you want these spaced?"

It took another ten minutes for them to figure out how best to place the words on Arthur's torso, and by then, the tension in Arthur's shoulders and voice had mostly dissipated.

Eames wandered over to the stereo and started flipping through CDs, finally deciding on Belle Orchestre. They seemed appropriate for tattoos of French avant-garde poetry. He pulled on a pair of gloves and set up the gun, the ink, the towels and Vaseline, then maneuvered himself into the narrow space beneath Arthur's outstretched arm. He spared a moment, just a moment, to notice that Arthur smelled like good cologne and sandalwood soap.

"Ready?" Eames asked, looking up.

Arthur nodded, then sucked in a breath when Eames started. "Wow," he whispered.

"Bit more sensitive than your arm, isn't it? Just wait until it starts going over your ribs."

"Jesus. You're a sadist."

"Am not. Je suis un artiste," he said, because he knew his accent was awful and thought that it would utterly offend Arthur's sensibilities.

Arthur smiled. "Like there's a difference."

Eames grinned as he finished the curve on the "n". "Sure there is. Artists inflict pain, on others and ourselves, and expect people to fucking applaud."

Arthur snorted. "I'm not in any position to start clapping."

"Not yet, darling, but just you wait." There it was again, the unthinking flirtation, that easy endearment. The innuendo. He hardly even knew he was doing it. It was like Arthur's impenetrable demeanor just invited it.

Arthur shifted in his seat. Eames pulled the gun away and nudged him on the thigh. "No fidgeting. If you need to move, tell me."

Arthur blinked and nodded, and Eames started again.

"So," Eames said. "Are you ready for the question?"

Arthur's brows furrowed. Sweat was starting to gather in a sheen on his forehead and chest. "Which question would that be?"

"Why this particular line from this particular poem? What makes it worthy of getting it permanently etched onto your lovely skin?"

Arthur thought for a moment. "My job," he said finally, "is to know everything."

"Tall order," Eames said. "Unless you're just a very well-disguised encyclopedia."

His flippancy was rewarded with a thin smile. "Not quite."

You smell too good to be an old reference book, was the ridiculous thought that came to Eames' mind, but he managed to restrain himself from letting that little bon mot out into the world. Instead, he said, "Go on."

Arthur took a deep breath as Eames finished inscribing "coup" right over a rib. "I was recently reminded that chance still plays a part in what I do, no matter how well prepared I am."

"Ah, so this is a reminder."

"And a warning."

"Same difference really," Eames murmured.

"I guess."

Eames leaned back, rolling a kink out of his neck and risking a quick glance up. He wanted to give Arthur the chance to elaborate on his story, if he chose. He could sense something in the other man, a desire to talk; tattoo parlors were the confessionals of the modern age, and Eames had learned how to elicit the stories behind tattoos that were generally much more interesting than the designs themselves.

Sure enough, Arthur used his other hand to pull the waist of his trousers down a few inches. A raised, barely-healed scar cut across his hip.

"Shit," Eames said, appreciatively. "Bullet graze, isn't it?" Small caliber handgun, by the look of it, about four or five weeks old. It looked painful. "A few inches to the right and it would have hit the femoral artery."

"And a few inches to the left, and it would have missed me entirely."

"Le hasard est une putain, non?" Eames said.

Arthur laughed – Eames remembered, later, that it was the first time he'd made Arthur full-on laugh, rather than just smirk or grin. "Mais oui," Arthur said. "And your accent is atrocious."

They started talking about French, in which Arthur was fluent, and Eames knew enough to swear and flirt, and the avant-garde movement, in which Eames was slightly more knowledgeable. He paused in the midst of "n'abolira" to show off Magritte's La Trahison des Images on his arm.

"Are you going to answer the question?"

"The why question?" Eames smirked. "Bit of a tricky story, that. Let's see." Eames moved his stool around to start on "le hasard", which was going on the lower dorsal muscle, just above Arthur's hip, inches away from the scar. "Because visual images are tricky bastards. They're manipulative. Art is just a mess of minerals on paper, or canvas–"

"Or skin," Arthur interjected.

"Thanks for that. Anyway people forget that the image is not the thing itself, and, more to the point, that one's perception of reality can be molded or manipulated. Our brains are easily fooled by our eyes."

Arthur looked impressed. "And that's why you got the tattoo?"

"Sort of. I mostly got it to celebrate the first time I ever sold a forged painting."

"You – what?"

"A forgery," Eames enunciated. "I think it was a Kandinsky. Or was it Rodchenko? No, definitely Kandinsky."

Arthur's expression was priceless.

"Had to pay for art school somehow. Believe it or not, darling, this gig is actually one of the more legitimate jobs I've had."

Arthur breathed out heavily as Eames hit a sensitive spot. "There's more to you than meets the eye, Mr. Eames."

Eames looked up at him, feeling something electric rush through him when their eyes met. "One could say the same for you, Arthur."

Of course, Ariadne chose that bloody moment to walk in. She had an appointment with some art student at five, but Eames hadn't expected her for another hour at least.

"Hey, Eames, I thought we– oh, hey," she said, noticing Arthur. "Eames, you owe me twenty bucks."

Eames sighed, then grinned, slightly sheepishly, up at Arthur. "We made a bet the last time you came in."

"You did?"

"On whether you'd be back or not," Ariadne said. "He said you wouldn't."

"Really?" Arthur said, looking down at him.

"But he's the best. Everyone comes back for another round."

Eames felt slightly wrong-footed, like he should qualify Ariadne's blatant innuendo. Instead, he just etched the final letter onto Arthur's skin..

"Voila," he said. "Je suis terminé." He gave Arthur a hand to help him stand and look in the mirror.

Eames took his time as he swabbed down the fresh tattoos, letting his hands linger on Arthur's skin as he smoothed down the bandages, then cleaned up while Arthur gingerly pulled his shirt back on.

"How much do I owe you?" Arthur asked.

Eames waved a hand. "However much you feel like paying for it," he said. He heard a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort from the bench Ariadne was sitting on.

"Ariadne, lowly apprentice, could you make us a cup of tea?"

She was itching to say something, Eames could tell, but thankfully she just got up and went into the backroom. When Eames looked back, Arthur was laying two hundred dollars on the counter. Eames felt his eyebrows raise, but picked it up and put it in the register. "Would you like to some tea? Or I could send her out for coffee. It's lovely having an indentured servant."

Arthur smiled, but said, "I should go, actually. I've got work."

"An encyclopedia's job is never done, I understand. Well. Good luck with le hasard." He extended his hand, and Arthur shook it in a warm, firm grip.

"Same to you."

"Do drop in if–"

"I want to give into impulse again?" Good god, the man shouldn't be allowed to say things like that. It was criminal.

"Exactly that," Eames said, grinning.

Arthur slid his hand out of Eames, pulled on his coat, and was gone.

"Did I accidentally cockblock you?" Ariadne asked, pressing a cup of tea into his hand a few moment later.

Eames heaved a sigh. "Honestly, I have no idea."

Chapter Text

Four months had passed when Arthur dropped back into Eames' life. It was a spitefully wet day. The autumn rains had set in early, and every street was wreathed in fog and dotted with puddles. He was coming back to the shop from lunch, trying to keep a cigarette lit despite the wind and rain, when he spotted a familiar figure loitering by the door.

Feeling something suspiciously like butterflies in his stomach, Eames walked a bit faster.

"Arthur?" he called out.

Arthur turned. Even from a dozen feet away, Eames could see that he looked, frankly, like crap. His hair was shorter, cropped close to his skull, and it accentuated the hollows of his eyes and the sharpness of his cheekbones. He hadn't shaved in a few days. He had a cigarette jutting out of the corner of his mouth, which was even more jarring. Eames had pegged him as a nonsmoker.

"Hey," Eames said. "Been a while. How are you?"

"It has," Arthur said, flicking his cigarette away. "And I've been better."

"I see," Eames said, unlocking the shop. "Sorry to hear it. Are you here to make a bad decision?"

Arthur choked out a laugh. "Something like that."

"Fabulous, come on in then."

Arthur looked around the shop like it had been years since he'd seen it. Eames quickly divested himself of his wet coat and scarf and turned on the lights. "This fucking weather," he grumbled. "Do you want some coffee or tea or something?"

"Actually, I want a tattoo," Arthur said brusquely.

Eames turned and looked at him, put off by his tone. "All right then," he said. "What have you got in mind?"

Arthur pulled out a piece of paper from his coat and put it on the counter. Eames stood next to him to look at it. It was a piece by Escher that he knew: a tessellation of birds that eventually moved out of their formation and flew off to an invisible horizon.

He smiled. "Beautiful. I always liked this piece."

"Me too," Arthur said, then suddenly staggered.

"Jesus," Eames said. "All right?"

"Fine," Arthur said. "I'm fine."

Something in Arthur's tone struck him. Eames leaned over, into Arthur's space, and inhaled. "Have you been drinking?" he asked. He didn't really need to ask, he could smell liquor on Arthur's breath.

