Arthur stares at the little tree he’s bought, glaring at the way it’s persisting in leaning to left, as though trying desperately to escape his feeble attempts at holiday cheer. He had considered calling Ariadne earlier that day, if only to chat for a bit, but as much as he would have enjoyed her company, she’s home for the holidays and most likely swamped with family obligations. Eames, he knows, is visiting with his mother, Yusuf is still in the midst of setting up his latest dream lounge and Saito, well, Saito is probably free, but Arthur isn't ashamed to admit that the man terrifies him.
He has just resigned himself to a quiet evening of Charlie Brown Christmas music and a bottle of Saxum, his early retirement suddenly seeming a lot less enjoyable, when his phone begins to ring. He hunts down his cell phone, then stares blankly at the dark screen. The generic tone should be enough of a clue, but it still takes him one full ringing cycle and the start of another before he realizes that it’s his ground line.
“Hello?” he queries, frowning. He can’t recall giving anyone this number – knows, in fact, that’s extremely unlikely – so he’s already reaching for his Browning when the caller responds.
“Arthur? Hey, it’s—”
“Dom?” And Arthur’s more than just a little surprised because it’s Christmas Eve and he hasn’t spoken to Dominic Cobb in more than three years. Three years, seven months and eleven days, in fact, though Arthur hates to think about why he’s kept such close count. Or why his phone has been so silent for so long. Yes, there have been the not-so-consistent emails, the pictures and videos mailed to his home address, but he’s been without this voice for so long that he would have sworn he wouldn’t recognize it if asked.
“Jesus, is it—Are the kids okay? Phillipa? James? Oh God—” His hand moves past the gun to where his keys are resting. He’s pretty sure he can be in Los Angeles in less than an hour if he drives fast. An hour fifteen tops.
Dom’s laugh doesn’t sound rusty and disused when it carries down the line to Arthur, and he’s struck dumb by the sound of it. It’s been so long, since even before Mal jumped, though Arthur at least knows why now, not like before.
“The kids are fine, as are Miles and Marie. Listen, Arthur...” And it’s the uncertainty in Dom’s voice that makes Arthur sit up straighter, fingers still clutched, white-knuckled, around his keys. “Listen, Arthur, I know this is really last minute but I was wondering if you would come down to Los Angeles?”
“Is it—You’re sure nothing’s wrong?” Because he can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right. Dom sighs and it’s so Cobb, it’s all very ‘exasperated extractor’ and Arthur laughs a little, the tension in his body slowly melting away. “Yes, I can be there in—”
“The normal time. No speeding. And pack a bag.”
“Am I watching the kids? It’s Christmas Eve, Dom. Surely you didn’t book a date.”
“Of course I didn’t! Just—get down here, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Yes. Okay, I’ll go pack.”
“You should probably make sure you have enough to last you until after the New Year.”
That makes Arthur’s eyebrows lift high, though he’s smart enough to keep his comments and questions to himself.
“Right, I’ll see you in four hours.”
“That high maintenance now, eh? I remember a time when you always kept a bag packed by the door, like an expectant father.” There’s amusement in Dom’s tone, and Arthur is glad for it, because those times were darker, falling in the shadow of Mal’s suicide and Dom’s rushed escape from the States.
“I’m a settled man now, Dom.”
“Right. You don’t even own a pet. I’ve known—You know what? Just go pack and get your ass down here. It’s Christmas Eve.”
He hangs up and Arthur stares at the phone, thinking of all the Christmases that have passed without an invitation from Dom, but he doesn’t dwell on it. It had hurt, at first, being cut out so thoroughly from Dom’s life, but the Christmas right after the Inception job, Ariadne had invited him to join her family skiing, and the one after that had been spent in Mombasa with Eames, Yusuf, Yusuf’s wife and the women Eames had charmed away from a craps table. There had also been the one extremely unremarkable – though not boring – Christmas where Arthur had gone to visit his family, but cemeteries really aren’t made for casual gatherings and there’s only so much one can say to people who died before he really had a chance to know them. Not to mention the run-in Arthur had had with an old client. The man had never been particularly happy with the outcome of a job gone south, and had apparently been waiting to express his displeasure. So Arthur had spent the rest of that Christmas Eve in Emergency.
