Actions

Work Header

Tourists, Together

Work Text:

“You know something, Mr. Saito?”

“What?”

“You really confuse me sometimes,” says Cobb, laughing lightly.

“Oh? Why’s that?”

Cobb thinks about it for a moment, but honestly, he can’t pin down one single event. It’s been more of a gradual continuation of events over almost a year now—events that still baffle him. Cobb’s always been proud of his ability to read people—an essential skill in his former line of work—but he’s coming to realize that he has no way of predicting Saito.

——— 

A single meeting post-inception wouldn’t be too out of the question. He had plenty of former employers who’d asked that much. He wasn’t surprised when Saito organized it a few weeks later, on the observation deck of a building in L.A. where they could talk freely without being overheard.

The first one was business. Just a check-in to make sure everything had gone smoothly and everyone had received their money. There was no compassion in it at first, not that Cobb expected any. He was ready to be done with the entire thing, and Saito’s presence in California was part of “the entire thing.” It wasn’t that he didn’t like Saito, but Saito was more of a reminder of a life he’d left behind than anything else.

The second meeting was different.

“How are you doing, Mr. Cobb?”

That was Saito’s first question at their second meeting, and that was when Cobb realized that the second one would be entirely focused on himself. All Saito’s questions were more concerned about his well-being than the job’s aftermath, and that almost made Cobb uncomfortable.

He’d never liked to talk about himself, but Saito seemed genuinely interested in how he was getting along.

So two meetings, and then he’ll let go.

Saito made it three, and the third was when Cobb realized this was going to become a habit. At least, that’s what Saito was making it. They got coffee and walked around the city, talking idly. They attended gallery openings, when Cobb could arrange for a babysitter.

So he’d stopped even thinking about it as strange, because Cobb was learning to make a point of being honest and straightforward. So he’d asked Saito directly if there was something else Saito wanted from him.

Saito had said no.

He asked Saito if he felt obliged to make something up to Cobb, like a debt.

Saito had said no.

He asked if Saito felt in any way inconvenienced or distracted from his work by their frequent jaunts into the city to just browse and explore and clear their minds. Cobb was starting to enjoy them, but he didn’t want to get too comfortable if Saito was only doing this for him.

Saito said that the meetings were distracting, but he’d added that he needed the distraction. He needed to get out of his office. He needed this. He’d set up remote business in Los Angeles and it felt like reality had come swirling back to meet him, like the swell of the tide. He needed to ease himself into it.

Cobb agreed silently, and understood, but he didn’t want to talk about limbo. He didn’t want to conjure up those memories.

So they didn’t talk about limbo. They got coffee. They went to the pier. They played frequent games of chess in the evenings. The went to art museums. They got lunch. And not once did Saito seem bored.

Maybe that’s what confuses Cobb.

———

There’s a firm whack as the club hits the ball, and it sails through the air, shining in the sunlight, before bouncing on the green, rolling to the far end of the driving range.

Cobb whistles appreciatively.

“You were saying?” Saito inquires.

“Oh yeah. You confuse me.”

“I got that part, but you never told me why .” Saito smiles as he sits on the bench across from Cobb. “You’ve been keeping me in suspense for three entire shots.”

“It took me a second to think about it, but I mean, look at us.” Cobb laughs. “Look at us, sitting here on a Friday afternoon, and we’re talking and playing golf like college friends. And the weirdest part is that I haven’t felt strange about it, because we do this so damn often, Mr. Saito.”

“Well, we do have a country club membership,” says Saito, a little sarcastically. His sarcasm is so dry and subtle that it’s taken a while for Cobb to learn how to pick up on it. But he is learning, and that’s another thing that baffles him.

“That too. You’re letting me use your country club membership. You have been for almost a year.”

“You’re welcome.”

“No, I mean…” Cobb struggles to find the words to explain the strange feelings. “If this were anyone else I’ve ever worked with, they wouldn’t ever have wanted to see me again. They would have dumped me at LAX and forgotten about me once I’d done my job, but you’re… you’re very involved, I guess.”

And there’s a pattern to it. It’s also subtle, but it comes in and out like the tide. Some weeks, Saito will be busy in his office, and Cobb will hardly get a text from him. Then, like a flipped switch, Saito will practically be at his door, inviting him to lunch and events and sports games with sudden energy, like it’s the only thing he wants to think about.

Saito considers this, and for a moment, he almost looks hurt. Cobb feels a pang of guilt and withdraws his statement.

“Saito, I don’t mean I’m not grateful. I… enjoy this immensely. I just never thought you were the kind of person who’d care about checking in with me after the job, and then doing all this when we barely knew each other. Ugh, this is all coming out wrong,” Cobb groans. “I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.”

