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TYSO | Nine-Twelve

Nine

November, 2019

The candles I light are brilliant, but their glare is nothing compared to my fire. They’re stalks are stuck firmly in the sand—right in the sacred space where Claudia and I had cast that first spell, may I add—in a wide circle of four.

I stand off to the side with Dia. A rod of pure quartz in my hand. She gives me a look, I nod silently in response, my feet taking me to the center of the circle.

“I call the spirits of the North, East, South, and West to me this evening. I ask my sister elements as well for guidance tonight.” I say, clearly sending my voice across the air. There’s a rigid flush of wind. I accept it’s bite as it pulls my hair back to a messy tangle.

I take a moment to acknowledge every element to show, the flare of the candles, rolling waves, heavy wind, and the full earth beneath me. I fall to my knees as I raise my arms out straight to the moon. Quartz striking to her center.

“Dear, Moon, alike to my wand I am a conduit of strength. My sea is that of a raging storm—unstoppable in it’s force,” I pause to close my eyes. “I possess an unconditioned strength; that of mental endurance and physical patience. With your now waxing glow I ask, nourish my strength, let it brim to the surface of my skin so that I may bear through this death of my sickness.” My voice is grand, tipping with confidence. I draw my wand back to sit under my chin at the center of my throat. I take three breaths, each one visualized as a pure white light inhaling perfectly into my lungs to span out powerfully into my bloodstream. I exhale my paranoia, my fear and my shame. Then I let the wand fall to stick upright in the sand, my fingertips resting on it to give back the energy unneeded.

“Blessed be, Miss Moon.” I whisper. Then I reopen my eyes to gaze at my honey blown candles. I raise my arm to my side and draw the fire of the candles to me. They snuff out, every bit of smoke returning to my grasp. Not a strand lost. I make a fist as I accept the smoke into my palm. My bones give a shake in return.

“Thank you, elements, you can go.” I throw in, almost forgetting to devoke them. I kick one of the candles over to make a space to exit the circle. I join Claudia.

“Did it look like I fucked that up?”

“No, it looked like it worked.” She says. Her arms shake under her sweater, so I slide my jacket off and carefully lend it to her. Claudia giggles as she holds it around herself. I know she loves that thing.

“It felt like it worked, but I’m also rarely one to cast spells.” I muse.

“I’m sure it did.”

“Do you think Goddess saw at least?” I worry.

“Your Miss Moon is right there.” Claudia points to her. I laugh.

“Oh, no they are not the same.”

“They’re not?”

“The moon is a being of Mother Nature and Goddess is simply an omniscient spirit. She’s a goddess that’s taken a liking to this earth.” I clarify for her.

“Oh, so you weren’t talking to her just then?”

“Just Miss Moon, it’s only witchcraft.”

“Witchcraft?”

“Yes, what did you think it was?”

“I-I don’t know. I don’t exactly understand all of this.” She laughs nervously.

“Without Goddess we wouldn’t have our abilities, that’s what she bears and controls. Christine told me she and Mother Nature are so very close that she granted her the ability to create a new element for her earthlings. That’s magick, but for magick to exist you need to first tap into the natural energy of our world, do you understand?” I try, a smile painting itself across my lips.

“Is Mother Nature a goddess too?”

“Mother Nature is a force.”

“Oh, I see.” She nods, absolutely lost. I give a chuckle, gathering her shoulders as I stroll to the high tide line.

“It’s not very bright out, but I want some sea glass to carry in my pockets tomorrow. Wanna help me find some?” I ask her. She hums lightly as we sit amongst the smoothed stones and shells of the day’s waves. I swipe through them, searching for that signature sparkle through the glass. That smooth chip of color, now impossible to spot in this night.

We gather up a nice bit of shells and sea glass to gorge my pockets before beginning our trek through the woods. The trampled path is just as thin and wracked with thorns as ever. Creatures chatter and chirp about the trees above us. Claudia and I have linked arms as we walk. As we stroll through the briars, I get an idea. Claudia doesn’t quite notice either as I lead us off another path to the left—this one more grown over as I meander by the marsh—piercing blades of grass licking at our ankles.

“Wait, where are we?” Claudia goes as we break out of the wood, emerging on the bank of the marsh. My boots sink slowly into the mud, melted by the high tide.

“See that big tree right there,” I point to a dried out trunk that’s flattened down a small area of grass. “That’s where we buried Vinca. I wanted to come here and wish happiness for her soul.” I grab a small bit of shells and sprinkle them in a notch in the old battered wood. They fall amongst layers of aged ones from my past visits.

“My sweet, Vinca, may you rest in the warmest spout of sunlight.” I whisper, thinking of her warm fur and soft paws on the hardwood floor.

“Aw,” Claudia goes, She fishes out a shatter of sea glass to add to the collection.

“It’s quite materialistic of me, but sometimes I like to think Goddess passes on my love to her new life from time to time.” I sigh, missing that pet.

“I’m sure she absolutely does, you seemed to really love her.”

“I do, it pains me to know I’m helpless to her now.”

“Not entirely, you’re still trying.” She chips in. I only hum.

“I really am. Let’s go home, love, before you freeze” I guide her back on the path where we begin working our way back to the street.

Exhaustedly we leap into bed, uncaring of our salted skin and sand dusted feet.

And the very next morning Claudia is silent the entire car ride. I know it’s simply because she’s working on that breakfast sandwich she picked up at the drive thru, but my heart aches deeply for that calming voice of hers as we drive to Mariana’s Seaside Psychologists, a place Claudia found for me a week or so ago. It’s the same place Ren mentioned to her, apparently. That only makes me more untrusting.

“Here we are, do you want me to walk in with you?” Claudia asks as she parks the car outside an angled colonial home beside a fast flowing river. It’s grey shingles are the same tone as the sky above us.

“Are you kidding?” I scoff.

“I didn’t know if you wanted me to or not-hold on.” She drops her unfinished sandwich back into a paper bag and wipes the crumbs from her face.

“Of course I do.” I say, feeling guilty. She gets out of the car and we venture inside. I fidget with my wrist, still singed. It appears to be something that won’t simply heal over a few days.

Claudia goes to the receptionist and quietly tells him I’m here, as if he couldn’t have already recognized me. That and my bandages aren’t very appealing either.

“Do you have the copay for today’s session?” He looks at me.

“The what-I have to pay for this shit?” I exclaim.

“Shh! Yes, here it is.” Claudia hands him a check from her purse. I send her a scowl.

“You’re not paying for this are you?”

“My mom is,”

“I’m paying you back.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I’m going to.” I assert. Claudia sighs deeply.

“You’re all set, your appointment is in a couple minutes. In the mean time you can take a seat.” Says the receptionist. We make our way to a couple of chairs lined up under the front windows.

I hold Claudia’s hands in my lap as we wait. My skin quivering at every sound behind those doors. Scattered footsteps, a clearing of a throat, some muffled words, and finally a creaking of floorboards getting closer and closer to the waiting room until it stops. I look away, the door opens slowly; it’s hinges groaning as it goes.

“Jasmine Koval?” Chirps the voice of a kind looking black woman, she can’t be much older than fifty. Her eyes are warm with welcome and her smiling lips are painted a bright rose. She wears a pair of round wire glasses.

“Good luck,” Claudia says, giving me a kiss on my cheek. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

“I don’t know about this.” I whisper to her, clutching her hands tighter.

“I know you can do it, it won’t be that bad. I promise.”

“But you could come in with me, couldn’t you?”

“Ask her.”

“Ah, right,” I stand myself up and drag Claudia over to Mrs. Moore. I go, “Hi, sorry, can she join me?” I point to Dia. She nods.

“Of course. Whatever you’d like, come on in,” She spells neatly before leading us through a tight hall to a door on the right; my pockets jingle faintly with shells as we go. It’s a simple room—cream colored walls with two bookcases and a burgundy couch—I like its coziness. Claudia and I sit on the couch, it’s leather is scratched and tattered. I take Claudia’s hands again. Moore seats herself on a counter under the windowsill, idly swinging her feet back and forth.

“Good morning, Jasmine. I’m so glad to see you today, how’s your day been so far?” She asks me. I go,

“If you tell anyone what I say here or that you’re even seeing me in the first place I swear to Goddess I’ll-”

“Jasmine!” Claudia cuts me off with a nudge to my shoulder.

“It’s alright, I understand why you might worry, but what’s spoken here is completely safe. I’m bound by quite a few laws to keep your words confidential and that’s exactly what I’ll do.” She says, continuing to speak of my rights, her rights, Claudia’s rights, that house plant’s rights and a bunch of technical shit that I couldn’t care less about.

“I want you to understand that this is a safe space and you don’t have to hold back from me.” She finishes.

“Sure.” I stifle a yawn.

“So, before we begin,” She leans over to pull a notebook out of a shelf under her, clicking open her pen. “What do you intend to get out of this?”

“What?”

“What’s your goal? Your reason for choosing to see me?”

“Ah, right. I want to… it’s just that I… Ah! I can’t remember.” I laugh as if this is so stupid, overrated and far above me.

“Take your time, or you can simply list off topics you’d like us to discuss over the weeks.” She compromises. I hesitate, looking to Claudia for help.

“Um, maybe just like,” I gesture loosely in front of me. I assumed she was just going to bring up my trial and go from there, but to have me say it? “I don’t know.” I blurt in frustration, my throat stinging. Claudia wraps her arm around me.

“Start small.” She says.

“Like what? I can’t even think of a single reason,” I shake my head. “I have everything, everything I could ever want but I’m still…” I can’t get it out. The word is just too big to fit through the screen across my teeth.

“Tell me about that, are these objects you mean or…” She prompts. That’s a lot easier, describing my accomplishments.

“I live in the most peaceful neighborhood in my absolute dream home. It’s so perfect and my garden is beyond beautiful, I’ve more power in my career than I could’ve ever anticipated. I’m at the top, the pay is great. I have all the free time in the world, especially to spend with my Dia. I love her and I don’t know what I’d do without her.” I speak, meeting her eyes directly. She smiles warmly.

“That sounds wonderful, and you’re happy with your life?” She asks.

“I’m happy with it, but I’m not entirely happy in it.” I sigh.

“Are you aware why?”

“I have to avoid things a lot and I get-I don’t know.” I cut a quick corner around it. Moore nods as she scratches down some more notes.

“Why do you have to avoid these things? Are you comfortable sharing with me exactly what they are?”

“Not really.” I stutter out a breath I’d been holding captive in my throat.

“Alright, that’s okay. I’ll have you think about that. Actually if you could make a list as you go through your day for our next meeting that would be extremely helpful. You could also try to write why you think you’re prone to staying away from these things and how they make you feel, if you can.”

“Okay.” I state, thinking about that.

“Can you remember to do that?”

“Yes, I can do that.” I nod.

“Perfect and I’m sure she can help remind you too.” She gestures to Claudia.

“Oh, yes. I’ll make sure.” She speaks upbeat, excited to begin my little assignment.

“Perfect, perfect,” She mumbles as she writes another thing down. “How are you feeling so far?”

“Fine.”

“Is this what you expected?”

“I don’t know what I expected.”

“Well, there are quite a few elements to therapy, including me giving you tasks or goals to focus on outside of our sessions.” She tells me. I just nod. She speaks for a few minutes more about what this is going to be like continuing on, I’m not really listening until she wraps up and leads us back out into the waiting room.

“I’ll see you next Wednesday, Jasmine.” She smiles at me.

“Wait,” I stop her, “You seriously can’t tell anyone I was here—you too,” I direct at the receptionist. “This cannot get out, you hear me?” I make my voice stern, Moore only goes,

“Yes, it’s all confidential. There’s no need to worry.”

And at that Claudia and I leave. As soon as I get in the car I drop my head in my hands, letting the car jostle me about gently.

“How are you?” Claudia asks.

“That was so fucking disappointing.” I sneer.

“It’s a process, babe. It takes time,” She responds. “And I think it was really productive for a first meeting, usually it’s only that technical stuff.”

“I feel sick.”

“It’s only from being nervous.”

“I wish it were only nerves, just a silly reaction, no of course not. My whole head is gone, I doubt Moore can bring it back.” I brood.

“Don’t be so negative, it’s just day one. Come on, just try to relax for the rest of the day. You shouldn’t stress out about it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I shake my head.

When I get home I go to sleep in Vita’s room. I keep her on the nightstand as I try to rest. The blinds slice a barcode of morning on the walls. It is warm and cozy, I start to get what Claudia sees in it.

“Do you have a notepad somewhere that I could borrow?” I mumble to Vita.

In my desk, dear. She answers right away.

“Mm, I’ll get it later. This morning was exhausting, I need a year of rest.” I exaggerate as I sink as far as I can into this perfectly plush duvet.

I heard about it. That’s a very brave thing to do, I can’t imagine how draining it must’ve been.

“It was shitty.”

It won’t be easy, but you’ve got to have commitment if you truly want to be better.

“I know,” I groan. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m tired.”

Alright, but I don’t want you to hide this from Christine when she calls. Vita adds, very matter of factly.

“How do you know she’s going to call?” I question.

She may soon is all I mean, I think she can really be of great support for you now. She hums. I get a deep desire then; to see my dear sister again.

“I can’t wait for her to be here. I miss her so much.” I don’t think I’ve seen Christine once since her mother’s human vessel passed. She was here a long time then, but she rarely spoke to me as she was immersed in her own castings and rituals as always. Though I myself had been beyond desperate to keep Vita to myself.

Soon, dear, she’ll visit soon.

“She told me the last week of December.”

That’s not very far.