He packs lightly despite Dom’s warning, and he bypasses all but one of his suits. James is of the rough-and-tumble age, though Phillipa is turning into quite young lady if Dom’s emails are to be believed. He keeps this in mind as he cleans out his fridge, turns out all his lights and sets both alarms on his apartment. And when he gets into his car, the first place he heads for is not the freeway, but the mall, because he can’t go to Dom’s empty-handed, not when he’s been away from the kids for so long that they’ve probably forgotten him. Arthur’s still just annoyed enough that Dom has waited so long to call that he alters course midway and goes to the animal shelter instead.
~ * ~
By the time Arthur turns onto Dom’s block, it’s already ten and he knows that Dom is probably at the window, watching for him. He’s about an hour later than his projected time of arrival, but he figures he’s still 31,579 hours ahead of Dom, give or take. He pulls into the drive and lets the car idle while he tries to get his bearings. By the time he’s opening his door, Dom is walking toward him, blue eyes practically glowing in the dark.
“Jesus, I tried to call you four times,” are the first words out of Dom’s mouth.
Arthur immediately bristles. “I had to do some shopping and it took a little longer than I anticipated.” He shifts his body so that he’s blocking Dom’s view of the backseat. “Now go back inside. I haven’t wrapped your present yet.”
Dom goes, but Arthur can see his hesitancy and he shakes his head. If anyone should be worried about someone suddenly disappearing it sure as hell isn’t Dom. With a scowl Arthur knows would get him chastised by Ariadne, Arthur opens the back seat of his car and begins pulling out non-descript bags, leaving the last two presents on the backseat. He’ll have to smuggle them in, but that’s a matter for another time.
Inside, Arthur is greeted by the warmth of a decently heated house – his own relies on a space heater, so he never travels too far from whichever room the damned thing is located – and the smell of delicious food. Dom is waiting for him, and Arthur shoves two of the bags, the safe ones, at him.
“Be a pal and find me some wrapping paper? I want to get these done before the children’s preternatural alarms go off.”
The corner of Dom’s mouth quirks up, and he motions to where Arthur can set his own bags. “You’re in the same room as before,” he says, then disappears down the hall to follow Arthur’s instructions. Arthur takes advantage of the opportunity to dash back out, grab his boxes and hide them away in the walk-in closet. By the time Dom returns – juggling a bottle of Chardonnay, two glasses, wrapping paper and tape – Arthur has laid out all the gifts Dom is allowed to see in a horseshoe around him and the two settle into wrapping with quiet ease.
“I should have called sooner,” Dom says when they’re halfway through wrapping.
Arthur has half a mind to tell him that yes, he should have, but there’s no point in making a big deal out of things that can’t be changed, so he shrugs instead. “You were busy,” he reasons. “I can understand that.” He glances up when he realizes that Dom isn’t wrapping anymore. “What’s wrong?”
Dom sighs and pours them both some wine, focusing on swirling the pale liquid in his glass and sampling it. Arthur sees it for what it is and waits, because he knows this is just Dom trying to gather his thoughts. He ignores his own glass in favor of tying a bow around the box in front of him, then stacks all of them haphazardly so he can carry them to where the Cobb tree stands proud and magnificent. When he returns, he offers Dom a hand up and they gather up all the mess, disposing of it before they retire to the couch.
“Why haven’t you settled down with anyone?”
Dom’s gaze is intense, his voice soft, but insistent, and it makes Arthur’s face heat. He tries to cover the faint blush he knows is staining his cheeks by sipping his wine, and glances around the room, looking for a distraction. But then Dom clears his throat, leans in just a little too close, and Arthur, oh-so-calm Arthur, blurts out the answer.
“Because I was waiting for you!”
As soon as the words are out, Arthur wishes he could yank them back, bury them deep somewhere Dom will never find them. His face feels like it’s on fire and he stumbles to his feet, puts as much distance between them as possible. He can’t escape, he knows that, but he needs a few moments to recover, because he’s kept that secret close to the chest for so long now, he feels empty without it. Empty and exposed.
“I knew,” Dom replies, the heat of him at Arthur’s back. The suddenness of his close proximity is unnerving and Arthur startles, but doesn’t turn to face him, so Dom continues. “I—I didn’t realize, not until after Mal, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t—I didn’t feel that way. She was everything to me back then, and when I realized – when she pointed out what I hadn’t even noticed – I didn’t know how to address your feelings. And then Phillipa was born and you seemed content to play uncle, so I thought maybe we were wrong.”