“No. I know what you mean. We don’t know each other as well as that,” Saito says cheerfully. “But you are the only person in California whom I really know, however illegal our meeting circumstances may have been. And I feel like I can talk to you as a friend and not an associate, if I’m not being too forward.”

Cobb laughs at that. “After everything? I think we can manage friends. I’ll take friends.”

But he’s still baffled at Saito’s interest in himself of all people. His background is nothing interesting, unless you’re find of crime. He knows no one to introduce Saito to. He doesn’t have influence. He doesn’t even think he’s particularly funny.

But there are these weeks where every waking hour seems to be Saito. Saito calls him in the morning. They go out in the afternoon. They get something to eat. Sometimes they go home and just watch TV. Cobb considers himself boring company, because they hardly say a word sometimes.

And yet the next day, Saito will call him and ask to do it again.

———

Saturday

11:01 PM

S: This week there’s a lecture series on postmodern architecture downtown. Would you be interested?

11:03 PM

C: That sounds delightful, but unfortunately I’ll be a little busier than usual for a while. School just let out, and now I’m with the kids full-time.

C: It’s also eleven at night. I enjoy our text chats but shouldn’t you be getting some sleep?

11:05 PM

S: Don’t worry. I can think of a few more kid-friendly activities. Just let me do some research.

C: At midnight?

11:06 PM

C: Don’t stress about us, sir. You’re by no means obliged to keep my kids entertained.

11:10 PM

C: You there?

11:19 PM

C: Goodnight.

———

Cobb wakes up to kids’ footsteps running back and forth on the hardwood floors, energized from not having to wake up early for the bus. But despite that schedule change, they’re still up, and Philippa is at his bedroom door.

“Can we make waffles?” she asks.

“Sure. I’ll be right down.”

Cobb checks his phone, squinting as he adjusts the screen brightness, and notices two missed calls from Saito. He sighs, leaning back on the pillows. It’s not even eight o’clock yet.

I’ll call him back later.

He makes waffles, pours milk for cereal, and tries to keep the newly-energized kids under control as they loudly and excitedly suggest activities for the week to celebrate school being out. Cobb does more yawning than speaking.

“I want to go swim,” announces James.

“What, at the beach?”

“At a pool. I want to go swim, and I want to get ice cream.”

“We’ll see about that,” Cobb laughs softly. “I’ll be right back. I have to call someone.”

Saito is an enigma, but Cobb won’t deny that it’s nice to know someone in the area, even if they’re not from the area. Years away from home, and he doesn’t exactly have friends in town.

——— 

“Hello?”

“Hey, you uh… you called early this morning. Is everything okay?” Cobb inquires.

There’s a brief silence.

“How do you feel about Santa Clarita?” Saito asks.

Cobb laughs. “You mean… in general?”

“For a vacation with your children.”

Cobb hasn’t been to Santa Clarita for as long as he can remember. It seldom crosses his mind. The prospect is startling, and he has to pause, thinking.

“Well, Mr. Saito. I’ve never considered it.”

“Do you have plans already?” Saito asks.

“I’ll admit that on the first day of the kids’ vacation, I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Cobb laughs. “Are you making suggestions, or are you inviting me somewhere?”

“I’m suggesting that you accept an invitation.” Cobb can hear a hint of playfulness in Saito’s voice. “I’ve booked you a hotel suite, but I can easily cancel.”

“You booked me a hotel suite?”

“Well, you and your children. Like I said, if you don’t want it, I can-”

“No, it’s fine,” says Cobb quickly, not wanting to seem ungrateful. “It’s… fantastic, but Saito, I-”

“I don’t want to presume anything, but you won’t mind me joining you again, will you? If you’d rather have time alone with your children, I understand. I’ve never been up to Santa Clarita. I thought it would be interesting to see.”

“Of course not, but Saito,” Cobb says firmly. “Where did this come from? I mean, this is exceedingly kind of you, but you certainly don’t have to plan a vacation for me.”

“It’s no trouble.”

Part of Cobb wants to rebel at that, and he’s not sure why at first. Maybe he hates being in debt to people still, although this is more of a favor of free will. It’s just that people aren’t this nice . People aren’t this invested in his well-being. And if it had been more than a year and he and Saito had always known each other, maybe he’d accept more easily, but this is so unprompted and comfortable .

He takes a deep breath, forcing himself not to talk himself out of it. Some people are just nice . This kind of support isn’t always transactional. He wishes he could just believe that after all these years.

“So you want us to pack up and go to a hotel in Santa Clarita?” Cobb smiles. “How long?”

“How long would you like?”

“Come on, you’re making me feel guilty here. I don’t want to be draining your funds recklessly. Give me a number.”

Saito laughs. “It would take a lot of effort to drain my funds, Mr. Cobb. A lot more than you can give. But if you insist, give me three weeks.”

