Prompt: fear, overwhelmed, touch, fall, bonds
Word count: ~5, 300
Rating: PG [ inform me if you think it ought not to be though, please ]
Warnings/notes: IDK if anyone does this - I know I am guilty of it (especially with angst) but in this case it reeeeally does ruin....everything if you skip to the end....um so please...don't? ;-; mildly inspired by ~Sandman (Gaiman) -particularly Death because derp fusion? lmslkssdk orz
Thank you to wrenton and canyousayhot for taking a look. Any remaining errors are mine or stylistic hooplah.
When Death shares her secret with you, then it's time.
That's what he grew up knowing. Arthur is seventeen when Death comes to him and he says that it isn't how he thought it would be and Death says that that's alright.
They are on a train that travels across water, the tracks lost somewhere beneath the surface ripples, and Arthur peers out trying to get a good glimpse at the stops but everything appears like a Rorschach test and eventually he gives it up, takes a seat in a row of three empty passenger asides and folds his hands on his lap. Death perches her chin in her palms and watches him. At first he wants to call it cat-like and then he decides she's more like a creature he simply doesn't have a name for, but Death would be like that, he supposes with more composure than any seventeen year-old has the right to possess.
"Will you miss anyone?" she asks.
He thinks about it for a moment.
"No," he admits eventually, and Death shakes her head.
Being dead isn't all bad, Arthur decides after the first year but after the first decade he changes his mind, decides that it's terrible and instead of sticking to the Outlands as all of the dead are supposed to, he starts to look for ways out. He learns the maze of the Outlands until he could trace it in the dark and because the immortality of death renders change obsolete, the realm never changes. Very few have ever tried to escape and Arthur doesn't think too long on why that must be. They fear something, perhaps, but Arthur didn't know much of fear when he was alive. It follows that he finds himself unable to employ it when he has already died.
What more is there to be afraid of than this?
He's not upset so much as anxious, overwhelmed with a need to be anywhere else, so he blends in until he nearly disappears, planning his escape like a 25-to-life convict (something he wasn't in this life but will be in another.)
The one time Arthur escapes the Outlands it is, as Fate might have it, by accident.
He's standing in the middle of a Manhattan intersection getting run over by about twenty taxis and it takes him a too long moment to get himself out of the way. Not that it matters, him being dead and everything, but he has the memory of how a living body's eyes react to oncoming traffic and it's not a comfortable feeling to harbor while traveling the Earth anew. There is an alienation running through his transparency that he did not expect to feel. In truth he hadn't felt enough of a home here to think he had the capacity to feel foreign, but here he is - several hours later, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge and wishing he could feel the breeze he can see rifling through people's clothing, hair, and laughter.
I miss being alive. It hits him and when it does, it is the first thing that makes sense since arriving.
It's midnight and he's standing in that same spot, his hands a simulacrum of holding onto the edge, standing like a guardsman at his harbor, as though his imagined duty is enough to anchor him there. The sky and water are the same shade of blue-black and they melt into each other the way Arthur imagines lovers might, the way he thinks that they should - not that he knows anything about that either.
It's two-thirty in the morning and he's still standing there.
It's five o'clock and Arthur can see the wingtips of pre-dawn perforating the darkness - gray light, which seems to be made of the same stuff that he is.
It's six o'clock. He can hear the morning beginning its metropolitan din and, finding that being on Earth makes him no happier than being where he supposedly belongs, decides to go back.
That's when he turns around and runs right into someone.
The man is a stranger but familiar in the way that even strangers (especially strangers) often can be. His eyes match the pre-dawn.
"Careful there," the stranger says and Arthur does something he would never have done in life; he reaches out, fists his hand in the folds of the man's shirt where they gather at the crook of his elbow. It's New York. Arthur wouldn't blame him if he shook him off and called him a lunatic but the man doesn't. He just watches and soon Arthur finds his voice again, digs it out of the bottom of a well he didn't know he'd dropped it in until now.
He says, "You can see me. I'm...you can see me?"
