In limbo, everything tastes a bit like salt. Saito washes up on the beach with rocks scraping the thin flesh of his palms and salt in his eyes, in his ears, in his suit, everywhere. His bones feel sore and he has to double check that they're not broken. This is before he remembers that he still has a bullet wound and that he's bleeding wishy washy patterns into the cold ocean water. He staggers out of the water, his fingers numb and dirty, pain beating 3/4 time against his nerves.
He's not a doctor. He might have wanted to be once, but that was before many things happened and he discovered that he was better at rubbing yen together than fixing people up. It's not a decision that he particularly regrets. True, his younger, more idealistic self might have objected, but Saito's nostalgia for the past is limited. He experiences some of it now because becoming a doctor would have been helpful with the wound, but then he clenches his teeth and pulls himself into a sitting position.
He needs to put pressure on the wound, he thinks. He fumbles with his water-logged suit and tries to rip a strip of it off. It takes him half an hour. He tries to use his teeth the way action heroes do in the movies. More salt. He nearly blacks out twice.
Does it really matter? he thinks. If this is limbo, where is there to go if I do black out?
He laughs. His teeth ache. Immortality, is it? He could sell this to people. He could set up a new business with Cobb's equipment and Yusuf's chemicals, and he could have people pay him to be drugged into limbo where they'd live in a playroom of their choosing. Saito knows those who would pay out of their teeth for the opportunity. Mostly rich, egotistical men. But cashing in on the enterprise requires getting out, and Saito laughs again. Who knew limbo was so funny?
The bleeding doesn't stop. No matter, he thinks. Even if it did, he doesn't know how to keep it from getting infected. Passivity has never been in Saito's nature but he had an uncle once who was a monk. He thinks of his uncle now and lies down on the rocks, wiping his mind clean as best as he can. The pain recedes, some. The only sound he makes is his heavy breathing. His curls his fingers into his hand and wishes he had something to hold onto. Why did he never make a totem? Well, it's too late now.
There, on the lonely strip of beach, Saito dies.
Dream space is strange. He wakes up on top of a mountain with a scar.
"What," he says flatly, patting himself down. The suit is new again. His tie is perfectly Windsor.
He considers killing himself just to double check what happens. But first, he thinks, he should do some exploring. The pain is fully gone now and so, robust again, he picks his way around the mountain. He finds a house on the other side, shaded by two full-blooming sakura trees. The house has Japanese screen doors and the kanji for peace painted on the screens. Saito touches them, half expecting an illusion, but no, it's solid.
He takes off his shoes and goes inside.
There's a sharp noise to his left. Saito whirls around. Forget a totem; a gun would be nice. He rushes at the phantom, his elbow digging into a soft neck. He uses his weight to throw the phantom against the wall. The phantom wheezes. It's a young woman, sleek-haired, wearing a two-piece business suit. "Saito-sama!" she says. "Please let go!"
He does. There's something about her that reminds him of his daughter.
She falls to her knees, so he helps her up. "Who are you?" he asks.
"I work for you," she replies.
Might be true. Saito does have a lot of employees, too many to recognize by face. "But this is limbo," he says. "You're not real."
"I work for you," she repeats firmly.
"Are you the only one?"
She shakes her head. "There are five of us. If that pleases you. We can be more."
Saito's flesh crawls. "No."
"We have a room prepared if you wish to rest. We have a meal too, tonkatsu and chikuzenni, washed down with sake. Your favourite."
"All right," Saito says. "I am a bit hungry." There's a great deal to mull over but he figures the one thing he doesn't lack in limbo is time. His shoulders shake with silent laughter as he follows the phantom deeper into the house. Fischer, you better be worth this, he thinks. But he has no blame to portion out. Saito knew what he was getting into. And Cobb still needs him. That's his get out of jail free card. Cobb still needs him in one piece, of one mind.
He'll be here soon, Saito thinks, and sits down cross-legged to eat.
