It isn't the fall that's terrifying, so much as the sound of it, the wind wrenching past her skin, whipping her hair into her face and her mouth. Just before she hits the ground, she thinks, what if. She thinks about Philippa and James; she thinks about Dom. She thinks, what if I never see you again. But the concrete is rushing up to meet her, and she breathes in, forcing herself to know this world is not real and:
She opens her eyes. His eyelashes are the first thing she sees, steady and dark and firm; the rest of his face slowly blurs into focus, lines familiar and beloved. She lies still for a moment, listening to the sound of herself breathing, and then she says his name. Dom, she murmurs, and her mouth is dry so it comes out warped and she tries again, desperate. Dom.
He isn't moving, muscles slack with sleep. The stubble on his chin has grown longer than he likes it, weedy and patchy and sparsely long.
She wonders how long she has been asleep. Her fingers shake a little when she pulls out the IV and she stares at the holes in her skin for too long; she does not feel different than she did when she was asleep. Her totem is a useless weight against the cloth of her pocket, digging into her hip; she lets it sit there, lets the pain sink into her skin. She should spin it, but. She knows where she is.
She sits up, runs her fingers through her hair. Sleep is crusted in the corners of her eyes so she rubs it out.
"Hello," she says, to empty air; to Dom. She taps his nose with the tip of one finger. "Wake up." She grabs his shoulders, shaking him; she knows it won't do any good, but she has to try. She hears his teeth click together but his eyes stay shut, not even a flutter of eyelash to indicate that there is someone in there, someone smart and funny and charming and beautiful. "Wake up," she pleads, and watches nothing happen, feels sick, empty.
She lets him go, then. She feels heavy, like all of her bones are lead-weighted. She closes her eyes to trap the tears, fierce, as if she lets them drip down her cheeks she will be giving up.
She thinks, why wouldn't you trust me. She thinks about their hands twined together, and the train.
She is thirty-two years old. Her husband is in a hospital bed, dreaming. They call him comatose and stumble around you can kill him if you like.
She tells them no. He is her husband, her partner, her friend; she knows him like she knows herself and she can do nothing else but hope that one day he will realize where she is and come to join her. He is not what he was; he is a creature of wires now, not flesh.
She swallows, looking at him. Her mouth is dry. She presses her totem into his palm and closes his fingers around it.
She wonders if he can hear the click of her shoes across the floor, if he thinks she has abandoned him. (She wonders if he would be right to think so.)
She shuts the door behind her and does not look back.
The first thing she does is make herself a totem, a new one, for her. One steady and true; one uncorrupted by her husband's knowledge. She thinks about melting down her engagement ring; she is all fire and fury and knows this.
She loves him, though. Despite everything, she understands.
She gets a piece of silver and makes a section of a train-track, carves you are waiting on the inside edge. She hangs it on a chain around her neck, so it hangs invisible in the hollow between her breasts and hits her everytime she moves; this world is real, she tells herself.
(For the first time in her life, she is glad she does not dream.
She took down all the pictures of him in the house in a targeted hurricane rage. Her father looked at her, worried; Philippa tugged at the bottom of her shirt and asked Where's Daddy gone? and Mal choked, barely breathing, managed to grit out, He's sleeping.
Miles takes the kids to see their father, and is the one to lie, he'll wake up soon; she can't do it. She can't look at Dom without thinking that he's betrayed her, that they've betrayed each other.
She can't look at him without wanting to grab the IV and slide it into her veins.)
Philippa refuses to sleep by herself, the third night Dom is in hospital. She says, I don't want to be alone and burrows into Mal's blankets, tucking her small face against Mal's shoulder, tiny hands fisting themselves in Mal's shirt, which is one of Dom's and so soft. She says, please don't go, and Mal bites her lip to keep from crying, can only wrap her arms around her daughter and whisper, Nothing in the universe could keep me from you.
Phillipa says, That's what Dad said and she is crying, all of a sudden, saying, he isn't coming back, is he.
Mal swallows and kisses Philippa's forehead and says, It's only been three days, darling. Your father's pretty tough. When she smooths the tears away from Philippa's cheeks she feels like a fraud; she wonders what Dom is doing in the dream, without his children.
Their bed still smells like him. She should change the sheets.
She should have expected it would be Arthur, knocking on her door one morning, a week after she wakes up. He's wearing a full three-piece, neat and tidy and relentlessly organized; she is wearing a sweatshirt from Dom's alma mater and blue jeans. There's something solid and sad in his eyes. "I'm so sorry," he says.
"Thank you," she says, and then, "you too," because Dom didn't just leave her and the kids; he left the rest of the family too.
They hug and he kisses her cheek. She offers him a cup of tea; they sit in the kitchen with the sun streaming down, shining off his blue silk tie.
"It took me a while to find out," he says, gently. "Miles called." There is no recrimination in it, just gentle observation. Just, I missed you.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I-- you remind me of him."