“It’s a deal,” says Cobb. “The kids are going to flip when they hear this, you know. And I owe you.”

“Pretend to let me win at online chess for once, and I’ll call it even. Can you have everyone ready tomorrow afternoon?”

“Of course.”

Cobb starts to add something, but the phone hums a steady tone as Saito hangs up. Cobb sighs, relaxing his shoulders, trying to make heads or tails of it.

“Thank you,” he murmurs under his breath.

———

“We’re going to the hotel! We’re going to the hotel!”

James chants loudly, bouncing in circles around the living room as his father goes over the list of things he was instructed to make sure to bring. It seems to be standard vacation stuff, and Saito was insistent that he not forget swimsuits, but Santa Clarita isn’t on the coast, exactly.

“That’s right,” says Cobb, distracted. “Philippa? You there?”

“Should I bring pink sandals or the brown ones?”

“Just pick, Pip.”

“I can’t .”

“We’re going to the hotel! We’re going swimm-ing,” James chants louder, bouncing up on the couch.

Philippa finally appears with her backpack, right as a car’s horn sounds on the driveway, and a silver car pulls into view. A driver appears, taking Cobb’s luggage like he’s at any luxury hotel, and helps the children into the back of the car.

The interior is pleasantly cool, and to Cobb’s surprise, Saito is there waiting for them, looking immensely pleased. While the kids gawk at the fancy car, Cobb makes sure the house is locked one last time, and joins Saito in the back.

“So, Santa Clarita,” Cobb says playfully. “Any particular reason?”

“You’ll see in due time,” says Saito, clearly enjoying the mystery of it.

Saito’s also dressed differently, Cobb notices. He’s traded the usual suit and tie for something more akin to their attire on their country club excursions. A blue linen shirt, with sunglasses hanging from the notch at the collar. He looks more comfortable than usual, but still in excellent taste, and Cobb feels suddenly self-conscious about his own T-shirt and button down.

“You said you were sending a car, but if I’d known you’d be joining us, I would have dressed for the occasion,” Cobb laughs. “I was packing all night. Sorry if I didn’t exactly dress the part of your entourage.”

Saito scoffs. “You look fine. More than fine.”

“You think?” Cobb gestures to the leather sandals on his feet. His cargo shorts. The unbrushed state of his hair, styled by a sleepless night of planning with his face pressed in a pillow. “I look ready for Joe’s Crab Shack and not much else.”

Saito smiles at that, but says nothing. He glances out the window as they start to the highway. It really is a beautiful day, and something about the warm sunshine relaxes the mood of everything. Cobb leans back in the soft seat, listening to the quiet jazz from the radio, finally allowing himself a break in Saito’s company.

It’s strange, he thinks, the way he still tenses sometimes when he’s with Saito. Saito has established that they’re no longer connected through inception only, and shows very little desire to talk about their corporate past together. It’s almost as if he intentionally avoids it. But still, when they’re silent in each other’s presence, Cobb occasionally finds himself jolting into an alert state, as if prepared to defend himself. He can’t help that Saito still reminds him of a life he once led, even though Saito was the one who saved him from that life.

He rationalizes it by reminding himself that this is a different Saito. They’ve moved on, and this is a business acquaintance from the city who he plays golf and chess with.

But some part of Cobb is unsatisfied by this. He wonders if he still needs closure. Like maybe it would help a little bit to talk about inception and what they went through in limbo, but they aren’t that deep. They felt everything together, so it’s an unspoken understanding, but Saito has never mentioned it.

Does he not want to talk about it, or did it not affect him the way it affected me? I find it hard to believe that he didn’t feel the same pain when limbo almost completely consumed us.

Maybe he’s just stronger.

Cobb realizes that they’ve been riding in silence for a long while. The kids are mesmerized by the scenery, and Saito is… well, Saito’s looking at him.

“Are you on vacation too for this?” Cobb inquires.

“I took a break, like you advised me a while ago, yes.” Saito smiles. “I figured I could justify it. I rarely take time off.”

“Well, it’s your company.”

“I still have a responsibility. I have to set an example.”

“Overworking yourself is a pretty bad example to set,” Cobb laughs. “We’re all human beings. We all need to rest.”

Saito looks out the window. “It’s easier for some.”

Something about that remark makes Cobb uneasy, but he’s not sure why. It’s too heavy to just be a quip. And Saito’s expression, although placid, is a little bit sad.

Cobb wants to ask if everything’s okay, but he doesn’t want to bring down the mood, so they continue in silence.

Silence, until Philippa sees it.

“Dad! Dad look! Roller-coasters!”

“What’s that, Pip?”

