She didn't dream the next night.
Or the night after.
Or the one after that.
For three weeks, she managed to stay away from the terminal by stuffing her head full of other, more normal things. When she ran out of things from real life to think about, she stuffed her head with things from books so that when she did dream, they were dreams filled with castles or dragons or zombies or spaceships.
On the third week, she and a group of knights were chasing a herd of wooden rocking-horses through a field when they happened to come across a wolf. It was the size of an elephant, black as pitch, with eyes that were glowing red. It sat on its haunches in the middle of the field, and as soon as it saw them, all the other knights disappeared into little puffs of smoke.
She scowled at the wolf. "What are you doing here?" she said striding towards it. Around them, the wooden horses were closing in curiously.
It didn't answer her. Instead, it cast its gaze to the wooden horses, and they too disappeared.
"My brother has been spying on me lately," he said by way of explanation. "I'd rather not risk it."
"Wait, I know that voice. You're the guy who sent me home." she frowned. "How come you look like a giant wolf now?"
"Nightmares come more easily to me than anything else. As for why I'm here: I've come to check up on you."
"Oh. Uh. Thanks. Why?"
"Because my brother does not like you. Because he sees you as a threat to the order of his system." His eyes gleamed. "Because you can get into places where I cannot."
He oozed forward gracefully, more like a liquid than an animal, and started circling her. She turned with him, trying to keep her eyes on him at all times.
"Parts of Demos Oneiroi my brother has so kindly locked me out of. Places I can no longer continue my search. I have lost something, something very dear to me. I would have you to help me find it."
"What is it?" She wished he'd stop turning. She was starting to get dizzy.
"I cannot tell you," he said.
"Why not?" He finally stopped circling.
"I cannot tell you why I cannot tell you, either. Suffice to say outside forces are preventing me."
"It's the manager guy, isn't it? Phantasmos or whatever, isn't it?"
The wolf said nothing. She took that as an affirmative.
So you want me to find something that I don't know what it looks like in a place where the boss hates me."
"Yes. Will you help me?"
Someone had told her once that it was impossible for a person to remember the feel of pain. That something in the brain wouldn't let them- the best they could do as remember that pain was bad, and that they didn't want to do it again.
That didn't seem to apply in dreams. She remembered the exact feeling of ice in her belly and in her blood, and the way the manager had looked happy about it-
"No," she said. "I can't."
"I wish you would," said Phobetor.
"Well, sorry, but I can't."
The wolf shrugged. She'd read somewhere that four legged animals couldn't actually do that, but that didn't seem to matter any more than the fact that wolves weren't supposed to talk, either. "Fine. I won't force you. I just thought you'd care more about your friends. Your loved ones. My mistake." He turned away.
It hit her. Thalia! She'd still be back in the terminal, waiting forever. And her grandmother- she was already gone, yes, but what about other people? What about great Aunty Jean who was okay now, but was getting old? Or that guy with the hole in his chest.
It suddenly occurred to her that there were probably a lot of people who were lost down there.
"Yes?" he said, turning to look at her.
"If I find the thing, you'll sort out everyone? Thalia won't have to wait in line, and people won't get lost and stuff?"
"If you find it, things will be sorted, yes."
She took a deep breath.
"Fine," she said. "I'll help you."
The wolf's eyes flashed red. "Excellent," he said. "We'll continue this in Demos tomorrow night."
"Tomorrow? Why not right n-"
And then she woke up. Her mother stood over her, shaking her shoulder.
"Come on, hon. You're going to be late for school."
* * * * *
Thirty seconds after hitting the pillow, Toya was asleep. Thirty seconds after that, she was in the terminal again. She wasted no time and hurried, outside of her hall down the maze of hallways, and back to the lobby.
She hadn't thought it possible, but the line had actually gotten a little longer since the last time. She ran over to where Thalia was still waiting and launched herself at her from behind in a hug.
"Thalia!" she said.
"Toya," she said, wriggling around so that Toya was around her side. "We were just talking about you."
Toya stopped burrowing her face into Thalia's side and looked up to see a very human Phobetor watching her.
"Oh," she said, disengaging. "Hi."
"Hello," he said. "Miss Thalia here was just voicing her complaints about my brother's managerial techniques-"
"Spineless, self-absorbed, self-righteous-"
"Yes, I'm sure. Specifically the first incident you've had with him some years ago."
