"He's Been to the End of Time and Back"

"You may want to hold on to something, Arthur," Eames says, already gripping the lever, and Arthur frowns.

"Why?"

"We're traveling through space and time. It's worse than the Red Eye on a hangover."

And Arthur has just enough time to wonder if aliens can get hangovers before the TARDIS lurches and he has to grab on or topple into a monitor.

-—-

They go to London and it looks little like the one Arthur remembers.

But then, the year is 2077, which means he hasn't been here in . . . sixty-nine years, he calculates. Little more than half a century.

Time flies.

"I thought I'd start you off small," Eames—still Eames, always Eames, the idea of even thinking of him as anything else makes him cringe—says, pulling on a jacket and snapping the doors shut behind them.

Arthur blinks, and looks back at the city. "This is small?" he asks.

Eames just steps in front of him and grins.

Of course it is.

Ignoring him, Arthur moves deeper into the square. He's been here, plenty of times, back on the McKinley job, and he knows what it should be. Knows the names of the tiny family owned markets and where to get a good salad. But the buildings are all different—some with additions, some with divisions, some gone entirely. The names are changed, the corporate world dominating over the mom-and-pop one. There's pretty much, putting the memory side-by-side with the view, just a bench as he remembers it. Older, more carvings on the wood, but there.

He rubs his hand over it, just for a moment, and Eames bumps his shoulder.

"Fancy a drink?"

Arthur shrugs. Shoves his hands in his pockets and keeps them there.

He's already decided: he is not freaking out.

"They still have drinks?" he says, as steady as he feels (he is not freaking out). "They don't just inject the alcohol right into your system?"

"On some planets, sure. Earth, not for fifty years or so. Come on, I'll buy."

(He is not freaking out.)

-—-

Arthur's room is two doors down the left side of the right of the third hallway on the left, and it's styled like he dreamt it himself. A king size bed with a down comforter (deep burgundy) and matching sheets of silk (or something like it). Eighteenth century paintings of naval battles he can lecture on if he wanted to on the walls. A bookshelf, mahogany wood, nearly bursting with books: Garcia Marquez, Murakami, Tolstory, Palahniuk, Vonnegut, Dickens. Anything he could want to read.

It's all too perfect and he asks, "How did you do this?"

"Didn't. The TARDIS is good like that."

". . . It's a machine."

"It's the TARDIS, actually, and you'd do well to say, 'Thank you'."

-—-

They order a bottle of scotch but other than an initial pour for the sake of it, the alcohol remains untouched. Arthur's found a game, one that requires his undivided and undiminished attention: "Have You Been Here?"

Arthur can't play, but Eames is more than willing to do it all, everything from:

"Rome. Augustus' reign."

"In and out all over the period. I never liked him though. He had awful breath. Ovid, though, I've had quite a few good times with Ovid."

and:

"Mesopotamia."

"Gorgeous. We should go, Arthur, after this—you'd love it. All those Ziggurats."

to:

"Here, England. Queen . . . Elizabeth's reign."

"Oh God, you don't want to know. Really."

And they play for ages and Arthur does not freak out. He knows he's sane and he knows he's awake but his hand is steady as he twists his glass on the table. He is not freaking out, because this is Eames. Just Eames. He's different than the Eames Arthur felt sure he knew. He knows most things about everything, rather than just a little about some things. He's been to every corner of space and every second in time, to the end of time and back, rather than just whiling his life away in whatever casino is open. But it's Eames. Eames who grins like he's got a crown of gold and diamonds on his head, Eames whose eyes travel down the waitress' blouse when she bends over the counter to steal some straws from the bartender.

This is Eames, he thinks, when he invites Arthur to feel for himself his two hearts ("Why would you look completely human and have two hearts?" "So quick to judge a book by its cover, Arthur. Maybe I've got two of a lot of things you humans have only one of.") and each palm's got a drum beating strong underneath it.

This is Eames. Just Eames, same as always. Arthur is not freaking out.

He's not.

"We should go," he says, drawing back, and Eames takes a second to process it but he shrugs and slides off the stool.