“Look!” Philippa demands, and sure enough, there are roller-coasters through the neat rows of palm trees, silhouetted against the bright blue sky that almost dulls their artificial reds and greens and yellows. The driver rolls down a window and a cool, exhilarating breeze rushes through the car. Cobb breathes deeply, grinning at Saito.

“I never took you for a Six Flags guy,” Cobb teases. “Isn’t that a little touristy?”

“Mr. Cobb, if you’ll recall, I have experience as a tourist.” Saito retorts with equal humor.

It’s the first time Cobb can remember him referencing their job together in any context, but Saito seems more relaxed now. Cobb isn’t sure why that comforts him so much, seeing Saito relaxed and enjoying himself.

———

It’s more than obvious that Saito is cruising below his usual luxury level as far as travel, Cobb notices. Saito, being Saito, can probably do better than the Hyatt Regency for three hundred dollars a night, but he’s chosen not to.

Honestly, Cobb finds it more comfortable. If they were booked at a five star hotel, he’d find himself constantly having to keep the kids out of the way of VIP guests and worrying about that level of etiquette. But they’re at a nice, comfortable, beautiful location just outside of the theme park area of the city.

“There’s a pool outside!” Philippa practically screams. “We have our own pool!”

“More than that,” Saito points out. “Step right this way.”

Through the main hotel room—beautiful stucco and white marble, decorated modern and clean and crisp—there’s an adjoining room through a door with two smaller beds.

“Our own room?” Philippa gasps. “Really?”

“Really. You can have all the privacy you want, and your own TV, and your own bathroom,” says Saito, more than a little proudly. “And if you like making phone calls, you can even order your own room service. Provided, of course, it’s okay with your dad.” He glances at Cobb quickly.

Cobb is still admiring the adjoining rooms, and all the space they have.

“How on earth did you manage this?” Cobb says, stunned. “You certainly didn’t have to.”

“I was originally going to just get my own room and one for your family separately, but they had this available. It’s a family suite.”

“You got us a family suite?” A slight smile creeps across Cobb’s face. “All of us?”

“Well, it seemed more cost-effective,” Saito says. “Not that that was ever a concern of mine. Is that okay?”

“Of course. Of course it’s okay, I just…” Cobb glances over the room and the two full-sized beds, then back into the kids’ room where they’re running circles in giddy excitement. “I don’t want to disturb you. We’re not the quietest bunch, but we try.”

“I’m sure you’re wonderful roommates,” says Saito.

———

Three weeks. Three entire weeks of vacation. Cobb isn’t even sure where to begin as he stands in front of the mirror in the room he shares with Saito, adjusting the collar of his shirt.

There’s an entire theme park awaiting the kids. And after ordering a nice light lunch on the phone, they have more energy than ever to tackle it. Saito has definitely gone touristy for their sake, but Saito doesn’t seem to mind.

To Cobb’s further surprise, Saito seems to want to join them on their first trip to the park.

“You’re more than welcome,” Cobb says cheerfully as he helps James with his shoelaces. “I just didn’t take you for the theme park type. But it seems like all my assumptions have been wrong, Mr. Saito. I should really stop making them, huh?”

Saito laughs. “Even if I’m not the type, it never hurt anyone to try something new.”

“Cheers to that.”

Philippa enters the room, pointing to one of her sandals forlornly. “I can’t get this stupid velcro to work. It keeps getting stuck.”

Cobb’s about to handle it, but to his surprise, Saito bends down to help her. Saito lifts her gently onto the edge of the bed and skillfully fixes the strap in only a few seconds.

“Good to go,” he confirms.

“Do you like roller-coasters, Mr. Saito?” asks Philippa.

Saito looks up. “Hm?”

“Dad doesn’t,” says Philippa, looking pointedly at Cobb. “And he says I can’t go on the big ones alone because I’m too young, and he won’t go with me.”

Cobb laughs under his breath as Saito looks to him for confirmation, smiling. “Sorry. Not really my thing. I can’t handle the ones that go upside down, y’know.”

“I see.”

Saito turns back to Philippa, putting a hand on her shoulder. “How about this. If you see a roller-coaster you’re tall enough to go on and don’t want to go alone, I’ll go with you.”

Her eyes widen with disbelief. “Really? You promise?”

“I promise.”

Cobb smiles at that. Saito is full of surprises today.

———

The warm breeze circulates sea air up from the coast, and all in all, it’s an absolutely beautiful day.

Leaning back against the broad side of a cotton candy shack, Cobb can hear the whirring of roller-coasters, mixed with the excited screams of tourists. In the distance, there must be a waterpark. He can smell the lightly treated water and hear the splashing.

James is running circles on the flagstones, waving his arms like an airplane in the delight to be soaking up the sun. James is still a little small for most rides, but the energy is contagious. Cobb can already see him sleeping soundly tonight, completely tired out from the adventure.

