title. When I Was Astray
rating. PG-13 for Content
pairing. Mal/Cobb, Mal/Eames
summary. Mal woke up, but Dom didn't.
warnings. AU. OFC.
Mal never remarries.
The state tells her she can, that her marriage to Dom would be easily dissolved and she could free herself from the mysterious vegetable that is (was) her husband. But she refuses for so many reasons and she stays close to the hospital that has become his home in the aftermath of their disastrous adventure into Dom's mind.
She visits every other day – every day had sent her spiraling, made her angry and desperate – and Eames goes on the ones she doesn't. Sometimes Nash visits; he mentions a few times that all they'd need was a few hours alone with Dom, a damn good chemist, and they could find him.
"You know it's wrong that he's lost in there..."
It hurts her each time he says something. Like someone has wrapped their hand around her heart and is squeezing it, tighter and tighter, until there's no way it can beat as it should.
"I want him back, but if I get lost with him." Pause. "Phillipa and James have lost Dom. They cannot lose me too."
So she goes every other day and hopes that her voice will draw him back from the depths, knowing it won't, then leaves when it gets to be too much and goes home to the children. She cooks in those hours between seeing him and not, cleans and shops and carts James to tee ball (when she tells Dom this, she wonders if he ever dreams of their son as older than the precious twenty-months he had been) while Phillipa demands rides to the library. Demanding, she tells him over and other, that's what their nine-year-old is.
When Phillipa is sixteen, she finally asks to see her father. Mal is shocked a bit at first – James has seen Dom (skinny, sickly looking, pale Dom) many times through the years – but she tries not to let it show. She just nods, calls Eames, and works out a day and time that wouldn't disrupt the medical staff's routine.
"How was school today?" Mal asks when she picks up Phillipa; James is in the backseat, looking benign.
James shrugs, flicking dark hair from his eyes. He's growing into a fine young man, Mal thinks, like Dom and not: he likes clean lines and suits and preppier clothing, he color-codes his classwork, and he says he's interested in business. Mal has her own opinions (she takes jobs still, every once in a while, and she's always been good at knowing a great point man when she sees one) that she keeps to herself.
Phillipa says, "It was fine. I've got to design a maze before tomorrow though."
Mal chokes on what she'd like to say. Hey, her daughter's a dreamer, an imaginative young woman, and she can't help if she'd always hoped Phillipa would cultivate an interest in abstract architecture.
The car goes quiet as Mal guides them through the early afternoon traffic, curses at a few of the more aggressive drivers, and they're all still silent as she glides into the nearest parking spot. Unsurprisingly, the open spot had been beside an older silver car with a license plate that says KAZUA in dusty red.
"Uncle John!" James laughs when he sees the car, sees the man emerging from the driver's seat.
She clucks her tongue at Eames after he greets the children. He looks tired, bruises marring his scruffy face, and his shirt is hanging a bit looser on him; she knows he's been working a job (one of the few he takes), heard through the grapevine that he'd gotten into something that no one else that no one else had wanted to touch. She wonders if he regrets it.
He smiles at her like old friends do. "Darling."
The hug is brief, a few seconds spent saying hello, and they're off, the four of them, like they're truly family. Like they're a set of parents taking their children to see a sick relative, which breaks Mal's heart as she thinks of all the years Dom has missed. All the milestones and moments.
She refuses to think of the sex she and Eames have indulged in from time to time and how she'll explain that to Dom. (She's human, she's needed the contact and so has he.)
Mal's rambling thoughts come to a close when they enter Dom's room. She watches Phillipa as the door opens and hopes her daughter won't be scared, will take what she sees in stride, but Mal prepares herself just the same for Phillipa to turn around. To say she can't do this. Either reaction is okay, the therapist had told Mal.
"She's confronting so many issues that just saying she wants to see him is a step. If she flees, she still made that step."
In her mind, Mal repeats those words, over and over.
But Phillipa doesn't run. She enters the room with her face set, eyes jumping along the walls as she takes in all the pictures Mal has carefully hung; from behind glass, Phillipa can see her own smiling face and there's crayon art near the ceiling. Nearly every square inch of wall has something on it that bears the mark of either herself or her brother. Her mother has apparently been quite studious in making sure their presence is here for their father should he wake.