He waits a week, two weeks. He composes pithy remarks to use against Cobb when he turns up. He discovers a bookshelf in a back room where the book covers are creased, as if someone's already read them. But who? He opens one of the books and smiles when he sees his own childish scrawl. He settles on the back porch overlooking the water and rereads them, all the while the phantoms bringing him tea and aloe vera juice.
He knows very little about the dreaming world. He's the tourist, after all. But he discovers during the third week that he can manipulate his surroundings. He doesn't like the way the bathroom is so far from the bedroom, so he closes his eyes and changes it. It takes a few tries to get it right; the combination bathroom/bedroom is particularly disturbing. He's no Ariadne, of course, and he suspects that the physics of limbo are fuzzier than anywhere else. But still, he's rather proud of himself.
The fourth week, he starts going wild with his imagination. He turns the mountaintop into a casino, into a brothel, into his boardroom. He paints solid colours, garish colours; he dresses up his phantoms in noh masks, in evening gowns, in plaid suspenders. He spends the entire fifth week stark naked. He gives himself yakuza tattoos and jacks off in front of the mirror, feeling like a little boy again and wondering where the hell are you, Cobb?
By the seventh week, he has a headache that won't go away. He turns everything back to the way he found it and sleeps for days at end. It's an interesting puzzle, what happens to him when he sleeps in a dream. He doesn't know the answer. It feels like sleeping in real life, except for one or two glitches where he wakes up entirely elsewhere from where he went to bed. And sometimes he wakes up sick, wracked with wrongness, though he's not sure if that's the sleeping-within-sleep part or, you know, the general attitude towards maybe being stuck in limbo until you go mad. Either one.
He waits two years until he sees Cobb. He's been imagining this over and over -- what else is there to do, right, and he's already beaten all of his phantoms at Go. But instead of annoyance and pithy remarks, he feels an overbearing sense of love that shakes his bones. Good god, I've become a princess, Saito thinks, but his eyes follow the curve of Cobb's mouth as he walks up the mountain slowly.
"Hey," Cobb says when he finally reaches the top, and could he be any slower? That trek alone felt like an entire year.
"Let's go," Saito says immediately.
Cobb looks confused.
"Did you hit your head on your way here?" Saito asks. He's sounding sharper than he would like but it's been too long. He wants to go home and Cobb's head games are neither clever nor entertaining. He doesn't like that in the dream world Cobb has all the power. Saito's riches and airlines and private islands mean squat. Saito says, "I'd suggest giving me a moment to pack but..."
Cobb doesn't smile. He reaches to cup Saito's chin and Saito closes his eyes and thinks, Ah, so this isn't real. I made this too.
And what part of him imagined this, this breaching of his personal space; the way Cobb leans into him and kisses him with a salty, cracked mouth, pain pouring from one cut to another. Cobb's tongue is as tricky as the rest of him, and he smiles suddenly against Saito's mouth, the reverberation of his chuckle sliding into Saito's spine. Saito grabs onto him and pulls him closer. He did want this. He can admit it now, when there's no one else to laugh at his folly. He did want the mercurial American with the shaded eyes and the thoughts full of mazes.
Saito touches Cobb's unshaven cheek, his sun-beaten skin, and experiences a moment of wonder at his own ingenuity. He can trick himself so thoroughly. Well, his competitors in Japan always did say that as businessmen go, he was the most cunning.
He kisses Cobb harshly, as both punishment and reminder. Then he tackles Cobb onto the porch where Cobb thumps against the wood and reaches for him again. Saito feels a moment of wrongness when he thinks about how pliable this Cobb is, but when Cobb looks at him there's still the shadow in his eyes, and Saito relaxes. Cobb's fingers tug at his tie and destroy the knot utterly, picking apart the silk to pieces.
"Did you think about this?" Saito asks. He wants to hear.
"Yeah," Cobb says. "Once or twice."
