Eames is enjoying the blissed-out blurry looseness that comes after a good fuck, fingers tracing patterns over the pale, sweat-limned skin of Arthur's back, when Arthur speaks.
"A camel," he slurs into the pillow.
"Mmm?" Eames's fingers don't stop moving, but he does scoot a little closer, resting his nose against Arthur's shoulder.
"M'guessing s'what you're drawing on my back."
Eames chuckles. "No, love. Just random tracing."
Arthur stretches beneath his arm, muscles rippling under his fingers, then settles back into his boneless sprawl. "Felt like a camel."
"Not an elephant?" Eames murmurs with a smile, pressing a kiss to Arthur's shoulder, but the idea plants something in his head nonetheless. Before Arthur can reply, Eames splays his hand between Arthur's shoulder blades, pressing him down gently but firmly. "Stay."
Arthur doesn't complain when he climbs out of bed, just murmurs something sleepily and nuzzles down into the pillow. It's so bloody adorable that Eames almost forgets his mission, but then his eyes skate down that creamy white expanse of unblemished skin that is Arthur's back, and the parasite of idea becomes firmly rooted.
It only takes him a minute of rifling through his studio to find his pens and markers, then he's sliding back under the sheet next to Arthur. Eames props himself up on one elbow, taking only a moment to select a marker before he's uncapping it with his teeth. "Hold still," he murmurs around the cap, trailing a broad burnt sienna line over one shoulder blade.
Arthur says nothing at first, then lets out a soft, almost reluctant sigh. "This'd better not stain my shirt tomorrow."
"I'll wash you off in the morning," Eames promises, dropping a kiss to the back of his neck.
For all Eames knows, there will be hell to pay in the morning; he's sure that he's only getting away with this because Arthur is half asleep and thoroughly fucked. Still, as the patterns unfold across Arthur's skin, he can't help but think it's worth it. This, Eames thinks, may be one of the best canvasses he's ever worked on.
He's chosen brown because elephants made him think of the elaborate mehndi designs he'd seen at Yusuf's sister's wedding. It wasn't the first time Eames had seen henna tattooing--Mombasa has a surprisingly large Indian population, after all--but it had been the first chance he'd had to really study it at more than a glance, to see the intricacies of the designs stained across the bride and groom's skin. He starts with Ganesha on Arthur's left shoulder, lips quirking into a self-patronizing smile, then expands from there in loops and swirls, doing the best he can to follow the patterns and motifs by memory. Tomorrow, he'll look it up and practice on paper, if only because Arthur isn't the only perfectionist in this bed, but for tonight it's enough to simply lose himself in the meditative swirls.
Eames has no idea how much time has passed when Arthur stirs again; he's moved down, following the curve of Arthur's ribs, leaving a full quarter of his back and side covered. "A camel," Arthur says again, and Eames grins.
"Haven't worked that one in yet."
"Better hurry," Arthur mumbles. "S'getting late. You should sleep." Eames would almost be touched at Arthur's concern, except that he ruins it with his next words. "Got a lotta work to do tomorrow."
"Of course we do," Eames sighs and caps the marker. It's probably ruined from the sweat on Arthur's skin, but he doesn't care in the slightest. He scoops up all of his markers and drops them on the floor next to the bed, then presses a kiss to Arthur's inked shoulder before settling down next to him, an arm around his narrow waist.
In the morning, Arthur pokes at the faint brown lines covering Eames's chest, transferred when he'd rolled Arthur onto his side and spooned up behind him. "Trust you to draw paisley on me," Arthur says with an eye-rolling smirk, then drags him into the shower before Eames can protest that the Hindus have been fans of paisley since long before the invention of the Windsor knot, thank you very much.
* * *
Eames doesn't get the opportunity to take advantage of his new canvas for another six weeks; the next day, the job goes to shit and Arthur stops sleeping with him, cutting him off with all of his other distractions. Arthur's bloody single-mindedness is both ridiculously attractive and irritating as all hell, but it's not the first time this has happened and so Eames allows it with only token protest.
So it's six weeks before they meet up again, this time without a dreamshare job to get in the way--Arthur's in Chicago doing research, and Eames is in town to spend some time at the Art Institute, studying up on a commission.