“I guess.” I yawn, slipping into my tidy rest. My head is full of excitement for Christine’s inevitable visit. It’s a very deep sleep, I find. One of hazy thoughts and blissful calm, my body silently recharges as I lie. When I’m eventually woken up by Dia, I feel beyond well rested. My joints crack and spring to life as I get to my feet. Claudia fixes my hair with her hands.

“You should probably have something to eat, it’s past noon.” She says.

“I don’t think there’s anything to eat in this house, let’s go out.” I suggest, skipping past her to my room. Her air is disapproving as she follows me.

“Maybe you should go grocery shopping, I mean you should really have food around.” She says.

“I don’t need to keep food here, I have the money to go to nice places, so let’s go.” I chuckle as I grab my jacket from the closet.

“Alright, but I’m gonna stop somewhere afterwards, you can’t keep skipping dinner.” She says, kneeling to shuffle through her drawers. I sit beside her to sigh deeply. “I’m just saying you should be thinking about eating better.” She counters my pouting. I stiffen up, feeling like every time she mentions it a strand of sanity snaps within my head.

“Can we just shut up about eating, okay? I’m tired of hearing about it.” I return. A tension of steel weaves into the air between us.

“Excuse me?” She goes, eyes wide. “I’m just worried. Seriously, I really think you have a problem with it!” She defends.

“I simply don’t fancy eating all the damn time.” I get to my feet and step away from her.

“Is it that you don’t ‘fancy’ it or that it scares you?” Claudia stands to raise her eyebrows at me. I grit my teeth, facing away.

“Can you just quit with that, please.”

“I’m trying to look out for you, remember when we promised to help each other grow?” She brings up. I stride to my dresser to gather my wallet and keys. There’s a ring in the change dish, I put it on then take it off finding that it’s too small. It’s definitely one of Vita’s.

“Is this another thing to write down?” She asks at my silence.

“Yes-Yes, I guess it is.” I blurt with a sharp edge of irritation. It’s a lot easier to feel angry at her.

“Okay, I’m sorry about being rude before.”

“It’s alright, Dia. I shouldn’t have snapped.” I sigh. There’s a painful beat of silence. Luckily a ping of the doorbell saves us. I quickly tend to it, Claudia follows but idles in the back of the living room to pretend she isn’t watching. I open the door.

“Good morning, Miss! My squad’s doing a fundraiser to help the unfortunates, would you like to buy some cookies?” Says a teenage boy dressed up in some Boy Scouts uniform, his hair washed and blow dried to look normal under his cap. He looks so funny without all that gothic makeup that I almost laugh.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I cross my arms.

“Here, there’s the menu,” He shoves a pamphlet into my hands. “You don’t have to decide right away! You can order them from our website!” He gleams.

“You know this is a private neighborhood? Door hopping is illegal, punk, so if I were you I’d scram before I call security.” I warn, turning his faux expression to something born of rage.

“Thank you for your time, please consider donating.” He flashes an artificial smile before stepping down into my yard and making his stupid way down my street.

“Fucking bastard.” I mutter as I slam the door shut. I walk to the kitchen and hold that pamphlet over the sink as I inspect it. It looks legit, classic green and blue theme, comic sans font, even a nice little logo on the front. I unfold it and the inside is of a simple oak tag. Asa’s handwriting neatly scrawled across all three columns.

Skipping a day of your duties is understandable, but a week of no contact and absolutely zero effort to address your absence is unacceptable. You know you have a very vital place in Vitreous and you are absolutely not expendable as my most powerful changeling, you need to commit to this position period. I won’t send a warning next time, I want you at floor 43 tomorrow before dawn to catch up. If you don’t show I’ll happily make a visit to help up your motivation until you take yourself seriously. No mistake goes unpunished, mind you.

~A.B.

“Oh, fuck off!” I shout, dropping the paper from my hands. A light dusting of white spills onto the metal basin. I stare at my skin, boiling up with rage. “Claudia, come here. I need you to turn on the sink for me.” I call to her. She stands bewildered in the center of the living room. Her eyes scrunched as her head turns over what I’ve said, then snaps to life as she starts to me.

“Don’t touch my hands, just the water.” I say.

“Why?”

“He poisoned the paper, that asshole.” I sneer, holding my palms under the cool stream—it soothes the stinging burn that’s begun—my skin starts an agitated red.

“The Boy Scout?”

“No, that was Asa. Didn’t you recognize him?”

“Why would I recognize him?”

I scoff, sometimes I wonder if she really is his changeling. “Well regardless I can’t keep skipping work to stay here with you—as much as I adore our days together—I have responsibilities.” I admit. Between the calls from the executives I’ve been ignoring and the missions I’ve been flaking out on I’m surprised Asa resorted to just a weak poison as this one.

“I should get a job too,” Dia muses. “And get out of the house.”

“Mhm.” I shut off the sink. I can’t decipher between my burns and the welts from the poison. Either way I trudge to the cabinet where I’ve got my first aid and grab a roll of gauze. It’s safer to just quarantine my palms so that their teary liquids don’t get on anything. I wrap both my hands pretty neatly, feeling foolish but relieved. “That would be good for you, Gifford really is an artist town. I don’t doubt you could find something pleasant around here. You could paint a mural for the library, host a piece at the museum or maybe even touch up that wretched scene in the police station.” I suggest with a light laugh, walking past her to tip Briar up a little since she’s been leaning over some odd way in her pot. Claudia doesn’t say anything. I quickly dismiss the fact. I move to the couch, my fingers resting on Vita’s blank notepad. I eye a pencil, looking away to say ‘forget it’ but guiltily grabbing the thing shortly afterwards. I simply scribble down some vague phrases and words.

I just about gag thinking of it, so I push the notepad under a newspaper. My ears scratch and my throat thins. I lean back against the couch, looking to my darlings. Today is an off day—which means I watered them yesterday and won’t need to until tomorrow—though I’d like to interact with them. So I grab Lilith off the end table and sit her on the couch beside me. Her leaves are nicely cupped towards the front window. I rest my palm against her pot and say,

“I’d like to take you outside, actually to the beach. How fun would that be? We could get you a couple shells to fit in your pot here, but I’d have to give your leaves a dusting to get the salt off, you know that’s not good for you.” She sits still, reaching towards the sun as if the only thing she could ever desire is to feel it’s shine on her bare leaves. I watch Claudia fish out that notepad and scan over it with her eyes.

“I don’t want you to see that.” I say, snatching it from her hands.

“Sorry, I was curious and I wanna know what not to do.”

“I’ll tell you.”

“Right, right.”

“So, are we going to lunch or not?” I bring up, looking up to her expectantly. She gives a roll of her eyes.

“Yes, but I’m going shopping after.”

“I’ll stay in the car.”

“Of course.” She nods. I replace Lilith to her spot, whispering to her that I’m to keep my promise. Then Dia and I climb into her small, blue car—since mine is still battered with bullet holes, hidden in the backyard while I figure out what to do with it—and we meander through Gifford on the hunt for a nice place to dine. Just as peaceful and content to be in each other’s company as we have these past few weeks.

Ten

November, 2019

I flick the heat on as I’m getting ready the next morning, quietly inching open drawers and tapping the closet door closed with my pinky finger to make sure that Claudia’s rest isn’t disturbed. Though as I’m tightly lacing my boots on the edge of the bed, my phone goes off quite loudly. I quickly hang it up—simply muscle memory—but I get a stab of guilt as I see it was Christine. I quickly shoot her a text.

‘Sorry, I’m on my way to work. I’ll definitely call you when I get home.’

‘Oh you better, missy!’ She responds almost immediately after. I regret it so badly, but I have to go see Asa today. I stand within the dimly lit room, beginning towards the door.

“Who is it?” Goes the overly sleepy and muffled voice of my Dia.

“Ah, no one important. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be loud. I’ll be out of your hair in a second.” I cringe. There’s a silence on her end as she reaches to switch on the lamp on the nightstand. The blanket is clutched tightly to her chest, her face pale as she stares at me. She shakes in her own skin, practically melting back into the headboard behind her.

“You alright?” I take a step forward and she screams, I recoil from shock. She leaps to sit up, grasping to her phone on the nightstand.

“Hey, hey-calm down. Dia? Stop.” I lunge forward to grab the phone from her fingers. She shrieks horrifically—as if I’ve just stuck her with a knife—her grip is persistent and I have to press into the joint of her wrist with my thumb to get her to drop it. I quickly hide it in my pocket. Claudia throws her arms wildly at my face, her knuckles hitting bluntly across my cheek.

I jump back, placing myself in front of the door. She cowers under her arms, shaking in every limb. I place my hand to my cheek, feeling it already beginning to bleed out a bruise.

“Dia? It’s just me, it’s Jasmine. Are you alright?” I ask.

“Please don’t hurt me, take whatever you want.” She surrenders, bowing her head to let a few tears fall to the duvet.

“I-we live here, together. This is our house, Dia.” I announce. Her eyes leak her disbelief.

“You’re lying, I don’t know you.”

“You do, it’s me, Jasmine. Fuck, I know I look scary but I was only on my way to work and I didn’t turn a light on because I didn’t want to wake you.” I try to explain, she’s not listening. Her eyes stare at a spot on the floor as she spaces out. Her gaze snaps up to look at me.

“Who are you?” She asks again.

“Jasmine, Jasmine Koval. I’m your girlfriend, right? Please tell me you know what I’m talking about.” I try to inch forwards, she flinches so I stay still. “Check your phone, you’ve texted me and there’s like a million photos of us.” I try. She doesn’t move. I carefully reach out to place her phone on the edge of the bed, gesturing for her to get it as I step back. She inches her fingers towards it, keeping her eyes on me as she types in her password. That’s my Dia, so in tune with her phone that she’s got it’s password written in muscle memory.

She scrolls around the screen for a moment, eyes wide as she inspects every photo and thread of messages. All our sweetened afternoons, perfect morning meals, and late night treks down the beach are all foriegn to her. Every conversation, every lazy text while she was resting upstairs and I tending to my plants; absolutely meaningless.

“I-I don’t remember any of this. I feel like I should.” Her voice is something beaten, stripped. I run my hands through my hair, my chest filling with an anger that says, this isn’t fair, but I don’t let it taint my sense.

“What do you remember?” I ask her. She doesn’t answer, still gawking to her phone screen. Her eyes are separate from her head, falling to the floor every now and then to stare at a stagnant spot as if she’s completely lost herself, powered down to an empty shell waiting to refill with it’s own true personality.

When she’s compromised like this, I approach her slowly. My movements are miniscule enough to keep her settled as I ease myself to sit on the bed. I slide her phone from her fingers and place it face down on the bed. She looks up; ghostly as her expression remains thoughtlessly loose on her face.

“Can you remember your name?”

“Nola.”

“No, your name is Claudia. Do-Do you trust me?” I waver, building a barricade of calm between my mouth and the heavy dread in my stomach. She shakes her head.

“I don’t know; I don’t know where this is, I don’t know if this is real.” She brushes her hand over the sheets, watching her fingers interact with them. “It doesn’t feel real,” She pats her palm flat to the bed. “I can’t trust this is real.”

“It’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be, this is real. You’re here with me, okay?” I can’t help but touch her—my hands resting on her shoulders—she tightens herself up, turning her head to inspect my skin.

“What is that?” She refers to my bandaged hand.

“It’s a burn from the stove,” I lie. “Just listen, your name is Claudia Sharp and you live in Gifford with me in this house. You’re a painter, here,” I leap up to retrieve her spoon from my dresser where I’ve displayed it. I place it gently in her hands. “You painted that. Does that ring any bells?” I give a frustrated sigh as she turns it over in her hands, looking more confused than ever.

“Why would I paint a spoon? This doesn’t look like something I could do.”

“Well it was, the spoon was little; easy to paint. You remember?”

“No, I don’t.” She whispers, her eyes running away once more. This time I let her escape within her head, hoping that maybe she’ll find something there. Though she doesn’t seem to be doing much thinking at all. I check my phone, finding that Asa’s already called me twice.

“Is that real?” I hear her ask, she’s looking at my scar. She reaches out to touch it, I grab her hand.

“Don’t.”

“What is that?”

“Don’t worry about it, why don’t you try to go back to sleep or something?” I suggest, thinking that maybe she’s just in some odd sleepwalking state.

“I just need to feel you, so I know you’re real.” She says.

“I’m right here, love.”

“I can’t trust my eyes, it doesn’t look right.” She pushes her hand forwards, fingertips brushing my cheek.

“Please don’t.” I don’t have the heart to swat her hand away.

“You’re lying to me, you don’t want me to know it’s not real. You’re not real, are you?” She rambles on, pressing her palm against the side of my face. My skin tingles fiercely. I instinctually grit my teeth as I grip her wrist tight.

“Stop, Dia, please.” I beg, my stomach churning. I feel her run her fingers over my shredded skin, interpreting it’s every hill and valley all the way down to my jawline. A strained whimper squeezes past my lips.

“Your skin feels like sandpaper,” She says. “That’s not right.”

“I don’t care, just get your hands off of me!” I shout, losing myself as I force her arm down to the bed. She turns to stone, eyes unblinking as she halts her breath. Something familiar trickles back to her eyes, their grey filling up with fear. She brings her hands to cover her mouth, still staring.

“Jasmine?” She squeaks, looking all about the room as if it’s the very first time she’s seen it. “Oh, everything feels so wrong.”

“Dia, dear.” I reply, beyond relieved to see her swimming back to me.

“How long have I been awake?” She asks me, voice shaking.

“Only a moment, my love. You weren’t yourself.” I note, craving to give her a hug and kiss.

