Arthur appreciates the morning routine. The only reason he can do anything before 10am is because he’s trained his body to function without the aid of his brain, except in cases of absolute emergency. So it’s not till he’s locking the door to his apartment, freezer-cup of iced coffee in one hand, that he notices that the corner of the sticking-plaster is poking out the end of his sleeve.
He has to go back and change into something without an angle cut at the cuff, and then spends a significant proportion of his subway journey tugging neurotically at his shirtsleeve to make sure it’s not accidentally going to make itself visible whenever he moves his arm.
The tattoo is still at that tender stage where anything touching it produces a tiny explosion of stinging pain and heat. Two days from now and it’ll be almost gone. Arthur actually prefers this to the peeling stage, which he finds rather disgusting.
Work goes the same as it did yesterday, up until lunchtime when the air-conditioning breaks. They’re holed up in an abandoned office above a grocery store, “they” being Eames, June the architect, and Arthur. June is very easy to work with and Eames is... being his usual self, which is to say he’s splitting his time evenly between being a frustrating pain in the ass and being an unabashed genius. It’s not so bad, though, because Eames is currently occupied with speed-reading the mark’s favourite books, and is therefore too focused to be unbearably annoying.
Then, as previously noted, the air-conditioning breaks. This is a major problem because outside, the sun is beating down like God is purposely trying to suck all the moisture from the collective body of New York City, and there is zero natural airflow in the office.
Eames’s solution to this is to go downstairs and get a box of fluorescent-coloured popsicles. Arthur shifts in his chair, getting slowly more and more overheated no matter how much water he drinks, and to make matters worse, whenever he looks over at Eames, he’s sucking on a length of bright-green candy ice.
‘Want one?’ asks Eames, waving the box at him.
‘No,’ Arthur snaps. The heat is already starting to get to him.
‘Damn,’ says June with feeling. ‘They’ll probably drip on my sketches.’
‘Are you going to need those sketches after tomorrow?’ asks Eames.
‘Fair point,’ says June, and Eames chucks her a popsicle.
‘You know,’ says Eames after a few minutes. ‘When I told you you were too buttoned up, I didn’t realise I was speaking literally.’
‘I’m fine,’ says Arthur, too quickly. He desperately wants to at least roll his sleeves up, but he doesn’t want to deal with Eames’ teasing on top of the torment of the broken air-con.
Eames smirks. ‘If you say so,’ he says, and wraps his lips around his popsicle (electric-blue), slurping loudly.
Arthur is so engrossed in financial records and a keen appreciation of his own physical discomfort (all right, mainly the latter) that he doesn’t notice Eames approaching his desk until he sits down on the corner. He's unbuttoned his shirt to 1970s mid-chest level ( horrible, horrible, says the small part of Arthur's brain not occupied by watching the sheen of sweat on Eames' collarbones) and looks like he's on vacation instead of spending the day in an airless office reading books he doesn't enjoy.
He’s also moved onto a third popsicle. Red. (For danger.) This one’s already in a fairly serious state of melting due to being left in the box with no refrigeration.
‘Really, darling, you’re going to overload your circuitry if you go on like this. I can practically see steam rising from your head.’ He runs his tongue up the popsicle. Oh, for fuck’s sake.
‘I’m going to get more iced coffee,’ says Arthur through gritted teeth, standing up.
‘Not even going to unbutton a collar? Roll up a sleeve?’
Eames grabs him as he walks past. Ordinarily this would be another run-of-the-mill occurrence of Eames having no respect for personal boundaries, but as bad luck would have it he grabs Arthur by the wrist . The one that had a tiny needle perforating it regularly for over an hour last night.
Arthur hisses between his teeth at the shock of unexpected pain, and wrenches his arm out of Eames’ grasp, striding swiftly out the room and into the elevator before Eames can say anything.
In the elevator, he cautiously removes his cufflinks and parts his sleeve to inspect the bandage underneath. There’s not even any blood, but he can feel where Eames’ fingers pressed into his skin like they’d seared him.
He takes a long time to fetch that iced coffee.
When he returns to the office, Eames is oddly quiet. June waves to him in greeting, but Eames just watches him in silence till Arthur pointedly sits down and makes an effort to focus on his laptop screen.
It takes a moment for Arthur to recognise the expression on Eames’ face as he so rarely wears it when he’s not playing a role. It’s worry .
