If his paranoia and survival instincts had faded at all in the intervening months since he finally came home, none of it would have happened.
As it was, though, Cobb was currently unemployed and feeling like the world had narrowed down to a pinpoint for him. It was a very pleasant pinpoint, to be sure, and for the first three months it had been filled with the bliss of his children’s faces, of waking up and making pancakes for them and doing mundane things like grocery shopping without watching for security cameras, but then—
His mind was never going to operate on the scale of normality ever again. Spend as much time as he did dreaming the impossible, and possible becomes two-dimensional. Normal becomes an uncut diamond, just waiting for his mind to carve it into something beautiful, even though he knows that outside of dreams, that sort of thing just can’t be done.
His nerves get jangly after a while, the old wariness of exile creeping back. Miles suggests that he make himself useful, be a proper architect again.
That’s what he’s doing, the day it happens, an unremarkable day in October when the kids are at school and he’s planted himself outside a café with a sketchpad and mechanical pencil with the intent of updating his portfolio. He has ideas, possibly too many and probably too outlandish, but it’s a start if he wants to begin doing something outside of being a father with a mysterious fortune from shady past associates to his name.
He looks up from his design for a moment just to let his eyes rest and then his brain does a funny jolt, as he takes in a figure so recognizable that he’s reaching for his totem without even thinking about it.
The café is facing into a small plaza that has a fountain in it, one of the simple concrete ones that’s meant to lend an air of old-world glamour to the place but looks far too corporate to succeed. And standing to its side is Robert Fischer.
He looks mostly the same. Cobb’s hands go slack on the sketchpad and pencil, so that the former slumps to his lap and the latter clatters to the tabletop. Same slim suit and pale tie, same high cheekbones and unearthly eyes. But he looks shrunken, too. Diminished in a way that makes his suit hang a little looser.
He’s talking to someone whom Cobb assumes is an associate, who doesn’t look particularly pleased. Fischer is making small gestures with his hands; firm, precise movements that transmit both assurance and implacability. And possibly a little exhaustion, if the slight tremors in his fingers are anything to go by.
Without really making a conscious decision to do so, Cobb picks up his sketchpad again, and starts to draw. It’s been a while since he’s done anything but structures, but the curved lines of muscle and bone come back easily enough.
That’s how he doesn’t miss it. As he tracks the line of Fischer’s cuffs to add the crosshatch of shadow on his wrists, he sees it—one red, illuminated dot on his breast pocket.
He doesn’t think. His instincts are too strong for that.
He’s up and out of his chair and at the fountain in seconds, and dives as he feels more than hears the sharp snap of a bullet cutting through the air, and then the crack of impact as it embeds itself in the side of the fountain. He and Fischer hit the ground in a rolling crash.
The din is immediate and hits like a wall. Shrieks of alarm and the crackle of security radios and the pounding of footsteps as people scatter from the plaza. Cobb blinks and shakes his head to clear it. Then he looks down.
Fischer is staring up at him in shock, thin frame locked with panic. Cobb tries to push his weight up onto his elbows to let him breathe. “Are you all right?” he asks.
Fischer swallows, and says, “I think so. How did…?”
“Laser sight showed up on your jacket. Where is your security detail, Mr. Fischer?”
Fischer waves an irritated hand, “They’re a hindrance, I don’t like them around when I’m discussing business. You know who I am,” he adds, frowning.
At this point, Cobb finally takes full notice of how they’re sprawled on the ground, and police officers are coming towards them. He pushes himself to his feet, and offers his hand. After a second of thought, he says carefully, “We met on a plane once.”
He prays that that will be as far as Fischer remembers. Protective instincts are only useful when they’re saving other people while not condemning him at the same time.
A flicker of confusion passes across Fischer’s face before his expression clears slightly. “Coming here to LA, yes,” he agrees, though still retaining some wariness in the hunch of his shoulders. Cobb can understand that.
“Gentlemen,” a police officer interrupts. “We have some questions we need you both to answer.”
Cobb nods slightly in deference, forcibly quelling his own panic. It’s going to be a long while before the sight of law enforcement doesn’t make him want to run.
He makes brief eye contact with Fischer, who nods in a startled sort of thanks that he acknowledges just as quickly, and then they’re swept into the flurry of interrogation. By the time it all ends, Fischer has disappeared completely. Cobb thinks that as chance meetings of a former mark go, it could have been a lot worse.