“I know, I know. I’m so sorry.” She goes off anxiously, as she heals the wound she’s given me. “I feel so—my head is just empty. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad, I would never ever be mad at anything you did whether you meant it or not. This isn’t your fault. I was only scared to see you lose yourself, I wasn’t sure if you would return.” I express, giving a small gesture for her to embrace me, she gladly does.

“It’s been so long since this has happened. I was getting so good, what did I do wrong?” She mumbles.

“It’s not something you can control.”

“I know, it’s not fair.”

“It isn’t, but you’re alright now.”

She pulls away to wipe her lips on her sleeve. There’s a smudge of red left behind.

“I wish you didn’t do that to yourself.” I sigh.

“It’s just a habit.” She defends.

“It’s hurting you.”

“You wouldn’t get it, it helps me when I’m anxious.” She whispers. My phone rings, upsetting the both of us. I give a glance, groaning as I see it’s Asa.

“Don’t leave me,” Claudia blurts. “My episodes can last days; broken up—I don’t want to be alone when I disassociate again.” She grips my forearms tightly as if to chain me down by her side.

“I-I have to go to work today.”

“I’ll come to work with you.” She nods. I immediately shake my head in dismissal.

“No, it’s dangerous. I can’t have you there.”

“How?! You work at a perfume company, don’t you?” She presses, eyelashes fluttering with desperation.

“It’s more complicated than that. You know Asa saw you yesterday, he knows who you are and if I don’t do what he says he might try to hurt you.” I warn. She gives her head a slight tilt.

“Was he here yesterday?”

“Yes, you were there. He poisoned the letter?” I place down to jog her memory, obviously stripped.

“He poisoned a letter! Is that why you have your hands bandaged?!” She exclaims, cradling my hands as if they were a pair of feeble fledglings.

“Yes, but that doesn’t matter, my work is dangerous, you know this.” I state.

“But you can’t just leave me.”

“I really wish I could stay with you, I hate that this whole thing has caught up to me but I can’t neglect my responsibilities today. Don’t you have those friends that you’re texting all the time, you could invite them over so you won’t be alone. I’m sure they’d understand.” I suggest.

She hesitates a bit, but seems to like the idea.

“Would it be alright to have people over? They don’t know I live with you. They might think… with the news and all.” She frets.

“It’s perfectly fine, you can introduce me when I get home,” I say. “Just have them be careful about my darlings. I don’t want anyone in Vita’s room either.” I set.

“Of course, and you’ll be home this afternoon?”

“Most likely.”

She nods, leaning forward to rest against my shoulder as she grabs her phone. I place my chin atop her head, feeling her voice vibrating through me as she sends both of her friends a call.

I wonder about that, friends, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a thing. Maybe I can almost count Candy, she’s relatively friendly with me and Christine is definitely a friend as well as a sister. My mind skits over Ren and his odd relationship with me. Something like a brotherly hatred, I might call it, but I would never express the idea aloud. He’s just a pig, a worm under my boot.

I reluctantly leave home soon after Dia’s made sure that her friends are on their way. I offered to wait until they arrived but she assured me that she’d be okay if I left. So I did.

Then I’m in Lytherburg of all places. My boots tap bluntly across the black and white tiled floors of Asa’s high rise. I cross the lobby—which is an extensive display of Virteous’s frangrences—and enter an elevator in the break room behind the cash registers.

The elevator emits a light tone as it approaches floor 43, I get up and straighten myself out. I stand with my back taut and my chin tipped to the ceiling as the doors open, giving Asa a full view of my confident facade. I’m not surprised to find him standing right in the center of the foyer as he waits for my arrival. He begins forwards as I step within the showy room—lined with a black wallpaper and white trim, dull burning chandeliers hang from the ceiling, how silly of him to pretend it’s still the 1700’s—I approach him as well, starting with a shrug,

“Can’t I take a break once in a while? You know you never did give me any time off.”

He doesn’t look amused, his head turned to the side as he glances down a hallway to his left. He gives a crisp snap of his fingers. The clack of his bones echoes through the room. He swivels his head to send me a disdainful look. His eyes are narrowed, mouth smoothed into a straight line.

He pauses his stride foot away from me, reaching in the inside pocket of his blazer. A gun sticks to his fingers, he presses it firmly into my palms, wrapping my fingers around the trigger.

“I’m tired of having to do everything myself and Candy shouldn’t have to be doing your job for you.” He scolds, lifting his grasp and sliding behind me.

I watch two of Asa’s men drag in a younger man, throwing him to his knees just a few feet from where I stand. His head is covered with a sack but he still shakes deeply in every limb, barely having the energy to sit up himself.

Asa grabs my arm and draws it up—barrel angled right for his head—and steadies my hold on the gun.

“Kill him.” He orders.

“No.” I shake my head with a laugh that says, ‘are you fucking kidding? What kind of joke is this?’ letting my arm drop. He catches my wrist and resets it roughly.

“Do it.” He presses, adding weight to his tone.

“I don’t know what fucking tangent you’ve got on but I’m not killing shit. You know I won’t and you can’t make me.” I retort.

“Pull the trigger, Jasmine!” Asa shoves me closer by my back. He guides the gun so that it’s now touching the man’s head. “Now! Do it, kill him.” He insists aggressively. My heart pangs in panic at his tone. I remain still as it’s all I can do, my eyes burning a hole through that sack.

“If you don’t I’ll revoke Claudia’s magick, because I can and will do that if I have to, pet.” He threatens. His mocking tone drilling into my skull.

“Don’t you touch her.” I sneer, fighting against his grip on my arms.

“Don’t lie to me,” He retorts. “It’s that easy. Now, kill him like you did that hit in Dathere.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Bullshit,” He hisses. He retrieves his phone and shoves it in my face, a picture pulled up on screen. “What’s this then? Hm? You think I’m that stupid, you think any of us are oblivious enough to not know exactly who’s been carrying out this senseless slaughter.”

It’s a photo flushed white by a camera flash, a man’s bare chest as it lies upon the pavement, he’s been branded by my fire.

“If you can kill for fun, you can kill for me. There’s no excuse!” He goes on.

I give a fierce laugh—looking to my arms now freed—thinking about teaching him a lesson for slandering my hand so childishly.

“Fun, I’ll show you killing for fun.” I swing my arm to the side and squeeze the trigger, hard.

Blood blackened by Goddess spills forth; a drop on my neck, my cheek, his perfect marbled floors turned an inky mirror.

He jerks back—putrid blood splattering across his suit jacket—his short form collides with the floor. I watch him selfishly heal himself in a burst of mist about his skull. He begins to his feet. Though I’m quick with myself and have him pinned under my boot before he can even go,

“You really think you can kill me? Try it, just try it and have your pathetic mortality stop you.” He growls, clawing at my leg with his nails. My skin peels and burns under the close exposure of his magick. Like what dear Claudia did to me.

“Watch me.” I declare. My weight pushed fully onto his ribs. I pull the trigger four times in a row—every shot landing in between his eyes—the sound echoes through the fragile elegance of the room. It makes my ears ring terribly. My palm burns raw from the metal’s heat, but I don’t stop. I can’t. Every time sends such a toxic shock through my arm that turns tantalizing. Every pull of the trigger; every impact; every deafening explosion a glimpse into the death of an immortal. The death of Asa McBride. What an addicting fantasy, to rid my life of him.

A dull click—an absence of noise—just silence. I’m out. I toss the empty thing to the side, examining my palm. It blisters painfully through my bandages. Then I draw my gaze downwards to the mess of a man that lies underneath my boot. I stumble back across the floor, feeling faint. A rush of nausea makes me gag. I almost lose myself in a shock—weakly grasping to a table against the wall, my shoulder knocks a vase to shatter across the floor, the shards skip over to that expendable—I begin towards him, grabbing his arm and dragging him to the elevator where I toss him in. I give one glance to Asa, noting how he’s already half healed himself by the time the doors shut.

I direct us to the parking garage with a tap of my knuckle. Then I untie my friend here, standing him up to reveal his face.

“Jasmine? Jasmine-you remember don’t you? It’s Kerick, remember? Please tell me you do, I-I won’t say anything to anyone just please let me go. Please don’t hurt me.” He spills out hysterically, his breaths torn up in his chest. I do remember. He looks quite different, higher cheekbones, a straighter chin, but I catch that same dopey look in his blue eyes.

“Kerick, dear, how did you get to this!?” I exclaim, gesturing to the undone shackles on the floor. “I should’ve known-I should’ve saved you a long time ago, but it’s going to be alright. I won’t let any hurt you anymore, you don’t deserve any of it. Oh, Goddess forgive me for not saving him prior.” I press my hand flat to his chest, feeling for his soul. I’m glad to have it still mortal.

“I don’t know what happened. I was trying to find a job and I didn’t know what I was signing up for,” He shakes his head, eyes pleading as he stares to me. “It’s weird seeing you, I mean I don’t know you much more than anyone else but… I feel like I kind of get it.” He says.

“Yes, we go far back, don’t we? That’s why I have to help you, I can’t let you get hurt anymore.” My eyes fill up with tears, a guilty burn in my head for letting my innocent ukulele playing Kerick to end up like this. I’m gentle as I slip his soul past his ribs and into my grasp. His eyes flutter softly, life draining easily to my palm. I close my fingers over him, fusing him to a plump seed with love.

“That’s better, I’m sorry it’ll be a while until I can get you home.” I say, fitting him in my breast pocket. I watch his former vessel slump to the floor. I step back. It’s got a sleepy look on its face, eyes and lips drooped downwards. I assure him that he’ll have all the time in the world to rest once he’s settled.

But before I go home there’s something I’ve to do to keep my executives loyal to me and myself alone. So I gather all four of them to the wastes for a mandatory meeting, something that rarely happens between the five of us. I find they’re all here when I arrive. I figure my leverage is quite weak so as Abbot sits comfortably on a rotted lobby chair, I kneel in front of her.

“Don’t be afraid, darling. I’m doing you quite the favor. It’s such a pleasant life, it is. Though we don’t have time for you to make a decision—how about a creature of the beach, just like you?” I whisper into her ear. Through the darkness of this old windowless basement I’m sure all the rest of them can see is our misshapen forms. I bring my hand to hover in front of her.

“What on earth are you blabbing about? Get the hell away from me—” She’s able to just barely reach for her gun before I strike a searing fire in my fist. I form the smoke into something horrid and jaggad as I give a swipe across her chest. Of course her mortal vessel is quickly disposed of and I’m able to quickly send my reach to her soul. I force it into a single seed, which is kept safe in my pocket with Kerick.

Then I’ve to cover up her sudden silence. So I quickly get the gun from her waist band and fire it at some odd spot to the left of her head. I feel the others jump beside me.

“Jesus Christ! You’ve really lost your fucking mind, haven’t you?!” Jared shouts, panicked beyond composure.

“Cosima, you’re now the greater North and South executive. Can you do that? Can you handle distributions as well as being treasurer?” I rise to my feet, slowly stepping towards her. She doesn’t even flinch. Not a single reaction out of her.

“Jasmine, did you really just…” Candy speaks behind me. I know she’s unfazed. Her confliction most likely over her trust in me.

“Shut up.” I shoot over my shoulder, I refocus on Cosima. “Answer me.” I growl. My hands pull into fists at my sides.

“I can.” She whistles through her teeth. I can see her twisting her white hair around her finger. Her eyes spark through the darkness with a sadistic flare.

“Perfect, lovely. Jared? I want you to return to only manufacturing your poisons, drop everything else.” I spin around to where I think he is in the dark.

“Asa told you to say that?” He questions, his voice shaking as it always does.

“No, I’m saying that. Asa’s out of the picture, you three aren’t to listen to him anymore. Not that this changes anything, I’ve always been in control. I’ve always been doing all the work running this organization for him. He’s got nothing in it other than the money he’s receiving on my behalf.” I let out.

“What are you saying?” Candy asks. “A coup?” I hear a slather of intrigue rise up her throat.

“Don’t you agree, Candy? I would be such a divine president. I’d properly distribute funds to you all. And with the lessened employees—so much more effective! We’ll run how we please, my dears.” I throw my arms wide to my sides as I present to them my grand plan.

“We-we can’t do this.” Jared shivers.

“We’ll do whatever we want.”

“Why should we trust you? Aren’t you just going to kill us all? Tell us why you killed Abbot!” He cries.

“She was just going to get in the way, she’s supportive of that toxic dictator. I couldn’t have made any progress with her alive.” I hook my ankles, falling to sit cross legged on the ground. I hear Jared begin to pace.

“I’m with you if it means overturning Asa.” Candy sits too, just across from me. In her closeness I can see the golden shimmer of her hair and the speckle of her amethyst.

“I’ve secured my three quadrants.” I smile, listening to Jared’s obnoxious pacing.

“I can’t-I can’t do it.” He goes.

“You’re going to have to because without you there’s no Vitreous.” I press. He makes an unsure noise.

“Jared, we have my whole force with me. I’m unstoppable, this is a perfect chance.” Candy speaks up.

“She’s insane. Do you even know who she is outside of this?”

“Everyone knows! Who cares!” Candy gestures to me.

“She’ll kill us. She just killed Myra are you two fucking blind?!” He shouts, sounding as if he’s one blink from losing it.

“We didn’t need her.” Cosima says under her breath.

“But we need you,” I add. “Not objectively either, don’t you agree that Asa couldn’t care less about his executives? I mean he doesn’t even have the time to meet you as people for Goddess sake.” I gesture, speaking very factually.

“But-but I met him.” He stammers out. “He met me.”

“Only because you fucked up.” I state.

“We shouldn’t do this-we shouldn’t do this.” He wavers. I let out an impatient sigh.

“What did Asa say to you?” Candy asks him. “I mean of when you met him.”