(He is not freaking out.)

-—-

"So how old are you? Really."

"Why? Do I not look 31?"

"You know what I mean."

"I do, but you're thinking in very human terms, Arthur."

"Then answer in non-human terms."

Eames sighs. Drops his head back against the ground as his eyes search he stars, and Arthur wonders what he's looking for. Whether whatever it is is even still there, or there yet.

Eventually Eames says, "I'm apparently not old enough yet."

And Arthur's not completely sure what that means but he knows it's probably the truth.

-—-

When they get out of the pub, the first thing Eames says is, "Now, admit it, Arthur. That wasn't so bad."

"I didn't say it was bad."

(He is not freaking out.)

Eames just smiles though, in a patronizing way Arthur quickens his pace to escape. "I said it was impossible," he corrects, over his shoulder. "'Impossible' doesn't mean 'bad', last time I checked."

"Fair enough. In case you haven't noticed though, Arthur, I prize myself in doing the impossible."

You always have, he thinks, as Eames continues, "So if that's going to be a problem—"

"—Then what?"

Arthur stops, turns, and nearly bumps straight into the Brit but he doesn't apologize. Just waits for an answer, and it comes, slowly, after Eames scratches behind his neck and looks away.

"—Then maybe you shouldn't come."

And there it is.

(He is not freaking out.)

"I thought you already picked me up," Arthur says.

And Eames answers, "I could drop you off. Right where we came from."

A car passes by, high beams on and blinding, and Arthur takes the chance to look away. It's not flying though. It's the first time he really thinks about it, how, counterintuitively, he would have thought they could by now.

At least, he thinks about it until he realizes he's not sure if he's disappointed and relieved, which only puts him back at the beginning.

(He is not freaking out.)

"Arthur—"

"—I'm fine."

(He isn't.)

He really isn't, freaking out that is, so Eames really doesn't have to come any closer with that patronizing smile and—

A scream, high and piercing, of "Doctor!" stops the thought. Stops everything, as he and Eames look around. No one's around but them and Eames turns to him and asks, "You didn't happen to hear where that came from, did you?"

Arthur shakes his head.

"Didn't think so." And with that, Eames takes off. He doesn't look back or say a word; he acts like he knows Arthur will just follow him.

And Arthur does.

(He is not freaking out.)

-—-

"What did you usually do?"

"Define 'do', Arthur."

"Before this thing—"

"—the TARDIS—"

"—this blew up."

Eames laughs a little, just to himself, that way he always does now when Arthur asks these things. Like he's heard it all before, like he knows it's coming and has just been taking bets on how long it'd take. "Same sort of thing, really," he says (like he's said it all before). "Just a little different. Sometimes I just think it could blow up. Sometimes I'm trying to keep it from blowing up. There was the time I didn't exist—that was sincerely perhaps the most boring experience of my life."

". . . You're screwing with me."

And Eames smiles and says, "Always, but that doesn't make it any less true, darling."

-—-

They search for hours.

In allies. In stores. Even underground, deep in the sewers, which isn't fun for either of them as Arthur ruins his suit and Eames runs his hand over the walls like he's mourning the dead (he doesn't explain, even when asked, and it's the first time in years Eames isn't quick to bare all; he just says, "It doesn't matter. It hasn't happened yet.")

But in the end, they find nothing. When they climb out, it's daylight, and Arthur feels he could bathe for ages and not be clean. Eames is even worse, but he doesn't seem to mind (he wouldn't).

He's instead staring at the TARDIS, which has apparently come to meet them.

"Eames?"

"You're going to have to tell me how you picked up this new trick of yours, lovely," Eames whispers, and the tone (soft and smooth, like a lullaby) helps Arthur realize it's not directed at him, but the TARDIS. He doesn't comment though. Plenty of people speak to their cars, and at least Eames isn't stroking it like he did earlier. He just asks:

"It doesn't usually show up like this?"

"It can. If it wants," Eames answers. He steps closer, inspecting. "But not usually, no. Which—"

He stops, and though Arthur can't catch his expression he can take a guess since Eames flings himself into the TARDIS, expecting Arthur to follow again.