She spends several minutes with her mouth stubbornly shut and then, in a moment Mal will replay on her eyelids for days to come, asks, "What happened to him?"
She doesn't know how to explain. Where the hell would she start, anyway? The part with Mal joining the military in order to use their think tanks to work on her postulations about shared dreaming or the part where her father introduced her to a graduate student of his named Dominic Cobb?
Mal closes her eyes at that thought. God, but it feels like a lifetime ago that she was that woman, the one who'd been smitten by a charismatic man with aspirations of creating grand buildings. They'd seen each other in snippets that first year; she'd been in the military, chasing something down rather than waste her time in grad school getting a degree in some field she had no interest in, and she'd had to go where they sent her during the search for subjects.
It's how she'd found Eames, a quiet soldier in Britain waiting for his discharge papers to come. It's how she'd found Nash, Penelope, Robert. Saito.
Their friends, so loyal and kind, had been there at their wedding and they'd been there in the aftermath, when the project had gone to shit.
She groans and drops her head into her hands, reaches for the phone.
There'd been four architects, two forgers, and a chemist back in the legal days (before Extractors and Point Men were needed) and of them, Saito had been the best architect. Even better than herself or Dom or Nash, he'd had a knack for creating the landscapes, the dreams, to the point where people often had a problem telling the difference between the dreamworld and the real one. Now, he runs a firm in Japan; they're in the process of building a new tower in Kyoto that will rival Dubai's newest world-record-settin skyscraper.
Still, Mal knows, for her, he will answer the call and he does. In sleepily accented French, he says hello and rustles about, then makes mindless chitchat for twenty minutes. They talk about Phillipa and James, the latest news coming in from the underworld (ah, corporate espionage), and when they run out of safe topics, Saito asks, "How is Dom?"
"He's growing weaker." She wipes at the tears in the corners of her eyes. She's always known that this is what was to happen, in time, that Dom's body would begin to waste away – worse than it'd been in the early years – and he'd become an old man while she was still young. "Phillipa's asked."
She doesn't have to elaborate.
"I'll be there soon."
It is this moment that Mal will look back on in the future at the moment she regrets the most.
It takes a week for the team to gather at the house: Nash and Eames are there first (of course), then Saito and Robert arrive the day after. Penelope comes two days after that and brings with her a man she makes moon eyes at, Yusuf; their chemist has never before been so smitten with anyone, male or female, and it lifts their moods to tease her at first.
"Mom!" James yells out as he and Phillipa slam through the backdoor.
She lets out the breath she's been holding, calls them to the living room. She stands while she wrings her hands and when both of her children (her beautiful, inquisitive children) are before her, Mal pops the PASIV case open and says, "I want to show you why your father isn't here anymore."
Six years pass.
Phillipa's moved to Paris to study architecture. James has graduated with full honors from Harvard.
Mal stops spending her days hoping for Dom to wake and prays that he doesn't; his heart would break were he to see what he's missed and at least in his dreams, he's lived a life where his children knew him.
She stops taking jobs and finds work at the University, thinks about selling the house (which she won't), and doesn't say no to a date with John now and again. Her father, elderly now, tells her he's glad she's moved on despite how sad he looks as he says it; he admits he's visited Dom every holiday of every year since Dom dropped into limbo, trying to atone for what Miles'd failed to teach.
"It's not your fault, papa. It is mine."
"It's mine, for never explaining the risk."
She moves on, stuffing her PASIV into the back of a closet with the top that'd been her totem (the one she'd spun thousands of times since this nightmare began) and she lets go.
Phillipa doesn't. She remembers that day vividly, the one where her mother had strapped an IV to her wrist and shown her a world of impossibility. The day that her mother had explained that her father had been lost to the depths of his own subconscious; that there was a truth he'd known, that he'd locked away inside himself, and chosen to forget.
And when she finds the PASIV on holiday break six years after the story'd unfolded, Phillipa's mind is overtaken with an idea.
