Mombasa, Ariadne decides, is just a sandier, hotter Paris, burdened with the following: a distinct unavailability of decent architects; the TSS skyscraper instead of the Eiffel tower; and an elegant curve of tusks that she actually prefers to L'Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile.
She'll never voice any of that back in France.
Ariadne would be lynched. First by fellow student architects at discovering potential sources for work, even if it is on a different continent. Then she would be attacked by all the eightieth-generation Parisians appalled that she even dare suggest anywhere is better than Paris.
The hustlers in Mombasa are more open than they are in France; the Parisian equivalent is tiny souvenir stands that, as soon as they hear a whiff of bad French, start to hustle for trade. Mombasa's persistent traders are much more refreshing - Ariadne much prefers people selling her things who are open about it. The salesmen in Mombasa have silver tongues and keen eyes, but they never deny they're trying to sell you something.
Ariadne likes the heat, but her body insists on wanting her skin to remain pale and pasty - a physical fuck you to her brain's penchant for sunlight - and if she stays outside for much longer, that fuck you will turn to burning and aloe and lots of whining which Yusuf probably won't appreciate. She hikes her rucksack higher up her back, and heads down the side street to the address Yusuf e-mailed her.
Yusuf's shop changes location every few weeks through necessity. There are plenty of occasions when Yusuf's regulars run out of money, and they react terribly to the concept of being denied access to the shared dream. The new location is above a bar, which Ariadne wonders about until she sees a sign above the bar: Patrons of the business upstairs will be refused alcohol.
One more plus point in Mombasa's column—English is much more common, and much less unpopular in public. In France, Ariadne is damned for her bad French, damned for her good English.
No one even turns as Ariadne winds her way behind the low barstools and heads for the back door. There's a narrow set of stairs, and then a low, heady tang—the smell of somnacin. It's a familiar, deadly friend. Ariadne allows herself to take a small lungful of the smell. Excitement creeps along her skin, curls in her nerves. Already her heart's beating faster. She doesn't know whether it's the chemical that's addictive, or just the dreaming itself. Miles has been helping her hold back on both, but it's been difficult. He says it'll help her hold onto her natural dreams, and it's not like Cobb's been around to mentor her like Ariadne had foolishly thought he might.
Yusuf's pottering around behind a long counter when she peeks through the door. At first he gives her a surly look, which clears on seeing it's her.
"You came!" he cries, putting down a jar filled halfway with some clear forest-green liquid. The room stinks of somnacin, along with underlying smells of grease and cat litter. Ariadne feels sorry for those in the dream; the dream will smell thoroughly of the grease and cat litter.
At least they're free of the scent of the somnacin - the injectable version of it confuses the olfactory receptors, negating the smell of the dreamsharing chemical inside the dream, rendering it effectively invisible.
All five senses accompany you into the dream. Ariadne had a delightful training session with Miles when she went under with a peppermint still in her mouth. It's what she's thinking of basing her secret thesis on dreamsharing on. With such a small pool of extractors in the world, nearly all of them use the experience to research. Curiosity is a primary skill factor for any successful dreamsharer, and Ariadne's no exception. There's a reason one motto extractors have is curiosity only kills real cats.
"Of course," Ariadne says, over the top of her ever-rambling internal monologue. "I went to see my Auntie Flo at spring break for the sloe gin she makes in her boiler, but nothing beats your moonshine."
"How about I make some tea, you don't mention my contribution to the delinquency of a minor to my wife, and I brief you on the job," Yusuf says.
Ariadne smirks. "Deal."
"The tea's good," Ariadne says, sitting down cross-legged on a pile of cushions in a back room which smells less like a chem lab and more like, well, a pet store. She's already made friends with two of Yusuf's cats, and one of them apparently has the delusion her foot is a cushion.
She smiles down at it and scratches its head.
"They've got fleas," Yusuf tells her, settling down on the floor opposite her. "And don't sound surprised. I'm a chemist. I have a very refined palate."