"Don't push it," Cobb says. He puts his mouth to Saito's throat and bites. Fuck, Saito thinks. The porch is hell on his back but he doesn't care. He pulls Cobb on top of him and Cobb goes willingly, still shadowed under his eyes but perfectly willing to leave a string of teeth-shaped bruises on Saito's neck.
"I want you to fuck me," Saito says, and Cobb looks at him like he's the heart of a maze that he can't quite get to.
"Okay," says Cobb. A more poetic man would have been disappointed by his curt response, but Saito hates poetry and he loves sex. He stands up and starts taking off his suit, watching curiously as Cobb does the same. Cobb's movements are economical whereas Saito's hands linger on the expensive cloth and the tailored seams. Cobb shucks his clothes aside messily, and Saito pauses at his first glimpse of Cobb's naked body.
"It's not much," Cobb says. "Sorry if you were looking for an Adonis."
"How many times have you been shot?"
"A couple." Cobb takes a step forward and helps Saito wriggle out of his dress shirt. He's careless with the buttons too, and some of them go pop; hundreds of dollars lost right there. Saito's skin flushes warm and alive. He kisses Cobb again with plenty of tongue, his fingers digging into Cobb's shoulders until there are imprints even after he lets go. Cobb levels him that steady stare once more, and then he slips one finger into the band of Saito's briefs and tugs.
The snap makes Saito moan. Cobb puts his tongue to Saito's hip, and it's like he knows that's where Saito wants it the most. He nips and bites and Saito tilts his head back, baring his throat to the open sun. "Shit," he breathes and he doesn't feel so steady when Cobb finally peels his underwear down. Saito is one of the most powerful men in the world so there aren't a lot of people he feels self-conscious for. He doesn't feel self-conscious in front of Cobb exactly, but there's a twist in his belly that's unusual. He pulls Cobb up to keep him from staring too much, and then he wraps his hand around Cobb's cock and rubs.
Cobb shudders. According to Saito's files on him, he hasn't seen anyone since the death of his wife. Which doesn't automatically mean he hasn't had sex, but Saito suspects it does. Cobb seems like the sentimental type. The real Cobb, that is, who would never be here, doing this.
Saito grimaces. No use thinking those thoughts right now. The Cobb that he does have with him puts a hand on the side of the house to keep balance. His stance widens and Saito takes advantage by whispering into Cobb's ear, "Before you fuck me though, I want you to suck me."
No okays this time. Just a nod as Cobb goes down on his knees and his tongue marks the base of Saito's cock. There's an aggressiveness to it that makes Saito's thoughts go haywire. He'd mused about Cobb -- more than mused, judging by the stains on his pants that day -- but he'd never gone as far as to wonder if Cobb has experience with men. That he had loved his wife was no doubt, but he'd had a life before her. Probably. There are moments when Saito is especially bored that he wonders if none of this is real, if they're just the projections in someone else's dream. In which case there would be no Mal, no Cobb, no Saito even.
But the mouth on his cock feels real enough and he's definitely not bored now. Cobb's mouth squeezes around him and he feels wet and slick. "You can take more of me," Saito orders.
Cobb pulls off. "What did I say about being pushy?"
"I haven't pushed. Yet."
It doesn't take long. Cobb gives head with an arrogance that impresses Saito, who's had some of the best sex that Asia and the rest of the world has to offer. He thinks about fetching a bottle of wine right now and pouring it over Cobb's mouth and his cock pushing in and out of it. He thinks about kissing Cobb after, and tasting that mixture of semen and alcohol knifed in with Cobb's memories of his wife, and it's that last night that makes him come. He pulses into Cobb's mouth and onto the pearl of Cobb's tongue, and Cobb swallows it all.
Saito's chest heaves with the effort. He sinks to his knees and says, "Now, do it now."