As far as rides, Saito and Philippa are on their sixth. Just looking at Goliath made Cobb feel sick when they arrived at this particular corner of the park, but Philippa begged and begged.

Moments after the cars hiss to a halt, Saito and Philippa come running back to the meeting spot, Philippa dragging him by an insistent hand, giggling the entire time.

“Adrenaline junkies,” Cobb teases them. “That’s what the two of you are. Adrenaline junkies.”

“That was fun! I want to go again!” Philippa shouts, bouncing.

Saito is also breathless, laughing. When Philippa releases her grip, he leans slightly on Cobb, a hand on his shoulder to steady himself.

“Maybe we should get a drink,” Saito sighs. “Or dinner. Or something besides another ride.”

“What, you’re tapping out already?” Cobb teases. “It’s only been how many? Nineteen?”

Six ,” Philippa corrects, holding up the corresponding fingers. “I’ve been counting, and I want to do ten.”

“Well how about you let Mr. Saito take a break, and then we’ll see about those other rides. Aren’t you guys hungry?”

The group settles under an awning by one of the many small to-go restaurants in the park, right as the setting sun begins to tint the sky deep orange and pink. Between handfuls of french fries, Philippa and James are gushing about the roller-coasters, the food, and the thrill of just being able to run around wildly however they please.

Across the city, the lights are coming on as the sky grows darker and the air cooler. Radio towers in the distance speckle the sky with red and green dots. Hotels. Shops. Parks. Each and every building glows with light like a sky full of stars. Cobb finds himself staring at the beauty of it all, losing himself in it and the childrens’ laughter.

And Saito. Saito is at his right shoulder, admiring the view as well. And for the first time, Cobb doesn’t think twice about his company. It doesn’t feel unusual.

Not unusual in the slightest. Cobb is stunned by how right it feels.

“Hey, there’s a little roller-coaster! James could ride!” Philippa exclaims once all the trash has been cleaned away.

“Can we? Please?” James asks.

“Sure,” says Cobb, no longer hesitant about the rides. “We’ll be over by the shops here. Just come right back, okay?”

Cobb feels a sudden weight against his shoulder. He turns quickly as he finds Saito suddenly leaning heavily on his arm, almost slumped.

“Hey,” Cobb lowers his voice. “Saito?”

Saito startles, blinking. “Hm?”

“I think…” Cobb laughs a little. “I think you were dozing off there for a second.”

“Oh.” Saito glances down, straightening himself in embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no, it’s okay. Philippa did a number on you, huh? I only wish she got tired this fast. It would solve a lot of my problems with bedtime.”

It’s a father’s instinct, and Cobb doesn’t think about it any more than he would if it were James or Philippa who were starting to look tired, with strands of their hair falling over their foreheads. He doesn’t realize what he’s doing as he brushes Saito’s hair off his forehead with a gentle touch, idly running a thumb along his temple.

When he becomes aware of where his hand is, his eyes widen and he stops short. Saito stares at him, mouth slightly open, but not disturbed. Just not ready for it.

“I’m so sorry,” Cobb gasps, quickly retracting his hand. “I forget I’m not with the kids. You’re an adult.”

“I am.” Saito smiles a little.

“I guess we’re both a little tired.”

“Maybe.”

Across from the restaurant, there are the usual array of souvenir stores and gift shops, full of brightly-colored plastic items and stuffed toys to keep kids entertained. Cobb doesn’t necessarily want to buy anything, but he wanders while keeping an eye on the kids, Saito not far behind him. Saito hovers close as Cobb browses.

“Oh, check it out,” Cobb laughs, noticing something on the far wall.

“Hm?”

The wall is decorated with a selection of plush toys of various sizes, all depicting the same brown, oddly-shaped character. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in all his glory.

“I remember this guy,” says Cobb. “Did you know that this was the first movie I ever saw in theaters? Man, I was so young.”

“What would that be?” asks Saito, glancing skeptically at the toys.

E.T. ” Cobb turns, surprised. “Come on. Tell me you’ve seen E.T. before.”

“I’m afraid not.”

Cobb rolls his eyes, teasing. “It was a rite of passage for every eighties kid. I’m really disappointed.” He turns back to the shelf of aliens, sighing wistfully. “I used to have one just like these. It lit up and everything.”

“Do you want one?”

Cobb smiles a little at the offer. “They’re fun, but I can put my nostalgia behind me.”

Saito smirks. “I would buy it. Not sure I understand the appeal, but if you’d like one…”

“I’m sure you would, but I don’t need it,” Cobb scoffs. “Not sure I could justify that purchase, as much as my ten-year-old self would have been excited.”

Saito shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

“I appreciate the gesture.”

———

“How was the ride, sweetie?”