He doesn’t expect to hear from Fischer again.
Two weeks later, those expectations are kicked to the curb. He pulls into the driveway with James and Phillippa chattering in the back seat and piles them out of the car and into the house while plucking the mail out of its drop box. As he flips bills and job applications onto the table he pauses.
The letter is thin and on expensive paper, the address handwritten in neat script. Cobb opens it slowly, reads it once. Twice.
His conscience is the one that jolts now, fiercer than he’d expected, though in retrospect it occurs to him that he’d never had risked his life so automatically without some sort of feeling towards the former CEO of Fischer-Morrow. And if that particular feeling was guilt, well…
He’s dealt with that before.
“I have a job,” he announces, as he hears Miles pick up the line on the other side of the world.
“Congratulations,” Miles says. “Nothing illegal, I hope?”
Cobb snorts. “Not illegal,” he says. “But possibly unwise.”
Cobb explains, as briefly as possible.
Miles makes a sort of strangled noise. “Is this something that happens after being a criminal? You simply make worse decisions for the rest of your life?”
“I owe it to him,” Cobb argues, walking around his house in search of his one black tie, deftly avoiding and then picking up randomly strewn toys and putting them back in their rightful places. “If he needs protection now, it’s because of me.”
“So refer him to someone else. Dom, you’re taking a massive risk.”
“I know.” He shrugs, even though Miles won’t see it. “I have to, though.”
Miles makes another sound of exasperation, and Cobb can hear him shuffling papers. He can envision him leaning over his desk in Paris, phone propped between ear and shoulder, shaking his head and trying to organize himself in lieu of sorting out his wayward son-in-law.
“You’re intent on taking the job?” Miles says finally.
“I’ve already taken it,” Cobb says, awkwardly pulling on his jacket while shifting the phone in his hands. He studies his reflection in the mirror, and purses his lips. He doesn’t look quite so severe as Mr. Charles had been, his hair left mostly unstyled, but the dark suit appropriate to the job certainly is enough of a reminder for him. It really is a ridiculous move of self-sabotage, this whole situation. And yet, here he is. “I’m due to meet him in an hour,” he adds, still looking into the mirror and straightening his tie.
“What happens if he recognizes you?” Miles says.
“I’ll try not to get arrested or shot,” Cobb replies. And with that, he’s out the door.
Fischer’s new office building looks modest only when compared to the lavish extravagance of Fischer-Morrow’s corporate headquarters. It’s at the center of the financial district in one of the many high rises, and Cobb feels an odd sort of resettling in his gut, because it’s all so familiar and so recent that he entered these places on business. He doesn’t think about how it feels a bit like coming home.
The secretary looks up sharply at him when he tells her his name, and then she asks for his passport for verification.
“That won’t be necessary,” a voice says, and Cobb looks up to see Fischer walking through the security point and offering his hand. He looks even thinner than before. “Mr. Cobb. Thank you for coming. If you’ll come this way?”
They bypass the security point, Cobb keeping close to Fischer’s shoulder. He looks sidelong at Fischer, cutting glances at him as they wait for the elevator. More than ever, the man looks gaunt and faintly sick, like he hasn’t been sleeping and has reached that leeching, grainy point of no return that always comes on just before whatever you’ve been dreading is about to happen.
“I wasn’t sure you would take this position,” Fischer says eventually. “I’m glad you have.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Cobb shrugs, “But you know that.”
Fischer nods. “It makes me wonder what you were doing flying first class last time I saw you.”
Cobb thinks fast, and says, “I’ve done security before. One of the other passengers was my client.”
“That makes sense,” Fischer murmurs. “You were too quick to be anything else.”
The elevator dings and the doors slide open; they step inside. Cobb turns to look at Fischer fully once they begin the ascent. “How are you, by the way?” he asks. “It’s not every day a man nearly gets taken out by a sniper.”
“A sniper they haven’t found, I might add,” Fischer says, closing his eyes for a moment. “I should have seen it coming. That’s why I wrote to you. I’m…not making very popular decisions at the moment.”
Cobb nods. He’s read the articles in the newspapers.
Fischer swallows, and risks a glance back at Cobb, and says in a rush, “I haven’t left my apartment, in the two weeks since it happened. This is the first time I’ve gone to the office.”
“What about your regular security?” Cobb inquires, feeling something hard lodge inside him.