"You don't have to forget," Arthur says.
She swallows, hands around her cup. "It's different," she says, "when you have kids."
His eyes light up, for a moment, before he looks away.
"Oh, god," she says, "the kids. You'll want to see them--"
"I don't--" Arthur says, but there is longing thick in his voice, and this is Arthur, whom she loves.
"Of course," she says, "Jesus, Arthur. Of course."
He's good with the kids, ruffling James' hair, helping him dig for worms; listening earnestly to Philippa as she tells him about the birds that have nested in the trees out back. He doesn't even wince at the spread of grass and mud stains across his knees.
She sits on the back porch and watches them; the kids won't welcome her intervention in their Uncle-Arthur time. And everything about him reminds her of jobs, of the way they'd dive into people's minds, a high nothing else could replicate; the way pure creation would light up her husband's face and the way all three of them had fit together, perfect.
He says, "Mal?" He's standing up, now, looking at her carefully, like she is something fragile. Behind him, the kids are engrossed in something James has dug up.
"I'm sorry about your suit," she laughs, "my dry cleaner is amazing."
He blinks, and looks down, and wrinkles his nose. "Price you pay," he grins, and then James is tugging at his hand, and he is bending away.
Later the kids relinquish him and they sit at the dining table and drink a nice red Dom brought home last week (last week, or fifty years ago plus change). He keeps shooting looks she can't read at her over the rim of his glass.
"All right," she says, "what do you want."
His eyes widen. "I--" he says. "Mal--"
"We were experimenting," she says. "we went deep, three layers. I woke up, he didn't. It won't happen to anyone who isn't stupid."
"Mal," he says. "Are you all right?"
She stares into her glass, tosses it back. The wine hits the back of her throat hard. "Of course not," she says. "He wouldn't come back with me." She thinks, I let a train run over me for him, and he wouldn't jump off a goddamn building.
They sit, in silence for a long time. Then Arthur says, "I'll make dinner."
"What," she says.
"It's getting late," he says. "You've been drinking."
He is a good cook. She knows this about him, knows this because they used to stay up late and plan jobs and occasionally Dom would say, needling, we should get some pizza and Arthur would say, goddamn it, fine and stalk off to make something quick and elaborate and delicious. "Not in that suit," she says. "I'll get you some of Dom's clothes." She doesn't even wince when she says his name. She is getting better, every day.
He raises an eyebrow. "Because they'll fit."
She eyebrows back at him. "They won't need dry-cleaning."
"I should go," he says. It is late, now; the kids are in bed. They have been sitting on the couch with a space in between them; he has been watching her, as though if he looks hard enough he will see a crack and be able to super-glue it. Outside the moon is up, and fireflies have come out.
"Stay the night," she says. "I have too many spare toothbrushes. The guest room is nice." She likes having him here; she has missed his familiarity. It helps to soothe the ache of Dom's abandonment.
"Thanks," he says, and looks a little surprised. "Mal, you haven't-- gone after him."
"He's an architect," she says. "I'm good, but I'm not-- I'm not that good." And, she thinks, she cannot risk not coming back. She will not orphan James and Philippa; they are her children and she loves them, even more than she loves her husband, when it comes down to it, because she can protect them. "Do you want to shower? I'll get you a towel."
He sits on the edge of her bed like he's a kid; the sun isn't even up yet, and Philippa is curled up against Mal's side, nose twitching, like puppies when they dream.
"Good morning, Arthur," Mal says. She sits up carefully, so she doesn't move her daughter.
Dom's sweats are hanging loose on Arthur's hips. His hair is ruffled and gel-free and he looks about five years younger. "Morning, Mal," he says. "I just got a call." The if you're interested is unspoken, but there.
"Jesus," she says. She is a good extractor, but she can't do this without her architect. She doesn't want to; the idea of dreaming, even now, makes her feel sick. "Arthur, I don't do that anymore."
"Okay," he says, carefully light. "I'm just putting it out there. That you can, if you want."
"Which I don't," she says.
"But," he says, words feather-light, tentative, as he floats it, "how do you think we are going to assemble a team that can get into his head if we don't practice first?" (Dom was always the reckless one, not him, she thinks. Dom was always the one who threw aside caution like consciousness.)
She sucks in a breath, can't even exhale for the wanting. She rubs her eyes with the heel of her hand. "What do you want for breakfast?" she asks. It is a clumsy segue but he lets it pass.
"You really don't even want to try to get him out?" Arthur asks. He is wearing an peach ascot. She has no idea where he got it from, since he arrived in a tie with nothing else, but this has always been one of Arthur's talents.
"Of course I do," she says, sharp edge showing through her voice. "Arthur." She has stopped wearing the ring because it makes her think about the train; there is a paler patch of skin where it was. She traces the tip of her index finger across it. "I love him more than--" she swallows. "I don't love him more than I love our children."
