Trash Romance

A series of queer love stories about broken things, retired magical girls, and trash magic.

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Candy Catastrophe

7Ji&23F: [Queen’s super pissed. Better stay away from Solstice for now]

[The fuck? Why are YOU telling me this?] :Mackenzie

[How much did she tell you about this?] :Mackenzie

Y72Mx$3%: [Just a friendly heads up]

[That doesn’t answer my question] :Mackenzie

9$b*uPae: [I don’t know any more than that. Never seen her stuck HW side so long and shes taking it out on the rest of us]

[Don’t lie. How’d you know to pass that along to me?] :Mackenzie

!ri^Jason: [Uh, cuz I was telling everyone? What’s your deal?]

[Forget it] :Mackenzie

6$3dF’24: [Whatever. How’s you & Nat?]

[We’re fine] :Mackenzie

UAndy7#4: [And you’re cool her doing her thing?]

[More than I am with people texting from numbers I don’t know.] :Mackenzie

Lex: [Burn. So you and Nat talked then?]

[Is this any of your business?] :Mackenzie

Jona: [sry. told lex to stop lol]

[<3 ty] :Mackenzie

[Is Lex there with you?] :Mackenzie

Jona: [Yep!]

[Boo. Was heading to OW and wanted to know if you were in. Not if Lex will be tagging along tho. sorry.] :Mackenzie

Jona: [gotcha. next time. :)]

Jona:[Btw you and nat are depressingly functional]

[We try] :Mackenzie

Jona: [;)]

Actyun was up to something at that Crossroads. However, two days of skimming blog posts and forum threads by folks who hated Actyun as much as Mackenzie did hadn’t yielded anything substantial. She’d seen Actyun’s true face up close, and she was pretty good at sorting truth from paranoia, but she didn’t dare post the picture itself. She didn’t want it getting swept up in the swirl of fringe conspiracy fluff, text slapped on it, and made exhibit A in the latest crusade, all without anyone answering what it was a picture of. None of the true crusaders would believe how depressingly sterile and routine their villain non plus ultra was. Mackenzie decided it was time to test her rapport with the rooftop dwellers. Surely one of them was an Actyun baby like her.

Gratifying familiarity filled Mackenzie when she hopped off the garbage truck and landed on a gravel-covered rooftop for the third time in as many days. It was a rare feeling, one reserved for walking into the school lunch room after being invited to sit with new friends, and for second sessions of tabletop roleplaying games.

Allie wolf-whistled at her, so she bowed with a flourish of her patchwork cloak, and her padlock collar jingled. She had never arrived already wearing her ragpicker regalia before, so someone noticing made her tingle with delight. Padma and Ben waved. People were glad to see her when she arrived at the Threshold Between Concrete and Sky. Mackenzie never wanted to take that for granted, and never wanted it to change.

She figured Carter would be the best place to start asking questions, since she needed to speak to him anyway. But according to Padma, he was busy dealing with a problem. The way she said the word “problem” gave Mackenzie the impression that she really meant “person”. She spotted him on a nearby rooftop, talking to a man over twice his height. Mackenzie was getting used to the way space twisted to afford her a clear view of him, hands clasped politely in front of him, and neck craning to meet the giant’s gaze. When he noticed her attention, he looked her in the eyes and held up a hand. He didn’t need to shake his head for her to understand her attention was intrusive.

The moment awakened a memory of college. She’d opened the door to her dorm room to find her roommate’s boyfriend curled up and crying in her roommate’s lap. She’d never found out what was going on; she had just closed the door and hung out in the student union. They all knew she’d witnessed that moment, and never spoke of it again.

Embarrassment darkened Mackenzie’s cheeks and she looked away. But as the memory wound its way back to the recesses of her mind, she was left wondering what there was to feel embarrassed about. There was no snowballing of fears. It felt very different from the usual spike in anxiety after a social gaffe.

She heard a snippet of a conversation beside her. “… letting an Ogre loose here. Only a matter of time with this many folks together.” The young woman who spoke wore red and white candy cane striped leggings with matching elbow-length gloves. Her hair was the same shade of red as her dress, and her straightened curls were done up as an ice cream swirl. Against her dark skin the colors popped out, bold and rebellious, to punch Mackenzie in the eyes. She suspected that was the intended effect. Beside her was an animated cartoon boy with a head drawn as large as the rest of his body.

"Mm? An Ogre?" Mackenzie asked. "You mean the big guy over there?"

The candy woman looked up from where she was sitting, watching Carter. “Royal? He’s no Ogre, just too eager to please.”

Before she could say any more, the boy blurted out, “He let his Shadow climb up onto the roof. It’s even bigger than he is and looked like—”

"Hey. Elijah. What’d I tell you about other people’s business? You think Royal wants you telling folks behind his back?" Elijah’s gaze fell. "Answer me." Elijah shook his head.

Mackenzie reached for her hoodie pockets, and her scrap metal armor became her hoodie just in time. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t even know what having an Ogre as a Shadow even means.”

"Don’t encourage him," the woman pleaded.

"Sorry."

"S’cool." The woman reached up to shake Mackenzie’s hand. "Christy Hill. This is Eli."

"You didn’t tell her your faerie name," Eli said, disappointed.

"I know I didn’t, sweetie."

"But we’re here and everything!"

Even though Christy said not to encourage him, Mackenzie couldn’t help but snicker. His matter-of-fact taunting was too precious not to.

With a resigned sigh, Christy said, “I’m Can—”

"No, you have to do the thing!"

Eli looked to Christy, wide-eyed and grinning. Christy rose. With stilted, perfunctory movements she drew a candy cane wand and swept it in a wide arc overhead, sending out a shower of glittering sugar crystals. She struck a fierce pose, one fist on her hip and wand in the sky. “I am Candy—”

Recognition hit Mackenzie. “Candy Sparkle Catastrophe! Holy shit.” Mackenzie clapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t swear.”

"Yeah, that’s me." She relaxed and sheathed her wand. "How’d you know?"

"I, uh …" Mackenzie rocked back on her feet and scrunched her face. "I used to be a fan."

"For real? A fan?"

Mackenzie nodded. “You could call it that. I don’t know if you knew this, but there were a lot of us who were fans of faerie heroines. Back in high school we used to have a message board where … Nevermind.” Mackenzie decided it was better not to finish that thought before she gave off even more creepy fangirl vibes. “I didn’t realize you were artificial. Like me. I thought they were all—Yeah, I’m Mackenzie, by the way.”

Christy took the fangirl stammering in stride with a bob of her head. “Yeah, well. Not much time for that stuff anymore. Not with kiddo here. But he’s gonna keep me a springtime faerie forever, I swear.”

Eli looked up at Mackenzie. No matter how he moved, Mackenzie only saw him in two dimensions. Only the perspective of his drawing changed. “Do you have a faerie name, Miss Mackenzie?” Mackenzie shook her head. “Why not?”

"I dunno. I haven’t ever thought about it before."

Christy put a hand on Eli’s head and ushered him away. “Hey kiddo, go see what Northwind and Greg are up to.” He nodded and dashed across the rooftop. A few steps out, he returned as though he had forgotten something, then dashed away again.

Mackenzie chuckled. “Your son?”

"Mmhmm. Been a hell of a time trying to tell his school that, though."

"Oh? What do you mean?"

"His birth certificate says he’s a girl, so they want him to act like one. He starts first grade this fall, and my husband’s trying to sort all that out. But he’s still getting used to the idea himself, so he’s not trying that hard, if you know what I mean. Til then, I bring him here and let him do his thing.” Christy folded her arms and leaned on the concrete ledge. “How about you?”

As Christy spoke, Mackenzie watched Eli run around. Whenever he prepared to dash, his legs became a swirling blur of lines. Mackenzie wondered what it would have been like to have been brought here at that age, to have had someone who could bring her to the Otherworld, rather than to some doctor who was trying to figure out everything the fair folk already knew. Not that Mom did wrong by her; she didn’t know any better than Mackenzie back then.

"Me? I’m still getting used to being here." Mackenzie glanced down. Realizing how goofy her mismatched outfit looked, she willed the armored vest back. "See what I mean?" Envy crept up from somewhere deep, rising so slowly that she didn’t even realize what it was at first. It tasted foul. It wasn’t anyone else’s problem, so she pushed it down with a smile. "I dunno, I’ve had a complicated history with faerie stuff for so long, it was just easier to avoid it entirely, you know?"

"Yeah, I hear you," Christy said.

The acidic feelings were still rising, so she took the opportunity to shift the conversation. Mackenzie pulled out her phone. “Hey, when you were doing your magical girl thing, did you ever come across anything like this at a Crossroads?”

"Huh. That’s an Actyun logo." She shook her head. "You asked Lambent Fox yet? I’m a BaniCare brat, but zie was Actyun. Zie’d know if anyone would."

Mackenzie shook her head. “I don’t know who that is.”

Christy called out to Lambent Fox. A fox person walking on hir hind legs approached. Hir white fur was brushed up into tufted spikes with glowing blue tips. The intensity of the glow rose and fell in hypnotic waves across hir back. Mackenzie wasn’t sure who felt more uncomfortable being introduced to the other, Mackenzie or Lambent Fox. Christy relayed the question and Lambent Fox didn’t ask for any clarification. Zie just lifted the image off the surface of the phone, pulled the edges until it was poster-sized, and without a word took it back to where zie had been sitting. Zie set it down on the rooftop and curled up on top of it. Zie rested hir muzzle on hir front paws. Hir tail flopped idly.

"Um …"

"Yeah, I know. Fox is a bit of an oddball, but that’s just how zie works. There’s been rumors zie’s First Gen, but I don’t buy it. Zie ain’t fucked up like that, zie’s just quiet. Glad our mothers had us when they did, let me tell you."

Christy’s words opened a void in Mackenzie’s gut. It pulled up all the rocks she’d hidden memories under, sucking in everything of substance until, “How dare you?” echoed freely within her hollow form. It drew the envious bile up into her throat when she tried to speak so she did the best she could to mask the turmoil with a weak nod.

The rooftop trembled. All conversation stopped. Everyone looked to one another to confirm they’d each felt it. But not all the looks were cautious concern. A few aimed accusatory glares at Mackenzie. There was no doubt in her mind that they knew she was the cause. Lambent Fox had lifted hir head to look at her. Even Christy was watching her a little too closely. If she didn’t change the subject soon, Mackenzie was going to open up the Rabbit Hole, and there was no guarantee she wouldn’t fall in this time.

Carter took a step toward Mackenzie and arrived next to her without crossing the rooftops in between. He held out a hand near her shoulder but didn’t touch her. Mackenzie still jerked back, startled. “Are you alright? Did something happen?” He looked at Christy who shrugged helplessly and stepped back.

Of course he knew who to blame first. Even though she had come to speak to him, he was now the last person she wanted to see. Carter was a spotlight, and by rushing to comfort Mackenzie he had alerted everyone to the cause of the tremor. There was no way to confront him with everyone watching and bitter memories already on a low boil. She reverted to her hoodie and jeans, and the hood raised on its own. “Yeah. It’s ok. I’m fine.”

Then he said it. “You sure?” That disbelieving tone told her he wasn’t leaving without an explanation. Between Leigh’s coaching and her own stubbornness, she’d long ago taken the training wheels off. She didn’t need consolation when she scraped her knees; she needed space to clear her head, get back up, and ride. Questions like that were invitations to dial up the tears and let him put the training wheels back on.

"I’m sure." She knew that wasn’t enough for him, so she let a little more out. She kept it vague. For her sake, more than his. "I had just been saying my magic hasn’t always been a good thing for me."

He nodded, and laced his fingers in front of him. “I see. Well, part of learning to celebrate our gifts is keeping them in perspective, no? They allow us to do things others can’t. Surely you can’t complain about that part.”

The misconception stung. Mackenzie held up her hands, “No, look … I wasn’t complaining.”

"Then what is the matter?"

Keep it vague. “I don’t have a problem with being a faerie. I’m happy about that. It’s that people make an issue of what my magic does, that’s all.”

He smiled gently. “We have no hierarchies here. No one will judge you by your magic’s usefulness.”

"Yeah, I get that," Mackenzie said. "I’m saying that out there a hierarchy exists, and it’s caused problems.” She knew she should stop, but Carter’s clueless stare meant if she didn’t convince him, he would say something even more dismissive. “Mundane people hear what my magic does and say they’re glad they’re not stuck with it, like it’s a disease. Do you get that? As much as they fetishize magic, they’d rather not be a faerie at all if it meant being one like me. So yeah, people fear magic, and step lightly around us, but even as they fantasize they still find a way to look down their nose at some of us. At me. Because I’m the ‘garbage goblin’, the ‘trash elf’, ‘Santa’s workshop janitor’. Which of course became ‘Santa’s handjob helper’ around freshman year.”

Carter cleared his throat. “That word isn’t appropriate here.”

Mackenzie rolled her eyes so hard they ached. “What, ‘goblin’? ‘Elf’? Elf, elf, elf. Sorry if that’s the first time you’ve heard it. I must not realize how much it hurts. I only had it painted on my locker so many times I stopped reporting it. Oh, and then when I decided to decorate the vandalism to show I wasn’t afraid of it, I got in trouble.”

It was time for conservation of douchebaggery. Once she was dealing with more than one person’s ignorance at a time, her odds of being ganged up on skyrocketed, so she looked to Christy for backup. Or at least understanding. Anything to let her stop talking before the pot boiled over.

"I was the ‘sugar snatch’ to my classmates," Christy added and folded her arms. As she spoke, she kept glancing over her shoulder. "When Libby DiMaggio got diabetes, they said she got it licking my pussy, and I became the ‘diabetes dyke’ after that."

"See—"

But, I got over it.”

The rooftop shuddered again. Several clusters of faeries moved away, no longer hiding their unease. Lambent Fox was nowhere to be seen, and the photo bedroll was gone too. Christy called Eli back to her side and held him tight to her hip.

Carter leaned in to speak softly to Mackenzie, though Christy was still listening. “I understand that a lot of folks go through this.” His detached, clinical cadence added an unspoken but I didn’t. Carter didn’t seem to realize it. She watched his eyes, waiting for him to bring her First Gen status into this. “But this realm can only remain stable if all of us take responsibility for our own emotional management. Otherwise, we’ll spend all day fighting each other’s Shadows, one after another.” Christy nodded in agreement.

The hair on Mackenzie’s neck raised. Responsibility? She would have been fine if he hadn’t pressed her about it. Her hood alone wasn’t enough, so she cupped her hands at the corners of her eyes to block out the gazes of those watching. This was like being marched into the principal’s office in a school with no walls.

But she understood Carter’s point. As much as she disagreed, his words and the frightened stares awakened the too-familiar sensation of the void rushing up to rescue her. She only had to look around the transformed Threshold to see reminders of what she’d destroyed by waiting around for the Rabbit Hole to open.

She could see the worry in Christy’s eyes, the fear Mackenzie would do what Royal had done. She saw Christy’s hand drift a little too close to her wand. The hand holding Eli was a little too tense. And Mackenzie knew she could do far worse than Royal. If Mackenzie were in her shoes, she’d see herself as a threat as well.

Mackenzie nodded to Carter.

"I need to leave," she whispered. The words were hers, and as was the need to escape. Yet even though no one had said it, she couldn’t shake the feeling she was being told what to do.

"We’re here for you," Carter said.

Then why was she was leaving empty-handed?

 

[If you liked what you read, contribute to the Patreon that makes it possible!]

Flashback Weekend: Couples Only Skate

Mackenzie took Jona’s outstretched hand and stepped onto the skating rink. Jona had turned Mackenzie’s Doc Martens into light skates by adding wheels of purple and blue light to the bottom, with matching glowing piping along the seams and eyelets. For Jona’s part, they had transformed their Vans into a glowing retrofuturist affair, with golden light wheels and decorative Jetsons rings around their ankles and complementing rings around their wrists.

Jona pulled Mackenzie forward and let go, leaving her to wobble and roll with no way to steer herself. She couldn’t even pretend she was in control, so she tried to halt herself with the toe stop, succeeding only in toppling forward. Jona caught her with a hastily conjured railing of light and helped her back to an upright position. Mackenzie pointed herself toward the bench, and after colliding with it, leaned against it for stability.

"I’ve never done this," Mackenzie admitted, laughing.

"Never?"

Mackenzie shook her head. Even though she had been born in the 80s, her cultural memory started with Barney & Friends and the Magic School Bus. Indoor roller rinks were something she understood in much the same way she understood Woodstock or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Apparently they were these things that happened at some point and people cared and then promptly forgot why, leaving her generation awkwardly nodding along. Then again, if skating had ever been like this, she probably would have tried it much sooner.

Jona had brought her to a quiet, unoccupied realm deep in the Otherworld. The Valley of Alleys wasn’t quiet enough, and Where the Highway Turns wasn’t safe enough, so they went all the way to The Nowherebound Platform. The whole realm was suffused with impatient urgency, fed by the lost hope of everyone who had ever missed a train. The endless train platform, which extended as far as Mackenzie could see, was the least bleak of the Bleakruins Jona knew of. But it was a Bleakruin all the same, and it wouldn’t let Mackenzie shake the urge to check her phone’s clock because she was certain she needed to be somewhere three minutes ago.

It was Jona that made it worth staying. The rink of solid light hovering inches above the platform and tracks was their handiwork, as was the makeshift starlight. They’d transformed the grim, gunmetal sky by poking light dot constellations and painting rainbow auroras until the two were immersed in a spectacle of neon disco midnight. It was garish, and kitschy, and with the overcast urban sky it resembled a cyberpunk dystopia designed by Lisa Frank. And it was perfect. Jona’s gleeful redecoration was just what the realm needed.

"When did you learn … s-k-a-t-i-n-g?" Mackenzie asked.

"Skate," Jona demonstrated. "The 80s."

Even though Jona’s springtime nature masked their age, Mackenzie didn’t think they were old enough to have any more of a memory of the 80s than she did. It was rude bordering on insulting to ask a faerie outright how old they were, but the question was all over her face. Jona looked at her with a skeptical grin. “Nat told you my —, correct? … a-g-e.”

Mackenzie shook her head.

"— 2nd, 1968. O-c-t." Mackenzie repeated the last digits of the year back, unsure she understood. Jona nodded.

"No way."

"It’s true."

"Shut up."

"Not joking."

"How?

"How was I born in 1968? How do you think?" Jona snickered skated away. Mackenzie rolled her eyes and smiled, waiting for Jona to circle back around. On the first pass, they tossed Mackenzie their wallet. Inside, behind a clear plastic window, was an expired Alabama driver’s license for a █████████ Jona Soderquist, born Oct. 2, 1968. The lamination over their first name had been sliced off and covered with a strip of black gaffer’s tape.

She tossed it back. “Why?”

They shrugged and twirled a hand. It wasn’t a formal sign, just a gesture of Natalie’s that they’d adopted to mean, “It’s too complicated to explain.”

"Try?"