“We shouldn’t test him.”

“You don’t trust me and you don’t trust him, what’s your plan here?” I rise to my feet, finding him by the window and grabbing hold of him by his collar. “You still wanna work, don’t you? Work for me, not the person you’re afraid of.”

“I’m not afraid of anything.” He swipes my hands away. “I’m only curious of how you think you’re going to kill him. He’s a faerie, you idiot.” He whispers that last part to only me. My head spins-I grab his palm, feeling for the creases of his mark. The one Asa never told me about. I grit my teeth in a blind rage.

“That only makes him more dangerous to you. You owe him now for this-he only did it to control you.” I press on his palm with the tip of my nail.

“That means he controls you too.”

“He’s not my faerie.”

“What?! But he said—” Jared gasps.

“I bet I could kill him.” Candy speaks up confidently. I snuff out a laugh.

“Yes, yes she could, but killing him isn’t my priority. I’ve got cleaner ways of getting rid of him.” I grin, letting them in on my little leash around Lytherburg’s head detective. All the documents and contracts I’ve collected from that man handed over to my dear Renny would get the cops right up on his tail.

“You think they could keep him in jail?” Jared laughs sharply at me.

“No, it’s a distraction.” Cosima lights up for me. “We’ll be chasing him out of the state.”

“Exactly!” I send a gesture her way. “He’s got foot holes all over the country, once he’s out he’s not gonna need to come back. We’ve just to keep quiet, he can’t know about this. We’ll have to pretend for a while.”

“Fuck-fine. Fine, whatever. I’m in, I guess but don’t count that as definite.” He groans, gathering himself up to twitchily leave the building.

“Thank you, Doctor Chen! You’re my favorite executive!” I shout after him. He responds with an upset noise, closing himself inside the rickety iron staircase to the ground floor. When he’s gone I spin around to the ladies. “That was just a lie, you know my heart’s with you!” I gush so deep that I have to catch myself, not let my emotions get the best of me. My excitement, my anxiety, my relief that I’ve finally gotten this ball rolling.

On my hasty ride home I call Ren, he seems quite glad when I lie that I’m quitting and fed up with my mistreatment. Though he still throws his, it won’t be easy excuse at me. Then I make an appointment with my newest friend, the journalist.

I’m home in just a skip and a hop. My feet give pause at the front door. I listen for a single moment, not pushing in until after I’ve assessed the conversation Dia holds with her friends. They’re sitting on the living room couch—I find—only two of them, looking uneasy at my entrance. Dia gets up to greet me, I kiss her on the cheek.

“How was your day?” I ask her.

“Good, here, this is Jasper and Stacy.” She introduces, pointing first to a woman with long hair that’s been dyed a light lavender then another with small pointed features and a caramel pixie cut. Both of them are as pale as Dia, which isn’t surprising. A scatter of materials lies on the coffee table, they seem to have been painting.

“Guys, this is Jasmine. My girlfriend.” She brushes my arm with her hand as if to brandish a gold trophy.

“Hi, I’m very glad you were able to be here for Dia today. She was so shaken this morning I couldn’t bear to leave her alone.” I express.

“Yeah, no it was fun hanging out,” Stacy nods. “She told us a little about you. I kinda get it, how easily the media could deform your image.”

“Yes, it’s awful.” I nod.

“I can imagine,” She says. “It’s like one of those cases that just blows up and people can’t get enough. The press probably ran out of stuff to feed em’.”

“Mm I gave them as little as I could.”

“What about your release? What’s up with that?” She crosses her arms. Before I can even answer the usual ‘there were changes to my sentence’ Jasper gives Stacy a hard shove to her arm.

“Will you leave her alone!” She scolds.

“I’m just curious!” Stacy defends.

I shrug as I cross the room.

“Does anyone want tea?” I ask as I pause by the kitchen.

“Wait, Jasmine,” Claudia races over to me, swiping up a tissue on her way. “You got dirt or something on your face.” She takes the corner of the tissue and wipes Asa’s dark blood from my cheek.

“Ah, do I?” I laugh.

“Yes, I’m very disappointed in you.”

“Excuse me?”

“You do know they have cameras in the elevators?” She tilts her head with a sinister glare to her eyes. “Aren’t you smarter than that?”

“What are you on about?” I begin, my thoughts crashing to a halt as the realization hits me. She’s Asa’s changeling.

“Yeah, Claud, what?” Stacy turns to look, overhearing her.

“Has she disassociated again today?” I toss the question to her friends.

“Only a little, is she alright?” Jasper responds.

“She’s fine for now,” Dia’s mouth moves, ringing her own bell of a voice. “But she’s also quite the manipulator. You two are just her pawns. You wouldn’t believe how often she changes your minds.”

“Have her sit.” Jasper gets up to guide Claudia away from me. She places her in between Stacy and her on the couch.

“Claudia, can you hear me?” Stacy asks.

“I-I can.” She stutters.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Home,” She breathes. “Have I-have I done it again?” She worries in that never ending anxious tone of hers.

“Dia?” I call, she turns to me, eyes dampened by her familiar innocent fear. “I’m sorry, but I have to go out again.” I bow my head in frustration as I begin towards the door to finish this. It makes my blood boil that he’s resorted to using her like this, taking advantage of her poor withered mind. I swing the door open and I’m met with the very face of the child I’m after.

Eleven

November, 2019

Asa McBride doesn’t quite hesitate before aiming his gun towards Claudia’s friends, though he pauses. I find as well that in the skip of my eyelids they’ve somehow vanished. Only Dia left behind, jaw clenched tight as she stares at me with wide eyes as she’d posted on the couch.

“Clever girl, you went through some trouble there didn’t you? What if I made you my Vice? You’ve got ten times the fight as this one.” Asa laughs as he gestures to me.

“Leave her alone,” I warn. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”

“Something I should’ve done a long time ago,” He sighs. “You were such a mistake. It’s always the broken ones that fit best with Vitreous, but there’s nothing to salvage from you. I should’ve known.” He trains his gun for my head, eyes empty.

“Is this just because I wouldn’t kill one guy? Are you kidding me?!” I shout.

“I saw you kill him with your magick moments after leaving, don’t try to lie to me.” He counters, taking a step forward. I twist my neck to spot Claudia, now standing by the fireplace. Whatever happens just don’t let her get hurt.

“You’d never understand what I do! It’s Goddess’s right, my divine path.” I press my palms flush to my chest. “I’m saving lives, not taking them.”

Asa scoffs, letting his arm fall to his side. Something almost like pity sits in those oily eyes of his. “You’re so deluded. Maybe I should’ve left you in prison.”

“Shut up!”

“You think this isn’t difficult for me? Taking you in and trying so hard to train you as one of my own just to watch you continue to act like a helpless child? You had so much potential, you don’t understand that.” His voice is rough, almost pained.

“I never asked you to take me anywhere.”

He slips the gun back into his pocket, placing a hand on my arm. I stiffen up, feeling like I could snap at any second.

“I did you a favor. All you had to do was listen to me. I gave you a place to live, I gave you freedom, and a chance to be so much more than what you were. All you had to do was listen. It was all right there for you, but you still chose to remain as a pathetic waste of my time.” He speaks slowly, diffusing his former anger and replacing it with a heavy disappointment. I start to feel ashamed.

“I didn’t want to trust you.” I growl.

“Why? Because I was such a father to you the very moment you needed one?” He gives his head a shake, eyes softened.

“If you’re going to kill me, just do it. Go on. I dare you.” I counter, hitting his arm off of me. My chest heaves, breaths steaming. “Just like you tried to do before.”

“You think I would put a hit on you and expect you to die? No, no, that’s a job I’d have to do myself. It was a test, because I knew you’d been lying to me.” He narrows his eyes at me. I grit my teeth, my hands clawing into fists at my sides. I try to think of something to say, some way to defend myself, but all that crosses my mind is how wonderful it would feel to hurt him. To kill him.

I take a step forward to strike him with my flaming hand. He skits to the side, bumping carelessly into the end table beside the couch. Lilith wobbles in her pot, inches from toppling over. I leap to catch her, but Claudia stops me, she’s got herself blocking my way completely.

“Don’t get near him, Jasmine, here,” She puts her finger to the base of my collar bone, drawing it down to mark an odd spot in the center of my chest. I notice Asa’s twisted knuckles mirroring her movements. My head twists, but then she says, “I told you, it’s a job I’d have to do myself,” her teeth pointing fiercely through her lips. Before I can realize what she’s doing, she’s acquired some wicked kitchen dagger from her back pocket. She thrusts forth her arm to plunge it’s edge into my chest—slipped right between my ribs—at the spot she’s marked with her finger. My heart throbs delicately as I watch my own blood surge from my body. She doesn’t even mind how she’s nicked her pinky finger.

I cry out, grasping desperately to my chest. The pain is so severe that I can’t keep awake. My knees buckle but Dia holds me upright. She sends a shock of poison through my veins with just her stare; that blank stare, blood of mine spattered upon her cheeks. Her hands are held under my arms effortlessly keeping me at eye level.

I press around the blade frantically with my fingers. I watch Asa step forward to watch me die, arms folded behind his back.

“Fucking bitch.” I spit, my head wobbling on my neck tiredly. A numbness begins to spread into my head, my arms, my legs. The only feeling I can comprehend is pain. My hands barely stop the flow of blood and I begin to feel a deep emptiness building in my head. I can’t think straight and all I want to do is lie down and sleep. How nice that would be, to rest through this horrible thing.

Luckily Asa decides to have Claudia let me crumple to the floor—first giving me a kick to my stomach—where I curl into myself. My breaths so quick that my head aches and my eyes layer over with static.

“I love you,” I choke out to my Dia, wherever she is behind those eyes of violet. “I’ll find you after-I will.” I wheeze. By now I can’t see a thing, but I can feel my magick burning in my palms as it does whatever it can to keep me alive. I see Claudia, or at least I’m so desperate for it that she’s become a permanent image in my mind. Her perfectly soft figure, her silky hair that frames her face just right, her porcelain cheeks, her eyes of grey, lashed daintily; then her lips—always so full and cute—curled up in a little smile just for me. Then her voice of silver bells, chiming happily as she paints something magnificent. Her eyebrows furrowed as she works and her mouth drawn up in concentration.

I bring my hands shakily from my chest as I douse myself completely with my magick. My movements are slow and hindered. I don’t know what I’m doing. Though it feels wonderful to feel the tender touch of my power as I die out. Such a fragile thing, even with a magick like this I’m quickly drained of the few drops of blood I carry.

Then I remember Kerick and Myra. Globe amaranth and stinging nettle. I give them such a burst of life; their roots and stems reaching, tearing, sinking into the very flesh through the fabric of my breast pocket. Through my damaged nerves I can no longer perceive the pain, now it’s a sweet writhing above my heart. A cool kiss sent through my veins to replace my own flimsy arteries. My torn heart weaved prettily to fix. Amaranth sat beside the sting of nettle to thrive beneath my skin, now stitched together by their very roots.

I force my eyes to open—some horrific gasp sliding past my lips—Claudia’s feet lie just a few feet from me, as well as Asa’s. Their voices spit back and forth above me. Claudia’s sobbings, Asa’s vain promises—It’ll be glorious by my side—all snuffed out by my voice.

“She should be dead by now.” Asa groans in annoyance. Then he cocks his gun for a last resort. I squeeze my eyes shut, burying my nose into the carpet as I give into fear, my weakened muscles as tense as they’ll go.

There’s nothing for a moment. I think he must be teasing me to watch me suffer. Though the longer I keep still the more nothing occurs. That is until I hear that oddly familiar reverbing hum about my ears, then I know Claudia’s paused us in her little bubble of magick.

“Jasmine, tell me you can get up.” She whispers, voice right beside my head. I find every shred of feeling has left me, every dash of pain and panic. I feel fine. I rise, meeting Dia as she stands above herself, kneeling beside me on the ground. I don’t look at myself, I’d rather not.

“Oh, oh this is all my fault,” She whimpers, reaching out to cling to me but she only fazes through my spirit.

“That wasn’t you.” I say.

“But I could’ve stopped it! I had control over my arms, Jasmine! I could have. I was such a coward and I didn’t think. I just-I just froze up,” She sobs, voice echoing dreadfully about the space. “He said I made the ‘right choice,’ but that’s not it. Please tell me that wasn’t it, I was only scared. I was only scared.” Her face is twisted up in a knot of confliction. I would do anything to smooth her out again and have her calm.

“I believe you,” I say, “You couldn’t have done anything, he was controlling you.”

“What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I speak honestly, looking at Lilith. She’s alright, not even a drop of dirt spilled.

“What?”

“I said I don’t know.” I repeat, wanting nothing other than the heavy covers of my bed. “Just unpause this won’t you? I’ll handle it.” I say.

“How? You’re barely conscious.”

“I’ve used my magick, Dia. I did something very beautiful, I’m okay now. I’m not bleeding anymore.” I tell her with a wide grin.

“But when he starts shooting…”

“Just get rid of the gun, he can’t do anything without it. I mean he can, but it’ll buy us some time. Just get it away from him, it doesn’t matter.” I say.

“Oh-duh, right.” She goes before beginning to peel the thing from his fingers.

Then I dare to look at myself. My jacket is tangled in on itself, my hair stained red like the carpet. I cringe at how feeble I look, how the fear of death has made me look so wretched.

“Okay, I’ll be right here like this to help you up.” Claudia says as she moves back into her still body some sparse of time later. I find myself as well, sighing deeply as I angle every limb to the exact inch. I watch the familiar colors of my room fade in as Dia brings us back. She grabs my arm and hoists me to my feet, the second I find my balance I jump away from her. Those eyes flickering at me once more.

