Mal wakes up with a gasp. The room is dark, and it takes her a few seconds to orient herself. She sits up and takes a deep breath, slower this time, the sound of her heartbeat loud in her ears. The clock reads 2:57 am, but she has no idea what day it is, or even what month. They were away for so long, and time moves differently in dreams, and slowest of all down in limbo. Dom lies beside her, still asleep.
She unhooks the needle from the crook of her elbow, pressing her fingers over the puncture, drop of blood warm and thick against the pads of her fingers. She stands and stretches, back stiff and shoulders sore from being asleep for so long. The air tastes stale and her eyes can't seem to adjust to the darkness. She turns on the light and has to shield her eyes from the glare, so much harsher than in the dream.
Dom continues to sleep.
She goes to the bathroom, flicks on the light and stares at herself in the mirror, her face the same was it was when she went to sleep, the age lines and white hair of the dream gone like they never existed. She reminds herself they never did. She finds a green and yellow Tinkerbell Band-aid--Philippa's favorite--in the medicine cabinet and puts it on the needle mark, just in case.
Her top is on the night table, right where she left it before they went to sleep. She spins it with unsteady hands. It topples quickly the first time, spins a little longer the second before tipping over, spins and falls over the third.
The tight clench of fear in her chest eases.
Time seems ridiculously slow and yet unbelievably fast. When she's looking at the clock, a minute stretches on forever; when she turns to look at Dom and then returns her gaze to the clock, three minutes have passed. She can't keep track. She waits seven minutes, then another three. The sedative should have worn off by now.
She kicks Dom out of the bed. He rolls and hits the floor with a thump that makes her wince in sympathy.
He doesn't wake up.
"Yeah." Arthur sounds predictably brusque when he answers the phone, even at 3:23 in the morning. That's why she calls him, even though their relationship is...cordial at best.
"What day is it?"
"Yes, Arthur. What day is it?"
"Saturday." She hears some rustling. "Actually, given that it's almost 3:30 in the morning, Sunday."
"The date, Arthur. What is the date?"
"The 27th. Mal, what's wrong? Are the kids okay?"
"The kids are with my mother. I--We--Dom and I--Merde." There's no way to say it that won't bring Arthur's particular brand of silent condemnation down on her. "Dom and I were dreaming. We went deeper than we ever had before." She takes a deep, shaky breath. "Dom won't wake up."
"I'll be there in half an hour."
The line goes silent before she can respond. Fucking Arthur and his fucking high-handedness. She's grateful for it now, as much as she hates it. If anyone can wake Dom up, it's Arthur. Mal's sure of it.
Arthur arrives twenty-seven minutes later; Mal stands in the doorway waiting, smoking a cigarette. It gives her something to do with her hands, helps to steady them. Even at four in the morning, he's immaculately put together, not a hair out of place. She's always thought he would have made a good Frenchman.
"It's going to be okay," he tells her, squeezing her shoulder with one capable hand. Normally his abundance of self-confidence irritates her (he is too competent for her to accuse him of conceit), but now it makes her feel better. She's never known him to fail when he puts his mind to something. He leads her into the bedroom, where Dom is still on the floor beside the bed, asleep. He looks over his shoulder at her, one eyebrow raised.
"I thought it would wake him," she says, shrugging. She crosses her arm over her chest, grips her right biceps tight and raises the cigarette to her mouth. She blows the smoke out slowly, lets it make everything soft-edged and unreal for a few seconds. "It always has before."
"How long were you asleep?"
"You say it's Saturday night--Sunday morning now?"
Mal nods and takes another drag of her cigarette. She holds the smoke inside for a moment before exhaling. "We started dreaming this morning--yesterday morning now, after my mother took the children for the weekend. We wanted to see how deep we could go." She hesitates, then, "We used a sedative."
He nods, unsurprised. She thinks Dom invited him on the trip and he said no. She was glad at the time, had wanted it to be just the two of them, without any distractions. Now she wishes he'd been there to stop them from going too deep. He squats down at Dom's head, slides his hands under Dom's shoulders. "Grab his legs."
She finds an ashtray and stubs out her cigarette, then crouches down to help Arthur lift Dom back into the bed. He's heavy--dead weight. The thought makes her choke on a sob. She remembers the weightlessness of free falling, the way her dress fluttered like wings around her body. The wreckage of the hotel room.
"Isn't for seven months, Mal." Arthur's precision--what she's so often dismissed as his fussy pedantry--is comforting now. Arthur is solid, real. He will bring Dominic back to her. "What happened?"