Shuffling their skates back and forth, Jona remained mobile without going anywhere. “Nothing I wanted in H-W.”

"What, different?" Mackenzie shook her head. "C-h-a-n-g-e-d?"

"Nothing I wanted in O-W." They smirked.

"When …" Mackenzie didn’t know how to finish her question.

"Sometimes months. Sometimes years. Most of the 70s, 80s. All of the 90s. Most of the 2000s." Jona answered what Mackenzie had meant to ask, and she realized she’d fallen into the trap of asking the question everyone must ask. They twirled their hand again. “Later. Let’s have fun.”

Jona skated in wide loops, sometimes backwards even. If they were anyone else she’d think they were showing off, but that wasn’t Jona’s style. They were just enjoying themselves. That made Mackenzie give it another try. She managed to make it a few feet before throwing her arms out and swaying her whole torso to balance. Instinctively, she lifted a foot to catch herself, and felt her back leg fly out from under her. A wrist struck the rink first, then a knee, and the rest would take an instant replay to sort out.

"Don’t walk," Jona signed. "Push out, not back." They demonstrated with their hands.

After a few more stumbling attempts, Mackenzie could manage a straight line without much fuss. She thought she’d gotten the hang of this skating thing. That was until she got going too fast to toe brake. The edge was rapidly approaching and she couldn’t think of how to stop except to fall. Thankfully, Jona intervened by adding new rink in a sloped horseshoe, bringing Mackenzie back around toward them.

"Oh shit, I can’t stop!" There was no way Mackenzie was signing that; it was hard enough to keep her balance. Jona planted themselves in her path, arms outstretched. "Move!" She waved to the side with her arms, but that cost her what little control she had left. She collided with Jona at full force. They wrapped their arms tight around her, trying to spin with her momentum despite the skates. Mackenzie clung to Jona, but she had no more control than they did. Mackenzie landed square on her back with Jona on top, pinning her.

Mackenzie burst out laughing. That got Jona laughing. The two of them must have looked so silly; it was too bad no one else was around to see it. Their laughter slowed, they relaxed, but neither of their smiles faded. She didn’t let go of Jona and push them off. Jona didn’t rush to get off of her, either. Mackenzie bit her piercing rather than give in to the urge to lift her head and cross the last few inches between her lips and Jona’s. She wanted to. It felt like the time to. But she needed to talk to Natalie first.

She made an apologetic grimace. Jona responded with an exaggerated eye roll, but conceded with an understanding nod. Mackenzie relaxed her hold on Jona, and Jona slipped their arms out from under Mackenzie’s back. Before they pushed themselves to their feet, they rubbed the tip of their nose against Mackenzie’s and winked. Mackenzie blushed and giggled into her hands.

[Author’s note: This story is the latest of the Cute Vignettes, bonus stories available thanks to the support of Patreon contributors. They take place alongside the main story. If you want to see more, become a supporter today]

Witchcraft Secrets

Click. Thu-thump.

Mackenzie only gave Natalie to the count of o– before pinning her against the door. First with hands, then with lips, then with hips, until the whole of her body was driving her into the laminated wood. Mackenzie wasn’t going to let Natalie escape, and no one was coming to save her. Certainly not through that door Natalie had so helpfully locked behind her. Natalie tossed her keys toward the kitschy ceramic dish she kept them in. Mackenzie expected to hear the metallic clatter as they landed among the dish’s loose change and lip gloss, but instead they bounced off the living room table and tumbled who-cares-where. Natalie certainly didn’t, not judging by the way she ran her hands up the back of Mackenzie’s hoodie.

This was all Natalie’s fault, really. If she hadn’t spent the entire train ride home lurking inches out of reach and flashing those coy, my heartfire will burn you up when we get home grins, Mackenzie might have let her take her shoes off first. After all, they could have gotten this over with right there in public. Mackenzie would rub her thigh against Natalie’s. Natalie would respond by draping an arm over Mackenzie’s shoulders, and just happen to reach down her shirt. And before anyone knew it, Mackenzie would be clinging desperately to the overhead handrails as Natalie’s heartfire and slow grinding left her legs twitching and screaming through clenched teeth. Horrified parents watching from the train platform would cover their children’s eyes, as one does in the presence of such classy urban queers.

Instead, Natalie had held off, saying she was unwilling to let her heartfire start the party early. Well, that backfired, so now they were doing things Mackenzie’s way. That meant they might not even make it out of the entryway before one of them was naked, or at least had welts from fingernails. Which may have been Natalie’s plan all along; she was a mischievous brat after all. She asked if it was, but she didn’t really care about the answer. Predicting her response, Mackenzie flashed her best impression of Natalie’s smirk before Natalie could.

That got Natalie riled up. She pushed Mackenzie back with her whole body, but kept her arms firmly around Mackenzie’s waist. Mackenzie yielded to being led through the apartment backwards, as she was just as unwilling to let go of a certain someone’s bottom lip. Natalie flicked Mackenzie’s lip ring with her tongue and Mackenzie broke away to snicker at the sensation. Another person playing with her facial piercings sent an exciting shiver through her whole body. Shit, that was half the reason she had them. They were the whole reason she had the piercings that weren’t on public display. And Natalie’s heartfire only added to that.

Oh, Goddex, that heartfire. It started as a soft, soothing warmth from within, like the first sip of lemon tea. And it stayed right there. It wasn’t like bestial rage; it didn’t swell to feverish, blood-boiling fires. Instead it lingered on the cusp of hot, singing its spells to all Mackenzie’s secret places, the ones too deep in bone and flesh to touch. Meanwhile Natalie’s hands and lips and teeth worked witchcraft of their own on the places they could. Her fear and doubt didn’t stand a chance.

Mackenzie fell on the bed alone, and missing her hoodie. That wasn’t how things were supposed to go. She was supposed to be in charge of this. To make her point, she grabbed Natalie by the sleeve and dragged her down after her.

All of Natalie’s weight pressed down on her, forcing a satisfied giggle out. She had Natalie right where she wanted her, so she squirmed to escape, lulling Natalie into a false sense of victory, only to spring the trap and clasp her legs around Natalie’s abdomen. It was all going according to plan … if only they’d had the foresight to ditch a few more layers of clothes first. She blamed Natalie for that too, and with her nails scratched long trails down Natalie’s back along both sides of her spine to show her dis—(no, not really)—pleasure. Natalie let out a groan that turned into a chuckle.

Feeling sufficiently smug about that, Mackenzie said, “Seems even that heartfire of yours can’t protect you now.”

"Mmm. I’m gonna have to work on that, then." Natalie kissed the tip of Mackenzie’s nose, then poked it.

"You could work on me."

"Is that so?"

Mackenzie nodded. Natalie’s devious smile showed off all the gleaming teeth she was about to sink into Mackenzie’s neck. Then she bit. “Hahahahahafuuuuuuuuck.” Mackenzie bit down on her own hand for relief.

"You like?"

Mackenzie nodded woozily. Natalie bit her again, sooner than she expected and a little closer to the shoulder. Mackenzie sank her nails into Natalie’s thighs. Natalie responded with an excited, grinding roll of her hips. Mackenzie could feel a telltale bulge pressing into her leg, and she whined eagerly, pressing into by reflex. Her first impulse was to reach down and tease atop Natalie’s black leggings, but she diverted to running a finger just inside the elastic band.

"Wait," Mackenzie said. "Time out."

Natalie stopped nibbling down her neck and propped herself up. “Mm? What’s up?”

They’d covered STIs the first night Mackenzie had slept there even though nothing ended up happening, and they’d joked about birth control vs. hormone replacement the next morning as they each took their respective pills. So Mackenzie cut right to the chase, “You’re the first trans woman I’ve been with, so you’ll have to explain the rules to me a bit.”

"Since when do you follow rules?"

"Ahem! You’re one to talk, Miss Breaks Into Government Warehouses."

"Well, you’re the one who tore the door off. Just sayin’. That was hot. By the way.” Mackenzie poked her in the ribs. “Alright, alright!” Natalie laughed.

Mackenzie ran her nails up and down Natalie’s sides, not scratching, not tickling, just keeping the energy of their connection on low heat while they talked. “Are there words I should or shouldn’t use? Is there anything you want to do? Or want me to do? Or anything you definitely don’t want me to do?”

"Um, I don’t have much problem using what I’ve got for now. Words? Um, cock? Girlcock? Clit’s the only thing off limits; that just doesn’t work for me. As for doing … I dunno? I’m cool with anything I suppose?"

"You’re gonna have to be a little more specific, darling."

Then something rare happened, Natalie blushed.

"Uh oh, uh oh!" Mackenzie grinned. "I saw that!" She squirmed, teasing Natalie with her entire body. Natalie tried to retreat but Mackenzie held tighter with her legs. "There is something you want, isn’t there?”

Natalie bit her lip and looked away, grinning.

"Weeeell?" Natalie’s sudden bout of the shy smiles only made Mackenzie want to tear her clothes off faster. And that heartfire glow wasn’t doing her restraint any fucking favors.

"Um. You’ll think it’s weird, or gross."

"Wait, what? Why? It’s not something we’ll need a tarp for is it?"

"No! Ew, no. Um, no, I’m just afraid it’d make me seem … I dunno, like a guy."

Mackenzie laughed. She knew that was absolutely the wrong response, but it was too absurd not to. “Sweetheart, you could be balls-deep, driving my face into a pillow and I wouldn’t be capable of seeing you as a guy.”

Natalie blushed harder. Oh yeah, she’d hit the mark. Now if only Natalie would hurry up and hit hers. “But, you know. Lesbians aren’t supposed to …”

"Whoa, first off, I never said I was a lesbian. Second—Hey, look at me.” Natalie’s eyes met hers. She cupped Natalie’s face in her hands gave the most reassuring smile she could. “Second, you’ve seen my dildo collection. I’ve been with enough girls to tell you: sticking things inside me won’t cost you one Tegan and Sara ticket worth of lesbian cred. I promise.” Mackenzie gave that just long enough to sink in. “Now, are we doing this, or what?”

"Well, when you put it like that." Natalie’s laugh was aggressive, dark, the kind reserved for fighting one’s nemesis, or fucking one’s nemesis.

Mackenzie was back to plan A, reaching under Natalie’s skirt and tracing her fingers along the edges of her now more substantial bulge. Her fingertips found a damp dot, and she gasped, pretending to be scandalized. Natalie grinned, and responded by nuzzling Mackenzie’s breasts through her camisole, stretching and sliding the maroon cotton over her barbell piercings. That was just a diversion, however, as Natalie’s hands made their way up underneath to play with her piercings directly. Mackenzie peeled her own top off, and then started on Natalie’s.

The glow of heartfire filled Mackenzie from her core to her skin, until every nerve was on alert and aching with a need to fire. It tingled, luminous and free, just under the surface. Everywhere Natalie’s fingers roamed, Mackenzie could feel her touching her from within and without. It was touch in the old way, as the Goddex and the Old Fae had intended it to feel, the way they had breathed it into the world with Sylvan whispers. As much dream as reality, as much wish as fulfillment. And Mackenzie had no shortage of wishes.

It was almost too much to bear. Her eyes were open, but Mackenzie wasn’t seeing Natalie, or even the ceiling. The whole of her awareness existed in that time between kisses, caresses, bites, scratches. At some point Natalie had unbuttoned Mackenzie’s fly and her pants were coming down and fuck it, take the underwear too. They were too damp to leave on if all it meant was more teasing. Mackenzie ran her fingers through her pubic hair and rubbed, not letting even the brief moments while Natalie was out of reach go to waste. As soon as Natalie drew near, Mackenzie attacked the clasp and hidden zipper on her skirt. Natalie had the good sense to take over where Mackenzie had left off, offering her hand for Mackenzie to grind against while she flicked her lip ring.

There was no romantic way to get out of leggings. Shit, there wasn’t even a dignified way, not even for magical girls. So after getting a satisfying look at what Natalie had underneath, Mackenzie let her have a moment and rolled over to search through the drawer of the bedside table. Because that’s where condoms always were, and Natalie’s drawer was no exception. She’d discarded the wrapper just in time for Natalie to grab her by the pelvis and roll her back over.

Natalie towered above Mackenzie on her knees, and Mackenzie wrapped her legs around Natalie. “May I?” Mackenzie asked, and Natalie nodded. Mackenzie rolled the condom onto Natalie, and her hand lingered to stroke along her length. She was only mostly hard, not fully. Natalie said that was normal. She’d tried to downplay expectations, but Mackenzie wasn’t about to let her apologize for her body. She reassured her that her dresser drawers had all the tools to make up for that in time, but for now her girlfriend’s cock was exactly what she wanted.

"May I?”

Mackenzie nodded and reached up to pull Natalie down onto her. Into her. That first feeling of fullness overwhelmed her. Trapped between heartfire and Natalie’s flesh, Mackenzie never stood a chance. The sex, the need, the sheer magical fucking beauty of her girlfriend’s smile, it was all too much. Mackenzie wept. Usually that didn’t happen until after she came. It meant she wasn’t going to now, not unless they spent the next two hours trying, but she didn’t give a damn. This was what she wanted. To be here, with Natalie, just like this. Shameless, laughing tears mixed with sweat as she kissed every part of Natalie she could.

#

They spent the next two hours trying.

 

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Sinlight

Even a week after moving in, Mackenzie was still weaving between stacks of books and jumping over the cleaning supplies as she got dressed. As her organized piles of clean clothes dwindled, her heap of unwashed clothes next to the laundry bin grew. It wasn’t laziness as much as uncertainty. The pill bottles were one thing, but tossing her clothes in with Natalie’s and putting her glass cleaner under the sink meant something that she wasn’t ready to say yet.

Natalie had already left for her shift at Riot House when Mackenzie woke up. Not that she wanted it to become a habit, but she was thankful Natalie didn’t wake her to say goodbye this once. She did find a note, however, instructing her to meet Natalie at dusk, at an address so far on the west side that she had to stare at the train map like a tourist just to make sure she had the right stops. A quick search on her phone listed nothing at the address, just a fenced-in lot between townhouses.

When Mackenzie arrived, Natalie was waiting for her. Natalie leaned against the chain link fence with one foot resting against the mesh and her bolero jacket (sans armored spaulders) draped over the pole. Her cheek bones were made for black and white movies, the kind set in diners, with narrators that used the word “dame”. Her swagger whispered witchcraft secrets to the night air. They had seen each other in their more frenetic and fragile moments, but for Mackenzie, that only added to her appreciation of how effortlessly cool Natalie could be at times.

"Excuse me, I’m looking for my girlfriend," Mackenzie said with a grin. "She’s a tall, orange haired, magical girl superheroine."

Natalie smirked, and all manner of mischief sparkled in her eyes. “Sorry, miss. Only retired magical girls here.”

"Well that’s too bad." Mackenzie picked up Natalie’s bolero jacket and held it open for Natalie to put on. Once she had, Mackenzie turned her around and straightened the high collar. She didn’t let go. "I had something of hers."

"Oh?" Natalie perked up, and shrugged noncommittally. "Well, I suppose I could pass it along."

Mackenzie tugged on Natalie’s coat, pulling her in for a kiss. The warmth of Natalie’s lips, and her body pressed against Mackenzie were soothing. Right up until the icy spark of Natalie’s heartfire reminded Mackenzie that she couldn’t just pretend her doubts didn’t exist. She broke away from the kiss, but still clutched Natalie’s coat. Her first impulse was the rest her head against Natalie, but that would have much the same effect.

"I’m sorry," Mackenzie said.

"For what?"

"I knew over a week ago and never brought it up. For the same reason you didn’t." Mackenzie looked down. "I figured you’d tell me in your own time, like with being trans. Shit. I even defended your right to do so to Lex, and I still got pissed at you for not telling me. If it was that important to me, I could have asked. I didn’t."

"Nah, stop. My magic messes with your head, yours doesn’t. It’s not like the trans thing at all. Not telling you is on me." Natalie gestured awkwardly, as though she wanted to hug Mackenzie but didn’t want to risk it. Natalie was being kind. That only made Mackenzie feel worse, since she still hadn’t told Natalie about the deal with her mother.

Mackenzie let go of Natalie’s coat, but ran a finger along the hem. “So, I’m assuming you brought me here dressed as Sinlight for a reason?”

A coy, lip-biting grin lit up her face. “I figured, what better way to explain my magic than with a demonstration?” Natalie dipped her head down to show off that she was wearing her paper fascinator. “Like you did for me.” Natalie straightened her posture and took a deep breath. “But first, there’s some stuff I need to say, ok?”

Mackenzie nodded. “Sure.”

"Um, I’ll try to stick to bullet points because whenever I explain the details it breaks down into a philosophical debate. Like I’m not a person anymore, just someone’s deep moral question to be answered.” Natalie took a slow breath. “I can’t make you feel or think anything that you weren’t already; I make whatever is there stronger, from a little bit up to—well, that’s what I brought you here to see. I can’t hear your literal thoughts, but by necessity I’ve gotten pretty good at reading people the old fashioned way. I don’t need to touch someone to affect them with heartfire, but I can’t always stop heartfire from affecting someone touching me. I don’t know why. If I could stop it entirely, I would, for the obvious reason.”

As Natalie spoke, her words poured out faster and faster. “And I have no reason to think emotions experienced in my presence aren’t real. That debate is literally as old as I am, and I wouldn’t be capable of functioning if I stopped to worry about it every time I’m in a room with people. I’ve tried. I’ve tried avoiding people entirely. For a few years I only interacted on the Internet just so I didn’t have to worry about it.”

She looked away, only to spin back as though Mackenzie had replied but she hadn’t. “And yes, you’re different, and I should have told you sooner. People have good reason to be afraid. I won’t deny that. But I can’t guarantee I’ll be patient if you start telling me you need time to get comfortable with what I do, since I can’t stop it in the meantime.” She was so earnestly fighting the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past that Mackenzie didn’t even know how to reply. “So if this is all too much, and the only way you’ll feel safe is to avoid me, I get it. I don’t blame you. I’m used to it. All I ask is that you not drag out the trying.”

"Whoa!" Mackenzie put her hands up and offered a reassuring smile. "Easy, tiger. I haven’t run away yet."

But you will. Mackenzie could see that reply forming on Natalie’s lips, so she snatched it away with a quick kiss. Too brief for Natalie’s heartfire to come into full effect and bite her. Too impulsive for Natalie’s hypothetical fears to take hold and restrain her. It scattered the whirlwind of defensiveness Natalie had kicked up around herself. “You haven’t.”

"Don’t worry about it. We’ve all got sore spots. Don’t treat me like an expert on Chinese politics, I won’t bug you about the ontology of emotion. Fair?"

"Are you going to make me pull out my phone to look that word up?"

"Philosophical debate about what makes an emotion real." She wanted to reach up and stroke Natalie’s cheek, or prod her in the shoulder and call her a jerk. Even though she wouldn’t follow through on the urge to touch her, she couldn’t deny the desire to. "This feels real enough from where I’m standing."

