This irks him, but not Mal. She laughs it off, saying it's the architect's job to design structures, not imagine skies. And he understands, it's true, people aren't concerned about skies in their level design. But understanding isn't the same thing as accepting.
So he tries to build a sky.
Even when he tries, it ends up being a closed loop, with the same clouds at different intervals. His imagination doesn't have the power or the practice to create completely random shapes, and he resents it.
He thinks that if he just could go deeper, down into the recesses of his subconscious, he could unlock the place where time runs slower, where he has enough time to create realistic clouds, perfect in their randomness. Where he has time to hold Mal's hand and tell her how beautiful she is (they never have enough free time, now that they have children). Where they can create things in a way that the real world would never allow.
Mal's concerned about the logistics, about the exponential increase in dream-time the lower they go. It's purely theoretical, the military research hasn't gone that in-depth yet. He wants to explore that facet of the theory, and the more time with Mal, the better. He imagines that even if they spend a year or two there, they'll wake up loving each other more than ever. Mal's been fascinated by the world of dreams ever since her first session. Her qualms are swept away by her desire to explore uncharted territory, and her love for him.
They fall asleep under a window, and he tries to get a glimpse of the sky before they fall asleep, but the sedative works too fast.
He can't see the sky through the window, but the light pours in anyway. It's the hotel suite they usually spend their anniversary in, and they're lying on artfully rumpled sheets. The device is on the floor, its brushed-metal surface gleaming, waiting to be used.
"Let's go a layer deeper," he says.
She smiles at him, and reaches for the briefcase.
Dream layers collapse without a dreamer to maintain them. As they depress the plunger on the device, Cobb can feel the world breaking around him, as he plummets deeper into their shared reality.
He wants to go where nothing was ever built, where there's nothing except Mal, where they can create something together. They pass through places they've built, places they've been, places from half-remembered dreams, trying to free themselves from their previous constructs. They take turns being the dreamer. In these places, no matter where they are, there is always a gleaming briefcase. With the briefcase comes a timer, with the timer comes his hand squeezing hers, with that comes the world falling away.
All these dreams end in the same way, and he never sees the sky.
They wake up on the floor of a home. It has a familiar feel despite being somewhere they've never been, somewhere neither of them has ever imagined. They walk through the hallway, holding hands, and they gradually recognise fragments from the places where they grew up. The house is a strange conglomeration of memories and imagination, and they can't tell who the dreamer is. Maybe it's both of them. He wants to tell her how that stain got on the wall of his house, how the crayon marks never came off, but he'll have enough time to tell her when they go deeper again.
The device isn't lying in plain sight this time, it's hidden in one of the coat cupboards. It's buried under his first winter jacket and her grandmother's scarf. The red knit scarf is wrapped around and across the briefcase, like a present (like a warning), and they unwind it together.
They lie down on the floor, the briefcase between them, and kiss each other before starting the timer.
He falls asleep with her hand in his, and he wakes up in the ocean of their subconscious, gasping for air.
The sky above them is blank. They drag themselves out of the surf, clothes sopping wet, and collapse on the sand. The struggle out of the water has left them exhausted, and they drift off into slumber.
He wakes up to a deep blue sky. Mal is crouched on the sand, staring intently at her totem, her back towards him. Wet sand is clinging to her arms and shoulders, and he feels the urge to get up and dust her off. The top spins on its fixed axis, and the sun beats down on them.
He looks up at the sky, and the white clouds float across it, constantly changing into something new.
The beach stretches out before them, an endless canvas, ready for them to start building.
He can turn the sky grey now. He's always been fond of the rain, big fat droplets drenching both of them. They don't have to worry about catching colds here, but Mal glares at him whenever the rain falls on her. She doesn't like feeling like a drowned rat, she says. He thinks she could never be a rat, she's too beautiful for that comparison, but she doesn't seem very flattered when he says that she's more like a wet cat.
So they make a compromise. He creates a large yellow umbrella that floats above her head. The raindrops roll across the taut surface of the umbrella's fabric, never touching her skin, and she tries not to laugh when he serenades her with Singin' in the Rain.
But Mal can't bear that level of gloomy weather for long. When Mal looks at the sky, it shifts to an impossible blue, and he can taste the heat in his mouth. They often have little duels, each trying to assert their version of the sky on the other, play-fighting with the shapes of clouds. She likes to create dragons, large and long and sinuous, breathing out puffs of white clouds. He creates a knight that lops off the head of the dragon, and her dragon changes into a snake that consumes the knight, and he ties the snake into an elaborate knot that makes Mal question if he was ever a Boy Scout. (He was.)