"They deserve to have their dad," he says. There is old hurt, decades-old pain settled in those words. She remembers when he was young and angry and brilliantly theirs; remembers how long it took them to piece him together, to make him function. She remembers how he looked at Dom, holding Philippa right after she was born, nothing but naked longing in his eyes. She remembers how it took him forever to realize that they wanted him, that they weren't going to let him go.
"Do you have any idea what his security is like?" she asks, "do you have any idea what my security is like?"
"So you're the only one who can get in," he says, calmly. "You'd need backup, obviously--"
"We could go four layers," she says, "without even seeing Dom, just his projections. We could get trapped in there--"
"We'll develop a better compound," he says, and she blinks at the we, at the matter of fact practicality in the crisp lines of his cuffs. "What, you think I wasn't gonna-- I love him too, Mal."
She swallows. "I asked him to come with me," she says. "He didn't. I can't-- I have to live with that."
His eyes skitter away from hers, down to his hands in his lap. "Okay," he says.
He lets it go for the next couple of weeks, dropping by for a couple of days at a time to delight her children and make her food and mock the terrible daytime television she finds herself watching. He even starts showing up in jeans and button-downs, which is like sweatpants for Arthur; she thinks it is because he is actually fonder of his suits than he is of most people, a feeling that neither James nor Philippa shares.
One night, after the kids are asleep, she asks him if he's working; he blinks at her, innocuous, and says, in French, "You think I could do that without you?" and her heart wrenches, bile rises in her throat; she feels immensely, inexorably guilty and has to look away.
"Thank you for coming," she says, softly. "Thank you for not being angry with me." He was, after all, Dom's before he was hers; angry and broken and fascinated by the dreams Dom could build him.
"I wasn't there," he says, "god, Mal. Of course I wouldn't be angry with you."
She loves him, so much. "You're allowed to be upset," she says. "You're allowed to be angry."
He reaches out, and takes her hand. "I'm both of those things," he says, gently. "But I also know how to deal with them. I have a plan."
She laughs like her heart is breaking. "Oh, god, Arthur," she says, and drops her head on his shoulder. "We're such a goddamn mess."
"We'll get it fixed," he says, too light; too much like vulnerable, for Arthur. "It'll be okay." The eventually is unspoken, obvious.
She closes her eyes, and forces herself still, so she does not shake apart.
He bakes cookies with the kids, chocolate chip and oatmeal and raisin; at first Philippa sets aside a couple out of every batch, tin-foil wrapped on a Winnie-the-Pooh plate. She doesn't tell Mal why, who they're for; but Mal is a smart woman, and her daughter is an open book. Later, Phillipa stops. Mal finds the plate in pieces; it brings her close to tears.
They share dinner duties: she makes salad, most days, and does the dishes; he does mac and cheese, and burgers, and occasionally stuff that's slightly more refined. It feels domestic, kind of comfortable; but an odd kind of comfortable, the kind with a massive gaping hole in the shape of her husband right at the heart of it.
She stops wearing Dom's shirts, goes back to her dresses; allows herself to feel damaged sometimes, but also to heal just a little.
He stops going back to his house. His clothes migrate into the guest bedroom's closet.
The next day she gets home from the grocery store and there is a dark-haired girl on the couch next to Arthur, wearing a dark red plaid scarf. Both of them rise at the sound of her entering, turn to look at her; Arthur has his hand on the girl's elbow. She is very young, Mal notes; this is not usually Arthur's type. He likes people with old eyes.
"Hello," she says, putting her brown bags on the counter. "Arthur, who's this? Not that you shouldn't feel free to bring people home, but--" she thinks, home? But that is what it is, this is where he belongs.
Both of them flush. The girl rakes her hand through her hair, nervous. "Hi," she says, sticking out her hand. She has neatly-clipped, unvarnished nails. "That's not-- I'm Ariadne."
Mal raises an eyebrow. "That's mythological of you," she says, shaking Ariadne's hand.
Arthur clears his throat. "Mal," he says, "she's an architect."
Mal's stomach flips. "That's fantastic," she lies. "Nice to meet you, Ariadne. Arthur, can I have a word?" Her voice is sharp and cold on his name.
"It'll be fine," Arthur tells Ariadne, patting her shoulder.
"You say that now," Mal says, and motions with what she hopes is appropriate venom.
"Arthur," she says, leaning back against the bathroom door. "What are you doing?"
"I went to see your father," he says, calmly. "She's an architecture student, his brightest--"
Mal throws her hands up. "Jesus, Arthur," she says, pacing back and forth across the tile, "you can't drag people into this, you can't--"
"She's made for it," Arthur says, "god, Mal, you haven't seen her in a dreamscape--"
"It's wrong," she snaps. "It was our mistake. I'm not going to let you ruin this girl's life just because we fucked up." She is surprised at how angry she is; at how much this suddenly matters. She is surprised at how the girl with the dark hair is suddenly something to care about.