Arthur doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s true, to a point. He had been so starved for anything resembling affection back then, and it had been painfully clear that Dom didn’t see him in any way outside of professional. It had been a relief when Mal, sweet, loving Mal, had asked him to be first Phillipa’s godfather, and then James’ as well.
“It’s—it’s all in the past, Dom. Just—just leave it, all right?”
“How long have we known each other?” Dom asks, not moving from his place at Arthur’s back.
Arthur doesn’t even have to pause to do the math. “Twelve years and nine months.” He closes his eyes, wondering if he’s just damned himself.
Dom is silent except for the softest sigh, and he moves away finally, gives Arthur back his personal space. Arthur continues to stand there staring at the fireplace for a few minutes, and when he turns around, it’s to see Dom sitting on the loveseat, elbows propped on his knees, fingers steepled in front of his face. He’s not frowning, though. He doesn’t even look angry, and Arthur counts that as a point in his favor.
He casts a glance at the front hall table where his keys are laying, ponders leaving now so he doesn’t have to deal with whatever it is Dom is thinking, but Arthur isn’t a coward. Instead, he grips his glass just a little tighter and takes a seat in the recliner, willing himself to remain calm.
“This—It’s going to sound a little strange, but I want you to know I’ve been thinking.”
Arthur arches a brow at him, aiming for – and achieving – a cool front. “I hope you didn’t hurt yourself. Regretting your early retirement?”
That makes Dom laugh, and he shakes his head. “God, no. I’ve missed so much of their lives already.” He runs a hand through his hair and huffs out another laugh before going serious. “I meant about you.”
That has Arthur tensing. He can’t imagine what Dom has been dwelling on, but he knows it can’t be good. He isn’t disappointed by Dom’s next words, but he’s surprised enough that he reaches for the totem he no longer carries.
“After I came home, once I had settled into the new routine, I had more time to think, and spent quite a bit of it thinking about you.”
Arthur swallows and takes a mental step back. He can see where this is going, and while Arthur isn’t exactly insensitive, he’s also not a bare-your-feelings sort of person. So he clears his throat and cuts in before Dom can make either of them blush.
“I don’t need thanks, if that’s what you’re getting at. Mal—Mal meant a lot to me too. She became like a sister to me, but you always came first and I hated knowing…” He’s at a loss for words and his speech is just as revealing as whatever Dom was going to say. “You don’t owe me anything.”
“No, I don’t suppose I do. But that’s not what I was getting at. I thought about the fact that you weren’t here. It was hard enough coming back to this house, chasing out Mal’s ghost. In fact, I’m thinking of selling this place. Miles and Marie are back in France and though I think Marie still blames me, I don’t want either of them estranged from the kids. I could buy a place in Paris, near the university. Miles has already assured me there’s a spot open if I want it. To teach,” he clarifies, when he sees Arthur’s brow knit.
“So you’re leaving.” It isn’t a question, because Arthur can see the decision in Dom’s eyes.
“There’s nothing here that’s really holding me back.”
The words are like a punch to Arthur’s gut and he has to fight to not react, to keep his expression neutral. He hadn’t ever considered what would happen if Dom left the country, and now that he’s faced with that possibility, the future seems a lot bleaker. He had been able to tolerate it before, even living as close as he was, because he was certain Dom would tell him when it was okay to come round. Arthur had heeded that first email, the one asking him to keep away until Dom was settled in, until things weren’t so unstable.
“I don’t—um. All right. Did you need me to find someone? To get the move done? I don’t—I might know someone who could do it at a discount rate.”
Dom shakes his head, and his face looks so disappointed that Arthur feels somewhat sick. It’s like the inception job all over again, discovering that he’s missed the most vital clue of all.
“About six weeks after I got home, James was at school and he fell. He broke his arm, and when the school called me, I panicked. You were the first person I called—”
“But I was working a job in Bangkok. I called you back less than ten minutes after you hung up, but you didn’t answer.”
“I realized you were halfway around the globe. I knew you’d come, but it wasn’t life or death, and the team you were working with... Well, they were notorious for taking out people they thought had double-crossed them. But that started a whole string of…” Dom looks away, his gaze landing on the tree and he seems to forget he was saying anything, so Arthur prompts him.