"Fuck," Arthur said, rubbing at his face. "Maybe. Why?"

"I can't give you a tattoo if you've been drinking."

"What? That's ridiculous."

"It thins the blood. And drunks fidget."

"I am not going to fucking fidget, Eames. I just had a few drinks, it's mostly exhaustion–"

"I won't do it. No tattoo artist worth shit will."

"Fuck!" Arthur said, slapping the counter.

"Whoa. Calm the fuck down," Eames said, holding up a hand, wondering if Arthur had picked up a fucking drug habit in the four months since he'd seen him.

"I will not calm the fuck down, this is fucking bullshit," Arthur shouted. And then, the bastard had the temerity to fucking push him.

Eames was not a man to be pushed around in his own fucking shop, thank you, not even by a terribly attractive man who'd actually inspired him to try reading Mallarmé, for fuck's sake. He yanked Arthur's hand forward and then twisted it behind his back, wrestling him to the floor and pinning him.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Arthur shouted.

Eames took a deep breath. "I don't know what's happened to you, but I am not a fucking dammit doll, and this is not the place to come when you're pissed and want to pick a fight. If you want to act a junkie coming off a bad high, you can kindly fuck off out of my shop."

Arthur just growled and tried to throw him. Eames slammed him back onto the floor. "Now, because I like you," Eames continued, trying to keep his voice level, "and you seemed relatively sane the last few times we met, I am going to give you the chance to fucking explain yourself."

"Or what? You'll call the cops?" Arthur spat.

"Or I'll knock you unconscious, tattoo wanker to your forehead, and leave you in a dumpster."

"You wouldn't," Arthur hissed.

"Try me."

Arthur thumped his head against the ground, and shut his eyes. After a moment, the tension went out of his body. "Sorry," he said. "Shit, I'm sorry."

"I should fucking well hope you are," Eames said, easing his hold on him a bit.

Up close, Arthur really did look like shit, more so than Eames had realized; this close, he could see how bloodshot Arthur's eyes were, the dark bags underneath them, a healing bruise on his jaw. The man was a wreck. Eames rolled the rest of the way off of him, sitting up.

"Is it drugs?" Eames asked.

Arthur shook his head.

"Thank fuck," Eames breathed, because he fucking hated dealing with junkies. "What brought this on, then?"

Arthur was breathing hard, and tremors were running through him, shaking down his spine. He slowly pushed himself off the ground. "I should go," he said, though he didn't make an effort to stand.

"Oh no," Eames said. "I'm not going to be responsible for turning you loose on the world." He pulled out his pack of cigarettes – San Francisco's fascist smoking laws be damned – and lit two. He passed one to Arthur, who stared at him for a moment before taking it. "Now, talk to me."

Arthur rubbed at his face. "My friend died. She... fuck. She threw herself off a building."

"Jesus," Eames whispered.

"Her husband's a wreck, I had to plan the whole funeral, and I haven't slept, and I had to get out of that fucking house or I was going to start shooting everything in sight." He paused, took a drag of his cigarette. "I drove here from Santa Barbara."

"You drove six hours to come get a tattoo?"

"No. I drove for five hours before I realized I was pretty much already here. I thought, why the fuck not?" He took a deep drag on his cigarette. His hands were shaking.

"How long's it been since you slept?"

Arthur blew a stream of smoke out between his lips, then said, in all seriousness, "I don't know. What day is it?"

Eames stared at him. "Thursday."

A blank look.

"The thirteenth," Eames clarified.

Arthur looked up at the ceiling. "Wow," he said. "I think that's a new record for me."

"You're kidding." When Arthur just stared back at him, no humor in his face, Eames sighed. The idiot was lucky he hadn't driven off a cliff on the 101. Eames stubbed out his cigarette on the floor and then stood. He put his hand out. Arthur looked at it like it was something alien.

"Give me your hand," Eames said impatiently.

Arthur did, and Eames hauled him up, tucking his arm around the skinny bastard and taking most of his weight. "I'm not a fucking cripple," Arthur mumbled, though he didn't push Eames off.

Eames started steering him towards the backroom. "No, you're an idiot. You're lucky you're cute. Otherwise you'd be out on your ass in the rain."

"You think I'm cute?"

"Jesus fucking - yes, and emotionally stunted, and probably dangerous to my health. Try and keep up." Eames maneuvered him through the door and then leaned Arthur against the wall. "Take off your jacket."

"Are we having sex?"

Eames bit his lip to suppress a smile. "If I ever take advantage of you, love, it'll be because you're emotionally vulnerable or drunk, but not both at the same time."

"That's too bad," Arthur muttered, letting his jacket slip off. Eames took it from his hands and hung it on a hook.

"Thanks, I think. Tie next."

Arthur just looked at him, confounded. Eames moved forward, sliding the knot loose and slipping it over his head. Then he started on the buttons of Arthur's waistcoat. He was extremely conscious of Arthur's proximity, the heated flush of his skin, his heavy-lidded eyes watching him.

"If we're not having sex, why am I getting undressed?" Arthur asked. "Hold on."

He reached behind himself and pulled a slim, compact pistol out of his waistband. He checked the safety, casually slid the magazine out, and then handed the empty gun and its clip to Eames.

"We're not," Eames said, taking them. He decided against saying anything about it. At least Arthur had given it to him, after all. He'd put it behind the counter with the other ones he kept. He stuck it in his waistband, and then started on the buttons of Arthur's shirt. "You're going to sleep. On the couch."

"That couch?" Arthur said doubtfully, looking at it. Eames smirked; it was a god-awful ugly couch, but it was comfortable as anything.

"It's scabies free, I promise."

When he didn't move, Eames gently pushed him towards the offensive piece of furniture. Arthur fell onto it.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked as Eames bent down and untied his shoe.

"Christ knows," Eames replied. "You're not that attractive."

There was a touch on his shoulder. Eames looked up, and Arthur kissed him, a sudden swift press of his mouth. Eames was too surprised to even close his eyes.

"All right, I suppose you have your charms," Eames conceded, when the kiss ended. He tried not to sound too breathless.

Arthur laughed, a jagged, broken sound. It made Eames want nothing more than wrap him up in a fuzzy blanket and find him a kitten to play with. Which was ridiculous, considering that the man had carried a loaded nine millimeter into Eames' shop, and then tried to start a fight with him. There was something wrong with him, obviously, with both of them.

Since he had neither a fuzzy blanket nor a kitten readily available, Eames settled for running his hand down the back of Arthur's soft, short hair, and kissing him on the temple. "Go to sleep," he said, pushing Arthur into the couch. Then he threw his jacket over Arthur's prone body, and turned off the lamp.

Eames spent the next hour rescheduling the rest of his appointments for the evening, then called Ariadne and told her to do the same.

"Why?" she demanded.

"Shop's off limits today."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"There's an infestation. Of scabies."

"...I don't believe you."

"Do you really want to risk it if I'm not?"

She sighed. "You're an asshole, Eames. You know this puts me out at least a hundred bucks?"

"I'll reimburse you. But only if you don't come into the shop to snoop."

"As far as bribes go, I guess that's acceptable."

"Thank you, darling."

"Is this about that guy?" Ariadne asked. "The one with Mallarmé on his side?"

Ariadne had a truly frightening sense of intuition sometimes.

"No comment. I'll talk to you tomorrow," he said, and hung up. Then, feeling only slightly like a soppy git, he checked in on Arthur; the man was still curled up underneath Eames' peacoat, breathing steadily.

"Creeper," he muttered to himself. Eames lit a cigarette, turned off the front lights, and sat at the desk with his laptop to catch up on the latest season of Dexter.

See, Eames had gone straight three years ago. No, not that kind of straight; he wouldn't have moved to bloody San Francisco if that had been the case. He'd taken a leave from the business – the business being forgeries, in his case, and cons, and thievery. He'd done tattooing while he was at art school, and had actually made quite a few of his first contacts in the seamy underbelly of the London art world through it. His interest in tattooing eventually waned, completely overtaken by the sheer joy of separating rich assholes from their money or art collections.

Eames had realized that he probably suffered from a short attention span when he noticed that, after ten years, he'd grown bored with heists and car chases and memorizing international extradition law.

He'd consolidated a good chunk of his various assets into a sizable lump of cash, renovated a shitty warehouse in the SoMa district, and started the tattoo shop. Since he wasn't actually licensed, per say, or even a legal resident of the United States, he kept it small. One apprentice, no other artists besides himself. It wasn't so much a retirement as it was a challenge: to see how long he could go without breaking any major laws. At least, no more than a regular person.

He'd been enjoying his little vacation as a normal-ish person. He wondered if it was about to come crashing down around his ears because of the atrociously attractive bastard - with his semi-automatic and his pressed suits - passed out in his office.

Arthur woke up as Eames was paying off the delivery man. It was getting dark; Arthur had been asleep all afternoon.