"Oh yeah. I don't really remember that. . ."
"But I do," said Thalia. "As I said, it was the only thing of interest to happen in decades."
"Oh," said Toya, not really sure what to say to that. "Okay. So, Mr. Phobetor, can you give me a hint as to what I should be looking for? Any hint at all?"
His gaze was steady. Even when he was human, there was something unmistakably wolf-y about him. "It has to do with my brother."
She waited a second. "That's it?"
"That's all I can tell you. It has to do with my brother."
The way he said it, the way he leaned forward a little while he said it, told her it was important, but she just couldn't figure out how. Of course it would have to do with his brother, that's what this was all about, wasn't it?
"Okay, but can you give me a hint on what it looks like? How will I know when I've found it? What if I find it and don't even know-"
"You'll know it when you see it," he said. "It will stick out."
She sighed. "Thanks, I guess. What do I do?"
For the first time, he smiled. "Just as you were. Explore every inch of this place. Go up the elevator, if need be. The thing you're looking for must be down here somewhere."
"So, you just want me to poke around bein' nosy? Like I was already doing?"
"Yes, but now You have my permission. My men won't bother you." he flashed a smile at Thalia and bowed his head slightly. "And now I'll continue my search." He took half a step back and vanished.
"What do I do now?" she said. Thalia shrugged.
"Start looking. Do what you normally do."
"I guess. . ."
With a deep breath, Toya went to search for the whatever-it-was, hoping that Phobetor didn't expect her to find it in one go.
* * * * *
She went to the offices because that seemed like the first place to look. It would've been really easy for someone to stuff something inside one of the cubicle desks, or in a drawer. Maybe somebody else had found it already, and was holding on to it. Then, she could just ask around and maybe somebody would give it to her. It was worth a shot. She'd just stepped inside the office room when-
"Hey! What're you doing in here?"
She turned and found two men in suits coming her way, walking through the spectral workers like they weren't there.
"It's okay," she said. "Phobetor said I could."
One immediately started speaking into a gadget around his wrist. "Variable 0362 DS2 has gone feral. I repeat, Variable 0362 DS2 has gone feral. Awaiting instruction from Lord Phantasos."
She didn't wait to see what Phantasos would decide and ran. The men in suits followed. She ran past the cubicles, through the workers and went instinctively towards the room with the elevator. This time, instead of going inside, she kept going down the row and went into the door with all the keep out signs.
The men in suits shouted after her, but she'd already ducked inside.
The room she ran into was smaller than any she'd ever come across in the terminal. The walls were made of rough, black stone, the floors were coated in dust. There were two doors standing side by side across from her: they were the only other ways out aside from the one she'd just used. One of the door frames was white, the other was brown. Both doors lead out into pitch black.
"She went this way!"
Without thinking, Toya went through the brown-framed door and into the darkness outside.
She had always known the terminal to be a building. Even if it was impossibly big, even if it had strange things like the wispy office people, or the glass elevator, she'd known it was still a building. It had felt like a building. It had walls and windows and doors and everything, and she fully expected upon leaving it to find herself outside, perhaps standing in a parking lot.
Instead, she stumbled down a rocky path and found herself in a cave. A monstrously big, echoey, jaggedy, and- and here was the important bit to her mind- dark cavern. She turned around and saw that the door was gone. She was alone in the dark, and there was no way to get back.
The air suddenly got very cold.
"Hello?" she said, heart pounding. "Hello? Anyone there?" She felt around blindly, trying to find something to brace herself against. Her fingers met cold, almost damp feeling stone wall.
It's okay, thought some treacherous little part of her brain. All you need to do is die, and then you'll be back home.
"Hello?" she said again, voice high with panic. "Is there anybody there?"
Up ahead, far, far ahead, a light appeared. It was small and it was dim, but it was there, and it was steady. For lack of any other option, she slowly took a step forward, testing the ground lightly before setting her entire weight down. Then another step, and another. She felt her way forward, keeping one hand on the wall at all times, trying not to slip on the wet rock.
By the time she reached the light, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness well enough for her to make out the basic outlines of things, but not much else. The light bobbed up and down gently as she grew closer.
A lantern? she thought. Someone holding onto a lantern?
Something moved. Something vaguely person-shaped and silhouetted by the weak light. She squinted in the dark.