"What type is it? Rooibos?"
Yusuf looks at her, terribly askance. "Yorkshire Tea. I import it."
Ariadne tilts her head. "Yorkshire as in England Yorkshire?"
"I'm from Leeds. Why does everyone think I'm African? I use hard Rs. I say arse. I automatically give people tea and ingest some myself even when I don't really want any." Yusuf peers at her over her tea cup and adds, melodramatically, "Americans."
"Why does everyone automatically think I'm American?" Ariadne says.
Yusuf just gives her a look.
"Fine," Ariadne says, "whatever. I'm sorry for not realizing you're from Leeds. Eames told me you were Scottish, anyway."
Yusuf frowns. "I'm not sure whether I'm more peeved at Eames saying that, or for the fact you believed something Eames said. I thought you were cleverer than that."
"It's all faked," Ariadne says, cheerful again. "My professors haven't even noticed I'm just pretending to be a smart-ass."
"Miles will have noticed," Yusuf says. "But faking things convincingly is an unsurprisingly welcome skill in dreamsharing."
Ariadne considers it for a moment.
"Plus," Yusuf says, "it's sort of why I've asked you here."
He tells her.
“What?" is about the only response she can come up with as a primary reaction. Yusuf doesn't look surprised.
It's surprisingly easy to swallow, once Yusuf's explained it again. Cobb hadn't understood how it was possible for Saito to get him back into the country.
The answer is simple and terrible all at once.
"Mal's not dead," Ariadne says, for about the third time.
Yusuf shrugs again.
"This is fucked up," Ariadne says, and although she's aware she sounds faintly approving, she doesn't want to chase the tone from her voice. "Did they actually have kids or was their marriage purely Green Card material?"
"As far as I've uncovered," Yusuf says, "no real kids, purely Green Card. They could have been in love, I don't know." He pulls a face. "She won't tell me."
"Because she's practically a permanent resident in one of your long-term women-only dreamden," Ariadne says, trying not to let her accusing tone completely drench her voice. "And you can't just go into the dream and pretend to be a woman?"
Yusuf gives her a flat look. "Unfortunately, forgery isn't a universal talent."
"Cobb made me try," Ariadne says, and she can't hide the shudder. "It did not turn out well. I looked like Shirley Bassey."
"That's not too bad."
"I was trying to be Tom Jones," Ariadne says, sadly.
Yusuf smiles ruefully. "We've all been there, Ari."
Ariadne matches his smile for a moment. Then she looks at him, directly in the eye. "Why did you ask me to do this? I can't be the only female extractor you know."
Yusuf matches her gaze and holds it. "I needed someone I trust," he says. "For better or worse, that Fischer job's going to hang over our heads for the rest of our lives. We're bound, Ariadne. One of us goes down from another's betrayal, and they believe in retribution - Fischer will find out what we did to him. What we all did to him."
"Inception," Ariadne says, because she's had nightmares, waking and gasping in her small apartment, thinking Fischer knew that they'd been in his head, that they'd messed with his brain. It has to be a common fear for dreamsharers, for your own skills to be turned against you. She feels the familiar lurch in her stomach, but resists the urge to check her totem. She can remember exactly how she got here. "Wait, if Mal wasn't incepted, and she's alive, then how did Cobb even know it was possible?"
Yusuf shrugs. "Either he didn't, or..." He trails off.
"Working theory?" Ariadne prompts.
"He incepted himself," Yusuf says.
"The woman he fell in love with wasn't available," Ariadne says, sounding it out. "So he constructed a world where they could be together, and made himself believe it."
"Okay. So this is a sensitive matter, and we're always going to be trustworthy colleagues, and don't think I'm not going to make that work both ways now I'm in the know." Ariadne tilts her head. "Why not Eames? He can forge a better woman than anyone. I thought you and he were friends."
"He is. For a given definition of friend," Yusuf says in a strained sort of tone that makes Ariadne smile. It's funny how just a few words about Eames can paint such Technicolor pictures in the mind. "Plus, he keeps hitting on my wife," Yusuf adds, in a miserable tone.
