Arthur is trying to work. He's having an unexpectedly difficult time of it.
They're in Port Elizabeth, blending in with tourist crowds as they prepare to extract at the behest of the South African Rugby Union. Senior officials suspect that a member of the Southern Kings has been selling match information to some of the major sports betting franchises, and they have narrowed the potential sources down to four players. They have hired Arthur's team to extract from all four.
Johan Kluwers is the second target in the lineup. The first, Olivier Makenzie, had come up clean. Based on his research thus far, Arthur suspects the third player is the leak, but he's happy enough to get paid to extract from Makenzie and Kluwers first, so he doesn't volunteer this information to the SARU.
Their employer has generously set them up in a pair of cottages in a resort near Hobie Beach. They use one for sleeping, the other for working. Arthur would prefer to close the windows, draw the blinds, and rely on air conditioning to keep the cottages livable, but he has been voted down by Eames and their architect, Kefilwe Bakoena.
Kefilwe is a plump Tswana woman with long, catlike brown eyes, chestnut-dyed box braids, and a fondness for sweets; Arthur is pretty sure she's offered him every variation on a doughnut available in Port Elizabeth in the three weeks they've been here. Her English is heavily accented to Arthur's ear, but she has a pleasant if slightly reserved personality, and an excellent eye for textural detail in her designs. She and Eames chatter amiably in Setswana and occasionally in Swahili, and Arthur tries not to imagine that they are talking about him.
It's mid-summer. With the windows open, the cottages enjoy clean beach air, but they can get warm. Kefilwe tends to favor long sleeveless cotton dresses in the heat, and Arthur has reluctantly traded in his waistcoats and wool for corded shorts and crisp cotton shirts. What Eames will show up in on any given day is a crapshoot.
Today is particularly warm. Eames had been fully dressed when he wandered back from breakfast this morning, but it is afternoon now and Eames, as comfortable in his own skin as he has ever been in any forge, is pacing aimlessly in and out of their work cottage, shirtless and shoeless, in a pair of loose, light grey linen trousers. He speaks occasionally into a voice recorder and carries a cold bottle of Stoney's ginger beer, which he presses periodically to the back of his neck.
Eames has been out in the sun, and there is still a fine sheen of sweat clinging to his golden skin. When his pacing takes him past Arthur's desk, Arthur can see infinitesimal droplets standing out on the back of his shoulder; Eames looks as though he has walked through a mister, or a heavy fog. It should be off-putting, but Arthur wants nothing more than to bend over and lick a line up from the waist of Eames' pants to his lightly stubbled jawbone, tracing every dip and curve of muscle with his tongue. When he closes his eyes, he can feel the heat of Eames' skin on his tongue, taste the saline bitterness of sweat, smell the natural musk of a sun-warmed male body. His mouth obligingly produces saliva at the thought, and he opens his eyes again.
Eames' trapezius muscle is a solid, delicious bulge between his neck and the smooth, enticing roundness of his deltoid. It cries out, Arthur thinks, to be bitten. His serratus anterior is exquisitely chiseled, his lateral obliques flat and firm, his pectoralis majors taut and full, his brachioradialis thick and powerful. Eames could pick Arthur up, right up off the ground. Lift him up and press him against a wall while Arthur clings to those solid shoulders and wraps his long legs around that firm waist, just above the swell of Eames' sculpted gluteus maximus.
Arthur is not a weight-lifter; he's a runner, lean and fit but not built. He knows what the words are for those parts of Eames' body because for the past fifteen minutes, instead of focusing on Kluwers' email archives, he has been surreptitiously eyeing Eames and searching the internet for "musculo-skeletal system," trying to put a name to each bulge and angle on display in front of him.
Arthur knows other words, too, of course, non-technical words. He admires Eames' pert pink nipples and the short fuzz of hair surrounding them, which Arthur would love to pinch and scratch his fingers through, respectively; his bare feet with their long toes, which Arthur would like to suck; the faint happy trail that gathers below the dip of Eames' belly button. And while he would never dare admit it, he yearns to run his fingers and tongue over the swirls, images, and darts of black ink that adorn Eames' arms and torso. He wonders what that ink and that golden skin would look like with fresh come splashed over it.
He wouldn't dream of saying any of this aloud, but there's no harm in looking. Or in daydreaming a little.
Eames pauses in his pacing, his back turned to Arthur, and patters rapid-fire Swahili into his recorder. A tiny trickle of sweat has gathered between his shoulders and slips, agonizingly slowly, down his spine. Arthur watches it, enthralled, and stops breathing.