"I hope you like Vietnamese food," Eames said, catching sight of the blinking, rumpled man standing in the doorway.

"Sure," Arthur said, rubbing his face. "Where's my jacket?" he asked.

"Coat hook. Next to the door."

Arthur disappeared back into the office. Eames left the food on the counter and followed him, curious. Arthur was sitting on the couch, rolling something in his fingers; a red die, Eames saw, watching him from the doorway.

"Trying to abolish chance?" he asked.

"Something like that, maybe." Arthur let the die drop on the scratched surface of the coffee table; it came up on the number three. Arthur sighed, picked it up, and put it back in his pocket.

"Not the number you were hoping for?" Eames asked, intrigued by what seemed to be a ritual.

Arthur looked up and grinned wryly, then leaned back into the couch, stretching. "Not sure what I was hoping for," he said cryptically.

"Fair enough," Eames said, moving to lean on the desk. "How are you feeling?"

"Better and worse at the same time," Arthur said. He rubbed his face. "Have I apologized yet?"

"For coming into my shop pissed and trying to start a fight? I think so. But I'd like to hear it again, just to make sure you're sincere, before I give you your gun back."

Arthur huffed out a laugh. Then: "Sorry. Sincerely."

Eames smiled. "Apology accepted. Think you can stomach some takeout?"

Arthur ate like a feral animal, like he'd starved himself for the last week. Eames let him have most of the food, keeping just the tom yum soup for himself. He didn't try to ask Arthur more about his dead friend, or the deal with the die, or why he kept a subcompact semi-automatic in his waistband. Or why Arthur had kissed him – Eames didn't really need an answer for that, but he did wonder if it would happen again.

"I should probably go," Arthur said, once he'd polished off the rest of the mi quang. "I don't think I told Dom where I was going."

"Is he there alone?" Eames asked.

"No. His in-laws are with him. They're good people."

"All right," Eames said. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and held it out to Arthur, who took it after a moment. It was the design Arthur had brought in, Escher's The Liberation. Eames had enlarged it and added a few touches to it; some shading, texture, to make the birds look a little less flat as they flew off the page.

"I ask because I just happen to have this evening free," Eames said, raising his eyebrows.

"Can I ask you a question?" Arthur said. Eames had just finished outlining the lower half of the tattoo.

'Only if I can ask you one in return," Eames replied.

Arthur considered this. "Okay," he said.

"By all means," Eames replied, re-inking his gun.

"Do you miss being a thief?"

Eames froze for a moment, then asked, in as casual a tone as he could manage "Have you been snooping, darling? Don't clench your fist. Keep your arm relaxed."

"I told you, it's my job to know everything."

"I wasn't aware I was in your job description."

"I was interested. After you mentioned forging the Kandinsky."

Eames smiled. "Suppose I should have known better."

Arthur smiled, then winced. "You were one of the best. I heard about the job in Harare."

"Did you?" That had been a lark, the Zimbabwe job. It felt good to steal from former dictators.

"And then you retired. Surprised the hell out of a few people."


"And now you're tattooing in a dingy corner of the SoMa district."

"Funny how that works."

"So. Do you miss it?"

Eames thought for a moment. "Sort of, sometimes. It got tiresome, though. It was too easy after a while. This may not be as glamorous, but I haven't got bored of it just yet."

Eames expected Arthur to ask him how someone could possibly get bored with being a thief. Instead, he said, "I'm surprised you can do it. Live like a normal person. Well, normal-ish. I can't really remember how."

"I've always been malleable."

"Never been my strongest quality, I guess. Besides, I like being a bad ass."

Eames laughed. "Whatever works for you, darling. My turn for a question?"

"Is it about the tattoo on my shoulder?"

Eames raised his eyebrows. It hadn't been the question he'd planned on asking, but it would do. "Prison ink, isn't it?"

"Sort of. I got it when – Jesus, you're only the second or third person I've told this to," Arthur said. His hand clenched reflexively. "I was in the military. I went AWOL."

"Really?" Eames said, interested.

"It's a long story. Longer than this one."

There was a forbidding tone in his voice. "Okay," Eames said, noting the way Arthur relaxed when Eames didn't push him. "So you went AWOL, and then?"

"I got caught and sent to military prison. I got the skull and the branches in there. Barely remember having it done."

"Were you drunk?" Eames asked.

"No. It was a side effect of a drug they were testing on us. Memory lapses, blackouts."

"That's... rather awful," Eames said simply.

"Mm. Rawther," he said, in a hideous imitation of Eames' own accent. Then he sighed. "Mal, my friend that..." A breath, slow and measured. "She was one of the doctors in the program, and pulled strings to get me released. Took me to Paris. We got ridiculously drunk one night, and the next morning I woke up with fidélité written below the skull."

Eames laughed, even though the story really wasn't that funny. "Two tattoos, neither of which you can remember getting? Oh, darling."

Arthur rolled his eyes, unimpressed by the endearment or his levity. "Fuck off, Mr. Eames."

"Have you ever thought about getting it covered up?" Eames asked. "The tattoo, I mean."

"I did, at one point. But I'm not sure anymore."

"Understandable," Eames said under his breath.

While Eames stopped to re-ink the gun, Arthur fished a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. "Up for another round?" Arthur said.

Eames raised a single eyebrow.

"Of questions," Arthur said, rolling his eyes.

"Oh that. By all means."

Arthur took a drag of the cigarette. "What would it take you to willingly come out of retirement?"

"It's an extended vacation," Eames corrected. "Not retirement."

"Comes down to the same thing, doesn't it?"

Eames drew the outline of a wing, dashes of lines for feathers, on Arthur's skin. "The right offer," he said eventually. "For the right kind of job. Something new and interesting. I wouldn't mind a challenge."

Arthur hummed thoughtfully.

Eames nodded to the cigarette in Arthur's hand.. "Give us a drag, would you?"

"You've got gloves on. That's not sanitary."

"Do not deny nicotine to the man with the needle. Hold it out, there's a love." Eames took a deep drag from the cigarette pinched between Arthur's fingers. He happened to look up at while he did; the man's cheeks were pink, lips parted, as he watched Eames' face. Eames pulled back and exhaled, blowing the smoke away from Arthur's arm.

"My turn," Eames said. "Now, you may or may not remember an incident which occurred in my office not so long ago–"

Arthur was looking studiously up at the ceiling, scrutinizing the water stains.

"–In which you asked me why I was helping you, and I replied with something like, I have no idea, you're not that attractive–"

Arthur's cheeks were beet red. It was the most delicious thing Eames had seen in weeks.

"At which point, you kissed me, and I had to concede that you weren't entirely without charm. Quit squirming or this bird will look like a winged slug."

Arthur let out an explosive breath. "You want to know why I kissed you?"

"Honestly, darling, I'm much more interested to find out whether or not you plan on doing it again."

It was a good thing Eames had stopped tattooing him for the moment, because Arthur's whole body twitched.

"I hope that means yes," Eames said softly.

Arthur looked at him, and nodded. Eames set the gun down on the table and waited. Arthur leaned towards him; Eames felt the heat from Arthur's face before the touch of his lips. It took an effort to keep still, to not push his gloved hands into Arthur's hair and pull him into a deeper, harder kiss. Instead, he just opened his mouth, and let Arthur's tongue slide gently against his own.

Arthur suddenly broke the kiss with a hissed, "Shit, ow." He instinctively reached for the still-bleeding tattoo on his left arm.

"Don't touch it," Eames said, batting him away. "Bloody hell."

Arthur sat back in the chair, breathing hard. Eames was tempted, sorely tempted, to simply crawl up onto his body and straddle him. Instead, he wiped down the tattoo and picked up the gun again.

"I'm going to finish this," he said to Arthur. "And then, we should do more of that, yeah?"

"Yes," Arthur said, letting his head fall back into the chair. "Definitely yes."

They didn't speak for the next hour. Eames forced himself to go slowly, even though he could feel Arthur's heavy gaze, on his face and following the movements of his hands. He didn't dare look up to meet it; his concentration was already in shreds, and he wasn't about to sacrifice someone else's skin for his own desire.

Finally, Eames leaned back, tapping his foot on the pedal rhythmically as he considered the tattoo. Arthur's skin was red, swollen, messy with blood and smeared ink. Beautiful. Eames swabbed it down, cleaning it.

"Done," he said. His voice was hoarse. "Go look."

Arthur levered himself out of the chair and walked to the mirror. Eames watched Arthur as he looked at himself, turning his arm this way and that. He stood there, facing his reflection, for a long time before tearing himself away. He sat back down on the chair, facing Eames.

"Something wrong?" Eames asked.

"Not with the tattoo," Arthur replied, running a hand through his hair. That wretched look was coming back on his face, sharpening the edges of his features. "It looks amazing. Thank you."

Eames smeared a bit of vaseline on the tattoo, then covered it with a bandage. He smoothed it down, taped it, and tossed the roll onto the chair, before looking into Arthur's weary face.