"There's no lube," says Cobb, so Saito closes his eyes and changes the world to his fashion. "I do love that part of the job," Cobb remarks. He nudges Saito onto all fours and grunts as he slowly makes his way in. A choked sound lives and dies on Saito's breath. He miscalculated. There's not enough lube. It burns. But it's so good and so very much wanted, and Cobb invading his body is the fitting coda to Cobb invading his dreams. Both are exciting beyond description.
The air around them feels static and unchanging. Saito's sweat falls onto the wooden planks and a splinter digs its way into his palm. Cobb starts rocking rhythmically. It's so even, so perfect, that Saito objects. "Not like that," he says and he shoves his hips back onto Cobb hard, trying to aim himself for the sweetest spot.
Cobb's fingers curl on his hips. "This is not a board meeting, Saito. You don't get to run things."
"Fuck that," says Saito. "You aren't doing it right."
"Trust me," Cobb says. Saito goes quiet.
"You're supposed to come for me," he says, and Cobb drops another bite to his back.
"Oh, I'll come," he promises and then he starts pounding. Saito yells raggedly as Cobb adjusts himself and finds what he was looking for. He's heavy and smooth inside of him, and there's all this pent-up energy just the way Saito imagined he would be. Together they're like the engines of a train, pushing pushing pushing onwards, and the force of collision when it arrives topples Saito from one dream into another.
He comes to in his bed, and Cobb is reading one of his books by the window.
"I didn't know you could read Japanese," Saito says. He sits up. The sheets pool around him and his scar.
"I can't. I just look at the pictures," Cobb replies. "Is this a mouse driving a car?"
Saito laughs. "If you like it, I've got Osamu Tezuka's complete works over there."
After the next time they fuck, Saito comes to at the kitchen table. Cobb is at the stove putting a great deal of concentration into flipping a pancake. Dream logic, Saito thinks. You never remember how you get here.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
"Making some western food." Cobb scrapes at the sad little pancake. "I was never really good at cooking though. I mostly eat out."
"It's all right. I don't like pancakes," Saito says.
"Too bad," Cobb retorts. "It's the morning after rule. You have to eat whatever I make you."
"Then can you make some coffee at least?"
Cobb points at the counter where there's a steaming mug. Saito takes it gratefully. "Not bad," he comments. "Better than my ex-wife used to make it." When Cobb looks at him suspiciously, Saito says, "What, you thought you were the only man in the world who's ever been married unhappily?"
"I was happy," Cobb says. He turns back to the stove.
"I loved her," Saito says. It's more information than he usually offers but this is a dream. There are no consequences. "We were high school sweethearts. We...uh, actually got pregnant before we graduated. I had to drop out of school and get a job. So did she."
"I didn't think you were the kind of man who would say 'we,'" Cobb says.
"I have a few surprises here and there," Saito agrees. He watches Cobb scrape a truly disgusting piece of food onto his plate. He picks up a pair of chopsticks and pokes at it. Cobb slides into the chair across from him. There are no phantoms to be seen but they're there, Saito knows, hovering within hearing distance.
"Tell me about your wife," Cobb says.
"Her name is Yukiko. Everyone thought she was such a good polite girl, but I tell you, she was brassy." Saito smiles at the memory. "I was just this clueless kid trying to make enough money to support our family, but she thought I had talent. I could become great. It was because of her that I started trying to get promotions, trying to outdo my coworkers."
"Why'd you split up?"
"We were high school sweethearts. We changed." Saito shrugs. "I was no longer sweet. She was no longer patient. We had a good time though, and we have a beautiful daughter so I regret nothing. Your children," he adds. "Their names are James and Phillipa, yes?"
"I don't want to talk about them," Cobb says shortly.
"Then we won't," says Saito.
Cobb smiles faintly and leans his elbow on the table. "Eat your damn pancakes."
"I'll give you a hundred dollars if I don't have to."
"What would I do with a hundred dollars in this place?" Cobb asks. "Other than snort a lot of crack."
"Then what do you want?" Saito asks and doesn't ask if we're not getting out, are you here to stay? It bothers him that it's unclear who to address that question to: Cobb who is not Cobb, or himself.