She recruits Uncle John to her cause in whispers, makes him promise not to tell her mother until she has figured out the appropriate words to explain her plan. She does the same with Uncle Saito and Uncle Robert; Penelope and Yusuf, she's seen only once since that day and her hands shake as she hides in the basement amid boxes of her father's old clothing (clothing the hospital's sent home because he's too thin to fit in them) and dials their number, but they both agree to help though Penelope cannot enter the dreamstate – somnacin is not recommended for use by pregnant women.
Nash is last; she's had to steel herself for this conversation, knowing how adversed her uncle is to coming out of retirement. They've discussed, several times, that he'd been addicted to the dreams, that he's glad to be free now. But when she tells him why she wants him, that it'll just be brief, he agrees with the admission, "For your father, I'd go down that rabbithole a hundred times if it'll bring him back."
All on board, their architects and forgers and chemists, she just has to tell her mother.
"No. Absolutely not. His mind has degraded. He's probably lived a dozen lives with no recollection of the ones before – he will be awash in chaos and you could get lost down there. No."
Time for the big guns. "Mom, I'm going to do this with or without you."
"You can't watch him or us all the time."
James. "I want to know him. Even if it's for a second in a dream. Let us have that."
When they go in, it's with Penelope there to monitor and the rest comfortable in their parts. (They're going in as young men again, the old team members; Phillipa's chosen to keep her age and her face and call herself Ariadne, and James calls himself Arthur, his twenty-year old frame aged nearly a decade more to fill out the three-piece suits he favors these days.)
She wishes she were with them, not because she misses the way her skin had snapped back once upon a time, but because she wants to see Dom's face when the children explain who they are. When Dom is forced to realize that his world isn't real and he has one last chance to come back, before his heart gives out.
(The doctors have explained, to be clear, that Dom's heart could rebound; the muscles are weak and they need to be exercised, but the only way to do that is to get Dom upright, walking, living. If Dom woke up.)
Slowly, each of the team pops awake, the dreamworld falling away. It's been hours and hours and it's close to the time that visitors are asked to leave, but Phillipa and James remain stubbornly asleep; the clock is winding down, seconds ticking by in long moments and even though the somnacin colors everything in a haze, every last one of the team holds their breath as the clocks zero out.
They're two levels down, time moving so quickly. Decades go by and with each passing year, Phillipa ages and changes the projection of herself that her father's made. He lets her do it; his subconscious is never threatened by either herself or James' presense in his thoughts, which tells her so much.
Dom never realizes what's happening, though; he sees the projection children looking more like Ariadne and Arthur – both of whom have never aged – but never seems to connect the two until one day (long after the inception "job") when Ariadne walks up to the twenty-two year old Phillipa and steps right into the projection. Their features blend together seamlessly; it takes some finagling for James to do the same but it happens.
"Dad," Phillipa starts.
He races for the top, still spinning twenty years later on the kitchen table, and blinks at it several times. "It fell. I heard it wobble and fall."
James reaches out, touches Dom's arm with his fingertips. "Dad." On his wrist, the seconds hand ticks rapidly and he knows they're going to hear music soon; they can't let him go into shock. "You have to listen to us."
"No." James shakes his head. "I'm James, dad. And that's Phillipa."
Dom's eyes flick between the two.
"We came to take you home," she tells him, the first strains of non, je ne regrette rien filling the air in soft tones. She sees when her father hears it as well and prays, hopes, that it helps him to realize the truth in their words.
The sky begins to rumble; the sign that they need him to transform the landscape so they can improvise their kick before they're lost down here.
"My children are..."
Phillipa sets her eyes on him, stern and unyielding like Mal's so often were. "Dad."
Every now and again, Dom slips up and calls James Arthur, calls Phillipa Ariadne. He'll forget that Mal's alive, that she hasn't tried to hurt the children; he forgets that they aren't young men. His heart still gives him problems and he isn't allowed to be alone.
Where Mal had once fretted about her children, she frets for her husband. She hires babysitters for him and hides the PASIV; when he tells her he wants to go back to that world, she tells him he's better off here, with her. It's a lie – the stress of his care has brought her to the brink and she finds herself crawling into bed with John more and more – and a bittersweet lie at that. Sometimes (in darker moments) she wishes she'd never agreed to help her children to bring him home.
She wishes she'd never told them about the PASIV and layers and architecture and all the things that go along with the life she had almost, almost, moved on from.