"I love that you're staying at the Congress," Eames murmurs as he traces a long, dark curve along Arthur's spine. Tonight he's outlining a tree, with roots that will curl around that exquisite ass and branches that he envisions twining down Arthur's arms; instead of wearing him out, the sex has him keyed up, and he knows it will be a while before he can sleep. "So much better than the cookie-cutter modernism you usually go for."
"Didn't want to," Arthur admits into his pillow.
Eames clucks. "And you disparage my taste."
"S'not it," Arthur replies. "S'pretty but I don't like crossing picket lines."
"That's why you use the side entrance, darling," Eames teases, teasing one branch up and out, away from the trunk, arcing beneath the curve of Arthur's scapula.
"Ha. M'serious." Eames pulls the marker away as Arthur shifts, turning his head so that he can peer at Eames out of the corner of one eye. "It was the only room available in the Loop."
Eames tilts his head, curious. "It really means that much to you?"
Arthur closes his eyes again. "I come from a union family. It does."
Eames goes back to his drawing, another branch unfurling across the plane of Arthur's back as he digests this new bit of information. "You could room with me. I'm borrowing a friend's apartment in Wicker Park."
"We'd kill each other," Arthur says.
"You could have your own room," Eames replies, and it's true; there's a couch in the room he's been using as his studio, and heaven knows he's crashed there a couple of times already. Not that he's all that worried about where he'll sleep if Arthur does come with him. "Your own room, me cooking whatever you wanted, and your conscience assuaged. All in one easy step."
"You just want to draw on me," Arthur snarks sleepily.
The outline of a bird appears on one of the branches. "One of many perks." Eames hesitates then, because it's the most honest he's been with Arthur in a long time.
But Arthur merely sighs. "I'll think about it." And Eames smiles, because he knows he's won.
Later, he'll remember Chicago not in the gauzy wash of the Renoir he was there to copy, but instead in the sharp lines of Arthur's back, the pictures and patterns he fits to the muscle and bone outlined beneath that pale skin.
* * *
Eames wakes up gasping and hauls himself out of bed and into the bathroom before he's properly aware of what he's doing. He examines himself closely in the mirror, running a hand over his chest, looking for the great gaping wounds that he'd known were there just a minute ago. After a moment of this, finding no bullet holes in his skin, no knife wounds between his ribs, he slumps against the counter. "Christ," he mutters, wanting a cigarette more than life itself, except that he'd kicked the habit six months ago.
He splashes water on his face, pulls himself together as best as he's able, then returns to the bedroom and sits on the edge of the bed.
"What's wrong?" Arthur asks, one eye cracking open.
Eames runs a hand through his hair, thinking god, just one fucking cigarette. "Bad dream."
That gets Arthur's attention. "Seriously?"
"Yes, seriously," Eames snaps, a little more brusquely than he'd intended. "I only work half as many dream jobs as you do, Arthur. It still happens from time to time."
"Okay." It's not like Arthur to back down so easily, which means Eames must sound incredibly unhinged right now. "I just thought, the military..."
"I didn't let them have everything," Eames says hoarsely, too shattered to hold back.
Arthur gives him a minute, then brushes a hand along the small of his back. "Come back to bed, Eames."
Eames's fingers twitch and he knows, wrapped up in Arthur or not, it will be a long time before he can sleep again. He takes a deep breath, then glances at Arthur over one shoulder. "Could I draw on you tonight?"
Arthur looks him over for half a second, then rolls onto his stomach. "Only if you don't mind me sleeping through it."
"I don't mind." And the thing is, he means it--he's much less self-conscious, much more able to lose himself in the work, if Arthur's asleep--but he's surprised to find how relieved he is when Arthur speaks as the first dark line bleeds out across the small of his back.
"Do you... make your own art?"
"How d'you mean?" Eames asks, brow furrowing in concentration as a small, tortured figure appears beneath his pen.
"Well, it's obvious that you have artistic talent," Arthur replies. "I've seen your forgeries, which are brilliant, and also the things you've drawn on me, which prove that you're capable of creating and not just copying. I guess I'm just wondering if you've ever done the legit artist thing."
