Title: Who Knows What Might be Lurking
Fandoms: Inception-Supernatural fusion AU
Pairings: Sam/Arthur, Mal/Dom & Arthur/Eames
Timeline: Part of the Not Such As I Was 'verse and kind of all over it in time, between 2003 and 2012.
Series: Not Such As I Was
Contents include: Language, mentions of canon character death
Notes: Title from the Prologue to Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. Arthur POV.
Summary: Mal survives in different memories in different ways.
Ariadne pulled her wrist away and shouted, "That's some subconscious you've got in there, Cobb!" Arthur froze for a split-second as the pain narrowed to a needle-fine point in his chest, knowing what was coming. "She's a real charmer!"
It still hurt. He rolled his eyes to cover the wince. "I see you met Mrs. Cobb," he muttered, looking down and rolling the still-warm strap in his hands.
Ariadne gaped at him, her breath still shaky from that first death. The first one always sucked. "She's his wife?" she yelped, aghast.
"Yeah," Arthur admitted, then switched the subject before she noticed. He could explain totems to the girl; he had no way of explaining Cobb's personal demon.
Mrs. Cobb, he called it, because it looked like Mal, it sounded like her, it even—fuck, it even felt and smelled like her, but Cobb's projection wasn't Mal at all. Ariadne had met a sadistic, malevolent, guilt-warped doppelgänger that did no justice to its inspiration. Arthur felt a piece of the real Mal chip away every time Mrs. Cobb appeared and revealed a new method to torture Dom and Arthur both. He couldn't imagine how that monster had reacted to discovering an ingénue like Ariadne poking around Dom's psyche.
Arthur knew Mal. He could never let himself forget the real, breathing, flesh-and-blood woman. Mal was brilliant, she was beautiful; she sometimes had a vicious temper but otherwise she only resorted to violence in dreams, and then only when she had no other choice. As to the frequency with which their extractions had turned into shootouts...
"I blame your influence," Mal had told Arthur over the last of their second bottle of wine, a few nights after he'd finally received his official discharge from the army. "You know how Dom is, and then you taught him how to fire a gun."
Arthur had grinned. "Not my fault," he'd said, then mouthed the words, 'All him,' while pointing his finger at Sam.
Mal's teasing grin shifted into a sharp glare at as she turned on Sam, and Arthur had almost fallen over as Sam yanked his arm away.
"Traitor," Sam scowled at Arthur before he looked up at Mal, a sheepish, pleading look on his face. "It was when we first met! Dom asked me to!" Sam's eyes went wide and dewy, bangs falling into them. "He had no way to defend himself down there."
Mal's look remained stony as she leaned in towards him.
"I didn't know I was releasing the Kraken!" Sam yelped, his voice cracking—God, he'd been so young; they'd all been so young— and Arthur had had to choke his laughter down while for a few seconds Mal just stared Sam down. Then in a flash she pulled back, snatching up Sam's glass as she walked away. "Hey—!"
"Non, Sam. I will no longer be party to corrupting minors who corrupt my fiancé," Mal called back from the kitchen. "Arthur, don't you dare hand him yours," she added. It happened to be the very moment that the rim of Arthur's glass touched Sam's lips. He froze, but then Arthur winked at Sam and Sam tossed the wine back, swallowing the whole thing down in a single gulp. Sam handed off the empty glass to Arthur, who managed to pantomime finishing the glass himself right as Mal reappeared at the threshold.
Mal leaned against it, shaking her head and tutting her tongue, but smiling. "You two," she said. "Next time I turn my head you'll be taking ten-year-olds down to the firing range."
"I learned when I was eight," Sam said, with a shrug of the shoulders that had finally begun to fill out. The whole atmosphere of the room changed: Mal's expression turning brittle, Arthur pressing himself back under Sam's arm and laying a hand over Sam's thigh, giving it a squeeze. No matter how infuriating and painful they were to learn, details of Sam's childhood were precious breadcrumbs in the forest, found under leaves and roots, left unclaimed by the birds only through luck and coincidence. And if there was also a sense that somewhere out there, children were doing their best to outwit a terrible monster, well...
I won't lie if you don’t ask. Don't go looking and you won't get hurt. That was ever Sam’s line, from the beginning to the end. All they'd ever known were tidbits volunteered out of the blue or carelessly thrown into conversations—but Arthur had always known those scraps were true.
Arthur arched into the arm tensing around him as Sam pressed his lips to the crown of Arthur's head. They'd been together and perfect, for a moment that might have been in a dream, the way it stretched out and then slipped away.
Who knew how long it had been before Mal had asked, "Shall I open another bottle?"
"No," Sam sighed into Arthur, his body going lax and supple beneath him. "Class in the morning." His head turned away, and Arthur heard rather than saw Sam making his bashful dimple-face at Mal. "I should get some sleep.”