I’m uneasy with my pained self—ripping that knife right from my chest in one swift pull—I gasp aloud, watching only a few drops of blood follow it out. My wound appears horrid to the eye, but I know underneath it’s quite well.

“You’re only making this harder for yourself, Claudia.” Asa shouts to her as she fights off his control. Her eyes blink rapidly and her hands grip tight to the edge of the couch.

“You leave her the fuck alone!” I seethe, my arms flaring up brilliantly with my fire.

“Won’t you just die already! You know I can’t let you live with what you’ve seen of Vitreous and you are absolutely useless left alive. You know it! You never deserved that magick!” He returns, eyes studying me intently; gears turning over in his head on how I’ve gotten up.

“You’re only irritated you didn’t get to me first, before Christine. Then what? You go change this poor girl and control her like some fucking puppet?! You’re sick! I can’t believe Goddess ever recognized you as a faerie.” I spit harshly, my head scratches desperately for an answer on how I’m to rid us of him.

“You don’t have any idea of who she is.” He states.

“I know her little but she knows every inch of my soul, she’s sent me to this earth to complete my path, I know it! No one else can do this but me!” I fume, my throat burning with a defensive pride.

“You’re better off dead, pet. You don’t know what you’re doing.” He brings himself closer to me, grasping a handful of mist to swipe at me. I slit the air in two with my arms, creating a wave of fire to send back at him. He’s burnt right across the face, how hilarious, but regardless he doesn’t seem fazed by it. He takes both arms and creates a fume to catch me off guard. I bury my face in my jacket, stumbling back from his putrid magick, my eyes flushing with hot tears in response.

I catch Claudia out of the corner of my eye, she wields the knife once more. Her posture screams to pounce; eyes glaring a fierce violet. I find my back to the fireplace. Her movements are swift and wild; I clench my eyes shut to bear her attack, but my ears are filled with the pained gasp of another. Asa’s voice, I realize. I tear my sight to him.

She’s broken his curse. Her arms stiff as rods of iron as she sinks the knife into his neck—right into his mark—which bleeds a thick rush of black. He manages to kick her away, her body folding inwards as she collides with my fragile coffee table. Sticks of splinters reach to pierce her skin. I force myself from my fear to gather her away, holding her writhing self in my arms as Asa still fights to control her.

He flings the knife at us in a pitiful rage, fumbling with his hands at his neck; the magick he’s so desperate to conjure is absent. His eyes widen at the realization. Fear looks great on him.

“Cowards, the both of you.” He speaks through Claudia as his own throat chokes on his blood. His feet drag to the door where he hastily escapes through, fleeing from the very home.

Claudia stills against me. Her very weight pressing on my aching heart. I can’t help but move her off of me, having her stand beside me as I lean my back against the stone of the fireplace.

“How did you know to do that? How did you know it would stun his magick?” I ask.

“I-I’m not sure, it came to me.” She answers in a long relieving sigh. I let out an exhausted breath as well. My legs give out and I collapse to the floor, burying my head behind my arms, a thick breath caught in my throat.

“Here, move-move your arms away from your chest.” Claudia prys at the layers of limbs I’ve placed over my throbbing flesh. I hold my head as she carefully heals me.

“Stop-not too much,” I gasp at how sharply her magick rings within me. It’s tender edge neatly seals my amaranth heart away. My sweet nettle stitches are wrapped in a soft layer of flesh. I feel that sickly pain slip away, unhinging it’s jaws around my consciousness. I’m sent tumbling down into some perfect rest. My bloodless limbs gladly succumbing to sleep.

“Jasmine, Jasmine, stay awake. You have to stay awake, alright?” Claudia shakes me by my shoulders. My eyes roll open to look at her.

“Can you help me get to bed?” I ask, my voice barely passing through my teeth.

“No, you can’t. We have to wash the blood off. We have to get you help.” She says. I make a noise of protest as she lifts me up to my feet—which feels like being balanced atop two sewing needles—my head flushes with a blooming static at the abrupt movement, my every nerve tingling as if I were to faint at any moment.

“Let me lie down first.”

“No,” She repeats, wrapping my arm around her shoulders as she leads me upstairs. I use the wall to hold myself up, jankily conquering each step. Claudia brings me to the bathroom and sits me on the edge of the tub. I wobble forwards and back without the scaffolding of her arms around me.

“Can you get your jacket off?”

“Yes,” I only move my mouth, my voice not daring to leave me. I peel the fabric from my skin, examining the horrid stains that I’m positive will never come out. It really gets me upset, I always loved this thing. Claudia simply takes it to toss in the laundry basket. Then I’m left to squirm out of my turtle neck, the one that always took me a while to get out of. This time I find I’m not able to worm my way out.

“Here,” Claudia tries to help, pulling from the bottom up to lift it over my head. A tight tear emits as it stretches past my shoulders. I grimace.

“Sorry, it looked like it was getting a little small on you anyway.” She says.

“It was Em’s.” I whisper, watching her discard it away to the laundry.

“Who?”

“Don’t throw it out.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Dia shakes her head. She leans forwards a bit to poke at my exposed chest, running her fingers over the silhouette of stems.

“Did you—”

“There were seeds in my pocket.” I give a weak smile as the very darlings beat along to my heart.

“There’s a plant inside of you?”

“Two. They saved me.” I emit.

“Won’t it make you sick? I mean… that can’t be good.” She worries, I take her hand and move it away from my chest.

“As long as they’re alive, I’m alive, and you know how good I am at keeping my darlings well.”

“Yeah, I just… never mind. You know what, just focus on getting cleaned up.” A nervous laugh catches her, I chuckle a little too at her confusion before shakily removing the rest of my blood stained clothes. I’m quite embarrassed that I can’t do this myself, but every movement sends a dizzying flux of dizziness to my head. Dia says it’s the loss of blood. Obviously there’s nothing her magick can do for that.

After I’m properly clean she finally allows me to lie down, now that I’m no longer a threat to my newly washed bed sheets. She doesn’t join me as I hoped, but instead sits beside me on her spot on the bed after she’s rid herself of any remnants of Asa or I’s blood.

Unfortunately the only thing to do is call Jared, as any other normal doctor would immediately call the police seeing my state, and what lies just beneath the skin of my chest.

“Want me to get you some water?” Claudia asks as we wait.

“My phone.” I request, a barely conscious, half dead thing.

“Why?”

“I need to text Ren… that journalist.” My words slip to a whistly yawn through my lips.

“Do that later, now you should rest,” Dia says. “I’ll get you water and make something so you don’t shrivel up there. Oh, what do you want?”

I think for a while, my muddled mind only able to conjure up the word,

“Tea?”

Interlude

November, 2019

“Mrs. Moore? Good morning, I’m not exactly able to make it to my appointment today—I’ve got work right now, but they got me driving from one side of the state to the other—do you think we could talk over the phone? It’s around a quarter of an hour from Gifford to Hymoore so I have the time. I just can’t be there.” Detective Ren Miller asks over the phone.

He’s driving through a foggy, grey day. The heat blasting in his car to keep out the biting cold. It’s something damp and dreary, much like today or maybe more closer to yesterday’s face. Perhaps even similar to that one day an odd week ago that you seem to remember so well, how teary eyed the sky had been. Regardless of how this state of Earth had made you feel, now it gives Ren a warm touch to his heart—something frozen over thickly—and a deep nostalgia to those days he’d simply flee. He would pick up his feet and drive to wherever the roads lead him, on his own time and leisure.

Maybe it’ll be nice for him to put this into words for Moore. Maybe he’ll start driving more again, just to explore this deep woody state further. Or just to waste time. All excuses to indulge in self pity.

“Yes, of course. As long as you aren’t endangered in any way using your phone while driving.” Moore retorts with a sarcastic edge.

“Oh-no I’ve got you on speaker, don’t worry.” He assures, giving a little gesture with his fingers as his palms stick to the wheel.

“Being the police I’m not surprised you know better,” She jokes. “So how have these last few weeks been?” Her voice is distorted through the car radio, bombarded by waves of raindrops across the windshield.

“Alright.” He places.

“Just alright?”

“I mean just normal. Nothing new.” He clarifies, distracted by the flowing of leaves through tight winds.

“If I’m remembering correctly, you attended Devon’s funeral the other week.” She reminds me.

“Right, right. That did happen.”

“How was that?” Her tone is light to counter her heavy question. Ren hesitates to tap his thumbs in tune to his windshield wipers.

“Confusing.” He spells.

“I can imagine how you must’ve felt. There’s no easy answer to dealing with the type of loss you’ve experienced. It feels cynical to be relieved but guiltying to cry for your abuser,” She lets a beat pass. “Does that sound familiar?”

“It does. I don’t know how to not feel guilty. For myself and for Devon.”

“Well, you can be certain his death wasn’t at all your fault. It was a tragedy of illness, it’s never really anyone’s doing. People get sick and that’s just the nature of living on this earth, it’s a very unhealthy place, teeming with disease.” She tries for a laugh to go along with her point. It would’ve been quite effective for Ren if he weren’t an accomplice to the very man’s murder.

“I still feel like… I just think a lot about what could’ve been like.” He skips over the fact to address a vague worry.

“It wouldn’t be healthy to imagine a future with him, even now. You’d only be ignoring your trauma and falling back to denial. Devon hurt you, he disregarded your pain, and guilt tripped you into staying in the relationship. He was never good for you and I don’t want you to think that’s something you could ever settle with again, especially after everything.” She says. Ren nods, feeling nothing at her words.

“It’s hard to imagine anything else, I haven’t found anyone who I could settle down with.”

“That’s something we should work on, redefining what human relationships are for you. Until then I wouldn’t jump to anything without thought.”

“I know, obviously. I’m just… I don’t want to say I’m lonely. I miss having someone to come home to.” He feels a little embarrassed at that, thinking he shouldn’t complain. He’s safe and well after all. He should be happy, shouldn’t he?

“But anyways I did what you said and didn’t participate in setting up the event. I think that was a good idea, it felt gross to just see the ceremony itself and hear everyone talk about someone they didn’t even know. It was like I wasn’t even at his funeral. I was angry for most of it… but then I saw a friend.” He recalls.

“Was this a good thing?”

“At the time I was upset she’d showed up, I told her not to. It was careless on her end, she didn’t know anyone there so the only reason was to bother me.” He tells, omitting the part where she most likely had been indulging in the celebration of her killing.

“So having this person there made it worse for you?”

“No, I was glad to see her. As annoyed as I could’ve been, I felt like… she’s the only one who could ever understand, you know. She’s the only other one who knows who Devon really was and—doubt this was it—but it was almost like she was there for me.” He forms the thought as he goes, finding that afternoon definitely hadn’t been a topic in his mind until now. It was easier to forget.

“It seems like in this crowd of mourning family members and friends you felt alone?”

“Well, yes.”

“Then I agree, if this person had gone through the trouble of showing up—knowing she wasn’t welcome, regardless of disrespect—she knew you needed someone. Maybe she’s aware that you think of her as a person who understands.” Moore speaks, picking up on their unique closeness. Ren stays quiet for a minute, completely doubting that, past Jasmine’s want to have him protect Claudia from the law too. She simply wouldn’t think that far from her own desires.

“Maybe, I don’t think so. Since then, we’ve sort of been talking about it. Not Devon but… we both went through something similar, but she refuses to admit she needs help. I just worry-I’ve seen part of what she’s gone through.” He says, twisting his neck around as he merges onto a ghostly highway.

“Can I ask who this friend is?”

“Remember when I told you about Jasmine?”

“Yes, that makes perfect sense. She’s started seeing me, actually.”

“She-She has?” Ren stammers in disbelief.

“Just once, last Wednesday,” She says. “She’s very meek.”

“Meek?” Ren scoffs.

“She covers it up well, but as you’ve told me she’s definitely stubborn and I don’t doubt this will be difficult for her.” Moore speaks.

“Yeah, but it’s best.” His words are a bit choppy as he’s lost in thought.

“Sure, so it seems the two of you can really relate on this. That can be helpful to have someone who gets it, unlike me just spitting advice and whatnot. Being able to relate and share experiences, it gives you a good idea of how you aren’t alone in this.”

Ren only hums.

“As well as the sort of support you can offer to her as someone who’s a little further ahead, you get what I mean?”

“Yes, I was the one that told her to see someone. I’m glad she actually listened to me for once.” He gives a laugh.

“That was thoughtful of you, from what I remember Jasmine and you aren’t on the best terms.” She recalls.

“It was like that for a long time. Just because of the trial, but like I said after the funeral we’ve had conversations. The girl’s terrified.” He simplifies, reaching to turn the heat up a little.

“I can imagine. She’s almost perceived as a public enemy, don’t you think?”

“Mm, there’s nothing you can do about that though. The press will always be there.”

Moore takes a thoughtful pause before switching topics,

“Speaking of, have you seen the news recently?” She wonders, as previously Ren has explained to her his inability to check the morning news. Something that doesn’t prove quite well to a state trooper.

“Briefly,” He nods. “It’s always the same so I didn’t linger.”

“How was it?”

“It gave me anxiety over that virus. I don’t know, It’s hard not to be afraid.” He sighs, absolutely unaware of what’s really going on here.

“It is, especially with a situation so out of control like this. It’s always easier to panic over something that isn’t in your control than it is to stay clear headed, but the more you panic the worse you feel of course.”

“Yeah,”

“I don’t have any definite answers to give you for this—no one has any—but what you can do is think logically. So, yes, someone very close to you has succumbed to this virus and it’s very likely you could’ve been exposed. But weeks later you’re still here, right? You’ve taken precautions—as we talked about last time—and so far you’ve been alright.”