Ariadne arches an eyebrow. "I might hit on her too," she says, cautiously. It's not something they've ever covered. Yusuf's lack of surprise shows just how subtle his observation skills are. Ariadne's not surprised—someone with high visual tendencies would want to improve the somnacin. Just like the early opticians, knowing they had something in their hands which could make sight so much better, if they worked at it.
Yusuf waves his hand idly, sloshing tea on his knee. "Yes, but that's fine - I've never caught you in flagrante with Arthur doing things which require eyeball bleach."
"That's true," Ariadne says. And then rewinds. "Arthur? And Eames?" She blinks. Pictures it. "I thought-"
"Arthur's flexible," Yusuf says.
"Really," Ariadne says, thinking about it some more. She hums under her breath, an odd couple of notes which might be a melody, or might be the sound of the microwave back in her student flat.
"Physically flexible too," Yusuf adds.
"That's what I was picturing," Ariadne says, a little dreamily.
Yusuf pushes his mouth together. "Maybe I should have called Arthur."
"But you just said-"
"I've seen him naked and with various pieces of his anatomy in Eames," Yusuf says, "but I'm starting to think I know more about your sexual proclivities."
"You're a dirty old man, Yusuf," Ariadne tells him, cheerfully. She reluctantly sobers up, and leans forward on her knees, looking at him seriously. "Is Mal in the dream right now?"
Yusuf starts to nod, but then he shakes his head.
"She is or she isn't," Ariadne says. "She can't be both. Unless you have Schrödinger's PASIV."
"She's there, but you can't go under for that length of time without an empty stomach."
Ariadne looks at him askance. "So why did you give me tea?" she demands, waving the now-empty cup.
Yusuf sighs, and looks guilty.
Ariadne puts her cup down, and picks up the cat nestled on her foot. It gives an indignant meow, but pushes its head into the crook of her elbow. "One day," Ariadne says, "I'm going to be given a job and know everything about it before I turn up for it."
"You do know most of it," Yusuf says. "I need an extraction. Of a person. I need you to persuade Mal to come out of the dream."
"Why can't you leave her there?"
"Because," Yusuf says, "it's my least popular dream. I can't afford to keep running it. I've weaned off most of the players onto this marvellous other world, but there's a core few, keeping the story of this one going, and I need to move them over. I've sent a few scouts in, but all they've ascertained is that Mal is a core player. I remove her, and the others may follow."
Ariadne frowns. "I thought your shared dreamdens were another world. You're talking of it like it's a story. A game."
"In a way," Yusuf says, "it's both. But isn't life a story and a game too? And wouldn't you prefer a life you can die in and go back to, rather than our fragile, once-only lives?"
Ariadne purses her lips. "I think," she says, slowly, "that dreaming is fantastic, but no substitute for how things really feel."
"And that's why I need you to get her out," Yusuf says. "Normally I would say I don't care, do what you can—transfer her to one of the other dreamdens. But Mal-" He swallows and continues, his voice tight. "Even Cobb's projection of her was so alive." He gives Ariadne a small shrug which speaks volumes.
"Okay," Ariadne says, "tell me why you cunningly manipulated events with delicious tea so that I couldn't go into the dream immediately? Or lovely miss kitty here is coming home with me."
"His name is George," Yusuf says.
Ariadne looks down at the moggy in her arms. "Oh."
"I need to catch you up on the story," Yusuf says. "My dreamdens are another life for people. But some people have less imagination than others and need to... borrow from source material."
Ariadne looks up from tickling George's chin. "If that source material is Resident Evil or Silent Hill, I'm out of here," she says, firmly.
Yusuf smiles thinly. "How familiar are you," he asks, "with Sailor Moon?"
"I went in once myself," Yusuf says. "It didn't turn out well."
Ariadne doesn't turn from the screen. "Did you dress up like a sailor senshi? 'cause I'm digging the idea of you in a short skirt with barrettes in your hair."