“A whole string of…what?”
“I would turn around to share something with you – about the kids, the parents on the PTA…anything. But you weren’t there. For ten of the almost thirteen years I’ve known you, there hasn’t been a single time I couldn’t turn around and tell you something. It was…unnerving how dependent I had become, so I needed the space, needed you to not be so readily available.”
And he regrets that decision now, because Dom can see how much it has hurt Arthur to stay away, not just from Dom, but from the children as well. The Cobbs have always been the family Arthur lacked. He feels a pang for all the things he can’t undo, but he’s already made a vow that that will change.
“All you had to do was call or email. I’d have been there in a heartbeat. You have to know that.”
“I did. I do. That’s why I’m telling you now. I want to get away from all of this.” Dom waves his hands at the floor Mal used to dance across, at the wildly painted living room she felt needed more color. “I want the kids to be able to remember her without living under some shadow. And I know the other kids talk, that it’s just a matter of time before someone says something hateful to Phillipa or James about how their mother died. I want to get them away from all of that.”
“So you need me to what?” Arthur is proud of how strong his voice is in the face of all of this.
“I want you to come with us. I want there to be absolutely no ties to this city, to this state, but I can’t do that if you’re not with me.”
There, he’s said, and there’s no taking it back. Not, Dom thinks, that he would, even if it were possible, because Arthur looks completely stunned, and it’s a rather good expression on him. Dom can see the internal struggle, can see how desperately Arthur is trying to rein in everything he’s feeling, to not let it show as expressively as it is, and Dom savors the moment. For once, he’s managed to broadside Arthur with something so massive, it’s left him not only speechless, but open and vulnerable, too.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Arthur says at last, when he’s finally found his voice.
“I want you with us, Arthur. There isn’t anything more to it than that. I need you there with us. Not just in an apartment a town away, or a few blocks down. I want you in our home, I want—” Dom takes a deep breath, because this next part—this is the part he’s been working his way up to. “I want you with me. In my bed, in my home. I want all of that. And I know it’s taken me a while to figure out that that’s what I want, but I have. This isn’t me trying to repay you, it’s not guilt and I’m not confused. I mean, Jesus Christ, Arthur. I even went to therapist to make sure.”
Dom can feel the heat rising in his face. “Miles suggested it. He has a friend who lives out here and I was able to get a referral to someone, a Dr. Harper. She helped me work through the guilt that I still had over Mal’s death. She’s worked with other dream-sharers. She was one, in fact, for a while. She knew what I was going through.”
“And after you talked to her, you figured out you wanted to have sex with me?” Arthur’s blunt skepticism should sting, but Dom knows where he’s coming from.
“Well, no. She helped me realize it was okay to move on, though. That I didn’t have to love a ghost forever.”
“But Ariadne…?” Because Arthur had been there, he wasn’t stupid. He knows how Ariadne had looked at Dom.
“It wasn’t like that, not with her. She’s like…I could say a daughter, but she’s too old for that. A niece, perhaps? She’s seeing someone, a fellow architect she met while doing a semester in Spain. They’ve been together for—”
“Eight months, yeah, she told me. I thought maybe he was just—” Arthur shrugs, at a loss for words. He’s felt so unbalanced since he walked into the house, and it’s killing him, because he’s smoother than this. He isn’t one to trip over his words or fall victim to his own nervousness.
“Tell me you’ll come. Tell me it’s not too late, that I haven’t made you wait so long that you’ve changed your mind.”
Arthur isn’t one to cry, doesn’t even tear up, but he feels like his chest is caving in even as a great weight is lifted from his shoulders. He thinks about leaving behind the apartment he doesn’t like, the life he’s barely been living and he finds his lips curving up into a smile even before he gives them leave to do so.
“I suppose now isn’t the best time to tell you that I bought Phillipa and James a kitten and puppy, respectively.” The words are thick in his throat, but he’s still able to say them.
Dom laughs, a sudden sharp burst of sound that erases the last of Arthur’s tension. “Tell me you didn’t. Jesus, how are they not making a racket?” At Arthur’s guilty look, Dom laughs again, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Tell me you didn’t really drug them just so you could sneak them into my house.”
Arthur smiles; it isn’t all-encompassing, but it is soft, fond, and it gives Dom hope.