His back is ramrod-straight. "It is our job to go into people's dreams," he says, "it is our job to take what is most precious to them and sell it to the highest bidder. That's what we do. You think I'm gonna balk for a second at giving this girl something she didn't know she wanted so that I can save my best friend? For fuck's sake, Mal."
"How old is she?" Mal asks, quiet, furious. "Twenty-one?"
"Twenty-three," Arthur says, clipped, controlled. "Hardly a child."
"Do you remember what you were like when you were twenty-three?" she presses, playing a card she really shouldn't. "Because I do. You weren't in any shape to make this kind of decision."
"And he made it for me," he says, not rising to her bait. "And it was the best decision of my life."
He catches her gaze, and holds it. His eyes are deep, dark, constant.
She breathes out. "Goddamn it," she says, conceding. "She doesn't go deep."
The edge of his mouth quirks up; any other man would be punching the air. "Deal," he says.
"And this doesn't mean we're actually going to do any jobs," she says, "not unless I am totally satisfied that nothing can go wrong."
He shoots her a steady, knowing look. "Yeah, right," he says.
Ariadne smiles at them when they come out. "So what's the verdict?" she asks.
"You are going to shoot Arthur so many times when both of you are asleep," Mal predicts.
Arthur and Ariadne look at each other; Ariadne ducks her head, grinning a little.
"Yeah," Arthur says, "I know."
She goes to see Dom. His hospital room is white and sterile and the taste of it sticks in the back of her throat. He has a window but the light that streams through it is weak and pale, like his skin.
Her totem is cold against her throat. She walks her fingertips up the outside edge of his wrist, and brushes a kiss to his limp cheek.
"I'm sorry," she tells him, because she is. "I shouldn't have left you behind."
He doesn't say anything, but she closes her eyes anyway, breathing in the scent of him which is still present, even through the heaviness of the clean hospital-smell. She turns to go but can't. It's still him, even asleep; there's still that weird gravity that pulls the two of them together. She swallows and pulls up a chair and sits next to him.
"So Arthur found this girl," she says, lightly. "Her name is Ariadne. She's-- an architect. Better than you were, he thinks. She's gonna help us try and wake you up. I know it's stupid, but it's Arthur. For some reason he thinks it would be better if you woke up."
Three days later Arthur, acerbic as ever, says, "I just think you should remember that I really love both you and Dom and I make a lot of sacrifices for that," as they are walking down her hallway into the dining room.
She says, "You say that like it's not true," half-smiling. "So what do you want?" They turn the corner.
"Hello, love," Eames says. He is wearing a suit and a shit-eating smirk. "A little bird with a stick up its ass told me that you were assembling a crew."
"Case in point," Arthur says, dry as dust.
This is when Mal gives up. "All right," she says, "I assume you have a job?"
He hands her a file. It says Cobol Engineering inside, in black letters on white paper. This feels so familiar it is easy to slide back into.
Things fall into place:
Arthur and Eames are always sniping at each other; they come back from recon trips with information and arguments tumbling between them. It makes her smile; Arthur has been too serious too long and it is good to see him laugh, to be young.
Ariadne has her nose buried in the models she's building, in the way she can create recklessly, without boundaries. She tells them, breathless, what she can do; Mal is reminded of Dom in the first flush of knowledge, and miraculously it does not hurt.
Mal unlocks the basement lab with all her chemicals in it, runs her fingers across the glassware and the tubing and relearns all the science she forgot in fifty years of dreaming. She is good at this. She had convinced herself she did not miss it but that was a lie.
They rent an office space downtown and barely ever use it; her house is big enough for all of them, and James adores Eames while Philippa is quietly fascinated with Ariadne, making paper buildings to mimic Ariadne's. Arthur grins at her, like, I told you this was a good idea.
It's kind of. Nice.
(When she visits Dom, this is what she tells him; that her life is functional, that they are happy, that she is working again. She very firmly does not say, It would be better if you were here.)
The first time she steps into one of Ariadne's labyrinths, she is all steady purpose, evaluation in killer black heels. This is what she knows how to do, better than anything else; this is for what she was made. She looks for holes, for places where projections could surprise them; Ariadne is a quick learner but even so she notices a couple of places where Arthur has patched Ariadne's designs.
From underneath a Penrose stair, Dom catches her eye. He is wearing a suit and a painfully sad gaze. He raises a hand and smiles at her, bitterly.
The air scorches her lungs when she takes a breath; she puts her hand to her breast for the weight of her totem, runs her finger along the smoothed-out edges. He isn't real, but she misses him.
Hey, she thinks, because, after all, he is something from inside her head, just wait a little longer. I'll get you on the next train home.