Mal's curls tickle Ariadne's face, her hot breath on Ariadne's neck. Her fingers trace Ariadne's jugular vein, timing her pulse.
Ariadne tries not to flinch. Her whole body is screaming danger, danger, get away. She strains against the red silk rope, but it's too tight for her to manage an escape. The chairlegs wobble on the floor, but the chair remains upright.
Mal cups Ariadne's chin. Her fingertips are cold, and her nails dig into the soft flesh.
"Just promise me you'll stay here?" Mal's voice takes on an innocent, pleading tone. "I've been so lonely, ever since my Dom left me."
The stillness of the moment is interrupted by a deafening ring. Mal shrieks in rage, long and sustained, but the sound of the alarm is louder than any noise she can make. The room is crumbling around her, shaking apart, the marble columns crash to the ground. The noise around her is deafening, and -
Lisa's shaking her awake, and Ariadne's alarm has gone off. She crawls out from her cosy nest of blankets underneath the workbench in the studio and tries to refocus her eyes. They're rather reluctant to open themselves, and the world seems yellow and fuzzy.
"Are you all right? You look worse than normal, Ari."
"I'm fine, thanks," Ariadne mumbles. She isn't surprised that she's dreaming about Mal. Architecture is so stressful that it tends to drag up old nightmares. She stumbles to the sink and brushes her teeth with someone else's toothbrush because she isn't awake enough to look for her own.
She resists the temptation to reach for her cell phone and dial Arthur, tell him how much she misses her old job, how much she hates being confined to the laws of reality. She could tell him she wants back in, and he would accept her, no questions asked.
But her totem is locked in her apartment's safe (it won't work in her own dreams) and she can't afford to get entangled now. She doesn't want to fall into the world of extraction because she has no alternative choice.
In any case, she can't run away from reality. She just needs to hold herself together for a few more months until she finishes her graduation project.
Ariadne exhales deeply, blowing her hair away from her face, and tries not to think of her dreams.
The sweat is already gathering on her body, and it looks like tonight will be a long night.
Instead of the usual dream where Ariadne's struggling to finish an endless project, or the one where she's climbing up a set of endless stairs, Mal is standing on the shining surface of a salt flat. She's wearing a bright tangerine dress, a perfect contrast to the clear blue sky. The salt beneath them is a mirror-like surface, reflecting the sky. Her lips are turned up in a small grin, and she's barefoot.
"Where did you get this place from?" Ariadne studiously avoids meeting Mal's gaze, or uttering her name.
"Does it matter? It's more beautiful than anything you've seen lately."
Ariadne doesn't bother to reply. She's afraid she'll agree. Every day is exactly the same in the real world. Wednesday merges into Thursday merges into Friday, and the weekend is only a brief break before the relentless countdown to the final deadline starts up again. This is a welcome change from the windowless studio, from choking on fumes and feeling her life tick away, day by day. Waiting for a day of freedom that seems like it will never come.
Mal smiles knowingly at her, and extends her hand, beckoning Ariadne to explore. The sun beats down as they walk on, and the air is hot and dry. The ground below them is cracked irregularly, like a mosaic of broken tiles. It's otherworldly, as if they're on another planet, as if they're the only two people left alive.
"We can go where no one has ever been. It's so dull, isn't it, living in the real world?"
She presses her fingertips to the ground, drawing in the compacted salt. It's an elaborately detailed drawing, a maze with only one path to take, one route that leads straight to its heart. A labyrinth.
"You'll always come back here in the end, dearest. It's what you want. You have no choice."
She tears a few strands of her hair out, not even bothering to wince, and weaves them around Ariadne's wrist, tying them into a knot. It cuts into her flesh, and the circulation to her arm will probably stop if she leaves it there. Ariadne stays still, like a frightened rabbit, heart beating out of her chest.
She could snap the bracelet with a thought, but she doesn't.
Ariadne's eyes meet Mal's.
