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A Darker Tinge

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Dot didn’t even know it existed for weeks.

The first time he caught sight of it, it was just a blur, a shapeless blip on the radar. The nurse was gripping his own forearm so tightly he could hardly slip off to a closer vantage point. Besides, what business did he have looking at what might or might not be emblazoned on Steve Arnott’s upper arm?

The pop-up blood donation clinic around them spun, a heady mixture of bleach and iron and something darker, something that began to feel a bit like regret.

---

By summer, Dot had almost forgotten about the dark splotch, labelled it as another Arnott unpredictability and moved on. He barely lingered on it when he meticulously scrubbed his own biceps in the shower, for example, and it was far from his mind as he splashed red wine into a glass in his otherwise empty apartment, dark liquid seeping across and staining the cheap particle board dining table. No, he seldom thought about DS Steve Arnott at all.

But the pair of them didn’t make it any easier on him the second time around. Barely catching himself in time to avoid being seen, Dot ducked behind a partition, unsure exactly what situation to which he had become an unwilling witness. When he peeked out from behind the wall he felt an uncomfortable sense of deja vu; this same body of his, in another emotional state and at another time, stood in this same office and observed his junior officer at a distance, going to great lengths to spin unwelcome conclusions about his behaviour for the higher-ups to weave into their tapestry of suspicion. Institutional corruption, he thought derisively. The phrase was redundant, but for them to suspect Arnott—Arnott, who had never so much as received a slap on the wrist for accepting a free toffee—Dot couldn’t help but think they wouldn’t be able to recognize the wolf if it stood before them in the lamb’s bloodied skin and howled at the moon.

Looking across the dimly lit office, the Dot present in this moment observed that the two bodies shifting in constant motion, pressing and groping, were almost indistinct except for an obvious difference in scale. One was tall, though scrawnier than himself, and the other was noticeably compact, barely making it to the first man’s shoulders. Dot sucked the breath in between his teeth sharply, interest piquing despite his better judgment, wondering exactly who Steve Arnott was snogging after-hours on the relatively open floor of AC-12.

Preoccupied as he was, Dot couldn’t fail to notice the darkly inked outline again. Since when does Arnott have a tattoo? And it was definitely a tattoo: its sharp, straight lines, coupled with the way it failed to shift or distort under the other man’s hands, left no doubt. Something rose in his throat as he observed their bodies locked in struggle, all frantic grasping and muffled whispers: an almost maddening desire to shout out, interrupt them, tell the other figure to open his eyes and look down at the body in front of him before it was too late.

---

Dot was having a rough time being back among his former colleagues. He was being too casual, too coolly detached from those around him, and he knew it, but Christ, it’s difficult to stop a wreck that’s already in motion.

But one day Arnott’s cell phone rang, a marked contrast from the usually silenced work devices common among police officers, and it was like the electricity was spliced into his own body instead, snapping him out of whatever dream world he’d been living in for the past few months.

Almost before he knew what his body was doing, he was slipping across the office, hands in his pockets, movements languid and serpentlike despite an inner sense that he was hurtling towards perilous territory. His arrival at Arnott’s desk was marked only by the sergeant straightening his spine somewhat, still bent over the papers. He coughed slightly, unsure yet what words were going to come out of his mouth, and Arnott turned to face him, all hooded eyes and pursed lips.

“I apologize for my mobile, sir, it won’t happen again,” Arnott stated, polite but curt, the appropriate tone to take with a superior officer with whom you have no history whatsoever. Dot resented that, and maybe that’s why he struck.

“DS Arnott, it’s my duty to ask that you provide a superior police officer with a copy of all permanent bodily markings, tattoos, scars, or otherwise, in order that we might exclude these markings from others matching their description in our database.” Lying had always come as naturally to Dot as bleeding.

Arnott reeled back for a moment, shocked. “How d’you know about my tattoo?”

Dot cocked an eyebrow at this, inwardly thanking Arnott’s impulsiveness and ever-present inability to resist his bait.

“Do you always challenge senior officers making reasonable requests, sergeant?” he asked, a note of danger in his voice as he placed emphasis on the final word.

“No, sir,” was the reluctant response he got. He watched Arnott’s eyes flicker downwards, calculating the situation, then leaned in closer to him, attempting a conspiratorial air.

“Course… you could always just show me, me being a senior officer and all. Handle it off the record, for the sake of discretion if you will.”

Arnott’s head snapped up, an unreadable look in his eyes. Dot matched his gaze and the two of them sat fixed for a moment, the fluorescent light casting shadows down onto their faces. Finally the edge of Arnott’s mouth quirked up in what might be amusement. He leaned back in his chair, considering the offer, and Dot took a moment to sweep his eyes over his desk, taking in the tangle of wires and witness files and chewing gum wrappers, the smattering of tacked-up clippings from previous cases on the partition wall. The things that Arnott holds onto.

“Buy me a drink first.”

---

The two of them stumbled out onto the street just after midnight, the moon bright above the surrounding brick buildings.

“Where?” Arnott asked, turning to look for a more secluded area. Dot spotted a small park not far away and inclined his head, mumbling something incoherent under his breath that sounded like an invitation.

They stopped under an elm tree, its trunk protecting them from the view of most passing cars, as well as the occasional passerby. After the noise and laughter of the pub, the moment suddenly felt quietly electric, as though the universe between them was shrinking, pulsating, calling them into another frequency altogether.

