Mal/Dom, Arthur/Eames. Many thanks to sprat for beta.
Mal was right.
Dom had feared that something of his life had seeped into his bones; that the track marks on his arm had left him addicted to adrenaline and deception, creation and fear. He finds instead that letting go is easy, like grains of sand pouring between outstretched hands, rasping between sieved fingers until all that is left is the faintest trace of dust.
He speaks with Arthur, upon occasion. Guides Ariadne on a single tour of his home, her footsteps falling hesitantly on floors she should not already know. Hangs weathered postcards from Mombasa and Tokyo and Staffordshire from his fridge with plastic alphabet magnets.
He spends his days sitting on the back porch in the sun, and watches his children run. Phillipa's hair flies back in the golden light of the setting sun as his own greys, and James laughs bright notes that carry clearly on the faintest of breezes. They play. He loves them. Phillipa clamors up into his lap and he gathers her close with tremoring hands. I love you, Daddy, she says. Tucks her head close under his chin, smelling of lilacs and fresh air. I missed you, as he runs liver spotted hands through her sun-kissed hair. His breath rattles in his chest. I'm so glad you're home, she whispers as his heart slows, stops, and his eyes drift shut one last time.
We'll wake up together, she promises him.
Our children are waiting for us. Our real children.
Her shoe toes off easily, a rush of air running along the arc of her foot. A simple thing, this caress, this touch. Why would she bother to dream it, to dream the flutter of her dress against the back of her calves, the cold press of concrete behind her knees, the bead of sweat that rolls down the nape of her neck?
We'll be together.
Dom is crying.
A leap of faith.
He blinks. He's in a warehouse. In an apartment. On a train. He can smell his daughter's hair, feel the sun on his skin. Like a dream he can't wake from, a haze of smoke that lingers in his nose and in his clothes.
One last chance to go home.
He begins again.
She blinks. The light has changed since she closed her eyes. Her limbs are heavy, eyes weighted and counterweighted. She is lying atop their red feather duvet, sunlight cutting across it in stripes, bands of shadow falling across her skin (still smooth, though several hundred years have passed). Eames is sitting in a chair by the door, reading a newspaper draped across a single crossed leg. She tries to speak but her mouth is dry, parched, like there is sand on her tongue and the air that rasps through her throat is drifting dunes. The catch in her breath must be enough to catch his attention, because he is at her side in a moment, glass in his hands, water trickling across her parched lips.
The water is tepid and flat, tinny, as it if has been sitting out for a very long time. Her lips part. She brings her hands up to his, to the bottom of the glass. The red wire of the PASIV trails across the fine bones of her inner wrist.
Easy now, Eames is murmuring. Easy.
Dom lies beside her. He doesn't move.
Mal brushes her teeth, her hair. It seems impossible that it has hardly grown, that it has not lost its colour or luster. Her hands shake on the taps and her eyes are the only thing in the mirror that she recognizes, wide and frightened like an animal's. She startles when she first hears her children's voices spill into the home, as Arthur escorts them carefully in. They wrap their arms close around her and laugh.
Arthur, still at the door, tilts his head in silent question. No, Eames mouths, presses his lips tight. She cannot even pretend not to cry.
I shouldn't have done it without him, she cries. I should have stayed –
If you'd waited, you never would have left, Arthur tells her. His voice is brittle and flat and it is only because she loves him so well that she hears the hurt and anger that crack the surface.
You're needed here, Eames says.
Arthur's throat works. Shhhh, she says, brushing his hair back from his forehead.
This is how it goes:
They slip in and out of dreams, pushing further in and deeper down and farther out. Worlds fall at their feet and tapestries weave themselves about them and they search, calling, waiting for Dom to hear.
Every night, Phillipa and James somberly kiss their father goodnight before bed.
In the years they spend between kisses and rising sun, she hears her name, sometimes. Whispers and echoes she thinks she pulls from the cliffs and skies with her longing. Arthur's eyes grow heavy, bruised, and Eames' fingers drum and flick constantly. Bruises darken their hands, wrists, forearms.
They can't go on like this.
I can't do this any more, Mal says. I have Phillipa and James, and I – if I – what will become of them?
She has one hand pressed to the window frame. Her eyes are blank. She thinks it might be raining outside. You should go. You should –
You won't get lost again, Arthur says. He is sitting on the couch beside Eames, hair falling loosely forward and elbows on knees.
Eames scrubs a hand over a face raspy with stubble. Stop trying to spare us when we all know you won't give up yourself.
I can't ask you –
Arthur shakes his head. You don't have to.
Her father brings her Ariadne.