"A clean pair of pants. Some pancakes that aren't burnt," Cobb says. "And then after that do you think you could make me a labyrinth?"
Saito is no good at making labyrinths. His mind doesn't work that way. He's not a visual thinker, and Cobb sort of laughs in pity at his first attempt. "A child blindfolded could find the way out of this," he says. "Eames could do it. Maybe."
"I'm not so sure about that," Saito grouses, pride offended. "Anyway, I'm not your damn architect."
"No," Cobb says. "I've never fucked any of my architects before."
"I'd hope not," Saito replies. "Nash was extremely disappointing and Ariadne is much too young for you. Someone should tell her that, by the way."
Cobb looks at him.
"Don't give me that. It's obvious the way she looks at you," Saito says.
"Hero worship," Cobb says. "I was the same with Mal when she first taught me how to manipulate dreams." He pauses. "Huh. That analogy doesn't work so well, does it? But more reason not to encourage Ariadne. There's Arthur anyway."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," says Saito and returns to the design on his sketchpad. Designing labyrinths is not exactly his idea of fun but it makes Cobb happy -- well, for a given value of happy -- and he's very much eager to see the look on Cobb's face when Saito finally manages to stump him. It's like being with Yukiko again, being pushed and challenged beyond the borders of his own small life.
Cobb doesn't seem in any hurry to disappear, and the two of them spend most of their time sitting by the shore in plastic chairs drinking beer, which Cobb assures him is a solid pastime of American men everywhere. The beer is icy cold down Saito's throat, and whenever he looks over he can see Cobb bent over a worn manga, reading. "I can get you some English books," Saito offers, but Cobb shakes his head.
"I like reading these. I like trying to figure out what it's trying to say without being told."
"It figures," Saito says. He leans over and tugs on the collars of Cobb's polo shirt, turned down at the edges. "Do you enjoy anything that comes easily?"
"You're setting yourself up for another dirty joke," Cobb says.
Saito feigns ignorance. "I don't know what you mean."
"Maybe I should show you."
"That would be best," Saito says, climbing out of his chair.
Cobb doesn't sleep. Thinking about it more deeply, Saito isn't sure that he needs sleep either. If he can kill himself and come back to life in limbo, then it doesn't make sense that a lack of sleep would do him in. But it's the pretense of normalcy that is necessary, if not for his body then at least for his mind. Saito sleeps because the world would be too unfathomable if he didn't. Cobb is unfathomable. Saito doesn't know what he does during the night. If he does anything at all. Perhaps the phantoms simply cease to exist when Saito isn't around.
He thinks about Cobb a lot even when he's not around -- and for a phantom Cobb does have a lot of hobbies of his own, including rock climbing, which makes Saito nervous even though he has no reason to be. Saito mulls over the complexities of his Cobb and in his rawer moments can't help but wonder how he compares to the real Cobb. The truth is, Saito never knew the real Cobb well. He was attracted to him, certainly, and he paid people to dig up data on him and keep him informed of Cobb's movements, but he didn't know the man beyond those words on a paper.
Well, that's not true. He knew that Cobb was brave, that he loved his children, that he seemed haunted at times by past mistakes. None of that was in the file. But those details do not an entire person make. Where does this Cobb come from, what truths, what lies, and what silly fantasies?
It's unnerving, but whatever the origin Saito is glad for it. Limbo would be lonely without company and time passes more quickly when Cobb is around. Where once he used to mark his calendar for every day he spent, now he forgets about the calendar entirely. Cobb fucks him in bed, on the kitchen table, in the garden, on the beach; Saito fucks him in all these places and more. Cobb doesn't talk too much but that's fine. Even his silence is something to appreciate.
Cobb takes to commandeering the kitchen and cooking. "Mal hated to cook so it was always my job," he explains. Saito feels sorry for James and Phillipa because Cobb's cooking is awful, but he learns to hide it in new and ingenuous ways. He teaches Cobb how to cook Japanese food, which is a messy experience for both of them because Saito hasn't needed to make his own meals in years. He gets flour and paste in his hair and on his knees, and he blows Cobb while the pot is boiling.