Arnott, half-drunk on cheap lager, had his back to the wide tree trunk and a dizzying smile on his lips as he glanced up at the lanky figure before him. Dot shot a furtive look behind them, checking for any unseen onlookers in the darkened park, before turning his attentions back to the other man. He tilted his head forward to indicate Arnott should step further back, maneuvering him closer to the tree and further from any watchful eyes. The pair of them were somewhat unsteady on their feet, and as Dot shifted his weight, following Arnott into the shadow of the elm, he nearly tripped, surging forward so that his chest made direct contact with the smaller man’s shoulder and ear.

“Shit,” he muttered, peeling himself away and regaining his footing, his body feeling scorched where it briefly touched Arnott’s. He instinctively reached out to dust him off, brushing at his shoulder, then drew back as the other man lets out a puff of laughter, gaze shifting from the threads of his navy suit to the base of his throat and upward. Dot swallowed, tried to regain his drawl. “So. Let’s see it then. What’s up-and-coming Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott been up to while I’ve been away?”

The smile faded slightly from Arnott’s face as a flicker of embarrassment seemed to cross his mind. The blush on his cheeks was barely visible under the dim light of the moon and the twinkling streetlamps. But he was trapped, well and truly trapped, and he knew it; not by the other man’s body, but by some sense of fatality, a helplessness in the face of Dot’s easy charm that had been leading him to circle this moment for years. It was the first time he had admitted to himself the gravitational pull he felt, the irresistible urge to argue, to rebel, to attempt to shift the force between them so he could judge whether Cottan felt it too.

There’s only one way forward. He began to tug at the sleeve of his suit, scooting it down his arm until the jacket was hanging half-off. Aware of Cottan’s eyes on him, he shifted his gaze toward the buttons at the top of his shirt, fingers trembling as he struggled to loosen the collar. The alcohol was a good excuse. When he managed to get the material slack enough, he began to wriggle his shoulder out, palm pressed tight over his upper arm.

Arnott opened his mouth to attempt to explain, offer a disclaimer, make up any other reasoning for the tattoo, but when his eyes meet Cottan’s, he fell silent, suddenly unable to think of a suitable lie. The taller man reached out without breaking eye contact and gently pried his fingers away one by one, thumb resting lazily on the back of Arnott’s hand, then waited. Arnott understood the unspoken message: show me yourself.

He slowly drew back his palm, fingers still fixed in Cottan’s grasp, feeling exposed even amidst all the shadows.

Dot finally broke the prolonged eye contact, eyes darting over the rounded slope of Arnott’s shoulder and upper arm, falling on the goosebumped flesh tinged with dark ink. His gaze slowly traced over the sharp lines, the short serifs at the base of the letter, the quick upward strokes that mark out meaning, connection. His gaze turned back to Steve’s face, questioning.

“Now what are you doing with the letter M tattooed on your arm?” He asked, too curious to add any real taunt to the question. Before it had always been too far away, blocked or concealed in some physical manner, an icon of the distance between the two. Now he had Steve here, nearly pinned under him, it seemed almost insignificant, as though it had taken on some greater symbolic weight and now had set it back down again.

At first Steve didn’t meet his eyes. “I get tattoos to remember things.”

He shifted from foot to foot, fingers still intertwined with Dot’s, took a deep breath. “Things. People, sometimes.”

Dot wasn’t sure what it was: the hint of bravery in Steve’s voice, the feeling of smaller, cold fingers trembling under his own, the way Steve’s dark eyes jumped up to meet his from under short, straight lashes, the night, the alcohol, the year spent apart and the years before that spent pining. Whatever clue it was in that particular moment, he was suddenly sure, more sure than he had been of anything else in his life, that the small piece of black lettering on Steve’s upper arm was more than a souvenir, an icon of some bygone experience or long-forgotten fling. It was something Steve intended to carry with him.

“It’s…” He paused. Then, not for the first time, he ducked down to the other man’s eye level, complete seriousness in his face and voice, the only antidote to the anxiety that suddenly seized him. Being wrong would be impossible, unbearable. “...Matthew?”

On a more level playing field height-wise, Steve’s gaze flashed back and forth between Dot’s eyes and lips, taking in everything, his cupid’s bow, the faintest suggestion of a dimple, the way his drawl drew his smirk back all lopsided. He smiled once more, drunkenness betraying a softer side to his disposition than he usually revealed among colleagues, whether in the office or not. “Steve?”

He expected Dot to snort, to throw his head back or roll his eyes, some display of derision to remind Steve that they were not, after all, on the same level. Instead his breath caught for a moment, and then a bright, wide grin broke across his face as a chuckle bubbled up, seemingly without his permission. Steve only had a second to consider this strange new side of Dot before hands were at the back of his neck, the small of his back, Dot’s forehead pressed against his own, eyes searching his, waiting for a reaction. Steve tilted his head upwards until their lips met, arms somehow finding their way around Dot’s neck, eyes closing instinctively as he melted into a kiss he’d long thought ill-timed, then impossible, then simply unwanted.

The tattoo on his arm prickled slightly in the cool night air. Steve smiled into the kiss, the welcome juxtaposition of Dot’s warmth against the lingering chills of memory. A good investment.