Natalie smiled with embarrassed sincerity and closed her eyes. Mackenzie wanted to say it was alright for heroines to cry, but she guessed Natalie would rather not know that Mackenzie could tell. Instead, she let her take her time.

Soon Natalie was swaying, loose and easy, as her body once again found the groove of that ever-present dance beat thumping in her soul. The excitement that had just boiled over in her words was channeled out to her limbs, and Mackenzie expected the now smiling Natalie to start bouncing any moment. At her best, Natalie’s energy was infectious, and Mackenzie didn’t care if it was because of the magic.

"So! I promised a demonstration. Ready for some magical hall monitor work?" Natalie winked. Before she could respond, Natalie turned and climbed the fence. Mackenzie was surprised Natalie would risk another run-in by the cops. "There’s a warehouse nearby with a Crossroads that spits out Shadows like you wouldn’t believe. Decently safe place to show off, though."

Decently safe?”

Natalie cast a leg over the top of the fence. “C’mon, before someone sees us.” Like a gymnast, Natalie grabbed the top bar and swung around so she was hanging facing Mackenzie before dropping.

Mackenzie knew better than to argue while trespassing. She got a firm grip on the mesh and muscle memory as old as childhood took over. Some kids never forgot how to ride a bike. Mackenzie never forgot how to jump a fence. Landing was another matter. Her knees and ankles screamed, and as she trotted after Natalie, the balls of her feet felt bruised. Even with proper form, her body eagerly reminded her she wasn’t a kid.

"You good?" Natalie asked.

"I will be."

"Falling is the first thing a good magical girl has to learn. A jump from a wall or a fire escape will break your ankles or wrists, and every fight goes to ground eventually."

"I thought you were retired."

Natalie shrugged and flashed a mischievous smirk. “This way.”

#

Natalie wasn’t kidding about the Shadows. The warehouse complex was a government affair, quiet and unassuming in that way that takes up too much space but none of the neighbors could explain why. At least it had been, back when government jobs were top tier, the FBI wore suits, and the Moon was within reach. Since then it had been shuttered and forgotten on some clerical ledger. Tucked away behind a city block and serviced by a decommissioned rail track, the real estate wasn’t worth the hassle of making it commercially accessible. It was a Goddex-damned playground for whatever crawled out of the Otherworld.

There was a second fence behind the row of townhouses, but this one had barbed wire at the top. Luckily someone had been kind enough to take a cable cutter to it long enough ago that the edges had rusted over. Whoever knew this place was here didn’t care. It was 160 acres of government surplus junk. Mackenzie couldn’t have felt more alive and powerful at a landfill. She had never tried to bring down a whole building before, but standing among those forgotten Cold War corpses, she had no doubt that she could. She should be showing off for Natalie. And not just party favors this time.

They skulked about until they came to a three way intersection between buildings. The shadows (the regular kind) cast by their flashlights were unexpectedly long, and moved even when their flashlights didn’t. They only danced when they were at the corners of her vision, never when Mackenzie was looking at them, like some shadowy scouting party playing the children’s game of Red Light Green Light. She caught a glimpse of one that her mind turned into a sniper ducking back into cover in a window, then an agent disappearing into a doorway with no door. Mackenzie jumped her flashlight from point to point, trying to catch a glimpse of the paranoiac hero fantasies the warehouse workers left behind.

Natalie pulled Mackenzie in close and cupped a hand over the beam. “Chill. I see it too but waving that around is just gonna draw attention.” Her tone softened, comforting. “Shit’s gonna get weird, alright? But weird isn’t dangerous.”

"How can you tell what’s dangerous?"

"Because there will be fighting, and shouting, and big, slavering guard dogs."

"Why dogs?"

"Because that’d just make my night complete, wouldn’t it." Despite the sarcasm, Natalie wasn’t speaking to Mackenzie anymore. Her attention was focused on something behind Mackenzie. She made a shh gesture and whispered, “Don’t move.”

Mackenzie’s first impulse was to turn and look. She didn’t even care what Natalie was looking at; she wanted to know how close it was. Natalie grabbed Mackenzie by the wrist and crept backwards, slowly. This time, it wasn’t Natalie that Mackenzie was afraid of. She had plenty of fear of her own to chill her skin and freeze her joints. But there was also a spark of confidence. If nothing else, she was in her element here. She focused on that glittering light as best she could, and to her surprise, that also reacted with heartfire’s potency. Soon the shadows meant nothing in the face of an invincible light within her.

ROUUFF!

It was half-way between a dog’s bark and a tank firing, and sounded the size of the latter. Their stealth blown, Mackenzie spun to look. The shine of fist-sized eyes was all she saw until she brought the flashlight to bear. The hound was broad as Vik’s car, and its shoulders came up to Mackenzie’s chest. Its skin was missing, and in its place was a translucent darkness that flickered like fire. She expected it to run her down, but it didn’t. It barked again, and then a third time.

It was summoning the pack.

Natalie dropped her flashlight and drove her fist straight into the blacktop, throwing concrete and pitch into the air. A ball of purple fire scorched a circle around her, and as she stood, it rose with her, leaving its familiar purple glitter dust behind. Where it swept across her body, Sinlight’s uniform appeared: boots, tights, skirt, bodice. The armored spaulders extended, one plate at a time, with a sharp shnnng shnnng shnnng shnnng. The ball made one final flourishing sweep upward, and a flaming spear appeared in Natalie’s hand. At last, it took its place as Natalie’s halo. Natalie opened her eyes, and the flames burst free from her skirt, bodice, and spaulders.

Mackenzie wished she had her phone out to record that. Her old fan board would piss themselves with excitement. Mackenzie had never been so turned on by the very idea she was dating Heartfire Witch Sinlight.

Natalie had no time to pose for selfies with her number one fan. With a half step to wind up, she threw her spear like a javelin, and it slammed into the hound’s chest. It crumpled with a wet yelp. She let her momentum carry her into a full sprint to retrieve her spear. Mackenzie pointed her flashlight down each of the three aisles. Giant hounds walking in pairs approached from all three directions. Natalie didn’t wait for the hounds to charge; still sprinting, she pulled her spear out of the dead hound and rushed the nearest pair. As soon as her spear left its body, the beast simply ceased to exist, like a forgotten nightmare. No fading, no melting, just gone, leaving Mackenzie wondering why she was even looking at where it had been.

Natalie dispatched the next two with equal finesse, but Mackenzie wasn’t sure she could handle four on her own.

"Don’t just stand there!" Natalie shouted, barreling toward Mackenzie at full speed. No, not toward Mackenzie. Natalie wound up to throw. "Duck!"

Mackenzie’s chest hit the blacktop hard, and her palms were scraped and bloody from trying to break her fall. Another yelp told her that Natalie’s throw hit its mark, at least. “I thought this was supposed to be a demonstration!” Mackenzie shouted.

"It is!" Natalie offered Mackenzie hand up, which Mackenzie eagerly accepted. When her eyes met Natalie’s, she saw nothing but impish glee at the prospect of being invited to show off. For once, Mackenzie was eager to see Natalie at her most self-indulgent.

Natalie spun and locked eyes with one of the remaining paired hounds. She bared her teeth at it. Frenzied barking overcame one of the hounds, so rapid that one bark was choked off by the next. Enraged, it began snapping at empty air. Its partner turned on it, and backed away into a threatening, tense crouch. Without warning, the enraged hound lashed out, sinking its teeth deep into the other’s chest and shoulder. With another bite the enraged hound tore out the other’s throat.

"Now burn," Natalie uttered, cold, and enjoying the chill.

The hound convulsed as the amplified rage tipped over into feverish madness. It fell to the ground, clawing at its scalp as though trying to escape from its own head. It jumped up and twisted around, searching for whatever sound or scent it hallucinated. Finally, it quivered, its head turned to one side as a seizure took control of half its body, contorting it so hard Mackenzie heard bones snap. It didn’t end when the creature fell. Without skin, its shadow blood boiled off with a hiss. Then it winked out of existence.

Mackenzie was right: heartfire itself wasn’t the bright or flashy part, it was only the results that could be explosive. Or spectacularly brutal. Some forum user owed Mackenzie $20.

Still, Mackenzie was repulsed by the sight. “Natalie … The way you killed that dog.”

"That wasn’t a dog. That was a Shad—"

Natalie careened across Mackenzie’s vision, her torso caught in the jaws of the remaining hound. They’d both taken their eyes off it just long enough for it to get the courage to strike. Seized as she was, there was no way she could stop her heartfire from driving the beast to a bloodsoaked frenzy in seconds. Mackenzie would never reach Natalie’s spear in time.

Mackenzie exhaled. Now or never.

Strictly speaking, Mackenzie didn’t need to move her hands as she worked her trashmancy. But as she reached out with her tendrils of magic, she found the effort needed to keep her body from flowing with it to be an unnecessary burden. She needed everything for this. She took hold of a double-wide aluminum loading bay door. Squealing metal crumpled, and rusted bolts popped like small arms fire. With a grunt, she tore it free of the warehouse, and rolled into a cudgel. Her grunt became a rising howl, and with a baseball swing, she slammed it into the shadow hound.

It didn’t let go. The repulsion she felt only moments earlier turned to anger. She would make it let go. She sure as shit wasn’t letting that mutt hurt her girlfriend. With another swing, she clobbered it from above. Natalie fell from its jaws onto the blacktop with a drool-soaked thud. She twitched. Satisfied Natalie was still alive, Mackenzie growled at the beast. It snarled back. She locked eyes with it, daring it to charge. Just as it did, she brought the rolled up garage door down, sharp, torn edges first. It skewered the beast clear through, and ended embedded several inches into the blacktop.

Once it disappeared, it was out of Mackenzie’s mind entirely. She rushed to Natalie and propped her up in her lap. Her flames had gone out. “Natalie?” That’s when it hit her: her emotions were a mess, but she wasn’t being affected by heartfire. Mackenzie jostled her. “Natalie!”

She couldn’t feel any blood in any places it shouldn’t be. Mackenzie held her flashlight in her mouth and groped about just to be sure. Natalie’s coat seemed to have taken the worst of it. The beast’s teeth hadn’t pierced the leather, but it had left stretched dimples that meant a constellation of rainbow bruises for Natalie. Natalie groaned. “Fuuuuck, that hurt.”

Mackenzie clutched Natalie to her chest and laughed with relief. “Yeah, well, that’s what this magical girl stuff is all about right?”

Natalie’s eyes opened lazily and smiled at Mackenzie. She reached up to push a hair out of Mackenzie’s face. Mackenzie grabbed Natalie’s hand. “Something like that.”

With Mackenzie’s help, Natalie got to her feet. She was moving slowly, and her breathing was shallow, but considering her entire body’s weight had been supported by a shadow dog’s lower jaw just a few minutes earlier, she’d be lucky to only have a cracked rib.

"Let me grab my flashlight," Natalie said. "I wouldn’t want to leave evidence behind." Natalie grinned as if the flashlight was the most incriminating evidence.

Mackenzie snickered and dislodged the garage door from the blacktop. She unrolled it, but the best she could do was lean it up against the door frame. That way it might pass for undamaged. Unless, of course, someone were to actually look at it.

Before she left, she peeked inside. She had expected it to be empty, since she couldn’t feel any abandoned junk strewn about, like she could the others. Instead, rows of pallet crates stretched further than her flashlight could reach. They weren’t marked with a government emblem or anonymous registry numbers, either. The light green A inside a seven-pointed star was branded on the side. Actyun International. Mackenzie pulled out her phone to snap a picture.

"What’s up?" Natalie asked, standing at the threshold.

"I don’t know, but we’d better leave."

 

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Heartfire

The hour between 3AM and 4AM didn’t exist in Homeworld, Mackenzie was certain. It was like the 13th floor of a building: the right-minded and virtuous skipped over it without even noticing its absence. Only the troubled and the lost found themselves in that dark place in between. 3AM was where the Rabbit Hole led. Nothing real ever happened after 3AM.

Mackenzie had a theory: traumatic events didn’t hurt people, 3AM hurt people; the trauma just kept them awake until it could. There was a look in the eyes of anyone who had seen 3AM for themselves, a sleeplessness that never quite left their bones. The thoughts they had after 3AM were never spoken of in therapy. Speaking of them was the only way those thoughts could escape into daylight, and they all knew what those thoughts could do, why they had to be contained. They were the 3AM People. They were the Watchers Over the Thirteenth Floor Thoughts.

In the week since moving in with Natalie, Mackenzie hadn’t slept a full night. The bed was too hot. The room was too cold. The sound of the air vents was wrong. The street was too noisy. The street was the wrong kind of quiet. Natalie was slipping out of bed. Natalie was sliding into bed. Something was always waking her up. Tonight, a headache from that lack of sleep had kept awake and alert ever since the lovers’ bed chatter faded to stillness. Mackenzie lifted her head to read the clock. 2:42.

She didn’t dare touch Natalie, not even to snuggle for comfort. Sinlight could kill with 3AM thoughts. 3AM thoughts could kill without any help from her heartfire.

Mackenzie slipped out of bed and crept to the bathroom, careful not to wake Natalie. As quietly as she could, she opened the mirrored medicine cabinet. Natalie had Tylenol and three different prescription painkillers stretching back a year, but no NSAIDs; something about having heard NSAIDs interfered with her hormone replacement and she didn’t want to take chances. But that was the only cure for this kind of headache in Mackenzie’s experience, so she had bought some the night before. The pill bottle was the first new thing of Mackenzie’s that claimed space in Natalie’s apartment.

3AM was coming.

She took two and washed them down with the unfiltered city water from the tap. Physical chemistry was the worst degree for an anxiety-prone person to get if they ever wanted to drink tap water again. Any other p-chem grad would be reassured by knowing the dissociation constants of most heavy metals. They’d know just how little could dissolve and enter the water supply, that it was actually safer to have certain ions in the water to drive even worse ones out of solution. To Mackenzie, it just meant forever being aware that none of those numbers was ever zero. At 3AM, any number other than zero was toxic.

Leigh had managed to squeeze her in that week, and she told her the news of the eviction. Leigh was a 3AM person. All the good therapists were. Mallory wasn’t. Her sister didn’t have a 3AM bone in her body. Apparently Mom had filled her in during the week, because Mackenzie had woken up to yet another lecturing email from her sister on Friday. She wondered if she ever sent Chelsea emails like that, or if half-sisters were exempt. Still, for all her fussing about it, Mallory had come through for her without even being asked.

Mackenzie stared into her own weary-eyed reflection. She was going to pay her back no matter what. Part of her was worried about how her sister would use the debt as an emotional lever until she did, but the other part genuinely didn’t want to take advantage of her big sister’s love. Mallory may be stuck with Mackenzie’s furniture in the basement for a while, but Mackenzie wasn’t going to keep her waiting on the money.

“‘Kenzie? Sweetie?” A barely awake Natalie stood in the bathroom door in her camisole and boxers. She squinted at the bathroom light but didn’t look away. “You ok?”

"Couldn’t sleep," Mackenzie said and shrugged.

Natalie shuffled toward her and wrapped her arms around Mackenzie from behind. Mackenzie couldn’t avoid the embrace in time. She squirmed as a burning numbness coursed through her. Natalie let go and stepped away. “What’s … Oh.” Natalie sighed and drew back. The hurt struck Natalie’s face swiftly, and she folded her arms across her waist. “I’m sorry.”

"No, Natalie …" She wanted to explain it wasn’t Natalie she was afraid of, it was what Natalie’s magic would do with the dark thoughts that the night had turned loose. But her headache inserted unwanted periods into every attempt at a sentence. She reached out to Natalie, determined to reassure her another way.

This time it was Natalie’s turn to avoid contact. “No, I don’t want to hurt you.”

"You won’t, I promise," Mackenzie said. She didn’t know if she could keep that promise, but she intended to. She needed the reassurance that she could as much as Natalie did.

Natalie shook her head. “You don’t understand. Once it starts …” She shrugged and turned, retreating into the bedroom. She sat at the edge of the bed. “Every time I touch you, you’re going to wonder if it’s going to happen again. Then when I do, heartfire turns that moment of doubt into paralyzing terror, just like the time before. Sound familiar?” Mackenzie nodded, and looked away. “I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you.”

"But you were afraid …" Mackenzie made an inarticulate gesture as her words were lost in the headache haze. It was easier than speaking, so she signed, "Think you … me." She added, "I fucked that up. ‘Tricked.’ Whatever that sign is."

Natalie nodded. “When did you know?”

Mackenzie rested her head against the door frame and folded her arms. “A week? Or so. Lex told me. Said I had a right to know.”

"Of course Lex did," she muttered. Natalie leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees and stared at the floor. "I wanted to tell you first."

"Then why didn’t you?" Mackenzie surprised herself with the anger in her voice. At 3AM, only the wild feelings remained.

"I should have! I wanted to." Natalie sighed. "I wanted to show you. But when we were in the Otherworld … One thing led to another, and …”

"And how long ago was that?" Mackenzie snapped. She felt the adrenaline hit her bloodstream. It didn’t dull the pain behind her eye, but it did push it down the priority list. She might have granted that floating above the Rabbit Hole was an inopportune time for this, but Natalie had still found it in herself to come out about being trans. And that wasn’t even something that affected Mackenzie, not like this anyway. And even if she didn’t want to bring it all up at once, what of after? "You didn’t think to try again in all that time?"

"I did! I mean, I was planning to. Fuck." Natalie shook her head at herself. "I just couldn’t think of a good time. And then you moved in, and …" Natalie trailed off.

"And what?” Mackenzie bristled. “I can’t think of a worse time than this.”

"I know. I’m sorry." Natalie couldn’t leave it at that. Mackenzie could see it in Natalie’s posture, the way she set her shoulders, looked out the window as if something was there. That same spirited drive within her that Mackenzie had fallen for wasn’t going to let this drop any more easily. "I just knew this was going to happen. I knew that as soon as I said anything you were gonna get weird about it."

"Whoa," Mackenzie slashed the air and squared off with Natalie. "Don’t apologize and then try and make this about me!"

"I’m not! That’s not what I meant." Natalie was flustered, cornered, and swinging wildly. Part of Mackenzie wanted to let up, wanted to assuage Natalie’s fears because she hated seeing her in such distress. But they were in the Otherworld. They were on the thirteenth floor, and that charitable part of Mackenzie was left watching from the elevator door. Mackenzie mustered the nerve to stare her down. "I was afraid, alright?" The first time Natalie said it, it was an excuse. The second time, an admission. "I was afraid. I still am. I don’t know what Lex told you, but I don’t have the best history with this."

"And that makes it ok?"

"No! But … Once you moved in, I didn’t even know how I could tell you. Not without it hurting you even more. And the longer we went without talking about it, the worse I knew it’d be. Because that’s always how it goes.”

Mackenzie rubbed her head. It was exactly as Lex had said. “You could have told me right at the start.”