And again, with a quick glance around (Goodbye, London) he does. Eames barely registers him, dancing around the room with a speed Arthur's only ever seen him employ on the field, battling off projections. Checking out knobs and monitors and switches and buttons but not saying a word.

So Arthur asks, "You mind telling me what's going on?"

"Had a thought."

It's all he gets and Arthur clenches his jaw. "Congratulations."

"One of many," Eames corrects, pulling out a monitor and turning it towards Arthur. "Look at these coordinates."

He steps closer. Most of it's gibberish, written in English but naming places and eras he doesn't know, but the year is clear: 4709. Definitely not where they are.

"It's off?"

"Like someone came in and set it. Beautifully, I might add."

"Could someone do that?"

Eames shakes his head, pulling the monitor back and giving it another look himself. "Not likely. Not normally, anyway. However, for a person who could, just for one example, scream out my name on a street and then disappear, or do so without ever being there in the first place, or—"

"—I get it. Someone not normal. You don't think it's a stretch though?"

"Of course it is, Arthur." He lifts his head up the monitor just long enough to flash a grin that says, 'Do you think I care?'

Of course he doesn't, Arthur realizes, and he feels something settle inside him, as he says, "I don't suppose it matters that it could be a trap, then."

"Now you're getting it."

He is. He really is. And so he has to ask, now or never:

"Why me?"

Eames hand wavers over the lever and falls. He slithers back from the controls and crosses his arms, every trace of the earlier excitement gone. This is Eames, he thinks. The one he knows, the one who frustrates his every nerve. It's been hard to see the difference but now, whiplash stinging, he does.

The Doctor is a man who acts like every second wasted would be an opportunity lost, gone forever.

Eames is a man who thinks all his opportunities are already gone, and cherishes them when they come.

And Arthur's not freaking out, he's not. He just knows which one he can deal with. Which one makes sense.

Which one is real, and which one seems like something out of a fairy tale or a legend.

(There are reasons fairy tales and legends are only for books.)

So, he repeats, "Why me?" and it sounds weak even his head but it's all he can think to ask.

"Do you mean as opposed to someone else?" Eames asks.

No. And, yes, because: "You could have picked Ariadne."

"I could have. I could still. Do you want to get her? I like her."

"She would like it."

"She would."

"All of it."

"Do you not?"

Arthur looks away. Eames isn't smiling but he might as well be, his eyes watching him like they'd watch a pot. Like he already knows what he's going to get; like he's just been taking bets on how long it would take and he's about to lose. And Arthur isn't freaking out, he isn't, but that doesn't help as much he wants to think it does.

All it means is that he's not sure what he is. Not about any of this. And if he has to deal with Eames and his knowing every damn thing for one more second he really will freak.

"It's impossible," he says eventually (finally). It's the only word that feels right.

"And is that good or bad?"

Arthur doesn't answer and it doesn't seem like Eames is really looking for one. He's already off, spinning wheels and pressing buttons, and it pushes the question out of him:

"Where are we going?" His voice wavers just a bit on the end, and he coughs. It doesn't mean anything.

He really isn't sure what answer he wants.

"I just want to show you something," Eames says, looking up with a smile. Not the usual, sharp lines, flashy and filthy with innuendoes. It's light. Clean. Saying something Arthur knows but hasn't ever been able to decide if he wants to hear.

He appreciates it now, though.

"All right," he says, and he grabs on to the railing behind him with both hands.

-—-

Arthur's room isn't the only one.

The hall's full of doors, like a factory line, and for a while he thinks nothing of it but these are the only doors he can't open. He can open wardrobes and bathrooms and kitchens and pool houses but he can't open Eames' room and he can't open these.

He carries the logic through and asks, "How many people have you brought along?"

A smile, fond and wistful, flickers across Eames' face."More than there are rooms."

"Where did they go?"

And just as quickly as it comes, it's gone. "Here and there."

"So it's not a lifetime pass."