* * *
Arthur’s been going to Lillian since he moved to New York. He knows her better than he knows his doctor. Then again, Arthur’s medical history is pretty unorthodox so he tends to lie to doctors on a regular basis. God only knows what would show up on his blood panels, considering how many untested tranquilisers and psychotropic drugs he’s pumped into his system over the years.
His first meeting with Lillian had been pure chance. He’d not been in the city long, and she’d been living in the same apartment block as him. He’d complimented her on her tattoos, and she’d been intrigued by the idea of someone as “dweeby-looking” (her words) as him knowing anything about the subject. Then Arthur had taken off his jacket and shown her the vine-leaves curling up his forearm. She’d shown him some of her own work, and the rest was history.
Lillian had been young, younger than Arthur, but something about her bedside manner made her seem somehow maternal. Arthur is far from the most trusting of individuals, but as soon as he’d sat down in the recliner in her then-new studio, he’d felt at ease. Since then, he’d never been inked by anyone else.
* * *
She’s at the front desk when Arthur drops in on the way back from the office. He’s been back in the city a couple of days and he’s barely had time to set up their base of operations for this job, never mind catch up with old friends or, like, throw out the mouldering bananas in his kitchen.
He arrives there just as she's about to close up shop. She’s shutting down the computer at the front desk, tying her dreadlocks back with a twist of wire. He knocks on the door and she unbolts it for him, kissing him on the cheek.
‘Back in town?’
Arthur’s mouth quirks into a smile. ‘Looks that way,’ he says. ‘How’s your appointment book?’
‘Full. I’m thinking of getting an assistant.’
‘You’ve been saying that for the last five years.’
‘Yup, and it’s five times as true now as it was five years ago. How long’re you in the city this time? I’ve got free time the week after next.’
Arthur shakes his head regretfully. ‘I’m leaving in four days.’
‘Damn, you jetsetter.’ She looks thoughtful, skinny face screwed up into an expression like a Jim Henson character. ‘Look, what are you looking to get done?’
Arthur taps the inside of his left wrist. ‘A circular labyrinth maze, about two inches across? I’ve got a sketch.’
He gets out his phone and scrolls through his pictures, handing it over at the correct one.
‘Oh hey, this is pretty simple, honey. I can do this tonight, if you’re willing to pay me overtime.’ She winks.
‘Thank you, Lillian,’ says Arthur, and she reaches under the desk for a few copies of health forms for him to fill out.
‘You get all the paperwork done and I’ll go set this sketch out, OK?’
Lillian has cheesy movie posters above the reclining chair in her back room. They’re comfortingly familiar; he doesn’t think she’s changed them since the first time he came in here.
‘All set?’ asks Lillian, coming in, and Arthur nods, rolling up his sleeve. Most of his left interior forearm is bare, but the outside is covered with an Escher-like series of Penrose steps and impossible buildings. His upper arm, under the sleeve, is home to the first art Lillian ever gave him, a beautiful, swirling abstract pattern in blue and green.
The ritual of Lillian setting out the various supplies is reassuring but also fills Arthur with an something of an anticipatory thrill. Glycerine and ink, plus sterile swabs and ointment and finally the bend and slide of a new needle bar being inserted into the gun.
‘You want this to hide under your shirt, right? Your cuffs don’t ride up or anything, do they?’
Arthur gives her a look, and she laughs. ‘Right, of course, all of your rich-boy clothes fit like a kid glove, I forgot.’ She swabs his wrist, the alcohol evaporating coolly, and asks, ‘You’re sure about this?’ Double-checking by rote.
‘Fire away,’ says Arthur, and winces as she switches on the needle and makes the first line. Tears spring in the corners of his eyes but he watches avidly as the needle vibrates into his skin.
‘Any meaning behind this one?’
‘Solved a problem recently,’ he says. ‘A rather complicated one. I felt it needed commemorating.’
‘Fine, be cryptic. Honestly, you’re the weirdest office drone I’ve ever met. Most guys who cover themselves in ink like to show it off, but you wear these suits every goddamned day of your life.’
‘I like the suits,’ he says. ‘And some people do get to see the tattoos.’
‘Ah, the select few,’ says Lillian, and pauses the needle for a moment to wipe away some blood. ‘Anyone at work seen them yet?’
‘A few.’ Cobb, of course. But Arthur’s gotten into the habit of hiding them from Eames.