Natalie laughed, sour and resigned. “You think I’ve never tried that? Look, I only make emotions stronger; I can’t create anything that isn’t already there. And I wasn’t doing it consciously. Anything you felt was just the residual effect that comes from touching me. But if I told you that the night we met, would you have even believed me? You wouldn’t. No one does. So instead of hanging out like normal people, you’d have spent the entire night second-guessing every thought, every feeling, worrying about whether it was real, all while insisting everything was fine. But by morning you’d have yourself convinced that I was lying, and it was all just my magic controlling you.”

Mackenzie’s mouth twitched. Natalie was right, though. She probably wouldn’t have believed her. “So, what? You didn’t mention this as a favor to me? To show me a good time?”

"I did it for me!” Natalie looked as insulted as Mackenzie felt. “You’re not some fucking charity case. I didn’t rescue you from some dull existence. I just can’t fucking stand people I’ve just met tiptoeing around me when they learn what I do, alright?” Natalie’s shoulders dropped. “It’s the same as always: this is the part where you start to worry about whether or not you can trust me. And then the next time you go for a hug, or a kiss, your body is gonna make that decision for you. And I wouldn’t even blame you.” Mackenzie didn’t reply, only folded her arms and watched Natalie. Natalie remained silent for a long time before adding, “Maybe it’s easier this way.”

That startled Mackenzie out of her seething. “Just what is easier this way?”

"You know. Cut to the chase." Natalie shrugged. "Look, we both know what’s coming. You’re never gonna trust me again, and this way we can avoid all the fuss of trying to force it."

Mackenzie raised her eyebrows and glared at Natalie. That was the second time she’d been underestimated in quick succession. She almost laughed. She settled for rolling her eyes. “You’re an idiot. It’s three in the fucking morning. If you think I’m breaking up with you at three in the morning over one argument … You fucked up but I’m not that petty. This can wait until tomorrow.” A question slid out of Mackenzie’s mouth that she was sure was Leigh speaking through her. “Has every argument with a girlfriend ended in a breakup for you?”

"About this, yeah." Natalie sighed. "If the trans thing didn’t end it first."

Mackenzie shuffled over to stand directly in front of Natalie. She leaned over and planted her hands on the bed on either side of Natalie. Natalie leaned back enough to avoid touching her. From this close, she could see the dark roots in Natalie’s orange hair. She inhaled Natalie’s scent. Mackenzie was still mad. But she wanted to taste that anger on Natalie’s lips. Let her heartfire do its worst, Mackenzie would prove she was not so easily dissuaded. She kissed Natalie, slow and warm.

She anticipated the pain. She couldn’t help it. And that anticipation drove an ice cold spike of fear through her, just as she knew it would. The headache returned with it and Mackenzie groaned. The screaming urge to break away swelled. Mackenzie didn’t. She kissed Natalie through it, with it, despite it. When it didn’t kill her, she dismissed it.

That left only the knot of anger she’d started with. Its hot, bone-melting ache in every limb made her squirm but she was too stubborn to stop just for that. Mackenzie placed her hands high on Natalie’s chest. Not close enough to her throat to throttle her, but in the haze of heartfire rage, the thought had occurred to her. She shoved Natalie down, hard.

Natalie reacted with an excited grin and grabbed Mackenzie’s arms, pulling her down onto her. That flash of defiance struck Mackenzie as a challenge. Indignation surged. She was going to make Natalie pay dearly for that. She kissed Natalie again, hungrily. She bit Natalie’s lip hard enough to make her flinch and laughed.

Mackenzie’s body burned. Her skin flushed until it felt like fresh sunburn. It burned where her knees pressed into the soft, overstuffed comforter. It burned where her hair touched her back. It burned where the back of her thighs rested on Natalie’s hip bones. She needed to prove Natalie wrong. The more it burned, the more furiously determined she became. The greater her determination, the hotter the flames.

Mackenzie punched a pillow and let out a whining moan, half from the ache of furious fire that threatened to consume her, and half from knowing she needed to stop. For both their sakes.

She slipped her fingers between Natalie’s and pinned her hands above her head before Natalie could use them to tempt her into continuing. She pulled away to catch her breath. Through force of will alone, Mackenzie relaxed enough to let her pain show. She slumped, arms locked. “You owe me an explanation,” she whispered. “A real one.”

"Tomorrow," Natalie said.

Mackenzie nodded and rolled off of her.

 

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The Right Key

Jona: [See, you get it. Carter doesn’t. Being a faerie’s never been an issue for me but being deaf is. If I’m going to get treated as lesser, I’d rather be around people I can talk to, you know?]

[You shouldn’t have to be treated that way in either group.] :Mackenzie

Jona: [*Shrug* It is what it is. I’ve been dealing with Carters my whole life. I don’t need hand holding and pats on the back about how cool I am. I need a transcript, or an interpreter.]

Jona: [Thanks for trying, btw]

[haha. yw. I was afraid you’d think it was patronizing. Or presumptuous.] :Mackenzie

Jona: [Maybe a little. ;-)]

Jona: [But for real, you and Lex are the only fae I don’t have to keep bugging to tell me what’s going on, so thanks.]

[np. :-) Not Natalie? She gave me a whole speech about it.] :Mackenzie

Jona: [lol. She would. Love the girl to death but she’s as bad as her mom sometimes.]

Jona: [Don’t tell her I said that.]

[I won’t. ;-) Tunnel.] :Mackenzie

The two train stops between New Holland station and McAllister were the only reason Mackenzie started downloading games. Nothing like eight minutes in the dark with no service and surrounded by bored strangers to teach a girl to avoid looking idle. And yet, this was something she missed when she was away for school. Her phone buzzed just before she reached her apartment door. She was too exhausted to be startled by it.

Jona: [k. ttyl!]

Mackenzie skipped checking her mailbox. She needed a shower and a bed, and whatever was in it could wait. Even though she was on the third floor, she opted for the elevator.

She never took the elevator. Unlike everything else in the renovated building, it stank of spilled alcohol, cigarette smoke, and sweat. Walls could be repainted, floors could be retiled, but elevators endured, absorbing passengers’ odors like a robot trying to become human by collecting the scent memories left behind. Mackenzie had a theory that’s where blackout memories went. She rested her head against the wood-patterned plastic of the elevator. She hoped having her hood up would keep it from taking her memories of tonight through her scalp oils, though. She wanted to keep this one.

Once on the third floor, Mackenzie was greeted by a door that was both hers and not hers. The handle was wrong. It was too brassy. In the pit of her stomach she knew, but Mackenzie jammed her key into the lock anyway. It wouldn’t move. She tried the next key on her ring. She even tried her mailbox key on the door. Then she tried the apartment key again.

It was the right key, it was just the wrong lock.

"Fuck!" She kicked the door.

Torn off the door and crumpled nearby was a door hanger with her landlord’s logo that read, “24 Hour Notice of Entry” in bold letters. It was friendly, soothing, blue typeface because inspections were never something to worry about. But there it lay, discarded when the lock was replaced.

She picked up the door hanger and read it over. “Inspection by building manager … notice required by the City of … Expected between: 10AM and 2PM … If you have any questions please contact our office at …”

No, no, no, entry was one thing but they needed to give 72 hours notice to evict in this state, didn’t they? She knew she was going to be late with rent, but she never expected them to move so fast. She checked her phone. It was only the third of the month. They’d first be sending out late fee notices today, right? How could they have already changed the lock?

She bolted down the stairs to room 101. The building manager was a middle-aged man named Jacob who shouldn’t have shaved his beard. He was from somewhere in Eastern Europe but Mackenzie never asked for specifics. She did learn, however, that whenever she played up her sweet Austrian girl accent, Jacob would smile as he replaced her shower head, or wave when she was in the laundry room. So she knocked, and braced for being pictured naked and spoken to like a toddler. It might not get her out of this, but if it made things easier, she would use whatever she could.

He answered the door in his boxers and she could hear the A/C in the window behind him blasting. “Yes, hi. I am Mackenzie. Unit 309. My key is not working and it looks like the lock has been changed?”

"309? This is your third time late?"

"Not in a row, no. That has not happened for a while, so I thought—"

He nodded and held up three thick fingers. “Third time, we change your lock.” He bobbed his head in a faux friendly gesture. “We do this so you come talk to us. If you have a problem, we work something out. Or you have to go.” She was regretting coming to the door alone. She looked down the hall to the mailbox lobby and saw no one. She adjusted her posture to keep her wrists out of reach and slipped one hand into her pocket to grab her yawara.

"Like what? Could I at least get inside to get my medication?" She hoped that would provide some leverage.

Jacob acted like he was considering, but his insincere exaggeration made Mackenzie’s skin tingle. The pensive grimace was an over-rehearsed act, one meant to make Mackenzie feel unique. He seemed utterly at ease making girls feel unique. “Tell you what. You pay your late fee, I let you in to get your pills, your lady things, et cetera.” Mackenzie didn’t want to think about why her “lady things were so readily on his mind, but she kept her best doe-eyed, neutral game face on and nodded. “But I hold on to the key until you pay in full. Deal?”

"Is that even legal? I don’t remember that being in the lease."

"Yes. Is legal."

Mackenzie knew it damn well wasn’t. But Jacob knew if she couldn’t pay rent, she couldn’t pay an attorney’s fee, so “legal” was rather abstract at the moment. “How much is the late fee?”

"$50. Each day."

"You can’t be serious. Now I know that isn’t in the lease." Her Midwest accent punched through. "There’s no way I can pay that."

Jacob shrugged as though he were a helpless cog in the machine, and mumbled an incoherent string of filler syllables. She doubted that this extra late fee would ever make it to the company office, and she’d just have to pay it again to them. But if she called the office without payment in full, they’d probably be even less cooperative, or just send her back to Jacob. She definitely didn’t want to hear about any other arrangements he had in mind. His leer said enough.

"I’ll be back."

Mackenzie only grabbed her valuables and her essentials on the first run: meds, laptop, TV, fire safe, all the clothes she could, senior yearbook, scrapbook, poetry journal, dream journal, lab notebook, and the sex toys that would fit inside the safe (only the good ones). She wasn’t sure Jacob would let her make a second trip without paying another $150, and she didn’t want to be in any deeper with Vik. He was doing her enough of a favor as it was. She’d tapped him because she guessed he could weather the time it would take her to pay him back. And he had a car, however inadequate to the task of moving it was.

"Thank you," she told Vik for the eighth time. "I wasn’t sure who I could count on."

Mallory wouldn’t, but their mother would have helped if she’d asked. Unfortunately that’d take days of passive-aggressive emails and bank delays to sort out and she didn’t have days. Jacob was dealing in cash, not promises. She’d probably still have to ask Mom for a hand at some point. If they tracked her down, whatever racket she’d been renting from probably didn’t have to worry about what they did to young women who couldn’t afford lawyers. And she definitely didn’t want to be in debt to her girlfriend; that was a bad road to start down. Plus, Vik provided that imposing bodyguard presence to keep Jacob from getting any more ideas.

"Don’t mention it," he said. Goddex, his voice was deeper than his car’s engine. Well, most voices were. But his seductively so. "I was wondering how long it would take you two lovebirds to … Ah, share a nest, as it were."

"Heh." She hadn’t pictured moving in with Natalie as a Plan B. She wasn’t complaining, of course, she was glad Natalie was open to it on such short notice. But she had hoped it would have been a Plan A when the time came. That time had just come sooner than she’d expected.

"I’ll pay you back soon." She left out the I hope. It was impossible to sit comfortably on the hard safe, but every few minutes she wiggled her butt to find a new position. She clutched a paper bag full of underwear and bras on her lap. Crammed in by her feet were more clothes. She couldn’t lean back because her laptop was behind her. She hoped she never had to move using a Smart car ever again. “I’m such an idiot.”

"Hey, we all make mistakes."

Mackenzie glanced out the window. Trees elbowed for space between the curb and sidewalk under the familiar street lamps—street lamps she’d never have a reason to walk under again. “I wish I knew what the mistake was. It’s not like I enjoy unemployment. And this thing for Queen Deirdre … I’m trying, you know?”

"Didn’t mean nothing by it," he said.

"I know. Sorry."

Closed storefronts with their dark neon signs and restless pedestrians blurred together into a dim haze. Not from speed, just from distracted thoughts. Mackenzie was full of nervous energy and needed to move but was too cramped to do more than flex her fingers. She levitated the keys out of her pocket and twirled them in the air in front of her. They’d changed the locks, so there had been no point in turning them in. They were as much trash as the rest of her life at this point.

"Telekinesis?" Vik asked. "That’s handy."

Mackenzie chuckled. “Trashmancy, actually.” Fingers of magic set them on the narrow dashboard. She marched the building and apartment keys, step by step, across the dash to Vik. She made the tiny mailbox key salute. “I can do whatever I want with something, as long as it’s worthless.”

"A paradox," Vik said.

"Something like that." Mackenzie grinned. "How about you?"

Vik winked at her. His smile was as bright as his sunflower yellow suit.

"That’s not fair."

"I’m not allowed to say," he replied, holding up a hand. Mackenzie pretended to pout. "Queen’s orders."

Mackenzie let a beat pass in silence to see if it would get to him and if he’d reconsider. The silence cracked Mackenzie first. “Are you allowed to say what she does?”

"The Queen’s magic? Oh sure. That’s no secret. Everybody knows about the Queen." Vik slowed the car and turned down a ramp into an underground garage. Rather than continue his answer, Vik added, "We’re here." Natalie stood in her pajamas, arms crossed, holding open the metal door into the building. "And there’s Miss Natalie now. Better not keep your lady friend waiting."

"Oh, come on!"

Vik was right though. Natalie waved to Vik, but she smiled with only her mouth at Mackenzie. Mackenzie had a lifetime of explaining and groveling to do, and her misgivings about Natalie’s magic had to wait. The moving could wait. It had been almost a week since they’d been close enough to touch. She needed to hug her. And kiss her. And be held by her.

She slithered out from under the clothes and off the safe. She set the clothing bag on the seat and ran to Natalie unburdened. Mackenzie threw her arms around Natalie’s neck and pulled her into a kiss. A comforting warmth bloomed deep within her muscles, loosening tense knots and making Mackenzie’s skin tingle. But when Natalie only barely kissed Mackenzie back, that warmth was snuffed out by concern. Then fear.

Mackenzie flinched as every nerve flash-froze. A sharp adrenaline spike forced her to let go of Natalie by reflex. She could feel her heart beat with such force her limbs quaked. If there had been any doubt in her mind about what Natalie was capable of, it had just been blasted away. Mackenzie’s fears about her had just turned to ice in her veins. Which meant that warm tingle wasn’t just affection, either. She still wanted to hear Natalie explain it for herself, but more than anything she needed to know, “What’s wrong?”

Natalie shook her head. “It’s just been a long day. It’s nothing.”

"You sure?"

Natalie shrugged. “It’s fine. Let’s get your stuff.”

Mackenzie almost stopped her, but she didn’t want to keep Vik waiting. It was late, and she felt guilty enough having convinced him to make as many runs to the apartment as Jacob would allow on one bribe. With the three of them, the car was emptied in just one trip, and soon Mackenzie and Vik were back on the road. She tried stalling, but there had been no convenient time to catch Natalie without Vik present to question her further.

The inexplicable shift in Natalie’s attitude occupied Mackenzie’s thoughts the entire drive back, and all through loading the car again. Choosing what to take offered a brief respite as it demanded her full attention, but her body moved in lazy, autopilot steps as she tried to solve the impossible puzzle in her head. Had she said something? Had she done something wrong? She’d understand if Natalie had been put off by Mackenzie asking to move in. But yet, would Natalie even be put off by the prospect in the first place unless something else was troubling her about their relationship?

She recognized this spiral. Mackenzie fished in her pocket for her pills and dry swallowed one. She wasn’t sure she had taken one since coming out of the Otherworld. She wasn’t sure she hadn’t, either. Too late now. Better too much and numb than too little and fragile, especially if she was going to have one of those conversations with Natalie. She was scared this wasn’t just a missed dose. She was scared she’d always be second-guessing her instincts like this. But she did it because broken instinct was no way to survive anymore.

"What do they have you on?" Vik asked, snapping her out of the cycle.

"It’s an SSRI. It’s a Generic Something but I can’t remember which one anymore; it’s like the third one I’ve tried. You know, antidepressants. Except, I take it for anxiety."

Compared to questions about magic, Mackenzie actually enjoyed medication chat. It was like comparing scar stories, except show and tell involved pill colors rather than rolling up sleeves. Sometimes it involved that too. Talking about it in the abstract made it seem more manageable, straightforward, like a strategy for a video game: The green one makes it so you’re not too afraid to fight all your battles. The blue one is so you remember why you want to stay alive. The grey one usually makes it all easier but no one knows how, and sometimes it negates all the others, but that’s rare so most people try it. "And PTSD."

Vik nodded. He didn’t ask questions about deserts, and she didn’t tell him stories about locker rooms. Instead, he counted on his fingers. “Listen to this: I got one for cholesterol so my heart don’t kill me, one so the cholesterol one don’t kill me, three so that second one don’t make me fart to clear a room, another to get me to sleep at night because of the first three. And now I’ve got those little pink ones because, uh, the others make it difficult to … you know. I said, ‘Doc, why don’t you keep all the pills, and I’ll take my chances.’” Vik laughed.

Mackenzie laughed along with him. “I know what you mean.” But joke as he might, Vik hadn’t stopped taking his, and Mackenzie hadn’t stopped taking hers. They both knew what it meant to have bombs where their hearts should be.

 

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Make Up: Your Turn

[Author’s note: This story is the latest of the Cute Vignettes, bonus stories available thanks to the support of Patreon contributors. They take place alongside the main story. If you want to see more, become a supporter today]

Mackenzie squinted at Natalie to make it clear she wasn’t satisfied with her answer but didn’t challenge her. The ridged bottom of the bottle rattled as Natalie pushed it across the table. The contents sloshed inside—tequila to keep them from opting out of a question too quickly. But Mackenzie made sure it was good tequila just in case.

"Your turn," Natalie said. They’d opted to skip the zoo after the movie. Natalie’s orange hair didn’t get along with even light rain, but tonight it was coming down hard enough that their evening needed to allow for an underwear-only dress code. So they had run from the train stop to the liquor store, then to Natalie’s apartment. As a date substitute, this wasn’t bad. "A crush you regret."

"Danielle Kowalski." The name flew out of Mackenzie’s mouth. "Seventh grade. She wasn’t even in any of my classes that year. So—Sorry, to back up a bit: oddly enough, my mom never raised me to think it was strange for girls to like girls. I mean, she was weird about it for a bit when I came out, but back then I think she just forgot to mention it? Anyway, so when realized that I kinda wanted to kiss this girl, and I kinda wanted to be her, I thought it would be totally normal to just, you know, tell her this.” Natalie burst out laughing and Mackenzie joined her. “What? I thought that’s how it worked! It’s not like anyone teaches little bisexual girls these things! Obviously it didn’t go as well as I had hoped.” Mackenzie passed the bottle back. “If you want the rest of that story you’ll need to get me a lot more drunk. You’re up.”