"You're very disturbing."
"Says the man with a room full of girls dreaming about being short-skirted warriors with magical tiaras."
All in all, it takes Ariadne six hours of marathoning Sailor Moon to feel comfortable with going into the dream. Yusuf makes her wait overnight just in case, and Ariadne dislikes him immensely: not only does she have to go nil by mouth for the chemicals, but her rumbling stomach is the soundtrack to her real, odd, disjointed dreams about talking cats and Japanese high school.
Yusuf takes her down into the dreamden, and leads her into the corner. There's an empty bed, presumably for Ariadne, but to the left is a sight which makes Ariadne's empty stomach curl uncomfortably.
It's difficult to forget the face of a woman who's tried to kill you, even if said murder attempt was all in a dream.
Ariadne looks down at the frail woman lying in the ratty bed. Mal's face is haggard, drawn, but she's the same woman that Cobb held in his subconscious. Even though Mal's thin body is curled up right in front of Ariadne, and she's completely vulnerable, Ariadne can't help the shudder that slips down her spine.
Mal would be so easy to kill right now, and Ariadne's still scared of her. But in amongst the fear are other feelings. Sadness. Empathy. And in a weird way, hope. That the future can be better for Mal. And if it can be better for someone with Mal's past, it can be better for Ariadne too.
She looks across at Yusuf and starts rolling up her sleeve. "Hook me up," she says.
Ariadne thought finding Mal might be difficult, but as soon as she wakes up in the dream, she finds herself a metre away from Mal's face.
Her first thought is it can't be this easy.
Her second is it isn't.
Mal's face is plastered to a giant poster. Mal's smiling at her from behind the glass in its frame, showing perfect teeth framed by a familiar bob of brown hair. Cobb might have incepted the truth of their marriage, but there were some details he got very right.
She is very beautiful. Even withered on the bed, her beauty shone through. No wonder Cobb had been entranced by her enough to want to construct a happily ever after for them. Ariadne herself finds her hand reaching up involuntarily to the poster, to touch Mal's larger-than-life image.
"You're a fan too, huh?"
Ariadne startles at the voice, and turns to see a girl with long blonde hair smiling at her. The hair is loose, caught up with a ribbon. Sailor Venus, Ariadne thinks, with an internal giggle because the resemblance is uncanny. Ariadne's seen the dreamer for Sailor Venus, and Gail is an eighty-four year old retired scientist, with an artificial hip and very little hair. Yusuf's pretty sure he can get her over to one of his other dreams with no problem - Gail likes to dream because in the shared dream she can walk, and she can dance, and she can run, and she can do none of these things in the daylight.
"Hm?" Ariadne says, eloquently.
"Of Mallorie Cobb." Gail nods at the poster, and joins Ariadne to stand alongside it. "She's amazing. Are you coming to her concert?"
"Concert," Ariadne repeats, feeling a little sluggish. Yusuf warned her she might. The long-term somnacin takes the body a while to get used to it. Ariadne smiles at pretty, blonde Gail but feels nothing, even though she looks a lot like Ariadne's ex Tasha. Ariadne's mind can't help but reconcile this blonde beauty with the aged, broken owner in a rundown bed in downtown Mombasa, and she doesn't know which version of Gail is even real. "Oh, no. They ran out of tickets by the time I got to call," she lies, willing it as much as she can.
Willpower, Yusuf says, is the only tool Ariadne really needs in a shared dream. He's right. When Ariadne peers closer at the text on the poster, SOLD-OUT is there in bold text, and she's not entirely sure whether it was there before or not.
"Well, honey," Gail says, taking Ariadne's arm, "it's your lucky day. My friend Sara dropped out just this morning so I have a spare ticket. If you have a spare evening?"
Sara. That'll be Sara Jonsi—according to Yusuf she used to play Sailor Moon in the game, and she's now in the other dreamden. Ariadne wants to tell Gail that Sara won't be coming back, but that's not her job today. She smiles down at Gail. "I have all the time in the world."