"Yes," the man says carefully and his look shifts from neutrality to that of someone dealing with a cagey animal. Arthur supposes that's not far off.
"But I'm dead," he blurts out and feels as ridiculous as he deserves. Had someone said that to him in life, he would have taken them somewhere less potentially suicidal than a bridge and called it a day. His hand still firmly entrenched in the man's shirtsleeve, Arthur waits for much the same treatment.
Again, it doesn't come.
"What makes you think that?"
"Just me. Why are you asking me," he stops, wonders how he's speaking at all, how he suddenly has a body to house breath and a heartbeat, but not enough room to contain all of this feeling he fails to account for - something like relief and a heaviness that makes him want to cry. Arthur isn't one for crying, never was in life, held himself older and higher up than he was - years ahead on a fast track to Columbia University when an icy slope and another driver pulled it all out from under him. The reality is that he doesn't miss the opportunity, feels no bitterness for the man who lived due to school or would-be futures riddled with prestige, but holding onto this stranger he feels a pang of something sour for the simple fact that the man got to live at all. Up until now he has only missed living, but now he regrets dying and though parallel, these two things might as well be worlds apart.
Carefully, the man covers Arthur's hand with his own - a broad span much like his shoulders, the entirety of him in fact and Arthur gets the impression of being smaller than ever, wondering how much of that he can blame on being dead.
When he looks up again he is met with the full, brunt force of the stranger's eyes and Arthur feels wrecked without knowing why.
He says, "I know it sounds crazy."
"Yes, it does." The other man laughs and removes his hand with a grace unexpected of someone his size.
"So why are you--"
"Come on," he interrupts with such a sharp look back over his shoulder that all Arthur can do is comply. The whole way there, his feet never quite touch the ground and along the route, this stranger buys a paper from a vendor named Freddy and stops in for tea at a shop run by a girl named Ariadne. There, Arthur learns that the man goes by the name of Eames and he files this away as something important - more important than a name ever has been. ("Inherited it from her parents," Eames explains under his breath as they exit and his tone doesn't seem to leave the topic up for further discussion, so Arthur leaves it be, glancing back and thinking that the girl has an honesty about her he can see as clearly as the flashes of green in her eyes - that she seems young, but then, so was Arthur.)
Eames' apartment is a two-bedroom railway, the bedroom at the back then the second bedroom which is a painting studio of sorts, then the living area that opens into the kitchen and the bath slotted in between. Arthur hovers in the entryway until Eames looks back expectantly, at which point Arthur tries to shut the door. He can't. A minute later, Eames walks over and closes it, giving him a once-over with slightly narrowed eyes.
"What?" Arthur prompts, bristling under the proximity of the attention even though he knows he asked for it by coming here in the first place.
"No one else could see you," Eames observes.
"You shouldn't be able to see me either."
"And..." This time Eames is the one to reach out, catching Arthur's chin between his thumb and forefinger, tilting it up and Arthur in life would be glaring but in death he just stares back - unflinching, grateful for the semblance of warmth, for the contact at all, that someone can touch him instead of going right through him - just another proof to his nonexistence. The moment is brief and when Eames reclaims his hand, he runs his fingers through his own hair, looking just this side of uncertain for the first time since Arthur laid translucent eyes on him. "Are you er....an alien then, or something?"
"No, I'm dead. I already told you."
"Yes, well you'll have to channel some patience. Certain things are easier to believe than others, even for me." His hand goes from his hair to rubbing down over his face, finally circling to the back of his neck where it curls. Arthur moves past him like a whisper, headed for the studio he doesn't know is a studio yet. Strong fingers wrap around the narrow of his wrist, pull him back, hold him in place, but he keeps his eyes straight ahead. "No, you can't go in there," Eames says and it's only after Arthur stops trying to resist him by moving forward that Eames lets him go.
When Arthur shakes out his wrist, Eames apologizes but Arthur stops him midway.