"Bring it on."

"How about you? Any crushes you regret?"

"Uh uh. That’s against the rules. No ask-backs."

"What? When did we agree to that?"

"That’s how it’s always been!"

Mackenzie rolled her eyes with a sarcastic grin. “Fine. How about … Strangest place you’ve had sex.”

Natalie took her time recalling. “I take it the Otherworld doesn’t count?” Mackenzie shook her head. “Oh man, this is gonna blow my whole image with you. I’m actually kinda boring in that way. There’s definitely plenty of strange people I’ve had sex with, but places?” She looked at the floor. Mackenzie gestured to the bottle. “No, no. I’ll think of something. Oh! I’m a member of the mile high club. Vancouver to Seoul. I guess I just don’t think of that as strange? Don’t most people do that at some point?”

"I haven’t," Mackenzie replied. "I’ll count it." Mackenzie took the bottle back.

Natalie leaned back on the sofa and put her striped-stockinged feet on the table. “If you could have a different kind of magic, what would it be?”

At first the question intrigued Mackenzie. It wasn’t something she’d thought about before, at least not that question specifically. She’d always wanted to change, to have something more useful. But that was impossible, so even as she tortured herself with discontent over it, she never gave much thought to what she wanted instead. The longer she sat with the question, though, the more it felt like she’d stepped in a puddle, and the wet chill was reaching her skin.

She picked up the bottle. She considered tossing out a bullshit answer to avoid having to drink. She’d name someone with a kind of magic she envied. But she didn’t want to copy someone else, either.

She took a drink. She pretended the face she made was just about the dry sting of the booze. She passed the bottle back to Natalie. Natalie’s hand met hers around the neck, but Mackenzie didn’t let go. She repositioned her hand and Natalie followed suit, guessing at what Mackenzie was trying to do and cooperating to lace a couple of their fingers together around the bottle.

"I’m not sure. I think—"

"You already drank. If you don’t want to answer—"

"No, I do. I decided I do." Mackenzie clutched harder. "But my answer is I don’t know." Her head was drifting in that cloudy place where everything she wanted seemed possible, and all the reasons to avoid telling Natalie were stuck on the ground below. "I’m not above envying others. Like, I’ll meet someone and think, ‘Oh damn, that’s awesome. I wish I could do that.’ But at the end of the day, I can’t come up with anything original of my own that’s better than what I have. And then if I did, I worry that I’d just go through this all over again once the novelty wore off."

"Doubling up isn’t unheard of. Or unusual." Natalie was right that Mackenzie was seeking reassurance, but she had mistaken which part of her explanation was the cry for comfort. "Most people who have similar magic try and get some distance from one another."

Mackenzie closed her eyes, trying to ground her floating head. Natalie’s long, soft fingers slipped away from hers, leaving her holding the bottle alone. Those same long fingers slipped into Mackenzie’s hair, first one hand, then the other. Natalie clutched Mackenzie’s hair in both hands and tilted her head up. One by one, Natalie kissed the pensive wrinkles away. First the forehead creases. Then the corners of her eyes. Then the twisted lips. Mackenzie smiled, and grabbed Natalie’s wrist, holding her there a moment longer before letting her sit. Mackenzie pushed the bottle to Natalie.

"Alright." Mackenzie regained control of her voice. "All time, any genre, crossovers allowed: what’s your one true pairing?"

Carter

Jona usually rode on shooting stars, so Mackenzie took the blame when a garbage truck picked them up instead. She doubted Jona fancied the idea of riding in such style, so she feigned disappointment with a shrug. But secretly, Mackenzie had always loved riding on the back of garbage trucks like this. She missed it. She hadn’t been able to since the switch to automated pickup bins.

The pair passed the ride without speaking, but not for lack of trying. Mackenzie tried to ask how this Otherworldly conveyance they’d hitched a ride on worked, but Jona’s answer was hopelessly complex. Phones were out of the question. When she asked them to clarify in light, they drew a letter, only to leave a kilometer long streak of neon behind them. Mackenzie was startled by how fast they were going.

Confronted again with the inability to communicate, Mackenzie realized she wasn’t that interested in the answer; the Otherworld’s rules weren’t meant to be understood. No, she was interested in talking to Jona. But these seemingly inconsequential barriers popping up all day were quite consequential in practice. It made Mackenzie appreciate how conversing with Jona came at the expense of whatever else they were doing.

She’d only seen her ex-boyfriend’s family during holiday meals and drunken card games, so there had been nothing intrusive about conversation. But unlike them, Jona didn’t lip read (or at least, had never let on if they could), and they hated speaking out loud. She’d taken those things for granted with her ex’s parents, but she was starting to get an idea for why Jona kept their distance from anyone who couldn’t at least sign their name.

The lack of conversation also made it far too easy to project her own fears onto Jona like this. Jona wasn’t a kid. If Mackenzie was being bothersome she was sure they’d have said something. But friend anxiety was the milk on Mackenzie’s cereal no matter which friend it was, so she resolved to at least check in the next time she could. If only to stop her own spiraling dread.

Mackenzie reclined against the truck and closed her eyes to reflect on the Grotesquerie instead. She hadn’t expected it to be so specific, but in retrospect she felt she probably should have. That Natalie used to explore those places as a hobby heroine left her wondering just what it was she was looking for in them. A way out? A way through? A way to fix it?

Before long, the truck squealed to a stop. Rather than a suburban curb, the truck dropped them off on the repaired ledge of a rooftop.

The Threshold Between Concrete and Sky was recognizably alien, like returning to the house where she grew up to see the occupants had changed the color of the siding. The rooftops were spotless, no party trash to be seen. Guard rails were rust free and polished, and safety fences were covered in a fresh coat of rubberized paint. Instead of stars, a rainbow of puffy pink and gold and green clouds drifted across a bright, late morning sky.

The sun was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the idea of cheerful morning filled the realm with eager-to-face-the-day brightness. Mackenzie wanted to throw up her hood and recoil.

There were fewer faeries present than there had been at Queen Deirdre’s stadium-filling Court. Much fewer. This was like attending a friend of a friend’s wedding: too many strangers to feel welcome, but not enough to make a faceless crowd to hide in.

Immediately ahead of Mackenzie and Jona sat a hulking, brutish girl wearing a four-color comic superhero body suit that showed off her muscles. She was playing a board game with two others. To her left sat a faerie that looked drybrush-painted into existence, and as they moved the brushstrokes changed. To her right crouched someone Mackenzie first mistook for a purple and green rodent furry, until she realized he was an actual high school mascot and she knew him. She wondered just when it was that mascot fursuit and fursona fursuit had traded places as the normal, default assumption in her mind. And holy shit, Hearty Hammy Hamster from Hamilton High was a faerie? No wait, that made perfect sense.

On a partially obscured rooftop stood a clockwork prince whose ball gown was made of spinning gears. The movement caught her eye, and a shifting of the world later Mackenzie was looking directly at him. A mechanic’s grease-stained legs stuck out from underneath the gown. The prince’s cheeks were analog meters, and as the mechanic tinkered, the needles crept upwards. When a steam-whistle giggle erupted from the prince, Mackenzie realized she had been staring at something distinctly intimate. He winked at her before she could avert her gaze. She felt she should apologize, but Natalie’s words to her echoed in her ears about how the Otherworld makes it difficult to do anything someone else doesn’t want. If only Homeworld were so straightforward.

"Welcome," a short, soft-spoken young man with metal frame glasses said. With his fingers laced in front of him, he was too much politeness and Fair Trade shoes. He excused himself from the group he was speaking to and approached Mackenzie. "A new face is always a pleasant surprise. I’m Carter."

With so many faeries sporting extravagantly unreal appearances, his utterly commonplace attire was unsettling. For him to retain it in the Otherworld, she guessed he must live the socially conscious life others only blogged about. She suddenly worried whether her hoodie was sweatshop made. It probably was. She worried he would point this out. Yet rather than retreat from him, Mackenzie worried whether others saw her as threateningly average, too. Did they all fear she was judging them as strange because she looked roughly the same as she did in Homeworld?

"Mackenzie," she said. Carter bowed, leaving her awkwardly holding a hand outstretched to shake. "Um. Hi." She withdrew it and half-heartedly waved. "And this is Jona."

He bowed to Jona as well, and they responded with a sharp up-nod. “Jona and I have met.” He smiled. “I’ve told them they are welcome here any time.” Mackenzie did her best to interpret, but it was a disaster. It was hard enough keeping up with her own thoughts.

"It’s cool," Jona responded. "We’ll talk after."

"You sure?"

No. That was the answer on Jona’s face. They looked like they wanted to elaborate, but gave the slightest of glances toward Carter. With that, Jona left no room for further questioning and wandered to the ledge to sit. They nodded at an ironclad person who recognized them as they passed, but they didn’t seem interested in encouraging them to approach either.

"So," Carter began, leading Mackenzie to another rooftop where they would have some privacy, "you are the one who has been trying to reach me."

"Ah, yeah. That’s me. Um, is this a problem? You seemed pretty firm about it being springtime fair folk-only when we talked earlier. I mean, I still kinda feel like I am one? But then I saw the age thing, and … What?"

Carter raised his eyebrows as though Mackenzie had farted mid-sentence. “Just an FYI, most folk here prefer to be called artifaeries, or just faeries,” he corrected.

"Oh, sorry." The apology was sincere. It was these little things that reminded her how much of an outsider she was among her own kind.

Carter chuckled and continued as though Mackenzie hadn’t spoken at all. “The only ones who call themselves ‘fair folk’ are those who don’t even think we’re faeries.”

Talking to Carter in person was unlike exchanging texts. Mackenzie didn’t just hear Carter’s words, as he spoke, she understood them as clearly as if the thoughts and memories that gave rise to them were her own. She knew exactly the kind of person he was talking about, and her girlfriend’s mother was one of them. She laughed too.

"As for the season restriction," he lowered his voice, "that was an unfortunate but necessary rule for our meetings in Homeworld. We had some … problems with some First Genners.”

"I see." Mackenzie shifted uncomfortably as her hair raised.

The First Generation of artificial faeries was always spoken about in that hushed, terribly respectful tone people used whenever they wanted to show gratitude they didn’t feel, but knew politeness demanded they pretend to anyway. They weren’t even the first, if rumors of survivors were to be believed, but they were the first group to survive past the early years of life in large numbers. Even then, there were many who didn’t. How many Mackenzie wasn’t sure, but she suspected keeping that number under wraps was why Actyun and the others settled in the end.

Mackenzie was at the end of that cohort, and their “problems” were her problems, too. She wasn’t sure Carter realized that.

"You certainly cleaned the place up," Mackenzie said, changing the subject but unsure of how to bring up her reason for coming. She wasn’t certain she meant it as a compliment, but he took it as one.

"Thank you, but I can’t claim credit." And yet he beamed as though Mackenzie had given his baby a medal. "Realizing the vision of a home for us took everyone’s effort."

"But you’re the one in charge, right?"

Carter shrugged. “No one is. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say I’m a moderator. I’m more like a facilitator. I don’t think I could manage being in charge of things.”

As he spoke, Mackenzie’s mind flashed to her ill-fated attempt at group therapy sessions. She was sure the others found it helpful, but she couldn’t talk about being part faerie, so she talked about her mother raising her alone. Some attendees treated that as an invitation to offer their sage opinions on her “absentee father” causing all her problems. When she said their assumptions about her upbringing didn’t feel appropriate and that she’d rather stop, the sweater vest in charge urged her to keep going until she gave up and pretended to hate a man she’d never known, just like she was supposed to. He congratulated her “breakthrough”. She felt disgusting. He had called himself a moderator.

"That’s good, I think," Mackenzie replied. "I’m not sure how I feel about one person being in charge of a place like this." She knew what she’d promised Queen Deirdre, but monarchs seemed anachronistic for a reason. Mackenzie looked over the rooftops, taking it all in. "I mean, this is supposed to be a shared realm, right?”

"Precisely!" Carter said, pointing at her with both fingers. "Yes! That’s exactly what I said. Escaping the control of the few was why we carved out this space, a world away from their petty politics." The energy in his hands hinted that a monologue was incoming, but he didn’t continue. Instead he shifted his weight and gave Mackenzie a sly look. "You’ve only been here once before, right?"

Her hood went up on its own as the focus of conversation turned to her. She nodded.

"Forgive me, this is a rather blunt question, but is this your true form? It isn’t, is it?"

Mackenzie felt the urge to reply that she didn’t know what that meant, but stopped when she realized she did. He meant like Natalie as Sinlight, Deirdre’s digital dryad persona, or the clockwork prince. Mackenzie blushed, recalling. “Well, last time I wound up naked.”

"That’s it?"

She shrugged. “I guess?”

Carter clapped his hands together. “Then you missed the best part!” The scandalously excited way he spoke suggested he had something in mind. “Would you like to try again?”

"Uh, is this just an attempt to get me naked?" Mackenzie chuckled as if she was joking.

"No! No, no. That’s just the first step. Or a first step. Everyone’s different but that’s not uncommon.”

"Well, will it take long? Jona—" Mackenzie looked at where Jona had been sitting, but they were gone. Looking around the rooftops for them didn’t bring them magically into view, either. Or maybe she needed to know where they were to see them that way? She wasn’t sure. "I’m sorry, I don’t know where my friend is."

"There," Carter said, and pointed. An androgynous,  Nikean figure riding wings of light left trails of neon as they glided between the clouds. This form borrowed a dignified gravitas from classical imagery that running around with arms outstretched lacked. But the looping, sweeping arcs traced a whimsical flight path that was still recognizably Jona in its character. Mackenzie snickered. She was glad they were having fun.

"Then, yeah. Um, how does this work? Last time it just, I dunno, happened.”

"Close your eyes."

Nightmares of school spirit icebreakers and team building trust falls smacked her in the gut with an open hand. “Do I have to?” Mackenzie felt a twinge of regret before she finished asking. In her mind she heard the words she would use with Leigh to rationalize running when she didn’t have to. She didn’t want that.

"Well, no. Some folks just find it easier—"

Mackenzie chuckled and closed her eyes. “Nevermind. It’s fine. Go ahead.”

"So there isn’t a single way. Usually folks come here when they’re springtime faeries and just kinda figure it out by experimenting. We’ll have to try something different for you, I think." If Natalie had said it that way, Mackenzie would have felt ashamed even though she knew Natalie would never see her as a failure. But Carter’s gentle candor put her at ease. She knew what he meant, and she didn’t feel judged by him. That surprised her.

She opened one eye. “You’ve never actually talked someone through this before, have you?” Awkward silence. “That’s a no.”

"We’ll figure this out together! It’ll be fun." Mackenzie closed her eye again. "So, what kind of dreams did you have growing up? What did you want to be?"

Scientist came to mind instantly, like bold red letters on a magazine cover. But right on its heels came all the realities of being a materials chemist. They weren’t bad, just complicated. The childhood dream of “scientist” lived only in nostalgia, safe from the part of her that would point out how dreadfully dull that simplified fantasy scientist life would be. So she didn’t compare her dream to the boring stretches of time waiting for someone to finish with the fume hood, or to the way a fascinating question could keep her up until 4AM cross-referencing journal articles. That dream got her on the road, but it had been a long time since it was the reason she kept walking it.

"I can’t think of anything that fits. I got nothing."

"Is there any art that speaks to you?"

"Um, I had a riot grrrl phase that never really ended. I like my girlfriend’s old music a lot." Mackenzie shrugged. "I like Macbeth but … I don’t think Lady Macbeth is my hidden secret self."

"That’s good, I think?" Carter laughed. "How about something really obvious? What kind of magic do you do?"

That question. She hated that question, and she didn’t resist the urge to let it show in her posture. “Um. Trashmancy.” She braced for the laugh. The disbelief. The are you serious tone with which people repeated the word back to her.

"Cool!" Wait, what? "So, do you see yourself more like, hanging out in a dumpster, popping up to crack jokes and dispense wisdom? Or maybe a giant with a bulging body built out of full garbage bags?"

The sincerity of Carter’s enthusiasm made Mackenzie deeply uncomfortable. “Why are you so excited about this? It’s trash.” Sure, she thought it was kinda neat sometimes, but it was still trash.

"So? You’re one of us, and it’s part of who you are. What’s not cool about that?" He was so matter-of-fact about it that Mackenzie doubted he could conceive of seeing people any other way. "Lots of us find niches in the society where our magic has ‘market value’; hydromancy can be really useful! But what if you don’t want to be a pool lifeguard, or a greenhouse gardener, or a plumber? What if what you do is better done by a robot anyway? We wanted a place where we didn’t have to hold ourselves up to others’ expectations. If you can’t enjoy your magic for its own sake here, where can you?"

That broke her. It was like taking off a bad pair of shoes and finally sitting down. The discomfort melted away, and Mackenzie wanted to cry from relief. She almost did. Instead, she forced the words past the knot in her throat, saying, “She was more like … a hand-me-down heroine in junkyard armor, with stitched-on, mismatched metal plates salvaged from broken toys and cookware and furniture and refrigerators. She would wield a bike chain whip, and it was long, long enough to do that rope-swinging trick—I know that’s just movie stuff but I was a kid! And she had a shield made of a car side panel that still had a lightning bolt from a company logo on it. And a sword made of a fan blade—I’m sorry, this is sounding really violent! I don’t know if it’d be like that today.”

"No, no! Go on!"

For the first time in years she felt safe talking about her alter ego, the way she pictured herself fighting back against her bullies. Mackenzie grinned wide as the image came rushing back to her in full. “Um. She had a patchwork cape made of concert t-shirts that let her fly, and work boots with the steel toe exposed that were still super comfortable. And for formal things she had tights with holes in them, and a dress that was torn at the seam under the arm and hung open, with a coffee stained pink halter top underneath, and a dog collar held together by a padlock, and a tiara made of coat hangers with obviously fake plastic jewels stuck on.

"And she was gorgeous. Well, Hollywood ugly, because of the outfit, but would clean up to someone stunning." Mackenzie chewed her lip. "I don’t know how I feel about that. I wanted to make my bullies jealous—especially Andrea—and that was how I thought I could do it back then. But doing it that way now would feel like sacrificing all the work I’ve done accepting my body since then." Mackenzie shook her head. Carter wasn’t her therapist, and that wasn’t something she wanted to get into with him. "So, yeah. That’s it."

"Wow," Carter said. "I dig it. Want to show the others?"

"Show what?" Mackenzie opened her eyes. Her outfit wasn’t quite as she had described it, but it was exactly as she had pictured it. "Holy shit." The idea of other people seeing her like this startled her, like wearing a scarlet candy wrapper taped to her chest so all could see her embarrassing power. Her scrapheap outfit disappeared, leaving her safely, securely nude. Like last time.