“…I’m not sure I trust them anymore.”
He exhales. “You should have contacted me sooner, then,” he says. “I would have at least met you at your apartment this morning.”
He watches as Fischer’s jaw tightens, the tendons in his neck going taut, and he resists the urge to put a hand on his shoulder. Fischer’s control is nearly impeccable, no doubt the result of long practice and a cold childhood, but there are cracks in the façade now that Cobb wants to reconstruct and fill.
The elevator dings again, and they exit.
Fischer has the floor mostly to himself—his office is at the northeast corner, and the rest of the space are other executive offices and conference rooms. Automatically, Cobb takes in the layout of the office and pulls the blinds shut.
“You have done this before,” Fischer says, watching him.
Cobb doesn’t mention how this had been his routine in every country, every expensive hotel while he waited for his ill-gotten gains to come in, each one a stepping-stone towards getting home.
“Having a corner office means you have two exposed walls,” he says instead, “And therefore the possibility of two points for snipers to set up. Who’s in the neighboring buildings?”
“An investment firm, I believe, and a branch of some sort of biotech research company. It’s undergoing some construction at the moment, though.”
“That makes it a weak point. Where is it in relation to us?”
Fischer points silently, and Cobb says, “We should move your office.”
They do. Cobb also gets a copy of Fischer’s schedule for the next month (chaotic and insane at best—the two weeks of hiding had done nothing for Fischer’s plans for dismantling Fischer-Morrow), as well as information on all of the staff within the building, and the schedules of the security guards. Cobb is vaguely uncomfortable with just how easily Fischer gives all of this information over to him; Cobb asks for it, Fischer nods and then it’s in his hands within a few hours. He points this out at one point, and Fischer looks at him a bit oddly before replying.
“You don’t have an agenda here. I trust you.”
“You barely know me,” Cobb counters.
Fischer studies him, blinks, and says, “I feel like I do, though.”
Lead settles in Cobb’s stomach.
He gets a call from Arthur another fortnight in.
“Are you insane?” the point man demands down the line. Cobb hears the bustling sounds of Mumbai in the background.
“Comparatively?” Cobb asks dryly. “Because I’d say I’ve improved since you last saw me.”
“Cobb. You’re not just endangering yourself, you’re endangering all of us.”
“I’ve been here for two weeks already, and he doesn’t recognize me,” Cobb replies. “It’s fine. And I don’t want anything to happen to him, not after what we did.”
“Jesus, Dom. You and your guilt complexes. Have you considered therapy?”
“Ariadne worked a treat,” Cobb quips. “How is she these days?”
“You’d know if you answered your emails,” Arthur retorts. “She’s graduating in four months, and we’ve all agreed to be there. You’d best do the same.”
“I will,” Cobb promises. “Now are you going to let me go to work?”
Arthur sighs down the line. “Miles said you’d be intractable. Fine. Just be careful, all right? I don’t want to have to call Saito to get all our records scoured.”
“I’ll be fine,” Cobb promises again, and hangs up. Jaw clenched, he adjusts the lines of his suit, and goes to pick up Fischer from his apartment.
Fischer, as Cobb comes to realize, has a strong personality beneath the layers of inadequacy and exhaustion. He knows his business well, and he only begins to visibly wear down after a good six hours of being browbeaten and interrogated by his various board members. He can’t abide by sugar in his coffee, and his good taste in suits and art aren’t from rote imitation of his father, but instead stem from a careful eye for quality. It makes Cobb certain that whatever Fischer decides to shape the remains of his company into after it’s been broken apart will do well on its own, unhappy shareholders or not.
Fischer lets Cobb work his schedule around taking care of James and Phillippa, even if it means he has to hole up in his secure office (now on the west side, and not on the corner) for an extra hour. And Cobb finds the work oddly fulfilling; not because it's what he's qualified for (though at times, he does feel like he is still an architect, except that now he designs safety measures), but because it felt like he was completing something, building protective walls around what the inception had birthed.
Several months pass, and then Cobb spots a breach in the building’s security when Fischer has to stay late to oversee a deal going down in Tokyo (not Saito’s company, thank god). He takes down the intruder on the twelfth floor, slamming the man’s hand in the stairwell door to knock the silenced gun out of his grip.
After the police come and go, and Fischer is shivering at his desk drinking tea laced heavily with whiskey, Cobb says, “Who do you think is doing this?”