"Look," Eames said, "we don't have to–"

That was as far as he got before Arthur wound an impatient hand in Eames' hair and tugged him into a messy, desperate kiss.

That was enough of an affirmation for him. Eames pushed Arthur away long enough to peel off his gloves, and then he was running his hands down the expanse of Arthur's bare back, clutching at his hips and arse, and kissing him back just as hard.

"I've a flat round the back," he said – a fact that nobody at all in this city knew, not even Ariadne. "D'you want to–"

"Yes. God, yes," Arthur choked out. Eames tore himself away, grabbing Arthur's shirt from the counter and tossing it to him.

He held the door open for Arthur, with a wry "After you."

Arthur rolled his eyes, and Eames smacked him in the ass as he walked out for it. Arthur, of course, got him back as soon as Eames bent over to unlock the padlock on the door to the apartment, fitting himself against Eames' prone arse with an appreciative sigh. Eames let out a harsh breath, feeling Arthur's erection against him.

"Jesus," he hissed, bracing himself against the wall with one hand, pushing himself back into Arthur's hips. "Never going to get this unlocked if you don't nngh–"

Eames groaned aloud when Arthur snaked a hand around his hip, groping Eames through his jeans. He gave up, left the keys dangling in the lock, and leaned back into a kiss. Oh shit, oh fucking hell, this was probably a bad idea, to fuck a man who'd already proven himself to be slightly south of sane once tonight; who could apparently stay awake for days and carried a gun with the serial number filed off and had a weird thing for dice; who liked the order of the Fibonacci sequence and Escher but also the clusterfuck desolation of Mallarmé – it indicated some deep-seated internal dichotomy, didn't have to be a fucking psychologist to know that. If Eames' instincts were right – and they usually were, when it came to people – he was currently being groped by one of the more dangerous men he'd ever met. Not only that, but one who was currently underslept and overtired and fucked up by his friend tossing herself off a building.

Eames was a sucker for a bad idea, especially the good-looking ones. Always had been. He ground his ass more firmly against Arthur's cock, as if to prove the point, felt Arthur biting the tattoos on Eames' neck to muffle a moan. This was the best bad idea he'd ever had.

"Fuck," Eames swore. "Fuck, let me get this fucking lock so I can properly–"

"Fuck me?" Arthur said, voice low and breathy in his ear. Eames nearly dropped the keys.

"If you like," he said. "Or get fucked. Game for anything, me."

He heard Arthur swear under his breath just as he managed to pop open the lock. He pulled it off and threw the door open. He stumbled inside, pulling Arthur in after him, and tossed the lock on a table beside the door.

He barely had time to shut the door before Arthur was pressing him up against it, his hands twisting in Eames' sweatshirt, tugging the zipper down.

Noticing the room was still pitch-black, Eames reached out, fumbling for the light switch. "Hang on, let me–"

Arthur winced at the sudden light, blinking.

"Sorry," Eames said, not sorry at all. Arthur was fucking gorgeous, and sex in the dark wasn't nearly as fun. Eames pulled off his sweatshirt and tossed it on the floor, and then pushed Arthur's shirt off, gently over the bandage. Arthur was breathing hard, half-lidded eyes staring at Eames.

Eames grinned at him, then walked Arthur backwards until his knees hit the bed. He pushed him until Arthur sat down, then sank down onto his knees to remove Arthur's shoes.

"This feels familiar," Arthur said, a smile lurking at the corner of his mouth. He leaned back onto his elbows, sprawling backwards.

"It should," Eames agreed, pulling off Arthur's boot and throwing it over his shoulder. "We were in this same position a few hours ago. I decided that I like the view."

He pulled off Arthur's other shoe and his socks quickly, then ran his hands along the delicate bones of the ankle, the firm muscles of the calf. He continued up Arthur's thighs, ran a delicate hand over Arthur's erection just to see his reaction. He wasn't disappointed; Arthur shut his eyes and inhaled harshly, arching into the touch.

"Tease," he muttered, when Eames moved his hands away, to Arthur's belt.

"Says the man who was groping me before I got the door unlocked." He tugged the belt free and let it drop to the floor next to him.

"I don't remember you complaining at the time."

Eames – to either prove a point or to be a bastard, he wasn't sure which – leaned forward and nuzzled his face against Arthur's cock, mouthing it through the fabric of his pants. "Are you complaining now?"

Arthur fell onto his back. "Always. I moan constantly."

"Do you?" Eames asked, hands reaching for Arthur's flies. "I look forward to it."

He tugged off the rest of Arthur's clothing, allowed himself one indulgently long look at Arthur's body, and then took Arthur's cock into his mouth.

Now, Eames was rather fond of giving blowjobs. It wasn't his life's work or anything, but he usually enjoyed himself. Sucking off Arthur, though, was just... awesome. There were no other words for it. The noises he made, for instance, when Eames licked at his balls, or ran a thumb against his perineum; they were long and guttural and extremely appreciative, with occasional expletives thrown in for variety, and they were making Eames unbelievably hard. He wet one of his fingers with spit and touched it to the cleft of Arthur's ass; the other man nearly lifted of the bed.

"Is this okay?" he asked, touching his ass gently. He got an impatient nod from Arthur, so he lifted one of the other man's legs, resting it on the edge of the bed, and slid his finger into the tight heat.

Arthur's hands clenched in Eames' hair. "Fuck," he said, in between gasps. "Sorry. It's just – Jesus – it's been a while."

"Relax," Eames said, running a hand up his chest. "It's all right. Just relax."

Arthur laughed, breathlessly, then moaned as Eames hit his prostate. Eames drew his hand out slowly, dragging his finger against the gland, then pushed back in. "Oh fuck," Arthur said. "Fuck me–"

"Maybe in a while," Eames said, then laughed at Arthur's dirty look. Arthur shut his eyes again, growling his approval when Eames licked the underside of his cock. "Christ, you're gorgeous," he said, unthinkingly.

Arthur's eyes snapped open, and he gave Eames a look that was surprised and guarded. Eames wondered if he should backpedal, or apologize, or something.

"Get up here," Arthur said suddenly, in a hoarse voice. "And take those fucking clothes off."

Eames drew his finger out, slow enough that Arthur shuddered, then stripped as quickly as he could.

He crawled up Arthur's prone body, kissing and biting his way up it, then straddled Arthur's hips. They lay together like that a while, rocking together, kissing messily.

"I was serious," Arthur said suddenly – groaned, really.

"When?" Eames asked, sucking on an earlobe.

"When I suggested you fuck me." Arthur's voice was deep, ragged.

"Were you?" Eames asked. "Because –"


"You were a bit tight, is all," Eames said. "Don't want to hurt you."

Arthur huffed out a laugh, digging his fingers into Eames' ass. "Don't worry about me, Eames. I just – I want... Fuck, I don't know–"

"It's all right, darling. I told you, I'm game for anything." He kissed Arthur again, softly, and then bit his neck with a bit more ferocity. He rolled out of bed, walking over to a cabinet on a nearby wall. He pulled out his bottle of lube, a couple of condoms, and – after a moment's thought – a cock ring.

He tossed everything but the leather cock ring on the bed. Eames fisted his cock, pulling on it. Arthur sat up in the bed, watching in interest, then grabbed Eames by the hip and pulled him closer to the bed. Eyes never leaving Eames' face, Arthur pulled Eames' cock into his mouth, sucking it almost lazily.

"Fuck," Eames said. "Is it wrong that I've thought about you doing this pretty much since you first came into the shop?"

Arthur, the minx, winked at him before sucking Eames in almost to the hilt. He gagged almost immediately, which made Eames feel a bit more sane; if Arthur was hot, smart, and dangerous, and a champion cocksucker, he'd be far too amazing to actually exist in reality.

Eames pushed him away, smirking a little, and snapped the band of leather on over his cock.

Arthur was grinning as he wiped his mouth. "Not that I'm gonna complain, but why the ring?"

"Because," Eames said, sitting back on the bed. "I don't like to rush. In fact, I plan on drawing this out as long as possible."

"Oh," Arthur said, flushing.

Eames grinned at him. "On your knees, love. Hands on the headboard. Spread your legs, just like that."

Eames knelt behind him, slicking his fingers. He put one hand on the small of Arthur's back, and then slowly slid his index finger in. Arthur made a noise, something between a sigh and a groan, and pushed his hips back. Eames began an easy rhythm, slowing teasing Arthur open. The other man's hands were clenched white around the bedframe, the arm with the new, bandaged tattoo trembling with strain.

"More," Arthur growled out.

Eames obligingly spread more lube on his hand, then thrust in two fingers, twisted them, spread him apart. A sheen of sweat was starting to appear on Arthur's back. Eames bent forward, letting his cock brush against Arthur's thighs, and licked up the other man's spine. Arthur bent his head back for a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss over his shoulder, moaned "Harder," against Eames' mouth.