From the shaded front porch, Kefilwe calls out something in Setswana, and Eames stops speaking into his recorder and replies to her. Arthur abruptly inhales, tears his gaze away from where that sweat droplet is about to soak into Eames' waistband, tabs out of the anatomy website he's been studying, and opens Johan Kluwers' email again.
Just in time, too. Out of his peripheral vision, he sees Eames ambling over toward where Arthur sits behind his desk. This close, he has a faint but detectable aura of rosemary and mint, which Arthur indignantly recognizes as his own (organic, and very expensive) sunscreen. Once a thief... he thinks sourly. Under the herbal aura, Eames does indeed smell detectably... hmm. It's not a stink, exactly; whatever his other flaws, and there are many, Eames is always scrupulously clean if he can help it. But it is undeniably the scent of a warm, physically active adult male. Arthur stealthily breathes him in.
"She's going to Nando's, do you want anything?" Eames inquires.
Arthur does. "Half a chicken, mild this time, and some of those spicy olives," he says. "Thanks, Kefilwe."
"We will share the olives," she says with a smile, her long plaits swinging as she dips her head slightly in acknowledgment. She swings a large, gaily bedizened shopping bag over her shoulder and heads out the door without ado.
Arthur has worked in dreamshare with Eames off and on for nearly seven years now; in the process, they've been alone in rooms together hundreds of times, but Eames' aggressively bare skin, and the sheen and scent of fresh sweat on it, are combining to make Arthur distinctly aware of their solitude right now. Eames still holds his recorder, but he seems to have been distracted from whatever he'd been narrating into it before she interrupted. He shifts his weight, still standing next to Arthur's chair, peering at Arthur's laptop screen. He takes a swig of his ginger beer and then wordlessly offers the bottle to Arthur.
Arthur is nonplussed. He and Eames are coworkers. They're not friends, they don't share food. He stares -- rather rudely, he realizes belatedly -- at the bottle in Eames' hand.
When Arthur doesn't respond immediately, Eames shrugs, withdraws the bottle, and takes another drink. Arthur resolutely does not think about the way his full, sweetly curved lips wrap around the head of the bottle as he does so, or the way Eames' tongue darts out to lick away a drop of ginger beer.
"Anything useful?" Eames asks, jutting his scruffy chin at the laptop.
Arthur shakes his head. "Not so far."
"You've been looking at that same message for quite a while," Eames observes mildly.
Arthur hasn't closed the anatomy website, he's just tabbed out of it, and he's uncomfortably aware that if Eames can read the email message, he can read the titles of the other tabs Arthur has open, including the one that says "MUSCLES OF THE UPPER BACK." He minimizes the browser and turns to fully face Eames, hoping to distract him. "How is the forge coming along?"
Eames has been tailing Kluwers' girlfriend, Supriya, an attractive young florist of Indian descent. Over the past three days, he has solemnly presented both Kefilwe and Arthur with gaudy bouquets from her shop. They don't hold up well in the heat and they are incongruous next to Arthur's regimented stacks of receipts and Kefilwe's cluttered tables of sketches and dioramas, but Eames seems to enjoy making the gifts.
The forger shifts his weight again, looks at the ceiling, and scratches the back of his neck. "I've got her physicality and mannerisms down pat, but I can't seem to make heads or tails of their relationship," he admits.
Ah. Arthur has worked with Eames often enough that he knows Eames doesn't like to ask for help outright, and he thinks he knows why Eames has come to him now.
"I'll create a digest for you with all of their texts and other private messages," he offers in a neutral voice. If Eames doesn't want to ask outright, Arthur won't embarrass him by making a big deal out of it. Of course, Eames doesn't seem to be at all concerned about embarrassing Arthur by flaunting his sweaty, impossibly attractive bare torso right there in Arthur's face.
"That would be very useful, thank you," Eames says earnestly. "But I was wondering if perhaps you had any insights off the top of your head that I might use this evening. They've a dinner planned at that Taiwanese place off Kempsten Road. I was going to wheedle Kefilwe into being my date."
Arthur loves that Taiwanese restaurant. And he doesn't have any insights, because he hasn't been doing his job, because he's been too busy staring at and daydreaming about his half-naked colleague. "I've been focusing more on his professional relationships," he extemporizes.
Eames raises an eyebrow. "He's a rugby player. What sort of professional relationships does he have?"