"Don't. It's fine," he says and then, "I kind of like it," as he peers at the slight redness there - already gone in the next second, his skin see-through once more. Eames arches a brow so Arthur continues, "I just...I never liked people touching me. When I was alive, I mean...but now it's like...I don't know. Can you miss something you've never had?"
What Eames thinks is, you're too young to be dead, but what Eames says is, "Touch is something we've all had, whether we want it or not. You may have had less of it because of your aversion, but even touch by observation is something. We can look at it and decide that we want it for ourselves, or not. You had decided not," he pauses, pinches the bridge of his nose and looks away. "But I suppose it's easier to miss when it's no longer an option."
"Yes." Arthur moves toward Eames. "I wonder why you can see me." And touch, he thinks, but doesn't say.
This time, Eames laughs, shakes his head and starts to walk the way Arthur had been meaning to go. "Perhaps one needs an especially open mind." He pauses at the door-frame. "Stay there."
Arthur stays for one day and then two and then a week and then a month. Arthur stays for two months. Arthur stays for half a year.
He learns that Eames never holds his coffee cups or tea cups by the handles, that Eames hates white bread, that Eames thinks the Impressionist Era was a philandering joke, that Eames loves his mother more than Arthur ever knew how to love his and that he visits her grave once a week - always alone, that Eames is a voracious reader and almost insultingly academic, that Eames is a professor which explains the academia but none of the painting or his tendency to be perennially late to his own classes - something that makes his students love him even more and Arthur wonders if Eames might have been his own teacher (had he lived) because Eames teaches at Columbia. He learns that Eames always falls asleep with his bed light on and wears embarrassing socks. He learns that Eames was once married and that he still keeps in touch with his ex-wife, that they're friends. He learns that Eames believes in ghosts and he learns that Eames wants to go to Paris, that when he made the jump from London to New York it was his first and last time out of the U.K. and that he wishes he had traveled first.
One evening, while Eames is in his studio and Arthur is in the living room next to it, he says, "So why don't you go?"
There's a thick pause and then the clack of a palette being put on the ground, the click of a brush on top. Then Eames reenters the room and the general airy spatial quality seems to fill with him, a bright, sharp weight that Arthur wishes could soak into the bones and blood and skin he only has when Eames' hands are on him, the way they find their way to him now. It would be wrong, disgusting, sickening perhaps, but where Arthur no longer even exists for everyone else, he steals back his own life with Eames' fingers pinning his wrists above his head and Eames' mouth sucking evidence of blood into his skin in the form of dark bruises that litter the clean length of his neck, bruises that disappear the second Eames lets go. Arthur died when he was seventeen but he feels much older now.
He worries (knows) that this can't last.
"How did you do it?" Eames asks one night and Arthur, ghosting around the cat Eames has been stuck watching for a little over a week, courtesy of a man named Yusuf ("Some friend you are," Eames had said to him and Yusuf had laughed and said, "I try to keep you occupied," like the inside joke that it was) pauses in his play at poltergeist.
"Escape," he says and Arthur settles himself down in the corner as if he can feel the ground beneath him. He can't - only with Eames - but he knows all the ways to pretend that he can.
"How do you know this isn't what all ghosts do? Just wander around," Arthur suggests, and Eames chuckles deep in the back of his throat.
"Call it a lucky guess."
"I don't believe in luck."
Arthur watches Eames apply another layer of strokes. It has been ten months since he first arrived on the Earthly plane again, one month since Eames finally let him into the studio. (In prior months he had led Arthur through, walking so close behind him that Arthur could feel his breath on his neck, the weight of his fingers flat across his eyes - warm and safe in the dark.) He would bite his lip if he could.
"I don't know. I was looking, I was." He frowns at his hands, examines the way he can see newspaper and splotches of paint right through the centers of them. "But I don't know what caused it." To this Eames only hums an inarticulate acknowledgment, so Arthur stays silent, reaching out to grab at the cat's tail as she passes by, to no avail.
It has to be at least two hours later that Eames says anything else and it startles Arthur, his gaze snapping up as Eames asks, "Think you'll have to go back?"