“But I could have it and a lot of viruses stay dormant for a period of time. Then there’s no way to tell and even if I do catch something they don’t have anything they can do,” He vents. “I saw victims, I’m near their homes or their family members. I’m not a first responder but still I have to investigate the scene. I do make sure to wash my hands and not touch too many things, but that’s all you do in my position—touch everything—but I never put my hands near my eyes or mouth. That is if it doesn’t absorb through skin or something. Do you think it does that? I read an article explaining how it biologically can’t be airborne. A lot more people would’ve died—unless it stays dormant. I mean, it doesn’t the uh-they talked about that didn’t they? I saw a bit of a breaking news thing, it was about the virus being fast acting. That’s why there aren’t any symptoms. So it can’t have an incubation period then, uh…” His words kind of all tumble together as he spits them out. His hands grip onto the steering wheel a little tighter. Every article he’s run through and every website he’s scoured during those late nights where his anxious mind just wouldn’t quit worrying. When he needed some kind of affirmation whether it just be a simple statistic or string of unsure information with no particular source.

“You do know the internet is the worst place to go for information on a virus?” Moore puts.

“No one else knows anything.”

“Then why should you? Seriously, Ren, I know it’s hard not to obsess like this but you have to try and avoid listening to those types of things. The majority of it isn’t true and you know you’re just scaring yourself more.” She says.

“I don’t know what else to do, I’ve come too far to just die without any warning. I mean, I only just now have a life for myself—barely—but I want to live, you know that isn’t something I always wanted.” His voice is brittle, he has to force himself to focus back on the road ahead of him.

“And we’re working on making life better for you—your progress is outstanding—but I need you to take a step back here and focus on the facts. You’re still here with me—regardless of what any of those people are saying about Castro’s—you’re alive, right?” She gives her voice an upbeat tone to keep him calm, knowing how frantic he gets with this.

“Yeah, I guess.” He forces out another sigh.

“How far are you from where you need to be?” She asks.

“A little over forty minutes.” He says, taking the next exit and following down a thickly wooded road, empty of any sign of homes or other cars.

“Okay, let’s talk about how you’ve been doing in Gifford. Last time I checked in you’d just moved back to your own home.” She brings up.

“It’s nice, it’s really comforting.” He puts, wringing his hands over the steering wheel as his eyes sink deep into that drowned forest.

“That’s great, it must feel better to be in your own space. I remember Devon was very invasive.”

“Yeah, it’s much better. I never felt at home in Lytherburg, even in the beginning.” He says.

“How’s Cleo doing?” Moore wonders, referring to Ren’s four year old Weimaraner. She’s a slender legged, sweetheart of a dog, her coat shinier than the most polished silver spoon.

It’s an innocent question, but easily sparks a trickle of pent up emotion in Ren. He doesn’t answer, just holding his breath.

“Ren?” She goes a moment later. “Are you alright?”

“Sorry-sorry,” He lets out, tears sparkling through the high blue of his eyes.

“Take your time.”

“She misses him, she doesn’t understand and I know it’s not her fault. She’s a dog, she can’t know any better, but every time she sits at the door and whines or- or waits by the driveway it breaks my heart. She’s all I have. I know it sounds pathetic, but I feel like I’m not even enough for her.” He wipes at his eyes with the sleeves of his uniform shamefully. “I’m sorry.” He sighs in frustration.

“No, I think it’s good that you got to talk to me about this,” She returns consolingly. “It sounds like it’s really hurting you.”

“It is.”

“I think that’s kind of a pattern for you, feeling like you’re not good enough for someone else. With Devon he made that clear through his outbursts. Then as you said about Jasmine holding a similar attitude towards you. With Cleo I don’t think it’s the same—dogs often live in the moment—so as the time of day rolls around where Devon would’ve come home she’ll expect him and most likely get confused when he doesn’t arrive. It might simply be her coming to terms with the change of moving and having one less person around.” She therorizes.

“I don’t doubt that you take perfect care of her and I’d argue this is better for her. Like you said she is only an animal and will have a harder time understanding but that doesn’t mean she loves you any less. It means more so that she wants your extra care and attention to make up for this change. I mean, she is whining at you when she sits at the door, right?” She points out.

“I guess so… I have been spending more time with her too. I started taking her for walks every Sunday into town.” Ren reveals, turning down yet another sludgy unmarked forest road.

“That’s great. That’s really great, for the both of you I’m sure.”

“It’s pleasant and a lot of the folks remember me too. It’s such a more human environment than Lytherburg.”

“It really is, when you’re constantly surrounded by strangers you often perceive yourself as one too. Especially if you don’t have anyone to confide in.” She says.

“I still feel lonely though.”

“That’s understandable after a loss like this, like Cleo there’s a lot of change going on around you. That can’t be easy to deal with alone.”

Ren hums in agreement, scanning the thick woods around him. If the exit was back that way there should be an on ramp nearby, right? Thinking he’s gotten off someplace wrong. He turns around across this seemingly empty road. His foot falls a little heavier on the gas. He’s wasted enough time already. Though, almost as expected Ren is met with the same endless curving through these woods. The rain has caught a steady fall. The farther he peers into our forest the darker it seems to get. No sign of that highway nearby or any other roads or buildings—just trees—quite frightening to someone who’s unaware of his destination.

“Ren? Are you there?” Moore asks as he hasn’t responded for a while.

“Oh, yes. Sorry, I think my GPS is uncalibrated or something. Of course!” He huffs in annoyance. Moore is quiet, so he draws his gaze down to his phone as it sits on the center console. He presses the screen, watching it light up to reveal that the phone call is still connected.

“Can you hear me? Ren?” She tries again. Her voice makes him jump.

“Yes! Yes, I just took a wrong turn somewhere.” He talks louder this time, but still is met with no response.

“Perhaps the signal crashed, I’ll call back.” She muses.

“No-No, I can hear you. Mrs. Moore? Hello?” He grabs his phone, scrolling anxiously about the blank screen. His eyes scour it as he waits for her call back. It doesn’t come. He snaps his eyes back up to the road ahead of him. A shock strikes through his heart as he finds there isn’t a road.

Slamming hard on the brakes—our dear Renny just barely misses a thick oak tree ahead of him—the shadowy woods begin to surround his car tightly. From a simple glance it seems impossible for him to have gotten this far without crashing. There isn’t a sign of any road behind him, no tire marks through the dirt either.

“Shit! Of course, of course.” He groans, running a hand through his hair roughly. His head turns to view off to his left—hands mindlessly placed upon the door handle—he’s drawn out of the vehicle by a force unknown to him and more noticeably, the smooth singing of a woman’s voice.

He barely notices as he’s sunk his boots into the mud, trudging through the soup of leaves aimlessly searching for the source of that singing. He presses his palm flat to a tree, leaning forwards to gaze out to a rigid valley below. It’s rocky walls herd in a raging river. It’s foamy breaks and crashes creating a thick scream to fill every inch of air.

Within the center of the river sits a cluster of boulders—held flat above the water like a makeshift island—the one you know as Christine lingers there, sitting cross legged upon a blanket as she belts out her divine song.

“Excuse me? Miss?” Ren snaps out of his daze, absolutely dumbfounded at what he’s viewing. He takes a step forward, trying to get closer but it just ends up as a slide through the slick dirt. He grasps wildly at the rock ledge underneath him, finding a strained grip just inches from tumbling into the river. Christine turns her head gently, giving him her best grin.

“Sorry about that! Just hold on a sec. I’m still getting used to this.” She shouts, bringing herself to her feet.

“How did you get over there? I-I would advise you to come back to land. Those waters are extremely dangerous.” Ren sends over. Christine laughs, bringing her arms out to her sides. She casts a crisp flame in both palms, swiftly drawing the smoke to trail around her waist in a circle. It quickly engulfs her form. It’s billowing black concealing her perfectly. As the river’s wind swipes it all away, she’s vanished.

Before Ren can even blink in confusion, her magick’s carried her to the very ledge he clings to. His shock causes him to lose his grip. The raging rapids seem to claw him down from the cliff. He squeezes his eyes shut as he braces for the waters harsh slash, but it never comes, and his feet find flat beneath him. With a quick glance he realizes he’s now standing right in the center of those rocks, embedded deep in the river. His wrists are restrained by Christine. She’s simply trying to keep him calm, but he still jerks her arms to the right swiftly to release himself.

“Hey! What was that for?” She whimpers, with a frown as she rubs her wrists with her palms.

“How-How did you get me out here?” He stammers, backed up as far as the rock beneath him will allow. The tips of his shoes inches from the edge. Christine grins wide, her chest swelling with pride.

“I’ve got my wings!” She announces. “Goddess granted me my wings! I would show you, but that much magick concentrated would petrify a human like you.” She voices, excitement seeping through every breath.

Ren reaches for his gun in it’s holster, his eyes wide as his heart races within his chest.

“I’m sorry, ma’am but I have somewhere I really need to be right now so if you could just show me how to get back to land-er the road. That is if you know where it is.” He gets himself straightened up, thinking he’s dealt with crazier folks. Besides, this girl can’t be any older than Jasmine. “Do you know where you are?” He adds.

“Do you?” Christine can’t help but chuckle at him, but she keeps herself senseful. “Excuse me, I’m only looking to help you! Here,” She swipes her hair over her shoulder to reveal her mark, now a permanent violet gleam at her promotion, just below her ear embedded in her neck. A gem between two crescent moons. “I’ve seen how life’s treated you, it’s so unfair for the universe to throw all this trouble at you and not even have the decency to equip you for handling it.”

“I don’t understand, Ma’am I really have to go. I have to—” Ren stammers.

“Please let me,” She extends her arms out to him, palms facing the sky as it weeps it’s cool tears. “Let me gift you the power you deserve.” She nods, soaked hair swishing to her movements.

“Gift?”

“I’m not supposed to tell humans this, but I’m a faerie, I’ve more magick than I could ever expend. I should share it with you, but only if you let me, Ren.” She brings herself calm, allowing a small spark to flash about her palm for him to see.

“How did you know my name?” He breathes, mesmerized beyond comprehension. His fingers slip off his holster. He executes three full blinks to make sure he’s really seeing this magickal display.

“I know everything.” She shrugs, her lips quivering in a wide smile. She can barely hide her excitement.

“Who are you?” Ren’s hands lift from his sides, absently joining Christine’s palms without his knowing. His spirit and soul are drawn to the immortal being before him.

“My name is Christine Marlow, I’m Goddesses best kept secret.” She announces with pride. She doesn’t speak another word before easily letting a fraction of her magick away to him. Every point of flame, round of smoke absorbed into his blood to carve out a perfect mark. A mark of a human changed, an adapted mortal by faerie right.

Her skin is left a tad wrinklier, form an inch taller, shoulders broadened, eyes drooped, hair lengthened; as her physical form accepts a couple years more of age in compliance for this expense. She couldn’t care less as her task falls complete. The only drawback is a very frightened and incapacitated Ren that she’s left to deal with.

Twelve

November, 2019

My head aches this morning, just as it’s been every day after I left the hospital. Claudia insisted that I get treated for my excessive blood loss. I assumed Jared would treat me at home, but the bastard refused to do a blood transfusion out of the hospital. So one midnight operation later—something to get him fired if it ever came to light of course—I’m left feeling shittier, but at least my skin’s left that sickening grey color it had fled to. I also severed Doctor Chen’s change, apparently alike to a faerie becoming stunned at a stab through their mark; it has more severe effects to a changeling. He’ll never forgive me for that, but it’s for the best if he intends to continue controlling that vessel of his. I’ve had Claudia erase his memory of anything to do with faeries or changelings. He’ll never even know he was one of them, as it should be.

Today my rest is painful, I’m shifting between wake and sleep while my head tries to fight its way around a migraine. Every time I roll over or pull the covers up over my head I know it’s only going to hurt worse the longer I lie here, but the draw of sleep is so comforting that I stay. It never fully comes, only in strips and blinks. I’m finally fully awakened by Dia, a pounding set deep behind my eyes.

“What’s wrong?” She asks, sitting on the edge of the bed beside me. She brushes my hair back behind my ear. Her fingers trace just inches from my tender skull.

“Hm?” I return, the vibration of the simple hum shaking my whole head.

“You’ve been sleeping all day.” Dia says.

“I’ve a headache.”

She runs her palm over my forehead. “You’re cold.” She notes.

“That hurts, Dia.”

“Sorry. Why don’t you try to eat? I’m sure you’ll feel better. Oh-also Ren’s been getting better steadily, he should be able to leave by tomorrow morning. He said he’d call you when he has time to talk about his abilities. I said you were still recovering.” She tells me.

“What’s he doing? You’re making sure he isn’t touching anything, right?” I grumble, feeling antsy at the idea of him getting his hands all over my darlings.

“He’s downstairs making some calls, apparently somebody reported him missing on Wednesday.” She says.

“That’s not my fault, his sickness should’ve been over by Tuesday.” I say.

“He’s older, that’s why. Remember Christine said there’s a lot that has to be reset.”

“I know. Didn’t even have the time to visit—but oh, look let me drop this fucking asshole off here, why not!” I complain, gaining a dizzy spell at my outburst. I cradle my head in my hands.

“Let’s just be hospitable, we’re the only changelings for a while. It only makes sense, also I made lunch and you can’t just stay up here forever.” She picks. I let out a groan.

“I miss you, all you’ve been doing is cooking and taking care of him. You shouldn’t have to do all that work.” I hold onto her arm as I gently pull myself up to sit. It’s not as painless as I hoped. My amaranth heart pounds heavily in protest, pricking nettle says curl up and sleep.