"And his finances," Arthur adds quickly. "They're a mess."
Eames only hums in response, sounding slightly skeptical, and Arthur is irrationally annoyed. "I'll make that file for you," he says shortly, turning away from Eames and opening his laptop up again. Happily, the Excel spreadsheet with Kluwers' major expenditures over the past five years is open on the screen, bolstering Arthur's statement. Just legitimate work here, nothing to see. Eames doesn't need to know that Arthur hasn't looked at it since exactly 11:48 that morning, which is when Eames had stood up from his desk, un-self-consciously stretched his arms over his head with a faint but audible groan, and begun unbuttoning his shirt, muttering something about having a lie-down by the pool.
Arthur can see the pool from the window in front of his desk. The sight of Eames napping on a lounge, one bulky arm over his eyes, the short dark curls under his arm (which Arthur definitely does not want to nuzzle his whole face into) turning damp and matted with sweat, had proved vastly more appealing than sorting through Kluwers' payments to various escort services.
"Perhaps you and I should go instead. You can go over their chats beforehand, and we can talk about it then?" Eames suggests, apparently undeterred by Arthur's snippy tone of voice. He idly scratches his own bare belly, and Arthur tries not to think about brushing his lips over the chiseled terrain where Eames' fingers are trailing.
He can't tell if Eames is being deliberately provocative or if he is just being Eames. For as long as Arthur has known him, Eames has had a habit of touching anything and everything around him, including his own body. He chews pens, rubs his nose, strokes the stubble on his jaw, tugs his earlobes, scratches the back of his neck, and flips that damn poker chip around in his fingers. If Eames didn't slick his hair down, Arthur suspects, it would stand up at crazy angles from his fingers raking through it at regular intervals. He is also casually touchy-feely with some, but not all, of his teammates. Arthur has stopped agreeing to work with Eames and Yusuf together, in part because Eames can't not poke Yusuf's round belly or elbow him in the ribs to make a point. He can never seem to keep his hands off of Saito, either (though Arthur can't fault him for that part), and he takes a particular delight in tugging Ariadne's hair and tweaking her pert little nose.
He seems to know better than to try this with Arthur, which Arthur somewhat resents. The most intense physical interaction they'd ever had was a sparring session several months before this job came together, after Eames noted what he said were some weaknesses in Arthur's defensive technique. He might appear soft to a casual observer, but Arthur knows that under the mauve shirts, the Received Pronunciation, and the sleek hair, Eames' skills and aesthetic are pure prizefighter, and that he is lightning-fast and deadly with his feet as well as his fists. It was only practical to take his advice, Arthur had told himself, secretly relishing the bruises Eames left on his body.
"If that would help you, I wouldn't mind it," he says, abandoning his effort to be tactful, but Eames doesn't seem to notice.
"Ah, brilliant. Their reservation is at 8. Let's plan on 7:45. Bring extra rand, the bartender will seat us where we can observe them if we throw some her way."
"Fine," says Arthur, and then he can't restrain himself. "You are going to wear actual clothes, right?"
Eames deliberately looks down at his bare chest and feet, then back at Arthur, amused. "Nah," he drawls in an American accent, and gives Arthur an honest-to-God wink.
Arthur, flummoxed, opens his mouth to say something rude -- he's not sure what, but it will be cutting -- but nothing comes, and he subsides. He pointedly begins typing into the spreadsheet, ignoring a low, mirthful chuckle as the forger pads away.
Fortunately for Arthur's sanity, Eames' catlike affinity for grooming soon drives him into the shower in the other cottage. When he returns, his hair is wet and he's still barefoot, but he's wearing a shirt again. From the faint herbal scent that trails him around, it's clear that he has used more of Arthur's grooming products; but Arthur is determined to get some work done today, so he says nothing and continues scanning the instant message logs between Kluwers and Supriya. Eames was right. There is something off about that relationship, but Arthur isn't sure what it is just yet.
He creates a new file in his directory, saves all of the IMs, emails, text logs, and other messages into it, and then prints the whole thing for Eames because Eames perversely prefers reading hard copies and creating extra mess for Arthur to shred and burn after the job is completed. He is somewhat mollified by Eames' sincere expression of appreciation when Arthur hands him the two-inch-high, warm-from-the-printer stack of paper, and then irritated all over again when Kefilwe returns with their food and Eames leaves greasy fingerprints and peri-peri sauce on the crisp white printouts.