Gail makes a small, embarrassingly pitchy squeal of excitement, and semi-drags Ariadne down along the sidestreet.
Yusuf's long-term somnacin is gorgeous. The dream world is high-definition, and highly-immersive. It's almost better than reality. Ariadne's not out of shape, but she's not the fittest she's ever been either—she runs ten blocks with Gail, though, and her breathing doesn't even change rhythm. Ariadne thinks about the PASIV, about the amazing things she can make it do with just her imagination, and although the ability to run forever is enthralling, Ariadne doesn't know why anyone would stay in this one city for a long time with all that potential of a shared dream at hand—until Gail and Ariadne hit their first story beat.
Yusuf described the story beats as lightning, but told her she would get a feel for it happening. The women of the shared dream get together outside of the dream every month, Yusuf told her, and outline the adventures they're going to have over the following weeks. Ariadne will be able to alter them slightly, but not too much.
The villain of this month is Sailor Galaxia. The last villain of the original Sailor Moon arc. Yusuf paid one of the women—Sara, actually—to propose Galaxia a couple of weeks ago, to help wean them from the story. It makes sense. Finish the story, and waking from it and moving to the next one will feel more natural.
It's not exactly as subtle a story beat as Ariadne was expecting.
It's one of Sailor Galaxia's henchwomen. Sailor Lead Crow, as she calls herself, isn't exactly able to blend into the background with ease: her costume is brilliant, blood red and black feathers flare dramatically at her shoulders, and she is covered with white, black, light blue and dark red gems. A gold tiara with a star sits on her forehead.
Lead Crow, standing before a crowd waiting to go into Mal's concert, crackles some nonsense about eating star seeds, whatever they are, and when Ariadne turns to talk to Gail, Gail has disappeared.
Oh, Ariadne realizes. Of course. She's picked up with a superhero. No doubt Gail's dropped off to the nearest phone booth to transform.
Sure enough, Sailor Venus runs through the crowd, a golden chain suspended between two white-gloved hands.
"Crow Kick," Sailor Lead Crow calls, and the fight is on.
Gail runs up to her later and apologises for "mysteriously vanishing" whilst the fight was going on. Ariadne shrugs. All superhero stories had one thing in common—a civilian character who readily accepts any and all rubbish excuses that the superhero tosses out while in their secret civilian identity.
Besides, Ariadne's not even irked—watching the fight was pretty amazing. She's distracted for a few moments by thinking about all the cartoons she watched as a kid, and how it would feel to watch them in live action. To immerse herself in the experience. To sit and have pizza with Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle, or try and take over the world with Pinky and the Brain, or swim under the sea with Sharky and George. Or Pokémon. She could have her own Pikachu, that could literally electrocute other Pokémon, and-
"Hey, daydreamer," Gail calls. Ariadne snaps out of it, and realizes Gail's led them both to a stunning opera house. Ariadne only needs to see one short glimpse of Mal's face again on a poster for her heart to start thumping excitedly.
She wonders if her heart is beating like this in real life. Then she remembers the time difference—an hour down here is only three minutes up there—and imagines she might sound like a hummingbird.
Or maybe it's all in the mind.
The auditorium is small—all the national papers would call it an intimate location—but it doesn't matter. Mal looks just like Ariadne remembers from Cobb's dreams, glamorous and so alive, and Ariadne's entranced and that's even before Mal brings out her violin.
When she starts to play, her elegant fingers dancing over the fingerboard, resin dust falling like snow over the polished boards of the stage, Ariadne doesn't think she's even there anymore.
Mal's music is so in-tune with her in-game persona. She plays like the sea. The music washes over Ariadne like soft, frothy waves, like bubbles, like a terrible storm. Part of the way through the concert, Mal's gaze turns in her direction, and Ariadne's breath catches in her throat. It has to be a flight of fancy, that Mal is looking her way, but oh, Ariadne lets herself believe it for the next hour, that Mal is staring directly at her. She lets the music sweep her away. Mal may be playing Sailor Neptune's role in this dreamshare, and she might have Sailor Senshi powers, but this, this is her real power.