The face Arthur made when Eames happily obeyed him was nothing short of spectacular, utterly wanton; the noises he was making, the way he thrust back against Eames' hand, the lines of his spine and shoulders that were contorting with pleasure. It was a fucking wonder, considering how closed-off Arthur has been the rest of the time, to see him coming so completely and shamelessly apart.

Eames added a third finger without warning, and Arthur threw his head back, a groan caught in his throat. The look on his face was straddling the line between ecstasy and terror, a bit surprised, a bit desperate. Eames pulled him back by his shoulder until Arthur was kneeling upright beside him, kissing and touching him with his free hand. Eames ran his hand down his chest, tweaking Arthur's nipples, over the heaving muscles in his stomach. He cupped Arthur's balls, rubbed a thumb against the slit of his cock. He spread the three fingers he had in Arthur's ass, watching the other man shake and moan and cry out.

"Enough," Arthur cried, brokenly. "Jesus, it's – fuck, it's too much – stop, fucking stop before I come on your pillow."

Eames cracked up a little. Couldn't be helped, but at least Arthur was kissing him in between panting for breath and glaring at him. Eames slowly drew his fingers out, then grabbed a condom and rolled it on, then looked at Arthur. The man was shaking, tremors wracking his spine. His eyes were wide, pupils blown.

"Are you–"

"I'm fine," Arthur answered, too quickly. He laughed, sounding a bit mad.

There's going to be some serious fallout from this, isn't there? Eames thought. Oh, almost certainly, he answered himself.

"We don't have to–" Eames started.

"Oh yes, we fucking do," Arthur answered. He pushed Eames onto his back and grabbed the lube, squirting a generous amount onto his hand. "I want this," he said, warming it in his hands. "I have for a while, and maybe the timing is suspicious because of..." He paused for a moment, then shook his head and continued. "And maybe I'm not totally in my right mind, but Jesus, who would be after that thing you were doing with your fucking hands?"

Eames laughed, then let out a breathless moan when Arthur spread the lube on his dick.

"So just, fuck, give me this. I want to feel... something, fuck it, I don't know."

Bad idea, Eames thought distantly. But he'd already decided how much he liked bad ideas, so really, it was a foregone conclusion. He pulled Arthur forward so that he was straddling Eames' hips, and kissed him because, well, why the fuck not? Arthur reached behind him, positioning himself, and then slowly sank down onto the head of Eames' cock.

Arthur was breathing hard, face pained and intent. Eames ran a hand up Arthur's back, kissed his shoulder. "Relax, love," Eames said. "Deep breaths, and let yourself relax."

"Jesus," Arthur said. "Did you know you said almost the same thing when you tattooed me for the first time?"

Eames laughed, and kissed him again, first on the lips, and then the black spiral on Arthur's bicep. Slowly, by increments, Arthur relaxed enough for Eames to be fully sheathed.

"Fuck," Eames breathed, thankful that he'd put that cock ring on. "Fuck, Arthur–"

Arthur's response was to push Eames onto his back and start riding him, slowly at first and then picking up speed. Eames kept his hands on Arthur's hips and let himself watch Arthur take what he needed, thrusting up to meet him halfway.

"Gorgeous," Eames said. "Fucking gorgeous. Ah, God, you–"

And then there were no words for a while; they'd all been knocked clean out of his brain by a particularly well-executed roll of Arthur's slim hips; he had to make do with groans and grunts that were hissed through clenched teeth.

"Close," Arthur said, eventually. "I'm – fucking hell–"

Eames fumbled for the snap on the cockring, undid it with shaking fingers, and then sat up. He curled one hand around Arthur's waist and another around his cock, pulling on it roughly as Eames thrust up into him.

Arthur came, spasming in Eames' arms, biting down on his shoulder and growling, ass clenching around Eames' cock. Eames came almost immediately after, unable (and unwilling) to bite back the shout that erupted out of him.

There was a second of quiet, broken only by the two men's harsh breath. Then Eames fell backwards, pulling Arthur with him. He grunted as they hit the bed, and the headboard smacked against the wall. Another moment of silence. Arthur kissed him, softly, on Eames' sweaty temple, a half-smile quirking his lips. Eames touched the nape of Arthur's neck, the indentation at the base of his skull.

Eames wanted nothing more than to pass out, softening cock still inside Arthur. Instead he moved, pulling out with a hiss, maneuvering Arthur's warm weight onto the bed beside him. He laid a kiss on Arthur's slack lips, then levered himself up and out of bed. He tossed the condom in a wastebasket, grabbed a clean towel from a shelf, and ran the tap until it started sputtering out hot water. He washed himself quickly, then wet the towel and carried it back to the bed.

Arthur was lying on his back, muscles loose and languid. Eames paused in the doorway, and snorted in laughter.

Arthur looked over at him. "What's so funny?"

"You look like a terribly homoerotic Greek statue. Adonis or whoever, lying in repose. Only circumcised."

Arthur smiled, rolled his eyes. "Classy."

Eames sat on the side of the bed, then used the towel to wipe up the mess on Arthur's stomach and groin. "Turn over," he instructed. Arthur, smirking a little, did so, and Eames cleaned off his backside and thighs.

"How's the arm?" he asked.

Arthur looked at the bandage, which was messy and slightly twisted. "Stings," he said.

"We should wash it," Eames said. They probably shouldn't have had such enthusiastic sex in the first place, but Eames wasn't about to express any kind of regret about that.

"Now?" Arthur said.

"Before we sleep, at any rate."

"Oh," Arthur said. A second later, he said, "Am I staying here tonight?"

Eames grinned. "I should bloody well hope so."

Eames woke up first, and immediately decided that some coffee was in order. He was normally a tea man, but the warehouse was ridiculously cold, and Eames could already sense that it was going to be another stupidly damp and gray day.

Arthur half woke when Eames slid out of bed. He mumbled something that Eames wasn't entirely sure was in English, and blinked a few times.

"I'm running out for coffee," Eames whispered. "Go back to sleep."

"Nnf," Arthur said, falling back onto the pillow. Eames decided to leave him a note as well, as soon as he got dressed and forced the heater to start working.

He phone buzzed just as he had finally punched the heater into submission, and it was hissing out warm air. He looked at the caller ID. "Here we go," he muttered, before answering it. "Hello, petal."

"Where the fuck are you?" Ariadne shouted. Eames winced and pulled the phone away from his ear, because nobody should have that kind of volume inflicted on them at this hour.

"Home. Why are you calling me and shouting at me before noon?"

"Because I'm standing in the shop and it's a fucking mess in here. Feldman is coming in at eleven, and there's–"

"It's a Sunday. Last I recall, I don't work on Sundays." Eames grabbed a piece of paper from the table and wrote a quick note to Arthur: gone for coffee. be back soon. DONT get dressed. eames.

"He asked me to do it. Said he liked my scripts better."

"Well, thanks for informing me–"

"I did. Last week. Did you leave all this crap out? I thought you said you canceled all of your appointments yesterday."

"I did. There was a, a walk-in."

"A walk-in? Eames, what– wait. Wait a minute."

"Oh fuck, here it comes," Eames muttered.

"Mallarmé guy came back?"

"Has anyone ever told you that you're annoyingly perceptive? Not too mention nosy as fuck."

"Did you guys–"

"I am not answering that, Ari, don't even ask. I would never kiss and tell."

"Right," she said doubtfully.

"Look, I'm sorry about the mess, I had to leave in a rush."

"I'm sure you did–"

"If you would be willing to clean it up for me, I will repay in some fashion. If there's nothing else, I have to go figure out a way to make the morning after not be a disaster."

"Breakfast helps. And sex."

"Thanks for that, darling. Talk to you later," he said, hanging up the phone.

Eames returned twenty minutes later to find Arthur up and at least partly dressed, wearing his slacks and Eames' sweatshirt. He was looking through one of Eames' art books, a collection of Depression-era wood cuts, feet up on Eames' coffee table, chair balanced back onto two legs.

"I see you didn't get my note," Eames said, kicking the door shut behind him. "I come bearing coffee."

"I did," Arthur said. "I don't take instructions well. Especially when it's this cold."

Eames set the coffee down, then stripped off his coat and scarf. He happened to take a look around the flat as he did. When had he last cleaned? There were canvases on the walls and propped up against pieces of furniture, exposed pipes and bare bulbs and bits of graffiti that Eames had liked too much to paint over when he'd converted the space. There were at least two ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, the melted bits of candle ends stuck to window sills, books in unsteady pyramids stacked against the walls.

"Sorry the place is a bit of a disaster," he said, because apologizing for the state of his rooms was a habit deeply ingrained in him.

Arthur shut the book and set his chair down, then stood and stretched. "It's nicer than the couch I've been sleeping on. Did you do all these?" he asked gesturing to the canvases on the wall. He seemed drawn to a painting of a dark-haired woman wearing a tie and slightly sad expression, crouching down to look closer at it.