"Jesus fucking Christ, yeah, that's--" Cobb grips the counter. "Who knew you were so good at this? You're like goddamn Batman."
"How am I like Batman?" Saito asks later, when they're thinking more clearly. "I wasn't aware that Batman gave fellatio on a regular basis."
"If he doesn't, then he should start," Cobb yawns. "I mean that you're a handsome billionaire with secret talents that you use for the good of the world."
"Sucking your dick is for the good of the world?" Saito asks skeptically.
"It's a small world." Cobb gestures around.
"Yes, you're right," Saito says. "I can make it bigger if you want. I haven't tried tinkering with the borders of limbo but you said that it's possible."
"It's possible." Cobb looks at him intensely. "But I don't want you to. This, what we've got right now, it's enough."
Surprisingly, it is enough. The Saito who was once married to Yukiko wouldn't have thought twice about it, but the Saito of recent years has grown used to the flash cars, the fancy dinners, and the exquisite women. So it's startling that he could be so content without them. Oh, he could create them if he wanted to; he's grown better and better at manipulating limbo, to the point where even Cobb is sometimes impressed. But he doesn't need any of that. He can easily spend his days down by the water drawing mazes with Cobb and then returning to the house so they can fuck and cook, in that order.
Cobb doesn't talk about his past, aside from a few references here and there -- Mal was like this, or Phillipa is like that. This is probably because Saito doesn't know enough about the details to fill it in. That realization comes on the heels of the realization that essentially he's just talking to himself. He's just waiting for his own approval, digging for information he already knows, trying to impress his own inner self. But he sets that aside, like he sets much else aside these days, and touches Cobb without shame.
Cobb, on the other hand, likes to hear Saito reminisce about his family.
"What's your daughter like?" he asks.
"Well, Hotaru is grown up now," Saito says. "We had her young, remember. I offered her a job in my company but she didn't want that. She became a computer programmer. Smarter than me and Yukiko put together." He smiles. "Much more responsible too. Yukiko used to worry that she'd imitate us. She thought she would get knocked up and settle for a minimum wage job because that's what her parents did, but Hotaru is nothing like that."
"She's your baby girl."
"Yes, yes she is," Saito says and feels sorrow like an arrow.
"Is she married?"
"Not in any legal sense." He stretches on the bed and slings one leg over Cobb's hip. Cobb is staring up at the ceiling. He looks like he wants a cigarette; he has that kind of face right now. "She has a girlfriend. A lovely young lady who works in an NGO. They're ridiculously sappy together." He pauses. "She used to have nightmares as a child. She would wake up the house with her shrieking. She thought a bad man was trying to steal her brain. Looking back, maybe someone was trying to steal from her to get to me."
"I don't know," Cobb replies. "The technology behind extraction wasn't that advanced even five years ago. I mean, it existed, but it was very crude. Mal and I helped a lot with the early development."
Saito considers his next words carefully. "I've heard, through sources, that you were in limbo once. With her."
Cobb looks up at him. There's a twistiness to his mouth and a fierceness to his eyes that makes Saito think it wasn't a good idea after all. "So I was. What of it?"
"Never mind," Saito says. "Here, let's look through these cookbooks. What do you want to burn tomorrow?"
In this way, Saito loses track of time completely.
It occurs to him at one point that he hasn't spoken Japanese in years. So for a week or two all he speaks is Japanese. He speaks it to the phantoms and he speaks it to Cobb, who just shrugs and goes along with it. Cobb is hard to frustrate or make angry. If he's bothered by something, he'll shut down and fold in on himself. Not like Saito. When Saito is angry, people know it. This is why employees used to bend over backwards trying to please him.
