His breaths wheeze in and out, the sound of his last one approaching odd amidst the clinical whiteness of the hospital. Dominic Cobb has never felt this old, even when ten thousand years had passed in Limbo. That is how he knows this is not a dream.
He can also see his children's faces; Phillipa talking worriedly at a nurse and James casting side-long glances through the observation window. It reassures him those glances, as does the prickle of medication through his IV lines and the weight of the top in his hand. He can no longer spin it, the shakes he gets prevent it, but the mere presence of it whispers 'this is real'.
The mechanical whirrs and beeps, the croak of his breath, everything fades as Dominic Cobb slips into his last dream.
It feels good to be young again, even if it is only in a dream.
It's not the age he was when he met Mal, nor is it the age when he finally said goodbye to her. Instead, it is a few years later, when Phillipa was in middle-school and he finally felt content. The body is the one he felt the most comfortable in, the one he did his best in. There is that twinge from working in the study too much as he starts walking and a heaviness to his footsteps that comes from not having to watch his back.
The scenery isn't much - scruffy grass and wizened trees - but this dream is nice. Cobb wasn't expecting a dream that chronicled his entire life and frankly didn't want one, so this journey was a pleasant way to go. Perhaps when he had passed that next tree he would pass on and go on to what ever came next.
He never quite notices when he gains two companions. Which is how dreams work, though he has to stop and feel the not-old in his bones before he can continue and catch up with them to talk. The first is a young woman, with dark hair and eyes, pale skin, a confident walk and the overwhelming sense that that he knows her. It's enough to make Cobb wary, at least until he notices her hair sticks up messily, that an ankh swings heavily from her neck and that the shoes on her feet are a pair of heavy boots.
These incongruities are delightful and he catches her smiling at him as he turns his attention to the second.
It is a young man, a fragility around his face suggesting that he could be nothing else but young. Cobb gets the feeling that he knows this person as well, but where his companion is dark and light, he is entirely light. His hair is pale, almost sickly white and the hem of his white trousers is high enough above his bare feet to not get trodden in the dirt. Cobb starts when the boy turns to look at him; his eyes are darker than night.
"Do not be afraid," the boy says to him as he gently takes Cobb's hand and gently pulls so they continue to walk. The woman draws away at this, wandering in parallel to the two men but just out of reach. Cobb extends a hand to her, but she just shakes her head and mouth 'talk' before moving further away.
The boy takes her distancing as his cue to start talking.
"There is not much to talk about, despite what my sister would say. But I do have one question to ask you." His voice is strange, enough to give Cobb goose bumps even though he's walking in the sun.
"Go on," he prompts.
"Would you take this jewel from me?" For the first time Cobb notices the single splash of colour on his companion, a large green stone, radiant in the sunlight.
He shakes his head. "No, I'm not a thief. Not anymore. Besides," he shrugs, "emeralds aren't my thing."
The boy looks at him appraisingly. "What if I said that if you did, you would allow a child who hasn't dreamed for close to a century to do so and that an old man at the end of his life could continue what he did best?"
"How can a child stay a child for 'close to a century'?" Cobb is skeptic of the offer, even though things aren't meant to make sense in a true dream.
The boy smiles. "How else could a child be carried for two years?"
The statement sends chills down his spine as Cobb realises what he means. Somnacin is a dangerous drug and he understands why it is not made widely available.
"Why can't I save more than one child's life? Surely you can do that here."
The boy gives a weak smile. "I might not, but you could if you take the jewel. You are on the edge of your life Dominic Cobb, just as I am on mine. Do something that could change more than just your life."
He finds himself nodding to this and continues nodding when the boy asks his first question again.
It does not quite surprise him to find the woman at their side again, arms swinging in time with the boy's.
"You've made your decision then?" she asks, and Cobb nods once again. There is a returned smile from her and her hand reaches toward the shoulder of the young man.
"Take the jewel then." Her voice is suddenly sharp and dark and he realises that they're no longer walking through an idyllic barren landscape but are instead standing in a dark one filled with brambles and red earth.
Cobb reaches out to follow her order, and as his hand closes around the emerald she grabs the boy's hand and he jerks backwards, snapping the chain holding the emerald around his neck.
The moment that occurs next is filled with a million sensations for Cobb, the very least of which is of a tree growing roots and experiencing the flow of nutrients up into its trunk. Billions of images register before his eyes but the scene before him when the torrent ends is that of a blue eyed blonde toddler being held by the woman.
Instinctively he reaches to smooth the child's hair back and the kid falls asleep at his touch. The woman smiles again, the child grasping at the finger she offers it and reaches up on tiptoes to brush her lips a hair's breadth away from his forehead.
"Thank you," and in that moment, somewhere far away in the physical world, medical equipment squeals and two children start crying over the loss of their father, "brother."