"Hey," she said, stumbling down the last ledge, into the flattened valley-ish area where the light was. "Hey, wait!"
In the valley was a stream. By the stream, dangling his feet in the water, was the figure of a boy. The light she'd seen was actually a small flame the size of her fist, and it floated just beside the boy's shoulder. He turned around, and the light moved with him, allowing her to see him properly.
He was odd. She knew he was odd, straight off because he was a kid and in all the time she'd spent running through the terminal, she'd never seen anyone else her age.
He was a little shorter than she was, and though she couldn't tell in the might-as-well-be-dark what color his hair was, she could see it stuck out at all angles, like he'd stuck his finger in an electrical socket. He was skinnier than she was, too, though in her head that came out as him being scrawny.
He smiled when he saw her coming. "Hi," he said. "I was wondering when you'd get here."
It took her a second to catch her breath. "You were?"
"Yeah. I heard you yelling and stuff and was wondering why you were up there." He tilted his head, but his eyes didn't start flipping colors, so she didn't worry. "What're you doing here?" He didn't sound surprised, or man. Just curious.
"They kicked me in here for being a feral variable. What about you? Why're you here?"
"I. . . don't know." he said slowly. Like the idea had never occurred to him before. He screwed up his eyes and looked into the empty space. "I don't remember. I just woke up here."
"They probably got you too, then. Did they catch you playing with the elevator, too?"
"I bet they did. I bet you're just like me and they locked you up down here. Do you know a way out of here?"
"I don't -"
"It's okay," she said. "I'll help you. We'll get out of here and then talk to a friend of mine. He'll know what to do."
She was being bossy. She knew she was being bossy, but she couldn't stop herself. There was something about this scrawny, squishy boy that reminded her of Rodney and made her go into Big Sister mode.
The boy smiled, but in the same half-confused sort of way her brother did when he didn't know whether something was good, or bad.
"Do you know the way out, then?"
"Not really, no. But my door's calling me. I can feel it pulling. If I can get back inside, I'm pretty sure I can get home."
She wondered if he'd ask what she meant. Maybe the terminal had finally gotten to her head, and she was crazy for thinking anything she said made sense. To her surprise, he just shrugged. The fire rolled down one shoulder onto the next.
"I don't know if I should leave," he said. "I kinda like it here." He splashed a little in the water. "It's quiet. Nobody bugs me. . ."
He trailed off and went silent. After a few seconds, he looked up again, and the smile was back. "Hey, wanna go swimming?"
"It's too cold for swimming. You'll get sick or something." She sniffed. "Besides, won't that kill your fire?"
"No," he said. "Watch!"
With that, he scooted forward and slid into the water. With a wave and a smile, he vanished beneath the surface.
"Hey!" she said, hopping back to avoid getting splashed. The boy popped up a second later, with the flame still burning brightly above his shoulder.
"Hi," he said.
"You almost splashed me!"
He frowned. "I did?"
"You don't remember?" she said.
"Remember what?" He looked around. "Where are we?"
"I'm not sure," she said slowly. "You really don't remember?"
"No." He started swimming around in a little circle. "Hey, wanna go swimming?"
"No, I don't." She peered down at the water suspiciously. "I think you should probably get out of the water now. Right now."
"Why? I like it."
"Because it's bad for you. And because you're going to help me get out of here."
She nodded. "Yes, you just promised me."
He sighed and heaved himself out of the water. "Do you know where we're going?" he said.
Toya closed her eyes and tried to focus on the tug. She'd gotten so good at squashing it down and pretending it wasn't there that it was a real effort trying to dig it up again. But the thread was there. The small but urgent tie that was telling her to go home. She opened her eyes.
"It's that way," she said, pointing. "But you have to walk next to me. I need the light."
"You can't see?" he said.
"No, it's too dark. Why? Can you?"
"Yup." The fire twined between his fingers. "I think I just wanted to be warm. Here." He held out his hand, and the fire slid down his arm into his palm.
Tentatively, she stuck out her own hand, and the fire floated onto her.
"Cool!" she said, moving her hand around. The fire stayed centered in her palm, even when she turned her hand upside down. "How'd you do that?"
"I don't know," he said. "I just did it."
"Come on," she said, holding out the little flame ahead of herself. "It's this way-"
"Wait!" He grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
"What? What is it?"
He pointed down. "Look."