At first it’d been coincidence that Eames had never seen any of his skin bare, but after all these years Eames has evidently developed certain ideas about how Arthur's mind works, and it’s amusing to let him continue to believe them. In a way he doesn’t think Eames deserves to see them, but also he likes having something that Eames doesn’t know, that he couldn’t properly predict. Eames has it so fucking easy most of the time, waltzing in and doing as he pleases, teasing Arthur and getting away with crazy bullshit every day of his life thanks to a combination of easy genius and sheer bloody-minded luck. Eames is the one person who can set him off balance, and it feels good to have this as some kind of... secret ammunition.
Lillian works in silence till the labyrinth is done, then tapes it up and sends him on his way. It’s not overly comfortable to cuff his shirt over it the next morning, but it’s sure as hell not as bad as the fucking heatwave that arrives that afternoon.
* * *
New York’s been home for close to eight years, and by now Arthur knows how to deal with a heatwave. Unfortunately, one of the first steps he usually takes is to strip off some clothing, but at this point it’ll feel like he’s lost some kind of battle with Eames if he exposes so much as an inch of skin.
The next day is even worse. He sleeps with the apartment windows open and wakes up sticky and dry-mouthed. June wears a billowing white dress to work that day, and Arthur is filled with envy for how relaxed she looks. She also comes armed with a portable desktop fan.
Eames keeps bumping into him. Every time he gets up to fetch a drink or some papers or make a phone call, Eames seems to be there, in the way. It’s a perfect metaphor for their entire relationship, really. The number of smirking, half-flirtatious comments has doubled, and Eames is always at his left elbow, trying to sound out why Arthur was so pissed at him yesterday without actually asking. Eames doesn’t like to ask, he likes to work things out for himself. The scientific method.
The annoying method.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what he’s doing. In many ways Eames is just like an inquisitive toddler and once he’s got an idea in his head it’s damn near impossible to get him to let go, particularly when Arthur’s involved.
After the umpteenth time Eames brushes past him, trying to catch Arthur by the arm, Arthur snaps.
‘Will you stop doing that ?’
‘Doing what?’ asks Eames innocently.
Eames is never innocent.
‘You know what. Trying to touch me.’
‘Without permission? I’d never!’
Arthur briefly considers the possibility that Eames’ fixation is somehow involuntary. But no.
‘My wrist hurts. I put a bandage on it. It hurt more yesterday when you grabbed me. End of story.’
Eames instantly seems about ten times more interested as before. ‘Nobody ever says “end of story” unless that’s not the end of the story. Did you get into a bar fight after work? Or... handcuffs? I’m all ears.’
‘If I tell you, will you stop pursuing this idiotic obsession?’
Eames just looks at him, head cocked.
Arthur quickly unbuttons his sleeve and yanks it up a little to expose the bandage. ‘I got a tattoo. Mystery over. Now, can we get back to work?’
‘Seconded,’ says June. ‘I’d also like to note that this conversation is making me uncomfortable. Eames, you are not helping to maintain a neutral working environment.’
‘A tattoo ?’ asks Eames, sounding not gleeful or mocking but... Well, Arthur doesn’t know how he sounds, really. ‘Can I see?’
‘No,’ says Arthur shortly, and re-buttons his cuff. Eames watches the bandage disappear beneath blue starched cotton with unholy fascination, staring until Arthur says sharply, ‘Are we done?’ and he finally looks away.
The rest of the job goes without a hitch, and it isn’t till they’re in the cab on the way back from the mark’s apartment that Eames brings it up again.
‘Has it healed yet?’
Arthur doesn’t need to ask him to know what Eames is talking about.
‘Oh, for god’s sake,’ says June, exasperated.
For a moment, Arthur considers the obvious reply of telling Eames to fuck off and mind his own business. Then he decides that he wants to properly catalogue Eames’ reactions this time. He leans forward to wriggle out of his suit jacket and pulls up his sleeve, revealing the fresh, pink skin where he removed the final dressing this morning. The lines of the maze are incredibly fresh and clear. He ghosts his fingertips over it, where the skin is still so tender. Opposite him in the cab, there’s a sharp intake of breath from Eames.
‘I feel like I’m participating in a Victorian peepshow,’ says June. ‘Involuntarily.’
Arthur covers himself up again. He doesn’t let himself look at Eames for the rest of the cab ride, but he can feel Eames’ gaze hot on his back when the cab finally stops and Arthur throws some cash at the driver, tripping up the stairs to his apartment.