Ariadne, she knows only from her husband's subconscious – she was pregnant, State-side, swinging lazily in a hammock while her husband introduced her father's brightest student to the intricacies of layered mazes and towers of creation.
Her father has forgiven him for this only now.
They follow nightmare traces and cologne shadows further down, running before the echo of bullets and shaking of earth. They find him in Mombasa, Paris, New York. One at a time or in pairs; last as long as they can before the projections rip them apart.
(He's looping, Ariadne says. She has drawn mazes for him seven times. Mal has put a bullet in her brain thrice, a knife in her side twice.
The other two, she was too late.)
Of her husband's projections, Mal wants to say this: These are not your people. These are not your friends. Every quirk or quibble elevated to defining trait and she wants him to remember Arthur, barefoot in the sand and tie loose, or Eames with a book of Tennyson slipping from slack fingers as he drifts deep into sleep, sprawled across their overstuffed chair.
He doesn't, of course, and Arthur's buttons are always done and his hair perfectly slicked; Eames makes endless bawdy jokes and sharp comments.
It is perfectly normal, of course, that he is lost. That a man named Saito commands armies of faceless men and pulls him from the danger they present and Dom follows him down, down, down.
It is the human mind. It is human nature. To wander lost and create meaning.
It is human, it is normal, and she is angry at him for failing to be better.
Sometimes they find nothing but a trail of blood and broken cityscapes. Sometimes water drips slowly from the single tap in a bare jail cell. Sometimes Mal takes a bullet between the eyes while staring into a face that looks everything and nothing like her own.
Sometimes, when she sees him, Mal breaks. Raises shaking hands to his face while he stumbles backwards and says No, no, no. Sometimes she screams and swears or puts a bullet in his brain in return.
If only it were that easy.
Dom is like a swimmer drowning, gravity gone, tossed by the waves and pulled by the currents until he cannot tell the surface from the seabed, kicks out until his hands brush sand and he takes it for the shore.
Mal tries to tidy the edges of Dom's unattended mind. Skyscrapers fall and iron rusts and waves break upon the shoreline; parks overgrow and tree roots break through pavement and cobblestones.
She tries to mend the damage but she is neither architect nor dreamer of her husband's mind.
And so the tower of Pisa leans.
And so, when they bring him there, he falls from it.
One of Dom's projections of Eames calls Arthur darling.
Phillipa starts second grade. James plays silently at the foot of his father's bed. They still kiss him goodnight. Arthur drives them to school and Eames cooks breakfast and Ariadne's late nights grow fewer and fewer until Mal's father tells her that his best student has taken a leave of absence.
The landscapes they run through become ever sharper and brighter, soaring and rich with detail. Oil slicks in puddles and birds in flight, insects that crawl across flower petals in impossibly vivid colours. Looping Necker's cubes of mazes that almost guide them home.
Mal, who spends most of her days dreaming, does not sleep at night. She knows the weight of every creaking board in the house but does not pace it; afraid that she will disrupt what small measure of peace the others can claim.
She spends her nights in the sunroom off the house, lying on her back amongst the shivering plants and drawing impossible constellations across the night sky. Sometimes she crawls into bed with Phillipa or James and presses wet cheeks to the crown of their soft, sleeping heads. Sometimes she falls unconscious in the master bedroom where her husband still sleeps, kneeling on the floor and arms draped across the covers, his hand tight in hers. Wakes with a blanket tucked tight around her shoulders.
Tonight, she steps soft through the halls, bare feet cold on the hardwood floors, to outside his door. There is a murmur of voice inside and she can see that the pulled out sofa is abandoned, woolen blankets pooled at the foot and pillow on the floor.
Arthur, then, she thinks, but the voice that drifts out is Eames', low and almost imperceptible. There is a crack in door and she leans in closer, balanced on the balls of her feet with one hand on the cool wooden frame.
She sees nothing more than a sliver of movement, of life – shifting of a suit coat, a hand soft against a pale jaw.
Darling, she hears. Love.
Darling, one of Dom's projections called Arthur.
A whisper, maybe, but something drifts through.
A sketch left out of Ariadne's bag shimmers with depth and perspective.
Arthur and Eames move slowly, so slowly into each other's orbits.
Phillipa and James laugh easily, cry at skinned knees and names called and sticks thrown, and kiss their father goodnight.
Mal sits, collapses, shakily, onto the bed.
A leap of faith, she murmurs into her husband's ear. Curls around him as she has not permitted herself to since she woke. Allows herself to feel a slow, glimmering thread of hope.
This is how it goes:
They slip in and out of dreams, pushing further in and deeper down and farther out, and they know that they will find him.
And in doing so, they find themselves.