She moved the fire down and saw that she'd been about to step into a gaping chasm that went down too far to see the bottom of.
"Oh," she squeaked. "Maybe you should lead. We have to go that way, somehow. Can you get us over there?"
The boy nodded, and they were off.
* * * * *
Past rocky hills made of solid stone and past pools of water that glowed brightly in the dark. Through tunnels ranging from gaping caverns big enough to fit entire buildings to small cracks in the walls they had to hold their breath to squeeze through.
She didn't notice at first that things were getting lighter. It had been ages since she'd come down, and she'd just figured her eyes had adjusted. But the further along they traveled, the easier it became to see, until they got to a point where the little fireball was no longer needed.
"I think I'll keep it anyways," she said, tossing it between her hands. "It's kind of cute."
The boy chuckled and led her over a makeshift bridge that looked as though it might collapse under their weight.
"Don't touch the water," he said. "Funny stuff happens if you do."
"Funny bad. All the water here is like that. There's a river of fire a ways away, and another full of dead people crying." He shuddered. "They claw at you and try to drag you down."
She eyed the water."How do you know?"
"I just remembered," he said. "I remembered that that's why I liked my river so much. It wasn't trying to kill me."
Toya knew that tone and let it drop. For now.
"Do you remember your name?" she said. "I can't just keep calling you, 'you'."
He screwed up his face, like he was trying to remember. "I don't. . . know. . . "
"Well, until you do, I'm gonna call you Todd."
"Todd?" he said. "Why Todd?"
"'Cause I like that name." The bridge ended, leading them to an ancient looking staircase made of rock. It was the only place to go, and it was the same direction as the tugging, so she figured it safe to go on ahead.
"Todd," said Todd, trying the name out.
"Yep. You're Todd, I'm Toya. Come on. When we're back, we can go to my plane and get out of this place."
"Plane?" said Todd.
"Yeah. We go down a hallway thingy and wake up. I guess if we can't find yours, you can just come through mine with me. I'm sure my parents will know what to do with you."
"I don't know if that's really a good idea," he said. "Watch out for that step, it's loose."
She skipped over the loose step and onto the next one. "Well, we'll figure it out. Maybe Thalia will know what to do. Or Phobetor. He seems to know a lot. Maybe he can help."
Todd stopped climbing. "That name. . ."
"Yeah?" said Toya, stopping her own climb as well. "D'you remember it?"
He sighed. "No," he said, starting up again. "I guess not."
They continued on.
* * * * *
One tunnel had flowers growing in the walls. Thousands upon thousands of shining poppies that sprung into full bloom when Todd walked near them, but closed again when he passed. He absently held his hand out to them, allowing them to reach up and brush him as he went.
"I think they like you," she said, trying not to smile.
Todd stopped walking and looked at his hand. The nearest flowers wrapped themselves around his wrist, giving him a hug.
He quickly pulled away. "I didn't even notice," he said, inspecting his wrist. It was covered in sticky plant juice. He made a face and wiped it off on his shirt.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here. These things are giving me the creeps."
The tunnel of flowers spat them out on a paved path next to a field. The path was wide and ran along the wall of the cave, while the field was full of knee-high grass and nothing else, and seemed to go on forever. Toya would've thought that maybe they'd finally made it outside, but there was no sky above: just distant, dark ceiling.
The tugging was coming from the other side. She moved to cut through the field.
"Don't!" said Todd, grabbing her arm.
"Why not? The door is on the other side-"
"You just can't," he said. "Something bad'll happen if you do. Can't you see them?"
She looked out at the field. "See who?"
"The people." He'd gone very pale. "There's hundreds of them. Thousands. More than that. And they're all just wandering around out there."
She looked again, in case she'd missed a few thousand loiterers. "I'm sorry, but I don't see anything. It looks empty to me."
He still hadn't let go of her hand. "Please don't go out there," he said. "I don't want to be stuck here by myself again."
Well what could she say to that? The bossy big sister self immediately transformed into nurturing big sister and she relented.
"It's okay," she said. "We can go around."
He smiled weakly. "Thanks," he mumbled, letting go.
They went on.
* * * * *
She didn't know how long it took them to find the entrance. It was just a little door tucked discreetly between two oddly cut pieces of cave wall, as though whoever had put it there didn't actually want people to find it. The small plaque on the door said:
"I think this is it."