Ariadne's busy wondering whether Mal can play like this in real life, and enjoying the idea of using a PASIV to learn a new skill, to translate hours in real life into weeks of dreaming, and as such she almost doesn't notice that the concert has ended until Gail shakes her shoulder.
The music still echoing in Ariadne's ears, Ariadne startles and looks up at the woman who brought her into the concert.
"You're crying," Gail says, smiling down at her.
Ariadne looks up at the kind expression of the pretty blonde. For a moment, the kindness enmeshes with Ariadne's mental visual of the women lying in Yusuf's dreamden. In that moment, Gail's blonde dream projected self and her old, withering real body are one. Gail's kind wherever she is, Ariadne thinks, dazedly.
"That was beautiful," Ariadne replies honestly. "I think I'm going to need a moment?"
Gail nods. She pats Ariadne on the shoulder, and smiles. "I'll see you later," she says, and wanders off.
Ariadne stays seated for a moment, feeling quite disconnected. She feels in her pocket for her totem, and brings it out. Balances it on the floor. Knocks it over and it bounces back. Mal's music is amazing, and maybe it's time Mal takes it into the real world.
Ariadne doesn't expect to get into the rear of the opera hall as easily as she does. She wonders how that works. Single minds, especially trained extractors like Mal, are usually filled with security; the subconscious always on guard to intruders.
A shared dream like this, however... It must be difficult to know whose subconscious is populating the extras. It must be difficult to feel threat when sharing a symbiotic dream like this one. The mind doesn't populate the place with security when it feels no fear.
Ariadne finds Mal easily, in a luxurious dressing room. Mal only looks up once from putting her violin back in its case. Ariadne was right, then—Mal was looking at her during the concert.
"Let me guess," Mal says, busying herself with the clasps on her violin case. "Yusuf has sent you in to fetch me out."
"How-" Ariadne blurts, because she didn't expect to be caught so soon. Not without being dragged away by a crowd with pitchforks.
"I'm an extractor. When Yusuf came down to take me out, I took all his secrets. You were one of them." Mal does look up at Ariadne again; she holds Ariadne in an appraising stare. "Cobb does like his brunette damsels in distress," she says, in a slightly aloof, unimpressed tone.
"I am not, nor have I ever been, a damsel in distress," Ariadne says hotly, insulted by the insinuation.
Mal's mouth curves into what might be a smile, but wouldn't look out of place on a shark. "Quite. Come with me, Ariadne."
Mal shakes her head. "It'll be an adventure. Come with me."
Ariadne opens her mouth to protest, but Mal tugs on her hand and Ariadne follows. "Of course," Ariadne tells her.
Mal takes her down several dark sidewalks. It's raining but it's not cold, and the water makes the sidewalk shine with reflected moonlight. Ariadne supposes no weather would ever have to be terrible in a world you create for yourself.
Except maybe that's dangerous. Maybe without the downs, you had to keep going higher and higher. Onwards and upwards. Even insanity has a ceiling. A world like that could be so dangerous. A world like this one could swallow you whole and you'd probably be quite happy for it to do so.
"This should suffice," Mal announces, quite abruptly, and throws something to Ariadne.
Ariadne, attuned more firmly to all of Mal's movements than she was aware of, catches it. She looks down at the object. It's a transformation pen. She looks up at Mal and feels stupid. Young. Awkward. "Why would I need this?"
Mal poses, melodrama in the curve of her arms, the set of her hips. "Who would come into a dream like this and not want the full experience?"
Ariadne's mouth opens and shuts, mainly because she feels like there should be a sensible, sane response to that question. Her mouth stays shut because she knows anything she says would be a lie.