Eames sucks on his teeth for a moment, trying to figure out the best way to answer. "Thing is, the legit artist thing is a little like playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun. If you get incredibly lucky, the gun might jam, but otherwise you're pretty well screwed." Another figure, this one writhing on the ground in agony, develops on Arthur's skin. "I mean, I know a bloke--brilliant psychedelic artist, vivid colors, very talented, puts the 'pop' in Pop Art, yeah? Sells his pieces for no less than four figures, five for his larger canvases. Sells quite a few of them, too, does gallery shows regularly, the whole bit. And during the day he works as a janitor to pay his bills. He gets up at three in the morning, works until early afternoon, takes a nap and then paints all evening until he falls down. Every day. And this is someone who both has more talent and sells more art than most of the people I know." He shakes his head, forgetting that Arthur can't see him. "At least with forgery, there's an attainable metric for success."
"You always know if you're good enough," Arthur says, figuring it out.
"Yes, exactly. Much better for the self-esteem."
"Do you ever paint just for yourself? Besides on me, of course," Arthur teases.
"Mmm. When I have the time," Eames responds, trading the black marker for a dark green one that looks garish against Arthur's skin. It's absolutely perfect. "It's hard, though, to keep other people's styles out of my own work these days."
Arthur tilts his head, like he's forgotten he's lying face down. "You've spent so much time trying to be other people that you have a hard time being yourself?"
Eames tuts. "Let's not bring the dreams into this, darling."
"Fair enough." Arthur's quiet for a moment, his voice slightly heavier with sleep when he speaks again. "Didn't you have the money, though, enough that you wouldn't have had to worry about that whole starving artist thing?"
"You're assuming I wouldn't have been disowned for trying," Eames points out, switching colors again--a sallow yellow, this time--as he weighs how much he wants to reveal versus how much Arthur likely already knows. "I joined the military to get my inheritance, and was introduced to dreamsharing there, and by the time I was out I had already started to paint forgeries. I never really looked back."
"Do you regret it?"
Eames looks at Arthur's back, his canvas of late, and his heart twists to think of what his life might have been like if he'd missed this. "Not at all, love. Not in the slightest."
Dawn comes before Eames is done, and Arthur's back and arms look like a Bosch triptych, angels and demons and the poor, doomed souls in between. Arthur stirs awake as Eames is working his way along one elbow, his hands stained as he gets the last of the ink out of his ruined markers. "Gotta piss." Eames nods and lets him up, rolling over and stretching out his cramped fingers and his aching back.
Arthur doesn't bother closing the bathroom door, and after he washes his hands Eames can see him turning to look over his shoulder at the reflection of the pictures crawling across his skin. When he comes back to bed his expression is unreadable, but he gently pushes Eames down against the mattress and climbs on top of him.
The sex is soft and slow and heartbreakingly sweet, so much so that Eames is half afraid Arthur is leaving him by the time they're done. But Arthur just kisses him and drags him out of bed, even though Eames wants nothing more than to roll over and sleep. "You'll get ink all over my sheets," Arthur says, and it's true; they're both covered in black smears and smudges. "Besides, you have to wash this off of me."
It's another moment of brilliance on Arthur's part, because it's cathartic, washing away the tangible evidence of his nightmare. He wraps around Arthur when they're done, and Arthur gives him a rare moment of indulgence, allowing Eames to bury his face in Arthur's neck and just hold on for a minute. He's exhausted, and Arthur towels him down and puts him back to bed. "Come in this afternoon, after you get some sleep," Arthur says, and brushes a kiss across Eames's forehead. "I'll tell the others you're doing recon for your forge."
Eames catches his wrist before he can straighten. "Arthur..." Thank you, you're beautiful, don't leave, he wants to say, all things they don't say to each other, ever, not even when they're dying in each other's arms. He doesn't know how to finish.
Arthur gives him a soft smile. "Go to sleep, Mr. Eames."
And Eames does.
* * *
He's working his way down Arthur's spine with lips and tongue, caressing every nook and hollow that he knows so intimately, when Arthur snorts and rolls over. "I can hear you thinking," Arthur says, catching Eames's mouth in a kiss before he can protest. "You're already planning what you're going to draw on me when we're done."
"Paint, actually," Eames admits sheepishly.
Arthur smirks and kisses him again. "A man might get jealous of your paintbrush, Mr. Eames."
"Might he?" Eames asks, settling in between Arthur's legs. "Would that be the canvas getting jealous of the instrument that makes it even more beautiful?"
Arthur quirks an eyebrow at that, fingers sliding over the muscles of Eames's abdomen. "Or maybe the canvas wants to be more than just a canvas."
"Oh, but he is, love," Eames chides, dropping his head to kiss his way across one exquisite collarbone. "The canvas is unlimited potential. The canvas can be anything he wants to be."