He fucks Cobb against the wall of their living room, and he talks to him in Japanese all the while. Cobb bites his shoulder and when Saito tries to cover his mouth, he bites Saito's hand too. He takes perverse joy in it and besides, as he points out, there's no one around to judge them for it. If Cobb likes to see Saito bruised and marked afterwards, it's no one's business but theirs.
"Tell me your first name," Cobb says into Saito's ear, and Saito groans as he spills.
"You've never asked my name before," he says when they're cleaning up. The phantoms are watching from the open screen, but Saito has grown used to them and Cobb doesn't care. Cobb is a bit of an exhibitionist when you get him going.
"I was waiting for you to offer it," Cobb says. "Then I got tired of waiting."
"Oh." Saito is charmed and Cobb's eyebrows go up, up. Saito leans in close and tells him his first name. Cobb repeats it, trying to get the vowels right, and then he smiles. And Saito is not so stupid that he doesn't know love when he finds it.
"Dom." He tests it out. "Like dominatrix."
"No, not like dominatrix," Dom grouches. "You watch too much porn as it is."
"I get my best ideas that way," Saito proclaims.
"Whatever. It was in your head to begin with." Dom tugs on his yukata, the blue and silver one that Saito made for him. When he wears it, he looks dashing and young again, even though his hair is silvering and there are lines around his eyes that are as deep as trenches. Saito feels the urge to go another round, but he's not sure if his body is up to it. Well, he could change that possibly, but the older he gets in limbo the harder it is for him to concentrate. Even the labyrinths he's making for Dom are difficult to maintain.
They don't argue, not really. In this, they're different from Saito and Yukiko, from every other relationship Saito has had. He does get angry at Dom but his anger burns bright and brief. Now that they're older, Dom doesn't stay in the house too often. He likes to wander and he'll disappear for long lengths of time without telling Saito. Saito will wake up and turn over in bed, and where he expects to find Dom reading or scribbling, there's just empty sheets and a phantom watching passively by the door. It sends chills down him. The first time, he lit a lantern and went searching the mountain for Dom. Now he knows that if Dom doesn't want to be found, he won't be.
He asked Dom once -- shouted it, more like -- where he hid.
Dom had looked at him in genuine surprise. "In the labyrinth, obviously."
But what labyrinth? After Dom is done with Saito's labyrinths, Saito always collapses them. There is nothing out there for Dom to hide in, which is why Saito fears that in those moments Dom simply does not exist. The fear wracks him until his hands feel arthritic and he's aware of the heaviness in his wrists and in the layers of his face.
Dom Cobb is a labyrinth and somewhere in him is a minotaur. Something in him is angry and dangerous, and an aging man in a house with screen doors does not hold the spool of thread that will help him through the maze. Saito in the real world might, with one phone call. But he is not that Saito anymore. He contemplates briefly the idea of imagining up James and Phillipa and presenting them to Dom, but that idea is quickly chased out by good sense.
He sighs. Well, nothing to do but wait and get tired of waiting.
"I know that sometimes I seem bizarre," Dom begins and Saito interrupts him.
"Just a bit."
"Thanks," Dom says.
"You are very welcome."
"But what I mean is, you're right. I was in limbo with Mal. And I lived an entire life with her there. So there isn't much that surprises me anymore."
Saito nods. "That is understandable."
"But you," Dom says, "you surprise me."
Apparently it's not true that you become more cynical with age, because when Saito hears that the grin doesn't leave for days. The next labyrinth he makes, he stumps Dom for thirty minutes, although maybe that's just Dom being nice. In any case, the next few days are completely blissful and they have more athletic sex than men of their age really ought to be. Saito touches the corner of Dom's mouth and smooths the lines he finds there.
A week later, Dom disappears for good.
So life in limbo for Saito returns to what it was before, which is to say, alone.