Philippa finally seems to be winding down. Her pace slows as she bounds off the ride platform, slowly skipping over to her father to rest her head against his hip. She tries and fails to suppress a yawn. “Fun.”

“Sleepy?” Cobb laughs. “Already? What happened to ten roller-coasters?”

“I’m not tired,” insists Philippa, but she doesn’t protest when Cobb scoops her up. She leans against his shoulder and starts to close her eyes, when suddenly she pulls away and shouts to be let down.

“I want to see it! Show me!” James calls from behind Cobb.

Cobb turns as he lowers Philippa to see Saito returning from the shop, handing a large plush toy to James. James laughs excitedly, hugging it.

“Pip! Pip! Look, it’s an alien!”

“He’s E.T.” Philippa corrects. “He’s so big!”

Cobb looks up at Saito, who’s beaming. He meets his gaze.

Saito ,” Cobb laughs.

“What? It’s for the kids .”

The toy is for the kids, but the kids are winding down for the evening as the sky fades from deep purple to blue. Philippa holds her father’s hand as her pace slows, and James walks a few paces ahead, yawning. So Cobb is left carrying E.T. across the park for hours, scooped up in his arm like a third child.

Saito occasionally glances back at him as the walk to the hotel, smiling, amused.

———

Cobb carries the children into bed, tucking them in for the night with no protests to stay up later. They’re all too tired out for that. He kisses their hair and returns to the main room to get ready for a well-earned rest.

Saito is lying on his own bed, staring up at the ceiling. When Cobb glances again, as he returns from washing his face in the bathroom, he sees that Saito has the alien in his arms, pressing it to his chest with his mouth on its head.

“Any particular reason you’re spooning the doll?

Saito laughs quietly. “It smells nice. It’s big enough to be a pillow. Is that reason enough?”

“Can’t argue that, I guess. Enjoy,” Cobb teases.

Almost slightly reluctantly, Saito lowers it back to the floor and returns to his meditative position on the bed as Cobb turns off the lights. The only light is the blue glow from outside—the last light of the evening—and it’s quiet except for the soft rustling of sheets.

“Cobb?”

Cobb blinks. “Mm-hm?”

“Nothing. Sorry. It can wait.”

“Your call,” Cobb murmurs as he drifts off to sleep.

———

The next rustling of sheets Cobb hears is not so quiet.

He jolts out of sleep as the sound of sudden movement fills the room. At first he can’t place it. There’s a shifting, and then he hears a gasp. Frantic, rapid breathing. And Cobb’s pulled into full awareness as he sits up in bed and reaches instinctively for the bedside lamp’s switch.

Saito is bolt upright in bed, twisting in a tangle of sheets, trying to catch his breath as he comes down from the adrenaline of whatever woke him. He locks eyes with Cobb in the light, and Cobb suddenly sees a look he knows all too well. A look he remembers seeing time and time again in his own mirror, as he tried to pull himself back to reality.

Reality, after stubborn dreams. Nightmares that wouldn’t quit.

“Saito,” Cobb starts.

“I’m fine,” Saito’s voice is shaky and apologetic, almost frightened. “I’m fine. I’m sorry. I didn’t… I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“Saito look at me.”

“It’s not… it’s not usually this bad… I don’t… I didn’t think… I didn’t mean to-”

“Saito.”

Cobb throws off his sheets and rushes to the side of the bed, offering an arm outstretched for support. Saito shies away.

“No, no, it’s okay,” Cobb soothes, lowering his voice. “Talk to me. How long… how long has this been happening to you?”

Saito shakes his head. “I don’t know. Months. Months and months. I just want to sleep normally again. Please, Cobb, I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.”

“What’s been happening?”

Saito runs a hand through his hair, trying to steady his breathing. It’s a harder task than it looks, and he’s bathed in sweat.

“At night…” Saito stammers. “I just see… it’s just limbo for miles. I can’t escape. I keep drowning and falling and…”

“It’s okay,” Cobb repeats. “It’s okay. Just try to breathe.” He glances at the bathroom. “Here, come with me.”

After easing Saito to his feet, Cobb goes to the bathroom and turns on the shower, running it until the water is cool, but not too cold to tolerate. He guides Saito to the mat to kneel, and Saito feels the water on the back of his skull, a rain-like rhythm that gradually helps him back.

For a while they just breathe there, the two of them. Saito coming to reality, Cobb realizing the reality Saito’s been living. But of course he has, because Cobb experienced it himself.

Dreams are unkind after limbo. It takes years to escape them. Years of lost sleep.

Why didn’t you tell me? It’s the first thing Cobb wants to demand, but this isn’t about him or how he feels. This is about Saito, and right now Saito is bent over in the shower, water soaking through his shirt and hair, his hands still shaking where they’re wrapped around his own chest.