Mal sashays over, her eyes alight with promises that Ariadne oddly feels all of a sudden that she wants to keep. She understands a little why Cobb would want to incept her into his mind so deeply. "Uranus Planet Power, Make Up," Mal whispers, precise and breathy, and when Ariadne watched the anime in Yusuf's cat-strewn house the words had seemed so juvenile and strange. Now they feel like a key, something to unlock every secret the universe holds.
Even before she can think to do it, Ariadne's hand is already pushing up into the air, the pen outstretched. "Uranus Planet Power," Ariadne repeats, the words feeling flatter in her own, boring voice. Uncertain now, feeling like it's going to fail under Mal's astute gaze, that Ariadne's going to be the only girl in the dream who can't transform into a magical girl, Ariadne tags on quickly, before she can chicken out, "Make Up!"
And Ariadne instantly understands where Mal's music even comes from.
Because that's what takes her first. Of course there's something like a warm wind, catching her up, swirling around her, thrilling down her skin and catching her up. Ariadne's clothes melt away and new ones flitter around her before sliding against her body and forming into something new. It feels like she's being hugged by a thousand people who love her all at once, and above all that is music, joyous music, a crash of emotion and power in a beautiful crescendo.
Above all that, Ariadne can still see Mal's eyes on hers. She can feel her. Burning up inside like an odd, dizzying fever.
The whirlwind transformation lets her go eventually. Ariadne alights delicately on the pavement, feeling a rush of core strength and such power that she feels like she could blow the entire city into the sky with one gesture. In front of her, Mal has transformed into Sailor Neptune.
Mal allows her a stunned second, for Ariadne to reach up and touch the tiara on her forehead, before she moves forwards and takes Ariadne's gloved hand in her own. Mal's face is so close to Ariadne's for a moment that Ariadne swallows reflexively. "Come with me," Mal breathes, like a spell, like a promise.
"Come where," Ariadne asks, but Mal just shakes her head and points up in the sky. "To the roof?"
Mal laughs. The sound is like sea, crashing onto the shore. "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling," she says, swinging Ariadne's hand for a moment—and then suddenly lurching, upwards and into the air.
Ariadne shrieks, despite the cool and strong power still coiling inside her, Sailor Uranus' power waiting to be used, to be unleashed into the air. She doesn't fight Mal, though—and she's right not to. Because Mal takes her up, and up, and up. Towards the clouds. "I've heard that before," Ariadne calls to Mal, fighting the whistling of the air and the clouds. Her short Sailor Senshi skirt starts to cling to her legs with the moisture of the clouds Mal drags her through. They're flying ever upwards, and Ariadne's more okay with that than she's been about anything in a long time.
"Eames always steals my best lines," Mal says. "He's a thief as well as a forger."
Ariadne doesn't have time to be surprised by that. If she even would be surprised by it. Mal's hand is wrapped around hers, and they're flying up and up, and the stars are closer than she's ever seen them.
Mal makes her dizzy. Mal makes her stupid with it. "We're breathing," Ariadne says.
"Your observational skills are impressive." Mal twists her head to show a hint of a smirk.
Ariadne starts to roll her eyes in reply, but gets distracted by the moon, gorgeous and heavy in the sky. "We're breathing. In space."
"We told the sky not to crush us, and oxygen to follow as part of the magic," Mal says, voice as clear as it would be were they in a room, and not flying through space.
"It's so exact."
"Gail, on the topside, she's got two PhDs in Astrophysics," Mal says. Ariadne dimly remembers Yusuf telling her that. She had wondered why someone so qualified would waste their precious study time in a dream, even with the regained ability of movement, but she's starting to understand why. It's getting harder to remember that they are, in fact, in a room. In the same room. In beds just next to each other. If Ariadne were awake, she could reach out and touch Mal's real hand.
Would it feel like it feels now? Would Ariadne feel like she could take on the whole world and come out on top?
"We could go out for miles. How is it said—light years into space? Light miles? The stars and planets are pitch-point accurate from here until Pluto." Mal turns back to Ariadne, smiling delightedly, her hair fanning behind her, full of starlight. "Come with me."