They sit on the beach, and it's divided into two hemispheres of weather, like those silly shows where arguing couples would draw a line in the middle of their house. Not that they're arguing - they love each other. Which is why they stop influencing the weather after a while, and make do with whatever their collective subconscious can create. It's middling weather, as if it can't decide what exactly it wants to be. The sunlight is weak, and it looks like it might rain at any moment.
They build sandcastles on the beach - it's almost like having that vacation they couldn't afford. He makes an upside-down sandcastle, hovering in midair, and she laughs. Hers are more realistic, more architecturally sound, but no less beautiful. She's the more practical one, ready to go along with his flights of fancy - that's probably the reason why they're here. While she's busy thinking about how she can support one of the floors of the sandcastle, he kisses her cheek, and accidentally knocks down one corner of the sculpture. He struggles to reimagine it the way it was, and the sculpture returns to its original state.
She turns her head to look at it, then knocks down the corner of the sandcastle again. She looks at him pointedly as she rebuilds it with her own hands, and he feels momentarily chastised, hanging his head in his best sad-puppy impression. She laughs, and motions him closer so she can kiss him on the cheek. His cheek is sandy, and she raises her hand to wipe the sand off her lips, before going back to the arduous task of constructing the perfect sandcastle.
They create concrete blocks from the sand, and pile them on top of each other, preventing the tide from washing their sandcastles away. It's been a long time since they could afford to play this way, and they want to remember it for as long as they can.
And somewhere between all that, they start to build a city.
There's always a clear view of the sky in the city. He insists on that, and Mal keeps that in mind when they build. The skyscrapers are made of glass and steel, and they always have skylights, and windows so large that you could fall through them if they shattered.
Not that they would shatter, of course, he's made sure of that. They both have. One of his best memories of the early days is making love to Mal in a recreation of the Chrysler Building, her long naked body pressed against a triangular window, both of them dark silhouettes against the bright sky.
They nickname it "destructive testing", and they christen every new skyscraper that way, the glass creaking against their backs, their legs wrapped around each other. Their city consists largely of skyscrapers, eventually. Mal pokes fun at him, saying that he just wants to build more so he can christen them the traditional way, and he doesn't deny it. It's partially true, after all.
She insists that they avoid paradoxical architecture - they have time and space to imagine the whole structure. She's always been more grounded than him, and if she wants to explore this aspect of architecture in a world without limitations, he'll do his best to help her. They don't take their usual shortcuts, and every time they complete a building, it actually seems real.
He could almost forget it's a dream, but whenever Mal takes out her totem and spins it, he's reminded of reality.
He doesn't look at the sky anymore, because he has Mal.
They don't have a home, so they build one. They draw from memory and recreate all the places they loved, their childhood homes, the ratty old apartment where they first lived, and they make them better than they once were. The apartment's roof doesn't leak, and the floor in his old home doesn't creak unsettlingly at night.
Their city is empty. They've tried to populate it with projections, but that never works - the projections cannot decipher who is the dreamer and who is the intruder, and attack both of them. He decides against a third attempt after the projections attack Mal, leaving a ring of bruises around her throat, and she can only talk in a hushed whisper for a few days. She laughs it off, joking about how she always wanted a wispy, girlish voice, and he tries to laugh with her, but just holds her close.
After her recovery, Mal grins impishly when she suggests that they recreate their children. James and Philippa are formed from their combined memories, the best that they can do. They're more obedient than they are in real life, and Mal laughs when he points that out ("at least they won't attack us, Dom"), but he feels uneasy nonetheless. It's as if James and Philippa were lacking in any real complexity, and they've created shades of their real children. Mal doesn't seem to mind, though, so he tries not to bring up the subject. It's just until they wake up, anyway, and he wants to make her happy. She's the only person he's loved so deeply, and if tolerating shadows of their real children is the price he has to pay, he'll gladly pay it again and again.
One night, when he wakes up from a dreamless sleep, he hears a strange noise from downstairs. Mal is spinning her totem on the kitchen counter, over and over. It's spinning in a fixed orbit, but she isn't looking at it. She's looking at its base, and the countertop curves beneath her gaze. The top wobbles, but doesn't fall over, and she flicks it off the counter. The counter snaps back to its usual form, and the top clatters to the floor.
When she crawls into their bed, half an hour later, she nuzzles into his shoulder, and her body heaves with sobs.
He holds her, and pretends he doesn't know what caused her tears, and after a while he even manages to convince himself.
The sky is faded grey, and his scalp is threaded with intermittent strands of white hair. Time still passes in limbo, despite his best efforts to make it stand still.
It's been twenty years, he can't remember how long it's been in reality. Mal's always had a keener sense of time than his, but she's stopped marking the days on a calendar, and he's beginning to suspect something. It's probably nothing, but he wants to confirm it so he can relax. The cold grey dawn's shifting into a sunny day - it looks like it'll be bright and humid. Perfect weather for a dip in the sea. He's about to suggest that they go for a swim and forget about everything, but there's a creeping doubt that he just can't shake, and so he broaches the question.