“Hey. Hey. It’s okay,” Cobb insists. He touches Saito’s back to gently reassure. “Take your time. We’ve got all the time in the world.”

Saito’s breathing steadies. Cobb gets a towel as Saito eases himself away from the shower, wiping water off his face. He pulls the soaked T-shirt over his head and lets it fall as Cobb drapes the towel around his shoulders.

“There,” says Cobb. “Take your time. I’m here.”

Thank you. Saito mouths the words, not quite to the point of talking. He lowers himself against Cobb’s shoulder, his still-wet hair soaking it in places, but Cobb ignores it. He keeps his voice at a comforting whisper, slowly and gently talking Saito back to reality, running his hand over his hair.

“It’s going to be okay,” Cobb says.

Saito finds his voice again. “It’s just been so much… it’s easier if I can distract myself, but it gets overwhelming and I don’t know what to do.” He wipes clumsily at his face with the towel.

“Hey, gentle,” Cobb whispers. “I didn’t know any of this was going on. That must have been… terrifying. I know what nightmares after limbo are like. Here, let me help.”

Delicate as anything, he towels off Saito’s hair and shoulders and offers a hand to help him up from the bathroom floor. They stand for a moment, the two of them, still recovering from what’s just happened.

He never told me. All this time, and he never told me.

“We should get you back to bed,” Cobb says softly. “You don’t have to sleep, but you should try to relax a little bit.”

Saito laughs a little. “Easier said than done.”

“I know, I know. But humor me.” Slightly encouraged by Saito’s humor returning, Cobb puts an arm around his shoulders and walks him back to the bed. It’s three in the morning. It’s quiet. The kids must be sleeping too deeply to hear the movement in the other room.

Cobb has seen Saito near death, but this seems somehow more vulnerable. More personal. He wishes Saito never had to endure this at all, but it’s the price they pay for limbo.

Cobb wishes he’d thought to ask if everything was alright.

He can’t find where Saito’s put away his bag, so Cobb grabs on of his own cotton shirts and offers it. Saito graciously accepts, and for a moment it’s still. They’re silent. Saito leans back on the bed, breathing deeply.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” Saito finally says.

“Don’t be. This isn’t anything to be sorry for,” Cobb replies, gazing at Saito. “I just… you never told me, and you never seemed like you were having trouble. I wish I’d known sooner. I might have been able to help, or at least offer advice. Not that I did too well myself.”

“You helped,” says Saito. “Before, you helped. I just never said it, but you were helping me every time you agreed to go out for coffee, or to the museum. I needed that.”

“Saito.”

“I’m sorry I kept you in the dark.”

“Saito,” Cobb repeats, going to the bed and sitting beside him, tentatively touching his shoulder. This time, Saito doesn’t shy away. “If I’d known how badly you needed that… me …”

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” says Saito shakily.

“That would never disturb me. We’re… well, you said earlier that we’re friends. You can trust me.”

Saito smiles at that. “I know. But you’re so level-headed. You always seem to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s a little intimidating.”

“You think I’m intimidating?” Cobb scoffs. “You’re the one with the business empire.”

A slight laugh escapes him at the relief, and the absurdity in the situation. How he spent months wondering why on earth Saito would want to spend free time with him, or whether he was wasting Saito’s time. And here was Saito, wondering the same thing all along. Saito laughs too, and Cobb moves his hand to take Saito’s. He runs his thumb over Saito’s fingers, trying to think of something to say.

“This is ridiculous,” Saito moans. “We’re terrible.”

“Hey, we’re doing our best,” Cobb laughs, squeezing his hand. “And you can tell me anything, okay? Don’t ever hesitate again if you ever need anything. This is supposed to be a vacation, and I want you to relax and enjoy it.”

Saito nods, leaning back against the pillows.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” Cobb adds. “About the nightmares.”

“Just… stay,” Saito whispers.

“Stay?”

“Mmm. If it’s not too much to ask. Your calm is contagious,” Saito laughs softly. “Just for a few minutes.”

“Of course.”

Cobb reclines, releasing Saito’s hand to adjust sheets and pillows, and give his shoulder a reassuring pat. He hopes he isn’t being to forward, but Saito hasn’t objected to anything.

“I’m glad we could talk,” Cobb says. “Talking’s easier. Sometimes my thoughts confuse me, so it’s easier to just… say things.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Thanks for watching Philippa tonight. She had a great time.”

“Of course.”

“Are you comfortable?” Cobb asks. “Can I get you anything?”

Saito seems to think for a moment.

“At the restaurant tonight,” he murmurs, when the moment has passed. “When you touched my hair, that was nice.”