“I could, but then I’d be lying, and I try not to do that outside the job. Or at least, not with people I care about.”
“And I suppose there’s no taking them back? Well, you’ll just have to be in charge of seeing that they’re taken care of. Phillipa might be eight, but she’s never had that kind of responsibility.”
When Dom stands, Arthur follows suit, and they head for the kitchen, turning off all the Christmas lights as they go. Once there, Dom takes their glasses and loads them into the dishwasher, then crowds Arthur into the counter, bracketing Arthur’s body with his arms.
“I’m serious, Arthur. I’ll stay here, if you won’t go with us. I’ll sell this house and buy another, one closer to you. Just—say yes, Arthur. Or say maybe. Tell me if you need more time. You can have your own room. Hell, you can have your own floor, just say yes. And mean it.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Dom,” Arthur says, but the effect is ruined when he leans in and presses his lips to Dom’s. “Of course my answer is yes. As if you even had to ask.”
~ * ~
The children are, of course, up at an ungodly hour, but Arthur is awake, the first cup of coffee – from a perfectly brewed pot, not Dom’s watery version – warming his hands. He can hear their shrieks as they find his presents tucked at the foot of their beds, the kitten and puppy still sleeping off the last effects of the very legal tranquilizer he had dosed them with. Arthur smiles at Dom when he shuffles in, and pours a second mug full before passing it to him. They stand like that in silence, each simply looking their fill. It’s a relief to Arthur to see no sign of hesitancy, no doubts, in the clear blue eyes.
When the thunder of feet on the stairs alerts them to their impending company, Arthur sets aside his coffee and braces himself for impact. Not a moment later, shrieks of ‘Uncle Arthur!’ fill the air, and two sleep-warm bodies slam into him. Just like that, the emptiness he’s been feeling is gone, and Arthur closes his eyes just long enough to capture the moment, to lock it away in the scrapbook of memories he keeps in his mind.
“They asked me every day for the first year when you were going to come and visit. Then it was once a week. It’s been a bit more spread out lately, but they never stopped asking. They really missed you, and that’s my fault. I shouldn’t have deprived any of you the opportunity to see one another.”
He pitches his voice low, directing the words to Arthur, but Arthur only smiles at him, cheeks dimpling in a way Dom hasn’t seen since before Mal became lost. He’s never realized quite how much he’s missed it until right then, and he’s glad he was the one to resurrect it.
Clapping his hands, Dom drags Phillipa and James’ attention away from their godfather and back to him. “Why don’t you two go get your new friends and then we can see what Santa brought?”
Phillipa squints at him, just a little, as though trying to see if he’s making fun of her, but when he only continues to smile, she shrugs and takes James’ hand.
“C’mon, James. Daddy wants to be alone with Arthur.”
Her words bring a flush of color to both men’s faces, but Dom only shoos them out, watches as they head for the stairs back up to their rooms before he turns to Arthur again. Moving so that he’s once more in Arthur’s space, Dom lets his eyes rove over the slender features, the warm brown eyes and the relaxed shoulders. He brings up one hand, fits it to the curve of Arthur’s neck and leans in to press their lips together. The kiss is chaste, almost fleeting, but they break apart when Phillipa’s voice cuts through the room.
“See, I told you they aren’t opening presents without us, James.”
Dom glances over his shoulder at his precocious daughter, a chastisement already forming when James speaks.
“They’re doing kissing stuff instead!” the little boy proclaims, nose wrinkled with distaste. “Ew.”
“Now see here,” Dom begins, but it’s too late. The kids are off and running, taking the stairs much too fast and giggling the whole way. With a shake of his head, Dom returns his attention to Arthur and murmurs, “Now where was I? Oh, right. Good morning.” He leans in again, pulls Arthur into a deeper kiss until the faint pink stain on his cheeks is darker.
Arthur looks dazed when Dom pulls away, so instead of saying anything else, Dom refills his coffee mug and steers Arthur into the family room. When he sits on the loveseat, Dom pulls Arthur down beside him, and they share their second cup of coffee while the children giddily dig through their presents, paper fluttering through the air. The kitten escapes the box Phillipa had her confined in, and she settles down on Dom’s lap, blinking up at him sleepily. And for the first time since Mal’s passing, Dom thinks that future is looking brighter.