"Mal, where is your totem?" He knows something is wrong when she doesn't immediately reach for it.
She looks at him uncomprehendingly, cocking her head to the left. "We only need totems for dreams, Dom," and she leans forward, her warm breath on his neck. "Does this feel like a dream to you?"
He doesn't react to her, this is far too important to ignore. When did she forget that this was a dream? How did he not notice?
"How did you get here, Mal? Do you remember?"
The world shakes around them, as she blinks rapidly and tries to focus on him. She looks like a hunted animal. In the distance, there's the sound of a building exploding, an uncontrolled demolition. He feels a flash of relief - they'll be able to get out of here, they'll grow old together in the real world, they can see their real children again.
The realisation in her eyes slides smoothly away. She smiles at him, her loveliest smile, and says, "It doesn't matter, as long as we're together."
The sky is cloudless and infinite, but the world is boxing him in, and he doesn't know what to do.
The sky is shrouded by clouds.
Its formless white mass weighs down on him, and he remembers a time where Mal would change it at will. It's a half-formed memory, or a half-forgotten dream - funny how they all seem to merge together. It's so simple to forget, when Mal is here and smiling at him and loving him with all her heart. He wishes he could do the same, but there's a nagging doubt in the back of his head, a constant reminder that the sedative will wear off, their children will come back from the day at their relatives' house, and they will have to wake up.
Mal's wrinkled hand is in his, weighing his fingers down, and he smiles at her fondly (falsely).
This could have been a love story, the two lovers that never woke up, who chose a dream over reality.
It would be too easy to forsake all responsibility, to stay with Mal forever, to be in love with her for a fake eternity.
But this is a dream, and they have to wake up, and he finally knows what he has to do.
The sky looks like it's on fire. He can't tell if he's manipulating the dream, or if it's their collective idea of a sunset.
Mal's at the shore with their (false) children, they're building sandcastles together. Their children haven't aged, but Mal has, and he can't look at them without feeling sick. He's tried to pretend that everything's perfectly normal, but he can't stand knowing that the world is false, and he can't bring himself to lock his totem away. It would be almost like giving in.
Even when the sedation wears off, they won't be able to wake up unless they die in the dream, and they need to be aware that they are dreaming. He's reminded her so many times, but it wouldn't take.
Killing her at this point won't wake her up, it would just leave her comatose. He's going off half-remembered fragments of military research, and they might not be accurate but he doesn't want to take that chance. It's why he doesn't smother her in her false sleep, even though it would be painless. It's why he doesn't take the gun and shoot her from behind. She needs to convince herself that they are not in reality before she dies.
She has to remember what she chose to forget, to be conscious that they're dreaming. The idea needs to originate from her. There's only one method for that.
He's known all her passwords, all her secrets, for quite a long time. Perhaps this would be an abuse of her trust, perhaps it would be immoral, but it needs to happen.
They have to wake up.
The safe clicks open.
He picks up the top, and sets it spinning.
The sky's almost completely dark when he makes it to the beach. Mal is alone, white hair shining in the fading light, staring at her wrinkled hands. There are two sandcastles in front of her. One of them is an architectural masterpiece, and another is a crude, half-completed heap. Philippa and James have scrawled their names in the sand next to their sandcastle. There are two sets of small footprints on the sand, leading into the tide, about to get washed away.
"Mal? Where are the children?" Not our children, he can't bring himself to use that word. He's stopped calling them by their names a long while ago.
"I sent them away." She absently sweeps her hand across the sandcastles, and they crumble into piles of wet sand. "This isn't real, is it?"
She looks up at him trustingly, waiting for his response.
"You're right, honey, this isn't. You just...forgot, for a while." He doesn't let his face crumple with guilt as he meets Mal's clear gaze, and Mal nods.
"I want to go home, Dom. To our real children. I'm ready."
There's a spark in her eyes that he hasn't seen for decades, and they link hands, and walk back to the city.
The clouds obscure the sun, but little bits of pale blue peek through, and it's an in-between day, neither here or there.
He lies down on the train tracks, and Mal is next to him, and they join hands. The bolts on the track rattle.
He's created a mantra for them to repeat, so they can both convince themselves, and they shout it over the noise of the approaching train. It makes him feel better about his betrayal.
Even in a dream he doesn't want to see his wife's crumpled body, or experience a brief moment without Mal's presence, so he turns away as Mal's part of the mantra abruptly cuts off, and Mal disappears under the train.
Above him, the clouds are crumbling into nothingness, and the sky is falling down.
It doesn't matter.
When he wakes up, they'll be together.