"It's destiny," Mal murmurs, sealing her words with a kiss on Ariadne's cheek.
Ariadne wakes up to Jeanne poking her cheek with the blunt end of a mechanical pencil, trying to rouse her from her slumber. Her rough sketch of a skyscraper has tailed off into a squiggle on drool-stained paper, and there's a smudge of lead on her cheek. She picks up her pencil and starts a new drawing, but her wrist feels unnaturally light.
Ariadne fishes in her bag for a piece of string, and ties it around her wrist.
She closes her eyes again, but can't seem to recapture the dream.
Ariadne doesn't bother knocking back her customary drink for Thursday nights (three cans of Red Bull with a tea chaser). She's rushed through her model just so she could get away from the workshop, and she'll probably catch hell from the professor during her scheduled consultation. If she were determined to stay up all night, she could do a good job, maybe get a slight smile instead of his usual dour look. That used to make her happy, she thinks. Or at least not as miserable as usual.
But being with Mal actually makes her feel better. Mal is always so welcoming when she visits her, all sweet kisses and honeyed words. It's a nice escape from what she has in real life - architects don't have time for relationships of any kind, and she's pretty much given up on finding someone when everyone in her year is either dying from stress or going insane. She's careful not to get too involved - Mal tries to tempt her every time, but she never calls Mal by her name, never begs for her touch, never thinks of herself as Mal's lover.
But she's tired of the constant countdown to the deadline. She's so sick of trying. She just wants to sleep.
Ariadne feels a surge of relief as she looks down. Instead of her musty rented place, it's an Ionic Greek temple, slender columns and gracefully-curved volutes. It's Mal's wiry hair around her wrist, instead of the frayed white string.
"I knew you'd come back, dear," Mal purrs, drawing her into a kiss, and Ariadne leans into it, nipping at Mal's lip playfully. Mal's white dress is slipping off her shoulder, and off her torso. It slides down her thighs, and she doesn't make an effort to pull it up. Instead, she uses her free hand to unbutton Ariadne's oversized plaid shirt. Ariadne curses her sartorial choices in her dreams (she's desperate to get her clothes off) and tries to extricate her legs from the confines of her skinny jeans. She eventually succeeds.
Mal gently coaxes Ariadne to lie down, whispering sweet nothings to her, and slowly pulls her underwear off. She kisses both of Ariadne's thighs lightly, worshipfully, then gets down to business, using her fingers and her tongue. Ariadne's surprised by the warm breath against her flesh, and makes an abortive attempt to sit up. Mal shushes her and coaxes her back down, moving Ariadne's body into another position, and Ariadne can't object when it feels so good.
Ariadne's thighs are trembling with strain. It's a struggle to hold her thighs apart when Mal is ravaging her with her tongue, broad strokes, and teasing her with its tip, and she's getting wetter and wetter by the second, and she just wants to scream -
"Jesus Christ, Mal! Please!"
Mal smiles sweetly at her, as if she's said the best thing in the world.
The encounter ends with them on the cold floor, bodies entwined with each other. Mal wraps a possessive arm around her, kissing her neck, tracing a pattern on her bare chest. The movement is almost soothing, but there's determination behind it. Mal repeats the tracing over and over again, but it always terminates at the same spot. Ariadne knows what it looks like, even if she can't see it - it's a labyrinth, spiraling inwards, stopping at her heart. An invisible tattoo.
She doesn't want to wake up, but she eventually does.
The light pours in from the ceiling of the Pantheon, through the round hole in the roof. She remembers scribbling something down in class - it's meant to be open to the weather, with the light from the sky marking the time of day. Mal makes a gesture with her hand and the skylight seals itself shut. Ariadne's seen endless photographs of the building during her classes on ancient architecture, even made plans with her friends to visit Rome after they graduated - and seeing it like this seems indecent, somehow. Perverse.
She can't remember how she got here. Does it matter?