“I don’t mind.”

“Yes you do.”

“No, I like having things to do. It makes me feel useful.” She counters as she guides me to my feet. I waver a bit, a blooming of black and white searing my vision.

“As long as it’s not bothering you.” I say. She shakes her head. I follow her out to the hallway.

“Vita told me she wanted to talk to you.” She tells. I pause my stride outside her door.

“You’ve been talking to Vita?”

“It’s more like she talks to me.”

“Ah, I didn’t know she could do that.” I comment as I push into her room.

“Come downstairs when you’re done.” Dia calls after me. I close the door behind me.

Vita’s in her rocking chair today, I open one of her drawers and fish out a beautiful floral patterned scarf that I drape over her shoulders.

“I’m sorry I haven’t watered you for a while, I’ve been a little under the weather,” I say as I sit cross legged against the bed frame. “I’m sure the others aren’t very happy with me either. I won’t tend to them until Ren leaves though, I don’t want him seeing.”

Vita isn’t here. I can feel an absence in her petals as the sway in the kind breeze of the heater. She does this sometimes. I don’t know where she goes, whether it be some deep corner within her vessel or if she’s just sleeping.

“Claudia said there was something you wanted to tell me,” I prompt. “Vita? You can hear me, can’t you?” I go. Nothing. Just a thick silence bordered by Ren and Dia’s distant voices. “Please, Vita.” I wait for a couple more minutes before giving up. I make a mental note to come back later.

“Tomorrow, yes.” Ren states into his phone. He’s sitting on the couch, wearing one of Christine’s sweaters. His uniform is folded up in our laundry room. I’ve already stolen a few trinkets from his pockets and I haven’t said a word to him since he’s arrived. I plan on keeping it that way.

“I didn’t mean to cause anything-I know. I should’ve made contact with you earlier. Yes, I understand.” He continues. I spot Claudia in the kitchen, she’s right beside the counter. When she sees me she gives me a simple sandwich.

“Do you have Christine’s number?” She asks me. I pause to take the littlest bite of bread.

“‍‍Yeah, why?”

“Well, I’m just curious if bleeding is normal for humans during their change.” She shrugs. I give her a sideways look.

“Bleeding?”

“Like… from his eyes, nose, and his mark. It’s only happened twice.” She clarifies.

“I have no idea, that doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to happen. How are his senses returning?” I try, queuing up Christine on my phone.

“He’s fine other than his vision. He said the only colors he sees are purple and red.”

“He’s that far behind in his sickness?!” I exclaim, feeling like I could scream if he’s kept here another night.

“I don’t know, everything else seems to be fully returned.”

“Jasmine?” Christine chirps as she answers my call. She sounds quite rushed.

“Christine, come here.” I requested as she picks up.

“Hm? Why?”

“Is it normal to bleed during your changeling sickness?”

“Like… out of a wound er—”

“His eyes.” I give. She hesitates, I can hear her tapping her nails against her phone.

“I’ll be over in a second.” She states, before hanging up. Then in an instant she conjures herself within the room, magick trailing from her shoulders. She wears a firm tailored suit. Her thick hair is beautifully styled and weaved. Her smoky tendrils idle through the air as she wordlessly goes to Ren, sitting on the coffee table across from him. I lean against the doorway to the kitchen, nursing my lunch.

She stares deeply into his eyes, swiping her finger across his cheek. A smear of red comes off on her hand.

“Show me your palm.” She says, not waiting for his response to inspect his mark. All I can see from where I’m standing is her distressed expression; eyebrows furrowed, lips pulled tight, as she pokes and prods at his hand.

“It’s not bad, right?” Ren asks, voice hushed. Christine nods quickly.

“Of course not,” She starts. “Excuse me for one moment.” She abruptly gets to her feet, disappearing in a swarm of ink.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” I exclaim. “Look it-she doesn’t even care!” I press my hand flat to my head with a sigh.

“I’m sure she’ll be back in a minute. She looks like she has somewhere to be.” Dia says as she passes me. She’s got a hand towel that she delivers to Ren. He accepts it, pressing its fabric flush to his face.

“That better not stain.” I growl. Claudia hushes me.

“Jasmine? Can you come here for a sec?” Ren calls, tilting his head back to look at me. His skin is a sick white, smeared with tones of red; coupled together it reminds me of a bloodied bone picked clean.

“What?” I shoot back, taking exactly three steps into the living room.

“About those files you sent me,” He begins. “You’re absolutely sure you want to go through with it? I mean you’re practically asking for trouble at this point.”

I laugh. “Oh, Renny I’m far past trouble.”

He rolls his eyes at me. “Don’t even tell me what you’ve done this time.”

“I wasn’t going to!”

“You know if I show these to Morgan you’ll have to answer why your signature is on some of them.” He tells, dabbing at his teary eyes.

“I don’t care.”

“I can’t guarantee I’ll be the one they put you with either.”

“So what? I’ll say I just needed employment and didn’t know what I was signing up for, easy. Everyone loves a whistleblower.” I cross my arms as I finish the last of that sandwich. Claudia looks quite pleased with me for doing so.

“Not exactly.” Ren sighs. He turns his head to watch Christine reappear in front of him, eyes wide as he’s still not gotten used to the concept of magick.

She sits down heavily on the coffee table, a sort of weight drags her down and her shoulders slouch. She meets Ren’s gaze with glassy eyes.

“Sorry about that! I just had to take care of something real quick!” She says with her usual upbeat tone. “Basically this excessive blood loss isn’t hurting you—it’s really my fault—you’ve got twice as much magick in you than your body can handle. Then as magick travels in the blood, in order to maintain equilibrium you have to bleed out the unneeded energy, you understand?” She explains.

“Kind of?” He wavers.

“It’s like crying, you’ve got to let out some things in order to be healthy. You know you can’t have too much of it,” She tries. “It should—um subside once you’ve reached a tolerable level within yourself. Though I do warn you the amount of blood could be a lot, but I’m absolutely positive it won’t affect you negatively.” She nods, gesturing heavily with her words.

“Oh… so I’m fine?”

“Essentially. Oh, well the transition between human and changeling can be very rough on your mind. I’m afraid you’ve developed chronic insomnia. You won’t be able to sleep or fall unconscious in any circumstances.” She spells guiltily.

“What?”

“But you also don’t have to, you’ll be kept energized and aware by your magick and you won’t ever feel the need to sleep. A-uh, a simple lie down should remedy any tiredness. I’m very sorry I was a little careless, in a rush.” She tries to excuse herself with a gesture of her arm. She steps out to the space between the door and the stairs.

“You’re not leaving are you?” I question, stepping across the room to confront her. She meets me with frantic eyes.

“I have to, sis. I’m sorry.” She steps out onto the center of the carpet to draw her magick out around herself. I snatch her wrist as she tries to make her escape. I’m dragged along with her into some suffocating dark. Every breath of mine is stripped away to leave my chest crushed and empty. “Jasmine! What do you think you’re doing?!” She gasps as she brings us back instantly. I fall to my knees as I greedily scratch and strain to catch my breath.

“You’re-you’re not leaving me this time.” I huff.

“I have to. I really have somewhere I need to be right now.”

“Where?” I shoot. She hesitates.

“Somewhere far away,” She answers. “It’s just a meeting, but I have to be there. I swear to you I’ll return for the new year.” She takes my arms and helps me to my feet. I give her a deep scowl.

“You’ll show up, yes. Then you’ll skip away a second later to some random ass country wherever just as long as you’ve gotten as far from Wynmont as you can get, right?” I pull my hands back to my chest.

“I’ll stay the whole week, I promise. Believe me if I could I would never leave again, it hurts me so intensely to be away from home but I have responsibilities I can’t abandon.” She nods quickly, a strand of hair escaping from her bun.

“And is it not supposed to hurt me? When-When you make all these promises but never keep them? When you sneak through the state so I don’t find out, then you pull shit like this,” I gesture to Ren. “And you expect me to be fine with you bursting into my home saying, ‘Oh, look! Here’s my son! I’m just going to discard him here for you to deal with, but don’t think I have even a shred of care left for the both of you.’ Why did you even change him, huh? Just to piss me off?” I mock her preppy tone, her perfectly smoothed, pampered voice.

“I did it because he doesn’t deserve to be human. It has nothing to do with you, I never intended to leave him with you two but I needed to attend this meeting today.” She defends.

“What’s the meeting for? If it’s so important that you have to abandon us.”

“How am I abandoning you?”

“You’re never here for me!” I snap.

“Well you don’t pick up my calls when I’m trying to be there for you. If you actually called back, you’d understand that I’ve been trying to set a day for us to go to the beach so I can show you my wings.” She admits. Her voice crescendos into a heavy sigh.

“You-you got your wings?” I feel my heart drop in my chest. This is something she’s been waiting for her whole time on this earth, to be recognized by Goddess as an exceptional faerie and gifted with a set of wings and tenfold the magick to use for her work. It was going to be such a wonderful celebration, at least it was supposed to be.

“That’s why I called,” Christine states quietly. “You’re all I have left of family and I guess I might’ve been avoiding you because I don’t like to think about it,” She admits, cupping my face in hands. “I am so sorry.” Her eyes turn somber in their deep brown.

“I’m family to you?” I lay out the question simply to hear her say it.

“Yes, of course. You’re my little sister.” She smiles, her cheeks shimmering as if they’d been bathed in gold dust. She tries for a hug, I stop her.

“Not until you swear on it.” I pout.

“On what?”

“That you’ll come back and you’ll stay the full week with me.”

Christine nods, swiping up a dollop of fire as she says,

“By Goddess, I promise.” And presses her finger to her left wrist to draw a thin X in her skin beside two others.

“Thank you.” I breathe, letting her wrap her arms around me for a quick embrace.

“I’m sorry I have to hide so much from you, but you also have to understand that there are things I’m going to hide from you for your own safety.” She tells as she pulls away.

“I get it.” I sigh.

“I really do have to go now, don’t be angry, but I was in the middle of something when you called so…” She trails off.

“Just go.” I send a waving gesture her way.

“Bye, sis.” She chirps happily. Her hands form a perfect circle of fire around her waist, swallowing her up to wherever she’s needed.

I let out a long sigh, choking back some pathetic emotion before turning back. I find Dia and Ren have left the room, their voices trailing through the kitchen.

“…shouldn’t go back to work like this. I don’t know how I’ll explain it.” Ren says. I stride in, finding that Claudia’s made coffee for the both of them.

“Well you’re not staying here,” I interject. “I want you out by the end of the day, you seem perfectly fine. You can take care of yourself.”

“I was already planning on it.” He retorts, giving me an investigative look.

“What?” I hiss.

He shakes his head. “Nothing.”

“Bullshit.”

“I just wonder how you of all people can be so stable.” He shrugs as he sips his coffee. A string of blood spans from his tear ducts to his chin, I guess he doesn’t really notice it.

“I’m not stable.” I scoff.

“I mean financially and domestically.”

“I don’t know I was handed this house, my job—before I lost it—you know. I’ve never had to worry about money, but that’ll change soon I suppose.” I accept a mug that Dia fits into my hands. I give in and lean against the counter to face them.

“What about her?” He gestures to my Dia. That’s quite an inappropriate question for him of all people to ask, but I get it. I did steal away his last lover’s soul, didn’t I?

“She found me, the poor thing was begging for death so I gave her life.” I send her a smile.

“Huh?” She returns, looking confused.

“Don’t you remember?”

“No, I do. I just don’t like to think about it.” She trails off, red lips pressed against the warmth of her mug.

“I’m just glad you stayed, I really am.” I express, nudging her shoulder. She blushes a deep rose.

“I’m glad you dragged me out here.” She says.

“You two seem really happy, I can’t imagine it.” Ren comments, wiping some blood from his cheek with a tissue.

“Mh,” I hum. “It’s not all perfect, that’s why I need you to expose McBride. He’s found where I live and I’m beyond sure he’s planning some scheme to ‘rid’ of us.”

“May I ask what you did?”

“What I did? Excuse me I didn’t do shit. He sent a hit to try and kill her and then tried to force me to shoot some poor boy in the skull, the bitch deserved every chunk of lead I put in him.” I seethe. Ren sighs in annoyance.

“I can do my best to open a case, only if you’re one hundred percent sure it won’t reveal any felonies of yours.”

“No, it won’t.”

“Also with the possibility of a retrial… you might be piling a lot on yourself.”

“Fuck a retrial, I couldn’t be more sure. Just do it, alright?” I send, gathering an impatience with him.

“I’m just worried—”

“And I’m not, stop bringing it up because I don’t care, period.” I snap. He tools his eyes at me, I have to resist punching in that stupid face of his.

Around two I head out to speak with Raven—my dear journalist—he’s just as wobbly kneed and skittish as I remember. We met at a simple cafè in Maliport. His questions are just as I expected, intrusive as possible with a dash of, but don’t feel pressured.

Surprisingly I feel quite refreshed afterwards. My head spins at the idea of my words being published for this dear state to see. Not that I’m a stranger to the spotlight, it’s exciting to finally have power over what they’ll be gawking over. The ability of speaking out the truth has always been possible. Though now of all times seems to be the absolute worst for me to open my mouth, so that’s about exactly what I’ve done.

My restless limbs bring me to some urban neighborhood that afternoon. I carefully gather myself a lowly human—an older woman—I gift her the sweet flare of my touch and in a breathtaking instant she’s a seed to be a bright pink leafed nerve plant. I feel my heart pulse in excitement to watch her bloom. I’m so antsy that as I arrive home—at four—I head straight to the backyard to pot her. Gentle laughs escape me, but I can’t help it.