Cobb regards this with a slight twinge of surprise in his stomach. And all of a sudden, lying there in the faint light of the lamp, he feels a bit shy. Flustered.

He reaches out again, offering that same touch intentionally instead of by accident. He strokes the edges of Saito’s damp hair. Saito’s eyes close, and his breathing steadies.

“Thank you,” he whispers. “You can sleep now. I won’t keep you up any longer.”

“I don’t want to leave you, Saito.” Cobb smiles. “You go to sleep, and then I’ll see about my own affairs.”

“Might be a while.”

“Do you want the damn alien again?”

Saito’s chest rises and falls in laughter, and he turns his face deeper into the pillow to hide it.

“I’m serious, Saito. I’m getting it. This is therapy.”

“Go to sleep, Cobb.”

“No, no. I want you to take this. You have to commit.”

Cobb leans over and grabs E.T. from where he’s fallen on the carpet. He places the soft toy between them, lying it on the mattress with its head on the pillow. Cobb’s beyond caring about absurdity, since the humor seems to be lifting Saito’s spirits. A few minutes ago, Saito looked close to a panic attack. Now he’s suppressing laughter.

“You have to hold it for it to work,” Cobb insists. “It’s part of his alien magic, or something.”

“Alien magic?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t watched it since the eighties. Hug the goddamn doll, Saito.”

“You definitely need sleep,” Saito sighs.

“No I don’t. Look, he’s speaking to you. He’s asking a question.”

Saito props himself up on an arm, staring at Cobb expectantly with his dark eyes, and Cobb feels slightly warmer. There’s really nothing between them now. He’s never felt this comfortable with Saito.

“See?” Cobb extends the alien, moving its arm with one hand. “He has a message from his homeworld. E.T. need-

Cobb doesn’t get to finish his terrible E.T. impression. Saito moves suddenly forward, holding Cobb’s jaw gently between his hands, and kisses him. Whatever train of thought Cobb had is lost in the sudden sensations. Saito kisses gentle, but from a place of deep longing, and this is relief. As Cobb finds himself being held closer and closer, he realizes Saito is kissing like he’s been waiting.

It dawns on Cobb that he’s kissing back, like he’s been waiting as well. He slips a hand around Saito’s back, and suddenly he can’t get close enough. It’s not enough. It’s not enough. The twinge of uncertainty in his stomach is easing into a rush of comfort and connection, and he’s forgotten to breathe, but he doesn’t seem to need it anymore. It’s not enough.

And all too soon, it’s over.

Saito pulls away, and Cobb gasps slightly.

“I… I’m sorry,” Saito starts to say. “I felt like I could tell you anything all of a sudden, and I-”

Don’t ,” Cobb blurts out. When he sees the shock on Saito’s face, he quickly clarifies. “Don’t apologize, I mean. It’s okay. It’s more than okay.”

“Really?”

“Of course.”

“I wanted to wait for the right time, but I couldn’t wait any longer,” Saito admits. “You’re just so… good to me.”

“I really wish you’d done that earlier,” says Cobb, out of breath, mind still reeling.

“What?”

“You would have saved me a lot of embarrassment with the stupid E.T. bit.” Cobb grins. “We could have been doing this instead of… whatever I was doing.”

More laughter. More relief. More love than either of them has felt in ages, and it’s too much for Cobb. He lies down, staring up at the ceiling.

“What are we going to do with ourselves?” Saito sighs dreamily beside him. “We’re a bit of a mess.”

Cobb shakes his head, not caring. He just wants to remember the kiss.

“I think I love you, Dominick,” Saito murmurs, breathless.

Cobb smiles. “I think… I think it might be mutual.”

“Do you promise?”

“I do.”

There’s another silence. Not uncomfortable, and not empty. There are sounds, but they are sounds only the two of them can hear. The pleasant rush of emotion after a shared epiphany, and whatever soft music that brings to the mind.

“What are we going to do with ourselves?” Saito repeats sleepily. His hand finds Cobb’s again, and he laces their fingers together.

“I don’t know, but we have an entire three-week vacation to figure it out,” says Cobb. “We’ll be okay.” He smiles up at the ceiling, closing his eyes. “We’ll be okay, sweetheart.”

Saito reaches out and turns off the bedside lamp, and the room is still.

As Cobb drifts off to sleep, he can still feel the plush alien where it’s fallen between them on the mattress. He pulls it up onto his chest, giving it a squeeze, and recalls Saito’s fondness for it. It’s not the cutest, he thinks, but it isn’t too bad to hold.

It smells nice. It’s big enough to be a pillow. Is that reason enough?

Cobb shuts his eyes, inhaling against the soft fabric. It doesn’t smell like anything spectacular. Just Cobb’s cologne from carrying the thing around the park all evening. It just kind of smells like him.

Oh, Cobb thinks.