"Most of them, yeah," Eames said. "That one... isn't mine. Well, I didn't paint it. It's a Modigliani."

"Huh," Arthur said. There were a number of emotions in that one syllable, far too many to dissect.

"All right?" Eames asked softly.

Arthur turned away from the painting. "Getting there," he said, reaching for the coffee in Eames' hand.

Eames handed it over, then started telling him the somewhat convoluted story of how he'd come into possession of that particular painting, which involved a zebra, one naked poolside party, and two nights spent in Victorian era-style women's petticoats. Arthur was laughing by the end of it, nearly spitting his coffee out.

"You know I don't believe a word of that, right?" Arthur said, swallowing the rest of his coffee.

"That's probably wise," Eames said. It hadn't all been true, certainly, but it had made Arthur laugh, which had been the point of the whole endeavor; to get rid of that sad expression that had been on his face when he'd been looking at the woman in the black tie.

Arthur phone chirped from his pocket. Arthur's face went carefully blank, but he didn't immediately reach for his phone.

"Are you going to answer that?" Eames asked.

"I should," Arthur said. He still didn't reach for it. "Hell, I should probably start driving back to Santa Barbara."

Eames set his coffee down, and decided to take a risk. He pushed himself out of the chair, and then stalked over to Arthur's. He put a hand on Arthur's face, tilting it up, and kissed him.

"You could," he said, his lips still nearly touching Arthur's. "Or you could stay a little longer."

Arthur's eyes were wide when Eames pulled back, and he licked his lips. "One second," he said, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He sent a quick text off, then turned it on silent and tossed it onto a nearby table.

Eames grinned at him, then pulled him back into another kiss.

Eames ended up canceling his appointments for Monday as well, though he did allow Ariadne to open the shop. He stopped in at one point, leaving Arthur in his bed with a French poetry anthology Eames had found in a free box.

He held the door open for a freshly tattooed hipster coming out of the shop, then went in. "Another satisfied customer?" he asked.

"Eh, hipsters are easy to please. They'd just pass off bad art as more authentic or ironic or something," she replied.
"How's the marathon of debauchery?"

"Properly debauched," he said, sitting up on the counter and grinning at her.

Ariadne smirked. "What'd he ask for this time?"

"Escher. The Liberation. How was I supposed to resist?"

"You and your hard-on for postmodernists," Ariadne muttered. "So is he... all right? I mean–"

"I should say he's bloody fantastic. Particularly in the sack–"

"No, Eames. I mean, is he, like, on the level?"

"What on earth is that supposed to mean?" Eames said, pulling an apple out of Ariadne's purse and shining it on his sleeve.

"Okay, let me ask another question. Does the new gun in the safe belong to him?"

Eames froze with the apple on his lips. "I never should have given you that combination."

"So, it is." Ariadne said.

"Yes," Eames said, taking a large bite out of the apple as an excuse not to say anything more.

"Is he, like, a gangster or something?"

Eames chewed thoughtfully. "Probably the latter. The 'or something'."

"You don't know?"

"It's gauche to ask your dates about such plebeian things as work, Mummy always said."

Ariadne gave him a look. "Do you know his last name, yet?"

"Do you know my first?"

She blinked, then snatched the apple out of his hand. "William?" she guessed.

"No. Do you need to know it to work for me? To trust me?"

She bit into the apple. "No. Guess not."

"And I don't need to know how he makes his money. It's all about plausible deniability."

"I see."

Even though he had had all of these exact same thoughts, Eames was still annoyed at Ariadne’s concern. He jumped off the counter, stood in front of her and grasped her shoulders. “Listen, petal. Believe me when I say that I am both capable and well-practiced in the art of Handling Shit, if and when the need arises. All right?”

"I guess."

"Your faith in me is heartening, truly," he said sarcastically. He stole the half-eaten apple back from her hand. "I'm going to go shag my new friend some more. Call me if the shop explodes or something."

Later, after everything happened, Eames remembered this conversation.and decided he was grateful that Ariadne was not the type to say "I told you so."

The call came at some ungodly hour of the night. The noise of a phone going off penetrated his consciousness first, then he felt Arthur shifting next to him. He came awake slowly, listening to Arthur's voice go from soft and half-awake to cold and hard.

Eames blinked his eyes. Beside him, Arthur said, "I'll be there as soon as I can. Yeah. Bye."

"What is it?" Eames said, sitting up in bed. The lines of Arthur's body, illuminated by nearby streetlights, were tense and angry.

"Everything just went to shit," Arthur said.


Arthur nodded, and ran a hand through his hair. "Oh yeah. Can I have a cigarette, please?"

Eames fumbled on the bedside table until he felt his pack; he lit two cigarettes and passed one to Arthur. "Can I ask what happened?" he said.

Arthur blew a stream of smoke out between his lips and lay back against the headboard. "My friend, the one who died, she was... she went crazy. Before she killed herself, she set it up to make it look like her husband murdered her."

"Fuck," Eames said.

"It was all circumstantial," Arthur said, his tone insistent; it sounded like a statement he had repeated a lot. "But the police were suspicious, and Dom was freaked out, and the lawyers weren't as confident as they should have been–" Arthur cut himself off, drawing on his cigarette.

"What happened?"

"He ran. The stupid asshole ran, so now he's an internationally wanted murder suspect. And I have to go track his dumb ass down and make sure he doesn't get himself killed. He has no idea what he's gotten himself into."

Eames blew a smoke ring. "Going to ride in on your white horse and save him?"

Arthur snorted. "Yeah, and then kill the stupid bastard." He looked over at Eames. "Sorry I have to... Sorry."

Eames smiled at him tiredly. "I knew I wasn't going to get to keep you for long."

"Yeah," Arthur said, looking down at his hands. "Do you want to... I mean, would you–"

"No, but thank you," Eames said. "I'm still on vacation. And going on the lam as a third wheel is not appealing."

"I figured," Arthur said, getting out of the bed. "But for the record, I think you're wasted as a tattoo artist."

Eames snorted and stubbed out his cigarette. "Noted," Eames said. "But it's got its perks, this job." He slapped Arthur's ass to make a point, then settled back down into the bed, watching him get dressed, fighting off sleep.

"All right," Arthur said, after he'd laced up his boots. "I have to go."

"Well, you know the line. Next time you want to give into an impulse, etcetera."

"I know where to find you." Arthur said, kneeling over Eames on the bed. Arthur's smile didn't reach his eyes.

Eames put a hand out, bringing the other man down for a kiss. "Good luck," he said.

And then Arthur was walking out the door, grabbing his car keys from the table, and then he was gone.

Tired as he was, Eames had a hard time falling back asleep.

Chapter Text

He started noticing the black van five weeks later. He wondered how long it had been surveilling the shop, and if it had been doing it for a while, why the hell he hadn't noticed it.

Of course he knew why: two years as a civilian, and five weeks as a mildly lovesick bastard. It was sort of pathetic. Last week, the sight of a dark-haired man in a well-cut suit had distracted him enough to walk into a street lamp. He'd told Ariadne the black eye was from a bar fight, and she'd given him that bloody look again.

And now there was a black van with tinted windows parked on the corner. Waiting. Watching. Nobody ever got into or out of it. It arrived before seven in the morning and left a few hours after nightfall. Eames had been careful to always be seen leaving the shop, losing any potential tails in the crowds of the Mission or Castro, before hopping onto the MUNI and heading home. He did not want whoever was in the van to know that he was squatting in the back of the converted warehouse.

It took Ariadne a bit longer to notice, but not by much.

"Have you noticed that car on the corner? It's been there for, like, two days." she asked at lunch. They were at the nearby pho shop, slurping down noodles and Vietnamese coffee. "It's way too fancy for car campers."

"Yes, it is. And it's been there for five days. Maybe more."

"Five?" Ariadne's eyebrows were drawing together. "Are you serious?"

"As a housefire," Eames said cheerfully, adding more sriracha sauce to his noodles. "How do you feel about Berlin?"

"I... what?"

"Berlin. In Germany. You know, Oktoberfest and sausages and that movie with Liza Minelli. Cabaret. Also home to a lovely international tattooing convention, which happens in about two weeks."

"I don't know. I've never been."

"Well, yes, I knew that. What I'm trying to say is, how would you like to go?"

Ariadne blinked.

Eames rolled his eyes. "Why don't you just say yes?"


"Fabulous. I bought you a ticket and you're leaving in two days."


"Volume," Eames said. "I'm sitting right here, you needn't shout."

"You bought me a plane ticket to Berlin?!"

"Yes," Eames said, grabbing a napkin. "Do you have a pen?"

Ariadne pulled one from her coat pocket and passed it over. "I can't afford to go to Europe, Eames."

"We're traveling on my money, petal," he said, scribbling on the napkin. "We can definitely afford it."

Ariadne poked at her soup. "So. You're coming with me?"