She shakes her head. There's no way she can make him understand. "We lived a lifetime, and then we killed ourselves to wake up, but we didn't wake up in the real world. We were just in a more shallow level of the dream." She reaches for her pack of cigarettes, lights up another one. "Dom was convinced we were awake, but I knew it was still a dream. So I killed myself. On our anniversary. I tried to convince him to come with me, but he said James and Philippa needed him." She heaves another sob that rattles her bones. "They need him here, Arthur. They need him awake." Arthur puts an arm around her, squeezes her shoulder with a steady hand. He smells of cool night air and freshly pressed linen. He will make everything better.
"I'll call Eames." That isn't what she wants to hear, and it must show on her face. "Do you trust me?" he asks. He tips her face up to meet his gaze. "Mal?"
"Yes, Arthur. I trust you."
"Then let's get started."
Arthur spends a lot of time on the phone and as soon as the sun is up (which is still too early for her mother, but James and Philippa are always awake by six), Mal checks on the children, forcing herself to sound bright and cheerful when inside she just wants to cry.
Saito shows up around ten, looking dapper even in his jetlag.
"Thank you for coming," she says, shaking his hand.
"I'm happy to help," he answers, his grip firm and comforting. He's one of the best in the business, and they often compete for jobs, though this is the first time she's met him. "My architect is on her way from Paris, but why don't we take a look and see what's going on inside his head?"
For the first time ever, Mal is hesitant to enter the dream state. Her children may have already lost one parent, and her stomach roils unpleasantly at the thought of orphaning them completely. But she swallows down the nausea and nods. Arthur loosens his collar and rolls up his sleeves, cufflinks clicking softly on the end table when he removes them. Saito does the same.
She brings the PASIV out to the living room and smokes a cigarette while Arthur and Saito carry Dom to the sofa and get everything set up.
Saito settles himself in the easy chair, needle already inserted, and they're ready to go.
Mal wakes up breathless and alert, adrenaline pumping in her veins.
"I can't believe you shot me in the knee," Arthur says, sounding as close to cranky as Arthur ever sounds. The knee buckles a little when he stands.
"That was a projection of me," she says, ignoring his dramatics. "You're perfectly fine now." She doesn't call him a big baby, but only because she needs his help.
"This is so much worse than I expected." She pushes a hand through her hair, starts the coffeemaker, and lights another cigarette, willing her hands to remain steady. "He really believes I'm dead." She can't discuss the shrill shadow of herself she's become in his dreams. She knows that dreams built on memories are unable to reproduce the complexities of the real thing, and that projections are shallow symbols. It doesn't help.
Saito gets up and puts a hand on her shoulder. "We will figure something out."
Mal wishes she had his confidence.
Arranged carefully on the sofa, Dom is still asleep.
Sixteen hours later, Mal has a chemist, a forger, and an architect sitting in her living room, discussing her husband's subconscious with Arthur and Saito.
Aside from Eames, Mal doesn't know anyone on the team Arthur assembles. And Eames is, well, Eames.
"Dom would expect him," Arthur says. "He's the best." He's right, but that doesn't make Mal like it any better.
"Is all of this really necessary?" she asks, waving a hand at the proliferation of glassware--Yusuf's chemistry kit--on her kitchen counters, Ariadne's rolls of blueprints and Dom's old architectural models cluttering up the dining room table. Mal had raised an eyebrow at the girl's name, but let it pass. In their business, aliases are common, and she has to admire the brash obviousness of it. Arthur says she's the best architect he's seen since Dom, and Mal knows he doesn't say things like that lightly.
"Yes," Eames says.
Mal ignores him and looks to Arthur, mostly because she knows it will annoy Eames. And also because she does actually trust Arthur and needs to believe he knows what he's doing.
"You saw how he was, Mal. He truly believes he's awake."
She closes her eyes and forces herself to breathe. "I would like to go in with you."
"Arthur, I need to be there."
"So you can kneecap me again?"
"I can make him understand--"
"No. That's the deal, Mal. We go in, you keep watch here. It's already a clusterfuck," and there's the I told you so she's been waiting for since he arrived, "but we can fix it. But you have to let me do it my way."
She remembers the wild look in Dom's eyes in the dream when he saw her, his firm conviction that she wasn't supposed to be there, that she was the one who was lost.
"Fine. I will wait here for you to bring him home."
Arthur nods once, his jaw tight. Eames gives her a one-armed hug before they go under, and she hates how fragile she feels, that they feel the need to treat her that way.
They're all arrayed in lounges around the PASIV, and she checks the time repeatedly, wondering if Arthur's elaborate shell game is going to work. The sound of seven bodies breathing softly and evenly should be comforting and familiar, but it isn't. She puts a hand on Dom's cheek; his skin is warm and sweaty, his eyes dart this way and that beneath closed lids, the twitch of them making her dizzy when she watches him for too long. He's been asleep for almost forty-eight hours, but that doesn't mean she's stopped expecting him to wake up on his own.
She crumples her empty pack of cigarettes and counts the seconds down, fiddling with the volume on the iPod.
On the sofa, Dom continues to sleep.