Mal's eyes reflect the limited light. They're blank and bottomless, all pupil, catlike. Ariadne leans in for the usual playful kiss, and Mal bites Ariadne's lower lip. The blood runs down her chin, and Mal laps it up, licking up the trail to its origin. She thrusts her tongue into Ariadne's mouth, and it tastes coppery and bitter.
Ariadne gags, struggling not to spit it out.
Mal has a knife. She gives up the long slow seduction in favour of cutting Ariadne's clothes off, piece by piece, making jagged tears in the fabric. She's too overeager, and there are red scratches on Ariadne's body, oozing little beads of blood. The old Mal would have laved the cuts better with her tongue, and whispered soft apologies to her lover.
But now Mal's hands are on Ariadne's arms, and the knife clatters to the ground. Mal's fingers are bruising her delicate skin, and the bracelet cuts into her wrist.
"Let me in. Stay with me. It's what you want."
Ariadne is beginning to have her doubts about that. Mal's hands feel like manacles, firm and unyielding, and all of a sudden all she wants is a chance to get away. She can't seem to focus her subconscious enough to create a kick.
She lunges up, headbutting Mal, and focuses on something, anything, that will take her out of this situation. A knife to kill Mal, a gun, even a stone - but Mal is too overpowering a presence in her mind. Mal's still there despite her best efforts, bleeding from the stab wounds and riddled with bullet holes and bleeding from a cut in her scalp and still not dying.
Mal jumps at her, clawing, biting, anything to mark her body, and she has the frenzied strength of the utterly insane. She pins Ariadne down again, panting in rage, and Ariadne meets her gaze. It's a vortex of madness.
"You said that you were mine," Mal hisses. "Shall I show you what that really means, my dear little traitor?"
Ariadne looks up at Mal. She can't create a kick, Mal has too much control over her subconscious. The only thing she knows that Mal won't kill her. The thought is not particularly comforting, since Mal is eyeing the knife on the floor and looking at Ariadne.
The blood from Ariadne's cuts drips on the floor, and a drop of water splashes down to join it. And another. And another.
Ariadne looks up.
The roof of the dome is riddled with holes, so many holes that it should be crumbling to pieces, and the rain is pouring through. It hits their bodies like bullets. Mal is wrapped around her, choking her, possessing her, and Ariadne struggles to draw a breath. She feels like she's drowning.
She wakes up. The window of her rented room is open, and the rain is pouring in. It's a stormy night, and the grilles in the windowframe are rattling. She can't help but picture Mal's hands, white-knuckled and gripping the bars. Pleading in her sweetest tone, threatening her, howling in rage - anything to get Ariadne to let her in.
She takes a deep breath, and slams the window shut.
Ariadne's final project is incomplete. Most of her friends are at the same stage as her, but she's usually disciplined enough to be several steps ahead of everyone else. She knows why she's lagging so far behind, and it can never happen again.
Ariadne hasn't been sleeping much for the past week. She doles out her sleep in carefully-timed installments so she doesn't lapse into a dream. She's been meeting with her professors and gluing models together nonstop and trying to mitigate her utter doom, and she's been making plans. Very detailed plans. She's been thinking about the dream layout over the past few days, and she's certain she can maintain it even with Mal battering at her subconscious.
She can't cage the minotaur, can't imprison her in a maze of memories and hope she doesn't work her way out, but she can do this.
Ariadne's standing in the centre of a Greek temple. Doric, not Ionic, it just looks more sturdy. There aren't any graceful curves or unnecessary embellishments, they aren't needed. Not for this.
"I'm sorry about the last time, Mal," Ariadne says, bowing her head apologetically. She's practiced this expression dozens of times in the past week. She's always had a youthful innocence about her, and she uses it to full effect. "I just wasn't ready yet."
Mal's gone back to the false front. It's almost charming, the way she lies. Mal murmurs something in her lilting French accent about how she was sorry she was so possessive, je suis sincèrement désolé, and Ariadne pretends to believe her. It's a perfect facade of mutual forgiveness.