Arthur grinned as Sam twined their fingers. "Don't look at me," Arthur said. "No formations for me, never again."
Arthur could still feel the way Sam's fingers had carded through his hair, the thumb of his other hand stroking the inside of Arthur's wrist.
"Yes, I'm certain sleep is what you need, Sam." Mal had laughed then, and it was tender and warm and every reason Arthur had fallen half in love with her in the first place. "Off with you, then, and don't even bring up driving, Arthur: the guestroom is made up. I'll tidy this away." She shot them a happy, knowing look. She too had been in love. Mal had been lovely...
No: his Mal had nothing to do with the twisted wraith that pressed in from the dark corners of Dom's mind. Arthur smiled to himself with the memory of Mal as she truly was while he wrapped Ariadne's cannula back inside the PASIV, the smile broadening as he remembered the how that night had ended once Sam and he had reached the guestroom. Sam's updates to the Oblivion File were coming bigger and with an urgency that stopped Arthur from sleeping lately. Sam had even called while Arthur and Cobb were flying to Paris, his voicemail still waiting for Arthur to—
And then Cobb interrupted Arthur to ask about Eames, who was a terrible idea, and in Mombasa no less. Arthur was too strung out by now to cope with Eames' teasing, maddening, lecherous patience on top of everything else in this impossible job. But Cobb had a point, and Eames had his uses...
And later, no: Ariadne proved to Arthur over and over that she was anything but an ingénue, but the fact remained that she simply hadn't been there. She didn't know—couldn't know—how badly it hurt Arthur every time she spoke Mal's name with disgust or contempt. Arthur didn't dare dream of Mal himself, not after a few encounters with Cobb's version. Like Cobb, he'd been there for the last few months. "I miss you so much sometimes," she'd told Arthur one morning over breakfast, her eyes lingering over the knife in his hand with a yearning that hinted at the ghoul that Cobb would loose after her death.
"Don't be silly, Mal," he'd replied her as set a plate in front of her. He pressed a kiss to her cheek before hiding the knife away. "You'll never get rid of me, no matter what. Pre-nup, remember?"
"I get you in the divorce," she murmured, and they ate together.
The next day Arthur'd flown off to go retrieve Eames from Minsk so he'd be alive for the next job. He and Eames were still stranded in Frankfurt am Main on the Cobbs' anniversary, but Dom had said on the phone that Mal was getting better...
Mal was always terribly clever and determined; Cobb had that much right. Unlike Cobb, though, Arthur'd had years of practicing not dreaming about someone by the time Mal died, and he was good at it. Arthur didn't dream of Mal, because if Mrs. Cobb turned up instead, he thought he might just follow her example.
Then there was Eames. Eames had known Mal in life; Eames had never seen her sick or met her shade. But in Eames' mind, Mal lacked depth. Mostly she would tease and flirt and encourage Eames' advances, sly fox-like innuendo sparkling from her eyes, begging Arthur to be happy again—to be happy with Eames. And that was better; that had its own roots in the truth, and Arthur was happy. But it still wasn't quite Mal.
All of these are reasons why it's such a shock for Arthur to find himself in Sam's shattered mind and see not Sam, not Eames, but Mal looking up at him. "You're back," she breathes, and pulls Arthur into a tight hug, and Arthur lets himself fall into it, Mal's quiet strength holding him up as his eyes slip back shut while inhales the real-ness of her. No dreams are ever as real as Sam's dreams—that's all the more true with a decade's worth of Yusuf's chemical tinkering to help them along.
"We've been waiting so long," Mal tells Arthur. "I'm trying, but I can't keep him together on my own, and Dean— he tries, but he's a," and Mal pulls back and looks around the cheap motel room, beds unmade and every surface littered with empty liquor bottles and take-out containers. The walls are marked with the arcane graffiti that's all over the Singer house. This is a safe place in Sam's mind. "He's a Winchester too," Mal finishes.
Arthur smiles back at her. "I know," he says. "But we can fix this, I swear."
Mal nods. "I hope so." She takes Arthur's hands and they turn together towards the door. There's a hint of smoke to the air outside, a faint trace of sulfur on Arthur's lips, and when he looks at the floor in front of the door, a line of salt. Somewhere out there, Arthur will find Sam, will find Eames, will find out what the hell is really going on down here.
"Be careful,” Mal reminds him. “There are monsters out there, Arthur. They are very real." She has to stay here, he understands. There have always been monsters in Sam's mind, but Mal is not one of them.
"I'll try to tidy this up," she says. “Good luck.” Arthur can hear Eames calling his name down the hall; hear Sam's voice doing the same from somewhere else; and under it all, a faint rustling of wings. He gives Mal one last look before he goes through the door.
"Thanks," he says. Arthur knows they'll all need it.