No running. Not here. She closed her eyes again and sighed, pushing a calm resolve down to her fingertips and toes. Strangely enough she was feeling good about her powers, and she was determined to enjoy this, if only for today.

She opened her eyes, thankful that her garbage armor was back, complete with patchwork cape. Mackenzie nodded to Carter.

"You sure?"

She nodded again. With a whistle and a wave, he summoned the eyes of the others. The Attentionarium formed around Mackenzie and Carter. She saw Jona sitting on a ledge, wings draped off the edge behind them. Mackenzie flashed a can you believe this grin and, and they responded by smiling and clapping. She was glad Jona was here. She wished Natalie were as well.

Carter introduced her with glowing praise, but with all those eyes on her again, in this place, she was too nervous to process the words. But there was a welcoming excitement in the crowd that was nothing like the lurid gazes of Queen Deirdre’s Court. It was different in a way she could feel to her bones.

It felt like home. 

 

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Pieces of Lost Magic

[Content warning: graphic revenge fantasy focused on abuser’s hands, claustrophobia. Summary at end.]

Steeling herself for the depravity to come was all well and good, but it had left Mackenzie unprepared for the ominous banality of the dark closet. She waited. For what, she didn’t know. Some sign, any sign that she and Jona had arrived in the Otherworld. This was nothing like the Crossroads at Solstice. There was no instantaneous crossing of a threshold this time, and Jona hadn’t explained how she would know they had crossed over. Perhaps they thought it would be obvious and wouldn’t need explaining. That still left Mackenzie without a clear sign to watch for, and without one, her mind started picking apart every sensation for hints.

If there was a way to create a space with less light than behind a closed door in the basement, she didn’t know it. Dim rainbow echoes of the last light rippled in that black that extended endlessly in every direction. In those churning shapes, she could see her eyes attempting to adjust and failing.

Jona’s breathing was all Mackenzie could hear. The dark forever that extended in before her gave the illusion of freedom, but that tight sound pushed in from all sides, reminding her she was in a hole, underground. She could hear the nearness of the drywall-covered foundation stones behind her, and the hollowness of the balsa wood door ahead of her.

Her medication didn’t even take the edge off moments like this. It couldn’t. It was a situation custom crafted to hammer all her buttons at once. She knew what was coming could be dangerous, and even though she had only the meanest understanding of what that danger would be, the knowing was enough to foil her efforts at remaining calm. She knew there were things she didn’t know, answers she didn’t have, but that in the darkness, there was no way to ask Jona.

She forced herself to relax the tension in her neck. She flexed her hands. That was all she could manage. She felt the urge to stretch her back, but there was no room to maneuver her arms. A restless twinge in her quadriceps had to be ignored because there was no space to squat. She took a long, controlled breath, but the sound echoed off the wood in front of her. The door sounded closer, and fear grabbed her heart with both hands and wouldn’t let go. She told herself the door hadn’t moved, reminded herself that her vivid imagination was her anxiety’s greatest weapon when she let it take over, but it was no use. This was precisely the appropriate time for anxiety and there was no telling her body otherwise.

She clumsily groped to take Jona’s hand. She told herself it was because she didn’t want to lose them when they arrived in the Otherworld, but that was a lie. Jona didn’t seem to mind, and responded by repositioning their fingers for a firmer grip. Mackenzie could feel her heartbeat in her limbs. She offered Jona a reassuring squeeze, but she was sure she needed it more.

Time got fuzzy at moments like this. Her hyperawareness of every breath and every heartbeat competed for attention with the feeling of the soles of her shoes against her feet and the cotton texture of her hoodie on her forearms. There was no change to latch on to and ground herself, and every instant stretched into a void of anticipation. Her breathing was probably faster, but that was something she learned from others. It never felt like she was breathing faster. From inside the storm, it felt slower.

Fuck it. She needed to get out. She needed to get to fresh air, or light, or something. They could just find a different Crossroads to use, or a Blood-whatever the fuck Natalie had mentioned. She groped at the wood, searching for an edge to use for leverage to slide the door.

The scratching of the bedroom door along the carpet made Mackenzie freeze. Someone was inside the apartment with them. She squeezed Jona’s hand in shock. She could hear Jona’s head turn toward her, but she had no way of explaining what was going on. Had someone seen Jona’s dots of light before they faded and come to investigate after all? If so, then Jona’s first impulse to make light to converse by would be the worst thing they could do. She just had to hope they weren’t discovered and that Jona wouldn’t get too curious before they were safely in the dangers of Otherworld.

The door scraped the carpet again as whoever had opened it closed it behind them. The already soft footsteps were nearly silent as they approached, since it was cold concrete and not creaking wood beneath the carpet. An icy thought wound its way through Mackenzie’s mind. It might not be a helpful neighbor scoping out a break-in; it might be someone who just watched two people they took for scrawny teen girls sneak into a place that’s free of witnesses and hard to escape from. With her free hand, Mackenzie fished in her hoodie pocket for her yawara keychain, ready to ruin Johnny or Janey Creeper-on-the-Spot’s day if they opened the closet door.

Mackenzie’s fear turned to horror as she realized the depth of her mistake. Jona was blissfully unaffected by the sounds, so they were spared the dark thoughts that followed. They merely had to wait inside the closet. But Mackenzie was well and truly hiding in it now, just like the first half-faerie who used this place to escape from Creeper-on-the-Spot.

She had been so afraid of buying into the horror show on the other side, she hadn’t considered that the process might start before ever crossing over. Mackenzie let go of her yawara and reached for her phone. She had to talk to Jona somehow and ask what to do.

But was she so certain the sounds on the other side of the door weren’t real? Maybe this was just a thematic illusion like the glowing fog at Solstice’s Crossroads. But if it wasn’t an illusion—if there was, in fact, a person on the other side of the closet door—then the light of her phone’s screen would surely give them away. Whoever was out there might still go away without checking the closet.

No! That’s exactly what a person hiding in a closet would think! The fear was making it more real by the moment and she had to get it under control.

This called for stern and reckless force of will. She pulled out her phone and turned it on, and damn the consequences. If there was a real person out there, she’d just have to deal with that. If not, she might have just staved off, well, whatever happens to someone who gets trapped in a traumatized tumor in the Otherworld.

Jona squinted at the light and recoiled. Other than a bit of mild confusion, they looked as calm as a person waiting for a bus. Mackenzie didn’t know the proper sign for footsteps, but she let go of Jona’s hand, pointed to her ear, pointed toward the door, and signed, “Walking.” The hostile, alien shadows cast by her phone made it impossible to read the expression on Jona’s bottom-lit face.

Jona had no chance to reply. The door slid open, revealing the Grotesquerie in all its profane glory. Large, disembodied hands seized Mackenzie by the upper arms and lifted her out of the closet with the nonchalance of a parent picking up a child. Mackenzie clamped down on her phone as her feet left the ground. For once, her clumsiness worked out to her advantage; protecting her phone had become a powerful impulse.

The hands were narrow, all knuckles and tendons. But the skin didn’t have the papery transparency of old age. Instead, they looked well moisturized and manicured, with a fresh coat of plum nail polish, but wracked by arthritis just the same. They were at least twice the size of her own, the palms spanned from Mackenzie’s armpits to her elbows. She felt childlike by proportion.

They weren’t attached to a body, but they didn’t end in severed cross sections or stumps, either. She couldn’t say how they ended. The familiar way in which her attention just skipped over that detail was the surest sign she’d been dragged into the Otherworld. Looking directly at where the wrists should be was no problem, but all she saw was the bending and twisting of space to reveal the Otherscape beyond. Meanwhile, foveating on the hands themselves drew her to the details of each ridge, crease, and hair. She didn’t want to think about why details like the brush strokes in the nail polish were so clear.

The room they had been in moments ago was gone, replaced by a factory floor of impossible geometry. True to Jona’s words, an army of disembodied hands worked all manner of machines, some resembling ancient torture devices, others wholly imagined for the task of punishing one another. They were all identical to the pair that held Mackenzie, save for variations in size and state of dismantling.

Vivisectionist hands at one table took turns slicing each others’ tendons and ligaments, like an orderly game surgical chess aimed at crippling the other. At another, team of hands held down a victim while a drill press bored a hole in its thumb nail. Mackenzie looked away, only to find herself gazing at a row of bloated hands in an incubator. As she watched, one burst like an egg sac and tiny hands crawled, spiderlike, from the fissure.

Mackenzie glanced back. Like a child to a scolding, another hand dragged a staggering Jona into the realm behind the wall. Jona limply acquiesced. Mackenzie wished she could look as fearlessly unimpressed. But the mayhem around her was overwhelming. No sense was spared. The sight and sound of snapping bones and peeling skin were bad enough; she’d prepared for that as much as she could. But the worst was the analgesic cream stench. She didn’t just smell it, the oily essence hung in the air and settled into her every pore.

She wanted to console herself with the knowledge that whoever this scene was about probably deserved all this and worse. It seemed like the kind of retribution she would cheer on with every fiber of her being, but being confronted with the magnitude of what had been envisioned was equally horrifying. Fuck whoever made these ideas seem comforting to some kid. But she couldn’t imagine actually doing this. She hoped the person who created this place was alive and happy somewhere. Mackenzie tried to focus on that rather than the industrial scale depravity surrounding her.

Her serenity was shattered by a sensation of falling. With a jaw rattling thud she landed on a conveyor belt. In defiance of any rational spatial relationship, there was nothing under the belt except more Grotesquerie, so jumping off wasn’t an improvement on her present situation. Mackenzie could no longer see Jona. Her phone was still in her hand, so she briefly considered texting. But she doubted even the best carrier offered unlimited data coverage in the Otherworld. She pocketed it and zipped the pocket shut. So, boredom. Right. Magical Faerie Boredom, Go!

… Well, it was worth trying.

A new set of hands grabbed her by the wrists and yanked her over onto her stomach. She groaned as her torso smacked the belt. The bellyflop dazed her, but she looked up to get her bearings.

At a workstation ahead, hands on either side bounced gleefully, brandishing cartoonishly oversized cleavers. A crude purple crayon diagram depicted a large stick person holding a smaller stick person’s hand, and each hand had too many fingers. In green and red and black, violent squiggles defaced the larger figure, leaving only the hands uncovered.

It didn’t take a grown-up to figure out how this was supposed to end. There was no way she could manifest boredom quickly enough or sincerely enough to get out of this pickle with her hands intact. And as post-war cartoonish as the violence was, she doubted she could pop new hands out of her sleeves like a Tex Avery gag. Who thought it was a good idea to bring the girl with anxiety issues to a place where she had to be bored in the face of danger, anyway? 

A thought occurred to her: this wasn’t her fantasy, and she didn’t have to play along. The hands pinning her wrists in place weren’t attached to anything. They were just hands. Arthritic hands at that. She had a whole body with which she could gain leverage on them. She lifted her arms up, and the hands came along like severed bracelets but offered no resistance. She peeled one off and threw it at one of the cleaver wielding hands, knocking the cleaver free. She kicked the other cleaver wielder just before it swiped at her, sending it tumbling end over end through the ethereal space.

The other hand let go of her wrist and fell onto the belt. She lifted her foot to stomp on it, but it skittered up her leg and under her hoodie. She could feel the manicured nails scraping her skin on her back as she reached behind her to grab it. It popped out the top of her hoodie and took a fistful of her hair.

"Ow! You little shit—" She seized it with both hands and uncurled each finger one at a time. Winding up, she flung it as hard as she could at an incinerator at the end of an upside down conveyor belt above her. Her actual upper-body strength wasn’t great, but in the Otherworld, she had a bat-shattering pitching arm’s worth of enough of this shit attitude. She wanted it to hit the flames at full speed and that’s exactly what happened, complete with a satisfying, hand-shaped outpocketing of the metal on the far side of the incinerator.

A musical Ding! rang out. The Otherscape folded, and an unlabeled wooden number board on the far wall flipped from 138442 to 138443. Standing atop a 19th Century foreman’s platform beneath the number board was a cutout of a marker drawing of the same child, only it was larger, older, and drawn in full outline rather than stick figure. It was the creation of a more mature hand, but this time the same chaotic scribbling obscured its face. The cutout clapped and giggled at Mackenzie’s act of destruction.

"Fuck!" She was letting herself buy into the Grotesquerie’s twisted logic again. She needed a new strategy.

She spotted Jona. Across an impassable span of hateshop floor and traveling upward on a conveyor belt orthogonal to her own, Jona relaxed with their fingers folded across their stomach. They were heading for a meat dicer.

"Jona!" Mackenzie shouted. Instantly, she realized how foolish that was, but she also wasn’t certain Jona couldn’t hear in the Otherworld. Weirder things had happened. “Not being deaf” wouldn’t even make the top five list anymore. But she also had no reason to assume Jona’s ideal form in the Otherworld was hearing, either. Nevertheless, she waved her arms to try and get their attention.

Jona waved back excitedly, heedless of the danger ahead. They overdramatically blew kisses, miming a royal cruise ship departure. And a moment later, they were dumped into the dicer. Mackenzie flinched and turned away, but forced herself to look again. Nothing came out the other side. No blood, no scraps of Jona’s acid wash skinny jeans, nothing.

Mackenzie didn’t think she could manage that kind of energetic detachment from her surroundings. But she was ready to name it for what it was: absurd. It was a cathartic fantasy, one that probably helped someone survive a horrific reality, but it was still fantasy nonetheless. What that person needed at the time had become an excessive, ridiculous pulp horrorshow that helped no one.

The Grotesquerie responded to her thoughts like a foreign antigen. Every hand halted what it was doing and spun to “face” her. The Otherscape bent in on itself so that she could both see and be seen by all of the hands at once. When it had happened at the Threshold Between Concrete and Sky, Mackenzie thought of the space as forming an auditorium, since that was how Deirdre used it. But that word didn’t do justice to the oppressive force of having a space reshape itself so everyone and everything could devote its’ attention to you. It was more like an Attentionarium.

Mackenzie looked at the cutout, and the Attentionarium spun and twisted to set her face to face with it. The scribbled squiggles defacing the cutout jittered chaotically like jumbled animation frames, and it pointed at her so hard it tore the paper at its armpit. The hands swinging weapons rushed across the non-space toward her. Those without weapons slapped the machinery or clapped with each other to cheer on the the attackers. All the malice of the place turned squarely on Mackenzie, and all she could do was sigh.

She couldn’t—wouldn’t—pity the Shadow. Pity was a substitute emotion. It was the effigy burned in place of real anger, or sorrow. Mackenzie couldn’t do that. She couldn’t distance herself from knowing what kind of mind conjures an avatar like that to rule a place like this. She knew. The things she endured were different, but she’d be a liar if she said she’d never fantasized about things just as vivid as this. But she also knew that there was no help to be found in this fantasy, not for the creator, nor the Shadow, nor her. Hands swinging knives, hatchets, saws, swords, hammers, awls, drills, pliers, broken glass, edges of paper, and everything in the household junk drawer charged towards Mackenzie from every direction.

She was ready to leave.

 

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[Summary: Mackenzie experiences an anxiety attack while waiting in the closet to cross over, and takes Jona’s hand for comfort. She hears a figure skulking about outside the closet, but when the door opens, she is pulled into the Otherworld by large hands. The Grotesquerie is a massive cavalcade of revenge fantasies focused on an abuser’s hands. Mackenzie comes to recognize how absurd the cartoonish hyperviolence is, now totally removed from the context of its creation, and frees herself.]

DLC: Faerie Girls On The Internet

Mackenzie rushed mid to grab gold, messing up her build order and offering any veteran player the juiciest of early game targets. But Natalie wasn’t a veteran. She perked up when Natalie said she liked Starcraft II; it’d been over a year since she’d played against someone she knew. But it was only after the first laughably lopsided victory that Mackenzie learned Natalie had only ever played the single player campaign. So, sure, it was shamelessly exploiting Natalie’s inexperience to grab the high yield expansion right out of the gate. But after two hours of strictly TvZ, Natalie had only learned to harass early. She was still working on learning to harass often.

Maybe she was being a little hard on Natalie because Natalie played Zerg. Maybe. Mackenzie hated the Zerg. She thought arthropods were gross in real life, and the Zerg doubled down on the ick. But Natalie had fallen in nerdlove with Kerrigan, even going so far as to refer to her side only as The Swarm. The girl got scary into character when playing. It was so adorable.

Mackenzie spotted the movement on her minimap before the attack warning. A lone zergling scout had discovered her base grab. Her marines weren’t going to make it in time, so she canceled the build and used the SCV to lure the zergling toward the oncoming marines. Natalie let it get off two more hits before retreating from the marines.

Mackenzie giggled and bounced on her futon.

"Are you clapping?” Natalie asked. Natalie’s cheap microphone made her voice sound like she was on the far end of a subway tunnel and only the echo was being recorded. Then sent through a high pass filter. Then played back on a telephone.

"You’re learning! I’m so proud of you!"

"Shut up! I told you I’m new at this."

"No, sweetie, I’m not being sarcastic. That’s a big deal." It had taken Mackenzie months to learn not to waste units by overcommitting. Then again, the players in Natalie’s tier would have sent those marines chasing that lone zergling all over the map, so it wasn’t likely Natalie would have learned that skill any earlier playing against them.

"I still don’t understand how you’re so good at this. You’re gaming on a fucking laptop."

"Hun, I learned to play using a track pad. Learning to love hotkeys was the only way I could even survive to midgame." With the marines in place, it was time to try again for that base. A mildly costly setback, but she’d make it up in time. "Of course, I couldn’t do micro for shit until got a decent mouse."

"Ugh. Is ‘micro’ short for yet another unit I have to worry about countering?”

"Micromanagement. Unit control, focusing fire, that sort of thing." She hadn’t seen a spire the last time she’d scouted Natalie, so she figured she had time before the mutalisk swarming became a threat. "You realize that for once, this is something I know more about than you?” Mackenzie grinned and reclined against her futon. She let out a loud, contented sigh. “I’m just gonna bask in this moment.”

"How about you bring those marines over here and I’ll give you something to be smug about."

"Shhh. Can you hear it? No clicking. My hands are off my keyboard. I’m basking."

"Fuck you."

"Ooo, I like you when you’re all feisty."

Unlike Natalie, she didn’t think of herself as a gamer, and she had far less ego on the line. There was just one game she was good at, and she’d only gotten good at it to play with friends when she lived on campus. Console shooters were a humiliating experience, and turn-based strategy games seemed like dreadfully dull time sinks. It was a fluke that she liked it enough to get serious about the strategy and win more than she lost. But it was a game she could play and a setting she loved.

Mackenzie had a special loathing for the entire Elven magic/Elven fantasy genre, which cut out a significant portion of games. The name was a holdover from the literary genre, but that wasn’t the only reason she hated it. Both the games and their players seemed to fetishize faerie magic at the same time they reduced it to ability scores and power levels. The question of whether her trashmancy would be based on physical or mental attributes seemed so absurd she wondered if anyone had ever stopped to ask an actual faerie how magic worked.