"Until the paint is applied," Arthur points out, then grazes the shell of Eames's ear with his teeth, eliciting a full-body shudder from the forger.
"Ah yes," Eames says, biting down Arthur's jaw, "but the difference between this canvas and most is that at the end of the day, this canvas can be washed clean, ready to start again."
Arthur catches his chin with two fingers, holding him still, balanced just an inch away from Arthur's mouth. "Then this canvas can't really be anything at all, can he?"
There's a hint of something serious there, so Eames gives him a gentle, honest smile. "You're forgetting one thing, darling--what is a dreamer without a dream?" He leans forward and kisses Arthur, soft and slow. "Your beautiful skin would launch a thousand ships, Arthur, and that delightful mind of yours a thousand more."
It's too much, perhaps, and so Eames doesn't follow when Arthur pulls away. "What were you thinking of?" Arthur asks, fingers trailing down Eames's jaw. "To paint, tonight."
"Orange and saffron," Eames tells him, fingers tracing the curve of one hipbone, "here. I want to paint an abstract, the kind of painting where you think, if you tilt your head just right you can almost see something, that if you get it in the right light you might know what the painter meant." His finger slides up, dipping into the hollow of Arthur's perfect navel. "Dusky pink here, bleeding into white as it spreads upward, barely visible streaks of wine cutting through the strokes to give it depth."
Arthur's hand surprises him when it curls around their cocks, and he hisses quietly as Arthur begins to stroke. "Go on."
Eames drops his head to one nipple, his tongue sliding across it lazily. "More wine here," and he sucks hard on the nipple, earning a gasp from Arthur as his hand tightens. "A starburst of color. Almost violent. Eye catching. Impossible to ignore." He's rutting against Arthur now, but still he moves upward, urged on by the fingers that twine into his hair. "Pink again here," he murmurs into the hollow above Arthur's collarbone, then sinks his teeth into the skin there. "Soft, gentle. Only the brushstrokes distinguishing it from the blush of your skin."
"Desert colors," Arthur murmurs, lips tantalizing as they brush against the shell of Eames's ear. His teeth follow a second later, raking across the pinna again and making Eames shiver helplessly. "I like your palette."
I love your mind, Eames thinks, but knows better than to say. He grinds down harder into Arthur's hand, making them both gasp. "Part of why you make such a good canvas, that."
Arthur flips them then, without warning, his free hand hooking Eames's wrists and pressing them to the mattress above his head, his feet braced on Eames's ankles. His hand never stops moving on their cocks and Eames moans in appreciation, loving this stretched out, pinned feeling. "And what if I wanted to paint you, Mr. Eames?" Arthur practically growls in his ear, and Eames moans again. Arthur's voice is breathless as he continues. "What if I wanted you to be the canvas?"
"I would let you do whatever you wanted to me," Eames admits. It's a naked sort of honesty that they never indulge in, but it's the right answer, because Arthur growls wordlessly and tightens his grip, kissing Eames like he owns him. It's only another moment more before Eames is coming all over himself, and Arthur follows soon after, covering Eames's stomach and chest with their mingled come.
Arthur drops down heavily to the mattress next to him, stretched out along Eames's side, chin against his shoulder. "I don't think paint is my medium," Arthur murmurs after a moment, and Eames is gratified to hear that Arthur is still a little breathless. One of Arthur's long fingers trails through the mess on Eames's stomach, drawing lines there. "I think the look on your face right now is better than anything else I could do to you."
Eames chuffs a laugh at that, turning his head to look at Arthur. "Is that right?"
"That's right," Arthur replies, his fingers still sliding across Eames's stomach.
The forger lifts his head and glances at the swirls and lines Arthur's carving, a glimpse of one tattoo visible beneath them. "A camel," he guesses.
It's Arthur's turn to laugh, warm and welcome against his ear. "No, a shower. And then maybe more painting, this time with chocolate."
Eames turns to look at him, nose to nose and a little bit startled. "You have chocolate? And you didn't tell me?" At Arthur's smug nod he growls and rolls over, pinning Arthur to the mattress and covering his belly with cooling come in retaliation. "You understand that now I'll have to punish you."
"By making me your canvas?" Arthur asks hopefully, then yelps as Eames bites him to hide the grin on his face.
"If you're lucky."