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Last Golden City

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It’s noon in Mombasa; the bitter scent of coffee drifts from cafes and lazy bango music spills from upstairs windows. The sun flays his skin and, licking dry lips, she can still taste traces of sugar.

His lips. His.

Hers.

She had been so clear where she was going, but now she’s not as sure. The streets are dark and cold and narrow, and maybe she was wrong and they’ve never been light. The music has long stopped, but there’s a baby laughing, no, a baby wailing in the distance.

There’s a baby, wide-eyed and silent in her arms.

There’s a baby, sleeping in her arms.

She doesn’t know whose it is; she knows it’s precious as life.

He was such a beautiful little boy.

She’s running.

She’s always running and she never knows why. It doesn’t matter, only that she does run, only that she finds whatever her fingers are desperately grasping for.

When she wakes, she’s crying. Laughing. She’s laughing. Tears gather at the corners of her eyes and stream down her cheeks, and she heaves in great, wracking sobs of relief as she tries to catch her breath.

Because she was running; because she was chasing.

Because-

-o-

“Well, that looked fun,” Eames says when she jerks awake reaching for - reaching. His tone is dry, but his voice is soft and his touch on her arm is gentle.

She’s lying back before she remembers she doesn’t want to, never wants to and –

“Hey, you’re okay,” Arthur murmurs from the other side of the uncomfortable day bed. He smiles and she smiles back, ready to tease him about the lumpy mattress before she remembers she doesn’t want to move, never wants to and –

“Ariadne?” He leans closer, frowning. “Are you okay?”

“She’s fine,” Eames soothes, stroking her arm. His fingers are cold, but grounding. Real. “Bit of a bumpy landing, I think. See if you can’t find us some water.” He glances at Arthur with an expression she can’t parse. “Run along, now.”

She doesn’t have time to see Arthur’s face before he’s gone, and she can’t follow, not with that cold, steel-like grip on her arm.

“Breathe,” Eames suggests. “Nice deep breath, go on.”

“I’m fine,” she whispers instead, and just like that, she is. “I’m fine,” she repeats, stronger still, and feels the world stop twisting under her. Feels it settle. Sharpen.

Right, of course – she asked for this, didn’t she? She wanted to know. It’s fine. This is fine. She giggles shakily under her breath and stops scrabbling for her totem. “Wow. What was that?”

“Bad trip.” Eames’ smile is all teeth and is that blood on his cheek, and, wait, she remembers-

She remembers-

She forgets.

“Another round?” Eames is already reaching for the rack of test tubes, filled with Yusuf’s chemicals in pinks and greens and colors she has no name – no – Yusuf.

She falls.

She strolls in a golden city, surrounded by sun-dappled trees and fantastical birds, under a sky so impossibly blue no totem is needed; this could never be real, but it’s hers and hers alone.

It’s not modeled on anything from the real world, of course. Instead she recycles the wishes of her childhood: a fairytale castle here, an unending maze there. The scent of bitter coffee, an endless white beach, and a sea that ebbs and flows down the main street, where the price of everything is a chaste kiss.

She can’t make wishes anymore, there are no candles left to blow out.

In this place, the impossible becomes the possible with any careless thought. It’s liberating. Intoxicating.

She laughs with the rush of it.

“It’s very lovely here,” Yusuf says, ambling beside her, where he’s always been. “You must have been building it for a long time.”

“I think I’ve been building it all my life,” she tells him, again.

They’ve had this discussion before. Certainly they have.

It’s been so long and she’s so happy to see him she could cry. (She cries, great wracking sobs. She woke in rubble and he was already gone.)

On a street corner in the silver city, she hugs him as tightly as she can. She won’t let go, not this time. This time, she has a plan.

Yusuf doesn’t seem to mind that she’s holding so fast. “Shouldn’t we be leaving?”

The luster of the bronze is already starting to fade. “I could show you my maze,” she offers. “You’d like it.”

“I would have liked to see it,” Yusuf agrees, and she will not let go. She doesn’t let go as the streets begin to crack under them, or the buildings shear away, or the copper-green sea begins to rise.

“Run,” Yusuf yells, pulling her towards-

Pulling her towards the Old Town street market, of course. She shakes her head and pretends to drag as Yusuf whines and tugs with both hands. He’s an adorable kid, round-cheeks and mop-top hair, but his energy is boundless and she is never, ever going to offer to babysit again.

This week.

“Mandazi!” he demands, laughing. “Mandazi!”

“You only just ate breakfast!” She mock frowns; but they both know she’ll buy him one.

Has bought him one; he’s already eating it.

“Once it’s pink,” he says, muffled around a sugar-dusted mouthful. “Don’t let it turn green.”

-o-

“But what happens if your body is hurt while you’re in someone else’s dream?” she asked a million years ago, before everything ended. “What if you go into a coma or die or whatever? Do you just disappear, or do you hang around?

That would be pretty freaky.”

“Let’s not test that one,” Cobb said crisply, to Eames’ crooked smile and Arthur’s pensive frown.

Touchy subject. “It must have happened, though,” she persisted.

“Nothing happens.” Yusuf shrugged from behind his test tubes, filled with chemicals in pinks and greens and blues. “Most of the time, certainly, nothing.”

“And the rest of the time?”

“Some dreamers say the ghosts haunt them, but not for long.” He smiled and shrugged again. “Perhaps a manifestation of misplaced guilt.”

“That’s it?” Ariadne was weirdly disappointed. She couldn’t help but feel that something like dream sharing should have much better urban legends.

Yusuf made a non-committal sound. “I would think it would be a singularly unsettling experience. The effects of another, perhaps dying conscience entangled with your own. The entropic cascade would be impossible to predict.”

-o-

“Mandazi!” he demands, laughing. “Mandazi!”

“You only just ate breakfast!” She frowns; he’s already eating it.

“It’s green,” he says. “Don’t eat it.”

“It’s a doughnut,” she says, confused.

“It’s a manifestation of misplaced guilt,” the boy corrects and pats her hand.

He’s wandered away and she roughly pulls him back. “Don’t run off,” she screams (Disneyland, when she was five, her mother had never been so scared.) “Never let go of my hand!”

“I’m sorry,” the boy says, contritely hanging his head. The effect is ruined when he looks cheekily up through those ridiculous bangs. “I always liked to play catch.”

-o-

The first voice says, “Well he wasn’t in the bloody coma when we went into the dream, was he? He could still be in here with us. Maybe we can … I don’t know. Use what’s left in here to give what’s left in there a bit of a kick?”

The second voice says, “We’re running out of time, the rest of the building’s coming down.”

The third voice says, “It’s Ariadne’s dream, it’s her choice, but he’s going to be fading fast. Maybe if she goes another level down it will buy her some time, but if we stay here, we’re dead.”

Her voice says, “It’s Yusuf.”

The first voice says, “Look on the plus side: we’ll never feel it.”

-o-

She’s running.

She’s always running and she never knows why. It doesn’t matter, only that she does run, only that she finds whatever her fingers are desperately grasping for.