He tried the knob first. "It's locked," he said, rattling the door.
"Let me try." She set the flame onto her shoulder, as the boy had done earlier, and tried the knob. There was an electric fizzing in her fingers as she turned the knob. The door flew open, revealing the room with the cubicles and paper pushers.
"Thank God!" she said, rushing inside. "I never thought I'd be so happy to see this place!"
Todd cautiously crept inside. "What is this?" He gestured to the entire room.
"You know, I actually don't know, but it's warm." She rubbed her hands together, savoring the feeling of the chill being melted away.
Todd watched the crowd of paper pushers in shock. "This is all wrong!" he wailed. "What are they doing? You!" he went up to the nearest desk jockey. "Hey, I'm talking to you. What are you doing?"
The man looked up at him drowsily. "Business business legalese jargon loophole business business proactive business merger." He stretched, yawned, then returned to his work.
Todd recoiled in horror. "You!" he said to a passing specter. "What do you do here?"
She eyed him dully. "Processing request." She went completely still.
From somewhere in her chest, there came a high pitched whir, which soon grew higher and louder into an outright squeal of metal against metal. She opened her mouth, and an entirely different voice said, "Office Drone 6232842 has encountered an error. Please reboot and try again."
Todd's breath was coming in short, panicked gasps as the drone simply shut down. The ghost went from being whitish-blue to a dull, concrete gray. With very little fuss, it collapsed in on itself and curled up on the ground. Other workers passed over it, not bothering to walk around.
"Hey?" said Toya softly. "Are you okay?"
"This is wrong," he said. "This is wrong wrong wrong. They're not supposed to be like this. They're- they're. . ." He stopped.
"What?" she said. "What are they supposed to be like?"
"I don't remember," he said. "I thought I had something, but it's gone." He looked once more at the curled up drone and shuddered.
"Come on," she said, tugging at his arm. "Let's get out of-"
Someone roughly grabbed her shoulder from behind and spun her around.
"What are you doing here?" said the Manager. "Didn't you learn anything last time? I-" He glanced up and saw Todd. His eyes widened. "What are you doing here?"
"What?" said Toya, taking the opportunity to wriggle out of the stunned man's grasp. "You know him?"
Todd shrugged. "I don't think so. . ."
The Manager snapped his fingers, and several men in suits appeared. "Get the boy, kill the girl."
Without thinking, Toya hurled the ball of fire at the Manager. It hit his chest and made him stagger back a few steps. The suited men stopped to see to their boss.
"Get them!" he said again. But Toya had already grabbed Todd's wrist and were running out the door.
"Keep up with me!"
They flew past the cubicles, out the door, and into the waiting room. Instead of trying to go around the line like normal, she launched herself directly into the crowd, shoving and pushing when necessary, dragging Todd behind her.
"Thalia!" she shrieked. "Phobetor! I need to-"
Todd stopped and pulled her down among the legs of the throng. "Shh!" he said, pointing up.
The kaleidoscope ceiling shifted and changed color until it was a picture of the manger's face, glaring down at them all angrily.
"Alright!" he roared. His voice boomed from the walls and reverberated around the room, making her teeth ache. "Nobody's going anywhere until these two-"
The face cut away, revealing a picture of Toya and Todd as they'd been a few minutes ago, looking at the manager. The angle and the way the picture had been taken meant that the camera must have been inside his head.
If there was a camera at all, she thought, remembering the way the bobbies from forever ago had changed the settings on their eyes.
"Have been brought to the front desk. I guarantee that whoever brings them will have a free pass through the system and onto their next destination, immediately!"
There was a roar from the crowd. Even the normally listless ones found enough energy to give a few cheers. The people around them finally noticed their presence and grabbed for them.
Toya grabbed Todd and held on as what felt like a hundred hands tried to tear them apart. At one point, she thought she heard Thalia-
"Leave her alone! Leave the girl alone!"
-But it might've been wishful thinking on her part.
"Stop!" somebody else shouted. Nobody did. It was all a blur of people pulling her hair and pulling her clothes and nails digging into her arms-
"Stop!" came the shout, louder this time. Still, everyone ignored it.
They did. Every single member of the crowd stopped, frozen in the exact pose they'd been in when he'd said it.
The people did. As soon as they were free, Toya grabbed Todd and ran towards the voice. The crowd parted before them, giving them a clear trail.