By 7 p.m., Arthur himself is feeling more than a little in need of a wash. The afternoon has remained warm and his hair and clothes feel wilted from the heat and the sea air. He has thoroughly reviewed all of Kluwers and Supriya's correspondence, and the tone is just ... off ... for a couple who have been seeing each other for several months. However, Arthur is not exactly an expert on long-term relationships, and he still doesn't quite know what is striking him as wrong about it. He finds he's actually looking forward to discussing the issue and seeing if Eames can shed any light on it.
For his part, Eames has spent the afternoon sprawled on the couch and at the dining table, steadily working through the documents Arthur gave him and occasionally murmuring into his voice recorder in Swahili, which he knows Arthur doesn't speak. Arthur can't decide if Eames is trying to be thoughtful (not to distract Arthur) or maddening (because Arthur can't help listening to the dark purr of Eames' voice even if he can't understand what it's saying).
In the shower, Arthur spits into his hand and masturbates hurriedly and silently, leaning forward with his left hand braced on the shower wall and hot water running down his back. After, he slumps his forehead against the wall, trying to pant quietly. On a malicious impulse, he decides to use Eames' shampoo instead of his own. He regrets this as soon as he has dried off and dressed. It's disconcerting to smell the distinctive orange and lemongrass fragrance every time he turns his head, as if Eames is constantly hovering just over his shoulder.
When he emerges from the bathroom, he is startled to find Eames himself waiting in the hallway. The forger pointedly sniffs the steamy air wafting out of the room behind Arthur, and Arthur has a horrified moment of thinking he can smell that I jerked off before he realizes that of course Eames is recognizing the scent of his shampoo.
"Wanker," Eames scolds, clicking his tongue, but his tone is more delighted than censorious, and he gives a friendly shove to Arthur's shoulder before heading into the bathroom, where he leaves the door open while he rifles through his sponge bag. He doesn't find whatever he is looking for in there, and before Arthur knows it, Eames has nonchalantly taken Arthur's toiletries bag off the counter and is hunting through it. He plucks out a tin of pomade, uncaps it, and slicks up his fingers before it occurs to Arthur to object.
Eames has changed into fitted pinstripe trousers and a slim black t-shirt, the sleeves rolled slightly so that they hit at precisely the broadest point of his biceps. The dark fabric hugs his massive arms, his thick shoulders and chest, his trim belly, his full, firm ass. Arthur really can't formulate words right now, so he merely watches as Eames steals his hair product and runs it through his hair, which he leaves tousled and sticking up and utterly unlike his normal sleek plastered-down style. It shouldn't look nearly as gorgeous as it does; it takes five years off of his age and makes him look cocky and provocative.
Eames rinses and dries his hands, then turns his head to look at Arthur, who is still standing, speechless, in the hallway.
"Sorry, were you finished?" he asks, when Arthur continues not saying anything.
Arthur thinks, I want to climb you like a tree, but he only nods, turns around, and walks down the hall to his bedroom. He closes the door, sits on the bed, and stares at the wall, confused.
He can't fathom where this overpowering, primal sort of lust has come from. With women, Arthur is attentive, appreciative, adoring. He loves silky hairless skin, the softness of breasts and belly and buttocks, gentle scratches from manicured, painted fingernails, the tickle of long hair in his face. The other men he's dated have been much like Arthur himself, slim and handsome and clever and flexible in bed, clean-shaven and more devoted to cardio than to free weights. He's always had a healthy sense of desire, has enjoyed sex and been more than satisfied with his lovers of both long and short durations.
He's never before felt this urge to bite, to mark, to lick and taste a lover's sweat; never been this keenly aroused by another person's scent. It's throwing him off, destroying his focus in a way that deeply unsettles him. He'd thought jerking off in the shower would take the edge off, but the sight of Eames in that tight shirt, his hair carelessly tumbling over his forehead, has keyed him up all over again.
There's a knock at his door. "Arthur, everything all right in there?" Eames sounds puzzled, and really, Arthur can't blame him. Ordinarily, Arthur is a badass motherfucker, stoic and unflappable, efficient and dangerous, but today he has had all the confidence and suavity of a marshmallow.
Arthur pulls himself together, or at least manages to create a convincing facade of pulled-togetherness. After a deep breath, he opens the door and says, coolly, "We'd better go, or we're going to be late." He hands Eames a wad of bills to bribe the bartender with and brushes past him and outside the cottage.