"I'm meeting you there in a week. I have wrangled a promise from a good friend though, and he'll meet you at the airport, show you around and all that." He capped the pen and passed it back to Ariadne. "He's a nice guy. Your dubious virtue would be safe with him, I promise. I'll get the bill," he said. He pushed the napkin, as casually possible, towards Ariadne as he stood.

Black car = up to no good. Pretty sure something is going down and I want you out of harm's way. Just say Yes, please darling? Seriously I'm footing the bill. PS – I'll tell you my first name if that still matters to you, and it'll make you trust me.

San Francisco International Airport was ridiculously busy at nine in the morning. Throngs of tourists, business people, college kids; it was perfect place to have important conversations without possible audiences.

"I have a gift for you," Eames announced as he walked her to the line for security.

"What, the free trip to Europe wasn't enough?" Ariadne said.

"My generosity knows no bounds," Eames announced, and handed over a new sketchbook.

"Thank you," Ariadne said, accepting the leather-bound book with a smile.

"There's an envelope taped to the back cover," Eames said. "With 2500 euros in it."

Ariadne almost dropped the book.

"It's all I could get on short notice without attracting any suspicion," he told her.

"I can't believe this is my life," she muttered. "What the fuck, seriously."

"Don't spend it all in one place," Eames said, and gave her a quick hug. "See you soon," he said.

"You better," she replied. "Be safe, okay? This is crazy."

"Don't worry about me."

"I know. You can Handle Shit."

Eames grinned at her, kissed her on the cheek, and turned away.

"Wait!" she said.

He turned back, and Ariadne scooted out of line. "What's your first name?" she asked. "You said you'd tell me."

He leaned forward. "It's Eames," he whispered.

She gave him a look of utter disgust. "You are such a bastard."

"Bon voyage, darling."


The first thing he did – his first illegal act in two years (not counting being an illegal alien) – was to lift a phone from a businessman sitting at a coffee table. He called Yusuf, giving him Ariadne's flight information, and his instructions. He had been unsurprisingly amenable to meeting a pretty girl at the airport and keeping her safe.

His second call was to Ariadne's cell phone; her flight had departed fifteen minutes ago, so he left her a message.

"Hello darling. I've called to let you know that I've altered our travel plans. My man Yusuf is going to meet you at Berlin, and then he's going to take you up to Paris. He's got a student visa for you, and there's a place enrolled for you in an architecture and design course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Happy early birthday. Ta ta for now." He hung up, and left the phone on the seat of the BART. Then he went home, and got ready to meet his visitors.

They were either inept enough or cautious enough to wait two days before making a move. Eames was almost bored, waiting for them. He'd canceled all and any appointments, and there were few walk-ins. Eames spent a lot of time playing games on the shop's ancient desktop.

Thursday night, the bell on the door jingled – probably for the last time, Eames thought sentimentally. Then he took a deep breath, closed his game of minesweeper, and left the back room.

Two men stood in the shop, looking nearly as out of place as Arthur had, the first time he walked in; they were both wearing suits – fairly cheap ones, Eames would bet – and trench coats, with their collars pulled up against the rain outside.

Eames almost laughed. They looked like they were auditioning for a Quentin Tarantino movie.

"Evening, gentlemen," he said jovially. "Looking to make a decision you'll regret for the rest of your lives?"

They looked at each other, then back at Eames, eyebrows raised. Oh, these two were too much.

"Do you want a tattoo?" Eames clarified.

"Oh, yeah," said the one on the left. He was smaller, with a scar on his clean-shaven jaw. "I was thinking of getting some of those Chinese letters on my arm."

"Were you?" Eames asked. He nodded at the second man, who was about Eames' height and much more broad. "Anything for your friend?"

The two men smiled at each other. "Nah. He's just here for moral support."

Eames smiled. "Right then. I've got an album somewhere, if you'd like to take a look at some examples. Let me just grab it."

He hunched down, patting the shelf beneath the counter, grabbing the book in one hand. The other closed around the handle of the dart gun he'd placed there.

"Ah! Found it!" he said, and tossed the book on the far side of the counter with a flourish. While both the men were momentarily distracted by the moving object. Eames stood up fully, brought his arm up, and fired twice.

Or tried to. The damn thing jammed on the second shot. Bloody buggering fuck.

Everyone stood still for a second. Then the larger man's eyes fluttered shut and he fell to the floor, and the smaller man immediately went for the gun in his shoulder holster.

Eames threw the dart gun at him. It hit the man in the chest, off-balancing him. Eames jumped over the counter and slammed into the man, knocking him onto the floor. The man fell sideways, onto his gun arm by some lucky chance. Eames threw himself down on top of him., knocking the wind out of him and trapping his gun under his chest.

"You fuckin–" the man started to say, just as Eames grabbed his tie with both hands, wrapped it around his neck, and pulled it taut across his throat.

The man bucked, tried to croak out some more curses, tried to hit him. Eames felt a little sorry for him, until the man managed to rake his fingernails across Eames' cheek.

"You absolute fucker," Eames spat, pulled the tie tighter, and pressed his knees harder into the man's ribcage. It took the guy another minute to lose consciousness.

"For fuck's sake," Eames said, rolling off him. "I'm bleeding, you fucking wanker." He sighed disgustedly, and kicked at the unconscious man.

As if in response, the man's phone started ringing. Eames fished it out; the caller ID, very helpfully, said "BOSS."

Eames thought for a split second, then leaped over the counter and turned on the tattoo machine. He answered the call and put it on speakerphone. Standing about a foot away, he said, in a passable imitation of the man's drawl, "Hey, boss."

"Nicky? What the hell, I can barely hear you." The voice was harsh, with a hint of New York in it.

"Sorry boss, I think my phone is screwed up. Fucking rain, it must have gotten wet."

"Jesus, Nicky. You gotta learn to take better care of your things. How'd the job go?"

"It didn't. The mark closed up early, after a few friends stopped by. They all headed off towards Castro five minutes ago."

"Aw, you're fucking kidding me."

"Sorry, boss. You want us to follow?"

"Nah, don't bother. The stupid shit will be there tomorrow."

"All right. I think we're gonna go get a drink before we head back, then."

"All right. Don't get fuckin' wasted, I want you two there early again tomorrow. Get him as soon as he opens. Clients are getting antsy."

"All right. See ya," Eames said, then hung up. He turned off the phone, took out its battery, and tossed it onto the counter. "All right, boys," he said in his own voice. "Just you and me now."

The first sign of life either of them showed was a sharp, hacking cough from the smaller man.

"Oh, you're awake!" Eames said. "That's good, solitaire was starting to get boring."

The man coughed again, and took a painful-sounding breath.

Eames closed his laptop and turned to face the man – Nicky. He'd been out for just under an hour, which had given Eames plenty of time to duct tape him very firmly to the tattooing table. The other man – whose name Eames hadn't bothered to learn – was similarly restrained, and still out cold.

"How do you feel?" Eames asked.

"Fuck you," the man croaked.

"You Yanks. Never the least bit civil." He wheeled the stool closer to Nicky, looking down on him.

"You have no idea the amount of shit you're in," the man told him. "My boss–"

"Let me guess. Your boss was going to send a carload of backup if you didn't call him after the job was finished?"

Nicky glared at him, but didn't say anything.

"Luckily, you did talk to your boss. You told him that the job fell through because of unforseen circumstance, and that you and your friend there were fucking off for a few drinks." Eames waved the man's phone at him.

"Fuck you," the man said again. Apparently, it was his default phrase.

"Probably not the best idea to keep your business contacts in your phone there, Nicky. You gotta be more careful," Eames said, speaking in the boss's harsh accent.

Nicky swallowed. "Shit," he said.

"Indeed," Eames agreed. "Now, I don't know who was doing research for your team, but you should know, they weren't very fucking good."

Nicky followed him with his eyes as Eames stood and moved around the shop, picking up a number of things – a pair of scissors, various sizes of needles, alcohol swabs – and placing them on a table near Nicky's head. "If you had," he said, "they might have been able to tell you that I am not just a friendly, handsome, tattoo artist. They might have been able to tell you that I have taken down much scarier bastards than you two. That I am, in fact," he said, plugging in his tattoo gun, "a rather scary bastard in my own right. And that I don't take kindly to being followed or kidnapped or killed, or whatever you arseholes were attempting to do back there."

Eames pulled on a pair of gloves with a loud snap. Nicky's eyes were wide with terror. It was rather gratifying. Eames had missed acting terrorizing people who fucked with him.

Eames stepped on the pedal, and the gun started buzzing. "Now, I believe you said you were interested in getting a tattoo?"

"Get the fuck away from me!" Nicky shrieked.

"I was thinking I'd start on your dick," Eames said, dipping the needle in some ink. "Make some barber-pole stripes down it? Or maybe I could just tattoo your nuts to look like a punching bag."

"Jesus, fuck, somebody HELP ME–"

Eames held the needle a scant inch above the man's eye. "We'll have none of that, are we clear?"

"Yeah," the man breathed, going cross-eyes trying to look at the needle.