"What are you doing?" he hissed. "We're going right where he wants us!"
"It's okay," she said, still running for the front. "Trust me. Phobetor!" she shouted. "Hey!"
Phobetor was at the front desk, in the middle of an argument with the Manager. There was a twenty foot bubble of empty space around them- even the men in suits had been pushed back to give them their privacy. The men eyed them as they passed, but didn't try to stop her.
"I'm the problem?" said Phobetor. "Your head's swelled at least six times the size since you got this job, and it's crammed so far up your ass you'll need your damned posse to help you pull it out!"
"There you go again! You're always undermining my authority!" said the manger. "Everywhere I turn, there you are, snooping around, finding loopholes, exploiting my system-"
"Your system's a dysfunctional nightmare! I would know!"
"Always with the criticism-" The manager glanced over Phobetor's shoulder and saw Todd and Toya there, waiting politely. His eyes widened. "Oh, no."
"What?" Phobetor turned to see what he was looking at. His eyes, too, widened. "Oh no."
Todd rubbed his arm and scooted closer to Toya. "Why are they looking at me like that?" he whispered.
"I don't know."
"Is that him?" said Phobetor. He turned to the manager. "Is that him?"
"Maybe," said the Manager, looking away.
"What happened to him? Why is he all-" he waved a hand, gesturing to all of Todd. "Like that?"
The Manager mumbled something.
"What was that?"
"He may have had an accident at the fountain of youth." He scratched his chin absently. "He may have fallen in."
"Fallen," said Phobetor flatly.
Phobetor clenched his fists. Toya thought he was going to hit the manager, but instead, he relaxed and turned back to them. His face split into a wide, toothy grin.
"About time you got back," he said, coming to meet them. To Todd, he said, "I've been looking for you everywhere." His arms were open, like he expected a hug.
Todd backed away quickly, keeping the distance between them. "Who're you?" he said.
Phobetor's face fell. "You don't remember?"
Todd shook his head slowly.
The change was immediate. The smile was still there, but it was like a dead thing frozen in place. For the first time since she'd met him, Phobetor looked mad. It wasn't the explosive, red in the face kind of anger the Manager had either. It was the cold, barely restrained rage of someone about to calmly go out and kill something. Slowly.
"Phantasos," he said quietly, still smiling. Toya almost expected frost to form around his mouth. "Come here please."
The Manger came up beside him, looking red in the face. "You can't do that to me! I'm your-"
"What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything."
In one swift motion, Phobetor backhanded him with his right hand and grabbed his collar with the left before he could topple over.
"I knew," he said, barely loud enough for Toya to hear. "I knew you'd done something to him. I knew you wanted him out of the way. But I never thought you'd stoop so low-"
"I can do better than him!" shouted Phantasos. He smacked Phobetor's hand away. "I am better than him. My system is beautiful. The order, the sheer complexity is beautiful-"
"But it doesn't work." All three looked at Toya. She flushed red. "Well it doesn't."
"That's your fault." said Phantasos. "You and all the other little glitches I had to put down. You're the only things marring a perfect system. The only things!"
He flicked his hand and a familiar blue knife appeared. Phobetor tried to stop him, but before he could, Phantasos had thrown the knife. It flew from his hand and headed straight for her. She jumped to the side, but the knife followed.
Some small part of her mind knew that if she died here, it was no big deal. That she could just wake up back home and come again tomorrow night. However, a much larger part was screaming,
I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die!
In her experience, dying tended to hurt.
Before the knife could get her, however, Todd casually reached out and plucked it out of the air.
"I know this," he said, inspecting the knife. "I mean, I think I do. I think I. . ." He held up his right hand and another knife appeared, nearly identical to the Manager's, but black instead of blue.
He looked at the knives, then at the men. "Who are you? Who am I?"
Phobetor stepped forward. "I am Phobetor, third of the Oneiroi, son of Hypnos, and lord of nightmares."
Both Todd and Toya gave him blank looks.
"Icelus?" he said. "Does that name mean anything to you?"
"No. I'm sorry."
Phobetor nodded sadly. "How much of the Lethe's water did you drink?"
"Lethe?" said Toya and Todd at the same time.
"A lot then, I'd guess." He glared at the Manager. "This is my brother Phantasos, placed in charge when my other brother went missing some time ago. As you can see, he's done a splendid job."