He thinks on this. By all rights, security should have found him by now. He has every reason to hope, to believe that he can stay like this, a second life of sorts, but the memory of a gut feeling pulls him back, and he bows his head, shoulders lifting then lowering.
"I don't know."
"Ah," Eames says and then stands away from the canvas. "What do you think?"
Arthur doesn't recognize himself at first. It has been a long time since he was able to see himself since he has no reflection to speak of, even when Eames touches him; they've tried. On top of that, Eames has depicted him sleeping, which ghosts do not do. It is only with Eames' arm curved around his middle, his even breathing a calming repetition, that Arthur can, and even then it's restless as if some part of him knows he's not supposed to be doing this anymore. The second Eames breaks contact, he is as incorporeal as all of the stories and a few times at the beginning he would wake up in an unbridled terror he couldn't explain, returning to himself slowly as Eames took his hand and said, you're fine, I'm here, you're fine. Rendered in a series of blues, grays, and whites, Arthur supposes it looks like him, trusts Eames' eyes over his own at any rate and nears the painting, as if he has the actual risk of touching it, ruining the line and shape there.
"It's good," Arthur says and then, "But you shouldn't paint ghosts. I'm sure there's a superstition about it." He is only half joking but when Eames doesn't answer he has to peer over, and he almost recoils from the hardened off look there, a look he couldn't read if he spent ten years trying to figure it out.
Eames says, "It's in case I need something to remember you by."
Arthur raises his right hand until Eames raises his left, watches his own take on a healthy flesh tone, the solidity of someone real.
"I guess I understand that," he says quietly and laces their fingers.
They say you can't prepare for death, that when Death comes to you she comes to you because nothing lasts forever except perhaps the stories we tell about each other. Death comes and she's not your friend but she's not your enemy either. Much like Life, Death simply is. Having finally experienced a life he feels constitutes the worth of being called one, Arthur thinks one night while watching Eames sleep, that he understands a little more of what that means. Eames has scars on his back, across his ribcage and one on his arm amidst the swirls and scrolls of ink that seem as natural on him as eyes and ears look on other people. When Arthur once asked him what the scars were from, Eames only told him that he hadn't always been a professor, and they had left it at that.
Minutes later, Eames wakes to Arthur tracing the one on his arm with his mouth - a slow line of kisses, like he plans to make a map of the older man's skin and designate a route by memory of touch. He lets this continue until Arthur reaches the narrowed off end of it, then says, voice rough with sleep, "Learn anything?"
Arthur says, "I think so."
It's December and not nearly as cold as Eames tells Arthur it is in February. The year is decent for snow and a generous layer remains on the sidewalks because it's early enough that they haven't been cleared yet. Eames is crossing the street with another paper from Freddy, and that's when it happens. A car is rounding the bend, and Eames hears but he's not fast enough.
He slams into Eames and maybe this is the kind of thing only ghosts can do after all - be fast enough when the laws of science say this only happens in movies.
Eames and the paper crash into the curb and when he looks up there are sirens and a horn blaring and people gathering from God knows where and Ariadne rushing across the street asking him if he's okay but he can't answer. He keeps looking for Arthur.
But Arthur is gone.
In a week, the bruise Eames had to remember him by on his right side is gone too, so he drags out the painting from where he stored it when Arthur admitted it made him uncomfortable - reminded him of dying even if he couldn't remember precisely what it had been like, only that it was too soon.
"So is this," Eames says and feels too old for being imaginative or stupid enough to believe in ghost stories, definitely too old for being in one.
"Are you going to tell me what's wrong?" Ariadne confronts him three weeks later.
"I almost died. Does that count?" Eames replies and Ariadne fixes him with such a look that he has the grace to lose his pretense.
"That's not it."
"And how do you know that?" he asks, some sliver of anger working its redness into his voice, weariness too.
"Because!" she slams the teacup down and it's fortunate that it's after-hours or a dozen or so regulars' image of her would be nicely shattered, even if the teacup isn't.