* * *
The first thing Arthur does when he gets in the door is fling his jacket across the room, letting it fall where it lies. It deserves to be as wrinkled as humanly possible for the hours of sweaty torment it’s put Arthur through today. The shirt follows it, and he goes to the refrigerator to get a glass full of ice to press up against his neck.
When the doorbell rings, Arthur has an ice cube in his mouth and he has to juggle the glass holding the rest of the ice while he shrugs on his shirt for decency’s sake.
It’s Eames, a little out of breath like maybe he ran all the way up the stairs.
Eames’ gaze is panning down over the exposed centre of Arthur’s chest, where Arthur realises the edge of his largest tattoo, the snake, must be showing. ‘I came... I came to apologise for my conduct earlier,’ says Eames in a low voice that Arthur doesn’t quite recognise.
The way Eames is looking at him is not so very different from usual, just... about a hundred times more intense. The fast-melting ice cube in Arthur’s mouth is making his tongue go numb, but the rest of him feels hot with embarrassment. He has already forgotten why the hell he shouldn’t forgive Eames for whatever annoyance he’s recently caused. Was there ever a reason in the first place?
‘You’re staring,’ says Arthur, and crunches down on the last of his ice cube.
‘You surprised me,’ says Eames. ‘As you so often do.’
‘I thought you said I had no imagination.’
‘Also true,’ says Eames. ‘But that’s never seemed to stop you before. May I?’
Arthur grips the glass of ice like it’s an anchor, uncertain as to how Eames has managed to gain the upper hand when clearly, clearly , Arthur had been in charge back in the cab ten minutes ago. ‘May you what?’
‘Well, better to ask forgiveness than permission,’ says Eames and reaches forward, fast and smooth as an uncoiling snake, to grab Arthur by the wrist. Arthur freezes, but this time doesn’t pull away. Eames has somehow managed to take hold of him in such a way that none of Eames’ hand is touching the fresh art, that the stark black ink lines of the labyrinth are laid bare to the air. Eames pushes up the sleeve with his other hand, as far as it will go. ‘They go all the way up?’ he questions softly.
‘And the other arm,’ says Arthur, and clears his throat. Eames steps past him into his apartment, still holding onto Arthur’s wrist. A moment later they’ve done a complete 180, the pivotal point being where Eames is still holding him. Absently, Arthur kicks the door closed behind him.
‘May I?’ says Eames again, and takes Arthur’s half-melted ice glass away from him, placing it on the shelf by the door. He pushes Arthur’s shirt back off his shoulders, letting go just long enough to pull the sleeves off his arms before he leans over to hang it on the hook beside Arthur’s head. ‘Well, this was unexpected,’ Eames murmurs.
Arthur couldn’t agree more.
He can feel Eames’ fingers climbing the vines winding around his forearm, travelling up and up until he reaches the shoulder and stops. Nonsensically, Arthur thinks to himself that he could really do with having that ice-water back right now. He isn’t backing away, not as such, but there are so many disquieting things about how close Eames is standing at the moment (even though Eames has spent, god, years , getting into his personal space and breathing in his ear while he’s trying to work) and the way he’s just looking at him, inspecting even. Perhaps this is what it’s like to be one of Eames’ marks, when he’s studying them for a forgery.
The back of his head hits the door with a thunk and Eames glances up for a moment, distracted. ‘I had no idea,’ he says, and it takes a moment for Arthur to realise that coming from Eames, the ultimate predictor and dissector of human nature, this is a true statement of defeat.
Arthur has no idea what he looks like right now, but he realises that for some time now his mouth has been a little open, breath coming fast. Eames reaches up with his free hand and tucks some stray hair behind Arthur’s ear, and Arthur has to close his eyes so he doesn’t have to look at that expression on Eames’ face any more. It’s too much right now.
He opens them when instead of the kiss he’s half-expecting to come next, Eames lifts his hand up between them, Arthur’s wrist still held lightly in his grip. The skin on the inside of Arthur’s left wrist has been used to nothing but pain for the last week, and when Eames blows cool air over it it’s as if all the tiny hairs on Arthur’s skin are reaching up towards Eames’ mouth. Eames looks up at him for a moment through his stupidly long eyelashes, his face for once completely free of any kind of teasing smirk, then finally puts Arthur out of his misery and kisses him, right there in the centre of the neatly-inked labyrinth.