"Good," Eames said. "Now, decide: nuts or dick?"

"Jesus. Look, man, we can work something out here. I've got money, and, and, my people have even more, we can work something out."

Eames looked at him a second. "Nuts it is, then,"

"Nononono, wait, wait a fucking second!" Nicky cried. "Look, just tell me what you fucking want, man."

Eames shut off the gun. "Information."

"Anything," the man gasped.

"Who's your client?"

"He goes by the name Luciano. Dunno his first name. He's some kind of Chicago mobster guy, some Al Capone wannabe."

"Rich?" Eames asked.

"Money out the ass," Nicky said. "Filthy fucking rich."

Eames thought, but couldn't remember conning or stealing from any mobsters in Chicago. "Why does he want me dead?"

"He didn't," Nicky said. "We were supposed to do a snatch and grab."

"And then?" Eames asked, waving the tattoo gun.

"Beat you. He wanted pictures of it. He was gonna use you as leverage."

"Leverage? Against who?"

"You think people tell me these things? I'm just a grunt."

"Pity for you," Eames said, starting up the gun.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute! I heard him talking to the boss one time, and he mentioned a name."

Eames put the needle a half-inch away from the man's eye. "What name?"

Nicky swallowed. "Arthur," he whispered.

Eames blinked. "Say again?"

"Arthur," Nicky repeated. "He said it a few times; Arthur, no last name. I guess he screwed Luciano over."

"Go on," Eames growled.

"Luciano was trying to find someone to use against him. We found out that the guy had gotten a few tattoos from you, and last month, he'd hung around for a few days."

Eames leaned back. When he'd assumed there would be fallout from those few days with Arthur, he hadn't imagined it to be quite on this scale. Armed goons showing up at the shop? Oh, god, Ariadne would be insufferable if she found out.

Well. If nothing else, this was a sign that it was time to come out of his temporary retirement. Or at the very least, get the fuck out of San Francisco.

"So are we square, man?" Nicky said, sounding far too hopeful.

"No," Eames answered shortly, getting up. His dart gun was still on the counter. He opened it up and pulled the second dart – the one that had jammed – out of the barrel.

"But, but, I thought if I told you–"

"You shouldn't mistake me for the kind of man who forgives easily," Eames said, and slammed the dart into the man's leg.

Eames spent the rest of the night tying up loose ends. He disposed of the unconscious men in an alley – minus their clothes, and with fresh, matching tattoos of the word WANKER on the back of their necks. Then he cleaned the shop, took one tattoo gun and a photo album of some of his better work, and then went around to where his flat had been.

He'd cleared it out earlier in the week, mostly at night when the goons had gone home. He'd put all the paintings in storage, posted some boxes of books to Yusuf's home in Mombassa, and gave most of the furniture and clothes to various charity shops. It hardly looked like someone had been squatting there.

He taped a postcard – featuring a dazzling view of the Golden Gate bridge – to the door, after having first covered it with packing tape to protect it from the rain.

Darling, it said. I am bloody sick of this weather and have decided to seek out a warmer climate. Look me up if you know of any good job offers. Or even if you don't. You owe me a drink or five. Yours.

It was a message in a bottle, Eames knew, but it couldn't hurt.

Then he went into the shop, lit a cigarette, and looked around at the place that had been home for two years. He'd miss it. He missed it already.

Eames poured a bottle of rubbing alcohol onto the ugly couch he'd napped on so many times – where he'd first interviewed Ariadne as a possible apprentice, where Arthur had first kissed him – and then tossed his cigarette onto it. The alcohol ignited with a dull whumph. Eames grabbed his duffel bag and left the shop, resisting any temptation to look back.

He just hoped the fire wouldn't spread all the way around to the back door.

The sun. God, but Eames had missed the feeling of strong, unfiltered sunlight burning his skin. San Francisco was nice, but the sun was never like this. He shut his eyes and settled into his loungechair little deeper, relishing the warmth against his skin.

He'd landed in Capetown a week ago, via a circuitous route that included a stopover in Paris to check in on Ariadne. She'd hugged him, then punched him in the arm and called him an asshole. They'd spent a night getting drunk on cheap Pinot Noir, and she'd demanded to know what the hell had happened; he told her an edited version of recent events. Ariadne had reacted surprisingly well to the revelation that her boss was a con man, thief, and professional bastard (she'd already guessed two of the three anyway).

A shadow interrupted his sunbathing. "Verskoon my," Eames said. When the shadow didn't move, Eames cracked open an eye, ready to try again in Xhosa or simply scowl until whatever blighter was blocking his sun moved. But it was Arthur looking back at him, in a dove-gray summer-weight suit and a pair of Ray-Bans. He had a silver suitcase in his hand, and he gently dropped it on the ground as Eames watched.

"That's hardly appropriate beachware," Eames said after a moment. He was hardly going to ask how Arthur had found him.

"I could say the same about that bathing suit," Arthur replied. It was hard to tell – Arthur was silhouetted against the sunlight – but Eames thought he was smiling.

"This?" Eames asked, gesturing at the tight, kelly green spandex shorts. "All the rage in Paris. Or so a friend told me."

They regarded each other for a moment. Then Arthur sighed and looked down the beach. "I saw the shop. Eames, I–"

"Before you apologize," Eames interrupted, "that was me."

Arthur looked down at him. "Seriously?"

"Got a nice insurance settlement out of it. Seemed less complicated." He raised an eyebrow. "Surprised?"

"By you? Continually."

Eames grinned, then took his legs off the lounge chair. "Take a load off."

Arthur's brow creased, but there was nowhere else to sit except on the sand. He settled down onto the chair, a decent distance away from Eames' open thighs.

"I'm sorry I couldn't warn you about Luciano," Arthur said. "I had already gone to ground when I heard, and by the time I could get to San Francisco, you were gone."

"Did a job go bad?" Eames asked, wondering idly if Arthur had any new scars.

"Very bad," Arthur said darkly.

"Le hasard," Eames said. He could remember the exact placement of those words on Arthur's skin – just above the twisted scar on his right hip. He could remember running his thumb over them, like they were braille written on Arthur's skin.

Arthur smiled, mirthlessly. "It was a clusterfuck. I'm sorry, I still–"

"Really, it's all right. It was kind of fun, actually. I haven't terrorized anybody in far too long."

Arthur smiled. "Somebody should've warned them about you."

Eames snorted. "Amateurs. They deserved everything they got."

There was a moment of mildly awkward silence. "Got your postcard," Arthur said eventually.

"Here to buy me a drink?" Eames asked, grinning.

"Here to offer you a job, actually. But I could get you a drink first."

Eames blinked. Then he leaned forward, and said directly into Arthur's ear: "Just so we both know what's on offer, we could also skip the drinks and just go back to my room."

Arthur sucked in a measured breath. "I– yeah. That works too."

They barely made it through the door to the room – Arthur's mouth was hot on Eames' lips, his hands cool on Eames' sun-warmed skin; soothing and arousing all at once.

"Dreamsharing?" Eames asked, sipping at the wine in his glass. Around them, the noise in the hotel bar rose and fell in intervals, never going above a comfortable background hum. "My mate does that. Has a whole opium den set up in Kenya."

"You never got into the game, though," Arthur said. He was buttoned-up again, tie clipped in place, hair slicked back. It made Eames want to undress him all over again, rather roughly.

"Nah. Never really had the opportunity. I mean, aside from Yusuf, I didn't know anyone in the business."

"You do now," Arthur said, leaning back in the chair.

Eames finished off the glass of wine and set it down on the table. "Is that the job offer you mentioned?"

"You said you wanted a challenge. Something different."

Eames blinked. He was getting the strangest sense of deja vu. "Sorry, but did... we have this conversation already?" Even as the words were out of his mouth, he realized that they had. Back in his room, after Arthur had sucked him off and then very thoroughly fucked him, after they'd shared a shower and opened the bottle of wine, he'd asked about the job that Arthur had mentioned, and he had said something about...

"Fuck me," Eames shouted, heart suddenly hammering. "Is this a dream?"

The bar went deathly silent. Everyone was staring at the two of them.

"Yes," Arthur said, reaching forward and touching Eames' arm. "Eames. Relax."

Eames took a deep breath, and forced his muscles to unclench. After a moment, the bar's patrons went back to their conversations. "Bloody hell," Eames said. "This is weird."

Arthur's eyes weren't meeting his, though; they were on Eames' bare arms, traveling upwards to his neck. "Your tattoos are gone," he said.

Eames glanced down. "Huh," he said. Then he blinked, and his arms were inked again. The tattoos, however, weren't entirely true to their realistic forms, with darker lines and brighter colors. And he was pretty sure that the small script of the word Fidélité on his inner arm hadn't been there when he'd gone under.

"Eames," Arthur said, and laughed. "You just like to surprise me."

Eames looked at the new tattoo for a moment longer, before glancing across the table and meeting Arthur's eyes. "You might as well get used to it."