When Dom leaves, Saito starts feeling the effects of staying in limbo for too long. His body starts to feel stiff and his thoughts begin to crystallize. It's hard for him to do new things. He finds himself repeating the same actions day in, day out, except that he no longer has the luxury of being oblivious to time. Time intrudes once more and clocks begin to appear on the walls, even though Saito has no recollection of ever creating them.
The one thing he does purposely do, however, is tear down the house. It bothers him now. In its place he creates a castle patched together from his memories of Nijo Castle when his family lived in Kyoto. Those were happy memories, and thinking of them doesn't make him feel that sticky mess of love and despair that taints the rest of his thoughts. Saito sits in the dining room of his new castle and meditates on his uncle's old teachings, emptying himself so that there is nothing left to regret.
He grows older and older, and his phantoms seem younger and younger. One time, without even realizing it, he finds himself trying to recreate Dom. Surely if he did it once, he could do it again. Maybe Dom didn't intend to leave. Maybe he just accidentally stepped in between a crack and fell into someone else's dream.
He takes comfort in the phantom who looks like his daughter. He starts speaking Japanese again. She serves him tonkatsu and chikuzenni, and he works up a rough smile for her eagerness to help.
"Are you comfortable, Saito-sama?" she is fond of asking.
And every time he says, "Not really, but thank you, Hotaru, thank you."
Eventually there comes a time when it's hard to remember the specifics of Dom at all. In his mind, Saito sees a man sitting by the shore, endlessly demanding puzzles and never satisfied. Was that Dom? It all feels -- and he chuckles here, as much as he can before his lungs give out and he starts coughing -- like a dream.
The man who washes up on his shore seems familiar, but Saito lives in a dream and everything seems familiar after a while. All the faces are recycled repeatedly. He has his phantoms bring the man to his dining room, and he watches the man eat as if he is dying. It amuses Saito. But he wants to know who this man is. He takes the spinning top the phantoms found on the man's body and turns it over in his slow hands.
The man starts speaking to him. "Come back," he urges.
Was I gone? Saito wonders.
"So we can be young men together again," the man says.
This seems wrong. Saito may very well know this man, but he was older in Saito's memories and never like this. Saito stares at him, hard and no longer amused. He doesn't like being toyed with and he gets the sense that all this man does is toy with people. He even carries this thing, this toy, and Saito feels a rush of anger that transforms his body. It is that very anger that jump starts his mind, for before he can order his phantoms to get rid of this man, he remembers how angry he used to be at him for wandering away and disappearing.
Then the anger pulls back because the Dom that Saito spent all those years with was a figment of his imagination, and this Dom has done nothing wrong. He has come to wake him. Saito should be grateful.
He releases his phantoms. Hotaru smiles at him before she fades, and he presses a kiss into her hair. Then he follows Cobb out into the sun, and Cobb sticks his hands in his pockets as he waits. He seems uneasy, and when Saito looks at him more critically he stutters on his next words. Just slightly, but Saito catches it. "Is there a problem?" he asks politely.
"I was wondering something," says Cobb. "Where you were stuck here--"
"I'm still stuck here," Saito points out.
"Don't be so pushy. I'll get you out in a moment," Cobb says, and Saito laughs out loud.
"All right, I'll be patient," he promises.
"When you were stuck here, did you by any chance dream about me?"
"Why do you want to know?" Saito asks evenly. The years have given him many excellent qualities, including the ability to bluff Dom Cobb.
Cobb rocks on his heels. "When I was searching for you in limbo, I lay down and had this dream. And maybe it didn't mean anything, but we are connected together and these things overlap sometimes."
"Oh?" Saito asks. "What sort of dream?"
"An...interesting one," Cobb says and seems extra awkward, shifting his weight from one foot to another. Saito wants to grin. Perhaps there is some tiny bit of fortune in this whole fucked up mess; after all, how many people can say they get the opportunity to woo the same man twice, in two lifetimes? Up until now his world has been so small, but now it's about to get a whole lot bigger, and he is a young man again, full of possibility.
"So how do we do this?" he asks.
"Let me show you," says Dom.