“Fawn, darling! You are so exquisite,” I pause to push through the backdoor. I lower my voice. “The pink is just too pretty. I have to put you here, in the open so the rest of them can see you.” I say as I set her on the front windowsill. I have to push Jessamine to the side a bit.

“Ah! Dia!” I exclaim spinning around to see her cross legged on the carpet. She’s painting a scrap of driftwood. Ren sits across from her on the couch, typing away on his phone.

“I completely forgot to water my plants today.” I frown at her.

“I thought you already did.” She says. I shake my head.

“That was the day before yesterday. Should I disturb them now to water them? It’d be off schedule… should I wait until tomorrow? Will that be too long?” I fret.

“I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Ren says.

“Did I fucking ask you?” I bark. He goes to laugh, but swallows it down when he realizes I’m not joking. “What are you even doing on that thing? Aren’t you supposed to be leaving by now?” I plant my hands on my hips, Claudia sighs.

“Jasmine, be nice.”

“You be nice.”

“I think that’s what I’ve been doing.”

“Just tell me! What should I do?” I groan, arms wrapped around my wool sweater. A simple brown scarf hugs my neck.

“Wait until tomorrow, it should be alright. You water them so often anyways and you’re right: it would be better to do it at the usual time.” She gladly gives. Her nose is deep in her work. It looks like she’s painting flowers.

“That’s beautiful, Dia.” I comment, tapping the top of her head with my nail.

“Thanks, it’s the blue hydrangeas, remember?” She gleams.

“Yes, I do. They’re quite happy by the back stairs, though they’ll dry up for winter soon… they’ll be back next year though.” I speak.

My mind wanders about the backyard, I haven’t been out there since. “We’ll have a fire tonight.” I blurt.

“The fireplace is already on.” Dia says.

“I meant outside.”

“Outside?” She questions, not looking up from her art.

“It’s quite brisk out, it’s a perfect day for one. The moon should be in her third quarter as well.”

“I don’t know about trusting you around any fire.” Ren says, fingers flying about his keypad.

“But you have to admit that fire was quite successful. Took out the whole damn house.” I boast with a wide sweep of my arm.

“That’s different from managing a controlled one in a fire pit.”

“I have a fire pit.”

Dia gives a very final sigh as she gets to her feet, stiff bones creaking as she gives a stretch.

“A break will do me good,” She says as she gazes down to her painting.

“You’ve got some paint on your face.” Ren points to her burn.

“Ah, that’s-” I start.

“My mistake! Excuse me!” Claudia cuts me off as she dashes upstairs. She returns a moment later with that splotch neatly taken care of with a dust of foundation. I don’t press her.

“Ready?” She goes.

“I have to find matches.” I start towards a dresser on the other side of the room.

“Just use your magick!”

“Oh, Dia, it doesn’t work that way.” I go ‘tsk tsk’ as I grab a little cardboard box. Then I zip upstairs to retrieve my coat from the hamper, tossing it heavily over my shoulders. I’m met with a familiar comfort as I return downstairs.

“Jasmine, don’t tell me you’re wearing that nasty thing, I haven’t even washed it yet.” Dia sighs at me, I send her a full smile as I push outside.

“No matter. Renny! You coming?” I send back.

“Huh?” He goes because he’s old and didn’t hear me. Regardless I gather an armful of wood from the shed and a dusty wicker basket for kindling. I hastily slap a fire together, one that’s built so well it immediately catches.

Ren finally makes his way out as the fire’s at waist height. He idles on the other side of the fire pit. I stand with the toes of my boots touching the edge of the stone. My eyes sink into a hot vortex of swirls and shimmers. The points, the curves, the relentless lick of heat is more than mesmerizing to me. I extend my arm to let my fingertips dance over the amber ooze. My skin flares in protest.

I yank my hand away with a yelp. I send the fire a smirk and a shrug in response for her punishment

“What’d you expect?” Dia laughs as she sits cross legged in the grass to the left of me.

“Exactly that.” I sigh deep so that my next inhale is nothing but a frothy smoke of ash and ember. Then I slide my jacket from my shoulders. The heavy thing hangs from my elbows as I wordlessly inch forward.

I take my jacket under the sleeves in a loose grasp, letting it’s long frame rest within the fire. It’s black scaly skin takes a moment to catch. As if even the slash of this element is nothing to it’s padding. Though with melted button webs and frayed fabrics lit ablaze, it’s clearly a shroud. A thick white smoke billows into the air. It hurts to breathe in but I still force myself to swallow it. My lungs char and I cough, arms shaking as the fire reaches closer and closer with its auburn claw.

No one says anything. The only sound is the rush of the flames and my own attempts to stifle my coughs. My eyes burn red. I keep them focused; I want to watch this. The torso is all that remains by now—cape shredded and bleeding thread into the ashes below—my wrists get a little too close to the heat and I have to drop it. It’s remains slump in between two logs, quickly unrecognizable as the flames devore the last of it.

“That was a Zaferi trench coat, those go for around seven hundred dollars.” Claudia speaks very matter of factly.

“Zaferi is being investigated for child labor, I say let it burn.” Ren responds, eyes buried deep in the smoke.

“Ah, I bet you were well aware of that when you bought it.” I add with a look to Claudia.

“Huh?” She goes.

“Never mind, dear.”

There’s a beat of silence, she seems to just catch on with what I’ve done as her eyes meet mine. She doesn’t comment on it, but instead reveals a joint and a lighter that she’d had in her pocket. She lets it rest in between her lips gently as she strikes her thumb against the lighter. It gets her a good flare the first time and she takes in a big puff, closing her eyes as she lets out a foggy exhale.

She offers it to me, I politely decline. She shrugs at Ren, who gladly takes a hit.

“I didn’t know you smoked.” I hum.

“Not really, only on special occasions.” She answers.

“Is this a special occasion?”

“Clearly.”

I hum, I guess it is. I sit down too, the cool grass underneath me is refreshing. As Dia’s joint makes its way back into her hands she spends a lot more time with it, a swirling wander begins to fill her eyes. When I kiss her I kind of regret it as her smoky breath leaves a harsh taste in my mouth.

“You know this doesn’t hurt me.” She taps on the right side of her jaw.

“I know it doesn’t. You didn’t have to lie about it, Ren’s a changeling too.” I whisper. She wraps her arm around my shoulders to draw me in close as she giggles,

“I don’t know if you want him putting the pieces together, he is a detective after all.”

“What? Dia, that better be you in there.” I growl, ready to leap out of her grip.

“I couldn’t be more me. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing when you take so long to come home and then suddenly have another ‘darling’ with you… and I’m not scared, remember? I’ll never be scared of you.” She speaks, going for another hit.

“Ah, tell me what I do.” I prod, feeling anxious, yet intrigued over her tone of voice.

“You’re the one who’s got this whole state sleepwalking.” She speaks so only I can hear.

“Am I?” I purr.

“Mhm, I think I’m ready for you to show me like you said on the day of the funeral.”

“Ah, you’re too much my love!” I swoon from her arms, getting to my feet so that my blush is hidden by the fire’s scrape. “But you’re nowhere near ready.” I respond, gaining a frown from my Dia, high up in the sky above us.

“Huh?” Goes Ren, I must’ve been shouting.

“I was asking my dear Dia if we have any marshmallows in the pantry.” I say.

“Oh-uh, I’m sure we do.” She shrugs. I take her by her hand and start up the steps.

“Why don’t you help me look?” I guide her inside, my hands tingly and my eyes high. She opens the closet doors, shuffling around back there. So I join her, taking a box from her hands and placing it back on the shelf slowly. Her eyes find mine, breath swept under her blush.

“It’s so beautiful. It’s so dark, but you won’t be scared will you, my love?” I caress her cheek gently. She presses her back against the door, melting to my touch.

“Never. Not of you.” She says, hand snaking round my neck to draw me in close.

“We’ll be so powerful. My—our darlings will flourish. Dia, dear we can really change things. We can fix this rotten world.” I smile sharp against her lips. She tries to kiss me, but a flutter of a laugh from me stops her.

“Sorry, I just feel so perfect.” My chest ebbs, my voice light and hazy. I press a hand to my heart, breathless.

“Kiss me.” Claudia insists.

“You’ll be so striking, I can’t wait to watch you—” I’m cut off as she presses her mouth to mine. Her skin burns, her eyes swirling with pink stars. She presses a quick kiss to my neck.

“We’ll be goddesses, too.” She whispers. My heart quivers, her touch so sweet I could faint. “But not tonight. We only have graham crackers and I gotta run up to Scoop’s to get marshmallows. You should go back out, don’t leave Ren alone out there, he’s our guest.” She settles down on her feet, grabbing the box and shutting the closet door. I’m a little dazed, by the time I’ve made my way through the thick, sugary fantasies that drape down over my mind she appears to have gone.

I return to the fire, staring deep into its relentless eyes. It fills me up with excitement, jittery, and anxious to do something wild. Something reckless. Something sprinkled divine.

“You have something on your neck.” Ren speaks up. I’m shot with a pang of embarrassment as I wipe my palm over my skin. It comes away smudged red, of course.

“Fucking pervert.” I growl.

“I was just saying.”

“Why are you still here? Can’t you just let us to our house in peace!?” I shout. He sort of shrinks, arms crossed as he looks more and more out of place.

“I don’t know,” He answers. “Being alone is odd in this town, I thought I was welcome.”

“You’re not.” I enforce. He hesitates, flicking a cigarette into the fire.

“You don’t mean that,” He starts with a laugh.

“I do.” I reply. He falls silent, eyes skipping off somewhere to the side. “Why aren’t you listening to me?!” I raise my voice. “I want you to leave. Now.”

”Right-right, I’m sorry,” He stammers. “I never meant to overstay my welcome.” He gathers up his pack of cigarettes from the grass and begins towards the house. He pauses beside me, his tone genuine as he says,

“It makes me happy to see you living so well out here.”

“Why do you even care?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” He shrugs. “I know you, this is what you deserve.”

“Is that why you won’t just go? You’re trying to mooch off of my perfect life?” I accuse, quite sourly. He sighs deeply.

“No, I had to stay, I wasn’t really in any condition to drive until this morning,” He trails off, so unsure that he doesn’t even trust his own words. “And I also assumed we were something like friends, with you inviting me out here and all.” He refers to the still raging fire behind him.

“I don’t know why I did that.” I say.

“Maybe you don’t want me to leave.” He adds quietly.

“I don’t know.” I repeat.

“I get this is odd, but I don’t really have many people like you. I mean, people who understand.” He finally says.

“Me neither.”

“That’s what I mean,” Then there’s a long silence. He doesn’t leave. I feel like I should explain myself, but I feel sick at the idea of forming the words. I spend a long while trying to weave up the nerve. Then he goes, “If you really want me to leave, I’ll understand.”

“I do,” I scratch my boot into the frozen earth beneath us. “You scare me.” I force the statement past my teeth, shattering them up in my mouth. I’m left choking on a throat full of blood.

“I know, but you don’t have to be. We’re in the same boat here, right?” He gives my shoulder a playful nudge.

“Perhaps,” I sigh. “But I’d like to sit in denial with Dia tonight. All I want to think about is cooking marshmallows and gathering wood as if it’s what I’m to do for the rest of my life.” I write the story in my head, picturing the very twilight sky above me as the permanent background to my bliss. “We’ve had a really shitty week, you know.” I add.

“I can imagine with all the blood stains in the living room, which I know a thing or two on how to wash out if you’re interested.” He points.

“What’s a living room? All I know is the very fire before me and the jungle of stars on the tip of my nose.” I sway my arm out to the side limply. Ren laughs, genuinely. I can hear it in his voice. It’s a type of laugh I’ve never heard from him.

“Alright, well tell your fire I’ll get those documents to Morgan by tomorrow afternoon. I’ll contact you when I get the chance.” He says, turning to leave me by myself. He passes Claudia as she’s on her way out. She carries an armful of s’more fixings.

“Where are you going?” She asks.

“Home to my dog, I can’t bear another night knowing she’s alone.” He sighs as he steps inside to gather his belongings. Claudia sits beside me, handing me a wooden skewer with a marshmallow stuck on top.

“Thank you, Dia dear.” I sing as I let it hover in between the flames.

“I didn’t know he had a dog.” She muses.

“Me neither and I’ve been to his house before.” I shrug.

“Maybe it’s a little dog.”

“Maybe.”

“Do you remember Monet?” She refers to the toy poodle that her mother keeps in that grand mansion of theirs.

“I do, what a funny thing. He just loved to yip and yap, didn’t he?” I recall. Claudia chuckles.

“I think he’s sixteen now, I bet he’s still as loud as ever.” She draws back her stick to pop her—now perfectly golden brown—marshmallow in her mouth.

“He was such a doll.” I look to my own, finding I’ve left it to burn up into a charred pulp. I munch on it’s chewy ash regardless. “He was no dog, just a glorified kitten.”

“Ah, yes.”

“We should get a kitten.” She looks at me all of a sudden, eyes wide with excitement. My lips turn up in a sweet smile.

“We should, this house needs a cat.” I say, missing Vinca dearly.

The conversation lies there, as well and the two of us by this beautifying heat. I let Dia hold me as we sit in the grass, both beyond sleepy but too entranced to put ourselves to bed. I happily eat the rest of the chocolate instead of making s’mores and Dia settles for her neatly toasted marshmallows, lips sticky and laced with sugar when I kiss her.

The moon hasn’t risen by ten, which I knew would happen. My Dia is also fast asleep in my arms by now. I rest my head against her shoulder and close my eyes, absolutely blissed out in this warmed state of ours. 

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Coming of Age, Drama, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Romance, Young Adult (YA)

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