She’d tried liking it. In high school, a crush named Jake Wachholz fought to get her to give it another chance. So she did, because he was cute and he was OhGoddexActuallyTalkingToHer and that’s just how things were for her in high school.

But when she asked why “faerie” was always a class unto itself, and why couldn’t fair folk learn to swing a sword or shoot a gun like anyone else, he lectured her in semi-religious pomposity about the Sacredness of Game Balance. When she pointed out fair folk don’t get to choose their powers, he explained in similarly sweeping fashion that being forced to play with a random power wasn’t fun because you could get stuck with a worthless power.

Then he tried to say that wasn’t what he meant. Then he kept trying to call the rest of that week. She recalled the phrase “pearls before swine” had come up in one of his later voicemails. That was the last one she listened to before deleting them as they arrived.

She wished she could “level up” in trashmancy. Maybe she’d spend a perk point in controlling organic wastes so she could literally fling people like Jake’s shit back at them.

Jake could keep Elven fantasy. And he could keep his fucking pearls. That way he would have them to clutch while she lectured him about how perfectly balancing asymmetric forces in player vs. player was an impossible goal because novel strategies in the hands of a skilled player would always feel imbalanced to scrubs like him.

Far-future scifi, though? That spoke to Mackenzie. As imaginary technology closed the gap between mundane and magical, it tended to care a lot less about the distinction. She herself was proof that technology could make someone part faerie, so she had a special place in her heart for the ghosts. It was why she played Terran. She just knew to stay away from any of the novelized fiction about the ghost program’s training. It was probably cool, but it hit a little too close to home given her own past.

Natalie had held her own against Mackenzie’s first push and they were now solidly into the midgame. Mackenzie had a significant advantage in resources, but it worried her that she still hadn’t seen more than a handful of Natalie’s usual mutalisks. Either her suddenly improved micro was coming at the cost of her macro—which was likely—or she’d totally changed up her tactics—which given this was Natalie, was also likely. Metagaming a player who lacked a coherent strategy was impossible.

A scanner sweep in uncontrolled territory made Mackenzie’s stomach drop. Natalie had a saturated mining base that had entirely escaped Mackenzie’s notice until then. And just at the edge of scanner range, a hydralisk disappeared into the fog of war.

"I saw that," Mackenzie said.

"Saw whaaaaaat?" Natalie innocently teased.

Natalie’s Swarm descended on Mackenzie’s base at middle, hydralisks and roaches. In any other circumstance, it would take a more skilled hand than Natalie’s to make that work, but Mackenzie had gone heavy on marines and thors to deal with Natalie’s penchant for aerial units. It wasn’t exactly rock vs. scissors, but it wasn’t far off.

At first, Mackenzie thought she’d caught a lucky break. Natalie had let the hydras get too far ahead of the roaches and in perfect range to focus fire them down before trouble arrived. But seconds later, a flood of red dots appeared on her minimap. Zerglings rushed in from behind, catching the bulk of Mackenzie’s forces as they were falling back. When the second medivac went down just before getting out of range, Mackenzie saw where this was going.

[All] MagicalTrash88: gg

MagicalTrash88 has left the game!

MagicalTrash88 was defeated!

SinlightWitch was victorious!

Mackenzie had to take off her headset to escape the cheering. Natalie was a fast learner. That meant next game she’d learn how quickly ghosts could ruin someone’s day.

 

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Every Kid Knows The Way

Cleaning up shadows sounded more like how Natalie would spend an afternoon than Mackenzie, but that was all that was left to do. They stacked the mostly-dry wooden limbs on a chair, and leaned the torsos against the wall. That left walking space as they gathered up the rest of the painting supplies.

The cleanup work gave the spoiled-mood stench time to dissipate. Even though Jona had sided with Mackenzie, she was glad there was work to focus on. If there hadn’t been, Mackenzie would have felt too awkward and unwelcome to stay even if Jona had insisted. She wasn’t sure they would have insisted if she’d offered to leave instead of help.

Jona was hard for Mackenzie to read. She couldn’t assume their silence was a sign of heavy thoughts, nor a deliberate snub. Her gut kept trying to treat it that way, but she pushed that down. There was only one way to find out.

"You sure you’re ok?"

Jona didn’t respond right away, only shrugged and looked away to the stack of painted silhouettes. Then they let loose. What followed was a flurry of flustered signing that Mackenzie couldn’t hope to keep up with. Jona had switched back to the usual grammar and flow of ASL. That alone wouldn’t be enough to throw Mackenzie off, but in that moment Mackenzie realized just how much Jona had been slowing their signing down for her benefit.

Mackenzie wanted to interrupt Jona, but their words were coming out in such a crushing flow that she began to doubt whether she should. It was clearly important to Jona to get this out, but she didn’t want to fake it and let Jona believe she understood it all. She could—she caught an “always”, several “nots”, a reference to Natalie, and something about “trust”— enough to fake it with a reply. She was afraid if she didn’t she risked getting demoted to Jona’s list of people they couldn’t talk to, killing their nascent friendship on the spot.

Jona’s hands slowed down, and eventually stopped. They smirked with sarcastic sympathy. “Don’t understand.”

Caught. Mackenzie shook her head. “Sorry.”

"It’s fine."

Mackenzie held up her phone to suggest texting it, but Jona shrugged it off as not a big deal. Yet after a pause to consider, Jona pulled out their phone.

Jona: [natalie is very sensitive about that for obv reasons and lex KNOWS BETTER]

Jona: [and natalie does too I suppose. which was lexs point but :/ ]

Jona: [lex never got over it when ey found out and ey’s held it over nat ever since. now lex thinks ey’re protecting her]

Jona: [usually lex just waits for the breakup to tell nat ey told her so but this was out of line]

Jona sighed.

Jona: [sorry i know you prob feel hurt she didnt tell you so i shoudnt complain about it to you.]

[I just don’t know why I’m such a threat. Don’t tell me Lex wants her back.]: Mackenzie

Mackenzie rolled her eyes. Jona offered Mackenzie a sympathetic glance that was exaggerated as most things were for Jona, eyebrows all the way up, mouth twisted, and a full-bodied shrug. “Doubt it,” Jona added. “Sorry. You ok? This was big.”

This time Mackenzie wasn’t sure. It depended on Natalie, and until Mackenzie could talk to her herself, there wasn’t much to say. She didn’t want to believe it was as simple as Lex made it sound, but nothing Jona had said had disputed anything Lex had said about Natalie’s magic.

That ignited another fear. Was Natalie making excuses to not see her because she didn’t want to tell this to Mackenzie? Was she avoiding Mackenzie because what Lex hinted at was true? “I will be ok.”

"Give Natalie —"

"Didn’t understand." Mackenzie expected Jona to explain with fingerspelling or light writing as usual, but they skipped right to using their phone instead. Mackenzie felt a pang of guilt, fearing she’d been taking Jona’s patience with her novice signing for granted, but she reminded herself it had been a hard afternoon for Jona, too.

Jona: [if you broke up now i dont think anyone would hold it against you. even nat. shes a hard person to love. but give her a chance]

[Heh. Lex said the opposite.] :Mackenzie

Jona: [thats true too]

Mackenzie could see why Natalie thought of Jona as a big sibling: they truly were protective of her. In its own way, it was reassuring to see that despite Lex’s insinuation about Natalie being duplicitous, she was still able to inspire loyalty in friends who knew the truth. But was Jona’s protectiveness just an amplification of some early affection?

No. Mackenzie couldn’t let herself start down that road or there would be no end to it.

Jona shuffled their feet as if they had more to say. Mackenzie quirked their head inquisitively.

"Question, before?" Their posture shifted and their face brightened. They were changing the topic, which Mackenzie was thankful for.

"It’s big. May I?" Mackenzie gestured to her phone. Jona nodded. Mackenzie began typing up her explanation of Queen Deirdre’s request only to delete it and start over. She didn’t want to drag Jona into that part of it any more than she wanted to bring Natalie into it. Jona didn’t rush Mackenzie, nor wander off to do something else while they waited. In the end, Mackenzie only sent one line.

[I’m in trouble.] :Mackenzie

"How?" Jona asked.

[I need to get to the Threshold Between Concrete and Sky because someone is there I need to see. But Queen Deirdre sealed the Crossroads at Solstice. You got in while Natalie and I were there so I wanted to know how you did it.] :Mackenzie

Jona: [why not ask natalie?]

Mackenzie paused to consider how to respond, but the pause was enough for Jona. They waved a hand at Mackenzie to get her attention. “Nevermind, nevermind.”

Jona: [yeah i can show you a way in]

Mackenzie wasn’t expecting Jona’s back door into the Otherworld to involve breaking and entering. Even though the better part of Mackenzie’s adolescence had been spent in places she wasn’t supposed to be, jumping fences and ignoring “Authorized Personnel Only” signs didn’t involve climbing through residential windows. Jona assured her no one lived in the garden apartment anymore, which was why they used it. Mackenzie was going to have to scribble this one in the margins of her bucket list just to check it off.

Every townhouse on the block had a unique facade, and most had only a single door. The street was one way but had still been divided with a strip of grass and trees down the middle, making street parking impossible. Anyone who owned an entire townhouse in this neighborhood had get away with murder money. Some, like the one they were sneaking into, had been converted to multiple leased units, but there was no way Mackenzie and Jona could pass themselves off as renters who lived there if anyone asked. She doubted anyone on the block even owned a hoodie or skinny jeans.

The window they chose was around the back, behind the building’s illegally but usefully placed dumpster. Forethought had gone into making this into a regular route, shielded from prying eyes. A little carefully applied pressure was all it took to pop one corner of the window out of the frame and they were in. That trick was why most garden apartments had bars on the window.

In lieu of a flashlight, Jona poked small pearls of light into the air. They wouldn’t risk making it too bright, in case anyone saw from the street. It wasn’t quite enough to navigate by comfortably, but it was ideal for turning the water heater and furnace shadows into a nightmarish apparitions.

Water pipes and electrical conduits were painted light blue to match the cinder block walls. The floor under the beige carpet was too hard; it had been laid across the bare concrete with no padding. Seams in the mismatched cinder blocks revealed where half-walls had been extended to partition the glorified basement into individual rooms with doors.

Mackenzie wondered how such an apartment could sit unoccupied long enough to become a “regular” route. Jona said it hadn’t; it went in phases but it never remained rented long because of the Crossroads.

Before they had even left Jona’s studio, Jona said they’d be encountering a Grotesquerie on the other side of the Crossroads and asked if Mackenzie would be up for that. They tip-toed around asking Mackenzie outright if she’d ever been sexually assaulted, hinting at the form the Grotesquerie would take. Thankfully that wasn’t a problem for Mackenzie.

"Good," Jona had replied. "It’s harder to leave if you like what you see." The implications of that had startled Mackenzie. She didn’t think she wanted to know who would like seeing assault. Jona had to spend the entire train ride trying to explain what they’d meant.

According to Jona, Natalie had named this Crossroads “Vengeance Porn vol. 3: Requiem For Hands and Other Unwanted Things” during her Sinlight days. Apparently that wasn’t even one of the “strange” names Natalie had come up with.

It was a gallery of the most beautiful horrors a desperate mind could conjure. Disembodied hands with the skin flayed off turned cranks that dipped other hands in acid. Feral hands threw themselves helplessly against the walls of rat cages to escape. Hands took turns breaking each others’ fingers. Fingernails—Mackenzie had to stop Jona there; she’d deal with that image when the time came. As an afterthought, Jona had added that Natalie had told them something about wailing voices and giggling.

None of it bothered Jona, so they liked using this Crossroads. Well, lucky them.

Once they were in the bedroom, Mackenzie didn’t need to be shown where the Crossroads was. “The closet,” she said.

"Every kid knows the way," Jona said.

"Explain?"

"Some closets let monsters in," Jona said, teaching Mackenzie the signs along the way. Jona nodded toward the closet door. "And some are a way out."

Since they would just be using this as a crossing point, Jona said they would need to move through it and away from the nexus as quickly as possible. The danger, Jona claimed, was that if a Grotesquerie was compatible with one’s own pain it could end up being too satisfying to leave. It wasn’t a matter of physical escape; run as one might, as long as a person was invested in the scene around them, they would remain at the nexus no matter how much distance they covered. Jona likened it to the party zeitgeist of Queen Deirdre’s realm. Mackenzie thought of the always-visible stars.

Enjoying the perverse funhouse show wasn’t the only danger. The need to flee the horrors would also be a threat. The Grotesquerie was born of a need to escape, and ultimately that was more powerful than even the satisfaction of revenge. “The key is boredom,” Jona said. Easy for them to say. They’d seen it all before.

With nothing left to discuss, both of them stepped into the closet.

"Ready?" Jona asked.

Mackenzie nodded. Jona closed the door. Darkness and silence.

 

[If you liked what you read, please consider contributing to the Patreon that makes it possible!]

(Author’s Note)

Hey folks! Quick word about the slow updates in April. Today was the culmination of a year’s research on individuals with non-binary genders, and so my writing time and energy the past two weeks has been devoted to that. But with today’s research presentation done, things are back on track!

Painted Shadows

Mackenzie didn’t reach out to Carter the day she saw Queen Deirdre, and then one day turned into two. Even though she thought Natalie had a right to know what was happening, she didn’t want to put Natalie between Queen Deirdre and herself, so she didn’t tell her that night. She didn’t want to spoil the mood the next time she saw her either. And it certainly wasn’t something she wanted to tell Natalie over text; knowing Natalie she’d confront her mother that instant and Mackenzie wasn’t sure who’d survive the showdown. So that meant waiting until next time she saw her and she’d figure out the next step from there.

But between Natalie’s job and other things, that next time hadn’t come. With no job of her own, that left Mackenzie with nothing but time to torture herself about whether Natalie’s excuses were legitimate. By the end of only the second day of writing cover letters—for jobs her chemistry degree barely qualified her for—she’d convinced herself it was the beginning of a lazy, non-confrontational breakup.

As she rode the train to her next appointment with Leigh she realized she’d let this question of Carter loom over her for more than a week. Still, she’d never sent out so many resumes in a week before, and if she got a job that afternoon she’d only be two weeks late with rent. She didn’t want to go back to trash shopping. Even if she was the best at it, it was still living without control.

She was stalling. She pulled out her phone to settle things once and for all. As she stared at the last message Carter had sent her, she decided to text Jona.

[I’ll be on the west side til 3. Want to hang out after?] :Mackenzie

She tapped her phone on her knee and looked out the window, careful to appear engaged in thought and avoid eye contact with the boy sitting across from her. A painted “burgerrito” as large as the train car covered the entire wall of a factory-turned-clothing store. She was unclear on just what made it different from a ground beef burrito. Did they put pickles in it or something? 3AM drunk food to be sure.

Jona didn’t save her from having to contact Carter by texting back right away. Worst. New. Friend. Ever.

[It’s Mackenzie. From a couple weeks ago. Went to the Otherworld finally, but I had some questions. You seemed like someone who knew things.] :Mackenzie

It seemed neutral enough. But as soon as she sent it, she realized Carter had to know she was responsible for his little coup, so there was no point in being coy. For that matter, why hadn’t he contacted her by now? He should be thanking her.

The phone buzzed in her hand and adrenaline crashed through her, worried it was Carter already. It was only Lex’s garbage string of characters.

%u!&j?8: [Jona can’t text atm but said to come by the studio whenever. There’s paint so dress accordingly.]

I2Wr0*p: [No grabbing my chest this time.]

Was ey really so obtuse as to think Mackenzie shoving em away was her grabbing eir chest? The fuck?

Lex replying for Jona dampened Mackenzie’s enthusiasm all through therapy. Sitting on Leigh’s couch was no different than sitting on the train; the cushion was softer but the same thoughts were playing on repeat, like saxophone background music that was too aggressively boring to tune out once noticed.

There was so much she couldn’t explain to Leigh, even though she was one of the handful of counselors that wasn’t scared of dealing with faeries. Even if she tried telling Leigh about the Otherworld, and Queen Deirdre, and the Rabbit Hole, she wouldn’t know where to begin. She barely understood it herself.

She tried passing the Rabbit Hole off as a bad panic attack, and that she was ok now. She left out where it happened, or the way everyone around her characterized it as a suicide attempt. She wasn’t foolish; if that was where her head had been at, she wouldn’t have left that part out for Leigh. But it wasn’t. She told Leigh she’d met Natalie’s mother, said she had a larger than life personality and left it at that.

She dropped in a comment about her job hunting binge, which earned a, “That’s good!” from Leigh. It was unsettling how much that acknowledgment meant to her. The longer her joblessness went on, the harder it was getting to tune out her sister Mallory’s voice telling her she just wasn’t doing enough. Perversely, the way she was scraping to pretend to be qualified just to keep sending out applications was evidence of the opposite. Not that Mallory would see it that way.

But in the end, Leigh didn’t buy it. “What’s really going on?”

Mackenzie shrugged. “It’s silly. I did something stupid when I met her mom. Now her mom is holding it over me in a bad way, and I haven’t told her yet.”

Leigh raised an eyebrow. Mackenzie sighed. If she told Leigh not to worry about it, she’d respect that. She liked that about her. But she was trying not to fall back into being the silent, evasive brat she was during their first dozen sessions. So she told Leigh everything, as best she could describe it. Even though she could use magic, the Otherworld was so alien even to her that describing it out loud made her feel more crazy than usual.

The look of detached acceptance on Leigh’s face didn’t help. It was the same look Mackenzie gave friends when they were describing a dream.

"Well?" Mackenzie asked.

Leigh offered a helpless shrug. “Well, if you were anyone else, I’d say that—as a counselor—this Otherworld sounds like a profoundly unhealthy place. Learning to accept things as beyond your power to change is a crucial skill for healing and growing. You can’t move on if you still think you can fix things, even if it is comforting.” Leigh clicked and unclicked her pen on her cheekbone idly.

"But?"

"But I’m not a faerie, Mackenzie. This is real for you in a way that it isn’t for me, and that’s not a situation many in my field are equipped to deal with." Leigh reclined in her meshback office chair. "When I was trained, my mentor was still teaching that faeries were people who crafted elaborate hoaxes for the attention. He called it ‘Munchhausen Syndrome, magical persecution subtype’. Now, I’d like to think I’m a little more sophisticated than that—" Leigh winked, "—and I’m willing to accept that because of your situation you need something other than the typical help. But I also wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least say that it worries me. Fair?"

"Fair." Disappointing, but not surprising. Leigh was wonderful, but she didn’t get it. And for once, that mattered.

"Hey Mackenzie?" Mackenzie looked up. "I don’t say this often: you’re more ok than you think. You are one of the toughest people I’ve met, professionally or otherwise. Whatever this is, you’ll get through it."

"Thanks." She wasn’t sure she believed it, and part of her wanted to argue that she wouldn’t be here if she were ok. But she caught herself before she started arguing against herself in front of the very person who pointed out her habit for doing that.