Fischer waves a hand at the stack of files on his desk, the various letters of protestation and outrage he’d been receiving for the past six months. “It could be any one of them,” he says tiredly, the whiskey beginning to take its effect. “They’ve all had their say about my plans.”
Cobb shakes his head. “You should have a team, not just me,” he says. “I’m only one person, I can’t protect you all the time.”
“Sometimes I feel like you can,” Fischer says, and then flushes slightly, like he hadn’t meant to say it. Cobb looks sidelong at him, and then stands.
“I’m just going to call my neighbor so that she can check on the kids,” he says.
Fischer frowns. “What for? I’m just going to bring this work home now; you can see me back to my apartment and then be on your way.”
Cobb shakes his head. “I’m not leaving you alone tonight.”
“I don’t want to take you away from your kids.”
Cobb tilts his head in acknowledgment but is about to refuse again, when he pauses. “Then you’re coming home with me,” he says instead, though he has no clue where the idea came from. “It’s probably safer than your apartment anyway.”
“I don’t want to impose—“
“You won’t,” Cobb assures him. “Come on. You ought to meet the kids anyway, I’ve talked enough about them.”
Fischer looks like he doesn’t know what to make of him which, in a sort of awful way, makes sense. Cobb has a feeling that while people offer Robert Fischer many things, it’s very rarely hospitality, and even more rarely is it for any personal reasons beyond monetary gain.
It makes him sort of want to bring Fischer home and then keep him there. Which…Cobb is not going to think about that just now.
He ushers Fischer into his car, and drives them in silence to his house.
They head inside, and find James and Phillippa sleeping in front of the television, whose sound is turned down low. Karen, the babysitter, is sitting at the kitchen counter with a paperback copy of Catch-22. She ambles over, all gangly teenaged limbs and a tiredly competent smile as she hears them come through the door. “You’re kinda late, Mr. Cobb,” she says.
“Yes, I’m sorry, there was a problem at work, I was going to have Mrs. Henderson take over from you if I was any longer. Are they all right?”
“Clean and ready for bed, but they said they wanted to wait for you to put them there. I wasn’t sure how long you’d be, so—“
“Sure, of course. Thanks, Karen.”
He sees her out, and she gives Fischer an odd glance before walking out and down the street, pulling her flashlight out of her backpack as she goes. As he closes the door, he looks over at Fischer, who is standing awkwardly in the living room, softly studying the furniture and the sleeping children piled on the couch. “Guess they’re not up for meeting you tonight,” Cobb says lightly. “I’ll just put them to bed, and then make up the guest room. There are drinks in the cabinet if you’d like one, in the meantime.”
“Thank you,” Fischer says, looking if possible even more at sea. Not really knowing what else to do, Cobb goes past him to gather James into his arms and gently shake Phillippa awake.
She murmurs nonsense and smiles, and lets him lead her to the bedroom. Cobb feels the shaky rush of adrenaline he hadn’t even known was there gradually drain from his system as he kisses them both goodnight and then goes through the motions of getting fresh sheets and pillowcases from the linen closet.
By the time he’s done, things feel quiet and soporific, and not like he took down a gunman in a corporate stairwell in the course of his workday. When he reenters the living room, however, the feeling comes creeping back.
Fischer is nursing a drink, standing like he’s stranded by the cabinet. He’s drawn the blinds to all of the windows. Cobb really wishes he hadn’t had to instill that habit in him, that and others, all little shards of paranoia he'd picked up and now is passing on.
There’s a strange possessiveness in his chest now too, tight across his ribs. It’s been simmering there for a while now, but this is the first time he feels it enough to recognize it. He goes over to the cabinet himself and pours single malt generously over ice. He tries not to react to how he can hear Fischer’s breath hitch as he reaches past him.
He takes a breath, and asks, “What made you decide, anyway? To break up your father’s company?”
Fischer takes a long sip from his drink, grimaces slightly, and then quirks his lips. “Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s my father’s company. It’s not mine, and it never would have been, even if I’d taken it on just as it was after him. Even if I’d made it even bigger and better than when it’d been my father’s. People would have told me it was mine, but it would never be mine at all. I’d be a caretaker.”
He pauses, and looks down at his hands. “I’ve had most everything I could ask for in my life,” he says carefully. “But nothing’s ever really been mine. Does that make sense?”
