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And I Am Nothing of a Builder

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And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade to keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seem to meet; the structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go

-"Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" by The Decemberists

Mal is the best architect alive. Dom is the best dreamer. Together, they do things no one has even—you know.

So of course they get married. It would be nice to say that everything's fine at first, but it isn't even fine then. Dom is arrogant and Mal is moody and pretty soon they find out Mal can't have kids and Dom never really gets over that.

They find other things to take up their time. They push the boundaries of what dreaming can do, Mal planning out gorgeous, dark worlds and Dom populating them with all the sharp things in his subconscious. It's a high. The best high. Pretty soon it's the only high.

They spend more and more time asleep, Mal's fingers slack against Dom's wrist as they dream. In the dream, she laughs and folds the world in half. His projections reach for her and she dodges away, changing the shape of the city to lose them.

Once, Dom tells her softly, "You know you shouldn't do that. Antagonizing them will just—"

She cuts him off with a finger to his lips. This is too good to stop. "Shh. I can control the whole inside of your head. Just watch."

She folds the city away, replacing it with absolute nothing for a moment, and then erecting a tall building made of glass. "Go in," she tells him.

He always does what she tells him in his dreams. He's her dreamer. She's his architect. It's how they operate.

When they wake from a dream once, Dom says, "I want to go back under."

Mal frowns. "Now? We just woke up."

Dom reaches for her and then tugs his hand back, and she wonders if touching her in the real world has become difficult for him. "Mal, it's the best thing I've ever felt, you designing my dreams."

God, she thinks, it's not even a subtle metaphor. "Yes," she says carefully, "but it's not real."

"Please," he whispers. His voice is horrible. "Design a world for me. Let me dream it. Make me walk through it. I want—I want—"

Mal never wanted this.

*

Dom calls it limbo. Mal isn't so sure what it is, because she can't remember how she got here.

It takes her a while to remember. As they build worlds together, she thinks about it. As she watches her hair turn gray, she thinks about it.

She remembers going to sleep on their living room floor while their children played outside, but that's not . . . She can't remember the world before that one, but she knows there was one. She realizes what Dom's "limbo" is. They're in a dream within a dream, but she was never meant to remember that. He dreamed the first level and she dreamed this one as the unwitting subject. He's designed this world, something he's never been very good at.

She has to wake them up.

What she does to Dom is not inception. She isn't sure inception is even real, but she does the next best thing: she suggests that she believes this is real life, obsessively, truly, completely. She suggests that his plan worked. He'll panic eventually. He'll get them out.

You're waiting for a train.

They wake.

"Reality," Dom tells her.

But she knows better. When you wake from a dream, you wake up at the next highest level, and that level isn't always reality.

The first night back, Mal take out her totem and spins it. She watches it for three full minutes. It doesn't fall.

It's all right, she tells herself. She'll just keep pretending she thinks this is real, and Dom will panic again and give in and wake them up.

Except there's a problem. She begins to realize that he really believes they're awake.

"We have to get back to our children," she tells him when she realizes.

He shakes his head and says, "No, honey. No. They're here."

So she plays with knives and stands too close to the edge of bridges, but she can't do it. What if she's wrong?

It's Arthur, rather than her totem, that makes her realize she's not wrong. He comes to visit one night, and she's surprised that he's alone. He usually has Eames with him. Not today.

Over dinner, Mal mentions her fear that this isn't reality. "I just don't know," she says, watching Arthur's face for clues.

"You're wrong," he tells her. "This is real."

She wonders for a second, madly, if this is the real Arthur, dreaming with them and being lied to by his mind. But no. She can pick out the little hints now that he's one of Dom's projections. His suit is too nice and Eames isn't with him, and he's a little too clean around the edges. Dom's always been a little hung up on him.

It takes Mal months of forcing herself to remember pieces of the real world before she has the courage to kill herself.

She sits on the ledge and looks down at the city. "You're waiting for a train," she says, feeling half mad by now.

Before she jumps, she realizes. There were never any children.

*

In Dom's reality, he used to be a brilliant architect, but his wife went mad and killed herself, and he lost the knack. She's everywhere, trying to get into his dreams and tell him reality isn't real. It's sick, but he can't stop dreaming her.

In Dom's reality, he meets a girl, a brilliant architect who does not have a wife who will go mad and kill herself.

In Dom's reality, Arthur is flat and cold and Eames is a joke. They sometimes touch each other a little too much when Dom isn't thinking about it very hard, details he has subconsciously suspected being filled in.

In Dom's reality, his totem, Mal's top, falls when he spins it.

In Dom's reality, he dies in limbo and wakes up on a plane and goes home.

Mal's father smiles at him and says, "Pity it took you so long to come back. You look like hell."

He shrugs. "I learned some important things down there. I don't regret anything."

*

In Mal's reality, Dom's totem, his watch, lies next to him on the bedside table in the small hospital room.

"How long has it been?" Eames asks.

Mal shakes her head. "Months." She's been keeping track, but Eames wouldn't appreciate precision. Leave that to Arthur. Months since Mal woke shaking from a death that felt nearly real to find Dom comatose.

Arthur leans easily against Eames's side, his gloved fingers hooked in Eames's belt. "He could be several levels deep."

Eames shakes his head. "How does that work, exactly? Is he the subject at every level? When I do dreams within dreams, I always do it with multiple dreamers."

Mal has explained that they've pushed the boundaries of what's possible in dreams, but Eames still refuses to believe how far. She reminds herself, guiltily, that she built the base level for Dom. The one he must have believed to be his reality for years. The other levels, though, Dom must have dreamed up people to build those for him. Perhaps he's a brilliant architect after all.

"So what are you suggesting?" Arthur asks cautiously. "That we go in there?"

Mal knows that if she asks, he'll do it. He'd do anything for Dom, and Eames would do anything for him. "Yes."

Arthur sighs and shakes himself, standing up straight. "Well. Let's do this."