All that was left was to break the news about being unable to pay. Leigh didn’t explode, she just looked down and took a slow breath. That made Mackenzie feel even more ashamed. “I see. What about your meds? Do you have enough?”

"Yeah. I’ll last a few more weeks."

Leigh nodded. “That’s for the best, then. But in the future I’d appreciate knowing ahead of time.”

"So, what now?" Mackenzie asked, just above a whisper. She couldn’t look Leigh in the eye.

"Well, I won’t be putting you in the schedule when you’ll just cancel because you can’t pay. That’s not just disrespectful of my time but also of my other clients’. But what I can do is have Rob put you at the end of the cancellation call list." Mackenzie opened her mouth to point out she still wouldn’t be able to pay, but Leigh had anticipated her reaction. "That way, I can waive my fee and it only affects me."

Now Mackenzie truly felt ashamed.

Lex was still at Jona’s studio when Mackenzie arrived, but she wasn’t about to bail now that she was already there. As Mackenzie was learning, “hanging out” with an energetic, driven visual artist really meant “helping with their latest project”. Not that she was opposed to it. Jona’s frenetic creativity was infectious; it made Mackenzie want to pick up a pencil and draw again. But with Lex around, that meant sharing Jona’s attention on a day when she needed privacy.

Paint stains covered every inch of Jona’s painting outfit: a once-white t-shirt and cutoff jean shorts. A few streaks had been wiped on their arms and forehead. Lex was dressed in laundry day couture and eir green hair was clipped up, but ey had managed to stay clean for the most part. For once, Mackenzie felt overdressed.

Jona had put them both to work painting plywood partial silhouettes black to look like solid shadows. By breaking each silhouette into pieces and staggering them throughout the scene, Jona claimed it would add a three-dimensionality that shadows don’t normally have. Mackenzie was sure she’d love the final photos but she was having a hard time picturing it. She figured that’s what made Jona the artist.

As soon as Mackenzie picked up a brush, it occurred to her that conversation of any kind would be tricky, regardless of Lex. At first, she tried every few minutes to engage Jona and catch up, but that meant both of them had to set their brushes down to sign anything more complicated than a nod or a shrug. Jona never seemed put off by the interruption, and never rushed their answers to get back to work, but Mackenzie’s uncertainty made the time between pauses grow longer each time. Eventually she stopped entirely.

That left Lex. Mackenzie preferred the silence.

Unfortunately, Lex had a different plan and tried repeatedly to converse with her. She wasn’t sure why—their conversations never ended well—unless Lex somehow believed they were actually getting along. Natalie, Deirdre, Mara, the Otherworld, everything they had in common was fodder for an argument of some sort, so she answered only the minimum in an effort to remain civil.

It was disingenuous, but Mackenzie even pointed out that it was impolite to leave Jona out of the conversation as a way to get Lex to stop trying. Lex responded with a cheeky grin and said ey couldn’t sign for shit, but Jona let em get away with it because ey was texting it all to Jona. Rather than one conversation, it was three separate conversations, each on a different medium.

But after Jona saw the latest transcript, they set their brush down. Mackenzie wasn’t aware she was giving off that clear of a signal, but Jona asked, “Is Lex a problem?”

"No, it’s ok," Mackenzie replied. Mackenzie reached for her brush again but stopped. "I have a question," she signed, careful not to speak as she did. She didn’t know a better way of signing for privacy, so she just added, "One," and hoped Jona realized she meant, "Alone."

"Now who’s leaving people out?" Lex prodded.

They checked their phone and shook their head sharply at Lex, and to Mackenzie’s surprise, Lex didn’t press the issue.

"It’s Nat and Queen D." She used Jona’s personal sign for Natalie, but Jona signed to stop.

Jona made an emphatic “Q” sign and repeated the sign Mackenzie had made. “You did K. King. Q. Queen.”

"Queen," Mackenzie repeated. "Thank you."

"It’s fine. What’s up?" Jona asked.

"Later."

Jona nodded and they both returned to their work.

"What about Nat?" Lex asked. Mackenzie shot em a glare. "I know that sign, is all."

"It’s nothing."

"How are things going?" Lex asked, heedless to Mackenzie’s fuck off aura. Lex was like a neighbor who was tall enough to disregard the fence and who took advantage of that at every opportunity.

"Just fine, your warning notwithstanding."

Lex laughed. “Yeah, you did turn out to be the dangerous one.” The last time Lex brought up how dangerous Mackenzie was, ey was ready to throw down in a hospital hallway. And now ey was cool with her? Lex’s hot/cold bullshit was baffling. And unnerving.

"I’ll take your word for it." Mackenzie finished a silhouette but there was nowhere left on the floor to put it aside. She was painted into a corner, so she hopped over the arm and shoulder she had just finished, and then over the left leg and hips she’d painted earlier. She found a space just large enough to crouch in, and started on the last one, a body missing a leg, head, and arm.

Lex didn’t find space so much as made space in order to help paint the same one as Mackenzie. “She hasn’t told you yet, has she?”

Mackenzie coughed. “She has, actually. Not that it’s any of your business.”

"For real? And you’re cool with it?" Lex looked impressed. "Damn. You could be alright after all."

"Yeah, well, given that I’m a artifaerie menace to the Faerie Court, I’m pretty sure it’s a bigger deal that she’s still with me." Mackenzie smirked despite her irritation. She wasn’t going to be the first to escalate to being openly hostile in front of Jona.

"I dunno," Lex said. "I always tell her to be up front. Nobody likes having their head messed with."

Mackenzie was taken aback. “Did you really just say that?”

What?” Lex asked, indignant. “Like it’s some sort of problem that I think people should know what they’re getting into? A person oughta be able to choose for themselves if they’re cool with it.”

By then, Jona had started cleaning up their area and had plenty of time to catch up on Lex’s transcript.

Mackenzie shook her head, insulted in her own right but also on Natalie’s behalf. “I just figured you, of all people, would know better than to think someone being trans is ‘messing with your head’.”

Jona tapped Mackenzie on the shoulder and shook their head firmly. “Not what Lex means.”

Mackenzie had all but given up on finishing the silhouette. She looked between them, confused and irritated that she was the only one in the dark. “Then what?”

"Natalie’s able to—" Lex started, but Jona stopped em with a definitive shake of the head.

The pair communicated by facial expression, Lex unable to sign eir sympathy for Mackenzie, and Jona unable to be understood by Lex. Instead, the pair texted back and forth rapidly.

What?” Mackenzie asked.

"Sorry. Jona’s saying Natalie should tell you herself—" Lex looked pointedly at Jona, "—and I’m saying if she wanted to be the one to tell you, she should have done it by now."

"Please," Jona said aloud and with their hands. She hadn’t known Jona long, but it was long enough to know Jona wasn’t keen on vocalizing, unlike her ex-boyfriend’s family. Even Lex had to realize this was important to Jona.

"Natalie makes emotions stronger," Lex blurted out. Jona threw their hands up and spun away. Mackenzie wasn’t sure what to make of Lex’s statement, but she understood Jona’s reaction. "If you’re having a bad day, she’ll leave you ugly crying on the floor. If you’re a little annoyed, she’ll send you into a homicidal rage. If you like her …” Lex trailed off.

"No," Mackenzie snapped back. "No fucking way. That’s not what’s going on here."

"But how can you be sure?"

Mackenzie tossed her brush back in the tray and stood up. “I fucking knew it. She was so right about you.” Lex stood up, crowding Mackenzie even with a silhouette between them. With the painted shadows surrounding her, she had nowhere to retreat to.

"And I’m right about her! For real, what did you think ‘Heartfire Witch’ meant?" Lex was waiting for an answer that Mackenzie didn’t have. "Nat’s one of my best but that girl will fuck your head up and you won’t even know it."

"Isn’t that what you want? To watch her fuck up the weird, broken, bottle faerie who doesn’t belong and just gets people hurt and crashes parties?" Her indignation masked the fearful underbelly Lex had poked. In truth, it was getting harder to discount Lex’s warnings as just self-serving bullshit. She didn’t want to believe it, but it did trouble her to think that she somehow wasn’t herself when Natalie was around.

"Whoa, chill."

If Mackenzie wasn’t angry before, that did it. “What, my emotions too strong for you?” Mackenzie put on a concerned, pearl-clutching affect. “Maybe the evil Natalie is lurking here somewhere, making me go all raging bitch, huh?”

"That’s not—"

GET OUT.

Bright red letters filled the space in front of Jona. Mackenzie shrank, scared she’d hurt Jona. Lex shook eir head.

"This is fucked up," Lex muttered but stood eir ground. "Ask her. Ask her if she’s ever used it on you and see if you trust a word she says ever again."

"Go, Lex," Jona said. Aloud, so there was no misunderstanding. Mackenzie’s heart didn’t slow down, but she was relieved the message wasn’t about her.

Twice, Lex opened eir mouth to speak and closed it without a word. Ey looked at Jona. Mackenzie saw the flickering flash of Jona’s phone as a message arrived, but Jona didn’t read it. When it was clear they weren’t interested in Lex’s words, Lex flung eir hands up and headed for the door. “You’re welcome,” Lex said, nodding at the painted silhouettes.

Once Lex was gone, Jona sighed. “I’m sorry.”

The hazy glow of the letters still lingered, casting strange shadows that suited Mackenzie’s mood. “It’s fine.”

They offered Mackenzie a hug. Mackenzie readily accepted but was more concerned for Jona. It was their friendship with Lex that had been pushed to the limit, not hers.

"You ok?" Jona asked.

"Are you?”

Jona shrugged. “That’s Lex.”

Jona looked to be at a loss for what else to say. Maybe there was nothing else to say. Maybe Lex was just the lovable asshole friend to everyone but Mackenzie, to whom ey was just the asshole. Mackenzie didn’t know whether Jona, Natalie, and the others were going to treat this as a friendship-ending breach of trust, or just another in a long line of frustrating but tolerable incidents.

For once, that uncertainty left her feeling like the outsider she was.

 

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Adventure Pack: Digging for the Treasured

[Author’s note: This story is the latest of the Cute Vignettes, adorable bonus stories available thanks to the support of Patreon contributors. They take place alongside the main story. If you want to see more, or if you would like to see some kicked up into NSFW territory, become a supporter today! ]

Officially, Garbage Hill was Elizabeth Mulrainey Wickfield Memorial Park, but Mackenzie had never met anyone who called it that. It was Garbage Hill, a man-made mini-mountain of trash covered with soil and surrounded by playground equipment and a baseball diamond.

Mackenzie hadn’t promised a date, exactly. Walking around a suburban park after midnight wasn’t something she thought counted. Natalie had insisted that sounded exactly like a date, but Mackenzie assumed that Natalie was just getting desperate to count anything at this point. They brought shovels. That had to knock it out of contention for being a real date. This was some straight up Goonies shit they were about, not dinner and fireworks over the bay.

The playground equipment Mackenzie remembered was all gone: metal had given way to plastic and the mud pit at the bottom of the slide had been filled with wood chips. Mackenzie never wrung her hands about whether it was a conspiracy to coddle children; it was just different. It was a reminder that something fun from her childhood was gone.

This wasn’t the first time she’d gone back. That first time, she’d realized she would never see the old park as it was again and it left her shaking. Even at the time she felt embarrassed by that reaction. After all, she had no investment in it; she had gone over a decade without ever looking at the place, so what right did she have to complain?

At least this time Natalie wouldn’t have to watch her bleed from old wounds. Instead, Mackenzie was glad to have the opportunity to share the stories with Natalie.

As Mackenzie led Natalie around the park, arm in arm, she pointed out where everything used to be. That was where the old metal slide was, the one that on a humid day would drag on your skin leaving friction burns. At the foot of the hill was where the metal rocket ship was. The top level was a tight squeeze but it could fit three or four kids in its uncomfortably hot secret clubhouse.

Returning to Garbage Hill was also an opportunity to share something else with Natalie, the feature of the park that kept her coming back in recent months, despite the long trek to the suburbs. She took Natalie’s hand and pulled her along, up the gentler of the hill’s main slopes. In the winter kids would sled down this slope, but on a breezy, early spring night, they had it all to themselves.

Mackenzie told Natalie all she knew about the hill, when it was the city dump, when it was covered over, all the little local politics controversies that popped up when she was a kid, before she moved to the metro area. Natalie received it all with a polite smile. Mackenzie feared she was merely being indulged, but Natalie had a gift for putting her at ease. She asked just the right questions to show that she cared because Mackenzie cared.

Once they neared the peak, Mackenzie stopped. Letting go of Natalie’s hand, she started shuffling about to find the right spot. She swept her hands slowly around her, palms down. But those weren’t the hands she was touching the hill with. Her magical fingers probed deeper, into the guts of the hill. Decay and decomposition had rendered much of the hill beyond her senses, so she couldn’t touch specific objects anymore, just shards and echoes. It was as much implicit memory as it was searching. One familiar sensation directed her to the next.

There. The Adventuress. She was a doll, one of the few objects that had survived the years relatively intact. She didn’t impart a child’s memories; Mackenzie received no flashbacks to a Technicolor post-war living room. Instead, what flooded her consciousness was the Adventuress’s vision of herself, built up from pieces given playtime by playtime by her owner. She saw the fantastic world that the Adventuress quested through. Mackenzie’s heart swelled with the boldness of a dragon slaying, moon walking, prison breaking princess.

Painful joy erupted from Mackenzie as tear-soaked laughter. Her knees buckled, and she let herself fall. Natalie dropped her shovel and rushed to her side, but Mackenzie waved off her help. “I’m ok.” And she was. But when it hit her all at once, it hit hard. One hand was guiding her magic, but with the other she guided Natalie down to sit beside her.

"I don’t know much about other faeries. I get bits and pieces. I’m aware enough to know that we have a ‘culture’ if you can call it that, and a history of sorts." The tears were still pressing against her throat, but Mackenzie continued. "I don’t know if things like ley lines are real, or if that’s something invented about us. But when I’m here—" Mackenzie had to pause as her thoughts jumped to a less emotional track. "There’s almost no intact trash here. But what’s left is this unbearable, crushing presence of the idea of trash. Like if an echo had mass. Um, I mean that in a good way. I’m sorry, I’m shit at explaining this.”

"No," Natalie said. "You’re not. Take your time." Natalie brushed a rogue strand of Mackenzie’s hair aside for her.

"I used to visit active landfills. They’re 24-hour operations so I don’t recommend sneaking in, but I did anyway. It’s a totally different feeling there. There’s so much it’s like being front row at a metal concert. It’s a blast. It’s this rush, and it’s overwhelming, and when you leave you’re shaking and exhausted in the best way. But here, I’m not left racing to keep up with my senses. I don’t feel compelled to let my magic run wild for the thrill. And there’s no smell. I can just relax and let the presence of those ghosts of rubbish-that-was fill me back up. I don’t know if ley lines are real, but this place sure feels like it would be one if they were."

Mackenzie laid back, sprawling out on the grass. “If I had an Otherworld realm, I think it would look like this place did when I was a kid.”

Natalie leaned over and kissed Mackenzie. In the cool night air, she was welcome for the familiar warmth that accompanied Natalie’s touch.

"And the shovels?" Natalie asked.

Mackenzie explained her plan. There were three artifacts in the hill that had to be saved before nature degraded them entirely. First was the Adventuress. Second, the Roadster, a bicycle or tricycle, most likely, but really it was a twin engine beast that occupied both lanes and sounded like a deep-throated rocket during launch. Lastly was the Portal Key. It was a recent addition, buried by hand, not dumped decades ago, and through it Mackenzie saw whole worlds expanding beyond the threshold of a window.

They started with the Portal Key. As they dug, visions of adventures and choirs of MIDI voices washed over her. One song in particular left her humming along.

"Fuck," Natalie said. "I know that song but I don’t know from what. Keep going." As soon as Natalie said that, it disappeared from her mind.

A creeping melancholy followed. Someone had buried it here to hide it; they couldn’t have meant to throw it away forever. But the fact that she could sense it as trash meant it had been let go. Mackenzie hoped it had merely been outgrown, or replaced, and that its erstwhile owner was still alive and well.

"Stop."

Natalie stopped digging. Mackenzie didn’t want to risk damage to it. A corner of stained white plastic peeked through the soil. From here, Mackenzie enveloped it in tendrils of magic and lifted it through the dirt.

An SNES console.

A red punch-label on the top marked it as belonging to “Stuart” along with an address to return it to.

"Damn," Natalie said.

Mackenzie looked down at the console and leaned her head on Natalie’s shoulder. “It was the song from the first stage of Super Mario World.”

"Fuck! That’s right!"

The colorful worlds she had been seeing made far more sense, now. She even recognized a few of them, reimagined as they were through the eyes of the Player. She chuckled at herself for having named it a Portal Key, but it was more a Portal Key than a game console. She crouched down to hold it in her flesh and blood hands. A sharp edge on the bottom side stood out, so she turned it over. An uneven hole had been punched through the plastic, as though it had been dropped onto something hard.

Mackenzie smirked sadly and returned it to the pit.

"Whoa! You’re putting it right back?" Natalie asked.

"This wasn’t a hiding place. It was a grave."

Natalie’s brief flash of frustration dissipated. “Oh.”

Once it was reburied, they headed to the Adventuress. That took far longer, and by the time it was close enough to the surface that Mackenzie could pull it up by magic, they were both ready to collapse. Digging always looked easier than it was. If it had been any deeper they’d have never gotten down to it at all.

Mackenzie wiped the mud off on the grass and handed it to Natalie. She flopped onto the ground with an exhausted sigh.

"Is this a Ken doll?" Natalie asked.

"What? No, she was a warrior woman and astronaut. Like a Red Sonja-type character."

"Yeah, this is a Ken doll I think. Or wait …" Natalie pulled out her phone for more light. "It is. Check it out."

Mackenzie looked it over. Sure enough, the Adventuress was an early Ken doll. “Wow.”

"Kid after my own heart," Natalie said as she sat down next to Mackenzie.

Mackenzie handed the doll back to Natalie. She described the rest of what she had seen and felt as best she could, but there was only so much she could do without directly transmitting the thoughts to Natalie. In the darkness, there was no way of knowing how even that had gotten to Natalie until a wet sniffle made Mackenzie pause her story.

"Sorry," Natalie said, and laughed.

Mackenzie threw her arms around Natalie, “You have nothing to apologize for.” She kissed the side of Natalie’s head. “Keep it.”

"You serious?"

Mackenzie squeezed Natalie again. “I think it means a whole lot more to you than it does to me.”

Natalie looked at the Adventuress in silence, so Mackenzie left her to it and started refilling the hole. They weren’t going to have time to find the Roadster before dawn, but she didn’t mind. 

 

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(Author’s Note)

After some feedback from readers, I realized the end of “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” left the wrong impression about Rabbit Holes and Shadows. Normally I let these things slide but the ambiguity this time made the new chapter very confusing for folks. I edited the ending to make Jona’s closing words a bit less ambiguous. Hope this helps. :)