Cobb nods. Fischer eyes him carefully. “You were there, when I realized that,” he says, after a long pause. “It was on that plane ride.”
Cobb stiffens, and tries not to show it. “Really?”
Fischer nods. “I had an odd dream on that flight. And when I woke up, it was all just…clearer to me. My father’s company was just that. If I wanted to live up to his expectations, make him proud, I would have to make something that was mine as well.”
He meets Cobb’s gaze, looking pensive. Cobb finds himself caught between fascination and fear. “You’re right, you know,” Fischer continues. “I barely know you. Or did, I suppose. I’d like to think I know you now, a bit.”
Cobb can’t disagree. In between memorizing schedules, coordinating security shifts, and researching bulletproof glass, he’s told Fischer about his children, about his past as an architect, about his father-in-law, teaching in Paris.
Nothing about dreams, though. Or Mal.
“When I woke up on that plane, I knew that I had to create something that was mine,” Fischer says quietly. He takes a sip from his glass. “And I had the oddest feeling that you would protect whatever that was.”
Cobb tries to keep his breathing even. He says, after a second, “And I will.”
Fischer smiles, his eyes downcast.
Cobb takes another swallow of his own drink, feels it burn all the way down, and then he says, because he can’t not say it any longer, “I’ve done things that I regret. Things that can’t be forgiven. I had my reasons, and if I had the chance…I’d only take back some of them.”
Fischer looks sharply at him, and Cobb knows he’s pushing it, but keeps going. “I will keep you safe, though,” he says, trying to make his tone as light as he can even though every syllable has a weight in his mouth stronger than gravity. “You deserve that.”
Fischer stares at him for a long moment, pale eyes wide in a sort of stricken disbelief. Then he sets down his glass and steps forward, thin fingers slipping under the lapels of Cobb’s jacket.
Cobb isn’t expecting the kiss, not in the least, but he catches on to it fairly quickly. Robert is warm and tastes like scotch, and his eyes are closed tightly like he doesn’t want to see how Cobb will react. He draws away too quickly and seems to shrink. “I’m sorry, that was completely out of line, and I—“
Cobb catches his waist, palm flattening against his thin flank. He can feel Robert’s ribs beneath the smooth expensive fabric, and that constriction in his chest tightens. He pulls gently, but Robert doesn’t move except to look at him, all the wariness of their first (well, second) meeting echoed in his expression. So Cobb is the one to step forward this time. “I didn’t exactly protest,” he says.
Robert closes his eyes again and says, “You just…people don’t generally think I deserve much at all.”
“They don’t know you,” Cobb says, that simmer of possessiveness rising to his throat. He tries again, pulling just slightly, and this time Robert goes, pressing carefully into him, regaining the grip on his lapels.
“And you do?” he says, and it could have been coy but it isn’t, not when he’s taut like a bowstring against Cobb, skin flushed only slightly with the alcohol but not enough to put a haze in his impossible eyes.
He is exacting and cautious and damaged, and Cobb finds for the first time since Mal that he wants to learn him.
He places his own drink besides Robert’s on the cabinet and doesn’t say, I’ve been inside your head. Instead he says, “Yes, I do.”
The second kiss is better, deeper, and Robert makes a sound in his throat that Cobb wants to hear a hell of a lot more. He brings one hand between them and flicks open the buttons of Robert's double-breasted jacket to slide his hand inside, to find soft cotton pinstripes and then beneath that, smooth planes of skin.
“Come upstairs with me,” he says.
Dom wakes before the alarm goes off, but when he opens his eyes Robert is already watching him, hair mussed against the pillow, face still sharp like it was carved from marble. Dom shifts just slightly, and feels how his arm is slung over Robert’s razor sharp hip, and how their legs are tangled.
Robert says, “You aren’t telling me something.”
Dom blinks slowly, trying to gather his thoughts, and then replies, “It’s not my place alone to tell.”
Robert exhales, but doesn’t move.
Eventually he says, “Is this atonement?”
“Protecting you might be,” Dom allows, and then he moves tentatively closer, “This. This isn’t.”
Robert studies him, seeming to absorb all the angles of his face, everything there is to see that Dom hasn’t said. Dom doesn’t speak; he just waits as his heart seems to twist up inside him.
And then Robert is reaching to cup Dom's jaw and then slide his hand to the back of his neck.
He says quietly into the pillows, “Okay.