Ariadne holds Mal and tries not to cringe away, focusing on what needs to be done. She needs to finish her final project, and she wants to live a normal life. All she needs to do is keep Mal still for long enough for that to happen.
She looks at the ground. Mal is barefoot. She supposes that's part of the apologetic-lover facade. It's perfect for her needs.
After all, statues would look so awkward if they wore stilettoes.
She holds the embrace for longer than usual, peeking downwards from time to time. Mal's feet are slowly turning into white marble, rooted to the ground. The toes are exquisitely proportioned, Mal's body is practically flawless, although the positioning of the feet leaves something to be desired. The marble creeps up to Mal's slender ankles, and Ariadne lets go.
Mal moves to follow her, but she's frozen in place. She looks down, and her eyes widen when she sees her legs hardening into polished stone. She desperately tries to break free, but her ankle makes an ominous cracking noise, and she's forced to stand still. She's disbelieving, and keeps staring at Ariadne like she can't fathom the present situation.
Ariadne supposes she can't blame her. After all, Ariadne has been the willing victim for a large part of the term, and a drastic change like this is almost unimaginable.
But she can't escape from reality anymore. She can't lose herself in the caresses of someone else's lover.
She's given Mal a lot of power. But it's time to take it back.
"Ariadne, we don't have to do this. We can still go back, we can build together. I'll be yours, I'll love you the way you want, just stop this." All Mal's words blur together, apologies and pleas and threats, and she's heard it all before anyway. The only thing she regrets about this plan was her lack of attention to small details. She should have made Mal stand on a plinth for additional aesthetic appeal, but that would be difficult to arrange. She also feels mildly guilty over disregarding the fact that the Greeks painted their statues, but this does require slightly less imagination.
Mal looks at her with pleading eyes, the white blankness is creeping up to her neck. She can't move her arms anymore.
Ariadne waits for the marble to creep up to Mal's lips, effectively muting her. She wants all of Mal's attention to be on the events that happen next, and talking would just distract everyone involved.
Ariadne tears the bracelet off her wrist, and the strands of Mal's hair fall to the ground.
"I don't want to be loved by you."
And that's when she takes out the sledgehammer.
Ariadne's graduation project wins an award for excellence. Her professors insisted that she submit it for a nation-wide competition, and after all the help they'd offered, she couldn't bring herself to disagree. Even if it means her face might be known to a few more people if she becomes an extractor, it's worth it.
There's a congratulatory dinner with a few students who look irritated at the formalities, and many tiny eclairs that Ariadne consumes in lieu of actual food. Ariadne sleepwalks through it all. She might have yawned in someone's face. She hopes she didn't, but most of the dinner is a blur to her.
After the dinner, she heads back to her rented apartment. It's a long walk, and she's lucky she actually survives crossing the street. The whole world is blurry. She struggles with the apartment's doorknob for a minute before she realises she's trying to open the door with the key to her locker, but she eventually succeeds.
She slaps some makeup remover on her face. At least, she thinks it's makeup remover. It might be mouthwash. She roughly swabs her face with a cotton pad, and tosses it on the floor because she doesn't want to walk all the way to the dustbin.
She then struggles to take off her jewellery. The lobster clasps are difficult to undo at the best of times. The gold bishop charm on her bracelet sways in midair, subject to her increasingly violent attempts to remove it from her wrist. She doesn't bother with the invisible zip on her red silk dress, and her necklace is frankly beyond her comprehension at the moment.
She flops onto her bed in full formalwear, eyelashes still coated with bits of mascara, and her lipstick will probably get on the pillowcase but she doesn't care anymore.
The lipstick-smeared pillowcase, the mess in the bathroom, the faculty members she might have inadvertently offended, her plans after graduation...all those can wait. She'll deal with everything tomorrow.
Tonight, she'll get some rest.