"So there are a few kinks! I could have gotten them worked out-" Phobetor glared at him, and his mouth snapped shut.
"You are Morpheus. Do you remember that name?"
Todd shook his head. "No. Sorry, I don't."
"You are our brother, third of the Oneiroi, and lord of dreams. Lord of Demos Oneiroi."
Todd blinked. "I'm in charge?"
Todd looked around at the lobby. At the ceiling which was back to showing kaleidoscope colors. At the crowd of people all watching them.
"Oh." he squeaked.
"What do we do now?" said Toya.
"We," said Phobetor, gesturing to his brothers. "Are going to untangle this mess and get things back into working order. We're going to start crafting dreams again rather than sticking everyone in those damned hallways. We're going to get the dead out of Demos Oneiroi and back into Hades' domain where they belong," he shot Phantasos a look, daring him to say anything.
"I just wanted to branch out a little," he mumbled.
"You," Phobetor continued, "are going home."
"No," said Phobetor. "You've fulfilled your part of the bargain. You found what I was looking for-" He nodded towards Todd. "-and now I will get things, as you said, 'sorted out'." He glanced at Todd. "With your permission?"
Todd burned bright red. "Oh. Uh. Yeah. Do whatever you want."
Phobetor smiled and gave a half-bow. "Thank you. Miss Murphy? You have my sincerest thanks for finding my brother, but it's time for you to be going."
"Can't I say goodbye to Thalia?"
"Not enough time, I'm afraid. You have exactly thirty six seconds."
She didn't waste time asking how he knew.
"So I'll never get to come back?"
"No. Now that Morpheus is back, we can focus on giving you actual dreams every night rather than letting you run around here all the time. That was just shoddy, corner-cutting-"
"I get it," said Phantasos.
"There won't be a 'here' for you to get back to. First step will be cutting off the outside. We can get to you, but not vice versa. Twenty seconds."
She didn't know what to say. There was so much she wanted to still do here, so many rooms she hadn't poked through. They made dreams here? Why couldn't she go see that? Why couldn't she stay and see Thalia one last time?
"Todd!" She whirled around and grabbed his shoulders. "Tell Thalia I said goodbye-Phobetor knows where she's at-, you guys can keep the cards and stuff, and promise me you'll visit to show me how to do the fire trick!"
She held up her pinky and they barely had time to pinky swear before-
"Toya?" Her little brother Rodney was prodding her in the side. "Toya, wake up. There's a spider in my room and you gotta kill it for me."
She groaned and pulled the covers over her head.
* * * * * *
Morpheus was waiting for her outside on the park bench, watching a flock of pigeons scratching the dirt. He'd aged a few years since the last time they'd met.
"Like the look?" he said when he saw her grin. "Apparently I've got to go by the rules. Age one day at a time, like everyone else. But I've got most of my memory back, so that's good at least, right?"
"I know it's weird," he said. "Meeting out here, and like this, but I wanted to thank you."
Toya said nothing.
"I know, you don't really remember me. And that's probably a good thing. Really. We've got everything sorted out down below, so when you do come back, you'll have an easier time of it. They moved everything around where it's supposed to go. The dead in Hades, the dreamers on our side. It's a good arrangement. My uncle says he'll keep an eye out for you, when the day comes. Maybe then we can make an exception. If you want to, I mean. If you're still curious about the fire trick."
Toya watched him, her eyes wide.
"Oh." He seemed to realize how that sounded. "Not- not for a long time. I promise. A long, long time. Which is why I came up here. I had to thank you before then. . ." He sighed and ran a hand though his hair. "Yeah, this isn't as easy as I thought it'd be."
Without the slightest hesitation, Toya went over sat beside him. She took his hand in hers, and together they just sat.
He smiled. "You always were bossy, weren't you?"
Toya tilted her head and grinned at him, displaying a mouthful of baby teeth. She had just turned four.
He looked up and saw her mother heading towards them. He wasn't particularly worried- nobody could see him but Toya. All the same, he took it as his cue to exit. He got up.
"Bye, Toya," he said, waving. "See you again sometime."
She raised a small, pudgy hand and waved back.
"Honey," said Mrs. Murphy. "Who are you waving to?"
Time runs fluid, he thought, stepping away from the two. He slipped seamlessly between worlds. The last thing he saw was a little girl with a gap toothed smile, waving at him from over her mother's shoulder.