"I already am," Ariadne says, "or did you miss the part where I took your hand?"
Mal's delighted smile falters into melancholy. "You're just pretending."
Ariadne looks back at her, some of the delight of flying through space fading with the memory of reality. "This dream's amazing when I forget it's a dream. But as soon as I remember it's not real..."
"Like a roundhouse kick to the gut," Mal says, and her smile twitches back up to the corners of her mouth - but it doesn't reach her eyes anymore. "And alas, this is an environment where I know now how that feels."
Ariadne looks at her sadly. "You're going to wake up with me, you know," she says. She's not certain of it until she says it, and then she knows she's right. Mal's strong enough to be a Sailor Senshi and that makes her strong.
Mal nods, tight and just as sad, and for a moment all the shine of the dream fades away. They could be anywhere when Mal says, past a lump in her throat, "I know." The corners of the smile twitch into something more genuine. "You make the idea a little more bearable."
Ariadne smiles, and the dream slowly sharpens back into joy. "We can fly around space a little while before waking, though, right?"
Mal grins back at her. "Of course."
For a little while, they fly through space. They could almost travel off into the stars together, forever. Mal is a lure, and Ariadne is tempted, of course she is.
But then... the real world's an adventure too. And from the way Mal's tightly clinging onto her hand? Maybe Ariadne might be Mal's new adventure. An adventure much more exciting than a too-perfect dream where rain isn't cold and amazing music is selfishly kept for only a few real ears to hear.
Yes, Ariadne thinks. Things might work out just fine for both of them.
Epilogue//A few weeks later.
Ariadne's bishop topples and stays flat, as she knows it will. It's cold. Mal's apparently the type to leave a girl waiting for her. Ariadne doesn't really mind.
She waits another few minutes, and then a smile automatically twitches onto her face, barely without any permission at all. Just from the sight of Mal in the distance. The past few weeks in Mombasa had been. Well. Ariadne hadn't been imagining the spark of heat between them at all. Yusuf had been delightfully appalled walking into their hotel room. It will be a while before he calls Ariadne for help again.
That suits Ariadne just fine. She has work to do.
Like getting Dominic Cobb some closure too.
Mal had been hesitant, but she knew it was right to go see Cobb in his mental facility. To help him try, at least, to embrace the real world as she was embracing it.
Ariadne's been there beside her every step of the way. And if sometimes they call each other Neptune and Uranus in public (and get dirty looks at the latter, because no one in the real world actually grows up ever) well, Ariadne's okay with that too. Taking away the dream doesn't steal away imagination at the same time, and Ariadne's always had too much imagination.
Mal dances on the spot a little, and wrings her hands until Ariadne reaches over and taps her on the back of one hand. Mal shoots her an almost shy smile and stops.
"I shouldn't be so nervous," Mal says. "I've seen him broken before, of course."
"Being scared is normal," Ariadne tells her.
"I'm not—" Mal starts to deny it, and then looks down at her still fretful movements, and stills. She squints at Ariadne sheepishly. "I'm terribly scared, darling."
"Well," Ariadne says, thrilling at the pet name, "just think of it this way." She reaches out, and takes one of Mal's hands in her own.
"What way?" Mal asks, curling her fingers tightly around Ariadne's.
Ariadne dimples at her. "What would Sailor Moon do?"
Mal grins. "Go in, of course," she says. She tilts her head. "And then maybe use magic to beat him up."
"We'll stick with the first part," Ariadne says, tilting her head. "Unless he calls either of us a damsel in distress and then I won't be held responsible for my actions."
"Agreed," Mal says.
Ariadne looks forward towards the front doors of the mental facility. Then she looks at Mal and smiles. "It'll be an adventure. Come with me?"
She means it to be a statement, as confident as Mal when she used the words on her. But it comes out like a question. Like Mal's answer may mean everything; not just Ariadne's short-term future, but the forever flying-off-into-the-sunset sort too.
Mal just smiles like she knows the real question she's answering and says, "Of course."