"Because I know you. You think nobody does but I know you and you look like," she gestures with her hands as if she doesn't know what to do with them before crossing her arms tightly like she's holding herself together. "You look like...like the way I think I look in all the photos right after my parents died." She bites her lip, her brow pinched tight. They don't talk about this. It's an unspoken courtesy between them, has been ever since Ariadne took over the shop Eames had been coming to for years before, and as a result knew her from when she would run in just to say hello. They don't talk about this.
Until now, it seems.
"Has anyone ever told you how wretchedly observant you are?" he laughs and Ariadne thinks it doesn't sound too different from crying.
"I get that sometimes," she says, the rough insistence gone out of her, replaced with something older than she looks, older than she is - patience maybe. She pulls up a chair, sits backwards in it and perches her chin on her forearms, watches him with a directness many adults will never achieve.
"Do you believe in ghosts, Ariadne?" he asks and it's tentative in a way she doesn't associate with Eames so she takes her time in answering, sits up a bit straighter, arms lowering, hands absently curling around the back bars of the chair.
"I don't have any reason to not believe in them," she says at last.
"How diplomatic of you," Eames says and rubs his temples.
Minutes pass and then a quarter of an hour and then half. Ariadne makes him tea and Eames says nothing else until it really is time for her to go home, but on the way out she adjusts the collar of his coat and tugs on his scarf a little too forcibly, gets his attention.
"You don't have to tell me," she pauses. "What happened, I mean." Again, a pause as she presses her lips thin and tucks some flyaways behind her ear. "But you have to tell someone. Okay?"
Eames has never been one for being pushed around, for doing anything he didn't want to, but Ariadne does know him and it strikes him as singularly unacceptable that it's taken him this long and this circumstance to recognize it - that he's made a friend half his age and that she's worried about him. He says the only right thing there is to say.
"Of course," and then, "...thank you."
He figures Ariadne will find gratitude a lot more useful than an apology, at least this time.
She tugs on his scarf again and then drags the hat on his head a little too far down. "Good. Also, get a new hat. This one makes you look homeless."
Then she's waving and heading in the other direction, and Eames stands there a while longer, staring at the intersection where he last saw - no, where he last felt Arthur.
"Where did you go?" he asks.
It starts to snow again.
Where Arthur is, it is also snowing. The street looks like the one where he last saw and felt Eames, the last place he felt alive.
"Where am I?" he asks.
He's been asking this for years.
There is no answer.
Life and Death have an agreement: that the boundaries exist for a reason and that there can be no exceptions, that once in a blue moon when someone does escape, when they come back (they always come back, meaning to or not) they must accept a penalty that equals what they gained in reaping more life than was theirs to have.
Arthur in his first life knew what it was to be alone, and in his half-life he knew what it was to be complete.
The place he is now isn't really a place.
It's just a feeling.
They call it loneliness.
When they finally let him come back to the Outlands, Arthur is more a ghost than ever.
Death asks him, "Was it worth it?"
It takes him a while to answer. He hasn't had to speak to anyone in so long. But this answer is one he knows, would spell it out in sand or blood or ink or whispers if he could; he knows this better than he's ever known anything in life or death, knows it like someone has stuffed someone else's heart inside him, and he can't take his back - doesn't want to - so he finds the time and he finds the word, gives her his answer, the only answer.
Arthur says, "Yes."
Yes, it was.
Decades later, Death whispers her secret to Henry Eames and the first thing he does when he reaches the Outlands is look for Arthur.
A year later he can find no trace of him, not even rumor of any other ghost knowing him.
Five years in, Death looks the other way and Fate tiptoes in on cat feet, winds around Eames' leg and he can feel it.
"You're not a ghost," he says.
No, Fate says, I'm not.
"What do you want?" he leans down, scratches behind her ears.
He's not here.
"What?" His hand stills and Fate obliges herself, rubs her skull against his knuckles.
He's not here, the one you're looking for - the lonely one.
Eames has been knifed before. He thinks the feeling he has now is considerably worse and he can't speak.
The lonely one.