Eames shifts in his seat. Fiddles with his poker chip and Arthur watches it float, knuckle to knuckle. "Things happen," he says. "Some leave, some are taken."

The chip stops and Eames stands, ending the conversation, but Arthur pushes for one more.

"What were they like?"

Eames pockets the chip, and Arthur thinks for a second he won't get to hear.

But the smile comes back.

"They were the best," he says, "and they never really knew it."

-—-

The doors of the TARDIS are still shut but Eames crams his hand over Arthur's eyes and refuses to let go. Worse, he keeps fluttering his fingers, and Arthur clenches his teeth and tries to bear it until at once:

"Eames, I will pull your arm out of the socket."

"Just wait a second. I'm afraid I popped in too soon. Or it's starting late, either one is likely."

There's a flutter of fingers against his eyelids again and damn it it has to be on purpose, it must.

"Eames—"

And there's a snap of fingers and Eames' hand falls away. In front of them is a room, lines of chairs filled with people hidden under a dim light and cigarette smoke.

"Where are we?" Arthur asks, but Eames shakes his head.

"Just go," he says. He nudges Arthur on with his head and so Arthur does, but he doesn't wander far. The TARDIS, supposedly, can't be noticed and he hope the same goes for him so long as he sticks nearby, because this event looks official. Everyone's in suits, 1950s or 60s or thereabouts. There's a man speaking in front, with accent tinging his English (Dutch, maybe, and something else) and a strong hook of a nose that's familiar, somehow. That's—

And a lithograph of impossible staircases, slimy creatures crawling up and down and side to side, is brought out by two attendants in and the applause it all suddenly clicks.

"You recognize him?" Eames says in his ear, behind him all at once, and Arthur nods. Should probably say something more but the words don't come. Can't. There aren't any, not for this. Nothing but what he thinks, and it sounds so slight:

That's Escher.

M.C. Escher, in an exhibition. Who knows which one, Arthur didn't check the monitors. He's speaking English, so probably in America or England. His one-man, in Washington? Maybe.

He wants to ask but the words don't come. Eames takes a breath and it tickles Arthur's ear.

"Arthur," he says. "Arthur who made the slow path so much faster and who doesn't like to admit he likes the impossible. You could have been anyone, I hope you know. I've seen your type all over and you really could have. A proper doctor, or a lawyer. The President. But you didn't choose any of that, not even close. You chose to work in dreams."

Eames moves even closer now, somehow, until his world is just Escher in front of him and Eames behind him, Eames and his breath at his ear, Eames and his chest warm against his arm.

"That is why you, Arthur. Because I think your imagination is far greater than you know, and certainly greater than you allow it to be."

Eames and his hand, so close to his own.

"Now, I won't lie. I can't promise you safety. I can't promise that if you die, you'll wake up."

"Could I?" he manages. "Die?"

"Anything's possible," Eames says, voice clipped, and Arthur wonders what 'anything' means. "That's all I can promise. Anything's possible. Even the impossible."

Eames' hand knocks against his own and Arthur grabs it. Lets their fingers intertwine. And when Eames grins and asks, "Onward to a possible trap?" he nods and lets Eames pull him back in to the TARDIS.

(Arthur shuts the door by hand. Baby steps. It's all he needs.)

(He's not freaking out.)

(Not anymore.)

-—-

"Doesn't it get confusing? Rolling around in time?"

"Well, I suppose it does, every so often. For example: I met you before you met me."

"That's not . . ." 'Possible', is what Arthur means to say, but on a whim he changes it. "Likely. I'm pretty good with faces. I would have remembered you."

"Well, I had a different face at the time."

". . ."

"You'll see, Arthur. Or, well, actually I hope you don't. I'm not sure you could bear to part with this face."

This is Eames, Arthur thinks, as he punches him in the arm and Eames laughs and laughs.

It's going to be fun, getting to know him.

"So," he says, when Eames finally calms.

"Where's my room?"

-—-

The Escher lithograph mentioned is "House of Stairs".

And yes, I'm still clearly insane.

Inception doesn't belong to me. Neither does Doctor Who.