It was silly, he guesses, to think that if ghosts were real then an after life was real, that if Arthur had escaped from some place then perhaps he had gone back to it and that one day they would see each other again. Before Arthur, Eames had never been sentimental, had gone at life at a wear and tear casualty to a fault, even with his teaching - never quite investing in other people (Ariadne and Yusuf two very separate exceptions) because other people were fascinating but ultimately too selfish or too stupid or just not enough in a way he couldn't articulate, for all his verbal prowess. Yes, it was silly to think that they would find each other again. He knows it was, but that hadn't stopped him from digging his heels into the thought. Now he can't get it out of him.
"What?" he asks again.
No one stays here forever, Fate sits back on her haunches, tail snaking back and forth behind her.
"But where...?" he can't seem to manage complete sentences anymore at all.
"But..." his voice cracks and he's too old for this. He's too old.
Patience, is the last thing Fate counsels him with and licks the instep of his wrist, right over where a pulse would be felt, were he living.
Then she pads off into the shadows.
Eames never hears from her again.
A century passes before Eames leaves the Outlands. In a hundred years he doesn't try to escape but he reads a great deal (it turns out ghosts have their own form of acquiring literature) and he tells the story of meeting Arthur to different spirits, the restless ones especially. He leaves out the particularly personal details but he tells them the specifics of Arthur that made him real - ghost or not - that he had dimples only when he smiled out of joy, that he took his coffee with so much cream and sugar that he might as well have had chocolate milk, that he loved classical music and hipster indie bands with equal verve, that if Eames stayed close to him long enough to do so Arthur would sleep until one in the afternoon as a rule of thumb, that he hated the rain even when he couldn't feel it, that he always felt Eames should have more basics in his wardrobe - by which he meant solids that didn't cause retinal damage.
He doesn't tell them that Arthur didn't live long enough to have a favorite food to remember but when Eames would hold him, Arthur's spine pressed to his chest, he would feed him things sometimes just for the taste and it turns out Arthur had a thing for plums. He doesn't tell them that Arthur would ask Eames to sit with their arms touching so that he could hold and read a book himself. He doesn't tell them that Arthur, one night falling asleep said love you. He doesn't tell them that he regrets not saying it back.
When he leaves, Death opens the door and winks at him.
She says, "Good luck."
Eames gets the strange feeling that she means it.
The year is 2003. Henry Eames - thirty-six years of age, divorced and current S.A.S. member - has, with little to no explanation for why, been enrolled in a program in cooperation with the Americans on their soil in some nowhere base located in the state of Nevada.
He's nosing around the dormitory assigned to him and someone else - a native, when the door bangs open. Thoughtful, he ducks his head out of his room to see who it is.
"Hello," he says.
"Hi," the stranger says and his dark eyes seem to search Eames' face before he gestures with his key. "It was jammed."
"I see that," Eames says and finally walks out of his room.
"You look familiar," the flatmate says and Eames arches a brow.
"I have one of those faces," he says easily but bites his tongue on so do you.
"Guess so," the stranger says and unshoulders his one duffel bag.
"Is that it?" Eames eyes it with some misgiving, having at least a suitcase himself.
"Ah." The intonation is more of a hum than anything and perhaps something about it is suspicious because the other man's eyes narrow. "Well, do I get a name or shall I call you Lives Light and Breaks Door?" The stranger who seems too familiar to be truly strange tilts his head.
"Henry," Eames offers his hand. "Henry Eames."
"Pleasure," gets accompanied with a handshake that surprises Eames by being strong and certain.
"And yourself?" he prompts, toeing the line of amused and annoyed. Brown eyes stare at him a moment longer.
Their hands fall away slower than necessary.
Time doesn't work the way that people think it does. There is time on Earth and then there is time everywhere else. Death and Life and Fate know this better than any other entities.
Somewhere, a boy named Arthur is still learning about loneliness.
Somewhere else, a professor named Eames is still learning about regret.
And yet another place, Arthur and Eames are meeting for the first time all over again, and it won't be easy.
But there is every chance it will be worth it.